An Adventure in Technology

Towards the Next Stage of EdTech at CUNY…

This is a cloud drawn from badges tagged and submitted by participants at CUNY WordCampEd.  Thanks to Joe Ugoretz.

The tag cloud above was generated by participants at CUNY WordCampEd, which took place last week at the Macaulay Honors College (click to enlarge).  Mikhail and I co-organized the event with Joe Ugoretz of Macaulay and Matt Gold of New York City Tech, and we were astounded that we had to close registration a week ahead of time.  When we started planning, we thought we might get 50 registrants, bringing together the folks like ourselves who’ve experimented with WordPress throughout CUNY and who believe deeply in the core components of our mission on Blogs@Baruch.  Instead, we had well over 100 folks who wanted to come, and though we had an overflow room with audio/video connections to accommodate the hordes during morning and afternoon keynote sessions, we still had to turn some away.

The desire to take part in this event — and, even more, the energy palpable at Macaulay throughout the day — are testament that something is happening at CUNY.  This feeling was present in December at the CUNY I(nformation) T(echnology) Conference, which paid more attention to instructional technology than it ever has before.  I think some of the same spirit and energy infused the 9th Annual Symposium, which for the first time, in my opinion, captured the richness and opportunity embedded in our shifting modes of communication.  At all three events, the Twitter backchannel produced what Boone Gorges has called a “catalytic effect” on the proceedings: collective reflection on the presentations by those on Twitter filtered back into the participation of the audience, which found its way back into the tweets, and so on.  I felt very little passivity at these meetings. (Here you can see Tweets for the Symposium and CUNY WordCampEd).

But Twitter only deserves a splash of credit for the sea of enthusiasm present at Macaulay last Friday.  CUNY’s BlackBoard disaster this semester (which you can read about in this piece from The Clarion) no doubt shifted some energy our way as committed teachers and administrators look for alternative edtech solutions.

We welcomed that sort of attention.

In the morning presentations, Jane Wells, from Automattic, pitched WordPress (a bit tongue-in-cheekly) as a “BlackBoard Killer” and emphasized the openness of the WordPress community to input from its users.  Her presentation captured all that we like about experimenting with WordPress: embrace of perpetual beta, humility, the celebration of collectivist approaches to problem solving, and the constant striving to improve. Dave Lester, from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason, presented ScholarPress, a suite of WordPress plugins that map course management functionality onto WordPress blogs (doing what BlackBoard does, but much more elegantly and affordably), and also talked about integrating Zotero’s research tools into WordPress.  Baruch’s own Zoe Sheehan Zaldana then wowed the audience with her wonderfully imaginative use of WordPress in photography and digital animation courses, embraced the potential of “shame” on the open web as a pedagogical tool, and emphasized the useful energy created when students participate in a unique space whose aesthetic reflects the work of their course.

Our good friend Jim Groom returned to CUNY like a prodigal son to give the afternoon keynote (“Open By Design”), and spoke eloquently and powerfully about how the role of the instructional technologist should be refined in today’s university, the centrality of “openness” to the mission of CUNY and how that should be reflected in our approach to supporting teaching with technology, and the opportunities self-publishing offer universities to train their students for the future.  He also threw a few good shots at BlackBoard, and raised the very important and underexamined question of why CUNY pours millions– that’s right, millions– of dollars into this clunker of a software instead of investing in the people who build the relationships and the models that inject such powerful energy into events like the IT Conference, the Symposium, and CUNY WordCampEd.  Thanks to Dave Lester, Jim’s talk is archived here.

This was a generative event, and it represented the congealing of a community around the shared idea that our institutions’ weight should be behind a scaling approach to support for educational technology that necessarily goes well beyond BlackBoard.  That box is simply not enough.  Rather than helping us explore knowledge and identity, nurture community, and pass on to our students critical approaches to engaging with information  — core components of a liberal arts education –  BlackBoard argues that education is a marketplace.  Here’s my money.  Give me my single sign on and my learning.

Clearly, the participants at CUNY WordCampEd have had just about enough of this, and are looking to Blogs@Baruch, ePortfolio@Macaualay, the CUNY Academic Commons, and each other for alternatives. With that in mind, I’d suggest that the next stage of edtech at CUNY hold the following core principles.

Instructional Technology is not Information Technology
An Adventure in Technology
For too long, instructional technology has been enveloped within the broader notion of information technology.  We need to drive a permanent wedge between those two areas of university life in the understandings of our communities.  Information technology makes our phones and networks and computers and smart boards work, and collects and protects student, staff, and faculty data so that we can get credits and get paid. This is crucial stuff.  But it’s not about teaching and learning.

Instructional technology is about pedagogy, about building community, about collaboration and helping each other imagine and realize teaching and learning goals with the assistance of technology.

There must be a close working relationship between CUNY’s information technology shops and instructional technologists, and they must respect each others’ concerns and interests.  But they must be separate.  When information technologists choose instructional technology solutions, you may get something like BlackBoard, and a community that feels as though the only relationship to technology should be a client-service one.   When instructional technologists administer servers, you may get something like less-than-ideal load times, plugins that expose vulnerabilities, and a system that bursts at the seams when you scale.

