Friday, December 14, 2012

The Five Stages of Teaching, Or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned To Love Learning.

If you are lucky or unlucky enough to teach, you know: it is a unique experience. There is nothing quite like trying to help someone else learn something that you presume to know.

If you don't presume to know what you're teaching, that's something else: finding out together. And that's fine, too. It's not usually what we call teaching, though maybe it should be.

Teaching can actually be a form of 'finding out together'--once you recognize that you do not already know the best way to help another person learn.

Getting to that point--caring enough about another person to help her learn, rather than just telling her stuff--is a journey. In what follows, I'll describe that journey (as I experienced it) in the first person and in five stages. These are like Kubler-Ross's stages of grief--with a few differences.

One difference is: not everyone goes through these stages, and not everyone goes all the way to the end. Different people inhabit different stops along this road, though I find most teachers I know inhabit one such position, and most move at some point along this pathway.

Unlike Kubler-Ross, I don't have the chutzpah (or the research data) to claim these stages are universal. But I bet a lot of folks will recognize in themselves or their teachers at least one of these stages.

1. Coolness

"I'm so lucky: I get to teach. Now I will share with my students all the neat things I know. They will be excited to learn--just like I was."

Note the narcissism here: the learner is just like me. That's one of the first illusions to fall.

I should also point out: Many people never get here. You never get here if:

  • you think teaching is simply a chore that you can do by rote--like washing the dishes.
  • You never try to see things from the learner's point-of-view.
  • You presume that if you show up, say a few words, grade the papers, that you are done. Zero moral responsibility for the other's experience.

If you know some cool stuff and are excited to share it, this is a fine start.

The trouble begins when the first tests and papers come in.


It's everything you told them about the topic--but garbled beyond recognition. Like seeing yourself in a funhouse mirror, only uglier and not fun.

When this happens, you have two options.

Option A. Decide the student is the problem. Keep grading. Soldier on. Develop a sense of humor about how your students don't 'get' you.

Some people stay at 1.A.


Option B. You still love the discipline. You want them to understand. You need them to understand. (Because, of course it's still about you and not the student.) You decide to try a new tack.

2. Brute Force

"I will make them understand. Clarity. Order. I will find The Perfect Way to explain every topic and sub-topic."

You are no longer naive. There is some improvement in the results--but at a cost.

You become a maniac. Strict repetition. Narrowness. No original thinking permitted.

You have made the students parrots. You are a martinet at best, a drill sargent at worst.

Your enthusiasm is gone. Replacing it? Creepy pleasure in domination, control.

3. The Game

You begin to be irked. You are irked by the few students who do not fall under your control. They refuse to learn. They are backwards. They must be shown The Way.

You are bound and determined. So begins Stage #3.

"I will prevent them from escaping my grasp. I will find every exit, every loophole, every way of avoiding learning. I will block all the exits. No one gets outta here uninformed."

Teaching becomes a strategic interaction. Everything is now a contest. It's you vs. the student.

Now you're not just a martinet or a drill sargeant: now you really are an asshole.

You still think your discipline is the most important thing. But you have confused a discipline and a religion.

You will succeed in convincing your students of this: you are a jerk, and learning is no fun. Big win for you: none of your students will go on to graduate school in your discipline. More space in the journals for you.

4. The Awakening

You realize something. "This is no fun. I am an asshole."

You recognize what you've done. Antagonism has edged out joy. You have killed joy. The whole reason you thought teaching was fun? It's gone. God is dead: you have killed Him. The funhouse mirror is no longer your students: it's you.

You clean the slate, start fresh.

"I will change things up. I will focus on questions, not answers. I will aim to inspire, not control; to attract, not to dominate."

You recognize that statements can be misunderstood. So you forego statements. You switch to questions. You pose riddles. You offer puzzles. The battle is over, because there are no sides. You are trying to arouse curiosity: there are no sides to curiosity.

You try to interest students in what is interesting in your discipline. Your discipline sheds light on puzzles, clarifies mysteries. The beginning of every initiation ritual is the recognition of a mystery, something larger than yourself.

It's finally here: humility. It was a long time in coming.

This is the beginning. You might teach this way for a very long time: question-driven, inspiring. People talk about your classes. Students seek you out. They wrongly believe you have more answers than you do. Posing questions sometimes makes people think you have the answers--but are hiding them. You are hiding nothing. You are only showing how to ask.

This is a fine place to be.

You might, however, continue down the path just a bit further.

5. Permanent Revolution

The turn has been taken. There is no going back.

Rigidity is gone.

You tried one new thing. The floodgates are open. You try something else. It is no longer a question of finding The Way: there are many ways. Pluralism--but not 'anything goes.'

It is no longer a question of the best approach: it is a question of being responsive. You no longer want the learner to come to you: you want to go to the learner.

You try new things. Constantly.

"My syllabus used to be a work of art: now it is a work-in-progress. My only rule is: when in doubt, I will let the students decide. Let the students write the assignments. Let the students write the syllabus. Don't 'make' them: invite them."

Some of your colleagues believe you have lost your mind; some students do too; you don't care.

You will do anything, anything to improve the students' learning experience.

You say "yes" more than "no." Or like the actor improvising, you say "yes--AND...."

Your only yardstick is: success. And that means: the learner's success, not yours. You don't care about rules. You only care about results.

There is no going back.


--Edward R. O'Neill

Monday, October 29, 2012

Vernacular Pedagogy: Some Hallmarks.

The best way to teach about teaching is likely: by example. There are so many principles and theories that could be "applied." But is that really the best way to approach teaching? Not likely.

Teaching is a practical art. You must do it--not just think about it. And when it comes to practice, a good strong example is often quite effective.

Happily, we do not have to scrounge around to find some obscure example of great teaching. There are terrific examples in plain sight, although most people don't sort them into the category of "teaching."

I am talking about what I will call vernacular pedagogy. This is any presentation in any medium which explains rich and complex material very successfully. Two hallmarks of such success are: many people are drawn to the material, and the teaching has a large impact. Information really is passed on, people really do learn, and so vernacular pedagogy has real impact.

Public television is a treasure trove of vernacular pedagogy: Julia Child, Carl Sagan, and Ken Burns quickly leap to mind. Since two are on-screen performers and the third a documentarian, we can see that the vernacular pedagogue is not the same thing as, say, a writer or a director or a TV personality: it's not a job it's more of an avocation.

Classical music has its own explainer-demonstraters:

But a single example of vernacular pedagogy suffices to present the hidden complexities of the form. I've picked Julia Child, because she's wildly pleasurable to watch and to talk about. Just as you could learn from her all day, you can talk about her all day.

Another hallmark of vernacular pedagogy is the combination of otherwise incompatible features. Think of a Julia Child show. It is:

  • practically purposeful,
  • richly layered,
  • easy to absorb yet
  • repays revisiting, it
  • often leads to a deeper engagement, and it is
  • deeply personal.

Practically purposeful. You feel you can do something afterwards you could not before. You are excited to try. You feel empowered, confident. (In learning theory terms, you feel efficacy--that Can-Do Feeling.)

Richly layered. There are many things going on, many topics, many kinds of information. Each is touched on lightly, deftly. It's not an obscure clue that leaves you lost: it's an essential string of related elements which is woven around another such string, so you're getting many things at once without ever being stumped.

Easy to absorb. You're conscious of learning, conscious of being immersed, conscious of absorbing something new, but you're never lost, puzzled, or frustrated. You know where you are, and you know where you are going.

Repays revisiting. It's not that we need to watch it more than once: it's that we want to. You make take a long break, you may think you know everything, but when you do return, you're surprised just how much is there.

Often leads to a deeper engagement. People often fondly remember Julia Child as their first encounter with more sophisticated cooking techniques. It's that moment when you go beyond throwing a piece of food in boiling water or a hot frying pan, when you go beyond fearing it will be burned or raw. You may go quite far beyond some of the recipes and techniques Julia introduced to you. But Julia will always have been a key turning point, the opening of a door.

Deeply personal. Not all teaching is. But great vernacular pedagogy is. Why should sharing knowledge, even very publicly, be so intimate?

I have noticed something with creative writing. (*Among my sidelines is teaching screenwriting.) If you approach creative writing in a certain way, if you start from the right place and work in the right way, some very personal stuff comes out in even the simplest writing tasks.

  • If you imagine a city, a vast network of places and the experiences you've had there, and you imagine running a simple errand, so much of your past and of the city may be attached to that simple route and task.
  • Knowledge is also a network, like a city and like memory too, and some expert guides know how to traverse their network of knowledge and know-how in such a way that a lot happens beyond the seemingly simple tasks set out.

