Friday, February 01, 2008

Kindle Review/Thoughts about ELI

I’m playing hookie today. The U of I is open for classes, but my kids are out of school because of the snow. Last night coming home from work, a trip that normally takes about 15 minutes but in this case took more than 40, there were fire trucks and ambulances out because cars had skidded off the road into positions where they were blocking other traffic. Since my leg injury, I’ve become fearful of being out in weather like this. So I’m taking a vacation day at home and will try to do some writing – this post and some other things as well.

I kept kind of a low profile at ELI in San Antonio. My two minutes of fame came from showing off the Kindle. People were curious about it and seemed impress with the readability of the text on the screen. I recall that when the iPod first came out (this is before the project at Duke) Apple started a program where it gave iPods away to campuses so they could explore educational uses of the technology. would do well to introduce a similar program – there is curiosity to satisfy. In my own use, so far I’ve not tried putting content on the kindle that comes from my own computer. I’ve only used it for reading the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and a biography of Roger Williams. Here’s some reaction based on that limited experience.

I love the Kindle as a reader. Most importantly, once you get used to it (about a half hour for me) it feels like reading a book; it produces the same immersion into the text and loss of sense of self. The page refresh and advance seems a little awkward at first, but that fades into the normalcy of use. I originally set the font size to pretty large but soon discovered that if the lighting is reasonable then even I can read the font at smaller than normal, because of the line spacing of the text. That is well done. I’d judge there to be about two Kindle screens of text (at this next to the smallest font size) to about one page of text in a typical paperback book. (This is the sort of thing where it would be nice to see an actual analysis rather than my guessing.) And by the nature of the device it’s as if all the pages are on the right hand side of the book. So on this calculation one is doing about four page refreshes in the Kindle to every page turn one would do in a print book. But once that gets familiar, it is unobtrusive and allows continuity of the thought. Further, there is no issue of cracking the binding because some of the text is too close to the fold. The margins are ample and so all the text is quite readable. On this core function. the Kindle scores high marks with me.

There are a couple of peripheral issues with the Kindle. It comes with a book cover of mock leather that is used for housing the device - since there are push bars for different function along the border of the device, there is no comfortable way to hold it as a stand alone without inadvertently changing the page to be viewed. After turning the device off or putting it into a standby mode, the natural thing to do is to close the cover. My experience is that upon wanting to resume reading, it doesn’t always return to where I left off. I’m not sure of why this happens and whether it is a consequence of my error as a user or if instead it is a little buggy that way. But that was annoying. And it has an alternative to page numbering that allows one to find places in the text. This alternative numbering scheme remains non-intuitive to me, and I’d like to see some correspondence between it and actual page numbers from a print version of the book. But this matters not when reading, only when trying to find places in the text.

One other point, not specifically about Kindle but about any electronic reader. On planes we know there are times when electronic devices must be turned off – this is before takeoff and landing. A big idea of the using the Kindle for me is to go entirely paperless. But then there is nothing to read in these periods when electronic devices can’t be used. My own behavior on planes is that if I’m not reading I’m nodding off (or already asleep). So I might read less with the Kindle than I would if I had a paperback. I’m not yet clear on whether that is a trifle or if it matters. I will need to take a few more trips to decide.

* * * * *

The ELI annual conference confirmed for me two distinct thoughts; my personal center of gravity is moving further and further away from where the profession is headed and I’m increasingly critical of attempts at use of technology in learning while the profession seems all embracing.

On the former, my own fascination is with the integration of highly personal themes into the learning and making that integration explicit. For more than a year now, my blogging has embraced that approach. The weaving in of personal themes is much more interesting to me than the technology itself and my new sense of hero are those writers whose work is emblematic of the approach, Tennessee Williams for example.

I attended the open plenary by Henry Jenkins, and various featured speaker sessions – George Siemens on Connectivism, Tom Reeves on the Conative Domain, and Michael Wesch on teaching his large class at K-State that I would characterize as variations on a theme and as a whole representative of where the profession is and where it is headed. There is an emphasis on collective intelligence (Wikipedia was discussed a lot, particularly by Jenkins) and the role of the expert versus the collective in knowledge production and dissemination. I’m not opposed to these ideas, but I feel they are incomplete in an important way. Ironically, each of these speakers did talk about the personal in learning – when describing their own experience. But none had the personal integrated into their rhetoric about learning and particularly in how we should encourage our students. And none talked about what aspects of the individual are to remain overt to facilitate function of the collective

George Siemens, in his entertaining and playful style, asked repeatedly for counter arguments to his presentation and why what he said is wrong. I chewed on this for a couple of days after the talk and came up with this. In George’s rhetoric, a connection is a connection is a connection. We learn by making connections, the more the merrier. I don’t believe this in full. Personal connections are different. Our sense of ethics comes from our personal connections and further those connections are key to our understanding of how we are motivated. I don’t believe we can consistently make “external” connections if we don’t make personal connections as well. An eighteen or nineteen year old may well be confused on both these points and surely college still has a role in helping the student sort these things out and come to a better place of understanding of self. (And a fifty something might likewise try to come to a better understanding of self via his own self-directed learning, as in blogging.) So I would encourage George first to ask whether he accepts or rejects this critique, to carve out a special place for the personal in his theory of Connectivism, and second to give a more fully fleshed out view of the collective that is so connected (see my comments on this point below).

