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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Why Do Kids Kill? Cause-and-Effect Essay Online Writing Flowchart


It is difficult to explain why there have been so many cases in the United States of kids killing parents, relatives, schoolmates, and total strangers.

Like many of society's troubling issues, the explanations are murky at best. Yet, despite the lack of clarity, we want to untangle motives, influences, factors, and possible deterrents.

This essay flow chart helps students recognize how to support and argument and to avoid flaws in their logic.

When postulating a cause and effect relation, it is important to examine the nature of explanations and the argument for possible bias, logic flaws, faulty assumptions.

Statistics and History.
It is very persuasive to provide statistics and background. However, statistics can distort the situation and shape the reader's perception of events. Statistics can reinforce negative stereotypes, in addition to providing a realistic view of things.

Nature vs. Nurture.
Are some people born violent? Or, alternatively, does the environment make a person violent? Are individuals socialized into violence? Nature vs. nurture arguments are easily accepted by most readers, but if one is not careful, an argument can be biased and simply reinforce already existing opinions, ideas, and political stances.

Possible Cause #1: Television Violence (emulatory behavior)
Psychologist Albert Bandura conducted ground-breaking experiments which suggest that children imitate violent behavior seen on television. This argument has been expanded to suggest that children will behave violently after being exposed to media of all kinds, including video games, multiplayer interactive computer games, violent images, television, and even music.

Cautionary note: Does the author have a hidden agenda? Are the statistics being used to support underlying bias? There can be faulty assumptions, too. Does every exposure to violent behavior result in violent action? Does this assumption lead to damaging stereotyping?

Possible Cause #2: Brain Chemistry
Are some people born with brains that are "wired" to be violent? Brain scans that demonstrate differences between the brains of violent criminals and ordinary law-abiding individuals have been used to support the notion that organic differences in the brain and nervous system are responsible for violent behavior.

Cautionary note: Whose research is being used? How did they conduct their research? Is there hidden bias? Be alert to socio-economic, ethnic stereotyping which masks itself as "biology."

Possible Cause #3: Culture of Killing
Do some societies develop a "culture of killing" that rewards people who are violent in certain ways? Are kids who kill transformed into anti-heroes, or cult figures? Does this lead to copycat acts? Which sociological and psychological theories and theorists can be used to weigh in on both sides of the argument?

Cautionary note: Is the writer's bias getting in the way of objectivity? Are things what they seem to be? Do appearances deceive?

Possible Cause #4: Warped Values
Can children's violent acts be attributed to a general decline in morality and values? This argument is often used by individuals who are promoting a particular agenda. In using this argument, it is very important to define morality, values, and the ideal. It is useful to also refer to philosophical ideas about the common good and ethical behavior.

Useful Websites:

Columbine: Wikipedia entry:

Kip Kinkel: The Killer at Thurston High (PBS Special)

Lionel Tate: "Wrestling Case" Draws Life Sentence

Tate case profile:

Red Lake Ojibwa Reservation school shootings:

Albert Bandura, etal
"Transmission of Aggression through Imitation of Aggressive Models"

Imitative Violence: An overview from India and Indian film
"The Trend of Violence on the Indian Screen & its Influence on Children"

"TV Violence and Brainmapping in Children," by John P. Murray

Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, by Richard Rhodes

Bullying in high school: Of Bullies and the Bullied (Psychology Today)

ChildTrauma Academy, Bruce D. Perry, M.D.
Articles on the relationship between childhood neglect, trauma, and brain development

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Diversity and Online Collaboration


Diverse groups experience higher levels of interaction, and thus performance, resulting in higher persistence, satisfaction, and retention. This applies to e-learning as well as face-to-face settings, and is reinforced by work I recently rediscovered which was published more than ten years ago by teams investigating the impact of diversity on team performance.

Comparing task performance of homogeneous groups against the performance of diverse groups revealed a number of rather surprising things about how diverse groups interact with each other and achieve defined outcomes.

Performance was measured in two separate categories:

1- Problem-solving;
2- Quality of interaction between group members.

