Mountebank Blog

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

The Producers

We gave all our incoming freshmen Flip Cams this past fall. These are very small digital camcorders. They are small enough to be carried all the time, ridiculously easy to use (no cables, and basic software is already installed right on the camera itself, and using AA batteries), and the video quality is […]

This is what it’s about

When we talk about open publishing, open creating, students having the tools to be their own media sources, not just consumers, this is what it means. Lights? Cameras? Nah. I’ll just do it on my phone!

Eportfolio Rollout and Tech Day

Discarded MacBook BoxesYesterday, in a very exhausting but exciting Macaulay Orientation Technology Day, we hosted all 363 of our incoming freshmen for lunch, workshops, and of course the eagerly-awaited laptop distribution! This year we also gave the students laptop sleeves for the first time, which resulted in some of them (as you can see from the photo!) discarding the boxes their shiny new laptops came in just as soon as they left they Graduate Center. But we did give them more than that–things which (we hope) they won’t discard as eagerly.

Poll Everywhere resultsOn the tech side, I got to try a (very impromptu, but successful) first public attempt at using Poll Everywhere. Very fun, and I may post more about that another time. (Why use “clickers” when all the students already have cellphones?) The Tech Fellows also gave some very well-received workshops–introducing Leopard and the Mac, showing the students (most of whom were not experienced with Macs at all, even if they enjoyed my joke about the tattoo on their knees) what these new machines could do. Photobooth, as always, was a big hit, except for the students whose cameras didn’t work (it seems most of those cameras revived later. Not sure what happened there.)

Eportfolio LoginBut the most interesting, and risky, part came with the rollout of the Macaulay Eportfolios to all these incoming freshmen. I admit I was a bit worried that the whole WPMU installation was going to fall apart when it got hit by so many people all trying to create eportfolios at the same time. And in fact there were some glitches, especially at the peak (which seemed to come right around 430 PM in the 3-5 PM workshop session). When that happened, some people got “invalid authorization key” error messages–although those seemed to go away if they just tried again after a minute or two. The system also stopped sending me the automated notifications of new blogs being created for a while–it picked up again later in the evening, but there were a whole bunch–probably around 40-60, for which I never got a notification. Even worse, some of the eportfolios seem to have been created, but bogged down in a weird way so that they’re there, but with no CSS whatsoever–and no users, either. Those will ultimately be deleted, I suppose. But still, we got about 200 eportfolios created in the same two-hour period. Not a bad start.

Most of them are still in their default state, but a few students have already gone in on their own and done some updating–trailblazers! For us, now, follow-up is going to be key. Getting some attention to those trailblazers, doing some show and tell, getting some commenting and sharing going, and adding some students from the upper classes, too…all of that is going to be part of this year’s work. Or fun!

Macaulay Eportfolios

eporfolio site screenshotIt took me longer than I wanted, but I finally managed to get the Macaulay Eportfolio site up and running. I’m very pleased with the initial installation–this is using WordPress Multi-User as an eportfolio platform, something that more and more people are starting to do. It was a long process to decide what would be best for Macaulay students–and I know there are many possible solutions to this kind of question. But WPMU offered several advantages for our needs. After some email exchanges and a visit with Jim Groom, I felt that the advantages really made it worth a try.

Those advantages, in brief:

  • Free and open source. It’s always good to conserve resources, and it didn’t sit well with me to shell out many thousands for a product that we might not stay with for very long, and that would then, by virtue of the money we spent, also own us–or at least hold a lien.
  • Easy to use and maintain with a small staff–and no full-time programmers. WordPress has a huge and helpful community, and I and the Tech Fellows have extensive experience with using it, changing it, fixing it, and extending it.
  • Easily customized (templates) look and feel. WordPress has so many themes, with such a variety of looks. Most of the “regular” eportfolio systems go too far in one direction or another. Either they’re completely standardized with at most a little color change to express individuality, or they’re wide open and thus very difficult for students to navigate the process of customizing their appearance. WordPress themes, which give a range of different attractive options, easily switched or re-switched, or even altered (or created from scratch) by more advanced students, seemed like a perfect compromise
  • A cabinet of curiosities/museum. This was kind of the controlling metaphor I wanted for the eportfolios, and WordPress really lends itself to that. For a while I was stuck on the repository idea (the box in the basement metaphor). I was really considering that the eportfolio system had to be a full-service system, with the area for “dumping” all the artifacts or content integrated with the system for reflecting on and presenting that content. But Jim Groom (in one of those should-have-been-obvious brilliant recommendations) unstuck me from that. The repositories are out there, easily available, and it’s just not necessary (or even really advisable) for me to focus on providing them. With YouTube, flickr, Google Docs, voicethread, odeo, etc., why bother to focus so much on providing that “box”? As a cabinet of curiosities, or as a museum, it’s possible to just pull all the content and rearrange it, to walk around or to sit with it, to show it to others in a guided tour, or to have private rooms, or members-only displays. The metaphor’s not perfect, but it got me moving in the right direction, and I integrated it into the site description.
  • Easy to organize and reorganize. This one may need a little work with WordPress, but the idea is that the categories become the organizing tool. Like tagging, the categories can be post-facto, rather than predetermined, and there can be multiple (or adjustable) categories for any item. That’s key I want integrative learning–seeing relationships between and among different learning activities, to be built-in to the eportfolio.
  • Reflection and interaction central. Once the repository is separate from the system, the posts become reflection and consideration…and even better, they also provide the interactive element through comments. If an eportfolio lives and grows, and encourages collaboration and development…well, that’s what it’s there for. And rare.

