Friday, August 17, 2007


This essay into the digital unknown begins with the delightful comic strip Zits, by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. In July 24th's three-panel classic, the often stressed mother, still easily shocked by the behaviour of her teenage son, Jeremy, finds him at his computer, listening to a podcast of Thoreau's "Walden" on his iPod while playing a video game. In response to her cry of anguish, he comments pithily: "Nobody ever died of irony, mom!"

At one level, this reminds me not to be concerned about the reception conditions pertaining to those to whom our new online course will be delivered. After all, we should perhaps be glad that Jeremy is being exposed to the wisdom and experiences of the radical and profound Henry David and less concerned about the circumstances of that exposure. So why do I find myself obsessing, long before we are ready to launch our on-line course, about those who will be at the receiving end, their manner of attending to the material and their responses, both initial and considered?

Perhaps because in the classroom, I have constant and immediate feedback through auditory and visual channels. As my students engage in an interactive group task, for example, I can discreetly scan the room, eavesdropping on snatches of discussion, watching body language, monitoring patterns of interaction. It’s highly clich├ęd, but I can keep my eye on them, keep an ear to the ground. And while my students are encouraged to bring healthy snacks and to keep themselves well hydrated and some bring their laptop, I can count on a very high level of attention and engagement and a minimum of distractions.

The on-line student, in contrast, is a multi-tasking, totally distracted wreck: my fervid imagination pictures individuals in bathrobe, woolen hat and gloves (northern latitudes) or sweaty, wrinkled underwear (more tropical climes), eating pizza or milk-soaked cereal, guzzling iced coffee or pina coladas, doing laundry, babysitting, baking cookies, doing the crossword puzzle, arguing with a significant other. The technologically accomplished have two or three active windows in addition to our course, chatting with close friends, viewing on-line porn, reading reviews of the latest book about Princess Diana. My favourite nightmare features a student sitting in a completely different course, laptop in place, responding to our prompts in the dull parts, minimising our window when the current business in the room requires attention. Minimising, for heaven's sake! A related haunting fear is a desk-bound clerk or junior administrator with dreams of an international career in English language education, sneaking onto the Moodle during idle moments and covertly completing a task or two.

Not my business. Absolutely not my business. There may well be one and three quarters cups of irony in the mixing bowl of this course: it's largely about precise and effective communication, and it will be deployed in a mist of vagueness and uncertainty around the conditions of the communication among participants. I may feel like a voice crying out into the darkness, like a Robinson Crusoe tossing bottled messages into the digital tides. I may long for human contact, seeking a Friday avatar in the remote corners of Second Life.

But Jeremy is right: it won't kill me.

Sarah is God

Back in the sixties, there were two deities in my personal pantheon: one, nominated on the walls of Paris, was Jean Paul Sartre. The other, on British walls everywhere, was Eric Clapton. These days, I worship at shrines far removed from supreme guitar artistry or dazzling existentialist insights.

You can get a plaque to hang in your home or office from Casual Living ( which says:

Good morning! This is God. I will be handling your problems today.

I do not need your help. So have a good day.

This is a splendid motto for a technical specialist of any kind and particularly for an educational technology guru supporting a team of novice on-line course designers. And this is a perfect characterisation of our own digital deity, whose omniscience is matched only by her calm patience. So every day is a good day under her guidance and support; her name is thrice blessed and we kiss her virtual feet with great frequency and reverence.

This high quality support is particularly great for me because there are many days when (to quote another dictum from the whimsical folk at Casual Living) my mind is like a steel watchamacallit.


I was asked recently if the on-line course we are currently constructing could be taught by anyone with the appropriate background or only by me, the content specialist. I found this question to be more complex than I first thought. After a few days of free-range mulling, I offer the following analogy.

When an educator volunteers to teach a completely new course, construction begins from scratch, with the foundations poured from well-mixed solid reading, the walls from planks of prior experience and the plaster of accumulated wisdom mixed with student needs assessment data, the roof from coherent syllabus tiles, and so forth.

