Online & Hybrid Course Development Faculty Seminar (2009)

Some months ago I was asked to present something about technology and learning in the classroom.  I use a lot of technology myself, and try to teach a fairly tech-enabled course on campus. Initially, I thought I would make some kind of presentation involving the myriad composing tools available on the web today. Then I learned that I was agreeing to participate as a seminar/workshop leader for our Online and Hybrid Course Development Faculty Seminar, something that altered the stakes considerably.

CUNY is a Blackboard university, or has been for about a decade now.  It is difficult to imagine entering an official seminar to develop online/hybrid courses and advocating tools that function outside the Blackboard CMS environment.  What to do?

Intriguingly, Blackboard got something of a black eye this spring because the university’s upgrade to version 8 went so awry that many faculty who use Bb found themselves unable to conduct their courses, with people teaching asynchronous online courses most dramatically affected.  Concurrently, the university launched the CUNY Academic Commons, a site for collaboration across the nearly two dozen schools and colleges in the system. The Commons is built on WordPress Multi-user, BuddyPress, and Mediawiki, a radical departure from the vender locked model of Blackboard. This development changed a lot of my thinking about what I might do.

I decided to encourage workshop participants to develop meaningful, pedagogically relevant uses for both the Blog and Wiki tools in Blackboard.  My suspicion is that participants do not necessarily know these tools, much less understand them. I have uses to which I’ve put these tools in my classes. But I have really only scratched the surface. I am optimistic that writing faculty will find real value in the possibility of collaboration and re-writing through wiki work. And the uses of the blog in classes are numerous. Discussion board is certainly important, but it’s not the only solid learning tool.

Of course, the Bb encased blog and wiki tools are limited. How does one really engage Web 2.0 without being able to syndicate to the web through RSS?  Hmm. But that’s a side issue, or so I’m telling myself.

Additionally, I decided to give participants a brief tour of some ways one might use blog and/or wiki tools to create a course website, using some work happening around CUNY as concrete examples and the Academic Commons as a place to practice building a hypothetical course website.  This latter piece is likely to come off as disconnected for some, particularly since faculty are being encouraged to build their courses in Blackboard. For others, my hope is that the effort will encourage an engagement with and responsibility for the technologies they opt to use in their courses.

I don’t think the Academic Commons is the place to really host a course website, but it’s a place to try out some things.  And it won’t hurt for faculty to see and experience some parts of the commons.  Perhaps they’ll get engaged with colleagues across CUNY.

We’ll see.


Open Source and WordPressMU lovefest at today’s 4th WordCampEd, hosted by Macauley Honors College/CUNY.  There was much to like about the lovefest, mostly because I’m trying to help move my institution to e-portfolio.  With Macauley and Baruch both using WordPressMU, the new CUNY Academic Commons built on WPMU, and the abysmal performance of Blackboard 8 across CUNY in Spring 2009, an open source e-portfolio platform looks a lot more viable at CUNY than it did even 4 months ago.

From my perspective one of the high points of the camp was the lunchtime keynote, “Open by Design,”  with Jim Groom from the University of Mary Washington. Beginning with an extended lampooning of Blackboard, he eventually got quite serious about the important differences between a for profit LMS and an open source alternative, in this case WordPressMU, ScholarPress, BuddyPress, etc.  Groom’s keynote was actually a blog:

As Groom put it, the Blackboard model is actually at odds with so much of what a university is really about.  A university is about an investment in people.  Blackboard is an investment in technology, in a corporation, in a package or a box. The open source software itself is free.  Of course, this doesn’t really mean “free” in the sense that it requires no support.

Groom made an excellent point about resources. By selecting an open source alternative, a university is able to dedicate what were software licensing resources to people. In the case of instructional technologies like blogs, wikis, discussion boards, and course websites, the human capital can be dedicated to faculty development, to student support for technology usage, etc. Croom continued to pitch for the use of the Honors College model of Instructional Technology Fellows, a great resource if you can get it.  (The tiered nature of CUNY’s system relegates schools like York and the community colleges to the second class of institutions, those schools without tech fellows. But I digress.)

