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The Technology Trifecta

The Technology Trifecta

I work with the soft side of technology. I don’t write code (I only have the tiniest bit of coding ability, and I haven’t used it in years), I don’t do hardware. I don’t monitor servers. The soft side of technology is all about working with the people trying to use it, and helping them to understand it. I’ve come to believe that there are three key things required to help other people use technology effectively. I’ve come to this realization as part of the rethink and reworking of our faculty training program this year, and it’s forced me to think about the whole experience from another angle.

Granted, my background in theological studies and my penchant for writing fiction in my spare time probably play a role in my perspective on this, but I’m going to run with it.

The (soft side) Technology Trifecta

1. A Good Metaphor


All technology requires a good metaphor, something people can seize onto. The wrong metaphor can leave a technology languishing for ages. Metaphor is how the brain learns what to do with a thing. When they called it “email” (a stroke of genius) everyone knew what they could do with this network messaging system: send and receive, store, forward, add attachments. That metaphor is what, I believe, makes email the most obvious and easiest-to-learn application we’ve got. Blogs had a good one with old school journaling and diaries (and explains why the first run of blogs were all intensely personal). Without decent metaphors, our patrons will struggle with the web. A good metaphor might take years to think up, and we might only come up with one really good metaphor in our lifetimes, but I think coming up with them is a worthy pursuit.

2. Faith

Faith Street

I had the experience recently of having to investigate something pretty dire, and then relay my findings back to a distressed and disconcerted instructor. He had to take my word for it that the thing he was afraid had happened had not in fact happened. I had to reassure him that he could still trust the system. If you don’t have faith in the system you’re using, if you think it’s possible that, without your knowledge or understanding, it’s revealing secrets or displaying your content to the world without your permission, your willingness to be creative with it will rapidly vanish.

There’s a difference, however, between selling someone a system and helping them to have faith in it. You don’t have to adore a bit of software in order to have faith in it. You need to know that when you trust it with information it will do what you expect it to with that information. Setting those expectations appropriately helps people develop faith in a system. I see my role not as making you love the institutional system, but to have faith in it.

The best gift I could receive in this situation is to have the instructor believe me when I explain what’s happened. I want him to have faith in me, too. (He did.)

3. A Mac Friend

Geek Squad to the Rescue

This one takes a bit of explaining. Back in the 90s when I first started using macs, I wasn’t comfortable making that decision on my own. Everyone I knew was a PC user: what if I ran into a problem? There were no mac stores then. I would have been on my own. I might not have stayed a mac user if it had not been for the one guy I knew who used macs. I had my mac friend, and I knew he could help me with the things I didn’t understand. Knowing I had a mac friend meant I could try things and feel comfortable knowing there was someone I could turn to.

In a meeting several months ago, a retiring librarian told me she wanted to switch to a mac but wasn’t sure she knew what she was doing. I said to her, “It’s okay. I’ll be your mac friend.” That was when I realized that I didn’t need a mac friend anymore. But I had become one for other people.

Of course, this is the genius of the apple genius bar: they sell mac friends.

I think every technology needs a mac friend, and that’s how I’m currently framing faculty technology support. They may not need you to walk them through every “click here” and array of options. They may just need your help to get them started, and your reassurance that you are there for them when they hit a wall. They have a mac friend; they can try things and not be afraid of having to dig themselves back out on their own. It’s like a safety net; personal, one-on-one, on call reassurance.

We’ve spent years focusing on the content of training when it comes to technology, not realizing that the most important thing we were doing while giving that training was just demonstrating that we know what we’re doing and we’re here to help.

So that’s what I’m focusing on now. I know what I’m doing, you can trust me. I’m here to help you, not just now, but all year long. See this thing? It thinks its an archive. Go play with it. If you run into trouble, I’m always here to help.

The Value in Replicas

The Value in Replicas

Jeremy and I have a recurring argument about replica builds. Well, it’s not an argument so much; mostly I agree with him. He does an excellent presentation describing his point that’s very convincing. There are a lot of replica builds in Second Life. And it’s not really a good thing.

By replicas I mean exact reproductions of real-world locations in Second Life. Spending significant money and time to reproduce, say, your campus down to the most minute detail. Jeremy’s argument is that the purpose behind these builds is primarily branding, and he questions the point of it. You branded a piece of Second Life by building your campus on it, but the campus in world is empty. So what was the point? He anticipates that most of these virtual campuses will start shutting down one by one as they fail to produce any recruitment or interest in the real life institution.

I agree with him, easily, that building a replica of your campus for the purposes of branding is a fairly pointless idea. The population of Second Life is not that big, given that it’s a global system. They claim to have over 14 million residents (at present), but only roughly 500K have logged in in the last 7 days, and to be honest I’ve rarely seen more than 60K on at any given time. Sure, by any human standards that’s a lot of people, but compare that to facebook: 90 million active users. Second Life is a small fish in a big internet; it’s filled with some tourists, some business people, some mavens who love building and coding, and a whole bunch of people who just like hanging out. The chances of any university administration having even a tiny minority of its students in Second Life is pretty minimal. The chances of any university administration having any prospective students in world is practically nil; remember that the minimum age requirement to log into Second Life is 18. I personally assumed that no students at my school have ever logged on until someone caught a glimpse of Second Life on a laptop in the library (so maybe there’s one). Putting things in Second Life to get attention of parents and prospective students simply won’t work. Whose attention are you going to get?

The best thing you can do in Second Life, the wisdom goes (and I don’t dispute it), is create something you can’t create in real life. Create impossible structures; the weather is always great and everyone can fly. Create a physical manifestation of a concept, an idea, a feeling. I’ve tried my hand at this and it has proved compelling. It works. It works and it’s unique, it’s using a tool to do something that breaks the barriers to which we’re accustomed. Doing something that you can’t do anywhere else; that’s the only way to make it worthwhile. There’s no point using the place as a chat room. Too much bandwidth, to expensive to maintain. So when you choose to do something, it needs to be worthwhile.

So replicas: where’s the value?

Same principles. Do something you can’t do in real life. What if you need to build the replica first in order to do that?

Example one:


Build a building in Second Life that doesn’t actually exist yet. Make a movie about it. If I were them, I’d probably use that build for presentations, or displays. Have a character running around inside it, doing a virtual tour, while you’re talking about it. Set up stations and let people log in and wander around through it. Make a movie of it without sound and display it on digital signage. You’re encouraging interest in something that doesn’t exist yet, allaying fears, answering questions, letting people feel like part of the process. What a fantastic idea.

But that’s not quite a replica, is it. It’s realistic, it’s real world, it’s abiding by real world physics and a literal plan, but it’s still something virtual (for now). You could do something similar with a renovation; make the soon-to-be real virtually. But what about things that really do exist?

