Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dominos and Speck You Later

I recall that when I was a kid the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam was justified by the Domino Theory. We had to halt communism before it spread, or so the thinking (er, party line) went. That theory fell out of favor as the war became increasingly unpopular. Now, however, I think a different sort of domino theory is something quite real to worry about. The Greek crisis looks like the next in the chain. Might it destabilize the economies of other countries in Europe? That sure looks possible. And could China be one of the casualties down the road?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Reading Eric Hoffer

Today's Quote of the Day:
The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not.
Eric Hoffer
(1902 - 1983)
Over the weekend I had been thinking about how one might teach students something about ethics in an economics course, one I might be teaching, and in a way that really would matter to the students. With ethical failures seemingly so much in the news as of late and with many of the students in the class likely to be Business majors, I wondered if it were possible to make any headway on this goal whatsoever, or if though it might be impossible to get students to articulate this way that their underlying cynicism, which they surely would prefer to keep concealed rather than bring out into the open, would block any attempts to reconsider their point of view.

I found some sites about teaching ethics with economics. This one looked promising. But the focus seem entirely on "outer world" issues that have an ethical dimension to them yet may seem merely to be academic matters to the students. As I wrote about a year ago, for students to make headway on the ethics they need to freely make decisions that matter to them and then observe the consequences on others with whom they interact. If they are dead to the impact on others, then I believe developing their sense of ethics is unattainable. If they do care but have been heretofore unaware of consequences of their actions, there is hope.

I was unsatisfied with the solution of economics readings and normally when in that state I just let it stew for a while. As it turns out, I saw the Eric Hoffer quote and that piqued my interest. I had read The True Believer in college in a seminar course on radical political groups. My memory of it was essentially nil except for the fact of one surprising conclusion - extremists need extremism rather than particular ideology, so one can switch from the far right to the far left without feeling the internal contradictions that caring about ideology would seem to suggest.

I found this page, which has references to articles written by Hoffer. He was prolific as a writer, with many contributions in popular outlets. I was surprised that none of the references were hyperlinked to the actual articles. Indeed, I couldn't find any of the articles openly available online. So I went to Illinois' Library Catalog and looked to see what digital resources I could find with articles by Hoffer. I found as a pdf How Natural Is Human Nature, published in the Saturday Evening Post 1962 and Beware The Intellectual, which the Hoffer Resource site says was published in Harpers, but the Library Catalog (and the last page of the pdf) says was from the National Review, 1979. I read both pieces eagerly. They drew me in.

Hoffer proposes a duality in human nature that I believe is readily accessible conceptually, even by undergraduate students. Humans are incomplete beings and in that way are unlike the rest of nature. Humans need their wits and especially their creativity to get beyond survival and live above nature. Creativity is strongest in the weak and disenfranchised because the spur, according to Hoffer, is self-loathing. The strong don't have as much of a need for creativity. The weak do and through their inventions they can overturn the strong. Indeed much human motivation is quite base, but from that can emerge caring and compassion. His arguments for compassion are what I want the students to learn about ethics.

I didn't have my fill of Hoffer and looked for more of his writing. Ultimately I found Between the Devil and the Dragon. The Library has a copy, which I checked out. The Dragon, we learn immediately, is the symbol of our struggle with nature, a concept that is earlier than the Devil, which he attributes to the Hebrews. They were the first group to see man as living above nature. God made nature, but God made man in his own image. Once living above nature is possible, a different battle commences, the one with our inner selves. The fall happened in the Garden of Eden, when innocence was lost. As we evolved from brutes, the devil emerged to do us ongoing battle. The devil was there with God, right at the outset. Compassion is the result when a battle with the devil is won.

Hoffer's book starts out with 15 or 16 pages of aphorisms. I haven't seen writing of this sort before and I found them compelling to read. This one, in particular, might challenge students:
There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day: we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life. Moreover, when we have an alibi for not writing a book, painting a picture, and so on, we have an alibi for not writing the greatest book and not painting the greatest picture. Small wonder that the effort expended and the punishment endured in obtaining a good alibi often exceed the effort and grief requisite for attainment of the most marked solution.
Hoffer argues that there is an essential unpredictability about human behavior as it is applied to creative endeavor. The unpredictability results in enormous diversity among us. This idea in itself I find quite compelling. It helps us to understand there will be others unlike ourselves and yet like us too in pursuing their own struggles. Learning comes out of that struggle and it is learning that shows we are not making alibis. Hoffer, therefore, might be quite an interesting read for learning technologists. His name doesn't normally come up in the list of folks from whom to look for foundations - Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner, Freire, and others. Hoffer's style is different, a consequence of his life experience rather than a scientific exploration, and his writing is direct. There are metaphorical allusions in his writing, to be sure, but they are accessible and treated in a matter of fact way.

Some of Hoffer's style might be off putting to the reader, particularly his repeated reference to the Occident. As I'd like to argue that much of what he has to say has a timeless appeal, I don't want to push too hard on the fact that most of what is in the book was produced more than 50 years ago and that the world was not nearly as flat as it seems today. If you can ignore these unattractive bits, or if not that then forgive him for the minor transgressions, you'll find a wealth of insight that might very well serve as a teaching foundation.

