Stone Soup with Curt Bonk: Armchair Indiana Jones in Action

By Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

On May 15, 2013, I had the opportunity to attend the Stone Soup Conference, a professional development event at Meredith College in Raleigh. The day featured three talks by Dr. Curt Bonk, Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University. The day was centered on major themes of Curt’s work: open learning, networking, creative instructional techniques and motivational strategies: “Quality, plagiarism, copyright and assessment are the four topics everyone wants to know about before considering online learning. I am not going to talk about any of these. I am going to talk about pedagogy,” he clarified in the beginning.

Fig.1: Curt Bonk at the Meredith Stone Soup Conference, May 15, 2013.

Fig.1: Curt Bonk at the Meredith Stone Soup Conference, May 15, 2013.

Curt explored the development of educational technologies over the past decades – which he depicted as a journey toward openness. Central to his credo, “Today, anyone can learn anything from anyone at any time,” is the vast amount of high-quality material available on the web. Ten years ago, the use of open learning, sharing and educational technologies was met with great resistance. Today, educators have access to sites like Merlot, Connexions, World Digital Library and Smithsonian education resources. This allows teachers to explore new roles as curators of learning: “It is our job to mine and mind high quality material – and ignore the rest.” Obviously, this does not mean that teachers merely point students toward online resources. On the contrary, Curt introduced an 80/20 rule of thumb: “Approximately 20% of students are self-directed learners; the others need our guidance.”

Throughout the day, Curt connected current technology trends with the history of education. As one of his role models, he named Charles Wedemeyer, founder of the Open University UK and author of the book “Learning at the Back Door” (1981) that predicts the impact of e-learning on education. Another example of trends prevalent today that were predicted in the 1980s is the video “Apple Knowledge Navigator” (1987).

Jokingly, Curt referred to himself as an “armchair Indiana Jones” – someone who explores the world of open learning mouse click by mouse click. In fact, Curt is an avid international keynoter and research collaborator. His experience on the international e-learning stage showed in remarks about the future of educational technologies: “If you want to see cutting edge technologies that will impact higher education tomorrow, look at elementary schools in Korea today.”

Curt Bonk, Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University.

Curt Bonk, Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University.

What about the present? MOOCs, the flipped classroom and audio-visual material are three themes in the current educational technology landscape that Curt highlighted during his talk and that resonated with me.

Although Curt characterized himself as technologically conservative – “I don’t jump right into things; I got my first smartphone a few weeks ago” – he is among the early-adopters of the MOOC concept. In 2012, he taught a Massive Open Online Course via Blackboard on “Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success.” Another MOOC protagonist, Chuck Severance, professor at School of Information at the University of Michigan and creator of Sakai, taught a MOOC to 40.000 people on “Internet History, Technology, and Security” in 2012.  Chuck’s office hours, held all over the world, are documented on his Youtube channel.

Unsurprisingly, universities are looking at ways to transfer the concept of MOOCs to accredited degree programs: Georgia Tech has just announced a low-cost online master in computer science.

The flipped classroom – most talked about in K-12 – also impacts higher education: Students can use simple technologies and tools to create applications, blogs, podcasts, digital books and videos. Even non-tech-savvy students can create mobile experiences with applications like locacious.net or environments such as theappbuilder. To connect creative multimedia activities with scholarly work, students can, for instance, record audio book trailers of articles and textbooks or draw concept maps using free resources such as CmapTools or popplet. Web-based Timeline tools such as dipity, simile, xtimeline and timeglider enable learners to track the career of a scientist, map the development of a movement, or visualize the dissemination of an idea. Writing environments such as PiratePad or MeetingWords have a low technology threshold and offer effective collaboration tools. Activities like critiquing or creating wikibooks, blogs or multimedia glossaries improve subject knowledge and critical thinking skills.

Mobile applications and online services for recording, editing and disseminating audio and video material are exploding, opening the door for oral history and ethnography projects in the classroom. Websites like Meograph offer easy ways to create multimedia stories. Another idea is to incorporate video into the class syllabus by referencing recordings of TED talks or conference keynotes. With the web tool TubeChop teachers and students can slice material from youtube and simply repurpose videos. This allows for student-centered activities, e.g., ask students to find a concept in a video or use video as an anchor for starting classroom discussions.

