Joho the Blog » teaching

November 14, 2013

[2b2k] No more magic knowledge

I gave a talk at the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit this morning, and felt compelled to throw in an Angry Old Man slide about why iPads annoy me, especially as education devices. Here’s my List of Grievances:

  • Apple censors apps

  • iPads are designed for consumers. [This is false for these educators, however. They are using iPad apps to enable creativity.]

  • They are closed systems and thus lock users in

  • Apps generally don’t link out

That last point was the one that meant the most in the context of the talk, since I was stressing the social obligation we all have to add to the Commons of ideas, data, knowledge, arguments, discussion, etc.

I was sorry I brought the whole thing up, though. None of the points I raised is new, and this particular audience is using iPads in creative ways, to engage students, to let them explore in depth, to create, and to make learning mobile.

Nevertheless, as I was talking, I threw in one more: you can’t View Source the way you can in a browser. That is, browsers let you see the code beneath the surface. This capability means you can learn how to re-create what you like on pages you visit…although that’s true only to some extent these days. Nevertheless, the HTML code is right there for you. But not with apps.

Even though very few of us ever do peek beneath the hood — why would we? — the fact that we know there’s an openable hood changes things. It tells us that what we see on screen, no matter how slick, is the product of human hands. And that is the first lesson I’d like students to learn about knowledge: it often looks like something that’s handed to us finished and perfect, but it’s always something that we built together. And it’s all the cooler because of that.

There is no magic, just us humans as we move through history trying to make every mistake possible.

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November 6, 2013

[2b2k] Is the Net shortcutting our kids out of learning?

I was invited to give a talk yesterday afternoon to the faculty at Brookline High School where all three of our children were educated, and that graduated my wife and both of her parents. Furthermore, the event was held in the Black Box, a performance space I watched our youngest child perform in many times. (Go T-Tones!) So, it was thrilling and quite intimidating, even though the new headmaster, Deb Holman [twitter: bhsheadmaster] could not be more welcoming and open.

There were some great (= hard) questions, and a lot of skepticism about my comments, but not all that much time to carry on a conversation. After most people left, a couple of teachers stayed to talk.

One said that she thoroughly disagrees with my generally positive characterization of the Internet. In her experience, it is where children go to get quick answers. Rather than provoking them and challenging them, the Net lets them get instant gratification, and shuts down their curiosity.

We talked for a while. Her experience certainly rings true. After all, I go to the Net for quick answers also, and if I had to write an assignment on, say, The Great Gatsby, and I wanted to finish it before The Walking Dead comes on, I’d be out on the Net. And I’d get it done much faster than in the old days when I’d have to go to the library.

I’m still not sure what to make of this phenomenon. Did the old library experience of looking things up in the card catalog or in the Periodical Index made me any more thoughtful than googling does now? In fact, I’m more likely to see more ideas and opinions on the Net than in a trip to the library. On the other hand, the convenience of the Net means that I can just look up some ideas rather than having to work through them myself; the Net is letting student short-circuit the process of forming ideas. Perhaps the old difficulty of accessing materials added friction that usefully slowed down thought. I don’t know. I don’t feel that way about my own experience, but I am not a high school student, and I’m pretty self-deluding to begin with.

Anyway, that’s pretty much the issue the second teacher brought up after the talk. Keep in mind that BHS has an extraordinary set of teachers, always caring and frequently quite inspiring. She is in the School Within a School, which is more loosely structured than the rest of BHS. When she gives writing assignments, she tells her students to come up with an idea that will surprise her, and to express it in their own voice. Very cool.

Her concern is that jangle of the Net keeps students from mulling over ideas. Thought comes from a private and individual place, she believes, and students need that stillness and aloneness.

I can’t disagree with her. I want students to understand — to experience — the value of solitude and quiet, and to have internalized enough information that they can have it at hand to play with and synthesize. And yet…

..I’m not convinced that private thought is realest thought. I know that who I am when I’m alone doesn’t feel more real than when I am with others, and in many ways feels less authentic; I’ve written before about the inner narrator who accompanies me when I visit someplace new alone, making me feel more crazy than authentic. In a similar way, I’m not ready to accept that private thinking is the best thinking or the most authentic thinking. It has its place, of course, but personally (data point of one!) I think best when engaged with others, or when I’m writing while imagining my words engaging with others.

