Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Rehearsal and Repetition May Be Bad For Learning

Rehearsal and repetition may be bad for learning. They are even worse for learners at a distance for whom external influences such as work stress, frequent travel, deployment to war zones, and personal or family issues are creating learning anxiety. This is the conclusion reached by several learning specialists and educational psychologists who studied why students perform poorly even after adhering closely to the “practice makes perfect” traditional cognitive learning strategies of rehearsal, organization, and elaboration. This is Part I of a two-part series.
Susan Smith Nash at the University of the South Pacific Lodge, Suva, Fiji

Ironically, instead of helping students perform, rehearsal and repetition may have negative impacts on performance, as well as self-concept. Unfortunately, in this case, the learning strategies actually exacerbates learning anxiety, and worsens the learner’s ability to succeed. Not surprisingly, once a distance learner gets caught in the twin trap of situational anxiety and performance anxiety (heightened by negative self concept and insecurity about learning in general), it is very likely that he or she will not finish the course, and may even drop out of the degree or certificate program.
There are several reasons why rehearsal and repetition are the wrong learning strategy choices for an individual suffering from situational or performance anxiety:
Concentration is required for rehearsal and repetition: According to some educational psychologists (Kuhl, 1992), people have finite resources for cognitive and information processing. If too much capacity is dedicated to quelling one’s anxiety by self-reassurance and relaxation techniques, there is little capacity left for the actual task at hand.
Further, if the learning situation or setting creates distractions, more cognitive resources will be required to maintain focus.
Finally, if an individual is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or there are work or family conflicts, unwanted intrusive thoughts may create even more problems with concentration, and require the marshalling of cognitive resources.
Online rehearsal and repetition often take the form of automated, interactive forms, requiring good online access and time online: Many online courses rely heavily on automated, online quizzes and “skill and drill” activities.
While these are considered effective by some, particularly if the test is in the same format, there are questions about the efficacy of skill-and-drill in the attainment of deeper learning.
Nevertheless, this is a moot point for an individual learner who cannot access the quizzes or review materials because he or she has limited access to the Internet, and may be accessing the learning activities through a very slow dial-up connection or wi-fi node. Needless to say, the frustration involved when one cannot access the material contributes to learner anxiety.
Motivational control lacking as boredom sets in: Motivation is an important factor in success, and anxiety acts as a huge demotivator. Further, learners may find that rehearsal and repetition – particularly in isolation, is extremely boring. Educational psychologists (Pintrich and DeGroot, 1990) have traced connections between motivation and learning strategies.
Material is too compartmentalized, content too granular, and made irrelevant to real life: Skill and drill activities involving rehearsal, and repetition are, while very labor-intensive and expensive to develop, very attractive to computer-based training and online learning activities designers. The content has fine granularity and can be reused and redeployed in many settings and under many conditions. Further, it’s a scalable way to provide instructional activities. However, all the assumptions used to support using skill-and-drill automated activities must be re-examined when learners are in hostile conditions, have little online access, and are working in isolation.
Material must be made relevant, and reconnected to real life. Further, if repetition and rehearsal are used as learning strategies, it must be made clear to the learner that the content forms an foundational underpinning for situated learning to come in the future.
Effective rehearsal and repetition occurs in groups, where immediate support is available: Although it was not mentioned in the studies, one can surmise that traditional on-campus students have formed study groups, or are required to go to lab and discuss the course material. It might be useful to examine if rehearsal, organization, and elaboration are most effective in study groups and informal communities of practice. In distance settings, collaborative strategies rarely involve the cognitive strategies, but instead tend to stress practical application focused around a set of clearly defined outcomes.

