2006 Educause Learning Initiative Conference

I am blogging from the airplane as a group of UMW folk (faculty and alumni colleagues) return from the 2006 ELI Conference in San Diego. (Okay, I’m actually composing this here and will post as soon as I am able.) I am not a very nimble blogger as evidenced by the numerous postings of friends, Gardner, Ernie, Brian, and Bryan over the last few days. I tend to need more time to get my thoughts in order, and time was something I had little of the last few days as the hours were jam-packed with genuinely exciting events. Anyway, here are my thoughts.

For me, the best presentation of the conference was Marc Prensky’s opening keynote. If you are a reader of my blog you’ll know that I have attempted some fairly radical changes in my teaching this year. Primarily they involve changing from my role from being the primary content provider to my students to teaching students how to obtain, evaluate and make sense out of content on their own in an attempt to empower their learning.

Recently, I’ve been having some doubts, wondering if perhaps I’ve been abdicating my responsibility as a teacher. Prensky’s presentation was just the tonic I needed. He provided a really thoughtful address, validating my recent approach to teaching, as well as framing the rest of the ELI conference. Here are some excerpts from his remarks:

Learning can no longer be pushed on people. Learning must be pulled; that is, students have to want to learn. Instructors need to ask, collaborate, engage and motivate students.

Today’s students understand engagement….They want to feel engaged….all the time.

Games are good because they let you know when you are learning. [This suggests a need for regular feedback in courses. Contrast this with the not uncommon midterm and final exam format of many college courses.]

Students want games not because they’re games but because they are the most exciting intellectual thing they are doing. [More on this below re: ARGs.]

Prensky, whose background is in digital gaming, argued for using complex game design principles to design engaging instruction. Here are some points he made:

1. Focus first on the student’s engagement. [If students are engaged, learning will happen.]
2. Adopt new attitudes and behaviors (e.g. Adopt a practice of asking students, instead of telling them.)
3. Build a course structure where students face frequent important decisions. [Have I mastered this material? If so, I can go on, if not, I need to work some more on it.]
4. Build clear competency goals that students can achieve (“leveling up”). [Include regular formative assessment in your course. Contrast this with the not unusual practice of assessing student performance with only a midterm and final exam.]
5. Adapt your teaching to each student individually.

Prensky wasn’t the only speaker I learned from. Brian Lamb and Alan Levine showed me that just when I thought I had mastered last year’s lesson on wikis, they had moved on to a totally new direction demonstrating the latest in social software with “flickr-point.” I wish I had that imagination.

Bryan Alexander finally helped me “get” Alternate Reality Games and their pedagogical applications with his amazing session. I couldn’t help contrasting ARGs with the ETS presentation on assessing Information and Communication Technologies. On the ETS test, students are confronted with a document and asked to determine what folder to file it in! That seems trivial compared with the rich critical thinking requirements of ARGs.

Bob Beichner presented an extensive survey of the research results over the last twenty years showing the superiority of active over traditional approaches to learning in Physics. How could any instructor hear about that research and go back to lecturing as normal. But the vast majority of instructors remain stuck on lectures. Is it because they haven’t heard the research? Or, “is there an implicit contract where teachers pretend to teach and students pretend to learn?” (from the panel chaired by Carol Barone).

Most of the keynote presentations were discrete enough for me to assimilate them completely as they were given. By contrast, the concurrent sessions merely whetted my appetite, directing attention to a plethora of additional rich resources. Interesting.

Here are a few more comments that resonated with me:

There’s no destination [for education, anymore], only a fast train! (Marc Prensky)

The key to education is social interaction. (Bob Beichner)

Fun is the act of mastering a problem mentally. (Marc Prensky)

Students don’t want to buy a text book. They want to assemble their own. (Andrew Lark)

If there were no students [in class], could I do what I am planning to do? [e.g. lecture on content.] If yes, don’t do it. [Class time is too valuable.] (Bob Beichner)

The message that I kept hearing was that engagement is more important than content! I expect a large majority of my peers would find that claim crazy, equating it with trying to entertain students. That is not the point at all. Rather, as Prensky noted, “Effort for learning can feel like work, or it can feel like play.” If we make it the latter, and with some rethinking of our role as instructors we can, students will embrace their education and deeper learning will occur.

I can’t help seeing this as an opportunity for teachers, though I recognize institutional inertia will prevent it from happening easily.

One more question: Why was the so conference energizing? I read/speak/hear these people regularly anyway through the Blogosphere. Does the conference cause people to create booster shots beyond their normal thinking? Or are face-to-face meetings with creative and inspiring people just energizing in and of themselves?

The trip was capped fitting final meal of fish tacos (a private joke that some of you will get). I can’t help thinking it’s an exciting time to be an educator.

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