November 2007 Archives

Blogging Update from Linguistics Course

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Now that the semester is winding down, I did want to talk a little bit about how blogging is progressing in my course and if either the students or the instructor have learned anything.

A while ago, I wrote what may appear to be a bleak entry on blogging in the classroom (Why Johnny Won't Blog in Class). It was a discussion on whether students would "voluntarily" blog for all courses or whether instructors need to gently prod them (via blog assignments). Although I wonder if most students will ever do more work than we ask them to do, I do think we can make "required work" interesting work.

Truthfully, I've been quite pleased with how the students in my course are doing. Students may not normally choose to blog, but once they are asked to do so, they have been writing down some very thoughtful responses. I've done both ANGEL discussion boards and blogs, and I'm pleasantly surprised at how much longer the blog posts are than discussion board posts. Normally, I would see 1-2 sentences in a discussion board, but most blog posts are usually 1-2 paragraphs...or longer. I've also seen more students do some "research on the side"

Like discussion boards, I've also gotten some really great posts from students who rarely speak in class (and good ones from the talkers too). There does seem to be something about the platform that seems to "liberate" people a bit. I should say that each student has an individual blog, so I'm curious to see if the same trend would continue for a joint course blog (I think it would actually).

I have learned a few things. One is that I do have to prod. I noticed that few students were commenting on each other's work (even when I dropped major hints and posted the links to the other blogs). So finally, I made an assignment where they were asked to review the other blogs and make a comment. But...they did give some interesting answers and a few said they were glad to be reading what others were doing.

Another thing I've learned myself is to make the blog assignments as open ended as possible. For most of the blog assignments, I gave a students a research assignment of picking a language, buying a cheap textbook then having report on various aspects of it. In the beginning, questions were fairly specific and students didn't always have the integrated technical skills set they needed (part of my learning curve).

Interestingly, after one particularly tricky assignment on figuring out pronunciation based on just the textbook, I asked students in the following week to comment about it. I got a lot of great responses about language textbook design and why they are set up the way they are. Many of my students will be teaching foreign language, so it's great to see them thinking about the nature of language teaching.

Later I began to make questions more specific and even formed one as a "scavenger hunt" (what's the weirdest grammatical feature of your language). Again better answers going in unexpected directions. I'm even beginning to see stirrings of more of a life-long interest in some students as we're progressing in the semester. They may be learning to take a little more "ownership" of their own curriculum as we hoped in the beginning.

I'm not sure if students will pick up the blogging habit for every course, but I hope other instructors will. I'm still learning the ropes to making an effective blog assignment, but I really believe that blogging forced my students to go into the "meta-cognitive" realm which I normally don't see in a traditional blog-less course.

Basic Copyright Instinct,

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Most copyright discussions focus on abstract concepts like abiding by the law or creator rights vs. maintaining creative dynamism in the society, and these are worthy concepts. But this interesting article from the Guardian on copyright and a pop-art exhibit reminds me that you really can't understand copyright litigation unless you understand the primitive need to make a big payola.

Many 20th centtury artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, made their careers out of repurposing iconic images (many of which were copyrighted) and we all appreciate their genius...even Disney and DC Comics.

On the other hand, the article points out that museum (National Portrait Gallery) is loaded with "Do Not Photograph" signs. In case you're wondering if the purpose is to protect the images from damages - it's not. Reporter Cory Doctorow asked.

Many people have pointed out the ironies before (e.g. Disney has recycled plenty of public domain material), but to me copyright is essentially a right about economics (the right of the creator to make a sweet pay-off if possible). As a generalization, consumers all hate copyright restrictions...unless copyright is protecting our current bottom line as a producer.

Oddly, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis can benefit from pop-art use of their images because of increased exposure (I notice the smart artists don't interfere too much with You Tube because they do get increased video play which may lead to music songs). It makes sense for the estate of Marilyn Monroe to leave the estate of Andy Warhol alone.

But there is a point where free exposure will eat into your profits (hence celebrities and studios also license their images carefully). Hence the National Portrait Gallery would rather not have unlicensed photos in cyberspace - they think it would cut down on visits (you could argue not, but that is what's at stake).

Interestingly, another article, "Prince the artist who formerly liked the Internet" has started an anti-file sharing campaign...despite being a pioneer in legal music downloading. Prince has not given a clear reasons for his change in heart, but I bet it has something to do with revenue.

A lot has been written on both sides on copyright issues, but in the end it really is about how much money you will make or lose in the transaction. I have to confess I've been both sides of it myself.

If I'm strapped for cash and looking for a reference photo of a cathedral window for a craft design, I don't want to shell out some fee for a book or photo license. I admit it, I'm cheap. If I can obtain it from somewhere else, I probably will.

But once I create a design based on said cathedral window - I really don't want to give it away if I think I can get some money for it (especially if I bought a photo license). The main reason I would do so would be to generate free publicity...which would lead to future PAID design opportunities (I dream). There are people who are more generous with their work, but seriously, a lot of them have day jobs. Crafters who earn most of their income from their work tend to be much pickier about how they distribute designs.

My point (and it's a long one) is that it is important to remember the real "primitive" need for maximizing wealth. One side wants to earn money from copyright, the other wants to save money in the consumer end. If you happen to be both producer and consumer (e.g. Disney) - it gets even weirder.

Both sides have a point - which is why copyright will always be a strangely manipulated balance with odd paradoxes.

Wolfram Demonstrations (Math/Illusions/Science)

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I was looking around at some of my old bookmarks, and found an interesting site Wolfram, the makers of Mathematica. They have an area they call Wolfram Demonstrations Projects which are interactive mini applications made in Mathematica.

