“The Revolution Will Be Tweeted” (…And Other Cliches)

September 8, 2013


Old English, New Choices

“The revolution will be tweeted,” I write as I begin this reflection. And the part of me that cares about writing that’s fresh and cliche-free wonders immediately how many such knowing titles and turns of phrase have been used to sum up the seismic changes wrought by digital technology in our lives. Fifteen minutes of fame consumed in byte-sized chunks–upload, download, all around the town load! Neologisms collide with cliches, a perfect analogy for the way the familiar is mashed together with the strange in our digital age.

Oscar Berg writes, “The concept of social networks is of course not a new thing. Social networks are the very core of being human…” But just as the industrial revolution disrupted this same social reality of human interaction in enormous and irrevocable ways, so too, our digital revolution is shaking things up. And nowhere is that shake up more destabilizing than in education.

I am an early and imperfect adopter where educational technology is concerned. As an educator with over 25 years experience, I see the potential in so many digital innovations, yet I enact their limitations time after time in practice. I began my life as a student in the age of typewriters and was nearly through with my undergraduate career before I bought my first personal computer–a Kaypro II. One of my first teaching jobs was as an adjunct faculty member at Drexel University, during its run as the first institution of higher ed to require its freshmen to arrive for school in September with an Apple Macintosh.

I received a number of papers in Old English font that year, and I can say that this did not strike me as much of a step forward. Other technological developments since the mid-1980s have impressed both with their possibilities and their concomitant liabilities. Listservs at first fascinated me, and then overwhelmed me. My iPad has contributed to extraordinary breadth in my reading, at the expense of the depth I once gleaned from the sustained experience of reading one book after another. I’ve started five MOOCs and finished none. I’ve taken several online courses that I was unable to complete. In the throes of an infatuation with the idea of a personal learning network, I set up an RSS feed of selected blogs that I found–almost immediately–I had no time to read. Devices litter my life like snapshots of old flames.  My sweet and tender bag phone.  Sony eBook, mon amour!  First generation Kindle–oh, the plans we made! Thanks for the memory cards!  And the cords.  So many cords.

But I’m still a believer, and I can see all around me that there is a digital consciousness that is changing how we think, work, and understand. I’m game to try things, and despite the uneven results I’ve had on the digital front, I do…

So when a panel discussion was organized at the school where I currently serve as upper school director, and we were asked to “tweet the discussion,” if we had a Twitter account, I thought I would give that a try. Grant Lichtman, an advocate for innovation in independent schools would be the moderator, and three distinguished panelists from the world of higher education would hold forth: Lorne Buchman, Melany Hunt, and Steve Koblick.

Lorne Buchman is the president of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA.  His background is in theatre, and he has served as a faculty member and administrator at UC Berkeley, California College of the Arts, and Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center.

Melany Hunt is a professor and vice provost at California Institute of Technology.  Her research is in liquid-solid flows, booming sand dunes, and granular flows.  She is one of two vice provosts at Caltech, in which capacity her “responsibilities include overseeing sponsored research policies, proposal authorizations and research compliance, campus libraries, and various councils and programs.”

Steve Koblik has been the president of the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens since 2001.  Before that, he was the president of Reed College for nine years, and he had administrative and academic posts at Scripps College and Pomona College in Claremont, CA.  His background is in history, focusing especially on diplomatic history and World War II Europe.

“Tweeting” an event like this is not actually the same as having listened to it and absorbed it.  Under ordinary circumstances, I would have taken extensive notes on what was said, and I would be able to quote some of it verbatim.  I would be able to summarize for a patient reader the nuances each speaker’s ideas and arguments.  I was trained that way from secondary school on, at schools that people who know education in the US have heard of.

But I was tweeting.  If listening to a lecture or series of remarks is a linear, end-point-oriented exercise, tweeting is about ricochets.  In an environment where people are thinking and responding in this way, it seems to me, the authority of the speaker is diminished–an obvious insight in some respects–as is the speaker’s control of meaning.  People are continually appropriating ideas–both central and peripheral to the argument–and decontextualizing them.

