Friday, July 31, 2009

The New Economy

Yup. Empathy is disappearing from the human race. Thank heaven the humor is still there.

Campers of Doom

Truth be told, I've had worse camping spots. At Warm River, the little dumpy spot we got was sandwiched between the water pump and the parking lot. We had no grass, just a little patch of gravel a picnic bench and a fire pit.

So the spot we had today was better. Grass. A nice big willow tree. A picnic table. Rather nice. But as it was behind an automobile dealership where we were stranded with the camper because on the way to Heise the truck's brakes locked up for no good reason. We sat there -- had a picnic; used the stove in the camper to boil water for hotdogs and had some baked beans -- for two hours as they fiddled with the truck. It was nice of them to fit us in. But they couldn't find anything wrong. At all. And wanted us to spend $400 for something or other which might or might not have solved the problem they couldn't find. So we drove home and will take the truck to Iona on Monday.

I have this cloud of doom that follows me, that's what it is. We've just been cursed for camping this year. First time was at Warm River and we ran out of propane and the battery died. Second time was to Wolf Flats and we had a heck of a time finding a new battery and the canopy fell off enroute. Then today. So I think I'm done camping for the year.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Child in the Man

Once and a while, I like to spool this up and watch it, just fo fun. Does it mean I want to revert to my childhood? Not necessarily. Though I did watch a lot of Sesame Street -- and The Price is Right, come to think about it; I even made a replica of the "Three Strikes, You're Out, You Don't WIn A Car Game" out of cardboard -- there are aspects of childhood I would not revisit. So I can, through my rose-colored glasses, simply re-live the good memories. Like this:

Re-watching this particular clip reminds me of the days I spent home from school alone because I was sick and everyone else had stuff to do. It also makes me grateful that we don't have TV at home, because my children would be as rich with such similar TV drivel as I am.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ghostbusters, circa 1950

So, what if 1984's Ghostbusters had been filmed in the 1950s? Someone mashed together clips from The Absent-Minded Professor, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Ghost Breakers, and a few other classic films to imagine this little cinematic trailer gem:

It's hard to see Fred MacMurray in Harold Ramis' role, but the Flubber MacMurray has kind of that professorial seriousness about him that Ramis brings to the role of Egon Spangler. I can see him trying to figure out some kind of mathematical formula on, well, in the '50s it would have had to be a slide rule, only to have Bob Hope's Pete Venkman slap it out of his hands. And who better to play the role of Ray "Get Her" Stantz in the 1950s than Dean Martin? Well, Jerry Lewis, whom I assume the mashers of this clip bring in for the role of Lewis Tully. Oh well, They couldn't get everything right.

Twain, the Curmudgeon

Illustration from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Mark Twain has always struck me as resembling that gruff, slightly off-putting uncle every family has. He's humorous but doesn't care whose feelings he hurts as he makes other people laugh. He agrees with other points of view as long as they coincide with his own. He believes he knows what is best for everyone, at every time. And, most importantly, he believes his solution to the problem is the only solution that should even be considered.

After reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, I can't say my opinion of Mark Twain has changed.

To be fair, this is the first book of his I have read. I've had the specre of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer hung over my head by all sorts of teachers since elementary school. I gave then the answer that because the stroeis weren't about anthropomorphic animals or part of the McGurk mystery series by E.W. Hildick, I wasn't parcitularly interested. Twain's writing style -- ,jumping out of the 19th century American frontier -- never much appealed to me either. But I'm growing older and wiser and trying to prise open my mind to different things.

Twain, as a satirist, is difficult to understand. How much of what he writes in A Connecticut Yankee is meant to take seriously, and how much is to be brushed aside? Do we really believe, through his protagonist Hank Morgan, that Twain believed an application of technology, starting with the establishment of a patent office, advertising in the form of sandwich boards, and modern journalism were to cure all of medieval England's ills, or any society's ills? Probably not. Maybe this was Twain's attempt to show that such application of what one society regards as normal and necessary is merely jingoism, especially in the light of the people's rebellion against the "Republic" at the end of the novel, through fear of and loyalty to the church, kith and kin. (All of which is a smashing allegory to the United States' current involvement in Iraq. No amoutn of application of Western values and culture there is going to cut through the cutlure that is already there.)

It is interesting toconsider that Twain's novel came out at about the same time as Edward Bellamy's utopic Looking Backward. Twain's novel could be considered his attempt at creating a utopic society in which Morgan is able to create a new nation out of the rough cloth of medieval England. If it was, it succumbed to the cynicism that is the hallmark of Twain's later years.

Anyway, I have Life on the Mississippi coming up soon on my reading list. I'll give Twain a second chance.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Simon's Cat Strikes Again

Growing up, we had a cat that did this with spiders. Didn't necessarily do with the spider what Simon's Cat does with the fly in the end, thank goodness . . .

Monday, July 27, 2009

Best and Worst

The best and worst thing about the Internet is this:

Irrelevancy is no longer relevant.

Graduation: Then What?

Maybe I'll jinx things by mention this, but I'm now one week -- and one passing grade -- away from having a masters degree in english, with an emphasis on technical writing. I'm not saying this to brag; I'm mentioning it because if (and I certainly hope when) I pass the final class I'm in -- it ends Friday -- a significant chapter of my life will close, and another will open.

I'll be able to add a few more pretentious initials to my signature. I'll contemplate a course of study that might lead me to other pretentious initials, though at this point I'm not sure if a doctorate with a technical writing emphasis is right for me. Maybe something in English, but then again I'd have to look at how much ground I'd have to re-plow. I have to admit of the courses I've taken in my university career thus far, the ones that stand out the most have been the English ones, and a few from this masters program, specifically those focusing on writing for the web (which I still don't quite know how to do properly, so I'll continue trying).

I chose the fuzzy graduate clip art for this reason: I"m not sure where I'll be going next. This degree, while handy, does nothing for me in my current job, but may help me in future employment pursuits. Furthering my education more would also help, because, like bachelors degrees fifteen years ago, masters degrees are becoming a dime a dozen these days. That's kind of frightening, because I've worked hard these past 2 1/2 years to earn what I'm hopefully earning this summer. What it does do is help me get my foot in the door at BYU-Idaho, though I can't say I'm smitten with the idea of teaching.

I do know it's going to be weird, not having classes and homework. I've gotten so used to those two things over the past few years I might be a little antsy, trying to figure out what to do with my time. There's always the novel, of course, but then again, there's always the novel. And with the economy the way it is, I'm not sure there are a lot of openings for types like me, and if there are, there are certainly a lot of types like me out there with freshly-minted masters degrees. So do I get more out of this than a bit of gleeful angst about the future and a certificate to hang on the wall (for which I'm going to have to rearrange things now, thank you very much)? The assumption is yes. That's the state of the world now. Assume, but don't plan on anything too solid. Hope without guarantees.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Mikey's House!

What better way to spend the best part of a day touring northwestern Oregon than tooling around Astoria, Oregon, and taking in all the sights from The Goonies, one of the best cult films to come out of the 1980s? I can't think of anything better, so I wrote about my tour at Enjoy.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

That First Draft Feeling

From Seasoned Student to Nascent Teacher:

How my patterns of learning are shaping a fledgling teaching philosophy.

Allow me a little facetiousness, because I may have found my teaching philosophy summed up in a cartoon. Specifically, “A Tale of Two Kitties,” a Warner Brothers Merrie Melody from 1942, in which two cats (modeled after the comedy team Abbott and Costello) try again and again to catch and devour an anything-but-helpless little bird – Tweety in his debut.

Babbitt is the teacher. He spends a lot of time using various tools to help and encourage Catsello to try to “get the bird.” From climbing a ladder to get the bird to being shot up to the bird’s nest either by explosives or a jack-in-the-box, Babbitt encourages Catsello to use familiar tools and a portion of his own wit to capture Tweety, who represents that goal of both teacher and student – a valuable, pedagogically-sound learning experience.

And though I am no teacher, and though I realize I have as much to learn about teaching as Catsello has to learn about hanging about on a wire when Tweety wants to play “This Little Piggy Went to Market,” I believe the course I have built, “Communications 101: Public Speaking, Everyday Speech,” adequately applies the theory of constructivism, along with scaffolding and a learner-centered focus, to create an environment in which I as the teacher can help students apply their current knowledge to learn and apply new skills. That does not mean I have built the perfect course – far from it. I know I have much to learn. But because this course relies on a pedagogical foundation to support its use of technology in helping students apply their current skills and knowledge in the realm of public speaking, I believe I could successfully convince administrators at the University of Idaho to let me teach this course. Barring certification issues, that is.

