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Are Certificates Badges?

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The other week I attended a webinar run by the fine folks at the Turnitin Academy and they thoughtfully sent me a certificate of completion. At this point I thought "Is this certificate just a big rectangular badge?" at which point I realized I had the inspiration for another blog post.

Art Work and Tone

One way in which the two differ is the presentation or artwork style. Traditionally, a badge is relatively small and may have some sort of symbolic artwork on it. Here are some examples from Mozilla School of Webcraft, FourSquare and Kyle Peck. Styles of awards and award merit language arrange from very professional to 100% outrageous ("Player please?" Oh, please!")

In contrast, certificates are much more serious in tone. They often feature old-fashioned type faces and official logos (and signatures). The content typically marks the user's accomplishment and the time the certficate was issued in very formal language (sometimes in Latin). They are meant to be official acknowledgements from respected institutions that some achievement has been noted.

Already the styles are very different in terms of tone. It shouldn't matter, but it's something to consider when considering badgification.

I should add here that a badge logo could go to a certificate type description. They don't have to be mutually exclusive.


Something else to consider is granularity. In many systems, a badge is awarded for a specific accomplishment, while certificates may be awarded for a larger scale accomplishment.

For instance, the TWT Certificate program awards one certificate for completing a portfolio which contains a set of elements (e.g. a teaching philosophy statement, example presentation...). But could a set of supplementary badges be included? I was thinking of one for accessibility, but we could include multimedia creation, exceptional use of a tool like Voicethread, ANGEL or the blogs or something similar. Badges could be a way to further personalize the experience or even provide stepping stones to the final certificate.

Badges and Certificates Together

As with any new system it's worth looking back to previous analogues to see if we can learn anything. Certificates are a known model here at Penn State. What should be adapted for badges? What should be discarded?

What Genre is your Instructional Story?

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At the last All-ID meeting, we had a good discussion of crafting your presentation (and instructional content) as a story, but some of asked "What kind of story?"

A TED talk by Nancy Duarte discusses how many successful speakers vary with talking about "what is" and "what could be" (start with now, end with the future). It turns out that I do structure many talks that way, especially when it's about technology. But is that the end (as it were) of the story?

I guess the question I am asking is how to add legitimate spice to your story. One thought is to make it a quest (to understand....) maybe with a touch of mystery. This is a common strategy for many science documentaries. In fact the one I saw last night asked about how the Minoan civilization of ancient Crete ended. Was it a volcano? Not enough ash? But maybe it was a...tsunami triggered by the volcano (because they found evidence for one and many Minoans lived on the shore). In archaeology, it's difficult to be sure, but the mystery is the fun of it.

Another tack is the metaphor - which is popular with many science writers. This assumes that you can think of a good one. Similarly, you can think of ways to tell the story from an unexpected point of view. Sam Richards is an expert at getting his students to think about what it's like to experience the world from a point a view different from their own.

I would also like to advocate that sometimes it's the sitcom or melodrama that's the right genre. Maybe it's my slightly warped view, but I confess that some of my favorite instructors had some good stories to pass on. I heard a professor give a dramatic reading of a Bronze Age tablet from a large city state to a smaller one advising them to not be alarmed by the army on their doorstep. Their advice was "to consider our presence to be a friendly one." Buffer states are a very ancient concept.

My last question is though - should all instructional content be considered a story? I can craft a story about linguistic theory, and how it was discovered, but can I use that story to teach you to perform a linguistic analysis? Or do I need to leave the story (and lecture) behind? This is where it's important to think about what works as a narrative (content) and what is more of a skill to be taught.

Ditching the Final Paper For a Blog

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Last semester I got to teach a sociolinguistics course (connecting language and social issues) and got ro reconsider what the capstone assignment should be. The content of the course is diverse enough that the traditional assignment has been a final paper rather than an exam.

However I realized a few semesters ago that the traditional undergraduate paper has its drawbacks, the worst being that the traditional paper format is much too easy to plagiarize. The goal of an undergraduate assignment is usually in-depth research and critical review, but not necessarily creation and dissemination of new knowledge (their skills may not be ready for that yet). Maybe the traditional paper is overkill?

