Monthly Archives: January 2007

Confessions of a Naïve Professor

Call me naïve.

I thought academia was about knowledge.

I thought academic research was about the quest for knowledge.

I thought academic publishing was about the dissemination of knowledge.

I thought academics cared about teaching.

I thought students cared about learning.

I thought lifelong-learning was more than a buzzphrase.

I thought ideas had value beyond finance.

I thought ideas could be challenged.

I thought ideas could surmount prestige differentials.

I thought knowledge could benefit all human beings equally.

I thought honesty was the best policy.

I thought respect was a matter of common sense.

I thought open-mindedness was a true ideal.

I thought wisdom could come from different sources.

I thought knowledge was more than information.

I thought communication was more than the transmission of information.

I thought.

Call me “naïve.” Please do.

But what would why should you call me “Professor?”[edited Feb 25, 2k7 13:04, typo] [edited Sep 5, 2k9 11:21, typo]


Legal Sense

Not only does it titillate my humour-friendly fibers but the encouraging letter allegedly sent by SecondLife.com to the creator of the Get a First Life parody displays what is, to me (IANAL), perfect legal sense.

Frivolous lawsuits and cease-and-desist letters are detrimental to the overall legal system involved in content creation (especially in the U.S. but also in other regions where the lobby groups such as WIPO are prominent). By showing that they apparently don’t intend to threaten a parody site, SecondLife’s lawyers show more than humour and common sense. They show an appreciation for the positive side of legality.

More power to us!


Quebs

A former student (also a French-speaking Quebecker) got me to use the term “Queb” to designate my Québécois brethren.

Learned through Radio-Canada’s Carnet Techno (a tech-oriented podcast) that the French-speaking side of Yahoo! Canada was now: Yahoo! Québec. FHQs («Francophones hors Québec» or “French-Speakers Outside Quebec”) have a right to feel slighted. Yet they’re probably used to it. After all, ever since the switch from nationalism to a self-determination movement (during the so-called “Quiet Revolution” of the 1970s) Quebeckers have left the “French-Canadian” label in favour of «Québécois» and equivalent terms.

On the other hand, on the part of Yahoo!, the move might make sense financially. After all, it’s not only because of laws that busineses in Quebec will adopt Québécois-savvy names: it also sells more.

Vive les Quebs!


Took a While

The latest episode of Télé-Québec’s Les Francs Tireurs had a segment on international humatarian aid. (Especially of the Euro-American CICR and Reporters sans frontières style.) Maybe there are more (I don’t to watch much television) but this one was the first television report which had a thoughtful and insightful discussion of the negative impacts of humanitarian aid.

Of course, several parts of the discussion were probably edited out (hosts on the show are sometimes explicit about the “need” for editing) and it did sound at times like discussions that most anthropology students have had at one point or another (usually pretty early on in their training) but it was quite refreshing, especially when compared to the usual news reports on how bad the situation is supposed to be anywhere else in the world (i.e., any place where people live a different lifestyle).

What’s funny is that the two main participants in the show were quite honest about the biases of Quebec society in terms of humanitarian aid. This is a society (my own upbringing) in which people pride themselves to be “open-minded” (often meaning “more open-minded that you“). Yet people take humanitarian aid as a sacred principle, not to be criticised. Some aid workers in Africa and elsewhere seem to think that their mission (the religious connotations were discussed on the television show) is to help Others become more like them. Pretty charitable when you see your own habits as the only appropriate way to live, but pretty damaging when you transform knowledgeable human beings into the object of pity.


IT and Classrooms

Two sections of the current episode of Télé-Québec’s Méchant Contraste! social issues television show are on information technology in classrooms:

Instead of a debate on whether or not technology literacy is important for young Quebeckers, the show presents articulate comments on the apparent lack of training in computer and information technologies in the Quebec educational system. Perhaps most interesting, the ideas revolve mostly around what should be done to help teachers adapt to new situations. Instead of “throwing money at the problem,” the idea here is to adopt a clear vision of what technology may do to help both students and teachers enhance learning and teaching strategies.

Of course, as a technology enthusiast, I’m specifically biased. But I do notice a disconnect between the “school administration” side of the equation (whether working in a high school or a university) and the learning/teaching community on the other side. IMHO, adopting technologies in the classroom isn’t a matter of dazzling students with technical proficiency. It’s about finding the most appropriate tools for the tasks that we set out to accomplish.

Perhaps a detail but one worth mentioning: schools still seem to give courses on specific software packages, as they did a number of years ago. Such a strategy is, IMHO, ill-advised because (as explained in this show) students are probably more adept than teachers with most of these tools. But, more importantly, what students should get is a way to connect tools with aspects of learning. Yup, the good ol’ “learning how to learn” idea, applied to a domain where the characteristics of the learning tools are less important than the principles of learning. In other words, training high school students to use Microsoft Office Powerpoint 2007 is much less efficient than helping students at any age understand the principles behind information processing and software-mediated presentations. Having fun with the software is a good way to go, with many students, but concepts and methods shouldn’t be tied to a specific piece of software.

