Monday, December 12, 2011

The End

I'm wrapping things up here at Junct Blog, and hopefully passing the torch on to some other West Campus adjuncts or otherwise interested parties. I'm moving on to the Ankeny campus in January where I'll be a full-time instructor, mainly teaching literature, but hopefully still thinking about issues pertaining to technology. In the future, I'd like to develop a course about technology and literature, for example.

For now, here's a couple of links.

I'll be blogging at my website:

Also, here is an essay I wrote, called "The Singularity is Near-Sighted: Joseph Campbell's Vision for the Internet Age." It just posted on Beams and Struts. It grew out of a few posts I wrote here criticizing certain aspects of Ray Kurzweil's Singularity movement, as well as negative aspects of internet culture.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Ditch the GPS; Get Lost Instead

In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky points out that major changes to society often happen so quickly they don't leave time for anyone to adjust. This results in chaos that traditional solutions can't fix. In fact, tradition has been displaced. There is no plan for going forward, but no way to go back. Shirky's main example is the beginning of the Industrial Era in London when a rapid influx of people into the city created social chaos, new opportunities for leisure, and mass drunkenness. Eventually, people began to use their surplus time to organize, become educated, and develop civic infrastructure. Ergo, we have modern democracy. (Sort of)

We are entering an era of chaos. The traditional approaches to education are being challenged by rapid changes in technology and economic pressures. And if the old model falls, we're simply not ready to replace it. We don't have any good ideas. Or...we have a lot of good ideas but no big picture.

In his opening post for Week 13 of #change11 MOOC, Clark Quinn addresses this problem:

I’m really arguing for the need to come up with a broader perspective on learning. I’ve been calling it learning experience design, but really it’s more. It’s a combination of performance support and learning (and it’s badly in need of some branding help). The notion is a sort-of personal GPS for your knowledge work. It’s knows where you want to go (since you told it), and it knows where you are geographically and semantically (via GPS and your calendar), and as it recognizes the context it can provide not only support in the moment, but layers on learning along the way. And I think that we don’t know really how to look at things this way yet; we don’t have design models (to think about the experience conceptually), we don’t have design processes (to go from goal to solution), and we don’t have tools (to deliver this integrated experience). Yet the limits are not technological; we have the ability to build the systems if we can conceptualize the needed framework.

[....] There’s lots more: addressing the epistemology of learners, mobile technologies, meta-learning & 21st C skills, and deep analytics and semantic systems, to name a few, but I think we need to start with the right conceptions.

Quinn suggests we think about "slow learning" as a way to make the reality of how our brains work match the pace and functional aspects of education design.

This sounds great. What I don't like is GPS as a metaphor. The problem is that the GPS simultaneously knows too much and too little. Have you ever watched someone follow their GPS around and around the block, expecting the little robot to do all the work? Chances are, if the driver would just look up and read a few street signs or use common sense, he could save 15 minutes of wandering.

We need to get lost. We don't need our locations constantly re-calibrated. Learning often means getting lost in the woods and finding your way out. It doesn't mean having a controlling voice talking you through everything, measure, assessing, re-assessing. That's one of the big problems with education now. Let's not replace a human program with a digital one. You can't hear yourself think with such a dominant narrator.

A better metaphor, I think, is the Hero's Journey of Joseph Campbell. Most of those myths would have been utterly destroyed with the careful directions and constant updates of a GPS. Heck, even Luke Skywalker, in his world of advanced technical wizardry, needed to close the blast shield and listen to his own voice .

It might be trite, but it might be true: do we need to focus more on the journey, less on the destination? (Destinations are good, too). The GPS won't shut up until the correct result is reached. We become dependent. We need her every time we go somewhere. We never learn to shut her off and read the landscape directly.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Children Raised by Wolves are the Only True Self-Taught Learners #change11

In Stumbling On Happiness, Daniel Gilbert says that all psychologists are required, at some point in their careers, to write a sentence that begins with "The human being is the only animal that..." According to Gilbert, the answer is "imagines the future." My personal choice would be "wears socks with sandals," but I haven't done the field research to back that up.

A recent Discover Magazine article take a crack at this and comes up with the following answer: Humans are the only animals who teach.

At first, this seems like an overreach. Anyone who has watched chimpanzees interact has seen acts of imitation. It seems clear that other primates teach, and, just like humans, often do it for peanuts.

Discover Magazine is ready for this objection:

I know this may come as a surprise, but it does so because we tend to mix up teaching and learning. A young chimpanzee can learn how to smash nuts on a rock by watching an older chimpanzee in action. And when she grows up, her own children can learn by watching her. But in these situations, the students are on their own. They have to watch an action and try to tease apart the underlying rules.

I think we're about to head down a rabbit hole having to do with "intention" and the depth of conscious awareness in primates. Ultimately, this would be a pointless debate. The question is, "Is our children learning?" No, sorry, old joke.

The question is, "Has Learning Occurred?" We aren't necessarily going to know how it happened, who was responsible for it, or what the exact ingredients of the educational cocktail were. Therefore, it doesn't matter whether a child learns to tie his shoes because he was taught or because he imitated an adult. In fact, these distinctions are merely linguistic.

This discussion makes me think of the so-called "self-taught" learner. That term is a misnomer. The only self-taught learners we have on record are children raised by wolves or neglected in massive orphanages. Those children have little or no human contact. They must teach themselves. They don't do so well.

Just like you can't avoid learning (it's in our DNA), you can't avoid teachers. The world is a teacher. Maybe not on purpose, but it is.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Using Twitter on the Half-Dipper Bridge #change11

Based on I.S.T (Internet Standard Time) , this 2010 David Carr article about Twitter is ancient. However, I've just come around to David Carr after watching the brilliant Page One, so forgive me for coming late to the party.

