Friday, September 30, 2011

When what you see is not what you get

It's interesting how technology issues that you discovered long ago crop up again in the present, though in a somewhat altered form.  In this case the issue is creating an MS Office document with highly stylized content and then viewing it in a different version of Office, perhaps also on a different platform.

Back in 1995 when I started to use FirstClass for teaching intermediate microeconomics, I posted lecture notes as a way to lure the students into the online conferencing system.  I knew the students wanted the lecture notes, because they had asked me for those in the past. So I accommodated that desire with the hope they'd discuss the economics online, once they got there.  At the time I was a Mac guy.  My lecture notes were in Word.  They had graphs made with a drawing program (MacDraw???) and then pasted into Word.  A majority of the students were using a PC.  So I converted my version of Word to a PC version, with a built in utility for that.  And I also converted to a WordPerfect version, because that was still popular at the time. The text largely came through.  But some of the graphs did not.  I recall in particular a u-shaped average cost curve, where a portion of the graph got rotated 90 degrees upon conversion.  It was amusing enough that I can remember it all these years later.

I'm have the same sort of issues now with Excel.  Since I spent a fair amount of effort in taking out the macros and activex controls, finding suitable alternatives by other means, it occurred to me to test on a Mac to see if the rest of it worked okay.  Mike Williams from  the College of Ed was kind enough to help me with that.  Alas, the results were a bit discouraging.

There were a few I discovered.   I make extensive use of the combo box tool, which is supposed to work cross platform.  Regarding functionality, that is true.  However, regarding the size of the combo box, that is not true.  The screen shots below illustrate.  On the Mac, some of the combo boxes got too narrow to be useful.  

Mac - Part of Login Worksheet
Combo boxes are too narrow to be useful

PC - Part of Login Worksheet
Original combo boxes that are fully functional

Also, if you are not colorblind, it should be obvious from the screen shots that the Mac changes the background color, from a pale blue on the PC to a green on the Mac.   This is not just a cosmetic issue for me (though it is cosmetic in this particular instance).  Because I'm hiding content in cells by having the font color the same as the background color, to be made visible at a later point via conditional formatting which alters the font color in a way to contrast with the background, it is crucial that if there is to be color substitution that the background color and font color substitute in the same way.  Alas, we had an instance where that wasn't true.   A different issue cropped up as well, a comment that appears with mouse over that works perfectly fine on the PC gets chopped off on the Mac.

I found this all a little unnerving at the time of discovery.  Based on the experience, it occurred to me that I should also check how things compare with Excel 2007 on a PC.  I've been creating my stuff with Excel 2010.  So here platform isn't involved, just the version of Excel.  Different issues emerged, around the spin button, which I also rely on a great deal.  That too seems to re-size at times and in some cases to simply not appear as the following screen shots illustrate.

Excel 2007 - Very narrow spin buttons
No spin button after Evaluate???

Excel 2010 - Spin Buttons as created

I should add here that I originally made the workbook in 2004, so it was in xls format.  I updated it a few years ago, keeping it in xls format.  When I taught with it last spring, I converted it to xlsm format.  It worked fine for me, but some students reported issues with it that way.  This is why I took out the macros and activex controls.  Also, I was all over the place in these earlier versions, regarding column width and where the combo boxes and spin buttons appeared relative to a cell that contained it (spin button) or a set of cells that spanned it (combo box).  And some of my conditional formatting dates back to the earlier versions, though much of it now uses the Excel 2010 conditional formatting.  I am not sure which of the factors, or which combination of factors caused these irregularities.  But I've experimented some with finding remedies and this is what I've concluded so far.

For the Mac issues - The sizing issues can all be addressed by simply making things bigger than are necessary on the PC.  The combo boxes should be wider than necessary.  The comments should have more space than is required by the comment text.  Also, students using a Mac should be told to view the file at something like 150% zoom.   The color substitution will happen, but if conditional formatting is done exclusively using the Excel 2010 tool, then the substitution should be the same for font and background, with no real problem created.  Some of the color substitution can result in "loud" colors on the Mac.  The color on the PC that generated that should then be avoided.  I'm no longer going to use the very pale blue as background.

For the Excel 2007 Issues - Moving forward I will keep columns a uniform width and when placing a spin button within a cell make sure there is no other content in that cell.   I will also make my spin buttons a little wider than I otherwise wood, so even if they are narrower in Excel 2007, they are still of usable width.

