What Walls Need Tearing Down?


Michael Bugeja’s opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Reduce the Technology, Rescue Your Job,” struck a nerve today.  He started by noting that for “most of this decade, professors embraced the pedagogy of engagement, wooing students via technology and ignoring the costs because traditional methods, from textbooks to lectures, purportedly bored students who multitasked in the wireless classroom.”  He then noted the massive cuts occurring across higher education, and suggested that these “facts alone merit an immediate technological and curricular assessment, or else hundreds more professors and staff members could lose their jobs in the coming weeks and months. You may lose your job.”

Bugeja raised the valid point that too often technology decisions are made without factoring in true costs, but he then suggests that teaching centers (like the one at which I work) are part of the problem for pushing the use of technology for teaching and learning.  His final paragraph reads:

  • “I challenge anyone objecting to these arguments to look in the eye of secretaries, janitors, adjuncts, advisers, and professors of eliminated programs and say that avatars, clickers, social networks, and tweets—and the pedagogies, IT expenses, and teaching centers supporting them—are more important than feeding their families. To believe we can afford both indicates how incapable many of us are of making the difficult choices that the times require.”

It would be easy to dismiss this article if I did not think that his way of thinking was not reflective of many in mainstream faculty.  I have seen a number of faculty in higher education, as well as teachers in K-12, who see technology as an evil.  In many ways, they want to wall off their classes from the outside world.

That image of a wall is particularly relevant today, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  President Reagan has always been one of my favorites, and one cannot think of him without hearing his exhortation:

“Mr. Gorbachev…tear down this wall!”

That is the line most remember, but I like his comments later in the same speech, in which he stated “this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.”

Bugeja’s comments to reduce technology in order to save jobs ignores the realities of a changing world…much as the Berlin Wall did.  Technology in and of itself is not evil, and technology integrated into education is opening minds, not closing them.  The participatory web and open access to information has created freedoms that never existed in the past.  Those freedoms directly and positively impact learning.  As Derek Bruff noted in a comment to Bugeja’s piece:

“…point out that Bugeja has focused here on the cost of instructional technology, but not on the benefits to student learning. There’s plenty of research that shows that student learning is positively affected by instructional methods that involve more active student engagement before, during, and after class. Technologies that support or facilitate such instructional methods are certainly worth exploring, if our goal is student learning. When conducting a cost-benefit analysis, it’s only appropriate to spend as much time thinking through the benefits as it is thinking through the costs.”

“…if our goal is student learning…”  Well said, Derek!  If one shifts the microscope from technology to student learning, one might find many traditional classrooms in trouble!  President Reagan made his speech in 1987, and during that same period, Chickering and Gamson developed a seminal work on teaching and learning, their Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Instruction.  They synthesized fifty years of research on teaching to develop these principles:

Good practice in undergraduate education:
1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
3. Encourages active learning.
4. Gives prompt feedback.
5. Emphasizes time on task.
6. Communicates high expectations.
7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Rather than cast technology as an evil, I would suggest that technology is a powerful tool that encourages contact between students and faculty, provides avenues for reciprocity and cooperation among students, creates new venues for active learning, enables more timely and prompt feedback, and gives new opportunities to keep students on task.  High expectations can now be communicated in multiple ways across social media that students are using, and these diverse and multiple paths respect the talents and new ways our students are learning.

We certainly need to be fiscally prudent with taxpayer and tuition-funded monies, but now is not the time to build walls and isolate our students from a 24/7 wired world.  Instead, we need to actively help our students create the learning networks that they will need to thrive in the 21st Century.

So to Mr. Bugeja and others who agree with him, I say “Tear down this wall!”

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Faculty Development in An Open World


I just finished reading Curtis J. Bonk’s new book, The World is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I will tell you that Wiley, the publisher, emailed me after I reviewed Dan Willingham’s book in a previous post and asked if they could send me Bonk’s book for possible review (with no strings attached).

I said yes and the next week received a copy of this book at no charge.

With that said, this book has resonated with me and I found Bonk’s approach interesting.

In many ways, Bonk is as much a fan boy of Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat as I am.  Just as Friedman had ten flatterners, Bonk has ten openers:

Ten Openers: (WE-ALL-LEARN)

  1. Web Searching in the World of e-Books
  2. E-Learning and Blended Learning
  3. Availability of Open Source and Free Software
  4. Leveraged Resources and OpenCourseWare
  5. Learning Object Repositories and Portals
  6. Learner Participation in Open Information Communities
  7. Electronic Collaboration
  8. Alternate Reality Learning
  9. Real-Time Mobility and Portability
  10. Networks of Personalized Learning

WE-ALL-LEARN provides a framework for his book and the premise that anyone can now learn anything from anyone at anytime.  Bonk  spun out chapters on each opener, illustrating each concept with stories, a bit of research and statistics, and implications for education in the future.  Working in the field, I recognized some of the people he named, but I also learned new pioneers.  Bonk continually reinforces that these openers ought to be changing education as we know it, as our world is quite different from our parent’s world.

In Bonk’s view, these openers need to viewed through three overarching trends.  First, the pipes are getting bigger allowing access to tools and infrastructure.  Second, more and more pages of content is becoming available as free and open content. Third, a participatory learning culture is evolving around social media.

One of the things I found fascinating was my own reaction to the book.  I buy the basic theme that openness ultimately improves education, and I consider myself someone who is part of a participatory learning culture.  I was pleased that Bonk provided a companion website with hyperlinked references and other resources.  But my first inclination was to begin following Curt Bonk’s Twitter account…and I could not find one for him!  Other than his blog, I did not see Bonk participating to the same degree that he discusses in his book.  I have never met him and may be way off target, but I was somewhat surprised that I could not immediately connect with him the way I did with some of the people he mentioned in his book like Stephen Downes, Vicki Davis, Clay Shirky or Dave Weinberger.

