Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What's with iPads?

Every few years there's a new consumer technology product that makes a wave in the public consciousness. Some of them make a huge difference to faculty and students; some of them don't. How to tell the difference?

I've never seen any tool that by its very existence changed the nature of teaching. It's not true of slates and chalk, it's not true of ballpoint pens or pencils, it's not true of television, and it's not true of iPads. What I have seen is that some tools change the way people live and interact.

If a tool changes the way people live and interact, then I always ask: why aren't they teaching and learning while they're doing what they want to do with that tool? Or, to flip it the other way: how can we teachers hijack that tool to use it for teaching and learning purposes, since the tool is obviously very popular with our students?

Every technology innovation has innate capabilities that distinguish it from what came before. Some of the changes are very small; some are huge. In every case, those innate capabilities are what the customers want to exploit, whether or not educators feel that they should. It's always good to ask: can we exploit those capabilities for the purposes of education?

Laptops let people have access to computers and communication networks anywhere; people didn't have to be tied to desks any more. Phones put the same level of access in a pocket. And iPads are something in the middle, with large bright screens and connectivity and something most laptops don't have: a touchscreen.

How are iPads changing the way people live and interact? They are awesome media consumption devices. Reading the newspaper, watching video, listening to music, reading email, surfing the web - the iPad does all these things really well. The form factor is such that they are easy to use almost anywhere (though for small hands or hands with arthritis, they're a bit heavy to hold up; the new folding cover addresses that somewhat).

iPads are also undeniably status symbols. Apple products have become markers of status and good design; you pay for the Apple brand both because it's a better quality product and because it looks cool. There are plenty of tablets out there running competing operating systems, most often Android. I've tried these myself and have yet to see one that behaves as smoothly, as "intuitively", as the iPad itself.

(I always put "intuitively" in quotation marks, because most technology products train humans far more effectively than humans train them, and really it's a question not of human intuition but of how quick and easy is it for the device to train us in how to use it. The iPad is very good at this.)

The status symbol thing hurts iPads, at least in higher ed, as much as it helps; some students still feel self-conscious when they take an iPad out in class, and since most students still don't have one, their use attracts attention. This may fade as more students get tablets, if they do, and more students start bringing them to class, if they do.

So, it looks hot and it lets people consume media, all types of media, anywhere, anytime.

What the iPad doesn't do particularly well is let its user create things. I would like to be able to type text, take pictures, take videos, make audio recordings, and share those things with other people. The iPad isn't great at this. Its interface is not geared toward making and sharing files. Even the existence of files on it is largely protected from the user, and you need to add a tool like Dropbox to it if you want to easily share files to or from the device.

I've been using an iPad for years now, not because I love it, but because I want to understand it, and because it has serious fans in our faculty and students. I still haven't settled on when is exactly the right occasion to take it and not a netbook, or a Kindle, or a phone. So I'm not an evangelist.

For me the iPad would never get used if it weren't for two things: Dropbox, and my capacitive stylus. The former lets me use it to read documents I've saved in Dropbox, so there is instant synchronization across my home and work computers, and the iPad gives me access to those documents in meetings. The capacitive stylus (along with Penultimate - three things?) lets me handwrite notes in meetings and immediately send them to myself, others, or Dropbox - a handy feature for someone like me who always struggles with paper and prefers to have everything electronic, and always available, at all times.

So how is the iPad good for teaching?

As an e-book it's interesting but not revolutionary. It's not a major change to be able to add animation or video to books; laptops have long been able to do this, and one can do it on any website. But combined with the form factor, it may be an incremental change that nonetheless makes a big difference in the classroom. It is a device that is as small and easy to carry as a book that facilitates full color video and animation, and we know those tools help students understand and retain new concepts and new information. In classrooms where this activity needs a boost, iPads may be an extremely valuable tool. They are expensive items, more expensive than I would like them to be if they were going to be widely adopted, but they do do this well.

Critical thinking skills, however, are developed through students' processing information and synthesizing it into new forms. When students write papers, make videos, even create art collages, they take what they know and put it into their own "words" and share it with others, and in this way they learn and understand and retain that understanding.

I find an iPad to be a poor creation device for my own concepts and the media in which I want to convey them. I can't easily write a paper on it, much less make a video or an audio piece. Since my own teaching focuses more on critical thinking skills, the iPad is not that inviting to me. But if I were teaching in a field where retention of new information and understanding definitional concepts were necessary, the iPad might be great. I could write or adopt a textbook where videos illustrated mitosis and linked to definitions throughout the text, and students could all easily use it in class or anywhere, without having to open up a laptop. Games can also be written that reinforce concepts (though the lack of Flash support holds back education here, as we have long been Flash-oriented for games), and any repetitive tool like flashcards can have all the benefits of being connected to the network but also enhanced with multimedia.

So, skills- and information-based learning, enhanced by iPads; critical thinking and synthesizing skills, not so much.

I'm not saying that's a reason to eschew them. They are what they are. But it's important to remember they were never designed to take the place of computers or phones. They are a new consumer item category, even quite different from their closest cousins, the e-readers. I personally love to read on a Kindle, but find it awkward to do so on an iPad, which is so much larger and has a screen that isn't daylight-friendly. But I read a fair bit on my iPad, while I'm also checking email, checking the web, and doing other consumption tasks, because it syncs with Dropbox and because it lets me really surf the web in full color and full media like a laptop, but is easy to carry and has a touchscreen like a phone.

