Sunday, October 29, 2006

From Behavior to Belief

My personal style is to scratch my head about some issue for a while and then try something based on the head scratching to see if what I was thinking holds water or not. The approach seemingly worked the last couple of times I taught, with Campus Honors students here, and the feeling of having taught them in a style I’d call my own and having that work (though they definitely didn’t like not knowing where the stood grade-wise) is a cause for believing the approach can work elsewhere and is more generalizeable . But how much so? I really struggle with that. How much that works for me in all its particular manifestation and idiosyncrasy is evidence of the general and how much is not? And how is one to tell?

I’m no longer the ed tech guy for the campus, where I can’t say the approach worked particularly well at all but where I believe there were too many constraints – does it scale – to try much of anything at all. Instead, I’ve now got that role for the College of Business where in advance I told myself I’d play it balls out rather than close to the vest, but really, balls out in support of precisely what and to please exactly whom? Before starting on the new job but thinking about how it might play out it was to please me, to justify a certain process of interaction I thought I came up with between the faculty and me, to provide substance to a personal claim that I have a reasonable grasp on human nature and how people learn.

But what I’m discovering is a bunch of circumstances that look to find quick fix solutions, that collectively don’t fit into easy categories, and that have me feeling reactive rather than reflective – looking for a solution rather than for something else to try. I’m responding at first in more or less a knee jerk manner and then when I get a response based on where I see individual excitement. And the reality is that lecture, or should I say instructor performance, because many of the good instructors in the College of Business are really good performers, is a key facet. What if in the technology implementation I propose I take away their ability to perform and ask them to do something else? Will they go for it?

I’ve been urging the use of desktop video, the type that can be embedded in a blog post, the type that can be made without too much of a fuss, either with a Webcam or screen capture software and a microphone. I’ve got one colleague who is liking the idea of doing that with the screen capture approach. He asked me about where to put the completed video and I urged him to use Google Video rather than the Web/file space the College provides for him, because I said that way he’d be doing something that the students could replicate – his behavior as a model for theirs. And for the last couple of days I started to think about instructors assigning homework/projects to the students that would be about making these type of videos in the process of completing the work.

These students have Tablet PCs (and increasingly, so do the faculty). They are either MBA or Executive MBA students and Tablets have been embraced by this group, mostly getting high marks from the users in the process, in spite of the high margin relative to laptops. But are they really taking advantage of the pen technology from a pedagogic perspective, or is all just convenience? I thought of the movie homework partly so they could draw simple pictures and diagrams – much better for conceptual ideas and of course economic theory is full of that sort of thing – and also because the voice over would illustrate the flow of their thinking, where often in this type of homework when the student gets stuck or goes down the wrong path it is hard to tell what is driving the ideas based on what is on the written page.

That seems all well and good to me but do MBA faculty want to concern themselves with the homework/simple projects that the students do or is that all delegated to a grader, with the faculty left to concentrate on their own performance? Indeed is the focus on performance so great that trying to get them to think about the work of the students is a losing battle? I don’t know. I do know some finance faculty tried an experiment to teach online some years ago and they eventually aborted --- too much work --- but in that pre-podcasting time the work was about capturing the audio from the lecture and syncing to PowerPoint slides. I think that’s where the mindset still lies.

So if I start to preach about screen capture movies that students produce – will I be given the time of the day or will people just look at me funny? But even more to the point, even if they can envision the pedagogic benefit, what if the “can be made without too much of a fuss” part is itself a con job, that the students who haven’t yet been doing this and who feel unnatural in making these sort of things feel it is a lot of work, and for what, a trivial homework problem? Is the effort really worth it? Why can’t they just do the homework on paper? It’s not that big a deal, right?

How can you know the answer to these type of questions? But really, they are less fundamental. The bigger question is what should the College support vis-à-vis communications software. I’m pushing for blogging and am encouraging us to look at Elgg for this purpose. I love to blog and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? But I love to write too, and I know not everyone loves that. There are some alternatives to using blogging on the table, including using the Campus Course Management System as one such alternative, and relying on Microsoft Sharepoint as another.

In my gut I don’t feel that those other alternatives are right. Might they be right under certain circumstances? Sure. If we gave all the MBA students accounts on our Exchange server or if these students had accounts (Microsoft’s education offering in this space that accompanies it soon to be released service). Then the Sharepoint might integrate in. (That is a possibility but I don’t know it to be the case.) But the University is in go slow mode about allowing contracts with third parties for email and the like. So for the time being the students will be into something else for email. And does that integration really matter so much or is it the community building and user defined access control (an Elgg strength) which is the right thing to focus on? I know what I like here, but does my leadership mean I’m falsely generalizing from my own like? Hmmm.

There is an entirely different take on blogging, one that I hadn’t considered at all until my colleague pointed out this piece on the role of email in Enterprise 2.0. This has to do with patience and wondering whether “the message is received.” I’ve got confidence that this post will be read, sooner or later, by many of the people I care about whom I’d like to have read it. But even with that, some will and others won’t. Email is more of a direct wire and from somebody I already know certainly I feel there is more of a social imperative to read the email they send than to read their blog post. If you’ve been used to that direct wire, letting go of it is…..scary.

In an already formed social network where this is one additional blogger contributing to the stew, the mental calculation goes one way. When that network is not yet formed and I’m asking earlier adopter types to try this in the hope of forming such a network --- well, they have to take a lot on faith. Those early adopter types are used to trying things out just like I am. And they’re used to coming to conclusions based on what they learn from their little experiments.

Will the blogging work in this context? The only way to know is to try.

