Thursday, February 24, 2011

Oh the Audacity!

So I look a little silly, but the headphone-microphone combination isn't a fashion statement, it is a way to breathe new life into your online course. I have spent some time examining audio commentary in the online course and this blog is a quick update on an audio teaching tool. I am playing with a brand new, FREE, feature that might help many who instruct online or who enhance their courses with Blackboard or other course management systems (CMS). It is Audacity. Click, download, and use. Very simple and it can provide a great way to connect with students. All you need is a microphone. Many of us have one built in to our computer, but I have a the fancy headphone/mic combo from a technology grant and this is a great way to use it. Others can buy a basic mic for as low as $10. Combine that small amount of hardware to this free software to offer a dynamic change to your online course. This recording/editing software allows professors (or students) to record responses, directions, questions, ANY type of content and then post that information right into the CMS. I just did a trial run and it was incredibly easy. My students now see a little sound bar (see middle of screen shot) and click play to hear me encourage and direct them toward the next assignment. I will use this feature to guide my students through both written and verbal directions from this point forward in the course. I just added a little audio overview to our course module and added some audio clarification to a discussion board (yes, all of this was simply done to play with my new tech tool, but the students ALREADY emailed me to tell me the love the audio additions!). This little tool should improve instructor immediacy and hopefully help students respond and engage in the online course.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Culture of complaint: self-reflection of (dis)engagement

It is time for a self-assessment: Are you "checked in" at work? What does it take to keep you focused and contributing during a busy day? When do you find the extra time and where do you find the extra energy to carry out those endless tasks? Today I am eager to examine faculty engagement.

I have previously written that many of us are struggling with motivation and I thought that was reasonable and understandable with more and more work expected from our limited time, especially as higher education budgets are evaporating. However, I recently began thinking that motivation might not be the best word to describe some of the feelings seen and heard lately. Perhaps it is better identified as disengagement. What's the difference? Motivation represents an acceptance of some type of impetus for action. I am motivated by my students' energy. So being unmotivated simply means I am lacking an impetus to produce action.

Disengagement is defined as moving away from/detaching from a connection. To me there's a difference here as disengagement can mean we drift from our overall connection with something and can near apathy. It seems MUCH scarier and MUCH more permanent to me than a simple lack of motivation. Consider this: Do you feel yourself slipping away from the courses you teach, not being "on" in the classroom, not preparing for the classes the way you should, not really listening at meetings, kind of checking out of the process? I found myself slipping into a disengaged phase when it came to committee work, as some of my previous posts have noted this work is currently quite demanding. Because of this, I hit a "griping" phase. I tried to reign in this unusual nature of complaining to a better place where I can use my concerns to foster change and not to simply complain. This shift to a complainer came about innocently as I walked into a meeting upset (ironically, over the amount of time I was spending in meetings) and frustrated by my subsequent lack of time to prepare for my classes. A colleague came in and noted I looked tired. That was all it took! I verbally dumped my complaints out. Then I heard a lot of complaints back. The next person who sat down began complaining right with us. We were talking over one another simply trying to voice all of our frustrations. We weren't listening, we were just complaining. When the meeting began, I was completely checked out of the process. After I left, I realized I missed great opportunities to voice thoughts about new directions at our institution. I was angry at myself for ranting about a problem instead of jumping in to DO SOMETHING about the issues that we are facing. Then I thought about it: complaining could become an institutional culture. Yipes! What could I do to foster positive change in myself and fight this disengagement before it contaminated more people?

What I mistook for a lack of motivation in some of us as faculty members may actually be a disengaged faculty! What does a disengaged faculty look like? Well, generally they offer up a lot of problems without caring about or searching for solutions. It is criticism without the constructive element -- and without that constructive element, how can we be guided toward a better outcome? Being around disengaged people can be incredibly frustrating for anyone attempting to pitch a new idea or opportunity. It is frustrating to face disengaged faculty (or administrators or staff or students--substitute your group of choice here) because the disengaged group constantly (and perhaps unintentionally)
undermines ANY attempt for change. The don't like your ideas, but they don't offer ideas of their own, and they often find fault with everyone and everything around them.

