5/23/2004

Digital Poetry Projects

Filed under: — Joe @ 9:33 pm

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Luigi Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry. 1842. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris, FranceI’ve just finished (third semester in a row) getting all my students’ Digital Poetry Projects burned onto CD’s for them. More and more I’m convinced that this is a project worth doing, and more and more I’m convinced that it’s a project worth improving. The project (broadly outlined) asks students to choose a poem, try to understand it as completely as they can–and to react to it as honestly and deeply as they can–and then communicate that understanding and reaction in the form of a multimedia presentation. I have them use Microsoft PowerPoint–because it’s easy to use, and already installed throughout the college and on many of their home computers. But some of the MMP majors or others who are more techno-minded (three, this term) go beyond that and do some more sophisticated work with Macromedia Director, etc.

In any case, their task is to figure out how to divide up the text of the poem, to choose images (with some web-searching training to help them find the right images) for each segment (stanza, line, group of lines, space in between lines–lots of possibilities), to choose fonts, colors, animations, transitions, and then to choose a piece of music (or more than one, or voice narration or annotation) to fit with the whole presentation. The last step is to include “notes” (for which PowerPoint conveniently provides a little “click here” box) to explain their choices–and provide some meta-analysis.

The project has some strengths:

  • I’ve never seen students concentrate so hard, and for so long, on making choices about what a poem means.
  • They learn about using the web to find very precise results, not taking the first choice.
  • They learn about looking for deeper interpretations, rather than just literal illustrations (“The poem says ‘little cat feet’ so I’ll find a picture of a cat'”)
  • They have products at the end which are “public” and about which they feel a great deal of justifiable pride.
  • They discuss, with a great deal of seriousness, amongst themselves, and even argue vehemently, their interpretations of poems.
  • Even students who don’t have very strong English skills can create extremely effective presentations–the same goes for students who have different learning styles (visual, verbal, etc.)
  • They learn how to use PowerPoint with confidence and success, which may seem like a trivial skill, but many of them are going to need exactly this skill after graduation. What’s even better, they learn to use PowerPoint with some flair and creativity, as impossible as that may seem.

The project has some weaknesses, too, and I’m working on those…

  • Not all students are able to move beyond the “picture of a cat” phase.
  • Because I let them choose their own poems, and because I leave so much of the reaction and choice of presentation up to them, I get a lot of poems which barely rise above the Hallmark card level–and sometimes fall far below it. It’s the old “scaffolding vs. dictating” dilemma.
  • Burning the damn CD’s (making sure all the presentations work right, first, and getting the music to play) takes an awful long time, especially when, like this semester, I have so many students in the class.

But overall, I’m glad I’ve done it–and it’s going to be very interesting to analyze the evidence and write up the results for my VKP Poster and for conference presentations and articles.

Students love doing these projects, and I’d like to see if I can get more people to do them, in more (and different kinds of) classes.

5/22/2004

Another Conference Acceptance–and a Dilemma

Filed under: — Joe @ 4:40 pm

League for Innovation in the Community College Conference on Information TechnologyI’ve just heard that my proposal has been by the League for Innovation in the Community College for their 2004 Conference on Information Technology.

It’s in Tampa in November, so that’s good, and it’s a big, informative, well-designed and well-organized conference:

The League for Innovation’s annual Conference on Information Technology (CIT) is the premier showcase of the use of information technology to improve teaching and learning, student services, and institutional management. Celebrating 18 years of excellence, CIT features a technologically sophisticated and topically diverse program that enables educators to explore and expand their use of technology.

CIT is technologically sophisticated and topically diverse. Each year the conference attracts participants eager to share in an exhibition of how technology continues to change the art and business of education. The League for Innovation’s annual CIT serves as: A technology showcase for state-of-the-art information technology applications;

  • A place to foster globalization in national and international communications among community college educators;
  • An incubator and emporium of ideas for enhancing the teaching and learning process;
  • A path to support the human side of technology and help break down barriers and fears about technology;
  • A venue to create awareness of community college initiatives; and
  • An engaging, exciting, and fun time.

So that’s good.
But here’s the bad part…the keynote speaker is…Jeb Bush! 🙁 What kind of ridiculous choice is that? An enemy of public education and the intellectual life for his whole career. It casts a shadow over the whole conference. I mean, if the conference board is going to be this careless in accepting a keynote speaker (or worse, if they actually admire him), just how well-conceived can the conference really be?

I’ll still go to the conference, I suppose (I really want to show people the Digital Poetry Projects–to be discussed in another post), but I do believe I’ll spend the keynote by the pool. My general policy is to skip keynotes, anyway–I’ve never heard a useful or interesting one yet.

