Collaborative learning — The Big Race as a teachable moment


This semester, I pitched a little school-wide contest intended to encourage students to collaborate with others outside of their home programs. To get the event off the ground, I approached an emerging group that was more formally working with faculty member extraordinaire Donna Lindell toward building collaborative projects with outside ‘clients’. They had adopted public transit as their core topic of concern but were looking for ideas for projects. I had a wee bit of funding from a Social Action Fund grant intended to generate a student ‘culture jam’-type competitive event.

We met. We married ideas. A concept for a competition was born:

Social justice + transit. Make them work. Create a solution. Do it in 10 days. Pitch a dragon’s den of “real stakeholders”.

May the best idea win.

The 10.10.10 event promised a prize of some seed money to execute. I had no idea (or expectation) it would grow into something much larger. The judges (representatives from Metrolinx, Civic Action, and Centennial’s Institute for Global Citizenship and Equity) were very enthusiastic and supportive of all the creative ideas presented. They could award only one winner and went for one that could absorb many of the other great ideas. Kudos all around.

Not only did the judges select The Big Race, Metrolinx decided to back the project — a webisode series that follows three contestants through their efforts to get across the city by deadline using the transit system in Toronto. The first teaser premieres at Civic Action’s major transit forum this week.

Thinking about all the work that’s been done (and all the work ahead), I can’t be anything but proud of the students who found other students to formulate plans, do the filming, line up all the media and otherwise do their best to meet their deliverables. The Big Race propelled the goal of the original seed into something much bigger and better — a truly student-driven, collaborative effort across programs.

From the chair’s perch, it was even more amazing to watch the collaboration that flowed so beautifully between so many faculty and staff within the school, the wider college and our industry partners to support the students in their work.

The competition, and its adoption by a ‘real world client’ in Metrolinx, was a great example of everything we want to stand for — experiential, collaborative and relevant learning. But it wasn’t in a curriculum or course, wasn’t part of the plan, wasn’t part of anyone’s job description. It took an open mind, a sharing spirit and a willingness to see students succeed. The college community here delivered, and then some.

Upon reflection, this was one of the most significant ‘teachable moments’ I’ve seen in my career. It certainly fits the definition:

a teachable moment is an unplanned opportunity that arises in the classroom where a teacher has an ideal chance to offer insight to his or her students.

A teachable moment is not something that you can plan for; rather, it is a fleeting opportunity that must be sensed and seized by the teacher. Often it will require a brief digression that temporarily sidetracks the original lesson plan so that the teacher can explain a concept that has inadvertently captured the students’ collective interest.

Taking this tangent is worthwhile because it is organically timed to maximize impact on the students. Ultimately, the teachable moment could evolve into a full-blown lesson plan or unit of instruction.

Ultimately, a teachable moment requires us to stop directing the moment and go with the flow. See where it goes. Tweak, if necessary. Celebrate constantly. Let the adrenalin run.

The result, for the students who engaged in producing The Big Race, has been huge media attention.

Once The Big Race crosses the finish line, I think we’ll all be able to reflect upon how great (and exhilarating) it was to follow a teachable moment through to maximum effect, how we might replicate it in future and what it took, from a faculty and staff perspective, to ensure the opportunity flowed smoothly.

For now, I know the students and their supporters are in for a lot more work and a lot more deadline pressure.

I know they’ll be amazing and I’m so very thrilled to have been on the ride with them.

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Addendum to Learning How to Think – great resources in Allison Seaman’s post on Personal Learning Networks here!

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April 7, 2013 · 5:13 pm

No time to think: Juggling full-time work with a full-time PhD


Image David Yu, 2006

I’m just over a year into a full-time administrative post in higher education that I really love. I’m also in my last year of a ‘full-time flexible’ categorization on a PhD intended for those who work full time in higher education (I get to revert to “part time” next year and continue on longer than a typical funded student).

While there are considerable advantages to working in the very field you are studying (“applied” reflective learning at its best), I really discovered how challenging it can be this semester trying to keep up with an extra course in my workload as well as work on ongoing reading for the dissertation (my core course assignment).

The biggest thing I’ve really had to face this semester in taking on an extra course is how to adapt my learning trajectory for the PhD to the concurrent life as an administrator. I had finished my coursework and comprehensive exam before this job really kicked in.

My output, relative to full-time students who may work or serve as research assistants, feels considerably lower as my time to connect to school as a student is very limited. My paid work demands often bleed into my weekends and evenings as well.

Happily, the course I’m in focuses a lot on process and my subject area was to generate as much work toward my literature search and my dissertation proposal as I could (other students had to work toward a media production project but some of us there to expand our understanding to inform our theses were able to substitute the writing for the media production project).

