Category Archives: writing style

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.

In Phase

Lissajous curve
Lissajous curve

Something which happens to me on a rather regular basis (and about which I blogged before) is that I’ll hear about something right after thinking about it. For instance, if I think about the fact that a given tool should exist, it may be announced right at that moment.

Hey, I was just thinking about this!

The effect is a bit strange but it’s quite easy to explain. It feels like a “premonition,” but it probably has more to do with “being in phase.” In some cases, it may also be that I heard about that something but hadn’t registered the information. I know it happens a lot and  it might not be too hard to trace back. But I prefer thinking about phase.

And, yes, I am thinking about phase difference in waves. Not in a very precise sense, but the image still works, for me. Especially with the Lissajous representation, as above.

See, I don’t particularly want to be “ahead of the curve” and I don’t particularly mind being “behind the curve.” But when I’m right “in the curve,” something interesting happens. I’m “in the now.”

I originally thought about being “in tune” and it could also be about “in sync” or even “matching impedances.” But I still like the waves analogy. Especially since, when two waves are in phase, they reinforce one another. As analogies go, it’s not only a beautiful one, but a powerful one. And, yes, I do think about my sweetheart.

One reason I like the concept of phase difference is that I think through sound. My first exposure to the concept comes from courses in musical acoustics, almost twenty years ago. It wasn’t the main thing I’d remember from the course and it’s not something I investigated at any point since. Like I keep telling students, some things hit you long after you’ve heard about it in a course. Lifelong learning and “landminds” are based on such elements, even tiny unimportant ones. Phase difference is one such thing.

And it’s no big deal, of course. It’s not like I spent days thinking about these concepts. But I’ve been feeling like writing, lately, and this is as good an opportunity as any.

The trigger for this particular thing is rather silly and is probably explained more accurately, come to think of it, by “unconsciously registering” something before consciously registering it.

Was having breakfast and started thinking about the importance of being environmentally responsible, the paradox of “consumption as freedom,” the consequences of some lifestyle choices including carfree living, etc. This stream of thought led me, not unexpectedly, to the perspectives on climate change, people’s perception of scientific evidence, and the so-called ClimateGate. I care a lot about critical thinking, regardless of whether or not I agree with a certain idea, so I think the email controversy shows the importance of transparency. So far, nothing unexpected. Within a couple of minutes, I had covered a few of the subjects du jour. And that’s what struck me, because right then, I (over)heard a radio host introduce a guest whose talk is titled:

What is the role of climate scientists in the climate change debate?

Obviously, Tremblay addressed ClimateGate quite directly. So my thoughts were “in phase” with Tremblay’s.

A few minutes prior to (over)hearing this introduction, I (over)heard a comment about topics of social conversations at different points in recent history. According to screenwriter Fabienne Larouche, issues covered in the first seasons of her “flagship” tv series are still at the forefront in Quebec society today, fourteen years later. So I was probably even more “in tune” with the notion of being “in phase.” Especially with my society.

I said “(over)heard” because I wasn’t really listening to that radio show. It was just playing in the background and I wasn’t paying much attention. I don’t tend to listen to live radio but I do listen to some radio recordings as podcasts. One reason I like doing so is that I can pay much closer attention to what I hear. Another is that I can listen to what I want when I feel like listen to it, which means that I can prepare myself for a heady topic or choose some tech-fluff to wind down after a course. There’s also the serendipity of listening to very disparate programmes in the same listening session, as if I were “turning the dial” after each show on a worldwide radio (I often switch between French and English and/or between European and North American sources). For a while now, I’ve been listening to podcasts at double-speed, which helps me focus on what’s most significant.

(In Jazz, we talk about “top notes,” meaning the ones which are more prominent. It’s easier to focus on them at double-speed than at normal speed so “double-times” have an interesting cognitive effect.)

So, I felt “in phase.” As mentioned, it probably has much more to do with having passively heard things without paying attention yet letting it “seep into my brain” to create connections between a few subjects which get me to the same point as what comes later. A large part of this is well-known in psychology, especially in terms of cognition. We start noticing things when they enter into a schema we have in our mind. These things we start noticing were there all along so the “discovery” is only in our mind (in the sense that it wouldn’t be a discovery for others). When we learn a new word, for instance, we start hearing it everywhere.

