Friday, September 30, 2005

Returning to the Living

We’ve had production problems this week and I’ve not been able to think about the blog during that time, so I stopped posting. While there seem to still be some hiccups, I’m hopeful that we’ve turned the corner on the production issues and that I can therefore indulge my daily reverie into thinking about all things edtech, whether related to our current service issues or not.

This morning some senior staff from the campus IT organizations, including me, had a retreat with their counterparts from the Library. We’ve been doing these retreats on a quarterly basis for about two years. This was the best meeting, either because the participants are finally getting relaxed in having these conversations or because there are enough areas where we are collaborating and where we seem to be making some progress that the reports and ensuing discussion actually have some meat to them.

Here I’d like to talk a little about what we’re not doing and whether we can move into this space in the not too distant future or if that is not in the cards. So let’s focus on the younger high powered researchers, whether in the sciences or the humanities, who are likely to be quite savvy about IT issues and who very well may be pushing the envelop as much or more than we are. My question is whether central IT or the Library can do something significant for these people in terms of supporting their research, or if our entire role is to provide core infrastructure – network with appropriate bandwidth, online journals and databases with appropriate discovery tools – and then get out of their way.

For example, many of these researchers are running their own Web sites with large amounts of data. What are they doing in terms of providing adequate backup and data redundancy, indexing the data for later search and retrieval by other scholars, and managing the data for possible long term storage? These seem like issues that would be common across young scholars. My guess is that in most cases they come up with thoughtful (after all these are inventive people) kludges that fall short of best practice.

Do these people think of turning to the Library or Central IT to help them work through these issues? I don’t really know by experience, but I doubt it. And let me give the following analogy to help confirm this view.

Some years ago (prior to writing this blog) I had an idea to write a novel about higher education and wrote several chapters. (That project is now in hibernation. I may take it up again some time in the future.) I reached the point where I wanted to get some professional criticism on what I had written and since for several years I’ve been a regular member of the Center for Writing Studies oversight committee, I made an appointment with the Writer’s Workshop to have the work reviewed.

The first appointment I had, though I got attention from them, I found excruciating. Most of the people they help are undergrads trying to complete an assignment in the introductory rhetoric course or some other course with a writing requirement. Their consulting was geared around that purpose and it didn’t fit mine at all. So I was uncomfortable with it. I knew the then director (he has since moved on to a tenure track position elsewhere) and I told him about it. He’s an extremely nice guy and because of this and because he was struggling with his dissertation at the time he was looking for some intellectual diversions. He volunteered to provide the consulting himself and I took him up on it. We came up with something that was customized for my needs. It was useful and enjoyable.

I think that we in IT or the Library need to be putting ourselves in the role of this CWS director and do more of that sort of thing but obviously in our areas of information technology and information management. At the moment that’s not the bread and butter so work of that sort looks like it is moonlighting or even goofing off. But let me tie this into something else that came up at the retreat.

Paula Kaufman, our University Librarian, told a story about the Provost, who attended their Library planning meeting held earlier in the week. Not surprisingly, we are striving to be one of the preeminent public universities in the country (Berkeley, U Michigan, and UT Austin were held up as places to compete with). Yet the Provost framed the issue differently. In the next few years, he said, students at Western Illinois University in Macomb will have essentially have the same access to Library information as students here in Urbana-Champaign. When that point has been reached what will differentiate our Library from WIU’s?

This is a somewhat humbling question, especially for those who have been focusing on content as king for all these years and that the primary goal in the Library is to have wonderful collections. So the thought Paula enunciated is that we have to provide services in order to provide value and service provision needs to be our focus. I would go further. As the market increasingly commodifies IT services, our role inside Higher Ed should increasingly move toward an education mission and that should take up an increasing share of what we do.

Taking that point as truth, the real question is whether we in central IT and the Library have sufficient knowledge to put ourselves in this role of teachers or if instead we need to take early retirement and hire a new generation of folks who have that knowledge. I think that is right question for management to be asking. But if I were a staff member in the Library or in the Central IT organization in my early 40s with some young kids and a hefty mortgage, I’d be scared stiff about this issue. That makes it a little harder to raise

Monday, September 26, 2005

Totally Connected or Comfort Food for the Mind

It’s spring break 1977, coming to the close of my first year in graduate school. I’m in the back seat of a classmate’s car. He is driving and his girlfriend is sitting along side him. We’re on I-80 headed to Denver. It’s about 2 AM and we’ve just left Nebraska and are on the Northeast plains of Colorado. There are snow drifts on the side of the road, perhaps 8 feet high. The car’s headlights beam of the drifts creating a spectacular looking dancing effect. Our fatigue contributes to wonderment of this light show. I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since.

Then, later in the summer, on another trip out west with a different friend, this time in my own car and we’re driving somewhere in Utah on our way to Zion national park. The sun has gone behind the clouds. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” is on the stereo and it’s starting to crescendo. It reaches the climax and as if by cue the sun pops out from behind the clouds. The view is awesome. The music amplifies the magnificence.

These little memory fragments are meant to emphasize how I recall that non-work time was spent when I was a student. Much of what I did, though quite enjoyable, had elements of newness, mystery, and wonder. The music was part of it (and the Grateful Dead song “Truckin” had the emblematic expression as its tag line).

Actually, much of this sense of journey happened by watching films. Starting as a junior at Cornell, I began to watch a lot of avant-garde movies, mostly Italian and French initially. This was a way to get perspectives about things I wouldn’t get otherwise and be entertained at the same time. I developed quite a taste for it.

My first couple of years at grad school at Northwestern I didn’t own a TV and the first year in particular, I worked extremely hard on the economics. So that film habit was put on the back burner. When my classmates and I finally caught our collective breath, we started to find other outlets beside the Library for our entertainment, extra curricular education, and socializing. The Chicago Reader, a free weekly magazine in newsprint, had a film columnist, Dave Kerr, and I enjoyed reading his reviews. His tastes paralleled mine and I recall going to quite a few films at Facets Multimedia on Fullerton, which at the time was a dump but it had great movies. Often, I believe, I went to these on my own. Occasionally, there’d be an interesting film at a better theater, perhaps the Biograph, maybe the Art Institute. Then I’d go with a friend and we’d go for dinner before or afterwards. The Norris Center Union at Northwestern started to show some interesting films my second or third year and it was quite a bit more convenient.

The other big part that I recall about my social life at the time was going out for dessert. There were two places we frequented regularly. One was a place for cheesecake on Sheridan Road, across the street from Loyola. The other was a pie place in Skokie, I believe on Dempster. I had a particular friend who dropped out of the program after the first year, but whom I sill saw on a regular basis and that’s where we talked. The food enabled the conversation. I have no recollection of those conversations whatsoever, but I think they were important to me, not just time fillers but rather a way to get perspective on things.

