Friday, December 9, 2011

The Two Cultures

This blog is sort of an informal companion to a colloquium we hold here at Weber which is also called "I.T. in the University."  Recently we had the privilege of reading Science Fiction and Computing: Essays on Interlinked Domains which was edited by Eric Swedin and David Ferro who are colleagues of mine here at Weber.  The below is a guest post by them.

Most students of the history of science and the history of technology will remember “the two cultures” from their education.  The phrase comes from the English molecular physicist and novelist C. P. Snow who described in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959) that a gulf of understanding existed between scientists and literary intellectuals.  The people within these two cultures understood their own cultures, but scientists often did not appreciate the humanities, and humanities-oriented intellectuals did not understand science.  Snow advocated education to overcome the ignorance on both sides.

The two cultures is a living reality even today and that the divide still exists is obvious on many college campuses.  Professors tend to dialogue only with professors in closely related disciplines and students often find themselves drawn either to science, technology, and engineering, or to the arts and humanities.  They learn different languages and different values about what is important.  A good example is the arts and humanities student who dreads taking a science class because they just see mountains of memorization and a way of thinking that bewilders them.  They think of a math class as an act of cruelty.  Of course, a science or technology student who is sent off to take their general education class in literature looks at a pile of novels that they have to read for class as nothing less than torture.  They find the novels boring and the discussions to be vague and full of opinions unsupported by any sort of methodical thought.

This divide is most unfortunate and people on both sides need to make the effort to learn about information from the other side of the divide, even if is material that does not interest them.  The authors of this guest blog entry have straddled this divide through doctorates from the arts and humanities side of the divide and considerable experience in teaching both computer technology courses and history courses.  One of the areas that drew our interest was science fiction.  It is often thought that people on the science and technology side of the divide have no appreciation of literature, but that it not true.  They just have their own literature.

We will not go down the rabbit hole of defining exactly what science fiction is, because there is no common agreement on an exact definition.  Much of the best science fiction is based on an understanding of science and technology and readers who do not have that background come away frustrated and bewildered from reading science fiction.  They cannot fill in the blank spots to evoke a sense of wonder that is often found in science fiction.  An appreciation of science fiction can build bridges between the two cultures as one side learns to appreciate humanities beyond just science fiction and the other side learns enough about science and technology to appreciate science fiction as genuine literature.

As computer experts, one in a Computer Science program and the other in an Information Systems program, we often noticed how many people in our fields that we knew liked science fiction.  This was particularly true of the students and professors in our field who were the top performers.  We wondered if we could document a connection between computing and science fiction.  This led to some articles and then to a volume of interdisciplinary essays that we edited, Science Fiction and Computing: Essays on Interlinked Domains (McFarland, 2011).  We found strong linkages.

Science fiction has often provided terms, concepts, and a milieu of technological enthusiasm for pioneers in the computer field.  Science fiction also provided ways for computer innovators to talk about where they thought computers were going.  More research needs to be done on the linkages between science fiction and computers, a wonderful opportunity for different academic disciplines to talk to each other, and we hope our book helps that conversation along.  We also hope that our book will encourage academics, educators, and other people to think about how we can bridge the two divides in our intellectual culture.  We need academics and students who are grounded in science and technology to appreciate the contributions made by the arts and humanities, and for the reverse to be true.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"From Behind The Safety of the Internet's Vast Perspex Shield"

On the Music For Deck Chairs blog, the author (who wishes to remain anonymous) makes some interesting observations on the recent pepper spraying of UC Davis student demonstrators by a UC Davis police officer.  The subsequent footage of the chancellor making her way past a gauntlet of silent students is also very moving.  In spite of these images, Music For Deck Chairs cautions us not to be too judgmental "from behind the safety of the internet’s vast perspex shield" (I love that phrase).  For sure, none of us want to model our behavior after that of Officer Pike, but some of us in IT are also guilty at times of colluding with hierarchical thinking.  It's still unclear whether the UC Davis protests and the Occupy movement will have the impact that the Tea Party has.  But I don't want these things to go by completely unnoticed on this blog -- especially since there is still a tangential connection to IT and the university.  I've reposted my comment to Music For Deck Chairs below:

To segue from your last paragraph I’m reminded of David Noble who probably would have seen resonances between the actions of officer John Pike and initiatives of elearning administrators (I draw the connection only because your blog is dwelling on both). Here is what he says in Digital Diploma Mills:

“Once faculty and courses go online, administrators gain much greater direct control over faculty performance and course content than ever before and the potential for administrative scrutiny, supervision, regimentation, discipline and even censorship increase dramatically. At the same time, the use of the technology entails an inevitable extension of working time and an intensification of work as faculty struggle at all hours of the day and night to stay on top of the technology and respond, via chat rooms, virtual office hours, and e-mail, to both students and administrators to whom they have now become instantly and continuously accessible. The technology also allows for much more careful administrative monitoring of faculty availability, activities, and responsiveness.”

This isn’t to say that all forms of “collusion with hierarchical thinking” should be conflated. But as I think you are saying, we better check carefully to see whether our own houses aren’t made of glass before shaming other people too stridently.

