Category Archives: thoughtvectors

Why “Teach” Social Media

This post is in response to Maryam Kaymanesh in the VCU thoughtvectors MOOC who is thinking about why high school students should be taught how to use social media for a future job. I wouldn’t have seen the post but Tom Woodward tagged me in his reply to her and I got a ping to alert me to the reference. Why mention this? Because it gets at the heart of why we need to “teach” social media: it IS the way we communicate these days, and we have always taught students how to use contemporary media.

When I started teaching high school English in the late 1980s, my curriculum included formal letter writing and research skills using paper databases like the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature. I think we understand better why we need to teach students the research skills, but it’s 21st century writing that we grapple with as teachers roll their eyes when kids use emoticons or Internet slang in their research papers. Case in point: check out the Wikipedia entry on LOL. The authors spend a lot of time quoting the critics of the use of these abbreviations as inappropriate in formal writing. But they certainly have a place in the fast-paced, shortened world of Twitter and texting. So, lesson one for all 21st century writers is how to distinguish between the wide variety of writing outlets and the kind of writing they demand.

The other challenge for contemporary media users is how to use social media to portray yourself publicly. The Washington Post article When Young Teachers Go Wild on the Web is one I still share with the adults I work with as it asks the hard questions about sharing on social media. In the six years since that article was published, stories continue to come out of grownups, including veteran teachers, doing dumb things in public using Twitter or Facebook. This incredibly kind interview demonstrates clearly that it isn’t just high school students who need a lesson or two:

But, despite the possible pitfalls, social media is also where we go to connect with others. Whatever your passion or area of study, social media can help you connect with others in the field. I require the students in my educational administration course to get involved in social media professionally by discovering the important voices and publications in education. Who are the bloggers and tweeters and googlers that you should be reading regularly? And, how can you become one of those voices? What can you contribute to the conversation?

There are also important questions for businesses to ask as they move into this hyper connected world. As someone who runs an organization that uses social media to both communicate and connect, I think about how to use it all the time. What do we want to do with it beyond just simple marketing? How can we become a portal to help curate the web for our followers? It is very much a similar kind of question to that for individuals: just how do we portray our company in social media? I can pretty much guarantee that unless your future job is hermit, you will, either as an employee or employer, ask these kinds of questions. 

And, while I can craft a persona for myself and my business, I can’t control the message completely since everyone has a voice. Reactions to a story are part of the story. The Today Show had a clip about getting good customer service and spent a good bit of time offering consumers tips for how to get noticed by a company by using Twitter or Facebook. Companies must be monitoring these outlets to be able to respond and react quickly before something goes viral. 

I’ll end with a recent example from my field of the complexities of being part of this new world. A brutally honest blog post about terrible experiences at a conference in 2013 appeared just as folks were gearing up for the 2014 version. The post, which has been removed by the author but is easy enough to find in an archive, was prompted by the #YesAllWomen campaign. It garnered a strong response from some in the field but others pushed back suggesting that this is a complex issue that requires more than a visceral, black and white response. Some spent time just trying to figure out who she was talking about. A second bog post tried to sort out the writer’s reactions to these different responses while the organization in question crafted its own response.

There are lots of lessons in this one event, not the least of which is that deleting stuff on the web doesn’t always mean it goes away. I’m not sure we can “teach” our students or ourselves exactly how to live in this social mediated world, but these kinds of case studies can help us grapple with the issues in powerful ways. If schools choose instead to ban and ignore, they miss the opportunity to truly prepare their students to live empowered lives in this world.


Questions and Answers

This week’s reading for the thoughtvectors course is Man-Computer Symbiosis,  JCR Licklider‘s 1960 reflection on the relationship between man and computers. I was born just two years after the article was written and have been fortunate to watch Licklider’s vision become reality to the point where, as Just An Average Guy points out, my mobile phone not only understands me but answers back to let me know what she has found or not found in response to my queries. Jala points to Google Glass as an example of technology as an extension of man.

I do not think we have reached the level of symbiosis with machines being able to make decisions. There is Watson, of course, who put humans to shame on Jeopardy. IBM describes the machine as more human than computer, able to understand natural language and learn as it goes. Other writers give lots of fictional examples of symbiosis, with Iron Man being the most popular. I guess they are too young to remember, KITT from the television show Knight Rider, an artificial intelligence module installed in car who helped his human counterpart solve crimes.

The question that haunts everyone seems to be just where this is going. Imelda does an excellent job of summarizing the various reactions of her classmates. Symone chooses to stick with humans as both intellectual and emotional human beings and as I read her response to Justin’s more optimistic view of computers and rational thought, I thought about ideas related to moral reasoning such as Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, a theory developed just about the same time Licklider was imagining man-computer symbiosis. Just how would Watson react to the various moral dilemmas such as the Heinz dilemma?