My Teaching Philosophy

To lay the foundation for my argument that the course I have built is pedagogically sound and defensible in the higher education arena, it’s necessary first to describe my teaching philosophy and the theories underpinning that philosophy.

I confess to being a neophyte in the realm of teaching theory, though not to the realm of teaching since I’ve been involved in various activities both inside and outside the workplace in which I’ve acted as a teacher or facilitator. Because my experiences as a student far outnumber my experiences as a teacher, however, I began building my teaching philosophy by analyzing how I learn as a student. For this paper, I’ll begin my analysis with one of my postings to a class on developing online courses I took in 2009 as I pursued a masters degree in English with an emphasis on technical writing from Utah State University:

I know from my own experience that I retain information better if I can link it to something I've already learned – even if that thing already learned was just learned an hour ago. It's thus that I was able to pass my requirement of being a trained Radiological Worker at work, building on knowledge bit by bit as I progressed through the course. I'm a living example of Anderson's “learning-centered” learning. I'm pretty good at assessing what I know and looking for ways to apply what I'm learning to what I know in order to retain that information. So you'll see me draw a lot on my experience as a student as I progress through this course. Others here are lucky enough to be able to draw on their experiences as teachers.

From this nucleus of thought – pardon the pun – and other thoughts, both inside and outside of class, I have extracted some of the building blocks of a teaching philosophy, as applied to various pedagogical theories and tools. I realize that, in myself, I look for a teacher that:
  • Knows or finds out what I already know
  • Uses my prior knowledge as a scaffold for adding new knowledge
  • Helps me find connections between what I know and what I’m learning
  • Allows individual and collective exploration of new and old material before encouraging synthesis, and
  • Facilitates, rather than strictly orders, what is learned and how I learn it
By studying these attributes, I can explore pedagogical theory and find those theories and tools that most closely align with my expectations. While I recognize not every student learns the way I learn, nor will every teacher teach in a way that meets these expectations, it is reasonable to assume that there are widely-accepted theories that match what I expect and that I can use to build a teaching philosophy. At this point I should note that when I use the term pedagogy, I include andrgogy as well; repeating both terms incessantly seems redundant.

The Anderson I mention in the quote above is Terry Anderson. It is with her writing in Theory and Practice of Online Learning about learner-centered learning that I will begin to construct my philosophy. Anderson states:
Learner-centered learning, according to Bransford et al., includes awareness of the unique cognitive structures and understandings that the learners bring to the learning context. Thus, a teacher makes efforts to gain an understanding of students' pre-existing knowledge, including any misconceptions that the learner starts with in their construction of new knowledge. . . . Learner-centered activities make extensive use of diagnostic tools and activities, so that these pre-existing knowledge structures are made visible to both the teacher and the student.
In Anderson’s definition of learner-centered learning, I see a connection between this tool and my desire to find a teacher who demonstrates the four desirable teacher attributes I outline above. Thus learner-centered learning becomes a key component of my teaching philosophy.

Additional building blocks come from other sources. Mohamed Ally, also writing in Theory and Practice of Online Learning, states:
According to Bonk and Reynolds (1997), to promote higher-order thinking on the Web, online learning must create challenging activities that enable learners to link new information to old, acquire meaningful knowledge, and use their metacognitive abilities; hence, it is the instructional strategy and not the technology that influences the quality of learning. . . . However, it is not the computer per se that makes students learn, but the design of the real-life models and simulations, and the students' interaction with those models and simulations.
From Ally, I receive reinforcement in finding advice to teachers who would follow the first three attributes. I also find evidence to support my student desire for exploration before synthesis. In this kind of exploration, the teacher, once he or she has ascertained what the students know, presents material to supplement and complement student knowledge and stands back as students explore links between old and new, stepping only occasionally with questions or clarifications in order to aid the process of synthesis.

My own exploration and reading has convinced me that, with the teaching tools I’ve identified as valuable to me as a student, the most valuable philosophy to me as a teacher is the constructivist theory. Audrey Gray describes constructivist theory as follows:
Constructivism is a view of learning based on the belief that knowledge isn't a thing that can be simply given by the teacher at the front of the room to students in their desks. Rather, knowledge is constructed by learners through an active, mental process of development; learners are the builders and creators of meaning and knowledge.
Recalling countless hours of classroom time, both on- and off-line, beginning in high school and extending through my undergraduate and graduate years, it is clear to me that teachers who took the constructivist approach in classes I took from them are the ones I recall with the most fondness. More importantly, it’s from those classes that I recall the most knowledge and synthesis of knowledge on which I’ve based and will be able to base further synthesis upon. It’s in those situations where I, the learner, was “the builder and creator of meaning and knowledge” (Gray) and where I, the learner, found the most value. Applying the constructivist approach in any future classroom in which I may be the leader, teacher, or facilitator, then, is of primary importance to me as I attempt to build a pedagogy, curriculum and technological approach that will be of most value to my students.

My arrival in the constructivist camp, however, was not a journey I took alone. Additional underpinnings of constructivist theory – namely that call for peer-to-peer and peer-to-facilitator collaboration in the synthesis of new information with old – also played a large role. Nate Whipple, a fellow USU classmate, neatly sums up the collaborative part of the journey in this posting from our class:
Although I was a bit cynical at first, I am (rather quickly) being converted to constructionist theory. Because I had been so used to the traditional f2f environment where reading is assigned, students read material, and are asked to synthesize, I had not much thought about the possibilities of constructionist based learning. I look forward to being able to design a course where synthesis/assessment takes place only after students have had a chance to collaborate and interact. This collaboration, I believe, is where the most learning happens no matter what the subject. This may seem odd, but I had never realized this idea was a part of my pedagogical philosophy before thinking in terms of online environments.
Add to Nate’s analysis of the pedagogical advantages of collaboration an analysis of the societal benefits of collaboration offered by David Crowsert, another fellow USU student:[
S]imply knowing something can be done does not make it possible for an individual. I believe the dependency on each other is a good thing. I would not be able to do many of the valuable things I do if I had to worry about making my own clothing—nor would anyone want to see me.

Since the first hunter-gatherers, we have depended on each other and this dependency has grown. Yet look at what it has given us. I am glad I live in a world developed through cooperative dependency. And the problems we face—mostly as a result of our own actions—require greater cooperation and mutual dependency not less.
Nate, David, and I, like Babbitt and Catsello from the Warner Brothers cartoon, may have taken a few failed, humorous approaches to arrive at the final destination of constructivism, but our ability to apply new knowledge to what we have already experienced and to collaborate on the analysis of how old and new may fit together is what got us here. Constructivist thinking obviously leads to an overall teaching theory centered in constructivism.

I'm not wearing constructivist blinders, however. I recognize a class in public speaking will tend to attract two broad categories of students: Those who have taken speech courses in high school and are taking speech again in college because it interests them as well as being a are requirement for some majors, and students whoa re taking speech in college because it is a required course for some majors. In order to address the latter category, I have to take a partially objectivist approach to ensure that these students have the proper scaffolding on which to build their knowledge. It would be unfair and pedagogically unsound to assume that all students arrived in this course with enough knowledge to start on the same level of knowledge of and comfort with the subject. To that end, the earlier lessons in my course have a strong objectivist focus, along the lines described by Kelli Cargile Cook:
The objectivist learning theory that grounded early courses is characterized by teachers' tendency to use declarative instructions (lecture, recitation, drill, and practice) and highly-structured activities. . . . Instructors who hold this theory of learning believe that they or the textbooks from which they teach possess the knowledge students need to learn and that their job is to impart this knoweldge to students. . . . Another important assumption of objectivist learning theory is that the expert instructor can adequately assess novice learning through summative evaluation of their final written products or test results (52).
It is the emphasis on novice student assessment that is a particularly appealing part of objectivist theory. I need to know, within the first week or two, where my students stand in their ability to meet class expectations in order to help the majority thrive, rather than dive – a critical task in online courses. The practice, assessment and imparting of knowledge through readings, video and audio assignments, will continue as the course progresses. Novice students will continue to build their nascent scaffolds, while more advanced students can act as peer models and participate at a deeper level in some assignments than the novices will, helping to merge the objectivist and constructionist theories in a harmonious pedagogical blend.