Project Blog Instead

To break the mold for both the students and myself, I decided that the final assignment would be for students to use the Blogs at Penn State to create a mini-informational site. The topics would be similar to a final paper, but the product would be different.

To my delight, I think the experiment worked well. The quality was about the same (and probably better in a few cases) and I really think it did filter out of lot of potential plagiarism bombs (it's not easy to use your "blog voice" and plagiarize). I also liked that the new format finally made me really think about what process students needed to follow, the timeline they needed to stick to and what the grading criteria should be.

It also allowed students a little more creativity than a traditional paper might allow (I got some great examples of African-American English in the media). As with any new process, there's room for improvement, but the process below worked overall.

Timeline and Steps

This is a new enough concept that students needed handholding and a clear timeline. This semester, I started right after Spring Break and had weekly assignments/discussions of what to do.

  1. Consultations on Topics - I find this is critical for any course in which I assign papers. Students need to figure out what an appropriate project scope is and be interested in the topic.
  2. Create Blog and Post Topic - This ensures that students are being introduced to the tool early on and NOT in finals week. This also commits them to the project in a way that just claiming a topic does not.
  3. Post Scholarly Bibliography - I ask for three scholarly get them into the library. This is the week that I explain that Wikipedia is a start, but not a "scholarly source".
  4. Post Popular Media Sources - An important aspect of most sociolinguistic issues is popular perception versus the reality of the linguistic interactions. Thus most topics are covered in popular media significantly differently than academic sources.
  5. Linguistic Data Exercise - The homework includes exercises designed to showcase techniques to properly including linguistic data. This is also a good week to discuss how to avoid plagiarism.

Final Criteria

The actual Web page had to be completed during finals week and I made a few requirements.

  • 5-10 unique pages (any organization of their choosing).
    I think this was really important to helping students think about their content. Even if they were to purchase a paper, they would have to read it in order to split it up.
  • About page, Bibliography required

Grading was done on several criteria including these:

  • Quality of bibliography
  • Quality of linguistic data included (a requirement)
  • Relevance to sociolinguistics
  • Coherence of writing

While not all the results were perfect by any means, I did like how this evolved into a way that I could keep track of student progress. I knew who was getting into problems early on, and I got to steer a few in the right direction.

More importantly, I think students did feel a little more ownership for this kind of project than a traditional research assignment. Although there were definite research quality requirements, students did have more latitude in terms of their voice (academic vs. informal) and there are definitely more media options.

If I teach this course again, I am definitely keeping the assignment as a blog.

LDSC11 Globalization Game Questions

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In Matt Meyers wrap up about the recent Learning Design Summer Camp, he comments that we didn't have a chance to discuss the educational implications.

Although anything can be improved, I was hoping to use the game cards we handed out as a way of introducing some of the issues associated with providing education in a global environment. If you still have your game card, check out the question on the back to see an example of a globalization challenge.

Some of my favorite questions included:

  1. What would be the challenges to teaching a U.S. History course covering 1939-now for delivery in the East Asian market.Which events in particular might instructors want to explore non- U.S. points of view?
  2. An instructor in human anatomy has been asked about acupuncture for the past few semesters. What would be the best method to approach discussing these concepts? Can they be reconciled with Western medicine? Should they be?
  3. A student group is planning to visit Jerusalem over Spring Break (we're assuming that the political situation is relatively stable). What information would you give to students about the significance of Jerusalem in both the Middle East and to Western culture? What places should student visit to understand the complexity of Jerusalem? What are some precautions students should take?
  4. For an online course on the American Jazz Age (which includes music, art and text-based tutorials), a lot of your non-U.S. students request more robust mobile phone support since they don't have good access to a PC. How can materials be made more mobile device friendly, particularly in regards to the smaller screen size. What are some apps that could be recommended?

If you want to see the full list, download Globalize This Questions.docx.

