Twitter Could Drive You Cuckoo – If You’re Not Prepared

Claude AlmansiBy Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues

[Note: This article was first posted as a comment to Lynn Zimmerman‘s “Twitter Could Drive You Cuckoo” (1 Oct. 2009).]

At first, Dr. Alloway’s criticism of Twitter may seem part of a long line that includes Rousseau’s of La Fontaine’s fables in L’Emile, Flaubert’s of novels in Madame Bovary, Orwell’s of Boys’ Weeklies, and further educational damnings of TV, transistor radio, the internet, blogs, Facebook itself. Education pundits tend to damn new things until they become familiar enough to pundit about them.

But Dr. Alloway is not an education pundit. She is an educator concretely helping a group of slow-learning 11-14 year olds to improve their short term memory and reporting what she has seen in this group. Hence the unfairness of Malcolm Parks’s comment to the Higher Ed Morning article about the fact she has no research paper about new media use and short term memory: one doesn’t write a research paper on such a statistical basis.

Some other comments are more constructive, suggesting the exploration of more active and learning-enhancing uses of Twitter. Also possibly relevant: Danah Boyd’s Twitter: “Pointless Babble” or Peripheral Awareness + Social Grooming? (16 August 2009) on the importance of socializing and on the fact that socializing communication – in real life too – contains a lot of phatic roughage, i.e., utterances only aimed at indicating readiness to interact with others. If you have a bad short term memory, telling this “roughage” apart from content communication might be difficult.

But there might be a very concrete usability factor in the different impacts Facebook and Twitter have on Dr. Alloway’s students. For someone who has short-time memory problems, Facebook is easier to use because Facebook messages stay put, whereas they slide away very fast in Twitter. So her students are more likely to be paralyzed into passivity by this rapid flow than their peers who have a better short-term memory and can use the Twitter search engine or a remembered hashtag to participate in a conversation about a given theme.

_____________________________

Education pundits tend to damn new things until they become familiar enough to pundit about them.

_____________________________

To overcome this issue, she might show her students how they can limit the number of people they are following until they get more familiar with Twitter so that their homepage is less crowded and does not move so fast; how to bookmark the RSS feeds of hashtags for conversation topics they’d like to participate in; how to mark a given tweet as favorite and, in general, explore with them the Getting Started topics of Twitter’s help forum – help forum topics don’t glide away, and they can be bookmarked in a browser.

Another possible factor might be young slow-learners’ fear of seeming dumb in a whirl of fast moving Twitter conversations, just as in real-life fast moving ones: people tend to equate quick-wittedness with intelligence and slower thinking with stupidity, and this is possibly even more true for pre-teens and teens.

Here, an educator might show people who need more time both to understand and to utter how to use twitter to bring people to other modes of conversation, for instance, by tweeting links to blog or forum discussions where they can have enough time. This can even be automated: new posts and comments on ETC are automatically announced at http://twitter.com/etcjournal via twitterfeed.com, which translates the entries RSS feed and the comments RSS feed into tweets. Same with many other twitter accounts.

The twitter whirlwind might drive some people cuckoo if they enter it unprepared. But they can be shown how to use its power to steer themselves and others towards quieter conversation venues.

Twitter Bad for the Brain? – Balderdash, Poppycock, Twaddle

John SenerBy John Sener

[Note: This article was first posted as a comment to Lynn Zimmerman‘s “Twitter Could Drive You Cuckoo” (1 Oct. 2009).]

Studies like this, and the related reportage and unsupported speculation, are what could drive me cuckoo. More accurately, taking such reportage (and the related study behind it?) seriously is likely to be far less healthy for one’s brain and working memory than Twitter.

Look closely at what’s going on here. The cited articles make no mention of how Twitter was used in the study. So I spent (wasted?) 30 minutes or so looking for the actual study. Still haven’t found it. That’s your first clue: the assertion that Twitter is bad is mostly, perhaps entirely, an echo chamber.

A Google search did not yield the study; none of the articles I found have a link to it. I did find Dr. Alloway’s web site; that should have been promising — except that I couldn’t find a link to the study there either. I found a couple of references buried on her web site and through Google searches, but none which appear to be the related study either. Much more easy to find on her web site are links to all the media coverage she’s received and the talks she’s giving. That’s your second clue.

