Category Archives: Learning

Making Pictures Together

Images by Felice Frankel

Images by Felice Frankel

We are launched. Making Science and Engineering Pictures, an MITx MOOC, is now officially underway. What a contrast to consider the differences between memories of “first day of class” versus what we’re experiencing with this online course. Trudging my way to school with new Pee Chee folders and three ring binders, sharpened pencils, and a pristine lunchbox versus our course team, hunched over our laptops, connected via Skype at 9:00 AM EDT, watching as the first “introduce yourself” posts streamed in.

On day one (June 15, 2015), the course enrollment stood at 6,441 students. Naturally, we know that number will dwindle – it’s a low bar to register for an edX course, all you need is an email address. If the final number of actively participating students dwindles to 500, I’ll be happy. That’s 450 more than we could have reasonably managed in a face-to-face course. 450 more people who will, if we’ve done it right, learn how to make more effective and compelling images of their work.

0.111x is an online digital photography course, conceived of and taught by Felice Frankel. Felice is talented science photographer who, over the years, has carved out an intriguing niche – working closely with scientists and engineers to help them see their work in a new way. Felice examines the products and objects of a scientists’ work and asks thoughtful, yet naïve, questions (Is that element really necessary? What’s the most important point that you need to convey? Why is this gray? I am confused by this, can you tell me what’s going on here?) and then assembles their petri dishes, batteries, sensors, microreactors, and fuel cells in innovative, clever ways. The results are often novel, wholly original, and always interesting.

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 9.03.26 PM


In this course, Felice has attempted to capture the way she works; the themes and truths behind her approach to visualizing science. She imparts her acquired wisdom in a series of conceptual videos, spanning six week of topics (flatbed scanners, camera basics, lighting, mobile devices/video, presenting your work, and a final week of case study examination). Weekly assignments, designed so that the student photographers discover the week’s principles for themselves, complement the instructional videos.

Starting in week 1, students will upload their photographs to an online visual collaboration platform called VoiceThread (VT). As students log into VT, from the edX course environment, they will be automatically sorted into groups of 30 (I can’t help but think of the sorting hat in Harry Potter). There, in these small online groups, our students will post, share, discuss, and critique their images. This course is a purpose-driven, as opposed to a content-driven, learning environment. What they learn will come as a side effect of their actions, the images they create and discuss with each other and with us. Our instructional material [here’s a sample instructional video from the course on how to use a flatbed scanner to create images of 3D objects] is all designed to support the students’ efforts to master the photographer’s tools (light, aperture, shutter speed, background, and pattern), to create their best possible images to explain what they do.

The students come from 130 countries.

The students come from 130 countries.

And what do they do? Who are these 6, 441 students? Judging by those who’ve so far logged into the discussion forum they are physicists, filmmakers, graduate students, park rangers, molecular biologists, amateur photographers, science communicators, shutterbugs, high and middle school teachers, artists, and neuroscientists. They are from Spain, Brazil, India, Uruguay, Ireland, Canada, Ecuador, Austria, Norway, Italy, China, Scotland, Germany, Puerto Rico, Pakistan, and all over the U.S. Among their reasons for taking the course…. They want to improve the photos they take for their students, for their research group, for themselves, or for the general public. One thing that’s interesting about reading the intended learning goals of a group of MOOC students is that everyone is here because they want to be here. This is not a requirement for anyone – they are pursuing something that interests them, something that they want to learn. Students in this course will document what they’ve learned with the images they create and the VoiceThread conversations they conduct around those images. By sharing and critiquing the images they produce (shared objects of reflection), we will all learn as much from our failures as we do from successes. We’ve provided sample VTs and rubrics to guide their work, but ultimately, the students will devise their own quality standards for evaluating their work and the work of their peers. Part of our mission is to encourage the creation and adoption of critical standards.

We all know that the best, most effective learning comes when students pursue something that interests them, create their own objects of learning, and are supported by peers who are engaged along with them. We like to think that’s what we’ve created with 0.111x. Let’s find out.


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Where Do You Read?

Reading. Flickr Alui0000

Reading. photo from Flickr Alui0000

Where do you read most often?  Is it online?  Is it curled up with a paperback book?  Is it sitting at table, highlighter in hand, with a large and heavy tome laid out in front of you, or is it with your arms extended and newsprint held aloft? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where and how we read. How does that impact our comprehension? What methods do we use to help us focus and retain what we read? What can we do to become better, deeper readers?  And what innovations do our new tools make possible that are not possible with the printed page?