In this way, a terrific vernacular pedagogue shares something very personal: personal it how it was acquired, personal in how it is organized, personal in how it is shared.

Why does vernacular pedagogy matter?

Today the liberal arts education is under fire. Many call for something that prepares young people for jobs and careers, rather than merely making them "well-rounded individuals" (which itself sounds pretty mechanical).

Reflecting on it in this way, vernacular pedagogy actually seems like a good model for some excellent things you'd expect from a liberal arts education. Vernacular pedagogy offers a stimulus to do something, begins a lifelong journey of revisiting some exciting and important issues, makes learning deeply personal, and begins a long task of becoming the kind of education that never ends.

  --Edward R. O'Neill

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Lecturing, Like Teaching, Is a Practical Art.


Practical Arts

There are many facts and principles that are relevant to cooking.

  • The way gluten works in dough to form something that is chewy or tender.
  • The various temperatures at which meat must be cooked to be tasty or safe.
  • Etc.

And you can know many such things and still be just a terrible cook.

In a practical art, you must actually do something. And the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating.

You can't just know some facts and principles: you must marshall the facts and apply the principles in a particular task, and you must know whether what's in front of you is rare, well-done or burnt beyond rescue.

Teaching Is a Practical Art.

The teacher must teach this lesson and then that one, this topic and that one, this student and that one.

There's no shortage of theories of teaching and learning. They can be found in:

  • instructional design,
  • educational psychology,
  • cognitive psychology,
  • curriculum design,
  • etc.

But a practical art is not applied theories: it is knowledge used. (And this is why arts education probably has more to say about teaching the practical arts than theories do: arts are not just ideas--they're applied.)

So what does a teacher actually do? And how do we help her do it?

Practical Arts Connect Instances to Types.

One of my key ideas about teaching as a practical art is: the central distinction in any practice (as opposed to theory) is type vs. instance.

For those of you who are not philosophy nerds: the letter "y" is a type, and every single letter y, whether it's hand-written or typeset and printed in ink or glowing on a screen is an instance of that type.

  • Every practitioner is constantly asking herself: "Is what I'm looking at or doing an instance of Type X--or not?"
    • Is the steak I'm looking at rare or medium?
    • Has the gluten set up in this dough to make it chewy?
    • Have I stirred this batter too much and made it tough, not tender?


  • Is what I need to teach today a fact, rule or procedure?
  • Is the student behavior I'm seeing a result of lack of motivation, lack of prior knowledge of the topic, lack of doing the homework--or something else?

A Good Lecture Is Organized as Instances of a Type.

As education goes, so goes the lecture. Indeed, I am beginning to think the lecture is a very fine microcosm for so many facets of education, that one could begin and end with the lecture and still get a lot said and done.

That said, the type/instance distinction should be the central organizing principle of lecturing.

  • A big chunk of what we do in teaching is: to present abstract types through typical instances.
    • We start with the clearest, most prototypical instance. Only then should we introduce the abstract or general type--the rule, concept, procedure, etc.
  • Yes, we teach concepts and procedures and problem-solving and cognitive strategies. But the type-instance relation dominates over all these.
    • A concrete instance is the best way to present new information.

Why are concrete details so appealing? Shouldn't we start with a clear generality?


Dale Was Right--But Not Like People Think.

Dale's "Cone of Experience" is often trotted out to discuss instructional media--and to recommend hands-on activities over the mere reading of words off a page.

But people have forgotten what Dale was writing about.

  • Dale was trying to conceptualize various degrees of remove from concrete immediate experience to various kinds of abstractions.
  • Dale believed that what was more immediate was more striking and engaging, and anything derivative becomes increasingly pallid.

One can object to this as Platonism, but as a rule-of-thumb, there is something to Dale's idea.

Even if we admit that in a lecture or essay we are still using symbols called words to talk about an imaginary situation, an imagined situation described in detail can still be more engaging than words referring to pure abstractions. (Have you ever read a good novel? Those symbols can be pretty engaging.)

  • Compare the following two statements of the same idea.

    • e = mc2
    • If you squeeze a piece of plutonium hard enough, the physical matter in it will turn into energy--so much energy that 2.2 pounds of plutonium will produce the same size explosion as 21 thousand tons of TNT.

The latter is expressed in symbols called words--but it is considerably more compelling than Einstein's famous formula.

How To Lecture: A Suggestion

A clear pathway for organizing lectures would work like this.

  • Start with a clear and interesting instance of the topic.
    • Try to make that instance striking or surprising in some way--something that diverges from common sense.
    • Avoid introducing technical vocabulary before you have described the instance in ordinary language that non-experts can follow.
  • Only then introduce the general type of which you've given a striking instance.
    • Present this general type as clearly and simply as you can.
  • Revisit your clear & striking instance, and 'process it' into the chunks of your abstraction.
    • This is a bit easier if your initial instance is sequenced somehow to match the abstraction--for instance that each big piece of it or major player aligns neatly with a key concept in the abstraction.
  • Continue with a series of increasingly complex or ramified instances.
    • Alternate between interesting details and clear abstractions.
    • It is best to add complexity to your abstractions no more than one or two elements at a time: too many complications will prevent the listener from following.

In short:

  • Begin by interesting your audience in a fascinating and puzzling problem. The form here is a detailed story, a kind of mystery, about a problem--and its surprising solution.

How To Lecture Poorly

This suggests that lectures can fail to help the learner in a few ways.

  • Some poor lectures start at the level of abstraction and technical vocabulary and stay there too long. If the listener has no idea what the abstractions point to, it will be devilishly hard to process what's being said.
  • Another sort of poor lecture presents many details without saying what they're about or how they're related: many instances without any clear type. The listener wants to shout: "This is an example of what?"
  • Yet another type of poor lecture tries to get the student to solve a detailed problem she can't possibly

And if you want to see many instances of lecturing poorly, just look at some of the video lectures which seem to be the mainstay of MOOC's these days. (You'll also see some good lecturing, too--but you'll have to look hard for it.)

--Edward R. O'Neill

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What Style Is Best Suited to the Lecture?

Bashing 'The Lecture.'

Lately, everyone in higher ed seems to have some axe to grind about The Lecture.

  • Many are against the lecture.

  • Some are fine with the lecture: they just want it online rather than face-to-face.

  • Some want the lecture front-loaded and abbreviated.

  • Still others want the lecture captured--taped, watched-on-demand, put in a tin can, in single-size servings, and perhaps even wrestled to the ground.

Pity the lecture: more sinned against than sinning.

But do we even know what a lecture is? Don't different lecturers in fact do different things?

(Sometimes I think all debates are started by closet monists--those who thing All Is One, because if you are a pluralist, and you accept that x contains variety within itself, you really don't get enmeshed in some pretty silly statements.)

  • Isn't it rather foolish to think of the lecture as one thing?

  • Does the lecture simply "deliver information"--like Domino's 'delivers' pizza?

  • Is anyone generically against the book or the essay? Yes, people may be against the tweet or the Powerpoint, but there I have more sympathy.

It's like being against bottles--because some contain unhealthy stuff.

Against such facile assumptions, it should be a given that: a lecture can do many things.

  • Orient and preview. Think of a tour guide. 'We are here, and we're going there.'

  • Demonstrate how to do something--or how not to. 'Watch me do this, step by step.'

Doubtless there are many other things a lecture can do, but orientation and demonstration are probably central to lecturing.

This doesn't even yet get at: what a good lecture is or does. But we can get partway there by asking What style is best suited to the lecture?

The Classic Style.

One very nice framework for thinking about verbal style is the one offered by Thomas & Turner in Clear and Simple as the Truth.

Thomas and Turner outline a classic style, which they differentiate from a number of other styles, the two most important being: the practical style and the plain style.

  • The classic style pretends not to make an argument. It hides its argument under the guise of 'showing.' The writer seems only to present a clear sequence of descriptions. But the descriptions and the sequence are carefully arranged to bring the reader to the conclusion the writer plans out in advance.

    • Descartes' Meditations would be a canonical example. Descartes wants to make an argument about knowldge and introspection, but he does it by describing himself sitting by the fire over a series of evenings.

    • Indeed, Descartes all but invents the classic style, because he needs to assume that, in contrast to arcane scholastic mysteries, divine revelation or mere belief, reasoning and observation alone are needed to gain access to unshakeable truth, and he cannot prove this--it's unprovable--so he must instead build the assumption into his style.

