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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Learning with Audio: Lessons from Television - Monk, House, MD, and NCIS

Borrowing the "in media res" techniques of popular programs, Monk, House, and NCIS, among others, can help make online and untethered mobile learning more effective. In the early days of e-learning, it was common to tape a classroom lecture, digitize it, and then stream it over the web for students to view. Sometimes it was synchronous, and one had the opportunity to use a whiteboard and text message. Needless to say, that approach was quickly discredited as passive. To solve the problem, designers started adding overlays of learning objectives and outcomes, along with review questions at the end.

Podcast / downloadable mp3 file

Television technique: switch to "in medias res." Literally meaning "in the middle of the thing," this technique is employed in almost all programs designed for television, as well as a significant percentage of feature-length films. It's a familiar technique: the viewer is catapulted immediately right into the middle of the action, usually a dramatic pivotal moment upon which the rest of the plot is constructed. For example, in NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Services) a spin-off of JAG, the episode opens with a 2 or 3-minute dramatic situation, usually resulting in a murder. The investigation of the murder is what constitutes the rest of the episode.

Similarly, in House, M.D., the episodes open with a medical crisis, which takes one by surprise. We see a person going about their daily life when a catastrophic medical emergency besets them. The medical condition is life-threatening, and time is of the essence. Will the team of forensic diagnosticians be able to determine the cause before the patient dies? This adds to the urgency, as well as the emotional involvement of the viewer.

In rhetorical terms, what is activated is emotional involvement, "pathos," to use Aristotelian terms. The situation engages the emotions, and the viewer is held, rapt, in a state of hyper-involvement and hyper-identification with the victim, and the race against time.

Typically, authority is invoked in the persona of a "difficult" voice. In this case, "difficult," means that there is distance between the audience / listeners and the voice. Distance is created through formality, power differentials, subject-matter knowledge gaps, intimidation (shaming or threatening harm), refusal to be admitted to an "in" group.

The danger with this approach is that authority is off-putting, which can war against learning. Sometimes the most off-putting authority comes in the characters of "the professor" or the "scolding parent." The content delivered by the authoritative voice can be more accessible when it comes packaged in a character who begins to approach that of a tragic hero, which is to say that the protagonist hero is flawed, which makes the audience identify with him or her all the more.

To be effective, authority must be mediated with human frailty.

Gregory House, M.D., of House, M.D. is a brilliant diagnostician, but suffers from chronic pain from a nerve-damaged leg and has become addicted to painkillers.

Adrian Monk, of Monk, is a brilliant detective who can hold forth on a number of technical areas, but he never bores the audience. Instead, they feel for him, they cheer him on as he seeks to overcome his obsessive-compulsive disorder, and his grief over the loss of his wife, Trudy.

Likewise, the team of agents and investigators of NCIS are brilliant, but quirky. In fact, the concept of professorial lectures is lampooned by Special Agent Jethro Gibbs, who typically cuts off the endearing yet long-winded medical examiner, Dr. "Ducky" Mallard, and asks him to keep to what is relevant. The other technical experts in the team fare no better - Abby, brilliant in all manner of forensics - computer and biological - loves the long-winded technical explanation, which is also often cut off abruptly, with the question, "How does this relate?" stated in so many words. Special Agent McGee, an MIT graduate and computer whiz is also cut off. As an audience, we gain knowledge by seeing the theories in action, applied to the case.

In NCIS, technical details, analogues, personal anecdotal asides are permitted, but only to the degree that they contribute to an understanding of the case at hand. What this means, in some terms, is that we are looking at "situated learning" in action.

In the case of House, M. D., the fact is clear that we are observing an open critique of education, and a subversion of the typical classroom lecture, filled with professorial quirks, long-winded digressions, asides, and self-serving ego inflation in front of a captive audience.

The action takes place at Princeton Medical Center, a teaching hospital, and many of the episodes incorporate scenes from the lecture hall, where medical students regurgitate concepts they have memorized from their texts, and demonstrate that they have no idea how the concepts apply in real life.

Similarly, in the comedy series, Scrubs, hazing of the "newbies" often centers around the gap between "textbook" knowledge and situated, operational knowledge. The amount of information that is presented in a television drama, crime procedural, or sitcom can be quite surprising. It's not trivia, but is situated in a real-life or life-like setting, which makes understanding, retention, and application more effective.

In a world where distance learners are likely to be very film and television literate, it is likely that they, too, feel a deep-seated disdain for subject matter authority that is dislocated from its objective correlative, which is to say, the way the subject exists in the world of phenomena.


What this means to all the programs seeking to repurpose old-school lectures delivered by rambling, self-absorbed professors who managed to tape themselves at a chalkboard for 30 or 40 hours is that every dime they invest in digitizing those old assets will be utterly wasted.

