Thoughts on Sync Video Conversations

It has been a while since I’ve posted – I’ve been dealing with a bit of writer’s block. Theoretically, politically, philosophically my mind is racing too fast and I can’t seem to get any of it down. To try to break the block I’m going to set it all aside and go for a simple technical post.

Through my work with Virtually Connecting I do a lot of synchronous video calls so I’ve developed some thoughts on formats, techniques, and technologies. Though warning – I will NOT be advocating, admonishing, reviewing, or even mentioning by name any specific brand of technology for sync video in this post – cause that is how I roll. I see more and more people doing sync video conversations so I’m hoping this will be helpful or start further conversation.

Why Sync Video

Sync video is not always the answer. You have little time for reflection in sync conversations so you need to be more “on”. There is something more vulnerable about sync video than other kinds of technologically mediated communications. Still, as with most things, opening to that vulnerability brings possibilities of a rich experience. Seeing facial expressions instead of emojis, hearing laughter rather than just a lol; this is the kind of immediate feedback that we should be looking to give rather than numbers on a dashboard.

Use sync video when you want to have a conversation.

Silence is Golden?

I’ve yet to work with any system that I really felt was 100% synchronous. There is always a little bit of a lag. You should know this going in and be okay with it. There might be times where no one is talking because they are still listening to what you just said – because it is taking longer for the audio to reach them. These days it is really much better than in the past and it should not be more than a couple of seconds on a day when you have a bad connection for whatever reason. However, if it is too bad you may have to look for other options.

The problem is that those silences do not feel good. They break up the flow and make things seem off. Even in face to face conversations we have all had awkward silences, the technology cannot help with those. If you are trained in media studies then the feeling is even going to be worse for you because you have been conditioned to avoid “dead air”. If you are broadcasting or recording your conversation then it can be even worse and you may even face the opposite problem where everyone is so afraid of dead air that they step on one another trying to avoid it. You don’t have to fear dead air. You can warn your participants about lag before the conversation if they are new to sync video and let them know that natural pauses for reflection and listening are normal and okay.

At the same time there are moments where hospitality can avoid awkward dead air that is not needed. The most obvious for me is when you have a large group and you ask them to do introductions. They don’t know what order to go in. Sync video gets strange with two people starting at the same time. No one wants to go first and no one wants to step on anyone else. So, everyone just sort of sits there looking at one another. Here is where I think you need someone to host. Someone needs to call on people and invite them to introduce themselves. If everyone knows one another really well maybe you don’t need this but it is still nice. I have tried to organize the order before hand or even in the moment and communicate it out to everyone but it just never really works for me. People always forget the order, they are not looking at the chat where I posted the order, or they think the order is different than what I said. It just seems so much nicer to me to just invite people one by one to introduce themselves.

Audio is Often More Important than Video

When you first start doing sync video you might think it is the video that makes it a rich conversation. Well, yes and no. I have a sync video project right now where students will be paying particular attention to nonverbal cues while someone is telling a story. It is a listening exercise. Here video is going to be key. In my past I’ve done some work with the deaf community in terms of sync video – again video is key. Is video really needed for your conversation?

If it is not really needed I would still argue that it can make for a richer conversation; so I’m not saying don’t do video unless you absolutely need it. However, technical issues can make it so that you need to back off. Video takes a lot of bandwidth and if you are in a lower bandwidth situation turning off your video can free things up so that you can continue what is important – the conversation.

And the one everyone forgets – I bet you have a phone. If technical issues around video are too much, call the person. One of my favorite stories is when I was set to have a sync video call with Bob Cole and Joe Antonioli and as the time neared I happened to be backchanneling with Sean Michael Morris when it became clear that it would be great to have him on the call. But Sean was in a coffee shop with really limited wifi. We tried, but it was no go. So I was like “hey you have your phone don’t you”…. I had to put Sean on speaker and hold the phone up to my mic when he wanted to speak, but you know what – we had that conversation.

Seeing the Person(s)

I think it has something to do with the immediacy of it. And yes, it is visual but so much of it is the audio in sync with the visual. However, I think some of it is tactile too – where the vibrations that someone makes come through to me in almost realtime touching my ears or when I see someone throw their hair to the side and get some sense of its texture.

Different platforms treat visuals differently and video may only be one element. Some try to be everything to everyone and break the screen up into other boxes. A box for video, a box for sharing documents, a box for chat, a box for listing the participants, a box for drawing on a whiteboard… If you are working with something like this take time to think about the environment and what is most important. If the conversation is most important make the video the big box and put it in the center. If this is the case look at your lighting and make sure you don’t have a light source behind you like a window. Think about your physical environment, your background, tidy up or even think about things that might be nice to have in the background.

When having a conversation with more than one person different platforms have different approaches. Some privilege the speaker, having a large video of one camera at a time with smaller thumbnails of everyone else on the bottom. The person who appears on the large part of the screen is determined by the audio – whoever has the mic’s attention has the floor. Other times the video is controlled by a host. Still, some platform layouts shrink the video of everyone as members join the call to give equal screen real estate to all. What is best? What kind of conversation do you want to have?

I’ll be honest, I’m biased toward the speaker getting the camera. Listening is done with more than the ears and if someone is speaking I want to see them. I get that it visually minimizes everyone else. I’m sympathetic to the argument for equality that some make for the set-up that shares the space with all. Using this layout I have felt more like everyone is present and no one is any larger than anyone else but I’ve also been distracted by someone who is not speaking who is fidgeting or something. I like the ability to switch back and forth between these layouts because to listen best I like to see.

So, Why Sync Video Again?

You know what I can’t stand – webinars. Why make people come together to listen to you if you are not going to listen to them? Just record the thing and let them listen to it on their own terms. For me, sync video is about a complex interplay of combining the communication senses to further understanding, and ultimately it is about conversation. It is about seeing but it is also about being seen, it is about talking but it is also about listening, and it is about being vulnerable and being brave. It is not for everyone and it is not for every situation. There are many options, there are still many barriers, for me it is about learning and playing with the possibilities afforded through tech, design, and delivery.

