Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Remediating Coupland's The Gum Thief

So a week and a half ago I finished Douglas Coupland's new novel, The Gum Thief. I learned to appreciate Coupland early on in grad school when I read Microserfs, a mind-1990s book the chronicles the adventures of a group of programmers who break away from Microsoft and try to start their own company and end up forming a new form of family. I liked it immensely.

Last year I read JPod and found it to be far inferior--basically a retelling of Microserfs but with characters who were largely unsympathetic and a postmodern deus ex machina that has the author showing up in postindustrial factories around China. Parts of it were funny, but the charm (are grad students allowed to like charm?) of the first book didn't exist anywhere in its retread.

So my expectations for The Gum Thief weren't as high as they might have been last year. While the novel was definitely better than JPod, I still didn't like it as much as Microserfs. That's okay--my second book isn't sold nearly as charming as my first, after all. The novel is a series of interlocking narratives/novellas/epistolary passages exchanged between people working at Staples. It's perhaps a long poem to the frustrations (there...now I sound like an English student) of middle age and quarter life in the big box world of retailing. I'd read it again, but it's not high on my list.

Today, however, I discovered on YouTube that there are a series of videos that accompany the novel and its different narratives. In this hypertextual medium you can obviously enter the narrative as you will, but if you were to follow the path of the print book, you would likely begin by viewing a video about Roger, the dominant voice in the book. This project was commissioned by Coupland's Canadian publisher, Random House. One assumes that Coupland himself must have had something to do with this, but one can't determine the extent.

In any case, call me a pitiful millenial, but I think that these videos spark a lot more interest in me about the book as they could encourage different processes of reading and interpretation. And they invite responses in kind, which could be a fun project for a class or students.

Monday, November 26, 2007

New tool for reading

Just in case you missed it: Amazon last week announced Kindle. This is an e-book that, like the Sony Reader before it, uses an "e-ink" that is a lot easier to read than any other screen you've ever encountered. I've seen one of these in person and found 98.42% as easy to read as a piece of paper or a regular book. (I can't tell you how I reached that figure. It's proprietary information.)

What's different about Kindle is that it has built-in Wireless and that Amazon is making the wireless access free. This means that you can buy books wherever you might happen to be. Oh, and surf the web. And listen to mp3s. And read your favorite blogs (RSS subscriptions cost a small amount.) And favorite newspapers (New York Times delivery and others start at $14/month.)

There are all sorts of places where you can read about the $400 machine (a bit overpriced and more than a bit ugly [it's obviously not an Apple product]) including Amazon's own web page, which includes a video of Toni Morrison talking about it. But a good one that you might not find otherwise is at Macworld.

If I had more money, I'd get this. As it is, I'm waiting for the prices to come down. And for them to try to implement easier PDF support. Life would be much better if I could read journal articles on this. Did I mention that you can make notes on the things you're reading?

Vanderbilt, part 2. Now improved with bonus bits of Wisconsin!

I just got off the phone with Derek Bruff at Vanderbilt's Center for Teaching. We chatted a bit about what we are trying to accomplish with TLC and about parallels that Vanderbilt might have.

He indicated that there are a lot of programs at Vanderbilt that focus on helping students and faculty learn how to teach. These programs are run by varying organization and departments. The Center for Teaching provides some of these, but also tries to keep tabs on what the departments are doing.

Given this, he indicated that while technology makes up a portion of the discussion in pedagogy at Vanderbilt, there isn't any one course/workshop that does the same thing that TLC does: a focus on technology as the means to pedagogical ends. He also said that Vanderbilt had had someone at the provost level who was head of instructional technology, but that the position was eliminated a few years ago.

