Category Archives: elearning

iTunes U: more read/write than you’d think

In Ben’s recent post, he noted that Larry Lessig worries about the trend toward a read-only internet, the harbinger of which is iTunes. Apple’s latest (academic) venture is iTunes U, a project begun at Duke and piloted by seven universities — Stanford, it appears, has been most active. iTunes U.jpg Since they are looking for a large scale roll out of iTunes U for 2006-07, and since we have many podcasting faculty here at USC, a group of us met with Apple reps yesterday.
Initially I was very skeptical about Apple’s further insinuation into the academy and yet, what iTunes U offers is a repository for instructors to store podcasts, with several components similar to courseware such as Blackboard. Apple stores the content on its servers but the university retains ownership. The service is fairly customizable–you can store audio, video with audio, slides with audio (aka enhanced podcasts) and text (but only in pdf). Then you populate the class via university course rosters, which are password protected.
There are also open access levels on which the university (or, say, the alumni association) can add podcasts of vodcasts of events. And it is free. At least for now — the rep got a little cagey when asked about how long this would be the case.
The point is to allow students to capture lectures and such on their iPods (or MP3 players) for the purposes of study and review. The rationale is that students are already extremely familiar with the technology so there is less of a learning curve (well, at least privileged students such as those at my institution are familiar).
What seems particularly interesting is that students can then either speed up the talk of the lecture without changing pitch (and lord knows there are some whose speaking I would love to accelerate) or, say, in the case of an ESL student, slow it down for better comprehension. Finally, there is space for students to upload their own work — podcasting has been assigned to some of our students already.
Part of me is concerned at further academic incorporation, but a lot more parts of me are thinking this is not only a chance to help less tech savvy profs employ the technology (the ease of collecting and distributing assets is germane here) while also really pushing the envelope in terms of copyright, educational use, fair use, etc. Apple wants to only use materials that are in the public domain or creative commons initially, but undoubtedly some of the more muddy digital use issues will arise and it would be nice to have academics involved in the process.

hundred dollar laptops may make good table lamps

UN laptop.jpg “Demo or die.” That was the creed of the MIT Media Lab in the glory days — days of ferment that produced important, foundational work in interactive media. Well, yesterday at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia, where Nicholas Negroponte and Kofi Annan were unveiling the prototype of the 100 dollar laptop, the demo died. Or rather, the demo just didn’t happen.
As it turns out, Negroponte wasn’t able to get past the screen lock on the slick lime-green device, so the mob of assembled journalists and technofiles had to accept the 100 dollar gospel on faith, making do with touching anecdotes about destitute families huddled in wonder around their child’s new laptop, the brightest source of light in their tiny hovel. All told, an inauspicious beginning for the One Laptop Per Child intitiative, which aims to put millions of cheap, robust, free-software-chugging computers into the hands of the world’s poorest children.
Sorry to be so snide, but we were watching the live webcast from Tunis yesterday… it’s hard not to laugh at the leaders of the free world bumbling over this day-glo gadget, this glorified Trapper Keeper cum jack-in-the-box (Annan ended up breaking the hand crank), with barely a word devoted to what educational content will actually go inside, or to how teachers plan to construct lessons around these new toys. In the end, it’s going to come down to them. Good teachers, who know computers, may be able to put the laptops to good use. But somehow I’m getting visions of stacks of unused or busted laptops, cast aside like so many neon bricks.
A sunnier future for the 100 dollar laptop? A commercial company obtains the rights and starts selling them in the West for $250 a pop. They’re a huge hit. Everyone just has to have one to satisfy their poor inner child.

introducing nexttext

The dawn of personal computing and the web has changed the way we learn, yet the tools of instruction have been sluggish to evolve. Nowhere is this more clear than with the printed textbook.
So the institute has launched nexttext, a project that seeks to accelerate the textbook’s evolution, onward from its current incarnation, the authoritative brick, toward something more fluid, more complete, and more alive – more fitting with this networked age.
Our aim is to encourage – through identifying existing experiments and facilitating new ones – the development of born-digital learning materials that will enhance, expand, and ultimately replace the printed textbook. To begin, we’ve set up a curated site showcasing the most significant digital learning experiments currently in the field. Our hunch is that by bringing these projects (and eventually, their creators) together in a single place, along with publishers and funders willing to take a risk, a concrete vision of the digital textbook for the near future might emerge. And actually happen.
So check out the site, comment, and by all means recommend other projects you think belong there. What’s up now is a seed group – things that have gotten our wheels turning so far – to be grown and expanded by the collective intelligence of the community.

