Monthly Archives: December 2011

Plus Ça Change…

A slideshow project on the immutability of human transgression I helped put together with some amazing colleagues. As Rebekah succinctly pointed out, the idea was just to show how many of the problems we fear will result from increased technology in the classroom have been around forever.

A few brief reflections on the project:
1) When our group was brainstorming for examples of “tech misuse” in the past, the first few ideas I had were all about graffiti in Pompeii. I think my first instinct is always to make sense of new situations by finding historical analogies, and the more ancient the better. I’m glad I get to teach and investigate history together with students as part of my daily life. On the other hand, however, I have to remind myself that just because I can connect two things, one of which happened in the past, that doesn’t mean that it’s a perfect or particularly illuminating analogy, or that it means anything special at all. Historical parallels only make sense when there’s a certain level of thought put into them, and even then need to be taken with a grain of salt. The standard example of unhelpful historical connections would be Godwinning, and I have to keep an eye on my own tendency toward unhelpfully far-fetched parallels when I reach for historical examples in discussions.

2) I think my (humble) part in the project was made easier by the fact that we split up the work and people had different responsibilities. I know that collaborative work, where students have roles within their groups, is almost always preferable to cooperative work where they just work together on something – but I still sometimes neglect to set up group projects in a way that mandates or facilitates roles and responsibilities for each member. It’s something I’m going to keep an eye on in the future, and if anyone has any good advice or resources to share on the subject of different ways to set up group projects so that each student really “owns” their part of it, let me know.

3) It was really easy to do a collaborative Google Docs Presentation as an adult student working in a group. I will be encouraging my students to use it more often in the future, even though it doesn’t have the astoundingly gaudy PowerPoint transitions and animations that are so dear to their hearts.


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The Lost Tribe

We watched and discussed a talk by Seth Godin in class.

There’s something I dislike about Godin but I can’t quite put my finger on it – maybe it’s as simple as the fact that he’s a marketer, but I think it’s something deeper.

Something about his motivational-speaker statements reminds me of many of Nietzsche’s slippery metaphorical maxims – you’re never quite sure exactly what he means, but everything sounds plausible and good, and could be used by just about anyone to justify just about anything. When I heard Godin’s concept of leading modern “Tribes”, I immediately thought of several clear parallels to the organizing principles behind successful terrorist cells or religious cults.

What Godin preaches, at least with this tribes stuff, is pep talks on how to get people to follow you, purchase your products, and actually do work for you for free – whatever your message – while believing they’re doing it in their own self-interest, and there’s something disturbing about that to me. Not to mention that actual tribes of humans were usually closed-minded and violent little groups unable to see beyond the needs of their own community, so that’s a pretty sad metaphor for anything in the modern world.

Anyway, this isn’t the time or place for speculating on the level of malevolence of this gleam-pated modern Machiavel. Even taking into account all of what I just said, Godin’s almost certainly the least evil marketer in history.

And in any case, setting aside for a moment my distaste for the subject of pulling people’s marionette strings as a marketer, I am a teacher, and therefore a leader, and as coincidence would have it I DO actually have a small group of barbarians I want to cajole into working for me for free, so I find myself as a sort of tribal ringleader, like it or not. In terms of tech, therefore, I’m faced with questions like:

What is my tribe or brand? What do I stand for in my online presence, and how do I reflect this in the variety of networking technologies I use?

As a teacher, and particularly when using tech, I think I primarily try to lead by modeling my own excitement about learning and creativity, modeling my own process of constantly inquiring and connecting, and by trying to create environments online where students can share their own excitement, creativity, and connections. I think leading by using networking technology to create and moderate spaces (blogs, wikis, discussion groups, etc.) for students to share their work can be key to fostering the sense of motivated enthusiasm that leads to real learning and creativity. For example, here’s part of my 3D modeling club’s fledgling shared collection.

I haven’t been wasting time lecturing the students how to use the software tools, I’ve been giving them challenges (build a car, a robot, a tree ornament) and helping them find out how to look up tutorials or learn what they need as they go. They’ve been uploading the results at the end of our sessions. It’s not a great collection yet – we’ve only held the club for a couple of weeks, we never did put all of the ornaments on that virtual tree, and some students haven’t even successfully finished a model they’ve been proud of yet.

