Third Places and the New Web

One of my research interests is cooperation in human societies: how it comes to exist, when and how it breaks down, and how to leverage it within the context of education. Of late, I’ve been looking at some of the structures of place that are intertwined with the functioning of cooperation, and how those structures translate into the online world. In particular, I’ve been interested in how “third places” are constructed in the online world, and how they connect to educational institutions.
I have uploaded the slides and audio for a talk I gave on this subject at the 2006 NMC Regional Conference. I will be interested to hear all feedback and comments that people might have, as well as links to relevant research.

A Gift From a Master

Every now and then, a book comes out that is so good, that I can only view it as a gift from its author. Two books of this caliber have recently come out: Edward Tufte‘s Beautiful Evidence, and Scott McCloud‘s Making Comics. I’ll save the Tufte for another day, and talk about the McCloud for now.

I’ve been working on projects using Digital Storytelling techniques since the nineties, and McCloud’s books have been a key tool in that work. Why? Well, first of all, digital comics are one of the many possible manifestations of digital storytelling. Setting that aside for a moment, though, there’s a deeper reason that McCloud’s work is important: his analysis of the craft is so rich and deep that it provides both a guide to broader topics in communication and the visual arts, as well as an exemplar for how to communicate about the workings of these fields.

All of McCloud’s books analyzing comics have been written as comics. His first book, Understanding Comics, dealt with the core syntactic and semantic elements that make comics work; the followup, Reinventing Comics, covered the potential for change and new directions in comics, including their transformation as they entered the digital sphere. Sounds pretty thorough — so why is this third book needed?

Making Comics fills in the gap between the general theory covered in Understanding Comics and the translation of that theory into actual comics-making practice. In other words, what is covered here is how the elements of comics are harnessed in the process of actually making them. This does not refer to the “here’s how artist X draws character Y” approach taken by a million dreary “You can draw comics too!” tutorials, but rather refers to how symbolic elements and aspects of person and place are chosen and translated into an actual rendering for the purpose of telling a story.

The audience for this book is most emphatically not just budding comics artists and comics enthusiasts — McCloud’s analysis of process in comics creation sheds light on a broad range of topics in the study of media and communication. In particular, any educators who are serious about these issues in the context of their own practice should definitely consider picking up this book — and its two predecessors. Me, I think I’ll try to make it to one of McCloud’s talks to thank him in person for his wonderful gift…

Transformation, Technology, and Education in the State of Maine

For the past few years, I have had the good fortune to work closely on a number of projects with the Maine Learning Technologies Initiative. The MLTI has provided all middle school students in the state of Maine with one-to-one access to laptops and software. The software bundle is rather interesting, since it encompasses far more than the traditional office suite, including software for music composition, systems modeling, digital storytelling, lab data acquisition, and structured information processing and sharing.

In recent weeks, I have had several people ask me about the current status of the project and its future directions. In particular, there has been considerable interest in how schools involved in the project plan to keep “pushing forward” to significantly enhance the quality of education that children receive. One part of the answer to this question is described in my slides and audio from a series of workshops conducted with Maine superintendents, which outline a model currently being used for this purpose. This same model has also been used in sessions with school principals throughout the state — the goal is to make sure that all schools use the laptops as an engine for educational transformation, rather than just a fancy textbook or typewriter.

As always, I welcome all questions and feedback.

Images of a Parade

It’s the day after Thanksgiving here in the US — usually called “Black Friday“, but which I’ve heard better described as “Sleep Off The Turkey Day” — and it seems as good a day as any other to get back in the blogging saddle.

I was looking over the New York Times’ coverage of the Thanksgiving Day Macy’s parade, and noticed that their slide show, while competently shot, was, well, somewhat lacking in the narration and emotion departments. I decided to try an experiment: what would happen if I ran a Flickr search for photos of the parade?

The results were astounding — not only were many photos far more interesting and compelling than the Times’ slide show, many were better composed and executed in formal terms as well. Compare this photo to the Times’ photo of Garfield — which do you think does a better job of telling a story?

What’s more, the Flickr search will only get better as time goes by — more people will post their photos of the parade, and more people will comment on them, pushing the interesting/unusual/powerful ones to the top of the stack.

Now, I am not suggesting that the Times should get rid of their photographers, nor that the quality of their work is subpar — but I am suggesting that something very interesting happens when a community (and Flickr is most definitely a community) shares its creative work in an open social space. And since this blog focuses on education, I would like to gently urge educators to overcome some long-held prejudices about work that takes place in informal spaces, and think about how these mechanisms can be harnessed for learning.

