Course Wiki & Course Plan Revision

My second stab at using a classroom wiki has launched. It’s going well so far: everyone has posted a profile and is figuring out how to use the basic mark-up.

Something that caught me off guard last time was the peculiar mix of ignorance and familiarity most students bring to an internet-based project and which tends to block them early on. This time around I have redesigned the pages providing general course materials so that they serve as models students can use when creating pages of their own. Obvious, but I didn’t think of it last time. More on the project later in the term.

As I have been getting students up and running on that site, the pipeline of posts I’d prepared on my course planning revisions has run dry. I’m working on the rest now, and they should start up again this weekend.

The Responsive Web: A Friend Adds Info

In response to my posts about my annoyance with the move toward responsive web design and my layman’s sense that it was driven by a misunderstanding of how people access the web, a friend who makes his living designing web sites and building content writes me to fill in some additional info:

One thing I can add: while traffic numbers for mobile are way lower, ad clickthrough rates on mobile are WAY higher than any other platform. I think a lot of the new spatial mutability in design, and the expansion of white space, is to diminish the visible distinction between text and ads/social share tools. In the new paradigm, the movement between content, social media, and product websites must be fluid—one homogenous uber web constructed from calls to action, not “sites.”

The other factor at play here, one you mention, is the importance of social media in a social strategy: the majority of FB sharing happens before the user has scrolled more than 50% the way down an article. We don’t move through websites anymore as an act of exploration, but as an act of mirroring and mimicry (played out on the FB wall as a linear chronology of statements and callbacks, not a map of thought).

If this is true, and I have no reason to doubt it, then I have things backwards a bit in my earlier posts: responsive web design is for businesses not people. And the design shift works because, rather than exploring the web or making it (which I imagine to be the goals of going online), people are increasingly using the web simply to perform and participate in identities through sharing.

Food for thought…

Agents; or, There Is No Spoon

I suppose I should say something about agents before I start talking about my new course file.  

Basic Agents

In my original template, agents were as basic as basic could be and were used initially to sort student notes. By the midpoint in the semester I’d created an individual note for each student by importing an Excel spreadsheet. In the note text I’d indicate basic information about the student’s submission of assignments and my feedback on their written work. Keeping track of who had submitted drafts or participated in peer review or sought help from a tutor at the writing center had always been quite difficult. But now I was cutting and pasting fixed strings into student notes that I would then search for with agents. Tons of work was suddenly gone.

Basic Agents
A basic agent. Later agents might search for an attribute as well as some text, but seldom more than that.

Eventually I understood what attributes were.* By the end of the term, I’d begun converting some of my text strings to Boolean attributes. I’d set the default to true and then mark “false” for anyone who didn’t hand in a draft, for example. This was easier than cut and paste and tidier too.

All that said, I should admit that what I could do with agents in absolute terms was very limited. I knew no scripting or programming languages and was completely new to the concept of regular expressions. Everything I did was based on the basic syntaxes demonstrated when I selected options from the dropdown menus of the agent-creation window. By using these simple examples as models (and with some flipping through action lists in the manual and rereading some explanations in The Tinderbox Way), I figured out how to do what I needed to.

Agents and Links

I used agents to gather material without ever using them to perform actions. Partly this was because of my limited ability to write action scripts. But it also reflects what I was trying to do: I needed to schedule and categorize material by date or by connections to readings but also wanted to work with them in a way that didn’t resemble a filing cabinet or file structure. My boring basic agents cut across the hierarchy of boxes I’d built in a way I’d imagined links doing; and they confirmed that the materials dropped into boxes were in fact interconnected.

My template revision is very much about nurturing the interconnections I’ve been picking out with agents in my original template. My next post will talk about what that means and how I’m going about it.

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*I “knew” what attributes were, but I associated them with fields in a database and saw them as fixed and complicated, something I had to create in anticipation of future needs. What attributes actually are “clicked” when I realized I could add and delete them at will.

 

Course Planning: Boxes and Links

As I explained in my previous post, I scheduled class time in my Tinderbox template by dropping notes (or aliases) into a class meeting’s container. I also kept related materials together in “Reading” containers. This set-up works fine–better than fine: it’s more useful than anything I’ve ever before!–but clearly I’ve become greedy, because as I’ve used  my template, I’ve decided there are things I want to work better.

Boxes within Boxes

Course content late in term is dependent upon content from early in term, and over time, I’ve realized that my template set-up obscures all connections that are not about sequence within the schedule. For example, when looking at my semester schedule map, I see whether something is “before,” “with,” or “after” something else. Colors applied with prototypes also identify four kinds of material: readings, lectures, activities, and assignments.

But when I double-click into a day’s container in map view in order to work with the notes directly, I can no longer see what came before or will come next. My schedule, which shows the progression of material across the entire term, disappears from view, and I’m left considering the day’s materials in isolation. Keeping open multiple windows with multiple views addresses this problem, especially once I realized that dropping notes and aliases between windows was problem-free. Yet, I’m not entirely happy with this solution: I want to begin with connections and organize them, but my containers make isolated material my starting point. This feels backwards.