  • By contrast, the practical style presents a professional discussing how to solve a technical problem with other professionals. The practical style is a report rather than an essay. It explicitly argues where the classic style feigns merely to show.

  • The classic style is also at one degree of remove from the plain style--which aims to set forth a basic or common understanding. "When I was a child, I spake as a child." The classic style, by contrast, assumes that common knowledge is not worth communicating: it's already known.

    • Therefore, the classic style concentrates on things that are surprising. The classic style even has a characteristic gesture of taking a common expression and twisting it slightly to produce an arresting insight--like an epigram.

    • "The truth is rarely pure and never simple" is both an instance of the classic style and one of the assumptions behind it.

Why We Have So Few 'Public Intellectuals.'

Now if you ask yourself "Which style do scholars write in?" you come to the sad conclusion that scholars write in the practical style: they debate about professional squabbles and quandaries, and they urge their fellow professionals to view and do things this way, rather than that.

Little wonder it is so hard for undergraduates (and even many graduate students) to enter into scholarly debates. The prose practically screams out "for professionals only--do not enter!" And many are content to walk away.

This explains why we have so few 'public intellectuals.' Scholars can't speak to a wide audience, because they are entirely trained to argue technical matters with other professionals. Scholars are professionals first and members of the public second--or third or fourth.

It is a sociological fact (yet open to inspection to anyone who cares to see) that the harder it is to enter a profession, the more one gives up and the less one gains, the more strongly one is yoked to one's identity as a professional.

Law and business degrees take less time to earn than Ph.D.'s, and the former professions pay better: the lawyer or MBA can afford hobbies; the professor, on the other hand, must needs be a professor first, foremost and always. Being a professor is more like a scar than a hat: you cannot doff it at will.

But this frame allows us to see why so much academic work seems so irrelevant--both to students and to the wider public. Scholarship is simply not written to be read by anyone but experts. And this means that scholars largely don't learn how to write or speak to be understood--not even by undergraduates. (Any undergrad can understand what Descartes says: it's what he means that's challenging.)

The Lecture as Collateral Damage.

Hence the lecture becomes impoverished, because the lecture should be in the classic style but can't be. All of which leads to some sad contradictions.

  • In the first two years of college, students often read texts in the classic style--and yet they are asked to write in a scholarly mode which is far closer to the practical style. There is a mismatch here: 'read something like this but don't write that way.' (The students aren't encouraged to write in the classic style largely because most professors can't.)

  • Thus, lectures should be at least partly in the classic style.

    • If you are orienting students towards something they do not already know, then they are not yet experts, not yet fellow professionals, and you cannot reasonably speak to them in the practical style--as you'd address fellow professionals.

    • So at some point, you must likely begin by orienting students towards the discipline and the subject matter using the classic style.

    • Lectures may descend into the practical style--'solve this kind of problem using this technique, and here I'll demonstrate it'--but it is the classic style which is best geared to engaging non-experts in something interesting and complex.

The fact that so few lectures avail themselves of the classic style only shows that we have failed to train scholars to speak or write in more than one style. Stylistic facility should be one of the main learning outcomes for graduate school--at least if we want our scholars to be understood, which I sometimes doubt. (Economists are a different matter: they clearly do not wish to be understood, because if they were understood, we would likely take them somewhere quiet and punch them.)

And if you doubt what I have said, I propose you perform a simple test. Go back and read some Descartes. Then watch one of the many video lectures now flooding the interwebs in things called "MOOC's." I think you will find you agree with me.

Lectures may be spoken but that is a far cry from being understood.


--Edward R. O'Neill

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Getting Students Started with Video Literacy

Given the prominence of television and film in our culture, it is surely desirable that our students should be able to analyze moving images as carefully as we want them to read prose.

We can strengthen our students' ability to decode images by also asking them to 'write' a message in moving images. But working with video can be intimidating. We are accustomed to thinking of the most sophisticated professional media production.

There are, however, a few simple ways to raise your students' level of facility in thinking in moving images. And a basic ability to capture, share and edit video clips is the basis for anything more complex.

There is no value in adding video production on top of and separate from other course goals. A better strategy is rather to use video as a platform to support typical liberal arts activities. E.g.,

  • discussion & commentary,
  • demonstration & oral presentation,
  • observation & data collection.

The first three steps can be outlined quickly.

1. Capture, upload, share.

This is the most basic workflow: capture some images, get them on a computer, and share them somehow.

The main thing to notice here is: we are not talking about editing. Before students an become competent editors, they simply need to record footage and share it.

Devices for capturing video were once expensive and technically forbidding. Now most students can capture video using:

  • a laptop,
  • a camera, or
  • a smartphone.

You might ask students to:

  • interview each other or record a short commentary--rather than posting to a discussion board,
  • give a short presentation or demonstrate a skill (as in the case of foreign language skills),
  • gather or observe visual information--e.g., about buildings, plants, social interactions, etc.

Sharing short videos on Youtube is very easy.

  • Some phones and laptops have this as a default option when saving a video.
  • You can ask students to post a link in an online discussion board.
  • "Unlisted" videos in Youtube are not index and not searchable, so they are as good as private.

It's always advisable to start any assignment that requires the use of technology as simply as possible and to grade so as to reward completion rather than to expect sophistication right out of the gate.

2. Trim or split a clip.

After you are certain students can capture video and share it, you can start asking them to select and sharpen their messages.

Trimming and splitting are the most basic kinds of editing.

  • Trimming means: removing the ends of a clip.
  • Splitting means: dividing a single clip into one or more clips.

Clearly: trimming is easier. The implication is: you are throwing away some information you don't need.

Trimming and splitting are the beginning of saying something precise using video. A recording can be done to include only what's essential. But as with writing or any art form, you aren't really 'speaking' until you are leaving something out.

One good reason to start with these skills is: trimming and splitting can be done right in Youtube. So students need no special software: just a web browser. There's even a Youtube video that explains the basics.

Assignments that work well here include:

  • select the single most important moment from an interview;
  • capture a discussion and then share only the highlights;
  • observe a natural or social phenomena and share only the most important elements.

Once students can capture & share, trim & split, they can begin making more complex video messages in earnest.

3. Get started in iMovie.

If you actually want your students to:

  • shoot more than one clip,
  • trim and split clips into individual shots,
  • combine shots into a meaningful sequence,

then you are talking about editing proper.

Here students will need specific requirements about what they should turn in. Just as you would ask for five pages of argumentative prose, you might ask for x minutes of no more than y shots making an argument or telling a story.

In terms of technology, iMovie is the simplest tool available. It's on many students' computers, and in some colleges and universities, it's on every lab computer.

  • If it is a short project, can be finished in one sitting and need never be revised, the students can put the files temporarily on a lab computer
  • If the project:
    • requires more than one person to work on it,
    • must be completed in several sittings,
    • must be revised, then the project and footage should be stored on an external hard drive.

iMovie Best Practices

  • Students will run into problems if they try to move from later versions of iMovie to earlier ones. So the best practice is to start a project on the oldest version of iMovie they will work with.

  • It is always a good idea to back up both the project and its footage regularly.

    • How often? How much work would you like to lose? Back up every time you finish work you don't want to re-do.
  • Similarly, it's wise simply to render a draft of your work, even a short segment, periodically. This way if you lose the original footage, you still have something you can edit down.

And just as you might ask students to turn in drafts of a written paper, asking for drafts of video assignments helps both you and the student.

  • You can make sure the student is working iteratively, drafting & improving, rather than trying to do everything in one sitting.
  • You help the student create drafts that can be used if the original footage gets lost or corrupted.
  • The road to video literacy is littered with obstacles. But the same methods used to teach anything--plus a bit of patience--will generally work well.

    • Start with simple assignments.
    • Use clear initial criteria.
    • Grade generously earlier on.
    • Don't expect miracles.
    • Build up gradually by creating a community organized around discussing your and the students' emergent understandings and standards.

    --Edward R. O'Neill

    Thursday, September 20, 2012

    Are Free Courses Really the Point?

    First, it must be admitted, that giving away high-quality content for free on the internet is a terrific thing.

    It doesn’t matter if they’re movies, images, ebooks, or video lectures. Free knowledge that does not require a trip to the library, let alone the cost of a physical book–that must be admired.

    And so: hat’s off to Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Princeton and other places which are giving this a shot.

    One can complain that the video lectures being given away for free are sometimes worth exactly what you pay for them.

    But there will always be some dross in smelting the purported gold stored up in elite universties. (I’ve been horrified by what passes for a ‘lecture’ or even intellectual insight or debate–but that’s another story.)

    We can honestly ask, however: Are universities actually giving away the right thing?

