Tuesday, May 29, 2007

iGoogle and the LMS

I continue to find that my preferred approach to discovery about all things technology is what I’d call “learning by futzing.” By this I mean I stumble onto something without trying to find it, then get curious, then try some things, then some search to learn more, and after a fashion I feel I’ve got a reasonable understanding and something to show for it. This morning’s example (that found itself well into the afternoon) was Gadgets you can make yourself for iGoogle (formerly Google’s personal page; don’t call it a portal). The two that I started with are first one that can store a sequence of YouTube videos that will play within the Gadget window and second a Gadget called Daily Me that could be used for Course Announcements. (Windows Live is a possible alternative to iGoogle but I didn’t see any gadget-like object you can make simply by filling out a form.)

Indeed, I started to think about using iGoogle as a way to deliver a whole bunch of Course Information. Some of this info would be Gadgets that are specific to the class, such as the ones I mentioned above. Others would be for tools that are more generic, like Google Calendar and Google Docs, that could be used in many different classes. (The specific calendar would be course specific and docs might carry a class tag and might have access controls on a class by class basis.) Here is a screen shot of what I came up with in short order.


Certainly my first stab can be improved upon with gadgets for bookmarks, images, and other external but course related content. I wasn’t trying to make the be all and end all with this effort, just a quick sketch of the possible. Having done that, I uncovered some challenges as well. Here are some issues with doing this for real.

1. It is very easy to export individual gadgets so others can put that on their own iGoogle page. I couldn’t figure out, however, how to export a whole page of gadgets in one fell swoop. So there is a bit of an issue of getting that whole page information out, including the layout. I don’t think this is insurmountable. But it is a tad clunky doing it one gadget at a time.

2. The various Google tools handle access control differently. For example, Google Docs allows one to give access via Gmail Contacts and then to use Groups for that (very nice). Google Calendar, however, appears to only allow access via individuals. Someone creating access, like me, might prefer restricted access to public access for a variety of reasons, but if each member of the class has to be added one by one, that’s a pain.

3. Incidentally on this, I was able to create a class group using email addresses from a course I had taught a while back, but I had to do some manipulations in Excel to import that into Gmail and I’m not sure that other instructors would be up to that.

4. The Banner on the iGoogle page takes up a lot of room. I’d like to squish it down so that more gadgets can show up. This issue about vertical space is something that Google hasn’t mastered. When some of the gadgets have video feeds or image feeds, they will take up substantial vertical space. My sense is that you should be able to get in about 6 gadgets (two rows of three across) in view without scrolling. Of course that depends on screen resolution. I design for 1024 x 768 – standard for laptop viewing. My font size may be larger than most, but if you can only get the gadgets into view by having miniscule font, you’re cheating.

5. The Daily Me gadget (Class Announcements in my example) doesn’t have a line for the time of the last posting, it should have that, nor does it have a way to archive previous postings, it should have that too.

So there is room for improvement. But what is there is not half bad, in my view, and I believe it does a better job than the LMS in terms of giving some useful information about the content in the various gadget windows without requiring a click through to get at that information. I’m betting that students would like this to be used for classes. Certainly, that would be an interesting thing to test.

There is one further obvious benefit from the approach, at least for when the student is working on his or her own computer, especially if iGoogle is set as the homepage in the browser. (That’s what I do at present.) Then the class page is just one click away – another Tab in iGoogle. That is quite convenient, more convenient than logging into the LMS. Consequently, for the content that the instructor is pushing down to the students it might very well be a better way to distribute that stuff.

I started to think of whether instructors who tried this approach would use the LMS in addition. Some, who are only using the LMS for content push to begin with might not, although if they have copyrighted content in PDF format this approach won’t do the trick and they’ll need either the LMS or eReserves. And if they want to track use, this won’t do the trick either.

Others who have been using the LMS quite extensively but have wanted a public space for their course as well might like this approach for the latter need. The widgets that aren’t just RSS feeds are extremely easy to manage. And the RSS feeds brought in this way might get more of a look by the students than if they are brought into the LMS course site in some fashion (e.g., by using RSS to Javascript and pasting in the result.)

I don’t have a good sense of how actual LMS use is divided between content push and more interesting pedagogical use. (I do know a fair amount of the use here is simply for the grade book function.) If you take the content push out of the LMS, what does that do to the demand for this type of environment? Ask the question again if online content push can be seen as a textbook substitute. Textbook publishers seem to like the restricted access form of distribution that the LMS enables, for example consider the Pearson buyout of eCollege, but the iGoogle approach may be more engaging to the students, in large part because the content can be dynamic and shaped by events, not fixed in advance.

I’m not as up to speed as I was last year about LMS vendor developments and how they might respond to content push efforts via iGoogle. I know that Blackboard has launched Scholar.com, but I don’t have a good sense of how that is faring. And I’m not well informed about what the other vendors are doing here nor about what the other open source LMS are doing here. Student-centric and particularly constructivist approaches to learning minimize the value of instructor content push. So Moodle, in particular, might not feel very threatened by this. I’m not sure.

If I were an LMS vendor (not very likely but for the sake of the argument let’s maintain the pretense) I’d be moving hard to differentiate the product away from the content push area and toward tools that have clear pedagogic benefit, or like my FSI session I’d argue that content push and assessment need to be melded in an effective way for which the LMS is well suited. But I’d also be worried because as a vendor I’d know less about my campus clients and their use patterns than I’d like. Further I’d worry because Google Apps, at least the standard version, is being marketed as a freebie so it’s hard to compete with that, especially as budgets for IT seem to be tightening.

Going back to my role as Dean for eLearning in the College of Business, I’m thinking about this purely from the convenience angle for students and instructors. And I suppose for that it comes down to whether iGoogle starts to get used for content push in other domains. On the student side, I think many of them are already using Gmail, so this is not such a stretch. On the faculty side, I’m less clear. It will be interesting to observe as this unfolds.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Writing as Problem Solving

If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.
Rene Descartes (1596 - 1650)

This July I’m one of the faculty members at the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Program in Madison. There is a lot of planning that goes into this thing. A couple of week ago I learned that in the opening session we will be doing something on Interaction Styles based on the Myers-Briggs Typology. This triggered a memory (I learned about Myers-Briggs at the Frye Institute a few years back) and much curiosity about my type, INTP. I did more than my usual amount of Web surfing on the subject and read many descriptions of this type. I found this site where you can take a test to determine your own type, took the test for myself, and confirmed my INTP classification. I was pulled in more and more by the seeming high accuracy in which these descriptions identified me. I had a friend who is an economist take that test; he proved to be an EFTJ, almost the exact opposite of me, and yet the description for that type fit him quite well.