There will be some effort entailed in getting the content into shape, but for now I think that effort is worthwhile and if I am to make more content in the future, this effort will help inform how to do that better.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dialogic Learning Objects as Interactive Excel Modules

The last several days I've been revising an Excel module on Supply and Demand, an introduction to the topic, that I like a lot for how the underlying economics is presented, with an emphasis on intuition by developing an extremely simple approach to buyer and seller choice (unit demands and unit supplies) and then aggregating up from that.  The presentation is integrated with student response, at each juncture the student must answer a question before proceeding further.  Each of these questions has a right answer.  The student gets feedback for any response but only can go further after a correct response.  Many of the graphs have controls that the students can manipulate to get a feel for what is going on.  The student can do this just for practice or, if the instructor wants to assure that the student has done the work, a "tear sheet" of all the student responses can be readily generated for electronic submission.   The approach is meant to integrate presentation and assessment rather than have one follow the other.    I'll get back to that in a bit.

The main reason for my revision was to find alternatives to the Macros and Activex controls that were in the previous version.  When I taught with this last spring, some students had trouble with this, even on a PC, and even more so on a Mac.  So the revision was aimed at eliminating those issues and making the module cross platform.  In the process of doing this I learned how do use the Conditional Formatting tools in Excel 2010.  It was daunting at first, knowing how to do this in Excel 2003, but not understanding what was going on in the more recent version of Excel.

There is no "programming" by me to achieve these results.  It is all done with the built-in Excel functions - heavy use of the IF command - and then a strong reliance on Conditional Formatting - to make the feedback distinctive when it appears and to hide it before it is needed.  The hiding trick is done by making the font color the same as the background color, so the content of a cell can't be read by eyeballing the spreadsheet, and by Protecting the spreadsheet and most of the cells in it, so that the entries in those cells can't be read from the Formula Bar. 

Let me make a comment about this regarding accessibility, because I know that is a proper concern.  I did a little bit of research on Excel and Accessibility and without elaborating on what I found there, it became clear to me that there was no anticipation of this sort of use of Excel in the documents I found.  The issues are with use by visually impaired students, ones who use a screen reader to navigate.  Rather than finagle with the Excel itself, I believe a satisfactory solution would be to record an aloud working through of the entire workbook, and then making a transcript of that.   Other students might like to have that because surely it would include some of thinking in working things through and when they did it themselves they may have made progress but without producing that thinking.  I haven't made such a movie or transcript yet but I could see doing so if there were demand for more such objects, with the movies and transcripts becoming part of the package.

The issue with making these dialogic objects is the time it takes in their production.  Much of the effort is conceptual.  The theory needs to be re-thought in a way to make it more transparent to the students, and then a dialog must be produced to explicate the alternative approach.  With the Supply and Demand module, the novel conceptualizations begin to come in on the third worksheet, Trade, by introducing an ad hoc matching process to pair a buyer with a seller and then using split-the-difference exchange to predict the price that will emerge from the pairing.  This produces a range of transaction prices that are not stable.  This is then contrasted with efficient matching, that delivers competitive pricing. Students then get to see some of the benefits of competitive pricing, by first looking at the consequences of the ad hoc matching.  You won't find this in a textbook.  So this is not just a matter of taking the standard approach and converting it to Excel, though I should add that even after the conceptual work is done, there is substantial work in building the modules in Excel so it all functions smoothly.

It is much easier to make presentation content.  Last spring I did a fair amount of that, making Excelets (interactive graphs) and then YouTube videos of me exploring those, but without the dialogic content.  Because I was making some of these in real time, much of this content is far less a departure from the traditional approach than the Supply and Demand module.  There are, therefore, two different questions to consider with regard to the dialogic approach.
(1)  If you are going to use the traditional approach to the subject matter, does recasting the presentation content into a dialogic frame help students nonetheless?

(2)  If you do come up with an alternative approach can you explicate it with straight presentation a la micro-lecture and then assess what students have learned from the presentation?  
I don't have evidence on which to answer these questions.  So I'm simply going to guess at the answers.  A diligent student can benefit from the dialogic approach over straight presentation because the former emphasizes the the chain of reasoning, while the latter encourages focus on the "results" only.  Much of the subject matter students find non-intuitive and thus hard to learn.  Helping to make the content intuitive should also aid the diligent student. 

I have some more old stuff to revise.  After doing that I will try to produce some new dialogic stuff.  If anyone else wants to give it a try, please let me know and I can help you get started.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Surprises and Confirmations

Yesterday, I was working on a post, composing it in the new Blogger editor. I got distracted as I'm prone to do and clicked away from the post to do a search, without thinking what I as doing. A few moments later, it occurred to me what I had done and I went to look for it. Alas, it was not to be found. Just now I did a few tests on the auto-save function. It looks like you aren't supposed to lose posts like that if you use their editor. The post should be retained as a draft and appear in your list of posts. The one I made yesterday, however, did not. Surprise! Scientist that I am, I took it as an omen so I'm changing my topic somewhat from what I had planned to write yesterday, a critique of an E.D. Hirsch Op-Ed piece. I'll get to that here, but my sweep will be broader.