I wonder too, whether that process of shaming will lead to positive social change or something else besides. Sometimes the shaming of egregious repression of social protest has resulted in positive social change ( for example, Bull Connor’s actions in Birmingham were ultimately a P.R. victory for the civil rights movement). But the irony of the UC Davis protests is that the students were there because they were objecting to a tuition hike. Those hikes, while due to many things, have at least a tenuous connection to the Berkeley protests of the late 60’s. Those earlier protests were stirring but they also alienated some Californians who weren’t interested in romanticizing the academy as a virtuous fifth estate. That alienation played a role in the election of Reagan and the defunding of California higher education. So yeah, we need to take inspiration from the Mario Savios of the world, and all those who are bold enough to choose the risks of civil disobedience over the cowardice of little-Eichmanns. But we need to do this in a way that keeps the university in the good graces of the taxpayer and the constituencies who are a little less strident in their condemnation of people whose jobs require the strict following of orders. What then is the best way forward?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Digital Humanities in the University

I've been regretting that my blog has such a pedestrian title, especially when I compare it to some of the other blogs I've been browsing like CogDogBlog or BavaTuesdays.  Unlike those mysterious titles, mine has little irony.  It doesn't prompt the reader to keep asking what it means.  And the phrase "I.T." can sound uninteresting.  The first vision that may come to mind is a bunch of mainframes and Cobol programmers wasting away in non-descript tan cubicles.  That stereotype, as it's witheringly pictured in the movie Office Space, or as I lived it while doing Y2K patching in the late 90s at Ashland Oil Company, is certainly a part of what I.T. is.  And I suspect those faculty I'm friends with who don't quite know what I do at work, think these images sum it up.

Fortunately, the culture of IT, in the university at least, isn't usually as corporate as that vision.  We have our share of practitioners who wear suits, and who wax excitedly about books like Who Moved My Cheese, or Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.  But the reality is that IT in the University is a lot more than all of that.

On this blog, for example, I've been trying to highlight the digital humanities which are very much a part of I.T. in the university.  A nice synopsis of what this IT initiative is can be found in a recent Chronicle article by Kathleen Fitzpatrick.  But the fast and short story is that the digital humanities are two things.  First, humanities scholars are increasingly using digital tools in their teaching and research.  Second, the frameworks and approaches that humanities scholars use offer incredibly insightful perspectives for making sense of what I.T. is, where it should go, and it's role in forwarding the missions of the university.

To forward those activities some universities have established digital humanities centers (a flagship one for example is George Mason's Center for History and New Media).  But even on campuses which don't have formal centers, it's easy to uncover how much they can serve (and be served) by university I.T.  I'll leave a comprehensive survey of these service roles for a later blog post.  But for now I want to list three digital humanities concerns that I came across last week while on my own campus.  They aren't necessarily the most powerful examples or most salient digital humanities initiatives on campus (I'm leaving out for example the whole range of activities that our media scholars do in English and Communications -- including but not limited to Michael Wutz's research on emerging 19th century media and Sheree Josephson's research on computer-human interaction).  But I draw attention to them simply to illustrate that digital humanities concerns are a pervasive and topical presence on campus even outside of the areas where one would ordinarily expect to find them.  (If you don't care about what's happening on my local campus you might skip the italicized stuff below):

1) On Tuesday I was working with some students who were about to read Henkin's fine history of the postal service in 19th century America.  To spark their curiosity I mentioned that many of the concerns that we have about emerging media now are echoed in 19th century Americans' reactions to changes in postal services.  For example, when the postcard first came out in the middle of the 19th century, Americans expressed worries not unlike those worries we now have about the abbreviated messaging that happens in texting and twittering.   We then dwelt on challenges of salutation (which were as much an issue in the postcard as they are in email), which in turn morphed into a discussion of the manner in which proliferating media are eroding traditional institutions of authority (the recent audience disturbance during Weber State's performance of Beethoven's 9th was mentioned as an example).  After class, a couple of students noted that it wouldn't be a bad idea to have some classes on netiquette.  A digital humanities center could do this and more, Rather than merely teach polite practices for the online world, it could lead us to examine how issues of authority, familiarity, cordiality, and social relations more generally take on new forms in the digital age.

2) On Thursday I met with two Weber State professors who recently published an anthology titled Science Fiction and Computing.  (I hope to post a transcription of that conversation here in a few weeks).  Like many anthologies, it covers a lot of ground.  But one thread that was particularly noteworthy was the insight that science fiction plays an important role in helping readers to sort through the moral challenges that past and present technologies have (and are) presenting us with.  While science fiction is sometimes seen as a form of techno-porn or technophilia, it actually also plays an important role in developing and evolving our understanding of IT.  It goes without saying that this too is a topical example of the digital humanities at work within our university.

3)  My spouse, who recently published Homesickness: An American History,  spent five years doing archival research to determine that the once popular sentiment of homesickness has given way to nostalgia.  Instead of indulging homesickness, the modern American economy celebrates nostalgia.  While the book is painstakingly researched, she was surprised when a reader used modern data analytics to corroborate her empirical research.  Using Google's Ngram viewer of the American library, the reader determined that indeed the use of homesickness has declined while the use of nostalgia has increased:

Of course there's a lot more to my wife's argument than is conveyed by a simple graph.  Analytics in and of itself isn't going to generate (or displace) the meaning and significance that is uncovered through archival work.  But as a complement to traditional humanities scholarship, these digital techniques certainly have a lot to offer.

These three anecdotes are not necessarily the most obvious examples of the way I.T. and the humanities intersect in our university life.  But their topicality suggests how omnipresent the digital humanities are in university affairs.  We need digital humanities more now than ever to make humanities teaching and research stronger.  But in turn we also need the digital humanities to make sense of I.T. and it's growing presence in university life.  We may not all have the resources to found digital humanities centers.  But there is certainly an argument to be made for creating umbrella organizations  to host conversations that address the ongoing concerns that the humanities, I.T., and the larger university share.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Progress Paradox: Students Now and Students Then

Weber State University hosts a number of book groups that I’ve been attending and/or leading this semester.  For example this fall we’re reading everything from Science Fiction and Computing to The Fall of the Faculty, to Hamlet's Blackberry.  This past week some students and I discussed Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox which grapples with the predicament illustrated in the following Andy Singer cartoon:

Easterbrook argues that evidence of progress is fairly incontrovertible. Americans may sometimes feel nostalgic but few of us would be willing to jump into a time machine and live permanently in a world without modern health care, transportation, plumbing, heating, cooling, and the bounty made possible by the green revolution in farming.    Yet, in spite of the fact that we are favored compared to our ancestors, we “do not feel favored.”  Easterbrook then asks “what does this tell us about ourselves?”

