Category Archives: Learning

BBQ Documentation

Did my inaugural cook in the 14.5″ Weber Smokey Mountain my lifepartner is giving me for my birthday (she knows I don’t like surprises).
Will probably post some written notes of my smoking endeavours, at some point. In the meantime, some pictures documenting the whole thing.

Yoga and Community in Contemporary North America

Last night, Matthew Remski’s chapter on yoga “culture” served as the basis for a conversation on yoga and communities. Roseanne Harvey had invited some panelists and like-minded people to join her at Andrew Gordon Middleton’s and Michael O’Brien’s Studio Flow Space in Verdun.

After the conversation, I started reading Remski’s chapter in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, the collected essays that Roseanne has edited with Carol Horton.

Several things transpired from this conversation and, though I’m still a yoga newbie, I thought I’d post a few thoughts.

Most important, to me, is the realization that yoga may be antithetical to community development. Remski’s chapter made some of this painfully clear and I had such a feeling of recognition while reading the first part of this chapter that I almost clapped. (It’d have been weird, since I was in the métro.)

Yoga, like transcendentalism, focuses on individualism. As Margaret Fuller with transcendentalism, I find something unsatisfying in this. While I can understand the value of therapeutic self-centredness, I can only handle it for short periods of time. As an extrovert, I need some level of social interaction, especially if I can help others. Navigating either Nietzsche or Thoreau, I quickly feel trapped in a limited world.

Which brings me to Catholicism. The topic ended up being a significant piece of the backdrop to last night’s conversation. Though I wasn’t baptized (and, therefore, not officially a member of the Catholic community), I was raised in a quickly-secularizing Catholic context (Québécois society during the Quiet Revolution). Culturally, I associate more directly with the Catholic Play Ethic (or with the Sensual Ethic) than with what Weber called the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE). Sounds like Remski may be in a similar situation. And so were some participants in last night’s conversation. Not that no Catholic subscribes to PWE or that all Protestants are caught in it. But it’s remarkable how “key scenarios” may differ along such lines. I’d rather have a picnic with Manet (or Monet) or a food fight with Gwen Stefani and the band than a success story written by Horatio Alger. Just don’t get me started about the difference between Fellini and Bergman.

What does this have to do with yoga? Precious little. Yoga is about self-improvement and introspection… until it becomes about interdependence, intersubjectivity, and projecting the mind outside the self. Only then does yoga reach a sense of community. But this sense of community isn’t local, social, cultural, spatial. It’s sense of universal community of mind, beyond such pesky little things as families, cities, countries, and social movements. In “loving kindness” meditation, the shift from individuals to the Whole Earth doesn’t sound very gradual. Sure, “the community” can be there as a target for meditation. But the difference in kind between a neighbourhood community and, say, the community of spirit between humans and locusts affords little discussion, in such a context.

Playing the social scientist during yesterday’s convo, I couldn’t help but point out two key features of communities, from a social science perspective: sense of belonging and interdependency. Though they apply to any community, they may be especially useful in the yoga context. I don’t know enough about yoga to be sure about this, but comments made after I mentioned these two dimensions did sound like they resonated with my simple description.

Interdependency is a recent addition to my definition of community. A student in my “Cyberspace Sociology” course added it as a key feature, and it really helps to bring things in focus. One aspect of this dimension is that community isn’t necessarily something we choose. We may choose some of our neighbours but we may be affected by many community members who’d otherwise have “nothing to do with us”. Also, given issues surrounding our natural environment, the ecological principles behind communities are easy to describe: we can “do our part” but the system can still be dysfunctional if some people don’t. As both victims of climate change and perpetrators of pollution which takes part in it, we can perceive the implications of being dependent on one another. Not to mention that interdependence is an important concept in yoga.

The sense of belonging part may afford more unpacking. Sure, hippies have reappropriated “kumbaya” as the mushy version of belonging. That one fits in the “community of spirits” model. In anthropology, we tend to focus on the “community of experience” model (if not on the “community of practise” one). To do so, some of us refer to Victor Turner’s communitas, based on the liminal phase in initiation rituals. Through this concept, we identify a space for intense relationships among equals, typical of people subjected to a difficult experience together. The concept also involves a separation from the rest of the social system.

By extension, we can think about the divisive nature of social identity: if there’s an us, there’s also a them. Quite frequently, this them is a particular group, with which the community entertains a rivalry. Montreal may be Quebec City’s “Other”, even though Montrealers care very little about the “national capital”. Fans of the Maple Leafs may also perceive Montreal as the other, although I’ve heard more anti-Boston sentiment in my youth than anything about Toronto.

Yoga’s communities are peculiar. It sounds like it may be possible to create a sense of belonging through yoga retreats and other occasions for shared experiences. Yet the embedded hierarchy of many yoga instruction models may shift the communitas away from “practice”. Bonding works remarkably well when people have a common foe (an initiator causing harm would be an appropriate figure, here). However authoritative they may be, yoga instructors may not desire this type of antagonism.

Though (as was clear from last night’s discussion) some yoga studios enter in direct competition as businesses, yoga communities may not be ideal places for impassioned rivalries. The “slippery slope” from opposition between groups and outright conflict may make peace-loving yoginis and yogis think twice about this type of chants and cheers.

Which isn’t to say that the yoga world lacks distinction. In fact, yoga sociology has a lot to explore. From the outside, the internal structure of the North American yogasphere is fascinating. But that structure, it sounds like, rarely made explicit. It also sounds like it’s inward-looking, to a fairly large extent. The yogasphere includes all sorts of yoga practitioners, but it’s focused on yoga teachers and other experts, not necessarily on the local embedding of yoga practice. Yoga studios, in this model, are like havens of peace in a fastpaced world. The them group comprises a large number of people who don’t get yoga.

Personally, I’m more interested in how communities can appropriate yoga. Yes, it involves the adaptation of yoga practice, which implies some level of inauthenticity. Thanks to the association between yoga and New Age (a drone under 21st Century Yoga), yoga specialists may shy away from this type of reappropriation. Yet, empowering communities through yoga-inspired practice could be a worthy cause for yogactivists.

Yoga needs space. A key theme during yesterday’s discussion was space: studio rent, overhead, location, sense of place, neighbourhoods as markets… In North American cities, yoga doesn’t own much space, and that’s the crux of the problem.

This is where we can go back to Catholicism, where Remski started his essay on yoga “culture”. It was an underlying theme through the discussion. (Funnily enough, the conversation was structured by a key figure who invited four “evangelists” and we were eight “disciples”.)

The Catholic Church does own space. In fact, a large part of the “business model” for the Catholic clergy relates to real estate. As many of these properties are being sold, there may be opportunities for community ownership of prime space. In fact, I’m a research associate for a community organization involved in a community-based project surrounding the reappropriation of a church. Wasn’t thinking about yoga in that space, but I’m sure some other people have been. Last summer, Yoga en rouge was happening (led by Audrey Béliveau) in Parc Molson, next door to that church. And it’s clearly a grassroots community affair.

I’m not (officially) Catholic and I’m a n00b to yoga. I’m finally grokking the difficulties to develop community membership through yoga. So I’ll continue doing my yoga practice at home, by myself, away from other people’s gaze. Still feels good.

Concierge-Style Service

Disclaimer: This is one of those blogposts in which I ramble quite a bit. I do have a core point, but I take winding roads around it. It’s also a post where I’m consciously naïve, this time talking about topics which may make economists react viscerally. My hope is that they can get past their initial reaction and think about “the fool’s truth”.

High-quality customer service is something which has a very positive effect, on me. More than being awed by it, I’m extremely appreciative for it when it’s directed towards me and glad it exists when other people take advantage of it.

And I understand (at least some of) the difficulties of customer service.

