Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Some follow up to a previous post and readings from David Brooks Sidney Awards, Part 1 and Part 2.

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We had a white day-after Christmas. The family partook in Nathan's present and went to see Avatar in 3D. My take on the technology is first, it has definitely improved. The glasses now look more like normal sunglasses. I could imagine wanting to see other movies done this way, though my wife did complain of a headache afterward. Second, the technology has its biggest impact up front. The mind hasn't adjusted to it yet so it is most noticeable. Some way into the movie, the story takes over and the technology doesn't seem to matter nearly as much thereafter. Third, there was one part of the movie where the technology really helped in telling the story. This is when the protagonist, Jake Sully, first tries on his avatar of the Na'vi. He is awkward and uncoordinated and the 3D helps to convey that sense. There are flying scenes later in the film where it is more spectacular because of the 3D. But it didn't seem consistently important throughout.

My take on my previous post about pantheism, etc., is that Douthat gave us something of a misdirection. The film is overtly anti-imperialist, particularly of the American kind (send in the Marines) which are depicted as instrumental about their own needs and unthinking about everything else, particularly the well being of the natives. So the military solution becomes the first best option rather than the last resort. Patience as a virtue apparently isn't. Given the historical moment in which this film appears and America's extended presence in Middle Asia, one might not be too happy with this not very subtle bashing. So rather than take that one on straight away, with most of the the Times readers (me included) still feeling that WMD and Saddam shows the idiocy of this approach, a more conservative view needs to undermine the message of the film but in a more subtle way, one that might make the audience reflect. I did and wrote my earlier post as a consequence, but I hadn't seen Avatar when I wrote it. Douthat's piece probably wouldn't have resonated with me as much, had I seen the movie earlier.

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I liked How American Health Care Killed My Father. It's a thoughtful analysis. I especially liked Goldhill's desire to separate out health insurance for catastropohic incidents from the rest of health care. I've long thought that should be the case and that there are huge distortions in the system from bundling the two of these. Thereafter, he argues for the rest of health care to be financed by the individual, so that "ordinary" health care is procured as a consumable. This, his argument goes, would be the best first step toward containing health care costs and making the system responsive to the patients. It is an interesting argument.

I like to take arguments like these and attack them on their merits. Goldhill, himself a businessman and obviously quite literate financially, may not see the weakness in his own position. In this case the main weakness is that most consumers are not so literate about their finances (one big explanation for the Housing Bubble we experienced). In Goldhill's terms, health care would then have a substantial asset management component and one would wonder whether on their own consumers would get it right. Comparatively healthy people might then under consume health care in the form of precaution/prevention. Comparatively sickly people might over consume treatment. As an investment decision, who will help the consumer with these choices? Would that be the family doctor? If so, does his solution look so different from what is being proposed?

As a result of reading this piece I did some quick Google searches to find out about physician income. Most doctors whom a patient sees only when they have a condition that warrants the visit, face a certain sort of moral hazard that Goldhill describes in the piece. But physicians who have a long term relationship with the patient may still have a moral hazard, akin to the one that financial advisers have with their clients. Goldhill's analysis needs to work that consideration through. It isn't there in this piece.

More generally I got to think who among the entire industry of health care provision might lose if recommendations like Goldhill's were to be taken seriously. It would be good to see the analysis from the point of view of the drug companies. Based on some work by Larry Kotlikoff from a while back, my sense is that if you do a cost-benefit analysis on most new treatments, the conclusion would be that the treatments were inefficient. You get the reverse only by making the an ethical argument about extending life or improving quality of life via the treatment. Goldhill is silent on this issue too, though I believe if his solution were implemented it would move things closer to the efficient outcome without the ethical argument. Hmmm.

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I did not like The Rubber Room, a designation for a place where tenured New York City teachers who have been deemed unfit to teach must go in order to receive the remuneration to which they are contractually entitled. Steven Brill, the author, does not appear to be a neutral observer in the piece, but rather a witness for the prosecution. A piece like this can get written because now so much thinking about schools rests on the research finding that good teachers matter, a lot. So it must be that bad teachers matter too, in a way that is not good for the children. The view from management, then, is to attract and retain the good teachers and weed out the bad ones. I'm afraid this is the state of the art with current management thinking in K-12 education. It makes little or no allowance for a feedback effect where "the system" influences the goodness or badness of the teaching. And it makes the relationship between principals and teachers seem necessarily adversarial.

This is a simple categorization of how a tenured teacher might be found to be bad:
(1) The teacher was bad all along, even before tenure was granted, but the system made an error and judged otherwise when tenure was granted.
(2) The teacher was never bad, but was judged bad after tenure was granted via some sort of Type 1 error.
(3) The teacher was good at the time tenure was given but deteriorated thereafter for reasons due to the system.
(4) The teacher was good at the time tenure was given but subsequently had some problem essentially unrelated to work that made the teacher bad.

Let me dispense with these in inverse order. We can all agree that (4) is possible. Getting rid of tenure is not necessary to address (4). The efficient solution would be some form of buyout where the teacher then seeks other work or chooses to retire. This, in essence, is the same issue with faculty tenure at universities without mandatory retirement. Tenure gives bargaining power to faculty. It doesn't ensure attachment in perpetuity. It means the terms of separation have to be mutually agreeable.

Brill's piece is essentially unconcerned with (3), but I think it is the heart of the matter. Does the system wear teachers down? What can be done to refresh teachers in the form of professional development, new assignments, and reorganization of the schools? Will the young teachers of today, the ones the system is trying to attract, be the burnouts of tomorrow?

Brill does discuss (2) in the piece - a teacher at Brooklyn Tech was (falsely?) accused of making sexual advances with a student. What Brill doesn't discuss, but what does require elaboration, is if students in general recognize they have power via this route the tone it can set in the classroom.

As for (1) Brill suggests that there was a regime change when the Bloomberg-Klein leadership took over - acceptable teacher performance under Giuliani, Dinkins, or Koch, might no longer be acceptable. Fine. But the feeling one has reading the piece is that Brill embraces a hostile takeover mentality and decisions teachers made to become teachers in the prior regimes hold sway now as to the current allocation. So we begrudge the current payment or the possibility of buyout, though the analysis should be like (4).

In the current labor market, being a teacher may be an attractive option - any job may be an attractive option. Long term, however, getting good people to want to be teachers as a career, not just as an interlude before the real career starts, is a serious problem. Designing a system that does this and also does a reasonable job with the bad apples is what is needed. Brill's piece, by ignoring the long term incentive issues, can go for the jugular and place the blame squarely on the teachers. Does that really make sense?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Can Bridge Make a Comeback?

As an Assistant Prof, I played a fair amount of bridge, mostly at lunchtime, a diversion from work. But it was learning too because while I knew the basic rules before and a few of the conventions, I didn't know a full bidding system nor did I know how to count - which means in this context what to keep track of. Also, I didn't understand the play of the cards as a method of communication with partner, and that good defense can be as fun or more fun than playing the hand. I know my own kids don't know bridge. I wonder what it would take to create an interest among college students. It is not the sort of thing that would help on the resume, but it would definitely help with their general thinking skills as adults. The piece below is from several years ago. But it is a worth a look.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Theism - "Pan", "Mono", and "A"

I still have an original Kindle. It has a word look up function that I use only occasionally, partly because I don't remember to use it, partly because it is slow and clunky, and partly because I read my Kindle while away from my computer and when in "reading mode" I don't feel like being in "keyboard mode," which is also why though I can read the NY Times on my Blackberry, doing so is not quite a satisfying experience. The best look up function I've found is with the Web version of the NY Times, where if you highlight an individual word a question mark appears. Click on that and you get the definition of the word (along with some ads triggered by the word,which I presume is what pays for the service). This is pretty functional. So I'm asking myself why Dictionary. com or or some other online lexicon doesn't offer something similar for the entire World Wide Web, where if you have their plugin (I'm making it up that it would be a plugin to the browser, but that makes sense to me) then any time you highlight a single word on a Web page it triggers a search in their dictionary, preferably rendered in a new browser window. This can't be that hard to do programming-wise, given the functionality that already exists. Having it would really be great.

