Can We Promote Experimentation and Innovation in Learning as well as Accountability? Interview with Terrel Rhodes

by Randy Bass, Georgetown University

Editor’s Note: What does the learning revolution inherent in the expansion of social and digital media have to do with the national conversation around assessment and accountability? Faculty often fear that “assessment” (especially mandated assessment) will have a reductive effect, either by reducing the rich complexity of teaching and learning to simplistic metrics, or by limiting what’s being measured to lower-order skills that can easily be measured. Among those who experiment with new media technologies the tension is exacerbated, as student learning gains in new digital environments seem increasingly expansive, holistic and difficult to measure. How then might we find common ground between an impulse to get a more trenchant read on institutional effectiveness at inducing learning and the cultivation of innovation in teaching that higher education so badly needs?

The VALUE project comes into the middle of this tension, as it proposes to create frameworks (or metarubrics) that provide flexible criteria for making valid judgments about student work that might result from a wide range of assessments and learning opportunities, over time. In this interview, Terrel Rhodes, Director of the VALUE project and Vice President of the Association for American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) describes the assumptions and goals behind the Project. He especially addresses how electronic portfolios serve those goals as the locus of evaluation by educators, providing frameworks for judgments tailored to local contexts but calibrated to “Essential Learning Outcomes,” with broad significance for student achievement. The aims and ambitions of the VALUE Project have the potential to move us further down the road toward a more systematic engagement with the expansion of learning. –Randy Bass

Randy Bass: What is VALUE? What problem is it trying to solve?
Terrel Rhodes: In short, the VALUE Project (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) works to develop approaches to assessment based upon examples of student work completed in their courses and saved over time in an e-portfolio. The project collects and synthesizes best practices in assessing student work using rubrics developed by faculty members. One of the project’s core purposes is to identify commonalities of outcome expectations of achievement across a variety of institutions.

The project really grew out of the national conversation that was begun with the Essential Learning Outcomes (ELOs) articulated as part of AAC&U’s ten-year LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) initiative and developed through campus-community conversations (AAC&U 2007). There are fourteen ELO’s, ranging from skills–perhaps more readily assessable–such as written communication or quantitative literacy, to broader abilities and dispositions, such as problem solving, critical thinking, and ethical reasoning. Also included among the ELO’s were more abstract–but no less “essential”–learning goals such as civic engagement, intercultural knowledge, creative thinking, and integrative learning. (See a complete list and description of the Essential Learning Outcomes.)

What we were finding was that there was broad agreement about the value of these learning outcomes, but considerable lack of clarity and precedent for how to be accountable to them. That is, how could a campus or a program use one or more of these Essential Learning Outcomes as a driver for changes and improvement in practice, or even as a measure of how well current curricula were achieving these goals? People were asking, “if we wanted to take these learning outcomes seriously how would we do that? Where would we look? How would we have results that might be comparative and valid?”

We were responding to the growing consensus that to achieve a high-quality education for all students, valid assessment data are needed to guide planning, teaching, and improvement. That was one core assumption. And it was clear that colleges and universities were interested in fostering and assessing many of these essential learning outcomes beyond those addressed by currently available standardized tests–or for that matter that are captured by student performance in individual courses.

We also started from some other assumptions, such as: that learning develops over time and should become more complex and sophisticated as students move through various pathways toward a degree; that good practice in assessment requires multiple assessments, over time; and that well-planned electronic portfolios provide excellent opportunities to collect meaningful data about student learning, from multiple assessments, across a broad range of learning outcomes. At the same time, the electronic portfolio process can serve to help guide student learning and build self-assessment capabilities. Ultimately, we believe that e-portfolios and the assessment of student work in them can better inform programs and institutions on how effectively they are helping students achieve their expected goals.

Say more about what kind of learning is being assessed? What kind of student performance gets looked at in the e-portfolios?
The project builds on a philosophy of learning assessment that privileges multiple expert judgments of the quality of student work over reliance on standardized texts administered to samples of students outside of their required courses. The VALUE project builds on the work campus faculty and staff have done in developing assessment rubrics to evaluate achievement of a broad range of Essential Learning Outcomes and in articulating the expectations and criteria for student learning at beginning through advanced levels of performance. The project explores how rubrics can be applied to the actual work students have done both in their required courses and co-curricular activities.

The initial reaction to the national accountability demands for indicators of student learning have resulted in calls to use tests that have some basic characteristics in common: they are in some way standardized; they result in a score or quantitative measurement that summarizes how well a group of students has performed; they test only samples of students at a given institution; they require additional costs for students or institutions to administer; they reflect a snapshot picture at one point in time; they provide an institutional rather than an individual score; and they lack high stakes for the students taking the exams.

It is ironic that just at the point when higher education research has finally developed a rich information base on effective practices that enhance learning, on cognitive development and neurobiologic bases of knowing, and technological advances that greatly expand our abilities to collect, preserve and demonstrate complex, multi-faceted learning, that we so willingly accept outmoded, snapshot, shorthand representations of the value of our educational outcomes and impact on student learning.

In contrast, the VALUE project responds to the need for multiple measures of multiple abilities and skills, many of which are not particularly well suited to snapshot standardized tests. The types of learning that employers and policy makers are calling for  need to be demonstrated through cumulative, progressive work students perform as they move through their educational pathways to graduation; rich, multifaceted representations of learning in curricular and co-curricular contexts, rather than artificial examinations divorced from applied contexts.

Why e-portfolios? How is the e-portfolio different from other kinds of assessments?
The  evidence of learning collected in an e-portfolio creates a rich portrait of achievement for an individual and, with sampling and analysis from a collection of portfolios, can create a similar portrait of a program or an entire institution. Drawing directly from curriculum-embedded and co-curricular work, e-portfolios can represent multiple learning styles, modes of accomplishment, and the quality of work achieved by students.

Although it is not a direct objective of the Project, VALUE promotes wider use of e-portfolios for assessment without impairing the developmental and progressive dimensions of e-portfolios as spaces that students can own to represent themselves as learners and to make connections across their educational experience. We believe that e-portfolios, potentially, can foster and provide evidence of high levels of student learning, across a vast range of experiences, and across programs and institution-wide outcomes.

By gathering and disseminating student work through electronic portfolios, the same set of student performance information can be used at course, program and institutional levels for assessment purposes, and faculty can collaborate on assessing and responding to student progress. Student work from on and off campus and from all the institutions a student may have attended can be included in a single presentation of student accomplishment over time and space.

We also know, from twenty or more years of pioneering work with portfolios in higher education that periodic reflections on learning by students are critical components of an education. Student reflections, along with self and peer assessments, guided by rubrics, help students to judge their own work as an expert would. These reflections and self-assessments all become part of the collection of work that gets evaluated in light of the Essential Learning Outcomes.

What are these rubrics or metarubrics? What are they supposed to do? What can’t they do?
All teachers use criteria for achievement, if only implicit. Many educators at all levels have created and make use of explicit “rubrics,” or scoring guides, with statements of expected levels of achievement using criteria vital to quality work in a chosen area. For VALUE, the criteria for the rubrics at the center of the project are determined in discussions among experts in the appropriate fields.

The VALUE project has collected rubrics from faculty and programs across the country designed to assess all of the Essential Learning Outcomes. Teams of cross-institutional faculty and staff have been assembled, bringing their own expertise to the process. They have examined the rubrics for the purpose of identifying and articulating the most commonly shared expectations or criteria for learning for each outcome and at progressively more sophisticated and complex levels of performance. This analysis has resulted in what we have been calling “metarubrics,” or shared learning expectations.

Creative Thinking Metarubric

Critical Thinking Metarubric

Integrative Learning Metarubric

The VALUE project is piloting the use of these rubrics by having faculty score actual student work collected in e-portfolios on twelve leadership campuses and additional partner campuses. (See a complete list of leadership campuses.)

Although e-portfolio assessment does not typically result in a simple number or score for students, programs, or institutions, it does result in shared judgments about the quality of student performance in terms of important learning outcomes. The use of rubrics is not new, nor are the methods for creating inter-rater reliability. The resulting e-portfolio scores and judgments are more detailed, indicative of the types of learning expected, and nuanced than simple numeric scores. The examples of work upon which the assessments are based are what the students actually submitted in response to assignments and requirements of the curriculum (and co-curriculum) that comprised their educational program; therefore they reflect the students’ levels of motivation, focus, and investment in demonstrating their learning as exhibited on a day-to-day basis, i.e. the assessment data have face validity.

We hope that the VALUE project will be able to demonstrate several things:  that faculty across the country share fundamental expectations about student learning on all of the Essential Learning Outcomes deemed critical for student success in the 21st century; that rubrics can articulate these shared expectations; that the shared rubrics can be used and modified locally to reflect campus culture within this national conversation; and that the actual work of students should be the basis for assessing student learning and can more appropriately represent an institution’s learning results.

Specifically, how does student learning and student work get assessed? What is the relationship between these “metarubrics” (at a national level) and what actually happens at the local level?
From the collection of rubrics for each outcome, we have engaged teams of faculty and staff to examine the rubrics and to identify the criteria or expectations for learning that appear across multiple institutions. In essence, we have asked the teams to articulate shared expectations and criteria for each outcome. The purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate to ourselves, and to those outside the academy, that faculty across the country and at different types of institutions do have shared criteria for what student learning should look like from beginning or novice levels through advanced understandings and applications.

The shared general criteria are too broad to be useful for assessing specific student work at a course level, but the local rubrics developed for assessing student work are mirrored in these metarubrics that encapsulate the shared expectations of faculty and others for student performance. The local rubrics will use different terms and language, but the core criteria contained in the metarubric map onto these local rubrics so that faculty and staff can use what they have developed that works for their purposes with their students, and at the same time show how what they and their students are doing fits within the core expectations for learning that are shared nationally. We can reduce these shared or common expectations to numbers, but we don’t have to and we can therefore engage as a result in a much more robust conversation about what and how well our students are mastering learning outcomes.

Various campuses have been taking the core criteria of the metarubrics and translating them into the language and context of their particular discipline or program when using the rubrics to assess their students’ work. Other campuses have been testing the metarubrics along with their previously developed local rubrics and comparing the results when used side by side to assess assignment products. We are in the process right now of gathering these types of feedback to modify the metarubrics and further refine the ability of the metarubrics to represent shared expectations that can be used on a variety of campuses and programs.

Where are they being used and tested? What are some examples of what test campuses are doing?
The metarubrics are being tested by faculty on twelve leadership campuses that have histories of using rubrics and e-portfolios to assess student work. The twelve leadership campuses represent large and small, public and private, two and four year institutions, and regions of the country. Each of these campuses uses student e-portfolios in one form or another to have students capture and present examples of the work they have done in response to assignments embedded in the curriculum and co-curriculum at their institutions.

We have relied upon the established processes on these campuses for testing the metarubrics. In many instances, the campus faculty has used their local rubrics and the metarubrics for comparison of the comparability of the rubrics. No campus has piloted all of the rubrics, but all rubrics have been piloted among the campuses collectively. Based on the piloting of the metarubrics, the rubric teams have revised the metarubrics. In total, there will be three iterations of piloting and redrafting for each metarubric during the VALUE project process. Final drafts will be available in the summer of 2009.

In addition, almost sixty other campuses have requested permission to pilot test one or more of the rubrics with student work on their respective campuses (not all of these campuses are using e-portfolios of student work). On every campus, though, faculty members and student services colleagues are using the metarubrics to see how useful they are in assessing student work on the respective learning outcomes.

A lot of work with new media technologies involves student work that doesn’t fit traditional assessments. How might VALUE be useful for understanding new kinds of learning?
One of things that we have learned through the research on student learning is that newer generations of students are exhibiting a variety of learning styles. As everyone knows, current students are much more technologically savvy than earlier generations; they use and expect to use the internet, audio and video sources, social networking modes, etc. Many of our students do not perceive learning as a linear process more attuned to traditional reading and writing – hyperlinking and networked learning are more commonly apparent in the classroom. Couple this with the fact that most student learning occurs outside of the classroom, we have an environment in which we need to be able to encompass a wider variety of modes for students to demonstrate their learning processes and achievements. By definition this forces us to encompass audio and video, Web 2.0, hard copy and virtual learning.

The e-portfolio allows us to bring all of these, and other, modes of learning and demonstration of learning into the collection of evidence we use to assess student learning in the full complexity and variety of its existence. We have tried to encourage our rubric development teams to write rubrics that are not bound by the printed page conception of learning, but applicable and encompassing of other modes of performance.

Are there campuses using the VALUE rubrics to look at non-traditional kinds of learning?
Several campuses already have their students incorporate non-traditional modes of demonstrating their learning in the student e-portfolios. Portland State University has students including videos of community based work, performances, presentations to government boards, or interviews in their e-portfolios to demonstrate communication skills, civic engagement, working in teams, etc. Alverno College has all of their students record oral presentations to show the growth and development of these abilities as they move through the curriculum. LaGuardia Community College has their students deeply engaged in visual representations of their learning through art work, e-portfolio design, etc. as a way to communicate their learning to family and communities outside the academy who are often not accustomed to the text-heavy traditions of higher education. Bowling Green State University, St. Olaf College and the University of Michigan have students incorporate connections outside the classroom, whether they are in co-curricular activities or community-based learning related to the curriculum.

Often we perceive a tension between the desire to assess student learning and the interest in experimentation with new approaches to learning. Assessment of recognizable outcomes and innovation often seem at odds. Might the work of the VALUE project help address that tension?

We certainly hope so. The development of the metarubrics and their pilot testing on campuses was designed to create a shared set of standards that could be used for assessing, or judging, more traditional modes or demonstrations of learning, as well as Web 2.0, live performances or other types of learning. The outcomes for learning can be demonstrated in many ways. In the past, some have been too quick to conclude or declare that certain types of learning cannot be measured. The reality that we all face is that when we begin to evaluate learning, we are always grasping at and relying upon indicators of learning.

Learning of the essential outcomes does not occur in a vacuum or in the ether, it occurs through content and knowledge bases, and therefore will vary depending on the knowledge base on which it rests. Part of the reason we have different disciplines and interdisciplinary programs, is that different knowledge sets and ways of knowing result in learning outcomes being demonstrated in different ways. But in the deconstruction of the demonstrated learning, we tend to find similarity in the core components or criteria of learning, e.g. for critical thinking.

Just as we learn from our research and from our colleagues, we also learn from our students. Innovation and creativity are part of what we all look for in our students’ learning–it tends to be the ultimate learning outcome that we try to capture in many ways, e.g. capstone courses and projects, senior recitals, e-portfolio graduation reflections on work, etc. Having shared expectations or standards for learning outcomes is in no way in conflict with innovation. Our limitations are often due to lack of knowledge and comfort in using newer technologies to capture and represent the learning we seek in our students.

How could a campus make these viable? How would they be useful to start a conversation or provide a framework for discussion around student learning?

Our experience at AAC&U in working with faculty on campuses across the country is that faculty are typically eager to have permission to talk about and to focus on student learning. Once you get beyond complaints about teaching is not rewarded adequately, etc., faculty embrace discussing learning and teaching. So, there is no difficulty in getting faculty interested in talking about the subject. The biggest barrier is often a lack of awareness about options for assessing learning and what it would take for the individual faculty member to adapt what they know and are familiar with to some new environment or process.

Part of the selection of the VALUE leadership campuses was to identify a diverse set of campuses that are using e-portfolios and rubrics in different ways on their respective campuses to illustrate how faculty and institutions can see themselves beginning, expanding or enhancing what they are doing to assess student learning. By broadening our work to include campuses that are not using e-portfolios, we also wanted to demonstrate how similar approaches can be undertaken in the absence of the investment in e-portfolios. Increasingly, the investment in e-portfolios is becoming less and less of an obstacle for campuses since there are free Web tools that students can use to construct e-portfolios.

Essentially, we are finding that campuses are recognizing that student learning is something that the entire campus community is engaged with; each person on the campus participates in the learning, but no one is responsible for all of the learning. By creating and articulating shared learning expectations, we are helping faculty and others on campus see how they can contribute to student learning for essential outcomes; we help students become better judges of their own learning progress; and we create the evidence we can use to communicate to other audiences exactly what it is that our students are learning and what they can do with that learning.

By experimenting with e-portfolios and Web technology, we expand the robustness for capturing learning and the opportunities for students to apply their learning in “real world” situations, which employers, civic leaders and policymakers are calling for. E-portfolios also reflect the attendance patterns of so many of our students who attend multiple institutions (often at the same time) as they move through their educational careers. Their learning is shared in ways we often overlook–different faculty and colleagues in different institutions, perhaps in different states, and different spans of time. The sharing of rubrics, of expectations for learning, perhaps most importantly allows our students to have a much clearer picture of what their learning should look like. They can use the rubrics to frame the demonstration of their learning in an e-portfolio when transferring among institutions, when applying for a job, or for graduate school. The rubrics allow students to better assess their own strengths and weaknesses in areas of learning.

Having been a faculty member on several campuses for over twenty years, I know that using rubrics and e-portfolios does not have to create more work–it requires working differently, shifting my time and focus a bit–but it is richer and more rewarding than what I used to struggle with in trying to communicate my expectations for learning and how students could more readily succeed in meeting those expectations. There is a transparency and communication ability that enriches the conversations both with students and with colleagues.

Attachment Size
Creative Thinking Metarubric Fall 2008 Draft for Public Release.pdf 120.08 KB
IntegrativeLearningMetarubricF08.pdf 121.14 KB
Fall 2008 VALUE Critical ThinkingMetarubric Draft for Public Release.pdf 105.71 KB
Value-Rhodes-Interview.pdf 1.8 MB

Building a Network, Expanding the Commons, Shaping the Field: Two Perspectives on Developing a SOTL Repository

by Tom Carey, Jennifer Meta Robinson and John Rakestraw

Tom Carey, How Do Open Education Resources Acquire Their Value for Teaching and Learning?

Jennifer Meta Robinson, How Can a Repository Make the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Usable?

Introduction by John Rakestraw
More and more college and university faculty–in community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and large research universities–are working to improve their teaching practice. Many of these teachers see themselves as part of a larger community, and they are eager to learn more from other teachers and scholars about the practice of teaching. They learn from conversations with local faculty colleagues, and many are fortunate to work with teaching centers and other school resources dedicated to the promotion of teaching and of reflection on teaching.

However, when they look for resources beyond the local setting, they are often overwhelmed by the mass of information. Whether they are seeking answers to specific pedagogical questions–e.g., how might one help students in an intermediate-level class  to frame their own research questions in a discipline? Or asking broader curricular development questions–e.g., how might a senior capstone course help students to build upon and integrate work done in lower level courses in the major and in general education?–they are often frustrated. In some instances they find an abundance of theoretical information but lack the time to explicate fully just how this theory might apply in a particular situation. In other instances they find reflections on particular teaching practices, but those reflections are grounded in very different teaching situations, making  it difficult to relate the conclusions to their own teaching. These frustrations are often intensified when one adds to the mix the question of whether or how to use a particular technology to support student learning. To build on an earlier example, how might an online writing environment help students work collaboratively between face-to-face class sessions to define their own research questions?

All of these questions together pose the important challenge: just how do teaching faculty–faculty who, after all, were trained in particular disciplines rather than in general teaching skills–cultivate and then share knowledge about teaching practice?

