Tag Archives: teaching

Trails, Paths, and Digital Literacy

Yesterday I had the good fortune to be the keynote speaker at the Winter Symposium on Digital Literacy in Higher Education at the University of Rhode Island. It was incredibly energizing to spend a day and a half with a diverse group of educators across disciplines, all of them committed to the idea that improving our students’ (and our colleagues’) digital literacy.

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Of course, there are few more amorphous topics than digital literacy, which made my task as keynote speaker challenging, to say the least. A quick survey of the literature yields almost as many definitions of the concept as there are authors who write about it.

Do we mean the ability to use digital technologies to accomplish a particular task? Or does it mean just being able to navigate the wilds of the Internet without being taken in by the false information floating around out there? Or does it mean being able to create digital objects, code something useful, or develop visualizations of large corpora of texts?

To help those assembled to try to find a way forward, I drew on my experiences on the Appalachian Trail, America’s oldest and still most iconic long distance hiking trail. Of late I’ve been mesmerized by Robert Moor’s On Trails (2016). Moor writes in ways I can only dream about, and in his first pages I found the quotation that I think helps us make our way through the echoing vastness of the Internet.

To put it as simply as possible, a path is a way of making sense of the world. There are infinite ways to cross a landscape; the options are overwhelming, and pitfalls abound. The function of a path is to reduce this teeming chaos into an intelligible line.” (14)

If we think about digital literacy more as choosing a path through the mountains and less like trying to sail across the open ocean, then I think we have a chance to find a way forward as educators and as scholars.

Of course, paths impose their own tyranny. Early into their hikes, long distance hikers find themselves less and less willing to leave the path marked out for them by others. Ask anyone who has through hiked the Appalachian Trail and they’ll tell you that “Blue Blazer” is a term of derision, because it connotes that long distance hiker who leaves the white blazes of the AT for side trail short cuts with blue blazes on the trees and rocks.

Despite the risk of being labeled a Blue Blazer, I think we have to admit that there are too many options, too many platforms, too many apps, too many new ways to navigate the Internet. If we accept this premise, then instead of trying to define or to teach something called “digital literacy,” we can instead decide “I’ll just do this,” or, “I’ll just teach my students that.” And not anything else.

Do we do them or ourselves a disservice by ignoring so much? My answer is no. Too often we forget that our students are with us for only a short time in what we (and they) hope are long and productive lives. Instead of teaching them everything they need to know about things digital, it strikes me as more than enough to teach them a few useful skills, a few useful ways of knowing. We need to give them the tools to find their own paths, and we need to model the willingness to reject the notion that to be competent means always being able to do more and more. Sometimes enough is plenty.

Just a little over 100 years ago, Benton MacKaye stood in a fire tower in Vermont and gazed out over the beauty of the Green Mountains. It was there that he first dreamed up a thing he later christened the Appalachian Trail. MacKaye’s mantra for those hiking on the trail he created was “Walk, see, and see what you see.” To put it another way, stop, look around, what can I see/learn here.

Stopping is a risk, because in doing so, the Internet will swoosh past us. But that’s ok. Really.

Maps, Walls, and Digital Public History

This coming fall I’m teaching a new course: History of the Appalachian Trail. As envisioned, the class is going to be many things at once (which is likely a structural problem). It is a conventional history of one of America’s longest national parks, it is a chance to introduce students to the basics of digital public history, and it is a chance for me to connect my avocation (long distance backpacking) with my vocation (educator, historian).

Today I want to focus on just one part of the course — the part that in some ways I’m the most excited about. Across the hallway from my office is a long, blank, pale blue wall. When I say long, I mean 82 feet long with not one thing on it except a thermostat sort of a small plastic box. This blank wall has bugged me for years, because we’re a university for goodness sake, and such a wall should be covered with student art, or history student research posters, or SOMEthing besides pale blue paint. Now I’m glad no one ever thought to do any of that stuff with what I now think of as “my wall,” because it is going to become the canvas for my students.