Northwestern was the first time I lived on my own and that obviously affected me in some ways. But I think I maintained my east coast sensibilities throughout, in the sense that there was a need for there to be an intellectual aspect to the non-work time and that one needed to maintain a broad perspective on things to be considered a well educated person. Perhaps it wasn’t the east coast at all, but maybe it was coming of age in the mid ‘70s or maybe it was the particular classmates I chose to hang out with. I don’t know.

Things changed when I came to work at Illinois in 1980, imperceptibly at first, then more obviously after a while. There is now a wonderful New Art Theater in downtown Champaign and several places on campus to watch serious films, but when I arrived the situation here with respect to films was rather dreadful. And after a while I stopped going to them. Also, I now had real income, more than I knew what to do with. So I got a new stereo and big color TV. I subscribed to the New York Times, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and Scientific American and did manage to read much if not all of those. But there way much more of the “veg out” activity in front of the tube than there was in graduate school.

My peer assistant professors hung out as a group – beer and popcorn on Friday afternoons at “Coslows” and golf in the early weekday mornings in the summer. (It is hot here in the summer!) Some of this was just good natured fun, but some of it was venting about the department and a release from the frustration of department politics. I had always done pure waste of time activities but I think for the first time some of that was being offered up as a way to release the work related pressure. And it increasingly became the way to interact socially. Intellectual diversions I did more on my own.

Several years later, this amplified even more after getting married and having kids. I didn’t know the expression “comfort food” until I met my wife. And I didn’t understand that certain regular activities – “A Prairie Home Companion” as one example – and a taste for certain films – “When Harry Met Sally” is the quintessence here – can be based on a need to relax and to enjoy as primary rather than a need to be challenged and to grow. My wife is actually something of an outlier in her family, having earned a doctorate and taken on a university faculty position. The other sibs have done well professionally but not in an academic setting. So my perceptions about what is caused by living in the Midwest (Jello with marshmallows as a side salad, ugh) are jumbled up with different type of family background and different parts of the life cycle.

All of this is background. Let’s get down to the issue. All those kids who between classes are walking around with some plugged into or held close to their ear, either a cellphone or an mp3 player, are they bringing the world into their universe by being so connected? Or are they blocking it out? I read somewhere quite recently (tried to find the source but after 10 minutes of searching I decided getting this post out tonight was more important) about some grade school kid doing schoolwork who couldn’t imagine doing it away from the computer. She needed to be connected to her sources via Google searches. There wasn’t another alternative. But what about the kids being in half a dozen IM conversations at the same time, while they’re doing their homework, while the stereo is blasting or the TV has got some soap on, or both? Is this multiprocessing at work? Or overindulgence of the auditory and visual senses where communication and background noise become non-distinct because they seem so much alike?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m of the belief that Tom Friedman’s global flattening is happening at the same time that we are becoming more and more provincial and somewhat paradoxically with all this information at our disposal, ignorance is on the rise. The possibility for connection does not in itself preclude the desire nor the capability of blocking out the rest of the world. My sense is that we are growing closer together and farther apart at the same time.

Perhaps the real difference between my generation and the Net generation is that they can have their sense of privacy wide out in the open while I need to hunker down in my office or if on the road go back to my hotel room to check email. We in educational technology need to be careful about this because as we promote student connectedness we may inadvertently encourage disengagement and alienation. Again I don’t have the citation when I need it, but I definitely recall the replicable result that many students don’t want so much technology in the classroom. They simply want to be able to have a conversation with their professor.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Using RSS for distributing non audio/video course content

Before I forget – A realvideo stream of President White’s Installation is available here.
While there are some touching parts in the rest of the ceremony, if you only want to hear President White’s address, it starts at about 1:31:30.


I’ve got a little demo all of you can play with. To do so you need a podcatcher that supports general file types, not just media files. I believe that iTunes, for example, only supports media files so it can’t be used for this purpose. I’ve gotten it to work with JPodder. There are a bunch of clients out there. I’m not really sure how to tell which support only music or video formats and which support more general formats. But I do know this requires the latter capability to work.

The rest is remarkably simple. So before getting to the description, let me say this works like a charm for content that the distributor doesn’t mind being public (not behind a wall of password protection). It’s for that type of content where the benefit lies. For content where the distributor wants to restrict access for copyright, privacy, or other reasons, this method is not useful.

The RSS feed provides the url to be supplied to the podcatcher so it knows what to subscribe to. That RSS feed is generated from the Atom feed of this blog, though I’m under the impression one can use the url for the blog itself, but I haven’t tried that yet. In the most recent two entries of the blog, I put in links in the link field and those were to files in the public part of my Netfiles account (Netfiles is the campus branding for the Xythos document management software).

The upshot is I manage my public documents any way I want to in Netfiles, when I want to make one available to my subscribers, I make a blog post with a link to the file. Their podcatchet picks up the file the next time it updates from the RSS feed and they can view the file by going to the folder on their own computer where the podcatcher puts the content. This distribution method can be used for teaching, for a research group to share content, really for any social unit that wants to share content online. It has the distinct advantage over email that the files are readily found in the particular folder for the group and there is an online index of sorts provided by the blog.

We need more experimentation with this. Right now I consider it not ready for prime time and what I don’t have now is a good sense of how hard the subscription stuff is from the typical user’s point of view. However, to the extent that the user has a computer with a broadband connection so the updating can happen in the background or while the user is away from the computer, that seems like a win for the users.

If you do try it out, I’d like to know what you think.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Installation of President White

This afternoon there was an official ceremony for the installation of our new president at the University of Illinois, B. Joseph White. I listened online to the broadcast of the event, about two hours worth. But I haven't found the archive of that audio yet and am not sure whether it will be put up or not. If it does appear, it will likely be here
in the second slot on Thursday.
In the meantime, the Web site is here
and you can read his inaugural address.

I thought it was a good speech, giving both an inspirational and aspirational view of our future while also providing a realistic sense of the challenges we face. I'm rooting for him and I hope we can live up to his goals of finding creative solutions that sustain the leadership position we have that attract the additional revenues we need while avoiding extravagance in pursuit of these ends.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

What will students schlep?

For those looking for a how to on Podcasting, my colleague Burks Oakley, has made a very nice tutorial on his blog. Two details points for follow up:
1) Audacity needs a file called lame_enc.dll to export as MP3. You can get the file here
2) The Blogger software has a link field that comes right after the title field. For whatever reason, I disabled that field in my own blog. If you put the link to the MP3 in that field, the xml that is made knows to treat that as a download link for podcasting. (I still don’t know how it knows this, but it does.) If you are using Blogger you can enable or turn off the link field under Settings, on the Formatting page, then scroll near the bottom of the page.

Why this interest? I was just on the phone with Burks and he said something provocative, from my perspective. Students have the iPods and many want to look at presentations on paper. They’d rather print out stuff and carry that around along with their iPod than carry around a laptop. I’ve been encouraging the use of laptops in the classroom for years. But there is no doubt there is some cost.