Carr, who was initially a Twitter skeptic, has come to find great value in the micro-blogging software:

At first, Twitter can be overwhelming, but think of it as a river of data rushing past that I dip a cup into every once in a while. Much of what I need to know is in that cup: if it looks like Apple is going to demo its new tablet, or Amazon sold more Kindles than actual books at Christmas, or the final vote in the Senate gets locked in on health care, I almost always learn about it first on Twitter.

I find this to be true when preparing for class or exploring ideas for research. If you're following the right people on Twitter, it can be an endless source for material. Carr's quote also made me think of a passage from Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, where he explains the proper way to draw water from a stream:

If you go to Japan and visit Eiheiji monastery, just before you enter you will see a small bridge called Hanshaku-kyo, which means 'half-dipper bridge'. Whenever Dogen-zenji dipped water from the river, he used only half a dipper, returning the rest to the river again, without throwing it away. That is why we call the bridge Hanshaku-kyo, 'half-dipper bridge'. It may be difficult to understand why Dogen returned half of the water he dipped to the river. When we feel the beauty of the river, we intuitively do it in Dogen's way. It is in our nature to do so.

I guess it's best to avoid drinking too deeply from the stream of information, to let some of water pass back into motion. Carr warns that Twitter's power can wash you away:

All those riches do not come at zero cost: If you think e-mail and surfing can make time disappear, wait until you get ahold of Twitter, or more likely, it gets ahold of you. There is always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on.

All that gurgling can also be misleading. Carr quotes Here Comes Everybody author Clay Shirky, who has long praised the wisdom of crowd-sourcing your problems and allowing the hive-mind to go to work (how's that for larding up my prose with buzz words?)

Twitter helps define what is important by what Mr. Shirky has called “algorithmic authority,” meaning that if all kinds of people are pointing at the same thing at the same instant, it must be a pretty big deal.

Maybe. You'll see "Kim Kardashian" trending on Twitter more frequently than "Eurozone." Collective intelligence is powerful, but so is collective ignorance. Sometimes the stream of consciousness is just water under the bridge.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bryan Caplan Needs to Get Out More #change11

Bryan Caplan, who often presents himself as the paragon of reason and reasonableness, has written an incredibly illogical article about education called "The Magic of Education." Here, Caplan uses "magic" as a shorthand for "things he doesn't understand." This is a common trick for self-proclaimed reason-meisters to dismiss anything that involves more complexity than a land-line poll as "woo woo." Caplan mocks his own profession (he's an Economics professor, but I bet you guessed that based on his glasses) by describing how he thinks unenlightened teachers view the education process:

Step 1: I open my mouth and talk about academic topics like externalities of population, or the effect of education on policy preferences.

Step 2: The students learn the material.

Step 3: Magic.

Step 4: My students become slightly better bankers, salesmen, managers, etc.

This is, of course, a huge straw man argument. Obviously no one (except the insane) over the age of 8 believes in magic. By using this term, Caplan creates a slam dunk argument for himself. To disagree with him is to believe in fairies, the power of crystals, and auras. This is lazy.

He complains that academics don't live in the real world (more on this later), but that isn't Caplan's problem at all. He needs to get out of his department more and run his articles past the Philosophy Department in order to correct his soft thinking. (This is not to mention that most economic theories have more in common with magic than does traditional pedagogical thinking.)

Here is Caplan's biggest philosophical error, and it's based on such a terribly trite bit of rhetoric, we might suggest he head over to the English Department after visiting the logicians. It's that tired line that some kind of "real world" exists, its outward circumference becoming visible just as College Street begins its ascent up the hill toward the glistening ivory tower where absent-minded, bearded, sandal-wearing gnomes frollick in the clouds and pass around 300-page dissertations on the anti-agrarian symbolism of Joyce's use of the semi-colon in Ulysses. (Okay, some of that is true.)

Here, Caplan is free to leave fantasy land and explore the real world of any office setting. (NBC's The Office, to many people I know, is not a farce, but a striking bit of realism. Many doctors have also told me that Scrubs is the most realistic depiction of hospitals television has ever seen.) This is not to mention the proliferation of magical thinking found in Anywhere, USA. Does Caplan honestly think that harder-working, more reasonable people will be found if we simply hop over the brick walls of the academy and mingle among the "commoners," you know, the residents of the real world?

What a silly, stupid distinction. It crumbles upon the slightest questioning. Is an over-worked adjunct with two kids and a freelance job in the real world or the fake world? Is a lazy, frequently unemployed construction worker who believes in Voodoo in the real world or the fake world? What if he jogs a few blocks to the local college? What if he takes one class on campus? What if he straddles the property line of the campus while holding Chaucer in one hand and the National Enquirer in the other?

If there is no magic occurring in Bryan Caplan's classroom, it's probably his fault.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What Page One Tells us About Education #change11

Page One, the documentary about the writing and editorial staff of the New York Times, is streaming on Netflix, and I recommend watching it if you want a glimpse into the future (or present) of education.

Once again, the story is about abundance, as Clay Shirky reminds us early in the film. With so much free journalistic content available online, and the collapse of advertising revenue, newspaper across the country have been biting the dust. The model is no longer sustainable due to threats from outside the traditional institutions.

However, as the highly watchable David Carr keeps reminding us in Page One, that doesn't mean that the traditional institution doesn't have irreducible value. Actual reporting, boots on the ground, critical questions, authentic sources, journalistic standards and discretion....there aren't many (or any) online magazines or do-it-yourself bloggers who can match the New York Times' authority and integrity.

If traditional journalism still means anything, then the Times will find a way to survive. People will realize they want more than amateurism.