Easterbrook seems to be writing a Whiggish history that legitimates complacency and a blindness toward existing injustices. But he’s really not.  He acknowledges that there is still too much inequality, and that the developing world still has yet to reap the full boons of progress.  But because he sees the glass as half full and is grateful for what he has, he argues that we should use and share those resources to help others.  That doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to escape the tragedy of the human condition or the fact that we’re hedonically adaptive: we can make a better future for our descendents, but those descendents will continue to complain.

The Progress Paradox isn’t without its weaknesses especially in light of the current crises we’re facing in education, potential climate collapse, a growing disparity in wealth between rich and poor, and continued resource scarcity.  Easterbrook may be right that history is progressive over the long term.  But the direction of history seems less clear when we look at the recent past.  To paraphrase Thomas Friedman, the world isn’t really quite as flat as we sometimes present it.  In spite of all this, I think the students still thought that it was a good inquiry into the nature of technological change, the tragedy of the human condition, and the  possibility that an optimistic demeanor can give foundation to an enlightened and progressive politics.

Given Easterbrook's optimistic disposition, I asked the students whether they shared it in light of the Occupy Wallstreet Movement and the financial pressures they are facing as college fees increase and jobs become scarcer.  To my surprise, the six students in my discussion group did not want to dwell on that critique.  Our current crisis did not on the surface seem to dampen their sanguine outlook.  I expected them to be more like me.  As an undergrad I spent many semesters reading and writing about the politics of nihilism and existentialism.  I don't know, maybe it was more in vogue in the 80's.  Or maybe students now just don't have the leisure to go down such paths.  Either way Easterbrook provides an important reminder for at least one generation in the academy: constructive change may come as easily from people who feel optimistic about the course of history as from people who take a darker view.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween

I went to a Halloween costume party Saturday night.  The theme was "Come as your favorite religious figure."  Maybe we don't have enough diversity in our university community because (without any coordination) two of us showed up as Steve Jobs.

I'm on the left and my friend Dave is on the right.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Occupy Park City: Reflections on #opened11

It’s the day after the Open Education conference in Park City. What can I say in a brief blog post to mark that event?  I want to thank Brian Jacobs of Akademos for attending the conference and being one of its sponsors.  We met while suffering through the trials of studying political theory in grad school.  While neither of us has become a practicing political theorist, we’ve been disciplined (for better or for worse) by our common education.  Over the years I’ve attended a lot of open-oriented conferences and been exposed to a lot of insightful perspectives.  But while that diversity has been good it was gratifying to be there with someone who was familiar with the same disciplinary frameworks I use for making sense of what a social movement like open education is all about.

That isn’t to say that I’ve got it all figured out beyond noting that the open ed movement gathers together a set of people and beliefs and practices that belie easy generalization.  This was epitomized on Wednesday when  Jim Groome began his presentation by popping out of a tent he’d pitched on stage as a way of drawing connections between the Occupy Wall Street movement and the open education initiative.  Jim gave an inspiring account of his teaching which is bold and experimental and seems to engage his students and prompt them to develop new media literacy.  But however important that message was, it was overshadowed by the stylistic contrasts between himself and the other featured speaker who was Josh Jarrett, Deputy Director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Where Jim presented in an untucked t-shirt, Josh showed up in a blazer.  Where Jim flashed slides of Wonder Woman, Josh spoke in sobering terms of budget challenges, demographic changes and educational completion rates.   When the presentations ended David Wiley, thanked both speakers and asked the audience to reflect on the contrasts and on how these different archetypes complement and (perhaps sometimes) antagonize one another.

A presenter immediately after those keynotes asked the audience who they most identified with, and the answers varied.  Some said Jim, some said Josh, and milquetoasts like me said both (even though I was wearing a blazer). All of this is to say that, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, open education isn’t a phenomenon that is simple to define, and is replete with marked contrasts.  Its constituents identify with the underprivileged but the conference was hosted in a rarified and expensive locale.   Its constituents are attracted to archetypes of rebellion but the movement’s locus is in one of the more conservative states in the union.  It challenges traditional ways of disciplining the faculties but is led in part by a resurging discipline of instructional design.  Its advocates celebrate openness and democratization and sharing and the disruption of traditional academic practices.  But they promote different degrees of openness, and democratization and disruption.   It’s been interesting to see how this coalition has come together and whether it stays together going forward.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Are Machine's Making Us Stupid?

Here's the poster that my colleague made for our NEH funded spring course  (since it's a new class we need to do a little advertising around campus to make sure students know about it ):

Following the pop culture reference, and the fact that we anticipate some interesting cross-generational conversations in the class, what would the appropriate iconography be if the poster had depicted an x-ray of Bart's brain, rather than Homer's?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Openness Talk

If you happen to be going to Educause 2011 in Philadelphia come by the following talk to find out what Chuck Severance has to say about openness and his book Sakai: Free as in Freedom (Alpha).  We'll be taking questions from the audience but feel free to e-mail before-hand with any questions you think are particularly worth fielding.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

On the Internet Nobody Should Be a Dog: A Review of Cathy Davidson's Now You See It

In the 45 second Ape In the Midst selective attention test  (you can take it yourself above) participants are asked to focus closely on a video showing people passing basketballs back and forth.  After the video finishes they are asked to report how many passes were made.  But more importantly, participants are also asked whether they saw the gorilla.  Many viewers actually miss seeing it.