I’ve always thought that weight is the big issue and the textbooks or course packs plus student print outs weigh a lot more than a laptop (which has the textbook and course on it in digital form). But students might not mind the weight that much and might feel less risk toting a lot of paper around – nobody will steal it, it won’t break if it is dropped, batteries run out, etc. So a small form factor electronic device, iPod or cellphone, may be preferred along with a big backpack for…. Paper. Some students will go the laptop route, but many seem to prefer the alternative.

This is kind of an epiphany for me as it explains where podcasting and an accompanying PowerPoint may be preferred to an audio integrated into the PowerPoint approach. I’m a laptop guy (really a Tablet PC guy) and so do the standard egotistic thing and project my preferences onto everyone else. The data don’t bear that projection out, however. A lot of students who own laptops rarely if ever bring them to campus.

Maybe at some point large displays will become so ubiquitous that they will take the place of paper and at that point students will store all the content on their small form factor device. But in the meantime, perhaps those going the Podcasting route should think of the visual part of their online content as ultimately viewed on paper. I’m going to have to think this one through some more because it cuts against the grain in how I’ve designed my own stuff. It would help me to have some use results on when students actually listen to academic podcasting content. Do they use it and if so when and why?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Getting students to write more seriously

I’ve taken to writing these blog posts in Word. The spell and grammar check there is better than the alternative in my browser (got to love that green squiggle underline) and I can get a better sense of how much I’ve written. In the default format I use which I believe is the default for Word (Times New Roman, 12 point, single space paragraph, one line space between paragraphs, one and a half inch left and right margins, one inch top and bottom margins) my typical post is about two and a half pages. Knowing this helps on whether I should continue writing or not and when I really need to wind up on the topic.

Because I have a penchant for counting beans and making back of the envelope calculations, I did a little test and found that a one page document of the sort described above is about 30K in file size. Armed with that, one can go to the Sent Items folder, see how many days of email are there, look at the file size of the entire folder and make some correction for image content and other non-text file types that are attachments, one can produce an estimate of how much writing per day the student does via email. For example, I have about 6 MB in my sent items box for 12 days worth of mail. Let’s say half of that MB is images or headers or other stuff not to count. Then I’d have produced about 100 Word page equivalents for about 8.5 pages per day. That sounds plausible to me, if a bit on the high end.

At least hypothetically, we can imagine doing such calculations for real students. Somebody will invariably point out that they probably do more writing by IM than via email. I have no clue if that is true or not, but certainly if the IM were archived such a measurement would not be hard. I do think it is an inescapable conclusion that students spend a substantial amount of time each day producing written communication.

However, I suspect that most of us would argue, though in general I don’t know how to control for this because seemingly all students do email and IM, that this type of informal online writing has little or no carry over to doing more formal writing, doing written work for course assignments, and producing research papers. So I think simply getting students to write a bit each day is insufficient to product the critical thinking that we want to develop in our students.

The informal writing is reflexive in the extreme. One learns to give the quick response and creativity manifest this way might produce a quip or humorous note, but it is extremely unlikely to generate depth of thinking or fundamental new perspective. A different type of writing is needed for that. Pre-writing is a big part. Problem solving and getting the story to tell right are big parts of that. Then there is the issue of having the writing critiqued and getting perspective on the writing and reconsidering the issues again, as an editor would, and as a reader would.

Where does this happen? Indeed, does it happen at all? Most of us who teach are heroes at the outset and cowards near the end of the term. We start out with high ideals and then get caught up in other things and know that evaluating student writing, especially in the mind numbing case where all the students are writing on the same topic, may very well be our obligation but it is not a reward in itself. In large classes it feels like self-justification for the letter grade assigned to the paper rather than as part of a dialog to push the argument along. So we put it off. We procrastinate just like the students do. And then we short change them with our commentary.

I have argued (and I’m sure I’ve got that from someone else, perhaps those who advocate for Just In Time Teaching) that online students can do shorter writing (say a paragraph in a survey question) and the instructor can make ensemble critique rather than individual response and that represents a reasonable compromise on the instructor obligation and can give the students meaningful feedback that they can reflect on and modify their views and their presentation. Perhaps. Really, this is conjecture, not fact, especially when one extends the approach to issues that might not have so straightforward an analysis as a textbook Physics problem.

Those who argue that online instruction is as good or better than face to face have this issue in the back of their mind. In the online world, the student writing does get critiqued via the class discussion. Not all of the critique comes from the instructor, to be sure, but some of it does and the rest of it is relevant. Moreover because the writing is the activity, there is encouragement for the students to write reflectively to be a good participating class member. But most would say an online class of this sort should have no more than 25 students and to make that approach cost effective either the instructor must be low paid adjunct or the faculty must teach quite a few of these classes.

On our campus now we have two undergraduate courses that must be writing intensive; that is there is a Comp I and a Comp II requirement. That is two courses out of perhaps forty or so. What happens in the rest? We used to have a Freshman Discovery program which has small classes (no more than 20 students) where only first year students were eligible, and only tenure track faculty could teach the course. The idea hits many of the buttons to push. But did those Discovery courses have the students writing critiqued by the instructor? And even if they did, now we’re at three out of forty courses that are writing intensive. If at the end of their time at college we want students to write and think critically, do we really think that those three courses are sufficient?

Suppose we made it a goal that each semester students would take at least one writing intensive course. Given all the strategic planning going on, suppose we made this part of the strategic plan for the undergraduate program. Students should do serious writing in some of their courses each term they are in college. The writing needs to be critiqued by the instructors and the students need to be able to respond to the criticism. This is the core of what I learn when I took the Writing Across the Curriculum seminar.

The truth is we’re struggling even to keep up with the writing requirement we already have. Some of the Comp II courses end up being taught without the students doing much writing. There is no way we can afford upping the ante in the way I suggested in the previous paragraph. So instead the charge is to consider the periphery of the student course experience, capstone courses and how courses overlap with the rest of student life.
The result, I think, is we’ll offer a package that works for some of the students, the very bright or the very outgoing. We have an obligation, however, to be utilitarian in our approach, at least with respect to the students that we admit. I hope there is some forum where the issue can be aired. I fear, however that won’t happen.

Technology can’t solve this problem. But it can make it more visible. With all the attention on the technology itself, I don’t believe the student writing issue is getting the attention it deserves.

Monday, September 19, 2005

If Donors Gave for other than Buildings, What Would They Fund?

We are going through a comprehensive strategic planning effort on my campus that is supposed to be all encompassing. The guidelines for that process are publicly available and I’ve seen some other documents aimed at the Undergraduate Experience working group that sharpens up the questions somewhat, for that specific setting. However, the framing is still quite broad and it is possible that it will generate a fairly general response that consequently will have little importance in the future.

And, because of the nature of the beast (we are a big university and involving a representative cross section means that a lot of people are involved in the discussion) there is a tendency to compartmentalize the thing – the undergraduate groups looks at that and doesn’t look at other pieces, like what will attract donor contributions.

