Overcoming Old.Edu

My wife and I have been on the road this week down in the Richmond VA area.  We found a house in Chesterfield, and will be retiring there this spring.

Old SchoolDriving back to Boston yesterday, I had smooth jazz playing on Pandora in the car, and one of the songs that played was “Old.Edu (Old School)” by Euge Groove.  A clever title, but it also fit my thinking about this week in EDU 6323.

The topic this week was Re-Wiring the Web using RSS.  The web experience for users has morphed in the last decade. Initially, the web was simply a destination for users, a place one “surfed” content others created. At that time, there was no effective way to determine when content on a site had been modified or updated.

rssReally Simple Syndication (RSS) fundamentally changed this.  RSS feeds enabled news headlines, blog posts, audio and video files to be automatically updated and easily accessed through RSS readers or “aggregators” like Feedly, Netvibes, Protopage, and iTunes.  One could now control the web!  Rather than having to go out to favorite websites to see if there were updates, content was now served up or “pushed” to individual users through subscriptions that they customized.  When one could now gather dynamically updated web content, the notion of what it meant to access information radically changed.  During this week, my students explored setting up and customizing RSS aggregation tools, considering how they might leverage RSS technology to support personal and student learning.

One of the things I found interesting this week in my students’ reflections was that 90% said that they had never heard of RSS.  Yet, many admitted that they had noticed the orange RSS icon on webpages, but never felt compelled to check out what it was.  I found this most interesting.  We live in a rich media environment which is social, open, and participatory … but that presupposes that one will engage.  I have not bought in to the concept of “digital natives versus digital immigrants”, but Prensky’s idea of “digital wisdom” seems more on the mark now.   As the 2014 Huffington Post article by Jeff DeGraff noted:

“Don’t let the word “digital” fool you in all this talk about how difficult it is for digital natives and digital immigrants to communicate. The truth is that this generational gap between the so-called digital natives (the generation of people born during or after the rise of digital technologies) and the digital immigrants (people born before the advent of digital technology) doesn’t actually have to do with technology. The real issue is that the two worldviews that they represent are so different.”

So what I may be seeing in my students’ reflections is a different worldview from mine – one that may be more “old school.”

Maryellen Weimer noted in her post this week, “Why Are We So Slow to Change the Way We Teach?“, that many aspects of teaching are slow to change.  She suggested that this is due in part to change being harder than we think, that teachers tend to underestimate the complexity of changing teaching, and that many make change harder by going it alone.  My students seem to mirror this.  Several noted that they were glad the class was forcing them to examine something they would not do on their own.  It was interesting that several were immediately implementing aspects of RSS into their classes, where as several others thought it was a good idea and would try it out “sometime.”  I hope that they do!  Those experimenting with Feedly and Protopage seemed excited!

One student raised an interesting question.  He noted:

“…Individuals are only likely to pull in feeds of immediate relevance or concern, potentially blocking out important sources and perspectives in favor of just using what is fed to their aggregator. Additionally, pulling in too much information from news sites or other locations that frequently post new content may lead to information overload, creating the very clutter RSS is intended to avoid.”

Does rewiring the web keep us from seeing alternative viewpoints?  Michele Martin suggested this in her blog post “Understanding Homophily on the Web.” She noted:

“…My point here is that if we are getting a lot of information from and engaging in dialogues with other bloggers (as many of us are), it’s easy for us to forget who is NOT part of the conversations. We end up operating in siloes without even knowing it…”

Wrapped around our discussions this week was Michelle Miller’s fourth chapter from Minds Online about attention.  Miller noted that it is easy to derail attention. Yet, attention can easily be shifted. As Miller noted:

“…The inattentional blindness effect illustrates a broader truth about human perception and attention, that looking and seeing are two different things – and that we are remarkably prone to missing stimuli when our attention is directed elsewhere.”

While capacity cannot be expanded, it can be altered by practice. Actions that become automatic free up the brain to process other information. Attention is highly intertwined with visual processing, which is another facet of online course design that matters. The book explores change blindness, in which changes to the screen are not picked up readily. Most people think they perceive more change than they really do.

Working memory is an area of significant variation among individuals. Attention directs what goes in to working memory, so again, understanding attention is important to creating a learning environment. Miller suggested several strategies regarding attention and online learning.

  • Ask students to respond – Chunk material into short segments and have students do something (answer a question, click on a hotspot, etc).
  • Take advantage of automaticity – Use auto-grading features of LMS’s to provide practice opportunities and feedback, with incentives for completion.
  • Assess Cognitive Load – Positively impact cognitive load through design features. Poor instructions or requiring new features without practice can negatively increase cognitive load.
  • Discourage Divided Attention – The web is full of distractions, but simply informing students that they should pay attention actually increases attention.

A hotspot for my students this week regarding attention suggested that teachers should educate students about multitasking, make materials as seamless as possible, minimize extraneous attention drains, and keep them engaged through compelling activities.

My students and I grappled with how to actually apply this to the classroom.  It has become apparent to some that their own inattentional blindness affects how they are teaching their students, who in turn move forward lacking digital skills to effectively use the web.  Breaking the cycle of “Old School” is hard!

