Friday, November 28, 2014

"Rational" Shopping and Data Visualization

Although today's entry is not about educational technology narrowly, it is about choosing tools and the limits on our ability to do that. It's also an exercise in data visualization--and its limits as well.

When I shop for cameras, I try to be rational about it. But rationality has its limits.

This image shows my spreadsheet comparing camera image quality as rated by, along with sensor size--compared to price. (The spreadsheet is too wide to capture nicely on my laptop in a single image.)

Each row's cells are color-coded from the minimum in that row (red) to the maximum (green).

Price is colored in reverse in each of the three tables: so the lowest price is green, the highest red. This reversal is underlined by a box around these row. (Where the camera can no longer be bought new, I left out the price.)

This gives a visual representation of the relation of price to image quality/sensor size.

To quantify further, I represented each number as a percentage of the maximum, and I also show rank from high (1) to low (18): these are the two lower tables.

Columns in bold represent cameras I own--God help me.

Not every similar camera is here: just those that interest me most. (I also made this thinking of a friend who needs a camera, and thus the choices also tilt towards those she might like.) Recent models, like the Canon GX7 and GX1 Mark II, aren't represented.

At only $300, the Olympus XZ2 represents an excellent bargain: very good image quality, a bigger sensor than most quality point-and-shoots, and a low price.

Similarly, the Olympus E-PM2 ("Pen Mini") is very high in image quality and costs under $500.

The Finepix X100 is notable for getting a high-quality image, due in part to its very large sensor. But then again it commands a premium price.

But the chart can't tell you everything.

Even though the Lumix FZ200 has a small sensor and relatively low image quality, it has a long zoom that stays at f/2.8 throughout its range, and it takes nice pictures. So the chart doesn't tell you everything.

Likewise (but in the other direction), the Canon EOS M is a tremendous bargain, but I will tell you: its autofocus is slow, and its touchscreen and interface clunky.

At this point, the Sony A3000 is also an amazing bargain, though it's actually a DSLR (like the Canon t4i).

Although the Nikon 1 J3 is in the middle of the pack, the camera overheats when shooting video and just plain shuts off. It's thus useless to me, despite taking good, sharp images. (I've blown them up to 18x24 with no noticeable artifacts.)

Finally, the columns are sorted by the average of all the percentages: the relation of each camera to the maximum in the cart. But of course we don't buy things "on average": we buy them for the things we want. And I always find that I'm shopping based on getting the best quality for a good price--hence the existence of this chart.

Sony A3000, here I come?

Not really, because to get a lens that achieves all that quality would add another $800....Eeek.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Using Online Photo Albums for Sequence Analysis

The online photo album is not a complicated tool. But it can be used to do more than share pictures of junior’s first trip to the zoo.
While prose writing is still a crucial skill our students can acquire, our students often need to analyze visual materials or to present analytical material in some visual form. Online photo albums are a simple way to do this. The photo album doesn’t do the work for you; you still need to know:
  • what you’re saying,
  • what the tool does,
  • what your options are–tool-wise, and more basically.
A familiar assignment in film studies is: the sequence analysis or shot breakdown.
  • The student analyzes a short clip.
  • She makes a table representing formal features–e.g.,
    • how many close-up’s vs. long shot’s,
    • how many still vs. moving camera shots,
    • etc.
  • Then the student typically writes a prose essay summarizing the results.
An online photo album can make a good alternative or additional assignment.
  • A visual presentation can be an intermediary assignment leading towards a prose essay.
  • Or it can represent a visual summary, an expression of some of the same ideas in a different form.
Trailer Shot Breakdown Analysis
A photo album will not capture all the nuance of prose: but reducing one’s arguments to a few points, or focusing on developing only a small compass of ideas can have a wonderfully clarifying effect. It’s like writing an abstract with pictures.
Ideas can be expressed in a photo set verbally or through the arrangement of images.
  • In the case of a verbal commentary or analysis, that can be put:
    • in the caption of each image;
    • or it can be inserted through explanatory slides created in Powerpoint or Keynote (or similar).
  • In the case of the visual elements, even changing the sequence of the images allows students to explore different ways of creating meaning. The images can be sorted:
    • sequentially, as when representing the shots of a scene in the order in which they appear in the film; or the images may be sorted
    • logically into types or kinds. In this case, they kinds represent the argument.
To show these options, I have grabbed still frames from the first two minutes or so of The Maltese Falcon.

  • This is a familiar movie, and the opening is (or used to be) used to demonstrate editing and its analysis in Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art textbook.
  • Normally, a student would analyze a scene or other more-organic unit of a feature film. In this case, I’ve studied only a fragment, as that simplifies the demonstration.

Captions May Supply the Verbal Content.

This Google Plus Photo album adds captions to screenshots to call out important dimensions of the clip (like framing and duration), while other important elements of storytelling are previewed and narrated.
  • Clicking on an image brings up the image on one side of the screen and the caption on the other.
  • Adjusting the browser’s degree of zooming allows the caption to take up more space on the screen, thus making a good balance of image and analysis.
  • As an added bonus, a ‘backdoor’ lets you create an embeddable Flash-based slideshow you can put in Classes*v2, WordPress, etc.

    • The annotation obscures the image, but it’s an interesting option.
    • N.B. To do this, the photo album must be set to public.

Slides May Supply the Verbal Content.

The verbal analytical dimension may be added by generating text slides in Keynote or Powerpoint to create a ‘visual essay’ which analyzes the clips using brief text slides interspersed between frames representing the shots.
  • This example analyzes the shots in order.
    • The text slides preview key things to look for in the subsequent few slides.
      • This approach suggests the viewer will go back and forth to connect the argument and the evidence.
  • A different approach is to organize the shots by type or kind in some way.
    • This album counts how many shots of specific types and then labels and sorts them.
    • By labeling, sorting and re-arranging the elements one is analyzing, patterns emerge that may not have been apparent in the un-remixed text.
      • This could be called the basis of much analytical thinking: re-sorting experiences to compare them and find non-apparent patterns and resemblances.
    • What counts as a ‘type’ can be motivated by one’s curiosities or observations.
      • In this case, the symmetries and asymmetries of gender become revealed in neat ways by sorting the shots by various formal and other criteria--I.e., an idiomatic folksonomy rather than a scientific taxonomy.

In this case, the album with the captions was made first and then the photos copied to new albums.
  • Hence these images all bear captions, though in practice that would likely not happen.
An additional challenge is how to represent movement or duration.
  • Long takes or camera movement could be represented by multiple frame grabs.
  • The one-frame-per-shot ratio has the virtue of visualizing the shot count.
  • Whichever choice the author makes, clearly labeling the result helps orient the end-user.
–Edward R. O’Neill, Ph.D.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Three Simple Tools for Sharing Visual Commentary and Annotation

For a long time, scholarship largely focused on words and numbers.

Yes, art historians and theater scholars and radiographers thought a lot about images. But today the visual dimension of knowledge increasingly leaves mere words and numbers in the shadows. Chalk it up to the proliferation of screens–on our desks, on our walls, in our backpacks and pockets–or to whatever you like.
But it is in many ways a welcome change.

Many of us involved in scholarship and teaching spend a lot of time using images: gazing at them, thinking about them, writing about them; but also collecting, organizing, commenting and publishing them.

But how do we do this? Using what kinds of tools?

Those who manage large collections of images have specialized tools. And art historians and film scholars still write (lengthy) prose essays.