We have, it seems to me, overvalued private thinking, which is certainly not to say that it has no value. We have likewise undervalued social thinking. But now We think in public, out loud, with others. Most of our public engagements of course are not particularly deep or thoughtful in any normal use of the term. That’s why we need to be educating our children to appreciate thinking out loud with others, and teaching them how to do it. It’s in these public multi-way discussions that ideas and knowledge develop.

While there are many ways in which public thinking can go wrong, it has the advantage of revealing the mechanisms of knowledge in all their fallibility. We are still carrying over the cultural wish for black box authorities whom we can trust simply because they were the ones who said it. We need to steer our children away from that wish for inhuman knowledge, and thus toward recognizing how ideas and knowledge actually develop. Public thinking does that. At least it should. And it will do it more if our children learn to always wonder how knowledge has been brought forward. Especially when the ideas seem so obvious.

This is one reason I find the “flipped classroom” idea so interesting. (Good discussion of this yesterday on On Point.) I was asked yesterday what I’d like BHS to do if I could have it do anything. I answered rather badly, but part of it would have to be that students learn how to engage with one another socially so that they build knowledge together, and this knowledge tolerates disagreement, is assumed to be public, and is aware of itself as a product of social engagement. Of course that happens already in classrooms — and more so (presumably) in flipped classrooms — but we should be preparing our students for doing this virtually as well as in real space because the “real” discussions will increasingly be online where there is a wealth of sources to draw upon and to argue about.

But it’s hard to see how we get there so long as we continue to assign papers and reports as the primary type of knowledge artifact, isn’t it? (I’m not even going to mention standardized testing.) Doing so implicitly tells students that knowing is what you do alone: foraging sources, coming back with useful bits, and then engaging in an internal thought process that renders them into one of the conventional written forms. In that frame, the Net looks like an uncurated library, overflowing with lies, studded with occasional truths.

Instead, students could be required to explore a topic together, in public (or at least in the protected public of their class), discussing, arguing, joking, and evaluating one another’s sources. In that frame, the Net looks like a set of discussions, not an information resource at the end of the Information Highway. After all, kids don’t come into a class interested in The Great Gatsby. The teacher will help them to see what’s interesting about the novel, which is crucial and not easy to do. But primarily we get interested in things through one another. My interest steers yours, and yours amplifies mine. Our interest in The Great Gatsby is mediated and amplified by our interest in one another. We make the world interesting together. The Net does this all the time. Papers and reports rarely do.In their pursuit of demonstrating mastery, they too often drive the interest right out of the topic — less so at a wonderful school like BHS where teachers ask students to write in their own voice and come up with ideas that surprise them both.

Anyway, I came out of the session very stimulated, very thankful that so many of my relatives had the great good luck to attend that institution, and ever thankful to our teachers.

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June 15, 2013

[2b2k][eim] My Stuttgart syllabus

I’ve just finished leading two days of workshops at University of Stuttgart as part of my fellowship at the Internazionales Zentrum für Kultur- und Technikforschung. (No, I taught in English.) This was for me a wonderful experience. First of all, the students were engaged, smart, talked from diverse standpoints, and fun. Second, it reminded me how to teach. I had so much trouble trying to structure sessions, feeling totally unsure how one does so. But the eight 1.5 hour sessions reminded me why I loved teaching.

For my own memory, here are the sessions (and if any of you were there and took notes, I’d love to see them):

Friday

#1 Cyberutopianism, technodeterminism, and Internet exceptionalism defined, with JP Barlow’s Declaration of the Independent of Cyberspace as an example. Class introductions.

#2 Information Age to Age of Connected. Why Ted Nelson’s Xanadu did not succeed the way the Web did. Rough technical architecture of the Net and (perhaps) its embedded political values. Hyperlinks.

#3 Digital order. Everything is miscellaneous? From information Retrieval to search engines. Schema-based databases to tagging.

#4 Networked knowledge. What knowledge looks like once it’s been freed of paper. Four challenges to networked knowledge (with many more added by the students.)

