critically thinking about comment threads

So this study, the one from Science suggesting that gender isn’t such a useful variable when trying to predict if an individual will be good or math at not – is all over my feeds and my del.icio.us network. And it’s got me thinking about critical thinking, perception, and the really big thing we’re trying to support with our talk and our teaching about information literacy.

So the study in question basically looked at NCLB data from a lot of states, looking at how students performed on the math sections by gender. The differences they found were statistically insignificant at every level, from primary to secondary grades. They concluded that,

for grades 2 to 11, the general population no longer shows a gender difference in math skills….There is evidence of slightly greater male variability in scores, although the causes remain unexplained. Gender differences in math performance, even among high scorers, are insufficient to explain lopsided gender patterns in participation in some STEM fields.

So what does this have to do with critical thinking? The study itself isn’t really what I’m interested in here so much as the reaction to it. Because one of the things critical thinking is about is how we react when we come across information that challenges what we thought to be true. And for every math teacher that reacted to this study with a “duh” there are a lot of people around there who have some ingrained assumptions about how boys are better at math and girls are better at reading.

One of the most common narratives about boys and girls and math goes like this – boys and girls show similar aptitude so long as the math is easy. But when it gets complex, boys are better. That’s the line that used to explain why girls stopped taking math in high school, and now it’s used to explain why they don’t do math as much in college. So it’s not like I was surprised to see that that a whole bunch of commenters go Right There.

But the thing is – the study’s authors deal with this. They talk about the complexity question (they used a different data set to get at that) and they talk about the SAT scores thing. It’s not buried – it’s a whole section with a heading and everything.

And we can’t blame bad science reporting or Science’s paywall on this – the posts or linked stories mention the complexity question because the authors didn’t just mention it in the study – they emphasized it. This is a super-short article, and they spend some of their very limited time to say that our NCLB tests kind of suck – they don’t test for much, at least not for what they should be testing for. I mean really – that topic is their big finish, the last line -

An unexpected finding was that state assessments designed to meet NCLB requirements fail to test complex problem-solving of the kind needed for success in STEM careers, a lacuna that should be fixed.

Now I’m not saying that these commenters should automatically buy the analysis presented, but they should notice it. They should engage with it. Not to do so suggests, well, a lack of a disposition to think critically.

In the very late 80′s the APA engaged in a Delphi project to define critical thinking in a way that would be useful for higher education and for educational assessment. A panel of experts on critical thinking instruction, assessment and theory was convened and together they developed an influential consensus* of an ideal critical thinker as -

1. Someone who can think critically, has a set of skills, including : interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation and self-evaluation. This skill dimension is an essential part of critical thinking.

2. Someone with the disposition to use those skills, to learn. Critical thinkers are sensitive about their own biases. They are open-minded. They are inquisitive, questioning people. They have an eagerness for knowledge and learning.

(An aside – the Delphi Method of research that grounded this project is pretty cool itself if you’re geeky like me)

Some definitive examples of lacking the disposition to think critically can be found at ABC News’ coverage of the gender/math study (ETA – in the comments, not ABC’s report) — there’s this:

The fact remains, boys tend to do better in math than girls. And there’s no shame in that. Just like girls tend to do better in languages.I wonder who skewed these figures?

And there’s this:

That doesn’t make any sense. There is no rational reason for this gap to disappear. It is a fact that men are better then women at certain tasks and worse then them at others. I think that the disappearance of this gap speaks more to our educators doing a better job of “teaching the tests” then to students actually understanding the material better.

In other words, “I read this thing. It contradicts what I believe. So I will simply restate my previously held beliefs and perhaps suggest a conspiracy.”

Now, these people obviously aren’t worth engaging with – I mean, they’re commenting on a story at ABC News dot com, and they’re not doing so especially well. But the thing is – I’ve read things just like this from my students before.
We have them write a bunch of stuff about the things they encounter in their early exploratory research stages and so we get a lot of information about how they’re reacting to the ideas they encounter. Sometimes their reaction is exactly this – “this article says X which is wrong because I believe Y.”

And that’s not a slam on my students – learning how to think critically, and developing the disposition to think critically is something that we should expect people to do in the college years. But that aspect of it – that willingness to examine your own biases and to accept new information that challenges your absolute world view as potentially valid – that’s the critical thinking big leagues. It’s not easy stuff. Not for anyone.

And what the many, many online discussions of this study have got me thinking about is how many different ways that one can resist thinking critically – the discussions on Slashdot and at the Chronicle, for example, are at an obviously higher level than the one at ABC News – they’re discussions, for one. And the arguments raised are more complex, and mostly subtler than “nuh uh.” But I think there’s still a lot of knee-jerk refusals to consider information that challenges worldviews, mental models, belief structures or whatever you want to call all of that cognitive and affective and mental baggage we bring along with us when we encounter new information going on in those comment threads.

With some others, Paul Facione (the guy who wrote the executive summary for the Delphi project) talks more thoroughly about the disposition to think critically** and in particular this article talks about what we might expect from new college students. There’s a lot of good stuff here but I’m going to engage in some super-simplistic summary and say that the authors show that college students are positively disposed to think critically in many ways – but the one that hangs them up some is this “truth-seeking” aspect.