Image Credit: Me, Electric Lavender 3, CC0 

When Free Beer Leaves Me Cold: Declaring Interest in #OpenLearning17

I’m super excited that some of my favorite Virginia educators have gotten together to do a cMOOC! #OpenLearning17 started today and I’m so thrilled to follow along and learn with a great community. The syllabus says this week is for introductions, blogs, and working with a connected learning coach.  There is also a great reading all about the meaning of “open” which was enlightening to the history of the word. To this end the article starts with the word “free” as defined by Richard Stallman for the Free Software Definition, distinguishing the difference between “free” as in “free speech” not as in “free beer”. “Free”, in the sense that will eventually grow into “Open”, is focused more on liberation than lack of price. So, besides lacking a price, “free” as defined by Stallman also includes the ability to see and change the program itself – also the ability to redistribute changed versions of the program. It seems to me that in this way the program is used by the person instead of the person being used by the program. It also seems that this encourages community as conversations need to arise around this kind of usage.

I am actually struggling with some “free beer” kind of software (at least I think it is free beer) in my life right now so I thought I’d talk about it as my introduction to the group.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the best at email management. Our institution has a size limit on faculty and staff inboxes that is like 20mb or something. I’m always archiving stuff off because I’m getting yelled at for not having enough space in my mailbox. To make more room one of the first things that I do is sort by size and archive off the messages that are the largest. Usually these are messages that have large attachments.

A few months ago it seemed to really start filling up quick. The thing was I would do my little trick of sorting by size and I started finding these messages from one particular professor that I was working with that had no attachment – often they were just a sentence or two of text. I checked to see if perhaps there was an image in the signature line that was taking up a bunch of room but I didn’t see anything like that. I thought it was a fluke, archived the messages, and moved on.

The thing was it kept happening and it was getting worse. The first few times I found these messages they were maybe 500kb but then after a week I was finding that they were 1mb – then 2mb – and always from the same professor. What was going on?

I’d had enough and I knew there was something that I couldn’t see in the background of those emails. I asked our Instructional Designer Jim Kerr what he thought and we started a back and forth of trying to deduct what was going on. Was it only in replies? Was it every email that professor sent me? It did not seem to be happening when the professor sent from his phone… Well eventually we pulled up the source code for the emails and the cause became abundantly clear – there was about 11,000 lines of junk code in each of those emails. I don’t read or write code but one word was sticking out all over the place; Grammarly.

Grammarly is a piece of “free” software that is supposed to help you write better. In real time it corrects spelling and grammar errors in all of your text. You can install it as browser plug-in so that you don’t even have to go to a website – wherever you write text on the web it is there.

Grammarly says it is the “free grammar checker” but I believe this is free as in beer not free as in speech. I’m new to the open/free movement and new to Grammarly so let me know if I got this wrong. I don’t see anywhere that I can get to their code to tweak it or to see what exactly it is doing or why it is ending up in the background of very simple emails and bloating them up. Any talk of community on their site applies to those looking to talk about grammar issues not to talk about the software, how it functions, or how users can change it directly. Grammarly is free but there is a paid tier and the volume licensing also has a cost associated to it. So, I suppose it is like free cheap beer – if you want the stuff that tastes good you have to pay.

I printed the code that was behind the email just so that I could demonstrate how much was actually going on behind the scenes. Mind you this is double sided.

Printed code behind an email message that was one sentence long. This is double sided.

After going through all of this the professor immediately removed Grammarly from his computer – he said his email box was filling every day and no one could figure out why. But it also got Jim and I thinking about how Grammarly works. It is not entirely on your computer – much of the computing process is in the cloud – it needs the internet to function. So, it seems that it is basically a keylogger. Though it is not covert (I mean you install the thing) it is recording every keystroke and sending it to their servers to check for grammar and spelling issues. It does seem that they are encrypting and such but now we are wondering if there are implications for FERPA in an educational setting. And besides having some program record and send my every keystroke is a little creepy to me. Especially, If I don’t know what is going on in the background.

To be honest, I’m not a coder and even if Grammarly did make their source code available I couldn’t make much of it. I think that there might even be security issues if it were that open. Honestly, a big reason why I’m writing this as a part of my introduction for #OpenLearning17 is because I’m trying to better understand the implications from others that might know better than me. I’m wondering if our concerns about FERPA are warranted and if anyone has any clue how the junk code got into the emails. Any feedback would be great but if not, if this is too far outside the interest of #OpenLearning17, that is okay too. Hoping that this post can still act as a way of saying hi and giving folks some idea of the type of things that I’m thinking about.

Looking forward to working with everyone in #OpenLearning17 and can’t wait to see where this takes us.

#codesign16 #ngdle: a response with pauses and concerns

So, JISC is asking for those of us in the field of edtech to envision what the next digital learning environment will look like.

I don’t usually respond to these kind of things. I’m always cautious about futures, I love to imagine but I also know the power of giving voice to things and I feel a huge responsibility in such projections. Ripples, ya know? But maybe it is time to dive in – encountering many things that are influencing my thinking around this kind of thing in just the last few weeks.

Word Concerns

I’m having concerns about the word “connection” lately (just the last few days) and it is very strange for me because this is a word I have felt very drawn to in the past. My concern is that in just the last few days it has begun to feel too clean. Too neutral. Too much like a pipe or a line simply linking two things together. This presents as a problem as I’m considering the next generation digital learning environment. It comes as a problem because I’m considering the connection between humans and systems and it feels anything but clean and neutral.

Humans use systems – we hear this all the time and even call humans “users” when referring to their connection to the system. I wonder if we should ask how systems use humans…. How are humans part system themselves… How is the system a part of the humans… and dare I ask… how human is the system?

Could we start by thinking about and looking at the relationship we have to the digital learning environments that we currently have. Not the environments, mind you, but the relationships. Oh wait. There. Relationship. Perhaps that is the word I’ve been looking for – relationships are messy.


I’ve been thinking about digital citizenship a lot lately. Making plans and putting out content around the subject. Asking people to talk to me about this. Poking and prodding. Cause I want to discover. I’m not sure anyone has really figured this out and I want to talk to other people that want to discover with me. I use public social networks which are public in the sense that anyone can see. I also use ones where I control, a little more, who sees what. I also pay money to have my “own” spaces. I learn this way and it is in the public. I have dreams of teaching students how to do this for themselves.

So what will the next generation learning environment do for me, my students, and others? I gotta ask – what is the relationship of this system to the public systems? Is it a public system itself with a secure backchannel? If it is not in itself a public system then how does it relate to the public social networks that are used as learning systems? Maybe it is not a system but rather systemS. Maybe it is a way of creating relationships between already established formal and informal learning systems. Maybe we think of public systems in which we learn as a part of the next generation learning system. In that case where is our voice in those systems? To influence their direction in terms of hard interface changes. Is a petition for a voice in such changes a part of the system’s development?

