July 2010 Archives

LDSC10: Can this Boring Course Be Saved?

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The online Summer Camp survey I filled out asked for our takeaway points, and I admit that one thing I remembered was a discussion of how the lessons from Sam Richards class on race relations could be applied to an accounting course...because accounting was not nearly as exciting as what Sam was doing. While I do not think a pedagogical design for accounting would be like that for a race relations course, I am concerned that we almost all agreed that accounting is boring.

Boring to Whom?

But I think "boring" is in the eye of the beholder. I know at least two people who said they liked working on payroll. Both were educated women who are widely read and widely traveled, and I don't think either planned to specialize in payroll, but now that they were in that career path...they actually liked it. As audience members pointed out, the FBI uses forensic accountants all the time to track down criminal operations...so there must be an element of creativity somewhere.

I can't say I am a payroll fan, but I am not sure I would pick a race relations seminar as being "exciting" either...unless it's being taught by Sam Richards. The stereotype of the diversity seminar that makes people cringe exists for a reason. But Sam is exceptional for being able to communicate his passion for the subject - not the facts we should all know, but why the issues fascinate him. When taught that way, it IS fascinating.

Course Content: Dead or Alive?

One thing I have learned is that anything can be interesting if taught by someone who really understands it and really loves the subject. I got some great stories about superheated steam (invisible and deadly) from a thermodynamics instructor, and interesting comments from a nutritionist about how you can save or destroy your diet at the sub shop (the basis of the Sub Sandwich MTO). At some point in the development of the thermodynamics course, I realized how powerful and important steam and entropy is to any society, but especially one relying on electricity and refrigeration.

On the other hand, a bored instructor can kill even the most glamorous topic. I distinctly remembered a mummification lecture in my Egyptian archaeology class that did put the class into a state of suspended animation. It's tragic when the life is sucked out of a description of the disembowlment process needed to place the internal organs in little ceramic jars. But the man turned out to be much more into Bronze Age shipwrecks off the coast of Turkey - I was sorry I wasn't in THAT course with him.

The Coolness of Phonology

I have to confess I have the accounting challenge called "phonology" in the field of linguistics. Like statistics or accounting, this is a course with lots of annoying terminology and symbols to memorize. I wasn't always a fan myself, but once I got into it, I realized that phonology is an AWESOME tool for understanding "cooler" topics like historical linguistics and dialectology. When a Bravo Housewife reverts to her native accent under emotional strain...you are seeing phonology and sociolinguistics in action.

When I am teaching phonology, I realize I have a challenge in helping others understand the inherent coolness of phonetic features. But I am willing to do it because it IS interesting and every semester, I think I convince at least one more person (hopefully more), that phonology can be your friend.

So when I am stuck with a "boring" course (nutrition, accounting, race relations, thermodynamics, whatever), I have learned to dive in and find out why people study this stuff. I'm often amazed to learn that it IS interesting after all. Now if only we could convince all our instructors that they really aren't teaching boring courses....

Book Review: Shut and Shoot Documentary Guide

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My Video Angst

So here's my ongoing video dilemma - one I think shared by a lot of instructors and some instructional designers who are not video professionals share. While I think video is a powerful communication tool, and one that could be useful for students to have experience with, the fact is that my video skills are quite undeveloped.

When I was getting my degree, video was a tool that was so expensive that only a relatively few communication majors or labs with huge budgets had any experience with it. I did learn something about audio tech in my phonetics course, but back in 1990, the lab was still recording on reel to reel magnetic tape because they felt that the quality of digital audio was very inferior. Video/film was a total non-issue even though it would have been valuable.

But once I left phonetics, it was all text (with maybe some maps thrown in), and I'm pretty sure that's how it is for most liberal arts folks of my generation. I think even the sciences have a similar experience in that most folks may be working with images and text...but maybe not video. So it's no surprise that faculty identified lack of experience with video as an impediment to using it in classroom assignments. How can they teach a tool they have no experience with?

This is where a quick and dirty introduction to the craft of video shooting would be really handy, and this is where the book Shut up an Shoot Documentary Guide by Anthony Q. Artis comes in.

Learning to "Shut Up and Shoot"

The book addresses two important issues faced by instructors using video. One is learning what all those cables, cameras settings, lighting doo-dads and other other videography tools actually do. The other is figuring out the logistics of a video project, particularly a documentary shoot which we hope has some research and narrative teeth behind it.