When I finish the book I'll write another post to see if I've reversed myself or maintain that conclusion.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The messiness that is Open Education

Via Stephen Downes' blog I found this Wesley Fryer post and from that I watched the David Wiley video. My visceral reaction to any preaching , and I take it that what David Wiley was doing was to preach on behalf of openness, is throw up a wall of skepticism to avoid being immediately infected and then look hard for flaws in what is being preached. My experience is that preachers want to paint a world of black and white in which choices are straightforward. They have no patience for shades of gray. In this case the Wiley message is pure and simple - instructors should be generous with their content which means they should share it openly - while reality is messy and complex. In the rest of the post, I will illustrate some of the issues.

In the movie The Firm, the John Grisham story of a Memphis Law Firm that really is a front for the mob, the hero Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) let's his wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) know by whispering in her ear with the stereo playing loudly that their house is bugged. Mitch desperately wants to talk to Abby but needs to take the conversation outside, where others can't listen in. To be open with her he needs to wall off the rest of the world.

Going from fiction to reality, I taught a class last fall where I blogged as did the students (look at the left sidebar on the class blogg). We had some interesting interchanges that way and the students produced some good stuff. But my most heated exchanges with students happened one-on-one in my office or by email and some of the work they produced never found its way to their blogs or mine. These students wanted to treat their work as a private matter. They were ok discussing with me but not ok in sharing with their classmates. For my part, I tried to respect that. This meant not just keeping what they produced private. It meant keeping my reactions to their work private as well.

But that was a small seminar class. What about in a big lecture course? Surely in such a course one can separate out the content pushed to the students by the instructor, such as the the PowerPoints the instructors distribute, from the interactions the instructor has with the students, where the former are made openly available while the latter have some "closed door" aspect to ensure student privacy. That makes sense, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, what seems a clear distinction is in reality a blur. Consider the pedagogic approach known as Just In Time Teaching, were students are given some assessment prior to class. These JITT pre-flights are read by the instructor and scanned for common errors and interesting ways students communicate their current understanding of the subject matter. It is good teaching practice to incorporate some of these students responses directly into the instructor presentation. The instructor then modifies the lecture to address the student issues. By being responsive in this manner, the instructor shows concern for student learning and the students get the instructor to focus on their issues. All of that is for the good. But now, with the student submitted content, should the PowerPoint be out in the clear or behind password protection? If it is in the clear and the students know that, might it affect how the students respond to the JITT assessment? I don't know the answer to these questions. I suspect that good answers must be given on a case by case basis.

Student privacy is one issue and since there is FERPA the legality aspect confounds clear thinking on what we ought to do for the very best teaching and learning reasons. I mention this because there are privacy issues with the instructor as well and to my knowledge there is no comparable law to FERPA that protects instructor privacy. Again, this might be done for the best possible pedagogic reasons. Elsewhere I've argued to support the approach advocated by Nancy Chism, where faculty engage in a repeated cycle of which experimentation with the pedagogy is a part. Experiments can fail. Broadcasting those failures, the instructor may bear an undue burden from the bad outcome. Over time the experimental approach will likely create more effective instruction, but there is a risk in any one instance. An instructor might be more willing to try out new approaches if there is some shielding from the pernicious impact when the teaching experiment goes awry. Should the gains from openness trump these concerns? I don't know. As with the previous case, my belief is that the right solution will be highly idiosyncratic.

Let me shift away from privacy to a different issue. Recently I've become aware of a textbook for intermediate microeconomics that in early form was solo authored by Preston McAfee and in its new version is co-authored with Tracy Lewis. The book is freely available from FlatWorld Knowledge, where David Wiley is the guru. However, the book comes without ancillary material such as simulations to illustrate the content or online assessments that students might do to test their understanding. For example, consider this competitor text by Besanko and Braeutigam, where the first 8 chapters are available as pdfs, there are Excelets (authored by me), and self-tests for the students. I'm not trying to promote this book in any way, shape, or form. I simply want to observe that in the adoption decision over textbook that instructors make, these ancillaries (and the test bank the publisher provides) can matter a great deal.

Yet the provision of the textbook itself and the ancillaries happen under quite different circumstances. McAfee, a chaired professor at Cal Tech, and Tracy Lewis, a chaired professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke, are near to if not right at the top of the food chain in the economics profession. They can afford to be generous and share their work. It matters not what their motives are, whether a sense of noblesse oblige, the warm glow from giving (economists are not usually known for that), or a shrewd business sense where the benefits from giving away their intellectual property gets capitalized right back into their reputations, via speaking engagements, consulting fees, or salary enhancement. In the world in which they operate, textbook authoring is a sidebar but akin to scholarly journal writing, on which their reputations are based. For scholarly work, getting the work out there is the imperative. They don't need to make their livelihood off of royalties from the text, and seem to have enough incentive to author it without the royalties. So be it.

The ancillary and assessment content are authored by different individuals. In this case I'm an outlier. I wrote those Excelets without ever using the Besanko and Brauetigam text, just because I was interested in seeing whether the content has use value with the students (it does). I did this as a fee for service activity - no royalty whatsoever. That part may be typical. But my motive was anything but. I'm a well paid administrator and would have produced the content freely had their been a credible way to distribute the content to test its effectiveness.

