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Neat Ideas in Teaching

Neat Ideas in Teaching

I think this is quite genius:

The topic of Corporate Finance/Capital Markets is, even within the world of the Dismal Science, a exceptionally dry and boring subject matter, encumbered by complex mathematic models and economic theory.

What made Dr. K memorable was a gimmick he employed that began with his introduction at the beginning of his first class:

“Now I know some of you have already heard of me, but for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar, let me explain how I teach. Between today until the class right before finals, it is my intention to work into each of my lectures … one lie. Your job, as students, among other things, is to try and catch me in the Lie of the Day.”

And thus began our ten-week course.

This was an insidiously brilliant technique to focus our attention – by offering an open invitation for students to challenge his statements, he transmitted lessons that lasted far beyond the immediate subject matter and taught us to constantly checksum new statements and claims with what we already accept as fact.

I love these tricks that show students that they already know how to be critical thinkers. Awesome!

Enter Homeowner, stage left

Enter Homeowner, stage left

I’ve been a bit distracted lately. Let me tell you the story.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with the Multiple Listing Service, looking at places available for living in. Why I’ve been doing that is really an open question. I guess mostly just interest. What’s around? How much does it cost? What can I reasonably afford in this, one of the most expensive cities in the country?

And, it’s fun to see how people decorate. Or, shall we say, how people are prepared to live. It’s easy to criticize some one else’s design choices from the other side, of course, particularly when you (like me) watch way too much HGTV. It’s also given me a lot to think about; what exactly am I looking for? How much space do I really need? How much am I prepared to pay for? What’s more important, a great layout, a great price, or a great location?

About a month ago I discovered that there’s a condo building just down the street from me with units up for sale. I was delighted; I already know how to live in this location! A shift of a street to the right wouldn’t be difficult at all! It would be perfectly dreamy! But when I went to look at the place (with my parents in tow), I discovered that it didn’t fit into my vision of my own future. In spite of/because of it’s feasible price, it was just too small. (In fact, it looked like a Comfort Inn room.) I fell into despair.

Seeing a place I could afford and was in the right location that in my gut I absolutely loathed made me think. A lot. What wasn’t there? What was it I was looking for? The conclusion I came to wasn’t the obvious (granite counters, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, etc.). What I wanted was a nook. I wanted a space I could carve into a writing nook. Because that’s what I do in my free time. I wanted to make space for my free time. And that’s what was missing from the Comfort Inn room I looked at. I could fit a living room and a dining area into it. The bedroom was pretty big. Nice balcony. But where do I put my nook?

After a day of hand-stapled-to-forehead, I went back to MLS and started all over again. And that’s when everything changed.

What do you do when you intend to buy something (at some point in the next, oh, year or two), and you see something that you think would be perfect for you, interest rates are going up, and the price is so low it makes you cock your head in surprise? You call the agent, that’s all you can do.

So within a week or so it was all settled; I bought a townhouse.

Two bedrooms, two bathrooms (one an en suite off the master bedroom), two storeys. A laundry room. Ground level, so also a sliding door from the dining area that leads to a patio. At the moment it’s pretty overgrown, but by the time I’m done with it it will be an outdoor dining area, a seating area, and a garden. It’s an end unit, so neighbours only on one side. It’s on a private, quiet courtyard facing away from any streets. A view of greenery from all windows. central A/C and heat, water, and electricity included in the condo fee. And the piece de resistance: a “den”. It’s listed as a den, but it’s really not. It’s actually a 9 by 8 foot space at the top of the stairs, with a window. I laughed a little when I saw it, since that hardly qualifies as a den, but it’s the perfect nook.

What else can I do?

Closing date is August 1.

Follow up from Wednesday

Follow up from Wednesday

Some Wiki projects of interest that I highlighted in a presentation at OISE this week:

* Wikipedia: The biggest, most obvious example.
* Lessig’s Codebook: I think I forgot to mention this one. This is a collaborative edit of a published book. The book was published, and Lessig is opening it up to edits from whomever wants to edit it.
* ALA Conference Wiki: A wiki used by presenters and attendees of a recent library conference to record the proceedings, among other things.
* Romantic Audience Project: Wiki-based poetry project. (A direct link example page: Ode on a Grecian Urn)
* Lexicon RPG: A proposal for a wiki-based role-playing game.

Enjoy! Good luck!

Actualizing the Experience

Actualizing the Experience

One to grow on from Educause:

Once while delivering a paper at a conference of online educators, I was challenged by a participant who thought my online course (being projected onto a screen) was “heavy on the text.” Upon learning that the questioner’s field was American literature, I asked him if he thought Moby-Dick was “heavy on the text.” If the work is compelling, the medium disappears and the experience becomes actual.

While we often get mired in talking about how to get the flashiest interface, the most audio/video, the fanciest graphics, we seem to forget this one very simple point. So we should be focusing on making the work compelling rather than making the interface exciting. Which makes online instruction absolutely no different from face-to-face instruction.

eLearning hodgepodge

eLearning hodgepodge

Some tidbits from my newsreader this morning:

Hollywood IMs. This is an article about how movie types uses the status message in ichat to inform potential employers that they’re available. Beautiful. I occasionally endure funny looks when I suggest that IM might be a route to better connectivity between staff, so I appreciate any words that describe useful IMing.

Some extremely interesting discussion here about grading blogs.

I think it should be graded in a portfolio format where students choose their “best” posts. It seems obvious that the student who writes more would have more to choose from and would, therefore, be likely to produce a better portfolio. That would seem to cover the question of frequency and content and, to a large degree, subject matter, as well.

I think this is a brilliant idea. Now, if the portfolio also included comments on other blogs, or ideas that sprung out of conversations or were inspired by other blogs in the class, then we’d really be cooking. I’m reminded that the author of this blog and I are at the same institution and I really should look him up one of these days. Weblogg-ed also appreciates these ideas, and notes the (fantastic) pedagogical distinction between “class participation” and “knowledge construction participation”. How best to grade it, and to make it easy for instructors, remains to be seen.

Some great news on faculty feeling positive about online teaching and learning.

Faculty who have undergone the “conversion experience” are also more than happy to reassure their colleagues that the journey is well worth it. As Hooper puts it, “I am still intimidated by technology, and I only use it because there is no better way to teach English than online or through blended learning.”

What changed Redfield’s attitude about online teaching was “the experience of actually doing it. I’ve found that the students who persist actually learn better, have better command of the subject material and they enjoy their experience with me.”

Blogs as communication and marketing tool. This is sort of an adminblog case study; how a blog can help internal communications within one (large) company.

Blogs, by the nature of the medium, encourage casual banter and informal language. Unlike Web sites, which are crafted and branded and carefully planned out to be “on message,” the daily journal format of a blog produces more vulnerability from its authors. In marketing terms, a blog can bring a human personality to a faceless company, which can create a connection between the corporation and the client. This can lead to deeper loyalty and richer feedback.

And it’s those things that make blogs so useful in library contexts, and in education contexts. A human face, a casual discussion, the ability to add comments, more (and better) feedback.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

The Right Tool for the Right Job

Instructional technology is a profoundly strange field. Strange mostly because, in spite of the shocking amount of communication technology that exists and is in use, there is no consistency in the level of technology that’s considered current and cutting edge. Every little collection of people working on a project has radically different standards. When you click on a link that promises some great new idea about integrating technology into the classroom, you have to be skeptical. What some people think is a great new idea might not seem so great to you.

My example of the moment is Five easy ways to integrate computers into the health science/physical education curriculum. Let’s just say that those five ways basically revolve around using the internet as a reference tool for assignments, which is something I thought we’d all figured out and agreed on in 1998. There’s one assignment that even recommends using Excel.

I realize that not everyone is comfortable with computers. Not everyone is going to have the time or the technical knowledge to create true learning tools. But we have to stop integrating computers just because computers are cool.

You have heard it time and time again: “This is the age of technology! We need to integrate computers into our curriculum!” But with an overwhelming pile of papers to grade and more and more expectations piling up on teachers every day, who has time to add computers to their curriculum?

Perhaps we’re not ready to do that yet. Because you can’t ask people who don’t actually understand the point, or who don’t actually understand the technology, to use these tools in a useful way. Perhaps those tools just aren’t ready yet; how burdensome was it for teachers to shift over from dipping pens in ink to using disposable bic pens in the classroom? An attitude shift was required, certainly; but there should be a minimum of new skills required to use computers in the classroom. The fact that training is still so sorely needed is a testament to the poor design of educational software.

