Monday, November 18, 2013

My First Rant! on Higher Ed & Tech Literacy.

Frame 1: Tech/Edu. So if you know me, you know that part of what I do is outreach, professional development, training, support for my faculty colleagues in using tech - everything from social media to ePortfolios to our LMS to open educational resources... you name it. I love working directly with my fellow scholars and teachers, and having a direct impact in supporting what they do. When I can show someone how to embed a video link from the campus library directly into an assignment, or manage office hours with an online calendar, or build an ePortfolio template for their departmental majors, that's good stuff. I can see, with my own eyes, specific cases where using technology helps.

Frame 2: Bigger-Picture. I work at a public liberal arts college, and that means something to me. It means that I take seriously higher education's obligation to help students become something very particular - adult citizens who have the mental habits, and the content background, to be informed and effective agents and decision-makers in any given field they may choose to pursue as adults, whether that be agriculture, business, scientific research, academia, medicine, advertising, or public policy. (I would argue that this last is especially relevant and central to the liberal arts mission historically; but that's a little beside the present point, so ignore it if you like.)

Why pay so much attention to the importance of "technology literacy" for our students? Well, there's a pretty clear prima facie reason: regardless of what field you care to examine, there's an ever-increasing integration of technology within that field, meaning that success in any given pursuit necessarily involves technology skill as part of the necessary preconditions. Publishing? Growing soybeans? Arts management? Surgery? Yeah, you're going to have to know how to use technology effectively - and we're not just talking about using Microsoft Word and email attachments, either. As William Pannapacker paraphrases Frederich Buechner, we need to help our students match their passions to the world's needs.

What are some of the most noteworthy issues current in our society - the sorts of issues we hope our students are prepared to engage effectively?

  • Federal government: The U.S. Congress holds hearings on the status of a broken website
  • Public policy: Edward Snowden initiates international debate on whistleblowing, privacy, surveillance
  • Education: MOOCs, OER, competency-based learning
  • International commerce: Bitcoin, algorithmic-driven stock trading
  • Intellectual property: the Trans-Pacific Partnership's IP terms about DRM

Is it important for our students to have something to say about any of these things? Yes? A meaningful and informed opinion on healthcare.gov? Well then, I suppose that they'd better have the first clue about what makes for a well-designed and functional website, hadn't they? Oh, you want to make a robust case for legislation preventing government surveillance? Do you know the basics of network architecture, or security, or how data packets move from your iPhone to mine?

Frame 3: Is Our Professors Learning? Higher education, as a whole, seems slowly to be acknowledging that this kind of literacy is as properly within its purview as the other, traditional varieties of literacy. (And, in fact, if I were being careful, I'd be talking about multiple literacies here - technology literacy, information literacy, web literacy, data literacy...) And certainly there are pockets of scholarship and research embracing these literacies - just look at the explosive growth of digital humanities generally, or professional organizations and events like HASTAC, THATCamp, and NITLE.

It's great that higher education is professing its recognition of, and commitment to, providing these literacies as a baseline for any given undergraduate student, regardless of major or field, STEM or humanities. And it's great, too, that as time goes on, we're going to see more and more young academics hired into the academy with these technology literacies as a given part of their academic skillsets, and their pedagogical and research experiences. And it's great that higher education is providing support and professional development for faculty who don't bring technological literacy to the table. 

At least, it's great in theory.

Someone named "Greg" commented, in response to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, published November 15, about a tech experience of his:
I didn't pursue it and was not willing to share the fact that I have no concept of what a broken link is, why it is important to me, and why as a faculty member there would be an expectation by anyone that I would know how to fix it. We might as well have been talking about magic beans.
I wish I could say that this shocked me. Unfortunately, it didn't. It was right in line with my own experiences: as I've mentioned elsewhere, at my campus I'm several times more likely to work with a colleague who needs help creating an email attachment than with someone who knows CSS.

Many institutions would reply that they provide something like a Center for Teaching and Learning, some on-campus body to provide faculty with professional development opportunities. I'm not knocking this - I work in my college's Center for Academic Technology! - but let me ask you this:
If we seriously want students who are deeply-versed in technology and information literacies, will they gain that depth of skill, being taught by faculty who sat in an optional 1-hour workshop called "Basics of Social Media in the Classroom"?
My sense is that the typical such Center does a great deal of intro-level development and training. (And, in all honesty, a fair amount of remedial training too.) I find it pretty scary to think of these issues in terms of "literacy" - because if we extend that metaphor, then higher education has a whole lotta barely-literate faculty. And I don't really have a good answer for what to do about that.