CMS Choice Plays A Distinct Pedagogical Function

So, boots besmirched with constructivist/objectivist soil, it is now time to analyze the journey my online course, Communications 101, “Public Speaking and Everyday Speech,” took from thought to paper to Web, ending up in those same theoretical camps.

First, I'll discuss my class management system (CMS) choice. One of my goals in this course is to provide video examples of good speech practices. Students will be asked to watch videos in which experts model good public speaking techniques. Further along in the course, students will digitally record their own speeches and post them in the CMS for peer review and critique and instructor assessment. Because I rely on video for much of my pedagogy, I needed a CMS that could present video in as uncombersome a way as possible. Neither the most popular CMSs – Blackboard and Syllabase – allow for video embedding, or the ability to place a video, ready to play at a single click of the mouse, so I needed to find a CMS that has that function. Fortunately, I've been using such a service myself for nearly two years – Blogger.

Blogger is a free web logging service (blog is a shortened version of web log) owned by Google. It is ubiquitous on the Web and is used by a wide variety of individuals from literary agents to media critics for an even wider variety of purposes. At my personal blog,, I have, over the past year and a half, posted videos produced by others, and some videos I've produced myself. So I thought, why not take advantage of the Blogger platform to use it as a CMS? Other features I wanted – the ability to post assignments, receive students responses, set aside portions of the site for reflective journals, et cetera – are all tasks Blogger can accomplish easily; so easily in fact that once the planning for my class was finished, building the site took fewer than three hours.

There are workarounds in using Syllabase and Blackboard for such uses – I could provide links to my videos in those CMSs, but I wanted to keep such page-jumping to a minimum, fitting in with what William Horton writes concerning classroom design:
Displaying all the content in a single window minimizes the distractions caused by windows popping up in the learner's field of view. Displaying content in this main window lets you control that display (Horton 499).
As many of the videos I use in my course are found on YouTube, I became concerned over the possibility of distracting my students by providing links to YouTube videos, rather than embedding the videos in my own site. Viewing videos in YouTube also lets students view the comments attached to the videos, other similar videos and a gigantic range of other distractions. Some videos on YouTube forbid embedding. I use one such video in my course, and had to resort to providing a link to the video because I viewed its pedagogical value higher than the possible distraction in sending students to YouTube to view it.

Another primary advantage of selecting Blogger is that since I have been using Blogger “from the inside” – using Blogger tools and simple HTML to build, design, adjust, and add to the appearance and functionality of my blogs – for nearly two years. I have enough technical expertise to help students unfamiliar with the platform to troubleshoot. This is critical, according to Horton, in selecting collaboration tools – and I regard my CMS as such a tool.
[C]onsider what technical support you can offer. If students must master collaboration tools on their own, they may become discouraged. If you (or the tool's vendor) provide tutorials and phone support, the task is less daunting” (Horton 420).
Blogger does offer technical support, but at times the support is confusing and incomplete. I have learned much more through experimentation and long exposure to the product than I have from Blogger's online help files. Students will need such help because as part of the classroom process, they become managers of their own blogs, posting content, replying to comments, and, if they wish, adding elements to common classroom areas such as shared video tips, links, and other areas. This ties in with an assertion that Crowsert makes in a YouTube video he posted in our class. His points are that technology is part of the collaboration and that technology becomes part of the knowledge development process (Crowsert, Post_Week_6).

Finally, Blogger is easier to use than Syllabase and Blackboard on portable media devices such as the Apple iPod Touch. While it's possible to view Syllabase and Blackboard on such devices, reading is difficult and typing out responses is nigh on impossible. Blogger's more flexible format – which does not necessarily take up an entire window – makes it easier to read text. Applications are available to allow users to type in posts and respond to comments. Additionally, when a student clicks on a video to view, the device automatically pulls the video into a full screen view.

Course Design, Content and Theory Matching

As I worked to build in the tools I regarded as critical for this course (discussion forums, chat, video and audio assignments, e-mail, and readings) I took the following approach in determining which tools to use and how to use them. Each tool needed to meet the following requirements:
  • Fulfill a specific pedagogical function
  • Invite collaboration
  • Reinforce scaffolding
  • Represent transparent technology, as defined by Cargile Cook:
When used everyday, technologies become transparent until they are virtually invisible or unrecognizable as technologies. Everyday . . . technologies often become so transparent, in fact, that their uses are regarded simply as facts or means of production, not as experiments tied to theory or a practice open to inquiry (Cook, 57).

I will briefly describe how the tools selected for this course meet these four requirements.

First, discussion forums. The forums are the primary collaborative mechanism on the site. They are advantageous in allowing learners to interact with each other, allow discussions to continue as long as necessary, give everyone a chance to join in the discussion, and encourage full responses (Horton, 428). Thus, they meet the constructionist notion of allowing collaboration and peer teaching, with the teacher acting as the moderator. From the objectivist standpoint, the forums also provide a place for teacher assessment to take place and a place for the teacher to offer students who are novices in the subject the scaffolding necessary to succeed. Such forums also have the advantage of letting students work at their own pace. Novice students can take advantage of their teacher and peers to ask questions as they work with the classroom tools to build their own scaffolding of understanding. Experienced students will be encouraged to think more deeply about the subject at hand, enhancing their own understanding while at the same time acting as peer models for their fellow students. Such forums are ubiquitous and nearly universal not only in CMSs, but throughout the World Wide Web.

Second, chat. As important as the discussion forums are, they are an asynchronous element that, at times, can make some students feel they are being held at a distance from others in the classroom. A chat room, as a synchronous technology, allows for more intimate, real-time responses, either peer-to-peer or peer-to-teacher. They allow teachers and peers to personalize learning, according to Horton (430). Chat fulfills constructionist and objectivist goals by allowing for a different collaborative space and for a space where peers or teachers can offer real-time assessments. Chat rooms are also as ubiquitous on the World Wide Web as are discussion forums. They also have the advantage of being easy to learn for novice students.

Third, video and audio assignments. Speech is intrinsically an activity that involves the senses, especially of sight and hearing. Having videos to provide real-life examples of the assignments I'm asking my students to do is essential to student success. Horton advises:
Use . . . film to explain a subject in a definite logical order, especially where the subject is visual but may be difficult for the learner to imagine (57).
In the first week of “Public Speaking and Everyday Speech,” students are asked to produce a video of themselves delivering a “bag speech,” in which they talk about three items (which they could pull successively out of a bag) to introduce themselves. Because the term and the format of the speech may be unfamiliar, I provide a video example of such a speech. The example offers the students substantial scaffolding on which they can build their own experiences. Video, like chat and discussion forums, is also a familiar sight to even the occasional World Wide Web surfer.

Fourth, e-mail. E-mail is an excellent tool that can be used for both collaboration and assessment. The assessment advantage of e-mail is that it is private. Teachers may offer more direct advice or correction to students who are leery of receiving such instruction in as public a forum as a discussion board or chatroom. Though there are some disadvantages to such “off-line” or outside of the classroom discussions, they are far outweighed by the goals of moderating behavior and gently assessing and coaching students who are struggling in the course. E-mail also has the advantage of being the oldest and, for many tasks, the most effective collaboration tool in e-learning (Horton, 424). Of the tools used in this course, e-mail is the most ubiquitous. So ubiquitous, in fact, for this class I have not set up an e-mail function. Students will be asked at the start of each class which of their e-mail addresses they'd prefer being contacted through.

Finally, reading assignments. Reading assignments are a principal component of objectivist teaching, in providing novice students with adequate scaffolding on which they can build further learning. Expert students may regard some of the readings as elementary, but if discussion forum questions are cleverly thought out, they will be given ample opportunity not only to share their knowledge with others, but to think more deeply about the subjects at hand. Reading is practically as old as humanity. Though reading assignments are web-based, students always have the opportunity to print the reading assignments out on paper, following their reading preference.