We get a bit too excited about computers, as if they are indeed the new bic pen and suddenly everything should involve computers in some way. Looking over these recommendations for integrating computers begs the question: how are computers actually improving the curriculum? How are computers forging new experiences in education? From Five easy ways:

Using Microsoft’s Excel, have the students track their food intake for a period of three consecutive days. Using a chart-like format, students should record food eaten, the number of food servings, the food groups to which the foods belong, and the estimated calories in each given food. At the end of each day, students can total the amount of food group servings and calories they ate per day and discuss the implications of their choices.

Is there actually a reason why a pen and paper aren’t a better alternative for this? What is Excel adding to this assignment? There is no point in integrating technology if it’s not going to change venue for students, if it’s not going to fundamentally alter the way things are done or thought about or talked about. In the case of this food chart, it would actually be more logical to give students tiny notebooks or calendars to keep track of their eating habits; students in high school don’t usually eat exclusively when they’re in front of a computer. What about a cookie they pick up from the cafeteria? Or frozen yoghurt at the mall? A tiny daily calendar would be the best way to keep track of what’s going into your mouth on the go. Not an Excel spreadsheet. If you really want to get technical about it, get them all PDAs.

Truly making good use of technology in the classroom means using the right tool for the right job. And computers are not the only tools. Everything can be a tool. We know already that technology has the capacity to be damaging to the educational enterprise rather than helpful; if we’re going to integrate computers and technology, we need to be careful about it, and choose the tools best suited to the task at hand.

Information Fluency

Information Fluency

From the first time I heard it, I was never that smitten with the concept of “Information Literacy”. I learned about it at library school and I didn’t entirely get it; I figured I had just misunderstood, or not listened well enough, or just blanked out on a key element of it. It just didn’t sink in.

Information Literacy: a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information”. [ALA].

I just couldn’t get a handle on it. Not that I can’t get behind it, but I couldn’t find the edges, the gripping spot for me to take this thing and run with it. I’ve heard the sessions about it, but it feels stuck in a rut. We end up talking about the difference between a book and a journal, the dangers of websites, the difference between one database product and another, and citations. I get how these things are important, but how does a term like “Information Literacy” come into play? What does it mean to say a person is Information Literate?

Read More Read More

Distance Edu Tech

Distance Edu Tech

An interesting discussion of online distance education offerings by Johns Hopkins President, William R. Brody. In sum: students really like the online components of classrooms. The focus of this short article is mainly asynchronous applications, which apparently are wildly popular. I’m not entirely certain which forms of asynchronous communication Johns Hopkins are employing, but it’s nice to see an article praising them.

He notes:

Other interesting developments have followed the creation of an online [Master of Public Health] curriculum. First, pedagogy in the classroom has improved. Evidently, in order to develop an online course, you must invest more time and creativity in developing pedagogical tools to facilitate asynchronous (non-real time, noninteractive) learning. Some of these tools enhance the classroom courses taught synchronously as well. The result is that the quality of instruction rises in the classroom as well as on the Internet. The two feed each other symbiotically.

I’m so thrilled to see that in print. Distance education is that added element that forces everyone to re-think of education from a different angle, and allows for some real creative thought about the process. The elements that make an online course work could easily be added to a traditional classroom to enhance and improve communication among all participants. For me this is all about venues; because distance education provides new venues for student input and interaction, we end up with those same new venues to supplement the classroom. Some people don’t think we need new venues for students in a traditional learning environment; I’d say those people are wrong.

So, after years of watching and helping out with distance ed courses, with some background in ideas around information literacy and technology, what sorts of applications would make the best distance classroom?

It would depend on the kind of course, obviously. But I think distance education needs a blend of synchronous and asynchronous applications. Job #1 is to create the classroom environment itself. It needs to be the walls and the desks, the paper and pens, the eyes and the ears of the students. Good instructional technology for distance education needs to be community-building software.

First and most obvious: the distance classroom needs weblogs with an aggregated “class” page, much like the “friends” page on livejournal. When I was a graduate student (the first time), we were often required to hand in “reflection papers” every week, where we consider the week’s readings and come up with some questions. One of my profs asked us to choose a quote from the week’s readings and talk about how that quote is representative, challenging, or interesting in light of the topic. Students at a distance need every venue possible to interact with their assignments, the instructor, and each other; weekly posts should be required.

One of the best parts of weblogs in instruction is the comment function; it would be great to get students regularly commenting on each other’s posts. It might be worth it to arrange loose groupings of students for the purpose of commenting. That would mean each student might have four or five other students on their list to comment on weekly, meaning everyone would get a handful of comments for everything they post.

I’m sort of conflicted about whether it’s best to use a wiki to discuss specific readings or a blog. Say you attached the week’s readings to a wiki, and allowed students to add their comments directly to the page as marginalia or as endnote reactions. The difference here is in whether you’re trying to produce a document surrounded by people, or individuals surrounded by documents. I think there’s something (rather important) to be said about giving students a space of their own to record their thoughts, where the connection to the document is more temporal than spatial. The subtle and important difference between these two applications is something the instructor would need to consider in light of her curriculum; there may be a time and a place for one over the other, or a time and a place to use both concurrently.

Possibly this is a problem we can solve when we get around to building our edublog system. [Yes, Jason. This is a note to you.] Can we create a system that arranges posts with a document anchor as well as in the traditional blog format? Best of both worlds?

What I think could also be an interesting addition to a distance classroom is a podcast. Yes Catspaw, there really is a podcast. We’ve been batting this idea back and forth, my friends and I, and we agree that podcasting is sort of lame. I mean, podcasting without a clear purpose is sort of lame, it won’t be lame when we do it. (And yes, will we be doing it. Look for our first collaborative podcast sometime this summer.) But bear with me here: what if, in lieu of a lecture, instructors recorded a short (maybe 20 minutes) talk about the topic at hand. I don’t know how many instructors would be comfortable with this, but what if they just wrote up a few notes for themselves, and recorded themselves elaborating on the topic as a mini-lecture recorded directly to mp3, and then posted it weekly for download? Possibly rather than a lecture, the instructor and a TA could record a dialogue about the readings and the topic. That way students could do their reading, listen to a mini-lecture or dialogue, and then respond to it all on their own blogs. Heck, students could post podcast responses if they wanted. Why not?

So far everything I have detailed is asynchronous, to a point; I believe in the value of asynchronicity in a distance classroom only as far as it allows students to arrange their own week. I feel strongly that distance students should not be treated any differently than students in a traditional classroom in that something is expected of them weekly. Traditional students just do their reading (maybe) and show up to class; the distance student can’t be allowed to fake it or leave it all to the end. This is not a good way to learn. Students can do the reading when it suits them, listen to the lecture when they have the time, and add their comments in the middle of the night, but they need to be committed enough to the course to allow for weekly participation. For asynchronous communication to create a dynamic community while allowing everyone to work on their own schedule, it needs temporal bookends.

Synchronicity: where does it fit in? With all of these asynchronous elements, our distance classroom has a lot of content, a lot of interaction, and hopefully some sense of connection to the instructor and to the students. What’s missing is the real-time factor. While we’ve given students a chance to absorb information and a venue to respond to it, we need a venue for instructors to respond as well. Instructors can of course respond individually to students, but what about that over-all response to what students are finding and thinking about this week? . This is where a synchronous chat environment (like MOO) comes in. Gathering students together once a week allows the instructor to talk to everyone at once, ask for more details or clarification from students with interesting ideas in the presence of the entire class, and to respond to common questions. A synchronous group chat could act as a kind of weekly debrief, office hours, and casual discussion. A MOO space as a classroom could be used by students at any time for collaboration, group work projects, or party planning. The official chat might not need more than 30-45 minutes a week.

As of right now, there’s my ideal set of distance education tools. A really great edublog system, a wiki system, podcasts, and a MOO-based virtual classroom. Synchronous and asynchronous, distance students require and deserve an environment as challenging and demanding as the regular classroom ought to be.

Open Letter to Heather Menzies

Open Letter to Heather Menzies

Some snippets from today’s Toronto Star: “Dumbed down on campus, bit by bit” by Heather Menzies, professor of Canadian Studies at Carleton University, my first alma mater (registration required for the Star, I can’t get a direct link):

There’s a terrible irony here: people are feeling disconnected in the midst of all this newfound digital connection.
There’s also a danger signal here. Knowing, or “knowledge production”, as it’s sometimes called, is a social activity. It involves people comparing observations and data collected by various research instruments, interpreting these through frames of various theories and hypotheses, and reaching a conclusion that will be tested by further dialogue and research.

