Category Archives: design

tufte, illusions, trump

Tufte writes about attention and misdirection.

To create illusions is to engage in disinformation design….

In conjuring, strategies of disguise and attention control work to regulate the optical information available to the spectator. As we have seen for the backpalm and the copper-silver coin exchange, a common technique is to disguise smaller motions by means of larger motions; the fingers craftily manipulate while the hand grandly waves. The attention-attracting but resolution-reducing character of motion is described by Henning Nelms:

“Although movement attracts attention, it also diminishes visibility. When a thread is used to support a light object, it can be seen from a surprising distance even when its color matches the background. However, the slightest movement makes it disappear. A large movement can be used to conceal a small one. For example, the weak spot in The Strong Man’s Secret [a trick based on a cut-and-restored storing] is the action of cutting the loop. The technique . . . can be made more deceptive if you keep the knife still and force the string against it by a sudden movement of the left hand. . . . The large movement of the left hand and the string draws every eye away from the kmf’e so that no one can observe the unnatural way in which the string is cut.”

And in detective stories, the small clue that solves the mystery may be similarly disguised: “It is Agatha Christie, too, who regularly contrives that just as the clue is dropped a distracting m‘cident occurs. Here we are close to the art of the stage conjurer.” As well as close to the arts of propaganda, strategic Intelligence, and politics — although for magic, at least, the targets of the deception are aware and pleased that they are being deceived. Tufte, Visual Explanations, 64.

the double-edged hobson’s choice janus-faced statement of learning objectives

We’re closing in on getting classes started for spring, so I’ve been updating syllabi and course statements.  I’m really trying to cut – heavily cut – what I provide in the current Weblogs and Wikis statement. Not condense, not rework, but just cut.  One problem is that in explaining objectives and criteria for evaluation has to take two forms: one needs to be student-readable, the other is for the administration.  For students to learn with, I state these as guides rather than promises/outcomes/objectives/goals:

This course gives you the opportunity to

– Become skilled in navigating, reading, and creating written content in social media.
– Develop an understanding of how social media systems work technically; develop a critical understanding of the rhetorical affordances in social media systems; develop a critical understanding of how people interact socially in these systems; and develop a sense of potentials and pitfalls in the systems and their use.
– Become familiar enough with the concepts of social media communication able to be able to review and articulate social issues and implications.
– Critically consider how social media has and continues to re-shape learning, social, and communicative practices.
– Publish your work with these issues and topics, and comment on your work as it unfolds. aka: Become a cartographer
– Participate in a semester-long conversation about these issues and topics with others in this class and outside the class,
– Synthesize ideas of social media to develop critically-aware, media-specific responses in a number of media.

For the students, they are guides, hopes, things to aspire to. For me, they are what I have to give opportunities for the students to try. But I also evaluate students using these objectives as the course progresses: They are holistic, heuristic, aimed at pedagogical ends of understaning and comprehension, familiarity with new ideas, increasing confidence and expertise. I leave  how the student demonstrates each of these unstated, in part because the how wouldn’t make much sense to students until the end of the course, and in part because I don’t wish to close off possibilities for their demonstration by over-defining them, and in great part because this is a class where people learn across time rather than just show at the end.  So, how do I know if, for instance, a student is “critically considering how social media has and continues to re-shape learning, social, and communicative practices?” By her way of her writing, among other means. But to specify the criteria by number of words, posts, or something we’ll call engagement is less than useful to the student. I suspect I will see it in her writing, in her use of tags, in her comments on the work of others … I know I have to provide plenty of opportunities for her to practice it, watch for it as she does, and let her know when and where I see it.

But in counterpoint, here are the goals/objectives/criteria/indices I have listed for the non-pediagogical administrative view of the course.

Students will

== demonstrate technical proficiency by ==
– setting up and maintaining a weblog for the course, and using it for course purposes
– ditto wiki pages
– ditto Twitter
– demonstrate a growing independence in technical matters over the semester
– demonstrate a broadening of media attempted over the semester

== demonstrate knowledge by==
– engaging with the work of others in the class by commenting and responding
– posting regular work with readings and topics on your blog
– engaging (meaning //annotating, sharing, remixing, repurposing//) materials both assigned and what you find
– searching for and engaging other materials
– engaging in a continuing refactoring of ideas during the course
– a developing depth and quality in your reflections over the semester

