Monthly Archives: March 2010

Social Media and General Education: My Queens College Presidential Roundtable talk

This week I gave a Presidential Roundtable discussion at Queens College. The talk was titled, somewhat anemically, “Teaching on the Coattails of Text Messages”, though arguably what I was saying didn’t really end up having much to do with text messages! (I justify my being misleading by reference to the fact that the Presidential Roundtable was not in fact a roundtable format.)

The thrust of the talk was that there are important structural similarities between social media like blogs and Twitter (their openness, their relative lack of imposed structure, their focus on audience and emergent conventions, their positioning of the individual as the locus of value and meaning) and the kind of general education that we’re seeking during this year of gen ed reform at QC.

I transcribed the video after the break, mainly so I’d have the text for my own purposes. It’s lightly edited to cut out some of the more egregious ums and ers and actuallys. Video of the talk is below for anyone who is interested. I spoke mostly extemporaneously and said some dumb things, so please be generous in your interpretation!!

Special thanks to Zach Whalen, who generously answered some of my questions about his Graphic Novel class. (And to his students, whose tweets served as fodder!)

Teaching on the Coattails of Text Messages from Boone Gorges on Vimeo.

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Moving on

This week I resigned my position as instructional technologist at Queens College. May 27 will be my last day.

My main reason for leaving is my dissertation, or rather my lack of dissertation. I’ve been done with graduate classes for longer than I care to admit, with nothing between me and the degree but the dissertation (as if it were a small thing!). During my time at Queens College – two years as a CUNY Writing Fellow followed by two years as a full-time instructional technologist – I managed to consistently use the job as an excuse not to work on philosophy to the extent that I should. I plan to continue doing web development for the CUNY Academic Commons and elsewhere while I work on my thesis.



As a number of my dear readers are already aware, the path leading to my decision was paved with self-doubt and second guessing. Obviously, there is the stress of going from having a full-time job (and paycheck) to not having one. More surprising, to me at least, have been the nagging misgivings about my relationship with the world of educational technology.

Like a lot of other people I know in the field, I entered edtech on accident. But over the last four years I have found a place in several different kinds of communities built around the intersection of technology and the classroom: communities at Queens College, across CUNY, and beyond. To the extent that leaving day-to-day instructional technology means distancing myself from those communities, I am very sad to do so.

As for the work itself? Here my feelings are more mixed. Certainly the high points of the job have been quite high indeed: working in close collaboration on meaningful projects with great people. But even during the good times I’ve always had a lurking feeling (which has occasionally crossed my lips in mixed company!) that the position itself was an unnatural one. It’s in a broken system – mediocre software, insufficient resources, unthoughtful pedagogy, a stagnant culture surrounding the relevance of digital technology in the university – that the instructional technologist flourishes. Like a doctor or a plumber or a parent, a big part of my job was to get people not to need me anymore.

That’s not to say that edtech is somehow pointless, anymore than it is to suggest that medicine or plumbing repair or parenting are without value. You might even argue that a field that arises out of such genuine need deserves to exist even more in virtue of that very fact. And so it probably is with edtech. Still, a sort of (mild) existential angst has plagued me since I took the job, a feeling that I’ll be glad to leave to my more intrepid colleagues.

I have enormous respect for people doing the extremely important job of on-the-ground edtech. That I will be respecting from a distance leaves me feeling bittersweet. But mostly I’m excited, to watch, as an outsider, how the field evolves in the upcoming years. In the meantime, I’ll be being productive in new ways!


What’s wrong with TEDxNYED?



TEDxNYED was an interesting event in a couple of ways. A few blog posts have hit my reader already from people I respect (eg Will Richardson, who was in attendance, and Jim Groom, who was not there but posted on a topic directly related to the TED and TEDxNYED phenomena). I enjoyed many of the talks but walked away feeling more defeated than energized.

I’ve always had extremely mixed feelings about TED talks. I’ve watched a few dozen of the freely available videos over the years, and most seem, in my unstudied view, to be little more than glorified project pimps or book promos. I’m sure that the folks who organize TED try hard to keep explicit self-promotion off of the stage, but in the end it’s a symptom of the format: if you invite someone to give a very brief, non-specialist-level teaser on some piece of great work they’ve done, what can it really be except for a bragfest?



