Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Beat Goes On...teaching, relationships and web 2.0

In a post I made last week, I shared a story about my seven year-old son who, upon his startling realization I grew up without the internet, he asked, "But Mommy, how did you know anything?" This question has really got me thinking this summer. I have been spending 30-minutes a day on the treadmill, an activity that I usually find mind dulling. But things are different now. Now I have my friendly iPod shuffle that I have filled with stimulating podcast episodes from educators like David Warwick and Wesley Fryer. Just yesterday, I had the opportunity to listen to a keynote speech by Kevin Honeycutt given at the Trends, Tools and Tactics for 21st century learning, held in Wichita the week prior, when I was actually on vacation in Chicago. (Does it get better than this?!) The amount that I’ve learned and the degree to which I’ve been creatively inspired by these educational innovators through their podcasts is truly difficult for me to put into words. But I’m going to try.

In Kevin’s speech he engaged his audience with a sound that everyone can relate to, the sound of a heartbeat. When I heard that sound through my earbuds, it effected me differently than others, I'd guess. For years I’ve been struggling with a way to inspire my fellow educators to see the power and potential of using technology to enhance our students learning experience. Finally, I feel like I'm onto something. And it was with me all along.

Two and a half years ago, I underwent major heart surgery to replace my aortic valve and a large aneurysm that had quickly formed in my aorta. It was scary. When I was twenty-one I learned about my congenital valve defect that would, as my doctors told me, need to be “replaced” sometime in my forties, according to the general surgical data. At the time of my surgery I was thirty four and had a three and a five year old at home. I was very busy with a full-time community college teaching career, was just getting my arms around what it meant to be an effective online teacher and was Mommy to a three and a five year old. I was moving full force ahead. The next thing I knew, I had a calendar filled with cardiology appointments and medical tests aimed at getting more clarity on the severity of my condition. I heard lots of numbers, “Your aneurysm is measuring 4.8 centimeters.” The next week a more invasive test revealed it to measure 5.2 centimeters. I was told “the marker” for surgery was 5.0 centimeters. Things were moving fast and before long I was on the operating table. My surgeon had selected a shiny new titanium St. Jude valve that was connected to a synthetic aorta, a cutting-edge piece of medical technology that would soon replace my valve and artery tissue and make me a real “bionic woman.”

During this whirlwind experience, I dove into Google with a passion reading about my condition, the surgery I was about to experience and the lasting effects of living with a mechanical valve. I remember learning that the mechanical valve makes an audible tick noise as the blood pumps through it. In all honesty, I blew that off as a non-issue. My focus was on long-term survival.

The morning after my surgery while I lay in intensive care surrounded by my family, I remember hearing it for the first time. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick...a steady, audible sound much like a very old Timex installed in my chest. I looked around the room expecting everyone else to be intently listening but nobody was. It was my tick. I had hopes of the tick getting quieter after my body healed but it never did. Two and have years later, it’s with me as I type, when I’m in meetings, while I’m lecturing, when I’m holding my children, while I lay in bed at night. I’ve had days when the tick has made me want to jump out of my skin. Sometimes it’s more like a bass drum than a tick and sometimes it’s more lick a tap, it changes with my body and my surroundings. Others hear it sometimes but I hear it all the time. I live every moment to the audible beat of my heart.

So, when I listened to Kevin Honeycutt’s keynote presentation and heard that heartbeat, I realized something very important. When I reflect on my surgical experience, the first thing that comes to mind is my unyielding respect and gratitude for the technological advances that have given me an extension on my life. However, as amazing as this medical technology is, it didn’t help me cope with the psychological effects of my condition and the fear of surgery or the need to talk, discuss and feel connected to others who had been through a similar experience and also knew what it felt like to live to the beat of an old Timex. I wanted proof that this thing really could “take a lickin.”

Honeycutt’s heartbeat example reminded me of the community of people, real people with beating hearts, who I found late one sleepless night on Google while I was anticipating my surgery date. I found a website called, a virtual community with many active discussion groups filled with women and men of all ages who had either been through a valve replacement surgery or were anticipating one. In the coming days, I connected with a woman in Australia, close to my age with two boys, like me, who shared my condition. We wrote back and forth before my surgery quite a bit and followed up with many messages in the months following which included her own surgery. I met a man who wasn’t as fortunate as I. His aortic aneurysm dissected (this is what killed John Ritter) and he was life flighted with little to no chance for survival. He survived. And he now is a regular monitor and contributor of He provides support and advice for those who come to the site with the need to connect and build relationships with those who share common experiences. They were in this with me. I really felt that way. And that’s just what I needed to help me cope.

The relationships that I built on this social networking site were made possible through technology and a creative idea. Discussion groups gave me the ability to find someone I could relate to at 3am on those restless, sweaty nights during recovery. Those relationships were invaluable to me. Social networking technologies have changed dramatically in the two and a half years since my surgery. Today we have Facebook, MySpace, blogs, Second Life, Twitter, wikis and countless other examples.

