Why am I hear again?

I’ve been spending a lot time looking at stuff online lately that is “new” to me both in terms of how it is delivered (blogs, wikis, other social software) and the topics it is covering (bots, online communities, innovative educational uses of technology). The experience has been exciting. It has also been scary.

What’s scary about it is how hard it is to keep it all in my head. Quite frankly (and not to be trite), the internet is an overwhelming place. At the same time that I find myself stumbling on a new idea or a new take on an old idea, I can feel my brain resisting. My mind is saying “Okay, how do I integrate this new concept into what I already knew? Where do I file it? How do I recall it? What real connection can I forge right at this moment to make this concept more real, more easily recognizable, and more likely to inform my future conversations (both with others and myself)?” The whole experience often makes me want to turn off the computer and watch reality television. And I hate reality TV!

Occasionally, however, I’ve come across an article, a blog post, or a Web page that just solidifies something for me. That’s what happened when I came across Sue Thomas’ Walter Ong and the problem of writing about LambdaMOO at trAce.

The title of the article caught my eye at a post on Many 2 Many (a blog on social software that I had bookmarked weeks ago and just got back to visiting today). The reason the article caught my eye is because it mentioned Walter Ong. Walter Ong was familiar to me because a long time ago, in a different context, before I even knew what the internet really was, I read Ong’s Orality and Literacy for a paper I was writing on Chaucer. I loved Ong’s book and his ideas. For years I’ve been holding on to Ong’s comparisons of oral and literate societies in the back of my head; his descriptions of how the shift between these two communicative channels fundamentally altered how humans interact with each other and the world around them has always resonated with me. And probably the single most important idea that got me to “drop” a career in teaching, law, or conservation and instead pursue instructional technology was my fundamental belief that technology–and not just technology but the kind of communication that the internet was heralding–was going to cause the same kind of incredible, fundamental shift in human psychology and society. I mean, it was going to change the world, people! And I wanted to be a part of it.

It has been a while since I was inspired to embark on this path for those idealistic reasons. And in the meantime, I’ve gotten to see the mundane side of technology and education. I’ve seen the horrors of maintaining technology in an educational setting. I’ve seen the difficulties in finding great tools and then finding money to buy them and support them. I’ve worked on the “dark side” and seen the challenges of working as an administrator where you constantly have to balance the practical with the achievable with the desirable. And, quite frankly, I started to wonder if:

  1. the great “shift” was ever going to happen, and
  2. was I going to be too old to appreciate it (or understand it) when it finally occurred?

Well thank you to Sue Thomas for putting this all back in perspective. Her article deals with writing about LambdaMoo, a text based virtual community where people can interact, explore, and “live” online. But her conclusion that “LambdaMOO and places like them are unique in that although their sole method of communication is textual, the communication that actually takes place there is oral,” seems to me to apply to many online communities in general. In fact, it illuminated an experience I had earlier this year when I “virtually” participated in a discussion at Educause. A recap of that strange and unexpected event can be found on Gardner Campbell’s blog.

During a post-mortem about the experience, a few participants were debating how best to “share” it with others–much like Thomas mulls over how to share the experience of LambdaMOO with those who have never experienced it. And, I think her application of Ong’s description of oral culture describes our challenge as well: “MOO life happens, as Ong describes of a real-life oral community, ‘as it really comes into being and exists, embedded in the flow of time.’Its characteristics are therefore those of a group which shares physical space and human experience, and it is equally fractured and transient.”

Thomas’ interest revolves around the interaction between fiction and this new medium. However, I think her idea that the kind of communication that occurs in these spaces is a hybrid oral-literate communication is applicable and valuable for our own epxeriments with creating online communities for the purposes of teaching and learning. What happens when communication that “feels” oral to the participant is recorded and “psychologically locked” (Ong’s phrase, not mine) by technology? How does this alter how we use the medium? How does this alter what we take away from the experience?

I don’t have an answer to those questions, but I’m excited about starting to think about them in this new way.