Some of those descriptions for INTP actually use the expression “Absent Minded Professor” and most of them describe the type as “Architect” meaning somebody who builds theoretical constructs to address problems. If you are a regular reader of this blog, ask yourself how many of the posts provide a theoretical argument for a structure aimed at addressing a certain problem. I believe I’m doing that all the time. The descriptions talk about INTPs having a need to make connections between the theoretical constructs and a wide range of experience. I believe I’m doing that too. And the descriptions talk about the fundamental motivation – creating understanding of reality out of complexity. That’s right on the button.

In the process of my Web surfing about INTP, I found Richard Feynman’s Noble Prize address. It so well matched what I wanted to write about that I’m leading off with it. But, to be truthful, I didn’t understand the physics in it. Some of the little points – positrons can be thought of as electrons moving backward in time – yes, I got those. But on the big picture physics issues with which Feynman was grappling – no, that was over my head. I thought it was a great essay nonetheless and I’m going to highlight what it was about it that I found so intriguing and that I think is worth trying to emulate in our writing.

The essay as whole is a recounting of Feynman’s discoveries that were the basis for his Nobel Prize and in choosing my title for this post, slightly inaccurate but I hope you’ll forgive the imprecision, I’m referring to this type of recounting. We might distinguish between introspection coupled with happenstance that produces the original spark of idea and reflection on that thought experience that produces the narrative, the recounting that I’ve referred to. For me writing doesn’t really help with the spark, though it does help remarkably on pushing the idea further and refining it. But that’s not enough to get me to the keyboard. I need an idea for a story. That’s where the recounting comes in.

Feynman’s style is matter of fact, almost reportorial. He doesn’t embellish his discoveries nor does he shun his misperceptions, of which there were many. He falls in love with his own ideas just as one falls in love with a woman, and indeed he uses that metaphor early on in the piece. The passion in pursuit of the idea is love; there is no doubt about it. The essay has an aspect of symphonic music that starts in a minor key and builds slowly. By the middle of the piece there is a strong sense of crescendo. So many ideas are seemingly tying together. It is hard to contain the sense of excitement, on the verge of an important discovery. And interspersed are nuggets of perception such as this one, which make the reader feel they are getting the same sense of the beauty of the ideas that spurred Feynman in his pursuits.

A thing like the inverse square law is just right to be represented by the solution of Poisson's equation, which, therefore, is a very different way to say the same thing that doesn't look at all like the way you said it before. I don't know what it means, that nature chooses these curious forms, but maybe that is a way of defining simplicity. Perhaps a thing is simple if you can describe it fully in several different ways without immediately knowing that you are describing the same thing.

Another aspect of the essay that is delightful and something that we really need to talk about more is the importance of guessing in discovery. Guessing is mentioned quietly at first, then it comes front and center. But equal attention is given to the time spent on verification, careful checking of the equations to make sure the calculations were correct. Guessing and verification are two parts of the discovery process that must go together. One must abandon belief in an idea when it can't be reconciled with observation or other known theory. But one may persist in trying to save an idea from abandonment by seeing whether a suitable modification or an alternative perspective can bring about such a reconciliation. There is learning in this too, thought it might very well come with the emotional baggage of feeling jilted by a lover.

And he makes a big thing about “artificial mental constructs,” what we first fall in love with when we pursue an idea, that turn out to be less important in our understanding when we have a more mature view and that may be outright wrong, but were critical for moving down the path of discovery. This too is something we need to talk about. Feynman notes there is great risk in taking a non conventional approach to thinking about a physics problem; there is a likelihood that it will lead nowhere. But by taking a non-orthodox approach, one of the individual’s own making, there is likely deeper learning about the ideas at stake, and there is the possibility of new perceptions from the unique point of view.

* * * * *

The rest of us won’t be Feynman’s. Our discoveries will not be as fundamental nor as profound and we very likely won’t be able to make a career out of them. But we can embrace his style in telling our own stories, producing interesting narratives in the process and using those as a way to promote the ideas that we do come up with for the consideration of others. Here’s one from me, another byproduct of the infatuation with my Myers-Briggs type, INTP.

I was unsure of the reliability of what I read after doing the initial INTP search in Google, so I did another Google search (INTP .edu) thinking I’d find a more credible listing if it were at a .edu page. The third response is to this site at Murray State pertaining to the first year experience. It appears that at Murray State they take the Myers-Briggs inventory seriously as a way for the students to identify themselves and come to a greater sense of self-understanding. That was interesting in itself but my attention turned elsewhere. I became taken with the first bullet under “Playing” where it says that lectures may very well be a source of entertainment. This rather innocuous observation became the stimulus for my problem solving.

Here is the chain of my thinking. Indeed, I used to go to lectures a lot when I was at Cornell and then as a grad student at Northwestern and here I’m talking about lectures outside the courses I was taking. Lectures were a source of intellectual entertainment. (Nowadays I watch The Charlie Rose Show for this same sort of information.) I know that on occasion in thinking about the debate over whether lectures are a good or bad mode of instruction, I’d mentally note my own predilection for attending them. Then, the not quite syllogism is that if lectures are a good form of entertainment, they must be good for classroom instruction as well and indeed there were many lecture-based classes that I took where I got a lot out of the course. Then I make the simple inference that if lectures were good for me they’d be good for other students as well, na├»ve egotism as the basis for my thinking. Indeed, one of the really disturbing ideas that has come out as a result of reading about INTP is a questioning of whether my core beliefs about learning are really robust for everyone else, or if instead these ideas only make sense for INTPs. That questioning has left me with a sense of unease. I don’t yet have a good feeling for how to resolve the issues.

Then I recalled a lesson about egotism that I learned from Naomi Miyake, a Japanese scholar (with a degree from the U of I) whom I meet on a trip to Taiwan where we along with other colleagues toured to discuss our early lessons from efforts with learning technology. In her presentation Naomi showed two Mercator projections, one produced in the U.S. the other in Japan. For the logic of such maps, it is completely arbitrary where to chose the latitude line that “cuts” the globe so the map unfolds. Naomi showed us that the U.S. ends up at the center of the map produced in the U.S. while Japan ends up in center of the map produced there. What could be a better demonstration of the universality of our egotism? This made me comfortable in the thought that I could use myself as representative of all INTPs, particularly those who are faculty members.

Summing up where we are now, we have that INTPs like lecture, they tend to be egocentric (which among other things tends to contribute to the belief that their non-INTP students are lazy), and there is a concentration of INTPs among the professoriate. Then throw in for good measure that INTPs typically have a strong streak of stubbornness. Is it any wonder that they are inclined to believe that lecture is a good form of instruction?

