Thursday, July 24, 2014

Ann Arbor Gathering brings human touch to technology

Tags: stanzler, teaching and learning, technology

Ann Arbor Gathering brings human touch to technology

There are always lots of ideas on incorporating technology in teaching and learning, but how can those ideas be translated into reality? One way is through the power of networking.

That’s the idea behind a series of "Gatherings," the latest of which was held at the Duderstadt Center on U-M’s campus recently. Jeff Stanzler, director of the Interactive Communications & Simulations (ICS) group at SOE, describes the Gatherings as venues to bring together a diverse group – educators, non-profits, students, alumni, technology experts, and entrepreneurs – to network, explore ideas, and develop projects involving technology and learning.

"We try to do things that are fun and unusual, that shake up people’s ideas of a conference, which is why we call them Gatherings, not conferences," Stanzler said.

Stanzler, who was one of the keynote speakers at the recent Gathering, said that the ultimate aim is to improve the practice of teaching. "Technology plays a part, but not the only part. It’s about how we can support teachers as they create more engaging learning experiences. We learn a tremendous amount from the teachers that we work with."

The Gathering was hosted by the Institute for Innovation in Education (IIE), an incubator of ideas, projects and partnerships based at UM-Flint, and co-sponsored by ICS. Jeff Kupperman, an associate professor at UM-Flint and co-founder of the IIE, said the Gathering included three main components:

  • An afternoon of workshops, which included sessions on virtual learning and teaching labs, blogs, games, and learning, and the use of multimedia in the classroom;
  • A public symposium that included participants from education, non-profits and the private sector;
  • And a series of "project work days" that offered feedback, information-sharing and networking for participants.

Kupperman said part of the real "magic" comes from the working sessions.

For example, Leah Robinson, a 2008 graduate of SOE's secondary MAC program and former student of Stanzler, came to the Gathering with a mission. "I was in need of a post-school-year recharging and ideas to bring back to my school," she said. "I am a full-time history teacher and director of blended learning at a Catholic high school in Portland, Oregon."

Robinson explained, "I had the unique pleasure of both working and experiencing the Gathering, which allowed me time to observe and participate in the process. As a member of the IIE logistical team, I got to be a fly on the wall, taking photos and helping to synthesize ideas from the symposium and jigsaw sessions. As a participant in the workshops, I came away with a new partnership between ICS and my high school. This year, my students will be piloting the first group of student mentors at the high school level in the Place Out of Time simulation, an honor previously reserved for UM undergraduate and graduate students."

Robinson has been an ongoing collaborator with Stanzler and Kupperman as a teacher-facilitator on Place Out of Time, a "trans-historical" simulation in which university, high school and middle school students come together to discuss an issue by assuming the identities of historical figures.

"Gatherings are concrete manifestations of when people who have something in common rise to the challenge of making things happen," said Kupperman. To that, Robinson added, "What makes the Gathering different from the traditional educational conference is that it provides the space, time and tools to conceptual innovators, who also happen to be passionate educators, to brainstorm and create tangible projects that are mutually beneficial. To me, it's all about getting like-minded, motivated individuals in the same place to explore common issues, share ideas and, more importantly, to create new collaborative partnerships that would be otherwise be limited by geography." 

Participants have come from places as diverse as Florida, California, North Carolina, British Columbia, South Africa, Oman, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic in addition to Michigan. Over the five Gatherings held so far, attendance has grown – about 100 people were registered for the recent one – mostly by word of mouth, postings on websites and social media, and judicious networking. "Jeff [Kupperman] has a really interesting Rolodex," said Stanzler with a laugh. The next Gathering is scheduled for this fall in Prague.

"Hopefully, people will keep coming back, keep moving their projects forward and showing progress," said Kupperman. "We’re always looking ahead."

Robinson said, "I was in the company of some of the greatest minds in educational technology, all of whom are incredible human beings, even without their credentials. I left the Gathering feeling like a valued member of an extended, yet intimate, family spanning the globe. For that I am grateful!"

Learn more about the Gathering by visiting the IIE website

Jeff Stanzler is Lecturer

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