Thursday, December 17, 2009

So, what now?

A recent edition of Campus Technology listed 5 Higher Ed Tech Trends to Watch in 2010. According to the technology experts, we can expect to see more interactive and dynamic classrooms, to use more ease-of-access (to both information and people) tools, and to use existing technologies in diverse ways. What's exciting about the list is, well, everything. What's frustrating is that our own experiment has met with mixed results.

The feedback from the students in my class echo the trends and comments of the technology experts at other colleges and universities. One student who took the time to provide written feedback said, "I liked the classroom setup and being able to sit in little circles with our team every day. It helped open up conversation." For teams working together, this seems a good thing.

But in order for the CLC to work well, we have to limit the number of students in a particular course and, ideally, create more CLCs to maximize the availability of the technology and the collaboration. We've not been able to get approval for limiting class sizes, however, so the CLC will cease to exist in its present form. The technology will remain, but the collaborative configuration won't.

So, was the experiment a failure? Not when you consider the perspective of Oliver Wendal Holmes, Jr., when he said "Man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions." Taking a risk and trying something new may turn out far differently than we intended; it's in the risking and the trying that we discover growth, new possibilities, and change. I've learned things this semester that will make me a better teacher next semester. And, hopefully, we have 30 students who will be vocal about their preferences and who may, someday, be in a position to shape change for others.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

More fun than is probably legal in the classroom

This is how I've responded for most of the semester when asked "so, how's that strategy class going?" And it's true. It's not that we've played; in fact, we've worked very hard. What's been fun, though, is watching the phenomenal things students can do.

Recently, all of the instructors using the Collaborative Learning Classroom were asked for feedback on the room. Part of what I wrote:

The thought of returning to a regular classroom feels like punishment, after using the CLC; even without the technology, the room configuration is much more conducive to non-lecture types of learning/teaching. But the technology provides learning opportunities that complement the configuration, such as having students find (real time) answers to questions they pose, pursue related avenues of inquiry, or find what’s happened since the publication date of the article or text. Ideally, students would be able to bring their laptops and/or smart phones to class, where they become part of the curriculum, rather than part of the power struggle.

I've been able to get to know these students far better than I've been able to manage when teaching in a traditional classroom; maybe that says more about me than about the classroom. But I can't remember when I've enjoyed the learning experience more. And the quality of the work done by these students is nothing short of awesome.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

It's not just the economy that's in a slump

The hardest part of the semester is right about now. The homework, exams, and projects seem to cluster disproportionately, with predictable fatigue, illness, and motivation challenges. And that's just the professors.

The execution of a successful business strategy involves technology and business process that are beneficially and mutually reinforcing. In an ideal world, the adoption of a new technology includes process improvements, so that companies don't automate poor or ineffective processes, as new technology does not necessarily improve an old process. In the predictable mid-semester slump, the excitement of the collaborative learning classroom does little to alter the time-tested strategy used by all students: Take it one day, one exam, one project, one assignment at a time, knowing that some things will not receive the attention they deserve.

And this, too, is a transferable business skill, as sometimes all you can do is juggle your way through the crunch time.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Ubiquity, antiquity, and liquidity

The technology is popping up everywhere. One of the students handed me an October 6, 2009, story in USA Today about how technology is being used at other universities. Detroit Free Press reporters Kathleen Gray and Robin Erb profiled four universities with widely varying approaches and philosophies about the efficacy of technology in the learning environment. I'd not thought, for example, about using technology extensively outside the class room, while abstaining from any use during class. It's another perspective to consider. The article had pictures of the devices in our own classroom, which is just very cool.

And while the details of what changes vary, the patterns don't shift much. We grow, we age, we learn the lessons of our ancestors, we strive, we push against the limits of what we know. Perhaps that's the essence of education.

This week we focused on business plans. Reading, analyzing, and writing. The general consensus was that it's hard, that the devil is in the details, and that, ultimately, it comes down to making a profit.

And our grades on the exam? On par, both historically for the course and presently relative to the other Honors section.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Social networking: use and guidelines

The current assignment (due post-exam, of course) is to research and present findings on the presence and use of social media in corporate settings. As with anything new, the policies lag behind the actual use. One student (from a previous class of mine) found a Social Media Governance site, which contains blogging-related policies and/or guidelines from 99 organizations. While I've not read them all, my current favorite is the Yahoo! Personal Blog Guidelines 1.0. I like the common-sense, treat-them-as-grownups approach...and the lessons learned from the "experienced" bloggers inside Yahoo!. Our interest in this course is whether the use of social media is an extension of corporate strategy...or a bandwagon leap. The early discoveries are intriguing, as are the student opinions.

