University as Digital Citizen

Serving at a private liberal arts University in Wisconsin, we are less than a three-hour drive from the University of Wisconsin where the Wisconsin Idea was born. Simply stated, the Wisconsin Idea communicates a vision that the state University will serve the people and communities in which the University resides.  It will give, “advice about public policy, providing information and exercising technical skill, and to the citizens in the forms of doing research directed at solving problems that are important to the state and conducting outreach activities.”  Similarly, former Harvard President James Bryant Conant (note that I am certainly not condoning some of his other ideas by referring to him) is quoted on the September 23, 1946 issue of Time Magazine as saying, “A scholar’s activities should have relevance.”

Both of these quotes explore the relationship between the University and the broader community (local, regional, national, and/or global).  You might say that they explore the notion of University as citizen.  In today’s landscape, I propose that Universities also have the challenge and opportunity to consider their role as digital citizens, not only thinking about digital spaces and communities as resources for getting, but carefully reflecting upon how they might make positive contributions to the digital world.

This is an aspect of the online University presence that gets less attention in the media.  From this perspective, MOOCs serve as sort of extension sites that reach a wide array of people with valuable content, leaning opportunities, and networking experiences. Beyond MOOCs, we also see contributions in the form of faculty bloggers, scholars hosting Tweetups, the free sharing of scholarly sources, the opportunity to network and connect with University faculty, free and inexpensive webinars, online conferences, not to mention extended access to full programs through online learning.

All of these have strong connections to many University mission statements.  In fact, it is rare to see a University mission statement that makes references to courses, degrees, letter grades, and programs.  They tend to be much broader than that, about equipping students for making a difference in the world, or perhaps about creating a higher education community that has a positive impact upon society.  Mission statements vary from private to public institutions, from institutions informed by different faith or philosophical traditions, and also from teaching to research Universities.  Consider two mission statements from my state of Wisconsin.

The University of Wisconsin Madison Mission (excerpt)

“The primary purpose of the University of Wisconsin–Madison is to provide a learning environment in which faculty, staff and students can discover, examine critically, preserve and transmit the knowledge, wisdom and values that will help ensure the survival of this and future generations and improve the quality of life for all. The university seeks to help students to develop an understanding and appreciation for the complex cultural and physical worlds in which they live and to realize their highest potential of intellectual, physical and human development.”

Concordia University Wisconsin Mission Statement

“Concordia University Wisconsin is a Lutheran higher education community committed to helping students develop in mind, body, and spirit for service to Christ in the Church and the World.”

These two missions are qualitatively different. The first has a heavy focus upon research & scholarship while the second focuses upon equipping students.  The first directs the mission toward the highest human potential while the second focuses upon the Christian notion of vocation, people being equipped for service to their “neighbors” through their gifts, talents, and abilities. At the same time, they both focus upon a University purpose that has the intended goal of benefiting those beyond the campus itself.  This is an important purpose of Universities, even as we think about the current and future nature of the digital world.  Toward that end, Universities that embrace their role as digital citizens might consider a few simple guiding question to shape their online presence as digital citizens.

  • What is distinct or unique about what we have to offer at our University?  Can any of that be shared online through resources, communities, events, or networks?
  • To whom are we called to serve and how might we leverage online community to serve them?
  • How can we leverage the digital world to continue to provide support, education, and encouragement to alumni from our institution as they seek to live out their various life vocations?
  • How might we empower and equip individual University members (faculty and/or staff) to engage in scholarship or disseminate findings in the digital world?

A Liberal Arts Education is Measured by What You Do With Your Free Time

I am reading the opening chapter of a book entitled, Liberal Arts for the Christian Life.  The editors completed this project in recognition of the work and contributions of Dr. Leland Ryken of Wheaton College.  As such, it is only proper that this edited work start with a chapter from Dr. Ryken.  The editors selected one of his well-known messages/essays entitled, “The Student’s Calling.”  Below are two quotes from that chapter that will be the focus of my reflection.