But there are also words which start being used by everyone because they have been diffused largely at a given point in time. An actual neologism can travel quickly and a word in our passive vocabulary can also come to prominence, especially in mainstream media. Clearly, this is an issue of interest to psychologists, folklorists, and media analysts alike. I’m enough of a folklorist and media observer to think about the social processes behind the diffusion of terms regardless of what psychologists think.

A few months back, I got the impression that the word “nimble” had suddenly increased in currency after it was used in a speech by the current PotUS. Since I’m a non-native speaker of English, I’m likely to be accused of noticing the word because it’s part my own passive vocabulary. I have examples in French, though some are with words which were new to me, at the time («peoplisation», «battante»…). I probably won’t be able to defend myself from those who say that it’s just a matter of my own exposure to those terms. Though there are ways to analyze the currency of a given term, I’m not sure I trust this type of analysis a lot more than my gut feeling, at least in terms of realtime trends.

Which makes me think of “memetics.” Not in the strict sense that Dawkins would like us to use. But in the way popular culture cares about the propagation of “units of thought.” I recently read a fascinating blogpost (in French) about  memetics from this perspective, playing Dawkins against himself. As coincidences keep happening (or, more accurately, as I’m accutely tuned to find coincidences everywhere), I’ve been having a discussion about Mahir‘s personal homepage (aka “I kiss you”), who became an “Internet celebrity” through this process which is now called memetic. The reason his page was noticed isn’t that it was so unique. But it had this je ne sais quoi which captured the imagination, at the time (the latter part of the “Dot-Com Bubble”). As some literary critics and many other humanists teach us, it’s not the item itself which counts, it’s how we receive it (yes, I tend to be on the “reception” and “eye of the beholder” side of things). Mahir was striking because he was, indeed, “out of phase” with the times.

As I think about phase, I keep hearing the other acoustic analogy: the tuning of sine waves. When a sine wave is very slightly “out of tune” with another, we hear a very slow oscillation (interference beats) until they produce resonance. There’s a direct relationship between beat tones and phase, but I think “in tune” and “in phase” remain separate analogies.

One reason I like to think about waves for these analogies is that I tend to perceive temporal change through these concepts. If we think of historical change through cycles, being “in phase” is a matter of matching two change processes until they’re aligned but the cycles may be in harmonic relationships. One can move twice as fast as society and still be “in phase” with it.

Sure, I’m overextending the analogies, and there’s something far-fetched about this. But that’s pretty much what I like about analogical thinking. As I’m under the weather, this kind of rambling is almost therapeutic.

Blogging and Literary Standards

I wrote the following comment in response to a conversation between novelist Rick Moody and podcasting pioneer Chris Lydon:

Open Source » Blog Archive » In the Obama Moment: Rick Moody.

In keeping with the RERO principle I describe in that comment, the version on the Open Source site is quite raw. As is my habit, these days, I pushed the “submit” button without rereading what I had written. This version is edited, partly because I noticed some glaring mistakes and partly because I wanted to add some links. (Blog comments are often tagged for moderation if they contain too many links.) As I started editing that comment, I changed a few things, some of which have consequences to the meaning of my comment. There’s this process, in both writing and editing, which “generates new thoughts.” Yet another argument for the RERO principle.

I can already think of an addendum to this post, revolving on my personal position on writing styles (informed by my own blogwriting experience) along with my relative lack of sensitivity for Anglo writing. But I’m still blogging this comment on a standalone basis.

Read on, please… Continue reading Blogging and Literary Standards

Blogging Academe

LibriVox founder and Montreal geek Hugh McGuire recently posted a blog entry in which he gave a series of nine arguments for academics to blog:

Why Academics Should Blog

Hugh’s post reminded me of one of my favourite blogposts by an academic, a pointed defence of blogging by Mark Liberman, of Language Log fame.
Raising standards –by lowering them

While I do agree with Hugh’s points, I would like to reframe and rephrase them.

