Saturday, May 23, 2015

What's in an Improv?

So, today I'm starting work on the different kinds of improvisation activities that Stacy and I are thinking about using in our open course course.

[Stacy: Don't you think this might be a god time to explain about improvisation activities in general?
Rob: Good idea. I can do that now, unless you want to?
Stacy: I'm happy for you to handle it.]

Like I was saying, I thought it might be a good idea if I shared some of our thinking behind improvisation activities and why they're important in the context of creating learner engagement.

From a student perspective, improvisation activities are useful for stimulating immediate, focused interaction and reflection related to specific concepts or skills. They also encourage both lateral thinking, or brain stretching, and creativity. Finally, these activities are great for both individual and group activities,

For learning designers and instructors, improvisation activities have four basic traits that make them valuable for student engagement strategies.

  1. The are environment independent -- To begin with, improvisations are activities that work extremely well for student engagement regardless of the physical or digital classroom setting. In other words, they can be conducted easily in both face-to-face or online environments. That's particularly useful for instructors who teach the same courses in multiple environments.

  2. They are subject independent -- In addition to being "environment independent," improvisation activities also work equally well across all disciplines. They can be used effectively in Humanities, STEM, and Business courses alike. So the old excuse of "that's a great idea but it worn't work for _________" just doesn't hold true with improvisation activities.

  3. They are time flexible -- Improvisation  activities are also extremely flexible with regards to time. You can create improvisation activities that last under 2 minutes, or more elaborate exercises that take up to 10-15 minutes. The choice and design are entirely up to the instructor.

  4. They support many different delivery options -- Finally, improvisation activities can be delivered or implemented in many different ways. This means that they can work for any type of teaching style or personality. This means the other old excuse of "that's a great idea but it won't work with my teaching style," is also a non-starter with these activities.
So, What's in an Improv?

When we set up an improvisation activity, we generally think about three separate parts -- 1) the setup; 2) the activity; 3) the elaboration.

The setup is really important because it explains what the improvisation activity is and why it matters. This also helps everyone feel comfortable with the activity. That's a big part of doing improvs with students since the open-ended nature of these activities causes a certain amount of anxiety for some. Not that discomfort is necessarily a bad thing – a bit of healthy anxiety can generate lots of creative thinking – but we generally want learners to be comfortably uncomfortable.

The activity part of the improv is the actual improvisation itself. That’s the part where everyone reflects, interacts, and creates based on the setup. 

But a good improvisation doesn’t stop there. We also want to capture the energy and ideas created by the community, and then use that to extend the connectedness of the activity. That’s what we call the elaboration.

In my next post, I'll outline our first improvisation activity example and discuss its many possibilities and permutations.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

So now I'm really starting to put this connected learning course together and...

I'm Starting Today!

I am calling today the official "start day" for stitching together the open course that Stacy Zemke and I are co-facilitating this summer. Of course, Stacy is a pro and I'm just a guy with all these abstract ideas that we're not sure how to work into meaningful activities. She gets things done and I keep thinking up new ideas to go on top of the other things I haven't done yet.

But today is the day I get serious about this.

I mean it.

Look here, I even have a course overview (yes, it is extremely abstract and could turn out to be anything but I think I should get some points for at least getting this far). In all honesty, Stacy helped with this too, although she should receive no blame for any inadequacies it reflects.

The Power of Connections


The Power of Connections is an, open, online course focused on the theme of learner engagement and collaboration. The course is created within a Connected Learning framework. As such, it prioritizes the following core philosophies and pedagogical commitments:
  • The learner is the center of her/his personal learning network. The course provides an opportunity for the learner to extend or strengthen that network.

  •  The learner’s network grows through connections (interaction) with people and information (nodes in the network). As such, community – structured and unstructured is a key component of the course.

  • The greater a learner’s engagement with his/her network, the greater the potential for learning. Consequently, as its primary pedagogical focus, the course will focus on modeling and facilitating the learner engagement.

  • Effective learning experiences allow and promote “centrifugal” expansion, an outward focus that encourages learners to make new, natural connections.  This focus necessitates the prioritization of openness – open pedagogy, open communities, and open content. Through course design, support for open forms of content, and use of multiple networks and communities, the course will embrace open and centrifugal learning.

  • Network feedback loops help learners understand the potential of their learning networks and facilitate their expansion. The course will provide multiple form of feedback to individual learners, as well as the learning community, to facilitate network expansion and acceleration.