Building a Scholarship on Teaching and Learning
One approach to answering this last, larger question is embodied in the field now known as the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, or SOTL. SOTL practitioners are building a body of research  that’s impressive in its breadth and depth. However, they have not yet solved the problem of making this work accessible. SOTL researchers are presenting their scholarly products in different media, ranging from digital stories to electronic posters to more traditional scholarly papers. Moreover, although there are conferences and organizations (such as the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education) that provide professional settings in which those engaged in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning can present their research and discuss the growing body of literature in the field, these organizations still attract only a small subset of the teacher-scholars engaged in scholarly reflection on the teaching practice. Finally, while many of these works are being published on the World Wide Web, this publication takes place in a variety of venues, from organized collections (like this issue of Academic Commons) to school Web sites, to Web sites developed and maintained by individual scholars presenting their own work. There are more and more resources available, but teachers and scholars still face significant challenges in their attempts to locate materials particularly relevant to their own situations.

These challenges are not unique to SOTL. All of these factors–the variety of media, the relative isolation of many of those doing the work, and the different venues of web publication–create difficulties for practitioners even of established academic fields to do research in their field and to build on the work of others in the field. However, the difficulties are even more pronounced in SOTL simply because the field is still not clearly defined and established. Scholars of teaching and learning, both those well established and recognized and those just beginning work in this field, find it difficult to keep up with others’ contributions, and to figure out exactly what is encompassed by the label “SOTL.”

The two articles presented here discuss the possibilities of using online technologies to respond to these challenges. Authors Jennifer Meta Robinson and Tom Carey consider the question of how online environments might not only house collections of SOTL contributions and reflections on pedagogical practice, but also host ongoing exchanges about how these contributions can be used and developed more fully by both teachers and researchers. While Robinson and Carey share much common ground–indeed, as will be obvious, they have participated together in many discussions about these issues–they come at the challenges from different perspectives.

Carey is particularly concerned that users of the repository will come to see it as a resource for what some have called Just In Time teaching practice. He would like teachers to discover in such a collection teaching resources that they can incorporate efficiently into their own teaching practice. Moreover, he argues that the technology housing the collection must allow these teachers and others to make their own contributions, and comment on work done by others, in a dynamic collaborative space. He and others suggest that it’s best to see the collection as bringing together both people and resources–an “Open Educational Resources Knowledge Exchange Network.”

Robinson considers the question of what an online collection would add to already existing collections and Web search tools. She also notes that the practitioners of SOTL are not only grounded in a wide variety of academic disciplines, but also employed in a variety of teaching environments ranging from K-12 schools to community colleges to large research universities.  She suggests that an online collection developed by and for scholars doing this work would help to shape the still coalescing field, and foster the development of a community of scholars.

Robinson and Carey’s brief essays begin to draw into focus what a SOTL repository might look like, and to envision how such a repository would influence the direction of the field of SOTL itself. However, as Robinson, Carey, and other scholars continue to grapple with the challenges of designing a repository, some of their questions, and others as well, remain. These questions, both conceptual and logistical, to consider as this process moves forward include the following:

  • What should be the level of institutional affiliation for the repository? What kind of visible support from organizations such as the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning or from specific colleges and universities would lend the repository the credibility it would need to persuade scholars to view it as a valuable and legitimate resource?
  • What is the incentive for users to contribute to the repository? How can we aid users in feeling that they were contributing to a scholarly community? What kind of institutional support and reward system would encourage users to contribute original items and to develop or comment on existing items in the repository? For example, education and library science students from research methods courses might be paired with professors in other departments who wanted annotated bibliographies or other digests of the state of the literature on a topic related to their SOTL.
  • How can we address the diversity of users’ primary disciplines and of the types of participating institutions? Robinson reports that, in discussions among members of her working group, some of these initially fragmenting differences ultimately proved to be broadening and productive. How can that experience be replicated among members of the repository community, without the benefit of face-to-face meetings and working groups?
  • Should the repository aim to collect, contextualize, and present work that already exists, or to elicit production of new work?
  • What is the right balance to strike between the value of community-generated knowledge, on the one hand, and the value of direction provided by some kind of an authority, on the other? In other words, how do we blend the openness of Wikipedia with the credibility of an academic journal?
  • Are there ways to combine elements of these approaches into a hybrid model, e.g., links in the repository to wiki-type discussion boards?

As both Robinson and Carey suggest, answers to these questions and to others that follow will emerge  in the concrete practice of teaching, as teachers and SOTL scholars contribute to existing collections and make use of the teaching resources they find there. However, it’s important to remember that the use of particular tools will not only lead to changes in the tools as they’re adapted to new uses, but will also help to create new ways of working together for those teachers who see themselves as part of the larger community of teachers reflecting on the practice of teaching.

Follow the links to the two essays:

Tom Carey, How Do Open Education Resources Acquire Their Value for Teaching and Learning?

Jennifer Meta Robinson, How Can a Repository Make the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Usable?

Opening Up Education–The Remix

by Toru Iiyoshi and M. S. Vijay Kumar

Excerpts from Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge, Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar, eds.

Editor’s Note: In their new book Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge (MIT Press, 2008) , editors Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar bring together a diverse group of scholars of teaching and learning to address this question:  “How can open educational tools, resources and knowledge of practice improve the quality of education?”  That is, how can educators take advantage of new knowledge-sharing tools in order to make their own learning visible, enhancing the collective understanding of how best to use these same tools in the classroom?

Iiyoshi and Kumar contend that, as technological tools continue to evolve at a rapid pace, the educational community must consciously consider how best to take advantage of these resources, and should implement specific strategies to facilitate sharing of knowledge and practices. This process will require significant adaptation by institutions and educators, as traditional definitions of authorship, credentialing, and curriculum are all thrown into question. The volume looks at three broad areas of open education–technology, content, and knowledge–where diverse authors reflect critically on core questions, drawing on lessons learned from past projects, and proposing new directions for the future of the movement. Here, we focus on the area of open knowledge about teaching and learning, and the challenge of developing open education practices in the context of the ways new media is changing the way we learn, teach, collaborate, and circulate knowledge in our culture. Through this remix of the editors, Iiyoshi and Kumar, the author of the preface and collaborator, John Seely Brown, and a chorus of authors from the volume, we present a snapshot of open education that sits at the intersection of innovation and the imperative for an expanding knowledge base on teaching and learning.  -RB

Defining ‘Open Education’ 
Toru Iiyoshi and Vijay Kumar: a fresh perspective on resources and relationships
Rather than propose one more definition, our reference to open education embraces the many dimensions of this movement as well as the main interpretations of the term “open” as it has been applied to education over time, such as increased access, greater choice, and flexibility. What we offer instead is an extension to these definitions . . . that a key tenet of open education is that education can be improved by making educational assets visible and accessible and by harnessing the collective wisdom of a community of practice and reflection. (Iiyoshi and Kumar, “An Invitation to Open Up the Future of Education,” introduction, 2)

Higher education places a high premium on originality, whereas adapting or improving another’s educational materials is rarely understood to be a creative or valuable contribution. Thus, while scholars are expected to build on the work of others in their disciplinary research, teaching is largely treated as a private, highly territorial enterprise. Open education demands a fresh perspective on resources and relationships. A significant first step towards creating new education models is to build receptivity to open resources at many levels through effective professional and leadership development. (Ibid, 5)

Toru Iiyoshi from The Carnegie Commons Community Forum

Despite the increasing interest in open education, and the availability of these growing collections of educational tools and resources, we risk missing transformative and innovative opportunities. We must think really hard about how open education can help us improve teaching and learning in the small classroom as well as help us create the necessary educational capacity for the entire world. As a global education community, we could benefit from a deep understanding of how educational tools and resources are being created and used in ways that build upon each other’s educational knowledge and practice. It is vital we continue to explore possible synergies and sustainability strategies for all these current and future open education efforts and promote a culture of openness across boundaries and borders. (Toru Iiyoshi, video from The Carnegie Commons community forum:

Vijay Kumar from The Carnegie Commons Community Forum

Our hope is that the book actually launches a process, that it becomes a vehicle for reflection, for discourse, for some very serious planning, for a variety of us: for institutional leaders, as they grapple with how to preserve and contextualize the value of residentially-based education, something that we at MIT for instance worry about a lot–how do you change the production function, the mix of resource and spaces given the new clientele, given that there’s this plethora of quality resources available out there? In cases as nations, as we start thinking about increased access to quality educational opportunity in the new knowledge economy, how do we start thinking as teachers to figure out, you know, how is our role, as John pointed out, as coaches, mentors, managers of educational resources, how does it need to change to take advantage, to leverage this new possibility, how does that role as advisors and mentors change? And then also we hope that this becomes a vehicle for policymakers to think about some of what the new norms for intellectual property need to be–how do you launch this governance, how do you address governance issues, considering that we’re suddenly dealing with the distributed collective of producers and participants in this educational realm. So we hope that this book really starts fueling the discussion so that we can start not just preparing for some of these unintended consequences, but also start proactively constructing a preferred vision of the future. (M.S. Vijay Kumar, video from The Carnegie Commons community forum:

Framing the Imperative 
Toru Iiyoshi, Vijay Kumar, and John Seely Brown
John Seely Brown: Web 2.0 as a new jigsaw puzzle

The world becomes more complex and interconnected at a lightning-fast pace, and almost every serious social issue requires an engaged public that is not only traditionally literate, but adept in a new, systemic literacy. This new literacy requires an understanding of different kinds of feedback systems, exponential processes, the unintended consequences inherent in evolving social systems, etcetera. In addition, the unrelenting velocity of change means that many of our skills have a shorter shelf life, suggesting that much of our learning will need to take place outside of traditional school and university environments. It is also unlikely that sufficient resources will be available to build enough new campuses to meet the growing demand for higher education, at least not the sort of campuses we have traditionally built for colleges and universities. Nor is it likely that current methods of teaching and learning will suffice to prepare students for the lives they will lead in the twenty-first century.

In response, we need to find a way to reconceptualize many twentieth-century education models, and at the same time reinforce learning outside of formal schooling. There may be powerful ways to blur the distinction between formal learning and informal where both turn on the social life of learning. (John Seely Brown, “Creating a Culture of Learning,” foreword, xi)

John Seely Brown from CNDLS on Vimeo.

I mean, if you wish, this book reflects the major shift from Web 1.0, a push notion of just push the material out there, to kind of a Web 2.0 in terms of how do we become more participants, how do students learn from and with each other, how do students and faculty live together and then how do we make that richer than ever?

We’re beginning to have the puzzle, the pieces of a brand new jigsaw puzzle that we’re figuring out how to put together here. And I think if you look at this book, you find kind of reflections on each part of that, but you also see the attempt to start to put these pieces together.

So to me, that’s why I find this so exciting, is that in a curious way the explosion of digital technology still increasing this exponential path is driving change, change, change ever faster, which is creating a tremendous problem for the old ways of learning and teaching. But the same thing that’s driving this challenge we have is also providing us the tools and mechanisms to attack this problem in fundamentally new ways. (John Seely Brown, video from The Carnegie Commons community forum:

Open Knowledge and the Challenge of Improving Teaching and Learning: A Chorus of Contributing Authors from Opening Up Education
Cheryl R. Richardson: Opening knowledge is more than just opening the classroom door
Opening knowledge in education goes a step beyond opening out classroom doors to colleagues. It involves cocreating, experimenting, reflecting, sharing, and reusing accumulated ideas and knowledge about teaching and learning. It is active and welcomes the participation of everyone involved–student, instructor, researcher, policymaker, as well as faculty developer and administrator. We think of this genre as embracing the ideals of scholarship and the practices of our contemporary, digital-participatory culture.

Similar to knowledge generated within disciplinary circles, proponents of open knowledge see the field as gaining credibility from knowing which questions were asked and understanding how they were tested and examined, what results emerged, and how we can trust these results. More importantly, we want results measured in terms of better practice and improved student learning. We encourage change that is driven from the ideas, practices, and reflection of all of these participants . . . In other words, it is rich in particular practices of connecting, co-creating and distributing teaching and learning. With the right kinds of support and development, this culture has the potential to quickly and broadly spread innovation and improved educational practice.

In the context of improving teaching and enhancing learning, authors examine different perspectives of open knowledge. Authors ask–and with theory, example, and description–answer questions about what opening knowledge about teaching and learning means, how it might be accomplished, the challenges of trying, and the various potential and realized benefits of doing so:

  • What role does opening knowledge play in promoting and sustaining systemic and systematic change? What are the various stages of change the authors describe–from the classroom to the institution–and the roles of various players, including faculty, external projects, and administrators?
  • What are the implications for tools that may help capture and share knowledge?
  • What is the role of intermediary projects, organizations, and people in sustaining movements and providing opportunities for shared thinking?
  • How might the slow-to-change culture of education adapt elements inherent in a fast-paced technological world? When is it most appropriate to do so?
  • What kinds of scaffolds and frameworks help introduce newcomers, carry novices further, and use the skills and attributes of ‘experts’ to effectively nurture and encourage open knowledge?

All of these overlapping intentions and propositions show how it takes more than opening our classroom doors to keep up with the needs of education. (Cheryl R. Richardson, “Open Educational Knowledge: More than Opening the Classroom Door,” 279-80; 285-6)

Candace Thille: Creating a self-sustaining ecology
Many OER [Open Education Resource] projects to date have focused on making content that supports existing traditional forms of instruction openly and freely available. In these projects, the power of the Internet is used to overcome barriers to access by serving as a medium for freely distributing content. Making existing content available in this way is based on the revolutionary idea that education and discovery are best advanced when knowledge is shared openly. These OER projects have enabled a great leap forward in democratizing access to educational material. The next step in the revolutionary potential of the OER movement is in using technology to make instruction, as well as materials, accessible to the widest possible audience of learners and, at the same time, improve teaching and learning. . . .

The technological challenges may well be easier to overcome than the greater challenge of creating a self-sustaining ecology in which members are active participants not only in production, adaptation, and consumption of learning resources but also in reflection and evaluation. . . .

Ultimately, it is not the technology itself but rather the new practice and communities that the technology enables that will revolutionize postsecondary education. In the case of OER’s, the technology, the communities, and practices that develop around the OER’s may ultimately allow us to close the feedback loop and support institutions of higher learning to become learning institutions. (Candace Thille, “Building Open Learning as a Community-based Research Activity” 165; 172;175)

Richard A. Gale: Higher education’s black box
[Lee Shulman’s] charge . . . was to build knowledge that illuminates and improves student learning and faculty teaching, to encourage institutions to support and promote this form of scholarship, and to establish a field of endeavor and expertise that facilitates the sharing of what Shulman calls “the wisdom of practice.” To achieve this, students and teachers, administrators and staff, policymakers and the public at large would need to view learning, teaching, and scholarship in new and more collaborative ways.

Behind the work of the scholarship of teaching and learning is a teeming landscape of thought and practice, understanding and action, belief and engagement. Because teaching and learning are so hard to see and know, they are even harder to systematically analyze and improve. One reason why policymakers have turned their attention to the clamor and cry for assessment and accountability is higher education’s “black box” of classroom excellence and student success. If the so-called “best practices” of teaching and learning could be identified and articulated beyond local environs, shared in a transparent and transferable mode with an assurance of accomplishment at the end of the day, then educators the world over might be convinced to embrace change. But the current reality for most higher education institutions is that learning is contextual and unexamined, teaching is ephemeral and private, and scholarship on both is frequently limited in scope and impact by the restrictions of the academy and the lack of resources (variously defined from funding to reward structures). (Richard A. Gale, “Inquiry Unplugged: A Scholarship of Teaching and Learning for Open Understanding,” 289; 292)

Bernadette Chuck Fong: Synergies between academic and open source communities
At Foothill College, open education is more than a passing trend: it has reached the core of what we do. . . . With ETUDES [distance education software system], our faculty maintains the academic locus of control over their courses, curriculum, and pedagogy. An open source community is inherently synergistic with an academic community, and therefore, a highly compatible and self-sustaining relationship. . . .

[A]s the use of online technology becomes more integrated into a course, and particularly in its content delivery and dialogue between faculty member and students, an interesting shift emerges. That is the real shift from teaching to learning and, ultimately, deep learning. The issue of access and success could take on new and more important meaning as the unit of measurement of student work is increasingly more focused on what the student is learning rather than how much time is spent in a course. (Bernadine Chuck Fong, “Open for What? A Case Study of Institutional Leadership and Transformation,” 408-410)

Catherine M. Casserly and Marshall S. Smith: The capacity to reuse and remix

However, open access is not the only feature of OER that distinguishes it from other content on the Web accessible by search engines or from behind a wall that requires status or permission or resources to penetrate. Fully open educational resources provide a license that grants permission to users not only to read the material but also to download, modify, and post it for reuse. Users are empowered to change the materials to meet their own needs. They can mix and remix. The capacity and right to reuse materials is an important step in providing users all over the world the opportunity to actively participate in the open education resources teaching and learning processes. It creates the opportunity for the localization of the materials, where users tailor materials according to their language and culture, and for personalization, where materials can be adapted and modified for individual learners. Reuse also makes possible continuous cycles of improvement of educational materials as users quickly provide critical reactions and evaluations to developers of the quality and effectiveness of the materials. These fast feedback loops of users and developers create an environment for the improvement of content similar to the environment of open source software. (Catherine M. Casserly and Marshall S. Smith, “Revolutionizing Education through Innovation: Can Openness Transform Teaching and Learning?,” 262-3)

James Dalziel: Open source teaching
Open education has had two great successes and one significant failure to date. The first success is the development and adoption of open source course management systems. Moodle, Sakai, LRN, ATutor, and other systems demonstrate that open source development processes can create excellent course management systems that can readily be adopted by educational institutions throughout the world. The second success is the open sharing of educational content. OpenCourseWare, MERLOT, ARIADNE, and other initiatives illustrate how educators and students throughout the world can benefit from freely shared educational content.

The failure is harder to put into words. It could be described as our lack of progress on sharing “pedagogical know-how” among educators. We have systems to run e-learning courses and content to view, but we have not captured the teaching processes that expert educators use to bring learning alive in their e-learning courses. If an educator creates a great sequence of learning activities that leads to a rich learning experience for students in an e-learning class, how does this educator share the activity sequence with colleagues so that they can automatically run the same activities or adapt them to suit local conditions? How does the educator share the thought processes that led to the design of the activity sequence?”. . . Put simply, what we lack is an agreed way to describe and share the teaching process, regardless of whether the activities are conducted online or face-to-face. As a result, individual educators spend heroic amounts of time on planning and preparation, but with enormous duplication of effort and no economies of scale. Apart from the lack of efficiency in preparation, educational quality also suffers: While some educators regularly create outstanding learning experiences for their students, some do not. How could the best teaching processes be shared among the widest number of educators?

Most importantly, if we could share descriptions of educational processes together with advice on the reasons for their design, then not only could a novice educator  benefit from the work of experts, but all educators could collectively adapt and improve each others’ work, leading to improved quality overall.

