What does Pedagogy Mean in IT?

Way back in January of 2002 I wrote a rationale for this blog. It’s been linked to and quoted a few times, most recently by Shelly McCauley Jugovich and Bruce Reeves in an Educause Quarterly article entitled “IT and Educational Technology: What’s Pedagogy Got to Do with IT?“. They quoted this bit (without the links):

This comment came from Lisa Spangenberg, a self-proclaimed digital medievalist:

Frequently faculty who would like to use technology are bewildered by the jargon and by the unfortunate arrogance of the technical experts they must work with, who, for all their technical expertise are, not surprisingly, sometimes woefully ignorant about pedagogy, and have no interest or understanding of the humanities.

You’ll note, if you looked at the full article via the link, that this is from their section on “Skepticism About IT Staff.”

They counter my quotation with the following paragraph:

We address such skepticism by demonstrating our experience with, knowledge of, and ongoing commitment to pedagogy. UMD and the ITSS department encourage and support the pursuit of coursework, degrees, and professional development in the pedagogical use of technology. Moreover, our work on campus with faculty members from all disciplines provides access to campus best practices on a regular basis. We publicly share with the campus community our credentials and experience in campus publications, meetings, workshops, and so forth, and in our workshops we model effective uses of the technology tools we are teaching others to use. These activities give us the opportunity to establish and maintain credibility with the faculty.

In other words, they missed my point almost entirely.

There’s a repellent but effective expression in commercial software development, one that was generally associated with the dot com frenzy, when executives, marketing folk, and PR departments referred to “eating their own dog food,” meaning that they used the same tools and products that they wanted their customers to buy.

When I talk about IT folk who “for all their technical expertise are, not surprisingly, sometimes woefully ignorant about pedagogy, and have no interest or understanding of the humanities,” I’m essentially saying “they don’t eat their own dog food.”

It’s not enough to know how to use the software and hardware to produce content. It’s not even enough to know how to teach faculty and others how to use them without engaging in technical double-speak. I expect anyone encouraging faculty to teach with technology, digital or other, to be prepared to use that technology to practice what they preach; they have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Modeling doesn’t cut it.

I expect someone who is going to discuss pedagogy with faculty to have experience actually teaching academic content with a live class using the same technology they expect teachers to use.

Frankly, I don’t really have a lot of faith in instructional technology professionals’ discussion of pedagogic theory when they don’t use the technology they’re expecting teachers and students to use, and use it in the same environment that the teachers and students use, under the same conditions. If you don’t use technology to teach English literature, or Japanese or medieval history or music, to use examples from the humanities, how much value does your pedagogical advice have? How much credibility do you have?

Oh, and by the way, the “self-proclaimed digital medievalist” was a bit disingenuous. If it was meant as humorous, it fails since it was presented without context, suggesting that I’m a technology-opposed Luddite, which, in fact is the way readers have taken the reference. If it was meant as meiosis, it fails as well; I’ve got solid technical credentials, including seventeen years of experience developing software for higher education, for publishers, and for consumers. I’ve supported users, and supported and evangelized digital technology use with faculty and students. As a medievalist, I have more than six years experience teaching college English literature and compositions classes, where I ate my own dog food, even while working to support faculty using instructional technology.

Tools for Teaching

I’ve been attending the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo. On Thursday I attended a panel on “hybrid teaching,” that is, replacing a fair amount of class room instruction with Internet based instruction. It’s not, frankly, a concept that I’m overly fond of; I think face-to-face live instruction is to be preferred, whenever possible. I also don’t think that “distant education” is always a good alternative.

This panel discussion, however, was great. All three of the teachers were extremely talented and experienced class room teachers, with really super ideas about teaching literature, ideas which they’d found very clever ways to express using digital technology. But each of them apologized for what they saw as a lack of technical skills.

I don’t think there was any sort of failure on their part, at all, but I do think that the technology they were given to use failed them. Most of them used WebCT or its slightly less wretched cousin Blackboard. These are both complicated and poorly designed Learning Management Systems, and they require a fair amount of training, and a heck of a lot of clicking, to produce non-standared Web pages that are exceedingly rigid and don’t meet basic 508 standards for disabled users.

We need to do a much better job in terms of the technology we expect teachers and students to use. These teachers had super ideas, and coped superbly with the technology they had to use— but it should have been much easier and less labor intensive. It occurred to me, listening to them, that most of them could have done exactly what they wanted, with either ordinary HTML pages, or a Blogging system, like Blogger or Live Journal.