In a subsequent email exchange with Derek (begun after I started this post), he indicated that much of the technology instruction takes place within departments as the disciplinary differences were more important than any divide between graduate students and faculty. I agree that this is important and is something that we particularly like to emphasize about TLC in its current configuration. As I replied to him, "The advantage of TLC was that we had a room of English grad students who were familiar with each other's research and with the basic format for the courses we are teaching. There is also a shared assumption of what methods one uses and what we feel to be important skills for our students to gain. All of these things make it possible for us to discuss specifically how we would use a particular technology to teach in our classrooms. These discussions are assisted by our having had the Director of Graduate Studies and one other faculty member attend all of the workshops. They can lead these discussions in a particular way that the staff in ECIT cannot." This is something that Vanderbilt and I (or we, if I can be said to speak for ECIT and those involved in the project) both value.

Derek also indicated that the Center for Teaching had originally focused efforts on graduate students and faculty separately, but now aim their programs to both groups at once. This shift appears to have come at the same time as the focus on discipline. (Thus, programs that differentiated between grad students and faculty become programs that differentiated between departments.) ECIT has had success with programs that put faculty and graduate students together--particularly Emory College Online (ECO). Yet I feel that there was something gained by the graduate students having a space for themselves--assisted, of course, by Drs. Rusche and Elliott. To my mind, I think faculty who learn new technologies are supplementing the techniques they have already learned over a few or many years. Graduate students are, instead, learning who they are as teachers and have very different questions about the implementation of a particular tool.

Finally, Derek pointed me toward an interesting consortium that Vanderbilt is a part of: the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL). CIRTL is a group of universities (read the list here) who are working to improve the teaching of graduate students and junior faculty in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Each campus has different initiatives related to this, but one of the most interesting are the courses that are being taught at the University of Wisconsin's Delta Program, the CIRTL center in Madison. These courses are available to graduate students and carry credit. Their topics range from "Diversity in the Classroom" to "Effective Teaching with Technology." This last looks very much like what we are doing with ECIT. Of course, it is limited to students in STEM, but Delta has made all of its course's syllabi and materials available via CIRTL as guidebooks. The idea is that any university could take the materials and more or less teach the same class from it. So with nothing more than a click you can have the 75-page guidebook. (It's when you read through this that you realize the differences between how we have talked about technology in TLC and how it might need to be done with people from other disciplines, say the GDBBS.) To me this seems like the ideal mode for scholarship and pedagogy: sharing our tricks.

Poking around Wisconsin's site lead to a couple more discoveries.
  • They, of course, have workshops available to faculty and graduate students on different instructional technologies. There doesn't seem to be anything particularly geared toward graduate students, however, and nothing that focuses on pedagogy so much as the actual technology.
  • The engage program appears to spearhead campus initiatives for the implementation of various technologies across the curriculum. This year there is a focus on podcasting (two English professors received awards for their use of the tool) and on simulations and games. The site has a very good summary of everything you might need to know about podcasting to get started, but I assume that there was hands-on training for interested parties.
  • They also have a site that lists all the grants available to members of the university to begin work on a technology project.
  • The strategic plan for the entire university calls for improving students use of information (scroll down to Roman numeral V).
  • Finally, Wisconsin sponsors the Information Technology Academy, a "4-year pre-college technology access and training program for talented students of color and economically disadvantaged students attending Madison Public Schools. Our mission is to prepare students for technical, academic, and personal excellence in today's Information Age." Students compete to enter at the end of 8th grade. It would be great to see Emory providing a similar outreach program here.
Hmm. I guess I've moved on quite a bit from Vanderbilt. My updated verdict, however, is that we seem to be ahead of Vanderbilt at the moment. Wisconsin has something in place for some of its students (sciences) that is similar to TLC, but it is a semester-long course. Both schools provide training on various technologies, although they might not necessarily be specifically for graduate students nor do they seem to be focused on particular disciplines nor include the sort of faculty mentoring that we are trying to get into place.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How does TLC compare? Harvard

If I thought that Emory had a lot of institutes and programs that aren't connected to each other, it is nothing compared to the warren that is Harvard. I had flashbacks to applying to graduate school as I looked through the pages, remembering that one reason I didn't apply there was because their website was SO dauntingly bad. It's improved some today, but it is still not particularly friendly.

