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.

Friday, October 28, 2011

OER: It's Not the Size of the File, It's How You Use It #change11

Since 2001, MIT has been sharing their course content with the world, free of charge, as part of a project known as OpenCourseWare (OCW). According to a paper called "The Creation of OpenCourseWare at MIT," available in Week 7 of Change MOOC, MIT "currently publishes content for more than 1600 subjects," including syllabi, assignments, and audio and video files.

I enjoy their "About OCW" page, which makes some crucial points, including:
  • OCW is not an MIT education.
  • OCW does not grant degrees or certificates.
  • OCW does not provide access to MIT faculty.
In other words: files, data, and course material do not an education make.

We have more information available to us than ever before. That means we need more teachers, not less. It means teachers are more important, not less. It means one-on-one time is more important, guessed it....less.

It also means that teachers need to help their students navigate this flood of information. Organizing, managing, deciphering, and criticizing information are skills that need heightening in these times. The structures of information, including networks, file-sharing, feeds, and clouds, are just as important as the information itself. In this respect, I think Connectivism is a movement in the right direction.

The flood of information also means, paradoxically, that information is less important, that is, since information is cheap, readily accessible, and unstable. Acquiring information is easier and less expensive. Therefore, it is the novel expression or interpretation of information that really stands out. Creativity is a method of evolutionary survival.

I love the title of this MIT course: Remixing Shakespeare. Next semester my Intro to Literature students are going to rewrite a Shakespeare play into modern language. Doing so first requires understanding the original meaning. Bringing Shakespeare to live in the 21st century is a vital task, both for students and for Shakespeare.

#change11: Week 7 -- Open Educational Resources (OER)

I recently joined (late) Change MOOC and am picking up the discussion from Week 7 on Open Educational Resources. My own experience as an educator with OER is limited, though I have tried a few things: My Composition 1 class last summer used sections from the Flatworld Knowledge Guide to Writing. Check out their organization here.

Additionally, I encourage students to explore the resources shared on Google Scholar and Google Books, though I'm not sure these are entirely open, per say, since the educational institutions are not sharing them directly, but instead through a corporate entity. Maybe I'll find out the answer to that question after digging into Week 7.

Personally, I have used open source materials for creating slideshows and open source software for recording screen casts and mp3 lectures for students.

I am slowly working on a project to compile and curate all free texts and materials related to Romantic Poetry in order to build an online repository that can be used instead of, or in addition to, an expensive textbook that says Norton on it. I'm calling this project, "Old Dead White Guys Give it Away for Free." That probably won't be the final title.

Infinite Regress: What if Beavis and Butthead Watch Beavis and Butthead Watch Beavis and Butthead?

An infinite regress is a causal chain that extends forever.

Let's say A was caused by B, and B was caused by C, and C was caused by D, and so on. It doesn't stop at Z (no matter what Aristotle said). It keeps going infinitely. This can be illustrated by two mirrors facing one another, forming a trail that reflects inward toward infinity.

The revival of Beavis and Butthead is a bit like this.

MTV has resurrected the moronic duo for brand new episodes. At first glance, it seems as if very little has changed since you last sat on your couch to watch Beavis and Butthead sit on their couch. On the surface, it is the same show. Mike Judge still provides the voices. The animation is still crude and slow. The boys still burst into uncontrollable laughter at any possible sexually-suggestive word.

However, as the LA Times reports, this is not the same show. In fact, Beavis and Butthead are now watching Beavis and Butthead, or at least watching a series of dumb shows left in their wake:

The cartoon, which began in part as an ironic, idiotic but not inaccurate commentary on the network's original bread and butter — the music video — will now include among its targets movies, viral videos and the kind of shows that have come to represent MTV in the duo's absence, series like "Jersey Shore" and "16 and Pregnant." ("This would be a better show if they showed them actually getting pregnant.") What's odd is how nearly they resemble some of their new targets — "This guy looks like he might be stupider than us" — and how with the passing years they've come to sound less like snarky kids and more like grumbling old men: the Statler and Waldorf of their generation.

Compared to the dumb stuff that came after them (television programs that Beavis and Butthead no doubt paved the way for) the boys are now wise old men. Jersey Shore is indeed worse than Beavis and Butthead. The boys can no longer sink to the lowest level; they must rise above it.

And so now, we watch Beavis and Butthead watch television characters who are even less intelligent than they are. They've moved one level back into the infinite regress, or, perhaps, have taken one step back from the infinite regression of culture.

Think about this: the original Beavis and Butthead is responsible for the creation of Jersey Shore (a new low in the race to the bottom). Jersey Shore is responsible for the new Beavis and Butthead.

And so on.

Maybe this isn't an infinite regression. Perhaps it's a vicious cycle instead.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Education as Hero's Journey

A few days ago I asked, "Why Isn't School Fun?"

Forget that.

Fun is fun. It's cotton candy and throwing rocks at abandoned windows.

I meant "fun," instead, as a shorthand for "intrinsic motivation."

You see, "fun" is less "termy." (That's a word I just made up. Making up words is fun.)

I started reading Clayton Christensen's Disrupting the Classroom last night. The early pages present a familiar problem. Familiar to me, at least, after reading the work of Daniel Pink, Alfie Kohn, and Dan Ariely. All three have written popular works based on some confounding research.

Here's the short version: Intrinsic motivation leads to better results than extrinsic motivation, even if that extrinsic motivation takes the form of large quantities of cash.

This seems counter-intuitive, but is supported by a mountain of evidence. If you want good results in tasks that require problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity, don't reward someone with cash or grades. They will do a worse job. (Explore the above authors if you need verification.)