Anyhoo…


Coffee’s Effects

A recent interview with Roger A. Clemens about coffee’s health benefits on the Science Talk podcast of the Scientific American magazine. The interview relates to a short column from the Food Technology journal:

IFT – January 2007, Volume 61, No. 1

To a coffee lover like me (I don’t resent the label “coffee geek“), these do sound like good news. In fact, one would think that with coffee’s long history, most of the health effects associated with the beverage have been considered and that the lack of conclusive evidence showing clear negative effects from coffee must somehow mean that coffee doesn’t have much negative effects.

As mentioned in the podcast interview, sweet milk-based coffee drinks are a different story.  Still, one might guess that only a small proportion of the coffee consumed by people observed for studies on coffee’s effects was “black coffee” (without milk and sugar). Furthermore, it doesn’t sound like the studies reviewed provided a clear distinction between different coffee-based drinks.

As conventional wisdom would have it, a straight shot of espresso made with selected arabica beans probably provides more health benefits than the sweet, milk-based, coffee beverages made with generic robusta beans generally consumed in different parts of the world.

Of course, someone will come along to provide evidence for the negative health effects of coffee. Looking forward to these.

All this to say that, even though these studies might go “my way,” I hope there’s more evidence given for the health effects of coffee.


Social Activism Reality TV

Would the Rebut Global shows count?

(In response to a Maine academic asking for a socially conscious “Reality TV” show…): Open Source » Blog Archive » The History of Utopia

Another of my blog entries on Quebec television and social activism…


Goût de café: Jacques Attali

Depuis ma lecture de son Bruits, Jacques Attali est entré dans la longue liste des gens avec qui j’aimerais prendre un café.

C’est pas tant que je sois d’accord avec ses idées ou même avec son approche. Il me sert pas non plus de modèle. Mais je trouve certaines de ses analyses très compatibles avec ma propre approche et j’aimerais bien pouvoir discuter avec lui, quelques minutes. D’autant plus qu’il me semble assez facile d’approche.

C’est sans doute trompeur, mais son attitude générale me semble rendre possible des contacts informels, au-delà des statuts. Cette attitude est, d’après moi, trop rare parmi certaines catégories d’intellectuels. Pourtant, la vie de l’esprit n’est pas vraiment une quête du prestige.


Whaddaday!

Started out the usual way, with emails and blogs. But then moved into very diverse and unique activities.

Went to a workshop on the game Guitar Hero, organised by GameCode and Ludiciné. Stimulating conversations on music, games, gender, sandboxes, playfulness, musicking, performance, competition, etc.

Then went on to the Ethnographic Film Festival. Was only able to watch a short excerpt of a short film from the Wapikoni Mobile project and a good part of a movie about food production in Europe (Malthus was wrong! 😉 ). Unfortunately, there were technical problems with the Wapikoni short, but it seemed fascinating. Glad to know there’s a Wapikoni Mobile podcast, but contrary to the Off-Courts podcast, it doesn’t include video content.

Then moved to a coffee jam at Caffè ArtJava. Had an excellent time and tasted some of the best espresso in my life. CAJ is set to participate in the growth of Montreal’s espresso scene.

From CAJ, went directly to Kola Note to pay tribute to Boubacar Diabaté‘s life and influence on Montreal’s (very dynamic, yet IMHO underrated) African music scene. Many of the players in that scene appeared on stage (in different bands) and the general ambiance was that of a strong community. Reminded me of the Francis Bebey tribute at Alizé, a few years ago, but last night’s event was more free-form, organic, cooperative… African. Got a chance to spend some time with fascinating people (like my good friends Guy Langué and David Mobio) who make Montreal’s African music community what it is.

Some seem to disagree on my observations but I feel this community is quite unique in that musicians cross any line to play and feel together. Appropriate tribute to Diabaté who was a «rassembleur» (bringing people together). In fact, Diabaté was the first person with whom I worked for my master’s degree research. Through this work, I eventually met with Madou Diarra who became more than a friend for me.


Boubacar Diabaté Tribute at Kola Note

Just found out that I’ll be playing tonight with Dakan.

Several members of Montreal’s African music scene are playing tonight in honour of the late Boubacar Diabaté, who has been an influential figure in this community. Cover charge is $15.

The show will start at 9 p.m. and Dakan should play after midnight.


Defending Quebec’s Cegep System

Disclaimer: So far, I’ve taught at six universities and one college in Indiana, Massachusetts, New Brunswick, and Quebec. In Quebec, I’ve taught at Montreal’s Université de Montréal (French-speaking) and Concordia University (English-speaking). This entry is mostly about my teaching experience in Montreal in contrast to my teaching experience in the MidWest and Northeast regions of the United States. Having spent some time in Mali, Switzerland, and France, I do realise that many education systems outside of Canada and the U.S. work pretty much like Quebec’s.

It’s partly my bias as a Québécois, I’m sure. Or it’s the weather. Yet I can’t help but being amazed at how well-prepared my students at both Concordia University and Université de Montréal have been, so far. Though personal characteristics could conceivably play a part, I usually see my Quebec students’ preparedness in relation to the Cegep system that we have here in Quebec.

