Why Digital Lectures Don’t Work…

Reinventing the Lecture:
Why Digital Lectures Don’t Work, and What We Can Do About It

…A video I did for my Digital Storytelling class final project.

While many who use digital technology in education are attempting new and innovative approaches to teaching over the internet, the use of videotaped lectures is still commonplace in distance education and in open education initiatives. This video argues that the lecture a classroom technique that can be argued to be vestigial at best, even in the classroom ought to be updated rather than reproduced in the online classroom, by paying attention to the limitations and strengths of online video as a medium.

My primary goal is to encourage people to think about the way that various media affect how we communicate, that there should be different pedagogical approaches online than in the classroom.

It seems rather obvious, but theres also a lot of tone-deaf stuff out there. And my pet peeve is the use of recorded classroom lectures for open ed and distance learning programs.

The only thing more boring than a bad lecture is a decent lecture on Youtube.


“You’re Gerald McBoing-Boing, the Noise-Making Boy!”

This semester, I have the rare opportunity to TA a class on something I actually study. For the most part, graduate TA work tends, at my school, to be limited to general, broad survey courses– Western Civ, or American History. I’ve TA’d both and enjoyed both, but this semester has me far more giddy– I’m TAing HIST 389: History of Animation.

Last week, I had the opportunity to give the introductory talk of the class on the first day. After trying to go through the syllabus, cover the basic questions, etc., I got to show a cartoon and discuss it. I chose 1951’s Gerald McBoing-Boing.

I’ve loved this cartoon for years, and when I saw it wasn’t on the syllabus, I knew I wanted to include it as the subject of my introductory talk. I think it worked pretty well…

I used “Gerald McBoing-Boing” to discuss two approaches that students might want to use to avoid “animation appreciation” style blog posts. You may have loved Snow White as a kid, and that’s great, but it’s of limited scholarly value to say that. So I tried to talk about how we can use “Gerald McBoing-Boing” to look at American history through animation, as well as to look at its place within the history of animation.

As a historical artifact, “Gerald” is a fascinating piece. Created right as the heat was turning up on the 20th century America’s second great Red Scare, this is a parable about conformity and the price paid by those who cannot fit in. While the company that produced it, UPA, was created after the Disney animators’ strike, and while the cartoon rejects the forced conformity that immigrants, gays, leftists, and others felt so strongly during the years of HUAC and McCarthy, it’s simultaneously distinctly not a socialist/communist picture. Gerald’s escape from the persecution of conformist America wasn’t a rejection of capitalism, but actually finding a place within capitalism. Once Gerald’s difference can be commodified, it is respected rather than rejected.

At the same time, it’s a great cartoon to use to discuss the history of animation itself. It’s a great early exemplar (and trend setter) of what some have described as the cartoon modern style of heavily design-oriented 50’s animation. Moreover, it was one of the first cartoons to gain attention for its use of limited animation. UPA cartoonists started using limited animation techniques in reaction to the regime of naturalism over at the House of Mouse, as an artistic decision. However, when the technique became more and more popular, it quickly became obvious that it was a faster, cheaper way to do animation. In this way, the look of the Hannah Barbara cartoons I grew up loving was very deeply influenced by this cartoon.

I picked “Gerald McBoing-Boing” for exactly the same “animation appreciation” reasons that I urged the students to avoid, and I copped to that: I mostly wanted to show this cartoon because it’s cute and it’s visually striking, and it has funny sound effects.

But once selected by those criteria, it’s necessary– and even rewarding– to slip on the “critical historical analysis” colored glasses, and see if they deepen the reading. In this case, it certainly did. Looking for an excuse to show this cartoon made me realize what a fascinating cartoon it really is.


You Could Learn a Lot from a Punker…

Edupunk Mix TapeYeah, yeah, the EDUPUNK moment is long over, but it’s still rattling around in the back of my mind. I wrote about it before, but I really think that a lot of the reaction against the term was based on a misapprehension of what punk is, what punk was, what punk does.

Trying to keep this discussion as academic as possible, I’ll argue this much… or this little: if you read Dick Hebdige or Greil Marcus, you’ll quickly come to see that one of the central characteristics of punk was (and is) the conflation of aesthetic and meaning.

Style is substance. The punk style was about aestheticizing everyday life. Making life art. And art is political. Life is political. Aesthetics and politics are both inextricably bound to everyday life.

Moreover, some people listen to punk rock and only hear noise. Others claim that the phrase was rendered meaningless before 1982, and the bands and scenes that have come to use the term over the years since are simply usurpers and corporate shills.

Let’s take the music out of the equation.

Instead, I’d like to talk about zines.

