Fishing / Fish Nuggets

A majority of my blog posts are spontaneous spurts, yet sometimes, an idea takes root somewhere in the gray matter, and just sits there quietly demanding to be let out. This one has been rattling around, and tonight demands to see that publish button clicked.

So there is a strand here, some storytelling, and a cliche metaphor to be trotted out. This in many ways a commentary on the work we do in this poorly defined field I’ll call “Instructional Technology”. I think it was triggered by Laura’s post on Fear 2.5: Afterthoughts following the excellent session she and colleagues did at EDUCAUSE ELI 2008. She openly shares her fear:

A fear I have that I don’t think I articulated was a fear of being irrelevant and unnecessary.

How important is my position, really, to the institution as a whole? If my position disappeared, would anyone really notice?

Most of the faculty that reach out to me are really just asking for tech support. They want to know how to perform certain tasks in Blackboard. They want to know how to edit a web site. They don’t tend to ask the bigger questions: what is appropriate technology for me to use to achieve my goals, how should I use x to help my students learn.

So it was hear I started thinking of an old metaphor…

Chicken nuggets, hush puppies creative commons licensed photo image by jumbledpie

and aking myelf, “Are people like Laura stuck creating and serving fish nuggets… rather then in the fish teaching business?”

Kaylen teaches Ian to fish creative commons licensed photo image by dbang

Yes, its an old cliche (and comes equipped with optional funny alternative). I thought I read that it is a variation from Chinese philosopher Kuan-tzu who said “if you give a man a fishing pole he will be able to feed himself for a lifetime” though the popular one (and I took some liberty to not make fishing just a male sport) is lyrical

Give a person a fish; you have fed them for today. Teach a person to fish; and you have fed them for a lifetime.

Need an example? Course Management Systems are huge fish nugget factories. And we spend a lot of time, effort, money keeping the assembly lines moving. Fishing? Most things web 2.0.

But that does not really get at the core. What Laura got to in her post (I think) was the frustration of a role where ones skills and talents are seemingly downgraded by The System or not really allowed to flourish due to the needs to keep the nuggets moving. I’ve had a lot of fortune avoiding being on the nugget racket.

I will roll it back a bit via a bit of story. I am nor horrified to be saying things like, “Back when I started…”. This too was triggered by an experience back in February when at the Northern Voice 2008 Conference I shared a hotel room with Jim Groom, that in itself is several riotous stories, but Mr Groom is an amazing source of positive manic energy. For some reason, after late hours of NV partying we’d come back to the hotel and stay up even longer talking movies and web and this weird “field” we are in.

Jim was curious about the old web projects I did at Maricopa (whew they are still there, dont trash ’em Colen!), so I trotted out a few of them, like Negative Reinforcement University. I described what a unique and special role I had there as an “Instructional Technologist” because at a district, central level of a distributed multi-college system, I was not doing direct how-to software training or supporting Blackboard— it was really a role to do R&D in technology, find ways to get faculty to experiment with them, and to so degree, try to nudge the big ship. I did almost no training workshops.

As he was curious, I trotted out my old job description (which for some bizarre reason he opened his presentation the next day with?), and ironically, I believe it was writing in the 1980s, it still holds up nicely, not that I typically consulted it:

Consults with faculty and staff in developing instructional uses of technologies; researches, analyzes and evaluates new technologies for potential applications in instruction; promotes the implementation of technological innovations; creates demonstrations of instructional applications of technologies; plans, coordinates and conducts special topics workshops in the use of technologies in instruction for faculty, staff or conferences; arranges and schedules new technologies demonstrations and workshops by vendors; provides assistance to faculty, staff and administrators who have instructional technology needs; publicizes and promotes services, resources and activities of the Center.

Yet I got thinking even farther back when I was first hired in 1992- its another long story but I almost blind luck stumbled into the first job at Maricopa as something like “Programmer Analyst/Instructional Systems” whatever that meant. What I had was a bit of teaching experience and using computers in my research a a geology graduate student. I am still not exactly sure why they hired this green kid (29). My boss at the time claimed it was because I wore an earring to the interview.