Reduce that fecund, engaged social component too much and knowledge production becomes technocratic. Systems and data sets become ends in themselves, with people more and more removed from a sense that their take on things counts, and from the social habits of face-to-face dialogue that ensure it does.

Students today are missing out. Instead of co-producing knowledge through challenging discussions with professors and fellow students, enhancing and practicing the democratic idea that society does best when there’s a continuous open dialogue about the issues fo the day, there’s downloading modules of ready-made knowledge.

“There’s just no depth to their reading, often, and no depth to their sense of What do I do with all this material? How do I focus?” complained one professor.

That’s precisely what the same professor helps students do when she invites them into her office.

“I remember a student the other day—I started talking about this notion of authorship, and we all have a voice, and this fascinating notion that it’s all a babble and we are all immersed in it all the time, but what you have to say is important. And the lights wehnt on for her, and she said, “I never thought about it like that. ” And I said, “That’s why you try to question.” And I think, could I have done that typing to her on email?”

My response, emailed this afternoon:

Dear Professor Menzies,

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been mulling over the articles spilling out of academia about the dangers of the internet; it makes us dumb, it prevents us from engaging in contemplative thought, it isolates us. This morning I read your article on this subject in the Toronto Star and I feel compelled to get in touch with you.

I agree with you that something is amiss in academe; I agree that communication between undergraduates and faculty is at a dangerous and unproductive low. I agree that academic enterprise cannot be conducted in isolation, and that web applications like WebCT are not helping. Social constructivism teaches us that the best knowledge is built in groups. The place where we part ways is in our understanding of computer technology’s potential in assisting and supporting communication, collaboration, and learning.

There is a set of assumptions about computer technology that are causing the kinds of problems you note. These assumptions are undercutting the strength of your argument, and blinding many to the real potential of technology in the university environment.

The first assumption is that the purpose of technology is to make things faster, cheaper, and easier, that the introduction of technology to a particular realm will mean less work for everyone involved. Some administrators hope that adding technology to the classroom will allow them to further remove academics from the dull, time-consuming processes of teaching, marking, and filling out forms, letting the software do all the work for a fraction of the cost. Fewer instructors, more students. Automation is progress, and progress is speed. This understanding is preventing us from using the technologies available to us to improve the student experience.

When I first encountered weblogs in 1999, I immediately thought they were a wonderful venue for thinking out loud; here was a personal yet public space to hash out ideas and pose questions. For the shy undergraduate without the confidence to stick up her hand in front of her classmates or to step into a professor’s office (an act that requires a lot of chutzpah), there are no venues for scholarly communication other than the requisite essay and the exam. I’m currently of the belief that we should never ask an undergraduate to read something without also asking her to write something. Weblogs can be a venue for that kind of regular contemplative thought and critical writing. This is a venue that can be easily monitored by TAs, instructors, other students in the class, subject librarians, guest lecturers, interested faculty and graduate students, or even the authors of the week’s readings. Since weblogs come equipped with tools so that any visitor can comment on any post, this means a student’s tentative thoughts can be heard, encouraged, engaged, challenged, and commended by those around her. Students’ ideas can inform the direction of the class week by week, even if they don’t have to confidence to open up their mouths and explore a new idea in the classroom. This kind of social software can be used not only to encourage thoughtful and regular writing, but also to help turn a classroom into a community, to help build relationships between students as well as students and their instructors.

The first time I ever discussed this idea with an instructor, her response was: “That’s a lot of marking. I’m not interested.” As is any useful technology would as its first goal address the burden of marking, not the student experience.

When we approach technology with the idea that its sole purpose is to make our lives easier, we miss a lot of its useful applications. Web applications will not take away work that links us to each other; but they can help us build new venues of communication to support and draw out the best parts of a university education, to give every student a voice. Not all undergraduate classes can be seminars, but we can bring some of the seminar experience to them through social software.

The second assumption revolves around the metaphors we use when talking about the internet. You are alone when you sit at your computer. You are not communicating, making connections, being challenged. Email is supposed to connect us but it does not. It merely hangs like an albatross around our necks and forces us to disengage from the contemplative thought that breathes life to our work. We use email to send brief, unthoughtful, fast missives to nameless usernames through the ether. There is nothing conversational about machine-mediated communication; it is simply dry text responses to (faceless) dry text. The depth of this understanding is so clear in your article, and in the experiences of the people quoted in it; I’m deeply saddened to see this idea win out in academic circles.

Outside of the academic world, the internet is often a primarily collaborative tool. The open source movement, for instance, consists of thousands of programmers working collaboratively on large software projects, working together to make the best possible product that they can give away for free. None of these people are working in isolation; they are bouncing ideas and full-blown scripts off each other, learning from each other, debugging each other’s code and voicing opinions that result in a better product. If the academy is the original creators of the gift economy, programmers in the open source movement are its natural children. Technology does not by nature stifle collaborative work. In fact, computer technology’s true gift to society is the way it can amp up collaboration.

In my adult life I have never taken on a project and executed it alone. While I may be sitting at home or sitting quietly at my desk at work, I am never without a host of experts. Rather than slow, ponderous email, I use instant messaging software to keep in immediate communication with experts in my field. That means that while I’m sitting at my desk doing work, writing line after line of code, in the corner of my desktop is a small box full of names. Those names represent my friends, my experts, and their willingness to field my questions. This is not an impersonal experience; the official term is “presence awareness”, and it means that even when I’m not talking to anyone online, I know they’re there and that knowledge reassures me. If I hit a wall in my lines of code I can turn to them, open up a little window, and begin a conversation.

The metaphor is important; it’s not an electronic message fired off into the impersonal ether, it’s a conversation that hangs in the air in text.

I have used instant messaging software to work through all kinds of ideas; teaching practices, historical concepts, theoretical issues. And I can hash them out with people across any distance. I have worked closely thought by thought with teams made up of people in Toronto, Virginia, Norway, and Japan. I have written collaborative fiction line by line with a co-author in Australia. Online, we can gather together in the same room and just talk things out. Again, note the metaphor; no impersonal machines, only people, rooms, conversations, documents, and connections.

I know a group of undergraduate students at the University of Toronto who feel that they are possibly cheating while in class. What they do is this: they come into class, open up their laptops, connect to the internet via the wireless network, and launch a simple text program. They invite each other into a document that appears on each screen. As the lecture begins, they take notes. All of them write simultaneously in the same document, colour-coded by person. They correct each other’s mistakes, add notes or perspectives someone else missed. They feel free to stop typing and engage completely with the instructor at points, listening carefully, knowing that the bare bones are being captured while they work to understand a knotty idea. Then they share that understanding in the collaborative notes. Is this cheating? Or are they using the collaborative potential of internet technology to connect, communicate, and share ideas?

The Wikipedia is a large reference source sitting on your shelf that is constantly being rewritten, critiqued, updated, reviewed, and reconsidered by thousands of people at once. Those thousands are creating one product. It works for the Wikipedia; can you imagine the implications in a classroom? What if we inserted a text inside a wiki, allowed for endless collaborative annotations by the class? A historical document, a poem, the introduction to Said’s Orientalism? We love the idea of slapping a chunk of text onto a transparency and dissecting it with an overhead marker; what if we had that document on the screens of each student and allowed them add their thoughts and questions synchronously in the classroom, or asynchronously prior to the class? Students could see each other’s ideas and questions and be pushed in new directions because of it. The ideas that come students as they read the text home can be brought directly into the class. And wouldn’t that annotated document be a wonderful end result? Isn’t that one more way to help making student thinking visible?

So I find myself agreeing with your original premise; communication at the university level is suffering. I even agree that that suffering is partly due to bad implementation of technology, but I don’t agree that technology itself is the problem. I think we can blame it on a bad metaphor and on badly constructed user interfaces that don’t support more useful metaphors, that don’t communicate a sense of engagement and collaboration that’s possible.

For those of us actively engaged in creating and implementing social software for academic use, your criticisms are timely and useful, but disheartening. I have only detailed the tip of the iceberg here; there are thousands of engaged, and connected online communities who are using social software in ways that links them not just in conversation but in real relationships. Having experienced just some of the possibilities that online communication has to offer, I’m sad to see none of it reflected in your article.