But using images to think about images has a special appeal. And tools like from making and giving presentations, editing movies, and sharing photos are all relatively easy enough to make them good candidates for vernacular scholarship: serious thinking that takes place in popular media.

When thoughtful people take up a medium, they think seriously about genres and forms.
  • Am I writing a novel or a tweet? A memoir or a lab report?
  • Am I drawing a landscape or a portrait? A wall-sized canvas or an ivory engraving?
And critical writing is no different–except that we who do critical writing could really spend more time thinking about genres, especially as we do and encourage critical writing on web pages and through viral videos and as info graphics.

Happily, some critical genres cut across media and can serve us well as we act critically in popular media: annotation and commentary are two crucial genres for critical analysis, and both of them lend themselves to visual media as well.

Both annotation and commentary bear a strong relationship to the text they comment on.
  • Annotation usually implies the presence of the text. An annotated edition is a manuscript that bears the annotations right on or beside the text.
  • Commentary may stand apart from the text it comments upon, but “apart” is often not far.
    • My edition of Hamlet contains some commentary in footnotes, and other commentaries before and after the text itself.
    • DVD (and now Blu-Ray) commentary tracks yoke together a text and a commentary: the two are synchronized.
When we use simple tools to share visual material, and when we try to work critically with these media, what features of the tools are we using? How do we annotate and comment?

I wanted to explore these issues by putting a dozen or twenty of the same images into three different readily accessible tools.
  • iMovie is a popular video editing tool which now costs about $15.
  • Google+ Photos is a service for sharing photo sets or ‘albums’: with a few people or the entire world-wide web.
  • Powerpoint is the ever-present
    • These files may be uploaded to Google Drive and published there
    • You can also record a voiceover and publish the presentation and voiceover together as a movie. But I skipped this, because I used iMovie to accomplish the same results.

What I Did and Why.
  1. I’m an amateur photographer, and I adore Hollywood glamour portraits of the ’30’s and ’40’s. I have books full of them, and over time, I’ve collected 50 or 80 such images from the web. So that determined my topic: convenience.
  2. I had the files in Dropbox, but I uploaded them to Google+ Photos, since I could organize them in a sequence there. The uploading involved selection.
    • In this case, I intuitively put together images that seemed to me related.
    • I had some notion of comparing images of men and woman, so that provided a sort of rule or principle.
    • But as I moved the images around, I found myself pairing them along the lines of similarity and contrast.
  3. As I browsed and sequenced the images, I started formulating my ideas about them.
    • The sequence turned out to involve shades of similarity.
    • I started with one that was highly emblematic of the whole: a kind of titular representation.
    • And then I arranged images of women, followed by men, with sub-similarities.
  4. I downloaded them all from Google+ Photos–simply because they were all in one place and neatly arranged.
  5. For iMovie I drag-and-dropped them onto the timeline. Once there, I composed some voiceover, which I recorded right in the software. I was then able to cut it into bits and slide it here and there to fit the images.


“Affordances” is the fancy word for the features of tool that let you do certain things.
  • The weight of a hammer determines whether it can tack carpet or crush rocks. You could say the ability to crush something heavy is an “affordance.”
    • The idea is to get away from features and to wonder aloud about what they get you.

iMovie has specific ‘affordances’:
  • It lets you add a voiceover.
  • It lets you add titles over images and between them.
  • It has a ‘Ken Burns effect’ in which still images are zoomed or panned across, to keep some visual interest.
  • And you can choose different transitions between still images (or video clips).
What would I do with these?
  • The voiceover seemed perfect for commentary. I could use the auditory channel for commentary, since the visual channel was largely full of what was being commented on. It was a neat divide.
  • I decided to use the titles to spell out the main topics.

    • Sure they were said out loud. But in some cases, I realized I had not recorded anything announcing the main topic.
    • So the titles became unifying themes that brought together multiple images, as well as the voiceover.
  • The Ken Burns effect is somewhat random in how it pans or zooms.
    • I decided that I could start in close on the visual element being described. Then I would zoom out to see the whole image.
    • So the pattern was to focus on a detail and then reveal its context. I did this with every single image. I decided consistency and repetition would make things easier on the viewer.
  • Finally, iMovie allows a transition that looks like un-focusing and re-focusing. It’s different than a ‘dissolve,’ in which one image slowly replaces another.
    • Since the context was cinematic, I thought the cross-focus transition fit nicely.
    • I used no other transition, as the images are from ‘classical’ Hollywood, and part of that classicism was parsimony: very few effects used carefully. So I wanted to match the material in this regard.

Link to visual commentary example created using iMovie

For Powerpoint, I went a bit further.

  • Powerpoint allows you to use simple, stock visual elements: like arrows.
  • You can record a voiceover, but I decided I had just done that: I would force myself to find a different pathway with Powerpoint.
  • The author can also create specific transitions: one image bumping another off to one side, etc.
I decided the visual logic of a video and a presentation were different.
  • A voice speaking to you over related images is very different than the same images presented without a voice.
  • So I decided I needed to structure my commentary more clearly.
    • Instead of a series of observations, I wanted to show consistency, repeated elements.
  • So I organized the images a bit differently.
    • And I tried to make very clear themes with sub-elements.
  • The images sat to one side–the right–and the themes and sub-themes were spelled out on the left.
    • First the viewer sees the image.
    • This way you get to see it with your own eyes.
    • The next slide spells out the theme and sub-themes: in this case, the effect the photo produces, and how it’s produced, the techniques.
  • Finally, I decided to use those simple stock visual elements:
    • I put arrows connecting the techniques to a specific place on each image.

To publish the presentation, I uploaded it to Google Drive.

  • Google Drive can then autoplay, and it lets the user choose a smaller number of transitions.
    • I chose a fairly slow pace, to give the viewer time to look and read.
    • By using a transition in which one image instantly replaces the next, my themes and sub-themes suddenly appear, and so do the arrows.
      • There is an animation-like effect.

Watch the Powerpoint-made presentation in a separate window here.

Finally, for the Google+ Photo album, I used the feature of ‘captions.’
  • Each photo can have a bit of explanation about it.
  • So I elaborated on my voiceover text here. There’s a little more space, so I could add some extra detail.
  • The casual browser might read these or not. So I tried to write them to reward reading.
In short, for this tool, I was relying largely on sequence.
  • Google+ Photos does let you edit the images. I could have emphasized some visual characteristics. But I opted for restraint. Let the images speak for themselves, and let my voice be softer, less obtrusive.

Going to lets you find code to embed a slideshow. (Somehow Google+ users don’t rate access to this feature.)

Hollywood Publicity Portraits of the 1930's & 1940's

And there’s a more static embedded version.

Both draw on the original photo set.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Friday, August 8, 2014

Three Questions, One Answer.

In a recent blog post, Doug Mckee addresses three issues in how he should teach this fall.

1. Should I ban laptops in lecture?
2. Should I make discussion sections mandatory?
3. Should I cold-call students during lecture?

Basically: no, no and no--all for the same reasons.

1. Should you "ban" anything in lecture?

Or rather: were you to try, what would be the justification?

In teaching we do things for very few reasons.

a. Because they are inherent in the discipline and academic life. "We're reading Durkheim because he helped to found the discipline." "We'll use APA style because that's what professionals do." "You must offer arguments, not opinions, because in our domain, opinions have no value."

b. Because they are convenient. "We need to get all your papers at once so we can compare them and grade them before the next work is due."

c. Because they adhere to university policies and laws. "No smoking in the back row." "Grades are due on the 11th." "No sexual harassment."

d. Because they embody our values about human freedom and responsibility. "You must take up your own argumentative position." "You may turn in the work late, but it will be marked down." "Write about the one topic on the list that interests you most." Pursue your freedom. Experiment. Explore. Fail. But take on the responsibility of existing and choosing.