I’m not in love with the phrase “truth-seeking” here but I’m fine with what they mean by that phrase – someone with a positive disposition towards truth seeking is “eager to seek the best knowledge in a given context, courageous about asking questions and honest and objective about pursuing inquiry if the findings do not support one’s self-interests or one’s preconceived opinions.”

Just as interesting is the related finding – that, for the most part, these students were rewarded more in their first year of college for showing positive dispositions along other scales (most notably “analyticity” or the ability to evaluate and create reasoned arguments) than for truth-seeking. That piece feels true to me, at least so far as my experiences with argument papers and comm 111 speeches extends.

While we encourage students to choose a topic they want to learn about, not just one they feel strongly about (and in this our composition faculty are taking a different tack than the one in most of the books I’ve seen)m many students still choose to write on topics they “already know.” Sometimes it is clear from the start that they feel so strongly about their chosen topic that they will not be able to learn from their research process. And, of course, some of them can craft beautifully-reasoned arguments without ever really engaging with sources in a way that leaves them open to changing their minds on a topic. I know I’ve done it.

We do focus on their argument-building ability more than their truth-seeking, and perhaps that isn’t where they need the most help to become critical thinkers. Over the years, we have added some dimensions of the latter into their work, asking them to reflect on their own biases and preconceptions, for example, but I suspect we could do more. Something to think about – hopefully critically and open-mindedly.

___________

*Facione, Peter A. (1990). Executive Summary, “The Delphi Report” (opens in PDF

**Facione, P.A., Sanchez (Giancarlo), C.A., Facione, N.C. & Gainen, J. (1995) The disposition toward critical thinking. Journal of General Education, 44:1, 1-25.

pointing out those giants, there with the shoulders

So back in April, gg at Skulls in the Stars challenged science bloggers across the disciplines to read and research some classic article in their discipline, and then write a blog post about it.  The results are in, and they’re awesome.  Not just fascinating – this is a potential time suck (with none of the guilt I feel wasting time with old sports clips on YouTube – I mean, it’s reading about science.  Important science!) – but also a really intriguing way to think about introducing a lot of overlapping ideas about scholarship to students.

One – we all know that context is one of the hardest things to figure out when you’re taking your first steps into understanding a new topic or discipline. Which things to read, what do they mean, why were they important, why are they still important  – answers to these questions aren’t immediately apparent to an outsider and scholarship written for other experts takes a lot of the keys to unlocking this discourse for granted.  Each of these posts lifts some disciplinary curtain aside, telling us what to read and why – in language written not for experts but for smart, motivated people who don’t already have that contextual knowledge.

And by showing the significance of a work in a discourse, these bloggers also (in both text and subtext) show us something about what discourse is and how it works in science or scholarship or research.  My hands-down most favorite entry in this series is from the person who issued the initial challenge – the Gallery of Failed Atomic Models – and this entry really gets at what I’m talking about here.  From gg:

It is often said that history is “written by the victors”. While this statement is usually referring to the winners of a military or political conflict, a similar effect occurs in the history of science. Physics textbooks, for instance, often describe the development of a theory in a highly abbreviated manner, omitting many of the false starts and wrong turns that were taken before the correct answer was found. While this is perfectly understandable in a textbook (it is rather inefficient to teach students all of the wrong answers before teaching them the right answer), it can lead to an inaccurate and somewhat sterile view of how science actually works.

And that might be my favorite piece of this project – the view of how science actually works that you get from these articles is anything but sterile.  They’re planning a second go-round of this project, which will be hosted here in about a month.  I’m marking my calendar.  Well not literally.  But I’m glad this will be an ongoing thing.

There’s another version of the first set of posts up at A Blog Around the Clock – organized chronologically, with some great excerpts highlighting what makes each post good.

Thanks to Cognitive Daily for the pointer.

liberation and library instruction – part 1 of ?

WorldCat recordI would really like to respond to this call for papers, and since abstracts aren’t due for several weeks I’m using it as  a reason to do some reading and re-reading.  Right now, it’s A Pedagogy for Liberation, a dialogue between Ira Shor and Paulo Freire.  This isn’t the most famous Freire, that’s undoubtedly Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but it’s one of my favorites because it is a dialogue — and they talk about the benefits of that format in language that’s very compelling – all about co-creating meaning:

Dialogue belongs to the nature of human beings, as beings of communication.  Dialogue seals the act of knowing, which is never individual, even though it has its individual dimension (p. 3-4).

And since I initially described this space as a place where I might do some pre-writing, and that concept is entirely tied up in the idea that doing that pre-writing in a place that is not my own head might be useful and valuable in a way that internal reflection is not — I’m going to indulge in putting some of the ideas this re-read is sparking down here.