When an instructor is first invited to teach an existing course, however, we provide the equivalent of an unfurnished apartment: the structure is in place, water and electricity are connected. Previous syllabi and materials are available for inspection and use, and the juice of institutional experience runs through the pipes and power lines. The newcomer makes it her own with the furniture, appliances and fixtures of her own experience, knowledge and preferences.

The on-line course, in contradistinction, is shown to a new instructor as a furnished place. It is fully equipped with activities, tasks, projects; with written, audio and video inputs. One can move in immediately. However, there are also more personal items left by the original occupant: photographs, objets d'art, food stores in the pantry, wine in the cellar, magazines on the coffee table, which will almost certainly not suit the new tenant. These items are swept into a box for storage and replaced by others better reflecting the tastes and preferences of the new resident.

With the Moodle, this is easy; with a single click, items can be hidden (the icon suggests that they take a nap in the meantime) and new ones are readily created and posted. The exceptions in our course are one or two more elaborate features: each of the five modules of our course, for example, is introduced by a video clip of myself, a magnificent local view in the background, welcoming participants to the next stage of the course and providing a brief overview of what to expect. Even with a transcript as a guideline, to replace these would require some time and effort. But everything else is ready: you can move in tomorrow, stroll through the architecture and begin nesting.

Of course, it doesn't end there. The course begins, and now will enter the rest of the occupants, spilling into the wikis and bulletin boards and discussion rooms and bringing a host of new artefacts. It's not an apartment or a house, it turns out; it's more like a college dormitory, buzzing with chat, colourful commentary posted everywhere and witty comments scrawled on the bathroom walls. People wander in and out of the different rooms, starting conversations at all hours of the day and night.

So I conclude that it is not my course for me to teach; it is not our course for any member of the team to teach; it is not a course for anyone to teach. It is a modular, object-oriented, digital learning environment which will belong to the particular learning community which rents it; and they will bring in their own stuff and leave it looking very different. After all, Disneyland is just a lot of architecture and engineering until the gates open, the people pour in and the magic begins.

Welcome to Moodleland, the happiest place in cyberspace.


A recent issue of the New Yorker carried a cartoon that speaks both to life in general and to designing on-line courses in specific. The drawing (June 25, 2007, page 77, bottom right: my apologies to the cartoonist, but I can't figure out the name, nor get it from the rather unhelpful list of drawing credits at the front of the magazine) shows two older men slumped in armchairs at what could be a gentlemen's club. One holds a glass, his sullen jaw clamped around a lengthy cigar. The other, starting into space, announces, "I aspired to authenticity, but I never got beyond verisimilitude."

To begin with, I do like the word "verisimilitude" - how many words with that number of syllables roll so easily off the tongue? Plus, it always reminds me of that great line in the Mikado when one of the characters (Ko-Ko?), accused of embellishing his account of recent incidents, retorts that he is providing "merely corroborative detail to add dramatic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." Something like that.

Well, there are certainly bald and unconvincing on-line courses to be found in the great digital neighbourhood in which I am trying to settle down. We are busily adding verisimilitude of the Ko-Ko variety with fascinating video and audio clips, a multitude of helpful links, fun items created with the help of the good people at Hot Potatoes, and so forth. But we also aspire to authenticity, which raises the bar and a number of questions, most crucially what does it mean to be real in creating and conducting an on-line course?

Which leads me to a second cartoon from that same New Yorker, this time on page 68, by Mankoff. A doctor, earnest and bespectacled and backed by a large framed diploma, looks across his desk and addresses a nervous patient. "Well, yes, it's a routine procedure - if you routinely have someone slice open your body with sharp instruments and then fiddle with your insides." The humour, to state the obvious, comes from switching the concept of "routine" from the doctor to the patient. In my case, the switch has verisimilitude: in the classroom, I perform routine procedures; sure, I keep up with new ideas and incorporate new techniques, but most of what I do I have done many times before. In contrast, this will be my first on-line course: not routine. For some students, it will also be their first: again not routine. For others, it may be their third or fifth: becoming routine. For others, their tenth or twelfth: routine.

