May 2008 Archives

A Russian Pop Music Blog From ....

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I know it's another foreign language example, but ... I do like this Far from Moscow blog which combines audio, picture and photos to get you the latest info on the Russian pop music scene.

This is a totally Web 2.0 design, but from a usability perspective, it has some features which help you navigate the site if you're new to Russian pop music. First, I appreciate that a Front Page link is included - there really are a lot of people out there who aren't familiar with clicking the logo to return to the front page.

Second, I do like the categories links on the side (it also works with tags). Who knew there was Russian reggae? A third feature of note is that there are static tutorial Pages with information about the Web site, links to labels and other information. Again, if you're a new to the world of Russian pop may know where to get a basic primer. Finally, the entries themselves are written with the general audience in mind. Many include a short intro to the artist as well as links to audio clips.

This is a good example of how a blog can introduce you to the basics of a topic, then keep you updated in little ckunks (did anyone say "Just in Time Learning").

The biggest surprise of's sponsored by the UCLA Slavic Department (specifically David MacFayden). It's really great to see an Web site from an academic that really understands how to deploy the new tech!

P.S. There's some good music on here. I have no idea if it's on iTunes.

Testing Validity and Cancelling an Latin AP Exam

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Recently the College Board group who runs the Advanced Placement AP exams decided to eliminate four exams for financial reasons. One of them was unfortunately, the Latin Literature exam which covered texts from major Latin authors. The odd thing was that they decided to keep the Vergil (exam) or just the author who wrote the Aeneid and other works.

As you can imagine, the high school Latin teacher community was very upset and confused. If you were going to cancel an exam why would you keep the more specific exam? Vergil is an important writer, but hardly the only one out there. Focusing exclusively on one epic poem could give you a very distorted view of Latin culture. It would be like asking English literature students to focus only on Milton's Paradise Lost - great work, but it means you miss out on Shakespeare, Chaucer, Donne, Dickens, Hemingway, Faulkner, Toni Morrison and many more. Weird.

As it turns out, one instructor did write a letter to the College Board with her concerns and she did get a response from the College Board - but not one I might have expected.

As I understand it, the actual reason was that the College Board doesn't want to continue this particular exam is that they don't have enough resources to continue to create "psychometrically valid" questions for all of Latin literature (sticking with one author makes it much easier to test for validity.

However, as AP Latin Literature has slowly grown, it has approached the threshold that, once reached, cannot support the type of exam design AP Latin Literature uses (a test format that actually allows students to choose which questions they do and do not answer). Because AP Latin Literature allows students to choose which questions they answer, the psychometric validity of the exam results will be subject to increased risk as the program continues to grow, so the current exam design must be discontinued following the May 2009 exam.

There is no such problem with the AP Latin: Vergil exam, which simply needs a multi-million dollar investment (which we are making) to upgrade design specifications and standard setting processes to ensure that as the volume continues to grow, there is no risk to the quality and reliability of the assessment. So we will continue to offer the AP Latin: Vergil Exam in the near term, while working at the same time with educators to determine whether we should, over time, change AP Latin: Vergil to incorporate a larger number of authors.


I confess to being stunned. I agree that the College Board needs to invest wisely (they point out that many languages such as Greek, Russian, Korean and Portuguese have no AP exam), but there's a disconnect in the process. Although testing validity is important, it looks like the original learning objectives are being lost. Surely one of the objectives of learning Latin literature in Latin is to be able to understand and translate a wide variety of Latin genres ranging from poetry to prose. Another must be to become acquainted with many aspects of Roman culture and political history - not just one epic poem.

Choosing psychometric validity over learning objectives is one reason "teaching to the test" has such a bad name.

Flickr Photo Contests

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I ran into three Flickr "Contest" Areas where users post photos/digital art on certain themes (e.g. color, abstract and black & white) and a user group votes on it. You can even invite people with a striking image to submit to the contest. I had heard that Flickr was becoming a place to show off your digital art, but I hadn't realized the extent of it.

Not only are the images lovely,but I also found the artist commentary very helpful. Might be a great opportunity for our budding digital artists at Penn State.

Google Map Mashup for Linguistics

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The World Atlas of Language Structures Online ( from the Max Planck Digital Library is a great new resource that maps languages with phonological, morphological or syntactic features.

I wrote it up in my linguistics blog If you've ever wondered which continents have tonal languages, go visit

I love that all the data sources are cited and that you can export map data as XML or KML (for other GIS programs) - I could recreate a version for myself if I wanted. My only recommendation is to shrink the size of the icons to 10.

Facilitating Cross Unit Communication by Mixing Levels

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A common theme in these parts is enable different areas of Penn State to effectively work together. I have been on a few projects where cross-unit projects which have come out reasonably well - the products are still in use, and I'm comfortable communicating with previous team mates.

I think the secret is that there is a crucial mix of top-level and bottom level communication. The top levels (the deans/directors/provosts) were important in establishing the importance of the project. In project land, this often corresponds a kick off meeting to establish main parameters (deadlines, budgets, staffing, etc), but afterwards that person may fade out except for extreme emergencies.

On the other hand, the bulk of the project communication happens below the top level at the project manager level. These are the people who will be implementing the project who need to talk to each other in a regular basis to resolve different issues. If you look at the diagram below of a cross ITS-Library project, you'll see lots of horizontal arrows across units and some vertical arrows within each unit. The key is that the implementers need to know who to talk to within the other unit.


This seems fairly straightforward, but a lot can go wrong to derail this structure. One of the worst of them I think is mistiming of the kick off meeting where people are introduced to each other and the scope of the project. If it happens too early (before majority of project members come on board), then late comers may feel left out of the loop. If it happens too late or not at all, then the implementers may not have enough confidence or knowledge to formulate a viable project plan. It's amazing how much time can be wasted because no one is sure what the original project intentions are.

Yet if the top-level is too involved I think two bad things can happen. One is that the the top level can feel frustrated at being committed to one project when many other decisions need to be made. The second is that if the implementers don't feel comfortable contacting each other directly, the rate of progress can slow down quite a bit.

I suspect a lot of directors know this, and look forward to the days when implementers can self-organize...but it hasn't happened yet. Why? I will be cynical and say that it's because implementers can't make the key decisions needed to self organize.

I may have a great idea, but can I convince another busy soul to tag along when he or she is already booked 40+ hours? I certainly can't offer the kinds of incentives offered to other busy people like buying better software, an iPhone, generating publicity or a good staff review...because I'm just not a manager. In terms of collaboration, I'm limited in what I can promise on my own without top-level involvement.

Personally, I think the mixed model is fine already. It's a model I wish were followed a little more consistently.