(I can't think of many other justifications for why we do this, that or the other in teaching.)

And all of these questions are opened to reasoned debate--because that is one of our values.

Once you say "You will not open your laptops," you are dictating. And you have lost. Now you are a cop, not a teacher.

Practically speaking, I know professors who have had good luck with the "three states": put your laptops away and focus on this (discuss with a peer, whatever); open your laptops and do this specific task; leave your laptop open or put it away--I don't care, just don't distract your neighbor.

You can also play with the sequence. If you ask them to use it, then to close it, the act of opening it may be more self-aware.

2. See "1" above.

a. What does "mandatory" mean? Again, from my perspective this is the wrong relation to the student.

We can mandate little in teaching. Rather, we reward and we punish. (Behavioral economics and game theory surely apply here--though I fear that those theories have no moral code embedded in them, and therefore they may be useful tools but they are not arbiters.)

Extrinsic rewards don't motivate learning very well. So you can reward and punish for attending or not. But neither will help students learn.

Why not go the other way? "Go to section, don't. No points for it. Go if you value it. And we'll try to make it valuable." Ask every week how section could be better. Make it a discussion topic in the web site. When you can't decide in advance, make it a learning experience.


b. One good principle in planning teaching is: treat all questions about teaching as something to be proven experimentally by teaching.

Reframe the issue as: What could I learn about making the section worth going to?

Survey students weekly--did you go or not, why? Ask the section leaders to experiment, to explore how best to meet the students' needs. Maybe the first few weeks the sections would have different specific activities that students rated, and thereafter, students chose "which activity should we do today?" Make it their section. Meet their needs.

Or just put super-important things in section. Sell how great section will be, and then say "of course it's totally optional."

3. See "1" above.

a. They are coming to lecture to learn. Would you pick on someone for not having understood the material as well as someone else? That person needs more help, not public shaming.

b. I tried this once. I would never do it again.

I once put the students' names on index cards. I shuffled them and picked one at random.

Once the index cards came out, students sat up straight in their chairs.

I called a name, and the student stammered and hemmed and hawed. Other students tried to rescue those I called on--defended them.

One student shot his hand up later, after not having known the answer to an earlier question, and after class explained to me: "I knew the answer, I just couldn't think of it, and so I had to show you that I'd done the reading."

And I thought: who am I? To make someone prove a point to me?

After that I brought out the index cards and put them on the desk. They were radioactive. Students would stare at them. If no one answered a question, I moved towards the cards, and a voice would ring out with something to say.

It wasn't motivated by something good. But I got good discussions. Not because of randomly calling on students all the time, as a policy. But by making a point that we needed to discuss and that I would do what it took to make that happen. They didn't want that. 

But I would never teach that way again.

4. Learning devolves on human agency.

Agency is the center of learning. Through learning, I become more capable, and I feel myself to be more and more of an agent, less and less of a passive, receptive entity and more and more myself. 

Humans become more capable by overcoming meaningful challenges in an increasing order of difficulty, a difficulty matched to their abilities. (It's tragedy when someone is outstripped by the task he faces; tragedy defines common humanity by contrast.)

Anything that takes away from the agency of the learner is bad for learning.

Yes, we need rules and limits.

But when possible, all meaningful choices should be passed to the student.

To experience one's humanity through the responsibility of choice, to embrace the possibility of failure, and to own's one's successes: this is the heart of education.

--Edward R. O'Neill, Ph.D.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Is It Possible That We Actually Loathe Learning?

Even those who profess to love it most?

I went to a conference recently. The topic was: learning. More specifically, “instructional design,” which is: how to plan a learning experience so that people actually learn, and maybe even enjoy it or find it meaningful. (Imagine.)

There were three presenters. They were smart, experienced and thoughtful. They’d all published books. I was positively impressed in every way.

In every way but one.

Every single presenter got up and told us the most wonderful methods for creating great, effective learning experiences. They talked about the brain and cognitive research and technology options and design methods. All three brought forth a wealth of ideas. And I’m grateful for what I learned.

But not a single speaker used the methods she described.

Not one.

Not for a moment.

One showed images to represent the ideas. One told anecdotes. Another used the Socratic Method and asked questions.

And none of these methods were the speaker’s topic.

I wish this were a kind of temporary aberration: something unusual about these three experts. But I’m afraid it’s not.

But in my experience, whenever experts in learning get together, you can count on one thing: they will never practice what they preach. I don’t think I’ve ever seen even a single presentation about learning, teaching or pedagogy which actually used the methods it described. Gave examples, sure. But not used, not thoroughly, not even for three minutes.

Is it possible that those who seem to care most about learning secretly loathe it? What is the explanation for talking about learning without taking care that we make it happen?

One element at work here is surely what I have called The Piehole Illlusion: the mistaken belief that if it comes out of my piehole, it will go straight into the listener’s brain. Mission accomplished. Case closed.

It’s easy to understand. The speaker thinks “I have all these ideas, so I’ll just tell them.

This is like thinking: “I have the most wonderful idea for a novel…I’ll just write it down.” Of course, we all know: that’s not ‘writing a novel.’ (Or, as Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s writing in On the Road: “That’s not writing––it’s typing!”

One of my mother’s favorite jokes sheds light on this topic.
An expert is asked by an organization to give a speech on a topic the expert knows well.
Organization: “We’d like a ten-minute speech.”
Expert: “I’ll need two months to prepare.”
Organization: “What about a 30-minute speech?”
Expert: “I can have that for you in a month.”
Organization: “What about a three-hour speech?”
Expert: “Oh, I could do that right now.”

This is a longer version of Montaigne’s famous comment at the end of a letter: “Sorry for writing such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.”

It’s a lovely witticism, because it’s counter-intuitive that the amount of time it takes to write something is not proportional to the ultimate length of the thing written. Good writing is, at a minimum, compressed: just as Montaigne squeezed a complex thought into two phrases.

This is rhetoric: thinking about your audience, about where they are and how to act upon them, thinking about what strategy you will use, how you will express what you have to say effectively and efficiently.

And that of course is the point of Montaigne’s bon mot and of the joke my mother likes so well. It’s the same absurdity involved in simply “telling” or “writing down” one’s thoughts. (It's also happening in Montaigne's bon mot.)

In all these cases, what comes to the surface is: writing is work, and work of course takes time. It’s hard work to help another understand an idea or acquire a new idea, skill, habit or disposition––just as it’s hard work to change oneself through learning.

So is that it? Do we avoid making learning happen when the very topic is learning because of some misunderstanding about communication being work? (I’m ruling out sheer laziness, since the people involved have no fear of hard work.)

What’s going on when those who in theory know the most about learning cannot use any of the methods that they know so very well? What is a reasonable explanation for the failure of the most learning-centric actually to be learning-centric?

Perhaps we don't hate learning so much as fear it.

Learning is change. In the most powerful learning, we become something different from what we were. Yes, we can just accrue factoids. Yes, we can just have our existing beliefs confirmed; we can become more aware of our own assumptions.

But when learning is really transformative, we ourselves are actually changed. This is the power of learning––and also what makes learning unfathomable and scary.

In a powerful change, you can’t foresee what you will become. And after the change, you can hardly grasp what you used to be.