While attendees would probably claim that Groom couldn’t have been more over the top in his presentation, I don’t think he pushed the point hard enough.  He let the for-profit LMS off the hook too easily.  It isn’t like CUNY hasn’t forked over millions in faculty development, student support, and technology fellows in support of the Blackboard “out of the box” LMS. It has.

And here’s one of the fascinating conundrums we must confront as the university becomes increasingly corporatized.  When an institution ponies up millions for a product, it commits to a level of support that can sustain the tech fellow support we need.  This is the sort of too-expensive-to-fail issue.  When an institution has paid nothing for the platform, it risks placing zero value on the tool.  It was free, and so it doesn’t much matter if we cut the tech support budget. Shoestring-budget innovations in organizations often die on the brutality of this logic.

One of Groom’s most insightful moments came when he turned to RSS and syndication.  As Groom rightly pointed out, RSS is probably a key to the integration of Web 2.0’s focus on the individual and the space of the college course.  I don’t know if Blogs are going to be the locus of this aggregation.  But I do think that RSS is probably the next big thing in online learning.  One promising issue, Groom pointed out and as I’ve certainly experienced in my own classes, is that students still don’t “get” RSS.  Perhaps this creates an opportunity for faculty to harness it for instructional purposes, while also making learning relevant to our students’ 2.0 lives.

CUNY Academic Commons

I joined the CUNY Academic Commons yesterday over breakfast. I’ve been meaning to dig into the commons since our Instructional Technologist sent me the link a few weeks ago, soon after I posted to the faculty listserv and my space on the college website a small collection of e-learning tools faculty might consider as alternatives to Blackboard.

Recent conversations about e-portfolio and platforms gave me the nudge to poke around in WordPress mu from an individual blogger perspective, and the AC seemed like an easy place to do some poking.

I was pleased to see that I’m getting in on the ground floor in the commons; there are still fewer than 100 people on the commons, and things are just getting rolling. I was also pleased to see some active discussion under way on e-portfolio, and on alternatives to the Bb behemoth. I took the time to create a blog in the mu site, and to do some customizing along lines of a possible student e-portfolio framework.

I was really very excited to see that they’ve integrated Mediawiki and BuddyPress into the Academic Commons.  Wiki and social networking are two must haves for any e-portfolio implementation that purports to look forward.  I am somewhat less excited by what I’m discovering about the limited admin priviledges available to the WordPress author under the Multi User version of the blog tool.  (Coming from full admin priviledges in my own WP blog, perhaps anything less than total control would seem like a restriction.)

Fun with Microsoft Outlook Exchange

Oh, the irony.  I’m highly engaged in the question of computer user interface literacy, and advocate the development of a facility with navigating a variety of GUIs in my teaching.  On Monday my college flipped the switch and moved me from our old mail server to the new server using Outlook Exchange. I’m feeling like a flustered/frustrated novice user.

I’m not so bothered that the long-promised transfer of my mail folders and content from Thunderbird into Outlook didn’t materialize in advance.  I can limp along using two or three different clients. I’m not so bothered that they never actually set up Outlook on my office computer before switching me over.  I’m treating the whole thing as a reason to move all my email work into my laptop. I more than half expected these issues.

What is killing me here is that I can’t actually get the Exchange server to talk to Mac Mail, particularly on the outgoing end, and that the entire email and calendaring product drives users right into Internet Explorer (for web mail) and into Outlook (as a client).  IE hasn’t been made for a Mac since IE5.  There can’t be organized tech support for this issue since the campus doesn’t really support Mac OS implementations of a MS-only product.