“May I add that such an education is possible only as you realize that all education is ultimately self-education. Education is learning, and someone else cannot learn for you.  The most perfect educational climate in the world will note make you an educated person. Moreover, an adequate education does not stop after one’s college years. To be generously educated is to have acquired the lifelong habit of self-education.”

“And what are the private roles of life for which an education should prepare you? They include being a good friend and colleague, and a good spouse or parent. And they include the most private world of all-the inner world of the mind and imagination. One of the best tests of whether people are liberally educated is what they do with their free time.”

In the first quote, Dr. Ryken points out what is, with a little reflection, self-evident.  One person cannot get educated for another.  Individual thought and action are both essential attributes of an education.  This simple truth is much of what drives my persistent promotion of self-directed learning as an important part of a well-rounded education. Dr. Ryken uses the phrase “self-education” and that is distinct from self-directed learning.  The phrase “self-directed learning” carries with it the notion of learner as an active agent in determining the curriculum, the method, the timing, and much more.  Advocates of a liberal arts undergraduate education (I am one of them) do not typically argue for self-direction throughout one’s undergraduate studies.  Instead, certain “paths” are selected by professors, providing an informed tour of great ideas. Yes, as pointed out by Dr. Ryken, the end goal is that the learner will, at some point, go on intellectual journeys without the aid of a tour guide, and without the prodding of another.

This leads us to wonder about what sort of learning experiences are most helpful in assisting one toward the capacity for self-education.  Out of this comes a long history of academic wars about what should constitute the general education part of a student’s undergraduate studies. Some argue that self-education is best learned by doing it with a little help on the side.  Others argue that it is best achieved with careful and calculated guidance from a faculty while providing at least a few opportunities for learners to take more personal direction for the study, often in the form of projects, essays, and research papers. I lean toward the camp that advocates for a smaller but significant core/common set of learning experiences surrounded by ample room for students choice.

I am intrigued by the potentially provocative statement that, “One of the best tests of whether people are liberally educated is what they do with their free time.”  Ryken was wise not to go into too much detail, providing a long list of explicit examples of what constitutes the leisure time of a liberally educated person.  Such a list would most likely smell of judgement and legalism, but we might be able to avoid those attributes while speculating more generally.  For example, perhaps he was thinking of the idea that a liberally educated person is likely to find respite in activities surrounding the exploration and creation of truth, beauty and goodness.  Such activities take on any number of contemporary or traditional possibilities while grounding them in a liberal arts approach to life and learning.

This quote about the use of one’s free time is also effective in pointing out that the purpose of a liberal arts education extends beyond preparation for a job.  If I work 50 hours a week and sleep between 7 and 9 hours a day, that still leaves me with more than 60 hours a week of life beyond sleep and work.  How does one choose to spend that time and how does one’s education (which never ends) impact the what and how of one’s free time? How does one’s formative educational experiences impact the use of free time?



Digital Culture & the Future of Educational Publishing

Already in the late 1990s, I heard predictions about the impending doom of educational publishers.  As the first experiments with e-readers and e-books emerged and early online residents discovered the potential of a read and write web, scholars and others publicly mused about the future of the publishing industry.  Today we see any number of significant trends that continue to impact educational publishers:

