Friday, March 30, 2007

Stop cyberbullingly

Today has been designated "Stop Cyberbullying Day." The events that were revealed on Monday regarding Kathy Sierra prompted such a day, but of course, bullying, online or offline, is nothing new. Nancy White has an excellent post about online bullying and what it means for those of us who participate extensively in online communities. I, myself, have never been the victim of cyberbullying, nor the perpetrator. I've been insulted before, called stupid or other such names and sure, that stings, but it certainly doesn't feel threatening. I have actually always tried to keep my discourse civil, both here and on other blogs or forums I've commented on. I admit to feeling uncomfortable about blogs that use threatening language about prominent figures--bloggers, politicians, journalists. Even though some people might say that "it comes with the territory," I believe that such language, even when it is a somewhat abstracted expression of anger at a public figure, contributes to a culture that tolerates that kind of language aimed at people we know or believe we know.

I've been online for over 15 years now, and certainly it's true that some people feel emboldened to say things they would never say in person in an online forum. That is both a blessing and a curse of the online space. It is a blessing when it allows someone who doesn't have a forum for expressing themselves or who is otherwise constrained in physical space to share their views and opinions and to connect with others. It is a curse when it allows opportunities for the people who may or may not be bullies in the physical space to express their hatred and to intimidate others. I'm not sure there's any way to educate the true bullies among us, but we can certainly educate those who have not yet crossed that line. We can, when people comment on our blogs in ways that begin to seem irrationally cruel, ask them to reframe their comment in a more civil way and point out how someone might see their language as hurtful. We can teach our kids what is and isn't acceptable for speech in online spaces. We can teach our kids, just as we do in the physical world, how to defuse bullies online.

What disturbed me most about the Kathy Sierra incident was the way it was, to some extent, embedded within the web and technology industry. Robert Scoble commented on this aspect of the incident:

It’s this culture of attacking women that has especially got to stop. I really don’t care if you attack me. I take those attacks in stride. But, whenever I post a video of a female technologist there invariably are snide remarks about body parts and other things that simply wouldn’t happen if the interviewee were a man.

It makes me realize just how ascerbic this industry and culture are toward women. This just makes me ill.

I have often removed myself from the conversation on sites that border on being misogynistic. Reading Slashdot comments, for example, sometimes makes me ill. I have written before about misogyny in the tech world. The attacks on Sierra are an extreme example, but I can tell you that many women experience much more subtle "attacks" as they move through the tech world. Women often perceive that their ideas are not listened to, that they're not welcome in certain forums, that the men who dominate the tech culture are generally not interested in seeing things from their point of view. An event like the one this week represents the underbelly of the culture that we sometimes feel is always just beneath the surface of the smaller slights. I think there are plenty of men who are trying to combat this undercurrent of misogyny, but it's somewhat of an uphill battle, it seems. And removing myself from certain forums doesn't help (and I'm sure I'm not the only one). So perhaps, in keeping with what I said above about education, I (and other women) should engage those groups and try to do a little educating and try to raise the discourse a little.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Bullets of links

I've been keeping some links around for a rainy day. Here, in no particular order, are some of them, and the reason I kept them in the first place.

That's all for now.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Teetering on the edge

I'm not sure what I'm on the edge of, but I don't think it's good. I'm a bit overwhelmed at the moment, honestly not sure if I'll get everything done. Partly that's my own fault. I've reclaimed my weekends a bit. I used to work many hours on my dissertation, but now that there's just a wee bit left to do, I've been procrastinating and just kind of poking at it like a dead rat. I'm hoping to finish this week as I literally only have 3 things I want to revise.

I found this site completely apropos (via PSoTD and Slate)

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Kathy Sierra Receives Death Threats

I am deeply disturbed by this whole incident, which I just read about here. Kathy's commentary about the whole incident, which she posted on her blog today is even more disturbing. It's sad, too, that the threats kept her from participating in a conference that has been heavily criticized for having some serious gender imbalance. I just really don't know what else to say.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Creating sexpots

That title's probably going to get me some icky Google searches, but oh, well. I'm referring to the idea that moms (in addition to media and marketing) might play some role in oversexualizing their daugters, according to Judith Warner (Times Select, free for academics). I was going to do a great analysis, incorporating ideas from this post and this post. I find myself agreeing mostly with the first post and finding the second one a little too one-sided, but they both have points, and I'm too tired to elaborate, so instead, I'm going to tell a story.

