Mountebank Blog

"There is nothing so impossible in nature, but mountebanks will undertake; nothing so incredible, but they will affirm."


Adam Savage at the 2012 San Francisco Maker Fair explains with some brilliance how art is part of STEM (art is where it all begins), and how learning works best when it comes through “making what you can’t not make.”

This is just an excerpt from the end of the talk, the part most relevant to teaching and learning. The entire talk is well worth a listen.

On Being a Wizard

There are many things to like about Gandalf, but one of the best is that he is a wizard not because he is some kind of magical creature, not because some other wizard bit him, but because he learned to be a wizard. When he has a serious question, what does he do? He goes to the library!

(First animated gif I made from “scratch,” too).


Apples and Oranges and Lectures and Learning

photo by Dano recently read (unfortunately, I can’t find the reference, or where I read it–it was in print, not online, believe it or not–so this will have to stand as anecdotal) about a study at a school using lecture capture technology. The study compared students’ use of recorded lectures (made available on the web) in two different classes (same academic subject, covering the same content). In one course, the professor lectured through the whole class period, with almost no opportunities for interaction (he took questions at the end) or any activity by students except for listening and note-taking. In the second course, the professor lectured for only brief periods, asking students to step forward and present at various points in the class or to repeat questions that they had sent to him in emails, and integrating discussions and questions throughout the class.

Both classes were recorded–audio and video–and made available to students afterwards. In both cases, standard, simple, lecture capture (a fixed camera, a microphone on the professor and an omni-directional microphone in the room) tools were used.

When the recordings were made available, it turned out that students accessed and viewed the second class–the one that included interaction and active participation from students–even though much of that interaction was not well-captured in the videos. They reported in interviews that they found the class itself to be interesting and engaging, and wanted to review what the professor had said–they felt (does this seem paradoxical?) that they were so interested in class that they might have missed something.

The first class, the captured straight lecture, was not one that students accessed or viewed at all. A few students viewed the page, but interviews afterwards showed that they did not bother to watch more than the first few minutes of the recording. It wasn’t something that they felt was useful either in reviewing for studying, or for understanding the material.

And beyond that, students reported that, because the full lecture was available online, they didn’t feel they needed to bother to attend class–and attendance did, in fact, dip significantly after the first few sessions. So not only were they not using the captured lectures, they were less likely to even attend the actual, in-person lectures. That didn’t happen in the more interactive class–students there continued to attend–felt that they would miss something important if they didn’t, even though the recordings were available.

I’ve been thinking about this, because it reinforces something I’ve always noticed myself, but also because there are some surprises there. I’ve always had big reservations about lecture capture (which unfortunately, too often, is the only model used when thinking about podcasting in higher ed, and even more unfortunately, when thinking about what administrators call “distance learning”). It seems to me that a good lecture (and they do exist, and they are a good thing) is very much a live performance–and it depends to a large extent on that context of live performance for its effectiveness. A recording can have some value–but it’s not a transparent representation. It’s a re-presentation. So it’s taking the performance out of its native medium, plopping it into another, different medium. It loses all the advantages of the original (live, face-to-face) medium, and it gains none of the advantages of the new (online, asynchronous) medium. (The term “lecture capture” is a significant one. It captures the lecture–nails it down, cages it)

This is why, to me, an “online class” (or “distance learning”) is at its least effective, its least interesting, when it’s a series of recorded lectures–unless (which is very rare) those lectures are specifically and intentionally produced for the new medium–then they’re mini-films. An online class should be designed for the online medium–to take advantage of the affordances (hyper-links, multimedia, asynchronicity, threaded discussion, etc., etc) of that medium.

But that study made me think more of an “apples and oranges” question. While confirming my own experience that straight capturing of a straight lecture is pretty much a waste of time and technology (and may even decrease student learning–that was a bit of a surprise to me), that study also indicates that a “lecture” is not always exactly a lecture. When I think of comparing two classes, or two captures, I want to remember to also think of comparing apples to apples.

People often talk about how online classes are necessarily inferior to face-to-face classes, but they say this with built-in assumptions. They compare a terrible online class with an excellent face-to-face class. Similarly, I think that study indicated that it’s not just the fact of the recording that is important–it’s what has been recorded. A good class is still valuable as a recording (contrary to my own automatic assumption). It’s the quality of the class, not the recording, that makes students want to return to it, to think about it, to come back for more.