The course is divided into 4 modules, each covering approximately 1 week in time. The four modules and their themes are:
  • The Power of Connections – Connected Learning, networked learning, collaboration, and learning engagement

  • The Power of Openness – Open pedagogy, centrifugal learning design, connected communities, open content

  • The Power of Creation – Learner agency, knowledge construction, network analytics and feedback loops

  • The Power of Imagination – Education redesign, assessing engagement, program design and certification, lifelong learning

Okay, So What Are You Really Doing?

Wordy and really abstract, right? Okay, so here's the real plan. Stacy and I want to offer up a series of collaborations (structured and unstructured), that are designed to help us deliver a connected-learning and/or connectivist learning experience. We want to leverage our personal networks, as well as others in our community, to crowdsource solutions and examples for engagement in online and hybrid learning environments.

What kind of solutions? Good question. That's still a bit of a work in progress, but our idea is to move through each module using a series of improvisations, dialogues, and artifact activities that, essentially, get su to collectively construct a catalog of great engagement solutions, activities, and examples.

What's Next?

You mean there's more to creating an online course than just coming up with a description? Really? Stacy never said anything about that, daggone it!

I suppose the next step, if there must be one, is to begin designing/sharing/throwing out there some ideas for our improvisations.

That will have to start tomorrow. I'm already worn out today.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Learning Subjectives: Week 1 #Rhizo15

I'm a huge advocate of centrifugal learning models and Connected Learning, and Dave's video prompt brought up an important question with regards to this model. How do we design learning experiences when we don’t know where we’re going? 
It seems to run counter to all our experiences with formal education, which are based on homogeneous pathways and set temporal spaces. How to we help learners go somewhere if we don't know where they are going?
I really like some of the posts on this subject so far:

I think Helen gets to the heat of the matter with her declaration, "I will not be neutral in Rhizo15." Centrifugal and Connected Learning requires that I have movement, direction, and momentum. I have to be willing to move outward from the center of the learning network, and to help others do the same. With that in mind, my learning subjectives are:

  • I will have a personal point of view that sets a specific direction or outward-bound trajectory within my learning network;
  • I will connect with others and, through those connections, gain both momentum and clearer direction for my journey;
  • I will keep my options open at all times, and be willing to travel in new directions as my learning network evolves.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Re-visiting Old Thoughts about Language and Language Learning

Back in 1998, I started writing down ideas for an Advanced Spanish Composition/Conversation "book" to accompany the courses I was teaching at the University of Oklahoma. I haven't thought about that project in more than a decade, but a comment by a co-worker on the limits of language made me go back and dig out the introduction I wrote back then.

For the most part, I hold the same thoughts about language as I did back then. Naturally, here has been some evolution. I am probably less influenced by complexity theory than I was back then, and my thinking is more influenced by non-verbal communication theories.


Learning is the accrual and evolution of human wisdom through cultural patterns of spoken, written, and lived symbols.  It takes place over time and occurs ideally in environments where real change and interaction are permitted.

Language, in this context, is defined as the symbolic expression of self or communal awareness. The greater a learner's awareness of her/his self and environment the greater will be his/her desire to master the symbols of communication.  Most second language textbooks assume such self-knowledge and its accompanying motivation.  This e-text/environment centers first on the learner's need to know self before the desire to know symbols.

Oral proficiency in a language is only achieved through the repeated use of that language in uncontrolled/uncontrollable contexts.  El Camino (the book project) leads the learner through a rich variety of such contexts by placing the learner and her/his evolving interests at the center of all learning activities.  Through improvisational and extemporaneous speaking and writing, learners overcome the obstacles of spontaneity and self-doubt, and develop a wide comfort zone for use of the target language.

Composition proficiency in a language is developed and achieved via the acquisition of vocabulary, the study of model written texts in that language, and the practice of different writing modes both in rehearsed and non-rehearsed settings. El Camino provides the learner with a wealth of authentic, written texts for study and stimulated composition.  The many samples of texts included in El Camino, available in both written and audio formats, are augmented by a vast library of stored Internet texts and electronic newspapers and journals.

Ideal and efficient second language acquisition involves the following learning environment assumptions/components:

  • Information is dynamic.  It is fluid and ever-changing as opposed to being static content that is easily encoded, packaged, sent, decoded, and digested without variation.

  • Architecture of the environment is open.  Evolution is built-in.  There is no attempt to pre-determine what final outcomes will be or what final form of the system will emerge.