we teach success.

trump.jpg That’s the motto of The Donald’s latest business venture, Trump University. Yes, you heard me right, Donald Trump has started an online University, complete with lectures, seminars, blogs, chat kiosks, esteemed faculty, and of course, distinguished Chairman of the University, Trump himself.
Like the University of Phoenix, Trump has built his online learning initiative on a firm business model. The mission of this so-called university is “success,” in a trade-school kind of way. The ambition is to teach skills and “trade-secrets” that are designed to turn a quick profit in the marketplace. The site is replete with self-help euphemisms like: “what’s the altitude of your attitude,” “bloom where you are planted,” and “your mind can build castles, just make sure the foundations are in place first.”
Self-help schlock notwithstanding, I was tempted by some of the offerings. For a mere twenty-nine dollars, I could get a “Career Assessment Profile.” A 76-question online test that measures key dimensions of my personality and can predict job performance. According to the site, the test can “tap into your hidden abilities and find the job that best matches your personality.” Twenty-nine dollars seemed like a small price to pay to tap my hidden potential. What if low-paying scholarly work really isn’t my thing? Maybe the assessment will reveal that I’m better suited to wheeling and dealing at the top of the corporate ladder. The only thing that stopped me from signing on was the memory of a similar test I took in high school which revealed that my true calling is police work (a noble profession, but, if you knew me, you would roll your eyes at the thought of kim white, the enforcer).
I also had to restrain myself from using the institute credit card to sign up for Trump’s intriguing “Women-Centric Studies program”

Trump University is developing a new “women-centric” curriculum, starting with Prof. Karen Kahn Wilson’s live course, Success Strategies for Women. This four-session course, scheduled for September and October, will be delivered over the Web. It will focus on the distinct strengths that women bring to the workplace and how they’re related to findings in the latest research on female neurology. It has always been “common knowledge” that men and women think and behave differently–in the workplace and elsewhere–but these differences can now be explained through hard science.

Could it be? Is the business community finally realizing the unique contributions women have to offer? Are courses like this designed to change the business environment so that cognitive skills native to the female become highly respected and sought after? Or does Trump University offer this course because they know that this is what I wish for, and what I might pay for?
From the “Trump University Winner Wear” collection

