sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘Dan Hickey’ Category

blogging as a pedagogical tool: some initial ideas and a request

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 30, 2009

I’m hoping to crowdsource some brainstorming about the pedagogical potential of blogging on learning. Lately, in my work with Dan Hickey’s 21st Century Assessment Project, I’ve been thinking tons about how integrating blogging in the formal English / Language Arts classroom might build a rich new media environment for ELA students. I’ve started a provisional list below but am hoping that others (most importantly for me, people who have worked with blogs in their classrooms) can offer ideas for additions to this list.

First of all, it’s worth noting that my approach to the value of blogging for teaching and learning in Language Arts is deeply informed by the work of a number of teacher-researchers from several fields. Most notable among these are Paul Allison, whose chapter “Be a Blogger: Social Networking in the Classroom” (in Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom, by Anne Herrington, Kevin Hodgson, and Charles Moran) offers a glimpse into the day-to-day workings of a blogging-focused ELA curriculum; and Sam Rose and Howard Rheingold, who have devised (and made publicly available) an enormous set of resources for teaching in and through new media platforms.

My approach is also informed by my personal experience as a blogger–really, to be fair, as someone who is willing to squeeze out nearly anything in order to make time for posting. By even my most generous estimate, I spend far too much of my time blogging–unless you account for the formative value of blogging for someone like me. I am convinced that the intellectual and identity work required for me to maintain this space has led directly to my growing prowess as a researcher, reader, and writer. You cannot convince me otherwise; so do not even bother trying.

My experiences and the reading I’ve done about the value of blogging for learning informs everything that comes next.

Characteristics of blogging that support new media literacy

Reaching a wide(r) reader base
It’s important to note that blogs differ in purpose from many seemingly similar writing platforms. It’s obvious to most that a blog is different from a personal journal, in that while many of us may hope to have our journals read by a larger public some day, blogs are actually intended to support wider readership. The majority of blogs are public (meaning anybody can view them) and taggable, and they come up as legitimate sites in web searches.

Blogs also differ from forums, chat rooms, instant message programs, and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Of all of these spaces, blogs are generally the most polished, the most text-based, and the most supportive of extended engagement with a single idea.

Shifting from intended audience to intended public

This idea is ripped from Howard Rheingold, who (tapping into some Habermas) writes that

[m]oving from a private to a public voice can help students turn their self-expression into a form of public participation. Public voice is learnable, a matter of consciously engaging with an active public rather than broadcasting to a passive audience.

The move here is away from the “please read what I wrote” approach to “please act on the ideas I’ve written down here.” The regular practice required for building and maintaining a blog’s readership helps to crystallize this shift and helps writers to see there is a broad, if constantly shifting, group of people whose interests align with the broad, if constantly shifting, ideas of a blog. Though the intended public is largely invisible (we have generally only met a fraction of our blog’s readers), consistent practice in finding, drawing in, and engaging this target public makes them less transparent.

Blogs as (genuine) conversations
When I taught college composition lo these many years ago, I always tried to argue to my students that all writing is a conversation–that when we write, we take up ideas that were presented by other writers before us and try to present something new that might be of interest to people who care about the kinds of things we write about.

The argument always felt hollow to me. After all, college students are typically only eavesdroppers. Only a handful of people will ever read what they’ve written, and often the students don’t really care all that much about the assigned writing topics anyway. Add to that the artificial motivator of the ever-elusive ‘A’ and you have a recipe for calamity.

But blogs–now blogs are authentic communication spaces. They really are. Anybody can get almost anybody to read a blogpost and, if the post is engaging enough, to comment on the post for all eternity to see. This very fact ups the ante some: Getting the spelling of someone’s name suddenly matters an awful lot. Making a concise, well supported argument has real, potential consequences: A strong enough argument gets people to sit up and notice. A strong enough argument gets people to act.

A move toward increasingly public spheres of participation

An increasingly participatory culture calls for participation that’s ethical, reasoned, and publicly accessible. After all, the widespread takeup of the spirit of participatory culture requires that we all act in ways that keep the barriers to participation low, the potential for contribution high, and the mentorship possibilities readily available to most or all participants. This can only happen to the extent that all or most of us are willing to operate, to express and circulate our ideas and creative works, in public online and offline spaces. Since so much discourse will increasingly happen in public spaces, it only makes sense that we use the ELA domain to prepare students for engagement in those public spaces.


Blogs as spaces for fostering both traditional and new media literacies

For language arts teachers, blogging presents a fairly obvious avenue for preparing learners for engagement in public spheres of communication, since blogs align nicely with the traditional purposes of the ELA classroom. As a group of readers engage in deep analysis of their own and others’ blogs, they have to think about issues like tone, style, genre, punctuation, word choice, and organization.

The extra toy prize is that students also get to learn about the characteristics of online writing, including what danah boyd identifies as the four properties of online communication (persistence, searchability, replicability, and scalability) and three dynamics (invisible audiences, collapsed contexts, and the blurring of public and private). As my colleague Michelle Honeyford put it, “they hit all the standards and get to learn about online participation for free.”