(Insert sound of me dusting off my hands and making a face that says "Took care of that!")

Except that, well, now we have a bigger problem. How do we reform education systems that seem to exist as a monuments to extrinsic motivation (tests, grades, diplomas, jobs, money) in favor of encouraging intrinsic motivation? Can you teach intrinsic motivation? We're right back the Teacher's Catch-22 I wrote about here.

I will explore this some more in a future post, but one way, potentially, to make the switch from authority figure to....something to reconfigure the educational experience into a model much more akin to Joseph Campbell's Monomyth. Here, a traveler receives an important call to venture forth into some compelling, mysterious problem. He or she encounters travails, yes, but also guides, mentors, helpers, Wise Old Women and Men. It seems, to me, that an education enhanced by the Internet is more likely to help travelers make these important connections while still maintaining important relationships at home base. More on this later.

"Chance Favors the Connected Mind"

I shared this RSA Animate video with my Writing for Business class last night. It's an over-simplified summary of Steven Johnson's amazing book Where Good Ideas Come From. Nonetheless, it makes an effective argument for pushing forward with MOOC's (without, of course, mentioning them by name).

Johnson's claim is that open spaces become the platform for the collaboration of fragmentary ideas. In his book, he explains how this is true of coral reefs, cities, and online networks. Given time and space to experiment, collaborate, and fail, new combinations will arise and thrive. It does feel as if we're nearing some kind of evolutionary moment in education. Perhaps we're already there. Strange hybrids are emerging.

Johnson's book concludes with an important observation: the vast majority of major innovations over the past four centuries are not the result of entrepreneurs going it alone. Instead, they come from collaborative public-sector experiments (mainly from universities). He refers to this space as the "fourth quadrant." Here he is writing in The New York Times:
And then there is what I call the “fourth quadrant”: the space of collaborative, nonproprietary innovation, exemplified in recent years by the Internet and the Web, two groundbreaking innovations not owned by anyone. [....]

The Internet is the ultimate example of how fourth-quadrant innovation actually supports market developments: a platform built by a loosely affiliated group of public-sector and university visionaries that has become one of the most powerful engines of wealth creation in modern times.

Why has the fourth quadrant been so innovative, despite the lack of traditional economic rewards? The answer, I believe, has to do with the increased connectivity that comes from these open environments. Ideas are free to flow from mind to mind, and to be refined and modified without complex business development deals or patent lawyers. The incentives for innovation are lower, but so are the barriers.
This sounds like Connectivism to me, and it sounds like a call for more public sector educators to jump into the water. (Unless we trust the sharks?)

Monday, October 24, 2011

College Summarized in 13 Words

I snapped this on my way to teach a class at Grand View University. It was part of an art display. Nonetheless, it smarts. I made myself feel better by whispering, "You forgot the period!"

Why Isn't School Fun?

Sometimes, at the start of a semester, I ask students, "If you had a choice, would you be taking this class?" They overwhelmingly say "No."

In many respects, it isn't a choice. It's an obligation. An obligation to seek a degree for a better job and higher pay. And English classes, for the most part, are taken to fill core requirements. You don't often get a student auditing composition or taking it as an elective. (Creative writing classes are different. More on that later.)

It makes me wonder, though, why so many people pay to take classes at the YMCA, or the art museum, or with some sports organization, freely giving up their personal time and money in order to submit to someone else's schedules and rules.

The answer is, I think, because it's fun. (Well, duh!)

But why isn't school fun?
Why isn't a writing class fun?
Is it impossible?
Will school always be boring?

Think back to a time when you've really enjoyed a can be school-related or otherwise. Many people go to Bible Study, or yoga, or writing groups, or book clubs on their own time. They choose to go, receive no credits, and possibly even pay money to be there.


It's more than just fun. People want to grow and change. They want to become better people. They want to get better at something they love. This is the best sort of fun.

In fact, the most fun you'll ever have in life is when you're performing at a high level in some activity that suits your skills. This is sometimes referred to as a "Flow State" or "being in the Zone." The Zone is more than just's transformation. You become bigger, better, different.

We want fun and we want transformation and we want it now!

Anything less is boring and not worth our time.

In fact, the "merely fun" is boring. School shouldn't be fun. It should be beyond fun. Then we can lay off all the truant officers.

All of this is, of course, too much to ask. It's also the only thing worth asking.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Online Learning: Are California and Texas the Tipping Points?

First the University of Calfornia, and now Texas.

The two biggest university systems in the two most populous U.S. states have embraced online learning in a major way.

The University of Texas system has announced it will contract with outside firms to expand online enrollment. Student demand and budget issues are cited as major concerns. The University of California system is getting push-back from educators and administrators. They initially started their program as a potential revenue stream.

All of this is in addition to numerous states, among them, Idaho, Utah, Indiana, and Florida, who now require at least one online course as part of their high school curriculum. In 27 states, students are allowed to attend a public virtual school.

We are, I think, entering an extremely disruptive time period for education. Anticipate pain, confusion, failure, and endless experiments on the student population until we get this thing right.

If a new successful paradigm emerges, it will be some combination of the traditional model and online learning. That seems inevitable, but no one knows what it will look like.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Put Me In Coach, I'm Ready to Teach!

At a recent West Campus adjunct council meeting (after we'd conducted the secret handshake and passed the silver goblet) we were treated to a presentation and demonstration on coaching.

I don't mean the kind involving a whistle and sweaty laps around the gym.

Instead, inspired by a recent New Yorker article about the benefits of coaching in the professional world, our presenter convinced us that teachers need coaches, too.