Now a little aside for my explanation of why lectures work for INTPs, because others may very well be confused on this point. INTPs live to process their own ideas and they come to know things through their internal processing. When a conclusion has been reached that idea no longer holds interest. The issue arises – where should the INTP next focus his attention? Lectures are fodder for such processing. They point the way to questions that need to be asked, to theories that need to be understood, to ways an argument unfolds. The lecture is an excellent source of intellectual fodder.

In large part for this reason, I’ve never understood why so many others take notes during lectures, particularly when the ideas are available elsewhere, such as in a book or on a Web site. Taking notes seems to interfere with processing. It is a deliberate suspending of thought, with the busy work of recording the ideas as an inferior substitute to thinking about them, a caving in on the critical issue of whether the student is sharp enough to understand what the professor is speaking about. I never much cared for those lectures where a lot of detail was spewed out with that as the main purpose, where the Professor expected the students to take extensive notes to capture that detail. I always preferred lectures that gave the big picture, that tried to convey a mental image of the issues at stake, that constructed a long and thoughtful argument to prove the proposition at hand. And I suppose, if I were to reflect on it, I would have come to the observation that note taking and raising one’s had to ask questions is negatively correlated, because in those type of classes one asked questions that were about the implications of the big picture ideas, and the note takers weren’t focusing on that.

To my knowledge, the research on teaching mode that condemns the lecture in favor of active learning methods, consider this site for example, does essentially nothing to confirm the professor’s own learning and the role of the lecture as intellectual fodder. As an INTP who is well aware of my own learning, if only implicitly, at first blush I’ll likely reject the findings of that literature. Patently, they must be wrong. For you to convince me to abandon lecture in favor of active learning, you need to make a more nuanced argument along the following lines.

1. Typical students are unlike me in their Meyer’s-Brigg typology. Very few are INTPs, who count for only about 1% of the population. Indeed most of our students are probably Extroverts rather than Introverts.

2. Typical students likely don’t process internally like I do. They may find trying that difficult and unrewarding. They may not see relationships across ideas like I do. They will need other ways to draw out those relationships and make them overt.

3. In a hypothetical study where INTP students were separated out from their peers, it should be found that the INTPs did indeed do well in a traditional lecture format. But that same study must show the peers of INTPs did poorly in the lecture framework. The peers did better when the approach embraced group problem solving. This sort of study would confirm my own learning, not deny it.

4. In a different hypothetical study, one that focused longitudinally on career choice, it should be found that INTPs disproportionately enter into doctoral programs upon graduation and among doctoral students INTPs disproportionately enter into academia.

5. In yet a different hypothetical study, student evaluations of teaching should show a correlation between student satisfaction, on the one hand, and the closeness Myers-Briggs type, on the other. In other words, the egotism idea about preferred teaching styles and learning style should be confirmed.

6. It should be found that some INTP faculty do succeed in providing courses that students find satisfying, in spite of the M-B type differentials, but such faculty are not “naturals” as teachers and have to put considerable effort into modifying their approach to be suitable for students.

Points 1 and 2 are garnered from the writings about the Myers-Briggs typology and empirical work done on the MBTI. (Note that this Wikipedia page offers a type breakdown by frequency in the population and disputes that INTP is only 1% of the population.) Points 3 to 6 are my conjectures. They are guesses that I think are reasonable and if they are true provide a theoretical explanation as to why the lecture persists in spite of the increasing evidence that lectures are not an effective mode of instruction. Further, one can readily get the result for lectures without an appeal to the idea that faculty shirk in their teaching and lecturing is low effort mode that is tantamount to shirking.

In order to make 1 – 6 the basis of an appeal to faculty to alter their teaching, there would first have to be an embrace of MBTI. This would require showing first, that an individual’s type doesn’t change over time (here is such a study that focuses on such time invariance of type) and then the type must be shown to be a reliable predictor of behavior in many instances that are relevant to teaching and learning in the higher education setting.. Those pre-conditions don’t exist nor are they likely to exist any time soon. Thus, my piece may seem like idle theorizing.

But I think there is value to the approach especially if we consider all of us faculty as instructors in the role of students with regard to choice of the mode of instruction. If you as evangelist for a new mode of instruction want me to abandon my lecturing, how can you make your arguments on my terms. The current vogue seems to be to situate the arguments in the learning of the students, but to entirely abstract from the learning of the instructor. That, it seems to me, is a serious error.

An effective argument needs to engage the learning of the students and the learning of the instructor simultaneously, to make a case for where similarities prevail (and hence where the instructor is best able to be sympathetic to the learning issues that students face) as well to identify where there will be mostly differences (and hence where the instructor needs to be careful not to indulge his own egocentricity when determining the pedagogic approach). The MBTI is a construct to aid in coming to this type of argument. Once having reached this point, however, it has served its useful purpose and can be abandoned, just a Feynman abandoned some of his own early constructs. What remains is a more mature perspective of how we learn and why we teach the way we do.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Outline of FSI session.

Next Tuesday I'm leading a hands-on session at FSI entitled ---
Online Hybrids: Using Respondus for Presentation Qua Assessment Parts I & II
Below is an outline for the session
Word Version of the Content Below (for Printing)

* * * * *

1. Introductions -

2. Making sure everyone can log into their computer, can launch Respondus and a Browser, and has found the Respondus Projects folder.

3. Take the demo lecture alternative to get a sense of what this is about.
a. If the demo is not already in the Respondus Projects folder (it is called FSI_Demo) then get it, click the checkbox and select download as zip. Then open the Zip and drag the FSI_Demo folder into the Respondus Projects folder.
b. Make sure the Current Personality in Respondus is set to WebCT 6/Vista 4. Then open the FSI_Demo project.
c. That should take you to the Edit tab and will give you a sense of how to author in Respondus. So far there are four questions in this assessment. Select any question and after the popup window appears click the Modify button. Search around the question a bit. See if you can figure out how things work on your own. (If your cursor is in one part of the question, clicking the PowerEdit button brings up a bigger window to display that content.) At this point don’t actually change the content that is there.
d. Go to the Preview and Publish Tab. Click the Preview button. Then make the Preview window big enough that you can see both the full question and the feedback. Read through that and then do likewise for the other questions in the assessment.
e. Go back to the Edit Tab. You are now going to write a concluding question for this assessment. If there is a question showing click the Clear Form Tab. Then choose the question type. Select the Enable Feedback checkbox and start authoring. You can learn the other functionality in Respondus as you author. When you’re satisfied with your question, preview it, make any mods based on that, and then add the question to the end of the list.

