An Emphasis on Education Development

As of last month, Provost Wente asked me to take on some additional duties as she reorganized her support staff. My original title in the Provost’s office was “Associate Provost for Digital Learning.”  My title going forward is “Associate Provost for Education Development and Technologies.”  As you may recall, the original title matched one of the four pillars of the University’s Academic Strategic Plan. What I want to emphasize in reflecting on this change in title is not that I have moved away from that portion of the strategic plan, but that the change in title reflects an organic broadening of the meaning of “Digital Learning.”

When I first took the position, Vanderbilt was moving in the direction of MOOCs, so my position was, in part, an exploration of that space. However, a number of changes have taken place.  First, we’ve seen a decline in the excitement around MOOCS (although Vanderbilt continues to work toward the goal of launching a MOOC from each of our ten colleges and schools). Instead, we have moved toward producing a number of higher priced specializations and experiments in other programs with smaller audiences. Secondly, my attention has turned far more inward to our own residential students. With the experiments in bringing the Adobe Creative Suite to our students and the white paperon Digital Literacy, we are rethinking the integration of digital tools in a holistic manner across the curriculum. Finally, we discovered over the last three years that my role (and that of anyone interested in this area) is always focused on educational development because there are so many new ideas and technologies consistently being produced.

I also want to point out that my new title parallels that of newly appointed Associate Provost for Research Development and Technologies Doug Schmidt. The alignment of these two titles is significant and emphasizes synergistic growth on campus.  Doug has been a wonderful partner with whom to work on digital technology. As a quick-thinking and innovative advocate for the use of technology in both research and education, Doug consistently crosses paths with me. Because Doug’s true interests lay more in the use of technology in research and mine in education, our parallel positions will allow us to separately and together work toward transforming the culture of education and research (two of the primary missions of our faculty) at Vanderbilt. We of course do not do this alone, but with the entire faculty, staff and student body. That said, I appreciate the way Provost Wente has attempted to align our titles and duties with the direction that our work was taking us.

In short, we have moved more and more into innovative or developmental thinking in our embrace of technologies, regardless of the focus of their use.  I look forward to a long and successful partnership with Doug’s office as we continue to push the university in interesting directions.

Posted by on September 6, 2018 in News

A Change of Heart About Benchmarking

I should warn at the outset: this post initially appears to have little to do with digital learning or education technology, but do bear with me. It is almost axiomatic that any time a university office or committee is reviewing its processes or considering a new initiative, one of the first steps is a benchmarking study to understand the work of peer universities. Every faculty member knows the routine: create an idea for change and then the words, “Let’s see how our peers are handling this.”

To be honest, these words have often made my eyes roll. Vanderbilt is a unique university (indeed, all universities are unique). Rather than simply replicating what goes on elsewhere, why not let Vanderbilt be Vanderbilt? Why not let invention spring up from our internal conversations, assets and values. I felt as if, too often, what began by promising to bring exciting change simply put into place a solution copied from another university.

However, I’ve started to come around to a different point of view, at least in terms of trying to figure out how we will move forward in the digital education realm. We have a number of questions: What is the best platform for online programs? Should services be centralized? How do we market such courses? With whom do we partner? How do we assure innovation as we move forward, as opposed to repetition? How do we stay current with changes in technology and education?

Digital education and digital literacy questions are unique in the academy. Rather than questions that are relatively stable, digital education is shifting possibilities at a rapid pace. We are now trying to understand how to rethink the brick-and-mortar classroom, as well as how to best utilize the global reach afforded by digital communication. When we begin to think about what steps we want to take as a university (e.g., should we establish something on an online continuing education program?), I do in fact want to talk to other universities about their approach. It’s not so much to find out what stable ideas they have, but more to determine how they adjust to change.