This suggests a fascinating question. Could the collaborative development processes of open source software be applied to open teaching? Harnessing the collective expertise of the world’s educators to achieve greater efficiency and improved quality would transform education as we know it. (James Dalziel, “Learning Design: Sharing Pedagogical Know-How,” 375-76)

Diana Laurillard: Teaching must become problematized
The idea of a learning system capable of adapting itself to new environmental conditions is applicable also to the teaching community itself. Our knowledge and understanding of “technology-enhanced learning” will accelerate faster in a teaching community that acts like a learning system–one that makes knowledge of what it takes to learn explicit, adapts it, tests it, refines practice, reflects, rearticulates, and shares that new knowledge. Teaching must become problematized, innovative, and professional, taking research as its model. If lecturers were to conduct the process of teaching as rigorously as they conduct their research, then they would expect 1. support for some personal development in how to teach; 2. the means to build on the work of others to design their approach; 3. the means to experiment and reflect on what the results imply for their design and their understanding; and 4. the means to articulate and disseminate their contribution. Those four characteristics together define the essentials of what we might call “open teaching”–what James Dalziel has called “open source teaching”–such as an environment in which “educators can freely and openly share best practice teaching.”1 This communitarian approach reflects the ideals of the research community in general, and the scholarship of teaching in particular.2 It would enable the teaching community, throughout the education system, to learn how to adapt to the new challenges for education and to exploit technology in the process. (Diana Laurillard, “Open Teaching: The Key to Sustainable and Effective Open Education,” 328)

Diana G. Oblinger and Marilyn M. Lombardi: Building a sustainable practice
Several programs in the United States and the United Kingdom are pushing the concept of Open Education beyond the courseware model in order to build a sustainable practice capable of scaling broadly. Examples include the Connexions project at Rice University, the National Science Digital Library project, the Open University’s OpenLearn pilot project, and Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI), which is marked by its unique interdisciplinary course development process. Launched in the fall of 2002, OLI is dedicated to the development of freely available “stand-alone” college-level online courses informed by research from the cognitive and learning sciences. The OLI course design process is unique in its dedication to teaming faculty content experts with cognitive scientists, learning scientists, human-computer interaction specialists, formative assessment specialists, and programmers, along with ongoing course evaluation and iterative improvement. Ultimately, the collaborative nature of the OLI course design process has had an additional, unanticipated effect: inspiring participating faculty members to rethink their approach to teaching. Although OLI courses are designed as “stand-alone” online experiences, Carnegie Mellon faculty are successfully integrating OLI’s Web-based instruction modules into their traditional instructor-led courses.3 (Diana G. Oblinger and Marilyn M. Lombardi, “Common Knowledge: Openness in Higher Education,” 397)

Randy Bass and Dan Bernstein: The middle space between local and cosmopolitan

We propose that a key location for the scholarship of teaching and learning is in a middle ground between what we might call the “individual” and the “cosmopolitan.” These two ends of a spectrum are often the focus of scholarly teaching and the scholarship of teaching: the individual engaging in reflection for the improvement of his or her own practice and the individual published work available for others more generally. There is a loop between them in that many individuals draw on cosmopolitan resources while some individuals aspire to produce written or digital work that contributes to a general body of literature. Thus, by “middle ground” we mean work that falls between individual practice and the world of generalized knowledge about teaching and learning. . . . Our sense of this middle space–what often will be local but could be virtually achieved communities of practice–is not merely one version of the scholarship of teaching and learning, but an essential link between individual practice and the eventual construction of knowledge in open systems. Perhaps this middle level is the critical bridge between the logic of the learning paradigm that turns us inward and the implications of a broader notion of learning that draws us outward. . . . An open electronic space will provide a flexible and dynamic home for both ongoing collaboration as well as post hoc identification of common themes and coherent results. To maximize the potential of open education, we need to learn how to link local and cosmopolitan work with vibrant and visible practice, and to find a middle space between isolation and full participation in a research community. (Randy Bass and Dan Bernstein, “The Middle of Open Spaces: Generating Knowledge about Learning through Multiple Layers of Open Teaching Communities,” 304; 316)

Mary Taylor Huber and Pat Hutchings: Balancing big ambitions with small steps
Looking ahead, the questions that stand out most for us are how to expand and preserve the openness about teaching and learning that is increasingly in place and how to ensure that the new (or newly available) resources in the teaching commons are actually useful to those who can benefit from them. It is well and good to make as many educational resources as possible accessible to as many teachers and learners as possible. But, to borrow a line from the movie Field of Dreams, if we build it, will they come?

The answer, we believe, will be shaped by progress in two related areas. To deliver on the promise of open knowledge will first require concerted attention to conceptual questions about what kinds of knowledge can best contribute to educational quality. To put it simply, “they will come” if they find resources and insights they value and can use. Second, future prospects will depend on the development of policies and practices that support an ethic of openness in ways that are inclusive, inviting, and rewarding (in several senses of the word). These challenges are related, clearly, and are likely to be further complicated by the increasing calls for accountability faced by higher education today.

Like the vision of open education itself, these challenges can seem daunting. It is tempting to reach for shiny new answers that depart, radically sometimes, from what has gone before. Our instinct is to be more modest. The promise of open knowledge can best be met, we believe, by building on what is already underway, by not underestimating the value of small gains, and by balancing big ambitions with lots of small steps along the way. (418)

As with other areas of academic thought and practice, the best chance for pedagogical knowledge to circulate widely and publicly will be the success of that knowledge itself. Will this work improve teaching? Will it help create better environments for student learning? Will it create a vision of what is possible that is compelling enough to attract colleagues to join in? The challenge for the open knowledge community is to realize that their big ambitions can best be pursued in concert with others who care about learning in higher education, and by taking the many small steps necessary to create an academic culture where the intellectual and creative work involved in teaching is understood, encouraged, and supported. (Mary Taylor Huber and Pat Hutchings, “What’s Next for Open Knowledge?” 418; 426-7)

Building The Collectivity Culture

Toru Iiyoshi and Vijay Kumar
Transferring practical knowledge about how to use tools and resources, even if they are readily available, is not easy. Indeed, this kind of pedagogical know-how is notoriously hard to make visible and portable. While some might argue that such knowledge is already built into educational tools and resources–that a syllabus, for instance, already embodies what the user needs to know about using that syllabus–the vast majority of this kind of practical knowledge remains tacit and invisible in the experiences of the educator(s) who created and used the materials or the learners who used the materials. Thus, a crucial task before us is to build intellectual and technical capacity for transforming “tacit knowledge” into “commonly usable knowledge.” Building this capacity is urgent, as the process of creating and sharing quality educational knowledge needs to catch up with the burgeoning availability of open educational goods . . .

In order to collectively advance teaching and learning globally, we need to devise mechanisms to harvest, accumulate, and distribute locally created educational assets, pedagogical innovations, and wisdom of practice in a manner that can be reused effectively in different local contexts. As practice and experience is made increasingly tangible and transferable, we need to create a network of educational knowledge-bases that inspires and helps to inform future efforts.

The canvas of educational issues and opportunities is wide and varied–from national concerns about competitiveness to bringing more global perspectives to curricula. The ambitious and accomplished projects represented in this book and other open initiatives can provide even more powerful solutions to the large problems of education if they can effectively collaborate to maximize the collectivity of their individual efforts. For example, the vision of the Meta University, eloquently articulated by Charles M. Vest, president emeritus of MIT, as “a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced” presents the dramatic potential of synthesis and the collective.4

Fostering the collectivity culture and harnessing its power will require the creation of conditions favorable to the spawning and sharing of new ideas and models. Making openness thrive will require policies and practices that entice and reward openness, as well as programs for supporting and monitoring diversity as well as quality. . . . The systemic nature of change requires that synergy among various open education efforts, along with the intersection with other initiatives, are explored for end-to-end delivery of quality education. By employing powerful multimedia, data mining and analysis, knowledge management, and social and semantic network technology, we should be able to help people around the world find and use appropriate educational tools, resources and knowledge of practice that advance their local learning and teaching. Ideally, this should also enable learners and educators to contribute back to an ever-growing knowledge-base of open education, thereby leading to a spiral of educational transformation efforts.

Educational institutions, organizations and communities must understand that open education is not just about disseminating resources that can be localized in many ways to improve education in local contexts, but also about an opportunity toward broadening and deepening our collective understanding of teaching and learning. Difficult and unchartered as the terrain may appear, we anticipate at least three dramatic improvements over time: increased quality of tools and resources, more effective use, and greater individual and collective pedagogical knowledge. Ideally, all will occur concurrently, combining local innovations and learned lessons through global knowledge-sharing. This process also needs to be spiral so that we can continuously pursue “betterness” in various aspects of education. (Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar, “Conclusion: New Pathways for Shaping the Collective Agenda to Open Up Education,” 436-9)

1. J. Dalziel, “LAMS community launch,” LAMS Foundation News (Sept. 30, 2005), [return to text]
2. C. Kreber and P. A. Cranton, “Exploring the scholarship of teaching,”The Journal of Higher Education 71 no. 4 (2000): 476–495. [return to text]
3. M. M. Lombardi, “ELI Innovations and Implementations: The Open Learning Initiative,” EDUCAUSE (July 2006), [return to text]
4. Charles Vest, “Enabling Meta University,” EDUCAUSE Review 41, no. 3 (May/June 2006): 18–30. [return to text]

“The Future of ePortfolio” Roundtable

by Bret Eynon, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY


Dr. Helen Barrett, Center for Advanced Technology in Education, University of Oregon
Dr. Trent Batson, Communications Architect, Educational Innovation and Technology, MIT
Dr. Darren Cambridge, Internet Studies, George Mason University
Dr. J. Elizabeth Clark, English, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY
Dr. Melissa Peet, Generative Knowledge and ePortfolio Program, University of Michigan
Mr. James Richardson, New Media Technology, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY

Moderator:  Dr. Bret Eynon, Center for Teaching & Learning, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY

On April 10-12, 2008, LaGuardia Community College held an international conference entitled,“Making Connections: ePortfolios, Integrative Learning and Assessment.” The conference was keynoted by Kathleen B. Yancey and offered fifty-five different sessions by faculty and students, half from LaGuardia and half from other institutions using ePortfolio. More than six hundred people attended, coming from seventy different colleges in thirty states and five different countries. This is the transcript of a well-attended roundtable session that joined LaGuardia faculty with internationally recognized ePortfolio leaders to discuss the issues facing the ePortfolio movement.

Setting An Agenda
Bret: I want to start out by asking, what are the key questions facing ePortfolio? What issues do you think we’re wrestling with?Trent: Well, I’m focusing on Web 2.0. Open source is a construct–unbundling the code from the services. That seems to be working. The code is free, and the services we pay for. Now I’m thinking, what if we apply that to ePortfolio learning or to learning in general? Unbundle the code and the services, the code in this case being the content. So that teachers no longer own the content–the content is open and free, and what we provide are the services around that content.  My question is: Can education itself open up? I’ve got an essay in a book coming out with MIT Press called Opening Up Education. How do we open up education in a way similar to the ways the open source movement opened up the creation of software?

Elizabeth: For me, one of the major challenges is what Trent and Darren mentioned earlier today: an intellectual/philosophical tension around how we open the door for creativity by students, and get students fully invested, but also answer to our institutions. How can we use ePortfolio for assessment without losing the flavor and the creativity that brought many of us into the movement?

Helen: That’s a major tension right now–between student-centered and institution-centered portfolios. Between what I would call the Assessment OF Learning on one hand, and on the other: assessment FOR learning, assessment AS learning. Those issues emerge because we’re in an age of accountability.

Darren: We need to reframe the role of portfolios in assessment as assessment FOR institutional learning. Currently, I don’t think accountability-oriented assessment actually does much good for institutions, because it’s not in service of organizational learning. Reframed, it might be. How do we build on our successes with portfolio authors? How do we cultivate new portfolio audiences, particularly institutional organizational audiences–audiences that really understand how to learn, as organizations, from these new, richer, student-created representations of learning?

James: I don’t see institutional assessment as separate from student self-assessment. This is something I’ve seen in my own courses. When students are able to self-assess, they see how they’ve grown over time. And that helps them to reflect and make better choices in terms of career, in terms of transfer schools. On an institutional side, it helps us look at how well we instruct the students. If a student’s portfolio hasn’t strengthened from the time they’ve entered to the time they’re ready to graduate, there’s a disconnect there. We can look at how well we’re doing, and then hopefully redirect our curriculum to address any gaps.

Darren: That’s exactly the right direction. LaGuardia is exceptional–nationally, perhaps internationally–in its commitment to link student self-assessment with institutional improvement, from senior leadership all the way down to grass-roots enthusiasm from students. There’s a lot we all can learn from what’s happening at LaGuardia, and what made that possible. But that’s very different from the situation at many other educational institutions.

Melissa: Here’s a questions that comes to me in conversations like this: ePortfolios to what end? For whom? For what purpose? I think that oftentimes so much meaning and possibility is compacted onto ePortfolios. And we need to unpack that.

What’s powerful about LaGuardia’s ePortfolio is that the fact that the ePortfolio is an outcome, generated by an institution-wide commitment to fostering students’ identities as learners and professionals, with a group of students who are often forgotten in higher education. And I want to know: how can ePortfolios enable a conversation about the purpose of higher education in the twenty-first century? It should enable but not compact that conversation. How do we become learning communities? I think that’s what LaGuardia is showing us. But I think that hasn’t even begun to be unpacked. I consider LaGuardia a leader, embodying a learning community–and a powerful part of that is ePortfolio and integrative pedagogy. So that helps to switch the conversation. People go around saying “ePortfolio, ePortfolio,” like it’s a magic wand thing, but it really is about organizational change.

Trent: I agree with you, Melissa. I was in a session where Julie Hughes from the University of Wolverhampton, in the UK, said something really interesting. She said they try not to start with student deficiencies but with student competencies. That’s a key ePortfolio idea. As educators, we’ve so often focused on deficiencies. But we can start with competencies: what students already know.

Building Sustained Institutional Commitment
Bret: Excellent. We’ve just identified an interesting and overlapping set of challenges about audience, creativity, assessment, institutional purpose, this whole question of Web 2.0 erupting underneath us. Now, I’m curious about what you’ve heard at the conference that could help us think about some of these challenges. Trent just surfaced something he heard from Wolverhampton. What have others seen or heard that can help us think about the challenges and the possible solutions?

Helen: I would say LaGuardia’s institutional commitment to ePortfolio, from the top down to the students. And the focus on learning and integrative learning, rather than on what I’d call bean counting. Too many ePortfolio implementations have been funded out of institutional accountability rather than out of the focus on student learning. I see both here, but I see more of an emphasis on learning. You know, “It’s the learning, stupid.” That’s the focus.

James: We did a lot of planning before we started talking about systems. So the systems supported the process, as opposed to buying a system and then tweaking the process to fit. And we were lucky. We had so much support from the administration. And faculty development was key. We got buy-in from all the stakeholders, from the administration to the faculty to the students. Each had its own level of challenge, of course. But without all of this falling into place, I don’t think it would have blossomed the way it has.

Trent: What’s so surprising about LaGuardia is the institutional commitment that wasn’t about accreditation. Or was it that, too?

Bret: We have to do assessment, too. That’s our challenge: how do we combine it? What we’ve done is start with an emphasis on ePortfolio for learning and transformation. And that makes it more likely that the assessment process stays focused on learning.

Melissa: I’d like to go back to what James just said about LaGuardia; it wasn’t like you had a master plan, but here you are. You said things that are very key. You said “technology,” you said “institutional commitment.”You said “a strategy, a plan.” You said “faculty development.” Implied is also “pedagogy” and “organizational learning” and “time” and “commitment” and “transformation.” Those are big.

My big moment of great inspiration was hearing about LaGuardia’s plan for a National Resource Center. Because, from what I heard, this is going to be about all the things that are essential for something like ePortfolios to succeed. Actually it’s not even about ePortfolios; it’s about your students becoming successful. That’s what I keyed in to.

ePortfolio Beyond Technology
Darren: I would even say that ePortfolio is not a technology. It is manifestly not a technology. There are a range of technologies that can support the key processes associated with ePortfolios, such as collecting evidence of learning, organizing it, reflecting on it, receiving feedback, and planning for future learning and personal development. The ePortfolio is one genre that fits well with those processes. As a genre, an ePortfolio is not just any reflection supported by technology or any digital evidence of learning, but reflection on evidence of learning that is also part of the portfolio. Making the link between reflection and evidence is what distinguishes an ePortfolio. There are a range of tools that can help with the processes of documentation, reflection, and planning, a range of tools that can create ePortfolios that link reflection and evidence in powerful ways–things called ePortfolio systems, general purpose Web design tools, and also the whole range of social software technologies that we’ve talked about at this conference.Elizabeth: I‘d actually take that one step further. I’d say that the key to ePortfolio is not technology at all. It goes back to what Trent said this morning. ePortfolio is all sorts of things coming together in this contemporary moment–it’s ephemeral, right? Trent talked this morning about the ephemeral moment, the ephemeral technology. Five years from now, if we are doing our jobs well, it’s not going to be ePortfolio, or it’s not going to be ePortfolio as we know it. It’s going to be something totally new.

To me, the key thing about this is the evolution of this educational technology with the students. At LaGuardia, our students created those gorgeous templates. We didn’t create them. The students created them. The students said, “This is how we think that we should organize our knowledge, and now we’re going to give this to other students.” The students say, “Dr. Clark, you’re not doing that right. That’s wrong.” Then they show us how to do it.  It’s about that co-learning moment.

That’s exactly what Kathleen Yancey said this morning, right? She had that amazing transformational moment when, as an educator, she realized she’s co-learning with her students. She’s taking notes with them, she’s typing them up, and that’s becoming the learning process. To me, that’s what ePortfolio is about: learning with and from our students.

James: It took me a while to get to that point because I was by nature a technologist. For me technology was key. So when I initially came on to the project, I’m thinking, Web pages. Why is everybody so excited about student Web pages? But as I started to look at it, I started to see that it’s not the Web pages, it’s the content. And really, it’s the way the content is developed. It’s what the students gather from content, what they learn about themselves, and how they use that information to make themselves better.

And then I also started to see, from the way that they were designing and developing the pieces, what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong as an instructor. In the long run, I think I’m a much better instructor now than I was when I first started. I know what works. I think I know how to approach it better. I think I know how to steer students towards moving toward self-discovery. But it took a while. Now, when people talk about how do we extend this to faculty, many of whom are tenured, it raises a question: how do we get them to buy into this and really have it be meaningful?

Elizabeth: This approach changes the educational paradigm. To be involved with students in this way means that you don’t get to pull out your lecture notes you’ve been teaching from for the last twenty-five years on the history of military strategy. Right? You don’t get to do that. You have to change what you’re doing. Every time you go to back to the classroom it’s new. It’s different. It’s evolving.

Trent: That’s a key issue, one of the biggest questions: Can we trust the students? Can we trust that they learn, if we’re not watching their every move? Or we’re not controlling the parameters? Trust.

Melissa: A related question: how can we become institutions that build students’ capacities as lifelong learners? How do we, as institutions, build collaborative and deep learning capacities in our faculty? So to me, asking questions about ePortfolios is synonymous with asking questions about the future of learning. And the future is here now.