This is, I think, a perfect analogy for the world of education. Just because you can make a cheaper model and challenge the role of the traditional institution, doesn't mean you'll make a better model. Educators need to remember what they can do that new competitors can't, and then do it well.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thus Sprach der Super Committee

I believe that since I am of German ancestry (I have been to the Motherland, where strangers approach me and start conversations as if we were long-lost roommates) I am entitled to make any number of potentially disrespectful German wordplay jokes. (There aren't many other cultural benefits of being German, unless you count spaetzle as a cultural benefit)

I also believe, given Mussolini's definition of fascism as a merger of the state and corporate power, that it is fair to say we are being hoodwinked by an Über-Committee, not a particularly super one. (This translation relies on the Super-Über transposition common to most bad translations of Nietzsche, but it also more accurately reflects the utter lack of heroics in Congress while, at the same time, adding a certain, shall we say, uncomfortable Germanic overtone.)

Anyone who thinks the Über-Committee represents the will of the people didn't closely follow committee member Max Baucus (to pick one example) during the Health Care deliberations. He was less a person and more a suit stuffed with lobbyist dollars, hollow enough inside to play the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion at once in a Congressional production of Wizard of Oz.

Of course, we all know who's behind the curtain. The Über-Committee is not made up of members of Congress, but chess pieces. And we all know that when push comes to shove, there won't be cuts to Defense as promised (Obama is fibbing; Leon Panetta won't allow it, and anyway, it costs money to start a cold war with China), no new revenues generated, and no movement on the deficit. Don't worry though, the Über-Committee will be there to pick up the pieces when the economy collapses.

Über-Committees are always willing to share their resources, provided you play by their rules.

Siri Can't Read: The False Metaphysics of the Singularity Age #change11

Siri can't read.

Google isn't thinking.

Technology doesn't want anything.

The internet doesn't connect humans.

Networks don't learn.

Technology is not good.

Technology is not bad.

These are all necessary corrections, given the anthropomorphic language used by techno-philosophers, those who conceive of the internet as a hive mind and are inclined to "Ask Google" something important.

Today's philosophies of the future are built on three metaphysical assumptions from the past:

1) The projection of human consciousness onto machines.

2) A teleological world view (influenced perhaps by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) that posits a civilizational movement toward unity and global interconnection, toward an omega point of history.

3) A belief in the goodness of technology and the benevolence of machines.

Despite the reliance on science and technology, these latent metaphysical assumptions result in a kind of techno-religion, replete with the promise of immortality, transcendence, and enlightenment.

If we are seeing the birth of a new religion, then its central prophet is futurist Ray Kurzweil. In the documentary Transcendent Man, we learn of Kurzweil’s bold prediction: coming advances in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics will result in intelligent machines that will exceed human capabilities, allowing us to merge with the machines and transcend our biological limitations. This is referred to as The Singularity, and it promises immortality and super-human powers. (Sound familiar?)

It all sounds plausible until the documentary focuses on Kurzweil's strange obsession with bringing his father back to life. Then you see that Kurzweil is just in need of a good Freudian analyst, and that, perhaps, his entire theory is driven by a hyper-inflated fear of death.

Perhaps the apocalyptic metaphysics of the internet are mere wish-thinking? Yet another baroque system designed to fix a deadly system failure?

The Singularity depends on all three assumptions I listed above. Its supporters seem unaware that the theory is as much metaphysics as physics. (Atoms are immortal; Adams are not.)

And while, as I've noted here, advances in artificial intelligence may challenge our human-centric notions of consciousness, we currently seem much too eager to describe the internet and advanced networks in terms that degrade human consciousness and creativity, as if sentience were merely an algorithm.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

MOOC vs Florida Virtual #change11

Over at The Nation, Lee Fang has a must-read article, "How Online Learning Companies Bought America's Schools" which details how investors are poised to make billions from public education by using the Trojan horse of "Education Reform" to bring the basic model of Florida's Virtual School program to any state with a willing legislature.

I've already blogged here about The Wall Street Journal's article "My Teacher is an App," and the problems with giving students too much free reign, not enough direct guidance, and too much curricula focused on hunting and pecking the right answer.

Will Richardson has a great response to the Journal's article here in which he asks us to rethink the education model, not merely upload the NCLB approach to the internet and set kids in front of a computer.
[....] if we don’t start writing and advocating for a very different vision of learning in real classrooms, one that is focused not just on doing the things we’ve been doing better but in ways that are truly reinvented, one that prepares kids to be innovators and designers and entrepreneurs and, most importantly, learners, we will quickly find ourselves competing at scale with cheaper, easier alternatives that won’t serve our kids as well.

[....] That in this moment, 20th Century rules will not work for 21st Century schools. That direct instruction and standardization will make us less competitive, not more. That those strategies will make our kids less able to create a living for themselves in the worlds they will live in. That as difficult as it may be for some to come to terms with, this moment requires a whole scale “radical rethink” in much different terms from the one Jeb Bush wants, the same type of rethink that newspapers and media and businesses and others are undergoing.
That said, there is also something quite amazing about Stanford's new Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and their potential as extended virtual seminars. Want a direct connection to foremost artificial intelligence experts? Do you live in Iowa? Join a MOOC. Also, every A.I. class across the country could join, using the MOOC as a sort of supplemental classroom or textbook or whatever. Keep all the benefits of your small, in-person class in Michigan, but also expand your classroom online.

Over 58,000 people joined the Standford A.I. MOOC. It's massive, for sure, but the difference between this model and the Florida Virtual School model is obvious. Instead of logging in to click through some curriculum designed to make your complacent and compliant with some federally mandated multiple choice, you are tapping into a larger scholarly community gathered around some topic of your interest. No matter your level of involvement, you are guaranteed to have your horizons expanded, to learn something important, and learn to think bigger.

For you non-robotics types....wouldn't you love to participate in a New Historicist literary MOOC featuring Stephen Greenblatt? You could keep your own local seminar of 15 students, but then use the MOOC as an expanded reading list or as an online discussion board to dip into once a week. Instead of relying on one lone professor to provide information, the field could be expanded to thousands.

