Monday, June 25, 2007

Can one learn skepticism from a video game?

It seems that I get irked more easily these days. Something others might find innocent or bland I take as pernicious. I now subscribe to Inside Higher Ed’s Daily Update and one of today’s items is mentioned as follows:

When ‘Digital Natives’ Go to the Library

Colleges urged to teach information literacy by embracing the learning styles of video games. more

This line so annoyed me. I found it inane. I’ll explain why in a bit. But let me first point out other recent remarks I’ve found equally ridiculous. In arguing against the Senate’s recent measure to toughen CAFE Standards, Rich Lowery on the News Hour said that even if the standards improved fuel efficiency they’d have negligible impact because people will drive more. Oh my! (Presumably, smart consumers compute a cost per mile by dividing the price of gas by the car’s fuel efficiency and when the cost per mile goes up, for example as has happened recently with pump prices, we drive less and when that goes down, we get the opposite effect. But it is more complex than that, for example because driving can be a substitute for flying, the demand for which is also affected by the price of gas, and further, we really don’t know what the demand elasticity is, nor do we know what will happen to future prices at the pump.)

And then there is Vice President Cheney’s argument that his office is not part of the Executive Branch because the Vice President is also President of the Senate, proving once again that the real sin of power is hubris and that the exercise of hubris leads to outcomes that can’t pass a reasonable man test. (This is not an academic debate. At issue is whether the Vice President’s office must comply with and Executive Order requiring all “entities” in the Executive Branch to, on an annual basis, turn over classified information to the Information Security Oversight Office, a unit of the National Archives. The Vice President has wanted to keep these documents secret. And let’s recall that Scooter Libby worked for Cheney, so he seems well past the point of deserving the benefit of doubt on this one.) This incident makes you feel that instead of teaching Checks and Balances in grade school they should have the kids go straight to reading The Prince.

Second, if you do follow the “more” link at the end of the Inside Higher Ed blurb to get to the actual article by Scott Jaschik, you will find that the expression “information literacy” is not mentioned even once. Whoever cooked up that blurb must have surmised that all instruction Libraries provide for students falls under the mantle of “teaching information literacy.” Perhaps that’s true, but perhaps not.

The message of the article itself is mostly benign --- the Library as Temple is an outdated concept, student inquiry should drive Library Instruction, and Library tools should be easy to use so a novice can find things. These points closely parallel the current message we’re hearing about classroom instruction – we should move from a teacher-centric to a student-centric approach. So there is not too much to get worked up about there. But then in multiple places in the piece there is explicit exhortation to embrace games. (This included a bit about LAN parties, which aren’t parties that I host (or attend) nor are they parties about local area networks, but rather are parties held after hours, from which I gather that LAN in this context is short for late at night.)

The irony to me is that none of this seems like promoting information literacy and much of it seems like escapism. I’m quite ok with escapism and do my fair share of indulging. But what about information literacy? Is that still on the radar for Libraries? Does any of what is being advocated by James Paul Gee, George M. Needham, and others have anything to do with teaching information literacy?

I want to move from ALA’s orientation to information literacy, to my own and in doing so I want to return to the title of this post. In my way of thinking about information literacy we enter situations with a prior world view based on what we’ve experienced, what we’ve been taught, what we’ve argued with others, and what we’ve reflected on by ourselves. When we confront a new piece of information we do so with that prior world view operating in the background. We test the new piece of information. Does it fit? Does it contradict what we believe to be true? Is it redundant or does it add something new? Then, if it seems new and especially if it seems to contradict something else we believe, we perform other tests. Does the author of the content stand to gain from having you believe one thing or another? Are there others saying the same thing? Where do those others fit in the political spectrum? Has the author or any of these others said different things that you’ve come to believe are true? What else would I have to believe to make this true?

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of questions but rather was intended simply to open up the process that we go through when we speak of information literacy. Much of the time that process is implicit. We don’t actually make such a list of questions but we do zero in on whether the information is to be trusted as well as how we can incorporate it into our world view.