Before I do however, and in case anyone at Google reads my stuff, I want to note that apart from pressing the Save button every so often, lest lightning strike twice in the same place, I'm writing in the HTML pane rather than in the Compose pane. This is not because of the more Spartan editing functions, but rather because the font is sans serif, which I prefer on screen. I don't understand the relationship between changing the font in the editor away from the default, and which font will appear in the blog. I am using Arial font to display the blog. A thought occurred to me that if I use Arial in the Compose pane, then it will display as Arial.  So I try this and then go back to the HTML pane.  It puts div tags around each paragraph and selects Helvetica, which I take it to be the default sans-serif font.  (My version of Word doesn't even have Helvetica.  They are cousins but they are not identical.)  When I revert back to the default font, the div tags remain, though they no longer specify which font it is to use.  And now there are some span tags as well.  Anyway, I wonder if it would be possible to be able to choose, a font for the editor without that impacting the font for display.  I often write long posts and sometimes stare at the screen for quite a while.  It would be nice to have a look that pleases me while composing the posts.

* * * * *

Last night was Open House at the High School.  Parents get to attend their child's classes for about 10 minutes and in that time the teacher gives an overview of what they are doing and answers any questions the parents might have.  This is our fifth year doing this, as our older son also went through the process.  Last night I was more mouthy than I usually am, I suppose because my son is taking 4 AP classes and I felt I could ask some questions from a knowing perspective (not about AP classes, abut about college classes and what those should be accomplishing).  And over the weekend, I had read this piece featured in the NY Times Magazine, What if the Secret to Success is Failure?  The piece is about developing character, force of will, or sitzfleisch, the term I used in my essay on The Purpose of General Education, though the term is not used in the NY Times piece.  And the thesis, one I largely concur with, is that this is not a lesson one can learn by thinking it through.  One has to have the requisite experience.  One must struggle.  In the NY Times Magazine piece there is discussion of an elite high school in Riverdale, in the Bronx, where they have abandoned AP courses because they seemingly taught the opposite lesson.  So I was mindful of of that during the Open House.  I also recalled a discussion I had many years ago with one of the math teachers at Uni High who had been using some educational technology my shop supported.   In that conversation he asserted that bright kids benefit more from enrichment of the curriculum than from speeding it up.  AP courses are mainly not enrichment.  They are mostly acceleration.  So I had that thought in my head too.  

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the evening and it left me with a good feeling afterward.  Some of the teachers seemed very young to me.  My wife commented on it too, so it's not entirely my imagination getting the better of me.  They were very energetic and full of enthusiasm.  This has to be a benefit for the students; the instructor temperament sets the tone for the entire class.  A couple of them gave a little self-confession that they weren't very good students when in college.  Were I not a Professor myself, I'd have found those remarks daunting.   But given my own history, as a student and as a teacher, in the main I viewed it as a good thing.  There's more empathy for the students that way.  These teachers have an implicit understanding of motivation, where it comes from and what works. 

On the substance of what I heard, I liked what the AP English teacher had to say the most.  In her course students were to read many prescribed readings for the entire class, but the students also were asked to read books of their own choosing.  In discussing the AP exam (all of the AP classes are focused on the exams that will be administered next May) at my prompt she described the test as requiring students to apply the methodology they've learned during the school year..  The test requires them to do analysis of the reading (in my The Purpose of General Education piece I call it Reading Comprehension).  None of the other teachers specifically talked about teaching methodology.  And in the one non-AP class we went to, the instructor gave us (the parents) a quiz which after a couple of minutes we went through aloud.  This quick introduction to the course clearly supported the idea that learning at this level is about mastering facts, rather than developing appreciation for a methodology.  I'm guessing that most students have bought into the mastering facts view, perhaps the only troubling thing that came across during the evening, though we should all remember, myself included, that these are not yet college students. 

And now let me segue to Hirsch, though in his piece he is mainly focused on primary school and here we're talking about the senior year in high school.  Hirsch argues that early on instructors must ensure that students get the gist of whatever is being taught, which requires lingering on the subject until each student obtains it.  Hirsch claims that if students have the gist, they can then learn new words as they are used in context.  This is how they will read better.  Since I had seen Salman Khan on Charlie Rose not that long ago and one of the interesting points I recall him making is that in typical education students may not get "it" and that might very well be foundational material, but the course proceeds as if they have.  For the students who didn't get it, the next stuff is built on a very shaky foundation, if there is any foundation at all.  So on this I found Hirsch interesting and believable. 