The standard line does indeed run along branding lines; set up your campus, let people explore it. It’s not a bad idea, at its heart. But maybe it’s not enough to just recreate it. What if you recreate it, but add something impossible to it? Something real, something legitimate, but not something you’d ever get in real life?

One of my very favourite art projects was dotted around the streets of Toronto a few years ago. It was a sign in the shape of an ear, with a cell phone number on it. When you call it, you get a recording, someone telling you about a memory about the spot you’re standing on. It’s like a digital tour of the city, in personal stories. This is hard to do in real life, but relatively easy to do in person. What about a story around every corner? The collected stories of students on your campus, added to regularly. Add them in audio, text, pictures. Bring your campus to personal, legitimate, intimate life. People it not with avatars but with real stories, voices of real people, talking about what it’s like to be there, experiences. Moments of epiphany, stories about coffee with instructors, mentorship, enjoying the beauty of an autumn morning. Sounds of the street, random conversations. The options are really unlimited.

It’s not really so very far from the concept/feeling idea. You can use replicas in the service of those things, as the canvas on which you can build your masterpiece. But the masterpiece needs to be built; it’s not enough to just nail the canvas together. Don’t just brand; convey genuine, honest information. Use the tool to its fullest.

But who’s going to see it? Again, I think it’s something you demonstrate rather than expect people to stumble upon (though: if they do stumble on it, great!). Maybe you make movies; maybe you do something else with it that I can’t think of. Though I think it’s not unlikely that, once built, prospective students would jump in to see something full of stories and information from other students, especially if it grows every year. I imagine it would be a neat project for graduating students. Force number one to contend with: first year students are excited. They’re excited the moment they get that letter of acceptance. They want to pick their courses, meet students, ask questions, buy books. They want any scrap of advice or information they can get. They are keen. And yet for some reason we don’t do a heck of a lot to entertain that energy. We make them wait until September. For some of the less sexy but more useful services (like, say, reference, or interlibrary loan, or career services) that eager time where all information is absorbed with great glee, wouldn’t that be a great moment to express what is really available for them? Maybe they’re the audience, one way or another. And I can’t think of many other places where you could do it.

So I’ve come full circle with the replica build. On its own, not so interesting. But I can see it getting more interesting the more stories you add to it.

Best Underused Technologies in Education

Best Underused Technologies in Education

I’ve been searching and watching and experimenting, and in the last few months I’ve come to realize that these handful of technologies, some very well known, some less so, have a lot to offer teaching and learning but are less well-used for those purposes than they perhaps ought to be. Here’s my rationale:

Some of the real leaders in instructional technology have been using wikis with students for some time, but they’re just not as widely-used as they should be, not by a long shot. Wikis can be both extraordinarily challenging for both the instructor and the students, or they can fit rather seamlessly into a traditional classroom. This flexibility makes them almost universally useful. Students can use wikis to keep collaborative notes in small groups or with the entire class, collectively annotate a poem or other text, create a collective bibliography, collaborate on assignments, write documents in a group, or create a document (an encyclopedia, a book of chapters, a picture book, anything) that end up supporting, say, a classroom in an underprivileged area, for instance; collectively rewriting the syllabus of the class; the options are almost limitless. Wikis, in short, are cool. They take very little training to use, they revolve around traditional skills and activities of writing and citing, and there are few classes that can’t benefit from their use. In time I believe they will be a standard tool inside courseware, simply because they are so incredibly flexible.

Pretty much anyone with a camera and an internet connection uses flickr already, so flickr alone isn’t the revelation. The reason I include it here is primarily because I’ve pretty much given up trying to discourage people from using powerpoint. Most people in my circle of influence are married to powerpoint and won’t give it up regardless. So I’ve decided instead to encourage people to be a bit more conceptual and interesting with their powerpoint instead. Why not use creative commons licensed images from flickr to make that powerpoint more punchy? Under advanced search, flickr allows you to search only for content that you can borrow and reuse. Why not take advantage of a free source of amazing-looking images? My favourite powerpoint presentations are the ones that use no text at all, but represent points and ideas through creative commons images only. It fulfills the instructor’s desire to have a prompt for the next point, and it at least gives the class an opportunity to try and guess the point based on the picture alone. Hey, at least it’s something beyond endless bullet points on slides, right? We are turning into a user-content driven society, but so far we have been focusing more on creating it rather than using it. There’s a time for both!

Odeo and Seesmic
I’m linking these two particular technologies, but really it could be any of the significant number of online audio and video recorders. Odeo and Seesmic are, I think, only the simplest of them. (Though, the video recorder in facebook is stellar.) Here’s why I put it here: we waste a lot of time in education being talking heads. Often, people don’t even want to be interrupted; they want to read their their paper, or process their way through their detailed notes of the lecture, and take questions afterwards. Why are we wasting valuable in-class time for this? Why not read the paper at home into a microphone and/or webcam a couple of weeks beforehand and post the audio/video stream as a reading? Then you can use the time you have in class to actually build upon that lecture, build on the ideas and communicate with the students. I know lots of faculty feel students won’t watch it or listen to it or pay attention to it, but I think our fear around that support it happening. Listening to or watching the lecture is required; put them on the spot when you’re face to face. Tell them they need to come up with 3 questions and 3 comments based on the lecture and the readings, and post them before class starts. Expect them to do it. Students might be just lazy, but I think in fact we train them that they don’t need to do the required reading, because most of the time they sit in a lecture hall bored out of their skins and they don’t see the point of all that preparation. They’ll do the reading when it will matter, ie, before an exam. In graduate seminars you are expected to talk, and everyone feels the pressure to get the reading done and have something to say. Put the same pressure on undergrads! I see audio as a way to off-load our easiest ways to use a 2 hour lecture slot and do something that actually requires everyone’s presence and attention during that time. Life is short. Every face-to face minute should have value. The hardest part is figuring out what to do with 2 hours when everyone’s already heard your excellent lecture. What a great problem to have, I’d say.

