Making Sense of the Transition to College

Big Fish Little Pond

“Big Fish Little Pond”

Making Sense of the Transition to College

Perhaps not surprisingly, it really matters what we ask students to write. As instructors, and support staff, one way we can help students with the transition to college is to encourage or even demand that students respond to specific prompts that focus their writing and subsequent thoughts on their transition experiences. A rough comparison of FRO 1000 and the SEEK Freshman Seminar blogs shows how different prompts supported students in different sense making processes. As Toby Fulwiler points out in a foundational WAC text, “writing makes thoughts visible and concrete and allows us to interact with and modify them”  (1983). It is this process of making thoughts visible and interacting with them that sense making happens.

As instructors we can use writing prompts to direct students to work through specific thoughts and challenges like the transition to college. For example, the Freshman Seminar directed students to interact with the following prompt:

Create a two-minute video, an eight-image slideshow, or a ten song musical playlist that represents who you think you are to your classmates. Embed your creation in a blog post and then write a post of no more than 500 words that explains how what you’ve created speaks to who you are.

The prompt encouraged students to reflect on the self, and the student responses – again not surprisingly – did just that. They worked through questions like “who am I” and “how do these songs or slides represent me”.

The first few sentences from one post convey a sentiment that a number of students’ communicated:

When initially given this assignment, I thought creating a blog post about myself would be easy. Though I was not necessarily happy about it, I thought it would not be a problem because, generally speaking, I like to believe that I have a decent grasp of who I am as an individual. However, as I sat down to select pictures and craft my slide show, I realized just how difficult it is to effectively convey who I am as an individual in only eight images.

In this excerpt the student articulated the struggles and the process of making sense that many of her peers engaged in as they composed written and pictorial representations of themselves. After the above introduction the student wrote about moving from Florida to New Jersey and “the impact this change had” on her life. Her final paragraph included a quote from Vonnegut and her explanation of the purpose of the quote:

I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” I included this because it accurately describes how I aspire to live my life — taking risks and engaging in new experiences, in order to continue to flourish as an individual.

The first FRO 1000 prompted students to look inward and make sense of their self and then present a narrative about themselves outward in concrete and visible text on their FRO 1000 blogs. It created an exercise of literally constructing a representation of self in Baruch’s digital space.

In contrast the prompt that the SEEK Freshman responded to directed them to reflect on the relationships they were developing in their first weeks at Baruch:

I invite you to tell a story about your first week of the fall semester at Baruch College.             Research has shown that during the first semester students often worry about whether or not professors and other students at their college will accept them, and how eventually students become comfortable there and find a family of people with whom they are close and feel they belong. Please describe how you have experienced your first week of the fall semester at Baruch College…

The prompt was adapted from a Walton and Cohen (2011) article published in Science that showed how writing about the transition to college helped freshman make the transition to college and subsequently improve their graduation rates and overall GPAs. In this excerpt from his first post Almightybrou (a pseudonym) reflected on his experience meeting new people at Baruch:

After we went to the library, we were just standing in the lobby with other people in our             class and we were all just having light conversations about our common interest, such as sports and intended majors. This was the case in most of our classes since the main concentration of all the professors was to have us do ice breakers. This helped us get familiar with each other and made conversations that much more easier. For me it was both an interesting and exciting week for me. Even though it has been such a short amount of time, i feel that it will only get better as we get used to the people we are around.

Almightybrou used this post to make sense of his relationships with the other students in his cohort. Writing about this experience was an opportunity for Almightybrou to interact with and make the experience visible and concrete.

A quick comparison of the FRO 1000 and the SEEK freshman posts provides a window into how different prompts direct students to write and subsequently make sense of themselves and their college context in distinct ways. The FRO 1000 prompt asked what – “represents who you think you are to your classmates” – directing students to make sense of their self. While the SEEK prompt directed students to think about their relationships with others and in light these relationships asked the students to reflect on how have they experienced their first week at Baruch? The differences in the prompts and subsequent student responses call attention to the ways that writing functions as a critical tool for making sense of the transition to college.