I believe that the single biggest thing we’d like to promote at the undergraduate level is enhanced interactions with the faculty and that we can do better in that regard than we have been doing, but the issue needs to be looked at a little differently.

The traditional expected pipeline between students and faculty is through regular classroom instruction. A student who fares well in that setting may then ask the professor to do an independent study, working on some project of their mutual determination. In some instances the independent study step is reached without the prior regular class experience. Likewise, in some cases the student may end up working in the faculty member’s lab, perhaps being paid on the faculty member’s grant, and that can follow a good regular classroom experience but need not emerge from that.

The reality, however, is that supporting a student doing an independent study is typically an extra burden on the faculty member. The paper that is produced usually can’t be leveraged for other faculty activities. After all, the student is getting course credit for the activity so the primary end has to be the student’s learning. But that introduces an important asymmetry in that typically a faculty member gets no teaching credit for supporting undergraduates in independent study.

Does that mean there isn’t meaningful work that a faculty member might have a student do, if there were funds to pay the student? Of course, it means no such thing. Many faculty members have lots of interesting work in which they could meaningfully employ undergraduate students. Supporting their course sites is just one possible example. But these type of activities typically are not grant funded and so the faculty members don’t have the cash to pay students to do this type of work. Moreover, funding undergraduates to help faculty in their own work has not historically been part of business model on campus. As the bulk of funds are “tied down” into other areas it is hard if not impossible for an individual faculty member to generate funds for this purpose, no matter how worthy the project.

Suppose an appeal was made to donors to give donations to the university in support of undergraduate students. The historical approach here has been on using such donations to fund scholarships, either need based or merit. But now suppose we take up the idea that we want to use this money to encourage more meaningful interactions between students and faculty and using reasoning like above, we’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to do that is create a pool of funds through which faculty can hire students to work for them.

For example, there might be a program where undergraduate students are awarded say $1500 per semester as long as some authorized faculty member (and I would extend this to adjunct instructors because they likely have some very interesting work of this sort) signifies that the student is doing the work for her. The faculty member would have full say in what the work would be. And if the faculty member had a student in mind to do the work, she would be able to select that student as long as the student is willing. The program might serve as a brokering service for faculty and students who don’t know each other in advance of doing the work. And possibly the program would provide some complementary training in areas where it appears faculty needs are similar and where there is some skill on campus already to provide the training.

Before we turn to the question of whether donors would give money for a program like this, let’s envision that the program is entirely of the “opt in” kind. There is no requirement for faculty to hire students in this way and no requirement for students to work for faculty in the program. (This contrasts with the Inward Looking Service Learning plan I described that can be found in the August archive of this Blog, starting on the 9th.) Then we might suggest that at their discretion participants in the program, students and faculty alike, use some of the current online communication tools – blogs and wikis – to manage the work in these projects and to provide some reflection on it. In other words, rather than having some formal reporting requirement that most people won’t want to complete (it will be delivered after the work is done and the funding has been spent) lets encourage open communication during the project and perhaps have it serve the additional purpose that it lends visibility to the program and helps to enlist other donors to support the activity.

In case this is not obvious, I’m suggesting to borrow quite heavily from those folks who are pushing the ePortfolio mantle but do not in the regular classroom environment, which is heavily regulated (FERPA) and which may not match the instructor’s goals and, instead, use it in this work environment where the alternative to the current communication tools is almost certainly email and instant messaging and so the main difference is whether the communication is made overt to others. At this point, where such a program is only being hinted at – the campus has not yet embraced it and started to plan for it – it would seem that public communication about the work would be an attractive feature.

Finally, let’s turn to whether donors would give money for this, flipping the question around, whether a program like this could be packaged in a sexy way where it could attract a funding base that the university hasn’t yet already tapped. Not being a millionaire myself, I can’t comment on this from personal experience. But I would think the promotion of direct student-faculty interaction would be a huge seller. Sure there would have to be some early successes to get the ball rolling on this sort of program. And so maybe we cultivate this in a careful way at the beginning. But doesn’t it seem like something all of us could agree on? And wouldn’t it be good if the academic side of the house gave the fund raising people something they could really market?

Friday, September 16, 2005

Strategizing about Ed Tech

It is hard to get perspective on the issue of whether America is dissipating its strategic advantage over the rest of the world, through the complacency of its youth, the corruption in the highest places in the business world, and the bad decisions of the White House, or if instead the feeling of malaise that many of us seem to have about the direction of the country is only a temporary blip and we’ll be off to the races in the not too distant future – stiff upper back, stay the course, chin up. But I do draw some parallels with that and my job, which is to provide some direction for learning technology on the campus. And with that I ask myself when we advocate for a big system (Course Management System, ePortfolio System, Institutional Repository, Portal) whether we are making mistakes similar to Bush’s mistake with Iraq – the case seems self evident so why do the hard headed analysis that might dissuade us from going down that path.

At the TechForum conference earlier this week, there was a session on ePortfolios and two of the four presenters were my colleagues from the
CIC Learning Technology Group, Steve Acker from Ohio State and John Harwood from Penn State. (The other two presenters were from different campuses in the Minnesota system.) Both of them said things that are worthy of note and reflection.

Let me begin with Steve, who remarked that early adopter faculty seemingly have tired of the Course Management System, which appears ho hum to them, and are looking for new environments in which to experiment and to express their approach to teaching. I think that is right. And while Steve didn’t say it, I think it is also true for the staff that supports the course management system. They run a brisk business helping faculty to cope, but none of that is cutting edge and none of that expands their own personal horizons. It is a work that is utilitarian, clearly, and good for the campus. But it is also a work that places limits on the individual creativity of the staff.

Steve offered this up as a reason for campuses to be exploring ePortfolios. It is that conclusion where I’m beginning to struggle. Let me preface this with the observation that in our academic computing organization at Illinois, we don’t have a big R&D group with lots of pilots most of which we never expect to see the light of day but which collectively provide us with a sense of what to do next. Instead, we have a negotiated process with internal and external committees through which we vet our plans about next steps. If a proposal survives that vetting process and secures some initial funding there will be a pilot. But unless that pilot turns up some obvious tripping points that we find hard to remedy, the pilot constitutes an implicit commitment to moving forward with the service.

So the first big issue is whether campuses such as ours, big public research universities, should be embracing next directions with their learning technology infrastructure to please and placate their early adopter faculty. It is worthy of note that Steve, John, and I are each early adopter faculty ourselves. Thus a different way to frame the issue is whether our approach to learning technology is to satisfy the hopeful side in ourselves about where we’d like to see our campuses move in the near future.

Let me turn to John’s characterization of why, from the students’ perspective, we want ePortfolios. This was the most uplifting part of John’s presentation. In essence, John argued that we want college to be a place where students develop a strong sense of self. One way to achieve this is for students on an ongoing basis to create reflective pieces about their own learning. This should not be restricted to classroom learning. Students have their eyes opened through many and varied co-curricular and social experiences. It is important for the students to acknowledge, perhaps even to concentrate on, this aspect of the college experience in their own reflections. In turn, the institution has an obligation to encourage students in this direction. I couldn’t agree more with this argument.