Many of the authors of the ancillary and assessment content are adjuncts or less well known tenure-track faculty. They need a different sort of incentive to create and update the content than do the textbook authors. The money matters to them. Further, if one were to imagine a different regime where that content were also open, where it was the employer university rather than the textbook market that provided the incentive for these authors, so that content could be provided in the open then, unfortunately some perverse additional incentives come into play. These instructors start looking expensive to the departments relative to potential substitute instructors. Once the content is produced, the departments would have incentive to let these instructors go and hire replacements. Such is life in the world of the adjunct.

So one might hope to separate out the textbook from the assessment content, the former provided in an open way as Wiley advocates, the latter provided in a market. Seven or eight years ago, this is what I hoped would be the solution.

We've had experience since then which makes me wary of that. On the one hand, students do not seem to be reading textbooks much these days. Textbook purchase, even of used books, has been going down for quite a while. On the other hand, there was a very interesting experiment with Aplia, a company founded by the economist Paul Romer, who believed it was the homework problems that were the key and the regular market for textbooks wasn't doing a good job of providing that. (He was right on these points.) Let's instead have a market just dedicated to online homework. In my heart, I wanted that experiment to work.

A couple of years ago Aplia was bought out by the publisher, Cengage. The publishers have figured out that they have to bundle the textbooks with the assessments and sell the two jointly. It's like buying a car and getting the sun roof even if you don't want that. A lot of instructors want the assessments only. The publishers are saying to do that, students must buy the book too.

The situation appears to me unstable, but I have no sense what will replace where we are right now. It should be noted that there are some open communities for assessment based on the quiz engine LON-CAPA. I believe there are fairly vibrant communities for the Life and Chemical Sciences as well as for Physics. But to join such a community an individual instructor would need some commitment from the instructor's campus. It is therefore unlike adopting a textbook, which requires no such campus commitment.

It would be good to hear David Wiley talk about these other, messier issues. They are hard and lack simple solutions. There is in the profession, it's not just Wiley who does it, a tendency to advocate hard for what is a partial solution and ignore the rest of the concerns. I'd like to see somebody draw a circle large enough so that all the issues are on inside. Then pose a solution to the whole kit and kaboodle. If openness solves the whole thing, I'm a monkey's uncle. More likely, there is the Clay Shirky point. The technologies are disruptive. There may be nothing that solves the whole thing. We may have to grapple with various half-loaves for quite a while till the problem morphs in such a way that something stable emerges.

Why can't our rhetoric embrace this complexity?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Feed Not Working Rhyme

I'm in distress,
Cause my RSS is a mess.
My Facebook Wall is stuck,
My readers there out of luck.

It's more than five days late,
For my feed from Blogger to update.
Though it's really a Feedburner feed,
Which elsewhere updates with good speed.

My instinct is to troubleshoot,
More or less like a machine reboot.
I'd delete my feed from Facebook News,
Then after a fashion, the feed I would re-choose.

The hope is that through this action,
On updating the feed I'd gain some traction.
Yet for this experiment I lack the verve,
For bearing the risk of deleting readers' comments, I have no nerve.

So another solution I do seek,
One with little downside, so to speak.
This really is my question.
Does anyone have a good suggestion?

If so please post in a comment here.
The next time I see you I'll buy the beer.
In the meantime let's all reflect,
In relying so much on Web 2.0 technology, perhaps there is human defect.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Should certain stories never be made into films?

Authors have great intentionality when crafting their works. In the HBO Miniseries John Adams, based on the book by David McCullough, there is a scene where Adams, along with Franklin and Jefferson, are reviewing the draft of the Declaration of Independence that Jefferson has inked. The author has a pained expression on his face for although both Adams and Franklin give great praise for the tone of the work and the overall sentiment, a casting of the break with the mother country as assertion of the rights of man, both do take issue with particular aspects of the document. Adams for his part is troubled by how slavery is or isn't treated in the document. He and Jefferson are in agreement on the abomination that is slavery. But they differ on how much of that should appear in the Declaration. Franklin, for his part, doesn't want to see the document as a religious testament. Where possible, he wants to purge the text of religious references. In what I take to be ahistorical, but fitting with the characterization of Franklin as possessing more street smarts and sensibility than the other two, he comes up with the line, "We hold these truths self-evident…" to substitute for different text that Jefferson had written. Jefferson tolerates the ordeal because he understands the necessity of getting the Congress to approve the document. Yet he goes out of his way to relate to both Adams and Franklin that every word and sentence were specifically selected for the purpose he had in mind. Jefferson could barely stand to see his creation so altered. While submitting to the necessity for the edits, he couldn't endure his pain in silence.

I've learned to endure, even to appreciate copy editors. Their allegiance is to the readers and because they are true to that I've found that I can have a fruitful negotiation with them when producing pieces where I'm the author. The published piece is almost certainly an improvement on my initial draft. I can't say the same for people who perform the copy editor function but don't do it as a full time job. During the time I was part of the Campus IT organization, there were a variety of cases where other people in the organization were tasked to edit things I had written. I wasn't the only one producing content so there was an internal editing process that performed a requisite function. But I was quite different from the other authors regarding the pride I take in my writing and my background in producing written works. The process couldn't be designed to be sensitive to those considerations. So I endured it because life goes on and work has to get done. Yet it pained me to see my work altered in a way where I felt the final product was not as good as my early draft.

