Sunday, October 31, 2010

Are F2f Classes the Luxury Sedan of the Edu Biz? Go Hybrid!

USC President Max Nikias believes that undergraduates benefit most from face-to-face learning environments. Faculty working with undergraduates are discouraged from creating courses with distance learning components of their residential classes.

F2F is quickly becoming perceived as a luxury because august public institutions like the University of California are turning to online class delivery to cut costs. Online is seen as a necessity, a poor cousin, not a choice to empower learners.

But as more and more of our lives move online, and crucially, more professional work is being conducted in hybrid environments (that is, online and f2f), what really is the best learning environment for students?

Student writers don’t want face time for its own sake. They want f2f if it delivers something they can’t get online.

Something more compelling than "it feels good."

I am the first one to confess that face time feels great. I volunteer teach classes in my local public school district because I love the learning that happens f2f. Done right, it's a place of serendipity. Even I don't know fully what I'm going to say, or what students will say. And having to wrestle that unpredictability into a set of learning goals for each class session is a puzzle I never tire of solving.

But could it also be that college students prefer f2f classes because they have to work less hard?

Not all students, of course. Some students, across the spectrum of talent and collegiate preparation, will knock themselves out for your class: do the reading, come prepared with comments and questions, jump into debate, hit all the deadlines. Those students power seminars and make them richly meaningful not just for themselves, but for their quiet mice neighbors.

Online, everybody talks. There are no quiet mice. It's easy to see and measure quality of contribution. Students can't take a day off without penalty. There's a digital record of your daily contribution.

Which some students may not like.

And so they may clamor for f2f for reasons not entirely wholesome. Or intellectually sound.

This is not to say that online writing courses are superior to f2f modes, even if, as Prof. Scott Warnock notes, online writing students write 1500-2000 words more per week than their f2f counterparts. Warnock is Director of Freshman Writing at Drexel University and author of Online Writing Teacher and a 2009 book Teaching Writing Online: How and Why. Citing report in the Feb. 10 eCampus News, he notes that "hybrids are hot."

In my own experience, f2f is less rigorous than that same conversation would be if students had already discussed it online first and then come to class ready to hash it out.

My individual experience is consonant with findings from the U.S. Department of Education, which in its "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning" (Sept. 2010)finds that online learners perform marginally better than students in f2f classrooms. I should note that this report compares online and face-to-face learning environments and outcomes for K-12 learners, not post-secondary.

Time and again in my experience, f2f student discussion is better--deeper, more attentive to nuance and contradiction--if we have already broached it online.

And the benefits are more than intellectual.

The online/f2f combo-platter allows us to be more socially aware and dynamic. Bouncing between the two contexts, we glean information that locates the private writerly self in a body seated somewhere around the seminar table. That guy who wears his cap backward and acts like a goof? He's actually the contrarian pushing against the class's majority opinion. The silent student who sits near teacher has volumes to say online, freed from the terror of public speaking. The one who scowls through much of the class? Turns out she's busy thinking, which is evident in ruminative posts.

Many of us are also using hybrid settings to take students into the cities where our universities are located. The cities are "living texts" for the students to explore and write about. As mobile computing becomes more widely adopted for uses we commonly associate with laptops, such adventures will even more seamlessly integrate with writing programs' curricula.

When f2f looks in the mirror, it sees Socrates and Plato, brick-and-ivy, and students--even if they are seated in a circle and looking into each others' eyes--waiting for the teacher to lead.

When f2f looks into a computer screen, it sees a blinking cursor waiting for fingertips to fling it into Google, into the blogosphere, into social media and crowdsourcing, into hyper-abundance and the aching sense that to find your way, you need guidance from a teacher who's right there with you, using the same tools you use today and will continue to use after graduation, because they are not locked behind proprietary platforms like BlackBoard, or even the marvelous, addictive, and curated databases your library subscription buys you but to which you may not have access when you're no longer a student.

Teachers, f2f and online, have never been more useful and necessary.

If f2f is ready for its close up, it will dance between these contexts, between the body-in-class and the screen.

F2F need not be like the delusional murderess Norma Desmond, who is ready for her return to silent movie glory only after the movies have definitively passed her by.

But that means we're going to have to give her, give f2f, a facelift.

The hybrid can erase those fine lines.

Friday, October 15, 2010

F2F and Dancing with Steven Johnson, Kaleb Nation, and a Journey Tribute Band

[Sun a couple hours from rising.  Breath steaming in the cold, but feet bare anyway.  Soundtrack: DJ Wombat's Deep House mix.]

I like to be alone.  Social media has made it more fun.  I no longer like to read nonfiction without Diigo.  I check Twitter several times a day to see what my network has curated for me.  I carry social media's perpetual buffet in my pocket.  I bike with it pressed to my belly into the cityscapes I love.

And yet, for all this plenitude,  serendipitous f2f events last weekend packed the Diigo'd snowflakes I'd been reading into a ball I could toss to someone else.

Like to you, right now.