But if you’ll look at the collection you’ll notice that one student in particular has been designing rather intricate robots in his spare time and uploading them to the collection outside of class. He’s on his way to becoming an expert on his own without much help from me, he’s proving to be a great mentor and motivator to the other students, and my role in this as a “tribal leader” or “brand” has mostly been to model (no pun intended, I guess) my enthusiasm for modeling, create the shared space, set the challenges for students to achieve, and sit on the sidelines cheering.

The students’ interest and enthusiasm, and their delight at sharing their work, is creating a self-perpetuating learning community based on a shared interest in creativity and creation. While I do enjoy lecturing or more tightly controlling students’ work from time to time, the facilitation of this sort of open space for creative student work, whatever the type of project or content, is something I’ve been trying consciously to do more and more often. That’s the sort of tribe I’d like to lead, and that’s the sort of leading I think I prefer to do.


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Here are some meandering and, yes, unlinked thoughts on how I use information and the power of hyperlinks.

The Good

Hyperlinks and web pages correspond very well with how I think people’s brains work – at least my brain, anyway. My thoughts don’t move in a straight path, following one subject or argument. I constantly skip around to many different subjects, and when one thing reminds me of another I think I form a mental connection, no matter how distant or different the things themselves might be. Some more traditionally straight-line or less interactive forms of media can be incredible experiences or works of art (like novels, music and films), but think of how little your thoughts during a typical day really resemble a movie, and how much more they resemble surfing around on a bunch of sites at once, shifting focus among dozens of topics, narrowing or broadening that focus constantly.

For example think of how Joyce, in trying to represent Leopold Bloom’s thoughts in Ulysses, didn’t tell a sequential story but rather assembled a constantly shifting mix of quotations, digressions, repetitions, and allusions. So hyperlinked information isn’t just something we look at or read, it’s a kind of parallel process in many ways to how we process, sift, and mull over information inside our skulls. One conclusion from this could be that hyperlinked information would then tend to be more likely to be useful for learning than more passive media, and I personally believe that’s the case.

So hyperlinks correspond to my own model of thinking and learning, as well as to a large extent to my ideas on teaching. To use a slightly over-familiar term, I believe every moment is a “teachable moment” to the extent that a teacher should be able to make connections from any subject or discussion to the course content at hand. Forging those mental connections is how I learn, and how I hope many students learn, and I would much rather teach a hyperlink-style class that ranges over a variety of topics than a class where students memorize lists of things.

The hyperlinked world of information at our fingertips also corresponds strongly with another interest of mine, which is video games. In a game, you usually have to navigate to different locations somehow to acquire more skills, advance, unlock further paths, etc. Unlike when, for example, watching a film, in most video games you have at least the illusion of choice about where to go next and for me this active, personalizing element of choice also often makes hyperlinked research a more engaging and memorable experience.

The Bad

I’m something of an introvert and when I get the choice I would rather gather information in a way that requires less face-to-face communication. Hyperlinked information has made this possible during my lifetime in a way that would have been difficult for previous generations. I can do in-depth research, study Japanese, buy music and order a pizza all without interacting with anything more lively than a slab of plastic on my lap. However, I wonder what kind of person I would have turned into if I’d grown up in a world without hyperlinks. Would I have still found a way to connect to a world of stored information by becoming some kind of librarian or archivist, or would I have taken a completely different path? It has certainly affected my ability to organize things – the very day Gmail made it possible to effectively search through old e-mails was the precise moment I stopped cleaning out my in-box.

The Ugly

I’m almost always a tech optimist – I think the things we create usually make life more interesting and better overall – but I have been noticing that I almost never watch an entire movie, listen to an entire music album, or read or write uninterruptedly for hours any more. I am not that disturbed by finding that I get less pleasure in sustained media consumption – after all, this sort of appreciation is probably a generational thing; my grandparents never sat through a 4-hour Wagner opera to my knowledge, and I’m guessing even Wagner would have fallen asleep during a bardic recitation of Beowulf – but, as above, I wonder. Have 15 years or so of web surfing changed my brain? What aspects of those changes might lead me to a life that’s less contemplative, less meditative, or less thoughtful? I don’t believe, like many, that we’re losing our ability to focus, or that no one can remember anything any more, or anything that alarmist – but I do think there’s an opportunity for some degree of loss whenever there’s rapid change. I guess another aspect of this is that I need to be aware of the “generation gap” in that sense between me and my students. Just because I enjoy (or used to enjoy) watching the entire “Star Wars” trilogy doesn’t mean they necessarily will, but that wouldn’t mean necessarily that they’re impaired in any important way, just that they’ve grown up in a more hyperlinked world than I did.