Friday, October 27, 2006

A Heads Up

The server where Lanny on Learning Technology is currently being housed is being converted 100% to its original purpose - to support streaming media - and will no longer be used for Web publishing. So I need to find another host, which will either be on a College of Business Server or on Blogspot. A redirect will be set up, which should be fine for users who get there via a browser, but if you are subscribing to the site via an Atom or RSS feed, you'll need to resubscribe.

The earliest this will happen is December and I don't yet have the details of the new site or the timing of the switch. I just wanted to let readers know in advance with the hope this will improve the chance that the switch is seamless. I will also contact folks who either link to this blog or syndicate the blog posts.

Maybe the spammers won't find the new site for a while. :-)

Monday, October 23, 2006

Obama, can this really be the end?

I had some wacko thoughts the last couple of weeks (unrelated to my leg injury). Students need to learn to write in a limited vocabulary context – the discipline will aid with their creativity; by reducing the number of possibilities to try it is more likely that they’ll try several of them. So I thought about an assignment I’d give if I were teaching writing or speech. Get students to make a PowerPoint presentation on some pre-specified topic, where on each slide they had to have some lines from a Bob Dylan song that fit with the context of what they are trying to say on that slide. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

* * * * *

Today, Bob Herbert’s column in the New York Times Op-Ed page (you need to subscribe to Times Select to access the link) is devoted to Barack Obama. Herbert is at least the third Times columnist to have done this in the past week. Preceding him are David Brooks, who urged him to run for President (why is it that the conservative columnist who doesn’t agree with Obama on a good range of the issues acts like his biggest booster?) and Maureen Dowd who tried to skewer him for not knowing whether Obama wants to be a celebrity unto himself or a pol in the spirit of Harry Truman – give ‘em hell. It’s hard to blame Obama for basking in the limelight, but given that rather naïve ethics everyone seems to trumpet these days, if he’s really going to make a run for the presidency then the other pay seems a deal with the devil and surely he can’t have it both ways, can he?

Herbert cautions that Obama should choose his own timetable for making these decisions and not be forced into something too hastily because the 2008 elections are looming. That makes sense. But I wonder if we sports fans of liberal (er, I mean middle of the road) American politics can get beyond the cult of personality here and into the core issues that we’d like to see our fearless leader bring to pass. So the rest of this post is on the issues.

* * * * *

The absolute most basic thing that needs to happen is to re-establish a sense of shared sacrifice in one and all in this country. And here, sacrifice means sacrifice, not some two bit commitment that one can blow off on a moment’s notice.

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."

(The above is the first verse from Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.) Given Iraq and the Bush tax cuts and the rest, we Americans as a people are ripe for shared sacrifice. We need it as a tonic to the hedonism and lack of real meaning in peoples’ lives. We need it because we want to solve hard problems, like our dependence on foreign oil, like the apartheid in the inner city schools that Kozol describes, like that fact that we want to shop at Walmart (and hence have the stuff at Walmart produced in low wage countries but we want high incomes for ourselves. And we know the hard problems don’t have ready answers and if not shared sacrifice, then there will just be lip service about the problems and no solution whatsoever.

But we know there is a problem with this shared sacrifice stuff – apart from some limited in time episodes in the nations past where there has been real grass roots shared sacrifice, it just hasn’t happened on it own. So we need to the government to help, to make it a fair deal, to encourage universal participation. But as of late the government knows only one way for individuals to make sacrifice – join the military.

The military is not the solution. Indeed, as the Iraq-Vietnam parallel gets more and more play, we’re going to see calls for peace from all quarters. I can imagine Down By the Riverside (obviously not written by Dylan but appropriate nonetheless) as the new (old) theme song for the movement. This particular version shows just how moving that song can be and how apt its message is for the present time.

So we need a mechanism or a set of mechanisms for shared sacrifice but that don’t involve the military. Unlike the Peace Corps and Vista, at least as they were depicted in the ‘60s, we need the burden to be more broadly distributed, both income-wise and age-wise, and not just rest on newly minted college grads. And then I would take one aspect of military service that should be embraced in this new arena and serves to cement the social compact – having done a full stint of such service, the individual would be entitled to medical benefits akin to what Veterans are entitled to. We might not get to universal health care coverage this way, but we could come awfully close, especially if non-military service to country became the norm.

To me, this seems like a pretty good basis for a domestic agenda. We could openly talk about our problems because we actually might have a way to address them. And we could increase a sense of shared purpose and responsibility in the process.

In the 60’s the stereotype was that the hard hats couldn’t get along with the hippies. I’ve no clue whether conservative Republicans (or liberal democrats for that matter) could embrace the idea of sacrificial service toward the country that is not militaristic service at all, but rather in support of the internal social fabric, especially if the other did so embrace. I can only hope.

Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashingFlashing for the warriors
whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An' for each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

From Chimes of Freedom.


(The title of this post refers to my previous post.)

My orthopedist said I've made enough progress so I need not wear the brace, except perhaps when it's icy outside. I'm ecstatic. This comes none too soon.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Prisoner of the Brace

Tomorrow afternoon I return to see the Orthopedist. It’s been four weeks. The surgery itself is now fully healed, at least on the outside of the leg. I’ll have a nice scar. My physical therapist said some folks get tattoos in the form of a zipper, to dress up the scar from this type of surgery. I’ll probably pass on that one; I’m not a tattoo kind of guy, but if I were to change my mind I probably should do it soon, since to the touch my leg doesn’t have a lot of feeling around the knee where the surgery was done. I was told that lack of feeing was normal and it might take quite a while – up to a year – for the feeling to return. I’ve met all my milestones in the physical therapy. I can do quadriceps squeezes and leg lifts out the wazoo. And now I can flex the leg to 60 degrees, the max that the brace will allow at this point, without too much of a warm up, and then hold that stretch for maybe 10 minutes or so before the leg starts to fatigue from being in that position. I can go up and down stairs fairly readily. And now getting into the car and driving is not such a big deal. With that I can go to work and be modestly productive. So life has achieved a certain normalcy.