On Saturday we talked about topics that the students decided were interesting:

#1 Mobile net. Is Facebook making us more or less social? Why do we fill up every interstice by using Facebook on mobiles? What does this say about us and the notion of the self?

#2 Downloading. Do you download music illegally? What is your justification? How might artists respond? Why is the term “intellectual property” so loaded?

#3 Education. What makes a great in-person course? What makes for a miserable one? Oddly, many of the characteristics of miserable classes are also characteristics of MOOCs. What might we do about that? How much of this is caused by the fact that MOOCs are construed as courses in the traditional sense?

#4 Internet culture. Is there such a thing? If there are many, is any particular one to be privileged? How does the Net look to a culture that is dedicated to warding off what it says as corrupting influences? End with LolCatBible and the astounding TheJohnnyCashProject

Thank you, students. This experience meant a great deal to me.

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May 5, 2011

[collabtech] Blurring classroom control

I’m at CollabTech at Case Western, and came in late on a session about blurring the lines of ontrol in classrooms.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

As I come in, Bill Deal is talking about encouraging students to tweet material related to the class. The students took to it, posting links to materials from around the Web. They averaged about 15 tweets (if I got that right). He says he’s tried other tech in classrooms, but this one really worked. In response to a question, he says that there was no interaction among twitterers outside of the class; they discussed using a hashtag, but some students wanted to keep their tweets private-ish.

Bernard Jim talks about his experience teaching 17-student seminars in which the students are expected to produce knowledge, not just consume it. He says the physical geography of the classroom puts all the tech at the front of the room, under the teacher’s control. [Surely they have laptops, though.] He begins each session by playing a song relevant to the day’s topic, and invites the students to play their music. The students initially resist this, but then take it up. The aim is for them to take possession of the tech in the classroom. He also wants them to understand that their cultural experiences are relevant to the course. (Bernard is a cultural historian.)

For example, he has them reading Burke on the sublime, who references Milton. “So, I’m teaching an 18th century philosophy who references a 17th century poet, to 21st century students who can be put off by a movie if it’s in black and white.” Burke asks what a frightening sound is: “a low tremulous intermitting sound.” So, Bernie plays a YouTube of the Halloween theme, to try to connect their experience to Burke.

Sometimes the students bring in their own references. E.g., in a class on letters discussing a letter from Abelard to Heloise (or was it vice versa), they brought in “Dramatic Reading of a Break-up Letter.”

In a different class they were talking about hypermasculinity, as in some of Michelangelo. The students responded with College Humor’s Power Thirst.

He also has a class on puzzles, which is “an extremely interactive class.” Once a week they have a puzzle challenge. On Pi Day (3/14), they took the Pi Day Challenge, up on the big screen. “You have a whole bunch of students yelling at me, which is what I like.”

Q: Do you ever get inappropriate student suggestions?
A: Yes, sometimes.
A: [bill deal] One tweet was “Great film of boobies” that turned out to be about birds.

Michael Kenney who teaches chemistry provided Kindles to 50 students. A third loved it. A third thought it was great for reading books, so they gave it to their parents [he says jokingly]. And a third sold it on ebay. Within class, it usefully kept all their texts in one place, although the lack of a file structure was a problem. But he got sued. ‘[He doesn’t say why and I didn’t find any info on a quick search.]

So, now they use the Entourage eDGe, which has a touch-sensitive Android tablet on one side and an ebook reader on the other. He’s hoping students can use these as their lab notebooks. [See Jean-Claude Bradley’s open notebook idea.] So far, he’s having the same results as with the Kindle. For one thing, the OS is underpowered and out of date. The eDGe concept “is very good, but it’s not going to replace” analog devices. His sits on a shelf, unused.

Q: [me] Have you connected with J-C Bradley.
A: Yes. Our aim is to have a cloud-based note-taking system. Bradley’s ideas are very good,.

Christine Hudak [twitter:infomatics1] , in the nursing school, has her students use twitter feeds to keep up with the ever-changing info. All the nursing students had to tweet, because social media are now being used with patients in hospitals. No personal tweets were allowed, although some students ignored that rule. They also had a private Facebook group page that they used for info sharing and communicating about projects; it was strictly student-driven. Christine didn’t see it until the end of the semester, and was very impressed. The page is being passed on to next year’s class.