Confronting the ethics challenge
Nobody’s arguing that we should sign every sixth grader up with a Blogger account. That would just be silly. Media scholar Henry Jenkins is fond of saying that the role of educators and parents is not to look over kids’ shoulders but to watch their backs, and scaffolding learners toward participation in increasingly public spheres allows us to do just that. Lots of teachers (including the famously brilliant Becky Rupert at Bloomington’s Aurora Alternative High School) start their students out by having them post to a private space (she uses Ning) but having them analyze writing from more public spaces. This way, they have a kind of new media sandbox to try out and engage with the norms of online communication before actually being held to the higher ethical standard, with deeper potential repercussions (both positive and negative).

That’s all I have for now, though I would love to hear from you on the list above. What have I missed? What am I ignoring? What struggles are linked to bringing blogs into the classroom, and what challenges have you encountered if you’ve tried to do so?

I hope for this to be a multipart post that will include thoughts on the following categories:

  • Affordances of blogging as a new media writing technology
  • Challenges to integrating blogs into the ELA classroom
  • Resources (including lesson plans, other writing on this topic, etc.)
  • Assessment guidelines for working with blogs

If you have thoughts on any of the above, I’d love to hear from you. If you have any trouble posting comments (I don’t know why, but some of you have) please email me at jennamcjenna(at)gmail(dot)com.

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Posted in assessment, blogging, creativity, Dan Hickey, education, Henry Jenkins, Howard Rheingold, literacy, new media, participatory culture, schools, social media, writing | 10 Comments »

seeding and feeding your educational community

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 7, 2009

My sensei Dan Hickey’s recent post on seeding, feeding, and weeding educators’ networks got me thinking, for lots of reasons–not least of which being that I will most likely be one of the research assistants he explains will “work with lead educators to identify interesting and engaging online activities for their students.”

This got me a-planning. I started thinking about how I would seed, feed, and weed a social network if (when) given the chance to do so. As David Armano, the author of “Debunking Social Media Myths, the article that suggests the seeding, feeding, and weeding metaphor, points out, building a social media network is more difficult than people think—this is not a “if we build it, they will come” sort of thing. Designing, promoting, and growing a community takes a lot of work. People will, given the right motives, participate in the community for love and for free, but you have to start out on the right foot. This means offering them the right motivations for giving up time they would otherwise be spending on something else.

A caveat
First, know that I am a True Believer. I have deep faith in the transformative potential of participatory media, not because I see it as a panacea to all of our problems but because participatory media supports disruption of the status quo. A public that primarily consumes media primarily gets the world the media producers decide they want to offer. A public that produces and circulates media expressions gets to help decide what world it wants.

Social media, because of its disruptive and transformative potential, is both essential and nigh on impossible to get into the classroom. This is precisely why it needs to happen, and the sooner it happens, the better.

But integrating participatory media and the participatory practices they support into the field of education is not a simple matter. Too often people push for introduction of new technologies or practices (blogging, wikis, chatrooms and forums) without considering the dispositions required to use them in participatory ways. A blog can easily be used as an online paper submission tool; leveraging its neatest affordances–access to a broad, engaged public, joining a web of interconnected arguments and ideas, offering entrance into a community of bloggers–takes more effort and different, often more time-consuming, approaches.

Additionally, while social networks for educators hold a great deal of promise for supporting the spread of educational practices, designing, building, and supporting a vibrant community of educators requires thinking beyond the chosen technology itself.

Five Tips for Seeding and Feeding your Community

With these points in mind, I offer my first shot at strategies for seeding and beginning to feed a participatory educational community. (Weeding, the best part of the endeavor, comes later, once my tactics have proven to work.)

1. Think beyond the classroom setting.
In the recently published National Writing Project book, Teaching the New Writing, the editors point out that for teachers to integrate new media technologies into their classrooms, they “need to be given time to investigate and use technology themselves, personally and professionally, so that they can themselves assess the ways that these tools can enhance a given curricular unit.”

The emerging new media landscape offers more than just teaching tools–it offers a new way of thinking about communication, expression, and circulation of ideas. We would do well to remember this as we devise strategies for getting teachers involved in educational communities online. After all, asking a teacher who’s never engaged with social media to use it in the classroom is like asking a teacher who’s never used the quadratic equation to teach Algebra.

Anyone who knows me knows what a fan of blogging I am. I proselytize, prod, and shame people into blogging–though, again, not because I think blogging is the best new practice or even necessarily the most enjoyable one. Blogging is just one type of practice among a constellation of tools and practices being adopted by cutting edge educators, scholars, and Big Thinkers across all disciplines. Blogging was, for me, a way in to these practices and tools, and I do think blogging is one of the most accessible new practice for teacherly / writerly types. The immediacy and publicness of a blogpost is a nice preparation for increased engagement with what Clay Shirky calls the “publish, then filter” model of participatory media. This is a chaotic, disconcerting, and confusing model in comparison to the traditional “filter, then publish” model, but getting in synch with this key element of participatory culture is absolutely essential for engaging with features like hyperlinking, directing traffic, and identifying and writing for a public. In a larger sense, connecting with the publish, then filter approach prepares participants to join the larger social networking community.