4. This is a change gears part. We’re going to find some interesting multimedia content that you can use in your own lecture alternative.
a. You can skip this step for now if you’re uncomfortable making an account on a commercial service site. For those continuing with this step go to http://del.icio.us. If you don’t have an account, register for one. Then login. If you do have an account login.
b. Go to this del.icio.us page that has links to some well known online repositories. Choose one of the links and then search the site for content suitable for the course you teach. Feel free to search other sites that might have print content or picture content. But for now do stick with Free sites that don’t require a paid subscription.
c. When you have found some content that is promising, bookmark that site. (Click the post link, add your own annotation, and give it the tag sources_for_content.) This way we can share the content that the group found.
d. Now pretend to be a student (and cheat!!) Don’t view the content. Ultimately you need to do that, of course, but that can be done after our session is over. You want to make the most of the time we have.

5. Now you are ready to author your own online alternative with Respondus. At this point it’s probably good to make a quick sketch of how you want to proceed. You might use the external content to introduce the issues and then move to your own analysis. You might want to go to the external content after a bit of setup. This is for you to think through and try different approaches.
a. Most textbooks start with the principle and then go to the example to illustrate the principle. A tip is to start with the example and try to choose examples that are interesting in their own right irrespective of your course. Then go from the example to the principle.
b. Because Respondus is Modular you don’t have to know a full layout in advance. Questions can be re-ordered quite easily. Ultimately your ordering should satisfy the test that the subsequent question in some way flows from what preceded it. If the questions are disjoint, you miss the dialogic aspect.
c. But when an idea for a particular question occurs to you, author it then and there before you lose the thought. You can come back to it later to try to build in the connection.

6. There will be a Webcam for recording mini lectures and for you to get the experience of doing that. We’ll take turns so everyone can get a chance to do this. (Note to Mac users with an embedded iSight Camera. iMovie doesn’t recognize the embedded camera. If you have an external camera, this can work fine. Otherwise, you need a different software application to capture the video. Then you can bring the capture video into iMovie to compress it and do other processing.) There is the issue of what to do with the Video Content afterwards.
a. The Webcam produces video in .wmv content. That content can embed in a browser, but experience suggests that there may be problems playing the video in browsers other than Internet Explorer. One alternative is to provide a link to the content that will launch the player in a different window.
b. Converting the Video to Flash may be the best way to assure cross platform. Quicktime is another choice. If you upload your video to Google Video, it will do the conversion (to Flash in a 320 x 240 resolution) automatically, that’s what was used for the demo.
c. If you don’t want to host the video on a commercial server like Google, you should consider the possibility of getting the video files to the students separately and then having them access it off their own computer so they don’t face lags in download or streaming while they are doing the assessment.

7. When you’ve produced some content and your neighbor has done likewise swap computers with your neighbor so you can take each others assessment and then provide a peer critique. Ultimately for this stuff to be effective in use it should be tested with students for their reaction. Back on your campus, if you can get peers to develop along with you then you can serve as each other’s editor. That should make the development a lot easier than doing it all yourself.

8. Assigning the making of these as course projects for the students. If you do this, make sure they are due early enough in the semester that you can administer the submissions to other students in the class. This is a way to get peer review of student work.

Other reading:

1. http://campustechnology.com/articles/39693_1/
2. http://lanny-on-learn-tech.blogspot.com/2007/03/dialogic-learning-objects-revisited.html
3. http://amps-tools.mit.edu/tomprofblog/archives/2007/04/786_teaching_na.html#comments

Urls for links in this document:


Thursday, May 10, 2007

PowerPoint – Again

There’s a bit of a debate going on at the Learning Circuits Blog about appropriate use of PowerPoint. Several others have written about this. Tony Karrer has several recent posts that are sensible and make good points and several of the others linked from the learning Circuits site make interesting points as well. Here, I’m going to add my two cents and focus on two points – first chunking and second what presentation software during a presentation chunk?

Even the best of us as learners can pay attention for only so long. I know I’m fairly impatient as a learner and after listening for a bit I feel a need to ask some questions so I “can drive” my own learning. I can’t sit there for an hour and process and just let the person speak, though my patience depends on the context. It’s easier to listen for longer periods to an interview than to straight presentation and if it is a very technical argument and I’m following along then, ok, keep going; don’t interrupt till the argument concludes. But otherwise I want to get in there and ask my question. I’m guessing that is typical of most learners.

So if we’re giving a session and making a presentation don’t submit to the “we’ll take questions at the end” approach. Either plan to have intervals of Q&A interspersed through the presentation or have those intervals arrive spontaneously. My experience is that this depends on audience but that most of the audiences I’ve been in the last couple of years the people are too polite. They want to ask their question, but they don’t want to go first. And if nobody goes first… The presenter, understanding the dilemma, can then have a planned Q&A segment early on. It might be easier for those in the audience to ask questions thereafter.

I’m guessing that most people who use PowerPoint are unaware that Shift + B during Slideshow mode makes a black screen and Shift + W during Slideshow makes a white screen. It’s my opinion that during a Q&A part there shouldn’t be anything on the screen as a distraction. So this function is useful as a way to signify that now we’re not in presentation mode. It’s usually a good idea to have lights up in Q&A, but it might be clunky to get that done, in which case white screen is preferred because it will make the room a little brighter. If it's lights up already during the presentation then black screen is fine for the Q&A part. And if you don’t have keyboard access during the presentation, do note that you can insert blank slides ahead of time so that reaching them is a signal to move from presentation to Q&A.

I’m quite confident in the above. I’m less sure about what I say next. There is the question during a presentation of whether that is with prepared content or content that is created on the fly. My own bias is that if the content is prepared in advance, couldn’t it then be delivered online? And if that’s true, why spend scarce face to face time that way? To this a possible counter is that even with prepared content the narration that accompanies it can be sensitive to the prior discussion in the class so that while the materials are canned, the instructors use of them is more spontaneous. If an instructor consciously does this, then that likely constitutes an effective use. Moreover, the instructor might feel that if the presentation content is already available then she can pay more attention to situating her narrative within the class discussion. This, I think, is the ideal we’d want for use of canned materials. And it should be noted under this ideal that even if the instructor posts her slides ahead of time, there is a good reason to come to class.

In the old days when I promoted PowerPoint, I’d talk about the instructor having a “driver” to advance the slides and possibly make other adjustments on the computer so the instructor can pay attention elsewhere. That’s the same idea for using prepared content. Once it’s done it’s one thing less to worry about.There is then the question of whether PowerPoint is a good way to deliver prepared content and to construct that content initially. I’ve heard other people tout different tools; I’m sure you have heard that too. But I’ve not heard anything like consensus on what that other tool should be. Most faculty have their hands full with other things. They won’t investigate tools in this to optimize over a set of alternative possibilities. PowerPoint wins as a result. You can call it the efficient solution or you can call it tyranny of the status quo. For me, this is not a big issue.