In her new book Now You See It, Cathy Davidson uses the exercise to suggest that in focusing closely on one thing we become blind to other significant events in our surroundings and that this “attention blindness” is a problem we sorely need to redress in the 21st century.  For Davidson, the efficiency imperatives of the industrial age drove a cult of single-tasking that is epitomized in the assembly line and Frederick Winslow Taylor’s efforts to focus workers' labors on a set of narrow tasks so as to increase productivity in the work place.  Davidson goes on to argue that inculcating an ethic of mono-tasking no longer prepares our students for work in the 21st century where screens increasingly demand attention to multiple inputs. 

Davidson never mentions Marx (or even cites him in the index) but her argument recalls a Marxist analysis: ideology (or  the learning and beliefs and the educational institutions that lend support to that learning and beliefs) help legitimate particular relations of production.  But as those relations of production change, so eventually must the ideology.  In this respect Davidson’s book is a true wake-up call:  as academics (who are in part stewards and conservators of past knowledge) we might be inclined to hallow traditional methods of learning.  But in so far as we buy into a marxist framework, Davidson is telling us that we better evolve if we don’t want to become apparatchiks to an old and fading way of doing things.

In many ways, I’m persuaded by Davidson’s argument.  Having gone through eight years of increasingly narrow and specialized study in grad school, I exited with a degree in political theory that was no longer marketable.  I’m a walking example of the opportunity costs and attention blindness that accrue when one focuses for too long and too hard on one subject.  And I know that there are plenty of other PhDs in archaic disciplines who can appreciate viscerally what Davidson means when she calls into question the legitimacy and virtues of mono-tasking.  

Graduate students and professors sometimes legitimately feel that the demands of their profession encourage over-specialization.  And along with that, many of us feel a need to introduce more interdisciplinary courses into the undergraduate curriculum so students can see the connections between different areas of knowledge. (I suspect that this is in part what impelled Davidson to move from being an English professor to being a Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies.) And the relativists among us understand the need to introduce students to Nietzsche’s perspectivism and the virtues in seeing the world from multiple coigns of vantage.  More topically, following the 2011 Ig Noble award that was given to John Perry for celebrating structured procrastination, we know that being distracted by things of lesser importance can sometimes lead to accomplishments of consequence. 

At the same time, however, we also know, that the production filters thrown up by 20th century mass media have been killed by the internet. We're doing less information filtering than before. As a result it’s more incumbent on us than ever to resurrect those filters in our capacity as consumers (c.f  Clay Shirky in his keynote "It's Not Information Overload It's Filter Failure") The cult of specialization and of mono-tasking and of filtering may have, as Davidson argues, some historically specific origins.  But some of those concerns transcend time and place.  After all, filtering, and confining our focus to a few activities, is what gives us the capacity to build great things and write (as Davidson has done) interesting books.  It’s the difference between us and Fido: we don’t bark at every passing stimulus.  The now famous New Yorker cartoon that was captioned “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog” can be rewritten as a caution not to buy Davidson whole sale:  “On the internet nobody should be a dog.”  Fido for sure will bark at the gorilla.  But he won’t be able to count the basketballs!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Two Minute Lightning Round of Concentration in the Humanities

At the upcoming Digital Humanities Start Up Project Director's Meeting we've been asked to present our projects in two minutes or less.  Here's one of my rehearsal attempts to do so.  (It's definitely a communicative literacy I still need to hone):

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Program Or Be Programmed: Code Monkey Responds

First check out this music video titled "Code Monkey:"

Fun huh?  But why is this relevant to a review of Douglas Rushkoff's Program Or Be Programmed?  I'll get to that in a second.  But first some general background:

In Program or Be Programmed Rushkoff  argues  that technology has biases that encourage certain behaviors.  He describes those biases (for him there are ten main ones).  And then, to make sure we don’t become unwitting victims of those biases, he prescribes guidelines that will allow us to steer clear of those biases worst potential social effects.  For example, in Chapter One (which is titled “Always On”) he observes that computer networks follow their own time.  And because that time doesn’t usually jibe with human time it often interrupts and intrudes on our thought processes.  To remedy that bias we should take care to moderate our connections to digital devices and “refuse to be always on.” [p. 37]  The subsequent nine chapters follow the same approach albeit for ten other biases. 

I’ll refrain from judging the middle chapters mostly because the tenth, which has the same title as the book, was at once the most interesting and at the same time the most incomplete.  Rushkoff, in an appeal to history, argues that in an age of print it was those who could read and write who shaped the world.  Similarly, in an age of code, it is those who program who are defining human experience.  So in Rushkoff’s view, coding is rapidly becoming a new literacy – and those who don’t have it will rapidly become the subjects of those who do.  Here's Rushkoff's two minute video promotion of the book:

As a programmer myself I’m flattered by the power he’s conferred on my profession.  I’ll confess that in an essay I wrote a while back called Code and Composition, I fell prey to similarly exaggerated senses about the power which programmers supposedly wield.  And as an instructor of technology studies I’m half-tempted, following Rushkoff’s warnings to have my students take a crack at learning Scratch, SIMPLE or LOGOS.  Certainly we shouldn’t discount the power that code is having over our lives.  But we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that just because programmers are the ones who are writing the code that they are doing so independently without having to answer to institutions with even more influence.  In most software shops they have to execute a vision that’s been handed to them by designers and product managers and shareholders.  

