Techniques for Innovation

Last Fall, during our inaugural launch of the CITE Fellows program, our Instructional Design Team was faced with a difficult challenge: how can we pair CITE faculty with Designers to work on innovative projects that have never been seen before? We came up with a few ideas for a full-day workshop meant to facilitate both of those goals, and looking at the fascinating projects that are now in the works, I think our methods must have been successful.

We planned a full-day “Innovation Lab” meant to get a number of balls rolling: partnerships, a large number of possible project ideas, a small bit of education, and a set of common goals for everyone involved. I won’t go into detail about all of the activities we did, but one stands out more than the others and it’s an activity we’ve also used at the statewide level to generate collaborative, project-based activities between campuses.

“Speed Dating” is an activity that’s meant to do 2 things at once –

1. Generate ideas at a rapid pace so that the critical thinking portion of the participants brains don’t have time to shoot possible ideas down before they’ve had time to breathe. There is a followup portion to the activity where the critical thinking can take place, but during the initial phases, participants should just be idea generating machines.

2.  Rotate the participants through each of their potential partners during the idea generation phase. The theory behind this piece is that we can learn quite a bit about others in short, structured activities where we’re problem solving under the gun.

Keeping these things in mind, we did the following. (I’m rephrasing this as a set of directions should anyone want to try this technique with faculty, staff, or students)

1. Create a set of slides (mine are below) equal to the number of potential partnerships. We have 8 CITE Fellows and needed to pair them with 8 eLearning Instructional Designers, so I created 8 slides. Each slide should contain an unusual scenario to which the participants must respond.  It’s a good idea to look through my examples here to see the kinds of questions I’m suggesting. Some of them are silly and meant more to create an atmosphere of congeniality and help participants learn about potential partners, but others are serious and meant to stimulate real possibilities.

2. Create an online space (closed or open, it’s up to you) where participants can post all of the ideas, solutions, and possibilities they come up with. This will create a documented repository from which the participants can draw later. Some will be silly, but many will be interesting. Participants can see how others responded to the same problem and possibly use the ideas that another person has disregarded. We used a Google+ Community as our online repository. The CITE Fellows can go back and comb through the responses if they want to.

2. On the day of the activity, sit everyone in pairs and instruct them to “Look at the first slide and in 5 minutes, answer the questions posed to you and post your answer to the online community.”

3. Designate one team as the stationary team (ours was the Design Team) and one mobile team (the CITE Fellows were mobile in this activity). Provide this instruction: “After the first 5 minute round, the mobile team will move in a clockwise fashion to the next table to solve a problem with a different team member.”

4. Begin the Speed Dating rounds, making sure that people are moving when and where they should and that someone is keeping time.

Follow Up Activity: In order for this to be effective, there must be discussion afterward, both in the face-to-face setting and after a reflective period. Our CITE Fellows were asked some of the following questions:

  • Did you learn something about your potential partners?
  • Were any of the ideas you came up with exciting to you?
  • Some of your ideas are probably bad. What’s the value of allowing bad ideas to surface and even circulate for a while?
  • Why do you think we timed the slides and asked you to rotate?
  • Did you notice anything change about your mental processes after a few slides?
  • Read through some of the other participants’ responses and let’s talk about how others approached the questions differently.

This Speed Dating round was followed by a session we titled “How to Keep People from Killing Your Ideas”. We know that all too often a faculty member or a staff member thinks of something brilliant and the idea is shot down by those who are afraid of change, threatened by novelty, or believe falsely in a set of guidelines they believe are set in stone.

Overall we believe this Speed Dating activity was vital to the development of the projects the CITE Fellows are now working on. You can see those projects by going here.


Mobile in the Classroom in Starship Troopers.

I love the tablets the students are using in this scene in Starship Troopers. It’s also interesting to see that the traditional arrangement of the classroom has remained and is only augmented by the devices that are clearly distractions to sanctioned learning, but enabling a creative moment.