I love reading my email, for instance, on my iPad. It's a brilliant one- or two-touch disposal method for each message: file, or delete. No mousing. But when I have to stop and respond to an email, now it's a pretty arduous typing process. Could I get an external keyboard? Sure; but at that point, why not switch to a computer with a keyboard?

Bottom line: should the average teacher be interested in iPads for teaching purposes? If better information retention on a particular topic is your goal, maybe. Does every student have one and is teaching going to look antiquated if it doesn't involve them? Not yet, and maybe not for a while. They are ancillary devices to computers and always will be. On the other hand, they're easier to carry and may very well seriously boost the electronic textbook market. If we reach a point where 99% of our students have them, and we can close that gap with an iPad requirement which, like a laptop requirement, ensures that even international and first-generation college students have the device, then they could make it easy for faculty to share video or animations, poll the students on their thoughts or do problem-solving, and do touch-based creation, even with math or non-Roman character alphabets that are often hard for new students to tackle with keyboards.

Should the average teacher be interested in iPads for their own use? Maybe. I know faculty who have used iPads to revolutionize their own attendance-taking (perhaps a small issue, but if it's not small for you, you know how big it can be!), accessing their own files more easily, and keeping up with the communications of a class or with committee work. If it works for you, it works for you. Hopefully I've described what it can or can't do well enough to let you decide about whether or not to buy this device for yourself if you haven't already.

Are there particular teachers who really must be interested in iPads? For computer science the mobile OS has become a whole interesting new topic; the ability to use the touchscreen anywhere has resulted in some great new art applications that are interesting to some; and the new videoconferencing capabilities in the latest models are neat (though no different from what many phones offer) and might provide a nice channel for communication for distance learning teachers who want to do one-on-one meetings. The next big revolution may be the ability to annotate a paper, including with handwritten notes as well as audio or video from you, and returning it to the student; they're very close with this, though I think they're not there yet. If this is a feature you're dying for, I'd suggest checking out the iPad apps that move in this direction.

Otherwise, for the average teacher, I would say it's far more important to understand phone culture than to understand iPads per se. If you don't have a smartphone or if you don't use your phone as anything but a phone, you don't understand how it's revolutionized the life of the average college student from what it was even five years ago, and you probably need to. Always-there communication networks are a very big difference and they can really be exploited in interesting ways for education: to facilitate group learning, to extend the walls of the classroom or flip it, to really change the day-to-day operation of the class. In almost every instance that I can think of, an iPad will work for these things - but so will a phone or a laptop, and in every case you'll want the features of the laptop to let students really create work (developing those crucial critical thinking skills) or you'll want the I-always-have-it-with-me capability of the phone. Both laptops and phones have far more penetration into the market, as well, and teachers would have far fewer problems adopting them than trying to do an exercise with their students that depends on everyone having an iPad. Pools of iPads are being tried at many schools but these are expensive (both to acquire and in terms of staff time to maintain), and it looks to me like what laptops looked like before everyone had one.

You're right to think that this will probably change, though, and no one knows how quickly. "More quickly than laptop ownership changed" is probably a safe guess.

Our average student now has around three wireless devices - and this happened very quickly, in less than eighteen months. iPods, iPads, handheld games, fixed game boxes, and e-readers are all adding to the mix of devices our students buy and use every day - in addition, if I have to say it, to their phone and their laptop. The way our students use technology affects their lives and is important to educators if we want to reach them where they are and where they will be for the rest of their lives. Understanding the iPad itself isn't as critical as understanding this always-on, always-connected lifestyle - and if possible injecting some process of learning into that lifestyle.

Share your ideas - Faculty Computing highlights innovators we know about in the online gallery of innovators, but we also host an iPad user group - contact me (judith.tabron at the usual if you want me to put you in touch with that group, and come share your ideas! This is an area where faculty are learning from other faculty (or from their students!) as much as, if not more than, they are learning from IT people. Help us spread the knowledge!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

It's the teaching, stupid.

The Chronicle of Higher Education provides plenty of material for me to write about. Most of it is material for me to disagree with.

Take for instance the article with the rhetorically loaded title "A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn't Working". The professor isn't accomplished or successful, he's tech-happy! Practically goofy in the head! He reboots like a broken computer - is he even a person? Maybe he's a robot who's goofy in the head! And what causes this reboot? Someone told him his teaching advice wasn't working! Someone finally broke the news to him! He gave out teaching advice - but that doesn't work either! It's a massive pile-up of broken gadgets we didn't need in the first place! Get the trash can!

I hate these kinds of articles.

As often happens at the Chronicle and elsewhere, though, once all the standard preconceptions have been aired (as if to reassure their audience that they do hold the correct preconceptions), there is actually some small meat to the article. In this case, the meat is that Prof. Wesch has discovered that few of his colleagues have been able to successfully implement his suggestions for enhancing their classes with technology.

