Maintaining Humanity in a Digital World

I received my undergraduate degree from Davidson College, which is a small liberal arts school outside of Charlotte, NC. While it’s possibly most known for producing basketball phenom Stephen Curry (too bad Virginia Tech!), it prides itself on a low student-faculty ratio, intimate class sizes, and rigorous academics. The priority placed on teaching there fit very well with my own ideals for what learning should be. Coming to Virginia Tech, a full-blown R1 research institution, required a cultural adjustment. Gardner Campbell’s article resonates with the way I felt during my first year here. Interestingly, my experiences in the classroom and the relationships I have with my professors is not dissimilar from those that I had in undergrad (I’m in a pretty small program), but I definitely feel the effects of existing in an academic world dictated by objectives, outcomes, and metrics when I happen to cross paths with the multi-faceted, many-cogged machine that is the university-at-large. Some of these effects I feel indirectly. I have friends who’ve been in classes of over 300 students, taught in gargantuan lecture halls, featuring a half-committed professor rehashing the same lecture from a decade earlier. Michael Wesch picks apart the effectiveness of this dogmatic approach to education in his TED talk video we watched on Wednesday. Fortunately, none of my classes are like that, and I am only able to imagine how insignificant it must feel to be a student in that situation. However, there are other ways in which I feel these effects very directly, the most superficial being funding. I’ll be the first to admit that the art department isn’t the bread-winner at Virginia Tech. We are a small group of small fishes in a big Duck Pond. However, just like any department, we need money and resources to fund graduate students, purchase new equipment, and secure studio spaces. But there isn’t much of that for the arts at an institution that prioritizes measurable research, especially one funded by the government (and super especially at this particular moment in time). Often, we will collaborate on research projects with other departments in engineering or the sciences in an attempt to appropriately reclassify ourselves to be eligible for the funding that’s available. And while such cross-disciplinary team-ups are excellent opportunities and undoubtedly work towards a more networked learning environment, too often the requisite reclassification paints us more as designers than artists (and I will vehemently and passionately argue the distinction). Kuh’s “comprehensive approach” to student education is most at-risk from a system predicated on career outcomes. I agree with Kuh and Campbell that readjusting our emphasis to be about student learning and inquiry is paramount to a true education. There are certain skills such as feeling comfortable talking to people, being aware of the needs of others, and being an active listener that may not be pertinent to the knowledge pool of a field of study, but are absolutely critical as a professional. Similarly, ingesting information to spit back up on a test does little towards helping students identify and solve problems they encounter. These “human” skills are difficult to justify when numbers serve as the reason for doing, especially so when many forms of both work and leisure take place behind the glow of a computer screen. Finding ways to utilize and develop them in (or alongside) the classroom is one of the biggest challenges we face as educators today.

Current understanding of pedagogy

As we all know, most of the time, the audience facing the educator in a classroom or in any other learning environment are novice to some of the subjects the educator covers. It is also obvious that learning is most effective when learners can easily digest the message that is being delivered to them. To handle the situation correctly, teachers need really good pedagogy which for me means a lot. It is a whole art, a passion, a way to deliver messages to an audience in a right way with ethic and authenticity. To me all what we do in live should be done with care, love and authenticity for a better outcome. Teaching requires an art to better satisfy the needs of learners. I love saying that my current understanding of pedagogy is still the one I had many years ago when I decided to look in a dictionary what the meaning of “Pedagogy” was because of somebody I liked the way he taught us. It was when I started secondary school and my cousin, who older than me while talking about the teaching skills of some our professors said “Oh that one has good pedagogy”. I know, I heard about the word “pedagogy” before. But what brought me to look at it that day was the fact that the professor she mentioned was so good at teaching. I wanted to learn more about him by looking at that qualifier my cousin used to describe him. who I admire and respect a lot like many other students. I still remember the passion, the art he used to put out there just to make us feel comfortable and understand everything he was covering. Today when I remember about this story it makes me have more admiration for all educators with good teaching skills who inspired me a lot and because of whom I did find out thing that was not paying attention to. For instance, the school we were in by that time my cousin and I was a private school called “Groupe Scolaire les Pédagogues”, with “pédagogue” meaning somebody who has the qualities of a good teacher, a good educator. I never wondered what the name of my school stands for but while looking for the word pedagogy, I also looked at other related words. I was later happy to tell to people who ask me that I was studying at les “Pédagogues”. That was a small story that I wanted to share as it did occur because of an educator’s talent and art of doing things, specially teaching in the right way. The question I have though is do people acquire pedagogy through learning or trough experience over time or it is just something some people born with, something natural in them? I am asking this question because of these reasons. 1.) There are many theories on good teaching strategies out there that did not exist let`s say twenty years ago and at the same time parents mainly older people are complaining that teaching is not done in a good way anymore. 2.) I used to hear people saying telling to others “you have the vocation to teach, or to be a lawyer, etc”.

