The best intentions and the brightest of minds.

Today I attempted to attend a conference being held at Stanford called the Digital Learning Research Network (dLRN) 2015 – Making Sense of Higher Education 2015. I couldn’t attend because my youngest turned 2 today.

Part of the conference included virtual chats with presenters conducted through Google Hangouts. If I can’t attend a conference I often follow the conference hashtag, and have learned much from that practice. The promise of the virtual chats, which the conference organizers called Virtually Connecting, was to “enliven virtual participation in academic conferences, widening access to a fuller conference experience for those who cannot be physically present at conferences.

I participated in two and half sessions. The first proved the promise of this type of conference outreach. Adam Croon and Jim Groom offered a quick comparison between punk music and education technology (edTech for the uninitiated) and pondered the counter-narratives created in both music and edTech. A couple of remote folks asked questions, which Adam and Jim answered. It wasn’t long, half hour or so. Still the energetic engagement of the presenters gave such energy to the discussion I wish I could bottle it and sprinkle a little around every academic conference I attend.

The second session was to be an introduction to Virtually Connecting and that’s when the wheels started to come off the cart. First, we didn’t start on time. If you’re at a conference and it starts late, it doesn’t matter much. The nature of the conference is that you likely don’t have to get back to work or family. When remote, lateness means you’re not doing something else you need to. Then, a couple of brilliant folks (sincerely, the presenters were all smart, engaged education professionals I respect)  came on to explain Virtually Connecting with a Power Point that tried to make the case that Virtually Connecting sought to expand the participation beyond the local conference.

In my world, “Power Point” and “participation” should not be used in the same sentence. I couldn’t even tell who was talking as only the remote participants had their cameras on: the local presenters kept the Ppt slides in their window.

After 10 minutes of waiting for the presentation and then 10 minutes of people talking to me about participation, I switched to the Hangout I was most interested in: a discussion with Bonnie Stewart on the sociocultural implications of digital learning. I waited for the introduction to Virtually Connecting to finish. It did and Stewart began the chat. We introduced ourselves and Stewart tried to summarize the session that was held just prior, and then asked George Station to recap a little of what he had presented.

And then she apologized and said the session needed to end as the next session was starting. That was it.

I felt sad, and a bit angry, especially given the promise of the first session.

So what lessons did I take from my Virtually Connecting?

  1. I’d define a focus for the Hangouts beyond just inclusion. Technology offers access, but the success of a virtual discussion requires an objective (or multiple ones). I’m reminded of this access vs. success conundrum as I pour over my college’s graduation and placement data. We’ve done a great job getting people to show up- and then. . . (Bali blogged on a similar subject on October 7th, which may be why this distinction is stuck in my head.)
  2. Introductions should be short. Discussants matter, but not as much as the discussion. Afterwards I realized I included three titles, my school name and the location of my college relative to the nearest large city. Yeah, I’m windy.
  3. Andragogy is not just for the classroom. I got to meet two of the teaching rock stars today (Groom who runs Reclaim Hosting and Maja Bali whose writings on teaching I’ve taken to heart for at least a year). These are folks I admire deeply for their creative approaches to digital learning. And yet, the intro to Virtually Connecting and the Hangouts demonstrated more technological prowess than teacherly planning. That’s a hard thing to write given my admiration for the folks running dLRN and Virtually Connecting, and I speak as an ally, not a critic.
  4. Setting expectations is important. I think I expected too much of these Hangouts. They couldn’t replicate or even offer a fraction of the value of the conversation that happened at the associated conference sessions. My let down was partly of my own making. Following the conference hashtag or reviewing video from the event could’ve given me what I wanted.
  5. Meeting people face-to-face, even virtually, is a thrill. That I got to say hi to Bali and ask Groom a question makes me feel like I’ve more digital humanities nerd cred and motivation than I had this morning. As educators fighting a rearguard action against fear, ignorance, and apathy, anything that motivates, matters. I even got to meet another digital humanities scholar in Minnesota- which really made me feel like I’m less alone in my work.
  6. The power to create quick, weak, networks that could expand into stronger relationships seems the great potential of the Hangouts (as the organizers hoped “It is our hope that through this experiment, people will not only make new connections, but they will also make weak connections stronger.”)