These products of web 2.0, the internet’s second edition, transform the web from a tool for disseminating information to a vehicle for users to easily create and share content and connect with other users around the world. These same technologies have allowed me to build relationships with the educators I listen to on my iPod. The power social networking technologies hold for educators is in their ability to foster and enhance relationships and facilitate the sharing of personal stories and reflections. We all know the characteristics of “great teachers.” Go ahead, ask someone you know to share a story about an amazing teacher. That person is like to talk about an individual who inspired them or touched them in some way. This is a relationship that is foundational to great teaching.

Some community colleges are seeing social networking technologies in a strategic context and leveraging them in an effort to remain competitive in the 21st century instructional landscape. Rio Salado, a community college in Arizona, has developed RioLounge, a social networking arena for their students to connect with each other and for Rio Salado to stay connected to them after graduation. Bingo...automatic alumni pipeline.

However, some educators are reluctant to view technology as a way of improving a student’s learning experience through fostering relationships. Some educators see technology as an intrusion that violates the sanctity of the face-to-face educational setting. While much of this dissent stems from generational differences that are complex and difficult to negotiate, my intent is to try to recontextualize “technology" and encourage my fellow educators who feel skeptical about the internet's effect on education to pause for a moment and consider an alternative view of technology. It is my view that web 2.0 technologies, if used wisely, can promote greater student engagement and enhance teacher-student and student-student relations.

In the past year, I have introduced podcast versions of my lectures in addition to brief, weekly audio announcements into my online classes. Now audio itself isn’t exactly a web 2.0 tool but it is a form of technology that integrates my presence into my students’ remote learning experiences. In fact, 91% of my online students indicated that the use of audio in my teaching increased their sense of my presence in their learning experience. My online students also keep blogs that they update weekly with responses to prompts I provide in their learning units. The blogs keep me in tune with the pulse of my class. I understand what is happening in my students’ learning experiences and can respond to individual revelations or moments of confusion. On a week when my art appreciation students were learning about the interrelationship between light and color, one student commented on his blog about how amazing it was to be able to listen to the podcast on a car ride into the Sierra foothills as the light dwindled in the evening hours. This new “mobile” learning experience made possible through my podcast and his iPod (not a requirement to listen to a podcast, by the way) enhanced his learning by connecting our course’s learning objectives with his surroundings.

I have also moved away from using the text-based discussion boards in Blackboard and have begun utilizing VoiceThread, a free to low cost (depending on your criteria for use) tool, that creates a visual, interactive discussion space in which students can leave asynchronous feedback with text or voice (with the use of a microphone or their phone). So, how does this foster relationships? When I asked my students to share their thoughts about how VoiceThread has effected their learning in comparison to traditional discussion boards, one student said, “…[h]earing the inflections in a student’s voice is important as it prevents miscommunications and hurt feelings I’ve witnessed on the discussion boards. I am also a full-time online student and after many online classes I can say that hearing my peers’ voices and seeing an image helps create a better classroom community and leads to more collaboration amongst the class. This is important as I feel lack of community is one of the biggest drawbacks to online education.” To me, that comment is evidence of technology’s ability to foster relationships between students. By the way, you are welcome to listen to this and other comments left by my students with permission to share them publicly by clicking here.

Teaching in the 21st century feels, to me, like being a kid in a candy store. I know I’m surrounded with amazing, free or low cost tools that are easy to use and can be integrated into my face-to-face and online classes. Our traditional classrooms no longer have four walls thanks to a course management system's ability to result in a web enhanced class. Students can take your voice with them in a podcast, participate in online discussions between class meetings, read each other’s class related reflections on their blogs. And, as Kevin Honeycutt pointed out, if a class is recorded and posted as a podcast, a student who didn't quite grasp that critical chemistry concept in lecture can go home and listen to it over and over again...without a class of 25 of his peers judging him for needing extra help.

What we do as educators hasn’t changed. We still strive to connect with our students and inspire them to learn, be curious, ask questions and share perspectives. We need to focus on our goal to foster relationships with students and make their learning relevant while understanding that technologies can help us do this.

As for me, I am now conceptualizing my “tick” as a constant reminder that technologies can extend human relations, as well as human lives. For now, this is making the incessant noise less annoying. And without web 2.0, I wouldn’t have had this revelation.


jlmstidger said...

What a gorgeous connection between your passion for integrating technology and your own beat. I loved reading it and it has enforced and inspired me to take my own use of technology to a new level for the coming year... I realize too that the time left in my summer is also ticking soooooo I better get on it!

Ben said...

Hi Michelle - I was reluctant to comment initially because I felt that your blog was so private. It was a privilege to have been included in such a personal look into your life. You are a remarkable women and it is no wonder that Ben is your #1 fan.
I hope you enjoy the summer ahead and again, thank you!!

Anonymous said...

Happy to know we left an impression on you. I hope you pay it forward.

Anonymous said...

May the beat keep going on and on and on...I hope we both continue hear our shiny StJudes valves ticking away forever and a day.
Thanks for sharing Michelle.