In short, coders may be implicated in the digital refashioning of the world.  And their lives may not be as desiccated or lacking in creativity as the portrait that is offered up in Code Monkey.  And it’s probably a good idea to expose students to what coding is just so they can get a more hands-on feel for the way code is determining the world we’re living in.  But programmers are nearly as subject to being programmed as those who don’t.  Code Monkey – I think – would agree. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Review of Sakai: Free As In Freedom

A couple of weeks ago I bought Chuck’s Sakai: Free As In Freedom (Alpha). When it arrived in the mail, I thought, “great, another $20 shelled out on a book that was exciting to buy but that I won’t actually read with all the other distractions in my life.” How wrong I was. Chuck’s book is actually a page-turner – at least for those of us who’ve tried to tag along for the Sakai ride. There have already been two positive reviews of the book by Alan Berg and Jim Farmer. Like them, I took no small pleasure in reading it not least because Chuck reveals a lot of things that I was only vaguely aware of (having never sat on the Sakai board) or that I might have been familiar with but that I’ve forgotten over the course of the years.

Not all of Chuck’s recollections can be summed up in this review but one especially worth highlighting (and which you can get the gist of by reading the closing chapters) is that Chuck and the board differed on issues of governance. Anyone whose dipped more than their pinky toe into open source initiatives knows, following Eric Raymond, that there are cathedral style (e.g. hierarchichal) software organizations and bazaar style (e.g. organic self-organizing) ones, and that open source (with many notable exceptions including the up and coming Instructure) generally gravitates toward the bazaar. But while many of us came to Sakai (and open source) because we longed for more inclusive, less top-down software communities, this doesn’t mean we’re partial to moving away from the cathedral and into the bazaar in equal degree. These same differences existed on the board and Chuck sums up the division as follows:

My opinion was that the purpose of the Foundation was to have a light touch and focus on nurturing the individual and organizational members of the community. The Foundation was to be the cheerleader, the communicator, throw good parties several times per year….and generally give folks a rallying point to find each other… the Foundation was never to take the responsibility for the direction of the product, nor should the Foundation hire core developers, nor should the developers report to the Foundation staff to receive their assignments.

The opposing view held by the majority of the board members was that the Foundation and Foundation staff were a form of command and control with the top of the authority hierarchy as the Sakai Foundation Board of Directors. The…stakeholders were concerned that letting individuals….make their own priority decisions….would be too risky for the adopting schools…..Central control and guidance was needed to insure that the product would move forward according to a well-defined and well-understood roadmap and do so on an agreed-to schedule.

Given my own school's tepid reception to the Sakai product (I still remember one Weber student who summed up his experience in version 2.4x with the withering description “everything is scattered from hell to breakfast”), we were receptive, on pragmatic grounds, to a little more command and control planning. And yet, at the same time, Chuck’s vision appealed to my own deeply seated political and pedagogical beliefs. Especially as Chuck justifies them near the end of his diary:

The reason that I prefer a bazaar-style organizational structure for Sakai was that software for teaching and learning is something that everyone understands and has feelings about. There is not one set of designated experts who can define and design teaching and learning software and hand that design to some developers and have them “code it up” as if programming was an advanced form of typing….good ideas can literally come from any part of the world and an idea can come as easily from a student as from a professional instructional designer. So I felt that it would be wrong to let design and priority decisions rest in the hands of a select few.

Given the competing virtues that are inherent in authoritarian and more anarchic governance structures, it was true, as Chuck also observed, that there wasn’t a “universally correct” organizational strategy that Sakai could have followed. But for better or worse, Chuck’s vision differed from most of the board’s and in his view it played an important role in his decision to relinquish the executive directorship to Michael Korcuska at the Amsterdam conference in the summer of 2007.

Chuck’s sympathies with a more loosely organized development model can also be found in other places in his narrative. For example, while he eventually learns to appreciate Carol Dippel and her QA efforts, he’s initially skeptical. And while he credits Mike Elledge’s use of Microsoft Project to systematize Sakai’s development efforts he readily admits his own aversion to using it. The portrait is rounded out when Chuck recounts buying a couple of suits for bettering his Sakai advocacy: apparently his credit card company flagged the purchase as suspicious. By whatever stereotypes of consumer behavior credit card companies use to build portraits of their users they seemed to have pegged him more as a Birkenstock than Wingtip kind of guy.

I’ve only talked with Chuck once very briefly while riding up an elevator at the Movenpick hotel at the Amsterdam conference. But I don’t get the sense, even after noting the above predilections, that he’s out to “stick it to the man.” For example, in contrast to some of the rest of us, his misgivings of Blackboard were not that deep-seated. He describes the patent suit as a defensive action that any corporation out to protect share-holder value would have been interested in pursuing (p. 176) And in spite of the suit he continued to seek productive partnerships between Sakai and the Blackboard corporation. Like Brad and Joseph he knew how to appeal to freaks like me who sometimes have difficulty acknowledging that our 401-k’s make us complicit too in the heartlessness of capitalism. But he did it in a way without alienating potential partnerships with commercial interests outside academe.

As the Soviet’s used to say (and as historians often still profess), “the future may be certain but the past is always contested territory.” Which is another way of saying that if Chuck has offered up an intriguing story, I hope it doesn’t end up being the authoritative history of Sakai. The sub-title, after all, is a “retrospective diary” rather than a history, which would suggest that many other stories are worth telling. For example, Chuck glosses over the divisions that arose between those of us who saw Sakai primarily as an LMS and as a commodity whose core design could largely be derived from prior art and those who proclaimed the LMS as dead and Sakai as a larger platform and community for innovating new online teaching technologies. The CLE versus LMS story is, I expect, only one of many other stories worth telling. Perhaps, as Jim Farmer has suggested, we need to publish a compilation? In the meantime Chuck’s book is a great (Alpha) history.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Homesick on Campus? iPhone Home!

This is a guest post from my wife, Susan Matt, whose book, Homesickness: An American History, comes out in September from Oxford University Press. The last chapter, titled "Of Helicopter Parents, Facebook, and Walmart: Homesickness in Contemporary America," deals with college students and mobility among other things.

