Getting Started with Selwyn’s “Distrusting Educational Technology”

Book Cover for Distrusting Educational Technology by Neil Selwyn (Routledge)
Book Cover for Distrusting Educational Technology by Neil Selwyn (Routledge)

This semester, I have shifted the focus for EDU 807 to begin immediately with more critical perspectives on educational technology. Over the past year, I have encountered the work of Neil Selwyn, and I am particularly interested in his 2014 book, Distrusting Educational Technology: Critical Questions for Changing Times. As a way to share some of my initial thinking on the book for my EDU 807 students, I plan to blog about it while we read together this semester.

As I initially read the ebook, I immediately appreciated his perspective. He argues in the fifth paragraph of the introduction that “[t]o put it in crude terms, educational technology could be observed to involve a hierarchy of actors and interests ranging from those who generally ‘do’ educational technology through to those who generally have educational technology ‘done’ to them”
(Selwyn, Distrusting Educational Technology. Routledge, 20131126, VitalBook file). From that opening attack, he reminded me of other authors willing to take on the education(al technology) establishment, including Joel Spring, Audrey Watters, and Stephen Downes. So, I was interested from the start.

I knew that I needed something different for my EDU 807 course (focusing on the broad goal of examining educational tools and technologies), and Selwyn’s book hit the mark, both in terms of topic and also because it lends itself well to jigsawing, as the middle chapters of the book take on four major issues: virtual, open, game, and social technologies. My students will choose one of those topics to dig into, creating a set of resources related to that issue. So, in preparation for that process, I will be blogging my way through my own re-reading of the book, and here are some initial thoughts on Selwyn’s approach.

From the Introduction: “Why Distrust Educational Technology?”

From the opening paragraph of the preface, Selwyn notes that he is “deliberately distrustful of the ongoing digitization of education provision and practice” and, in the next, notes the “gulf that persists between the rhetoric of how digital technologies could be used in education and the realities of how digital technologies are actually used in education” (emphasis in original, Selwyn, 20131126,  VitalBook file). Thus, from the get-go, Selwyn establishes his critical stance and deep concern about the ways in which our field typically describes and celebrates educational technology, inviting us to consider whether our expectations align with our reality. These are the kinds of questions that I appreciate most as a reader and scholar, so he had me hooked in these opening lines.

Before the end of the preface, he also describes the use of educational technologies as “a profoundly political affair — a site of constant conflict and struggle between different interests groups.” As someone deeply involved with and concerned about teacher education and professional development, these politics are ones that I find don’t get discussed enough. Though I am a strong advocate for resources that are inexpensive or, using the scare quotes intentionally, “free,” even before I got to Selwyn’s chapter on open source materials I began to think again about how I describe and use technologies in workshops and courses. Yes, I know that I have referred to some of them as “free,” and — if we’ve learned anything from the Facebook situation in the past two years — we know that nothing is ever without cost. Making these political aspects of ed tech use even more a part of my on-going dialogue with teachers and the doctoral students with whom I work is a distinct goal for reading Selwyn’s work.

As a final note from the Preface, I was compelled by Selwyn’s idea that “educational technology is not value-free but value-laden, and therefore something that can be trusted and distrusted, agreed and disagreed with. Second is the belief that the nature and form of educational technology are not predetermined and inevitable but negotiable” (emphasis in original, Selwyn, 20131126,  VitalBook file). The sad fact is that many educational technologies that exist are set out to solve specific problems (learning facts) with a pedagogical frame (usually a behaviorist or cognitivist one). While this is good to take the perspective that ed tech is mutable, I’m not so sure that this is the case with all ed tech. Yes, we could have teachers and students repurpose skill-and-drill software in creative ways, but that is different than starting with a tool designed specifically for creation rather than consumption.

All the same, Selwyn’s preface had already given me enough to chew on when I first encountered it that I knew this would be the new text for EDU 807. With class starting tomorrow, and our attention on Selwyn’s work coming in a few weeks, I will be writing more about the remaining chapters in the book over the next few days.

And, as one side note, I am finding it difficult to cite, specifically, where I found the information in the book. While I know that Kindle gives locations, the VitalBook file that I am reading does not. So, my apologies for not providing more direct citation info.


