Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Respublica Digitarum

Birth of weaponed Athena who emerged from Zeus...Image via Wikipedia

Some random notes I made while I was catching up on my reading last week with my non-swine related illness:

There is an article in the latest New York Review of Books on Anthony Grafton and his latest book "Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West" reviewed by G. W. Bowersock. Towards the end of the article there are some amusing notes on Grafton's suspicion of Google and online texts. What I miss about the communities of scholarship in the online world vs. the face-to-face is that if one challenged someone's thinking real-time they came back the next week with research, essays, or evidence and called you on to the carpet. Today they just drop you from Twitter! We read the work of a professional scholar like Grafton's born in full armor like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. This is lovely of course, but I would also like to read Grafton's letters and notes as well. I would have also liked to have participated in the broader understanding of that work as it evolved. I can't do that yet with him, but I can with writers like George Seimens or Stephen Downes because their work is being created in the new "Respublica Litterarum" of the internet. I will call this the "Respublica Digitarum" or the "Respublica Digitara." The internet and the blogosphere is the new coffee house of the 18th century, the "penny university."

Bowersock waxes nostalgiac about the old libraries and books. I don't see it that way. He sees a beutiful old library; I see knowledge siloed away in an inaccessible ivory tower of privilege. I too love old books and value the feel of original sources. But that world is only for the select few and knowledge dribbles out of that silo very slowly. I am glad classical literature is moving online in places like the Perseus Digital Library. Not only do I not have access to these documents elsewhere but neither does the collective intelligence of the internet, or that highly gifted young person with original ideas and fresh enthusiasm (but little money or connections for education at Harvard).

George Seimens asks in Teaching as Transparent Learning about the connection between community, learning and teaching and how interrelated the activities might be. It is in direct contrast to the spirit of Grafton's work. The "Republic of Letters" is the same cacophonous bazaar of ideas that is the "Digital Republic" but much slower. Ideas like this that connect the various traditions are an important context to our intellectual history because they provide a vital context that shows that these ideas are part of a long tradition of research, study, and communication. It is unfair of scholars like Bowsock or Grafton to compare the on-going seminar of the blogs to a closed and finished traditional journal article. Blog entries are always seen as questions, open statements, works in progress, not ends in themselves. Blogs are important because they are somewhat more durable than email or discussion board postings. Electronic books (where some of this wisdom is collected) are going to

Bust of Zeus in the British MuseumImage via Wikipedia

be even more important. A good example of that is Seimen's book "Knowing Knowledge."

In another posting from George Seimens on New Criteria for a New Media the idea of blogging as part of a scholar's academic publishing is brought up. I think if someone gets academic credit for a 225 word note on the use of the passive paraphrastic in the poems of Callimachus in an issue of Modern Philology then scholars and teachers who are constantly engaging and challenging others in their field in new ways via social media should also get some recognition. "As the reports from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Modern Language Association, and the University of Maine recommend, promotion and tenure guidelines must be revised to encourage the creative and innovative use of technology if universities are to remain competitive in the 21st century." I read all of this together in the same afternoon and it is amazing how it all works together. On one hand you have a traditional scholar who isn't quite sure about all this "new" technology and on the other you have the new scholars trying to make sense of where there work fits into that stream.