(I should also mention that Nancy White, the original blogger at Many 2 Many whose post brought me to Thomas’ article also has some great insight into the issues Thomas raises. I’d go on, but I feel that I’ve gone on long enough at this point. For now.)

So Thomas’ essay resonated with me because of a specific experience I recently had, but, perhaps more importantly, her words reminded me of why I’m doing this in the first place. And, finally, she helped me to capture a feeling that I’ve always relished: that my life continues to come back around in circles. Ideas that inspired me as a 20-year old undergrad can still inspire me now, and, hopefully, ten years from now will come back to haunt me again, in new and unimaginable ways.

Contrarian finding: Computers are a drag on learning (CS Monitor)

The Christian Science Monitor ran this article yesterday on a new German study that suggests “too much exposure to computers might spell trouble for the developing mind.”

Among the conclusions discussed in the article is that performance in math and reading among students who have access to more than one computer at home is significantly diminished. Apparently, home computers “seem to serve mainly as devices for playing games.” And playing Halo and Call of Duty every night doesn’t improve reading comprehension and algebra skills. Shocking.

Okay, so the article grudgingly admits a “few exceptions.” Apparantly, “academic performance rose among those who routinely engaged in writing e-mail or running educational software.” Again, shocking. Students who play games on home computers realize no educational benefits, while those who regularly use the computers to write and explore educational software excel. Um, isn’t this a no-brainer?

I’m also sort of uncomfortable with something that rarely seems to get discussed in this kind of article. Isn’t it hard to measure educational performance? Isn’t this measurement something that is debated regularly, aside from the issues of technology in the classroom? Is it possible that since we’re now relying on a new tool for teaching, we need to be evaluating and assessing student success differently? Why do we assume that the old paradigms of measurement work when we’ve changed the vehicle for delivery and communication of information?

I should admit my own personal bias: I think measurement of educational success is a loaded issue. I have a healthy skepticism of any standardized test, and I balk at sentences like “those who used [computers] several times per week at school saw their academic performance decline significantly as well.” How did they measure this decline of “academic performance?” Is it possible that if they had measured or tested for something else–some new kind of intelligence or skill that computers encourage–they might have gotten different, positive results?

Finally, the article mentions that these are the kind of results that the Waldorf schools love to hear. For those of you unfamiliar with the Waldorf system, these schools to not expose their students to computers until the 11th grade. I’m sorry, but (in my personal opinion) this is dumb. Like it or not, computers are here to stay. They are a necessary and undeniable part of our culture. Their presence in our lives will only continue to grow. Let me say that another way: Computers are not going away. Now, if the Waldorf schools think it’s beneficial to deny their students access to this integral part of their world, fine. But I feel sorry for those kids.

Frankly, I’m sick of the debate about whether or not computers are good or bad. Computer aren’t good or bad, they just are. And they are here to stay. Rather than bemoaning that fact and hiding our heads in the sand, why don’t we try to embrace them. Find ways to integrate them into our world so that they enhance our quality of life. Use them with wisdom and care. Accept the fact that they have changed our world forever, and as a result they have changed the way we think, learn, and interact with one another. Stop expecting to be able to interpret and control this new world based on how we used to live, and, instead, find ways to understand and accept where technology is taking us.

Okay. I’m done.

Google Does It Again. . .

Not to turn this blog into a Google love-fest, but their latest acquisition is pretty darn cool. Over the weekend, an annoucement showed up on the Google homepage that they’ve acquired Keyhole, a “3D digital earth pioneer.”

From Keyhole’s Web site:

Keyhole’s groundbreaking EarthStream™ technology combines advanced 3D graphics and network streaming innovations to produce a high performance system that runs on standard PC’s and commodity servers. Both high performance and intuitive to use, Keyhole’s solutions enable anyone to manipulate a rich map of the earth composed of imagery and feature information.

You can read more here.

Google hasn’t announced what it plans to do with Keyhole, but for the time being, you can download a free 7-day trial. It’s sort of GPS, satellite imagery, and cool 3D rendering all rolled into one.