So when Steve Koblik proclaims that there is a crisis in the humanities, I hear Mandy Rice-Davies saying, “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?”  And I go Googling off on a vector of keywords–crisis, humanities, enrollment, etc.  Back in the 20th century, I would have noted that smart-alecky association, continued listening, and dutifully recorded the dimensions and implications of this crisis.  Instead, a short while later, when Koblik mentions the Common Core State Standards in terms that suggest they are The Next Great Threat to Education, I conflate this idea with this crisis in the humanities that may or may not exist.

And the upshot is that this Tuesday, we will be discussing the Common Core State Standards in a divisional department chairs meeting–not because they are a formless menace, but because I have learned in my search engine-driven perambulations that most of the standardized tests our students take for college admissions are to be aligned with them by 2014-2015.

I don’t know whether I got the message that Steve Koblik intended, and I’m not sure that I agree with it fully on its face.  But this is also, possibly, a confession on my part that I did not look the message squarely in its face.  It has been refracted to me through a series of lenses interposed by my digital tools.  I am still undecided as to whether that refraction is a bad or good–or maybe just a different–thing.

Grant Lichtman provides an apt summary of the panel discussion, and the full Twitter commentary may be viewed by searching #pasadena13.  The evolution will be tweeted, posted, uploaded, and cached.  And like so many such processes, it will be a long time before we have a perspective broad enough to understand it fully.

How Sticky is a MOOC?

March 24, 2013

Anyone working to understand the implications of digital culture from an educational perspective has got to try a MOOC. This was the general plan when signed up for Coursera offerings entitled, “E-learning and Digital Cultures” and “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application.”

Each followed an interesting — and perhaps instructive — trajectory with me.

Communication in “E-learning and Digital Cultures” began early, well before the MOOC’s January start date.  I’m now not even certain how I first engaged with the folks who were connecting in the days before the course began.  I do know that there was a Facebook page (which I “liked,” thereby joining me to the group).  This entry point, like the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, led to countless blogs; Twitter chats; excursions to various platforms including Scoop.it, Tumblr, YouTube, Google+, and a number of others that I can’t now remember; and ultimately, a sense that I was learning new things and having new experiences as I explored the many means of communication and insights that my fellow MOOC-sters brought to the group.

But here’s the thing: little of it seemed to coalesce into understanding.  My life as an educator is busy. This probably sounds officious, but it’s true.  Most of my busy-ness is in meat-space, the world of people who are in geographic proximity to me.  As an administrator, I operate within a dense network of obligations that cannot gracefully be put off.

I could see the richness of the MOOC format.  I could sense its possibilities, and as the course got underway, I told myself that it was more important simply to allow those things to stick that did so naturally.  This would be the test of the MOOC’s “stickiness.”

The weekend before the course began, I had my first inkling of how it would feel to me in very short order.  There was a Twitter chat, in which it seemed that several hundred of the MOOC’s students participated.

I’m an avid user of Twitter.  Mostly, I treat it like a personalized news feed.  I subscribe to writers and publications (many of them local) that are of interest to me.  I rarely tweet anything myself, and after periodically weeding out the “followers” who have attached themselves to my profile in various reciprocal or phantom processes (as when I sign up for a particular feed or mention a brand of baked beans), I probably have less than ten.  For me, the Twitter chat was like trying to catch greased squash balls.  It was the polar opposite of sticky.  I sat with my iPad and watched the comments fly by.  Occasionally, I would recognize one as a response to something that had gone before.  Once, I even tried to reply myself.  But when the hour had flown by, I had an impression of speedy jumble.  Nothing else.  I can’t now remember anything that was posted.

The creators of this MOOC — a group of professors and graduate students at the University of Edinburgh — seemed to understand the many levels of consciousness that were attempting to engage with their course.  Each week offered a mix of resources, from YouTube videos to academic articles in media studies.  I was resolved to participate in the course in a serious way, which in my world means doing the reading.  That first week, I found that this approach provided some of the connective tissue and stickiness that was otherwise missing for me.