Never worked directly in customer service. I do interact with a number of people, when I work (teaching, doing field research, working in restaurants, or even doing surveys over the phone). And I’ve had to deal with my share of “difficult customers”, sometimes for months at a time. But nothing I’ve done was officially considered customer service. In fact, with some of my work, “customer service” is exactly the opposite of “what the job is about”, despite some apparent similarities.

So I can only talk about customer service as a customer.

As job sectors go, customer service is quite compatible with a post-industrial world. At the end of the Industrial Revolution, jobs in the primary and secondary sectors have decreased a lot in numbers, especially in the wealthiest parts of the World. The tertiary sector is rapidly growing, in these same contexts. We may eventually notice a significant move toward the quaternary sector, through the expansion of the “knowledge society” but, as far as I know, that sector employs a very small proportion of the active population in any current context.

Point is, the service sector is quite big.

It’s also quite diverse, in terms of activities as well as in terms of conditions. There are call centres where working conditions and salaries are somewhat comparable to factory work (though the latter is considered “blue collar” and the former “white collar”). And there are parts of the service industry which, from the outside, sound quite pleasant.

But, again, I’m taking the point of view of the customer, here. I really do care about working conditions and would be interested in finding ways to improve them, but this blogpost is about my reactions as someone on the other side of the relationship.

More specifically, I’m talking about cases where my satisfaction reaches a high level. I don’t like to complain about bad service (though I could share some examples). But I do like to underline quality service.

And there are plenty of examples of those. I often share them on Twitter and/or on Facebook. But I might as well talk about some of these, here. Especially since I’m wrapping my head about a more general principal.

A key case happened back in November, during the meetings of the American Anthropological Association, here in Montreal. Was meeting a friend of mine at the conference hotel. Did a Foursquare checkin there, while I was waiting, pointing out that I was a local. Received a Twitter reply from the hotel’s account, welcoming me to Montreal. Had a short exchange about this and was told that “if my friend needs anything…” Went to lunch with my friend.

Among the topics of our conversation was the presentation she was going to give, that afternoon. She was feeling rather nervous about it and asked me what could be done to keep her nervousness under control. Based on both personal experience and rumours, I told her to eat bananas, as they seem to help in relieving stress. But, obviously, bananas aren’t that easy to get, in a downtown area.

After leaving my friend, I thought about where to get bananas for her, as a surprise. Didn’t remember that there was a supermarket, not too far from the hotel, so I was at a loss. Eventually went back to the hotel, thinking I might ask the hotel staff about this. Turns out, it would have been possible to order bananas for my friend but the kitchen had just closed.

On a whim, I thought about contacting the person who had replied to me through the hotel’s Twitter account. Explained the situation, gave my friend’s room number and, within minutes, a fruit basket was delivered to her door. At no extra charge to me or to my friend. As if it were a completely normal thing to do, asking for bananas to be delivered to a room.

I’m actually not one to ask for favours, in general. And I did feel strange asking for these bananas. But I wanted to surprise my friend and was going to pay for the service anyway. And the “if she needs anything” message was almost a dare, to me. My asking for bananas was almost defiant. “Oh, yeah? Anything? How about you bring bananas to her room, then?” Again, I’m usually not like this but exchanges like those make me want to explore the limits of the interaction.

And the result was really positive. My friend was very grateful and I sincerely think it helped her relax before her presentation, beyond the effects of the bananas themselves. And it titillated my curiosity, as an informal observer of customer service.

Often heard about hotel concierges as the model of quality in customer service. This fruit basket gave me a taster.

What’s funny about «concierges» is that, as a Québécois, I mostly associate them with maintenance work. In school, for instance, the «concierge» was the janitor, the person in charge of cleaning up the mess left by students. Sounds like “custodian” (and “custodial services”) may be somewhat equivalent to this meaning of «concierge», among English-speaking Canadians, especially in universities. Cleaning services are the key aspect of this line of work. Of course, it’s important work and it should be respected. But it’s not typically glorified as a form of employment. In fact, it’s precisely the kind of work which is used as a threat to those whose school performance is considered insufficient. Condescending teachers and principals would tell someone that they could end up working as a «concierge» (“janitor”) if they didn’t get their act together. Despite being important, this work is considered low-status. And, typically, it has little to do with customer service, as their work is often done while others are absent.

Concierges in French apartment buildings are a different matter, as they also control access and seem to be involved in collecting rent. But, in the “popular imagination” (i.e., in French movies), they’re not associated with a very high quality of service. Can think of several concierges of this type, in French movies. Some of them may have a congenial personality. But I can’t think of one who was portrayed as a model of high-quality customer service.

(I have friends who were «concierges» in apartment buildings, here in Montreal. Their work, which they did while studying, was mostly about maintenance, including changing lightbulbs and shovelling snow. The equivalent of “building superintendent”, it seems. Again, important but devalued work.)

Hotel concierges are the ones English-speakers think of when they use the term. They are the ones who are associated with high-quality (and high-value) customer service. These are the ones I’m thinking about, here.

Hotel concierges’ “golden keys” («Clefs d’or») are as much of a status symbol as you can get one. No idea how much hotel concierges make and I’m unclear as to their training and hiring. But it’s clear that they occupy quite specific a position in the social ladder, much higher than that of school janitors or apartment concierges.

Again, I can just guess how difficult their work must be. Not only the activities themselves but the interactions with the public. Yet, what interests me now is their reputation for delivering outstanding service. The fruit basket delivered to my friend’s door was a key example, to me.

(I also heard more about staff in luxury hotels, in part from a friend who worked in a call centre for a hotel with an enviable reputation. The hospitality industry is also a central component of Swiss culture, and I heard a few things about Swiss hotel schools, including Lausanne’s well-known EHL. Not to mention contacts with ITHQ graduates. But my experience with this kind of service in a hotel context is very limited.)

And it reminds me of several other examples. One is my admiration for the work done by servers in a Fredericton restaurant. The food was quite good and the restaurant’s administration boasts their winelist. But the service is what gave me the most positive feeling. Those service were able to switch completely from treating other people like royalty to treating me like a friend. These people were so good at their job that I discussed it with some of them. Perhaps they were just being humble but they didn’t even seem to realize that they were doing an especially good job.

A similar case is at some of Siena’s best restaurants, during a stay with several friends. At most places we went, the service was remarkably impeccable. We were treated like we deserved an incredible amount of respect, even though we were wearing sandals, shorts, and t-shirts.

Of course, quality service happens outside of hotels and restaurants. Which is why I wanted to post this.

Yesterday, I went to the “Genius Bar” at the Apple Store near my university campus. Had been having some issues with my iPhone and normal troubleshooting didn’t help. In fact, I had been to the same place, a few months ago, and what they had tried hadn’t really solved the problem.

This time, the problem was fixed in a very simple way: they replaced my iPhone with a new one. The process was very straightforward and efficient. And, thanks to regular backups, setting up my replacement iPhone was relatively easy a process. (There were a few issues with it and it did take some time to do, but nothing compared to what it might have been like without cloud backups.)

Through this and previous experiences with the “Genius Bar“, I keep thinking that this service model should be applied to other spheres of work. Including healthcare. Not the specifics of how a “Genius Bar” works. But something about this quality of service, applied to patient care. I sincerely think it’d have a very positive impact on people’s health.

In a way, this might be what’s implied by “concierge medicine”: personalized healthcare services, centred on patients’ needs. But there’s a key difference between Apple’s “Genius Bar” and “concierge medicine”: access to the “Genius Bar” is open to all (customers of Apple products).

Sure, not everyone can afford Apple products. But, despite a prevailing impression, these products are usually not that much more expensive than those made by competitors. In fact, some products made by Apple are quite competitive in their market. So, while the concierge-style services offered by the “Genius Bar” are paid by Apple’s customers, costing those services as even the totality of the “Apple premium” might reveal quite decent a value proposition.