It appears from her web site that she’s doing some good research to establish the importance of working memory, among other areas. Bravo for that. She claims that it’s more valuable than IQ as a measure of intelligence (although the study I found measures the efficacy of working memory in terms of increased performance on IQ, literacy, and numeracy tests — hmmm). But even this appears to be a double-edged sword: she is also promoting “JUNGLE MEMORY, a brain-training program based on my research and promoted by Pearson Education, improved from a grade C to a B, and a B to an A after just 12 weeks! It is the only training program scientifically proven to raise grades.” So her web site is long on self-promotion and short on links to actual research.

______________________________

Clearly working memory as defined is an important skill. But why is it THE most important skill?

______________________________

But here’s the thing: What does all this have to do with Twitter being unhealthy for working memory? Where’s the evidence, the data? I found someone who suggested that the study did not actually test Twitter (can’t find that reference now). Dr. Alloway herself noted in a comment on her web site that the conclusions are “based on findings from a pilot study, more to follow once the study is complete.” Hmmm. Someone else on her web site asked four weeks ago for a link to the complete study; no response was posted. The reportage also suggests that Twitter was not actually tested, and that its detrimental effects are pure speculation on Dr. Alloway’s part. As reported in the Scotsman, “Paul Allen, editor of ComputerActive magazine, questioned the study and said technology like Twitter was ‘too new’ to make conclusions about. He said: “‘It sounds very spurious. I don’t see a correlation between the length of a message you send someone and the effect on memory. It could be a really interesting Twitter message.’” Exactly.

But in the meantime, the blogosphere has already run wild, and sooner or later you’ll be hearing someone tell you how science has shown that Twitter is bad for your brain. Just like another British scientist ran amok earlier this year with unsubstantiated speculation about how social networking sites were harming children’s brains.

Fortunately, the British have also provided us with several fine words for dealing with such situations: Balderdash. Poppycock. Twaddle.

To me, the worst part about this is that it totally obscures a deeper, more important question. As Dr. Alloway says on her web site, “Cutting-edge research has shown that working memory—the ability to store and manipulate information—is the most important learning skill a child can have. Working memory is the foundation of good grades and a successful life beyond the classroom. Without it, students would fail at every task, and with it they can dramatically improve their classroom performance.”

Clearly working memory as defined is an important skill. But why is it THE most important skill? It makes sense to say that if you believe that classroom performance as currently defined (store and manipulate information as per the teacher’s requirements) is in fact most important. But if you believe that there are more important skills, and that getting good grades is at least as much about social conditioning as it is about learning, then you would be asking a different set of questions. Ones, sadly, which we are not going to hear in this media blitz of misinformation…

Encounters: Blended Learning Is Largely an Illusion

Encounters: ideas that go bumpIntroduction: This encounter begins with an idea, a “bump,” from Steve Eskow. It was originally posted as a reply to Lynn Zimmerman’s “Computers in the Classroom Can Be Boring.” Please participate in this encounter by posting a comment. I’ll append most or all of the comments to this page as they’re published. -js

steve_eskow80Steve Eskow, editor, hybrid vs. virtual issues, on 24 July 2009, said:

What Lynn is confirming, I think, is that blended learning is largely an illusion.

The “campus” is a collection of spaces designed to feature a standing and speaking “instructor” and a sitting and silent “student.”

The “lecture hall” is designed for lecturing, not for computers.

Again, the “classroom” is designed for a standing instructor speaking to sitting students.

Despite all attempts to to mute or end the lecture, it continues to be–overwhelmingly–the favored mode of instruction in our elite colleges. And it should be: Why pay distinguished scholars to teach and not listen to them?

Perhaps it is time to consider the possibility that the classroom and the computer are oil and water.

encounters: ideas that go bump

claude80Claude Almansi, editor, accessibility issues & site accessibility facilitator, on 25 July 2009, at 11:09 am, said:

“Blended learning” always reminds me of the mush I prepared in a blender, scrupulously following sadistic pediatricians’ instructions to wean my daughter. She contemptuously spat it out. Then our landlady asked me: “Have you tried that revolting stuff yourself?” and had hysterics when I did. Then she suggested tiny pasta with peeled and seeded raw tomato and some parmesan cheese and real olive oil. It worked.

By the same token, maybe computers still do have their place in the classroom, but a separate, not blended one. I once organized an intensive French workshop for which I’d made a wiki, with the precise purpose that students would not be distracted by note-taking during discussions and other active things. There were the active moments, then there were other moments when they wrote about these activities in the wiki, or did other writing assignments, like captioning videos. It worked too.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Steve Eskow, on 25 July 2009, at 2:19 pm, said:

Claude, suppose we added the video captured lecture to the blog and the wiki, and occasional web cam interactgions between teacher and student.s Is there something important lacking in this pedagogy that requires us to bring teachers and students to specially constructed buildings for face-to-face interaction?

