Three things that occur to me today about Lessig’s talk Thursday night

I went to the “wireside chat” Lawrence Lessig gave Thursday night, a talk mostly (but not entirely, as I’ll mention in a moment) about issues of copyright and remix on the ‘net. You can watch it all yourself now by going to this site; I certainly think it’s a worthwhile viewing experience, especially if you haven’t ever seen Lessig speaking and thinking about copyright and remix.

Three somewhat related thoughts about it all:

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Thinking about “Getting Things Done”

On the way back from Will’s and my recent trip to Alabama, I finally managed to finish reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I am aware of the irony that it has taken me months of off and on reading to finish this book. Why was I reading it in the first place, you may ask? Well, I picked up this book and, my next read on productivity, Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek, vaguely thinking that there might be a scholarly project of some sort in there.

Based on flipping through both books and reading their back covers, my initial impression was that these books take opposite views on the notion of “productivity.” Allen’s book, I presumed, was about how to get more things done, while Ferriss’ book was about how to recognize what you don’t need to do so you have more time to do thing things you want to do. I thought (and still do think) that dichotomy is potentially interesting, though don’t ask me now what that paper/presentation/article/web site/book looks like.

And besides that, I thought I might actually learn something about being more productive.

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Returning to Gulf Coast Alabama one last time

I’m writing this about 20 minutes before Will and I have to leave for the airport to go back to Detroit while sitting on the patio of my parents’ condo, and it occurs to me that this is pretty much the first time on this trip where it’s been even remotely warm enough to sit outside for any amount of time.  Jeesh.

Will was off school this week and because I’m teaching online (and thus a little more flexible in my whereabouts) and because we didn’t spend as much time with my parents at Christmas as we probably should have, Will and I came down here for a few days.  Annette, unfortunately, still was teaching/working, and (even more unfortunate) watching over a kinda sick dog.

It’s been a pleasant enough visit. The highlight clearly was Mardi Gras, which was a much bigger deal down here in Southern Alabama than I thought.  We didn’t make it into Mobile for the big parades, which was a shame since they claim to be “the original” Mardi Gras (take that, copy-cat New Orleans!), but the local parade through Gulf Shores was a lot of fun. Here’s a link to some picts; here’s my favorite chunks of video, me catching one of the things commonly thrown from the floats, moon pies:

Will and I also spent a very cool afternoon climbing around the battleship USS Alabama and the submarine USS Drum while my parents stayed back and read.  At first, I thought my parents were being party-poopers, but once I got on board, I understood:  it was a lot of fun, but the chutes and ladders and tiny doors mean it’s a little like climbing around in the tubes at Chuck E. Cheese.

And we saw an old fort, and we were at a thing where they shot off an old canon… wow, very military themed, I guess.  I “ran”/walked one day on the beach, which was pretty good exercise albeit kind of cold.

All in all, a nice enough visit, though I don’t know if I’ll be back anytime soon.  My parents are talking about going someplace different next year, and to be honest, I have a hard time making seeing me and Annette making our own vacation kind of trip here. But the moon pies are good.

“Easy” isn’t “useful” (and it might be just kind of “dumb”)

Via Will Richardson’s blog and his entry “Transformative Technology?  Really?” about a video from a company (maybe the company?  I don’t know) that makes “smart boards,” those touch screen white boards where you can project all kinds of stuff.  Here’s a link to the video (I don’t think there’s a way to embed it). The video shows elementary school teachers using the board and discussing its use in mock interview-style discussion.

It’s all rather bothersome in at least two different ways. First, I swear they say “ease” or “easy” at least 30 times in this 5 minute video.  Second, the uses they demonstrate of this board aren’t exactly “transformative:”  really, it seems to replicate classic elementary school pedagogy, with students sitting in neat rows, the teacher pointing at something on the board, and, instead of writing with chalk and erasing with an eraser, the teacher just uses his hand!  Wow!  And to the extent that the students are actually involved in using these things, it is to do stuff that would just as easily be done on a whiteboard or a chalkboard.

It’s all rather odd because I know these smart boards can actually be interesting tools.  They have them at Will’s school (none in Pray-Harrold as far as I know, and I don’t think there will be any coming into the building anytime soon), and, from what I’ve seen, Will and his teachers use them a lot to project some sort of web-based thing, to project some sort of slide show, and/or to demonstrate something on the computer desktop the teacher wants to show.  The touch screen makes it a lot easier to do these things than it is with a computer hooked up to a projector. And at Will’s school, I think the students play around with them as much the teachers– at least that’s what I’ve seen.

After seeing this, I immediately thought of this recent CHE article, “Class Produces Parody of ‘The Office’ to Highlight Challenges of Teaching With Technology.” This one does include a YouTube video:

It’s funny because it’s true, and the smartboard promo video is also not funny because it’s true.