Besides, it’s not about Apple and it’s not really about costs. While Apple’s “Genius Bar” provided my inspiration for this post, I mostly think about quality of service, in general. And while it’s important for decision-makers to think about the costs involved, it’s also important to think about what we mean by high quality service.

One aspect of concierge-style service is that it’s adapted to specific needs. It’s highly customized and personalized, the exact opposite of a “cookie-cutter” approach. My experience at BrewBakers was like that: I was treated the way I wanted to be treated and other people were treated in a very different way. For instance, a server sat besides me as I was looking at the menu, as if I had been a friend “hanging out” with them, and then treated some other customers as if they were the most dignified people in the world. Can’t say for sure the other people appreciated it (looked like they did), but I know it gave me a very warm feeling.

Similar thing at the “Genius Bar”. I could hear other people being treated very formally, but every time I went I was treated with the exact level of informality that I really enjoy. Perhaps more importantly, people’s technology skills are clearly taken into account and they never, in my experience, represent a basis for condescension or for misguided advice. In other words, lack of knowledge of an issue is treated with an understanding attitude and a customer’s expertise on an issue is treated with the exact level of respect it deserves. As always, YMMV. But I’m consistently struck by how appropriately “Genius Bar” employees treat diverse degrees of technological sophistication. As a teacher, this is something about which I care deeply. And it’s really challenging.

While it’s flexible and adaptable, concierge-style service is also respectful, no matter what. This is where our experiences in Siena were so striking. We were treated with respect, even though we didn’t fit the “dress code” for any of these restaurants. And this is a city where, in our observations, people seemed to put a lot of care in what they wore. It’s quite likely that we were judged like annoying tourists, who failed to understand the importance of wearing a suit and tie when going to a “classy” restaurant. But we were still welcomed in these establishments, and nothing in the service made us perceive negatively judged by these servers.

I’ve also heard about hotel staff having to maintain their dignity while coping with people who broke much more than dress codes. And this applies whether or not these people are clients. Friends told me about how the staff at a luxury hotel may deal with people who are unlikely to be customers (including homeless people). According to these friends, the rule is to treat everyone with respect, regardless of which position in the social ladder people occupy. Having noticed a few occasions where respectful treatment was applied to people who are often marginalized, it gives me some of the same satisfaction as when I’m treated adequately.

In other words, concierge-style service is appropriate, “no matter what”. The payoff may not be immediately obvious to everyone, but it’s clearly there. For one thing, poor-quality service to someone else can be quite painful to watch and those of us who are empathetic are likely to “take our business elsewhere” when we see somebody else being treated with disrespect. Not to mention that a respectful attitude is often the best way to prevent all sorts of negative situations from happening. Plus, some high-status people may look like low-status ones in certain of these situations. (For instance, friend working for a luxury hotel once commented on some celebrities looking like homeless people when they appeared at the hotel’s entrance.)

Concierge-style service is also disconnected from business transactions. While the money used to pay for people providing concierge-style service comes from business transactions, this connection is invisible in the service itself. This is similar to something which seems to puzzle a number of people I know, when I mention it. And I’m having a hard time explaining it in a way that they understand. But it’s quite important in the case of customer service.

At one level, you may call it an illusion. Though people pay for a service, the service is provided as if this payment didn’t matter. Sure, the costs associated with my friend’s fruit basket were incurred in the cost of her room. But neither of us saw that cost. So, at that level, it’s as if people were oblivious to the business side of things. This might help explain it to some people, but it’s not the end of it.

Another part has to do with models in which the costs behind the service are supported by a larger group of people, for instance in the ad-based model behind newspapers and Google or in the shared costs model behind insurance systems (not to mention public sectors programs). The same applies to situation where a third-party is responsible for the costs, like parents paying for services provided to their children. In this case, the separation between services and business transactions is a separation between roles. The same person can be beneficiary or benefactor in the same system, but at different times. Part of the result is that the quality of the service is directed toward the beneficiary, even though this person may not be directly responsible for the costs incurred by this service. So, the quality of a service offered by Google has to do with users of that service, not with Google’s customers (advertisers). The same thing applies to any kind of sponsorship and can work quite well with concierge-level quality of service. The Apple Store model is a bit like this, in that Apple subsidizes its stores out of its “own pocket”, and seems to be making a lot of money thanks to them. It may be counterintuitive, as a model, and the distinction between paying for and getting a service may sound irrelevant. But, from the perspective of human beings getting this kind of service, the difference is quite important.

At another level, it’s a matter of politeness. While some people are fine talking financials about any kind of exchange, many others find open discussion of money quite impolite. The former group of people may find it absurd but some of us would rather not discuss the specifics of the business transactions while a service is given. And I don’t mean anything like the lack of transparency of a menu with no price, in a very expensive restaurant. Quite the contrary. I mean a situation where everybody knows how much things cost in this specific situation, but discussion of those costs happens outside of the service itself. Again, this may sound strange to some, but I’d argue that it’s a characteristic of concierge-style service. You know how much it costs to spend a night at this hotel (or to get a haircut from this salon). But, while a specific service is provided, these costs aren’t mentioned.

Another component of this separation between services and their costs is about “fluidity”. It can be quite inefficient for people to keep calculating how much a service costs, itemized. The well-known joke about an engineer asked to itemize services for accounting purposes relates to this. In an industrial context, every item can have a specific cost. Applying the same logic to the service sector can lead to an overwhelming overhead and can also be quite misleading, especially in the case of knowledge and creative work. (How much does an idea cost?) While concierge-style service may be measured, doing so can have a negative impact on the service itself.

Some of my thinking about services and their costs has to do with learning contexts. In fact, much of my thinking about quality of service has to do with learning, since teaching remains an important part of my life. The equation between the costs of education and the learning process is quite complex. While there may be strong correlations between socioeconomic factors and credentials, the correlation between learning and credential is seems to be weaker and the connection between learning and socioeconomic factors is quite indirect.

In fact, something which is counterintuitive to outsiders and misconstrued to administrators at learning institutions is the relationship between learning and the quality of the work done by a teacher. There are many factors involved, in the work of a teacher, from students’ prior knowledge to their engagement in the learning process, and from “time on task” to the compatibility between learning and teaching methods. It’s also remarkably difficult to measure teaching effectiveness, especially if one is to pay more than lipservice to lifelong learning. Also, the motivations behind a teacher’s work rarely have much to do with such things as differential pay. At the very least, it’s clear that dedicated teachers spend more time than is officially required, and that they do so without any expectation of getting more money. But they do expect (and often get) much more than money, including the satisfaction of a job well done.

The analogy between teaching and concierge services falls down quickly if we think that concierges’ customers are those who use their services. Even in “for-profit” schools, the student-teacher relationship has very little to do with a client-business relationship. Those who “consume” the learning process are learners’ future employers or society as a whole. But students themselves aren’t “consuming teaching”, they’re learning. Sure, students often pay a portion of the costs to run educational institutions (other costs being covered by research activities, sponsorships, government funding, alumni, and even parents). But the result of the learning process is quite different from paying for a service. At worst, students are perceived as the “products” of the process. At best, they help construct knowledge. And even if students are increasingly treated as if they were customers of learning institutions (including publicly-funded ones), their relationship to teachers is quite distinct from patronage.

And this is one place for a connection between teachers and concierges, having to do with the separation between services and their fees: high quality service is given by concierges and teachers beyond direct financial incentives to do so. Even if these same teachers and concierges are trying to get increased wages, the services they provide are free of these considerations. Salary negotiations are a matter between employers and employees. Those who receive services are customers of the employers, not the employees. There’d be no reason for a concierge or teacher to argue with customers and students about their salaries.