Information literacy is the critical issue of our times and, in truth, we’re failing at it. But it’s not just our students. Think of WMD and Iraq and consider the dismal failure of the Fourth Estate to challenge the grounds for invasion in a meaningful way that would have prevented the war. Read Frank Rich’s latest column about the Bush Administration’s current effort to downplay the failure of the surge.

But don’t just consider information literacy from the perspective of national politics. Think about it in your job. Ask whether non-learning technology types (other IT professionals, Deans and Provosts, faculty) are sympathetic to learning technology or not. Consider the furor over the Gorman posts about blogging.

Then think about information literacy in other aspects of your life. Think about the Lincoln quote on fooling some of the people, and ask whether the insidious effort to get Intelligent Design taught in the K-12 science curriculum as an alternative to Darwin is really about fooling some of the people. Then ask yourself whether you too can be fooled, especially if you don’t have the opportunity to bring to bear your usual process for incorporating new information into your world view. Think about the Stockholm Syndrome and what that means for information literacy.

We’ve become a society where debate is absent; marketing prevails instead, the promotion of Madison Avenue, the White House, Fox News; the source matters not. It is the style of presentation that matters. How are we to evaluate that content? We’ve matured to the point where humor and lampooning seemingly have more credibility than straight news.

Then return to students in the classroom and ask about the “Will this be on the test?” mindset and the “I don’t know what you want” type of frustration that students express when they are receiving instruction from a faculty member. Ask whether students surrender their own world view in this classroom setting because survival in school qua grades seemingly demands it.

And with that brief tour of information literacy you’re now ready to consider where video games fit in. To me, they don’t. That’s why I got my dander up.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Like Father…

The house we lived in where I grew up in Bayside had a fair amount of wear before we moved in, I believe that was summer of 1959 when I was 4. So by the time I was a teenager there were a variety of minor things in the house that needed repair and my dad spent a good deal of his weekend time doing little fixit jobs. His instruments were many and varied but I recall a lot of use of popcicle sticks or wooden toothpicks, string, and scotch tape. He got a certain delight from his handiwork though the rest of us had to wonder whether it really would do the job. Mostly it did, at least for a while. But it definitely didn’t look like it was professionally done. That was part of the charm.

I don’t have any of my dad’s desire to do home repair, but I do have a yen to create online objects and most recently I’ve been making video clips, either little screen movies with voice over or talking head videos. It occurred to me that those should be combined – introduce the screen movie with the talking head – to give the viewer an idea of who that man is behind the curtain. This is an early attempt at trying that. It is definitely not slick. I wonder if it gets the job done.

Here we are trying to get the College of Business to standardize on Illinois Compass (WebCT Vista 4.x) to use as a courses portal, to take advantage of the fact that the calendar tool allows a pooled view across courses, and to see if we can deliver something that satisfies students and faculty alike and yet is hosted by the Campus rather than by the College (take advantage of economies of scale and lower incremental cost for the College). We’ve been doing some training sessions for instructors and for administrators responsible for some of our professional programs, notably the MBA and MSF programs.

Those sessions are reasonably effective and I believe are a good gateway toward an ongoing relationship between my staff and those receiving the training. But not everyone in the College will want to avail themselves of the training and if as I prefer you make the training a dialog partly driven by the inquiry of those receiving training, then some things may not be covered at all and other things may not be done in sufficient depth. Short videos available online might fill those gaps nicely.

Also, there is something different between these little movies and a Web document with screen shots, parallel to but perhaps not identical to the difference between lecture and presentation from a textbook. My sense is that the Web documents tend to be quite functional in their orientation. They are therefore quite good as reference, especially for someone who is looking to do a particular task. But as a first pass they may leave the reader missing the forest for the trees. In the movie you can be more conceptual and not try to be exhaustive in what is covered. That might be better as an entry.