As usual, no answers, only questions (with occasional rhetorical flourishes). But I'd love your thoughts.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Twitter vs Zombies 3: #safezones and #zapbites and #brains, Oh My.

Any readers of this blog are already familiar with #TvsZ - I've participated in two iterations
already, and each time I've had a blast and met great people. This weekend, I've been involved in Round 3... and while RL has meant that my participation has been segmented and unpredictable, I have to say that I'm glad to see the enthusiasm and planning that have made this round more than just a repeat of the past two.

Let's start with the rules. This time around, there've been some creative new parameters to the gameplay, giving unexpected advantages to both humans and zombies alike. By encouraging players to expand their media footprint beyond the single medium of Twitter, rules like #zapbite and #safezone lend further credence to the premise that TvsZ is something a bit beyond a fun flash-mob digital experience (though there's no doubt it's that too) - it's about experiencing and learning digital literacies in some of the most engaging ways imaginable. :-)

Hand-in-hand with the ever-developing ruleset, though, is an important parallel strength of the environment: the backchannel G+ community, where communication can happen freely (that is, without in-game consequences) so that the community of players can resolve issues, questions, and disputes as they arise. Anytime smart, passionate people start getting competitive, there's always likely to be the chance of tension - and I think it's been a strength of the game that, instead of falling back on a top-down "referee" model, we've been (imperfectly, but always with good will) doing our best to reach consensus.

One of the constants in the #TvsZ experience has been the fun, creative environment it fosters - giving free rein to a bunch of geeky, creative types to do something fun together! In that spirit, my own contribution this round has been a lighthearted pop zombie love song...

"Eat Somebody" on Soundcloud

Blog posts that count as fortresses against the depradations of the zombie horde; picture posts as weapons with which to stun an advancing member of the undead; and a just plain fun zombie music Popcorn medley. Who says the zombie apocalypse isn't fun?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Nugae Inutiles

(Apologies to Dr. Merrick.)

Some pleasant things I'm enjoying in the interstices of the busy times...sharing with the world, as is the blogging custom, on the off chance that some one of you may also enjoy them.

1. To Be or Not to Be: That Is The Adventure, by Ryan North. Published by BreadPig, originally a Kickstarter, now available for the general public. A "choosable path" adventure version of Hamlet. You don't have to be Hamlet - you can play as Ophelia if you like, or even King Hamlet. This is truly Awesome Sauce.

2. Persian Letters, by Montesquieu. A delightful melange of social commentary, political satire, and philosophical analysis. I can't believe no one ever made me read this in school.

3. In Treatment, season 2. HBO series set in the office of therapist Paul Weston; each episode is a single session with a patient. Compelling portrayal of the complexities of human relationships.

4. Girl Genius. Webcomic combining multiple tropes well: the mad genius, the steampunk (though the authors
eschew that label as inaccurate, preferring "gaslamp fantasy"), the rollicking adventure. I absolutely advise you to start at the very beginning, else you'll be very confused.

5. Gone Home. Very cool, brand-new video game. Just reviewed in the NY Times on 18 August. Available for Linux, Mac, PC. Absorbing gameplay, and a slew of memories from the '90s. It's games like this (and Braid and [eventually!] Miegakure...) that give the lie to the foolish generalization that video games are all about mindless violence.


Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Take a deep breath: we're about to plunge back in.

It's mid-August, when a young academic's fancy turns to thoughts of ...

THE FALL SEMESTER.

In my day-job capacity in my college's Center for Academic Technology, I've been here all summer, supporting various programs around campus, from new student orientation to summer sessions to the LEAD Academy. But life gets quite a bit busier as my faculty colleagues start heading back to campus (mentally and physically), prepping for the start of the next academic cycle.

