History Alum to present at Civil War Roundtable

The Fredericksburg Civil War Roundtable would like to invite four University of Mary Washington History undergraduates to join them at their regular monthly meeting at 6PM on Wednesday, March 24, 2010 in the ballroom of the Jepson Alumni Center for dinner and program. The scheduled program is titled “Mine Run: Reflections of the Reality of War” and will feature Kati Singel, a 2007 history major graduate of UMW and former National Park Service historian. Ms. Singel is currently a graduate student at West Virginia University.

If you are interested in attending, please contact Dr. McClurken.

Redesigning the Classroom: Let’s Start with the Wall

Following Jason’s request for help in redesigning a campus computer lab, this post looks at one piece of cutting-edge technology to begin to suggest some ideas about our campus classrooms and what we might want from them going forward.

The Big, Cool Wall

This conversation about the classroom begins with what I found to be among the most thought-provoking sessions at the recent EduCon 2.2 conference, those led by Jeff Han and Toby Sanders of Perceptive Pixel.  Han is the inventor of the large, pressure-sensitive multi-touch wall that is well known if you’ve watched any of the major news channels, especially during the 2008 presidential campaign.  [Though you might have seen that use of it made fun of by a certain weekly comedy show.] In any case, it is an impressive hardware and software combination, especially when used in person (and even more so with several people at once).   Although it’s currently (way) out of the price range of educational institutions, it is already being used in a number of industries, including “medical imaging, broadcast, defense, energy exploration, geo-intelligence, and industrial design.

Han and Sanders’s goal in being at EduCon, a conference of largely K-12 educators, was to get feedback from teachers, administrators, consultants, and edtech specialists about the potential educational uses of their large interactive wall, and especially of the potential offered to students and teachers in the classroom.  [It's worth pointing out that Han and Sanders repeatedly noted that unless it was clear that their product meant something more to education than just a chalkboard on steroids, the company wouldn't move that way.]  After having a chance to see the technology in action and then to play with it ourselves, 20-30 of us sat down and talked about the future of the classroom and education. Several features of Perceptive Pixel’s multi-touch display kept being emphasized during the discussion:

  • Potential collaboration facilitated by the fact that multiple people can use it simultaneously
  • Ability to record all work done on the wall for easy playback
  • Potential to displace the keyboard/mouse combination as the primary form of input
  • Ability to create multimedia presentations/discussions/discursive explorations on the fly.
  • Appeal of a large digital display space: [Imagine depicting an original document side by side with the texts or art works or other creations it inspired (or that inspired it).  Think what one might do with the Declaration of Independence or Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.]
  • Visualization and manipulation of 3-D images — general sense that this was much more than the chalkboard on steroids
  • Potential for 3-D rendering led to discussions of medical imaging and virtual science labs as obvious potential educational uses
  • Future possibility for individual/small group touch devices that could be linked to main screen(s) to show work-in-progress from within various points in the classroom.

So What?
Certainly I think most of us could come up with uses for a multi-touch wall in our own classroom, if we were given one.  But more interesting to me (and I suspect to the readers of ProfHacker) are the questions that a potentially transformative visual and kinesthetic interface raises about what we think the classroom should include going forward.  The traditional lecture classroom with chairs lined in rows facing the front podium and chalkboard has remained remarkably resilient over the last century or so as the dominant form of classroom setup.  The most common addition of technology to the college classroom has been to add a computer/DVD/projector to that traditional room, but even so, the setup remains remarkably one-way. 

What follows is an admittedly impressionistic list of what I found innovative, interesting, or inspiring about potential additions to the traditional face-to-face classroom experience seen in the interface created by Jeff Han and his company. Then I make some preliminary suggestions about the areas that we need to explore as we think about redesigning the classroom.