For their final projects, students in the class are going to create an Omeka exhibit for the website I’m developing (no formatting yet, so don’t judge) on the history of the Appalachian Trail. But they are also going to paint the Trail onto my wall. And yes, before you ask, I have permission from the powers that be in facilities to do that. Given that the wall is 82 feet long and the Trail is 2,190 miles long (this year), that works out to a scale of around 27 miles: 1 foot. That seems like a reasonable scale to me. Right now. Today.

Once we get the Trail painted on my wall, students will then attach connection points to their own work — images of people, or places, or texts, or whatever, along with QR codes that let passersby dive into the online exhibits themselves.

That’s the plan anyway. From a technological standpoint, it’s not a complicated plan. From a pedagogical standpoint, I have a fair amount of work to do this summer to make sure mys students have all the tools they need to succeed.

And yes, we’ll be doing some hiking…

 

My Students’ Take on PowerPoint

As I do every semester in my course The Digital Past, yesterday I asked my students what drives them crazy about how their faculty members use PowerPoint and other slideware in class. Herewith, their litany of complaint:

  • The inclusion of random slides that don’t seem to pertain to what the professor is discussing
  • Slides with links that then don’t get followed
  • Shared slides with links that are broken
  • Professors standing in front of the screen and reading the text on their slides
  • Graphics that aren’t, or are not sufficiently, explained
  • Graphics that are so small you can’t make sense of the data on them
  • Slides that are out of order and the professor jumps up and down the sequence trying to find the one he/she wants to show
  • Too many slides (One student said she had a one hour lecture with 65 slides. Really?)
  • Too much text on the slides, or alternatively, a slide with just one bullet
  • Bizarre color choices (One student had a class that was all red text on a black background. Yikes!)
  • Bizarre font choices, or fonts that don’t fit with the topic at hand
  • Uncorrected slides — “Oops, I made an error there, let me take a few minutes to fix it while you watch.”
  • Slides that mimic or simply copy what is in the textbook
  • Professors who move way too quickly through their slides, especially at the end of class
  • Slides that are not used to generate discussion or thinking — are seemingly there for informational purposes only
  • Slides that are not posted or shared with students
  • Seemingly random photographs
  • Slides with seemingly random information
  • Slides with typos in the text

So, dear colleague, be warned that if you do any of these things when using slideware in your classes, you are probably annoying the hell out of your students.

More Than a Few Tough Things (3)

In my second post in this series I took on my colleague Steve Pearlstein‘s argument that “universities” should engage in less research, more teaching. In this final post in the series, I want to take up his argument about general education.

Cheaper, better general education. The reform of general education is something I’ve had a lot to say about in this blog over the years, for example: 20062008; and 2008; and again in 2008; and 2010, just to highlight a few of my more agitated posts. So, I agree with Pearlstein that it’s time to take an axe to general education requirements at many universities (not all, just many, and especially mine). But where I have a problem with his argument is when he says the following:

“A university concerned about cost and quality would restructure general education around a limited number of courses designed specifically for that purpose — classes that tackle big, interesting questions from a variety of disciplines. Harvard, with its Humanities 10 seminars, and the University of Maryland, with its I-Series, have recently taken steps in that direction. But this approach will achieve significant savings only if the courses are designed to use new technology that allows large numbers of students to take them at the same time.”

This statement betrays a belief in the efficacy of teaching complex knowledge to large numbers of students at the same time and in the value of efficiency through technology. For a century now, ever since what was once known as the “Harvard system” (large lecture/small recitation) began to invade college campuses, university general education curricula have been built on the delivery of content to masses of lower level undergraduate students (in the classic Course X 101 lecture hall). The application of technology to this delivery system is just a different way to do the same thing — sever the connection between teacher and learner.

A teacher on a screen or as the hidden hand behind an algorithm is no more connected to a learner than is the “sage on the stage” in a lecture hall seating 100, 500, or 800. And I challenge you to find a study run by a cognitive scientist (as opposed to an educational or disciplinary researcher) that demonstrates that the learning outcomes from such disconnected learning exceed those one obtains in a smaller classroom where real connections between teacher and learner are the norm and collaborative learning is the standard. Such studies may exist. And if they do, I’d love to read them.