Me, My Blog and the Librarian

I just finished teaching a summer graduate course in Qualitative Research. This is a course that I love to teach, as it is, in my opinion, a genuine learning by doing course. It is a course that asks students to really examine the relationship between what they observe and how it fits into their understanding of the world. The first part of the course involves a concentrated amount of reading and discussion about theory, design and philosophical frameworks. But soon these ideas need to be put to use. The only way to really see or understand the relationship between research design and theory is to actually start researching and describing what is witnessed. Students then need to test their choice of research methods by interviewing, observing, developing surveys, and seeing what works. There is both failure and discovery.


What often happens in the middle of this experimenting and application phase is that students begin to ask more questions and feel they have a more precise research direction to follow. This is also a moment I love in the course. It is a time that the class moves from a common thread of discussion to many threads. Each student is beginning to move into their own area of expertise and it seems at times that the collective knowledge of the class is growing in leaps and bonds. It is also a time for a really great research librarian to come into the classroom and work with students individually. The overall content and how to research it can be discussed as a group but the midway point is when expertise and individual feedback is most important.

The blog.

I like to use a blog to support and hopefully extend the core discussion, which is collective but also helps the individual research agendas of each student. This is also a great place for me, as the professor, to observe how the class as a whole is moving forward in their research projects. With a finite amount of time in the classroom, the blog can increase the amount of time spent on individual projects; understanding what students are working on, how they are able to articulate their research and most important how they are relating it to the theory and research that is already out there. This is not an easy task for either the student or the teacher, as good research is often messy at the beginning stage. Personally, I like to see the class blog fill up with lots of reading and comments and be a bit messy.


The Librarian.

The problem is, as always time, the time needed to investigate individual research questions and the time to give structured and specific responses. This is why I like to have a research librarian come at least twice to the course. At the beginning of the course it just helps to reinforce the notion of how much research is required and how one can go about it in a methodical manner. The second time is for more individualized discussions on the different research directions the students are taking.

But this time the research librarian could not come to any of my classes! She was teaching and at the exact same time. Panic. My whole plan was crumbling. The only solution I could see was to have the librarian participate in the course blog and see what individual students were posting about their projects. Within days the librarian (Linda) emailed me that she had created an online research guide for the class based on what she had read. I posted a link to the guide and started to talk to students about using it with their individual projects in class. She also linked the blog to a qualitative research database that in its self accommodated every possible type of research design and theory the students might have.

And then it was the last day of class and we were out of time. I talked to the librarian about possible ways of giving online advice to the students after the course was over. The obvious choice was to continue to use the blog.  Students would post and the librarian and I would respond with comments and answers to their posts. The librarian would continue to add elements to the online research guide for the students and hopefully, there would be enough individualization that every student would get solid information concerning the next steps in their research.   I think this can be a great process yet it will rely on all of us; the teacher, the students, the blog and the librarian to continue with the work started during the semester. But this is an unknown factor. The energy of a classroom and the face-to-face discussion seemed to feed the energy of the blog, I would love this experiment to continue well beyond the course timeline but I am unsure of how we can keep the energy and interest up. And of course the ultimate question is still unknown, what sort of impact will it have on the students final theses. Yet as Albert Einstein once said, “If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research”

Making it Personal

The struggling Chinese immigrants I met during my anthropological fieldwork are remarkably active online, and most own computers and have DSL/cable, even though they are often very poor.  In interviews, they told me they are buying computers for their children’s education and to Skype with relatives, and for personal entertainment.  Since the jobs they hold — in the kitchen of Chinese restaurants, as housekeepers, and other low-wage service positions — do not generally involve any computer use, their computer ends up being a hub for family social networking as well as for gaming, watching downloaded Chinese movies, and listening to Chinese music. Their transnational relationships with relatives have a fresh and personal immediacy because of their regular VoIP conversations, made easier now that economic development in China ensures that more and more people there have computers as well.  Because the younger generation here often speak but do not read Chinese, while the older generation may not know how to use the keyboard to type Chinese, their computer connections with family in China can veer by necessity more toward oral conversation than to typed out messages.   Multiple generations on each end hover around the computer during the call. 

