Michelle Pacansky-Brock is the author of the new book Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies. After you read this post, please join Michelle in a special VoiceThread Book Chat!
Author Book Chat
Learning From Life: How Heart Surgery Transformed My Teaching
In August, my new book published, Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies. This blog post tells the story of why emerging technologies transformed the way I teach and the way my students learn. It begins in December, 2005 when I was stunned to learn that I needed open heart surgery to repair a large aneurysm that had quietly and painlessly emerged in my aorta and replace a failing aortic valve (a result of a congenital bicuspid aortic valve).
At the time, I was 34 years old and juggling a very busy life that included a career as a full-time art history instructor at a community college and raising two vibrant young boys, ages 3 and 5, with my fabulous husband. As many people who have lived through traumatic life events know, they tend to have lasting and unexpected effects on your life. Little did I know, the perils of my impending open heart surgery would pave the way for a complete transformation in my teaching and my students’ learning and lay the foundation for my new book.
Lesson #1: Social Technologies Foster Emotional Learning
As I wrapped up my face-to-face and online classes in the month of December, I was subjected to a whirlwind of tests, which became increasingly more invasive and caused the reality of my situation to sink in. Along with each test came a new doctor, a new facility, and more statistics, data, and brochures. I was inundated with information. Really, this was good because I was an educator and I needed all the information to understand what was ahead of me, make sense of it, and prepare for it.
Now, keep in mind, this was six and a half years ago. This was pre-YouTube and pre-FaceBook. Blogs were just beginning to emerge as a popular term but there was not a burgeoning, interconnected “blogosphere,” like we have today. Twitter was unimaginable, and an iPhone wasn’t even a sparkle in Steve Jobs’ eye yet (Well, maybe it was?). Despite that, as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, my mind racing through the realities of my situation, I found myself drawn to my laptop to surf the web. When I went online, I would do keyword searches for anything relevant to my surgery. Again, I learned more and more about the operation, my condition, etc. And then, things turned.
One night, I stumbled upon a website called ValveReplacement.com (to which my husband exclaimed, “My god, there really is a website for everything!”). I remember clicking on the link and realizing instantly it was different. This wasn’t another page filled with medical terminology. This was a community of users. This was a site that brought people together who were just like me. I created my account and jumped in the basic discussion forums. I began to interact with men and women around the world who had survived this surgery years ago and others, like me, who were awaiting their surgery date or living with the condition, in anticipation of surgery someday. It was here where I met a woman who lived in Australia, was nearly my age age, had two sons (like me), and was also awaiting surgery. We connected instantly and stayed in touch for quite some time, even through her own surgery.
After years of reflection, I now understand that “technology,” delivered through the social forums in the ValveReplace.com site, provided the emotional learning that I was desperately seeking through the month preceding my surgery. I have an amazing family and an incredible group of friends, and I had a phenomenally supportive group of colleagues at work. But I clearly needed more than that. By going online, I was looking to fill a void and I found it.
It may sound odd, but today, when I think back to that arduous period before my surgery, I view myself less as a “patient” and more as a “learner.” That’s what we are always doing in life — learning. And when we can extract the process of learning from the formalized context of “the classroom,” situate it within everyday life, and begin to participate in a deeply reflective, metacognitive process about how we learn, we all will be on a pathway to transforming education.
Our formalized learning experiences have taught all of us to privilege the cognitive domain of learning which emphasizes experiences that contribute to developing knowledge and comprehension. Looking back, I had all I could possibly need to fulfill my ability to understand, analyze, and evaluate my situation.
But in formalized learning environments, the affective domain of learning is supported less effectively. The affective domain relates to the emotional side of learning and this is the piece that was lacking for me. This is the void that social technologies filled. Here is my first major takeaway — a laptop on my kitchen counter connected to the internet provided me with the ability to foster virtual relationships with people around the world. Social technologies are powerful tools for fostering feelings, attitudes, values, and other emotional behaviors that round out the cognitive dimension of learning (I acknowledge here that Bloom’s Taxonomy includes a third domain too — the psychomotor domain).
Lesson #2: I’m Not an Expert and I Can Do This!
My next great “Ah ha!” lesson began to surface in the months after my surgery, while I was recovering. For most of this time, I didn’t get too far from home. I took walks throughout my neighborhood and used my treadmill to regain my cardiovascular strength. This is when I learned the value of the hot new commodity that all my students had, “the iPod.” Prior to my surgery, I can remember being annoyed by the fact that my students would have face-to-face conversations with me while on ear bud was still firmly inserted into an ear canal. “Is that on?” I remember thinking, with a mix of curiosity, irritation, and a touch of motherly concern. But I can remember the moment the iPod turned into something very different for me.
I had taught myself how to subscribe to several educational technology podcasts, and I was deeply fascinated by the fact that I could walk freely and listen to conversations, debates, and presentations shared around the world by people I didn’t even know who had simply elected to record and share their stuff online. Wow. Amazing.
Then I realized that those pesky ear buds in my students’ ears could be listening to me! The next month, I bought a new iMac, taught myself how to record podcasts, and began recording all of my lectures that I had already transcribed into PDFs for my online classes.
In the months that followed that, the world exploded. It seemed that each day there was a collection of new tools that got me so excited about teaching, I could hardly contain myself. Prior to my surgery, I had been struggling with how to effectively teach my visually-centric art history courses in my text-dominated course management system, Blackboard. Then, through a blog post shared by Beth Harris (now with the Khan Academy and SmartHistory), I discovered VoiceThread. Wow. Here I was … an art historian with no training in technology, making podcasts and VoiceThreads about art history. I remember being so excited about VoiceThread that I created one to share with my colleagues on campus. At the last minute, I elected to set the share settings to public instead. Today, that VoiceThread has been viewed by more than 61,000 people and has comments from 500 educators from around the world!
Web 2.0 and social media technologies have continued to flourish in the years since my surgery. That’s not news. In the process, many college instructors have jumped on board, begun to participate, taught themselves some of the key “how to” strategies, and have effectively used new social technologies to support student learning. Others have been left feeling totally overwhelmed, even discouraged. The speed of technology changes so quickly these days that it can feel self-defeating to try to jump in and get started, especially when one is late in her or his career. This is something I completely understand and kept in mind while writing my book.
The other “side” of the story is the student perspective. It is true that teaching with emerging technologies brings a wealth of new possibilities to the college classroom. Students can learn on a global scale, video technologies can be used to enrich relationships between instructor-student, easy-to-use content creation tools open new possibilities for assessment, and the infusion of multisensory learning experiences enhanced with mobile options is a step toward a more inclusive model for supporting more students. But students, especially online students, can be extremely anxious about using new technologies in classes. And, while it’s true 18-24 year old college students are more tech-savvy than any other generation, they aren’t all proficient in using every tool and they don’t all have access to every piece of equipment they might need. So, teaching with emerging technologies does require a college instructor to have be equipped with a set of practices to navigate these challenges effectively.
We all are learners in life. My book is offered as a resource to all college instructors where ever you may fall on the broad spectrum of teaching with emerging technologies. In it, I share practices from my own classes and an array of tips and showcases from generous and talented instructors from around the U.S. (and one example from the U.K.). You will also find an array of technologies to explore, although the book is driven more by pedagogy and supporting student’s needs. I hope it inspires many, just as emerging technologies have inspired me.