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Granted, Technology Makes Better Writers

"Granted, Technology Makes Better Writers" was the title Greg Fallon and I used for the presentation that we did at the NJ Best Practices conference last week. It's a mashup title because we were discussing our Writing Initiative (Title V grant) and focusing, for that particular presentation, on the technology components of our writing initiative.

Of course, what we were glossing over - the idea that technology actually improves writing - is not without controversy.

The presentation slides are on Slideshare (where you can download etc.) but what doesn't come through there is our discussion. Though we are certainly trying to add some online technology (Do we need to say Web 2.0 anymore? Yawn...) to our writing improvement initiative, it's not just to be doing the new thing.

Actually, at least half of our efforts are very much in the traditional sense "course redesign." The main thrust of the initiative is to create 25 Gen Ed (core) courses that are writing-intensive across the curriculum over the next five years. So, our efforts include the redesign by the piloting faculty member, a reference librarian, English department faculty member, writing center coordinator and myself.

The initiative touches on a number of movements in writing that are not new. Writing-intensive courses and writing across the curriculum, for example, are well established at other schools. Building a physical Writing Center at Passaic County Community College is an effort long past due. Our Library 2.0 efforts are in keeping what many libraries are doing now.

The workshop week we'll be doing this June will work with 20 of the faculty and redesign team members that will be involved in the initiative. The sessions will address other areas that are primary in our approach: critical thinking & writing, assessment, learning objects & learning outcomes, standardized rubrics, holistic grading, ePortfolios, eTutoring, Gen Ed standards, using course management systems for writing and incorporating streaming media objects. (There are about 25 topics for this blog in these lists alone!)

One of the presentation slides that we used listed our two broad technology aims: Consortiums & Collaboration, Web 2.0 & Online Applications. I'll talk more about all these in the upcoming months, but the one I'd like to pump right now is consortium & collaboration.

We are involved in several consortiums already (there's more on ePortfolio.org and etutoring.org in the presentation and to come), but we would love to work with other schools that are moving in the same direction or are already there. You can find my contact information in our LibGuide and on the image above - and maybe you'll discover LibGuides at the same time. Hope to meet some of you on the road.

Published Knowledge Is Old Knowledge

Personification of knowledge (Greek, Episteme) Celsus Library, Ephesus, Turkey.
photo by Radomil

"Published knowledge is old knowledge.The art of intelligence in the 21st Century will be less concerned with integrating old knowledge and more concerned with using published knowledge as a path to exactly the right source or sources that can create new knowledge tailored to a new situation, in real time.”

From Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace (You can access that free online, but it's a 600+ page pdf so...)

That passage was written by Robert Steele in his essay “Creating a Smart Nation.” (Steele is a former CIA operations officers and Marine Corps intelligence official whose firm, Open Source Solutions Inc., works under contract for various intelligence agencies). Educator Will Richardson quoted it on his blog last month and I scribbled it down in my notebook. Steele is writing about national security and intelligence, but I'm thinking about it as it relates to open knowledge and open textbooks and open everything else.

It's a thought-provoking line. But I'm not sure that I fully agree with it.

It's the idea that knowledge often is old as soon as it is published (in the traditional publishing sense). I really enjoyed The World Is Flat and recommend it to educators all the time - but we know that many of his statistics and examples were outdated by the time the galleys were approved and the copies hit the street.

It's also part of the reason why learning has become networked, shared and increasingly open and available.

The quote sent me looking into Robert Steele, which led me to Open Source Intelligence. OSINT involves "finding, selecting, and acquiring information from publicly available sources and analyzing it to produce actionable intelligence." To the intelligence community, "open"means overt and public sources and not the covert, cloak & dagger stuff of our movie and novel imaginations. This is intelligence from newspapers, magazines, radio, television, government documents, many resources on the Web like Google Earth, blogs, wikis, geospatial software like a Geographic Information System (GIS), conferences, academic papers, and who knows what else. (Reminds me of the character Robert Redford played in Three Days of the Condor.)

Think about that list of resources above. How different is it from where we want students to go for information?

What about that "old knowledge?" It's hard for me to not integrate prior knowledge to build the new knowledge. Some theorists might call this building schema. Schema is a good word here - from the Greek "σχήμα" meaning shape or plan. Schemas (or schemata) show up in a number of fields. Most people are familiar with a schematic diagram that represents the elements of a system using abstract, graphic symbols. In computer science, there are data models to represent the relationships of a set of concepts, or an XML schema to define the structure, content and the semantics of XML documents. Our old buddy, Kant, used it in philosophy for "referencing of a category to a sense impression through time" (and I still don't get it - I was always more of a Locke fan).

Certainly we put aside old knowledge when it is outdated or disproven. Today we have access so so much new knowledge that filtering is a key skill. We old-timers that try to keep up with the new probably have more trouble. If you just ignore the new, or if you're young and just accept the new as true knowledge, life is simpler.

Take that pesky Wikipedia (which I frequently link to here on the blog). There's old knowledge there. Lots of it, copied & pasted from all over the place. But there's also much that is new being recorded as it happens. (Check the Barack Obama history page on Wikipedia and see how often it is being updated and hacked.)