The researchers, W. Watson, K. Kumar, and L. Michaelsen (1993), found that the level of diversity of a team did have a measurable impact. Within the confines of their research, a "diverse" team was one that contained at least two or more nationalities and three or more ethnic backgrounds.

In this case, heterogeneous groups out-performed homogeneous groups in interaction, and in problem-solving (where the tasks were not complex) when the groups were short-term.

Group heterogeneity

1- Stimulated productive discussions
2- Increased the number of strategies employed in problem-solving.

Other findings included that

1- Small tasks are more effectively performed than complex ones;
2- Short-term groups are dynamic and characterized by high levels of productive interaction.

While these findings may seem self-evident, upon close examination, one sees that the results are almost counter-intuitive. Instead of creating confusion or miscommunication, there is a new level of clarity. The is attributable to the fact that diverse groups interact more and are solution-centered. The higher the level of diversity, the more solution-focused the interaction.

The implications for online collaborations are multiple:

1- Encourage diverse groupings
2- Assign tasks with simple structure, which can be accomplished rapidly
3- Avoid complex tasks and problems and create building-block structures
4- Ground tasks and activities in a real-life situation that has an objective correlative in the phenomenal world, which is to say, make it something the group members can relate to, and which can help them in their lives.

There are many implications for future research, both in terms of workplace virtual collaborations and online learning. It might be interesting to see if there is a relationship between the level of communication and interaction in a diverse group with satisfaction and persistence.

Clearly, collaborations that frustrate team members lead to a failure to persist and such demotivating collaborative activities negatively affect completion, satisfaction and retention rates. If the converse is true, it would be very useful to take a close look into how diverse groups experience higher levels of interaction, and thus performance, resulting in persistence, satisfaction, and retention.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Harnessing Affect and Cognition in an Online Course


Instructors who teach online courses are often well aware that they need to employ instructional activities that harness the powerful relationship between cognition and emotion. Without engaging emotions, it is very difficult to motivate students. It is even difficult to capture the students’ interest enough to bring about conditions needed for learning to take place.

Understanding the psychological theories of affect is key. Certain questions must be examined:

1. How do emotional states arise?

2. How can one state be replaced by another?

Emotional states are triggers. The interactions between emotions and cognition give rise to flows of thoughts. If the e-learning space can set in motion both feelings and thoughts, then there exists the potential to have a very positive experience.

Here are other questions that come to mind:

1. What technique or action can help shape or guide the flows of thoughts as they move toward meaning-making cognitive processes?

2. What are the elements in an online environment most likely to engage emotions and help or compel the student to transition from one emotional state to another?

In order to gain an appreciation of the connections between external emotional triggers found in the environment (for example, in an e-learning space or environment), and mental properties, it is necessary to step back and tease apart the causal relations.

According to philosopher of mind Paul Thagard, thinking is usefully understood as “simultaneously involving numerous representations that constrain each other” (Thagard 2002, p. 275). For Thagard, the relationship between emotions and cognition can be mathematically represented as a series of contingencies, or causal relations, and the equations involve weighting the variables, which could include features, traits, behaviors as well as the cognitive processing act of creating analogy and categorization. For Thagard, how the factors are weighted (or mediated) is heavily influenced by emotion.

What are the implications for e-learning?

If one accepts Thagard’s idea that it is possible to predict or model the chain of thoughts that could propel an individual to a different emotional state, the implications for e-learning are clear.

In order to create an ideal learning environment, with sufficient affective engagement to be both motivating and to trigger flows of cognition, thought, mental processing, and meaning-making, it is necessary to have a fairly good sense of the learners, their values, and the pacing of the activities so that the thoughts and emotions stay dynamic.

The dynamic emotion-cognition relationship can be represented in a four-phase or four-stage model as represented below:

Phase I: The Triggering Cognitive Event

example: Seeing Katrina damage to New Orleans

Phase II: Cognitive Determinants

example: what was the damage? was the damage done by humans? did the levees break because of negligence or simple act of God? was the damage controllable? did anyone do anything to control it? was there a higher purpose in seeing the damage? are there any “lessons learned”?