Rochelle Mazar

Virtual Barn Raising

Virtual Barn Raising

Technology, the way people use it, feel about it, relate to it, and digest it is something no one is entirely an expert about just yet. I know there are a series of dissertations in the works on subjects like online community and social networks, but for the moment, academics in a position of authority (like Michael Gorman, president-elect of the ALA, for instance) get cited as the ones who would know best.

I’m not the only one to doubt the existence of “Information Overload”, but in seems that lately a lot of well-heeled folks are entering into the IO fray, preaching the inhumanity of the technological universe created for us by the inhuman, cold internet.

I’m responding to another article on this “smog of data” idea that I’ve already taken issue with. There is this strange cognitive dissonance for me in these criticisms.

I had a friend visiting me yesterday from the UK. Part of our conversation (over extremely fresh and extremely tasty beer at a local pub, may I add) revolved around some of the more lame elements we’ve come across in online communities. Among the many interesting and healthy participtants of the internet conversation, there are people in online communities who don’t want to look too long and hard at their “real lives”, and allow a digital version to take precidence. People at their lowest tend to post more often and more extensively, my friend noted. They are more deeply engaged in the online community, they care more about who’s said what, who thinks what, who is reading their posts and who is just skipping over them. They rush to defend their friends; for the healthy and unhealthy there are real emotional crimes that can be committed in text But some are linked to their keyboard in the way that many of us are linked to our families and friends. There’s something a little bit off about it, a bit lame.

Lame or not, the fact that we can have that conversation at all unveils an interesting phenomenon at work here; people with or without any technological ability can forge a real, deeply personal, deeply emotional connections to other people via technology, because they have managed to translate themselves into the language of the medium.

And by the same token, people learn about others through these kinds of interactions. The act of reading becomes the act of reading the body, hearing the voice. Face to face interaction is only meaningful to us because we have learned the language of the spoken word, the language of bodies. What happens when we swim long enough in these technologies to use them to communicate ourselves, and to accept that communication from others?

[David H. Landers’] main concern is that students have replaced face-to-face contact with instant messaging and e-mail. “They’re not going to have the same quality of interpersonal relations that will help them in a work environment,” he argues. He says colleges should encourage students to get involved in community projects where they see what life is like outside of their high-tech campus bubble.

The internet = no interpersonal relations.
The internet = not real.
The internet = a bubble.
The internet = impersonal, cold.
The internet = the absence of community.

What exactly are we constructing here, and whose reality are we not recognizing? Is it still lame to date someone at a distance, to communicate daily through webcams and voiceover IP rather than face to face? Is it lame if this is how you communicate you’re your friends and family? It happens all the time, and no matter how snooty you want to get about it, you can’t deny the firm reality of those people’s emotions. There are real connections being made over hardware and software. Those are real people skills at work, and it’s only getting easier and easier to do.

“Everything is so fast and also a little bit anonymous” with e-mail, [Arthur G. Zajonc] says. “So you have to pause to reflect on who this person is” that will be reading the message and how they might perceive it.

I realize email etiquette may still be a problem for some segments of the population just coming to the email world recently, but for those of us going on 12 or 15 years using email, and with the understanding that digital communication is just another form of language like any other, the concept of digital anonymity is laughable. Stilted email? This is the mark of a person who doesn’t yet speak the language of this technology. It’s the great big lie: on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog. The reality is that everyone knows you’re a dog, because we’ve got the webcam images, the IPs, the transcripts, and all the typos to prove it.

[Eric Bende argues that getting offline] actually yields more leisure time, and forces people to forge greater bonds with neighbors because of a greater need for cooperation (such as for the occasional barn raising).

The moment I read the term “barn raising” I immediately thought of the open source movement. Why, just today I was reading about how even Microsoft is jumping on the open source idea: invite the community in, let’s see what kind of barn we can raise. Creating solutions collaboratively is the hallmark of internet community; it’s the preferred way to work for most programmers. None of these people exist anonymously, alone out there on the unmapped internet.

I was reminded also of a recent experience I had; a written test of my programming skills. This idea completely floored me, terrified me in fact, and while terrified on one hand I was very surprised and interested in my own response to it on the other. What was I so worried about? I’m confident in my skills. I knew what they expected me to know. The terrifying part was that I had to sit alone in a room and answer technology questions on paper. This is a completely foreign idea to me. I have never in my life created anything for digital consumption by myself. Not the slightest PHP script, hardly more than a handful of pages of HTML. Not a stitch of CSS. When I am working to raise those kinds of barns, I am always side by side with the people who know better, my friends and colleagues, my internet neighbours. And when my hands grow too weak to hoist, they step in to support me. They help me to plan and to enact. When I need someone just to watch me hammer home that last nail, I even turn to my neighbours for that.

It seems to me that part of this conversation about “information overload” is a sense of the inhumanity, of detachment, of anonymity. My experience of the internet is the precise opposite. It is profoundly human, connected, and personal.

Writer Peg Kerr noted that this month marks the three year anniversary of her online journal:

I started this LiveJournal just over three years ago (April 25, 2002). Now I have friends all over the world. I’ve made 1,634 entries, 3,058 comments, and I’ve received 13,142 comments back.


You’ve all changed my life in wonderful ways. You made me laugh, gotten me furious, and forced me to think about things. You’ve opened my perspective, comforted me, and joined me in celebrating my joys. It’s been a delight to share your friendship. Thank you!

Language is not human. Like the internet, it is a human-made tool we employ to connect with each other. We learn to manage language through our social interactions. How often to talk and how often to listen; we learn when it’s time to shut our doors and get some sleep, and when we need a long walk. When people struggle with what they are calling “information overload”, it seems to me they are really struggling to make sense of this new language.

Distracted or Bored to Distraction?

Distracted or Bored to Distraction?

More word on wireless in the classroom:

Meziani welcomes the prospect of students challenging him in class with information they find online. But he doesn’t entirely trust students to stay focused. So he wants a bank of screens at his desk or lectern that would show him what is on each of his students’ computers at any moment. He doesn’t know if such a system exists, but he figures it’s possible, and absolutely necessary.
“I want technology with a safety net,” he said.

Good lord, man. This is horrifying. So some students are distracted from the lecture by the tempting presence of the internet; is it a good idea to distract the instructor from their task of delivering ideas and information to the rest of the class by allowing that instructor to spy on those bored students who opt to check their email instead of paying attention? Lose/lose situation.

If students are bringing their own laptops into class, peering at those screens technologically or otherwise is a profound breach of privacy, and is completely unethical. Shall we also install cameras over every student’s shoulder so that instructors can see exactly what sort of notes students are taking when they pull out their notebooks? After all, paper can be used for all kinds of purposes. What if students are writing notes to each other, doodling, making up a grocery list instead of writing down all those pithy ideas emanating from the front of the room?

Since when do faculty have the right to see what sorts of notes students are keeping on their lectures, anyway? Do faculty have the right to confiscate, say, a spiral notebook a student has been writing in through class? Would they grab it from the student, open it to a page they find pertinent, and distribute it to the class?

I’m quick to point out that there are serious issues around adding wireless to the classroom, don’t get me wrong. I know very well that students can easily invite their friends (or parents) to listen in on a lecture through internet telephony, they can record a lecture (or simply an offhand comment) directly to mp3 and make it available online, they can surreptitiously use the university’s virtual reference system to get stellar answers to a question you pose, and so forth. With the constant improvement of bandwidth, client applications and web-based services, these intrusions into the class are only going to become more and more possible. But spying on screens isn’t the answer. These aren’t necessarily things you would even be able to witness happening if you’re haphazardly monitoring a bank of screens.

Universities need clearer classroom policies to reflect the reality of the wireless classroom. There should be firm guidelines in the syllabus about wireless use, about what kinds of activities requires permission and what is okay. (Note: my version of MS word allows me to record snippets of conversation. Would you need to ban Word, or require permission for students to use it?) Instructors need to be knowledgeable about what software can do and what students have access to. How private is the classroom? Can students invite a friend to listen in from a distance if the topic is of particular interest?Would you welcome input from an interested party outside your classroom? What kind of information-keeping is okay to leave those walls? Students can talk about what goes on in your classroom; can they record it and play it back for others? These things are all possible; where do they stop being useful or desireable? I feel strongly about these issues and I would cheer loudly to see them addressed head on.