Teachers need someone rooting for them, fine-tuning them, and whipping them into shape.

This demands a relationship of mutual respect and trust. A coach is not a supervisor, who has the power the hire, fire, promote, demote, and fix pay rates. All of this is necessary, but can complicate performance reviews and feedback. You're less likely to take risks, make mistakes, and admit errors when your job is on the line.

A good coach, on the other hand, would be disappointed if you didn't do all of those things. (This blog is a fan of mistakes.) And since the coach follows your progress over time, your mistakes will be seen as a necessary part of the journey. A once-a-year snapshot of someone's classroom might misrepresent the narrative.

One problem: coaches need to get paid. Teachers can't afford coaches. Schools probably won't pay for them. I'm not sure once-a-year retreats will cut it.

Two solutions:

1) Teachers team-up and coach each other. This would mean extra time, sweat, and tears.

2) We could use something like Sugata Mitra's granny cam. Using a webcam, a coach from some remote location could peek in on his or her "player's" classroom and then provide coaching feedback. This would eliminate the cost of paying for food and lodging. A teacher would be able to hire (hopefully the school would pay) the best coach on the market, regardless of geography. It might also create jobs. The cloud would be populated by granny cam coaches.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Behold, the D-MOOC!

What's a D-MOOC?

It's a DMACC-MOOC? A MOOC created by Des Moines Area Community College.

What's a MOOC?

A Massive Open Online Course. This video provides a good introduction to MOOCs:

Okay.......what!? And, more importantly, why?

We can house a large-scale seminar on an important topic (Let's say, Education) and create a space for people to get together, network, share information, and collaborate. They can watch videos, listen to lectures, read articles. It would be like a public square for like-minded (or, not like-minded) participants to work on a problem of importance to everyone. Whatever happens, happens.

But don't we already do this when.....

No. Sorry to cut you off. I'm really into this MOOC thing. They provide something new. A MOOC is free. It is open to everyone with an internet connection. There will be no grades, no credits, no assignments, no set approach for participants to adopt, no specific end goal.

Then won't people just slack off and do nothing?

And that would be different from "real" classes?

Good point.

If participation is voluntary, only those truly interested in the subject will join. They might be from Des Moines or from Zimbabwe. Together, the group would create a network of shared information, blog posts, tweets, ideas, discussions. People would meet new people, make new connections, read new articles, and potentially meet collaborators. In the end, a single website could serve as a log for what went on during the MOOC, which, as the video says, is more of an event.

It's like a conference, with three big exceptions: MOOCs usually last several weeks, everyone contributes (in can just lurk and look on if you want), and participants are encouraged to make something out of it. It's like a less-hedonistic Burning Man.

What counts as a successful MOOC?

Hard to say. I guess that it happened. Ideally, some new great idea, movement, or team emerges from it with a mission to make things better. Or, less optimistically, someone gains more knowledge on a subject and some small good comes of it.

So, why does this have to be a D-MOOC if some goat-herder from Switzerland can send a tweet with the hashtag #DMOOC without being a DMACC student?

Let's say the facilitators are from DMACC. The MOOC itself isn't affiliated with the school. It's just a website that keeps track of all the links and all the activity associated with the MOOC that occurs on distributed networks. The DMACC connection gives it a geographical home, creates the possibility of in-person gatherings if people so desire (and organize on their own) and allows DMACC and other Des Moines faculty to participate and encourage students to jump in and see what the fuss is about.

So, no DMACC credit here?

Well, nothing is stopping an instructor of, let's say, Intro to Education at DMACC or elsewhere, from working an assignment related to DMOOC into her course.

Hey, is it DMOOC or D-MOOC? You're being a little loose with the hyphen.

Not sure yet.

Are you sure they'll let you pun off the official DMACC name and use school affiliation as part of the project?

I never thought of that. I'll have to ask. I suppose we could think of the "D" as Des Moines. A Des Moines MOOC. It would be nice to have Des Moines area educators be the guest speakers. We could create video or audio panels and/or key note addresses. Actually, I'm kind of tired of talking to you. I'm going to get to work.

Wait, this all just a fantasy, or is DMOOC for real?

(sound of car door slamming and tires peeling away.)

We Are All Hoarders Now (Can Connectivism Clean up the Mess?)

I have a theory. Shows about "stuff" are popular now for a reason. Here I'm talking about Hoarders, American Pickers, Pawn Stars, (and now I'm going to invent some) Stuff Shop, Crap Town, Knick-Knack get the point.

They're not popular because of our materialism. That simply explains the content. We love to watch them and project onto them our 21st century form of information hoarding neuroses.

We are information hoarders. Our brains, and phones, and computers are stuffed with data. We have too much. We are drowning. Shows like Hoarders resonate with us because we are just as swamped as these people:

The people on this show need intervention, behavioral therapy, and a deep cleaning to simplify their possessions.

We need that, too. In fact, it's a critical skill we should be teaching our students.

But there's a big difference between "stuff" hoarding and information hoarding. The former won't help you earn a degree or get you a job. The latter might. The former, aside from the thrill of what Walt Whitman called "the mania of owning things," has no long-term pay-off (unless you're collecting Van Gogh's or something). The latter, if put to good use, can help you do great things.

I guess what I'm saying is, we'd all be better off going cold turkey on "stuff." However, we might eventually languish without information.

George Siemens, I think, gets it just right. His 2005 paper "Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age," poses a new theory of learning that takes our present predicament (or, you could say, opportunity) into consideration. The information just keeps on coming. How are we to manage it? Should we focus on learning information when that same information may expire in a few months? How can we best ride the infinite flow of information to improve our thinking? This would be an improvement over drowning.