Clearly, I’m enthusiastic about blogging. Not that I think every academic should, needs to, ought to blog. But I do see clear benefits of blogging in academic contexts.

Academics do a number of different things, from search committees to academic advising. Here, I focus on three main dimensions of an academic’s life: research, teaching, and community outreach. Other items in a professor’s job description may benefit from blogging but these three main components tend to be rather prominent in terms of PTR (promotion, tenure, reappointment). What’s more, blogging can help integrate these dimensions of academic life in a single set of activities.

Impact

In relation to scholarship, the term “impact” often refers to the measurable effects of a scholar’s publication through a specific field. “Citation impact,” for instance, refers to the number of times a given journal article has been cited by other scholars. This kind of measurement is directly linked to Google’s PageRank algorithm which is used to assess the relevance of their search results. The very concept of “citation impact” relates very directly to the “publish or perish” system which, I would argue, does more to increase stress levels among full-time academic than to enhance scholarship. As such, it may need some rethinking. What does “citation impact” really measure? Is the most frequently cited text on a given subject necessarily the most relevant? Isn’t there a clustering effect, with some small groups of well-known scholars citing one another without paying attention to whatever else may happen in their field, especially in other languages?

An advantage of blogging is that this type of impact is easy to monitor. Most blogging platforms have specific features for “statistics,” which let bloggers see which of their posts have been visited (“hit”) most frequently. More sophisticated analysis is available on some blogging platforms, especially on paid ones. These are meant to help bloggers monetize their blogs through advertising. But the same features can be quite useful to an academic who wants to see which blog entries seem to attract the most traffic.

Closer to “citation impact” is the fact that links to a given post are visible within that post through the ping and trackback systems. If another blogger links to this very blogpost, a link to that second blogger’s post will appear under mine as a link. In other words, a blogpost can embed future references.

In terms of teaching, thinking about impact through blogging can also have interesting effects. If students are blogging, they can cite and link to diverse items and these connections can serve as a representation of the constructive character of learning. But even if students don’t blog, a teacher blogging course-related material can increase the visibility of that course. In some cases, this visibility may lead to inter-institutional collaboration or increased enrollment.

Transparency

While secrecy may be essential in some academic projects, most academics tend to adopt a favourable attitude toward transparency. Academia is about sharing information and spreading knowledge, not about protecting information or about limiting knowledge to a select few.

Bloggers typically value transparency.

There are several ethical issues which relate to transparency. Some ethical principles prevent transparency (for instance, most research projects involving “human subjects” require anonymity). But academic ethics typically go with increased transparency on the part of the researcher. For instance, informed consent by a “human subject” requires complete disclosure of how the data will be used and protected. There are usually requirements for the primary investigator to be reachable during the research project.

Transparency is also valuable in teaching. While some things should probably remain secret (say, answers to exam questions), easy access to a number of documents makes a lot of sense in learning contexts.

Public Intellectuals

It seems that the term “intellectual” gained currency as a label for individuals engaged in public debates. While public engagement has taken a different type of significance, over the years, but the responsibility for intellectuals to communicate publicly is still a matter of interest.

Through blogging, anyone can engage in public debate, discourse, or dialogue.

Reciprocity

Scholars working with “human subjects” often think about reciprocity. While remuneration may be the primary mode of retribution for participation in a research project, a broader concept of reciprocity is often at stake. Those who participated in the project usually have a “right to know” about the results of that study. Even when it isn’t the case and the results of the study remain secret, the asymmetry of human subjects revealing something about themselves to scholars who reveal nothing seems to clash with fundamental principles in contemporary academia.

Reciprocity in teaching can lead directly to some important constructivist principles. The roles of learners and teachers, while not completely interchangeable, are reciprocal. A teacher may learn and a learner may teach.

Playing with Concepts

Blogging makes it easy to try concepts out. More than “thinking out loud,” the type of blogging activity I’m thinking about can serve as a way to “put ideas on paper” (without actual paper) and eventually get feedback on those ideas.