2. Cover all your bases–and stop thinking locally
One of the neatest things about an increasingly networked global community is that we’re no longer limited to the experts or expertises of the people who are within our physical reach. Increasingly, we can tap into the knowledge and interests of like-minded folks as we work to seed a new community.

Backing up a step: It helps, in the beginning for sure but even more so as a tiny community grows into a small, then medium-sized, group, to consider all of the knowledge, experience, and expertises you would like to see represented in your educational community. This may include expertise with a variety of social media platforms, experience in subject areas or in fields outside of teaching, and various amounts of experience within the field of education.

3. In covering your bases, make sure there’s something for everyone to do.
Especially in the beginning, people participate when they feel like they a.) have something they think is worth saying, b.) feel that their contributions matter to others, and c.) can easily see how and where to contribute. I have been a member of forums where everybody has basically the same background and areas of expertise; these forums usually start out vibrant, then descend into one or two heavily populated discussion groups (usually complaining or commiserating about one issue that gets up in everyone’s craw) before petering out.

Now imagine you have two teachers who have decided to introduce a Wikipedia-editing exercise into their classrooms by focusing on the Wikipedia entry for Moby-Dick. Imagine you have a couple of Wikipedians in your network who have extensive experience working with the formatting code required for editing; and you have a scholar who has published a book on Moby-Dick. This community has the potential for a rich dialogue that supports increasing the expertise of everybody involved. Everybody feels valued, everybody feels enriched, and everybody feels interested in contributing and learning.

4. Use the tool yourself, and interact with absolutely everybody.
Caterina Fake, the founder of Flickr, says that she decided to greet the first ten thousand Flickr users personally. Assuming ten thousand users is several thousand more than you want in your community, you might have the time to imitate Fake’s example. It also helps to join in on forums and other discussions, especially if one emerges from the users themselves. Students are not the only people who respond well to feeling like someone’s listening.

Use the tool. Use the tool. Use the tool. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. You should use it for at least one purpose other than seeding and feeding your community. You should be familiar enough with it to be able to answer most questions and do some troubleshooting when necessary. You should be able to integrate new features when they become available and relevant, and you should offer a means for other users to do the same.


5. Pick a tool that supports the needs of your intended community, and then use the technology’s features as they were designed to be used.

Though I put this point last, it’s the most important of all. You can’t–you cannot–build a community with the wrong tools. Too often, community designers hone in on a tool they have some familiarity with or, even worse, a tool that they’ve heard a lot about. If you want your community to refine an already-established set of definitions, approaches, or pedagogical tenets, then what you’re looking for is a wiki. If you want the community to discuss key issues that come up in the classroom, you want a forum or chat function. If you want them to share and comment on lesson plans, you need a blog or similar text editing function.

Once you’ve decided on the functions you want, you need to stick with using them as god intended. Do not use a wiki to post information that doesn’t need community input. Don’t use a forum as a calendar. And don’t use a blog for forum discussions.

It’s not easy to start and build a community, offline or online. It takes time and energy and a high resistance to disappointment and exhaustion. But as anybody who’s ever tried and failed (or succeeded) to start up a community knows, we wouldn’t bother if we didn’t think it was worth the effort.

Posted in Clay Shirky, convergence culture, Dan Hickey, education, new media, participatory culture, public schools, schools, social media | 2 Comments »

open source, open access, open education: some definitions

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 18, 2009

For my upcoming study at Indiana University, I’m working on a position paper on the Free / Open Source / Libre movement, the open source ethos, and open education. It’s kind of weird having to draft a position paper when I kind of feel like I’ve done that, over here at sleeping alone and starting out early.

In fact, a position paper focusing only on the F/OSS movement and open education seems to somehow miss the point, since the spirit of these movements embraces an open-source approach to culture at large. In this way, this blog feels more appropriate as a position statement than any short paper ever could.

Still, academia is academia, and I can’t just turn in a one-liner (http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com) as a position paper. The paper I’m drafting, though, belongs to and informs this blog as much as this blog informs it. For that reason, I’ll be posting my work here as I go.

Today, I’ll start with some definitions.

Open Source:
Open source is an approach to the design, development, and distribution of software, offering practical accessibility to a software’s source code. Some consider open source as one of various possible design approaches, while others consider it a critical strategic element of their operations. Before open source became widely adopted, developers and producers used a variety of phrases to describe the concept; the term open source gained popularity with the rise of the Internet, which provided access to diverse production models, communication paths, and interactive communities. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_source)

Open Source Software (OSS): computer software for which the source code and certain other rights normally reserved for copyright holders are provided under a software license that meets the Open Source Definition or that is in the public domain. This permits users to use, change, and improve the software, and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified forms. It is very often developed in a public, collaborative manner. Open source software is the most prominent example of open source development and often compared to user-generated content. The term open source software originated as part of a marketing campaign for free software.