Siemens' conclusion poses the teaching of a kind of meta-knowledge. Students should be learning how to establish vital connections with others and to put the machine to good use. The critical and innovative use of systems of information is more fundamental than the information itself:
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.

Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity. How people work and function is altered when new tools are utilized. The field of education has been slow to recognize both the impact of new learning tools and the environmental changes in what it means to learn. Connectivism provides insight into learning skills and tasks needed for learners to flourish in a digital era.
These two paragraphs will inform the next syllabus I write. I think they present a way forward, and one that is rooted in our current catastrophe. Here I'm using "catastrophe" as cultural historian William Irwin Thompson does in his book Coming into Being:
"Catastrophe" is a word that English has taken from Greek; it means "to turn over." When we turn over material in a compost heap, we create a castrophe for the anaerobic bacteria in the rotting garbage as we suddenly flood them with oxygen and sunlight.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Moneyball and Education

A few years ago when I read Moneyball, the Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, it changed the way I looked at baseball. This past weekend, when I saw the movie version (starring Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics' general manager Billy Beane) I thought only of education.

Too simplify a bit, there are two parts to the basic premise behind Billy Beane's moneyball philosophy:

1) Scoring runs is not just about flexing muscles, star power, or raw athleticism. It's not just about having good "TV numbers," such as batting average, home runs, or runs batted in; it's mainly about getting on base, being selective at the plate, taking walks, and not giving up outs by bunting or stealing bases. In short: you win games by not making outs. The less outs you make, the more chances you have to score runs.

2) A team can win despite financial shortcomings by assembling a team of players who are not rated highly by the traditional metrics. That is, a player might have power and speed, and his TV numbers might look great. However, if he doesn't walk enough, he might actually be giving up too many outs. The establishment might think he's worth 10 million dollars a year. In reality, he might be a worse player than a guy who is only making 1 million dollars a year. Fill your roster with 1 million dollar players who don't make outs. You'll be leaner, meaner, and smarter.

What successful strategies do we ignore in favor of the illusory, over-hyped models?

Are we avoiding the obvious changes that might lead to more effective learning in favor of holding on to tradition?

Are we measuring learning correctly?

Big questions. I'll be working on those when I'm dead. Here's a start:

The standard assumption is that online learning is not as effective as the traditional in-class model. A 2010 meta-analysis by the U.S. Department of Education disagrees. After systematically analyzing all research literature on online learning from 1996-2008, the authors "found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes—measured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviation—was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face. Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se."

A couple of key points here. First, when you measure actual results (like against like), online students learn just as much (and more, according to this study). This doesn't mean one should be scrapped in favor of the other, just that they're both viable models.

Second, the web blended model seems to perform best of all. As the quotation above says, this might have something to do with additional resources and time being dedicated to the students. Once again, this isn't really about the physical apparatus, but about the level of interaction with students.

Finally, this is the largest and most prominent meta-study released on online learning. More will follow. We don't know enough yet to start tearing down the walls (even if that were desirable). However, it's safe to say that online learning isn't going away. Students can learn in online courses. It's not a scam, even if some institutions treat it that way.

Like Billy Beane, can we find a way to win with a leaner, meaner, smarter approach?

Are we ignoring data that suggests learning can occur in unexpected places?

Unfortunately, just like Billy Beane's cash-strapped Oakland A's, educators might be forced into playing moneyball.

Is Georgetown pandering too much by teaching Jay-Z?

Ari Melber at the The Nation blog reports on Georgetown University's Jay-Z seminar, an attempt to engage students and irritate parents. The professor, Michael Eric Dyson, a sociologist who has authored 18 books, has constructed units such as "Hustling Hermeneutics" and "Monster of the Double Entendre." This suggests the course is not just fluff.

I am of two minds on this. Dyson's class is in high demand. Students want in, not out. That's a good thing. Also, we could make a long lists of artists in the literary canon who were once considered to be pulp or trash (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, Dickens....heck, the English language itself was not good enough for universities a few centuries ago.)

But I'm also not convinced that Jay-Z will nestle into the canon alongside Wallace Stevens and Langston Hughes.

Why not, then, a seminar on Langston Hughes?

I'm sure it's been done. Jay-Z could still be on the syllabus, certainly. But it would be less of a stretch to teach academic content, such as the Harlem Renaissance, African-American History, Communism, and so on. More importantly, Hughes used elements of popular culture in his work. He engaged directly with blues, jazz, and common diction. If you're a good teacher, you don't have to try hard to make Langston Hughes come alive for students today.

Is Georgetown pandering too much by teaching Jay-Z?

Isn't there a way for the academy and the street to meet half way?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Are Podcasts Better Than Professors? Ctd

In August, this blog asked "Are Podcasts Better Than Professors?"

Since it came up a recent council meeting, I thought I would provide a little more detail.

Here is the direct link to the study. It was published in Computers & Education: An International Journal. It was conducted by the Department of Psychology at the State University of New York. The authors report that the "original intent of this study was to explore if getting a copy of the audio (along with copies of the PowerPoint slides) from a class lecture a student missed during the term would show the same detriment. The results of this study show there was no detriment—in fact, there was a signi´Čücant advantage."

Students who were given a podcast lecture and power point slides outperformed (by 10 percentage points) students who attended the live lecture and were encouraged to take notes on PowerPoint slides.

