Bits and Bobs

Lots of little items to think about:

First off, I’ve been talking theoretically about aesthetics a lot. That probably rankles people a little, because theory is useless without practice. Digital photos are an easy way to add a professional look to a text-heavy space. If you are composing photographs, there are lots of tutorials out there to compose a better picture. Here’s a particularly good, short and sweet, ten steps to creating a superior photograph. It’s not in depth, but a good start if you have no idea where to begin with shooting photos.

Secondly, this idea that Twitter is not being adopted by teens or  Twitter is not being adopted by GenY. Well, the data in this report is really skewed – not too many 2-8 year olds on social media. And then to have the age ranges as 2-24, 25- 54, 55+ seems a little skewed. Having 24 year olds be grouped in with teens almost defies the normal definition of teens. I suppose the idea that Twitter benefits from celebrity tweets or Iran elections is an interesting one as this signals a shift away from corporate news broadcasting (which also might explain a further shift to entertainment from news channels) and to authentic reporting from people in the area. With Twitter looking to add geotagging, this will be even easier to do in the future. Of course, we’ve all heard about Gen Y using shows like The Daily Show as a primary news source. I’m considered Gen X, and I tend to use The Daily Show as a primary news source as I pretty much despise CNN and Fox News. CBC sometimes gets some consideration, but I don’t really gravitate towards dry delivery. I like a smartass approach. People raise this idea as some sort of spectre of the next generation being unable to discern fact from fiction, but I find this generally to be untrue. Gen Y, like all other generational groups get humour and sarcasm.

Third point, Pew Internet released a study about the Internet use of the different generations. I like that the Generations are better defined than the Twitter study earlier, but the conclusion that older generations are “dominant” in Internet use, seems like a no-brainer. Older generations have disposable income and use this stuff for work, so our Internet use will be higher. While much of education is pushing towards online activities, in my experience the elementary schools are still using computers in a way that treats them as a separate course. I do know there are forward thinking teachers, out there, just not at my daughter’s school.

Attention and Aesthetics

Aesthetics are one of the tools that advertisers can use to distract, deflect criticism or deceive. In websites, each viewer has a minimum standard for aesthetics that must be met or else they will go elsewhere. The content is irrelevant  in this initial snap judgement of the worth of the site despite how well thought out, how good or how useful it is. Aesthetics are assessed almost instantaneously in an intellectual and instinctual way. By getting people to start paying attention to aesthetics, we can increase the intellectual assessment of aesthetics.

EDIT: In a fit of irony, I’m being distracted too much to do this subject justice.

EDIT: OK, now at a different venue, I can continue.

Paying attention to aesthetics is important for instructors because while good, tasteful learning spaces can assist learners in making good choices in what to pay attention to, ugly spaces make it difficult for learners to learn. Students already have a myriad of barriers in front of them, why add more?

Sure, I suppose I’m advocating that teachers invest time in “selling” their content – but that’s what we’re doing (poorly) already. And the model we’ve all been working under is not working for the intended audience. They aren’t buying what we’re selling – or if they are, they are doing so because they feel they have no other choice. With more choice introduced to the educational model, for-profit education that guarantees jobs, does it at an accelerated pace, and provides external accreditation with industry standards (such as many for-profit College’s computer programming programs in Ontario).  We can’t wait for change to effect us, we need to flip the model and effect change.

Subpar and mediocre learning spaces need to be dealt with. Even if you have no technical skills, you should be able to style a page by choosing fonts, colors and sizes from a menu. All LMS’s have HTML editors built-in. Use them at a minimum.

If you have no “eye” for design, start to develop one. Pay attention to sites that appeal to you – and start thinking about them critically. Find out what works for you and repeat it in your own work. We ask students to do this – why not apply these rules to yourself as well?

The Corporations Ruin Everything

This morning, while perusing my Twitter feed, I thought I’d bounce around some more keywords in Google to see what I could come up with around the aesthetics of educational spaces. After a couple of promising hits, including a Japanese presentation to a conference (to which my Japanese reading ability is about as much as my flying ability – zero), my network pops up this Henry Jenkins blog posting about Twitter.

I’ve skimmed it, and really need to give a once over at least one more time. It’s a well thought out, balanced critique of Twitter. On the one hand we have this tool that’s seemingly perfect for broadcasting, yet people still insist on having conversations! Jenkins point about the two parts of Twitter, the Here It Is/Here I Am components, seem right. Although, it seems right for an individual – how does a business or organization fit in? It’s an interesting thing to ponder.