Sitting through TEDxNYED, I was in a sense relieved that all of the talks were limited to 18 minutes (a cornerstone of the TED philosophy) – the energy level in the room stayed pretty consistently high, which can largely be attributed to the brevity of the talks. But I also found myself frustrated, in much the same way that I do with TED talks in general, with the lack of focus on just what the 18-minute talk is supposed to do. Few of the talks present anything resembling a thesis; in eightteen minutes, just what kind of thesis worth defending could be laid out, considered, justified? It’s not as if argumentative presentations are the only ones worth giving – far from it – but in the absence of an argument to give structure to the talk, there has to be some other purpose. Some of the talks fall into the “rallying cry” category, which is to say that they present an issue in a way to get people emotionally involved enough to want to get out there and participate. This is a more realistic goal for 18 minutes, but few speakers have the humility, grace, eloquence, and project to pull it off. TED states its mission as “spreading ideas”, which in its vagueness is an indicator of how the individual talks themselves can vary so much in their focus, or lack focus altogether.

Then there is what D’Arcy Norman has called the “elitism” of TED. I will say happily that the TEDxNYED application did not ask for lifetime achievements, but only for a few sentences explaining why I wanted to attend the event. I don’t know how many people were turned away from the event, and what role these few sentences played in choosing who got in and who didn’t, so I’m afraid I can’t corroborate whether this was an awesomeness-filter. Related to D’Arcy’s concern, though, is the more worrisome hero worship that Jim gestures toward in his post. You invite a bunch of famous-on-the-edtech-internet folks to speak, fill the room with education dorks (which I mean in the sweetest way possible, including myself in the ‘dork’ camp), and then watch the echo chamber effect get out of control. As I heard a few people lament throughout the day, the people who really should be hearing some of the talks – and in particular the “rallying cry” kind of talk – were not the kinds of people who come to an event like this. Will’s post points out nicely the tendency to feel giddy after a day of chumming with like-minded folks, and the difficulty of connecting back with the work you do in your everyday life.



I saw a tweet in the middle of the day – wish I could find it now – that remarked on the irony of a day full of lectures delivered to a roomful of people who love to decry the utility of lectures as a learning tool. Another part of the TED philosophy is that “all of knowledge is connected” (which, understood in the right way, can be an interesting hypothesis) but I walk away from the day feeling that connections between the presentations are still largely hidden or at least implicit. This disjointedness is in part a product of the unidirectional nature of the TED format: the speakers have a chance to connect by making references to earlier events in the day, but there’s no organized way for the audience to do the kind of hands-on synthesis that would ground the connections in their own experiences and goals. Some of these connections are made informally over lunch and at the after-party, but at those events I found myself talking to people I already knew about things we already agreed upon. Largely my own fault, I suppose, but it’s also a function of the way that the TED conference is not set up to encourage cross-pollenization of ideas between .

The above sounds like a lot of complaining. It’s not meant to be. I’m very glad I had the chance to hear several of the speakers through the day, and I made some nice personal contacts with people I had only heard of or only knew on the internet. The day was a net positive for me. But I can’t help but think that the TED format, while perhaps being well-suited to some purposes (explaining why neuroscience is important for non-neuroscientists, maybe), it’s more difficult to reconcile it with the needs of a community, like the NY educational community, that already shares certain practices and beliefs.

New BuddyPress plugin: BP Group Management

Another day, another plugin for BuddyPress. In BP < 1.2, it was impossible for site admins to manage group membership in groups where they weren't also the local admin. This is good in a lot of situations, but in some applications of BP it can be a pain – the system administrator needs more power in order to correct problem, wreak havoc, and so on. In BP 1.2+ the situation is better – admins can manage groups more – but it's still not all that easy to see everything in one place. This plugin rectifies the situation by allowing site admins to manage the members of groups across their BP installation from a single screen.

Read more about it.

New BuddyPress plugin: BP Import Blog Activity

I wrote a BuddyPress plugin today that is very ugly. It imports activity into BuddyPress from blog posts and comments that occurred before you had BuddyPress installed. It’s ugly because it’s sloppily coded and extremely inefficient and likely to hit PHP memory limits every time you run it. But it does the job, so I thought I’d post it and share it with others.

Read more about it, along with a bunch of warnings, here.