Trent: There’s another side to the trust issue. It’s so easy to produce content, now. There are so many ways to do it. But what we know about this new age, what Kathleen Yancey was talking about, is that we don’t want to do prior censorship. That doesn’t fit. Prior censorship is when we say: this is the syllabus, these are the four walls, and you follow my path. No. We have to trust the students. We’re not really able to do prior censorship anymore. But we can do post-production editing with the students. That is Web 2.0. That’s our age.

Life-Long and LifeWide Learning
Helen: It’s very important, as we implement ePortfolios, that we look at this in the context of a lifelong process, a lifelong process of self-directed learning. That’s one of the challenges I would pose to all of you, as you start implementing ePortfolio: is this something students can continue after they graduate? Not only, what types of skills and competencies are they bringing in?  But also, how is this going to fit in the rest of their lives? I’m also anxious to see some more examples of the ways you’ve brought in the community and people’s backgrounds and their lives and their families. It’s so important to educate the whole person, not just someone who meets our graduation requirements.James: For us it was reflection. It took me awhile to get that point, too. It was like, “Reflection, what does that really mean? Thinking about myself?” It boils down to thinking about choices. What brought you to this point? And what choices can you make that will take you–hopefully–where you want to go? I don’t know about all of you, but the choices that got me here were pretty hit or miss. For students–particularly students at LaGuardia, many of whom are underprivileged, who have a lot of things stacked against them–it’s even more critical to think about the choices they make. Because they have less leeway for mistakes. So, reflection becomes an issue of thinking: what’s the right choice? If that’s one thing they can take away from ePortfolios, then I think it’s a miracle.

Melissa: Another way to think about reflection is that they’re learning to find a projected self. I can project myself into the future as–I saw an example earlier–a graphic designer, as an artist/dancer/writer, all in the same person. Developing a projective capacity is a part of empowerment, or agency.

Stories and Numbers: Dealing with Accountability
Darren: But again, it’s a wider version of projective capacity than a lot of other contexts invite. It’s not saying “Project yourself as a teacher by checking off standards 1 through 8.” It’s saying “Envision what it means to be a teacher and how it connects to being someone who grew up in Nepal and someone who lives now in Queens and someone who is a mother, and how do I connect those things into a version of myself that connects with that larger profession.”Trent: That’s in strong tension with what Helen brought up before, the whole accountability push.  This group seems to be positioned very much toward the end of spectrum of ePortfolio as story, ePortfolio as narrative, personal narrative. So then, the question becomes what metrics do you use from a story to quantify results, to meet the accountability requirements?

Helen: That’s the major dilemma right now. How do we take this very rich story and assign numbers to it?

Melissa: The way we address that dilemma at Michigan, in our ePortfolio integrative learning environment, is having students self-assess around those outcomes, both quantitatively and qualitatively, at the beginning. Then they create their knowledge artifacts, they create their philosophy. They create a narrative of coherence. And while they’re doing that they’re also mapping those knowledge artifacts to outcomes. At the end they also assess again. We can take that data to accreditors–that’s what we’re doing. So I don’t experience that level of disconnect.

Elizabeth: I think the story is the road map to what’s actually in the portfolio. It’s the narration of the journey that the student has taken and the way the student understands the pieces. If you need to pull out the pieces–the research paper, for example–to demonstrate that your students have intellectual literacy or technological literacy, that’s not a problem: here it is. But the meaning is in the story. The assessors don’t necessarily care about that, but the students care about that and we care about that.

Darren: But they should! They should care about that! And we’re not taking up the real challenge if we don’t try to transform what assessors want, if we just give them numbers that have no impact on actually improving the educational enterprise. That’s hard as hell. It really is. I don’t have the perfect solution–but I don’t think we can give up on that challenge. I think that accountability can be a really good thing. I think it is important. We have got to continue to do better, and we ought to do it in a systematic way. But we ought to do it in a way that takes advantage of the really rich representations of learning we can get through the processes, the genre, and the technology related to portfolios.

Bret: I’ve served on an awards committee for the national Council for Higher Education Accreditation, giving awards for innovations in assessment of student learning. I was on the committee with all these chancellors, presidents, and the heads of accreditation agencies. And our conversations are very interesting. These folks are very smart, and they’re open to possibilities. They’re not set in stone. They’re thinking hard about how to make things work.

You know, I’m a historian, and I believe in the contingent quality of history. The future of education is not set in advance. It’s evolving, it’s in flux, and we’re part of determining how it’s going to shake out. All of us, all around the room, all of our students. We have opportunities to get in there and wrestle with it and push it this way and push it that way. We don’t have total control, but we do have some weight. We do have potential to make an impact.

If we think that an integrative approach and the questions of story and the questions of deep learning need to be part of picture, then we have capacity to open a space for that. To help make it happen. What we choose to do matters.

Darren: And it’s not as if the ePortfolio community is the only group in higher ed taking this up. In fact one of the things that’s powerful about ePortfolio as an idea and as a community is that it stands at the intersection of a number of powerful initiatives trying to transform higher ed. The discourse around Integrative Learning, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Assessment for Learning, Community Engagement, and so forth. One of the things that I like about portfolio as a concept is that it’s a place where all of these things can be connected up. It touches the concerns of all of those other communities. And we need all of those folks to make the kind of change we’re advocating.

The Faculty Role with ePortfolio
Question from audience: First of all, I sort of like the feeling in this room, like I’m in the French Resistance or something. It’s great. Also, I was interested in the comment in the keynote, about the potential demise of the professoriate in the twenty-first century. I’m wondering about your thoughts on the changing role of professors.
Trent: We’ve talked about the guide on the side for a long time, but we didn’t know what that really meant. But now we have concrete models. Companies ask the same thing about Open Source: “Are companies going to go away?” But of course, we need companies, because they provide services. IBM, ten to fifteen years ago, realized they were going to make more money from services than from selling big iron. That’s a model to think about: unbundling the parts.  Right now, the professor provides the services and controls the content. Maybe that’s changing. But that doesn’t mean that professors are going out of business. It means that they have to shift to support students doing the kinds of things LaGuardia students do, the kinds of things that Michigan students do. Discovering their stories. Provide support and guidance and then see what use we can make of it. It’s a service model. But it does depend on trust. And I don’t think most faculty, to be honest, trust their students.

Melissa: Our students get a lot of guidance and support. When they first come to class, they don’t know how to create knowledge artifacts. That’s a process and it’s really iterative. But once they have that scaffolding, they’ll have it for the rest of their lives. That will stick with them. As faculty, we are by no means obsolete. There is a great deal that we need to do. We just have to think about it in different ways.

Question from audience: There’s a parallel with online education and the open educational resources world. Some institutions, MIT included, have put all of their content online. So what would a student get from taking a course at those institutions? It’s the interaction. It’s the social construction of knowledge. That’s what you’re paying for.

Darren: There’s some unlearning that has to happen for a lot of students to take advantage of open resources and social learning networks. A lot of my students want to be told what to do, step by step. They fight tooth and nail if I ask them to take responsibility for their own learning. If they’ve been successful in school, they’ve learned to follow the old rules. It’s a challenging process to help them realize that it doesn’t have to work that way. We’ve got to help with that unlearning process.

Question from Audience: I hear you about student resistance, but I’m imagining resistance among faculty. There’s so much status attached to the whole professorial career; to give up authority so that you don’t control the agenda, you don’t control the curriculum–I can see my faculty going out of their minds. So my question is: are there models where faculty have bought in and it’s not just people like ourselves?

Elizabeth: I’m faculty! There’s a lot of faculty in the room. That goes back to the question about the future of the professoriate. So, James is in CIS [Computer Information Systems] and I’m in English. If you told us in graduate school that I was going to spend a lot of time coding Web pages and that he was going to craft reflective writing assignments, we would’ve said you were crazy. But ePortfolio pushes you as a faculty member, pushes you to get outside of your silo.  I’m not in the creative writing/poetry silo anymore. I would argue, for the future of our profession, those silos can’t exist anymore. Maybe if you present that to faculty as a philosophical challenge, you can get more buy-in. You can’t walk in to faculty and say “Everything you are doing is wrong.” You have to explain why this is a wonderful educational movement they want to get on board with.

To do that, you’ve got to invite them into the room, and you’ve got to make it okay for them to fail. Because they are going to fail. We’ve all failed, at some time or another. James and I have both failed a lot in different things that we’ve tried. But our institution has given us permission to fail and to say “Great,” not “You screwed up,” but “That’s so awesome! We’re so happy you screwed up. What did you learn from it and what are you going to do differently?” I think that what causes the fear that you’re suggesting for a lot of faculty is the idea that there are going to be huge repercussions if you walk into your classroom to do ePortfolio and you screw up.

Darren: But we’re not going to get everybody, so you’ve got to plan the way you think about portfolios on the campus so that there’s space for some people who are not going to be on board. Certainly for the next couple decades that’s going to be the case, and maybe perpetually, and you probably don’t want to waste your energy!

Bret: There need to be opportunities for differential levels of engagement.

Melissa: Also we can portfolioize the curriculum. When you do that, there’s a little piece that Darren does, a little piece that Melissa does, a little piece that Helen does, and the student owns the coherent whole. Our mantra with faculty is “three critical degrees of difference”–that’s all we’re looking for. It’s really powerful when a student creates a knowledge artifact in a faculty member’s class that then becomes part of their coherent meta-narrative, and then you can get faculty pretty pumped up about that.

Stories That Matter
Liz: I’d like to think about whose stories get to matter in our culture. We’re in an election year: how do we get to know our politicians? They publish autobiographies. They tell us their stories. We’re supposed to be invested in John McCain because he has a story of his transformation in Vietnam. Yes, that is a powerful story. Why does that story get to be more powerful than the story of my student who crossed the border illegally into the United States? As a society, what do we value? And how do we, as an educational community. say, ‘Wonderful, you’ve set the bar, you’ve said stories matter, and you’ve shared your stories with us, and that’s great.’ And now, we as an educational community say ‘Yes, stories matter, so here they are, thousands and thousands and thousands of stories, every one is as important as John McCain’s.’James: I’ve also seen the stories in ePortfolios work almost as an electronic mentor. I had one student develop his portfolio and then get a job at a major interactive firm. A lot of my students who are now taking my introductory flash courses look at that and say “Jimmy did it. These are the steps Jimmy took; these are the courses Jimmy took. It can be done. I knew Jimmy.” It’s very powerful as a model, very influential.

Helen: This is why using the ePortfolio is a way of creating a map toward the future. Helping students realize “these are my strengths.” As we get down in the secondary schools I think that’s even more important: “These are my strengths, this is where I want to go in my life, this is how I’m going to get through high school, this is what I’m going to do after I graduate, this is how to get there.”

Melissa: That goes back to why it’s important that we’re at LaGuardia right now, where we see the construction of narratives of possibility for other people to follow. Someone said it today. We’re really talking about different forms of knowledge generation. When students learn to bring their identities and backgrounds and positionalities to the formal educational enterprise; and they mash them together and they create something new–not just like, “Here I am,” but “This is what I can do. This is what I can do now.” That’s new knowledge creation. That’s the kind of epistemological shift that we need.

Making Common Cause: Electronic Portfolios, Learning, and the Power of Community

by Kathleen Yancey, Barbara Cambridge and Darren Cambridge

In Electronic Portfolio 2.0: Emergent Research on Implementation and Impact, edited by Darren Cambridge,  Barbara Cambridge, and Kathleen Blake Yancey, contributors from diverse institutions of higher education in sites across two continents share their research on electronic portfolios. Here, excerpting from the conclusion to this volume, we consider how electronic portfolios provide a vehicle for a transition into the future of higher education.

In 2003 the National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research (NCEPR) was formed, its purpose focused on a single large question: what difference(s) might electronic portfolios actually be making in higher education–for instance, in student learning generally, in student learning in specific disciplines, and/or as reflected in specific measures like student retention? In forming this coalition, we thus intended to assist institutions engaging students, faculty, and staff in eportfolio projects with research that would catch up with their practices. Moreover, we expected the need for such research to grow. We anticipated that as the power of electronic portfolios became more and more apparent, practitioners would want to go to scale, a move that would require agreements both about learning outcomes supported through portfolios and about infusion of resources justified by evidence. We also understood that although many faculty members were asking excellent questions about their practices, there were few designed inquiries into those practices. The coalition, first nationally based and now internationally based, was thus established to bring together practitioners ready to ask insightful questions about their practices and ready to apply findings to improve their practices and those of others.

At this point in time, some five years later, and as we reflect upon the research documented by participants in the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research, a sampling of which we report here, we see three transitions central to the future of eportfolio practice:

  1. moving research from a national focus to an international articulation;
  2. transforming accountability driven by testing into richer conversations around inquiry into learning; and
  3. opening a detached, hierarchical academy to engagement across the multiple knowledge spaces of the digital world.

As important, just as the work of the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research has pointed towards the coming of these transitions, so too the continuing work of the coalition will move them forward.

Moving Research from a National Focus to an International Articulation
Our initial national focus on electronic portfolio research expanded early on to a more international perspective, at least in part because we understood that not only inside but also across national boundaries eportfolio educators face similar issues that can better be addressed by international dialogue. Members of the coalition from each of the four countries represented so far–Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, and the US–have confronted very similar challenges, among them motivating learners and teachers, integrating eportfolio practice into programs, balancing learning and assessment, working across disciplinary and professional boundaries, and supporting and evaluating reflection. Presentations by European scholars and practitioners at the conferences on eportfolios organized by the European Institute for E-Learning each of the last five years reflect all of these themes, and preliminary results from a comprehensive survey of eportfolio practice in Australia show that these issues top the agenda there as well.1 In short, bringing participants from multiple contexts to explore these issues made international sense.

Very quickly, we have seen results from this coalition-sponsored international collaboration. For example, Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, a member of Cohort III, is using in its research the developmental scales for assessing reflection developed by Alverno College, a US Cohort I member. Likewise, coalition members from Stanford University (Cohort I) and the University of Waterloo (Cohort III), along with colleagues from Scotland have published a shared conceptual framework for ways eportfolios can be used to support learning throughout life.2 At the same time, we are aware of the need to go truly global. While the work of the coalition, as well as most of the published work in eportfolios, has so far focused on the Europe and the Anglophone world, the use of eportfolios is now becoming a more thoroughly global phenomenon, with important work underway in dozens of countries, including Japan, Korea, China, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, and South Africa. Because eportfolio scholarship and practice as we now know it reflects distinctively Western beliefs about individual identities and institutional dynamics, more research is needed to learn how the purposes and forms change in these new cultural contexts. Put simply, how will the idea of the portfolio be transformed by educators and learners worldwide? Since an ever increasing portion of students in higher education in most Western countries also come from non-Western cultures, the answers have the potential to help the educators in the West better embrace the diversity of their learners.

Transforming Accountability Driven by Testing into Richer Conversations around Inquiry into Learning
Assessment, of course, is an integral part of the learning process. As learners develop, it is important that they receive feedback on their learning, identify how their learning occurs and progresses, and develop their own abilities as self-assessors. Formative assessments that literally help form students’ process and progress in learning are essential. Eportfolios as evidenced in Coalition projects provide opportunity for formative assessment in deep and extended ways. Through their own reflections students practice self assessment, and as students post learning objects and reflect on them, they invite response from peers, teachers, and other readers of their portfolios, both formally and informally. Then, through analyzing their own reflections and the feedback of others, students become more knowledgeable about the progress of their own learning. Eportfolios are, therefore, ideal vehicles for formative assessment.

Accountability, however, requires summative assessment, most often scaled to levels beyond the classroom or institution. Because scaling involves costs of administration, evaluation, and dissemination, governments, through a variety of accountability and accreditation systems, rely most often on one-time tests. Although literature about assessment and evaluation establishes that to be valid, assessments must be varied and multiple, one-time tests dominate both nationally and internationally. Policy decisions about funding and structuring of education are often made on insufficient data from such tests, which fail to reveal the extent or depth of student learning.

Eportfolios are an antidote to the inadequacies of testing. Even if testing is so entrenched that it is unlikely to be replaced soon, institutions and governments can build into accountability systems additional information for decision making. As described in Electronic Portfolio 2.0, several institutions–including the University of Georgia, IUPUI, and Portland State University in the United States–have demonstrated that eportfolios can provide multiple stakeholders with rich evidence of student learning that provides a compelling rationale for curricular, pedagogical, and budgetary decisions. Similarly, work in the state of Ohio to build an infrastructure that coordinates eportfolio use and availability of eportfolio evidence for decision making statewide is paralleled by the California State University system in a newer cohort of the Inter/National Coalition for Eportfolio Research. In the United Kingdom, eportfolios are a natural outgrowth of nationwide mandated Personal Development Plans. If foundation and governmental funding were channeled to support eportfolio system development in the same way that such funding has supported test development and implementation, eportfolios would emerge as essential complements to tests. More importantly, in the future they can replace testing as a more responsible method of documenting student learning, especially as institutional and governmental control of education continues to dissipate with ubiquitous sources and sites of learning.

This new world of distributed learning sites and multiple identities as teachers and learners also mandates investigation into how learning occurs in these new circumstances. One movement especially knowledgeable in such investigations, the scholarship of teaching and learning, includes as foundational practices a designed inquiry into important questions about learning with findings shared for critique and use. One reason that this movement has gained momentum internationally is that every discipline and educational environment must study the implications of new learning sites and modes in order to prosper. The growth of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning evinces the widespread commitment of educators to study and apply new knowledge concerning students’ lifelong and lifewide learning.

Educators are, however, not the only inquirers into student learning. Because they are at the center of such inquiry, students can become co-inquirers and, increasingly as they gain experience with reflection and integration, independent inquirers into learning processes and products. In their book The Advancement of Learning: Building a Teaching Commons, Mary Huber and Pat Hutchings recommend that students have a greater role in discussions about learning.3 Eportfolios provide that greater role as students document, reflect on, and analyze what occurs during their own learning processes. As we see in Coalition research projects, students can participate in the intellectual work of discovering how they learn–through keeping a continuous record, making links among occasions and products of learning, and building on past experience as they move into deeper and deeper learning. When Huber and Hutchings call for “new genres and forms to document the work of teaching and learning,” they echo Peter Smith’s call for a new kind of learning passport that enables students to move among educational sites. The new genres and forms need to be transportable to many sites, understandable by multiple audiences, and guided by learners themselves, all features of electronic portfolios.

Opening a Detached, Hierarchical Academy to Engagement across the Multiple Knowledge Spaces of the Digital World: Or, How Eportfolios Help Us All Learn
As explained by Carl Raschke in The Digital Revolution and the Coming of the Postmodern University, precisely because of the digital revolution and Web 2.0, higher education risks a fatal irrelevance. Talking specifically about the spaces where knowledge is made, he notes that the university no longer holds the monopoly on such space. One question he raises, then, is how the postmodern university can continue to maintain its relevance and authority in the twenty-first century.4

As Coalition research demonstrates, eportfolios may be the most likely vehicle to help us make the transition to an academy of the future that is both relevant and authoritative. In such an academy, higher education will welcome students’ experience in increasingly significant and transformative ways. What’s relevant here, of course, is the promise of such an academy already: in Coalition projects where a key assumption underlying research reports is that student accounts of learning can help us all understand learning differently. In other words, we invite student accounts of learning, especially through reflection, because those accounts from a Vygotskian perspective promote and enhance student learning. Inside eportfolios, where they use multiple systems of representation to map learning in new ways, however, students also help faculty learn about how learning actually works such that we all understand learning in new ways.