No one needs to be threatened by this, because the article is already framed to posit that Prof. Wesch is, at best, a half-crazy piece of technology himself constantly on the edge of a breakdown. No one would make the cognitive leap to suggesting that perhaps the fault lies not in Prof. Wesch, but in the colleagues who grasp the letter but not the spirit of his suggestions.

Fortunately, Michael Wesch himself does actually get quoted in the article (starting in paragraph 5) and he points to the issue immediately: what is missing in his colleagues' implementation of the technology is a sense of purpose.

Over and over again in our Catalyst Boot Camp, we stressed that technology on its own is nothing. Technology can only benefit a class to the extent that it facilitates something you already want to do.

Students don't do their homework? Tough to pace the class for both advanced and less advanced students? Quiet students don't talk? Students not grasping historical or geographical relationships? Concepts needing to be constantly repeated?

These and many more common teaching issues can be addressed with technology. But the issue comes first, not the technology. Technology implemented for no reason isn't just useless, it's time-consuming and probably irritating.

As it turns out in the Chronicle article, Mr. Wesch is juxtaposed with Christopher Sorensen, a teacher with 34 years of experience who is highly successful with the method he uses: lecturing.

(This section of the article, by the way, is titled "Learning from an 'Old Fogy'" - a subtitle that manages to insult Prof. Sorensen as well as the practically insane cyborg previously mentioned, Prof. Wesch.)

Prof. Sorensen spends hours preparing each lecture before every class. He gets psyched up and into a "fifth gear" before he lectures, and not surprisingly, he connects with his students very well. He doesn't expect his students to retain everything from his lectures, but considers his lectures a vital piece of the learning process wherein he's "plowing the ground" for the concepts and processes they will learn more thoroughly, and practice, when they read or do other homework. His primary goal in the lecture is to "convinc[e] students that his material is worth their attention."

It's not too surprising that Michael Wesch would find Christopher Sorensen's teaching method to be effective in its way. It isn't news to anyone in academia that some lecturers are compelling and magnetic, and that they convey the importance of their material as well as the details.

What the Chronicle article fails to address in its poor treatment of both teachers is that no one who has ever advocated using technology in the classroom has ever intended to derail faculty who are already successful at what they're doing. Fantastic lecturers shouldn't be necessarily encouraged to do more interactive things with technology; they're already connected with their students.

But the plain truth is that most of us would love to be either Michael Wesch or Christopher Sorensen. We'd take any road that would get us to where we can reliably, effectively reach our students. That's why we're reading articles about technology in teaching. We're dying to know. Should we be adding PowerPoints to our lectures? Do we need to care about clickers? How do we get students to shut down Facebook for a while and get as excited about what we're teaching as they do about that? Heck, at least we can figure out how to ask those questions! There's more public discussion and more resources available on technical questions than there is on tougher pedagogical issues that plague us. We're experts in our fields who already manage to teach pretty well or we wouldn't be where we are. But we're all still trying to figure out how to be better - just like the faculty at Kansas State University who are trying to figure out how to implement Michael Wesch's advice. (And if some techy tools can get us there, in however-many-we-need implementation steps, we'll do it!)

Those Kansas State faculty are all probably just as interested in any tips Christopher Sorensen has to offer about how to make lectures more engaging too. Because we're all trying to do the same thing: get better at teaching. Which is incredibly difficult, constantly changing, dependent on a universe of variables we can't control, increasingly undervalued, and oh yeah, necessary for the good of our students and our society.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, like most news outlets in the United States, simultaneously holds the preconceived notions that:
  1. Technology is being pushed into our schools.
  2. Technology is the sine qua non of the 21st century.
  3. Technology in education is at heart a silly waste of time and money.
  4. There are great faculty who don't need technology.
  5. Most faculty are already great faculty.
But only #2 and #4 are actually true. Those of us on the faculty know that there's no such thing as faculty who just "are" great faculty. Being a great faculty member means doing a lot of hard work and constantly trying new things, lest you or your class become stale. We are always in a state of becoming.

As in any field, I believe that most faculty are actually working hard to become great faculty. Great faculty connect with their students and convey the importance of learning as well as impart a great deal of factual information or processes for learning.

Students today have grown up in a highly connected world very different from that in which most faculty grew up. There is an extremely deep cultural divide between students and faculty today, much deeper than is usually recognized. Great faculty need to bridge that gap as they do what they do, and it isn't getting any easier.

If there is a reason to use technology - and remember, there should be one, or one shouldn't bother - the reason is that it can actually help bridge the cultural gap between students and faculty. It can be used to convey to the students the immediacy, the importance of the topic being addressed in the class. That message can come across because, as in Michael Wesch's class, the teacher immediately addresses questions that the students raise via communication channels they're comfortable with, like Twitter. It can come across in a religion class when they look at a controversy trending on Twitter about a Hindu goddess printed on bikinis.

It can also come across when students using clickers see an instant graph of their opinions on a complicated topic, or their evaluation of a fellow student's research presentation. It can come across when students get frequent feedback, from weekly quizzes that just check how well they're keeping up with the material, and an email from their professor if they start to fall behind. It can come across when they write a blog topic on a play they're struggling with - and the play's author responds with his current thoughts about the same scene.