These thoughts were triggered this morning by a Ross Douthat column, Heaven and Nature, which I found thoughtful, though I believe it was errant in is conclusion. The piece begins with a critique of the new film Avatar, in large part because its not so subliminal message is a pantheism found in other juggernaut films like Dances with Wolves and Star Wars. Douthat's piece is interesting in large part because of its main thesis, that in spite of our professed religions (or lack thereof) pantheism has an appeal, particularly to Americans, where it appears to be a way to views about nature, religion, and democracy. May the Force be with you.

Apart from films with "Passion of the..." in the title or Dan Brown novels brought to the big screen, I normally don't think about religion when watching movies or commenting on them. Douthat's piece was something of an eye opener for me. It suggests that as much as we might want to cordon off religion from public life, with the First Amendment serving as our guide in that pursuit, the two are inextricably tied and can't really be decoupled. What then should we make of it?

After 29 years of teaching, this past semester I had my first taste of religion in the classroom (really mostly in the online writing that students did and only a tiny bit in my office hours or our ensemble class discussion). My instinct was to ignore it, though I couldn't completely do that. I wanted students to use experience from their own living situations to reflect on class themes. Little did I know that many resided in faith-based living environments. That was a surprise for me. Until writing this post I hadn't considered why such a living arrangement might have appeal. One reason might simply be for comfort. Our campus is very large and it is quite easy to feel lost in the crowd. Another reason, however, is that faith may be a large way that these students define themselves and what I was seeing was a Beyond the Melting Pot argument applied to the U of I, with faith replacing national identity as the main group identifier.

That in itself was fine but two issues did crop up that I really didn't know how to deal with and I managed poorly as a result. For both of these, think of sports stars who after having big success in some contest and being interviewed on TV thank the Lord for their success. On why the athletes do this, I can envision at least two distinct reasons. One is as ritual or habit, developed in large part to block out pernicious influences in the players' lives - gambling, drugs, violence. In this way it has become almost a non-thinking act, akin to putting on a warm coat when going outside in cold weather. The habit provides warmth and comfort.

In my class however, I wanted the students to struggle with some concepts related to the writing so the students could take these ideas for their own. I particularly wanted them to come to grips with whom they were trying to please in the pieces they created. Many of the students, high academic achievers all, had completely bought into the idea that they were to please the teacher. I wanted them to develop their own sense of taste. First and foremost, they had to please themselves. This was difficult for them. Many took a very long time to get there. I didn't want them to have an easy answer - God is my audience would be a cop out in this case. A bit of the students writing was in this category. I didn't know how to respond to it.

Then there is the other point, closer in line with the article I linked to, whether the public utterances about points specific to a particular religion impinges on the space of students who are of other faiths. The related question, more to the point in my class, is whether the student of faith is sensitive to the point that he might so impinge through his own action. If he is evidently sensitive but has chosen to make his faith-based point, he must feel he hasn't crossed the line. Others might disagree. Who then becomes the arbiter? What rules need to be in place in the class beforehand to make such questions lead to a good conclusion. My own "mental model," jargon from Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, is that all discussion of religious matter should be cordoned off. There's nothing like the teacher painting himself into a corner.

Of course there was the other possibility, that the student might not be aware at all that such comments could impinge on other students' space or impinge on mine. We had Islamic students in the class and I, somewhere in the agnostic-doubter-finding God through the memory of my father, was brought up Jewish though it was a very Reform form of Judaism. Here my mental model going into the course is that nobody could be unaware in that way. But it turned out that in other dimensions, really having nothing to do with religion but which did have to do with the sort of experience people had, the students didn't seem as clued in as I had expected them to be. Why should the faith-based students be sensitive to the space needs of their classmates if nobody had ever educated them on the point? I didn't see it as my role to show them the light. I wanted them to figure it out on their own.

This brings me back to Douthat and a confession that I need to make. There are probably many more movies I have watched that have religion, at least as a subtext, than I care to admit. Among my favorites is Inherit the Wind. In the last scene of the movie, Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) is quoting Scripture to the chagrin of Gene Kelly as E.K. Hornbeck (H.L. Mencken). Drummond does this as eulogy to his old friend, Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) played by Frederick March. Drummond says there was much greatness in Brady. His failing was that he looked for God too high. I have taken that line for my own. Can we find God in the elements of our own humble existence?

Douthat writes:

Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death?

My personal answer to this is to view the good and evil struggle as internal. Both are inside each of us and this is where to look. Sometimes good wins, other times good loses, and there is always a next game to be played where the outcome is in doubt. Douthat, however, looks for evil to be external. If we are for good then evil is to be fought, a battle between peoples, not a battle within. Pantheism is a threat to Douthat because it challenges the commitment to the struggle, even such a benign pantheism as expressed in the movies.

This may be the basic point on which liberals and conservatives disagree. It may also be the reason I can watch movies like The Matrix or TV series like 24 , enjoy them for the fantasy that they are and not let them affect my moral compass, except with the guilt feelings that maybe I should have read a book instead.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Deadlines: The student as writer, the instructor as editor

Ask yourself a simple question. Suppose an instructor desperately wants to communicate with her students that she cares more about the quality of their writing than about the volume they produce. How does she communicate that preference to the students in a meaningful way?

Let's add a complicating but pretty obvious factor. If an instructor gives a deadline for the project that is say a month away, human nature suggests that most students will do little to nothing on the assignment till the deadline appears in the offing. This is human nature. Students also may not realize that to get a good quality product, they have to go through multiple drafts. One and done often doesn't cut it.

Once students do kick into high gear and get cranking writing their piece they can then form a sense of their own about how high quality a product they are producing. Students (at least the ones I know) don't maintain that intensity for the entire semester, and when they are in less intense mode, they are much less sensitive to suggestions about how to improve their work. So most efficient for their own learning is some rapid iteration between student and instructor during the interval of intensity. This is why I don't believe having deadlines for drafts that precede the ultimate delivery is the right way to go.

I think it is actually better for learning to set up faux deadlines that are communicated to the student as hard limits. They are still intense at or soon after that deadline. As instructor, you now have their complete attention, so you can push for making their work better with suggestions and further iterations past the deadline.

Then there is something else as instructor you can do to enhance quality of the final product - give the ultimate decision power to the student regarding any recommendations you make as editor, author's prerogative if you will. If you have a little email thread with the student about the suggested changes and explain the why behind making them, then the student is in a position to think through the suggestions and give a why back on not accepting them or make the changes accordingly. The students will then have some ownership of the work and if capable should produce good stuff in this setting.

It is time intensive for the instructor to be reading and commenting this way, but it certainly is a good way to have dialog with students on a one-on-one basis, conversations that the students probably wouldn't initiate otherwise. And the deliverable can then be something all are proud of.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Merging Multiple PowerPoint Presentations.....

.....created by several authors.

The CIC LT Group is having a virtual conference, Clouds on the Horizon. I'm facilitating one of the working groups, LMS/Sade. We are doing a session later today called Apres la LMS. The session is to be held in Adobe Connect. Risk averse about these particular things, I insisted that team members make PowerPoint presentations that are pre-uploaded into Connect rather than do any screen sharing. I thought we might have latency issues with the latter.

So the last day or two the PowerPoints have been coming in. I have to say that working with a bunch of folks I really didn't know before but who have something of a common purpose and who have adopted a cooperative tone is quite a bit of fun. The collaboration itself has been a very good thing. I believe the CIC should encourage this sort of thing more frequently. There are benefits from it.

Merging PowerPoints, however, was more challenging than I had anticipated. I did a Google search on this and found this page, which unfortunately applies to Office 2003. The approach doesn't seem to have been retained in PowerPoint 2007. I tried the help but didn't find anything useful, so I flailed around for a while. Ultimately, I had a brainstorm. If I were designing PowerPoint and I wanted this work, how would I build the functionality in? From there I got to the solution in a few steps.

