Archive for January 2008

Ch. 5 – The Peek-a-Boo World

January 29, 2008

(Continuing on with by book club of 1…)

Today, I read a new post by Will Richardson on the topic of Twitter and it resounded so strongly with me (you can read my comments there) because I had just finished reading this fifth chapter of Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, and found incredible parallels between the influence of the telegraph, photograph, and television to the newer forms of information technology in this last decade . Will is wrestling with the impact of Twitter on his world, and how folks are restricted to communicating in 140 characters or less and others following up to 600 or more tweeters out there. Wow – have we ever changed from information moving as fast as physical people could carry it to seconds after the “post” or “publish” command has been invoked. Postman introduces the idea that this has produced “context free” information which holds merit simply because it is novel, interesting, our curious, “elevating irrelevance to the status of news”. I don’t think I am alone in being annoyed with the state of news in the US these days. In the morning I get 5 minutes or less of shallow news bytes and then 55 more minutes of the best macaroni and cheese recipes, 5 tips to firmer thighs, and where in the world is Matt Lauer. There is now such an glut of irrelevant information out there that instead of finding productive ways of taking action locally in our own communities, we struggle to stay afloat in the endless sea of information that seems important, but so disconnected that in the end we can’t find ways to take action on any of it. The idea of neighborhood has been replaced with “global neighborhood” – one that Postman defines as “… a neighborhood of strangers and pointless quantity; a world of fragments and discontinuities.”

Although Postman’s thinking evolves into a criticism of the television world, I find meaningful connections to newer worlds as well. To quote Postman once again,

“Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation… Knowing the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, backgrounds, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing lots of things, not knowing about them.”

As a teacher, I am compelled to help my students make sense out of both the information at their fingertips as well as the impact that the information medium has on his or her understanding and view of the world. I am challenged in new ways to help my students use new information tools in powerful and meaningful ways that do not sacrifice depth and complexity for breadth and glitz. How are we making sense of our world with the presence of such tools and glut of information? Are we struggling just to RSS the headlines and keep up the Jonses… I mean the Twitters? Do we need to be up on every RSSd headline or blog post? Or, are we tackling meaningful projects that positively impact our own communities based on meaningful and powerful uses of information. Are we contributing at all, or have we become so consumed with feeding on information that we have forgotten about our real neighbors and communities? Do we now live so much in Facebook or MySpace that the idea of community service is almost crazy? I mean, I have followers… I have an obligation here to satisfy them and their desire to know what I am doing every moment of the day. (sorry… this is getting a tad sarcastic)

Wow… this is making me think about a great deal. I have no answers at this point as I struggle with all of this. But, I am struggling, reading, and reflecting…, and that is good. What do you think about all of this?

Great Blogging Tool

January 28, 2008

MarsEditMarsEditIcon128.jpg is a tool that I discovered not long ago and I have really come to love it. So I decided that I would share it here. Here is a great (and simple) blogging tool that runs locally on your computer (OS X) and allows you to compose blog posts off-line and upload them to most major blogging services when you want. mars1.jpg

It has great editing features for both text as well as media and could not be easier to use. The editing features are great and it also allows you to work with the full menu of media resources.mars2.jpg Built-in text markup options are great. markup.jpg

Once you are ready to publish specific blogging drafts, all you have to do is publish. What I really like about this it that it allows me to work on draft posts without having to be connected. I know, except for the network necessity, all of this is feasible without a program like this one. I don’t know what it is, but I prefer it to posting live. It is more like writing your post in a word processor, then cutting and pasting into a new blog post… minus the cutting/pasting. It also allows you to easily edit and republish a post – great for those times when you see that glaring typo or think of some critical angle or detail that you forgot to include. It also works with Flickr if you have photos there. It does have a number of advantages that I have come to love.

Tooble: Great New Free Tool

January 21, 2008

I recently learned of a new tool called Tooble that was introduced at Macworld Expo 2008. What is amazing is that this tool has been created by 2 high school teenagers! It is a free download and once it is installed, it works with YouTube and first downloads then converts your selected videos to .MP4 format. It will even automatically add them to your iTunes library if you wish and compatible for your iPod. For me, this is great because I never like to rely solely on a network connection when I want to show videos to my students in class or in a presentation elsewhere. I have been using Zamzar to convert such flash videos, but this tool makes it even easier. Here’s how it works (the functions correspond to the image below).

1. You can enter a URL of a specific video

2. You can search for a video at YouTube

3. You can search by YouTube’s common filters as well as your own favorites

4. Select the video(s) you want converted and saved locally as .mp4 files

5. Click “Download” and the magic begins.

It could not have been easier! For now it is only Mac compatible, but one of the high school students, Alex Catullo, is working on the Windows version. Thanks to their computer science teacher for encouraging powerful uses of technology beyond shallow mind maps, dull PowerPoints, and pretty page layouts.


