a MOOC on Open Educational Resources

I recently signed up to take a MOOC — Massively Open Online Course — from Open SUNY called “Locating, Creating, Licensing, and Utilizing Open Educational Resources“. This will be my first experience with a MOOC, and one I hope to document on this blog.

MOOCs seem to be the newest and most novel thing in higher education these days, and I (for one) am extremely interested to find out where this movement goes. I can start by experiencing one myself and seeing where that experience takes me.

At the very first glance, registering for this course was extremely simple. I gave them some basic information — not even as much as it takes to sign up for a free e-mail address — and logged in, and suddenly I had access to the course. You can even log in with Facebook if you want, although I chose not to.

The course promises to reward badges that can be tracked and used as credentials. The badge system (explained by Mozilla) is intended to be a sort of digital CV, where your learning and development activities online can be tracked in a Badge Backpack. (This is a more elegant solution to documenting one’s digital training and learning experiences than, say, printing out certificates of completion.) Badges are awarded by institutions (e.g. SUNY) or people with particular power, and badges are intended to be a sort of visual showcase of your abilities. I heard about this type of system at a couple of conferences recently (most notably Meaningful Play 2012), where the reaction to it was mixed. (Hopefully more on that in a future blog post!)

If you want to read more about Open SUNY’s course, I recommend my colleague Bill’s post here. (Bill’s blog is brand new and will be of interest to technologically-minded linguistics types, so definitely check it out!)

Stay tuned for more on my experiences with the MOOC, and a few more content posts than I’ve been making lately. 😉


writing into being

I read a phrase in an article today, cited to Sunden cited to boyd 2007, that in digital networks, with the absence of a body, users are required to “write themselves into being”. I’m not sure of the applicability of this in avatar-based worlds, where one can “be” with just an avatar (even if it’s kind of weird if you never interact), but in non-avatar settings, absolutely.

Whether it’s commenting on YouTube videos, blogging, authoring fanfiction, tweeting, or any other of the infinite ways to write online, most of our expression of “self” involves writing. I think about this primarily in relation to fandom – by writing essays, reviews, fiction, guides, or whatever, a fan creates their presence online in the assemblage of other fans.

We do this in academia too, though. In fact, graduate school is arguably about writing ourselves into being. I’m writing my dissertation now so that I have a manuscript out there in the world that begins the definition of who I am in the academic world. (I am lucky in that I have a few other published pieces already out there that have preceded my dissertation, so I’m already on the way of writing myself into existence.)

Is this an outdated model? We always hear “publish or perish”, but we do other things as academics – we record lectures, we have interviews, we create Powerpoints and Prezis, we display posters. We are not just writing ourselves into being, we are teaching, we are designing, we are creating – we are a multimodal society of scholars. I heard a story from Professor Sara Kajder, one of my dissertation committee members, about a graduate student that submitted a YouTube video of his journey learning to dance as one of his writing samples. She reported that many members of the admissions committee did not know what to do with such a submission – they recognized its value but weren’t sure if it counted as writing.

It’s the same thing in fandom. If you are a fanartist, surely you are part of fandom, but that community existed separately from the writing community for a long time. (Interestingly, many challenges in fan communities now pair up a fanartist with a fanauthor, connecting the two in interesting ways.) Many fans make videos of their subjects, or manipulate image stills from movies or games into attractive desktop wallpapers or user icons. Fandom is an assemblage of all of these people who all contribute to the fan culture by “existing” through different mediums – by posting their fanart, fanartists are creating their presence in an online community.

Hopefully, academia is following more and more in the footsteps of fandom in this way. I have a feeling that the new generation of academics (following many members of the current generation, too!) is going to be much more inclined to embrace this multimodal existence, and include things like video biographies as samples of work.

style, bartering, and Auction Hunters

One of the students from my Cross-Cultural communication class sent me this link. First: I’m always happy/impressed when a student sends me something related to a class she or he has taken… after the class has ended. It makes me happy that they’re still thinking about the class!

This link and the series that it’s part of would have been great to use in that class. Americans like to use a lot of words and silence in conversation indicates something bad — usually. The other articles in the series point to similar conclusions: Americans like to talk a lot, they like to use numbers, they hate silence, and they are generally well-prepared for negotiations but aren’t very good at being flexible.

This got me thinking about the reality television show Auction Hunters, which I watched recently late at night while visiting my family. If you’ve never watched Auction Hunters, it’s not all that exciting – it’s basically two guys who rummage through abandoned storage spaces looking for valuables. Typically, the show features both auction settings (where Americans tend to excel) and bartering settings (where Americans are stereotypically awful). The auctions feature an auctioneer talking quickly and bidders making small motions to place bids. The auction settings seemed very natural in the show, if hectic, and the two hosts seemed pretty comfortable with setting a maximum price they would pay for things and having a strategy for approaching the auction. Conversely, I thought all of the bartering sequences in the show seemed stilted, or scripted. It could be that they’re re-enacting something for the cameras, or that the presence of the camera makes people nervous, but perhaps the American business conversational style figures into it.

Auctions – lots of talking, lots of words, fast speech, strategy.
Bartering – negotiating, being flexible, considering offers.

With auctions, we anticipate a regular progression of events that follow a script in a particular style. We can research and develop strategies. However, with bartering, there are general expectations for how the interaction will go, but much is dependent on the people involved, their motives, and their conversational styles. Perhaps the stilted nature of the bartering sequences I saw on the show were a manifestation of conversational footing as the participants attempted to negotiate each other’s styles.

things I have learned from teaching six-week courses

1. Students don’t want to work twice as hard to get their class done twice as fast.
1a. In fact, students want to work half as hard, because it’s a summer class, and those are supposed to be easy, right?