It was MaryAnne Wolfe and her amazing book, Proust and the Squid, that really got me thinking about reading online versus reading on a printed page. A recent New Yorker blog post, by Maria Konikova, provides a very nice summary of Wolfe’s work.  In it she quotes Wolfe as she muses about the past and future of reading:

“Reading is a bridge to thought,” she says. “And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?”

My conversations with educators and other education stake-holders frequently puts me in touch with people who are very concerned about the impact of too much time staring at screens, by the perceived demise of books, and by the apparent lack of reading focus seen in children raised on screens and e-readers.

But what scientific evidence do we have about the impact of the medium (printed page vs. screen) on our reading?  Turns out, there’s quite a bit. But the questions are by no means settled. Prior to 1992, most studies concluded that people read slower, less comprehensively, and with less retention on screens than on paper. But starting in the early 90’s reading studies have produced more inconsistent results.  Part of the challenge comes in what questions are asked, what is measured, and what confounding factors are taken into account. For example, are we primarily concerned with reading speed? comprehension? fatigue? accuracy? motivation? More over, what methods are used to assess those factors – eye movements?  manipulation?  navigation? reading strategies? assessments?

The terrain of a printed book.

The terrain of a printed book.

There certainly is a navigational dimension to reading. Wolfe points out that we are not born with the wiring to read. Our brains must learn to read, to process letters as physical objects. In many ways, you can think of reading a book as navigating a physical landscape. We create mental maps of the books we read – how far am I from the beginning, how distant the end? The two pages of a printed book are spread before me, like two large rooms to explore top to bottom, left to right. And the physical turning of the pages- swoosh- feels like proceeding along a path, marking my progress with a rhythm as I proceed.  There are far fewer of these physical landmarks with screen text. It’s a bit like spelunking in a cave – where am I, in relationship to the whole story? And how can I find my way back to this spot, right here? It is more difficult to see one passage in the context of the whole. I often remember events in a narrative by their physical location on the page – that crucial passage about the murder weapon was in the lower left hand corner, in the earlier chapters….One of the researchers in this area, Anne Mangen, Stavenger University in Norway, supports this point in her research about the physicality of reading. She’s found in her studies that while Kindle and print readers score similarly on most measures, the Kindle readers score comparatively worse than print readers on plot reconstruction – that is placing events from the story in the correct order. Mangen suggests that the haptic feel of a Kindle or a tablet does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of what we read as does a print book.

And what about distraction?  Some researchers point to the hard-to avoid lure of a new tab, a link, or worse – a flickering advertisement off to the side.  Certainly, when reading online there are many, many opportunities to wander – some might say explore?  Regardless of how you think of it, once you depart you have leapt away from the initial task of reading.

A NYT graphic story on a reef in the South China Sea.

A NYT graphic story on a reef in the South China Sea.

Having said all of that, there are some remarkably interesting experiments with online reading that deserve exploration and consideration. For example…the graphic articles pioneered by the New York Times that marry video, stunning images, and text [this one about an avalanche at Tunnel Creek or this one on speed skating at the Olympics].  In these beautiful online reading experiences you are in the driver’s seat with videos launching just as you arrive, photos coming into full brightness as you arrive, fading as you flick or scroll away. Or how about the literature map that helps a reader make connections between authors and their works, or Robin Sloan’s tap essay for the iPhone, or this instructional offering on the dangers of fracking, or the gobsmacking Scale of the Universe?  And then there are annotation tools, like Diigo, Kaziena, and A.nnotate, and Evernote, that facilitate note taking, curating, and collaborative reading online. Researchers like Chih-Meng Chen are finding improved reading performance in children with collaborative annotation environments.

Another facet to consider here is the skills needed to read in these different environments. We are all very well-trained in how to read printed pages.  Pages numbers, tables of contents, the glossary and index nestled at the back – these are all familiar devices for us. What’s more, printed works are quite standard. The skills acquired when we are 5 or 6 years old serve us well as we move from early readers, to young adult, to the classics. We know what to do when presented with a print book.

Variations on e-reader navigation.

Variations on e-reader navigation.