As for me, the nugget I chose seemed to get at the heart of Licklider’s notion of symbiosis:

Present-day computers are designed primarily to solve preformulated problems or to process data according to predetermined procedures. The course of the computation may be conditional upon results obtained during the computation, but all the alternatives must be foreseen in advance. (If an unforeseen alternative arises, the whole process comes to a halt and awaits the necessary extension of the program.) The requirement for preformulation or predetermination is sometimes no great disadvantage. It is often said that programming for a computing machine forces one to think clearly, that it disciplines the thought process. If the user can think his problem through in advance, symbiotic association with a computing machine is not necessary.

However, many problems that can be thought through in advance are very difficult to think through in advance. They would be easier to solve, and they could be solved faster, through an intuitively guided trial-and-error procedure in which the computer cooperated, turning up flaws in the reasoning or revealing unexpected turns in the solution. Other problems simply cannot be formulated without computing-machine aid. Poincare anticipated the frustration of an important group of would-be computer users when he said, “The question is not, ‘What is the answer?’ The question is, ‘What is the question?'” One of the main aims of man-computer symbiosis is to bring the computing machine effectively into the formulative parts of technical problems.

As an amateur programmer, I understand the first paragraph completely. Long before I wrote a line of code, I have outlined the system I have clearly identified my problem, outlined a system that will address that problem and tried to consider all the various pieces of the system I wish to put in place. Then, after using the system for a time, I revisit it to revise and update based on gaps that have appeared.

But, when we move into the second paragraph, we begin to move beyond those kinds of problems to ones that do not lend themselves so easily to systematic solutions. Here is where Licklider believes a symbiotic relationship between man and machine can make all the difference as we attempt to ask the best questions we can before we ever even consider looking for an answer. Sometimes, researchers engage in the lamppost approach, so named for the story of the man who, after a few too many drinks, is found by his friends searching under the lamp on the street corner. He tells them he has lost his keys somewhere. When they question why he is looking at this particular place, he explains that, even though he knows they aren’t really here, the light is better.

Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, outlines the problem with this approach in the field of genetic research:

That’s the same situation we faced in the mid-1980s when trying to find the genes for most Mendelian conditions. We really desperately wanted to understand them, but we lacked enough biological or biochemical information to be able to know where to look. That challenge inspired a host of people to develop a new strategy, which we now call “positional cloning.”

Harnessing computers to help us get at the heart of the issues before we start coming up with answers, making sure we are asking the best possible questions, is the essence of Licklider’s notion of symbiosis.

And to go back to the  notion of associative trails, I’ll end with some thoughts about this particular quote from Gardner Campbell that popped up on a Google search as he imagined the networked world as helping enlarge our capacities:

Licklider dreamed of using computers to help humans “through an intuitively guided trial-and-error procedure” to formulate better questions. I am hopeful that awakening our digital imaginations will lead us to formulate better questions about our species’ inquiring nature and our very quest for understanding itself.




Understanding the machine

Good Enough: Associative Trails

My afternoon was moving along nicely, promising lots of time to grab a drink and work on my trail map. Then, after a dog walk near the pig pens, I discovered several baby pigs suffering from dehydration in the heat. One ended up in the “emergency room,” otherwise known as my den. I’m happy to say he has recovered and been reunited with mom and siblings. But somehow it turned into 8 PM and I had not worked on my trail at all. So, I have decided that what I have done so far is just going to have to be good enough.[1]
I didn’t want to do a screenshot of my history as it seemed to be too messy. I did do a collage of some of the tabs that were opened during this research:

tab collage

I then created a mind map but just couldn’t find the time to make it interactive. Here is the trail without any of the links I wanted:


It starts officially in the upper left hand corner. I really started this trail last summer when I began reading a mystery series set during WW II in England. The main character, Maggie Hope, is a mathematician who has ended up in England as the war begins. She starts as a secretary for the Prime Minister but proves her problem solving abilities and soon becomes part of MI-5. We learn about Bletchley Park and the Enigma Machine. I brought this interest with me to the summer MOOC.[2]

Other pieces of the trail that could use some explanation: I was a senior in high school and working at the Lancaster County Tourist Bureau when Three Mile Island melted down. We were just on the edge of the area of concern and many people left town anyway. It was a frightening time with evening updates on the news. The China Syndrome, a story of a meltdown at a nuclear power plant, had only been released 12 days before the disaster and locals left the theater shaken after hearing the infamous line about the disaster destroying an area the size of Pennsylvania.[3] The surprise in my searching was that there are people who consider Three Mile Island to be a hoax intended to sell more tickets to the movie.

Growing up during the Cold War meant worrying about the possibility of a nuclear war. I was fortunate enough to hear Allen Ginsberg at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s where he sang his Hum Bomb poem. Looking for recordings of that poem led to a video clip of an interview with Daniel Radcliffe who played Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings.

The video I could not find online was A is for Atom, B is for Bomb, which we watched in my physics class senior year. An episode of NOVA, it had just been released and profiled Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, two of the architects of the atomic bombs. Oppenheimer seemed to regret his participation while Teller reveled in it, sure that such horrible weapons could somehow ensure peace.

Just before beginning the course, I started reading Turing’s Cathedral: The Origin of the Digital Universe by George Dyson. This book describes the creation of computers, focusing on the work done at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), founded before the war and still in existence. There is a great video clip of an Edward Murrow interview with Robert Oppenheimer who served as director of the IAS for many years where he talks about the IAS being a place where great scientists and mathematicians could come to get away from the usual demands of academics, mostly teaching.

