Revelations in Dallas

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And no, I didn’t get to take in the Kimball or the Dallas Museum of Art or the Sixth Floor Museum–just the sprawling Dallas Convention Center and the historic Adolphus Hotel and the shuttle between the two. That’s what happens when you attend only the first couple of days of a huge conference. But in that convention center I met some great people and learned about some impressive projects going on in classrooms in Virginia, Nebraska, North Carolina, Minnesota and Michigan.

It was a real pleasure to spend Monday with the marvelous Bryan Alexander and the nearly 50 participants in our EDUCAUSE workshop on Social Software in Teaching and Learning.

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Bryan telling stories…

The biggest challenge for me was the range of experience with and exposure to social software among the participants. While a few attendees had very little knowledge of blogs and wikis–though you wouldn’t think so from this shot I snapped after Bryan asked, “Who has ever edited a wiki?”
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–we also had a Dutch team teaching social bookmarking to seven-year-olds and embedding video of us into the wiki almost in real time. Knowing that we only had a day, and being a believer in student-centered learning, I felt the pressure of getting everyone talking and thinking deeply about their learning and that of the students in their schools. Bryan’s wonderful session wiki helped immensely as it gave our most advanced participants an opportunity to contribute, and contribute they did, adding content to the wiki as we spoke. Inspired by the incomparable Nancy White and her use of Flickr in presentations, I used a Flickr slide show as part of the introduction to my teaching and learning. From now on I plan to use the combination of the two–and invite attendees to contribute to both as I’m presenting–this approach creates an interesting relationship between presenter/facilitator and attendee/contributor, closing in on the kind of interactive conference session I’m after that includes collective knowledge building through the wiki and Flickr as well as discussion following brief presentations. Keeping the presenting part to a minimum is tough, though… And of course, the network connections have to be reliable… The workshop went well, I think, combining Bryan’s looking ahead and deeply with my looking into the classroom. Not surprising at all were the many questions about privacy, assessment, and motivating faculty. Yes.

Other highlights of my brief stay in Dallas included two excellent conference sessions–one so inspiring that I haven’t stopped talking about it all week. In “Time, Space and History” prominent historians Edward Ayers of The University of Virginia and WIll Thomas of The University of Nebraska showcased their Aurora Project (watch their presentation here). Daring to consider historical scholarship in four dimensions through digital means (GIS, xml, coding, visual patterning, ect.), and inspired by the work of weather visualization and analysis, these two noted scholars are portraying the individual and community stories of Reconstruction and the expansion of the railroads against the larger sweeps of history, showing time as well as space as they “weave together the patterns of a multidimensional history” instead of continuing solely with monograph-based historical scholarship.

Students in Ed Ayers’ classes contribute to the project in real ways, including examining historical primary source documents, county by county, and writing brief historical narratives from the documents. Each student writes ten of these page-and-a-half narratives–“Imagine writing history for a cellphone,” Ayers explained–which are reviewed by grad student TAs before being published on the project site linked to the GIS maps, graphs, visuals of all sorts. They spoke of the “productive anxiety” students feel when asked to do something that they have never done before, that no one has done before. The professors tell their students that they are making it up as they go–how many teachers say such things in class? These students are learning the discipline as they are doing it. They are developing the discipline as they learn it. Fantastic! This is how we can weave together the best traditions of classroom learning and the new opportunities afforded by emerging technologies. It was a riveting talk exemplifying authentic learning.

The second session of note, “Gaming as Pedagogy: Teaching College Economics via a Video Game” showcased a visually enticing computer game created for a mid-level economics course at the University of North Carolina- Greensboro as a way for students to apply what they learn while being engaged by the stimulating environment of a computer game. I can see its appeal and its usefulness to assess understanding in a choose-your-own-adventure kind of setting, but I don’t much like the fact that the only options available are set out for the students–they have to choose one route over another, one decision over another, but are not able or asked to give their own reasoning. They click and move on, click and watch, read or mull over, click again. They are applying their learning, sure, and it’s fun, absolutely, but they are not contributing here; there’s no asking the students to articulate for themselves what they have learned. They aren’t doing the discipline I guess, but playing it. The students sure love it, signing up in droves for the section that offers the game. To see a sneak preview, check out their site–they definitely win the award for coolest hand-outs (creature mask, demo disk, and beautiful promotional booklet).

I also found myself at a poster session on Media MATRIX which is “an online application that allows users to isolate, segment, and annotate digital media”–very interesting examples from political science and history classes. I plan to spend some time trying it out and perhaps inviting my students to use it in their research papers later this semester. Promising.

Hearing at the NITLE reception more about some of the extraordinary online work going on at Carleton College, including a full-semester multimedia and blogging course on the road that I had learned about earlier from Sarah Lohnes has me absolutely green with envy. This is how I want to teach!

It was quite extraordinary to see the kind of creative, powerful work being done across the country, and so I returned to Middlebury both inspired and refreshed, ready to keep pushing forward with these ideas, ready to get back to my own classroom, ready to get back to Vermont. geese adirondacks

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