In any case, Harvard has some things that resemble various aspects of TLC, but nothing that replicates it or that any one single student could realistically encounter while s/he was enrolled. The most interesting program they offer is a Presidential Instructional Technology Fellows Program. This program is available to graduate students across the university by the Office of the Provost (which also sponsor grants and awards for faculty). The program trains fellows (PITFs), who can be undergrads or graduate students, to work with faculty to "to develop digital course materials with immediate educational benefits." This can take forms from improving websites to making PowerPoint presentations with video and more. Of course, they have a portfolio of completed projects. The portfolio I've linked to is specifically for students working with Faculty of the Arts and Sciences.

As I understand it, the faculty propose a project to their schools and the schools decide which projects to allocate to the fellows, who have applied independently to each school's program (Harvard Law, the Graduate School of Education, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences all have, for example, their own PITF applications). The fellows work on projects for either a summer term or for an entire academic year. According to a 2005 Harvard Gazette article about the program's first year, 65 fellows worked on projects in over 150 courses.

This all sounds very exciting--especially since it is a campus-wide initiative--but I've not been able to find anything specific about the training that the fellows receive prior to starting their work. The best description of the program lacks this information. Although it is obvious that some training is given, it appears to be on a more individual basis, where the fellow comes to something like Harvard's version of ECIT individually to get some information about how to complete a particular project envisioned by a faculty member. The fellow then works with the faculty member to finish the project. What TLC has that this program does not is a discussion of a wide range of tools and a conversation that is centered around pedagogy. In fact, this resembles an idea that was kicked around following last year's TLC that there could "TLC-certified" grad students who could then get paid to work with faculty on various projects.

The other program that Harvard has that appears to be similar to ECIT is a Technology, Innovation, Education (TIE) program in the Graduate School of Education that leads to an MA. This is a one-year program where the emphasis is on teaching, but technology is the means to this end. Their courses (they take a total of 8 and do not write a thesis) cover many of the subjects that we tackle in TLC, but they are much more in-depth and--again, as happens at Duke--they produce final projects that demonstrate the skills they have learned.

The obvious problem with this program as compared to TLC is that it takes a year. Emory is not interested in a project of this scale. There has been talk and scuttlebutt about a digital humanities certificate that the GSAS might start offering, and this might or might not be linked to the expanded TLC. But such a certificate would arguably provide a middle ground between TLC and TIE. Such a certificate would also, one assumes, encompass discussions about digital research and scholarship, something that TIE is not focused on, since it is not a PhD program.

My verdict? Harvard's PITF program is a great example of a university focusing on giving students and faculty a chance to collaborate. This collaboration leads to improved teaching and building skills for the students and faculty. There is not so far as I can see, however, a central plan for the fellows' training. Moreover, the focus seems to be on the product and not specifically on the use of the product in the classroom. I know this is a fine line, but I get the feeling there is more of a discussion in TLC on the impact of the technologies on the classroom. I think that this is assisted by the fact that TLC is a cohort of individuals. The TIE program at Harvard is, perhaps, a very expanded version of TLC. It's not what we want to do here. Between both programs, Harvard perhaps offers an experience that is close to what we envision for TLC.

Google footprint for TLC at Emory

So this might be jumping the gun a bit, but I realized yesterday in discussing what I'm doing right now, that it would actually be very difficult to find anything on TLC at Emory if I were to do a Google search. It wouldn't be that difficult to find ECIT and the programs they offer, but you'd be hard pressed to see much about TLC. The best bit that we have is a little blurb that I did last year following the first iteration (scroll down for it). Depending on your search terms, this page comes up within the top five or so of hits on Google. But that's not ideal.