The idea is that developers can program a "notebook" which allows users to control different parameters - change the parameters and you get different results. The site includes animations, but if you get the free Mathematica Player, you can download files, then manipulate them all you want.

Demonstrations include mathematical concepts like manipulating polygons, but also more real-world concepts like optical illusions, how fires spread, graphic tests and more. Each page includes a brief explanation of what's happening and links to further information.

Some of my favorites are

* World Map Projections
* Optical Illusions
* Forest Fire Simulation
* The Art Section

Best of all, if you download the files, you get a link to the Mathematica source code. Penn State has a site license for Mathematica, so I'm investigating to see if I can do any interesting modifications.

P.S. My only complaint about the site is that it's hard to find some topics. The Site Index lists everything in alphabetical order.

Foreign Language Poetry on Lyrikline

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One of my Listservs passed along a great resource on online poetry for many languages at This is similar to the Penn State Scola service which allows instructors to access foreign language video.

For each language, you get to see one or more authors and a selection of his or her poems. Each poem shows the original text and includes an audio file (great for listening practice). You can also access the translation in English, but it's on a separate screen.

Real Audio required.

Yes I played with Spriograph

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Based on the last post on the Facebook Friends network diagram, someone asked if I had played with Spirograph.

The answer is yes of course - but now I'm grown up. So I stitch Jean Hilton designs instead.

It's amazing how a good visualization will suck me in though.

A Social Network Diagram...Straight from Facebook

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I found a new tool in Facebook - the Friends Wheel and I was fascinated, not just because of the pretty colors, but because it replicates a sociological concept I was teaching about in a linguistics class.

The one time I did a language and society class the concept of "social networks" came up and we distinguished "superdense" from other networks. In superdense network, not only do all members know each other, but each person interacts independently with all members of the group. I compare it to the Friends TV show where Ross and Monica are friends, but Monica is married to Ross's old college roommate and Ross dates Monica's roommate.

But that's nothing in comparison with my very own Facebook friends wheel with Penn State staff. It's so dense it's string art.

friendwheeledited.gif - each person in circle has a line going to each other person forming a star
Click Image to see larger version

This is a little artificial because I really only joined Facebook because other Penn Staters were in there. On the other hand, it is a good reflection of how Penn State operates - we all have to build mini-relations with each member in the group.

Superdense networks can also be closed if people don't talk to outsiders. Fortunately, I still have a non-Facebook life that's a little more open....I think.

Why Johnny Won't Blog in Class

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Both Cole Camplese and Bart Purcell have written interesting posts commenting on the fact that students in one course only blog when instructors tell them to and no other time.

It's somewhat depressing, but probably not surprising to anyone working with educational technology. Students also have to be prodded to write discussion board posts, turn in homework, take quizzes and read the material (via check-up quizzes).

The temptation is to blame the modern educational environment, but I really think it all comes down to another important educational factor ... motivation. As many of us know, motivation is divided into "extrinsic" (motivated by certain social goals, like a good GPA) vs. "intrinsic" (true interest or "The Love").

Blogging is fun if you are interested in the topic. If it's another "essay" though, it's not as much's just work. When a course is taken to fulfill a requirement or fill out a schedule, the motivation to do more isn't as strong.

It's only you are in a course which you take for the heck of it, you may actually be willing to read the extra readings, do the extra exercises or even read items completely unassociated with your class. I actually did do the extra exercises in intro linguistics (and didn't even turn them in). Did I do the extra exercises for statistics? Not really.

I wish all courses could be equally interesting, but I don't think that's a realistic possibility. Why should one instructor be interested in the bombadeer beetle and another in Ancient Athenian politics and drama? The beauty of the academic experience is that there are so many different ideas to obsess over - no one could ever possibly obsess equally.

So is blogging in the classroom a waste of time? I don't think it is. If nothing else, a well-formed blog assignment may force the student to think about an issue in a new way. Sometimes, an assignment is about giving the student the "opportunity" to practice a new skill...whether they want to or not. And you never know...intrinsic interest may come later in life.

You would not know it from the amount I blog now, but there was a time when I found most writing courses very tedious. In retrospect, I feel sympathy for my poor instructors who were probably frustrated that I couldn't find literature as interesting as I found Indo-European. Oh well.

One assignment I was particularly annoyed at was one based on the Dante's Inferno where I had to define my "personal circle of hell." It should have been fun, but I just wasn't up to the introspective challenge, and my classmates did a much better job than I did. Years later though, I finally was in a situation where I was able to define it...and then it was so funny I had to laugh at myself. If I hadn't had this assignment though, the "answer" would never have come to me.

P.S. My "personal circle of hell" is an eternity where I move my pile of books to another room, then I move them back to the original location in an endless cycle.

Weird Excel Calculation Bug

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Excel has a "bug" where calculations whose results are near 2^16 (65,536) may not be correctly displayed.

* Microsoft -
* Chance News 30 -

What's interesting to me is not the bug, per se, but the fact that calculations on a computer are inherently different from those on a chalkboard. Chance News and the Wolfram Blog both point out that computer calculations are all binary (base 2) at some point, while blackboard calculations are usually base 10. There's a conversion operation somewhere behind the scenes and once you get into decimals and the potential for repeating numbers, it can get tricky.

Another factor is that apparently multiplication is really done via addition of logarithms and lookup tables in order to save processing cycles. In other words, more conversions. This is not how I was taught multiplication in 5th grade.

The bug is pretty rare, so I will still be using Excel. But it's at times like these I do understand "old-school" math teachers wanting to make sure students still know how to do long division by hand. After all, these errors were probably caught by people who realized that the answers from Excel "didn't look right."