On the View menu, there is an Arrange All button. If you have two PowerPoint presentations open, those appear side by side. Put each presentation in slide sorter view. Then select a slide in one presentation and drag it over to the other, inserting it where you want in the presentation. For whatever reason, on my computer that usually took two tries. But it did work.

Once in a while what copied didn't quite appear the same in the destination as it looked in the original. Some of the formatting gets messed up if there is too much of it on a slide. Perhaps because my original was .ppt and some people sent .pptx. But otherwise, it worked.

Not bad. I wonder whether this will add to the pile of useless knowledge that I've accumulated or if I'll use this approach again in the future.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Mr. Holland's Opus and Harper Lee's

Too much schmaltz is not good for you. Sometimes dispassion is necessary and then austerity in one's entertainments is preferred. Or, if passion is to be sought, perhaps it needs to be of the transcendent type, where in spite of witnessing misplaced fervor we are nonetheless elevated from the watching, as we ourselves are not so possessed and greatly admire those who are. But other times, maybe when we're down or feel befuddled or see what appears to be our last opportunity to accomplish something of substance wash through our fingers like the ebb tide as we're kneeling at the beach, then schmaltz might be just the ticket, comforting for the most part, with perhaps a tad of an educational idea, but nothing too challenging.

Last night, Mr. Holland's Opus was on one of the movie channels. I'd been struggling with the most recent posts of my students - they blog weekly on a prompt I suggest for them or on a topic of their own choosing that is in some way related to course. The course is called Designing for Effective Change. Approaching the last lap of the semester, we're now supposed to be working on a class project, which is aimed at making some effective change on Campus. But reading the students posts, I was struck by how many of them are defenders of the status quo. After all, these students have done very well by the system, so why wouldn't they defend it. Yet somehow I expected them to see through their own experience, even to sacrifice some of that, if doing so would benefit their fellow student who has not fared quite as well as they have. Then, too, I've become aware that as writing exercises in other classes some students do design projects for change, but as an artificial form only, the goal being to deliver the paper for the writing requirement, not to implement the recommendations from the paper. I had wanted something real to come out of this class project. I still want that. But a real outcome is receding from probability to possibility and may fade out entirely from view. Instead we'll get another academic exercise that doesn't amount to much; the course as a whole may have touched a few students, but the class project probably not.

So there is Mr. Holland, the teacher who got it right, though he didn't know it while he was doing it, the teacher who devoted so much of his individual time to helping his students outside the regular classroom that he had no time left to write his own music or spend with his family, the underpaid music teacher who had to teach driver's ed in the summer to make ends meet, the teacher who fully committed to excellent performance by his students and so willingly persisted alongside them till they could deliver on this goal, the teacher who constantly worked at understanding student motivation and continued to try new approaches to tap into that. Mr. Holland, who makes the Quixote tilting that is teaching seem like a noble cause, who matters in the lives of his former students, enough so that they gather at his surprise retirement party to perform his yet unperformed "An American Symphony." Schmaltzy movies always have a happy ending. And in schmaltzy movies, the good guys matter; they matter a lot. Viewing this one got me ready for another day of school, even though the class project is going into the crapper.

The course is more than the class project. The students as bloggers are individual writers, some taking great pains to produce work with originality and creativity. It is my first time having students do this sort of thing and what I'm learning is that my job is as much about soothing ego as it is about coaching the writing craft. I've had an intimate relationship with angst since when I was a teen and through much of my adult life, so I thought I'd be able to understand the inner workings of these kids and be able to relate to them accordingly. But angst comes in different flavors. Mine does not feature the strong perfectionism that seems to inhabit many of the students. So I feel ill prepared to help them, though I do embrace most of the strategies for effective teachers at the listed at the linked page. (I don't talk openly about perfectionism, though some of the students do.)

Worse, on occasion I seem to be feeding the beast. Praise for work that I truly believe is well done turns into a short-lived benefit for the student and a long term cost, by creating an expectational floor for the upcoming work not yet submitted. The successful writer develops writer's block by dint of the past success. Surely this is pathology. Or is it?

I thought of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the great first novels of the twentieth century. For Harper Lee it was also her last published novel. It is unclear why this is the case since she was in her early thirties when To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and is alive still today. Was the fame which accompanied the success of the book so unwelcome that she didn't dare produce another masterpiece? Was it that having hit the nail perfectly square on the head with the hammer she no longer had use for other nails and no reason to wield another hammer? Or was she sent to purgatory by her own perfectionism, her one act play so good that it was simply too tough for her to produce a second act.

Knowing of Harper Lee, how does one coach a talented yet perfectionist student nowadays about the student as a writer. Everything seems so much more accentuated now than when I was a college student. I saw anorexia then but only in isolated individuals. Now the mindset, if not the physical manifestation, seems much more prevalent, especially in this group of high achievers. What then, should be done about it?

These kids very well might not see writing as their vocation for other reasons. Most are pursuing a career in some profession - engineering, business, or medicine. But in our first full book that we read for the class, Better, the author Atul Gawande concludes with a set of suggestions to become a positive deviant, including "write something." So the students have it on better authority than I can offer that writing should be something they do, in addition to their profession if not in lieu of it. Ahead of teaching this class I'd have given Gawande's recommendation my full throated endorsement.

Now I am less sure. For the perfectionist students in my class, will any produce an opus of writing? If so, when will it occur in their own career trajectories? Will it happen as with Mr. Holland, to mark a good and productive life, one with meaning for others? If it doesn't happen at all, will it be because as faux Harper Lee's they flame out before reaching their prime?

For me as a teacher, what am I to make of this, viewing writing at the path to deep thinking and learning yet sworn to "do no harm"? I can't see how to make progress with the students without putting them at risk. I fear that some may be too fragile for the journey.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Are students ready for Web 2.0 in their classes?

This afternoon, Norma introduced me to the presentation, Meet Charlotte. The gist of the presentation is that in our personal lives we have all this open and highly networked communication, which is very easy to learn to use. However, at work we have walled off technologies that appear clunky and difficult to use. So, the presentation asks, why not make the IT environment at work more like it is at home.

I've been teaching this way for the past two months or so. If the students are taking to it like ducks taking to water, they sure have an odd way of showing it. Now it is true that I'm having the students write longer posts, not tweets and maybe that explains it. But many of them have gone out of their way to talk about being self-conscious in writing out in the open. They haven't gone out of their way to say it is an out and out bad thing to do. But they also haven't said this is the intellectual equivalent of a return to nature. If given the option of what they are doing now or the alternative of writing in a walled off environment, I think many of them would choose the latter. It's not the ease of use I'm talking about. It's the safety. They seem to feel at risk on the open Internet.

In my own head I'm not sure whether to accommodate them or cajole them out of their comfort zone. I should note that most of these kids are studying science or engineering, with a few others mixed in, but no humanists in the crowd. What we are doing in my class is outside their experience of their other courses.

Ironically as I'm asking this, some have produced quite interesting writing. So judged by that, the approach seems to be working. But should students be in a more or less ongoing state of discomfort? I would answer yes if the matter was purely intellectual and what was at root was students challenging their own prior held beliefs. That's not what is happening here. Instead, the students seem to be afraid that their own performance is not up to snuff or that they inadvertently say something that will get them into trouble later.

This isn't the end of the story. They have been mostly writing for me. I'm trying to get them to write for each other. Maybe they will come around if that happens. But getting the writing for each other to happen well and getting them to come around is by no means a slam dunk.

I wonder if other instructors are seeing something like this and if they believe Web 2.0 is the right approach in spite of student shyness.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Teaching and Learning: The Extensive and Intensive Margins

While my university may be slower than many others in determining the magnitude of budget cut it will have to manage, there is much anticipation that cuts are pending. One set of obvious adjustments that will be made on the instructional side - average teaching loads will go up, there will be fewer non-tenure track instructors and among those who are tenured already there will be greater variation in teaching load, depending on what other contributions the faculty member is making. High-powered researchers will teach less. Those with a more modest research portfolio will teach more. This necessary adjustment will begin to codify what has been implicit until now. Teaching and research are substitutes from the faculty member's perspective, especially when viewed from the vantage of how to allocate faculty time. The promotional videos that campuses like mine have put out for years for viewing at the half-time of basketball and football games create the image of a strong connection between research and teaching. That there is some connection I would agree. If that connection were strong, however, we'd witness teaching loads increasing across the board as the way to manage the budget cuts, unlike what I ventured above. We'll see. In one way I look forward to this change. It will, I hope, make the conversation about teaching and learning more realistic. That would be welcome.