Now let me talk about a variety of factors that contributed to how the video turned out. I’ve got my dad in mind thinking about them. First, I don’t want these to be a life’s work. So I didn’t story board at the outset and I didn’t do enough takes so that every part went perfectly smoothly. I did put some effort into getting the microphone volume setting appropriate, but you will notice that in going from the talking head to the screen capture there is a jump in the volume, the consequence of recording in two different applications, and I did nothing to smooth that out. I also put in some effort into determining the size of the window to capture so it would display reasonably in a browser. If I’ve got my Bookmarks toolbar hidden, then the entire movie displays within the browser window comfortably. With the Bookmarks toolbar enabled, the stop and start controls at the bottom show up, but not fully. That effect is just like my dad’s handiwork, ok for use but definitely not perfect.

There is one other parallel with my dad. I like to do things with inexpensive equipment. The webcam and headset that I use are really cheap, about $70 in total. (Camtasia at the educational discount is under $200, but I wouldn’t call that cheap.) For things I do on my own, I much prefer cheap. I don’t know if the reason is genetic or upbringing, but I really do prefer that and the question what can you do reasonably well for very little money appeals to me as the right type of ed tech question. I can rationalize my instinct by saying that for all forms of content creation it makes sense pedagogically only if the students themselves can do it. Cheap means the students can do it where they live and need not go to a lab. That’s something to consider. But my own comfort with the approach doesn’t derive from that rationalization. It comes from something else, a more basic feeling.

I believe my dad did some of his handiwork as therapy, a form of self-expression and a way to do other than his job. My dad rarely talked about his work at home, but I believe he wasn’t very good at it, he was in a Law partnership with his brother who was the more senior member of the firm, and I believe there were a variety of frustrations about the work for him. Self-expression and therapy are definitely two core needs for me. Kind of makes you think about blogging.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Will Socialism Make a Rebound?

When I was a first year grad student at Northwestern, 1976-77, each day during the school week I would drive up from my apartment in Rogers Park and spend most of the day on campus. Northwestern was on the quarter system and I believe most of my classmates took 3 courses per quarter. I took 4, initially because I didn’t understand the difference between the quarter system and the semester system and 4 courses didn’t seem like such a heavy load, and later so I could try out some things other than the prescribed curriculum and take some classes with students who were past their first year. Aside from attending classes, I put in a lot of time in the reserve room doing the required reading and working through the economic models – you read economic papers with a pencil and a pad of paper and you show yourself you understand by deriving the equations/model.

I had hardly taken any economics as an undergrad and I didn’t know whether I’d be any good at it nor, and more important for me at the time, whether I’d like it. I told myself to suspend judgment on that, give it my best shot for a quarter or so, and then see where I was. During the first quarter I was quite certain I had never worked that hard before, especially over an extended period of time. It’s funny. After a while just from putting in the effort the subject matter co-opts you, your speech becomes laden with the jargon of the discipline, and then almost subliminally you ask how is it possible that you’re putting in all that time if you don’t like it?

Even with all the classes and the time in the Library I still had some free time on hand and I needed some release from the regular studies simply to keep my wits about me. Frequently at the end of the day a particular classmate and I (and sometimes his girlfriend) would go out for desert. There was a pie place in Skokie, as I recall on Dempster, that we went to often and as an alternative we’d go to a deli that had a wide variety of cheesecakes located on Sheridan Road across from Loyola. But it didn’t make sense to go off campus during the day and since I didn’t have office space (I may have had a carrel in the Library but that was even more spartan than the Reserve Room; starting in my second year I got a desk in the Math Center) I’d hang out in public spaces on campus. The two main ones that I’d frequent were the Cafeteria at the Norris Center (which is still there today) and the Library Lounge (which I believe has since been repurposed for other Library use).