“So,” I hear you ask, “what is the Cegep system anyway?” Well, it’s the educational system that we have, here in Quebec. It includes Cegeps.

“But…”

Yeah, I know. 😉

“Cegep” or “CEGEP” (pronounced “sea-jep” or “say-jep”) is a Quebec French acronym which stands for «Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel» (“College of General and Professional Education”). A Cegep is a post-secondary institution («Collège») which serves both as a comprehensive («Général») transitional period between secondary school and university as well as vocational («Professionnel») training («Enseignement») in fields like nursing, robotics, or computer science. People in the U.S. could think of it as a blend of a vocational school, a community college, a prep school, a continuing education program, and a two-year liberal arts college. A Cegep’s degree («diplôme d’études collégiales» or “DEC,” pronounced “deck”) can be compared with things like the French «baccalauréat» or the Swiss «maturité», but less Euro-hierarchical. (Please note that «baccalauréat» (or «bacc.», pronounced “back”) is used in Quebec to refer to the bachelor’s degree.)

Though I haven’t been in direct contact with many Cegep students for quite a while, I find the Cegep system to be one of the best features of the Quebec education system.

Of course, I tend to idealise things a fair bit and I know many people whose opinion of the Cegep system is much less enthusiastic than mine. Still, through both informal and formal discussions with many university students and faculty in Canada, France, Switzerland, and the United States, my positive perspective on the Cegep system keeps being reinforced.

One reason this issue keeps being relevant is that provincial politicians, school board administrators, and some other members of Quebec society occasionally attack the Cegep system for different reasons. On the other hand, I have yet to meet a university professor who has very negative things to say about the Cegep system. They might come out with this blog entry, but it would take a fair bit to get me, as a university instructor, to see Cegeps in very negative a light.

Cegeps were an effect of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution (late 1960s through the 1970s). They’re a somewhat recent phenomenon, so we can’t really see all of their social effects, but have existed for long enough a period of intense social change that they have really taken roots in the fabric of Quebec culture. (I love mixing metaphors! 😉 )

I’m a little bit unclear as to whether or not the requirements have remained the same since my own time as a music student at Cégep Saint-Laurent (1989-1991), but here’s a description in the present tense of how Cegeps worked when I went to one almost twenty years ago. All Quebeckers younger than 21 who wish to go to a university in Quebec need to complete at least two years’ worth of Cegep courses after secondary school (grades 7-11, here). “Professional” (vocational) programs last three years and also work for university requirements if a Cegep graduate wants to go to a university. For those 21 or older, life experience usually counts as equivalent to the Cegep requirement for applying to Quebec universities (at least, that’s the way it was, way back when). Even then, most university applicants go through Cegep even if they are old enough to enter a university program without a DEC as Cegep is an efficient way to prepare for university. Many programs at Quebec universities use representations of Cegep grades (kind of like a normalised GPA) as admission criteria. It wasn’t the case for my B.Sc. in anthropology at Université de Montréal (1991-1994). Unlike the United States where standardised tests are so common, Quebec students don’t take SAT-like general exams before going to university. To an extent, comprehensive training in a Cegep achieves some of the same goals as SAT scores do in the United States.

As far as I know, non-Quebec students need to go through specific requirements before they can begin a Bachelor’s degree at a Quebec university (B.A. and B.S. programs usually last three years, here). I’m not really clear on the details but it implies that even non-Cegep students are specifically prepared to go to university.

Even with students who never went to Cegep, the existence of Cegeps makes a large difference in the Quebec education system as it raises the bar for university behaviour. In Quebec, the kinds of mistakes college students tend to make in their “college years” in the U.S. are supposed to have been done during Cegep years in Quebec. So Quebec’s university students are less likely to make them

Unlike pupils in secondary schools, Cegep students enter a specific study program. On paper, course requirements in a typical Cegep program look quite a bit like freshman and sophomore requirements at a North American university or college outside of Quebec. Students choose their own courses (possibly with an advisor, I can’t remember) and usually get a fair bit of “free” time. At Saint-Laurent, my weekly scheduled only included 15 hours of classes but I also had 15 hours of Big Band rehearsal every week and would usually spend thirty hours of individual instrument practise as well as thirty hours of study every week. Yes, that was a bit much but I feel it really prepared me for an academic career. 😉

The equivalent of “General Education Requirements” in Cegeps include philosophy and physical education courses. The philosophy courses are quite basic but they still prepare students to think about issues which tend to be very important in academic contexts. And, at least in the courses I’ve had at Saint-Laurent, we did read primary texts from important thinkers, like the complete text of Nietzsche’s Zur Genealogie der Moral (translated into French).

As compared to most North American universities, Cegeps charge almost nothing. When I was at Saint-Laurent, we had administrative fees of about $80 and no tuition fees. It has probably changed since that time, but I’m quite sure Cegep fees are nothing like the outrageous tuition fees paid by college and university students in many parts of the United States. What this means to students is that the financial cost of a Cegep program is fairly minimal. Of course, there are many costs associated with going through school during that time. For one thing, a good proportion of Cegep students live in appartments, which can be fairly expensive. And it’s difficult to work full-time while doing a Cegep degree. But, as compared to the typical situation in the U.S., the stakes in dropping a Cegep program or switching to a new one are low enough that students use this time as an opportunity to get to know what they want to do with their lives.

