Shallows or Depths?

Yesterday, we had a Tech N Talk on the effects of technology on student learning. Psychology professor Grace Baron and three of her students led a conversation about what they learned in a senior seminar in the Fall Semester.

My quick opening remarks went something like this:

There can be no doubt that we are now immersed in a digital environment. Whether you are actively using technology as a teacher or not, it is effecting teaching and learning. We have ubiquitous wireless on campus combined with 3G and 4G networks, which together essentially ensure that we have access to the Web just about everywhere and 24/7. Add mobile devices like iPhones to the mix and now we don’t have to be at our desk or even carrying a laptop to take advantage of that access. In addition, many of the new tools now take advantage of this networked environment, many that we’ve highlighted in our Tech N Talks: Diigo, GoogleDocs, onCourse, Voicethreads, blogs, wikis. They rely on a networked, connected environment for their success.

And this connected environment has really changed the way that faculty teach and students learn. onCourse provides access 24/7 to information about the course and in some instances a place to carry on conversations between classes. Class blogs can serve a similar function, but they also allow students to interact with those outside the classroom and give students experience with writing to external audiences. GoogleDocs, Voicethreads, Diigo, and wikis enhance opportunities for collaboration at times even erasing the boundaries that define authorship and ownership of a text. Access to information for research or even simply as fodder for discussion can now literally be in the palm of your hand. And modes of sharing information in academia have become decentralized; it’s no longer centered on the publishing industry or even on the academic paper.

Given this environment what are useful questions for faculty to ask? What do faculty members need to think about when teaching within this environment? Here’s what I came up with:

  • How is my chosen technological tool helping me reach my pedagogical goals?
  • Can my chosen tool change my goals? Do I want it to?
  • What technical skills do my students need to be professionals within my discipline?
  • How does the networked environment influence my discipline? Does it change the way we publish? Does it change the way we write? Does it change the way we communicate in general with others in our discipline? Does it change the way information in the discipline is created and consumed?
  • How can I help my students navigate all of the information in this networked environment?

Professor Baron and her students went on to discuss their own and their discipline Psychology’s hopes, concerns, and fears about the effects of this digital environment. They were all heavily influenced by Nicolas Carr’s The Shallows, which they read in the class and while they acknowledged many of the benefits (social, intellectual,etc.) that technology brings, they also worried, like Carr, that today’s students are losing the capacity for deep reflection. Grace Baron argued that we need to build more of this kind of reflection about the effects of technology into the curriculum.

My own opinion? Being an academic technologist and a bit of an evangelist myself, I probably find myself falling into the “Never-Better” or the “Ever-Wasers” camps, which Adam Gopnik recently described in a New Yorker article which surveys the different books that are currently out there about the Internet (of which The Shallows is a part):

All three kinds appear among the new books about the Internet: call them the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment. One’s hopes rest with the Never-Betters; one’s head with the Ever-Wasers; and one’s heart? Well, twenty or so books in, one’s heart tends to move toward the Better-Nevers, and then bounce back toward someplace that looks more like home.

But I think it’s important to note that this is a moment of change and transition, and we are both losing and gaining something in this moment — as we have done with almost every technology that was introduced. It would be foolish to try to stop it, because the benefits are very real. But we need to be cognizant about what we’re losing as well and try our best to identify and hold onto what’s valuable among those things that might be slipping away.


Technology Literacy

Technology Literacy… or Digital Literacy… or Media Literacy… or Information Fluency…

There are many names for what I’m interested in here, and I know that each of the names has a slightly different definition. The latter maybe closer to what we are interested in our merged Library/IT environment at Wheaton — a fluency for our students that involves a good understanding of how to gather and use information and communicate that information through various kinds of digital tools.

At Wheaton, at least, I can point to language that was used to describe the college’s strategic plan. According to this plan “the college community’s goal for 2014 ” is to be an educational institution that “develops global citizens prepared to lead in a complex world. Its transformational learning environment prepares graduates to live purposeful lives, be engaged in their communities, be scientifically and technologically literate, and act effectively to promote change.” (emphasis added)

Though we haven’t integrated technology literacy into the curriculum in a programmatic way yet, I think we’ve made some good strides in this direction. At the NITLE Instructional Technology Leaders confernce last March, I presented a five minute talk on all of our efforts and how I hope we can push forward in the coming years. I’m posting my Prezi from that talk below, along with some notes as a reminder to myself about what I hope to accomplish and perhaps as a way to start conversations with others!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Notes for the talk:

[Click 1] I hesitate to present this in a showcase, because this is not about a finished or flashy project or even necessarily a success. It’s more about where I hope Wheaton is headed with Technology Literacy/Fluency – Media literacy/Fluency (whatever you want to call it) with its students. We’re moving in good directions so far, and I hope my group can push us more in this area in the coming years. I’d also be curious from hearing from any of you who are already here and how you got there.