The biggest process lesson I learned related to how academic life fits into a full-time profession. Sadly, I realize how little time I actually had available, how easily work intruded in on that precious time and how difficult it can to be sure you have a good brain when the time arrives and not be caught in some fog that renders the academic time less productive than it should be.

Problem One was the difficulty ‘saving’ one’s quality brain time for the task of academic writing rather than using it to think through policy or strategic ideas for my faculty team at work. Both spheres of my life needed some quality thinking.. and it wasn’t any easier getting that done ‘on the job’ for the job… hence the bleed into the restful quiet of my Sunday mornings when all sorts of insights would pop into my head that, if given a few minutes, would frame up the work week better for me and for any number of people on my team. Times when the thesis got the best of my good thinking time, my work week would often run less smoothly or important plans would be put off, unformed, and people left to cool their heels while they sat on my desk.

My longtime faculty mentor, Dr. Linda Muzzin, once presented a paper about the experiences of Aboriginal faculty that was captured by the phrase “no time to think”. So, my experience certainly isn’t unique. But I have learned a few things in taking a course again after starting work in administration:

  • stop putting the thesis last in the daily roster — the week will fill up and the end of the day you’re too exhausted to ‘think’
  • keep putting family time first — a plan for a short time spent together pays dividends more than the tension that grows when kids/partners become impatient with being tuned out on a regular basis. A ‘family time’ planned together at the start of the day gets me my alone time.. and a nice break when I come up for air.
  • don’t re-invent the wheel — I realized after this comment from Dr. Megan Boler that the rumination of the wheel can pertain to more than missing the relevant work of others in your writing. My search for new and relevant literature was useful. But so was re-visiting of the literature I’ve gathered over the years to start organizing it better. It was very time-consuming, still has more to go but is already turning out to be very, very useful. I needed to stop feeling like I had to have insights from literature read 5 years ago fresh in my brain at all times to start writing and needed to start building something that would enable me to access that literature quickly as I needed it while writing. This was huge.
  • stop spinning the wheel you have — that’s the experience when you keep spinning around the same paragraphs or ideas, week after week. It has been my personal specialty. It’s rumination broken up by the demands of daily work, but rumination all the same. I need to get better at hitting ‘save’ and then ‘moving on’ rather than re-opening and re-saving, in each window of time I have. I’m learning to put something down and move on as best I can. That was another big lesson for 15 weeks.
  • Dealing with Digital. I realize the degree to which digital literature has been killing me the past year or so. 🙂 I used to write in my office where my library was always on hand. Finished papers usually finished with a pile of highlighted journal articles and open books scattered in piles around me. But having digital files of journal articles and e-books have messed up my process. My biggest problem with digital references — finding them. An early session on ‘ref-works’ and the acquisition of a better annotation software that accepts my mark-ups and captures my comments has already saved me a ton of time. Getting used to the process of organizing my comments, along with my material, has been my biggest new process adaptation this semester. The ongoing work will be building a better digital archive of the hundreds of references I have digitized already, but have no idea what folder they’re hiding in (or on what USB, or what hard-drive, and so on).

The learning I’ve gained about process in this course may not seem like much, but I’ve really seen that the tools you use to approach ongoing study matter as much as the insights you might have, particularly when you have so little time to devote and no time to waste time ‘spinning’. The weeks in administrative life fly by as it is, and the demands on academics are huge to find the best ways to continue generate truly original insights that they can then bring to others through publication while also juggling the service and administrative demands of the job.

There’s a growing push inside the college system for administrators like me to work toward doctoral credentials. In looking at a twitter feed on the topic of part-time PhDs this past week, I noticed that people are commenting that subject you study and why can have an impact on your ability to manage the load.  When your time is so limited, it is understandable that one could get tempted into believing you should just ‘shop’ a course calendar to find pre-determined insights to pluck and drop into your work. More open or challenging courses would seem unreasonable to explore as ‘not relevant’ to what you need today. But what about what you don’t know today?

Sure, it is easy to get frustrated by ideas that are slow to come on because you just don’t have the time to percolate them that you used to have before working full-time. But indulging the temptation to keep to what you know now might limit the student life you’re engaged in to ideas they already know to be true, rather than opening the experience up to the truly transformative learning opportunity that graduate school can (and should, in my opinion) provide the individual who undertakes it.