Works Cited
Driskell, J. E., Copper, C., and Moran, A. (1994). Does mental practice enhance performance? Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 805-814.
Ferguson-Hessler, M. G. M., and de Jong, T. (1990). Studying physics texts: Differences in study processes between good and poor performers. Cognition and Instruction, 7, 41-54.
Karabenick, S. A., and Knapp, J. R. (1991). Relationship of academic help seeking to the use of learning strategies and other instrumental achievement behaviors in college students. Journal of Educational Psychology. 16. 117-138.
Kuhl, J. (1992). A theory of self-regulation: Action versus state orientation, self-discrimination, and some applications. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 41, 97-129.
Mueller, J. H. (1992) Anxiety and performance. In A. P. Smith and D. M. Jones (Eds.), Handbook of human performance (Vol 3, pp. 127-160). London: Academic Press.
Pintrich, P. R., and De Groot, E. V. (1990). Motivational and self-regulated learning components of classroom academic performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82. 33-40.
Seipp, B. (1991). Anxiety and academic performance. A meta-analysis of findings. Anxiety Research, 4, 27-41.
Snow, R. E. and Swanson, J. (1992). Instructional psychology – Aptitude, adaptation, and assessment. Annual Review of Psychology, 43, 49.
Warr, P., and Downing, J. (2000). Learning strategies, learning anxiety, and knowledge acquisition. British Journal of Psychology, 91, 311-333.
Weinstein, C. E., and Mayer, R. E. (1986). The teaching of learning strategies. In M. C. Wittock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (3rd ed. pp. 315-327). New York, Macmillan.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Second Generation Digital Divide

Play the audiofile. (podcast downloadable to your favorite mp3 player)



Advances in website interactivity, high-powered programming languages that create webpages with dynamic functionality, and “intelligent” file-sharing programs have made first-generation connectivity (modem or T1) hopelessly ineffectual at providing the bandwidth or speed necessary to support them. What has resulted is a "second generation digital divide."

This is unfortunate, because the paying clients in the world’s urban areas have access to high-speed connections. The fact that corporations, governments, and monopolistic providers are (depending on how you look at it) subsidizing or enabling this trend obscures a very basic issue: the populations that were “rescued” by the first digital divide, and now being excluded by a new barrier: a “second generation digital divide.”

Susan Smith Nash at the University of the South Pacific Lodge, Suva, Fiji




As probably everyone remembers, a “digital divide” was first described in the way that whatis.com (http://www.whatis.com/) puts it: The term 'digital divide' describes the fact that the world can be divided into people who do and people who don't have access to - and the capability to use - modern information technology, such as the telephone, television, or the Internet. The digital divide exists between those in cities and those in rural areas.

For example, a 1999 study showed that 86% of Internet delivery was to the 20 largest cities. The digital divide also exists between the educated and the uneducated, between economic classes, and, globally, between the more and less industrially developed nations. (http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/0,,sid9_gci214062,00.html)

Many steps were taken in the last five years to bridge the digital divide, at least in the more industrially developed nations. Governments of developed and developing nations alike provided grants, subsidies, and low-interest loans to schools and municipalities (primarily in rural or underserved areas) for computers, Internet access, and servers. There were also a number of grants and loans by development organizations and grantmakers. They also helped underwrite Internet service providers’ investments in the hardware and software necessary to build an infrastructure that would support Internet access.

There were also programs to provide basic training for web developers, Internet users, and web-server administrators. The government initiatives and subsidy programs were, by and large, successful. Basic dial-up service became available across the globe, and although concentrated in the major urban areas, more and more smaller cities and towns gained access. Further, more individuals became capable of designing basic websites, and libraries, schools, governments, health organizations, and other entities started making public service and public domain information available.

However, the gains have been eroded in recent years with the emergence of high-level, highly interactive websites and bandwidth hogging applications, which include interactive multiplayer video games, downloadable movies, and downloadable audio files / audioblogs. It is recreating the gulf between the “haves” and the “have-nots” of the world. The new dynamic websites require so much bandwidth, speed, and memory that they do not load if there is too much traffic, not enough bandwidth, speed, or memory, or if the computer being used is an older one with an older Internet browser.

