Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The New Look –

I moved to the new Blogger starting last Friday and then more over the weekend. The substantive changes for the visitor to the site are mostly in the right sidebar and I want to go through those because in the back of my head I’m asking whether this sort of thing can be a model for a faculty member’s research site or possibly even for a course site (as opposed to using the LMS). I chose a different template, which at least for me gives a cleaner look – whether that is substantive or not may depend on how good your eyes are. I also want to talk a bit about how this works for content creator. The tools for adding sidebar or footer content are quite easy to use. There is drag and drop for positioning particular elements. And in that sense it is fun to be an author.

One can put in quite a variety of different types of sidebar or footer content. Mine are either JavaScript generated by the service provider (Creative Commons, Sitemeter, RSS to JavaScript, Feevy) where putting this stuff in amounts to entering a title and then copying the script info and pasting into the text box Blogger provides, or it is an RSS feed (Low Threshold Applications, Demo of Google Docs, The Charlie Rose show at Google Video). For this, Blogger allows up to five items and then produces the subject line for each, which is a link back to the particular reference. It does not provide direct access to the feed, which I think is a small design flaw for them, but I can enter a different item that would be a list of all the feeds so readers could subscribe to those themselves. This list of feeds is not there now.

Each of these individual elements has to load and if any of them are slow (sometimes the RSS to Javascript seems to choke) then that part of the blog will load slowly and occasionally when that happens a page refresh is useful. But otherwise this functions quite well and gives a great deal of flexibility to functional content on the site. The part I really like about it, especially compared to the design of a homepage in the LMS, is that most if not all of the content auto updates, giving a freshness to the site. In contrast, on the LMS homepage there may be links to things that auto update, such as a particular discussion board, but it is the link you see, not the last few posts from the discussion.

Now let me talk about the individual items on the sidebar. I mentioned the Good Reads item in the post Snow Daze. Here is a bit of extension to the idea. First, there are some very good comprehensive blogs that cover what’s happening in learning technology; Stephen Downes Old Daily is one, Ray Schroeder’s Educational Technology Blog (and his two other news blogs) are some others. We’re after something quite different with the Good Reads, though it might be that occasionally there is some overlap. The goal is to create a feeling of uplift in the reader for having read the piece. I do note that in del.icio.us there are others who have the tag Good_Reads, and if they were trusted then there would be value in the pooled resource that del.icio.us generates as part of its raison d’etre. For a well knit group where the trust already exists, this type of sharing would seem to be a natural. It can readily be accommodated with this approach, just choose a tag that others are not likely to imitate by happenstance.

The Feevy items I also mentioned. Feevy is sufficiently new that the lead developer, David de Ugarte, found a test use on a development site of mine. It looks like a fun and exciting app and I hope they work out the kinks and then that usage really takes off. Let me note here only that in a class use, it might make sense to have the same feevy on all the course blogs. So one student in the class might be assigned (for extra credit, of course) to make the feevy and then to share the resulting javascript with everyone else in the class. This would require collecting the urls for the various class blogs and then assigning avatars to the blogs. Students might have fun trying to figure out which avatar should represent their blog. In any event, there is some manual data entry necessary to get the feevy going, but it is not too onerous. And then once each blog has been activated with at least one post, tracking the posts thereafter becomes pretty simple.

These items are followed by three different RSS feeds. In the prior incarnation of my blog, I disdained in putting in these type of feeds, which as I mentioned appear as lists with links of subject headings. I’m not yet sure I’ve really changed my mind; this is an experiment at this point, not a commitment, but let me explain what I’m trying to do.

The Low Threshold Applications, from the TLTGroup is a nice idea in concept – the idea is to identify things people might try that aren’t so hard to implement and are useful to. The issue in practice is whether the particular applications tickle our funny bones. I don’t know that they will or not, but I’m quite sure that most people on campus including many readers of my blog have never heard of this. So here I can be a conduit, not a creator. If you try one of these out and like it, I’d appreciate learning that. It would contribute to keeping that feed on my site. I believe they don’t update this too often, and in that sense it fits in with the Good_Reads content.

The Google Docs feed is there simply to suggest a possibility for the future – Web distribution of content. I found this little piece of hope/hype about the possibility that Google will expand its array of online offerings to include PowerPoint like functionality in addition to docs and spreadsheets. That would be an interesting development but here I’m really more interested in this for students uploading content a la homework submissions than I am for faculty distributing the content to begin with. On the homework submission front it would a great boon for the instructor/grader to see the content online, perhaps comment there, perhaps comment a la del.icio.us as I’ve suggested earlier, without having to download and then re-upload. It would make the workflow so much easier for the evaluator. On the instructor distribution of content issue, however, at least at present permissions for these documents are set on a document by document basis and if access to the content needs to restricted, say for reasons of copyright, LMS distribution still seems to be preferred.

The Charlie Rose Show feed is there for a variety of reasons. First, there may content that is quite interesting for us to use that is coming from outside Higher Education. Whatever you think of Charlie Rose as an interviewer, you must admit that this show has a variety of interesting guests who don’t appear on other talk shows. This show provides a path into those people. Second, it is a reminder to us about producing our own talking head instructional content. TV has opted for this dialog format. There may be monolog segments on talk show television, but dialog is the rule. There must be a compelling reason for that and I believe that reason is not hard to identify. Instructors who produce online video content may not feel it natural to produce dialog content, but they should be encouraged to strive to do so. Third, we’ve reached the point now in terms of video quality that talking head plays reasonably well in the 320 x 240 windows that are what Google Video delivers, as long as the video itself was captured reasonably close up. My sense is that for doing more technical content, say a screen capture of a spreadsheet manipulation or of a hand written out analytic exercise done on a Tablet PC, then the rendering image needs to be larger, say 640 x 480. So Google Video (or uTube) is not yet the right home for that type of content. But give them one or two more iterations of Moore’s Law and we’ll be there.