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Reading the Individual Newsletter

In the first post of this series, I outlined some of my general reading habits, and in the second, and third, I was thinking about some of the (semi) automated or organization newsletters that I get on a regular basis. Without bots or a whole team to help move things along, I am always interested in the ways that other educators put together their regular newsletters (as I think about if and how I might choose to create one of my own).

There are three that I receive — and read — regularly. Let’s look at each in turn:

Monica Burns’ Class Tech Tips

Snapshot of Class Tech Tips Blog
Snapshot of Class Tech Tips Blog

Monday afternoons at 3:45 EST, right at the end of the school day, Burns’ Class Tech Tips hits my inbox. In the top segment of the newsletter, she points directly back to her blog, and each of those posts are usually about a specific teaching strategy and/or tech tool. Concise and focused, she makes it clear when she is getting compensation for affiliate links, and promotes her own books. Still, she makes a point to send the reader toward freely available content, both on her blog as well as other education-related sites. To that end, I appreciate that she is both promoting her own work in a reasonable way, sharing openly-available resources, and still figuring out ways to monetize the blog.

More importantly, her voice speaks to the harried classroom teacher, though not in an immediate, “do this, get that” kind of instantaneous reward kind of way. For instance, one post on the use of Adobe Spark (and a subsequent webinar she offered for free) provides at least four different lesson ideas, all of which could be a one-day, one-time lesson or extended in useful ways. In short, her posts are timely and useful, and they help me see what is happening in the day-to-day conversations about educational technology.

Tom Liam Lynch’s Gradgrinds

Snapshot from a Recent Gradgrinds Blog Post
Snapshot from a Recent Gradgrinds Blog

A longtime friend and colleague through NCTE, Lynch’s writing has always fun to read and provided me with critical insights on the role of technology in education, specifically in ELA. Every Tuesday morning at 7:00, Lynch shares his latest thinking on recent articles and updates on projects. I appreciate that he offers these quick takes, and his headlines and taglines usually capture the gist of things. For instance, in “Is TV to Blame for Older People—Not Youth—Falling for Fake News? A Study Suggests Yes” he points to an article in the Atlantic and cites a Pew report. Good stuff, delivered in an intellectually humorous manner (coupled with a screenshot from the Simpsons).

In fact, it is interesting to me to see what, if anything, Lynch reports on that I may have seen earlier in Downes’ daily updates. If both of them are talking about it, and I hadn’t read it yet, I will be sure to go back and open the link. Many posts are a “less than a minute” read, yet in that short space Lynch points to other resources and usually leaves me with a more substantive idea to ponder or question to ask. While there are a few too many “Share Gradgrind’s with a friend or colleague” notes peppered throughout the newsletter, I understand that could be just a part of the normal template he uses. He, too, notes that he uses affiliate links.

Doug Belshaw’s Thought Shrapnel

Snapshot of Thought Shrapnel Newsletter
Snapshot of Thought Shrapnel Newsletter

Though I have only met Belshaw briefly at an LRA event, I do appreciate his perspectives on digital literacy and, of course, through his regular Thought Shrapnel newsletter. As another educator and scholar who uses MailChimp, it makes me wonder if that might be a good option for me to explore next. Also, in a trend I am seeing many other places, Belshaw makes a clear call to “become a patron” through Patreon. Hitting the inbox at 1:30 AM EST on Sunday mornings, I can expect to see some insights from Belshaw each weekend, though he has taken a break during December.

In terms of the content, Belshaw’s commentaries are normally longer, sometimes quite a few paragraphs with embedded quotes and hyperlinks. These, from what I can tell, are not a verbatim repeat of what appears on his website, so it is good to see that the content here is different from what I would see in an RSS feed or daily aggregated newsletter of some kind or another. Also, I appreciate the insights that he offers and new directions in which he points my reading. Like Lynch, I may see a link from Belshaw that was earlier reported by Downes, and it makes me want to ensure that I have my browser ready for more tabs.