I remember hearing an NPR story (probably on This American Life) about a hearing-impaired man who did not know sign language. After he learned, he could no longer remember what it was like not to know.
In a very different frame, it’s hard to remember what it was like when you did not know that Santa Claus was your parents.

Not all learning is this dramatic a change. But when your paradigm shifts, when you learn something that re-shapes and re-arranges what you knew and believed and did before, there is a point-of-no-return.

Learning in this sense is unstable, frightening, unknowable. To learn may mean to begin a journey which leads––we know not where, and we cannot know, because the person who begins the journey is not the same person who ends it. And that loss of self is something fearful.

The typical way cultures handle such transformations of identity is: through rituals. And I’ve written before about how learning demands and can be supported by and conceptualized as a sort of ritual facilitation. Learning itself isn’t magic: the underlying principles are scientific. But learning may require a bit of magic.

Some mental processes might be so deeply intertwined with personality structures that cultural rituals might actually be required so that the changes of self do not become overwhelming. Good teaching supports a change that goes to the very bottom of our personhood, and this might explain why great learning experiences get remembered with such intense feelings––even of reverence and awe.

A great teacher doesn’t mind being a sort of shaman-priest. That’s one reason there are so few of them. Magic is some tricky stuff, and who today wants to align herself with magic when science and technology are the Big Noise?

Experts on learning, on the other hand, perhaps fully aware of what they’re messing with, perhaps wisely shrink back from that risky semi-magical role.

So in a way: three cheers for both great teachers and wise experts on learning. Each ‘knows’ her topic in a different way. It’s like the difference between being a good chemist and being a good cook: the chemist knows why the cook’s recipes work; whereas the cook uses the chemistry to create a delightful experience. Each kind of knowledge has its own kind of value, and we stumble when we fail to cherish knowledge in all its diverse forms and habits––as is true for all forms of life.

But I will not cease to wish that the learning experts could practice just a bit of what they preach, in part because I take the word “preach” quite seriously.

And also because there is not enough magic in the world today, and we need every bit we can get.

––Edward R. O’Neill, Ph.D.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Beautiful Ideas

Waiting for the train yesterday, I met a charming young woman.

She was slight and looked more like she ran a health food store.

She was a grad student at Yale doing computing and stats in the life sciences. She want to a small Eastern Seaboard liberal arts college.

She never had a fondness for math. Many courses were just “do this, do this, do this—there was no Big Idea."

But as she took courses, she founds some inspiring professors.

What made a good math lesson?

“I had a professor who would start with a big idea. Something important and inspiring and impactful. He would point to research or a photograph or news story to show the impact of something mathematical. It inspired you and made you see the beauty of the topic.”

How did you sustain your attention?

“If I knew the Big Idea, and then I could see some of the pieces, then I could do all the work—because I knew how it fit together. Then, no matter how tedious or hard it was, I knew what I was doing, where I was going."

Now this young woman uses computers and statistical methods to do genome sequencing and analysis in order to cure and prevent cancer. “I’m not really a math person. I just love beautiful ideas and doing something meaningful."

--Edward R. O'Neill

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Learning--and the Three Hands

The word "hand" plays a role in many very common figures of speech.

  • Such expressions are useful or "handy."
  • They come easily to us: they're "ready-to-hand."

And yet their exact meanings and origins are obscure––probably exactly because they are so common.

The familiar distinction between "firsthand" and "secondhand" is important to law and to journalism.

  • Eyewitness testimony is "firsthand," and it's the gold standard for journalists.
  • "Secondhand" report is, in some legal situations, inadmissable, and much journalism is just that: a secondhand recounting of a firsthand observation.

A "thirdhand" account would be someone relaying a secondhand account––and so on.

To use an example, take: riding a roller coaster.

  • A firsthand experience is: riding the roller coaster.
  • A secondhand experience is: watching someone else ride the roller coaster.
  • A thirdhand experience is: hearing an account by the person who watched the person riding.

To be more abstract:

  • Firsthandedness means: experience.
  • Secondhandness means: observation.
  • Thirdhandness means: symbolic mediation, reducing experience and observation to a transmissible form.

So what has all this to do with learning––my recurring theme in these blog posts?

Much of higher learning is thirdhand. We read books that summarize knowledge. Often these books don't even include direct observation, and they may even summarize other books (which may summarize other books, and so on). You could say: we observe knowledge and talk about its features and how it's produced. We encounter knowledge as it's encoded in symbols.

While some see video lectures as 'revolutionary,' we are still talking about thirdhand experience: someone summarizing something someone else saw or did. Does it matter so much that it's watched on a smartphone on a bus?

Some college courses have more firsthand experience than others.

  • Science classes still have labs where the students do science themselves.
  • The study of literature always involves a firsthand experience of a poem or novel or play.
  • Some social science courses include direct observation and learning to be a semi-professional observer: a child development course may involve going to watch pre-school students.
  • And fine arts, when studied as a practice, must involve doing: you can't just read and write about painting; you must paint with your very own hands.

But many college courses simply involve encountering symbolic representations of facts and abstractions. It is this sense in which college students end up with "no real-world experience." Sometimes that's meant to be a damning claim, when it in fact misses the point. But from the point-of-view of building knowledge in all the possible ways we will need to build it, this kind of thirdhand learning is seriously deficient.

To read about poverty, see films about it, acquire facts and theories about it is completely unlike observing poverty with one's own eyes and ears, let alone being poor oneself. It's with this fact in mind that instructors have students do things like: volunteer at the local food pantry or soup kitchen, try to eat for a week on the same allowance as received under 'food stamps,' and the like.

You can download all the lectures you like, do online quizzes until your fingers bleed: you will never have the same involvement in the subject matter as experiencing it or seeing it for yourself.

(I don't think a film about the topic entirely counts, because it's still someone's constructed symbolic account. In a film, the form constructs meanings for you. By contrast, if you experience and observe for yourself it's incumbent on you to construct the meaning, and from a humanistic perspective, that's where the heart of the matter resides: in taking responsibility for ascribing meaning and discovering one's own agency in that act and process.)

You may object: but very important knowledge comes in books and other symbolic media. Fine and good. But who knows something significant about roller coasters?

  • The person who has read all the relevant information?
  • The person who watched one being ridden?
  • Or the person who has ridden the roller coaster herself?

It seems to me that: a complete, well-rounded education on roller coasters would involve some of each.

More broadly: not all learning in life comes from books and symbols; we also need to learn by doing and by observing. And we significantly short-change our students when we deprive them of practice in firsthand and secondhand learning.

A quick formula would then be a more complete education requires at least some of all three 'hands.'

  • Students should do things themselves: experience the subject matter firsthand.
  • Students should observe the phenomena under study as directly as possible: learn by secondhand observation, interviewing, etc.
  • Students should consume (but also produce) thirdhand accounts of the facts and knowledge they are venturing to acquire: learn by reading and writing thirdhand representations of the phenomena under consideration.

If we did this, students would become more deeply involved in the topic, while also learning techniques of observation that are often highly transferrable to new situations.

And we would then produce students more prepared to convert the raw material of experience and observation into reliable knowledge.

––Edward R. O'Neill

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Practice of Teaching? Eight Modes of Instruction

We know a lot about learning. Quite ironically, we know little about teaching.

Perhaps its wrong to think of teaching as some separate process––as something other than: facilitating learning.

The trouble is: what we know about learning is all theory. And as everyone knows: theory is not practice.

Theory is a set of abstractions. Physics has "gravity," and sociology has "social solidarity," and literature has "textuality." You can't point to gravity itself anywhere: you can only see it in action––and then only when you know what to look for.