(I like very much your gastronomic illustration of “blending,” and will steal it shamelessly. I may change it to what happens when you “blend” two splendid fluids, wine and water.)

encounters: ideas that go bump

Claude Almansi, on 25 July 2009, at 8:10 pm, said:

Replying to: Steve Eskow’s July 25th, 2009 at 2:34 pm comment:

Steve, for foreign language learning, I still believe that F2F can produce better results, as discussing in real time is part of using a language. But I left the wiki online (micusif.wikispaces.com so that the students who took part in the workshop could refer to it during their MA course. And others too: they can use the references to the materials we used and the activities we did with them, and even a link to some abominable snapshots I took with a webcam of what we wrote on flip charts. No videos: I don’t know how to. Had I lectured, I might have made an audio recording (did some of their discussions).

encounters: ideas that go bump

keller80Harry Keller, editor, science education, on 25 July 2009, at 11:11 am, said:

How many lectures have you attended that inspired you? What is the percentage? Most lectures I’ve attended would be just as good as pages in books.

Exceptions may abound. I was always engaged by Richard Feynman’s lectures. Perhaps, it was his engaging grin along with an infectious love of discovery and of explaining things so that his audience could comprehend. Still, the exceptions are rare.

Large lecture halls have been around for centuries. Maybe it’s time for them to give way to smaller venues and to social networking tools. My junior English literature classes typically had 3-5 students attending. Imagine having the professor (not a teaching assistant) almost to yourself.

I have sat in lectures by enough distinguished scholars. I’m talking about CalTech and Columbia. With few exceptions (e.g. Feynman), I could just as well as had a teaching assistant. Having distinction in scholarly affairs does not indicate lecturing talent. Great scholars are not always great teachers. Besides, they get paid for bringing in grant money and making the institution more famous. Undistinguished scholars (read assistant professors) are the ones who really get paid to teach.

So, yes, computers in the classroom take away from the interactive flavor that can be established by good teachers. Classrooms full of computers *look* boring. Computers at home or in the dorm room are another matter.

What will the future of instruction be? We’re in a state of extreme flux. The situation is too fluid to know for sure. It will include computers and the Internet. It will, for a long time anyway, include instructors. I predict that it will not include large lectures except as entertainment, which can be educating at times.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Steve Eskow, on 25 July 2009, at 2:34 pm, said:

Harry, if you were in charge of staffing for a new university, would you hire folks such as Richard Feynman and ask them to teach?
Richard Feynman
(I’m assuming that to take get faculty such as Feynman you’d have to offer them teaching loads no larger than five or six hours a week, right?)

Or would you not hire distingusiehd scholasr and researchers as teachers?

encounters: ideas that go bump

Harry Keller, on 25 July 2009, at 5:54 pm, said:

[@ Steve] Not ever having been a university administrator, I’m not certain what I’d do given the chance. I feel that the traditional role of institutions of higher education is being challenged. For many decades, students at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, et al. have discovered that their famous faculty is rarely seen by them.

These institutions perform two services. One is research and publication. The other is teaching. As much as I decry the University of Phoenix’s excessive concern with their bottom line, they have set out a model of the university solely as a teaching institution.

Universities have plenty of non-teaching researcher/publisher personnel who are called postdoctoral fellows. I was once a member of that tribe. Many professors view teaching undergraduates as a necessary evil they perform in order to hold a job at their chosen school.

The whole concept that undergraduate students will benefit from the crumbs that get scattered from on high makes little sense. What do they get for their high tuition? Mostly, they seem to get associations with their fellow students that will stand them in good stead in the future. The courses can be as good or better in other schools.

To answer your question, I would not be in charge of any part of a new university. If forced into it, I would have to understand fully the goals of that school before I could make such a decision.

It’s just as I harp on regarding science labs in secondary school. You shouldn’t do them until you know why you’re doing them. Teacher impose labs on students just because. Without clear reasons for having them, they’re a waste of time and money.

There are just too few Richard Feynman and Harry Gray types in the world to staff all of the universities that could use their services.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Claude Almansi, on 25 July 2009, at 8:10 pm, said:

Harry Keller’s July 25th, 2009 at 11:11 am comment. Re “I could just as well as had a teaching assistant” – when I had to take the history of the French language course in the 70’s, the professor was on sabbatical and his lectures were being read by his teaching assistant, who’d say things like “here the professor inserts a little joke:…” It was all the more zany as most other professors had agreed to have their lectures they repeated from year to year a) published as “polycopiés”; b) recorded on audio-cassettes, for students who could not attend lectures.