Curt was a fountain of ideas for social classroom activities, creative thinking techniques, and critical reflection assignments. Here is a summary of topics that I found particularly stimulating:

  • Offer variety and choice: One way to motivate students is to offer them choices, e.g., “Here are ten assignments – pick four,” said Curt. “Students loved this. Before, I just posted four assignments and they complained.” Another suggestion: Hold a library day during which students read ten articles and write a one-page summary.
  • Incorporate Icebreakers: Curt advocated for deliberately framing courses: “Icebreakers are crucial for student retention in online learning.” For example, the “eight noun activity” that asks students to come up with eight self-descriptive nouns in the style “I am a…” and then reply to two-to-three peers who have something in common with them. Another suggestion: Post interests, commitments and goals to keep students in class, e.g., “online with 43things.”
  • Deal with feedback: Student-centered activities often come with the downside of an overwhelming workload for the instructor. As Curt observed: “Students want feedback on everything they do. You know what happens when you give feedback on everything they do? You die.” One solution he proposed is to assign learning tandems. The “critical friend” reads and comments upon all blog posts and products. At the end of the semester, students create one meta-posting that summarizes their portfolio and is reviewed by the instructor. MOOCs are great examples for ways to handle massive participation and often spur new ideas like the online Q&A platform piazza.com: Here, students can ask, answer and rate questions and responses before the instructor attends office hours.
  • Turn things upside down: Curt advocated changing the order of things to vitalize a stagnant course or classroom experience. “My class got better when I taught it in reverse order.” A service that helps with this is random.org. Another suggestion: Try reverse brainstorming: “How can we increase costs? How can we make service worse?”
  • Play, imagine, and engage: Let students design “just suppose” or “what if” scenarios, using storyline tools or visualization services, e.g., xtranormal. Organize online panels, symposia or scholarly debates in which students take the role of a specific scholar. Incorporate personality role play in a discussion forum with entries from the counselor, the critique, the visionary, or the “advocatus diaboli.”
  • Provide active roles: Once per semester, a student is the “cool resource provider” and has to bring a compelling resource to class. In each class session, assign a “Google jockey,” who performs background research on the fly while following the lecture. Engage students without spending too much classroom time. Ask them to bring a quote to class and present it in 99 seconds.
  • Open up the classroom. Debate scholarly articles with your students in an asynchronous mode (for instance through discussion forums or reflective blogposts), then move to synchronous discussions and invite authors to your classroom session – via Google hangouts or Adobe Connect. Organize cross-classroom collaboration with other universities – maybe even internationally. You cannot change timezones, but non-native speakers can profit from tools like grammarly.com.
  • Foster memorizing, reflection and debriefing. Ask students to write one-minute papers, take away messages or muddiest point papers. Ask them to note down positive, negative and interesting aspects of the class session. After a lecture, have students decide on the best three ideas they have heard, then meet with a peer and condense their six ideas to three. Creating online crosswords with eclipsecrossword or interactive flashcards with studystack are other playful ways to foster retention.

The slides of the talks at Meredith College are available online:

  1. Keynote: I Am Not Content: The Future of Education Must Come Today!
  2. Masterclass #1: Thinking skills. 70+ Hyper-Engaging Instructional Strategies for Any Class Size (Critical, Creative, Cooperative)
  3. Masterclass #2: Where are you R2D2? Addressing Diverse Learner Needs with the Read, Reflect, Display, and Do Model
Fig.2: Takeaway messages – participants were asked to note down which tools, ideas or concepts they will definitely use (green), maybe use (yellow) and probably not use (red).

Fig.2: Takeaway messages – participants were asked to note down which tools, ideas or concepts they will definitely use (green), maybe use (yellow) and probably not use (red).

Curt, thank you for inviting me to the conference. It was an inspiring experience!

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