Faculty development (even with all its varieties and all its difficulties) should always focus on the goal of making classes better–which is always a matter of making students more active, more engaged. Then everything will be apples. And it’s good to remember that sometimes the fact that a class is interesting, is engaging, actually means that students don’t get all they can out of the class–they want to, and need to, return to it again. So in those cases, the recording just might be a useful thing for them.

School 2.0 Will Not Be in School

We’ve been talking throughout the semester in the Core II class in the ITP program about the idea of “School 2.0″ (which I’ve also explored as “the University of the Future“). It wasn’t really an intended theme of the course, but we do seem to keep coming back to it.
And at a meeting […]

More on the University of the Future

At BuzzMachine, Jeff Jarvis has a post on “GoogleU”–and it’s a theme that Will Richardson has picked up before and returns to again.

And of course it’s an idea I discussed (in SF terms) some time ago.

I think the idea is growing–the idea of open education, or distributed university, whatever you want to call it–where learning is by choice, and engagement is the motivation. I know it’s growing and discussion of it is growing in the edublogging community, but I’m also thinking about what students are thinking about it–or if they’re just doing it.

As many have mentioned, at least in our current system, credentialing is the big issue. But I’m thinking (and seeing) that students are perfectly able to separate what they must do for credentials (grades, enrollment and registration, degrees), from what they want to do (and will do) for their own learning (travel, social networking, wikipedia-ing, discussion forums, gaming, and working).

And a big part of the idea of the University of the Future is that we no longer will have such strictly-defined categories as “student” or “teacher.” When classes or learning can be for anyone, from anyone, then the person who is learning at the moment is the person who is teaching at another (or at the same) moment. And that person (or those persons) might be any age–any level of experience–not just anywhere or anytime in space or time in the world, but anywhere or anytime in their own life-space and life-time.

So “where are the students” or “what do the students think” becomes more of a limiting question than an opening question.

Know How to Ask

In the course I’m co-teaching in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Interactive Technology and Pedagogy program we’ve been talking about some of the skills and tools that students need to know and use in the media universe. We discussed (it was a digression, as I remember) how access to information sometimes can be a curse as well as a blessing, if students don’t have the appropriate questioning, critical, and researching skills.

And then serendipitously I was reading Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings (I read the first part long ago, when it was a Hugo-winning novella, and only recently discovered that Silverberg had added another whole section to expand it into a full novel.)

In Silverberg’s imagined post-lapsarian world, some kind of pickled human brains take the place of networked computers…but there’s still that same problem:

Any citizen has the right to go to a public thinking cap and requisition an information from the Rememberers on any given subject. Nothing is concealed. But the Rememberers volunteer no aid; you must know how to ask, which means you must know what to ask. Item by item you must seek your facts. It is useful for those who must know, say, the long-term patterns of climate in Agupt, or the symptoms of the crystallization disease, or the limitations in the charter of one of the guilds; but it is no help at all to the man who wishes knowledge of the larger questions. One would need to requisition a thousand informations merely to make a beginning. The expense would be great; few would bother.

For larger questions, neither the Rememberers nor the internet can be of much help…at least not without the real skills, almost enough to be a Rememberer, or more than a Rememberer, yourself.

The University of the Future

Red LightningJust finished John Varley’s excellent new novel Red Lightning, and one passage really deserved quoting. The narrator is a seventeen-year-old (maybe eighteen at the point of this passage), just graduating from Burroughs High School on Mars.

His description of his plan for his college education is a near-perfect match to what my favorite art historian has been saying in several posts.

As usual in SF, Varley is commenting more on what’s going on now, then what will be going on then, and the approving nature of that comment made me want to quote the whole passage, even though it’s a long one:

Blame it on the web, like so much else. These days you could attend classes virtually. The universities resisted it, but eventually they were confronted by a de facto situtation, and gave in. You no longer have to go to Boston to attend Harvard. If you know enough to log on to online classes you can become a web freshman. No entrance exam necessary. Hooray for equality!

Of course, there’s equal, and then there’s equal.