The Flight From Conversation by Sherry Turkle

Photographs by Peter DaSilva and Byron Smith, for The New York Times

I bring this up because I am thinking a lot lately about communication styles, what we find satisfying and what we find alienating.  I have been teaching online for CUNY for five years now, in an asynchronous environment on that course management system.  I miss just talking, and so I was glad when a student taking my class from South America wanted to Skype with me for office hours.  Most of my students just email me when they have questions beyond the scope of what we’re covering on the course site.  They tend to lead very busy and far-flung lives, which is why they’re finishing their degrees online, and I don’t think they necessarily miss the human connection as much as I do.

I thought this ‘satisfying vs. alienating’ dichotomy I’m feeling was about text-based communication versus oral communication, whether by phone or Skype or in person…or that maybe it was about real-time versus asynchronous communication.  But I’m realizing it is something else, something about personal communication, addressed to me, from someone who sees and understands me, someone who knows my name.  Sherry Turkle’s recent book Alone Together (see also her recent New York Times opinion piece) deals with just this issue — how we’re ‘communicating’ more but experiencing it all as rather lonely.  This is exacerbated by the fact that many of us are always connected to work, with smart phones telling us at all hours that there is work to do.  [The people I interviewed in Brooklyn’s Chinatown do not have this intrusive link to the workplace…although they are more likely to actually be at work, six or seven days a week.]

Last week I celebrated my birthday, and I received a birthday card in the mail, from Guess Who?  My mother!  To get it to me, she had to go to the store and buy a card, get out her reading glasses, find my address in her book, write it out, look for a stamp, and walk to the mailbox.  Maybe I’m sentimental about this Ancient Ritual, but I think there is something special about getting snail mail addressed to me from someone who cares enough to plan ahead.  I recently defended my dissertation, and was surprised, and charmed, to receive several congratulatory cards in the mail from different people in my life:  a friend who had her small children sign it, too; my cute chiropractor; the staff where I teach; a friend who made a card and decorated it with glitter and a piece of my favorite chocolate.  I don’t think it is only because they were mailed with stamps that they seem special, either, since I also found it heartwarming to get lots of Likes and Comments on my Facebook status update about this, as well as many texts and a few phone calls.

How could I routinely get 100 emails a day and many texts and still feel an unsatisfied social impulse?  As Turkle’s book expresses it:

My own study of the networked life left me thinking about intimacy — about being with people in person, hearing their voices, and seeing their faces, trying to know their hearts.[1]

I don’t know about you, but I think it is good to sometimes be radical, pick up the phone, and call somebody.  Mail them a card with your children’s doodles…even go so far as to meet up in person, and give each other undivided attention.  After a day spent feverishly responding to all the incoming messages and work-related demands on my time, if feels good to be part of a communication that’s truly personal.

1Turkle, Sherry.  Alone Together : Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

Knowledge Politics #1: Critical University Studies

Following my last post, I had a bit of a heated exchanged with a commenter named Ryan. What came up for me from that was a desire to more fully articulate the relationship between knowledge and politics. I attempted to do something like this back in October, but as usual I bit off more than I could chew and wrote a long and probably esoteric-sounding post. I want to try again, so in the coming weeks I will attempt a series of posts that focus on the politics of knowledge from a few different angles. I hope this will be a place to work through some of my questions, and I eagerly welcome comments and feedback.

There has been much discussion recently of how to make teachers more “accountable” through measurable data, and of how and when to involve new technologies in the classroom or even to develop internet-based courses and degrees. These are important issues but, as with so many things, public debate surrounding them is for the most part superficial and shortsighted. Instead of having a real conversation about the politics of knowledge, we are distracted by reductive ideas of accountability and shallow notions of technological advance.

CUNY City College of New York

[Read more…]

Two Social Media Paradoxes

Paradox Number One:  Social media foments revolution, but a sudden removal of social media can increase mobilization and create even more unrest.

