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New Ways of Seeing

Peeling back the layers on something very old and rendering a very large virtual object in the middle of your living room might, at first, feel like activities without much in common. However, two new online tools designed for those activities do share an important theme: a new way of seeing. They both provide the opportunity to see familiar objects in a whole new way.

The New York Times took a dive into augmented reality last month with a crafted immersive experience of the Statue of Liberty’s torch. In advance of a scheduled move for Lady Liberty’s original lamp from the place it now resides, inside the statue’s pedestal, to a nearby museum, the NYT graphics group took nearly 700 images of the structure, from all angles, in order to make the torch available to us all in augmented reality.

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 6.41.03 PMHere’s how it works. First download the NYT app to your smart phone, then use the QR code in this article to launch the images through your phone’s camera, and voila!

In the photo below you can see Lady Liberty’s torch, rendered in my kitchen. There’s something magical about seeing this huge and oh-so-familiar structure manifest in your own house!  Although you’re viewing it through your phone’s camera, you can walk around it, tilt it up, get up close, stand on a chair and look down on it, or scale it to its actual size (16 feet tall and 12 feet across!) and watch it break through your ceiling.


The second online tool comes to us from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Their new website Inside Bruegal allows you to examine Pieter Bruegal (the elder) paintings much as a conservator or an art historian would do.

Here’s how this one works. Once on the Inside Bruegal site, select the painting that interests you, choose the image type (infrared?  x-ray?  macro?) and the site will display  side-by-side images – say for instance, the macro view juxtaposed with the x-ray view. The zoom and move functions track in parallel so that you can skate around your chosen painting in both views, examining details closely.

What you’ll find on close inspection is quite interesting. Take for instance the missing sick and elderly in the painting, The Battle Between Carnival and Lent (painted in 1559), or the two fishes painted in place of a christian cross on a deeper layer – variations revealed in the infrared view.  In essence, you excavate to discover older layers of paint beneath the surface – a sort of electronic pentimento. You can trace the painting’s history and follow the artistic decisions made as Bruegel created his work, or perhaps, decisions made long after the painting was finished?

Infrared imagery reveals Bruegel’s original painting “Massacre of the Innocents” as a far more harsh depiction of the slaughter of children and the atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition with brutal depictions of dead children. Apparently later viewers must have considered the original painting’s violence as too much and, at some point in history (art conservators estimate in the 17th or 18th century), someone replaced all the images of dead children with images of farm animals — and that’s how the painting stands today.

Here is the Bruegel painting, The Tower of Babel” (painted in 1563), macro image and infrared, full of small variations and revisions.

Screen Shot 2018-11-25 at 10.52.47 AM

In this close-up of one of the foreground characters in the painting “Christ Carrying the Cross” (painted in 1564) you can clearly see a tool or a weapon (a rope?) tucked into the man’s jacket that is not there in the underlying layer exposed in the infrared image. When was that added – and by whom?

Screen Shot 2018-11-27 at 8.23.43 AM

So much to see and so many different ways of seeing.




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Reflections on #FutureEd



Week #6 brings the end of the History and Future of Mostly Higher Education MOOC (#FutureEd). Time for reflection on what I’ve learned as well as the experience of the course itself (since that was part of the mission).

First, a few facts.  This was a free, six-week course, offered on the Coursera platform, requiring 2-4 hours of work per week.  Cathy Davidson, Duke University, was the instructor.  The course was open to anyone interested in the topic to take asynchronously, but there also were three physical locations where the course took place synchronously.  The axis of the course was a series of videos (4 – 6 of them per week) featuring Cathy Davidson, sharing her insights about education, interviewing other experts, and talking with other faculty. In addition to the videos, there were forums for discussion, quizzes, and small (optional) assignments.  There was a “certificate” option for the course, which I did not take.