Friday, April 24, 2009

On Closed and Open Sytems

James Burke, the creator and host of Connectio...Image via Wikipedia

I have a couple emails from the James Burke web asking me why all of a sudden there has been this increase in traffic to his YouTube page. I am not sure why they are asking me. But I did recently subscribe and put him on my favorites list. The answer was that recently a couple of educators mentioned on Twitter that his videos were on YouTube and it is a real testament to the power of Twitter that enough people went and subscribed or downloaded the videos enough for someone to notice. James Burke is the journalist/historian that did the BBC show "Connections" and "The Day the Universe Changed." I was pleasantly surprised to see how his shows from the late 70s and early 80s held up. The shows were popular and I found them very interesting, informative, and fun. The fact that he could hold the interest of a late teen with a mixture of history and science is a real credit to his work. The principles behind his work still holds up today. His latest project is something he calls the "K-Web" or "Knowledge Web." The K-Web, so far, is a collection of over 200,000 thousand entries in a database of people and technology. All of them are interconnected in time, events and other people and objects. It is like a large encyclopedia of connected information. He is talking to the people who created "TheBrain" mindmapping and presentation software which I think is a terrific piece of programming and a great presentation tool. I have embeded a film below of his description of the project. There are some comments at his YouTube page from a few people who are wondering if this project is still active and I have a few ideas about why it might not be or at least why it might be going slowly. You have a great teacher and communicator (James Burke), a lot of information, and some great tools. The problem is going to come in with the creation of yet another closed information system. My impression of the project (and I hope I am wrong) is that they are creating a dynamic, interconnected encyclopedia. And that is the problem - we don't need another encyclopedia. We don't need another database of information (we have Wikipedia). We don't need another closed commercial project that will separate users and knowledge creators from sharing information. What is really special about the idea of the K-Web is that it implies a set of semantic rules that can show us how information, technology and people are interconnected. And that is exciting. I would be interested in an XML/RDF schema that authors could apply to information (metadata) that databases could then gather and assemble according to programed rules. This is essentially the idea of the semantic web. There is an information entropy in closed systems such as MERLOT (of which I am, nevertheless, a participant and believer) because it needs an easier way for people to connect information with people besides memberships and subscriptions. Projects like the K-Web can be a lens through which we really see and make sense of all of the information. I just hope it doesn't get locked up in commercial software. He says here that he sees it as open to education but I mean open as far as people being able to contribute and edit. I like his criticism of concept mapping as too hierarchical to really represent information.

Note: Occasionally I read criticisms of Burke saying that at times the connections he discusses between ideas, technology, information, and people are superficial. But his philosophy is that we are all interconnected and so we are participating, even in small ways, in all of this knowledge building, creating, and inventing. In the past, some of the smallest interconnections have led to the biggest changes. This is especially true in this age of collaboration and communication.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

3 Reasons Why Twitter Works in Education

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...Image via CrunchBase

A number of us here at Tacoma Community College are using Twitter. Recently one of our faculty who is new to it said "I doing this but I don't know why yet" which is a fair thing to say. On the surface, it looks (and can be) fairly superficial. As a matter of fact, the Common Craft video on Twitter is pretty ridiculous. If I saw that video first, I would not have created an account. I thought I really didn't care what you were having for lunch; it turns out I am wrong about that, but the video is an overly simplistic view of Twitter that does not do the power of the simple or the network creation capabilities justice. It is quite possible that when the video was made no one really knew how this tool would really be used.

1. It's Simple
Twitter is one of those tools that nearly does nothing. It is extremely simple. I do not need to hold a two hour seminar to teach students or educators how to use it. It is a microblog. You can follow people and people can follow you. You can tell people what you are doing in 140 characters or less. Brevity is the soul of wit. Twitter forces you to be concise. I can easily create accounts and I can place a twitter feed on my blog or website very quickly. It is low bandwidth.

2. Communication

Twitter is a great way to link people back to your blog, business, or other website. It is also a way to be alerted when something is happening in your network of interest to you. And you also get a lot of mundane details about people's lives and vice-versa, but here is why that can be important too. Let's say I am trying to form a team and I need to talk to someone, I may know that John eats lunch at his desk every Thurs. because he tweets that now and again. I may not remember why I know that information, but it is Thursday and somehow, I know he will be at his desk. This mundane information gives me an idea of when students are studying, when people are going to work and puts me in the ebb and flow of their day no matter what time zone they may be in.

Network of testimonials: flickr's social networkImage by GustavoG via Flickr

3. Connections
Twitter doesn't just allow you to create networks but as you add people to your following/follwers list, you begin to see messages to and from people you may not have thought of following or meeting before. Instructors can leverage this in some very powerful ways. If a new student opens a teachers followers list and follows everyone on that list, those new students are then following a list of professionals, students from the previous classes, and those who have graduated and are working in the field. I have an example from a Health Information Management's social networking map. This is an easy way to increase the interactivity of a course.

There are a number of good introductions to twitter for educators, tools to harness the power of it's simplicity, or to find other educators on twitter, but the motherlode of all links to all things twitter is at Jane Hart's microbloging page.
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Monday, April 13, 2009

Wisdom Cries Out in the Streets...

Krishna displays his Vishvarupa (Universal For...Image via Wikipedia

A in the "60 Seconds Science" column in Scientific American there is an interesting note about Jest and Meeks' attempt to map "wisdom." They have looked at 10 scientific papers that have attempted to define wisdom and believe that they have found its seat in certain areas in the brain.