The sort of changes I mention above will be imposed from the top, because that is where the budget issues will be managed. Lower to the ground, I don't believe it has sunk in that substantive change on campus needs to occur. Rather it seems to be business as usual. Yesterday I was talking with a colleague who mentioned his department might be adding an additional course to the major. He didn't elaborate on the reasons, but it is easy enough to conjecture that in most fields, this particular one included, knowledge is expanding at a pretty rapid clip. So students need to be exposed to more of what the field has to offer in order to claim competency in "the major." There is a logic to this sort of argument. But the consequence in the aggregate is to see an ever expanding set of courses on the books. I believe we've witnessed exactly that. And my guess is that it is the same elsewhere. Majors have become more demanding. Students either take more credit hours overall before they graduate, or they take fewer electives. But the offerings of those electives persists.

A couple of years ago following the ELI conference I wrote a couple of posts, one that critiqued what I had heard at the conference, the other offering a vision of an alternative. Part of that I called "Humanism Across the Curriculum." I am becoming increasingly convinced that it is a correct direction for us, though it is far from what we are doing now. Indeed, we are trapped in what we are doing now so that we can't get there from here unless we undo a substantial part of our current activity. I'll circle back to that point in a bit.

I'm teaching an Honors Seminar at present. Some of the students are taking it for Advanced Composition credit, which embraces the Writing Across the Curriculum approach that I critiqued in that earlier post. The critique was based on the resource demands of WAC, not the pedagogy. My class now has 17 students. (It was capped at 18; one student dropped.) Even the non-WAC students in my class are doing a fair amount of writing via weekly reflections that they blog. Midway into the semester the class is beginning to gel, as the students are commenting on the posts of their peers and in so doing they are showing support and awareness of the contributions of their classmates. In other words, we're producing the requisite sense of community and feeling of intensity that is conducive to deep learning.

I do want to note here that motivation is much less of an issue in this class than it might be elsewhere, because of who the students are. They want to find meaning from the class as much as I do. If all students were like these Honors students, then what I say next might be much easier to achieve.

I am wondering if the intensity and sense of community in the class could be maintained, if the enrollment had been capped at 30 or even 35, or if that increase in size would so put a damper on what we are doing that all would be lost. My belief is that it could be done. Let me elaborate.

I've put quite a bit of effort into this class, but much of that is because on both the subject matter and on the approach this is new to me. Some of this effort, however, I believe needs to be retained were there to be repeat offerings of the course. I've written a fair amount myself for the course, partly to model for the students, partly to provide commentary on how the class is going, and also to demonstrate my personal commitment. That, I believe, must be retained. The first several weeks I not only read all the student posts, but I also commented on them. These comments are individualistic, not some canned response. To generate them the post must be read and there must be some analysis of it in order to respond. This is time consuming, but I believe necessary. Thereafter I said I'd comment on about a third of the posts, but I've done more than that. There would have to more discipline on which posts to comment on, with a shorter duration at the beginning where all students would comment. And there would have to be greater urging for the students to comment and indeed to post about what other students have written. This part is do-able too.

The live class session, currently conducted mostly as an ensemble discussion, would probably require breaking the students up into small groups for a good part of the session, so they can voice their own views. That requires more orchestration ahead of time. That would be some work. We'd also need a mechanism for those groups to report out and discuss their conclusions. Developing that would also be work. But it seems possible.

We took an experimental approach to the course sessions and after the first week started to evaluate those via a survey in Google Docs. I posted about that in early September. I think the experimental approach is also critical, though the particular method of evaluation perhaps can be improved. In any event, students who see that their opinions matter in how the course is conducted are much more inclined to participate vigorously. The post processing of those surveys is not hard. (A summary of the multiple choice questions is produced. That is converted to PDF and posted. The responses from the paragraph questions have to be re-ordered to anonymity can be maintained. Then those can be posted too.) This needs to be done until the class function seems satisfactory for both students and instructor. Once that results appears close, students will stop participating in the surveys, because they won't see the value. Indeed, a fall off in participation is a good indicator that expectations have stabilized.

So I do think it possible to expand enrollments in the way outlined above, in which case one could teach this sort of course more frequently and get a much larger number of students involved. There is a different matter of whether instructors around Campus could find their way to teach their current undergraduate courses in a Humanism Across the Curriculum manner. That's an issue for a different post. Here let's just assume they can do this.

Now we can turn to the sort of back of the envelope calculations that are great to do on a slow Sunday morning. We have about 2000 tenured or tenure-track faculty members. If each taught one of these intensive, Humanism Across the Curriculum courses, and each of these courses had a cap of 35 students, which for the sake of argument was binding in every case, than that would produced 70,000 enrollments in such classes. But we have on order of 30,000 undergraduate students (actually more) and if they take 4 or 5 courses a semester then that demand requires somewhere between 120,000 and 150,000 enrollments.

While there might be a substantial enrollment taught in the HAC way, there is a sizable enrollment gap that somehow must be managed. Further, in the above calculation we've already allocated to the faculty their undergraduate teaching obligation. So if the gap is made up via supply, that must be done with adjuncts and/or graduate students teaching, some of which clearly will happen via large class instruction.

How much of the student experience should be via large class instruction?. Can we credibly affirm the benefit of large class instruction when we are making such a big deal about HAC? Why not reduce demand instead? This is the conclusion that seems irresistible to me. Students should be taking fewer courses over their experience in college. The courses that remain should be more intensive. Other courses need to be removed from the experience.

It is on this point where we we must undo. We are headed in the wrong direction on the number of courses front. We are moving toward expansion when we should be moving toward reduction. How can we get there?

If the number of credit hours necessary for graduation remains unaltered, then a bunch of current courses that have x credit hours need to be converted to have x + 1 or x + 2 credit hours, so the students can acquire the same number of credit hours with fewer courses, or students need to be able to earn course credit from practicum and other experiences that they do in lieu of courses they are now taking. We probably need some of both of this type of approach.

I don't see this sort of reform on anyone's radar right now. I wonder what it will take to get other faculty and administrators to think this way. My sense is that instead, we'll do less on the intensive margin, because that sort of activity will be viewed as too expensive. That will be a mistake, but it sure seems likely based on where we are currently headed.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Expensive Speech

I take the report of the increased lobbying on health care reform to be true. The analysis of why the lobbying, however, seems flawed to me. Rather than focus on the Republicans, who are not large enough by themselves to block anything, the piece should focus on divisions among Democrats. If the press could accurately analyze and report on the lobbying activity that potentially could mitigate its impact. As it is, however, it seems like we're witnessing bribery right in front of our noses, and to ill effect socially.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Situated Logic and Standardized Pests

Here's the canonical problem. You need to explain a general principle to someone else, someone who isn't all that great at abstract reasoning or who generally prefers to hear a story rather than a syllogism. So you explain the principle via a realistic example that is worked through. That let's you tell the story and illustrate the principle at the same time. Your task then is to figure out what details of the example to include in your presentation. Some of those details are there to illustrate the principle. Others are there to embellish the story. The question then is what to include in the example and why. Have you told a good story? Is the principle clearly articulated within the story? Those are the two main questions to use to test the solution.

If this canonical problem is taken as the basis for a certain type of writing, then the next question is whether the writer has enough of a sense of taste to give reasonable answers to those test questions. Likewise, the canonical problem can be taken as the basis for a certain type of live presentation to an audience. Again, the follow up question is whether the presenter has enough of a sense of taste to give reasonable answers to the test questions.