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August 16, 2010

Help create shareable syllabi

Every course has a syllabus. In it are an expert’s ideas about the topics essential to the course of study and the works that explain those topics. And that’s at a bare minimum. Syllabi rock.

Yet, all that wisdom and goodness is locked in the syllabi, of use to the handful of students taking or considering taking the course. What a shame! Think of all we could do if the information in syllabi were made available for open access by humans and machines:

  • Teachers could discover new ideas for how to teach a course.

  • Students could browse among courses to see how other teachers teach them.

  • Researchers could be guided by this canon-in-practice — both to the expected works and away from works that are too expected.

  • Researchers studying disciplines would have a rich source of data to analyze.

To unlock these riches, several things have to happen.

First, the syllabi have to be collected and put into an open access repository. I’d love to see universities adopt open syllabi policies that require (ask? suggest?) that faculty submit a copy of their syllabi for each course they teach.

Then the syllabi have to be scraped so that the data within them is searchable by humans and parsable by computers.

Then the data should be put into some standard data format so that it can be more easily found, reused, and mined.

It’s this last step that I’m looking for help with. I’ve started a little project with Joseph Cohen to develop an XML schema for syllabi. (Joseph has a commecial project underway that could help with some of the other elements required to turn dead syllabi into a living beast at our command.)

If you’d like to jump in, go to the SylliXml wiki. (You have to register to edit.) We’re just at the kicking it around stage, and your contributions will be very helpful.

There are lots of questions to resolve. At the moment, we’re aiming at producing the most minimal schema we can, because syllabi are unstructured documents and trying to accommodate everything that might ever be put into one is a mug’s game. So, what is the minimum set of data and metadata that would make the information in syllabi amazingly useful?

Come play!

There is tremendous value hidden in the syllabi diaspora. Let’s unite and conquer!

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January 15, 2009

Nature Magzine sets up collaborative education space

Nature Magazine, which should be the stodgiest of the stodgiest, continues to show an admirable flexibility (stopping short of doing the full open access Monty). It’s now created Scitable, “a collaborative learning space for science undergraduates.” It’s got articles, online class tools, teacher collaborative tools, student collaborative tools, discussion areas, consultable experts… I haven’t yet gone through it all.

This initial implementation focuses on genetics. Nature is planning on expanding the topics.

On top of all that, it’s great to contemplate how blase we’ve become about the primordial value of collaborative tools. Collaboration is the new greed.

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January 10, 2009

151 changers of the game

JP Rangaswami chooses his favorite among the 151 responses to Edge’s question: “What Will Change Everything? What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” JP chooses Chris Anderson’s essay on Web-empowered teaching. (This is the CA of TED, not the CA of Wired.) JP also recommends reading all 107,000 words of all 151 responses, which I have not done. But it’s a great pool to take a random dip in.

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December 2, 2008

[Berkman] Chris Dede on Immersive interfaces and education

Chris Dede is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk on using the new immersive environments. [Note: I’m live-blogging, which means IO’m not checking for errors, and that I’m missing stuff, getting things wrong, paraphrasing, etc.]

Why immersion? “Immersion is the subjective impression that one is participating in a comprehensive, realistic experience.” Immersion can help learning by providing multiple perspectives, situated learning, and shifts in identity. Chris is interested in how we can make meaning out of complexity, using immersive interfaces in middle schools.

He sketches three types of immersive interfaces:

1. Augmented reality. You’re in the real world — you’re not an avatar — with a device that lets you overlay the real with the virtual. Entertainment and education can be anywhere. He shows a bit of his middle school math curriculum called “Alien Contact,” which uses mobile phones. Aliens have landed outside the school. The students explore the area (the real physical area), interviewing virtual characters and using mathematical and literacy skills. Students see different pieces of evidence based on their roles (FBI agent, linguist, computer expert, chemist), and have to collaborate to see the entire picture.

2. Alice-in-Wonderland, like SecondLife. Chris’ project has its own MUVE (multi-user virtual environment). This is partial immersion because you’re sitting in front of a monitor. He shows a clip about RiverCity. It’s a 3D simulation of a 1880 town battling infectious diseases. The students have to figure out what’s going on, learning the scientific method.