I got through the first two chapters last night (and for the record, this book is very short, and very readable).  And I have mostly been thinking since about the question of motivation and what it means for libraries.  Freire and Shor agree that motivation has to be located in the here and the now of learning – not in some future benefit or some future activity.  Freire says, “I never, never could understand the process of motivation outside of practice, before practice (5).”  Shor echoes this with, “I’d emphasize that motivation has to be inside the action of study itself, inside the students’ recognition of the importance of knowing to them (6).”

I find this really compelling.  I also think is something I need to think about a lot more in terms of library instruction because much of the motivation we provide to students in library instruction sessions is “learn this and you’ll see the benefits at some later time.”  We deal with that in a limited and imperfect way by requiring that students have a research assignment that we can teach to, but that just moves the point at which the motivation kicks in a little closer.  It doesn’t actually put it in the here and now.

There’s a scene in Dazed and Confused where my favorite character Cynthia says “God, don’t you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future?”  That line is why Cynthia is my favorite character and that line is what Freire and Shor are talking about here.  And that line really describes some of my anxiety about library instruction sessions, particularly those of the one-shot variety in basic skills courses that are themselves presented to students as disconnected from the “real” work they will be doing in the disciplines.

This puts the motivation two steps away, right?  Learn these basic skills so that you can perform well in later classes and you want to perform well in those later classes so that you can get a good job. Can we really blame students for feeling like nothing they do in school matters now, and can we blame them for resisting when they can’t see a direct line between the thing you’re teaching and that elusive “good job” goal down the line?  We need to give them something better, and I’m not sure what.

Or maybe I should say I’m not sure how.  I do think I have a sense of the what. I think we all have a sense of the what.  We teach this stuff because we find it intrinsically fulfilling, after all.   I talked about this briefly in the gaming post the other day, and I also talked around this concept today over at ⌘f — there is motivation to be found in research and learning.  Those processes are compelling and even fun.  But I don’t feel like I get there very often in my interactions with students – they may get there by themselves later because of something we did, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Freire and Shor argue that part of the process of finding this here and now motivation is not trying to do it alone.  In other words, by watching and listening to students and seeing what they are really doing, what they are really interested in, and what they are really motivated by, you can co-create a learning experience that will be compelling and motivating to all of the learners in the room – students and teachers alike.  I think there’s something in that for library intructors.

This means creating environments where students feel comfortable enough to act authentically and to show their true motivations.  The one-shot library session?  Probably not.  Maybe in the hands of a better or a different teacher than I am it could be, but I’ve never mastered the art of immediate (within 50 minutes anyway) relationship-building that would require.  But as librarians, we’re not limited to the classroom – we also have our libraries. And out in the library, I think, we might get some of the answers we need, if we’re willing to listen.

Games, systems and a LOTW shout-out

I have definitely hit that “what am I forgetting before ALA” mode where it is not a matter of if I forget anything, but rather how important the thing I forget will turn out to be. I am deep in the throes of preparing to present this pre-conference workshop with these awesome people while at the same time I try to make sure all loose ends are tied up here before I go.

So! I blog! Because I really want to just say a few words about one of the presentations I saw at LOEX of the West. Late, I know, but it’s sparked a really fascinating email conversation between several of my colleagues here at OSU and I want to write a few things about it before I forget them.

So the presentation was this one – A Portal to Student Learning, in which Nicholas Schiller of WSU-Vancouver argued that perhaps video games and gaming are not interesting to instruction librarians because we can make games that are more fun and engaging than traditional instruction sessions.  Instead, they should be interesting to us because the people who design games put their considerable skills, talent, time and resources to work to, essentially, teach a group of players how a system works, how to navigate that system and how to get what they need to solve problems and achieve goals within that system.

Apologies to Nicholas for that very brief and rough paraphrase but even brief and rough — it sounds a lot like what research is?

One of the overarching points here, and one that came up as well when Rachel and I talked about Alternate Reality Games at the last Online NW, is that good games and good game environments are really, really hard to do.  There are people who spend all of their professional time, every day, creating these games and environments and sometimes even they fail.  Librarians have other jobs being librarians and do we really have time to create the types of games that will be engaging, that will contain within them whatever it is that makes success within the game environment an end in itself to players?

One of my co-workers pointed out that it is hard to design a game to teach people how to research effectively because everyone’s research process is different, everyone’s goals are different, and people’s goals shift and change even as they engage in their own research process.  And that’s certainly true -if we expect their motivation to play and do well at a game to be external to the game – I want to do well at a game because of what it will get me outside the game — then I think that’s probably not the way to get engaged in a game.  But a game about information literacy skills that has within it enough motivation that people want to succeed at it for the game’s sake alone – I might be a little too cynical to be able to picture that.

But what I liked so much about Nicholas’ presentation was that he showed a way to think about this that doesn’t require us to design games that meet our users’ idiosyncratic and deeply individual needs.  It doesn’t require us to have the technical skills to develop games that will be engaging and effective.  It requires us to understand that when people are playing games they are learning, about systems and environments.  In effect, the game gives them what they need to teach themselves the rules of the game, including where those rules can be bent or broken.