    (And one hopes that a few institutions who have not rushed into the fray may pause and choose to demonstrate their thoughtfulness in other ways.)

    Let’s point out, for instance, two things that are not being given away: a curriculum and a platform.

    The Curriculum.

    • A lecture is nice.
    • A discussion question is nice.
    • A reading list is nice.
    • Some free articles are nice.

    But you could find all these things with a few queries in a search engine.

    What’s missing here is something larger: a curriculum.

    A reading list is halfway there. But a reading list and lectures tell you nothing about what you might do to acquire or demonstrate the knowledge contained in those books and lectures.

    A curriculum in the strongest sense of the word is a structured sequence of topics and tasks whose performance is more likely than not (even highly likely) to result in learning–the acquisition of a skill, disposition, habit or body of knowledge.

    The Khan Academy has a kind of curriclum. But I am not enamored of video demonstrations: they seem to me to assume too much about the learner. For me, these lists of videos are closer to an index than a curriculum.

    A curriculum implies standards, but it’s more than standards.

    There are many published sets of standards. Most states publish them for K-12. But the standards most often do not set out learning objectives: what task must be performed to what standard to demonstrate that learning.

    A standard could help you devise a grading rubric: ‘Did the learner in task x show skill y or z, and to what degree?’ But that doesn’t say waht the task is.

    Most published ‘free’ courses, even from very fine institutions, are more of a reading list and a few lectures–which often amount less to guidance than to commentary.

    Some of these lectures are very fine: I’ve admired some of the Open Course lectures on literature from Yale. But then I went to college there and studied literature, and so I have some feeling for the topic and the approach. It’s a refresher course for me–and reminding yourself of something is quite different than learning something new.

    The Platform.

    Even more dispiriting about giving away lectures but not a curriculum is: paying little or no attention to the platform that hosts and supports online learning.

    In the era of Drupal and Wordpress, of Moodle and CanvasLMS, there is no shortage of software packages that ‘manage’ content (i.e., a CMS) or learning (i.e., an LMS).

    This makes it particularly striking, disconcerting and even frightening that those who have chosen to enter The Give Away Learning Derby have had so little feeling for the software which enables not merely downloads but social interaction.

    It’s as if universities have bought into the Matrix view of knowledge in which a plug gets stuck in the back of your head and–boom–you know kung-fu. (Whoa.)

    I’m not master coder. I’ve never contributed a line of code to Firefox or Android or TightVNC or Ubuntu or OpenOffice or MySQL.

    But I see the inspiring virtue of coders around the globe contributing, checking each other’s work, and making the best possible product for the most possible users. The altruism of it astonishes me–and delights me, too. I think it’s one of the best things about our current refashioning of the world on a highly-networked model.

    The web site is not where the learning takes place. (That could be on a bus or a couch, or in a bathtub.) But the web site might be the place where interactions take place which feed and support learning. (I say ‘might’ because existing social media can host conversation, publication and commentary very nicely.)

    So what is this weird idea that the knowledge is in some video lectures and pdf’s–and not in:

    • the tasks people use to acquire knowledge & skills,
    • the sequence of tasks which build learning,
    • the interactions people have which motivate and demonstrate learning,
    • the places which host and support these interactions?

    Most MOOC’s today are to college what instant coffee is to coffee: instead of taking out the water, they’ve taken out the sequences of activities and the social interactions.

    What’s left is so unpalatable, it often seems hardly worth consuming.

    –Edward R. O'Neill

    Wednesday, September 19, 2012

    How To Build MOOC's that Fail

    Having started a half dozen MOOC's in the recent months, I have found most of them tend to share a common trait. Many MOOC's currently represent a sort of parody of higher education's worst practices, its most spectacular delusions about itself.

    And thus they tend to fail--some rather spectacularly.

    (In the interest of protecting the guilty, I won't name specific courses. I have no interest in insulting people who are surely earnest and well-meaning in life--they just happen to lack any experience putting a course online, let alone a MOOC.)

    For the sake of neatness, I'll organize my thoughts here on four's.

    For the same of keeping the reader interested, I'll frame everything ironically: trying to articulate the unspoken assumptions which make so many MOOC's so very dreadful.

    I'll start with the Four Delusions of Higher Education. These underwrite the Four Rules for MOOC Failure.

    1. Sink or Swim. This is simple. Provide no guidance. Don't tell students where things are. Make the goal of the course as mysterious as possible. Give the students "freedom"--like plunking a traveler down in the middle of a strange city.

    2. The Heliotropic Professor. The professor is the center of the learning universe. Everything revolves around the professor. The professor is the sun, and the students are tiny tiny planets--really cosmic dust, basking in the glow of the professor's expertise.

    3. Nothing happens without the professor's instigation. The professor must frame everything, explain everything. Students must do 'exploratory learning'--so they can then find out what the professor thinks, which of course is always right, since assumptions and standards can never be explained. (That would undermine the professor's mysterious sole access to True Knowledge.)

    4. Go Figure It Out. No matter what is said, no matter what is asked for, no matter how unclear or obscure, ultimately the student will just have to Go Figure It Out. After all: they're learning, aren't they? We can't make it too easy for them--like explaining what they should be learning. Since in the end, we are all just lonely particles colliding against each other randomly, why not just make the student responsible? Surely they will thank us later.

    5. The Piehole Illusion. Anything that comes out of the professor's piehole can be learned. The professor can say "2 + 2 = 4" and that will be learned--without the student needing to know if she is learning a fact, a rule, a concept, an allegory, etc. The student may have to listen again and again, and that is all to the good, because what the professor says is so very rewarding.

    If you accept all four of these precepts, it will be very easy to make a MOOC that fails utterly.

    Fails to help a thoughtful person learn anything--because nothing is specificed in the way of learning: nothing about what is to be learned, to what standard, or how.

    But if you need to operationalize this knowledge--and here I go further than almost any MOOC instructor does--you may follow three simple rules.

    1. Conceptualize your course as content. Just imagine all the things you need to tell someone. Then record yourself saying them. That should be enough. If you then add some articles people can read, surely no more is necessary. You will then add a commentary 'explaining' everything--so students understand fully that the professor's view is always the right one.
    2. A course, after all, is just a pile of facts & ideas. The student will just have to go figure out what it all means, how to fit it all together, and above all, how to learn it. (Helping the student learn can't possibly be the instructor's job! The instructor deigns to share his wisdom, and his job ends there. Teaching is like grace: you don't ask why.)

    3. Don't plan any learning activities. Since your course is just content, it can't possibly matter what the student does to learn. Learning is the student's job. So just give them a sandbox and say--go learn there. Don't tell them what to do, what they'll need to practice, nor how anything need be done. Throw up a discussion board and say "talk amongst yourselves!" Done!

    4. Don't consider pre-requisite knowledge. There's no point in worrying if students are ready or not. It's all sink-or-swim, so just throw them in. No pre-tests. No lists of things they might need to know or be able to do. No expectations.

    5. Assume everyone taking your course, no matter where she lives on the planet, is exactly like your current undergrads who pay tens of thousands of dollars for your institutions courses. Assume that nothing about the learner makes any difference.

    In short: univeralize utterly your tiny corner of bourgeois North America. Whatever you do: don't reflect on social, national or cultural difference, nor on how well- or ill-prepared your learners might be.

    Maybe one addendum.

    • Don't hire any instructional designers. No good can come from carefully selecting and arranging carefully designed tasks in a sequence so that the learner is prepared to succeed. (Remember, it's better for the learner to fail--since this proves how terribly complex the subject matter is.) In the 21st century engineers will solve all our problems--you know, like psychoanalysts did in the first half of the 20th century, and nuclear engineers did in the second half of the 20th century. Humanity, you see is not involved. The mind is just a bunch of wetware: so surely engineers know and can do everything that's needed.

    Clearly the subtext here is: an effective learning experience, especially one mediated by time, distance and computer technology, really needs to be designed.

    If you throw a bunch of content out and say "learn this," the learners will get out exactly as much effort as you put in--which is next to none.

    So what you have in front of you now is a really a plea for instructional design. And I know that has issues.

    When professionals get together, the thing they talk about is: how everyone needs them so terribly badly. Dentists wish everyone flossed. Doctors warn about germs. I once had a landlord who was a plumber: he insisted a drain should be cleared with baking soda--lest you harm the terrribly delicate lead pipes.

    Such is the definition of a "profession." It's a specialized kind of knowledge. And it has to value itself and therefore to devalue anyone who doesn't have its special knowledge.