And there’s practical, and there’s impractical. There’s nothing to prevent you from attending an advanced seminar at the Sorbonne, everything but some highly select honors courses is webcast these days. That doesn’t mean you will understand what they’re talking about. so all but a few supergeniuses start out in the traditional way, with Physics 101 or Introduction to African History, and work their way up. When you think about it, it’s good for everybody. The geniuses can proceed at their own pace, and they can do it from Manhattan or the rudest sheet-metal hut in Calcutta. People who never had a chance to see so much as a blackboard in the past are now able to get an Ivy League education, if they’re up to it. Excellence can now actually select itself in academia, at least until the point where you actually arrive on campus and are faced with prejudice and politics and academic bullshit. Or so I’ve read, in researching the pluses and minuses of web school. Mostly pluses, to my way of thinking, the big one being that I could stay on Mars for a few more years, at least, just like that boy or girl in Calcutta doesn’t have to figure out how to pay for transportation to and lodging in Paris.

But eventually, the different levels of equality come into play. You can get a degree from Stanford and never leave your igloo in Nome, but it’s not quite the same kind of degree you’d get if you lived in the ivy-covered dorms. The sheepskin itself will look identical, but simply by googling the student you can find out if her or she actually attended in the flesh. So, people being what they are, an Attending Degree, or AD, was more prestigious than a Web Degree, or WD.

But there’s a remedy for that, and so far as I can tell it adds up to what Mom calls “that rarest of human institutions: a meritocracy.”

You can start out as I plan to, attending classes via the web. You get graded like everybody else. Then, if you look like Hah-vahd material–that is, if you are smarter than some of the legacy admissions already there–you will be invited to attend in corpore. Doesn’t matter if you’re our boy from Calcutta, or a girl from Chad, or some poor child who actually lives in Boston but never had a chance to attend a good school.

As for picking a school, there’s another alternative these days, and it’s what I’m leaning toward.

Don’t pick.

If I’m going to be on Mars anyway, what do I care about singing “The Whiffenpoof Song” with a lot of drunken Elis? I’d never make the rowing team to bring glory to dear old Cambridge. I don’t give a hoot about either American football or real football. Other than reasons like that I don’t see the point of identifying myself with any particular school. In this academic strategy, you simply attend the classes that appeal to you. On Monday morning you can be in a class in Johannesburg, follow it up with a seminar in California, and that afternoon attend lectures in Japan and Buenos Aires.

If a certain professor turns out to be boring or incompetent, just stop going. Professors hate this, they call it the Neilsen Rating system of education. It’s mostly the ones whose web attendance is low who complain, though.

You can cobble together your own educational strategy, chart your own path, design your own specialty, if you wish. You may not even want to pursue a degree, you may just want to learn sutff and go from there.

That’s really what we’re seeing the beginning stages of right now. Varley seems to be implying a little more synchronous contact in these classes than I think is going to be ideal or common. But he’s not quite explicit about that, and thinking further, he is talking about distance learning from a pretty huge distance (Mars), and the speed-of-light limitation alone would have to require that the courses be asynchronous. Generally, though, he’s got the right picture, and the plausible extension of it that he provides could be a roadmap, or at least a guidepost, for the directions we’re heading. Not utopian directions (especially not in the novel as a whole), but positive ones, generally, nonetheless.

It’s a very fun book, even beyond this one (sort of a throwaway) prognostication, with some great gadgets, well-developed colonial society, gripping post-tsunami landscapes, evil post-nationalist governments, plenty of 9/11 references, and much more. The fact that it’s narrated by a teenage boy makes comparisons to Heinlein’s juveniles unavoidable. Varley gets compared to Heinlein plenty–he has a similar libertarian strain (some very strong Second Amendment rhetoric in this one), and a similar tendency to sneak in lectures without letting them bog down the plot or detract from the likable and eminently competent characters. Like Heinlein’s juveniles, this one would work very well for teenage readers (and I don’t think the sex and drug use should change that at all–although Heinlein’s editors, but not Heinlein, would probably disagree with me on that). And it also works very well for this adult reader.

Red Lightning is a sequel to Red Thunder, and it really made me want to go back and re-read that one. Unfortunately, I can’t find my copy! Looks like I may be placing another order with the SFBC soon.