This is, of course, what advocates of the flipped classroom model have been saying for some time. Any time you're merely transmitting data to listeners, they will do better given the chance to pause, rewind, re-listen, and do so on their own terms. This frees up face-to-face time for questions, discussion, and one-on-one interaction. The flipped model is also a good fit for the blended model.

You could, for example, assign a reading assignment and an audio lecture for homework. They could also take the quiz on Blackboard (or your LMS of choice) before arriving in class. Once in class, you go over the quiz results to cover sticking points and then begin discussion or anything interactive. Since they've already consumed your lecture outside of class, you can spend that time going into more detail, applying the learning, or in discussion.

And it doesn't have to be a podcast. You can do a screen cast or narrative a slide deck. You can assign them to come to class with 2 questions from the lecture or have a quiz ready.

I think, in general, this model makes more sense for universities with large class sizes (attending a lecture with 400 students isn't that different from watching on on video), but it can also be utilized in small settings, and is especially workable in blended set-ups.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Google+ Wants to Educate You for Free

Clearly Google and Facebook are in a competition to take over the world. They'll be coming for the education world next. Actually, Google has already started, as I mentioned in Google vs. Blackboard, here and here.

The Online Colleges blog has a list of 25 tips for how to use Google+ for education. Google's agenda is embedded within this list. For example:

Move your learning management system to Google+: David
Parry, assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the
University of Texas at Dallas, believes that Google+ can be an alternative to
learning management systems like Blackboard.

Hey, why not? Most papers are written by Google these days. I am, however, in agreement with this bit:

Be careful not to put walls around educational content: It’s one thing to protect photos and grades, but it’s another to keep educational content out of the public eye. Be careful about restricting access to educational materials.

The typical Facebook member over-shares. (Did you really need to tell 400 people, including your pastor's brother's cousin, that you just checked-in to Chuck E. Cheese's?)

The typical educator under-shares. Only a few people hear what the expert has to say.

In an ideal world, the conversations that occur on college campuses would be available for everyone. This is what MIT has been doing for ten years, what iTunes University is doing, and, to a certain extent, what the internet is all about.

Limiting access to knowledge only stymies innovation.

In the past, our personal learning networks were limited by geography and by proximity to a good library. Today, for those of us fortunate enough to be living in the developed world and with high-speed internet access, no such boundaries exist.

The sky is not even a limit.

The only question left is: what do we do about it?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Google vs. Blackboard, ctd.

I guess I'm some kind of unconscious spokesperson for OpenClass. Here is their eager, professor-looking spokesperson criticizing Learning Management Systems (which of course means Blackboard) by using almost the exact same argument I gave here, basically that Blackboard is "closed, clunky, and costly." I like their 3 C's version better.

Google vs. Blackboard

Google and Pearson are teaming up to launch a new Learning Management system to rival Blackboard. Not that I exactly trust those two companies, but I've grown tired of closed systems like Blackboard with their stale environments, clunky navigation, and structural tendency toward isolation from the World Wide Web.

Not to mention the financial cost to institutions. Schools are essentially paying for webpage templates that can be set up online for free. Blackboard is a bubble company, if you ask me. I liken them to local travel agents or corner video stores. Eventually, we'll figure out we don't need you.

Protect the grading information, but everything else deserves to be open and free. You can't learn from the internet by huddling in a corner under the protection of some LMS. It's like going to the circus and skipping the freak show and the big tent. Blackboard is skilled at taking something exciting, like the Internet, and making it seem boring and controlled, like a classroom.

Blogging your Students to Death (The Conspiracy of Web 2.0)

I should be excited by this article celebrating blogging as a way to engage young writers. But I'm not.

Here's my biggest fear: what if "digital literacy" is just a poor substitute for critical thinking?

What if teaching 21st century skills is just a way to train students to be willing participants in an unjust system?

In short, what if kids only learn the tools so they can become tools?

I'm not a conspiracy person (Generally, I assume large governments and organizations are too incompetent to keep big secrets for long) but sometimes I wonder if the purveyors of blogs, social networking sites, and mobile devices are somehow conspiring to turn our children into perfect little consumers in an economic power structure that promotes volunteerism for the sake of making billions by mining personal data.

Yes, congratulations, your fifth graders now love to blog. I hope they also enjoy spending their free time donating their "likes" so that Google can make a profit without having to employ more people.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Your students are just not that into you.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reviews two books that explore a sad phenomenon: today's college student lacks an intellectual life outside of the classroom.

That is, if you're having fantasies that your in-class discussion of Plato spilled out into the hallway and slowly evolved into some late-night, "meaning of life" bull session....well, let's just say you might not want to click on the link above.

In fact, it might make you furious. Anthropologist Susan D. Blum, whose book is reviewed in the article, believes that teachers should lower their expectations:

"My reaction," she wrote in an e-mail, "was largely relief, fascination, and despair, all entangled. Knowing what college life is like now for many students at residential colleges explained a lot about my experience with students, and it has ended my tendency to get upset when students didn't seem to be focusing as much attention on their coursework as I thought appropriate. I think my expectations are much more realistic now, so the entire experience of teaching is less depressing than it was when I couldn't understand why I couldn't motivate students to be absorbed in their work."

In other words, don't push them. They're just not that into you.

I think something else is going on here. And I think there is plenty of evidence in the world of economics to prove it. A good introduction is Dan Pink's book Drive. The video below provides a good overview, but here's the main point as it relates to the Chronicle's depressing book review: The more incentives you offer students, the less interested they will be.

Education, of course, is currently all about incentives. Surprise! They're bored and unmotivated and just want to get in and get out.