But there are still some pretty humdrum things I can’t do – putting on shoes and socks by myself or taking a real shower without getting assistance, for example, and wearing long pants instead of shorts, even though it’s starting to get cold outside, for another. (I can't get the long pants on over the brace.) And because of the logic of the brace design and that for this purpose it is better to think of the leg as a cone rather than as a cylinder, narrower at the ankle than at the thigh, and hence when I’m walking the brace is apt to slide down my leg and will do so unless the straps are pulled very tight, and with that and the further fact that with just the surgical stocking alone and no brace whatsoever, the skin on my leg would chafe and get irritated, the brace rubs me the wrong way, if you'll pardon the pun.

All of these are minor in themselves and collectively are not worth writing about either except for the following observation. I’m aware of my leg and the brace most of the time. Sometimes it becomes the focus of my attention, because I can’t sit comfortably for long spells and hence I must change position, get up and walk around, or adjust the brace itself so I can be at ease. This regular reminder the brace provides creates my own little jail cell, locked into an existence of infirmity with no way out, at least for the time being.

For a very long time, certainly since I was a teenager and maybe even before that, I found refuge and joy in getting lost in thought. I recall that though I’m slothful by nature I actually looked forward to washing the dishes or mowing the lawn (some of the chores I adopted as a kid) because while doing that I could think about whatever I wanted to – I didn’t have to pay attention to something else. And I know when I was at Northwestern and would occasionally drive home to New York, sometimes by myself, I would actually look forward to the drive (between Illinois and Pennsylvania on I-80 there is not much of a view) because it would be an opportunity for being awake yet in reverie, something I thoroughly enjoyed, and I believe an important source of my own personal creativity.

To achieve that state of mind, however, I need to be free from concern about more prosaic real world matters. In that sense, the expression lost in though is misleading. I’m actually found in thought and quite alive in this way. Where I’m lost is in the real world immediacy, where I’ve entirely stopped paying attention or if not that then am doing the minimum so that I don’t get into trouble, but that requires a sufficiently low level of mental power that it doesn’t tax my thinking at all. Over time I’ve found I’m quite happy this way and more recently, since I’ve been blogging, I’ve come to learn that I need to do this from time to time to generate anything that others might find interesting in the writing. (I stumbled upon this short journal which has taken up the creativity theme and which seems sympathetic to my view, though its focus is creativity in the corporate setting.)

The brace makes all of this problematic, and frequently entirely impossible. Indeed it has lessened the intensity of my thinking and, I fear, made me duller. And, as a practical reality, it has made sleep more difficult. Optimism is harder to sustain as a result and optimism seems a critical ingredient for creativity. The lack of sleep itself may matter too.

I don’t even know where to sit. I’m most comfortable in my recliner, with leg raised. But that is for napping or reading, or doing the Soduku from the Sunday paper. When I write I do that sitting at a keyboard and need to be upright for that purpose. But sitting upright is less comfortable, not painful but not comfortable either. So what to do, go for comfort or productivity? I find I bounce back and forth. When I’m bouncing, I know I’m not really into it.

My prison sentence will be of limited duration. I’m hoping the doc will tell me tomorrow that I don’t have to wear the brace at all, but even if I do, I know its only going to be a few weeks longer. In the meantime, I may write more posts about the technology because those don’t require as much introspection, just some time playing with the software. The thing is, I don’t believe what we do with learning technology is really about the software.

Ah, penance!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Doing It Wrong

It is a commonplace to offer the advice to “learn from one’s mistakes” after experiencing a failure and almost as frequent that “one learns more from a failure than from a success.” Yet for reasons that I’m not completely certain of, these prescriptives seem to rarely if ever find there way into teaching. That is, instructors don’t knowingly, via an act of commission, take an incorrect approach to solving a problem or to present new ideas, especially in the case where they don’t advertise to the class ahead of time that they are doing exactly that.

For example, there is much talk nowadays about teaching design and getting design inculcated throughout the curriculum. Consider this simple design problem. There are two rooms in which to put flooring, one gets tile, the other gets carpet. Why not start by putting tile in the bedroom and carpet in the bathroom and have students work through the implications of that, before getting to the preferred solution where it is done vice versa?

My guess is that to protect their own egos instructors guard against making errors that they haven’t planned and are so caught up in that issue as well as the related issue that the students might find them out that they don’t venture into this other terrain where things are topsy-turvy, where the instructor’s expertise and authority are revealed only in a more subtle fashion by making sense of it all. This gives me enough of an explanation for why comparatively novice instructors don’t do this and then, since we are such creatures of habit, why more experienced instructors don’t do this as well. And its likely too that most instructors haven’t given the issue enough attention. But consider what they miss through the “telling of truth” approach that so many do adopt.

If someone takes a wrong turn but believes it to be right, there will be a period of time during which the person is happy in their conviction that they are headed on the true path. But then evidence will start to accumulate which suggests that belief is wrong. What evidence is that? How much evidence must be accumulated before changing direction? And when that evidence has been gathered, then what? Which way to head now?