A positive feature of the book is that it's set up like a cookbook. You can read it one shot (and it's written well enough to do that), but I would actually recommend reading it in bits and pieces. Start with the pre-production phase and gradually work your way through the different technical elements. Need to figure what camera works best on your budget? Read that section. Want to figure out how to light up a room where you are interviewing a subject? Read the lighting section and figure out which "recipe" works for you.

The technical sections are genuinely written as if you know nothing at all. There are lots of definitions and illustrations of equipment along side photographic representations of what different tools do (e.g. normal vs telephoto vs wide angle lens). Very helpful. Artis is also good at giving options for different budget levels including some clever budgeting tips.

I will have to say that Artis is probably assuming a larger budget than a university will have (I personally haven't seen any colored gels, but maybe they're in a safety deposit somewhere). But I do think you would be able to make the most of what you can get...and you can always dream. Or at least the really stupid blunders.

Non-Technological Aspects

Equally important are the non-technological aspects of a video project, such as planning a storyboard, scouting locations, doing your background research and crafting your narrative ethically. For instance, Artis recommends planning your shoot to film everything possible at a remote location in one visit, including as many "cutaways" (short shots used to add atmosphere to a piece) as possible (apparently there is no such thing as too many cutaways).

And then there are the interview tips - which are the heart of most academic video projects. From lighting and timing your zoom to asking open-ended questions and letting speakers hold a restless pet, you can tell that Artis and colleagues have been there and done that.

Artis also has a great section for how to shoot in seedy locations (aka "Da Hood"). Tips include finding an 'ambassador' (which many sociology/anthropology instructors may know) and shooting between 6-11 AM in neighborhoods known for violence. I would say that some of the neighborhood relation tips would work with any community including a rural community or an isolated community somewhere beyond the normal Western world.

FYI - If you are shooting a video as part of a formal research study, you will have to clear procedures with the IRB Board, and if you can do that...you will be in a great position to create a great documentary because the process will address many of these community relation issues, not to mention getting the right kind of consent from interview subjects.


To sum it up, I would recommend this book to any instructor, instructional designer or student interested in learning more about the video craft. It's a very informative and also very entertaining read. I may just go out and shoot a documentary this weekend.

Online Learning: It's Still All About the Learning Objective

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Today's presentation by Chris and Cole sparked a discussion on how they can be applied to online learning. One interesting comment I heard was that having defined learning objectives was constraining the design.

But maybe the problem is that we are using the wrong learning objectives. The traditional design process is that we define learning objectives and tie "content" and assessment to those objectives. So...if you start with the wrong objectives, the design will, by default, NOT be correct.

If your "objectives" are low level memorization of facts, then the design can lead to a course with lots of multiple choice quizzes (and this may be exactly what's needed in some cases)....On the the other hand, if your objective is learning to analyze, build or discuss/debate, then multiple quizzes should be out. You should know that you need to review data, or start a discussion. The old congruency model does work...if you start with the right objectives.

Another debate is whether "content" exists or not. I think both sides are looking at that wrong too. In many cases, it may be really "skills", but skills rarely exist in a vacuum. If I want students to perform an acoustic analysis....I do have to teach acoustic terminology, acoustic theory. I can't just send them out with a sound recorder in Week 1.

To me the trick has been getting students from ground zero to a point where they can make recordings and do something meaningful with them.

M-Learning in Africa: Lessons in Adapting

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One of the projects I've been working on is a Global Snapshot conference in which teams have been capturing comparative data about e-learning and m-learning around the world. I've been working on researching Africa in particular. Someone asked what ETS might get out of this, and there are several answers.

Mobile Tech

The most immediate answer is that we are learning a lot about the potential for using mobile devices as a content platform and a communication tool. We've been very excited with the potential of smart phones like iPhone, Droid and Blackberry, but the truth is that the U.S. and Canada are woefully behind the rest of the world, even places like Africa and the Phillipines.

In these places, SMS is one of the cheapest and most reliable forms of electronic communication. In many places, it's common for people to have multiple phones (one for family, one for boyfriend/girlfriend, one for buddies or work). On the other hand, in places like Africa laptops are extremely scarce. Few residences have the capability for the Internet, much less access to a computer. Online courses designed for the PC means travelling to a campus lab. Being able to access materials over mobile makes online education portable again.

Since mobile tech is ahead of the curve outside the U.S., so are the m-learning projects. One is a m4lit (http://m4lit.wordpress.com/) from South Africa which published a teen novel over the mobile phone, one chapter per week at a time. The goal was to improve reading ability in English, but also literacy in the Bantu language Xhosa (another language used in the project). Spreading out downloads over several weeks reduced the file size and increased the sense of anticipation - nothing is quite as compelling as a serial narrative.