Examples of dynamic webpages containing Active-X, dynamic html, java, javascript or media components which crash systems and computers include the following:

Personalized “start” pages: These are often the portal or “home” pages offered by providers such as lycos, yahoo, msn, or a corporate or university portal page software company. They feature customized “start” pages that are, in essence, patchwork quilts of dynamic bits and chunks – feeds and info-gathers that provide local weather, financial information, stock market quotes, etc. These pages are programmed so that they send and receive millions of bits of information, effectively clogging or collapsing the network access points and conduits.

Student services: Online enrollment, online bill retrieval and payment, online grade checks are all examples of the same kinds of dynamic, interactive webpages that crash entire networks. These, however, are complicated by privacy issues, and they require robust encryption. Needless to say, these are bandwidth hogs which can effectively hobble a network with a single inquiry.

Smart shopper e-commerce: The programs store information about the customer, send the information to programs that return with data in the form of “suggested purchases.” They also can provide a shopping cart, as well as records of past purchases. Here again are the twin nightmares of simple dynamic html and encryption.

File sharing programs: A few individuals running their individual machines as network access points, from which they transmit and receive the data from streaming media (audio, video) can take down a university computer network. It sounds impossible, but it has happened hundreds of times. If these programs can take down T3 connections and the latest generation servers, what will they do to servers in Kazakhstan? The answer is: Nothing. The bandwidth required is so great that they time out before significant data transfer can occur. What results is a classic case of “second generation digital divide.”

While the industrialized world enjoys lightning-fast transmission of media files, large images, and information-laden dynamic webpages, the less industrialized nations are only able to access simple, static pages. While this may not be too consequential when it comes to being able to access 3D virtual tours of a five-star hotel and then book the room, it is very important when it comes to access to information, participation in high-quality education and e-learning, true interactivity and collaborative learning between individuals residing in different countries.

With the advent of a second generation digital divide, the groups enjoying recently gained access to “first world” or “top tier” information are suddenly returned to their previous status of ongoing marginalization and exclusion. Further complicating the situation is the fact that governments that provided funding to bridge the first digital divide may not be so eager to advance funds that seem to feed into a culture of instant obsolescence.

The advent of the second generation digital divide is potentially destabilizing to companies as well as countries. Governments will be hard-pressed to fund yet another round of capital improvements designed to provide access to the Internet. Governments uncomfortable with the web in the first place will likely be made even more nervous once they fully understand the capabilities of the new dynamic web pages.

While it is difficult to suggest a solution to what is, in essence, the problem that faces all the world when expensive technology promises to make the world a better place – if you can afford it – it is easy enough to predict the eventual denouement. Not only will individuals be excluded, those who managed to learn the ropes in lesser industrialized nations will be eager to move and abandon the countries that constrained them so. Ironically, in this case, technology accelerates the brain drain. While this is understandable, the effects on a society can be profoundly deleterious.

Because the implications are so profound, it is absolutely vital that the “second generation digital divide” phenomenon be investigated, and suggestions made that could lead to a more equitable distribution of “e-based access.”

Note: I first wrote this for Xplana.com back in 2003. Things have not changed -- in fact, the second-generation digital divide is a larger problem than ever, effectively blocking many users from accessing podcasts, serious games, interactive websites, and learning management systems.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Classics of Rhetoric and the Internet: Secrets from Richard Whately

Play the podcast (downloadable audio file).

Richard Whately, who lived and wrote in 18th century England, had some ideas about “testimony” make a lot of sense today in the age of Internet journalism, blogs, and instant punditry. Although we often think of testimony as something that belongs only in a court of law or perhaps in certain churches, the reality is that “testimony” is a much broader concept.

Testimony occurs whenever an expert expresses a viewpoint. It also encompasses most quotes or citations you may use, whether they involve case studies or the verbal picture that someone paints for you in order to define the concept(s).

It might be good to back up for a moment and provide some historical background. Richard Whately, who wrote Elements of Rhetoric in 1828, was an ordained Anglican priest educated at and later a reader at Oxford University. He was the author of numerous books that explored the relationships of persuasive discourse, rhetoric, and religion. A few more details about Whately’s life can be found at sacklunch.com’s entry for him: http://www.sacklunch.net/biography/W/RichardWhately.html.

