Archive for June, 2007

The World to Come

I have just returned from 6 glorious days at the beach with six absolutely wonderful teenagers, all of whom happen to be related to me : )

When I was growing up we went to the beach every summer to a practically primitive place. It had no television or phone. We complained about that a little, but the sand, sun, pool, ocean, card games, etc. more than made up for it. Beach days are easily the happiest memories of my youth.

I used to think that getting away to a simpler place was what made it magical. Was it? On our vacation this year we had several laptops with us, and the house had wi-fi as well as several tv’s and dvd players. J. had a digital camera, pretty much everyone had their own cell phone, and many of us had ipods. And I think that applied to most of the houses at the beach, given the other wireless networks that offered themselves to my computer when I logged on and the folks I saw gabbing, texting and jamming on the beach.

Yeah, it was different. But it also wasn’t different. Everyone moved seemlessly from technology to non-technology. J. read about 10 paperbacks, while C2 IM’d with a buddy who was vacationing in Belgium. N. had her earphones on when running or sunbathing, but took them off often to chat, and handed them to me to listen to her favorite songs when she wanted me to hear them. Uncle P. heard via Blackberry from one of his employees who had a family emergency and needed permission for a few weeks off while she went home to China. All of the kids showed each other their favorite videos on YouTube. J. and C3 even made their own video, a rif on a “cupcake” video that is popular right now, by using J.’s camera (that also does video). We all wanted to learn more about Barber Shop singing since C1 had missed the first beach day for training at Harmony College –he is the school’s new Bass–so C2 found us some Barber Shop music videos at YouTube. We wanted to learn more about the ghostcrabs we saw on the beach, so Bman looked it up on Wikipedia, then went back to playing his guitar.

But one of their favorite activities, when the waves were too flat, was playing with my Mac photobooth:


We all got all the sun that pale, freckled folks like us can stand, and we enjoyed some improv games after dinner one night, and we had a luau complete with tiki torches…and we did this other fun stuff too. Actually, if the new technology took the place of anything, it was boring old bad tv. As we were packing up to go, “Good Times” came on the tv, and the boys were watching. “Well, this is kind of lame,” they said. We explained: “well, back in the olden days, there were only 3 tv stations, and we were pretty limited…” What if I had been able to rif on “Good Times” with my own video camera then?

It was a fabulous vacation. It wasn’t primitive, but it was away, different, and a special time with family we rarely get to see. And I feel I know my nieces better for knowing their favorite songs and videos and seeing them at play–on the beach, and on the internet.

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Jim Groom starts an interesting conversation here that I confess to not completely understand. We have been a Blackboard institution, and I have seen that this is just not going to do what we need to do. It is too restrictive, and it was designed for a model of learning that is inaccurate (which is actually generous–I don’t think it was really designed with learning in mind at all!) For my own teaching I started using Blogger blogs about 2 years ago.  They are SO easy to use, and allowed for email notifications of updates, and a blogroll of other other blogs in the class.  That was all I needed, and I didn’t have to waste lots of class time teaching a software, nor did I have to have the Tech people come in and teach it for me–yes, it was that easy.  I didn’t have to know even a smidgen of code.  And at the time, email was still the main communication mode.

But now–I notice that students don’t wake up and check their email first thing anymore.  They perceive email as more “formal” and for old people.  The first thing they check on the web now is their facebook account, and the first thing they actually check is their phone.  I am fascinated by how much of their life filters through their phones, and how those devices are with them constantly, almost like security blankets.  We are renovating a classroom and putting in “comfy arm chairs” that have a small metal disk on the arm.  I though it was a cup holder; the registrar who had tested the chairs with students said “No–they use them for their keys and phone.”

So I am trying to understand what this is about.  My new phone gets my email and allows for messaging, and I have been having some fun with that.  Twitter will work with phones too, but I haven’t made that leap yet.  But phones are for short things–alerts, quick communications, looking at things quickly on the web.  But frankly, it is still hard to see much on the web from my phone and it is really slow.  Will the iphone change this?

