Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Round One: Moodle 1, Peter 0

At the first meeting of our new learning community for Principles and Practices, there were no plans for exposing the eager participants to the Moodle. It was towards the end of orientation week and they were suffering from an overload of information, course syllabi, reading assignments and warm welcomes. So I told them briefly about the existing on-line course on the Moodle and the plan for hybrid instruction, based in the classroom but making good use of what we have carefully prepared.

Then someone asked about course textbooks and it occurred to me that they were the same as for the on-line course: an opportunity for a glimpse of the Moodle! Exhilarated, I flipped on the projector, stepped to the computer and typed in the address. Up came one of those little message boxes from hell: not available, try again. I tried again. Nothing.

Defeated, I took a white board pen and stepped to the wall. But the room had been recently painted and the white board not yet replaced. So I told them, speaking the hallowed names, Brown and Kumarivadivelu, spelling out the titles and the relevant editions. I spoke, they wrote it down.

How humiliatingly traditional can you get?

Spem in alium

The Moodle is my Spem in alium; Renee is my Thomas Tallis.

Just for the record, my interest in the music of Thomas Tallis, musical star of the English Renaissance, has been recently rekindled by the Showtime series The Tudors, in which Tallis is a significant character and his music is regularly featured. His story line is an interesting counterpoint to the intense relationship between Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn and the king's struggles to get a divorce from his first wife Catherine. While my interest in Henry's sex life faded quickly after the series ended, I am now a regular listener to Tallis's masterpieces, including the motet Salve intemerata, the Mass Missa salve intemerata and the remarkable forty-voice motet Spem in alium.

This is the story about Spem in alium : apparently, an Italian composer, Alessandro Striggio, visited England in 1567 during the reign of Elizabeth I. He conducted for his hosts a performance of a motet in forty parts, Ecce beatam lucem. Someone at court, according to the legend, wondered aloud if there wasn't a domestic composer who could match such an achievement. Tallis took up the challenge - and a challenge it was; if you are familiar with the complexities of four-part harmony, imagine something ten times as intricate, forty independent voices singing together.

The Moodle is my Spem in alium; Renee is my Thomas Tallis.

The opening couplet of the text which Tallis set for this piece is as follows:

Spem in alium nunquam habui
praeter in te, Deus Israel,

which may be rendered as

I have never put my hope in another
except in thee, God of Israel,

Well, I certainly did not put my hope in thee, O Moodle. In fact, I was nervous and suspicious of thy complexities and digital challenges. I did, however, put my hope in Renee, my partner in this project. I knew she would be fearless, and she has been so; I knew she would be creative, and she has been so; I knew she would be supportive and persistent and loyal to our principles and she has been all of these also. She has taken the forty (or so) individual voices on the Moodle and made them sing together in rich and moving harmony.

The Moodle is my Spem in alium; Renee is my Thomas Tallis.

One telling example of Renee's Tallis-like multi-tasking has been her foray into film making. We have made video clips to introduce each module of the course, recording each one at a different scenic spot around the Monterey Bay. At each carefully selected location, it was Renee, director, cinematographer, sound woman, who was behind the camera, headphones clamped on her blond curls, checking the framing of the shot and the sound levels. It was Renee the producer on location who managed the crowds (small crowds, admittedly) with a judicious combination of encouraging smiles and artistic scowls, causing the tourists to briskly move along. It was Renee the director who decided when we had enough takes, and Renee the editor who selected the best and prepared them for Sarah and thence the Moodle.

The Moodle is my Spem in alium; Renee is my Thomas Tallis.

Thomas Tallis, we might speculate, had never heard or attempted a 40-voice motet until he heard Striggio's work. Renee, like me, was similarly unacquainted with the Moodle. But unlike me, she used this to advantage: in ignorance, everything is possible and she has constantly pushed the limits in order to achieve the best possible outcome. In Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (Act 5, scene 3), Cassandra says to Hector (of his determination to fight the Greeks)

It is the purpose that makes strong the vow

and so did our goal of producing a course of excellence and creativity become a sworn determination to achieve that result. Thanks to Renee, all the melody lines fit together; we have achieved a pedagogic harmonic convergence. Vision, talent and a constantly positive approach: what more could one wish for in a collaborator on a project that makes one very, very nervous?

The Moodle is my Spem in alium; Renee is my Thomas Tallis.

Thank you, Renee.

Magnificent Mandy the Marvelous Moodle Monkey

First of all, I wish to make it clear that "Moodle Monkey" is not my phrase, and that it has been cleared by Mandy herself for use in this blog. It does not apply in the sense of a thousand simians hammering randomly at a thousand typewriters for a thousand years and producing Shakespearean text. There is nothing accidental about Mandy's work: she nails it on the first take, no mulligans or do-overs for her. Like Mozart, her manuscripts are unsullied by false starts or corrections or additions.