“Testing Day”

This Twilight Zone episode (“Testing Day”) is another example of dehumanized educational practices. Truth serum? Not to mention the fact that the smart kids are disposed of… but doesn’t this reflect our tendency towards eliminating those who are different?

Things I Discovered About eLearning from Writing for a Food Blog

In a conversation with Bill Moyers, the scholar Joseph Campbell said that “if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” I decided to take his advice a few years ago during a frenzy of cooking and reading food-oriented books and essays. Unfortunately, my “bliss” tends to be an ever changing thing. Like Susan Orlean’s depiction of John LaRoche in The Orchid Theif, my passions tend to seize me then leave me like a gigolo with mommy issues. I suppose I’m still obsessed with food writing and the many characters emerging from the restaurant front, but perhaps due to my job or perhaps due to some other flight of the imagination, I don’t write as much for “The Tart Little Piggy” as I used to, although I wish I could. These days, I’m an Instructional Designer for the University of Alaska Fairbanks and I spend my time helping faculty put their classes on the web by teaching them to use WordPress and all sorts of other web tools. Of course, everything I know about WordPress comes from my days and nights spent as a food blogger. As a matter of fact, almost all of what I know about eLearning itself comes from that experience. Perhaps what Campbell said is at least partially true, since I’m now surrounded by others whose passions burn brightly and extinguish in cycles of obsession and ambivalence, those who paint or draw or sculpt or write, and those who are persistently enamored of the emerging world of the internet and the gadgets that connect us to it. Some doors have certainly opened where I never would have predicted they would be. And even though I can’t spend all day cooking or painting or writing, at least it’s all within arms reach, if not central to my life.

The understanding I have about food writing after having created the Tart Little Piggy has taught me a great deal about the relationship between creating something of value and deeper levels of understanding. After building a few WordPress sites that house actual courses (including one that I teach), it seems pretty obvious to me that if you’re teaching a class online and it isn’t any fun, you aren’t doing it right. Why should an online college class be any less illuminating of a topic for the teacher or students than a food blog (or whatever you’re into)? Some of the correlations between my personal interest blog and course blogs are focused on eLearning from the student’s perspective, and others are focused on the teacher’s perspective, but any way you slice it, the process itself was (and continues to be) highly instructive. The following is a short list of things I’m pretty sure are true.

Building something you care about is a great way to learn more about it.
We really hammer this home during our faculty development training sessions here. When we ask students to write a paper, they’re engaging a small handful of skills and approaches to a topic. If we ask students to create multi-media driven (but well-written) posts on a topic, hyperlink sources in the post, comment on the posts of other students, and respond to those who’ve posted in theirs, they’re engaging more than just a handful of skills. As a matter of fact, they have to learn a whole host of new skills just to publish the post. If we ask students to do even more by creating an entire blog on a subject with links to resources, tagged posts, and any other content, they’re learning even more and constellating concepts and ideas that would otherwise be disparate.

Great courses have a central theme or idea that guides the content and interactions of the students.
Part of what we teach during our faculty development sessions is that a course needs to be built backwards from a central or “Big” idea. This concept is covered extensively in Understanding by Design. Inevitably, if you write for a food blog and you posting things about paintbrush solvents, you’re going to lose part of your audience. The same is true in the online (or face-to-face) classroom.

Many web tools and publishing platforms have features that may scare novice users. Practice and exploration are key to mitigating fear.
This I remember very distinctly from my early days as a blogger. I remember looking at the sidebar in WordPress and thinking “What the heck is a plug-in? Do I have to know what it is in order to do this? What’s the difference between a “page” and a “post”? I can’t do this…” Obviously, I forged ahead, but with a great deal of uncertainty. This confusion and fear is even worse for new instructors or students who may not be volunteers to the process. A good course designer or instructor will be able to foresee places where students will get stuck. Creating things like FAQs and making yourself available to answer questions is part of running a successful course. These things are true for first-time online instructors as well. Creating and running a blog has a steep learning curve but prepares you to address student problems when they arise.