So the office I walked into, the Maricopa Center for Learning & Instruction, had several people working there as “Instructional Designers” — and I admit I had never heard of such a thing (I was coming out of a dead end career as a professional graduate student in the sciences). “Instructional Designers”? it sounded so… so… industrial, like there is a huge factory out there stamping out .. learning nuggets. They all had PhDs and had spent years memorizing learning style inventories and theories of meta-cognition (I guess, and I am saying this totally tongue in cheek- I have a lot of respect for people who focus on the question of “how we learn”).

And I was a lowly technologist– “just a technologist”. One ID in particular I worked with was pretty clear with her disdain, and to her the great goal of her work was to create paper “job aids”

WTF was that? he uttered it like I was an idiot not to know what the hell a “job aid” was.

My sarcastic mind muttered something about a hand being involved, but I kept my head down, as the politics of the office were not important nor was I invsted in battling this b****.

Yet I would get lots of “designs” that were lavishly formatted documents in well tabbed notebooks that were all well structured, with clearly labeled Objectives and Closing Question Checking Said Objectives, it was exciting as reading the ingredients of a cereal box. So I would nibble around the edges like, “We want them to go to this path first, but rather than make it the only option, what if the other options are presented, but there is a puzzle that requires the desired path to solve?” I looked to ditch the cheesy clip art and add real photos.

And at the same time I was mesmerized by these new tools I was discovering daily (the Stanford Info-Mac FTP site was gold sumex-aim yeah!). I was reaching myself to fish with HyperCard, Director, by building, creating, tinkering, and tapping into the fishing communities– email listservs, Gopher. I discovered this joy of creating something from nothing, of getting ideas or code from others.

I had some lucky breaks, stumbled early into the web, and found a way to connect with faculty I worked with by avoiding jargon. My boss and I tried to re-write my job description, and each effort, the Big HR machine would bat it back to the same level I was at. So giving up, I got appointed to the Instructional Technologist position, which apparently was written for one person in the 1980s (Thanks Jim for blazing the path, same guy who handed my a floppy disc in 1993 labeled “Mosaic”).

And at tat level I was more responsible for running projects, working with admins, coordination all of our Ocotillo programs. Oh planning that first large retreat gave my stomach fits.

The thing I loved most about this position was I had tremendous latitude to explore and try new technologies (I am fairly sure no one knew what the heck I was doing), and not only look for fishing opportunities, but looking for different bodies of water to fish in.

Interestingly enough in 2005, I was part of a group working with EDUCAUSE who ran a first Instructional Technologist development program at Penn State University. Oh mu god what hell we put those poor people through! It was way over stuffed, designed by committee. It was there I met Vidya from Trinity University. The point was to better develop these position as leadership ones.

So I wandered down my own story path, just blabbing about the stuff I did. The point is…. well, a I look around, read, what many of my colleagues do– it sure seems like a lot of nugget production. Do we foster an environment of “learned helplessness” among the faculty we support by most of our work being workshops on the tools rather than the craft? I’ve heard recently professionals mutter things like “Oh I can never learn to edit wikis correctly” You have to try really hard to break a wiki.

And along these lines, I was part of some technology conversations with UBC faculty and I just relished watching my colleague Brian’s face contort when someone says, “how do I use twitter in my class?” He’d say in his sweet flip matter, “I am not going to answer that” — not because he doesn’t want to help, but because he wants to teach fishing, not toss them nuggets. You don’t find a freaking “job aid” that gives you a 8 step recipe to use twitter in your economics class– you spend some time in the environment, and let the affordances linger with your content area, and then maybe, you develop an idea that makes sense. The great modelers I see, like Barbara Ganley, Gardner Campbell– dont rely on their tech staff to give them a recipe, they bring in their domain of knowing what they want to teach, they tinker with the fishing rods and bait, and they create a use of the tool based on a hunch, an idea rooted in their areas of interest.

So you ought to ask, “Hey Mr Complainer, how do you move from being a nugget dispenser to being a fishing coach?”

Good question!

I am so glad you asked that question!

(this are the diversions people do w/o wanting to answer).

