Desert of My Real Life

{June 25, 2011}   Technology in Education

I just got back from a three day workshop on academic technology.  As a computer scientist, I was intrigued by the idea of this workshop but I was worried that it would be a disappointment because so many of these workshops focus on what I consider to be the wrong things.  I am so glad I attended the workshop because I learned a lot and was inspired by a lot of what I heard.

The reason I’m often disappointed by technology workshops and technology training for educators is because they are often led by people whose focus is on the technology and teaching the participants how to use that technology.  This is definitely an important task but it is one that I typically find tedious because I’m comfortable with technology and want to go faster than the workshop usually go.  And I want to have conversations about more than “how” to use the technology.  I want to talk about “why” we should use the technology.  We discussed this topic quite a bit (more than I ever have) at this technology workshop.

My big take-away from the workshop concerning “why” we should use technology came from the Day 2 keynote speaker, Michael Caulfield, who is an instructional designer at Keene State College.  He presented research that shows that average students become exemplary students if they can have conversation about the topic they are learning, can have instruction that is customized to them and what they are not understanding, and can receive immediate feedback about their learning.  Basically, if every student can have a full-time, one-on-one tutor, she can move from being an average student to being an exemplary student.  Sounds great, but who wants to pay for that (especially in this economic climate)?  So, Caulfield explained, we really need to figure how to provide “tutoring at scale.”  That is, we need to figure out how to provide each student with conversation, customization and feedback in classrooms that have more than one student.  Caulfield then discussed various uses of instructional technology (which was called “rich media” at this workshop, a phrase that I’m still processing and deciding whether I like) and how to leverage technology to provide “tutoring at scale.”  Caulfield’s talk gave me a great perspective through which to view all of the activities we engaged in during the workshop.

My one critique of the workshop (and it is a small one) is that we didn’t sufficiently separate faculty development of “rich media” artifacts for use in providing “tutoring at scale” from faculty development of assignments that require students to create their own “rich media” artifacts.  It feels like the issues are related to each other but are also quite separate, with different things for the faculty member to consider.

I would strongly encourage my PSU colleagues to apply to and attend next years Academic Technology Institute.  It is well worth the time!

{June 15, 2011}   Tumblr Review–Part 2

It has taken me more than a month and a half to write the second part of this review.  I think it’s because I said in my last post that I would write about THIS topic in my next post.  Since that promise (or threat–take your pick) seems to have stymied me for a while, you can bet that I will never do that again.

I’ve been looking for a long time for a tool that would make it easy for me to implement a web site that looks the way I want it to and organizes information in the way I want it to.  When I first came across Tumblr, I thought I had found a tool that was pretty close to what I wanted.  As I read what the site promises, I realized that it wasn’t exactly what I wanted.  And then as I started to use the site, I realized that the developers of Tumblr hadn’t delivered on what they said Tumblr was going to be and so the tool is even further away from what I’m looking for than I realized.  The first part of my review of the tool focused on the things they promised but didn’t deliver.  I should point out that Tumblr no longer offers the options that I complained about in the first part of my review.  And despite my extensive contact with the technical folks at the company, no one has contacted me about how they’ve decided to resolve these issues. Perhaps it would be difficult to contact a customer (even a non-paying one) to tell them that their complaints prompted you to remove options rather than fix them. In any case, I think my dissatisfaction with Tumblr arises from my overall dissatisfaction with Web 2.0 in general and the values embraced by the people who develop tools for this environment.  So in this second part of my review, I’m going to focus on the main difficulty I have with Tumblr.  I should point out, however, that I am critiquing Tumblr for not doing something they have never promised to do.  I just wish the tool worked differently.

I am one of the few people my age who actually grew up with computer technology.  I started to develop computer software in 1978 when I was a sophomore in high school.  Although the Internet existed then, the World Wide Web did not (trivia: the birth year of the World Wide Web is debated depending on which event you use to mark its birth but it was sometime between 1990 and 1992).  Developing new tools and content for the World Wide Web was somewhat challenging and required a deep knowledge of how it all worked as well as significant programming skills. In other words, I have been producing content since the days of fairly difficult content production.  In those days, the line between content production and content consumption (viewing of that content) was pretty clear.

Gradually, however, tools were developed to allow the creation of content by more and more people. Together, these tools (things like blogging software, photo sharing sites, wikis and so on) make up Web 2.0.  I personally believe that the addition of these new, less technical content producers is a positive thing, leading to more diversity of content on the Web.  But when all of these new, easier-to-use tools entered the marketplace, I recognized that the underlying values of the tools were changing.  I’m only now beginning to fully understand the implications of these changing values.

One of the new underlying values involves a changing understanding of the word production.  I have always thought of production as the creation of new content.  Increasingly, I have come to understand that in Web 2.0 content consumption is in itself a kind of production.  In fact, this is the primary underlying value of Tumblr.  As a user browses the Web, she will inevitably find content that she finds interesting and wants to share with her online friends.  Tumblr makes sharing incredibly easy.  In fact, my unscientific review of Tumblr sites suggests that the vast majority of them are sites where the owner reposts content that she has found elsewhere on the Web.  In other words, the Tumblr owner is producing a new site that is idiosyncratically hers.  Her unique Web content consumption results in the production of a mashup, a site made of pieces of other sites.  For example, this Tumblr reposts items from around the Web that the owner finds “the most entertaining.”  None of the individual items is created by the owner of the Tumblr.  Instead, the owner produces the unique combination of these individual items.  This understanding of production by combining sites is very different than what I had been looking for when I found Tumblr.  Because I wanted to combine my various sites of production (on which I produce the individual items) into a single site, I was looking for something that would automatically grab content from those various sites of production.  Because Tumblr is designed for a human to make qualitative decisions about which content to include (from sites owned by a variety of people), the automatic grabbing of content is not as critical to Tumblr’s designers as it is to me.  As an aside, I am really interested in how this idea of consumption as production is affecting my students and their understanding of things like research and citations and intellectual property and originality.  It’s difficult to know if changing attitudes about these issues is driving changes in technology or vice versa.  In any case, this difference in understanding of the word production is the main reason I am dissatisfied with Tumblr.  What would I be satisfied with?

I would like a tool that automatically consolidates all of my other production sites while also allowing me to easily share Web content produced by others that I find interesting.  And I would like to be able to fully customize the layout of the site into what I will call “channels.”  That is, I’d like a “channel” that shows the content from this blog, another “channel” that shows my Flickr feed and so on, and I’d like to be able to arrange the “channels” on the page in a variety of ways.  And finally, I’d like the tool to allow me to customize how items appear in the various channels.  Another of Web 2.0’s underlying values is the privileging of recency.  That is, the most recent items on a site are the most important and, therefore, appear first.  I’ve written about my concerns about this value before.  Some sites, such as Twitter, take this focus on recency to extremes by deleting any tweets that are more than a few weeks old, which, of course, makes it really difficult to go back at a later time to find tweets that you found interesting in the past.  Therefore, I would like a site that allows me to override the default order of items and to provide my characterization of what is most important.  This last requirement leads me into an entirely new discussion about information organization that I think is an unsolved research problem for the technical world to tackle.  But I want my next blog entry to take me less than a month and a half to write so I won’t promise that that discussion will appear in my next entry.

et cetera