A few current examples can help us see how the contours of such future practice might look. In one, accounting majors at the University of Waterloo articulate and show the distinction between two outcomes: mastering concepts, which students say is not difficult, and determining the relationships linking them, which they say is. Students explain this doubly, through verbal explanation and visual map, both inside of an eportfolio. Through student articulation, we literally see distinctions between novice and expert in new ways from a student vantage point. In a second, student teachers at Virginia Tech show us another aspect of learning: how they have adopted and adapted the theory of the classroom to the everyday realities of classroom practice, and what that adaptation means for their professional futures. Such knowledge can only be made by these former students, who help us see the value of our curriculum as they enact it in real world contexts. And as members of a community, these new teachers continue–two years beyond graduation–to engage in reflective practices together, committing to a profession that in the US loses fifty percent of its early professionals within five years. And in a third, in the blogs of the University of Wolverhampton students’ eportfolios we see Web 2.0 tools enriching eportfolio learning through documentation, dialogue, and community. These practices–documentation, dialogue, and community–are characteristics of the Coalition as well, a real and virtual community of learners working on institutional projects and on projects across a larger international network.

In Sum
Over the current lifespan of the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research, we can see a movement from the past to the present: from implementation to designed inquiry, from formal schooling to lifelong and lifewide learning, and from local contexts to larger contexts. This reflection, pointing from the present to the future, suggests that in the future, all learners will operate more and more in an international context; that designed inquiry will become even more the purview of learners themselves; and that the digital revolution will challenge formal schooling in even more ways. Eportfolios provide a unique way to feature student inquiry and knowledge, to benefit from what technology offers as a mode of and vehicle for learning, and to place each individual’s learning in the broadest of contexts.
1. S. Lambert, L. McAllister, and C. Brooks, “Audit of ePortfolio Practice in Higher Education in Australia: Methodology, Data and Trends” (paper,  Australian ePortfolio Symposium, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, February 7, 2008). [return to text]
2. D. Tosh,  B. Werdmuller, H. Chen, T. Penny Light, and J. Haywood, “The Learning Landscape: A Conceptual Framework for ePortfolios” in A. Jafari and C. Kauffman, Handbook of Research on ePortfolios (Idea Group, 2006), 24-32. [return to text]
3. M.  Huber and P. Hutchings, The Advancement of Learning: Building a Teaching Commons (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 119-120. [return to text]
4.  C. Raschke, The Digital Revolution and the Coming of the Postmodern University, (London: Routledge Falmer, 2002). [return to text]

Participatory Learning and the New Humanities: An Interview with Cathy Davidson

by Randy Bass and Theresa Schlafly

Cathy Davidson is Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC (pronounced “haystack”: Humanities, Arts, Science, Technology Advanced Collaboratory) and co-director of the Digital Media and Learning Competition, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Davidson talks here with Randy Bass. Interview and related materials edited by Randy Bass and Theresa Schlafly.

Bass: In the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition, which featured it as a theme, “Participatory Learning” is defined this way:

Participatory Learning includes the ways in which new technologies enable learners (of any age) to contribute in diverse ways to individual and shared learning goals. Through games, wikis, blogs, virtual environments, social network sites, cell phones, mobile devices, and other digital platforms, learners can participate in virtual communities where they share ideas, comment upon one another’s projects, and plan, design, advance, implement, or simply discuss their goals and ideas together. Participatory learners come together to aggregate their ideas and experiences in a way that makes the whole ultimately greater than the sum of the parts.1

Why did “participatory learning” become important as an organizing theme for the DML Competition?
Davidson: Last year this competition was more wide open–one category was just innovation, another was knowledge networking. As we looked back after the competition was over we found among the winning proposals a cluster of exciting projects that were all looking at this newly enhanced, digitally enhanced, form of learning. We thought it would be interesting to do a more specialized competition on participatory learning this year and see what we came up with. We were especially interested in a form of interactive learning where the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.

This builds on a method that HASTAC has been dubbing since 2002, when we first began, “collaboration by difference.” If you read much of the management literature, it’s almost always fundamentally about collaboration where you have shared goals, and shared methods or shared areas of expertise. We became interested in  this much looser way of learning, kind of mash-up learning, where people may or may not share credentials–some people might be credentialed, some people might not, and where people might have radically different training–a humanist and an artist and a cancer specialist might be talking about things together but the artist might be a cancer survivor who’s in fact educated her- or himself more than many doctors on the diverse ways that cancer might be cured. What happens if you put all of those people in conversation? What new insights emerge from interactions where the protocols for success are not scripted in advance?

We were also very interested in a third area of participatory learning: the global dimension. We’re piloting an international competition this year. In globally interactive learning, participants may not even share ideas about the basic epistemology of learning. What we’re interested in is how people can use existing digital tools–the social utility sites, social networking sites, something that looks like what some people are calling Web 2.0–to aggregate a range of responses from people who might not have anything else in common except that they’re all participating on the same site. Someone might wander in and wander off and not even be part of any pre-existing community, yet might have something interesting to share.

We’re very interested in the outcomes that happen when you don’t know the outcomes that might happen. We went back and forth over the definition of participatory learning many times. For example, we put “problem-solving” in, and then we took it out, put it in, took it out. We decided not to include it because we didn’t want to limit learning to the utilitarian. We wanted learning to be as visionary, creative, theoretical, or abstract as anybody’s imagination. Problem-solving is one thing you can do through this accretive way of learning, but we were afraid that if we put problem-solving in there, ninety percent of applications would be about problem-solving, rather than thinking in the broadest, most interesting ways about what you can do when you’re in a community with people that you may know but that you may not know. What happens if you leave your community open and invite the whole world in? In other words, when a community gets together and is talking about things, it not only defines the original problem or goal, but the goal itself might change dramatically over the course of the project. We wanted to allow for the free flow of thinking that may or may not end up solving “a problem.”

That does feel very much like the way knowledge work, or even creative work, often gets done in the world. There is a kind of fluidity to it.
The fluidity needs to happen from beginning to end. You cannot separate creative design of new technologies from critical thinking about the use, the application, the cost, the environmental impact, and the intellectual property issues, as well as all of the issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationalism, religion, and region so important to humanistic study today. All of those issues have to be thought through at the same time that you’re thinking about designing technology. That’s why the Digital Media and Learning Initiative is such an interdisciplinary project. Often the people who are most skilled at making technology are not the most skilled at thinking critically about it. The people who are most skilled at thinking critically about these issues might not be the most skilled at the aesthetics and the kinesthetics of design. And so we all need to be working together. This is that model of “collaboration by difference.” We might not have anything in common except what we know to be the case about our one contribution to something. But collaboratively and collectively we can yield something more interesting at the end. But all those things have to be thought through together. What we found last year with the winners of the first competition is often they worked in teams. It might be a musician who also was proficient in computer science working with a computer scientist who loved music. The Princeton Laptop Orchestra is what I’m thinking of here. People are working across divides which seem very distant but when they actually start working out problems together it turns out they might not be so distant after all. Again the whole can be larger than the sum of the parts.

Yet, all of this feels very different from the way we educate people–let alone how research and scholarship has traditionally unfolded in the humanities.
I know. To me it’s one of the tragedies of the so-called information age. Here we have this astonishing new way that people are making knowledge together. As educators we should all be vibrating with happiness at this moment! Here are millions of people, typically unpaid, with no ulterior motive, for profit or otherwise, who are validating what we do as a profession with what they do in the spare time as a passion. That seems to suggest that all of us overworked underpaid teachers have it right, that in fact there is something about humanity that likes to learn, and likes to share its learning, and likes to participate. That’s incredible! Every time I read some professor grousing about Wikipedia–that it’s not reliable, it’s not credentialed, etc.–I say sure, of course, so what reference work is perfect? What we may give up in some instances in expertise we more than make up for in scope.  We have to have some skepticism about the products of participatory learning–skepticism is what we do as a profession. But, my God, you’re talking about billions of contributions that people are making for free to world knowledge in so many languages, from so many different traditions of knowledge-making, and on a scale that the world has never seen before. I guess part of me just doesn’t understand why this isn’t the most exciting time for all of us in our profession. Why aren’t we figuring out ways that we can use this exciting intellectual moment to bolster our mission in the world, our methods in the world, our reach in the world, our understanding of what we do and what we have to offer our students in the world? It just feels like we’re in an age where we educators should be the thought leaders and instead we’re futzing around the edges. Our profession’s lack of excitement and leadership in all the issues surrounding the information age baffles me.

Is that an objective of HASTAC, to get beyond “futzing around the edges”?

Yes. Exactly. The Mellon Foundation did a wonderful thing–they invited the directors of all these humanities institutes to New York back in 2002. Harriet Zuckerman, Senior Vice President of the Mellon Foundation, invited me to talk to the directors of all these other institutes about what we were doing. This is when I was the co-director and co-founder of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke along with our dean, the literary scholar Karla F. C. Holloway. The Franklin Humanities Institute was at the epicenter of the much larger intellectual crossroads called the Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies. It wasn’t an isolated, hermit-like space but was in the center of the newest, most active intellectual space on campus. We were the new kids on the block, and we had this new idea that knowledge was important enough to be shared, not just among humanists but with all academics and with the general public. We were designing technologies to make our knowledge as public as possible. And we were holding weekly public forums, with a free lunch and free parking (crucial technologies!), to make even the most specialized knowledge available, accessible, and urgent.

This was 2002 and a lot of folks there had the attitude: “We’re humanists now, we have to fight technology.” But a couple of us felt the opposite. We were trying to say, “Wait, it’s the information age! This is our era! This is what we’ve been waiting for! The humanities finally are central. We should be the voice of the information age! We have historical knowledge, we have critical tools, we know what information is, we have whole fields dedicated to understanding what knowledge and information are in this age, why isn’t this our moment?” It was a great meeting. After we left, many of us resolved that the heads of as many humanities institutes as possible should come together to start a new organization that would be not digital humanities in the sense of archiving and tools, but as a new way of  thinking about the human issues that are touched by absolutely every aspect of technology. If we were going to design tools, they should be tools that would help in the larger sense to promote thinking, and sharing of ideas, and learning together.

So that’s the HASTAC origin story. We didn’t have the term participatory learning back then, of course–that’s a relatively new term. But social learning, creatively designing tools, and thinking critically about the role of technology in human life and in all aspects of society, were what we were pushing from the very beginning.

This shift, it seems, is not just about “digital humanities,” but humanities in general. In a piece you published in PMLA this year you called it “Humanities 2.0,” where you said

Humanities 2.0 is distinguished from monumental, first-generation, data-based projects not just by its interactivity but also by an openness about participation grounded in a different set of theoretical premises, which decenter knowledge and authority. Additional concepts decentered by Web 2.0 epistemologies include authorship, publication, refereeing, collaboration, participation, customizing, interdisciplinarity, credentialing, expertise, norms, training, mastery, hierarchy, taxonomy, professionalism, rigor, excellence, standards, and status.2

Where in particular do you see resistance in the humanities around the idea of participatory learning? 
I think it butts up against a number of issues. One is hierarchy and credentialing. If we’re going to be thinking about participatory or social learning, what does that do to the idea of expertise? I personally don’t think it really undermines it it, but many of the formal ways that we evaluate good work–mainly peer review–will undergo a significant transformation, at least expansion. As I said in the piece in PMLA,

The very concept of peer review needs to be defined and interrogated. We use the term as if it were self-explanatory and unitary, and yet who does and does not count as a peer is complex and part of a subtle and often self-constituting (and circular) system of accrediting and credentialing (i.e., “good schools” decide what constitutes a “good school”). We peer-review in different modes in different circumstances. (I’ve known some kind teachers to be savage conference respondents–and vice versa.) Humanities 2.0 peer review extends and makes public the various ways in which we act as professionals judging one another and contributing to one another’s work, whether subtly or substantively.3

David Theo Goldberg and I wrote a draft of a book called The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age that’s been up for the last year on the Institution for the Future of the Book collaborative website, so that any human in the world is allowed to give us feedback and make comments on our book and on our ideas. As I wrote in the PMLA piece, it’s a little scary to have “track changes” available to the world, to anybody who has an internet connection and wants to register. Most of us don’t put our work up to that kind of scrutiny when it’s in draft form. That’s pretty terrifying. So I have some empathy for people who have these resistances to Humanities 2.0.

Despite the terrifying nature of laying out your work, you say in the PMLA piece that it has been worth it. Again, to quote your PMLA piece:

Is this new process worth the trouble? Immeasurably. The project has exposed us to bibliographies from many different fields, to the specific uses of terminologies (and their histories) within fields. It has been one of the most fluidly interdisciplinary exchanges that I have yet experienced. It has also taught me how one’s words can signal meanings one didn’t intend. Reader response is humbling; it is also illuminating. So much of what passes in our profession for response is actually restatement of one’s original premises. In an interactive collaborative exchange, one often gains a better sense of assumptions unfolding, a process that helps make one’s unstated premises visible (especially to oneself).4

That seems like the “peer review” version of what you called earlier “collaboration by difference.” Do you see this becoming common practice?  
I don’t think it is yet clear how much radical reorganization people in the humanities and social sciences want to do. If you carry through the conclusions of social and participatory learning, you come to deep issues that our fields may not wish to interrogate; we pass on these assumptions, often unspoken ones, from generation to generation. I’m teaching a class next semester called “The Early American Novel and Other Fictions.”  Talking about this course, I commented recently on a blog that every term in that title has to be interrogated, because that is what English studies are based on. Early–periodization. American–nation. Novel–genre. So, periodization, genre, and nation are the pillars of how we post job offers, how we recruit people to English departments, how we define our field, how we define specializations.5

Can you say more about how participatory learning potentially destabilizes disciplinary categories? Is it because it reorganizes expertise?
Let’s stay with the example of English departments and their reliance on periodization, genre, and nationalism. Personally, I’m not sure that any of those categories is relevant anymore, to the intellectual world we live in today or to the ways most of us do research. We are always reaching back, no matter what our field, to other sources, earlier examples, and we are constantly casting about in contemporary theory for constructs that help us to see our field more clearly. Ideas rarely have genres and rarely have national borders. Most of us know that.  Yet to redefine what is important in a productive way to the field itself requires enormous upheaval. It isn’t easy to redefine your field and interrogate its most basic structuring principles. It requires a lot of work and results in a lot of acrimony and often the result is backlash that lands you back where you started, but with irreparably bruised, battered, and bitter colleagues. That’s one reason people create new interdisciplinary fields or even virtual organizations such as HASTAC. It is far easier to start new interdisciplinary movements from scratch with like-minded individuals than to try to change existing disciplines from inside. I always believe that if the new field succeeds, if it generates intellectual excitement, then it will feed back into and change the traditional discipline in a far more productive way, in the end, than engaging in departmentally-based attempts at disciplinary reform. And if the excitement is elsewhere, and departments dig in their heels and refuse to respond to it, their enrollments inevitably shrink, and they shrink into irrelevance. So be it.  Those are choices that disciplines make.

What if we turn from the humanities as a profession to the “classroom.” Should we be teaching students how to be effective participatory learners? How do we cultivate critical participatory learners or participatory knowledge creators?
I think that students are fabulous at participatory learning outside the classroom. When they are in the classroom, at any institution of higher learning, they have succeeded their entire life by excelling in a hierarchical model of learning of the kind that Ichabod Crane would be quite familiar with. To switch to the flickr “this photo sucks” kind of learning in an educational setting where–at least metaphorically–you’re used to sitting in rows, looking straight ahead to the teacher, handing in your work on time, getting your A from the teacher, doing what’s necessary to get that A, passing your PSATs, passing your SATs with flying colors, taking after-school cram school in order to do better on your SATs: after a lifetime of such preparation, it’s really hard to switch modes. I mean, we’ve been training kids from infancy.

We know that even two-year-olds recognize when they are in “teaching situations.” Infant developmental studies show that when you address toddlers in teaching mode, they sit straighter, their pupils dilate, they turn their heads less. By the time they are 18, they think education is this posture of attention to superiors who have knowledge to impart to them–the whole hierarchy. Kids who are coming into college now were born around 1991, 1990. So we’ve had a whole generation not just trained in Web 2.0, but also in the fact that once you enter the schoolroom, Web 2.0 is over. It’s not easy to teach them how to integrate the participatory learning from their social interactions and online extracurricular life into an educational setting that, structurally, remains entirely Ichabodian. You can’t exactly say “Participate freely or I’ll smack you with this (institutional) yardstick!” Right now, for most students, the Internet’s openness is like a dirty secret you’re not allowed to talk about in front of your teachers. The whole system of credentialing, grading, evaluating, writing recommendations, all of that, is antithetical to true participatory learning formats and learning communities. Higher education has never figured out if its primary goal is learning or if its primary goal is training citizens for elite positions of class power and leadership. The whole system of ranking (among institutions and among students) is based on “distinctions,” as Bourdieu would say. Participatory learning, especially when it is anonymous, contests the bases and even the sanctity of many of those distinctions.

Do you think it would be possible, either within the HASTAC network or outside of it, to have some kind of thriving community among higher education faculty that would actually help us understand what we are learning, help people make sense of where participatory pedagogies are going?
Yes, I think a lot of it is happening already, even if it is around the edges. As I’ve said, change happens from the edge and then moves back into the center so this is as it should be, although I wish it were happening far faster. A lot of new networks are being formed, such as Classroom 2.0 which is mostly for high school teachers. Or, for example, Savage Minds is this great collaborative blog in anthropology that a number of young scholars have started which is getting enough attention that some people within the cultural anthropology establishment have even worried about it, asking, Hey, how come you are making pronouncements? What entitles you? Who gave you permission? What gives you the right to comment on anthropology? Every field needs the equivalent of Savage Minds. And that is happening, more and more.

Within HASTAC, we have an exciting new program which gives intellectual leadership not just to junior faculty but to graduate and even some undergraduate students and some practitioners in the field. We asked board members to support with a very modest fellowship ($300 per student) up to six students per institution whom they would nominate as HASTAC Scholars. The selection was rigorous and so the director of the program, Erin Gentry Lamb (who is herself a doctoral student at Duke), wrote each HASTAC Scholar an impressive letter signaling for them, their chairs, and their deans, and for future employers that they have been chosen to be the intellectual leaders of a new field.  We now have fifty-six HASTAC scholars representing twenty-one institutions. They can blog any time they want about what’s happening at their institutions, what’s happening around the world, what’s happening in their intellectual lives. Every two or three weeks a HASTAC Scholar also hosts an online forum, typically using SEESMIC (a vlog-to-vlog format) as well as blogs with discussion boards.  We’ve had HASTAC Scholars forums on teaching in Second Life and other metaverses, on fair use, on academic electronic publishing, and on the role of history in the study of new media. A HASTAC Scholar also co-hosted a forum with Howard Rheingold (Smart Mobs) and over 6000 people tuned in and many participated in that forum on participatory learning.  The HASTAC Scholars themselves model the excitement with their own work across many different fields.