  • interactive and multi-modal e-books;
  • the web as network and social spaces more than a simple content repository;
  • mobile devices;
  • consumer demand to access the same resource across devices;
  • the new literacies notion of reading as socially-negotiated meaning;
  • open textbook projects;
  • open source publishing;
  • folksonomies;
  • print-on-demand;
  • social media as a blending of content, community, connectivity and collaboration;
  • any number of options for rapid editing and re-versioning;
  • the notion of the digital collective essay (as evidenced publicly on Wikipedia and more often privately in collective writing projects within Google Docs, Sharepoint, Wikis, etc.);
  • the online media sharing movement (e.g. YouTube as the second most used search engine next to Google);
  • adaptive educational software and personalized learning products (e.g. Dreambox);
  • the content experience within serious games, game-based learning, gamification, and simulation-based learning;
  • self-publishing with the option of low-cost editing and marketing (unbundled resources for authors and editors);
  • grass-roots digital content curation that organizes current resources for easier consumption (e.g.;
  • peer-to-peer content sharing and distribution (wikis, blogs, podcasts, Google Docs, Dropbox, etc.);
  • growing public confidence in content from sources that did not go through the traditional editing process;
  • transmedia migration;
  • open courseware;
  • and open courses.

Many informed educational publishers need not worry about any of these trends, as the leaders are already exploring, using and/or considering the implications of everything on this list. In fact, several have brilliantly honed in on a few and started to integrate them into their products, services, platforms and communities. The wise publishers also take heed of Henry Jenkins work, not to mention the important lessons of the current transformational impact of blended learning. With regard to Jenkins’s work, I’m referring to his idea of Convergence Culture, the concept that new media do not completely replace all old media as must as old and new converge.  In terms of blended learning, I’m pointing to the convergence of the digital and the physical and not thinking of them in either/or terms.

There are promising opportunities for publishers that embrace and leverage any or all of these (albeit some are quite divergent from traditional business practice).  This requires the humility, willingness and effort to revisit certain organizational values, internal policies and processes, as well as reconsidering how they think about, share, protect, and/or use “resources.”  With all of this stated, companies tend to navigate changes, even ones as rapid and transformational as the ones listed above, as long as they remain excellent at discovering the greatest needs and problems of their client base, and investing the most resources in developing agile products and services that genuinely meet those needs and address those problems.  Of course, this also includes looking a few years into the future, getting good at some predictions about the coming needs, and this can be a challenging part of serving a Wild West sector like education.

One of the greatest risks is the publisher that underestimates what I believe to be the disruptive innovation of open source, grassroots digital content collaboration, and self-publishing.  Dismissing these as of inferior quality is the classic response of a company that is getting ready to be disrupted.  After all, the idea of a disruptive innovation, as noted by Christiansen, is that it starts by providing an inferior product to an audience that is not served or poorly served by others in the industry.  Self-published products may seem crude to publishers (just as some cringe or scoff at the typos that show up in a largely unedited source like this blog), and yet they serve a significant and growing population.  For example, I will have more people read this blog post in a week than the total sum of people who read most of the articles that I’ve published in more traditional sources.  I just met an early childhood educator who has 500,000 vistors to her web site every week!  While there will remain an important role for more carefully edited and professionally produced content and educational resources, I can’t help but think that there are amazing and needed roles for publishers to fill within the world of open source, grassroots collaboration, and self-publishing.

What are your thoughts about the future of educational publishing?  Feel free to share in the comment area or via one of my social media extensions to the blog (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn).

My 10 Favorite iPad/Android Apps for Learning That Don’t Exist (or Do They?)

I originally posted this in 2013 and I’m delighted to discover that apps comparable to some of these do exist today. I’ll likely post reviews of related apps in the near future.

There are plenty of great education apps, but there is clearly room for more, especially those that support self-directed learning, project-based learning, simulation learning, and other forms of experiential education.  With that in mind, here is a list of my 10 favorite apps that don’t exist, as least as far as I know.  In some cases, there are apps that get close, but none really hit it out of the park, at least not in the usage scenarios that I have in mind.

