Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Anyone See A Problem Here?

I normally don't engage in such short posts here on Peasant Muse, but really felt like this needed a comment.  Anastasia Salter recently posted on ProfHacker (A sub-blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education) an article titled, "A Weekend at the Engaging Departments Institute".  Here she dives into the thrill and excitement of gathering for conferences in which new ideas of how to collaborate across department lines and disciplines are discussed.  Here is a quote:
Attending an AAC&U institute can be an opportunity to have a collective dialogue on an important concern for your college or department in an environment with a lot of support. The institute involved four tracks: educational leadership; departmental outcomes and aims of twenty-first century liberal education; faculty roles; and the learning, assessment and improvement cycle. Unlike a traditional conference, where the choice of what to attend is made more or less independently, the tracks build on each other and teams are encouraged to divide and assimilate as much information as possible.
Bravo, I say.  However, further down in the piece, Salter makes the following observation that completely takes the shine off any enthusiasm one might have for the conference listed above:
However, despite the presence of a track entirely focused on twenty-first century education, technology was often remarkably absent from the conversation (and the setting). While a number of attendees were sporting iPads or the occasional laptop, conference wireless was lacking, a Twitter backchannel (as far as I could find) nonexistent, and final presentations were made sans Power Point or Prezi. We engaged in a lot of “low-tech” brainstorming, complete with giant presentation pads and paper-prototyping of curriculum design. The results did keep us very in the moment, but they limited opportunities for sharing ideas outward.
This is the epic fail currently engulfing many sectors of academia.  No wi-fi?  No continuing conversation via Twitter?  Use of paper only?  The last line says it all- "limited opportunities for sharing ideas outward."  As I argued in my response to a previous Chronicle article on 'Ideas in the Ascendent', the new digital age requires circulation of information in order to be relevant.  This conference might have had really great discussions and ideas as to how we, as educators, can improve our craft in the digital age.  But I will never know what they said, will never comment on or improve ideas given.  Others, who did not attend the conference, will also miss out.  How can you debate the best techniques for twenty-first century learning when you use outmoded twentieth century methods to discuss the ideas?  

This last quote hits on my complant squarely:
I’m entering my first year as an assistant professor—I haven’t been involved with administrative or committee work much yet. But after attending the AAC&U Institute, I feel like I have a much better idea of how things work and what some of the processes for curriculum reform and starting new initiatives might look like. I’ve also got a better sense of what some of our programs and general education requirements look like compared to universities across the country who also had teams at the institute.
 Too bad the rest of us, mingling with digital technology in the twenty-first century, are left in the dark. 


  1. I agree completely--it bothered me throughout the institute. I'm much more accustomed to gatherings like THATcamp where sharing with the outside community is a continual priority, not to mention getting input and having conversation with folks not in (physical) attendance. It's part of why I wanted to write about it--I tried to tweet throughout the event, but I felt cut off from so much potentially valuable extended discourse.

  2. I'm glad you did write about it. I think using the new digital tools- like Twitter- really doesn't sink in until you have an 'experience'. I've really come to enjoy the interaction you can have with all sorts of diverse views and opinions by simply making the process more open and accessible. The conference sounds really cool, and I regret not saying that these kind of initiatives are incredibly valuable. (I guess I did just now) But good ideas become great ones through increased discussion, so I hope academics like yourself help lead the way to a more open discussion. Thank you for reading the post!

  3. The beauty of digital tools is that conferences are not really necessary any longer. The conversation can continue 24/7 if you wish. Time and distance disappear.

  4. You know, I had a similar thought with Google+ and the 'hangout' feature. Why not schedule a mini-conference, or 'brown bag', coordinate with Circles and then record the whole thing with YouTube. That way people from diverse geographic backgrounds could potentially participate and share/collaborate on ideas. But I agree, new technology is making the primacy of conferences as places to display and talk about ideas increasingly moot.

  5. I'm certainly a fan of backchannels, having written a ProfHacker post on how to encourage Twitter-based backchannels at conferences. And I'm a fan of using digital collaboration tools when they add value to the process (often in the form of good documentation). But given the bits about sending institutional teams to the institute and reporting out on action plans at the end of the institute, I bet that the institute organizers intended the event to be primarily of value to the faculty and staff in attendance, as something of a working meeting. If that's the case, I can see some value in directing participants' attention in a laser-like manner to the people in the room, gathering face-to-face to tackle common challenges.

    Could those conversations have been enhanced with some collaborative technologies? Perhaps. But sometimes taping large sheets of paper to the walls and passing out markers to everyone is the best way to get a group of people to start working together. Sometimes.

  6. I have no problem conducting sessions with 'laser focus'- I've been to enough collaborative meetings where just 'steering the ship' was a herculean task. And I have no real grudge with having ideas sketched out on paper- I use Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks to sketch out rough drafts of essays or posts for this blog. However, when the conference outlined above centers on brainstorming new techniques or curriculum ideas, or how to guide a department towards making changes in the way they teach, and none of this great discussion goes any further than word of mouth from the attendes, I see a large disconnect. The issues discussed in the conference surely apply to a wide range of academics or administrators- why then have such narrow focus in the larger conversation?

    The conference didn't need to install webcams, although that would have been nice, but it should have at least had a website or blog (so many free and great options here) where outlines of the topics discussed could be posted. Discussions such as these thrive on the collective experience of the participants and I'm sure there are educators who did not make it to the conference but would have had great ideas/success stories to share. Real-time interaction isn't always appropriate, but to ignore sharing any of the topics discussed does a great disservice to the stated goals of the conference. As we move forward in an age where sharing ideas grows increasingly easy, where the conversation is increasingly easy to begin and expand, academics need to take stock of their traditional methods and begin to see where and how they can incorporate into the larger digital world. Thanks for your comment!