Saturday, November 26, 2005

Personal space investment (or, How Much Is That Bloggie In The Window?)

Alan of CogDogBlog wrote about how he feels that he needs to have a personal investment in a blog in order to go through the trouble of actually blogging. In his experience, it seems that the only blog he feels invested enough in to maintain is CogDogBlog; the other, multi-user blogs he's been asked to participate in, seem to fall by the wayside for him, simply because they're not "his" space. For him, it seems to come down to an issue of the personal vs. the communal; in his own words, "It's not my house and my heart is not there."

I'm not sure I'd exactly call my blog my house, but blogging here these past few months has been interesting. I've gotten all sorts of snippets of ideas for how to work blogs into my course designs, which tend to be "computer enhanced" f2f classes -- a step below hybrid, but still using real and viable online ed techniques to make things happen. I envision a project-based class keeping a blog about the project; a class full of students blogging about the book we're reading; even students keeping freeform, no-defined-topic blogs, writing simply to let the words flow in a foreign language, to get comfortable expressing themselves without worrying about how many red pen marks they'll rack up on the page.

And yet...what kind of personal investment would those students have in their blogs? If blogging is the new-millenium version of a diary, what personal investment would anyone have in blogging as an assignment? If the purpose of keeping a diary is to pour oneself onto the page, doesn't the pourer have to have the desire to pour? Can that desire be mandated by an outside force, in this case the instructor? Or does the mandate itself result in a sort of artificial blog, with each entry becoming a tick mark in a box and nothing more?

Years ago I taught a remedial writing class at our local community college. Many of my students did very little writing in their daily lives, so in an attempt to get them used to writing regularly but in a low-pressure situation, I required that they keep an online journal at OpenDiary. There were no assigned topics, they could write about anything, and I even told them that if they wanted to keep their entries private, I wouldn't read them. The only requirement was that they make a minimum of two entries per week, even if each entry was just one sentence long. To my utter amazement, there were students -- kids who came to class and did their homework -- who completely blew off the journal. They knew full well that it counted for 10% of their final grade; they also knew full well that simply racking up the requisite number of posts would get them an A in that portion of the grade assessment. And still there were some who didn't do it. For one or two, it even made the difference between getting a C and getting a D as a final grade.

No investment.

I think that's my biggest challenge as a course designer: how can I get my students invested -- in the class, in the module, in the assignment?

I know what all the theorists say: make it personal, make it relevant, make it applicable. And to a certain degree I think that's true. But, a blog is about as personal as it gets; our assigned topics, at least in this class, are certainly relevant. And yet, how many of us have done more than tick off boxes -- one assignment down, four to go...two down, three left. My own internal imperative has led me to blog about knitting, spinning...the mandated entries stand out loud and clear, and while they're all written by me, they're not necessarily my "house," and so my investment in them is small. In the end, I'm not sure what I've gained by blogging, except for a level of familiarity with an unfamiliar technology.

Monday, November 21, 2005

A Little Late, But....

Just when I thought it was safe to focus solely on my final project, I found there's another blogging assignment due. I'm a day late (nine hours to be exact), but I hope it's better than never.

So, without further ado I'll be responding to a fellow blogger's post on online course development and design. The quote I'm responding to is taken from AP's blog and goes like this:

Strength in numbers? Blaise Pascal said that " We must learn our limits. We are all something, but none of us are everything". If I know something, and you know something else... will we know more when we work together?

It's the final question -- If I know something, and you know something else... will we know more when we work together? -- that I'm most interested in, both from an instructional design perspective and an educational philosophy perspective.

I deal with the world of adult ed -- not "adult ed" in the sense of basketweaving and underwater ballet, the classes people take when they finally have time (often after retirement) to learn all the fun stuff they missed while studying to get a degree or a certification, or while raising a family and working to earn a living -- but "education for adults" as distinguished from "K-12 ed ." K-12 education seems to focus to a greater or lesser extent on transmission of facts: What was the date of the Battle of Waterloo? Who was the first President of the United States? While in some areas there does seem to be a noble move towards educating children in thought processes -- critical thinking skills, argumentation, problem solving and so forth -- for the most part kids are still expected to show up at school on test day with their number 2 pencils well sharpened and fill in all the bubbles alone, without asking the kid in the next aisle what the square root of 25 is or who invented the internal combustion engine.

I think this emphasis on retaining knowledge in one's own head comes from our ancient roots in pre-written culture. Long before humanity developed written languages, we maintained oral traditions. Even well into the days when writing was a well-established "technology," people who memorized shockingly long tracts -- think the entire Bible, for starters -- were not all that uncommon. Yet in the relatively recent past, there has been a general shift away from straightforward memorization. I'm reminded of a scene in the film Quiz Show where the middle-class Federal agent from Brooklyn goes to dinner with the clearly highly-cultured, very well-educated family of one of the quiz show contestants. During dinner, the family plays what is obviously a very long-standing game: they take turns reciting lengthy passages from Shakespeare, correcting one another when a word is gotten wrong. The Brooklynite is suitably impressed; more than impressed, he's just about floored at the effortless way his hosts toss around quotes like colorful M&Ms.