My experience with instructional and learning processes, though, teaches me this: preparation and planning may become routine, but the interaction in the classroom around the material is rarely so. Internal organs, I have learned from Grey's Anatomy, may occasionally spring surprises but are generally more predictable than learners working together. I assume that the same will apply to moodling: preparing an on-line course may one day become routine (as it presumably is for Bob and Leo, the Moodle Brothers), but the interaction among the learning community will not.

I therefore propose that we are aiming for verisimilitude in the course design by remaining faithful to the core material, to the truth of our own experiences, to basic precepts such as the Monterey Way. Authenticity will only come when the participants genuinely and honestly interact around the material, throw themselves into the tasks without reserve and reflect with depth on their own needs, purposes, interests and experiences. The artifice of the Moodle, of the internet itself, will be overcome by the Colbertian truthiness of the participation; verisimilitude will become authenticty.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Peter and the three screens

Many great entities have come in threes: Stooges, Musketeers, Amigos, R's, circus rings, cheers, landing points. So I took it as an omen of mixed propitiousness to find myself working in front of three computer screens. Would it be a safe three-point landing or a three-ring circus? A struggle worthy of d'Artagnan's friends or a debacle of Curly-Moe-Larry calibre?

Anyway, there I was, feeling like a NASA scientist or, headphones and all, a latter-day George Martin. I, who have been so nervous when dealing with just one of the beasts, operating simultaneously with a desk top and two lap tops.

The details, for what they are worth, are these: we had decided to begin each unit with an audio clip, describing the overall theme, the menu of activities and the place to start. I was recording these on Sarah's laptop, using Audacity (how bold, to even consider this); the script was on my laptop and the Moodle was on the desk top so I could see if what I was saying corresponded to what had been posted. Which, as it turned out, it sometimes did not, requiring new editing tasks to be completed first.

Well, it worked. The audacity files were named, saved and put up on the Moodle. While the Top Technician played with various compression and playback options (taking me through over-caffeinated chipmunk and stoned chipmunk stages, then back to my normal voice), I reflected on the beginnings of my experience with educational technology.

I was trained to deploy three devices: the reel-to-reel audio tape player, the blackboard (later known as the chalkboard) and the tachistoscope. This latter word can, I think, be used to refer to a range of machines or instruments which expose objects, pictures or text to the eye for a very brief period of time. It comes from the ancient Greek word takhistos, meaning "swiftest" plus "scope" for "look," as in telescope and microscope. In language education, a tachistoscope projects a text onto a screen and scrolls down at a certain speed. The idea was that by gradually increasing this speed, we could help our students develop reading fluency in the target language. With the early models, the teacher turned a handle to control the speed; more sophisticated machines followed, with a dial to be set at the requisite words-per-minute and the text scrolling automatically. While the tachistopscope featured regularly in my apprenticeship as a language teacher, I have not even seen one since.

The tape player was a vital part of audio-lingual methodology and we had to become adept at playing a short section of a dialogue, rewinding and playing again for the students to repeat endlessly. It was important, we were told, to do this while maintaining eye contact with the class in order to maintain order, so we practiced the play-stop-rewind-stop-play sequence many times over without looking down to develop speed and accuracy. This skill served me all of two years before the audiocassette and its light, compact player changed the field and made possible a vital component of second and foreign language teaching: teachers forcing students to listen to their favourite songs.

Compared to the other two, learning to draw on the board was a lot of fun. We moved systematically from simple two-dimensional objects to faces and stick figures, complex objects and animals. There was room for experimentation and the trail-and-error learning was effective and enjoyable (though the chalk dust in the air was a definite disadvantage). And of the three, it's the only one that I occasionally employ today, with the benefit of coloured markers with powerful fruity scents.

So the world of educational technology has come a long way, dragging practitioners like me along with it. And, all things considered, I now definitely prefer three computers to that odd technological triad with which I started my career.