Those are the basics (apart from the ones I’m forgetting), and it remains to be seen how it all works out when (probably in the fall) students really start using the system.

One of the best things we have here at Macaulay is the Tech Fellows–so however it all begins to roll out, I’ve got them for support, and ideas, and development, too.

More updates as this develops!

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.

CUNY IT Conference 2007

This year’s CUNY IT Conference was a good one for me–although different than it’s been in the past. I got to see people from my various communities in CUNY, including some I don’t see so often anymore. As time goes by and my CUNY role broadens, so do those communities–so it’s even more fun, like a reunion, to see and greet them all. I was still recovering from a bad cold, so I had to be careful about hugging and handshaking (and forgot about that more often than I should have–apologies to anyone I infected!).

I also was pleasantly surprised and honored to receive (as a member of the Consortial Faculty of the CUNY Online Baccalaureate) a Mike Ribaudo Award for Technological Innovation. A beautiful certificate, and (it’s rumored) a Zune are my reward–but the recognition was worth a lot more.

And I moderated two very successful panels with the Macaulay Honors College Instructional Technology Fellows. That was another difference for me–instead of presenting on my own, I was a convener and moderator–letting the ITF’s do the real presenting. And their presentations were fantastic. I’m so happy and impressed to be able to work with such a brilliant group of colleagues. Their work with the students, their willingness to try new things, to think about pedagogy, to learn new technologies from scratch…I can’t take credit for any of that, but I sure do enjoy seeing the benefits.

Of course the conference also had its drawbacks–as it always has. Because it tries to meld the two kinds of “I” in “IT” (“Information” vs. “Instruction”…but more specifically, it’s administration vs. teaching/learning) into one conference, there’s a division of audience, and a division of types of panel, that doesn’t always quite work. (Jim Groom has an excellent blog post on this subject) Presentations about telephone systems or ID card scanners make a totally separate “track” from presentations about using wikis for interdisciplinary seminars–and the limited space and time of a one-day conference makes it so that there is only room on the program for a few presentations all together–somebody is always going to get left out. And that means that it’s just impossible to get to see everything you want to see. (This was even worse for me, because with two panels of my own, I just couldn’t make it to some of the panels I really wanted to attend–for example, Jim, Mikhail Gershovich, and Matt Gold’s presentation, as well as Howard Wach’s).

I know how hard the conference committee works to balance these two directions in putting the program together, and I think they usually do manage to maintain a fairly even balance. Last year I tried to do a numerical count, and it was just about dead even. But it could be that these two directions just don’t belong in the same conference.

Yet on the other hand, maybe there’s really something to be said for getting these two areas, the people in these two different roles, to talk to each other. That doesn’t happen at this conference very often, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. Or at least I like to hope not.

My own role these days is an attempt to bridge those two directions–or actually to reinvision the traditional hierarchy between them. At Macaulay we’re making a real effort to put teaching and learning first and foremost–to make the administrative/IT side totally answerable to, and totally in the service of, teaching and learning. And maybe there’s part of an answer there. Traditionally it’s the administrative side that has held the reins. They have had the money, they have had the decision-making power and the institutional influence. And all too often their priorities and interests have been very different from the teaching and learning side’s. And all too often their attitude toward the teaching and learning side has not been positive (and that goes both ways, possibly).