We can all stand witness to the ways in which social and news media can spread a movement within and across nations.  I know an Egyptian who claimed that her family and friends knew that the revolution was going to occur in the weeks and days before it actually happened.  How?  Just by the messages on social media and between individuals.  In a similar fashion, social media proposed and flamed the fires of the occupy wall street movement in the weeks before it emerged, grew, and took hold as a real story in mainstream media outlets.

The protest was set to start on the 17th.  At first, there was a kind of silence.  People questioned whether it was happening at all.

Interestingly, Al Jazeera was one of the media outlets which first recognized the plan for a protest.  Other small news organizations online followed the story from September 17th on.  The New York Times City Room blog picked up the story on September 19th, while nothing was put into print until September 25th, when a version of a September 23rd online article titled “Protesters Are Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim”  and beginning with the sentence “By late morning on Wednesday, Occupy Wall Street, a noble but fractured and airy movement of rightly frustrated young people, had a default ambassador in a half-naked woman who called herself Zuni Tikka,” was published.

Since then the General Assembly of the occupation has released a declaration and the movement has its own subreddit.  However, the lack of specific demands, particularly from the outset, has been seen as a weakness and has led some people to propose their own.

Clearly, social media has played a key role in this movement.  Yet, ultimately, social media doesn’t stray very far from a standard news cycle.  Here are Google searches and news stories for occupy wall street:

(courtesy of Google Trends)

And here are the tweets containing occupywallstreet:

(taken from Trendistic)

The tweets, Google searches, and news reference frequency all have peaks on the first day of the protest, on Sept. 25 when images of pepper spray being used by the NYPD spread and a high number of arrests occured, and on Oct. 1 when 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.  Eventually, though, whether the movement has succeeded or not, it will fall out of the news cycle and off of people’s radar.  Even though as I type this Egyptians are protesting military rule in Tahrir Square, not many Americans do searches related to Egypt these days:

It’s unfortunate, but it appears that social media news runs alongside the news cycle.  Facebook posts can catch our attention, but only for so long, and what seems to be fueling tweets about the protest are acts of violence rather than its actual rationale.  Also, isn’t there a risk that we are beginning to confuse posting items on Facebook with really exercising our civic duty?  Last week five or more of my friends posted about the execution of Troy Davis, but how many actually took action in contacting local representatives or representatives in Georgia?

In fact, a Yale student recently claimed to have proven that, based on what occurred in Egypt, a “sudden interruption of mass communication accelerates revolutionary mobilization and proliferates decentralized contention.”  A journalist quickly used the study to point out how mass media, even as it spreads consciousness, can create a passive public.

Paradox Number Two:  Social media brings networks of people with like interests together, but in doing so it can create information bubbles.

In May of this year Eli Pariser presented a TED Talk in which he warned about how Google, Facebook, and other online companies use algorithms that customize what information is presented to people based on their individual tastes:

Thus, just by virtue of being ourselves, our internet is filtered.  We go further to filter our own experience when we read websites that cater to our cultural background or to our political interests.  Despite a study which seems to indicate that this personal filtering is not an issue, Bill Davidow and Ethan Zuckerman have argued that online media can give too much attention to extreme groups and views, and that “positive feedback” loops might push us to take more extreme views ourselves.  Eric E. Schmidt, the chief of Google, takes a middle ground view on the issue, acknowledging that for those who don’t know how to curate their own information, the internet can be a breeding ground of ignorance.

In the classroom, discussing and giving assignments that reflect on how media is curated, either invisibly or explicitly, in different contexts (on Wikipedia, in academic journals, on Facebook, in Google Scholar) can give students a wake-up call regarding how they navigate the web (and increasingly, how the web navigates them).


Agents of the Information Age? Perhaps Not.

Last month, Lauren blogged about Helene Hegemann, a 17-year old author from Germany whose novel Axolotl Roadkill has become a best-seller and a finalist for a major prize in fiction—despite the fact that entire passages of the book were lifted from a novel by another author.  After reading Lauren’s post, I decided to assign the New York Times article on Hegemann to the students in my Writing II course here at Baruch.  We read the article last week, and while discussing it in class, I was quite surprised by a lot of what my students had to say; their comments really got me thinking about how they view both the web and the act of writing.