In a way, this is almost the opposite of “social alienation”. In social sciences. “alienation” refers to a feeling of estrangement often taking place among workers whose products are consumed by people with whom they have no connection. A worker at a Foxconn factory may feel alienated from the person who will buy the Dell laptop on which she’s working. But service work is quite distinct from this. While there may be a huge status differential between someone getting a service and the person providing it and there can be a feeling of distance, the fact that there’s a direct connection between the two is quite significant. Even someone working at a call centre in India providing technical support to a high-status customer in the US  is significantly different from the alienated factory worker. The direct connection between call centre employee and customer can have a significant impact on both people involved, and on the business behind the technical support request.

And, to a large extent, the further a person working in customer service is from the financial transaction, the higher the quality of the service.

Lots has been said about Zappos and about Nordstrom. Much of that has to do with how these two companies’ approaches to customer service differ from other approaches (for instance, avoiding scripts). But there might be a key lesson, here, in terms of distancing the service from the job. The “customers are always right” ethos doesn’t jive well with beancounting.

So, concierge-style service is “more than a job”.

Providing high-quality service can be highly stimulating, motivating, and satisfying. Haven’t looked at job satisfaction levels among these people, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were quite high. What managers seem to forget, about job satisfaction, is that it has an impact beyond employee retention, productivity, and reputation. Satisfying jobs have a broad impact on society, which then impacts business. Like Ford paying high wages for his workers, much of it has to do with having a broader vision than simply managing the “ins and outs” of a given business. This is where Hanifan’s concept of social capital may come into play. Communities are built through such things as trust and job satisfaction.

Again, these aren’t simple issues. Quality customer service isn’t a simple matter of giving people the right conditions. But its effect are far-reaching.

It’s interesting to hear about “corporate concierge services” offered to employees of certain businesses. In a way, they loop back the relationship between high-quality service and labour. It sounds like corporate concierges can do a lot to enhance a workplace, even  making it more sustainable. I’d be curious to know more about them, as it sounds like they might have an interesting position with regards to the enterprise. I wouldn’t be surprised if their status were separate from that of regular employees within the business.

And, of course, I wish I were working at a place where such services were available. Sounds like those workplaces aren’t that uncommon. But having access to such services would be quite a privilege.

Thing is, I hate privilege, even when I’m the one benefitting from it. I once quipped that I hated library privileges, because they’re unequally distributed. The core of this is that I wish society were more equal. Not by levelling down everything we have, but by providing broader access to resources and services.

A key problem with concierge-style services is that access to them tends to be restricted. But it doesn’t sound like their costs are the only factor for this exclusiveness. In a way, concierge-level service may not be that much more expensive than standard service. It might be about concierge-style services being a differentiating factor, but even that doesn’t imply that it should be so restricted.

I’d argue that the level of quality of service that I’ve been describing (and rambling on about) can be found in just about any context. I’ve observed the work of librarians, gas station attendants, police officers, street vendors, park rangers, and movers who provided this level of service. While it may difficult to sustain high-quality service, it does scale and it does seem to make life easier for everyone.

Future of Learning Content

If indeed Apple plans to announce not just more affordable textbook options for students, but also more interactive, immersive ebook experiences…

Forecasting next week’s Apple education event (Dan Moren and Lex Friedman for Macworld)

I’m still in catchup mode (was sick during the break), but it’s hard to let this pass. It’s exactly the kind of thing I like to blog about: wishful thinking and speculation about education. Sometimes, my crazy predictions are fairly accurate. But my pleasure at blogging these things has little to do with the predictions game. I’m no prospectivist. I just like to build wishlists.

In this case, I’ll try to make it short. But I’m having drift-off moments just thinking about the possibilities. I do have a lot to say about this but we’ll see how things go.

Overall, I agree with the three main predictions in that MacWorld piece: Apple might come out with eBook creation tools, office software, and desktop reading solutions. I’m interested in all of these and have been thinking about the implications.

That MacWorld piece, like most media coverage of textbooks, these days, talks about the weight of physical textbooks as a major issue. It’s a common refrain and large bookbags/backpacks have symbolized a key problem with “education”. Moren and Friedman finish up with a zinger about lecturing. Also a common complaint. In fact, I’ve been on the record (for a while) about issues with lecturing. Which is where I think more reflection might help.

For one thing, alternative models to lecturing can imply more than a quip about the entertainment value of teaching. Inside the teaching world, there’s a lot of talk about the notion that teaching is a lot more than providing access to content. There’s a huge difference between reading a book and taking a class. But it sounds like this message isn’t heard and that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the role of teaching.

It’s quite likely that Apple’s announcement may make things worse.

I don’t like textbooks but I do use them. I’m not the only teacher who dislikes textbook while still using them. But I feel the need to justify myself. In fact, I’ve been on the record about this. So, in that context, I think improvements in textbooks may distract us from a bigger issue and even lead us in the wrong direction. By focusing even more on content-creation, we’re commodifying education. What’s more, we’re subsuming education to a publishing model. We all know how that’s going. What’s tragic, IMHO, is that textbook publishers themselves are going in the direction of magazines! If, ten years from now, people want to know when we went wrong with textbook publishing, it’ll probably be a good idea for them to trace back from now. In theory, magazine-style textbooks may make a lot of sense to those who perceive learning to be indissociable from content consumption. I personally consider these magazine-style textbooks to be the most egregious of aberrations because, in practice, learning is radically different from content consumption.

So… If, on Thursday, Apple ends up announcing deals with textbook publishers to make it easier for them to, say, create and distribute free ad-supported magazine-style textbooks, I’ll be going through a large range of very negative emotions. Coming out of it, I might perceive a silverlining in the fact that these things can fairly easily be subverted. I like this kind of technological subversion and it makes me quite enthusiastic.

In fact, I’ve had this thought about iAd producer (Apple’s tool for creating mobile ads). Never tried it but, when I heard about it, it sounded like something which could make it easy to produce interactive content outside of mobile advertising. I don’t think the tool itself is restricted to Apple’s iAd, but I could see how the company might use the same underlying technology to create some content-creation tool.

“But,” you say, “you just said that you think learning isn’t about content.” Quite so. I’m not saying that I think these tools should be the future of learning. But creating interactive content can be part of something wider, which does relate to learning.

The point isn’t that I don’t like content. The point is that I don’t think content should be the exclusive focus of learning. To me, allowing textbook publishers to push more magazine-style content more easily is going in the wrong direction. Allowing diverse people (including learners and teachers) to easily create interactive content might in fact be a step in the right direction. It’s nothing new, but it’s an interesting path.

In fact, despite my dislike of a content emphasis in learning, I’m quite interested in “learning objects”. In fact, I did a presentation about them during the Spirit of Inquiry conference at Concordia, a few years ago (PDF).

A neat (but Flash-based) example of a learning object was introduced to me during that same conference: Mouse Party. The production value is quite high, the learning content seems relatively high, and it’s easily accessible.

But it’s based on Flash.

Which leads me to another part of the issue: formats.

I personally try to avoid Flash as much as possible. While a large number of people have done amazing things with Flash, it’s my sincere (and humble) opinion that Flash’s time has come and gone. I do agree with Steve Jobs on this. Not out of fanboism (I’m no Apple fanboi), not because I have something against Adobe (I don’t), not because I have a vested interested in an alternative technology. I just think that mobile Flash isn’t going anywhere and that. Even on the desktop, I think Flash-free is the way to go. Never installed Flash on my desktop computer, since I bought it in July. I do run Chrome for the occasional Flash-only video. But Flash isn’t the only video format out there and I almost never come across interesting content which actually relies on something exclusive to Flash. Flash-based standalone apps (like Rdio and Machinarium) are a different issue as Flash was more of a development platform for them and they’re available as Flash-free apps on Apple’s own iOS.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple’s announcements had something to do with a platform for interactive content as an alternative to Adobe Flash. In fact, I’d be quite enthusiastic about that. Especially given Apple’s mobile emphasis. We might be getting further in “mobile computing for the rest of us”.