Technology can help bring faculty and students closer together. Technology can help convey the material or the importance of the material to students.

It can only help. The work, the idea, the goal has to be the teacher's.

I long for the day when these teeth-gritting articles are quaint artifacts of the past. Can't we all just agree on some new basic principles, that aren't preconceptions at all, but the solid results of 30 years now of using technology in teaching? Can't we learn?

The average college faculty member wants to connect to students and have students learn. The average college student wants to do exactly what they did before (in high school, or in their first years of college) which earned them A's and got them to the point where they are today. The average college student lives his or her life online. The average college student believes that college is not life - that learning is not life - because it doesn't happen online, it happens in lectures they find boring or other similarly non-riveting "class" activities.

The average college professor can help to bridge that gap through strategic, purposeful use of technology in their classes, uses that make the class constantly real and live to students by presenting them with problems to solve, research to do, and opportunities to synthesize what they learn into real essays, real presentations, or real research with real audiences. (If you want some ideas on how to do this, drop me or my staff an email.)

Even some lectures - like Michael Wesch's - can help teachers connect to students with the help of technology, even as some lectures - like Christopher Sorensen's - manage to do the same just fine without it.

Faculty who have already learned how to use technology to connect with their students and accomplish their teaching goals are not "tech-happy". Faculty who are already successful without having to do these things are not "fogeys". Faculty who don't fall into either group, who are still trying to figure out how best do what they want to do - connect with students, get them to learn - with or without technology, should be called "conscientious". That small group of faculty who ignore that they are not yet successful and who ignore that technology might be able to help them should be called ... to task.

And journalists who imply that the world is better now because one of our "tech-happy" cyborg-profs now (finally!) understands that really connecting with students, with community, is the true goal of teaching (because he rebooted!)... well, I don't know what they should be called. I don't know much about journalism. But I'm pretty sure they shouldn't be called "journalists".

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Open-access textbooks, e-textbooks, and e-readers

I know there's a lot of confusion surrounding these hot topics when I hear from a faculty member who asks me "I don't understand what the hype is about - isn't this just like posting readings in Blackboard?"

None of these topics is just like posting readings in Blackboard, but none of these things is really the same as any other of these topics either, so let's see if we can clear some things up.

There is a massive wave of interest in open-access textbooks in this country, driven by student and parent concern about higher education costs, which is driving the interest of both state and federal governments. If you heard an interview at an Occupy movement site this last fall, you heard a college student complaining about how much college debt he or she was in - and probably how disappointing it was that all that debt didn't lead to a job. Governments simply cannot ignore any more the public's complaints about costs in higher education, and textbook costs are often very large and hit students very hard because most families don't know to plan for them.

An open-access textbook is a textbook that is published under a public domain license or, more often, a version of the GNU or Creative Commons license. This means that users - you and I - are able to download, modify, and share the book as we would like - and for free. Teachers can use just chapters 3 through 8, if they want, and write their own chapter 1, and post it on their open class website as well as in a locked Blackboard or Moodle course. This is a huge difference from any other type of textbook, not because it's electronic, but because it's modifiable and shareable.

Florida and California have large movements to create textbooks along these lines, especially for introductory classes for which one textbook can serve many thousands of students. The federal government is also sponsoring a project to foster more good quality open-access textbooks. If you Google "open access resource examples", or "open educational resources", you'll see a number of examples of these projects - "resources" rather than "textbooks" because creating distributable, modifiable videos, simulations, and exercises is just as important to this movement as textbooks. (Check out OERCommons to find resources in your field.)

Most open-access resources are distributed electronically. Electronic distribution makes distribution very low cost and easy. That often confuses both faculty and students, though, because there are a ton of electronic textbooks that are for-profit, restricted-copyright texts just like the textbooks they pay for in the bookstore. A recent study demonstrated that electronic textbooks don't save students any money, and the reason for that is simple: because they are provided by the usual publishers and usually priced in the same way as the usual print textbooks. Those publishers have their own reasons for those pricing models but they aren't changing them just because the e-textbooks are distributed electronically.

There's no denying, though, that electronic textbooks are a fast growing category, because electronic books in general are a fast growing category. It's been many months since Amazon reported that their sales of e-books surpassed their sales of print books - and in Internet-time, six months is like four dog-years. One of the most popular gifts for the Christmas and Hannukah just passed was an e-book reader. Kindles, Nooks, and various tablets and other e-readers all did very well (though yes, Kindles outsold the rest). We've tested the new Kindles in Faculty Computing Services and the Kindle Fire is a nice alternative to an iPad for those who want a smaller device and don't mind that it runs an Android operating system rather than Apple's iOS (translation: it isn't quite as cool and fun to use). E-books can also be read on smartphones, which now have large, good screens. 2011 seems to have been the tipping point many were waiting for for a long time: e-books are now perfectly normal. Lots of students still don't want them - but lots of students do.

In such an environment, it's only reasonable that students sometimes want e-book alternatives to their textbooks. But there are two very different options for our selection: e-books from publishers, whose only difference from the standard books is that they are electronic, and e-books that are open-access, that are freely distributable and modifiable.