These are just some thoughts, and not terribly well-organized. Still, I want to offer something other than a quick Dickensian, best of times, worst of times, comment while my memory is firm.

Safe home.

Is this what middle-age means as an educator?

Is this what middle-age means as an educator?

I’m on the downside of 40, and am increasingly out of sort with the culture in which I live and teach. In areas of life in which I am constant, the world evolves quickly. I’ve become a 10% guy in a 90% world. I used to wear a men’s size medium and now I fit into a small. Everyone but me seems to wear headphones when running. I wear shirts that aren’t non-iron.

There’s a good bit of privilege in my 10% world, I recognize, but it still feels odd to be so far out-of-sync with parts of U.S. culture. When it comes to teaching, I feel equally out of sync, for very different reasons. As digital humanities scholars race ahead in developing new tools and pedagogies, I’m trying to keep up, translating this newness into digestible lessons for my students. At the same time, I teach at a college that is not racing ahead when it comes to digital pedagogies. There is an openness amongst many professors, yet I am one of the leading instructors on matters digital. So I feel like I’m behind 90% of the digital history teachers nationally but in the the top 10% of teachers on digital issues at my school.

There’s a great bit of ink I could spill on privilege, leadership, and cultural equity. I have the time to run, the time or money to press shirts, and access to technology that let’s me evaluate where I am as a digital history instructor. That said, understanding where I am situated matters as it shapes my response to changes around me. For general cultural changes, I live and let live. I buy the small shirt and don’t try to make that mean anything other than I have a shirt that fits. Yet for teaching, I need to reconcile or at least develop greater mindfulness of how I engage various groups. If I’m in the vanguard, I need to rally friends to follow. “Look I can do it, you can to.” If I’m in the rearguard, I need constantly check in with the main host, “what are we doing, where are we going, how are we getting there? And it is a battle we’re fighting, against fear, apathy, and ignorance.

Safe home.

I did it. . . again.

I’ve enjoyed using an Oxford University Press textbook for my World History 1 class these past two years, but I’ve still so much content that’s digital that doesn’t fit. Adding digital history lessons to 30-40 page chapters is too much, and I’ve been exploring the world of Open Education Resources as I teach my World History 2 course. I already abandoned textbooks in my world history 2 course, but now I’ve done it for world history 1 too.

This will truly be teaching without a net because World 1 goes back to prehistory and includes some of students favorite subjects: the Roman empire, the Mongols, the Mayans. Good thing I’m off to the Eugene, OR this summer for a NEH Summer Institute: I’m going to need all the help I can get crafting a new course. At least I’ve learned from the pitfalls of my World 2 course. I can’t help but wonder what my college’s bookstore makes of the $0 next to my courses.

Teaching without a net, again.

Safe home.

Building lessons on free websites . . . or creating children’s books.

One of my favorite “wow” lesson plans uses the website It presents a variety of data in clear visualizations that let students play with historical statistics. It has huge limitations when studying history. Still, I use it as part of a lesson on quantitative history and the importance visualizing big numbers.

Last week one of the key data sets failed to load (Income per person). The gapminder people corrected the failure in 8 hours, but then the website broke again. Students howled. I howled on the “Report a problem” section of the website. In the end I pushed the due date for their assignment back one day. Nothing ground breaking about the pedagogy or our response to a common problem, yet something worth considering when building from open web resources.

In contrast, for my MN History students, I asked them to write a historical fiction children’s book based on 4 chapters in our textbook. One of the learning objectives for the class is to demonstrate the ability to write different genres of history. A full short-story would take too much time, both to teach and to create, but the basics of historical fiction can be taught with children’s lit (sources, plot, narrative arc, critical deployment of the suspension of disbelief, historical accuracy). And the final products are just fantastic. Granted, some spend more time on the art than the sourcing, but this low tech assignment forces students to grapple with how to tell a story about the past that even my best digital history assignment don’t yet.

So, this week is a contrast in pixels and paper.

On the inelegance of the LMS and the tech world’s response.

