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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Britney Spears: The Construct Constantly Deconstructing

Britney, Paris, Lindsay, Nicole, Angelina, Brad -- even Owen (Wilson), Amy (Winehouse) and "Gummi Bear" -- they're a reality show that unfolds day by day, and it's one where you get to write the script as you look for more clues about their behavior in the various celebrity blogs. It's FaceBook Meets Reality TV as you watch videos, look at paparazzi-provided images, read the day's scandalizing behaviors, react, and post comments in discussion boards.

Audio (click for podcast).

Celebrity Feuds: The Glass Menagerie, constantly updated
Lindsey Lohan's parents accusing each other of criminal behavior, Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards in ongoing custody arrangement power struggles, Courtney Love accusing a British actor of supplying "hillbilly heroin" to Owen Wilson before his suicide attempt. The outrageous claims that border on libel occur every day in the online tabloids. Hollywood seems to need to consume a few of its own each year -- the blood spilled, the tears shed -- are they fuel to feed the narrative machine? Do they satisfy a need for sacrifice? There are certain echoes of Day of the Locust, Nathanael West's classic.

Tell-All Friends: Sex, Lies, and MySpace
The pace at which the narrative unfolds can be blindingly quick. It's much faster than reality television. It's amazing how many friends, acquaintances, and assistances decide to sell their stories after (or even while) they maintain relationships with the celebrity-du-jour. Britney's assistant of two weeks sells her story to OK! magazine for undisclosed amount, replete with lurid tales. Cellphone images get posted -- it has all the energy of MySpace, but when celebrity "frenemies" spill their stories, it jumps out of the circle of friends and into the web at large.

Virtual Graffiti: Trainwreck-a-licious
A moustache on the Mona Lisa? There seems to be a universal and time-honored urge to draw horns and moustaches on images of our sacred cows. has become a master of the graffitoed celebrity image. He also incorporates the "what they're really thinking cloud" comic strip technique, and caption techniques dating back to Mad Magazine and other lampoon and humor magazines.

Britney Spears: The Construct Constantly Deconstructing
Britney has come a long way from being a mouseketeer. Her rise to fame as a bubblegum sizzler was a carefully orchestrated series of productions. I use the word "production" because it was clear that from the beginning, the Disney factory created a persona that teens would find irresistible. She was produced and packaged.

However, it's probably more interesting to look at Britney as a construct -- the construct we all willingly participate in creating as we project our own narratives and expectations of what we think the embodiment of abstract concepts -- glamour, exoticism, wholesomeness, girl-next-door, schoolgirl, nymphet -- as well as coming-of-age dialectics (naughty vs. innocent, clean vs. dirty, sophisticated vs. naive, rural vs. urban).

As opposed to Madonna, whose self-creation has reached the level of machine-like predictability (her arms even look a bit like something from an early Terminator film), Britney's attempts at self-construction show disintegration rather than Madonna's smoothly polished echoes and appropriations of collectively held and understood icons (see "Madonna in Che Guevara's Beret").

We know the images: the shaved head, the shoulder-length brunette wigs, the tangled and matted weaves, the blonde "signature" wigs. Britney, at her most Disneyfied, is a highly photoshopped glowing blonde "knowing" teenager. Britney, at her most interesting, is a puzzle where, like the "What's Wrong with This Picture?" in the old Highlights magazines in the doctor's office, you get to count all the things you find disastrously misaligned with the Disneyfied perfection we came to know as "Britney."

Each paparazzi shot of Britney is a treasure trove of "what's wrong with this picture" -- and, while it's fun to try to pick out all the things that are a stylist's nightmare -- it's also instructive. In a single Britney pic, one might find ill-fitting wig over shaved head, a shirt worn as a dress (revealing fleshy buttocks), a miniature Yorkshire terrier wearing a cast on its leg, a crying child, assorted "wardrobe malfunctions," and assorted food and grease stains on expensive fabrics.

With Britney, we get to hone our skills at being social beings and identifying non-verbal communication and symbol interpretation. We recognize that people convey images with their appearance, and their acts. Britney shows how quickly people turn vicious when their expectations have been dashed, and how they attack people who do not fit the norm (whatever the "norm" is for the category the person seems to fit in).

With Britney, we get to see the unraveled costume, which in unraveling, reveals itself to be a costume, rather than the wardrobe the real person would wear.