I’ve written before about how I think that has to change–and now that I’m in a position where I’m really actively trying to change it, I think that just flat reversing it, putting the reins in the hands of the other side, will not take care of the problems all on its own. I do think that the ultimate authority, the ultimate influence, really does have to be on the teaching and learning side, but I also think there has to be more room for conversation, communication, and mutual respect than there has generally been. If that is possible.

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.

Why not? An iPhone Review

antique telephoneIt’s not like there aren’t enough iPhone reviews out there, but this is mine! If you don’t want to read my whole review, here’s the bottom line.

I love it. It’s great. Some flaws, but nothing that can’t be corrected, and even with the flaws, it’s totally, totally worth every penny.

Now–my background. I’m moving to the iPhone from the Treo 650. I owned the Treo for almost three years, and I liked it very much. Bought it new for full price (which was only a little less at the time than the iPhone is now), and used it every day. I am not one of the high-powered productivity fiends who are the biggest Blackberry customers. I don’t depend on the phone or instant email for critical business. I also used my iPod every day, for music and podcasts.

So–the iPhone. Let’s take the categories of the functions it offers.

The Phone. First of all, it’s a cellphone. It’s a great phone. I don’t care about voice dialing, had it on the Treo and never used it even once–never even set it up. I do have a bluetooth headset (just got it a couple of weeks ago) for when I’m driving, and it paired immediately with the iPhone, no trouble at all. The sound quality for listening and talking on the iPhone is terrific. Much better than I’m used to, and that’s the case when using it held up to my head, using the speakerphone, using the bluetooth headset, or using the builtin mike in the iPhone earphones (that was a surprise feature! More about that later).

People have complained about ATT reception and service areas, and that has been no problem for me whatsoever. In fact, with the Treo, I had Sprint, and that was much worse–in my own house, I got almost no reception at all. With ATT, I get great reception everywhere so far.

The controls (dialing, hold, conference calling) and the contacts (especially the picture caller ID) are just perfect–efficient, easy to use, even attractive (and more about that later). You can’t add custom ringtones, a fact that people complain about, but that doesn’t really bother me. I almost always keep it on silent and vibrate anyway. The vibrate might be a little weaker than it was on the Treo. It would be fun to use my own mp3 (I used to use the bosun’s whistle sound from Star Trek) for a ringtone, and if they make that possible later it would be good, but it’s far from essential.

It does get a little warm when you hold it to your ear on a long call–like any cellphone.

The Internet The browser is great. The screen (and this is a feature that helps everything on the iPhone), is the brightest, clearest, most beautiful screen I’ve ever seen. It’s absolutely gorgeous, including in bright sunlight. Having the pages display as real websites, not a WAP-crippled version, really helps. I can even read the small text sometimes without zooming in, and when I need to zoom, it’s quick and easy and intuitive. The browser is super fast on wifi, and even though people complain about Edge, even on Edge it’s much faster than what I was used to from the Sprint Treo. Flash support would be a very good addition–that’s the biggest lack, but from what I hear, it’s coming soon–maybe by the fall.

The Keyboard The lack of a period key on the main keyboard is a little bit of a drag (although I learned that it is a drag–if you drag your finger from the “123” key to period, you don’t have to really leave the main keyboard), and it’s taking some getting used to for me to appreciate the auto-correct function, but after even just about half an hour of using it, I could see that it’s going to be way better than the Treo. I wouldn’t want to type long extended things on it (this post is typed on my computer, not the iPhone), but that’s the case for any portable device. For small emails or text messages, or for URL’s, it’s going to be faster and easier than the other keyboards, I’m sure.

I don’t mind the lack of touch feedback. The visual feedback is good, and there’s sound if you want it turned on. I never was able to type on the Treo without looking anyway–and I don’t think people do that on the Blackberry (I may be wrong). Another thing that seems to get ignored is that mechanical, physical keyboards tend to break or get clogged up with gunk. On the Treo, the “H” key was reluctant to register for quite some time–overuse and dirt, I’m sure. That will never be a problem with the iPhone keyboard.

Email I’ve used it with gmail and with POP access to another (work) server. It’s totally fine. The engadget review mentioned a delay in moving from one message to another or in deleting messages. I notice no such thing. It’s almost instantaneous. Unfortunately, there is no bulk email deletion–you do have to go one at a time–and that’s a drawback. Also, in Gmail, because of the way Gmail structures “conversations” you get a copy in your inbox of every message you send. Too bad, but it’s not an iPhone problem, it’s a Gmail problem.

Of course there’s no push (other than Yahoo). You can set it to auto-check at different intervals (every 15 minutes is the most frequent), but I’m not doing that. If you really get hundreds of emails a day, you’re probably better off with a Blackberry. But that’s not me.