So I was thrilled with the content and miffed a bit by the author!  Weird reaction!

I also found that increasingly with books like this one, I read it with a laptop nearby, so that I can quickly go look at something new and immediately start the learning process for myself.  I had never seen Dancing Matt before, so really enjoyed viewing his Youtube video while reading that section of the book.  This bouncing between the web and the written word is a new but interesting process…and it suggests that in many ways, this should have been an e-book as opposed to a print book.

His final opener has to do with personalized learning…something we reflect on often in faculty development.  Bonk stated that we should be striving to move from where we see personalized learning as the ideal to a culture where personalized learning is the accepted norm.  With the pipes, pages, and participatory culture, anyone can establish their own learning path on any topic, whether it be improved teaching, learning a new language, or finally programming the VCR (…just kidding).  The implications for faculty development are huge!

Bonk has fifteen predictions at the end.  I will leave it to you to check them out, but I liked that he is questioning the status quo.  With the availability of all the world’s knowledge in our pockets/cellphones, the typical four-year college process no longer makes sense to Bonk.  He suggests that formalized education will expand rather than contract.  But informal learning with global partners will play an equal role to the formalized higher education model.  Learning will be authentic from passionate teachers…but those “teachers” may no longer be credentialed.  Bonk also served up a dozen issues that will have to be solved for openness to succeed.

I work with faculty daily on best ways to incorporate the internet into their teaching practices.  In the past three years since I came to VCU, the access to learning on the web has exploded.  Bonk’s book is pushing me to reconceptualize how I should facilitate faculty development in an open world.  I recommend the book to you and would be interesting in your thoughts on the evolution/revolution of faculty development in these exciting times!

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The Fourth and Last Set of Rules

In the past three posts, I have covered the first 39 “rules” from Alan Webber’s Rules of Thumb.: 52 Truths For Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self (2009).  I found this book to be relevant not only for entrepreneurs in business, but for those changing the paradigm of teaching by moving online.  This post will complete my review of his rules and their application to online teaching and learning.  Here are the last thirteen:

Rule #40 – Technology is about changing how we work.

Webber makes a great point that directly ties into our work in online teaching and learning – “It’s never about the technology – it’s always about what the technology makes possible.”  Technology is a moving target.  The online environment today is totally different than just five years ago due to the increased two-way interactivity now possible.  Rather than adopting “a” technology, we should be about adopting technological concepts that allow us to bring learning alive.  The question is never WordPress versus Blogger or Moveable Type, but rather whether blogging can improve dialogue and connections in your class.  This rule also suggests that it is okay to try new approaches to teaching and learning due to new affordances technology grants rather than trying to shoe-horn our old course into an online learning environment.

Rule #41 – If you want to be a real leader, first get real about leadership.

In business, leadership is not attached to a single job title.  It is also not attached to a specific gender or race.  In classes, the same can be said.  Leadership is a way of thinking and acting, and we do our students a disservice if we do not cultivate that.  Real leaders grow new leaders, and real teachers grow the next generation of leaders as well.  How is your class organized to recognize and cultivate thinking and acting as leaders?

Rule #42 – The survival of the fittest is the business case for diversity.

Webber noted that diversity is the key to adaptation and the way to tap new ideas.  It is a way of learning new ways of thinking and operating.  Much has been written about the anonymity of students online, but I would suggest that one can also create opportunities that expose the diversity of thought.  I will never forget an early online class I taught in which college leadership was being discussed.  A white American male posted a lengthy comment about authoritative leadership, and then one male student from Guam started his post with “I am a Chamorro and that is not how we think…”  Online classes open up wonderful opportunities for cross-cultural, gender, or racial discussions in a safe environment.  Exposing our students to diversity of thought equips them for success in the flat world.

Rule #43 – Don’t confuse credentials with talent.

In business today, particularly with the speed of change that is occurring, it makes sense to hire for attitude and then train for skills.  I wonder if we are guilty of the reverse in education.  We (and our students) place great value on degrees and grades.  The number one question we tend to get in class (online or F2F) is “Will this be on the test?”  If we were in the talent business rather than the credentialing business, we faculty and our students would be focused more on learning and less on grades.  Do our classes help or hurt our students’ future job prospects when it comes to attitude?

Rule #44 – When it comes to business, it helps if you actually know something about something.

The same can be said for teaching online.  Our role as faculty has definitely changed.  We now live in a world where Scantron tests are obsolete if students can enter the question into Wolfram Alpha or Google or Wikipedia and ascertain the correct answer.  But that is not learning.  Our role has evolved from knowledge giver into a knowledge guide, which does mean that we have to know something about something…so that we can guide those who only check the first five returns in Google.  We should want to move our students beyond information to knowledge.

Rule #45 – Failure isn’t failing.  Failure is failing to try.

Webber noted that the articles in FastCompany magazine that garnered the greatest reader responses were the ones where authors talked about their failures and what they learned.  One cannot take risks without having failures, but the question becomes what one does with the lessons learned.  That is true of online teachers and it is true of online students.  Regardless of the myth of the digital natives, the truth is that the online environment is still outside the comfort zone of many students (as it is for many faculty).  Yet, this new environment offers rich opportunities to try things that could never be tried face-to-face.  I recently required my graduate class of technology-frightened students to research a Web 2.0 tool and then post a multimedia presentation on that tool in a wiki to their fellow classmates in a two-week period…with no instruction on “how” to do that.  But I also told them that anyone who successfully posted a multimedia presentation passed the assignment.  They ended up amazing themselves, posting a combination of YouTube, Jing, and Camtasia videos on 25 separate tools.  They also learned that the lesson was not the presentation but the journey in preparing and posting the presentation.  After that two-week period, I no longer had a class of students scared of technology.  Almost all of them ended up applying their new skills in the K-12 classes they taught.  What excites me most is the spirit of experimentation that has suddenly erupted in these teachers.