I will preface this story by saying that I feel pretty lucky in the body department. I'm small, fairly well-proportioned and, until very recently, have stayed thin without really trying. I've pretty much always looked pretty good, I guess. But I really didn't think I looked good and still struggle with feeling like it's okay to not have the thin body or the smooth skin I had at 18.

When I was younger, this struggle was even harder. And I blame a lot of my body issues through my teenage and young adult years on my mother (who, in turn, had been influenced by society's determinations about what it meant to be attractive). When I went off to middle school, or somewhere thereabouts, my mother began harping on me about my appearance. She made fun of the fact that my hair hung in my eyes. She criticized my posture and the way my feet turned in. In fact, she insisted on buying me "hard shoes" through 6th grade. Still, she 'd show me fashions out of magazines and talk about how cute I might look in some of the outfits. She wanted me to get a subscription to Seventeen (I think I did.) In 7th grade, she told me I should start wearing makeup. All my other friends were begging their mothers to let them wear makeup and my mom was taking me to the Clinique counter for makeovers. In 7th grade, I had braces, glasses, and a very bad perm. People called me "Fido." My mom took me to a specialty petite clothing store and bought me all these preppy clothes. They looked okay, but I got teased for being "a little rich girl." I wanted to wear jeans and t-shirts and Nikes. My mom wanted me to look like I'd stepped out of Cosmo.

In high school, things got a little better as I started to separate from her and explore styles and hair and makeup on my own. But in college, when I decided to abandon style altogether, opting one year for a t-shirt and jeans uniform and another year for an all-black look, she started in again. And she and my father both commented on the weight I gained during my sophomore year.

The message I got was that I wasn't attractive and needed to be "cleaned up." With clothes. With makeup. With new hairstyles. But none of those worked that well because I couldn't just be me. I was always trying to look like someone else--mostly at my mother's insistence. And my father wasn't a whole lot better. He stayed out of it most of the time, but even he harped on hair in my eyes or the "saddle bags" I was carrying.

My point in the story is that mothers and fathers can and do have an effect on the way children feel about their bodies. I'm not in favor of putting undue burden on them, or making them feel overly guilty and worry about everything they say. But there are parents, even today, whom I've seen focused on their children's looks. I've seen women like the ones described in Warner's piece, and I've heard women comment on appearance, talking about how fat some people are or how skinny someone else is. But they're only part of the problem. The bigger problem is the one pointed out in the original study, and by Jill, that marketers still show women as eye candy and show women in sexualized ways that many women can't help but view themselves against these standards, can't help but think about and talk about how they and others measure up.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Email success followed by failure

I spent over 2 hours this evening finally getting my inbox down to less than 50 messages. Everything that's in there now are things I'll be addressing in the next couple of days. I also went though my folders and purged messages (and whole folders!) that I no longer need. As I was purging an ancient Trash folder, however, email choked and I got an error message when I tried to check my mail. So, I put in a help request. At least I was done, and if I don't get email for a while, that'll be okay. Because look at the schedule:



On the left is today's schedule (Wednesday's) and on the right is tomorrow's schedule. Friday looks slightly better.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Random bullets of GTD

  • I still have 344 emails. Going through the 100 emails generated probably 30 tasks or so.
  • I have 12 projects. Only two of these have an end. The others are ongoing, e.g. faculty development and Blackboard support.
  • I should probably add Blogging as a project. I know there are projects I'm leaving off. Maybe I just haven't decided that they're projects. It just occurred to me that each research item I have should not be lumped into the Writing/Research category. They should be their own projects.
  • Reading and research. Much of the reading and research I do isn't for a specific writing project. I just do it to keep current. I also like to blog what I read, either here or on the professional blog. I have journals to read as well as RSS feeds. I tend to del.icio.us things I'm interested in, but don't have time to read or write about. I need a way to ensure that I find time to do this. Maybe scanning my del.icio.us account on a regular basis? Setting aside time to blog?
  • Related to this, I also need to test new tools and software. Where's the time to play with Second Life or Twitter or 3D modeling tools so that I can a) figure out effective ways to use them in education and b) be able to help people use those tools? So, I need to set aside time to do this as well.
  • I'm using Remember the Milk to keep track of my to-do list, mainly because there is a Google Home Page widget for it. I've been using Google's personalize home page for a while now. Very convenient.
  • Okay, back to the 344 emails.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Reassessing GTD