I do think the missing piece was a debrief, but I was also trying to accommodate the need for caffeine on a hot afternoon. Live and learn

Is there enough interest for a true debrief later on? I know I would be interested in continuing the conversation.

Student Deadline Disconnect

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This semester, I've been assigning students in my tech course different types of technology tasks as homework. Some they have found success with, some not so much. How do I know? By the homework that comes in on time...or not. This is typical of a lot of classes, but I realized that there is a disconnect between what happens in a classroom and what we want to happen in real life.

In real life, what a project manager wants is to know ahead of a deadline if a potential problem has occurred. They generally don't want to get to the deadline and find...nothing. That's considered poor project management.

It's also considered bad teaching by many to have a lot of students fail to submit an assignment due to unforseen technical issues. Yet, this is is typical of what happens in a lot of cases. Although longer assignments (e.g. video assignments, team projects) might have timelines built in, the result is often student who miss intermediate deadlines.

Again...why don't students tell us ahead of time they might be having problems? It's partly procrastination on student's part, but I also think there is a culture of distrust between students and teachers. That is, we expect students to flake out, and they tend to do that.

I told my students that in the "real world" of employment, the responsible thing would be to tell colleagues/bosses if a problem was found. So I said again to tell me when things go wrong. But I also tried NOT to scold them, because as a wise friend of my mother once said, "If you yell at them, they won't tell you anything again."

Which gets me to an article Stevie Rocco found about toxic management beliefs. I don't buy all of them, but I do think the one that's relevant is treating employees and adult students like, well school children.It's good to provide leadership, but also true that when adults are treated like children, it can set up dysfunctional parent-teenager relationships at work.

There's a lot of discussion about helping students take ownership of their learning and employees self organizing, but the traditional school/management climate really does its best to undermine it. I don't have any ready answers for either situation, but this experience has given me food for thought on what I need to do to change my management climate.

Skype and the Snow Day

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In September 2009, we discussed how to plan a virtual class for a flu epidemic, but in Feb 2010, I realized the same concepts could be used for a snow day as well (and TLT thought it was a brilliant concept too).

There are some great suggestions at the link above, but I found my own twist, thanks to my linguistics students. I had been planning to hold a session in Adobe Connect, but the students weren't sure what that meant. Fortunately one said "Oh you mean Skype in", and I thought "Why yes, Skype is a good option." When I asked students if they had a Skye account, they all said they did, so I decided to go with it.

To get to the details, I asked students to e-mail me their Skype IDs so I could add them to my Contacts list. On the day and time when we normally would meet in class, I sat in a Rider conference room and initiated a conference call. I was also able to use Adobe Connect for screen sharing without audio. The only quirk was that I wanted to show a video, and because the audio wasn't coming through Skype, students couldn't hear anything. Something to work on for next time.

Interestingly, I ran one session as a "test", but this week we ran it for real. This time I had some "guest speakers" from ETS, but we were able to sit in a conference room and use my Mac laptop speakers/mike and it still worked well. Of course, a lot of our activities are hands on in the lab, so I am actually crossing fingers that I won't have to do this again.

But it's great to have one more option to work with.

P.S. Thanks to all our guest speakers for participating in the session. It was a very interesting discussion for me. Hope to share details soon, but I have to check with the students first...

New Media Seminar Week 8 Rewind: Education and Top Chef

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Way back in Week 8 of the recent New Media seminar, there was a reading on Learning Webs which discussed current structure of the K-12 educational system and whether it could be tweaked to a more personalized boutique system in which students didn't attend a formal "school", but matched themselves with appropriate mentors in subjects each was interested in.

Others have been raising this question as well including one speaker who asked why should students get a computer science degree from a institution like Penn State when a Cisco certification would be more cost-effective and be just as valuable on the job market.

I think what both are asking is whether a formal curriculum designed for "the masses" is effective. It is an important question, but that week I had one of those oddball connections that made me think there is a value in a well-designed curriculum.

The Top Chef Advantage

I watch a lot of cooking (and fashion competition shows) and there is one truism that most contestants would agree to - there is a huge advantage to any contestant who has formal training in the profession. That is, for any two contestants with about the same number of years in experience, the one who has gone to a dedicated cooking school tends to have an advantage.