What were the key themes of that Forum? Where did he locate learning issues in relation to participatory learning?
In that Forum, Rheingold talked about how we should think about social media environments as where today’s students live, and how he has observed that “student-led collaborative inquiry, and some student involvement in the selection and application of the texts to that inquiry, enlists their enthusiasm in ways that even very good lectures and excellent texts and otherwise excellent class discussions don’t.”  In that session, he emphasized the importance of helping students to develop “meta-skills” of critical inquiry around these media. For example, he thinks some of his most effective teaching happens when he doesn’t lay out the connections in the material too clearly, leaving the students to develop what he calls “the meta-skill of path-finding.” Or, and this goes back to our discussion on peer review, he talks about how the responsibility for questioning the authority of the text belongs not to the publisher but to the readers. He also describes the “meta-skill of developing an individual voice in a collaborative environment.”6

That sounds like the application of participatory learning to the project of educational transformation itself!

Yes, that’s the point. With these HASTAC Scholar forums, we have the most exciting group of  undergraduates and graduate students putting their interests out there, and showing their professors and advisors how much interest there is in these new intellectual areas. What we’re doing is saying, Let’s jump ahead by going directly to the students to see what their interests are and let’s support those interests in every way we can. Let’s see if we can’t push education in a Web 2.0 way through a network we’re creating from the students on up instead of from the top down. But we certainly give them a safety net in the fact that they are nominated by scholars who are among the most respected in the country. We don’t want young scholars to have to fight this fight; we want to be able to support their future by exemplifying what they contribute rather than “plea bargaining” for it. In other words, instead of trying to preach to people who aren’t converted yet, we’re trying to build strength and networks and solidarity and credentialing and refereeing and respectability for the people who are there, on the assumption that if something’s really exciting, people gravitate to it. We are positive that being an active and visible presence in the HASTAC Scholars program will be an asset when these students are pursuing their careers. What will be exciting is when, a few years out, we turn to these assistant professors and have them nominate their best students as HASTAC Scholars.

HASTAC is a virtual community of about 1700 members. It is voluntary and very loose. No dues. If you participate, you’re likely to be put on the Steering Committee.  It is what people want it to be, and decentralization is key. We advertise one another’s projects and work and, if we do the advertising, then the home institution credits HASTAC as one of the contributors to the project. Other viral communities are springing up. At present, I think this is the right way to go. Maybe that will change but, at present, it seems as if it would be exactly wrong to try to capture the flux.  It’s better, I think, to try to ride this moment of transition as the Information Age changes just about every aspect of social interaction, political organization, intellectual exchange, and, more slowly but surely, education. Personally, I think it would be wrong to institutionalize because institutions move far more slowly than the Information Age. We live in a time where we all need to relax a little and accept the fact that we live in one of the world’s great, epistemic eras of communication and information and intellectual transformation. We cannot stop it.  And I, for one, wouldn’t want to. The best we can do, as true intellectuals, is for each of us to work to understand how what we are doing best capitalizes upon, helps us all to understand, and in other ways appreciates the fact that we live in one of the most exciting and challenging ages in recent human history. As we HASTAC’ers keep saying, this is not the age of technology. It is the age of information. We educators, we human and social scientists, need to accept that this is our age and take up the challenge.


1. HASTAC Initiative, “Digital Media and Learning Competition,” . [return to text]
2. Cathy N. Davidson, “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (May 2008): 711-712, [return to text]
3.  Davidson, 711. [return to text]
4. Davidson, 712-713. [return to text]
5. Cathy Davidson, “This is Your Brain on the Internet,” (blog entry, Sept. 8, 2008), and “Youth in the Humanities Fourth Great Internet Age,” (blog entry, Sept. 19, 2008), . [return to text]
6. HASTAC Scholars Discussion, “HASTAC welcomes Howard Rheingold for a discussion on participatory learning” (Aug. 24, 2008), . [return to text]

From Knowledgable to Knowledge-able: Learning in New Media Environments

by Michael Wesch , Kansas State University

Most university classrooms have gone through a massive transformation in the past ten years. I’m not talking about the numerous initiatives for multiple plasma screens, moveable chairs, round tables, or digital whiteboards. The change is visually more subtle, yet potentially much more transformative. As I recently wrote in a Britannica Online Forum:

There is something in the air, and it is nothing less than the digital artifacts of over one billion people and computers networked together collectively producing over 2,000 gigabytes of new information per second. While most of our classrooms were built under the assumption that information is scarce and hard to find, nearly the entire body of human knowledge now flows through and around these rooms in one form or another, ready to be accessed by laptops, cellphones, and iPods. Classrooms built to re-enforce the top-down authoritative knowledge of the teacher are now enveloped by a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where knowledge is made, not found, and authority is continuously negotiated through discussion and participation.1

This new media environment can be enormously disruptive to our current teaching methods and philosophies. As we increasingly move toward an environment of instant and infinite information, it becomes less important for students to know, memorize, or recall information, and more important for them to be able to find, sort, analyze, share, discuss, critique, and create information. They need to move from being simply knowledgeable to being knowledge-able.

The sheer quantity of information now permeating our environment is astounding, but more importantly, networked digital information is also qualitatively different than information in other forms. It has the potential to be created, managed, read, critiqued, and organized very differently than information on paper and to take forms that we have not yet even imagined. To understand the true potentials of this “information revolution” on higher education, we need to look beyond the framework of “information.” For at the base of this “information revolution” are new ways of relating to one another, new forms of discourse, new ways of interacting, new kinds of groups, and new ways of sharing, trading, and collaborating. Wikis, blogs, tagging, social networking and other developments that fall under the “Web 2.0” buzz are especially promising in this regard because they are inspired by a spirit of interactivity, participation, and collaboration. It is this “spirit” of Web 2.0 which is important to education. The technology is secondary. This is a social revolution, not a technological one, and its most revolutionary aspect may be the ways in which it empowers us to rethink education and the teacher-student relationship in an almost limitless variety of ways.

Physical, Social, and Cognitive Structures Working Against Us
But there are many structures working against us. Our physical structures were built prior to an age of infinite information, our social structures formed to serve different purposes than those needed now, and the cognitive structures we have developed along the way now struggle to grapple with the emerging possibilities.

The physical structures are easiest to see, and are on prominent display in any large “state of the art” classroom. Rows of fixed chairs often face a stage or podium housing a computer from which the professor controls at least 786,432 points of light on a massive screen. Stadium seating, sound-absorbing panels and other acoustic technologies are designed to draw maximum attention to the professor at the front of the room. The “message” of this environment is that to learn is to acquire information, that information is scarce and hard to find (that’s why you have to come to this room to get it), that you should trust authority for good information, and that good information is beyond discussion (that’s why the chairs don’t move or turn toward one another). In short, it tells students to trust authority and follow along.

This is a message that very few faculty could agree with, and in fact some may use the room to launch spirited attacks against it. But the content of such talks are overshadowed by the ongoing hour-to-hour and day-to-day practice of sitting and listening to authority for information and then regurgitating that information on exams.

Many faculty may hope to subvert the system, but a variety of social structures work against them. Radical experiments in teaching carry no guarantees and even fewer rewards in most tenure and promotion systems, even if they are successful. In many cases faculty are required to assess their students in a standardized way to fulfill requirements for the curriculum. Nothing is easier to assess than information recall on multiple-choice exams, and the concise and “objective” numbers satisfy committee members busy with their own teaching and research.

Even in situations in which a spirit of exploration and freedom exist, where faculty are free to experiment to work beyond physical and social constraints, our cognitive habits often get in the way. Marshall McLuhan called it “the rear-view mirror effect,” noting that “We see the world through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”2

Most of our assumptions about information are based on characteristics of information on paper. On paper we thought of information as a “thing” with a material form, and we created elaborate hierarchies to classify each piece of information in its own logical place. But as David Weinberger and Clay Shirky have demonstrated, networked digital information is fundamentally different than information on paper.3 And each digital innovation seems to shake us free from yet another assumption we once took for granted.

Even something as simple as the hyperlink taught us that information can be in more than one place at one time, challenging our traditional space-time based notions of information as a “thing” that has to be “in a place.” Google began harnessing the links and revolutionized our research with powerful machine-assisted searching.

Blogging came along and taught us that anybody can be a creator of information. Suddenly anybody can create a blog in a matter of seconds. And people have responded. Technorati now reports that there are over 133 million blogs, almost 133 million more than there were just five years ago. YouTubeand other video sharing sites have sparked similar widespread participation in the production of video. Over 10,000 hours of video are uploaded to the web everyday. In the past six months more material has been uploaded to YouTube than all of the content ever aired on major network television. While such media beg for participation, our lecture halls are still sending the message, “follow along.”

Wikipedia has taught us yet another lesson, that a networked information environment allows people to work together in new ways to create information that can rival (and even surpass) the content of experts by almost any measure. The message of Wikipedia is not “trust authority” but “explore authority.” Authorized information is not beyond discussion on Wikipedia, information is authorized through discussion, and this discussion is available for the world to see and even participate in. This culture of discussion and participation is now available on any website with the emerging “second layer” of the web through applications like Diigo which allow you to add notes and tags to any website anywhere.

And as we note and tag these sites, we are also collectively organizing them, so that the notion that this new media environment is too big and disorganized for anybody to find anything worthwhile and relevant is simply not the case. Our old assumption that information is hard to find, is trumped by the realization that if we set up our hyper-personalized digital network effectively, information can find us. For example, I have set up my own Netvibes portal so that the moment anybody anywhere tags something with certain keywords I am interested in I will immediately receive a link to the item. It is like continuously working with thousands of research associates around the world.

Taken together, this new media environment demonstrates to us that the idea of learning as acquiring information is no longer a message we can afford to send to our students, and that we need to start redesigning our learning environments to address, leverage, and harness the new media environment now permeating our classrooms.

A Crisis of Significance
Unfortunately, many teachers only see the disruptive possibilities of these technologies when they find students Facebooking, texting, IMing, or shopping during class. Though many blame the technology, these activities are just new ways for students to tune out, part of the much bigger problem I have called “the crisis of significance,” the fact that many students are now struggling to find meaning and significance in their education.4

Nothing good will come of these technologies if we do not first confront the crisis of significance and bring relevance back into education. In some ways these technologies act as magnifiers. If we fail to address the crisis of significance, the technologies will only magnify the problem by allowing students to tune out more easily and completely. With total and constant access to their entire network of friends, we might as well be walking into the food court in the student union and trying to hold their attention. On the other hand, if we work with students to find and address problems that are real and significant to them, they can then leverage the networked information environment in ways that will help them achieve the “knowledge-ability” we hope for them.

We have had our why’s, how’s, and what’s upside-down, focusing too much on what should be learned, then how, and often forgetting the why altogether. In a world of nearly infinite information, we must first address why, facilitate how, and let the what generate naturally from there. As infinite information shifts us away from a narrow focus on information, we begin to recognize the importance of the form of learning over the content of learning. It isn’t that content is not important; it is simply that it must not take precedence over form. But even as we shift our focus to the “how” of learning, there is still the question of “what” is to be learned. After all, our courses have to be about something. Usually our courses are arranged around “subjects.” Postman and Weingartner note that the notion of “subjects” has the unwelcome effect of teaching our students that “English is not History and History is not Science and Science is not Art . . . and a subject is something you ‘take’ and, when you have taken it, you have ‘had’ it.” Always aware of the hidden metaphors underlying our most basic assumptions, they suggest calling this “the Vaccination Theory of Education” as students are led to believe that once they have “had” a subject they are immune to it and need not take it again.5

Not Subjects but Subjectivities
As an alternative, I like to think that we are not teaching subjects but subjectivities: ways of approaching, understanding, and interacting with the world. Subjectivities cannot be taught. They involve an introspective intellectual throw-down in the minds of students. Learning a new subjectivity is often painful because it almost always involves what psychologist Thomas Szasz referred to as “an injury to one’s self-esteem.”6 You have to unlearn perspectives that may have become central to your sense of self.

To illustrate what I mean by subjectivities over subjects, I have created a list of subjectivities that I am trying to help students attain while learning the “subject” of anthropology:

  • Our worldview is not natural and unquestionable, but culturally and historically specific.
  • We are globally interconnected in ways we often do not realize.
  • Different aspects of our lives and culture are connected and affect one another deeply.
  • Our knowledge is always incomplete and open to revision.
  • We are the creators of our world.
  • Participation in the world is not a choice, only how we participate is our choice.

Even a quick scan of these subjectivities will reveal that they can only be learned, explored, and adopted through practice. We can’t “teach” them. We can only create environments in which the practices and perspectives are nourished, encouraged, or inspired (and therefore continually practiced).

My own experiments in this regard led to the creation the World Simulation, now the centerpiece of my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course at Kansas State University. As the name implies, the world simulation is an activity in which we try to simulate the world. Of course, in order to simulate the world, we need to know everything we can about it. So while the course is set up much like a typical cultural anthropology course, moving through the same readings and topics, all of these learnings are ultimately focused around one big question, “How does the world work?”

Students are co-creators of every aspect of the simulation, and are asked to harness and leverage the new media environment to find information, theories, and tools we can use to answer our big question. Each student has a specific role and expertise to develop. A world map is superimposed on the class and each student is asked to become an expert on a specific aspect of the region in which they find themselves. Using this knowledge, they work in 15-20 small groups to create realistic cultures, step-by-step, as we go through each aspect of culture in class. This allows them to apply the knowledge they learn in the course and to recognize the ways different aspects of culture–economic, social, political, and religious practices and institutions–are integrated in a cultural system.

In the final weeks of the course we explore how different cultures around the world are interconnected and how they relate to one another. Students continue to harness and leverage the new media environment to learn more about these interconnections, and use the wiki to work together to create the “rules” for our simulation. They face the daunting task of creating a way to simulate colonization, revolution, the emergence of a global economy, war and diplomacy, and environmental challenges. Along the way, they are exploring some of the most important challenges now facing humanity.

The World Simulation itself only takes 75-100 minutes and moves through 650 metaphorical years, 1450-2100. It is recorded by students on twenty digital video cameras and edited into one final “world history” video using clips from real world history to illustrate the correspondences. We watch the video together in the final weeks of the class, using it as a discussion starter for contemplating our world and our role in its future. By then it seems as if we have the whole world right before our eyes in one single classroom – profound cultural differences, profound economic differences, profound challenges for the future, and one humanity. We find ourselves not just as co-creators of a simulation, but as co-creators of the world itself, and the future is up to us.

Managing a learning environment such as this poses its own unique challenges, but there is one simple technique, which makes everything else fall into place: love and respect your students and they will love and respect you back. With the underlying feeling of trust and respect this provides, students quickly realize the importance of their role as co-creators of the learning environment and they begin to take responsibility for their own education.

New Models of Assessment for New Media Environments: The Next Frontier.
All of this vexes traditional criteria for assessment and grades. This is the next frontier as we try to transform our learning environments. When I speak frankly with professors all over the world, I find that, like me, they often find themselves jury-rigging old assessment tools to serve the new needs brought into focus by a world of infinite information. Content is no longer king, but many of our tools have been habitually used to measure content recall. For example, I have often found myself writing content-based multiple-choice questions in a way that I hope will indicate that the student has mastered a new subjectivity or perspective. Of course, the results are not satisfactory. More importantly, these questions ask students to waste great amounts of mental energy memorizing content instead of exercising a new perspective in the pursuit of real and relevant questions.

Of course, multiple-choice questions are an easy target for criticism, but even more sophisticated measures of cognitive development may miss the point. When you watch somebody who is truly “in it,” somebody who has totally given themselves over to the learning process, or if you simply imagine those moments in which you were “in it” yourself, you immediately recognize that learning expands far beyond the mere cognitive dimension. Many of these dimensions were mentioned in the issue precis, “such as emotional and affective dimensions, capacities for risk-taking and uncertainty, creativity and invention,” and the list goes on. How will we assess these? I do not have the answers, but a renewed and spirited dedication to the creation of authentic learning environments that leverage the new media environment demands that we address it.

The new media environment provides new opportunities for us to create a community of learners with our students seeking important and meaningful questions. Questions of the very best kind abound, and we become students again, pursuing questions we might have never imagined, joyfully learning right along with the others. In the best case scenario the students will leave the course, not with answers, but with more questions, and even more importantly, the capacity to ask still more questions generated from their continual pursuit and practice of the subjectivities we hope to inspire. This is what I have called elsewhere, “anti-teaching,” in which the focus is not on providing answers to be memorized, but on creating a learning environment more conducive to producing the types of questions that ask students to challenge their taken-for-granted assumptions and see their own underlying biases.

The beauty of the current moment is that new media has thrown all of us as educators into just this kind of question-asking, bias-busting, assumption-exposing environment. There are no easy answers, but we can at least be thankful for the questions that drive us on.

1. Michael Wesch, “A Vision of Students Today (and what Teachers Must Do),”  Encyclopedia Britannica blog, Oct. 21, 2008, [return to text]
2. Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage (New York: Random House, 1967). <a=href=”#2return”>[return to text]
3. See Clay Shirky, “Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags,” and David Weinberger, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (New York: Times Books, 2007). [return to text]
4. Michael Wesch, “Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance,” Education Canada (Spring 2008), [return to text]
5. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Delacorte Press, 1969), 21. [return to text]
6. Thomas Szasz, The Second Sin (Routledge, 1974), 18. [return to text]

The Difference that Inquiry Makes: A Collaborative Case Study on Technology and Learning, from the Visible Knowledge Project

This collection of essays from the Visible Knowledge Project is edited by Randy Bass and Bret Eynon, who served together as the Project’s Co-Directors and Principal Investigators. The Visible Knowledge Project was a collaborative scholarship of teaching and learning project exploring the impact of technology on learning, primarily in the humanities.  In all, about seventy faculty from twenty-two institutions participated in the Visible Knowledge Project over five years. Participating campuses included five research universities (Vanderbilt University, the University of Alabama, Georgetown University, the University of Southern California, Washington State University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), four comprehensive public universities (Pennsylvania’s Millersville University, California State University (CSU)–Monterey Bay, CSU Sacramento, Ohio’s Youngstown State University, and participants from several four-year colleges in the City University of New York system, including City College, Lehman, and Baruch), and three community colleges (two from CUNY–Borough of Manhattan Community College and LaGuardia Community College, and California’s Cerritos College). In addition to campus-based teams, a number of independent scholars participated from a half dozen other institutions, such as Arizona State and Lehigh University.

The project began in June 2000 and concluded in October 2005. We engaged in several methods for online collaboration to supplement our annual institutes, including an adaptation of the digital poster-tool created by Knowledge Media Lab (Carnegie Foundation), asynchronous discussion, and web-conferencing. For more detailed information, see the VKP galleries and archives at You can find pdf files formatted for printing attached at the end of each article.

Capturing the Visible Evidence of Invisible Learning

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This is a portrait of the new shape of learning with digital media, drawn around three core concepts: adaptive expertise, embodied learning, and socially situated pedagogies. These findings emerge from the classroom case studies of the Visible Knowledge Project, a six-year project engaging almost 70 faculty from 21 different institutions across higher education. Examining the scholarly work of VKP faculty across practices and technologies, it highlights key conceptual findings and their implications for pedagogical design.  Where any single classroom case study yields a snapshot of practice and insight, collectively these studies present a framework that bridges from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 technologies, building on many dimensions of learning that have previously been undervalued if not invisible in higher education.