On a micro-level, the presence and use of laptops and cell phones in class is equally risky. Though I was taught that people tend to rise to the level of our expectations for them, I've found the belief to be both a truth and a trap. In this course, social networking--and, by extension, the associated technology--is potentially an enabler and a distraction. The students are generally quite respectful, though, giving attention to peer presentations and to my occasional formal "lectures."

But it takes everything in me not to walk around and check...are they on Facebook? Email? Twittering? (Doubly painful, that possibility.) What keeps me from checking with any regularity is the knowledge that faculty meetings and business meetings provide the same temptation to professionals who are expected to manage their own behavior. Perhaps this, too, is one of the learning experiences...for me, as well as for the class.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Unintended consequences

It's time for the first exam and we're worried, "we" being the students and the instructor. Despite my belief that the teams are learning (they tell me so, as does their work), we wonder if the class will perform well on the multiple choice exam. Are we focused on the grades or on the learning?

I asked every student to write five multiple choice exam questions (for a practice exam) using Bloom's revised taxonomy, with a focus on application, analysis, evaluation, and creation questions. They found it hard to do. We had a lively discussion about the difference between the learning they say is happening in the course and the use of multiple choice exam grades to assess learning. The first exam is later this week and the unintended consequence is a temporary loss of focus on the learning.

And on a related note, I'm aghast to learn that a prep school library in New England is going "bookless." Lest I be accused of leanings in that direction, let me write for the record that I think all students should read. Books. Nothing replaces the feel of a well-loved book in my hand. I can't imagine curling up on a rainy day with an electronic device. Shakespeare and Dante should be read on paper...and not the paper in my printer. Though I don't require a textbook for this course, I bring four textbooks with me, make them available during class, and encourage the students to use them as resources. And they do.

And when we get through this first exam and back to the learning, we'll be talking about books. Specifically, what is the one book each of them would want to have available were they on a mission-critical strategic project. It's all about the learning and the reading...and I don't know how to accomplish one without the other.

Friday, September 11, 2009

"Why has it taken so long?"

Yesterday, the five teams were working on assigned projects and I was drifting among them answering questions or providing clarification. (I do seem to have abundant opportunities for clarification, probably a function of my errant belief that I communicate clearly.) During this working time, I sat down with one of the teams and responded to a question about why I'd made a specific assignment.

My general approach to questions is to be as honest and transparent as possible, so I explained my thought process for designing the project the way I had. I braced for the expected refutation (why it was more work than necessary, for example) and was momentarily stunned to hear the follow-up question: "Why has it taken so long to figure out that this is the way we prefer to learn?"

If ambivalence is the simultaneous experience of both positive and negative feelings, my reaction would qualify. It's thrilling to hear at least one student say she feels heard and challenged in this way. It's disheartening to hear how unusual this seems to her.

Every professor I know genuinely wants to reach his or her students and devotes considerable time and energy to teaching. We seem to need more dialog between ourselves and our students, as we really do have the same goals, I think, of engaged, motivated, and well educated students.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The first week of class

The first two classes were a lot of fun, at least for me. I've been able to watch what happens when 31 really bright students explore the content, the technology, the classroom, and their team. Structuring the assignments and then getting out of the way seems to be working, just as Marc Prensky describes it:

"One reason that the pedagogy of students teaching themselves never caught on as the mainstream approach – although it has been advocated by many, certainly since Dewey and probably since Socrates – is that the available tools for learners to use just were not good enough....Today’s technology offers students all kinds of new, highly effective tools they can use to learn on their own – from the Internet with almost all the information, to search and research tools to sort out what is true and relevant, to analysis tools to help make sense of it, to creation tools to present one’s findings in a variety of media, to social tools to network and collaborate with people around the world. And while the teacher can and should be a guide, most of these tools are best used by students, not teachers."

We're contributing as we are able, from the instructor's experience (sprinkled with curiosity) to the students' enthusiasm and willingness to explore. What an adventure...and there's an entire semester to go.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The classroom debut

The Collaborative Classroom is ready and what a difference! The new tools are reasonably straightforward, so students should be able to engage in learning that extends as far as the technology. Teams, collaboration, and problem-solving (real time...during the class) designed to replicate as closely as possible the work for which we are preparing our students. It forces me to think about how to structure assignments to provide enough guidance to make sure we meet course objectives, without getting in the way of our very bright students.