The canonical problem, as it is constructed here, is the obverse of the type of reading comprehension problems one sees on the SAT. The College Board calls these Passage Based Reading. Understanding how to do these sort of questions conveys a type of reasoning ability. As I've written elsewhere, mostly recently in this chapter of my book, I've had suspicion for quite a long while that many students don't have good skills in doing this based on my experience with getting them to discuss articles about economics from the New York Times. (I'm not referring to recent experience but rather from courses I've taught over the past 13 or 14 years.)

Do note that I was careful with the choice of the word "obverse." The canonical problem is not the inverse of the reading comprehension problem. There is some art involved in choosing what detail to include or not from the example. Being an engaging story teller requires more than understanding of logic. Nevertheless, there is also a type of reasoning involved. Getting the gist of the general principle into the story requires identification of what that gist is. This creates an imperative for the writer or the presenter.

One might speculate that being good at the reading comprehension questions would dispose one to be good at solving the canonical problem. That had been my prior expectation. But now I'm beginning to wonder.

In the class I'm currently teaching, which has students from our Campus Honors Program who typically have very high standardized test scores, the students are struggling with solving the canonical problem. At first, I was quite surprised by this. Now, as I'm trying to make sense of what I'm observing, there seem to be two possible conclusions to draw.

One may be that the students have reading comprehension of a teach-to-the-test variety. In the testing situation the students are clued to read the passage and ask - what is the test maker looking for? Armed with that clue the students can make good meaning of the passage. But for other reading, more expansive and free ranging, they don't read in the same way or don't know how to distill the essence of what they are reading. The ability to understand a narrowly focused passage is surely necessary, but it is in no way sufficient.

Unfortunately, this ability to make sense of a larger body of reading material defies the standardized tests, because measuring it would take too long in the administration of the exam. So, I'm afraid, we really know quite little about how students read for meaning when confronting a longer work. We should fess up to that fact.

The other possible conclusion is that even with good reading comprehension the student will still struggle on the canonical problem, because they are separate skills. In this case the obvious conclusion is that students need training on how to work the canonical problem. My sense of it, based on my class. is that students are not getting this training much if at all.

Neither possible conclusion makes me happy. But talking it out this way, I feel more that the students are the victims than the perpetrators. I've got to keep that in mind as I teach. Yet I also have to wonder how we can so neglect their intellectual development, including the best and the brightest of them.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A feature request for Google Calendar

I am teaching this semester with Google Calendar as my course calendar. The calendar widget (or is it gadget) is nice in that it can be placed anywhere in the sidebar of my blog and shows the upcoming entries. However, the details of the event show up only as text in the widget (and likewise in the actual calendar when it is published in html). It is highly desirable to have links in the details that can take the students to readings or other Web pages. So what I'd like to have happen is this. Imagine a detail that says:

We'll discuss a paper on xyz. Please go to read the paper at and then also read the critique at

When a reminder of a google calendar entry gets sent via gmail, the detail does appear to hotlink the urls. If they can do it there, why not also do it in the widgets and in the html version of the calendar? Pretty please?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Personal Learning Coaches for College Students

One of the things that is jumping out at me as I teach a seminar class for Honors students is that students need their thinking critiqued and that if they feel the person providing the critique is earnest and sensitive to their needs, while also being critical where appropriate, then the student very much wants the coaching. I hadn't planned to serve in the role of learning coach before the course started. After a week or so into the semester, it seemed like a necessary thing for some of the students. In one case it appeared that the student was making intellectual errors of a certain sort. The student needs extensive practice with a different approach to remedy the problem. In a couple of other cases it was more a matter of confidence. The students were under performing and needed feedback and reassurance that they were ok, while at the same time getting a critique of their early work, which was not up to par.

Such coaching in the context of a seminar class is perhaps a natural extension of the course work. But this seminar is for a small group of elite students. What about having a learning coach for any student who wanted that. This may be a moronic idea because there could be quite a few students who would want such a thing if it were available, and the activity is labor intensive. If an instructor in the role of coach devotes an hour or two per week to a student, above and beyond the instructors other obligations, then the instructor probably can take on at most 2 or 3 students at a time. The student/faculty ratio here is on the order of 20:1. So it would seem impossible to do this for one and all.

One way to get the numbers in balance is to offer the coaching say for one semester only, perhaps when the students are juniors. If an instructor can take on between 4 and 6 students per year, having a different crop in the spring than in the fall, then that gets it closer to being do-able from a bean counting perspective. And doing it in the junior year, the coaching could be viewed as a way to continue on with general education values as the students delves into the major.

Why would faculty and students participate in a coaching program? On my campus the shoe has yet to drop as a consequence of the State of Illinois' fiscal woes. That will happen soon enough. When it does, the consequences are likely to be many and just about each will seem for the worse - larger classes, faculty and staff taking on greater burdens, fewer support staff overall, greater student alienation, etc. It will then start occurring to some that to prevent the situation from imploding entirely, many of us have to step up and do still more.

In doing a few Google searches in preparation for writing this piece, I found a college that uses learning coaches as a faculty development approach. Suppose we started to do that too, both to get more faculty sensitive about their own teaching and to get them ready to serve as learning coaches for students. It would take a while to get a critical mass of instructors, some who would serve as models of what a personal learning coach for students is like, the others to coach the next cohort of would-be coaches. But if it worked in the early stages, I see no reason why it couldn't ramp up on its own, particularly if everyone who does it is volunteering. Perhaps after it grew sufficiently it would need a staff person to manage logistics. Otherwise the program could be run in a very Spartan way resource-wise.

I've written elsewhere of the Peter Drucker argument that we should all have two careers, one that is for pay and enables us to put food on the table and a roof over head, the other as a volunteer so we can express our sense of social responsibility. Instituting a program of personal learning coaches for students would be a way to enable that for faculty and encourage students to be reflective about their own learning in a way that is not tied to any particular course. I'm intrigued by this possibility.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

More on Teaching with Blogs

class survey
We've finished our second week of class (the sessions are on Monday and Wednesday). After class concludes I've asked the students to complete a brief survey using the Forms tool in Google Spreadsheet. There are five forced response questions to rate the session and a paragraph question so they can submit comments. These are the same questions I came up with a year ago in the post Schon and Gawande, which were inspired by the Apgar scoring system for measuring the well being of a newborn that Gawande writes about. At this point I'm not trying to convert these into a numerical score. I'm not sure the students yet understand what the last two items are asking about so the numbers wouldn't mean much anyway. But by eyeballing the histograms of the results, you can get a sense of how much the students are on the same page with each other and how the session went for them.

I should add that the students get no course credit for doing this. But since most of them are already online checking out the course blog, it isn't much of intrusion that way. The first time 15 out of 18 completed it. The reviews were mixed. I think the students who gave positive reviews were being polite. The students who gave negative reviews made some pretty caustic comments. On the substance they were probably right. I wasn't very happy with the session either. We couldn't get a conversation started. Students did talk up. But they didn't respond to each other. So I made some changes to the way the class would interact for the Wednesday session. I'm hopeful that the act of making change in response to feedback from them will keep them participating in the survey. The second one is still underway. At present we have a little more than half the class who have completed it.

The students talked a lot more in the the Wednesday session. I bit my tongue a few times to keep from talking up, so they'd work things through for themselves. This may be better for them since they take ownership, but they didn't push on the content the way I wanted them to. So I wrote up a post to fill in what was omitted. I doubt that is good way to get closure to the discussion. I wonder whether I'll see bits and pieces of the Wednesday discussion in their reflections that are due on Friday evening. Of the few reflections that have already been done, I've not seen those sort of connections. I'll continue to push for it. The technology itself doesn't solve that issue. Let's see if the students can figure that out for themselves.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Teaching with blogs - first impressions

Given that I've been blogging for four and a half years, it may be surprising that this semester is the first class I've taught where the students have blogs. Actually, it's not much of a surprise. I had only one prior opportunity, since I don't teach so frequently, and in that prior effort, a course in economic principles for honors students, I didn't see how to fit in my approach (I had taught the course one time previously) with blogging.