Part of this may be related to HTML5. I was quite enthusiastic when Tumult released its “Hype” HTML5-creation tool. I only used it to create an HTML5 version of my playfulness talk. But I enjoyed it and can see a lot of potential.

Especially in view of interactive content. It’s an old concept and there are many tools out there to create interactive content (from Apple’s own QuickTime to Microsoft PowerPoint). But the shift to interactive content has been slower than many people (including educational technologists) would have predicted. In other words, there’s still a lot to be done with interactive content. Especially if you think about multitouch-based mobile devices.

Which eventually brings me back to learning and teaching.

I don’t “teach naked”, I do use slides in class. In fact, my slides are mostly bullet points, something presentation specialists like to deride. Thing is, though, my slides aren’t really meant for presentation and, while they sure are “content”, I don’t really use them as such. Basically, I use them as a combination of cue cards, whiteboard, and coursenotes. Though I may sound defensive about this, I’m quite comfortable with my use of slides in the classroom.

Yet, I’ve been looking intently for other solutions.

For instance, I used to create outlines in OmniOutliner that I would then send to LaTeX to produce both slides and printable outlines (as PDFs). I’ve thought about using S5, but it doesn’t really fit in my workflow. So I end up creating Keynote files on my Mac, uploading them (as PowerPoint) before class, and using them in the classroom using my iPad. Not ideal, but rather convenient.

(Interestingly enough, the main thing I need to do today is create PowerPoint slides as ancillary material for a textbook.)

In all of these cases, the result isn’t really interactive. Sure, I could add buttons and interactive content to the slides. But the basic model is linear, not interactive. The reason I don’t feel bad about it is that my teaching is very interactive (the largest proportion of classtime is devoted to open discussions, even with 100-plus students). But I still wish I could have something more appropriate.

I have used other tools, especially whiteboarding and mindmapping ones. Basically, I elicit topics and themes from students and we discuss them in a semi-structured way. But flow remains an issue, both in terms of workflow and in terms of conversation flow.

So if Apple were to come up with tools making it easy to create interactive content, I might integrate them in my classroom work. A “killer feature” here is if interaction could be recorded during class and then uploaded as an interactive podcast (à la ProfCast).

Of course, content-creation tools might make a lot of sense outside the classroom. Not only could they help distribute the results of classroom interactions but they could help in creating learning material to be used ahead of class. These could include the aforementioned learning objects (like Mouse Party) as well as interactive quizzes (like Hot Potatoes) and even interactive textbooks (like Moglue) and educational apps (plenty of these in the App Store).

Which brings me back to textbooks, the alleged focus of this education event.

One of my main issues with textbooks, including online ones, is usability. I read pretty much everything online, including all the material for my courses (on my iPad) but I find CourseSmart and its ilk to be almost completely unusable. These online textbooks are, in my experience, much worse than scanned and OCRed versions of the same texts (in part because they don’t allow for offline access but also because they make navigation much more difficult than in GoodReader).

What I envision is an improvement over PDFs.

Part of the issue has to do with PDF itself. Despite all its benefits, Adobe’s “Portable Document Format” is the relic of a bygone era. Sure, it’s ubiquitous and can preserve formatting. It’s also easy to integrate in diverse tools. In fact, if I understand things correctly, PDF replaced Display PostScript as the basis for Quartz 2D, a core part of Mac OS X’s graphics rendering. But it doesn’t mean that it can’t be supplemented by something else.

Part of the improvement has to do with flexibility. Because of its emphasis on preserving print layouts, PDF tends to enforce print-based ideas. This is where EPUB is at a significant advantage. In a way, EPUB textbooks might be the first step away from the printed model.

From what I can gather, EPUB files are a bit like Web archives. Unlike PDFs, they can be reformatted at will, just like webpages can. In fact, iBooks and other EPUB readers (including Adobe’s, IIRC) allow for on-the-fly reformatting, which puts the reader in control of a much greater part of the reading experience. This is exactly the kind of thing publishers fail to grasp: readers, consumers, and users want more control on the experience. EPUB textbooks would thus be easier to read than PDFs.

EPUB is the basis for Apple’s iBooks and iBookstore and people seem to be assuming that Thursday’s announcement will be about iBooks. Makes sense and it’d be nice to see an improvement over iBooks. For one thing, it could support EPUB 3. There are conversion tools but, AFAICT, iBooks is stuck with EPUB 2.0. An advantage there is that EPUBs can possibly include scripts and interactivity. Which could make things quite interesting.

Interactive formats abound. In fact, PDFs can include some interactivity. But, as mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of room for improvement in interactive content. In part, creation tools could be “democratized”.

Which gets me thinking about recent discussions over the fate of HyperCard. While I understand John Gruber’s longstanding position, I find room for HyperCard-like tools. Like some others, I even had some hopes for ATX-based TileStack (an attempt to bring HyperCard stacks back to life, online). And I could see some HyperCard thinking in an alternative to both Flash and PDF.

“Huh?”, you ask?

Well, yes. It may sound strange but there’s something about HyperCard which could make sense in the longer term. Especially if we get away from the print model behind PDFs and the interaction model behind Flash. And learning objects might be the ideal context for this.

Part of this is about hyperlinking.  It’s no secret that HyperCard was among HTML precursors. As the part of HTML which we just take for granted, hyperlinking is among the most undervalued features of online content. Sure, we understand the value of sharing links on social networking systems. And there’s a lot to be said about bookmarking. In fact, I’ve been thinking about social bookmarking and I have a wishlist about sharing tools, somewhere. But I’m thinking about something much more basic: hyperlinking is one of the major differences between online and offline wriiting.

Think about the differences between, say, a Wikibook and a printed textbook. My guess is that most people would focus on the writing style, tone, copy-editing, breadth, reviewing process, etc. All of these are relevant. In fact, my sociology classes came up with variations on these as disadvantages of the Wikibook over printed textbooks. Prior to classroom discussion about these differences, however, I mentioned several advantages of the Wikibook:

  • Cover bases
  • Straightforward
  • Open Access
  • Editable
  • Linked

(Strangely enough, embedded content from iWork.com isn’t available and I can’t log into my iWork.com account. Maybe it has to do with Thursday’s announcement?)

That list of advantages is one I’ve been using since I started to use this Wikibook… excerpt for the last one. And this is one which hit me, recently, as being more important than the others.

So, in class, I talked about the value of links and it’s been on my mind quite a bit. Especially in view of textbooks. And critical thinking.

See, academic (and semi-academic) writing is based on references, citations, quotes. English-speaking academics are likely to be the people in the world of publishing who cite the most profusely. It’s not rare for a single paragraph of academic writing in English to contain ten citations or more, often stringed in parentheses (Smith 1999, 2005a, 2005b; Smith and Wesson 1943, 2010). And I’m not talking about Proust-style paragraphs either. I’m convinced that, with some quick searches, I could come up with a paragraph of academic writing which has less “narrative content” than citation.

Textbooks aren’t the most egregious example of what I’d consider over-citing. But they do rely on citations quite a bit. As I work more specifically on textbook content, I notice even more clearly the importance of citations. In fact, in my head, I started distinguishing some patterns in textbook content. For instance, there are sections which mostly contain direct explanations of key concepts while other sections focus on personal anecdotes from the authors or extended quotes from two sides of the debate. But one of the most obvious sections are summaries from key texts.

For instance (hypothetical example):

As Nora Smith explained in her 1968 study Coming Up with Something to Say, the concept of interpretation has a basis in cognition.

Smith (1968: 23) argued that Pierce’s interpretant had nothing to do with theatre.