Punk zines— small, limited-run self-published magazines– were at the center of punk culture, music, and life from the very beginning. From the January 1976 debut of New York’s Punk until at least the year 2000, when the internet began to supplant many print zines, punk rock zines were at the center of the community. For a great look at some of the best (and many of the rest) check out Operation Phoenix Records’ punk zine archive.

Zines were always the best embodiment of the DIY ethos of punk, because they had the lowest barriers to entrance. All you really needed was a pen, access to a photocopier, and a stapler, and you could be a zine publisher.

Thinking about the notion of “edupunk,” thinking about what punk culture can teach us about instructional technology and digital pedagogy, I think zines are a natural place to start. So: what can we learn from punk zines that we can apply to edtech? What follows is a short sketch of some things that have occurred to me, trying to answer that question.


All you need is Sharpies, tape, and a Xerox machine.

There’s actually two lessons here: first off, as I mentioned earlier, the barriers to participation in the zine community are very low. Likewise, it’s important for people to keep the barriers to participation in educational technology low.

But more important, punk zines made it obvious how easy it was to make one yourself. They left the scotch tape exposed. White out was obvious. Typos and spelling errors were prevalent. This was, in part, an aesthetic decision. And it has the effect of encouraging and creating a DIY community. These sloppy mistakes let readers know, “this isn’t hard. You can do this.”

I’m not arguing that edubloggers or people designing drupal or WordPress based course management sites should have spelling errors, or the like. But sometimes it’s good to “let the reader see the scotch tape,” so to speak. Let students know how you did it, that it’s easy, that they can do it themselves. Don’t try to make your site look like the slickest designers’ sites. Those sites look inimitable. Instead, use design to encourage your students to follow your lead, to be active content producers, and not passive consumers of web content.

Fast and ugly is better than slow and pretty.

Not pretty, but eye catching...While separating aesthetics and substance is impossible, content is primary, and style is secondary. Get stuff out there, even if it doesn’t look perfect. Regular content production is more key to success than producing pristine, beautiful sites. Besides, “pretty” and “well designed” isn’t as important as eye-catching and visually interesting. The best zines weren’t polished, but they used striking images, high contrast, strange juxtapositions, and other striking visual elements to add visual appeal and interest.

Don’t cover what your audience can find elsewhere.

Your zine is not going to be Rolling Stone. Create a niche by providing content people can’t find anywhere else. Similarly, don’t recreate the wheel with your educational website. If there’s already a perfectly good online archive related to your topic, use that, rather than recreating it. Cover highly specific topics that aren’t covered elsewhere, and cover them well.

And on a related note…

If there isn’t a scene, make one.

The word “scene” has gotten a lot of bad press lately. The term scenester has come to mean a poseur, a person who jumps onto the bandwagon, using conspicuous consumption and emulating a dress code to try to appear cool.

Scene, not too long ago, meant the opposite of that. It just meant community. The punk scene was made up of people who went to shows, made zines, played in bands, and the like. And zines were a great way to help bolster, or even create, a scene. There’s only two punk bands in your little town? Start a zine. Highlight what all is going on with those bands, with their fans, speak to the interests of people who might want to be part of a scene. Zines help to foster community by letting people know all the stuff that’s going on.

Edtech has the same potential. Create a community of interested users– link people, get them passionate, get them to see how your subject is related to other topics in their lives. By thinking of a small town punk scene, we get a model of “community” that’s a lot more than Web2.0 hype.

Change things up when they get boring, but stay consistent enough that people can find you.

Zine makers don’t have a lot of pressure to keep things the same. They’re not answering to a board of directors, investors, employees, or anyone but themselves. This means that you can change things up whenever they get dull. But the most successful zinesters in terms of getting and maintaining readership are always the ones that keep things consistent, to a degree. Keep the title the same, use the same logo. Keep the format, or at least the general nature of the content, reasonably consistent. Otherwise repeat readers will feel cheated.

The same temptation is there in digital media– nothing has to be permanent. But to really get eyes on your page, and keep them there, it’s important not to change everything up too often. While making parts of your website dynamic and fresh is important to getting return visitors, it’s also important to keep enough elements similar and consistent enough to make people feel they know they’re at the right place and know their way around.

There’s always some lonely kid in rural Iowa who needs to hear what you’ve got to say.

Network. Promote yourself mercilessly. Work with a faith that, even though you’re only publishing fifty copies of this little zine about a band that only three people you know are interested in, there are people out there that care.

As much as local scene is important, punk has always been just as much about knowing that you are part of a diasporic tribe, an archipelago of like-minded souls, living in isolation, disaffected with and disenfranchised from their surroundings.

