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 comics.com 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 Maycombe 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.