Before this weekend of sloth, I had been assessing my work flow (or lack thereof). Every once in a while, I'd find myself thinking "I need a better way to do this." What I'm finding problematic is keeping up with the little tasks that come across my desk and fitting those into the big picture. I have several projects going on--about 5 or 6--and then there are the day to day phone calls, email, and random walk-ins. Currently, I have over 400 (pushing 450) emails in my inbox. It would probably take a couple of hours to go through all of that and I just haven't had a block of time like that in about two weeks. And what do I do when an idea strikes me in the middle of a meeting or on the way home in the car or in the shower? In other words, I don't have a good collection system yet. I start to get anxious that something's going to fall through the cracks.

Today looked like I would have time to sort through everything, but I ended up embroiled in a bit of a crisis. It wasn't really a crisis, but in a typical scenario for academic tech support, the people involved felt like it was a crisis. And, honestly, I really wanted them to feel like it wasn't a crisis. I'm just trying to find a way to feel like I'm on top of everything. The GTD system seems like the right thing for me. I just need to adjust my habits a little. I'm headed over to 43 Folders to get some inspiration.

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Sloth

That's the best word to describe the weekend. I hardly left the couch. Given that Friday was both my birthday and the day of a giant ice storm, really there was no need to leave the house. Mr. Geeky went out for provisions (including a birthday cake) and we all hunkered down for a long winter's (?!) night. We did venture to the mall the next day so that I could buy some clothes. In typical Geeky family fashion, my birthday presents were Geeky: a recorder and an FM tuner for my iPod. The rest of the weekend, I played The Sims, something I haven't done in a long time. Unfortunately, the husband kept losing his job, the kid wouldn't do her homework, and eventually the kid was taken away by DHS. Might have had something to do with her seeing her mom making out with another man in the grocery store. (Hey, ultimate satisfaction depended on her keeping up 3 different love affairs, not easy with a hubby and kid in tow).

It feels good to clear your head like that and not do anything remotely cerebral. I have a tendency in my off time to read important stuff and do work. (Or do housework, which didn't happen this weekend either.) So now Monday's here and it's back to the cerebral.

Friday, March 16, 2007

It's my birthday, so I get to be queen

LLA* from Bad Fortune Cookie sent me a lovely tiara for my birthday. I have no idea if I'm wearing it correctly--not being a beauty queen in real life, but for what it's worth, here I am. The card that came with it was funny. It had two little girls with purses on the front and it said "and in their purses were candy bars. How happy were they?" It reminded me of when we were in high school and we'd go driving in the snow. We'd always make sure we had provisions in case we got stuck. The provisions were usually hershey bars.

I'm hanging out by myself right now. My kids and hubby are out shopping for me. Yay! It's actually sleeting here and the kids got out from school early. I took the day off--for my birthday--but then they sent everyone home at noon anyway. Crazy! I think it's going to be a low-key day. Just with a tiara.



*For those of you who don't know, we went to elementary school and high school together, but not middle school.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Women and Technology, Again

In my little corner of the blogosphere, we haven't had this conversation in a while. You know, the "where are the women" conversation. Partly that's because many of the blogs I read are by women, and the men I read seem to be pretty much aware that there are women bloggers out there and that they're pretty darn good. Maybe it's because we have Bitch, Ph.D in our corner. I don't know.

But in the tech world, especially the web development world, the issue of gender diversity has once again raised its head. I first saw mention of this at Kimberly's blog, and followed many of her links to fill myself in. I guess the firestorm started with Jason Kottke's post listing the specific gender breakdown of many of the most high profile tech conferences. Then Eric Meyer claimed he didn't care about diversity, which prompted a couple of responses from Anil Dash. Go read them yourself and then come back here. Substitute computer science, physics, chemistry conferences (or programs, for that matter), and the arguments are the same. "Women aren't really interested. I can't find any women speakers. I'm appealing to my audience, which is 95% male (hmm, wonder why)." The fact that they use the same arguments regardless of the field is a huge red flag. It says, we don't want to look at ourselves and figure out why we can't see past our biases; we want to lay the blame elsewhere. They refuse to examine the real issues behind why there aren't more women in these roles.

