Ann Arbor's first datadive

When incoming School of Information (SI) student, Nikki Roda, first brought up the datadive concept, worlds collided. Building community around high performance computing, big information, and open data is becoming increasingly relevant to our university as a top research institution. At Open.Michigan, we’re dedicated to supporting open teaching, learning, and research practices and this means connecting to those who are gathering, using, and supporting data across disciplines or organizations. As a passionate data scientist with experience supporting nonprofit organizations and their struggle to use data effectively, Nikki was especially interested in fostering the Data Without Borders concept of a datadive in her new home in Ann Arbor.

Open.Michigan partnered with Nikki, another intrepid SI student, Claire Barco, and the School of Information to quickly scope and implement the first community-university datadive in Michigan. Considering the concept of a datadive was formed in summer 2011, we weren’t quite sure what we were getting into. After some quick planning and identification of organizations and nonprofits across SE Michigan who had data needs, we organized a three day event in North Quad’s space 2435. This adaptable space was especially suited to a datadive that incorporates engaged, participatory work. We even hosted a successful fundraiser that got our foot in the door to order some awesome coffee mugs for our datadivers. If you missed it, you missed a great turnout of Open.Michigan folks including Dave, Jackie, myself, and Kathleen.

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Sneaking into the Castle (ELI trip)

This week I attended the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas (ELI program). Having spent the last couple of years focusing pretty intently on openness and sharing in the academic world, I figured it was time to look back in on the learning part of the world. I laid out a few simple objectives (record: 4-1) before I left and spent a lot of time observing (I did more sneaking than storming around). Below are some of my thoughts on what I saw, but more importantly, my reactions to what I saw. And yes, I realize this is a non-comprehensive, opinionated, and singular view of the world.


– meet some new people (win: Gardner Campbell)
– learn about different university cultures (win: U-Illinois and UCLA)
– come away with at least one new adaptive process (win: VTech’s Honors College blogs)
– find at least one new tool for continuous learning (win: Pegasus ePortfolio system from Georgetown)
– generalize learning analytics models for assessment and feedback (loss: I don’t even remember what this meant)

General Impressions

The people at ELI are quite passionate about helping students succeed. They define success by fairly traditional measures, but also go beyond the grade and diploma to acknowledge and encourage skills that enable deeper learning. Many seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place, as is the dilemma of higher education today. Resource constraints meet pre-existing student behaviors, background, and environments resulting in educators hard-pressed to find workable solutions for reaching any and all students. Also noted, many folks are already aware of OER and Creative Commons, which was good to see. But still not a lot of practice in openness, especially with presentation materials. Little self-awareness of sharing, too. Sad.

The more forward-thinking crowd discussed learning analytics (LA): a branch of data measurement and analysis that attempts to identify generalized patterns through aggregation of data around individual learning processes. The main debate centered around the fact that current tracked data is a pretty blunt proxy for real learning process, and therefore the question arose: is our analysis of learning at this stage a step forward or is it potentially disastrous and harmful? Proxies are proxies and if they are treated as such, we can reduce the harm. On the other hand, it’s possible that the proxies are so off-base that not only do they send analysts down the wrong path, but they might result in interventions with students that are damaging. I was pleased to see a session on the neurology of learning, though it was unfortunate that so many individuals were fairly clueless on the subject. However, this helped set the stage for a discussion around LA and interventions and how inappropriate interventions actually change the brain and can be quite damaging to students over time. These are real consequences not understood or even acknowledged before.

My main question at this conference was: why is this group talking about courses, devices, and learning management systems? It seemed the conversation was stilted, stuck in an old box with flimsy walls, focusing on the wrong problems. At-risk students, graduation rates, technological interventions, cost recovery, and job growth. Seriously, job growth.  I heard some key quotes that really frustrated me:

  • “Napster spawned 70 million pirates that brought down an industry.” (my rebuttal: I’m not a pirate. Napster created an industry.)
  • “Sometimes life gets in the way of learning.” (me: life IS learning and we shouldn’t think classrooms are required for learning.)
  • “Look at how students are learning outside the classroom and then bring that back into the room.” (see above)
  • “That’s just not my job.” (me: then make it your job. if you see something awry, fix it.)
  • “Until academia changes, we’ll just have to work within the system.” (see above)
  • “We know we only have one shot and we’re determined to get it right.” (me: yes, for-profit companies often have only one shot. learn to adapt.)
  • “The challenge is that we need to learn faster than the world changes.” (see above)
  • “When will STEM students who underperform (B, B+) finally get it that a B or B+ is a good grade!?” (me: probably when you stop calling those students underperformers and stop giving them meaningless grades and assessments.)

It was a painful experience, attending this conference, but a good one. Good to see how much nuance the thinking lacks right now. There are the thought leaders, of course, the Gardner Campbells and Mike Wesches and Chris Dedes. But as usual, there aren’t enough of them to go around. Everyone is playing catchup.

We’re Doing It

Based on what I saw and heard at ELI, here’s what I think we’re doing right at Enabling Technologies (Med School) and Open.Michigan:

engaging individuals through DOING: Open.Michigan events like the DataDive; get more people participating and doing. we don’t learn in order to do, we do and through that process, we learn.
creating tools that help people DO: look at what people want to do or will want to do, and if the tool doesn’t exist, create it. we don’t just build something and go searching for customers.
recognizing that learning is, in itself, a reward and a pleasurable experience: we focus more on the experience and less on the measurable proxy outcomes.
shifting the discussion from openness to awareness: we start with the individual – the self needs to be aware and openness will naturally follow, sharing will follow, collaboration will follow, learning will follow.
killing the notion of the classroom: we create and share resources openly, we hold engaging work and design sessions outside any curriculum, we build learning communities.
understanding collaborative environments and when to use which technology: our study of cross-discipline/cross-cultural collaborations has expanded our ability to not only recommend the right technology for the job, but also recommend the right framework in which to use that technology.

A few things I want to explore:

– Jenkins’ model for new literacies
– Parker Palmer and the courage to teach
– Paul Silvia at UNC-Greensboro
– poetry by Keats
– technology speed dating at the Med School
– health disparities risk assessment model applied to students and learning
– creating a no-code-barred app store at U-M (not a wiki, but something that lets people share data through the apps)
– digital ethnography efforts by Mike Wesch
– using netvibe and yahoo pipes to pull existing tools together
– ecoMUVE at Harvard
– Pegasus from Georgetown
– John Naughton
– “paradox of the active user”
– James Taylor’s online guitar lessons