Saturday, September 25, 2004

The Internet Telethon?

On the same day that I noted Wikipedia's fund drive campaign, which seems like a novel but inevitable path for popular non-commercial sites to go down, I noticed that one of our local public television stations, WHYY, was having one of its pledge drives.

A sidetrack here for my international readers: most commercial American TV stations interrupt their programs several times an hour for a few minutes of advertisements. Most metro areas are served by one or two public television stations which allow no traditional advertising other than acknowledgements of underwriters. The programming on public TV (and radio) is usually more educational or cultural in nature. For many Americans, public television is their only venue for receiving international programming, especially BBC broadcasts. (It's also where we get our muppet fix through Sesame Street.) The system is funded through a combination of government subsidy (ever-declining since the Reagan era) and donations from foundations and individuals. The tradeoff for months of commercial-free TV is the occasional "pledge drive." During a typical week-plus telethon, all of the station's most popular oldies-but-goodies and major events are shown, interrupted at regular intervals by LOOONG and TEEEEEDIOUS pitches from the local station's notables. "Call now with your donation of $120...that's just $10 a month...and we'll also send you this WHYY tote bag. Here's Jeff to tell us how much he loves using his tote bag when he goes to the local library." Sprinkle in a few reminders that we're freeloaders if our kids watch Teletubbies on public TV and we don't make a donation.... You get the idea.

American Public TV basically uses the shareware model of distribution. It's an honor system enforced by scheduled annoyance.

That brings me back to my slow-moving train of thought. I started to wonder if we'll ever see the next logical step in fundraising for "free" content on the Internet. I can imagine it would go a little something like this...

I've just found a great audio clip of an interview I want to listen to. I click on the link. My media player fires up, and—

"We'll get to the recording you've just selected in a moment, but first we wanted to let you know that this site can only continue to exist through your generous support. You know how important it is to be able to find the kind of engaging, interesting, and educational materials that you've come to expect from us. Won't you please take a moment now to become a member of this site by making a donation? If you make your donation right now, we'll be thrilled to send you this lovely mouse pad with the clever "Catch the .wav!" logo. Here's a message from our webmaster, Jeff, to tell you more about how he uses his mouse pad."

Additional reading:
The Wikipedia entry on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). (How perfect is that confluence?)

An older article from, discussing the problems that even those within the public broadcasting community have pledge drives.

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Monday, September 20, 2004

Open the pod bay doors, HAL

The Phoenix, 09.09.2004. Republished with permission from the artist.

I love this cartoon from last week's Swarthmore student newspaper. (In case it's not obvious to the reader, "ITS" is "Information Technology Services.") At the risk of ruining a perfectly enjoyable joke, I'll make just a couple brief comments.
  1. This cartoon perfectly captures the dilemma support organizations often encounter when dealing with students. We strive to offer good client services, but the institution also expects us to take the lead on various issues involving enforcement. There are other organizations (e.g. the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S.) which have the dual role of advocacy and enforcement; inevitably, these two strains find a way to come into conflict with each other.

  2. Also to be gleaned from the cartoon is the problem of becoming a faceless bureaucracy. The perception of I.T.S. here is that it's an anonymous other, a big brother figure. Faceless organizations are easy targets for the poisoned pen. I don't think that students' sense of shared community generally extends to include I.T.S. staff, whom they mostly don't know.

  3. Hey! How did we get to be the bad guys here? When did the animosity over P2P restrictions get transferred from the RIAA to the home team?

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Monday, September 13, 2004

ARTstor follow-up

According to the site statistics, many of the readers who make it here are searching for my earlier posts on ARTstor. With those pages now about to drift off the top page, I thought it would be good to post an update about where things stand.

After my initial posts, I received contact from ARTstor Executive Director James Schulman. Based on that conversation, and a subsequent message from him, I am led to believe that some additional clarification or perspective will be offered to the academic community on the issue of ARTstor's interoperability strategy. To date, I have not seen anything, but I am hopeful. If more information becomes available, I'll respond to it here.

In the meantime, if you care about ARTstor's future role in supporting academic study of images, I humbly suggest that we collectively express how critical it will be to for ARTstor images to be usable side-by-side with our other image collections.

Additional reading:
The Luna Insight Users Group mailing list had some related discussions on the issue of interoperability.

Image Stuff, the newsletter of the Visual Resources Association, published ARTstor's most recent statement on interoperability plans. They will, I assume, also cover any major new developments.

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Saturday, September 11, 2004

If CMS ≠ eLearning, what does?