According to Whately, a factual testimony carries more weight than simple opinion. How do you tell the difference between fact and opinion? A fact can be checked out and verified. Think of “rules of evidence.”

Kinds of testimony include the following:

---Spontaneous testimony. Whately argues that unplanned testimony is persuasive because it has the appearance of being genuine and “unscripted.” Keep this in mind when you have an argument that could be helped by “man on the street” kinds of interviews. We all know that the way that one asks questions can be pretty coercive, and yet that fact is rarely acknowledged. In the Internet, spontaneous testimony often appears in chat rooms, newsgroups, usenet, and discussion boards. How many of the people posting in these places have a hidden agenda? How many are trying to boost traffic to their own sites? These are not questions that occur to most readers. Most people take what appears to be spontaneous testimony at face value.

---Negative testimony. Ironically, it’s not necessary to speak in order to give a negative testimony. Silence can have the same impact, especially if you don’t deny negative character assaults. On the other hand, Whately acknowledges that if you take the bait and spend a lot of time defending negative claims, you end up reinforcing the negative rather than refuting it. A good example of this is the case of negative political campaign ads. To take a look at Presidential television ads, check out the American Museum of the Moving Image’s wonderful presentation of The University of Oklahoma’s Political Communication Center’s collection. The spots can be found here: http://www.ammi.org/livingroomcandidate/. You can view the digitized television ads with RealPlayer or Windows Media Player. Download is smooth, and the site’s great flexibility for different connection speeds makes accessing them a real pleasure. I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that these streaming media files are housed with Akamai (http://www.akamai.com ).

---Concurrent testimony. If several unrelated individuals have the same or similar testimonies, it has a lot more impact than the testimony of a single individual. Think of space alien abduction stories. Would you believe that alien abductions take place if ten individuals who do not know each other and have had no common contact all offer testimony that it occurred to them? Would you believe it if only one person claimed to have been abducted by aliens? For archives of alien abduction stories, please visit Alien-Ufos.com’s archive of first-person testimonials: http://www.alien-ufos.com/abductionstories.shtml.

--Character of the witness. Whately’s not breaking any new ground here. Of course, the majority of individuals are going to believe the testimony of an individual who is a solid, respected citizen over that of an individual who breaks society’s rules. Ironically, sometimes the “outsiders” are more truthful. Nevertheless, they’re going to have a harder time of convincing anyone.

--Testimony of an adversary. According to Whately, the words of an adversary can be quite persuasive, especially if they are speaking in a way that is not expected. For example, if an adversary suddenly begins to support the opposite position, the impact can be profound.

Whately’s emphasis on the “burden of proof” is very helpful to the writer who is embarking on a “taking a position” paper. Whately is realistic about the nature of written discourse, and he accepts that “truth” can become a concept to managed in the service of persuasion.

Although it’s not too advisable to end on a quote, this one is irresistible:

“It is one thing to wish to have truth on our side, and another to wish sincerely to be on the side of truth.”

(an earlier version of this was first published in Xplanazine.com)

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Learning Objects and Their Difficulties

Play the audio file (podcast).

It would be almost impossible to overstate the amount of hype that has gone into the subject of learning objects.

The confusion is interesting because very few people agree on what a learning object is, and even fewer consistently use the same language to describe them.

When searching for "learning objects," one is likely to encounter a vast array of terms and ways to describe them. Terms include knowledge objects, educational objects, knowledge chunks, digital objects, digital educational computer programs, Flash-exercises - on and on.

Once one has untangled the nomenclature problem, one can go to the various repositories. Repositories can look like directories, with large databases that link out to the actual location of the object. Other repositories have a search function that allows one to go out and retrieve objects from archives they maintain on their own servers.

Problem 1---Not really interchangeable

Problem 2---Can't find them (lack of consistent classification schemes)

Problem 3---Quality is highly variable, despite the attempts of some to institute peer review, or quality criteria.