Second Life
As much as some technologies are almost universally useful, Second Life is not. I know there are cohorts of educators that believe all courses should be at least partially in Second Life, but I don’t understand their reasons. Second Life is an amazing tool, but only where its particular kind of tool is needed. I think most people are excited by the togetherness factor; unlike message boards or email, when you’re all logged into Second Life, you’re all in there together. You can see each other moving around, and lately, you can hear each other’s voices. That’s very cool for distance ed courses that require face-to-face time. It’s also pretty cool for language learning. However, I’d say for the most part that Second Life’s greatest use is in building. I believe that the tools inside Second Life are excellent for in-depth research projects where students work either alone or in groups, where it is too easy to plagiarize or buy a paper rather than learn anything. If you’re ready to throw the traditional essay assignment out the window, a Second Life building project (say, a particular historical moment, a biography, an idea or concept like postmodernism or the nature of the hijab) might be just the thing. Students need to do a lot of research to get the details right and build it, and then they make a movie out of it that fits into another class, or on a website, or as part of a larger project. It’s interesting, it’s different, it’s engaging and unique, and it’s a lot of fun. With the right concept and the right support, I think this could be one of the most rewarding projects for instructors and students alike.
This is brand new. When people first look at it, they don’t get why I think it has any relationship to education. I did a bad thing in that I grabbed an article from First Monday to try and explain it: check it out here. Look for the little bar at the bottom with the button “start chatting”. Get it? Basically it puts cursors and chat over top of a document, anchored to the document. So if I start typing while I’m reading the introduction, anyone else reading the introduction will see it. If I start typing while I’m in paragraph 5, others at that point will see it. If I get confused part way through, I can hover around the confusing part with others who are also confused. Essentially, we can now book a time and read collaboratively with students. Students can meet together and go through a document. You don’t have to wait until you get to the end anymore. I think this is way more valuable than you’d think, because one of the first skills students need to pick up when they start university is a new kind of reading. Reading an academic article is not like reading a book; it’s more like sitting in someone’s office and hearing a personal lecture. You to learn to respond as you hear it, you need to become part of a conversation with the article. If we encourage that early on, we end up with more vocal students. Also an advantage: with a tricky article, the class and read together and the TA or instructor can scroll through and see where the clusters of cursors are to see where students get stuck. And work it through right there!

Those are my current top 5. More next week or so, I’m sure.

Tell me a Story

Tell me a Story

A message I sent to the Second Life in Education Mailing list today:

I was just listening to the latest Radio Lab episode, which summed up a great deal of what I’d argue Second Life has to offer academic communication: the tools to create interactive, powerful, immersive and engaging narrative out of scholarly ideas and works. In this podcast, Robert Krulwich talks about the long conflict between “popular” means of communication and the sciences, and how that stand-off between them has resulted in the dramatic gulf between the ivory tower and everyone else. He links it directly to the power of the anti-evolution front springing forth from the US and spreading out over the world, because the anti-evolution front has an excellent *story* to tell, while science has agreed that story is not useful, is “play”, and science must be “work” and “fact” rather than metaphor and play.

At the same time I’m currently reading Julian Dibbell‘s excellent book Play Money, which underscores the odd divide western culture places between work and play, even when it becomes startlingly clear that productive work and play are by no means seperate entities.

So this podcast brings together these ideas; metaphor, story, and “play” have a valid place even in academic/scientific communication. Play and metaphor doesn’t cheapen or simplify ideas; it merely makes their implications strike us at deeper levels than mere facts. They are the driving mechanism for facts, perhaps. The means to deliver information.

And really, since language is really just a derivative of song, how is metaphor any less frivilous a means than singing?

Second Life, and and any other constructivist worlds that have appeared before and will appear in future, provides the tools to communicate concepts and ideas in a different, more emmersive way. In a way more like play, more like story, with a strong metaphor. I think this is crucially valuable.

IBM Partitions SL: It Might Not Be a Bad Thing

IBM Partitions SL: It Might Not Be a Bad Thing

Jeremy and I fundamentally disagree about this, but I think this isn’t an entirely bad idea. The gist: IBM and Linden labs have teamed up to create an entirely protected space within Second Life where IBM employees can talk without being interrupted or overheard by other Second Life users. There is an argument in the virtual worlds sphere that holds that Second Life, or virtual worlds in general, are only any good if they’re entirely public. Locking off pieces will reduce creativity and is counterproductive, goes the train of thought.

To me, as long as you can bring objects in and out of locked spaces, I think this is a fantastic development for education. If IBM can lock off a portion of the world, and create new land within in it for their own use, that means educational institutions can do the same thing. I bet IBM will have a public portion (for PR) and a private portion (for work); this would be an excellent example to institutions, who could collaborate on a joint public zone, where all participant institutions could have a storefront (so to speak) for recruitment and public event purposes, and then a private area where their classrooms and sandboxes live, protected for the moment while they’re still in flux. There could also be a space in the public, shared display area to showcase excellent builds and projects created within their private zones. Additionally, in an ideal world, each institutions libraries would take charge of archiving projects and builds that, with permission of course, could be “loaned out” to other students/institutions for academic purposes. So if someone creates an excellent historical build that sits in display for a while and then moves to archives, another instructor could borrow it for a class, and have students from another institution wander through it for a week or two as part of their preparatory reading. Students should absolutely get credit for it, too.

Having a public area and a private area for students allows instructors to keep students in a protected area when required, but would also allow them to use Second Life as a virtual universe to explore at the same time; while many people are concerned about the wild west mentality that pervades some elements of Second Life, a private launch pad would allow students to find their feet before moving into the more diverse parts of the space. It would also put land use in the hands of the institution, which I think is a key part of creating coursework builds.

I just don’t think this kind of structure is possible given the current land organization and administration.

I would never have imagined that IBM enclosing space in a virtual world would ever seem like such a positive step forward for the rest of us, but it seems that way to me!

Virtual Worlds, Ooh La La!

Virtual Worlds, Ooh La La!

Thanks to the lovely Tracy Kennedy for this one: What happens in the virtual world has real world impact.

People assume that, if anything, online activities emanate from offline lives. But Mr. Bailenson and his colleagues have shown the reverse. Their experiments demonstrate, for instance, that people who watch their avatars — cartoonlike versions of themselves — gain weight from overeating are more likely to adopt a weight-loss plan in real life.

As Jason noted, this isn’t actually a new finding, as amazed and awed as the academic world appears to be. I’m happy that people are finally paying attention to virtual worlds, because I find them rich and fascinating and full of potential. Reading this article reminds me of Richard Bartle‘s excellent reaction to virtual worlds media coverage from a few weeks ago:

Now I’m in a bit of a quandry here. On the one hand, I want more research on virtual worlds and don’t want to discourage people from doing it, but on the other hand, this is just slapdash and slipshod. The authors seem to believe they have stumbled across an unresearched area, ripe for consideration; actually, it’s a well-researched area, and their belief that it’s virgin territory merely exposes their ignorance.

Feels like we’re fighting a losing battle on that front; it looks like we’re just destined to reinvent the wheel on virtual worlds. Unless we want to get our act together and get a real book out there? I think we have an article in revision to get to work on, Jason!

Conference Blogging and Twitter

Conference Blogging and Twitter

Normally at conferences I can’t find enough time to blog all the things I want to blog about; there’s never a blogging break at these things, though this conference (AoIR Internet Research conference) would be the one to do it if anyone did. At this conference I decided to give Twitter a try instead, since that was about what my brain could handle trying yesterday; short ideas, 140 characters in length. I figured I could go back later and glean from it what I wanted in order to write a more processed, thoughtful blog post or 5. I have to say, I think i found Twitter’s calling doing that. What a great way to capture those fly-away ideas that come to you while listening to a presentation or participating in a group discussion. (My tweets are on the side of my blog, for reference.)