But like you, I also remember great lectures, like you: Jean Starobinski’s, George Steiner’s for instance. But thei impact was also due to the fact that they were combined with seminars where we could discuss with them.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Carrie HeeterCarrie Heeter, editor, games development, on 25 July 2009, at 4:22 pm, said:

Blended learning is the best!

I feel that my fully online courses finally became as good as or better than in person classes when I added one hour of synchronous time per week. My students report valuing the mix, claiming to enjoy it much more than fully online classes.

I never lecture during our precious hour. The online aspects of my blended courses include lots of mini-lectures (10 to 20 minutes of audio, often plus power point or video) and guest interviews (10 to 15 minute edited audio interviews with industry professionals), plus online readings. Individual and group project work also occurs outside of the hour “together.”

I use the hour to answer and ask questions. We often use polleverywhere,com to have small breakout discussions and come back and vote on an intriguing question. We negotiate changes in class assignments, and coordinate forming groups for group projects.

It would impair the quality of the student experience if I were not allowed to blend a dash of synchronicity.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Harry Keller, on 25 July 2009, at 5:58 pm, said:

[@ Carrie] You are reaching the perfect blend of blended instruction. You have figured out what instructors really can do best. You plan the course and then you execute it while making yourself the moderator of the discussions that you engender. The last part is critical for science and, I assume, for many other subjects as well.

Students should be full of questions raised by the curriculum you created. By having them discuss these questions among themselves with an expert helping to guide them, they’ll learn more than from a hundred hours of lectures.

encounters: ideas that go bump

jims80Jim Shimabukuro, editor, on 25 July 2009, at 8:00 pm, said:

Carrie, I think your definition of “blended” is unique. I believe most people would define “blended” as combinations of F2F physical meetings in a classroom and online activities such as participating in forums and logging in to webpages for readings. I also believe that many define “blended” as a smart classroom where instructor and students meet, F2F, and use the equipment to extend the learning environment to incorporate the web as well as social networks that allow all participants to communicate virtually. In some cases, the blended class replaces F2F meetings with online synchronous or asynchronous activities.

Then there are online classes that require a very small number of F2F physical meetings, sometimes as few as 1 or 2. I’m not sure exactly how to categorize these, but I think most would say these are online classes with minimal F2F requirements. Purists, though, might argue that even a single F2F requirement makes this a blended class. The point is that that requirement automatically excludes large numbers of students who cannot meet the F2F requirements. I tend to be a purist, but I’d be hard pressed to come up with a viable justification for my position.

IMHO, Carrie, your classes aren’t blended. They’re completely online but with synchronous requirements. Students and instructors can participate from anywhere without ever having to physically attend a required F2F session. I believe most online instructors require or at least encourage synchronous activities. For my completely online classes, I know that I always enjoy impromptu live interactions in the chat room that’s built into our university’s Sakai course management system. I drop in at times when I know many are online, working on assignments.

But I also know that, at least for my students, a synchronous requirement would be a huge stumbling block, negating the primary attraction that online has for them, which is the freedom to log in when it’s most convenient for them. My guess is that your population of students differs from mine, and this is why synchronous works for you and wouldn’t work for me.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Carrie Heeter, on 26 July 2009, at 6:31 am, said:

Jim,

Actually, my students are F2F together (in Michigan) for the in person part, although I am online, for our synchronous hour. Since my department currently does not offer an online curriculum, the students are physically on campus. I Skype and Breeze in to the group. For my Serious Game Design class, they meet in a lab. For the Design Research class, they meet in a classroom.

However, I do entertain a mixed blended mode for those who live relatively far from campus. Students have the option of coming in person, or coming electronically.

It depends on the class composition each semester, but typically either all or most are F2F in the traditional sense, except that the instructor telecommutes.