And I think that’s a really exciting way to think about our interfaces, our tools and our systems.  Because they have rules too.  The ways that game designers use feedback, scaffolding, and other techniques to help the user teach themselves by doing — that seems to have direct applicability to how we can think about our systems and the tools that give our users access to those systems.  This might be a deeper and better way of thinking about visual search than I’ve been doing here for a while now.  I suspect that it is.

Because where I’m not cynical at all, I’m probably downright Pollyanna-ish, is in the idea that research brings with it its own rewards.  One reason I’m so resistant to the idea that we need to staple another motivation (winning a game) on top of learning research skills is that research itself is fun, adventurous, creative, surprising — and even competitive.  Haven’t we all felt like we won, somehow, when we made that breakthrough, found that thing that showed us where our project was going to go so that all of a sudden we could see it all the way through to the end?

I’m not sure I can describe it better than Caleb did here – talking about games and research and the fun.  I think he’s right – that libraries are very well suited to that kind of learning.  But our systems don’t always keep up.  So thanks Nick, for suggesting some ways that maybe they can.

dude, that’s so punk rock

So my Facebook friends, and my other friends, and the people in the cubicles next to me, and, well, anyone who has ever heard me speak knows that I’m not a big fan of the Blackboard learning management system. Despite having some good interactions over email with Karen Gage and the group of people responsible for the “2.0″ side of Blackboard development, my actual experiences with Blackboard have been confusing, frustrating, clunky and … more frequent than I would like to remember.

So this post yesterday at the Chronicle’s Wired Campus made me smile when I scanned the headline and saved it to my del.icio.us account – I’m not just a disgruntled librarian who lacks the patience to make Blackboard sing. I’m totally punk rock. This morning, however, I realized I needed to go back and read more than the headline – this edupunk idea is apparently a whole thing that resonates with a bunch of people.

This post says “Enter EDUPUNK” and future posts will continue to develop the idea and what it means. I’ll admit I loved this post because it details how the idea developed out of connections made between frustration with something Blackboard was doing, reading a really great novel and an awesome bar conversation — a process I can totally relate to. I loved this statement:

The insanely irresponsible advertising for BlackBoard 8 suggests that Academic Suite release 8.0 will “enhance critical thinking skills” and “improve classroom performance.” What LMS can do this? What Web 2.0 tool can do this? This is total bullshit, how can they make such an irresponsible claim? These things are not done by technology, but rather people thinking and working together.

OMG yes. But more than that – the connections drawn go on to talk about the implications of the specific, corporate environment Blackboard creates and is created by — “And this move by BlackBoard to commodify the labor of others is exactly the problem with the idea that educational technology “is about the technology.”

On his other blog, term-coiner Jim Groom provides an image of himself as the edupunk poster boy. There’s a little badge on the bavatuesdays blog now – leading here — edupunk.org (nothing there yet but an anthem)

Leslie Madsen Brooks at BlogHer provides a much better rundown of the conversation that’s been going on on the blogs.

Generally speaking, when I’ve talked about my problems with Blackboard I have focused on the closed nature of the LMS and how I think that closed off, password-protected, walled garden e-learning environment doesn’t work. Of course on one level I’m talking about the way that Blackboard just doesn’t work very well and there’s no way to go in and fix it. It’s a closed shop and a closed shop that doesn’t seem all that interested in creating something that works well.

But the real problem with the passwords and the walled gardens isn’t really about how it affects me as a teacher. I usually end up talking about how those things affect students as learners. I think that learning how to learn on the web and learn from other people on the web, is an essential part of what it means to be able to learn at all today. And that means learning how to learn in public. It means learning how to find the learning communities that will help you get where you need to go, and learning how to participate in those learning communities — contributing to the shared knowledge as well as consuming it. My del.icio.us network is hands-down one of the most important learning networks I have and it has been for a long time. And a big part of why it is so important is the way that it pushes things I wouldn’t otherwise find across my path. In that community, I make connections between things that I would never have made otherwise.

When Blackboard introduced it’s del.icio.us clone Scholar, Karen Gage provided me with a password so that I could check it out. Even though my interactions with her were really positive, my reactions to the product were not. The big advantage over del.icio,us seemed to be the ability to tag items by course name/number. I needed the special password in the first place because the only way to use it in my own BB environment was for our Blackboard administrator to do a system-wide implementation. And at that time, you could bring your bookmarks into Scholar, but you couldn’t export them out.

Scholar to me became the perfect metaphor of the BB LMS — sort everything into courses, don’t even consider that the best learning comes sometimes from drawing connections between learning experiences, don’t consider customization or user control of their own environment and once you leave school – you won’t need that knowledge base you developed while you were there anymore. Yeah, I know that Scholar might have improved in the year since I checked it out. But at the end of the day, I don’t think that matters.

Even if Scholar worked perfectly and even if it did some awesome things that del.icio.us could never do — I don’t think I would think it a substitute because of the walled garden thing. Our students don’t need to learn how to learn from a pre-selected, safe group of peers. They need to learn how to function on the wild, wide open web. They should be learning that in college. E-learning is something they will be doing for the rest of their lives. They should be learning how to do that in college. Closed off LMS’s don’t give them that experience, and they never will.