In perusing Twitter, I discovered that Howard Rheingold tried to use Twitter with his class during class, as a way to get observations and questions up on the screen while he was teaching. It didn’t work so well. He says: Multitasking to the point of paralysis. Maybe having tweets projected on screen not as coolly manageable as private chat channel? Too bad, eh? I thought that was a pretty stellar idea.

Power, Control, and Instruction

Power, Control, and Instruction

I’ve been working on a paper for AoIR‘s Second Life Workshop in October, revisiting the issues and challenges we faced in a text-based virtual world and the solutions we developed to wrestle with them. One of the things that’s been so surprising abotu Second Life is how familiar it felt when I first walked in; no matter how shiny the technology seems to become, it remains fairly similiar to the old text-based worlds in terms of useability and structure. And we seem to still be addressing the exact same issues. But looking at our challenges and solutions (former and current) brings home to me one of the central elements of education: power and control.

Power is one of those perennial issues; you can try to weed it out of your classroom, but its shoots are hardy and wiggle their way into all kinds of unexpected nooks and crannies. Power is written into the layout of the furniture, the structure of assessment and evaluation, the lecture style of instruction, and deep into the minds of students who have had a lifetime of being drilled in its norms and expectations. Even in a perfectly Marxist, radical classroom, where the instructor wears only jeans and a ratty t-shirt and regularly challenges his own authority, where every other privilege and dominant hierarchy has been unpacked and tossed out the window, the simple student/instructor power structure remains. Teachers have more power than they often seem to recognize. Maybe you get used to it after a while, and it becomes something you only notice in its absence.

There are two perspectives you can take on power and control in education, as far as I can tell; you can vow to dismantle it (which, it seems to me, primarily results in instructors dismantling the elements of power they don’t like/can recognize while retaining the parts that they do like/can’t recognize), or accept it and use it thoughtfully, purposefully, and as ethically as possible. The former seems like the right idea, but more and more I’m starting to wonder if the latter isn’t the more successful approach. More pragmatic and less idealized, I suppose, but if your end goal is create an ideal instructional environment where real learning can actually take place (far be it from me to suggest that a teacher can create learning in students, isn’t that yet another form of power and control that’s just assumed?), then maybe the ends justify the means.

In reviewing our old attempts to create classroom environments in a pure-text universe, it seems we spent a lot of time trying to control the speech and movement of students. (Unethical fascist! Micromanaging control freak! shouts the peanut gallery, yes, I can hear you from here, thanks for your input.) A lot of the overwhelm problems we had with students was based in the complete democracy of the space. The democracy of the space is what we love about it, honestly, but it has its upsides and its downsides. When a person speaks in a virtual world, they are no more or less important than any other person in the room; if the instructor gives a series of instructions, but fifteen students pipe up at the same time with playful exclamations, the instructor’s serious words are no more or less noticable, no more or less likely to be read by the rest of the class. When students come into a classroom, sit down and start chatting with each other, they hush when the instructor makes the typical motions that indicate that he is ready to speak. There is a culture of highlighting and adding weight to the words of some over others in a classroom. No matter how communal the instructor feels his classroom is, there is an element of power in his mere presence. There are no such traditions in virtual worlds. This is a good thing; this is also a painful roadblock.

Confronted with students who can’t make out what’s important and not when entering a virtual world (why, it’s all important, and up to you to determine which parts are important to you, says the peanut gallery, yes yes, I know, bear with me for a moment), we developed some tools to give us a hand. The web interface we were using gave all exits from a given room as links in a web window. Students would click on them, not knowing they were moving in and out of the classroom space, and missing half of the conversation. They didn’t mean to do it, they just didn’t know how to manoevre yet. They would get lost, or get confused, or get exasperated. So we built a very simple little tool.

Before we learn that classrooms are spaces with clear power distinctions and rules we have to follow, getting us in a group to do something together is like herding cats. So when we’re small, and out on a field trip to see the dinosaurs in the museum, they have us all hold on to a piece of rope. It shows us the relationships we have to the other students in a very concrete and physical way, and also makes very clear who’s got power and control over us in this situation. (Can we unpack the concept of “control” for a moment to see it’s upsides as well? The person leading us at the front end of the rope knows where she’s going, she’s serving a useful purpose. When we hold on to the rope, we’re doing it because we were told to, but also because we want to; we’re complicit in this power relationship. We want to go see the dinosaurs. We don’t want to get lost. The control is not in the person herself, but in what they have to offer right here and now.) With the rope, we can be safely brought to one place to experience something together; we can avoid the confusion of learning all the steps to a particular place in order to get there. That piece of rope is a particular bit of scaffolding to get us all literally and figuratively from one place to another. It’s a ramp to get us over the big procedural learning curve it would take to get there on our own.

We wrote virtual rope. (Well, by “we” I mean Catspaw.) We needed to get students over that hurdle so that they could see the point of learning how to do it on their own. We took control in order to help students come to grips with the meaning of a space, and then gave it back.

I’m still conflicted about power and control in an instruction/learning situation. I don’t want to restrict what students can and can’t do; I want them to explore and build their own knowledge. I’m conflicted by the fact that sometimes taking power and control by the horns and using it deliberately to show students where the tools are, how to use them, how to get comfortable with them and then dismantling it afterwards has good effects.

I just finished writing about a space within a virtual world where I hacked the script on a room that allows students to talk. I actually removed their ability to speak. I knew there were ethical issues with it when I did it, and remember how cautiously I trod with it, but strangely it was shockingly successful, and didn’t put people off at all. Can we be forgiven for these deliberate grabs for power in an instructional situation if it results in a more engaged and motivated student? (NO! shouts the peanut gallery. Okay, okay, mea culpa.)

Voice in Second Life

Voice in Second Life

Second Life is moving toward integrated voice capability. This isn’t news at this point; it’s moved onto the main grid now, and it’s only a matter of time (less rather than more) before it becomes an everyday, standard feature. There has been much discussion about what voice will do to interactions within SL; some people believe it will be so revolutionary that it will fundamentally change the way this particular virtual environment functions, and some others believe that voice is the path toward ultimate destruction.

Personally, I don’t think it’s that big a deal.

I mean, technically, it is a big deal; it’s an amazing thing. If you try it out, you’ll see what I mean. It’s not internet audio like I remember it back when I used AIM to talk to people overseas. Press the button, talk, release, listen: it’s like talking on CB radios. Second Life voice is not like that. It’s not tinny and distant like skype can be, either. Voice in Second Life is more like voice in real life than anything else I’ve ever seen. Everyone can talk at once; you get overlapping voices when many people are talking to each other, not cancelling each other out, but competing with each other. The people who are closer to you are louder, while people who are walking away from you get progressively quieter. I had the interesting experience of standing in a valley by a river with a friend on the beta grid and hearing conversations floating past as others walking near our location; it’s an amazingly rich way to process information, giving Second Life a depth that’s difficult to fully quantify. It has always had its three dimensions in terms of movement, but the flexibility of the voice features highlights them in ways that are incredibly powerful. The idea of this was already buried in the system; people’s text greys out as they’e farther away from you. But the audio factor is so much clearer in defining and describing distance and space. I’ve always found audio cues particularly powerful, so the voice features appeal to me.