5/21/2004

The switch is done

Filed under: — Joe @ 9:53 am

It looks like, aside from some minor tweaking (I’m not completely pleased with the way the rss feed is working), the switch is finished.

This is now a WordPress blog, instead of MovableType. I had some configuration problems, and figuring out the new templates was (as I expected) a little hard on me. But I think I can give myself a big round of applause! 🙂

5/18/2004

An early switch for the blog?

Filed under: — Joe @ 9:45 pm

WordPress.orgI’m thinking, before this blog really gets big (tiny as it is right now), of switching away from MovableType and to WordPress. It’s not really because of Six Apart’s recent, much-lamented decision to make Movable Type cost money (and not just a little, either). They’re still going to keep the free version, which seems pretty suitable for my needs, and it’s easy enough to stay free with just keeping the older version instead of upgrading to version 3. But I can see that the constant “rebuilding” required by Movable Type could become a bit of a problem when (if) this blog ever gets big. I’m also concerned about size on the server…which is nowhere near a problem yet, but could be, someday, and WordPress seems (from what I hear) to manage this problem much better.

From the quick look I’ve had, WordPress seems to have even better features, and it really installs much easier than MT. But will I be able to keep my oh-so-beautiful design? Or, more accurately, will I be able to figure out how to use the templates and features of WP? That, truly, remains to be seen, especially since I can’t say I’ve really mastered MT. At all! But, I’m always in the market for another time-waster. Hah!

5/16/2004

Never underestimate coincidence…

Filed under: — Joe @ 9:08 pm

Or…lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place.

So last week Wednesday we had some big-time lightning and thunder here in NYC. Of course, I got caught outside (walking from Montague to Sackett Street along Court Street in Brooklyn–no need to discuss why), and I got soaked.

Not such a big deal, I got home and dried off. But when I (dry) sat down at my computer, I discovered something very troubling.

I have a wired/wireless network with two desktops (the wired part) and one or two laptops (the wireless) sharing an internet connection with a Netgear MR314 router.

While I was out in the rain, I left the two desktops turned on and connected, but the laptop was with me at work. This has been my common practice for two or three years. Everything is plugged in to surge protectors.

But after the lightning and thunder, the first thing I saw on my computer was a ZoneAlarm message that a new network had been detected, with IP address 169.254.0.0 and that it had been added to the Internet Zone.

“That’s weird,” I thought, and tried to get on the internet to check it out. My system froze. At the same time, my wife, in the other room with the other computer, said “my computer’s not responding!”

So I power-cycled the router, the DSL modem, and both computers.

On my computer, I got a message “PCI configuration error–BIOS disabled” and it wouldn’t boot. My wife’s computer booted–but it said “network cable disconnected” even though, of course, the cable *was* connected.

So I suspected the router was the problem.

Now, the MR314 has 4 wired ports, and I had two of them not in use (I use them sometimes–they go to other rooms), so I switched the cables for the two desktops to the two previously unused ports.

Voila! Everything worked fine.

So it looks like I have a router with 4 wired ethernet ports, two of which are completely fried. The wireless is still working fine–and I can use a switch to make up for the two fried ports.

It certainly seemed like it was lightning–especially as I started poking around and found that every component in the whole system was plugged into a surge protector–except the router.

Well, lesson learned, I thought, and not too big a tragedy.

But then, Friday, I started noticing that my desktop was not responding sometimes when I clicked on links. And other times even when I wasn’t on the internet, it would just slow down to almost nothing. I could restart–no effect. I realized, too, that the hard drive activity light was lit pretty constantly at these times.

I went back and forth, thinking and fuming, troubleshooting everything, assuming that the lightning strike had also hit my NIC (which is onboard on the motherboard) or possibly the motherboard itself.

But after mucho troubleshooting, I decided “hey! maybe it’s the c: drive!” I did a scandisk and found…bad clusters! lots of them!. “Oh ho!” I thought “This drive is dying!” But almost before I could even get that thought out of my mind…boom. It died. My system would not boot. I was pretty convinced, but I tried some other steps first (switched the drive to different IDE channel–booted into Linux with a Knoppix disc, even switched the drive to an IDE controller card)–all no good. That drive (it was an IBM Deskstar 60GXP) was totally dead.

So, some quick shopping around found me a Maxtor 80 gig (the old IBM was a 20 gig) for just 60 bucks at Staples.