I'm not an industry person. I'd say I classify myself more as a student of technology rather than a creator of that technology. Therefore, I'm not likely to be called on as a participant in those conferences. However, I'm certainly involved in supporting the future women of tech. As is Mr. Geeky (probably to a much larger degree). And we both regularly see bias in the work we do. Mr. Geeky has taken teams of women to programming competitions, robot competitions, conferences. There have been far too many times when his team were the only women there. It's 2007, people. This should not be happening. But you know, when the guys treat you like a secretary instead of a future computer scientist, you kind of lose your taste for the field. Read Female CS Gradstudent or See Jane Compute. Plenty of examples of men acting stupid.

Even in 2007 women, actually girls, are still often not encouraged to pursue anything really technical. It starts very early. I was talking to some high school teachers at an all girls' school who were lamenting that none of their students took the CS courses offered at the boys' school next door. I'm thinking it's because they don't want to be the only girl in the room. It takes a lot of guts to participate in that kind of environment and if you haven't been playing around with computers or programming before this point, it's easy to be intimidated.

To put this whole thing in a framework I am often using, the phenomenon follows many of the principles of emergence. We have a system that follows pretty simple rules: pick people we already know, who are already famous. Changing the system requires changing the rules. But there's a tendency toward staying the same. There's a tendency to connect to the people who are already connected. We have to try to go against the those tendencies. And that's going to take some serious effort.

I'm getting tired but I have a little more to say about self-selection and some other related issues.

Hold this spot

For a post on women and technology. It's on the brain. Feel free to add your questions and comments, etc. and I'll address them.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Viacom suing YouTube

Hold onto your hats. Ironically, there's no mention of the DMCA in the suit. YouTube already took down thousands of "unauthorized" videos. There's an excellent discussion of the suit here. There's some speculation that the suit has been brought simply because YouTube has been so successful. It's by no means the only video sharing site out there with unauthorized material.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Site feed

Several of you had mentioned having trouble viewing my feed when I went to the new blogger. I've had a feedburner feed for a long time. Now, I'm officially switching over. It'd be great if everyone could subscribe to that feed by clicking the link in the sidebar or below.

Subscribe in a reader

I need to get out more

Doing my project 365 has been more challenging than I thought. Often, I get to the end of a day and realize I haven't taken a single picture. When I think back over the day, I don't think of great photo opportunities I've missed. Partly that's because I tend to go to work, sit at my desk all day (broken up by a few meetings), and go home. I don't do very different things each day. I don't pass by different things. Since the weather has been kind of yucky until recently, I haven't gotten out much on the weekends either. I'm hoping that once the weather improves I'll do more and see some different sights. Right now, I feel like the most boring person on earth.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Congress on RIAA's side?

I wasn't going to write about this anymore, but I can't help myself. Yesterday, the Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property held a hearing on the issue of downloading on college campuses. Congressman Howard Berman suggests that colleges aren't really doing enough to combat piracy. He claims colleges are hypocrites, saying:
Perhaps the most ironic issue is that many universities expect others to respect and protect their IP rights to scholarly works and inventions, but seem to disregard or close their eyes to the theft of the creative works of others. (via Ars Technica)
This is so far from the truth as to be laughable. I floated a question about how other schools were handling this situation to an email list of other IT managers. I got lots of responses outlining various strategies. Everyone is taking this seriously. Though we may serve as ISPs for our students, we don't have the same resources as those ISPs. For example, most ISPs keep log files for 180 days, something we don't do for space reasons. Now, though, we'll be rethinking that.

In addition to having to rethink some of our practices, it was suggested that colleges and universities apply filtering software to our networks. We already do a lot of monitoring of our network. What they're talking about is purchasing a commercial product. In some places, such a purchase may not cause an undue burden, but in places (like ours) where we're already stretched pretty thin, this could be a real problem.

As our attorney said, what we really want to do is get back to what we're here for: educating students. All of this is a big distraction.

Let me point out, for the record, that two of the key Congressmen advocating for these stricter measures are democrats. If any of your representatives are on this list, you might consider writing them.