Most likely many people are in a position that is traditionally producing nuggets. So it will take some time, perseverance, luck, creativity. My thought is you do a lot of small things. You dont try to blow everyone’s hair back with Web 2.0, but go for something small that can have a quick payoff. And its not that you cannot help people learn how to use the tools, but just enough to get started. help them learn the other ways to tap into knowledge (googling, tagging in del.icio.us, being public about knot knowing how to do something and just asking for it). Toss ’em something that might help on a personal level- be it flickr or doodle or diigo or heck, Blabberize.

it means less formal training, less workshops, and more learning by doing. It means using these tools a much as possible in our processes, so they become part of a fabric, not something strange and exotic.

Heck nuggets can be better with a good sprinkling of hot sauce!

I am not pretending to have the answers here, but am eager to know if I am just ranting, stuck on a metaphor, or what?

So would you rather be teaching fishing or tossing nuggets?

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Being a former instructional technologist, I can readily identify with the points you raise (and the fears that Laura mentioned). I think that faculty, in many ways, are like our students. I try to give my students content, concept, and process and most of them want sound bites and nuggets. Why? I believe that there are several reasons.

    First….motivation. They don’t particularly care about my subject (math) as it is a required course and they just want to get through it because they have to. Many faculty don’t particularly care about using technology and they just want to use it because they were told they have to or think they should.

    Second…an underlying misunderstanding of the basics of (insert either word here…math or technology). My students have a hard time tinkering with math and trying things and thinking about things because they still don’t understand (even in college) how to work with fractions or double negatives or how to solve linear equations. They get so hung up on the basic that they can’t get into the cool stuff like expanding and applying their knowledge to more challenging problems. The same situation occurs with faculty. There are lots of folks out there…really…who don’t understand the Internet or servers or how web pages or email works or what the difference. For many folks, uploading links and icons and documents to Blackboard is a major accomplishment given their complete and total lack of understanding of the technological world. I am not even talking about understanding at the level of a techie but more an intuitive sense of how and why things work the way they do with technology.

    Third…and there may be more but I’ll stop here…fear. My math students (I teach at the developmental level…stuff like intro and intermediate algebra)…many of them…are just plain scared. Other people are good at math not them. They don’t see themselves as geeks or brainiacs or really smart folks so why should they be able to understand? They fall right into their self-fulfilling prophecies by focusing on their mistakes instead of on the learning process and the fact that learning comes by making mistakes. Faculty are the same. Many of them are scared to death to even touch the old technologies (Powerpoint, Blackboard, etc…) much less any of the web 2.0 stuff. They are content experts not techies and often the ones that are really scared do try. Then, when technology gets weird as it always does, they think THEY broke something or are stupid or just don’t get it then stop trying.

    So, if most students don’t learn math because they aren’t motivated, don’t understand the basic and are scared and most faculty don’t learn new technologies for the same reasons, what do we as teachers and instructional technologists do? We do what we do best…we model good behavior and we keep trying. We focus extra attention in class on the ones that do care and are willing and we show them how things can be different. We plan and we learn and we keep ourselves sharp and on the cutting edge because that’s the kind of people we are. And the ones that want it will come. The ones that see our enthusiasm and begin to understand the underlying principles of web 2.0 and technology in general (or math) will overcome their fear in small, jerking, hesitant baby steps. Then, when they get it and the light clicks on, there is no stopping them! I have seen it in math class and I have seen it with faculty as well. Follow behind the Chinese Proverb which says “You can build a mountain out of grains of sand”.

    Whew! I should get up early more often!!!

  2. I hear the fear…

    I am not sure you can ever totally move from nugget dispenser to 100% fishing coach..esp. at a school where there is only one of you and several hundred faculty needing all levels of help with all levels of techno-interest/skills. So, I dish out nuggets in ways that are as helpful and “nutritious” as possible (IMHO) and coach fishing by example with my own work, grab onto the early adopters and help them reel in successes and hope that the others will see and want to do the same with their own teaching.

  3. Thanks Donna for your thoughtful and experienced post– the parallels to Math (fear) are wonderful.

    And AJ- I wa not 100% (or maybe even 40%) coherent in writing. I did not mean this as an either/or choice. There are certainly times for munching nuggets and I really meant to imply we need something on the spectrum in between.

  4. Alan,

    I am a (fairly) young Instructional Designer/Educational Technologist myself, and I totally feel the same way. Thanks for putting your thoughts into words. And Thanks Donna for sharing your story.