In my experience, microblogging (Identi.ca, Twitter…) has been more efficient than extended blogging in terms of getting conceptual feedback. In fact, social networks (Facebook, more specifically) have been even more conducive to hashing out concepts.

Many academics do hash concepts out with students, especially with graduate students. The advantage is that students are likely to understand concepts quickly as they already share some of the same references as the academic who is playing with those concepts. There’s already a context for mutual understanding. The disadvantage is that a classroom context is fairly narrow to really try out the implications of a concept.

A method I like to use is to use fairly catchy phrases and leave concepts fairly raw, at first. I then try the same concept in diverse contexts, on my blogs or off.

The main example I have in mind is the “social butterfly effect.” It may sound silly at first but I find it can be a basis for discussion, especially if it spreads a bit.

A subpoint, here, is that this method allows for “gauging interest” in new concepts and it can often lead one in completely new directions. By blogging about concepts, an academic can tell if this concept has a chance to stick in a broad frame (outside the Ivory Tower) and may be given insight from outside disciplines.

Playing with Writing

This one probably applies more to “junior academics” (including students) but it can also work with established academics who enjoy diversifying their writing styles. Simply put: blogwriting is writing practise.

A common idea, in cognitive research on expertise, is that it takes about ten thousand hours to become an expert. For better or worse, academics are experts at writing. And we gain that expertise through practise. In this context, it’s easy to see blogging as a “writing exercise.” At least, that would be a perspective to which I can relate.

My impression is that writing skills are most efficiently acquired through practise. The type of practise I have in mind is “low-stakes,” in the sense that the outcomes of a writing exercise are relatively inconsequential. The basis for this perspective is that self-consciousness, inhibition, and self-censorship tend to get in the way of fluid writing. High-stakes writing (such as graded assignments) can make a lot of sense at several stages in the learning process, but overemphasis on evaluating someone’s writing skills will likely stress out the writer more than make her/him motivated to write.

This impression is to a large extent personal. I readily notice that when I get too self-conscious about my own writing (self-unconscious, even), my writing becomes much less fluid. In fact, because writing about writing tends to make one self-conscious, my writing this post is much less efficient than my usual writing sessions.

In my mind, there’s a cognitive basis to this form of low-stakes, casual writing. As with language acquisition, learning occurs whether or not we’re corrected. According to most research in language acquisition, children acquire their native languages through exposure, not through a formal learning process. My guess is that the same apply to writing.

In some ways, this is a defence of drafts. “Draft out your ideas without overthinking what might be wrong about your writing.” Useful advice, at least in my experience. The further point is to do something with those drafts, the basis for the RERO principle: “release your text in the wild, even if it may not correspond to your standards.” Every text is a work in progress. Especially in a context where you’re likely to get feedback (i.e., blogging). Trial and error, with a feedback mechanism. In my experience, feedback on writing tends to be given in a thoughtful and subtle fashion while feedback on ideas can be quite harsh.

The notion of writing styles is relevant, here. Some of Hugh’s arguments about the need for blogging in academia revolve around the notion that “academics are bad writers.” My position is that academics are expert writers but that academic writing is a very specific beast. Hugh’s writing standards might clash with typical writing habits among academics (which often include neologisms and convoluted metaphors). Are Hugh’s standards appropriate in terms of academic writing? Possibly, but why then are academic texts rating so low on writing standards after having been reviewed by peers and heavily edited? The relativist’s answer is, to me, much more convincing: academic texts are typically judged through standards which are context-specific. Judging academic writing with outside standards is like judging French writing with English standards (or judging prose through the standards of classic poetry).

Still, there’s something to be said about readability. Especially when these texts are to be used outside academia. Much academic writing is meant to remain within the walls of the Ivory Tower yet most academic disciplines benefit from some interaction with “the general public.” Though it may not be taught in universities and colleges, the skill of writing for a broader public is quite valuable. In fact, it may easily be transferable to teaching, especially if students come from other disciplines. Furthermore, writing outside one’s discipline is required in any type of interdisciplinary context, including project proposals for funding agencies.