Engaging in collaboration or conversation about a topic is a great way to deepen your understanding of it.
Getting a comment on my blog is not only gratifying, but they often help me understand what others find valuable about a topic. Shared experiences, kudos, and even criticisms have helped me craft my work as a writer and a cook. Students have to be given an opportunity to engage what they’re learning. They need places to share what they’re learning, questions they have, and new ideas that arise.

Critical thinking arises with thinking about the user experience. Empathy works.
“User Interface Design” is a fancy title for someone who spends time thinking about what it’s like to use a website. Does your navigation make sense? If a student clicks a button, will he or she get what is expected? Thinking about how others might use a website is a corollary to thinking about how others might perceive or argue with a position, claim, or opinion–a healthy component of critical thinking. Faculty should be empathizing with their users, and so should students.

Information fluency is gained through building, producing new content for, and maintaining a blog or other public creation.
Aggregating source material, curating what you find, and storing and managing what you find so that you can return to it while crafting your own unique content is not a new set of skills. I taught these things when I taught students to write academic research papers. But doing those things in a digital environment requires some practical know-how and many repeat performances before mastery is achieved.

The intentional use of images and thoughtful layout improves visual literacy skills.
This particular point is related to information fluency, but I separate it out, because for too long we’ve been asking students to craft verbal demonstrations of topic mastery, missing an entire visual vocabulary that is obviously integral to the way we communicate today. Writing for a blog? You should really be thinking hard about visuals. No one likes to look at a wall of text. Even Wikipedia uses pictures these days.

Identity can be more deeply understood by crafting material and sharing personal reflections that are shared with a real audience.
This benefit (understanding our place in the universe) of a University education seems to have been lost in recent years. Of course, my education is meaningful in that I have a good job with benefits, but more than this material good, my education provided me with a sense of identity that really matters. The world out there and the world in here are not entirely separate. “Know Thyself” is a dictum that matters to all of us, not just philosophers.

Practical and transferable skills on everything from HTML5 to CSS to WordPress Plug-ins to basic computer and web literacy will emerge over time.
If students are asked to contribute rather than simply regurgitate, what they learn will extend beyond data stored in their short term memory, the very least of which is simple web-related skills. Knowing how to set up and manage a website is a skill that most professionals will increasingly benefit from. I’ve learned more from blogging about food writing than I ever would have in a course that relied only on papers and tests.

A Review of a Review of a Book I Haven’t Yet Read

I work with a shockingly bright group of Instructional Designers, a team of 12 professionals from crazily diverse backgrounds. I often refer to them as the X-Men even though it’s kind of a misnomer (since we’re 75% female). We possess a wide range of skills, from technological to artistic to athletic. We’ve assembled in this profession in part due to the hiring practices of our boss, but the job lends itself well to the autodidact. The derogatory term for the autodidact, “the dilettante,” is used to denote folks who never really acquire enough knowledge or understanding to master a field, but don’t call any of us dilettantes, because among other skills, some of us are trained kickboxers and axe-wielding endurance runners. I’m not kidding. We will destroy you.

I’m fascinated with this team as a whole; how we work, why we get stuck or burned out, where we display streaks of genius, and how we sometimes manage to build an innovative online educational environment despite some of our best efforts to sabotage our own progress. Perhaps I’m driven by an adolescent desire to believe that I’m part of an archetypal gang, one like the Goonies, or the A-Team (more recently I’ve been obsessed with SciFy’s Alphas, a show that revolves around a team of genetically mutated but advanced humans), but I’d rather believe that I’ve somehow been lucky enough to end up surrounded by an honest-to-goodness group of eccentric, intelligent, anti-authoritarian, creative, and generally disruptive autodidacts.