Reading the Reader

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Many teachers wonder what happens (or doesn’t happen) when students read text. What knowledge do students need, gain, or seek when reading? Through VKP’s early emphasis on technology experimentation, Sharona Levy adapted a proven reading method of annotation from paper to computer. Through using the comment feature in Word, students’ reading processes became more transparent, explicit, and traceable, allowing her to diagnose gaps in understanding and to encourage effective reading strategies.

Close Reading, Associative Thinking, and Zones of Proximal Development in Hypertext

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How can we teach students to slow down their reading process and move beyond surface-level comprehension? Patricia O’Connor’s Appalachian Literature students co-constructed hypertexts which capture the connections readers make among assigned texts, reference documents, and multimedia sources. These hypertexts became more than artifacts of student work; rather, they became collaborative, exploratory spaces where implicit literary associations become explicit.

Inquiry, Image, and Emotion in the History Classroom

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With increased online access to historical sources, will students “read history” differently among such artifacts as text, image, or video? Questioning his own assumptions of students’ abilities to analyze historical sources, Peter Felten conducted pedagogical investigations to understand student interpretation of a variety of sources. Designing the use of visual artifacts in the classroom helped students learn not only how to interrogate and interpret primary sources, but also how to construct original arguments about history. Students’ understanding of history deepened while they became emotionally engaged with the material.

From Looking to Seeing: Student Learning in the Visual Turn

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Rather than simply using primary source images as illustrations for his course on Power, Race, and Culture in the U.S. City, David Jaffee wanted to teach his students how to interpret visual texts as a historian would. By paying close attention to his students’ readings of images, Jaffee was able to develop ways to scaffold their analysis, teaching them how to move beyond “looking” at isolated images to “seeing” historical context, connection and complexity.

Engaging Students as Researchers through Internet Use

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Effective habits of research begin early and should be practiced often. Unearthing discoveries, making connections, and evaluating judiciously are research traits valued by Taimi Olsen in her first-year composition course. Not only should these research habits exist in the library, but Olsen advocates the application of these habits in online archives hones students’ abilities to become expert researchers.

Trace Evidence: How New Media Can Change What We Know About Student Learning

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Clicker technology, often used in large-enrollment science courses, works well when every question has a single right answer. Lynne Adrian wanted to find out whether clickers could be used in disciplines which raise more questions than answers, and how illuminating the gray areas between “right” and “wrong” could help her students think critically about American studies. She found that the technology allowed her to preserve traces of the otherwise ephemeral class discussions, enabling her to analyze the types of questions she was asking in class and to track their effects on students’ written work throughout the semester.

Shaping a Culture of Conversation: The Discussion Board and Beyond

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What happens when the discussion board goes from being just an assignment to a springboard for intellectual community? Foreseeing many benefits to cultivating discussion among his English students, Ed Gallagher worked to develop frameworks to articulate why discussion is not only central to the learning process in the classroom but also beyond its walls. A higher level of critical analysis, reflection, and a synthesis of multiple perspectives turned class discussions into artful conversations.

The Importance of Conversation in Learning and the Value of Web-based Discussion Tools

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In this essay Heidi Elemendorf and John Ottenhoff discuss the central role that intellectual communities should play in a liberal education and the value of conversation for our students, and we explore the ways in which web-based conversational forums can be best designed to fully support these ambitious learning goals. Coming from very different fields (Biology and English Literature) and in different course contexts (Microbiology course for non-majors and Shakespeare seminar), they nonetheless discover core values and design issues by looking closely at the discourse produced from online discussions. Centrally, they connect what they identify as expert-like behavior to the complexities of intellectual development in conversational contexts.

Why Sophie Dances: Electronic Discussions and Student Engagement with the Arts

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Paula Berggren struggled to engage her students in critical thinking about unfamiliar art forms, until she posed a simple question on the class’s online discussion board: “Why do people dance?” She found that the students’ responses, rather than being just less-polished versions of what they might write in formal essays, warranted close analysis in their own right. In subsequent teaching, Berggren continues to incorporate some version of a middle space for student work, which not only increases students’ engagement but also allows her to observe and document their thought processes.

Connecting the Dots: Learning, Media, Community

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Sometimes the research question you ask isn’t the one you end up answering. Elizabeth Stephen recounts how a debate about the use of films in a freshman seminar led to an experiment in forming a community of scholars which could be sustained over time and across distances. Creating online spaces for students in this group to share their reflections with one another strengthened the ties among them, while allowing Stephen to analyze the multiple elements, both academic and social, which made this a successful learning community.

Focusing on Process: Exploring Participatory Strategies to Enhance Student Learning

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Confronting the challenge of improving student writing in a large sociology class, Juan José Gutiérrez developed a software-based peer review process. He required students to evaluate one another’s papers based on specific criteria and to provide constructive feedback. He found that not only did this process help with the logistics of paper-grading, but it also allowed him to adapt his teaching to address specific concerns indicated by qualitative and quantitative analysis of the peer reviews.

Theorizing Through Digital Stories: The Art of “Writing Back” and “Writing For”

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Discovering how digital stories engage students in critical, theoretical frameworks lives at the center of Rina Benmayor’s work. Through her course, Latina Life Stories, Rina asked each student to tell his or her own life story digitally and then situate the story within a theoretical context. While this process engaged students to theorize creatively, it also allowed her to document methods to recognize the quality of student work resulting in a flexible and intuitive rubric to use beyond this experience.

Video Killed the Term Paper Star? Two Views

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Two instructors from separate disciplines discuss what happens when alternative multimedia assignments replace traditional papers. Peter Burkholder found the level of engagement to change dramatically in his history courses while Anne Cross experienced new avenues for talking about sensitive subjects in sociology. Together, both professors explore the advantages and opportunities for video assignments that challenge students to synthesize information in critical and innovative ways.

Producing Audiovisual Knowledge: Documentary Video Production and Student Learning in the American Studies Classroom

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Traditionally, academic institutions have segregated multimedia production from disciplinary study. Bernie Cook wondered what his American Studies students would learn from working collaboratively to produce documentary films based on primary sources, and what he in turn might find out about their learning in the process. Students created documentary films on local history, and wrote reflections on their creative and critical process. Not only did students report tremendous engagement with the topics and sources for their projects, they also indicated satisfaction at being able to screen their work for an audience. By allowing his students to become producers of content, Cook enables them to participate fully in the intellectual work of American Studies and Film Studies.

Multimedia as Composition: Research, Writing, and Creativity

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Viet Thanh Nguyen reflects on a three-year experiment in assigning multimedia projects in courses designed around the question “How do we tell stories about America?” Determined to integrate multimedia conceptually into his courses, rather than tacking it onto existing syllabi, Nguyen views multimedia as primarily a pedagogical strategy and secondarily a set of tools. Exploring challenges and opportunities for both students and teachers in using multimedia, he outlines principles for teaching with multimedia, and concludes that, while not for everyone, multimedia can potentially create a transformative learning experience.

Looking at Learning, Looking Together: Collaboration across Disciplines on a Digital Gallery

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What does it mean for two community college colleagues, teaching in very different disciplines, to work together on a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) project?  What happens when they join together to examine their students’ work, their individual teaching practice, and the possibilities for collaborative research?  And what do they learn when they undertake an electronic publication of that work in a digital gallery?

“It Helped Me See a New Me”: ePortfolio, Learning and Change at LaGuardia Community College

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What happens if we shift the focus of our teaching and learning innovations from a single classroom to an entire institution? What new kinds of questions and possibilities emerge? Can an entire college break boundaries, moving from a focus on “what teachers teach” to a focus on “what students learn?” Can we think differently about student learning if we create structures that enable thousands of students to use new media tools to examine their learning across courses, disciplines, and semesters? Bret Eynon explores these questions as he analyzes the college-wide ePortfolio initiative at LaGuardia Community College. Studying individual portfolios and focus group interviews, he also examines quantitative outcomes data on engagement and retention to better consider ePortfolio’s impact on student learning.

From Narrative to Database: Multimedia Inquiry in a Cross-Classroom Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Study

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Michael Coventry and Matthias Oppermann draw on their work with student-produced digital stories to explore how the protocols surrounding particular new media technologies shape the ways we think about, practice, and represent work in the scholarship of teaching and learning. The authors describe the Digital Storytelling Multimedia Archive, an innovative grid they designed to represent their findings, after considering how the technology of delivery could impact practice and interpretation. This project represents an intriguing synthesis of digital humanities and the scholarship of teaching and learning, raising important questions about the possibilities for analyzing and representing student learning in Web 2.0 environments.

Multimedia in the Classroom at USC: A Ten Year Perspective

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Does multimedia scholarship add academic value to a liberal arts education? How do we know? Looking back at the history of the Honors Program in Multimedia Scholarship at USC, Mark Kann draws on his own teaching experience, discussions with other faculty members, and the university’s curriculum review process to explore these questions. He describes the process of developing the program’s academic objectives and assessment criteria, and the challenges of gathering evidence for his intuitions about the effects of multimedia scholarship. Finally, Kann reports on the program’s first student cohort and looks ahead to the future of multimedia at USC.

Capturing the Visible Evidence of Invisible Learning

by Randy Bass and Bret Eynon

Note: This is a synthesis essay for the Visible Knowledge Project (VKP), a collaborative project engaging seventy faculty at twenty-one institutions in an investigation of the impact on technology on learning, primarily in the humanities. As a matter of formatting to the Academic Commons space, this essay is divided in three parts: Part I (Overview of project, areas of inquiry, introduction to findings); Part II (Discussion of findings with a focus on Adaptive Expertise and Embodied Learning); Part III (Discussion of findings continued with a focus on Socially Situated learning, Conclusion). A full-text version of this essay is available as a pdf document here.
Here, in this forum as part of Academic Commons, the essay complements eighteen case studieson teaching, learning, and new media technologies. Together the essay and studies constitute the digital volume “The Difference that Inquiry Makes: A Collaborative Case Study of Learning and Technology, from the Visible Knowledge Project.” For more information about VKP, see

Déjà 2.0
Facebook. Twitter. Social media. YouTube.Viral marketing. Mashups. Second Life. PBWikis. Digital Marketeers. FriendFeed. Flickr. Web 2.0. Approaching the second decade of the twenty-first century, we’re riding an unstoppable wave of digital innovation and excitement. New products and paradigms surface daily. New forms of language, communication, and style are shaping emerging generations. The effect on culture, politics, economics and education will be transformative. As educators, we have to scramble to get on board, before it’s too late.

Wait a minute. Haven’t we been here before? Less than a decade ago, we rode the first wave of the digital revolution–email, PowerPoint, course web pages, digital archives, listservs, discussion boards, etc. As teachers and scholars, we dove into what is now called Web 1.0, trying out all sorts of new systems and tools. Some things we tried were fabulous. Others, not so much. Can we learn anything from that experience? What insights might we garner that could help us navigate Web 2.0? How can we separate the meaningful from the trivial? How do we decide what’s worth exploring? What do we understand about the relationship of innovations in technology and pedagogy? What can we learn about effective ways to examine, experiment, evaluate, and integrate new technologies in ways that really do advance learning and teaching?
The teaching and research effort of the Visible Knowledge Project (VKP) could be a valuable resource as we consider these questions. Active from 2000 to 2005, VKP was an unusual collective effort to initiate and sustain a discipline-based examination of the impact of new digital media on education. A network of around seventy faculty from twenty U.S. colleges, primarily from American history and culture studies departments, gathered not only to experiment with new technologies in their teaching, but also to document and study the results of their inquiries, using the tools of the scholarship of teaching and learning. In this collaborative and synoptic case study, under the title The Difference that Inquiry Makes, we try to capture and make sense of the visible evidence of this relatively invisible learning as it emerged over five (and more) years of collaborative classroom inquiry. We share participants’ reports on key elements of the VKP inquiry, and integrate their reports into a framework that can help us learn from this experience as we navigate a fast-changing educational landscape.

Invisible Learning
What do we mean by “invisible learning?” We use this phrase to mean at least two things. First, it points us to what Sam Wineburg, in his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, talked about as “intermediate processes,” the steps in the learning process that are often invisible but critical to development.1 All too often in education, we are focused only on final products: the final exam, the grade, the perfect research paper, mastery of a subject. But how do we get students from here to there? What are the intermediate stages that help students develop the skills and habits of master learners in our disciplines? What kinds of scaffolding enable students to move forward, step by step? How do we, as educators, recognize and support the slow process of progressively deepening students’ abilities to think like historians and scholars? In VKP, from the beginning, we tested our conviction that digital media could help us to shine new light on–to make visible–and to pay new attention to these crucial stages in student learning.

Second, by invisible learning we also mean the aspects of learning that go beyond the cognitive to include the affective, the personal, and issues of identity. Cognitive science has made great strides in recent years, scanning the brain and understanding everything from synapses and neurons to perception and memory. Educators are still struggling to grasp the implications of this research for teaching and learning. However, perhaps because it is less “scientific,” higher education has paid considerably less attention to (and is even less well prepared to deal with) the role of the affective in learning and its relationship to the cognitive. How does emotion shape engagement in the learning process? How do we understand risk-taking? Community? Creativity? The relationship between construction of knowledge and the reconstruction of identity? In VKP we explored the ways that digital tools and processes surfaced the interplay between the affective and the cognitive, the personal and the academic.

Visible Evidence
Education at all levels has largely taken on faith that if teachers teach, students will learn–what could be seen as a remarkable, real-life version of “If you build it, they will come.” In recent years, calls for greater accountability have produced a new emphasis on standardized testing as the only appropriate way to assess whether students are learning. Meanwhile, growing numbers of faculty in higher education have taken a different approach, engaging in the scholarship of teaching and learning–using the tools of scholarship to study their own classrooms–to deepen their understanding of the learning process and its relationship to teacher practice. Spurred by the ideas of Ernest Boyer and Lee Shulman of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, faculty from many disciplines have posed research questions about student learning, gathered evidence from their classrooms, and gone public with their findings in countless conference presentations, course portfolios, and scholarly journals. This movement, with its focus on classroom-based evidence, provided key tools and language for the Visible Knowledge Project. It allowed VKP faculty to study the impact of new technologies on learning and teaching, and it also helped us frame questions about problems and practice, inquiry and expertise that remain critical as we move into a new phase of technological innovation and change.2

The Visible Knowledge Project
The Visible Knowledge Project emerged in 2000 from the juxtaposition of these two powerful yet largely distinct trends in higher education–the scholarship of teaching and learning movement and the initial eruption of networked digital technologies into the higher education classroom. Responding to a dynamic combination of need and opportunity, faculty engaged in multi-year teaching and learning research projects, examining and documenting the ways the use of new media was reshaping their own teaching and patterns of student learning. Participating faculty came from a wide range of institutions, from community colleges and private liberal arts colleges to research universities; from Georgetown and USC to Youngstown State, the University of Alabama, and City University of New York (CUNY). Meeting on an annual basis, and interacting more frequently in virtual space, we formed our research questions representing a broad spectrum, shared ideas about research strategies, discussed emerging patterns of our evidence, and formulated our findings. The digital resources used ranged from Blackboard and PowerPoint to interactive online archives and Movie Maker Pro. The VKP galleries ( provide a wealth of background information, including lists of participants, regular newsletters, and reports from more than thirty participants, as well as a number of related resources and meta-analyses.3

The VKP ethos was formed by a belief in the value of messiness, of unfolding complexity, of adventurous, participant-driven inquiry that would inform the nature of the collective conversation. A few scientists and social scientists entered the group and helped create exciting projects, but the vast majority of the participants were from the fields of history, literature, women’s studies and other humanist disciplines. While technology was key to our raison d’être, our inquiries often evolved to focus on issues of pedagogy that transcended individual technologies. We wanted to learn about teaching, to learn about learning. We wanted to go beyond “best practice” and “what worked” to get at the questions about why and how things worked–or didn’t work. In some cases, we went further, rethinking our understanding of what it meant for something to “work.” Our questions were evolving, shaped by the exigencies of time and funding as well as our on-going exchange and new technological developments. We struggled with ways to nuance and realize our inquiries, to come up with workable methods and evidence that matched our changing and, we hoped, increasingly sophisticated questions.

Over the course of the Project, we found that participants’ teaching experiments started to group in three areas:

  1. Reading–Engaging ideas through sources/texts: As VKP took shape at the end of the twentieth century, the great museums, universities, and research libraries of this country were mounting their collections on the Web. Web sites such as the American Memory Collection of the Library of Congress vastly expanded the availability of archival source materials on the Web. It was a time, as Cathy Davidson put it recently, of digitally-driven “popular humanism.”4 Responding to this opportunity, VKP’s historians and culture studies faculty explored the effectiveness of active reading strategies using primary sources, both textual and visual, for building complex thinking. Introducing students to the process of inquiry, faculty tested combinations of pedagogy and technology designed to help students “slow down” their learning, interpret challenging texts and concepts, and engage in higher order disciplinary and interdisciplinary practices.For example, Susan Butler, teaching an introductory history survey at Cerritos College, had her students examine primary sources on different facets of the Trail of Tears, made available online by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, PBS, and the Cherokee Messenger; as students grappled with perspective and the evolving definition of democracy in America, Butler examined evidence of the ways that scaffolded learning modules that incorporated online primary sources could expand students’ capacity for critical analysis. Meanwhile, Sherry Linkon at Youngstown State used online archives to help students in her English course create research papers that contextualized early twentieth-century immigrant novels. And Peter Felten at Vanderbilt integrated online texts, photographs and videos into a history course on the 1960s, analyzing the ways students did–or didn’t–apply critical thinking skills to visual evidence.Across the board, the focus was less on “searching” and “finding” than on analyzing, understanding, and applying evidence to address authentic problems rooted in the discipline. Testing innovative strategies, faculty asked students to model the intellectual behaviors of disciplinary experts, focusing earlier and more effectively on the learning dimensions that characterize complex thinking. (For sample projects addressing these questions, see )
  2. Dialogue–Discussion and writing in social digital environments: As VKP faculty moved into the world of Blackboard and Web-CT, they explored ways that discussion and social writing in online environments can foster learning. Projects explored strategies for using online communication to make the intermediate processes of learning more visible and to provide opportunities for students to develop personal and academic voice. For example, Mills Kelly, teaching a Western Civilization survey at Virginia’s George Mason University, focused on the possibilities of using online tools, including the WebCT discussion board and a special GMU Web Scrapbook, as tools for enhancing collaborative learning. Meanwhile, Ed Gallagher at Lehigh University tested the impact of his detailed and creative guidelines for students in prompting more interactive and substantial discussion in an online context.In general, carefully structured online discussion environments provided students and faculty a context in which to think socially; they also allowed discussion participants to document, retrieve and reflect on earlier stages of the learning process. This ability to “go meta” offered a new way for students and faculty to engage more deeply with disciplinary content and method. Highlighting the scaffolding strategies that might maximize student learning, these projects gathered evidence of learning that reflected the social and affective dimensions of these digitally-based pedagogical practices. (For sample projects, see
  3. Authorship–Multimedia construction as experiential learning: As multimedia authoring became easier to master in these years, faculty became interested not only in creating multimedia presentations and Web sites; they also sought to develop ways to put these tools into the hands of students. Many VKP scholar-teachers were guided by the constructivist notion that learning deepens when students make knowledge visible through public products. In the projects clustered here, student authorship takes place in various multimedia genres of the early twenty-first century, including digital stories and digital histories, Web sites and PowerPoint essays, historically-oriented music videos, electronic portfolios and other historical and cultural narratives. The emergent pedagogies explored by these scholar-teachers involve multiple skills, points of view, and collaborative activities (including peer critique). For example, Patricia O’Connor had her Appalachian literature students at Georgetown University create Web pages about Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, annotating particular phrases and creating links to historical sources and images, while she investigated the ways that “associative thinking” shaped students’ ability to make nuanced speculations about literary texts.
    Meanwhile, Tracey Weis at Pennsylvania’s Millersville University and several faculty at California State University at Monterey Bay gathered evidence on the cognitive and emotional impact of student construction of short interpretative “films,” or what we came to call “digital stories.” Examining the qualities of student learning evidenced through such assignments, these projects spotlight issues of assessment and the need to move beyond the narrowly cognitive quiz and the critical research essay to find ways to value creativity, design, affect, and new modes of expressive complexity. (For sample projects, see )

Naturally, these three areas of classroom practice–critically engaging primary sources, social dialogue, and multimedia authorship–converged in all kinds of ways. Some of the richest and most intriguing projects engaged students in a scaffolded process of collaborative research and writing, laying the groundwork for multimedia-enhanced performances of their learning. Our fluid categories were defined and redefined by the creativity of our faculty as they experimented within them.