Mobile devices have profoundly transformed campus life. One of their significant effects has been a change in the way that students relate to those off campus. A recent study of University of Michigan and Middlebury students found they were in touch with their parents by phone, email, and text message an average of 13 times each week. Add to that Facebook and other social media sites, and students today can be sitting in their college dorms rooms, and still chatting online with their high school classmates, parents, and siblings, no matter how far apart they are scattered. The idea of going away to college is not quite what it was. As a New York Times columnist reported, with “unlimited cell phone minutes, e-mail, text messages and Blackberries,” college life today is far different from “the days of calling home once a week—collect—from the pay phone in the dormitory hallway.”

What does this unprecedented level of contact with home actually mean? Some suggest that it is the perfect antidote to homesickness, the old bugbear of freshman year. Now, rather than pining for mom, dad, and old friends, students can point a mouse and be in touch.

Others, however, worry that the endless text messaging, the Facebook, the tweeting, and cell phone conversations, are inhibiting the emotional development of students. According to this view, college used to be a developmental stage on the path to independence, a point when young people learned to separate themselves from home, and overcame homesickness. Psychologist Peter Crabb, for instance, suggests that the spread of cell phones and other communications technology among college populations ultimately “promotes immaturity and dependence.” He argues that the rising generation is not learning proper lessons of emotional control, observing that students call home for comfort. “The call makes them feel better. But they are not learning to control their emotional states, which is part of becoming an adult.”

Is too much communication a bad thing? Should we worry? Will we end up with a cohort of immature adults who are unable to be independent?

It seems to me that we only need worry if we hold sacred the idea of the rugged and isolated individual. Modern psychology suggests that the footloose person, who can be mobile, who can cut ties and not look back, is the norm of human behavior, but this is only true in the contemporary United States. Our ideas about how connected young people should be to their parents—emotionally or technologically—are historically contingent. In more communitarian societies, the ceaseless emphasis on individualism is largely absent, the lessons about breaking home ties less visible. If students and their parents want to stay in touch, and indeed, if students want to stay in touch with their classmates, their past, their homes, why should we complain? Aren’t such efforts a reflection of their commitments to other value systems besides lonely individualism? We celebrate mobility and moving on as distinctly American traits; yet we shouldn’t overlook or discount Americans’ ongoing efforts to sustain connections and community across great distances.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Canvas Discussions; Chuck and Martin and the 80/20 Rule

Earlier this week, Instructure hosted their first international conference. I expected mostly Utah people but there were attendees from all over the U.S. including one person from a school in Toronto. In keeping with Postman's first rule of technological change I don't want to be an evangelist for any LMS but I will say that the conference did a good job of disarming me. The conference, in many ways reminded me of early Sakai conferences in Baltimore and Vancouver. There was real energy in the air and I left with a sense of belonging to a close knit community of users who are listening to each other. Whether Canvas can sustain this as it grows will be interesting. Josh Coates (Instructure's head honcho) alluded to this in a question and answer session when someone in the audience asked him, "What is your primary strategic focus in the next three years?" Josh responded that a year ago there were only seven employees in Instructure, that today there are 45 and that next year, at present rates of growth, there will be upwards of 140 (not to mention how many more schools there are likely to be using the product). Given those numbers Josh asked "How do you grow?" Hopefully, from our perspective, in a way where we still feel like we're still playing a role in determining our own technological destiny.

To that concern of controlling destiny, during the closing BBQ, I had a chance to talk with Brian Whitmer who cofounded the company with Devlin Daley during (or perhaps directly after) a grad stint at BYU. For the most part I've really liked teaching in Canvas but I did ask him whether there were any plans to supplement the way they've chosen to set up discussion boards with other more traditional approaches. Instructure chooses an option that Moodle calls "Display replies flat, with oldest first" whereas I prefer "Display replies in threaded form" or "Display replies in nested form." (The links, by the way, take you to a Moodle hosted discussion where participants are discussing the relative merits of Moodle versus Canvas.) We didn't talk long enough for me to understand completely what Brian has found problematic in the nested and threaded forms, but I think he thinks that students often won't drill down as much as instructors would like them to -- which would mean that the potential advantages of nested and threaded approaches might not really pay out in practice. To keep this post short, I won't weigh the respective merits of these approaches except to speculate that there are enough users who like the traditional approach that it may merit including it as an option, even if Brian wants to keep the flat approach as the default.

Certainly, this is the strategy Moodle has chosen. Since there is a division among users, rather than choosing just one, Moodle provides users with choice. Interestingly, there's a short video of Dr. Chuck (former Executive Director of Sakai) interviewing Martin precisely about this challenge. Here is the transcription:

Dr. Chuck (aka Charles Severance): Is there ever been a situation where the community has mildly revolted where you thought X and a whole bunch of people thought Y and they sort of ran away with it? Or have you been in front of it the whole time?

Martin Dougiamas: It's been pretty good....occasionally when something's been put in there as a pedagogical feature....what usually happens with this sort of stuff is we talk about it we decide there's two camps and so we create an option and people can make a choice but the default value for that choice is always mine. I always try to make Moodle out of the box behave like the way I want it to behave.

And if you want to see the speech in full check out the actual video at minute 2:30

As I recall from our conversation, Brian mentioned the 80/20 rule but when I pressed him on it, he wouldn't say definitively that 80 percent of users prefer the "Display replies flat, with newest last." This isn't to say that the Instructure guys haven't already given all of this a lot of thought (in a story that is rapidly becoming mythic Brian and Devlin toured the country in a car without air-conditioning gathering user requirements at a ton of schools before actually coding anything). So it's possible I'm wedded to an anachronistic outdated approach that isn't worth including because of the clutter it would cause. And in fact, Brian, does have a point. I may miss Moodle's approach but it's certainly not enough of a frustration that I'll stop using Canvas because of it. Still, I'm writing it here so it matters at least a little to me. What do other people think? With respect to this little microcosm of Canvas are there any refinements that could be made to discussions? If so what are they?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Dear Uncle Ezra: Where's My Privacy?