In other words, Cegep students who may look like they’re “wasting their time” are going through the period of socialisation associated with late adolescence in different parts of the world. If, as is quite common, they find out that they don’t necessarily want to get a university degree or that their original degree program was nothing like they planned, they still got something out of their Cegep experience at little cost. Given the functioning costs of universities, such shifts in learning orientation carry very high social and individual costs if they happen in universities. “Wasting” a DEC in Natural Sciences by then moving on to become an artist is nothing as compared to dropping a pre-Med degree to join the Peace Corps. In cases where public funding to universities is important, the difference is extremely significant, socially.

For many people, Cegep is in fact a way to experience student life to see if they like it. As painful as it may be for some academics and prestige-hungry parents to learn, many people don’t really want to spend that many years (and that much money) as college/university students. In fact, there are those brilliant students who, one day, realise that they just want to learn on their own while working as, say, a cashier at a university cafeteria. My guess is that social pressure and diploma prestige are the only reasons such people ever go through post-secondary education in the first place. I also feel that they should have a right to choose the life that they want. You know: “Pursuit of Happiness” and all of that…

As some would be quick to point out, there are some people who spend years and years in Cegeps, unsuccessfully looking for the perfect program for them, and end up working at low-paying jobs all their lives. These may sound like lost souls but I really think that they are more likely to contribute to society as a whole than the equivalent long-term “undecided majors” in U.S. universities.

Because Cegeps’ individual costs are relatively low, Cegep students often do experiment a lot with courses in different fields. It may seem like a stretch but my hunch is that this experimental tendency might be one of the reasons is so productive in creative domains like musical productions and circus shows. If it weren’t for Cegeps, I would never have spent two years of my life in intensive training as a musician. I already (since age 13) that I wanted to become an anthropologist and my DEC in music wasn’t necessary for anything I ever did. But it greatly enhanced my life more than many university programs ever do.

Cegeps often count significant numbers of what U.S. college people tend to call “non-traditional students” (older than the “typical” post-K-12 undergrad). These include fascinating people like mature women who are getting a Cegep degree as part of a life-changing experience (say, after a divorce). Because of this, the average age in a Cegep can be higher than in the typical U.S. graduate school. It also means that Cegep students coming directly from secondary schools are getting accustomed to interacting with people whose life experience may involve parenthood, career development, and long-term personal relationships.

For diverse reasons, Cegeps are the locus of most of the active student movements in Quebec, some of which have led to important strikes and other forms of student protest. Student strikes have had a deep impact in Quebec’s recent history. Not that students have forced long-lasting policy changes by themselves but many members of recent generations of Quebeckers have gotten a taste for political involvement through student protest. Though I was living in Indiana at the time (2004-2005), I have seen important effects of the most recent student strike on some dimensions of Quebec society. At the time, around 200 000 Quebec students went on strike in protest of the provincial government’s changes to the financial aid system. At one point, 100 000 students had taken to the streets to march as part of the student movement. The government eventually backed down on the changes it was implementing and people still talk about the effects of this strike. It is likely that the strike will not have any effect on any specific political party and political scientists would probably say that the strike failed to produce a “political class.” Yet, and this is an important point, the target of the strike wasn’t a political party but a perceived discrepancy between the ideals of two generations. In my personal opinion, such a social movement is much more important than partisan politics. In such a context, it isn’t surprising to see many young Quebeckers become social activists, may it be for environmental causes or to fight some global inequalities. They become like this in Cegeps. Since the majority of secondary school students eventually go to Cegeps, this social involvement has nothing to do with the elitism of “Revolutions” of the early nationalist era. Cegep students are the perfect example of individualistic (one would say «libertaire») social engagement.

Not only are Cegep students socially involved but they are usually considered to be socially mature.

Quite significantly, many young adults in Quebec learn how to drink by the time they finish Cegep. Drinking age is 18 here and people usually start Cegep at age 17. As has been happening in different parts of the world for the longest time, cafés and bars around Cegep and university campuses tend to be important meeting space for students. Coffee is the drink of choice for many students during the day but alcoholic drinks (including craft beer, nowadays) bring students together for long discussions in the evening and nights. Because student alcohol consumption is widely accepted, students never feel the need to hide in residence halls or “greek houses” to enjoy each other’s company.

In such a context, it’s easy to understand why university students in Quebec are very generally seen as responsible adults. In the U.S., I’ve heard both students and professors describe university students of any age as “kids,” a term I find very symptomatic of tricky educational and academic issues. As I see universities as a place to do serious academic work and not as a place for parents to drop their kids until they grow up, I have many reasons to support Quebec’s Cegep system or anything which may achieve the same results. 🙂


Moodle and Collaborative Learning

Something I just posted on a forum about the Moodle course management system.