Alex Reid takes a rhetorical look at the term, and decides that it might be a case of trying too hard. And I think he might be right. I like his concise articulation of the question –

Still, I think there’s an interesting question here about how pedagogues position themselves in relation to institutionally-approved technologies and in the marketplace and commons of the larger techno-mediascape.

But I’ll also admit to liking the edupunk term. My friend Matt Cibula wrote this essay way back in the nascent days of the participatory web when we were very young but already nostalgic. Matt was a year ahead of me at Canby High School and while we never talked about the Clash while we were in Canby, this essay explains why they were important to some of us who were there better than I ever could. I honestly never expected to have a reason to link to it here – so bonus!

Teaching undergraduates about peer review – how and why, and did I mention how?

Lately I’ve noticed a number of different conversations I’ve been having coalescing around the question of evaluation – how can students evaluate the information they find. Some of the conversations have been versions of your normal standard “information on the web can be bad” and aren’t very interesting, but more of them have been about the much more interesting and much trickier question of — how do students evaluate scholarly information they find on the web when they are neither content experts (like their classroom teachers are) nor format/scholarly communication experts (like librarians are).

Which is why the title of this post jumped out and hit me over the head when I saw it today: Can you tell a good article from a bad based on the abstract and title alone?

(the post is a couple of months old and had quite a bit of discussion in the science blogs, but I haven’t seen much about it in library discussions)

So – what do you think? Can you? I sure can. And can’t. I mean, it depends, right? But when students are looking at something like this — that’s kind of what we’re asking them to do.

typical result list - ebsco

And the thing about the story linked above is that is also shows that the default we sometimes turn to – peer review – isn’t good enough. A lot of the comments on this post and on these related posts at P.Z. Myers and the Nature blogs focus on the suggestion that this paper is written from a creationist/ intelligent design perspective and the implications of this for peer review –

  • The potential that an author can choose/target politically friendly reviewers for a paper
  • The suggestion that this paper’s publications might allow an affirmative answer to the question “can you find one peer reviewed article supporting intelligent design” – and what that might mean for science.

The article was retracted by the journal, not because of its politics but because of plagiairism. Which is also something one would hope would be caught by the peer review process. It seems like it would be the least we should expect.

So on the one hand, you have the science blogs – you have someone reading the title and abstract for this article, seeing some red flags, using the dynamic web to point them out. This generates discussion, which spreads to other dynamic sites and eventually results in the article in question being pulled down. On the other hand, you have the peer reviewers, working in isolation, who didn’t seem to catch any of the red flags. On one level, it reads like a fairly straightforward Web 2.0 Makes Good story.

But on another level, what does this mean for students, especially undergraduate students? Here’s the sentence that raised the red flags for most of these scholars:

These data are presented with other novel proteomics evidence to disprove the endosymbiotic hypothesis of mitochondrial evolution that is replaced in this work by a more realistic alternative.

I can’t say this raises the same questions for me. “Novel… evidence” might be a little odd, and “a more realistic alternative” is an interesting turn of phrase. But the thing is, you have to know something about the “endosymbiotic hypothesis” to be able to contextualize, or criticize, the idea expressed here. How many students are going to have the content knowledge to do either of those things? And the other thing is – if this had become the one peer reviewed article supporting intelligent design, there’s a really good chance that even my beginning composition students would come across it.

I don’t have any really good answers for how to help students make sense of this – except I don’t think librarians and composition instructors can do this alone. And I don’t think we can make any decent stab at figuring out an answer to this question without engaging with the question of what the participatory web means for scholarship – and engaging with the related question of what the limitations of traditional peer review are as well.

And this is where the “wisdom of crowds” vs. “cult of the amateur” story that gets played out so much in the popular media really fails us. Because if this story shows anything, it shows that we still need experts to help us evaluate, contextualize and make sense of information. And at the same time it shows that trusting those experts blindly doesn’t work out so well. Adding the transparency of the participatory web to the opaque processes of traditional scholarly publication – I think part of the answer is in that grey area somewhere.

A long post at the Bench Marks blog examines the question of Why Web 2.0 is failing in Biology. It would make this too crazy long to engage with everything there today, but I do want to pull out a bit from the end. After talking about how life scientists aren’t reading or contributing content to blogs, he does look at the end at who is reading science blogs and what that might mean.

Two of the groups he pulls out are really relevant here I think — science journalists and non-scientists. If blogging is a good way to get scientific ideas out there to a more general public — people who aren’t reading the scholarly journals or going to the conferences — then they’re a way that that general public can get access to the kind of experts who can help them make sense of the research literature. More on this later, maybe.

Full disclosure – some of this thinking is to prepare for this presentation.

learning in public and other musings on higher ed

Two things this morning – both touching on issues of digital learning, learning communities, learning socially and the big question – is higher ed closing students off from the kinds of tools and skills they’ll need to be lifelong learners?

