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 ‘Ph.D.’ Category

on conceptual models, native competence, and (not) learning to play rugby

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 5, 2010

I had the deeply unsettling experience recently of feeling like the stupidest person in the room. This type of experience is (both fortunately and unfortunately) fairly rare for the typical educational researcher, though it’s far more common for members of the learning communities researchers study. For this reason, I believe it’s incredibly important for researchers to examine the contexts that make them feel stupid, if only so they can better understand the groups they’re studying.

The context was a graduate-level class. I’m one of just under a dozen students; the class, “Computational Technologies in Educational Ecosystems,” draws students from my university’s school of education and from the Informatics Department. A key assignment in the course is design, reflection on, and revision of a model that represents our take on the role of technologies in learning environments.

I have previously noted my despair over my apparent inability to complete this assignment in a meaningful way. The most progress I’ve been able to make was in presenting an unfinished model that draws the vaguest possible connection between humans and technology:

Then in class this week we spent a large chunk of time working with a representation developed by the instructor, the fanTASTIC Joshua Danish. His representation, which is also available on his website, is intended to point to key features of the week’s readings on cognitive tutors, Teachable Agents, and computer-aided instruction. Here’s the representation:

This representation literally carries no meaning for me. I mean, I get the basic idea behind it, but only because I did the assigned reading and get the basic themes and goals of computer-aided instruction. I get that research in this area focuses on domain-oriented issues, learning theories, and the role of these tools in classroom environments; but I do not understand how the above representation articulates this focus.

Yet I sat there in class and listened to my classmates interpreting the representation. They understood it; they could ‘read’ it; they could point to areas of weakness and suggest corrections to improve it.

The experience reminded me of the time I tried to learn rugby by joining an intramural team. After 20 minutes of basic instruction, we all got thrown into a game and the first time I got the ball, I apparently did something wrong and the team captain tackled me hard, hollering at me as she pulled me down. I never did find out what I’d done wrong. And actually, I didn’t much care. That was the last time I tried rugby.

Of course, Joshua’s never tackled anybody. He’s a fantastic teacher–one of the best I’ve ever had–who’s deeply invested in fostering an authentic learning community and supporting his students in their growth. But I sat there, watching my classmates speak a language I didn’t understand, getting more and more frustrated, and I absolutely felt like walking right off the field and never coming back.

At least two important lessons are nested in this experience, and one is linked to the other.


1. There are kids who feel this way all the time, every day. It’s easy for educational researchers to forget this point, mainly because most (though certainly not all) of us have experienced raging success in our own educational experiences. We got A’s in everything. Or we found a niche within a certain content area and pursued it with a fair amount of success. Or we figured out how to game the system, so that even if we didn’t get A’s in everything, we still felt somehow smarter than everyone else. Or if we had bad experiences with school early on, we still came to think of ourselves as smart, or at least smart enough to deserve advanced study in education.

So maybe we know in theory that schools are stacked against some kids, that the entire education system is designed on the premise that some kids will always be labeled the failures, the losers, the learning disabled, the stupid. (If it weren’t for the stupid kids, after all, how would we know what an A student is worth?) We know in theory that some kids feel frustrated and lost in school, and that some kids end up feeling like it’s hopeless to even bother trying.

But the fact is that we don’t know how it feels in practice. We can’t know how it feels. And we should never be allowed to forget this.

Even as I was feeling like the stupidest person in the room, I also felt an absolute certainty that this wasn’t my fault. Here, too, my experience diverges from that of many learners in the classrooms we study. I knew that my experience was neither right, nor fair, nor my fault; because of this, I knew to curb my strong initial impulse, which was to throw things, to disrupt the class, to walk out and never return. Instead of following my gut, I saved up all that frustration and spent it on a short burst of research. Which is how I got to my second point:


2. Modeling ability is a disposition, one that is (or is not) cultivated through sustained educational focus. Andrea diSessa calls this disposition “metarepresentational competence”; by this, he means a learner’s ability to:

  • Invent or design new representations.
  • Critique and compare the adequacy of representations and judge their suitability for various tasks.
  • Understand the purposes of representations generally and in particular contexts and understand how representations do the work they do for us.
  • Explain representations (i.e., the ability to articulate their competence with the preceding items).
  • Learn new representations quickly and with minimal instruction.