No specific writing style is implied in blogging. A blogger can use whatever style she/he chooses for her/his posts. At the same time, blogging tends to encourage writing which is broadly readable and makes regular use of hyperlinks to connect to further information. In my opinion, this type of writing is a quite appropriate one in which academics can extend their skills.

“Public Review”

Much of the preceding connects with peer review, which was the basis of Mark Liberman’s post.

In academia’s recent history, “peer reviewed publications” have become the hallmark of scholarly writing. Yet, as Steve McIntyre claims, the current state of academic peer review may not be as efficient at ensuring scholarly quality as its proponents claim it to be. As opposed to financial auditing, for instance, peer review implies very limited assessment based on data. And I would add that the very notion of “peer” could be assessed more carefully in such a context.

Overall, peer review seems to be relatively inefficient as a “reality check.” This might sound like a bold claim and I should provide data to support it. But I mostly want to provoke some thought as to what the peer review process really implies. This is not about reinventing the wheel but it is about making sure we question assumptions about the process.

Blogging implies public scrutiny. This directly relates to transparency, discussed above. But there is also the notion of giving the public the chance to engage with the outcomes of academic research. Sure, the general public sounds like a dangerous place to propose some ideas (especially if they have to do with health or national security). But we may give some thought to Linus’s law and think about the value of “crowdsourcing” academic falsification.

Food for Thought

There’s a lot more I want to add but I should heed my call to RERO. Otherwise, this post will remain in my draft posts for an indefinite period of time, gathering dust and not allowing any timely discussion. Perhaps more than at any other point, I would be grateful for any thoughtful comment about academic blogging.

In fact, I will post this blog entry “as is,” without careful proofreading. Hopefully, it will be the start of a discussion.

I will “send you off” with a few links related to blogging in academic contexts, followed by Hugh’s list of arguments.

Links on Academic Blogging

(With an Anthropological emphasis)

Hugh’s List

  1. You need to improve your writing
  2. Some of your ideas are dumb
  3. The point of academia is to expand knowledge
  4. Blogging expands your readership
  5. Blogging protects and promotes your ideas
  6. Blogging is Reputation
  7. Linking is better than footnotes
  8. Journals and blogs can (and should) coexist
  9. What have journals done for you lately?

Apologies and Social Media: A Follow-Up on PRI's WTP

I did it! I did exactly what I’m usually trying to avoid. And I feel rather good about the outcome despite some potentially “ruffled feathers” («égos froissés»?).

While writing a post about PRI’s The World: Technology Podcast (WTP), I threw caution to the wind.

Why Is PRI’s The World Having Social Media Issues? « Disparate.

I rarely do that. In fact, while writing my post, I was getting an awkward feeling. Almost as if I were writing from a character’s perspective. Playing someone I’m not, with a voice which isn’t my own but that I can appropriate temporarily.

The early effects of my lack of caution took a little bit of time to set in and they were rather negative. What’s funny is that I naïvely took the earliest reaction as being rather positive but it was meant to be very negative. That in itself indicates a very beneficial development in my personal life. And I’m grateful to the person who helped me make this realization.

The person in question is Clark Boyd, someone I knew nothing about a few days ago and someone I’m now getting to know through both his own words and those of people who know about his work.

The power of social media.

And social media’s power is the main target of this, here, follow-up of mine.

 

As I clumsily tried to say in my previous post on WTP, I don’t really have a vested interest in the success or failure of that podcast. I discovered it (as a tech podcast) a few days ago and I do enjoy it. As I (also clumsily) said, I think WTP would rate fairly high on a scale of cultural awareness. To this ethnographer, cultural awareness is too rare a feature in any form of media.

During the latest WTP episode, Boyd discussed what he apparently describes as the mitigated success of his podcast’s embedding in social media and online social networking services. Primarily at stake was the status of the show’s Facebook group which apparently takes too much time to manage and hasn’t increased in membership. But Boyd also made some intriguing comments about other dimensions of the show’s online presence. (If the show were using a Creative Commons license, I’d reproduce these comments here.)