However, it is a different matter to argue that the best way for the institution to provide such encouragement is via providing an online container, an institutional ePortfolio environment, to enable the students to readily make these reflections and to locate the electronic “artifacts” (I think we need a different word) in which the student self expression is embedded.

In a different part of John’s presentation, and some of the other speakers confirmed this position, the point was made that the integration of the ePortfolio software into instruction and faculty acceptance of this software has been slow going. Of course there are natural pockets for the software in Education, English and the Fine Arts, but elsewhere a portfolio approach in teaching is still a novel if not alien concept.

And now an aside, though I think it is related. There is an article on The
Value Proposition in Institutional Repositories in the most recent Educause Review. IRs are another environment that have witnessed very slow uptake by the faculty. And to the extent that we are now seeing the notion of an Institutional ePortfolio, IRs and ePortolio environments seemed tied at the hip. At present, the sense in the profession seems to be we need to slug through this initial lethargic period because there will be good things coming later from doing the pioneering work now. Perhaps that is true but has that conclusion been subject to hard analysis? I don’t think so.

It is obvious to me that there are other possible online environments in which students could engage in reflective activities. Indeed, with the blogging craze that we seem to be in now, I would argue that blogging has reached commodity service status and the blogs are good vehicles for reflection. Similarly, the market has done a very good job in providing individuals with ways to archive and distribute their digital image content, which seems to be the way most of us are producing digital artificats.. (The service manager for our Xythos instance here told me that jpeg is the number one file type in our environment.) Google has Picassa and Yahoo recently acquired Flickr. That is a slick piece of software.

Basic Web space is also a commodity service. Many ISPs provide it as part of their bundle of offerings, along with email. So I think we need to ask where the incremental value lies in the university “shell software” that we are providing.

We in the educational technology arena would like to think that incremental value is in advancing teaching and learning on our campuses. That is the hopeful view. But I’m afraid that value more frequently is in supporting the various regulations we need to respect – privacy and security, copyright, and accessibility. In other words, were those regulations absent, the market provided commodity software environments might do quite well for instruction. And in some cases they may be sufficient, even considering the regulations we need to respect.

So I wonder whether we have thought hard enough about our position with enterprise software applications. Can the commodity tools that are out there now help us advance our teaching and learning mission? (This was the original question I had when I started this blog back in February.) And, might we be able to take a lower cost and more flexible route, one that will engage the early adopters without locking in the institution into “dinosaur technologies,” by having these instructors and their students play with the commodity software that is out there?

We do lose some branding this way and we may confront other, non-predictable issues here. But one must point out the obvious – Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft each has a much larger installed base than we do in Higher Ed. Their size and the competition between them (and with other providers) is likely to produce much better software than we can produce. So it makes sense to me to refrain from replicating what these commercial providers are already doing and instead leveraging that, perhaps by using it straight out of the box and perhaps by building on top of it.

Is that what we’re about? It doesn’t seem that way to me.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Did PowerPoint Get a Bum Rap?

When I used to run SCALE, a soft money unit funded largely by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to support “asynchronous learning” on my campus, I would frequently give presentations and always end them with the mantra --- “It’s not the technology. It’s how you use it.” For whatever reason, we all need regular reminders that intelligent use matters. It matters a lot.

Examples of pernicious use abound. Often, in my opinion, the technology gets blamed where it is really bad use that is at fault. One can sensibly ask, isn’t it the technology that begats bad use? My answer is that it can aide and abet, but the main culprit is lack of thinking and lack of perspective. In the case of instructional technology compounding factors are instructor nervousness and the instructor belief that she has to “get through” the lecture.

Below there are several examples, each using PowerPoint, to show that several of the things it is blamed for in live instructions are not really an artifact of the technology at all, but rather of not seeing the possibilities and pitfalls.

Blank Slate Approach

A colleague of mine who is quite a well regarded lecturer, indeed he is an award winning teacher, and now a Tablet PC devotee, has long been an advocate for using (colored) chalk in teaching economics rather than using PowerPoint, because he wanted to construct diagrams as he makes argument. He did not want his graphs pre-made. Here are examples of his lectures, ex post. Click on any of the date links on the left to take a look. He has a bunch of blank slides coming into class and during class uses PowerPoint as a whiteboard. The slide titles that you see on the left for navigation are put in after lecture so the students can review the content more quickly. You can also see that in addition to this analytic content each class contains reference to some item in the news which can be analyzed with the same economic tools.

One of the things that should be noted about these lectures is the number of slides. If an instructor takes a blank slate approach with a Tablet PC, then everything must be hand written out. The pacing therefore does not outdistance the note takers in the class and the instructor of necessity lingers on a particular slide longer because that slide is being constructed as the idea is being described.

Active Text Boxes

This next example is from my own class taught a few years ago. It is in PowerPoint, not HTML. It is not startling but it does show you can do partial blank slate and partial preparation even without a Tablet PC, where the instructor (or someone else to drive the computer) types content into the text box during the live class. In effect, the text box is a way to take notes on the live session and this can include the responses or questions of the students. It allows canned stuff to be used if the instructor feels impelled to do that. (You will see an embedded Excel file which contains student responses from an online survey question and my reactions to those responses.)

Navigation with an Index Slide

I have a colleague who supports instructors working with our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Teaching Academy. She is a longtime user of overhead transparencies to do her presentations and while she is trying hard to embrace technology, she is a little intimidated by it. PowerPoint has been vexing to her. Part of the problem is that she wants to be able to reorder content and skip around from slide to slide, based on how that particular presentation is going. She has found PowerPoint kind of linear and thus thwarted the way she is comfortable doing a presentation.

I thought about this a bit and made this demo to show how an index slide can resolve those problems. I sometimes am too terse in my explanations. For this approach to work (not in the demo) the slide titles must be sufficiently illustrative that she can identify the slides by them. By making it a practice to click the index slide link after each slide, she can present the slides in any order she chooses.

Use Normal Mode Instead of SlideShow Mode

If an instructor teaches in Normal mode, with the pane on the left exposed to show Slide view, then students can see the previous slide while the instructor is working on the current slide. This is a little harder on the presenter as one has to do more than touch the Space Bar to move between slides, but now the students have the advantage that things are not immediately “erased” when the instructor clicks to a new slide.

Much of the criticism of PowerPoint is really criticism of presentations that are “in the can” which seem inflexible and don’t enable the audience to truly participate. In the can presentations encourage the presenter to go faster than the audience really wants. Once an instructor is aware of the pitfalls from in the can presentation, the pacing issue can be addressed and there are various ways to bring the audience into the discussion.

PowerPoint has two great virtues in my view. First, it makes the presenter cognizant of the size text should be on the screen so the audience can view it. Some presenters still jam too much content on a slide, so that people sitting in the back or at the side of the room can’t see what is on the screen. So it doesn’t eliminate that problem. But it is a step in the right direction. Second, it is simple to use. Inserting and resizing graphics is a snap. Putting in hyperlinks is really easy. And content can be embedded so PowerPoint acts as a container for other materials.