This feeling of being a member of a lost tribe bred a need to network, to promote oneself, to try to find readers anywhere you can find them. There were even zines dedicated to compiling lists of other zines with contact information and reviews. The best of these was the amazing Factsheet 5. F5 enabled people to connect nationally– even worldwide. People separated by geography were united by common interests. A teenager in rural Iowa could discover a hardcore punk group from Norway, and buy their self-released seven inch via mail order. Zines created a culture that could not be confined by geography.

This all sounds a lot like how its more utopian advocates describe as what makes the internet unique, doesn’t it? Digital technology allows us to pull from a community that is bigger than the classroom. You can connect with the small community of passionate experts and people who are engaged with the subject matter from all around the world, providing you can make the connection, can get the word out, can make your presence known to the people who want and need to participate.

Make friends with a disgruntled Kinko’s employee.

The easiest way to reduce the cost of producing a zine is to steal photocopies. If you can photocopy your zine in the breakroom at work or have a friend who hates his job at the copy shop who can make copies and not charge you, the price of production drops to nearly zero. It even was seen as something that added to your punk zinester cred.

Now, I’m not really advocating people in digital pedagogy steal from corporations. But take advantage of whatever free services you can from the for-profit sites. Video and audio hosting can be had for free. APIs allow you to harness some of the bandwidth and programming skills of the corporate sites. If you can get it free (and legal) why pay for it? If you have access to an API, why reinvent the wheel?

Likewise, steal (or rather borrow) code liberally. If you see someone else doing something interesting, whether it’s a piece of CSS, part of their layout, an interesting use of a Google API– whatever– try to look under the hood, and see how the other guy does it. Steal it. Make it your own. If it’s something that’s hidden on the user side, heck– drop ’em a line and ask ’em how they did it.

We’re trying to build a scene, here, and that requires dialog and cooperation.


Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is all about creating an engaged community of learners collaborating in the creation of knowledge, rather than the top-down “banking” model of education that sees students as passive receptacles of knowledge. I believe that new instructional technologies and digital scholarship really do have a place to play in helping to foster this liberating vision of the role of education.

The problem is that (while there’s definitely exceptions) educators and technology specialists haven’t been the best at fostering such communities of learning, that many people in these camps hold a strong attachment to their “expert” status. Addressing lay audiences in their own language, at their own level of understanding, is too often dismissed as “dumbing down” the material, rather than being clever enough to engage a broader audience in the discussion. This isn’t everyone, and many in both circles are actively struggling against such patterns, but the pattern persists.

With that in mind, why not try looking to more grassroots movements that have been successful at creating engaged communities of creator/consumers? It’s been rather famously said that only a handful of people picked up the Velvet Underground’s first album when it debuted, but that each of these people went out and started their own bands. The same could be said of many zines. Who knows how many young writers were inspired to write by reading Aaron Cometbus, or started drawing comics after reading John Porcellino‘s King Cat. Zines have been great at building community, inspiring emulation, and making people want to go out and do something.

Yeah, the idea of “edupunk” may be a bit frivolous, but I think there’s something there. Punk culture does certain things well that the cultures of education and technology development haven’t always done so well. Maybe it’s not so crazy for a few of us to think about setting aside our tweed blazers and Bugzilla tee-shirts for leather jackets and Doc Martins.

The beautiful photos of the Papercut Zine Library in Cambridge, MA are courtesy of gruntzooki.


Digital History: It’s Child’s Play

I know my blog has gone really geeky (well, tech-geeky) of late. It’s the inevitable result of trying to wrap my head around WordPress, PhP, MySQL, SFTP clients, and about a dozen other things simultaneously; more strictly historical posts will be coming soon. I have a little piece on choice and identity formation in Jacksonian America that’s already in the pipes. (Read: it’s currently sitting in my “drafts” file, needing to be finished and polished up.)

BUT. That said. Another Digital Humanities post.

National History Day has recently included web sites as an acceptable type of presentation.

Or, I probably should put it, they’ve recently included “web sites” as an acceptable type of presentation. The sites are required to be on a single CD-Rom– something I find somewhat problematic, as it doesn’t allow students to link to outside sources, use APIs or third party hosting… So putting Youtube videos in the site, or using the Google Maps API are out. In forcing the students to create sites that can’t have elements from other sites integrated, you’re taking a step back and forcing them to make very strictly Web 1.0 material. Actually, by creating sites that are completely self-contained– by putting them on CD rather than hosting them online– you’re actually killing part of the point of web 1.0… hypertext should be expansive, not self-contained.

I understand that they’re trying to make the project more inclusive, by removing the barriers presented to poorer students by not forcing them to pay for hosting services… but it kind of defeats the point of making a web page, if you ask me.