Of all the Top Chef winners, only one, Hosea Rosenberg, was not a graduate of a formal cooking school or apprenticeship program (although Rosenberg did work in Wolfgang Puck's kitchen). Very few participants trained exclusively, "on the street" get far in the competition.

This is despite the fact that chefs are judged exclusively on their cooking ability (there are no written exams on Top Chef). The advantage that going to culinary school is giving is not just a matter of being "certified" or learning only verbal knowledge - there is a real set of skills being enhanced.

Thinking on Curricula

I think the advantage something like cooking school can give is that a student is really exposed to different elements of the profession in a way different from just "reading about it." It could involve working with real equipment (labs/computers/knives) or being closely mentored by those in the profession. Students are also often exposed to underlying principles (phonemic analysis for me, proteins and acids for the chefs) and have a chance to be mentored by those in the profession (because they are PAID to mentor you).

I think another element that's important is that sometimes a curriculum may force you to learn things important to the field that may not be so interesting to you. I vividly recall one linguistics advisor informing me that I was going to learn a particular language, whether I wanted to or not, because I had to know it. It turns out that he was on 100% right. But had I been left to my own devices, I might have still avoided it.


That's not to say that I think the system is perfect. For one thing, school, especially a culinary school like the Culinary Institute of America, is very pricey. For another, some curricula really do seem detached from life as the rest of us know it. If you want your education to lead to a paying job, Icelandic studies may not be the choice for you because opportunities are few and far between.

But...there is a point where formal schooling isn't enough and we do have to rely on our life experiences and our ability to learn on our own to carry us to the next step. While it's true that most Top Chef winners have gone to culinary school, it's also true that ALL of them had lots of years in a working kitchen under their belts and all of them had learned to create new recipes other than ones learned in school.

Is the academic curricula doing its job to help our students get to that next stage?

Tailgate: Considering Un-Narrated Media

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It's Monday after an excellent Media Commons Tailgate, and it's time to contemplate any insights I've had.

Where we are in the Story

My first thought is that the Media Commons staff and faculty have come a long way in terms of understanding building media assignments. There are lots of great examples of video projects in the classrooms, and good resources for free media and thoughtful ways to use and expand learning spaces.

Another high note was the keynote from Chris Long which did justice to the notion how a new media evolves. I particularly liked Plato's term pharmakon (φάρμακον) because it has a host of rich meanings implying danger as well as opportunity. Our job is to present the opportunities, but it's always good to watch for the dangers.

Narrated vs. Un-Narrated Media

So on that note...I am wondering if we are focusing so much on developing narration, we are forgetting the possibilities of media without a narration. It is a good educational practice that students are exposed to the process of creating a video short like a PSA or a documentary, because I think many of them will be asked to think of transmitting ideas in various media. But the truth is that this type of assignment doesn't match with every learning objective.

There are times when the objective is to collect and analyze loosely related artifacts and maybe (or maybe not) construct a analytic narrative around them. Consider the anatomical movement analysis project done by Renee Borromeo's kinesiology class. This assignment, unlike others requires only that students shoot a video of a movement in a certain way.

I think there are immediate applications to disciplines not at the Tailgate such as the sciences, but there are just as many applications even in the social sciences and history. Consider a historical problem such as the identity of Jack the Ripper. An exercise like this requires a student to study contemporary news articles, police reports, photos and forensics in light of what was then known and what we can interpolate now. Based on this a student may be able to build a partial narrative, but it's unlikely one will be fully developed, unless it truly becomes a piece of fiction.

This weekend, I was reminded that transmedia is a perfect tool for this kind of analytic assignment. Instead of constructing a narrative beforehand, we can use it to compile our artifacts and represent it in ways that could help a student understand the context. The timeline approach to the collapse of Arthur Anderson is a perfect example of that.

I think the use of video and transmedia to construct a new way of telling a story is exciting, but I believe I am intrigued by the possibility it can allow students to really understand what "narrative" means.

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 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 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....

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.