C

encounters: ideas that go bump

Jim Shimabukuro, on 26 July 2009, at 8:05 am, said:

Thanks for the clarification, Carrie. I should’ve remembered this from your earlier articles Online Hybrid as Asynchronous, Co-present, and Remote and Adventures in Hybrid Teaching: The First Day Is the Hardest. Your courses are, indeed, unique. Still, the fact that you’re in San Francisco and the students are in Michigan tells me that the course is theoretically fully online — and the only major physical difference with other online classes is that the students happen to regularly gather in the same place at the same time, F2F, for sessions. They could just as easily be scattered throughout the world for instruction to occur, with their peer-to-peer interactions occurring virtually instead of F2F. However, I do realize that the students’ in-person interactions on site are qualitatively different from virtual interactions.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Harry Keller, on 26 July 2009, at 1:16 pm, said:

Carrie, I still think you’ve got the right idea. The tools may be incomplete, but the direction is good. The real advantage for young people to go to universities lies in getting away from their home towns, meeting diverse people, making friendships that will be useful in the future, and stuff like that. As our network tools mature, those goals also may be achievable in online settings.

The courses are just an excuse these days because you can learn course content without “being there.” You may even learn it better.

I went to an atypical school and have to carefully avoid using my own experience as a guide most of the time. I did not obtain the advantages I listed above because: I lived at home; everyone was a nerd and most were white males, and I maintained contact with none of my schoolmates. I am ready to be corrected if I have misread the more usual university environment.

Computers in the Classroom Can Be Boring

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

The headline of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week caught my attention: “‘Teach Naked’ Effort Strips Computers from Classrooms.” The article, posted on July 20, 2009, is written by Jeffrey Young and is actually called “When Computers Leave the Classroom, So Does Boredom.”

Young writes that, according to studies, students think lectures and labs depending on computer technology are less interesting than those relying on discussion and interaction. PowerPoint presentations (one of the main areas of complaint), for example, are often used as a replacement for transparencies shown on an overhead projector and make no substantive difference in lesson delivery. An effective use of video technology should be to spark discussion and not be a replacement for a lecture.

Young says students also complain that these interactive classes require more effort than lectures. He says that students who are used to the lecture model are often resistant to this type of participatory learning. I can attest to this from my own computer lab with 1990's computers round a central tableexperience. I teach my face-to-face classes seminar-style with small group and large group activities and discussion. I will never forget one student telling me, “Instead of all this group stuff, why don’t you just tell us what you want us to know.” (Unfortunately, that student is now a teacher who probably lectures to his students.)

Despite its title, the article is not insisting that all technology and all computers should be thrown out of the classroom. It is making the point that the way technology is used in the classroom needs to be reassessed and changed so that it is not just being used to replicate the traditional modes of delivery.

Many of the authors in this journal have advocated just such changes (most recently, Judith Sotir in Two Steps Forward . . . Several Back and Judith McDaniel in What Students Want and How to Design for It: A Reflection on Online Teaching). As McDaniel pointed out, we need to “design for a structure that challenges and rewards.”

I agree that this attention to design is important not only in the online environment McDaniel was referring to but also in the face-to-face classroom with or without technology. As Young says, with stiff competition from online courses, face-to-face courses need to engage students so that they see a reason for being in the classroom.

Hybrid, Online, or F2F – It Depends

lynnz80By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

In her articles, “Adventures in Hybrid Teaching: The First Day Is the Hardest” and “Online Hybrid as Asynchronous, Co-present, and Remote,” Carrie Heeter addressed the issues that face teachers and students in a hybrid classroom, including technical, personal, and pedagogical. How the classroom environment is shaped by these issues is summed up in Carrie’s response to a comment by Steve Eskow, which appeared in “The Campus: The Old Imperialism?” Carrie said, “It depends.”

Her account of the issues and reader responses to her articles highlights the complexity of online versus face-to-face teaching and combinations thereof. In any classroom environment the technical, personal, and pedagogical issues are interconnected, making “it depends” a legitimate answer. For example, questions of whether live instruction is less demanding than online depend on the goals and objectives of the course; what kind of technology the teacher and students have access to; and the personal circumstances, personalities, attitudes, and motivations of the students and the teacher.

lynn2009febA graduate course that I teach, Multicultural Education, provides an illustration of this interconnectedness. The students are full-time teachers, and the course is offered in the evening at a regional campus. The course has evolved from a face-to-face class using one online discussion a semester to a hybrid using asynchronous discussion boards for student interaction online as well as face-to-face meetings. The students and I both agree that the hybrid class allows for options and opportunities to engage and interact in different ways.

The online part of the course, as others have mentioned, gives my very busy students an opportunity to engage actively in class without having to drive anywhere. Because it is asynchronous, they can also do it at their convenience, within parameters that they as a group agree upon. Because the forums are written and not oral, it gives those students who are comfortable with and good at writing a chance to engage the material in a different way and at a different level than face-to-face offers. Some of these students even try to engage their classmates more actively in the discussion. However, some of the students write enough to fulfill the assignment requirements and do not go beyond that.