For the student, the cost differential is considerable. For the instructor, the options are very different as well: the OER textbook offers an opportunity to modify existing textbooks or related resources and copy or distribute them however they please.

(Some of the open-access educational textbooks are provided with a print-on-demand option, confusing things further. For a small charge, the provider will print an inexpensive copy and send it to the student. The cost is often 1/10th of the cost of a commercial textbook. The student in these cases has the choice of paying for the print version, or just downloading the electronic version for free. Again, the primary difference is the license structure of the textbook. OER textbooks are distributable and modifiable. Regular commercial textbooks must be purchased from the publisher and cannot be copied or changed, and all standard copyright restrictions apply to making copies for your class.)

There's another reason faculty should be aware of the open-access textbook movement. Those faculty who create such texts have a chance to be very influential in their fields. Without the constraints of publishers or paper distribution, one textbook could easily be adopted for an entire state, or the nation. Moreover, because it is electronically distributed, updates and corrections can be redistributed without any real additional cost.

Many of our faculty do create textbooks, and this is an opportunity for them to affect their field in a very big way. For those programs with defined goals and agreed-upon approaches to their goals, even a group of faculty could quickly collaborate to create influential textbooks in their field. I think we will be seeing more and more of these developments in the next one to two years - very quickly for the academic environment, but kind of slowly for the consumer electronics world. Open-access textbooks, more than e-textbooks in general, are where the two worlds really come together.

Does that clarify? Confuse? Please do comment and let me know!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Moving universities forward

Compared to London's Underground or Paris' Metro, the New York subway seems to be a mess. It's full, it's filthy, and occasionally it catches on fire.

There's a reason for this, I've been told: the European systems were largely rebuilt after World War II, thus leapfrogging New York's system which is just as old or older but has had significantly less reinvestment and reinvention.

I don't know if that's true but I keep it in mind when I look at our use of technology resources at universities. Universities in the 80s spent a lot of money putting in network infrastructure (eventually internet) that far surpassed what was available in the rest of the country, let alone the world, and they bought a lot of computers to connect to that network, too.

Now most of our students at Hofstra are coming to school with multiple computers plus, often, a game system, ereader, or smartphone, and they wonder why the network connection they have at school is slower than the one they had at home.

Some of that is simple technical information that they don't have. We purposefully slow down, for instance, traffic that we have good reason to suspect is illegal. And the internet is increasingly clogged with crud no matter where they are. We passed the point in 2009 when 90% of what traveled through the internet was spam.

But that technical information illustrates an underlying truth. What was cutting edge is now omnipresent, and necessarily, the first parts of that infrastructure that were built are kind of dirty, are really full, and occasionally catch fire.

There are huge pieces of that infrastructure that we cannot do without or else we fall off the earth. We need our large-traffic connections to the internet, and we need as much wireless access to that connection as we can get. If we want to use services that exist off campus, like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, those are the roads we need to get there. Five years ago the holy trinity was podcasting, wikis, and blogs, but we still needed our network connections to get to those places more than anything else. Before that it was Blackboard - same story, as our Blackboard at Hofstra is actually hosted in Virginia.

I find that faculty worry far more about the endpoints - the devices they will use to get on the network - than about the network themselves, whereas students are the other way round. Students live in a world that faculty are just dipping their toe in; pay attention to the different priorities. I may have a jaundiced view of things since what I mostly get to hear are complaints, but faculty are the ones who complain about how many devices they get from the University (one computer) whereas students are the ones who complain about where the wireless signal appears slow.

We still don't have a laptop requirement for students at Hofstra, so we still aren't providing for the last 1-2% of our students who truly cannot afford a computer of their own. But for 98% of our students, owning devices is really not the challenge. For whatever reason, they or their parents have chosen to invest in the devices that do what they want to do; they want us, their network provider, to make sure they can do it.

Many faculty, for whatever reason, don't own the proliferation of devices that students do. Presumably faculty live rich, full lives without a laptop, a netbook, an iPad and an iPhone. To be honest, I can't really imagine such a life, but I certainly sympathize with the lifestyle. I've been camping.

If you are such a faculty member, though, let me encourage you to sympathize with the lifestyle students are living. You may feel that they're always on, distracted, insubordinate and insufficiently deep thinkers. Oh, I know, you would never use the word insubordinate, but isn't that what you're really thinking when you insist that your students take their electronic devices all out of their pockets and bags and place them face down on the front of the desk so that you can ensure they're not using them? If you haven't done that lately, I assure you your colleagues have. And those students often think faculty are disconnected, uselessly abstract, and power-mad. No, they'd never use the descriptor power-mad - they're not crazy and they want their good grades - but they think it just the same.

We can ignore this gap in lifestyle, in living approaches. After, all the classroom is an unequal power structure and it is up to the faculty member to conduct their class as they see fit. I don't question any faculty member's right to dictate the terms of class participation, and I'm a huge fan of the sentence "Let's close the laptops; I need you to listen to me right now."

But it's worth noting that we can also address the gap. It truly is a difference in how to approach one's life. A student who is always on with a plethora of electronic devices could be at the center of a peer learning network gathering academic research tidbits as easily as they are at the center of a social network gathering data about who's dating whom. That won't happen automatically, though, and it won't happen without our intervention. If we personally don't live and research that way, it won't happen for the students.