    But if you really want to make a MOOC that makes a difference, if you actually want to share knowledge for others to learn it, not just to show how classy your institution is that it can give away courses (really meaning: lectures), just do the opposite of what most MOOC's do.

    1. Conceptualize your course as things people will be able to do afterwards--with standards attached. A gradated series of tasks and activities is even better. But a final demonstration, with lots of small steps leading up to it will suffice.

    2. Plan activities which will support learning--which let the learner practice and get feedback. Be aware that not everyone will do these activities. Consider making them inherently interesting. Begin with tasks that can be done without specialized knowledge. Maybe even use tasks that have real-world implications--which people find intriguing. And be aware that the students can't possible mentor each other, since their expertise has never been assessed.

    3. Help the learners discover if they are prepared to take the course. You might use a pre-test or a checklist. If this material even links to preparatory activities, you can kill two birds with one stone.

    4. Consider hiring actual instuctional designers: not engineers, not programmers, not someone with a few education courses. Really take seriously that you are designing something. Plan. Make a proof-of-concept. Start small. Scale up. Do all the things that are considered "design thinking"--even if you are not a designer of any sort.

    In short, consider that plunking things on a web site is not design--any more than throwing furniture around a room is interior decorating.

    Or do what everyone else is doing: record a few lectures, throw up a discussion board, and break your arm patting yourself on the back.

    --Edward R. O'Neill

    Friday, September 7, 2012

    The MOOC--and the Coming Unbundling of Higher Ed

    Going out of Business Everything must go!

    The MOOC–the massive open online course–is stirring up a lot of concern.

    And rightfully so. Because “open” here means: come one, come all, no charge. And a college course for free is likely a gamechanger.

    I’ve written before about one aspect of the crisis in higher education: namely, its business model. The MOOC is another leading indicator that higher ed’s business model is in serious trouble.

    Networked computing–the omnipresence of computing devices, connected by wireless and wired networks, using standardized protocols and formats to share multimedia content–has revolutionized many industries.

    • Many record stores are gone, in part thanks to digital music files and the ability to buy and consume them using very tiny computers.
    • Some bookstore chains and independent bookstores have bitten the dust, since internet shopping, shipping and payment systems have made a book across the country slightly more convenient than one down the block. (‘Convenience’ is surely more perception than reality.)
    • Videostore chains and mom-and-pop shops could not stand up against streaming videos to your TV, computer and phone, or renting a DVD at the same place you buy your beer on the way home. (Ah, the glamour of it all.)
    • Paper money is looking real old-fashioned right about now: the ways people pay for things on the internet may replace the ways we currently pay on-site.

    Higher ed is clearly ripe for this kind of assault.

    (To those of you who say “but higher education is something much more profound and noble than a mere industry or service,” I say: those who worked in video stores, record stores and bookshops felt much the same way. Any business that takes in money for whatever purpose can be put out of business. For the present purposes, that is all that counts.)

    • You can now take a whole course on your computer, tablet, phone, etc. And the school offering it may be across the country or around the world.
    • The Open Course movement and (more recently) MOOC’s (massive free online courses) have made the basic content inside a college course basically free.

    All this is pushing towards one specific kind of service innovation: disaggregation or un-bundling. (I know: it's not a new topic.) Currently, you must pay one price for all aspects of higher education–and largely from a single vendor at once. One vendor:

    • hires the experts who have the knowledge,
    • owns the rooms where the courses take place,
    • runs the servers which transfer course material around,
    • brings together the other learners (whose presence is required as a matter of efficiency),
    • houses and feeds the learners,
    • helps the learners move towards graduation, and
    • hands out that all-important credential at the end.

    All these services are bundled.

    • You may pay one price for all these services at once: so much per semester or year.
    • Or you may pay per knowledge slice–i.e., per course.
    • Certainly the housing and feeding are not 100% integral: not all colleges are residential.
    • And even residential colleges will let you buy your food elsewhere, even live off-campus.

    But now higher ed’s remaining services are looking more like food: learners want to buy what they want where they want. (And who can blame them?)

    Higher ed is in danger of becoming the “cafeteria food” of knowledge: stale stuff that’s sitting around being kept warm, the same meat-and-two-vegetables being served to everyone, regardless of their preferences, because it’s more convenient to keep bad food on hand than it is to make the food people want when and where they want it.


    In unbundling, it seems that when one a single element is available freely or very very cheaply, consumer behavior is: to look for ways to downsize the price of the whole service.

    So what are the real valuable pieces of the higher ed service?

    A Community of Excited and Helpful Peer Learners. This is probably the most important part of the equation.

    • If you’ve ever entered grad school with a terrific cohort of curious, hard-working, helpful people, you know what this is like.
    • If you’ve ever taken a course in which the professor excited and empowered students to pursue their own projects, both individually and in groups, then you know how powerful this can be.
    • And if you’ve ever taken an online course with zero meaningful peer interaction, you know how dispiriting the absence of this element can be.

    Subject-Matter Expertise. This comes in the form of professors, books, lectures, etc. You may buy the books, rent them, borrow them from a library.

    This is knowledge: the heart of higher education. And it’s the most removed from the student. Many learners never interact with their professor. Many students don’t care whether they learn from a book, a lecture, a person, or a robot.

    Places To Meet. Physically: classrooms, coffeeshops, libraries, labs, study rooms, etc. But also: chat rooms, web sites, discussion boards, the LMS–any place people can connect, contact each other, leave messages, chat in realtime or asynchronously.

    Guides, Mentors, Advisors. These people help you find your way through the labyrinth. They can be professors, students a year or two ahead of you, teaching assistants, department advisors, counsellors, or old books which recount stories which seem to apply to your life. (The guard at the door of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz always makes me think of every piece of paper I ever had to file in any bureaucracy.)

    Assessment. This is the moment when you prove you learned something. It used to be part of a course–papers, tests, labs, that sort of thing. The validity is guaranteed by the school, department and instructor, by the social and cultural norms of the discipline, and by the accreditation institutions that say ‘this college really meets the appropriate standards.’

    So now we can see what’s happening.

    The last two items are the only ones not being revolutionized. Which means it’s only a matter of time.

    • The community of learners doesn’t need to be face-to-face. They don’t need to be convened and housed by an institution–which might actually do a bad job at it. You can find your own friends: we do it throughout life. College needn’t be any different. And social media is the new place to find and interact with like-minded people.
    • The subject-matter expertise is now basically free: video lectures, ebooks, web resources. Research databases are still a sticking point: the service is expensive, and membership in a school community is basically required. But there’s lots besides.
    • The rooms are no longer necessary–although they’re a nice luxury. Students also study at Starbucks, at a friend’s place, and (in good weather) on a nice lawn. Lovely libraries and study rooms are nice, but if you hate your peers, it’s no good. Students seldom take pleasure in using the LMS. Students have their own preferred communication channels and hangout spaces. And when distance enters the equation, physical rooms no longer matter. The communication tools simply need to be plug-and-play.
    • Advising and mentoring has never been the most consistent part of higher ed. Colleges and universities try to provide it, but I believe often it doesn’t work, and students simply turn to their peers for advice. (“Just read the textbook–nothing from Jones' lectures shows up on the test.” “Don’t forget to file your yellow form by Friday–or you can’t graduate in the spring.” Etc.)

    This means that only two pieces of the higher ed services have yet to be replaced (in principle if not in practice).

    what what it was what it can be
    a community of learners a cohort, classmates social media
    subject-matter experts professors, books, articles, lectures free resources: lectures from MOOC's, free ebooks, etc.
    places to meet classrooms, the LMS social media
    guides & mentors advising, professors, upperclassmen ?




    The guidance and mentoring part is hard. This is likely where colleges should focus: connecting every student with several experts who are really good at mentoring, not just showing up for office hours because they have to.

    But in the end, if you’re a college, students really just need you for the piece of paper: assessment from an accredited institution.

    As soon as employers accept badges, or colleges start giving tests to pass students out of courses (for a small fee), it’s done: the services are unbundled.

    If you’re a college, people will soon be competing for every aspect of the services you provide. Some of these services are now free. How higher ed solves this problem–if they can–remains to be seen.

    Chances are: the MOOC is only the beginning.

    –Edward R. O'Neill

    Thursday, September 6, 2012

    Practice without Theory: Reflections on 'Applying' Psychological Theories

    Helping teachers teach–this should not be so hard. After all, when it comes to learning, there is no shortage of theories.

    • Psychology has something to tell us: educational, cognitive.
    • Instructional design says something.
    • Education has sub-fields.
    • Etc.