[Click 2] Why “technology literacy” at Wheaton? As you can see I have a number of reason, I am sure there are more. [Click 3] It’s right in our Vision Statement. In 2006, the President led the campus through Strategic Planning and this is where we are headed for 2014. [Click 4, 5, 6] Our accrediting organization, NEASC, also states in their standards that students should use technology as an integral part of their education. [Click 7, 8] Alumni have recently begun pressuring faculty members. In one case, we had a former student tell a faculty member that they wish they had had more experience with SPSS before going out into the real world. [Click 9, 10] The topic has also been coming up from time to time in Workshops and Lunchtime Tech N Talk conversations that we’ve been having with faculty on technology related topics. Should all students in the English department learn various Powerpoint methods like Takahishi or the Lessig method? Should all students have some time in First Year seminar devoted to Wikipedia? Should all Economics majors have experience with applications like Maple that allow them to visualize complex formulas?

[Click 11] So those are the pressures. Here are some of the attempts that have been made over the years… some of them recent and show promise. [Click 12] Several of these attempts spring from the brain of Jenni Lund, an instructional technologist at Wheaton who I am channeling through much of this presentation. [Click 13, 14, 15] She has tried things like student Peer Training (software training sessions held by students for students on specific software packages), Peer Tutors (called software tutors), and last year implemented a requirement for all LIS student employees to prove that they were proficient with basic productivity software.

[Click 16, 17, 18, 19] She is also responsible for our January Technology Immersion Program, which started in the 90s as a way for students to learn software outside of their regular class times during January break. It was resource intensive and only benefited a few students, so abandoned. We picked it up again this past January as a way to generate some revenue and tackle Tech Literacy again. We ended up offering two classes: web design and graphic design. The students did love the experience.

[Click 20] Apart from that one success, though, I think that we have found that students would rather learn the technology as part of their course work. I discovered recently that we ask Students on a Senior survey how they would prefer to learn technology and most would prefer it as part of the First Year Seminar or in their discipline. [Click 21] This works well in small pockets… Graphic Design at Wheaton has a lab section, for example, where students learn how to use Photoshop and InDesign and Illustrator.

[Click 21, 22, 23, 24] While this does happen in some isolated instance, it is not programmatically part of the curriculum. Except in one department… The Chemistry Department (along with every other department) was asked to come up with a Writing Plan. Something they struggled with, until they rephrased what was being asked of them… they were really being asked how to help students in their program communicate within the discipline.  So, they structured the progression through the major around this idea. And you’ll notice that technical skills are built into their plan. They need to know how to create a graph with Excel in the 100s. They need to know how to build a molecule with software at the 200-level. They need to know how to annotate a spreadsheet at the 300 level. This seems like the real way forward to me. Technology fully integrated into the curriculum and stated explicitly. In Chemistry they even have students use a textbook for the software.

[Click 25] So there are several challenges that we need to overcome before we have a real programatic approach to Technology Literacy: the economy, needing to have leadership on board with the idea, overcoming preconceptions that digital natives already know it all, and perhaps the biggest one for liberal arts colleges: overcoming the bias away from “practical skills based learning” as something that belongs to professional schools as opposed to the liberal arts environment.

[Click 26, 27] Next steps for my group at this point, would be to try to overcome that bias by doing things like

  1. reframing the discussion so that it is also about critical thinking about tools that students are using
  2. collecting better data. These are two questions I want to add to that senior survey to see if there are a lot of students who feel like they need to be better prepared
  3. I’d also like to see us taking productive steps forward like actively working with faculty members as they create their communication plans in their departments so that technology is an integral part of the curriculum… and perhaps someday even expanding the basic Literacy requirement that we currently have within LIS into the First Year Seminar program.

[Click 28] And of course, while I am here, I hope I can hear other ideas from those of you in the room who have been making some good strides forward in this area already.

Back to Blogging? Thoughts about presentations…

I’m back!


After nearly two years of letting this blog languish (Twitter is so much easier!), I’m posting something again.

Me presenting with Prezi at a NITLE conferenceI just finished presenting with Bryan Alexander, NITLE’s Director of Research; Trina Marmarelli, Instructional Technologist, Reed College; and Bill Junkin, Director of Instructional Technology, Eckerd College about alternatives to the standard PowerPoint presentation. Bryan gave a nice introduction to how people are starting to break away from bulleted slides. Trina talked about a new form that people are imposing on PowerPoint called Pecha-kucha. Bill gave a demonstration of Ubiquitous Presenter — a tool that allows a professor to annotate Powerpoint slides on a tablet PC while students “tag” the them. And I presented on a web-based presentation tool called Prezi, for which I created this screen cast. (The picture with this post is me using Prezi for the first time at the NITLE Instructional Technology Leader’s Conference.)

I think we just scratched the surface of this topic in the hour that we had, but it was a great start. The way that people are doing presentations is changing … or has changed … and  in a good way! New forms like Pecha-kucha and the Lessig Method,  and new technologies like Prezi and Ubiquitous Presenter, which themselves encourage different approaches to presentations, are shaking us out of the deadly bulleted slide and encouraging us to communicate more clearly with our audiences.

When we are thinking about Information/Technology Literacy/Fluency for our students, this should be part of the conversation. We are well past the time when undergraduate students have to learn the mechanics of Powerpoint. Most of our students have been using Powerpoint since Middle School, sometimes even Elementary. What they still need to learn (and what we should be teaching them) is how to use this and similar tools to communicate effectively. And the stuff we covered today, it seems to me, could play a big part in that.