A Word on Presentation

Because I am not using a standard CMS, the difficulties that Horton outlines in customizing classroom presentation come to the fore. Blogger, however, allows users to either select a page design template, custom-build a template of their own or adjust a Blogger template for their own users. In designing my site appearance, I take Horton's advice to mind in that “good visual design is about solving problems, not drawing attention” (Horton 495). To that end, I have designed a course that solves problems both for the students and for the instructors. Once the major problems were resolved, I concentrated on design aspects that Horton designates as critical, namely number of windows, legibility of content, layout, and unity (Horton 496).

As I have discussed earlier, I have worked hard to keep the number of windows to a minimum. Where possible, I have embedded content within the site itself, so students are not required to flip from window to window to complete an assignment. In only one case do I have a video assignment that is not embedded and requires opening a new window; in that case, it is because the owner of the video in question does not allow embedding. Additionally, the site chat function has an annoying lag if left minimized on the site. Once opened in a different window, however, the lag disappears. As the chat is used only for special occasions or for socializing, I do not regard this as a difficulty.

The process of trouble-resolving lay in building the site and then subjecting it to what I imagine to be typical student navigation and student needs. Taking the site through several iterations before students became involved allowed me to check and correct navigation problems. For instance, I decided, after a few dry runs through the site, to create what I call the “Site Anchor” area, in which I provide links to the class home page, class Q&A forum and class chatterbox. This way, no matter where a student may wander in the class, there's always a one-click way to get back “home,” find help, or talk with someone.

Content is kept legible by following the common convention of providing black text on a plain white background. While there is some decoration to keep the site visually appealing, the decoration is limited to the site headers, the choice of color for the post titles, and a few smatterings of color here and there in the class sidebar, where items from the syllabus to the schedule to the chat box are kept. (See class website).

Layout, through use of one of Blogger's simpler templates, is kept clean and uncluttered. The layout does require a bit of scrolling, the length of which depends on the length of each week's assignment. Information in the sidebar is kept as hierarchal as possible, with what I regard as the most important information for the students residing at the top, with importance decreasing in relation with the item's proximity to the top of the page.

Site unity is achieved simply by selecting the same template and customizations for each classroom area. Students, as administrators on their own personal blogs, do have the option of changing the appearance of their pages, but I will caution them to keep changes to a minimum (improving their sites for legibility, for instance) but insisting that enough unity be evident from page to page to avoid confusing students who may think they've gone astray in trying to find a peer's assignment forum or reflective journal.

Problems, Problems

As with any CMS, I anticipate problems may arise as students navigate the classroom. Foremost is latent hostility toward the Blogger platform itself. Bloggers and designers with more HTML experience prefer other platforms, such as Wordpress, because Wordpress allows more customizable flexibility than Blogger does. To overocme this difficulty, I have included an area where students may offer links to their own blogs under the suggestion of getting to know each student better. This will allow students, if they so desire – and with prior permission from the teacher and with clear messages made to members of the student's critique/support group – to respond to class postings in their own blogs, where they may be happier with the setup. As long as teachers and peers are aware of where to find their posts, use of Wordpress over Blogger (or any other platform over Blogger) will be tolerated.

Another problem lies with the chat box platform I've chosen for the class. If left in the window within the site, the chatbox lags in reproducing entered text. This difficulty is alleviated by opening the chatbox in another window.

A presentation problem also lies in how Blogger (and most blogging platforms) displays content. In Syllabase and Blackboard, for example, posts are presented in a way where the oldest discussion groups are shown first, with newer groups in a descending order of hierarchy. Blogger, by contrast, presents the newest posts first. During testing, this presented some difficulty for testers who were confused as to why the Week Three discussion forum, for example, appeared before Weeks two and one. The tester quickly realized that the posts were presented in a different hierarchical order than on Blackboard without prompting from me, so that difficulty fixed itself. If, then, a student experienced such difficulty in class, it would be simple to explain Blogger's hierarchical arrangement.

Another difficulty lies in checking on embedded YouTube videos to ensure those selected for the course remain active. YouTube is a dynamic site, where videos are added and removed at the will of the poster, which has led in the past to embedded videos disappearing entirely. To alleviate this concern, I have elected to choose what appears to be the most stable videos among the pool of videos that meet my course's pedagogical needs. By stable, I mean those videos that have been on the site for a significant amount of time, typically six months to a year. Eventually, it would be desireable for me as a teacher to create my own videos, which I could customize exactly to my pedagogical specifications and which could reside in the class YouTube channel until I decided to delete them and replace them with something else.


Bless Babbitt and Catsello, they try their darndest to get the bird. Their collaborative efforts range from sending Catsello up a tall ladder to get Tweety, to outfitting him with a set of plank wings so he can soar above the nest like a Spitfire to swoop down on the unsuspecting bird and take him to the ground for lunch. Though thwarted at every turn, Babbitt and Catsello still provide a sound illustrative example of the teaching philosophy I espouse, and as my classroom espouses through my choices of design, content, collaborative tools, and CMS. Given that “Public Speaking, Everyday Speech” has a sound pedagogical foundation built on the theories of constructivism and objectivism, and given that the goals, objectives, lessons, topics, assignments and assessments reflect those theories through frequent demonstrations of collaboration, peer modeling, and scaffold-building, I firmly believe that a discussion with the University of Idaho administrators and a half-hour perusal of the course website would convince them that this class would be of intrinsic benefit to University of Idaho students.


Tale of Two Kitties. Dir. Bob Clampett. 1942. Viewed on YouTube at
22 July 2009. Warner Brothers.

Anderson, Terry. “Toward a Theory of Online Learning,” Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Ed. Terry Anderson and Faith Elloumi. Athatbasca University, 2004. Web at

Ally, Mohamed. “Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning,” Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Ed Terry Anderson and Faith Elloumi. Athabasca University, 2004. Web at

Gray, Audrey. “The Road to Knowledge is Always Under Construction: A Life History Journey to Constructivist Teaching.” SSTA Research Centre, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, 1997. Web at

Whipple, Nate. Class posting, “title.” Class title. Date

Crowsert, David. Class posting, “title.” Class title. Date

Carglie Cook, Kelli. “Pedagogy-Driven Online Education.” Online Education: Global Questions, Local Answers. Ed. Kelli Cargile Cook and Keith Grant-Davie.Baywood Publishing Company, Inc., Amityville, New York. 2005.

Post_Week_6. Dir. David Crowsert, 2009. Viewed on YouTube at 23 July 2009. No distribution.

Horton, William. “E-Learning by Design.” Pfeiffer, an imprint of John Wiley and Sons, San Francisco, California. 2006.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Blogging

Stu Bykofsky, a columnist over at the Philadelphia Daily News, is having fun with bloggers today and makes himself look as intelligent as the small blogger subset he lampoons.

In a column purposely riddled with spelling and factual errors, Bykofsky succeeds in poking good fun at that blogging subset to which spelling and facts are accidents and where substance is as fleeting as a hummingbird's flight. But I seriously hope he doesn't regard all bloggers as this vapid and uneducated. Because we're not.

"I DON'T have a blog," Bykofsky writes as a snappy opener. "If I did blog, this is what it would be like. (To make it seem like a real blog, I'll include typos and factual errors.)"

Sure. I don't deny there are plenty of blogs out there with plenty of misspellings and plenty of factual errors. I have to include myself in this camp, because I fat-finger a few things and occasionally screw up a fact. But for a newspaperman to be casting such stones is, at best, chillingly ironic. I spent ten years in the industry and never met a journalist who either on purpose or on accident misspelled a word or played loosely with the facts. Bloggers and newspaper people are human. We make mistakes.

But I can hear Bykofsky saying, "Newspapers have accountability for the mistakes they make, while blogs do not, zitbrain!!!" Well, accountability is in the eye of the beholder. How many times do we see newspapers gloss over errors of fact, errors of omission, errors of commission, and errors of any other sort. Is that accountability? Do we see subsets of the professional journalism class who thrive -- at least for a while -- on plagiarism, sloppy reporting, soft editors and a general lack of professional standards? Yes we do. So there are subsets among bloggers and subsets among professional journalists who do not live up to professional standards. He who is in the industry without sin ought to cast the first stone, right?

I hold myself accountable for my own errors. So do many bloggers out there. We may not like to admit we make mistakes, but we do.

