Book Chapter Published

Just received a desk copy of Mastering Digital Librarianship for which my colleague, Julie Mitchell and I contributed a chapter last year. We wrote, case study fashion about the Digital Tattoo project that we co-lead. It is interesting that (with academic publishing), by the time the thing is published and out there in public, it’s outdated. That’s what makes blogging so satisfying – it’s published when it’s fresh. That said, we had awesome editors, Alison Mackenzie and Lindsay Martin – whose excellent suggestions contributed to the coherence of the final product.

If you’re interested, here’s the pre-print copy of our chapter: Learners and Digital Identity: The Digital Tattoo Project

Generalists in specialists’ clothing…

My colleague and friend, Novak Rogic, wrote a thought-provoking post recently, arguing the value of the generalist in the climate of rapid change and experimentation that we are embedded in at the University.

We work (teach, design, code…) in the environment of rapid and constant change (perpetual beta) and by building so many layers between the faculty member who wants to experiment and embrace change, and the developer who wants to give, hack and create change, we are actually killing the experiment and killing the change itself.

The layer he is talking about here are the “specialists” that are (currently) dominating our workforce and being assigned to projects – often without a clear role but with a very specific set of specialist driven goals to accomplish and measurements to document (time, progress, budget, etc). The problem (as I see it) is not with the people themselves in those roles (I am a learning design strategist after all) it’s with the orientation towards the work. I am not a specialist, I am a generalist – despite a job title to the contrary. I align myself with the person who wants to “give, hack, and create change” and with those who like to approach projects by divvying up the work around the table – based on what we can contribute. There are others like me who “operate at the edges, intersections and overlaps where innovation thrives”. We know a little about a lot and a lot about some things. And while my knowledge of frameworks and approaches specific to learning design may come in handy for some projects, I can easily set that aside when the more immediate need is to rapidly understand the broader context and potential impact of a particular project. As generalists, we can draw connections, translate between technologists and teachers, encourage wild ideas and wide vision and (if the stars are aligned in the right way) create an environment for true creative collaboration to flourish.

As an example, I remember a project that Novak and I worked on a number of years ago (the seed project-LEAP for the now flourishing Learning Commons) The core of it was to build a website (but really a community) where content would be aggregated, openness encouraged and students the authors. Sure, he brought his experience as a web designer and architect to the table, and I my experience with designing learning experiences, but (more often than not), we were imagining and experimenting together with collaborators, including students, most of whom who had no experience with web development or learning design. We were trying things out, working together, seeing what worked – designing on the fly. We didn’t have a web graphics expert at the table, just someone with a great design eye. We didn’t have a project manager, that role shifted and changed depending on what the focus was at the time (shifting from web design to learning design to content development to blogging to…). We won a Spencer Innovation award for that project – not because we were a committee of specialists but because we approached our work as generalists: problem solving, communicating, translating, drawing connections with other work and projects on campus and working in collaboration WITH students not FOR them – a novel idea at the time!

Despite the administrative structures that are encouraging specialist approaches and tightly managed projects, some of us (call us generalists in specialists clothing) continue to do what we can to break down the silos, work across disciplines and share what we are learning (not just what we are paid to know). And we respect the role of the true specialist when specialists are required. When I had cancer, I wanted to be treated by someone who knew about cancer – alot about cancer. But when I go to my GP feeling generally unwell, I don’t expect to be shuffled off to the MRI.

draing of a student project

Collaboration with Students

The students who work with us at CTLT are amazing! They willingly jump into the deep end with us on projects with impossible timelines and high expectations and they consistently finish strong! Here are a few recent examples:

  • Rie Namba (recent Fine Arts grad but still with us as a student employee temporarily) has been working on a mock-up for a “learning wrapper” of sorts to accompany video resources. The design was inspired by and is to be used in our WordPress CMS. She’ll be working on short codes and documentation to make it relatively painless to implement. We’ll be using the as a test best for some features using this approach.
  • Kim Kao (Arts -Psychology student) has been working with me on the design of some wiki based resources to support DIY video development – a strong component in many of the Flexible Learning projects currently on the slate for development at the university. The challenge was to use a show – then tell approach but keep the interface as uncluttered as possible (accordians came in handy). The first out of the gate is the DIY Screencast resource authored in the UBCwiki and published out through the Flipped Lab resource site thanks to collaboration with my colleague Lucas Wright.
  • Ronald Ho (Science student), working with my colleague Zack Lee, jumped in to create his first ever video by helping us to create an overview for faculty about the process of making a video. It’s meant to be an introduction but is currently being used to support the application process for new MOOCS (Faculty will need to make a 90 second promo video to accompany their application.

Why do I love collaborating with students so much? Maybe it’s that they are still so curious – both about their own capacities and skills as well as challenges we give them. And their spirits haven’t yet been worn down by the requirements, policies and sensitivities that can (on occasion) settle around our “employee’ minds like a grey cloud, sucking out every last creative synapse…(but no matter). Thankfully, the energy I get from my collaborations with these exceptional people (and amazing colleagues) is my cloud buster!

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.