After a long day of reinstalling first Windows, then all the Updates, then all my software, I’m back in business with a new, shiny, fast, 80 gig C drive. I even got smart (finally) and Ghosted it as soon as it was all set up, so I have a fresh image to go back to if necessary.

No real loss…all my data is on a separate drive (not just a separate partition), so it was good–and I had made a good backup of that drive just a month ago. But you can bet I’m going on a more regular backup schedule from now on!

Now I’m left with the question…does lightning strike twice in the same place? Was that drive just due to die (it was at least six or seven years old–and heavily used)? Or was it affected by the evil bolt from Zeus, too?

So far, my suspicion is…coincidence. (Had to balance out the good luck–I just won a nifty fleece jacket from Sloan-C, so something had to go wrong!)

5/14/2004

Citation Machine

Filed under: — Joe @ 7:28 pm

David Warlick offers a very nice free online tool for students working on research papers, the Landmarks Citation Machine.

It’s very comprehensive, turning the basic information about any source (including books, works in anthologies, articles, even electronic resources, forum postings and interviews) into properly formatted citations or parenthetical citations in both MLA and APA formats.

It’s almost enough to make me feel that my own (ongoing) efforts in MaGiCS are a reinvention of the wheel.

But in the spirit of total accuracy, sour grapes, and tooting my own horn, I have to point out that while I haven’t included parenthetical citations, or all the different kinds of sources (yet), my citation generators for books and articles will make lower-case letters into capitals, as needed.

And also, my design is much easier on the eyes than David Warlick’s pages (blue and yellow with red and blue letters–yech!). (That’s the sour grapes part).

5/9/2004

Abu Ghraib and National Dishonor

Filed under: — Joe @ 3:43 pm

I’ve been reading some pretty stunning claims on some of the discussion boards. People want to say that the outrage over Abu Ghraib is politically motivated, or that it’s an unfair attempt to “slam” Bush or Rumsfeld or the Republicans or the military.

Others, in an even more heinous attempt at denial, want to quote Rush Limbaugh in calling this a “fraternity prank” or “just humiliation.”

I even saw one post that tried to somehow blame “liberal academia” for the abuse–in an unprecedented display of bending-over-backward. Too ridiculous to repeat here.

I find all these maneuvers sickening, and I’m honestly surprised that anyone would stoop so low–although I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised by now.

My feelings about this are much closer to those expressed (quite eloquently–he seemed honestly, emotionally, shaken) by Mark Shields on The News Hour Thursday night (May 6).

I’ve been to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, I’ve been to Bethesda Naval Hospital in suburban Maryland and spent time in the company of the 340 Americans who had been severely wounded since the president declared mission accomplished. They’ve lost arms, they’ve lost legs. They’ve lost their sight. Not one of them I ever talked to — men and women – ever lost any belief in the mission, in the unit they served in and the tasks that they have been assigned. They have been dishonored. They have been sullied. Their service and their sacrifice has been stained. That’s how profound this is. This isn’t going to go away.

This is not political, it really isn’t — back and forth on that. It is not three points for John Kerry, five points for George Bush. This is national. It’s not going to change, you know, if George Bush loses and Don Rumsfeld leaves or whatever. It is not going to change. This is a permanently upon Americans.

I was also reminded of a small piece of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. When the narrator is in basic training, just finishing up, a deserter from his regiment who has murdered a young girl is captured, tried, convicted and brought back to the regiment to be hanged.

He belonged to us, he was still on our rolls. Even though we didn’t want him, even though we should never have had him, even though we would have been happy to disclaim him, he was a member of our regiment. We couldn’t brush him off and let a sheriff a thousand miles away handle it. If it has to be done, a man — a real man — shoots his own dog himself; he doesn’t hire a proxy who may bungle it. The regimental records said that Dillinger was ours, so taking care of him was our duty.

that night we started thirty days of mourning for Barbara and of disgrace for us, with our colors draped in black, no music at parade, no singing on route march. Only once did I hear anybody complain and another boot promptly asked him how he would like a full set of lumps? Certainly, it hadn’t been our fault — but our business was to guard little girls, not kill them. Our regiment had been dishonored; we had to clean it. We were disgraced and we felt disgraced.

We are all disgraced, it’s our mess, it’s our responsibility, and we need to be very open and clear about the dishonor which these soldiers and their commanders have brought upon all of us. Sure, they’re exceptions, sure, they don’t represent the military as a whole, or Americans as a whole–but if that’s true at all, then we have to own them and every bit of their dishonor as well.

5/7/2004

A frustrating article about student frustration

Filed under: — Joe @ 8:18 pm

First Monday has an article (which I read via Palimpsest) about “Students’ Frustrations with a Web-Based Distance Education Course.”

