Mindful and Intentional Tech

It has been over a month since I last blogged … a combination of finishing up a proposal development course with five doctoral students and updating my social media course.  So Derek’s book came along at a good time.  I just finished Intentional Tech: Principles to guide the use of educational technology in college teaching, by my friend Derek Bruff, director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching.

Intentional Tech - book by Derek Bruff

I have followed Derek’s career for over a decade.  Derek and his Center have been on the leading edge on the mindful use of technology, so his book title comes as no surprise.

In this book, Derek discusses seven principles to – as the tag line noted – guide the use of edtech in college teaching.  Yet, while all the examples are geared for adult learning, many would work in a K12 setting as well.  As Derek noted in his introduction, the use of the word “technology” covers both high tech and low tech … and he admits that his favorite technology rarely comes up in discussions with other faculty – chairs with wheels!  A few years ago, I have the opportunity to teach a summer session in VCU’s experimental classroom, where one could reconfigure the furniture class by class – and it was a hoot!  I did not get a picture when I taught, but here was Enoch Hale teaching in the same classroom.  And Enoch’s class is mentioned in Chapter 6 of Derek’s book!

Derek’s Seven Principles included:

  1. Times for Telling – Giving students a challenge or problem that sets them up for the learning to come.
  2. Practice and Feedback – To learn new skills, students need to practice and receive feedback on that practice.
  3. Thin Slices of Learning – Making thinking visible makes you more responsive to their learning needs.
  4. Knowledge Organizations – Providing students with visual ways to organize their knowledge can help them remember and use that knowledge.
  5. Multimodal Assignments – When students use different media in assignments, they learn better.
  6. Learning Communities – Structured ways for students to learn with and from each other
  7. Authentic Audiences – Connecting students to authentic audiences can enhance their motivation towards deeper learning.

Derek noted that the “seven teaching principles explored here are true whether or not we use technology, but they are particularly useful in helping us become more intentional I how we use technologies, old and new, to foster student learning.”  Each principle is a chapter…and each chapter ends with a number of very practical tips for teaching and learning.  I will not give away everything … this is a book well worth any college instructor adding to her or his bookshelf!

In the first chapter – Times for Telling – Derek suggested that giving students a hard problem or challenging experience can help get them ready for learning.

“As experts, most of us have an intuition that we should explain first, and then have students do something with that explanation…But in many cases, reversing this intuitive order leads to deeper learning.”

Derek noted that changing mental models is easier if the student is forced to confront that model first.  He provided several stories where classroom response systems or games were used to surface misconceptions, so that the follow-on discussion became richer.  In games (as in life), you have to fail to progress.  He suggested looking for opportunities that allow students to struggle with learning…using both individual and group activities.

This book was obviously geared for the classroom teacher – and Derek is a master at that – but I tried in each chapter to shift my thinking to intentional uses of the principle in a totally online asynchronous setting … which is the way I now teach.  In my current course on Social Media in Education, I have my students track their use of the web for five days in Week 2, build an infographic based on their own data in week 3, and then submit an analysis of their data in Week 4.  During those three weeks, we explore the use of social media in education … but by spacing the assignment out – and more importantly, letting them see their own data first, it seems to make the assignment more meaningful.

The second chapter – Practice and Feedback – suggested that in order for students to learn new skills, they need practice applying those skills, and feedback on that practice.  Whether blogging, close reading, or working in group activities, building in feedback mechanism helps with their learning.  I liked his “All-skate” as a metaphor.  Growing up, many of us spent our teen years in skating rinks, and no matter how good or bad your were, at some point every hour the MC invited everyone to skate, no matter their level of expertise.  Derek noted that there are opportunities in teaching for All-Skate activities.

Derek also mentioned one of my favorite approaches – the Flipped classroom – as a platform for practice and feedback.  The challenge in online classes is that the course is basically flipped to begin with, but you are never face-to-face with students to provide the spontaneous feedback to their practice.  I am wondering if a chat in Twitter could provide that platform?

Derek noted that the more we understand about what and how our students are learning, the more responsive we can be to their learning needs.  In his third chapter – Thin Slices of Learning – he provides stories of faculty who made their student thinking visible in a variety of ways.  Breaking tasks down and glimpsing student thought processes enroute to the finished product can help you provide just in time adjustments and help students learn at a deeper level.  And it provides lots of opportunities for formative assessment.