Creepy Concerns

The final two questions from JISC in this call give me particular pause.

With the prevalence of analytics in education, can data be used to create a learning environment that is more responsive to student and staff needs?

Can the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) type tools enhance learning environments?

As I write this I’m attending #OpenEd16 and on my way I was able to attend the panel discussion at University of Mary Washington surrounding ethics in online learning. Prior to the event they posted this article from 2013 about failures in online learning and noted the lack of liminal spaces in online environments. Environments that encourage acausal experiences. The article points out that in a physical campus environment these are often the library, a bit of nature outside, or in the coffee shop. It goes on to say:

How can we facilitate the interdisciplinary dialogues that bring a campus to life? What spaces can we build online that aren’t quantified, tracked, scored, graded, assessed, and accredited?

This kind of environment seems important and seems to have been missing for so long in the formal learning systems that we have had in the past. So when I see these questions about analytics in relation to the question of what the next gen learning system will do for me and my students – yes pause. Learning would be happening there and I’m sure we are gonna want to show that to justify the system. But wouldn’t it be kind of creepy if we were tracking that. In a physical environment this would be like the teacher following you to the coffee shop and listening in on your informal conversations. So yeah, I pause.

And in that pause something comes to me (nod to Gardner Campbell’s keynote from #OpenEd16 for recognition of the pause). Maybe the next generation learning system has some tracked spaces and some free spaces. Perhaps this is facilitated by a kind of radical transparency in the data that is being tacked and not being tracked with a heavy point directed at the student having complete ownership over their data. Now we are teaching students what it looks like to be tracked. They can see what is being tracked, they can export their own data and look at it in a variety of ways. They can imagine how other systems might be tracking them in less transparent ways. And there is a safe space where there is no tracking happening – but I suppose that will require something more complex to build – trust.

Would You Like a Receipt with That? Could read receipts be making us lazy empathizers?

A few months ago I asked some folks that I would backchannel regularly with on Facebook if we could move to another platform. I like Facebook but I found that I was spending too much time there. Someone would message me and often I would retrieve the message using my computer rather than my phone and that meant going to Facebook. The little window with the message was a tiny portion of the rest of the screen which was filled with updates from my friends, family, and colleagues and I was just no match for it. While messaging I would inevitably start to scroll the stream and even after the messaging stopped I was scrolling along. So I asked some people that I messaged with there regularly if they wouldn’t mind moving to another platform and for the most part it was not a problem. But then the other day I was just thinking how nice Twitter DMs were because there was no “read receipt” and no typing indicator – when bam Twitter announced both of those.

It is not that I am against read receipts or typing indicators, I use both in other platforms, it is just that I was kind of liking not having them in Twitter. It was nice to have one place that did not have them in juxtaposition to all those that do. I was just considering some of the benefits of not having these before it got turned into a new feature so I thought I would reflect some here.

For one, read receipts are misleading; you don’t actually know if the person read your message. What you do know is that the app registered that it was opened  as a new message came through. However, it could be that the person left the app open with your message thread active, but has since walked away from their phone or computer. It could be that the person clicked on the message thread but chose to not read it because they got distracted by something else, or maybe because the thread was rather long and they didn’t have time. Of course with some companies using eye tracking software to make apps that remind us to blink while looking at screens (yeah I’m not going to link to those you are going to have to google that for yourself) I suppose you could get closer to a real read receipt but that is super creepy. It also then begs the question of what it means to “read” something. Can I get an “understood” receipt? How about a “read but was slightly confused due to cultural context” receipt? Oo Oo, how about a “had to rethink multiple world views” receipt?

The other thing is that bugs me about read receipts and typing indicators is that they feed into an always-on mindset. I collaborate with several colleagues all over the world so I can’t talk about how one should block out a particular time of day for not being on the internet – the sun will not allow me that nor would it of anyone working on a global context. Maybe this is why I am more sensitive to these micro-moments like when you see that typing indicator pop up and you are waiting for the person to finish and hit send. Often, I’m thinking as I’m typing and sometimes I even need to delete the message once I’m finished because I can see that it is not right once I compose it. What a let down to someone who has been watching those three bouncing dots for several moments to just watch them go away with no message. Would it be better for me to send a message that I was not happy with just because I think the other person(s) are expecting something? Wouldn’t that lead to worse communications? I thought the point of communication technology was to help us communicate better.

I keep read receipts on for several technologies but I have turned it off on Twitter DM’s for now. They did make me turn them off which is a little annoying. Why can’t new features be opt-in rather than opt-out? Or make it opt-out for new users but let current users keep using the system in the way in which they are accustomed – at least for a little while. There is no option to turn off typing indicators so I guess I will have to live with those.

My point in writing this post is to remind that our lives are hybrid and that our digital interactions often do not allow us to know what is going on with the person on the other side of the screen at any given moment and that I think that is okay. I think that we should use things like language, empathy, and hospitality to reach out to one another when we want to know about each other. In some situations maybe we just need to give some time for the other person to respond. We can’t let on/off switches stop us from connecting with one another. If you are wondering why a person has not responded to you, maybe just ask. People are complex creatures and I don’t think we should rely on a read receipt as an indication of how another person is interacting with us. They could be tired, dealing with other work, in a bad mood, paying attention to family, dealing with social anxieties, or any number of other realities. I’ve been a big proponent of stating that online is real too, but we must realize that when in a world that shifts so readily between synchronous and asynchronous that there is a ton that we cannot see, hear, feel… experience. There is so much that might be going on with a person on the other side of the screen and a little blue check is not going to really give us much insight into their lives.

LOOM’in Large (or perhaps small) at T3 and NMC16

I call them Autummisms. These little ways that I process the world. They are ever growing and changing. They are in-process and; not complete. So… take this for what it is worth. I’m going to warn you up front – it is an acronym



there are two O’s in the middle.

Now, how the hell do I unpack this?…

People are always asking us ‘what is Virtually Connecting?’ Often, we say it is a movement and point them to the manifesto. Let’s start there – movements.

What do I mean by a movement? Well, I think about the recent presentation at the AMICAL conference in Rome by Maha Bali and Jim Groom where they talked about ethos.