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Digital Piracy

AAAAR2D2 by Kaptain Kobold

AAAAR2D2 by Kaptain Kobold

This will probably be only tangentially related to education, but I am going to take some space here to try to sort out my own ideas about digital piracy. As an individual media consumer and very occasional creator, I have mixed feelings about copyright violation of things like books and movies.

I think the world is in a kind of Wild-West in-between stage in terms of our attitudes toward copying, and my own ideas are still changing. At various times during this evolution I’m sure that some of my views have verged on being technically illegal according to some companies’ or countries’ rules, but I don’t think I’m a particularly unethical person, which is one of this topic’s biggest paradoxes: When most people are breaking a rule most of the time, does that mean we’re all criminals, or does it mean the rule needs to be reevaluated? Anyway, here’s how I think I feel this month:

My rights

  1. I should always be able to make infinite digital copies of anything I purchase or already possess digitally, for my personal use, and ideally these copies should not be tied to one platform or application. If I buy an e-book, for example, that e-book should be in the form of a file that I can easily locate, copy, and open separate instances of whenever I want. I don’t think Kindle purchases are quite at this stage yet – I’d like to be able to feel that I could use my purchases even when not logged in or using the official Kindle application. If I found a way to “crack” something like Kindle books and use them in other applications (just hypothetically), I don’t think I would see that as wrong, even though it might technically be violating some part of the Kindle purchase agreement.
  2. In cases of loss, file corruption etc. I should be able to get a second digital copy of any work. If I buy something once and it gets erased, for example, the fact that I bought it once should allow me to acquire another copy somehow. It’s been interesting to see Apple embrace this idea in stages over the last few years – originally iTunes store purchases were one-time-only, now purchases can be re-downloaded innumerable times.
  3. If I buy a physical version of a work that also exists in digital form, for example a video game cartridge or a book, there is nothing wrong with also making or acquiring a digital copy of that item. I have, for example, purchased the game “The Secret of Monkey Island” about six times throughout the decades – on floppy disc, CD-ROM, German CD-ROM, iPhone app, iPad app, etc. I also have a digital copy of the old PC version that I think I downloaded from an “abandonware” site somewhere along the way. I think that’s OK.
  4. If I purchase something which attempts to limit my ability to copy it (through DRM that limits the number of times I can copy an album, or number of devices I can copy it to, for example), there is nothing wrong with circumventing that attempt. When I first started buying iTunes music I would regularly download the DRM-shackled version from iTunes, and then get a non-DRM version from somewhere else to actually use. Apple has, again, come around to my point of view on this, which increases my desire to use their service in the future.
  5. I have the right to preview or test out media before buying. This means – and sorry corporations – there are some circumstances in which I might possess partial or whole copies of things which I haven’t yet paid for.
  6. I have the right to create and share new works which fairly use existing works. For example, if I recorded a video of my baby dancing to some barely audible background music, I could share the video online without fear of being treated like a criminal.

My responsibilities

  1. As a consumer I have an ethical responsibility (which in this area, to me, is far more important than getting worked up about whether or not I have a *legal* responsibility, since the laws don’t fit so many situations now) to compensate content creators for everything that I consume and enjoy. If something I enjoy consuming has a price tag I should buy it, and if something I enjoy consuming was distributed for free the compensation could be in the form of recommending it to others, buying future products from those creators, advertising or mentioning the product in my own work, etc.
  2. If I become aware of a way to additionally compensate a content creator for something that I have enjoyed – for example if a recording artist splits from their record label and releases a remix version of their album independently, or if a director puts out a “special edition” of a film I love – then I have a responsibility to seriously consider those ways to additionally compensate the creator.
  3. I have a responsibility to keep my personal collections of media reasonably private. I do think there is nothing wrong in sharing in order to recommend something to friends, etc., but  at some point sharing one’s personal copies of media publicly becomes irresponsible and unethical.
  4. I have a responsibility not to use my digital collections for commercial purposes. Since individual copies of an item now no longer have any intrinsic value, this by extension means that re-selling “used” digital media which was created by others is not entirely ethical.
  5. If I create something new that incorporates copyrighted material, it should be done with appropriate intent, justification, and citation of where everything came from and who made it.