Many of the other grad students on campus, particularly those in their first year, were more or less in the same boat as I was. So there was a tendency to see the same faces in these spots. That classmate with whom I frequently had desert with had been a bit of a Marxist as an undergrad (he went to the U of Colorado in Boulder, came from a well to do family in Philadelphia, and had some sort of authority thing for his old man). This classmate introduced me to some sociology students, one of whom also was a Marxist. We had interesting discussions, if a little bit on the b.s. side of the spectrum as compared to what I was getting in my classes, and I believe I read the Communist Manifesto just to feel comfortable in those conversations. Since I took a Linear Programming class in my first quarter there, I was able to appreciate the Labor Theory of Value on a technical level, though I don’t believe it came up much in my courses (we did spend a lot of time on National Income Accounting in the first quarter of Macro and I recall that the underlying model was a general Leontief System) so could give back in these conversations on the technical side of things. These conversations plus one course as an undergrad on economic models of politics where we read Schumpeter was essentially my entire education about Socialism. The bulk of my formal training was on neoclassical economics.

This little lead in is my mea culpa in talking about Socialism when really, I’m not expert in this at all and so maybe I’m saying things in an awkward way or perhaps even incorrectly. But it seems to me that in a lot of what I’m reading these days or watching in film there is lurking behind the scenes the question of whether some version of Socialism is where we are (should be?) headed. Let me give some examples so you can see what I mean.

Last week I saw Freedom Writers on Pay Per View. The first half hour or so was horrible, a lot of senseless violence and utter despair, and I was getting pretty disgusted with the picture and ready to turn off the TV when the tone of the film changed. I understood that they were trying to set up the situation, give the viewer a sense of the accomplishment of the teacher and the students by noting the brutality of what had come before. What I didn’t understand till after the film was over that you the viewer actually need to have the feeling of being assaulted in order to make an emotional connection with what the teacher does in getting through to her students. And the only way to create that sensation was to have the first part of the film seem to drag on forever. That created a sense of the abyss, with no way out.

The teacher goes through a period of disconnect and distrust with her students. You the viewer have a sense of hopelessness but the teacher remains optimistic and determined. Eventually she figures out a way for them to open up with each other by acknowledging the common horrors they’ve experienced – friends and relatives being shot to death – and she does this in a clever pedagogic way where the students not only indicate their own circumstance but see the circumstance of their classmates at the same time. This was the bond they needed to accept her as a teacher and to cross racial lines and accept their classmates as human beings. Once the bond was formed the teacher was able to get remarkable communication and depth of expression from the students because it was the first time in their lives where they could talk on an emotional level about the realities of their own existence. They had a need to get this out. The teacher filled that need and taught them how to right at the same time.

The teacher goes through a remarkable amount of self-sacrifice to achieve a quality learning environment for her students. The supplies at school are inadequate – the department head wouldn’t let this class use the books that were in the school warehouse for fear that the students would ruin them and because she had a pejorative view of the students’ ability to read – so the teacher worked additional jobs after school in order to earn enough money to pay for books and other supplies out of her own pocket. This was another demonstration to her students that she cared and that demonstration extracted a strong response in kind from the students. But the teacher paid a high price for her own dedication. Her husband felt neglected and they end up separating before the end of the film. It also seemed that she was more of an achiever than her husband and he couldn’t deal with her drive and ambition for her class. She couldn’t reconcile her work life and her family life. So the message seems to be that wonderful things happen at school, even at a tough school like this one, but there is indeed a big price to pay to get those wonderful things. The teacher pays the price willingly, as if to say her kids are human beings and they deserve the attention, don’t they?

Ultimately, the picture turns into a tear jerker in part because this outcome is so exceptional, though the student needs for personal dignity and to tell someone what they are going through seem so basic and so ordinary. And precisely for that reason I started asking myself whether something like this could be done on a large scale --- in other words, socialism.

Let me turn next to Health Care Plans that the candidates are advancing and how those are entering into the Presidential Campaign. Atul Gwande had an interesting piece on the Obama plan, noting that the particulars of the announced plan may mean less than the ability to shepherd a modified and renegotiated plan through an inevitably difficult and painful process with Congress to come to something that can both get the necessary votes and yet solves the mess we’re in now with so many uninsured and premiums skyrocketing.