The 2005 Computers and Writing Conference

Stanford University hosted the 2005 Computers and Writing conference this past weekend. Each session was rife with “future of the book” food for thought. This is an informal summary, with apologies to all the fabulous presentations that I don’t mention (sorry, being only one person, I could not attend them all). Some of the major themes (which dovetail nicely with issues we are exploring at the institute) included: Open Source, new interpretations of literacy and “writing,” the changing role of the teacher/student, performance, multimodality, and networked community. It is important to note that these themes often blur together in a complicated interdependence. This thematic interplay was evident in the pre-conference workshops which included instruction in open source tools and applications like Drupal that allow for multimodality and the creation of communal authoring environments. Workshops in “Reading Images” and “Using Video to Teach Writing” addressed multiple modalities and new concepts of writing.
I was excited to see that the Computers and Writing community understands the potential of, and imperative for, Open Source. It’s practical advantages (free and customizable) and it’s philosophical advantages (community-based and built for sharing rather than for selling) make it ideally suited to the goals of the educational community. Open Source came up over and over during the presentations and was featured in the first town hall session “Open Source Opens Thinking.” The session challenged the Computers and Writing community “to consider a position statement of collective principles and goals in relation to Open Source.” Such a statement would be useful and productive; I’m hoping it will materialize.
The changing role of the teacher and student was evident in several presentations: most notably, the pilot program at Penn State (see my earlier post) in which students publish their “papers” on a wiki. The wiki format allows for intensive peer-review and encourages a culture of responsibility.
There was a lot of speculation about how writing will evolve and how other modalities might be incorporated into our notion of literacy. Andrea Lunsford‘s keynote speech addressed this issue, calling for a return to oral and embodied “performative literacies.” She referred to Tara Shankar’s MIT dissertation “Speaking on the Record,” which confronts the way we privilege writing above other modalitites for knowledge and education. She says: “Reading and writing have become the predominant way of acquiring and expressing intellect in Western culture. Somewhere along the way, the ability to write has become completely identified with intellectual power, creating a graphocentric myopia concerning the very nature and transfer of knowledge. One of the effects of graphocentrism is a conflation of concepts proper to knowledge in general with concepts specific to written expression.”
Shankar calls for new practices that embrace oral communication. She introduces a new word: “to provide a counterpart to writing in a spoken modality: speak + write = sprite. Spriting in its general form is the activity of speaking “on the record” that yields a technologically supported representation of oral speech with essential properties of writing such as permanence of record, possibilities of editing, indexing, and scanning, but without the difficult transition to a deeply different form of representation such as writing itself.”
The need for a multimodal approach to writing was addressed in the second Town Hall meeting “Composition Beyond Words.” Virginia Kuhn opened by calling for a reconsideration of “writing,” and the goals of visual literacy. Bradley Dilger reminded us that literacy goes beyond “the letter;” we need multiple interfaces for the same data because not everyone looks at data the same way. Madeleine Sorapure pointed out that writing with computers is determined by underlying code structures which are, themselves, a form of writing. She quoted Loss Pequeno Glazier, “Code is the writing within the writing that makes the work happen.” Gail Hawisher, talked about the 10 year process of incorporating multiple modalities into the first-composition courses at the University of Illinois. Cynthia Selfe addressed this struggle, saying: “colleges are not comfortable with multiple modalities.” She advises the C&W community to “think about how to give professional development/support to resistant colleges in ways that are sustainable over time.” Stuart Moulthrop also offered some cautionary words of advice. In addition to faculty and administration, Moultrop says students are resistant to multimodality. Code, for example, is fatally hard to teach non-programmers or visually oriented people. “There is a political problem,” Moulthrop says, “we are living through a backlash moment. People are very angry about how fast the future has come down on them.”
Some participants delivered “papers” that attempted to demonstrate these new multimodal imperatives. Most notably, Todd Taylor‘s presentation, “The End of Composition,” which asked, “Can a paper be a film?” Todd argues “yes” with a cinematic montage of sampled and remixed clips along with original footage, which was enthusiastically received by the audience (alt. review in Machina Memorialis blog.) Morgan Gresham‘s Town Hall presentation was a student-produced video and a question to the audience; is this just a remake of a bad commercial, or is it a “paper”? Christine Alfano‘s presentation experimented with a hypertext, “Choose Your Own Adventure,” style that allowed the audience to determine the trajectory of the talk. Once the selection was made, she dropped the other two papers/options to the floor. The choice, unfortunately for me, eliminated the material that I most wanted to hear about (Shelly Jackson’s Patchwork Girl). Additionally, “virtual” presentations were delivered during an online companion conference called: Computers and Writing Online 2005 When Content Is No Longer King: Social Networking, Community, and Collaboration This interactive online conference served, “as an acknowledgment of the value of social networks in creating discourse of and about scholarly work.” CWOnline 2005 made both the submission and presentation process open to public review via the Kairosnews weblog. Despite some flaws, I thought these experimental presentations pushed at the boundaries of academic discourse in a useful way. They reminded us how far we have to go and how difficult the project of putting ideas into practice really is.
Finally, the conference highlighted ways in which computers are being used to cultivate community across cultures and institutions; and between students, teachers, and scholars. Sharing Cultures, a joint project of Columbia College Chicago and Nelson Mandela University Metropolitan University, in South Africa “creates two interconnected, on-line writing and learning communities…the project purposely includes students who traditionally have not had access to, or have been actively marginalized from, both digital and international experiences.” Virginia Kuhn approached computers and community at the local level, with a service learning class called, “Multicultural America,” which asked students to write an ebook documenting local history. The finished work is part of an ongoing display at a Milwaukee community center. This project inspired an interesting reversal; community members who worked with students on the project are now (thanks to a generous grant) coming to the University of Milwaukee for supplemental study. Within the academy there are also exciting opportunities for computer-based community-building. In her Town Hall presentation, Gail Hawisher said that literacy on campus is, “usually taken care of by first year composition.” If we are to incorporate visual literacy into our definition of literacy then, “Perhaps we should be looking to art and design for literacy instead of just the English dept.” This is an incredibly smart idea because, short of requiring composition teachers to have degrees in art, film, AND writing, collaborative efforts with other departments seem to be the best way to ensure a deep and rigorous understanding of the material. I had an interesting conversation with Stuart Moulthrop about this. We imagined a massively-multi-player game environment that would allow scholars from around world to collaborate on curriculum across institutional and disciplinary boundaries. Wouldn’t it be great, we thought, if someone who wanted to teach an odd combination like, film/biology/physics, could put a course scenario into the game where it would be played out by biologists, film scholars, and physicists. In other words a kind of life-time learning environment for the experts, a laboratory for the exchange of knowledge across disciplinary boundaries, and place to weave together different strands of human insight in order to create a more complete “picture” of the universe.