But Hirsch didn't write at all about individual approaches and letting each student proceed according to their own current capacities and inclinations.  So after reading his piece I did a search on Individualized Reading and read a few pieces (a how to, it's effectiveness, and something of a hybrid, for which you need access to JSTOR to read the full piece).  The conclusion I draw from these pieces is that "part" of what a student learn has to come from the student inserting himself into the activity, individualized reading being such a form of insertion.  This was my conclusion, as well, from reading On Not Being Able to Paint, by Marion Milner, and thus the insertion of self into the subject a way becomes a way to bring in art to what otherwise might seem an arms length discipline.  

This seems to me possible in social science classes, where a student's point of view can clearly matter, both on what and on how the student learns.  My son is taking AP Econ, and the instructor is going pretty much by the textbook, in doing that the student's job is to master what is presented.  There is no room for the student to insert himself.  But they do have class discussion on the issues and there it is possible.  My son seems to do this almost instinctively.  That seems a good balance. 

I'm less sure about the student inserting himself into math or physics at this level, especially if the student is taking those for "rounding" their education.  When I was in high school, doing the odd math problem was a form of self-expression, but doing the ordinary homework was not, but I was a Math Team guy an so atypical in that respect.  What does seem possible more broadly, though I don't know if it is happening here, is to tie what is being taught to student prior experiences.  Emphasizing the textbook may block bringing in the student's own experience.  Certainly that prior experience is not relevant for the AP tests themselves.  But for the back and forth that happens in the classroom and elsewhere at school, it probably does.  

We also attended the Physical Education (PE) class and there I was pleasantly surprised by the greeting we got when we walked into the auditorium.  (There was some competition going on in the Gym so PE was done in the auditorium.)  My son came along for the evening.  He's much more into school now than he was a couple of years ago and expressed an interest in coming.  He seemed very keyed up during much of the evening, which was also rewarding to see.  One of the PE teachers, who turned out to be the Head Football Coach, said my son was his hero and when he grew up he wanted to become my son.  I replied, I do too. I learned that this sort of banter is a regular occurrence and that once in a while my son leads the PE class in their warm up exercises.  I never would have guessed that. 

The final period of the day was for ECP, which I think stands for Employment Coordination Program.  Each student must declare a preferred field of work and the program aims to both provide general job seeking skills and to give the student a bit of mentoring from a professional in the field, so the student can get a better sense of what the profession is like. This class was smaller than the rest - only 10 students - and because it was the last period or for some other reason, we were the only family in attendance, so we had a private and very good conversation with the teacher.  Though it's obviously broader in scope since the kids can choose any profession, this ECP class seemed similar in spirit to Business 101, an introduction to professional responsibility.  I hadn't realized that this sort of thing had now reached down into the high schools.

The overall impression is that while school makes strong demands on the kids and does provide a fair amount of stress with the emphasis on grades and the fairly frequent testing,  it also provides a welcoming environment, one where a bright kid can thrive.  The balance seemed good to me.

* * * * *

I'm guessing that most kids do struggle quite a bit in their teen years, if not in school then with other aspects of their lives.  I know I did.  One of the big deal issues for a teen is whether to respect adult authority, especially when there doesn't seem to be wisdom in what the adult is saying.  It's all the more difficult when it's a parent, but it could still be a challenge with a teacher or a boss at work who seems arbitrary, uncaring, on lacking perception.  I don't know if this sort of struggle builds character or if it simply represents a phase in life that most kids transit through.

There is perhaps also a struggle with the meaning of life questions.  Envision school as one big game.   The kid asks himself, "Why should I play?"  I'd guess that the trigger for asking the question is that the ego is taking a beating because the kid is under performing relative to his own expectations determined by past performance or by comparison with other kids he considers as peers.  This may be the first time the kid seriously looks at his own motivation.  If all his behavior seems a reaction to extrinsic motivation qua grades, the house of cards may crumble. Perhaps this is a necessary intermediate step before discovering some intrinsic motivation.  I do think there is character building in that, but perhaps not enough. 

Some good students nonetheless find high school hard.  They learn coping mechanisms to deal with the difficulty.  Those coping mechanisms, if they are allowed to mature as the student matures, may be precisely the character building that is needed.  Diligence is clearly requisite for the student who finds school hard but who wants to do well.  Learning to be diligent at an early age converts a minus into a plus.  This is where slow and steady wins the race.  Students who find high school easy may hit a wall in college without adequate coping skills to get them through.  Many of them don't learn diligence, if the all nighters and cramming sessions are any indication. 