As Julie Sweetland, from the Center for Inspired Teaching wrote in Challenges to Creating a Culture of Professional Learning, " The teacher-driven culture of collaboration that is the hallmark of a mature professional learning community can be impossible to foster in the absence of a sense of personal and collective efficacy, a deep and abiding 'can-do’ attitude. In schools where teaching professionals are subjected to isolation and other forms of professional insult and injury, faculty and staff may act in ways that reflect a learned helplessness, consistently avoiding responsibility for problems and their solutions. Conversations in the faculty lounge—if they touch on issues of teaching and learning at all—are likely to focus on the failures of administrators, policy makers, parents, and students. The ‘blame game’ can be especially frustrating for change agents who believe that teachers are the most powerful influence on student achievement (Haycock 1998)."

I have to own my place in this conversation. In that meeting, I was disengaged. I was checked out, I was self-absorbed, and I ceased being a part of the solution and became part of the problem.

Have you found your energies leaning more and more toward this disengaged category? Have you noticed this in others? Have you noticed it in your institution? A great way to boost yourself out of this quagmire is to build awareness of your personal agency (according to Sweetland). She notes this can help transform the "laundry lists of complaints into more meaningful areas for positive action." Isn't that what we're in academia for? We are here to create positive change in our students, to foster growth, to mentor, to share, to examine. How can we do any of that if we are checking out of the process?

How do we work on our self-agency or perhaps on the culture of our institution? It is easy for us to individually get caught up in the disengaged mindset, as I can attest, so I encourage us to become active participants in crafting a culture of problem-solving and further challenge us to truly listen to one another. This has proven to be a useful approach in several of my meetings and it has helped to shake me out of my temporarily disengaged ways.

My new goal this past week to was to help craft a culture of empowerment and I feel that the simple change in mindset made my busy, accreditation-focused, meeting-filled week so much more enjoyable and I am no longer infecting others with my toxic complaints. I am still busy, but I am mindful that the work serves a purpose and helps maintain the value of education that I hold so close to my heart. Be prepared for my latest mantra: "I will help craft a culture of empowerment."

I would also note that we should be self-reflective and own our place in institutional culture--sometimes our voice may feel small and unheard, but it can be far-reaching and do many positive and negative things.

Haycock, Kati. 1998. Good Teaching Matters: How Well-Qualified Teachers Can Close the Gap. Thinking K-16:31.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


I travel light. I don't need ten different shoes or complete wardrobe changes. I pride myself on being a drama-free traveler never stuck trying to cram a carry-on suitcase overhead and shove a duffel-size bag under the seat in front of me. I am simple. I count my trusty chapstick as makeup and my bulk when traveling is simply file folders if I can't convert to some electronic format. So just WHEN did I become someone who takes hours to pack? It isn't shoes or clothes, it is all of my electronics. When did I become this Gadget-Girl?

It started, I suppose, with an mp3 player. I got my first mp3 player before a study abroad trip to China in 2005. It was so convenient! Then, of course, came the laptop. "I have to travel with this to do my work," I justified. After that came the e-reader, my nook. "My research books are on here and the new sci-fi book is a treat for the airplane" ranted my inner dialogue. I have always loved snapping and sharing pictures, so the camera had to travel, of course. And, well if we're being honest, the all- important Blackberry must come along. It isn't even considered as optional these days.

All of this electronic encumbrance hit me as I packed for a conference a few weeks ago. The first thing I always pack is my little neon green bag I have dubbed the "cord keeper" which has the nook charger, the blackberry charger, the mp3 charger, the laptop cords, the tiny mouse for the laptop, the camera to laptop usb, and a little desktop speaker (with wire) for my mp3 player. Seriously...the bag wouldn't zip.

At what point do the gadgets lose their flexible, fun options and become necessities in our lives? Couldn't I simply use the "nook app" on my laptop or cell phone and leave the e-reader at home? Shouldn't I just play the music on my laptop and nix the mp3-speaker combination? Why not just rely on the blackberry's camera feature instead of lugging around the actual camera?

Apparently, I'm a closet gadget freak. It is no secret that I belong in the land of nerds and I embrace that membership fully. But I had no idea that I was such a Gadget-Girl! I really did think of myself as someone who could just pick up and go...until that little green bag refused to zip. Realization: it is time to downsize.

Over the past two months I have been non-hurriedly shopping for a personal netbook to make my conference travel easier than my work-issued clunky, heavy laptop. It was also an opportunity to streamline the gadgets. Then, my institution began talking about issuing an iPad for instructors in the pilot phase of our new QEP ("E-focused!"). Could this little gadget be the answer to my wire-filled wearying ways? Nothing is certain, but I will be eager to examine the opportunities if the iPad comes into my hands. If you have experience with an iPad and work-related use (computing, communicating, etc.) please post or email and let us know how it is working out for you.