Suppose that we instructors viewed one of our main jobs to be modeling for the students how they should proceed as they learn and that one key skill is to get oneself unstuck after having gone down the wrong path. How can that be taught unless we ourselves deliberately make mistakes, to put ourselves in a position where we are stuck, uncomfortable and unsatisfied, to be sure, but still with our wits about us and a strong sense that this place isn’t the final resting stop?

Knowing how students seem to prepare for class on my campus, my sense of teaching this way is that if the deliberate mistakes where part of a pattern – start with the mistakes and then move to the correct solution – students would soon learn to ignore the mistakes; they wouldn’t be on the test would they? So I think if one teaches this way one most do it by surprise, in an inconsistent way, where the students are not sure what’s coming. It may be the straight dope or it may be a deliberate error but ahead of time they are not sure which. They have to use their own wits to ascertain the situation. And beyond wit, they have to use their own sense of taste as to whether to be satisfied with what they’ve been told or to question/reject the ideas because there are issues with them. Indeed, instructors developing such a sense of taste in the students would seem to precisely the type of deeper learning skills to which instructors aspire for their students. Doesn’t it make sense to deliberately practice doing that sort of thing rather than have it mysteriously happen (or not) when the students are on their own?

But I believe an instructor is not likely to try this unless one sees the need for some “invention” in the teaching, some departure from an entirely linear presentation. Way back when, 15 + years ago, when I was teaching the graduate economic theory class or the summer math for economists class that was preliminary to the graduate students entering the doctoral program, with all those goodies about Bordered Hessians (a certain matrix of partial derivatives), the Implicit Function Theorem, and the Envelope Theorem, the core math behind the economic theory, I learned to lecture without notes. I did this not to show off, but rather because I went too fast when I paid attention to the notes – I knew the stuff so when I was paying attention to the notes I zipped through them, because I was simply regurgitating what was on the paper, there was nothing new in the process for me. Since I knew the stuff real well but this was not the type of material that one might memorize, without the notes I had to re-derive the results from scratch and much of my lectures ended up being talking through how I did that while doing a lot of writing on the blackboard. Perhpas not we romanticize about as good teaching nowadays, but the graduate students then were quite appreciative of the approach.

I tell this story in part to let regular readers of the blog know that I deliberately “made a mistake” in writing the post up till this point and wondering whether any of you noticed the error. Figured it out yet? Here’s a hint – it has nothing to do with that in my little story I talk about lecturing.

Instead, it’s about positioning the story within the Blog post. Normally, I begin with a personal anecdote. I do so for several reasons – to break the ice and draw the reader in, to illustrate by example the point I’m trying to make in the post, to show connections between my experience and my ideas, etc. I think that is the better way to write, from example to the theoretical point, from the personal to the abstract. It is more closely how we actually think, in my view, and as I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve borrowed the approach part and parcel from Stephen Jay Gould.

But I didn’t do it in this post. I started with theory and made a theoretical argument, albeit in chatty terms. Then I went to the anecdote to illustrate. If you’ve gotten this far in the reading of the post, and if you’ve read other things I’ve written you might very well have a sense of which you prefer. Further, you might make come to the meta conclusion that errors of commission are precisely the examples we need from which to generalize about our thinking; were I such a good teacher I'd do it more often.

Let me close with one last point. It may be harder to do this in “live mode” since to a certain extent you then have to “sell” the error as reasonable and that may require an acting skill that many of us don’t have, but I believe this is do-able in writing, in which case the idea is simply to take a somewhat longer journey to the resting stop, possibly by taking a detour or two in the process, those detours offering potential insights via the deliberate making of mistakes and learning from that. Instructor blogging would seem to provide a nice framework for this, as by its essence there is invention in the writing, and the instructor can be thoughtful about the type of errors he would like to make.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Web Spreadsheets – Gathering Student Generated Data – Using Google Tools for Instruction

I’m taking advantage of the fact that with my leg injury and because of transitioning to the new job, my calendar is still comparatively unscheduled and hence I have a fair amount of free time. This morning, I spent some time playing with Google Spreadsheet. It definitely has possibilities.

Let me note straight away, the one function I’d really want to see but isn’t there now. It doesn’t graph data. That is a big limitation, one that will continue to get most folks to stay with Excel. But it does have quite a bit of other functionality that seems to make it a terrific adjoint to be used in conjunction with Excel or as a stand alone for certain purposes (see below). It does have a large array of formulas, with the same names as in Excel, it will import spreadsheets without difficulty, and the really nice part is how it can be shared with others.

Now let me turn to a teaching idea that I think is for the here and now, but which I suspect doesn’t happen nearly as often as it might at present. I’ve discussed the idea before, for example here. (See the section near the end on data ingest.) The idea is design various activities to be done online where each student contributes some data and then collectively the data forms an experiment to be done in class to demonstrate a certain point relevant to the class or to test a hypothesis that has already been developed in class. This would give a much need empirical aspect to what we teach and in my experience would really engage the students.

I will leave the design of these type of experiments to another post and here simply focus on the data ingest issue. One can use the survey tool in the Course Management System for this purpose. But as those tools are currently designed:

(1) The student does not get a record of their own submission for later review.
(2) The students don’t have direct access to the submissions of other students and can only get at the data if the instructor posts it. (Typically done once by the instructor after the deadline for submissions has past, so the instructor uploads all the submission at one time._ But note this is extra work for the instructor. And, further, students might want to look at the aggregate in mid stream, at our around the time they make their own submission.