For one thing, though I tend to (mostly) agree with them, I was shocked to find that all 26 of my students thought this was a case of shameless and unacceptable plagiarism—not a single one of them bought the idea of Hegemann as “the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new.”  Furthermore, despite being members of this generation themselves, many of the students said, to my surprise, that they find that “whirring flood of information” intimidating at times, particularly when it comes to the web.  As one student spoke about how she’s leery of using online sources for academic assignments both because they might not be as “good” as print sources and because she doesn’t want to be accused of plagiarism, I noticed a number of other students nodding in agreement.  Yet, though students certainly need to use more caution and discretion with online sources than with print ones, they shouldn’t be afraid to use the web for academic assignments.  As teachers, it’s our job to help them learn how to use the web cautiously and properly (for what I think is a particularly useful resource for students regarding this, see UC Berkeley’s Guide to Evaluating Web Pages), but perhaps we also need to place more emphasis on teaching students how to harness the web’s endless possibilities.  Personally, I’ve always assumed that because my students are the so-called representatives of the “information age” that this automatically means they make constant use of the web, not just for socializing, but also for academic purposes.  Our conversation in class forced me to re-think this assumption, and has also left me wondering how many of my students really understand how to make the most of what the web has to offer them as students (and beyond the worlds of Facebook, twitter, and youtube).

I was also surprised to find that my students might not have come down as hard on Hegemann had she been a musician rather than a writer.   We discussed in class how mixing and sampling are prominent in the music industry today, with artists like Girl Talk making enormously successful careers this way:

Yet, while most of the students didn’t think that what Girl Talk does is either “wrong” or unoriginal, they all argued that Hegemann’s version of mixing is unacceptable and that the praise her work has received is undeserved.  For some reason, it seemed to them that there is something almost holy about the written word on the page—that to lift that and put it into your own work—even if you give credit where credit is due (which Hegemann didn’t)—is somehow both more unethical and less original than to, say, re-use an old MJ song in a new remix.  In general, they were willing to allow authors far less room for “artistic play” than they were willing to allow musicians and other artists (photographers, filmmakers, etc), which I found curious, fascinating, and perhaps a little troubling.  As we begin the seventh annual Ethics Week at Baruch today, I can’t help but wonder if academia’s constant emphasis on stamping out plagiarism hasn’t made some students a little fearful of the writing process—or, at the very least, caused them to view writing as more “restrictive” and less creative than other forms of art.

Campus Technology article: Students Unimpressed with Faculty Use of Ed Tech

Eva Fernández of Queens College recently shared this interesting article with us on Facebook. I thought it might be of interest to many of you. It’s funny that I am forwarding this as it is almost like the article virtually traveled across the ocean and back!

Perhaps it’s generational, as Eva also wonders. I have an impression that whereas some adults are very tech savvy enjoying playing with iPhone, Facebook, twitter, etc. there are many others who are very resistant and proud to ignore it altogether. On the other hand, for many (or most) students, technology seems to be something that is woven into their lives much more closely. I would love to hear what your thoughts are.

That said, where I work in Japan there isn’t much technology implemented in classroom teaching yet, and I am yet to hear of somebody who uses social-networking tools in their teaching. There are some online education tools that we use over here for students to self-study (outside of classes), about which I am hoping to write soon.


This semester, we’re managing our largest lift on Blogs@Baruch yet. In addition to an increasing variety of projects that I’ll blog about in the coming weeks, every Freshman Seminar at Baruch currently is blogging. That’s roughly 60 sections, populated by over 1200 students.

Baruch Freshmen at Convocation, September 2009. Click to see photo in its original location.