From Google (kind of):

ˈēTHäs (tho I say ēTHōs) -noun:
the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.”

So, yes I think that a movement is based in an ethos. Starts from an ethos. Creates and grows through the development of an ethos. Goals and outcomes can be developed around an ethos but I don’t think that a movement enacts from a goal or an outcome so much as it does from an ethos. 

The other thing about a movement is that the start date can be kind of fuzzy…

And end dates…

yeah those don’t exist so much till after the fact. We can look back and say that we see the start of a particular movement tied to an event of some kind; a political upheaval, a gathering, a protest, a leader being elected, etc. And the end date tied to this one person’s death or this one law being changed. But it is not till after… that we see concepts such as starts and stops.

As I write this I’m at the New Media Consortium’s Summer Conference with Helen DeWaard and I’m testing out a one-way live streaming video app while we walk the river and Maya Georgieva asks us how we got involved with Virtually Connecting… how did it start… for us???  and Helen reminds me it was #rhizo15.

Did the event #rhizo15 spark the movement that is VC? Maybe not for everyone… but for Helen and me… well… let’s just stick with maybe… for now.

In the moment, a movement just sort of is.

…So yeah, movements.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about, and something that is tightly tied to Virtually Connecting, is my affinity for small group conversations. I think that there is an untapped potential for the power of small.

I’ve talked before about my idea of the Interpersonal Multitudes Barrier (IMB); which states that in a synchronous conversation that the more people you add to that conversation, the less intimacy you have – (or maybe have potential for?). It is a theory – I think I might have stolen it. Lately, I’ve been feeling it is flawed as I wonder about the histories and diversities surrounding personalities in a sync convo and how they might contribute more so to intimacy than the size of the group.

Still, I can’t help but feel like quantity matters (HA! perhaps an organization is in order). I am aware of the Dunbar number but that has more to do with relationships – I’m just talking about conversations. Real-time conversations.

I digress…

I know I promised you an acronym. Sigh. I’m struggling with that part. Especially, cause it is a double O acronym and so many people have ripped off Dave Cormier’s “MOOC”… Do I really want to be another one of those guys?

But… but… (yells that little voice) it is more than an acronym… It is a metaphor, this particular Autummism, (though I know those too are problematic)… {… is she speaking of metaphors or Autummism’s being problematic?}

Last week I went to the T3 conference in De Pere, Wisconsin at St. Norbert University. T3 is a small local conference and I’m not sure it is the kind of thing that most people travel for – it was mostly faculty and various acatechies from St. Norbert and surrounding areas. So, why travel by car for something like this? Well, I was not that far away, St. Norbert is a very similar kind of school to the one I work at, and there was an opportunity to learn from some of my favorite people: Sundi Richard, Daniel Lynds, Bonnie Stewart, and Dave Cormier.

Dave and Bonnie keynoted – it was a real treat to see them present together. Dave took a historical perspective and laid out the story of how we got where we are now. Reminded me how important it is to remember. How the connections often go back further than we realize and how histories are collected from differing perspectives. 

Bonnie did the color lines exercise, which I saw her do in Cairo at a Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute (no I wasn’t IN Cairo but was watching live stream). Here’s how it works: She has each person who is listening turn to someone else and tell them their favorite color. Then, she has them turn to another person and tell them the favorite color of that last person that they talked to… in the next step she has everyone visualize the colors as threads that are connecting each person to one-another.

So, I’m thinking about those threads, and movements, and the power of small when I come back from T3. I’m on backchannel with Maha Bali and Rebecca Hogue one night and again it comes up – what exactly IS Virtually Connecting?

…We played with CMOOCC (Connectivist Mini Open Online Conference Convo) and there was some talk about how we are this perpetual cMOOC (that lower case c bugs me) fueled by conferences…

And then I’m thinking about the idea of small, and I’m thinking about movements, and I’m thinking about the threads of connections, and I’m thinking about collective history… and…

L – Little

O – Open

O – Online

M – Movement

Followed up by “Weaving connections through space and time, baby”

Pops out

And a loom is a technology

And it creates a whole out of parts – parts which happen to be threads

And it does this by connecting the parts together – weaving them into one another

And when done right that whole is beautiful

(And when done wrong…

Well, you know how it is when things are done wrong – right, dear reader?

Disclaimer: It is easy [some may say casual, irregular, or haphazard] to use one’s imagination to draw conclusions to an eventual dystopian [or utopian] end.)

Again…I digress.

So, what is a girl to do when faced with a rip-off acronym and a beautiful metaphor?

Well, when she is attending the NMC Summer Conference and has a VConnecting session scheduled with Gardner Campbell she simply asks “So, I have this theoretical construct that I’m working on and I’m wondering if you could tell me if it is cheesy or… if there might be something more to it?”

Let’s just say Gardner gave his blessing. He also reminded me that loom is more than just a noun … it is also a verb depicting something on the horizon. And it seemed rather appropriate given that we were at NMC talking quite a bit about horizons.

And I’m thinking if LOOMs might be bigger than just VC and I think of the #FTTE online gatherings (and how Bryan Alexander always takes that mingle moment – where he let’s participants break into small groups), and I think of #IndieEdTech and their small gatherings, and I think of #DigPed and and the various #DigPed Lab Institutes which end up being these small group intensives (still room for PEI and Fredericksburg I believe – early bird for PEI ends on June 20th… just sayin..)

And then I start wondering if LOOMs can be people – like single people. Rather than groups of people. But that is crazy because the M is for movement and a person can’t be a movement. But then Helen and I go out to dinner with Bobbie and Jen Lane and Jen says that people can be LOOMs because people can independently hand weave threads to make connections too and that maybe they can be even more skillful and nimble about it because they are individuals.

I’m still unsure how I feel about the LOOM as a construct but as I explained it to people they got a kick out of the idea and it put a smile on their faces so I decided to blog about it. I like that it is focused on the idea of weaving connections – not just weaving nodes or people. But I think that point is subtle and I worry it could get lost. I also worry that it might get boxed in by the little aspect – some forgetting that when dealing with connections things can grow quickly. But I’m trying to work on my addiction to worry so here it is world. LOOM – a Little Open Online Movement – It may be more than you thought at first glance. 

Image Credit Jakub T. Jankiewicz  “Loom in crystal ball” CC BY-SA

Why do we do blended learning?