Readers make their own meaning of works in the process of reading them. The reader's experience connects to the stream of thought evoked by the printed page. Mental imagery is conjured up. The moral to the story may readily appear. Other information the reader has gathered, for example biographical information about the author, intrudes on the making of meaning. The reader may find he is solving a puzzle in deciding on the meaning of what he has read. If this is what the author intended, what was his motive for delivering that message? Perhaps, when the reader's interpretation seems novel, relative to what he garners from the impressions other readers have articulated, the reader may feel certain ownership in his interpretation, similar to if not identical with the feeling of having authored the piece himself. He may then not want to see that interpretation be changed by others for fear that will lessen the impact of the story.

Of course, it is a truism with many movies that some of the viewers will say after having seen the film, "Not bad, but the book was better," or something else to the same effect. I've been that viewer on more than one occasion. In some cases the film seems rather a large departure from the book, not simply an adaptation. One example, is A Beautiful Mind, where Ron Howard's movie is an attempt to bring to the viewer what schizophrenia is like, while the book by Sylvia Nasar is a much more complete biography of John Nash, most of which is entirely omitted in the film. Is it ok in this case to have the film, as its own departure?

Presumably the author of the book should have first say. Publishing is a business. When there are apt to be substantial royalties to the author from the film release as well as a feedback effect on the demand for the next work the author will craft, there is a strong business reason for the author to accede in having his work made into a "major motion picture." There is also the possibility of an altruistic motive. Films are more democratic than books. More people have watched Howard's movie, imperfect though it might be, than have read Nasar's portrayal of Nash. Films often have mass appeal while books find their niche. An author may appreciate having the best of both.

What happens, however, when the author is deceased and the film itself is intended for a niche audience? Is this just a matter of purchasing the rights to the written material for film production? Or is there some further artistic obligation, to stay true to the author's intent in crafting the story. And what, especially, can be done in film when much of the action in the written story happens in the mind of the main character, where there is a fierce internal dialog, but no words are uttered and even the facial expression hardly reflects the inner drama that unfolds. How can film portray this and be true to the story? Doesn't the artistic obligation then require the film never gets made?

Let me return to those questions momentarily and remark about something different. Recently I have been having the experience of thinking through something on my own, writing up those ideas, and then discovering that somebody else has previously published on essentially the same thing. Many others have written on the topic and most of the other authors don't bring up the points I find essential. But one does and the person is somebody well known in the area. This gives some reassurance to me in my formative thinking – I find my way. Even when somewhat lost, that eventually rights itself. The path I'm on is not a bad one to follow. So keep at it. Finding these other writings is also a little disconcerting. I stumble upon them, looking for something else. Must I do that much more fact checking before making a conjecture in my blog? I don't do systematic research in advance at all. That's not the way I learn. It's all happenstance. Taking that away would kill much of the joy in my own learning.

The story in question is by James Joyce. It's from his book of short stories Dubliners, The Dead, the last story in the collection and considered to be one of the greatest short stories ever written. We've discussed it in our Motley Read where Alan gave his critique and, both in the commentary to that post and in a subsequent post of my own, I gave my idiosyncratic interpretation of the story. While I won't repeat that analysis here, let me affirm that the central part of the interpretation is not the epiphany that happens at the very end of the story, but rather the fall from grace that precedes it, driven by an insurmountable lust that the protagonist feels for his wife, which he falsely conjectures is reciprocated by her. It is this prior state of intense feeling coupled with wrong belief that is the key to the story.

The story was written in 1907. Joyce had extreme difficulty getting his work into print. The book ultimately was published in 1914. The movie adaptation is from 1987, directed by John Huston, featuring his daughter Angelica as Gretta, the wife, with the screenplay written by his son Tony. It was Huston's last movie. He died soon thereafter. I watched the movie over the weekend.

I asked my wife to order the movie from NetFlix a few weeks ago, while I was reading the story, which I didn't do in one sitting, a start and a stop before getting it all. Several of us in the Motley Read felt it a struggle to get through the stories though a reward for having read them. There is a cascading effect in doing a group read. One wants to contribute to the discussion and add to it. With limits to our own sensibilities, one looks for other fodder upon which to make a contribution. I found out about the movie for that reason. That it seemingly got good reviews made it seem like something to watch.

But I am also protective of my own sensibilities. When the disc came in the mail, I started to watch it. A few minutes in, I stopped. It seemed such a literal rendering of the story. Yet I had developed my own mental image of the story and I didn't want to find it in conflict with the film version. So I put it aside and waited a couple of weeks to view, until my sense of the story had dulled a bit, as all my memories seem to do. It wasn't quite like watching the film without having read the story at all, in which case I suspect I'd have liked the film very much and then would have reacted to it much like Vincent Canby did in this review or like Siskel and Ebert did in this At The Movies clip.

Infected with my prior reading, however, I was prone to fixate on my interpretation. So in some sense I was fortunate to have my attention focus on something different. The actor who played Gabriel Conroy, the husband in the story, is named Donal McCann. He seemed familiar to me and much of the movie I tried to place where I knew him from. I never figured that out, though his speaking voice sounded to me remarkably close to Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot and I tried to imagine whether visually they were similar as well. Then too, I thought McCann was a little old for the part, seemingly too self-assured in his demeanor, encouraging the confidence of others. As with Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence, I believe that Joyce had every little piece of the story calibrated perfectly in his mind. Gabriel is nervous about giving his speech in the story. But McCann appeared as if he shouldn't be. That bit matters because, perhaps though unconsciously, Gabriel has given himself to the purpose of pleasing others, his spinster aunts in particular. He is humanly invested in the activity. This obligation would not be a burden for a more mature man, who would take it in stride. Whey else the nervousness but that he cares and that there is still some novelty in that?