But I don’t think voice chat is going to destroy anything. Not really.

There are a variety of arguments for why voice is destructive. The obvious: people whose avatars don’t reflect their physical realities are on their way to becoming exposed. Female avatars belonging to real-life men, for instance; possibly age will be reabable though voice (unlikely, in my opinion). Those with hearing challenges will be left out, as will people who are shy or don’t have a mic, who will disappear into the wallpaper. Wired noted that voice destroys the kind of level playing field that the text-based world provides by hiding age/culture distinctions that might otherwise keep users in their respective silos. It brings in a level of the real world that, in the case of World of Warcraft in particular, apparently isn’t very welcome. Having our preconceptions about others challenged is uncomfortable. Going along with other people preconceptions of us can sometimes be useful, and voice might endanger that.

You could make the same arguments for text, in many ways. Lots of us are pretty good at working out who’s probably male and who’s probably female in text anyway. (And I’m not talking about the gender genie, but that’s a post for another time.) And it’s not as if we can really hide our age and experience from people with whom we spend significant time. Educational level, etc. becomes clear fairly quickly in text. Pure text conversation excludes a significant number of people as well; it’s not as if text is more pure and predjudice-free than voice.

But I’m primarily convinced that voice won’t alter much because I don’t think voice is going to supplant text in Second Life.

I was talking to Catspaw last night about voice in WoW, and the way she described it pretty much matched up with what I expect we’ll see; voice takes its place as one element in the mix, an authoritative feature used in very specific circumstances with requirements that can make use of its advantages. In her case, she said the voice channel is what you use when the leader of a group needs to get information to everyone else really fast. In the case of Second Life, it might be a short bit of instruction or a story that everyone in a place wants to hear. I will likely be immediate, intimate, ephemeral, and short. In the case of Second Life, it’s not private by any means (your “ears” in Second Life are attached to your camera, not your avatar; you can zoom in on people and listen to a conversation even if you’re not that close to them). You can’t walk away from a voice chat (though, Catspaw says you can, you just need to crank the volume, but that crack aside). Voice chat ties you to a window in ways that text doesn’t. If someone hears you talking in response, you can’t very well be multi-tasking and catching up at intervals (which, I suspect, is how many people manage text chats…at least, that’s how I manage them). Voice chat is more like a real life conversation; if you don’t answer immediately, people will think you’re not paying attention (which you aren’t) and will be offended. For spurts of information, I think voice will be very useful, but I don’t think it will really push out those who doesn’t want to use it. Most people will use text for chatter because it requires less effort and allows for the ability to read up. (Even if they added a “listen to the last 5 minutes you missed” feature, you’d still get dragged out of the immediacy of the voice chat moment.)

And some people don’t have mics, that’s just reality. They can still listen in, though, and respond. If someone really didn’t want to use their voices, they could just say that they don’t have a mic and don’t really like talking into one anyway. I can’t imagine too many people would find that odd. Even I found it a bit daunting to experiment with the voice feature on the beta grid, and it’s hard to find someone more gregarious than I am. Voice is sort of like stepping up on stage in middle school to give your speech in front of all your peers; even for the pathologically un-shy, it’s a bit unnerving.

I expect the full introduction of voice in Second Life will go something like this: voice comes in, there’s a flurry of activity around it for a while, people talking to old friends for the first time, listening to people’s accents and luxuriating in the quality of their voices, feeling, possibly, distance because the tenor of the voices is different than expected, and then eventually things settling down and returning to normal, and returning, primarily, to text. Voice will probably get used, but only in specific circumstances that call for it. I think this is very literally about the addition of a feature rather than the replacement of another.

From an Ed Tech perspective, I think the introduction of voice is going to be amazing; it means we don’t need to set up live streaming to bring talks into Second Life. Audio chat comes with a certain amount of built-in authority; we used to run into problems with getting a message out to everyone in a class through text, because the set up of text is democratic in nature and doesn’t specially highlight the teacher’s words over everyone else’s. I’m in favour of that breakdown of authority on most levels and in most circumstances, but providing an authoritative channel like voice means we can acknowledge that the authority that exists, alows us to use it thoughtfully and meaningfully when we need it, and let us deliberately distribute it among the students when it’s required. For instance, we could have students take turns presenting via voice chat, and allow others to type their reactions and questions and feedback as text. It allows for a kind of visible backchannel that doesn’t need to take away from the presentation itself. It means many people can “talk” at once without interrupting each other; that was always been the beauty of text. (Me and Jason sometimes tell each other stories at the same time in text, stories that get twisted together but both get across at the same time.) Personally, I can’t sit through presentations anymore without talking back; at the moment I’m restricted to the number of questions I can ask before I feel like I’m dominating the group, and my various text-based backchannel options (which drag me out of the immediate room rather than keeping me in it). Voice brings to Second Life the function that conferencing software already has; text from the peanut gallery and voice from the presenter, and then the option of voice for the peanut gallery, who generally prefer to stick to text. If anything, the introduction of voice to Second Life is a challenge to conference software packages; there’s no sense of presence in those as it stands. Second Life would be a much more fun place to hold a conference once it gets easy voice chat.

But I guess we’ll soon see.

Ping Me

Ping Me

My friend June figured this one out first, and it’s so rad I had to follow suit: meebo, the wonder tool that allows anyone to log into their AIM, Yahoo, MSN or Jabber accounts from any browser anywhere, came out with a widget you can stick on your site. And it does what I’ve always dreamed of such an app doing; it’s connected to a client, so I can launch the client and get IMs from guests who visit my website. And they don’t need to log in to do it.

You can test it out on me here.

You could do something like this with those floating chat windows (very cool, all of them), but this one really bridges the gap between proper IM and web-based chat. You don’t even need a meebo account (or any other) to talk to me!

One of the big advantages to the meebo widget is that it’s entirely private, only two-way communication. If two people land on the page at the same time, you just get two IM windows in your client, they aren’t aware of each other. There are other apps to allow people who are visiting the same site to natter at each other anyway. I’ve been wanting something like this.

I think this widget is a really nice step to move into v.ref. No accounts, no special software; and you coud stick it all over the place, including, say, in a course-specific web resource or pathfinder. And the thing tells you if the person on the other end isn’t available right now. Sweet!