  1. Log It – There are dozens of tools for journaling, but this one is valuable because of its simplicity.  Open the app, log a thought or event with a picture, a scribble, a short video clip, a few paragraphs, or a combination. By the way, if you add an image, you can also include a speech bubble/balloon…a useful and fun little feature.  A simple pull-down menu allows you to attach it to one or more categories, and it automatically timestamps your entry. If you want, you can set the app to instantly share your entry (every entry or by category) with a Google Doc, Evernote, one or more email addresses or to your blog. This works great in the classroom when students are working on projects or field trips.  Students can log their progress and thoughts during the project/trip, and by having a “send to my teacher” category, it automatically sends the logs to a designated Google folder (or an email address) for teacher review. If the student is offline when logging something, it just waits for a connection and sends it then.  While the app integrates with many other applications, it works well alone, especially given that all data is stored online and that it can autosync so that you have an offline record as well. Did I mention that you can have the app on multiple devices (including a desktop version)?
  2. MoPo – If you are wondering, the name stands for mobile portfolio. Yes, there are plenty of portfolio products, but not many great ones for mobile devices. This one has some promising features that work well in many of the emerging competency and standards-based learning environments.  It starts by a teacher or student creating a list of competencies or standards.  This can be done on a mobile device or through your online account in any browser.  For each standard, you have the option of creating a short audio, video and/or text message to help explain the focus of that standard or competency.  When students use the app, they can quickly review these expectations at any point in the future.  Also, for each standard, you can create specific specifications on what can be submitted, or you leave it open-ended. From the user/learner/student side, all that they do to start is select the list of appropriate standards from a common repository.  In this first version, all standards are visible to any other users of the app (although the developers promise more control in future versions). Once the standards are selected, the user is walked through a few other basic settings (like who, if anyone, you want to share it with).  This allows that person to log into the app and view the portfolio in progress or as a finished product.To start adding artifacts to the portfolio, clicks on a standard and add items. Add text, audio, video or a combination right into the cloud-based storage attached to the app; or you can link to a shared Google Doc, an Evernote file, a blog, a Youtube video, and any one of a dozen other sources.  Offline storage is available as well, but adding lots of video can quickly fill up the memory on your typical student’s mobile device.For each entry, there is a small text box where you are asked to explain how this artifact demonstrates your understanding of the standard and to what level.  The “level” part comes through a simple pull-down menu of 3-10 teacher or user-created levels.  At any point, you can share an individual artifact with another person, just because you think it might interest them or because you would like feedback on it. When you send it, there is an automated message attached about your sharing the artifact so that _________ (Choose from a menu of ten different common reasons, or enter your own unique reason.). You can also share all the artifacts within a given standard.Here is where the app gets really exciting.  When you share an individual artifact, all artifacts connected to a standard, or an entire portfolio with a person; the app provides a simple way to give feedback.  The recipient types, speaks, or video record their feedback/response on  the spot. There is also the option of filling out a pre-developed rubric (generated when the standards were added).  Before clicking “send”, the app gives a few options on what to do with it.  store it in the portfolio permanently (only if you have teacher rights), send it as private feedback that is not visible to anyone else in the portfolio, set it to show up in the portfolio but expire in a certain number of days, or (for all of you spy fans) choose “auto-destruct,” which permanently deletes the feedback once you read, watch or listen to it. Choose from different entertaining special effects for the auto-destruct option.