As Richard Lehrer and Leona Schauble point out, model-based reasoning is not only essential to the established practices within many varied domains, but it’s also a set of proficiencies that can and must be cultivated through focused instruction. In offering their own discussion of metarepresentational competence, they write:

Modeling is much more likely to take root and flourish in students who are building on a history of pressing toward meta-representational competence (diSessa, 2004). Developing, revising, and manipulating representations and inscriptions to figure things out, explain, or persuade others are key to modeling but are not typically nurtured in schooling. Instead, students are often taught conventional representational devices as stand-alone topics at a prescribed point in the curriculum, and may be given little or no sense of the kind of problems that these conventions were invented to address. For example, students might be taught in a formulaic manner how to construct pie graphs, but with no problem or question at hand to motivate the utility of that design over any other, students are unlikely to consider the communicational or persuasive trade-offs of that or any alternative representational form.

Though modeling has its application in most, if not all, content areas, it’s typically emphasized in science and math classes and de-emphasized or ignored in the social sciences and reading and writing instruction. At best, students are told to make a timeline to represent the events of the Civil War (without being shown the affordances and constraints of this sort of representation); or they’re required to make a diorama (or, now, a digital version of a diorama) to prove they understand a key scene in a literary text.

Representations don’t always take the shape of graphs or pictures; in fact, we might say that a musical score or a piece of descriptive writing is a representation in its own right. But as Lehrer and Shauble point out, a thing is only a model insofar as it is treated as such. “One might suggest,” they write, “that a pendulum is a model system for periodic motion. Yet, for most, the pendulum simply swings back and forth and does not stand in for anything other than itself.”

Some disciplines, in fact, actively resist the notion of representation, of language as representational. In a previous iteration, I was a poet and even spent several years’ worth of sustained study in an undergraduate, then a graduate, creative writing program. In the MFA program especially, I was immersed in a sustained discipline-wide effort to divorce language from its representative nature. There was an effort to fight against narrative, against what many writer-types believed was “easy” poetry. This is, as poets are wont to remind us, the basis of Postmodernism.

Though I’m in a Learning Sciences graduate program, I am by no means a scientist, at least in the more general sense of the term. This is even more true if we think of modeling as a key element of scientific practice. For multiple reasons, I do not have what diSessa calls “native competence,” which he explains is a proficiency that develops over time both in and out of school. I could point, for example, to the shame I felt in 6th grade when I was required to build a model of the solar system using styrofoam and coat hangers; my final product, the absolute best work I could have done, was pitiful and humiliating. I remember thinking: everyone else can do this; what’s wrong with me?

Now I know it’s not a problem with me but with a system of schooling, which helps me direct my rage outward but still doesn’t really solve the problem of how I’ll ever build a goddam model that makes any sort of sense to anybody at all.

In case you’re interested in reading the work I reference above, here are the citations:

diSessa, A. A. (2004). Metarepresentation: Native competence and targets for instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 22, 293-331.
Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2006). Cultivating Model-Based Reasoning in Science Education. In R. Keith Sawyer (ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Posted in academia, conspiracy theories, graduate school, Joshua Danish, learning sciences, Ph.D. | Leave a Comment »

some stuff I like

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 14, 2009

Lest I open myself up to accusations of being that kind of graduate student (or, for that matter, this kind of graduate student), I want to point out that I don’t hate everything, despite evidence to the contrary. Below, in no particular order, is a list of five awesome things that I’ve encountered so far as a graduate student at Indiana University.

1. The opening page of Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America. Open up to the preface of this excellent new text by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson, and you read this epigram:

I have not even intended to judge whether this social revolution, which I believe to be irresistible, is advantageous of disastrous for mankind. I have acknowledged that this revolution is already accomplished or about to be so and I have chosen among those people who have experienced its effects the one in which its development has been the most comprehensive and peaceful, in order that I may make out clearly its natural consequences and the means of turning it to men’s advantage. I confess that in America I have seen more than America itself; I have looked there for an image of the essence of democracy, its limitations, its personality, its prejudices its passions; my wish has been to know it if only to realize at least what we have to fear or hope from it. (de Tocqueville, pp. 23-24)

The alignment with de Tocqueville, the great chronicler of democracy in early America, is significant. The drive of the Collins & Halverson text, as with many new texts focusing on the social revolution, is to identify and describe, without making a judgment of value gained or lost, a fundamental shift in the large-scale and day-to-day operations of a culture. The authors hope to observe and describe, not to judge, and if Collins and Halverson tend at times to follow de Tocqueville’s lead in revealing their underlying attitudes toward this revolution (about which more later), the effort to approach the ongoing cultural shift toward participatory practices and cultures is valuable and necessary.