"Jeste and Meeks concede that some might call their conclusions reductionistic because they based their 'map' not on the idea that wisdom is a single trait, but a collection of attributes. But Jeste said that similarities between how wisdom was portrayed thousands of years ago in the Bhagavad Gita (a Hindu scripture) and in the West today — as well as the tale of Phineas Gage, a railway worker whose allegedly wise attributes such as amiability and good judgment were said to vanish after a spike penetrated his left frontal lobe — 'makes you think it's not a cultural phenomenon but biologically consistent.'"

Skull diagram of w:Phineas GageImage via Wikipedia

First off, I have to say that my amiability might suddenly vanish if I had a railroad spike through my head. What makes me a little less cranky but cranky none-the-less is the illusive definitions of "wisdom," "knowledge," "memory," "ideas," and "information." I do like that they refer it to a collection of attributes. When we talk about learning and our relationship to knowledge and information, I think we are looking at a similar problem. When we use taking notes to learn, I think it is important to remember that that action includes the movement of the hand and the feel of the pencil. In other words, thinking and cognition may not reside in a single organ. Until we understand how all of the parts work together, I am not really sure if we have a working definition of knowledge epistemologically.

One of the weaknesses of the cognitive approach to pedagogy is that there is a false correlation between how the brain functions and how we learn. This cognitive approach is found in many theories of learning whenever the researcher wishes to put the stamp of legitimacy on a project with Real Science. Thinking, memory and learning are a little messier than the fMRI's would lead us to believe. Neuroscience is going to tell us how we sense the world around us and how currently measurable systems function in the brain but that is as far away from knowing how we learn as the Hubble is from answering cosmological questions about the origin of time. We are learning valuable things but we do not know enough about all the interrelated complex systems that go into creating a single thought to make any conclusions about how we learn.

I hope we read more about an accounting of Eastern systems of epistemology and ontology as they relate to learning. The current thinking about education is decidedly Cartesian. Ironically, Leibniz read a Latin translation of the I Ching which if it did not influence his exploration and invention of binary numbers, it certainly led him to strongly consider the the archetypal significance of a numbering system (as seen in his writings) which led to the modern computer.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

A Vision of Students Today Redux

An example of a social network diagram.Image via Wikipedia

Mike Wesch recently posted a revisit to his original video “A Vision of Students Today.”

I found the original video exhilarating. I knew people who interpreted the video as a negative thing. I did not understand that. I thought people would see that video and say “it is time to change how we teach.” I really thought that it was about time. Instead, they would say “those poor kids” and talk about how we should be banning computers in the classroom. I celebrated the video because I knew that those changes in our culture were already happening. Students today do not read paper; they do not read journals, and they don’t subscribe to newspapers. The current culture of teaching prepares students for a world that is already gone. No one is going to ask them in the work place to solve a problem by writing a ten-page research paper.

The original video was one of the inspirations for our class (Health Information Management 101). This class utilizes social networks, new media, and is portfolio assessed. I felt that it was important to create a class that taught students how to build knowledge networks of peers, advanced students, and professionals. We also have classes where students are creating videos and podcasts in place of traditional papers. Since the students are utilizing the internet and networks for their main source of information, it is extremely important that we facilitate critical thinking about new media and social networks. Isn't that why we were doing this in the first place? When did papers and tests become more important than critical thinking?

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Google Docs as an Assessment Tool

Screenshot-Google Docs & Spreadsheets

Yesterday I had Monica Monk in my office. She is an ESL teacher here at Tacoma Community College. She was looking for some way for her students to record what kind of errors they make in their writing and how often. She also wants them to record what they are doing right. Monica is pretty fearless when it comes to technology, so I suggested that we try the forms in Google Docs. We logged into Google Docs and created a form that asks for the student's name, assignment, and then asks the frequency of certain kinds of errors that she wishes to track (e.g., how many errors, adjective clauses, adverb clauses, etc.). When you create a form in Google Docs, it automatically builds a spreadsheet based on the form. Monica will be able to sort this data by student or assignment and track the success (or weakness) of an assignment over time. I think there are a lot of untapped possibilities here and I am thinking that we can't be the only ones who have thought of using this tool in this way. I would love to find others who are doing this. Google Docs is secure - no one will be able to see the data except for Monica or those she chooses to share it with. The spreadsheet creates charts and graphs and is exportable into Excel. Getting an IT dept. anywhere to build a tool like this for the school would take years and cost a lot of money, and forget about trying to get institutional data on individual assignments or even an individual class.

As the economy weakens, more projects like this will surface as people seek solutions to assessment problems. Projects that use free or open source tools in creative ways, If you are doing something similar, know of someone who is, would like to do this, leave us a comment here.

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