Further, Britney's own (probably unintentional) deconstructions of a pop star image make the construction process transparent. It's Frankenstein's monster with the thick stitching hanging out for everyone to see that he is not the creation of a real god, nor is he, a real monster. Like Frankenstein's monster, who was given to eloquent soliloquies and exquisite pathos, Britney Spears shows her humanity as she rages against her Frankenstein (her mother?) and the loutish or greedy villagers who seek to devour and destroy (K-Fed? Perez Hilton and other bloggers?).

Possible "Teachable Moments" in an elearning course
What is remarkable about celebrity blogs is the level of energy and enthusiasm they inspire. People read, they consider, they think, and they comment. They also do the following:

Take a position. Debate. Propose explanations. Create meaning from images. Relate to one's own experience. Engage in the interpretive process. Support positions with evidence.

Can the dynamic interaction and high level of engagement be translated to e-learning?

To answer that question, it might be necessary to answer a few questions: Why do we care when we read celebrity blogs? Is it a case study in media and public opinion? An opportunity to observe theories of human behavior in action? The answer is yes, and it's also the other items mentioned earlier.

Discussion boards create a place for engagement. If students can post drafts as well as comments, they can scaffold their learning as well. Writing and communications courses provide a great deal of opportunity as well.

A Few EduBlogs with notable recent posts or updates:

D'Arcy Norman's EduBlogs list:

Pedagogy of the Compressed

Christopher D. Sessums

Friday, August 24, 2007

Articles of Note: What Caught the Corgi's Eye... Aug 24, 2007

We dig through databases, online journals, an e-learning magazines for online learning articles of interest. In this weekly series, we present a few articles that you might find useful, thought-provoking, or simply interesting.

Instead of simply giving you the citation, we'll provide a brief overview and synopsis of the article. We hope you find this to be helpful!

Articles that caught the Corgi’s eye this week:

Ndasi, H. (2006) The use of innovative methods to deliver technology education laboratory classes via distance learning: A strategy to increase enrollment. Journal of Technology Education 17(2): 33-42.

Ndasi reports on advances in the delivery of technology education laboratory classes using distance learning. The author addresses the decline in technology education and suggests that distance education can help correct the problem. “Technology education programs with a history of hands-on learning at the undergraduate level have been slow to implement distance learning techniques and strategies” (Ndahi, 2006, p.34).

The author analzyed where attempts are being made to incorporate distance lab classes and found that they include engineering mechanics, environmental monitoring, electronics, heat transfer, thermodynamics, strength of materials.

Instructional technologies and lab course delivery methods utilized include two-way audio and video, compressed video, Internet CDs, virtual software (simulations), and videotapes.

Instructional events and activities studied included learning kits, demonstration labs (especially if / when too dangerous), field trips, and residential and summer schools. The study concludes that the effectiveness of distance learning in replicating technology education laboratories is mixed. There is a need for more technology to result in more sustained student engagement. Assessment is very important as well.

The author concludes that technology education laboratories delivered via distance learning can be effective, and that they are improving. They, however, should not replace face-to-face labs, but should represent an alternative form. The study seems to reinforce a hybrid model of education.

Simpson, V. and Oliver, M. (2007). Electronic voting systems for lectures then and now: A comparison of research and practice. Australasian Journal of Education Technology. 23(2): 187-208.

The authors report on the results of two separate literature reviews on the use of electronic voting systems in online education, the first conducted in 2002, the second in 2006. They also compare and contrast the results, with the goal of finding strategies to address the problem of lecture-dominated online learning: “Lectures are still seen as the dominant form of teaching and are associated with the tendency to emphasize content transmission over student engagement (Simpson & Oliver, 2007, p. 188).

The search included indexes of journals and scholarly publications, as well as web-based search engines. In 2002, the study found that electronic voting systems were often used in science and engineering disciplines. In 2006, articles had also been published on the use of electronic voting systems in economics, management, psychology, philosophy, medicine, and statistics. In 2002, electronic voting systems were used mainly in large groups. In 2006, large groups still prevailed, but small groups were also beginning to use them.

The electronic voting systems helped students and instructors know more about themselves and each other. On the instructor side, the systems helped the lecturers increase their understanding of the students and gauge effectiveness. On the student side, the systems helped them understand the material, check their knowledge, gain an idea of instructor expectations, and helped mastery of difficult materials. Pedagogically, the systems address the fact that content transmission is not the most effective way to teach, and that in order to achieve student learning goals, it is important to improve student engagement and to provide quality feedback. The electronic voting systems address those pedagogical issues. The electronic voting systems also can be used in order to provide an environment of constant attunement and to help improve teaching and teaching methods.