But this is all just a digression. National History Day puts together books about each type of presentation, introducing students to best methods, tricks of the trade, how to exploit the medium to its fullest, what have you. A friend of mine is helping to work on the new book for websites. A group of us were sitting around recently, with her, brainstorming about what should or should not be included. How do you explain to an audience of middle and high school students the real potential of digital history– especially with the limitations of making a web site with a limited word count that has to fit on a single disk? How much do you talk about HTML, CSS, etc, or do you assume that they’ll be using WYSIWYG design programs?

When the issue of how much to talk about coding came up, the group was pretty divided. How much can you explain? How rudimentary should you get? Personally, while I thought a “basics” section was relevant and important, I felt that design and theory should take prominence. There’s hundreds of pages offering HTML tutorials and “how to” guides for basic web design.

Moreover, I argued, they already use code. Anyone out there who has a relative in the 12-17 age range can tell you this– look at their MySpace pages. They’re all customized.

Another person in the group interjected: but they just copy and paste that code, for the most part. They’re not producing it. To some extent this is true. But if they’re spending any time on LiveJournal, Xanga, bulletin boards, or even, yes, MySpace, they’re learning the rudiments of HTML. It will look familiar to them.

What’s more important is to teach them what makes a web page look good, what makes it work well, what it does well as far as looking at history. Again, to look at MySpace: the kids are learning some code, but the design and functionality is horrible, and it doesn’t create a narrative. THESE are the skills that are more important to impart.

Of course, I’m not entirely informed on the topic. I keep in touch with a couple of my friends’ teenaged siblings– not surprisingly, via MySpace and Facebook– but it’s not like I hang out with fourteen-year-olds on the regular.

But today I stumbled upon a really cool project that shows how younger students can be engaged with digital scholarship. A teacher who I can only identify as Mr. Armstrong is doing a lot of really impressive stuff with his 8th grade US History class. His students are creating history podcasts, he’s got a class wiki, and the students are blogging class reviews.

The material is impressive. Armstrong makes use of a variety of different online tools available to limit cost and required technical knowledge, and the kids are really running with it.

Pushing thirty, I’m one of the oldest people you’ll meet who really grew up with a computer in the home. My father taught high school computer classes, and we were lucky enough to have one in the house before I began elementary school. I’ve been typing, rather than writing longhand, since I was eight. And there’s a real comfort gap between me and people a couple years older than me, when it comes to computers. Things that are intuitive to me are abstract to many people who are only five or ten years older.

In the next couple years, students are going to start coming into colleges whose parents had AOL before they were born. This new age group has a much higher comfort level with technology and networks. They may not have all the technical know-how, but it’s much less of a steep learning curve for them than it has been for someone like me. They’re going to be comfortable, also, using cheap and free on-and-off-line applications to fill in the gaps of their technical knowledge.

While making sure they get net literacy and the skills to work best with new media is important, I think we need to be a lot more worried that their teachers– unlike Mr. Armstrong– won’t be up to the task than worrying that they can’t figure out how to Google around and find some HTML code.


Let’s Play Ukulele: A Great Use of Dynamic Website Design

What does the Leisurely Historian do in his leisure time?

Well, given that I’m a grad student, there’s not a whole lot leisure time, to be honest. I spend most of it feeling guilty that I’m not working or reading.

But over winter break, I finally broke down and did something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I bought a ukulele. I love the sound, it’s easy to play, it’s compact, the small neck is easy for my somewhat stubby and ungraceful fingers.

Playing the ukulele isn’t like playing guitar, though. There’s not as many people who play it. I have two friends who even own one– one lives over an hour away, in Baltimore, and the other lives in Texas. Lessons are out, too. When was the last time you looked at a bulletin board and saw someone advertising uke lessons?

So, being the nerd that I am, I turned to the internet. And let me tell you, the net is the friendliest place in the world for a fledgling ukulele player. The ukulele lessons on the newly-launched Ukulele Underground are amazingly well-done. Sheep Entertainment’s Ukulele Chord Finder was a godsend. I especially enjoy that the flash program itself can be downloaded onto your computer, so you don’t have to be online to remember what a D# 7sus4 looks like when you come across it in tablature.

There’s the rub, though– tablature. Most tabs you find online are for guitar, which has a different tuning. So my only recourse has been, when I’m not using the (limited, but still quite impressive in their variety) uke tabs on Ukulele Boogalloo, has been to find the guitar tabs, open up the chord finder, and figure it out from there.

Tom Smith, the author of The Let’s Play Ukulele Songbook, has done ukulele novices everywhere a serious solid, though, with his new site Let’s Play Ukulele. This is an inspired use of dynamic website design.