Hopes for Links…postponed.

Linking was a more-or-less new proposition for me when I began using Tinderbox. But I’d bought into the idea that it might open up new ways of seeing my material and had built links up haphazardly as I added my content notes. I soon discovered, however, that many of the links I’d built between notes were hidden by my set-up. Links to notes within the same container show up visually on the map, but links to notes in other containers do not. Instead, they are indicated with a short arrow coming out of the lower edge of a note or going into the top edge.

Links in Map View
In-coming and out-going links to notes in other containers are indicated with small arrows above and below notes.

To see which notes are being linked to or from I could have opened a “Browse Links” window or opened the note and clicked on the link list. But most of the time I didn’t do this. I was using links hopefully rather than with purpose. And so, I seldom had a good reason to open a “Browse Link” window to see where those in-coming or out-going link arrows led. What I wanted was the link pictured so I could see what I might find out. But my containers were keeping that from happening. 

And so, linking became something I explored in other Tinderbox files built up for personal projects rather than in my course file, and course maps like the one above were largely abandoned. Now, with more experience with links under my belt, bringing links back into the planning process is the primary goal of my template revision.

My next post is about agents

My Course Planning Template

Although I’ve written about my original course plan a bit in earlier posts, I need to review a few points so that what I want to do differently this semester will make sense. So here goes.

Mapping a Schedule

I began my course plan by duplicating my paper schedule using adornments. That was it. Adornments plus notes with titles dropped where they would happen.

Image of Adornment-based Map Schedule
A semester of class meetings in a single view

Things changed after I took my schedule-map and looked at it in outline view and realized that note-images were also manipulable note-files. (I had known this but not understood what that implied.) When I saw both views side-by-side, I suddenly realized I could organize in two independent but interconnected ways: change the materials (revise the title, add note text) and they were updated everywhere, but change their organization in the outline view and the note-images stayed in place on the map. This was major.

Outlining a Schedule

Now my outline was initially a mess: dozens of notes randomly arranged, my adornments didn’t show and I didn’t know that separators existed. So to organize my outline, I decided to create a hierarchy. This created an outline-schedule that worked like a file structure with collapsable containers.

Image of Schedule and Reading Outlines
Outline views from late in term. Early on there were fewer notes.

Next in map view, I deleted the adornments I’d used to make my map-schedule. I then sized and arranged the note-images of my new containers to replicate the layout of the adornments I’d erased.

Image of Container-based Map Schedule
Containers holding notes rather than adornments sitting under them.

In a sense this brought me back to square one: I had my map schedule back. It still offered in a complete, readable, interactive overview of my schedule for the semester. But now the flat adornments were “keyholes” looking in on rooms holding each day’s materials, and my new outline views gave me quick access to what each room contained.

Content plus Scheduling

The final big change came when I created a “Readings” container with one note for each assigned text. I then moved the note for every lecture, exercise and activity related to a text into its note making it also a container. This kept related content together in one spot. I then repopulated my outline- and map-schedules with aliases of these reading and activity notes so I knew when they would be covered.

The result

All of this led to a more-or-less fixed workspace.  I kept open two different schedule views (one in outline, one in map) and a content bundle (also in outline view) that together offered me three avenues for developing, expanding or refining my course. For big picture concerns I worked in the map view. To plan or adjust individual class meetings, I worked in outline view. I sorted out the progression of materials (or identified missing or incomplete materials that needed development) in my “Readings” window. Before each class I also printed a Nakakoji view of the day’s container and used it as speaking notes.

I tried other things as I went along, but in general terms, this is the foundation of what I worked with for the rest of that term and for the remainder of the year.

In my next post, I’ll explain two limitations I’ve found in my template.

Course Planning with Tinderbox: My New Approach

A little over a year ago, I bought Mark Bernstein’s Tinderbox and began using it to plan my literature courses.

The software was flexible and useful, but there was a lot to learn and I was figuring things out as I went. I’ve written about that experience twice before: once about six weeks into it when I was just starting to get my feet under me, and again at the end of that same semester, after I realized how useful my course plan had been.

After that early success, I revised my file into a template by cleaning out everything except the basic categories, adornments and agents I would need to plan other classes. I have used it to plan all my courses since.

But now with another semester on its way and with some experience using Tinderbox in coordination with my classroom wiki project, I decided to set my template aside and to approach course planning from a new angle. I’ve been talking my way through this process in my notebooks, and it seems like a good idea to post some of my thoughts here so that I don’t lose them.

These posts will pop up slowly over the coming days. The first one reviews the template I’ve been using for a year.

47 Ronin

As far as heros go, it’s hard to find one more retiring than Reeves’s character here. Yet, the film moves. It assumes a world, introduces it in an economical voice-over, and then fills it in, scene-by-scene. The tightly driven narration reminds me of the best aspects of films like Total RecallKrull and The Beastmaster, only better. So there’s something old fashioned here that has little to do with the costumes or the narrative’s source.