Wikipedia as Community Service

Wikipedia as Community Service

If I were “You”: How Academics Can Stop Worrying and Learn to Love “the Encyclopedia that Anyone Can Edit”. I’ve spouted off about this a million times before, and I’m glad to see someone else finally saying it too:

This recognition of the extent to which the Wikipedia has engaged the imagination of the general public and turned it to the amateur practice of scholarship suggests what I think may prove to be the best way of incorporating it into the lives of professional academics: since the Wikipedia appears unable to serve as a route to professional advancement for intrinsic reasons, perhaps we should begin to see contributions to it by professional scholars as a different type of activity altogether—as a form of community service to be performed by academics in much the same way lawyers are often expected to give back to the public through their pro bono work. A glance at almost any discussion page on the Wikipedia will show that the Wikipedians themselves are aware of the dangers posed to the enterprise by the inclusion of fringe theories, poor research, and contributions by people with insufficient disciplinary expertise. As certified experts who work daily with the secondary and primary research required to construct good Wikipedia entries, we are in a position to contribute to the construction of individual articles in a uniquely positive way by taking the time to help clean up and provide balance to entries in our professional areas of interest. In doing so, we can both materially improve the quality of the Wikipedia and demonstrate the importance of professional scholars to a public whose hobby touches very closely on the work we are paid to do—and whose taxes, by and large, support us.

I’d like to insert a little more concern about access to information by the general public, and perhaps add just a glimmer of the serials crisis into this article, but I guess that’s for librarians to do, not academics. Though it will never cease to amaze me that academics don’t seem to realize that they give away their intellectual labour all the time to support a third party distribution system that takes money away from the universities, thus making academics the number one threat to library budgets and the number one reason why those with access to the internet but no access to university libraries can’t get a hold of scholarly works, but hey. It’s Monday morning, and this article is a start.

Via Jason.

Instructional Technology: Public, private, personal, or institutional?

Instructional Technology: Public, private, personal, or institutional?

I’m a bit behind on my blog reading I’ll admit (it’s amazing how easy it is to take on way too much at once, isn’t it?), but I ran into a blog post this morning that threw me. It’s from George Siemens’ Connectivism blog. He says:

I’ve decided that we are taking the wrong approach to technology adoption in schools and universities. We shouldn’t own the space of learning. The students should. We shouldn’t ask them to create a new account, or learn a new tool every time they switch to a different institution or a different job. They should have their own tools…and we should “expose” our content so they can bring it into their space (pick any tool – drupal, blogger, myspace, facebook, elgg). And the conversation that ensues should be controlled (from a public internet or private ownership stance) by the learner. When the learner graduates, the content and conversations remain his/hers.

I agree with him in principle; just not in practice. Yes, students should feel some ownership over their own learning space, or at least some part of the learning space. I think we see this in the most traditional classrooms in the form of personal notebooks; the student doesn’t own the classroom, but they own their own way of making sense of what happens there, what words they note on a page, etc. I’ve always felt a particularly strong attachment to my own notes, which I was loath to lend. I would tend to write done things like whether or not I was tired, what the instructor was wearing that day, and shopping lists in the margins. Because it’s my space, I felt I should be able to write down whatever I wanted to. Some bit of ownership is, I think, critical to the process, and granting students more ownership is not, I would say, a bad thing.


I really don’t like the idea of bowing down to the habits of our students to such a degree that their platforms become our platforms. I have always resisted this. When we have discussions about things like facebook or myspace and people say, hey, that’s where the students are, that’s where we should be! my general reaction is, yeah? Well, the kids are down at the pub, maybe we should move our offices down there too, eh? Come on. There are places where students are, and they don’t want us there with them. There is a danger there of becoming telemarketers of the academic world, the spam of the institution. It’s good to be accessible, but we don’t really want to be sitting on the students’ laps on a Friday night when they’re out to see a movie, right? Give them their space. We don’t need to be in the faces all the time. So part of my objection to George’s suggestion above is that we need to let students have some communities and technologies that they use for fun.

But my primary objection is actually grounded in the basic presumption here. The presumption I see glaring out at me from that pargraph is that students know best. I mean, when it was Father knows best or Librarian knows best we weren’t really better off either, lest it be said that I have a bias against students, but why on earth are we looking to students to work out the best platform for learning? There’s a bit of noble savage about this. Just because today’s undergradate students are supposedly “digital natives” doesn’t mean that they know which platform and which interactive software is best for a classroom, or best for learning (best for learning linguistics, or best for learning microbiology, because there isn’t one be-all-end-all piece of instructional technology either). I drives me batty when I see professionals with lots of offer twisting themselves into pretzels because the mode of the moment is myspace or facebook or cellphones. We can learn lessons from how people interact with social software and mobile technology, definitely, but we don’t need to migrate everything we do into the web 2.0 fad du jour. Students are not technology savants. We need a mixture of experimentation with software, research on trends and what kinds of interactions fit best into which platforms, not a wild free-for-all. Have we nothing to teach here? Don’t we have anything to offer as an institution? Do we not have a responsibility to choose our tools based on the learning outcomes we’ve developed?

Additionally, there are a whole host of problems that come along with allowing students to syndicate institutional content into, say, myspace. If we just provide the feeds, does this mean the instructor is giving up their intellectual property rights? Are instructors meant to just trust facebook’s internal privacy controls to keep their ideas to a limited group? Library content is never going to sit on livejournal, not as long as we sign off on licenses and pay our regular fee to Access Copyright. George’s suggestion above would require all faculty to distribute their work across any platform students feel like using. This is remarkably unwieldy and would be wildly unpopular among certain sectors. (Though, I know many faculty who would be more than happy to have entirely public course documents, but I can’t imagine they would particularly love having it distributed far and wide across the internet.)

This taps into another argument I seem to get into on a regular basis; should student work be public? Should students be required to put their coursework on the wild open internet while they’re still forming their ideas? Or should we be providing a sheltered space for them to grow and change their minds and reconsider? There’s definitely benefits to being wide open, but there are downsides as well. The wayback machine can be an unforgiving mistress if you’ve ever done/said/posted something you regretted years later. Whose responsibility is it to understand that, the students’, or ours?

One final problem; how do you build community if you have a class of 30, and 9 of them are synidcating course content to myspace, 12 to livejournal, and the rest to facebook, except for one student on Vox? If your teaching method consists of merely distributing course content digitally and never getting feedback or collaborating in any way, this method might have no drawbacks (barring the ones I mentioned above). But what if you’re trying to get students to respond and react to each other’s work? What if you’re trying to have students co-construct knowledge? Haven’t you just effectively split the course into 4 parts? Are students going to now have to learn four different interfaces just to connect with the whole class? How is the instructor supposed to manage that? How does this help build community? Haven’t we just isolated the students who chose a less popular system? I know George hates insitutional course management systems, but I don’t think this syndication system is in anyone’s best interests. It would be easier on the student if we introduced them to a centrally-supported system and let them all learn one interface. The key thing with any course management system is to constantly update it, rethink it, build new tools for it, revise and revisit. It can’t be a static thing. It needs to grow and change based on the needs of faculty and students.

And don’t we owe it to students (and faculty) to provide them with the tools of the trade?

