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What is says on Ninth Level

Alas alas alas, this blog’s been neglected this last while.  Such are the demands on me at the moment (and the time taken up with Twitter!).  Anyhow, for the extra hour, the holiday weekend, the Halloween sound-effects that prohibit any work requiring concentration, and the current catch-up with, a post is forthcoming.

Here are some Ninth Level contributions of late:

  •  Apparently €5,000 is an annual fees figure that is being thrown around.  Hmmm. My humble opinion is that if students genuinely want to go to third level education they will find a way to do so, regardless of cost.  Paying one’s own fees  has a way of focusing the mind in a way that freebies do not.
  •   So that’s the guy’s whose visage is gracing the entrance to TCD over the last while!
  •  The University of Cambridge and research as “inherent to the very fibre of a university” calls for putting research back into the heart of the system.  The rift between the economic and intellectual research comes to the fore once again.  No prizes for guessing which side I am on.
  •   A study of undergraduates use of social media is under the spotlight.  Their use of Facebook is taken alongside other typical “identity markers of emerging adulthood”.  I wonder what that means for the use of Facebook for older people, and how the current 18-year-olds’ use of Facebook will evolve in years to come.
  •    Apparently, Facebook use in Harvard classes “has become so ubiquitous that no one even questions it”—not even professors.  Yikes!  The reasoning given is that lectures are boring, the lecturer repeats him/herself too often, and the lecture content is irrelevant because “much of knowledge has become commoditized on the web”.  Now, this is one more reason to flip the classroom / nonclassroom activity structure.  That is, the lectures can be put online for students to peruse in their own time. Then, classroom space and time can be freed up for discussion, and practical applications of concepts, software etc.  This is, of course, far more demanding on the cognitive abilities of students and there is the concern that many will not be able for it.  Whatever, it’s more constructive than students Facebooking their way through class.  I’m not against Facebook per se but students facebooking their new hairdos and night-out socialising is not the way to spend classroom time.
  •   It seems that some universities, (Oxbridge is singled out) bundle a BA with an MA.  The idea is that the student studies for and achieves their BA and are automatically awarded an MA to go along with it.  I am in total agreement with the author that this devalues the work of the many many postgraduates taking MA qualifications at other universities.  It makes one wonder what exactly a Masters qualification is.  What is the transition point from undergraduate to postgraduate?
  •   Prof Susan Greenfield is being her usual controversial self.  Her latest is that computer games could cause dementia in children.  Now, to be fair, I like to keep an open mind about scientific findings.  Unfortunately, Prof Greenfield tends to make this difficult.  As a result, I find myself thinking ‘here we go again’ when her latest research emerges.  Besides, think about it – how many children do you know who play (or have played in the past i.e. children who are now adults) computer games?  How many of those suffer from dementia?
  •   Here’s a quote from the study (carried out by the Irish Times): “Fourteen per cent of its (UL) graduates gained first-class honours, while 34 per cent achieved a 2:1. This 2:1 rate is by far the lowest in the country, a full 19 per cent behind the highest, which is TCD, and 9 per cent below the national average”.  Flash back to the later part of the last century when I was a graduate of that same institution (UL).  There were approximately 200 of us business graduates.  5 achieved a first class honours.  That’s 2.5%.  Enough said.

Laptop battery – not that kind of battery

We are all only too well aware of the problem of student focus.  The teacher turns her back for two seconds and at least one student is taking a peek at Facebook, or Youtube, or something else they shouldn’t be looking at.

The question – what do you do about it?

Apparently, you do not close down the laptop screen while the student is in mid-surf.  You might get arrested, suspended and find yourself on the receiving end of a battering case.  This is what happened to a lecturer in Valdosta State University in Georgia recently. I accidently slammed a laptop shut quite hard on my fingers (purely by accident of course, and now I cannot for the life of me remember why!) a number of years ago.  Both laptop and fingers survived undamaged. I imagine it would take some severe force indeed to cause injury to either.

Student inattention and self-distraction is a problem that is not going away.  Stories like the one in Georgia don’t help.  They just add to the frustrations of the problem.

There is increasing evidence that our young folk are experiencing addiction problems with their technology devices.  Headlines such as” Facebook generation suffer information withdrawal syndrome” and “Student ‘addiction’ to technology ‘similar to drug cravings” are frightening but need to considered and acted upon.  Students are reported as “having withdrawal symptoms, overeating, feeling nervous, isolated and disconnected, they don’t know what to with themselves or their time” when they are deprived of their technology in the “Unplugged: living without the media” study currently underway. The action of the student, reaction of the lecturer, and subsequent reaction of student in Georgia doesn’t seem quite so strange now.

Plenty of suggestions are given of alternative courses of action.  Examples suggested by commenters on the students’ behalf include: don’t be so rude in a classroom, don’t take the laptop to class, or don’t take yourself to class if you plan to play on your laptop right through it.  This is all good advice but unlikely to be taken up by a student who simply cannot resist the temptation to sneak a peek at that Facebook.