The charismatic professor of the past ruled through a cult of personality, and he or she elicited all the emotions that one might expect of the leader of, say, a cult or a gang of grifters.

The charismatic professor of the untethered world of mobile learning reigns supreme by encouraging extreme identification - by imbuing authority with anti-hero or tragic hero elements. If not, the dehumanizing aspects of technology will prevail, and students will simply move on to educational interactions they find more engaging.

To conclude, a few ideas and suggestions can be made, and lessons can be learned from the failures of educational programs to interest the learners. In a pragmatic sense, what this means is the following:

a) Structure audio and video in a way that dramatically captures the imagination and reflects the very heart of the concept being presented in the module or unit. One effective approach is the "in medias res" approach.

b) Find a persona who will be your subject matter expert and make him or her deeply flawed. The flawed authority figure does not need to be morally reprehensible; quite the contrary. He or she should have flaws that are more exaggerated than those of the general public, but only to the degree that the audience finds the character to be very human, engaging, and ultimately disarming.

c) Consider moving subject matter authority around. For example, if one is discussing psychological disorders, instead of focusing on a professor who will discuss facts and figures, write a script that features a person who is suffering from one of the issues under discussion. She can discuss her condition, and the compare and contrast her situation with that of others. This allows the listeners to begin to relate to it, and to connect her situation to their own. It situates the material within a real person's experience.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Maya Angelou in Stamps, Arkansas

Maya Angelou writes a memoir about growing up in Stamps, Arkansas, in the segregated South. Her depiction is searingly honest, and it gives faces, places, and specific names and feelings to what could be viewed as the collective experience of many growing up in the South in the first 100 years after slavery was abolished in the U.S.

videography: dave feiden

As young African-American females, Maya Angelou and others are automatically relegated to the position of being marginalized by white society. The sense of being on the outside looking in is made even more poignant and harrowing by the fact that antebellum aristocratic values of European origin are imposed on blacks. They consciously or unconsciously buy into the vocabulary and practices of elitism by embroidering knick-knacks for a dowry chest, learning the rules of etiquette involved in setting an elaborate table, and using the language of the debutante to describe one’s coming of age. Such activities primarily function to reinstate difference as the only way of knowing each other, and reinforce the distance that exists between white women and the black women who present such a potent threat to them. To Angelou, the linguistic and social practices of the South are a cruel joke, particularly when the more typical role of a young black girl was to be a servant in a white woman’s home.

The young black female is considered an outsider – an outsider who possesses little or no power. Her powerlessness is illustrated when the white woman has the power to erase and then reconstruct identity by renaming. Angelou provides an example of this in the selection printed here. She is working in a white woman’s kitchen, in what Angelou characterizes as a perverse finishing school, where she learns the finer points of setting a table, etc. Her employer, Mrs. Cullinan, is descended from Virginia plantation owners. She surrounds herself with white friends who consider themselves entitled to “culture” and to be waited on by black servants, in an ugly echo of “the good old days.” The sense of the employer’s power becomes ominous with the power of naming. “Margaret” is deemed too long and is shortened to “Mary.” “Hallelujah” was long ago renamed “Glory” in a creepy echo of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

If renaming can dehumanize, negate, invisiblize and nullify, does the act of naming have generative powers as well?

The mindset examined in this selection is one that looks closely at the way language is used to either empower or strip away entitlement or rights. Conversely, there is an awareness that one can empower oneself by naming, and it can be used for the good.

In writing about how black girls and women were subjected to nullifying linguistic and social practices in Stamps, Arkansas, Angelou also corrects the misconception that silence denotes acquiescence or agreement. The women to whom the psychological assaults are not sufficiently empowered to be able to question or counter the practices directly. Indirect rebellion seems to be their only way to resist. Thus, when Angelou considers her situation, she seeks revenge rather than rapprochement, and obtains it when she deliberately breaks a family heirloom from the old plantation in Virginia. Sadly, no one understands the message behind Angelou’s gesture, so her speaking and acting out are misunderstood and worse – processed through the unknowing and unenlightened mindset of her employer.

One does see how erasures of identity are always a part of the outgrouping process. A key lesson is that the converse is possible: ingrouping and inclusion are possible when one names oneself into it.

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. 104-119.

Short Answer: Maya Angelou
(questions by Elaine Bontempi)

1. How was Maya marginalized by white society?

2. What does the author have to say about naming?

3. How does the author resist psychological assaults?

4. Explain the irony in the location of the author’s finishing school, and the irony of it all.

5. What was the purpose of Maya’s learning the things that she was taught where she was working?

6. Why was it so insulting for the author to be called Mary? What did this mean to her and others in her community?

7. How is the author’s status as an outsider with little or no power made evident in this reading?

8. Explain what the author meant when she wrote, “Her husband remains, in my memory, undefined. I lumped him with all the other white men that I had ever seen and tried not to see.”