Vanderbilt has the capacity to establish successful digital education programs, but change is so rapid that we constantly need to evolve. Here is where conversations with our peers can be beneficial, especially pertaining to content distribution, reach and expertise. A “benchmarking” study in the past answered the question: “What are our peers doing in common to solve this issue?” Now, the question is: “How does each individual program attempt to adjust to changes in a way that is advantageous to their environment?” Rather than “What do our peers do that we can copy?” the question is “How can their approach to a rapidly changing environment influence our own?”

These are truly exciting times to be in this line of work. And, I think it’s going to take all of us to make these exciting times as productive as possible.

Posted by on August 10, 2018 in News

Mission-driven Future for Education Technologies

When I have conversations with people in analogue positions at other universities -and this happens quite often – we tell each other stories about the seemingly endless stream of third party vendors who approach us in the hopes of being chosen to “enhance” our online digital offerings. The variety of companies that exist – and the number of services they offer – is broad and innovative. From full service firms to online marketing and proctoring firms, companies are trying to find a niche to help university partners find an economic way to highlight successful online programs and courses.

To me, the most interesting part of my conversations with these companies is when the salesperson asks me their version of “Well, what are Vanderbilt’s plans for the future of online education?” While it’s true that the evolving landscape changes each time I answer that question, the answer I give, because it is true and a must for the start of any conversation, is to simply point them to Vanderbilt’s “Mission, Goals and Values” statement. In effect, every decision always comes back to this, in part:  Vanderbilt will “be a leader in the quest for new knowledge through scholarship, dissemination of knowledge through teaching and outreach, and creative experimentation of ideas and concepts.”  And while our statement on educational technologies in the strategic plan gets a little specific in outlining that Vanderbilt will build upon our international reputation by both using and studying cutting edge practices that “foster innovation in learning, teaching, and discovery,” it really comes down to the same thing: we are pursuing education technology and digital learning not for specific material reasons but instead for the more abstract but very powerful purpose of working to discover new ways to teach, new ways to learn, new ways to share that information and therefore, new ways to increase Vanderbilt’s reputation.

As a result, when I’m asked a common question like, “Would you like to begin new programs in order to create new revenue streams,” I can honestly and firmly say “No.”  While we of course have to be fiscally responsible, and while new revenue is certainly a tool that allows us to pursue other projects, that has never been the point of departure. Instead, I have been encouraged repeatedly by Provost Wente and others to consistently refer back to the overall mission of the university and its refinement in the strategic plan. As a result, when we pursue new MOOCs or when we teach an online course to our undergraduate population during the summer, or when we make Adobe Creative Suite licenses available to faculty and students, we make these decisions depending on if the initiatives support our mission. I may sound a bit Pollyannaish about Vanderbilt and its leadership by saying this, but it’s a nice moment when I am talking to a colleague at a different university, and they begin to talk about how all the decisions are driven by questions of revenue. Not only am I proud to say that our leadership keeps education technology focused on our mission, but I would also point out that a sole focus on revenue would at times work directly against the academic mission as a whole.

In short, while our experiments and attempts to alter online education and digital technology are broad in one sense, in another they are very narrow. Every idea, every new direction is considered in terms of how it completes the mission of Vanderbilt University and its strategic plan. That’s a nice thing to be able to say.

Posted by on July 6, 2018 in News

CMAP and Digital Literacy

Several months ago, I wrote about a showcase put on by graduate students in the Comparative Media Analysis and Practice (CMAP) program. As I noted then, CMAP is a joint-PhD program open to PhD students from disciplines through the university. Students with this joint degree not only have the skills and knowledge that come from their primary degree but also have skills in the critical investigation of modern media culture, as well as innovative digital crafts. When I wrote before, I had attended a showcase of the students digital work that emerged from a Maymester course they had taken in which students presented their ideas through media formats that were alternatives to the traditional academic essay.

This semester, I am the instructor for the program, teaching a course called “Media Ecology”, which ultimately asks students to ask on a theoretical and practical level how changes in dominant media alter both “being” and “knowledge” in a culture.  That is, how does communication in some sense shape or determine the shape of what we communicate. The course mixes reading from scholars with “trade book” thoughts to fiction and popular film. In every case, I ask the students to think through these various forms and how knowledge is “different” as a result of changes in mediation.