This time around I'm teaching a newly created course of my own design and I wanted the students to do reflective writing as a way for them to make for their own what we are reading and talking about in class. And I wanted students to be able to read and comment on the reflections of other students. Then, too, I wanted to be able to showcase what they produce. So blogs seemed a natural here on all counts.

What follows are some observations one week into the course. I'm going to lead in with some emotional/psychological issues and then turn to the the straight technology things. I'm more intrigued by the former. I know that people sometimes find this blog for the latter, so I'll do it both ways.

Having recently finished a chapter of my book where I argued that every instructor needs to be a pied piper to draw the students in, I believe I put myself under some self-imposed pressure to do likewise for this class and felt a need for the students to react favorably to it from the get go. It may also be that I'm a little out of practice with making public performance. At the Learning Technology Leadership Program back in July, I had a huge adrenalin rush during my first session, which was a sidebar on budgets. I hadn't planned to be that intense. Sometimes the emotions seem to have a mind of their own. In that session I felt inside like a rhinoceros on a charge. Fortunately it was right before lunch and I got to chat with some of the attendees during the meal, so I was calmer though still with the adrenalin pumping during the session Shelli Fowler and I did that immediately followed.

My first class session was this past Monday and again there was a big adrenalin rush. The class ends just before 2 PM. I was still pretty wired after 5. The first hour of that class session I believe worked very well. In advance I wondered what it would take to get the students to participate in the discussion. There was a very brief warming up period where we felt each other out. Then they all seemed ready to jump right in. That' the pleasure of teaching very good and committed students. They want to participate and welcome the discussion.

After the break I went into presentation mode to show them the class Web site and to explain to them their immediate obligations for getting ready for the Wednesday class and for getting their first reflection piece done. That went less well. There are only 18 students in the class and when we're in discussion mode the physical distance between me and any student is not that great. I'm more remote when standing behind the technology cabinet, which in this room is in the corner, and some of the students had to change their seats and move to the back of the room so they wouldn't be so close to the screen and could then see the projected image. Also, I pretty much talked the whole time through this part, so had no feedback from them till the end about whether I was reaching them. As I mentioned in my previous post, I made some flubs during this presentation because as an oversight I hadn't tagged some of my syllabus posts that I had planned to show but ultimately did not. There has been a fair amount of traffic on the site since, indicating the students are able to the roll with the punches and figure stuff out on their own.

I'm a bit more fragile than they are and I believe that experience made me feel on the defensive. For Wednesday's class, where we discussed the micro credit idea of Muhammad Yunus, I found myself defensive for a different reason. The early part of the discussion went fine and I felt in control. As we pushed on the topic there was a need to get into more detail on some issues and I couldn't recall much of that. The students were better informed than I was and I felt a loss of control. I should say here that I don't ever recall having that feeling in teaching an undergraduate class in economics. But this is not an economics course. It is a course of my own creation called Designing for Effective Change. Conceptually, I believe I have a reasonably good plan for how we will proceed in the course. But I don't have as intimate a connection with the readings we will do as I should have. Most everything on the reading list I've read for the first time in the last two years. The general sense of the pieces survives in my memory. The specific narratives do not.

There is the further matter that I hadn't fully scheduled the student activities for the course ahead of time. I knew what work I wanted them to do. But I hadn't thought through due dates for projects and whether I'd be over burdening them from time to time with too much work in a small time window. After going to the dentist, scheduling might be my least favorite thing to do. So I procrastinated in doing it. The students, however, wanted that information straight away. I didn't fulfill that need immediately. (I hope to do that at the next class on Monday.) Noting that contributed to my being defensive.

I committed to making comments on each of their reflections the first couple of weeks. About a third have completed the first round. The rest should get them done this evening. I became aware that my feeling defensive was making it harder for me to write comments. I felt a need to validate my approach with the reflective writing, though more objectively my first responsibility was and remains to put the students at ease so they can do their best work. For one student who appeared to be struggling, I spent an inordinate amount of time to write just a few short paragraphs. This student may very well need some introductory rhetoric instruction. I had read Stanley Fish's piece earlier in the week where he argued that many students don't seem properly trained to write understandable sentences I felt inadequate to respond to the need. What I wrote for this student seemed very strained to me.

Then yesterday, going through the rest of the syllabus and not being satisfied with one of the readings I selected on Double Loop Learning, I eventually found this paper by Chris Argyris on The Executive Mind and Double Loop Learning. It helped me frame the issue. I was using what he calls Model 1, trying to create a situation where I win and am not at risk. I needed to embrace Model 2, an open inquiry where we are free to put our cards on the table and work things out together. I know that in the past I've felt that my friends who teach writing are among the most generous intellectually, constantly being a cheer leader for the works of others, making them feel appreciated. Only when that base has been established do they take on issues with the student writing. I've vowed to embrace that approach and have tried to do so in commenting on subsequent student posts. I'm curious whether I can maintain that commitment and if doing so eventually becomes second nature. At present I'm still self-conscious about it.

Let me turn to the technology itself. After considering a few other options, Ning for one, WordPress for another, I opted to use Blogger for the course blog and let the students choose their own blogging site for their reflections. I did this because I was already quite familiar with Blogger and knew how to set up a site with the features I wanted. There were a lot of tasks to do; I didn't want to spend the time learning a new software even if it ultimately would be more feature rich. As a consequence of this choice, most of the student blogs are also in Blogger. A couple are in WordPress.

Probably the biggest single issue in doing this was giving the students the option to have a site in the Campus Learning Management System, which I did, but then praying that none would exercise the option. If some students are in the LMS and others are making public blogs, that might work FERPA-wise, but it will retard the ability to have students read and react to other student posts and it will make it much harder for the class to become a community. I had one close call on this score. Fortunately, the student who had asked for the site in the LMS was sensitive to what I was trying to accomplish teaching-wise and understood the technology well enough to learn that she could have her blog without the search engines directly indexing it. Also, around that time another student created her blog under an alias. (I had given no prior direction on that, but if they all used aliases it would be harder for me to know them, at least in the early part of the semester.) So the reluctant blogger learned she could mask her identity and in that way alleviate some of her concern of having a public blog that wasn't on a Campus-branded site.

On that latter issue, whether to use Campus applications or those freely available on the open Internet, I have a preference for the latter. The students will maintain access to the work after they graduate and, frankly, the tools will work better because they are being produced for a much larger audience that just Higher Ed. In that regard Blogger has improved a lot in the last two years. There are many very effective gadgets, including the integration with Google Calendar and the dynamic blogroll tool. I use the latter for the student blogs. That looks pretty slick to me.

Of course, there are glitches. It wouldn't be a new technology implementation if there weren't glitches. Some I just have to laugh about. Something must be wrong with Internet Explorer and the blog. It shows the dates of my Google Calendar posts as from the year 3909 instead of from 2009. It also doesn't show the icon for the student blogs done in WordPress. And for one of the Blogger blogs, it shows up some of the xml for the post right in the blog page. You can use IE nonetheless, but it is clunky to do so. So far none of these issues happen with Firefox or Chrome. Then a different problem. One of the students using Blogger has a malformed atom feed. I hope that resolves itself. In the meantime her blog is not updating in the class blogroll.

Time-wise, setting this all up took some doing. It's not the anticipated work that I mind. It's those little things I didn't expect that got to me a little. Some of the students, properly, set their blogs up with moderated comments. Then after I commented on a post, I realized my comment might sit there for quite a while unattended unless these students had an alert that comments were made on their site. In other words, I tend to think of blogging as quite simple, so anyone should be able to do it, but in using it in this class context there is a modest amount of user education/training that is necessary for it all to work well. I hadn't expected that. But it is needed.

With that we're off an running. All but one student (who added late) has set up a blog. Let's see how we do from here on out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

First Day Jitters

Yesterday marked the start of the fall semester. I'm teaching this term and had my first class. The kids are bright and eager, perhaps a couple are a bit doubtful about participating fully, but most seemed willing. I was amazed at my own adrenalin rush during the session. It took me several hours to come down afterward. I had hurt my back somehow late last week and before the start of class it felt stiff. I wondered if it would distract me. Once we got going, however, I lost all sense of that. Other things preoccupied me.