Adapting to Scarce Resources

Another theme in the presentation is the scarsity of resources in comparison to the "First World." Not only are computers lacking, but so are fiber optic cables, iPhones, textbooks and electricity. Making do with less is a constant way of life.

Those on the team who had been to Africa had great stories of adapting under pressure. One person spoke of a team contiuing a talk even after the electricity had killed their PowerPoint presentation. Another showed a photo of a wireless hub attached to the ceiling with a coffee can. It's not that Americans don't adapt (I've seen our custom podiums), but it's at a different level. When our PowerPoint dies, our instinct is usually to panic, not expect it as normal.

Another interesting trend was how many institutions worked together, even across national borders. One person commented that they were ahead of us, maybe the rest of the world in leveraging joint resources. They've built OERs, online universities and even buy broadband together. There's plenty of internal politics and conflict, but the understanding seems to be that the benefits really outweigh the problems.

An Intangible Lesson

A lesson I keep coming back to when I examine other cultures is that there really is more than one way to build a community. I don't want to minimize the severity of the issues of Africa including the prevelance of AIDS, civil unrest in many regions, environmental crises and a post-colonial legacy.

But the fact is Western technology is not cruicial to a functioning society. It's the ability for a community to build a culture that works for them. A society with less than 24 hours of electricity could work if you plan properly. So can one without PCs but lots of cheap phones. Even here in the U.S., alternative technology eco systems can be built - not everyone in every demographic is convinced that iPhone is "the Way."

Ultimately, a new technology works best when the community feels a sense of ownership and control. Teens migrating to Facebook or MySpace was a decision they made and it feels natural to them. But for an older adult, being asked to join Facebook may feel oppressive, becuase it's an alien technology. Some people may find they like Facebook just fine, but others may always feel a little resentful that they couldn't use the alternate tools they were used to. Change happens to every community, but it doesn't have to happen in the same way.

A story I keep in mind is of a Mexican community speaking an indigenous language. They had always rejected the need to use writing since their oral culture was quite satisfactory for them - especially after they added a loudspeaker to transmit announcements to the village any time. It wasn't until they heard a neighboring community was getting writing that they decided to bring in a linguist.

I'm glad the language is being written of course, but it's probably more important that the community didn't feel inferior that it hadn't happened before. They were willing to wait and adapt what they needed from the outside when it was the right time. It's also important for us to understand that cultures without writing can be functional and have been for thousands of years. Maybe we can use technology to adapt to orality too.

Play the Moron Test

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I've been trying to review games for the iPad, but one that's a classic on both the iPhone and the iPad is the Moron Test by DistinctDev. It's popular enough to have both a Facebook page and a set of YouTube videos, so for that reason alone it is worthy of a blog post, but it actually presents some very interesting lessons in instructional design in disguise (more on that later).

If you are not familiar with the game, It is a test and you will definitely fail the first time around. Seemingly simple tasks such as pressing a red button 3 times are surprisingly tricky in this game (how can that be?). But if you bring a sense of humor, especially for bad puns, you will be able to overcome all challenges and prove YOU ARE NOT A MORON. And at $0.99 (or 99ยข in plain English), it's a steal as a game you can torture your friends and recent acquaintances with at parties.

How to Trigger Failure

You may be asking - how can you fail at pressing 3 red buttons? That's where the magic of hellish interface design comes in. A typical task asks you to press the red button 3 times (or better, not press it at all), but the interface cruelly trips you up. The button may 1) move around or 2) change color, but the most diabolical trap of all is that the interface does nothing after the third click for a good 30 seconds.

We all know what happens when a screen hangs for that long - we press the button again and trigger a fail (Nooooo!). This is funny in the Moron Test, but has real consequences in online applications.

For instance, many ANGEL versions ago, you had the option to delete one item or delete everything in the Lessons area of the course.Most instructors only wanted to delete one item, of course, but there was a bit of a silent lag time between pressing the Delete button and getting feedback that the delete had occurred (about 30-60 sec). So what happened? Instructors pressed the Delete button again...and then they deleted everything. There was a lot of panic and file restores, so it was quickly realized that a better interface was needed. So today, it's a lot harder, if not impossible, to replicate this scenario (Huzzah!).

More Hidden Traps?

The Moron Test actually presents many instances of bad interface design, bad quiz question writing and other interesting teaching glitches. But I can't share them all, because that would deny you the chance to learn for yourself.

Instead in the spirit of constructivist instruction, I would invite you to check out the game, either by playing it, reading the questions on the help forums or watching the YouTube videos and post your own comments below. This is the type of casual gaming activity I would use in an instructional design course.