So my question to you, dear reader, is: How closely does this match your own views on the subject of digital piracy? Am I a criminal, or on the other end of the spectrum am I not being assertive enough about what I’m allowed to do? How many of these views would be healthy if students had them, and if not which ones would you object to or state differently?

As a teacher, I more or less think these rights and responsibilities all still apply to things I do in the classroom, but with the adjective “personal” replaced by “acquired by the school for shared use by a class”. Also, I suppose I’m obligated to mention that in the classroom I would definitely always strive to strictly adhere to any and all actual legal standards I knew about rather than feeling a bit more free as a personal consumer, as I felt above, to ponder my own ethical code on its own.

In any case, whatever their views, I would hope that, unlike their couch potato of a teacher, my students would always be creating far more than they consume.

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Take Up The Teacher’s Burden

Bully. Great game. Called "Canis Canem Edit" in the UK because... unlike the US, they want their sociopaths to know some Latin...?

When the subject of “cyber-bullying” comes up (I’m putting it in scare quotes because… well, I don’t know. I guess because it’s a goofy word and I wouldn’t mind some authorial distance from it), I sometimes tend to think of it as something which usually takes place outside of the classroom, away from the academic world, and which might better be left up to parents, or maybe policemen.

If a student is at home up into the wee hours making scabrous or vituperative posts on Facebook, then isn’t that the parents’ problem for raising and then neglecting to adequately monitor their beastly little tot? Upon reflection, jein. While I do think good digital citizenship is to some extent a shared responsibility which parents should have a definite hand in, there are nevertheless certain responsibilities or clear areas where teachers in particular can help detect, avert and improve risky situations – at least in middle school, which is the age I’m thinking about most often.

Here’s a short list of things that I think I do, or at least try to do, in order to help students develop appropriate online social habits and to minimize the potential for the dreaded “cyber-bullying”.

1. Teachers should create an atmosphere where students feel they can share their concerns and report incidents.

This is one that I think I’ve partially achieved but which I can’t take full credit for. I don’t know why, but this semester alone my students have come to me and told me of three or four incidents of online vandalism or bullying that they’ve seen happen outside of school. Whether it’s because they see me as some kind of tech authority because we use a lot of online tools in class, or because we’ve been explicitly discussing online etiquette in some of our classes, or because teachers are the people you naturally go to when you have a problem with another student, or because the counselor was busy – whatever the reason, I think students who know they have that kind of real-life channel for grievances will feel less upset or alone in the event that they’re victimized online, and transgressors might feel less likely to sin again if they know there are real-world authority figures who’ll hear about it tout de suite. So in the future I’ll try to consciously do what I can not to mess up my role as someone my students can talk to when they see anything odd online.

2. Teachers should create projects that involve practicing good online etiquette and community behavior.

This is pretty self-explanatory. If, for example, students see blog comments as a fun way to tease people the first few times they encounter them, because they seem thrillingly new and anonymous, they probably won’t feel the same way after they’ve made dozens of blog comments during the course of school projects. Both wikis and shared Google Docs usually end up as horrible messes of vandalism and wanton destruction of others’ work for the first half hour or so after students are introduced to the tools, but after a short period of experimentation students catch on to the rules of conduct in the new space. The more projects they have in different classes where they are simultaneously learning how to present themselves sanely online, the better – and the flip side of the coin is that a project where students work alone, on paper, might be fine for the course content but is a missed opportunity to embed digital citizenship skills. Parents, obviously, no matter how much monitoring they do, don’t quite have as much power to set standards for what students habitually do online in this way, and so this is a good example of something that teachers can take on as a responsibility unique to their role.

3. Teachers should watch for in-school behaviors that might be mirrored online.

Similarly, teachers probably see students’ real-world social behaviors relative to a wider community of peers more often and from a broader perspective than parents do, and can see when there are students who, for example, are always making or receiving negative comments. Given that eagle’s-eye overview of how students interact in reality, I think teachers are in a unique position to predict when students might be at risk of either being bullies or bullied online, and to nip things in the bud, head them off at the pass, take the bully by the horns, etc. Parents and other adults might not normally get to see, for example, how their middle-schooler acts around the opposite gender or someone from a very different cultural background, and thus not be able to suspect looming problems whether on- or offline, making this another job for teachers.

4. Shouldn’t teachers explicitly be teaching values and skills that would lead to responsible digital citizenship anyway?