My not-so-new though: much of the software we use in college is needlessly complex and inelegant.

We’ve seen this progression in text editing, with MS Word evolving from a more writerly program to a behemoth publishing giant that requires four clicks to do anything and at least 27 inches of screen real estate to be functional. Fed up with the rococo features of Word, writers increasingly turn to simpler apps, such as FocusWriter, WriteRoom, evan nvALT (which is a text editor), to just write.

Similarly, I’ve decided that the feature creep of my college’s LMS has moved beyond baroque to rococo, especially linking and collecting information. When I want to link in most WYSIWYG editors, I hit control + K and it links whatever text I’ve highlighted. In D2L, I need two additional steps to do the same thing. When I want to collect information from students, say on a midterm student evaluation, I need to use quizzes or self-assessments, and then run a report. Set up for both quizzes and self-assessments is straightforward, but not simple. And the reporting system is Byzantine (sorry Constantinople). In contrast, I can throw together an easy google forms response in half the time it takes in D2L, and the form will auto-generate a spreadsheet of the responses.

We’ve come through Web 1.0 (the renaissance)  and Web 2.0 (the baroque and rococo of software and user interface design). I’m hopeful for selfish reasons and for the sake of our students we’re coming to Web 3.0 design: essential function without adornment- Bahausian design mixed with the Prairie school, perhaps?

The Gloria: An open teaching and learning award

Every day, in every college, students, faculty, and staff struggle. Those struggles can be epic (how do we cure cancer) or limited (how do I factor this polynomial, how can I help this student right in front of me). Lots of folks struggle. When movie makers struggle and succeed, they get awards. Big thinkers get awards named after famous people (Nobel, MacArthur). Even people in college get awards- employee service awards, student scholarships, honor societies. Yet most awards focus more on the epic side of struggle: big events that are marked with degrees or money or wide acclaim. And those awards are given by big institutions.

We need an award for the everyday struggles and successes in teaching and learning, less epic, and more open to all. Not an award for participation, attendance, or mere competence, but for meaningful struggle to make college better. I give you The Gloria.

The Gloria is an open teaching and learning award. It can be awarded by anyone at the college to anyone at the college. The Gloria carries only the payment of a grateful giver. You can give as many or as few Glorias as you wish. You can alter The Gloria however you want (it’s open, like open source programs: I made it, you can modify it). The Gloria can be given to a student from a professor, to a professor from a student, to a staff member from a professor, to staffer from a student. . . you get the idea. A few examples.

The Gloria for

– “Struggling with the registration system to get me the class I need to graduate” goes to Alice, who works in Records. Presented by Joe Bear, student.
– “Hauling my butt through a rough month of English composition to help me earn a C on my argument paper” goes to Joan, who teaches in the English department. Presented by Fatima Hassan, student.
– “Finding a way to care for your kids and still get this homework done the week your mom went in the hospital” goes to Maria Alonso, student. Presented by Professor Fuddy Duddy.
– “Helping me find a book that proved invaluable to my paper” goes to, Lacey, that reference librarian. Presented by Chuck, student.
– “Finally mastering a concept you’ve struggled with all semester” goes to Pat, student. Presented by Professor Fuddy Duddy.

This is an award by you to anyone who has helped make college better for you.

To award you own Gloria, download a pdf or open document version of the award. Fill in the “The Gloria for,” “Goes to” and “Presented by” fields and print or email to the recipient. Be creative.

The Gloria is named after Gloria Aronson, emeritus professor of history who taught at Normandale Community College for more than 40 years. She pioneered teaching world history, women’s history, and study abroad at Normandale. She’ll hate that I’ve named an award for her. Even worse, I’m giving her the first award.

Gloria received the first award with the humility and grace that defined here teaching. She thinks this award a lovely idea. College is a struggle-

Let’s honor those hurly-burly teaching and learning struggles that end in a win with an award- The Gloria.

Snake essential oils and why the term educator matters.

A mild rant today.