For each of these newsletters, I would like to say that I devote as much time to reading them as the authors who composed them put into the writing process. However, I know that this simply isn’t the case, even when I am able to devote time to reading through a full issue of any one of them. Still, as I have tried to note throughout this series, I appreciate what these colleagues offer and, though I am not quite at the point where I am willing to click through on sponsored posts and affiliate links (see my own policy on this), though I do begin to wonder if I should. I pay the professional journalists for their expertise… so, shouldn’t I pay my colleagues for their expertise? I am still struggling with this.

At any rate, this dip into my daily digital reading habits has been helpful for me as I think about how I triage my inbox, make use of other news sources, and reconsider how I might set up my RSS feeds again in the new year. For this next week, I will be shifting my focus away from reading all the daily news and, instead, into a book that I will be using with my EDU 807 students this semester, Neil Selwyn‘s Distrusting Educational Technology: Critical Questions for Changing Times.


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Reading the Organizational Newsletter

As noted in the first post in this series, I’m trying to unpack some of my daily digital reading habits. In addition to the (semi) automated daily newsletter that comes from social media updates, there are also a regular stream (sometimes a flood) of newsletters that come from various groups.

I generally categorize and read these types of newsletters in two ways: “headline” style updates from aggregation sites like EdSurge News (agree to have them use/sell my data based on the privacy policy) and SmartBrief (agree to have them use/sell my data based on the privacy policy). Then, there are specific, often thematic issues from groups  the Connected Learning Alliance (donation), Common Sense Media (donation), NCTE’s Inbox (professional membership), ILA Daily Blog (professional membership), and Edutopia (donation). More recently, I have subscribed to Chalkbeat (donation), too.

With the daily headline-style of newsletter (EdSurge and SmartBrief, in particular), I generally skim and may pick one or two pieces to delve into more deeply. The good news for these types of newsletters is that, with my “normal” news consumption of NPR (donation) and the New York Times (subscription), many of the links go back to these sources and I have already read/heard them anyway. These aggregators do send me out to other sites, including their own, to see a bit more of the education-related news of the day. From these sources, I’ve also been pushed out to Slate’s education reporting a few times, and I am thinking about subscribing there, too.

One that I appreciate, generally focused on Michigan, but touches on national news, too, is Robert McClain’s Student&Educator newsletter. He used to request a subscription fee (which I paid for at least a year), but it appears as though it is now free (as I haven’t re-upped my subscription in quite some time). I am not even sure how I ever got signed up for this one (no easy way to do it on the site), and it is probably best to email McClain himself to get put on the Constant Contact list.

Then, there are the organizational newsletters. I do appreciate and read these in as much detail as I can, just to have a sense of what is going on in the organization (at a 30,000-foot view at least) and to better understand what other professionals with similar interests are reading and blogging about. Also, deadlines. Knowing when conference proposals are due is pretty essential. While some are little more than advertisements for upcoming conferences or online events, many of the organizational newsletters point me to interesting tidbits that I would have missed in my regular social media feed or, perhaps, echo what I’ve already seen in my feed.

None of this, of course, is perfect. Some days, like over the holidays here, I still have time to read and digest a good bit of news (general and work-related). Other days, my feet hit the floor in the morning, my head hits the pillow at night, and I barely remember what happened in between. Reading, on those days, is a bit tough. Yet, the newsletters — even just skimming the headlines — help me stay in touch. If nothing else, I can pop open a few tabs and save them for reading at a later time (which I will need to discuss in terms of using Zotero, but that is another post).

And, a final note. If it isn’t obvious already, I have tried to indicate above how I pay for these services. Good journalism, even in aggregate, isn’t free. I am either giving away my data (and some privacy rights), or paying for the service, or a bit of both.


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Reading (and Writing) the Daily Newsletter

With the magic of RSS and automated workflows, the daily newsletter has become a tool for many businesses, organizations, and individuals to update their followers. There are countless numbers of these newsletters, and just as many opinions about whether or not they are effective. For the moment, I’ll leave those debates to others and say that, for me, a small number of daily newsletters from a few trusted ed tech individuals helps me stay on top of ed tech and literacy trends. (I’ll discuss organizational email updates/newsletters in a later post.)