Here, too, the screen and the appearance help a lot. If you get html email, the colors and fonts show right up. If you have picture attachments, they show up, too. The way things slide on and off the screen, or into the garbage can when you delete them–the animations–are fantastic.

iPod The sound quality is great. The navigation in cover flow, and the album art (again, the beautiful screen), it’s all beautiful. The included headphones have a (very tiny) little microphone/button built in to the cord–and that allows you to pause, resume, or go to the next song without taking the iPhone out of your pocket. It also automatically pauses the music and lets you answer a phone call, just by clicking it, and then resume the music after the call. You don’t have to put the phone to your ear–just click and talk.

There is one big bug right now. You can not browse the web and listen to the iPod at the same time. Well, you can–but it will constantly crash (not a major crash–it just stops playing the music) every few minutes. I’m hoping they’ll fix that soon. I don’t want to browse and listen to music all the time, but it is one of the promised features, and I do want to be able to do it, when the opportunity arises. It’s been widely reported, so I’m sure Apple’s aware of it. It’s clearly a bug, and whatever it takes, it needs to be fixed.

I’ve read the complaints about not being able to use third-party headphones without an adapter. To some extent that’s true. However there are a few things to mention about that–one is that the iPod headphones that are included seem to be better sound quality than included headphones used to be with iPods, and the little clickable microphone thing on the cord is a big, big benefit. So third-party headphones might not be so necessary. The other thing is that the jack is actually a standard jack, it’s just recessed (maybe to protect the jack from twisting or pulling of the cord?), so most third-party headphones, because of the rubber sleeve around the jack, won’t fit. But–what I did with the cord for my car’s cassette adapter and my Sony headphones is very easy. If you take an Xacto knife and shave away some of that rubber, you don’t need any adapter, or anything. Your headphones will work just fine. It’s a little ugly, and messes up your headphones’ appearance (not much, but a little), and I can see that if you had a super-expensive pair you might not want to do that, but it works fine for me. In fact, I’m planning to do even more surgery, I think, and graft the Sony earbuds onto the iPhone cord, so I can have the comfortable earbuds with better sound, and still use the clickable microphone thing.

Other Features The camera is great–much better than the Treo (however, it is a cellphone, not a digital camera). No video, but maybe someday, and again, you can use a real camera if you want video. The Google maps feature is amazing–clear, sharp, and (in wifi) very fast–satellite view looks fantastic.

The YouTube is fun–and I’m seeing great teaching and learning possibilities there. It’s easy to upload videos (student-created or instructor-created) to YouTube, and students can then watch them on a portable device, in the field, in a museum, on a walking tour, at the library…and those videos can be screen captures, slideshows, maps, logic puzzles–there are lots of possibilities. Even better, one thing that the iPhone has that iPods don’t, is a speaker–not a great speaker, but decent. So YouTube videos, or video or audio on the iPod function, can be shared. That’s a great benefit-students can share content with each other, working collaboratively, with a little portable device.

I think it’s likely, too, that there are more features to come–the thing is basically a very small computer, with a phone, that can be carried around. It’s approaching the ideal tricorder. It doesn’t have all the sensors yet, although the proximity sensor that it uses to sense a nearby face and turn off the screen might have some interesting possibilities, like the sensors that determine the orientation and automatically flip the screen to landscape or portrait mode. I’m also interested in the camera as a sensor–reading bar codes? facial recognition? character recognition? It’s not the highest resolution ever, but I think the use of what is actually a visual sensor for teaching and learning (in a mobile environment–outside the classroom) deserves more thought.

The Notes function is lame. It doesn’t sync with anything.

The Calendar is excellent–mostly (again) because of the screen and interface. It syncs great with iCal, but unfortunately just puts all your calendars into one–doesn’t keep them separate if you have separate calendars for, say, work and home. So that’s a flaw.

The SMS is good (but no automatic smilies 🙁 )–and if you really want chat, there is Meebo, the Weather is fine, the Clock and Calculator are fine (the Clock has some good functions, the Calculator is very standard–neither one is anything to get excited about, but who really gets excited about clocks or calculators? Not me).

I don’t have any use for Stocks, and haven’t even looked at it. I’d eliminate it if I could. Couldn’t care less.

Syncing is really quick and easy–and you can disconnect in the middle with no problem. Another feature that I haven’t seen anyone mention is that you can sync to different computers for different things. I have my music library on a PC, so I sync to that for the iPod function, and my contacts and calendar on a Mac (that syncs to Google Calendar), so the iPhone can sync to that machine for those functions–it’s not tied to one single computer for syncing.