The use of bullets to represent ideas can be good or bad, depending on the use. I know some instructors make slides where the content is topic headings only. The idea is for the students to print these out ahead of time so they have a leg up on their note taking when they come to class. Note taking itself as bullets may be an advantage just to keep up with the flow of the discussion. Writing full sentences then may get you behind the flow. When the instructor routinely reads bullets and goes on rather than fleshing out the issues more fully, that is bad. The bullets are poor substitutes for full ideas.

If after reading this the reader still concludes PowerPoint is a bad technology, fine. Every technology has its strength and weaknesses. My point is that too often we find fault with the technology because we don’t look elsewhere for what really is at issue.

Monday, September 12, 2005


Last week I started to read Tom Friedman’s new book, The World is Flat. I anticipate reading more of it over the next couple of days as I’m off to TechForum in Minneapolis, an IT conference for the staff of the various CIC schools. Somehow, going on the road helps with my reading. Friedman is a huge technology booster, so it seems like an appropriate book to take along. And since at my university it’s globalization here and globalization there and we’re located in a land locked part of Central Illinois, I’m guessing this will be the mantra at many universities for years to come. Friedman’s book is likely to serve as a guide if not as a bible for this change in perspective.

I’ve only read a couple of chapters but one irony already. The miracle that is outsourcing, for which communications technology is critical, occurs in fact because the technology is not good enough. There is the online equivalent of “grunt work,” mostly data entry really, that exists in bulk yet that requires some intelligence to complete. An analysis of the work can piece it out into the higher level tasks and the grunt work. The latter gets shipped overseas, to people in India or other countries where skills are rather high but where wages are rather low. This piecing out of the work is something we in learning technology, particularly those of use who view the creation of learning objects as an important activity, should bear in mind. On that score I believe we’re still in the dark ages.

An interesting aspect is the cultural disposition necessary to make one’s country a recipient of outsourcing business in the grunt work area. This is happening as a strategic choice by high powered business leaders, not at all by accident. (Friedman does point to some important random factors, namely the massive overbuilding in transcontinental fiber optic networking, that has served as an important enabler.) One would accuse Friedman of perpetuating racial and national stereotypes except he does so by quoting these same businessmen speaking of their own business and their own countrymen who are employees in that business. They express deep respect for the American businessmen (and maybe the EU businessmen, but that is less clear from the writing) who do the “creative work,” the part of the work that is not outsourced. They are content to do the online grunt work.

Deferred gratification is a big part of this culture. This is the 21st century equivalent of the immigrant mother scrubbing floors at night so her children can go to college. But now there is no need to go leave the home country and the young women may very will not yet have children or even be married, but may be pursuing an advanced degree in a technology field while simultaneously holding down this online job, because she has a strong sense of self-advancement. This is for her own climb up the ladder and the ascendance of her nation, if not now, then in the not too distant future. There is a strong sense of ambition of the economic kind in this culture. It is fueled, most obviously, by the history of poverty in her country and the vaunted success of the Asian miracle countries, who seemingly took the same path.

Now I want to switch gears, but hold the thought, while considering a recent post from the Tomorrow’s Professor listserv by Lloyd Bond, a Carnegie Foundation Senior Scholar, about how people learn and the relative merits of rote learning via drill versus conceptual learning via providing a framework. (The
archive of the listserv will have this post in about two weeks.) Not surprisingly, Bond takes a middle ground in his post and says we need some of both as we learn. But think of this culturally and try to create a mental picture of elementary school education and then, ask which is the preferred mode? My own mental stereotype is that in the main American education has as of late shied away from rote while the Asian miracle countries (and American inner city schools that have made earnest efforts to perform well as measured by standardized test scores) do lot’s of rote in ensemble sing-song fashion. This is not just for spelling and basic arithmetic facts. It is an across the board approach to history, science, and the language arts.

Rightly or wrongly, I associate a desire for rote in the schools as an embrace of a deferred gratification culture. American culture and the students we see nowadays are often criticized for their inability to show patience and the seeming need to satisfy wants instantly. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, it is not true that learning by repetition is absent in the extra curricular and leisure activities of these kids. Drill occurs in sports, music, and video games! Yet in the latter the rote is bundled with a bunch of other thin that captivate the kids – competition, rapid feedback, and of course amazing graphics and sound track.

The alternative to rote one might assume is discovery and to promote learning in that manner even at an early age. Discovery learning places a high premium on the ability to abstract, to generalize from the experience and to have mental models in which to cast the experience so as to grow from it. One might make the simplistic assumption that if a deferred gratification culture cherishes rote as a means for students to learn, then an instantaneous gratification culture believes that discovery approach provides the best path toward creativity and analytic thinking. Were it that simple.

Creative thought, contrary to the assumptions of many young people, requires discipline and persistence, a peeling of the onion, a willingness to journey on to see what other mysteries get uncovered. Persistence is at odds with instantaneous gratification, which while indulging initial curiosity doesn’t provide a path to amplify or refine the investigation. That requires discipline and a certain faith that the process will produce those good results because, frankly, sometimes it is a struggle and hard work, and there are periods of dullness and lack of perception.

Again, let me ask the reader to hold the thought while I again change perspectives. Last week while driving around town, I caught part of a
replay of an interview on our local Public Radio station, WILL, with a professor of family history from the University of Houston, Steven Mintz. He said several provocative things that I found intriguing and that were news to me. One of those is how different Americans are from the rest of the world in emphasizing the individual over the community. An example Mintz gave is that we in America put infants into cribs while in much of the rest of the world the babies sleep with the mother. (As a parent of boys aged 11 and 13, I now have vague recollections about this subject in my own household where my wife and I struggled not just on this point but also on whether the babies should be allowed to cry or get immediate attention.) This thinking was brought into sharper focus for me when at a lunch party my staff held for someone in the office who recently had a baby I heard that the parents were following the prescription of no baby talk by adults to the infant, so the baby would have unambiguous signals from which to learn. I had not heard that one before. I guess I didn’t attend enough parenting seminars and have been too sheltered on that front. In any event, this seemed further evidence that the acculturation arguments have at least some validity and that (perhaps) one can associate a penchant for rote with a more communal and less individualistic society. Hmmm.

And now one last change in perspective. In the Times Magazine this week there is an
interesting piece about current avant-garde literary magazines, started in essence to rebel both against the popular culture and the traditional academic slant on the issues. Part of the underlying cause for these ventures is to demand a return to seriousness, yet to maintain an eclectic view about it things, and not force old categories. Although these periodicals have Web sites, they are fundamentally print activities and do limited circulation paper distributions. Here technology may not be the villain, but it is the conduit for the villainy, the trivialization of thought and the forced categories imposed by the mass media. In some respects the critique is akin to Tufte’s critique of PowerPoint. What I find disturbing is that at least at the level of the Times article, I too have had this desire for a return to seriousness and to allow the discussion to ebb and flow into any and all areas. That is one big reason I started to write this blog.