For the lecture, advice seems to follow on practical terms e.g. “the student should be asked to desist, asked to leave the lecture theatre if they won’t desist – but if they refuse to do even this, then it wouldn’t be fair to the other students to disrupt the lecture further – so a formal verbal warning should be issued, and from then on, a formal disciplinary process should be commenced”.  The commentator then goes on to say that very few universities are likely to have such a formal system in place. There is no mention either of what to do there and then when the student refuses to leave the room and refuses to un-facebook.

Another commenter laments the banning of internet connectivity in the classroom, suggesting that the lecturer integrate laptop usage into their lesson plans.  The commenter goes to say that s/he has “established a back channel chat room in which students can discuss the class or anything else for that matter during the course discussion. This keeps them from going on Facebook and focuses them at least marginally on the business at hand”.  Hmmmm, one wonders about the “marginally” and what the “anything else” is.  Integration of the social tools so beloved of our students is not easily integrated into every facet of classroom teaching.  While I like the idea of the back channel, it is difficult to see how it solves the problem.

What, then, is the solution?

Do we need yet another label to slap on students?  No!

Do we want to ban technology from the classroom? No!

Do we simply ignore the student(s) who Facebook their way through class? No!

Do we bar the Facebooking student from ever sitting in class again until they mend their ways? No! (we might be kept waiting some time for them to return)

Do we have individual lesson plans for each student so they cannot claim to be bored or that the teacher is moving too slow / fast for them? No! (how many students do you have, on average, in your classes?)

Do we…………….

It’s Sunday night, I’m back to watching the golf.

What Twitterers are tweeting about

Some people flatly refuse to tweet because it’s boring.  Yes, it is boring to read “I’m going home now” or “having chicken for dinner”.  But a flick through the tweets of those I’m following reveals some interesting stuff indeed.  People really post about interesting things. Here’s a selection:

  • Interview with Mark Zuckerberg:  he’s big into integration, single sign-ons with Facebook at the centre of things.
  • 40 people who changed the internet: the list is predominantly male and American.  There is a grand total of 1 woman in the entire list.
  • Review of Kevin Kelly’s new book: the reviewer isn’t hugely positive but yet manages to create a curiosity about the book. It sounds like an in-depth philosophical view of the technology-driven world. Example: “technology is an emerging state of cosmic reality” – that calls for some pondering.
  • Social consumers and social marketing:  I started off my professional life in marketing (in the pre-internet world). It  didn’t last long. The whole thing felt like a combination of paper-pushing and how-to-get-suckers-to-part-with-their-money. Now, it’s all changed and internet-marketing is one of my more enjoyable subjects to engage in with students.  Social Currency is more than just a concept. Brands mean something to customers, and customers are in charge of the transaction
  • If third level education costs more, should third level education then be shorter in duration? – I don’t agree. But this is exactly what is being speculated on in the UK. College is as much about personal development as it is about learning the content of a particular domain.  I’ve always been fascinated by how students change and mature between their first year and their third year. I don’t  see the same gains being made in 2 years. In terms of the academic learning, I wonder if a 2-year degree is more about the dreaded, and ultimately wasted, “cramming” as it is about immersion in a subject to the extent that a deeper understanding is achieved, even if some domain facts become blurry with time.
  • If I were a rich woman would I live here? – in fairness, it’s a plush location close to all amenities, but think of the traffic and the pollution. I do like the floorplan and the reclining statue at the bottom of the bed. The bed in the bathroom (or the bath in the bedroom) I’m not so sure about.
  • John Seely Brown’s “The Power of Pull” – I’m ashamed to say I purchased this some time back and still not have got around to reading it.  There are simply too many good books screaming read-me-read-me.  The line “If I aint learning, it aint fun” caught my attention.
  • The top 10 social networking sites and forums: Surprise surprise, Facebook is way above and beyond the most popular. Why don’t I know more about Mocospace and Mylife?  Am I missing something?
  • The Times Higher Ed claim to have a preview of the Hunt report: and its unsurprisingly not pretty in places and rather intriguing in others: the general feeling seems to be that it lacks a sound academic base and anything build on sand tends to be blown apart quite easily. So far so uh-oh.

The Social Network

I finally got to see the movie, and it had me metaphorically glued to the screen the entire time.

I don’t know how much artistic licence was taken.  Given the gagging clauses in the settlements of the real case, I’ll probably never know. Yet, what was presented on the screen gave considerable food for thought. It wasn’t all roses.  I think the thorns were more prominent than the roses.