Course (Learning) Management Systems

Course (Learning) Management Systems

You know what would be cool? If course management systems made use of the proof of concept shown to us by EyeOS. So you’d still log into a system, but that system would look like a desktop with applications and files on it. Launch the discussion board, open the syllabus, work on a collaborative document, open the IM client and see who from your classes is online…internal movie viewer, audio player…discreet client for searching databases/the library catalogue…space there to save your work (say, on the desktop, or in a my documents folder)…post it notes on the desktop when your instructor has something important to say to you…

Just sayin’.



I’m at a workshop today, and so far all my notes on the first presentation revolve around various concepts of ownership. This something I’ve been chewing over for some time, and trying to find ways to express. My experience thus far in educational technology (and education in general, honestly) is that when the learner is granted a measure of owernship over the site of their learning, they are dramatically more engaged in the material. Owernship seems to be one of the important elements that bridges the gap between working toward a grade and working toward a greater, more personal goal. (And, inevitably, the grades sky-rocket when student engagement is that much higher.)

This is the argument I’ve tried to use in describing the difference between a discussion board and a blog; you get a different kind of content on a blog, at least in part because a blog belongs to the student, while a discussion board belongs to the instructor. On a discussion board, a single person can dominate the dicussion, because while the space is not finite, there is a single, shared location for input; on a blog, you naturally dominate it, because it’s yours. And everyone has their own space to dominate. The sense of space is completely different.

I keep trying to make this argument, but I always feel on shaky ground. It’s just my gut talking. Ownership: why is that so significant? My experience is that it’s true, but I feel like I’m not expressing it well or describing it completely enough. I feel as though I don’t entirely understand it myself.

But other words are coming out of this presentation that address the same issue: the presenter (Clare Brett) talks about the importance of student agency, of student control. Is this all part and parcel of the same niggling thing I’ve been feeing?

I’m also pushed toward thinking about what agency and ownership means very personally, in my own work; since I know that applications can be (and should be!) routinely improved and expanded, I feel very empowered by the introduction of systems like Blackboard to our world. Sure, it has its problems, but we can edit this thing, we can add to it, we can make it what we need. I feel my own agency in relation to it. So I can see what it means to feel your own agency, primarily because when I look around me I see a lot of people feeling oppressed by it, feeling boxed in, constrained by a piece of technology.

Deep Learning

Deep Learning


I’m gratified to see an emphasis on “deep learning” or reflective learning from faculty members; mostly because I have a tendency to work from my gut rather than theory (I’m working on that), and my gut reacts well to the idea that students need to reflect on what they’re learning. It’s nice to see that other people, who work from something more citeable than their guts, are thinking along the same lines.

I’ve never been that jazzed about the idea of an “e-portfolio”, because it seems a little basic. But I’m getting the idea now; it’s not all that different from where we’re trying to go with institutional blogging. We want blogs that stick around throughout a student’s academic life; not something that’s tied to the course, but to the student. This way, a student can go back over their own process, and as you get farther along, you could conceivably reflect on your entire academic career, tracing the growth of an idea or a concept over multiple classes and multiple years. So I guess I need to stop thinking about e-portfolios as a set item or piece of technology and more as a concept. Obviously I’m already behind the concept.

From a personal perspective, I finally went through and revisited my own archives, and found a post I wrote in 2001 about blogging in higher ed. I read this segment of the post during the presentation yesterday, because I’m surprised that I still agree with my younger self so much:

I’m getting more and more firmly convinced that blogs are tantamount to essential in humanities classes. I believe this to be true because a) it allows students to speak in a ‘public’ forum about their readings and the lectures in a course, no matter what format the class takes, no matter how shy the student is, and no matter how many students are in the class, b) it allows the instructor/TA to read, respond to, and evaluate students critical thinking skills, understanding of the course material, and if they’re paying attention at all, c) it allows students to read and respond to each other’s opinions in a ‘democratic’ space, d) unlike reflection papers or other forms of journaling for class, the responses are not static documents that are handed from student to evaluator, but exist as individual archives of thoughts and information that are permanently available to both the student and the teacher. Blogs as Educational Tools? April 5, 2001.

La plus ca change!

In the session I’m in right now, we’re talking about reflection in learning, and the conversation is really interesting. So much interest on the process! Someone just suggested that if you want to use reflection in class, don’t use the word “reflection”. The questions she suggested asking instead are What? So What? Now what? I like this; there’s a delgate here who’s an undergraduate student from Calgary who tells us that she’s been writing reflection papers for years and only just got it this last term. Students have an idea of what “reflection” means, and they can tell you that they’re doing it while not doing what we’re looking for. This reminds me of so many of the problems we hit in librarianship; the terms get in the way of getting the job done.

This conference is very good; of course, when most of the delegates are faculty, you end up with a roomful of very critical listeners who ask very pertinent and challenging questions.



Today I gave a presentation with Derek Williams, a History professor at UTM, at TechKnowFile, the U of T IT staff conference. Right before this started we discovered that they had booked us into a room with a class in it, so we had a last minute scramble to a new room. And then somehow between leaving home this morning and unpacking to give the presentation at 3pm I lost my video out cable, which really bums me out. I loved that cable, man. But amazingly they found me one to use for the presentation.

Anyway, all this is to say, when we started this presentation I was a little off my game, but we picked it up again pretty fast. In the end it was a lot of fun and there were lots of interesting questions afterward. Derek Williams is an amazing guy and a great instructor, and we used this tech_know_file presentation as a moment to talk about what he did with his Latin American history class this winter term. In sum: he gave his students something beyond a grade to work for. He asked his students to improve the content of Wikipedia.

You can download and listen to the presentation here: Wikis on the Move: TechKnowFile.06 [19 meg file].

Edited to add: I found my video out cable. I was on my bedroom floor. Phew.

Collaborative Software Podcast

Collaborative Software Podcast

This morning I gave a short presentation at the UTL Staff Conference about collaborative software. I recorded myself with my ipod and have reduced the original 40 meg file into a 13 meg podcast.

Now, during this presentation I was demonstrating software, so maybe you had to be there to get it. But you can download the file here.

A rough outline of what I was talking about:

1. Our UTM blog. I can’t show you that interface because it’s behind a lock, but it’s a general blog platform (written by UTM computing services) with an upload facility and comments.

2. Our UTM Library wiki. It’s a standard mediawiki like Wikipedia.

3. Writely.

4. Writeboard.

5. The jewel in the collaborative software crown: Subethaedit. This is one you really have to see to believe, I think. But if you have a mac, check it out. (If you have a mac and you want to experiment with subethaedit, ping me on IM or drop me an email! I’m more than happy to demo it with you!)

The podcast is about 38 minutes long.

Blogging: The Podcast

Blogging: The Podcast

A couple of weeks ago, my buddy Jason Nolan, Assistant Professor in Early Childhood Ed at Ryerson, came up to my place of work to do a talk with me about blogging.

