Friday, January 26, 2007

Thoughts from ELI

Armed with the excuse that I needed to pick the kids up from school since my wife is in Chicago today, I finally found the time to write this post, Friday afternoon and evening. I had thought I could write it in the Airport and on the plane on the way back, but I was just too spent to produce something worth reading and needed to process more what I had seen. Then, too, I got to read Barbara Ganley’s post on the conference and so I can dwell on some other things that came up and only briefly touch on her points here.

I attended a couple of sessions in the category of “online publishing” broadly considered. The second one, the last session I attended because I had to pack and get to the airport, was a very nice talk on the Connexions project. It seems to me they’ve mostly got it right in what they are trying to do with this project – contributions of modular material made in an appropriate xml format for repurposing and combining with other material that can be freely viewed online or printed on demand and priced at incremental cost. We tried to do such a project in the CIC learning technology group with commercial publishers (they have a lot more content than is in Connexions at present) but the publisher need to make a buck limits what they can implement. So it would be really nice to see this project succeed, but for that to happen they need critical mass in terms of content contributions. When I get the chance, I will try to put some of my Econ stuff in there, if for no other reason than to learn by use about the authoring environment. I didn’t see any Econ content in there at the moment. Right now it seems to be mostly Engineering content.

I also attended a hands on session about the Sophie Project. This too was an interesting session. Sophie is for making highly stylized multimedia content – they call them eBooks but it might be better to think of them as documents with text, images, audio, and video, formatted in a way that makes them look professionally published, and with the authoring environment simple enough so any of us can do it. In other words Sophie is an open source alternative to Authorware that is much easier to use and therefore might allow the content creators (the people who wrote the text, made the videos, etc.) to produce the final document themselves rather than to outsource that activity to a dedicated programmer for the purpose. And Sophie looks like it can readily be used by students who might want to produce such slick content for themselves. The content that is ultimately produced must be rendered by a Sophie plug in if the viewer doesn’t have the Sophie software itself, in my way of thinking that is a bit of a downside, but I think this is worth a try. I’m unclear on what further funding the Sophie Project has and perhaps even more than with Connexions there is the question of whether it will generate critical mass in a community of users who can sustain it thereafter. This issue of sustaining innovation permeated the conference.

Let me switch gears. I attended two presentations where students were the presenters and a third presentation, the opening plenary, where the technology behavior of students was the object of study. The opening plenary was given by Julie Evans who presented evidence about K-12 student technology use and needs. It was a very good talk and I’m sure others will comment about it more extensively. So here I want to pick on only one point that came out of the presentation. Students want to see their course content use more technology --- particularly in math. I agree with the students. This should be done. Further, I’ve done some of this sort of thing so in this context I’m going to make a bit of an aside to showcase some content that I will consider again in my next post. The demo is on my mediamax site. (Click the green arrow to get at the stuff.) The math is in the Excel file, which is not too large. The other content are screen capture movies with my voice over about using the Excel file. There are three of these movies that I captured with Window Media Encoder. For my Mac colleagues, I converted two of those to RealVideo format. (The third wouldn’t convert, I’m not sure why.) The movies are there mostly to help the student understand how to play with the Excel file on his own. I would not expect most students to watch the movies all the way through. But it should help them get started.

This type of content is conceptually not that hard to produce and it can be used on multiple levels – each worksheet is password protected but the password is blank so students knowing that can hack the files and understand how it works under the hood. That is a different level than those who simply use the file. There are both numbers and formulas, the former are realizations of the latter at particular values of the variables. The students enter values at various cells in the spreadsheet and there is essentially instantaneous feedback on whether that’s been done correctly. I think there is much to commend this approach and given that Excel is already available to the students, the incremental cost of delivering this type of content is negligible. There clearly is authoring effort involved in making this stuff and the author needs some vision on how the content should appear. If somebody else were to organize a project for producing such content, I’d love to be involved in that. I believe this is the right response to the students’ demand.