Each Seminar is directed by a Peer Mentor, a talented upper level Baruch student responsible for helping newcomers adjust to life at Baruch. The seminars meet every other week, and Freshpersons are required to attend lectures, panels, exhibits, seminars, and trainings, distributed across six “enrichment” areas over the course of the term. Then they’re supposed to blog about their experiences, and discuss them when they meet with their classmates.

Launching the project was a bit of bear, as we had to create the blogs, get the users registered, tie the whole deal together, and give some training to the Peer Mentors, who are crucial to the project. Ultimately, I created a custom theme (built on Carrington Blog), with certain core components to which each section would have access– a List of Seminars and Peer Mentors, a Guide to Blogging for Freshmen (produced by the Office of Student Affairs, who directs FRO), a description of the six enrichment areas, and a Google Calendar that displays upcoming events. I then created a Mother Blog, which syndicates posts from across the sixty sections of FRO, using the FeedWordPress plugin. The Mother Blog collects and stores all of the posts in one place, allowing faculty and administrators to look in on the writing that’s happening in FRO. Students are thus contributing to small discussions in their seminars, and also to a broader discussion among all Freshmen.


Thus far, they’ve been writing quite willingly. In the fewer than three weeks since this thing was launched, we’ve aggregated about 900 posts; at the pace we’re going, we should reach well more than 4000 unique posts by the end of the semester. That doesn’t even begin to address the commenting, which has varied in intensity across the individual blogs. Unfortunately, we do not have the ability to mirror comments between the original location of the post and the space where it is republished… if we did, and we hope to be able to do that soon, the level of dynamism would increase.

Needless to say, we’re looking at an awful lot of writing, and we’re trying to make sense of it in a few ways. We’ve created categories on the Mother Blog for each of the six enrichment areas so that posts directly pertaining to them can be easily sorted. This will allow the two administrators who oversee FRO– Mark Spergel, the Director of Student Orientation and Freshman Year Incentive, and Shadia Sachedina, the Associate Director of Student Life– to get student perspectives on the wide range of extra-curricular programs the school offers. Further, simple searches will allow certain segments of the Baruch community to see what students are saying about them. For instance, many of the early posts offered student perspective on tours of the library. Our librarians have already begun searching for “library” and “library tour” on the FRO blog to read student responses. Several blog posts have engaged Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues, the Freshman text.

Other searches hold the potential to help identify students with like interests: “photography,” “history,” and “football” all offer returns. Such a use of the FRO Mother Blog suggests another function that this project can play, perhaps more effectively in future iterations: social networking. As a commuter campus, we constantly struggle to help our students see themselves as part of a community, and FRO attempts to address that tension. Integrating Blogs@Baruch into FRO makes that attempt much stronger, as students can more easily find, connect, and engage with their classmates through our platform. Next year, I’d love to get BuddyPress working in this project to foreground the social networking component… but, one step at a time.

At the end of the term, we’ll have, easily collected and archived, multiple writing samples from the majority of incoming students. With some more thinking and organization, this holds great potential for assessment, integration into writing instruction, early intervention, and assistance for ESL students. Ultimately, this project allows us the opportunity to further the core missions of Blogs@Baruch: increasing the amount and variety of writing that our students do, and nurturing critical thinking about the use of digital tools throughout the Baruch College community. Given the hectic nature of our launch this year, we weren’t able to spend enough time thinking collectively about the general education opportunities embedded in this project. I had argued that we should do a pilot with 20% of the sections so that we could be sure to more closely support our users and think more intensively about the implications of what we’re doing, but for various reasons, a small-scale pilot wasn’t feasible. But when we do this again, we know that the canvas works, what the challenges are in the mechanics of the thing, and how to improve our planning. We’ll be able to make a more significant investment in helping the Peer Mentors better understand the possibilities and implications of doing college work on the open web, crucial knowledge that they can then pass on to all Freshpersons.

The Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool and the Question of Openness

It recently occurred to me that in the almost 4 years of this blog’s existence very little has been said about the Schwartz Communication Institute’s most ambitious and potentially most promising project, our Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool, or VOCAT. I have presented on VOCAT a number of times over the years (most recently at the 2009 Computers and Writing conference in June), but have not yet written about it here. So it’s high time to remedy that.

