Where the action is…

I’m periodically reminded I even have this blog by the email notifications sent to me by WordPress about spam comments and updates needing installation.  Each update reminds me that I haven’t posted in ages and I usually feel a little bad about that.  But this isn’t where the action is these days.

Blogs can be a wonderful journal of your thoughts and happenings, but most of us put them on the web to start a conversation and to share.  I’m finding more sharing and conversations for me are occurring in other venues, like on LinkedIn and Twitter.  So I invite you to join me over in those corners, at least for now.

Cohorts fail

As discussed in my last blog post, I tried putting my students into cohorts for the Fall semester.  It didn’t go well.  Meaning, that it didn’t seem to have much of an impact at all.

For my first 8 week Fall course, I had my students pick small groups and then had them work in those groups for in-class activities for the remainder of the semester.  Unfortunately, I just didn’t see the “impact on their engagement and ‘sense of belonging'” that I was hoping to see.  Most of the cohorts didn’t seem to connect with each other and I didn’t see much change in attendance or engagement.  I always have a handful of students with attendance issues and that seemed to negatively impact the cohorts, rather than the cohorts inspiring better attendance.

For the 2nd 8 week session and the 1st 8 week session of the Spring (just ending now), I went back to allowing students to choose their groups each week and I spent more time observing the group dynamics.  Since many students choose the same seats each class, they often ended up working with the same folks anyway.  But some groups seem to enjoy the group work, and others seem to find ways to complete the work with the least amount of interaction possible.  I’m not sure if this is a function of the personalities present, a dislike of group work, or a total lack of engagement (it’s probably some mix of all three).

I’m not yet sure what I will do for the 2nd 8 weeks of the Spring.  Perhaps I will try cohorts again with more explanation, or I’ll try to add some incentive to actively participate.  I’d love to hear suggestions.


I’m at that point, more than 3 weeks in the semester, where I question everything about my syllabus and my class sessions. Couldn’t I be doing more to engage students? What is happening with those students who stop showing up? But it can feel hard to turn things around in a significant way at this point in a 1 credit, 8 week, hybrid student development course. So my focus tends to go towards those precious remaining in-class moments, not towards the larger semester plan. I’ve incorporated group activities into many of my class sessions and I think I am able to improve them each semester through trial and error. That’s great, but it’s not a major shift.

But an idea that keeps coming up again and again is one of cohorts. Reminded about cohorts just today by Steve Greenlaw’s excellent post, Thoughts about Student Success, I think this is something I can implement for the 2nd 8 weeks if I spend some time thinking and planning right now. The “behaviors” and “habits of the mind” discussed in Steve’s post are exactly what my SDV class is supposed to encourage. I really think grouping students for the semester could have a significant impact on their engagement and “sense of belonging” and would allow some students more chances to actively participate during class.

I’d love to hear more about other folks’ experiences with cohorts, especially in the 100 levels.  And thanks to Steve and his post for the reminder/push!

All too familiar

The Sunday NY Times article , Why You Hate Work, comes at an interesting time for me – right on the heels of a stressful school year but also a day or two after an invigorating conference that refueled my energy and purpose.

A paragraph in the article sums up what work life has become for many of us:

Demand for our time is increasingly exceeding our capacity — draining us of the energy we need to bring our skill and talent fully to life. Increased competitiveness and a leaner, post-recession work force add to the pressures. The rise of digital technology is perhaps the biggest influence, exposing us to an unprecedented flood of information and requests that we feel compelled to read and respond to at all hours of the day and night.

The article  also lists an employee’s “core needs”:

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

Predictably, the author also argues how important addressing these needs are to employee retention and productivity.

There is nothing new here.  The topic and discussion are all too familiar for most of us, and I venture that the feelings of pressure and fatigue are as well.  After a stressful school year, I certainly felt drained and knew that the summer would be a good time to find a better path.  I went into Friday’s Virginia Network Annual Conference wondering how best to meet my needs, how to support my staff and colleagues, and how to get back the passion for my work.