For the first time in quite a while, I myself won't be teaching in Fall 2013 (the seminar I was hoping to do didn't look like it would attract enough registration), so there's a fairly large chunk of time and attention I can now divert to my tech-side work with faculty, particularly in effective use of Canvas for online course support. There've been a large number of changes since people logged out of their courses in May, and one of my major goals is to encourage everyone to pay attention to the changes, rather than assuming things are the same as last year.
(By the way, that's a hard habit to break, since our last LMS notoriously didn't "do" updates, except maybe once per year. People are not yet fully used to the idea of dynamic [dare I use the buzzword "nimble"?] SaaS. Updates and fixes every three weeks? Unheard of! Absurd!)
Another work goal I have for myself is to work more closely with our campus's Freel Library. Our Digital Services librarian Pamela has been doing fantastic work developing and promoting resources at Freel, and I want to do my part to help. It helps that our respective resource-sets naturally overlap, and we have, in fact, already done some mutually-supporting development in the past year. "More of that" is the watchword. Watch-phrase. Whatever.

Anyway, I've got some fun projects in the planning stage too. One involves organizing a campus screening of the brand-new documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply; another is a panel discussion about Henrietta Lacks, hooking in to the college's First-Year Experience reading of Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; another is, of course, my ongoing work with Dungeons & Discourse.



In closing, a goofy video I made this past weekend for our faculty, and which caused a little spike in my Twitter traffic yesterday...

Friday, August 9, 2013

A New Thing.

I'm going to be testing out a new idea on Twitter - Zella's TechTips, a regular tweet in which I'll mention a piece of software, or a practice, I'd recommend to my colleagues who teach. Sometimes, I have a small nugget or comment to share, and posting it here at the blog seems like a bit of overkill - so we'll see how the cross-platform thing goes!

By the way, I already posted (just a couple of minutes ago!) my first Zella's TechTip - follow me at @gpetruzella if you want to see how this plays out, or the other random things I tweet. (Btw, I forgot to do this on today's inaugural tweet, but henceforth, I'll be using the #zellastechtip hashtag.)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Augh.

Hmmm... I can just imagine the harrumphing of those who decry the online world - "even writing a blog post is too long-form for today's scholars? O tempora! O mores!"

Yes, I've been too distracted to set myself down and post here for the past two months. I've been doing a fair amount of other things, including micro-blogging (does that count? does anyone actually refer to Twitter that way anymore?) and, you know, actual job-type stuff too.

But in case you are that reader who was actually looking forward to Part 3 of my last posted series... I may yet share my own workflow at some point, but if you're looking for excellent information about, and tools for, managing your own online footprint, may I point you at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)'s Guide to Practical Privacy Tools, a very nice, organized starting-point.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Surveillance, Privacy, and Openness, Part 2.

Well, the hits just keep on coming, don't they?

Yesterday I asked whether the ethical failure of the NSA's actions lies not with the bare fact that they collect (and analyze) information about us which we call 'private', but rather with the imbalance between the level of information they have as contrasted with us - an imbalance of information that translates to an imbalance of power. I proposed that

1. Our aim should be to equalize the power imbalance by equalizing the information imbalance.
2. Equalizing this imbalance could happen in one of two ways:
(a) Government's access to information is reduced, so that they know as little about us as we know about them.
(b) Citizens' access to information is increased, so that we know as much about them as they know about us.
3.  It is unrealistic (and maybe even undesirable for other reasons) to reduce the information available to government and/or other players on the world stage.

The best strategy, then, on my analysis, seemed to flip the usual logic of arguments about privacy - i.e., that we must fight to make the government as ignorant of us as we are of them - proposing, instead, that we should have a "citizens' PRISM", some way of increasing our knowledge rather than restricting theirs.

But this is a ridiculous oversimplification. By its very nature, a government has abilities and resources for analyzing vast quantities of data which are not equally available to any individual citizen. If you handed me full access to Google's servers, I wouldn't have the first clue what to do with it. And even if I did, I don't have the computational resources to perform any robust analytics on the data. A very interesting issue: most of us simply don't realize, or have at best a hazy idea about, the serious difference between having data about an individual and having data about people on a massive scale. If you're a classic science fiction fan, think about Hari Seldon, and his explanation of psychohistory via his two axioms:
  • the population whose behaviour is modeled should be sufficiently large
  • the population should remain in ignorance of the results of the application of psychohistorical analyses
This presents a huge problem for my initial, naive conclusion: how can there be any serious parity, or equalizing, between the information (data + analysis) available to a government and that available to an individual? That is, how can we ever make 2(b) true?

At least, one might argue, we know that we have mechanisms which work toward 2(a) - reducing what government knows, relative to us. My next post will take a little tour through my own personal application of some of these mechanisms.