Hoping to build on the understanding that was beginning to settle in my consciousness.  I left a comment in one of the discussion threads.


By the end of the day, my inbox was flooded with email notifications.  I’m aware that I could have prevented this by some quick adjustments to settings somewhere.  What it reflected for me, however, was the immense volume of information that a MOOC like this throws off.  It was at this point that my rapid fall from full MOOC awareness commenced.  I just could not keep up.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, at “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application,” another drama was unfolding.  In early February, just a scant few days after the course had begun, I received the following email from the team:

“We want all students to have the highest quality learning experience. For this reason, we are temporarily suspending the ‘Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application’ course in order to make improvements. We apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause. We will inform you when the course will be reoffered.”

There had been some fitful emails about assigning people to groups — first, instructions on how to get assigned and then at least one too-long missive attempting to explain the how and why of the assigning.  Evidently, these plans had been too complicated given the large number of participants, and the miscalculation had been the MOOC’s undoing.

There would be snarky references in the press and on blogs to the course’s implosion in the weeks to come.  For my part, I felt a secret kinship with the providers of the course.  I felt overwhelmed, too.

* * * * *

Spring finds me enrolled in another Coursera MOOC.  This one is “Surviving Disruptive Technologies,” offered by Hank Lucas at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith’s School of Business.  Spring break will hopefully give me a running start at success this time.  I feel as though I’m a lot clearer about one aspect of the MOOC experience that I had overlooked: participating in a MOOC is like any meaningful human activity.  It takes time, some of it devoted to reflection, to be “sticky.”  Sticky learning is good learning, and we are too often inclined to believe that digital learning or online delivery will require less of the time and mental energy it takes for that to happen.


January 29, 2013

“We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow…The readiness is all.” Hamlet is speaking to Horatio, at the end of a play during which his conflict has been the difficulty of human action. In “Thursday,” human autonomy and initiative are ping ponging through the forms and structures of technology. The patterns of circuits and city streets, repetitious but somehow hypnotic, invoke technological determinism. Yet the woman has her thoughts and the man, his. They arrange to meet. They connect. All amid the hum of technology and the flitting, flickering “augury” of the birds. “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/Rough hew them how we will.” Is it in us or the machine? That’s the question I think “Thursday,” poses.

What I Want Is What I Want

January 26, 2013

'2001' has come and gone...

‘2001’ has come and gone…

Last night, I happened into the LACMA’s retrospective of Stanley Kubrick. There, amid the bric a brac of his films–the ones he made and the ones he didn’t–I found the embryo figure from the final sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Shown above, the figure lay in a case, the top of its head open to reveal the cavity into which the machinery was presumably stuffed at one time. In the final scene of the film, as I remember it, the embryo turned from Earth to regard the viewer with an expression that said something like, “And so, what next?” Or maybe “Quo vadis?” Or perhaps just, “What the hell?”

I thought of this figure today, as I participated in my first Twitter chat, which was more like a Tweet cascade than anything resembling a conversation. On Monday, I commence my first MOOC, a course entitled, “E-learning and Digital Cultures.” The chat had been organized by participants in the course who have already begun creating a series of overlapping digital communities on various platforms including Twitter and Facebook. (To judge by the discussion on those forums, there are a good many more on platforms with which I’m not familiar, but that’s a topic for another entry.)

The more enterprising among us had arranged to moderate, and one of the four questions was something along the lines of “What do you hope to get out of the MOOC?”

Well there’s a question. Struggling to keep my fat fingers on target on my phone, I typed out this deathless answer: “What’s next in education! truism: ed is changing. How do independent schools contribute?”

And there was that moon-faced almost-baby…looking at me through space.

What do I hope to get out of this MOOC? The question begs a good deal more than 140 characters. As a life-long professional educator, I have a stake in digital education that straddles the personal and the professional. I began teaching for the princely sum of $18000 a year at a time when computers played a minimal role in education. Word processing was just coming into its own, but I still received papers that had been handwritten or painstakingly banged out on a typewriter. The Internet was something for enthusiasts, and my communications from people outside of my face-to-face world came in the form of pink while-you-were-out slips.