It's a pity that Bykofsky's experience with blogging is so limited. I read plenty of blogs, and find, despite the misspellings, despite the occasional incorrect fact, a lot of valuable information. I follow a literary agent who blogs all sorts of valuable information for budding authors. I follow a cultural critic who makes my sides split with some of his observations. Yeah, there's a lot of sludge out on the Internet -- the stuff Bykofsky seems to think represents blogging as a whole -- but there's good stuff out there, too.

It's a shame that folks like Bykofsky can't see the merits of what Clay Shirky, author, Internet guru and teacher, describes as the "mass amateurization" of the publishing industry. Blogging is a part of that mass amateurization. "Want to publish globally anything you think today," he asked while speaking at Oxford University in 2005, in a speech titled "Institutions vs. Collaboration." "It is a one-button operation that you can do for free. That has sent the professional class of publishing down into the ranks of mass amateurization."

He goes on to say: "There are people in the states right now tying themsleves into knots, trying to figure out whether or not bloggers are journalists. And the answer to that question is, it doesn't matter, because that's not the right question. Journalism was an answer to an even more important question, which is, how will society be informed? How will they share ideas and opinions? And if there is an answer to that that happens outside the professional framework of journalism, it makes no sense to take a professional metaphor and apply it to this distributed class."

So Bykofsky can make fun of the blogging subset he wants to make fun of all he wants. Meanwhile, he runs the risk of becoming irrelevant in a world where intelligent bloggers, not loose with spelling or facts, are able to communicate with the world without the baggage that comes with newspapers. He may be blogging himself in a few years when his paper -- along with the other one in Philadelphia -- go under, which is not outside the realm of possibility.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Start of the Silliness

Blogger's Note: This is the introduction I've just written for a paper I'm writing, in which I will outline my pedagogical basis for building an online public speaking course (which can be seen here).

Allow me a little facetiousness, because I may have found my teaching philosophy summed up in a cartoon. Specifically, “A Tale of Two Kitties,” a Warner Brothers Merrie Melody from 1942, in which two cats (modeled after the comedy team Abbott and Costello) try again and again to catch and devour an anything-but-helpless little bird – Tweety in his debut.

Babbitt is the teacher. He spends a lot of time using various tools to help and encourage Catsello to try to “get the bird.” From climbing a ladder to get the bird to being shot up to the bird’s nest either by explosives or a jack-in-the-box, Babbitt encourages Catsello to use familiar tools and a portion of his own wit to capture Tweety, who represents that goal of both teacher and student – a valuable, pedagogically-sound learning experience.

And though I am no teacher, and though I realize I have as much to learn about teaching as Catsello has to learn about hanging about on a wire when Tweety wants to play “This Little Piggy Went to Market,” I believe the course I have built, “Communications 101: Public Speaking, Everyday Speech,” adequately applies the theory of constructivism, along with scaffolding and a learner-centered focus, to create an environment in which I as the teacher can help students apply their current knowledge to learn and apply new skills. That does not mean I have built the perfect course – far from it. I know I have much to learn. But because this course relies on a pedagogical foundation to support its use of technology in helping students apply their current skills and knowledge in the realm of public speaking, I believe I could successfully convince administrators at the University of Idaho to let me teach this course.

Here's the video. I hope I've proved my point:

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Caveat Emptor

Nancy Parker, in introducing Chapter 16 of her book The Quality Dilemma in Online Education, says the following:
With the proliferation of online learning providers and the challenges presented
by the distance education sector to state regulators and accrediting bodies, it
is not surprising that “buyer beware” is the watchword for students,
institutions, and public agencies alike.
I agree with her. Buyer beware may be the best overreaching measurement we have to gauge quality in education, online or not, at least until the Internet revolution stabilizes.

The varying ideas on what makes up quality online education that we’ve read this week only underline the buyer beware mentality. Though there may be some general consensus on what elements make for quality education, both Parker and the authors of Quality on the Line: Benchmarks for Success in Internet-Based Education agree that “quality” has to examine both the static and dynamic aspects of what makes up good practices and the willingness and ability of individual institutions or collaborative efforts to uniformly apply the agreed-upon standards.

For my goals and objectives in taking this particular course, I am going to give more weight to the standards that are outlined in Quality on the Line, simply for the fact that I can see, through the report, how they’re being applied, that they’re not being applied uniformly, and that some things that are regarded as standards are being challenged as institutions, teachers and students move together to decide where quality lies. (Of course, since the report was completed in 2000 on studies in the late 1990s, the data is outdated. I’d be curious to see how students, teachers and institutions would react to the same questions today, after passing through a decade of evolving online practices and accompanying technology.) I also appreciate how the ideas of continually clarifying and honing the more dynamic aspects of online education through the window of quality is outlined throughout the report. On page 14, for example:
Because of increasing student interest in Internet-based distance education at
some of the institutions in the case study, administrators revealed that
policies are being developed to catch up with practice. One administrator said
simply that the institution is moving ahead without all of the answers. While
some institutions were farther ahead in their planning than others, some
institutions that are struggling to keep up with the demand for Internet-based
courses have made a conscious decision to serve students immediately and plan
Maybe to some this sounds scary – going to work immediately without making sure the full plan is in place. But to me, it makes an awful lot of sense. I’ll frame my argument this way:

One of the questions I’ve asked a few times through the course of this class is to find out how much teachers cooperate in shaping online courses. The general response I’ve received is that, online or not, the trend is for teachers to cooperate as much as each other is willing in order to make classes effective for students. That’s a healthy attitude. It also shows me that, in general, teachers recognize the dynamic aspects of what they do. To shift gears just a little bit: computer programmers who use the agile programming approach have a general idea of what they hope to accomplish with one iteration of software. They move forward quickly into achieving their vision, knowing full well that once they’ve reached their aforementioned goal, the dynamics of the situation will have changed so they’ll have to start the entire process over again. By taking this flexible approach, they can shape their product to the demands of the marketplace much more quickly than if they rigidly plan everything out and do not alter the plan to account for the dynamism in the situation before the end goal is achieved.

I am a neophyte teacher. Were I to take the course I’m designing into reality, I’d be scared to death to do it. I imagine I’m not alone. But I’d do it anyway, out of a desire to see what works, what does not work, and where I, my students, and my peers might find room for improvement. With the help of my peers, I can avoid obvious pitfalls. With the help of my students, I can smooth out the practical, operational bumps. Planning too rigidly eliminates that room for experimentation. As is said on page 25 of Quality on the Line:
Many faculty and administrators recognized the potential for the Internet to
transform the teaching/learning process and any benchmarks that inhibited their
ability to innovate and experiment were rejected.
But I like that benchmarks are part of the conversation. Overplanning is a rigid thing. Underplanning leads only to chaos. Let me plan enough that I can experiment within a framework that guarantees a balance between dynamic and static quality elements.

Find Some Slood, and Fast!

It may be a tiny black spot at the top of this photo of Jupiter, but remember with Jupiter, size is relative. That little black spot is nearly the size of the Earth, and represents a gigantic hole punched in the planet's atmosphere by an unidentified bit of space debris. More detail here.

So, anybody know where we can find some slood?

Why slood, you may ask? Well, it's just a funny joke from one of writer Terry Pratchett's novels. Back when Comet Shoemaker-Levy impacted Jupiter 15 years ago, Pratchett commented on the event in the prologue to one of his books (can't remember which at the moment). The comment was that inhabitants of a planet watched as trillions of tons of ice hit another planet that, in cosmic terms, was right next door, and did nothing about it, and then intimated that more ice was on the way to their planet, whose Supreme Being would part the clouds and exclaim, "Oh! Are you lot still here! I thought you'd discovered slood millions of years ago! I've got ten trillion tons of ice arriving on Tuesday!"

Monday, July 20, 2009

Jury Duty, Part II

It was surreal, sitting there in the jury box with twelve other people, none of whom I'd ever met before. Listening to presentations on evidence, watching surveillance videos, trying to understand how the law applies.

I won't give the details. Enough can be found here to suffice. What will be interesting is to watch how the comments come in on that newspaper article, to see how others in the community judge our judging.

I'm certain only one of the twelve others (twelve jurors and one alternate, total) was anxious to be where he was (he told us so). Despite that, all of us had "better" things to do. Some had classes to attend. Some had classes to teach. All had jobs and families to attend to. But we stayed there, eight hours the first day, 12 1/2 hours the next, because of reasons varying from civic duty to the threat of punishment to, yes, curiosity to see how the system works.