I haven’t bothered to look under the hood, but from what I can tell, the site mostly works to compile things found elsewhere. Guitar tab sheets– which can be found all over the web– are brought in, and (again, from what I can tell) metadata as to the artist, title, and chords used in each song are attached. Image files of the appropriate ukulele fingering for each chord are appended to the top of the file. One can search by song or artist, of course, but that’s too basic.

The really exciting search ability is to search based on the chords you know, so you can find songs that you can play immediately. The results are then ordered by the number of chords per song, so that the simplest songs come first. It’s rather brilliant, a great tool for people who are trying to learn the instrument.

However, the most exciting part is where Tom goes one step further. On the logic that the easiest songs to play are the ones you know, and know well, the site gives you the ability to put in your username, and provide you automatically with songs you actually listen to– again, in order of ease of play!

To give you some idea how this works, here’s my results page.

It’s certainly not “scholarly,” but I think this is an excellent example of what digital pedagogy is really capable of. Even getting personalized lessons, I wouldn’t be able to find a teacher who would be able to teach exclusively songs that are to my taste. The ability to search, to remix, to deal with large amounts of data, and to do so in a user-friendly, simple interface– this is really an indication of how digital media can be used to individualize, to tailor what we learn and how, to engage students…

It’s still in alpha, and it can be a little buggy, but this site is great, and really instructive. Even if you have no interest in playing the ukulele (though I’d argue you should reconsider that, as well) you should check it out, and play around with it a bit.


Digital Pedagogy Done Right!(tm)

If anyone hadn’t gathered from my multiple cartographically-themed posts in the last couple weeks, I’m taking a course on History and Cartography this semester.

I want to take this opportunity to praise two of the websites we visited this week– TypeBrewer and ColorBrewer. Both of these projects quite successfully combine several elements that seem to be essential to good use of new media for pedagogical ends.

For one thing, they’re quite well-designed– they’re easy to use, the interface is straightforward and easy to use, and there’s not much of a learning curve. Similarly, they do what new media does best– they take something quite nuanced and complex and make it simple. The lessons you get experientially from toying with typography or colors in mapping, if you had to do this by trial-and-error, or even worse by hand, would be quite time-consuming and difficult, and you’d risk losing the forest to the trees.

The phrase I just used, "lessons you get experientially," leads me to the next thing I really liked about the sites. Neither was didactic or painfully "educational." I grew up with teachers for parents in the eighties, and I was exposed to my fair share of "educational toys." The ones that I learned the most from were the ones that put the emphasis on "toys" rather than "educational." The interface of these sites is quite pleasing, the "work" you do is quite entertaining… You PLAY with these websites, rather than being instructed by them. And even the most nose-to-the-grindstone, masochistic grad student would rather PLAY than WORK. The element of play encourages continued, protracted use, and thus a more nuanced understanding than a site that simply tells you that A is more effective than B but less successful than C. Moreover, these are somewhat intuitive, aesthetic "lessons," not simple right/wrong issues. The protracted play gives a better SENSE of best methods– and sensibility is more important than dualistic right/wrong treatment of the issues.

Finally, by keeping the options limited and embracing the KISS principle, these projects could be put on the web as free flash tools. If the creators had made them too cumbersomely complex, or if they had been created in 1997, they probably would have ended up as expensive CD-ROMs that would have had less impact on fewer people…

Both pages are doing some of the most important things right when it comes to online pedagogy, and I was just blown away, honestly.


Myst is not a good video game.

First off, I had to post this when I found it: apparently, Nial Ferguson was so impressed by the Calm and the Storm that he went and got a job with them. It’s not really a conflict of interests or anything, but I found it very interesting.


That said, I’m still not loving Myst. I’m not exactly an avid gamer, but I do enjoy some games in moderation. I’m not one of those anti-video game people. But I do not find Myst particularly enjoyable.

I’m still trying to beat it, though, as Prof. P promises that there’s payoff at the end… I doubt it, though.

While reading the Gee article, it occurred to me that Gee has this almost platonic ideal of the “good video game,” which he then contrasts with a bad classroom. But his thinking about what good video games are made me realize that Myst falls short.

Yeah, I said it: Myst is not a good video game.