Falowo, R.O. (2007). Factors impeding implementation of web-based distance learning. AACE Journal, 15(3), 315-338.

This is a good web-based distance education overview for a person who is new to web-based learning and who would like to have an idea of definitions, history, contexts, opportunities, expectations, and challenges. The article begins with current definitions of distance learning, and then follows with a discussion of the demographics of distance learning and characteristics of distance students.

The reader will find basic, yet useful discussion of student, faculty, and organizational institutional barriers. Student barriers include technological problems, lack of instructor feedback, and ambiguous directions. Faculty barriers include legal issues, copyright and ownership questions, perceived negative impact on the pursuit of tenure, lack of prestige, inadequate training. Organizational institutional barriers include undercapitalized and under-funded distance learning efforts (insufficient personnel, supplies, budgets), lack of funds, lack of training and technology, and finally, course quality concerns.

The article provides a very nice overview, especially for someone new to the field, or an administrator who is seeking to add distance education to face-to-face offerings. This is not a report on the latest research, but a useful overview for newbies.

About the Corgi (the Queen's companion animal of choice):

The Corgi digs through databases, online journals, an e-learning magazines for online learning articles of interest. In this weekly series, we present a few articles that you, dear reader & faithful E-Learning Queen (or King), might find useful, thought-provoking, or simply interesting. Instead of simply giving you the citation, we'll provide a brief overview and synopsis of the article. We hope you find this to be helpful!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Small College Turnarounds: Can Independent Colleges Be Rescued?


In 1996, I had the good fortune to join the faculty of a small, independent college located in Shawnee, Oklahoma, which was in the midst of a phenomenal turnaround, guided by a visionary leader, and supported by a team of dedicated, committed, and self-sacrificing administrators and faculty. Thankfully, its turnaround was permanent, and the college is a thriving institution today.

The key elements that contributed to its remarkable renaissance were fairly straightforward, but they required college leadership to demonstrate a great deal of courage. A similar level of courage had been demonstrated earlier by five small colleges that had also found themselves in financial difficulties due to declining enrollments, rising costs, and declining contributions. Their experiences were studied by a researcher, Ruth Cowan, who then published her findings and recommendations in the journal, Change, in 1993. In the 1990s, the following strategies were found to be effective:

Effective Turnaround Strategies in the 1990s:

1. Changing leadership (finding a President willing to lead the college through painful and risky change);
2. Ridding oneself of “problem blindness” and naming and addressing real problems;
3. Redefining the college’s purpose;
4. Defining the college’s target market and gaining an idea of their characteristics;
5. Finding alternative funding for the appropriate solution (including technology, infrastructure, staffing, faculty).

Now, ten years later, many colleges and universities find themselves in dire straits once again. Some of the colleges suffering from rising costs, declining enrollments, and declining contributions and endowments may have actually experienced a turnaround in the 1990s, but, due to circumstances, find themselves in trouble again. For those who weathered the first challenge, this return to crisis mode – a kind of “déjà vu decline” – must be emotionally draining.

Top reasons for declining enrollments in 2007:

1. “Stale” degrees and curriculum;
2. Emerging competition;
3. College changes direction and goes into the wrong markets;
4. Inadequate information, marketing, and support (college becomes invisible);
5. Rapid increases in tuition and fees;
6. No flexibility in delivery options (no online courses, no hybrid);
7. No enthusiasm or sense of focus, mission, or future potential when contacting or interacting with the college;
8. Students have technical and administrative problems when they take their courses, resulting in poor performance;
9. Scholarship funds dry up;
10. Students required to stay in expensive, out-of-date dorms that lack high-speed internet connections.

Here is a more extensive laundry list of potential problems. Some are covered above in the “top ten” list. Some are not. At any rate, the checklist below could be used as a quick diagnostic for a college that is experiencing declines in enrollment, creeping costs, and declines in contributions.