For learning, we need places for sustained reflection, bigger documents/objects, more in depth conversation–as well as quick communication.  I think I am going to opt out of Blackboard all together this fall, but I am concerned about how I will do some of the things I used to do there.  We won’t have an easy way to email the whole class at once, or individuals in the class.  I’ll have to use e-reserve through the library if I want to post things that are copyrighted (I should have been doing that anyway).  I will use del.cio.us tagging, and maybe Flickr along with the blogs, so the students will be creating content along with me, which better fits my understanding of how people learn through conversation and collaboration.  I will try UMW’s theory of small pieces, loosely joined.

But here is what I haven’t’ decided: will I go to WordPress for the student blogs?  It still seems to me, having used WP and Blogger both for the last 9 months, that Blogger is just still simpler for the user!  The only thing it can’t do (easily) is host podcasts, and I don’t know that my students will be doing that.  For me, it is still a giant pain to have to put any larg-ish files out on my Bluehost account in order to get them into my blog.  Blogger handles images more seamlessly, and allows for modifications of the format of the blog so students can personalize their space easier than WP.  While every class has one student, it seems, who is a web genius, most of the students are still intimidated by the whole concept of a class where they are active creators, and if the tools aren’t REALLY simple they become a stumbling block.  Students are masters of socializing with each other, but they are not masters of web authoring, nor of deep collegial conversation.  I want to spend our time on the reading and writing and conversation, not the tools.  So–while I appreciate all you guys are saying about the big picture of what the University should do and provide, I keep bringing it back down to the microcosm of my class, and I want to keep it simple!  It doesn’t matter to me how much “better” something is if it raises the barrier too high for users.  I hope we will find a solution that works better for the whole system–maybe sakai… maybe drupal will be a part– but for now, I am going to play with the Small Pieces idea, and the small pieces I use will be not just small, but simple.

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Take a Seat

Someone once told me that students who sit in the back on the left will always be the most difficult. She said these “back left corner students” were there because they were the most cynical.

Since I ususally teach in a classroom with 3 large, round tables, this doesn’t exactly translate well, and yet I have thought that I have noticed a pattern. Or maybe not. I have never really studied it, but I can so clearly remember the faces of some of my most challenging students, and they did sit in more or less the same chairs! And one terrible semester in a fixed row, computer lab classroom, I spent most of my time trying to engage the bad boy back row and tear their attention from the computer screens.
So I decided to do a little research instead of finishing an assessment report. It really is interesting when you think about learning spaces, as we are trying to do here. Most of the studies I saw address the traditional classroom set up. IF you want a quick, non-scientific take on this, try this recently published interactive site .

Of course, there is lots of actual, serious literature on this topic, and I plan to look in the educause ebook on learning space to see if this topic comes up. At the January ELI conference, there seemed to be growing concensus that a room should have no true front or back, and that students at moveable tables , facing one another, get the message they will be collaborating! Members of the Maricopa system even seem to believe that if you change the space, you effect change in learning without doing any other intervention with the teacher! Hmmm. Might put faculty developers out of a job!
One of the more unusual takes on this issue was an article that appeared in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. They talk about people trying to manage what impression they make on others, and the choosing of seats as a way of doing that.

“…BIRGing (Basking In Reflected Glory) has shown that
people attempt to influence how they are evaluated by
associating themselves with things that are successful
(e.g., Cialdini et al., 1976). The manipulation of salience
may be another impression management technique in
which people exploit some distinct bias characterizing
person perception. Our findings suggest that people
deliberately vary their position in social contexts to take
advantage of the basic tendency to evaluate targets dif-
ferently when they are salient than when are not.”

I take this to mean that I have to be careful–some of those back row cynics may actually be open-minded, engaged students just waiting for a reason to come to the front and BIRG of the other engaged students!

Meanwhile, who are you BIRGing (of?) (with?)

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