I’m not going to belabor the point, but a couple of principles of “good video games” that Myst V (the version I’m playing) violates:

  • Verbal information is seldom given “just in time,” but rather well in advance and often in a different location.
  • While there is a fish tank/sandbox in the form of the first couple rooms, it’s essentially useless, except for understanding the very basics of navigation.
  • This may just be me, but I know it’s not me alone: the game isn’t “pleasantly frustrating.” It’s just FRUSTRATING. The puzzles are very difficult, which may just be my unfamiliarity with the series, but they’re also often quite hard to FIND. This leads to situations like wondering around for a long time trying to find something to DO (this game is so action-less I find it PAINFUL. I can accept a nonviolent video game, but a game where you can’t even JUMP, get your feet wet in the ocean, or TALK TO ANYONE becomes pretty stagnant pretty quick), or, conversely, completing a puzzle without being aware that a puzzle had been there in the first place. (This latter situation occurred to me more than once.)
  • The game doesn’t go through “cycles of expertise,” it just stays at a fairly stable level of difficulty, with the occasional easier problems sprinkled throughout. When I had to resort to a walk-through at one point, I realized that I was doing the game essentially backwards. And the thing of it was, some of the earlier stuff was far more challenging than some of the later.

Oh– and just another desultory thought, here… Where do walk-throughs stand in terms of academic honesty and honor codes? Is it more like plagiarism, or more like a study guide? 


Here and here.


ARGs and the Classroom

I attended the annual conference of the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association last week. It was fortuitous, maybe, to have this week’s James Paul Gee reading on the potential of video games as pedagogical tools, as I had the opportunity to attend several Internet and Video Games panels. One panel in particular made me reflect back to this course, and instead of just doing a gloss of the readings and the websites I’ve visited, I want to use my post to discuss the ideas I encountered in this panel.

J. James Bono, from the University of Pittsburgh, presented a paper called “Playing with Disaster:  Serious Games, Alternate Realities,and Atlantic Storm.” This paper brought up the pedagogical possibilities of something I’d never heard of– Alternative Reality Games. These are a new development, a web-based type of game that is without a single platform– the game is outside, it’s in the minds of the participants, it’s essentially research-as-gaming. Players find clues and put together remarkably difficult puzzles cooperatively, in a “game” the elements of which could be anywhere– on any website, in the form of an SMS text message, even in that dreaded IRL world. For those of you unfamiliar, as I was, with the idea of Alternative Reality Games, or ARGs,as I was, I encourage you to check out the Wikipedia article linked above– it gives a good sense of what ARGs are, and how they work, and it’s pretty well-written for a Wikipedia article.

Another presenter, Angela Colvert, of the University of London, discussed a project she undertook with two primary school classes she taught: she assigned her fifth grade students to create an ARG, specifically targeted at the fourth grade students she also taught.  While the project was, due to the students’ ages, a rather simplistic project about an alligator who lives in the London Sewers, the project immediately suggested a whole set of ideas in my mind– what if an assignment for grad students in CLIO was to design an ARG for students in an undergrad course, one based on an actual historical event or mystery? One class would acquire an invaluable set of skills based in information design, and the other could finding new approaches to research– in an environment of a “game,” which whether we’re gamers or not, is often more fun and engrossing than reading a textbook and memorizing dates.

The final paper in the panel that related to this class– I’m excluding a wonderful piece about the Japanese aesthetic principle of mono no aware in the Nintendo video game Pikmin 2, because it simply doesn’t apply– was by Terence Brunk of Columbia College.  While his paper was actually an analysis of the narratological principles that can be seen in two “serious” online games– the type of game that is created specifically with the social consciousnessof its player in mind.

This paper really brought home the potential of ARGs as opposed to more traditional video games– no matter how many options you present a player, video games are essentially goal-oriented and thus fairly linear. Eventually in the process of game design, you have to decide that the player must complete Level 1 before entering Level 2. While they’re interactive, video games still have much the same linearity of text. And this is reinforced by their very nature: they’re pre-produced, complete worlds. Add-ons like they have for the Sims or when they add new areas to an MMORPG are limited fixes, and must follow the rules previously established.

The role of the “puppet master,” the person who essentially creates and maintains the ARG, often modifying the next step, puzzle, clue, or plant based on previous outcomes, is in many ways essentially very similar to the role of an excellent educator– they challenge their subjects, altering results to outcomes, constantly pushing the problem further. I think it could be a really useful tool for this reason.


…making history “cool?”

History isn’t cool.

I was reading through sepoy’s Polyglot Manifesto (part 2) and came across the following:

…what if I reimagined the text anew. What if I scanned, annotated, tagged all five manuscripts and the translation into a comprehensible data-structure
and presented the text so that the reader could peel, as it were, the
layers of various recensions; read the translation against the
manuscripts; follow the thread or theme in and out of various chapters?
And coolest of all: What if my reader could annotate and tag and link
my medieval persian text to another medieval persian text and another
still? What if the texts spoke to one another and threads connect the
reader, the text and the historian?