There are two that I will focus on for this post, one an ed tech advocate (Tony Vincent) and one an ed tech skeptic (Stephen Downes). This brings (some) balance to my daily perspectives on ed tech, and it is interesting to think about how each blogger approaches the task of creating the newsletter. It also raises important questions for me about the diversity of ed tech opinions that I get exposed to on a regular basis, and reminds me that I need to pop my filter bubbles from time to time. Still, these are two newsletters that represent my daily intake, and I want to explain how I read each one.

Snapshot of Tony Vincent's Nuzzel Newsletter
Snapshot of Tony Vincent’s Nuzzel Newsletter

To begin, Vincent’s Nuzzel Newsletter, much like my own, appears to be an automated collection of his own blog posts and other items that he has accessed via social media. According to Nuzzel, the services offers “personalized news discovery and curated newsletters for busy professionals, via web, mobile apps, messaging bots, and email newsletters.”

When I first started using Nuzzel two years ago (first issue: 12/31/16), I took time each night to actively curate my own newsletter, prioritizing specific news items and adding (light) commentary. Since then, I’ve fallen off the wagon, and the issue auto-generates. I do get some feedback from colleagues who subscribe, so I know that what I share matters, and this exercise again reminds me that we are all constantly creating digital identities, and I need to remember that Nuzzel is part of mine.

Back to Tony Vincent’s newsletter as an example… as a fifth grade teacher and ed tech advocate, I do subscribe to his newsletter and have it delivered to my inbox each day. While I could, potentially, go into the Nuzzel app or have a tab open in my browser for daily check-ins, I still live my daily work life via Gmail, so having the newsletter pop up in my inbox makes it real. The snapshot below gives a sense of what the newsletter looks like (though this is the web version, from the link I clicked on the email version). A few points to note, many of which might be obvious, but are important to consider from both UX and “reading strategy” perspectives.

The role of the hyperlink to the original article, the name of the original source, the date, and the image all appeal to the reader in terms of basic reading and skimming strategies. If I were looking at a newspaper or a non-fiction book, these would be the types of things that my eye would be drawn to, and the types of things that we would instruct students to look for, too. By having the date of initial publication for each item, I can make some quick judgments about currency (though “older” does not always mean worse, or better). Also, by clicking on the link (from email at least), a new tab pops open. This isn’t quite the same when reading from the “web” version, as it moves from the Nuzzel page to the link in the same tab. Multiple tabs… yet another strategy that I employ when reading (and something I could force using an extension if I wanted to mess with it).

Back to the content of the newsletter. Vincent sometimes has references to his own blog, and other items are posted without commentary. Again, I can’t throw stones here, because my Nuzzel feed is similar. Sometimes just having the links, without commentary, is enough. When I see that Vincent has posted a link to an article, and then I see that same link coming from others, I can make a judgment about whether I want to spend dedicated time reading it (as compared to just getting the snapshot view of it). So, reading his newsletter is a quick task, and I admit that I often don’t even scroll through it, just peeking at the top 2 or 3 articles mentioned. I am sure that readers of my newsletter may read in a similar manner.

Snapshot of OLDaily by Stephen Downes
Snapshot of OLDaily by Stephen Downes

By contrast, Stephen Downes (personal Twitter and OLDaily Twitter) offer me a different kind of insight on ed tech news. Though the scrolling screenshot here doesn’t really capture it all that well, you can see that Downes posts links to about 5 or 6 articles each day, but the text on the side is not an excerpt from the article itself. Instead, it is Downes’ commentary, which I find to be both humorous and insightful.

Clearly drawing from his critical and philosophical stance on ed tech, Downes shares his thoughts on almost anything even tangentially related to educational technology, including commentary on a commentary about the Netflix sensation, Bandersnatch:

Netflix’s Bandersnatch is an example of the branched scenario format that has been in use in e-learning for a number of years. They’ve done a very nice job of it, adding some new twists (such as remembering earlier chances to add variability (cereal choices, music choices) in later scenes. On the other hand, a lot of the choices felt forced, as the program kept directing me back to the main storyline. The article says there are five outcomes; maybe, but I would imagine we’re all getting more or less the same experience. Anyhow, good article on an interesting experiment.