I'm convinced that we need to first educate the educators and then have them teach their students how to filter and sort the good new knowledge, remix it with the old and have strategies for interpreting the inevitable conflicts that will occur. Information literacy and critical thinking may seem to be old terms, but much of what we need to teach in those areas is brand new.

We also have to make the new knowledge known, as we have always done with the old knowledge. The mediums for transmitting that knowledge may be themselves new. Publishing the content may be posting it online.

A friend nicely told me that he was getting a little tired of me talking about "open everything" on this blog. Perhaps, I have focused on that category a bit much of late. Still, how can we discuss all that I'm talking about here and not get into open: education, textbooks, knowledge, courseware and all the rest of it?

I'll close with a return to Robert Steele and that opening quote. There's a place for the old and the new. You can download his book free online, and you can pay Amazon.com $22 for a hardcover copy of On Intelligence: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World. What I don't feel there's a place for today is only the old information, or only the new.

"The problem with spies is they only know secrets," says Steele. The problem with education is...

Heading Cross Country to Write Across the Curriculum

Tomorrow, three of us from the Writing Initiative group at PCCC are headed to the University of Texas at Austin for the 2008 International Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Conference.

My first conference of the summer: workshops, speakers from around the world, presentations by colleagues across the disciplines.

Writing Across the Curriculum was a hot initiative about 20 years ago when I was still in secondary education, but I haven't paid much attention to it or heard much about it the past few years. But, since our own writing initiative at PCCC is working to develop 20 GenEd courses as writing-intensive, it's time for me to tune back in to WAC.

The University of Texas at Austin has a "Substantial Writing Component" requirement aimed at helping students improve their ability to formulate ideas in writing ability, write across disciplines and incorporate critical thinking skills. That matches some of our own grant goals pretty closely.

From their site, I see that a UT SWC course uses low-stakes writing activities (e.g. freewriting, outlining, email responses to class questions) to allow students to manipulate the language, thinking processes, and concepts of the discipline so that they can more effectively complete formal, high stakes assignments (e.g., arguments, research papers, analyses, web pages). A combination of low and high stakes writing activities that include opportunities for revision, peer review, quality instructor feedback, and conferencing will improve students' critical thinking as well as their writing.

We also share their interest in using the freshman/first year experience course and composition course as an important introduction to the Initiative and the minimum two required WI courses that must take to graduate. Our own high-stakes writing includes passing the college's required writing exam (GWE).

I'm not a "live blogger" who types during sessions at workshops. I like to take my notes and process things before writing, so I don't expect posts this week to be full of the conference. Any Serendipity35 readers in Austin this week?

Is it Critical Thinking, Creative Thinking or Creativity?

I was reading Dr. Edward de Bono's book, Six Thinking Hats, a few weeks ago in preparation for two sessions today that I'm doing on creating assignments for our writing-intensive classes, and for a related session on using critical thinking for wrting.

This Six Thinking Hats method, takes the approach that traditional argument or adversarial thinking "completely lacks a constructive, creative or design element. It was intended only to discover the 'truth' not to build anything." This deBono compares to his "Parallel Thinking" methods which are designed to help two or more parties and is a more cooperative form of thinking that leads to creative solutions.

If you haven't read the book or heard about his approach, take a look at the video embedded below (or click here)


I think this type of thinking is more creative thinking than critical thinking, and it's something I'm interested in seeing instructors try. To make the path even harder to decide upon, Dr. de Bono also has written about an approach he calls Lateral Thinking. Lateral thinking is about changing concepts and perception and reasoning about a problem and to get away from predictable, expected ways of thinking about problems. Lateral thinking is what is commonly called thinking "outside the box." The box is our perceptions and constraints. Here's a short video that talks about creativity and lateral thinking.

Some thoughts from de Bono's work:

  1. If our brain is a computer, then the software we're using was largely designed 2,400 years ago, and we haven't done any upgrades since the days of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
  2. In Six Thinking Hats de Bono says that approaches to thinking that are based on analysis, judgment, and logical argument are excellent in the same way that the left front wheel of a car is excellent. That is, there is nothing at all wrong with it, but it is not sufficient.
  3. He believes that creativity is a skill, not just a talent and it can be learned.
  4. Being different for the sake of being different is not creativity. Creative ideas must have or add value.
  5. People are reluctant to be creative out of fear of making mistake. We need a word for those creative ideas that just don't work that isn't "mistake" - for those "Fully justified ventures which for reasons beyond our control did not succeed." Creative and useful mistakes.

There are lots of online tools that can be used as creative thinking exercises and some of them also make excellent prewriting activities. Text2MindMap is an online application where you can create mind maps/graphic organizers simply by entering text in an outline. The outline is then converted to a mind map that you can customize and save as a .jpg file for a website, blog or presentation. A good way to brainstorm a topic in class and have students easily create mnd maps on their own with very minimal tech skills and no extra software.