So it would nice to have a system that addresses both (1) and (2) above. I’ve made a little demo to show how Google Spreadsheet can be used to manage these issues. (To access this demo, you must have a Gmail account and use that as the login.) I’m going to talk through the demo a bit so you can get the idea. It would also help for you to try to make your own spreadsheet so you can see the functionality that you don’t see in the demo.

You have read access to the demo, but not write access. (I’m happy to give anyone write access; just send me your Gmail address and I’ll set that up for you.) When you have write access there is an additional tab called Edit, which is where the data entry occurs. You also don’t have access to the Formula Tab, which allows using the spreadsheet in an intelligent manner so it does data manipulation.

There are individual worksheets labeled with people’s names: Al, Barb, Carl, Don…. up to Lou. Those names are meant to index hypothetical students. I’ve put in the data for the student named Hank. The other students haven’t yet entered any data.

There is one other worksheet called Aggregates. This worksheet shows the data entered by all the students in one view. It gets these data from the individual student worksheets. This worksheet will update automatically as students enter their individual data. You can see Hank’s data in column I. of the Aggregates sheet. (Perhaps I should have put it in column H, but I used column A to label the content of each field.)

That’s pretty much it. Obviously this is a fairly simple minded demo, but I hope the idea comes across clearly. Because the entire thing can readily be exported (use the File menu) students can do data manipulation on the aggregates at any time, even while the data collection effort is still in progress. This is really quite nice. (The dark side is that if each student has write access to the thing, they have write access to every worksheet and hence can overwrite other student data. This is, in essence, the same problem that Wikipedia faces. That problem appears to be manageable, but students do need to save a local copy of the spreadsheet after they submit their own data.)

Now let me turn to another related issue. This revolves around the ethics and usability of requiring students to have a Gmail account to be used for instruction. Suppose in a class of 50 or 60, perhaps 3 or 4 students don’t want to have a Gmail account for this purpose, because they don’t want Google to mine their identity information. Is that a likelihood? If so, what should be done in this case?

This is the type of question that would trouble us, in the Central IT organization for the campus, but for me as an instructor, I have a fairly simple work around. I can make dummy Gmail accounts, which when created were sent to my email address, not to the students. I can then give these students the login and password and tell them to use for this purpose only. Google then has no profile info on the students at all. The risk moves onto me. I’m willing to bear the risk.

And actually, the biggest possible hassle from this is that these students forget the login and password info and then I’ve got to spend my scarce time playing the role of help desk for them. If that happened on a recurring basis, I’d probably abandon the approach. But it seems a low risk to me.

So what are we waiting for?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Making a talking head video from your desktop and displaying in Google Video

Gary had asked for a “how to” on a previous demo of talking head video, but last night Google Video didn’t accept uploads and I was a bit afraid that the YouTube acquisition had affected their upload policy. My fears were misplaced. Upload worked this morning. They must have had a temporary server glitch. So, below, is my own annotated instructions on how to do this sort of thing.

* * * * *

I’m going to talk about this for the PC. I’ve done likewise for a Mac, and if you are doing this on a Mac, you can substitute iMovie for where I talk about RealProducer Plus. However, one caveat. I’ve got an iMac with a built-in iSight Camera. For whatever reasons, iMovie doesn’t see that camera. If you use an external camera – no problem. If you do use the internal camera, then you need another program to record the video. I used iVeZeen. For recording uncompressed video, it works fine, but for compression it had problems.

On the PC, I’ve had good success with a very inexpensive Logitech Camera. One of the nice secrets is that for the quality of video I want to produce, this works quite well – for both video and audio recording. If you have a flat screen monitor in your office, clipping it on top of the monitor and then leaving it there out of harm’s way till you need it makes it quite convenient. The camera plugs into a USB port. You do have to install software that comes with the camera, so the computer recognizes the device, but that is pretty straight forward.

In what I do, I’ve used the camera as the audio recording device, rather than any built in recording device on the computer. It is easy to visually gauge distance from the camera and so it becomes easy to get a sense of a comfortable zone where the recording can be done. To do this, go to the Control Panel and select Sounds and Audio Devices. Select the Audio Tab. In the recording area, make sure the camera is selected.

Sound Control Panel

One of the tricks I learned, but only after making the same mistake many times, is that the microphones for these things are pretty sensitive and the right thing to do is to set the volume for recording on your computer down. This will keep the thing from picking up too much background noise. I can live with crappy video, but crappy audio makes the presentation worthless, in my view. So this is one of the key steps in the process. Fortunately, as with the previous step, this only has to be done once. Click the Volume button in the Recording Device area. This is a screen shot of my volume settings.

Volume Control

Now we’re ready to start recording and for that you need some software. At Illinois, a good choice is RealProducerPlus, since we have a campus site license to the software. (UIUC community can get this software from the Webstore. Because of the licensing restrictions and the need for us to assure further distribution to non-licensed users is restrained, the software is available on CD only, not by download.) The two things it offers for this particular purpose are nice frame rate for recording (30 frames per second) so the video looks smooth not choppy and a fairly easy to learn interface. Perhaps there are freeware alternatives for the PC. The Logitech camera itself has video capture software that produces AVI files. That’s a possibility. My experience with that is mixed. Sometimes it is fine but at other times it produces choppy video.

Here is a screenshot of the RealProducerPlus interface. I’ll talk through the minimum set of steps needed to record a movie.

RealProducer takes as input either another type of media file or from a recording device. The default is the former and so you must actively select the recording device for both Audio and Video inputs. Note that in the screen shot I’ve selected the Logitech Camera for both of these. That is on the left, below the image of me that is shown during the capture. That the image appears shows the Video input is being received correctly.