Situated learning — e.g., a medical internship — i s another example. You learn by doing and by watching people who know what they’re doing. Chris is using a virtuated environment to created a distributed-learning community.

3. Full immersion. Head-mounted displays. E.g., NewtonWorld, where you can see how balls interact, varying mass, velocity, etc. Similarly for MaxwellWorld.

He opens up the discussion.

Q: Would this work with university students? More sophisticated students?
A: A virtual ecosystem can be easy enough for a middle school student, but you can also imagine one complex enough for a university or graduate student.
Q: Complex environments are hard to create.
A: The good news is that the tools are being created by the entertainment industry. We then re-fit them our purposes. E.g., the authoring shell for the game Oblivion is very powerful. Within 5 years we’ll probably be able to build mixtures of emergent behaviors and scripted behaviors that are really compelling.

Q: Why did you make RiverCity historically situated. Doesn’t that make less obviously relevant to the kids.
A: We needed our kids to be experts. Even the least sophisticated kid today knows more about medicine than the most sophisticated person in the 1800s. [I love this idea.] Also, I wanted to show you could teach multiple things at the same time: science, history, English…

Q: [jz] Harvard Libraries have an outpost in SecondLife but not in Wikipedia. There seems to be something about participating in virtual places. Do you think of Wikipedia as an immersive environment? What would it mean to make it so? And would it improve it?
A: Wikipedia doesn’t work for sensory immersion, actional immersion (being able to fly, e.g.), but it might for symbolic immersion (what you get late at night if you’re reading a horror novel), depending on what you’re reading about or co-creating. A better example might be a Harry Potter fan fiction site. You can imagine putting the Wikipedia for HP inside a virtual HP world — your HP avatar could write an entry in the inner Wikipedia. And would it be better? Lectures are generally better in the real world. But it’d take a lot of discussion to answer your question fully….

Q: Some manuscripts can only be experience in a group via a virtual environment.
A: Yes. You could set up a virtual museum exhibit that brings together works, and that might let you explore the artist’s world. Or, for Van Gogh, what the world looked like a schizophrenic.

Q: How can you keep up with the commercial environments so that the educational ones don’t look old fashioned?
A: It depends on what factors matter. In terms of fidelity, many studies show that you need high fidelity in the parts where the experience requires it — e.g., teaching how to read X-rays — but you can have low fidelity for the parts not directly related to what you’re teaching. If it’s engaging, users don’t care about the low fidelity. None of the 15,000 students who have used RiverCity have complained that it’s too cartoon like, even though it’s not even remotely as photo realistic as the games they play.

Q: Metrics?
A: All of these projects measure gains carefully. They’re research projects. Typically the research shows that if it’s well designed, you get gains in learning…which is what research shows for just about educational technique.

Q: [me] First, I love the idea that in RiverCity, students are treated as experts. How much of this would you do in a day? How much of this is the film strip break in the day?
A: It varies developmentally. For young children, I’d do very little. You learn over and under by crawling, not by having your avatar do it. As they get older, maybe 15-20% of the day? It depends on the topic, the age of the students, etc…For my courses, I’d use the virtual environment at the beginning to let them see the scope of the landscape. In the middle, they’d do a formative experience inside the virtual environment: Here’s what I understand so far. At the end, you’d do a summative experience.

Q: [ethanz] Have people done side by side studies of these environments and other creative interventions, including teachers putting in an enormous of creativity into changing a lesson plan. Your examples tell us about engaged teachers more than about virtual environments, perhaps.
A: It’s a question very relevant to policy. One of the considerations: RiverCity’s cost for 30 kids is about the same as for 3,000 kids. But even the most skilled teacher could give students the sense of going back in time. Where the world is not doing much more than lecturing, you’re right to be skeptical. How are we testing this claim? We have control conditions for RiverCity and Alien Contact. The control conditions are paper-based games. We found a strong difference in engagement. In RC, we found a big difference in learning; in AC we’re breaking even in learing, but it’s a first gen project.