The conference didn’t disappoint.  I listened to the challenges and advice of other women in higher education and was reminded of the higher purpose of our work, both with students and with staff.

My biggest takeaway was that I have the power and the obligation to address many of these core needs for myself.  While employers should absolutely develop strategies to better address these needs for their staff, I feel lucky that I have some of the control and flexibility to tend to many of my needs – I just have to make it a priority and take advantage of the opportunities given.  Simple things, like taking time for lunch or scheduling an hour or so for professional reading ,  would go a long way towards my physical, mental and spiritual well-being at work.  Providing at least some time for reflection at the end of a project or task is also in my power, even if it seems difficult to find the time.

My hope is that doing this for myself will put me in a better position to support others, especially my staff.

“It is time to call it like it is”

I know I haven’t posted in eons – it’s been a busy year, full of professional and personal changes.

As I have written a lot about MOOCs here, I felt compelled to post about the response from San Jose State’s faculty regarding a push there to use a edX MOOC for one of their courses: see the Chronicle article, “Why Professors at San Jose State Won’t Use a Harvard Professor’s MOOC“, and the SJS faculty’s Open Letter, “An Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel From the Philosophy Department at San Jose State U.

Personally, I think the SJS faculty response is right on and brings up a lot of valid concerns about why this is being done.  The part of the letter that most resonated with me and my own experiences is this:

“We believe the purchasing of online and blended courses is not driven by concerns about pedagogy, but by an effort to restructure the U.S. university system in general, and our own California State University system in particular. If the concern were pedagogically motivated, we would expect faculty to be consulted and to monitor quality control. On the other hand, when change is financially driven and involves a compromise of quality it is done quickly, without consulting faculty or curriculum committees, and behind closed doors. ” (italics are mine)

The push by SJS not just to offer transfer credit for a MOOC developed at another institution, but to pay for MOOC content to be used within (or to replace??) SJS courses is an interesting development in the evolution of these type of courses.  This seems a step away from offering MOOCs to support open access, contribute to public discourse and knowledge, or even generate good publicity for an institution and its faculty.  Are MOOCs, and by extension, education in general, becoming a commodity, rather than a service?

The MOOC as spokesmodel, or a defense of “good” online courses

I’ve been following all of the recent buzz about MOOCs and trying to put it in the context of continued criticisms of online learning.  The more I read from the critics, especially op-eds like The Trouble With Online Education from the New York Times, the more I realize that some of the challenge in understanding online education is that online courses and programs are extremely diverse in their approach and delivery and, thus, in stimulating student engagement.   I have come to believe that many of the critics have only had experiences with certain approaches, all of which seem to have neglected meaningful student interactions with other students and faculty – in other words, I think they just haven’t seen “good” online courses.

My perspective about online ed comes from my own educational experience and my semesters teaching a face-to-face (F2F) course that used blogging to increase student participation outside of the classroom.  My first Masters, from LSU, was almost ideally traditional – the small program with F2F classes and my assistantship created a learning environment where I worked with and knew the faculty and had more than one class with most of the students.  My second Masters, from UMUC, was completely online (gasp!) – I never set foot on campus and never saw a faculty member or student in person until graduation day. Despite significant differences between these two environments, I can say that UMUC’s program involved as much, and often more, meaningful “classroom” interactions as my LSU degree (which, to be clear, offered a lot of meaningful interactions).

How is this possible?  Isn’t online education “a monologue and not a real dialogue” as argued in The Trouble With Online Education?  When done poorly, yes – but the same can be said about many F2F classes (hence the classic “sage on the stage” complaint).  When done well, as with the vast majority of my classes at UMUC, there can be real dialogue between students and faculty.