But alongside these kinds of policies and discussions, instructors need to think about how to keep student attention rather than just trying to remove or lessen distractions like the internet. Wireless access has introduced a new twist to the lecture; the instructor is not the only thing going on in the room anymore. Bored students have other compelling outlets to keep themselves alert.

From the article:

As the class passes the one-hour mark, distraction spreads like a virus and the screens of laptops increasingly betray their owners’ inattention.

So after an hour, students find it hard to pay attention, and seek out additional stimulus. A good answer to this problem is one many of my former professors have adopted; the multiple-break lecture. In Canada, most classes are three hours long. A thoughtful instructor, worried about attention spans, provides two 10-15 minute breaks within those three hours, one break every 45 minutes or so. This way students can get up, chat, get a drink, go to the bathroom, and stretch their legs. Right when the attention span starts to go they get to take a break.

“Sometimes, you end up paying attention,” said Maria Iossa, a junior at MSU. “But sometimes, if it’s just too boring, you say, ‘I’m going to go on[line].”

Is a boring lecture something we can blame on technology? Does taking wireless out of the classroom make a lecture less boring? Would instructors rather have students staring blankly out windows, doodling in their margins, or checking their email? Still a lose/lose situation, isn’t it.

“Basically, it keeps me from falling asleep,” said Petersen, who is in her third and final year, and says her grade-point average is a respectable 3.3.

So here we see that even good students are using wireless access as a distraction, to keep themselves sitting up in classes. Does this wireless experiment actually show us anything new, or is it just highlighting a problem that’s been there all along? Do we need to reconsider the presence of wireless in the classroom, or reconsider the structure of the lecture format? What would you rather see; distracted or bored to distraction? Surely there is a better way.

The Smog of Data

The Smog of Data

I’ve been a bit baffled by some articles I’ve seen lately about this concept of information overload. Like this one, The Smog of Data, from the Chronicle of Higher Education. The general premise of the article is that because we have things like email and IM, the internet, the “library without walls” if you will, we are “losing the time and ability for contemplative thought”. If contemplative thought is the cornerstone of academics, and if current technology challenges our ability to engage in contemplative thought, then unplugging is critical for academics. Right?

I find this argument specious. If you let an academic loose in the Library of Congress, couldn’t she make the same argument? She was so lost in the miles of information spread out around her that she lost the ability to think contemplatively. There was simply too much information around her. She was drawn to leafing through completely irrelevant books and managed to completely avoid the ones that would further her career. How can you blame her? The books were right there.

People blame technology for the strangest things. Sure, if you want to be distracted from something, technology is a great way to be distracted. You can launch your IM program (or three or four, if you’re like me) and chat with your friends instead of thinking deep thoughts. You can open up your browser and check out baseball scores instead of reading a good book. You can post to message boards about some inane topic, download bit torrents of your favourite tv show, check out the newspaper headlines. You can jump to attention the moment you hear that friendly sound that means you have new email. Set your cellphone to ring and vibrate so you’ll know the moment anyone wants to talk to you. You can completely detach yourself from the process of higher thinking by focusing on the technology around you.

Who’s at fault here, technology, or you?

The last time I wanted to get completely detached from higher thinking, I got myself a puppy. Up at dawn for walks, up and down the stairs every couple of hours to encourage house training, playing with toys, walks at lunch, dinner, and in the evening. I read about dogs, thought about dogs, tried my hand at training; I shopped for doggy things. I met all the other people with dogs, made playdates, talked about dogs. Should I blame my dog for my vacation from higher thinking?

Technology doesn’t prevent us from doing anything. If we feel pressure to respond to email or to be on IM or to keep track of every minute change in the news or in our professions, that’s a sociological issue, not a technological issue. Why are we feeling that pressure? Is this the fault of the unrealistic expectations of the people around us? Are these are our own expectations of ourselves? Does playing with email and IM make us feel that we’re doing something useful when we’re actually not? Isn’t this often just a matter of being lazy and wanting to blame something other than themselves for our lack of advancement?

I’m critical of this line of thinking because I know that technology has the capacity foster contemplative thought more often than it restricts it. Take, for instance, this weblog. Because I keep this journal I am constantly looking for something to prod me into deeper contemplative thought. I rarely read anything without the idea that I may find something in it that I want to write about it. I read, I think, I consider, and then I write. In the writing I often circle around my own ideas, sometimes feeling that I came to the right conclusion, and sometimes feeling that I found the hole in the argument that convinces me otherwise. With this weblog I have a venue to express the ideas I encounter and the thoughts I have about them. Having that venue encourages me to create those thoughts in the first place. Being connected trains my brain to have something to add to the conversation.

So people feel distracted by email. In my experience, most people understand that you can’t expect someone to answer an email immediately. You have no idea what someone’s day is like; possibly they’re in meetings today, or have the day off, or are sick. I don’t know many people who wait around their inbox for an immediate response from someone to email they’ve just sent. Email is one of the least immediate technological media we have.

IM gets the finger next. Instant messaging has got to be the culprit; how can anyone be contemplative with an IM program open and running? With people’s chat windows popping up every few minutes asking questions? My goodness, our lives are so interrupted, how can we get any good thinking done?

Social constructivism 101: knowledge is best built in groups. How is it that academics can have a conversation about contemplative thought, about higher learning, without interrogating what they imagine that thinking has to look like? Since when does the best thinking happen when you’re alone?

We like this poetic image of the bearded, pipe-smoking gentleman in his hunting clothes wandering on the moor, basking in the damp countryside and thinking deep thoughts, but is this entirely realistic? Why is scholarly process envisioned this way?

What instant messaging has the capacity to provide is an instant seminar; when I really want to hash out an idea, I bounce it off my fellow techno-inspired academics. What idea is not the better one for having been hammered out between two (or more) intelligent people? Why is the process of communicating ideas so entirely separate from the process of generating them?

In sum: if you find you are too distracted by media to get any thinking done, unplug yourself and stop blaming technology for your inactivity. You always have that option. But please don’t presume that those of us who prefer to remain plugged in are somehow less capable of contemplation than you are. Some of us are built by the sum of our communications, pushed to further and deeper thought by interaction with others.

The “smog of data” for some is the sweet smell of inspiration to others.

The Read/Write Classroom

The Read/Write Classroom

There is so much going on in the blogosphere right now I barely know where to begin. The inspiration of the day comes from Ann Althouse, law school professor in Madison, Wisconsin.

We got going on the subject of how maybe we should outright encourage the students to IM, including sending tips and cues to a student who is engaged in Socratic dialogue with the lawprof. What’s wrong with students pooling their expertise on the fly? The student doing the speaking is not rendered passive. He or she will still have to read the messages quickly and integrate them with existing knowledge. It could be lively and energizing. The students who aren’t chosen to speak will have some way to express themselves, which might help them listen to the student who is speaking, and a spirit of community and collaboration might take hold. Am I wrong?

One of the elements of instructional technology that has intrigued and baffled me over the last two years is the fairly thoughtless inplementation of wifi into classrooms I’ve seen around me. I say thoughtless because in my experience wireless access is entering classrooms without discussion with instructors, and most instructors I’ve encountered have not considered how wireless internet access is impacting the walls of the classroom and their authority and autonomy as the experts in the room. We wanted to build a library without walls; did instructors and administrators consider what would happen when that library turned out to extend inside the walls of classroom?

It may sound as if I think this is a bad thing; that’s not true. I think it’s a wonderful thing, a revolutionary thing. Every student in class (since more and more of them are turning up with wireless-enabled laptops) will soon be sitting in a sea of information, even while listening to a well-planned lecture. They have the OED, in all it’s 60-odd volumes, at their fingertips. They can peruse the wikipedia to get a definition of a term you are bandying around in class. They can scan over electronic resources and look up journal articles as you cite them. You can ask the class a question and get back an answer constructed by a reference librarian on the other side of the country, accessed through a well-publicized virtual reference service. And finally, as Ann Althouse points out, you can grill one particular student and end up getting an answer that was collaboratively constructed by all the students in class, linked through a IM system. The world is no longer exactly as it appears, if it ever was.

I’m excited to read about instructors taking note that IM exists and that students are using it; I’m even more excited that instructors are thinking about finding ways to use it to educational advantage. Technology like this is changing the shape of the classroom. Where students have been largely restricted in their information-gathering and gossiping during class time, technology is breaking down all the barriers, there is virtually nothing students can’t do while sitting in class. This isn’t a bad thing.