9. Explain how Maya’s identity was stripped away from her.

10. What does re-naming do to one’s sense of inclusion?

see other authors:

Monday, October 16, 2006

Video Clips / Vodcasts for Online Literature Courses: The Allure of the Moving Image

I started incorporating digital video in online courses about ten years ago. I wasn’t following the lead of the “streaming lecturer” or “talking head.” Instead, I filmed myself with my Logitech MiniCam and kept the discussions to about 3 minutes or less. I also recorded a number in a studio in Oklahoma City that was incredibly ahead of its time. They had the idea of being a YouTube or a Google Video, and were helping film and host digital libraries of digital video.

It was a great idea, and they even hosted the video, so that one would not need to worry about bandwidth or capacity in one’s own server.

It was not a viable business model. No one paid for the service. Worse, it rarely worked on everyone’s computer. In theory, the mpeg file could play on the latest or next-to-latest version of RealPlayer, Window Media Player, or Quick Time. In reality, users had trouble downloading the right version of the media players. Even when they could get the media player to work, for some reason, the video would not always play. Sometimes, there was insufficient bandwidth and sometimes the connection was too slow.

Times have changed – note the recent acquisition of YouTube by Google Video. Now, people regularly host video they’ve captured on their digital cameras, cell phones, or laptops on YouTube or Google Video, and they embed the video in their websites and weblogs and social networking spaces such as MySpace, LiveJournal, Xanga, Blogger, etc. They can even e-mail their video casts.

What is the difference? The difference is in the “jukebox” – the little portable media player that does not have to be downloaded, but sits inside your website and allows you to click a button and it plays. You do not even have to download the video file! What is nice, is that services such a YouTube and Google Video will optimize your uploaded file. Say, for example, you upload a 80 MB wmv file that came straight from your Fuji F-10 digital camera. If it is in Google Video, your viewers can download the file to their iPod. When they do that, the file is converted into a mp4 file, which might have 4 MB instead of 80 MB. Amazing!

The bottom line is that basically everyone can capture and incorporate video in their websites, and basically everyone is.

The fact that the video will play does not mean that it is of high quality, though. In fact, there may actually be very little educational value beyond engaging initial interest.

So, it is good to look at where we are, and to review the fundamentals of using instructional media for positive educational effect. I’ll use the case of an online literature course, because it makes an interest example of how something that is essentially textual (a work of literature) translates to the moving image, with audio, often with spectacular success. There can be spectacular failures, too – and we want to avoid those.

videography: dave feiden

Video Clips in an Online Literature Course: What Works

*--Create ideal conditions for learning by capturing the students’ attention. Say something provocative about the work or the author. Find the heart of the issues that surround the work and focus on them in order to engage your reader.

*--Arouse emotions and curiosity.

*--Do not drone on too long. Keep it short – usually between 45 seconds and a minute and a half. Remember, you’re engaging the learner and trying to inspire him / her to want to delve in to the text and also to ask questions and engage in a dialogue, even a debate.

*---Go for sizzle. Have fresh settings, nice backgrounds, interesting venues.

*---Keep it real. Students respond in a positive way to the real presence of their professor or a subject matter expert, and if it is a bit rough around the edges, it comes across as authentic.

*---Try for the human interest angles. Find intriguing factoid about the author or the work itself and mention it. Establishing a connection with your viewer within 3 – 5 seconds is absolutely critical. In those first seconds and nanoseconds, the viewer makes the decision whether or not to pay attention or to switch to something else. You have 5 seconds to get their attention. Do you like challenges?

Video Clips in an Online Literature Course: What to Avoid

Here are a few natural mistakes that will result in less-than-ideal implementation and outcome.

*--Don’t focus your eyes on the ground or the sky. Keep your eyes on the camera. The direct eye connection makes a difference.

*--Avoid the “talking head” approach. It doesn’t work! Talking heads (a head that fills the screen and drones on and on) do not engage viewers. Learners become passive and stop paying attention, even if you think you’ve fancied it up with whiteboard.

*--Avoid the endless script. Don’t tape yourself writing on a chalkboard and trying to approximate the experience of reading. Don’t try to imitate the classroom lecture, either. Students stop paying attention.

*--Don’t read poetry from a script that you hold in your hand. I tried it. It is horrible. While watching myself, I immediately felt as though I were attending a painful poetry reading in which the poet has gone on entirely too long. I just wanted out. I clicked “pause.”