Expanded Checklist of Common Small College Problems:

--Early adopter for technology solutions (online, distance education); can’t afford the updates, so now have lagged behind;

--Enrollment is declining. Students cite poor service and an out-of-date curriculum. They are going with the competition;

--Students are not returning after their first or second semester. They do not finish their courses, often because they do not possess adequate skills to succeed, but the college cannot afford to provide tutoring, student success courses, or remediation courses;

--Rapid turnover in administration leads to many “vision” changes, resulting in blurred vision, and a loss of focus in establishing a “brand image” to the world at large;

--Student support services are inadequate and slow to respond to student issues;

--Long wait at the help desk;

--Billing errors, resulting in poor collection rates, and time-consuming corrections;

--Student registration, billing, and records are housed on a now obsolete system that does not integrate well with financial aid, housing, and other departments;

--New departments were formed to solve emerging issues, but they were understaffed;

--Bookstore coordination is poor and the students often purchase the wrong materials, resulting in frustration and the desire to drop the class;

--Faculty are required to teach large face-to-face sections, and students often drop;

---Reliance on athletic scholarships, which is a sure source of enrollments, until the source of funding dried up;

---Financial over-reliance on academically underperforming athletes brought down overall academic level, with low graduation rate;

---Campus property is in a declining neighborhood. Perhaps it is located in what used to be a prestigious, centrally located neighborhood, but now is in the middle of a high-crime area, resulting in high security costs and a reputation for students having a high probability of getting mugged;

---Faculty members are not publishing books or articles, not winning grants or presenting at conferences, and the school is missing free publicity opportunities.

Effective Turnaround Strategies for 2007

1. Obtain leadership “buy-in” for an honest assessment of problems, to avoid “problem blindness”;

2. Articulate the institutional vision and mission in terms of curriculum, delivery methods, technology, and existing resources;

3. Articulate the institutional vision and mission in terms of emerging technologies and delivery, with an emphasis on affordability and leveraging legacy systems and forging forward-looking partnerships;

4. Develop ways to partner with technology providers, instructional material providers, and organizations to share in marketing, offload costs, and develop cohort groups of new students;

5. Identify problems and estimate the actual impact on enrollment and the bottom line. Prioritize based on their negative impacts;

6. Identify solutions, and list costs as well as potential positive impact on enrollment, revenues, and costs. Prioritize based on positive impacts. Create a “weighted” positive impact statement;

7. Avoid one-shot “desperate moves” bail-out strategies (selling property, etc.);

8. Inspire a team effort with college faculty and administration; allow egalitarian participation in problem-solving;

9. Avoid pessimism. Focus on transformation, rather than just hanging on.

10. Create a groundswell of enthusiasm with students, alumni, and family.

The turnaround strategies for 2007 are listed in a rather cursory manner, with virtually no discussion. What is interesting is that many of Ruth Cowan’s insights published back in 1993 still hold true for the 2007. Perhaps the largest gap is that in 1993, role of technology, though, was not always stated.

So, to return to the recommendations for 2007 turnarounds -- many of the points deserves a rather detailed discussion which will take place in future articles. However, for the purposes of identification of problems and for general planning for a turnaround, the “meta-strategy” approach is probably an appropriate first step.


Cowen, R. (1993). “Prescription for small-college turnaround – saving independent colleges that lack administrative and curriculum objectives” Change. January-February 1993.

Hamlin, A., and Hungerford, C. (1989). "How Private Colleges Survive a Financial Crisis: Tools for Effective Planning and Management," Planning for Higher Education, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1988-1989, pages 27-37.

Recommended sites on college administration and new visions in education:

Stephen Downes: Articles published online. An amazing collection, very useful.

Ray Schroeder's Educational Technology:

Mark Wagner's Educational Technology and Life:

Scott Leslie's EdTechPost

Recommended site:

Recommended book: Excellence in College Teaching and Learning: Classroom and Online Instruction

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Proposal to Cut Costs and Increase Efficiency in Online Programs


The current model of online instruction which features small sections and a learning management system is expensive. Colleges and universities are finding that, to their dismay, they are faced with staggering cost increases. The initial investment they made in infrastructure and computing capacity software / servers was just the beginning of their investment. Software, hardware, personnel, and outsourced support costs are just a few of those that increase every year. The “cascading software upgrades” effect also leads to unanticipated and earlier-than-budgeted programming costs.

If you’re an elearner in a typical online course in the United States, chances are you’re used to having 20 to 25 students in your course section and you are accustomed to receiving personalized responses from your instructor for each of your papers, drafts, discussion board posts, and emails. In a perfect world, this model replicates the experience of being in a small seminar which results in high-quality interactions, multi-pronged student engagement, and personal mentoring and guidance.