Needless to say, I spend a bit more time on Downes’ newsletter each day, often popping open multiple tags in the process. How he is able to read — and write — so much each day is a bit beyond me, though it is aspirational (as I am aiming to reach a goal here in 2019!). Each newsletter does feel the same in the sense that the format remains consistent, but they are each unique. Because of his commentary, you can tell when he is feeling optimistic… and when he is feeling ornery.

In each case, I find value in the newsletters. Some days, even when opening the tabs to read later… well… I just don’t get a chance to read everything later. But, in conjunction with other reading that I will describe in my next few posts, these two types of newsletters provide me with  a sense of the ed tech zeitgeist on a daily basis. I trust the sources, for different reasons, and value what each can offer.

With that, I am curious… what are the ed tech/digital literacy related newsletters to which you all subscribe?

What am I missing that I should be getting in my inbox each day?


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Wrapping Up a Semester of Digital Badging

Digital Badges... Still Under ConstructionThis past fall semester provided me with an opportunity to teach an undergraduate honors seminar, focused broadly on the role of technology in our personal and professional lives.

Entitled “Our Digital Selves,” I was able to work with 22 students over the 16 week semester as we engaged in some shared inquiry, some small group inquiry pathways, and a number of writing-to-learn activities that helped them engage with and understand a variety of digital tools ranging from browser extensions to the Zotero bibliographic management system.

Moreover (and more to the point for purposes of this post), we utilized digital badging as a tool for documenting performance, eschewing grades and, instead, relying on lots of formative assessment, peer review, and self-evaluation. Since the National Writing Project first became connected with the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Learning Initiative, I have been interested in badges, and will likely be pursuing the use of badges in teacher professional development this spring.

For HON 206, the purpose of the badging system was, as I documented earlier, meant to be an opportunity for students to reconsider the role of traditional grade-driven assessment practices in their learning, providing them with more flexibility and opportunities for them to work creatively with one another. As with all teaching experiences, this one had some ups and some downs.

On the positive side:

  • Badges held a novelty factor that — combined with the overall topic of digital ethnography that permeated the course — did remain relevant in our discussions and activities.
  • In pursuing the goal of digital authorship across multiple platforms and with various activities, students began to see how multimodal texts (including badges) could expand their thinking well beyond the traditional academic essay.
  • Coupled with the inquiry-based, experiential nature of the pathways, students did begin to identify themselves with the badging pathways. They called themselves “Makers,” “Adventurers,” “Hackers,” and “Writers.”
  • In the end, having some freedom and flexibility was a powerful motivation for learning. While it really wouldn’t have mattered if we had badges or not, talking about the idea of “earning a badge” is more concrete than times in the past where I have used contract grading, which feels much more amorphous.

And, on the negative side:

  • No matter how much you try to dress it up, even with lipstick, a pig is still a pig. Though the ultimate goal was not to gain a set number of points in order to earn an “A,” this still was a class, with homework and expectations for participation. Try as I might, badges didn’t change that fundamental equation. Some students completed their work on time and with a high degree of quality. Some did not. And, for all those who are worried about grade inflation, well, I am part of the problem, since they all ended up with the same grade at the end.
  • Interoperability. Even though I was using the open badge standard with the Badgr platform (read more about how Badgr evolved from the Mozilla Open Backpack, and where it is going next), I thought that it would be easy for students to share their badges on LinkedIn (not at all easy, and only as a “certification”) or WordPress (no embedding of iFrames on the free accounts). They could download the image, make a link, and share it that way, but the ease of a “point and click” transfer of the badge from being issued in Badgr to making it into a more viable, professional space simply didn’t happen.
  • Though there were some other minor concerns, the final major problem is that, even after a semester of talking about badges, showing them how their “evidence” of earning the badge is “baked in,” and that they could easily demonstrate to another instructor or employer, I don’t think that any of them (save for one) really felt like these digital credentials would help them later on.

As with all teaching innovations, I sometimes fear that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I should have opportunity to teach HON 206 again in the future, and I am already thinking about some ways in which I might adapt; I think that there might be some specific ways that I can make things more compelling while also not losing my mind from issuing badges.