    Therein lies the problem. Not only are there many theories, but we are also baffled as to what an “application” of any given theory might be.

    The very relation of theory to practice, ideas to behavior, rules to ‘applications’–these are not easy problems.

    • Theory/practice (or “praxis,” as it’s sometimes called) is a major issue in critical theory, especially after Marx.
    • Philosophers since Wittgenstein have worried over something called “rule-following behavior”: what we’re told or think we’re doing vs. what we actually do. The gist seems to be that the rules don’t explain how we follow them.
    • Sociologists and anthropologists can also write whole books about the ‘logic of practice’ (cf. Bourdieu, de Certeau).

    So if we want to practice or apply whatever psychological or instructional or educational theories that are out there, we would then have to read another pile of books about what “practice” or “application” would be.

    But there is a way of being an astute practitioner which evades many of these issues. It’s a well-known fact in educational circles that beginners think quite differently than experts. And so many lovely volumes have compiled thoughts about the topic of ‘expertise.’ By looking at what expert practitioners do we might get further than reading all competing theories.

    Instead of learning, let’s take another complex psychological phenomena–which some experts have ‘applied’ or put to practice: “joint attention” will serve us well.

    “Joint attention” is a psychological phenomena which basically boils down to the idea that you and I can be interested in the same thing at the same time. Your eyes go somewhere, and mine follow. I become interested in your interest, and then we’re both attending to the same thing. We are interested in something together.

    Joint attention is a complex phenomena.

    • It doesn’t seem to be well understood.
    • We know that humans acquire it at a specific age.
    • It has something to do with intention: in following your gaze, I understand that your behavior bodes forth some aspect of your consciousness, and my thinking draws close to yours.

    So we know what it is and when it is, and we know it’s a problem when it doesn’t happen. So “joint attention” is not unlike learning. We don’t know all the causal mechanisms, but sometimes we want to make it happen.

    In addition, joint attention has a role in learning–at least in face-to-face learning. Basically anytime anyone is in a classroom, joint attention must play some role. If learners cannot attend to what an instructor is doing, the whole game is pretty much done for. (And I think we’ve all been in that classroom at some point or other.)

    So how can ‘joint attention’ ever be ‘applied’ if it is not well understood? How can we do it, if we don’t know the underlying causal mechanism?

    Well, it can be applied, and we do make it happen.

    I first became aware of joint attention when reading a book about my college acting teacher: Nikos Psacharpoulos. Nikos was the subject of more than one book: one on acting and one on acting Chekhov.

    Nikos was a practical man of the theater, but he also had a searching mind. So in the books about him, Nikos recounts anecdotes about famous actors, things that happened to him, moments from plays he admired, things he’s seen in movies, and things he’s read in books.

    One anecdote Nikos recounts (during an acting class) involves the Lunts. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were a famous theatrical couple: married actors who acted together and separately–acted brilliantly, by all accounts.

    The Lunts were famous for their teamwork–and their work ethic generally. They took their art and craft seriously. For one particular play and scene, the Lunts conceived an interesting effect.

    The characters they played were conversing, when one spots a bird flying across the ‘sky’–which is over the audience’s heads. The other then notices this glance, follows it to see the (imaginary) bird, and the two then watch ‘the bird’ fly the rest of the way across the sky.

    It’s not an unusual thing to happen, but it’s unsual on the stage: unusual but not unknown, since in the last act of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters Masha notices some geese flying, watches them and comments on them–and presumably the other actors might follow the gaze of whomever plays Masha.

    In short, the Lunts simply transposed a bit of theatrical behavior they liked in one play to another. (The couple acted in Chekhov’s The Seagull but not, it seems The Three Sisters.)

    Clearly the Lunts understood the idea of joint attention. Joint attention is somewhat the fulcrum of theater

    • If the actor is sufficiently involved in something (first-degree involvement)
    • the other actors can become involved (second-degree involvement) and
    • so can the audience (third-degree involvement).

    Then you have all the complexities:

    • one character ignoring another, failing to be involved,
    • the audience splitting their attention and involvement,
    • etc.

    In short: from a psychological perspective, dramatic irony is the manipulation of contrasting forms of joint attention.

    Lunt and Fontanne weren’t “applying” any theory of joint attention. It was doubtful they knew the term. The concept wasn’t available–although certainly people have long known that you can be more or less interested in what another person is looking at and doing.

    And here is the crux. Without joint attention, there could hardly be such a thing as theater. An audience becomes interested in what the performers or doing–or the performance falls flat. The general psychological term here would be “involvement.” It’s involvement Goffman theorizes in Frame Analysis: how we become involved in different activities–or can be thrown out of them–and what involvement says about the kind of joint, coordinated activities people get themselves up to.

    Lunt and Fontanne knew joint attention, because it was core to their work. People who worked with the Lunts and remembered them and were interviewed for biographies knew to recall such moments as interesting ones. And people like my acting teacher in turn knew how to attend to books about theater, and to plays, theatrical performances, the behavior of actors he worked with and who studied with him.

    And all these people did these things, were interested in these things, without the slightest concept of joint attention or anything like it. Like Moliere’s famous character who was ‘speaking prose’ all his life without knowing it, theater practitioners ‘apply joint attention’ every day–but without knowing it.

    The implication is: practice does not require the application of abstract concepts. Not every “doing” is a form of “applying.” Practice more reasonably involves knowing how to do certain things, being systematic about results, and astutely transferring what one knows how to do in one situation to another–the way Lunt and Fontanne transferred the explicit event in one play and its implicit use of joint attention to an entirely different play.

    In short: one can know a hell of a lot about something, and one can know how to do something very well and one can learn to do so all without any rigorous kind of theorizing whatever. (There is a kind of theorizing, but it is personal and ad hoc: actors do it; writers do it; painters do it.) And this process is called expertise, and it’s a form of practice.

    The more rigorous form of practice in the theater is not theory: it’s method, technique, craft. That’s what Stanislavski built by observing what expert theater practitioners had done, by observing himself, by testing what experts had done on himself and others (in his directing).

    So if we want to get anywhere with helping teachers teach, we will have to know quite a bit more about how to make practitioners very expert. And we should likely look at practical arts and how and when they are taught effectively.

    It’s doubtful we would throw away all the science. But what we do with the science–that is another matter.

    --Edward R. O'Neill

    Monday, August 20, 2012

    DIY eBooks and pdf's: Tools, Options & Obstacles

    With more and more people using tablets and e-readers, ebooks are starting to look like a very nice way to share resources with students.

    This is especially true if:

    • you have more than ten pages of material,
    • you have it ready to distribute all at once–not in dribs and drabs.

    Adobe Acrobat’s proprietary pdf format is also a widely-available export option in many software packages.

    One of the big benefits of packaging material inside an ebook or a pdf is: navigation.

    • It’s easy to search for any word.
    • A multi-level table of contents (or something similar) lets users get to any section with only a couple of clicks–no searching or scanning or scrolling.

    Of course, there are complications.

    Basically, every common software tool has limitations. No one tool does everything. ‘How bad could it be?’

    Take Microsoft Word, please. Most people have a copy of this software on some hard drive somewhere.

    • The current version of Microsoft Word can make a table of contents. But when you save your document as a pdf, the table of contents is inert: it’s not live hyperlinks within the pdf.
    • MS Word doesn’t export to any ebook format.

    Pages is Apple’s answer to MS Word–and it costs only $20. Sweet.

    • Pages can export to ebooks in the widely-supported EPUB format. I’ve tried this, and they look quite nice.
    • Pages will make a table of contents, and that table will be clickable (live hyperlinks) in a pdf. But this requires scrolling back to the table of contents very time you want to find something.

    OpenOffice is a free alternative to MS Office. And it has extensions that export your work to EPUB.

    • But the extensions aren’t supported and can be buggy.
    • A pdf from Open Office will have a nice pdf navigation structure (if you define headings and subheadings in your document).
    • But a table of contents in a pdf from OpenOffice is not clickable (live hyperlinks).

    Apple’s offers a tool for writing ebooks: iBook Author. It’s free. What’s not to like?

    • Apple’s tool creates ebooks only in Apple’s proprietary .ibook format. You can understand why: they want more titles to sell in their iTunes-like bookstore.
    • iBook Author will also turn your draft ebook into a pdf. But there’s no table of contents.

    So why not explore selling your book on Kindle or as an iBook?

    • Proprietary ebook formats–like those for Kindle and iPad–generally prevent printing (or make it very difficult). So if you want anyone to print pages from your book, forget those formats.

    Can’t I just pull together my pdf’s and make some kind of table of contents?