Rule #46 – Tough leaders wear their hearts on their sleeves.

Webber noted that the kind of leaders the world needs are those who exercise tough leadership with warm hearts.  I believe that the worst mistake an online faculty can make is to be invisible.  It is okay to have a tough course but your students should “see” you as someone who is passionate about the subject matter and caring about their success in the class.  The social presence of the faculty impacts learning, retention, and ultimately student success.

Rule #47 – Everyone’s at the center of their map of the world.

I am currently in Boston visiting my daughter and grandkids.  One of the lesser known tourist attractions is the Mapparium, a three-story tall stained glass globe that you walk into and stand at the center of the world.  It certainly is a unique view of geography.  Yet, unique views are common.  I was talking with my good friend Bruce Robinson last night.  Bruce is Headmaster of the British School of Boston and was my roommate at University of Nebraska as we worked on our doctorates.  Bruce is also originally from Australia, and he had a world map that (to me) was upside down and showed Australia as center of the world.  Technology has given us all the ability to construct our own personal learning environments in which we are the center of the world, with linkages to information and knowledge being generated all around us.  This concept that not only are we at the center but also we are responsible for our own learning is a great literacy that we need to pass on to our students.  Webber makes a great point in Rule #47: ”

“It’s a big world-and getting smaller all the time. It’s not so much that the world is flat.  It’s that we are all connected…you’re in the middle, and so is everyone else.”

Rule #48 – If you want to make change, start with an iconic project.

Everyone talks about “change” yet few really believe in it of do it.  The concept of change is too nebulous for most people.  So Webber suggests that the road to change is to pick a doable project that provides proof of concept and makes change believable.  So if you would like to add online courses to your education delivery mix, don’t try to do all of them immediately.  Pick one course that has impact and do a proof of concept design and delivery.  When we started the online delivery at Gwinnett Technical College in Georgia, we started with three courses and 41 students.  Within five years, we were offering 200 courses a quarter with the largest online technical college enrollment in the state.

Rule #49 – If you want to grow as a leader, you have to disarm your border guards.

It is an unwritten law of business that the higher you rise, the more inaccessible you become.  Webber points our that business today is more than numbers and rationality; that emotional intelligence plays just as important a role.  In a similar view, faculty who teach online need to be accessible and real to their online students.  It is too easy to put up barriers to access – rigid office hours, unreturned email, no use of social media like Facebook or Twitter.  Think about how accessible you are and what barriers may be blocking students from getting to you.

Rule #50 – On the way up, pay attention to your strengths; they’ll be your weaknesses on your way down.

We are all fascinated by lists of the best…but when it comes to businesses, those in the Fortune 500 today probably will not remain there.  Take a look at the Fortune 500 from fifty years ago – the top company was General Motors!  Every strength also has the potential as a vulnerability.  There are lessons from GM that can be applied to higher education.  We need to examine our strengths today with new lens of digital connectiveness, ubiquitous access to information, and open publishing.

Rule #51 – Take your work seriously. Yourself, not so much.

Great advice…whether you run a company or a class.  I start all of my online classes with an icebreaker to get to know my students…and to let them get to know me.  There are a ton of interactive websites that can be used for ice breakers online. One I have used in the past with college-aged student is “Gone To the Dogs.” You click on GAMES (along the left side menu) and fill out the Dog Breed Calculator test to find out what breed of dog you are!  Turns out I am a “Azawakh” (or Tareg Sloughi)…a large but very skinny dog from the sub-Sahara. It is “rangy, leggy, lean, rugged, and elegant”…and my wife might suggest that I am three out of the five and leave it to me to figure out which!  My students love it – and we begin that first week making connections with each other.

Rule #52 – Stay alert!  There are teachers everywhere.

Wonderful way to end the book!  Webber suggests that we should all stay open to what we are hearing and be willing to listen and learn.  I note in my syllabus that I expect to learn as much from my students as they do from me, because I set my online classes up with the expectation that we are all co-creators of knowledge who learn from each other.

Webber ends his book by noting that the old rules no longer apply and that we need new rules of thumb.  That suggests a continuing evolution.  He asks that we all share our Rule #53, and has set up a website – http://www.rulesofthumbbook.com – to facilitate that sharing.

So – four posts covering 52 rules.  What do you think?  What would be our Rule #53 for online teaching and learning?  Leave a comment here and let me know!

Still More Rules of Thumb

Earlier this week, I posted the first two posts reviewing Alan Webber’s Rules of Thumb.: 52 Truths For Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self (2009).  I got a nice note from Alan at his website:

“I just read your blog on Rules and I can’t thank you enough! Taking Rules and applying it to the concept of achieving excellence in teaching is a terrific way to migrate my (mostly) general rules to a very specific (and very important) context. As you say at the end of your blog post: do they hit the target, or are they off the mark? It’s good learning for me, by the way, to watch you port the rules into your own work/life and test them to see if they actually offer practical, useful, helpful guidance. Thanks for the posting here and the serious application on your own site!”

I agree that it is useful to take books like Alan’s and reflect on their merit in the context of one’s own work.  So with that in mind, here are the next thirteen rules:

Rule #27 – If you want to be like Google, learn Megan Smith’s three rules.

Megan Smith is Google’s VP of new business development and strategy.  Her three rules that got Alan’s attention:

  • The customer participates.
  • The customer drives,
  • Open systems beat closed systems.

These relate directly to online teaching.  Even more so than in the classroom, the role of faculty shifts online to facilitation of a learning journey in which the students are participants and co-developers of knowledge.  As Michael Wesch has pointed out, no one knows as much as all of us, so let your students drive and see where it takes you!  And of course, to let them drive, you need to leave the walled gardens of course management systems and venture out into the open web, taking advantage of open systems like Twitter, Ning, and even Wikipedia.