  • First, the badges need to be earned for (some) smaller tasks, not just the final projects. In order to earn a badge for say, “Level I” work in a pathway, you need to have the item turned in on time and to a high degree of quality. If not, no badge. You can still turn in the work and get credit for the assignment, but I need to issue smaller badges, faster.
  • Second, in a similar vein, I did about eight in-class, intensive “writing-to-learn” activities that were highly scaffolded as Hyperdoc-like activities. I think that I would have at least five of those (of the students’ choosing) become longer assignments that would include the in-class work as well as an out-of-class extension, probably a brief essay (500 words or so). Those, too, would accumulate into a bigger badge, but would be issued more frequently.
  • Finally, I need a system for them to share the badges. Perhaps, as part of the course, I have them subscribe to WordPress for four months, dropping the text book and paying for that instead. Then, I could build blogging (and reading one another’s blogs) more diligently into the course process, and I could expect them to share their badges more publicly.

So, my first go at badging was compelling and not a complete failure. My hope is that I have opportunity to try this again with undergraduates and — if I get really motivated — with my ed tech doctoral students, too.

For now, I wish that I could give all of my students a digital backpack (ala Mozilla’s original vision) for a Christmas present, so it was easier for them to share their badges and, more importantly, be able to reflect on their learning for the semester. But, that’s on my wish list for next year and, for now, I am satisfied with the gift of a wonderful teaching experience this fall.

I have more to learn about badging, and will continue to reflect on my HON 206 experience, too.


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Badging and Blending, Writing and Learning

HON 206 Member Badge
Badges. Writing-intensive. Active learning. Blended learning.

Oh, my.

These have been the buzzwords that have permeated professional conversations over the past few years, and have guided my path in developing the seminar course for Honors students that I am currently teaching, “Our Digital Selves.”

Offered as a course for a group of 22 freshmen while they are concurrently enrolled in a larger course that orients over 100 students to life in CMU’s Honors Program, my course meets twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, for an hour and fifteen minutes.

In describing the course, I begin with the following:

Without question, we live, work, and play in a digital world.

Though a divide still exists in terms of skills and access across demographics, it is reasonable to argue that the increasing ubiquity of mobile devices connected to the Internet as well as broadband in our homes, schools, libraries, and workplaces means that all of us – especially young people coming of age in the present moment – are now blending our personal, professional, and practical digital identities across multiple networks and with a variety of tools.

However, the ability to upload a picture or post on one’s timeline does not, in and of itself, assure us each a place in digital segments of academia, the workplace, or civic life. In fact, a recent Rasmussen College survey showed that 37% of millennial students see the internet as “scary” and are not confident in their digital literacy skills.

This first year seminar will challenge students to critically examine what it means to lead a digital life – personally and academically – and to rethink our understanding of what it means to be mindful, productive, and responsible users of technology.

And, as I have shared with students, those are a precious few minutes together each week in which we are trying to accomplish many goals.

As part of their undergraduate program, the course is helping them think about the social structures that undergird the Internet. What does it mean for us to lead a digital life? What spaces do we interact in, what tools do we use, and how do we represent ourselves with a variety of identities? How can we interrogate our own digital living and learning practices, discover new strategies and tools, and emerge with a better sense of our personal and professional goals as they relate to using technology? In conjunction with their Honors orientation course, my course, too, is aimed at helping them become better readers, writers, and thinkers. We are looking closely at the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy as part of this process.

As a writing intensive course, our goal is to use writing in a variety of ways, for different purposes, and to expand to new audiences. This includes writing-to-learn activities in class (polls, quick writes, guided writing in lessons, exit slips) and they are writing about their research in many informal ways (“writing to explore” essay, “immerse yourself in research” essay). It also includes some atypical forms of academic writing. Rather that producing “typical” final essays for their projects, I am asking them to engage in digital writing or — as Renee Hobbs, author of the textbook we are using, Create to Learn, would say — digital authorship. Engaged in a recursive process of reading, writing, researching, revising, and collaboration, students are producing videos, podcasts, interactive maps, and other forms of multimedia in an effort to think about the affordances and constraints of text, images, video, and other forms of media. I am asking them to move beyond words on the page, and they generally seem to be enjoying that process, though it has not been without some technical frustrations.