I have students in the class getting PhDs in German, French, History, English, Community Research and Action, Anthropology and more. For the most part, these students have been in classes together over the past two years. As a result of their bonding, I felt like an outsider joining a community on the first day (indeed, I have had to learn some of the rituals they have developed as a community over the last two years). Here is what I have observed: These are students who have developed an amazingly flexible and nimble way of thinking. Not only have they had to learn to speak across pretty wide disciplinary boundaries-something we always hope will happen with transdisciplinary work-but they have also had to learn to work utilizing various media for both presentation and for critical evaluation. If we see both disciplinary boundaries and digital technologies as two different types of technology (one a technology meant to put parameters on knowledge and method; the other doing simply as a result of function), these students are being forced-and forcing themselves-to think beyond the confines of particular technologies. As a result, it is not simply the content of these courses that is providing the students with a powerful set of tools, it is the way they are having to break down barriers in thinking and in articulating ideas that is truly impressive, almost revolutionary.

I dare say that when you place these students back in their regular PhD classes, they have a far looser, far more expansive way of thinking, speaking and acting.  I have referred several times to the White Paper on Digital Literacy in this forum; there is a sense in which these students are illustrating the culture we hope emerges from a campus wide focus on digital literacy: students who are able to think and present in a variety of ways, thinking and communicating in a digital culture with a great degree of flexibility. CMAP is evidence of the promise this route holds.

Posted by on March 22, 2018 in News

Collaboration in Implementation

Recently, I was the chair of an ad hoc committee that released a statement on digital literacy, with a series of recommendations for the campus at large (especially the undergraduate population). If you read this blog, or simply glance back over earlier entries, you will know that I have talked a lot about this committee and the concept as a whole. In one earlier post, I outlined the committees work to provide a definition, assess progress, support faculty (with skills and curricular decisions) and think about the link between careers and digital education. In another post, I noted the importance of faculty input into this definition and stressed the ways that Provost Susan Wente makes faculty input a priority in decision making.

For me, this has been one of those moments when I get the chance to reread the report from the committee, reflect on the process we went through in crafting it, and celebrate the wonderfully creative and thoughtful colleagues I have at Vanderbilt. More than that, however, it gives me a moment to think about the road ahead: how do we implement the measures recommended by the committee, both in specific and in spirit? Some of the answers to these questions are budgetary; some of the answers are logistics; some are curricular. What I do know is that if you could transport yourself into the future, one would find some very large differences between the recommendations as originally authored and those that were implemented. For instance, while I feel certain that the three broad areas of microcredentials (i.e., Critical Digital Literacy, Digital Visualization and Production, and Computational Thinking) will remain in broad contours, they may also become fragmented into multiple sub-elements of each category. Or, while we might see experiments with software like Adobe moving forward, we may also see a move toward a multiplicity of open source and industry standard software.

The differences will largely be the result of conversations with faculty and staff about how best to implement an idea developed by other faculty and staff. I’ve said this before in different ways, but it is indeed one of the aspects of the Vanderbilt model of progress and change of which I am most proud. When someone has a good idea, we vet it thoroughly through an iterative process with a wide range of colleagues. We operate together to move forward with the mission of the university. While the process of faculty governance and approval is slow, to be sure, it is also a process that encourages us to work together and a process that makes strong ideas even stronger.

I will try to keep this in mind over the course of the next several months as I work with others to implement the ideas in this white paper. Vanderbilt operates largely as a team interested in the same shared mission.


Posted by on February 12, 2018 in News

Affordable Textbooks

One of the concerns that every college student has, regardless of where they are enrolled, is the cost of textbooks. Like every campus, faculty and students at Vanderbilt are always looking for solutions. It is best if students have access to the most recent editions of books being utilized in a classroom, but that value must be offset with making sure that every student has affordable access to books. Given that a number of partial solutions exist in the area of digital studies, it is a question to which I give a good deal of thought.