The following is the transcript of a short lighting talk that I just gave at work during our eLearning Showcase entitled Why do we do blended learning? Slides are at the bottom.


So, if you knew my writing at all you would know that I am fond of disclaimers and this talk is no different. Here the disclaimer has to do with my usage of the word “we” in the title of this talk – Why do WE do blended learning. What do I mean by we?

Well I do mean everyone that does blended learning.

It is impossible for me to speak for all of them. Still, I feel that I am a part of this group that does blended learning and this talk relates to not just why I do blended learning but why those that do blended learning do it. I do not, however mean to speak for specific individuals of this kind.

Some of you may know this I just completed a Master’s degree in educational technology. A part of me that misses being a part of a community of learners at the graduate level. I’m fortunate in the fact that I work in an academic environment, so I’m not completely removed from living in a community of learners. I’m also greatly blessed in the fact that I am immersed in learning communities online.

It was in the last year of my Master’s program that I really dug in and found networked learning community online. I started a blog and while I had been on twitter for many years, I started to use it for more than conference tweeting. I started to create, collaborate, connect, and network with others in my field across distance and time to discuss not just technology but the human elements of educational technology, explore community building, and create rich experiences online that are focused on how technology can support human learning. This totally renewed my love for online learning as I met colleagues from all over the world who were willing to challenge my thinking and expose me to new resources.

The main subject of this talk is why do we do blended learning, but before we go there I would like to discuss the – why of why – with you a little bit. I often get asked about the why of blended learning by various constituencies – yes here at Capital but also out in the world at other schools or at conferences and online. So I would like to explore some of them with you.

Again, I don’t want to paint with a broad brush I’m just relating some of my experience here and it is subjective. But some faculty sometimes want to know why we are spending energy on something that requires more time of them. Especially, in a small school environment where they can see their students face to face on a regular basis.

Although not as often, I have had some students question me about the need for technology in education. I once had to explain to a very annoyed young man that my office was not pushing technology onto his educational experience but rather responding to a very real world that he was going to enter upon graduation.

And finally there are some in leadership who are not so concerned about the why but rather are bedazzled by the promises of increased enrollments and revenue streams. And while I would argue, that the potential for this most certainly exists, in the same way that the potential for any GOOD program to attract more students and bring in greater revenue exists, … that this is not WHY we do blended learning.

So, there are lots of definitions around the university and out in the world about what blended learning is. And if you come to see me over in CELT I will need to get more specific and talk to you about things like percentages of direct instruction and we will try to quantify things like a reduction in seat time. But for this presentation we are simply going to talk about Blended as an umbrella term around the idea of mixing distance, online, experiences and relationally close physical, face to face, experiences. Also, realize that could include the possibilities of fully online courses paired with fully face to face courses.

In the early 2000’s people started talking about and publishing on this idea of the digital native and the digital immigrant. Suggesting that somehow those that grew up in certain calendar years were of a different breed than the rest of us. That somehow because you were younger things like socioeconomic status or race or religion or gender did not matter in terms of the way that you approached and related to technology. Besides the cultural insensitivities of this metaphor it has set us back decades in terms of setting expectations around how to learn in a networked and connected world.

In a recent article entitled Death of the Digital Native Donna Lanclos was cited as saying:

If your university philosophy is grounded in assumptions around digital natives, education and technology, you’re presupposing you don’t have to teach the students how to use tech for their education. And, furthermore, it will never be possible to teach faculty how to use that technology, either on their own behalf or for their students’. ~ Donna Lanclos

On a similar note a quote from one of our own local professors Neal Schmitt in a recent conversation hit on the same vein.

I grew up with a kitchen in my house – that does not make me a Master Chef ~ Neal Schmitt

A better metaphor is that of residents and visitors which if you do some googling you will find a lot of information on – it was actually developed by Donna Lanclos (quote from the slide before last) and David White and some others. This metaphor does not assign a person’s digital literacies to the year that they were born but rather realizes that the relationship between people and their tools is a complex and nuanced one that deserves a closer look. That some of us may be resident on say using library databases while only occasionally visiting facebook or vice versa depending on the person.

A better question is to ask where are you resident online. Because the simple truth is that there are a large number of humans living, working, and learning online and some use some tools better than others. Some of this is good and some of this not so much. Doxing is real, cyberbullying is real. But so are….

Remote Job Interviews

Online Activism

Virtual Internships



Participatory Culture

Collective Collaboration

and Open Education

We need to realize that our students are not necessarily as digitally aware as the stereotypes tell us. Bonnie Stewart in a recent blog post stated:

“Not that fears and cautions and skepticism about the logics of media and capital that drive the internet aren’t warranted. Many, many are. But the dominant narrative tends more towards essentializing the face-to-face and reducing the digital to instrumental, task-based impersonality, rather than recognizing it as a human space with all the potential – educative and destructive, both – that that implies.” ~ Bonnie Stewart

So, Why do we do blended learning?

Because we don’t take for granted that our students know how to learn online. Learning online is different from learning face to face and it takes a whole other level of literacies and practices to be successful in an online environment and students will graduate into a world that is saturated with online expectations both in public and in closed environments.

Finally, we do blended learning because online/virtual learning experiences can be really dull and boring and static and we need an iterative process of continual improvement to fight the mediocrity and reach toward a place where we are creating a distinctive online learning experience focused on the human learner and not the technology for technology’s sake.  And so it is on that note that I give you today two cases where online educators here at Capital are taking on that charge to give their students opportunities to learn how to learn online.

Image Credit: CC BY Metal kaleidoscope spinner by Patrick Hoesly

High-Tech or High-Touch? Lit Review of CIC Research Brief for PAR Project

I have started a Participatory Action Research (PAR) project around blended learning at my university. I have never facilitated a PAR project before so I may be going about it the wrong way but I have a group and we are now collectively discussing what the research questions should be and soliciting documents from one another for a lit review. As a part of this process, one of the members sent this research brief called High-Tech or High Touch put out by The Council of Independent Colleges and Universities and I’ve decided to review the document in public in the hopes of widening my understanding of it.

In many ways this report was affirming to me. I was already familiar with many of the sources; citing most of them in my MA research. Additionally, I found the lens of independent colleges and universities to be an important one as often ed tech reports are looking to give a broad overview and they leave out the specifics of the environments in which these technologies are deployed ignoring the deep cultures involved in these these deployments.