  • For me the greatest appeal of the large, multi-touch wall for the classroom lies in its potential for displaying thinking, learning, and collaboration in the classroom. For example, a digital wall as big as a decent-sized chalkboard makes it possible:
    • To reproduce and represent the work of numerous students (or of multiple student groups) side by side
    • To show all of the notes, conversations, and connections that led to a student or a teacher’s final result.
    • At my most idealistic, this kind of display offers a variety of ways to make visible to the class the life of the mind, to produce, as I’ve discussed in other venues, a snapshot of our intellectual life.
  • The possibility to trump (in some way) the mouse/keyboard interface that we have fallen into offers fascinating possibilities for the way we interact with information.  For example, is there something more intimate about a touch screen interface than the once-removed actions of the keyboard and mouse? If so, what are the implications for teaching and learning in the classroom?  [And no, I don't want to get into an iPad discussion here, though we can in the comments, if you insist.]
  • Several of the software tools already created by Perceptive Pixel lend themselves to innovative and useful (though not wholly original) ways of looking at and presenting information in the classroom: easily navigable hierarchical structures like the classifications of species (including automatic searching and loading of images of those species from the web); historical election data down to the county level (for presidential elections back a couple decades in the version I saw, but I suspect it could be expanded easily with existing data); the ability to snag video clips and and images on the fly to make a new presentation.
  • As an historian, I am enamored (perhaps to an unseemly degree) by the idea of reinvigorating the timeline and the map as complex, active tools that reflect vast amounts of data, including changes of time and scale, rather than a fixed, static set of points.  And as an historian of the US, I would love to be able to teach with an interactive map of the United States that allowed me to access and visually depict, on the fly in a classroom, the myriad of historical data sets (census, migration, crime statistics, voting records, etc.) that already exist, many in digital form.
  • Finally, the increasing ease and skill with which visual information is manipulated, however, also suggests that visual literacy is increasingly becoming a core skill.   Most colleges place at the center of their core values the critical analysis of arguments and evidence.  Increasingly, we will want critical thinkers who are able to analyze visually as well as textually.

Based on these (admittedly scattered) observations and my own experiments in teaching over the last decade, I’d like to see classroom redesign in the years to come  as growing out of an increased focus on:

  1. Flexibility in physical layout
  2. Truly functional collaborative spaces (physical and technological)
  3. Potential advantages of bringing in kinesthetic learning (an area just beginning to be explored in higher ed)
  4. Expanded visual presentation spaces in classroom
  5. Working with developers to create tools that provide new ways of presenting and interacting with data in the classroom environment.

In my next post on Redesigning the Classroom, I’ll talk about how I would, given the opportunity, hack  a version of a classroom redesign that would incorporate many of these principles (and, sadly, do so without access to a multi-touch wall).

In the meantime, I want to hear from all of you. What would you like to see in your ideal classroom of the future (or that you think you should have today)?  What would be the physical and intellectual space that you’d want to have?  What technology would you need?  Would you want?  Or, have I gotten it all wrong? [Is technology not part of your vision of the classroom of the future?  Do you think that the default classroom works just fine?]

*This post comes with the perhaps unnecessary caveat that different people and disciplines will approach their classroom spaces differently and the awareness that there will almost certainly continue to be a demand for traditional lecture-focused classrooms.  This post also comes with the necessary caveat that the goal here is not to sell anyone on the company or their technology, but rather to take advantage of the new perspectives and ideas that brainstorming about new methods of presenting and interacting with information brings to our discussion of the classroom. *

EduCon 2.2 — A ProfHacker Perspective

Though ProfHacker is focused on higher education, we recognize the vital importance of K-12 education (both in the sense of shared endeavor and in terms of the reality that we need K-12 teachers if we have any chance of succeeding in our own educational mission).  In that spirit, this post explores an increasingly important K-12 education conference, EduCon.  This conference, in its third iteration (version 2.2), is held every year at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia.*  [This post will also be the first in a series on ProfHacker looking at the important connections between the expectations and experiences of teachers and students in K-20 education.]

EduCon (aptly billed as “both a conversation and a conference”) has five guiding “axioms” that I suspect will resonate with many ProfHacker readers:

1) Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members
2) Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen
3) Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around.
4) Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate
5) Learning can — and must — be networked.

