EDUCAUSE has created a list of top 5 teaching and learning challenges for 2009. This list caught my eye because I think all of these issues have been dealt with rather intelligently at UMW, so I’m gonna annotate this list and suggest how Mary Washington is kicking ass on a point-by-point basis. With my overall thesis being if Woody would have gone right to UMW, none of this would have ever happened 😉
We have a little learning environment called UMW Blogs (powered by WordPress Multi-User) here at Mary Washington which powers an academic community of over 2,000 users and 1800+ blogs (the student population is roughly 4000+). It’s a space that puts the power of publishing, archiving, and showcasing work squarely in the hands of faculty and students. Moreover, it’s relationship to the web is symbiotic, it allows users to easily integrate resources from all over the web into the academic environment, while at the same time giving the administrator (which in this case is not an IT person but the faculty member or student) the option to protect what need be, and share what should be.
But the technology only frames such an environment, the active learning, critical thinking, collaborative learning, and knowledge creation can only be a feature of the willingness on the part of both students and faculty to engage these tools and experiment with them, and this is where UMW has truly seen some unbelievable examples.
Jeff McClurken’s Digital History course positions students to critically consider and engage the implications involved in choosing a particular technology to accomplish their project’s goals. The groups all published their own research using a variety of tools and media that they both experimented with and learned more fully as they were tasked with being information architects of the scholarly resources the created for the community at large.
Claudia Emerson’s Literary Journals course (which is three years in the running this Spring) will dovetail with her new role as Poet Laureate of Virginia. The class will not only create a series of literary journals from scratch, they will also record interviews with poets from around the state and publish them on the course website. A collaborative process that create a unique resource for all Virginians, and well beyond given it will be openly published on UMW Blogs (although the domain we just got may suggest otherwise: http://virginiaisforpoetry.org). And despite the intense workload of this course, it remains one of the department’s most popular because it engages “today’s learner” by providing them the means to both analyze, collaborate, and create simultaneously.
But, don’t take my word for it, listen to the always cool Claudia Emerson speak about it in a recent promotional video I just discovered last week.
Download Claudia Emerson on the “Practices in Professional Publishing” course
Professor Marie McAllister’s Eighteenth Century Audio site was a conception for podcasting. But given the possibilities available through UMW Blogs it became much more. The students both collected and aggregated audio of eighteenth-century poetry readings from around the web, as well as recorded their own interpretations and published them online in the public domain. Their work remains an frequently visited online resource, and has even inspired a group at LibriVox to create an anthology of 18th Century poetry, which is currently well under way.
What does all this innovation cost? Well, the price tag for a dynamic publishing platform and an array of powerful web-based tools is next to nothing. The cost resides in the investment in people. Technology represents a key development in this moment of education, let there be no question about that, but it does not by extension lead to good teaching and learning. The faculty listed above are consummate professionals and would do projects like this where ever they taught. The difference at UMW is, however, that they teach at a school that has invested in a staff of instructional technologists who are encouraged to innovate and proselytize these technologies to the community. All of these projects, and many more, were born from real relationships and conversations between people premised as much on ideas, bad jokes, and re-conceptualizations, as they were on new technologies and possibilities. And while these projects could have happened here in isolation, they didn’t. And they didn’t because they worked in collaboration with a group that both collects and promotes the work happening all over campus, a veritable propaganda machine that features what’s happening in a wide variety of classes in an attempt to make the great stuff happening all over campus both more visible and more imposing 🙂 The tools we promote also allow us to promote good teaching and learning across the disciplines, and frame a community of innovation. Technology is key to this in many ways, but it is in the thinking it together—not the further isolation of another un-inspired LMS ruled over by a zombie-like IT schlep—that makes UMW so god damned badass.
So, in short, if schools are serious about taking on the challenges outlined above over the next year, they should invest in (which means pay, damn it!) people who are creative, innovative, and ready to engage professors around ideas as well as technologies, for it is through the idea imagined, then quickly and effectively executed, that these challenges are met. And at this moment in the emergence of technology in higher ed, the difference between a good instructional technology staff and a bad one, is, well, the difference between a UMW Blogs, or not.
So, can you tell it’s game time? The semester has officially started (it’s currently 2:50 am, on January 15th) and I’m ready to bring BlackBoard to its knees for yet another semester. And how do we do that, pray tell? Well, by engaging the rich imaginations all around us, and then amplifying them with new fangled publishing tools that are so cheap and so good.