    It’s not easy to be listened to when you’re a staff member. It takes a lot of time to build the visibility you need to be considered an expert in a world made of experts.

    I’m definitely using the baby step approach with my professors. One by one, trying to get them to learn how to fish without making them miss their deadline for that article…

  5. A job aid is something used on the job that tells you what to do and how to do it, so you don’t have to memorize.

    Job aids matter (especially in the world of work) because there are only two places to store info: inside your head, or outside. Inside is expensive.

    Regarding instructional design (and designers), my mentor Joe Harless used to say that there was one question you never wanted to ask your training clients: “What do you want people to know?”

    You don’t ask that, because they’ll tell you. And what they’ll tell you is stuff like “appreciation of widgets, great moments in widget-making, uses for widgets, prominent widget makers…”

    To get out of the training (or instructional) box, the right question is: “What do you want people to do?

    Which gets you pretty quickly into fishing, rather than nugget dispensing.

  6. Well Alan you got me stumped. Here I was reading your lasted blurb and you bring out this fishing metaphor. I would’ve thought maybe a slight twist, like a dog fishing metaphor, a story about how you taught your dog (my condolences about your dog) to dive into the Colorado to fish rather than feed him from the bowl. Now that wudda been cool!

    Like you and many of the others who commented here, I’ve spent the majority of my career working with or teaching teachers, first as a media producer, and then as an instructional designer (ID)/technologist, blah blah blah. But I would have thought that after working all that time with the IDs at Maricopa someone would have told you that it’s the instructional method that counts. And when you ask teachers to take a risk trying different methods like problem based learning, etc., and then combine technologies that are unfamiliar, it’s little like running along the cliff line for them. So, then we try “teaching teams or partnerships” with teachers and technologists all swimming in the same pool and discussing what worked and didn’t work. But the talk isn’t about the technology, it’s more about the pedagogy and wrapped in a technology context. It takes a lot of time, experience, wisdom, and trust to get there.

    Well, I’ll keep my nose to this noble profession but wise to the notion that I’ll never be able to create a human mashup of teacher and technologist. I’ll also continue to keep an eye on your Maricopa magic here at the Cogdogblog or at the NMC. Just ring the dinner bell to let me know that it’s time to come up for air!

  7. Oh Dave, I know its the instructional method that counts and too that there is alot to ask to risk both approach and technique. I did a lot of that in my time.

    There is a good, maybe small number of faculty who do manage the mashup. They are artists. I remain convinced there are small things we can use as an entre, not major course revolution approaches, but small meaningful ideas that tap into an educators either subject interest (unique resources unavailable elsewhere, strategies that connect them to colleagues) or something more mundane like a relevant tool or way to use photos.

    I believe in Curly’s law (c.f. City Slickers)

    Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?

    Curly: This. [holds up one finger]

    Mitch: Your finger?

    Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.

    Mitch: But what is the “one thing?”

    Curly: [smiles] That’s what you have to find out.

    (heck there is one for Algebra)- there is ONE THING to find that is important or meaningfu, and it may be smalll, and that is usually my goal, and that they are different for each person. But that ONE THING becomes the opening to becoming more of a fisher than a nugget muncher.

    Okay, I am rinigng your dinner bell. If you come quickly, I’ll make sure you get a bone ;-)

  8. This is so awesome! I’m going to go pick on Steve momentarily, but this quote really blew me away:

    You don’t find a freaking “job aid” that gives you a 8 step recipe to use twitter in your economics class– you spend some time in the environment, and let the affordances linger with your content area, and then maybe, you develop an idea that makes sense.

    I’m putting that on my door.

  9. Alan, no quibbles — though I’ll say in Allison Rossett’s defense that she knows what she’s talking about, re job aids, and isn’t usually so jargon-laden. Must be something about university courses.

    Laura’s dilemma parallels those I’ve seen in corporate settings, where the training department (by whatever name) is all too often a Bookings and Presentations shop. Hence the definition I saw the other day for LMS: Learning Means Sitting.

    I had many good projects to work on when I was a corporate guy, along with some others from which the biggest benefit was experience. I don’t know that it’s any easier when like me you’re no longer a corporate employee, because you still need paying clients. The struggle to get satisfactory pay for worthwhile and engaging work isn’t easy.

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