Overall I can’t say enough for the look and feel. INTERFACE MATTERS. That’s the big lesson of all Apple products, and the look and feel here are really revolutionary. It’s just so much better than any other similar product that there really aren’t any similar products. The animations and interactions are not just eye-candy. They help make the device more usable, they play into our intuitive senses of how things work and what we’re doing. And the screen is just so great to look at!

The flaws are not serious…and the fact that Apple can fix them (and will they? I think so–hope so), transparently, automatically, when you sync, which you’re going to do anyway!

The very biggest flaw (aside from the crashing when browsing and listening to music, which is clearly a bug that needs to be fixed), is that there is no way to read ebooks. I may be one of the very few people in the world who actually likes to read whole books on the portable device, but I read many of them (dozens) on my Treo, and with the great screen on the iPhone, it would be so, so much better. Apple has to come up with something for this. ITunes can already handle pdf’s, so I’m hopeful. But this is the only really serious drawback for me–reading on the subway one-handed, without having to take a paper book out of my bag, had become a very pleasant routine for me.

Again, bottom line, this device is great. And no, I didn’t wait in line at all. I walked into the Apple store (with my wife and kid) at a mall in New Jersey just off the highway on my way home from vacation, bought two iPhones, and walked out. No shortage, no struggle. And the activation on iTunes took all of 10 minutes–for two iPhones–once I got home.

There are more features and more things for me to discover–and I probably forgot to mention some things here–but that’s the general response.

Call me fanboy if you like! I can’t protest!

An Excellent Blackboard Tool

bFreeIt’s not often that “excellent” and “Blackboard” can go in the same sentence, but the University of North Carolina has released a (free, Creative Commons Licensed) tool that helps to add some excellence to Blackboard–or at least take away some of the anti-excellence. bFree quickly and neatly grabs the content from an exported Blackboard course–one of those zip archives that are hard to deal with in any way except importing them back into Blackboard or tediously going through all the weirdly named files to find your content. It doesn’t (yet) export discussion forums–but for most of the main sections it works perfectly. It preserves the file and folder structures, and lets you export to either a collection of files neatly arranged in their folders, or even to a website.

Considering Tenure

Catherine Stimpson had a piece at Inside Higher Ed yesterday about the 2006 report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for and Promotion. The first thing that struck me was a statistic.

The MLA report estimates that of every 100 English and foreign language doctoral recipients, 60 will be hired to tenure-track positions within 5 years. Of them, 38 will be considered for tenure at the institution where they were hired. Of them, 34 will be awarded tenure.

So that makes me one of those 34 out of 38 out of 60 out of 100. Unless I’m figuring the odds wrong (quite possible), that’s actually a bigger number than I would have expected. I’m glad to be tenured, of course, but it turns out that it really doesn’t feel (to me at least) as completely a relief as everybody said. I still think about my career, where it’s going, I still have ambitions and new ideas, and I don’t seem to feel like I’ve totally “made it” or finished.

Stimpson (and the MLA) make another important point, too.

Moreover, because of those new communications technologies, much scholarly inquiry is now being done digitally. Some of the most important work about and in digitalized scholarship is appearing from university presses, an invaluable resource that the task force correctly praises and for which it seeks more institutional resources. Yet many departments are clueless, all thumbs in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase, in doing evaluations of digital scholarship that respect peer review. Of the departments in doctorate-granting institutions that responded to the MLA’s survey, 40.8 percent report no experience evaluating refereed articles in electronic format, and 65.7 percent have no experience evaluating monographs in electronic format.

Now, this (deplorable) situation doesn’t really match with my experience, at least not recently. At my own institution, electronic publications were evaluated, were accepted, and did play a part in the decision to grant me tenure and (later) promotion. So that’s a good thing. But it’s also a relatively new thing, and this is something where most departments absolutely need to get on board. Electronic formats, electronic publication, holds the promise of the most exciting new venues for scholarship and publication–because the work can get out there farther, and faster, for more interaction, criticism and comment, than more “traditional” venues can every achieve.

And there’s another area, too, where I think most departments and administrations are “all thumbs,” inexperienced, missing the boat. Scholarship of teaching and learning (which my institution does value) is neglected too often, at too many places. I’ve heard too many stories of faculty who do this kind of work having to really struggle to get the work recognized and accepted in tenure and promotion decisions. I’m glad the MLA is urging more attention to electronic publications…and I’d like to see them urging more attention to SoTL, too.