With access to the internet in all its forms, students are no longer passive receptacles in class, completely at the mercy of the expert at the front of the room. They have the capcity to be participants. Whether they are going to be participants in a secret place of their own making or of one the instructor is trying to construct is going to depend on the how this reality has worked through the brain of the instructor.

The language around the internet has lately shifted from terms like “information highway” to titles like “the participation age” and “the read/write web”. The access students have when we put wifi into classrooms means that students have the power to contribute in ways that were impossible before. If the internet is in fact a library without walls, it’s not just the stacks, much as the library itself is not just stacks. It’s the reference staff, the subject librarians available to discuss your assignment. It’s your fellow students trying to accomplish the same thing you are. It’s the group work areas and big tables where you can sit down with your friends and hash out the project, the corridors where you can sit and chat on your cell phone. It’s the bathroom walls covered with graffiti and the scrap paper where you can jot down an idea. The internet is no longer a read-only space. It’s also a playground, a place for experimentation, a way to communicate. It’s noun, adjective, and verb.

And with the introduction of the internet to the classroom proper, students are no longer in a wholly passive position in the classroom either. This is the read/write classroom, too. With access to so much information, and to so many people, and to each other, students can now speak up with some authority. Instructors can be fact-checked on the fly. Information can come spilling out of the students in ways that would have relied on unlikely preparation in a non-wireless environment. Students can conduct mini-interviews with anyone in the world to report something interesting and new to their classmates. There are two ways to cope with this radical change; shut it down, or anticipate and use it. Force the laptops to close, or call on students to fact-check and report to the class. Put students back in a passive receptacle mode, or allow them to participate in the information delivery that occurs inside the classroom. Feel intimidated, or allow students to feel empowered.

RSS as Rorshach test

RSS as Rorshach test

I was so excited by the title of an article I saw in my RSS feed reader, provided by The Kept Up Librarian: “Is it time to start sharing the course management system?”

Before I clicked on the link I had the whole article mapped out in my head; what if other players in the university system were invited into the classroom via course management software? Of course I immediately thought of subject librarians; how amazing would it be if, for instance, an instructor’s students are required to blog about their readings before each class, and the subject librarian were given access to scan over student thoughts and add comments where they feel they’re required? Suggesting sources, reminding students about special collections, helping to answer reference-type questions that arise. With an emphasis on encouraging information literacy, a subject librarian could be using that access to prompt students to question the sources they’re encountering. And what about colleagues, other faculty members? What if the assigned reading were written by someone who was invited in to look at and comment on student responses?

Back in 2002 I delivered a guest lecture in an environmental science class instructed by my good friend Jason Nolan at the University of Toronto. It was a very enjoyable talk (for me, at least). The students were attentive and had lots of questions. But what was actually quite wonderful was the chance I had after the class period to continue my communication with the students and answer questions that came up after we had all gone home; I was invited to follow the class blogs and comment on the student’s feedback about the lecture in the days that followed. There were some lingering questions that I was able to answer and the feedback was quite useful and helpful to me. The dialogue between me as a guest lecturer and the students was vibrant in class and out.

So when I saw that title, I got to thinking about courseware sharing, about inviting people into the classroom in all kinds of interesting synchronous and asynchronous ways. The range of useful collaboration could be huge. Other faculty members, librarians, TAs, advanced graduate students with a particular interest in the subject at hand, scholars at other universities, community members who are putting classroom theories into practice; the possibilities are endless.

So I was so excited to read this article.

And it turns out not to be about this at all. It’s really talking about how a courseware system (probably WebCT) could be used in staff development. And that’s true, don’t get me wrong, I think that’s a good point. There are lots of things that could be used in staff development, certainly. But gosh. I was sort of hoping for something else.

RSS Headlines: a Rorshach test for the overly-enthusiastic.

Information Literacy and the Internet

Information Literacy and the Internet

Posted on an online discussion board frequented by Grinnell students in Iowa [from Inside Higher Ed via The Kept Up Librarian]:

Please come back to school armed with whatever lethal weapon you have access too. If we can’t depend upon the administration to protect the bubble we were promised and that they are selling us for 34,000 goddamn dollars a year, then we will have to take matters in our own hands. That means violence and bloodshed. That means warfare. That means KILL THE MOTHERFUCKING POLICE THAT YOU SEE ON CAMPUS AND KILL THE MOTHERFUCKING NARCS WHO ARE GETTING YOUR FRIENDS ARRESTED. RUBY RIDGE MOTHER FUCKERS. LET THE STREETS RUN RED.

The student who posted this is, by all accounts, a mild-mannered, thoughtful and intelligent young man who wrote this odd comment as part of a hail of complaints posted on the board (called “Plans”) about a string of recent drug arrests on campus. The comments that accompany the article are just as interesting as the incident itself.

I, like many other students, saw the humor in Paul’s posting on Plans. Out of context the posting certainly seems violent, but the tongue in cheek reference to the proverbial “Grinnell bubble” and obviously ironic comparisons to Ruby Ridge signal satire. It is distressing that we are so fearful of violence and “terrorism” that Paul’s comments would be treated as actual specific threats without any investigation into Paul’s character or whether he was actually stockpiling weapons.


Posting this on Plans, I’m sure Paul did not intend people who weren’t familiar with him (or his plan, which always had something hilariously ironic on it) to read it.

In the end, this isn’t a story about justice or hyper-sensitivity or Bush’s America. This is a story about information literacy and the lack of it. It reminds me of the many incidents I encountered and tried my best to deal with as a teaching assistant in a virtual environment. It reminds me of the many incidents I encountered as a participant in an online writing community. This is something that happens all the time, and each time it does everyone puts up white flags, is loudly shocked and outraged that anyone could misread or misinterpret the comment(s), and clings to some mythical idea about the nature of free speech. They point out the blemish-free existence of the speaker. They claim that there has been a misunderstanding. He might have said it, but he didn’t mean it like that. Geez, lighten up, would you?

At the centre of all of these incidents is a simple lack of information literacy. While you are inside an online community, you are no longer sitting in your living room in your pajamas, harmlessly punching into your keyboard. You are in a public space, and what you say and do has an impact on the (real flesh and blood) people around you. You do not know all the people who are going to read your comment, even when you imagine you do, since everyone goes to the same school as you. Do you really know everyone who logs into that message board? Do they really all know you personally, do they know you well enough to know that you don’t really intend to incite violence and mayhem on campus when you say these terrible things? While you certainly have the right to say you what you like, you have to be responsible about how your words are going to impact the people around you. You have to understand the nature of the space you’re occupying when you log into an online community.

For too long the internet has been understood as a solitary experience. What you act out in the privacy of your own home, for the benefit of your friends, is surely your own business. But the internet is not private. The internet is not your home, and your audience is not only your friends. Not everyone can see the humour or the irony in a comment like the one made by this unfortunate Grinnell student. I’m not at all surprised that it escalated and became a matter for the police.

Should they have arrested him? I don’t know. While the students are decrying the loss of freedom in Bush’s America (a valid complaint), this is more a testament to the confusion of students about the online spaces they frequent. It’s not okay to be threatening online. It’s not okay to advocate violence. You’re not sitting around having beers with your buddies, where everything will come out in the wash. You’re sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of a traffic jam with a loud speaker. Would you still loose that comment?

Sometimes Paper Trumps the Screen

Sometimes Paper Trumps the Screen

I’ve been reading a lot about ebooks lately. In Japan, they read them on their cellphones. Some folks here on this continent feel that ebooks are the natural replacement for paper books: “Libraries should be looking ahead now and take an e-book future for granted.” [<a href="Teleread] Is the ebook inevitable? Is it desirable?

There are two conversations going on in this ebook debate, and I think they need to be separated. First, we have the academic monograph; this is the sort of thing Google is going to end up digitizing. Would it be useful to have these resources keyword-searchable at our fingertips? While Michael Gorman has expressed his unhappiness at the idea, I think opening up academic monographs to searches deeper than the title page and table of contents is a good thing. I keep thinking of all those collections of papers I kept finding in my Ph.D days whose subject headings didn’t come close to covering the depth and breadth of information held within; digitizing that work can open it up not so much to lazy students who only want to strip a sentence or two out of it, but to earnest and diligent students and scholars who don’t have an expert on hand to direct them to the best in a field, to those hidden treasures nestled in a collection of related by entirely different works. Digitizing academic monographs can help us move beyond the limitations of a tight controlled vocabulary and sometimes awkward categorization. It can make up for the difficulty involved in summarizing a volume of essays in a few short terms. It will assist scholars in reaching out past the boundaries of their own disciplines by linking all academic sources that cite certain names, terms, phrases or ideas; academics are on one hand notoriously boxed into their own literature and their own fields, but are also the first to praise the idea of interdisciplinary work. Disposing of the vendor-imposed divisions between one variety of journal and another, freeing up information for universal searching of academic monographs, allows scholars to independently discover far more resources than they could previously. So I’m not at all opposed to digitizing the academic monograph.