Using Moodle: Thinking Through Groups

Here are some comments and observations about the “Groupsinterface (where an instructor can put participants in distinct groups) and other group-related features in Moodle.
I’m currently teaching a smallish ethnomusicology seminar and a large (170 students) introductory course in cultural anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. I decided to get my intro students to work as teams on an ethnography project. It’s the first time in my (still relatively young) career that I’m getting students to do teamwork. Yes, it’s a challenge. Moodle has made it both easier and more difficult, IMHO.
Several of these are probably common feature requests from Moodle users and I’m not enough of a coder to implement any of those ideas. These comments also include “pie in the sky,” wacky, wishful thinking, “you gotta be kidding” thoughts about the potential of Moodle’s group-related features. Please excuse the craziness but don’t worry, it’s not contagious.
I’m using “instructor” for my role as the course creator and “participants” or “students” to refer to the people the instructor is putting in groups.

Observations, Comments

  • Listing participants by first name is inconvenient for large university classes. I would like to be able to sort students as I wish, as in the Participants list.
  • In large courses, it’s difficult to select participants who aren’t in any group yet. I understand that the interface is meant to make it possible for participants to be in multiple groups. But I believe it’s common for the instructor to be putting all students in separate groups. In such a case, it’d be so much easier to have the left-hand list of participants hide the ones which are already in a group and only show participants who still need to be put in groups. With 250 participants, scrolling that list back and forth has been very inconvenient.
  • The Participants and Groups sections overlap in function, IMHO. Maybe they could be merged. This would be especially useful in terms of messages. While searching for participants by group, selecting them, and adding them as recipients for a message works, it becomes quite cumbersome after a while.
  • When I click on a participant’s name in the left-hand list, I expect to be able to see to which team(s) this participant belongs.
  • I can select multiple participants in the left and right columns but I can’t select multiple groups to temporarily merge teams. This could be useful, especially while sending messages.
  • Several students seemed a bit puzzled about finding their groupmates. There could be a “group” section for students where they could not only see links to their groupmates’ profiles but also manage a kind of group profile.
  • It’s still somewhat unclear to me how Moodle handles groups. For instance, what does group visibility (separate or visible) mean for journal entries?
  • Maybe they can but I haven’t noticed how group participants may change the group’s name. That would be useful. Especially if they can add some information (available to the rest of the class or only to the instructor) about their group. Something like a group profile. In fact, it could summarize the profiles from all of the group’s members in one page (visibility to students as an option).

Feature Requests

  • In a way, it would be possible to work with groups as if they were individual participants. For instance, we could give grades to a group as a whole and have those grades show up in the group participants’ grade list. Or we could have one-click messaging for a group as a whole, directly from the Participants list.
  • It would be useful to be able to create a new group with selected students instead of having to prepare the groups in advance.
  • It could be neat to have both a group name and a unique group ID, especially with relatively large numbers of groups (I have about 40).
  • The number of participants in a team is very useful data and it helped me rebuild teams which had lost members during “drop and add.” Such data could be put in the interface so that the instructor can sort groups by numbers of participants.
  • Drag-and-drop (through AJAX) would be much more convenient than the current method for adding participants to groups. I guess this one is in the official plans but I want to voice my support for it! wink
  • It could be useful to be able to upload and download CSV or tab-delimited files with all the team information. The data might be available with grades or some such but it’d be very useful to download a grouped list of participants directly from the group interface. It would also be quite efficient to create groups in, say, Excel and be able to implement those groups in Moodle with a simple upload.
  • There might be a group building tutorial but I haven’t seen it in obvious places. Given the fact that the Moodle community is full of experienced instructors, that tutorial could have some advice about good grouping practices, maybe with some links to pedagogical issues.
  • There might be a group building tutorial but I haven’t seen it in obvious places. Given the fact that the Moodle community is full of experienced instructors, that tutorial could have some advice about good grouping practices, maybe with some links to pedagogical issues.
  • I haven’t checked if it might be available already but it’d be useful to have grouped Reports. I don’t want to monitor the activities of most of my students but it’d be useful to know if at least one group member is accessing Moodle frequently.
  • According to many people, it’s usually best for the instructor to create the groups, and it’s what I did. Yet, I wonder if there’s a way for students to create their own groups. If there is, I haven’t noticed it and my students haven’t either. (Maybe it’s a setting…)

Would These Work?