The face-to-face format offers advantages as well. First of all, there are some students who are better at expressing themselves orally than in writing. Face-to-face discussions give them the chance to engage effectively with the materials and with each other. Face-to-face also seems more open to spontaneity. Perhaps I feel this way because I am a fairly good discussion facilitator. I watch faces and listen to tone of voice. I listen to what is being said and what is not being said, and I guide the discussion accordingly, creating more flow than I often find in my students’ written online discussions. As with the online assignments, some students participate more fully than others, despite my attempts at engaging all the students.

(I can hear someone out there saying, “You take care of the issue of oral discussions by giving your students the opportunity to have them online. Let’s save that discussion for later.”)

educating_net_genIn their essay “Preparing the Academy of Today for the Learner of Tomorrow” in Educating the Net Generation (an e-book), Hartman, Moskal, and Dziuban (2005) conclude that what constitutes good teaching practice is universal. “Students believe that excellent instructors:

  • Facilitate student learning
  • Communicate ideas and information effectively
  • Demonstrate genuine interest in student learning
  • Organize their courses effectively
  • Show respect and concern for their students
  • Assess student progress fairly and effectively” (section 7).

I think that hybrid classes serve as one example of good teaching practice because, in order to meet the needs of all of our students, we need to offer them as broad a learning environment as possible.

References

Hartman, J., Moskal, P., and Dziuban, C. (2005). Preparing the academy of today for the learner of tomorrow. Educating the Net Generation. Retrieved February 3, 2009 from http://www.educause.edu/Resources/EducatingtheNetGeneration/PreparingtheAcademyofTodayfort/6062

ICT for Development and Education: Exit LIFI

claude80By Claude Almansi
Staff Writer

Thanks –

to all members of the LIFI (Laboratorio di Ingegneria della Formazione e Innovazione, or Laboratory of Educational Engineering and Innovation) team [1] for their concrete and theoretical work in the field of ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) for development and education, which I had the privilege to follow rather closely as translator of many of their texts since 1998.

Thanks also to Lynn Zimmerman and Steve Eskow for the discussion they started in this blog on the imperialistic characteristics of online and traditional approaches to teaching: her “Access: The New Imperialism?” and his “The Campus: The Old Imperialism?” articles are very relevant to the social and cultural situation in which the LIFI team had to operate: while Switzerland became technically highly connected fairly early, ICT literacy progressed more slowly, and powers-that-be in education were – and still are to some extent – very wary of these “new” technologies. It is in this background claude_jan29that the LIFI team nevertheless managed to offer opportunities for vocational training (both basic and lifelong) via ICT to people living in remote Alpine areas, but also in (African) Guinea, where creating new brick-and-mortar schools would have been much more expensive.

Progetto Poschiavo – LIFI movingAlps

In 1997, a group of researchers based in Lugano (CH) started organizing sustainable development and training projects that used online technology (video conference, virtual learning platform, e-mail, etc.) to connect people in remote areas with experts from a range of academic institutions.

The success of the first, Progetto Poschiavo (1997-2004), limited to one Alpine valley, led to further projects, among which movingAlps [2] (2004-2008), which covered Val Bregaglia, Vallemaggia and Val d’Anniviers.

These projects were characterized by a multidisciplinary approach combining economic analysis and cultural anthropology, in order to first gather data about the potential resources of the area and the wishes of the inhabitants, and only then help them to structure, finance and enact their own development initiatives.

During movingAlps, these researchers were based at the Università della Svizzera Italiana [3], where they created LIFI [4] and offered courses based on these concrete experiences. But in2008, the university council decided, to put an end to LIFI. There may have been administrative reasons for this decision – the status of LIFI was exceptional – yet it seems rather paradoxical in the year in which Michael Wesch became one of the CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professors of the Year for Doctoral and Research Universities (see [5]) for his own use of cultural anthropology in research and teaching about our present information society.