Free Software (vs. Open Source Software): The term “free software” was coined by Richard Stallman, who explains that

When we call software “free,” we mean that it respects the users’ essential freedoms: the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes. This is a matter of freedom, not price, so think of “free speech,” not “free beer.” (http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html)

Briefly, the difference in the terms highlights different ethical approaches to software development. In general, the OSS movement emphasizes the collective engagement with source code in order to develop, and sometimes to market, powerful and efficient software. The free software movement identifies as a social movement. Stallman explains:

Nearly all open source software is free software; the two terms describe almost the same category of software. But they stand for views based on fundamentally different values. Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement. For the free software movement, free software is an ethical imperative, because only free software respects the users’ freedom. By contrast, the philosophy of open source considers issues in terms of how to make software “better”—in a practical sense only. It says that non-free software is a suboptimal solution. For the free software movement, however, non-free software is a social problem, and moving to free software is the solution.

Many adherents to these movements, to avoid this issue, simply refer to the Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS) Movement.

Community Source Software (CSS): Community Source Software differs from OSS in that institutions devote paid employees to the project, with the intention of collaboratively developing a product that embraces the open source ethos. From the Wikipedia article on Community source,

An important distinctive characteristic of community source as opposed to plain open source is that the community includes some organizations or institutions that are committing their resources to the community, in the form of human resources or other financial elements. In this way, the open source project will have both more solid support, rather than purely volunteer efforts as found in other open source communities, and will possibly be shaped by the strategic requirements of the institution committing the resource.

Examples of CSS include: the Sakai Project, Kuali Foundation, and Open Source Portfolio.

Open Access (OA):
From http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/overview.htm, “open access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. The goal of adopting OA policies is to remove barriers to information. Many higher education institutions have adopted an open access policy, as for example the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which explains that it adopted an OA policy because “The Faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is committed to disseminating the fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible.”

Open Education Movement and Open Educational Resources (OERs): From Opening Up Education, a key tenet of this movement is that education can be improved by making educational assets visible and accessible and by harnessing the collective wisdom of a community of practice and reflection. The open education movement embraces a shift away from a scarcity-based model of higher education, which bases its value on limiting access. As Batson, Paharia, and Kumar explain (in chapter 6, “A Harvest Too Large? A Framework for Educational Abundance”), open education works within a “knowledge ecology characterized by unfettered access to educational resources, choice, and change in the context and clientele of higher education.” In the open, “abundance-based” learning framework, we see the following shifts, with the “trend indicators” column showing features of higher education that point to the shift.

Recursive Publics: This term was coined by Christopher Kelty, who describes it at length in Two Bits (available for download, online browsing, and modulation for free online):

A recursive public is a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.

More to the point, a recursive public is a group of people who exist outside of traditional institutions (governments, churches, schools, corporations) and, when necessary, use this outsider status to hold these entities in check. The engagement of these publics goes far beyond simply protesting decisions or stating their opinions. Kelty, writing about geek culture as a recursive public, explains it thus:

Recursive publics seek to create what might be understood, enigmatically, as a constantly “self-leveling” level playing field. And it is in the attempt to make the playing field self-leveling that they confront and resist forms of power and control that seek to level it to the advantage of one or another large constituency: state, government, corporation, profession. It is important to understand that geeks do not simply want to level the playing field to their advantage—they have no affinity or identity as such. Instead, they wish to devise ways to give the playing field a certain kind of agency, effected through the agency of many different humans, but checked by its technical and legal structure and openness. Geeks do not wish to compete qua capitalists or entrepreneurs unless they can assure themselves that (qua public actors) that they can compete fairly. It is an ethic of justice shot through with an aesthetic of technical elegance and legal cleverness.

Posted in academia, Dan Hickey, graduate school, intellectual property, MIT, open education, open source, social revolution | Leave a Comment »

the harrison bergeron approach to education: how university rankings stunt the social revolution

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 14, 2009

I’ve been thinking some lately about the odd and confusing practice of comparing undergraduate and graduate programs at American colleges and universities and producing a set of rankings that show how the programs stack up against each other.

One of the most widely cited set of rankings comes from U.S. News and World Report, which offers rankings in dozens of categories, for both undergraduate and graduate-level programs. Here, the magazine offers its altruistic rationale behind producing these rankings:

A college education is one of the most important—and one of the most costly—investments that prospective students will ever make. For this reason, the editors of U.S. News believe that students and their families should have as much information as possible about the comparative merits of the educational programs at America’s colleges and universities. The data we gather on America’s colleges—and the rankings of the schools that arise from these data—serve as an objective guide by which students and their parents can compare the academic quality of schools. When consumers purchase a car or a computer, this sort of information is readily available. We think it’s even more important that comparative data help people make informed decisions about an education that at some private universities is now approaching a total cost of more than $200,000 including tuition, room, board, required fees, books, transportation, and other personal expenses.