Ch. 4 – The Typographic Mind

January 20, 2008

(Continuing with book club idea…)

In this chapter Postman deepens his argument by describing the impact of print information on 17th and 18th century minds. He describes the disciplined minds of the time as being able to sit and attend to 4-7 hour lectures – with relish. In addition, the people of the time were also able to both speak in and comprehend complex sentence structures. Postman contrasts this with what he calls, “people of television culture” who need “plain language” and who would struggle greatly to comprehend the complex text and oratories of the 18th century. I think in our time of information glut that we are in more need than ever for people who can do what Walter Ong called the “analytic management of knowledge.” Postman describes this well with the following words:

“To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weight ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another.”

I would have to agree that as technological progress has advanced, the ability of our students (who become the mature citizenry) to process complex information both in print and aurally has declined a great deal. Postman contrasts those individuals from the pulpit, from the courtroom, and from politics with the same today and comments that those today could not hold a candle to the typographic and oratorial skills of a few centuries ago.

Postman also observes that “the printed word had a monopoly on both attention and intellect, there being no other means, besides the oral tradition, to have access to public knowledge.” He begins to build his case that a major shift in thinking power has happened as we have moved from a word-centered culture to an image-centered one and a century he describes as the “Age of Show Business”.

Personally, this argument resounds true with me, as I see experience the numbing power of today’s media blitz on a daily basis. Even in schools we struggle to achieve such a basic level of performance and ability in all our students. We have become obsessed with assessment and accountability because of such low levels. We have all looked at the statistics regarding the way our youth spend their time “hooked up” to all varieties of media. Yet, I think we can all agree that most of that time spent is shallow and trivial. Why are we all so enamored by their proclivity to be social and remix content in the virtual sense? Even at the college level where I teach I experience the inability of students to think deeply, speak cogently, write powerfully, and read complex text. I have recognized that in myself at times and that is why I pick up books like this one to read. It is good mental discipline that is all too easily lost. I think such challenges as found in this book need to spur us all on to make sure that new technologies and forms of communication and discourse are used in powerful rather than trivial ways. Sometimes I think we are all too excited to see that students are blogging, creating wikis, developing digital stories, producing podcasts, developing semantic maps or webs – without examining the substance of their narratives, analyses, criticisms, and arguments. I also feel that we have become distracted by trying to get teachers to USE technology instead of teach powerfully with the help of new technologies. The “we have to start somewhere” argument really does not work. We need to start with powerful teaching and then harness all powerful tools at our disposal. I think if more teachers would spend time reading books like this new one called The Strategic Teacher we would see a much higher quality of teaching and student learning than what results from much of the focus being put on technology. That being said, I am one of the biggest techno-geeks out there and strong proponent of new technologies for teaching and learning. I guess I am being convicted as I read this book as well 🙂 I fear, as Postman does, that we are letting technology dictate what is most important more than we might like to admit at times.

Enough said… Until next time

Ch. 3 – Typographic America

January 17, 2008

(Continuing with my book club…)

In this chapter, Postman recounts some of the major changes that occurred in America with the introduction of the printing press… Yes, books. But also a ravenous hunger for newspapers. He describes the general public as being quite literate and hungry for the written word, as there were no other informative media available other than the public orator who would come and speak in public forums. They were very well attended.

In the 1770s, even the poorest of common folk could read. Reading was not considered an “elitist” activity at all. This really made me think of how things are today, where literacy rates often decline in relation to socio-economic status. Is this in part because of the competing new media (movies, video games, television…) that discourages traditional literacies ? I think this may be a direction that Postman heads in future chapters.

I found incredible parallels between the emergence of newspapers in the late 17th/early 18th centuries and blogs in the 21st century. Postman describes how in the late 17th century how newspapers became so important in Boston to “combat the spirit of lying” that was going on in politics. However, the second edition of the Publick Occurrences never happened, as it was suppressed by the Governor for being too truthful (truth hurts!). Thank goodness for our freedoms of speech. By 1730 there were seven successfully published newspapers in the 4 colonies. By 1800, 180 papers were published.

Newspapers were referred to as the “spring of knowledge. The general source throughout the nation, of every modern conversation.” Per capita at end of 18th century, there were more newspapers in the US than there were in England due to America’s newfound freedoms.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “Parties do not write books to combat each other’s opinions, but pamphlets (and newspapers), which are circulated for a day within incredible rapidity and then expire.” He goes on to write that just as the firearm equalized nobility with the “vassal”, so did printing and the post (just like blog posts). Can you imagine if the common man of the 17th/18th century had access to some medium to easily publish his/her thoughts to the culture of the times? Information has truly revolutionized our society. There are now somewhere between 50 and 150 million blogs out there.