We’ve seen with MySpace that genuine existence and experience is a commodity that you can’t overvalue. People left MySpace when things got too business-like, and felt like a burden to login. We’re starting to see this with Twitter as well, where spam/pornobots are becoming slightly more sophisticated and actually making themselves look like they possibly could be humans. I don’t mind deleting or not following a couple of people a day, but the bigger players in the Twitterverse certainly get more of this sort of action. At what point does logging into Twitter become a burden? More importantly, what businesses will be successful in using Twitter, and which ones are going to bully you with endless advertising?

Aesthetics as Part of Usability

So the recent past has me thinking about the aesthetics of e-learning spaces, and while that may seem like a non-issue for many people, I believe it will be incredibly important as educators move forward. We rely on aesthetics to assist us in a quick reliability check. We all do this in real life when we meet a person, as they say first impressions are important. Well, this is no different in e-learning or in a face to face class.

Certainly Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle and other modern LMS’s allow a creator to exert some control over how content looks. You are somewhat functionally trapped into a frame where content is held with some of these systems, but in many cases those are constraints that you can work with (against?). As an educator you might also have other issues restricting the look of your content; headers are a certain color, color schemes might be imposed by your institution, usability experts tell you what icon to use for a link or even font size might be restricted.

As an educator you have a dual purpose as well, you need to make your content accessible as well. So that means you should consider things like contrast of color, whether your font size is large enough for the visually impaired and whether your images have alt tags to ensure a screen reader can convey the description properly to a user. In fact, your institution might be under law to make your content accessible.

Frames in and of themselves pose problems for stringent accessibility rules, so your LMS might already be screwing you. It’s quite possible it’s screwing you anyways… never mind that ugly thought…

It’s not particularly difficult to make a website accessible. It can be tricky to make it aesthetically pleasing and usable. Seeing as I’ve brought up visually impaired users, I would be very very remiss to not mention this other blog article about 10 Tools for Evaluating Web Site Accessibility especially for color blind users. While these are for websites, you can use most of these tools within LMS’s as well. The Firefox extention (#1 in the linked article) is excellent, and has identified a couple areas that I need to be aware of in my own work. Of course, this doesn’t really speak about aesthetics. Well not explicitly anyways.

Aesthetics are pleasing the eye – which can be difficult to hit the centre of the target everytime as we all view things differently. I often get asked, how can I make something look good? Practice is my default answer, but when pressed I will concede that you can’t go wrong with the classic black, white and grey. Add an accent color of (one of) red, blue or green and your e-learning space will look professional. If you have a predetermined header, or logo, grab one of the colors as an accent from that. Simplicity is key. It’s when people start to get fancy that sometimes people run into trouble.

Aesthetics Continued

To continue the previous entry – another pushback might be that instructors would feel that improving the look of a space might be considered manipulation of the student, as if marketing the educational piece is the same as selling someone a Flowbee. Making things look good is not the same as manipulating the end user. A simple three column screen layout or a well designed Power Point (oxymoron alert?) does not mean that you are trying to  manipulate learners. One could cynically argue that’s what teachers do now, by selecting what students read, how they will be graded and what activities they will engage in.

Aesthetics doesn’t always extend to just the look of a document or page. It’s also about how the design interacts with the content. If the content is playful, it should be reflected in the aesthetics related to the content. The design and the content will inform the student about the instructor – providing a clue as to who an instructor is. If these ideas about aesthetics are not addressed in the materials, that too informs the student.

Also, to tie into the last post, the great Presentation Zen has 10 tips on how to think like a designer. It’s a very broad overview to help non-designers begin to think about design. Of course, this is from Garr’s perspective, and has a very zen approach to design (specifically points 2,3 and 5). I certainly appreciate Garr’s approach to most things so it resonates with me, your mileage may vary.

Aesthetics Of Learning Spaces

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about the aesthetics of learning spaces and the sort of push back one might get from instructors who are reluctant to better their spaces.

One argument I can envision is that instructors might say that they aren’t designers (unless of course, they are…) and shouldn’t have to concern themselves with how things look. Function over form… substance before style. The answer from me is that of course, your content has to be good. After several years of teaching you should have your content down to finely honed machine. Isn’t it time to dress it with the best looks to ensure it’s in top form? The thing about aesthetics, is that you rarely notice them when they’re good or great. You certainly notice them when they look like crap. Not only do you notice them, they distract you from the content…


As Blackboard moves more and more towards a corporate, soulsucking model of managing… in an homage to WackyPacks (which probably has done more to foster my sense of humor, bad puns and everything else)… I bring you Blechboard:


And in the spirit of the Open Ed conference that’s going on in Vancouver – my remix of the Blackboard logo is satirical – feel free to reproduce but be aware that your rights might be different than my rights. Blackboard logo is a registered trademark of the Blackboard company.