However there is something about the report that bothers me and I am not sure exactly what it is overall. I may need to blog more about this but I am hoping that I can get some feedback from others that are considering this report.

First of all the title really bothers me in that it is this either or position. Why does it have to be high-tech OR high-touch? Can’t it be both? I searched for the word connectivism in the document but it does not appear. The word connected appears but only once in the hyphenated Internet-connected to refer to the types of devices students bring to college. Networked does not appear in the report at all but network appears twice once to refer to bandwidth and another time to refer to a group of education centers for online learning. As far as I can tell there is no mention of connected learning, networked learning, or participatory culture in the brief at all. This makes me sad.

One of the things that I like about the report is that they offer definitions right of the bat by creating a glossary. Ed tech can be hard to understand because of the proliferation of buzzwords and all the different meanings. It kind of bothers me that the brief makes no mention of the ambiguity surrounding terminology the field over. I hope that by taking a closer look at the terms as laid out in the report that it will help me to dialog with the report better and perhaps help me to better understand what it is about it that is bothering me.

The first definition from the report I want to look at is MOOC:

Massive open online course (MOOC): An online course that a) has start and end dates; b) is free to students, at least for those who are not seeking a certification, and open to anyone; and c) uses social media and automated grading technologies to enroll large numbers of students. Permutations include synchronous massive online course (SMOC) and distributed open collaborative course (DOCC).

I think this is a pretty good definition. I’m not sure I agree with the actuality of start date/end date thing but I will agree that many of them do have that and even if they start early or continue afterward the dates are often there. Yep they are usually free as far as I can tell. But use of social media and and automated grading? I’ve been in some MOOCs that use those but others that do not. And the mention of permutations are important (I even have my own post on these) but why call out the SMOC and DOCC when there seem to be so many? What about SPOCs?

The second term I take beef with is Online Learning:

Online learning: Instruction that is delivered over the internet instead of in a traditional classroom. It includes delivery of course content— for example, through online video lectures or asynchronous discussion boards—as well as more interactive technologies focused on problem solving or skills practice. Basic uses of a learning management system such as posting a course syllabus and assignments for a classroom-based course are not typically considered “online learning.”

I should state that earlier in the report they state that they will use the terms online learning and online education interchangeably.  I struggle with this, however, in my mind learning and education are related but they are not the same thing. Education is a process of teaching and learning and learning is one part of the bigger picture. I think this leads to the reason why the first word in the definition of online learning is instruction. This seems off to me. To me, learning is not a form of instruction and instruction is only one form of pedagogy. I’m worried about this because I think that online learning is a specific type of learning that requires different kinds of skills, attitudes, and approaches. Online education encompasses online teaching and I’m not entirely convinced that instruction is the best approach to online teaching. (BTW count on the word “instruction” is 35).

Next comes Open Educational Resources (OER)

Open Educational Resources (OER): This term is frequently used to describe online educational content or tools that are free to end-users (who may be students) and use open copyright licenses that allow for reuse and repurposing by other instructors.

So, first of all kudos to the report for even including OER in their list of terms. OERs are by no means new but they are, at the same time, far from mainstream. Where I am left wondering is in the fact that after reading the report I don’t remember much else about OERs. Using my handy find feature I discover that here in the glossary section is the only time that this term appears. Why would you define something and then not use it? Did I miss something? My second problem with this definition of OER is that OER is defined in isolation from Open. As far as I can tell Open Education is a complex topic with a rich global history that I am still trying to understand myself. But here OERs are presented in isolation as though they are a solo thing. Am I being too harsh in this criticism?

Finally, I’m going to call out Personalized Learning:

Personalized learning involves creating an online (or offline) environment suited to the needs and preferences of an individual; for example, this could mean tailoring topics that illustrate common concepts to different student interests.

And I am not going to pull this definition out so much because I have something to say about it as much as I just wonder about it. I’m taking the Personal Learning MOOC (#NRC01PL) right now and I am wondering how this definition fits in. I saw in the discussion boards that there was some talk around a difference between personal learning and personalized learning but where does this definition fall?

I don’t want to dump on this report completely; if it is viewed as a lit review I think it is fine. My problem with it is that it seems to be hinting at more than just a collection of facts. It seems to be making a subtle judgement call about the value of online learning. I’m okay with judgement calls if the building blocks of the argument are well thought out. I’m hesitant to say that these definitions are not well thought out; perhaps that is my own reading that is off. But I am struggling with this report so I’m opening this part of my reading of it up to see if maybe others have thoughts on any of this.


Photo: Track at North Station (Shuttle platform at North Station for Atlantic Avenue trains with connecting steelwork to Lechmere viaduct; never used). Creative Commons CC-BY-SA City of Boston Archives

Response to High Noon Radio: Even Cowgirls get the Podcasts

It has been a few weeks since my last #Western106 post and it is true I’m not paying as much attention as I was in the beginning. But that is sort of the beauty of these kind of courses right – you can do what you want to and really concentrate on what you feel inspired by.

I caught the High Noon Radio Hour from last week and it was oh so good.  Alan Levine talking with Sandy Brown Jensen and Molly Gloss about all things Western. I’m not really sure if they were talking cowgirls so much as they were talking homesteaders but I really enjoyed hearing Molly read from one of her books The Jump-Off Creek. Very much from a feminine perspective, the story gives us a glimpse into what life for a single female frontier homesteader would be like. Molly has done her homework too – researching historical diaries of women that had lived this kind of life. It is all so fascinating.

You really should listen to the show – it is such a good one. They talk about science fiction and how that can be looked at from a western lens being that space is a new frontier being explored. It does all the bendy stuff with genera and story that I’ve been loving about this course.

But then it happened – Alan brought up the fact that I’m concentrating on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues for the course and someone said – well they just spend all their time chasing men right? Alan sheepishly says no but neither of the ladies can really answer and the conversation moves on.  So, of course I need to interject myself into the conversation. This is why I love the Internet – I can respond a week later to a conversation that I was not even a part of in real time.

I should say that I am still working my way through Even Cowgirls Get the Blues – I’m still not finished with the book. I’m consuming the story in all of the ways possible (audio book, text book and movie) and it is really interesting to see it from all of these different angles. I watched the movie over the Christmas holiday and it is pretty bad all around though it is saved by Robbins quick wit which the writers were smart to keep. In the movie the cowgirls are most definitely not chasing after men – they are chasing after each other. There are hints at some love with men but the movie glides over it and if you don’t know what you are looking for you would never catch it. The book is much different with the main character Sissy Hankshaw loving two men and only one woman – Bonanza Jellybean.