I wrote an essay a while back about chalkboards as a technology, and I quoted Larry Cuban in it as saying something along the lines of teachers don’t change the way they do things as a result of technology just because they can.  Rather, teachers change the way they do things as a result of technology if they perceive that new use of technology as being beneficial to their teaching– both for their students and themselves.

I guess I’d amend/revise that slightly. If teachers aren’t willing or aren’t able to really rethink the way that technologies can transform their teaching, then they shouldn’t bother with the expense and hassle of things like “smart” boards.  And if teachers want it all to be so “easy” that they don’t have to think about it all, well, that’s kinda dumb.  I worry about this at my own institution where I see some of my colleagues wanting things like “smart” boards and other bells and whistles not because they would do anything significantly or meaningfully different because it’s cool.  Kind of like that Monty Python sketch about the button that goes “bing.”

Actually, that University of Denver video has some good advice for getting started with teaching with technology:  get the students involved, allow for more collaboration, and don’t be boring.  Of course, the professor at the end of that video also talks about trying out “those clickers.”

I was doing and thinking about a lot of other things while writing this post

There’s an interesting article in CHE right now, “Scholars Turn Their Attention to Attention,” about various research and perspectives on multitasking– or rather, the myth of multitasking.  There must be something in the air about multitasking and the bane of every non-multitasker’s existence, talking on the phone while driving.  Just yesterday, I was listening to NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” to US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood sounding a little like a crazy old man about the need to keep both hands on the wheel at all times.  I do not understand how someone can text and drive at the same time, I don’t think bus drivers or truckers ought to be talking on their cell phones (unless they have something like a head set), and I try to use my headphones when I’m driving and talking on the phone.  But doing anything while driving is pontentially dangerous, including perfectly legal (and even encouraged!) things like eating, drinking (I’ll bet spilled coffee in the lap is responsible for many more auto accidents than cell phone class), talking to others, listening to super-duper loud music, etc.

Wait, I got distracted.  Where was I?  Oh yeah, multitasking….

The CHE article is good and probably worth teaching because it covers the issue from a variety of different angles– certainly not just from the “multitasking is bad” one.  There’s some kind of information here about the “history” of research on multitasking and various experiments, but I have to say (as someone who doesn’t do this kind of research) that a lot of this seems kind of like parlor games to me.  For example:

As far back as the 1890s, experimental psychologists were testing people’s ability to direct their attention to multiple tasks. One early researcher asked her subjects to read aloud from a novel while simultaneously writing the letter A as many times as possible. Another had people sort cards of various shapes while counting aloud by threes.

Well, duh, but isn’t that more like making someone say the alphabet backwards during a sobriety test or something?  I don’t know if that necessarily tests a person’s ability to do more than one thing at once though giving most attention to a single task.  For example, as I am writing this post, I am listening to my iPhone (REM right now) and I was just interrupted to take a phone call from my wife.  That’s multitasking, but it’s not like what these people seem to mean by multitasking.

Or I guess that’s the problem here– I’m not sure there’s a very clear definition of what multitasking is.  For example, part of the argument that comes up against multitasking is that increasingly old school argument about no laptops in the classroom.  Here’s an extreme example of that:

“I’m teaching a class of first-year students,” says David E. Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “This might well have been the very first class they walked into in their college careers. I handed out a sheet that said, ‘Thou shalt have no electronic devices in the classroom.’ … I don’t want to see students with their computers out, because you know they’re surfing the Web. I don’t want to see them taking notes. I want to see them paying attention to me.”

I don’t know who Meyers is or what his scholarship says, but that last line– I want them paying attention to me– seems pretty telling and egocentric.  And  it’s this potential lack of paying attention to me, the professor/teacher/sage on the stage/keeper o’ wisdom that has got most people like Meyers thinking like this.  Don’t get me wrong; I will sometimes ask students to close up their laptops to pay attention to something, especially if it is one of those times I have to go into a five minute lecture “about important stuff for the class” mode.  But generally, I don’t want to be the center of the class, and if my students find it easy to be distracted by Facebook (or whatever), then it’s probably a combination of me being boring or them not wanting to be in class.

One more thing:  I don’t think multitasking is even remotely a phenomenon that has come abut only with the age of the Internet.  I grew up in a multitasking household.  The television was ALWAYS on when I was a kid, and now when I am home visiting my parents, three sisters, and all the kids and in-laws (I think it’s 17 0r 18 people total), it is not at all uncommon for their to be three different televisions in different rooms but still within sight, all tuned to different channels.  My parents always read the newspaper or magazine while watching TV (or with the TV on– I’m not sure the difference was ever very clear when I was a kid), and layered over that would always be some kind of conversation.  When I go back home now, all of my adult siblings and their spouses will sit around watching TV, playing some kind of game, checking laptops or cell phones, watching children, eating snacks, and planning the next meal, all at the same time.

I mean, really:  in “real life,” who just “pays attention?”