How do I find learning objects I can use and/or share?

Large repositories of learning objects are now available from MERLOT, CAREO, and Wisconline, among others.

NMC, the New Media Consortium, is an international 501(c)3 not-for-profit consortium of approximately 200 colleges, universities, museums, corporations, and other learning-and education based organizations that use new media and new technologies.

The following bullet list of challenges presents issues.

1---Hard to figure out how to use them.

2---Hard to find the "object" you need.

3---If they are a link to an object on someone's website, the link could be dead. If you're using it in CD-ROM or for PDA-delivery, they can be useless.

4---Not centrally housed. The repositories do not refer to each other and do not cross-catalogue. There is redundancy, inconsistency, and they are often out of date.

5---No standardization.

Why do instructional design and planning matter?

Before using a learning object, learning objectives, desired learner outcomes (performative and measurable), range of content and learner level, and instructional strategies must be in place.

In addition, all the technological issues must be worked out.

What platform will be used?

Will a learning management system be used?

Will this be a live web-based course? What kinds of access will the students have?

Will it be offered in CD-ROM format? Will you use PDAs or hand-held computers?

These have to be considered because it is very difficult to retrofit an object once it is incorporated into a learning module.

Finally, learning objects can (if utilized properly) be wonderful ways to enhance learner self-efficacy and self-concept, as well as to improve learner self-regulation in the quest for effective, flexible, and adaptable learning strategies.

Useful References

Alivetek learning objects for natural and social sciences. http://www.alivetek.com/learningobjects/#

American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), and SmartForce. (2002) A field guide to learning objects. ASTD online booklet. http://www.learningcircuits.org

Braxton, B. (2003). "Learning objects." Response posted. http://lists.rite.ed.qut.edu.au/pipermail/oz-teachers/2003-November/000265.html

Campus of Alberta Repository of Educational Objects. http://www.careo.org/

Clyde, Laurel A. (2004) "Digital Learning Objects" TeacherLibrarian.com April 2004. http://www.teacherlibrarian.com/tltoolkit/info_tech/info_tech_31_4.html

Downes, S. (2002). "Design and reusability of learning objects in an academic context: A new economy of education?" Conference paper. http://www.downs.ca/files/milan.doc

Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT). http://www.merlot.org

Wiley, D. (2000). Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory: A definition, a metaphor, and a taxonomy. http://www.reusability.org/read/chapters/wiley.doc

Wisconsin Online Resource Center. http://www.wisconline.org/index.htm

Yacovelli, S. (2004). "Understanding learning objects: The basic 'chunks'" College and University Media Review. Winter 2003-2004: pp. 17-26.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Disruptive Technologies and Distance Education


Education is expensive. People will pay something for a rite of passage, but they have certain expectations of their tuition dollar. What this means to me, as an instructor, or designer / developer of courses to be delivered in possibly yet-undefined ways, boils down to professionalism and flexibility. I have to make a commitment to deliverability and service. I can’t let challenges dismay me. I can’t let myself get caught up in being “right” or “wrong” – what I have to do is listen.

As I listen, certain issues will converge, and I will have to pay attention. If I don’t, I risk losing all the progress I’ve made. The problem with disruptive technologies is that they require you to look at every situation in a very individualized manner.

You have to prepare.

You can’t just go into your study, dust off last year’s lecture notes, and then drone on to your students. You also can’t get away on charm, stage presence, and facile banter.

Address the online / hybrid credibility issue straight-on. Traditional programs are threatened by online programs. The straw argument that is usually proffered up is all about “quality” and “standards.” Of course, you have to make sure that your materials are of high quality. They need to meet the “no significant difference” measure. But, that’s not really what’s driving the issue.

What is really going on is a combination of fear and exposure.

The fear factor comes in knowing that aggressive marketing and providing high-quality education – any time and any place – will take market share away from the traditional campuses.

