Whiteboards, round tables and a dash of humanity

OK, I should probably be sleeping right now. I’m cranky and exhausted from a long day of stringing things together that may be better left apart and solving problems that probably don’t exist. The bright spot in my day (the spot that got me wondering) was something that happened while I was listening in to the Educause webinar: Developments in Higher Education Educational Technology: The Horizon
Report in Action. Someone posted to the chat (Sam, I think) that students at his institution were most excited about rolling white boards and round tables – when surveyed about new technology use on campus. A wave of agreement swelled in the chat – and I reflected on my own campus at UBC in Vancouver – yep, it’s the white boards and round tables that students covet here as well. Gateway drugs to discussion and collaboration? (Sam’s clever question) . Mmmm, discussion and collaboration without the use of a chat room, twitter stream, tumbler, Flickr group? Don’t we need to document it, somehow? O.K. the kids are craving something. Maybe it’s a chance to talk and think out loud – with pens and drawings and without the compulsion to represent, hone their personas, hashtag, retweet, like, post and badge it all up with a big digital bow. That can be stressful.

I don’t know, but I’m reminded of something else that came up in the Educause chat – something about complication and complexity. Are we providing learning environments that encourage students to wrestle with the complexity that comes from way finding, questioning, creating, adapting, dealing with conflict and sometimes failing an attempt or two? Or are we complicating them with multiple carefully calibrated and automated assessments, sophisticated and sleek pre-packaged technologies, processes and accompanying policies (for their protection, of course)? When faced with complexity, I think we have a natural tendency to try to figure it out. But when faced with complication, the tendency shifts to want to simplify. Is that what we’re doing in the name of improving our learning environments? We’ve flipped, flexed and automated learning to the point that ( in some cases) we’ve almost excluded any unexpected, chance encounters with wild ideas that often occur around tables with a whiteboard nearby. Not everything can be reflected in an algorithm after all. Algorithms cut out the fat. They don’t account for complexity. You know, like the stuff we humans are made for.

In higher ed these days, it seems we view students as “producers”, consumers, research subjects to be analyzed, tracked and surveilled ad nauseum but do we ever just revel in the fact that they are (like us) complex and fallible human beings with a profound need to figure stuff out together around a table – with a whiteboard, maybe ?

Graphic Notes from the Open Ed 2012 Conference in Vancouver

reflections on open

Graphic Notes from the Open Ed 2012 Conference in Vancouver

Graphic Notes from Open Ed 2012 in Vancouver – using iPad and Brushes

I can’t believe a month has past since the Open Education Conference 2012: Beyond Content – here in beautiful Van City. An opportunity to spend some time (and learn much from) some of the most creative, inspired and just good people involved in education today (at least from my perspective)! I am still thinking about (and taking time to follow threads on) a range of ideas and resources. A few of them:

  • Gardner Campbell’s keynote extravaganza: complete with a new term (I think) for a forgotten concept – transcontextualism (learning across contexts) – I suspect learners have been doing this for generations – but we haven’t valued it and don’t support it well in formal education environments.
  • the OER Research Hub, associated Evidence Hub and Dr. Robert Farrow’s experimental visuals – some of which I have shared already with colleagues here at UBC.

    There were other threads to follow: like the woman from Seattle who was a first-timer at the Open Ed conference and feeling a little like she needed a translator. I admired her bravery. And the MOOC bashing – which led me to read a piece by Sir John Daniel that offers an informed, critical perspective on the palpable discomfort felt by many (myself included). And, as my own institution prepares to offer up courses to the MOOC machine via Coursera, I can’t help but think this is an opportunity to raise the profile of some of the open practices in resource development, learning design and teaching that have gone largely un-noticed at my institution.

image of book How Learning Works with sicky note attached

Show Me the Learning

In an attempt to illuminate the “black box” it seems every few years, someone takes a crack at explaining exactly how learning works. Advances in brain science have helped illuminate some of the mechanics involved and generations of psycho-educational research and evidence based theory have helped us understand how to create effective learning environments. But inspiring learning in our students is something more personal. Earlier this year in his blog post “Why Good Classes Fail“, Prof. Michael Wesch proposes that empathy is at the core of any encounter with students that has the potential to inspire.