Expensive e-learning program costs matter because the high costs are passed on to you, the student.

Why the current model is not always sustainable:

1) Bandwidth and storage needs that outstrip capacity;

2) Large numbers of individual sections with high administrative overhead;

3) Frequent software or operating system upgrades or changes, which precipitate incompatibilities and the need for extreme patches;

4) Large numbers of adjunct instructors who require the team to develop orientation modules and training courses;

5) Coordination of the large number of adjuncts is no easy feat. It is expensive and time-consuming;

6) Updating multiple small sections is complicated, time-consuming, tedious, and ongoing hands-on work;

7) Complex and time-consuming grading and record-keeping add to costs.

Solutions to the problem could include implementing a new model of online course administration, which would result in

a) increased efficiency;

b) offloaded costs;

c) decreased overhead.

The new model of online course administration could accomplish the results detailed above by following certain new procedures:

1) Optimize section size by instituting a section size minimum (for example, 30 students per section);

2) Optimize and streamline teaching loads and do not exceed the section size maximum (for example, 35 students);

3) Provide low-overhead ways to obtain credit (advanced placement, credit by exam, liberal transfer policy);

4) Offer exam review courses that primarily consist of automated quizzes and reviews, and very little interaction;

5) Use existing digital resources: partner with textbook companies to use their instructional content for your courses, thereby saving time in course development;

6) Use custom texts: partner with textbook companies to develop custom texts / workbooks, with a guaranteed edition life of 3 years, in order to eliminate costly and labor-intensive course shell changes / updates and bookstore stock issues;

7) Incorporate graduate assistant-led discussion sections in order to optimize professor time.

8) Utilize webinars with web conferencing programs such as Elluminate; use audio / phone conference with internet telephone (Skype, etc.).

9) Employ mobile learning where possible. Make downloadable text, audio, graphics, and video available and playable with portable devices, including iPods and smartphones.

This overview is just a basic sketch of possibilities for - the future. Clearly, schools offering online programs will have to continue to become more efficient as they grow, and they will need to find a way to “bootstrap” their way to self-sufficiency in times of rapid growth. After all, most public academic departments have as a primary problem the fact that they are woefully underfunded, particularly if they are relying on state appropriations or tax revenues (where property tax reform is resulting is drastic reductions for schools, particularly community colleges.)

More radical possibilities exist, too, but they are not mentioned here. They will be detailed in future articles. In sum, they discuss ways to partner with existing entities that already offer training and which possess infrastructure that is ideal for offering dual-purpose education and training, for certificates and even for professional development.

Friday, August 03, 2007

You're Invited! An Elluminate Event

Every month, Elluminate has a free webinar about how our actual customers use Elluminate Live! and our free vRoom product to collaborate on really cool projects around the world. Each month, we feature a few exciting vRoom customers and speakers. This isn't a death by PowerPoint session! Come prepared to participate!

You can sign up for this month's event at: The event is live, and held online at 1pm ET on August 7 2007 at 1pm ET. You can join from a Mac or a PC or a Linux computer, and all you need is a set of speakers. If you want to talk you'll need a mic. Sign up early as seats are limited!

An iPod shuffle will be given away to a lucky participant.
If you want your own free, unlimited 3-user webconferencing vRoom, see

Here's part of the agenda for August 7th:

In our August vRoom webinar, author and eLearning expert Susan Smith Nash will explain how you can use principles of learning theory and an understanding of cognitive architecture to create first-rate, web-based presentations that are engaging, effective, and inspiring.
vRoom user Joe Donlon, a technician for Continuing Education at Confederation College , will be on hand to share how the virtual meeting room enabled a hearing-challenged student to gain independence in the classroom. We'll also be hearing from Geneva Scoville of EBUS Academy about how she's using vRoom to bring exciting live interviews wih remote guests into the classroom.

Don't miss this opportunity to maximize the use of your virtual room. Even if you attended previous vRoom sessions, you're sure to pick up a few new tips and tricks. Plus, you could be the winner of an iPod Shuffle!

You may also wish to check out an very useful new book by George Henderson and Susan Smith Nash: Excellence in College Teaching and Learning. The book is now available through Charles C. Thomas publishers.

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