I started to ask myself how Obama and indeed how any of the other candidates might work their way through such a negotiation – what will inform them on those subsidiary issues where they can be flexible and those principles where they need to make their own personal line in the sand. And in thinking through that question I thought to myself that the candidates need some personal ideology to serve as a guide for hashing all this out. For the Republican candidates, perhaps it’s enough to think of health care primarily as an issue about the cost of doing business, and containing such costs so we can maintain our competitiveness. But Democratic candidates, of necessity, have to consider health care from the perspective of the well being of those unemployed (and uninsured) as well as those who have jobs and insurance but are fearful of losing both. What other principle is there to advocate for a system where all get insurance regardless of employment status unless it is Socialism, though some may prefer other euphemisms (Social Safety Net?).

Health care, though clearly an important issue (health care costs have been rising faster than the rate of inflation and in the U.S. we have the highest health care expenditure as a fraction of GDP, see this table) is still just one issue. Perhaps a more fundamental concern is income inequality. This afternoon I found a current version of USA Today at the coffee place and while I normally don’t read that paper for some reason I went to their Op-Ed page and found this piece. Income inequality is front and center there, something for us as a nation to be ashamed about. That column is about the pious nature of our public religious face; if we really believed in the Golden Rule how could we possibly endure so much poverty in a land with so much plenty? But many of us, brought up with a strong notion of the benefit from the separation of Church and State may look for a non-religious argument for reducing income inequality. How about this essay by Albert Einstein? It’s called, “Why Socialism?”

USA Today certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on the income inequality issue. The New York Times Magazine devoted the entirety of its most recent issue to the income inequality question. It looks at this question through many lenses: the candidacy of John Edwards is the feature, but there is also a stimulating if a bit disconcerting piece on the preaching of Ruby Payne and getting insight into attitudinal and behavior differences attributable to class differences and in particular why middle class teachers have such a hard time teaching the children of the poor, a discussion of how to manage promoting growth of the economy on the one hand where a superstar approach gives the right incentives to create new ideas and new product with providing a decent quality of life for those who are less fortunate on the other hand.

But the piece that got me most thinking about this, even if it was a bit of fluff, was the article about Larry Summers, where apparently Summers is reconsidering the views he had during the Clinton-Rubin years where he was pretty much a free trader and government’s role was to make trade as unfettered from regulation as possible, to considering a latter day “Industrial Policy” so that workers would not suffer so much from the inevitable dislocations that have resulted from Globalization. Summers, for all the hoopla surrounding his leaving the Presidency of Harvard, is a serious thinker and someone who probably would prefer to couch his own arguments within a broader framework. And if his big issue is how to tame the beast of competition in global markets, will he go so far as to embrace Socialism? He’s not there yet, clearly, but has reached his final resting place on this? My guess is that he is still in intellectual transition.

So far in this piece, I’ve considered Socialism as a kind of income insurance. That is certainly an aspect but it’s far from the whole picture. There is a different type of question to ask, one that is not yet getting as much press, but a question I think that may be more fundamental. Consider the Robin Hood type of income distribution but coming not through banditry but rather through volunteerism. Think of the Peace Corps, of Teach For America, even of the United Way. These programs matter. They matter to the recipients of the services and they matter to the providers. But ask yourself whether these programs are enough, taken altogether. Do they matter in a macroeconomic sense? Or are they a drop in the bucket?

Consider volunteerism as a coordination problem – it’s a lot easier to get people to do the volunteer work if friends and peers are also doing the volunteer work. This means if you want the volunteerism to matter in a macroeconomic sense you need government to play some role to encourage participation. That role is not social insurance. It’s more like instilling social responsibility and encouraging the resulting behavior (something Einstein argued in the essay linked above). The government does play this type of role with military service. Why is that the only way that young people can show responsibility for their country? Given the issues we face, does that make sense?

It’s my sense that we need to advocate for a kind of social responsibility on our campuses and make that real to our students, giving them opportunities to do the equivalent of volunteer work while they are pursuing their studies and making that part of the fabric of their education. How else can we combat the cheating, the nihilism, the disengagement? And how else can we give meaning to their education in the here and now, education for itself, not only a deferred gratification, as a gateway to good jobs.