What is wrong with this picture?

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Quickie Videos #3 and Using Tools Like Excel with CMS Quiz Engine

This last post on short movies made by instructors is somewhat similar to the one I did a couple of days ago. That was about a screen capture movie of me writing in digital ink on my Tablet PC along with voice over. Today, I’m still doing screen capture but in his case it is of me using Excel for a little module I’ve made up about Budget Constraints, again with voice over. Since the Excel file itself is also included, the purpose of the movie is a little different than before. For those students who are uncomfortable going directly into Excel and playing with the spreadsheet, they can get the requisite background information by watching the movie first. Indeed, they may not need to watch the whole thing to get the idea.

Many support unites make videos like this to train instructors on software. My unit does this for WebCT Vista and uses RoboDemo from Macromedia for the purpose. In this case I just used the same BB Flashback Express screen capture software for the purpose.

Movies of this sort make a lot of sense if you, the instructor, expect the students to do a lot of their course work inside some application. In this particular case I think Excel is a great way to get students engaged with the theory part of microeconomics, something that most students historically would say is on a par with going to the dentist.

Movie (2.23 MB)
Excel Spreadsheet (38 KB)

Now a mea culpa. The screen area for the movie is much bigger than what I did before and I violated my own rule and delivered a full lecture on this, going almost 5 minutes. The AVI file that I exported from the screen capture turned out to be 260 MB! The screen capture software cranked for 10 or 15 minutes to generate that. The RM file that I made with the free version of RealProducer is compressing the file by more than 100:1. That’s ok for the audio, but for the video piece, that is too much compression. So if you watch the movie you’ll complain that it is blurry, particularly when there are transitions. The right thing to do is to compress it less, so the resulting rm file is say 7MB or 8MB. But you can’t do that with the free version of the RealProducer software. The Pro Version costs $200 and is probably worth every penny if you’re going to be making movies like this on a regular basis. But for this one blog post I thought it an extravagance so I saved some bucks at the expense that your viewing experience is less than ideal. If you want to see the AVI file, email me and I’ll burn a CD for you.

Let me get to the content itself. The representation that you see in Sheet 1 of the workbook, which is what the movie covers, makes a lot of sense to the viewer, I believe. But you will not find it in any textbook on the subject. The representation makes sense because a computer is being used to render it and hence table values can readily change as the student pushes one of the buttons on the right. And displaying values in each cell makes the underlying ideas much more explicit.

But the way Economists teach this stuff they either do the algebra (which in the spreadsheet is implicit in the formulas for the various cells in the table) or they show the graph which is on the spreadsheet called Graphical_Representation. For students who are a little math phobic – a good fraction of the population that takes undergraduate microeconomics, they never really grasp the algebra nor the geometry. I do believe they can grasp the table. One can teach that first and then go the standard way (for those students who will take more economics courses that will rely on the standard way). I think you’ll find students appreciate the course a lot more that way.

Let me turn to a related issues – assessing the students understanding of the content that is in the spreadsheet (and getting them to internalize for themselves what is in the movie). Regular readers of this blog who have followed my various Excel escapades know I have made other spreadsheets where formative assessment is built in and the students iterate back and forth between the assessment and more presentation. I think that dialogic form is very good pedagogically. Unfortunately, it is extremely time consuming to author in that manner.

So let me suggest here a method that is a little less elegant but a lot faster in the authoring and I think can be made to still have benefit for the students. That is to use the quiz engine of the CMS for the authoring of the assessment piece while using the spreadsheet for where the student does the work. Conceptually this is fairly easily to understand. For example, specific questions are asked about the table, given some specific settings of the prices and income, the students calculates these and then copies the results from the spreadsheet and pastes into the quiz, which then evaluates them (on the server) for whether they are correct or not and to give student credit for having done the work.

There is the issue of how to do this screen layout wise, having two serious applications for the student to work on in conjunction. Toggling back and forth between the applications is awkward and probably creates more of a distraction than one wants. So let me suggest this alternative.

I have verified that with a modest screen resolution of 1024 x 768 on a PC and if Excel is set so that all toolbars are closed, then by having a spreadsheet that shows 13 rows with the default height, one takes up a little less than half the available vertical space on the screen. The other half of that space can be reserved for the Quiz in the CMS. Thus both can show at the same time and the student can readily move back and forth between applications. That means the designer must make both the spreadsheet content and the quiz questions with full awareness of the vertical space limitations. But I think that is quite do-able and a reasonable result can be produced. Using fill in the blank question types in the CMS, the designer can producer fairly rich content and still get the benefits of machine evaluation.

For a large class instructor, this would seem to be an attractive approach.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Quickie Videos #2

Here is a second example of videos instructors can make. In this case, it is just the talking head of the instructor and for "online lectures" I believe the consensus is that this is a pretty dull use. In the video itself I suggest using this as brief response to student work. Another possiblity is to use the approach as a way to get colleagues and other external experts to provide some quick content for the class, possibly to be followed up by an online discussion.

I want to emphasize again, as I did in the post yesterday, that the quality of production is medium to poor. I did this myself with no post editing whatsoever. I'm not particularly comfortable in front of the camera and I didn't rehearse beforehand. It is my opinion that anything that requires more instructor effort to produce will either not happen at all or will become a big deal, where the instructor will demand to be compensate above the norm for teaching for the extra time involved.

The recording happened in my home office (you can see one of my kids walk up the stairs in the background). I shut the glass doors to keep out some of the house noise. And I tried my best to look at the camera, not the computer screen on which the camera rests. But otherwise I did nothing special at all.

The file size is worth noting. The original AVI file is not quite 16 MB in size for a little more than a two minute presentation. The motion in the original video is excellent. The sound is tinny, but that I believe is the cheap camera, not the software.

I converted that big AVI file to realmedia format using the free RealProducer. The resulting file is a little more than 1 MB, better than a 15:1 compression. The motion is not perfect, by any means, but it seems to me to be good enough for this purpose.
Download the RM file.
If you have a broadband connecion, I recommend timing the download. There is a lag between clicking on the file and playing it, but that really isn't too bad.
Here is the same file streamed.
It comes up a little faster, but with files this size it seems to me you can just put them on an ordinary Web server for download, if your audience has broadband. And if they don't, this use of video seems awfully gratuitous.

I should also note I tried to convert to Quicktime. I've got the early realize of Quicktime 7 Pro for PC. I hope the problem I've had with it is fixed in later releases. Sometimes, it works fine (open the AVI file and then export it to the Quicktime format). But more frequently it doesn't seem to find the video part of the AVI file. I get a message that I'm missing some component, but no sure which it is or how to install it. The virtue of Quicktime over RM, in this case is that iTunes now has a podcast client and one can then use it as the viewer as well as the file manager. That seems pretty nifty to me. But I don't want to give up my Tablet PC just for that funcion.