Pink covers 30 years of economic, sociological, and psychological research (research which was, incidentally, verified by the Federal Reserve and mainstream economists at places like the University of Chicago) and concludes that people perform far worse and are less engaged when external motivations are involved (namely cash, but this also applies to grades, credits, and diplomas).

Commission actually leads to fewer sales. Bonuses lead to more mistakes. Even worse, if you pay someone to do an activity she loves, she will quickly grow to hate it.

If you require students to take X class, to work for X grade, to get a piece of paper to get X job, to make X per year, don't be surprised if their eyes look like X's.

If you make education feel like a job, they'll treat it like a job.

Most people I know don't want to talk about work during the off-hours....only to vent, complain, or express their desire to quit.

When did we make learning into a chore?

Kind of Blue Bardo

Think you're an out-of-the-box thinker? Watch this video for The University of Michigan's Program for Jazz and Contemplative Studies:

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Make Mistakes. Lots

This Wired article explores the neuroscience of mistakes, and why some people learn more from them. It starts with a great quote from master physicist Niels Bohr:

An expert is “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”

This is how he or she became the expert. As Zen master Shunryu Sukuzi said, "Zen is one continuous mistake."

I suppose this means teachers must experiment with many approaches and report constant failures. But there are also implications for students. The article discusses studies that have tracked the efficacy of two different types of praise: 1) the "you-are-so-smart" kind, and 2) the "you-worked-really-hard variety. (Those are not official clinical terms.)

Long story short: Kids who receive "smart" praise are less likely to take on harder tasks, less likely to benefit from mistakes, and more likely to get discouraged. Essentially, they are protecting their self-image as the "smart kid" and are unwilling to expose themselves to situations that threaten their identity. Students who are praised for their hard work are more willing to take on new tasks and challenge themselves.

We've tried this at home with our oldest child and her writing practice (she's 4.5, learning to write her letters and a few words, etc) and it seems to work. We praise her effort, her focus, concentration, etc. and try to avoid saying "you're so smart" after she completes a task. This way, she still gets praise and feedback but it's directed at the work itself.

This is impossible when it comes to her looks. I must say, "You're so cute!" instead of "You worked very hard to maintain your appearance!"

Monday, October 10, 2011

Speaking Vs. Writing

It's a false dichotomy, as this article points out, and the "speaking" and "writing" parts of your brain are an interconnected network. When you read silently, you are still hearing. When you speak, a white page in your brain is flooded with letters.

Some writers write as they speak; some speakers speak as they write. It should be called "speakiting" or maybe "writeaking."

Yeah, that last one.

Plato thought poets were liars. Jacques Derrida thought Plato was a liar. Plato had to write his dialogues down. Most poems are written to be read out loud. Many ancient spoken or sung performances were eventually written down and turned into "oral literature." An oxymoron?

Write your speeches. Recite your writing. Transcribe your rambles. Turn visual into audio. Turn audio into visual.

And so on.

Friday, October 7, 2011

How to Write like Steven Pinker, for Example

I made a brief video to explore some elements of Steven Pinker's essay "Violence Vanquished" that are worth imitating:

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thoreau vs Jobs (Or Why Thoreau would prefer a Kindle)

This man traded in his iPhone for a flip-phone after reading Walden.

These passages from Sam Graham-Felsen's article capture something about our times. After giving up the smart phone, he says:

It feels a little like getting a new contact lens prescription: Things that were blurred together feel sharper and more distinctly colored. And of course, I’m no longer engaged in half-conversations with the people in front of me and half-conversations with the Internet.


When I had an iPhone, the Internet was no longer a destination; it was on me every day, like a piece of clothing I put on first thing in the morning. When I get tempted to return to that life, I ask myself: Do I really want the Internet to be something I feel naked without?

He does admit to certain inconveniences. For example, he found it hard to travel without immediate access to maps, airline information, and hotel and restaurant locations. He did, however, still have a cell phone, and one with text messaging. It's not like he was retreating to a cave.

This raises an important point about Henry David Thoreau's Walden, which is emphatically not a book about withdrawing from society and surviving on roots and primitive wit. Graham-Felsen mentions this absurd stereotype of Thoreau. Indeed, it's fashionable now to declare Thoreau a fraud because his mother brought him jelly sandwiches (she did) and he only lived two miles from town (people walked past all the time).

It's as if we've watched too much Survivor and have reinvented Thoreau's project in light of some ridiculous game show mentality. ("Henry, I'm sorry, but you're off the island because you went into town to give a lecture on civil disobedience. That is against the rules!")

As Thoreau makes clear throughout Walden, his mission was to look at ALL of life in a stripped-down manner, to see the essential aspects of everything. He is not James Frey. He never hid the fact that he entertained visitors, often strolled into town, met fishermen and hunters. He lived close to a railroad track and not all that far from other rural inhabitants. He wrote openly about all of those things. Thoreau wasn't shirking community. He wanted a more simplified community, so he could look at its bare essence and see what it was all about. This is still certainly a Romantic approach, but it's a far cry from Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball.

This is why I think Thoreau would have been a blogger. It seems obvious to me. He would have hated Twitter, no doubt, with its second-by-second updating and pop-culture glitz. But he would have blogged, probably once a week at the public library on his trip into town. These would be long, ponderous posts with few, if any, hyperlinks. In many ways, his Walden Pond journals are prototypical blogs.

But no smart phone. Not at Walden Pond. Maybe a Kindle. He only took one book with him to Walden Pond, the timeless Bhagavad Gita, and I suspect the Kindle would allow him to have multiple books to read without taking up more space.