Rule #28 – Good design is table stakes.  Great design wins.

Webber noted that today design is what differentiates companies.  The same can be said for online courses.  Good design should be the norm.  Great design differentiates courses.  To me, design means a lot more than just loading content.  It means you have thought through your course objectives and designed the content, interactions, formative feedback, and assessments to clearly deliver the learning objectives.

Rule #29 – Words matter.

Webber quoted Mark Twain who said “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.”  When faculty move their courses online, they have created an environment for online learning, but have they created an environment where learning occurs online?  Look at how you communicate to your online students.  How are your expectations communicated?  How are the students’ voices communicated?

Rule #30 – The likeliest sources of great ideas are in the most unlikely places.

In business, great ideas do not necessarily emerge from R&D centers, but rather from the trenches or the fringes.  Tom Peters quoted Jack Welsch on this, who said, “You can’t behave in a calm, rational manner.  You’ve got to be out there on the lunatic fringe.” In teaching online, do you see yourself as the only source of ideas, or do you set your students free to seek new ideas from unlikely sources?

Rule #31 – Everything communicates.

Your online design, your “Faculty Information”, your syllabus, your communications in discussion boards, blog comments, and wikis…they all send messages about you, your passion for teaching and the subject matter, and your openness to connecting with your students.  Equally important, what you decide not to use or do also communicates.  How do you brand yourself?

Rule #32 – Content isn’t king. Context is king.

I love the quote by Walter Wriston that every day “I’m presented with three types of information.  Facts, wrong facts, and damned lies.  My job is to know which is which.”  That same rule can apply to online teaching.  The internet is awash in facts, wrong facts and damned lies.  Teaching our students how to navigate and analyze this massive pool of data is a key literacy for this age.  As Webber noted, context is how we add value.

Rule #33 – Everything is a performance.

We faculty know this from teaching in the classroom, but have you considered your “performance” in an online class?  How do you come across to your students?  Do you have an authentic voice and social presence online?  Great teachers are known for their delivery, and that is as true online as in the classroom.

Rule #34 – Simplicity is the new currency.

In the Center for Teaching Excellence, we spend a lot of time examining new Web 2.0 applications.  Some are just cool, but at the end of the day, we always need to ask ourselves – Do they make our life easier or more complicated?  Would it solve problems for me or make problems for me?  The same can be said for your online course design?  Do you make it simple for students to figure out the flow, or is finding assignments a problem?  Is your course flow consistent week to week?

Rule #35 – The Red Auerbach management principle: loyalty is a two-way street.

Arnold “Red” Auerbach was the coach of the Boston Celtics who won 938 games.    When talking about why the Celtics were successful, he stated that you should not reward players on statistics but on contributions to the team; don’t con the players and they will not con you; and remember that loyalty is a two-way street.  Trust and loyalty go hand in hand.  In business, Webber talks about how many managers demand loyalty from employees but do not give loyalty back, preferring instead to use fear and intimidation over leadership.  It makes me wonder about how we as faculty come across to our students?  Do our online policies make it clear that we mistrust our students, or do our policies show respect and trust as their foundation?  To me, this goes hand in hand with high expectations.  Expect much of your students, trust them, and they will rise above your expectations.

Rule #36 – Message to entrepreneurs: managing your emotional flow is more critical than managing your cash flow.

Webber’s message to entrepreneurs is that one should not get so focused on making money that one loses one’s mind.  His solution – great partners, lots of laughs, loud music, and comfort food.  This is a tough one to map to online learning….and yet, it resonates with me on several levels.  I work hard to make my courses meaningful…but fun nonetheless.  I tend to have Pandora playing when I am working online.  In other words, if I continue to have fun teaching online, my students will enjoy the experience more as well.

Rule #37 – All money is not created equal.

Webber is focused in this rule on not just raising capital to start a new business, but in also creating relationships as part of that process.  While we do not necessarily raise money in our online teaching, we do need to raise social capital.  Our students will relate to us and our content much more if they have connected with us.  This relationship stuff is very important – it underlies any community of learners.

Rule #38 – If you want to think big, start small.

Webber interviewed Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus about his work with microcredit.  In answer to the question on how to pick problems to work on, given so many problems in the world, he said, “Start with what ever is right in front of you.”  Many faculty are intimidated about moving their courses online, as the issues seem too numerous.  This advice works equally well for them.  Start small.  Create simple interactions to connect with your students initially, and then build on the experience over time.  I am currently thoroughly enjoying the graduate course I teach in School Leadership, but this course evolved over the four semesters in which I have taught.

Rule #39 – “Serious fun” isn’t an oxymoron; it’s how you win.

Webber quoted Dan Pink, who said that “People rarely succeed at anything unless they are having fun doing it.”  Yet we tend to load our courses down with the rules on what students cannot do, as opposed to the freedom to learn and learn well.  I take it as a real complement when my students tell me in course evaluations that my course was “fun.”  That meant that I got it and they got it – the subject matter is serious but the learning journey around that serious subject matter can be darn fun!

And I have to admit, it has been fun mapping Webber’s rules to the context of online teaching and learning.  I will finish up his Rules of Thumb in the next post.

More Rules of Thumb

Yesterday I started an examination of Alan Webber’s Rules of Thumb.: 52 Truths For Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self (2009).  As Webber noted, these amazing times require one to rethink, reimagine, and recalibrate what is possible.  In other words, it is time to rewrite the rules.

I looked at the first thirteen rules yesterday, using as a lens our initiative to help faculty move their classes online.  Continuing today:

Rule #14 – You don’t know if you don’t go.

