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The Blog on Emerging Academic Technologies


June 2010 Archives

The conversation began in late summer, 2008. This is when five faculty met for the first of many discussions that unfolded over the course of the 18-month 2008 - 2009 OIT Faculty Fellowship Program, a program intended to cultivate faculty leadership and scholarship in the area of technology-enhanced learning. They came together every month to discuss the changing landscape of educational technologies, the opportunities and the challenges that technologies afford us as educators, as well as the kinds of support that faculty need in order to create dynamic learning experiences for their students. The topics they engaged were far-ranging, including the vast and complex infrastructure here at the U that shapes the learning environment, and policy issues that impact teaching culture insofar as they motivate or stifle innovation in the classroom and scholarship around teaching and learning. Always their inquiry and remarks were rooted in their own efforts to leverage resources available at the university in order to improve the learning experience for their students.

Even as they confronted the complexities of innovating in their own courses, we challenged our fellows to reflect on the implications of emerging learning environments. Increasingly, we think less in terms of tools and applications, and more in terms of learning environments, which means thinking comprehensively about spaces (physical and virtual) and their affordances; the relationships of students with content, their instructors, and their peers; and leveraging multiple technologies across different spaces to achieve learning outcomes.

In the course of these discussions, our fellows often used the word transformation. They used transformation to describe changing practices, new models of teaching, and new teaching environments. They described their own transformations as well as the emotional ramifications and personal resources required. They reflected on the implications of transformation for themselves, their students, and the University, and on our responsibilities as change agents. At the end of their fellowship experience, we interviewed our fellows and asked them, "What does transformation mean to you?" Listen to their responses.

Special thanks to the 2008-2009 OIT FFP fellows!

  • Amy Garrett Dikkers, Educational Policy and Administration, CE+HD
  • Catherine Solheim, Family Social Science, CE+HD
  • Bernadette Longo, Writing Studies, CLA
  • Jodi Sandfort, Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center, HHH Institute of Public Affairs
  • Anne Minenko, Rheumatic and Autoimmune Diseases, Medicine

Twitter as Clickers 2.0

I'm not a big believer in using social networking tools as academic technologies; or at least not the most popular tools. Trying to work something like Facebook or Twitter into a class causes issues with identity management -- students either have to create a new account for academic use or allow their personal and academic worlds collide. Moreover, since these tools were not made with academics in mind, they don't have classroom-friendly architectures, such as teacher-moderated groups of students.

However, there's a lot to be said for something that's available and immediately familiar, so when a history instructor asked for a way to do clicker-like formative assessment with open-ended text responses from students to make comments and ask questions during films shown in class, the consultant from CLA-OIT suggested Twitter.

umnhist.pngStudents were already familiar with it and understood the 140-character-limit microblog style. They initially all shared one Twitter account created for the course, and used three different "hashtags" (searchable keywords) to make different kinds of comments while watching a film. The team quickly learned that one account couldn't handle that much activity -- Twitter's engine decided that so many posts at once from a new account was suspicious and locked it up for a while. To avoid this, a single account shouldn't have more than forty posts or so in an hour. The CLA-OIT lead on the project created ten accounts, dividing them among students, who added their Internet ID to each "tweet" so they could get credit. Meanwhile, he decided that multiple hashtags wasn't necessary and settled on one for the duration of the experiment.

Despite changing the instructions, students adapted easily and their "back channel" discussion was quite successful. The improved engagement was noticeable, and the quality of comments and questions was excellent. The back channel gave the instructor and TA an easy way to monitor how well students were following the material and prepare for the short discussion after the film was done. One of the tech team would quickly generate a word cloud (using of the Twitter discussion, which provided a fun visual way to capture the nature of the Twitter discussion and frame the follow up discussion.

In a nutshell, here's what instructors might do to replicate a similar Twitter experiment in their own course:

  1. Create a number of similarly-named Twitter accounts. You do not need to provide one per student, depending on how many "tweets" they will be expected to produce. Just keep in mind that a single Twitter account shouldn't deliver more than 40 tweets or so in an hour; so one account for ten students is perfect if they write 2-3 tweets each.
  2. Enable all of the accounts to follow one another so anybody logged in can follow the conversation.
  3. Have students "tag" each post with their ID if you want to give them credit for participation, and a keyword for the subject. Neither of these is absolutely required if you do not intend to give credit and if students are having the same discussion from the pre-made accounts, but might help your own recordkeeping.
  4. Consider registering the hashtag/keyword with a tool like Twitter's database usually fails to deliver complete search results.
  5. Consider creating a word map using; you will need to copy the twitter feed and remove some of the noise. This can be done more easily by exporting from twapperkeeper, since the data can be opened as a spreadsheet and all of the other columns (time stamps, accounts, etc.) deleted before moving the text to Wordle.