Taking Stock

Fortunately, the knowledge gathered in these projects remains available in two forms: the texts gathered in the movingAlps Vademecum (downloadable in Italian, German and French from [6]; see also the movingAlps Vademecum discussion in English on Innovate-Ideagora [7]) and in Graziano Terrani’s documentary “Un Successo Condannato” for Radiotelevisione della Svizzera di lingua italiana, which illustrates vividly the activities and results of movingAlps, for instance:

  • Punto Bregaglia, a business conference and training centre in Val Bregaglia [8],
  • PercorsoArianna [9], which fostered the creation of women’s micro-enterprises,
  • minimovingAlps [10], where pre-school children freely photographed their environment, which led to further initiatives, like the creation of a “Gnomes’ Village” playground in Avegno, where the children were directly involved in the design, and Cià c’am va [11], a series of itineraries in Val Bregaglia based on the photographs taken by the local kids, which offers activities for families with young children.

ciacamva_dianaFrom the site of Cià c’am va [11].

Participants’ Viewpoints

From Graziano Terrani’s documentary (GTD):

Maurizio Michael (Centro Punto Bregaglia): On the one hand, Punto Bregaglia strives to pursue what has been done so far within movingAlps, hence to provide a continuity and to reinforce those activities and initiatives. And on the other hand, it offers a space to local enterprises wishing to grow and cooperate towards the development of our area. . . .

Romana Rotanzi (PercorsoArianna): When movingAlps started here, it seemed aimed at teaching us how to fish rather than at giving us just one fish, I mean that its purpose was to give people the bases enabling them to do a thousand things. I didn’t want to be left out. So I was very pleased when I heard that we could learn how to use computers without having to go to Locarno – which, for me, means one hour’s journey. This training offer arrived when my children had reached school age. And with some cleverness and a few work-arounds, you can do it all, if you want to. I don’t feel in the marginalized anymore, it is as if I lived in Milan – why not? I too can find anything via the internet, now that I know how to use it . . . .

Gaby Minoggio (PercorsoArianna): At first, it seemed to be just a computer course. But afterwards, we discovered that it was a far more comprehensive kind of training, aimed at making women realize and exploit their know-how and potential. And I thought that a training offer here in the valley was an opportunity not to be missed. It was a full evolutionary process for us six women, which now we manage ourselves: training, at first, and then this evolution through our activities . . . . So, obviously, we are satisfied with our involvement.

logo_pa

Logo of the percorsoArianna project.

Outlook?

Giuliana Messi, of the movingAlps team in Lugano, says in GTD:

When you manage a project, it is right to leave it after a while, and let people continue on their own. I think that the 3-4 projects started in Vallemaggia last well. And then there are less visible, yet important, things: for instance, women who participated in percorsoArianna who tell me that they have become reference persons for others, and so on – this is positive empowerment.

And in fact, several initiatives started within movingAlps are still going on after the end of the project. Apart from the Punto Bregaglia business and communication center, in Val d’Anniviers: a census of local architectural and artistic works and a gathering of traditional legends and tales, for instance. Participants have found alternatives to the infrastructure offered by movingAlps. Again, from GTD:

Adriana Tenda Claude (PercorsoArianna): We have opened a blog as a way to replace the room we were able to use for our monthly meetings . . . before, and also, partly, the virtual learning platform we had for the two years of PercorsoArianna. Also to stimulate the development of our projects.

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Screenshot of the movingAlps virtual learning platform

Nevertheless, other initiative ideas were not yet sufficiently developed to be able to continue on their own.

Moreover, the work of the LIFI team has been characterized by the use of the data gathered in former projects to start new ones: apart from movingAlps, the initial Poschiavo project had also led to Projet Guinée, in collaboration with the Institut Supérieur des Sciences de l’Education (ISSEG) in Conakry, which aimed at the development of literacy through the creation of cooperative microentreprises (see Amadou Tidjane Diallo, “Aphabétisation, développement communautaire et utilisation des TIC dans la formation,” 2003 [12].

ma_initiative_develDevelopment process of movingAlps initiatives (from movingAlps Vademecum).

True, the summary of the movingAlps data in the above-mentioned Vademecum (see above and [6]) and in other LIFI publications (see [13]) are available for the development of further projects. But it will not be the same as the possibility to refer to a team working with the necessary infrastructure in one place. Hence the understandable disappointment expressed by its director, Dieter Schürch, at the end of Graziano Terrani’s documentary:

Involving such a conspicuous number of people, creating a team of collaborators from several fields, organizing a series of activities that have enabled these regions to launch sustainable initiatives – and being unable to continue – this is very sad. The fact that we cannot carry on beyond this deadline does not only harm these projects and regions, but also the image of the University where we were working until now, I think.