At the same time, I strongly doubt it will disappear from the shelves. It’s wonderful to be able to keyword search through a volume for that phrase you quoted in your dissertation but lost the citation for, but I’m not sure I’d want to read Domination and the Arts of Resistance on my screen. And I’m probably one of the few people you might manage to convince to do so. Much of the time, people are looking for a specific sort of book when they come into the library; the OPAC works very well when you know just what you’re looking for. Say you’re looking for a history book on Catherine de Medici. You search the OPAC, you find Catherine de Medici: A History. You need to read it because you’re writing a paper on her, your professor wrote this book, and you expect to read through most of it. It’s 350 pages long. What would you rather do; download a PDF file of the book, or take the battered library copy and start flipping through it on the bus on the way home?

In some ways I’m still pretty old school. When I’m doing hardcore research I bring those tiny little fat notebooks with me. I keep one open and a pen in hand while I read. I write down everything I think is interesting and every idea I have while I read, with page numbers in the margin. I have a box full of pastel-coloured post-it notes, and I use them to take notes in library books. I write down lines that are important, arguments I’m having with the author, or points that spin off my head while I’m reading. Sometimes I summarize the chapter at the end, linking two post-it notes together. I know many library staff would cringe at my use of post-it notes in books, but I take them all out when I’m done (with page numbers added), and paste them into my notes for posterity. And I’ve never lifted any text off with my gentle adhesive, I promise.

What would make the PDF version of Catherine de Medici: A History more attractive to me: the ability to a) highlight lines or paragraphs, b) “dog ear” particular pages, c) add notes and marginalia to my heart’s content. Essentially, I want to be able to write all over that file in a way that’s difficult with a book. I have little doubt that this will come sooner rather than later, and in that case, I may well prefer the PDF version.

But I don’t need to parse every book I read quite so carefully. Sometimes I just need a page or two of good notes. Sometimes that reading is mostly background, to help me find my thesis and fill out the gaps. I don’t necessarily have to be able to recite chapter and verse. Sometimes I’m just going to sit in the corner and flip through the book for an hour and consider it read. Paper is a very good technology in those respects. In my graduate school days 9 times out of 10 I didn’t even bother to photocopy the class readings. Why photocopy when I can take my 2 hours of reserve time to actually read and digest the content? You have no idea how much money I’ve saved by reading and taking notes rather than making myself a copy.

So I don’t personally see digitization of monographs as a huge threat to the paper monograph. I think we still need them; the digitization might just help us to realize the book is there.

The second half of the ebook conversation is a public library issue. Is the ebook going to overtake the printed book for pleasure reading? Some say yes. However, paperback technology is pretty hard to beat. With a book, I can:

a) drop it in the bathtub and not either kill myself accidentally or ruin it,
b) take it to the beach and not worry about the detrimental effects of sand, salt, sun, children’s feet, or water,
c) not having the screen flickering and dying on me, the hard drive taking a nose dive, or other such technical glitch when I get to a particularly exciting part,
d) take it on the subway and not worry much if I forget and leave it there,
e) take it on a long flight and not worry about running out of battery power,
f) not find myself at a loss if I forget to plug the thing in one night, leaving me without it for a few hours in the morning (I do this with my ipod ALL THE TIME),
g) hold on to it, read it, and flip the pages with one hand,
h) leave it on a table in a restaurant or other public place, go to the bathroom, and return to find it still there,
i) take it camping and not worry about it breaking or running out of power,
j) display it proudly on my bookshelf and brush its spine with my fingers,
k) lend it to friends and family, regardless of their operating system of choice or complete lack thereof (the case of everyone in my family),
l) throw it angrily across the room when it ends in a way I don’t like (not that I’ve ever done this),
m) inscribe it lovingly to a friend and give it as a gift.

And this is not to say that I have no knowledge of the screen readers. I am in fact one myself when it comes to fiction that is nowhere but on the net. In fact, back in the day I wrote fiction for the web myself, upwards for 400,000 words of it (at least). And I know that people will read novel-length fiction on their screens; I’ve got the email to prove it. Very often people will read 100,000 words or more on their screens in a single night. But in the end, we all still prefer our paper books. We like the technical qualities they have, and just because the technology is old doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant.

The right technology for the right moment, I say. Sometimes, paper trumps the screen.

From NO! to YES!: The Slow Implementation of Interactive Web Applications

From NO! to YES!: The Slow Implementation of Interactive Web Applications

Via Weblogg-ed News: A high school Principal in Vermont has blogging sites banned from school computers, because blogging is not an educational use of computers. Not only is he banning the use of the software in the schools; he’s encouraging parents to check browser histories and caches to make sure kids aren’t blogging from home, either.

There are, of course, lots of words I could write in outrage about an educator declaring extracurricular writing, reading, and HTML coding not educational, particularly when those activities are being undertaken by those in that difficult-to-motivate 14-18 year old range, but most of those words are self-evident. For the moment, what interests me more is the trend this ban on blogs illustrates.

One of the librarians I worked with last summer gave me a snippet of insight into the history of technology and its integration while we were sitting behind the reference desk, surveying the 200+ computer terminals splayed out in front of us.

“When we first brought these in,” he said, “we debated about whether or not to allow students to access email from them.”

No access to email from the library computers! Can you imagine? What this conversation helped me see was that this is the path of all interactive web media. Initially email was not really understood as an aid to education; it was just that fancy thing students had been using to gossip with each other. The distinction between things that are fun and things that are useful was almost so complete that email nearly got squeezed out that library. If there’s a possibility of using an application for something other than a strictly sober purpose, off with its head!

Of course now I don’t think anyone would question the validity of email-checking to the academic enterprise. Email is a student’s connection to classmates, instructors, TAs, and very often to the university administration as well. It is a collaborative communication tool that has become essential. Email is a portal to listservs and search results; it’s the destination for requested PDF files and OPAC-generated information. But its becoming clear to me that when new technologies and web applications get into the public consciousness, the first reaction of authority is to write them off as frivolous nonsense that will only taking away from good behaviour, good learning, and good values rather than representing a possible new direction.

At the moment the battle about to be fought is the case for instant messaging. I’ve seen many university terminals with big warning signs above them that say “If you download MSN or AIM to this terminal, you are a vandal and we will lop off your hands.” Or something to that effect, I may be paraphrasing slightly. There is always the fear of viruses on a network, after all. But the underlying message is often that instant messaging is for giggly preteens, it’s general use is for idle chatter in l33t (netspeak), and that sort of silliness will simply not be tolerated in an academic setting. It’s not educational. Regardless of the fact that instant messaging is one of the best collaborative tools around. Regardless of the fact that virtual reference is merely a web version of an MSN or AIM client (but one that costs the library a yearly sum). My suspicion is that at some point in the near future we will see regular school-sanctioned IM clients installed on all university terminals, and an IM handle issued to every student, faculty, and staff member. There will be a time (soon) when these things are simply taken for granted, like email.

I once worked summers for a woman who told me that her first reaction to any new idea was to say no. And it was a definitive no, with a full argument defending it and even an angry undertone to top the whole thing off. I discovered this the hard way when she confronted me about mistakes I had made. I told her some of the problems with the job I had, why those of us in that position felt isolated and abandoned, why our default reaction was to try blunder through by ourselves instead of reaching out and getting help. It came out of a place of panic, embarrassment about my own mistakes; feeling all was lost anyway, I even detailed what relatively simple organizational changes could be introduced to make my job better and us all less likely to make the sorts of mistakes I made. I was sixteen years old at the time. My boss got angier and angier as I spoke, and finally said, “that’s never going to happen.” I thought my summer job was lost. But the next summer she not only hired me back; she implemented all my ideas. “I had to think about it for a while,” she told me. “But you were right.” That was her management style: explosive no, followed by contrite implementation. I worked there for seven more years.