Social Media: Trends and Implications for Learning

I was going to blog last night and didn’t end up doing that because I spent an hour, a very worthwhile hour with 150 other folks in the August session of the AACE “Conference” on Social Media: Trends and Implications for Learning.

Towards the end of the discussion veered towards the tool having no influence on what you’re teaching, rather the tool is influenced by your personal philosophy of teaching. It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg scenario – does your philosophy influence what tools you use or does the tool influence your philosophy? I tend to think that tools are neutral, until you use them. The tools you then use, and how you use them, inform others of your worldview and philosophy.

For instance, you are teaching at a distance, and have some choices as to the tools you use. Of course, this all presupposes that you have a choice.You weigh the value of a distributed set of social networking resources (twitter, google docs, blogs etc) against the value of putting everything in an LMS (D2L, Blechboard, WebCT, Moodle). On the one hand, you might want your students to have a central point of entry is convenient, useful, simple. You can give PowerPoints, additional notes, and other resources that you find in the LMS and be relatively certain that students will find them and maybe even look at them. From a pedagogical standpoint, this is more of a Behaviourist standpoint with a nuturing element. Most LMS’s model this sort of instruction – sure there’s workarounds to allow more collaborative tools, but if you want students to mark each other, you as the instructor still have to enter marks. The instructor role puts you in a role of power over students, which is not a really new concept.

By distributing learning, you allow for serendipity to drive your course content somewhat, but you can guide learning by participating in the distributed nodes wherever they exist. By choosing a less centralized mode you are revealing that you are more of a constructivist, or will to engage in constructivism at least.

The argument is that it’s pedagogy that’s driving those decisions. I tend to agree… but then the question arose “Is a teacher who uses Moodle more open than one that uses Blackboard?”  To which I responded “I suspect so, but one tool does not inform about us fully.” (If you want the full context, click the link above and zoom to the 55 minute mark, I’m Jon K.) I wanted to take a bit to expand on that, my thinking was not clear enough to say what I should’ve said – “No.” Comparing Moodle to Blackboard is like comparing Firefox to Internet Explorer. They are both LMSs and serve the same function – as a central repository of information – which implies that any other information about your course is secondary, or less useful.  Sure, one is a better tool to use than the other (politically?) and one may have features that you value over the other. They in the end serve the same purpose.

On another note, if I’m going to keep sticking my foot in this hole, I’m going to have to brush up on my McLuhan. Maybe some McGoohan too, just to put me right round the bend.

Response to “Welcoming the Decline of the Twittering Class”

Wow. The article “Welcoming the Decline of the Twittering Class” assumes that there always is a simple and direct relationship between one thing and the other, a simple cause and effect relationship that might exist… or might not. In my experience, things are not simple.

There are many joys in my favourite west country spot, and one of them is a lack of O2 and Vodafone “connectivity”. Bliss.

I’ll comment as the article goes.  That’s fine, although I suspect that the lack of cellphones and wireless connectivity isn’t the root of bliss. A bit of quiet and a book can be had where technology exists, no? What about the library?

Facebook and similar sites have become less popular with the young, partly because nosey-parker parents and assorted other saddo old folks have elbowed their way into the craze.

A logical assumption, we’ve seen the creepy treehouse syndrome play out before. The linked Ofcom study was published in 2008, presumably gathering data from 2007. So this youth flight from Facebook isn’t necessarily something new. Evidence since then indicates that this flight isn’t permanent. It’s the ebb and flow of the growth of these types of sites. This thing has happened before too, remember Myspace?  It also happened when Facebook registration was opened and the older students left when high school students started flocking to the site. When old folks (anyone over 25) cramp the style of kids… well. It’s embarrassing.

Which is the gist of the next couple paragraphs. Which leads me to this choice piece:

It’s like the caricature of the Japanese rist with the cine-camera who spills out of the bus and doesn’t stop to look at a cathedral, painting or sparkling bay, because they are so busy filming it. Likewise, if you are watching yourself and reporting on yourself, how can you fully feel, when everything is mediated? Reality takes second place to a life in which you become the star of your own dull movie, and the director too.

Are you kidding me? Invoking some caricature to make your point? Please. Stepping aside from that a second, The author seems to think that people are incapable of doing more than one thing at once. How can you fully feel when everything is mediated?  Does media and or documentation interfere with feeling? Are we incapable of feeling and writing about what we feel? Sort of like what I’m doing now? Geez, I dunno, maybe ask Michael Wesch?