Getting back to ELI, one of the presentations by students was a featured session done by a former undergraduate student at NC State, Carie Windham. I found the session surreal on many dimensions. First, as a speaker Carie had more poise on stage and her PowerPoint was more polished than what I heard and saw in several other presentations and those were by people who were substantially her senior. If she is that way all the time when giving a talk, she has quite a career ahead of her as a public speaker. If not, then it is evident that the presentation was rehearsed substantially and that sense of prior rehearsal contributed to the strangeness of the talk, at least strangeness from my perspective. Second, although Carie gave a disclaimer on this point at the beginning of the talk, the tone throughout was that this presentation represented not just Carie’s views on the matter but rather all college kids. This might have been just a speaking style thing, but if it was a highly rehearsed presentation then it might be more than that. How does a graduate student who was not that long ago an undergrad develop the authority to speak for her entire generation unless the talk is echoing the work of others who have done the research? Maybe I missed it in the beginning, but I didn’t hear reference to that type of research. So that too was weird. Third, I had written a post not too long ago on Rethinking Office Hours, and much of the content of that post, at least in terms of diagnosis of the problem, came up in the Q&A for that session. So I had a very strong sense of déjà vu listening to that. A few people who had seen that post said the same thing to me afterwards.

The other presentation by students was part of a joint session led by Barbara Ganley and Barbara Sawhill, showing in parallel developments with blogging in the classroom a profound effect on others outside the classroom. This is happening at both Middlebury and Oberlin, a consequence of the work of the star students Lizi Geballe and Evie Levine. They both gave excellent presentations. Yet though these you women are obviously extremely bright and quite accomplished in their online writing, they nonetheless came across as students in this session and for that reason it seemed more natural to me than the session led by Carie Windham. In fairness, I’ve been having an ongoing dialog with Barbara Ganley in our respective blogs and elsewhere about effective teaching and engaging students so I had a strong prior disposition to be positively inclined to this session, but even with that I think it worth remarking that tone in delivery matters as much as the substance of the presentations and tone-wise this session was spot on. Barbara Ganley has noted on her blog that the attendance was a little lacking. I noticed that too. I’m hard pressed to explain why, but perhaps some of my further comments about the rest of the conference might shed some light on this. It’s a shame, because it was the best and really the only session I attended on what used to be the core questions – how do we teach with this stuff and what good results might we expect when we do that well?

I want to turn next to a session by folks from Carnegie Mellon on their Open Learning Initiative, another one of the featured sessions. The OLI are a bunch of fully developed courses to be done entirely in self-paced mode with the aid of computer instruction. In this sense it is reminiscent of Plato, which still casts a shadow on my campus. I want to look at the Econ course in OLI when I have a chance, but here I want to pick nits. Candace Thille, the director of OLI, explained that the content was designed based on research principles articulated in the book from the National Academy of Sciences, How People Learn. She further went on to make that point that in many science courses students learn particular chapter content in a disembodied way – there is a profound forest for the trees problem. I agree. She then showed how the software addresses this problem by locating modules within a hierarchy where the software shows the hierarchy via the software’s scaffolding. I can’t believe that works to address the problem.

Instead students need stories to show how the various content pieces are connected. And they also need to make their own narratives when they apply the content in a particular context. Pedagogically, that is definitely the answer. How can anyone seriously believe that the scaffolding trick with the software will be sufficient? When Mallard was in its heyday on my campus, we taught courses (including my intermediate microecon class) that had a mixture of automated material and online writing and that seemed like a winning formula. But on a different level – not pedagogic but resource-wise – the issue with having courses with a significant component of story telling is that they are much more costly than an alternative that relies entirely on computer assisted instruction. So now you too can have a Carnegie Mellon quality course, and at very little expense. Hmmm.

Let me turn from the presentations to the hallway conversations. At least with my colleagues there was something of a disconnect with what we were hearing in the sessions. The gist of this was (1) we’re becoming plumbers with the quintessential plumbing tool the learning management system, (2) many of the innovations presented at the conference were not sustainable because they were too customized and couldn’t keep up with the pace of technical change, and (3) the emphasis on games went too far and really can’t be marketed back on our campuses – even with all the net gen stuff there is the profound belief in my colleagues (and in me too) that being a good reader is the right path for success in college now and on into the indefinite future.

It is unmistakable that part of the job in support of learning technology is about plumbing and given the truth of the proposition I was somewhat surprised that I heard essentially nothing about my main plumbing problem, one my student advisory committee says is their number one issue with technology. (I did hear from Sandy Schaeffer a friend of mine from the Frye Leadership Institute that he has the same problem at Memphis.) The problem is that we provide too many different ways for students to do course logistics – downloading files, reading announcements, etc. They want a standardized approach and really don’t care that much about what the approach is, as long as it works. It would have been good to have heard a debate about whether innovation with learning technology needs to be contained so that some degree of standardization in approach can take root. But this issue simply didn’t come up. I’ve got a pilot project in my college that is trying to address this problem. When it gets a little further along and if it seems to be going well, I’ll blog about it.