I just returned from Ithaca, New York after attending the Institute for Computer Policy and the Law which is hosted every summer on the Cornell University campus. This summer, the Institute focused on the issue of privacy on college campuses and what educators need to do in order to protect it. Although discussions about privacy have never been out of vogue, they are particularly topical these days because social media are giving us unprecedented opportunities to reveal who we are online. And while these outlets are a boon for self-expression, they can, when wielded inappropriately, seriously, and sometimes permanently, damage reputations. Ten months ago on Sept 28th, Rutger’s freshmen Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate surreptitiously streamed a live video feed of Tyler having sex with another male in their dorm room. The Tyler Clementi case serves as a reminder that student privacy is increasingly challenging to protect in an era of social networking and ubiquitous surveillance. If it wasn’t the event which inspired ICPL’s focus on privacy, it certainly could have been.

How should we as college administrators or college professors deal with this problem? We are after all in the business of building student’s reputations. But how best to help them in this age of hyper-connectivity?

FERPA, of course, offers some guidance (and attorneys at ICPL went over this at length). As university employees we need to be mindful of our student’s privacy as we’re carrying out our jobs. But beyond FERPA, I left ICPL with the strong impression that we also need to be engaging with our students so that they too take up the conversation. ICPL held one of these conversations in a panel discussion that was reported last week in Inside Higher Education. You can read the full account there but for me the biggest lesson I learned was that students actually value privacy. Although there has been some talk that students don’t care about it (a sentiment that would jibe with Mark Zuckerberg’s pronouncement that privacy is dead) at least one student on the panel seemed to suggest that this is a misconception. Students may treat their own privacy (and that of others) fairly casually in their initial forays into social networks. But it doesn’t take more than one bad experience posting too much of oneself online to inculcate more moderated sharing. So we can all sigh a bit of relief: it doesn’t look like the next generation is inclined (at least not en masse) to duplicate the foibles of Anthony Weiner. Like the rest of us, they too are learning the art of discretion.

The ICPL conversation mostly emphasized the dimensions of privacy that are defined when we make choices about how much of ourselves to share online. When we produce content and share it with others we are of course redefining what of our lives is private and what is public in fundamental ways. But beyond this production oriented definition I wonder whether privacy awareness could also be enriched by broadening the definition of privacy to include the experience of seclusion and solitude and the particular psychological and intellectual spaces that are created when we moderate not only our production but our consumption of digital resources. Privacy, after all, isn’t just about what we choose to share of ourselves online, but how much of our time we choose to spend in the company of others and how much time we choose to spend alone. These are the types of questions that William Powers takes up in Hamlet’s Blackberry and William Deresiewicz in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece titled “The End of Solitude.” On my campus we’re promoting these latter conversations about privacy as well in a project titled “Concentration in the Humanities” in which we ask students to alternatively work in private and communal spaces and consider which ones catalyze better writing. When the definition of privacy is broadened this way we can (potentially) engage students not only by appealing to their long term interest in reputation but their more immediate interest in being better writers.

As one speaker mentioned on the last day of the conference the mission of the university suffers when students and instructors have to worry about excessive surveillance. When we’re surveiled overmuch, students and professors feel constrained, and our interest in contributing to the marketplace of ideas diminishes. This is an important point. But it’s also worth noting that the mission also suffers when our students and professors are so connected that they can’t differentiate between their own thoughts and those of the digital hive. Discussions about privacy, are, ultimately, also discussions about identity and the extent to which we subscribe to individualistic or communitarian senses of the self. These senses of the self, in turn, give definition to competing visions of what a university education is for (Is it there to cater to the desires and ambitions of private wants and ambitions? Or is it there to cater to the broader needs of the community?) Privacy thus framed can then address the immediate pragmatic need to guard student’s reputations while at the same time broaching more fundamental problems about the nature of the self, what it means to be an educated person, and the missions of the university.

If the theme of this year’s ICPL talk was inspired by the Tyler Clementi case, it was especially fitting that the conference ended with a presentation on Cornell’s “Dear Uncle Ezra” which, in Ann Lander’s or Dear Abby mode, dispenses therapeutic advise online to students who write in with their questions. When it was deployed in 1986 one of the early questions and answers was from someone contemplating jumping off one of Cornell’s infamous bridges. Here’s the letter (and answer) quoted in full:

Dear Uncle Ezra:


Dear Considering,

Most people, at one time or another, consider suicide as an answer to their problems. As Ann Landers says, suicide doesn't solve problems, i t only passes them on from you to the survivors -- family, friends,loved ones, and other people who care about you.

Suicide is usually an attempt to deal with a crisis. The Chinese character for "crisis" translates into "dangerous opportunity." Suicide is a permanent solution, and eliminates other options. So if you're hurting so much that you are willing to pass the pain on to those who care, perhaps you could use this dangerous opportunity to try some other options first.

Ithaca and Cornell have a number of services specifically to help people in crisis. Call Suicide Prevention any time at 272-1616, go to Psychological Services in Gannett Health Center (255-5208), talk with a chaplain in CURW (118 Annabel Taylor Hall, 255-4214), talk with a friend, and use this opportunity to change your life for the better.

Problems have solutions. Your life has value. Please give it a chance.