The real problem is one that Pearlstein doesn’t acknowledge, namely that in today’s challenging fiscal environment in public higher education, fraught with legislative disinvestment, spiraling discount rates, and other financial pressures he doesn’t acknowledge (especially growing amounts of deferred maintenance) general education is all about the money. At today’s enrollment driven public college or university, what really matters is butts in seats. If you can’t filled the seats, there is no money. That’s true at the department level, but also at the institutional level.

In fact, Pearlstein’s suggestion is in line with the tried and true approach to this budget model, namely, let’s find a way to let “large numbers of students to take [their general education courses] at the same time.”

Why? Because if we don’t, our budget model will break. Plain and simple.

Thus, I’m not impressed by Pearlstein’s notion of creating something new and cost efficient that would be somehow different. I don’t want cost efficient general education. I want quality general education where students actually learn a subject — something quite different from “great talks by one or more professors and outside experts [combined] with video clips, animation, quizzes, games and interactive exercises — then supplementing that online material with weekly in-person sessions for discussions, problem solving or other forms of “active learning.”

Who, by the way will hold those “in-person” sessions if 800 students are taking the class? And more to the point, who will staff the ““labs” open day and night that use tutors and interactive software to provide individualized instruction in math and writing until the desired competency is achieved.”

Oh, wait. He must mean graduate students…

And so we are back to the economics of the thing. You can’t have “in-person sessions” for large numbers of students and late night labs for large numbers of students unless you are paying graduate students near-starvation wages. It just doesn’t work. Sorry.

A better solution is to rethink the very notion of how we deliver general education altogether.  As  Matt Reed wrote in his response to Pearlstein’s argument in Inside Higher Ed:

Cheaper, better general education? We have an entire sector for that, too. Research universities are called “research universities” for a reason. If you want a place that values teaching, community colleges are everywhere. For that matter, so are the former teachers’ colleges that form the backbone of most four-year public systems. If you don’t like the economics of the research university sector — and there are good reasons not to — you have alternatives.

The Ernst & Young study of Australian higher education speaks to this exact issue and I have to say, I’m sympathetic to their argument that we need to rethink public higher education as  a sector, not just university by university (our default).

What would that look like in Virginia where I work?

We have two large well-endowed and well-funded flagship universities: the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. We should just admit that those two universities are, and will continue to be the big kids on the block, offering a broad range of graduate programs and research across their campuses. The other three doctoral universities in our “system” (Virginia isn’t really a system like Wisconsin or Indiana or Texas) should become, in the words of the E&Y report, “niche dominators.”

George Mason, where I work, might dominate the niche(s) most closely connected to Washington, D.C. — policy, security, human rights, etc. Virginia Commonwealth University already dominates the niches of health care and the arts. Old Dominion University might end up dominating niches related to defense (given the Norfolk naval station close by), maritime and/or ecological research, or whatever makes sense for them. To get to these dominating positions in our niches, the three institutions in this sector would then also engage in cost shifting by radically downsizing, or yes, eliminating, their investment in graduate programs in any discipline outside their niches, and pour that money into undergraduate education.

And were I the king of Virginia, I would also shift a significant amount of the resources currently devoted to undergraduate general education — especially every penny spent on a course seating more than 100 students — to the community college system. As Matt Reed points out, community colleges, by and large, do an excellent job in those first two years of the college curriculum — so why not throw bad money after good and give it to them?

Don’t believe me when I say they do a good job? A student who enrolls at George Mason University after completing an AA degree from a community college is more likely to graduate from our university than one who enrolls with us as a freshman. So, who’s doing a better job when it comes to general education?

Of course, everything I’ve written in this series flies in the face of both generally accepted practice in American higher education, and our common desire to be more like University X or Y who I likely see as being more of a “real university” than the one where I work.

I guess it’s probably a good thing I won’t ever be king of Virginia.