    • Yes. Adobe Acrobat X Pro allows you to bring together pdf’s into a larger pdf.
    • You can also highlight any text and make it into a “Bookmark.” You can then drag-and-drop the Bookmarks to sort and even hierarchize them.
    • But this is a separate step, after authoring using another tool (such as Word or Pages or OpenOffice).

    If you munge all these options and obstacles, there are a few bright shining pathways.

    I want people to print the pages of my ebook–and I want the printed pages to look just the way I made them.

    Make a pdf, not an ebook. One virtue of ebooks is: reflowing. If you want a bigger or smaller font, the text re-arranges itself on the pages. Nice for reading, not for printing. Also: many ebook formats make printing difficult. So if printing is important, stick to pdf.

    I want lovely layout. All my students have iPads or iPhones. And I have a Mac with a recent operating system.

    Use Apple’s free iBook Author tool. It runs on a fairly recent version of Mac OS X. There’s no Windows version. And the books can currently only be viewed on iOS–Apple’s operating system for iPhones and iPads.

    I want students to have an ebook that is easy to navigate and can be read on many devices.

    Use Apple’s $20 Pages software. It will export to EPUB in a highly navigable way. You can also make a pdf with a clickable table of contents, but it won’t have the lovely navigation structure in the pdf form (unless you add it seprately using Adobe Acrobat Pro, or something similar).

    I want to compose in a familiar format and then make a pdf that is easy to navigate.

    Use OpenOffice. Apply Styles for headings and subheadings. When you export to pdf, your headings and subheadings will be hierarchized Bookmarks in the finished pdf. But if you make a table of contents (using the built-in tool that generates it automatically), don’t expect it to be clickable.

    In short, there are many inexpensive and free options for making ebooks and pdf’s. But each has its limitations. If what you want fits within these strictures, you’re golden.

    Go thou & make ebooks.

    --Edward R. O'Neill

    Tuesday, July 31, 2012

    Publi-sumption: Merging Publication, Curation and Subscription


    For web users--not advertisers--the web does three great things.

    Publish, Curate, Subscribe. Or one thing: called "publi-sumption": publication and consumption made possible through the subscription model.



    • I write short messages--the size of an SMS message.
    • I write a little blurb.
    • I write an essay.
    • I take photos I want the world to see.
    • Maybe I make some videos.

    I want to share these.

    Maybe some are for the world, some for business colleagues, some for family, friends.

    In short, I want to publish with permission control.



    I find stuff I like that's already online.

    • I favorite things.
    • I bookmark things.
    • I collect my bookmarks in web sites like
    • I pin photos on Pinterest.
    • I Favorite videos on Youtube.

    I want to browse it in once place--and also share stuff with friends.

    • Maybe I share this stuff with friends or colleagues on a project.
    • Maybe I just like looking at it--like a private book or photo album, favorite movies or home movies.


    There's stuff I want to read.

    We used to get magazines and newspapers delivered to the doorstep. (I personally still do.)

    Now I can subscribe to feeds from favorite sites.

    • I have podcasts that come into iTunes--news, lectures, humor.
    • I might have an RSS reader that pulls news from the web.
    • Facebook is items that friends have found interesting--so subscribing to updates from friends: social subscription.
    • Twitter is more social subscription.

    This is fresh content.

    • I didn't choose it once, and it stays there.
    • I choose a whole channel or box and new stuff flows in every day or hour or week.
    • Maybe I want to filter it by keyword--like search plus subscription.

    So Why Can't We Do ALL of These?

    Here's what I want.

    • I publish any feeds or files I've selected.
      • This could be files from a dropbox or cloud service.
        • If .doc or .pdf, they show up embedded--or even a few lines of them pulled out like a blog post teaser.
        • If a folder of images is pulled in, some thumbnails show up.
      • My blog pushes out to anyplace I want those items to appear.
      • My items come in from image- and video-hosting services: flickr or Youtube.
        • Google owns Picasaweb and Youtube, so that's a slam dunk.  
    • I curate my favorites.
      • Videos I Favorite or lists I make on Youtube show up.
        • They come in as content areas or menu items.
      • Articles I like come in from hither and yon--as they do in ReadItLater and similar tools.  
    • Maybe the user configures the interface from templates.
      • The template might be controlled through drag-and-drop layout.
      • Or a simple enough coding language + CSS could be read by the server. (Django uses the same programming language to describe the data and also the layout.)  
    • I read stuff I want to subscribe to.
      • Feeds come in to make my own 'magazine' that I browse.
      • It's an RSS-reader on steroids, a combination of and flipboard.  
    • My site could even be a mash-up of all three:
      • Stuff of mine.
      • Specific items I've selected and linked in.
      • Stuff I like reading that's updated regularly.

    I'm basically talking about the subscription model--aka RSI aka feeds--but a combination of publication and consumption.


    Publisumption. Publication and consumption together. Social. Enabled by feeds, RSS, atom, API's.

    • Finding things we like to consume and sharing them.
    • Sharing our subscriptions with others.
    • Authoring things and sharing those around different social circles, from one person to the world.
    • Controlling the layout and organization in ways we like--but not locking things inside a CMS database.

    It's Google's Fight To Lose.

    Some people were almost there and just fell by the wayside. Pageflakes?

    Some people are almost there now.

    Google has the most to gain and the least to lose.

    • Youtube is their video site.
    • Picasaweb is their photo sharing site.
    • is their blogging platform.
    • Whatever they lose from their users' content showing up elsewhere, they can re-gain by being that elsewhere, tracking and advertising.

    Google could probably do it in two seconds: Google++.

    With Google+ I can subscribe to the feeds of people I'm interested in. But everything must be embedded in a Google+ post.

    • Why not pull in external feeds?
    • Why not make Google+ a reader?
    • Why not have it pull feeds from blogger, Favorites and account feeds from Youtube?
    • Why not let me lay out out as my personal site?

    It could all be done in three panes.

    • My Stuff. Stuff I wrote, authored, from the cloud, from blogger, from photo sharing sites.
    • Stuff I Like. Thing's I've +'ed, Thumbs Up-ed on Youtube, maybe saved as a url. (Why does Google not have a link-curation service yet?)
    • Stuff I Follow: Blogs I read every day. Twitterati I follow. Podcasts I subscribe to. News services I read.
    • A Mash-up: Selected bits of all that, nicely arranged on a page using a few templates.

    Start with the Google-verse. Then add Vimeo, dropbox, flickr, etc.

    --Edward R. O'Neill


    Monday, July 30, 2012

    When Is an LMS NOT an LMS? (When It's Free....)

    The Enterprise System Everyone Loves To Hate

    If you’re in higher ed, you know what an LMS is. Not that you’re ever happy about yours.

    Which is the problem. If there were an alternative, most people in higher ed would jump there in a heartbeat.

    But I get ahead of myself.

    An LMS is a “learning management system.” It’s an enterprise system–meaning the institution pays for it, and generally everyone has access. Examples are:
    • Blackboard,
    • Desire2Learn,
    • Moodle,
    • Sakai;
    • more recently: inStructure.
    Using an LMS, an instructor can:
    • send announcements,
    • share files,
    • host online discussions,
    • create quizzes,
    • accept assignments,
    • and similar things.

    The Swiss Army Knife

    The LMS is a Swiss Army Knife in which every knife is not quite so sharp, usually a generation or two old.

    Nothing in the LMS is best-of-breed. But like a Swiss Army Knife, you're happy it's in your pocket when you need one of the things it has.

    (These folks really need to create an architecture that’s more plug-and-play. People like to choose their own tools. But that’s a separate topic.)

    In short, an LMS is a publication, collaboration, interaction and survey platform with permissions. (A test is a survey.)

    So What’s the Problem?

    Universities often pay million$ for the$e things–and no one ever loves their LMS. They accept. They work around. They do not love.

    But now there are serious alternatives.

    So what? The alternatives are free. Yes–
    • free as in beer, not ideas.
    • Zero cost.
    What are they? Let’s just take two.

    iTunes U

    Formerly, this was podcasting for education: users could subscribe to audio or video podcasts–lectures, for instance. And that was sort of it.

    Now iTunesU is a hosted LMS.

    Anyone, anywhere can publish audio, video, documents, iBooks (Apple’s propetary ebook format). There’s even something like discussion.

    And it’s 100% free. Apple hosts it for you.

    The catch? It’s for Apple’s networked mobile devices only–i.e., iOS: iPhone’s, iPads. So it’s free to publish, but it essentially costs $600 (for an iPad) to learn. Cough cough.