Rather, it applies in the sense of deftness, of rapid, sure movements, of total confidence in unzipping the banana file or dropping the instructional coconut right on the head of the new wiki. There is also a generous excess in these moves: asked to find a few grammar web sites, Mandy gives you 15 or 20. Need this in two days? You get it in an hour. She even eats from the big Costco bag of salty tidbits only the stuff Renee and I find less appetising; she leaves the nuts, bless her east coast heart.

There is, too, at least one anti-monkey side to Mandy: her magnificent sense of order. Curious George, she is not. Chaos is not caused: it is reduced and quickly eliminated. It is infinitely comforting to know that our rough-hewn artefacts will be edited, cleaned up, converted into the appropriate format and installed in exactly the right place. Items are labeled, catalogued, saved, cross-referenced and installed with rapidity and precision. MOODLE could well stand for Mandy's Optimally Organised Digital Learning Environment.

In the end, though, the most marvelous thing about Mandy is her fearlessness. Anxiety can be infectious and at the beginning of this enterprise my own nervousness was definitely seeking a playmate, a friendly ear into which to pour my stuttering reservations and darkest terrors. And Mandy is no fan of the Moodle, no delighter in things technological, no Internet thrill seeker. Yet when (t)asked to join the team, she grasped without hesitation the proffered digital liana and swung off into the on-line jungle with courage and determination so catching that one could not resist following.

I am reminded of Garry Kasparov's comment: "I don't know we can exist, knowing there exists something mentally stronger than us." He meant computers. This, of course, was after he, once world chess champion, was defeated by a computer. Well, the antidote to this particular form of existential angst would be Mandy: she is definitely mentally stronger than the Moodle, she knows this and she knows this will always be the case. Kasparov lost, in the view of several commentators, not because the computer was a stronger player but because it never became nervous or agitated; in the face of such an implacable opponent, the human grand master eventually lost his cool and made mistakes. Mandy is marvelously cool: her lack of fear of everything on-line is accompanied by a slight but detectable disdain and the combination seems to guarantee that she eventually wins every face off.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Temperate Moodler

I have not taken an alcoholic drink in over 15 years. For some strange reason, however, I found myself the other day wondering what it would be like to have a couple of drinks before a session with the Moodle. Not nearly as delightful, I decided: life with the Moodle is so satisfying, thrilling, complete and, yes, intoxicating, why would one need to have a drink? To steady the nerves, perhaps? But I have learned to live with my Moodle nerves, Internet anxieties and technological tremors: slightly delirious, but in a good way.

And from that thought comes this bit of verse:

Horace the wine-lover condemned
the water-drinking poet and his joyless
short-lived verse; but alcohol can take us
out of the sharply focused moment

into rabbit-eared fuzzy delirium.
The poet must know when she is having
a crisp good time; or bad; or gravy-soaked,
well-chewed indifference.

So I, the designated scribbler, print
these words on mineral water paper -
ice and lemon - unsoiled by bacchanalian
font or rugby club language.

Sip as much ode ordinaire as you like,
swilling reader, but note this
on a napkin: eyes that scan Horace
must never read verse of mine,

for I, well hydrated, scratch the glossy,
blotchless skin of unliquored truth,
walk clear thought's unbroken yellow line,
intoxicated with soberness divine.

The red triumphant Moodle

It seems, from the reading to be offered here, that the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay's talents included foreseeing not just general aspects of the future but also specifically the nature and function of the Moodle. In her sonnet number CXXXVII, she writes about "the meteoric shower of facts" which rain down on "this gifted age," but which "lie unquestioned, uncombined." Then follow the key lines of the sestet:

Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric; undefiled
Proceeds pure Science, and has her say; but still
Upon this world from the collective womb
Is spewed all day the red triumphant child.

Looms these days can take a variety of forms: the documentary film suggests itself as a clear and influential instance. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth represents a compelling fabric, woven from wisdom and science; Michael Moore has a particular talent for these tapestries, skillfully combining the weft of objective facts with the warp of individual experience and opinion in Sicko or Bowling for Columbine. Other looms can be found on the Internet: Wikipedia comes to mind, though the number of weavers involved and their varied level of expertise seem to raise some controversy.

As for metaphorical wombs, eduction in general and language teaching in particular are slowly extracting their pedagogic head from various discrete point and trivial orifices and acknowledging the value of detailed, extended learning tasks and long-term projects. The collective womb is thus a learner team, designing a web site to highlight artefacts representing their learning; or conducting a series of experiments and analysing the outcomes; or putting together a class newsletter; or writing, casting, rehearsing, shooting, editing and premiering an iMovie.