By contrast, reading on the screen varies with the device.  How to size it, how to advance the page (a mouse, a track pad, a next button, a scroll bar) – a range of interfaces and systems to master. The innovative tool sets that various electronic reading devices have devised to mimic the manual manipulation of a book (highlighting, turning down a page, etc) vary widely as well. Each time you work with a new tablet or read using a different interface, you must learn how to use the tool d’jour. Perhaps we are so stuck in our print approach that this all feels mystifying to us, but it would not to someone who learned to read with these tools? Does this suggests a new way of approaching reading education? A new set of skills? If early readers learn to read with the tools, approaches, and navigational methods of reading on the screen will it be as comfortable for them as the printed page is for us now?

What do you think?  And how do you read most often?  I’ve been taking an informal poll among friends and family but would like to cast my net wider.  Take a moment, would you, to answer seven brief questions in this online survey about how you read? I’ll post the results gathered so you can see what comes of it.

With all this noodling, it feels natural to come to the conclusion that we need both. Print books to give us physical representations to collect, explore, and savor along with screen reading and its many promising adventures. But I don’t know. You tell me. You can take the survey right here or travel to it.




“Let us read and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world!”  – Voltaire


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A Reflection on “36 Views of Mount Fuji”

My copy of 36 Views of Mount Fuji

I just finished reading Cathy Davidson’s 1993 book, 36 Views of Mount Fuji and its been swirling around in my head ever since. Many of us know Cathy Davidson from her excellent work at Duke University, her thoughtful blog, her recently released book Now You See It, as well as her work cofounding the group HASTAC (“haystack”), a network of learners dedicated to new forms of learning for the digital age. What you may not know is that, long before all of that, Dr. Davidson wrote this incredible book, a reflection on her time in Japan. She’s made a number of trips to Japan over the years, first as an English teacher at Kansai Women’s University (KWU), and then later as a speaker, visitor, and friend.  Through it all she’s developed a deep and abiding affection for the Japanese people and their culture. The book is a memoir, but it’s so much more. The roots of her current work, the pathways of her agile mind, her ability to ferret out subtle truths of human nature, her reflections on learning — these can all be found in the  pages of this book.

I loved the book and found myself going back over key passages, mining them for insights that are as fresh today as they were when she penned them nearly 20 years ago. Take, for example, this excerpt, reflecting back on a whimsical pantomime exchange she had with a Japanese friend who could not understand her broken Japanese.

“For reasons I don’t fully understand, I like wordless communication.  I love the feeling that comes when there is understanding – and even appreciation – without history, story.  There’s both anonymity and revelation, the opposite of what, in psychobabble is known as self-disclosure. The Japanese have a term for this kind of language”  ishin denshin (wordless, heart -to-heart communication).  It’s considered a profound kind of communication.”

The book is full of insights like that.  Bore holes into human nature, careful examinations of Japanese culture, insights into a way of life that fascinated and frustrated her.  And with each page you could just feel her learning, taking full advantage of each new situation to grow and extend her understanding of the human mind and its infinite complexities.

I was particularly fond of the way Cathy describes her ongoing grapple with the Japanese language.  She unflinchingly tells the learner’s tale and does not side-step her struggles. And of course it is language that holds the key to cultural insight.  Subtle shades of meaning, emphasis, formality vs. informality – so many secrets locked into thousands of years of tradition.  What is said and what is not said.  And so she perseveres, against all odds, determined to gain fluency. She learns to write kanji, she practices, she enrolls in an intensive language course at Duke, taught by a much younger, junior faculty member, and fails miserably.  In the ongoing struggle, I couldn’t help but glimpse the masonry behind Cathy’s bold 2003 strategy, as Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, to give all incoming Duke students a free iPod, sparking equal storms of creativity and criticism.

I found her frank revelations about how hard it is to fit in, particularly poignant. “Like most foreigners, I’m pretty good at adapting to a new situation (or I wouldn’t enjoy traveling in the first place) but I’m also a bit of a misfit (or I would never have wanted to leave home).”  She observes that, because she is an obvious foreigner there (a gaijin), she attracted people who like to negotiate cultural differences, who are interested in figuring out and crossing those chasms.  And yet, as Cathy puts it, “every friendship I make in Japan is grounded in the unalterable recognition that, however often I may return to Japan, I will always be going home.”

Though the east and west coasts of the United States hardly present the culture gap that Cathy experienced in Japan, I often have found myself thinking very much like her with regard to my love of both the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston….

“I like both places but I also find myself profoundly critical of aspects of both countries; which ever one I’m in, the other one runs like a counter argument in my head, in a way that always makes me, somehow, fidgety.  That’s the word.  My connection with Japan makes me always anxious for the place I’m not.”

