My second days in new environments are always radically different from my firsts. I don’t believe I’m alone in this. And in using ‘radically’, I mean very much that they are rooted differently than the first days. The first day is always a little giddy, usually from greater or lesser sleep deficits, and often contains overconsumption of something. The second day is when the tired catches up with me, particularly if the new environment has involved communicating in a second or other language or negotiating a second or other culture.
So it has been also with ELI 2012 in Austin, Texas. Yesterday kept me up for 21 hours and included a barbecue dinner that couldn’t be beat. Today started with a business videoconference and found me settling in to more nearly routine tweeting. Yesterday featured a provocative and energetic keynote as well as a lively panel debate and the chance to meet one of the icons of reflective blogging and learning, of reflective instructional technology. Today’s roster of sessions was much less exciting and much more get-down-to-business. Barbecue was the primary connector thread, it seemed, with another visit and another feast that couldn’t be beat.
What most drew my attention today were two sessions in fairly different veins. The first was a trio of short presentations in a nontraditionally configured session space. As a way of promoting their wares, a prominent furniture provider donated (I will speculate that it was donated, but that may be insufficiently cynical of me) various sorts of chairs and tables to allow setting up a space with both adequate presenter-fronted room and adequate breakout areas. The design was nothing terribly counter-intuitive or unusual, but I would vote for it being the norm rather than a pure presenter-fronted design.
I was interested in the content because I’ve been curious for a while about the work of one of the presenters, Kyle Bowen of Purdue, and the software creation that goes on at his school. They do a remarkable job of attacking reasonably big issues in software, demonstrating a little quietly that we don’t have to rely either on the open source world or on the corporate world to create big and good educational technology. Put slightly more broadly, their example should give us confidence that we can tackle our problems ourselves provided we approach them with determination and creativity. I’m not naive, so I understand that many institutions don’t have the developer staff to create things themselves, but that’s simply where the creativity (and collaboration and possibly consortium-building) has to come in.
The second presentation that stands out from today was from Charles (Chuck) Dziuban of the University of Central Florida on studying learning environments in all their complexity. More specifically, Dr. Dziuban has worked at length on the issue of student evaluations of teachers, and on questions of how we can refine those evaluations to get better information back and to open up how the evaluations might effect the way teaching proceeds at our institutions. One nice aspect of the presentation was how much more academic specificity Dr. Dziuban brought than other presentations I attended. Here, in brief, is the list of texts he recommended consulting when thinking about the complex system of student evaluations, in order of mention: Lakoff (1987), Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things; Diamond (1999), Guns, Germs, and Steel; Long (2011), Your Predictable Adolescent; Wang, et al. (2009), “Dr. Fox Rocks: Using Data-mining Techniques to Examine Student Ratings of Instruction”.
Another nice aspect was the way Dr. Dziuban did something I don’t see much in conferences, which was to use his personal story in meaningful ways during the presentation. Certainly, many presenters relate anecdotes from their own lives, but usually at arms-length. Critical distance is one thing, but having a handful of canned stories to illustrate this point or that takes those stories out of the realm of reflectivity and decreases their effectiveness for connecting with people listening. By contrast, at least one tale Dr. Dziuban told was one that clearly caused him pain at the time and that has served as a point of reflection for many years. (Again, perhaps I’m insufficiently critical and cynical; perhaps Dziuban is just better practiced at choosing and performing his stories. I hope not.) This emotional facet combined well with the academic rigor to make for an engaging presentation.
My final work of the day was to take part in a focus group on ELI and what it could do to improve its efforts. As a new attendee, I felt that I would have some valuable contributions to make, and wanted to hear what others had to say as well. It was a surprisingly enjoyable and fruitful session, going on nearly double the time allotted, simply because we had a robust discussion of ideas put forth by nearly everyone in the group. The main thing I hoped to get across was that ELI needs to do more to integrate new members/participants and to build community among members. This is no simple task, but it’s a crucial part of strengthening the organization and the practice of supporting and enhancing teaching and learning.