I entered the process convinced every man is innocent until proven guilty. Though that resolve wavered throughout the two-day trial, I have to say that I wanted to err on the side of innocence. I have seen loved ones go to prison on what I thought was flimsy evidence of intent -- the rule of law that applied here as we were asked to judge the intent of a man accused of burglary and grand theft -- so I did not want to treat intent lightly. I can bear witness that, at least in this case, the system bent over backwards to ensure that innocence was presumed, not guilt. The system may be slow, sometimes farcical, often confusing and rarely painted in terms of black and white, but I can say at least to my estimation, the system works.

No black and white, certainly in this case. As the statute says, the crime of burglary includes intent. We worried long and hard to discern intent. How can one determine the intent of another individual, when intent lies in the heart and in the mind. We had to decide, however, that intent is shwon in actions committed. In some ways, this case is very similar to this one (sorry, free subscription required) which went to the appeals court which reaffirmed the lower court's (the jury's) decision. Ample evidence in action led me to believe intent was there. I strained hard to examine intent, to figure out how I might react in similar situations, to account for my own intentions. I had to consider all the evidence, my sympathies, my belief that everyone at heart is a good person, and then consider what to do to be right. I believe I reached the correct decison, as did the jury as a whole.

This doesn't stop me from feeling badly for the defendant. Sympathy helped me maintain an open mind. But in the end, there was no reasonable doubt.

Jury duty is not a lark. It's not fun. For me, it was serious work I would much rather have avoided. While I was glad the trial did not last into a third day, I do not begrudge the time we spent talking about the evidence and thinking about what we might consider. If there were snap judgments on my part, they were always on the side of innocence. I do not envy those who have to do this often.

Satire: If Man Landed on the Moon Today

Thanks, Slate. I needed a good chuckle today.

July 20, 1969

At the center of the photo stands the Apollo 11 Lunar Module.

On this, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, only one thing bothers me:

The last men to step on the Moon are now old men.

Truth be told, as a kid I expected that when I became an adult, there would be cities on the Moon. I expected I'd be able to buy a ticket on a ride on some kind of space vehicle and visit those cities, perhaps live there if I wanted. I expected, at any rate, that I would be able to fly into space and see the Earth from above, as a blue-white marble hanging in a sky of black.

I'm grateful for the political expediency that led to that momentous moment on July 20, 1969. But I wish political expediency weren't so fleeting, that the urge to explore and populate the Moon had not ebbed after 1975. Six short years of exploration is a monumental, yet miniscule endeavor. Christopher Columbus made four journeys to the New World, spanning over ten years, and had many others follow him during that time as well.

Yes, there is cost involved. There is cost involved in any endeavor. But there are also benefits, many of which are left untapped.

Maybe our imaginations are smaller these days. Inthe heyday of space flight and in the heyday of technological expansion, authors like Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and others leaped the technological and societal barriers to manned space flight, to colonies in space, to the stretching of the imagination beyond what was practical into what is magical. Do we still see the magic? I don't know. Too many films these days have the explorers coming to Earth, not leaving.

I still believe. I look at the Moon nearly every night and marvel at our closest neighbor. Man walked on the Moon, and will again. I still retain the hope that I may, someday, too.

I can still dream. I can still imagine. Thanks to NASA, celebrating the 40th anniversary with this site. We also have Google Moon. And Clavius Base, where we find reason, not Moon hoaxes. We also have the immortal and snarky words of one of those grumpy old men, Eugene Cernan, who said of those who disbelieve man has walked on the Moon: "Nobody can take those footsteps I made on the surface of the moon away from me."

Me neither.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tattoo Dreaming

If I were ever to get a tattoo, it would be something like this.

This tattoo, by the way, is one possessed by a customer of Aunt Clara's over at, which is where I recommend you go for all of your Pink Nightmare needs.

Uncharted, Undaunted

Uncharted, undaunted, keeps rolling on.

I won't go into the details of what happened in bringing this update to the public. Suffice it to say that, as with many small companies like ours spread out over several time zones, the following held true:

1) Thing break.
2) When they break, it's at the worst possible time.
3) When things break at the worst possible time, communication is key.
4) Sometimes, for whatever reason, people forget to communicate.

And so on. But that's beside the point. What matters is that Oregon's Multnomah Falls is quite the place, made even better by quite the hike from the serene little spot you see here to the towering heights above the falls, when the folks below on the bridge look like ants but you're too busy insufflating the bark off of trees because you're breathing so hard after climbing that steep little 1.2-mile switchback trail to the top.

As we walked, folks kept telling us, "You're almost there. Only seven more turns." We counted turns. And turns. And turns. It reminded me of that scene in Ghostbusters where they're walking up the stairs at Dana Barrett's apartment and Venkman says to Spangler, "So, where do you think we are?" Spangler responds: "Teens." Venkman then says "OK. When we get to twenty, tell me, because I'm going to throw up."

We made it, though. And this was only one stop on our ten-day spin through Oregon. Lots more to come.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Tune it to Walter

I have to confess that any reminisces I might have of Walter Cronkite anchoring the news would be manufactured. I mean I've seen him anchoring the news, reporting the news, in the context of videos presented in other forms from what we see in Apollo 13 to newsreels of his World War II reportage to his reporting of the JFK assassination. I may very well have witnessed some of his reports on the television as a kid, but as a kid -- or at least as this kid -- the only relevant things you remember from the news the adults in your life consumed were the Sunday funnies and that one glorious day when it was revealed to you that there were black-and-white funnies in the paper on the weekdays.

But still, I get that feeling that with Cronkite's passing today that we've seen the last light turn off in an era when television news was, for the lack of a better word, better.

Did they still opine on the news then? Yes. But back then, news was an event, a distillation of a day's news into a scant half-hour, an hour if there was something really big. If there were something extremely big, we got that delicious moment when your shows were suddenly interrupted with a cheesy cardboard graphic warning us of a special news bulletin.

Today, news is not an event. It's a given. It's not trickled out to us. It's on twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, on several channels where they opine and opine and opine and report and report and report until we're so numb to the news that it takes the overspectacular -- the Michael Jacksons, the OJ Simpsons, the airplane crashes, even to get us to realize that news isn't background noise, it's news. To me, Walter Cronkite is one of the last symbols of the era when news was news, not a 24-hour expectation or bloviation fest.

Time's headline declares that Cronkite owned the word 'trust.' I have to agree with that. Who in the news owns that word today? I don't know. But there are certainly a legion of newsies attempting to own the word 'jackass' today.

The little screen was bigger back then. If we wanted news, we had to tune in at those specific times, and when we did we knew the likes of Cronkite would be there, goofy windblown white-man hair and all, not the polished mannequins we have these days. Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather may be the last of the breed, but even they saw the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and were swept into the maw.

Is too much news a bad thing? Absolutely.

I'd rather give up 24-hour news. I'd rather just tune it to Walter.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Glutton for Punishment

Because I'm a glutton for punishment, and because Blackboard scares the living hell out of me, I'd like to introduce my Blogger-based public speaking course, everydayspeech.

Bear in mind if you visit the site now, you'll be assaulted by some hard-to-read text, a few dead ends when it comes to blog add-ons, and, underneath it all, a highly amateur instructor who, before hes tarted taking an online course on building online courses from Utah State University back in June, thought pedagogy was somehow related to the teaching of feet. I don't know my cognitive scaffolding from my constructivist approach, but I'm sure going to figure it all out before I have to make everything work by August first.

So if you're keen on watching people torture themselves, keep checking in at everydayspeech over the next few weeks, just to see how things are going. Or not going. Or whatever. Witness either the triumph of a novice teacher or the naive dreams of an amateur go down in flames.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


"It wasn't supposed to be this way! This was supposed to be a thing of beauty, not this monstrosity you see before you!"

--Dr. Frankenstein, from Mary Shelley's novel.

Jury Duty

I'm not going to work tomorrow. Instead, for $10 for the day plus mileage, I'll likely be sitting in a jury box, doing some kind of note-taking, deliberating or, if the trial is boring, a little sleeping. Maybe not that last one, sure.

I have mixed feelings about the experience. It'll be interesting to see things from the inside of a courtroom, but I have no illusions that it'll be anything like what they show on television. It'll be plodding, deliberative, and very likely boring.