This post is an extension of a dialog that's started with Tama Leaver at Ponderance about my post on course management systems. Tama said:
I must say though, I'm not even sure if I know what online learning is: at best it's an ever-mutating practice that never seems at all prepared to let you pin it down (not to suggest that as a concept it has its own agency, only that as it's enacted, it takes on different forms every day!)
As well it should, say I!

Maybe online learning is a confusing phrase because it implies that the learning is somehow done online. Learning takes place in a brain. Our sloppy use of the word "online" is meant to distinguish learning that happens while the learner is engaged in a computer-mediated activity, particularly one that involves networked information or communication. The range of activities that could fall under this heading is enormous. Is looking up a word in an online dictionary online learning? What about completing a drill-and-kill exercise in Blackboard's assessment engine?

On the flip-side, is writing a blog necessarily a learning activity? While there's always some minimal value in getting some students to do almost any kind of writing or reading, I've seen plenty of blogs where a secondary student writes entry after entry that read like this:

September 10
I'm so bored.

September 9
I don't know why I'm writin this thing. Teach says I has to. So here it is.

Unless the curriculum seeks to teach students how to be miserable while navel-gazing, I'm not sure I get the point. Even if students need to practice writing about anything, it seems to me that they ought to be engaging deeply with something other than their personal ennui.

Learning is learning. We don't need to pin down what online learning is, because the "online" part is merely a description of the context, which changes minute by minute.

If we focus too much on the novelty of technology, we can lose track of the underlying learning objectives. Sometimes we get into the habit of saying, "Here is a cool technology; how could I use this with students?" Instead, we should be thinking, "My students seem to have trouble doing something." (The something could be "expressing original analysis in their writing," which might argue for a blog or discussion list; or the something might be "understanding this microeconomic theory," which might argue for a game or animation.) The medium for the resulting activity is secondary to the decision of what type of activity will help students meet a learning objective.

Given unlimited resources (ha!), including time (ha!), there's virtually no online learning activity that couldn't take place in some analog form. For instance, a classroom could keep a group journal on a bulletin board or by passing around papers and notes to classmates. Those of us who blog understand the advantages of the blog in reducing overhead and extending the community of learners, which is why some of us are telling our peers, "You might want to think about using this." Our explanation of our rationale needs to be a part of the recommendation, though. Otherwise the skeptical will just think we're offering a solution in search of a problem.

Using a hammer is not always carpentry.
Carpentry is often easier with a hammer.
(How's that for pithy reductionism?)

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Friday, September 10, 2004

I see! (Eyetrack III)

I think pretty much everybody who designs web pages in earnest will be (or should be) reading the results from the Eyetrack III studies for the next few weeks. The summary is quite rich, but the full site goes into even more specifics. I wish a had a print edition that I could carry around with me and spread out on my desk as I work. The low resolution of the online display prevents us from really being able to study examples comparatively. Despite the limitations of the browser window for publishing this kind of material, its subject is how to publish web material, so we have to cut it some slack. There's a lot of great information throughout the site.For starters, it appears that I'd better start writing shorter paragraphs! Maybe once I've digested it all, I'll figure out a list of proposed modifications to this standard Blogger template. Putting something into practice is the best way to cement it in memory.

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Thursday, September 09, 2004

Course Management ≠ eLearning

When I was out promoting our new course management system (CMS) to faculty a few years ago, I was careful not to oversell it. I (properly) described Blackboard to faculty as nothing more than a Swiss army knife of useful administrative tools packaged into a simple web interface. I never used goofy terms like "eLearning platform."

Recycling a recent comment I made on Scott Leslie's EdTech Post:
The current CMS is not really a teaching and learning tool, even though some kinds of teaching and learning activities can take place on one. A CMS is fundamentally an administrative communication tool. I give you documents; you give me documents. I post announcements; you send mail to your study group to schedule a review session. I post your grade; you check it. It's easy to take pot shots at a product that doesn't deliver lofty learning outcomes. The only learning outcome that I hope we might be getting is a moderate overall improvement in student preparation for class by making reserve materials available in convenient form.
I have no gripes with Blackboard's administrative focus. If it had been "only" a tool for online learning, it would have drawn interest from about a dozen adventurous professors. Instead, Blackboard is a tool that justifies its expense by being generally useful, easy, and ubiquitous. The demand in higher education really was for an administrative tool that made the business of organizing a class simpler. Nevertheless, I had always envisioned the CMS as a possible scaffold for future web development. I hoped that Blackboard might become a place where we could conveniently slip in the stuff of real pedagogical value—the tools that truly facilitate and enhance the activities of a community of learners. It was a romantic notion, and one with a critical flaw. Did you spot it yet?