Though it wasn’t that explicit, I interpreted Boyd’s comments to imply that the show’s participants would probably welcome feedback. As giving feedback is an essential part of social media, I thought it appropriate to publish my own raw notes about what I perceived to be the main reasons behind the show’s alleged lack of success in social media spheres.

Let it be noted that, prior to hearing Boyd’s comments, I had no idea what WTP’s status was in terms of social media and social networks. After subscribing to the podcast, the only thing I knew about the show was from the content of those few podcast episodes. Because the show doesn’t go the “meta” route very often (“the show about the show”), my understanding of that podcast was, really, very limited.

My raw notes were set in a tone which is quite unusual for me. In a way, I was “trying it out.” The same tone is used by a lot of friends and acquaintances and, though I have little problem with the individuals who take this tone, I do react a bit negatively when I hear/see it used. For lack of a better term, I’d call it a “scoffing tone.” Not unrelated to the “curmudgeon phase” I described on the same day. But still a bit different. More personalized, in fact. This tone often sounds incredibly dismissive. Yet, when you discuss its target with people who used it, it seems to be “nothing more than a tone.” When people (or cats) use “EPIC FAIL!” as a response to someone’s troubles, they’re not really being mean. They merely use the conventions of a speech community.

Ok, I might be giving these people too much credit. But this tone is so prevalent online that I can’t assume these people have extremely bad intentions. Besides, I can understand the humour in schadenfreude. And I’d hate to use flat-out insults to describe such a large group of people. Even though I do kind of like the self-deprecation made possible by the fact that I adopted the same behaviour.

Whee!

 

So, the power of social media… The tone I’m referring to is common in social media, especially in replies, reactions, responses, comments, feedback. Though I react negatively to that tone, I’m getting to understand its power. At the very least, it makes people react. And it seems to be very straightforward (though I think it’s easily misconstrued). And this tone’s power is but one dimension of the power of social media.

 

Now, going back to the WTP situation.

After posting my raw notes about WTP’s social media issues, I went my merry way. At the back of my mind was this nagging suspicion that my tone would be misconstrued. But instead of taking measures to ensure that my post would have no negative impact (by changing the phrasing or by prefacing it with more tactful comments), I decided to leave it as is.

Is «Rien ne va plus, les jeux sont faits» a corrolary to the RERO mantra?

While I was writing my post, I added all the WTP-related items I could find to my lists: I joined WTP’s apparently-doomed Facebook group, I started following @worldstechpod on Twitter, I added two separate WTP-related blogs to my blogroll… Once I found out what WTP’s online presence was like, I did these few things that any social media fan usually does. “Giving the podcast some love” is the way some social media people might put it.

One interesting effect of my move is that somebody at WTP (probably Clark Boyd) apparently saw my Twitter add and (a few hours after the fact) reciprocated by following me on Twitter. Because I thought feedback about WTP’s social media presence had been requested, I took the opportunity to send a link to my blogpost about WTP with an extra comment about my tone.

To which the @worldstechpod twittername replied with:

@enkerli right, well you took your best shot at me, I’ll give you that. thanks a million. and no, your tone wasn’t “miscontrued” at all.

Call me “naïve” but I interpreted this positively and I even expressed relief.

Turns out, my interpretation was wrong as this is what WTP replied:

@enkerli well, it’s a perfect tone for trashing someone else’s work. thanks.

I may be naïve but I did understand that the last “thanks” was meant as sarcasm. Took me a while but I got it. And I reinterpreted WTP’s previous tweet as sarcastic as well.

Now, if I had read more of WTP’s tweets, I would have understood the “WTP online persona.”  For instance, here’s the tweet announcing the latest WTP episode:

WTP 209 — yet another exercise in utter futility! hurrah! — http://ping.fm/QjkDX

Not to mention this puzzling and decontextualized tweet:

and you make me look like an idiot. thanks!

Had I paid attention to the @worldstechpod archive, I would even have been able to predict how my blogpost would be interpreted. Especially given this tweet:

OK. Somebody school me. Why can I get no love for the WTP on Facebook?