On the right, there are some buttons, one of which says Audiences. Click it. If you are actually going to record for later streaming, you can choose multiple audiences. But for this purpose, you only need one audience and the one I’ve got is 256K DSL or Cable. Recording for dial-up makes the thing too choppy. The other control to set is the Audio Mode. I believe the default is Music (a higher quality). I choose Voice, which makes the file a little smaller. The quality is fine for this purpose.

You can put in Clip Information, and that might be a good idea if you are concerned about protecting your copyright. But it is not necessary to make a recording. The key final step for that is to identify the four icons below the Destination window, one has the Real logo, the next has an image of a server, then a pencil, and finally a trash can. Choose the button with the Real logo, select a name for your file and the location where you want the file to reside on your computer.

Now you are ready to record. I recommend making a 10 second movie or so, just to test that the recording is working ok. When you make your actual movie, you’ll simply overwrite that test movie. Recording happens a second or so after you press the Encode button. You’ll see another image in the right window pane during actual recording. You click the Stop button next to the Encode button when you are done. On my computer it takes almost no time thereafter for the video to be ready to view. There is a button for playing back the movie and that will bring up RealPlayer so you can see what the video looks like.

The completes the technical part of the recording. There is a different issue about making your own talking head video that you can tolerate. You’ll probably think the first few you make are terrible. (They might be.) One issue is looking at the camera rather than the computer screen. Another is talking smoothly and naturally without a lot of ums and ahs. We’re not actors, so that might not be easy to do. But it certainly is easier if the message is comparatively short and to the point.

At this point you now have a movie in realvideo (.rv) format. Before going further, I want to describe the value add of Google Video, because a possible alternative is uploading the movie to a streaming server or simply putting the file up somewhere for download. So here are some arguments for Google Video.

1. The process can be used for personal video creation as well as academic video creation. Indeed, my guess is that doing the one will encourage doing the other. So the same approach can be used for both.

2. Google Video has no bandwidth restrictions.

3. We’re asymmetric in supporting technology on campus, giving faculty greater access than students. (I think that is typical of most campuses.) The true power here in using this type of thing, I believe, is in student created videos. Then, it would be very good to get the faculty to use the same environment as the students.

4. Google Video has captioning tools (that I’ve not yet tried) for accessibility.

5. Google Video is easy to embed in a blog or other Web page. It has automated tools for that, making it easy to do that part.

Note, however, that Google Video does not render the realvideo file. Instead, it converts that file to Flash format. So what is shown is less good than the original .rv file, but it seems to me it is good enough.

To access Google Video, you need a Gmail account. (I’m saying this by recollection. There may be a different way to create a Google Video account.) I assume here that the Gmail account is already created. Then from the regular Google search page, simply click Google Video and sign in. That is all there is to that part.

Once in, click Upload. You get a screen like this:

This is a partially completed form. It is pretty straightforward to complete. You do have to accept the terms and conditions at the bottom. Uploading and processing does take a little while, perhaps a minute. (Obviously, that depends on the size of the file.) When completed you’ll see a page where you can view your video. That page has the info for Web publishing the video or sending email alerts about the video to friends.


Monday, October 09, 2006


I changed the permissions for doing comments do deter spam attacks. To comment on a post now, you have to log into blogger. I do really appreciate legit comments, but the spam is a bummer and it takes too long to delete, so this step was necessary.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Stretching It

My physical therapist has prescribed certain exercises for me to rehab my left leg. I do quadriceps squeezes – 15 in a row, hold for a count of 3 and then release for a count of 3 – and leg lifts, up, 2, 3, down, 2, 3, rest, 2, 3, and again, repeated 14 more times. There was pain with the leg lifts at the beginning. Now there is a less. Doing these exercises, I’m well within myself. I can see the leg getting stronger as a consequence.

I have one other type of exercise, one that I really don’t like, but it’s obviously necessary. The brace I’m wearing has a hinge at the knee. The hinge can be locked, more stability for me, or left open, so the leg can flex at the knee. One can set the maximum angle of flex. When I started that was 45 degrees. Now I’m up to 60 degrees. Getting there hurts and I do it in small steps. Then tendons, which were what got repaired surgically, get a real stretch, and likewise for other muscles around the knee. Unfortunately, it hurts, especially at the beginning. So I shied away from this exercise for while. But I can see the flexing of the leg is the crucial ability that I need to return to function as a normal person (drive a car, go to work, sit in a regular chair, etc.). So now I’m “stretching myself” to stretch my tendons and muscles. In this sense, I’m a highly motivated learner. Progress feeds that motivation. Today I was able to get into my Aztek and drive a bit. Eurkea!!

It occurred to me to use this idea as a metaphor for other learning. And then I thought I had come almost full circle, because when I started to teach Economics, back in the fall of 1980, I thought my role as teacher was to get the students to really stretch in their thinking. But in the main they didn’t share that perception, at least not with the economic modeling, and I was likely not sufficiently gentle with them to get them to do it willingly. My physical therapist adjusts the exercise according to whether I have a lot of pain or not. But as I said, I’m a motivated learner in this regard and he can see my progress. Being gentle in the role of teacher is harder to do if there is a perception that the students aren’t trying.

I thought that might offer the theme for this piece, but I don’t’ have a lot to say on that issue now. I’ll come back to it in a later post when I’ve got more to contribute on the question. I do think there is an important concern about whether, as we let our students drive their own learning, we are properly encouraging our students to stretch themselves. But I’ll set that aside. Here I want to talk on a more personal note, about stretching myself intellectually, and identifying the pain points in the process.