The reason for the high prices of textbooks is, of course, overdetermined. In part, textbook companies are out to make a profit, but they have a number of forces cutting into their traditional profit margins, most notably the used textbook and rental market. While there is little textbook publishers can do to combat the rental market, they can encourage the publication of new editions of textbooks every couple of years. Although there is some justification for new textbooks in some areas of study (if a field of study changes rapidly or if examples must be updated), it seems clear that one major motivating factor is to encourage the purchase of new, rather than used, textbooks. In this way, publishers assure themselves of a new rush of purchases every couple of years.

Faculty and students pursue a number of ways (both traditional and creative) of fighting textbook prices on a general and individual level. Faculty have placed textbooks on reserve for students, and encouraged students to share (and students have done this on their own). Faculty sometimes opt to allow students to purchase one of many different editions of a textbook, giving the student wider latitude to find cheaper versions of the text through online sources.

Another route that some faculty have begun to pursue is open source textbooks available through the Open Textbook Library, for example. As you will see if you follow the link, the open textbooks found here have been published and licensed to be freely used, adapted and distributed. The books are authored by faculty from a number of different universities, and each book has been reviewed by other, third party faculty members who are experts in the field of study. While students can link to read digital versions of the texts, they can also order print copies for a nominal fee (e.g., $15-20). This is a remarkably open and efficient way for faculty to keep textbook prices down while having trustworthy texts. That said, at Vanderbilt thus far, very few faculty have adopted this path. A short study revealed that Vanderbilt faculty often still feel unsure of assigning a book without the imprint of a major publisher acting as something of a credential.

Another route that we are currently exploring is one being offered by some book publishers. Here, publishers would make all the textbooks being used at Vanderbilt available for students to purchase online at a discounted price. The route is simple: a student signs up for a class, and when they first log in, they are told they have the option to take the digital copy of the book online or purchase their hard copy at the bookstore (or elsewhere). One important consideration is how to include scholarship funding in the purchasing process. This model is being piloted in summer 2018 and will be implemented in the fall if it is successful.

All in all, while this is certainly not one of the most provocative digital issues with which I deal, it is one of the small ways we are all (faculty, students, staff, publishers) working together to help pursue the academic mission.


Posted by on February 2, 2018 in News

Rethinking Digital Delivery

Last Friday, I joined a number of my colleagues at a showcase of graduate student work from a CMAP (Comparative Media Analysis and Practice) Maymester seminar titled “Creative Media Practice.” CMAP is a joint-Ph.D. program that is open to Ph.D. students from all disciplines at the University. It serves to advance the critical investigation of modern media culture and innovative making of digital objects. For example, a student in the program might be pursuing a Ph.D. in a foreign language, Political Science, or Chemistry, while also seeking a second degree in CMAP. I love the program, as it provides these students with not only disciplinary expert knowledge but also new ways of thinking about the production and consumption of knowledge. The Maymester course from which the showcase projects were drawn provided students with short tutorials on the use of a number of digital tools (e.g. virtual reality sets, GIS, Adobe products) and then required the students to produce digital content that would advance an argument they were working on elsewhere in their graduate work.

While the projects themselves were fascinating and creative—especially given the short amount of time in which they were produced—the showcase also offered comments by independent filmmaker Gustavo Vazquez, who was visiting from the University of California, Santa Cruz after serving as a mentor to the students. During his remarks, Vazquez pointed out that he saw his job as akin to being a director of a film. He noted that he wanted to set up every scene so that the actors could do their job with no obstacles. Hence, he worked hard to make sure the students could pursue their projects in an obstacle-free environment.