Have students watch a short video and take notes online as they watch: Sir Ken Robinson did a good 2006 TED Talk called "Do Schools Today Kill Creativity?" Robinson is author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, and a leading expert on innovation in education and business. He feels that creativity is as important today in education as literacy.

His main point, told humorously, is that children are born artists, but the problem is to remain one despite education. We don't learn to be creative, we unlearn. Luckily, children are willing to take chances and make mistakes - for awhile anyway, until school teaches them otherwise.

Today we are discussing what we feel we can do in writing that is critical thinking, creative thinking or just good ol' creativity. We will talk about approaches and theories. We will do exercises and try our best to be creative in our design of writing-intensive assignments. But all of it will be for nothing if we don't do these things in classrooms that allow and foster those things. Maybe the box of constraints we are teaching in is too strong with rules, assessments, social pressures, accreditations and more.

Take a look at the Robinson talk


Adding the e to Portfolios

This summer at PCCC we have been looking at tools and platforms for having students put their writing portfolios online into what many people call an ePortfolio.

We're not breaking any new ground with this project. Writing portfolios have a long history, and putting them online has been done for longer than there has been the Internet since people were using network servers at schools.

The first product we looked at is eportfolio.org, an obvious choice for us because it is a platform offered by the same consortium that we belong to for our eTutoring. We piloted it with a group of 20 faculty this summer and, unfortunately, they found it confusing to use and unattractive. Attractiveness shouldn't be a prime consideration, but that's what showed up in our surveys, so...

You get more interesting things with portfolio websites but the learning curve is steep. Here are a few from my students last fall at NJIT: Stephanie, Orna, Paul, Catherine and Sandra. My students are studying visual design and building sites is part of the course content, so it makes sense for them to create portfolio sites.

I don't think building websites will work for us at PCCC. Our students don't have the technology background, we don't give them server space, and we don't want the creation of the portfolio to outrank the creation of the pieces of writing.

Montclair State University (NJ) has been using Pachyderm which creates an attractive Flash site automatically from template choices.

Middlesex County College (NJ) has a homegrown portfolio product. It's also a template-driven website that they give students to use. (See eportfolio.middlesexcc.edu) I like the simplicity of the MCC solution, but I know that I can't expect PCCC to have the IT support to create such a tool. So that leaves "products."

What are we looking for in a portfolio for our small cohort of students this fall?

  • hosting
  • IT support
  • very simple user interface
  • "starting place" (template) that works as is, but is also
  • customizable if students wish to be more ambitious
  • ability to upload files
  • ability to scale over the next few years This fall, we will be working with 75 students, by fall 09 we will have 275 portfolios.
  • some attractiveness

We looked at many products this summer from obvious ones like the portfolio from Blackboard, the new one in Moodle, PebblePad from the UK, Epsilen and Digication which has versions for K-12 and higher ed.

We actually started back in January looking at many of the sites bookmarked at electronicportfolios.org. (If you are starting down that path, this document from JISC may be helpful.) And a group of us attended a portfolio conference at La Guardia Community College (NY) last spring and were impressed with the wide adoption of portfolios they have with a similar student population to PCCC. They have a gallery of some "basic" portfolios online

And where are we now? The product we decided to use this fall is eFolioWorld from the Minnesota State College and University System. MnSCU assumed the role of managing partner for the ePortfolio software in 2007. At present, the eFolioWorld system supports the portfolio needs of their system and other non-MnSCU institutional and organizational partners. You can see some samples in their showcase.

There are many reasons why schools are asking that ePortfolios be mainatined - a record their educational progress, personal achievements, for institutional accountability, accreditation, for mentoring & tutoring purposes, to assess student competencies, and as career & professional showcases. It's not only students. Some schools ask teachers to maintain portfolios as part of the tenure process.

There's a nice group of eFolio examples from students in a Masters of Public Health degree program from San Francisco State University. These portfolios are used to monitor educational goals and academic achievements, with artifacts such as a professional mission statement, evidence of work across national competencies in public health, community-based and professional experience, and a culminating experience report.

Our own portfolio project is to follow students taken our first writing-intensive courses which launch this fall. Beginning with the incoming class of fall 2007, students who enroll at PCCC and intend to obtain an A.A. degree are required to take-and pass with a "C" or better two writing-intensive courses prior to graduation.

We define a writing-intensive course as one that incorporates discipline-specific writing extensively into the course, and the writing contributes significantly to each student's grade. The instructor uses writing assignments to promote the learning of the course content, as well as to increase the students' critical thinking and information literacy skills. Instructors use both formal and informal writing assignments.

In our Writing Initiative, we are designing twenty distinct Writing Intensive, General Education courses across the curriculum. These courses will be supported by an instructional development component that will collaborate with faculty in developing writing assignments for their courses, and students in those courses will be supported by the writing center that will open this fall.

It's an ambitious project, but the portfolio component this fall is only to get our first 75 students to create an eFolio, upload the writing from the writing-intensive class and then select a few pieces to showcase and write additional reflections on those pieces. At least half of our reasons for using the portfolios have to do with the program accountability and assessment we need for our grant. The other half of this is to pilot the portfolio process (more than a single product) for possible adoption by the entire college in the next few years.