Had I noticed that request, I would have realized that my blogpost would most likely be interpreted as an attempt at “schooling” somebody at WTP. I would have also realized that tweets on the WTP account on Twitter were written by a single individual. Knowing myself, despite my attempt at throwing caution to the wind, I probably would have refrained from posting my WTP comments or, at the very least, I would have rephrased the whole thing.

I’m still glad I didn’t.

Yes, I (unwittingly) “touched a nerve.” Yes, I apparently angered someone I’ve never met (and there’s literally nothing I hate more than angering someone). But I still think the whole situation is leading to something beneficial.

Here’s why…

After that sarcastic tweet about my blogpost, Clark Boyd (because it’s now clear he’s the one tweeting @worldstechpod) sent the following request through Twitter:

rebuttal, anyone? i can’t do it without getting fired. — http://ping.fm/o71wL

The first effect of this request was soon felt right here on my blog. That reaction was, IMHO, based on a misinterpretation of my words. In terms of social media, this kind of reaction is “fair game.” Or, to use a social media phrase: “it’s alll good.”

I hadn’t noticed Boyd’s request for rebuttal. I was assuming that there was a connection between somebody at the show and the fact that this first comment appeared on my blog, but I thought it was less direct than this. Now, it’s possible that there wasn’t any connection between that first “rebuttal” and Clark Boyd’s request through Twitter. But the simplest explanation seems to me to be that the blog comment was a direct result of Clark Boyd’s tweet.

After that initial blog rebuttal, I received two other blog comments which I consider more thoughtful and useful than the earliest one (thanks to the time delay?). The second comment on my post was from a podcaster (Brad P. from N.J.), but it was flagged for moderation because of the links it contained. It’s a bit unfortunate that I didn’t see this comment on time because it probably would have made me understand the situation a lot more quickly.

In his comment, Brad P. gives some context for Clark Boyd’s podcast. What I thought was the work of a small but efficient team of producers and journalists hired by a major media corporation to collaborate with a wider public (à la Search Engine Season I) now sounds more like the labour of love from an individual journalist with limited support from a cerberus-like major media institution. I may still be off, but my original impression was “wronger” than this second one.

The other blog comment, from Dutch blogger and Twitter @Niels, was chronologically the one which first made me realize what was wrong with my post. Niels’s comment is a very effective mix of thoughtful support for some of my points and thoughtful criticism of my post’s tone. Nice job! It actually worked in showing me the error of my ways.

All this to say that I apologise to Mr. Clark Boyd for the harshness of my comments about his show? Not really. I already apologised publicly. And I’ve praised Boyd for both his use of Facebook and of Twitter.

What is it, then?

Well, this post is a way for me to reflect on the power of social media. Boyd talked about social media and online social networks. I’ve used social media (my main blog) to comment on the presence of Boyd’s show in social media and social networking services. Boyd then used social media (Twitter) to not only respond to me but to launch a “rebuttal campaign” about my post. He also made changes to his show’s online presence on a social network (Facebook) and used social media (Twitter) to advertise this change. And I’ve been using social media (Twitter and this blog) to reflect on social media (the “meta” aspect is quite common), find out more about a tricky situation (Twitter), and “spread the word” about PRI’s The World: Technology Podcast (Facebook, blogroll, Twitter).

Sure, I got some egg on my face, some feathers have been ruffled, and Clark Boyd might consider me a jerk.

But, perhaps unfortunately, this is often the way social media works.

 

Heartfelt thanks to Clark Boyd for his help.

"To Be Verified": Trivia and Critical Thinking

A friend posted a link to the following list of factoids on his Facebook profile: Useless facts, Weird Information, humor. It contains such intriguing statements about biology, language, inventions, etc.

Similar lists abound, often containing the same tidbits:

Several neat pieces of trivial information. Not exactly “useless.” But gratuitous and irrelevant. The type of thing you may wish to plug in a conversation. Especially at the proverbial “cocktail party.” This is, after all, an appropriate context for attention economy. But these lists are also useful as preparation for game shows and barroom competitions. The stuff of erudition.