2. Early September in south central Indiana. Here in Bloomington, it’s been 72 degrees and sunny for about a million days in a row, and at night the church clock’s quarter-hour chimes slide through my open window. If I could only get my neighbors to close up their beer-pong table on Saturday nights, I’d be able to listen to the chimes and the crickets all weekend long.

3. Seymour Papert. I liked him already for explaining back in 1984 that he believed the computer would blow up the school, but now I’m grooving on him for his foundational work on constructionism. In attempting to define this movement, he explains the challenges of describing someyhing that is based on the premise of learning-through-making:

[I]t would be particularly oxymoronic to convey the idea of constructionism through a definition since, after all, constructionism boils down to demanding that everything be understood by being constructed. The joke is relevant to the problem, for the more we share the less improbable it is that our self-constructed constructions should converge. And I have learned to take as a sign of relevantly common intellectual culture and preferences the penchant for playing with self-referentially recursive situations: the snake eating its tail, the man hoisting himself by his own bootstraps, and the liar contradicting himself by saying he’s a liar. Experience shows that people who relate to that kind of thing often play in similar ways. And in some domains those who play alike think alike. Those who like to play with images of structures emerging from their own chaos, lifting themselves by their own bootstraps, are very likely predisposed to constructionism.

Because the work of educational research is often grim, sometimes excruciatingly so, Papert’s sense of play and delight in his work is not only refreshing but very deeply necessary.

4. Week 7 of Kylie Peppler’s class, Learning in New Media.
The readings for that week look like this:


Literacies as Multiple and Situated

Scribner, S., & Cole, M. (1981/1988). Unpackaging Literacy. In E.R. Kingten, B. Kroll, and M. Rose (Eds.) Perspectives on literacy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 57-70.
Scribner, S. (1984). Literacy in Three Metaphors. American Journal of Education 93, 6-21.

The New Literacy Studies
Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2003). New Literacies: Changing Knowledge and Classroom Learning. Berkshire, England: Open University Press, 3-49.
The New London Group (1996). A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1).

Multimodal Literacy
Kress, G. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. New York: Routledge, 35-60.

For me, one of the most fantastic features of graduate school has been its promise to help me situate the various, undisciplined readings I’ve gathered up into respective schools of thought: to sort my knowledge, fill in the blanks, and build a backbone into my education.

5. The yellowjacket nest just outside my bedroom window. jk jk jk I actually hate the yellowjacket nest just outside my bedroom window. If they don’t cut it out, I’m going to smack those yellowjackets down on my blog and with this can of Raid I have sitting right here.

Posted in academia, awesome, graduate school, joy, Ph.D. | 1 Comment »

what is learning (in new media)?

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 9, 2009

Alert blogtrollers may have seen multiple posts recently with titles identical to the one accompanying this post–that’s because we’ve been asked by learning scientist and new media researcher Kylie Peppler to address this very concern. The question–what is learning in new media?–is too broad for anyone to address within the context of a single blogpost, but if we all set to work, we might get that turkey stripped down to its bones by the end of the night.

My chunk of the turkey is time.

When I joined Twitter, I lurked for months and months without tweeting a thing. When I finally did join the community as a good, earnest citizen, I started out slowly and picked up speed as I learned to negotiate the community’s norms and embrace the valued practices of the space. Now, a year and a half later, I can communicate fairly clearly the spoken and tacit norms of the Twitterspace.

I did the same thing with Facebook, Wikipedia, and blogging–looking around for months before joining the community. By doing so, by taking the time to consider the space I was entering, I was able to reflect on others’ practices before offering up my own. I read thousands of blogs before starting my own. I worked with friends to learn how to edit Wikipedia. And I was coerced by another friend to join Facebook; the rest was up to me.

I recently spent some time working with Scratch, a simple visual programming language designed for young learners. As the site explains,

Scratch is designed to help young people (ages 8 and up) develop 21st century learning skills. As they create and share Scratch projects, young people learn important mathematical and computational ideas, while also learning to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively.

I’ve designed exactly two projects in Scratch; the first was about a year ago, when a colleague spent the morning helping me work up a little thing I call Jimmy Eats World.