In my own case, the readings alone were readable, but not always ideas I could process quickly or reference back fluidly. So those weeks, being an administrator while being a student was frustrating as the hours needed to truly capture the insights were not available to me. That said, when things worked, nothing beat the satisfaction of the weeks in which the ideas did gel, the insights were captured and I was able to join the class and share in those great classroom moments and discussions as both a contributor and receiver to push our collective understanding further along. On those nights, I would always leave class exhilarated and full of ideas, much as I did almost every night during those first couple of years when I started the doctorate.

Life lived with an extra course inserted into it was close to impossible at times to manage, but looking back, I still managed to get a lot more out of it toward my dissertation phase than what I’d initially read on the course description. In struggling (and sometimes failing) to make the course ‘work’ inside the new realities of my life, I was forced to dig for better tools and strategies to cope that will be really useful in managing the independent work of thesis completion. I am grateful to the course for not only the interesting literature reviewed and discussions had, but also the pedagogical structure that asked me to consider process as one of my key learning goals to document. It required me to give the time to consider how the process was going to have to be set up in order to work effectively for me at this time in my life.

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Researching the teaching of a moving target


One of the challenges in researching journalism education in this day and age is the rapid transformation of the media. New advances in digital media technology (from PCs to mobile smart phones) are creating new ways of sharing factual information, many of which are bypassing the longstanding ‘gatekeeper’ of the traditional journalist. The shifts in technology and in its use aren’t within the control of the professional communicators — the audience will tell the industry what it will look like (if it will exist at all) in the future.

What to teach is what interests me — how professional skills faculty are adapting and how the new realities of practice are penetrating their perceptual bubbles.  What resources are easily accessible to the average practitioner starting to teach professional practice courses for a college or university? Are they still using traditional reporting textbooks (ones that begin with print and work their way through the various platforms until they reach “new media)? How would one go about finding new textbooks?

A straightforward google search of the key words “journalism textbooks” revealed several efforts by professional thought-leaders to generate recommendations by those interested in journalism practice. The top ones in the search showed up in the order below (with one or two omissions of irrelevant hits). My favourite example was the last one:

 

 

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Don’t reinvent the wheel – a scan of Journalism literature relating to faculty


My professor had a great point the other week when I was struggling on how to formulate the research question for my thesis — don’t reinvent the wheel. So, the elephant is going to go down in small bites, the first of which late last week involved a good couple of hours mining the databases for what’s ‘new’ in journalism (and particularly journalism education).

On the education side, I didn’t find much, but did stumble into a huge thread of literature in education that focuses upon the experience of becoming faculty. Bulls eye. This work should help frame the directions I seek to explore within journalism programs.

On the professional practice side, the databases were weak (almost nothing on curriculum, compared with the teacher-faculty corpus). The web, however (thanks to Twitter) revealed a gold nugget in a new report from the Tow Centre on what they’re calling “Post Industrial Journalism”. Written by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky, the report begins its first chapter with the title “The transformation of American journalism is unavoidable.”

I also started to map last week in more earnest manner a sketch of a proposal outline. I realize I don’t work in blocks of well-crafted text but see things visually — in ‘maps’. If the technology existed (cheaply) today, I would have one of those projection units that turned my office wall into a huge space in which I could drag, drop and otherwise ‘mess with’ the map. Until then, word and excel will have to do. 🙂

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My Friend Flikr


Job One today was to do a bit of DIY learning on one of the tools mentioned in class — Flikr. I am also attempting to tie my twitter feed account ffi_maija to this blog and to all other social media, connecting it to through my gmail. Done and done.

no telling where the money went

by Adam_T4 Creative Commons license through Flikr

The work made me start to think about privacy/copyright issues and the puzzle of how creative work and mediated content and innovative platforms become controlled or captured by the market economy. I work in a context in which intellectual property is discursively framed as a value to exploit — where applied research tends to be defined narrowly as commercializable research. Hanging out again at the university this semester, I’m aware of the degree to which words like ‘brand’ have entered my lexicon in little over a year. At the university, the conversation shifts to the thinking of the new paradigm in which inquiry and exploratory work benefit from free exchange. It is a much more free and accelerated approach to creativity.

The professional challenge (the “applied” research, if you will) becomes stretching the view to include more of the publishing spectrum as a means to the end of ‘gainful employment’ for these students. I’m doubtful you can breed creativity and innovative thinking in tomorrow’s creative class by keeping the connection from concept to commerce so short and tight in school.

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Learning log – PhD points on a bulletin board


We were talking in class Thursday night about organizing literature into something more accessible. I was telling the course TA Stian how much I enjoyed the wiki he designed for himself for this purpose. I’m not that tech smart and am so time-crunched these days, I’m  really leery about going down that sort of rabbit hole. Is there an easy/accessible wiki style interface that isn’t refworks that does this sort of trick?

