September 2010 Archives

Colored Stickers and the IRB

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Just had an interesting discussion with the IRB board (the good kind of interesting) about how to establish consent for observing a class activity.

One of our current Educational Gaming Commons projects involves converting a face-to-face game to an online format....which will be played in every section in a hybrid course. Because every section is hybrid and because the game is an integral part of the course, we really can't have control sections without the game. If we did, the students might not have an alternative activity.

Our assessment plan therefore involves observing the original face-to-face game. Very simple, except that I couldn't figure out how to "discard" data from students who didn't want to participate in the study. The game is too chaotic to NOT observe everyone, and it was a requirement, so students had to be there to get credit.

I passed this on to the IRB board, and they had a good solution - stickers. At first, we thought to hand out stickers to those who didn't consent, but I was concerned they might feel put on the spot. So we changed it to hand out colored stickers to everyone. I might also ask them to put names or initials on it, so I can give everyone an identifier.

This is a good solution and I might use it for other in-class IRB activities (e.g. in-class focus groups). I ran a focus group in class and it was actually a real challenge to track who was and wasn't participating because I wouldn't get consent forms until the end ... after data was already recorded. Yikes.

Colored stickers...who knew.

Please Bring Back Vanilla Google

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I have a great respect for the folks at Google, but the last two days, I have been very, very perplexed about some design choices. Yesterday (Sep 7, 2010), we saw the Google logo converted into flying globes and today (Sep 8, 2010), I see a new auto fill "instant" search feature.

I found both so distracting I fled to alternate search sites including the still living altavista.com and Google Canada. Based on my Twitter feed yesterday and user forum response, I don't think I was the only one perplexed (but I did discover Google.ca that way). I doth protest and do proclaim that I want my vanilla Google back....Please.

For the record, I do appreciate that Google wants to show off HTML 5 and CSS 3. I actually liked the animated buckyball logo shown a few days earlier, but it differed in a key way from the Sep 7 logo - it wasn't distracting.

On that day, the golden capital O ever so gently expanded into the delicate miracle of buckyball carbon. The link even pointed to information on buckyballs (per usual). In contrast, the balls scattered themselves around every time I used the mouse getting in the way of my search field. I am not officially diagnosed with ADD, but even so, I could hardy find the search field amidst all the chaos. Ugh. Even having them settle down permanently would have been better than this.

Even no worse, there was no official explanation when you clicked the link. Why? Marketing? But hasn't Google been about us the consumer rather than marketing themselves? Hmmm.

Today's instant search is equally troubling. I liked the feature of possibly queries revealing themselves as I type, but an entire page of text? Can't I just finish typing before you give me the answer? Are you done loading yet? Is it safe to click? It's true that you can disable it, but to do that permanently I will have to log into my Google account, and I am wondering how much I can trust that too.

And I guess that's my ultimate point - am I losing faith in Google? Google has a lot of unique services, and at $0 (U.S.), you can't beat the price. But for $0, I also don't get any of Google's financial incentive to invest in my privacy. With Google services multiplying left and right, I am joining those concerned with Google's accumulating data

And pulling marketing stunts like mystery animated logo doesn't make me trust them any more. It kind of breaks the illusion that Google is about the love and not about maximizing profits. Not that I object to profit - it's actually more transparent.

So please Google, be careful with your new features. We want to trust you, not be scared by privacy and usability fails. Remember what is happening to Facebook's reputation because of their privacy fails.

There is a bright spot in this though - the people are out there and they are watching. I know because I found them on Google. In that sense, the Internet is working better than ever.

Anthropology and HR Rumors

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I was at an HRDC seminar and many of the usual work issues came up include perennial favorites communication and team work. We had some productive discussions, but one of the most fascinating was about the SRDP annual review process.

If you've been at Penn State for a while and ever talk with your colleagues you will get some great stories about the randomness of the SRDP (at least across units) and how people have gotten screwed (some stories may be exagerated, but some may not be). The good news was that the SRDP was handled fairly well at ETS.

Yet...our presenter made some comments and clarifications at the process that I had no idea were true. Lots of things we thought were "mandates" by HR (or were told were mandated by HR) turned out to mandates from somewhere else. No one knew who had crafted variations of the mandates or why they were done that way. The main point of agreement was that they led to a lot of confusion and frustration. And no one knew how to stop it.

Back at ITS Headquarters

I am writing about this because I was experiencing a phenomenon I usually am on the opposite side of. Whenever I go to parties, I hear interesting perceptions of our services including the fact that ANGEL was going away "next semester" twice in the past 7 years. For the record, I know it will be around for a while, but where do these ideas come from?

Ultimately, it's really an anthropology question. If you think about (and someone has), our homo sapiens tribes are evolved in much smaller groups than the Penn State environment. One theory (Dunbar's number) states that one person can really only maintain about 150 close personal relationships at once. Obviously we live in much larger communities (up to millions), but these large communities tend to break down into smaller subgroups for many interactions. Even in State College, we live in specific neighborhoods.

So...communication at this scale has many challenges and unique problems not faced at smaller scales. I think we all know this, but I wonder if we really appreciate it. We speak about using official channels for communication, yet evolution has really primed us for word of mouth. Maybe we shouldn't be so shocked that our messages get distorted by "gossip". Maybe we should be amazed when they get successfully transmitted at all.

The Ape in the Corner Office

I don't have an answer for rumor control. But I was reminded that one of my favorite work books was the Ape in the Corner Office. Although the title sounds a little barbaric, it really was a discussion about how employees (the herd) will often follow their primate instincts for both good and bad. Understanding them could help managers make for a happier herd (oops employees).

By the way, I don't think primatology has all the answers for improving work climate, but it seems easier to understand and forgive some strange behavior in ourselves and others when we think of ourselves as creatures of instinct as well as rational beings.