== demonstrate responsibility and academic integrity by ==
– attending face to face classes and maintaining a presence on line
– submitting materials on time
– informally documenting sources in the manners appropriate for the web. Linking, obviously, but look at some weblogs and you’ll see how it’s done.)
– not cheating

What are these really? Because they aren’t goals. They are more like statements of necessary conditions for learning to potentially occur. They are purportedly visible and measurable outcomes – not for my use, not for the use by students, but for administration. But there are problems: Since the administration won’t tell faculty what wants to use these statements for, I can’t be more specific and I can’t be sure that I’m specifying anything meaningful to them.  If they measurable (or worth measuring), they aren’t calibrated, nor can they be in a useful way. I can say with a degree of certainty that they are pedagogically meaningless in a classroom of any significance, and they don’t provide a measure for evaluating learning. They look like they might, but they don’t.

So, in the statement for students, I add a couple of paragraphs to help make the Borges List perhaps useful to students as learner-readable criteria:

That’s the evidence I’ll look at during the progress of the course. Here are the criteria I’ll use for a final evaluation of your work:

– The complexity of what you take on and how you address it. That is, To what extent have you challenged yourself and the medium?
– The sophistication of ideas with which you address the tasks you set for yourself.

In short, the more challenging the tasks you set for yourself, and the more sophisticated the work you take on, the higher the final grade. These features and criteria emphasize //exploring//, //experimenting//, //developing self-reliance//, as well as traditional academic qualities of //complexity//, //insight//, //tenacity//, and //risk//.

So, horns of a dilemma avoided at the almost-certain risk of confusing students. Maybe next semester, I’ll try color coding things: things students need to know in blue, and administrative text in yellow.

Desk: Elephants to Catch Eels

Locally, we’re ending a semester and with a new season comes the need (!) for a new blogging app. This one is Desk , with good reviews on its paper-on-a-desktop interface. Writes in markdown. Handles image embeds and placement well – very easy. Affordances of headings, styles, quotation and lists are hidden away a little: select the text and a popup selection bar appears (it visually wars with PopClip for a moment). They’re available by keyboard, too. Preview and publishing options, too, are tucked away until you want them.

I enjoy – yep: enjoy – the minimalist writing interface (sans scrollbar) and appreciate the single-window design over floating palettes. I appreciate, too, the stats: characters, words, and reading time. And because I work across two Macs, using iCloud Drive to store drafts is welcome. There’s also some welcome legibility intelligence built into the interface: Re-sizing the editing window re-sizes the text for drafting.

The weblog setup is a little geeky, asking for the xmlrpc.php address. Not a problem for me, and perhaps a feature to teach a few users what is necessary for logging into a weblog. I approach new apps with the mind that the developers are going to show me something new, and I’m ready to let them, so I don’t balk at geek or new interface moves. Every app another way to think about what we’re doing. Every app a machine to think with.

There are a few things that push towards re-learning. Like the minimalist interface that removes the context. Like the disappearing publishing information that redraws the text when it’s called up and again when it’s hidden. The difficulty in seeing paragraph breaks in the draft window where everything is single-spaced.

It’s a v 1.0 release, so by the time I get used to these new gestures, the developer will have changed things anyway.

The promotional website is over-kill for the understatement of the actual app – a blast of marketing hype on story and empowerment and mission and passion. The first-grade marketing silliness creeps into the app. Publishing a post is rewarded with a gold-star, “Success! Great Job!” Using hyperbole to market understatement is a nice rhetorical irony, well-taken, but when it creeps into interface design, annoyance lies in wait. To get the best feel for the app, look at John's blog.

Update: Editing and resending a post doesn't update the original post but creates a new one. After publishing this post, I edited it further and then updated – I thought. I ended up with seven versions. Desk uses the old-school way of thinking about publishing and updating: Get it right before you publish, then publish once and commit! I'm more of the wiki-habit of development in situ. I deleted the six earlier versions and all is fine.

Update: Turns out I was editing and repeatedly uploading a local copy of the post rather than editing the already-uploaded version. The uploaded post is editable. Look over the navigation bar closely and select the version to edit. Desk is slippery, but flexible.

throat clearing

Time to get back to the classroom, and that means breaking in some new software, including an updated blogging app, Blogo. It was out orignally in 2009, if my old license key is accurate, but went dark for a while. It’s been released as v 2. It seems roughly the same as I recall it back in 2009: single window, with what seems to be a better image editor. It’s far more pleasent to work in than, say MarsEdit. I was going to say it’s more limited than MarsEdit in handling images, but it’s not: It just handles them differently. Embedding images from Flickr, for instance, is done by clicking on the image and selecting Send to Blogo from the service menu. The embedded image can be tweaked in Blogo, and it’s done.

