Monday, February 16, 2009

A Treatise on the Astrolabe

I have attempted in a few postings here to talk about art and science. I have been asked more than once about the connection between instructional design and art (other kinds of design) or how I find the time to create when I am writing and working so much for others. There are a couple of answers to those kinds of questions and I think the real trick is to understand that there is no difference between the art we create and the work that we do (another answer is "I never have enough time!"). It is all fine and good to be a poet and an artist, but the real genius is to see the poetry and art in all that we do; to give ourselves to our work in such a way that our creativity or playfulness is found even in the most serious of things. I am only sometimes successful in doing this. This is why I love people like Da Vinci, Chaucer, Dante, and Cheng Man-Ch'ing - the polymathic autodidacts of the world. It is a stunning thing to find out that a favorite poet worked in a bank or was a family physician. Or to read the complete works of Chaucer and run across "A Treatise on the Astrolabe." This would not be too far off from reading a GPS handbook by Umberto Eco. The astrolabe is really an early astronomical computer. It has programmed data (the star positions on the rete) and an input (the alidade or rule). With that, you can find our information about where you are, what time it is, how fast you are going; vital information for both navigating or practicing Islam. Writing something like this was all in a day's work for Chaucer because he was interested and enthusiastic about so many things and was interested in bringing those ideas to others. His "Treatise on the Astrolabe" is a fine example of early technical writing. It is written in very clear, direct prose. The economy of style would fit right in with standard guidelines at NASA. This treatise was written by Chaucer for his son, Louis: "Lyte Lowys my sone, I aperceyve wel by certeyne evydences thyn abilite to lerne sciences touching nombres and proporciouns; and as wel considre I thy besy praier in special to lerne the tretys of the Astrelabie." What is interesting here is that he is writing the treatise for someone he knows to already have a gift for science and math. In other words, he is shaping the document for his audience. He also had the astrolabe calibrated for Oxford because unlike a sextant, an astrolabe is only accurate for one line of latitude. The treatise is unfinished (at least according the latest textual evidence) but it looks finished enough to actually get a working knowledge of the astrolabe. My point here is that this text was used for teaching. It was the second most published of Chaucer's text apart from the "Canterbury Tales" and it is not just a manual for a scientific insturment but a record of an early form of technical writing, teaching, and translation (from Latin sources) from a major poet.
Note: Yes, my father was an English teacher and named me for Chaucer.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"Professors Regard Online Instruction as Less Effective"

In another example of the Chronicle of Higher Ed's misunderstanding and misapprehension of education, technology, and online learning, they have published an article called "Professors Regard Online Instruction as Less Effective Than Classroom Learning" By David Sheih. There is nothing wrong with reporting the results of a survey. That is what they should be doing: reporting. But what I don't understand is why they find that so significant when other stories should be taking precedence. If they are going to have a tech section, they should be writing more about web 2.0, new trends in learning theory (Connectivism perhaps?), the open source movement in the changing economy, and a hundred other topics besides something that has been pretty much settled since the early 90s.

I am not sure that I see any relevance in a survey of what faculty and administrators "feel" about online learning. There is already enough research to show that there is No Significant Difference in the learning between online and face-to-face students. I have taught online and off and also work as an instructional designer. In my experience, face-to-face and online take the same amount of time. What I find is that instructors who say that it takes more time have not been properly trained in how to teach online. They are often not taking advantage of the full range of tools available to them and have unreasonable expectations of themselves and their students (24/7 faculty availability; 24 hour turn around on all postings, emails, and assignments; futzing around with email attachments instead of using the LMS, etc.) It is not the same as teaching face-to-face and when instructors try to replicate the face-to-face experience online they run into trouble.

The print version of the Chronicle is worse. They have headlines in the tech section like "MIT Lab Gets New Wall Sockets and Plugs" with pictures of administrators at ribbon cutting ceremonies wondering what the new holes in the wall are for and why they were so expensive. The real news about the faculty and administrators who think that online learning is less effective is how little they know about online learning and the possibilities of online teaching.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Concept Maps: from pencil to virtual worlds

I presented at an online conference recently ("Connecting Online 2009") on concept maps. I not only want to present on concept maps and the technology around them, but I think I can show how the change in the media used to create the maps can change the way we think about the ideas and information. This is not really very new - the seeds of this argument were planted in readings from McLuhan to George Siemens. I felt that CO '09 was a good preliminary attempt at defining that and I will expand that work for a live presentation in Wanatchee later this year. One of the things I have discovered about concept maps is that, for myself, there is no "right" technology: pencils, Inspiration, Freemind, Personal Brain, and Spidergram Planner in Second Life all do different things and those differences can allow us to see information and problems in new ways. I don't like how some of the software forces you to label each connection but that labeling process can be helpful in seeing ideas differently. A lot of the discussion of the differences between "mind maps" and "concept maps" range from the nearly logical to the arbitrary; what you decide ultimately reveals what kind of thinker you are rather than which definition or tool is the "correct" one to use. I find myself using different tools in different situations. I used to teach in k-12 and that system has a long history of using concept maps. K-12 was on the cutting-edge with rubrics and portfolios long before they showed up in colleges. But it is no accident that concept maps are a popular teaching tool in k-12 schools because that is where students are just learning how to form their ideas and how ideas and thoughts are connected to one another.