Webber suggests that we all need to get out of our comfort zone and experience new things.  How many of us as faculty spend time in the social media that our students use?  How do we add relevance to our students’ lives if we do not understand their culture?  You don’t know if you don’t go!

Rule #15 – Every start-up needs four things: change, connections, conversation and community.

Webber noted that these four words are not just a cute mnemonic device, they represent a foundation for a new type of business plan.  They also form a nice foundation for an online course.  In moving courses online, teaching (and learning) practices have to change.  Online courses work best when students make connections with the content, the faculty, and each other.  Learning occurs through conversations (synchronous and asynchronous).  The goal in online learning is to create a community of learners.

Rule #16 – Facts are facts; stories are how we learn.

Nothing is dryer than just the facts.  Facts come alive when coupled with stories that touch us.  My colleague Bud Deihl has been working with faculty at VCU to start a digital storytelling initiative.  Technology provides some wonderful tools these days for faculty to tell their stories…and for students to tell theirs.  Learning becomes more personal when stories are used, and more learning-centered if students become involved in telling those stories.  In my classes last year, I had quite a few online students who were frankly scared of technology, and yet when I pointed them to CogDog’s 50+ Ways to Tell a Story and let them begin telling theirs, magical things began to happen in the class.

Rule #17 – Entrepreneurs choose serendipity over efficiency.

There are safe ways to teach and there are creative ways to teach, and the two rarely coincide.  Online teaching and learning has opened new creative approaches for both my students and myself.  It is work, but it is also fun, exciting, and more vibrant than recycling the old lectures I used to use.

Rule #18 – Knowing it ain’t the same as doing it.

There are a lot of “experts” who theorize about best practices for teaching online.  But the critical component for me is whether these experts have actually done it – taught online themselves.  In a like manner, faculty will learn more the first semester they actually teach online, and there are no manuals or websites that can replace that crucible of experience.

Rule #19 – Memo to leaders: focus on the signal-to-noise ratio.

The signal-to-noise ratio comes from electrical engineering – the higher the ratio, the clearer the message being transmitted.  It is also a term I heard in my Navy days.  When hunting submarines, our job was to pull their signals out of the acoustic noise in the sea.  We used technology to improve the signal to noise ratio.  Today, our job as faculty is to still improve that signal-to-noise ratio.  The internet is awash in noise and distractions.  We do have tools such as RSS feeds that can help us improve our signal strength and focus on finding those bits of information that enhance the learning process.  Webber suggested that leaders need to do self-assessments about themselves, their company, their values, and their metrics in order to improve their signal-to-noise ratio.  Good advice also for faculty and the course they teach.  Particularly online, how clear are we on goals and objectives?  What processes are we using to help students critically examine our subject matter?  Do the metrics we use map to our learning objectives, and do our students understand that?

Rule #20 – Speed = strategy.

In an age where change is happening at a dizzying pace, the winners will be those who can see the change and adapt the swiftest.  This may not be true for every course, but every course can benefit from developing students who are critical thinkers and adaptive thinkers.  It raises the question as to how we unleash our students to question old models and create new ones.

Rule #21 – Great leaders answer Tom Peters’ great question: “How can I capture the world’s imagination?”

Is your course “insanely great?”  If not, why not?  Timid approaches to learning do succeed every day, and imaginative experiments in learning do fail everyday, but which excite you and your students more?  Considering how to have one’s course capture the students’ imagination is a great exercise in keeping at bay the status quo.

Rule #22 – Learn to see the world through the eyes of your customer.

The learning is a class changes when the faculty stops being a salesperson for her or his discipline and instead becomes a partner with students in knowledge creation around the discipline.  We faculty are guilty of being so passionate about our course that we fail to examine our course through our students’ eyes.  If we want them to want more than a grade, we have to work at creating opportunities so students see the relevance of the course to their own lives, lighting their own passions about the subject matter.  Some of the social media open new opportunities for making our students’ thinking visible.  It is one of the reasons I feel I get closer to my online students than my face-to-face students.  In the 24/7 online environment, I end up spending more time seeing the world through their eyes.

Rule #23 – Keep two lists: What gets you up in the morning? What keeps you up at night?

Webber noted that some people have jobs while others have something they really work at.  The first question really gets at what are you passionate about, while the second is about being honest about what works and what does not.  What would be on your two lists?

Rule #24 – If you want to change the game, change the economics of how the game is played.

I love the quote from Jerry Garcia that starts this chapter – “You do not want to merely be considered just the best of the best.  You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.”  I have always considered that great advice for an online teacher as well.  Rather than looking for the same ways of doing what you used to do in the classroom in an online class, look for new ways of teaching that the online environment and social media open up.

Rule #25 – If you want to change the game, change customer expectations.

John Tagg noted in The Learning Paradigm College that students are equally guilty at low expectations (you feed me what will be on the test, I’ll regurgitate it).  But as Chickering and Gamson noted in their classic Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, high expectations lead to improved performance.

6. Communicates High Expectations – Expect more and you will get more. High expectations are important for everyone — for the poorly prepared, for those unwilling to exert themselves, and for the bright and well motivated. Expecting students to perform well becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when teachers and institutions hold high expectations for themselves and make extra efforts.

In the online environment, expectation management is critical.  Rubrics are an excellent means by which your expectations can be crystal clear.

Rule #26 – The soft stuff is the hard stuff.

Does your course focus on the bottom line (grades) or investing in the future?  Do students leave your course motivated to continue their learning journey or glad the course is done and the box is checked for graduation?  What do you focus on?

These rules are resonating with me.  Are they with you?  I’ll continue my examination in the next post.

Some Rules of Thumb

My day job is faculty development at the Center for Teaching Excellence at VCU, but my doctorate is in Education Leadership, and with 22 years in the Navy, graduate hours in management beyond the Ed.D., and a half dozen business courses taught over the years, leadership remains a strong interest area of mine.  So when Tom Peters in his blog suggested a new book by the co-founder of one of my favorite business magazines, FastCompany, it caught my attention.