There were a lot of ways we could go with this talk. Jason and I have been talking about blogging since 2000, so we have a lot of years of natter and thought to distill down into 50 minutes. We opted to go with the conceptual rather than the practical. This talk involved no powerpoint slides, no how-tos, no demos. We talked about why we thought blogging was good for higher education, but from the point of view of good pedogogical practice and the quality of the student experience. There were millions of things we wanted to spend more time talking about but couldn’t.

That talk has now been turned into a podcast by Jason; it’s a 44 meg file, however. But if you’re interested in hearing us blather on and hopefully make a point here and there, you can download the podcast here: Blogging: It’s good for you.

If you do, please let us know what you think! It’s the beginning of a lot more talking we want to do on this subject, so stay tuned!

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!

Historicity, E-Persistence, and Blogs as E-Portfolios

Historicity, E-Persistence, and Blogs as E-Portfolios

From Ida takes Tea: why not to use blogs as e-portfolios:

The persistence of blogs (via permalinks, trackbacks etc, to say nothing of the recently-sued Wayback Machine) is at odds with the desire to create a personal repository that can be selectively shared and edited, over time.

Catherine has more to say that this snippet, but this snippet sums up an important piece of her issueswith the idea of blogs as portfolios. Put it out there and it’s out there for good. All data is ahistorical, existing right now even though it may have been created 6 years before. Students are not ahistorical; we need a system that respects the chronological growth of the student’s learning.

I actually found this argument really hard to wrap my brain around. I don’t know why the internet would seem more ahistorical than any other document. Manuscripts from the 14th century still exist, and I’ve even seen and held a few of them. The fact that they exist in the now, that I can pull them out and flip through them, does not convince me that they are of the now. Serial literature is the same way; sure, it might have just come into my hands, but I still look at the date on it. It makes a difference to me if the paper is today’s or one from last week. I see absolutely no difference between that and online publication.

This critcism feels as if it comes from a place without any online information literacy. The internet is full of documents, some of them old and some of the new. There are ways to date an online document, from clues as hazy as the design and layout of the page to as concrete as how many dead links a page contains, or the copyright or ‘last edited’ date. The same skills we teach students about information literacy apply here; does the content tell us anything about the age of the document? Is it full of references to something terrible that happened to the World Trade Center yesterday? “Yesterday” is a subjective term, and in a world where every post is written in the now, maybe this is just something you get used to over time. Diaries tend not to be retrospective of themselves; they are forever reflecting on now as if, well, it’s going on right now.

And actually, the fact that this criticism is being leveled at blogs in particular strikes me as odd. If anything goes out of its way to historicize web documents, blogs do. They are archived by day month and year, they are signed and timestamped. Most blogging software allows for some context for blogs, showing you a calendar and links to the post that came before and after the post you’re reading. Additionally, posts on blogs that are a part of a larger community also come with comments affixed, also time- and date-stamped. So, were I to pull up some posts from 1999, I would see, constantly, that it’s 1999. The comments may give me a sense even of how long that particular conversation went on. The post may be written with a sense of immediacy, but I have every chance to witness its context, its datedness. No document exists in a vacuum, and that’s just as true of online documents as of any other.

To turn this debate around a bit: were it possible for students to submit work to a journal and have it published, should we discourage that as well? After all:

persistence creates the illusion of fixed identity, whereas higher education explicitly conceptualises its mission as formative and processual: we believe that students are shaped, and we want them to be so shaped, by their experience of participating in a learning community.

If persistence disrupts that important process, should we disallow publication altogether? Does the requirement of faculty to publish diminish their ability to be formed by their work, to engage in a process of learning? Does hard paper publication prevent us from being shaped by the experience of participating in any learning community?

Or does publication (in any context) allow students the opportunity to engage in participatory learning? Doesn’t putting something out there allow us to grow while at the same time reflecting the benchmarks of our learning process? Why would a persistent record of that process necessarily be bad? To drag this out to an illogical conclusion, should we suggest that students not speak in class, for fear that they would express an idea that, in a few weeks time, they might think better of? Does student participation in any context limit who a student is by putting unformed pieces of them before the eyes of others?

The key to all of this is context. Something a bit newer in the blog world is the possibility of tagging and categories, and I think that this simple classification method bears mentioning in this debate. While Catherine sees no value in the persistence of blogs to education, doesn’t one old blogged idea now sit within a category of similar ideas, organized chronologically, so that the history of that idea can now be easily traced, with the emphasis placed on the most recent addition? Isn’t that even a better and easier historicity than, say, a paper publication? Or a conference contibution?

All that aside, I get the general argument. At its heart it’s an ethical question: should we be asking students to create a web presence that will be with them for life? This may not be their finest hour. Perhaps at some point later on in life they will want to create a new web presence, and they will have to be dodging the one we forced them to create.

Of course, this is a purely intellectual debate, based entirely on one assumption: blogs must be public. Blogs must be googled, tracebacked, ranked on Technorati, traded on blogshares, and tracked on the way back machine.

There is nothing about the structure or features of blogs that require them to be public. In fact, many of livejournal‘s 8 million blogs are entirely locked to the public. The posts are never found on the wayback machine, Google never peeks in; the posts exist only to the people allowed to see it.

As far as I’m concerned, educational blogs should follow Livejournal’s lead. I know there are educational blogging projects in the UK following that precise route. For an educational blog mandated by schoolwork, there should be multiple options: visible only to you; visible only to your instructor/TAs; visible only to your instructor, guest lecturers, librarians, and your classmates; visible to your friends at the school as you choose them, but to no one else; visible to anyone at the school; and visible to the whole world.

There is absolutely no technical reason why a student shouldn’t have complete control over how their e-presence is created. None of this precludes the use of blogs as educational tools or as e-portfolios. Google and the way back machine should not be figuring into the use of blogs in the classroom anymore than Old Navy and the Gap should. They exist, they’re out there, they’re ubiquitous; but we don’t need to invite them in.

The argument is often made that the public nature of blogs is an educational bonus. Putting your ideas out there for the wild internet to see means you may attract the interest of just about anyone, and you may benefit from their comments and questions. I know lots of people who will make the argument that class work should be available to all and sundry for pedagogical reasons. Since students own the copyright to their own work (including everything they create at the request of the professor and hand in), I think they shouldn’t be asked to put that work in the public eye, but that’s a conversation to have in class #1. There’s no reason why we can’t moderate the degree of “public” that students have to deal with, let them decide what they want to add to the public record and what they want to keep ephemeral.

I get frustrated by criticisms that are hinged on the limitations of one particular version of a technology. One of the best things that can happen to anyone is to learn enough about technology to realize that no interface is unchangeable. Everything can be changed, fixed, transmuted. If something is getting in your way, well just change it.

That’s what I love about the internet. Infinite possibility.