WordleCathedral.jpgAs well as the process went, I have my doubts that Twitter is the best tool for a classroom "back-channel"; it's just the most available. The ideal solution would be a University-sponsored tool that taps the existing users and class lists so teachers can create Twitter-like chat rooms with minimal effort. Students could participate with their usual ID and password, access a class group, and jump in. Instructors could monitor the chat for formative feedback. A custom RSS field could deliver just the text of the twitter discussion to greatly simplify word maps, and the database could provide more reliable archives. Such a tool could be built in an open source tool like Drupal or the made-to-microblog StatusNet.

However, Twitter has most of what you need to engage students in a back channel and monitor their thoughts during films or lectures.


My latest web-based distraction is Vark. It's a Q & A forum, and while there's been a bunch of other attempts to create a web-based all purpose knowledge base (such as the infamous Yahoo! answers), Aardvark is different. Questions aren't posted to a public forum, they're just sent directly to people who claim to know about that kinda stuff. Their answers are sent directly to the person who asked. Although the questions and answers not private, since random strangers will be seeing the question and the answer, they're not exactly public either. There's not a searchable archives or an effective way to browse through latest results. You can't find a user and see all the questions they've asked.


It's interesting and mildly addictive to see this in action. So far I've asked questions about cats, middle school football, and books. I've answered questions about Minneapolis, writing, books, cooking, applying to graduate school, and a few other things. I've passed on questions I didn't know the answer to or (in some cases) really understand -- decomposing the tensor square of the fundamental representation of so(n) in a direct sum of irreducible representations, for example, or how to rectify the frequency out of range problem on the first level of VTMB. But it's interesting to see what people are asking and rewarding to see a case where you can say, "I know this!"

This has got me thinking about authors and audiences. In a typical web forum, anyone can see the posts, anyone can answer, and anyone can read. So there's no filter to keep people who really don't know much about the topic from throwing out an answer, or somebody who knows a lot from trying to steer it towards an agenda. For example, say that Joe has just heard of The Beatles and wants to know which album to buy first. Ask that in a typical web forum, and you might get something like this:

Poster 1: I dunno there stuff that well but I like Love from Cirk de Solay. [sics all the way through]
Poster 2: Sgt. Pepper.
Poster 3: Frankly, The Beatles really lost their edge after Pete Best left the group. If you really want to hear The Beatles at their best, track down "Live at the Star Club Hamburg 1962."

Nothing's wrong with getting a smattering of opinion on the topic, but how does a casual questioner know how to sort through a plethora of responses? It's the noise they were trying to cut through.

On Vark, poster 1 types would probably skip the question. There's something about a public forum that compels people to join in regardless of their expertise. They're just feeling chatty, so they jump in. I further think that poster 3 types will be less inclined to be pedantic. Their own answers aren't framed by others, so they won't feel a need to demonstrate deeper understanding of the topic and "win the thread," as people jokingly put it when an innocent discussion turns into a debate.

It's really about genres. A web-based discussion board has everything we need to ask questions and get answers, but participants bring different motives for participating and different senses of what they are doing and who their audience is. It seems like the whole history of web communication is the same: a tool is made with one intended purpose, and the actual users make a completely different use out of it. Discussion boards could be an innocent place for small talk, but have been associated with argument and social power since the days of Usenet. Blogs were originally link driven "web logs," but soon became laundry lists of daily activities. Ironically, the micro-blog -- meant to be a chronicle of daily life -- quickly became more link-driven, while also expanding into a make-shift chat tool. Vark uses sophisticated social networking architecture to limit the tool to its intended use. For the most part, it's working.

The concept has implications for higher ed: peer sourcing of technical questions, research recommendations, even mundane questions about campus policy and nearby dining options. Creating a home grown system would require significant immediate investment to catch on, but would have a huge potential for facilitating community, not to mention helping lost first years students find Appleby Hall.

With Posterous, a relatively new (June 2008) web application, the only skill you need to post to a blog is the ability to email. Send an email to and your subject line becomes the title of your blog post and your email becomes the post itself. It exhibits an astonishingly low barrier to entry in the same way a Flip video camera is exceedingly simple to use.

But think of the power of that simplicity. With a simple email-blog, you can post announcements for your class without leaving your email client. Or you could keep working groups up-to-date on a project with a quick email-post.

But let's say you don't really care to blog. Okay. Suppose you just want a simple way to collect materials you find on the web as you come across them? You typically find articles and images and videos that you know you could use later. Just copy and paste an abstract into an email, attach the photo (or video or MP3) and hit "send."