Tom Reeves is onto something with his focus on the conative domain and that students need to learn about force of will, intensity of effort, and commitment in achieving ends. But his presentation wasn’t completely satisfying, and I know from chatting with him afterwards that he himself didn’t feel the talk went all that well. Part of this, I believe, is encouraging habits of behavior that reinforce persistence of effort, while another part is in developing a belief in goals that are worthwhile to achieve. Tom himself talked about the disengagement pact featured in documentary Declining by Degrees, where in fact we in Higher Education are doing the opposite. Tom argued that the remedy is to engage students in “authentic tasks” and let them learn and be assessed from completion of this sort of work. But in his view the authenticity is a property of the tasks themselves, not of the individuals doing the tasks. To me, that is wrong headed, and to flesh out these issues it is necessary to make the personal explicit for the student and juxtapose that with the tasks themselves.

Michael Wesch’s session was the most entertaining of those I attended – he is a gifted speaker and he understands how to create meaningful visual entertainment through the rapid juxtaposition of images. His session was standing room only and the audience reacted quite positively to the presentation. Michael clearly engaged the students in his intro cultural anthropology class. But it’s less clear whether there was depth to the student learning or if they made any progress on the themes Tom focused on.

(George, Tom, and Michael each talked in the same room, a room formed from the main ballroom my putting up a partition. The room was oblong with the speaker at one of the narrow ends, putting the speaker at some distance from the audience, particular those near the other narrow end of the room. It might be hard to do this logistically, but I wish they’d have speakers stand in front of one of the wider ends of the room, to bring the audience closer to the speaker. They made a point about the round tables in the room where some of the audience could sit, a recurring ELI theme, but distance between the speaker and the audience is also important.)

Let me turn to my second concern. The embrace of the collective is an implicit endorsement of direct democracy; each of us is a potential contributing node in a network and the network functions best if indeed we are vigorous in our participation so that should focus our aim. Direct democracy is an appealing notion, but it is not the only possible way for a collective to function. There are other possibilities, some pernicious. One particular vision popularized by Star Trek is that of the Borg. This vision was meant as a stark contrast to the Federation and during the year or two where I watched the Next Generation, I thought the episodes with the Borg were the best, so I would say the vision is compelling. But from the point of view of teaching and learning, it is a frightening vision. There is no personality in the Borg, no sense of the individual, a total subservience to the collective.

If we think of direct democracy and the Borg as two distinct ways the collective might function, what determines the one from the other? If we think of teenagers, in particular, their desires to be well liked and hence to be part of the crowd, isn’t there a force that drives them to behave like the Borg? Might social networking a la Facebook be considered more an encourager of Borg-like behavior than of direct democracy? And likewise for Twitter and text messaging?

What of learning technologists in this regard? (Just about everyone I know in the profession is at least 30.) Does this direct democracy versus the Borg distinction make sense for them? Are they wary of any of these technologies because they might promote an undesirable view of the collective?

And what of faculty whom learning technologists might lobby to use some of these technologies? What will the selling point be – the kids are doing it so they need to also to keep the kids’ attention? Do we really expect that argument to work? Faculty want depth of argument from the students. If these technologies are associated with shallow, quick-hitter response, how should a sensible non-Luddite faculty member react to them?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. My concern here is not with the answers. It is that the profession doesn’t seem to be asking them. It seems to be blindly accepting. Part of that is in the spirit of experimentation with the technology. The experimentation per se is fine. But such experimentation can co-opt a critical perspective.

There are two technologies I know that folks have been critical of – the LMS and PowerPoint. These criticisms took a long time to emerge and did so only after a substantial embrace by the community. And with that came a counter argument in the form of effective use and good practice. With more recent technologies the profession does not seem to take a critical stance from the outset nor does it see its role as defining good practice, but rather as promoting use in general.

I believe the profession does this at its own peril. I, for one, would rather turn my attention elsewhere than play the Paul Revere role on this point.


George Siemens said...

Hi Lanny,

Thanks for your thoughts here. I appreciate your reflections on ELI in general (and my presentation in particular).

A few points:

1. I share your concern about the move to collective intelligence. It is a move that is more broad and complex than can be captured in a one hour conference presentation (or even in a Horizon Report). I have some yet-unnamed discomfort with collective intelligence. I advocate for its value as a means of learning and sensemaking. But, truly collective intelligence is not the blending of different opinions into a new whole...rather it is critical that each person's contribution remains unique (after all, it is the connection, not the melding of views that provides new insight).

2. In terms of your reaction to my presentation - I do not hold fully to the view that the more connections the merrier :). Too many connections are as inhibiting as too little. Consider the "intelligence" failure of recent world events. In hindsight - 9/11 or similar event - the evidence was all there before the event. It just wasn't understood in a manner that could be acted on. Too much information with too many connections can be overwhelming. Understanding, meaning, and sense-making become vital in order to make sense of those elements. But, in the short presentation I delivered, I was not able to fully explore this. But based on your feedback, and that of others, I do need to express this more concisely.

3. The concern you raise about blind acceptance and lack of critical thought on the role of technology is vital. We need to be asking the tough questions you suggest. We need to understand the role of technology in a larger context other than "it's cool". Your point: "With more recent technologies the profession does not seem to take a critical stance from the outset nor does it see its role as defining good practice, but rather as promoting use in general" is worthy of much reflection. As more academics explore blogging, I hope we'll become more critical and more scientific in our thinking. But, to date, this hasn't happened (especially if the recent book chapter proposals and journal special editions are any indication).

Good questions - sorry we didn't get a chance to chat during the event.


Lanny Arvan said...

George -

It took me a while to put my issues together in a coherent way, I wasn't ready at the conference, but I should have introduced myself, just to say hello. I sat next to Barbara Ganley during your talk.

On each of the points, there is something of a double edged sword and so a potential for critique regardless of the position one ultimately takes. I appreciate your sensitivity in the response here and I look forward to anything else you might write on the subject. But I do wonder whether other learning technologists, busy with the day to day, can make these issues their own.

Bryan's workshop blog said...

I wish I'd had a chance to talk with you, Lanny.