To play this project, click the green flag in the upper right.

I’m annoyed with myself that I didn’t make the flying hippo actually disappear at the end of the project, and if I wanted to I could open up the program and make it so. Or I could turn the main sprite, the walking cat, into a hammerhead shark announcing my blog’s url.

I could do that if I wanted to, because I am a highly resourceful independent learner who has the passion and the time to devote to projects like this. I find them personally and epistemologically meaningful–I feel enriched, and I feel that the time I devote to these kinds of projects makes me a better, more useful and proficient blogger and educational researcher.

Time, the friend of the highly resourceful learner, is the enemy of teaching. Time: There’s never enough and even if there were, it couldn’t be spent on tinkering. There’s content to cover, and not just in the name of high stakes tests. A teacher’s job–one made ever more challenging by the social revolution–is to equip learners with the knowledge, proficiencies, and dispositions that will suit them well for future learning. There comes a time when the teacher must say, It’s time to stop with Scratch and start on something else.

Which is a deep shame, because it’s the tinkering, the ability to immerse oneself in participatory media or a learning platform, that fosters a real fluency with the space.

This is a key feature of what it means to learn in new media: the choice to engage with certain tools, to join up with certain affinity spaces, beyond the time required by schools. Clay Shirky writes that the days are gone when we could expect to do things only for money; we’re in an era when the greatest innovations emerge not for money but for love.

If learning in new media takes time, passion, and some combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, then on its surface school seems to run anathema to a new media education. In fact, it may be that engagement with participatory practices is exactly what schools need at a time when they are struggling to remain relevant to the real world needs, experiences, and expertises into which learners will ultimately emerge.

Posted in academia, academics, blogging, Clay Shirky, creativity, education, Facebook, graduate school, MIT, new media, Ph.D., schools, shark attack, social revolution | 10 Comments »

how to think like a good {fill in the blank}

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on August 21, 2009

“The message of Wikipedia,” writes Michael Wesch, “is not ‘trust authority’ but ‘explore authority.’ Authorized information is not beyond discussion on Wikipedia, information is authorized through discussion, and this discussion is available for the world to see and even participate in.”

This comes from Wesch’s January 2009 Academic Commons article, “From Knowledgable to Knowledge-able: Learning in New Media Environments.” The piece is part of an issue dedicated to exactly this problem: How do we teach and learn in a cultural moment where even the very definition of “knowledge,” “teaching,” and “learning,” and even of “information” is being called into question?

Wesch focuses in on the brick-and-mortar university, arguing that despite growing recognition among higher-ed faculty and administration that university teaching and learning desperately needs to shift away from its authoritarian roots, a series of physical, social, and cognitive structures stymie this effort at nearly every turn. The physical deterrents are, Wesch argues, the easiest to recognize, and they

are on prominent display in any large “state of the art” classroom. Rows of fixed chairs often face a stage or podium housing a computer from which the professor controls at least 786,432 points of light on a massive screen. Stadium seating, sound-absorbing panels and other acoustic technologies are designed to draw maximum attention to the professor at the front of the room. The “message” of this environment is that to learn is to acquire information, that information is scarce and hard to find (that’s why you have to come to this room to get it), that you should trust authority for good information, and that good information is beyond discussion (that’s why the chairs don’t move or turn toward one another). In short, it tells students to trust authority and follow along.

This is a message that very few faculty could agree with, and in fact some may use the room to launch spirited attacks against it. But the content of such talks are overshadowed by the ongoing hour-to-hour and day-to-day practice of sitting and listening to authority for information and then regurgitating that information on exams.

These are a key feature of the social structures that work against change in higher education: The ongoing pressure to standardize curriculum and use (easily quantified) standardized assessments for accountability purposes. Wesch writes:

When I speak frankly with professors all over the world, I find that, like me, they often find themselves jury-rigging old assessment tools to serve the new needs brought into focus by a world of infinite information. Content is no longer king, but many of our tools have been habitually used to measure content recall. For example, I have often found myself writing content-based multiple-choice questions in a way that I hope will indicate that the student has mastered a new subjectivity or perspective. Of course, the results are not satisfactory. More importantly, these questions ask students to waste great amounts of mental energy memorizing content instead of exercising a new perspective in the pursuit of real and relevant questions.