As the conversation with Vazquez went on, we began to move the discussion of “obstacles” from the individual level to the structural. Vazquez was talking about the futures of dissertations and research projects, and was commenting on how transformative digital tools could be in both the production and consumption of new knowledge. That was the point at which I got to thinking about how the University itself has to act as a director in the sense that Vazquez was speaking — how do we collectively remove obstacles that will help the students reach these new levels of success? And that is a big question. Do we change the requirements for a dissertation such that they can include more digital work? Could a dissertation be completely realized via digital media? Are we supplying adequate tools and support for those tools? Are we helping students rethink traditional forms of presentation, such as poster sessions, and encouraging new modes of production? In short, are we setting up the conditions on a University-wide level that help us see such digital production and consumption of knowledge as routine rather than as novel? If not, how do we do so? These are the questions we need to be asking.

Posted by on October 4, 2017 in News

Discussions in Digital Literacy

As I have noted before, I initiated a discussion of digital literacy and the integration of this concept into Vanderbilt’s education model with an ad hoc committee established this spring. The committee has generated a great number of ideas—both curricular and non-curricular—about the ways to make digital literacy a natural part of undergraduate and graduate education, rather than something confined to individual classes or activities.  While I’m very pleased with the work the committee has done and I am eager to get back to that work this fall, this post is not about the committee’s work directly, it’s more of a comment on the process by which Vanderbilt embarks upon initiatives like this and the discussion sparked by faculty members within these conversations.  In both ways, I find myself impressed by the human dynamic in digital learning.

When I first talked to Provost Susan Wente about some of the committee’s ideas, she noted her initial support, and asked me to canvas a larger swath of the overall Vanderbilt faculty.  She suggested that I talk to the Director of Undergraduate Studies (or equivalent) for each department in all four undergraduate schools.  Provost Wente asked me to carefully listen to thoughts and concerns expressed by each faculty member.  Ideas were always better, she reminded me, when they came from, or were heavily shaped by, the faculty who are working with our students on a daily basis.  This is a wise commitment.  In fact, there was never a meeting with a faculty member in which I did not hear a new idea or find a different approach.   These conversations expanded upon the initial concept, making the initiative bolder and more encompassing.

If there was one clear message from the faculty beyond their overall desire to pursue digital literacy, it’s that the university needs to make both tools and support available to both faculty and students.  That is, I was impressed that the faculty were not only excited about our conversations surrounding of digital literacy, but also what would be needed to make the concept work.

I met with science professors who want to enhance their students’ abilities to communicate scientific ideas in more interesting ways, historians who want to incorporate GIS mapping into student work, and education faculty who want students to learn to present via podcasts. Meanwhile, none of the faculty stopped thinking past the point of delivery.   Each one thought through the implications of what it would take for their idea to be functional.  They want to make sure that students and faculty are given tools with which to work and the support to make it successful.

What I want to stress here is that there are some aspects of educational technology that are no different than any other decision made at Vanderbilt.  Provost Wente was wise to encourage a larger circle of input because, as is always the case, faculty working with students have a great deal of insight into how digital literacy can become a larger part of the Vanderbilt culture.  While we still have a great deal of work to do, of course, the work will be better because we remember to engage in discussion and input from an array of faculty constituents.

Posted by on August 22, 2017 in News

Learning from Doing

Last week, the team that produces Leading Lines participated in a roundtable discussion about the progress we’ve made with the podcast. We talked about what we originally hoped to accomplish, how we would like to see the podcast evolve, and what we have learned from our various interviews. For me, the discussion surrounding learning opportunities was most interesting, as the conversation led us to discuss what we have gained from the actual podcast production process.

As we explored this topic, we talked about how the material work of putting together a podcast made us realize how difficult it is to achieve a professional sound. Not only do podcast producers need to worry about mundane material issues (e.g., being sure they have the right equipment, checking that the spare batteries are charged, making sure there are no ambient sounds), but they also need consider production aspects such as the order of questions, ways in which to guide the conversation, and the resources needed to prepare for the interview. As we began thinking through the materiality and process of producing a podcast, we realized how differently we now listen to podcasts. We now each think about issues like scene, editing, sound, and the overall choices that are made to produce a holistically crafted message. If I say we have become more “critical” of other podcasts, I don’t mean in it a negative sense; I simply think we have all learned to think in a more discerning manner about the overall construction of a message. In learning to build podcasts, we have learned to think harder about this particular modality. It is probably no surprise that at least three of the people working on this podcast have now gone off to work on other ones.