I held off writing this post for almost a week, because I didn’t know in what dimension I could focus that would get at my own issues and say something of value. In the past, I’ve written about stretching it with the writing and I didn’t want to offer up the same old thing this time around. Then this morning, after reading what I thought was an awful column by David Brooks about why the Mets won’t win the World Series (I’m a Yankee fan, enough of a reason to feel grumpy today) and then taking a walk around the park, using only one crutch instead of two and hence enabling me to go more than twice as far as I was able to the last time I took a walk, it occurred to me that I had found my theme.

And that theme is attributable to the same David Brooks, whom on the News Hour last Friday made what I thought was an insightful and telling comment about the Mark Foley case. Namely that the case has the potential to be political dynamite because what happened with Foley, if it were thought to be a commonplace or even had potential to be a commonplace, would strike terror into all parents who have teenage kids, who when not at school may very well be IM-ing with folks like Foley, apparently respectable but with an unsavory, indeed frightening hidden side. And, this feeling of wanting to protect our children from such solicitation is not, in essence, of the Religious Right but rather a natural instinct as parents. In that sense, it’s universal.

It occurred to me during my walk that these feelings as a parent are at odds with my views as an educator and advocate for online learning, where I’m on record as encouraging students to publish their work openly on the Web and equally to get instructors to make their course open by showcasing student work. and if I wanted to stretch myself, I’d have to reconcile my views. Self-contradictions hurt (for example, has my view about DOPA changed in light of Foley?) and I for one have the ability to compartmentalize my life in such a way that the self-contradictions are not so readily apparent. (I’m sure this is ordinary adult behavior, especially among baby boomers like me who as young adults lived according to a different ethic than they live today, and who at present likely need less rather than more stress in their lives.) Let’s deliberately experience the hurt now and see where it takes us.

I should note now that neither of my boys (12 and 14) does IM or email at present, and I have certainly not encouraged them in this direction, though the younger one has been lobbying me and my wife for a laptop of his own (so he doesn’t have to share the home computer) and I had to get the older one a Gmail account (any email account would have done ok) as a condition for him to participate in the Marching Band at school (but I didn’t understand why this requirement was there). Also, let me report that at our old house where we did dialup and used Earthlink (especially when the Campus dialup was busy) I set up those parental controls to block access to content for the kids, but I found that clunky and hard to work with, impeding my own account on the computer. Perhaps I need to look at that sort of thing again. Right now, however, I don’t view it as the solution.

You might ask, the solution to what? The answer, of course, is to provide a safe and comfortable environment for the family. Let the kids learn about the hard realities, but let that happen later when they have matured a bit and have better coping skills. Innocence lost can’t be regained. And when those hard realities come too early, they can create wounds; wounds that don’t heal quickly; wounds that leave big scars. The kids have their own issues to deal with; mostly about dealing with other kids. They are not leading a completely sheltered existence. What is wrong with buffering their world from some of the more egregious forms of abuse?

Of course there is a substantial age difference between my own kids and the kids I taught in my Campus Honors class last spring, a four or five year age difference, maybe more. And sure enough, the kids I taught were not mine. I worried about whether they learned economics. I didn’t worry about their social life and possible awkward experiences they may have had, though some of them wore their emotions on their sleeve more than I would have, one explaining he had a fight with his girlfriend the night before and consequently hadn’t gotten any sleep.

The boundaries between these kids and mine are there, certainly, but the boundaries are fuzzy. I would not know where to draw the line if I had to. Perhaps there is some solace in the observation that being open about their academic work is an unlikely path into their personal life. Facebook offers a more ready route for that purpose, one reason the students themselves have embraced that environment. But this seems to me like rationalization, not strong argument.

The University does protect the students from themselves, particularly with their (excessive) drinking. I couldn’t imagine otherwise. Perhaps the University has some responsibility to protect these kids from more overt threats of solicitation and predation, some of which are online. Sure the University is for the free exchange of ideas. That is the mantra, the bread and butter. But what about loco parentis? Isn’t that an obligation too?

So one side of me, driven by a concern for my own children’s welfare, sees a certain logic in DOPA, although it clearly would be better if the kids had more common sense themselves. But, often, they don’t. That’s the reality. And the question is what to do then.

I got that argument out. It’s an argument that part of me can see. But it’s not an argument I can entirely embrace. It’s an argument that is rooted fundamentally in despair, running away from one’s fears. We live that way sometimes, I admit. Given a choice, however, we should not let it be a permanent condition. We need an alternative that offers hope, personal growth and social value. Having the virtual equivalent of gated communities doesn’t do that. Openness does.

And sensing that, one might think at this point in the essay I’d entirely reject an attempt to make a hermetic environment online and instead embrace openness without reservation. But as I sit here typing this document, my left leg is flexed in a more normal pose, yet one that is still painful for me. I feel the hurt as well as see the promise of my improved mobility in the future. Stretching it means there is both.

We talk in ideological terms about these issues, a purity that belies the underlying ambiguity. I would like to advocate for an approach, yet recognize the ambiguity as well, an admission that an alternative is possible. It is my usual style to make some arguments on both sides. But with that, I normally do take a side. It’s just that in this case I take a different one as parent than I do as educator.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Wimp of Gimp

Another quick video produced at hom to argue for using this genre in our educational context.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Using Google Video

I wonder how many folks have played with Google Video. I'm finding it surprisingly easy to use and it seems to me to have great potential for eLearning. In the previous post is a little video I made about myself, to show how much progress I've been making with my leg injury. I was able to publish it directly to Blogger.