  • Change (in any direction) must be possible.  Positive feedback (in which small effects are reinforced and produce evolution to the next stage(s) of development) is essential.  As the learning community develops particular interests and skills, a unique character for the community emerges and emphases must adapt to match that evolving character.

  • Emphasis of the learning environment is entirely on doing (the use/misuse of the language by the learners).

  • Objectives for any community of learners can only be defined after the completion a particular stage/chapter.  As such, these objectives serve as markers to show where the community of learners has been as opposed to where it might be headed.

  • Process of second language acquisition is clear to all learners and its discussion is part of the learning environment and community.

  • Inquiry and investigation are the active processes of all learning in the community.

  • Creativity, both in terms of target language use and personal development, is essential.

  • Learners are inevitably heterogeneous with distinct interests, motivations, and learning styles.

  • Learners as community and learners as individuals receive equal attention.  In this way learners can learn from other learners as well as self with the language serving as the only real classroom authority.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Week 1 Assignment -- DALMOOC

I had planned to join the course from the very beginning and attend all the introductory sessions synchronously. Unfortunately, the best laid plans and all that... Between travel and some unexpected projects at work, I have found myself catching up asynchronously over the weekend.

First I want to say thanks to all the instructors and participating experts who have worked so hard and with such thoughtfulness in putting this course together. I had the benefit of joining Prosolo after other intrepid souls had wandered about and asked questions about how to accomplish various tasks, so my experience there was not as confusing as it may have been for some. I think the tool has much potential and it is definitely they type of environment required for more open-ended learning. I have also appreciated the "dual" nature of the course design, which makes it a bit easier for people who haven't either the time/inclination to participate in a fully networked manner. Finally, I have found the recorded video presentations and discussions helpful.

I liked the idea of the tools matrix as well. I think this is particularly valuable as I am certain most of us taking the course have some experience with data analysis but often in areas other than learning analytics. In my case, for example, I have spent the past four years working on various projects related to price and sales analysis related to e-commerce and, in particular, textbooks. We have used a variety of database/analysis tools, ranging from MarkLogic to Tableau. We have also worked with Google Analytics, and used these tools to mine usage data related to e-textbook reading and resource access.

When I think about learning analytics, I must admit that what really interests me is learning. How can we understand the process more deeply? How can we use that understanding to improve the learning efficacy and overall experience of individual learners?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Where Has All the Learning Gone?

EDUCAUSE 2014 Exhibit HallAnother year, another EDUCAUSE.

Meetings. Meetings. Ah yes, a few more meetings.

Meetings and plenty of pitches from intrepid sales and marketing people eager to explain how their product is unique and will actually transform Higher Education, or at least some small portion of it.

This year, leading up to the big event, we had a long online discussion about the LMS and the ills and possible futures of learning platforms in general. For a fairly quick recap, I would suggest these posts by Brian Lamb, Tim Klapdor, and Jonathan Rees.In addition to these discussions, we also had big lead-up announcements like the one from Unizin and its founding institutional members.

Exciting times, healthy skepticism, and some potential disruption. What's not to like, right?

And speaking of disruption, Clayton Christitensen delivered the opening keynote with the message that online learning could fundamentally change the role of universities. The rest of the conference highlights/buzz, which parallel the prevailing trends and business models in Higher Education, were summarized quite nicely by Steven Mintz in his post on the future of Higher Education. His list includes: learning analytics, microcredentialing, competency-based education, personalized learning, curricular optimization, open educational resources, shared services, articulation agreements,  flipped classrooms, and one-stop student services.

On the floor of the exhibit hall, the vendor booths underscored these opportunities clearly.

EDUCAUSE 2014 Analytics 4

And more analytics.

EDUCAUSE 2014 Analytics

And if you want some variety...

EDUCAUSE 2014 Analytics 3

Of course, there was also a healthy dose of...

EDUCAUSE 2014 Flatworld

And a heaping portions of...

EDUCAUSE 2014 Difference Engine

Naturally, there were also many smaller companies with worthy products and messages, such as...

EDUCAUSE 2014 Lumen Learning


EDUCAUSE 2014 Higher Quality Ed


EDUCAUSE 2014 MyEducator

Then, somewhere in the midst of this...

EDUCAUSE 2014 Floor View

I stumbled across this ...

EDUCAUSE 2014 Analytics 2

And I paused to ask myself, "What's wrong with this picture?"

The answer, at least for me, was clear. So many companies, so many products, and so many institutional solutions (almost all endorsed by institutions embracing or investing in them), all driven by the business of education. All driven by that most fundamental of business school questions -- What problem are we trying to solve?