Friday, March 09, 2007

March is Boycott the RIAA Month

Ironically, after my last post, I started doing some searching to see what else was going on with this recent RIAA crackdown and I found out that Gizmodo has declared a boycott. They did not suggest the boycott in order to increase downloads or condone illegal downloads, but to point out that you can buy music from non RIAA labels (at eMusic, for example) or go see a show or buy band merchandise, all of which puts more money in the artists' pockets instead of the RIAA's. I did my part by joining eMusic. Check out all the posts at Gizmodo on the RIAA boycott--very informative.

In a separate, but related find, that might interest the politically-minded among you, was Open Congress. I'm following the fair use bill and the new dopa bill. Who knew one day I'd use RSS to track Congress.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

RIAA vs. Colleges

The RIAA is increasing its efforts to stop downloading on college campuses. Their new strategy involves sending out settlement letters to students. The letters, presumably, will be more threatening than the current takedown notices they send out regularly. I happen to be our campus DMCA agent. I'm the one who receives those takedown notices and who forwards them to the students. I had read the article referenced above, but because we receive so few notices in the first place (about 1/month), I figured we probably didn't have anything to worry about. Monday morning, however, I received a notice that one of these letters would be sent soon. The language was indeed more threatening and the word "subpoena" appeared in the letter. So we traipsed off to the lawyer's office to discuss strategy.

I'm not thrilled to be the DMCA agent. I know downloading is illegal. I don't condone it. But I believe that it is (maybe just was) a reaction to an industry that didn't keep up with the capabilities of new technology. Even though the industry does now provide legal ways to download music, movies, and tv shows, there's still the DRM issue. Many people, myself included, have issues with DRM. For some, that means they find legal ways to obtain DRM-free music. Others resort to downloading.

Even though I will do my job as the DMCA agent, I was still feeling a little creepy about the whole thing. The new strategy felt a little more draconian, and I didn't want to become more draconian in response. Kenneth Green articulates a possible reason for my discomfort. College students may be unfairly targeted. Why isn't the RIAA going after more individuals in homes? Or better yet, people who make pirate copies of CDs and DVDs? In fact, Green says, the strategies offered by the RIAA to combat illegal downloading smack of extortion (one option is to provide access to legal music downloading). Green says that when asked about why the RIAA was focusing on colleges instead of ISPs, they said "the consumer broadband providers view litigation as a cost of doing business, while, in contrast, the RIAA knows that colleges and universities, when presented with the threat of litigation, will 'jump.'" In other words, we may be low-hanging fruit for them.

At some point, I think the RIAA is going to have to figure out ways to allow people to buy music legally and to share it legally, not via these P2P programs, but in similar ways that we always have--the digital version of mixtapes. DRM sometimes makes this difficult. Maybe I'm being idealistic, but maybe if they stop treating their consumers as criminals, they'll stop acting like criminals. A little mutual respect might go a long way.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

More about fishing

Steve over at Pedablogy continues the conversation about how much faculty should or shouldn't learn about the technology they use in their teaching. He mostly agrees with me (I'll get to the disagreements in a moment). One point he makes bears unpacking a bit:
On the other hand, I’m not an IT professional and it doesn’t make sense for me to try to become one. As an economist, it’s not my comparative advantage. So where do you draw the line?
Steve recognizes that what I and others on the IT side do is a professional activity. It's something we work at, that we study, that we sometimes have advanced degrees in, etc. Just as I will never become a professional economist, I wouldn't expect Steve to become an IT professional. All I ask is for some mutual respect. I will respect the faculty member's knowledge of their content area and I hope they will respect my expertise in technology and its application to teaching. I sometimes think this equation gets messed up. I am expected to have respect for the faculty member because they have a Ph.D. and tenure while I do not receive the same respect in return. This is a subtle thing. It's not always an upstairs/downstairs explicit kind of snobbery, but it's there sometimes. I'll concede that maybe this is my issue, but I've been in enough conversations with enough IT people to know that there's a grain of truth to this.

Where, indeed, does one draw the line? As Gardner says in the comments, we don't want to be treated as "a drop-off shop for faculty who wanted someone else to do all the techie stuff and hand them a turn-key finished product." The reason we don't want to be like Kinko's is that it feels kind of degrading (not to knock those who work at Kinko's) re: what I just said above. We may not know much about chemistry, but we know good ways to help people learn chemistry. And we'd like the opportunity to talk about what we know rather than just be told what to do with an image or a video. My favorite question is, "What do you think?"

