Friday, March 16, 2012


After putting it off for a long time, finally got around to updating Blogger template. But it has meant losing all the comments on previous posts. So it looks like no one has ever commented on my blog, which isn't quite right.

The problem is that I had been using a third party comment system rather than Blogger's because Blogger's original comment system never worked properly (problem with being an early adopter); but then the third party commenting software only worked for some readers -- others emailed complaints that their comments didn't take, or that it inserted eleven copies of their comments, or etc. I could never figure out why it only affected some readers and not others. Browser differences? Window vs Mac? Never seemed consistant. And then the third party company was bought out by another company; and then Blogger updated their system, which seemed to make the third party code work sometimes and not others, depending on how they got to the post.... And well, at some point, it was just getting stupid. Hit the wall this week when March 12 post received 400 hits, but only one comment on what should have been fairly provocative topic. When I tried, even I couldn't get it to accept my comment, so clearly nothing was working. So finally updated my template and even though that meant losing third party code, and have reverted to new and much improved Blogger interface for comments.

Now if no one comments, it's because no one's reading the blog anymore. (Well, who blogs in the age of Facebook?)

Monday, March 12, 2012

TED: Lessons Worth Sharing

TED's latest initiative, Lessons Worth Sharing, proposes to take the best lectures by the best lecturers, and animate them. This is a pretty neat idea, as illustrated by the short video explaining the concept. I am grateful to Nicola Simmoms for bringing this initiative to the attention of the online forum for Society of Teaching and Learning In Higher Education, to which I subscribe. In subsequent discussion, another member of the forum made the comment, "I cannot fathom a down side".

I agree that it is hard not to love anything connected with TED. But, um: being a sociologist, I can pretty much find the latent dysfunction of anything….

The subtle catch with the implementation of the best lecture concept is that each "lesson" is restricted to be ten minutes or under. So we get the best teachers, animate their ten minute lecture and post it as an example of great teaching. This then becomes the gold standard of teaching, against which all of lecturers are now going to be judged by their students. But one cannot reduce teaching to 10 minutes of lecture.

Sound Bite Thinking

Some concepts take longer than 10 minutes to develop. The bulleted points of web pages and powerpoint presentations, or the trend towards fast-cutting video, have already eroded our students attention spans, and sapped their patience for sustained argument. But many subtle ideas require students to really think their way through complicated, even convoluted arguments. Bringing data to bear on a problem, for example, allowing students to shift through and understand that data, requires more than 10 minutes. If TED implies to students (and instructors) that ten minutes is the longest tolerable length for lecture, I'm not convinced that that approach is necessarily going to promote critical thinking or sustained engagement.

Entertainment vs Engagement

I love the idea of someone animating my lectures…though my particular subject matter (say, the construction of multiple-choice test questions) may not always lend itself to that medium. But the problem here is that animated lectures are entertaining and perpetuate the idea that learning always should always be fun and effortless. Just as Sesame Street taught a generation of children that learning is fun -- with the unfortunate corollary that school should be likewise always be fun, and that if one's teacher isn't as entertaining as Kermit the Frog, one should change the channel -- there is a danger that viewers will expect their own instructors to be as entertaining as a TED Video.

This is a wrong idea: lots of what we have to do to achieve our learning goals is not fun. Practicing scales on the piano, learning the times table, reading scholarly articles, are inherently tedious but nonetheless necessary tasks. Instructors who focus on entertaining their students may do well in course evaluations, but it is not clear that their courses contain any actual content.

I work hard to make my classes engaging, but that is a very different matter than being entertaining. I hope that my passion for my subject shows through, and that at least some of my students catch something of that same enthusiasm, even as they engage in those activities that include an element of drudgery.

This is not to suggest that one should turn off Sesame Street or block TED video: obviously, the Lessons Worth Sharing initiative is producing a marvelous resource of which we should all avail ourselves. What I am suggesting is that we need to be aware that this is a medium we should exploit but not necessarily attempt to emulate in our own classrooms. It is not necessary, or even desirable, that we all start breaking our lectures into ten minute segments or hire animators.

Whose Knowledge?
I'm sure TED talks will cover all the great ideas of science, etc. But what about the social sciences, humanities, and so on? The whole point of having local campuses (besides allowing students direct access to instructors), is that we may not all agree with, say, American supply-side economics. Whose vetting what goes on TED's channel? Who is in charge of social construction of what constitutes really cool knowledge? Is TED going to include the lunatic fringe? Only the Mainstream? Is Somoa or Alberta going to see their ideas reflected on TED, or only America content? (TED hasn't done a bad job in the past of bringing speakers from around the world, so perhaps this need not be an immediate concern...but what we're watching bears watching.)

Another problem with crowd sourcing lectures is that without the larger context of a program of studies, concepts are presented out of order, without important qualifications, and without the necessary links/connections being drawn for the audience. Again, the TED Lessons might be a fabulous supplementary resource for teachers around the world, and for individuals seeking clarification of particular concepts, but it is important to understand that this is not sufficient to serve as a stand alone replacement for schooling. I do not say that TED has ever claimed that it would be, only that others will invariably ask, "Why can't it all be like this" and contextualization is part of the answer.

Good teaching is more than lectures
Good teaching has to be more than lecturing. I'm good with having a large resource of fabulous 10 minute introductions to big ideas available to my classes…but that does rather imply that the classroom instructors will be left with doing all the boring bits with their students. Students will therefore be inclined to make invidious comparisons between the fabulous animated lectures available online, and the dreary classes they have to endure on campus....

TED: Lessons Worth Sharing

But, you know, just saying.

Mostly, the TED initiative looks pretty cool to me.