Workarounds advocated by the 6 Mac users on campus include using GMail as the outgoing server, using the old (soon-to-be-unplugged) mail server’s outgoing settings, run IE 6 in WINE, or just use bootcamp on the Mac to boot into Windows and run IE there.  These are good ideas, and I guess they work for some of the users. Since I have yet to actually make the first two workarounds actually work, I don’t have WINE, and I’m loathe to boot into Win just to check email, I’m using webmail light.

This IS 2009, isn’t it? Odd that a company can still get away with actually selling a browser (and apparently platform) dependent web mail solution. Perhaps it’s even more odd that an organization would actually purchase such a product. I guess the product is stable, has good synchronization, and there’s the shared calendaring element. But I suspect there are other products out there that can handle this stuff.

Teaching Millennial Learners (Gen Ed at Lehman College/CUNY)

Lehman College/CUNY and the 2009 General Education Conference "Flourishes"
Lehman College/CUNY - May 8, 2009

Marc Prensky of Games2Train, keynote speaker for the 2009 CUNY General Education Conference held at Lehman College/CUNY, had the audacity to declare that we should rename general education, from General Education to Future Education. (Oh, Boy!)

Prensky didn’t explore the implications of this notion for an important component of the historical mission of higher education. Is history no longer important in Future Education? What of the arts? His comment was a throwaway of sorts.

The surprising thing about Prensky’s comment is that people didn’t gasp, particularly since most in the audience reported that they had never seen the video, “A Vision of Student’s Today,” by cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch.

Explosion of YouTube

“You can learn anything you need to learn about software on YouTube.” (Marc Prensky, May 8, 2009)

“Video is the new text.” (Mark Anderson. Qtd. by Prensky May 8, 2009)

I found Prensky’s claim that you can learn anything you need to learn about software on Youtube particularly intriguing.  My own exploration of interface literacy development through screencasting software tutorials is an effort to tap into and to build on this trend.  There are, of course, many challenges to this viral aspect of learning.  As Prensky put it, “Education is not something you can do to students; we need to do it with them.”

Here’s a hitch: There’s an aspect of boundary crossing here when educators attempt to use twitter, or post “classwork” on YouTube.  What space is left for students if we’re going out and reaching them where they are?  One thinks of Spicoli the surfer/stoner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Mr. Hand’s decision to show up at his house at the end of the term to teach him history so he can graduate. OUCH!

Prensky’s Binarisms?

I was struck by the series of binarisms in Prensky’s presentation.  I found them quite productive for explorations of his idea that we need to “balance” or to meet in the middle of these divides. Of course, they have all the problems one often finds in binaries. They invite misunderstanding, and cultivate a “divide” that doesn’t really exist.

  • Digital Natives/Digital Immigrants
  • Verbs/Nouns
  • After School is Pulled by Kids/School is Pushed on Kids

We can see this binary approach in his early work on Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants ( Intriguingly, Prensky was critical of this binary because it has been taken wrong. I don’t find this surprising; binaries often set up misunderstandings.

Today Prensky offered up a couple additional binaries: Verbs vs. Nouns and Pull vs. Push Learning.

When it comes to technology we seem to quickly focus on the nouns, the actual software.  Prensky suggested that we shift to a focus on verbs. The nouns will change (MS Word to Open Office, from email to texting), but the core verbs remain. No matter the noun, we’re really after presenting (Powerpoint? Youtube?), communicating (Outlook? MySpace?), and learning (Blackboard? Mediawiki? Drupal?) As Prensky put it, “We want students using the best, most up to date nouns (tools) for each verb (skill).”

As Prensky put it, his notion of Future Learning (the new General Education?), is built on another binary. School learning is being “pushed on kids,” while after school learning is being “pulled by kids.” Prensky wants us to reach out and learn how students are engaging in this after school learning. Peer-to-peer, self-directed, even just-in-time learning are all elements of this “pull” learning Prensky advocates.  The counterweight to this approach is the top down approach, the sage on the stage, and the lecture format.  One of Prensky’s slides reported that a high school junior told him, “My teacher thinks she’s awesome because she made a Powerpoint.”