Of course, what really hooked me is that one of the high-resolution cities available is Missoula. Sigh. I can’t hike the M anymore, but it’s still nice to do a virtual fly-by.

A Very Special Google

Just read an article at The New York Times about a new Google search:


From the Times article:

Google Scholar, which was scheduled to go online Wednesday evening at scholar.google.com, is a result of the company’s collaboration with a number of scientific and academic publishers and is intended as a first stop for researchers looking for scholarly literature like peer-reviewed papers, books, abstracts and technical reports.

I haven’t had a chance to play with this new tool yet, but it looks like yet another interesting “take” on searching from Google.

The original Times article is at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/18/technology/18google.html.

Getting Control of Those Blogs. . .

Check out blogdigger. This service allows you to aggregate several RSS/Atom feeds into a single Web page from which you can then generate a new, compiled RSS feed (to be consumed anyway you choose).

I found this service while working on our DTLT community Web site where I had been consuming a feed for each of the blogs generated by each of the DTLT staff members. This wasn’t working very well because of the amount of space it took up on the page (particularly since it showed the most recent posts for each blog even if they were pretty old). What I really wanted was one feed that would compile the most recent posts from each of our blogs–enter blogdigger.

I can also see how you could use it to create a group of RSS feed that you could then access from any computer via the Web–and consume in any aggregator. Pretty cool.

Who Turned On the Lights?

One thing that I really wanted to experience before leaving Missoula was the Northern Lights. For two summers, I hoped that I would catch a glimpse of this amazing phenomenon. I know that it is possible to see them as far south as Virginia, but the occurences are rare and not nearly as dramatic as up north (or so I’m told).

So imagine my dissapointment when I checked out The Missoulian Web site yeserday and discovered that western Montana (and much of north-Northern America) has been bathed in these lights for the last few nights.

Take a look

Nothern Lights Over Missoula

Standards-Based Slideshows

For those of you who have never heard of him, Eric Meyer is a css god. And the latest css “breakthrough” I’ve discovered over on his site is A Simple Standards-Based Slide Show.

Basically, the “tool” provided is a slideshow template that you can use to create an XHTML file that (using css and javascript) will play a simple slideshow in a browser. Users don’t need PowerPoint or any plugin in order to view the slide.

So you might be thinking, “So what. I can output HTML files from PowerPoint and publish my slideshows that way.” But this slideshow is contained in a single XHTML file which can be easily printed and is totally accessible. And, of course, it is standards-compliant.

And don’t we all love standards?


Following a conversation that I virtually participated in at this year’s Educause, I am getting interested in the topic of bots. Rather than recap that conversation here, I’ll point you to other places where it has already been discussed and summarized:

So, the result of that experience is that I’m getting interested in the idea of bots as intelligent agents for teaching and learning. I’m starting to fish around in the literature and Web resources out there, and I’m coming away with a few early impressions. The best way to illustrate those it to point to a few online bots as examples. Here are two:

Jabberwacky reminds me of several bots that I’ve “chatted” with in recent days, and while other users leave comments that the conversations are amazing and unbelievably human, I find them sort of unsatisfying–I never forget that I’m talking to a computer and, frankly, the conversation isn’t very stimulating.

“Jack” on the other hand is downright spooky and, I think, pretty darn cool. His responses are cryptic, but they actually leave me with the sense that I’m conversing with a madman. They also seem to be leading me somewhere, although I’m not sure where. . .

In the end, I think this has to do with the two very different purposes these two different types of “bot” serve. Jabberwacky is simply meant to “chatter” with you. While it has built in intelligence (and you can, apparently, actually teach it things), the end result is sort of mindless, well, chatter. Jack on the other hand is meant to be the embodiment of a real person, with a real agenda and historical context. He can’t talk about everything (I’m sure his intelligence about 20th century movies is minimal), but he can respond to questions that are pertinent to his world in a real and nuanced way. I think he presents an interesting example of how we could create bots that bring a person (fictional or real) to “life” for students.

These are still initial impressions; I’ll post more as I make more friends.

tales of swimming upstream