And learning has "motivation" and "working memory" and "cognition" and "executive functions" and "agency" and "self-efficacy." If you know what all these aspects of learning, you 'just teach based on them.'

This is a lot like saying: learn all about color and pigments and perspective and then 'just paint a painting.' Or: 'just learn the laws of physics and then go split an atom.'

In this sense, teaching would just be: turning all the underlying elements of learning into something you can see––because you know what you are looking for (and at).

And yet: no one knows clearly and simply what that is. What is the "application" of all the ideas of learning?

Indeed, we the best procedure is probably to reverse the whole thing and to say that the whole issue of teaching can be reduced to the very gap between abstract theories and concrete actions: making ideas and abstractions concrete and perceptible and actionable through definite steps.

Yet what are these "definite steps"? We should have something on the side of teaching that corresponds to the Big Ideas of learning (motivation, working memory, executive functions, etc.)––and yet which is not abstract but rather a concrete procedure.

One such notion would be modes of instruction.

That is: there must be certain ways of teaching which are so basic and so elementary that they can be separated out like elements in chemistry. These would be the smallest possible ways of teaching, and I think it's possible to identify eight. (I'll leave out the word 'instruction' to characterize each, to avoid repetition.)

  1. Direct or nominal: This is the most common, and it can be represented by the verb "to tell." The instructor thinks "I'll just tell them." The knowledge being aimed it is simply named. "The square of the hypoteneuse is equal to the sum of the other two sides of a right triangle."
  2. Demonstrative: This is also very basic, although often ignored in favor of direct instruction. It's simply showing. With the triangle example, the instructor walks through the equation––even measures an actual physical triangle.
  3. Indirect or analogical: This is the use of metaphor or allusion to get the point across. An allegorical tale could be invented personifying the sides of the triangles and giving their feelings, for instance.
  4. Exploratory or experiential This is giving the learner something to do, without necessarily explaining either the result or the goal. Here the students would be given triangles and asked to measure and explore their properties. This kind of purely exploratory method had a fashion for a while but now is looked down upon.
  5. Procedural or algorithmic: Here the learner gets a specific sequence of steps to follow. No mention need be made of the goal, and indeed, lots of bad instruction falls under this heading.
  6. Goal-oriented: Here the learner is asked to achieve something specific. "Determine the relation between the two sides of a triangle joined in a right angle and the third side." No more guidance might be provided: just a goal.
  7. Social or observational: Here the learner is asked to observer others doing something relevant. You could say: this is implied in all demonstrative instruction, in which case neither of the two is really elementary. But observing other learners or other aspects of the physical and social world seems so central to naturalistic learning, that it would be absurd to exclude it as a method.
  8. Reflective: Here we ask the learners to recall and reflect on experiences. You could object that this requires an experiential or exploratory moment, but the experiences reflected on need not be a part of the instruction, so the process of reflecting does have some independent value.

These eight basic modes of instruction could be reduced to verbs or even sentences, depending on how the instruction was implemented––which is to say: who did what in relation to the verb. E.g.,:

  • tell,
  • show
  • imply,
  • explore,
  • walk through,
  • achieve,
  • watch,
  • reflect.

Or, for the teacher as the grammatical subject and the learners as the object:

  • I tell them.
  • I show them.
  • I imply.
  • They explore.
  • They go through the steps.
  • I set a goal which they achieve.
  • They watch others.
  • They reflect.

The methods change dramatically if the instructor is no longer the center. Indeed, inverting every method produces something dramatically different: the students tell or show the instructor; the instructor explores or watches or reflects. These would seem to be good instructions for how to make the teacher a learner, which is what a good teacher ought to be. And so the fact that changing the agent changes the impact does not say much about the validity of separating out the modes.

One very clear implication seems to be: each mode of instruction has a fatal weakness.

  • If you don't understand the terms of a direct explanation, you're out of luck.
  • Similarly, if the analogy makes no sense to you, the effectiveness is near zero.
  • You can show me something, and I can attend to the way you stand, rather than what you're doing.
  • Etc.

What this says to me is: effective teaching likely combines several of the basic modes of instruction. Indeed, telling usually gets followed by showing, then students going through steps, etc. But many practical teaching procedures skip entire modes of instruction (such as reflection), and yet we do not actually know which modes should be accompanied by which, nor in what order.

We could find out, though. A very nice research project would be a meta-analysis of studies of instructional methods. Researchers would code the methods studied to determine which modes of instruction were being used. And then the effectiveness of each method could be analyzed statistically in terms of the various modes being combined, as well as the combinations.

The fact is: we simply do not know (a) whether these modes of instruction really are primary, nor (b) which work best in which combination (let alone with which subject matter, which one might want to hold constant).

If these methods sound terribly concrete, that's exactly the point. Does one engage motivation better? Or another addresses issues in working memory? Are agency and self-efficacy supported better by this or that method? That is not the point.

Or rather: we could find all that out.

The point is: to make instruction something do-able and systematic and to know which techniques to use when and in what combination.

And then we would know more about teaching––which is something, as the poet said, "devoutly to be wished."

––Edward R. O'Neill

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Anything But Learning: An Imaginary Dialogue

Surely these guys know what they're doing, right?

Some months back, I wrote about our society's weird inability to look at and think about learning. We'll give students hardware, design games for them to play--anything but think seriously about learning, how it happens, what supports it, what blocks it.

As an instructional designer, I work with professors, and I often find that even those who care deeply about learning are looking for an easy fix: a computerized something-or-other which will help them skip over all the hard parts and get right to the learning.

Hence, I often find the same conversation happening again and again, with slight variations. Here is what that conversation would look like, if I could say what I really want.

Professor:   I've found the most wonderful new thing-a-ma-bob.

Instructional Designer: Truly?

Professor:   Yes. I'm having some thing-a-ma-bob engineers create a few for my students.

Instructional Designer: I see.

Professor:  It's a good idea, isn't it?

Instructional Designer:  Well, let me ask you this. You're an expert in the discipline of x-ology, right?

Professor:  And proudly so!

Instructional Designer: And when you have an x-ological problem, you know what to do.

Professor: I sure do!

Instructional Designer: And if you don't know how to solve it--

Professor: I consult with colleagues or read the literature of my field. 

Instructional Designer: Of course you do.

Professor:   I'd be a fool not to.

Instructional Designer: So what about learning?

Professor:  What about it.

Instructional Designer: You want your students to learn, yes?

Professor:  Of course!  

Instructional Designer: So why consult a thing-a-ma-bob engineer?

Professor:  Well, he's an expert in thing-a-ma-bob's, and nowadays people are using thing-a-ma-bob's to learn. You're pulling my leg, right? Surely you've heard of this.

Instructional Designer: Of course I have. But thing-a-ma-bob engineers know tons about thing-a-ma-bobs--

Professor:  And nothing about learning?

Instructional Designer: I was going to say: no more about learning than most people.

Professor: You're just being a professional now. You want everyone to consult an instructional designer or neuroscientist or educational psychologist every time she walks into a classroom.

Instructional Designer: Not every time. But now and again.

Professor: But I know what I want the students to learn! The thing-a-ma-bob engineer just has to build it.

Instructional Designer: Do you? Do you know?

Professor:  Yes! They're learning Arcane Topic Zed. 

Instructional Designer: But that's where an instructional designer can help. What about Arcane Topic Zed are they learning?

Professor:  Oh just the basics, you know. Nothing fancy.

Instructional Designer: But what must the learn to do? To recall, to distinguish, to apply, to synthesize?