I have just finished Alan Webber’s Rules of Thumb.: 52 Truths For Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self (2009).  It is a quick read and yet deserves reflection and discussion.  Webber previously took the traditional business magazine in exciting and rule-breaking directions with FastCompany, and his reason for writing this book is that these amazing times require one to rethink, reimagine, and recalibrate what is possible.  In other words, it is time to rewrite the rules.

The 52 chapters each cover a “rule” with typically a story from Alan’s past coupled with a “So What?” reflection on what the rule means.  As Tom Peters noted:

In short, Rules of Thumb, featuring 52 “rules,” is a marvel. Practical. Philosophical. Fun. And, above all, wise. Ever so wise.

Here is a sample:

#10 A Good Question Beats a Good Answer. #14 You Don’t Know if You Don’t Go. #16 Facts Are Facts; Stories Are How We Learn. #20 Speed = Strategy. #23 Keep Two Lists: What Gets You Up in the Morning? What Keeps You Up at Night? #26 The Soft Stuff Is the Hard Stuff. #28 Good Design Is Table Stakes. Great Design Wins. #29 Words Matter. #33 Everything Is a Performance. #42 The Survival of the Fittest Is the Business Case for Diversity. #45 Failure Isn’t Failing. Failure Is Failing to Try. #46 Tough Leaders Wear Their Hearts on Their Sleeves. #49 If You Want to Grow as a Leader, You Have to Disarm Your Border Guards. #50 On the Way Up Pay Attention to Your Strengths; They’ll Be Your Weaknesses on the Way Down. #52 Stay Alert! There Are Teachers Everywhere.

I would like to have listed all 52—there are no losers in this set. (In fact, I believe Alan’s idiot editor sliced about half of them from the first draft, which I saw; damn shame.)

Fact is, I love Alan, and I love his book. Yes, he truly is a wise man.

Ahhhh…as only Tom Peters can write!

But I agree with him.  In fact, what struck me was how many of the rules fit our current initiative to help faculty move their teaching and learning online.  So I thought I would spend a few blog posts examining Webber’s rules and their fit with our initiative.

Rule#1 – When the going gets tough, the tough relax.

Webber noted that one of my heroes, Edwards Deming, was famous for his eighth point in creating quality in an organization – Drive Out Fear.  Webber suggested that you not let fear undermine your chance to do what you want to do.  I could suggest that this equally applies to faculty considering teaching online, but for me, it suggests a deeper truth – No course will ever have learning at its core if fear rules the students.  Webber suggests that one should smile and enjoy the trip.  I would say that works equally well for faculty and students in an online class.

Rule #2 – Every company is running for office.  To win, give the voters what they want.

Webber noted that every day you are running for office, and that every vote counts!  He states that you have to prove to your customers that you get them and care about them.  While I would not necessarily equate students with customers, I do believe that it is important that online students “see” you as a real person that cares about them and their learning.  Giving students what they want does not mean watering down a course, it means giving students clear organization, clear directions, and the respect to allow them to be co-explorers in the learning process.

Rule #3 – Ask the last question first.

Webber noted that when one starts with “Do you know the point of the exercise?”, it becomes a way to reverse-engineer the project.  In a similar manner, students will understand their online work better if they understand what the point of any assignment is…how it relates to the learning objectives of the course and ultimately to why your particular course is important and relevant to their lives.

Rule #4 – Don’t implement solutions.  Prevent problems.

I was always impressed that the first time a Sony Trinitron TV was plugged in and turned on was when a customer pulled it out of the box.  Sony did not wait until a TV was built to test it, it incrementally tested each component along the manufacturing process such that the assembled TV worked, period.  That makes sense in manufacturing, yet too many faculty use only a mid-term and final to assess the learning that takes place in their classes.  Building in formative assessment and shifting the responsibility for learning equally to the students makes as much sense in online learning as it does for Sony.

Rule #5 – Change is a math formula.

The formula is that change happens when the cost of the status quo is greater than the risk of change.  Up until now, most good online faculty have been early adopters.  The status quo has worked for most faculty, who continue to teach the way they were taught.  However, in the past few years, the internet has slowly become integrated into the status quo.  From social networking to twittering, a new generation of both younger and older adults are routinely using the web as part of their lives.  Failing to integrate the web into teaching and learning risks alienating this new generation.  The tipping point is rapidly approaching where failing to provide online classes will be a marketing issue for some programs in higher education.

Rule #6 – If you want to see with fresh eyes, reframe the picture.

Webber quoted Ted Levitt who suggested that many companies suffer from a serious problem of not really understanding what business they were in.  Some business do get it.  Southwest Airlines is not in the transportation business – it is in the freedom business.  Starbucks is not in the coffee business, it is in the “home away from home” business.  Harley Davidson does not sell motorcycles, it sells a lifestyle.  It begs the question – how do your students see your online course?  Do you see your job as “teaching” or do you see yourself as someone who sets up a learning environment and builds a learning community?

Rule #7 – The system is the solution.

One could go many directions with this in higher education.  After all, our schools and our courses tend to be very siloed, acting as if each was independent of the other.  In truth, our courses are systems within systems, and our students spend four-plus years trying to figure out the interrelationships between them.  It carries over in our online classes.  We load students and content into a course management system and expect learning to occur.  Learning would be optimized if we took a more system-level approach.  I am a big believer in TPACK, which looks at the appropriate technology and the appropriate pedagogy for the specific content students are exploring.  In our online class, we use a variety of social media to enhance the course management system and connect our students with others in the discipline.  In the interconnected system, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Rule #8 – New realities demand new categories.