The exposure factor comes in laying bare the realities of some tenure systems. How many tenured professors have you met who have essentially “retired on the job” ? Thankfully, most universities have instituted post-tenure reviews, but it is still an embarrassing reality. The other exposure factor is this: What happens when you make a job a life-long sinecure? What happens when the people who have the lifelong sinecures come to realize that a) they’re going to have to stay in one place for the rest of their lives; and b) they don’t really like the other people in their department. This is a legacy of the old monastery / university days. Once you’re in the order, you’re always there, unless you’re off to foreign climes to set up missions and establish centers of higher learning.

Remember that jealousy and rivalry in academia mask themselves as a concern for academic standards. Certainly part of this is true. However, it doesn’t take a Machiavelli to identify turf wars, squabbling over scarce resources, and lust for power. The online environment liberates people and defuses much of that energy, but one must remain always aware that your online and hybrid programs will receive much more scrutiny that any face-to-face class ever did.

Armor yourself with good assessments and evaluations. Avoid hype. Keep the intellectual content solid and beyond reproach. Encourage creativity, and – above all – seek teamwork and partnering with traditionally types. Perhaps the resistance and jealousy have their origin in feelings of being excluded or rejected. You have an opportunity to probe and explore.

Instead of jumping on the latest technology bandwagon, it’s good to step back and determine the precise needs of the institution and the learners. Make sure that they come together, and never substitute fireworks and flash for the fundamentals.

The curriculum, delivery modes, content, and assessment should center on the institution’s mission. If a technological innovation, delivery mode, or curriculum change does not support the mission of the institution, to implement it will be counter-productive.

The other day, the same professor who asked me about new hybrid solutions, asked how she could start podcasting. I was very excited about her enthusiasm. She wanted to use the podcasts to simulate a phone call with a student, and to help give an idea of what the advising process is like.

I was impressed with her willingness to anticipate the needs of students, and to use the technology they are likely to have and to be comfortable with. It reinforced to me that disruptive technologies require you to step out of your comfort zone and to innovate.

I have to remember that it’s not my comfort zone that matters. It’s the comfort zone of the students.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Change, Disruptive Technologies, e-Learning

Play the podcast -- downloadable sound file.

We want students to succeed with technology. We also have no choice but to help them succeed. In order to retain students, they have to be able to use the technology.


However, what happens when disruptive technologies occur at ever-increasing frequencies? The technologies will evolve – some will disrupt our lives, and others will sustain further innovation. Either way, it represents change. We have to jump on board, or else, be left behind.

In hybrid courses and e-learning, disruptive technology occurs in the following forms:

Technology changes – miniaturization and wireless: Portability and access are accomplished in many different ways. What we’re seeing more than ever is the way that individuals don’t want to be chained to their desktop computer and a high-speed modem in order to do their distance courses. They’d like to be able to bring their work with them, to work on courses whenever and wherever they can.

Nature of people’s lives: Not everyone is ready, willing, or able to move to a university town and take up lodging in a college dorm for four years. If it’s a graduate degree, the situation is even more pronounced. How many people want to relocate to the university where one has been accepted, move into grad-student housing (or lease a place in a Victorian house converted into off-campus rentals), to try to make it by on a graduate student stipend? While this option is still appealing to many, it’s just not possible for others. Students come from all walks of life, and in all geographic locations. They are mobile, career-focused, and interested in being able to take their education as far as they can, with resources available at one’s fingertips.

With online and hybrid education’s focus on planning, review, and instructional strategy, face-to-face instruction is feeling the heat. For some instructors – the highly performative ones – face to face is still a student favorite. But, we’re starting to be able to see the rips and tears in the fabric, and it’s clear that face-to-face instruction is difficult to standardize or make uniformly high-quality.

Changing ideas about the role and nature of education: Do you remember when you expected a college professor to be a “sage on the stage” and you went to class prepared to take as many notes as possible so you could regurgitate the wisdom back on a test? Do you remember when you thought less about what you were getting out of a class, and more about just getting through it, so you could “check the box” and make progress toward the degree? A college experience used to be as much a rite of passage and a way to network as a place to gain useful knowledge about one’s chosen career.

