What I Learned This Week (Part 11)

Org flowchart for responding to comments on Facebook (or other social media): This blog post has been making the rounds, with good reason. Common sense often requires a flowchart.

David Carson, principle designer of Ray Gun magazine, talks about design: Not just about design, but the emotionality of design. I’m struck by his photographic style – which is a different piece all together, but I was particularly piqued by his statement about intuition, and how it’s discounted in higher education. Also at the end of the talk is that people’s experience is what makes a difference.

Another posting on the web that talks about the shift we’re in the middle of (or behind the curve of, depending on who you listen to). I’m looking forward to the time that we have USB keys and teachers that share things digitally too.

Time’s 50 Best Websites

It’s interesting to surf through the 50 best websites according to Time, not just because it’s another view about what’s good in the web, but it’s also interesting to see how they pared untold billions of sites and pages down to 50. It’s like saying name your top 3 punk 7″ EPs – there’s thousands of possible choices and lots of opinions, but narrowing it down is awful tough.

So looking at the sites Time likes for education there’s two must-haves and pretty easy choices (Ted and MIT OpenCourseware). Two other choices, Livemocha makes sense, and is a great use of the web technology, and really accentuates informal learning. As does Chegg, the textbook rental service, who accentuate the social aspect of learning.

The last one, I went “huh”. Read Print is a service that catalogs public domain books – which seem to be a lot of the same old available books in the public domain, which are available from iTunes, Amazon and a few other places where one might look for books before Read Print. Where Read Print gets it is the selection of quotes from author’s works, where it’s wrong is that these are HTML files with the companies advertising, which is also text links, at the top of the screen. Even if I wanted to read this on my Kindle or iPad (neither of which I own, but maybe I’d want to read it on my iPod Touch?) it would blow. I don’t want to bash this site too much because I love the idea, but the question isn’t top 50 website ideas you love. Is this among the best websites for education? I think Khan Academy or even Teacher Tube would be an interesting choice that would have stuff to write about rather than this ode to dead trees. I’d be interested in the number of texts that are available in the public domain. I’m sure that 1984 and Animal Farm are fairly common texts, and are apparently in the public domain, or maybe they aren’t.

Usability and Images

Been thinking about online communities a lot the last few days – specifically thinking about what makes a successful community, and the aesthetics of the online environment that the community flourishes in. Take Facebook – probably the most successful online community website going. Now, one can argue that Facebook’s design aesthetic is to get out of the way of the community’s relationships… but perhaps it’s not the design aesthetic at all. Maybe the aesthetic is irrelevant when the content is overwhelmingly useful to the end user. Previously, I and many other web designers had tried to ensure that if, as a designer, you wanted to build a website that encouraged community, that pictures of people should be there to enhance the connection users have to the site and to each other. Yesterday in a meeting I suggested that one “had to have pictures of people” in the header of a website, in that it helped humanize the experience. My hypothesis is that without those pictures, the experience becomes too sterile. The counter argument a colleague brought up was that a 2-D representation of a person does not mean that people feel more at home or in a community.

Then why do designers use pictures of people so often as a short cut to engage people? Is it because it’s easy and a cue to users that people (of a certain stripe) are welcome here? Anyone have any studies that have looked at images of people and the user’s effect?

What If….

So I’ve been complaining to anyone who’ll listen about the plight of higher education, I guess I should offer a vision of what I want things to look like in the higher ed of my world. And yes, the trains run on time in my reality too.

1. Courses should be inquiry based, with curriculum flexible enough to accommodate such a move.  As long as the core concepts are met, then everything else should be based on the curiosity of the student. If there’s a lot of core concepts to cover, then split the course into two. What if that extends indefinitely? Well it can’t – it’s my reality. Oh all right, be critical. Is there a way that a core concept gets wrapped into other tasks? Creativity comes in handy here… the point is get the students interested in doing something and you’ve won. They’ll learn, you’ll learn and be amazed with whatever they do. I can guarantee it. But the teacher in the equation has to be able to motivate, and pique that curiosity.

2. Mandatory courses like maths and communications should be folded into each course – so there’s no more “irrelevant” courses. Sure, we all know that a good communication course is worth it’s weight in gold. Of course, we recognize that after working with someone who couldn’t communicate their way out of a wet paper bag. Some of these basic, soft skills can be taught online with profs acting as tutors. Or better still, make sure the students have those skill before setting foot in a classroom.

3. Speaking of classrooms, keep them. Don’t for one minute think that you can do away with them. Students, faculty, hell, people love places to congregate and talk with others about whatever excites them. And sometimes that’s not the subject you’re teaching in class. Oh well. Those social connections are crucial.

4. Be kind to faculty who do a good job, work hard and devote a lot of effort and work to make things good for the student. It’s not always about pay, sometimes it’s as simple as recognition. This is so easy to do, and rarely is it done. Why? Why have I seen several people who were great teachers leave the profession? Because they can’t make ends meet or they have a sense that it will never get better for them as there’s so many people in front of them in the seniority list. Or, even worse, they see the politics in the way and have no real hold out for hope.

5. Tie tuition costs to cost of living and subsidize the rest through governments of all levels. It’s a shame that we’re running higher education into the ground with the idea that we’re churning out a commodity rather than empowering people. If I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d say of course they don’t want you to think, just to make better widgets on the line… but that’s too cynical for even me. At least I hope….

Corporatization of Higher Education

Courtesy of a Stephen Downes tweet, I came across this posting about College Inc., which really crystallizes a lot of what I’m finding wrong about working in Higher Education right now. Sure, I see the need to ensure that we aren’t undertaking massive deficits, I also think that we have a moral imperative to educate people. Higher Education is not a business. I dislike the economic side of things, and sure I might be idealistic, but we can afford to spend billions on a summit that doesn’t appear to do anything except appease the richest 20 countries in the world, but of course, we can’t afford to have schools run at a deficit? Why, again? The cost of running schools are dropping (computer infrastructure is cheaper than ever, textbooks can be cheaper too) so why aren’t we able to do this? I know so many dedicated teachers, who spend probably 500 hours of their own time learning new things not because they want to, but because they’re passionate about teaching. So again, Provincial government, why? Maybe I should ask the Federal government? Oh, yeah, that’s why we can’t get straight answers… bureaucracy.