Steve Jobs says: Drop out and Tune In

In all the hoopla (some might say cult-like obsession) surrounding the death of Steve Jobs, one important facet of his biography sticks out to me: the intellectual basis of his vision was not acquired through traditional education.

Here's a quote from Wired Magazine's tribute to Jobs' life:

He went to Reed, a well-regarded liberal arts school known as a hippie haven, but dropped out after a semester, choosing to audit courses informally. (Including a class on calligraphy that would come in very handy in later years.) Jobs also took LSD in those years, and would claim that those experiences affected his outlook permanently and positively. After leaving Oregon, he traveled to India. All of these experiences had an effect on the way he saw the world — and the way he would make products to change that world.

Now, this blog is not advocating LSD. Though I would like to visit India. To me, the real key is that Jobs was a self-motivated and adventurous explorer of ideas. Instead of following an academic program, he took classes he wanted to take. During a commencement speech at Stanford in 2005, Jobs mentions how important the calligraphy class was to the creation of the personal computer (or, I guess, more technically, the graphic interface). What if he had been restricted with a particular course load, or unable to fit calligraphy into the little boxes of his degree checklist?

To me, this suggests a need for less rigid majors and departments, more freedom, and an educational institution that nurtures more adventure and experiment. Where can the truly independent, vision-seeking student go? Most of them, like Jobs, leave institutionalized education. (Though, of course, he was still auditing official courses...a strange paradox. In a sense he was creating his own educational program, incorporating official and unofficial learning.)

Maybe that's the way it has to be. Perhaps, as long as institutions exist, visionaries will be dropping out. Or maybe the life of Steve Jobs will encourage us to reconsider the entire structure of modern schooling.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Rewiring Education, Ctd

I've been meaning to read George Siemens' 2005 paper "Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age" since coming across his work during EduMooc 2011. There is a strong connection between Siemens and Ivan Illich's book Deschooling Society (which I've blogged about here and here). I'll write about the connection some other time. For now, I wanted to share this from Siemens' paper, since it highlights some of the major changes in our society that should be having a bigger impact on online courses and higher education in general:

Some significant trends in learning:

  • Many learners will move into a variety of different, possibly unrelated fields over the course of their lifetime.
  • Informal learning is a significant aspect of our learning experience. Formal education no longer comprises the majority of our learning. Learning now occurs in a variety of ways – through communities of practice, personal networks, and through completion of work-related tasks.
  • Learning is a continual process, lasting for a lifetime. Learning and work related activities are no longer separate. In many situations, they are the same.
  • Technology is altering (rewiring) our brains. The tools we use define and shape our thinking.
  • The organization and the individual are both learning organisms. Increased attention to knowledge management highlights the need for a theory that attempts to explain the link between individual and organizational learning.
  • Many of the processes previously handled by learning theories (especially in cognitive information processing) can now be off-loaded to, or supported by, technology.
  • Know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where (the understanding of where to find knowledge needed).

Why are Online Students Failing? (Also, why is asking and answering your own questions kind of creepy?)

Troubling news here. A new study shows that online classes are under-performing:

The study, conduced by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, looked at more than 50,000 students in Washington state’s community or technical college system. What they found was that students who load up on online classes, especially early in their higher education careers, are less likely to finish their degrees. This is worrisome, especially because, as CCRC notes in its report, the number of students taking online courses is only increasing.

As one person pointed out in the comment section of the above article, "correlation does not necessarily mean causation."

(That's one of those things you're supposed to say occasionally if you have a college degree, just to signal your level of education to others....nonetheless, it's a good point.)

That is, the kinds of students who take online courses tend to be busy with families and full-time jobs. They are non-traditional and might not be prioritizing school. The study isn't necessarily a commentary on online courses, but instead a commentary that online courses might not be the best route for students who can dedicate enough time and energy to schooling.

It could also be a commentary on how online courses currently suck, to be perfectly academic.

Whatever the case may be, the number of online courses offered in the United States is on a strong upward trend. The question isn't "Should we have online courses or not?" Instead, in light of the inevitable, the question should be "How can we make online courses better?"

I don't know.

Will you keep asking questions as if there is someone else in the room?

You bet.

Why was this never charming when Donald Rumsfeld did it?

Because he was always lying.

I suspect the answer lies in some kind of Marshall McLuhan quip about how we are failing to understand the internet as a medium, that we're pouring new wine into old skins, let's say, or perhaps we're driving forward while looking in the rear-view mirror.

This is why people never understood Marshall McLuhan. He said weird things like that.

He was, however, right. Radio shows don't work on television. People tried. Maybe it was a safe transitional thing to do. But in retrospect, it looks pretty stupid. You have to start making something that works exclusively on television in order to harness the power of the medium and play to its strengths.

In other words, you can't take a traditional course, upload it onto Blackboard, and expect it to come out as an online course.

Sugata Mitra, Self-Organized Learning, Ctd

I wanted to follow up on a previous post about Sugata Mitra's experiments in facilitating student-driven, "self-organized" learning.

Last night in class I borrowed one of the techniques featured in his TED video. I randomly arranged the students into groups of four and assigned each group to one computer. (That is, four students gathered around one computer. There were five groups. Since the class totaled 19 students, one group only had three students.)

I gave each group a note card with a phrase or issue. The phrases were relevant and/or in the news, but I selected terms that I felt confident no one would be familiar with. The five cards contained the following: 1. Eurozone Crisis, 2. Net Neutrality, 3. The Singularity, 4. M-Theory, 5. Emotional Intelligence. One student knew what the Eurozone Crisis was and a little about the Singularity. Otherwise, no one else in the room had any familiarity with the terms.