Reduced face time in three courses

I’m trying out reduced face time in three courses: Tech Writing. A&E, and E-Rhetoric. The last also has an online-only grad section – a design I’m also trying out. All the content I typically generate – aka lectures and my notes – will be online. Activities will be similar to what I’ve used in the past: no tests but lots of notes and making. Deadlines for work are firm to promote timeliness. The idea is to reduce face to face classtime to one session per week and to focus that session tightly on a seminar discussion, or class tutorial, or individual tutorial, depending on what we need that week. Sort of what I remember from attending UCL, crossed with activity and sharing techniques from cMOOCs. As at UCL, face sessions are voluntary: Attendance isn’t required. Rather than a final exam, however, weekly work will verify whether the student might be better off attending the weekly session. Students can use the other class session time to meet and work together.

This design might not sound novel, but it is to me, and I have some apprehensions about it that I hope to work out this semester.

What else? No discussion board. Instead, discussions or exchanges will be attached to wiki pages: Keep the exchanges close to the content. Some collaborative work probably in Google Docs. No video lectures from me: I find them too slow and dispersed for the purpose. Lectures are what students are not coming to hear, right? All reading, for the most part. Some step by step tutorials using Clarify 2. Perhaps some screencasts if absolutely necessary.

All of this places a lot of responsibility on the student for technical skills, so I expect to use a bootcamp approach in the first set of requred meetings (bootcamp borrowed from ds106). Those online only will have to google their way into the technology. Eg “Go to Google and use its tutorials to set up a Google Docs account. Whe you have a Google Document created, email me the link .…” And “Google the term rss. Find out what it is and how it’s useful to you. Sign up for an RSS account online or using an RSS reader on your own computer. From there on, add the RSS feeds to wiki pages for this course that you want to monitor or are working on.” And “Register with Twitter. Use #ENGL2152 to request help or feedback from others ….” I probably need a checklist.

It all adds up to dynamic syndicated learning:

[PDF] Discussion board: A learning objectK Harman, A Koohang – … Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, 2005 –… The discussion board thus may be used as a “context board.” For example, the concept of usingthe discussion board as a “context board” fits well within Downes’ (2003b) recommendation forusing syndicated learning content: … Using syndicated learning content. …

Or will it be federated?

Existing online learning experiences lack the social dimension that characterizes learning in the real world. This social dimension extends beyond the traditional classroom into the university’s common areas where learners build knowledge and understanding through serendipitous and collaborative exchanges both within and across traditional subject area boundaries. A next generation virtual learning environment (VLE) can address the limitations of current online systems by providing a richer social context for online learning. We describe the end-user properties of … VLE that fosters dynamic group learning experiences and the development of communities of practice. This proposed VLE provides the capacity to merge the institutional infrastructure for academic computing, enterprise-level networks, Squeak/Croquet-based content authoring, and the educational principles of constructivist pedagogy.

Or another model?And I will need a statement of openness, revised from this, which I’ve use regularly.

Most of the writing we all do for this course will end up on the wiki. Notes, notes on notes, my comments, more notes, group notes and projects. As the course progresses, you’ll find that we can begin to link up these nodes, developing them into topics, and further developing topics over the semester and across semesters. The wiki becomes more valuable (to us, to the next group, and to whomever looks in) the more we develop topics over time.Writing the wiki is an integral part of this course and your learning for this course. As your notes progress, you will begin, I hope, to cross link to the notes and observations of others. University students and professors are now in the business of making their course work in progress available to those interested; it’s another new rhetorical practice of digital space.

I would rather have students work in their own spaces, to set up and use their own PLEs, and then aggrgate their work by linking materials they are submitting for evaluation to a wikiname page. But that’s for later.

And, one final device for this design: A weekly update, in the form of a blog post or wiki page, as appropriate. Downes et al used these in a couple of cMOOCs I participted in, and they worked to highlight substantive work and directions for students. Much as a face to face lecture signals what the instructor sees as important, so the weekly highlights helps students define a focus.

And Blogo?

because I’ve used this post to evaluate it. It has a few idiosyncrasies – and so it should! – in how it imports from the web to the draft, but those became useful quickly. It may be my machine, but Blogo doesn’t seem to be spell-checking. Minor, really. I’m looking forward to using it this semester.