Part of me wonders if I shouldn't try to get out. I understand if you're the sole income-earner, sometimes they let you off. But as I'm a quasi federal employee, there's likely not much sympathy there. I'm hoping, however, that this will be some kind of selection process tomorrow rather than a trial and that I'm rejected for some kind of technicality. I've been brushing up on my Federalist Papers and, if that doesn't work, I'll try the ploy a former Hispanic boss said he'd use -- he said he'd tell everyone there that he hated white people. That might not be as effective a ploy for me, however.

So tonight I plan to beef up on my jury persona by watching "Ernest Goes to Jail." It should be most enlightening. Anybody got a leaky pen?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

They Moved My Cheese and Turned it into Limburger

Reading our various assignments this week made me recall a rather famous quotation from former French President Charles de Gaulle: “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” The readings, particularly “The Horizon Report” are forcing me to re-shape de Gaulle’s famous quotation from the perspective as a teacher seeking to integrate technology into the online classroom and the student trying to assimilate the whims and quirks of each online class:

How can anyone possibly test out software/websites/ thingamajigs that come in two hundred and forty-six different varieties?

And there’s an even better question:

How do we know what we don’t know?

And then there’s this killer:

When we find out what we don’t know, where do we find the time to test-run these possibilities out?

That, if you’ll bear with me through one more quote, reminds me of something said by Scott Adams in his Dilbert comic strip: “[It’s] like sandblasting a soup cracker.”

I’m the soup cracker. All this information is the sand coming at me, stripping the paint right off.

First off, one of the most pertinent things said in The Horizon Report – and this applies for teachers, students, and, frankly, anyone repurposing text, images, et cetera – comes on page six of the executive summary: “The challenge is to develop curricula and assessment rubrics that address not only traditional capabilities like developing an argument over the course of a long paper, but also how to apply those competencies to other forms of communication such as short digital videos, blogs, or photo essays.”

I have a practical example here, which comes from the 10 ½ years I spent in journalism. I got my degree in journalism and mass communication in 1997, so not too long ago. Looking back on my education now, I’m shocked and appalled as to how little computer technology – aside from word processing – played in that education. I was going into the communication business, and by golly just about anything I learned about how to use technology in communication came from other disciplines. I used my student e-mail a lot more for English and French classes – E-mail was a requirement in the French classes I took – than I ever did in journalism. Because of one of my English classes I discovered that the university had space set aside for students on their uhhhh, word is eluding me for the moment . . . servers for students to create their own web pages, so I did, and had a lot of fun with it. In journalism, and while on staff for the school newspaper, our only connection with technology was through word processing. We had a web edition, but that was done by a little sequestered group that was brought in at the last minute after everything else was done. (To be fair, the paper was also designed and paginated on computers, but that, again, was handled by a little sequestered group that gave the rest of us odd and furtive glances as we came in and out of the newspaper office.

Then I went into professional journalism and retrogressed. The first paper I worked at had DOS-based computers that were modern in the lat 1960s, and pagination was accomplished with waxed paper cut with X-acto blades and stuck on other bits of paper, with plastic tape covering everything to keep it all in place until the proofs got to the printer. We did eventually graduate to PCs, but for months went without e-mail – I acted as a courier, bringing computer disks of our stories from a branch office to the main office, 15 miles away.

The next paper was better, but only just. We had e-mail and a web presence, but again, we were all sequestered away from each other. We had more access to technological tools at home than I did at work.

Now, thanks to the work I’ve done at, through blogging and pure and simple experimentation with the wizardry of computers beyond word processors, I’ve started my real education. And it’s frustrating to see how far behind I am. But I’m not alone – as The Horizon Report authors point out on page seven of the executive summary: “even old technology hands often tire at the thought of learning yet another way of working.” And it’s even more tiresome to work hard at learning a new technological feat only to have it superseded by something else even more amazing.

Part of the difficulty, as the report authors point out (page seven) is that “we have seen many of the technologies and practices highlighted in this series converge, morph, and shift over the years, evolving in ways that continue to keep them in our sights as they move to nearer and nearer adoption horizons.” As we learn to blog, for example, suddenly we see blogs evolving from portals of self-expression to teaching portals, commerce portals, what have you – and that’s only a superficial look at what’s going on. Imagining how social operating systems (page eight), the mind bogglingly-complex and (page ten) might work in any environment, let alone an online classroom environment is staggering to keep up with.

So as I read, I had a lot more questions than answers popping up:

First of all, to make these technologies work, we have to experiment with them. We have to find out what we don’t know. Then, we have to find the value in them. Then we have to figure out how to sell that value to administrators, bosses, co-workers, and students, in order to make the experimentation plus value equal useful participation. I’m doing this kind of equation with Twitter right now, and I’m still in the experimentation phase. As far as I can tell, Twitter has got me connected with a string of multi-level marketers, Apple snobs, users putting on the personae of Ernest P. Worrell and Charles Nelson Riley and, on occasion, ladies who want to share naked pictures with me. (Those get condemned to Twitter’s version of hell, “Blocked Users,” fairly quickly.) Finding the value can be a difficult thing to accomplish.

Technology is making the world speed up, and do so quickly. I was actually frightened a bit by the authors’ description of a possible use of social operating systems (page 27):

Students working on a research paper often do not fully realize what it means to be a scholar. Of the network of activities that scholars are involved in – writing, researching, interacting with peers and colleagues, presenting at conferences and symposia, and so on – only a small part is apparent to a student doing research. Every idea, paper, experiment, and artifact is, in reality, attached to a person or group of people who helped bring it about. Imagine the impact of tools that place those people and relationships at the center of any research inquiry: concepts clearly linked to people; connections between those people and other clearly indicated; a much more complete picture of the topic would emerge, more quickly than is possible with current tools. Simply changing the organizing principle – from products or concepts to people and their connections – will change the kinds of results that are revealed.

I imagined some poor scientist or scholar, already frenzied in keeping up with his or her discipline, technology and other pressing matters, suddenly being inundated with questions from students all over the globe, wanting insights, information, handouts, et cetera. Where does one find the time to respond to everyone?

But of course it is coming to be like that. Last semester, I used Twitter as a research springboard for a paper I wrote for Dave Hailey’s Publications Management class. Because Twitter allowed me to connect with people as well as ideas, the paper I wrote was richer because of it. I can see the use. But the widespread application of it all staggers the imagination and opens the true possibility of the Internet becoming even more of a time sink than it already is. Of course there will be countermeasures: Those being inundated can use the same social operating systems to separate the wheat from the chaff, the deep thinkers from the cursory thinkers, cutting down on the number of responses that must be given. But hellllllllp the idea of all that coming at you at once still beggars the imagination and brings new force to the exhortation: Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Then comes the second question: Can I keep up with all of this? Yeah. When I find the time.

Captain Obvious Calling In

ABC news and -- if ABC news is to be believed -- financial institutions worldwide are aflame (not with passione, but with flame) over a report written by a 15-year-old Morgan Stanley Europe intern in England about how teenagers consume technology.

The report, if you care to read it, is here, but frankly, I'm confused as to why anyone thinks this is so revealing. Morgan Stanley Europe, in its introduction to this three-page report (bulked up with five pages of cover, index, financial gobbledlygook at the end, et cetera) certainly is all hopped up about it:

At the vanguard of this digital revolution are teenagers. While their habits will obviously change (especially when they start employment), understanding their mindset seems an excellent way of assessing how the media landscape will evolve. To this end, we asked a 15 year old summer work intern, Matthew Robson, to describe how he and his friends consume media. Without claiming representation or statistical accuracy, his piece provides one of the clearest and most thought provoking insights we have seen. So we published it.
Yes, published it, typos (in his report and the introduction) and all.

But why? The report doesn't reveal anything we don't already know about teen technology habits: They like their mobile devices and games, the cheaper the better, though they're willing to pay more for more features; they don't want to pay for music and see nothing wrong with piracy, though they will pay to see concerts and films; they don't read newspapers.; they don't like advertising, be it outdoors or on the Internet. They are also capable, it seems, of writing up a three-page statement of obvious generalities and getting a major financial institution all spun up about it.

Morgan stanley knows this. they say in their introduction that "these trends will not necessarily surprise." So why all the hype?

Or is this a viral marketing ploy, which Robson says teens enjoy so well. Does Morgan Stanley want to be seen as the Hip, Now stockbroker? If so, they'd better do better than a poorly proofread PDF.