Professor:  Well, the answer is very complicated. 

Instructional Designer: Which is why a thing-a-ma-bob engineer is not your ideal partner. You don't go to an engineer and ask "build me a house." The engineer would say "you need an architect to make a plan." And the architect would say "What kind of house? To do what? To house how many? In what seasons? With what hobbies?"

Professor:   And you're the architect.

Instructional Designer: Well, designers design. They help create a plan with specifications.

Professor:  Then can I get the thing-a-ma-bob engineer to build it?

Instructional Designer: To your heart's content.

Of course: in life, you don't get to have that conversation. The professor can do as she likes. And you really just want to partner with this person, so you don't get to lecture her on the value you provide.

Instead you must wait and look for the opportunity to provide that value--so you can demonstrate by actions and results what it is you do.

And meanwhile: blog about it.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Experiencing Mastery, Backwards & One Step at a Time, with Julia Child.

Julia Child was terrific at teaching us how to cook, eat and live.

I have no monopoly on this insight.

But it's very enjoyable to be reminded not only how much a very effective and hard-working person can do in a very small space, but also how much Julia Child has to teach us about teaching and learning.

Not long ago, I stumbled across a little half-page essay by Child in a cooking magazine. It's a miracle of compression. In less than 650 words (about a half a page), Child:

  1. defines quiche,
  2. tantalizes us with a description of the dish,
  3. chronicles the dish's culinary rise and fall,
  4. whets our appetite for the dish,
  5. inspires us with a story of how make the dish more easily,
  6. gives a recipe for both the crust and the quiche.

All in eight paragraphs! How many of us could teach half as much in twice the space?

What's going on here? How does Child work this magic?

To start, Julia begins with the result, the end-product: its taste and smell and pleasures. Quiche smells good, and it's part of welcoming friends into your home. This is very motivating. You think: "I want to do that!"

Second, Julia makes the process easier by dropping out unnecessary or more-complicated steps. Her inspiring anecdote concerns an anxious neighbor who dread making the dough. Julia comforted the neighbor by advising her to skip that hard part: just buy a pre-bought crust. Who would be the wiser?

The effect was magical: the neighbor brimmed with excitement at her newfound ability.

We may call this "confidence," but learning experts call it self-efficacy: the feeling of 'I can do it!' Apparently, it doesn't necessarily come from experience. Some people just have more of that feeling. But "experiences of mastery" can boost that feeling of self-efficacy, hence preparing us for greater challenges.

That's what Julia did with her anxious neighbor: made the task simpler so the neighbor could experience a success and feel more confident to approach a bigger challenge. Julia was quite the psychologist!

Cooking is hard. It's a complex, multi-step, goal-oriented process. Changing the salt here changes the taste and texture there. Kneading more or less there, changing the temperature elswhere––each of these changes the end result. So you might have to go through the same process many, many times in order to get each step just right, otherwise the end result may be inedible.

It's difficult to do something without knowing where you're headed. And too much challenge overwhelms us. So these two strategies work very well: (1) emphasize the end result, the goal, and (2) simplify the complex process, in part by reducing the steps.

So are these two clever methods something that applies only to cooking? Hell no!

There are simple names for these methods. The first is sometimes called reverse-engineering. You take the end result and you take it apart to see how the pieces fit together.

The second is an old educational method called (depending on the context) chunking or scaffolding.

  • The idea of chunking is simply: the average person's memory only holds so much information. So in order to hold a long string of info, break it into smaller bits. We do this all the time when we separate phone numbers into three- and four-digit chunks.
  • The idea of scaffolding is simply to help the learner by building a supportive structure around him––like the scaffolds built around a building to work on it as it's being assembled.
    • You give someone pre-assembled bits of the work, so the work is easier, and then over time the learner is able to do the more complex task.

If you teach or train, you can apply the same methods to any complex, multi-step, goal-oriented process.

  • Say you want students to learn to write solid argumentative prose.
    • You might start by asking them to take some apart. Identify the argument, the evidence, the reasoning. Reverse-engineer what good writing is.
    • Then you might give the students the argument and have them support it with evidence and reasoning. Or give them the argument and a pile of evidence and have them pick which evidence supports and which undermines the argument.
  • You can do the same thing with scientific experimentation.
    • You might start by giving students a finished scientific paper supporting a conclusion based on hypothesis-testing. Working backwards, you can ask the students to explain why this particular experimental method was used, why another one would not have worked.
    • Or you can give the students the experiment to run so they can collect the data, or give them the hypothesis and the data and ask them to analyze the data to see if it supports the hypothesis or not.

In short, Julia Child was certainly a miraculously gifted teacher. And like all gifted people, she worked tremendously hard. But her gifts and hard work follow underlying principles. And one of the inspiring things about Julia Child is how much we can learn from her about teaching. Namely:

Any complex, multi-step, goal-oriented process:

(1) can be practiced forwards or backwards––and should be–– (2) can be practiced from any step or 'moment' in the process to the next––and should be so practiced, e.g., by providing pre-fabricated materials for each step in the process and asking the learner to use them so as to lighten the burden of learning.

Learning is hard.

  • Learning anything complex is harder.
  • Learning a multi-step process is hard.
  • Orienting all your thoughts and behavior towards one goal is hard.
  • Doing them all together is very, very challenging.

Julia Child knew how to lower the difficulty level while keeping us stimulated by the excitement and challenge of a meaningful goal. And she does this the same way we should: by starting from the end, working backwards, and making the steps easier by simplifying them or practicing them separately.

––Edward R. O'Neill

Monday, April 7, 2014

Our 'Two Cultures'

Many years ago, a very thoughtful man wrote about "two cultures." The man was C. P. Snow, a Cambridge intellectual, and the two cultures were: scientific and humanistic.

It was a very good idea, a very nice distinction, and it was very influential, and people still talk about it.

But Snow was talking about a divide within intellectual culture, and the most important divide we must come to grips with today is: between intellectuals and practical people. Students and 'experts' often demand that higher education be "practical," and intellectuals take offense, because it rubs them the wrong way to hear that what they have devoted their lives to is not valuable. (Wouldn't you feel the same way?)

So intellectuals focus on what they feel is lofty and valuable and important, and practical people worry about jobs and skills, making and selling things and delivering services––all things intellectuals also need to live. But a good rift makes people forget what they have in common, and that's what this rift between intellectuals and practical people does.

Intellectuals are concerned with ideas, and practical people do things. Yes, being concerned with ideas means doing things: writing and researching and lecturing––and teaching. It's not that "those who can't do teach," but rather: that those who teach do not perceive their professional doing's as teaching; they rather see it as a heap of ideas, facts, principles, theories, and other similar abstractions.

And therein lies the rub.

Ideas are abstract. Actions are concrete. "Doing things" aren't even the same as "actions," because words that name actions are mere descriptions. The words "baking a cake" name an action: they don't get any cake baked.

Those concerned most with ideas often favor them over practical concerns. There really is some substance to the image of the 'absent-minded professor': to intellectuals, many practical details are just not as interesting or meaningful as ideas. But many of the professionals who work with professors find ourselves more on the practical side of the divide. Professors appreciate our help getting things done, but when what we do extends into their idea-domain, things get tricky. And we instructional technologists and designers and ed tech folk experience this daily.

And so practical matters are hard to grasp intellectually exactly because they aren't ideas, and they aren't susceptible to many intellectual (which is to say: abstract) approaches.