(To access the entire rankings, developed and produced selflessly by U.S. News and World Report, you need to pay. Click here to purchase the Premium Online Edition, which is the only way to get complete rankings, for $14.95.)

The 2009 rankings, released in April, are in the news lately because of questions related to how the magazine gathers data from colleges. As Carl Bialik points out in a recent post at the Wall Street Journal, concerns over how Clemson University set about increasing its rank point to deeper questions about the influence of rankings numbers on university operations. Clemson President James F. Barker reportedly shot for cracking the top 20 (it was ranked 38th nationally in 2001) by targeting all of the ranking indicators used by U.S. News. Bialik writes:

While the truth about Clemson’s approach to the rankings remains elusive, the episode does call into question the utility of a ranking that schools can seek to manipulate. “Colleges have been ‘rank-steering,’ — driving under the influence of the rankings,” Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy and a critic of rankings, told the Associated Press. “We’ve seen over the years a shifting of resources to influence ranks.”

Setting aside questions of the rankings’ influence on university operations and on recruiting (both for prospective students and prospective faculty), and setting aside too the question of how accurate any numbers collected from university officials themselves could possibly be when the stakes are so high, one wonders how these rankings limit schools’ ability to embrace what appear to be key tenets emerging out of the social revolution. A key feature of some of the most vibrant, energetic, and active online communities is what Clay Shirky labels the “failure for free” model. As I explained in a previous post on the open source movement, the open source software (OSS) movement embraces this tenet:

It’s not, after all, that most open source projects present a legitimate threat to the corporate status quo; that’s not what scares companies like Microsoft. What scares Microsoft is the fact that OSS can afford a thousand GNOME Bulgarias on the way to its Linux. Microsoft certainly can’t afford that rate of failure, but the OSS movement can, because, as Shirky explains,

open systems lower the cost of failure, they do not create biases in favor of predictable but substandard outcomes, and they make it simpler to integrate the contributions of people who contribute only a single idea.

Anyone who’s worked for a company of reasonable size understands the push to keep the risk of failure low. “More people,” Shirky writes, “will remember you saying yes to a failure than saying no to a radical but promising idea.” The higher up the organizational chart you go, the harder the push will be for safe choices. Innovation, it seems, is both a product of and oppositional to the social contract.

The U.S. News rankings, and the methodology behind them, runs completely anathema to the notion of innovation. Indeed, a full 25 percent of the ranking system is based on what U.S. News calls “peer assessment,” which comes from “the top academics we consult–presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions” and, ostensibly, at least, allows these consultants

to account for intangibles such as faculty dedication to teaching. Each individual is asked to rate peer schools’ academic programs on a scale from 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). Those who don’t know enough about a school to evaluate it fairly are asked to mark “don’t know.” Synovate, an opinion-research firm based near Chicago, in spring 2008 collected the data; of the 4,272 people who were sent questionnaires, 46 percent responded.

Who becomes “distinguished” in the ivory-tower world of academia? Those who play by the long-established rules of tradition, polity, and networking, of course. The people who most want to effect change at the institutional level are often the most outraged, the most unwilling to play by the rules established by administrators and rankings systems, and therefore the least likely to make it into the top echelons of academia. Indeed, failure is rarely free in the high-stakes world of academics; it’s safer to say no to “a radical but promising idea” than to say yes to any number of boring but safe ideas.

So what do you do if you are, say, a prospective doctoral student who wants to tear wide the gates of academic institutions? What do you do if you want to go as far in your chosen field as your little legs will carry you, leaving a swath of destruction in your wake? What do you do if you want to bring the social revolution to the ivory tower, instead of waiting for the ivory tower to come to the social revolution?

You rely on the U.S. News rankings, of course. It’s what I did when I made decisions about which schools to apply to (the University of Wisconsin-Madison [ranked 7th overall in graduate education programs, first in Curriculum & Instruction, first in Educational Psychology] the University of Texas-Austin [tied at 7th overall, 10th in Curriculum & Instruction], the University of Washington [12th overall, 9th in Curriculum & Instruction], the University of Michigan [14th overall, 7th in Curriculum & Instruction, and 3rd in Educational Psychology] the University of Indiana [19th overall, out of the top 10 in individual categories], and Arizona State University [24th overall, out of the top 10 in individual categories]). Interestingly, though, the decision to turn down offers from schools ranked higher than Indiana (go hoosiers) wasn’t all that difficult. I knew that I belonged at IU (go hoosiers) almost before I visited, and a recruitment weekend sealed the deal.

But I had an inside track to information about IU (go hoosiers) via my work with Dan Hickey and Michelle Honeyford. I also happen to be a highly resourceful learner with a relatively clear sense of what I want to study, and with whom, and why. Other learners–especially undergraduates–aren’t necessarily in such a cushy position. They are likely to rely heavily on rankings in making decisions about where to apply and which offer to accept. This not only serves to reify the arbitrary and esoteric rankings system (highest ranked schools get highest ranked students), but also serves to stunt the social revolution in an institution that needs revolution, and desperately.