VOCAT is a teaching and assessment web application. It is the fruit of a collaboration between the Schwartz Institute and mad genius code-poets at Cast Iron Coding, Zach Davis and Lucas Thurston. It is still very much in development (perpetually so) but is already in use in introductory speech communication and theater courses as well as a number of assessment projects. Our career center used it effectively a few semesters ago as well. To date, approximately 3200 Baruch students have used the tool.

VOCAT was developed in recognition of the principle that careful, guided review of video recordings of their oral presentations (or of any performance, for that matter) can be remarkably effective for aiding students in becoming confident, purposeful and effective speakers. It serves as a means for instructors to easily provide feedback on student presentations. It enables students to access videos of their performances as well as instructor feedback and to respond to both. It likewise aggregates recorded presentations and instructor feedback for each user and offers an informative snapshot of a student’s work and progress over the course of a given term or even an entire academic career. Presentations can be scored live, as students perform, or asynchronously once the videos have been uploaded. (Our turnaround time at this stage is between one and seven days depending on how many sections are using the tool at once — once some of the key steps happen server-side, turnaround time will not be as much of a concern.) Built on the open source TYPO3 content management system, it is a flexible, extensible and scalable web application that can be used at once as a teaching tool and as a means of data collection for research or other assessment purposes. (Screenshots are available here. I am also happy to share demo login info with anyone who would like to take a look — please email me at mikhail [dot] gershovich [at] baruch [dot] cuny [dot] edu.)

While VOCAT is quite feature-rich at this early stage, especially when it comes to reporting, data export, and rubric creation, we are always thinking about ways in which the tool can be made more robust and flexible. Currently, we are playing around with adding a group manager feature for group presentations, tagging for non-numeric assessment, moving from QT to Flash video, video annotation, as well as server-side video processing and in-line video and audio recording. We are also considering allowing users to choose to enable social functionality to take advantage of web 2.0 tools for sharing and commenting on one another’s work. And since, at its core, VOCAT is a tool for aggregating and responding to anything that can be uploaded, we’re thinking about other uses to which it could be put. It could easily, for example, be adapted for writing assessment. And someone once suggested that it could be useful for teaching bedside manner for medical students. Adapting VOCAT for these purposes is hardly a big deal.

The platform on which VOCAT is built is open source but the tool itself is not yet open. Right now, it is Baruch’s alone. Whether it should stay that way is a question much discussed around here. Here at the Institute we face several critical issues around open education, not the least of which is conflicting views on student access of Blogs@Baruch. In regards to VOCAT, however, the one thing constantly on my mind is the tension between an internal drive to share the tool as an open-source web application and build a community around it (there are no shortage of interested parties) and the pressures (or maybe a pernicious institutional common sense) that seem to compel us to keep VOCAT proprietary and use it to generate as much revenue as possible. I have heard arguments that VOCAT should be Baruch’s alone — that we should charge for its use and seek private funding for its deployment and development. This is a business school, after all, and I’m sure promoting and marketing VOCAT could be an interesting project for an upper division Marketing course.

Yet, I am inclined to believe that VOCAT should be shared freely and widely with other institutions and that other developers should be encouraged to develop for it. A great many more students would benefit and development would certainly be accelerated as more and more schools add features they need that could then be adopted for use here. Were VOCAT open, in other words, it would evolve quickly and probably in ways we haven’t even imagined. And that is very exiting.

In the coming months, I hope to continue to present on VOCAT and to gain insights into the roles it can play in communication intensive courses or in a communication-focused curriculum of any sort. More importantly, I would like to move towards opening it up and will work with our developers on the features and functionality that facilitate sharing. I hope also to draw upon the tremendous expertise of my friends and colleagues involved in the open education movement and learn from those who have worked with and developed various open source tools for teaching and learning. Listening to others’ ideas for VOCAT has been invaluable to thinking through what this web app could ostensibly do with the right sort of development. could be and how to best realize its full potential as a teaching tool — both in terms of deployment, training, and development.