  3. Build It – Have you ever dreamed of building a house, but you were unsure about what it will cost and what goes into it?  Now you can experience the entire process in a simulated house building app.  Play individually or as a team (like a husband and wife), which also allows you to step on each other’s toes at different parts of the game.  The game starts with a budget and works through the entire process. You work with architects (or directly with builders depending upon your choices) all the way through inspectors.  In fact, just for fun, the final event is hosting your first dinner party with friends and/or family (which has its own pleasantries and risks).  The app uses current industry-standard prices for all parts, and it takes into account many local building codes and town regulations (cities can add their info to the app for free). It also includes some twists and unexpected “problems” that you get to work through.  The great part is that you can build as many houses as you want before you decide to take on an actual building project. Users in the pilot release rave about the app, with several families going on to build a house for real, and reporting that the app was amazing preparation.This new breed of learning app has great promise for allowing people to gain knowledge and experience in an unfamiliar area with authentic feedback that will be of tremendous help once they try the real thing.  Did I mention that the App is only $1.99?  Most of the revenue comes from ads that they sell to local architects, builders, interior decorators and the like in the area in which you build your simulation home.  No worries, though.  They do not give your information to those companies.  They simply give recommended resources at the end of the game, suggesting that certain people would likely be a good fit for you based upon features in your gameplay.
  4. GamifyMe – Do you need a little extra motivation or excitement in your life?  This very simple app helps you out.  GamifyMe allows you to set up challenges for yourself.  Here is how it works.  Choose from a list of pre-existing life challenges or set your own (users can also add new challenges to a general repository of all users or a private file).  Then set your criteria for reaching it.  Can you just check a box when you reached it, or you can require evidence through a photo, video, essay or something else.  The last part is to choose a reward.  The list of options are continually growing in the app.  It can play your favorite song, reward you with a “ticket” to do something fun like watch a movie or go out for ice-cream, or anything else that you want to enter. Note: The app can’t actually give you these things.  For some, it just announces your reward and then you get to go do it.By the way, if you want to play GamifyMe with others, then you can create or join a Gamify Life Guild (GLG) where you can set challenges for others in the group, and it keeps a leader board for the group.This app has all sorts of potential for learning organizations, but it also works as a standalone app for the person looking to add a bit of fun and motivation to life’s daily activities.
  5. Museum Builder – This app works for individual users or it makes for a great learning activity for classes.  The concept is pretty straightforward.  Individually or as a group, you get to build a virtual museum within the app.  You start by choosing a name for your museum and selecting a variety of features (that you can change at a later time) like number of exhibits, number of floors, location, a description of the museum, etc.  Once you finish the setup, Museum Builder automatically creates a museum website with your custom information on it.  This can be private within the app or you can can actually publish it to the web.  The web sites are all done within a WordPress instances, so you can go there after the fact to edit access rights, making it work well for sharing work within a school.Once you get through the setup, start building your exhibits.  Infused within this app are all sorts of non-intrusive tips and lessons about what makes for a great exhibit.    You can include video, audio, images, as well as text.Play this individually or in groups.  So, a teacher can create a museum and then assign groups or individuals to different artifacts.
  6. Scavenger Hunt – This app doesn’t have many features, but it allows anyone to create an enjoyable digitized Scavenger Hunt.  To set one up, just give it a name, create a list of items or clues (in text, image, audio, or video format), choose who can participate, pick a start time, and select a deadline.  It can be open to the the entire world, open by individual request, open to the first 10/20/30/100 to sign up, or you can set it for participation by invitation only.  If “team play” is enabled” then participants can also select their partners and anything that is collected by one person goes into a single team folder. In the case of team play, the content posted by individuals auto-syncs across all team members.All participant progress in a given Scavenger Hunt goes to a quick progress board that logs all tasks that are completed.  The hunt organizers can make this private, visible to select participants or to all players. At the end, the app makes it easy for the organizers(s) to quickly verify completion of individuals and that they got it done by the deadline (each individual entry is time stamped as well, by the way).  You can set it so that there is a single winner, so that there are winners in different categories (most creative, fastest, etc.), or you can set it up so that each team earns one or more badges (not to be confused with competency badges that are increasingly used in many environments).There is an in-game communication tool as well, allowing participants to send messages to team members or the organizer.  From the flip side, the organizer can send out message to all participants, individual teams, or individuals. This is a helpful feature when the winners returned and/or you need to bring the game to a premature end for some reason (like an impending storm, for example).
    This makes for a great class activity, fun at parties, or an excellent tool to keep students engaged on a field trip.