So much has changed since that time, and I have, for the most part, been pleased to change with it. I have used digital media in my teaching, and I have done a stint in graduate school with a variety of digital tools. I’ve presided over listserv discussions, and I’ve required my students to upload material to Posterous accounts. I have raised two digital natives whom I watched–at times with some frustration–become fully engrossed in their virtual worlds. My son is a musician, and he regularly writes, records, and posts his work on Soundcloud. And now, as a school administrator, I am the beleaguered recipient of more than a thousand emails per month.

But what I haven’t yet seen–and what I’m hoping that this foray into the world of MOOCs will help to bring into focus–is a form of digital instruction that is a thing unto itself. In other words, most of what I’ve done or seen others do is some version of what a teacher and 16 or so students do in a class each day. Discussions? We’ve got discussions. Peer editing? We’ve got that, too. Digital media displays? We’ve got bulletin boards and projectors like we always had.

I sense that it is near, close to my grasp. We talk about changing the way our students think. But what we mostly do is try to figure out how to put material in the place where they’re already looking: their screens. How do we create a whole new form of learning, one that’s better and that could only be accomplished by means of the digital tools, in the gleaming eye of the virtual world?

The Posterous with the Mosterous

January 23, 2011

This semester, my “hour is come ’round at last,” and I step back into the role of classroom teacher for a section of AP English Lit. The course is called Familiar Hauntings, and in some ways, it happens at at least two removes from its original conception. It was orginally proposed and created by someone else, and the core concept—works in which ghosts appear—was designed to be a vehicle for the study of Hamlet.

I am teaching the course for the second year, and I quite enjoy it.  But for the first time, I’m not in the semester during which seniors have traditionally done Hamlet. So that’s out. I will be spending some time on the so-called Hamlet 2000 film version of the play, starring Ethan Hawke, but this is really only for the postmodern take the film has on the play.

What is newest for me this time around is I am trying out posterous.com as a means of creating a 2.0 digital component to the course. The site (http://famhaunt.posterous.com) is designed to double as information source and blog. It is set up so that students can post simply by emailing in, and I’m attempting to coordinate classroom activities with virtual activities. Students will do short journal pieces, some of which they will be required to post to the site. They will also be required, periodically, to comment on one another’s work.

My goal with these activities is to gain access to the reflection and revision processes—which before were simply imagined by English teachers, sometimes described by students, but at least in my experience, rarely executed by students in the ways that their teachers imagined.

Two years ago, I tried something similar with a Yahoo Groups site, but the way it was structured just didn’t respond sufficiently to the needs of the students. And it was just a little too buggy to function successfully in the way that I needed it to.

By having students freewrite short pieces in their journals, transfer those fragments into slightly more public elements, comment on the publicly presented elements of others, and finally, pull all of that creative and editorial material into formally presented drafts, I am hoping to shape their thinking about writing, and their writing as a record of their thinking.

Are Tweets on a Twitter Feed Food?

December 3, 2010

Having waxed ambivalent on the benefits of digital communication for me and my kids, I now want to sing the praises of what is widely viewed as the Twinkie of cyberspace: Twitter. The standard critique goes something like this. Twitter tweets turn us all into so many Henny Youngmans of the Internet (“Take my wife. Please.”) According to the anti-Twits, it’s a medium that enshrined the one liner as the last word on everything, as though we lived in a giant sitcom, and each of us was the wiseacre kid in the cast.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is a mode of communication wherein a user sends outs “tweets” of no more than 140 characters, including spaces, on a feed. Twitter feeds have “followers,” so most people who use Twitter are both users (tweeters) and followers of a select group of other tweeters. (As an aside, one can measure the renown, and perhaps also self-absorption, of a Twitter user by the ratio of users he is followed by to accounts he follows.)

Twitter has become the digital drug of choice for oversharing celebrities, and it is in this degraded form that it is understood by most people. But I’ve discovered that it is not only used for the runic musings of Lindsay Lohan and Ashton Kutcher. Many writers, artists, and publications use Twitter in a much different way. It’s kind of like a giant annotation system for their thinking or the work they are doing.