I feel like this is what keeps happening with collaborative technologies. The first blush response of many people in positions of authority is to see them as silly or frivolous and to say no to them. They put up barriers and try to write them off, describe them in derogative terms, frame them as potentially dangerous or distracting.

Banning blogging at this point in time looks more ridiculous than threatening, however. Blogging is not secretive, is it is not quiet banging away on a keyboard and compromising yourself in some scary way. Blogging is generally public, visible to all including teachers and parents. Blogging writing, reading, paying attention. It is communicating with friends and with the world. Perhaps the vehement “NO” is just a prelude to the joyful “YES” we can anticipate from the educational world. With some strong, visionary leadership, we can hope for it.



I am very proud of me. Ridiculously proud. I have just returned from Vancouver, where I did something I have never done before. I wandered around aimlessly in Vancouver and did not get lost. I repeat, I did not get lost. So here’s what I did. Bear with me, because my pride is very very great.

Okay, so I left my friend Xandria’s place, where I was staying in vancouver, and picked a direction. I’ve never walked much further east than I am, and I drove in with my brother-in-law from the west, so I decided to walk west. I knew there were some streets there. Looked to me from the car that there might be something happening that way. And if all else failed I knew Stanley Park was that way because we drove through it. So off I went.

I remembered my friend Xandria telling me to stay away from a street called ‘East Hastings’, but on the map it looked big and important, so I thought if I walked along it I will get somewhere, well, big and important. So I gravitated that way. I walked and walked and walked. It started to rain. What a shock. Not a lot of rain, just a little. I was wearing jeans and a hoodie, I had no umbrella. Because I am stupid and from Ontario. They put something in the water there that makes us all really dense and slow.

So I walked and walked and I realized that I was not in the best end of town. I was suddenly a bit worried that possibly I was in the industrial end and walking further and further into the industrial end, but I was enjoying the walk so I didn’t so much care. Hey, I could always just turn around and walk back, right? I left my trail of bread crumbs.

Finally I realized that I was getting rather damp by that point, because it was really seriously raining. So I popped into a shop that claimed to sell lots of things determined buy an umbrella. The shop was actually a chinese medicine shop, which was cool. Racks on the walls filled with dried…things. I have studied Chinese medicine a few times during my master’s degree and have a lot of respect for it, so I was hip to all that. I could even walk into the place, though; there was stuff piled everywhere and an entire family standing in the aisle in front of me. I looked around for something that might look like an umbrella.

A tiny Chinese woman looked up at me and said, “Can I help you?” The what are you doing here, big white woman? is not said but is naturally implied, in the nicest possible way.

“Do you have umbrellas?” I asked.

“Umbrellas! Yes!” Everyone tittered. She pointed behind me to a small holder with about eight umbrellas in it. I pulled one out and notice that it is entirely covered with dust. Hey, no problem.

“Nine nine,” the woman said.

“Ninety nine cents,” another woman said.

“Ninety nine dollars,” another woman corrected.

“Nine ninety,” the first woman said. I gave her a ten dollar bill. She gave me my dime and I go out into the rain with my very very dusty black umbrella. Normally I would not buy things in black, but who was I to be picky at that point, it was pissing like an eight year old halfway through Dances with Wolves. My umbrella has a tag on it that tells me it was made in Shanghai.

I kept walking. I had absolutely no clue where I was going. I passed by all kinds of tasty things; a big line up next to a detox centre which I presume is for methadone; a 10:30am crowd having a nice mid-morning weed break. I passed by a few rundown hotels advertising cheap rates and good security. I still had no clue if I was walking into or out of downtown Vancouver, but my ever-optimistic presumption was that there is something interesting on the other side of this.

Finally I turned left and walk up a street. This looks more or less the same, but slightly less gritty. I found a diner advertizing breakfast (always a good way to flag me down) and dropped in for a bite. I was just under the wire for the 11am cut off. I read my book while I ate. All memory is revisionist, all stories are apocryphal, all photographs hang suspended in the present tense. Diane Schoemperlen is a genius. As I was reading I noticed that the buses passing me said ‘downtown’ on them, and went a block south and then turned right. I decided to follow them and hope I end up somewhere interesting. I was already proud of myself; I seemed to be heading in the right direction and I could still concievably make it back to Xan’s place without having to call for directions. Off I went.

The first thing I saw is that I had hit Granville street. This is the only street in Vancouver I have ever actually heard of, so I was ridiculously pleased. I stop[ed in at a drug store and get some vanilla-flavoured lip gloss and more sparkly lip gloss, since my other sparkly lip gloss is in the care of my friend Cassie in New York City. I saw a girl with a starbucks cup and resisted asking her where the nearest starbucks was. I walked out the door and noticed that there was a starbucks next to the drug store. Also across the street from the drug store. I got a coffee and sat down to read more.

A nice man sat behind me and we talk about the weather.

“Do you think it will clear up?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Doesn’t look like it.”

“I’m not from around here,” I said.

“Oh, where are you from, the Okanagan?” I have no idea why he thought I look like I might be from the Okanagan. I wonder if it’s my raspberry deodorant making people think I smell fresh and fruity.

“No, Toronto.”

“Oh! Really not from around here.” He then told me all about his aunt from Willowdale and how his parents are from Barrie. I responded in kind and tell him that my parents are from Vancouver Island, and we discussed the strange provincal zoning laws. Also the politics, and the fact that British Columbia is constantly in a state of pre-election; a state that only occurs in Ontario prior to an election, while the people of British Columbia are constantly poised to overthrow their own government. He also told me it’s best to walk northward toward the waterfront rather than southward.

“It’s dumpy down there,” he says. I told him which way I walked in. He said that was pretty dumpy too. Nice man.

I wandered out again and found a book store to fuss around in. Very quickly I find the Canadian literature wall and about 15 books I want really really badly. I wanted Carol Shield’s Unless, but it’s still in hardback. I want Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen and a new copy of Margaret Atwood’s Good Bones, but I settle for Alice Munro’s Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage.

I called Xan. I told her where I was and how I got there. She is terrified and appalled. “You walked through the worst neighbourhood in Vancouver,” she said. “They kill people here, you know. They send you to the pig farm.” I am doubly pleased with myself. “I can’t believe I didn’t give you my ‘where not to go in Vancouver’ lecture”, she says. “I give everyone that lecture.” I realized she’s worried because she has seen me in my flannel nightie and realizes that I have an innate innocence like a five year old girl. She told me how to take the bus home and forbids me to walk back. I was not too tempted to disobey her, because it was raining even harder by then.

I found a bus stop as directed and sat down to wait.

“Bus fare is two dollars, right?” I asked the guy next to me.

“Depends on which zone you’re going to,” he said.

“Zone?” I asked, confused. A girl across from us giggled.

“Oh, you’re not from here, are you,” she said.

“No, not really. I’m from Ontario.”

“Ah…well, at least there’s no snow here,” she said. I shake my head and laugh. They tell me how to take the bus.

I almost made it home without getting lost or confused, but I overshot by a block and had to circle back to get to Xan’s place. But I think overall I did pretty damn well.

Columbia Lost

Columbia Lost

Destroyed on landing. It took a bit for them to admit it, but yes. destroyed. Lost. Gone. 17 years to the week from the Challenger explosion. Oh the memories. And with all that drama they created about putting an Israeli on board. Marc Garneau is talking live right now, hoping that someone is still alive. I’m even sure how that’s possible.

How’s this for disturbing: the Washington Post prewrote an article about the smooth landing :Columbia Streaks Toward Florida Landing.

Much thanks to again.

Can People Really Change?

Can People Really Change?

Well, of course they can. But I mean, will they? For instance: can an abusive relationship ever stop being abusive and become healthy? On Maury Povitch, they seem to think so. They suggest these women leave their horribly abusive men, but rather than just helping the women leave they try to reform the men.

I mean, are they not going to go home all pumped to be good, but then revert back to their old habits? Who is this good for? Is it a good idea to give these abused women the hope they really don’t need that these men are suddenly going to turn into prince charmings when we all know they’re very very unlikely? Wouldn’t it be best to just pull off that bandaid and mourn?

I can’t even imagine how it would work if anything of them actually reformed. I mean, they barely know each other as healthy people. These relationships didn’t even seem healthy from the start. I know how tough break ups are, but I’m not sure what Maury Povitich is doing.

Well, That’s Maury Povitch for you.