Score One For Distance Learning

The trend towards online and distance learning courses at the university level has increased for the past decade and will continue to do so. The National Center for Education predicts there will be 18.2 million undergraduate students enrolled in long distance courses by the year 2013. And today, 90% of all industries surveyed state that video-conferencing is an integral part of their communication systems, whether it be for training or international meetings. Though the educational worthiness of these online courses is still in question, this technology and its integration into the college landscape are certain.  For anyone involved in teaching and learning, or instructional technology, it seems to be the time to do some research and experimenting with online courses. So I jumped right in. I have just finished taking a three-day online seminar in Higher Education and Social Justice. I was online for about 6 hours each day and to my surprise it was great!

The seminar platform was through Adobe Conference Pro, which is basically an online series of conference rooms equipped with streaming video and audio as well as screen sharing and document display tools. Students and faculty just sign into their appropriate room and click on the camera and microphone options and all of a sudden you are talking and seeing anywhere from 3 -20 people all looking back at you from their kitchens or their offices. Talk about cacophony! It is like a moving imagery of inhabitants across the country all squeezed onto your computer screen. There is an amazing sense of intimacy, you are invited right into someone’s home and with a little scrutiny you can imagine so much about their lives, yet every time you get up to get a drink of water you are in your own house and no one is there.


When the seminar really began, I found myself extremely concentrated on listening and taking notes on the speaker or questions from other participants. It takes discipline to wait one’s turn for discussion and debate as well as having noted content references in order to remind everyone where your question falls within the discussion. These are all strong academic skills and I found that I could not stop using these skills throughout the entire weekend. I can certainly see this as a significant skill for many students. Score one point for video-conferencing and learning. Another skill area that demands a lot of concentration is handling the many channels of communication going on at once. There are visuals, audio, texting, Power Point and keeping track of who has raised their hand, this all at once. Most undergraduate students can handle this multi-channeling, but I believe there is a generational divide and it is more cumbersome for others. Moderating online is also a demanding skill in communication and concentration. At one point each participant was asked to moderate the Q&A of someone else’s PP presentation. This was not easy to do and I can see it fast becoming a desired professional skill for the 21st century. Score another point for video-conferencing and learning.

There was a lot of fooling around at the very end of the weekend as many participants had gotten the habit of the technology and started to play around with our online classroom. Someone in California declared that the cats in NY were making the Vermonters sneeze, and people offered wine across state lines and so on and so forth. Score another point for bonding.
But the main question still remains. Was their real academic learning and can it replace the face-to-face? The answer is yes and no. I walked away from several of my courses with a deeper understanding of how people really look at Social Justice and of how complex our own versions of it really are, and that the philosophies of a just society are as transferable to media literacy and criticism as they are to Human Resource Management. I walked away with a list of books to read from faculty and participants, and I have notes on feminism, religion, education and social responsibility up the wazoo.

Though I feel very positive about this experience and think there might be some real potential in this sort of distance video-conferencing as a learning environment, there are some important points that I feel led to the success of this weekend. For one, I want to emphasize there was extensive training beforehand; we had three live online training sessions before the weekend. This seems crucial to the level of ease for each participant with the technology and perhaps for the sense of community later enacted during the online sessions. As well, this was an experiment in an ongoing Doctoral program and most of the participants have already had face-to-face courses together. This fact is central in thinking about an online learning experience. I believe the seriousness and sense of community that occurred this weekend was largely due to the academic level of the participants and their prior knowledge of what would be expected of them in the online seminars. These are significant aspects of this particular online experiment and I am not sure what the experience would have been without these two components.
So, yes I learned, and no, the human factor of prior face-to-face courses can not be ignored. It is a must, which cannot easily be replaced by video-conferencing software.

As always there needs to be more research and experimentation in this area and I will do some follow up interviews with the other participants and hopefully post on their experiences as well as my own. For the moment, my initial reaction is our students are walking into an amazing Internet world where the limits seem to me boundless. But there are major communication skills needed to make our students the actors in this world and not passers by.