Uncle Ezra

Clementi, who wasn’t at Cornell, didn’t get a chance to write directly to Ezra. And even if he had, it’s sheer speculation to say that Ezra would have turned the course of events with any more success than the help that was offered to Clementi at Rutgers. But that speculation isn’t my purpose here. I post the Ezra letter to show that the identity of the self in college can be a very fragile thing, whether we’re talking about the college experience in 1986 or 2010, and that we, as educators and administrators, can help to nurture that self by helping students to think through their sense of selves as private, isolated (and sometimes lonely) individuals and their selves as shaped and defined by a larger community of (as Ezra puts it) “family, friends, loved ones , and other people who care about you.” This isn’t to say that the conversation will yield simple answers about privacy. After all, it appears that in one sense Clementi didn’t have enough privacy. And yet, in another sense he might have been saved had he been less private about his suffering. Talks on privacy framed this way can, hopefully, deepen the conversation and bring our students into closer touch with the abiding questions that should be central in university life.

Monday, July 11, 2011

You Say You Want a Revolution....

I'm finishing my 11th week teaching in the Canvas system. As an instructor who has taught extensively in Blackboard, Moodle and Sakai here are my current impressions of the product and the larger community:

Just when you had given up all hope that Utah’s hotbed of digital innovation would produce an LMS of your liking, along comes Instructure’s Canvas a system that promises to rock the industry off of it’s clay feet. Plenty of people have already reported about Instructure’s eminently usable interface and my own experience teaching a course in it over this summer semester is something I want to talk about a bit later.

But first a bit about Utah as that hotbed of LMS innovation – it’s actually true. After all, we’re the progenitor of Novell and Wordperfect as well as plenty of more recent startups. So if you suffer from some sort of reverse provincialism – thinking that really cool LMS innovations are only going to come from the coasts, or from Silicon Valley or from cities or universities with a reputation for a more cosmopolitan orientation, the Instructure product will lift that veil quickly. Use it as I have for only a few days and I guarantee that it will knock your teaching socks off.

This has not been easy for me to admit, because for years now I’ve been using and promoting Sakai and Moodle. I’ve been doing so because of their open, global communities and the promise that involvement with those communities would benefit my own university’s commitment to global outreach. Back in the summer of 2008, when Instructure made it’s earliest pitches to me at TTIX it seemed implausible that a more locally situated organization, with a much smaller body of developers who were all concentrated in one area could compete with that value proposition.

And yet on a functional level, it’s clearly competing. As Michael Feldstein has noted, Canvas has streamlined the number of clicks it takes to work in the gradebook – that bane of almost all LMSs. But I don’t need to repeat those accolades here. What I find most impressive about Canvas are two things: A design that looks spare but (like a very good waiter) presents functionality when and where you need it. And a design that draws students toward the activities they need to do in a course even when you might be a little forgetful. In this regard, Canvas is sort of like an executive secretary on speed. Once you’ve constructed and scheduled your assignments, Canvas will present prompts and course views that will keep even the spacier students on track and informed about what needs to be done, the consequences of not doing it, as well as the larger learning outcomes that are associated with each activity in the course. Do you get tired (or sometimes forget) to remind students of upcoming assignments or ones that might be past due? If you do Canvas will remind students for you. And if you sometimes wonder whether students understand or take into account the relative weight of different activities, Canvas presents easily accessible gradebook views that drive this message home. And for students who actually work prospectively, Canvas automatically generates a calendar with the course’s activities so that they can think about the course’s various commitments in the context of their other lives. Finally, for students who aren’t just grade grubbers or scheduling fanatics, but who are actually thinking intellectually about the course, Canvas allows them to view a list of learning outcomes and to grasp how those learning outcomes are aligned with the various activities in the course.

While there is plenty to gush about in Canvas (and if you want to participate in the gushing subscribe to the listserv by sending an email to : or come to Instructure's upcoming August conference in cool Snowbird, Utah) this isn’t to say that I don’t have a few reservations about moving to Canvas . I’ve worked for a long time with Sakai and Moodle and have developed many collegial relationships in those communities. And right now I’m participating in an NEH grant that came my way in part because of the social and professional relationships that I’ve developed with those organizations.

So while there are plenty of nice things to celebrate in the Canvas product, this hardly means that we should all of a sudden forget these other associations or gloss over all of the contributions that these other communities have made, and are continuing to make to the development and refinement of the LMS.

It is in this context that I lament Instructure’s use of the iconography of war and insurrection to suggest what is going on in the LMS landscape or the relationship between the various players. It’s best instantiated by their release a couple months ago of the following video which is a takeoff of Apple’s 1984:

To some extent this is forgivable; Canvas really is the upstart David to Blackboard’s entrenched Goliath. And it would be nice to see a bit of Blackboard’s near monopolistic hold on the market eroded (or in the parlance of the day, “disrupted”) by Canvas innovation. It’s after-all what Steve Jobs was trying to do 30 years ago when 1984 was released and I don’t know anyone who seriously begrudges that marketing campaign. But one thing that distinguishes the Canvas-Blackboard narrative from the Apple-PC scene is that there are also a number of strong open source players in the LMS market including Sakai and Moodle. These organizations, in terms of their governance structures and their disposition to transparency and openness are at least as revolutionary as Instructure is. Moreover, while Instructure presents itself as something entirely new, one would have to put on some serious blinders not to see the many aspects of the product which are derivative of prior art. A good example of this is their modules tool which is an obvious copy of Moodle’s. The product, despite the marketing campaign and the gush, has not emerged ex nihilo nor is it something entirely new. More accurately, it’s a refinement of prior art in a field that many claim has largely been commoditized.

I suspect, as Canvas gains market share (which as early adopters of their product I and my institution seriously want) the adversarial nature of their marketing can be toned down and the intellectual debt which all of these LMS initiatives owe to each other can be more openly acknowledged. After all, it’s universities to whom these organizations ultimately cater and it’s from their feedback that these organizations learn in which way to innovate. And in so far as universities espouse the ideal of openness, proper attribution and spirited collaboration one would think that our LMS partners would ultimately align behind those values as well. Here’s hoping they will.