Webber stated that solving today’s problems means moving beyond yesterday’s outmoded categories.   The online environment is creating new categories every day – ebooks, unparallelled access to information, wikipedias, virtual worlds, open-source, crowd-sourcing, new forms of academic publishing, to name a few.  In a hyperlinked world, a seat-time approach to education using hard-bound books no longer fits.

Rule #9 – Nothing happens until money changes hands.

Okay, maybe one rule that would be a stretch applying to online teaching and learning.  After all, this book was written primarly for entrepreneurs.  And yet, there is something to be said for not only creating enthusiasm for learning in your class, but also having tangible results – the first paper or the first video or the first podcast created by your students and submitted for your (and peer) review.

Rule #10 – A good question beats a good answer.

This resonates with me as a researcher.  Good research almost always raises good questions as part of the research.  Given how knowledge continues to grow, it makes sense that we develop our students to be questioners rather than parrots who feed the “correct” answer back to us.  As history has too often shown, the correct answer only works for so long before a more correct answer comes along.

Rule #11 – We’ve moved from an either/or past to a both/and future.

Webber suggests that entrepreneurs today have to reject the old either/or choices and instead look for both/and synergies.  When Barack Obama suggested that there were no red states or blue states, just red, white and blue states, he was reframing a both/and future rather than an either/or past.  Higher education likewise needs to move past face-to-face or online classes to a both/and approach that gives both options to our students.  At a past institution where I worked, the majority of our “online” students also came to campus and took face-to-face classes.  We and our students should value building a degree around a combination of face-to-face classes and online classes.

Rule #12 – The difference between a crisis and an opportunity is when you learn about it.

I am a different teacher today than I was three-years ago.  The reason – my network who continually feeds information to me, whether through Twitter, Ning, or Google Reader.  This rapid assimilation of knowledge allows me to keep my course current and relevant.  It suggest to me that these new skills I have developed now need to be part of my classes so that my students develop similar skills.  Knowledge-sharing is now a normal part of my life, and it is a job skill my students will need.

Rule #13 – Learn to take no as a question.

While my passion is online teaching and learning, the reality currently is that most faculty who seek me out do so to web enhance their face-to-face class, and have no interest in online teaching and learning.  And yet, to me, web enhancing a class IS online teaching and learning.  I am slowly learning to take the NO about online teaching and learning as an opportunity to open a new dialogue with my colleagues.  I am a victim of my own rose-colored glasses, and I really need to better understand the reluctance others have, so that I can do a better job helping them when the time is right for them to move online.

I’ll continue with the next 13 in the next post.  My question to you – on target or off the board?  What do you think?

Hope and Purpose

I am sure that I will not be the only one blogging today about President Obama’s Inauguration speechBud Deihl and I walked over to the student commons and watched it with several hundred students and staff.   Our new President crafted a wonderful speech with both hope and purpose in mind, founded on the idea that we are all in this ship of state together.  Looking out over the cheering students, I could not help but reflect not only on the journey, but also on the idea articulated by another young President that indeed, the torch had passed…and that we will be okay as a nation.

I probably will also not be the only one using Wordle today, but I like the way certain words jump out at you from his speech.

As a retired Navy Commander, his call to service for this country really resonated with me.  I was reminded as I listened to Vice President Biden take his oath of office that that particular oath was the same one I swore to as a Navy Ensign.  It is an oath of allegiance to an idea, not a person…something I have always held dear.

As several Twitterers noted, the White House website rolled over to the new administration’s site on time at noon.  It proclaims that change has come to this country.  I was happy to hear the word “digital” in Obama’s speech, and it appears likely that the digital age will be part of that change…and that these changes will impact education.  I see that as positive.

I have not blogged for the past three weeks for a combination of reasons.  Some of it is old habits.  When I was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, January was historically known as “The Dark Ages.”  Old habits die hard.  I was also sick for a week, followed by the hectic nature of a semester start.  The Dark Ages began to thaw this weekend when several of my students remarked in our online class that they were excited and enlightened by the first week’s activities!  I was simply introducing Delicious and Web 2.0 to these school teachers, but I spend so much time immersed in Web 2.0 that I can forget how exciting and refreshing it is to discover it!

So today’s speech seemed to lift those dark feelings off me.  It may still be January, but I am looking forward to this semester and the coming days with a renewed sense of hope and purpose.  I know I have a part to play in education…and I will look for opportunities to serve in other ways as well.

Three words captured the start of our country and three new words capture the direction forward,

We, The People!

Yes We Can!

The speech today merged these two concepts into one unified direction for our country and all of us.  I’m stoked!  🙂

{Photo Credit: Jim Young / Reuters}

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Strategic Thinking and Strategic Resources

It has been ages since I posted anything here…a combination of end of semester and work in the Center.  Part of what has been driving me lately are strategic questions, and I have some for you.

For the past two weeks, I have been drafting a white paper on the state of the union regarding online education.  It certainly has had me thinking strategically.  I do not think that I am alone – it seems many are thinking strategically right now.  I have been influenced by Stephen Downes’ “The Future of Online Learning,” the Landmark Project and its Big Ideas for Education, and the Sloan-C annual report, “Staying the Course – Online Education in the United StatesKen Allen, Laura Blankenship and Gardner Campbell also have me reflecting longer term with some of their recent posts.  When I am further along on the white paper, I will post more about it.