The point was not to completely baffle them (although M-Theory is baffling no matter how much you know about it) but to present them with a concept currently beyond their knowledge, yet potentially within their intellectual grasp.

After assigning each group a note card, I gave them the following task:

a. Find ten credible research sources related to their topic and corresponding to previously defined categories and restrictions. I had just presented them with ten different types of sources, including data, punditry, history, poetry, philosophy, science, and so on. Additionally, in previous classes we discussed how to use the Internet and library databases to "filter" content and find credible sources.

b. Use these 10 sources to create an outline for a problem-solution essay on their assigned topic, including an introductory paragraph, a thesis, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

They were given a bit over 2 hours to complete the entire task. I helped them manage their time by giving them 1 hour per task and giving them a break in between.

I am happy to report that the students were engaged. They worked together to understand new information and left class able to talk about a new topic they knew nothing about only two hours ago. Each group formulated an argument in response to the topic. For example, the Singularity group decided that certain aspects of Ray Kurzweil's predictions are inevitable, but others are exaggerated and undesirable. One member of the M-Theory group described the notion of "strings" to me with a frightening command of the facts, and then informed me that the basic theory will never be substantiated because doing so would require means beyond our capabilities. The Eurozone group left extremely frustrated that raising taxes to close Greek debt is a losing cause in a country that doesn't know how to collect taxes in the first place. Another student in that group told me the pattern of stimulus and recession in Greece closely parallels our own country's history. This was, of course, a group that had no idea what the Eurozone was just two hours earlier.

As Mitra describes in the video, learning can emerge in a self-organized fashion, given the right conditions, which seem to include student-led collaboration, access to technology, and basic curiosity. It was amazing to watch their group dynamics, how a leader emerges, how this leader interacts with the others, who take turns offering suggestions for search terms and pointing at the screen to get everyone's attention. It was a lot of the same behavior exhibited by the school children in Mitra's video. And of course, I was there to offer occasional tips, feedback, and support. Mostly though, I got out of the way and let them teach each other.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fun with Pronouns (No, really!)

Check out this New York Times book review, a follow-up article, and a PBS interview all about University of Texas social psychologist James W. Pennebaker's new book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.

I know what you're thinking: "Pronouns? What's next? A book on those little plastic shoelace tips?"

Pennebaker, however, makes the case that pronouns reveal secrets about our modes of consciousness. He spends some time exploring the lyrics of the Beatles, the differences between the sexes, and, in this excerpt from the interview, the ability to predict how college students will perform based on their word choice:

One of the most fascinating effects I've seen in quite awhile is that we can predict people's college performance reasonably well by simply analyzing their college admissions essays. Across four years, we analyzed the admissions essays of 25,000 students and then tracked their grade point averages (GPAs). Higher GPAs were associated with admission essays that used high rates of nouns and low rates of verbs and pronouns. The effects were surprisingly strong and lasted across all years of college, no matter what the students' major.

To me, the use of nouns -- especially concrete nouns -- reflects people's attempts to categorize and name objects, events, and ideas in their worlds. The use of verbs and pronouns typically occur when people tell stories. Universities clearly reward categorizers rather than story tellers. If true, can we train young students to categorize more? Alternatively, are we relying too much on categorization strategies in American education?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Reading About Reading

According to this New Yorker article, if you enjoy reading articles or books about reading (I guess "meta-reading?") then you can count yourself among a small group of people for whom literacy is an unquestionable part of their lives. It's a bit of a litmus test. For example, if you brew your own beer, you must really be into beer.

The author also quotes from the work of historian Marshall Poe who explains why reading is so difficult and not enjoyable for many people:

Why don’t most people like to read? The answer is surprisingly simple: humans weren’t evolved to read. Note that we have no reading organs: our eyes and brains were made for watching, not for decoding tiny symbols on mulch sheets. To prepare our eyes and brains for reading, we must rewire them. This process takes years of hard work to accomplish, and some people never accomplish it at all. Moreover, even after you’ve learned to read, you probably won’t find reading to be very much fun.

I don't think he's implying that those of us who love to read are more evolved (tell yourself that if you need to), but he does make the point that reading has only existed for 5000 years of the 180,000 years of human existence. Reading is a relatively new game. (So is humanity, for that matter.)

Not sure how long it takes for an evolutionary trait to stick, but perhaps the definition of "reading" is still up for grabs. Before long, we should have a good body of research comparing traditional reading to reading integrated with audio and visual aids (i.e. the way most people use tablets). It seems as if the new text books designed for tablets have this type of "reading" in mind. I'm skeptical, but highly aware of my bias toward book reading. I also highly doubt that students can develop strong writing skills without devoting themselves to the sustained reading of texts without audio-visual aids. (However, will writing also change? Will it evolve into some new form of visual-pattern recognition and post-symbolic communication, as suggested by Jaron Lanier?)

Can we learn more by reading a book by Jared Diamond, for example, or by reading an interview with him, or by watching his TED video? While it's obvious that his book will contain more information, more in-depth analysis, and just plain old more words, we can't say for sure when or where real learning will occur. We can't confuse instruction with learning, the biggest mistake, I think, that educational institutions make.

If Student A reads Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, and writes an effective 10-page research paper arguing either for or against the book's conclusions, and Student B consumes videos, brief interviews, and audio files of Diamond and creates a convincing 10-minute electronic presentation, who has learned more? Traditional metrics would favor Student A. But, then again, traditional metrics are designed to favor Student A. Student A learned the instruction. Instruction aside, who learned more, Student A or Student B?