On another note, in films such as Speed and Johnny Mnemonic, Reeves’s choice of roles anticipated shifts in Hollywood taste. He’s done it enough that I take his genre films as fingers to the wind. So coming on the heels of The Man of Thai Chi, this film makes me wonder if Hollywood’s nursing a new Orientalism driven by Chinese efforts to push product back across the Pacific and into North American theatres.

Man of Tai Chi

Man of Tai Chi (wide)

Keanu Reeves directed this film, but what exactly was his role? (Call this a note to self: the answer will take some research.) The movie is in Chinese. The genre is Asian, as are the actors and settings. Reeves is working with collaborators from previous movies. The fight choreography is familiar. What is not familiar are the odd (and often oddly beautiful) moments like:

  1. The flicker effect that opens the film; several slow cuts through black; a dramatic time-lapse sequence; the weird  and self-conscious white-screen transition to a dot.
  2. The beautifully ordinary cityscapes. Their muted warm colors contrast with the garish, vivid colors of the fight scenes in the show-within-a-show and with the dull greys and blacks of the the security firm. The changing color palettes suggest a carefully controlled visual style.
  3. The slow beautiful 360-degree pan from a rooftop that the final credits roll over.

Do these moments belong to Reeves? Are they a directorial signature? And if they do and they are, then what about the plotting, which is complex, tight and rapid? Does the tale well-told belong to Reeves as well? And if the visual flourishes, the colour and the plot all do belong to Reeves, then has he made a strong movie?

Reeves’s carefully cultivated star persona makes the answer an obvious (and obviously wrong) “no.”

 

Maurice Le Bel

The Beav heard about an exhibit of engraving and paintings by Maurice Le Bel at the Bibliothèque du Boisé in Ville St. Laurent. He’s more-or-less unknown but he had some connections with members of the Monté Saint Michel. This exhibit was small but interesting. I liked the engravings and a few of the early paintings. Le Bel struck me as a talented painter without any strong ideas of what to do with his talent, and so his paintings tended to look like other people’s work.

The gallery space in the library was really quite beautiful. I like that Montreal is putting money into renovating their libraries. The new spaces are packed with people.

Overheard at a café

My mom sat down with me and had a very serious conversation and explained things to me. She wants to get back together with my Dad. So we talked with him and explained everything and he’s thinking about it. What makes it hard is his wife. And I feel bad for my mom’s boyfriend. But my dad and his wife don’t have kids so it’s manageable…

Engaging Students, or What Is a Computer?

The following is a quotation from For PC Makers, the Good News on 2013 Is That It Is Over on The New York Times‘s site:

People everywhere are buying tablets and smartphones instead of PCs. … the market is still capturing a lot of people who just need to get on the Internet and do simple tasks,” Mr. Chou said. “From a strictly consumer, couch potato view, the Internet takes care of an awful lot.

This description of people accessing the internet without needing or wanting a computer got me thinking: “Using a computer” to me means using an open-ended tool to do a variety tasks in ways that imply some consciousness of the machine-medium. But the alternative described in the Times is a less about using a tool than riding a vehicle. And this oddly enough, got me thinking about students.

We don’t say of someone who takes a car to go to the mall, “They are interested in cars”; or of someone who takes a bus to go to the movies, “they are interested in public transportation.” We certainly don’t assume that, if we build a road to the dentist, these people (because they can take their car or the bus to the dentist’s office) will like getting their teeth drilled.

And yet, we see teenagers using their phone to look at their friend’s photos on Facebook or to tweet about their best friend’s latest epic fail, and we say “If we teach using phones or computers students will engage with education and learn more.” But aren’t they really just interested in their friends? Aren’t they, like the people described in the quotation,  just looking to get onto the internet in order to be social?

This is about metaphors: computer as tool, as vehicle, as window, as terminal. Which applies? Because each imply meaningfully different interpretations of students’ fascination with their cellphones.

Cabin in the Woods

I remember watching horror films when I was young and enjoying them. Sharing a Lazy-Boy with my sisters, hiding behind a pillow when something was about to happen, jumping, screaming, and all of this in the afternoon because at night these movies were just too scary. But I can’t stand the genre now, especially the blunt mix of sex and violence. When the first girl was hacked up, I turned it off.

On a side note, I was drawn to Cabin in the Woods because I thought it would be fun to see Joss Whedon do an odd take on a horror film. I was wrong. I’m curious how much of this film he actually wrote.

The Long Tomorrow

the long tomorrowThe Long Tomorrow is a sci-fi novel from 1955 by Leigh Brackett. After a nuclear holocaust, Americans decide high population cities invite attack and outlaw large settlements. So post-apocalyptic America becomes a world of Amish and Mennonite communities. Obviously, there a people who resist and children who want more than farm life. What follows is a story of boys finding a radio and using it to connect with an illegal technological community deemed heretical by their family and friends. Stoning or bonfires or simply beatings are meted out by religious mobs the boys keep escaping. Ultimately, I didn’t find this future-as-early-19th century storyline very appealing.

One thing: Brackett worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter and collaborated with Faulkner on the screenplay for The Big Sleep. According to her memoires, they adapted alternating chapters without consulting with each other and without ever seeing each other’s work. (Or at least, without her ever seeing Faulkner’s.)