Back from Illinois: Part One, The People

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Yes, it is flat out there, very very flat, and yes, the people are nice. Even the suburbs of Detroit startled and charmed me from the plane window as we sailed above intensely yellow puddles of leaves in perfect, surprising Andy Goldsworthyian circles about the base of tree after tree after tree. But what they didn’t tell me was that somehow all this open sky must have a wildly positive effect on the imagination — over the course of the three days I was in Champaign, Illinois, I met an extraordinary group of innovators happy to share with me the many interesting things they are doing with technology in their teaching and research, including:

Christian Sandvig
Christian’s creative, effective use of blogs and project-based learning in large lecture courses should be broadcast throughout the edublogosphere. His students apply their learning in treasure hunts, creative reports, active learning projects that make his courses fun for his students–imagine, fun in a university classroom, fun that leads to deep learning. He’s the artist and the scholar at play in a highly technical classroom and research lab. He kept explaining that he turned to blogs because they streamlined his teaching, made grading and responding efficient while making the students feel that their work meant something, was taken seriously. Anyone teaching large lecture classes who has some interest in using blogs to make their teaching, responding and grading more efficient should take a look at his inspired work. Here’s an article about his blogging with students.

Nancy Abelmann and Peter Mortensen
Their Ethnography of the University Project has a bit in common with Ed Ayers and Will Thomas’s Aurora Project (see this post for more of a description) . The UICU project is “an innovative center of interdisciplinary student research” (Abelmann and Mortensen) using iLABS software in courses across the university to study the university as an institution. The projects are archived as “an enduring portfolio of student research that showcases both the processes and products of student learning.” Here students engage in authentic learning about their own institution while building a rich archive of the university’s stories. This is the kind of project we should be doing across all of our schools, higher ed or not, as a way for students to think about where they are, and what issues concern their fellow students, and what and who have come before them in their place of learning.

Sharon Tettegah
Sharon is pioneering the use of Second Life in her education classes; students imagine and design learning spaces and the curricula together. She commented that the students could imagine quite extroardinary experiential curricula but they had a tougher time letting go of the traditional spaces they had experienced as school. Their learning spaces looked like, well, schools, especially from the outside. How often do we talk to learners about where they are learning? What a physical school ought to look like? Sharon is also doing great things with animation in elementary schools, in some cases in stripped-down, simple format with Powerpoint and Photoshop, for students to create personal digital stories about identity, communities and learning; her lab is also developing an incredibly simple-to-use animation software, still in Beta: “We have developed and designed Clover, an authoring tool that engages students and teachers in a technology-rich design process to construct animated narrative vignettes (simulations) that deal with school interactions. The tools leads students through the process of constructing a vignette – writing a narrative, writing a script, sketching characters and scenes, animating scenes, and responding to vignettes created by other students [Tettegah, 2002, 2003, 2004].” She volunteered to be my guide into Second Life if I want to explore its worlds for my classrooms…

I also met the talented, energetic, and inspired graduate students under the fabulous Gail Hawisher and her colleagues. The encouragement she gives them to engage in interdisciplinary work makes them as enthusiastic a bunch of grad students as I’ve met in a long time–they are teaching Writing with Video as well as more traditional comp courses that don’t look or feel traditional at all, using blogs, multimedia, and engaging students in the excitement of finding their writing voices while mastering the discourse modes of the Academy. Really wonderful work. It was a great pleasure to meet with Gail and Spencer Schaffner who’s a great blogger in his own right and an innovative, thoughtful teacher who clearly is passionate about his subject matter and his students.

Among the many people I met who were managing to pursue significant research while paying close attention to their teaching (contrary to popular opinion in my liberal arts world about the large university) was Chip Bruce (who edited the excellent Literacy in the Information Age: Inquiries into Meaning Making with New Technologies), with whom I had a too-short chat at the end of one of my talks, about bridging the old literacies with the new, and how do we effectively thread into our explorations traditional forms and history. I also had a great time talking at dinner with Walt Hurley who really should be blogging about his experience in ag school classrooms–he has a wealth of knowledge, a creative approach to teaching, and a real understanding of the role of technology in learning landscapes. I very much hope to see his blog up and running one day soon.

And of course, the highlight of it all was meeting Lanny Arvan in person instead of on the blogs–it was as though we had been colleagues for years, discussing and sometimes arguing about our approaches, our successes and failures with social software, and the position of the teacher in the classroom. He tells stories as well as he writes them! I learned a good deal about the challenges facing large public universities, and I experienced the advantages, too, of being surrounding by so many brilliant, bold thinkers. I had no idea that quite so much was going on in so many corners of the University of Illinois (I even met Bill Cope and Michael Peters in passing). What a place! Flat place, yes. Incredible people, absolutely. I came away having learned much more than I taught, having been much more inspired than inspirational– it was a great, great trip.

Over the next few days, I will post my two talks (for now the slides are posted to my page on Flickr,) and, in response to several requests from Illinois, a description of how I set up a learning community–the questions I ask myself as I design a new course blog, and the activities and exercises I use during the crucial first two weeks of a course.


2 Responses

  1. great to have you on campus! you got many of us thinking about new (and old) ways to teach … thanks for that!

  2. Barbara,

    It was great meeting and talking with you about our common interest. I look forward to having many many more conversations and collaborations.. 🙂
    As Friedman says, the world is flat, and yes flatter in some places more than others.

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