We are also exploring the use of microcredentialling in lieu of traditional grading practices. have adapted a “badging pathway” system from a Dr. Stephanie West-Puckett at the University of Rhode Island. We completed our first pathway, the Digital ID Narrative, together in the month of September. In October, they have been working in small groups on their own choice of pathways. I provide them feedback on their writing and work at each “level” of learning, and finally decided on using Badgr (the new for issuing badges using Mozilla’s Open Badge framework). That, too, has been a learning process for the students and for me. As we close in on our first “Teach In,” scheduled to happen next week, and I am looking forward to seeing what they produce and, subsequently, issuing the next round of badges to them.

Lastly, our class meets in one of CMU’s active learning classrooms. Each day, I aim to do something that gets them moving and talking with others outside of their “normal” groups (there is no seating chart). This has been a mix of things as simple as “stand up and find someone from another table to discuss X” to using playing cards to randomize the groups. I’ve been trying to encourage them to use the active learning stations and display their own computer screens while working on projects, but not too many of them are doing that on a regular, non-prompted basis. It is a large space, suited for about 80 students. I am fortunate to teach a small group of 22, but that presents some challenges, too, as the space seems quite spread out and distant for a group that size. Having smaller, more intimate conversations, then, sometimes feels awkward, though having plenty of room to move around and interact is certainly a blessing (compared to other classrooms I have been in on campus).

All of this has led, as with most teaching innovations and changes, to some success and some frustration. On the positive side of the ledger, I have been impressed with the ways that most students oriented their mindset to the pathways and the non-graded aspects of the course. Though I have tried, over the years, a number of different forms of contract grading and self-evaluation, I have not ever thrown grades out completely. And, yes, at the end of the semester will require some accountability, as their work from the many pathways and class activities will accumulate and (through reflection and dialogue with each student), a final grade will emerge. That said, many of them seem interested in the idea of microcredentialling and having the badge as a way to document their learning.

Also, on the positive side, most groups and individual students seem highly engaged with their work right now. Two groups are on the “Maker” pathway and are exploring the relatively inexpensive craft of making tie blankets. This has led them, however, into a much deeper exploration of the textile industry and the ways in which that global marketplace has significant consequences on the lives of millions, especially in third world countries. Another group is exploring their “writing lives,” and have been engaged in a conversations with other faculty about what it means to be a college-level writer. Another Adventurer group is exploring the role of campus myths and legends, creating an interactive story map of CMU’s campus. Other groups are still puzzling through their topics, and we are working to narrow their focus, which (of course) is all part of the process I hope that they would go through.

The blended learning piece will come soon, as the month of November will bring at least one, if not two or maybe even three virtual course sessions. I will have them meet using Zoom video conferencing software, which I imagine will be a new experience for most. During those sessions, I will ask them to engage in small group conversation and use tools for synchronous collaboration, probably starting with something straight-forward like Google Docs. I’m still thinking through exactly what that might look like in the weeks to come.

So, at this midpoint of the semester, how would I evaluate my own performance as a teacher? Probably an A for effort, but a B for execution. I’ve put in the time before and after class to create engaging activities, online and off, and I feel that I have established pretty good relationships with individual students. Also, the activities in class — and the individual learning pathways — have been moving forward in a progressive, scaffolded manner… for most students. And, that’s where the B comes in. I need to figure out a way to make things more focused. Obviously, my approach here is not working for everyone and while I can’t expect that any teaching method will be perfect for every student, I don’t want three or four students to leave the course with a very negative experience, even if the rest of it is positive.

To that end, I am trying to think through what I might do in the month of November to be more focused, as an instructor, and to help my students be more focused, too. Next week, I will have teaching and learning consultants from CMU’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning come to observe me teach and, at the end of class, talk with my students and provide a survey for feedback (without me in the room). I am very curious to hear what they are thinking, objectively, about the course and to make appropriate adjustments in the month of November.


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