Yesterday, Jeff Nugent and I joined about 18 other educators from around Virginia to help the Electronic Campus of Virginia do some strategic planning.  ECVA is a cooperative effort of the state institutions of higher education to pool resources, learn from one another, and assist policy makers in formulating electronic policy for the state.  In our meeting yesterday, we broke into four groups to examine:

  • Assessment of Digital Literacy
  • Fading and Emerging Technologies
  • Open Source
  • Virtualization / Cloud Computing

Gardner was a past leader in ECVA, and was tweeting about his current participation in the MIT Program for the Future conference – a timely event.  The relevance of his tweets was a bit spooky!  Jeff and I joined the group discussing fading and emerging technologies.  Our first task was to define “emerging technologies.”  Jeff tweeted:

It was a good question.  As we often discuss here, what is emerging for us as early adopters is different from what is emerging for the masses in the middle.  Historically, the early and late majority have been slow to adopt new technologies…and equally slow in letting go of old technologies.  Early adopters on the other hand are quick to move on to some new technology and drop their latest even as the majority are starting to recognize what they are abandoning.  Stopping support for fading technologies (think slide projectors and overheads) is even tougher.  John St. Clair of University of Mary Washington used a great term yesterday when he noted that we sometimes need to “euthanize” technologies that are past their prime.

I wish that I had found Ray Sims post yesterday.  I like how he framed his question of “In the context of enterprise 2.0, what items potentially demonstrate emergent behavior?”…

  1. Use cases for new collaboration and social software applications. I think back to my experience with wiki four+ years ago prior to having benefit of the seeds in wikipatterns.com. Then, we openly didn’t know what we were going to use the wiki for, but overtime, some “standard” use cases emerged. Now I see the same with some of the newer social software applications like Twitter, where not only use cases but syntax conventions (for @username and #hashtags) emerge.
  2. Shifts in company culture, including towards more openness and more innovation
  3. Shifts in the macro way that employees work
  4. Organizational networks, including new ties facilitated by social software applications, shifting demographics, and changing culture
  5. Folksonomy, emerging from content categories
  6. Increased visibility to the most valuable content, derived both from explicit ratings and from behavior (e.g. tagging, subscriptions, linking, and page views)
  7. Wiki page structures
  8. Definitions and terminology, including definitions of web 2.0, enterprise 2.0, and knowledge management beyond the original coinage — see for example the enterprise 2.0 definition exchange documented in the AIIM report
  9. Collective intelligence. I’m still sorting out in my own mind to what extent this term works for me, but I at least think it is better than AIIM’s “collective wisdom” — although the report also uses “collective intelligence”
  10. Perhaps software applications, or at least mash-ups. Is it valid to claim emergence here? Although in a common-language sense they are emerging, it really isn’t emergence in the sense of complexity theory.

Ray has some great points.  We tend to focus in on tools and technologies, but what is really driving use is the culture established…and leaders are responsible for the culture.

As we circled around the topic, we kept coming back to the question of what resources drive our thinking.  We had all been influenced by the Horizon Report from NMC.  Jeff noted that when educators put lists together, they quickly grow to huge numbers, which few then digest.  So we began to wonder, could we cull such lists down to the top five resources we should point policy makers towards to influence their decisions?  We have great diversity in the edublogosphere, but we also tend to see common themes.  Can we collapse those themes down to the five we would give to policy makers?  What five resources would we want President-Elect Obama and the new Secretary of Education to read?  We thought that the list would include these three as a start:

So my question to my readers – What would be on YOUR top 5 list?  Use the comment feature below to add your ideas and voice.

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Email is For Old People

Yesterday, Jeff Nugent and I had the opportunity to present at the 2008 Virginia School Board Association annual convention.  We had around 40 people attend our session entitled “Email Is For Old People.”  Two were school administrators and the rest were all school board members from around the state.

These were our presentations slides:

The final slide had embedded this video:

As one can see from the presentation, we asked a series of questions around communication:

1.  Who had sent a hand written letter recently?

Around 20% had done so in the past week – two-thirds had in the last year.

2.  Emails?

Everyone used email.

3.  Instant messages?

About 60% did not IM – we did have a couple of power users.

4.  Text messages on cellphones?

Again, about 60% did not text, a couple of heavy text users.  (…and some misunderstanding of the differences between IM and SMS)

5.  Updates to Facebook or MySpace?

Around 80% did not have social network accounts.

We then had them all stand up and slowly revealed a slide with 18 different web application logos on it.  We asked them to remain standing if they recognized and used at least 3 – and all remained standing.  We then asked about five, and half the room sat down.  As we progressed through 7, 9, and 12, we still had two people standing.  Jeff then revealed the dates at which each of these applications went live, and noted that – given the short lifespan of these applications – the notion that K-12 students are digital natives and we are immigrants is a bit of a leap.  We are all trying to figure out the uses at the same time.  What is different is that the kids are less fearful of attempting apps – and they tend to look to them for socialization and entertainment, not learning.  Jeff suggested that it is the role of skilled teachers to lead them through this web world, just as skilled teachers have always led.

I then gave a quick tour through six families of applications – emphasizing not the tool but the practices associated with the tools (communication, connections, shared knowledge creation, etc.).  Our handout wiki has more details on each:

–  Blogs


Social Bookmarking


– Social Networks like MySpace, Facebook and Ning

Picture and Video Sharing websites

The attendees were interested in our message and acknowledged their lack of background in this area.  One went so far as to basically say – Tell me how I should vote when questions about the use of the internet come up in school board meetings! It was evident to me that K-12 student use of the internet remains an area of fear, and I am not sure we successfully demystified it for them.  They recognized that Jeff and I were advocates and they wanted more info on the downsides.  One member noted a case at his school where a student had emailed in a Columbine warning hoax which shut the school down.  I countered that kids had been doing that for generations – in my day it was notes in the bathrooms instead of electronic notes.  We tried to suggest that the tool (the web) was not the issue – the issue was the practice…as it has always been.

We closed our presentation with the above video A Vision of K-12 Student Today by B. J. Nesbitt, IT Coordinator for Pickens County, South Carolina.  His younger take of the Michael Wesch video certainly sent a powerful message to these school board members.

Now one wonders, will the seeds we planted yesterday have any impact?  Time will tell.

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