Tweaking the SIF

This afternoon I went to a very interesting talk by Rich Halverson of the University of Wisconsin, which raised two major issues, one about the SIF program in general, and the other about one of my SIF projects, the American History Video project. To keep the post to a manageable length, I’ll save the History video project for a later post and take the SIF-wide issue first.

Let me preface all this by saying that I am enjoying SIF immensely, and have learned a ton. That said, I think the program as it is being run now has a significant, but fixable, flaw, and Halverson’s talk was just the kind of event that I think could fix it. Rather than a narrow technical training, say how to use a specific piece of software, (as many of the ‘normal’ training opportunities available to us are), this was a talk that was simultaneously practical and actionable, yet mostly concerned with big pictures and with deep and broad questions about the role of technology and innovation in higher ed. My time in the SIF has been quite useful so far, well worth the not inconsiderable investment of time that it has required. However, my experience in general has been that because we (maybe I should say ‘I’) are so deep in the details of specific projects and in acquiring the skills that are required to do them, SIF has been a relatively poor forum for thinking about these big questions.

Obviously, SIF is not a graduate seminar, so it is both unsurprising and appropriate that we are engaged primarily in project based work. And, as Halverson pointed out today, real learning is most likely to come about while engaged in concrete problem solving. With that said, my sense of the program to date is that it has yet to develop its potential as a place for thought, for brainstorming, and for giving its fellows and opportunity to think about, talk about, and study, the larger questions about technological and pedagogical change that interested many of us in the program.

Ultimately, finding a way to do this will enrich the program — making it a bit less of an apprenticeship, internship, client-work program and more of what the best fellowship programs achieve, the opportunity for intellectual engagement with both the details and the broad frameworks of our community of interests. One way to achieve this might be in the small groups that Brennan, Joe, and Justin are organizing and which are meeting this week. Another might be to actually assign us regularly weekly hours that can be spent in intellectual pursuits. Even a couple of hours a week that we could devote to learning, to reading some of the intriguing books that Halverson mentioned today, for example, could go a long way towards achieving this. Perhaps we could collectively meet on occasion to discuss shared reading.

Doing this would mean taking some of our hourly allotments away from project-work. This is unfortunate, as many of the SIF projects need huge amounts of labor. However, I think that at is best, the SIF can be more than a team-based maker-space, and blossom into a more well-rounded place where people think and do. Moreover, I suspect that it would make the work that is being done on SIF projects better in the long run, because it would give us a chance to engage in thought, research, reflection, and conversation. And, it would help fulfill one of the goals Justin mentioned at orientation, about the program being a kind of incubation tank for cross-disciplinary conversations and for innovation.

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