I maintain that much of this is "habit formation" rather than "choice."  Much of character development is the forming of good habits.  On this score one might look at AP courses in two different ways.  They are acceleration, sure, and perhaps that precluded a stop to smell the roses view of learning.  But they are harder too, and may encourage the kids to embrace more mature habits about their studies. 

Understanding that duality, I came out of last night with a better appreciation of that second prong.  I hope what my son is getting out of  the experience will stay with him later, quite apart from the subject matter he is learning. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A dialectic about learning character

When my kids were very young I (vaguely) remember some discussions about the health benefits for them of putting things in their mouth, particularly dirt. Attempts at over-sanitizing were counter productive, because the right sort of antibodies wouldn't be built up that way.  This piece from the NY Times Magazine is on the same sort of idea, but with regard to kids' characters.  This quote is from the very end of the piece.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Tra La La

This one is real French. 


This one is not even close. 

I do like the mug for how it feels in my hand. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Open Modular Content and OERs

Around 11:30 last night, I had already gone to bed, my Economics Metaphor site got a hit from somebody at a sister Big Ten School, via a regular Google search.  The search words were "production table economics" without the quotes.  If you go do that search yourself, a post from that site is prominently displayed, right under the Wikipedia entry.  Yesterday my site got roughly three times the number of hits as it usually gets (the norm is a rather low flow of under 10 hits per day) and many of those who came to the site yesterday got there by doing a similar search.

My inference is that these hits are from students in microeconomics classes and this is the time of the school year where production functions are being taught.  For some reason, perhaps a homework problem that appears intractable, or a pending quiz where the student doesn't have confidence on the material, or the student finding the textbook unclear so looking for an alternative explanation, surely students are motivated to do this the Google search for some such reason.  My further guess is that they are looking for a quick and dirty way out of their dilemma.

On the page they will find an embedded Jing-created screen-capture movie that was posted to YouTube.  This particular movie is very brief (under two minutes) and the captions for the voice narration appear under the movie, unlike if you go directly to YouTube to watch it, where the captions overlay the video.  I believe the little demo given here is fairly clear, even for students that don't have English as their native language.  (Some of the other hits yesterday were from the Philippines.)  Though it is not on my immediate agenda to revise this material, it would be gratifying to learn from the student whether the movie was useful.  I doubt, however, that at the time of night where the student is doing this that the student would be willing to answer a survey question or two on the matter.

When I posted this content, I didn't consider this sort of student demand at all.  I made modular content because I believe that online you have to vary presentation with other activities for the student - an hour of lecture straight through would be devastating and students would turn to Facebook or other diversions after only a few minutes.  In this case I embedded the videos in Moodle quizzes, one video per question, with the thought that the full quiz would be considered dialogic - a little presentation followed by a question and a student response, then another little presentation with the cycle repeating.  I did this in lieu of a textbook and then in class I'd spend time going over the spreadsheet from which the movie was made but not delivering a full lecture on it.  The students in the class itself were not enamored with the approach, but some of that was that my exams were hard and the students didn't have a way to go from what they were getting doing the online work to having a successful strategy for feeling confident about the tests.  The external students who find the particular module, consider it from a different perspective - my exams are irrelevant to them

My thought in making The Economics Metaphor site was as something for instructors elsewhere, who might use some of the content and teaching ideas there, either directly or to inform what they might produce themselves for online or to do in class.   I didn't expect them to use the videos.  Those have my voice.  But there are Excel workbooks that are depersonalized and could be utilized readily if another instructor saw it fit to do so.  In this case, the videos are simply guides to the content in the workbooks and how that might be used.  And there are essays that again could also be used this way.  Those are different than textbook content in two ways - they are longer than those one page insets that many textbooks feature, with the thought that the essays should be interesting in themselves, not merely a means to illustrate the theory, and hence a bit more depth is useful to motivate why these ideas are important - and they are written in a way to enable students to bring their own experiences to bear in thinking through the issues of the essay.  Textbooks, in contrast, are very arms length in how they go about explaining things.

Both the Excel workbooks and essays are novel relative to what other materials instructors might find out there.  So there is potential use value to them.  And maybe I've had some instructors look at this content, but maybe not.  I have no way of knowing short of having them contact me directly and asking me about it.  So far, direct contact hasn't happened at all.  If instructors are indeed looking at this content, they prefer to maintain their anonymity.  The students are a little bit more obvious about this, by virtue of the search terms they enter into Google.