Beyond group assignments, which are entirely possible in online courses, given chat and shared document features, a major component of creating dialogue is the effective use of discussions (either forums or via blogging).  MOOCs I have seen (isn’t that a new age country song?) and many a discussion board I have witnessed as an embedded librarian essentially provide optional spaces for students to ask questions about course material and assignments.  Contrast this approach with weekly discussion forums with questions from the faculty asking for feedback and/or additional research on topics from the course material – forums requiring substantive responses from students to the original question and substantive comments to other student responses, with the faculty member participating and offering clarification and points to consider – forums where participation and quality of content is a significant part of the final grade.  The former seems no different or more engaging than asking students if they have any questions after a long lecture.  The latter creates the “intellectual community” with give and take between students and faculty that is so lauded in great F2F courses and supposedly sorely missing from online education.

Almost all of my courses at UMUC included the latter approach and I was surprised at how well it “mimicked” the F2F environment.  With weekly discussions and group work, I got to know the other students in my classes in much the same way I knew students in F2F classrooms – the personalities and predilections of my fellow students came through in their numerous posts, so much so that there were even students who got on my nerves just like in F2F classes (you know, the one student who always complains about assignments and the other one who goes on and on about nothing, using the same examples?).  The only difference in my online courses was that I had to hear from every student – there is no sitting quietly in the back of the class during discussion time when posts are a requirement for your grade.

I recognize that many, many online courses and programs are not this great.   And I think there is a lot to be said against online as the silver bullet: in a quest for cost savings and revenue, packing online courses with too many students seems to be almost too tempting for many administrators; and online is certainly not right for every student or every class or content area (Dean Dad in MOOCs from Here makes some excellent points about the difficulties of online education for many demographics of community college students).

I just hope that many critics can come to see that online education isn’t a monolith and that there are many ways to provide quality educational experiences online. My fear with the popularity of MOOCs, with class sizes that make student and faculty interaction almost impossible, is that they will become the representative of online education.  I wish the critics of online ed could sit in on some of the great online classes I have taken – I truly think their opinion would change.

The rewards of CCs

Over at In the Library with the Lead Pipe, Kim Leeder wrote a wonderful post that takes on the issue of “snobbery” towards community colleges. Kim writes: “If you look down on community colleges, consciously or unconsciously, you may be surprised to learn that community colleges don’t look up at you. Faculty, staff, and students are proud of their colleges and their accomplishments.” Yes. Exactly this.

I remember when I left UMW to come to NOVA, I had people ask me why I would leave a well-respected university to go to a community college – there was a certain disbelief in their question, a hint at the snobbery Kim writes about in her post. Beyond the career opportunities I saw at NOVA, my internal response to why I was going to NOVA was because “that’s where the students are!” Community college enrollments were growing and, most importantly, offered the opportunity to work with a very diverse group of students.

I was especially drawn in to the student-focus of the community college environment – I wanted to be someplace where the student was everyone’s priority. Of course there are student-focused universities and many schools that offer opportunities for disadvantaged students, but those are the central missions of community colleges and part of what makes them such a rewarding place to work.

I didn’t come to NOVA as a stop-off to somewhere “better” or because I couldn’t hack it at a university, I accepted the offer at NOVA because I believe in the mission of the community college – I believe that every student, despite their performance in high school or their social or economic status, deserves a shot at higher education. Higher education has value and makes a significant positive impact in the lives of those who are able to participate, and there is little that is more rewarding than being a part of that impact.

Oh, the Future of Libraries and Librarians….again.

Much is written about the exciting and/or dismal future of libraries and librarians.  OnlineUniversities.com added to the deluge with their recently published list of “10 Changes to Expect from the Library of the Future“.  Most of the changes are of no surprise to librarians or even library patrons (more technology! more ebooks! more digital media!).  Also of no surprise are the stereotypes about libraries and librarians implicit in the changes  listed.  Specifically, the move towards more “active” librarians reeks of the stereotypes about librarians, who apparently must shift from shushing patrons and reading books all day to actually helping people.