The article is a very good example of a very bad kind of research. It points out (rightly) that there’s a shortage of good qualitative research on Distance Learning, especially research that focuses on the experience of the students. But then it doesn’t really provide that kind of research.

The students in the course which the article examines are frustrated…but they’re not frustrated because of any inherent problems with DL. They’re frustrated because this particular course (“B555”) is poorly-designed and poorly-implemented.

In summary, in this distance education course, students’ frustration originated from three sources:

  • technological problems;
  • minimal and not timely feedback from the instructor; and,
  • ambiguous instructions on the Web site as well as via e-mail.

Now, these frustrations are real–and these problems with this course are real, too. But they are not necessarily representative of any large majority of DL courses. The article’s authors, Noriko Hara and Rob Kling, do try to address this objection:

It is easy to place the burden of students’ frustrations wholly upon the instructor’s limitations. With an experienced and skilled instructor, the students would have found the online version of B555 to be a valuable delight! There is good reason to believe that many online courses are taught sufficiently well that the students value them and do not experience the kinds of frustrations that we discovered in this case.

One might argue that this course was a unique case of a poor instructor poorly teaching an online course, and that this “oddball case” tells us nothing about online courses. We differ with this last interpretation. The department chair had taught some online courses and his department had notable experience with online courses taught by several of his faculty. He could have cancelled the online course if he could not find a competent instructor. He could have sought mentoring help for the instructor. Alternatively, she might have sought advice from the faculty about improving her teaching of this online course. None of these alternatives were enacted. It would be remarkable if this were the only time that an academic administrator mis-perceived the pedagogical capabilities of a replacement instructor when faced with the loss of the original instructor. It appears that even an experienced administrator and online teacher also mis-perceived the kinds of pedagogical shifts required from face-to-face teaching, and could underestimate the extent to which mentoring could be critical. Certainly, these issues arise in traditional face-to-face courses.

Yes, these issues arise in traditional face-to-face courses. But do they arise more frequently in online courses? The authors make no such claim (as they have no evidence to support such a claim) but they clearly make such an implication. It’s a very unfortunate implication.

The article’s ultimate conclusion:

Clearly, we need more student-centered studies of distance education. We need research that is designed to teach us how the appropriate use of technology and pedagogy could make distance education beneficial for students.

is one I support 100%.

But the overall tone of the article, the implication that these authors have “discovered” some hidden node of failure or frustration in distance learning generally, is extremely harmful–and misleading.

Bad instruction is bad instruction. It’s frustrating for students, and detracts from the educational mission of the particular course and the institution as a whole. But that fact is not exclusive to DL.

Similarly, research which succumbs to utopianism or a pollyannish extolling of virtues, is not a useful kind of research–but it is not a kind of research that is exclusive to DL research.

Studies like the one presented in this article, however, go too far in the other direction. If we really want a worthwhile look at the benefits or drawbacks of distance learning, we need to look at a competent (at least) example.

5/6/2004

Filed under: — Joe @ 9:10 pm

Lee Lefever has posted an excellent little guide–“Wikis Described in Plain English,” from which I will borrow liberally (giving him credit, of course!) when I talk to faculty about wikis in the future.

For a “technology” which is so simple, the wiki is surprisingly difficult to explain. Showing, of course, is better than telling, but it’s nice to have someone make such a clear and accessible effort at telling, too.

The “Scribbling Woman” says that she’s thinking of having students in an Intro to Lit class do a wiki–for a collaborative study guide. I’m not sure if that’s the way I’d want to use it–as my Intro to Lit doesn’t use exams, but papers instead. But I think she’s got a good point about the advantages for students of an ongoing effort and instant gratification.

5/1/2004

Terrifying

Filed under: — Joe @ 4:18 pm

I watched a truly terrifying Frontline report, The Jesus Factor, the other night.

We have a president (and most Americans still say they would vote to reelect him), who absolutely does not agree with the idea of America as a secular democracy. It’s not just that some of his policies threaten the separation of Church and State–he doesn’t, in his heart, believe that the separation of Church and State is a good idea.

He sees this as a Christian country, and his mission as a God-given Christian mission.

But perhaps the most terrifying statistic was that 40% of Americans identify themselves as “evangelical” or “born again,” and that, as Bush proved, it’s possible to be elected president with the fundamentalist Christian vote…and nothing else.

How close is theocracy? Closer than I want to imagine.

Frontline, as usual, provides an excellent web resource, too–with tons of great additional information, and the opportunity to watch the whole show online.

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