Now, where are my ear buds, mp3 player and flash drive? I've got work to do...

Monday, February 14, 2011

"can u tell me what 2 read 4 class 2mrw? thx!"

I am running in between meetings today, but simply had to write a short note about the interesting ways we communicate after I received an email asking, "can u tell me what 2 read 4 class 2mrw? thx!" I sat in a meeting and mentioned I got "text talk" from a student and beside me a slew of conversation began about whether or not one would "allow a student to talk to me that way." I found it intriguing to see our powerful reactions to communication.

Isn't it interesting to examine the primary means through which we choose to communicate? It isn't simply about the text-style writings. For example, I have recently gotten emails from someone while we were both in the office, less than a dozen feet from one another. We each knew the other was available and yet chose email: I hit "reply" to respond instead of hopping up and conversing in person. Clearly we have comfort zones in the way we like to tackle our communication that provide a lot of opportunities to reach out to one another, but they also offer a chance for mis-communication or misunderstandings.

It is easy to see how one who prefers oral communication can think that an email is "too formal" or say, "What? You felt you needed this documented in writing? Why?" and take offense (both comments I have heard recently). Or to see how someone who prefers electronic communication can grumble about sitting in a meeting when the information could have been sent via email and saved everyone the time (again, I heard this comment last week). My desire to communicate via email (instead of phone) is simply because my shared office can be very noisy and I'm drawn out of the office for classes and meetings frequently. I hate playing "phone tag" and email is a great solution. But my preference can be seen as self-isolating to those preferring to communicate orally. In fact, just being my natural communicator and replying by email quickly (via my wonderful blackberry) led the initial message sender to ask that I not "send off a quick reply" but instead come and speak with her. Our comfort zones and natural communication patterns can easily get us into hot water.

We see this preferred communication comfort zone in our students, who are now labeled as the "instant gratification" communicators where email is "too slow" and chats, texts, or IM opportunities are their preferences. You can watch students text one another when they are side-by-side just as my colleague and I emailed within sight of one another. We can see how this can bleed into the instructor/student relationships. Just consider the common complaints we have all heard from professors: a student emails the professor using "text talk"-style writing ("can u tell me what 2 read 4 class 2mrw?") and the result is usually that instructor is highly insulted that a student would send such a thing...While I am certainly NOT advocating for us to allow text-filled papers or communication, I am writing to demonstrate that everyone has a level of comfort associated with different communication mediums and that comfort zone should be a part of our educational process with students. We can easily discuss intended audience, image crafting, message and impact on perceptions with our students who are (perhaps) simply naturally communicating and (perhaps) not thinking through the process. It is a teachable moment, in other words, and one we might all need if we self-reflect.

It is intriguing to see the way we find comfort in our communication can send out various, sometimes unintended messages about who we are. We should be mindful of the communicative comfort zones of others and strive to project the image that we feel most comfortable with by making allowances and modifications in our preferences and, of course, by finding teachable moments in our communication with students.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

WIKI-dly engaging!

With our new Blackboard 9.1 system, I have been examining how to move my online course into a more communication-friendly environment. I feel online learning can often leave students feeling isolated. I crafted journals using the new "journal" feature, I reconsidered previous assignments, examined "grouping" students, digitally upgraded past discussions adding video content and links, and today I dove head first into the BB9.1 wiki.

The wiki feature in 9.1 is shaping up to be a great tool for student collaboration without a lot of discussion board threads that (supposedly) help the students engage with one another. I have found the discussion boards less than exciting the past semester and was thrilled to know we upgraded to a new learning platform which allows more student-to-student collaboration right in the BB space. The issue I had today was getting myself to stop exploring the wiki feature. I spent a few very fun moments today trying to stop playing with the wiki feature of BB9.1 and all I could think about was the many ways students could communicate with one another on a true working level. They won't be limited to a post/reply forced dynamic and this is exciting. Additionally, this moves them out of the answer-my-prompt format of many of the discussion boards. It allows them to think creatively and engage with the content material differently.