In this matter, it’s turtles all the way down. High-stakes standardized testing practices and teacher evaluations based on achievement on these tests limits innovation–from teachers as well as from students–at the secondary and, increasingly, the elementary level. But the world that surrounds schools is increasingly ruled by those who know how to innovate, how to say yes to a radical but promising idea, how to work within a “failure for free” model. If schools can’t learn how to embrace the increasingly valued and valuable mindsets afforded by participatory practices, it’s failing to prepare its student body for the world at large. The rankings system is just another set of hobbles added on to a system of clamps, tethers, and chains already set up to fail the very people it purports to serve.

Posted in assessment, Clay Shirky, conspiracy theories, Dan Hickey, education, graduate school, open source, participatory culture, Ph.D., public schools, social revolution | 1 Comment »

Awesomeness: Project New Media Literacies’ spring conference: Learning in a Participatory Culture

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 5, 2009

There was awesomeness going on at MIT this weekend, as my colleagues and I at Project New Media Literacies put on a conference called Learning in a Participatory Culture.

If you’ve never planned a conference before, I can’t say I recommend the experience–though when one goes well, as this conference did, the stress and exhaustion that pile on top of you in the lead-up suddenly turn into a fair trade-off. All day, my coworkers and I got to be surrounded by the smartest educators and educational researchers ever, and we got to hear them say all kinds of insanely awesome things.

As part and parcel of the pure awesomeness of the day, I scored two key personal / professional victories: First, I slam-dunked an opening presentation on design and development of Project NML’s Teachers’ Strategy Guide, garnering not one, not two, but three separate thumbs-ups from the people I most hoped to impress: My sensei Dan Hickey, my boss Henry Jenkins, and my close, close friend, colleague, and fellow Fireside Moonbat Katie Clinton. I only wish Katie had received more recognition for her contribution to the project–somehow, I’ve been given her share of the credit and I want to find a way to put it back where it belongs.

I’ve included a QuickTime version of my presentation below, though it admittedly loses something without the audio. I’ll see what I can do about adding the audio in once we have it processed from the day.

A second key victory was in getting a back channel going, via a #NML09 hashtag on Twitter, for the day. We had set up a TweetGrid and the hashtag going into the conference but had no specific plans for supporting and integrating the technology, but before I gave my opening presentation I offered up a quick tutorial on how to Tweet using hashtags and my colleagues and I spent the day monitoring and engaging in a rapidfire Twitter conversation that extended participation in really nice ways. As the man Henry Jenkins himself said to me midway through the day, the fact that we didn’t need to plan for or organize participation in social media but that it worked anyway when the tools and the energies were in place proves something important about the nature of participatory culture.

This is the artifact of my tutorial:

Finally, I want to shout out to all the participants who made the conference such a roaring success. Energy, enthusiasm, and engagement were high from beginning to end. I don’t have the words to articulate what an amazing experience it was.

Posted in assessment, awesome, Dan Hickey, Henry Jenkins, MIT, Moby-Dick, participatory culture, Project New Media Literacies, public schools, schools, social media, social revolution, teaching, Twitter | Leave a Comment »

awesome: social media classroom

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 15, 2009

A letter of support for Howard Rheingold’s Open-Source Education Project
I’ve been participating in a pair of hosted communities at Social Media Classroom (SMC), an open-source web service that offers social media tools for educators and students. If you’ve been following my posts on sleeping alone and starting out early, you probably already know that if it’s open source, I’m gonna be on it like Henry Jenkins on fan practices. (For proof of my open sourceness, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Actually, though, it was the experience of working with SMC that led me to my open-source fervor. When I first joined the community, I didn’t even really know what the open source movement was. The experience convinced me that open source software and its younger cousin, open education, have tremendous potential for teaching and learning.

Okay, first, some background. As the main site points out, Social Media Classroom was started by Howard Rheingold, through a HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Arts Collaboratory) award, and is supported by lead developer Sam Rose, among others. The Drupal-based service can be installed for free, or SMC developers will host a community site for people who don’t want to install their own.

Okay okay okay, that’s the background, but here’s what’s awesome about the project itself: It sets up a goal of opening up education by offering spaces for sharing, collaboration, and remixing of class content via forums, blogs, wikis, chat, social bookmarking, widgets, and a load of other features. The “Invitation to the Social Media Classroom and Collaboratory” offers this description of the project:

It’s all free, as in both “freedom of speech” and “almost totally free beer.” We invite you to build on what we’ve started to create more free value….This website is an invitation to grow a public resource of knowledge and relationships among all who are interested in the use of social media in learning, and therefore, it is made public with the intention of growing a community of participants who will take over its provisioning, governance and future evolution.

