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Sunday, February 27, 2005

Online or Hybrid? "Belle" or "Disruptive Technology" Du Jour?

Play the sound file (podcast)

(This is an actual transcript) For hybrid and 100% online e-learning solutions, new technologies, learner needs, real-life situations, delivery capabilities often converge to create a succession of mildly disruptive technologies. In this environment, the technologies' disruptions occur quickly, and in succession. How does the well-intentioned instructor or program administrator keep up with this?

Play the sound file (podcast, suitable for download and play on portable devices such as iPod)

(What you’ll hear on this podcast is not an actual transcription, but a version of this. I recommend reading this, and then listening. Immerse yourself in both – if you can stand the grainy, scrunchy sound of Susan talking through a cheap headset while driving down a salty upstate New York road in her Subaru.)

Right now, what is preoccupying me is the fact that no matter how much we think we’re preparing ourselves for the latest and greatest technology quantum leap, delivery method, software, or learner needs, we’re always a little bit behind. I love everything about distance learning, and it’s fun for me to investigate the latest ideas, and to find out how and where new needs are emerging.

Nonetheless, I’m always feeling a bit behind the curve – behind the 8-ball, if you will – because I’m scrambling to imagine how on earth I can make this happen – meet the needs of the learner, given the constraints I have with technology, and achieving the “must-have’s” and “must-do’s” in terms of learning objectives.

The other day I was in a meeting and I was asked to develop a new course for distance delivery. I was feeling very “in control” with respect to learning management systems and instructional design. I had just finished some training on the latest versions of WebCT (Vista) and Blackboard 6.0, and had begun to familiarize myself with Desire2Learn.

On the instructional design side of the fence, I had just finished reading articles, books, and taking a course on learning theories as applied to hybrid and online courses. Further, the courses I had developed and were teaching were going well. I was feeling pretty on top of the world.

I think the ancient Greeks called that feeling “hubris,” and others called it “the pride that goeth before a fall.”

Granted, it wasn’t a very long fall, and, the landing didn’t hurt. But, I quickly found out that my assumptions about the needs, uses, and technology were, in fact, the absolutely reverse of what I had expected.

So, when asked to develop a course that would be delivered via pda’s or handheld computers, I immediately thought of Treo, Blackberry, and the T-Mobile Sidekick. In this case, I envisioned using the devices as a way to do "extreme interaction" using the camera function, e-mail, mobile phone, and built-in global positioning system (gps).

I started to think of the possibilities of learning activities: students could write journals that incorporated interviews with people on the street, photos and small movies, text messaging, and demographics. Or, they could do market surveys, or design a research problem that would involve taking photographs, entering data, and listing the gps location. Another idea involved natural sciences classes, and keeping a virtual field notebook.

Thinking of handheld computers as the extended functionality “palm pilots” and Blackberry devices that have become so popular, I started to get very enthusiastic about the way students and professors could interact. Students could take their results and post them on a discussion board, then share impressions and results. The professor could give guidance and post articles for students to download onto their devices, then print out and read. Then, in the face-to-face portions, students could get together and make presentations, and the professor could help guide them in creating generalizations, and develop scaffolding for meta-cognitive problem-solving skills that could be used in later classes.

But -- little did I suspect that it would be the other extreme, and the portability and size were the premium, value-added aspects, and that any wireless interactivity would be disabled due to security issues. Talk about a shift in thinking! To be honest, it was something I had not even considered, and I had to completely reverse my way of thinking.

Friday, February 18, 2005

The "Bambi Effect" -- Why We Hate It When Cute Creatures (or Beliefs) Are Threatened or Harmed

Listen to this article being read (suitable for download to iPods and other devices)

Students in online courses are often offended by comments in a discussion forum or by blog postings. Controversial topics arouse negative commentary instead of an attitude of "listening" and open-mindedness. Online instructors find themselves powerless to guide students into more productive modes.

How we, as readers, make meaning is something we often take for granted until we take a look at how we have been conditioned by society, experience, and convention to attach certain meanings to certain symbols. The fact that this process is often unconscious makes us all the more malleable and subject to manipulation.

A good example is what sportsmen and conservationists call "The Bambi Effect," which, briefly stated, explains the revulsion we feel when cute woodland creatures are harmed or threatened. A. Waller Hastings' article in The Journal of Popular Film and Television describes how identification, anthropomorphism, and transfer occur by means of semiotics and film narrative. Savage Art Resources further explores and comments on the phenomenon with an installation in their gallery consisting of the work of ten artists. Entitled The Bambi Effect, the pieces of art include Robyn O'Neil's drawing "It Produces Food and He Taketh Away," a visual commentary on the intrusiveness of modern, synthetic-clothed man in the environment. The bottom line is this: be aware of when you are being manipulated. Do not accept everything at face value. Emotions are powerful persuasive tools, particularly when unleashed by images that evoke nationalistic fervor, family bonds, the idea of innocence assaulted, etc. Bambi, (1942), as well as other Disney films has been analyzed and deconstructed in "Disney Films: Bambi," much to the dismay of loyal viewers who prefer only to see the "archetypal life-cycle story" of mythic proportions, rather than the ugly reality of a revenge fantasy.

Bambi and Bambi's Mother

Leni Riefenstahl understood the power of images to evoke a sense of national identity, individual, and collective power. She became known (and reviled) as Hitler's favorite filmmaker, and architect of masterful propaganda films. In fact, her film version of Hitler's 1934 Nuremberg rally, Triumph of the Will, has been considered one of the best propaganda films ever made. When she died at age 101, the commentary on her work, vision, and context, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, received renewed attention.

Leni Riefenstahl - coerced artist, or Nazi propagandist?