Writer Response Theory provides this exercise to help students find their Social Bookmarking Soulmates. Basically the assignment is really, really, really simple — the student finds someone who shares an interest with them on a social bookmarking site, and then writes a profile of that person on their blog. So I think it’s really more of a brain-mate than a soul-mate that’s the goal.

While the output of the assignment is the profile of “here’s my soulmate” on the blog, what they learn about that specific contact is really not the point – the point is to show students that informal, asynchronous collaborative learning spaces exist and that finding these spaces and making connections within them is a part of learning today. And tomorrow – this is a major part of how they will need to learn when they leave the academy.

From the blog –

During the assignment, students are at first skeptical that they will find anyone with similar interest. Usually it is not till they find a “Gem,” or exciting link, through someone else’s tags that they see the value in the exercise. More importantly, the assignment hammers home the ways in which social bookmarking can help them become part of a network of scholars, collaborating albeit indirectly at times.

That’s certainly how this worked for me — I didn’t “get” the value of my del.icio.us network until I found some of those gems, and noticed that those gems tended to come from the same people over and over again.

I don’t think this exercise works if it’s not done in public – in an open, public, virtual space. There was a related post yesterday on Blackboard’s blog about their Scholar product – the social bookmarking service that exists within the Blackboard walled garden. It does look a lot better than it did to me when I checked it out about a year ago — the social networking features are easier to see and use, and there are instructions for exporting your scholar bookmarks out to another service (which didn’t work for me when I tried it, but I didn’t try all that hard).

But I still don’t think that this assignment could work as well within the LMS. Nothing could compare to del.icio.us’ user base, but it goes beyond that. There’s something essential about making these kinds of connections out in the world – interacting with experts, hobbyists, other students, professionals and everyone all in the same place. And in learning how to find those people who are useful connections because they are useful. Learning how to do that kind of information evaluation is, I think, a necessary 21st century information literacy skill – and one that can’t be supported by the closed-off LMS environment.

Which leads me to this story out of Toronto. A first-year student is facing academic honesty charges and expulsion because he is (was?) the listed administrator for a Facebook study group connected to an intro Chemistry course at Ryerson. He’s facing 147 counts – one for each member of the group. None of the other group members have been charged. After the course professor found out about the Facebook group, he changed the students grade from a B to an F and recommended action be taken against him, citing a rule that forbids “any deliberate activity to gain academic advantage, including actions that have a negative effect on the integrity of the learning environment.”

First – what does that even mean? Doesn’t studying in ANY form count as a “deliberate activity to gain academic advantage” ? I mean, the next clause makes it clear that penalties won’t be limited to just those deliberate activities that have an negative effect. But that’s not really the point. The student in question is maintaining that what is being attacked here is the venue – that this virtual study group is no different than the face-to-face study groups you’ll find in any university library on any campus any day of the week.

And it looks like he might be right. The Toronto Star article linked above quotes the student advocate in the case extensively, and she’s clearly advocating one side. But no one has come forward with any evidence at all that students in this group were doing anything more than time-honored study group activities like “I can’t figure out this problem. Can you help me.” No one has shown any evidence (and given that this is a virtual space, you’d think it would be there to be shown) that students were exchanging answers, doing each other’s homework, or passing work they did not do off as their own, which is the main point of this statement from Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-Commerce Law (crazy title).

Beyond this, the students in this course were apparently given different questions to prevent exactly the kind of cheating this student is being accused of facilitating. What’s really dismaying here, is that these students – if these initial impressions are true – are engaged in exactly the kind of learning behaviors we should be encouraging. There’s no evidence here that the learning that a student would do when it comes to these chemistry problems would be better if it was done in solitude, and I think there’s a lot of reasons to think that the learning could be better with collaboration.

I’m biased here – in favor of social learning and study groups. The Collaborative Learning Center in my library is one of my favorite parts of the whole building.

the CLC in the Valley Library

Tutors and graduate assistants provide drop-in tutoring in the evenings, and during the day they’re joined by supplemental instruction tables where groups of students enrolled in large courses with high failure rates work with a professional tutor on a weekly basis.

Ryerson has more to say in this CBC article than they did in the Star. This quote jumps out –

[Ryerson spokesman James] Norrie said the university understands the nature of Facebook and its groups.

“This is not a bunch of old academics sitting around a table saying, ‘Oh, this scares us.’ That’s not what’s happening,” he said.

They say that, but given what we know so far it really looks like the opposite of this statement is true. Not just that the university doesn’t understand the nature of Facebook and its groups (though it looks like maybe they don’t) but that they don’t understand the nature of social learning online in a much larger sense than this. Which is what brings us back to the social bookmarking ideas above. When these students leave Ryerson, their ability to find groups of people engaged with the same problems they’re trying to deal with — whether they’re professional or personal problems — is going to be a fundamental part of their ability to learn and solve those problems.

And like it or not, a lot of that networking and learning is going to happen online. And it might be scary to think of a world where the number of resources available to students goes beyond a study table in the library or the answers in the back of the book, but that’s the world we have. And our students deserve the opportunity to learn how to learn in that world.

This is not turning into an ARG blog

I almost wrote about something else today, but I found out in time that something I thought was true was in fact false and therefore not worth writing about.