Other than this little inconsistency, however, McCann is the right man for the part. The issue is not McCann's portrayal, which I thought was quite good. Read this review by Ebert, written only a few years ago, well after he did that clip with Siskel. Ebert seems to have had a change of heart here, almost perfectly in line with my own thinking about the movie. In particular he says

When I first saw "The Dead," I thought it brave and deeply felt but "an impossible film," and I wrote: "There is no way in the world any filmmaker can reproduce the thoughts inside Gabriel's head…."

Ebert recants from this position, focusing on the epiphany Gabriel comes to at the conclusion of the movie, delivered as a soliloquy with Gabriel's voice produced by a reading off screen, the camera not on him but on the countryside covered in snow. The effect works there quite well. And Ebert is right about how faithful most of the production is to Joyce's story. But on the matter of Gabriel's lust for Gretta in the cab ride to the hotel, there is no soliloquy. There can't be a soliloquy at that juncture because events are still to unfold and it is not yet time for reflection. As a result, the movie simply doesn't convey the depth of his emotion. There is a deep crescendo in Joyce's story at this point. Yet there is no parallel in the film. Ebert was right before he recanted. The film was impossible. It shouldn't have been made.

A miss is as good as a mile.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Didn't get the story quite right

With respect to my earlier post about the Tea Party making room for moderate Republicans, the underlying theory seems to fit but another implicit assumption I made, at least in the case of the Florida Senate race, was wrong. I assumed the Tea Party candidate would lose the primary. In fact, the polls have Governor Crist running behind the Tea Party candidate. It might be Governor Crist who runs as an independent.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Another Jared Original

Got this yesterday. Apparently its been 3 weeks in the delivery. Eerily reminiscent of Dubliners.

And the flip side.

Might the Tea Party End Up Making Room for Moderate Republicans

As an undergrad I read An Economic Theory of Democracy, by Anthony Downs, which gives a nice explanation of the Median Voter Model and it's main thesis that campaigns with two candidates are a race to the middle. Put in a third candidate who is extreme right, who will siphon off some votes of voters with preference near to that extreme, and that alters the Downs prediction in that the location of the other two candidates is no longer the median of the entire population but rather the median of those who continue to vote for the two original candidates. That point will be more leftward than the original median. Reality is not that simple, of course, but it is an intriguing thought.

Candidates who are well known and have historically developed positions on issues may not be quite as flexible in their positions as the Downs model indicates. In this case in an election where the traditional Republican candidate is to the right of the Democratic candidate, the Downs logic would suggest that the the presence of a Tea Party Candidate would hurt the traditional Republican but not the Democratic candidate. One can quite reasonably argue that the voters have multi-dimensional preferences so are unlike what Downs models. And one might also argue that the process is sequential, primary first, then election. So there is no direct three-way competition. But if Tea Party candidates run in the Republican primary and lose there and then decide to run in the general election anyway as a third party candidate, you should get something like the prediction above.

This seems like something worth betting on.

Draft of latest book chapter now available

The essay A Mature View of Uncertainty is now available. It is chapter 10 in my book, Guessing Games. (A pdf version is also there, accessible in the sidebar.) Here's a warning to the reader. It is very long. I'm not sure whether it works for the reader in this form, but it did make sense to me writing it that way. As with the previous chapters as well, I'd appreciate the getting the reactions from anyone who slugs through it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Writer's Cramp or Arthritis

What does it mean when in the area just below the knuckles on your left hand it starts to hurt like a son of a gone as you are in the middle of producing a transcript for a video? Psychosomatic, no doubt. I will refrain from taking it as an omen. In any event, I'm now done with captions I mentioned in my previous post.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Making Open Accessible Content - Some Observations

Starting in January, I've been building a simulation in Excel about the Edgeworth Box, something we torture students with in intermediate microeconomics. Along with the simulation I've made some short screen capture movies with voice over to describe what's going on, using Jing Pro to make the captures. I'm to the point of liking it more than the full fledged Camtasia. Both because we are very conscious of making video accessible on my Campus and because I'm quite enthusiastic about what YouTube has been doing with captions, I committed myself to caption each of these videos. The first video I made the transcript manually. (YouTube puts in the timings if you input the transcript.) That was a pain and probably explains why I was slow to make the next video. Ultimately I figured out how to rip the audio out of the video. I am using the free version of AoA Audio Extractor, which works quite well for my purposes. It produces a very clean MP3 file. I then run that through Dragon Naturally Speaking, which produces a transcript. This I have to edit. It is still a pain but less so. You can see the end of the tunnel when you start the task. And I've gotten better at the editing over time.

I'm now almost done. (The last video still needs to be captioned. I hope to finish that by the end of the day.) You can see the results for yourself and make your own assessment about this approach as a modality for delivering mini-lectures. Before getting to my lessons learned from the experience I do want to mention some of my other motivations for going through this exercise. There has been a lot of mention recently of the Khan Academy and the large volume of mini-lectures to be found on that site. The quantity is quite impressive. However, pedagogically I thought the approach flawed. If one goes so far with the technology to make all that content availabe, why not go a few steps further in producing the content in a way students can better digest it? My experience from when I used to teach with chalk and a blackboard is that a well done lecture was not nearly sufficient for a good number of students to process the content. So the Excel simulations are there for that reason. Whether they achieve that end, I don't know. I do think they help in making the content more penetrable.