Avoiding Self-Delusion: New Technologies and Expectation Effects

I have posted the slides and audio for my Horizon Project VCOP talk on the subject of expectation effects. If you are interested in finding out how to separate a new technology’s true pedagogical merits from other factors that might influence its reception in the classroom, this talk may be of use to you.

As always, I’ll be happy to hear any comments or feedback people might have.

Mapping with Anthracite and OmniGraffle

Several people have asked me how I constructed the visualizations that I used in my talk on My own approach involved a fair amount of hand-rolled custom code – not fun for people unaccustomed to writing their own software and working from the command line. So as to give non-programming-savvy researchers a chance to explore – or other online systems with implicit network structures – for themselves, I have put together a short guide on using two Mac OS X applications, Anthracite and OmniGraffle, for this purpose.

Comments and suggestions are welcome.

A Moveable Feast: the web

I have added to the resources page a talk on, presented within the context of the Horizon Project VCOP. If you’ve heard about, but aren’t quite sure what the fuss is all about, or if you’ve already tried it out, but would like to know how to get the most out of it, this talk is for you.

As always, I’m interested in any comments or feedback people might have.

The OECD Education Report, Redux

The results from the OECD PISA 2003 study of learning skills among 15-year-olds are now out. As could be expected from last year’s coverage of the PISA 2000 results, news reports have tended to misrepresent the information contained in the new report. I have already covered these misrepresentations in two previous posts, so I will not rehash that material here; however, I will spend some time looking at the new data conveyed by the report.

PISA 2003 incorporates a new (very welcome) category for student evaluation in the form of a set of questions covering Problem Solving. An analysis of this category would be worth a separate post unto itself; since my main goal here is to update the results I had obtained for PISA 2000, I will omit it from consideration in the discussion that follows.

A statistical analysis similar to that from my previous post yields, as before, four main groups with the labels shown in the table below. A new classification resulting from the PISA 2003 analysis is the subdivision of the “Substantially Below Average” group into a better-performing “High Group”, and a lower-performing “Low Group”. Countries that did not participate in PISA 2000 are highlighted in gray; countries that improved their results sufficiently to be promoted from one group to the next higher group are highlighted in green. The United Kingdom, which participated in PISA 2000, was excluded from PISA 2003 due to noncompliance with OECD response rate standards. The following table, with countries arranged in alphabetical order within groups, summarizes these results:

Performance of 15-Year-Old Students in
Reading, Mathematics, and Science
Better than Average
Below Average
Substantially Below Average
Australia Austria Greece
High Group
Canada Belgium Italy Serbia
Finland Czech Republic Portugal Thailand
Hong Kong – China Denmark Russian Federation Turkey
Japan France   Uruguay
Korea Germany  
Low Group
Liechtenstein Hungary   Brazil
Netherlands Iceland Indonesia
New Zealand Ireland Mexico
Latvia Tunisia
Macao – China
Slovak Republic
United States

As we can see, only four countries (Liechtenstein, Latvia, Luxembourg, and Poland) improved their results substantially from 2000. Of these, the result for Luxembourg has to be discarded from consideration, since (as noted on page 30 of the OECD report) assessment conditions in this country were changed significantly between 2000 and 2003. In the case of Liechtenstein, only 332 students were assessed, due to the small size of the country. Because of this small sample size, changes at the individual school level are just as likely to affect the final results as national policy decisions. Hence, it is difficult to ascertain the cause of the observed improvement. Finally, in the cases of Latvia and Poland, it is tempting to attribute the improvement to their respective large-scale educational reforms, which started in 1998. However, data that would allow for the determination of cause-and-effect relationships in these two cases is currently lacking.

It is unsurprising that little has changed between PISA 2000 and PISA 2003 – after all, only three years have elapsed between the two studies. However, news reports – and, I fear, some public officials – have made much of minor increases or decreases in scores that are not significant. What still stands is my conclusion from my previous post: no country can be said to have provided a solid educational floor in these categories for all of its citizens. Getting to the point where this educational floor can be guaranteed will require more than slight changes to expenditures, school year duration, or class sizes – it will require a significant rethinking of how the educational process occurs at all levels.

Achieving Fairness and Excellence in Social Software

I have added to the resources page a talk on social software, presented at the NMC Online Conference on Social Computing. If you’re interested in using tools such as wikis, forums, and blogs in education, but want to avoid some of the potential pitfalls, you might find this talk – and the free software that accompanies it – rather useful.

Needless to say, comments and suggestions are always welcome.

New Resources for Digital Storytelling and Learning Object Development

Hippasus is growing nicely. While this is wonderful, it has prevented me from making regular posts to this weblog. Having just completed two major projects, I now have the time to post more frequently. To celebrate this, I would like to highlight two new sets of resources on the Hippasus website:

As always, I welcome all comments people might have on these resources.