But there’s some really cool stuff going on in this Find the Lost Ring ARG that has my brain back at the question of what these storytelling/ chaotic fiction/ media experiences might mean for teaching and learning.  In our presentation, Rachel pulled out Sean Stewart’s phrase “search operas,” which gets at some of the connections between these games and information literacy.

Caleb connects ARG’s to learning really well – connecting the way that the narrative is discovered and synthesized and created in an ARG with the way meaning is discovered and synthesized and created in the research process.

And then there’s the social aspect – the idea that you put a whole bunch of brains with different knowledge and skills and experiences on a problem and you can get something richer and deeper (and certainly faster) than anything individuals could accomplish alone — put all of these things togehter and what do you see?  Well, I’m not sure that everyone sees learning theory but I bet I’m not the only one that does.

You’ve got the meaning-making of constructivism, and the social meaning making of Vygotsky.  It’s not only learning theory, but it’s learning theory that’s had a huge impact on our understanding of information literacy and the connections between information literacy, problemsolving and learning.

So check out what’s going on on this McDonald’s/ Olympics thing.  Trust me, you don’t need to read all of the blogs or forum posts to see the cool factor here.  It looks like the players right now have located six people around the world with a strange form of amnesia.  The first one, introduced via the rabbit hole is Adriane.  Since then, they’ve found Markus, Noriko, MeiHui, Diego and Lucie.  And there’s some stuff going on in Brazil as well.

The characters are all over the world, and so far they’ve been communicating with the players frequently and at length, by email, IM, and in a variety of social networking sites and blogs — but with a twist.  Some of them want to communicate in their native languages (so far – Japanese, Mandarin, French, Spanish, German and English).

(And in a nice T.I.N.A.G. moment – which highlights the potential legal complexity Michael mentioned yesterday — Lucie’s blog is on Skyrock)

Watching what the players are doing to try and deal with this is really fascinating and really cool.  They’re not just using online translators — they’re pulling in people with language skills, they’ve got a wiki page tracking the languages players have expertise in, they’re brushing up on languages they know and sharing the good online courses with each other, they’re learning Esperanto and encouraging the game characters to do so as well!

It gets at the multiple levels of learning going on when we explore to learn — specific knowledge/skills/concepts (here, the language skills) and the deeper inquiry those specific skills enable.  And it highlights the need for that deeper inquiry — something to give the acquisition of specific skills meaning and relevance.  I mean, these people are jumping to learn Esperanto!  Would this happen – ever – without a larger context?

It looks like the game will develop in Esperanto and English (the amnesiac characters all have a tattoo that says “find the lost ring” in Esperanto), so that this truly multi-lingual phase might not extend throughout – but it’s fun to watch.

the Gap Year (or decade)

So Princeton is hoping to send 10% of their incoming first-years to do a year of social service work in other countries before they ever enroll in classes. I saw a mention of this in Inside Higher Ed yesterday and I keep thinking about it. On the one hand, this seems like a marketing thing – go to Princeton! see the world! It’s pretty easy to imagine a program like this making the difference for the student making the choice between Princeton and Yale or Stanford or Duke.

On another hand, I got a little twinge thinking – amazing subsidized experience for kids who are already going to Princeton? It feels a little bit like the way that the really rich and famous people at the Oscars get showered with tons of free stuff they could afford to buy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the Princeton students shouldn’t have this experience – or that they won’t get a lot out of it. I went to a similar kind of school and I think I would have been a much better college student and that my classes would have been really enriched by this kind of experience. But I think about how much students I’ve known since would get out of something like this. Students who come to college without ever having had the chance to see people who aren’t a lot like them and not on TV.  Who might not expect they will ever live and work with people so different.  And then there’s a little twinge.

But mainly I’m thinking about it because I’m a big fan of the gap year concept. As a grad student/ new teacher at Syracuse I encountered a lot of students who were in college because that’s what you did after high school. They didn’t really know why they were there, and they didn’t really have the life experience to apply to what they were learning. That made for some frustrated and unmotivated students. In my own life, I have several relatives who struggled with school as traditional undergrads, not because they weren’t talented but because they weren’t motivated. These relatives all did kind of a Gap Decade, went back to school in their thirties and had much more successful experiences the second time around.

But I wonder what’s happening to the gap year idea. Is it getting too structured or too achievement-oriented too? A few years ago, Harvard began encouraging all of their new students to defer admission for a year, which I thought was a great idea. (And it’s an fact I’ve used a lot trying to convince my parent friends not to worry if their kids aren’t ready for college at 18. “Harvard thinks it’s okay” carries a lot of weight).

Now, Harvard focused on how the gap year is an important time for students to reflect and really take ownership of their own learning and their own life plans. They warned parents of burnout and suggested that teens with over-scheduled, intensely achievement-focused lives were at risk, ironically, of never developing the tools they needed to create their own happy, fulfilling adult lives for themselves:

So the problem can often be well-meaning but misguided parents who try to mold their children into an image of success they value; and their children, being moldable as they are, often get on board and go along with the program before they have any capacity to make such a choice for themselves. Yet the paradox is that the only road to real success is to become more fully oneself, to succeed in the field and on the terms that one defines for oneself. So the pressures placed on many children probably have the unintended effect of delaying a child’s finding herself and succeeding on her own terms.