This is, perhaps, one of the most significant dangers inherent in re-mediating assessment: The risk of re-mediating the wrong aspects of current assessment strategies. Rewriting a multiple-choice test is surely not the answer, but it’s often, and understandably, what innovative and new media-friendly educators do. The results of this effort may not be satisfactory, after all, but they’re better than nothing. And short of overhauling an entire course, it’s often a useful stopgap measure.

And what of overhauling an entire course? Wesch, recognizing that “our courses have to be about something,” argues for a shift away from “subjects” (English, History, Science) and toward “subjectivities”–ways of approaching and thinking about content. One simple way of thinking about this shift is by thinking about the difference between learning the steps of the scientific method and developing the mindsets embraced by a profession that embraces the scientific method as a useful approach to experimentation.

The “subjectivities” approach is, in fact, the favored approach of many graduate programs. My sister, who is beginning law school this fall, is immersed in a cognitive apprenticeship designed to make her think, act, and speak like a lawyer. As a new doctoral student in Indiana University’s Learning Sciences program, I’m undertaking the same apprenticeship. A series of courses, including IU’s Professional Seminar in the Learning Sciences and Theory and Method in the Learning Sciences, are intended to equip new grad students with the Learning Sciences mindset.

This approaches, however, gives rise to a key question: If the “subjectivities” approach is intended to is intended to help learners think, act, and speak like a {fill in the blank}, then who decides how a {fill in the blank} is supposed to think, act, and speak?

Jim Gee offers a fascinating critique of “learning to think like a lawyer” in his book Social Linguistics and Literacies. He argues that success in law school is slanted toward people who think, act, and speak like white, middle-class men, explaining that:

[t]o write a competent brief the student has to be able to read the text being briefed in much the same way as the professor does…. Students are not taught these reading skills—the ones necessary to be able to write briefs—directly. Briefs are not, for instance, turned in to the professor; they are written for the students’ own use in class…. One of the basic assumptions of law school is that if students are not told overtly what to do and how to proceed, this will spur them on essentially to teach themselves. Minnis argues that this assumption does not, however, work equally well for everyone. Many students from minority or otherwise non-mainstream backgrounds fail in law school.

(A female friend who recently completed law school agrees with this argument, and struggled mightily with the inequities inherent in her program and inside the field of law in general. I’ve written about her experience here.)

This issue is certainly not limited to law school; it’s a thorny problem in every program designed to help students think like a {fill in the blank.} I understand that this is an issue that IU’s Learning Sciences program has grappled with recently, and I imagine this is the reason that the Professional Seminar in the Learning Sciences, previously a required course, has now been made optional.

What do I know, right? I haven’t even started my first semester in the program yet. But it seems to me that if this issue is worth grappling with (and I believe it is), it’s worth grappling with alongside of the program’s apprentices. I’m for making the course mandatory and then using it to expose, discuss, and clarify the very issues that led to the faculty’s decision.

Here we can take a page out of the Wikipedia lesson book. There’s no point in simply trusting authority when the social revolution supports not just questioning, not just opposing, but actually exploring authority. After all, thinking like a good {Learning Scientist} is about much more than embracing a set of approaches to teaching, learning, and knowledge; it’s also about questioning, contesting and exploring the very foundation of the field itself.

Posted in academia, assessment, conspiracy theories, graduate school, Jim Gee, pedagogy, Ph.D., social revolution | 1 Comment »

on picking a dissertation topic

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 10, 2009

I remember learning about the higher education credentialing system for the first time from my mom. I was pretty young–maybe five or six–and she was trying to explain what the phrases “bachelor’s degree” and “master’s degree” meant.

…and if they’re really smart, she added, some people even become doctors.

“But to get their doctorate, they have to write a paper that’s about something that nobody’s ever written about.”

I wondered: How do they know that they have a topic that nobody’s ever written about?

Her answer: “There’s a book with the titles of all the dissertations ever written. When it’s time to pick a paper topic, they look through the book to make sure they have a title that nobody’s ever used before.”

I remember thinking at that time how boring and time-consuming it would be to have to read every single title of every paper ever written. Now I think, if only it were that easy.

I do hope they’re working on putting that book online, and that it gets uploaded in time for my dissertation proposal. I’d hate to have to walk into an actual library–they smell funny and the graphics aren’t that good.