On the other hand, I totally understand that a lot of these things are very time-consuming and not always the easiest things to learn. Today, I had someone stop by to work on some video. I've worked with this person before, doing a little teaching and little fishing. The last video I processed ran into problems and it took me basically all day to troubleshoot what the problem was and get it into an appropriate format. Before that, s/he had been sitting with me, watching what I was doing. When the person showed up today and I was 10 minutes away from going to a meeting, I wanted to do the work myself rather than going through being watched and running into problems again. On another hand, with a little planning, we probably could have done something more compelling than simply processing these videos ad hoc. It could have been more than just the photocopy version of multimedia. That's where my professional skills could have really helped. Like many faculty I work with, this person hadn't planned ahead.

Steve says we shouldn't expect faculty to learn something new without our support, and I totally agree with that. I think I need to really understand how difficult it is sometimes for faculty to learn these things and that they're sometimes uncomfortable with the messiness of technology. I think we need to work together on an individual basis to figure out what's the best approach for each individual faculty member. At the same time, I think we can set some policies and procedures that can create some acceptable expectations. My biggest fear is that we'll offer to do some tasks for faculty and we'll be so overwhelmed we can't keep up. Then no one benefits.

I still think it's important for faculty to at least have an appreciation of how what they're using works and how it can benefit them and their students. Too often, I think faculty don't know what's possible even with the tools they're already using. Partly that's something I need to educate them about, but it's hard to get their attention. I just keep trying.

Update: Tim articulates what I know is going on in faculty member's heads all the time. Heck, it goes on in my head sometimes. There's a lot there. Go read.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Practicality vs Socal Responsibility

A while back, I wrote something about whether it really mattered if I recycled or took public transportation or voted a certain way. My question was, does it really make a difference? And if it seems like it doesn't make a difference, and if, from a practical standpoint, it's onerous for me to recycle/ride the bus/whatever, then maybe I shouldn't do said thing (or at least I shouldn't worry about it). Readers said (and I wish I could find the post) that small things can make a big difference and that I should keep recycling/walking/doing small good things because I do have an effect and besides, it's the right thing to do.

In a meeting today, this very tension between the practicality (or more correctly, perhaps, the easiness) of doing something and the social responsibility of doing something different came into play. One might think that in my line of work, this doesn't happen very often. Education is an admirable pursuit, after all. But, there are still people involved and it's still in some ways a business and so, conflicts arise. The question at hand was whether students and faculty would consider using a different tool if they found out that the company that makes the tool were doing something they found to be socially or morally irresponsible. Interestingly, most of the students and faculty said they'd rather not change, that changing depended on what the company was doing. Semi-unethical business practices were okay, but using child labor was not. For them, there was a pretty high threshold before they'd be convinced that change was necessary. Change for them was more problematic than a company's business practices.

In my mind, they were being practical. Changing their practices would be time-consuming. They might have to learn how to use something new, and it might not be easy to learn. They may, in fact, lose some functionality (even if they gain new functionality). They were used to this tool, even if it wasn't perfect. This is the tension that occurs all the time in lots of ways for many people. For me, it's the reliance on a car and having a car that doesn't get the greatest gas mileage. It would be really difficult for me to change that. I'd have to move or buy a hybrid car or extend my commute to triple the time by taking the bus. All of those options are difficult from a practical standpoint, for financial or other reasons. But . . . if using less gas became a huge important issue for me, then I'd probably find a way to make one of those options work. For the faculty and students, it's the reliance on software that they are comfortable with and that "everyone else uses."

In my ideal educational software environment, we'd use only open source software. (And let's forget for the moment that I'm not using open source software right this second. I could. I just didn't.) Why? Because I think education is too important a venture to leave up to corporations who don't understand anything about education. Let's use Microsoft products for a moment. They were created for an office environment. Yeah, we use Word and Excel in the education environment, too. But do you think developers are sitting around thinking about how to make those products better for their educational users? Um, no. Not that Open Office is either, but someone could make something. Maybe someone could develop a tool that helps students learn how to do citations correctly as they're typing papers. The thing is, it's open! You could do it if you wanted to.