In my College many instructors are now lecturing with a Tablet PC and there is a question of which whiteboard software to use. PowerPoint can be used as a whiteboard, though it wasn’t designed for this purpose. The biggest single issue with this is that the controls for adjusting the pen color, type, and width are a click or two away. I’ve seen some of our less innovative instructors use only black ink with no other contrast for a two hour presentation!! Either the faculty need to learn the skills to use the controls, in spite of the multiple clicks, or we need a different whiteboard software for this purpose.

There is one other issue here that I think worth considering. In the old days when we had lecture notes hand written some place, there was a need to review those before class to figure out what would be covered during the next session. A full PowerPoint presentation in the can may convince the instructor that she doesn’t otherwise need to be well prepared. That is a pernicious consequence that instructors might embrace nonetheless because their time is scarce. The only out I see for that problem is for the content of the presentation to change over time, perhaps because of a need to keep the course current. Otherwise, this stuff can get quite stale and an ill prepared instructor with stale content will lead to a poor outcome.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Lollipops and Roses –

Last night there was a Band Concert at the Middle School where my younger son attends. There is a Concert Band for each grade, 6th, 7th, and 8th, and two Jazz Bands one for the 6th grade and then a combined one for the 7th and 8th grade. I don’t entirely get the structure for the Jazz Bands, but I supposed it makes sense. I also don’t entirely get the order in which the Bands perform during the evening. My son is in 7th grade and his group performed first. But it is gauche to leave until the entire concert is over (Global Warming and a school without air conditioning puts a high premium on good manners) and while I was polite my mind started to wander during the rest of the concert.

The temperature notwithstanding, the kids make a better sound now then they did earlier in the school year. That is noticeable. I also notice, however, that while the individual pieces are different from earlier performances, the style of music has not changed much. And particularly when the Jazz Bands were playing I start to think they should instead play things more melodious, and for whatever reason I start to think of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and in particular the song Lollipops and Roses. In fact, I started humming that song internally to myself during the concert.

When I was growing up I took piano lessons and one of the things my teacher taught was to read sheet music where there was melody in the treble clef to be played by the right hand and chords written out, e.g., C#7, for the left hand to do a little bit of improvisation – block chord or arpeggio – to accompany the melody. After the lessons had stopped I continued to noodle around with the piano. We had a fake book – about 500 pages of sheet music with the melody and chords as I’ve just described – and I learned to play quite a few of the songs in it without too much practice ahead of time. One of those, you guessed it, was Lollipops and Roses. It really is an interesting skill to learn a melody by hearing somebody else perform it repeatedly and then being able to reproduce a tolerable version on your own without too much effort, seeing the sheet music for the first time.

Six or seven years ago we bought a piano for home and for the kids to learn. I was the one who played it the most. That skill was still there (my eyes are so bad now I can’t tell if the notes are between the lines or on the lines, but other than that all the cognitive ability remains) and I think that’s because “cheating” as it is to only read the melody and produce the accompaniment on the fly, there is a certain conceptual understanding in learning piano that way and once you have that it’s like riding a bicycle. I took a lot of Chemistry in High School and College too – almost all of that is forgotten. But that’s because it couldn’t be distilled this way down to a primitive skill that is quite general and broadly applicable. The piano playing was different that way. (My kids got piano lessons too early and they didn’t stick with it. They play the clarinet now – but they only learn their part that way, not the accompaniment.)

When I got home that night I did a Google Search on “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” the album we had where I first heard Lollipops and Roses, and which featured the hit, “A Taste of Honey,” as well as the title song. This was a wonderful album when it came out in 1965. You can hear clips from the album at the Amazon.com site that I linked too. If anything, it has gotten better with age. I can’t recall the last time I heard this music (before last night). It doesn’t get played on Oldies Radio; it’s not Rock. It doesn’t make it to Jazz Radio either. It is melodic, but with an attitude. Finding that Web page gave me a really strong connection to when I was a kid. Sometimes, you can’t go home again. But other times you can.

I’m not sure whether there is a broader lesson here or not. Sometimes, it’s just nice to hum the music.

* * * * *

Below is a little video, completely unexceptional in itself, perhaps it’s downright bad in that I’m not looking at the camera most of the time during the recording. But it does use the captioning tool that is now part of Google Video. I’m doing a demo next week in a computer lab where I want those in attendance to get an appreciation of the video at their own workstation, but those workstations won’t have speakers, so I thought the captioning would be a nice alternative.

This turns out to be pretty easy to produce. I wrote a script, did a “dry run” where I recorded audio only just to see about my timings. I basically assumed 3 seconds per line and just went with that. You can see the script at the following link.

Then I recorded the video. It wasn’t perfect timing-wise but it’s not too bad. (The guy walking around in the background with his cell phone was an unplanned touch!!) I’m sure it is much easier to produce in this order than to record the live presentation first and then attempt to make a transcription of that, and then get the timings between the transcription and the video. I used short sentences or phrases for this, not the way I talk or write most of the time. But it is consistent with that 3 seconds per line idea.

I’m still trying to decide if I like it or not. The video itself is not completely natural because I’m reading. But making videos in this manner is something that others should be able to do. In that sense, learning this is like learning to play the melody and then improvise on the chords. It’s not the full deal, but it is a lot quicker to get something that’s tolerable.

(To actually produce the captioning I copied my script with the timings in it and placed in the textbox that Google provides for captioning videos. It took another 12 hours after the video originally was processed for the captioning to appear.)

* * * * *

Last week a colleague in the College who is sending her kid to the U of I next fall asked me what type of computer to get. I wasn’t prepared for the question and I made something up on the fly, but in retrospect I think my answer wasn’t half bad – buy a cheapie computer at the outset or start with a hand-me-down from mom and dad and then a year or two in plan on buying a new and a more expensive one when the kid better understands his own need.

* * * * *

In trying to find the common thread in these items, I’m struck by the idea of willingly doing something simple and imperfect first, recognizing that there may never be a ramp up to the next level, while getting some immediate proficiency. This may be my theory of learning in a nutshell. It is definitely a legacy from being my father’s son. It was his style – from raking leaves in the yard, to doing arts and crafts on a rainy weekend day, to guessing at words in the crossword puzzle. It is so at odds with the do-it-right approach that seems to predominate nowadays. That’s worth further reflection in a future post.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Kopy Wrong

Buoyed by the daring behavior of Jonathan Lethem, most recently documented in this piece in Wired Magazine, and increasingly finding myself irritated by what seem to me to be undesirable consequences of copyright, e.g., the bankrupting of university libraries due to the hyperinflation in scholarly journal pricing, the need to invest heavily in Course Management Systems (that many of the users find clunky) in significant part to provide an acceptable way to distribute copyrighted materials in support of instruction via Fair Use, to the obnoxious video that RIAA has promoted to “educate” our students about file sharing, I’ve decided to write this post to argue that the law is terribly wrong in its present application and we who are not part of the motion picture, recording, or publishing industry should fight back to get to something more sensible and more beneficial to all of us.

