By Jessica Knott
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the Sloan Consortium’s Blended Learning Conference (July 8-9) in beautiful Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had attended earlier iterations of this event with mixed satisfaction. But when it comes to their face-to-face events, the planning committees and conference chairs seemingly step up their game every year. This conference, chaired by Tanya Joosten (@tjoosten), was one of the best I have ever attended, in person or virtually.
While there, I had the opportunity to give a workshop entitled Visualizing Your Blended Course Design. Those who know me might be giggling a bit as it is common knowledge that my art skills are somewhat mediocre. One might say that my stick figures belong in the wood chipper. But the point of this workshop is to show people that the art isn’t the important part of the process. It doesn’t matter if you produce the most beautiful picture that ever was. What I want is for you to think a little differently about the design of the experience you provide your students.
Too often, we see the word “design” and zero right in on the elements of graphic design. Indeed, in my past, I’ve had people tell me that I’m not an instructional designer because I’m just not that good at the visual aspects. I vigorously disagree. A well-orchestrated teaching activity, executed in an environment spanning face-to-face environments and the virtual world where everything tangible is only tangible because we make it so, requires careful design and planning. We are all designers, even if our artistic skills more closely resemble third grade art class projects than they do the Mona Lisa. I’m proud of every third grade-level piece I produce because of the thought that goes into it.
Drawing lets us think differently. It gets us away from what we know and allows us to use different parts of our brain. It makes us see our content in new ways. It lets us explore frameworks without the pressure of choosing “the right one.” A former colleague, Conan Heiselt, taught me that when you’re looking at a big, white, blank piece of paper, the first thing you should do is mess it up. This removes even more of the pressure to be perfect. I have incorporated this idea and found that he is absolutely right. Participants laugh and look at me like I’m crazy, but it’s often the point in the workshop where they begin to let go and have fun. This was no different at the blended conference. Workshop participant Brandi Leming (@BMPLearning) documented some of her thinking on Twitter. For me, the coolest part of the whole thing is looking around and seeing inside the brains of 20 – 60 different workshop participants; everyone visualizing differently, different pictures, motion, thoughts and structure.
Of course, for some, this workshop just simply doesn’t connect. Maybe the drawing is too stressful, or I am just unable to make the connections for them. Heck, I’ve been flat out told that drawing your ideas was “stupid and a waste of my time.” That’s okay too. I think this workshop went well, and several people told me so. I’m always curious about what the others thought. Wouldn’t it be awesome to know what the people you’re teaching are thinking as you’re teaching them? The best thing about working in the field of education is that right to explore, question, challenge, and finally settle on what’s best for you and your students. This is one of the things that the Sloan blended conference did really well this year.
For now, all I can do is what I do with every workshop: wait for the feedback, synthesize it, make appropriate changes, and make the next one better. Feedback, both positive and negative, is the greatest tool we have in our educational arsenal. Don’t be afraid to give it, and please, even if you don’t want to, fill out your evaluation forms when you attend a workshop. Future attendees will benefit from your insights.
I also made it a point to attend as many presentations as I could. One that caught my eye was by Sunay Palsole of The University of Texas at San Antonio. He gave a presentation aimed at those concerned with engaging their students on different levels and really broke methods and design theories down nicely for all levels of instructors, from the novice professor to experienced course designers. Ultimately, he summed up the process as “plan, then design, then teach.” It seems simple but can be easy to lose sight of when developing a blended course experience. Technology offers the best lure imaginable: the promise of better, faster, more. But, if we blindly chase all of these solutions, we can easily end up with messy, slower, less. Sunay encourages us to focus on the roots of design, always remembering to plan, then design, then teach, then iterate on the whole process.
As with many conferences right now, MOOCs were a hot topic. Shari Smith of Rice University, Karen Vignare of UMUC, Tanya Joosten of University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and Amy Collier of Stanford hosted a spirited panel entitled Using MOOCs for Blended Learning in which they debated the pros and cons of incorporating MOOC content into blended course offerings, the nature of open content, and whether MOOCs could be the solution campuses are looking for in expanding their online and, specifically, blended offerings. Ultimately, the answer is — wait for it — there is no answer. Not definitively, anyway. But what I took away from this panel is the idea that MOOCs are worth exploring, though maybe not ready for prime time, large-scale adoption. The next few years will prove interesting on the MOOC front.
The last thing I want to touch on in this recap is the keynote. Here, I am truly saving the best for last. Alec Couros, from the University of Regina, knocked this keynote out of the park unlike any I have ever seen. Never has a keynote made me laugh and cry in the span of 15 seconds. Using social media to emphasize his points, Couros took us through an emotional look at how social media is changing the field of education in ways we can’t even see, and he offered tips on navigating the highs and lows that social media can rain upon a classroom, university, or individual. From sharing funny Internet videos to emotional stories about how he dealt with the death of his father in the very public social media sphere, Couros held the room captive, and even the most seasoned social media users left the room asking themselves important new questions. If you have the opportunity to see Couros speak, don’t miss it.
In case it’s not obvious, I learned a lot at the Sloan Blended conference, due largely in part to an active back channel, my PLN (personal learning network), and all the amazing new people I met, both in person and online. For another recap of the 2013 Sloan Blended learning conference, read What Was In the Mix for #blend13 by Laura Pasquini (@laurapasquini) or read through the Twitter conversations by searching for the hashtag #blend13 on Twitter, where a vast collection of resources awaits. Happy blending!
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