Yet, what's so impressive about memorization? I still have rattling around in my brain the detrius of a childhood spent memorizing much poetry, partly for school recitations, partly because I liked to read and memorization came easily to me then. I can still toss off most of The Walrus and the Carpenter, The Wreck of the Hesperus, We Are Seven...the list goes on. So, what does that prove? The channels carved in the brain during childhood run deep? Maybe...after all, I can still dutifully recite the address and telephone number of the apartment I lived in until I was ten years old without batting an eyelash, while I still occasionally have to pause and think about what my current area code is. My point is, what does all that memorization get me? A few admiring glances at a party, I suppose, if I ever decide to pull out all the stops and wow the crowd with an impromptu recitation. But am I really using my brainpower wisely by memorizing?

Albert Einstein, it's said, didn't know his own telephone number. When asked why he never bothered to memorize it, he supposedly replied that there was no reason to when he could just look it up. The implication, I suppose, is that he used his brain to solve difficult, as-yet-unsolved problems and not as a repository for information that could be found easily elsewhere.

Besides, once we leave school, how often are we really asked to solve problems in isolation, without referring either to other people or outside resources? We talk our personal problems out with friends and family; we attack work issues with colleagues; we confer with teachers, advisors and counsellors when our kids get off track. We all seem to assume that we do know more together than separately, at least if our actions are anything to judge by; in the real world, isn't every test open-book?

And yet, there's the small, non-pc part of me that bristles every time I have to help the cashier at the supermarket make change when the all-knowing cash register flakes out and calmly asserts that I should receive nine-million nine-hundred and ninety-nine thousand dollars' change on a two-dollar purchase. Shouldn't a person who handles money eight hours a day five days a week know that if I hand over a penny along with my ten dollar bill on a tab ending with 56 cents that somewhere in there I should be getting back a quarter and two dimes (or some equivalent coinage) with my change?

I know that there's an up-and-coming learning theory (the name of which escapes me much for memory!) that claims that knowledge is out there to be found, so it's the techniques of finding that should be taught, not the knowledge itself. There's a part of me that agrees wholeheartedly; after all, if my finding techniques were a bit more up to snuff, I would have been able to find the name of the learning theory I'm thinking of instead of hoping that someone reading this blog will pipe in with a comment supplying the missing information. Still, if I wanted to stretch myself, I'm sure I could find the information: phone a friend, email a professor, do a more thorough internet search.

But, the Luddite in me points out, what happens if all this technology goes to hell in a handbasket one day? Like the cashier who can't make change without an electronic assistant, would I be stuck with nothing to fall back on if I couldn't rely on my supports, whoever or whatever they may be, to help fill in the gaps where my memory has slacked off? Should we all carry around our backup systems in our brains, hardwired into our memory in case all the calculators, all the computers, all the internet connections and telephone lines and library books one day disappear? If we really do know more together than we do separately, what happens when we can't work together any more?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Well, after many attempts at posting a photo and several less-than-fruitful emails to the folks at Blogger, it seems that I can once again upload pics. The one to the left is a close-up of the scarf I entered in the EZasPi Shetland Lace Workshop contest. From the bottom, the patterns are Horseshoe and reverse New Shell, alternating in repeats of 3. The center back of the scarf is done in Candelight, which is an absolutely stunning pattern with just a few too many lines for me to memorize as easily as Horseshoe and New Shell. The two ends of the scarf were supposed to be mirror images of one another, but reversing the Horseshoe pattern didn't quite turn out the way I expected and I got more of a similar-but-different pattern on the scarf's other end. Still, I like the way it turned out, so I kept it. I call this my "Happy Accident" scarf.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Assignment: Online Collaboration

So here I am once again completing a blogging assignment for my hypermedia course. The topic: "As we move from group work to independent work, please create a blog post showing some thoughtful reflection on any topic related to 'online collaboration.'"

I've given collaboration in general a lot of thought, in large part because the courses I teach in English as a Second Language often rely heavily on collaboration. Personally, I feel that the proponents of collaboration often overlook one key problem with collaboration: it's so very easy for participants to not participate very much. Even when the instructor puts a mechanism in place to supposedly ensure that everyone does a fair share of the work, there's always the tendency for the participants themselves to play towards their strengths and not their weaknesses; everyone gets better at what they're already good at but no one really gains the new skills they need.

I see this in the groups I participate in. I'm a teacher, so I'm very comfortable with all the "teacher stuff" -- writing lesson plans, creating activities, stating objectives. I am not comfortable with exploring new technologies or creating *shudder* flow charts. Therefore, when I work in groups, I leave the flowcharting to others, even though I'm probably the one who should be completing every single flowchart myself just to get the practice I so desperately need.