On the sustainability issue and whether we should have heard about that in the presentations, the Carnegie people did bring it up in their talk, I really don’t want to mention specific presentations where the issue was not brought up, but I do want to note that it seems the profession is split on the “show the warts” issue. I’m definitely in the camp that the warts should be shown and last summer at the last WebCT users conference I and some of my CIC peers tried to impress the Blackboard management that they should take that approach in dealing with us. But clearly, and especially because there still is a strong expectation for “wiz-bang” in the profession, there is another style that promotes that and hides the warts. The benefits of the show the warts approach is that it wards of cynicism because it explicitly tries to keep expectations from getting out of wack. However, there is a downside, especially when talking with others, and I count the NSF in this category, who are really expecting a wiz-bang type of presentation. Then the presentation can seem negative and the project look unsuccessful. This is where I’d hope we as a profession could converge on one way of doing business, but I’m afraid we can’t, precisely because there can be tangible rewards from making an overly optimistic view of the project, on the one hand, but folks who have been around for a while are tired of the hype, on the other.

On the games stuff, and I did attend the Learning Circle More than Just a Game led by Bryan Alexander, mostly to find out what was it that was getting other folks so wound up about the learning possibilities with gaming, I have to say I’m still not getting it. But a mea culpa first. At that session Bryan asked about our experience with games. I didn’t offer up mine. So here it is. My absolutely favorite game was Zork, a completely text based game, along with Zork II and Zork III. It was puzzle solving in a fantasy setting and it completely captivated me, though I came to it much after it initially appeared, my experience was probably around 1989 since I only started with my Mac SE in 1987. Ultimately they came out with a game called Beyond Zork that had a multimedia component to it. It wasn’t nearly as much fun (partly because some of the multimedia wouldn’t work). I guess I’m not much of a visual learner.

Here’s some other experience. The last strategy game that I won without getting a cheat from anyone else was the Sid Meier game Railroad Tycoon; I played that on my Mac PowerPC, in 1996 or 1997. I won that by finding a cheat inside the game – some parameter wasn’t set correctly. If you took over a rival railroad you could start transferring cash from the rival to your own railroad. But you could still do it after the rival went bankrupt – it would have negative equity and your own could grow without bound. I won a few games that way and soon there after lost interest in it. What’s the point if you could win so easily. I did play and win Myst but that was with some cheats. It was interesting to hear Bryan’s critique that the game had some senseless aspects to it where the cheats actually added sensibility back to the game.

The last joystick style game I played was Diddy Kong racing, one of the first Nintendo 64 games the kids had. My wife was playing that with the kids, so I played too. I got to be the best in the family – I couldn’t let my six year old beat me, could I? I also seriously bruised my thumb from repeatedly pushing too hard on the controller and I recall going to sleep with images from the TV screen on the back of my eyelids. So I went cold turkey on that sort of thing and haven’t played any joystick style game since. It also mattered that I had just been named Director of the Center for Educational Technologies and I knew my work load would pick up as a consequence. I can’t play these games only a little bit. It’s either total involvement or none at all. Nowadays I do Soduku, which has the benefit that the thing comes to conclusion in a reasonable amount of time so I can get on with other things. That is a definite plus.

I understand totally about the engagement that games produce, a virtue and a vice all in one, and that in the massively multiplayer context there are negotiation skills that develop, the type of skills that are rewarded in the world of work today. But I still don’t get it. Maybe that’s because we’re so unclear about what we’re hoping to achieve as the outcome from the educational gaming. I’ll put my cards on the table. When I teach I want to see a little bit of me in my students, not a full clone but a little bit of flavoring to indicate there was some connection with my approach, and that connection has to be both about what was learned and about what to value when finding things of interest. And if that matters to me perhaps it matters to quite a good number of faculty. In contrast, I’m guessing that quite many folks at the conference would be willing to vote for game playing to supplant reading as the single critical skill in higher ed. I vote no.

Let me wrap up. The conference was interesting for me, definitely better than last year. So a pat on the back for the program committee for a job well done. But I’m quite worried about the profession. We do some common sense things very well – learning spaces need to provide comfortable seating – but on the vision stuff, oy vey. Last year I wrote They’re Changing Guard about the conference in San Diego. I was ready figuratively to ride into the sunset and let the agenda be set by the next generation. Now I’m seeing some need to rethink that. For now blogging about it is the best I can do.

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