2. If it’s a discussion-based class, force the students into discussion mode early. Nobody wants to sit there for three and a half hours of excruciating pauses and tortured discussion topics. I accomplished this by having a freewriting exercise on the first day of class, as well as small group discussions to get folks acquainted with each other. Then, when it came time to discuss as a class, I sat there and stared at them until someone raised their hand. It takes a lot of discipline for an instructor to just stare at the students, but I had to make it clear that their participation was crucial. It worked – we had a fine discussion environment for the entire term.
2a. One of the most effective things I did in this year’s class was ask the students to analyze their personal experiences. This works particularly well for a class like Cross-Cultural Communication (the one I taught this year), and it allows students the opportunity to self-examine. In such a short course, the students don’t necessarily have time or energy (or desire) to do a lot of reading or outside observation, and there definitely isn’t enough time for data collection or paper writing. I had many times when I would give the students two or three minutes to think about their own experiences, with prompts like “Can you think of a time when you had a strong feeling that you were an outsider? What cued you to your outsider status? How did it affect your behavior and language?” This self-analysis is a useful skill for everyone to have, and also allowed them a chance to apply course concepts to make sense of their own experience. This is a good tactic to use in longer courses too, but it worked particularly well this time around.

3. You will have too much to grade at all times. Having assignments online makes it a hundred times easier, because you’re not lugging around three reams of printed assignments in addition to having to grade them.
3a. However, having to lug around the actual physical papers may be an incentive to actually do your grading instead of putting it off.

4. Don’t assign your students to read a book or novel-type reading unless you absolutely have to.

5. Segment the class. My 3.5 hour class was divided into two sections this year; last year, I divided it into three. I felt that two sections worked much better for a discussion-type class, because we could really get a good discussion going before changing gears after a break. Plus, with two sections, the students don’t mentally checkout during the last hour.

6. Vary in-class learning activities. Among the things I had my students do: freewriting, group writing activities, print media analysis, small group discussions, small group expert-style discussions (each group gets a special topic), blog entry discussions, critical reading exercises, ethnography-style interviews of other classmates, and even a silly skit. Don’t just alternate between group discussion and lecture and class discussion. Throw a few curveballs in.

7. Nobody will ever come to your office hours. It’s probably best to just not have them at all.

Livemocha mini-tour

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been using Livemocha to learn basic French. I’m pretty pleased with it so far, especially since it’s free , and so I decided to do a little mini-tour of the basic language lesson setup for my readers.

Livemocha is basically a language-learning social networking style site. You take free courses (they have paid ones too) in your language, and you can review submissions by other users who are learning your native language. You can add friends, chat, send messages, share pictures, and create flashcard sets to share with others. There is also a games component, although that’s largely a non-free aspect of the site.

Click the cut to get a virtual tour, with pictures!

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the haiku

So the other day, I saw a guy walking down the street in a shirt that said:
Haikus are easy.
But sometimes they don’t make sense.
(Here’s the shirt.)

This admittedly amazing shirt has made me think of the role of the haiku in our culture. Theoretically, the haiku is a form of poetry native to Japan, used to juxtapose two different ideas in seventeen morae. The haiku has been appropriated by American culture (and possibly others), the morae requirement changed to syllables, and the subjects veer toward the silly. Among my acquaintances, haikus are frequently used to demonstrate a type of linguistic cleverness made by saying something ridiculous in a limited number of syllables. (Hm, that sounds something like Twitter…)

One of the haikus I will always remember is the one my former roommate JT came up with one day while we were in his car on the way somewhere.

Cold, sterile pickles
Do taste like shit in your mouth.
Please don’t eat them, man.

A Google search for “silly haiku” nets thousands of results, including the Haiku-o-Matic, which is great fun, and includes such treasures as:
Mario running
Jumps upon the flower pipe
watch him fall and die!

It seems to me that the haiku is one of the most well-known forms of poetry. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t rely on rhyming (which is a tired subject to many would-be poets), or stress structure which can be difficult for some people to hear. All you have to do for a haiku is count.

As a linguist, I find the haiku a useful illustration for my students in figuring out what a “syllable” is, and what the variation in perceptions of syllable structure are. One question I’ve asked my students in the past is — if you make a haiku, and it has the word “squirrel” in it, or “fire”, how many syllables do those words count for? Arguments usually ensue, but their answer eventually is, invariably, “however many syllables I need it to fill”.

I wonder – is my perception of the haiku common to everybody, or just to those in my area (the eastern midwest)? Is this as productive of a form as I think it is?

final exams and kittens

I recently finished grading my final exams. Sometimes I have really great answers — and by “great”, I mean “hilarious”.

Not so much this term. The exams fell into a pretty normal curve, with the answer ranging from “paid attention in class, did the readings, and is articulate” to “clearly didn’t pay attention in class and remembers hearing this word once but can’t really define it in any clear way”.

The one memorably funny answer I got was from the question “Why do middle-class women tend to speak with a more standard variety than middle-class men?”

The answer was:

I don’t remember the answer to this, but I reallllllly love kittens. 😀

I can’t lie, I was tempted to award a point just for the student paying attention in class enough to know the instructor’s proclivity for adorable baby animals.