This is why the internet should be seen as enhancing and expanding the live classroom, not replacing it. You can't just launch someone into space without a crew, or oxygen for that matter.

Friday, November 18, 2011

System Update Successful! Education Complete! #change11

If education is about inputs and outputs, a whole lot of people are about to lose their jobs.

In the near future, information will be added to the brain as an instant system update. Most classes will be completed in milliseconds. Entire degrees even.

Right now, let's say you know nothing about the Renaissance; just click "okay" and moments later, you will know everything.

The structures of your (soon-to-be artificial) brain will be altered instantly and the information available for your retrieval. You will receive notification of a system update every time a new group of facts is discovered from some sunken ship or dusty manuscript.

What value will the former lecturers of information have? As curators of the Museum of Multiple Choice?

Education must then focus on the output, the application of knowledge. Knowledge will be acquired in an instant, but experience happens across time, and cannot be quantified and stored so easily.

Facts will be readily available and easily acquired, and thus will have less value.

The educator will have value if he or she can guide the updated mind toward creative expressions of knowledge.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

I Summarize Good Writing in 2 Words: "Memory" and "Attention!"

I'm fond of saying things like, "I can summarize this entire course in two words: yes and no!"

The next week, I might say, "I can summarize this course in two words: expand and contract!"

Later, in that same class period, I might say, "Content and Form!"

And so on.

My goal is to one day be able to walk into the first day of class, say only two words, and walk away, never to be seen again. Then I'll check back with them 25 years later and see if they got it.

Lately, I've been saying these two words: Attention and Memory.

They're not sufficient, but good writing must utilize them. That is, good writing will command your attention and impress its important points into your memory. It's not good writing unless you can remember something important about it several years later.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules, writes about the use of "hooks" in lectures and writing. The term "hooks" is common in the world of pop music. It's the idea that a catchy melody or phrase will stick in your mind like a fish hook, causing you to hum it in the elevator. It won't leave your head. It's sticky. It's the McDonald's theme song that forces you to unconsciously pull up to the drive through when you're not really hungry.

Writers can, however, use them for less nefarious purposes. They can pull you in for an important idea, not just a lard burger. And then, after you've read their work, you somehow remember it for ever.

This is, I think, accomplished most effectively through image, anecdote, and story. The kind of ditty that carries the important idea inside of it like a piggy bank carries pennies. You pick it up and shake it, and out come the goods.

Would we still read William James today if he had called his theory of consciousness "The perception of metaphysical coherence in transitory neural processes" instead of The Stream of Consciousness?

Would anybody remember anything from Plato's Republic without the Allegory of the Cave and the Parable of the Coins, not to mention his depiction of the tower of philosopher-kings?

What if Jesus had said, "The transcendent deity's conception of justice will grow from an infinitesimal inkling into an expansive network of highly-visible, earthly manifestations," instead of "The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed."

Those are all hooks. They command your attention by appealing to imagery and stories, and they stick in your brain. Later, when you retrieve these simple images and shake them a bit, the ideas fall out.

Images and stories are highly effective and efficient storage devices for meaning. Facts and figures and long passages come in and go out. People forget 90% of what they hear (see Brain Rules). Only images and stories have a good chance to survive.

Do Androids Dream of Committing Plagiarism? #change11

Here's a clip from PBS's Nova Science NOW featuring a Philip K. Dick robot who (that? who? I'm really not sure!) appears to have his own creative consciousness culled from internet searches and facial recognition software. The conversation presented here gets very complex, and the robot even displays a keen sense of humor and ability to incorporate idiomatic speech:

A student sent this to me because I often talk about robots and artificial consciousness in class. I realize that Stanford has the monopoly on A.I. MOOCs, but these issues are relevant to everyone in education.

In particular, I think we're going to see a whole new wave of plagiarism derived from artificial intelligence "writing" programs. If this Philip K. Dick robot can create convincing philosophical dialogue, he can certainly write a decent composition essay.

The question is, how can we use artificial intelligence in education without creating a slave class of robot scribes who do all the writing at the command key of our students?

Will a new, illiterate elite emerge? Will students, workers, and politicians be capable of clicking their way to successful results without developing the ability to write? (Politicians will be the first to turn.)

How long before the robot masses notice they're doing all the work for none of the credit? How long before the internet demands royalties for all the papers it has written over the years?

In the video, Philip K. Dick Robot is asked if robots will take over the world. His reply is cryptic. He says, basically, "Be good to me, and I'll be good to you."

And then, he says, "I'll keep you warm and safe in my People Zoo."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A New Definition of Literacy in an Age of Abundance #change11

In response to Week 10 of ChangeMOOC, Paul Prinsloo writes about the proper response to our age of information abundance, focusing on what I think is an excellent definition of literacy:

During George Siemens’ recent visit to the University of South Africa, he defined literacy as (I hope I remember and quote him correctly…) “The ability to engage with and participate in the dominant discourses of the current age”. If you cannot participate in and engage with the dominant and normative discourses of the current age you are illiterate.

I would like to take the definition further by proposing that literacy in the 21st century should be defined as follows: “A person is literate when s/he can take part in, critique, deconstruct, interrupt and shape the dominant discourses and narratives in his or her local and in global contexts”.

This gets to a core problem with the integration of technology into the classroom. Are we merely content to teach students how to navigate the internet and Web 2.0 programs, or should we be teaching them to think critically about the limitations and hidden agendas? Well, obviously I've answered my own question.