Derek talked about his use of social bookmarking for collaborative reference building.  I have done this in my Technology as a Medium for Learning course, where students collaboratively build a curation of annotated web links, which they then must use in their follow-on report.  Several of my students who are high school teachers have subsequently incorporated Diigo into their teaching.

Twitter, both in my online courses as well as livetweeting during physical classes. is another interesting way to make student thinking visible. As Derek pointed out though, it is important to make the tweeting assignment relevant to the final outcome.  This week, we are looking at the use of web tools in learning, and I assigned my Twitter buddy Gabriela Grosseck (@ggrosseck) article “To use or not use web 2.0 in higher education?”  This 2009 article is getting a little dated, yet I find it still relevant.  It helps that one of my students tweeted:

It was kind of cool that Derek mentioned using small whiteboards as brainstorming activities.  He noted that permanent markers on easel boards are “reporting tools, not thinking tools.” A white board opens up creativity,

Chapter 4 was on Knowledge Organizations, which built off of Susan Ambrose’s How Learning Works and the difference between knowledge organization by novices versus experts.

Providing students with visual ways to organize their knowledge can help them remember and use that knowledge.  Derek provided stories of faculty using debate maps, the use of the zooming feature in Prezi, timelines, and images as metaphors.  This last one reminded me of an online class that Jason Coats taught for VCU.  The course was Visual Poetry, and each week, students posted images that in some way aligned with the poem they were reading for the week.  Jason found it amazing and exciting that while around 20 students were taking his course, nearly a hundred people were sending images to the class hashtag and commenting on the poem for the week.  This gets at Chapter 6 below, the development of learning communities.

Before that was Chapter 5 on Multimodal Assignments.  Derek jumped in to one of my favorite topics – the myth of learning styles…and then moves in to how multiple modes of learning enhances learning for all.  When students work with new material using different kinds of media, they are better able to learn that material.

Derek also tied in Mayer’s dual coding as well as Garr Reynolds Presentation Zen. As Derek noted (and I agree): “You will never look at a Powerpoint presentation the same way.”  This idea of dual coding also plays out in my course and the use of student generated infographics on their own data.

I enjoyed Chapter 6 on Learning Communities because I knew one of the faculty mentioned in Derek’s stories – Enoch Hale.  Enoch Hale is director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Humbolt State University. I previously worked with Enoch at VCU’s Center for Teaching Excellence.  Derek told a story of Enoch’s use of Flipgrid and the structured way that students responded to each other using open-ended prompts through short videos.  He found the use of student-created videos opened up richer dialogue than typical LMS forums or even blogging.  As Derek noted, much of the time college classrooms are structured physically and organizationally to position the instructor as the sole source of expertise in the room.  Providing structured ways for students to learn from and with each other can enhance the learning experience for all students. As Derek noed, we do not have to lose our role as authorities and experts, but by asking students to contribute and acknowledging their contribution, we show them that learning is an ongoing process. While not mentioned, much of this discussion of enhancing learning reminded me of Carol Dweck’s work on growth versus fixed mindsets.  “In an authentic learning community, the instructor learns from the students, too.”

I have used Diigo in my class for social bookmarking and annotation, but I need to try out a tool Derek mentioned – Hypothesis for social reading and annotation.

Derek’s points about giving students authentic projects to work on reminded me of David McLeod and his Project 710 from a few years ago.  David now teaches at the University of Oklahoma, but back in 2011 at VCU, he crafted a service learning class where his students created PSA’s for local social work agencies.

Derek’s final chapter was on Authentic Audiences.  He noted that connecting students to authentic audiences for their work can motivate students toward deeper learning.  Several stories were provided on student blogging, course exchanges, and Writing for Wikipedia.  An interesting practical tip that I should consider – not all student work should go public. In my doctoral course, I have students blog in the open…and that has led to some amazing learning moments when the exterior audience begins commenting on their posts.  But Derek suggested using a private blog for initial drafts with only the best work published on open web.  Something to consider!

Derek ends with a discussion of his hobby of photography and how he developed through a daily challenge website.  He then noted that teaching “…isn’t something some of us are just born to do. It’s a complex set of skills that takes time and effort to develop, and we’re never done learning how to teach.”

Good point … and good book!  I highly recommend it.

{Graphics: WVUP, Watwood, Finkenaur, Mayer}

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