Q: I teach law. You are expected to immerse students into being just, fair and convincing. That’s entirely inter-human. To what extent could this virtual, artificial interface enable the inter-human relation, or perhaps hinder it.
A: Immersive interfaces aren’t equally powerful for all subjects. I don’t know the answer to your question, but one of the thigns we can do in RC is have two people can be in the same room and have different experiences. E.g., you could build a pre-Civil War environment. Two avatars walk down the street together. They see the same things, but one is a slave and one is a slave-holder. That leads to an interesting conversation.

Q: [charlie nesson] Can you establish a transfer of skills from games to real world skills?
A: I’m skeptical about claims of far transfer. The evidence there is weak. I’m quite more convinced about near transfer. So, saying that you’re good at World of Warcraft and thus you’d be good as a lawyer isn’t going to get you too far. It might mean that you can make fast decisions, but WoW aggression probably doesn’t correlate with aggression in the courtroom. The first is a near transfer, and the second is a far transfer.
Q: Has there been a lot of research on this?
A: Not that I’ve found. Closest you get to this is the military that has evidence that military skills transfer to civilian life, and many of those skills are gained by simulation. [Tags: ]

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June 1, 2008

New issue of JOHO … Now with added Ethanz!

I’ve just sent out a new issue of my newsletter, JOHO. (You can sign up to receive it via email, for free of course, here.)

How much do we have to care about? Even if the mainstream media’s coverage of most of the world didn’t suck, would we care? Are we capable of caring sufficiently? (Annotated by Ethan Zuckerman!)

The population of Nigeria roughly equals the population of Japan. Yet, the amount of space given to Nigeria by the US news media makes it about the size of Britney Spears’ left pinky toe. Why?

Serious researchers have been considering this question for generations. Do American newspaper editors skimp on Nigeria because they’re racists? Nah, at least not in the straightforward way. Is it because the readers don’t care about Nigeria? Somewhat. But how will we ever care if we never read anything about it? We seem to be stuck in vicious circle, or what’s worse,  a circle of not-caring…

Vint Cerf’s curiosity: If we are indeed getting more of a stomach for the complex, what role has our technology played?

Esquire magazine recently ran an interview with him that they busted up into a series of unrelated quotations. I was particularly struck by one little insight:

  “The closer you look at something, the more complex it seems to be.”

Because of Esquire’s disaggregation of the interview, we have to guess at Cerf’s tone of voice. My guess is that he said this with a sense of wonder and delight, not out of frustration. Of course, I may be reading Cerf’s mind inaccurately. But the plausibility of that reading is itself significant…

History’s wavefrontWhen we can record just about everything, history loses its past. And, no, I don’t know what I mean by that.

The Strand Bookstore in NYC has eighteen miles of books, which works out to about 2.5 million volumes. My excellent local library has 409,000. The Strand’s shelves press the shoppers together, giving a sense that the place is alive with the love of books. The library is quieter because emptier. Even so, the library has something the Strand does not: history.

We’ve assumed that knowledge was always there, just waiting to be known…

ROFLcon and Woodstock: Am I so enthusiastic about the ROFLcon conference because it was important or just because I’m out of touch?

I was at Woodstock. For two hours. I was supposed to meet a girl there. Hahaha. Instead, I wandered around, hoping someone would offer me something to smoke to get me through the Melanie performance. So, let me recap: I was at Woodstock, didn’t meetup with the girl I was infatuated with, didn’t get stoned, and heard Melanie. Also, it was raining. Still, I was at Woodstock, which used to give me street cred, but now just makes me obsolete.

But forget my experience and take Woodstock as a watershed event at which the young realized they were more a potential movement and not just a demographic slice. ROFLcon felt something like that…

Is the Web different? The definitive and final answer.

I taught a course this past semester for the first time in 22 years.  The course was called “The Web Difference,” which was apt since it was about whether the Web is actually much different from what came before it, with an emphasis on what that might mean for law and policy. 

During the final class session, I took a survey…

The Turing Tests: Throwback humor, in both senses.

The fool. I won’t spend the money yet, but it’s only a matter of time before Van Klammer will lose our bet. I don’t care about winning the $100, of course. I’ll use it to buy something I’ll use frequently, to remind me of my moral and intellectual victory. Perhaps a set of mugs inscribed with “Courtesy of Dr. Van Klammer…Loser!”…

Bogus Contest: Surely anagrams can’t be random!

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