Let me make a few other general points and I’ll close. Blogger allows for only one sidebar – on the right or on the left is a designer choice – but not on both the left and the right at the same time. As Web widgets become increasingly popular, for example see Yahoo’s offerings in this space, blog creators may want to put more and more cool stuff on their sites and then the double sidebar view may become necessary to manage all that stuff. Alternatively, the individual blog creator may simply want to bring in more stuff of her own. Personally, I prefer the one sidebar look as it allows more of the screen space to be blank, which for me is better for contrast to the real content.

Blogger’s labels (tags) seem to only exist within a single blog. If they were able to use labels across blogs (at least for those blogs hosted at Blogspot) then one could produce some really interesting aggregated blog sites. It would be good to see Blogger go that route in the future.

And I’m a bit confused on the audio content front. The Google provided services don’t seem to enable individual podcasting. Why not? Is it for fear of illegal file sharing? If not that, then what else? How can they promote video sharing, but not do likewise for pure audio files? If they had it, I’d have a podcasting piece to my blog for sure.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Quiz Games, Iconic Representations, and Learning Fundamentals

I'm trying out a different style of post today. It's less natural to me as an author and in places I felt I was being pedantic. But I wonder whether the it does better than straight narrative in creating connections to the ideas.

Let's start of with some easy ones.

Q: Who is this?

Dustin Hoffman and James Lipton
A: It is Dustin Hoffman being interviewed by James Lipton on the 200th showing of Inside the Actors Studio.

Q: And who is this?

Olivier and Hoffman from Marathon Man

A: It is Dustin, being rudely worked on by Sir Laurence Olivier.

Q: What is the movie from which this shot was taken?
A: Marathon Man. According to Hoffman, Olivier was quite ill during the filming. One evening during the shooting Hoffman went out to dinner with Olivier and some of his family. During the course of the dinner Hoffman asked Olivier the fundamental question: What is it that makes us want to keep on acting? Olivier stood up, leaned over the table, stared right at Hoffman and said:
Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!
So that explains motivation for actors.

Q: Who is this?

 David Brooks

A: It's David Brooks.

Q: What newspaper does he write for?
A: He's an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times. He wrote a column a while back entitled All Politics Is Thymotic. The Thymos is one of Plato's three parts of the soul. (The others are Reason and Eros.) The Thymos is about the craving for recognition. It is a core need in all of us. If we don't want to have all eyes upon us like actors we nonetheless do want all to know and appreciate our good works.

Ok, this ones a little tougher.
Q: Who is this?

Jane Goodall

Q: Need a hint? She studied monkeys and it's not Dian Fossey (who wrote Gorillas in the Mist). Do you know another ethologist who studies monkeys?

A: It's Jane Goodall. Both Goodall and Fossey were protoges of the famed anthropologist, Louis Leakey.

Q: What idea does this picture convey?

Monkey see, monkey do

A: Monkey see, monkey do. We teachers model so that our students will imitate.

All right. Now we get really obscure.
Q: What do Jerome Bruner, the pyschologist who studied curriculum design, and Ken Bain, the author of the award winning book What The Best College Teachers Do, have in common?

Q: Need another hint? What core idea does this picture convey?

curious kitten

A: The picture is about curiosity. The kitten knows its risky, but can't help it. It has the urge to look. Both Bruner and Bain believe that teaching should emphasize intrinsic motivation and the essence of that for the learner is curiosity.

Q: Who is this?


A: FDR. In his first inaugural address he spoke of the only thing to fear is fear itself. (This survey course from George Mason University gives an audio clip of the speech, a full text transcription, and some context for understanding what was at issue.) Likewise, in our teaching we instructors have nothing to fear but fear itself in our students. Fear is the great impeder of learning.

Now we'll switch to an audio daily double. Be warned, it's a little tricky.
Q: Who is this?

audio clip

A: It's not Bob Dylan. It's Joan Baez imitating Dylan. This clip is from Diamonds & Rust, an album where Baez is purging the demons from her intense relationship with Dylan, a relationship where she got burned badly; he used her and then discarded her. Fear itself in the students is perhaps what we instructors worry about, but the students have real things to fear. If they get very involved with what they are learning, they can get burned.

One more question.
Q: Who is this?

Lord Tennyson

A: Alfred Lord Tennyson. He wrote a series of poems as memorial for his sister's fiancee, who had passed away. The entire set is available online. Scroll down to XXVII for the lines we all learned in childhood.
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
The full poem is an urging to not sit on the sidelines and let life pass one by.

Taken together, this set of questions and answers forms a reasonable basis for an approach to teaching and learning.

Its up to us to find an implementation that brings it all together. :-)

Friday, February 16, 2007

An Addendum to Snow Daze

I was somewhat unfair to Blogger in my last post and it really is less difficult to put some javascript code into a sidebar box than I indicated. I've been futzing with doing that and putting in a Feevy feed on a test blog and its really quite easy. If you use their new Template tool, they have a box that will accommodate the javascript and voila. That can also be used to put in the output from RSS to Javascript. It works fine.

I have not upgraded to the new Template tool on my old blog for fear of breaking things. But that is my fear (and my sloth since I can copy the old Template and reinstall if necessary). I will make the leap to hyperspace in the not too distance future and in the meantime, I was wrong to indict them for my doing it the old way.

Also, I think I understand the value of using del.icio.us as an evaluation tool for student work. That work can be in any form as long as it has an associated url. Further for peer review, if the students are instructed to come up with a common tag that is used for the peer review purpose, then not just the individual but the aggregate comments will be available for scrutiny and feeds from them can be displayed as well. To me, this has a big upside and seems quite easy to get going.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Snow Daze

This is the second day that the U of I has cancelled classes because of the weather. The storm has headed eastward; it’s now sunny outside here. In this Land of Lincoln they still celebrate the Great Emancipator’s actual birthday, which was Monday. So my kids are having a somewhat unplanned 5-day weekend and except to let the dog out, yesterday and today too looks like an inside day. (We might do some snow shoveling in the afternoon.) An experience like this gives a whole new meaning to the value of school. I wonder if they might actually have the kids go to school on Washington’s birthday, or if they have to tack on the both make-up days at the end of the school year, where filling that calendar obligation won’t do any good.

I probably should have used the time better, to catch up on work and write some posts. But I’ve been a bit under the weather – a hacking cough and the chills – so didn’t really have the mental energy to do much original work. I did do some recordings with my new ION ITTUSB turntable, and that kept me amused. For example, I listened to Joan Baez’ album, Diamonds & Rust (another awesome album, this turntable was a great purchase) and then from following the link to the Wikipedia site I learned that in her singing of a Simple Twist of Fate, which is her voice in most of the song, she does a quite good Dylan imitation near the end. I don’t think I figured out that was her in 1975.

The idle time has been somewhat useful to me since I’ve been decompressing on a variety of issues – having attended several of the sessions our Global Campus held to host LMS vendors as part of the Global Campus RFP process, scratching my head for months on how we might do an asynchronous component to an online MBA or online post-bachelor Certificate in Business program, and thinking about how learning technology fits into the campus information technology strategic planning effort. Then, too, I’m chairing the CIC Learning Technology Group for one more month and in planning our spring meeting in Evanston, one of the items is what’s next after Blogs, Wikis, and Podcasts, in part motivated by the recently released Horizon Report. I’m not ready for any of this.

Yet I’m no longer at square one. I’ve reached a first or second step and I think it’s worth pausing here to talk about the observations having gotten this far. But before that let me give a personal anecdote to give some context for what I have to say.

My parents used to tell a story about when I was toddler, around two years old. I could walk then, but apparently I found that an inferior self-pedagogy When we’d visit at some friend’s house, they’d plop me down on the floor someplace to leave me with my own devices. When they’d come back about an hour later, I’d be just where they left me. This is not a particularly flattering image and I had to endure some embarrassment as an adult hearing that story relayed. But some fifty years later there are elements of it that still ring true. I believe that metaphor will be helpful in understanding what I have to say next.

While everyone else seems to be into using the new media in creative ways mixing images, sounds, and videos along with text, I’m still thinking about engaging students through reading (mostly text, though it might very well be online, and it might be heavily hyperlinked and with a smattering of the other media). It’s a head scratcher on how to do this well, but it still seems to me to be the right question. One of the conclusions is to mix the prescribed reading with things that are interesting and quite topical, and in some cases offer the latter up for the curiosity only, not as a course requirement.

Those who read my blog regularly will notice a new item on the sidebar, Good Reads. This should be the last 5 items from my del.icio.us page on this subject. On a non-technical note, I know that I read certain things because I find the links on pages of others whom I respect, so if you frame the question as how to direct the reading of our students and you suspend judgment for the moment on using required readings for this purpose, this would seem to be a compelling thing to do. What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.

On the technical side of things, in addition to using del.icio.us, I’m using RSS to Javascript to take the del.icio.us feed and place it in the sidebar. This enables me to include my fairly brief text comments on the article. I think those text comments are important. They perhaps give a quick insight into the article and they do show I’ve read the piece. The new Blogger has a sidebar tool for RSS feeds, but it shows the subject line only. I don’t want that.

One other point about how I’m doing this. I read/browse quite a bit of stuff. Most of that doesn’t make it here. I can’t say that my internal filters are perfect and my interests are eclectic so what makes it way here may seem to have no pattern to it, other than that I over sample from the NY Times, but I think the batting average is pretty high on these pieces. If you read them, you’ll be richer for having done that. That’s the goal that I’m after when I post an item to this del.icio.us space.

The setup of this is a bit messy, futzing with the Template in Blogger, building the feed for the del.icio.us page, and inserting the latter into the appropriate place in the former. (It took me about 5 times to get that done right.) Also, with this method you have to beware of cached items that might show up in the sidebar. I had to quit Firefox and restart it a couple of times to get the most current item to show up. But with those caveats, this become remarkably easy to do. I have a post to a del.icio.us button in the Bookmarks Toolbar in Firefox, so when I find something I like I just click the button, add my Good_Reads tag, and put in a couple of sentences. That’s it. So having reached this point, the key to keeping the feed updated is to find a stream of interesting stuff to read. The approach works on that score if you have faith that such a stream will be forthcoming, if only you do a little looking.

I’m going to get back to this in a second, but first another aside about my view on pedagogy. The goose and the gander metaphor is very big in my way of thinking. The last couple of times I taught the principles of economics course to Campus Honors students, I conducted the live class sessions pretty much in the same manner that we conducted meetings in the CIO Cabinet, where the CIO was clearly the leader, but we were all treated as peers with valued opinions to offer. That approach worked well in this class setting. We don’t have enough time or ability to experiment with all approaches we might try in our teaching, so lifting things from elsewhere that seem to work well and then using them in our classes is a natural.

Now a bit of leap, since I haven’t really tried the good reads approach out on others and I don’t yet know that it works well in engaging them. Here I’m going to assume that for the sake of argument. Then, it seems to me that the approach could be used well in teaching too. Suppose the students had course related blogs (and depending on the size of the class and some other factors that might be one blog per individual or one blog per team). Instead of a Good_Reads item, I could have a Reactions_to_Recent_Postings item and then manage the student posts in the same way as I've already done. The pedagogic benefit would seem to be quite high (or is that my wishful thinking) in that it gives a ready method for students to see not just the instructor comment on their own writing but also similar comments on the writing of others, as well as links to that writing. I believe this would be extremely helpful in allowing the instructor to give constructive criticism, as it would help to give the students a sense that the instructor isn’t picking on just them, this the comments are generic to her general style of response.

Some people might respond that the approach violates FERPA. Here’s another quick anecdote that is meant as prep for my rebuttal. This is the best joke of all time.

Q: Did you hear about the constipated mathematician?
A: He worked it out with a pencil.

It’s the best joke because it teaches such a valuable lesson. FERPA has been a major constipator, especially in regard to design of LMS, where it frequently trumps consideration of the pedagogy. Several if not all of the new ones have a “Journal Tool,” that enables private writing by the individual or the group with readership and response limited only to the instructor. If one uses that tool because the student writing itself should be kept private, e.g., there is a personal nature to that writing, fine, that seems sensible. But if it’s the instructor’s comments that should be kept private and that’s why the tools are being used, because that’s what FERPA demands, to this I say nonsense and personally I’m fed up with the privacy issues coming before the teaching and learning questions. In the live class setting if a student makes a comment or asks a question the rest of the class hears the instructor’s response. What is different about when this is done online? Work it out for yourself, with a pencil or otherwise.

There may be some confusion in doing so, part of which stems from the issue about how to manage students homework grades. So let me say for the record, and although the LMS seems to enable this, giving a numerical (or letter) grade on a post by post basis is nuts. Grades are a limited vocabulary means of communication. If the instructor is making comments on the posts, comments that must be interpreted in a formative sense, why add a limited vocabulary summative message to that? Periodically during the term, an instructor might send such a limited vocabulary message, students do need to know how they are doing either to give the pat on the head that their Pavlovian behavior with respect to grades demands or to give a kick in the rear when the pat is not appropriate; many students are not used to getting a lot of instructor feedback via comments so delivering the summative messages in addition amounts to the instructor not putting all her eggs in one basket assessment-wise. Over time one might hope for more of the comment type of communication and less of the pure grade type of communication. Certainly that’s idealistic. But it seems feasible to me in this framework.

I should note a different point since elsewhere I’ve written enthusiastically about Barbara Ganley’s use of Mother Blogs, which include the pictures of students and the first paragraph of student posts in a sidebar, and this morning I’ve discovered that one can do this sort of thing in pretty much any blogging environment through a new tool called Feevy, aptly illustrated on David Silver’s blog. It seems that use of Feevy can really help to build community – something that ordinary blogrolls don’t do well, because with the Feevy approachthe items update as new content appears, while with the blogroll it's just a list of links. I would encourage the Feevy type of function in addition to the Reactions_to_Recent_Postings content, they are not substitutes for one another but can work together to make a richer environment.

Let me conclude by returning this discussion to its local roots, where all the politics is. There is still a huge impediment, particularly in the College of Business where the faculty are so highly paid, to get these instructors to read (some of) the writing of students. None of the above says that hurdle can be leaped. There is a long tradition of graduate students grading assignments and faculty being above all that, except on exams. Bucking tradition is hard. If one is to do so, and on this point I want to be an advocate for change, I think there needs to be a vision of what the alternative might enable, and that vision has to be about the teaching and learning itself, not about the technology.

So I sit on the floor and still think about how we should be doing this. But for me, that’s the place to be.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Fly in the Ointment

Yesterday morning I watched Senator Barack Obama give the throw-his-hat-in the-ring speech, as he declared himself a candidate for the presidency. He delivered it outside, with no hat and no gloves in temperatures that hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit. That in itself was impressive. He speaks in a cadence that demonstrates he is a master of oratory, probably our best speaker in public life, at least since Mario Cuomo. (Cuomo also spoke in cadence, was a Democrat darling for a while, but ultimately did not even run for the presidency.) And he framed the message quite well, we can do it America, and we can be ambitious about what we aim to achieve, if we’re all in this together and willing to make the shared sacrifice that is necessary.

He wrapped himself in Lincoln, giving the speech in the shadows of the Old State Capitol, in Springfield Illinois, and was right to do so. He talked about bringing the troops home from Iraq soon, in March 2008. He was right on that one too. But those rights don’t undo a wrong, though to be fair to him he still has some time to get out in front on the tough issues, but at least in this speech on two key issues he looked more like he’s bringing home the gravy for us in Illinois than acting as a leader for the benefit of our country and all around the globe. Those dual issues are energy independence and global warming and it on those issues that Obama will either prove his mettle or show he really is just another politician, admittedly a talented one.

Illinois is a big corn producing state. Promoting government subsidies of corn production is one way to bring home the bacon to the state. But there is a more insidious idea afoot than corn subsidies per se. Decatur Illinois is about 35 miles from Springfield. Decatur is home to the agri-business giant, Archer Daniels Midland. ADM is into ethanol big time. Ethanol as a an additive to gasoline, a renewable substitute for petroleum, a substitute produced from that staple of the prairie farm, corn. And the problem is, ethanol from corn as a renewal substitute for gasoline is bad idea. When both a Wall Street Journal Editorial and a Paul Krugman’s Op-Ed piece make essentially that point, and you know these guys don’t agree very often, then you also know they are making the reasoned case in this instance. Perhaps there is something to be argued for ethanol from corn as a bridge technology till we find other alternatives. But it sure seems to be the case that we’re overheating the market with the current approach, creating a lot of dislocation for those who depend on corn as a basic food input, not as a fuel, and creating an entrenched community of interest to sustain this “solution,” because it’s becoming another gravy train for corn and ethanol producers alike.

Any sensible approach to energy independence would have a healthy dose of conservation built in. The best way to promote conservation and fuel efficiency is to raise the price of the inputs to be conserved, i.e., a gas tax. Tom Friedman has been calling for this for some time. In his latest column on this point, he goes even further and asks for a guaranteed minimum price on gasoline of $3.50 per gallon to get the incentives right. Obama talked about issues being linked. He’s right on that. He talked about giving a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq as a way to put pressure on the Shia and Sunnis to negotiate. But he didn’t talk about making that timetable to withdraw credible and he didn’t talk about how that credibility would be tied to us being firm about moving toward energy independence. Where was any of this in the speech? Where was mention of the gasoline tax? It wasn’t there.

If we had such a tax, some of the revenues could be used to fund basic research on developing cost-effective renewable sources of energy. My campus, along with UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab received an enormous grant from BP to do basic research on bio-fuels as sustainable renewable energy sources. Basic research of this sort sounds like the right idea for the future. Yet it’s not an idea that will have much impact on markets now. The ideas are too new. There is much hope, but not much proven.

Obama is obviously a very smart guy. But it’s his character that will be tested most by this campaign, not his intelligence. If Obama can woo ADM and others in agri-business toward taking a broader view on sustainable bio-fuels he will show he’s the leader we all want him to be. He’s poised to do this as the Senator from Illinois, the home of ADM. But that is a hard path to walk down. It requires a forward looking approach that is not very common in politics or business. Its much more likely that he’ll stick with ethanol from corn as the solution and won’t talk about a gas tax. If he does this he’ll show he’s all too human, and he’ll risk getting outflanked on the issue by Clinton or Edwards, who’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate some character of their own.

* * * * *

On Friday I attended the annual Active Learning Retreat on campus. The featured speaker, Marcia Baxter Magolda from Miami University, gave a good and interesting talk, about the developmental immaturity of most of our students, how they don’t understand their own role in learning, how they accept information doled out by the professor as the gospel rather than questioning what they see and here and bringing their own distillation of that into a sense of the world that they themselves have created. Magolda talked about a somewhat later stage in student development, where while they feel entitled to their own opinions, all other opinions seem equally valid. Only after enduring this stage for some time do the student’s move on to the more mature phase that most of us faculty want to see in them, and frequently this appears to happen not in college at all but only after the students have moved into the workplace. Magolda termed this last phase as self-authorship. Students need to actively make meaning in a way disciplined by logic and experience and their own world view. That certainly seemed correct to me.

But there were many other things that were said (and unsaid) where I struggled through this presentation and the message delivered in it. My own experience as a student is contrary to Magolda’s story in several respects. I was doing what she calls self-authorship in ninth grade, and quite possibly earlier. But in the main I was doing that along paths that others had already crossed. It would be my own journey, but I had the comfort of knowing that I was not the first pioneer and after I had made my little sojourn I could compare my conclusions with what others had found before me. Surely that is the right way to proceed in making independent learners, before opening them up to complex problems which are fundamentally novel. Certainly they need to develop a sense of independent judgment in an environment where they can test whether that judgment has delivered a sound verdict. Yet none of this was in the presentation at all. In that I was disappointed.

Also, I was surprised that there was little or no discussion about getting students to write. If we want students to be self-authors, one might guess that the path to that would be through having the students write. But self-authorship, which in the sense the sense it was used was meant more metaphorically, one writes to the empty slate in one’s own head, was to be understood as an attitude toward learning, and not as an particular method to induce that attitude. I wish there had been more discussion of student writing and, then, especially of writing online, where some of the student thinking can be made overt to the professor and to the other students. But these ideas didn’t enter the discussion and technology hardly was brought into the conversation, except as evidence that the students are distracted from their learning via cell phones and iPods. Technology was cast as a culprit, a modern way for the students to go truant, a temptress calling the students away from the serious work of the classroom.

It seems more and more evident to me that those who think of their business as learning, such as Magolda and the folks who work for Center for Teaching Excellence that sponsored the retreat, view technology in this pernicious way. So they are not likely to look to technology for answers to their problems. But by avoiding this solution, they are missing one of the best opportunities to address the issues. It seems equally evident to me that we in the Learning Technology field don’t know how to reach out to these people in way that will engage them. We are not making the right arguments; perhaps we’re not making any arguments at all. This is tragic. It’s also farce. There are not enough resources going around to support instruction. That we have in essence two independent approaches, each under funded, makes no sense.

* * * * *

After the retreat concluded I bought a coffee and started to read some of Magolda’s articles that were included in the binder we got when registering, sitting in an open area in the Union near where the Retreat had been held. More and more frequently I find now that I need to decompress to make sense of what I heard and also I wanted to get some more detail about what was presented. For example, she had mentioned this book by Robert Keegan, which seems like an excellent read, and I wanted to verify the citation. After that, I was pretty much through her piece, Helping Students…. when I was surprised by seeing a former CS student I knew as a result of his serving on the campus Information Technology Advisory Board and in addition I had attended a workshop on the use of Tablet PCs that he participated in. He now works for Google and was back on campus to recruit students.

We talked for about 10 or 15 minutes or so, and covered a range of subjects. I asked him whether his education at Illinois was good preparation for what he was doing now. He said it was, but he emphasized out of classroom stuff – supervising some production project, I can’t quite recall what he called it but it clearly it was the ability to act in an entrepreneurial role as a student, not the classroom activities, that he identified as the key preparation. Then we talked a bit about how Illinois was excellent for students if they already had that entrepreneurial spirit when they arrived, how there were exceptional opportunities for the energetic and talented, but how the ability to self-sequester and become an anonymous piece in the sea of like students was also there, and most students found themselves in that boat. This former student volunteered up for himself that the Illinois model was Darwinian in concept, an excellent place for the fittest, they don’t just survive, they thrive. But Magolda’s work seems to focus on the other tier, those who might be drowning or struggling to keep their head above water.

The rhetoric at Illinois from the administration is all about excellence. I wonder if that’s why teaching is given such short shrift.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Winston Tastes Good...

While most everyone else was wrapped up in the trappings of the Superbowl – next year I’m sure we’ll hear about the remake of Return to Peyton’s Place – I was delightfully engaged in a different pursuit of my own that blended the quite new with the very old. Early in the week I took delivery of an ION ITTUSB turntable, a birthday present to myself. On Saturday I assembled it – the directions are Spartan and I was cursing inwardly about not being able to get the thing to work – but the old dog can learn new tricks (and remember other tricks learned long ago) so after finding their FAQ I ultimately did figure out how to get the sound settings appropriate on the computer and in Audacity, the program that does the recording, and then on my own and after some experimentation with the tone arm skipping, it occurred to me to put more weight on the stylus – once I’ve got the album digitized I’m less interested in preserving the vinyl asset – and then the audio performance is reasonable. I started by saving Audacity formatted files for later editing – they give you a sampler software program for cleaning up the scratches, etc., but that later editing ended up seeming like too much work and those files took up too much space on my hard disk. So I just converted to MP3, which record at about one meg per minute of audio. I also *cheated* a little bit on the files and so have the wrong metadata associated with a few recordings. Now I know better and I may re-record those particular albums to get that part right.

The schema I arrived at was to have a track coincide with one side of an album. That was do-able. My idea was to do other things while recording, not be totally wrapped up in it and so I was doing other things on the computer while the recording took place – listening to other albums I had already recorded and reading the New York Times online or otherwise surfing the Web. My first thought of the day was to write something about copyright – the albums I was recording were from the early to mid ‘70s and surely whatever creative instinct drove their production can’t possibly be effected by reproduction at this late date (I believe I’m entirely within my rights to make a personal digital copy of these vinyl recordings, on the same argument that I can TiVo a TV show for later viewing, but now that I’ve got these MP3 files I could give to others. That would be a no-no.) The first album I recorded was Sounds of Silence, which other than the title song has some really interesting songs I had forgotten about. The next was Live at the Keystone, a two album set that again has quite a few numbers I had long forgotten.

This was the album that triggered my thoughts about copyright. I knew that Jerry Garcia passed away a few years ago. So I did a Google Search on Merl Saunders (no “e” at the end of Merl) and found his Wikipedia entry (it’s a good source for some types of information) and from that it sure seems that Saunders is still among the living. I can’t begrudge him royalties for work he has created – he’s still a performing artist. And then it occurs to me that most of the music I have in vinyl was made by people who are still alive. So while that actually copyright term (70 years after death of the creator) seems completely untied to encouraging creativity of the artists/creators and totally tied to preserving the economic rents of members of the MPAA and RIAA, I don’t have sufficient skin in this game to wage a little moral crusade about rewriting these laws so they are more just. And surely it is also true that sharing new digital content, legally or otherwise, is going to happen. There really is no way to argue that if we had a more sensible copyright term then we consumers would respect that. So I quickly dropped it as a theme for a blog post. My only true conclusion from this episode is that Live at the Keystone is an awesome album.

I had several other thought about the blend of the very new and the very old, all triggered by this recoding activity. Early in the week there was a bit of a to-do about the History Department at Middlebury banning Wikipedia as an allowable source of reference for student papers. Of course this type of thing becomes news, but I really wish that instead of the bans, which by their nature create a negative message, we had an affirmative message of the type of citation we want from our students. In my own teaching the students on their first project must cite at least two papers from a referred Economics journal and I show the students how to access JSTOR to find the AER and the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The point is that they should know the writing of professional economists and see how it differs from the writing of others who write about economics.

But there is also a need to cite just to make sure that the writer gets the facts straight (or to be able to point to the source where the error was introduced). Students don’t have a good sense of appropriate evidence, and part of that is that they are awash in propaganda, including from the government, and separating out that rhetoric from a consistent and believable story based on hard evidence is a lot of work. One writer whom I believe provides a good model to follow is Frank Rich of the New York Times. (You need Times Select to get to his columns.) His columns are now better to read online than in print because they are heavily hyperlinked to his sources of evidence. In Rich’s writing, the hyperlink has come to replace the footnote. This form of writing seems a welcome development to me and emulation is something we should encourage in students. Further it gives students a way to see how the new ties to the old. And since most sources students are likely to confront, even those in print, are likely to have “metadata” such as an entry in the Library Catalog online, it gives students a way of thinking about reference that is do-able from their point of view. (Of course there is still a need to read the source and be acquainted with the information therein. So, to bastardize a well worn phrase, there’s still an issue of “citation with (mis)representation.”)

Another piece in the times, this one from the Magazine section entitled BrewTube, was the first article I’ve seen written about the Net Generation that resonated with me and it did so on many fronts. The article is about the fledgling effort at budtv.com, an online video site with content made for Web viewing, motivated in large part because that’s the way the Net Gen wants their content and better for Anheuser-Busch to wrapper it’s message around that content than to insert commercials into programming that the mute button and the pause/fast forward controls can essentially bypass. (As usual there were a lot of new commercials introduced during the Superbowl and the Bud commercials were among the funniest. So they have not completely abandoned the alternative idea of making commercials their own form of entertainment.)

As I’ve been telling colleagues, as of late my younger kid has been watching a lot of video online and it is this content rather than video games that seems so threatening and frightening to me as a parent, because much of it is quite raw. The BrewTube piece makes it clear what’s at root here and since so much of the piece is about the content of the programming itself, it really is instructive this way. (In contrast, there is a lot of discussion right now about creating educational content in Second Life but most of the conversation is still about the container and not about “the programming” and so it seems hollow to me.)

A great deal of the content is lampooning in some form – there is repeated mention of the word “mockumentary,” a word the spell checker in Word doesn’t seem to like. Lampoon as a dominant genre makes sense if there is a great deal of mistrust about more earnest institutions. And, indeed that seems to be the case. David Brooks has a nice column about a class he taught at Duke, where students show this mistrust any time the ideas seem to have an ideological and extremist bent, and we’re talking about radicals on the left and right in American political life, many of whom hold office, not Osama. The consensus view is pragmatism and getting things done. The kids are fed up with quagmire, a consequence of ideology gone awry. This, indeed, may be the biggest gap between us and the net generation. When we were in our teens John Lennon was the hero and it was our parents who were trapped in their sensible but in-transcendent existence. Perhaps many of our generation never really grew up and now our kids have to do that for us.

So kids want out of these frustrating ideological arguments and instead crave humor either in the form of the lampoon or in the utter absurd – the zillions of perturbations on the reality TV theme an exemplar of the latter and a way to deliver while keeping the production costs of content down to a reasonable number. So, in effect, with the advent of the Borg, Mad Magazine has become a life form unto itself and its various progeny are what our kids are consuming. And even if we haven’t quite figured it out, the folks who make Budweiser have and they’d really like to get our kids hooked even before they’ve turned eighteen and so are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in that pursuit.

What’s that expression about the more things change?

Friday, February 02, 2007

What’s in the can?

The next series of posts represents an extended “thinking aloud” exercise on how to move from the traditional approach we are taking at the College of Business at both the undergraduate and graduate professional level, to a blended/online approach. In this post, first in the series, I want to ask what type of materials should be available online in advance of class discussion or group work activity, irrespective of whether the discussion and group work happens online or face to face. Others, of course, have already gone through an exercise of this sort and there are definitely lessons to learn from them. But on a disciplinary front Business courses cover the gamut from the highly technical, e.g., management science and financial engineering to the humanistic, e.g., organizational behavior and decision making for accounting. So there is a question of situating those other experiences into the particular course in which we are implementing here. Further there are issues of pedagogic philosophy and matters of taste that might favor one alternative over another. I’m going to try to work through those issues in the context of intermediate microeconomics, a course I’m intimately familiar with, and one that might very well play an exemplar role for implementations in other business classes.

Using stuff that is “out there”

This morning I did some Web searching to identify freely available online material that might be appropriate for a course. Among the sites I searched were Google Video (which now includes searches of content on uTube), Merlot.org (which is an educational “referatory” meaning the actual content resides elsewhere), Podcasts at iTunes, MIT’s OCW, Carnegie Mellon’s OLI, The American Economic Review at JSTOR, Slate Magazine, The Becker-Posner Blog, and if time permitted it could be a much longer list. I would term this partial list eclectic in the sense that some sites are obvious and others much less so. Here’s some of what I found, most of which I was not aware of before.

1. The Annenberg Series Econ U$A, a high production news or documentary format that touches on a variety of economics issues. Once you find this it triggers the thought that perhaps there is good content on other News sites such as NPR or the News Hour.

2. Some fairly math heavy lectures on intermediate micro/graduate micrecon by Professor Baker of Hunter College. (Follow the first few links from this particular search).

3. An intro course from Berkeley that covers the same topics. Note that both for this and the previous item the content is capture of a live class offering and the online use is clearly of secondary purpose to the instructor, with the main purpose to deliver the class to the students who are present face to face.

4. A list of Steven Landsburg columns for Slate. I have used Landsburg’s book The Armchair Economist in the past. He is able to provoke students to think about ordinary life from an economics perspective and thereby get their juices flowing, though I must say I often don’t agree with his conclusions or his analysis.

5. An article by John McMillan in the Papers and Proceeding of the American Economic Review about how modern economic theory has had important effects on government policy making. (This link may require that your campus subscribes to JSTOR.)

6. A fully online self-paced course for introductory microeconomics that was designed for the purpose. This is in the Carnegie OLI series.

Let me draw some conclusions from this search. There is both formal classroom content and quite informal content appropriate for the virtual analog of coffee table reading. One must ask what type of content would be useful and what comparative advantage you have in making your own content. Personally, I like to present theory my own way so that I can add my own narrative to the theory. I’m much more likely to pull in the Landsburg Content or the Becker-Posner content in my own courses, to add some flavor, to help satisfy student curiosity, and also to show that there can be real disagreements among professional economists. I also might pull in the McMillan paper. I have as a goal that students read the professional writing of other economists and the more of that I can bring in the better.

I would not use the lectures from Hunter College or Berkeley but I believe those are useful to see the strengths and weaknesses of providing that type of content. There are some production quality issues: can the content on the blackboard or the screen be read? is this too dry to hold a student’s attention when viewed online? are they taking appropriate advantage of the medium in which the content is delivered? These materials are useful in thinking about what we might do as an alternative if we produced our own content or to focus on what we might look for if we purchase content from a publisher.

There’s one other conclusion that struck me immediately. There is quite a lot of stuff out there and it comes in many different flavors. So to use this stuff there is a need to weave it into the tapestry of the course. And that makes for some challenges even with material that in itself is quite well done. In other words, it’s not plug-and-play with outside content. It requires some substantial thought to integrate this content into your courses and I believe that to think along these dimensions it is necessary to have good command of the pattern and flow of the course in advance, to see where the outside content would fit in. I believe it is just too hard conceptually to construct a course around such outside materials unless you stick with only one course (e.g., the Berkeley lectures, and then let the outside materials set the agenda. But doing that brings to question what value you are adding in teaching your own course and a subsidiary question about branding the course you teach. (After all, this is the University of Illinois, not the University of California.)

One further issue regards the seeming lack of tie between the formal and informal content although especially in the case of the Becker-Posner blog the content is produced by eminent economists – Becker won the Nobel prize while Posner is the founding editor of the Journal of Law and Economics. Can we effectively mix the formal and informal in instruction for course credit or should we keep that separated? I’m definitely in the camp that it’s good to mix the two, but that means crossing a line that others might not want to cross. I believe that once you cross that line you want cross back, but it also makes it harder to understand the views of others who’ve not yet made that journey.

Content We Produce for Online Consumption

Let me turn to some content I’ve made myself to illustrate a few ideas I’ve got about what type of materials we need and what goals we should be aiming for when we produce these materials. There are three types of content: (1) a talking head video to introduce the other material, (2) a spreadsheet and some accompanying screen capture videos that I described a bit in my post about the ELI conference, and (3) a narrative delivered as a Word document with hyperlinks to further references, that aims to give some real world context for the economic model and to show some extensions in the thinking that would occur if some further complexity were introduced into the analysis. I will take each of these up in some detail.

Talking Head Video

I used to not be able to stand hearing the sound of my recorded voice and also felt very uncomfortable in front of the camera. Through a process of numbness and getting more comfortable with the technology I’m more relaxed in making this sort of thing now. But I still think the use should be limited to making it evident that the instructor has a personal investment in the online materials and to provide a generally welcoming environment for the students. One might envision delivering the narrative I’ve written in Word as a video instead or possibly as a podcast. Some others might be able to pull that off. I can’t. If I’m reading from a script I just don’t sound natural. If I’m taking an extemporaneous approach, which is what I prefer in front of the camera, but in the absence of an audience to keep me on the right path I’m not sufficiently reflective and will miss key points or not elaborate sufficiently on points that I do make. Also, there is the possibility of jumping around and that might be quite confusing for the students. I prefer, therefore, to deliver the narrative in writing, which also allows for much easier editing ex post. There is the question of whether the students would prefer it in another format in spite of my personal limitations. I don’t really know the answer to that, but I believe that if the writing is good people will want to read it.

Math/Analytic Content in Excel

When I was a brand new assistant professor I was a real math econ guy and taught the intermediate course with algebraic representation of the ideas, the way I then though appropriate. I recall some more senior faculty member in the department, one who taught the large introductory course, saying that some of the students couldn’t grasp the ideas that way and it would be better for them to represent things with actual numbers. At the time I was not convinced by this point. I didn’t think the number approach was sufficiently rigorous. Many years later, I softened my views somewhat noting that while rigor is important, so is transparency and students can’t learn things unless they can make some headway with the ideas and spend sufficient time on task.

The approach with Excel allows both number (in the values that the cells display) and algebraic representation (the formulas that are within the cells). Further Excel has a nice analog to the economic distinction between a variable and a parameter, in Excel there is a relative reference and an absolute reference and the association between these is straightforward. There is the further math issue that many core economic ideas are most easily understood in a discrete choice model. However, the math representation of these ideas is simplest in a continuous choice model that relies on calculus to characterize the solution. Many students are not able to make the translation between these two approaches and so economics instructors who rely only on the calculus mode end up confusing students or not getting through to them at all. Excel enables both types of representations and thus one can get the needed intuitions for the students and yet also provides the rigor that the instructor wants to deliver.

The Excel spreadsheet I’ve made along with the associated Screen movies (click the green arrows to download) deals with the elements of consumer theory – the budget constraint and choice given the budget constraint. Many students find this material not just impenetrable because of the math, but also extremely dry because they are not used to this type of abstract modeling. The spreadsheets and the rapid feedback that is embedded within give it a type of game element that should make it more interesting for the students. (Admittedly I’ve not yet tested this particular content with students but that has been the reaction of students to other content I’ve made in a similar vein.)

Some might feel that the Excel content doesn’t look as jazzy as similar content produced in Java or Flash and on straight visual appearance I’d have to agree. However, there are some other arguments in favor of this format. First, it requires essentially no programming skill. (There is one macro, the reset button.) Instead it relies heavily on functionality built into Excel. This means, I believe, that it is easier to understand how this content is made and hence allow it to be revised readily by somebody else as long as that person understands the economics. Second, it is completely stand alone and so students can work on it on their own desktop and so the performance is fine. There are no capacity issues that might emerge because a lot of students are banging on the content at the same time, clogging up the server. Third, there is the possibility of introducing substantial complexity – parametric variation in the graphs, for example, that is hard to do with these other approaches. This type of content takes a while to author, but I believe one can produce quite durable content as a consequence.

Narrative Content as Text with Hyperlinks

From the work of many others and trying this type of thing myself in my own teaching, I now think that one of the most important things we can do is to help students tie the theory we teach to more familiar ideas from their own personal experience and to other ideas they are hearing about from the outside world. There is a big advantage in keeping their interest if part of the teaching is about practical stuff. And a lot of time should be spent on interpreting the model. I fear that we who teach economics at this level spend too much time on the model itself. That’s all right if the students themselves are math modelers (though even then they might not be able to apply the model to context where it is appropriate to do so) but it is a shame for those students who find modeling a skill to fear rather than to master. Students will appreciate the theory much more if they have good stories to tell where the theory helps them to make sense of what’s going on. They also need stories to help fill in the gaps where the theory doesn’t speak at all, because the theory, by design, is only meant as an approximation of reality.

I wrote this narrative to accompany the spreadsheet and screen capture videos, to provide the requisite stories for the budget constraint and basic consumer choice. I’m not aware of any textbooks that take this type of approach in explaining the ideas, though every economics textbook spends substantial space on this topic as it is absolutely core in intermediate microeconomics. Stylistically, I aimed to approximate the writing in my blog posts, informal and discursive. Whether I’ve hit my mark I leave to the reader, as with the spreadsheet material I’ve not yet tested this with students, but on the goals I was trying to achieve with this content it should be quite clear.

And I want to make one more point about the narrative before I conclude. I deliberately went down the wrong path in the narrative, where I talked about setting up the categories in the personal finance software. Thus this definitely is not the shortest distance between two points type of writing. There is a need to discover the mistake and then go backwards to undo it. I don’t know any textbook that does this either. Nor does this happen even in the OLI Econ materials, which profess to be based on the book How People Learn. Well, we learn by making mistakes. Further, we learn what is pleasing about a “right answer” or an “elegant solution” by seeing what is not pleasing about an alternative that is neither right nor elegant. So I believe that narrative must have errors in it, errors of commission that are made to make clear why the solution makes sense. The doing it wrong approach take longer to make the point. That means that fewer points can be made (unless we’ve engaged the students sufficiently that we have their attention for a longer amount of time). But if I’m right about it, then the doing it wrong approach gives the students a deeper understanding. And that is why the narrative is needed along with the theory itself.

A Diversity of Presentation Content

Let me conclude by noting that I believe online content should be done in multiple modalities, with each particular approach to achieve a well defined purpose and where collectively the pieces of content support each other, they are each part of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. There are others who argue for a diversity of content based on differences in student learning style. These are quite different arguments with the latter suggesting for, example, that the narrative should be delivered both as text and as video and let the student choose the preferred mode. If instructor time were abundant (a complete counterfactual) then I might embrace the learning styles argument, especially if I saw evidence that serious students do vary in their prefer mode of having the content delivered.

My argument for diversity of presentation content, which fully acknowledges the scarcity of instructor time, is that every learner needs both the basic theoretical ideas so as to appreciate the rigor and the generality of the argument and a narrative structure so that the theory can be embedded in a richness of experience that makes the theory relevant to the learner. And to tie this post to my previous one, that’s why I believe in the Humanism Across the Curriculum concept.