Posted in academia, academics, graduate school, Ph.D. | 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 »

sadhappy, anxiouscalm: on career transitions

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 1, 2009

Today is the first day of my last month at my day job. For almost two years, I’ve been a team member of Project New Media Literacies, an educational research project based at MIT. It would be a lie for me to say that every minute was exciting, fun, and exhilarating; anyone who’s done this kind of work knows that it’s often exhausting, frustrating, and stressful.

That’s because to do educational research well, you have to care, and you have to care deeply. And this means facing some difficult realities: That the institution of education is deeply flawed in some important and fundamental ways; that educational innovations are often stymied by policy issues and bureaucratic red tape; that most of the time, educational research–even at its most valuable–has a minimal impact on education as a whole.

My work at NML has focused largely on the formal classroom setting, the educational environment that–because of its compulsory nature–offers the greatest opportunity for closing the participation gap that limit some learners’ ability to engage with participatory culture in a meaningful way. I’ve had the chance to talk with some of the most amazing, dedicated teachers I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet, and I’ve gotten to sit in on some of their classes. I’ve seen the everyday miracles they pull off, often thanklessly, without acknowledgement from students, parents, or administrators. Some of these teachers have explained to me what they’d like to do, if they didn’t have to deal with state-mandated standardized tests and the policies and curricula intended to boost student scores on these tests. I’ve heard teachers explain which ideals they’ve had to give up on, how they’ve become more cynical or realistic about the impact they can have.

So we’re back to burnout, exhaustion, and stress: This is the story of the educator who cares.

I leave NML equipped with a more complete understanding of the complexities and challenges of working in education. I leave knowing I did my best work but wishing I could have done more. I leave more confident in my own abilities but less confident in the possibility for real, lasting transformation of formal learning environments.

And yet I leave NML to begin doctoral study in education.

Despite, or maybe because of, my frustration, I have come to believe that schools are the most important institution America has for working toward social justice. This is where the participation gap is most obvious; this is where class biases–and the racism, sexism, and accompanying approaches to teaching and learning–are simultaneously most apparent and most insidious, and therefore most essential to confront.

I’ve been writing obsessively here at sleeping alone and starting out early about what I’ve started calling the social revolution. By this term I mean to suggest that we are immersed in fundamental changes to our society that are so rapid, so deep, and so transformative that we can’t yet even say exactly what this revolution will yield; but we know that a new social order is emerging out of the emergent tools, technologies, and practices of a participatory culture.

In fact, as one of my colleagues pointed out, even NML has trouble defining “participatory culture.” He argues that while we have little trouble explaining what participatory culture allows for, we struggle to explain what it actually is.

He may be right on this, and he may be wrong. It is true, however, that we don’t yet know what valued social structures, practices, and dispositions will emerge out of the participatory practices enabled by new media. In fact, it may be that one of the features of a truly participatory culture is a constant destabilization–perpetual overthrow–of dominant values, mindsets, and skillsets. Christopher Kelty calls this a “constantly ‘self-leveling’ level playing field.” Wouldn’t that be scary and at the same time so very neat?

This is the struggle of our society, and one that John Dewey pointed to back at the end of the 19th century, when he proposed development of a laboratory school where educators could try out new approaches to teaching and learning. In setting forth a series of arguments about new ways to think about knowing and cognition, he conceded that

[i]t is… comparatively easy to lay down general propositions like the foregoing; easy to use them to criticize existing school conditions; easy by means of them to urge the necessity of something different. But art is long. The difficulty is in carrying such conceptions into effect—in seeing just what materials and methods, in what proportion and arrangement, are available and helpful at a given time…. There is no answer in advance to such questions as these. Tradition does not give it because tradition is founded upon a radically different psychology. Mere reasoning cannot give it because it is a question of fact. It is only by trying that such things can be found out. To refuse to try, to stick blindly to tradition, because the search for the truth involves experimentation in the region of the unknown, is to refuse the only step which can introduce rational conviction into education.

Beginning this fall, I’ll be a graduate student in the Learning Sciences program at Indiana University. The transition makes me simultaneously sad and happy, anxious and calm. Bring it on, says hegemony. I can take you.

It’s already been broughten, says revolutionist cat, playing hegemony off.

Posted in academia, assessment, education, graduate school, Henry Jenkins, Ph.D., Project New Media Literacies, public schools, schools, social justice, social revolution, teaching | 3 Comments »

What would a fireside moonbat do?