* * * * *

I’m an economist and I’m going to give a little economic analysis. The critical variable I’ll look at is the term of the copyright. Under the first U.S. copyright law, the Copyright Act of 1790, the term was 14 years, renewable once for another 14 years after which the item entered into the public domain. That original law required registration for copyright to obtain. Under current law, there is no registration requirement. Copyright is obtained once the work is fixed in a tangible medium and the term at present is life of the author plus 70 years.

Reading this brief history of copyright at Wikipedia, I was interested to learn that copyright first emerged not to protect authors but to protect printers, soon after Gutenberg invented the printing press. Copyright law addresses the appropriability problem; absent such protection there is weakened incentive to produce copies in the first instance. In promoting the original production the copyright law addresses the underlying goal – to encourage learning via dissemination of the authored materials. But copyright law recognizes a tradeoff between providing the requisite incentive for original production of the item and granting access to the public once the item has been produced. Efficient solution of the latter requires the distribution of the item at marginal cost.

The law trades off these two needs by granting a period where the copyright holder has a monopoly in the distribution followed by a period where there is perfect competition because the item is in the public domain. A socially optimal term provides the right balance between these. The social optimum contrasts with the monopoly solution, which grants the copyright monopoly in perpetuity.

If we think of works that are similar in the benefits they provide (have a similar demand curve) but differ in the up front cost to produce the work, then any fixed term structure of copyright will encourage some of these works to be produced, those where the monopoly profits to be earned during the term of copyright cover the fixed cost, while other works won’t be produced, because the fixed cost is too large. Thus the term structure of copyright trades off those works that are produced, on the one hand, with access to the works once they’ve been produced, on the other.

There are many factors that can affect the optimal tradeoff and clearly among those are the technology used to produce items and the type of items that are subject to copyright. Originally copyright covered print items only, but now it covers any type of item that can be fixed including photographic images as well as audio and video recordings. Another factor that affects the tradeoff is the stock of items already produced that are currently under copyright. Interestingly, the greater the stock the shorter the duration of the optimal term, but the greater the incentive for copyright holders who are earning monopoly profits from that stock to extend the term. This, I believe, is one of the fundamental sources of the problem.

* * * * *

I’ve written the above in a flat way because I believe the economics I’ve just presented to be entirely uncontroversial; everyone would agree with what I said so far. Now I’ll start giving my spin. There are two possible explanations for why the copyright term has increased over time. There is an efficiency argument – notably that the fixed costs of the items subject to copyright has increased and at a rate faster than the rate at which demand has increased so we need a longer period of time to generate the revenue to cover those. Think of major motion pictures today that cost in excess of $100 million to produce. And there is a different type of argument – that the Congress which writes the copyright law is captured by the big copyright holders, as represented by the MPAA and the RIAA, for example. Under this second explanation, we’re moving further away from the efficient solution and closer to the monopoly solution. I believe that’s the case.

So now I want to consider different types of content and the term structure that would seem appropriate for it, starting with different type of print, then software, then audio recording, and finally video. I’m going to do this purely from a personal perspective, how I see the tradeoff. Frankly, I can’t see why we need more than 14 years, without renewal, in any of these cases and in most of them the term could be a lot less. I want to work through a bit what a shorter term would imply. And then I want to conclude with what we should do given that citizens like us don’t have the wherewithal to lobby Congress in an effective way to rewrite copyright law.

Let me begin with blogs such as this one. This post is copyrighted at present and at the bottom of the blog there is a Creative Commons license. But there is no need for copyright at all in this case. Indeed, most of us bloggers are aching for the rest of you out there to read our posts and copy them (preferably with some acknowledgement, but do note that plagiarism is not the same as violating copyright).

Next note that for written work that is read by others, there are some rewards that accrue to the author out of recognition for the work. Those rewards can be substantial. For example, the work can be a gateway to television or public speaking engagements, perhaps to a faculty appointment at a major university, as well as to produce other writing under contract. Even for substantial pieces of writing in book length form, for example consider Norman Mailer’s most recent book, I believe these type of recognition rewards are sufficient to generate most if not all the authoring that takes place today. (Perhaps “opportunistic authoring” such as George Tenet’s recent book would not be written under such circumstances.) Since it is clear that the costs of electronic publishing and distribution are quite small, in addition to the authoring the primary costs of producing a substantial piece of writing of this sort are the editing and, perhaps, the marketing. So perhaps the optimal term length is not zero. But it can’t be too long.

Yet for books, I believe the consequence of the distortion created by having a longer term length is not too bad. It’s true that I typically can’t purchase a book in digital form to be printed on my own if I so desire. This is the single biggest distortion at present. But via Amazon.com or other online booksellers, I can get access to a very wide variety of titles quite soon after the book has been released. The paperback version of the book may not be available on first printing, but printing technology has improved sufficiently that hard cover books are typically not too highly priced.

Now consider other items primarily in print – newspapers and magazines. Clearly some minimal term is needed. Part of the value of the information provided is in its timeliness. Substantial cost is put in to gather the information and assure its accuracy (although we know that is done imperfectly). Unlike with the authoring of a single book, this is an ongoing activity and hence the cost is ongoing as well. There needs to be a revenue stream to cover that and some period of copyright is surely necessary.

But this type of content has a different use, as a source of archival information, and it is far less clear that for this use the material needs to be copyrighted. Indeed for the reasons that Lethem gave in his piece in Harper’s Magazine, the archive really belongs to the intellectual commons, so it should be in the public domain. When does the news value end and the archival value begin? I can’t give a good answer to that one, but my sense is that one year of copyright is more than sufficient.

Let’s turn to software. Would there be any harm to Microsoft if at this point the source code for Windows 95 entered the public domain? What about Windows 98? Windows 2000? Obviously Microsoft needs copyright protection for Vista and even still for XP. But 10 years is an awful long time in the software business. Having a monopoly for that period again seems more than sufficient and that’s because the product itself has a limited useful life and then becomes obsolete. So while copyright is necessary here, long term is not.