I am launching the use of the wiki feature this semester to see how the students respond to it. First, I asked the students if they would like to try the new technology. There was reluctance, but after explaining what a wiki was (with the inevitable, "Oh, like wikipedia!" statement) the students were excited. Then I got their feedback on what they thought they might like to do. Lastly, I made a sample wiki using blackboard that they can all view. I created an assignment overview with a clear "purpose of this assignment..." statement that all of the Web 2.0 articles say is necessary for student buy-in with new technology. For my purposes, I separated the students into two randomly assigned groups. BB9.1 assigned the groups for me! Now each group will craft a wiki this semester. The process will involve several sessions of class where we check in with one another to regroup and review techniques, pitfalls, and address concerns but I am mirroring the activity in both the online and on-ground courses to see how it goes.

So far, the wiki is engaging and very open for students to take the lead/direction. This initial freedom might cause uncertainty and confusion in the students so I am remaining very available and open for student questions and worries. I will be posting back as the project gets under way and hopefully we will be able to reach both the on-ground and online students with a new, collaborative-based communication tool.

Want to learn more about wikis? Check out these links:
And since the Blackboard wiki space takes a bit of clicking and trying it out before "getting" it (at least for me and my eLearning director), examine

If you're trying BB9.1 wikis (or other wiki hosting spaces), why not add a comment and let us all know how it goes?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Weekend work

Friday evening. You get home, finally take off the "work" shoes that have been killing your feet all day, change into the comfortable sweatshirt from your undergrad years, and get into the weekend routine. In my household, this means I instantly clean up all of the little disorderly areas from the past week such as the yoga bag by the front door and the pile of file folders that end up on my island cabinet after a week of rushing in and out of the house. I might sort through mail while cooking a little tofu stir-fry or turn up the music while vacuuming. It is thoughtless Friday evening work and it takes place as my mind is mentally transitioning from faculty mode to weekend worker mode. The weekend worker is a role that I love. It involves grading, emailing, and research but it is done with the delightful knowledge that all of that work can be accomplished in pajamas and pigtails and I can take my time doing it -- that knowledge makes Friday evening mentally relaxing for me. But this past weekend my work involved a much-dreaded word for most faculty members: committees.

I don't mind grading on the weekend. I don't mind researching and writing on the weekend. I, for some inexplicable reason, really resent committee work on the weekends. But there it was. An email with a tiny red exclamation point screaming "urgent" and the follow-up phone call encouraging my immediate attention.

My research sighed in frustration as it felt itself getting pushed to the side. My grading rolled its eyes as it knew that I would find it waiting for me after the committee work ended. As a pre-tenure faculty member sitting on several university committees, I find this balance the hardest to achieve in my work life. How can I put aside work that is required by the administration/institution? How can I balance that with my own research (which, by the way, is screaming at me, "TICK TOCK, TENURE CLOCK!")? I spent a few hours working on the urgent committee item and my energy was draining. I got to the emails. I addressed the grading. I got another email with another red exclamation point following up from the work I submitted. By Sunday evening, I had not even touched the research other than a few follow-up communication emails with IRB folks...

And so it goes, the hours on the weekend that I spent working show that I still put my research on the back burner. I wonder at the priorities I set. I can see other faculty members do not all follow the same priority list. In fact, many can easily put research first. For me, teaching is first and teaching preparation work will always get done before research. But I think I must find a way to make research a strong second and so I continue to organize, plot, and restructure my days to try and fit it all in. My best laid plans fall apart whenever that dreaded "committee" word gets thrown in the mix. I imagine the same struggle is felt by many pre-tenure faculty members and perhaps for most of us who work at smaller institutions where the committee load is not spread around easily.

Since there does not appear to be an easy solution, I will try to accomplish as much as possible during the work week so my weekend worker role can once again be enjoyed!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The next generation of learners

After a wonderful discussion about students and technology at a conference this past weekend, I was delighted to receive the youtube link below from a conference attendee. Our conversations as a group centered around the role, place, and intent of technology in the classroom. I presented on the topic of meeting our students digitally to allow education to surpass the traditional walls of higher education and engage our students in new ways using digital means. It was an exciting! But it was also a slightly disturbing conversation as there were several judgments expressed about our students today that were not flattering and many expressed "blame" toward the role of technology. Yesterday a fellow attendee sent along this link that I think many educators should review. Love it or hate it, technology has become a way that students learn and engage, so consider how you are evolving as an instructor. Are you shaping your teaching to meet the students where they are? Do you find yourself willing to try new modes of communication with your students? Even if you feel intimidated or uncertain, are you open to new processes of learning? Check out this video and share what you think.

The direct link is: