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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 (http://www.marcprensky.com/). 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.

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.

Example

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.

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.

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.