To that end, we’re launching an instance of the Colab as a community of practice for learners and teachers, educators, administrators, funders, students of pedagogy and technology design, engaged students who share a common interest in using social media to afford a more student-centric, constructivist, collaborative, inquiry-oriented learning.

Not to beat a potentially dead horse, but: promise, tool, bargain, you guys. The promise comes in showing community members that their engagement matters. Clay Shirky argues that in order to get a social group off the ground, the founders need to engage as much as possible (or as much as is required) to convince the community that their participation will be noticed and will make a difference. Focusing on the photo-sharing site Flickr, he argues that building up a critical mass of engaged members took a lot of early legwork:

Like the proverbial stone soup, the promise would be achieved only if everyone participated, and like the soldiers who convince the townspeople to make the stone soup, the only way to hld the site together before it reached critical mass was through personal charisma. Caterina Fake, one of the founders of Flickr, said she’d learned from the early days that “you have to greet he first ten thousand users personally.”

When I joined Howard’s SMC group, I posted an introduction to myself which got a near-immediate response from Howard Rheingold himself. I was all, “omg Howard Rheingold TALKED to me! *swoon*” And you know what happened next? I headed right back in to join in on other conversations on the site–because, after all, HOWARD RHEINGOLD WAS PAYING ATTENTION. The community is still small enough that a core group of participants are able to recognize and engage with each other in a highly personal way.

For Howard, promise and tool appear to be linked. As a new-ish open source project, SMC is not perfect; but as my sensei Dan Hickey has pointed out, “open source software succeeds by failing”–and Howard and Sam have been enthusiastic about getting community members to identify problems and offer suggestions. In fact, my experience is that if you point out something that’s not working, they fall all over themselves to try to find solutions. This means that part of the promise of the site is that members can help refine the tool itself. (Hey, Howard and Sam: Do you think you could add a “search” feature so I can find past posts more easily?)*.

Okay, that’s promise and tool. The bargain is something like this: We’ll offer you a space to create a vibrant, active collaborative learning community, and we’ll respond quickly to problems or suggestions; and your job is to fill in the vibrancy, the activity, and the collaboration. Which is exactly what’s happening in the SMC site for two of Dan Hickey’s classes in the Learning Sciences program at Indiana University. (Alert readers may remember that this is the program I’ll be joining as a doctoral student in the fall.) What’s neat about this space is that even though the classes are held in a physical learning environment exactly 1008 miles from my house, I get to participate in discussion about the readings, join in on collaborative activities (like working together to build a pathetically measly Wikipedia entry describing the field of Learning Sciences), and–if I write something especially awesome, get included in class discussions even though I’m not actually present. To quote Eddie Murphy, What a bargain!


A map depicting the shortest route from my house to Indiana University

In making the graduate-school decision, I recently talked with a third-year doctoral student at a school other than IU. She told me that she recently got into an argument with a professor and challenged a key idea he presented about education.

“…and I realized,” she said, “that I’m starting to feel like I can engage with professors, like I know enough now to challenge them.”

Maybe I’m just too mouthy for my own good, but though I haven’t officially begun doctoral work yet, I’ve been challenging–engaging with, asking questions of, pushing back on ideas of–professors on SMC for the last year. What I didn’t realize until talking to this student is that my experience is not common.

And this is what’s neatest about Social Media Classroom: It’s a space for thinking about how participatory culture and social media can change how we think about expertise, knowledge, and community. It’s no longer that a handful of experts can, should, or do hold expertise in their head and dole it out as they see fit; in a participatory culture, knowledge is distributed across media environments and can be accessed by people who buy into the promise, tool, and bargain of those social spaces.

It’s working, so far. So far, it’s working. And it’s why my crew (Dan Hickey, IU doctoral student Michelle Honeyford, ELA teacher Rebecca Rupert) and I are planning to work inside of this platform in the service of exploring Spreadable Educational Practices. Keep an eye on this space for updates on our work on SEPs, that most awesome of projects.

[Update: as proof of concept, Sam Rose responded to my request to add a “search” feature within minutes of my publishing this blog. The beginning of his response:”Thanks Jenna!! FYI, there is a search feature up at the top if the site (over to the right) :-)”]

Posted in academia, awesome, blogging, Clay Shirky, Dan Hickey, distributed cognition, education, Howard Rheingold, open education, open source, participatory culture, Ph.D., social media, spreadability | 4 Comments »

POW! POW! POW! It’s official: I’m a Hoosier

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 26, 2009

I’ve just received official confirmation from Indiana University’s Learning Sciences Program that I have been accepted into the doctoral program beginning Fall 2009. Among other things, the letter indicates that:

For next year, you will be working with Dr. Daniel Hickey as a research assistant. You will probably be hearing from Dr. Hickey. Feel free, however, to contact him before you come to IU to learn more about the exciting research opportunities.

I wonder who this Dr. Hickey character is. I hope he’s okay to work with. And I do hope he contacts me soon. I have some questions about the field research we’ve been working on together for the last year and the blogposts we’ve been drafting together for the last month.

addendum:
Here’s how it feels to be me right now. I’m the kitten, in case you were wondering. Dan, that means you’re the bloodhound.