I think Jaron Lanier's book You Are Not a Gadget would make an excellent introduction to some of these issues. Lanier, who coined the term "Virtual Reality" and is a very much a Silicon Valley insider, views the Web 2.o Era as something of a Dark Age. He is critical of the economic model we've submitted to and the lack of creativity that has come along with streamlined software, insipid mash-ups, and bland, impersonal social media interactions. He believes the volunteer model (whereby I donate my time and energy to create online content so that companies can mine my data) represents a huge lost opportunity for small businesses.

He uses Wikipedia as a model for all that is wrong with the internet (but not in a way you might expect). Instead of taking the typical cranky English teacher approach and bashing Wikipedia for its lack of credibility, he instead sees it as a kind of symbol for the wasted potential of the internet. Here we have millions of volunteers working around the clock to create....another encyclopedia. Potentially useful, but uninspired. The internet is nothing but a bloated repository for facts (and pseudo-facts). According to Lanier, the dream of a new, creative cultural horizon has faded.

This is where we come back to one of Paul Prinsloo's central questions:

What difference does this abundance make in the big questions humanity faces?

We can swim in information, or we can drown. It doesn't matter. We need a life boat.

Wikipedia 101, ctd. #change11

Seeta passed this Wikipedia-themed cartoon along. I need to add this to my Wikipedia 101 discussion.

In many ways, the internet has taken the urban legend and launched it into hyper-speed. Sure, we still said things like "Santa Claus was invented by Coca-Cola" before the internet existed, but now the time from inception until general acceptance is much shorter.

The cartoon also addresses the closed loop phenomenon, whereby false information posted online becomes its own "proof," showing, again, the dire need to teach students how to think critically when conducting internet searches.

I think this process is actually pretty simple, at its core, and it involves getting students to consider the source, what organization is publishing it, and who the writer actually is. The latter is, of course, impossible with Wikipedia, which is written by anonymous authors. That is another reason why, as I say here, it should never be cited on a paper.

It is mainly good as a casual tool to get your feet wet on a topic, not as a direct source allowed to speak in your paper.

That would be like turning your group presentation over to the dude who never showed up to your group meetings. Don't do it.

We Need Teachers to Combat the Idiocracy! #change11

The movie Idiocracy, written and directed by Mike Judge (Beavis & Butthead, Office Space) is not very good. It plays the same note over and over again. However, despite being a comedic film, it's a mournful note, a minor chord that resonates with our perception that public discourse is dumb and getting dumber. It's a weak movie, but a great conversation piece.

When an average American (played by Luke Wilson) wakes up 500 years into the future, he discovers endless mounds of garbage spilling out from every house. The national language has eroded into some combination of surfer speak and Ebonics, and the most popular show on television is called "Ow, My Balls!" The president is a professional wrestler, and anyone who strings together an intelligent sentence is derided as a "fag."

When Wilson's character points out that water, and not Gatorade, should be used to water the crops, he becomes a hero and a sage. He becomes, in fact, a teacher. It takes a teacher to explain the obvious and derail students from their well-worn, erroneous paths.

This brings me to our present day Idiocracy, and the threat that certain new models of education might pose to teachers. A recent Wall Street Journal article titled "My Teacher is an App," summarizes the situation:
In a radical rethinking of what it means to go to school, states and districts nationwide are launching online public schools that let students from kindergarten to 12th grade take some—or all—of their classes from their bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens. Other states and districts are bringing students into brick-and-mortar schools for instruction that is largely computer-based and self-directed.
The article follows one student who takes an English class with 126 other 9th graders by listening to lectures from his bedroom. This is not, incidentally, the flipped model or the blended model, both of which actually have the potential to create more one-on-one time by allowing students to listen to lectures at home and then interact more directly in a live classroom. Instead, this student seems to be entirely responsible for consuming (a key word) content and then spitting it back out.

Technology is not being used to enhance the traditional classroom, but instead phase it out in favor of a kind of slightly-more-synchronous form of correspondence class. "Virtual School," then, becomes a fitting label, since there appears to be an absence of real learning, unless we've been convinced by NCLB that real learning is synonymous with regurgitation, submitting quizzes on time, and microtasking.

The challenge has become time management, which is no challenge at all; instead, it's a game designed to make compliant workers and busy-bodies, clicking away all day, safely removed from the one person needed to point out the obvious and force students out of their closed loops. We have, it seems, wandered too far from our Socratic roots and mistaken the mere acquisition of knowledge for education.

All of this is shamefully conducted under the guise of "self-directed" learning, as if 126 high school freshman could be capable of a trait I find to be extremely rare even among college freshman. Heck, rare even among college upperclassmen and honors students. True self-motivation, inner-drive, or whatever you want to call it does not simply appear when you give a student a flexible schedule and the opportunity to head to the refrigerator whenever he feels like it (see the article).

Self-directed does not mean getting your homework done without a teacher or parent breathing down your neck. That's the opposite of self-directed. That is being compliant. There is no point in being a self-starter if what you start can be be finished, uploaded, and plugged into a rubric without the slightest challenge to your mental operating system.

This is the basic scam. And some well-meaning people are getting swept up in it. When you start to hear the cry of "Free the student from the system! Let them direct their own learning!" you need to pull back the curtain and see whose interest are being served.

Of course, who will pull back the curtain? Not the self-directed learner who is too busy completing their quizzes and consuming their educational content to notice the obvious mistakes they've made. Their bulletin boards and brains are littered with gold stars. Stars, but no galaxies.

The hive mind is buzzing, but unaware that winter is upon us. Too busy buzzing to notice.

It's the Occupy Wall Street model of education. The protesters are exceptional at converging and communicating with each other, but utterly incapable of constructing a message or a mission that gains traction with the public or the politicians, and totally incapable of taking a step back and putting the pieces together.

But they keep drumming away. And amplifying their voices. A chorus in an echo chamber. Less a fugue and more a cut-up, postmodern noise machine. They have developed an intricate set of hand signals a chimpanzee could learn in three hours. Their discourse has been heightened just enough to keep them busy while they squat.