Research indicates that we do live and research that way. A study this spring indicated that 90% of faculty are using social media for research or work. So increasingly we the faculty are also online. What are the challenges that we're really facing?

Is it that actually only a small handful of colleagues are the kind who make the students take all electronic devices out of their pockets and place them facedown on the desk?

Is it that we fear what our colleagues will think if we introduce social media into our classroom (after all, they're playing Farmville too, they know it isn't all work)?

Is it that we don't know how to bridge the gap between the way we research and what we teach?

I think it's all three but the last is the biggest challenge. If we've been teaching for a while - and I've been teaching off and on for about eighteen years - we have methodologies we were taught, or that we've developed over time, and it's an enormous amount of effort to change them.

I also find that a lot of faculty still think of the classroom as the place where students receive knowledge from the faculty member, rather than the place where students learn how to research and develop their own knowledge. (And if you follow that link: isn't it interesting to think about asking students to apply for a course, asking them what they bring to the course and what they get out of it? I know some upper level courses do this often. What if more of our courses did that? What's the difference between challenging the student and accepting them?)

This blog is supposed to be where I convey the thoughts I shared in our past Boot Camps (even if we don't get to discuss them, which is the best part). So here's a thought I often share: If you think you're teaching facts, forget it. There's little that's factual that your students can't look up. If there's a concept they really need to understand that you're sick of spending time conveying, let us help you make a learning object to address it - a video, an animation, an exercise. But don't spend too much class time on it. Students will get it or they won't, and if you have a learning object you can direct the students to it as often as you like and ask them to come to office hours if they really didn't get it (they will - give them a quiz on the concept, they'll sort themselves out fast enough). But finding out facts is now the job of Google, and no matter how you feel about Google there's not much point in trying to turn that educational clock back.

What your students don't know is how to evaluate what they see. They don't even know when "factual" is a reasonably contestable word. They don't know what's good information - or good research - and what isn't. That's the big difference between your use of social media and theirs, and we don't model our use of it enough for our students. We don't model for them how we pick the article we pick out of Google Scholar - we don't often even tell them about Google Scholar. We don't want them in our social networks but we don't explain how we use them and why we shut out undergraduates, either. And most importantly we don't direct them in how to form their own learning communities. We insist firmly that unauthorized collaboration is cheating, but we don't often direct good, productive collaboration - and we almost never model it. I know you've worked with a colleague on your last research paper, presentation, or book - at the very least you discussed it over lunch or after a meeting and that colleague probably helped you a ton even in a ten minute discussion. We don't show our students how that works.

So a productive bridge might be our own research, how we conduct it, how we write, how we collaborate, and then developing activities for our students that mirror some of that.

We might have to lower academic standards temporarily to bridge between their world and ours. We can have them conduct mini-ethnographies by interviewing people on Twitter or Facebook - and then we get to discuss the differences between that and real fieldwork. We might have to accept that Wikipedia is their starting place for a lot of research - and then explain why, and when, they need to bump up to academic articles. We might have to accept that a blog is informal writing, essentially a draft - and have them do it to get them to write that much more, to an audience, before they write any more "final" paper for us. We don't have to compromise what we think finished academic work is. But we may want to modify what the intermediate steps could look like.

Faculty sometimes think students will figure this out on their own, how to do these things. Most students won't. They order food online and are very plugged in, but we know two things about traditional college-age students: they have no idea how any of that technology works, and they have no idea how to use any of it for academic purposes.

Faculty who do should guide those students.

And if you aren't one of the faculty who's ready to try building a bridge (I recommend a small one, with plenty of failsafe supports), then that's where you need to focus your energy first: trying some of these tools for yourself. I'm right there with you in anti-capitalized revulsion for what multinational corporations have become. Still, you need to get a smartphone. Learn to text, try a new social media tool for yourself, get it under control, and find something you like. Because if you like it, if you really use it, you can model how to use it for your students in a productive, positive way. Or use the computer Hofstra provides for you, if you're lucky enough to be a full-time faculty member, to investigate those tools for yourself. Faculty Computing is always willing to help you try these things. If you intend to teach for more than a couple of years more, you really need to start at least investigating, as an observer, perhaps, the world the students are living in.

Technology tools come and go but the cycle of change in technology in a university is actually a lot slower; nonetheless, the era of more, more, more computers is over, for a lot of reasons over which the institution has no control. Almost all the students have a ton of computing devices and want the freedom to choose what they want to choose; many of the faculty have followed suit. We certainly need to reinvest in New York's subway system but it's not that clear any more that Hofstra needs to reinvest in more, more, more computers at the endpoints. Nationally the trend is toward facilitating use of computers as easily and securely as possible; this is true in private industry as well as in higher education. Try googling "byoc bring your own computer". It's not clear how much longer any large organization will need to keep purchasing such end-point devices. Ask yourself how many computers you use in a day and how many computers each of your students uses in a day. Very few computer users use only university-provided computers any more. Our focus needs to be on keeping the roads clear, keeping the connections open as best we can, and helping everyone, faculty and student, use all this infrastructure for a teaching and learning purpose. Turns out the internet is more like a highway system than a subway; I'll drive my Prius, you can drive your Suburban, and someone else will be smart enough to get a Zipcar, but if the road itself is full of potholes and blocked by downed trees, no one's going anywhere.