Another reason relates to the current fascination with lecture capture. As with many technologies we try to employ for learning, my thinking about the technology has evolved over time. I am much less enthusiastic about lecture capture than I was a few years ago because it is an added expense with an unclear benefit. We seem to be doing it because we can rather than because we should. Lecture capture does economize on faculty time, no doubt. But the product is not so compelling and for an ongoing class probably will be used little expect for exam review or by non-native speakers of English. The mini lectures of which my creations are an example, by being short and to the point, with the captioning and with more activity on the screen, makes for better viewing, I believe. Also, with such mini-lectures in use in-class time can be purposed for activities better done face to face, collaboration and dialog, which is where we should be headed. In a blended learning approach, especially when the instructor teaches multiple sections of the same class or teaches the class on a repeated basis, the mini-lectures can economize on faculty time, but they certainly take substantial effort to produce the first time around the block. That is probably the reason they aren't spreading more on their own.

Also, I may be teaching an online version of intermediate microeconomics in the not too distant future. I've been thinking of a variety of activities I'd have for the students. For each of these my approach is to give it a try ahead of time and then based on the experiment make a determination of whether it will be useful for the students and if I can keep up doing the activity when it would have to scale to the entire syllabus, not just a particular topic area. I'm still not sure on that last one, though I fear it would be the boredom in editing transcripts rather than the lack of time that would be the real constraint in deploying these mini-lectures.

* * * * *

I suspect that most people who found themselves talking to the computer screen rather than to somebody else on the phone, would feel self-conscious and the discomfort from that might prevent them from continuing with the activity. I've done enough of this sort of thing as to not feel particularly disturbed by recording my own voice, even by listening to it being played back. Any recommendation I make in the rest of this posts assumes that the instructor has gotten past the self-conscious point. The only way I know to get past that point is to do it sufficiently.

It is an eye opener to transcribe your own speaking - particular the way the spoken descriptions depart from how you would describe matters in writing. One reason for this divergence is that with the screen movies you can point to places in the diagram you are talking about and the pointing allows you to be much more colloquial, while in writing there would be a tendency to be more formal, as the diagram is more of an impersonal object. There is another part that the language choice in giving descriptions really is idiosyncratic to me when I speak. A different economist explaining the same stuff would use different language to convey the ideas. In writing, there is a tendency for the language to homogenize. So on this each lecturer gives his own version of the course, but were we to write textbooks, those wouldn't be so different. There is a question how important the idiosyncrasy is to the student's learning and what role the idiosyncrasy plays. I am not sure but I suspect it helps the students to be able to inject some of the instructor's personality into the subject matter.

One of the things that happens when you edit the transcript is that you play short segments of the the audio, then stop, look to see if the printed text corresponds, but then also listen for whether you fully understood what was said in the audio. Often there would be a mumble, or a phrase that could have been different words and still give sensible meaning to the overall. If I, the deliverer of the mini-lecture, am unsure of particular phrases, what must the students feel? Would students listen to the audio to gain meaning from it in the same way, playing short clips over and over again? Were I a student, I wouldn't do that. My approach has always been to try to take it all in and make sense of it in a big picture way. An idle phrase would have little or no effect and would likely be filtered out entirely. But perhaps students would be unlike me in this respect.

The media, therefore, enables a different sort of listening, one that can emphasize the particular as well as the big picture. If a student is stuck understanding then they can start and stop the audio at the relevant juncture, think about what is going on and do other activities to process through their misunderstandings. One of the reasons I embedded an audio only track in addition to the video is that the former takes up a lot less screen real estate, so I thought students could fiddle with the Excel simulation more easily if only using the audio, though perhaps they'd rather have that downloaded to the desktop than embedded. I've got the audio for download at It is a separate Web page for each file, which is a little inconvenient, but I hope not too bad.

I had thought ahead of time about farming out the editing of the transcripts to students in the class. Each would volunteer (via my coercion if necessary) to do their fair share in exchange for me not requiring a textbook, a reasonable quid pro quo in my estimation. I came to conclude this wouldn't work well. The students, even if well intentioned, wouldn't produce high caliber edits, because they wouldn't have a prior view of what the resulting transcript should say. Apart from some rather obscure jargon I'm prone to use, my "ums" (plentiful) and "ahs" (not too bad on that score) need to be excised from the document. The real problem is where I choose to pause when I'm speaking. Mostly I pause in the middle of a sentence, a momentary gathering of my wits but not the conclusion of the thought. I actually speed up as I come to the end of a sentence, something I'd never have known about my speaking without going through this exercise, as if to assert through the force of my voice that the previous idea is connected to the next one. I can punctuate the mess that is produced, although too many sentences end up starting with "So" or "And." For students, having to put in such punctuation would be a nightmare.

I've also got a few thoughts on repositories based on this experience. Winning factors include convenience and that the service was free. When I started playing with hosting at, I didn't yet know that Google Docs was allowing any file type. But my guess is that Google doesn't want to have Google Docs used as an mp3 download site. This is why they have a fairly modest quota - 1 Gig. Beyond that you have to pay. A one time payment wouldn't be so bad. An annual payment though is not good - simply the remembering to keep up the account is not good.

