Wednesday, October 07, 2009

I. Programs make faster, better educational progress when they're world class scroungers

Earlier this week I described my mistaken belief that one should pay most attention to the newest ideas, especially if you can create your own idea or phrase, or at least your own wrinkle, and then claim the credit for being first.

The folly of that belief was pounded home for me in 1996. That was the year that Arthur Chickering suggested that we write an article on how to use technology to implement the 'seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education.' He and Zelda Gamson had summarized these seven lessons from educational research a decade earlier.

I replied that such an article was unnecessary. “Everyone knows how to do this already,' I told him. 'According to your seven principles, when students cooperate, educational outcomes usually improve. Anyone can see that using email can provide new avenues for students to cooperate. And the kinds of complex, real world projects made possible by computing often compel students to work in teams. Who needs an article to tell them that? It's old news.” Chickering persisted. So we wrote the article, got it published in a little newsletter, and soon put it on the web. Very quickly, 100 people per month were visiting our article. Then 200, and 400. A decade later, over 5,000 people per month were taking a look at it . Not bad for an article about ideas so obvious that I'd thought an article totally unnecessary.

Crucial question: How do you spread ideas and skills from the 5% of faculty for whom they're old news to those who would also respond, “That's wonderful!” if they ever heard about the idea or tried the skill? These blog posts are about using technologies in a way that can improve what's learned, who learns, and how they learn. To achieve that kind of change, engaging large numbers of mainstream faculty can be important. Each of them may not need to change what they're doing very much, but they each would probably need to change a little. Suppose it's a change they'd like if they ever heard about it; how can we help them notice the possibility in time?

Steve Gilbert, Flora McMartin and I did a major research study for MIT and Microsoft several years ago. Microsoft had made a multi-year, $25 million grant to MIT, and chunks of that money were being awarded to MIT faculty to do pioneering projects involving educational uses of technology. Our research: discover factors that influenced whether the best of these innovations were ever used by faculty other than their original developers.

One story from this MIT/Microsoft study suggests an important lesson for any program that wants to accelerate the pace of improving teaching and learning with technology.

Pete Donaldson is a Shakespeare scholar at MIT. For years before the Microsoft grant became available to MIT faculty, Pete had been experimenting with ways for his students to use film clips (without violating copyright) in their papers and online discussions. He'd had some success, enough to give workshops on the topic and to be a keynoter at the Shakespeare Association of America, where he gave a spectacular demonstration. His use of video clips, however, relied on an assembly of expensive equipment. Then he received a grant from the MIT/Microsoft iCampus program. The support enabled programmers to work with him, and to figure out a much more inexpensive strategy. The resulting software was called the Cross Media Annotation System (XMAS). Pete used the SHAKSPER, a popular listserv in the Shakespeare community and a mailing list of people who had attended his prior workshops to ask if anyone would like to use this free service in order to incorporate film clips into their Shakespeare courses. Quite a few did, especially because they knew and trusted Pete. One comment we heard from several adaptors: Pete wasn't threatening because he wasn't a techie, himself. He was like them. So if he could use XMAS, so could they.

The story is not all success. XMAS ought to be a great tool for film courses taught by film scholars, even more than for Shakespeare courses taught by English professors.

But Pete Donaldson is not a member of that community of film scholars, doesn't go to their conferences, doesn't know their listservs, and doesn't write in their journals. Nor do the other English faculty he has helped.

At some point, XMAS and Donaldson's techniques for using it may be adapted by a film scholar who, like Pete, uses the idea for teaching and for research and who, like Pete, has a yen to help his or her colleagues. And then the use of XMAS may begin spreading like a virus in that community.

Let's pull these threads together.

In the real world, instructors rarely have much time to uncover new ideas. Nor can they can take many risks (e.g., fear of embarrassment, wasted time when they're already over-committed, risk to a tenure case). That's one reason why new ideas about teaching and learning tend to spread so slowly. However, it can help to hear about such ideas from peers with a reputation for this kind of improvement (especially from peers who teach similar courses to similar students, even at other institutions).

Therefore, I suggest that any institution that wants to make unusual progress in TLT ought to help create and sustain faculty learning communities whose members often (a) teach similar courses, and (b) come from different institutions. If those similar courses have similar students, and the faculty have similar styles, so much the better. That way, if one faculty member has an idea, or uses a technology, or has a puzzling experience, it should be relatively easy for others to emulate. And, by including faculty from other institutions, you and your colleagues will hear about new low threshold steps much more quickly.

You can't search everywhere for everything. That's another reason why it's so important to set one or two focused priorities. Those priorities should help faculty and staff focus their searches for ideas. Become a world class scrounger and borrower of appropriate teaching ideas and materials from around the world! Ironically, that's also a great way for faculty members and their program to get a reputation as world class innovators.

PS. If you don't have much money, search for great ideas in countries where money has been scarce for some time.

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