These citations are less conspicuous than they’d be in peer-reviewed journals. But they’re a central part of textbook writing. One of their functions should be to allow readers (undergraduate students, mostly) to learn more about a topic. So, when a student wants to know more about Nora Smith’s reading of Pierce, she “just” have to locate Smith’s book, go to the right page, scan the text for the read for the name “Pierce”, and read the relevant paragraph. Nothing to it.

Compare this to, say, a blogpost. I only cite one text, here. But it’s linked instead of being merely cited. So readers can quickly know more about the context for what I’m discussing before going to the library.

Better yet, this other blogpost of mine is typical of what I’ve been calling a linkfest, a post containing a large number of links. Had I put citations instead of links, the “narrative” content of this post would be much less than the citations. Basically, the content was a list of contextualized links. Much textbook content is just like that.

In my experience, online textbooks are citation-heavy and take almost no benefit from linking. Oh, sure, some publisher may replace citations with links. But the result would still not be the same as writing meant for online reading because ex post facto link additions are quite different from link-enhanced writing. I’m not talking about technological determinism, here. I’m talking about appropriate tool use. Online texts can be quite different from printed ones and writing for an online context could benefit greatly from this difference.

In other words, I care less about what tools publishers are likely to use to create online textbooks than about a shift in the practice of online textbooks.

So, if Apple comes out with content-creation tools on Thursday (which sounds likely), here are some of my wishes:

  • Use of open standards like HTML5 and EPUB (possibly a combination of the two).
  • Completely cross-platform (should go without saying, but Apple’s track record isn’t that great, here).
  • Open Access.
  • Link library.
  • Voice support.
  • Mobile creation tools as powerful as desktop ones (more like GarageBand than like iWork).
  • HyperCard-style emphasis on hyperlinked structures (à la “mini-site” instead of web archives).
  • Focus on rich interaction (possibly based on the SproutCore web framework).
  • Replacement for iWeb (which is being killed along with MobileMe).
  • Ease creation of lecturecasts.
  • Deep integration with iTunes U.
  • Combination of document (à la Pages or Word), presentation (à la Keynote or PowerPoint), and standalone apps (à la The Elements or even Myst).
  • Full support for course management systems.
  • Integration of textbook material and ancillary material (including study guides, instructor manuals, testbanks, presentation files, interactive quizzes, glossaries, lesson plans, coursenotes, etc.).
  • Outlining support (more like OmniOutliner or even like OneNote than like Keynote or Pages).
  • Mindmapping support (unlikely, but would be cool).
  • Whiteboard support (both in-class and online).
  • Collaboration features (à la Adobe Connect).
  • Support for iCloud (almost a given, but it opens up interesting possibilities).
  • iWork integration (sounds likely, but still in my wishlist).
  • Embeddable content (à la iWork.com).
  • Stability, ease of use, and low-cost (i.e., not Adobe Flash or Acrobat).
  • Better support than Apple currently provides for podcast production and publishing.
  • More publisher support than for iBooks.
  • Geared toward normal users, including learners and educators.

The last three are probably where the problem lies. It’s likely that Apple has courted textbook publishers and may have convinced them that they should up their game with online textbooks. It’s clear to me that publishers risk to fall into oblivion if they don’t wake up to the potential of learning content. But I sure hope the announcement goes beyond an agreement with publishers.

Rumour has it that part of the announcement might have to do with bypassing state certification processes, in the US. That would be a big headline-grabber because the issue of state certification is something of wedge issue. Could be interesting, especially if it means free textbooks (though I sure hope they won’t be ad-supported). But that’s much less interesting than what could be done with learning content.

User-generated content” may be one of the core improvements in recent computing history, much of which is relevant for teaching. As fellow anthro Mike Wesch has said:

We’ll  need to rethink a few things…

And Wesch sure has been thinking about learning.

Problem is, publishers and “user-generated content” don’t go well together. I’m guessing that it’s part of the reason for Apple’s insufficient support for “user-generated content”. For better or worse, Apple primarily perceives its users as consumers. In some cases, Apple sides with consumers to make publishers change their tune. In other cases, it seems to be conspiring with publishers against consumers. But in most cases, Apple fails to see its core users as content producers. In the “collective mind of Apple”, the “quality content” that people should care about is produced by professionals. What normal users do isn’t really “content”. iTunes U isn’t an exception, those of us who give lectures aren’t Apple’s core users (even though the education market as a whole has traditionally being an important part of Apple’s business). The fact that Apple courts us underlines the notion that we, teachers and publishers (i.e. non-students), are the ones creating the content. In other words, Apple supports the old model of publishing along with the old model of education. Of course, they’re far from alone in this obsolete mindframe. But they happen to have several of the tools which could be useful in rethinking education.

Thursday’s events is likely to focus on textbooks. But much more is needed to shift the balance between publishers and learners. Including a major evolution in podcasting.

Podcasting is especially relevant, here. I’ve often thought about what Apple could do to enhance podcasting for learning. Way beyond iTunes U. Into something much more interactive. And I don’t just mean “interactive content” which can be manipulated seamless using multitouch gestures. I’m thinking about the back-and-forth of learning and teaching, the conversational model of interactivity which clearly distinguishes courses from mere content.

Open Letter: UnivCafé Testimonial

Here’s a slightly edited version of a message I sent about University of the Streets Café. I realize that my comments about it may sound strange for people who haven’t participated in one of their conversations. And there may be people who don’t like it as much as I do. But it’s remarkable how favourable people are to the program, once they participate in it.

Having taught at eight academic institutions in the United States and Canada, I have frequently gone on record to say that Concordia is my favourite context for teaching and learning. By a long stretch.

Concordia’s “University of the Streets Café” program is among the things I like the most about my favourite university.

Over the past few years, I have been a vocal participant at a rather large number of “UnivCafé” events and have been the guest at one of them. Each of these two-hour conversations has provided me with more stimulation than any seminar or class meeting in which I participated, as a teacher or as a student.

In fact, I have frequently discussed UnivCafé with diverse people (including several members of the Concordia community). As is clear to anyone who knows me, UnivCafé has had a strong impact on my life, both professionally and personally.

Given my experience elsewhere, I have a clear impression of what makes Concordia unique.

  • Emphasis on community development.
  • Strong social awareness.
  • Thoughtful approach to sustainability.
  • Seamless English/French bilingualism.
  • Inclusive attitude, embracing cultural and social diversity.
  • Ease of building organic social networks through informal events.

In a way, UnivCafé encapsulates Concordia’s uniqueness.

Yet it goes further than that. Though it may sound hyperbolic to outsiders, I would not hesitate to say that UnivCafé captures some of the Greek academia (Ἀκαδημία) while integrating dimensions of contemporary life. More pithily: ”UnivCafé is a social media version of Plato‘s Academy”.

It seems to me that academia is in a transition period. For instance, the tenure system could be rethought. With social and technological developments challenging many academic models, universities are often searching for new models. I sincerely hope that the UnivCafé model is a sign of things to come.

I have discussed this on several occasions with students and colleagues, and this notion is gaining ground.

There is something remarkable about how appropriate the UnivCafé model is, in the current context. To my mind, UnivCafé does all of the following:

  • Encourages critical thinking.
  • Gives voice to people who are rarely heard.
  • Exposes participants to a diversity of perspectives.
  • Brings together people who rarely get a chance to interact.
  • Integrates practical and theoretical concerns.
  • Allays fears of public speaking.
  • Builds valuable connections through the local community.
  • Brings academics outside the Ivory Tower.

As may be obvious, I could talk about UnivCafé for hours and would be happy to do so in any context.

In the meantime, may this testimonial serve as a token of appreciation for all the things I have gained from UnivCafé.

Speculating on Apple's Touch Strategy

This is mere speculation on my part, based on some rumours.

I’m quite sure that Apple will come up with a video-enabled iPod touch on September 9, along with iTunes 9 (which should have a few new “social networking” features). This part is pretty clear from most rumour sites.