The class has 18 students and is meant to run as a seminar, not as a lecture. It's held in the new Business Instructional Facility in a room that accommodates perhaps 60 students, with movable tables and chairs. The tables are such that if kids sit on the long side of one then two chairs fit in comfortably. We rearranged furniture to simulate a conference room, taking nine of these tables and making a not quite polygon, certainly not one that is equiangular, but rather one that tried to emulate a longish ellipse. That part worked reasonably well though, in trying not to be too far from any student, I sat in the middle of one of the lone "sides" and I found it was easier for me to look right than to look left, so had to consciously turn to acknowledge student comments from the left. Also, since I was trying to manage the flow of the discussion, I found I didn't always try to listen to what the students said, but rather could start to think about the next point I should make. I've got to get better at that during the semester.

In the second hour we changed modes so I could show the course Web site, give an overview of what we'd be covering the rest of the semester and make sure they understood their immediate obligations for the course. I stood at the cabinet with the technology in it because I was doing a lot of scrolling and clicking. The cabinet is off to one side of the room and I became more remote to the students that way. I was very conscious of that and it annoyed me. I didn't anticipate the feeling ahead of time.

Then I got a bit flustered because a couple of important posts didn't appear on my syllabus tag. (Back in my office after the class I saw that those posts had no tag whatsoever. The kind of little omission I make all the time and in the normal course of events it wouldn't bother me at all. But with already heightened intensity, it was unsettling.

No real damage done, I hope. Some of the students were a bit apprehensive about the technology use and the work they'd be doing. Making flubs in front of them might actually be helpful to get them more comfortable. Let's see if I relax as well or if the adrenalin keeps pumping, class after class.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Update on iGoogle and the LMS

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about using iGoogle as a course portal instead of using an LMS. Since I'm teaching this fall I thought I'd investigate further. Briefly, here is what I found.

For any tab of iGoogle that you have created, there is a little menu triangle to right. If you click on that triangle you get a few items, one of which is Share My Tab. Click on that and you get a form that should have checked already all the gadgets that are on the Tab. Then, unchecked just below that, is a checkbox for sharing your personal settings. I don't believe that was there two years ago. In my little bit of experimentation, I checked that. Then I sent my settings to a different Google account that I have.

On this particular Tab I had a gadget for Google Reader, another for Google Calendar, and a third for Google Docs. In Google Reader I had made certain items shared. In Google Calendar I had made a calendar publicly available. Those both came through perfectly to the other account. I could see verbatim what showed up in the original account.

Google Docs, however, seems to function differently. There is no way to share a document so it is publicly available. You can make the Web page for the document publicly available, but the Web page doesn't show up in the list of documents. The document itself you can only share with other individuals. So in the gadget for Google Docs, what appears is the persons own Google Docs, not those docs of the person who created the Tab.

This is really too bad. If the Google Docs widget worked the same way so documents could be made publicly readable in document view, we'd really have something. Right now I'd characterize this as close but no cigar.

The Great Synch

Strange forces in the cosmos must be aligned. To the (implicit) question I posed in my previous post, where does one find writing that requires a college or even graduate degree, the answer has been provided, seemingly as if I commanded it. It turns out that health insurance policies are written in a way that few of us can understand; apparently even those who work for the insurance company that has issued the policy can't decipher it as it should apply in some cases. The clear message from the opinion piece I linked to is that making things tough to read occurs when the author wants to obscure meaning. Hmmm.

As a teen I used to mumble a lot. It didn't occur to me to put down my thought in writing in a coded way. In that sense, I still have a lot to learn.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How tough are you to read?

I'm teaching a course this fall, a seminar for the Campus Honors Program. I've been working on the syllabus and with that I had to specify the length of the writing assignments. I want the students to deliver their writing in blogs, to make the writing readily available to their peers and to the rest of the world. So I specified a minimal length for their pieces (and a maximal length too) via a word count. Most of the time when I'm writing I'm doing it in MS Word. The 2007 version gives a running total on the Word count in a pane in the bar below the page, next to the page number.

It occurred to me that perhaps the students wouldn't have access to Word on their own computers. So I wondered for other alternatives whether the software they would access produced that sort of statistic. It seems most of the students use Gmail when they are contacting me. (In a very small sample from this class it was right at 80%.) So I looked at what Google Docs produces on this score. There is a Word Count item in the Tools menu. The screen shot I've got in this post is to the report from my book chapter, Writing As Guessing. It gives many other statistics than simply word count.

I actually checked out several of my chapters on these metrics and chose this one, because it was the easiest. The other chapters have the Flesch Reading Ease indicator (this was new to me, higher numbers means it is easier to read) in the 60s and the Grade Level indicator as 8.0. Although I pride myself on making my content accessible (in an intellectual sense), I have to say I was depressed by these scores. Would a sixth grader really have no problem reading this stuff?

I tried a few other pieces to see for comparison sake. This book review about health care reform, had a Flesch Reading Ease score just below 40 and a grade level of 11. The average characters per word was greater by one and the average words per sentence was greater by three. Then I tried this essay from Saul Bellow in the the Times Writers on Writing series. The reading ease indicator was in the mid 60s and the grade level was 7. Phew!!! Though it might be that these scales need to be re-normed.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Robert Novak Obit

I can't say I was a fan, but it is sad to note the passing of yet another prominent person who had some influence on my development. I can't remember whether it was Meet the Press or Face the Nation. When I was in high school I used to watch all the Sunday morning news shows. Novak was a regular on one of them along with Morton Kondracke. Apparently the connection continued for some time thereafter. This book review about Novak's last book is well worth the read, if you can get a copy from somewhere.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Odd Politics of Health Care Reform

My first read this morning (after reading about Y.E. Yang's victory in the PGA Championship) was an interesting piece by Ross Douthat called Telling Grandma No, which gives a sensible analysis of the intergenerational issues that underlie the Health Care Debate. I wrote about this the year I started this blog, borrowing freely from the ideas of Larry Kotlikoff. This is the debate we aren't really having yet. We need to.

But all should not be darkness. There is levity in even the most serious of matters. Via the Quote of the Day I found and then the editorial cartoon below. Enjoy.

Chip Bok

Friday, August 14, 2009

Rectangles, Bottlenecks, and Judo

It's an old dilemma with the technology - should it accommodate what the user wants or should the user adjust to what the technology is capable of? Bottlenecks occur when the user expects the technology to deliver something that the technology is incapable of. Frustration ensues.

We've got a brand new classroom building with 18 swank classrooms, very well equipped. The last few days I've attended some training sessions, to help get the instructors ready for when classes start, a week from Monday. The sessions are very complete and cover all the functionality that is possible. Yet a little detail is missed, one that can create a bottleneck.

The native resolution of the projectors is 1024 x 768. It is now common for the instructors to have higher resolutions on their office computer or on the laptop they bring with them to the classroom. So they design their content in a view that the can't replicated on the classroom screen. Ditto for the pastel colors they use for fonts.

I've seen a similar problem with instructors who teach with a Tablet PC, which can be used in two different orientations, portrait or landscape. Portrait has the advantage that it seems like a piece of note paper and is thus more natural for writing. The projector, however, is designed for landscape. Standard computer screens have width exceed height. The projector can project the tablet image when in portrait mode, but only by shrinking the image and putting black bars on the sides. We've got a flat panel plasma TV at home and the same thing happens for TV signals that are not in High Definition, though the TV is smarter than the classroom projector because it enables other modes - stretch, zoom, and partial zoom, each a way to reduce or entirely get rid of the black bars.

Nobody explicitly taught me this, but I believe an important role for the learning technologist is to anticipate the bottleneck and make suitable accommodations, an approach akin to judo. Regular IT people don't do this, because it is not their primary responsibility to ask where will users go astray. Many years ago when the SCALE project supported FirstClass in a serious way, the staff produced an a manual about how the software function. It was thorough and well done in that it had many screen shots to illustrate the functions.