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 21, 2009

I just caught the last several minutes (I was going to say “the tail end” and thought better of it) of the 2008 film “Zombie Strippers!” starring Jenna Jameson and Robert Englund. If you haven’t figured out the plot yet, then there’s no point explaining it to you. I only want to focus on a scene late in the movie where the Army commandos have shot the heads off of the zombie strippers and walk into a room where two people are clutching each other in the corner. It’s not clear to the commandos whether these guys are humans or zombie strippers, so one of the muscleheads walks up to the pair and says “Say something human–and it better be ontological.”

I’m officially claiming this quote as the motto of my reading group, the Fireside Moonbats.


Two key members of the Cambridge, Massachusetts,-based reading group, the Fireside Moonbats
You know how Art Garfunkel keeps a running list of every book he has read since the 1960’s? I think I may start doing that for the Moonbats, too–especially since, if our motto is public, our reading list should be as well. Below, I’ve included the beginnings of that list. I hope to continue to build this for anybody who wants to follow along.

The Fireside Moonbats Reading List: First Draft

Shirky,Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Penguin Press, 2008. Introduction and chapters 10 & 11.

Ito, Mizuko, Heather A. Horst, Matteo Bittanti, danah boyd, Becky Herr-Stephenson, Patricia G. Lange, C.J. Pascoe, and Laura Robinson (with Sonja Baumer, Rachel Cody, Dilan Mahendran, Katynka Martínez, Dan Perkel, Christo Sims, and Lisa Tripp.) Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning, November 2008.

Latour, Bruno. On Interobjectivity. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 3.4, 1996. Available at http://educ.ubc.ca/faculty/bryson/604/Latour.pdf.

Latour, Bruno. On Recalling ANT. Keynote speech for the Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, Nov. 30, 2003. Available at http://www.comp.lancs.ac.uk/sociology/papers/Latour-Recalling-ANT.pdf.

Barton, David, and Mary Hamilton. Literacy, reification and the dynamics of social interaction. David Barton and Karin Tusting (eds.) Beyond Communities Of Practice: Language, Power And Social Context. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Clarke, Julia. A new kind of symmetry: Actor–network theories and the new literacy studies. Studies in the Education of Adults Vol. 34, No.2, October 2002

Leander, Kevin M., and Deborah Wells Rowe. Mapping Literacy Spaces in Motion: A Rhizomatic Analysis of a Classroom Literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 2006), pp. 428-460

Francis, Russell. The Predicament of the Learner in the New Media Age (2009). Dissertation being prepared for publication.

Wertsch, James V. Mediation. The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky, Daniels, Harry, Michael Cole, & James V. Wertsch, Eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Nardi, Bonnie, Steve Whittaker, & Heinrich Schwarz. NetWORKERS and their Activity in Intensional Networks. Computer Supported Cooperative Work 11: 205–242, 2002.

Nardi, Bonnie A., Diane J. Schiano, Michelle Gumbrecht, and Luke Swartz. Why We Blog. December 2004/Vol. 47, No. 12 Communications of the ACM.

Nardi, Bonnie A., Stella Ly, & Justin Harris. Learning Conversations in World of Warcraft. Proceedings of the 40th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 2007.

Davydov, Vasily V., and Stephen T. Kerr. The Influence of L. S. Vygotsky on Education Theory, Research, and Practice. Educational Researcher, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Apr., 1995).

Edwards, Anne. Let’s get beyond community and practice: the many meanings of learning by participating. The Curriculum Journal Vol. 16, No. 1, March 2005, pp. 49 – 65

Engestrom, Yrjo. Knotworking to Create Collaborative Intentionality Capital in Fluid Organizational Fields. Collaborative Capital: Creating Intangible Value Advances in Interdisciplinary Studies of Work Teams, Volume 11, 307–336 (2005)

Gee, James Paul. A 21st Century Assessment Project for Situated and Sociocultural Approaches to Learning. Grant Proposal for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative.

Gee, James Paul. Human Action and Social Groups as the Natural Home of Assessment:Thoughts on 21st Century Learning and Assessment. Draft paper for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative.

This is just the beginning of the list, and I’m going to summon the Fireside Moonbats to help me build on it. Stay posted for an longer and more detailed list.

Posted in academia, academics, awesome, Clay Shirky, danah boyd, joy, MIT, Ph.D., zombies | 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 »