AppleInsider | Sources: Apple to unveil new iPod lineup on September 9.

Progressively, Apple will be adopting a new approach to marketing its touch devices. Away from the “poorperson’s iPhone” and into the “tiny but capable computer” domain. Because the 9/9 event is supposed to be about music, one might guess that there will be a cool new feature or two relating to music. Maybe lyrics display, karaoke mode, or whatever else. Something which will simultaneously be added to the iPhone but would remind people that the iPod touch is part of the iPod family. Apple has already been marketing the iPod touch as a gaming platform, so it’s not a radical shift. But I’d say the strategy is to make Apple’s touch devices increasingly more attractive, without cannibalizing sales in the MacBook family.

Now, I really don’t expect Apple to even announce the so-called “Tablet Mac” in September. I’m not even that convinced that the other devices Apple is preparing for expansion of its touch devices lineup will be that close to the “tablet” idea. But it seems rather clear, to me, that Apple should eventually come up with other devices in this category. Many rumours point to the same basic notion, that Apple is getting something together which will have a bigger touchscreen than the iPhone or iPod touch. But it’s hard to tell how this device will fit, in the grand scheme of things.

It’s rather obvious that it won’t be a rebirth of the eMate the same way that the iPod touch wasn’t a rebirth of the MessagePad. But it would make some sense for Apple to target some educational/learning markets, again, with an easy-to-use device. And I’m not just saying this because the rumoured “Tablet Mac” makes me think about the XOXO. Besides, the iPod touch is already being marketed to educational markets through the yearly “Back to school” program which (surprise!) ends on the day before the September press conference.

I’ve been using an iPod touch (1st Generation) for more than a year, now, and I’ve been loving almost every minute of it. Most of the time, I don’t feel the need for a laptop, though I occasionally wish I could buy a cheap one, just for some longer writing sessions in cafés. In fact, a friend recently posted information about some Dell Latitude D600 laptops going for a very low price. That’d be enough for me at this point. Really, my iPod touch suffices for a lot of things.

Sadly, my iPod touch seems to have died, recently, after catching some moisture. If I can’t revive it and if the 2nd Generation iPod touch I bought through Kijiji never materializes, I might end up buying a 3rd Generation iPod touch on September 9, right before I start teaching again. If I can get my hands on a working iPod touch at a good price before that, I may save the money in preparation for an early 2010 release of a new touch device from Apple.

Not that I’m not looking at alternatives. But I’d rather use a device which shares enough with the iPod touch that I could migrate easily, synchronize with iTunes, and keep what I got from the App Store.

There’s a number of things I’d like to get from a new touch device. First among them is a better text entry/input method. Some of the others could be third-party apps and services. For instance, a full-featured sharing app. Or true podcast synchronization with media annotation support (à la Revver or Soundcloud). Or an elaborate, fully-integrated logbook with timestamps, Twitter support, and outlining. Or even a high-quality reference/bibliography manager (think RefWorks/Zotero/Endnote). But getting text into such a device without a hardware keyboard is the main challenge. I keep thinking about all sorts of methods, including MessagEase and Dasher as well as continuous speech recognition (dictation). Apple’s surely thinking about those issues. After all, they have some handwriting recognition systems that they aren’t really putting to any significant use.

Something else which would be quite useful is support for videoconferencing. Before the iPhone came out, I thought Apple may be coming out with iChat Mobile. Though a friend announced the iPhone to me by making reference to this, the position of the camera at the back of the device and the fact that the original iPhone’s camera only supported still pictures (with the official firmware) made this dream die out, for me. But a “Tablet Mac” with an iSight-like camera and some form of iChat would make a lot of sense, as a communication device. Especially since iChat already supports such things as screen-sharing and slides. Besides, if Apple does indeed move in the direction of some social networking features, a touch device with an expanded Address Book could take a whole new dimension through just a few small tweaks.

This last part I’m not so optimistic about. Apple may know that social networking is important, at this point in the game, but it seems to approach it with about the same heart as it approached online services with eWorld, .Mac, and MobileMe. Of course, they have the tools needed to make online services work in a “social networking” context. But it’s possible that their vision is clouded by their corporate culture and some remnants of the NIH problem.

Ah, well…

Teaching Models: A Response on "Teaching Naked"

Teaching Anthropology: Teaching Naked: Another one of those nothing new here movements.

[Had to split my response into several comments because of Blogger's character limit. Thought I might as well post it here.]

Thanks for the ping. No problem about the way you do it. In fact, feel free to use my name. I use “Informal Ethnographer” accounts for social media stuff having to do with ethnographic disciplines, but this is more about pedagogy.

The main thing I noticed about this piece is that the author transforms an interesting and potentially insightful story about problems facing a large number of academic institutions “going forward” into one of those sterile debates about the causal relationships between technology and learning.

Apart from all those things we’ve discussed about teaching method (including the fact that I still use the boring PPT-lecture on occasion), there’s a lot of room for discussion about the “educational industry” not getting a hint from the recording and journalism industries. Because we’re academics, it’s great to deconstruct the technological determinism embedded in many of these discussions. But there’s also something rather pressing in terms of social change: the World in which we live is significantly different from the one in which we were born, when it comes to information. It relates to “information technology” but it goes way beyond tools.

And this is where I talk about surfing the wave instead of fighting it (or building windmills instead of shelters).

As I said elsewhere, I’ve only been teaching for ten years. When I started, in Fall 1999 at Indiana University Bloomington, it was both a baptism by fire and a culture shock. Many teachers complain about a “sense of entitlement” they get from their students, or about the consumer-based approach in academic institutions. There’s a number of discussion about average class size or students-to-teacher ratio. Some talk about a so-called “me generation.” Others moan about the fact that students bring laptops in class or that teachers are forced to use tools that they don’t want to use.

These are really not recent problems. However, they are different problems from the ones for which I was prepared.

I’d still say that they affect some institutions more than others (typically: prestigious universities in the United States). But they’re spreading throughout higher education.

Bowen perceives a specific problem: campus-based universities face competition from inexpensive and even free material online. As a dean, he wants to focus on the added value of campus experience, with a focus on the classroom as a context for discussion. It seems that he was hired precisely as an agent of change, just like some “mercurial CEOs” are hired when a corporation is in trouble.

The plan is relatively creative. Not so much in the restrictions on PPT use, but on the overall approach to differentiate his institution. It’s a marketing ploy, not a PR one.

As for the specifics of people’s concepts of “lecturing”… It seems that the mainstream notion about lecture is for a linear presentation with little or no interaction possible. Other teaching methods may involve some “lecturing,” but it seems that the core notion people are discussing is really this soliloquy mode of the teacher exposing ideas without input from the audience. One way to put it is that it’s a genre of performance, like a “stand-up” or an opera.

As a subgenre, “PowerPoint lectures” may deserve special consideration. As we all know, it’s quite possible to use PPT in ways which are creative, engaging, fun, deep, etc. But there are many <a href=”http://www.jstor.org/pss/674535″>keys</a> to the “PowerPoint lecture” frame. One is the use of some kind of  “visual aid.” Another is the use of different slides as key timeposts in the performance. Or we could think about the fact that control over the actual PPT file strengthens the role differentiation between “lecturer” and “audience.” Not to mention the fact that it’s quite difficult to use PPT slides when everyone is in a circle.

So, yes, I’m giving some credence to the notion that PPT is a significant part of the lecturing model people are discussing <em>ad nauseam</em>.

Much of these discussions may relate to the perception that this performance genre (what I would call “straight lecture” or «cours magistral») is dominant, at institutions of higher education. The preponderance of a given teaching style across a wide array of institutions, disciplines, and “levels” would merit careful assessment, but the perception is there. “People” (the general population of the United States, the <em>Chronicle</em>’s readership, English-speakers…?) get the impression that what teachers do is mostly: stand in front of a class to talk by themselves for significant amounts of time with, maybe, a few questions thrown in at the end. Some people say that such “lectures” may not be incredibly effective. But the notion is still there. You may call this a “straw man,” but it’s been built a while ago.