Audience Commentary

Unfortunately, Prensky did not leave time for a structured Q&A following his presentation.  Only audience members who interjected during the talk were able to ask questions.

  • These are not really “our” students at CUNY. We have older students, students who want a more traditional education, and students who want the class as a space away from this tech stuff.
  • Keyboarding is a skill that is needed for all of these technologies.

Single-Source Writing and 20th Century Thinking

It fascinates me that we have the technological capability to make documentation and reporting easier through single-source production, and yet our 20th (19th?) century thinking prevents us from taking advantage of the potential.


Faculty at CUNY are now required to enter their scholarly/creative activity into a CUNY web-based reporting system. As almost anyone can quickly recognize, this is yet another report piled on top of existing reporting.

As far as I can tell, there was no consultation with individual colleges on the design of this system and the potential integration of the system with local college online reporting systems. The result is an expectation that we’ll take the time to “repeat” our reporting in multiple systems.

Why would anyone embrace technology if it means writing, re-writing, and re-writing the same text in multiple systems? The embrace of technology just seems idiotic in that kind of context. Copy-Paste works, but it really doesn’t take advantage of the wonders of the database.

Fortunately, we have a responsive web team on campus. When I brought this new “report” to their attention, we were able to begin work on a mechanism to push the data entered in our local systems to the CUNY system.

The setup is not nearly as seamless as it might be. But it’s a whole lot better than what would otherwise be the case.

Low-Stakes Writing to Help Close the Minority Achievement Gap?

A recently published article in Science (April 17, 2009) has me rethinking the notion of “low stakes” writing. The article by Cohen, et al. entitled “Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap,” reports on the longitudinal effect of low stakes, structured writing on the academic performance of African-American middle school students.

In an effort to counter negative stereotype effects, researchers administered a series of values writing prompts aimed at helping the subjects articulate and affirm their values. “Beginning early in seventh grade, students reflected on an important personal value, such as relationships with friends and family or musical interests, in a series of structured writing assignments.” One fascinating aspect of the study is that the writing was not directly connected to academic pursuits, or to the development of communication competencies. Most important, it seems, is the payoff!

The intervention appears to have had amazing consequences. “First, early poor performance was less predictive of later performance and psychological state for affirmed African Americans than for nonaffirmed ones, suggesting that the intervention reset the starting point of a recursive cycle. Second, the affirmation not only benefited GPA, but also lifted the angle of the performance trajectory and thus lessened the degree of downward trend in performance characteristic of a recursive cycle. Third, the affirmation’s benefits were most evident among low-achieving African Americans. These are the children most undermined by the standard recursive cycle with its worsening of performance and magnifying of initial differences in performance. Fourth, the affirmation prevented the achievement gap from widening with time. Fifth, treatment boosters were not needed to sustain its impact into Year 2.”

Who would have thought that brief, structured, values writing assignments could have such academic career-altering effects?

My own pedagogy has tended not to explore the ground on which the prompts in this study are built. Needless to say I’m rethinking some of my own practice in light of this work. These seemingly low stakes prompts, assignments with little or now direct connection to students’ grades in a course, are anything but low stakes when one considers their impact on long term academic performance.

Metrocard Bicycle

I was in Manhattan the other day and I ran across the Metrocard bicycle, or perhaps just one of many of the Metrocard bikes. This one was about 5 blocks from Grand Central Terminal.

Metrocard Bicycle
Metrocard Bicycle

I have read about this bike (or maybe just one of them) and had always thought it was an artistic use of something that many New Yorkers generally find to be disposable.

I wouldn’t do this to one of my bikes. But then I don’t ride in Manhattan. It was nice to see this bike.

Wish I had my real camera. The picture I took with my phone just doesn’t do justice to this bike.