Fog Creek Software Management Training Program

Joel Spolsky, who has written some of the smartest and most useful articles on software development done right in his Joel on Software blog, is also the CEO of Fog Creek Software. As CEO he recently posted an open invitation for would be software managers to apply for paid on the job training at Fog Creek. Joel describes the Fog Creek Software Management Training Program:

The key component of this program is rotating through just about every job at Fog Creek Software. We’ll rotate trainees through about ten different jobs over the course of three years:

  • Project Management
  • Tech Support
  • Inside Sales
  • Software Testing
  • Usability Testing
  • Software Design
  • Program Management
  • Beta Management
  • Marketing
  • Build Management

To supplement that, we’ll add a component of formal training. There will be some coursework at nearby colleges, long lists of reading material, intensive offsite training programs, and we’ll send you to industry conferences that we think are particularly valuable.

Joel adds:

Either way we think it’s a fantastic opportunity for ambitious, smart geeks who don’t see themselves as programmers.

That is such a sweet deal. Honestly, someone out there should jump at this. If I weren’t very much settled in Southern California, I’d have already sent in my resume. Everyone should have a digital medievalist in their payroll ;)

In all seriousness, this really is a great opportunity. You’ll note that it’s targeted towards non-programmers with a college degree, and that you get to learn all the facets and stages of developing software, except the coding. That’s brilliant, and a rare opportunity. Since Joel’s already posted the preliminary reading list I’ll at least get some useful reading suggestions.

On Grading and Spreadsheets

I freely confess that numbers and I do not get along as well as, say, letters and I get along. I started using a spreadsheet for grading calculations very early on in my teaching. In a graduate pedagogy class I noticed a lot of concern about the numeric and mathematical aspects of grading. For instance, how one converts a series of letter-grades for papers, raw scores for quizzes, exams, all of which are weighted with various percentages, to a final letter grade. No one ever actually explained it to us—not in any of three different graduate level pedagogy classes.

I like spreadsheets, though I admit that I did give some thought to how I would calculate grades when I set up my assignments and syllabus at the start of the quarter. I wish I’d had this very useful tutorial by John Selvia on using the Appleworks spreadsheet for grades when I started.

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the “Grading Tool” that LMS or Learning Management Systems like Web-CT and Blackboard and Sakai all seem to have. I’ve looked at lots and lots of such tools. Most of them do the job quite nicely, but they’re difficult to set up and frequently so confusing to the teacher attempting to use them that teachers don’t use them. That’s true of me as well; I looked at the LMS tools for grading available to me, and decided it made more sense to just use the spreadsheet. Part of the problem in the Humanities especially, I think, for many of us, especially grad students, is that we have at best a dim understanding of the math, or really, arithmetic, we need to calculate grades with true facility. We know quite well how to assign a letter grade to a paper; it’s integrating the quizzes, the exams and other grades that’s difficult. Another problem is that grading tools seem to be designed by and for people doing grading in the sciences, where they tend to have raw scores, or numeric grades rather than letter grades. That means we have to have a numeric scale for the letters, and then convert them to numbers, possibly even weighted numbers.

There’s no simple solution; yes, better design of grading tools would be good, better Help systems too, but also I think there’s a need for user training that goes beyond what button to click and which options to select. We need to do a better job of teaching grad students, like me, how to do grading, how to do assessment, if you want the jargon, and not just by sitting in a class room chatting about it. We need practical, mentored experience in creating the grading structure, the assessment tools (quizzes, or exams, for instance), experience that goes beyond norming to actually using the numbers. I had a discussion a few years ago with a Psychology faculty member who said Humanities faculty engaged in “fuzzy grading.” Maybe so. I’m not sure that’s a fault, though. I learned a great deal from teachers I worked for, but I’m fairly sure that they weren’t intentionally teaching me how to grade; it was more that I deliberately observed how they did what they did. I wish they had been part of those pedagogy classes, though as I write this I realize none of them use the grading tools either.

Discussions, Comments and Digital Community

Teresa Nielsen Hayden, editor extraordinaire and the creator of Making Light (one of the best blogs I’ve ever seen) is not only the author of many fine posts, she also curates a thriving, active, intelligent and interesting group of readers who actively comment on the entries and on each others’ comments. A lot of that community involvement is because of Teresa’s interaction with her readers as a moderator. She offers excellent advice that is right on target for those desiring to use blogs or discussion boards for teaching and student interaction.