In our hypermedia course, we've just completed a group project and have now been sent off to complete an individual project. On the one hand, I'm glad to be doing an individual project because I'll now be forced to face my demons and do the things I've been able to avoid doing as a member of a group. On the other hand, I harbor no illusions that I'll be able to complete this project alone without soliciting help from my now former group members.

In the classes I teach, I've moved towards assigning individual projects with group support as a way of dealing with these issues. For example, students in my writing class have to complete a paper and presentation for their final project. Everyone has to choose their own topic, write their own paper and make their own presentation. However, from the very beginning of the process they're assigned to a group. The group is there for support purposes; at various points in the process, group members review each other's topics, make suggestions, provide feedback and serve as a mock audience for presentation practice. The group members are there for one another as a resource; even though each student produces his or her own separate project, they have a "go-to" group that can help them out when they need a hand. It gives them independence, promotes collaborative learning, but also helps ensure that everyone does every part of their own project themselves, even those parts they would rather avoid.

I'm such a proponent of this independent-production-with-group-support method that even when we were de-grouped after our mid-term project, I asked my group members if we could stay in touch and support one another through the independent project process. My group members agreed, and I've already emailed them my first rough ideas for my final project. The feedback I received helped me revise my work before submitting it to my professor for final approval. I wrote not one but five flowcharts all by myself -- something I never would have done had I been participating in a group project -- but I checked them all with my group members, who are all much more skilled at flowcharting than I will ever be. As I see it, this allows me to have the best of both worlds -- I'm forced to do all the parts of a project, even those I'd otherwise avoid, but I have the support of a group to help me with the areas I'm weak in. It's an option I think should be explored further by advocates of collaborative learning.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Shetland Lace Workshop Contest

Well, I finally got around to blocking my entry for the Shetland Lace Workshop Content at EZasPi. It's my first foray into knitted lace, and I must say I'm quite proud of myself. I made it with my friend Caroline in mind; her favorite color is purple, so this will make a nice Christmas gift for her. I doubt it's good enough to win anything in the contest, but there's no harm trying...and the prizes are so good I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I qualify for something, even if it's only the booby prize! LOL

I've been trying to upload a photo but I keep getting an error message. *grrrrr* Will try again later....

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Sick, sick, sick

So, DH has done it to me once again. I have a sore throat, courtesy of my Dear Husband, who picked it up last weekend along with a nasty head cold. I can just feel the beginnings of stuffiness in my ears; my throat is raw and aching; and worst of all, I can't even soothe myself with glass after glass of OJ because of this damn South Beach diet.

At least my first-ever handknitted sock (made on size 1 Addi turbos with Knitpicks Simple Stripes in shades of green, orange and brown) is coming along nicely; about another inch and I'll be ready to begin turning the heel. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Somewhere back in -- oh, I don't know, junior high school, maybe -- I was told that saying "rabbits" on the first day of the month brought good luck. It was one of those kid things you did, like not stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk or holding your breath whenever a character on TV was trapped underwater to see if you'd survive in the same situation.

Well, today is the first, and here I am many long years from junior high school, still faithfully saying "rabbits" to bring good luck. It's a small bit of weirdness, one that I can indulge in quite unobtrusively, muttering a barely audible "rabbits" as I blow-dry my hair or -- if I've forgotten until later in the day -- as I sprint from the car to any of a number of errand-targets. DD isn't talking yet, but when she does, I wonder if I'll teach her to say "rabbits" along with me on the first of the month. It's a far better habit for me to teach her than some of my others (such as my habit of finishing off a box of cookies as soon as possible under the absolutely insane theory that if the cookies are no longer around I won't be tempted to eat them).

And speaking of cookies, my Haunted Halloween House was a rip-roaring success! (How do you like that for a segue?) Christened "The Nelsonville Horror" (Nelsonville being the town where the pumpkin-carving party was held), that little house drew compliments from everyone at the shindig. Of course, no one wanted to actually eat it, and despite the best efforts of the hostess and me (both of us breaking off bits of rooftop to get things started), I don't believe much more than a small slab of gingerbread was gone by the time we left. I was also shocked to find some of last-year's partygoers asking why I hadn't brought my prior contribution -- candy sushi -- yet again.

And after my candy binge on Saturday, I finally decided to take my doctor seriously and start the South Beach Diet. Yes, I still have baby weight to lose, and I wasn't exactly svelte even before I got pregnant. But I also have cholesterol to cut. Today is day 1.5 of Phase 1, which lasts 2 weeks, and so far I've been very good about resisting the orange juice in the fridge (no fruit AT ALL the first two weeks, and lucky me, I've managed to pick up a sore throat so all I want is OJ). Now I'm off to do some *shudder* exercise. What makes it tolerable is I've bought a recumbent exercise bike and set it up in front of the DVD player. Now I can exercise, watch a movie AND knit, all at the same time. Talk about multi-tasking...!