  • There could be a feature which would divide the course up into randomized teams automatically. I eventually used Lab Partners to create random teams that I then grouped in Moodle. It didn’t take me that long but it’s a bit error-prone and cumbersome. Fortunately, my teams will remain stable during the semester.
  • This one may seem like a far-fetched idea but it would be great to have more information about participants while we’re forming the teams. For instance, there could be a database field for majors or even MBTI results. Then, one could combine teams based on theavailable data. Of course, it’s beyond the purpose of Moodle and can probably be done in Excel, but it’s much easier to have everything in the same place.
  • I will have students assess the participation of their teammates. For a while, I was looking at the Workshop module as a way to implement this in Moodle. I ended up deciding on the use of a custom-made peer-assessment system (built at my university) but it could be an interesting feature of Moodle groups.
  • This might sound crazy but I imagine a way for groups to have their own Moodle subsection. We keep talking about peer-teaching and such and I can’t imagine a better than to have students create and manage their own mini-course. One major benefit would be to improve the interface, IMHO. The main Moodle section for the course would contain all the public information and activities. All the “separate groups” activities and material would appear in “group mode.” Students could then understand very clearly what is visible to everyone in the course and what is meant for their subsection only. In separate sections of a course taught by the same instructor (or, in fact, by different instructors) it could also have amazing benefits. I seem to recall something like this instructor-section idea being discussed for a future version of Moodle. But the Moodle take could also have a student-focused structure. Of course, this should not have to go all the way to the Moodle administrator and instructors should be able to create these subsections themselves. But, if at all doable, it would help Moodle leapfrog Sakai (which does handle course sections).
  • I pretty much like the notion of a “session” or “workspace,” which might be the reason why I tend to separate a student’s participation in the course as a whole (through the main Moodle interface for a course) from a student’s participation in a specific team (through a subsection of the Moodle site for the course). So this might be idiosyncratic (and lunatic) but I’m getting a very clear idea of how this might all work. After all, the granularity of “a course” is both too large (“coarse?” wink ) and too fine for many of our needs. Any “course” could become something of a “metacourse” and the structure could be somewhat recursive.
  • Participants could have profiles to be shared only with their groupmates. As it stands, I think the scope of Moodle profiles is system-wide (students have the same profile for all of the courses they take at the same institution, but not for courses they might take on other Moodle installations). Having group-only profiles would be interesting as students manage their relationship with teammates.
  • Another crazy idea: groups working a bit like social networking sites (e.g. Facebook). You get “friends” with whom you can share “stuff” (images, comments, chats, etc.). Those groups can go beyond the limits of a single course so that you would use it as a way to communicate with people at school. The group could even have a public persona beyond the school and publish some information about itself and its projects. Moodle could then serve as a website-creator for students. To make it wackier, students could even maintain some of these contacts after they leave the school.
  • Or Moodle could somehow have links to Facebook profiles.

Ok, I’m really going overboard. It’s just that I really love Moodle and want it to do everything at the same time. Using groups has opened up a whole new side of Moodle for me and I find myself thinking out loud a lot.


Les pieds dans la marge

En réponse à: ni.vu.ni.connu / Rentrée radio-canadienne

Suis pas trop télé. Pour dire la franche vérité, ces temps-ci, les émissions qui me plaisent le plus passent surtout à Télé-Québec (y compris Méchant contraste et autres émissions à intérêt social, ce qui est important pour un anthropologue).
Hier, un peu par hasard, ma femme et moi avons regardé quelques émissions radio-canadiennes, dont Les pieds dans la marge. Retonti ici en faisant une recherche pour une comparaison avec Pop Citrouille. Content de voir que c’est une YulBlogueuse qui en parle.
Ça nous a pris quelques minutes pour nous habituer au style d’humour. On savait pas du tout à quoi s’attendre, à qui ça s’adressait. Une de mes premières réactions était que ça ressemblait vraiment à Pop Citrouille, presque une émission-culte de ma jeunesse. Mais avec un peu de Bruno Blanchette (N’ajustez pas votre sécheuse), du Phylactère Cola, du Dans une galaxie près de chez vous, et même un peu de Têtes à claques. D’ailleurs, parlant de TàC, les nouvelles de CBC avait un segment sur le passage possible des vidéos en-ligne les plus connus au Québec (autre que Lynda Tremblay décoration sur YouTube) à la langue anglaise. La lectrice de nouvelles, un peu pincée, qui nous dit que Têtes à claques est… difficile à décrire. Precious! 😉
Pour revenir aux Pieds. C’est très absurde, évidemment. Débridé. Flyé, même. Mais aussi pas mal gutsy. Un petit côté scato, mais pas extrême ni même inapproprié. Ça semble s’adresser à des jeunes ados, mais sans être vraiment puéril.
Ça faisait longtemps que j’avais pas vu des émissions du genre. Et, honnêtement, ça m’étonne un peu de RadCan qui semble se cantonner dans des émissions très structurées, voire stiff.
tk… Tout ça pour dire que j’ai bien aimé et que je suis content de voir que le parallèle avec la mythique Pop Citrouille est bien attesté.


Online Video: Netflix and Joost

Netflix offers streaming movies to subscribers

Skype founders name new video start-up Joost | CNET News.com

Either of these might work with Apple TV?


Europe and Open Access

Petition for guaranteed public access to publicly-funded research results

GUARANTEE PUBLIC ACCESS TO PUBLICLY-FUNDED RESEARCH RESULTS SHORTLY AFTER PUBLICATION

The petition itself is clear, straightforward, honest, easy to read, and important.

Michael Geist is suggesting the same thing for Canada.

So? Who will be first in adopting an Open Access policy for publicly-funded research? More importantly: who will be last?


Anti-DRM Patent

It might not work as a way to stop the spread of the DRM disease (“Digital Rights Management” restrictions on content files) but it might get some people thinking about the abuses of “Intellectual Property.”