Here’s an example of what I mean. The American Scholar runs a weekly blog by William Zinsser called “Zinsser on Friday.” Every week, as soon as the latest entry goes up, they tweet a link. You click through, and voila!–there’s the latest entry. Writers and artists the likes of Tad Friend, Kathleen Schultz, and Errol Morris do the same, along with The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Review of Books, and the National Association of Independent Schools. These are just a few of the Twitter feeds that I follow, and there is a real richness to the material that comes my way.

So I’ve become a big fan of Twitter. Sure, I’ve got a few Sarah Silvermans and Patton Oswalts on my feed to leaven the loaf (or provide its sweet cream filling). But this is an example of a medium that I think is just beginning to show what it can do, and I enjoying being along for the ride.

Digital Nativity

November 30, 2010

Two kids with Moxie

We’re owned by our fears.
We’re owned by the sparks
That heat as they tear
At our will to be home somewhere!     

Jules and the Polar Bears     

There has been a lot of talk in the last decade of digital immigrants and digital natives. Raising a child is extraordinarily humbling. The life of a parent is both exalted and cast down. We work with available materials, and these are sometimes flimsy and poorly constructed. The two characters shown above are the digital natives in my life. At the same time I’ve been having my citizenship naturalized in Computer Nation, I’ve been watching them grow up as full members of the body politic.

My take on it so far is not especially profound. I see that they are at times preoccupied with what goes on in the various devices they have at their disposal. I watch them negotiate a concept of privacy that I myself only dimly understand. I often feel that the momentum of this digital culture is heedless of my values and aspirations for them as a parent. And so I have a lot of questions and not so many answers.

Should I limit their access to these resources? Like a lot of parents, I’ve come late to this question. As a school person, I’ve been mostly on the side of expanding their access to the many benefits that the digital culture has to offer. But as a parent, I’ve also seen that the benefits and the potential harms are difficult to separate.

How should I teach them about this world they inhabit? I feel pretty clear that it’s my job to do this, as with many other facets of their lives. But what should I teach them? I’m barely able to keep up with all the things they can do, and the things that seem obvious to me (and, one assumes, not necessary to teach) aren’t always as obvious as I think they are.

Where are the boundaries? Not long ago, my wife came into the kitchen on a Saturday morning to find our son video chatting with a young woman from Hong Kong. He had met her through a friend of a friend…online. Is this good or bad? Who is she, and why are they video chatting? Should I be worried that she can see him in his pajamas from across the world while he eats his pancakes?

The ordinary responsibilities that parents used to take on as a matter of course–setting limits on social activity, instructing in the ways and morays of social interaction, keeping abreast of who one’s childrens friends are–have gotten a lot harder to fulfill. And that’s just the beginning.

We speak of the home as the place where we parents are supposed to do our magic. But just exactly what that is is now uncertain. We have lost the advantage of insularity we once enjoyed, and in some ways that may be for the better. But as the power of these digital devices and the culture they represent grows, our materials remain as flimsy and poorly constructed as they ever where.

Quo vadis?

First Things

November 28, 2010

I am new to blogging in public. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking with colleagues about the effects of digital culture on the world in which we operate–a school with a decidedly academic focus. Alongside of those reflections, I am also the parent of two teenaged children whom I have watched grow up in a digital world. So many things are different for them, and much of that difference feels to me as though it’s seen in the rearview mirror. I feel I am moving very quickly along these two tracks, and my participation in this blog experiment represents my attempt to pool my understanding of it with others.

To wit: I watched a documentary this weekend entitled Digital Nation in which a high school senior had this to say: “I never read books. I’ll be honest. I can’t remember the last time I read a book…I mean, if there were 27 hours in a day, I’d read Hamlet, I really would. But it’s only 24.”

This is clearly every schoolteacher’s worst nightmare, and when I think of my own children, to say nothing of the value I place on actually reading Hamlet, this boy’s words make me sad and worried. But is my concern misplaced? Is it an artifact of my obselesence?

Those are some of the questions with which I commence this project.