Now consider music recordings. Think of the Beatles. Back in 1963, we had family friends who went to that first Ed Sullivan Show. If I recall correctly, the dad worked for CBS and somehow got his daughter tickets. I think we were at their house that night when the show aired. Unbelievable, I witnessed history in the making. The Beatles were a phenomenon. They made money hand over fist and did so via the gate from live performance, royalties for their songs airing on the radio, and sales of their records, and quite possibly with other merchandise as well. I don’t know this for certain having never seen the numbers, but I surmise that they could have given away their records for free and likewise not demanded a royalty for radio airing and still made a ton of money just from the performances. In that sense, they didn’t need copyright.

They did benefit from copyright, clearly, and I’m sure their albums still sell. Further, others in the music recording business benefited as well. They benefited handsomely. I think too handsomely. Now imagine that you’re in the music recording business and you want to create another phenomenon so you can again ride the wave. What do you do? What gets created? Think of MTV. Think of Britney Spears. This documentary about the music business, not particularly well received but in part that’s because it is largely about a downer, makes the same point. Economists would describe the behavior as rent seeking. All this production dissipates resources. And in the process it has killed the creativity of music makers who care only about the music, because they can’t enter into this business, the production costs are too much for them.

Recall that copyright was originally about the folks doing the first printing, not about the authors. Let’s focus on them and ask this question. Could they run their business in an entirely different way, lean and mean on the original production, distribute the audio files for free online, track which music gets a lot of download and then market those groups via live performance? Could that approach be economically viable? And now ask, would that approach turn these producers and distributors into fat cats in the event one of their groups became the next phenomenon? Is that the reason we need copyright? This seems to me a good reason to limit copyright term, not extend it.

I would feel much better ethically arguing against the piracy of downloading music illegally if I didn’t feel such a strong sense of hypocrisy from RIAA on the term issue. Last night there was a fight on Pay Per View, Mayweather against De La Hoya. It cost $55. I didn’t buy it. In the next week or two I expect that fight to be on commercial TV for free. I can wait for that. But for music, I’ll have to wait life of the artist plus 70 years for the free download. I don’t get it why that is needed.

It’s much the same for movies, with all the blockbusters, too many that end up bombing at the box office, much the same as why MTV seems like a necessary way to promote music. Let’s admit that film production has a bigger fixed cost than music recording. So on that argument the efficient term should be longer. But how much longer? And as a consequence don’t we see the commercialism drowning out the art too often? Isn’t that more of a problem with film than with music?

There is still a different issue with video. The TV and cable or satellite provide a different gateway into purchasing content. There is both pay per view and subscription film channels, e.g. HBO. These ways of purchasing content are a rental market. (With TiVo there can be some aspect of durability to the purchase, but unless or until that purchase can be burned onto a DVD, the purchase is essentially ephemeral.) In contrast, one can purchase video as a durable good. For example, Amazon.com has an extensive DVD collection. In doing some background checking to write this piece I was pleased to find that some of the more interesting films I saw when I was in College or Graduate school are available through this avenue. Among these are Shock Corridor ($26.99), Children of Paradise ($35.99), and Closely Watched Trains ($26.99).

The rental market via pay per view offers a fairly limited menu of very recent movies. There is no rental market for older films. If there were, it would reduce my demand to see current movies. And, of course, if those older films were in the public domain and freely available for download, my demand would be reduced that much more.

As a consumer, a movie will last two hours more or less and I might view it a second time. I object to paying the equivalent of new release hard cover book prices for that experience. When I read a book, say a 300 page thriller, now I’m probably putting in six to eight hours in the reading and I’m often buying that in paperback. And then my wife can read it or one of my kids. It’s a better deal. The movie viewing better matches the rental market model. But that’s not how they sell it, except for the contemporary films.

Further, they deliberately don’t release films for purchase till they’ve been out in the theaters for a while. They do this as a means to fight Coase’s Conjecture about the Durable Goods Monopolist, who reduces price down to marginal cost, “in the twinkling of an eye.” When the kids were very young we watched a lot of cartoon movies, and the industry started to experiment with films that were created to be delivered for home viewing at the outset. I believe that some of the films in The Land Before Time series were in that category. So they obviously recognize that in some demographics home viewing trumps theater visits as a preferred mode. But for non-cartoon films, they don’t try to make those films available to home viewers as the films come out in the theaters.

Let me wrap up. We live in a highly connected world where due to the Internet individual creators probably don’t need copyright at all to get their ideas out. My own belief is that the big book publishers, music producers, and film studios do need copyright, but not nearly as much as they claim and the current term limits by law can only be rationalized by the monopoly argument, 70 years after the life of the creator is essentially infinite for anyone reading this post; we’ll be dead by then.

The last remaining question is how one should act in light of unreasonable nature of the copyright term. Here are the possibilities – speak out but obey the law, look the other way regarding the violations of others, capitulate in full, treat it is a muddle and mumble about it, or disagree with the analysis I’ve given and think we’ve got a pretty good thing going. I’m doing the first one for me, but I’m still scratching my head about how I feel about the student behavior. That the RIAA in particular is putting pressure on CIOs and Provosts on the illegal file sharing front takes the issue outside of ethics and into limiting liability for the university. That’s not the way to educate our students and that’s really why I’m so bothered by this.

Friday, May 04, 2007

False Idols

Earlier this week the Turner Classic Movies Channel aired a documentary, Brando. I only watched part of it, on the second night. It was interesting for several reasons and I may view the entire thing when it airs again later in the month. There was some insight about his life away from films, with footage of where he lived in Tahiti and an interview with an adult son from a Tahitian wife, where the son talked about Brando’s desire for tranquility and to be treated just like everyone else. There was a lot of footage with more contemporary actors; Jon Voight was particularly interesting to listen to because he talked about the art in Brando’s acting noting specific details that showcased the approach, and the other stars from The Godfather – Robert Duvall, James Caan, and Al Pacino talked about how much fun it was to make that movie with all the play that occurred among the cast between the takes. And there were interviews with directors, notably Arthur Penn, who talked about Brando’s knowledge of how to make movies, aptly illustrated with an example from The Chase where Brando suggested to Penn that they shoot a fight scene at a lower frame rate so that when it was played back at a more normal rate it gave an animated effect to the scene. Penn said he amplified the technique in Bonnie and Clyde and thanked Brando for giving him the idea.

Much of the bit I saw concerned the “hiatus” Brando took in his acting during the ‘60s, where in many films he seemingly did the movie for the paycheck and nothing else. Here was a guy who transformed the genre of film acting, yet then he either wouldn’t or couldn’t live up to the standard he had set for himself. It is a bit of a puzzle why with his obvious brilliance Brando didn’t seem compelled to push himself in his performances and select his roles more carefully to encourage that result. There was some speculation offered in the documentary that it had to do with the directors - there weren’t other directors like Elia Kazan, who directed Brando in several of the pictures where Brando set his reputation. The argument was that Brando needed somebody to play off who was as willing to push the envelope as he was. Lacking that, Brando had no alternative but to go through the motions; after all he needed the income and he couldn’t do the movie all by himself. It’s also quite possible that he got fed up with the corporate nonsense that goes into making a film. There was some discussion in the documentary about whether Brando became surly and difficult to work with during this period. Certainly, that was the reputation he developed. Then came the Godfather and Last Tango in Paris; the documentary has a good segment with Bernardo Bertolucci about that. Brando had his resurrection. But his acting never again showed the same intensity.