Obviously if TLC becomes more of a GSAS initiative it will get a bigger presence on the web. But something that ECIT should be consciously thinking about is how we can let others know what we're doing here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

How does TLC compare? Vanderbilt (with additional thoughts about mp3 services)

As opposed to Duke, Vanderbilt does not have anything that approaches TLC. They do have a Center for Teaching, which seems analogous to our Center for Teaching and Curriculum (CTC). They offer a program similar to TATTO called TAO. They offer workshops on teaching, working groups on different issues, a teaching certificate program, and a Future Faculty Preparation Program. Both of these last two seem useful to me as far as filling a potential gap that Emory has (a GSAS-wide initiative beyond TATTO to improve teaching and to assist students with professionalization).

What they don't have is much in the way of training on technology. They do have a page on the Center for Teaching's website that is dedicated to an overview of teaching technology. The page has a number of resources, such as articles and book reviews. Unfortunately, most of these are far out of date (publication dates of 2001 and 2000 abound). The most useful things on the page are links to a second series of pages on things like class management software, online writing, and podcasting. These, however, turn out to be little more than FAQs. While they have some useful information--particularly the one on clickers--there is nothing about further training.

Further searches for centers of instructional technology and the like have turned up nothing. One thing I did find, however, is VUmix: Vanderbilt's music services for the school community. They can get, for example, Napster accounts and download an unlimited amount of music for $2/month. I wonder how this would affect their iPod ratios on campus since Napster only works with players that can handle WMA with DRM (i.e., almost every brand except for Apple). You can, of course, stream the music on any computer. If you're feeling left out of the good times and low-cost music, then you might want to check out Ruckus. It's a free subscription for all college students. The music is supported by advertising and can only be streamed. If you want to take it with you (on mp3 player), then you can pay $20 for a whole semester of this privilege. Of course you, again, need to have an mp3 player that is PlaysForSure capable. iPods need not apply.

In any case, my verdict regarding Vanderbilt's TLC capabilities? They don't seem to have anything like this. Nor do they seem to have a center of any kind that offers training to students or faculty on technology. I've placed a call to their Center for Teaching to try to get more information, but the appropriate administrator hasn't returned my call. Look here for edits in case I get more.

How does TLC compare? Duke

My first stop was one of our perennial rivals: Duke. Duke has a CIT (Center for Instructional Technology) that seems to offer very similar resources as ECIT. Among these resources are courses and workshops that graduate students can take to familiarize themselves with technology. (I do find it telling that there is nothing listed under the upcoming grad student events.) Of course, students are welcome to attend the courses that are offered to faculty as well. I'm particularly intrigued by the workshop that offers to help people learn how to keep their students engaged.

More importantly, Duke does offer something that is similar to TLC. But whereas we have an 8-session workshop spread over a month, they have a one-credit course: Instructional Uses of Technology. Reading through their syllabus (PDF file) shows that they cover much of the same materials that we do. They meet once a week for an hour and 45 minutes and they have a total of 13 sessions. At the end of it, they must produce an electronic portfolio that showcases some of what they've learned as well as serving as a document they can use when trying to get jobs. You can see sample e-portfolios here, including some by English types.

As far as I'm concerned, the most advantageous part of this being a course is that you're required to produce something and that it must be a finished product. TLC thus far serves as an introduction to different technologies and a discussion of their implementation. This means that students don't have to create anything--nor do you have time to. Some of the feedback that we have received via our TLC survey indicate that this is something that people feel would improve the class. (I'm not sure yet if we will publish the survey results. I'm for it, but I need to take it up with all interested parties.)

The E-Portfolio seems like an important thing. You have to master skills to produce it. (This means you don't just fiddle with Dreamweaver for a few minutes and move on. ) So when you're ready to put your syllabus online, you know how to do it. There is a suggestion that these e-portfolios also include video of students teaching. None of the examples that I looked at include this, but it could be useful. Moreover, the course asks people to write a teaching statement that integrates technology into the statement. There are, of course, a lot of ways that you can do this in any teaching statement. But I believe that our ability to use these technologies are important marketable skills and are especially pertinent to our teaching and they should consequently be highlighted as such.