Third level college is about personal development as much as it is about intellectual development.  The first few years as an official adult away from the protective eye of parents are hugely significant. We make mistakes, we do silly things, we hurt others, we get hurt.  No-one ever forgets the first time they have their heart smashed by a member of the opposite (or same, depending on your preferences) gender.  You hurt and then you move on wiser and having learned from the experience.

In the internet age, it’s not so easy. The social tools of the internet allow permanent records to be kept and to be kept in public form. The Mark Zuckerberg character was devastated by the Erica rejection and blogs publicly and rather nastily about it. He moves on …. to create a widely-subscribed social website to hit out at the female of the species.  In contrast, most people would likely have commiserated face-to-face with a small number of friends.

Scale comes across very strongly in the movie.  Everything is bigger than big. The numbers subscribing to facebook (and its various predecessors) are huge, the money put into it is huge, its valuation is huge, the Harvard social life portrayed is over-the-top, the fall-outs and exploitations among friends are extensive – so much so that one wonders how they can ever be repaired. Thankfully, most of us have less dramatic student lives.

On a more positive note, I’m intrigued by how someone without a wide circle of close friends and at such a young age put his finger on the pulse of what makes Facebook so popular. The exclusivity factor, you decide who is in your in-group and who isn’t, is crucial. If you want to be choosy or friend every person you ever meet is completely your choice. The relationship-status is critical for the age group Facebook is aimed at. And it is never over, it’s a perpetual beta, friendships grow and evolve and sometimes die and new ones take their place.  And how this is documented is totally in the hands of those who chose to Facebook. Some use it more wisely than do others.

There were other aspects of the movie that caught my attention. Examples are the social snobbery coming across on the Harvard campus (the elite kids of rich families and not-so-elite kids), the pride that is taken in being a hacker, the intangible and undefinable nature of friendship, the social role of the internet, the role of the social web in doing one’s homework (the art history assignment that was completed through invited comments on a social website – collaboration or sneakily getting others to do the work for you?), the comment from Sean Parker – “it might not be good business but it pissed a lot of people off”, and the copyright comment – if you make a chair do you then have to share your profits with everyone who ever made a chair?

Yes, it wasn’t a positive feel-good movie but it kept my attention the entire time.  It was a movie that I wanted to come away and have a conversation about, a movie to think about.

Facebook and the Privacy thing

Facebook is popular, very popular.  It has over 400 active million users, 50% of these users ‘facebook’ at least once every day. That’s impressive.  If Facebook is that huge how come it’s so casual on privacy?

Do those who embrace Facebook not care much about their personal privacy?  Do those behind the scenes at Facebook then exploit this relaxed attitude in order to further link up people socially?  Do Facebook not care about their users’ privacy?  Is there something else accounting for the Facebook approach to personal privacy?

At the moment the jury is out on Open Graph.   In essence, if you’re merrily surfing the net and come across something you like, and that has the thumbs-up “Like” option on it, you can choose to click on this Like button.  This action is fed back to your Facebook page.  It is also kept by the website you visit.  When your Facebook friends visit that site they are notified that you’ve already been there and liked it. Is this a good thing?

Yes, it enhances the social web but is it too much?  Do you want your Facebook friends to know that you went on an Icelandic website to learn the correct pronunciation of Eyjafjallajokull.   Does a wife want to know that her husband ‘likes’ dodgy websites?  Perhaps she does, but that’s not the point.

The point is that this is yet another example of the end user not being given the option to opt in or out.  People are not given the choice to say no if they want to say no. People are not given the choice to say yes if they want to say yes.

To this end, an article by PC World should be compulsory reading for all 400 million people on Facebook. The author goes step-by-step through the required procedure to take back control over your Facebook settings. It shows where to look for those settings that govern your privacy and to turn them off if that is what you want.

Some of the Facebook ventures are interesting.  The Docs application is particularly appealing.  Users can “discover, create and share” MS-type documents.  This has exciting potential for us educators.  If there are privacy concerns will educators rush to explore it?   In some cases, perhaps not.

By not giving people control over how social they want to be online, Facebook could find those masses of users dropping off. Of course, no-one is forcing anyone to ‘like’ anything. No one is forcing anyone to click that button.

Buying your own Facebook privacy

Collective power moves mountains.

If enough people feel strongly about something and are prepared to stand up and say it then results might just ensue.

Facebook users came out in their droves to react against the social networking site’s possessiveness about users personal details. The outcry was enough to cause a u-turn among Facebook mgt. They’ve backed down and reverted to original terms and conditions.

EU Data Protection laws clearly outline that a person has a right to have data about them deleted if it is not serving any purpose e.g the users has shut their account. Also, the data holder can only use the data for stated purposes e.g. facilitating the provision of social networking facilities to subscribers.The US, where Facebook is based, has similar provisions.

The question is – how can Facebook change these terms. After all, arent they law?  I dont claim to be a law expert (because I’m not) but I dont quite understand this. Mark Zuckerberg in his blog seems rather vague. Facebook seem to have something in the pipeline.