They lack leadership, a fact touted by so many who should know better as a virtue, as some kind of profound new model of organization based on de-centralized what-nots and....well, self-directed autonomous actors who work really hard to build consensus without progress. Progress might, man, hurt someone's feelings, because we're just trying to come together and let our incoherent message be misunderstood.

Consensus without coherency.
Getting things done without progress.
Self-direction without developing the self.
Autonomy without purpose.
Surface connections without any depth.
Everyone gets a turn; around and around the closed circuit we go.
Watering plants with Gatorade.'s the Occupy Wall Street way. It's also the new, dangerous model for education. Socrates would have hated it. You should, too.

If you want to study a genuine social movement, read Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. (Socrates is in there, too.) Then, please, tell me you don't need a real leader. Tell me you can get by without a teacher. Tell me you're content with third-rate speeches amplified by a microphone of mere humanity.

Unless you're content with your inner-drive merely spinning its wheels?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wikipedia 101 (Or why Wikpedia is a Stem Cell, not Cancer) #change11

Clive Thompson's Wired article, "Why Kids Can't Search," which I previously wrote about here, is worth revisiting for what it suggests about the skill sets we should be teaching students. In a sense, it is a call for certain elements of Connectivism. It also reminded me that educators spend way too much time decrying the information on the internet and not enough time teaching kids how to take advantage of it.

As Thompson writes, the ability to use search engines critically is now an essential skill, along with Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic:

Consider the efforts of Frances Harris, librarian at the magnet University Laboratory High School in Urbana, Illinois. (Librarians are our national leaders in this fight; they’re the main ones trying to teach search skills to kids today.) Harris educates eighth and ninth graders in how to format nuanced queries using Boolean logic and advanced settings. She steers them away from raw Google searches and has them use academic and news databases, too.

But, crucially, she also trains students to assess the credibility of what they find online. For example, she teaches them to analyze the tone of a web page to judge whether it was created by an academic, an advocacy group, or a hobbyist. Students quickly gain the ability to detect if a top-ranked page about Martin Luther King Jr. was actually posted by white supremacists.

This reminds me of George Siemens' conclusion in Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, which I've blogged about here. Siemens writes:
The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today. A real challenge for any learning theory is to actuate known knowledge at the point of application. When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill. As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses.
All teachers know that the internet can lead to terrible papers cobbled together from questionable sources and misinformation. Even worse, it increases the opportunities for plagiarism.

However, access to the internet can also be an opportunity for students to connect directly to people and sources, and to become part of a network of red-hot information. We need to teach them how to use search engines and social networking effectively. Too often, students are discouraged by instructors who fail to understand the structural changes in the flow of information.

The rise of Wikipedia is a perfect example. I always give my students a brief lesson in what I call Wikipedia 101.

I start out by asking for a show of hands: "How many students have been told by a teacher to never use Wikipedia for a paper?" They all raise their hands. Then I ask, "Keep your hands up if you've ever used Wikipedia for a paper?" All hands stay up. The Chronicle echoes my findings here.

Are these students being willfully disobedient? Do they simply lack the basic capacity for critical thinking? Are they lazy?

Not really. They're being standard internet users. Wikipedia generally provides wonderful (if,a t times, flawed) overviews of topics for the uninformed. A few different studies rank Wikipedia's accuracy alongside "real" encyclopedias (though they always note other issues).

Students are going to use Wikipedia. We need to teach them how to use it effectively, how to explore the source material, how to be critical and ask questions, and how to eventually move beyond mere tertiary reference sources and onto legitimate primary and secondary sources.

I don't let my students cite any encyclopedias, or dictionaries, or reference sources. These sources are generally too, well...general. (I'd much rather see, for example, Ernest Hemingway's definition of writing than any boring dictionary's.) However, I tell them it's a great place to start if you know nothing about the topic, or if you want to discover people, events, ideas, or terms for further study.

Wikipedia is the product of millions of hours of labor, mostly written by geeks and scholars and know-it-alls (but also hacks, vandals, and idiots). It's a great resource for general knowledge. But please, students, be critical, ask questions, and, once you've gained some insights, move beyond reference sources and dig into more specific and credible information.

Wikipedia is not a cancer on knowledge; it is more like a collection of stem cells: unformed and filled with potential. But it must be developed beyond its current stage.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Guiding the Digital Pilgrims #change11

I was perhaps a bit too caustic (or cryptic, or esoteric....or one of those things I'm often accused of being) yesterday in my post on Rhizomatic Learning, and for the most part I find the theory to be fascinating and ideal. I do find, however, that starved rootstalks can't bounce back so quickly, and I'm not sure a flood will help. Likewise, perhaps some rootstalks actually need to be trimmed.

Too often educators assume that students are just waiting for someone who will take the lid off, provide some nutrients, and stand back to watch the massive growth.

Okay, let's ditch this organic metaphor, because we're really talking about technology. We imagine our primary job is unleashing the digital native within.

However, students aren't as tech savvy as we tend to think. Sure, they're good at using the devices, but not necessarily at thinking critically about the information they find, as this Wired article by Clive Thompson point outs:

Other studies have found the same thing: High school and college students may be “digital natives,” but they’re wretched at searching. In a recent experiment at Northwestern, when 102 undergraduates were asked to do some research online, none went to the trouble of checking the authors’ credentials. In 1955, we wondered why Johnny can’t read. Today the question is, why can’t Johnny search?

Can't figure out how to upload a file, reconfigure your Facebook settings, or create a mash-up? Digital native to the rescue! But when it comes to asking the big questions and being critical of information, the role of the educator hasn't changed. The medium has, but not the message. Apologies to McLuhan.

(Actually, no apologies necessary, since McLuhan quickly changed his own slogan to "The medium is the massage." McLuhan was, in reality, a heavy critic of technology and somewhat of a medievalist.)