Is networked learning additive & required to experience? How can risks associated with it be managed?

Campbell’s idea that networked learning is an essential part of experiential learning is alluring in the way that new ideas can be at first, before they are viewed under closer inspection. I wonder if he would publish this article today? If so, would he change anything? I read Campbell’s ideas through the lens of everything happening today – against the “truth isn’t truth” landscape. This backdrop involves a portion of the population that is weak in the digital literacy domain, which fundamentally undermines public discourse and governance. On the face, connected learning might help address this issue, but it also has the potential to worsen the divide.

From a background in public health, the concept of networked learning is both exciting and worrisome. On the positive side, learning the use of web-based tools for research and learning is important to being a professional that can find appropriate sources in digital published environments, connect to new ideas in a digestible format on Twitter, and locate contacts within the field for collaboration. On the flipside, learning using digital sources requires boundaries and methods to correct inaccuracies. Many years ago I completed an environmental health survey of programs for girl’s health. The internet is filled with programs that are evidenced based, robust, rigorous, efficient, and efficacious, but the dark side is that there are also programs that are none of these things and are based on outmoded ideas not fit for health interventions. Students and future professionals need to understand how to deal with information that falls into these different buckets, and especially for what to do with information that resides in a more gray area.

I also read Campbell from the perspective of a woman, which can be associated with negative experiences in networked spaces. How do we use networked learning safely balanced with teaching curiosity and empathy? When Campbell discusses how students can become alienated from their learning, does he not think connected learning could be alienating? How will information overload be addressed in this paradigm? There is research from VT faculty on this issue, which is one potential cause for concern with Campbell’s proposal if left un-considered.

Network learning makes sense as part of experiential learning for certain courses of study (media, communications, computer science), and future occupations (public affairs, software development), but I don’t agree that it’s necessary or beneficial for everyone. I would be greatly interested to see a study on the benefits of networked learning, traditional co-op, and blended options for a large student population to see if networked learning significantly added to the co-op model, or was even better than the co-op model for specific indicators of success.

I am more aligned with Campbell’s analysis of Kuh’s stances and the broader feelings within the field at that time: pragmatic, concerned with the applicability of education to the individual’s long-term success, and larger talent attraction and retention needs. The best way for many to learn is experiential, but the reason that many pursue higher education is associated with future earnings and stability.

At a time when students are taking on record debt to pursue education, the question of the value of the final degree is essential to one’s economic wellbeing. Millennials are buying houses at lower rates due to debt from school. This has long-term impacts on municipalities, regions, and the economy of the nation.

Why Should I Blog?

I am fairly new to the concept of blogging. The only blog posts I have written have been for classes where blogging was required. I really don’t engage much in social media either, so the frequent sell of leveraging social media and internet networks for personal and professional engagement in larger communities while tempting didn’t seem like something I would be good at. However, the following phrase from Seth Goden completely changed how I think about the idea of blogging: “What matters is the humility that comes from writing it. What matters is the metacognition of thinking about what you are going to say.” That rationale for blogging resonates with me as something that was easier to tackle as a beginner. I could blog just to put my ideas out there, to gain publicity, to give my research more visibility, or to create a public professional profile for myself that will be valuable moving forward. But as someone who writes pretty much exclusively for publications and class reports, taking all of that on sounded a bit daunting. I was having trouble finding a starting point to “create a professional profile and engage with the entire online community”. I was completely overwhelmed at that prospect. But writing just to practice writing and to practice putting my thoughts into writing in a space where I can quickly get an idea of how people from diverse backgrounds interpret my writing seems like a reasonable starting point (I don’t actually know if that is actually any easier, but it seems less intimidating to me personally). So instead of this being another class where I just write blog posts to check off the requirements, I am going to make an effort to really make this a growing experience using blogging. It is a chance for me to become a better writer while simultaneously getting used to engaging in a practice that will be hugely beneficial in the future. Hopefully this will be a starting point for me.