Now, a college education signifies that, and much more. Students are often life-long learners. They have choices that they never had before. Without going as far as to say that a student is a customer, it’s possible to say that students can and will complain when their needs are not satisfied. Good relations are critical.

What do students expect of a high-quality education? Certainly, they expect flexibility with respect to delivery. They want to be able to take a class in a way that corresponds to their real-life situations – with work, family, and personal issues.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The PDA and iPod Effect: Disruptive Technologies

When considering the role of handhelds in hybrid courses, I suddenly realized that interactivity would have to be reconsidered. I needed to ask myself some very fundamental questions.

Play the podcast.

These questions were the following:

--What was the nature of the old “correspondence courses?” How did the learner interact with the texts and the booklet of questions?

--What were the flaws of the old correspondence courses? If they came bundled with audio files, tapes, and movies, what were the limitations?

--How do people use handheld video gaming devices such as Nintendo’s Gameboy? What makes them popular? What are the emotional “rewards”?

It started coming together. What we were talking about was a return, more or less, to the old concept of correspondence courses.

Instead of static, clunky books, you’d have something else. You’d have something you could watch and listen to while in your bunk at night. You could see it, even if you only had 8 inches between you and the bunk above you, and it was dark, hot, and stuffy. You wouldn’t have to turn pages, or sit up and write. You could lie down, watch a little screen light up with bullet points of objectives, then an audio file come on, synched with a little slide show. This would either be through a Flash player, or on the Powerpoint 2003, that came installed in the 4-inch long Dell Axim handheld computer. You could listen to the audio through earphones. You could watch scenarios, think about how things are being written, and listen to a person go through the steps you’re trying to get across.

For example, in an English composition course, in the unit on “compare-contrast” essays, you could focus on learning how to write vivid descriptions. There would be an example of a first draft – a staid, descriptionless paragraph. Then, you’d see two or three iterations – revisions, expansions, adjustments to the goals of the writer and the rhetorical situation.

I could imagine a young Marine lying on his bunk, listening to the progression of descriptions:

Description 1: The horse was small.

Description 2: The chestnut-colored pony was the perfect size for an 8-year-old girl.

Description 3: My cousin’s 8-year-old daughter was thrilled when she saw the chestnut-colored pony standing next to the gate. “He’s bigger than Max!” she exclaimed breathlessly. Max, the blonde husky-golden retriever mix, cocked his head at the mention of his name. “Whadya expect, anyway? I’m a dog, not a horse!” he seemed to say.

Later, the Marine could scroll through the menu to small movies. These would be 2-3 minute video clips, shot in the style of reality television, that would illustrate a point. For example, this sequence could illustrate how to support your argument with supporting details

Taking a Position Video 1: The video is of a busy intersection. The student must take a position on whether or not to improve the light and pedestrian crosswalk, and support the position with compelling arguments. The facts would come from observing the video.

After viewing the video, the student can listen to one student’s version.

Taking a Position Video 2: Video of an apartment sidewalk that contains some sort of hazard (ice, branches, rocks). Ask the student to write a description of the scene to support the argument that the apartment management needs to improve safety conditions.

After viewing the video, the student can listen to a flawed description. The student is asked to be alert to inconsistencies and logic flaws.

Perhaps there is not a lot of reading or writing in this approach, but the concepts are clear, and the techniques are in place.

Work would be done in regular pen-and-pencil notebooks, and later turned in to the education officer.

I mentioned the fact that I was developing a course for delivery on PDAs. Not surprisingly, the first thing I heard was, “I can’t imagine reading a book on my Palm!” or, “My syllabus would never fit on a Palm – how are you going to put a course and a textbook on there?”

Of course, those were good questions. But – the key to remember is that you’re not trying to replicate the textbook. After all, they already have their textbooks. However, this is done to develop instructional materials that improve learner efficacy.

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