Let me make another point about the students.  Some of them come to this stuff directly from YouTube.  I know that because once in a while I've gotten a request from them via a comment to a particular video to get access to the workbooks - all are publicly available.  And I have a few dozen who subscribe to my channel.  I have no idea what benefits there are to being a subscriber, but if they want to do that more power to them.  I hadn't paid any attention to the channel page till I started getting some subscribers.  Having done so recently, I'm more aware about the variation in hits across my videos.  Some videos are relatively popular, others less so.  That variation is probably explained by external demand.  There are videos by other instructors on the same topic.  So perhaps on some topics students prefer to go to videos created by other instructors, while on other topics students might find what they are getting at their own institution sufficient that they don't need to get additional material about the subject online. 

It is an open question in my mind whether students would like to have mixed and matched modular content as the primary materials in their courses or if even more they'd prefer courses where only assessments were prescribed by the instructor and for presentation material they'd do inquiry on the Web to find suitable content.  I'd guess we are quite a ways from that as the norm, and maybe it never will be the norm. But as supplementary material, we seem to already be there with online modular content and I'd expect this use to grow substantially, without any organized cultivation.

* * * * *

Yesterday I sat in with some folks at the Office of Continuing Education here for part of an ELI Focus Session on Open Educational Repositories (OERs).  Open and Educational I like.  Repositories I'm much less sanguine about, as I will elaborate below.  Further, on the motivation for doing this, I think we collectively need to scratch our heads more.  I'll elaborate about that too.

First, on motivation, the driver seems to be to find free (to the students) or inexpensive alternatives to textbooks.  In other words, to the extent that the textbook market is the victim of publisher monopoly power, the push for OERs is to develop a counter force to that market power.  The approach is novel on the market side of the equation but it is quite conservative on the pedagogic side, the textbook itself a nineteenth century conception.  Having written a post about a year ago entitled Excise The Textbook, one of the few things I've written lately that attracted a fair number of eyeballs, I've got to ask why we want to affirm this particular approach instead of trying to find a modern day alternative that is more suitable.  The argument I made in that piece is that textbooks encapsulate received wisdom and by basing courses on them students come to the point of view that it is their job to absorb the received wisdom and be able to regurgitate it.  On Newtonian Physics, perhaps that makes sense.  On macroeconomics, to offer one example, the students must take a more critical view, as on a daily basis one can read views from eminent economists that directly contradict one another.  If the student is to take a side in this argument or reasonably decide to avoid taking side, how might it be that the student comes to that conclusion?  Textbooks simply aren't helpful that way.

Second, as a discipline (learning technology) we seem not to learn for our own prior experience, the obvious one in this case the emergence of Institutional Repositories to promote scholarly communication.  IRs like OERs were motivated by an agenda to offer alternatives to commercial publication - Journal pricing was (and still is) hyperinflationary and it seemed that commercial publishers were capturing economic profit for providing little value add, with most of the work being done by faculty authors, paid for by universities, often with the additional sponsorship of Federal research grants.  There was a secondary agenda for IRs - to make the research (and the data the research generated) more broadly available, particularly for archival purpose after the authors/researchers are no longer actively manipulating the data.   Truthfully, I don't know where IRs are on this second goal, but this New Yorker piece from last December on The Decline Effect, suggests that more scholarly work needs to be devoted to replication of initial findings, so the secondary goal would seem to have large potential value, even if not much is happening in that area at present.

Third, on faculty development, the OER approach of trying to encourage textbook alternatives seems to ignore a moving down the learning curve approach to producing the content that would seem kind of obvious to me.  In a learning curve approach an instructor might produce one module online and see how students react to that, while leave the rest of the course intact.  The next time around the instructor might produce another module or two and, with any luck, feel more competent than with the first module.  This would imply a multi-year approach to getting the equivalent of a full textbook and if there are discouraging results somewhere along the way it would further imply that some instructors will dropout from the activity before getting all the way there.

Fourth, there seems to be a separation between those who contribute to OERs (the equivalent of textbook authors) and those who might use the materials (the equivalent of textbook adopters).  In the paper based world that separation is warranted and this seems to me is an intellectual holdover from that.  A more current alternative would be a community development and use model.  Instructors would develop some content and adopt other content created elsewhere.   As I understand it, this alternative is embedded into LON-CAPA,which has as its focus the development of assessment materials.  Although LON-CAPA is open source, the community model there hasn't spread to the OER discussion, as far as I can tell.

There are, for sure, serious issues with the community model, mainly around building overall coherence from materials developed at a modular level when there was no prior planning for how those materials might be later integrated.  But here too, I'd guess that a slow moving down the learning curve would be much more robust than doing a whole course this way right off the bat.  Really it would be good to see experiments both of that and of the alternative with a planned approach. 