#99000

Posted in academia, academics, awesome, blogging, Dan Hickey, education, graduate school, joy, Ph.D., teaching | 8 Comments »

why the Hewlett Foundation should toss some cash on over

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 25, 2009

A Modest Proposal: integrating Spreadable Educational Practices into Hewlett’s Open Educational Resources Initiative

Because of my interest in spreadable educational practices and in the open source movement, I’ve been drawn lately to the work of the Hewlett Foundation’s Open Educational Resource (OER) Initiative. The goal of this initiative is, as Hewlett puts it, “making high quality educational content and tools freely available on the Web.”

(Now you’re going to ask me why a foundation whose money is linked to Hewlett Packard, the largest technology company in the world, would fund an initiative that seems to run counter to its profit motives. Apparently, the Hewlett Foundation, though originally established by HP co-founder William Hewlett, is run completely independent of the company–which may explain why so much of its money goes to so many amazing projects.)

The Hewlett Foundation has invested a good deal of its resources into the OER initiative, funding research into three distinct categories of OER resources (these categories come from the OER movement in general, and not from Hewlett’s website, though they do apply to OER grantees):

  • Learning content: full courses, course materials, content modules, learning objects, collections, and journals.
  • Tools: Software to support the creation, delivery, use and improvement of open learning content including searching and organization of content, content and learning management systems, content development tools, and on-line learning communities.
  • Implementation resources: Intellectual property licenses to promote open publishing of materials, design-principles, and localization of content.

A 2007 report, “A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement” (Atkins, Daniel E.; Brown, John Seely; & Hammond, Allen L.), discusses multiple resources made available through the OER Initiative and presents a logic model for the initiative itself:

The report identifies key projects that have emerged out of Hewlett’s OER Initiative, including MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, the Connexions Project at Rice University, open content work at Utah State University Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, and Creative Commons and Internet Archives.

Significantly, while these and other resources discussed in the report point to a great deal of enthusiasm for the OER movement (which, by the way, extends far beyond the funding of this single initiative), the authors also point to challenges to the movement. Aaaand here those challenges are:

  • Sustainability
  • Curation and Preservation of Access
  • Object Granularity and Format Diversity
  • Intellectual Property Issues
  • Content Quality Assessment and Enhancement
  • Computing and Communication Infrastructure
  • Scale-up and Deepening Impact in Developing Countries

At the moment, I’m most interested in the first challenge, sustainability. As the report explains,

A challenge of any fixed-term, externally funded initiative is long-term sustainability by an entity other than the original investor, in this case the Hewlett Foundation. In the MIT project, bringing a course to the OCW costs approximately $25,000 per course plus maintenance and enhancement. The MIT OCW model involves professional staff taking course material in almost any form from faculty and bringing it into a uniform, professional format. This was appropriate for the rapid startup of a large-scale, pioneering project but it will not work for many other places.

May I suggest…a consideration of spreadable educational practices? While it’s true that the above challenges are significant, they are not insurmountable–insofar as the work of open education focuses on fostering and helping to spread effective educational practices instead of disseminating effective instructional routines. MIT’s OCW and the other Hewlett programs work from an assumption that porting, curating, and maintaining instructional materials to a central online resource is valuable. And don’t get me wrong, it IS valuable. It’s also quite expensive and, by the way, only partially hooked in to the general ethos of the open source movement. As I explained in a previous post, open source culture

is the creative practice of appropriation and free sharing of found and created content. Examples include collage, found footage film, music, and appropriation art. Open source culture is one in which fixations, works entitled to copyright protection, are made generally available. Participants in the culture can modify those products and redistribute them back into the community or other organizations.

Hewlett’s work links up with the “free sharing” and “general availability of copyrighted materials” aspects, but so far it seems to be missing the link to the spirit of open source: the free, voluntary, and creative exchange of ideas and work for the purpose of helping the community. While the resources funded by Hewlett are a valuable–perhaps even essential–beginning to the work of the open education movement, the resources matter only to the extent that the practices contained within these resources can spread.

It does appear that Hewlett is headed in this direction with its current emphasis on research and development of open participatory learning environments and on teacher training. As the OER Initiative homepage argues,

The ability of users and experts to give feedback online and modify open content enables the rapid improvement, development, and adaptation of material to fit different purposes, languages, and cultures. This aspect of openness helps equalize access to high-quality and useful materials and engages users in making content changes that create efficiencies and reduce costs. Further, when students and teachers transform materials, this itself is a creative, powerful act of learning. Together, the two broad dimensions of openness give us opportunities to rethink traditional notions of where, when, and how people teach and learn, so that we can explore alternative paths to meet educational demand.

Agreed, agreed, agreed.

Posted in collective intelligence, Dan Hickey, education, graduate school, intellectual property, MIT, new media, open education, open source, participatory culture, spreadability, teaching | 1 Comment »