Our educational challenge, guiding our students to make intellectual use of the resource, is more like teaching them to read a map than memorizing place names. What can we teach that are skills they'll use throughout the rest of their lives to learn no matter what the tool du jour is?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Social Networking and classes

It's no longer possible to ignore the potential of integrating social networking with your teaching. Students actually prefer to have academic systems separate from their Facebook accounts, so when something happens like Missouri forbidding its K-12 teachers from having any contact with their students via Facebook, I don't panic too much. Yes, it sets the cause of modernizing teaching back many years, but it also helps steer clear of any confusion that can result from mixing the teacher's and the student's social networks with classroom discussion and activities.

As I've said many times, most of our students come to our institution with mixed goals. On the one hand they've been successful high school students and they want to keep doing in college what they know they were good at in high school: listening in class, taking notes, doing homework, and taking tests. On the other hand, they themselves live in social networks; I won't bother to point you to an article about this because you'd have to have been living under a rock for the last five years to miss how the under-20 set uses texting, Facebook, and other sites like Twitter as their primary means of communicating with their friends. And Hofstra faculty don't live under rocks. So I don't need to beat that drum.

So our students come to college knowing that the life they like to live happens in social media; but also that success in school comes from doing what they did in high school. This leads to the mixed messages faculty get in college classrooms: some students would love to have part of class in Facebook, some students just want to sit in the back of the class with their mouths shut for the entire semester, and you'll find every level of enthusiasm for interaction in between these two extremes as well.

This year, however, I'd say that colleges have to step it up a notch: increasingly, students are coming to us from high schools where they've had all the usual tools of modern instruction, and frankly, they've had better experiences with it than they're about to have in college. K-12 environments, if they have things like BlackBoard or SmartBoards in their classrooms, often mandate their use more consistently, and train their teachers more consistently to use those tools, than most universities can do. At a university each faculty member usually makes his or her own decisions about how to teach (for-profits excepted), and this is a benefit of the U.S. higher education system: students will be exposed to a lot of different teaching styles during their college degree. Unfortunately, to students it sometimes looks disorganized, old-fashioned, out of touch, or simply thoughtless. Most students like it when the faculty know their names; they also like it when faculty are thoughtful in their use of technology, at the very minimum using it to announce class changes in a timely and consistent way, post documents, gather assignments, and just generally keep the class running in an organized fashion.

So then how do we step it up a notch and integrate social networking in a responsible way? The pluses for it are not that new: when done right, what you want is for your students to be thinking about your class everywhere, all the time. How much would you give for your students to see the everyday pertinence of your class everywhere, all the time? Isn't this a major goal for every faculty member? In my career I've wanted students to see the everyday applicability of clear sentences and paragraphs, or understanding cultures different from that of the United States, or being able to find a responsible academic source supporting a point. I can't imagine a field we're teaching in which we don't want students to see our subject matter everywhere they look: from the calculus student who realizes that she needs calculus to find out how much water her town will need to buy to fill their swimming pool this summer, to the art student who recognizes chiaroscuro in the latest fashion ad - and realizes he could make something just as good.

I'd apply all my same rules for any class activity having to do with social networking - students need to get credit for doing it, even if it's credit/no credit; it needs to be a regular, repeated part of the class, not just a one-off for a week that they can ignore; and it should contribute to your specific goals for the class.

I'm in the same boat as all of you. I need to do SOMEthing for this year, and I have a smallish seminar to teach. So what tool to choose - and how to design an activity? There are blogs and wikis in Blackboard, and a discussion board, but as those of you who've used them know, they're a far cry from true social networking, with its democratization of discussion, ability to connect to phones (our students' equivalents of laptops), and ability to share all kinds of media and comment - all very easily.

Some of our faculty are very excited about Google+, and on the face of it, it's an excellent answer. It's just like Facebook but not Facebook, and all our faculty and students now have access to Google Apps through our portal.

The challenge with Google+ at Hofstra right now is that it isn't actually included in the base set of apps Google provides for us. You can have your students manually create Google+ accounts with their Hofstra Pride gmail addresses, though, and then manually create a circle just for them. Remember Google+ is still a beta, which is computerese for "you get what you get". Google will undoubtedly be uncovering bugs and fixing things for years to come, in that Google way. But it is a very nice option.

If you use it, be sure to log in during class for a few minutes and show students how to create a class circle and share just to that circle. Students shouldn't be posting class work to the world unless they're aware they're doing so, and while I find circles very intuitive and sensible, not every student will do so. On the plus side, at least if they're doing it in Google+ with you instead of Facebook, they're much less likely to accidentally spam all their high school friends and family with their homework assignment!

