Digging into UMW, Part II: The Art and Craft of EDUPUNK

Let’s start with this: UMW is ahead, possibly by two or three years, of any university or college I know of when it comes to campus-wide integration of networked learning in the classroom. So much of what I say will, oddly enough, not be relevant to most institutions. Most of us are still scaling that cliff wall, evangelizing, getting those showcase projects together that we can show to others. Most of us are still having to answer the accusation that if there’s technology in the class that is less time on learning content.

It’s getting better, for sure. Here at Keene State we just moved from core technology outcomes to media fluency outcomes, based around collaborative tech, participatory media, critical consumption, and creative tech use. I taught a six hour seminar the other day to eight people looking to use those outcomes, and it was electrifying in a way that it just couldn’t have been two years ago. It was electrifying because the question for those eight people was not if, or even why, but how. Two years ago, even with a group as small as eight people, you’d have to have spent the first section of that seminar making the case that this is core to what we do, and dealing with the suspicion that this was all a fad.

My co-workers in CELT are starting, with small, core, groups of people, to get past the why as well. It’s exciting. But as I say, we aren’t there yet. We’ve got those first showcase projects, and we’re expanding now to talk to the people that are *not* first adopters, but we’ve gotten to where UMW was two years ago.

But here’s what I realized at UMW, as I peered into what I hope will be our future here. There will be a period after the evangelization, after the growth by leaps and bounds, a period after the “Mr. Watson, come here, I need you” moments. There will be a period where you won’t have to introduce your twittering and blogging faculty to the Next Big Thing. Because, at least for a little while, it’s not going to be the Next Big Thing that matters.

Because, at that point, it will be the success or failure of the Next Little Things that the success or failure of the institution will rest on. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about recently, a lot.


During the final beers of Faculty Academy, I was asked what I thought the future of higher education looked like five years out. I said probably not good: in about three years we will see some reputable & large-scale alternative modes of degree-granting which disaggregate instruction from credit, and in five years that will start to cut into public education in nontrivial ways. And while five years out the effects might still be minimal, they are likely not to increase in a purely linear fashion — because as education becomes unbundled colleges will likely lose a monopoly on the very sorts of introductory courses that tend to subsidize our more expensive courses, and the tuition increases that will accompany that unbundling will further accelerate the slide. Couple this with political pressures to privatize the whole thing to solve the crisis, and the picture is not good.

So our time is limited here. Jim likes to say that he’s always felt instructional technologists were like the Replicants in Blade Runner — here for a limited time, programmed to die in six, seven, ten years. But I think Higher Education as a whole, and in particular that portion of higher education with a traditional liberal arts focus, is beginning to sense our own mortality.

There’s two reactions we can have to this. The first is to try to find radical alternative models that have a chance of surviving in the future Edupocalypse. And that’s incredibly important work, which people like Phillip Schmidt and Stian Haklev, George Siemens and Stephen Downes, and outfits like Carnegie Mellon and others are engaged in, via CCK, P2PU, and OLI (and yes, OCW as well). I’m reassured that the people working on that are some of the best minds I know.

But coming back from UMW I realized there’s something else that’s also important. While we have public liberal arts with us, what we really need to be doing, after that first great leap, is investigating the many ways that technology can map onto what I still believe can be a profoundly relevant education.

Because in the end, the larger force of History will prevail, either public liberal arts face-to-face education will survive, or it won’t.

But if it does survive, it’s not going to survive because some grand project saved it, but because the concerns of the liberal arts became so spliced into the genes of networked learning that there is no way for liberal arts to die off. It doesn’t matter whether colleges fall or expand, the survival of the liberal arts depends on the same thing — a sort of mass cultural transfer of what we do into the networked age.

At some point at UMW this stopped being a movement that was about spreading outward, and started becoming a movement that was, for lack of a better term, saturation.

I watched a lot of presentations at UMW. And what I came away with was this. When you take marvelous teachers and put them in touch with the right technologists, yes, incredible things happen. But *what* happens is as individual as the people involved. And it is that uniqueness and diversity of what is happening at UMW that struck me most. As UMW starts to cut into it’s second and third wave adopters, it seems the visions of how this can integrate with the classroom are becoming richer and more diverse. Richer, because you have some people in their seventh semester of doing this stuff, and they are now sharing with others not only what they did, but what they have learned from extensive practice. It’s not about how one gets the blog up, but how one lights it up, right?