A Capstone course--one intended to take content from multiple courses and synthesize a cohesive framework for understanding how businesses use strategy and planning--is an opportunity for students to produce a portfolio of work that reflects well upon them and upon their education. Student feedback will help determine whether we accomplish that goal.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The syllabus and course plan

The syllabus and the course plan for the entire semester are in final draft form. I have a plan for each 3-hour class from August 25 through December 10, knowing full well that the plan will have to be adjusted. But at least there is road map for where I plan to go and some milestones to mark progress. I suspect the students--and their interaction with the technology--will take some of my plans in an entirely unexpected direction. The learning objectives will serve as course corrections (pun unintended).

Our University is fortunate to have a Teaching and Faculty Support Center, sponsors of the annual Teaching Retreat designed to "facilitate and assist faculty with pedagogical issues." The 2009 retreat was the first week in August and provided me with ample (and timely) opportunity to review my course plans and syllabus for improvement opportunities, of which there were many.

Tomorrow is the first day of training on the new tech tools installed in the Collaborative Learning Classroom (the official name). I am, once again, reminded how our students feel when asked to walk into a new semester, new course, new instructor, new expectations--and it's not an altogether pleasant feeling.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The "no textbook" decision

Let me make it clear from the outset that I like textbooks. I've kept many of the texts I used during my graduate school days, along with a sizable number of more recent acquisitions. At their best, textbooks provide research, case studies, insights from business heavy hitters (remember, this is a business school), and visually enticing diagrams, photographs, and charts. How could anyone not love a well-written textbook?

Well, today's students, mostly. They not only prefer to read and write in shorter bursts (think text messages and tweets), they also want to be able to find the absolute latest information available. I've been surprised--pleasantly and on more than one occasion--how quickly students can and do investigate a casual reference I've made to some topic...often before the end of the day and quite frequently before the end of that class period.

Kansas State University's Digital Ethnography Project conducted a survey of 200 students and found:
  • They complete 49% of the readings assigned to them.
  • They buy textbooks that are never opened.
  • The reading ratio of books to web pages is 8:2300.
And we (meaning academics) have inadvertently contributed to the decline in textbook appreciation. Many instructors cover the textbook material so thoroughly in lectures that reading the text is really unnecessary; therefore, the cost of the textbook is seen as wasted money. I prefer that reading occur before students come to class (quaint, I know) and have varying levels of success with reinforcing that behavior. Still, it's a slog, at best.

The other way we've contributed to the downfall of the textbook is by taking steps to minimize student cost. In this particular course, we worked with the publisher to develop a custom text of only the required chapters, supplemented by relevant articles. The unintended consequence is a black-and-white version of the text, which significantly decreases the visual appeal. In fact, I use the original textbook simply because it's more enjoyable to read.

So, what will replace the text? A combination of classic articles (such as Michael Porter's "What is Strategy?"), videos used in the current course, student-driven research (within broad guidelines), and a requirement that students be able to understand and explain what they find. And I am knee-deep in the nuts and bolts of the details required to guide this process toward the learning objectives for the course.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Textbooks, grades, and learning, oh my

When I logged on to post this blog today, I found a blog link sent by a student (who took a class with me and works in my department). In the Comments section, there's a professional and respectful exchange about grading--and challenging students to strive for excellence.

I've had this same discussion with a trusted colleague or two over lunch and I'm pleased that students want to participate in the dialog. Grading is one of the hardest parts of teaching, at least for me, especially when seeking a balance between individual excellence and the ability to collaborate.

And now the topic I intended for today: The Textbook Decision. I've opted not to use one for the fall semester. I've learned more than a few things from my students, including the fact that they generally don't read their textbooks and resent having to pay for something they don't use. It's a bit circular. Next post, I'll explain what I mean and why I've chosen to forgo requiring a textbook.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The crunch time cometh

Spending time with the various Google applications has kept me busy (who knew there were so many blogs to follow and sites to bookmark?), as I try to get a better understanding of how to modify some portions of the course and create others. Having technology tools readily available in the room is offering so many options; it's easy to become overwhelmed.

For the next 3-4 weeks, the focus will be revamping existing course plans and completing the new ones. The course is designed to be 50% lecture (the revamping) and 50% business simulation (the part we will be replacing with new content). When I've taught the course, I've made the lecture portion as interactive as possible; the limiting factors were the room configuration and the lack of computers, so this seems less daunting. The business simulation portion does not have a readily available equivalent and seriously daunts.

For now, the plan is to use Blackboard (which is already widely used here) for grading and administering exams. The rest is Google, with docs, reader, blogger, and bookmarks as starting points.