(emphasis mine…)

sepoy’s using two or three meanings to the term "cool," here, although I think they’re almost inextricably linked in today’s web 2.0 world. The most obvious, there’s the sense of the word "cool" as "hip." In another sense, the word can be used to less specifically mean "novel." And then, of course, because it’s impossible to leave the guy behind completely, there’s the Marshall McLuhan sense of the word– as in "hot" and "cool" media:

There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that
extends one single sense in "high definition." High definition is the state
of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, "high definition."
A cartoon is "low definition," simply because very little visual information
is provided. the ear is given a meager amount of information. Telephone
is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a
meager amount of information. And speech is a
cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has
to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not leave
so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore,
low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion
by the audience.  Naturally, therefore, a hot medium like radio has
very different effects on the user from a cool
medium like the telephone.

(From Understanding Media)

I have to briefly digress, and say that the internet, especially in its more recent form as web 2.0, actually completely breaks down McLuhan’s division of hot and cool. Is a hot medium? Well, the computer is actually rather "high-definition," so yes– there’s a very precise relay of information. There’s very little "static." Is it a cool medium? Absolutely– despite the high level of definition, it is more participatory than any electronically-mediated medium McLuhan could have imagined in his lifetime– he passed on in 1980. However, the level of "definition" is illusory, because there is no beginning or end to "the internet," and no singular reading. It’s high-definition from single web page to single web page, "well filled with information," but the "edges" bleed. Hypermedia is almost like frostbite. The internet is so cool it feels hot.

sepoy, and others like him in the Digital Humanities, see the future of our discipline shifting toward a "cooling" of History. Historians like hot media. They like books. They like being able to craft their argument, control the ways their work is interpreted and used. And this is an understandable impulse.

But the argument for the Digital Humanities makes sense to me. By using new media’s ability to increase participation, Historians can raise awareness of History– not as an event or single narrative, or a set of facts in temporal order, but as a process of understanding, as a whole set of methodologies and techniques of interpretation and evaluation, as a form of textual analysis.

There’s a widely circulated quotation from Diane Feinstein during the hearings about the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian back in 1995, "…is it really the role to interpret history, rather than just simply to put forward historical facts…? …I was a history major. In the days when I studied the text… was essentially a recitation of fact, leaving the reader to draw their own analysis…"*

This is the popular view of History, among a large portion of the population– even, obviously, among the well-educated and powerful in this country.

Interactivity and new media give us a chance to help rectify this situation, to show that "doing history" is always, and inherently, a process of making choices, of highlighting and omission, of reconstructing the past in relevant ways, and ultimately, is a manner of understanding not the past, but the present.


* This quote can be found in multiple articles, it was a bit of a flashpoint. I found it in an article by James Gardner from The Public Historian (Vol. 26, No. 4) however, the citation for the quote in this article is mis-attributed, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy.


…Post on Education and teh Intarwebz…

…This post is mostly in response to Dan Cohen’s No Computer Left Behind.

In my methodologies class, the professor gave us an assignment last week that she had given her undergrad class the week before.  We were to take an 1881 plantation map that she had pulled from a textbook, one that gave very little in the way of clues as to its location, and to find its current location.  She warned us, as she had warned them, that "the answers won’t be found on Google."

Well, being both a congenital contrarian and a vocal proponent of Google Nation, I looked at this as a challenge.  I was determined to find the site, and to use Google every step of the way.  And I did.  And in fact, I had the correct answer within a few hours of the assignment.  I used Google Scholar to find an article that had a map of the plantation and environs circa 1985.  This article gave me a citation to the first appearance of the map, which I then found via Google Scholar.  I used Google Maps to find a nearby city that was sizable enough to have be on a map, and then followed the appropriate roads up to the plantation’s site.   After finding out about USGS Eros from Fenwick’s Geographic Reference Librarian, (Joy Shu, I learned from a little Googling about…) I used Google to find the USGS Eros site, found a nearby stream, and confirmed what I had suspected.  I was also able to find out a bit about the family’s history, including photos of several family members, using Google.  I was able to do all of this in under 12 hours, and still had time for some TV, a few beers, and to watch some shows I’d Tivo’d that day.

In class this week, the professor described the difficulty the undergrads had experienced– looking for a different nearby town– a smaller one closer to the plantation– on Google yields an incorrect hit, in a city in a different county.  The professor explained that she had used the student’s inability to locate the map as what some might call a "teaching moment"– one of those perfect chances to communicate something to your students in terms that they can immediately relate to, based on personal experience.  She used this teaching moment to try to eliminate their belief that Google was the end-all, be-all in Internet knowledge-seeking.  She taught them about databases, how many aren’t crawled by Google, and how to use them.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a Google Cheerleader, but I still understand what she felt was the best lesson for the undergrads to pull from this– that "Not everything is on Google."  Of course it’s not.  But at the same time, everything that you needed to get this problem solved really WAS on Google, as long as you combined Google’s search capacity with a) a knowledge of which tool to use when, and how, and b) a little bit of logical reasoning and critical thinking.