And more diverse, because second and third wavers are often bringing their own experience about what works with students to the table, and when those substantial insights are expressed through a redesigned net-enabled course, the entire community is enriched.

I’ve put off writing this post, because I’m not done thinking about this, and all my analogies are raw and I will likely regret them at a later date. But the analogies that have been floating around my head lately have been around biodiversity. The shift to networked learning is going to come whether we like it or not. (For the record, I like it.) But will we move the variety and energy of what liberal arts is at its best forward into this new world, or will it be a cataclysmic event for us? Will the concerns we address today carry forward, or just become part of the fossil record in a world populated solely by voucher-funded professional training?

In some way, I feel what DTLT/UMW is doing is rescuing species of classes by adapting them to the new environment, and proving time after time that this *does* work, that the future is a question to which the liberal arts can be part of the answer. And they are doing that in light of the coming Edupocalypse, knowing that every class they translate has a chance of carrying these core concerns forward.

Or to put it another way — UMW Blogs is a big ark. And it is starting to rain.

I want to see the grand experiments still, the new ways of doing things, the latest tech. But even more than that I want a couple of each animal on that ark. And I’m counting on UMW to get that done.

Digging into UMW, Part I: Event-ness

I have to do this in short bursts, b/c there’s just too much. So I want to start with the briefest meaningful conversation I had with Jim, b/c it’s easy and it will get me started.

Jim talked about how initially the thought with UMW blogs was there would be a lot of cases where students and/or faculty would blog in non-UMW spaces, like Blogger or TypePad, and WPMU would just aggregate.

The weird thing, says Jim, is so few people wanted to do that — part of what excited them was blogging in the UMW Blogs space.

This started me thinking about that inherent tension between classes as meaningful shared experiences and our attempt to both personally empower students and bring the outside world into the classroom. I don’t think of a URL as a location, but the students clearly do — they don’t get syndication, or understand that the coherence of a group can be as much a folder in your RSS reader as a site.

That’s neither here nor there — being primarily an misunderstanding of students raised on websites as locations: MySpace, Facebook, etc. Be nice if they got that, they don’t, we decide whether to fight against that flow or make use of it.

But what I’m really interested in the observation that lies under that, which Jim and others have articulated in different ways but I’ve been missing: to the extent classes have transformative power, they are often about capitalizing on the limitations of time and shared space, increasing the “eventness” of the class.

Tom Woodward said (apparently) that Mara Scanlon’s Gynomod class was more rock concert than course, but as I saw presentations in VA on some of the best UMW blogs/classes, I was struck with the event-ness of so many of them. The course blog, with its simple reverse-chronological set-up is an event-ness force multiplier — on the one hand it engages with the world and creates an audience (like we always point out), but on the other hand it is very much about forging a group identity in opposition to the outside world.

All this should have been clear to me before, and it was, kind of, on some level. But I’ve been so blinded by Learning 2.0 rhetoric I think I’ve missed the obvious — many of the best course blogs engage with the outside world not to break down the traditional class-world distinction, but in some ways to enhance it.By engaging publicly with the outside world the class gels. The “we are this class and you are the world” distinction is stronger, but also conceptualized in a much more productive way.

As I said, I knew this to some extent — the success of Blue Hampshire was partially taking a group of Democrats that normally wanted nothing to do with one another, and by putting us openly on the web to create a sense of shared identity and value that allowed productive conversation to happen. We engaged with the larger community to better build our own identity.

And we did that, in part, through event-ness.

UMW folks, am I wrong here? (I might be — I really might. Please disagree at will….)

Update: It occurs to me how odd this post is in context — it was on the other side of this issue, that classes are *not* containers, that Jim and Gardner and I connected three years ago. And as I look back atthis post replying to Gardner I see some hints of this — both in Gardner’s thoughtful response and my intellectual swerving — but I think what’s difference is seeing, years later, how much of the success of UMW Blogs is, in some strange way, though not about containers, definitely about group identity.