I think of an academic environment as a place where ideas are shared, not where they're sequestered away. I think of it as a place where people work together in order to learn. A college or university provides opportunities for those both physically and virtually. The software we use should espouse those principles and should make it easier (not harder) for students to collaborate, for faculty to work with each other and their students, for everyone to share resources, to communicate, and to learn. I don't want to see education as yet another market to be leveraged. Surely, we rise above capitalism a little even if we can't escape it entirely.

In the 80s, when I was in college, we protested in order to get the college to divest from South Africa. Shouldn't we consider all our purchases as carefully as we might consider our investments? Maybe this isn't a big enough issue to protest over, but certainly, it's worth having a debate. For myself, I know I could be convinced that I should make the gas issue more important, important enough for me to change. And changing software is a lot easier than moving.

Bonus points if you have any idea what software I might be talking about here (and then I'll put it in the label).

Friday, March 02, 2007

Happy Birthday Mr. Geeky

I don't know if this will get posted in time since my blog is blocked. Totally annoying!

But, today is Mr. Geeky's Birthday. Unfortunately, he's out of town today doing robotics stuff in the same city as jo(e). But he'll be back tomorrow and we can celebrate then. As he said the other day when we were discussing our ages (my birthday is in two weeks), "I don't like the direction is going." Indeed, but at least we're going in the same direction.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Fishing vs. Teaching to Fish

In technology support, we often talk about fishing for people, doing it for them, vs. teaching people to fish, teaching them how to fish. On the staff side of things, it almost always makes more sense for us to teach. Most of the time, the things that staff are doing with technology are things they need to know in order to do their job. So they need to understand how to do these tasks or they can't function very well.

Faculty are more problematic. How much technology is it reasonable for them to know how to use without much help? Certain things might seem obvious--email, for example. However, I know people who don't know how to use email. In fact, I just heard a story about someone who has their secretary type in their email for them. Is this acceptable? I'm leaning towards no. Word processing, too, might seem obvious. Again, I've helped people use some pretty basic features of word processing. And I wonder if the email person also has someone typing up their articles and books. Of course, such tasks used to be commonplace for secretaries, but now they're almost always handled by faculty themselves.

It's the more complex tasks that become an issue. Using course management systems is something I think most people, if they're going to use such systems, should know how to do quite well. Most of the features in CMS's are pretty straightforward. It amazes me how many people ask semester after semester, how to do the basics. They seem to have no sense of understanding the underlying metaphor or rubric of the system in order to figure things out on their own. They're afraid to try. In these cases, I often send instructions or explain the process over the phone rather than do whatever the task is for the faculty member. In my mind, doing the task for them would be akin to my typing their email for them. The task isn't hugely onerous and in order to function effectively, I think they should know how to accomplish the task. But what about creating audio or video? These tasks have many more steps and often require special software and hardware in order to accomplish them. It's this area that I struggle with the most because processing audio and video is a time-consuming task. It's not like uploading a document to Blackboard. But I'd like it to be. Then I'd feel comfortable asking them to take on these tasks.

Recently, I've had several people ask to have some video clips digitized in order to upload in Blackboard or burn to a DVD for use in class. Generally, there are a few ways to approach this. One, someone could drop off the video, leave information about where the clips are to be captured from and we can take care of everything. Two, someone could come in and learn how to do the video processing and do it themselves. Or three, they come in with the intention of learning, but end up watching us do the work, and dictating everything. Scenario three is quite common. What often happens is that they realize that the task is pretty difficult and has multiple steps and many options. And so, they're overwhelmed. Ideally, we'd have a less overwhelming system, but such systems are often expensive. Processing video people is sometimes easier until it gets overwhelming for us. At some point, I fear we'd have more than we could handle.

Plus, I have this sense (maybe I'm wrong) that because we're talking about course content, that the process of putting the content together is part of the faculty member's responsibility. In the same way that someone in the comptroller's office needs to have mastered spreadsheets, a faculty member needs to know how to organize content, including multimedia content. To me, it's part of the process of putting a course together and there's something integral about this process to the way the class is organized.

In addition to that, I'd rather have a conversation about how all that content might be connected rather than continuously teaching people how to create or gather the content. But until the tools get easier to use, perhaps we'll be doing a little of both--fishing and teaching to fish.

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