Toward the end of the book, Cathy describes her stay at The Practice House, during a fourth trip to Japan.  The Practice House is a quasi-Victorian KWU residence, furnished in Western style.  The idea was that students could live in the Practice House for a few weeks to master the basic domestic skills and routines of a typical Western homemaker.  Cathy finds it a cheerless and disturbing place – not only the oddity of viewing our Western nature through a Japanese lens but the decor and furnishing of the house had halted somewhere in the mid-1960’s. The magazines, the books, the decor – all trapped in a pre-1970’s time warp.  What an odd thing that must have been – spelunking down into a recreated model of your culture’s recent past.  But in her own unique way, Cathy manages to spin the tale of her time in the Practice House and fill it with interesting observations, helping us – as her readers – to see right along with her.  I loved the notion of the Practice House and could almost paint a picture of it in my mind, right down to the yellowed index card, pinned on the wall next to the telephone that read, “Hello, this is the Practice House.  ______here.  Who would you like to speak to?”

The book’s title is a reference to a series of block prints by the artist Katsushika Hokusai’s, known as Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1826-33).

Mount Fuji Seen Below a Wave at Kanagawa

The Hokusai prints inspired other writers as well.  The American writer, Roger Zelazny, wrote 24 views of Mount Fuji, by Hokusai in 1985, a novella divided into 24 chapters, each one named after one of the prints, and each the setting for the chapter’s events as the protagonist tours the area surrounding Mt. Fuji.

Red Fuji

Cathy incorporates the prints into her book, with a small image opener on each of her book’s 16 chapters.  She uses the images as a metaphor for how difficult it was to convey a holistic picture of Japan with her book. The best she could do, she explains, was to give her perspective on Japan and Japanese culture, to record an account of her insights and experiences.  She could relate stories of personal encounters, describe scenery, capture exchanges but no matter how intimate and particular these stories were, none of them could ever presume to capture the whole.  So often, when we Americans travel, we’re encouraged upon our return to sum it up, provide a poignant image that tells the tale of our trip  or our favorite moment but, as Cathy says, it’s impossible to do.  “For me, ” says Cathy,”Hokusai’s way is more accurate.”



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Extend Learning with Social Media

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the use of social media tools to extend and expand a given learning experience.  Because I work primarily with adult learners these days – continuing medical education, management training – I’m experimenting with various models to gain perspective on what works best for them. These motivated learners have typically come for one event – a seminar or a workshop – and the challenge is to encourage reflection and application beyond the boundary of the one instance. To tap into their stong relevancy orientation and to honor their significant life experience in the bargain. These are factors that seem ripe for social media.

The challenges are the usual suspects…not enough time, unfamiliar with the tools, how to keep the motivation going as you move away from the high-impact event.

Martin Luther Nailing his "95 Theses" to the door at Wittenberg

Looking for inspiration, I came across a wonderful article in the December Economist called How Luther Went Viral.  In this well written piece, the author talks about the Reformation, nearly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther used the media of his day to spread the word about religious reform (his 1517 nailing to the door of “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences“).  Scholars have long debated the relative contributions of the printing press (a new technology at the time, allowing the mass circulation of pamphlets), versus getting the word out from the pulpit, in the oral tradition. While these tools were important, the article argues that the underlying critical factor at work was the system of media sharing along social networks that allowed the spread of these new ideas – what we refer to today in new media parlance as “the network effect”.

It turns out that Luther was pretty darned good at this. For instance, he opted to write in German (as opposed to the more scholarly Latin), he avoided regional vocabulary to ensure that his message had impact in wider geographical circles, he made full use of all the media of his day (woodcuts and songs as well as the pamphlets), and he recognized (and leveraged!) the way his media passed from one person to another which added up quickly to a wider audience than he originally expected.

The article goes on to explain that modern media theorists refer to participants in such a situation as the “networked public”, rather than an “audience”.  The distinction being that the people hearing Luther’s message were doing far more than just listening. This 16th century networked public discussed, participated, amplified and extended the message. So that each time the word passed along, it grew bigger and more impactful.

Bingo. That seems to me to be the key – reframe our instructional design so that we think of our learners as a “networked public” and create environments where they can do so much more than consume information.