Jelly is cowgirl and Sissy is a hitchhiker who is fascinated with Indians. One of my favorite passages in the book happens the first time that Sissy and Jelly meet. Jelly tells Sissy what it means for her to be a cowgirl.

She explains about how when you are a little girl and you want to grow up to be a cowgirl and they pat you on the head and say that is nice. But they never really believe that it is something that you can actually do. Then you find out that Santa Claus is not real, then the Easter Bunny, and then when you reach a certain age… well here I’ll let Jelly tell it:

“So they let you dress up like a cowgirl and when you say ‘I’m gonna be a cowgirl when I grow up’ they laugh and say ‘ Ain’t she cute?’ Then one day they tell you ‘Look, honey, cowgirls are only play. You can’t really be one.’ And that’s when I holler, ‘Wait a minute! Hold on! Santa and the Easter Bunny, I understand; they were nice lies and I don’t blame you for them. But now you’re screwing around with my personal identity, my plans for the future.”

And Jelly is pretty clear about the type of cowgirl that she wants to be too. She draws a distinction between what she calls trick ridin’ and real cowgirls citing Tad Lucas as a real rodeo cowgirl. I’ll let her get back to telling the rest of the story though:

“But the RCA cut women off in thirty-three. Said it was too dangerous. Well it was dangerous. Tad Lucas broke nearly every bone in her body at one time or another… But the men got hurt too. They were wired together like birdcages, most of ‘em… Why is it men are allowed to do dangerous things an hurt themselves and women aren’t? I don’t know. But I do know that they outlawed cowgirls, except for trick-riders and parade queens.”

The best part of the conversation comes when Sissy suggests that there is no demand for cowgirls and Jelly explains that is not exactly true. Jelly makes it clear that The System may have no demand for cowgirls but that there is a demand all the same and that the demand comes from the hearts of little girls.

This is just one conversation in the book and one of the simpler ones in regards to the role of women. There is a lot more – many of the cowgirls have different views on this. And many more metaphors than just feminism going on in the book as a whole – I’m a particular fan of the role of time in the book but you won’t find that in the movie.

And I’m not finished with it yet so I’m hoping that I can bring some more little bits of the book to you as it may come up.

I’m grateful to Western106 for bringing this book back into my life and for opportunity to interject my voice (and the voices of Sissy and Jelly) into a conversation that I listened to almost a week after it actually happened.

Fun times indeed.

The Subjective ADDIE: an unmeasurable look at an ID standard

There is a special place in my heart for this little thing called #MOOCMOOC. Before #FutureEd or #rhizo15 I stumbled into #MOOCMOOC and it was a taste of what I would, in the next few years, start to more fully understand about cMOOCs and public discourse on the Internet in my field. It allowed me to see what it was like to have some fun and get creative with complex ideas in public.

Now the #MOOCMOOC monster is taking on instructional design! Wo! We are not playing around folks. We are pulling out all of the stops and turning all the foundations upside down. I have to respect that.

There was amazing conversation on twitter the other day that I could not seem to insert myself into except for a few likes, due to time and other concentrations, about scaffolding. It was suggested that there may be a fine line between scaffolding, molding, and imprisoning.

Rebecca Hogue and Giulia Forsythe did a great job of speaking out in defense of scaffolding and I found a tweet by Angela Brown of particular inspiration:

The thing is, I have never really identified with the term instructional designer. It is true, I’ve done this kind of work and I can check my boxes off the same as the next guy. But I don’t think that is the point of what #MOOCMOOC is trying to get at here and I’m sure it seems hard for some especially when ideas are held so closely.

So, here is the deal. I know when I work with a faculty member to create an online course I do work through a systematic process. Sometimes I call this ADDIE but I’m really mixing a bunch of stuff: yes ADDIE but also Dick and Carey, and Dee Fink, and others I have studied. But I’m also doing other stuff. Stuff that does not get as much attention and stuff that I don’t have to document and present to a committee or anything. I’ve never written it down before and this is just a first attempt so forgive me if it seems simple or silly.

One of the things that #MOOCMOOC is trying to do is turn ADDIE on its side and I figured I would try my hand at it. A bunch of folks are working in a gdoc on this but I decided to just go ahead and create my own here in a blog post. So ladies and gentlemen I give you:

The Subjective ADDIE

I see the value in paying attention to matters of efficiency and I think that great strides can be made here when used in the right areas but I also think that concentration on efficiency to an extreme can hamper our ability to be creative in a time when the same old solutions may not be working.

So, for this reason I would like to suggest that The Subjective ADDIE is the other side of the traditional ADDIE and that it might be just as important. We don’t have to report out on it and we can’t boil it down to a simple checklist but it might be just as important and we might be in jeopardy of loosing sight of it if we are too closely looking at efficient matters and not paying attention to it. Energy goes where attention flows you know.

This is my first attempt at writing it down – I’m sure it needs refinement.

A is for Analysis

Traditional measurable ADDIE will analyze by asking very specific measurable questions here. Who are the learners? What is the desired behavior? When will this course run? – let’s not get rid of these but can we do more?

The Subjective ADDIE also relies on questions to analyze this area of the model, however, they will be subjective and unmeasurable questions aimed at getting to the most important reasons for having the course in the first place. These questions will focus on creating a transformational learning experience for learners. These questions are important in constructing meaning and purpose for the course and should work toward setting the course up as a collective creative endeavor. The following are only meant as examples – you might have better ones.

  • What does this course mean to you?
  • Will this course feed learners souls?
  • Is there some aspect or assignment in this course (or that you envision for this course) that particularly tugs on your heart?
  • How will you understand your students’ point of view throughout the course?
  • Are you ready to learn from your students?

The first D is for Design

This is normally the place where we start defining measurable objectives, goals, and outcomes and aligning them to assignments, content, and structured experiences. We think about content and media and technology but we don’t create anything. We plug it all together on paper in some kind of a blueprint.

I’d like to suggest the all of this can be useful for The Subjective ADDIE – often this step will be necessary to meet the stern eyes of oversight. Let’s do that. Subversion need not always be destructive – it can be additive – this is a value proposition. I would like to suggest that it is at this point that The Subjective ADDIE will ask what are the subjectives of each of those objectives? Can we get students to think about what their subjectives are for each of those objectives? Let’s put that on paper, perhaps as an abstract poem.