On the plus side, the internet penchant for user-involvement means that users have a say. The “Bill of Rights” gives some reassurance. There are 7,228 (as of the time of this post) user comments on the wall. The result – Facebook promises to respect your data privacy.

Crisis averted…… for now………?

what do students choose to do when…..

……. in class but not engaged in formal learning?

An interesting side effect of the cold weather is that students stay in during their class breaks instead of heading outside for a cig or a coffee. In a double class today with a break in the middle I decided to have a peek at what students got up to. Here’s a summary –

  • Read football reports online – 1 student
  • Watch football movie clips on youtube – 1 student
  • Watch movie trailers on youtube – 1 student
  • Search wikipedia – 3 students, all in different languages, none of them english
  • Catch up on e-mail – 3 students
  • Catch up on Bebo – 3 students
  • Catch up on Facebook – 1 student
  • Play computer games – 2 students (on the same internet game, and sitting right beside each other)
  • Text on their phones – 1 student
  • Talk to each other – 3 students

Having spent an hour doing computer-based work, the vast majority of students volunteer to stay on that computer even though they dont have to. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Whichever, it shows how integrated undergrads are with technology.

What do I learn when I ask about their preferred breaktime habits –

Bebo and Facebook at most popular on Mondays. The same clubs and pubs are attended but everyones experience of a night out is different. So reading about each others reflections on said night out on Bebo or Facebook is a way of catching up with friends that can’t actually happen on the night out itself. How about that? Going out is only as interesting as what is said the next day about same night out. Social situations and environments are extended beyond the boundary of the night out.  Loosely jointed records are there for all to see. Students get to evaluate the social event from multiple perspectives, form opinions and feelings about people and scenarios, and then act on them in a way not possible without social networking sites.

youtube clips are short enough to be watched quickly and so avoid the need to commit to something in-depth that may not be interesting. Web design gurus tell us that it only takes a couple of seconds to decide whether we like a website or not. Is it the same with other aspects of the web – our attentions span is so low, we cant become engaged with anything online for any extended period of time. It’s digital fast food. We want our web content dished up in a bit-sized chunks that we can sample and decide yes / no very quickly

Wikipedia is a source of information that is considered trustworthy and reliable. While we would rather students read scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals, they prefer wikipedia. IS this such a bad thing? Wikipedia isn’t any more factually incorrect than Encyclopedia Britannica, its got a significant amount of inter-linkages, it alters the reader when pages are incomplete or need more work, it has a “by the people for the people” feel to it, its got enough members who care to keep the riff-raff vandals from sabotaging it.

Computer games are a means of having a laugh while spending quality time with mates. Classmates bonding has a positive effect on a class. And if new skills and abilities are picked up in the process of the bonding (the students were playing a co-operative game that required them to work together to solve a problem) then why arent we as educators embracing computer games more? Perhaps its becasue gaming technology doesnt map onto formally prescribed curricula so easily, or its a large scale effort that we simply do not have the time for?

Here’s the really interesting part – there was as much learning going on during the break as in the classtime. Yet the break time content doesn’t get any credit

online or offline, you decide

A feature I like in Facebook is the Minekey opinion gadget. Basically, someone poses a statement and asks if you agree or disagree. The % of agree / disagree to date are posted along with comments of the voters if they choose to comment and so add some meat to their dis/agreement. The latest one to pop in my email asks “No amount of social networking can ever substitute its real life counterpart”. Think about that one for a moment – is the person suggesting that Facebook (and equivalents) are inferior to offline social networking. If so, in what ways and to what extent?

Turns out that of the 7000+ facebookers who partook, a whopping 94% agreed!! And these are from people who facebook regularly (otherwise, they wouldn’t have bothered Minekeying). Some of the comments: “face 2 face is the best, but distance is the creator of the need!!!”, “You can pretend who you are and how you feel but you never know if your offending anyone or if anyone is lying unless you are face to face with them. Social networking is impersonal and awkward at times”, “its just a lazy way of communicating, unless you are speaking to people who are miles apart from you”, “but isnt social networking part of real life, so depends on person how do u take it, see it, manage it and share it to become part of life”, “But we can make our real life much easier through social networking”.

So, what does all that mean? The online method has inferiorities – devoid of the cues we take for granted in the offline world how can you be sure of how you are coming across, or if other people really are what they appear to be. But it has its plus sides – the distance of physical geography is not a problem. Others don’t see this online / offline divide as clear-cut. The virtual world is real and the people they met there are real people. Personally, this last one is the view that has proved positive for me. Many of my Facebook (and other SN) friends are real people I would never have met if the online world didn’t exist. Yes, I’ve also met some people I’d rather not have met but online they can be blocked, and it’s much easier to deploy avoidance strategies online than it is offline. Three cheers for online social networking and the people that make it what it is.