* * * * *

Yesterday Bob Herbert had a column about Paul Rieckhoeff, a veteran of the Iraq War and an articulate spokesman on behalf of veterans. The upshot of the piece is a disconnection between the soldiers and their families, on one side, and the rest of the population, including the federal government, on the other. In the column, Herbert quotes Rieckhoeff:

The president can say we’re a country at war all he wants. We’re not. The military is at war. And the military families are at war. Everybody else is shopping.

Though I’ve not been a soldier and can’t imagine the passion and anguish that war creates, I believe I can understand the disaffection Rieckhoeff and other veterans feel about how they’ve been treated by the rest of us. And while going to war is quite unlike acting, even when it’s Brando as the actor, I believe that Rieckhoeff’s disaffection is akin to the malaise Brando felt as an actor in the 60’s, creating a strong sense of an opportunity squandered.

So I can be sympathetic to Rieckhoff’s view. But it doesn’t change my belief that the war in Iraq was a mistake.

* * * * *

Also yesterday, I attended a conflict resolution workshop aimed at all the academic professionals in the College of Business here. As these things go, I thought this one was well done. The speaker advertised that the session would not really teach us anything new, but would give us a good frame of mind to think about conflict at work and how best to manage it. He delivered on that. Among the points he gave us were these:

(1) Conflict is a regular part of human interaction.

Most people view conflict with a negative disposition, but it can be an opportunity for learning.

One can deal with conflict either through a hard, soft, or principled approach. Any one of these may be the appropriate response, depending on the context.

Some people thrive on conflict and in other cases problems can be intractable so that even with the best response conflict might not resolve.

One further point that came up in the session is worth mentioning. Although we can likely readily acknowledge all four points in the abstract, in practice (this was illustrated through some of the simulations we worked through) many of us think of conflict only in negative terms and only consider a hard approach in response. The hard approach seems to be the first thing that comes to mind.

* * * * *

Via Barbara Ganley’s most recent post (thank you Barbara for returning to your blogging) I found Will Richardson’s recent post, “Technology is the Devil” and Other Observations. It so reminded me of a post not too long ago by George Siemens that I thought something must be in the air. I made some comments at George’s site along the lines of trying to be instrumental to address the issues – conflict resolution if you will. But my frame of mind has changed this week as a consequence of some of the experiences I mentioned above, so I’m going to give a more personal response this time around. Also, I should note that blogging is unlike giving a live presentation to an audience in many respects, though it may share some aspects regarding the care to work through a well thought out argument. Since my focus is my own blogging, it might only imperfectly tie into what Will and George are describing.

I don’t write blog posts as frequently now as I did two years ago, but as of late they’ve been getting longer and for the most part I work harder to get the argument and the telling to my liking. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I started I was bursting. I had a lot of ideas pent up and they had to get out. Through blogging I found a way to release them and out they came. That worked for a while and then I got some positive reaction from a few folks (here’s an example that got my motor going) and that provided some impetus to keep writing and push things a bit. And, of course, there’s learning by doing; time on task matters.

Underneath that, sometimes it’s invisible to me and I think that becomes a problem from time to time, there is a strange interplay between intensity and boredom. When I’m pushing my own ability to write and to make the argument more subtle, more layered, and better paced, well that’s intense – there’s no other word for it. Yet if I’m doing it for a while it starts to feel ordinary even when I’m making progress. It becomes part of the routine, so anyone should be able to do it and all I have to do is convince them of the value in putting in the time and that should be trivial, shouldn’t it? The value is self-evident, or so it seems to me.

Then I start to need those congratulatory messages via email or as comments to my post (“need” is definitely not the right word, read this piece by a graduating senior and see if it rubs you the wrong way to see why “need” is not the right word) because I’ve got to start to convince myself of what should be self-evident and then because my learning has plateaued I start to get bored and then want some ego stroking, in part as a time filler, and now we’re over the edge of the slippery slope and down we go. I can see it happening and I know I should just move on to other work or do some reading I’ve got to catch up on.

But I don’t because I there is a compulsion and it drives me. It’s that first reaction to conflict, in this case a conflict of my own making, with potential readers who don’t find my blog post at all (that theme also seems to be getting a lot of mention these days, for example see this post from webomatica which I found via Stephen Downes’ site) or those who take a look but don’t comment. In thinking about that compulsion, I’m reminded of a line from Sylvia Nasr’s book A Beautiful Mind, where John Nash was asked whether he tried to resist the schizophrenia when it first came to him and he reported that he didn’t resist because it seemed to him like one of his mathematical ideas; they came the same way.

In this post, to give a concrete example, I’m trying to tie to together ideas that might seem far apart – Brando, veterans of the Iraq War, conflict resolution, and promoting learning technology. When I list them like that, they don’t seem to work together well at all, do they? What about my narrative? Is that better? Is the weave tight? I don’t know. I never know. I need somebody else to react to it. That’s not ego stroking. That’s learning. That interaction is a must and it’s why there has to be at least some social aspect. It can’t be pure introspection. And then, of course, there aren’t readers on one side of the line and writers on the other. We’re on both sides and at the same time. So the social interaction has to be more and then I learn that my introspection parallels yours and vice versa and the interaction cascades and it fuels more introspection.

The idolatry is interspersed with the good stuff, the stuff we want to keep and promote. That’s the damning part. It means a period of excitement and creativity will be followed by a period of disillusionment and alienation. The question is not if it will happen; it will. The only question is when. And part of the reason almost certainly has to be that there aren’t a bunch of new friends to go along for the ride. It’s the new friends who fuel our imagination and from whom we learn.

Are those folks we’re trying to convince to use learning technology going to end up being new friends? Will and Barbara seem to have both thought (and maybe they still think this to some extent) that it’s the learning needs of the current generation of students that will impel the teacher to embrace the new approach. I’d look at the learning needs of the teachers. Are they bursting? In that case, we’ve got it made. Are they interested, but with some reluctance? What then is the right way to draw them out? Are they mostly fearful or simply not interested at all? In this case we’re in the role of the Iraq vets and they’re the ones thinking the war shouldn’t have been started. Can we empathize with that? It’s so much easier to think they’re deluded.