YouTube, as I said, is great for captioning from transcripts so unless my Campus offered a caption service (can't afford it in the foreseeable future) and since my videos are under 5 minutes each, YouTube wins. That YouTube does this is also a reason I'm liking Jing more. Camtasia was pretty good on captions, but really didn't help much producing the transcript. I do think that if I were to use this stuff in a course then the Campus might want to be able to brand that site, but why there should be a repository for the content that the Campus controls, I don't really get. These other external hosts are convenient and very functional. If I were making videos with material copyrighted by others, that would be a different matter. For my own stuff, external hosting of the content seems best.

There is a problem with making too much video content in advance of student use. There is no way to gauge student reaction to it and thus the design might occur with many false assumptions in place.

I've given a fair consideration to the content I'd teach if doing this course online. It's a non-trivial consideration. The type of videos featured at the link above are for analytical content. Fifteen years ago, that would have been the bulk of the course. Now I think it would be no more than a third. For narrative content, I'd like the students to do a fair amount of reflective writing. But I've no sense of how that would work with larger enrollments. (My recent teaching has been seminar classes.) One can do automated assessment of the analytic content to determine at least rudimentary comprehension. So a thought is to push on the videos and automated assessment as far as possible, to free up instructor time for the narrative stuff. But if one is pre-recorded and the other is live, doesn't that send a message to the students about what is important?

I'm still thinking through a lot of this stuff.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Outlook, multiple mail accounts and moving email between them

Below are three short videos to show off some features of Outlook. It appears that my Campus will be moving to an Exchange server for all Faculty and Staff and graduate students too. Many within that population are not currently on Exchange. My guess is that most of those are using a different email client than Outlook. It's my belief that these users should move to Outlook as their email client in advance of the change in server. The benefits from so doing are as follows:

(1) The users will be able to understand the logical distinction between Outlook (the client) and Exchange (the server). They will see that they can use that same client to manage multiple email accounts.

(2) The users will be able to manage their own mail from their old, Express Mail accounts.

(3) As these users will be going through a series of changes with regard to communications in the next year or two, it would be better for each change to be perceived as a small step. Understanding Outlook and getting used to it may be the biggest single change. So that should happen asap.

The above is certainly true for PC users. Mac users should perhaps wait til the real Outlook for Mac comes out so they don't have to learn Entourage as an intermediate step.

This first video gives a very quick overview of Outlook. Note that at the end of the video there is a brief demo of making a contact. Contacts in Outlook will become important in the future when we go to unified communications, as that is how people will place their phone calls. Also contacts is how people will manage access to ancillary related services, e.g., calendar sharing or file sharing. It may be that for the latter users before to manage this via a Web browser. But they should be aware that they can manage Contacts from Outlook as well.

The second video is about having multiple email accounts and managing them all from Outlook. There are several reasons to have multiple accounts. Our undergraduate students will have outsourced email, from Google or Microsoft or both. For interacting with these students faculty and staff likely will have accounts in these environments as well. Similarly, for interaction with colleagues on other campuses, one might very well want to use another account, e.g., to use Google Docs or Google Wave. And then one might want to have a personal account that is nonetheless accessible from Outlook.

The third video is about moving mail, from one account to another or from an account to an archive. This video should be useful both for those users who have to move off Express Mail and for those trying to determine the appropriate size quota for users when they do move to the Campus Exchange Server. One thing that is not shown in the video that needs to be considered is how long it takes to move mail when instead of just a few messages without attachments, we're moving a hundred megabytes or more of mail, possibly with quite large file attachments. Conceptually there is no difference in moving large amounts of mail like that, but the that does take time and my experience is that when doing so the computer is not very useful for doing other functions. So there is some inconvenience. Likewise if there is a very large email archive residing on your desktop, sometimes that gets clunky to manipulate.

Finally, when users understand they can move email messages from here to there, it is an opportunity to give some straightforward advice about security and for taking sensible steps to help maintain confidentiality in communication, when necessary. Security isn't a binary state - secure or not. There is less secure and more secure. Not communicating confidential information by email is more secure. Deleting that information after it has been communicated is next. Keeping it on your local machine and not on the server comes after that. Keeping it on the Campus server is better than keeping it on an external host. Confidential information really should never find its way onto an external host. A significant reason why the Campus will continue to provide email service is for that reason. People should understand that.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

A singular genius

The middle part of this piece makes a link between Aspergers Syndrome and high mathematical aptitude. In the earlier book, A Beautiful Mind, there was a linkage established between schizophrenia and math aptitude. Are we to conclude that real insight is mental illness? Hmmm.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Looking for Productivity In All the Wrong Places

As an economist, sometimes I ponder fundamentals where others just move on. In today's NY Times, David Brooks writes that the U.S. spends about one third of the world total on R&D, which is why American workers are so much more productive than their Chinese counterparts. For whatever reason, I found this assertion not assuring at all. So I started to wonder if there is substantial "measurement error" to what Brooks reports, not on the spending, but on the eventual value of the spending.