Take the law of universal gravitation. It's not in this room, nor on the planet Mars. It's a law, not a thing. The law may govern things (matter, to be exact), but the law isn't itself matter––and it would be madness to think so.

And the same for "social solidarity": sociologists talk about it and measure it, but you can't hold it in your hand. Likewise "meaning" and "reason" and "textuality," and all kinds of other abstractions whose importance we can admit without wishing they were food or water or sunshine.

Actions, like other things, exist in time and space: this thing is to the right or left of that, and I put one foot down first and the other foot down next. Immanuel Kant constructed an astonishing theory about time and space––but reading it won't help you find your keys or walk without falling down, for both of those are doings and not ideas. The idea of walking is subtle and complex––have you ever read anything about kinesiology?––but actually walking is nothing when done right, everything when done wrong.

Yes, matter may be arranged to express and to show and to prove an idea: in letters and numbers and demonstrations and experiments. But those are things and actions subordinated to an idea and arranged beautifully to express that idea. And it is a very special skill to express the abstract in the concrete. Great artists do it. It would be ungrateful to ask ordinary people, even the most thoughtful intellectuals, to approach that level of skill. We have some such expectations, and we're often disappointed, but we also tend not to recognize how high our expectations have been.

Exactly part of becoming an intellectual is: learning to subordinate practical matters entirely to ideas. If you ever went to graduate school, even for a professional pursuit, you likely remember the wrenching process of learning the procedures and norms of your discipline. You only get the ideas by doing things in a very specific way: using words this way and not that, footnoting like this, researching like that.

It's like those scenes in the musical My Fair Lady (or the play Pygmalion from which the musical is derived) in which Eliza must learn to speak properly. Even those who went to college, however briefly, may remember the odd feeling of the persnickety finickiness of college professors, they way they seemed to rephrase our thoughts in slightly different words––oh but those little differences seemed to matter so much! It was like treading on eggshells.

So intellectuals teach. And they believe and feel that they're teaching abstract ideas. And so all the practical matters of teaching often seem just beneath them––and they are: in the sense that practical matters are of a completely different order from ideas.

And yet teaching and learning are completely practical. Teaching and learning take place in time and space. The first day of classes is September 14th. English 216 meets on LC 114 Mondays from 11 to noon. Your paper is due next Thursday in my mailbox by 5 pm.

And teaching at its basis is instructions: do this, then that, in this order. If you can't give clear instructions, you may teach well or poorly, but no one may show up to class. It's not that everything can be reduced to a set of procedures, but if I don't know how to write a paper, I can't show you what I've learned about Descartes.

Instructions and procedures, like so many things in education, are, in a very rich and profound sense, a platform for knowledge, not the knowledge itself––just as words are a platform for poetry, and poetry a platform for feelings and thoughts and experiences and reflections and things.

That's aesthetic: how things are arranged to point at once both towards and beyond themselves, to become gestures whose import we don't just think but also feel and sense in very powerful ways. At that far end of things, teaching is indeed an art: an art of doing and instructing and arranging actions and experiences.

But here and now, at the near end of things, teaching and learning are like, say, project management. And "like" is the key relation here, because practical matters are connected by relations of similitude, by analogy. Baking a chocolate cake is like baking a lemon cake. And baking a cake is like baking biscuits––but different in crucial ways. And baking biscuits is like baking cookies, but again different, etc.

Practical matters are concrete doing's, but they are ordered in relations of likeness, with typical and prototypical instances, and types emerging from the instances: a butter cake, an angel cake, a biscuit, a scone, a muffin.

In the domain of ideas, analogies are risky and suspect: they can work or fail, and much of the domain of logic arose very long ago to prevent analogies from going to far.

And that, in a sense, is how science and the humanities, logic and poetry, parted ways––so that a couple thousand years later C. P. Snow could write about the two cultures.

Today our leap across the divide is a trickier move: connecting abstract ideas and concrete actions. For we who work in education must take all our abstractions and carry them to those who need them: putting one foot in front of the other and hoping we can be graceful enough in ordinary things to get as close as we can to making helping others learn into something very near to art.

––Edward R. O'Neill

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tools, Purposes and Other Fairy Tales

The gift of instructional technology is tools:

  • little tools that do one or two things brilliantly,
  • big tools that do many powerful things quickly,
  • the constant innovation which makes what is hard one day just a click away the next.

And the bane of instructional technology is: tools.

  • Little tools that do a few things poorly,
  • big tools so big they are slow and cumbersome and suck up your time,
  • the constant innovation which takes away your sanity and causes us all to chase the delusion of endless "improvement" which is often only: the need to keep up and to seem to be improving.

Tools are wonderful. Tools are dreadful. When they are new and work, they are magic. When they age and break, they are worse than inert: they aggravate and infuriate; they are deader than the proverbial doornail. And it all happens very, very fast.

Tools are the how, not the way, mere means to ends, and therein lies the problem.

In higher education we are concerned primarily not with means but ends. The human being is the ultimate (earthly) end: her life and purpose and her ability to use her freedom to choose that purpose and to build that life however she sees fit in an understanding that emerges quickly or slowly, early or late, and sometimes even: just in the nick of time.

We subvert the entire meaning of our enterprise when we fixate upon means––tools, that is––and measure those tools only against other tools and not against the purposes towards which our mission points us.

But think about tools we must, for we are IT, and it's what we do. And so we struggle endlessly against the tendency to focus on the how and to forget the why. It is a mental struggle. It is a moral struggle. Sometimes it almost seems like a physical struggle: a gripping in the pits of our stomachs and an itching and tingling in our legs. As long as we live and breathe tools, we will always be uneasy.

What is the prescription for this unease? How in higher ed can we focus away from the tool and towards the ends?

One way is to focus not on the tool but rather on the use case.

A use case is a term of art. It sounds fancy but it's simple. A use case is a story. It's a picture of some things a user does. It's journalistic: like the "lede," that first part of the news story that gives you the whole picture but also whets your appetite to know more.

Write a journalistic "lede" without the "how," and you have a use case: the problem to be solved, the thing our users need to do, the reason that they come to us, their purpose, their 'end.'

  • Who?
  • Does what?
  • When and where?
  • And why?
  • To achieve what?

Subject. Verb. Circumstances. Purpose. A use case is a sentence writ large, exploded into steps. It could almost be the panes of a comic.

And we are the ones who help to figure out the 'how.'

For many use cases, I would like to argue that the 'how' should always be in three sizes.

Just as in the fairybook bears' house, in IT-land solutions come in three sizes. Like the bear story, it's a fairy tale: there aren't really just three sizes. And they aren't just sizes, they're bundles of traits––ownership, complexity, flexibility, and more.

But three is a good number, because looking at and choosing amongst five or seven or ten things is harder. So we in higher ed IT do well to recommend tools in three sizes and kinds.

  1. A free and easy consumer service with just a few functions. It's not meant for professional use but it's adaptable for many purposes. It's not hard to use, though finding all the tricks can take time. And we don't own it.
    • Think flickr for photos, Youtube for video, Dropbox for file sharing, Slideshare for publishing presentations, etc.
    • We don't care that we don't own it. We just need to make the proper warnings about where the data lives, who can access to it, whether the data can be sucked out, our lack of control, etc.
  2. A free service and which has robust-, numerous- and flexible-enough functions that it can be used for many purposes. It takes time to learn, but the learning curve is not steep. And we own and offer and support it, and that means it's geared more towards the kinds of purpoes our users have.
    • At some campuses, it's WordPress. It's run locally. Anyone can request a site. There are already-built resources. It can be used for courses, working groups, projects, etc. It can be public, private or community-only.
  3. A specialized service which we have licensed or built, which has a high degree of complexity. It can be used for many different purposes. You can use it a little or a lot. The learning curve is steep. Whether it's someone else's or not, we bought it and we provide it and so even if we don't own it 100%, we get the blame when things go wrong.
    • Think a sophisticated digital asset management service, or even Adobe's Creative Cloud suite, which many (wealthy) campuses license and which (in aggregate) is off-the-charts in complexity.