The Posterous bookmarklet--which takes about a minute to install--is even easier. Once you drag the bookmarklet into your Firefox browser, all you need to do is highlight the text and click the bookmarklet, and you've posted. With your privacy settings cranked down, you can keep your collection entirely under wraps or just share selected entries. It's a quick way to save a set of digital artifacts.

At this point, Posterous hardly seems like a blog in the traditional sense. But that's okay, isn't it? If you really wanted a traditional blog, you'd probably be using the University's versatile UThink web platform to customize your publishing. What Posterous does well is simplify the posting process. This becomes key if you are at all hesitant to ask students to blog because of the technological barrier.


Imagine you want students to collaborate on a project and share research. You might suggest they jointly post to group blogs and review each other's material this way. Group blogs are easily enabled by Posterous, and students can set these up on their own. (You might also want to take the opportunity to talk about such things as managing an online identity and becoming aware of intellectual property rights and obligations.)

Posterous also enables "autoposting" to social network sites. Using the same bookmarklet or email process, you simply post to Posterous and the program will reroute your content to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or elsewhere. It acts as a kind of switching station so that in the midst of your normal work you can easily share thoughts and content with different audiences. Again, Posterous delivers an advanced and powerful function in a very easy to use manner.

So, how do you get started: post anything to That's it. No forms to fill out. They'll send you an email with the location of your blog. You may not have the flashiest site on the web, but you'll be up and running in no time.

You may have noticed the shiny new building going up on the East Bank along the River Road, its curved glass façade facing the Weisman Art Museum. This is the Science Teaching and Student Services (STSS) building. The "Science Teaching" part suggests that classes taught in this building will be largely in the STEM disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. But what we in OIT are most excited about is the fact that this building features 10 Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs).

Why all the excitement? In the past decade, learning spaces have become a field of study, driven by the recognition that learning technologies have fundamentally altered/shifted the boundaries of the traditional classroom at the same time that advances in understanding how students learn, coupled with increasing demands on student time, have "led to rethinking the use, design, and location of learning spaces" (Brown and Long, 2006, p. 1). And while learners require several elements in their learning spaces, including flexibility, comfort, sensory stimulation, decenteredness, and technology support (Nancy Chism, 2006), faculty require an integrated strategy for their support and development in response to this paradigm shift (Brown and Lippincott, 2003).

Some background: Student-centered, active learning spaces were developed in the early 2000's to address various problems--such as lack of attendance as the semester went on, undesirable failure rates--in large-lecture, undergraduate physics classes. The U's ALCs are modeled on North Carolina State University's SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs) Project and the TEAL (Technology-Enabled Active Learning) Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To combat the problems typical of large lectures, a shift was made from lecture halls to rooms in which students sat at round tables, and from separate lecture, recitation, and lab courses to a combined, more hands-on ("studio"-style) course. In this new space, students work to solve problems or carry out activities in small groups, have discussions in small or large groups, utilize various educational technologies, and interact with one another and the instructor. This model has been adopted by over 50 institutions, and a number of other disciplines, at this time. A number of studies have verified the effectiveness of this approach--you'll find a list below.

Active Learning Classroom
The new Science Teaching and Student Services building features several Active Learning Classrooms similar to this one.

So, the ALCs here at the U are designed to facilitate active learning as opposed to lecture. The round tables encourage student-student interaction, table-wide or within smaller groups. The instructor can easily move among tables, interacting with students, asking and answering questions. There will be a wall-mounted flat-panel display for each table, so students' group work can be shared. Abundant whiteboard space allows for easily visible team brainstorming.

This fall, classes will be held in the new building's active learning classrooms. But success depends on more than just the physical learning space. In the past few years, the discussion has turned to a broader concept, learning environments. "The term learning environment encompasses learning resources and technology, means of teaching, modes of learning, and connections to societal and global contexts. The term also includes human behavioral and cultural dimensions, including the vital role of emotion in learning, and it requires us to examine and sometimes rethink the roles of teachers and students because the ways in which they make use of spaces and bring wider societal influences into play animates the educational enterprise." (From Learning Environments: Where Space, Technology, and Culture Converge, Warger and Dobbin, 2009.)

Wow--this is the stuff of real transformation.

As with any transformation, there will be growing pains. These new learning environments have the potential to take both faculty and students out of their comfort zones. It will take time to make such a fundamental shift--time, patience, understanding, and willingness to try something new, on everyone's part. The research suggests there are substantial rewards to be gained. Used well, these new ALCs will be lively, noisy, productive spaces--and they will produce results.

Studies on effectiveness:
A nice discussion of the SCALE-UP Project can be found in Beichner, et al., 2007. More on the TEAL Project is available in Dori and Belcher, 2007.

Results from the University of Minnesota's pilot studies are in "Active Learning Classrooms Pilot Evaluation: Fall 2007 Findings and Recommendations."