Today, anyone with Internet access (or a cell phone) can blog. Bloggers have changed reporting and the speed at which information reaches the masses. Blogging empowers the ‘common man’ who does not have access to publish in conventional information outlets (news, published books/articles, magazines,…). It has helped, just like the firearm and newspaper, as de Tocqueville put it, to “equalize nobility with the vassal” (YouTube debates?). Along the same lines, it can empower students and give them a voice like never before. Of course, with such power needs to come responsibility – and that also must be taught in parallel. Cyberbullying, for example, is related to this newfound power of youth minus the responsibility.

I don’t think that Postman was thinking about such parallels when writing this chapter since his book was written in 1985, long before blogging, podcasting and the like truly took off. I wonder what he thinks about such forms of communication that empower the individual like never before. I don’t think this type of activity would fall in his thesis of “amusing ourselves to death”. Of course, these new information tools can be used for trivial purposes, no doubt. Our challenge is to educate our students and colleagues on the empowerment that comes from having a powerful voice without boundaries. If we have important things to say, they are not merely relegated to the bulletin board, hallway display, or faculty room/water cooler chatter. I think a major hurdle is to shift from the thinking that we either have no voice or our voice does not matter to participating in global conversations about what we are passionate about. If we have nothing to say or are not passionate about anything, that says something, doesn’t it?

Anyway, it’s amazing what this one chapter sparked in my mind. I look forward to more such tangents.

Trying a New Thing…

January 16, 2008

I have been blogging for some time now and have enjoyed every minute of it – both sharing my own thoughts and participating in the thought conversations of others. For some time now I have been playing around with the idea of holding some type of book club within a blog. So, I am going to give it a try. A book club of one (and anyone else who is interested following and perhaps participating in my ramblings). I have been struggling to get started with Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public discourse in the age of show business. (1985. Viking Penguin Inc.)amusingo.gif Yeah, I know what you are thinking – what a dreary choice to begin. However, one must blog for oneself and I have always tried to bridle my natural enthusiasm for technology with the other side of the discussion. Neil Postman has written a number of excellent, thought provoking books. They are hard reads. He writes way beyond my level of thinking, which is why I like to read his work. Reading Postman is hard work, but an important discipline and skill that must be practiced if one is to participate in this level of thinking and discourse. I have found that my involvement in blogging has in some respects taken away from the time that I normally spend reading material at this level. So, I figure this is a way to do both. I will read his book and process his message within successive blog posts. I think that this is good on a number of fronts – especially since when one processes in written form what one is reading, it actually helps process and truly comprehend the information at a deeper level.

So, I am committing to this bumpy ride. Tag along if you like. Even better – help me find clarity and educational relevance in Postman’s almost prophetic ideas. Camille Paglia writes in review of this book:

“As a fervent evangelist of the age of Hollywood, I publicly opposed Neil Postman’s dark picture of our media-saturated future. But time has proven Postman right. He accurately foresaw that the young would inherit a frantically all-consuming media culture of glitz, gossip, and greed.”

Stay tuned…

Thank You, Network!

January 12, 2008

I just want to stop and say thank you to all of you who blog about serious and relevant issues that we are all facing today in education. Over the past few days, I have been so drawn in by the many thought-provoking and intelligent narratives found in many edublogs that I routinely read and participate in.
In a recent post by Kelly Christopherson over on LeaderTalk, he shares his observation that many teachers who struggle with using new technologies to learn, collaborate, and teach are often those who have no support networks that challenge and inspire them. These are most likely the same teachers who struggle the most with change and the learning of any new things. They have often grown stale, fearful, and uninspired. He cites a few examples within his own network and writes that these networked folks are those who…

question and challenge, helping to stretch the discussion, helping us to reflect on our ideas and thoughts while providing some great tools and insights into using web2.0 tools in teaching, these relationships help us connect and develop, grow and learn, keep our perspective and motivate us. These relationships have become a large part of how we are growing and developing our teaching and understanding. These are the relationships that those teachers not engaged DO NOT have.

I have heard Will Richardson and others also attest to the importance of their networks in their own personal learning and professional development and I can certainly attest to the value of these new networks that are independent of time and space. So, here’s to all of you who have exponentially expanded my learning network. I look forward to many more inspirational, challenging, controversial, confrontative, serious, humorous, light, passionate, and heartfelt posts and conversations.