I actually made this video using RealProducerPlus, after having tried first with the video package that comes with my Logitech camera. The difference is the frame rate. The RealProducer does 30 frames per second. The other does much less, perhaps 12 frames per second. The higher frame rate does a better synching of the audio to the motion.

Google video converts what's uploaded into a Flash format. This the actual Web page at the Google Video site. The video itself is too big there an a bit distorted as a result, but still viewable. Look at the links at the right on that page. So the video is available to embed into a blog or other Webpage, to view off the Google Video site, or to download.

Because this is straightforward to make, students can do these and can pepper their work with video clips. And in the totally online or blended context, this would seem to be a good way to personalize the interaction. Instructors can do likewise and deliver some impromptu information to the class this way. And for those who can't resist lecturing, mini lectures can be created and embedded into quiz questions in the course management system. I tested this with WebCT Vista and it worked like a charm. So one can readily meld presentation and assessment, which would seem to be a good approach to content that students are exposed to the first time through.

It also seems to me that Google is not imposing quotas on filespace for the video and even if they do, they base this on your gmail account and you can make multiple accounts for yourself with no problem. This seems like a really great tool.


A little demonstraton of how I'm progressing since the injury

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Futzing with Elgg

I start my new job tomorrow. One of the first orders of business (pardon the pun) is to find a replacement for the College’s FirstClass server. Some of the staff have been playing around with MS Sharepoint. That is a possibility. But right now Elgg looks more attractive to me, something that might capture the imagination both of the MBA students and the faculty.

I’ve been playing with it at my site at The blog seems reasonably compatible with composing posts in Word, which for me is a biggie since I’m apt to write longer posts that way. I liked the general structure with community spaces, friends, a resource area for feeds, and a files area. All of that is good as is the general horizontal structure of the – users are symmetric with respect to their functionality. That is nice.

I did have some minor issues with some things I’ve tried. I was able to get my files area listed on my resources page, but I wasn’t able to get my resources to appear on my blog, though it seems this should be possible. That looks like a glitch. I thought it was a bit odd that I could invite friends to join the site, but I couldn’t invite friends with accounts already to join a community I created. They have to ask in. That’s a bit odd workflow-wise, but not a huge deal. Overall, I liked the functionality a lot.

My bigger immediate concern is with performance, not functionality. Page loads have been slow. Whether that represents Internet congestion rather (I believe the server is in the UK) rather than Elgg performance itself, I can’t say. I wonder what other North American users of feel about their experience with the site in that regard.

On Friday I had a nice chat with Sasan Salari about his Elgg integration with WebCT Vista. It is an intriguing Powerlink that Sasan has created with pass through authentication and the Elgg Window fitting inside the WebCT frame in a way that looks good. I know there are those who thing environments like Elgg will be the death of the LMS, but the grade book, assignments, and quiz functionality are heavily entrenched hear and so I see a need for both, not one or the other. It would be nice, however, if the PowerLink ran both ways, so that a user could start off in Elgg and then launch WebCT if they wanted to. This way they could go back and forth between personal space and class space and in the latter there could be a public area in Elgg as well as the intranet only space in WebCT.

I know there is likewise an integration of Elgg and Moodle. I don’t know, however, if that is one way or two ways.

There is yet another issue with this software from the provision point of view. This has to do with the expertise to support open source applications in the Linux/PHP/MySQL flavor. The College of Business has in the main been a Microsoft shop, probably a sensible approach historically given their audience. The Campus here has in the main adopted Unix oriented commercial applications. At the Campus level, in particular, where I have some understanding of the personnel issues from my involvement with the LMS, one need redundancy of staff, so that any individual can take a planned vacation or be out for an unplanned leave due to illness or a personal issue.

That redundancy requirement encourages concentration in the approach. It becomes expensive to both have the redundancy and support both Windows apps and open source. Outsourcing may offer an alternative on this score and there appears to be a fledgling hosting service for Elgg.

On our campus, however, there may be security issues that make it harder to implement an outsourced solution. While I personally have no issue with how handles logins and passwords, almost certainly our security people would. And then there is the issue that precisely because the software is so horizontal user-wise, definitely a pedagogic feature, it is easier to run afoul of protecting student privacy (having an open community without a closed community alternative for the students readily available) and ditto for issues about Copyright and Fair Use. But these things can be managed by educating our instructors rather than by imposing restrictions on the software. The software can accommodate these issues if the instructors act in a knowledgeable way.

If I’m right that Elgg will capture the imagination of the audience in the College of Business, then I would characterize the above discussion as a situation where the user wants are pitted against the provider needs. It seems to me that a lot of IT, at least on my campus, has elements of this type of tension. A couple of days ago I was emailing a friend from another university and said that I thought there would be a big culture change in moving from my Campus job to the College of Business job.

One significant aspect of that culture change is how risk is managed. Unquestionably an experiment that would shift the provider toward a more user centric solution entails risk. The Campus tends to be extremely conservative about risk, both for scaling reasons and because there aren’t substantial revenue sources for risk mitigation. I believe the College of Business will likely embrace more risk, if a there is a real upside to the situation, such as I believe there is with Elgg.

Let me close with one final point. On my campus, in particular, but I suspect elsewhere at big universities like mine, the risk preferences I’ve described are likely to be similar, and so it really does make sense for some of the experimentation to happen at the college level or even the departmental level rather than at the campus level and indeed that happens now to some extent. But until now, the learning from that experimentation seems to be contained within the unit that undertakes the effort. That seems horribly inefficient to me, and something where I’d hope we can improve on in the future.