Kernel developer, Alan Cox, files patent on DRM – LinuxQuestions.org


Respect and Elders

Touching tribute to her grandson. Already became popular, for good reasons.

YouTube – New Year’s Greetings from my Bubby


Keeping Track of Academic Literature

It’s mostly about Routledge’s Taylor and Francis journals and books but there’s a new system designed to keep track of academic publications in any field:

informaworld

It’s still a bit quirky and even clunky but the principle is interesting. Academics want to know when new texts have been published and want their work to be advertised as widely as possible (to those it may interest). Such a system accomplishes both goals fairly.

Unfortunately, it does nothing for Open Access (the killer app for academic publishing, IMHO) but the system shows that at least some academic publishers got a clue about what matters to academes.


Why Podcasting Doesn’t Work (Reason #23)

Was listening to the latest episode of Scientific American’s ScienceTalk podcast (for Januray 3, 2007). As is often the case with some of my favourite podcasts, I wanted to blog about specific issues mentioned in this episode.

Here’s the complete “show notes” for this episode (22:31 running time).

In this episode, journalist Chip Walter, author of Thumbs, Toes and Tears, takes us on a tour of the physical traits that are unique to humans, with special attention to crying, the subject of his article in the current issue of Scientific American MIND. The University of Cambridge’s Gordon Smith discusses the alarming lack of any randomized, controlled trials to determine the efficacy of parachutes. Plus we’ll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include http://www.sciammind.com; http://www.chipwalter.com; http://www.bmj.com.

AFAICT, there’s a direct link to the relevant MP3 file (which may be downloaded with a default name of “podcast.mp3” through a browser’s “save link as” feature),  an embedded media player to listen to the episode, some links to subscribe to podcast through RSS, My Yahoo, or iTunes, and a menu to browse for episodes by month. Kind of neat.

But what’s wrong with this picture?

In my mind, a few things. And these are pretty common for podcasts.

First, there are no clickable links in the show notes. Sure, anybody can copy/paste the URLs in a browser but there’s something just slightly frustrating about having to do that instead of just clicking on a link directly. In fact, these links are quite generic and would still require that people look for information themselves, instead of pinpointing exactly which scientific articles were featured in the podcast. What’s worse, the Chip Walter article discussed in the podcast isn’t currently found on the main page for the current issue of Scientific American’s Mind. To add insult to injury, the URL for that article is the mnemo-friendly:

http://www.sciammind.com/article.cfm?&articleID=33F8609A-E7F2-99DF-3F12706DF3E30E29

Catchy! 😉

These are common issues with show notes and are easily solved. I should just write SciAm to comment on this. But there are deeper issues.

One reason blogging caught on so well is that it’s very easy to link and quote from one blog to another. In fact, most blogging platforms have bookmarklets and other tools to make it easy to create a blog entry by selecting text and/or images from any web page, clicking on the bookmarklet, adding a few comments, and pressing the “Publish” button. In a matter of seconds, you can have your blog entry ready. If the URL to the original text is static, readers of your blog are able to click on a link accompanying the quote to put it in context. In effect, those blog entries are merely tagging web content. But the implications are deeper. You’re associating something of yourself with that content. You’re applying some basic rules of attribution by providing enough information to identify the source of an idea. You’re making it easy for readers to follow streams of thought. If the original is a trackback-/ping-enabled blog system, you’re telling the original author that you’re refering to her piece. You’re creating new content that can, in itself, serve as the basis for something new. You might even create a pseudo-community of like-minded people. All with a few clicks and types.

Compare with the typical (audio) podcast episode. You listen to it while commuting or while doing some other low-attention activity. You suddenly want to talk about what you heard. Go out and reach someone. You do have a few options. You can go and look at the show notes if they exist and use the same bookmarklet procedure to create a blog entry. Or you can simply tell someone “hey, check out the latest ScienceTalk, from SciAm, it’s got some neat things about common sense and human choking.” If the podcast has a forum, you can go in the forum and post something to listeners of that podcast. If the show notes are in blog form, you may post comments for those who read the show notes. And you could do all sorts of things with the audio recording that you have, including bookmark it (depending on the device you use to listen to audio files). But all of these are quite limited.

You can’t copy/paste an excerpt from the episode. You can’t link to a specific segment of that episode. You can’t realistically expect most of your blog readers to access the whole podcast just to get the original tidbit. Blog readers may not easily process the original information further. In short, podcasts aren’t easily bloggable.

Podcast episodes are often big enough that it’s not convenient to keep them on your computer or media device.  Though it is possible to bookmark audio and video files, there’s no standard method to keep and categorize these bookmarks. Many podcasts make it very hard to find a specific episode. Some podcasts in fact make all but the most recent episodes unavailable for download. Few devices make it convenient to just skim over a podcast. Though speed listening seems to be very effective (like speed reading) at making informative content stick in someone’s head, few solutions exist for speed listening to podcasts. A podcast’s RSS entry may contain a useful summary but there’s no way to scale up or down the amount of information we get about different podcast segments like we can do with text-based RSS feeds in, say, Safari 2.0 and up. Audio files can’t easily be indexed, searched, or automatically summarized. Most data mining procedures don’t work with audio files. Few formats allow for direct linking from the audio file to other online content and those formats that do allow for such linking aren’t ubiquitous. Responding to a podcast with a podcast (or audio/video comment) is doable but is more time-consuming than written reactions to written content. Editing audio/video content is more involving than, say, proofreading a forum comment before sending it. Relatively few people respond in writing to blogs and forums and it’s quite likely that the proportion of people who would feel comfortable responding to podcasts with audio/video recordings is much smaller than blog/forum commenters.