Now… There are many ways to go from this whole concept of “straight lecturing.” One is the so-called “switcharound”: you go from lecturing (as a mode) to discussion or to group activities (as distinct modes). The notion, there, is apparently about the fact that “studies have shown” that, at this point in time, English-speaking students in the United States can’t concentrate for more than 20 minutes at the time. Or some such.

I reacted quite strongly when I heard this. For several reasons, including my personal experience of paying attention during class meetings lasting seven hours or more, some of which involving very limited interaction. I also reacted because I found the 50 minute period very constraining. And I always react to the “studies have shown” stance, that I find deeply problematic at an epistemological level. Is this really how we gain knowledge?

But I digress…

Another way to avoid “straight lectures” is to make lecturing itself more interactive. Many people have been doing this for a while. Chances are, it was done by a number of people during the 19th Century, as the “modern classroom” was invented. It can be remarkably effective and it seems to be quite underrated. An important thing to note: it’s significantly different from what people have in mind, when they talk about “lecturing.” In fact, in a workshop I attended, the simple fact that a teacher was moving around the classroom as he was teaching has been used as an example of an alternative to lecturing. Seems to me that most teachers do something like this. But it’s useful to think about the implications of using such “alternative methods.” Personally, though I frequently think about those methods and I certainly respect those who use them, I don’t tend to focus so much on this. I do use “alternative lecturing methods” like these, on occasion but, when I lecture, I tend to adopt the classical approach.

Common alternatives to lecturing, mentioned in the CHE piece, include “seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions,” These all tend to be quite difficult to do in the… “lecture” hall. Even with smaller classes, a large room may be an obstacle. Though it’s not impossible to have, say, group discussions in an auditorium, few of us really end up doing it on a regular basis. I’m “guilty” of that: I have much less small-group discussions in rooms in which desks can’t be moved.

As for seminars, it’s clearly my favourite teaching mode/method and I tend to extend the concept too much. Though I tend to be critical of those rigid “factors” like class size, I keep bumping into a limit to seminar size and I run into major hurdles when I try to get more than 25 students working in a seminar mode.

We could also talk about distance education as an alternative to lecturing, though much of it has tended to be lecture-based. Distance education is interesting in many respects. While it’s really not new, it seems like it has been expanding a lot in the fairly recent past. Regardless of the number of people getting degrees through distance learning, it mostly seems that the concept has become much more accepted by the general population (in English-speaking contexts, at least) and some programmes in distance learning seem to be getting more “cred” than ever before. I don’t want to overstate this expansion but it’s interesting to think about the possible connections with social change. Telecommuting, students working full-time, combining studying with childcare, homestudy, rising tuition costs, customer-based approaches to education, the “me generation,” the ease of transmitting complex data online, etc.

Even when distance learners have to watch lectures, distance education can be conceived as an alternative to the “straight lecture.” Practical details such as scheduling aren’t insignificant, but there are more profound implications to the fact that lectures aren’t “delivered in a lecture hall.” To go back to the performance genre, there’s a difference between a drama piece and a movie. Both can be good, but they have very different implications.

My implication with distance learning has to do with online learning. Last summer, I began teaching sociology to nursing students in Texas. From Montreal. I had been thinking about online teaching for a while and I’ve always had an online component to my courses. But last year was the first time I was able to teach a course without ever meeting those students.

My impression is that the rise of online education was the main thing Bowen had in mind. He clearly seems to think that this rise will only continue and that it may threaten campus-based institutions if they don’t do anything about it. The part which is surprising about his approach is that he actually advocates blended learning. Though we may disagree with Bowen on several points, it’d be difficult to compare him to an ostrich.

All of these approaches and methods have been known for a while. They all have their own advantages and they all help raise different issues. But they’ve been tested rather extensively by generation upon generation of teachers.

The focus, today, seems to be on a new set of approaches. Most of them have direct ties to well-established teaching models like seminars and distance education. So, they’re not really “new.” Yet they combine different things in such a way that they clearly require experimentation. We can hail them as “the future” or dismiss them as “trendy,” but they still afford some consideration as avenues for experimentation.

Many of them can be subsumed under the umbrella term “blended learning.” That term can mean different things to different people and some use it as a kind of buzzword. Analytically, it’s still a useful term.

Nellie Muller Deutsch is among those people who are currently doing PhD research on blended learning. We’ve had a number of discussions through diverse online groups devoted to learning and teaching. It’s possible that my thinking has been influenced by Nellie, but I was already interested in those topics long before interacting with her.

“Blended learning” implies some combinaison of classroom and online interactions between learners and teachers. The specific degree of “blending” varies a lot between contexts, but the basic concept remains. One might even argue that any educational context is blended, nowadays, since most teachers end up responding to at least “a few emails” (!) every semester. But the extensible concept of the “blended campus” easily goes beyond those direct exchanges.

What does this have to do with lectures? A lot, actually. Especially for those who have in mind a “monolithic” model for lecture-based courses, often forgetting (as many students do!) the role of office hours and other activities outside of the classroom.

Just as it’s possible but difficult to do a seminar in a lecture hall, it’s possible but difficult to do “straight lecture” in blended learning. Those professors and adjuncts who want to have as little interactions with students as possible may end up complaining about the amount of email they receive. In a sense, they’re “victims” of the move to a blended environment. One of the most convincing ideas I’ve heard in a teaching workshop was about moving email exchanges with individual students to forums, so that everyone can more effectively manage the channels of communication. Remarkably simple and compatible with many teaching styles. And a very reasonable use of online tools.

Bowen was advocating a very specific model for blended learning: students work with required readings on their own (presumably, using coursepacks and textbooks), read/watch/listen to lecture material online, and convene in the classroom to work with the material. His technique for making sure that students don’t “skip class” (which seems important in the United States, for some reason) is to give multiple-choice quizzes. Apart from justifying presence on campus (in the competition with distance learning), Bowen’s main point is about spending as much face-to-face time as possible in discussions. It’s not really an alternative to lectures if there are lectures online, but it’s a clear shift in focus from the “straight lecture” model. Fairly creative and it’s certainly worth some experimentation. But it’s only one among many possible approaches.

At least for the past few years, I’ve been posting material online both after and ahead of class meetings. I did notice a slight decrease in attendance, but that tends to matter very little for me. I also notice that many students tend to be more reluctant to go online to do things for my courses than one would expect from most of the discussions at an abstract level. But it’s still giving me a lot, including in terms of not having to rehash the same material over and over again (and again, <em>ad nauseam</em>).

I wouldn’t really call my approach “blended learning” because, in most of my upper-level courses at least, there’s still fairly little interaction happening online. But I do my part to experiment with diverse methods and approaches.

So…

None of this is meant to be about evaluating different approaches to teaching. I’m really not saying that my approach is better than anybody else’s. But I will say that it’s an appropriate fit with my perspective on learning as well as with my activities outside of the classroom. In other words, it’s not because I’m a geek that I expect anybody else to become a geek. I do, however, ask others to accept me as a geek.

And, Pamthropologist, you provided on my blog some context for several of the comments you’ve been making about lecturing. I certainly respect you and I think I understand what’s going on. In fact, I get the impression that you’re very effective at teaching anthropology and I wish your award-winning blog entry also carried an award for teaching. The one thing I find most useful, in all of this, is that you do discuss those issues. IMHO, the most important thing isn’t to find what the best model is but to discuss learning and teaching in a thoughtful manner so that everyone gets a voice. The fact that one of the most recent comments on your blog comes from a student in the Philippines speaks volumes about your openness.