So I have to admit that I got a little frustrated when she was describing the experience with the undergrads.  I think the lesson she taught was a valuable one– one that a lot of undergrads need, and don’t often get.  However, I don’t know if I agree that it’s the best teaching moment for that lesson, given that in this case, everything WAS on Google.  Personally, I might have used the same moment to give the students a very different lesson– "Sharpening your Google Skills." 

("Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills–nunchuck skills… bowhunting skills… computer hacking skills… " –Napoleon Dynamite)

In the past few years, I have talked with numerous librarians and academics who are aghast at what they see as the over reliance of students on the Internet in general, and Google and Wikipedia specifically.  I think that to some extent this is valid– you have to remind students to look at books, too.  But it’s also useful to point them over toward Google Books, which in my experience is a treasure-trove of valuable information– something that digs deep into books you wouldn’t have time to look through, that can shed light on your research even if they’re ostensibly about a different topic.  Even if these people are disturbed by students using the Internet as a primary or only source of information, they should at least do students the service of making sure that they are savvy users of the Internet.

I guess I’m kind of pushed toward this point of view as a person who studies popular culture.  I believe that media literacy is something that is unforgivably overlooked in primary, secondary, and college education.  There are skill sets and critical thinking skills that can allow students to find these new media– and even older media, like television– to be quite useful, absolute founts of knowledge.  Instead, many educators, possibly afraid of technology they aren’t so great at navigating themselves, settle into neo-Luddite platitudes of dismissal.

I was especially shocked to see Cohen’s quote from Leon Botstein, that "a Google search of the Web ‘overwhelms you with too much information, much of which is hopelessly unreliable or beside the point. It’s like looking for a lost ring in a vacuum bag. What you end up with mostly are bagel crumbs and dirt.’"  I’ve met Leon a few times.  He’s a pretty hep cat.  And anyone who’s even looked at his book Jefferson’s Children will tell you, the guy’s not exactly old school when it comes to education.   (If you haven’t read the book, check it out.  It’s fascinating.  Although as an alumnus of Simon’s Rock College I do have to agree with one Amazon Reviewer who called it "perplexing and offensive" that he fails to even mention that school.  I mean, it’s owned by Bard, so he’s the President of both colleges, and SRC provides kids with an alternative to the last two years of high school that Botstein proposes eliminating– by letting them just go to college instead.)

…But, being a big fan of Leon’s, I’m willing to overlook this statement, and assume that the real problem lies in a single word of the quote: "overwhelms."  It’s not hard to be overwhelmed by this massive surge of new access to information unless one has been properly educated in how to navigate, use, and master it.  This is not an educational opportunity Leon’s had.  Heck, in rushing to become the country’s youngest college president, he probably had less opportunity than most to take some college-sponsored computer skills sessions than most profs might.

Nevertheless, the fact remains: at this point, many undergrads lack the critical thinking and IT skills to use all the information the Internet gives them access to, and yet they are still more competent than many of their instructors.  This reality is not only highlighted by the number of neo-Luddite screeds and screams by educators, but by the constant influx of articles in educational journals about the newest evil in "cyber-cheating."

Some of this is changing, I’m sure, over time– the youngest staff at most colleges has only recently begun to represent the first generation of college students to have gone through post-secondary education with Internet access.  But by the time these postdocs, adjuncts, and nontenured associates have actually found enough of a place to find a voice in the creation of classes for their programs, how many more students will have gone through college without the benefit of Internet research training?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should probably admit that I’m one of the people who’s benefited from the Internet.  I’m rubbish when it comes to coming up with names and dates… and here I am in a History PhD program.  Google is one of the things I can thank for this.  So that’s out there– that’s my bias.  I never would have made it this far into History if I had been studying even 50 or 100 years ago.  If I had to rely on rote learning and memorization, I doubt I would have even made it through college.  So I’m a beneficiary of this changing technology and progressive education.  I have had teachers who encouraged me, and understood that analysis, critical thinking, and argument are far more important than knowing 1066 or 1588.  Actually, I only really learned to write once my parents put me in front of a computer when I was in second grade or so– so there’s a chance I might not have even made it into college without the aid of technology.  It’s probably for these reasons that I’ve come to understand and emphasize the import of media literacy and technological skills.  When you can never remember names and dates, it’s important to be really fast and proficient at tracking ’em down.

…Oh yeah, and one other note on the article:  Standardized Tests are BAD.