But in one way it was quite poor. The biggest bottleneck for users was that after they installed the client on their home machine, they didn't know how to get it to talk to the server. The configuration info for that was in the manual, to be sure. But it appeared on the penultimate page and as I recall the manual was twenty pages or longer. Many users couldn't find the info at all, because they didn't know how to look for it. It should have been on the first page.

I find myself doing this as a matter of habit and then get frustrated when that info is not presented but other functionality that users can discover on their own is covered. C'est la vie.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Rough Transitions

Doug Glanville has a very well written piece in yesterday's NY Times, which focused on the causes of Steve McNair's decline after Pro Football, but mainly on his own difficult time after leaving Major League Baseball. Unpreparedness marks life beyond and distance from others, most importantly family, a fixture of life as a professional athlete, exacerbates the problem.

Reading that piece I wondered how much of this is specific to athletes and what if any of it generalizes to every working stiff who is forced to end a career and start another, due to disability, declining employment in that field of endeavor, or other miscellaneous factors. I'm guessing that much of it is similar. Many people like and take pride in their work. They may under invest in developing general human capital, because of their job-related predilections.

I had a different reason to find the piece compelling. I believe that after about 15 years in a vocation it is actually a good thing to find a different field of endeavor. You reach a plateau where you don't learn that much after a while about how to do that profession well. When the learning slows down sufficiently or ceases altogether it's time to do something else. This is particularly true in the knowledge society and it may be that this is where it really is different for athletes, because their performances are not fundamentally knowledge work.

Starting this fall (less than two weeks from now) I'll be in my thirtieth academic year at Illinois, not quite equally divided by being an economics professor (the first half) and being a learning technologist (the second half). I can see another fifteen year stint happening fairly soon, doing something else. On that front Glanville's piece is a good warning that there may not be such a soft landing when making the switch, so perhaps hold onto what I'm currently doing a while longer. On the other hand, maybe those transition bumps and bruises are necessary, regardless of when the transition occurs. Let's see how SURS does given its historical underfunding and the current budget crisis. If I am to make a career switch, financially I need to have my pension from the current job intact.

An Open Request to TechSmith

The videographers on my campus, quite a good and talented crew, are dedicated to making video on the Web that they produce on campus accessible, i.e., with captions. It's the law. They take it as a mandate.

Yet the task remains daunting. Further, much of the video content produced on campus is made by amateurs (like me) and the vast majority of them may not feel so impelled. Partly for that reason and partly because I'm interested in extending the reach of the content we do produce here, I became enamored with captioning in YouTube, since it does things with the captions that simply aren't available in other products. First, the videos become searchable via the text in the captions. Second, the captions can be translated into many other languages, making the content accessible on an international basis. That latter feature is very intriguing to me.

However, the process of making the captions is arduous at present. Yesterday I made captions for this video, with lasts 4:39 (four minutes and thirty nine seconds). The original video was captured with Jing Pro and posted to YouTube. That is a snap. But making the captions took me more than 90 minutes and the work was so tedious that I had to break it up doing some in the morning and the rest in the evening. The problem is there no good way to set the timings and so what I do manually is to caption a phrase of text and find the timings for it more or less at the same time, listening to a segment of the movie, then pausing, then rewinding, then doing it again to check.

Camtasia has a reasonably easy to use caption tool but at present it doesn't integrate with the YouTube captioning at all. My request is that in the next version that becomes a feature. It would make Camtasia an indispensable video creation tool for Windows users and it would make a lot more people create captioning for the videos they do make. My guess it that it wouldn't be that hard to do it technically, because all the YouTube wants is a text file with the timings and the captions, in an appropriate format.

If you read this and use TechSmith products, perhaps you could make a similar request. It seems like win-win from where I sit.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Draft of the Next Book Chapter Is Now Available

The chapter of my book entitled, Homage to Jerry Uhl, is now available. It is the only chapter explicitly about learning technology, though the approach is historical, dealing with a period in the mid to late 1990s rather than the present. It is a way for me to more truthful. It is easier for me to have perspective about that time, especially since it was so formative for me.

Coincidentally, there is a eulogy in today's NY Times Op-Ed by Molly Ringwald about the director John Hughes. Learning technology and film appear to be separate universes and yet because the films Ringwald made with Hughes were so formative for her and so much about Hughes personal biography her themes end up seeming quite similar to mine. Something to reflect upon.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mini Presentations on Classroom Teaching Ideas

We've been making a variety of short online presentations so instructors at their convenience can view these and try out bits and pieces in their own teaching. We are also deliberately making these online presentations with varying tools so the instructors can compare and contrast them from the point of view of the audience.

Here is one with some general tips about presentation made with Slideshare. The audio for the presentation was recorded with Audacity. So apart from PowerPoint, all the software used here is freely available and hence this approach is quite accessible to student presentations.

Here is another about peripheral devices (wireless presenter, male at both ends audio cable) made with Adobe Presenter. In this case the Campus has licensed the software, but it still costs about $100. It does have the advantage that the audio is recorded slide by slide so the presentation can be readily updated in the future.

And here is one more on Showcasing Student Work made with Jing Pro and published directly to YouTube.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Atticus Finch and Stokely Carmichael

We cling to our myths for comfort against the harshness of reality. The Liberal creed, in particular, suffers from too large an embrace of hopeful untruths. There is the belief that decency and compassion, even if just singular expressions, can right all of society's ills without any structural change to accompany it. This, unfortunately, is myth, which needs to be debunked. Malcolm Gladwell is a recent debunker.

Gladwell aims at the hearts and minds of New Yorker readers. For many, To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the best books we read as kids and the movie, with Gregory Peck in the starring role, was one of the few to match the book in its intensity and fascinating story. Gladwell compares the hero of the book to the true to life Governor of Alabama, James Folsom, whom Gladwell argues acted to soften the injustice from Jim Crow, but not to eradicate it. (The text at the link somewhat challenges Gladwell's description by asserting that Folsom did try for true reform but failed miserably because what he wanted was unpopular with others who were in power.) That, I believe, is where Gladwell might be critiqued. He may be a bit unfair to the Atticus Finch character in his analysis, particularly by ignoring the character Calipurnia, who though only a housekeeper served to provide moral balance and practical ethical training to the Finch children, given that their mother had died long before. It wasn't just that Finch defended a Black man in court, Tom Robinson. He also entrusted his family to Cal, a black woman.

Gladwell wants Finch to go further, to tear down the evils of the racist society that was the backbone of Maycomb Alabama in the Depression era South. But Finch clings to the strictures imposed by society. He doesn't fight them. Instead, he tries to achieve normalcy within them.

What Gladwell seems to want can be found in this speech by Stokely Carmichael from 1966 on Black Power. It is fascinating to listen to (and read along with the text) both for what it says about those times and as a reflection on the present. In college I took a seminar intended for Political Science Majors on radical political groups. We read Eric Hoffer. My term paper was on SNCC. The benefit of such an education can seem elusive. In this case it caused me to search for SNCC to relearn its history, maybe to get a different perspective about it.

In this speech Carmichael is reasoned, articulate, and at least to my sensibilities not radical at all. He says our institutions have failed and they promote racism and white domination, both at home and abroad. He calls for different institutions so we can interact with each other as human beings. Gladwell would concur.

Black Power scared the Bejusus out of many people at the time. Perhaps that is partly the explanation for why Dr. King got lionized. SNCC and its more radical leaders are largely forgotten today. With almost fifty years of hindsight, that appears to be a mistake. If we are to abandon our myths, I agree that Gladwell is probably right on that score, we need to see the full picture. Carmichael's speech came after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They were not nearly sufficient. More than two score years later, we have not yet reached a happy equilibrium regarding race, perhaps because fear for physical safety is still an issue, perhaps because the human condition requires us to focus on relative deprivation to generate our own esteem.

If we are to go forward we need to look backward. But we need to look at enough to know where we really stand. It is not sufficient to debunk our heroes. We need to examine our villains too and then not just from fiction. Perhaps they were unjustly sentenced.

Throughout the speech Carmichael uses the word "move" to refer to making progress, where others to would use "change" and ask the question how do we produce meaningful change. The first step is to recognize it is needed.