We were joking in class that we need one of those 3-D virtual-type walls of text that hang in the air, like all the cool new movies have. I’m going to hunt for a bit to see if I can find an image of one and put it up here. 🙂

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Two key conferences that should be good stimulation for the average journalism professor


… if there is an average journalism professor anymore! 🙂

I was just reading a new peer-reviewed article in Journalism and Mass Communication Monographs (March 2013: 15) by John Pavlik and Frank Bridges about the promise of Augmented Reality for the future of Journalism. I’ll review it in more detail later, but one line caught my attention. They argue that innovation in journalism hasn’t really been happening inside the newsrooms as much as within new spaces, and they note research that creativity itself seems to require conflict to emerge. They speculate that maybe there’s something about traditional news organizations that defies innovative thinking. Funny..  I’ve theorized, after years of thinking about journalism programs, that the really exciting stuff is probably going to happen outside the j-school proper, too. But more on that later, too. 🙂

But to that end, here are two good looking conferences coming up this spring. The first is in Canada (out on the east coast) called Social Media and Society.  The second is in Texas – the International Symposium on Online Journalism.

I’m encouraging a couple of the media practitioner faculty where I work to consider attending to take the opportunity to hear new ideas about professions put forward in new ways and in communities they’re not used to circulating within. In my view, that gets some of that conflict going that stimulates new thinking. Being there gives you a chance to immerse in conversations that aren’t pitched in the same dialect, that challenge with the unfamiliar as much as they affirm.

I once heard another practitioner another discipline, who did the journey to the PhD, say that a big motivation for going through it was to finally be heard by those with PhDs…  to be taken seriously. In the same way, I’ve worked with practitioners over the decades who aren’t interested in circulating at academic conferences because they don’t see themselves reflected in that community. There’s something micro-social going on – something about belonging and language that includes or excludes.

Seems silly. Journalism scholars and journalism practice faculty share the same focus. Being at the table (or in the same room) is the only way to get the conversation going, in my view, even if the right words are hard to find.

When I worked for a university, I became familiar with the rhythms of knowledge production — the calls for papers, conference announcements, and other signs of the season. I would try to interpret conference calls, bookmark the websites and read (and re-read) the agendas and any papers. Like any new world, it becomes familiar over time.

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Publics and Counterpublics — from Dewey to Shirky, Fraser and Warner


Class readings this week reminded me of how media culture and media-making are interpreted differently, depending upon which ‘bubble’ you’re in. As a former practitioner and someone who spent a lot of time teaching, thinking about and putting energy into professional practice curricula, the ideas about media use and production that come from those who never went through that professional training gauntlet are often quite surprising. For instance, I enjoyed revisiting Nancy Fraser’s and Michael Warner’s contemporary ideas about ‘publics’. But it was a smaller reading focused on John Dewey’s elevation of technology to a tool of inquiry that caught my attention (and heart).

I found the life of the journalist to be a life of learning – the production itself a sort of afterthought to what was fundamentally a selfish act of ‘being there’. The camera and the editing suite were tools and techniques, and often the formats I had to follow were more efficiently delivered if my reporting was hammered out in a formulaic manner. But the good part was being in the field and having the license to ask questions when the natural impulse is to mind your own business.

Doing journalism, in my view, wasn’t much of a stretch from doing ethnography or history or other, more scholarly endeavours as an act of inquiry itself (save for the lit search). When the tools to produce media democratized through digitization, here came everybody (apologies to Shirky). Here came public(s) we hadn’t seen or heard much from before. We’re asking in class what that has meant for democratic society. But there are some big assumptions embedded within that question about the conditions of media practice in the old ‘mainstream’. You have to be pretty careful not to over-romanticize the democratic communication landscape that came before.

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Learning Log – getting back into the swing


I’ve been more than a little bit absent lately from this blog, so I’m going to use the opportunity of a need to generate a ‘learning log’ for a class to revive my activity here. The course is an interesting one that is helping me connect contemporary media and digital practices to the substance of my thesis on journalism education and how journalism faculty learn.  As I’m finished my coursework and comprehensive exam, the course in question was a chance to re-connect with my dissertation phase in the aftermath of becoming a full-time administrator. The job is interesting but can be all-consuming and I wanted an equally valid pull to school to keep me from drifting away into the pit of non-completion, which is the core struggle for any doctoral candidate who isn’t pursuing the work in the absence of other obligations. Keeping the material fresh and top of mind is key to remaining engaged, and this course is doing that for me.

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