  7. WhoAmI? – What type of a gamer and I (from the Gamer’s DNA site)? What is my love language (from Chapman’s book and resources)? What are my strengths (from StrengthFinder)? What are my learning preferences?  What personality type am I?  This app provides you with a fun way to get to know others in a group.  It is basically a collection of fun an interesting surveys with a personalized page that shows your survey results in a trendy infographic format.  Many of the surveys come from popular and existing sources, but the app also allows users to create their own and add them to the database.  Each user then gets a WhoAmI? profile/infographic.  The app is set up so that many surveys are free, but others have a small fee that can be purchased in bulk or individually.  Again, you can also add your own surveys using the web interface.  The culminating “WhoAmI” profile/infographic gives you all sorts of fun discussion starters.  You can share your profile with a group (like your class), with individuals, or you can make it public.  If you are below a certain age, the “public” option is automatically disabled.There is one last feature that is worth noting.You can great a group code that each participant enters and that allows you to generate an infographic that represents the collective results of the entire group. So, you can have a class infographic that says things like 75% are visual learners, 50% are Achievement Gamers, and 90% love ice cream.
  8. EveryDay – EveryDay does just what it sounds like.  It allows you to set a goal for doing something every day.  Or, you can set it for every Monday, every Tuesday and Thursday, once a week, etc.  There are a variety of suggestions like (see a sunset, give someone a hug, read a chapter in a book, write a poem, sing a song, go out to lunch with a friend, meet someone new, go on a walk, etc.  You can create choose your own goals well.  Then you get daily (or whatever increment you set) reminders.When you complete the task, you log it with a checkmark, picture, video or text and you move on.  You can share individual entries or all entries for a given goal with one or more people.  In fact, you can even set it to automatically send to select people, which serves as a great way for having an accountability partner around a given goal. Along with each goal comes a report that shows how you are doing.  Each goal is also stored and logged separately in the app, but it is easy to move from goal to goal.
  9. TrackMyLearn – Do you want to learn something new, but you want a little help staying organized and on track?  This is the app for you.  Here is how it works.  When you open the app, you have the option to “Learn something new!” Click on it and that takes you through a series of screens.  The first screen asks for you for a question. This is the question that will drive your learning or inquiry.  They give examples, but you can put whatever you want.  How can I make a million dollars in a month? How can I become the most informed person in the city about ________? How can I learn to ride a bike?  Once you enter a question, it takes you to screen two, where it asks you, “How will you learn it?  Here you enter a list of tentative plans on what you will do to answer the question. It can be plans for things that you want to read, people that you want to meet, places you want to visit, etc. Don’t worry. You can edit any of this at a later time.  The third screen asks you how you will document your progress?  It gives you three options: in an integrated Google Doc, in a blog (that you need to connect with app…you add in the app and it posts to the blog), or in the built-in simple log (that allows you to make your log visible to one or more people…like at teacher or classmate). This features works great for a teacher or parent who wants to see how a student is progressing through a personalized learning plan.  The next screen asks you to describe the culmination of your work.  What product or performance will you create that will be evidence that you reached your goal/answered the question deeply?  The next screen allows you to review all that you entered and to establish deadlines for items (you can always adjust them later).  You can also send automatic notifications to a teacher or yourself if you have a deadline coming or you are at the deadline.You get to document everything that you are learning in the “How are you going to learn this?” section, including adding text, audio, images, or video.  So, if you interview someone, you can actually store that interview right in the app, or you can link to items stored in Evernote, GoogleDocs, or Notability.
    This app provides an excellent platform for organizing and tracking self-directed learning, whether it is done on your own, in school, in a home-based education, or as part of your professional development at work.
  10. FieldTripShow – This app is designed specifically for class field trips.  The teacher can create questions or challenges that individual students need to complete.  Students store their answers and related artifacts (text, images, video, text with a comment) for each question. Once the field trip is over, the app walks students creating a simple presentation that pulls from all the artifacts created during the trip, including an introductory video/audio message of 30-60 seconds and a concluding video/audio message of 30-60 seconds.  The presentation can be exported and mailed as a PPT, PDF, or video.