So this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Princeton’s plan, but I am wondering if the message that the gap year is a time for the student to take control of some things isn’t getting a little bit lost. I’m thinking that more because of stories like this one in the Washington Post. The student highlighted in the story seems to be taking advantage of the opportunity just like Harvard (or in his case, Miami of Ohio) would have wanted: “‘I want to find out what I can accomplish without my parents or my school telling me what I can do,’ Neville said”

But there’s stuff like this in there too — there’s a whole gap-year industry now.  There are consultants and books and websites out there that are designed to help families and students plan this year out fully – even “intensively.”  To me, this kind of smacks of making sure that the gap year is done “right.” Which, on one level, is exactly how to do it wrong. If the gap year just becomes another way to keep up, stay competitive, qualify for the best opportunities then we’ll start to need a gap year for the gap year. Studens won’t get the chance to reflect, to make choices, and to make mistakes on their own.

As a teen, I was way to impatient to start college to even consider the concept of a gap year. Sometimes now, though, it sounds kind of nice.

fancy search everywhere

Not quite on the heels of why I don’t like Ebsco’s new visual search, parts one and two, there are suddenly all kinds of different ways to search for news and information to try. I’ll admit, I don’t totally get any of these yet. I’ve barely played with them, which is part of the reason for that. I think that they’re not fully ready to be gotten yet, though as well.

What’s interesting to me is this common thread running through all of these attempts — the idea that people searching want to see how their results connect to each other. They want to see connections and context. I think this is true, and I think that it’s something we have a hard time doing when we research, especially keyword-research, online. I’m liking the trend, though I’m still a little unclear on the execution to date.

First, from Google Labs

Google Experimental Search. If you have a Google account, and you choose to “join” this experiment, you get some additional options for your results. (A note – all of these images are to screenshots. You have to be logged in and part of the experimental search to see what I’m seeing)

search results page

At the top, you can choose to look at these results in info view, timeline view or map view.

The “info view” seems to be about refining your results. You can choose to focus on a particular location, or a particular period in time. Here’s the WGA strike search, refined by “Vancouver.”

screenshot

I’m not sure exactly what the cool factor is with the timeline refining feature – it seems to pull out results about a particular time, not so much results that were from a particular time. So things like Wikipedia articles, which include lots and lots of dates tend to appear pretty high on those results, no matter which timeframe you try to limit to. I appreciate the concept behind these options, but really, I didn’t find nearly as much to play with as I did in the next two options, at least not yet.

Silobreaker

Next, we have Silobreaker. From the site:

More than a news aggregator, Silobreaker provides relevance by looking at the data it finds like a person does. It recognises people, companies, topics, places and keywords; understands how they relate to each other in the news flow, and puts them in context for the user.

As you can probably imagine, the idea that it’s looking at things just like a person would is a little bit suspect. And from what I can see, it does better recognizing fairly concrete things like people and places than more abstract concepts or (especially) keywords that can mean more than one thing.

The default search is called the 360 search and it brings back a big bunch of different ways of looking at results. At the top is the expected list of articles and other resources, with things like photographs and YouTube videos in the right-hand sidebar. Below the fold, you’ll find the additional options:

screenshot from below the fold

On the right, you can choose to look at a network view of your results, or a “hotspot” map. You can also choose to just do your initial search in any of these views.

Of these, I found the network view to be the most fun. It was really more fun for me to see the people and places that Silobreaker included in the network than it was for me to drill down to the articles and webpages associated with those people and places, but I can see where this would be valuable for certain searches. There’s also the “trends” view at the bottom, but I haven’t figured out why that’s cool yet. I don’t think I’ve been doing the right kinds of searches.

TextMap

Finally, TextMap. From the site:

s a search engine for entities: the important (and not so important)people, places, and things in the news. Our news analysis system automatically identifies and monitors these entities, and identifies meaningful relationships between them.

Time and place are some factors TextMap uses to contextualize results, but its main point of organization is the “entity.” Do a search, and your results come back listed by “entities” – which can be people, places, companies and more. From the main TextMap page, you can also browse by predefined entities. Click on an entity – and your results come back clustered around that entity.

(And at this point, the word “entity” has started to look really weird to me)

screenshot of different visualizations -

Like Silobuster, TextMap’s options include a network view and a heatmap view. There is also a “reference time” view and juxtapositions between your entity and others.

There’s some awkwardness and “not quite getting it” pieces to all of these options for me. Part of this, of course, is from the fact that I just haven’t played with them very much. Part of it is probably that the underlying metadata won’t really support the types of visualizations they’re trying to provide well enough – or that the sites they’re drawing data from are uneven in their metadata, so the existence of the metadata is skewing what you see in the results. Still, the idea that the user needs and wants to see the contextualization, and the relationships between the information sources they’re using, is exciting.