Twitter is still a great tool for these things as well. I like choosing hours of the day when students' tweets can get texted to my phone (no texts after 10 p.m.!) and how easy Twitter is. My problem there is that I follow a lot of OTHER people on Twitter as well, and some of them follow me. I may well annoy some regular Twitter friends if I start tweeting about global media any hour of the day or night; I have to make a decision about whether or not to mix my class in with my professional and personal contacts there, OR set up a separate Twitter account just for class activity to share with my students. Just like Google+, students would also have to send me their Twitter accounts - either their regular ones, or ones they set up just for my class. If I expect students to be reading each other's tweets as text messages, I should provide an option(like checking the Twitter feed once a day) for those students who, rightfully, don't want their phones beeping at them all day with class observations. (We should be so lucky!)

If you use Twitter, I recommend you agree on a Twitter tag with your students - and check first to make sure it's unique, as #sociologyclass may happen more often on Twitter than you think! Let them know only posts labeled with the appropriate tag for your class will be counted for credit. You can't be chasing all their tweets all over the place, and with a hashtag, you can set up a page that just shows that feed and follow it very regularly.

I like Ning for class interactions a lot. It looks and behaves much like Facebook, and you can try it for 30 days for free or buy a simple $3/mo account to set up a class for yourself. It's super-easy to customize and lets students share pictures or videos in ways they're used to. Because it's private, log-in accounts only, students aren't doing their classwork in "public". You set up your site - - and only the accounts you create or allow can log into that site at all. It's a great way to have students interact with each other as well as with you, which should always be a goal. It would be a great tool for having students share, for instance, pictures of things they saw during the day that relate to the class topic, or news items, or videos from YouTube. The only downside to Ning is that you have to ask students to check it periodically (preferably every day) in addition to checking Blackboard. But this would likely be true of Google+ as well. And like all the rest of these tools, because it's a consumer tool, not a University-provided tool, you need to add and remove your students yourself from the group.

I recommend avoiding Facebook for reasons we already stated, but we do have Inigral's tool Hofstra on Facebook, which allows students to socialize in an app that's connected to Facebook but not Facebook. If you've heard about this product from your students, I would still recommend steering clear of it for teaching because it is intended for students' social purposes, not for teaching; any teaching taking place in it would be "public", meaning all Hofstra participants in the app could see it; and faculty accounts are not provisioned by default to the system. We are running this application on a trial basis; I would not want to steer a teacher towards it.

So none of the choices are perfect, but there are several choices. Of Google+, Ning, and Twitter, what suits your goal best? Twitter restricts the length of the posts pretty severely; on the other hand, a lot of social activity happens there now (news of yesterday's earthquake traveled on Twitter before any major news outlet was carrying it - people read their friends' tweets about the earthquake in Virginia, and then felt it themselves a few minutes later in Ohio or New York!). Fascinating political and social commentary is constantly being posted there as well, making it great for any social science, media, business, teaching, or communication topic. Google+ and Ning both give you great non-Facebook, Facebook-like social networks, with all the media sharing possible - great for humanities classes, writing, art, television production, and similar.

Faculty Computing Services is familiar with all these products, but to varying degrees of familiarity. If you'd like our help getting started feel free to give us a call (all our contact information is at as always). We also have some tips and ideas for getting started at - I usually look something up there myself to answer my question first. But these are consumer-level products, not enterprise-level products, so to a certain extent, if you decide to use them, you're taking a leap into social networking as an individual with your particular students. It's the wave of the future, but it might feel a little deep. If you decide to take the plunge, just keep swimming!

As with any electronic tool, I'd recommend that you structure use of the tool for your class:
1. Ask students to visit or read at least once a day. Spell out in your syllabus that this is a requirement for the class and students will not pass your class without participating in this activity no matter what fraction of their final grade is made up of this type of participation.
2. Require students to contribute at least once a week. (This can be based on class reading - what questions came up for you when you did the reading? - or based on outside-of-class activities - post an example of modernist architecture you saw in your neighborhood, or a book you found in the library on this topic, or an interview you did with a friend or family member on this question.)
3. Give credit - even just a 1 instead of a 0 in the Blackboard gradebook is sufficient. Give credit every week so students can see how they're progressing.
4. Bring that class interaction back to class. I recommend participating yourself on the same guidelines, but even if you don't, when you meet with your students, if you bring back the discussion ("As we saw from Brian's interview on Ning this week"... "This photo Sheila posted demonstrates exactly what we've been talking about"...) you make your class alive, current, and happening all the time.
5. Base a test question or paper writing opportunity or capstone presentation option or any other sort of assessed exercise on material that's been shared or insights the class has reached together via their social networking discussions. If you just use the same questions you used last year, you disconnect. If you draw on the discussion your students have been having, via social networking as well as in class, you bring it all together and involve the students in the class more than you can imagine. The smallest link helps a lot. DO NOT make it an "optional" question. If you're using social networking, you're using it, and it's a required part of the class - "optional" isn't an option.

There may always be a student or two who still drops out of online discussion, just as there can be such a student who drops out class, but you need to focus your discussion on the students who are participating, enjoying, and learning. Do let such students know as soon as possible that they will not be able to pass the class until they connect.

Every once in a while there is a student who is still uncomfortable with technology, sufficiently to inhibit them in participating in such a class exercise. This fall, for the first time, you can send such students to Learning Support, a new division of Student Computing Services based out of the Learning Lab in Calkins 106. Trained student support personnel will help them. You can learn more about Learning Support at - our new website will be populated by September 1!