A third transformation is now taking place in a networked world, where the emphasis has shifted from first pulling, then pushing, to now curating and sharing information.  We will explore curation in four weeks, but next week, the focus will be on using Facebook and other social media as learning spaces.

And here is the song that got me thinking in the first place:

Of course, not everything O-L-D Dot E-D-U is bad…but we should be careful not to be too old school!

{Graphics: Duncan Hull, Rodney Calafati}

From Aggregation to Curation

Over the past month or so, we have taken our students in GRAD 602 on a carefully scaffolded journey through web technology to support teaching and learning.  With Jeff Nugent and our graduate fellow, David McLeod, we have laid out how the web is impacting the landscape of learning, suggested the use of Chickering and Gamson’s 7  Principles as a lens for determining the use of technology for learning, and then introduced students to blogging (public reflective practice), Twitter (networked communication), and Diigo (tagging and social bookmarking).  We complete our review of digital technology tonight by discussing the notion that – through RSS – you can rewire the web to customize the information flow one receives, as we are doing with Netvibes.

Yet, as we have prepared for tonight’s lesson, I am beginning to wonder about RSS as a topic.  It seems that the orange icon is disappearing off many websites, as is the functionality.  I noticed this week that Inside Higher Ed still has RSS feeds from its top level news, but that the feeds for subcategories like Teaching and Learning have disappeared.  Feed for the tag “grad602” in Diigo pulls up links tagged last spring semester, but nothing from this January or February (and there has been no response to questions posted in the Diigo Help Blog for this issue).  Another prof at VCU who also has his journalism students using a class tag in Diigo had the same problem, and has shifted back to Delicious for class tagging.

It is not that the concept of pulling rather than pushing information has died.  Lee Lefever’s RSS in Plain English still resonates with me…but this video was done five years ago, and five years in the web is a lifetime.  Feed still seems to be an underlying concept to sites like Facebook and the new social and participatory site – Pinterest.  But aggregation?  My “old school” but go to aggregator – Google Reader – is still part of my daily professional life…but it seems to be getting harder to build my own personal one-stop portal.  Perhaps, as David suggested, this is simply a reality of the web becoming more monetized.  If I am pulling to my reader, I am not seeing the ads back on the pages from which I pull.

So Jeff suggested that we might need to shift our focus from aggregation to curation.  Which raises the question (and it is not really a new question): What is our role as faculty in curating content for our students…and what is their role?  How do you see this playing out in your classes?  Is aggregation an outdated concept?  How do you see your role changing?  Is this role different for K12 teachers versus undergraduate versus graduate faculty?

Let me know your thoughts…

{Photo Credit: Oleg Sh}

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Aggregation Three Ways

I have posted several times about the power of using RSS feeds to make sense of the vast array of information in the World Wide Web. It appears to me that few faculty recognize (yet) just how transformational it is to move from a “surfer” of the web to one where the web comes to you…from push to pull. As I noted earlier this week in “A Bookmarking Fiend“, I use feeds from my delicious account, my news feeds of interest, and the blogs I follow – all feeding into my Google Reader account, to make sense of the world…a world that changes every day.

Synchronicity struck once again! Guy Kawsaki commented back to me in the above post that I should check out his new Alltop aggregator. On the same day, I saw a feed from my friend Eduardo Peirano down in Uruguay which highlighted a customized aggregator that he had set up. There is power in each of our processes, so I thought I would compare and contrast.

GR logo

Guy called me a “power Google Reader user” – though I feel at times more like a power Google Reader stumbler. The plus side for Google Reader is that it is easy to set up and use. To me, it is my daily newspaper. Like newspapers, I can quickly scan the “headlines” and only read the articles that actually interest me. Most RSS feeds from journals, news organizations, or blogs can be established with one click, which is nice. It has become part of my daily routine, but as Lee Lefever notes in his excellent summary video on YouTube, it can be addictive. I find that it does focus me to just the sites in which I am interested, acting in ways as a filter from the unwanted distractions out on the net.

Alltop logo

However, I see the power of Guy’s Alltop. If Google Reader is my newspaper, Alltop is the magazine rack at Barnes and Noble! With a glance and a roll of the mouse, you can quickly scan the top feeds in education…or forty other categories. As Guy and his colleagues point out in their FAQ, one could build their own aggregator but, as they note”…knock yourself out. While you’re at it, you could backup your hard disk, bake your own bread, iron your own shirts, floss daily, tune your own car, and bike to work.”  I love it!  In other words, they have taken the work out of this process for you, and done a credible job. Alltop provides one place to quickly scan the pulse of the field and also spot the feeds you may not be following at the time.

Eduardo is an example of someone who did knock himself out and develop his own customized aggregator. Using Feedraider, Eduardo has built pages of feeds from his daily news (his delicious account, his Twitter account, news feeds, etc), feeds from the College 2.0 Ning site that he coordinates, feeds from Higher Ed, eLearning and Open Learning blogs and news services, and feeds from his friends. Like Alltop, his set up allows you to quickly scan the feeds and focus in on the ones of interest.

Eduardo is out on the bleeding edge of aggregation, but I think his model gives us a glimpse of what is possible. I recommend that you check out both his set-up and Guy’s Alltop…but be careful. As Alan Levine might note, these are both great timesucker sites….you can get lost in the rich information that you find there!