When the CIC Learning Technology Group was receiving funding from the Provosts (that ended about 10 years ago), there were grants for faculty from multiple Campuses across systems, such as at Illinois and Purdue, to do a joint course online, in whole or in parts.  The emphasis then was to do this for small, upper level classes, a toe in the water and entirely non-threatening approach.  I think we need something like this now but with a focus on the large classes.  If we did, I don't believe OERs would help, at least not an OER that had an institutional brand.  There are other places where open content can reside that would be more neutral regarding institutional affiliation.  Those other places would be preferred for that reason. 

The publishers are revamping their approach to these issues.  We in Higher Ed need to be smarter about them too.  We have a tendency to envision the endpoint of the journey we want to take and then direct our efforts to building the entire path to that endpoint, only to find that path is not well traveled.  Better, I believe, would be to encourage lots of experimentation and see what emerges from that, without making the outcome a foregone conclusion.  We're scared of bottom up because we can't control quality that way.  It's the same mindset that dismissed Wikipedia.  

I believe we'd be better served now by broadly encouraging small sojourns into the making and re-use of modular material than by promoting OERs.  I know I can be a voice in the wilderness, one who has totally lost his direction.  But on this topic, in particular, this alternative view makes sense to me.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Eight stuck at the gate

I watched the debate for the first 75 minutes or so.  The format, where there is a question from the moderator and then either 30 seconds or a minute of response, encouraged the candidates to offer up pat solutions with little or no analysis of the issues.  Herman Cain, who doesn't get a mention in Gail Collins column, was the most entertaining with his 999 plan.  But collectively they are rather frightening, Ron Paul especially so.  After a while, it seemed like it had become a rerun of itself, even as the moderators changed the topics.  That's why I turned it off.
I also thought it strange that this was only on MSNBC,  And the commercials were weird.  There was an attack ad by Ron Paul saying that he had supported Reagan back in 1976, but that Rick Perry had supported Al Gore for President in 2000.  And there was a different ad about limiting legal immigration till the unemployment problem in California gets resolved.  These were as frightening as the debate itself.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Grisham and Tevye

I'm not sure when it happened, but somewhere I developed a habit of reading junk novels - Thomas Harris, Dan Brown, John Grisham.  Before I was married while I didn't read fiction that often, when I did it was apt to be more serious stuff - A Bend in the River, A Flag for Sunrise, the Smiley trilogy and a lot of other le CarrĂ©.   For a while I was a member of the Book of the Month Club and through that I believe I read a lot of Nadine Gordimer; it's sad to say but I can't remember.  Some titles arrived by accident, if I recall.  I read Ordinary People that way.   Over some summer vacations I even read "classics," a promise to self begun in college.  I know I read Invisible Man one summer and The Tin Drum in another.  It's not that I completely lost doing this after I got married.  Having seen the movie I read A Passage to India and before and during a trip to Taiwan I read a lot of Faulkner.  I also read a fair amount of non-fiction as pleasure reading.  Two books from then  that come to mind now are David Halberstam's The Reckoning and Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly.  And I used to subscribe to the The New Republic and The New York Review of Books and read each pretty much from cover to cover.

The junk novels went along with family trips, particularly going to Florida to see my parents when the kids were very young.  It was a schlepp.   On trips you ate "comfort food," an expression I picked up from my wife, and you had "treats," something to break up the monotony (and on the planes also as a way to deal with the discomfort of being jammed into the seats).  The junk novels as pure escape provided a mental equivalent.  When I was in sleep away camp as a kid we read comic books during "rest hour' after lunch.  The junk novels provided the same sort of feel and you could stay with them for more than an hour.

For a while I only read the junk novels while on the road.  At home during holiday I found escape through computer games.  I loved Zork (and not that long ago downloaded it for play under the command prompt, though I haven't gotten into again).  The last one I can recall playing was Myst.  I don't believe it was a conscious choice, the way it was with playing video games with the kids, but I went cold turkey after that.  This was around the same time that my dad passed away.  My wife's dad passed away less than a year later.  We made fewer family trips after that.  The junk novels became part and parcel of the R&R while at home.

I'm not yet ready to abandon the activity entirely, though because my time is more abundant now there is less of a need to renew oneself with escapism.  But I have been doing a fair amount of heavy reading recently and I knew I'd have to read a good deal of economics in the near future to prepare for a new course I'm teaching in the spring.  So I decided I "needed" a treat before doing that.

The book I chose was The Testament, which I had downloaded earlier on my iPad.  The iPad is now my favorite way to read things, for a few different reasons.  First and foremost, I get to choose the size of the font.  Second, I tend to brutalize paper books - the binding and I are sworn enemies and I also bend the cover. There's none of that problem with the iPad.  And there's no need for a bookmark.  Of course, my Kindle did all of that too.  But I fairly often need a fix to check my email or something on the Web.and I do listen to music while I read.  All of that is integrated with the iPad.  Before I used to need 3 devices to do that, which is ridiculous.