Recently, I organized a panel of students to speak with a room full of new Faculty during an orientation to teaching session at UBC. I asked them to come prepared with 2 things:

  • a story about a faculty member who had an impact on their learning
  • a piece of advice about teaching

Here are a few snippets (as close to the original sentiment as my notes and recollection will allow):

Impact on learning:

my prof. gave me the confidence that “I can learn this” – when I was struggling. He did this during office hours by helping me use what I already know to solve more complex problems.

as an international student, there were many ways of doing things (such as receiving critique on artwork) that were new to me. My prof. took the time to explain this is why we approach critique in this way – explaining why (instead of assuming we all knew) gave me a new perspective.

posing real problems and giving me time to solve them through experimentation was important to me. Sometimes I just can’t relate to the theory – it doesn’t make sense – then the practical application makes it all come together.

my prof. surprised me by speaking Chinese (he was clearly not Asian) and telling stories from history using different voices – kind of acting in a way and sharing his passion for the stories he was telling. He was entertaining and really engaging.

we had the chance to learn (in groups) about each other and where we were from and how our experience of place had an impact on our learning. My prof. seemed to get that this was important.


  • be yourself
  • see more in us than we see in ourselves
  • surprise us
  • give us time/take time
  • give us real problems to solve
  • make time for experimentation
  • take a risk
  • consider impact of place and “where we come from” on learning
  • encourage us to learn from each other
  • consider how hard it is to learn in a language that is still new- post your notes for us to review unfamiliar terms

We had just spent the morning with faculty, working through case studies to highlight principles of learning described in Ambrose et al’s How Learning Works and the students made these principles come to life – unintentionally touching on each one through their stories. Perhaps the faculty members that the students described had well thought out strategies, objectives and plans for how they were going to teach their classes. But what the students’ shared highlighted something more basic – the qualities that inspire learning: simple caring, attention, interest, openness, empathy, encouragement and passion for discovery. Interesting that most of the stories of “impact” that the students shared had, at their core, authentic human encounter as the common denominator.

My most favorite thing…leads to my least favorite thing

My most favorite thing about my job is when I have the opportunity to facilitate a great discussion.  I got the chance to do this, World Cafe style recently with colleague Jan Johnson and assisted by our intrepid co-op student Victor Ng.  We posed 2 questions to learners and teachers on separate occasions:

  • what are the qualities of a really great learning (or teaching) experience you’ve had lately?
  • what are the necessary ingredients to make a great learning experience from your perspective?

Here are some of the results in graphic form (thanks to Victor and Wordle). Teachers on the left – learners on the right.

Detailed results were assembled on our  wiki

And talked about (yes, this was my least favorite part) during the Learning Conference last week – here’s the video:

If you have any responses to those questions – I’d love to hear them.

Empathy and Digital Citizenship

the word empathy

From Flickr by marleneangeja

I feel like sounding an alarm bell on this one.  Our collective capacity for empathy seems to be diminishing and the evidence is mounting.  Consider the recent Vancouver story of a brutal rape that was photographed  by a bystanding teen and shared on Facebook. What was he thinking?  Or was he? Clearly, the lack of empathy he displayed is shocking.  What’s equally disturbing is the rate at which empathy seems to be declining among young people.  Dr. Sarah Konrath (University of Michigan), recently presented a study of empathy among nearly 14,000 college students in the U.S. which found that students are much less empathic than they were 30 years ago:  40% less on some measures and in rapid decline since 2000.  The study has since been reported in the New York Times and the Globe and Mail.

As expected, there is speculation that social media is at least partly to blame – given that it makes it easy for us to disengage with  or tune people out when we feel like it – without the same level of social consequence as there might be if you did the same thing in person. This seems like an easy out and a gross simplification of the problem – which, I suspect, has many roots.  What scarier to me is that we, as a society, may have a tendency to slip into a collective coma and just avoid the challenge that faces us in turning this around.

Here are some of the opportunities we have to shift this:

I feel that we should consider including empathy in our list of 21st century skills as a distinct category. Goleman’s (1995) research suggests that empathy is positively related to intrinsic motivation and effective problem-solving. The need for empathy is increasingly important in the workplace where teamwork and social competencies are a critical factor in success.

  • spend time with the young people in our lives and get to know about theirs.  How do they feel about some of the stories they hear in the news (like the one I mentioned earlier in this post)?  How are they and their friends showing that they care about each other when something bad happens to one of them? How are they using social media and what do they share about each other?

And,  since empathy needs to be practiced in order to develop, it needs to be practiced everywhere, including the online spaces we occupy.  Maybe we need to expand the concept of digital citizenship and some of the work on the nine elements to include empathy in digital spaces – what does that look like? What’s important about taking the perspective of the other before you press upload or send?  How will you defend your choices to share information about someone else?

In our recent discussions with student teachers as part of our Digital Tattoo project, we know that the concept of digital citizenship is new to them and they are not entirely sure that they have a responsibility to teach this – nor are they sure that parents support it.  The teaching of empathy has a longer standing tradition in the public school system – maybe we need a way to bring the two together?