So there's the Duke report. My verdict? They have a comparable program, but one with a demonstrable outcome. Students therefore leave it feeling like they absolutely know how to do something, as opposed to having a basic knowledge and a feeling that they could do something and know where to go for help.

EDIT: One thing that I forgot to mention where Emory trumps Duke. Since this class is offered to everyone in their graduate school, you have a lot of people from different disciplines learning together. This is good for some things, but you lose the ability to have very specific discussions about particular needs in a particular discipline. Needless to say, the Duke class will probably not feature a second faculty member from a specific field who would be able to direct such a discussion.

How does TLC compare?

Last week, Shannon, Wayne, Michael, and I met with Dean Tedesco to propose expanding TLC to more of the Graduate School. The meeting was very successful, and it seems like this is something that the GSAS is interested in supporting.

When proposing a program, however, you have to find funds. And the best way to get funds at Emory--and at other schools, I imagine--is to demonstrate to those who control the budgets that your "peer" institutions are already doing something like this and that there programs are comparable. This inspires fear in people and a "me too!" response. The other possible outcome is to show that no other schools are doing something like this or that their programs are inferior to ours. This then gives us a chance to see a niche that Emory is filling and doing well at. I would think that this second choice would be the preferable one, and that it would allow us to establish a name for ourselves. But my limited experience with suggesting initiatives to Emory administrators leads me to believe that the first is SOP here.

In any case, if you want to see the results of this search, you can browse my findings at del.icio.us using the tags "TLC+peer." I'll either update this post with boiled down findings or post additional entries. You know, to make your bloglines subscriptions shoot skyward.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Improving my Timeline

I had some time today to play with my timeline again. You can see it here. I've figured out how to resize the bubbles so large images don't get cropped. I've managed to key the different types of events to different colors on the timeline. And I added a box that allows you to restrict certain types of events. If I wanted to specify more attributes for these events, I could bring in additional boxes as well.

I'm not happy about how the one "mixed" event is rendered in white against the light gray background. I've got an email out to the experts about controlling the color selection of both the timeline and the event types. I anticipate that their response might be for me to look at other examples source code (CTRL-U to the rescue), but while I've done that, I can't yet see how to implement this specific change.

I found another related tool today: The Universal Timeline Aggregator. This is basically a tool that takes an RSS or Atom feed and displays the information on a timeline. You can do it for this blog. But the low incidence of posting means that it isn't particularly exciting. I've tried it with more populated RSS feeds: CNN, The Valve, Go Fug Yourself. But they drop off surprisingly quickly. I'm not sure what that means--possibly that the Timeline Aggregator won't reach back past a certain point or that the feeds from these sites are restricted to be only so deep.

But you don't really come here to have problems solved, do you?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Another tool for Timeline

I haven't had a chance to play with Timeline much recently, but I'm still holding out hopes that the Google Docs implementation (routed through Exhibit) will be what I need to make these tools available to my students.

Today I came across a website that uses a simple form for adding events to a Timeline, with the intent of using it as a calendar. It doesn't look like you can save this in any way and its scale (determined in days, rather than years) makes it much less useful for something like a survey course. In any case, it shows what might be possible to do if you knew more code than I do.

Convert on the fly

A quick one for you right now. In thinking through Emory's implementation of iTunesU, one of the big problems is determining what specs we will require for the media and then making it easy for people to convert their media into the appropriate formats. We're hoping that we can identify good software solutions that are affordable and easy to use. In doing that thing I do here, I stumbled across Zamzar.

This web site converts--for free--files from one format to another. JPG to BMP. DOC to DOCX. XLS to CSV. WMA to MP3 to M4A. And so on. They then email you your converted files. The advantage of the site is that you don't have to have specific software for the conversion process. This is especially useful for when you need to convert a file and are not near your own computer. The downside is that the site has too many ads and pop-ups for my taste.

You can also use upload to Zamzar directly from URLs. This means that you can potentially use it to save, convert, and download audio files that are only meant to stream or YouTube videos. This, of course, is legally problematic and may violate copyright law. And of course, Zamzar is indemnified against legal action that might be taken against you. Nevertheless, you still might find a use for it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Survey This!