I recently bumped into a review of a book I have yet to read, Dan Mezick’s The Culture Game, that struck me as encouraging an oddly similar environment to the one I’m blessed to be part of. The review sums up the 16 practices that form the backbone of the book, and each of them are valuable actions that, for the most part, form the culture of UAF eLearning. You can see the list here. I looked into the central theme of the book, what’s referred to as “culture hacking” and found that Jim and Michele McCarthy in their book Software for Your Head define the activity as

itself a distinct kind of culture engineering, and is faithful to the particular hacker ethos that originated in the world of software hacking. Good culture hacking will tend to protect personal freedom, extend openness, embody rationality and promote culture design elegance. Culture hacking takes into account the limits and uses of authority, is skeptical of incoherent institutional power, and is subversive of it. As our many cultures become increasingly (and fruitfully) hacked, we will likely grow in effectiveness, and ambition. This will bring more and more of the world’s problems into manageable scope. This will likely trigger an unprecedented Golden Era.

Skeptical and subversive of institutional power? Check. Extending and encouraging openness and promoting culture design elegance? Check.

Really, the 16 point framework of The Culture Game weren’t activities that I’d never heard of, but they were a nice collection of things that are already being done in my office and may have something to do with why the Instructional Design Team is so extraordinary. We are more than the simple sum of our parts. At least, we are for now. Identifying the unique and effective ways we operate as a team and distinguishing them from the unique talents that we display as individuals seems important to the longevity of the team in the face of inevitable changes in management. The concept of culture hacking and the idea that it can make a collection of remarkable team members function at optimum levels is appealing, and I’m relieved that there are books on this topic out there that I can bury my head in later on.

P.S. Here is a list of skills and interests we as a team possess. Note that only half of the team responded when I asked for personal lists:

sport climber, spear thrower (javeline), axe wielding, parachutist,propagandist, endurance runner, photographer, wood turner, bookbinder, paper cutting/collage sculpture, paddler, apple picker, basket weaver, sewer, dressage horsemanship, fixed wing single engine pilot. telescope operator/tour guide. swim instructor/life guard. hang glider pilot. masseuse. politician/local representative. campaign manager. Apple picker. McDonalds worker drone. journalist/editor/photographer. mediator. level 85 night elf priest healer. guild leader, antique fountain pen restorer, collector of antique and modern watermarked paper, hand bookbinder, writer of poetry, collector of monkey ephemera, origami folder, dedicated (and I mean really dedicated) snail mail correspondent, rock guitar god wannabe, modular unit origami, fountain pen restoration, ink mixing and preservation, racquetball (those were the days), “extroversion for the introverted,” and rock and metal guitar playing, the art of the letter, and “exploring marginalia.” graphic designer, web developer, web designer, web marketing and SEO,  relational database monkey, silver smith, photographer, printmaker, bike mechanic, cat whisperer, technical illustrator, world traveler, bike racer, deckhand, merchant mariner, watchman, kickboxer, glissader, roller skater, disco dancer, DJ, barista, bartender, EMT, science writer, clothing designer, belly dancer, stain glass quilting, tile & stone work, programmer analyst, manager, designer, owner, marketer, bookkeeper (hated it), editor, data specialist (ETL), buyer, Distinguished Toastmaster, writer (knitting patterns – self published for store). staffing, HR, budget, help desk, sheetrock, Deacon, local talent for radio and tv ads



Why I Dislike Google+

Originally this post was called “How To Automatically Share Google+ Posts on Twitter and Facebook.” Except, as it turns out, you can’t do this.  At least not in a way that I’ve figured out yet.  I was hoping to be able to talk to and share with my students via multiple channels (since they all use different services) in one fell swoop.  I thought I had a good theory on how to do it too. This was the theoretical workflow:

1. Drag this bookmarklet to your bookmarks bar.  Or, if you’re using Chrome, you can try this plugin: Google +1 Button.

2. Create an RSS feed for your Google+ profile by using the instructions found here: (To find your user number, go to your Google+ profile page, and look in the address bar)

3. Use If This Then That to create a recipe like this one:  (If you want to feed your Google+ posts to Facebook and Twitter you will have to create separate recipes for both.  You can also feed your Google+ posts to a Tumblr or WordPress Blog.)

4. The next time you’re on a site that you want to share, use the Google+ button you’ve installed in your browser and share away.  If This Then That will handle the rest.