3 events, 3 days:

Steven Johnson's book tour at the Bagdad Theater three days after the launch of Where Good Ideas Come From delivered presence, aura.  Johnson writes prolifically about the history of science and how it shapes innovation today.  He is both old school and new:  he writes monographs in solitude, just like the Enlightenment intellectuals he admires; but he's also robustly new media, with 1.5 million Twitter followers and a cadre of high-test bloggers who learn from him and spread his ideas.

Sitting at the Bagdad, washing down slippery fries with Hammerhead, I wondered why Johnson (or anyone) bothers with book tours anymore.  In the age of viral video, why zoom up and down the coasts selling books one at a time?

Indeed, about half of the material Johnson presented at the Bagdad I'd heard in his September 2010 TED talk. Midway through his perf at the Bagdad, I became conscious of my behavior as a fan:  I was nodding at his big reveals & laughing at punchlines I already knew.  Why?

I meant to testify:  we need to redefine the open web as essential to innovation and growth or risk its becoming, as Scott Rosenberg has suggested, "a brief transitional interlude between more closed informational regimes."  

Next AM, I was still thinking "why does Johnson bother with f2f?"  I rolled over, scooped up my iPhone, and found that he'd tweeted #ideachat, which led me to this video from Derek Sivers about how to start a movement.  Iranian progressives and Burmese monks have used Twitter to start social movements.  Why do movements culminate in physical presence, even when it's very dangerous to do so?

Sivers' crucial idea:  the leader embraces a "First Follower" as an equal and collaborator.  Contagious excitement takes off from there.

I was thinking of Sivers' vid twelve hours later when I decided to dance on the periphery of my row in the Alberta Rose Theater.  The 300-seat ART is stadium-style seating, which prescribes passive, butts-in-seat art consumption.  Friends, hubby and I were there to see a Journey tribute band, Stone in Love.

I didn't take my shirt off and wiggle around like the guy in the vid above.  I stood at the edge of my row, swayed against the wall, and held my microbrew as a kind of shield.  Because yeah, I don't really like to stand out.  But I like to dance more than I fear judgment.

You know what's coming.  3 women in the row ahead of me got up and danced next to me.  Their leader turned her head to gaze at me.

I thought about the First Follower.  I smiled, toasted her with my Ninkasi Double Red, and we bobbed our heads in time.  Then she returned her attention to her friends.

Skip ahead, skip ahead.  A coupla songs later, and 6 people rushed to the front and began dancing with abandon.  I darted down.  Kevin the lead singer made eye contact with me.  He sang to me for a coupla bars.  I felt like it was my reward for being the first.  Of course I sang along with him. What else to do in junior high but memorize pop songs?

Fully half of the theater was suddenly rocking out down at the front.  Pressed together, lights beaming, vocals soaring, double bass thumping.  Women I don't know throwing their arms around my shoulders and dancing.

A movement for  . . .  movement!

Not exactly one of Johnson's Liquid Networks--no grand intellectual ambition here; we did not discover GPS--but I still think there's something intellectually relevant about physical crowds in the era of crowdsourced knowledge.  Not sure what exactly.  Post a comment if you have a hunch.

Next day, my friend Laura called.  She was buried hip deep in grading and could I use her ticket to Wordstock?

Sure I could.

That's where I saw Kaleb Nation.  This YA author, seasoned at age 22, is the canniest DIY architect of a new media promo campaign I've seen in a while.

Only some of Steven Johnson's potential audience is NM savvy.  Many of his readers rely on book reviews and other top-down media to discover his book.

Not so for Mr. Nation, whose 18K+ Twitter followers upload photos of themselves in Kaleb Nation t-shirts they've bought on his site.  KN makes and uploads a vid every day.  He showers his fans with Tweets many times a day, at least 12 hours daily:  his whereabouts, responses to fans, jokey photos, glib throwaways.

Talk about high-touch!  Nation's fans are never far from his electronic caress.

In response, Nationeers dutifully show the love.  Example:  NPR asked KN to write a book review.   When it went live, he Tweeted his Nationeers, asking them to favorite it on the NPR site.  Result?  Within 5 minutes, KN's article leapt to the number #1 slot on NPR "most popular" beating the next article by like 400%.  Shortly thereafter KN's article was promoted to the NPR front page, and  . . . .

A star is born. Or at least showing up in the telescope.

KN exemplifies Johnson's idea of the Liquid Network:  weak ties bound together by common interest and physical proximity.  Except now, the "physical" is virtual:  all those photos and vid we upload.

Like the eighteenth-century broadsheeters who cranked out satires and other entertainment overnight and posted them outside coffee houses in the morning, Nation amps up the production schedule:  24/7, always-on.  Instead of being inspired by caffeine, that "chat-inspiring liquor" as c18 poet Laetitia Pilkington called it, Nationeers get high uploading, mashing and spreading Kaleb-inspired arcana.  They're not consumers of ideas. They're producers.  KN is the context, the venue.

He's the juice in the Liquid Network.

What's the takeaway, you might ask?

The smaller the feedback loop, the more contagious your ideas.  Nothing makes a feedback loop smaller, more immediate and intimate than f2f.  

Why else would Steven Johnson be knocking himself out on the road?