The problem is right there in front of our noses. There just isn't much room for the learner in a CMS. So long as the paradigm for a CMS is pedagogy, it suits the needs of the instructor in defining and controlling the class experience. Aside from posting a message to a discussion forum or dropping a document into a group directory, there isn't much else a student can do. There is no virtual space within the typical "course shell" that truly belongs to the student. The systems don't support the presentation of research and writing, open commentary, and the connection of one's own work to that of one's peers. In short, the CMS is instructor-centric, constantly seeking to keep all communication on a vector from faculty to students. Its nature is its greatest strength and its most glaring weakness.

I don't promote a trouncing of the CMS for what it doesn't do. The only rationale for doing so would be an idealistic and false notion that if you had learner-centered tools that learning would break out like the proverbial thousand flowers blooming. We can live with the CMS shortcomings and focus our energies on the traditional settings for learning activities—classrooms, labs, clinics, libraries, and study groups. On the other hand, I can easily imagine a web course application that would combine the best aspect of course administration with the best aspects of both personal web portfolios and group blogging. I can imagine it, but I have no idea if such a thing will ever exist.

Perhaps it will be an interesting blogging project for another day to speculate on what a true hybrid of the course management system and online learning platform would look like.

Associated reading:
Stephen Downes has an article in this month's Educause Review on educational blogging, which is mostly about blogging, but touches on the convergence with course management systems. It's also a good overview of blogging in education from elementary education on up, for those who are newly exposed to such possibilities.

About a year ago,John Kruper had some interesting thoughts on the potential for bloggish course management or course administration tools within blogs.

Kruper's comments followed April Gibbs' critique of "Blackboard,Students and Publishing on the Web".

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Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Is Your School Paying Protection Money?

College and university administrators have been approached by the commercial digital music services seeking campus-wide contracts. Hey, you can’t blame a corporation for trying to make a buck. The part that makes me uneasy is the subsequent contact from the RIAA (soon to be mimicked, no doubt, by the MPAA), politely suggesting that we should consider buying into one of these services. They have some suggestions.

The RIAA would claim that they’re just promoting their interests, but we all get the subtext. "Pay up, and we’ll stop harassing you. Pay up, and we promise not to sue you. Pay up, and nothing happens to your students." As far as I’m concerned, the DMCA, adhered to in good faith, should provide our institutions with the liability shield we need. (Caveat emptor: I am not a lawyer!) Beyond that, both intellectual property owners and colleges should have their own methods for dealing with those who are caught breaking the law.

Let's be clear—I obtain my music legally. (Several commercial services could back me up on this claim.) I’m basically your average, law-abiding square. Now I like open source and free software as much as the next copyleftist. This article is governed by a Digital Commons license. I feel, as many do, that copyright law has been progressively tilting toward commercial interests at the expense of public ones; I’d rather not expand those rights any further. But I honor lawful intellectual property rights. I don’t get to choose who owns the assets that are not mine. When recording artists figure out how to cut the venture capital provided by the record companies out of the equation, which some are doing, I’ll be thrilled to pay artists directly. Until such a day, I don’t have respect for those who cry, "Stick it to the man! Steal this record." I’m personally disappointed by the rationalizations for theft that I have heard from so many of the college-aged people I’ve known in the last few years. (I remember it like yesterday, when all we had to worry about was underage drinking and vandalism.)

That doesn’t mean that I personally care to collaborate with corporate meanies either. If a digital music service is a good value proposition to the customer, if the service is marketed well, and is backed with good service, it will sell itself. Apple didn’t need exclusive college and university deals to sell 125 million iTunes tracks.

If you’re a commercial digital music or video vendor, and you want a college or university to broker or endorse your service, these should be the ground rules:
  1. Subscription to the service shouldn’t cost the college or university anything. In fact, if you want us to market your product for you, you should be paying us in cash or kind. The commodities in this transaction are not music files. They are students.

  2. At the very least, your software should work on Windows and Macs. Students can’t buy your music or sync with their MP3 players from a Mac? You haven’t fully addressed the problem.

  3. Students need to clearly get something out of the deal that isn’t available to them as normal retail consumers. I think it safe to assume that every computer-owning, English-speaking, warm-blooded American college student is vaguely aware that she can get a digital song on demand for $.99. This is a good enough price point that it has already turned a lot of former peer-to-peer shoplifters into paying customers. To bring the rest into the fold, you’re just going to have to go one better. (This is where Napster and the rest of the gang do have an advantage. They’re fortunate, though, that Apple hasn’t stepped up to deal a deathblow. Apple’s university program so far is strictly marketing, with no extra bonuses to students who use their services.)
Offer these things, and the gates of the mighty ivory tower will be lowered to receive you willingly.