As with many choices, it's really a table. This one has one binary distinction and four scales.

type who owns it? how many functions? how complex? number of purposes learning curve?
simple, free & easy someone else few simple one or two none or trivial
our un-fussy service us not too many relatively simple more than a few, less than a dozen non-flat
"our" high-end service us a lot complex many, many steep

But tables are for nerds like me, and a list is more human-readable, and this is one of those distinctions we in IT-land often forget, because "I can understand it," but then I am not the user.

And unlike in the three bears' house, in IT-land each of the three sizes is "just right" for somebody. Every user is a Goldilocks who deserves her chair and bed and porridge just the way she likes it.

  • People who come to us for simple functions can be directed to simple tools––even if we don't own them.
    • And we need to have worked out the use cases well enough so that we can give a short 'getting started' document or demonstration.
    • We don't need to know all the answers––as long as the client knows they are using someone else's pipes.

Unlike many things in IT-land, the process doesn't have 86 steps.

  • Write the use case, and identify the three choices.
  • Give your users a clear picture of the use case: who does what.
  • Help the users choose wisely, and help them get the right amount of support for each choice.
  • Advise your users appropriately of the advantages and pitfalls––learning curve, data ownership, privacy, security, longevity, etc.

If you can get the users to share their successes, then others will see what success looks like, and they too may come to recognize that one size seldom fits all, but there is often one size for each user that is "just right."

––Edward R. O'Neill

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Do I have the rights to publish an image I found in a book or on a web site?

In general: no.

  • Books are copyrighted. The contents whose copyright is not owned by the publisher has been licensed.
  • As the owner of a book, you have a right to make copies for personal use––not to publish or share.

An exception is the doctrine of “fair use.”

copying of copyrighted material…for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner.
  • This includes face-to-face teaching and critical commentary and discussion.
  • But in almost all cases, scholars ask permission before republishing materials they are commenting on critically.
  • And when the materials are on the web, linking back to the original is considered respectful and shows you are not appropriating someone else’s content but rather directing readers to it.

What about an image on a museum’s web site?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Finding a Small High-Quality Digital Camera

Say: under $300.

This is not so easy. I’ve been trying myself: trying to find something small to travel with that also gives good results.

What’s so hard?

  • Smaller digital cameras often have very poor quality images.
    • Some say the size of the sensor is the key factor; others disagree.
  • The jpeg’s in digital cameras are generated on-the-fly. I suspect the engine that does this needs to be good, and they don’t dedicate the chip space/power in a small device to that end. (But that’s just my guess.)

What to do? Four pathways can help you make a choice; they are not mutually exclusive.

(While this blog is normally reserved for thoughts about teaching & learning technologies, a big question we often face is: how to choose the right tool, and so I thought "choosing the right camera" was close enough.)

1. Check out some thoughtful online resources.

  • A recommendation engine. has a recommendation engine.
    • Their prices are based on the lowest found, and that includes used, so they’re quite misleading.
  • Sophisticated reviews.
    • I find DPreview intelligent and reliable.
      • They’re highly detailed, and so it’s often wise to skip to the next-to-last page of the review (“Conclusions”).
    • Cameralabs does thoughtful reviews. They tend to be only a few pages, but I still often skip to the last page (“Verdict and Scores”).
  • Others’ experiences. I actually find the ratings on and BHPhotoVideo very useful.
    • You can search in price ranges (never accurate on Amazon) and then sort by the average customer review.
    • On Amazon, you can also pick a rating (say: four stars), then sort by “Relevance,” which often excludes some odd items showing up in the wrong place.
    • Individual reviews need to be taken with a grain of salt, as people get cranky about things relevant only to them. But the good reviews are very helpful, and the aggregate is, I think, meaningful.
  • Inductively. Look on photo sites like to see what results others get. If they’re indifferent, either the camera is bad–or it has not inspired enthusiasts (which is a different thing, likely with some overlap).
  • Scientifically. DXOMark tests sensors and lenses and publishes the results.
    • N.B. They’re testing the sensor, not the camera. This seems finicky, but it lets you compare the image quality separate from questions like: are the buttons easy to use?
    • The results are wonky, but they are effectively reduced to numbers, and so this lets you make some rational choices–e.g., “$300 more for lower picture quality? I don’t think so!”
    • You can actually search by size and price, though “under $500” is basically the lowest category.

2. Ask people.

I’m writing this, so I’ll tell you my experiences (not my opinions).

Lately I’ve been testing some smaller, high-quality cameras.

  • The Olympus XZ–2 is the follow-up to the SZ–1.
    • I got this for sale around Xmas.
    • It’s still on sale these days for $300.
    • I’ve been shooting with it lately and quite like it.
    • It has close-up modes for flowers and the like.
    • It has a wide aperture, good for shooting in low light and for separating the subject from the background (i.e., “shallow depth-of-field”).
    • The user has access to manual controls (aperture, shutter speed, etc.). I believe you can also use it very automatically, though I haven’t used that mode.

3. Buy a small, pocketable camera that’s highly-rated by various sites.

  • Cameralabs writes guides for various categories of camera–such as compact cameras.
    • In this category, they recommend (among other, more-expensive cameras):

4. Get something that would normally be more expensive but that’s older and on sale (probably to make way for forthcoming new models).

  • In this category, you’ll find small ‘mirrorless’ cameras.
    • These are like a smaller digital SLR (DSLR).
    • They have interchangeable lenses, like the SLR’s of old. And the lens can be more expensive than the camera.
    • As with DSLR’s, they usually come with a lens whose effective cost is sometimes about $25–a tremendous bargain.
    • If you buy this, you’ll be in a ‘system’ (a combination of camera bodies and lenses and accessories), and so you can eventually get a better lens (even used).
  • In terms of size, these would be more ‘around the neck’ cameras than ‘pocketable,’ though sometimes the lens is a ‘pancake,’ which is small and flat, as the name implies.
  • *Be aware that because the sensor is smaller than 35mm film, the equivalent of a “50mm lens” on an SLR is often a different (much smaller number) on these cameras.
    • A “normal” lens (neither wide angle nor telephoto) is 40–50mm.
    • A wide angle lense might be 28–35mm.
    • A 90–200mm lens would be a telephoto for capturing objects at a distance.
    • The word “equivalent” tells you that, say, a 20mm lens acts like a 40mm lens on the camera advertised.
  • Sony, Olympus, Nikon and Pentax make excellent models.
    • BH Photo & Video has several of this type of camera now selling for under $300.
      • These include cameras whose sensors DXOmark rates very highly:
        • Sony NEX–3N: rated as 74.
        • Nikon 1 S1: rated as 56.
        • Nikon 1 J1: rated as 56.
        • Pentax Q10: rated as 49.
      • By comparison, the Olympus XZ2 I’m using now seems pretty good to me and has a sensor rating of 34.

A general tip: handle the actual camera, if you possible can.

    Try to go to the store and test whatever you want to buy. I find people discover they just don’t like a given software interface or where the buttons are. If you have trouble working the dingus right off, often it doesn’t get much better.