I started The Testament earlier, but I couldn't get into it at all.  The opening is brutal - an affront to the sensibilities.  It didn't create the flow that other Grisham novels had done for me.  This time around I told myself to get through the beginning and see if the flow returns after that.  It did.  But I began to ask myself - does Grisham have a template and does he simply vary the story line a bit but otherwise stick with the template?  I was getting less pleasure with this book than I had with others I've read.  The characters seemed too flat.  The lawyers, Grisham's emblem is to produce stories about lawyers, are either entirely venal and then not very bright or extremely shrewd and with some backbone, with the exception of the protagonist who has some ethical conflict and has both aspects to his personality.  The other characters are equally without nuance.    There are numerous bad guys, all despicable.  The protagonist has a few friends, who remain true.  The story proceeds as if the bad guys will win out, but of course at the end they do not.  They may not get their just desserts, but they only get enough that our protagonist can achieve the outcome he is after, finding some inner peace with himself for doing so.  This general outline is just as accurate for The Firm, I watched the movie on TV not that long ago, as it is forThe Testament.

One first in The Testament is Grisham's use of religion as a way to designate the non-lawyer good guys.  This struck a chord with me, I suppose because having recently read Ryan Lizza's piece on Michell Bachmann and thereby becoming aware of how important faith is to Tea Party Representatives, it was striking how different a picture Grisham painted.  There are two Christian characters in The Testament.  One is the sole beneficiary of the huge estate, but as it turns out she doesn't want the money.  She is a missionary and a doctor working in the Pantanal in Brazil with the indigenous Indians, tending to their health and teaching them to read, especially the Gospel. She is the sole white person in the community, middle aged, entirely committed to her missionary work, which is her life purpose.  The other is a minister, extraordinarily friendly, willing to give seemingly all of his time to a stranger (the protagonist) to help him find his way.  The first finds Christianity at odds with Capitalism.   I don't know too may present commentators who make that point, though Nicholas Kristof has on occasion, such as in this piece.  The second doesn't emphasize the tension between Christianity and Capitalism but lives outside Capitalism's rhythms in the way he is able to fully immerse himself in the troubles of others.

The same day I finished reading The Testament, while channel surfing I stumbled onto Fiddler on the Roof and started to watch it in the middle, turning it off after the song, To life, To life, L'chaim, when Tevye learns from the local constable that there will be a pogrom in the village. Because I was already in the frame of mind to do so, I thought about how religion enters into this story.  It is different from how Grisham depicts it.  There is a very large cultural aspect.  Tevye leads his life according to the "Good Book" though he constantly interprets it to match his own way of doing things.  It affects the clothes he wears and how he goes about his work.  Much of this is  behavioral than rather than ethical.  Tevye's ethics stem from being "a mensch."   He treats everyone with respect, including the constable, and if he learns of someone else's need he tries to help, but does so in a way to find a quid pro quo, because that is the way to maintain balance.  Self-pride prevents people from taking charity or encourages an unhealthy dependency.

Tevye struggles, in a certain sense it is a very modern struggle, between maintaining the Jewish traditions and his daughters finding happiness by choosing whom they are to marry. Match making had been the tradition.  An important feature of the husband-to-be is his ability to earn a good living, so the family will live well and not know hunger.  The tradition is sensible.  Marriage for love is not. The elder three daughters each choose that.  Tevye is challenged to promote their happiness yet abide by the traditions.  With the first two daughters he comes to some accommodation but with the third he does not.  She elopes with a non-Jew, forbidden behavior for which there can be no compromise.   There is no such struggle in The Testament.  Because the characters are flat, they can be pure in their purpose. The religious ones are good, in an entirely pure way.

The Sholom Aleichem stories on which Fiddler was based were written more than 100 years ago.  The first copyright on The Testament is from 1999.  Neither is of our time.  The values that religion represents are different in them, but both treat religion from an individualistic perspective and neither turns religion into a crusade.  I don't know if 9/11 has made it harder for either of these approaches to prevail or if the continued poor performance of the economy has proved the correctness of Marx's insight about religion being the opiate of the masses.

For several years as a kid I went to Yiddische Schule on Saturdays and was taught Yiddish (of which I know very little now but I have a copy of Leo Rosten's book in my reading pile), folk songs, and Jewish history.  Some of this was simply to make the kids aware of their culture but some of it was deliberately there to contradict the history we were taught in the public schools.  I still remember a chapter title from our history book called The Horrible Crusades.  It was a lesson learned then, one that has stuck.