Of course, if you don’t want to offer students a carrot, you can just keep on banging away at them with your big stick. To a certain extent, vigorous enforcement through legal intimidation may be a deterrent for some would-be pirates. A certain capability to threaten major rights violators is necessary, because some people are going to steal no matter how good a deal they’re offered. Of course, there’s another school of thought that says if you’ve criminalized the behavior of the majority, you’re probably going about solving the problem in the wrong way.

Unfortunately, by publicly rubbing in the 800 settlements reached and the 4000 lawsuits they've brought forward, the RIAA has presented itself like a modern Sheriff of Nottingham, allowing the Peer-to-Peer bandits to play at being Robin Hood. The under-30 demographic doesn't feel sorry for the big bad corporate interests. (They don't have corporate jobs yet.) The recording industry has made it clear that it isn’t pro-consumer, striving aggressively to meet the demands of music fans. They've been recalcitrant luddites, dragged kicking and screaming through every minor change in the marketplace. Using the long 2x4 of the law is their prerogative, but each battle won against young consumers is a pyrrhic victory. They think they’re fighting theft, but all they’re doing is driving the self-perceived Merry Men to hide deeper in Sherwood Forest, where they gleefully dance to looted copies of Modest Mouse.

For the pro-RIAA view of the Napster & higher education story, see "Colleges Rally Against Music Piracy" in the eCommerce Times.

For the vehement opposition, see "More universities agree to RIAA/Napster 'protection'" at The Register.

If you were interested enough to read this article, I assume you're already familiar with Lawrence Lessig. But just in case you aren't, see

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Monday, September 06, 2004

The Pedagogy Paradox: why we talk about everything but teaching

It's a great feeling to be a part of an institution that values intense interaction between faculty and students. Now that I've made my loyalty clear, I'm about to break ranks. Please forgive me, my professorial friends.

Even at the finest undergraduate institutions, there are instructors with poor classroom skills. There! Somebody has finally said it in public.

Even instructors with pretty good instructional technique could benefit from the ability to understand more about how instructional methods affect student learning.

Even fantastic instructors have sometimes come by their prowess intuitively, so they don't necessarily have the vocabulary for explaining their practices to others. These instructors are trained to be expert psychologists, mathematicians, or religious scholars, but their methods may be a talent. Perhaps they rely on their ability to replicate the practices that their own favorite teachers used.

If we accept the premise that educational method is a domain of applied social science, I've always found it curious how conspiratorial those in higher education can be about placing practitioners in a field that so few have actually studied. I've always suspected that the root of academia's unwritten code of silence is the fear that smart people have of being exposed for not knowing. Why do our high-powered students underutilize reference librarians as they research? Why are so many students afraid to ask questions in class when they're confused? Is it that admitting that you lack mastery, that you simply don't know something, is a taboo within a subculture that one can only enter by proving that you are a member of the knowledge elite? One has to muster a great deal of courage to say, "I need help." Scratch the surface a little and you expose a great paradox for a community that's supposed to be about learning. Even among our intellectual elite, we've still managed to create cultural barriers that stifle the vitality of inquisitiveness. Shame is a great enemy of curiosity.

That's the dark side. On the brighter side, many students appreciate their interpersonal interactions with faculty and peers more than any other aspect of their college educations. One often hears comments from students about how much they value what they've learned from other students--everything from vigorous dining hall discussions to sudden revelations in a match clinic or lab group. There is also something to be said for being at an institution that strives to focus on undergraduate learners, even if it doesn't always live up to its full promise.

The difference-maker between the two sides of the pedagogy paradox is trust. We do not make ourselves vulnerable unless we feel safe to do so. When trust exists between the members of a learning community, when people feel free to take social risks, when the room doesn't contain a potential for ridicule, both students and faculty will engage more openly. Surely, there are other factors that have an impact on educational effectiveness. Nevertheless, sparking inquiry and investigation is the critical first step for any educational process that has hopes of going beyond mere informational transfer into original analysis and synthesis. This is the very heart of the liberal arts education. I have seen first hand how well it can work, but I also know that sometimes it doesn't.

An effective system for students to evaluate courses is an important tool that faculty need, even if they fear it. Such evaluations have to be designed to induce appropriate responses at the right time. After a course has been completed, it's fine to know how it went. It would be even better to do an evaluation mid-course, when there is still time to address problems that students are having. Evaluation, like any form of job performance, is only worthwhile if it allows you to change the future.