At EDUCAUSE, it seemed evident that the problem we are trying to solve is that of making our businesses -- our institutions, companies, products -- more successful. Paraphrasing and linking the multitude of signs and signifiers on display in the Exhibit Hall, we want our businesses to be more successful in terms of user-friendliness, user retention, and user satisfaction. Judging from the many displays and demonstrations, it certainly seems that we have the technology to do these things and are devoting impressive amounts of money and human intelligence to reach our goals for success.

What problem are we trying to solve?

The question was being asked explicitly and implicitly at every presentation, booth, and meeting. It seemed that everyone had come ready to pitch their solution -- big or small -- for Higher Education, and could elucidate nicely how their solution solved an important problem in education and how it could help the bottom line (for institutions or investors).

But what problem are we trying to solve?

The question is a good one, but I felt it was being asked in the wrong context (at least for me). Instead of "What problem are we trying to solve in Higher Education?" I was wanting to hear, "What problem are we trying to solve in learning?"

That's because Higher Education, like education is general, is only a conduit for what really matters -- learning. Education, for all its temporal grandeur, is but an evolving symptom of a more important, and more fundamental human requirement -- learning. It is a container while learning is the elemental sustenance it is designed to hold.

Education is a cultural or civilizational artefact. It is tactical, linear, and concerned with corporate outcomes.  It is about external achievement and measurement.

By contrast, learning is an inside-out proposition. It is about ongoing personal growth and is owned entirely by the individual learner. It can be facilitated by other learners but cannot be forced from the outside.

Education is about tangible measurements and standard outcomes, while learning resists measurement and delivers outcomes that are entirely unique for each learner.

Education is an institution and a market. It is something that can be quantified and managed. As a result, it condenses nicely into pitch decks and products that can be sold.

There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Education is a good thing and everyone I talked to at EDUCAUSE 2014 -- educators, administrators, publishers, educational technologists (institutional and corporate) -- seemed genuinely committed to and concerned about education. They were trying hard to create better containers for this thing that is learning.

But education is only a container, while learning is THE ACTUAL THING. No, learning may not lend itself to pitch-deck paradigms, but it is, ultimately, what really matters.

So I went to EDUCAUSE again and, as always, had fascinating discussions about educational technology, met really smart people with intriguing ideas, and was mesmerized by innovative products and marketing.

I also went to EDUCAUSE looking for ideas, for insights, for solutions that target the heart of our our mission, solutions that will help learners grow up and grow out.

I found much that was interesting and promising for education, but I'll admit, I left Orlando asking myself where all the talk about learning had gone.

Friday, September 26, 2014

More Mobile Means More Learning Opportunities

Photo courtesy of
With Apple’s release of the iPhone, selling more than 9 million in the first three days, it’s hard not to think about the mobile lives of teenagers. After all, this is just further fuel for a mobile fire that already has 74% of teens (ages 12-17) accessing the Internet using mobile phones.

The good news, at least for teachers, is that the growing percentage of teens with smartphones and tablets creates all kinds of opportunities for learning. Here are three ways that mobile devices can broaden the learning potential at your school.

  • Create more distributed learning opportunities -- Before the Digital Age, distributed learning meant the occasional organized field trip or sending kids home with assignments from their textbook. Today, most every young learner has the entire Internet in his or her pocket. They can access information, record their experiences, and communicate in a variety of ways -- all while they are going about their daily activities outside the traditional classroom. This means that learning can be truly centrigugal and persistent -- it can go with students wherever they go. We can extend the learning environment to include the whole world of information and experience! Of course, it doesn't happen automatically. We have to prompt or help students in their use of mobile devices for learning. One easy way to do this, for any subject, is to create an optional/alternative mobile (distributed learning) activity for every lesson or learning unit.
  • Design more opportunities for creation -- Mobile devices also open up an incredible world of creation for our students. Photos, audio, and video are all easy to create and edit. Mobile devices afford our learners new tools for creating new learning stories. If you want to be inspired on this front, just look at this post from Wes Fryer about teaching iPad videography to kids in Alaska via videoconference.
Videoconference to Alaska

  • Introduce new forms of content -- Mobile devices are made for audio, video and photos. They are designed for interactivity and touch. This opens up exciting new content opportunities for our classes. And the great news is that there are so many fantastic learning resources that are already perfect for mobile learning. Now is the time to make sure that you are providing mobile-ready content to go along with every lesson.