In poking around the IAS website, I found a very intriguing paper by Thomas Streeter, a sociology professor at University of Vermont who spent a year at the IAS. Called The Net Effect: The Internet and the New White Collar Style, it describes the changes in rhetorical styles due to online communications. And as trails often do, this one seems to double back on itself by quoting JR Licklider, who I should have read for this week.

One final comment about the persecution trail: Robert Oppenheimer, resistant to the development of the hydrogen bomb, was stripped of his security clearance, with many of his former colleagues testifying against him including Edward Teller.  Even worse was the story of Alan Turing who was chemically castrated as a treatment for being homosexual. He committed suicide not soon after at an early age. It seems that being a national hero is no protection.

Eventually, I will get some links put up, most of them going to books I plan to read related to these various parts of the trail.

[1] I hate it when students ask if an assignment is “good enough.” I often respond by asking them what they think.

[2] The books led me to sign up for my first and only Cousera course

[3] The associations continue even as I write this post. I went out to see if I could find out which character uttered that line and found a website commemorating the 35th anniversary of Three Mile Island which was this year. It featured the stories of those who lived through the event and included someone talking about see the movie.

The Challenges of Choosing to Learn

I committed to the Thoughtvectors in Concept Space course last week and found myself spending every free minute (and even some not-free minutes) having fun learning and exploring. I blogged, I commented on blogs and I spent a lot of time creating an associative trail, all things I would not have done if it weren’t for the course.

Then, the weekend came. If I were a “real” student in the course, I would have spent the weekend completing the syllabus requirements including reading ahead for this week. As Gardner Campbell, one of the course masterminds, points out in his Letter to a learner, this course is intense because it is not easily compartmentalized and requires continuous attention. Just take a look at the syllabus. This is a course that has an intensive assignment every day. It demands more than some quick reading and writing or a few math problems submitted via Blackboard.

But I’m a part-time farmer and this weekend was a little crazier than usual. Saturday mornings are spent at the local farmer’s market ,and this week I was on my own because my husband was going to a poultry workshop. Before he left, he came in with the news that ten baby pigs had been born sometime in the middle of the night, adding to the five that had been born the week before. As I picked mustard greens, I heard loud squeals coming from the pen and found two of them crying because they had gotten out and now couldn’t figure out how to get back into the pen with their siblings.  (Believe me, there is real truth to the “squeal like a pig” simile!) I rescued them and quickly texted a friend to arrange baby sitting services while I was at the market.

Sunday was reserved for my flower garden. It’s about 1200 square feet and desperately needed work: dead heading, weeding, new planting. A labor of love for which I never have enough time. With a week of heat and humidity being forecast, I wanted to spend as much of the beautiful day digging in the dirt.

In between, I worked on my associative trail. I didn’t just want to take a screenshot of my history. I made a collage of browser tabs and had a plan for creating an interactive image map of my graphic organizer. I had ideas for tools but this wasn’t a typical organizer with a central point that branched out but more of a journey. After putting the whole thing into powerpoint, I realized it no longer offered the option to export as a webpage. I have an idea for how I’m going to do it but it needs another hour or two or three of work to get it done.

Which brings me to this blog post. Even with its focus on learning rather than grading, the course is a course and the real students will eventually get a grade, which provides an incentive for them to make the course a priority over other activities. Because I’m not working for a grade, I do not have that incentive. As I mentioned in my post last week, I like the freedom that brings. I can pick and choose what I want to do, pop in and out as I like, spending more time on the assignments that interest me and taking them someplace they weren’t necessarily meant to go while ignoring items that don’t necessarily fuel my imagination. If I don’t comment on ten other blogs, who is going to know or care? No professor is counting, I’m not going to get any gentle reminders, and I can’t be removed from the course. (I suppose they could take away my RSS feed from the course site but I don’t think that’s going to happen.) In fact, the only person who might be disappointed in my performance is me. And that is something of an overwhelming thought.

Am I happy with my work so far? YES! I can’t wait for you to see the trail I created. There are links from my distant and not-so-distant past that weave together personal experiences and areas of interest, all coming from reading and thinking about the Vannevar Bush article from last week and how it connects lots of threads for me.

My biggest challenge is keeping up the original enthusiasm, carving out time and making the course a priority in a way that makes sense for an “open” student. I find myself wondering if this is why the drop out rate for Coursera courses is so high: we think we want to learn something but realize that making a priority for learning is hard when we don’t have to do it.

What It Feels Like When I Think

Video shot yesterday from my kitchen window. I realized afterwards it was perfect for this post with each bird representing thoughts. I start with one thought, it gets interrupted by another, then suddenly there are thoughts flowing all around. (Be sure to look in the background of the video as well as the foreground as you’ll see multiple birds buzzing around.) If I’m lucky and I can focus, something I find increasingly difficult as I get older, I can hone in on one thought and really work through it, letting the others drift in the background without giving in to them.