*---Don’t recite statistics. Avoid being too “canned.” Biographical details and statistics may be important pieces of information, but the mind does not hang onto them. Our minds love narrative in conjunction with the moving image. Therefore, it is good to connect the moving image with a story.

These are just a few practical suggestions from an “in the trenches” point of view. While the technology has improved immensely and it has made the incorporation of video both inexpensive and easy to use, it is clear that we are in a “rapid evolution” phase of technological development. So, keep an open mind, be willing to experiment, and keep up to date by continuously scanning the environment and trying technology.

The key is to uncover the real behaviors of your students and design a use of video that builds on how they are comfortable with using the technology.

Don’t try to impose an artificial behavior or awkward way of using technology. Instead, learn how it is being used, and incorporate that activity into your instructional strategies.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to try incorporating video clips in your online courses is that it is fun and effective! You’ll find that you are engaging students’ interest, creating conditions that are ideal for learning, accommodating learner preferences and styles, rehumanizing the e-learning space, and inspiring students to delve deeply into the text -- make connections, analyze in a new way, and think critically.

videography: dave feiden

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Wi-fi and Computer Labs for Every Nursing Home Now

Podcast / downloadable mp3 file.

Prevailing views hold that seniors are computer-phobic, but the reality is that seniors use and benefit from blogs, podcasts, myspace (etc), Skype (etc), as well as from e-mail and access to the Internet. The truth is, seniors are avid users of the Internet, and there should be no reason that failing eyesight, hearing, mobility (arthritis, etc.), or cognitive disabilities should cut them off from the world, and from regular contact with loved ones – even if they are in assisted living, a nursing home, and no longer able to live at home or with family. In fact, assisted access to the Internet could serve as powerful motivation to stay intellectually engaged with the world, to maintain healthy habits, and to combat the loneliness and depression that often follows a senior as they move into their new habitat.

Granted, the man or woman who came of age in the 1940s or 1950s has seen huge changes in terms of communication, information dissemination, and technology. Chances are, they came of age in a time when all data entry and processing was done by someone else, and the computing capacity you hold in the palm in your hand used to require a city block of computers.

Nevertheless, we tend to forget that older citizens do not categorically resist technological change. How could they? If the stereotypes were true, not one senior would be able to function in a society that has been typified by rapid and persistent technological change.

After reading an article about elder neglect in nursing homes, I started to think of how one could help combat the problems. After discussing the issue in an online forum, I started to formulate a few ideas about how to start implementing access to e-mail, etc. in a nursing home.

Here are some of the benefits of having a three or four-station computer lab with a college intern tech-support person to help, and with low-vision and low-hearing equipment, with accommodations for mobility issues and cognitive impairment.

1---Stay in touch with relatives.
-send and receive photos and movies of relatives
-send and receive daily updates from relatives and friends, which can provide a real boost to the senior, who now has something to look forward to.

2---Overcome disabilities due to low vision, low hearing, arthritis, cognitive issues
-using large icon navigation on 17-inch monitors gives seniors a renewed sense of self-efficacy and self-determination;
-Skype and other voice-over telephony can help with low-vision, especially with the kind of headphones that fit over hearing aids; vodcasts and image-enhanced telephony can help gain a sense of a real person on the other end of the line.

3---Provide updates on conditions in the nursing, which gives the administration a chance to
-showcase positive aspects and to have website and weblogs to answer questions.
-post photos to show conditions, which could be great publicity, marketing, and a wonderful generator of goodwill and a spirit of openness.

4---Answer questions via bulletin board and discussion forum.

5---Send electronic greeting cards, keep key birthdates in calendar.

6---Use expertise to design cards, create online art, providing consulting and expert advice, and otherwise stay engaged in one’s former life / area of expertise.

7---Take online courses for intellectual engagement. Popular courses could be memoir-writing, writing a historical novel, learning about alternative medicines, exploring culture, science, etc.

8---Create audio messages to download to mp3 player.

The benefits to the seniors and to the nursing home / assisted living center could be staggering. The first benefits might be an alleviation of a sense of isolation. It could serve as an effective intervention for those who are running the risk of running beginning to develop negative beliefs about themselves, and to think of themselves as helpless and isolated. With a well-equipped lab with equipment that accommodates disabilities and special needs, it would be possible to create a sense of access, empowerment, and renewed self-efficacy. Instead of being cut off and isolated, seniors could feel a renewed sense of community and could feel vital, alive, and relevant to their family, friends, and the world at large.

I’d like to see a couple of pilots started and would love to get involved. If anyone would like more suggestions or ideas, please contact me. susan at beyondutopia dot com

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