Phase III: Emotions

example: anger, sadness, shock, outrage

Phase IV: Thoughts in Response: Cognitive Determinants with Emotions

example: start asking questions; where was FEMA? could this have been prevented? is anyone to blame? who was hurt and why? who are they? what are the connections to one’s own experiences? beliefs?

In addition to using the model to develop instructional activities that encourage deep learning, it could be applied to experiential learning.

It could also be used to help writing students become aware of when a specific emotion is being evoked in order to develop a persuasive argument. One a very basic level, Thagard and the other philosophers of mind who suggest that the relationship between cognition and emotions can be mapped are echoing Aristotle’s writing on rhetoric. I do not want to leave out Plato, as well. The primary difference between classical rhetoric and the computational models used to describe the relationship between cognition and emotion is one of degree, not of concept. The goal of any mathematical model is consistent alignment with the phenomenal event; and, thus an eventual high level of reliability and goodness of fit. Eventually, one could use the mathematical model to predict responses.

What would be useful at this point would be research that would gauge how and when emotions and cognition could be considered to be mappable in the four phases of the example, and how elastic the model can be and still have instructional utility, given diverse students, instructors, and contexts.

Reference / Useful Works

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Cognition and motivation in emotion. American Psychologist, 46, 352-367.

Lerner, J. S. & Keltner, D. (2001). Fear, anger, and risk. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 146-159.

Port, R., & van Gelder, T. (Eds.). (1995). Mind as motion: Explorations in the dynamics of cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Scherer, K. R., Schorr, A., & Johnstone, T. (2001). Appraisal processes in emotion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thagard, P. (2000). Coherence in thought and action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Thagard, P. & Nerb, J. (2002). Emotional Gestalts: Appraisal, change, and the dynamics of affect. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 6 (4), 274-282.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Diary of an Online Collaborationist


This podcast provides a tongue-in-cheek look at the experience of participating in an collaborative final project for an online course. Please do not miss the companion piece for this article: "Why Online Collaborations Fail."

Working on the collaborative final project for a recently completed online course was a wonderful experience in many ways. I went through a full range of emotions from the very beginning - from feeling embarrassed for being off to such a slow start, to euphoria for when my partner, Patrika (not her real name - I've altered it to protect myself), and I were really bringing things together, and we developed a structure that allowed us to both contribute without perturbing the piece as a whole in terms of voice or continuity.

Along the way, I found myself in different states of mind, or stages in the unfolding process. Here are a few (a bit tongue-in-cheek):

Phase 1: Self-flagellation: There's nothing like a good round of self-flagellation to motivate oneself to pull out of a state of lethargy or procrastination and to try to get back on track. I like to tell myself I am "deadline driven." Apparently, I'm not - at least not to the degree I had congratulated myself about. I am caught up in the throes of procrastination and work avoidance. Thankfully, a truly repellant task came along and I could avoid it by turning my attention to the long-neglected instructional design certificate unit. To my horror, I find I am several weeks behind on the discussion board. It is like one of those dreams I used to have about being assigned to teach a class, and then getting the day (or semester) wrong.

Phase 2: "The Fog:" What am I supposed to do? How do I get started? My partner describes herself as a person whose friends tell her she's the most driven person they've ever met. I'm happy she's taken the lead. That doesn't really lift the fog, though. I still am not sure what I'm supposed to do, or what the expectations are. As is my way, I decide to stumble around in the fog until I hit a wall or fall into a car-swallowing chughole. The fog always gets worse before it gets better. The darkest hours are… who am I? What am I doing here? Deep existential questions start intruding. I dig out the syllabus. It is a bit thin in terms of the final project, but it is at least reassuring. I look down and realize I have given myself a paper cut.