Today Wayne asked me to put together a survey for all the participants of this year's Technology, Literature and Curriculum (TLC). Wayne, Shannon, Michael Elliott, and I are getting ready to present the program to the Graduate School's Dean on Monday. Our ultimate goal is to get the Dean's blessing and money to expand the workshop to other departments, hopefully teaching at least one, and maybe two, TLCs per semester throughout the Graduate School.

But it's always better to present your case to administrators if you have some statistics to back you up. And so we're going to take a survey. (Of course, the purported validity of such a survey might be erased by having an English lit person write it. Nevertheless...)

We've all seen SurveyMonkey before. In fact, I got some experience designing with it last year when the Emory Writing Center decided to start taking all of its feedback about conferences online. What I didn't know until recently was that basic accounts on SurveyMonkey are free. There are of course some restrictions (you can only ask ten questions; you can only receive 100 responses), but I can't really envision myself needing much more than this. (Actually, I can't envision needing to really survey my classes at all apart from the requisite end of semester questions that are done by Emory.) So here's one more tool to throw in your arsenal.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Networking the social

So I'm gearing up for a big post (at least it feels like it) on social networking in relation to the ever-looming Horizon report. But November 1st brought something new to the fore of these online tools. Google (again with the Google) launched a new service called OpenSocial. This is essentially a tool to help people write 3rd-party applications for social networking sites. These applications are one of the things that allow people to customize their spaces in MySpace or Facebook. You can see some examples of these tools for Facebook here.

Facebook has devised a particularly ingenious method for coaxing people to try these tools as your News Feed will report on which applications friends have recently added. It worked with me today when I was thinking about this and saw that a friend from high school had added Super Wall. I figured, "Hey, I'll try it out." In any case, what News Feed produces is a viral flocking toward applications.

While these tools are essentially small plug ins, but their viral popularity makes them big business (there are 7000+ for Facebook as of today). They can drive ad dollars and, in some instances, developers charge for the use of the software. What has been difficult thus far is that programmers who develop an application for one social networking site will--logically--want to allow those who aren't cool enough to know that orkut, friendster, and LinkedIn are so 2004 to use their application. Most of these different sites, however, have used different and proprietary APIs (application programming interface). This radically increased the workload for these programmers. And this in turn lowers the number of viable alternative social networking sites since less and less people are making new and interesting applications for these less popular sites.

What Google has done is proposed a new API that will be compatible across social networking sites. This means less work for the programmers. Oh, and more traffic for Google. An amazing number of the social-networking-erati have signed on for the project, including MySpace. The exception is Facebook. There are of course reactions (some negative and some positive) to the Goog's latest move.

My thoughts? I think Facebook is right on this count, from a business perspective. With Microsoft's recent investment in Facebook, the company could be realistically valued at $15 billion. That's about 10x the value of YouTube. It makes sense because while everyone loves a viral video, what people like even more is when that viral video is brought directly to you via your friends (and not through an email forward) but through the News Feed feature.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Fixing computers

< geekish blog post >

We've been having a problem with Firefox on the Windows computers in ECIT. Essentially, although the software was updated to version, FF kept trying to update to What this really meant was that every time you launched the browser, you got an error message or two. This is annoying once. When it happens to you repeatedly throughout the day, it gets tiresome rather quickly.

Not so tiresome that we have spent any great amount of time fixing it to this point, however. Today, I resolved that I was going to quash this bug. I first tried reinstalling on the admin side (where the bug was not manifesting). That didn't work. Next I tried uninstalling all of my "Add-ons" (the real reason to use Firefox. See some of my favorites here.) Didn't work. Finally I decided I should try what I should have started with: a web search. Within ten minutes, I'd found a Mozilla forum dedicated to support issues and specific advice for solving my problem. It just goes to show you, the wisdom of the masses will trump that of any lone geek 99% of the time.

< /geekish blog post >