Networked Learning and the Training of Future Historians

This week we are talking about networked learning. The first thing I thought when I began going over the readings for this week was “what in the world is networked learning?” It has the sound of one of those education buzz words that everyone talks about, even though no one actually does it, or even really understands what it is. As I got into the readings I discovered that it was actually a lot simpler than I expected. As far as I can tell, ‘networked learning’ basically refers to creating learning situations where students interact in creative ways, both with each other and with a broader community. Now this is something I can apply to my own teaching methods and teaching philosophy. As a historian, I think that networked learning could be especially useful in helping students to understand the nature of the historical discipline. At one point in his article, “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning,” Gardner Campbell describes books as a pre-internet form of networked learning, referring to a walk through the stacks as “tracing nodes and connections.” (Campbell) This reminded me of a lot of the discussions in my graduate seminars, where professors have encouraged me to see history books not as individual works, but as pieces of an ongoing historical conversation and to see my own research not as a task to be completed, but as another piece in this network of ideas. Tim Hitchcock’s article, “Twitter and blogs are not just add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion underpinning it.” also helped me to see the connection between networked learning and the concept of the historical conversation. Hitchcock argued that humanist scholars should see platforms like blogs and Twitter as a logical extension of more traditional forms of publication. Furthermore, he argued that engaging in these platforms can help scholars to maintain a focus on the communal aspect of their work, as posting on these platforms forces scholars to remain reader-focused through various stages of their work. (Hitchcock) Working as a graduate editor for my department’s undergraduate research journal, I can definitely see that undergraduates struggle with the concept of a “community of scholars.” (Hitchcock) The most consistent advice that I have to give to undergraduates submitting their work is that they need to help the reader understand how their research contributes to the broader historical conversation in a novel way. I believe that by using internet-driven methods of networked-learning, teachers of history can help their students begin to see their work as a piece in a broader conversation rather than an individual assignment. Blogging is a good example of this method in action. Last semester, I participated in an environmental history seminar where each student blogged about the weekly readings. Over the course of the semester, I found that each student approached the material based on their own area of focus. As a result, every week we would all see the same reading analyzed and discussed in a number of different ways, leading to a multifaceted understanding of the reading and its place in the field. This collaborative approach to learning took place via classroom discussions as well, but reading the blogs and comments really drove home the collaborative nature of our class. I believe this approach can be especially beneficial for undergraduates. Helping students understand historical conversations is difficult, especially since an undergraduate workload does not allow for the amount of reading that is required to begin to see conversations unfold. However, by creating a mini-conversation via a class blog, students can begin to see how each other’s work relates and to think about how this process plays out on a larger scale. Blogging might be the most obvious instance of networked learning, but I think that there are several technologies and approaches that lend themselves to this process. Something as simple as collaborating on a google doc for a class project forces students to think about their individual tasks in light of a broader context and it also gives students experience with trying to integrate different perspectives and approaches. In addition, this sort of project also has the potential to force students to learn to have a robust but civil conversation about the merits of conflicting perspectives and methodologies. I began this week questioning the relevance of ‘networked learning’ but after reading this week’s articles and thinking about how this concept could apply to my field, I find myself seeing networked learning as not only useful, but ultimately essential to training young scholars.  I have a feeling that this will be a common theme throughout the semester.