I tested the theory and realized that it doesn’t work.  The problem lies with step #2; it seems that Google has made it impossible to create an RSS feed from a Google+ profile, which would be the key ingredient to creating an IFTTT recipe.  I did a little research and came up with this comment in a Google Groups discussion by Chris Chabot, who is a Developer Advocate with Google (what does that mean?):

     Social networks are all about, nor surprisingly, social interaction; Human beings connecting with each other and doing ‘social things’.  Social things are anything from satisfying our intrinsic motivations such as exchanging stories, collaborating, mastering things together and creating and maintaining social connections with the people around you – the internal primal instincts and needs that drive us all and make us human beings, a social creature.
     On a social network the things that make up all those social interactions are posts, comments, +1’s and re-shares – and we only really feel satisfied in those primal social instincts if we interact with other human beings, when you’re talking to a computer or an automated process, we don’t become happy – when we engage with fellow social beings, we do become happy.
     Automatic imports of any kind (such as importing RSS feeds) lacks that social interaction – the owner of the post doesn’t really know when it’s posted, doesn’t thank people for their +1’s and doesn’t engage in conversation in comments – it’s automated and it’s broadcasting as it should so why bother right? So what happens, and I’ve seen this in practice on other social networks I’ve worked on in the past I remember seeing that a large % of all content was imported content, but not even 1% of the social engagement came from that imported content.
     It made it look like a bunch of robots talking to each other, and not a place where humans hung out and interacted with each other – which really is very damaging to the ‘social’ part of a social network.
     So in short, we don’t support RSS feeds because it doesn’t have a positive impact for the people on the social network who want a social place to interact with people – even though perhaps on first glance it seems like a no brainer.
In my particular case (wanting to create a feed so that I could broadcast my Google+ posts over two other channels, Twitter and Facebook) Chabot’s point doesn’t really hold since creating the RSS feed is actually in the service of my G+ posts, not simply to migrate my posts (or view the posts of others) into a non-interactive medium.  Yet, I can see his point.  I have advocated for the existence of a truly human social web before, and I would agree with him on the point that “[automatic] imports of any kind (such as importing RSS feeds) lacks that social interaction – the owner of the post doesn’t really know when it’s posted, doesn’t thank people for their +1’s and doesn’t engage in conversation in comments”.
So, the question I’m asking myself now, is “Why do you want to share automatically via multiple channels anyways?” And the answer to that question is that it would allow students, who might be using one social tool more comfortably and frequently than another, to see my posts from one social channel (Google+ in this case) on a social channel they might be more comfortable with and check more often (like Twitter or Facebook). My ability to respond to those who might respond isn’t exactly hampered…I get emails from all of my social networking services if someone makes a comment in response to my posts or shares.  Locking down the feed mechanism for Google+ is, whether intentional or not, a way of locking down the pathways of communication, bottlenecking them through G+ only, creating a kind of country-club exclusivity that, frankly, I can live without. The beauty of things like IFTTT and Twitter and Facebook are their applicability across multiple platforms, allowing for interesting and unique combinations of communication patterns.
I do acknowledge Chabot’s statement regarding “a bunch of robots talking to each other” as pretty accurate in some cases.  We’ve all gotten the automated “Thanks for following me on Twitter” email from some robot and are justifiably irritated with its pseudo-intimacy.  But Google is effectively locking down their system based on the behavior of a few Ponzi Posters. It’s like giving us all detention because one kid launched a spitball at the teacher’s head.  As the number of social bookmarking, sharing, and curating services on the web grows, users will increasingly gravitate towards services that incorporate others they may already be using.
The future of social networking lies in services (like Tweet Deck) that pull in numerous feeds and offer a single posting area that can be channeled towards the platform of the poster’s choosing, or in services like IFTTT that allow users to connect, modulate, and corral services into doing cool stuff that the original developer of those platforms never dreamed of or intended. Actually, I suppose the future could be one of exclusivity and Members-Only areas, yet I would like to think that Awesomeness trumps Exclusivity in this day and age. So, Google+, if you’re listening, drop the pretentious claims of social advocacy because what you’re really doing is steering the web in the wrong direction.