The Conference Structure

The conference began Friday night at SLA’s partner, the Franklin Institute, with a diverse panel conversing on the question, “What is Smart?” The remaining two days included a keynote, two plenaries, and six individual session times (with roughly 13 “Scheduled Conversations” for each session slot).  The conversations, led by one to four facilitators, ranged in topics from the future of 21st-Century Elementary Education to encouraging student service-learning projects to basic educational applications of technology to copyright issues in a “Remix Generation” to an amazing series of demos (followed by educational use brainstorming sessions) with Jeff Han, inventor of the large multi-touch screen that you’ve seen the networks use for election coverage.

Ultimately all of the sessions I attended or followed built on the five axioms, and were suffused with an amazing energy of creativity and inspiration.  In tone and conversation, EduCon felt more like THATCamp than any higher education conferences I’ve attended (though it did not use THATCamp’s unconference format).  As with the best conferences, the content and format of the sessions supercharged the connections and conversations that happened during, around, and in between those sessions.  In addition to sessions that were light on presentation and heavy on interactive discussions, the whole conference was truly digitally enabled: hundreds of people used Twitter as a true conversational backchannel (#educon), a Flickr group was created and images appeared in it on the fly, links and various references were posted along the way to Twitter or to session wikis, and streaming video was made available to anyone who logged on, sometimes even to people in the room.  [One session even crowdsourced the creation of an online book in 90 minutes using Slideshare.]

Quickly grabbed meals and two receptions served as chances to talk further with the 500 attendees (who included education faculty, journalists, education consultants, technology specialists, administrators, and many, many K-12 classroom teachers.  These gatherings were just as information- and conversation-intensive as the sessions.  [In fact, Saturday's hour-long lunch included seven, rapid-fire, five-minute, twenty-slide presentations called Encienda EduCon.]  This conference has very little down time, but it was worth it.


1) It may seem obvious, but there is no mistaking at EduCon that students matter. SLA’s high school students ran much of the planning and operations of the event; there were also multiple panels with high school students participating in sessions (as facilitators and audience members).  [See here and here for examples.]  There are important lessons to be learned for higher education conferences and the role of undergraduates.

2) EduCon is a great place to engage in K-20 conversations that bridge the (growing?) gap between K-12 and higher education. I was reminded of the at-times vastly different daily experiences of teachers in K-12 schools when we were unable to access, via the Philly school district’s wireless, the website of the restaurant we wanted to go to for dinner, apparently because it served alcohol.  [Given the computer skills of SLA's students, I'm sure someone could have figured out proxy servers to get around it; these are smart kids.  Of course, that's not the point.]

At the same time, the issues facing those of us who are constantly engaged in becoming better teachers (via digital technology or not) transcends the K-12/13-20 barriers that we so often see as absolute.  [Session topics such as "subversive" ways of engaging reluctant teachers in tech-related professional development & the reasons that the addition of technology has NOT resulted in substantive change in education broach issues that resonate with many of us engaged in looking toward the future of colleges and universities.]

There is much to learn here, and higher ed and K-12 have much to offer each other.  Conferences like EduCon offer access to an energetic, open-minded community of educators, looking to explore and improve teaching and learning.

What now?

  • Watch the session videos for yourself when they’re posted. [I'll provided updated links here when it does.]
  • Subscribe to the feeds of this years’ participants and/or Twitter discussions (search #educon or the TwapperKeeper archive).
  • Consider attending next year (or at least commit to watching some online, as hundreds of people did).  If you do go, be sure to get there early enough on Friday to tour the school in session.  [And consider going with people from your school, or at least members of your PLN.]

Other Links
Many participants have already posted their thoughts about EduCon, but here are a few that give you a sense of some other perspectives:

  • Suzie Boss, journalist/blogger for Edutopia
  • Kevin Jarrett, K-4 Tech Facilitator, wrote summaries of each day  (Friday, Saturday, Sunday),
  • Philadelphia Inquirer’s take

* There is a whole separate post that could be written about SLA itself, as a school, and as an approach to education.  Thankfully that post has already been written by a UMW colleague of mine, Martha Burtis.