Phase 3: Whining and Self-Pitying aka Shame: Patrika e-mails me her first draft. It looks to me at first glance to be about 3,000 pages long, filled with original research and statistical gymnastics: chi-squares, linear regressions, and one-way ANOVA, along with a refutation of Occam's Razor, and blueprints for an intergalactic Noah's Ark to save all the world's endangered species' DNA. I immediately start wringing my hands and fretting. I call my mother and complain that I can't seem to lose weight and that every man I've ever met after I reached the age of majority has valued emotional doggedness more than (at least in my opinion) the more intriguing affective approximations of flux and chaos theory. I take a deep breath and start scrolling through Patrika's magnum opus. Thankfully, the 3,000-plus pages shrink before my eyes to a manageable 10, much of which consists of a nicely wrought outline. I can see where I need to add material. I'm even starting to have a few ideas of my own about how the collaboration could take place.

Phase 4: Exploring the Woods: The concepts are intriguing. I'm intrinsically motivated. I'm fascinated by the sub-topic I've chosen for my part, which is self-regulation and goal-setting. Researching this is helping me understand more about my own work patterns and behaviors. I'm playing in the woods, and getting a bit far afield. It is very satisfying.

Phase 5: Playing with the Dollhouse: Sooner or later, it's time to come inside. I can't play in the woods all day. So, I have my bundle of papers, printouts of articles, and notes. It's miniature furniture to arrange in the dollhouse I've constructed in my mind. The paper is coming together well, and I'm happy that we've decided that it is not necessary to dismantle the dollhouse once we've brought in our separate pieces of furniture. Instead, we've decided how to combine our separate pieces, and to move the armoire into the corner, and to place the tiny dhurrie rug in front of the teeny-tiny four-poster bed. I'm amazed at how much fun it is to collaboratively re-arrange the parts of the paper, smooth out the rough edges, and think of how to bring certain points into focus. Thankfully, we both had a good idea of what the desired outcome would look like. Rather less happily, it is just the two of us. Our other collaborators are gone. One dropped the class, and the other seems to like to post to the discussion board, but abhor collaborative paper-writing.

Phase 6: We Did It! aka We Are Women, Hear Us Roar: Well, actually Patrika should be the Helen Reddy of this duo, but, despite my slow start, I am proud to say that I contributed something of substance. Self-regulation, yes. Not only have I learned something I can use when I develop courses and programs, I have figured out how to take a massive task and to carve it into bite-sized chunks. It is all about how much you can chew. Okay, maybe it's not. Maybe it's about the rewards, and the good feeling one gets when the task is knocked off and another one underway. I reward myself by going to Closeouts and buying a pair of fuzzy gloves for $2.99 (plus $5.00 shipping), and a vintage library-bound copy of Truman Capote's Breakfast At Tiffany's. I wonder what it would feel like to become a caricature of oneself. I suspect I already know.

Phase 7: Oops, Where's Waldo? A twinge of conscience kicks in. Is it wrong to move forward when a partner is doing nothing? Is it ethically okay to structure the collaborative work so that it is clear which person contributed to each part? Or, as a true team, should we smooth it all together? The gaping holes left by our errant (aka Missing) partner are about as obvious as one could get without going the next step and signing him up for The Apprentice, just for that schadenfreude moment when the inevitable "You're fired!" happens. Is it healthy for group work to be so laced with resentment and self-righteousness? I'm not sure, but it amazes me how often that happens in traditional face-to-face group work. The nice thing about the virtual environment is that we can move on and compensate for the lack of participation of one or more. I dash off an e-mail to Patrika, thinking all the while that we were amazing. We looked straight into the jaws of ambiguity and came out alive, kicking, and ready to take on another instructional design certificate module.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Fighting Intrusive Thoughts Using Podcasts: A Strategy for Effective E-Learning


(presented at INSITE, June 2006). Podcasts can be used in e-learning to combat intrusive thoughts. They can be a part of an effective self-regulatory strategy which also accommodates multiple learning styles while overcoming intrusive thoughts and the anxiety that accompanies them. As a result, academic performance can improve, while increasing self-concept and self-efficacy.