Although there wasn’t much new about the OnlineUniversities.com list, it came across my screen in the midst of following an online discussion about the tough job market facing new and recent MLS grads, with many participants asking whether the degree is worth the money and effort if graduates can’t find jobs as librarians.  This discussion, like similar discussions on the same topic, is depressing to me on many levels – there are obviously a lot of grads struggling to find jobs in the field and there are many librarians already in the field who aren’t optimistic about the grads’ chances of success or for the profession as a whole.  And any arguments for seeing the bright side seem almost insensitive in response to the stories of those who have struggled or given up on the profession entirely.

An assertion I have seen running through some of the stories from those struggling to find library jobs seems to match up with the “changes” supposedly occurring in libraries: apparently, it’s all about technology.  Top-10 lists tout all of the technology changes in libraries at the same time as many job seekers insist that all library jobs require advanced technology skills.  While no one can argue that technology has and will continue to have a significant impact on libraries, I am not so sure about the notion that all library jobs of the present and future require advanced skills like coding or database and website design experience.  I have been involved with the hiring of 8 library positions in the last 2 years and only 3 positions asked for something well beyond basic technology skills, and all 3 of those positions were for librarians and support staff specifically in charge of technology initiatives (1 Technology Librarian and 2 Library Specialists handling technology).  And of the 4 faculty librarian positions at my library, only 1 requires advanced technology skills.

What all of the library positions we hired for did require was more in line with the “active” librarian model mentioned in the 10 changes list: a patron-focused attitude.  We wanted people with exceptional customer service skills and an approach to developing and offering services that place the patron at the center.  We also wanted people who were hard-working, collaborative, and could learn and adapt quickly.  None of these attributes are about technology. But in lean-budget years when many libraries are trying to do more with fewer staff, these soft skills become increasingly important.

While what the future holds is often debated and much space is given to writing about the possibilities, both exciting and dismal, I am certain that the future of libraries rests with librarians.  I’ve said it before, but it’s about the people, not the technology.  And while that assertion might not seem helpful to those facing a tight job market, I do think it can offer some guidance on the types of skills and experience that set candidates apart.  Highlight your customer-service experience (even if it is from outside of the field), demonstrate your ability to work as a member of a team, and emphasize your adaptability – and seek out experiences that allow for you to develop all three.  These skills will serve you well even if you can’t break into the library world.


7-year itch

I have been a working, professional librarian for almost 7 years and I feel like I am losing my creativity.

I used to be the new kid on the block – both in terms of the profession and even at NOVA.  But 7 years is no longer new to the profession and I just celebrated 2 years at NOVA.  I am settled in at every level and struggling a bit to see what my next steps and challenges should be.

In the past, I have felt most creative when I was working with websites, writing and teaching.  The teaching piece may come again in a few semesters but the web and writing avenues are open to me now.  So I am moving my blog from nvcc.edu to my own domain and I will be working on my own website – a summer project of sorts.  As I make progress at jamibryan.com, I’ll let you know.

Here’s to changing course to spark creativity!

Spring funk

For me, the excitement and energy prevalent at the start of the Spring semester starts to wane about now, with Spring Break never offering the rest and rejuvenation I had hoped.  Semester projects are in full swing at this time of year, for both students and staff – yearly reports start coming due, end of fiscal year funds need to be spent, the library is pretty packed, and folks are actively planning for the Fall.  And it seems that the successes and failures of the school year start to fully reveal themselves at a time when my calendar is packed and reflection isn’t always possible.  Despite the welcomed blooming flowers and warmer days, I can easily fall into a Spring funk – only the promise of summer perks me up, although I have been around academia long enough to know that the summer never offers all of the time you need to finish old projects and start exciting new endeavors.

My packed calendar this mid-Spring is a mix of end-of-year projects and the busy pace of the day-to-day.  And the day-to-day seems more frantic this semester, as my division deals with a retirement and welcomes new staff – we are truly in a season of change.

When enthusiasm wavers among my own staff, I usually advise focusing on the positive – remember the wins, get past the losses, and move forward.  In the midst of my spring funk, I should follow my own advice.