But an electronic constant caress is a close second.  Witness KN's killer book tour sked (two!  two at once! His own for Bran Hambric:  The Specter Key, and another, as chief media officer for The Beautiful Darkness Tour, a book by his friends, #2 on NYT paperback bestseller list.)

F2F.  Still what's for breakfast.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Desire and eMotion: The Wilderness Downtown

View The Wilderness Downtown in Google Chrome or Safari 5.

Almost everyone likes “The Wilderness Downtown,” the interactive film by Chris Milk set to the song “We Used to Wait” by Arcade Fire.  David Pescovitz at Boing Boing declares The Wilderness Downtown “perhaps the best browser-dominating Net art piece I've experienced since's best work more than a decade ago.”  Of the 27 comments posted to Pescovitz’s piece, many go like this:  “I didn't think I would like this when I saw it a couple days ago. Just some web-tricks. However, the song and the personalization really did it for me. I'm going to send it to my brother and see what he thinks. We have so many memories of the place we grew up.”
The teenage boys to whom I showed it like it.  My elementary-school aged daughter likes it.  My former boss likes it.  My new-media-agile friends like it.  I like it.

Is it a bland aesthetic, this burger to which everybody adds their own secret sauce to make delicious?  Or is “The Wilderness Downtown” popular because it’s a game-changer, creating the expectation of interactivity:  that stories will work harder to meet you, quite literally, where you live.


How can both of these things be true?

Metonymy, the rhetorical trope, is the muscle powering Wilderness Downtown’s emotional punch.

Metonymy is the trope of contiguity.  Of desire.  Metaphor draws relationship from similarity:  “Achilles is a lion.”  Metonymy draws relationship by approximation:  “Madison Avenue scripts what we want.”

“The Wilderness Downtown” is metonymy in motion.  Its structure reinforces the nostalgic theme.  Up to five windows open and shut in perfect synchronicity with the music. You watch the faceless, hooded proxy of yourself running through your childhood neighborhood as depicted in present-day Google Maps street view.  The percussive, moody music pushes you through the experience.  Unlike many pieces of eLit, there’s a beginning, middle and end.  The unities of color (black, white, gray and orange) and pacing direct the eye, guide you to unify the window-fragments into a satisfying whole. You are instructed to write or doodle a postcard to the self you were when you lived there; this is the only moment where the piece slows down.  The creators assume you have a lot to say.  “And so I wrote a letter,” intones the Arcade Fire lyric.  “I never took my true heart, I never wrote it down.”

Now you can. 

At the end of WD you can send your postcard along to strangers if you like, or to the  Wilderness Machine, or to the Arcade Fire tour; but of course that defeats the intimacy of the conceit that you are writing to your younger self.  It’s a tease, a fake.

Indeed, the interactivity of this “interactive film” is limited to the moment when you enter your address; after that, you’re just watching the movie play out across the literal landscape of your childhood.

“If the measure is the concept, not the interactivity,” observes Mark Marino at Writer Response Theory, “I find the piece to be a nice mashup of html5 effects, maps, and music under a creepy combo of nostalgia and surveillance crows. True, other elit is more interactive--or offers more significant interaction. This is more of the you be the star of the story -- or Dora episode -- genre.”

The first time I saw it a few weeks ago,” notes Dustin Stevenson in response to Marino, “I expected/hoped that the doodle I drew would manifest in the climactic moment of the film. . . .  [R]eading this post left me wishing for a more deeply mutable digital object.”

Indeed, WD bets that genuine interactivity takes a back seat to nostalgia.  Given the positive reception, it looks like they won the bet.  Urged on by the sexy Arcade Fire refrain “aaaaaah, we used to wait,” WD is a steamy broth of conflicting desires:  to be the self in the video and yet to escape out of it; to be inside that childhood landscape and also watch it destroyed by crows pummeling the ground and thrusting up into trees that occlude your view.  In short, it can be anything to anybody:  a perfect marketing machine (recall WD was created in part to show off the HTML5 and new Google Chrome).  But is it a perfect aesthetic object?  It’s too empty to be truly memorable.

And yet, pretty much everybody I've come across likes it.  A lot.  The negative comments fall along the lines of:  what happened to interoperability?  Why can't I run this on Firefox?

Which returns us to the question of why people like The Wilderness Downtown.

Filmmaker Chris Milk:  “My real motivation came from my quest for music videos to have the equally soul-touching emotional resonance that straight music does. Honestly, I'm not sure they ever can. Music scores your life. You interact with it. You listen to it in the car.  It becomes the soundtrack to that one summer with that one girl. Music videos are very concrete and rigid. They don't allow for that emotional interaction.”

Unless you customize to each user.  Let him plug in his own address, his own memories and desires, and the user can make the meaning.  In a way, it’s the dream of every artist and reception theorist:  reading is performance, its own art.

But is it art, the infinite regress of me dancing between two mirrors, watching all those arms raise and lower simultaneously?  Milk has created a compelling empty screen on which to project our fantasies about our younger selves.  Empty but with "boids" flying across it.  Duchamp’s fountain has more instrinsic meaning.  

Metonymy in motion = eMotion.  The secret sauce you’ll buy every time because it tastes like you.