One of my first reflexes, when I see such lists of trivia online, is to look for ways to evaluate their accuracy. This is partly due to my training in folkloristics, as “netlore” is a prolific medium for verbal folklore (folk beliefs, rumors, urban legends, myths, and jokes). My reflex is also, I think, a common reaction among academics. After all, the detective work of critical thinking is pretty much our “bread and butter.” Sure, we can become bothersome with this. “Don’t be a bore, it’s just trivia.” But many of us may react from a fear of such “trivial” thinking preventing more careful consideration.

An obvious place to start verifying these tidbits is Snopes. In fact, they do debunk several of the statements made in those lists. For instance, the one about an alleged Donald Duck “ban” in Finland found in the list my friend shared through Facebook. Unfortunately, however, many factoids are absent from Snopes, despite that site’s extensive database.

These specific trivia lists are quite interesting. They include some statements which are easy to verify. For instance, the product of two numbers. (However, many calculators are insufficiently precise for the specific example used in those factoid lists.) The ease with which one can verify the accuracy of some statements brings an air of legitimacy to the list in which those easily verified statements are included. The apparent truth-value of those statements is such that a complete list can be perceived as being on unshakable foundations. For full effectiveness, the easily verified statements should not be common knowledge. “Did you know? Two plus two equals four.”

Other statements appear to be based on hypothesis. The plausibility of such statements may be relatively difficult to assess for anyone not familiar with research in that specific field. For instance, the statement about typical life expectancy of currently living humans compared to individual longevity. At first sight, it does seem plausible that today’s extreme longevity would only benefit extremely few individuals in the future. Yet my guess is that those who do research on aging may rebut the statement that “Only one person in two billion will live to be 116 or older.” Because such statements require special training, their effect is a weaker version of the legitimizing effect of easily verifiable statements.

Some of the most difficult statements to assess are the ones which contain quantifiers, especially those for uniqueness. There may, in fact, be “only one” fish which can blink with both eyes. And it seems possible that the English language may include only one word ending in “-mt” (or, to avoid pedantic disclaimers, “only one common word”). To verify these claims, one would need to have access to an exhaustive catalog of fish species or English words. While the dream of “the Web as encyclopedia” may hinge on such claims of exhaustivity, there is a type of “black swan effect” related to the common fallacy about lack of evidence being considered sufficient evidence of lack.

I just noticed, while writing this post, a Google Answers page which not only evaluates the accuracy of several statements found in those trivia lists but also mentions ease of verifiability as a matter of interest. Critical thinking is active in many parts of the online world.

An obvious feature of those factoid lists, found online or in dead-tree print, is the lack of context. Even when those lists are concerned with a single topic (say, snails or sleep), they provide inadequate context for the information they contain. I’m using the term “context” rather loosely as it covers both the text’s internal relationships (the “immediate context,” if you will) and the broader references to the world at large. Without going into details about philosophy of language, these approaches clearly inform my perspective.

A typical academic, especially an English-speaking one, might put the context issue this way: “citation needed.” After all, the Wikipedia approach to truth is close to current academic practice (especially in English-speaking North America) with peer-review replacing audits. Even journalists are trained to cite sources, though they rarely help others apply critical thinking to those sources. In some ways, sources are conceived as the most efficient way to assess accuracy.

My own approach isn’t that far from the citation-happy one. Like most other academics, I’ve learned the value of an appropriate citation. Where I “beg to differ” is on the perceived “weight” of a citation as support. Through an awkward quirk of academic writing, some citation practices amount to fallacious appeal to authority. I’m probably overreacting about this but I’ve heard enough academics make statements equating citations with evidence that I tend to be weary of what I perceive to be excessive referencing. In fact, some of my most link-laden posts could be perceived as attempts to poke fun at citation-happy writing styles. One may even notice my extensive use of Wikipedia links. These are sometimes meant as inside jokes (to my own sorry self). Same thing with many of my blogging tags/categories, actually. Yes, blogging can be playful.

The broad concept is that, regardless of a source’s authority, critical thinking should be applied as much as possible. No more, no less.