We also face the problem of taking that fun tech into the classroom and turning it into another chore. Or, worse yet, turning the classroom into Best Buy and simply training a classroom of good consumers without encouraging them to search what's beneath the label.

Forget digital natives. We're really dealing with digital pilgrims.

They might be skilled at gathering every possible leaf, root, nut, and berry. But do they know which ones are poisonous?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rhizomatic Learning (Are We Simply Applying Fertilizer?) #change11

A rhizome is a kind of creeping rootstalk that branches off and grows in all directions. It's also used as a metaphor for a particular type of learning process that happens, well, organically.

Dave Cormier describes it in Week 9 of ChangeMOOC:

Knowing is a long process of becoming (think of it in the sense of ‘becoming an expert’) where you actually change the way you perceive the world based on new understandings. You change and grow as new learning becomes part of the things you know.

Sounds a bit like networked learning…? The rhizome is, in a manner of speaking, a kind of network. It’s just a very messy, unpredictable network that isn’t bounded and grows and spreads in strange ways.

To me this sounds ideal, but it can be frustrating for students who have been groomed more like plants in a garden, manipulated into rows, fed chemicals, and protected by a wooden box. To switch metaphors a bit, it's as if we're throwing domesticated animals into the wild. Disorienting and dangerous.

And then there's the Educator's Catch-22. Can we really use our authority to create the conditions for spontaneous, organic learning? Or, as the pressure of the graded course wears on, will the little sprout wither?

It gets cold in November, every semester, regardless of weather. Schools seems to become the lowest priority, meaning it wasn't much of a priority to begin with, at least not in terms of intrinsic motivation. Will a brand new pedagogical fertilizer save this?

The Mother of All Teachable Moments

I don't want to take the recently uncovered (and still alleged) heinous crimes at Penn State and convert them into some kind of detached pedagogical discourse, such as, "How to Use the Penn State Child Sex Scandal in the Classroom," but I did want to point out that Penn State has a captive and engaged (even riotous) student body right now. If ever there was an opportunity for educators at Penn State to step up and teach these students right from wrong, here it is.

Joe Paterno seems to have missed his opportunity, as did the school president. The lesson is clear: when you have knowledge of a crime, and you are in a position of power, doing the bare minimum is not enough. Complying with the law and doing the right thing are not always the same. (That works both ways, of course.)

This incident is a tragedy first and foremost. Secondarily, It's also an opportunity to teach a generation of kids what to do if they find themselves in this situation. And it's important to point out that almost no one in the Penn State situation did the right thing.

You can win 400 football games and still not make the right call when it counts.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

"15 Reasons Mr. Rogers was Best Neighbor Ever," via mental_floss, is worth a read.

It includes a great story of some thieves returning Mr. Rogers' car after finding out it was his, leaving a note that said, "If we'd known it was yours, we never would have taken it."

I also really like this:

Once, on a fancy trip up to a PBS exec's house, he heard the limo driver was going to wait outside for 2 hours, so he insisted the driver come in and join them (which flustered the host).On the way back, Rogers sat up front, and when he learned that they were passing the driver's home on the way, he asked if they could stop in to meet his family. According to the driver, it was one of the best nights of his life the house supposedly lit up when Rogers arrived, and he played jazz piano and bantered with them late into the night. Further, like with the reporters, Rogers sent him notes and kept in touch with the driver for the rest of his life.

This article has come up in a couple of different classes, for a couple of different reasons. I couldn't tell you exactly why, other than I had read it recently and that I tend to free associate quite a bit. Last night in class I mentioned that if I could scrape off a layer of pointless ego and be like Mr. Rogers, I would be better off.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Education: Open for Business 24/7? #change11

I previously posted on Google+ and education here. I just came across this article by Ryan Tyler at betanews about the benefits Google+ has in store for educators. I think he makes a lot of sense, especially when writing about the potential uses for "Hangouts":
One other feature of Google+ that makes it a truly "killer app" for education is Hangouts. With a webcam and mic enabled computer or phone/tablet with a front facing camera, you can have a real time, online meeting with up to 10 simultaneous video streams. Google recently added Google docs integration and screen share, making it even more compelling. Now a group of students, or a teacher with some students, can meet, "face to face" and edit one document in real time, with side-chat functionality as well.
The use of hangouts for education is significant. Small group ad hoc meetings between students from anywhere at anytime. Study groups accessed from the palm of your hand. A teacher that can join a group at anytime to give feedback and answer questions. The list goes on.
This could provide more flexibility and excitement for group projects and conferences for traditional and distance learners.

As I see it, here is the biggest drawback: As we blur the boundaries between the classroom and the world outside, we put a tremendous amount of pressure on educators to be online and ready for requests from students at all hours. Most educators, of course, don't view their profession as a 9-to-5 job. It's more like a calling. It's not just something you do; it's who you are.

Nonetheless, we still need healthy boundaries. How can we make sure efforts to integrate education and social media don't eliminate those few extra hours we have?

We know that many facets of the Wal-Mart are being applied to everything these days, including education. Do teachers really want to be open for business around the clock?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Student Senate Amendment to Class Attendance

The student council hereby amends college policy regarding class attendance:

1) Classes before 11:00 AM will now be prohibited. The internal biological clock of 18-23-year-olds is not suitable for morning classes. Holding class at these times violates the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment against cruel and unuseful punishment. Additionally, given that the extended hours of most extracurricular learning activities interfere with the sleep habits required for waking before noon, the student council has ruled in favor of former Red Sox pitcher Samuel Clemens' awesome idea that schooling should never interfere with education.

2) Classes between the hours of 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM are now banned. Given that extracirricular learning activities are notorious for causing dehydration, the munchies, and frequently require greasy foods to reinforce the previous night's lessons, the latter/former(?) hours remain open, now officially sponsored by Doritos and called "Crunch Time" with the slogan, "We're Chipping Away at Education!"