    This is very powerful. An instructor can:
    • organize students into a group (a “Circle”),
    • give access to just that group–or the whole world,
    • share all the normal document formats (text, spreadsheets, data sets, pdf’s),
    • share videos from Youtube and photos from Picasaweb,
    • create discussions around documents, videos and photos (comments, really),
    • give surveys or quizzes,
    • accept files into a Google Docs folder.
    In short, anyone for free can do most of what an LMS does. And on a platform people know and use daily.

    What does an LMS have that these systems lack?
    • Restricted access.
    • Connection to the student information system:
      • only registered students can get in.
    • Automatic course creation:
      • a site exists for every course being offered and
      • enrolled students have automatic access.
    Is this really important?

    Yes and no.

    In fact, classroom doors are generally unlocked. If you have a large class, anyone off the street can wonder in.

    But LMS’s are a locked door. Only students, staff and faculty can get in.

    Permissioning students into the Google-verse is mostly trivial. But it’s done by hand.

    Should the Purveyors of LMS’s Be Afraid

    Very afraid.

    Dear LMS: your days are numbered. Apple and Google are coming up behind you.

    Run. Fast.

    And do not look back.

    –Edward R. O'Neill

    Saturday, July 28, 2012

    Freely-Flowing Content & My Dream of a Piffwy Web


    No, I don't talk funny. It's an idea I have--a dream, almost.

    The web is broken.

    Long live the web. But the promise has not been fulfilled.

    Oh sure: we can get all kinds of content on all kinds of devices.

    • We can watch movies and read books and news and blogs and listen to music.
    • We can watch and read and listen on laptops and desktops and phones and tablets.

    I'm not upset that streaming video companies need to make contracts with content providers and only let in paying customers. I'm fine with that.

    But the back-and-forth is swinging in a bad direction--as pendulums will tend to do at least half the time, maybe more.

    This pendulum I'm talking about is:

    proprietary vs. open formats,
    closed vs. open systems.

    They're not exactly the same, but they overlap.

    And my interest is: publishing my own stuff. User-provided content. Self-publishing. What made the web explode in the first place.

    My dream of the web's future is: the Piffwy Web.

    "Piffwy" is short for PIFWII, meaning: Publish It From Where It Is.


    My Wish List.

    Here's what I want.

    • I've got a file on my desktop.
    • I've got some photos on Flickr or Picasaweb.
    • I've got a video on Youtube or Vimeo.
    • I've got some essays in the cloud.

    And everything can be anwwhere I want it to be.

    • I can have a site with all my content.
      • The photos and videos show up in galleries.
      • The documents get organized how I like--by date or folder.
        • Maybe the documents show up like blog posts--the first few sentences, then click to read the reast.
      • The files can be browsed this way or that--topic, tag, folder, date, type.
    • The site with all my content might pull from all over.
      • Maybe I want my videos on Vimeo and my documents in Google Docs.
      • Maybe I want files in the cloud--on or
    • Further, if the viewer wants to pull some stuff into a package--an ebook, a zip file, a static document--she can. Schloop. As long as it's enabled.

    This is not so weird.

    • I can get a cheese sandwich: at the supermarket, at a deli, at a restaurant, from a speciality store.
    • And I can eat it there or be done, or I can wrap it, box it, bag it, freeze it--as I like.

    Why can't it be the same with web content? As long as the author and publisher agree.


    The O-Word.

    Ontology is what media scholars talk about. "What the heck kind of thing is it? Is it a shadow, a mirror, or a picture?"

    The most basic ontological distinction of media is: live vs. recorded.

    It's the basic forking of media is-ness, the what-ness of what media is.

    I want it both ways.

    • I want live and recorded.
    • I want an electrical outlet and a battery.
    • I want flowing tap water and also some stored in a bottle.
    • I want a remote video feed and also a tape.

    Web 1.0: Linking and Freely-Flowing Content.

    The early web was static content. But it came from servers and showed up in browser. And many of the file formats were open--widely readable.

    Early web authors knew they could save those files from the browser and re-use them. Or they could just link to the original.

    So in the beginning was linking, and it was good.

    Also embedding. We're still there.

    • A video on Youtube can be shared by link--or embedded in a blog.

    Then came the API. Not files with data in little buckets. But sites whose data could be called by other sites, programs, apps.

    • If a web site gave access to the way it spit out information, programmers could write applications which pulled selected stuff out and layed it out nicely.
    • A whole Twitter feed or RSS feed can be embedded in the side of a blog via a widget.
    • Photos from a flickr set could be pulled into an animated gallery wall.

    Linking, embedding, feeds, API's and widgets unlocked content and sent it live to where you wanted it, could use it.

    Shortly later came apps, which pulled data through feeds and API's and made it pretty and easy to sort through on the device of your choice.

    So began the dream of FFC: freely-flowing content.

    There was a dark side: the same data everywhere.

    Freely-flowing content is also: the same crap everywhere. Voting. Mediocritzation.

    The internet became: a Burger World and Sugary Coffee Outlet on every corner. Whereever you went on the internet, every page started to look the same--the same feeds, the same videos, the same content.


    Oh Woe Is Us...

    ...for we have seen the rise of the content management system. Drupal, WordPress, whatnot. (Others have come and gone.)

    The CMS is one of the many forces pushing against FFC (freely flowing content).

    The content management system is misnamed. Today's CMS is not a system for managing content: it's a system for locking content inside a system, and customizing that content so it's locked in there for good.

    The Content Management System is a prison, and your content has a life sentence. API's are mere windows to let in a bit of air. Visiting hours. You choose the metaphor.

    There are new file formats--many proprietary. This is AOL all over again: the Walled Garden.

    Books and magazines are the worst area. And here the bedfellows get really strange.

    • Google will actually scan books--the better to lock them into a file format no one's software can open--except Google's.
    • Amazon uses Google's Android operating system, but the Kindle uses its own proprietary format.
      • I remember Amazon selling pdf's, but now it's Buy Our Hardware--or else.
    • Oddly, Apple and Adobe, normally sworn enemies, collude so that magazine publishing exists in its own format, nearly inaccessible without an iPad.
      • Clearly, consumers with a spare $600 for what's basically a toy are desirable customers for magazine publishers who otherwise deep-discount their increasingly irrelevant content.
      • Adobe's software lets the same content be published to the web and to apps. But do magazines really do that? Why mouse-click when you can finger-swipe?
    • Apple is the worst of the worst. "We'll give away free stuff--so people buy our expensive hardware."
      • Free software to author iBooks in a proprietary format--sold by Apple alone, and no one else.
      • Free hosting services on iTunesU--the better to push students into buying $600 tablets.
        • A laptop can be had for $300.
        • A tablet in the Android-Amazon or Android-Google ecosystem can be had for $200.

    There Are Forces Pushing Against the Locked-Down Web.

    But are they strong enough?

    Ebooks: Content To Go.

    • MediaWiki and WordPress both have plugins that export to EPUB--an open-source book format.
      • Wikipedia lets me sign and and select items it will bind in a pdf or publish on paper (for a price).
    • EPUB is open-source, but it seems to be losing out.
    • Pdf's can be read on all platforms, but Adobe's clout is waning.

    Easy Sharing & Permissioning.

    • Embedding is still here. Youtube still rules video sharing.
    • Twitter and link-shortening mean: sharing links is still vibrant.
    • API's mean data can be shunted out to the still-exploding marketplace of low-cost apps made by hungry developers--some teenagers.
    • Google+ made permissioning easy with Circles: put everyone you know in Circles, and share with one,
    • Google also made nearly univerals the three-tier permission hierarchy:
      • Published and searchable for all to see and find.
      • Shared by link but not indexed, not findable: public but secret.
      • Sign-in only. The strictest standard.

    Most Tantalizing of All: The No-Database CMS.

    Can't I just write some text files, stick them in a folder and call that my blog or web site? Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

    Various folks are doing this.


    We need more services like Droppages.

    • Forget html.
    • Forget CMS's.
    • Let content hosts for videos and images do what they do.
    • Let me publish from my desktop or dropbox or some other cloud folder.
    • Let me organize files in folders again--like the Web 1.0.
    • But let me style and organize separately--with xml or some simple coding lingo.
    • Let programmers build sites and apps that bring these together in beautiful interfaces, with few or many designs, little or lots of control.

    I want to Publish It From Where It Is. Once. From the cloud. From Youtube. From Flickr. All my content: pdf's, .doc files, photo sets, structured data.

    I want the Piffwy Web. I weawwy weawwy do. (Okay, maybe I do need to work on my diction.)

    --Edward R. O'Neill