For the full article, please visit Proceedings of the INSITE Conference:

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Why Online Collaborations Fail


Ask online students if there was anything they disliked in their last online course, and you're likely to get a resounding "I hated the group work!" Best practices for online courses tend to place a great deal of importance on collaborative learning, either in the form of discussion boards, or in group projects. But while discussion boards work quite well, depending on the skill of the facilitator and the nature of the questions, group projects are often such miserable failures that they taint the learner's perception of the entire course.

What happened? What went wrong? There are usually many factors, but a few are listed below:

Too complicated. The project contains too many steps to reach the final outcome. The complexity makes it difficult to understand and to delegate work, and to set achievable goals.

Solution: Instead of requiring one large group project, ask the group to do four or five small group projects that will require just two or three steps, rather than dozens.

Time conflicts. Required collaborations do not reflect the real time commitments of the participants, nor do they reflect schedules or time zone differences.

Solution: Give the team at least a week to do each project, no matter how small. Ask the individual team members what they are doing to find out and accommodate each other's time constraints.

Friction between team members. Team members disagree, express frustration, or stop communicating altogether. Some team members are deliberately obstructive, or criticize work, endlessly debate small points, or refuse to contribute at all. Instead of working on the problem, the energy of the group is spent in conflict resolution. Some may drop out. Others find they become passive when they believe that their input does not matter, and they let the dominant team members do the work.

Solution: Define the roles as well as the tasks. Provide guidelines for team-member roles, and describe actions to be taken by team members.

Tasks are vague, poorly defined. Although the outcome may be defined and described well, the individual tasks are not clearly defined, nor are they delegated in an effective manner. Tasks are repeated needlessly, or done with contradictory results.

Solution: Define and describe the tasks in terms of what needs to be done, how to do it, and how to present the results.

No clearly defined goal or outcome. The overall goal or desired outcome may be imprecisely described or defined. It is important to clearly define the concrete attributes: length, structure, content, purpose, format, complexity.

Solution: Make sure that the outcome and goals are as clearly defined as possible. "SMART" goal-setting is ideal: Specific, Measured, Acheivable, Reasonable, Time-based. Of course, there are downsides to having rigidly defined outcomes. They can inhibit extremely creative and driven students, and they can result in conformity and mediocrity.

Resentment because of lack of work parity. Team members become angry because the work load is not evenly distributed. Some team members may be perceived as slackers or freeloaders, who take credit but refuse to pull their weight. The converse can also be true. There may be resentment because one team member will attempt to dominate and not allow individuals to participate in the process. The dominant person may be perceived as a bully, much to his / her surprise. She thought she was simply being efficient, proactive, and "Type A."

Solution: Listen. List the roles and the behaviors expected of the roles.

Competitive rather than collaborative. Group members are caught up in proving that they are "right" and that the others are not. They do not want to modify any of their work in order to have it mesh or blend with the others in order to produce a coherent whole.

Solution: Separate the tasks and roles so that there is division of labor, rather than overlap.

No sense of community. There is a failure to bond, and hence a failure to thrive. Collaborations with this problem sometimes never get off the ground.

Solution: Ask team members to post photos, details about themselves that they'd like to share, and to start a discussion board or forum in which they discuss current events and items of interest.

Irrelevant activities. Team members may resist doing activities they perceive to be irrelevant to the overall goal or objective they envisioned when joining the group. Even those who go ahead and do the activities may feel resentful.

Solution: Let the team members know how their work ties into the final objective (the project), and how it ties into a larger world as well.

Collaborative papers require "blending" rather than stand-alone components. The collaboration is expected to produce a paper that flows as though it were written by a single person. This can pose a monumental, even insurmountable, challenge because individual voices, writing styles, even format can be completely at odds. Further problems surface when individual team members resent the way that their work has been edited.

Solution: Develop structures that allow individuals to insert their own work in sections clearly identified as pertaining to them. Do not try to blend or mesh the parts.

These are only a few suggestions. There are more, which will be presented at a later date. At that time, there will also be a discussion of types of collaboration projects that work well, and examples will be provided.

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