And, of course, video podcasts (a big trend in podcasting) aren’t better than audio podcasts on any of these fronts.

Speech recognition technology and podcast-transcription services like podzinger may make some of these issues moot but they’re all far from perfect, often quite costly, and are certainly not in widespread use. A few podcasts (well, at least one) with very dedicated listeners have listeners effectively transcribe the complete verbal content of every podcast episode and this content can work as blog-ammo. But chances that such a practice may become common are slim to none.

Altogether,  podcasting is more about passive watching/listening than about active engagement in widespread dialogue. Similar to our good old friend (and compatriot) McLuhan described as “hot,” instead of “cool” media. (Always found the distinction counter-intuitive myself, but it fits, to a degree…)

Having said all of this, I recently embarked in my first real podcasting endeavor, having my lectures be distributed in podcast form, within the Moodle course management system. Lecturecasts have been on my mind for a while. So this is an opportunity for me to see, as a limited experiment, whether it can appropriately be integrated in my teaching.

As it turns out, I don’t have much to do to make the lecturecasts possible. Concordia University has a service to set it all up for me. They give me a wireless lapel microphone, record that signal, put the MP3 file on one of their servers, and add that file in Moodle as a tagged podcast episode (Moodle handles the RSS and other technical issues). Neat!

Moodle itself makes most of the process quite easy. And because the podcasts are integrated within the broader course management structure, it might be possible to alleviate some of the previously-mentioned issues.  In this case, the podcast is a complementary/supplementary component of the complete course. It might help students revise the content, spark discussions, invite reflections about the necessity of note-taking, enable neat montages, etc. Or it might have negative impacts on classroom attendance, send the message that note-taking isn’t important, put too much of the spotlight on my performance (or lack thereof) as a speaker, etc.

Still, I like the fact that I can try this out in the limited context of my own classes.


Apple Video Conference Phone???

I’m probably reading way too much into this. So I’m just speculating on rumours. But the implications could be huge. Apple’s main site currently has a teaser “The First 30 Years Were Just the Beginning,” in preparation for MacWorld San Francisco. What if the big announcement on Tuesday was more than a mere iPod-based phone. What if this were about a true camera phone, one which could be used for video-enabled chat?Two ideas from PiperJaffray’s Gene Munster, republished by Apple rumour site AppleInsider:AppleInsider | Apple seen launching new iPod, iTV and iPhone at Macworld

6. iSight camera, 4GB or 8GB storage on the iPhone (7 out of 10). Recent rumors point to an initial release of two iPhone models: a 4GB version for $249 and an 8GB model for $449. Both models are rumored to feature two separate batteries in the handset, one for the phone and one for the music player. Also, Apple has successfully branded the iSight cameras on the MacBook and MacBook Pro portables and it is likely that they will eventually extend the brand to the iPhone line. With music, photos, and video from iTunes, the iPhone will be a media-rich device and an iSight camera would add to the eco-system of media/communications on the device.

10. iPhone to feature ‘iChat Mobile’ video and instant messaging (2 out of 10). Again, we believe that the iPhone will be a media-centric communications device and messaging features would work nicely with such an ecosystem. While it is unlikely that the first iPhone will feature video conferencing, this is certainly a feature the company could add to future models, including a possible smartphone model.

The second part is, according to Munster, very unlikely. But how cool would it be?Quite cool indeed. Revolutionary, almost. Just think about the impact picture phones, coupled with Flickr and YouTube, has had on the world in the recent past. The move toward citizen journalism, user-created content, the YouYear…And the technology is largely there. Apart from ubiquitous WiFi to make it practical, of course, but that’s almost a detail for the world in which Apple visionaries tend to live. As for battery life and other technical issues, it shouldn’t be so much of a matter if the rumoured specs for the phone (with two batteries) are to be believed.What is more likely to prevent Apple from coming out with such a device is the fact that Apple has strong ties with “content companies,” especially in movies and music. Surely, these people would have a hard time getting past the idea that these are mostly meant to be bootlegging tools (as if bootlegging was the main intention of most people, at this point). So, even if Apple does come out with a mobile iChat AV on Tuesday, it surely will be somehow crippled so that people can’t use it during shows by commercially established artists (independent artists and “up and coming” artists already know the value of fan recordings and would find ways to promote them). In the end, even artists might benefit as people would use the devices to do cool video mashups (using Apple’s iMovie and other iLife apps, of course) but, in the meantime, Apple will still play it cozy for “content companies” and media conglomerates.Ah, well…