Monday, July 13, 2009

And the technology, too

The Steelcase Learning Lab is the model for our beta classroom. The technology tools and infrastructure are the least of my concerns, however, as there are very capable people managing that project. What concerns me is how to use what's being provided.

I've not been an early adopter of any technology. Late to cell phones and computers, I do not use the full functionality of any technology; I use only what seems effective or efficient...or what I'm required (by someone else, of course) to use. Were I to be completely honest, I'd admit that the Learning Lab technology is more than a little intimidating. Using technology well is impressive; using it poorly (especially in the presence of Digital Natives) does not inspire confidence in either the user or the observer(s). I can learn the technology; in fact, I'll be provided the "opportunity" within the next two weeks. And it will remind me how it feels to be a novice. So why would I do this?

It's easy to teach students who love to read, who love to write, who love learning for the sake of learning...the ones we all want to be and the ones we all want to teach. But even when we find those near-perfect students, few of us have the luxury of esoteric discourse ranging from neural networks to computer networks, with a sidebar about The New York Times book review of Jonah Lehrer's Proust was a Neuroscientist (which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way). I teach undergraduate business students at a state-funded university, students who are being recruited and hired for a wide range of abilities. I don't get to choose which ones I teach, I have very little time with them, and I need to reach them as quickly and as effectively as possible. Will the technology help? Teaching well matters enough for me to take the risk. And the willingness to learn--which is what we expect of our students-- does seem to require some willingness to risk.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A (class)room of their own

When Virgina Woolf wrote A Room of One's Own in 1929, there were far fewer female writers than in 2009. The change, Woolf believed, would require that women have a place where it was acceptable for them to write (thus, their room) and the resources or support to pursue their craft. One of the hallmarks of a good writer, I believe, is a premise that stands the test of time; Woolf''s has.

On Friday, I saw the first steps to create a classroom where students will have a physical space and the technology tools to allow them to work in groups during class, using technology to research, collaborate, write, and learn. The first step is reconfiguring the tables, creating spaces that define working groups. The next steps will be replacing the existing chairs with swivel chairs (so that every part of the classroom becomes a potential focal point for learning) and installing the new technology tools (details in a subsequent post). When completed, we'll have a beta lab-classroom combination that allows students and instructors to develop, review, and/or edit learning content in real time. The serendipitous collaboration of the technology group (led by the intrepid Sandy) and the curriculum committee (who requested a pilot course) are illustrative of how luck favors the prepared.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Drinking from a fire hose

I'm trying to absorb as much as possible about how other educators are using technology (including the most common mistakes, mostly so I can avoid them). One intriguing use is to encourage research and writing about the connections among the research sites. I've been seeking ways to improve writing skills, as well as to facilitate problem-solving and analysis-synthesis. There are worthy models; the challenge is knowing what to incorporate...and how. My work over the next few weeks is reviewing course objectives and content (both existing and proposed) in order to take a first pass at how to use technology in a thoughtful way. I've been pleasantly surprise to find so many digital colleagues.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How this particular journey began

After years of working in corporate settings (where I always "found" myself in a teaching role), I'm teaching undergraduate business students about strategy. When asked if I would teach a pilot course with an honors class, I didn't hesitate for a minute to say "sure." Only afterward did I begin to question what it would take to modify-develop-teach an existing 6-hour course and (1) achieve the course objectives (it's a core course taught by several qualified people; we all teach to the same objectives), (2) prepare students for the challenges of collaborative work, (3) work with (rather than against) the digital-electronic-technology lifestyle of today's students, and (4) practice what I preach.

But the more I've explored the possibilities, the more enthusiastic I've become. There are so many ways to incorporate collaboration, problem-solving, research (not the way we did it when I was in school...card catalogues), and technology—more to offer than time to offer it. And I’m intrigued by the opportunities to bring business knowledge and experience to our students via online collaboration with people in various businesses across the country…or the world.

So, part of the learning-teaching component (for me) is experiencing the power of online collaboration, problem-solving and research. Since a web log (blog) is one component of the pilot course, I'll be using this blog to chronicle how I started this journey, where it takes me, the milestones (and missteps), and, eventually, feedback from the 30+ students who'll be joining me in August.

Input from my teaching peers is welcome. I'll continue to need assistance from the instructional design and technology groups (both of whom are awesome, by the way). I would appreciate some old-fashioned keep-me-honest input from colleagues who are doing the work (in various settings) for which we are preparing students. We're all learning; we're all teaching.