Can I suggest a few actionable principles (and please, add your thoughts for more!):

– A regular schedule. The most effective social media-connected groups include a regular, heartbeat ritual to them – a weekly gathering, a daily post, or a regularly scheduled webinar – the instance is created to fit the needs of the group but the consistency is vital.
– Set intentions. Just as with any collaborating group, it’s critical to set out a clear intention for the group – what is it that we hope to achieve? – and then inform our design with those goals.
– Amplify the message. Seed and encourage plenty of opportunities for the networked participants to participate, discuss, dissect, share, apply and spread what is learned.
– The importance of facilitation. These experiments require a strong facilitator to urge everyone along, make connections, moderate discussion, and provide tactical support when needed.
– The importance of strong and weak ties. The most effective groups (whether in person or connected from a distance via social media) are those that consist of people with strong ties (those who know each other well and have worked together before) and weak ties (people new to the group).
– A combination of synchronous and asynchronous work.  It works well for the learners to have some opportunities to extend their learning right along with their peers, all together – and some opportunities to do so on their own time, when it’s convenient.  A healthy mix of both.
– The tools don’t matter.  Tools change – but the principles are the same.  While we’ll need to use and understand the tools in order to use them well, we want to keep our eye trained on what they allow us to do (the affordance).
What else?

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Confident Enough to Improvise

photo by Vladimir Godnik

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenges in learning new technology – getting acquainted with Twitter, figuring out those “circles” in Google +, entering a virtual world for the first time, building a wiki site, or starting a blog.  In my work, I have the good fortune to occupy a front row seat for many “first” sessions with technology and have observed a few intriguing patterns along the way.

One  thing I’ve noticed is that the willingness to experiment varies widely among people.  Some people are rule followers – they will only venture a click when you suggest it.  Others are rogues – they click everywhere, just to see what happens. Some learn as they go, others seem to learn best by looking in the rear view mirror (after they’ve completed a task or executed a new skill).  I offer these descriptions as extremes, to make the point, obviously there are many shades of grey in between.  But you knew that.

I’m continually amazed by how many times people really don’t hear what is said. For example, I will explain how something works and, literally, a minute later they will ask me a question about the thing I just explained. I think that people hear when they are ready to listen, when they need the information you are offering. As a teacher, I’ve tried to attune myself to that and time the introduction of new information to the point of need.  That’s not as easy as it sounds.

What have I noticed about the learners who seem to retain the knowledge and process it well?  They all seem to possess a patience with themselves – a willingness to be in a non-expert place – and a recognizable curiosity about the road ahead.  How does this work? How could I make use of it?  What are others doing?  Why is this relevant?

And what have I noticed about what impedes learning? For some people it’s the opposite of the factor  I just mentioned (that patience with being a non-expert thing). They think they know how to do something, forge ahead, only to find that it doesn’t work that way, and then they are frustrated. People who have a need/desire to show you that they know, that they are an expert, or that this new skill is precisely like something they’ve already mastered. Typically what happens in those situations is they think they’ve got it, don’t listen (or process what’s been said), and then get tripped by a missing piece.

But my chief insight about all of this came from my teenaged son who is learning to drive this summer.  He’s been through driver’s ed class and has logged about 15 hours in the car with us, learning the basics.  I would say that he is now a fairly competent, if inexperienced, driver on the residential streets of our neighborhood.  The other day, as he was driving into town, I noticed that he took the most direct route (by way of a number of annoying traffic lights), rather than opting for a more turn-laden, short-cut method that I regularly take into town.  Since he’s been a passenger in our car, riding along on that path for the last eight years, I assumed he would also take the short-cut.  But he didn’t.  New insight:  just because someone’s been a passenger on a learning path, it doesn’t mean that they’ve absorbed the information. But here’s the other gem. As he drove past the short-cut option, I pointed it out and said that we usually go that way to avoid those annoying traffic signals ahead and get into town faster.  And here’s what he said back to me, “You know, I’m not confident enough yet to be annoyed and improvise.”

And that’s just it. Learning requires some improvisation, some risk taking, some exploration and experimentation. And that means being in an uncomfortable place of not knowing or getting lost.  And that takes confidence.  When you’re feeling confident (sure of yourself, certain you will get this, comfortable with wandering a bit), I suspect you’re far more willing to improvise.  And sometimes, the willingness to improvise can come from a surprising place – annoyance over not knowing.  Irritation over how long something is taking.  Pure and simple exasperation and the desire to do it better.


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