Thoughts on Higher Education and Technology

Last week I had the opportunity to Educause, which is ostensibly the largest higher education information technology conference in the United States. It is a large conference with approximately 4,000 attendees, most of whom are identified as Senior or Support IT specialists. According to this breakdown of 2014 attendees, I was one of 4 students there, and fewer than 300 faculty were present.

My experience at Educause was mixed. It’s an overwhelming conference not only because it is so large but also because of the emphasis on consuming information technology. The vendor hall had over 200 booths with salespeople who promised to offer the technology that will solve all of higher education’s problems. I was able to find folks interested in talking about the pedagogical uses of all this technology, but the overall message I got from the conference was “Buy this shiny thing! It will fix [insert problem here]!”

But what exactly are higher education’s problems? There have been a few blogs posts lately that have criticized Educause because it doesn’t address “real” higher education problems. Educause is on the cutting edge of technology, and there are tons of smart people at that conference, I don’t deny that. However, as a student and an instructor, I felt that there was a lot of misdirected attention to products and not enough attention to the problems that I encounter or how these products could be meaningfully incorporated into the classroom/university experience.

Combined with my experience at Educause, my friend Blake Wilder pointed me to an article about MOOC enthusiasm waning in IT offices. The issue presented in the article is that MOOCs have not disrupted higher education as expected, and the realization that making course material accessible does not necessarily ensure quality. My problem with this article has been my problem with the hype surrounding MOOCs from the beginning (replace “MOOC” with disruptive technology of your choice such as iPads, smart boards, etc.). What exactly were MOOCs disrupting, and why did it need to be disrupted? According to the article, it appears that branding and extending the reach of the university was why IT groups got so involved, but I think there has been more wrapped up in the MOOC phenomenon than just branding. What about the student and instructor perspective?

So here’s the issue. We have a ton of smart people in IT roles who are responsible for creating the technology that is used in higher education, we have a ton of smart people in instructional roles who are responsible for education, and we have a ton of smart people in student roles who are using this technology in their educational career. And there’s very little conversation happening amongst these three groups. We can’t do a good job of identifying the problems that these three groups face without discussing them, so how can we propose to offer the silver bullet in the form of a MOOC, flexible seating, a better LMS, etc?

Where are these conversations happening? What conference puts students, instructors, administrators, and staff people together at one table to talk about what the actual problems are and how to work on solutions? Please let me know, because that’s a conference I want to go to.

Reading Reflection: The Doodle Revolution

Currently reading: The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently by Sunni Brown (2014)

I recently picked up this book after a conversation on the always fascinating #womenintc conversation on Twitter. Some of the scholars had been posting pictures of their writing process, and many of the pictures included pictures of elaborate drawings, flow charts, and visual representations of works in progress. So I went in search of some texts about the power of visualizations, but I was really looking for a low-stakes form of visual thinking that I could use in any writing class.

Enter the doodle.

Brown’s whole goal is to unlock the power of visual thinking and to silence the inner critic who says that you can’t draw. Doodling is not art, she argues, but doodling is valuable because it provides an alternative way of viewing and thinking that can lead to new problem solving strategies. Brown has a lot to say about visual literacy, and it really fits nicely with multimodal composition theory. But I really value this book for its practical applications. Throughout the book, Brown breaks down line-by-line the elements that make up a doodle so as to make doodling accessible to even the most unartistic among us. If you can draw some sort of circle, you can doodle. The doodle itself isn’t the important component; it’s really the process of taking complex information, relationships, processes, etc. and breaking these aspects down into a visual representation.

I’m trying to think of ways to best incorporate doodling into the Intro to Digital Media Composing course that I will be teaching in the fall. I want to start the class off with doodling as a low-stakes, less threatening way to start thinking about visual representations. I’ll probably assign part of this book or a podcast that The Student Affairs Spectacular recently released on doodling. I may ask students to doodle themselves as a class introduction activity in the hopes that they may find it easier to start visually representing themselves. Brown provides some great group activities to build doodling skills like an exercise to help create doodles ranging from the concrete to the abstract. I’d also like to ask students to doodle a section of an alphabetic text, probably one of the course readings, in order to practice translating or remediating.