I see the rules of online behavior as being, of course, different in many ways from those of real-world interactions and behaviors, but it’s almost always in my opinion a difference of format or mode of expression rather than a fundamental schism. Being a polite or risk-taking or reflective or tolerant person will produce positive interactions with others and positive personal achievement in any format and in any mode of expression. These values and skills aren’t just up to parents to inculcate; they’re part of most curricula in some way, and we just need to make sure that students are working on developing them and displaying them in everything they do regardless of whether or not a computer is involved.

5. Teachers should communicate with students online, and model use of new tools for academic and constructive communication.

This is similar to #2, but I think it bears mentioning that, for example, teachers might be students’ first experience of sending e-mail back and forth to a “boss”. With that role in mind I’ve recently been trying to be more conscious of how available I am to students online, and how I communicate with them when I am. When if ever is it OK or not OK for me to use emoticons when commenting on a student’s work? Should I always use a salutation when sending a message to a student, or can I just fire off a few words? We have a lot of power to shape students’ perceptions of what appropriate tones, modes and content can be in various forms of communication. Instead of being afraid of chat, etc., we should be minimally fluent in the modes of communication our students themselves use, but we should also set ourselves up as models for academic, professional use of those modes. This is an area that will take some continued thought and reflection on my part before I have specific guidelines figured out. All I know is that I use a lot of emoticons in e-mails to students, and maybe I should figure out if that’s philosophically justifiable or not.


I think most teachers already do most of these things pretty well, and I do think they form part of our (and not necessarily parents’) responsibilities as mentors helping students become digitally literate and responsible digital citizens. I think I’m making some progress in these areas, so I think I’ll allow myself a celebratory emoticon: ヽ(▽`)ノワーイ♪ヽ(´▽`)ノワーイ♪ヽ( ´▽)ノ

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… which of course stands for Google Paranoia Syndrome.

The fear that someone could be tracking everything I do online in order to steal my identity, break into my apartment, really embarrass me at some later date, or just try to sell me something.

It’s something that I personally think I’m less sensitive to than many, but it’s something which I do worry about more and more with the convergence of location-detection technology and apps.

My parents were early adopters of “GPS” – they had issues with things like Caller ID back in the day, and for years they’ve been upset about Google Maps and Street View. They just really, really don’t like the fact that strange people can look at their house. Germany is full of nutjobs who feel the same way, and their Street View looks like this:

Hallo, Nachbar!

When my parents and I get on the subject, we usually have the same discussion and go around in circles (“But mom, can’t strange people walk down your sidewalk now?”). At some point during this discussion I usually laugh at my parents’ unfounded fears (I never said I was the perfect son) …  but then wonder to myself if, in a way, they have a point.

Things have definitely changed in the last year or two on this front. Most people’s phones are actively trying to shout their location to the world now. Even my GPS-less iPod Touch is trying its hardest to get in on the act, thanks to a really creepy service Apple uses that tries to track the location of every wireless router in the world. If I live in one place, do I really want several dozen applications on my phone broadcasting openly that I’m on vacation halfway around the globe? Won’t we be burgled? Think of all the potential burglement!

But how much of this feeling is justified, and how much of it is an aging person’s knee-jerk wariness of new technology? I’m finding it hard to tell – there are definitely strategies to finding a balance between caution and paranoia regarding privacy whenever we’re presented with a new tool, but I think with each year the strategies themselves might change as well.

For example, I honestly have no idea why so many people in the US are obsessed with keeping their Social Security number secret. I don’t get it. What could somebody do with that number that they couldn’t do with, for example, your name and telephone number, which would have been in the phone book? If having other people glance at your Social Security number ever was a risk for some reason, I’m pretty sure it’s not any more. But for my parents, for instance, this was a big concern, and they’re not illogical people. How many of the worries I have about privacy settings, etc. are just as unfounded or outdated, and how many are legitimate?

Paranoia aside, I think I also have to avoid the danger of going too far in the other direction, and embracing every single new tool uncritically. Teachers do have a responsibility to know some basic skills for prudence in several evolving areas of online privacy and protection. Things like knowing when students are going to be using a service or application that broadcasts or tags their location and how, if necessary, to modify settings that affect face recognition, location tagging, etc. Things like helping students understand how “public” everything on Facebook is. Things like using Facebook responsibly ourselves.

So – and this is a boring conclusion but it’s all I’ve got – the key to a useful approach to online privacy issues is probably staying informed and being able to spot problem areas without getting paranoid and spending all your time in, as Marge Simpson once described it, a catlike state of readiness.


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