Some schools have more formalized ways of addressing the quality of instruction. At some, centers for teaching and learning conduct programs to expose faculty to relevant educational theory and help them work on their pedagogical methods. Duke has even dividing the faculty into those who teach and those who research. (See the article on the Chronicle of Higher Education on Professors of the Practice.) Of course, that model probably wouldn't work at small, undergraduate-only institutions. There's also something potentially lost when teaching no longer informs research and vice versa.

I sincerely believe that all academics who teach would benefit from having a basic conversance in educational theory. Having taken the core Education course sequence at Swarthmore a few years ago, I believe from my own experience that you don't have to go to work on an Ed.D. to grapple productively with multiple intelligence theory or understand learning styles. Dabbling in constructivist learning principles can be both fun and useful. Understanding the notion of creating a community of learners within the classroom might help instructors to foment the kind of trust within the classroom that encourages honest group learning. After all, if college is supposed to be more advanced than being at high school, good college instructors might be helped by knowing at least what good secondary teachers know.

It's ultimately not about reading the right articles. It's about access to support. Every institution should have a program of training, support for professional development, avenues to get mentorship, or at least a standing forum for discussing classroom practices. In rare moments of candor, faculty friends have told me that they are left to their own devices when it comes to their pedagogical practices. You do a disservice to any professional when you put them in a circumstance that's not designed for their success.

Why should I care, and what place am I in to raise these questions? I don't teach undergraduates, so I hardly consider myself the most appropriate person to broach the topic. But I do have a reason.

We academic technologists are supposed to be helping faculty with technologies that aid pedagogy. But how we can we talk about pedagogical uses for technology if we can't talk about pedagogy? A lot of the tools that we have to offer right now are really not effective educational tools unless the instructor has a committed strategy for employing them within a framework to exploit their possibilities. Course management systems, blogs, and wikis can be used in rather shallow ways, or they can be essential collaboration tools. Everything comes back to whether the professor has given thought to building the community of learners within a class or seminar. If a blog, discussion board, team GIS project or video production supports group inquiry, they can be exciting capstone activities.

The problem is discussing the difficult pedagogical topics, which I think I know a little about, but with a lot of limitations. People who teach need to learn from people who teach. My niche is but a small aspect of the bigger picture. Nevertheless, I'd love to be a part of building a community of learners who were studying about building communities of learners.

How do we make that happen?

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Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Thinking too much about the Apple iMac G5 design

Picture of Apple's new iMac G5We purchase a lot of Macs around here. There was a time when Swarthmore was an all-Mac shop. Even though we've been a dual-platform shop for a long time now, and our tech shop is happily agnostic about platform choice, about three quarters of our faculty stuck with the Mac. Since I'm heavily involved in the business of selecting and purchasing the equipment for labs, classrooms, and faculty/staff desktops, I tend to pay attention to the big changes in Apple's product lines.

The new iMac G5 was just introduced with barely a murmur; Jobs is in cancer recovery and couldn't do one of his "insanely great" pitch jobs to introduce the new model. Furthermore, a production snafu resulted in a product delay right as we entered the back-to-school buying season. It's obvious that the iMac doesn't fill the central role in the product line that it once did. I think the Wall Street Journal reporters had it right: the iMac is now serving as a chic crossover product for the millions of happy iPod users. Trendy industrial design is part of the Apple mystique, so they always have to up the stakes with each new version of the product, even if the change isn't really an improvement. The iMac has become the concept car of the Macintosh family. "Look, it comes in yummy colors." "Look, it's a desk lamp." "Look, it's a laptop on a stick!"

On the plus side, the new iMac is a G5, so we'll benefit from the performance increase. The small footprint and flat casing will also make this iMac a nice solution for labs and classrooms where table space is at a premium. Still, from a pure design standpoint, I don't think there's any way I'll consider the new form factor an improvement. I use the current 17" iMac every day at work. On the basis of ergonomic design alone, it's the best computer I've ever used. It's a simple thing, but the monitor on a swing arm makes a huge difference to me. As I adjust my seating throughout the day, the monitor moves with me to remain at perfect eye level. If I want to stand for a minute, no problem. As I roll along the work surface of my desk, I can aim the iMac display so that I can continue to reference my open windows.

If it ain't broke, you don't fix it. Unfortunately, that's not an option for Apple. Apple markets its design and engineering superiority, so it has to constantly eat its young to demonstrate its ability to revolutionize the product line. Usually we ooh and aah at what they dream up. Every once in a while we laugh at it. (The Cube, anyone?) But in this case I wish we could just say "Stop. You already had it right." When it's time for my swing-arm iMac to retire, I think I'm really going to miss it. Maybe that's just me.

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