The Campus: The Old Imperialism?

eskow_tnBy Steve Eskow
Staff Writer

Lynn Zimmerman asks all the right questions in her article “Access: The New Imperialism?” I hope we can find some way to bring others into the discussion since those questions cut to the very heart of the matter of the new technologies—and the old technologies—and the future of education for a world in search of  rebuilding.

Here is  Lynn’s central thesis:

As I read some of the comments  [in Eskow’s article], I started to wonder if this insistence on “getting out of the building” and going strictly to an online format is a form of “technological imperialism.” (See “Aping the West: Information technology and cultural imperialism” by Paul Cesarini.) Although many people have ready access to all kinds of technology, not everyone in the world does. By saying that the brick and mortar classroom is out-of-date and should be disbanded, aren’t we in danger of disenfranchising a large number of people who have no capability of engaging in education through technology? That is not to mention the people who have no interest in and no ability for using technology.

Our difference begins with Lynn’s assumption that we technological imperialists are urging “getting out of the building.” She assumes that the buildings—that old, great, medieval instructional technology, the campus—are already built, available to those who need instruction, and that we are trying to empty them and replace the rich instruction that goes on in lecture halls and classrooms and libraries and media centers with computers.

eskow_jan09aFirst proposition: the campus, like the computer, is a technology, an instructional technology.

Second proposition: there are many students for whom the lecture hall and notetaking is a poor instructional technology, and who do not learn much in the conventional classroom

Third  proposition: the campus is a very expensive instructional technology. Keeping the building clean and the lawns trimmed and the parking lots patrolled costs—and of course it costs millions to build the campus in the first place. The 26 public and private universities in Ghana, where my work is now, are breaking down: students in hallways because the lecture hall cannot accommodate them, eight students stuffed into a dorm room built for two—and despite all this, only 5% of those 18-22 can be accommodated.

Note, too, that  the vast majority of Ghanaians are in rural areas, often remote from the nearest university or polytechnic, which typically are in cities or large communities. To use the instructional technology called the campus the student must leave home and family and live in one of those dorms and sit in one of those lecture halls, if there is a seat for him, or standing room.

That old instructional technology of campus is a form of internal brain drain, taking from the rural areas their best minds and crowding them into the cities.

Current books and journals  in that campus library? At current prices? Adequate collections in each of those 26 libraries?

The Nigerian Lynn cited talks about the failures: the computer centers equipped with  computers donated to schools unprepared to use them. He does not talk of the thousands of Africans who have no access to good secondary instruction and are debarred completely from higher education unless they are of the elite and can afford to leave home to study—often at a foreign university, perhaps never to return to Africa. Again, the campus as brain drain.

Lynn cites an article re “technological imperialism”: Western technologies promoted thoughtlessly destroy indigenous cultures.

Presumably the author does not consider the British educational system, with its streaming and creaming and building-based universities with campuses and dormitories and maintenance crews and Western-style curricula a form of technological imperialism—but if that language is appropriate for computers it is appropriate for  campuses. The university as we know it, then, is a colonial transplant and not an indigenous institution.

wealth_of_networksThere is of course something to worry about, something to look at carefully, in the current vogue of “global education,” the possibility that we are exporting Western ideas and ideologies along with t-shirts and McDonalds. It is important to note, however, that many of those leading the attack on the “digital divide,” urging the creation of new educational forms built on the new technologies—technologies perhaps less expensive in the long run than the old brick-and-mortar technologies—are themselves Third World intellectuals. Indeed, many of them resent the talk of “indigenous cultures” and propose that it means that we want computers for the West and drums and chanting for he South. Those that I work with think they can have both: computers and chanting.

In his Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler contrasts what he calls the “industrial age information economy” with the new “networked information economy.” In the old information economy, communicating ideas, knowledge, and culture required expensive capital equipment—printing presses, television studios and the like—and around this equipment the structure of knowledge and its dispersion was built. Although Benkler does not include the university in his discussion of the old information economies, the case seems apparent: to have a “real” higher education system, you must first spend millions or billions for brick and mortar universities, and millions for their upkeep and maintenance.

Now anyone with access to a reasonably inexpensive computer can create and publish video and radio and text, and be part of the new knowledge economy. And be a student in an online university.

And we can put the instructor’s face and voice and instruction online, and send them to a computer in a church basement in a rural community where one or three or five students can use that computer to see the lecture, and engage with the instructor, and discuss the issues with colleagues they don’t see—as I am engaging with Lynn Zimmerman, whom I can’t see, but has contributed to my learning.

It may be, then, that the campus is the old imperialism, and the computer the promise of a new possibility for democratizing education.