Loom or womb? Both are attractive analogues for the Moodle. The former is a framework, a set of moving parts awaiting the threads (and, yes, there actually are discussion threads) of raw material of research, experience and archived materials. This framework then provides and sustains the machinary which combines these threads in meaningful patterns and stores the work in progress until the whole cloth is finished. Or perhaps the on-line design is the weft and the students' experiences, thoughts and interactions the warp? Either way, the final product is then lifted off and worn, one hopes, with pride by each participant.

Yet (Dr. Freud smiles and nods) I am especially inclined to the womb image. The Moodle provides an appropriate and fertile environment as the participants first merge with embryonic pedagogic purpose. The cells of learning multiply, nourished by the organism housing and supporting the Moodle, the maternal internet, which in turn depends on the greater world beyond. Finally, the trimestral course is over, the instructional waters break and through painful spasms of final projects, tests and evaluations, the newly informed language teacher is delivered (hit ESC?). A severing of the instructional cord (CTRL-ALT-DEL?), a pat on the back and on to a life of pedagogic independence. The Moodle graduate being both red (from exertion, from the glow of success) and triumphant.

Both of which would also apply to the Moodle design team, I fancy, as the meteoric shower of possibilities has been questioned, catalogued and combined into something of which we may be triumphantly proud.

Edna, I like to think, would approve.

The Moodle as Pensive Citadel

One of the more consistent observations I have made of education is this: that as we encourage our students to broaden their thinking, to cast a wide net of research and reflection, to make connections, to grasp the big picture, we also employ learning tools and frameworks which might seem overly constrictive. One example is the portfolio as an assessment tool which also incorporates personal growth and reflective insight into learning processes. Which sounds expansive, and yet portfolios must be defined and circumscribed: they, are after all, supposed to be a representative sample of best outcomes, evidence of most significant learning. So they come with selection criteria and word limits and the like.

Which reminds me of sonnets, of a couple in fact. Both Wordsworth and Keats used the sonnet form to comment on how its apparent limitations are also its greatest strength. The former, in his 1807 poem, Nuns fret not, catalogues a number of cases where creatures, human and otherwise, are "blithe and happy" to operate within confines of one sort or another. This includes nuns, not fretting "at their convent's narrow rooms," and "students with their pensive citadels." Wordsworth concludes

In truth the prison unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is;

and goes on to relate how comfortable he feels "within the sonnet's scanty plot of grounds" and recommends the form to others,

Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

Keats expresses the same thought in his On the sonnet (1819), but this time in terms of footwear:

Let us find, if we must be constrained,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of Poesy;

He adds a musical image, urging us to "inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress of every chord." We should have an "ear industrious and attention meet" and be "misers of sound and syllable" in order to produce a sonnet which is "sweet fettered."

The Moodle is similarly constrained and constraining. We have had to inspect it closely and weigh the potential value of each aspect. There are various limitations and we certainly have to be misers of audio and video files as we calculate their value versus the space required to accommodate them. Yet we manage to be blithe and happy in our pensive citadel; we are contriving, through careful attention and industrious ears and eyes, to interweave a complete course which will accommodate students' naked expectations.

Sweet fettered we are, but our solace is more than brief. The Moodle no prison is; and Sisters Renee, Mandy, Sarah and I, we fret not.

A disturbance in the Moodle

The Moodle, disturbingly, does not always stay still and co-operate. It upgrades itself over night, suddenly offering a larger menu, more choices, more decisions. Rather like a teenager growing up too fast for her parents' comfort. Sometimes it locks itself away, like Greta Garbo, and becomes inaccessible for a while. Occasionally, just for fun, it hides things so we cannot find them.

As a consequence of these vagaries, our merriment and forward progress are, from time to time, interrupted by frowning moments of frustration. In one especially disturbed interlude, the dark side of the Moodle emerged on three computers simultaneously. The air in the small office suddenly went still and damp; the light flickered; suddenly I was in a crowded sweatshop, with three women glaring (Mandy), tutting (Sarah) and muttering mild but distinct imprecations (Renee) as their respective machines stuttered, denied access, lost things or demanded word files instead of pdfs (or rtfs, or something). Somehow, they were chained to their station, many minutes to the next bathroom break, behind on their quotas, not happy; not happy at all.

I huddled over my notes, trying not to look anything like an evil overseer. I tried Jedi mind tricks to get things working again. I sketched out exciting and creative ideas for the next module of the course. I breathed extra quietly.

I should not have been concerned. With the tenacity of Luke, the patience and concentration of Yoda, the dashing spirit of Leia and the superior mind power of Obi Won, my colleagues soon wrestled the Moodle to the ground and light-sabred the problems out of existence. Sarah even produced a second laptop, apparently senior in rank to the first, which instantly began to comport itself with meek obedience.

Then it emerged that as the originator of the pdfs (or rtfs, or whatever), I was responsible for all the problems. And so everything was completely as it should be: God was in her heaven and all was right with the world. And with the Moodle.