Yet socialism is a dirty word. We think of Red Scares, of the Iron Curtain, of cumbersome state sponsored bureaucracy. We’ve embraced the rhetoric of Milton Friedman. Friedman’s key word was freedom, individual freedom. His TV show with his wife Rose was called Free to Choose. Socialism, even Social Democracy of the type practiced in Sweden and not just the Scientific Socialism we associate with Marx and Lenin, clearly has elements that restrict freedom. As long as it stays a dirty word, the ideas can’t make a comeback, though if one looks at the issues we’re focusing on now, the ideas should be front and center. So I don’t know how this will play out. But I know what my heart tells me.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Mini-Lectures via Camtasia

Today I've been doing some recording in Camtasia in part to provide demos for faculty in my college and in part to think through the pedagogic implications. This is my latest effort, a mini-lecture on "Block Pricing," a particular type of price discrimination. I'll discuss briefly on technology/implementation issues and then another brief discussion on pedagogy.

First consider sizing of what you are seeing. The movie should display in the browser without the need to scroll, either horizontally or vertically. I've captured about as big a region as is possible to do that (when viewing on a laptop) and yet preserve a reasonable aspect ratio. Excel is helpful for this sizing effort because it counts rows and columns. I've got 22 rows displayed (and note that there is one tool bar open that appears below the Menu bar) and the columns displayed are A through M. If you size an Excel window that way you can then use it is a guide for any other application that you may wish to record; just size the window of that application to match the Excel window.

In the settings in Camtasia I did a screen recording with voice narration. I maxed out on their settings for video and audio quality - bigger file size, but who cares. Then I saved the file in the native format and made ready for Web delivery. When Camtasia does this, it uses Flash and produces the video as an .swf file. As an alternative I tried a custom setting in Camtasia to make a Windows Media file, but the video quality is not as good - there is discoloration. So I'm sticking with their recommendation for Web delivery. Camtasia produces an entire folder of stuff, with .xml, .css, and other files to accompany the video file. One of these is an .html file. When Camtasia is done I drag that entire folder onto my Web space on the College of Business server and then click on that .html file. That launches the presentation at the url where the presentation appears. Voila!

I'm doing this at the office where I have a very good connection to the server and the presentation appears almost immediately. I need to try at home to get a more realistic sense for how long it takes to load. I'd appreciate learning your experience with that.

* * * * *

The movie is of an "Excelet" that I had written (to accompany a textbook by Baron and Besanko). The Excelets were originally written as ancillary material to accompany the book, but I think these type of mini-lectures can be used as gateways into the content. Note the duration. This one is under 4 minutes in length. If you were doing a chalk board lecture on this topic it would probably be 20 minutes to a half hour, and that is because all the content would be derived from scratch --- the way we were taught to do it. I think the derived from scratch approach is fine for a student who will go on to grad school, but other students don't have the patience and need a quicker way to penetrate the ideas.

So here much of the construction has already been done. The Excelets have the virtue of literally being able to visualize the comparative statics from that construction and thereby get some insight into the construction itself. Note that the presentation in the video is mostly to explain how to use the Excelet and read what is going on. While there is some theory presented, most of that is in passing. They pick the theory up in the play with the Excelet and the video is aimed at encouraging the play.

For presenting theory of this type, I think this is the right type of design. No doubt building the Excelets is time consuming. But the Excelets are durable and can be re-used from semester to semester.

In my opinion, this type of content lends itself to online delivery. In teaching Economics, one can parse the course into two parts, one a math/theory part and the other a story telling part. We need to teach both and students really understand the economics only if they are comfortable with both. The story telling part is much better done face to face and in small group work during the live class time having students hash through a sensible story to match the economic situation seems like a valuable activity. The analytics, on the other hand, at least getting the basics, can be done online and via self-study. This type of online mini-lecture would seem a boon for that.