Why is this important? If I’m just talking about podcasting, or Leading Lines specifically, perhaps it’s not all that important. However, there is a larger point here: people who engage in the production of ideas or messages through different modalities are able to think more clearly, more critically, about how they are reached through those modalities. The more you have built something as simple as PowerPoint slides, for example, the more you reflect upon how others’ slides successfully or unsuccessfully communicate to you. The more you produce, then, the better you consume.

If we apply this lesson to Vanderbilt as a whole, one of the takeaways is that the better we prepare our students to present their ideas through multiple means of communication and modalities the better equipped they will be for the job market and perhaps more importantly, for citizenship. And in a world in which there is so much information (and misinformation), it is critical to produce citizens who consume and produce information with a critical eye.


Posted by on June 22, 2017 in News

When Opportunities Arise

As I’ve noted before, one of the ideas I’m working on with a faculty committee is incorporating digital literacy (e.g., critical consumption of data, the production of data visualization, computational thinking) as a key element of the current educational landscape. If we think seriously about the types of skills we hope to give students as they enter the workforce and citizenry, we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t take digital literacy as seriously as we do, say, writing. Students are naturally adept at consuming digital information, but are they adept as critical consumers and producers of digital ideas via words, sounds and visions?

One of the ways the committee has talked about enhancing digital literacy is to provide students and faculty with digital resources that encourage them to rethink elements of their coursework. We need to find ways to provide students with both specific tools (i.e., software) and training/support on how to use those tools if we hope to enhance digital literacy across campus.

While formulating a digital literacy case study, I was contacted by Lutz Koepnick, Gertrude Conway Professor and Chair of German, Russian and East European Studies, as well and Director of the Joint-Ph.D. Program in Comparative Media Analysis and Practice (CMAP). This is an innovative program that is ‘layered onto’ a student’s primary field of study (and all fields may link to CMAP) and focuses on the “critical investigation of modern media culture and the innovative making of digital objects.” Students complete the program in conjunction with their field-specific plan of study and graduate with a Ph.D. in their respective area and in “Comparative Media Analysis and Practice.”

Koepnick contacted me because he was just about to begin teaching a Maymester course entitled, “Creative Media Practice.” This course is a four week long series of workshops “designed both to foster graduate students’ skills in various areas of digital media practice and to help doctoral candidates to develop creative solutions to present research projects in their fields of specialization and matters of public concern.” The students are taught elements of visual storytelling, documentary filmmaking, sound production, web design, gaming, and 3D/virtual reality design. Fortunately, my discussion with Koepnick turned into an opportunity to provide digital literacy training and support to his Maymester students.

What if we gave the students access to both software (we arranged for students and faculty to have access to the Adobe Creative Cloud, as well as other programs) and support for using this software? Koepnick identified numerous faculty who could help teach students specific tasks and support them when they had questions or ideas.  While the course is currently ongoing, our hope is that students learn new ways to present and visualize their research projects to both a general and an expert audience.  This will ideally represent a small case study of how training in ‘digital literacy’ might work if students and faculty have access to adequate software and support. In a month we will find out, but right now, Koepnick reports that the students are excitedly working on their projects and finding very creative ways to present their research. I very much look forward to seeing what they produce at the conclusion of their course.

The lesson to be drawn from this is not simply what we will learn from the outcome of the course, but that we need to be observant for opportunities, like this one, allowing us to give our ideas that best chance to work. That is, Koepnick has presented an organic instance in which “digital literacy” was at the heart of a course, and we saw this as an opportunity to test drive the idea of combining access and support. I’m thrilled to be part of this and very much look forward to seeing what the students achieve.

Posted by on May 30, 2017 in News

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