Experiential Learning in Entomology

Though the term may be new, the concept of experiential learning (learning by doing) has been around since the dawn of complex life. It is true that many animals rely on instinct for basic functions, but for intricate behaviors like hunting, building dams, and even social grooming, animals learn by watching others and following along, a.k.a. by doing. The ability to pass on information and learned behaviors over generations quickly rocketed humans into apex animal position, so it is no wonder that moving away from experiential learning, e.g. towards just “dumping” information from one brain into another through dull lectures, has had less success. Here’s the rub though, hands-on learning is hard. It demands a much higher level of attention per student from the instructor that forces class sizes to be small. Experiential learning can also be expensive, as students must be allowed, and sometimes even encouraged, to make mistakes, which uses up resources. But the outcome of hands-on learning is an undeniably better-prepared cohort of students which knows how to succeed and what to do when they fail. Several years back I taught a course on Bees and Beekeeping as the instructor of record at Virginia Tech. This course was split into two sections, which could be taken separately or together, one, a lecture three times a week with 70ish students, and the other a lab with only 16 students. The two sections were complementary; the lecture taught students about the complex biology of honey bees (which are like, the whackiest and coolest insects if you ask me), the business of beekeeping and managerial strategies, while the lab actually taught students how to keep bees out in one of Tech’s experimental aviaries. The lecture covered the basics of beekeeping, but not a single one of those students who only took the lecture walked out of that class at all prepared to keep bees. Nothing can prepare someone to be surrounded by tens of thousands of stinging insects, repeatedly knocking into your hood screen and trying to crawl up your pants leg. Being calm around bees is something most people must practice.
From a swarm demo we did in 2015. Do you think this sort of comfort around bees is instinctual?
Unfortunately, we could not afford to have every student in the lecture also take the lab, it just would not be feasible with the number of instructors (myself and a TA), the number of hives and materials, and the space of the apiary itself. That being said, we are pushing to increase the number of students that we can take out to the apiary, and the lab portion of the course may soon become its own class entirely, with greater support for space and materials. Finally, I must plug how great Entomology, as a discipline, is for experiential learning. As with bees, there is nothing quite like holding a hissing cockroach or allowing a walking stick to crawl across your face. Insects are amazing, bizarre creatures that must be experienced to be believed, and many of the Entomology courses around the country contain some level of hands-on experience, whether it be collecting in the field or checking local residences for bed bugs (these are often the bravest Entomologists). So, if you are ever looking for examples of experiential learning, Entomology departments are a great place to start!
Friends come in all shapes and sizes!

Engineering and Networked Learning

For this first post I wanted to start with a brief background of myself for anyone reading. I'm an Environmental Engineering grad student at Virginia Tech with an undergraduate degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of Michigan. I've taken one English class since high school and I can say that course was the most connected to the concept of networked learning and online engagement of any of the math or engineering courses I've taken. I think coming from a very technical background I have had countless "traditionally" taught lectured - at courses and while I don't think they are the best idea, I haven't quite understood a better one. A key topic of this week's readings was the idea of incorporating the internet and computer literacy into the classroom and I will admit, as an engineer, I am a bit confused. I found it very hard to understand quite what the writers and members of videos were saying meaning when they used this term and the vagueness of using the "network" made it hard for me to visualize what this might look like practically in a classroom. I think I probably come from one of the least connected fields both in industry and in the classroom. Sure we've tried having online quizzes, homework that you upload and the occasional youtube video shown to impress on us the importance of taking your job seriously, but I wouldn't say I understand the idea of "networked learning". I agree with Gardner Campbell’s article on Networked Learning as Experiential Learning in that I believe computer literacy and understanding basic elements of coding are vital to surviving in this day and age and that I honestly don't think I was ever taught these elements. This may be predominantly a factor of my age and the fact that I learned with the world on how social media develops and basic web etiquette. But I don't necessarily disagree with my field and the luddite approach I've been predominantly taught with thus far. I feel strongly you must understand a lot of key concepts, equations and applications to be educated in becoming an engineer, which is essentially a vocation and I'm not sure would even qualify as "true learning" even though I can design my way around a water treatment plant. My current understanding of teaching and I suppose learning is, I believe, very traditional. Most of my classes have assigned weekly problem sets with varying degrees of graded weight and then we were tested on the topics presented. I can count on one hand the number of classes that have deferred from this model but I can't say I think its entirely bad. I never had the opportunity to participate in the "flipped classroom" but all I've heard about is that students were completely lost throughout and there was little guidance. I know that for me, the most meaningful instructors have been readily accessible and excited when I came to them with questions. They kept their doors open at all hours and would thoroughly try to answer questions or would point you to someone who could. The engaged professor has been the most helpful to me but I don't think it actually helped me learn the material. I think the goal of teaching course with the idea of imparting knowledge drastically changes depending on the type of course you are responsible for. When thinking of the kind of instructor I hope to be, I struggle with wanted to be innovative but also effective. I think being accessible to students is vital but I struggle with the idea of how to engage struggling students. I'm excited for what this semester has to bring in terms of thinking on these ideas and I hope there is some time spent not only on contemporary pedagogy and how to connect the internet into the classroom but also just on pedagogy because a lot of professors can get to the classroom without ever having been taught about teaching.
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