The second D is for Development

In regular ADDIE this is where we move from the paper blueprint to actual course content.

All I can say for The Subjective ADDIE – go make art.

The I is for Implementation

In the old fashioned ADDIE this is where the course facilitator and learners meet. The content is delivered and the assessments are taken.

In The Subjective ADDIE – go make relationships. Listen. Inspire. Dream of what could be… together

And the final step E is for Evaluation

In the traditional ADDIE we have been doing formative evaluation of the design all along these steps but then we do this summative evaluation at the end and I guess call it a day? – I’ve never really gotten that part.

In The Subjective ADDIE – I ask you to ask yourself, did you make a difference? Was it good? Sanity note: it may not work the same way next time. Everyone is different.

And I may have just lost several of you with this post. I know it’s crazy silly talk. Feel free to return to your original programing and don’t mind me – I’ll get back to checking boxes.

What do Westerns mean to me? A declaration in two parts about Music, Story, and Activism

I’ll admit that the idea of participating in #Western106 is a bit of a struggle for me.  I sympathize with Maha Bali’s most recent post on this subject. I can see the political implications of Westerns as a genera and I’m not in agreement. I’m not a fan of violence. But I pride myself on turning things on their side – so I will need to stretch for this one… That’s ok – stretching is good for you.

I do have a few things to draw upon and so I figured I would reflect here in week 1 of #Western106 on some of those things.

Part One: Music and Story

I grew up on Country and Western music and I loved it – no really. There’s a childhood story about me from around age 7, falling for a little boy next door to my grandparent’s place. That is till I told him of my love for Country music and he expressed that he was not a fan. Apparently, I could tell right then and there that while our time up to that point had been sweet that we had no future and I had to call it off.

Why did I love the music so much? Well, for me, it was all about the stories. It is here where I might be in good shape for #Western106 as an iteration of #DS106 – for how can we have digital stories without stories.

You might say that all songs tell a story of some kind but I would argue that some Country and Western music (that which is often tied to a more classic approach) really takes its time to paint a picture. I figure not all you will know what I am talking about so I made this YouTube playlist of some of the Country and Western story songs from my childhood to demonstrate what I mean by this:

This laid a foundation for me and as I started to listen to other types of music that tried to convey a feeling or a mood. No matter the abstraction, I was always looking for the story.

I struggled with this as a teenager when I tried listening to music that was more popular among my peers.  The only way I made sense of it was to eventually embrace the abstraction. I realized that some of the more popular songs (among my age and socioeconomic status) were telling one part of a story or telling the story in a non-liner way… I also realized they were telling a different type of story…

Part Two: Activism

Okay, so I’ve got the aspect of story in Country and Western music on my side while I start #Western106 but it is not the only thing; I also have Tom Robbins.

In my last #Western106 post I touched on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues which I plan to use as my anchor in this course. I would like to unpack it a little bit as we go along. I am still struggling to re-read the book. I did re-watch the movie. The first time I read the book I was traveling through India in my mid 20’s – it has been awhile.

Today, as I think about Westerns and merging it with Cowgirls this idea of the outlaw pops up and for me I’m asking how it relates to activism. How are they different and how are they alike? When do we justify law breaking in terms of breaking new ground and making a point?

Let me give you some context as it applies to Cowgirls. You see there is this take-over, this occupation, this coup of a ranch (the Rubber Rose Ranch) as a part of the book/movie. And it is not non-violent there are guns involved. The cowgirls take over this ranch which was developed as a type of high-end beautifying retreat for women looking to loose some weight, get facials and manicures, and such. The cowgirls are offended by this type of working over of women to make them all look (and smell) the same and so they take over the ranch from it’s lawful owners. I find myself cheering for the Cowgirls and rooting for them.

Cowgirls is a story of fiction and the ranch is just a metaphor (in my interpretation) for ideas that women need to fit some standard of beauty. The ranch in this case is like an assembly line where women can go through certain steps and come out conforming on the other end. The take over of the ranch by the cowgirls is a direct assault on the ideas of a singular beauty standard of all women. Throughout the book a profile of each of the cowgirls breaks while a parallel story is told to highlight their uniqueness, their quirkiness, and their “flaws” (which are often celebrated).

Of course as I’m reading this I’m thinking about this real ranch out West that is being occupied. Here I don’t find myself rooting for the ranchers. I realize they feel wronged. I realize that they are trying to make a point. I’m not so against their methods as I am their reasons. Here again, issues of ownership are at stake but it is not ownership of one’s own body it is ownership of land and resources where they feel entitled and think that the larger governmental body has over stepped. This is not a metaphor. To recognize any ownership of land that these ranchers might claim, for me, would be difficult as I would go back further to recognize another right of land. Enter the Indians into this western story.

Resistance as an act of reclaiming.

Resistance as and act of entitlement.

How about a lack of resistance as an act of beauty?

Part Three: Wait I thought there were only two parts? (well I said we were going to stretch, didn’t I?)

Yes, I know I thought there was only going to be two parts too but alas I’m more of a hitchhiker than a cowgirl and you never know where the road is going to take you.

This weekend I find I’m also confronted with another story that I can’t help but tie in as I think about outlaws and as I think about activism.

This story requires a disclaimer to fit into #Western106. A disclaimer that Jeffrey Keefer and Terry Elliott helped me with:

Everybody is West of something.

The story I want to bring to your attention to is that of Philippe Petit, French wire walker that tempted fate in 1974 (by traveling West) to walk across a wire he strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Why would someone do that?

After being arrested for the act Petit said “There is no why. It’s just when I see a beautiful place to put my wire I cannot resit.”

Of course this story is on my mind because I rented The Walk. I highly recommend it as it is beautiful in its cinematography as well as its storytelling.

I bring it up here because I think that there should be a place for an outlaw who is called by creativity in an open online course about storytelling with a theme that spends a fair amount of time with outlaws. I think it is important – if we are going to talk about story and the creation of story in the context of a rebellious genera to ask about breaking the rules.

I’ll let Philippe end this post talking about his book Creativity: The Perfect Crime with NPR. He says the book is an “outlaw confession” and states that “his journey has always been a balance between chaos and order” which really makes me smile.