Yes, as MS points out, the implications for profit models are shifting as we move into the technological era. But frankly, we don't need Robson's report to point that out to us. That profit (and delivery) models for newspapers, music and other bits of entertainment and informative gewgaws have to change is, to put it simply, blindingly obvious. And we can't all decide that viral marketing is the way to go -- because as soon as they become ubiquitous, the new, ripe crop of teenagers will tire of the tactics and demand to be entertained/sold to in some other manner. We might quite possibly see viral marketing become cliche and passe as are billboards and newspapers, so there's no salvation there.

Confusion, not Anthropomorphism

I am, perhaps, a little confused.

The rage these days among those pushing for gay marriage is to point to the animal kingdom and say, well, there are gay animals, such as these two penguins at the San Francisco Zoo, so same-sex attraction is completely natural.


So, they say, they seem to know what's going on inside the heads of two penguins. They seem to think that because two male penguins hung out together and were allowed to incubate an egg and successfully raise a chick together that, ergo, they must have a seme-sex attraction. Really? Talk about grasping at straws.

This kind of thinking is highly illogical. If two men hang out together and successfully raise a child, does that make them gay? Or does that make them two humans who have successfully raised a child in spite of sexual orientation, hetero or homo? The desire to see a child raised successfully by two ladies or by two males or two females is hardly evidence of gay animals -- it's evidence of the drive to survive. It's sophomoric to assume that two male penguins -- a species known for cooperation between partners in incubating eggs and raising young -- are gay because they succeed.

Find a new argument, folks. One that makes sense.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Populism and Mass Social Networks

We all know social networks on the Internet are the big thing these days. From Twitter to Facebook, from Flickr to even the oddballs like digg and, mass audiences are finding places to explore, have fun, comment, criticize, vent, rant, praise, rave and otherwise hobnob with their fellow wizards.

But at what point do the wizards have to hobnob with the commoners, pull back that curtain and, perhaps, reveal that they might just possibly be a humbug?

I've spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about social networks and social networking. I'm on facebook. I'm nearing my thousandth tweet on Twitter. I've got two blogs, and am a contributor to a third. I've got ideas for at least a half a dozen other blogs which, for the most part, appeal to tiny little niches on the Web and elsewhere, because that's the kind of thing I have the time and energy to focus on as an individual.

For the broader market, the mass social networks, the Facebooks and Twitters, you need company. But I come back to that same question: When do the wizards hobnob with the simple folk?

To be sure, there is room on the Internet for social networks that appeal to niche markets, the professionals, the fetishists, the hobbyists. I'm sure, somewhere out there, thanks to services like, there are Twilight-based social networks. There are Harry Potter-based social networks. I'm part of a social network set up for 1990 graduates of Bonneville High School, of all things. I get regular updates. I visit occasionally. They're gearing up for our 20th reunion, and it all looks to be wonderfully social and organized.

But the Facebooks, the Twitters, can't do that, at least on the surface. Subgroups might develop -- and sertainly have -- inthose networks, but the networks themselves, on the whole, are established for mass appeal, not limited to a single, or even a small collection, of audiences.

Enter the populist view. Populism, in the paradigm of social networking, means opening the ubiquity and inexpensiveness of the Internet to anybody with a computer and a reasonably fast Internet connection. This is no startling revelation, I know. The likes of Clay Shirky and others have long opined that the advent of the Internet is akin to the invention of the printing press in freeing expression from the gatekeepers who beforehand kept things under control or at least among the hobnobbing class.

What is the appeal of social networks? To me, it's the ability that such networks afford anyone to upload a photo, write a story or a post, and have it read and perhaps enjoyed by someone else. The photographer and poster may indeed recognize that there are others out there much more capable of producing better photograpsh and batter-written posts, but that is of no consequence. What matters is that the poster is able to share what he or she has created with those who might be interested. And for friends and family, there is interest. Maybe outside that circle, there is interest. There is competiton, of course. It's fairly easy to get onto the Internet and say, "Eew. I can do better than that." And the beauty is they can go ahead and do better than that, post their own, share it with their friends, and the one who has an inferior product need not be bothered. Or even jealous. Or even aware.

Maybe Anne Elk can explain this better than I can:

Yes, it's a stupid, poorly developed theory. But it is hers. She is proud of it. And she doesn't really care if someone out there has a better theory. It is her right to share her theory with the world, and social networking can help her do that.

This is the populist theory of social networking. Maybe it's not what the niche markets want. Maybe it doesn't have professional appeal. But it allows everyone out there to participate, contribute, share and explore.

Does this mean I don't find professionalism appealing? No. But it does mean that I object to the thought that professionalism is the only lens through which one may observe the world. Let me illustrate by example:

How many times have you asked an English teacher “Can I go to the bathroom,” only to have the teacher respond, “I don’t know. Can you? I think you mean ‘May I go to the bathroom.’” The implication here is that the word “can” implies ability – Am I able to go to the bathroom – and the “may” implies asking permission – “I need to go to the bathroom. I am asking your permission to leave the room to do so.” Technically, maybe there is a difference between can and may. But isn’t the overarching message from the teacher to the student that he or she needs to use the bathroom and is asking permission to leave?

Here’s the point: Do we let the English language drive us, or do we drive the English language? Those who can get past the fiddle-faddle of an overreliance on precise language agree that we shape the language, it does not shape us.

It's the same with professionalism being the sole driver of a social network -- or anything else for that matter. The Internet allows us to remove the gatekeepers, to pull back the curtain on that wizard.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Wolf Flats

Standing at the fire shortly after midnight, watching the glow from the not-yet-visible moon shine from behind the cliffs, I felt at peace.

Wind blew through the branches of the cottonwood trees, sending the seed flying like dimmed fireflies through the glow of the campfire coals. The cliffs, one red and tan, the other black under the sun, were mere shapes, silhouettes as the moon rose behind them. Opposite, enough moonglow fell on the cliffs to illuminate, slightly, juniper and sage brush, a barbed wire fence line.

Overhead, an owl screeched. Bats flew by, shrieking and squeaking. The sky was a tumult of wind and invisible wings and cries and wind and stars obscured by a thin laryer of cloud and everywhere the moonshine growing brighter even though a quarter hour later the moon still lay hidden behind the cliffs, standing out black against the milky grey sky.

The last rays of the sun disappeared only two hours earlier, fighting the earth's rotation, fighting the dark of the night with a streak that went from blue to gray to white, then to nothing. But at midnight with the moon rising, it felt almost brighter than when the sun was high, everything -- trees, cliffs, leaves, branches, birds, calls, cries, screeches brightly lit even though the only light was that of the not-yet-risen moon and the glow of the red coals in the fire pit. It was a circle of hell that felt divine, visited by angels when the headlights of a vehicle rumbling on the gravel road cut through the bright ethereal gloom to stab beams of light through the regreened trees.

I went back to sleep.

Then came the skunk fight. I believe it was skunks. I hope it was skunks as I thought of the other possibilities: bobcat fight, badger fight, bumfight, aliens, housecats. Whatever it was screamed and yowled. I still felt safe, hiding under my Winnie the Pooh blanket in the tent under the cottonwoods.

PS: Yes, we did make it camping, despite all the problems. We got propane. We got a new battery -- that brought on a new problem, a weird clicking sound in the interior of the camper, but I fixed that after figuring out I had the battery wires crossed. Then on the way out of town the canopy, rolled up and strapped to the side of the camper, fell -- due to rotted straps -- and crashed onto the road. We picked up the sad remains, took them home, and went on our way.


My wife just forwarded this link to me a little while ago, and it brought back some pleasant memories. I, too, remember hearing about the elusive Giant Palouse Worm while I was a student at the University of Idaho. I'm sure there are few regions in the world where people don't have some local legend about some supernatural being or visitation; our local manifestation is of a creature that's supposed to inhabit Bear Lake, which straddles the Utah-Idaho border, kind of a Nessie of the Great Basin.

I heard a few people talk about the GPE, but, of course, I never believed them. One of my friends was in natural resource conservation there at U of I, and he dismissed the worm's existence as hokum. Now, I've seen twelve-inch nightcrawlers, but that a three-foot-long worm exists in the prarie up there, I'm not so sure about.