Reality is the location and you are the star in your dull movie, your life is your script. Considering that my life is something less than dull, you can take your condescending tone and shove it. Whether or not you think my life is dull, has no effect on what I choose to publish. I may not think that everything is dreadfully interesting in everyone else’s life, but that’s where I can make decisions. A decision to not engage that person or ignore their posts and ideas. Maybe that’s what I should’ve done with this Guardian piece.


But it’s what these sites can do to self-esteem and friendship that worries me more.

It’s unfortunate that you think that social networking will destroy self-esteem and friendship any more than modern advertising or avarice. Of the millions of people who engage in social networking, I would venture to guess that the number of people who have been bullied or harmed would be equal to that of those who were bullied or harmed in society in general. Of course, as we all try to navigate the way through new technology, it takes a while to view the real impact.

Moving on, I do agree with the fact that teenagers could become depressed with their online relationships, even to the point of feeling desolate. Of course, this is no different than in high school. The difference is that online relationships do not exist in a vacuum, many of the online relationships also exist offline, in real life. That is where isolation from online and offline groups and networks becomes dangerous. When people are isolated from both groups of supports, tragedy can occur. More on this later.

In the old days, bad girls flashed their knickers, and worse. Now they sextext; and the object of their fancy sticks the result online and a million voyeurs can get a gawp.

I will also ask the author to recall in the old days, stag movies were made and distributed mostly by amateurs and those would circulate. Many of my friends wanted to work at photo labs to see all the weird things people did in their bedroom. The only difference is scale and availability. Social networking facilitates the transmission, but not the scale or availability. The web did that.  Also, the key to your sentence is that the object of their fancy betrays the trust of the two sexters, and puts it online, not any sort of social networking or twitter.

Presumably older Facebookers are thicker skinned and more able to cope; their “friends” may even be real ones.

Again, the author dips into online friends are not offline friends. My ten year old does not have any significant number of friends who are not her offline friends or acquaintances. Sure, you’ll scoff and say that’s because I’ve prevented her from doing so. No, she’s made that choice herself. We’ve made her aware that not everyone is who they say they are on Club Penguin or on the Nintendo DS network and she’s chosen well. Does that mean everyone will? No. I’m not everyone’s parent though.

But you cannot have a full human relationship without being in the presence of the other person. Communication means gestures, tone of voice, eye contact and a constant assessment of the other person’s reactions.

Oh. Wow. I think you can have a full human relationship without being in the presence of the other person. Prior to the internet, and in fact, video, many people corresponded and had real relationships without meeting. And if we cannot have a full relationship without the presence of another person, how do you explain all the problems you outlined above? Surely a person who is insulted by someone who has no relationship with them can be ignored. Yes, it stings, but you can brush it off right? Nothing to become depressed about or … oh wait. Sorry you can become depressed and feel isolated. Never mind.

Anyone who knows the blogosphere understands that people spout things they would consider unacceptable if they were standing in the room and couldn’t hide behind the cloak of anonymity.

And anyone who blogs for five minutes knows that anonymous comments are deleted 99.99% of the time. Any site worth it’s salt, including the Guardian newspaper, discourages anonymous commentary, and while it’s not your name always, it’s a click away from an e-mail, blog, twitter account or other form of contact. And who cares, it’s not real, right?

Obscenity, Acceleration and Reality Checks

Steve Allen said that comedy is tragedy plus time. But the length of time between a tragic event and comedy about it has accelerated. Everything has accelerated. The rate of acceleration itself is accelerating. Paul Krassner

Just finished browsing Glen E. Friedman’s blog after adding him on Twitter, and saw this video interview with Paul Krassner. I dug it and thought it worthy of reposting because it tackles a lot of what I see as things change and it ties a lot of statements about the value of independent voices together. I think as newspapers crumble and voices of authority become less important in our daily lives we’ll see the importance of an independent voice increase. Educationally this is the shift we’ve been seeing in the classroom, and I’m sure we’ll continue to see (unless there’s some radical shift elsewhere). Hopefully this shift means a reliance more on our selves and communities, not on a dictatorial power to do everything for us.

The ideas of accelerating change is something I think we all feel, but is it really exponential as some folks consider? Is it something we can measure, and is it even worth measuring?

Here’s the video:

Paul Krassner: Who’s To Say What’s Obscene? from DANGEROUS MINDS on Vimeo.