I was disposed to thinking this way by the outcomes in this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, The success of Butler, the mid-major par excellence, might have in itself gotten others to consider the issue. Butler's budget for Men's Basketball is roughly one tenth of the budget here at Illinois and at other higher profile programs. Yet Butler achieved more success this year than any Big Ten program. Was it a statistical fluke? Or is there something more going on? There were three other mid-major school's that made the round of sixteen: Cornell, Saint Mary's, and Northern Iowa. With not quite half the entrants into the field of 65, the Power Six conferences, which produced all the number 1 and 2 seeds and three out of four of the number 3 seeds (Butler was a 5 seed), produced easily in excess of 80% and probably closer to 90% of the budget for Men's Basketball among those schools that made the tournament. But in terms of results, what do they have to show for all that spending? Let me get back to that in a bit.

First we'll make a detour via Clay Shirky's blog, where he talks about the collapse of the complex business model. Shirky is talking about TV programming in the era of YouTube. What if viewers actually prefer the less produced, innocent and to the point YouTube videos to the overly scripted TV programming? Can the TV channels compete? Does their mechanism for developing content even allow them to compete?

Now I'm going to make a second detour. My day job is information technology, specifically technology in support of teaching and learning. Is complexity making the cost of what we do so over the top? There's a perception that this is the case. On parts of this, I share in that perception. Technology in the live classroom clearly has increased complexity – for the instructors to master, for the students to keep up, and for folks like me and those who work for me to support. Many have argued that the teaching and learning is worse because the technology promotes content push and blocks discussion. Now we're seeing an extra layer with that – classroom capture – adding cost, certainly, while creating benefit, less obviously. School X is doing it so we must do it too. Shirky doesn't use the term rat race, but it seems to fit right in with his explanation. We have to look for ways to attract faculty and students, don't we?

Now let's get back to college basketball. There are three possible explanations for why a team becomes really good – the players, the coach, or the system. (More than one of these can be in effect and they can interact in a virtuous cycle.) None of Butler's players made ESPNU's to 100 for the class of 2008. (That's high school class. These guys are finishing their sophomore year now.) But Butler has two players in that graduating class who played on the U.S.A under 19 team that competed in Melbourne last year and won the gold medal – Shelvin Mack and Gordon Hayward, Butler's two stars. How can that be? Hayward appears to have been a late bloomer, and quite possibly he is still blooming. At age 17 he was too skinny and with few accomplishments on the basketball court. Now aged 20, he's projected as a lottery pick. Mack seems a bit of a different story. He grew up in Lexington Kentucky and wanted to play at UK. He appears to have been pretty highly regarded. But with the coaching changes there, he fell through the cracks recruiting-wise and ended up at a smaller school, Butler, instead of UK or some other big-time program. I don't know this for a fact, but one wonders if the ratings of the College prospects, such as the one at ESPNU, are influenced by which programs have recruited the players as much or more so than how they've produced playing summer ball. A bit of endogeneity with that, don't you think? And might that be with R&D investment too?

Let's turn to coaches. I believe that Brad Stevens, the Butler Coach, a veritable babe in the woods at 33, has impressed everyone that he knows how to coach. During the game last night, the relatively level headed analyst for CBS, Greg Anthony, was literally gushing about Butler's game plan against Duke. Who do you suppose came up with that? And if you watched not just that play but the previous several rounds for Butler, especially its win over Syracuse, you'd have to be impressed with its physical play and intense defense. That's a consequence of coaching.

Coaching jobs at mid major schools can be stepping stones to higher paying jobs at schools with larger basketball budgets. The Cornell coach, Steven Donohue, has just taken the job at Boston College, a case in point. In this way of thinking, you can't identify the best young coaches a priori, so give them a chance in a lower stakes setting. If they do well, they can move up. This seems sensible and prudent. But it's an approach that seems to rule out identifying the really good coaches right out of the box. Moreover, if staying in the system tends to make you less of a risk taker, it means we get a regression to the mean effect for those coaches who make their way up. Perhaps that sort of thing is happening with R&D as well.

Finally, let's talk about the system. Butler has produced a run of successful coaches in a row who have moved on to bigger programs. That suggests they've come up with a formula that is transferable, at least within Butler. Perhaps this is a kind of master-apprentice thing going on. Assistant coaches don't get paid very much. Younger ones will endure it for the learning. Older ones will endure it because they don't expect to climb much higher. It's the head coaches who make the big bucks. But how does one really know the apprentice is ready to be the master? That's a gamble too. Butler seems to have gotten it right with Stevens. How many programs get it wrong? Placing your bets on the wrong horse or even placing them on the right horse but running the wrong race can be an issue with R&D too.

Do these issues with the composition of R&D spending get swamped by the overall spending level? I really don't know. In a country that can tolerate a remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, I have my doubts.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Chess as a social activity

This post linked below interests me most in how chess used to serve as a kind of gateway to friendship. It did for me in college but not afterward. I wonder if for others it still is a social activity. I don't play chess anymore, nor bridge. I wouldn't want to know people just for that, but I would be interested in meeting people otherwise where those games were among the outlets.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Shoe Phones

If you are looking for mobile technology from long ago, the earliest concept I can recall is from Get Smart, the Shoe Phone. Likewise, if you wanted an early concept for how to have a secure conversation, there was the….Cone of Silence. As wacky as these conceptions are there was prescience in both of them – the need was there even if the product didn't deliver on filling it. The show was also a riot. I bet it would still be funny if viewed today. You can get the complete series as a boxed set. And loving it.