One last point. Last week I talked about student videos of this sort and using them in their class projects. It seems to me that if the insructor goes that route then the instructor has an oligation to do likewise and, indeed, to create a model the students can imitate. So these instructor made videos may have that benefit as well.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Quickie videos made and distributed by Instructors

There has been some use of the MediaSite hardware/software suite to record Organic Chemistry lectures delivered here. A few weeks I was talking with Stan Smith, the spearhead behind this effort before a presentation that we were doing jointly for the LAS Teaching Academy. He described a problem that I think is quite real with academic usage of video technology, namely that viewers’ expectations are formed by what they watch on TV, DVD players, going to the movies, etc. while those making academic videos usually operate on a slim budget and there is a requirement to get the content out fast. So a key idea is to bring viewer expectations into line with the production value that is actually put into the video. Given that, one wants to know if there are pedagogically effective ways to use video and, if so, how.

Stan and his group film the live class session including the students’ questions. That is their method for addressing the issue above. In this and the next several posts, I’m going to suggest things to try and then provide demonstrations. Ultimately, the questions will be, do these work teaching-wise? Would this be something to do to enable a blended learning (reduced seat time) approach? Will instructors take this up willingly?

Today’s offering is available for download at the link below and requires a current version of Realplayer to view.
Tablet PC Movie with Voice
Note that this is not being streamed. The file itself is a bit more than one megabyte in size and lasts a little more than two minutes.

I made this first with an inexpensive piece of screen capture software called BB Flashback Express. That captured the pen strokes. I had it on maximal file size for giving the smoothest motion of the pen. If I could talk and write with the digital pen at the same time I would have done that and saved myself a step. But I thought that for this trial, at least, I’d just record the pen. So afterward I ran the screen capture software again, this time it capture my prior movie and this second time I put in the voice narration. If you listen to it, you can tell I had some idea of what I was going to say, but I didn’t rehearse. There are some little stumbles in what I’m saying but in the main, I believe it makes sense. I also probably talked too loud so there is more hiss in this than is desirable. The question you need to ask is whether it is listenable.

At this juncture, I had the screen capture export the video into an AVI file (the stand movie format for Windows) so I could convert and compress it. I’m not putting up that AVI file. It is almost 40 Megabytes in size and not worth the trouble of downloading.

Then I ran the AVI file through the free version of RealProducer. It probably takes 10 or 15 minutes to understand how to use that software, with the biggest issue from my perspective understanding where the output file will be and how to name that file (if different from the input file). The actual encoding took about 6 minutes. Then I had to upload to the server and figure out the url. Those last steps would be easier if I put it into a CMS in my class site.

Does this movie have value over the flat document that I could produce with the tablet (say as a jpeg?) I’m not sure for this particular example it does, but if I were doing diagrams or equations, then I think there is big value in seeing those constructed rather than having just the finished product. For this example, I opted for content that most readers of the blog could understand rather than doing something entirely opaque content-wise. But it is with that sort of content that I can see delivering this type of movie.

Also, I tried hard to deliver a nugget, not a full lecture. I can see the student tolerating the nugget and finding that useful for doing other work that is assigned. I can’ see the student staring at the computer for 45 minutes or an hour watching this sort of thing. Better to read a book than do that. My sense is that these nuggets are more useful if they are done in response to some student work or student queries offered in a suggestions box than if they are initial presentation of content.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Economists lead the way in showing what’s wrong with college teaching.

A colleague of mine pointed out this gem of an article by Robert Frank from today’s New York Times. As it turns out I was an undergraduate at Cornell 30 years ago when Robert Frank started there. I never had him for a professor. I did take macroeconomic principles a Cornell, but from Ed Burton. I believe Frank and another faculty member came to class on one day to debate something that I certainly don’t remember now; in any event that’s it for my classroom experience with him. I have used Professor Frank’s intermediate microeconomics text and thought it was among the better ones on the market. And perhaps 10 years ago, I had a brief thread with Frank about an op-ed piece he had written, also for the NY Times.

The idea that trained professionals in the field don’t know the fundamentals of the principles course is scary, but I’m guessing it is not that uncommon and I’m guessing it happens in disciplines other than economics. Look at me. I never took that principles course where opportunity cost is taught and I never took the intermediate course where presumably the opportunity cost idea is amplified and used extensively. And while I think my graduate education was excellent, it really helped me to think seriously about economic models, the language and technique that were used from the get go was meant for insiders in the field.

The principles course is meant for outsiders, those who will get only a smattering of economics as they work as part of their “general education.” I believe I learned what was in principles by being a TA for it. How that happened, I’m not sure and don’t remember at the detail level. I suspect I just read the text just as the students themselves had to read it, but since I understood graduate microeconomics quite well, I had the confidence and capacity to explain what was really going on in the principles book. Another part, perhaps, was that the learning was fresh with me and so I was into it. I don’t know on that, but I believe the students thought I was a good TA and I believe they learned in my class.

Yet based on Frank’s piece, apparently they don’t learn the basics in many other principles classes. Let’s say that is attributable to the instructor issues Frank describes. Is it possible for really good courseware to rectify the situation? I believe the answer is yes. But it is not the technology per se. It is that the technology enables a “kind of writing” (writing is the wrong word here but I’m using it to emphasize that it is planned communication) that really gets the point across. And on this particular issue, getting students to understand opportunity cost, I have an Excel module that I believe does the trick nicely.

But before turning to that I want to talk about the authoring of this type of content. It is hard. That is because one has to have one eye on visualizing how the content should be presented (often that is other than the way it currently is presented in textbooks) and one has to have another eye on what the technology can do. The authorship then marries the two views into something that is easy to use and readily intelligible to the students. I believe this type of authoring can be taught and I think it would be enormously useful to have more people who can design content in this way. It is one way that technology can promote quality instruction that is getting very little play at the moment.

We talked this way a lot in the late ‘90s but what we didn’t do then is talk about the “writing skills” needed to make good courseware. It seems to me that we should be talking about that now. But it almost never comes up because there are no funds to support such a writing effort. That is a shame and it is problem. What is the opportunity cost of that?

The Excel module can be accessed here. You must enable macros and “log in” but you can use any name and birth date for that. Once done with that go to the worksheet called reservation price. Don’t scroll in the upper pane. You can play with the buttons there, but don’t scroll. You can and should scroll in the lower pane.

If you play with the buttons for a bit you will see values change in the table and a point move in the graph. Note the use of conditional font formatting. It is extremely helpful in understanding what is going on and yet it is so simple to do. Try to work your way through at least the first couple of multiple choice questions and then maybe one or two of fill in the blank questions that follow. Use the table and the graph to help you. I believe that any student who seriously worked his way through that sheet would have a reasonable understanding of Opportunity Cost and of a related concept, the Reservation Price. The exercise makes these fundamental ideas transparent. That’s the point.