It does seem a bit strange that two of the Nazi Party's most effective propagandists and apologists were women: first, in the form of Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche (Friedrich's sister), who helped construct a "philosophy" for the party through her careful editing of her brother's work; and second, in the form of a visual artist, Leni Riefenstahl.

Once we become aware of how and why we believe what we believe, and once we become conscious of how we interpret our perceptions, we can start to question each cognitive step along the meaning-making road.

One step is to ask students to ask themselves whether or not they find themselves mystified or annoyed by the observations and analyses of texts and popular culture? The following text can be of great help in understanding the approach that is taken in much literary and cultural criticism.

The World Is a Text: Writing, Reading, and Thinking About Culture and Its Context., by Jonathan Silverman and Dean Rader. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003.

Although The World Is a Text was designed as a reader to accompany first-year college composition classes, it is an invaluable source of readings and interpretive strategies. Not only does it open one’s eyes to the multiplicity of interpretive possibilities embodied in all “texts” (literary, cultural, phenomenological), it also helps one understand how scholars can say the things they do about video-game based movies such as Tomb Raider, nutritional supplement advertising, the design of theme parks, political campaign television “spots.”

An introduction to semiotics, deconstructive philosophy, rhetoric, post-colonial discourse, gender studies, and post-structural thought, the text teaches students how to “read” and find meaning in “texts” of all sorts. Texts are more than the printed word. They are any decodable thing, and it is assumed that they possess the capacity to either generate or mediate meaning.

Along the way, we must accept that there are multiple interpretations for each set of signs, and that texts (as repositories of signs) can have multiple meanings.

The interpretive strategies that are employed can be profoundly destabilizing, even emotionally troubling to readers. What do you do when it is suggested that “truth” and “reality” are constructs?

Further, many readers are upset by the notion that politics, persuasion, and power manifest themselves in all texts at the moment in which an individual seeks to assign or make meaning from them.

There is nothing to fear – the fact that there are different ways to read and interpret texts is a robust endeavor, dating back as far as Augustine’s City of God, Books XX and XXII, where he discusses how one passage of scripture can have literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical meanings.

Nevertheless, the experience of interpreting texts -- in whatever form they occur -- images, mp3s, film -- and in whatever delivery method one uses, makes the ability to engage in robust discursive analysis more important than ever.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Rehumanizing through Revision

If you were to envision an entire semester spent in various stages of revision, you’d probably curl up in a little ball and hide under your desk or someplace far, far away from your computer and high-speed internet connection.

Play the PodCast.

Surprisingly, though, in the online environment, revision activities can be turned (quite productively, in fact) into a form of “listening.”

Wow! How does this magic occur? you might ask.

There are two or three aspects of this that are critical:

a) give your students a chance to write about something they are intrinsically interested in;

b) give them a flow chart or a model to follow for a first draft. This will help them overcome “block,” even if they are not too invested in the ideas that come out of that first pass;

c) at the same time, ask them to conduct a literature search (5 to 10 sources), on the topic, and to write a one-paragraph description. They can learn how to do proper citation, as they are able to discover useful things about a topic that interests them. This is a painless way to learn how to do annotated bibliographies;

d) ask them to revise their paper, and add the findings from the literature search. Then, respond with guidance and affirmation;

e) go through two or three more revisions, which will include peer reviews and structural overhauls.

Culminate in an “extreme revision” which asks the writer to bulk up the paper in significant ways. The key is that after every revision, respond with substantive, meaningful comments. What has gone on is, in essence, an accretionary process.

I like to think of it as a pearl – building itself, slowly, layer by beautiful layer. Each step of the way requires creative problem-solving, analytical thinking, synthesis, and invention. More importantly, you’ve been a supportive mentor who has listened, and has responded in constructive ways.

Your students will appreciate it.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Bringing Together Online Instruction and Real Life: Putting Content into the Context

Perhaps the most effective instructional strategy to employ is to design activities that require the student to relate the course content to their lives. This can be as basic as having students keep journals, or to find examples of what they are studying in current news or world events. The events may be ephemeral and the concepts may be abstract. However, when you connect the two, you establish relevancy and emotional engagement.

Listen to the podcast.

If you can take it one step further and allow the student sufficient flexibility to use the content to solve real-life dilemmas, you demonstrate that you care about the well-being of your student. This is golden. Magic can happen at this point.

Avoid skill-and-drill and rote memorization activities. Also avoid over-reliance on the discussion board - an over-reliance on it as the primary method of instruction can be frustrating for students because the comments that the instructor makes are public. It is awkward, and it often appears that the instructor "plays favorites" -- even when that was not the case. Further, one can unconsciously slip into the trap of unwittingly targeting or humiliating someone.

Remember -- dehumanization does not simply mean giving over to automation and avoiding human contact. It also can mean becoming desensitized to individuality, and losing awareness of the fact that the name / face on the screen is a human being with a complex array of beliefs, circumstances, and socio-cultural influences.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Encouraging Community in an Online Course

Encourage a sense of community by inviting people to people to meet you. Communicate your personality and interest by sharing the subjects that interest you. Be willing to build and share a personal website, and be willing to show your own intellectual curiosity.

Listen to the podcast.

Susan Smith Nash at the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Even the most basic information about you can be a huge ice-breaker to your students. If they know something about your research interests, your scholarship, your current focus, and your experience, it helps them feel a sense of confidence, and they will trust your guidance. If you let them know something about you as a person, they can attach a human face to you. The visual of this – the very idea of your humanity – mediates the learning space. It adjusts the learning space, and the assumptions and values that the student brings to the learning space are subtly adjusted. You are both approachable and human. This is absolutely vital.

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