We need to acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses, to work with and learn from one another, and also to complicate our community’s understanding of technology.  Some components — like phones and networks — should be, above all, reliable.  Some others — like blended courses, or the integration of made multimedia into a course — require more thought, investment, and understanding from students and faculty.  Making clear the separation between information and instructional technology can help nurture this understanding.

But we must remember… the central mission of a university revolves around teaching, learning, and scholarship.

The Community is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

The most exciting component of CUNY WordCamp Ed was the connection and sharing that took place at the event, a feeling that’s also present on the Academic Commons.  There was the implicit recognition that we have much to learn from each other, that there are many interesting projects popping up around CUNY, and that we can only benefit from making public and sharing our work.  The Commons can provide a canvas for this, but it will not run on its own… it requires, above all, a commitment to sharing, to both taking and giving.  We also should harness and seek to reproduce the generative energy of events such as WordCamp Ed, not only with end-of-the-year conferences and symposia, but with meet ups and sharecases throughout the academic year that disperse that energy.

EdTech Solutions Should Grow from the Bottom Up and then Transplant
Spring Grass
Experimentation with WordPress at CUNY has been a bottom-up process, which serves as a counterpoint to the imposition of BlackBoard, a top-down solution.  Blogs@Baruch, ePortfolio@Macaulay, and the Commons each began small and grew as they integrated more users and diversified their functionality in response to the needs of the communities they serve.  As such, they each reflect those communities in certain visible ways.  Blogs@Baruch provides public space for Baruch’s strong journalism, writing, and arts programs, and is making inroads into the Zicklin School of Business and the Freshman Seminar; ePortfolios foreground the unique experiences of the Macaulay student; and the Commons is a vibrant and evolving location for all of CUNY to meet and organize.

A new edtech model for CUNY should acknowledge this progression from the bottom up, and imagine ways to project it outwards throughout the university.  One of the arguments for centralizing administration of BlackBoard was that the community colleges had fewer resources than senior colleges, and centralization of course management software was assumed to make resources more equitably distributed.  Of course, now every school has an equally bad solution.  But the notion that those of us with resources should share the wealth with the colleges who have less is an important one.  I can see a model where senior colleges host WPMu installations for community colleges (using domain mapping), and share support– though, the community colleges– many of which have as many instructional technologists as does Baruch– must pony up support and resources when they can.

Grow from the bottom up and then transplant.

End Users Need to Take Ownership of Online Teaching and Learning Tools
City Light public ownership, circa 1945
Let’s not be shy about reminding our users of their responsibilities, and our users shouldn’t be shy about asking for help, clarification, or if something is possible.  WPMu and other open source solutions not only benefit from a “do it yourself ethos, they require such an approach.  They can’t function and grow without the investment of the community.

A course management system — BlackBoard (at a fraction of the current price), or, preferably, Moodle — could be one component of a tiered support sytem for instructional technology.  Users should have access to an easy way to post documents, access class rosters, and keep a gradebook.  But this is not teaching and learning.  A second tier could exist via distribtued canvases like WPMu or Mediawiki or cloud applications like Flickr and YouTube, where faculty and students can maintain their own spaces and depend on asynchronous support– with a solid server and documentation, such a process can run itself.  A third tier would offer customized solutions for more advances users– Zoe’s rotating flash headers on Blogs@Baruch, or customized spaces to show off class projects or for special departments or programs.  A fourth tier would be a research tier, and entail the imagination and realization of native solutions (such as the Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool) or the exploration of the next wave of innovations (semantic web comes to mind).  You could cover all of the edtech needs of your community with such an approach; all that’s needed, as Jim said, are the instructional technologists and community understanding to shape it and make it operate.

Integrate Digital and Media Literacy into General Education
Universities are constantly updating their general education programs. If they’re not, they should be.  Far too few clear out space for coursework that focuses on exploring how the ways that information is produced and consumed are changing in the digital age.  Such work is often outsourced to librarians, who are generally on the leading edge of a campus’s understanding of these trends, and do yeoman’s (and, often under appreciated) work.  Or students get trickling components of digital literacy spread haphazardly through their work in the disciplines.

Why not, at a place like CUNY, have 1st year seminars devoted to nurturing critical research skills, understanding online information and identity, learning to look and listen, and mastering how to negotiate the digital life of the campus and the city?  Set students up with eportfolios, and teach them how to cultivate their spaces.  Introduce them to scholarly uses of tools with which they are already familiar, but which they perhaps haven’t learned to use critically or with rigor.  Make them write; help them connect, share, and explore the visual, the textual, and the aural experience of the web.  This is something that will be useful to them throughout college and beyond.

As Jim has eloquently argued, CUNY is so well-positioned to harness the energy of the participants in CUNY WordCamp Ed, and to put it to good use.  Let’s keep working.

(IMAGE CREDITS: Thanks to Joe Ugoretz for conceiving, compiling, and sharing the CUNY WordCampEd Tag Cloud.  The other images are from Flickr, in order of appearance: Pip, D’arcy Norman, Ohad, and the Seattle Municipal Archives).