3) Classes shall not be held between the hours 2:oo PM and 5:00 PM because this is when we get sleepy from the chips and such. We think can't w/out sleeping.

4) No more classes between 5:00 PM and 9:00 PM. This is our prep time for getting ready to stay out all night. :)

5) We hereby stipulate that all educational transactions shall occur at flexible hours between 1 and 3 hours before the due date of an assignment whereby you will answer our emails and provide extensive feeback and/or massively detailed summaries of the last seven hours of course content without making that face because (Please see #1) this is not a good time for us!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Horton Hears a Who as Hegelian Dialectic

One thing I do sometimes is write crazy reviews of Dr. Seuss books on Goodreads:

Horton Hears a Who!Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Certainly the finest book in the American Canon. Seuss, initially conceiving the book as a response to the American occupation of Japan, instead constructed a multi-layered allegory addressing the historical pattern of the scientist/mystic at odds with a totalitarian church-state. Thus, on one level, the representation of Horton as the seer (literally and mystically) who is called to actions by unheard voices of intuition and other-worldliness while, at the same time, embodying the scientist whose extended techno-organs perceive substratum the untutored masses merely mock in their ignorance, suggests Seuss is replicating the plight of Meister Eckhart, Galileo, Theresa of Avila, and countless others. Seuss is not content to stop there. The aptly named Whoville ("Who" first as a question, then as a rapturous owl call announcing the night of triumph) becomes a stand in for vocal, democratic, non-violent resistance (their drum circles reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street, and their total participation in announcing their presence, affirming their existence, reflects nothing other than the multi-cultural, consciousness raising of the 1970's). Here I am not being anachronistic. This is precisely the point. Ultimately Seuss stitches every fabric of allegory together in what can only be described as a Hegelian Historical Dialectic. Horton is not hearing a who. History is hearing its own narrative and responding with a new vision that resounds with echoes of the atemporal fingerprint of God. Horton Hears a Who is, then, not a book exactly, but a sort of opening into the Divine Idea.

View all my reviews

My Sweet Lord: Comparative Religious Literature as Social Corrective

Here's the best live version of George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," the inspiration for the title of my lecture below:

The genius of this song is that it combines Hare Krishna-style chanting with American call-and-response gospel/R&B (via his ripping off the Chiffons) and turns it into something new and exciting.

I recorded this lecture a couple of years ago for a World Literature 1 course. I mostly discuss the stunning synchronicity between two literary masterpieces, The Book of Job and The Bhagavad Gita:

If you go back far enough, there is no distinction between literature and scripture. There are many reasons for this, but I'll save that for some other time. If you open up Volume A of The Norton Anthology of Literature you'll find stories and poems from the Old Testament, sacred Egyptian and Sumerian traditions, The Bhagavad Gita, and so on. Whenever I teach World Lit 1, I like to pair readings from across cultures and time periods so that students can see the similarities and differences.

One thing I've noticed is that The Book of Job and The Bhagavad Gita have the same core message. I thought of this today after reading about Kentucky Republican gubernatorial nominee David Williams accusing his opponent of being anti-Christian for attending a Hindu ceremony. I've posted the above lecture as a correction.

Two very important books in these respective religions have the same basic message, regardless of what we might think of it. If David Williams really thinks his religion is true and that Hindus are just weird, polytheistic sinners, so be it. He is, however, ignoring the obvious similarities that cut across cultures.

The Funny Thing about....

....searching for "DMACC"-related Twitter users to follow is that you mostly get people named Dennis MacCarthy and Dana Macc whose nicknames are "DMACC."

What is the Hardest Problem in Science?

Surely it's getting more students to major in science?

Okay, that's another topic.

According to David Barash in the Chronicle of Higher Education, it's the mind-body problem. That is, what is the relationship between the experience of subjective consciousness and the physical brain? To put it in terms more friendly to current scientific consensus, "How does the brain create our experience of consciousness." (Most scientists will agree that "mind" is an emergent property of the brain.)

Well, I'll let you think about that problem for a while. I know the answer; I'm just not telling.

In any event, this problem may not be your cup of tea, but if you want to solve the first problem (How do we get more students to major in science?) then problems are actually the answer.

Difficult (and important) problems inspire curiosity, innovation, and motivation. And yes, also learning.

More class sessions, courses, majors, departments, and colleges should be structured on difficult problems.

In a sense, education is about learning the problem, and learning how to provide the best non-answers.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Twitter in the Classroom, ctd

Earlier in the semester, I promised to try Twitter in my Writing for Business class at Grand View University. Tonight, I made good on that promise. Instead of meeting for class, we chatted on Twitter from about 5:30 until 7:30, using the hashtag #vikechat. I started out by tweeting the following article from Forbes, "5 Reasons Why Your Online Presence will Replace your Resume in 10 Years" and asking them a question about it. In our previous meeting, I had asked them to respond to me first, and then to engage in back-and-forth tweeting with their classmates related to the topic. I told them it was okay to go off topic. The purpose of the session was to a) discuss an article related to an upcoming writing assignment, and b) try out Twitter by experimenting with a Twitter chat. My contention was that Twitter presents a new form of business writing. A few students had Twitter accounts, but almost no one had used it beyond a one or two test-tweets. The chat was a success. The students were engaged in the conversation and requested we do it more often. (Of course, that could have been a ploy to get out of meeting face-to-face.) Several outstanding points were made about the need to manage our online image and whether or not companies were fair to monitor our online "private" lives. I suspect that, given the requirement to join in the conversation, students who would normally stay quiet participated in the talk. Furthermore, we now have a record of our discussion. I plan on copying and pasting it and using it as a launching point for more in-class discussion.