Yesterday I participated in a training on Drupal, which is a content management system you can use to create web pages. I’ve used different content management systems (Omeka, wordpress) to teach my students some digital history skills. Still, Drupal offers serious, build from the ground up, learn it and you can be a web-creator, options. The White House uses Drupal, as does the University of Minnesota. (If you ever want to know how a webpage is built, use

Lots of interesting participants, including a retired artillery officer interested in G.K. Chesterton, several folks from a local web development firm, and a couple small business folks.

One small business owner described herself as an “essential oils educator.” I’m going to skip the ignorance of her medicine (“when you apply oils to the head, the oil has greater access to the brain” – no it doesn’t), and the appearance of a scheme (“I don’t sell retail, I sell wholesale to others looking to start a business”- like Charles Ponzi) and focus on the educator part.

Those of us who are actual educators must protect, advance, and advocate for that term. Salespeople are not educators. Knowledgeable? Of course. Valuable?, absolutely. When I buy a running shoe I ask the salesperson to help me navigate the different models available. But a shoe salesperson isn’t a foot technology educator. And the sales reps from all the ed-tech firms that are on campus from time to time aren’t education technology educators. Educators are those whose primary mission is to educate, not to sell a service or product, nor to tell others how to teach. If we let the term devolve to anyone who wants to explain something, we risk the same problem that news organizations now face with talking heads claiming the mantle of journalists.

Those who can, teach.

More training (what am I missing?)

This internet thing can be evil, or good, or just a time suck. I do my best to listen to my better angels. And I love the ease of finding useful information.

Case in point: I know that content management systems (CMS) are important. For every college web page, there’s a CMS behind it, and in fact, building digital history exhibits requires a CMS. And I gravitate towards open-source software. A buddy of mine at the University of Minnesota told me about Drupal Camp, which is a meeting of people working on a CMS called Drupal. So I check the Drupal Camp website and see that there’s a free (FREE) training for Drupal this Thursday. I can only go to the morning part as I’ve Normandale meetings in the afternoon. But there is no chance I’m going to find some non-profit running a training session without the beauty of the web.

And then there’s the evil side of the web. I tried to take a MOOC once – just once. It was world history, which I teach. I lasted three weeks. The lectures (by a name in the field) were two hours long and had the content density of a light broth. Even sped up to double time, they were soporific. The discussions veered from mildly on topic to blatant trolling. I fled screaming from the discussion boards.

And now comes an OOPS – an online open participatory survey from the University of Minnesota titled “Mutlicultural/Inclusive Learning and Teaching: when Multicultural Learning and Teaching meet Universal Design for Learning.” It runs about 12 weeks and thus far appears peopled with advanced graduate students and faculty eager to explore the topic, and it’s not huge. And it also is free. It can be taken for credit, by I don’t need more credentials. I’m hoping to learn much, and bring it back to both the classroom and to my faculty colleagues. Already I’m mining the course bibliographies. If it let’s me talk about race to my white students just bit more smartly, I’ll count it a win.

Safe home.

Students first, then the rest. #teachingpact

The problem: In the morning when I arrive at work, I boot up my computer and run a routine: read email, check news (academic and general), check twitter. It’s very easy to drop 15-30 minutes on activities that have no direct use to my students. Yes, that article in The Chronicle of Higher Education may be fascinating, yet my students waiting for an email response or grade aren’t helped. I can also convince myself that a half-hour self training session on some sexy new software or website is worth my time. All these things have potential long-term benefits to my students, but aren’t immediate.

A solution: I’ve noted academics on twitter using the hashtag #writingpact as a way to motivate themselves to write. Tagging makes others in their circle makes them aware of the writer’s work (leave me alone), models positive behavior, and solicits support. So my thought is, why not make a teaching pact (#teachingpact) that the first thing I do in the morning directly helps students. The email from my Dean can wait (sorry) as can the local news. I’m responsible for professional development at my school and that can wait too. It’s not that institutional, or self-care, or development needs aren’t important. Only, if I am honest with myself, if I’m an educator first, then the students’ needs should be first.

So, from here out, upon arrival in the morning, I will boot my computer up, and do something for my students. A bit of grading, responding to online discussion questions, responding to student emails. I’ve no formula that requires a certain number of tasks or minutes on task, only to address students first.

Care to join me? #teachingpact