The key to faculty innovations in VKP was not merely trying new teaching strategies but looking closely at the artifacts of student work that emerged from them, not only in traditional summative products such as student writing, but in new kinds of artifacts that captured the intermediate and developmental moments along the way. What did these artifacts look like? They included video evidence of students working in pairs on inquiry questions, as well as student-generated Web archives and research logs; they included careful analysis of discussion threads in online spaces and student reflections on collaborative work; they included not only new forms of multimedia storytelling but evidence of their authoring process through interviews and post-production reflections about their intentions and their learning. One of the consequences emerging from these new forms of evidence was that, as faculty looked more closely and systematically at evidence of learning processes, those processes started to look more complex than ever. The impact of transparency, at least at first, seemed to be complexity, which can be unsettling in many ways.

Pieces of Insight
This phenomenon had a significant impact on the kinds of findings and claims that emerged from this work. We set out looking for answers (“what is the impact of technology on learning?”) and what we mostly found were limited claims about impact, new ways of looking at student learning, and often dynamic new questions. In fact, the VKP projects followed a pattern typical in faculty inquiry.  Whatever the question that initiates the inquiry, it often changes and deepens into something else. For example, Lynne Adrian (University of Alabama) started off investigating the role of personal response systems (“clickers”) in a large enrollment Humanities course to see if the use of concept questions would increase student engagement, but was soon led to reflect much more interestingly on the purpose of questions in class and the very nature of the questions she had been asking for more than twenty years. Similarly, Joe Ugoretz (Borough of Manhattan Community College), in an early inquiry, hoped to study the benefits of a free-form discussion space in an online literature course, but got frustrated because the students would frequently digress and stray off topic; finally it occurred to him that the really interesting inquiry lay in learning more about the nature of digressions themselves, considering which were productive and which were not. The changing nature of questions, and the limited nature of claims, is not a flaw of faculty inquiry but its very nature. John Seely Brown describes the inevitable way that we build knowledge around teaching: “We collect small fragments of data and struggle to capture context from which this data was extracted, but it is a slow process. Context is sufficiently nuanced that complete characterizations of it are extremely difficult. As a result, education experiments are seldom definitive, and best practices are, at best, rendered in snapshots for others to interpret.”5

Here is where the power of collaborative inquiry came into play. That is, what emerged from each individual classroom project was a piece of insight, a unique local and limited vision of the relationship between teaching and learning that yet contributed to some larger aggregated picture. We had, in the microcosm of the Visible Knowledge Project, created our own “teaching commons” in which individual faculty insights pooled together into larger meaningful patterns.6 Each of these snapshots is interesting in itself; together they composite into something larger and significant. What follows below is our effort at putting together the snapshots to create a composite image in which we recognize new patterns of learning and implications for practice.

A Picture of New Learning: Cross-Cutting Findings

Collectively, what emerged from this work was an expansive picture of learning. Although we started out with questions about technology, early on it became clear that the questions were no longer merely about the “impact of tools” on learning; the emergent findings compelled us to confront the very nature of what we recognized as learning, which in turn fed back into what we were looking for in our teaching. Over the years, faculty experienced iterative cycles of innovation in their teaching practice, of reflection on an increasingly expansive range of student learning, and of experimentation shaped by the deepening complexity (and at times befuddlement) that emerged from trying to read the evidence of that learning. From this spiral of activity developed a research framework with broad implications for the now-emergent Web 2.0 technologies. We have come to articulate this range of cross-cutting findings under the headings of three types of learning: adaptive, embodied, and socially situated.

Briefly, by adaptive learning we mean the skills and dispositions that students acquire which enable them to be flexible and innovative with their knowledge, what David Perkins calls a “flexible performance capability.”7 An emphasis on adaptive capacities in student learning emerged naturally from our foundational focus on visible intermediate processes. What became visible were the intermediate intellectual moves that students make in trying to work with difficult cultural materials or ideas, illuminating how novice learners progress toward expertise or expert-like thinking in these contexts.

Our recognition of the embodied nature of learning emerged from this increased attention to intermediate processes–the varied forms of invention, judgment, reflection–when we realized that we were no longer accounting for simply cognitive activities. Many manifestations of the affective dimension of learning opened up in this intermediate space informed by new media, whether it was the way that students drew on their personal experience in social dialogue spaces, or the sensual and emotional dimensions of working with multimedia representations of history and culture. In these intermediate spaces, dimensions of affect such as motivation and confidence loomed large as well. We have come to think of this expansive range of learning as embodied, in that it pointed us to the ways that knowledge is experienced through the body as well as the mind, and how intellectual and cognitive thinking are embodied by whole learners and scholars.

Inasmuch as this new learning is embodied, similarly is it socially situated. Influenced by the range of work on situated learning, communities of practice, and participatory learning, our work with new technologies continuously brought us to see the impact new forms of engagement through media had on the students’ relative stance to learning. This effect was not merely a sense of heightened interest due to the novelty of new forms of social learning. Rather, what we were seeing was evidence of the ways that multimedia authoring, for example, constructed for students a salient sense of audience and public accountability for their work; this, in turn, had an impact on nearly every aspect of the authoring process–visible in the smallest and largest compositional decisions. The socially situated nature of learning became a summative value, capturing what Seely Brown calls “learning to be,” beyond mere knowledge acquisition to a way of thinking, acting, and a sense of identity.

These three ways of looking at pedagogies–as adaptive, embodied, and socially situated–together help constitute a composite portrait of new learning. Each helps us focus on a different dimension of complex learning processes: adaptive pedagogies emphasizing the developmental stages linking learning to disciplines; embodied pedagogies focusing on how the whole person as learner engages in learning; and socially situated learning focusing on the role of context and audience. In this sense, the dimensions are overlapping and reinforcing in any particular set of practices. For example, consider Patricia O’Connor’s work making use of Web authoring tools to lead students to engage in close reading of print fiction. Calling the activity “hypertext amplification,” O’Connor asks students to make increasingly sophisticated “associational” connections, to move from novice reading encounters with texts to more expert ones. She wants them to experience “associational thinking” on multiple levels, from the personal and emotional to the definitional and critical. Ultimately, students’ ability to engage fully along a continuum of expert practice is shaped by their knowledge that their Web pages will be public, and their presentations to their peers a social act. All three key dimensions are in play in her teaching practices, as in so many of the case studies coming out of VKP.

Nevertheless, we believe it is a valuable exercise to slow down and look closely at each of three areas, and to begin making sense of how each dimension might be better understood for its shaping influence on learning. We now explore each of these areas more fully below.

A Note on Findings
Because faculty inquiry lives at the boundary of theory and practice, we have chosen to present the findings in two forms: as conceptual findings (representing the way theory informed practice, and vice versa) and design findings (representing some of the key claims on practice made by these concepts and values about learning). As a further response to the challenge of representing collective findings in a messy research environment, we also present each area with a set of “tags,” keywords that help associate the findings with various trajectories. Finally, at the end of each finding description we link to several relevant case studies within this volume.

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1. Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001). [return to text]
2. Many good resources exist on the scholarship of teaching. Two essential resources can be found at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching ( and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning tutorial at Indiana University, Bloomington ( [return to text]
3. In all, more than seventy faculty from twenty-two institutions participated in the Visible Knowledge Project over five years. Participating campuses included five research universities (Vanderbilt University, the University of Alabama, Georgetown University, the University of Southern California, Washington State University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), four comprehensive public universities (Pennsylvania’s Millersville University, California State University (CSU)–Monterey Bay, CSU Sacramento, Ohio’s Youngstown State University, and participants from several four-year colleges in the City University of New York system, including City College, Lehman, and Baruch), and three community colleges (two from CUNY–Borough of Manhattan Community College and LaGuardia Community College, and California’s Cerritos College). In addition to campus-based teams, a number of independent scholars participated from a half dozen other institutions, such as Arizona State and Lehigh University.  The project began in June 2000 and concluded in October 2005.  We engaged in several methods for online collaboration to supplement our annual institutes, including an adaptation of the digital poster tool created by Knowledge Media Lab (Carnegie Foundation), asynchronous discussion, and Web-conferencing.  For more detailed information, see the VKP galleries and archives at [return to text]
4. Cathy N. Davidson, “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions,”  PMLA 123, no. 3 (May 2008): 711. [return to text]
5. John Seely Brown, “Foreword,” in Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008). [return to text]
6. For a broader discussion of the “teaching commons,” see Pat Hutchings and Mary Huber, The Advancement of Learning: Building the Teaching Commons (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005). [return to text]
7. David Perkins, “What is Understanding?” in Teaching for Understanding: Linking Research with Practice, ed. Martha Stone Wiske (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 39-58. [return to text]

New Media Technologies and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: A Brief Introduction to this Issue of Academic Commons

by Randy Bass, Georgetown University

A Bridge to Know-ware
Higher education traditionally has found few systematic ways to build and share knowledge about teaching and learning. It is not surprising then that there has been relatively little interaction between those most interested in new technologies and those invested in the scholarship on teaching and learning. Of course there are examples where the two communities intersect, sometimes for robust conversations. Yet much of this talk stays at the level of individual experimentation and focuses on teaching and classroom practice, with very little attention paid to learning. For whatever reason, the quantity and quality of those conversations are far less that we might hope, given the social impact of new technologies and the growing urgency of conversations around active learning, accountability, and assessment.So, how do we make any headway in a landscape where applied knowledge about learning is inchoate, where forms of learning are expanding in ways higher education is poorly situated to accommodate, and the technological contexts are shifting rapidly and radically? We need, in short, to merge a culture of inquiry into teaching and learning with a culture of experimentation around new media technologies. Our ability to make the best use of any technologies to improve education hinges ultimately on the reciprocal capacities to bring our powers of inquiry to bear on educational technologies, as well as to bring the power of new technologies to bear on our methods of inquiry and our representation of knowledge about teaching practice.Slowing Down and Looking at Learning
In this issue of Academic Commons we take up these questions by looking at the possibilities for building knowledge around teaching and learning in a rapidly changing technological landscape. Through articles, case studies, interviews and roundtables, the January 2009 issue of Academic Commons explores the continuity of learning issues from Web 1.0 to 2.0 technologies, from online discussion tools, hypertext and multimedia authoring to emergent forms of electronic portfolios, blogs, social networking tools, and virtual reality environments. We take these up in the context of a dual challenge: to understand better the changing nature of learning in new media environments and the potential of new media environments to make learning–and faculty insights into teaching–visible and usable.
The issue opens with a bundled set of essays that form a synoptic case study of the Visible Knowledge Project (VKP), a five-year project looking at the impact of technology on learning, primarily in the humanities, through the lens of the scholarship of teaching and learning.  These case studies explore the ways that faculty inquiring into their students’ learning deepened and complicated their understanding of technology-enhanced teaching. Out of these classroom-based insights emerged a set of findings that constitute a research framework, clustering especially around three broad areas:

  1. Learning for adaptive expertise: the role of new media in making visible the thinking processes intrinsic to the development of expert-like abilities and dispositions in novice learners;
  2. Embodied learning: the impact of new media technologies on the expansion of learning strategies that engage affective as well as cognitive dimensions, renewed forms of creativity and the sensory experience of new media, and the importance of identity and experience as the foundation of intellectual engagement; and
  3. Socially Situated learning: the role of social dimensions of new media in creating conditions for authentic engagement and high impact learning.

These broad areas of learning provide a bridge from earlier technology innovation to current new media technologies. They also serve as a way of seeing the capacities of new social media in light of the learning issues intrinsic to disciplinary and interdisciplinary ways of knowing. In this sense, they provide a framework for understanding this period of transformation as one (as Michael Wesch puts it in this issue) where we are shifting from “teaching subjects to subjectivities.” This expansive conception of learning challenges us then not to cope with technological change, but shifts that are essentially social and intellectual. As Michael Wesch puts it in his commentary on the meaning of these changes, “Nothing good will come of these technologies if we do not first confront the crisis of significance and bring relevance back into education.  In some ways these technologies act as magnifiers. If we fail to address the crisis of significance, the technologies will only magnify the problem by allowing students to tune out more easily and completely.”

The six additional vision pieces in this issue all provide different lenses onto this transformation. Two pieces–one by Kathleen Yancey and another that is the transcript of the closing session at the ePortfolio conference at LaGuardia Community College in April 2008–look specifically at the current practices and potential of ePortfolios to provide a site that both serves the needs of students to represent themselves and their learning through an integrative digital space as well as the needs of institutions to find better ways to understand the progress of student learning and intellectual development. A key element in this transformation is shifting the unit of analysis from the learner in a single course to the learner over time, inside and outside the classroom. What does this shift imply for the ways we understand learning and development? If we accept this new learning paradigm, what kinds of accommodations do we need to make in our approaches to the curriculum, the classroom, the role of faculty, and the empowerment of learners?

Other pieces in this issue consider similar shifts. For example, in a sampling excerpt from their book Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education Through Open Technology, Toru Iiyoshi and M. S. Vijay Kumar look at the potential of “open content, opening technology and open knowledge” to transform higher education. “We must develop not only the technical capability but also the intellectual capacity for transforming tacit pedagogical knowledge into commonly usable and visible knowledge: by providing incentives for faculty to use (and contribute to) open education goods, and by looking beyond institutional boundaries to connect a variety of settings and open source entrepreneurs” (Iiyoshi and Kumar, coming in February).

Confronting our Biases
Yet, it seems all too clear that higher education is mostly unprepared to make the most of this new potentiality–of open education and an expansive conception of learning. Gathering and sharing knowledge about educational effectiveness is tricky in an environment in which we rush on to the “next new thing,” as new media pedagogies (as with other emergent pedagogies) often lead to forms of learning that do not neatly fit into traditional frameworks of disciplinary learning and cognitive and critical skills. These new forms of learning–including emotional and affective dimensions, capacities for risk-taking and uncertainty, creativity and invention, blurred boundaries between personal and public expression, or the importance of self-identity to the development of disciplinary understanding, etc.–traditionally have been invisible in higher education. As Bret Eynon and I point out in our synthesis essay for the Visible Knowledge Project, “when the invisible becomes visible it is often disruptive,” although usually in productive and generative ways.
That theme of generative disruption runs throughout all of these pieces in this issue, none more than in Cathy Davidson’s interview about “participatory learning and the new humanities,” where her celebration of the potential for “Humanities 2.0” is counter balanced by entrenched reluctance to rethink basic practices in our fields, especially around the ways we recognize expertise, collaboration, and creativity. As Davidson puts it (in ways that could speak for most of the authors here),

I guess part of me just doesn’t understand why this isn’t the most exciting time for all of us in our profession and why we aren’t figuring out ways that we can use this to bolster our mission in the world, our methods in the world, our reach in the world, our understanding of what we do and what we have to offer our students in the world? It just feels like we’re in an age where we educators should be the thought leaders and so many of us are futzing around the edges, and I don’t get it.

In this issue of Academic Commons we take the disconnection between experimentation with new media technologies and conversations about learning as a presenting symptom of what Davidson calls “futzing around the edges.” That is, we can only futz because we do not have a vocabulary or a tradition for engaging with learning in meaningful communal ways. In this environment it is especially important to flank classroom-based inquiry with institutional learning, where we can put into practice wide-scale views of learning outcomes as textured as those of faculty who look at learning in their own classrooms. Many of the pieces in this issue provide a starting point for these connections, whether looking at the best institutional practices around electronic portfolios (see Roundtable), or the aspirations of a national project developing flexible rubrics for evaluating the intellectual work of students over time and through diverse intellectual products (“Can We Bridge an Expansive View of Student Learning with Institutional Learning? The VALUE Project Thinks we Can, and Here’s How,” an interview with Terry Rhodes, coming in February), or the visionary specifications for a flexible repository for the scholarship of teaching and learning, linking local expertise to collective wisdom (Tom Carey, John Rakestraw, and Jennifer Meta Robinson, “Expanding the Teaching Commons in Web 2.0: A New Vision for a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Repository,” coming in February).

From the local to the virtual, from classroom innovation to “opening up education,” this issue of Academic Commons seeks to make a modest contribution to these questions and our collective endeavor toward addressing them. What binds these case studies and vision pieces together are the aggregated bonds of the three dimensions of learning emerging from the VKP framework: expertise, embodiment, and the social. If we could bridge our incipient sense of meaning for these dimensions in student learning with the full social embodiment of our collective expertise as educators, then we would indeed have a bridge to the future.

Acknowledgements: In putting together this issue I want to thank the supervising editors, Mike Roy and John Ottenhoff for the invitation and opportunity. I also want to thank Lisa Gates, managing editor of AC for her infinite patience and skill in working with such complicated and multi-faceted content. Many thanks to Pat Hutchings of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, for her support through the years, and especially her reading of the synthesis essay for this volume. I also want to thank my longtime collaborator, Bret Eynon, for his intellectual and spiritual companionship throughout the process; many thanks also to current and former colleagues at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) and the Visible Knowledge Project who worked on dimensions of this issue, especially Theresa Schlafly, Susannah McGowan, Eddie Maloney, John Rakestraw. -RB

Return to Table of Contents for the January 2009 Issue of Academic Commons

In addition to the articles listed in the Table of Contents, the following are forthcoming:

  • Opening Up Education: The Remix, by Toru Iiyoshi and Vijay Kumar. Excerpts from the book Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge, editors Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar (Coming in February)
  • Tom Carey, John Rakestraw, and Jennifer Meta Robinson, Expanding the Teaching Commons in Web 2.0: A New Vision for a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Repository (Coming in February)
  • Can We Bridge an Expansive View of Student Learning with Institutional Learning? The VALUE Project Thinks we Can, and Here’s How, an Interview with Terry Rhodes  (Coming in February)