My participation in the course was fairly typical – I was there for the duration, but didn’t do the assignments.  I kept up with the course’s pace, watched all of the videos, dipped into the forums, but I did not take any of the quizzes nor did I complete the assignments.  I’m sure I would have gotten much more out of the course if I had but, even without that more robust involvement, I still got a lot and I’m very glad for the experience.

The most interesting content insights for me…

  • The importance of knowing and using history purposively (what did we do in the past, and why)
  • Unlearning (our preconceptions about how things “have to happen” and how difficult it is to shake old habits, be open to new ideas and new solutions)
  • Value in alliances with other change makers (innovation is happening all around us – listen, learn and share)
  • The importance of experimentation (the more novel approaches we try, the more likely we are to find ideas that work)
  • There is value in what we count and we count what we value (interesting reflections on assessment)
Coursera Forum for the course.

Coursera Forum for the course.

As for the mechanics of the course, as with other MOOCs I’ve taken, it is a challenge to find community within the great expanse of an asynchronous MOOC.  Although I visited the online forums each week, it felt like looking for a needle in a haystack (no pun intended…).  There was just so much to wade through…and many of the comments and stories just weren’t relevant to me. Stephen Downes and George Siemens make good use of newsletters in their Connectivism MOOCs. They send out daily newsletters (via email) that serve as brief summaries, each with a curated list of things to read or watch. Downes and Siemens aggregate and sift, then share what they deem the most relevant and interesting blog posts, tweets, images, videos, and recordings made by the course participants.

It’s all about harvesting distributed information. To that end, Downes developed gRSShopper (see the “RSS” in the middle there?) to do this. It works to harvest links from given feeds (having established metadata tags in advance) and compile them. This solves the problem of the need for centralization (for sanity’s sake) in a learning environment that hopes to maintain and leverage a distributed network (!). People prefer to write in their own environments (not on a Moodle discussion board or a Coursera Forum), but something like gRSShopper pulls it all together to connect the learners. An idea that #FutureEd could have used. Stephen Downes says it well, “…connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore, that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.”


FutureEd Meeting in Second Life

One obvious path toward making such a BIG course feel more intimate and personal is to form a small group – a study or discussion group consisting of fellow travelers who share a common interest in the course. A number of small FutureEd groups formed during the run of the course – on Facebook, through Twitter, and a few who were geographically close met in person. Liz Dorland and I formed such a group and blogged about it here. We were a small, but intrepid, group who met weekly in the virtual world of Second Life for an hour to discuss and share. We probably could have done a better job of organizing the group, encouraging the members to come regularly, and perhaps we could have worked together to build artifacts of our learning – but it was a good start.  Liz Dorland said it well when she said, “I’m sure we could do it better the next time we go through the course!” (one more time, Cathy?)

Our group would have benefitted from some guidance and support from FutureEd’s teaching hub. I wonder if, in future versions of the course, Cathy Davidson might recruit a small army of teaching assistant-type volunteers (I’m sure many would be happy to help). With a little advance preparation and training, these volunteers could fan out to provide mentoring for the myriad small groups organically forming in a course like this. As Dan Lynch, founder of Interop and former director of computing facilities at SRI International, wrote, “The most useful impact is the ability to connect people. From that, everything flows.”

Week #5, the most useful week in the course for me, provided an object lesson in getting the most from these online experiences. Innovation in Pedagogy and Assessment was the week-five overarching topic; we took a look at digital badging systems as an example of a novel way to think about assessment.  Interestingly, one of the reasons that this turned out to be my most useful week was due to an unintended accident. Cathy had interviewed Connie Yowell, the Education Director for the MacArthur Foundation (and an expert on digital badging). Some disaster befell that interview video and, as a substitute, the course directed us to an alternate video (of Connie Yowell speaking at a conference) as well as other links and resources on the HASTAC site.  Those directed explorations yielded a rich harvest for me. I watched, read, explored, reflected and then blogged about it.  By far the most rewarding week and all because I invested more time – more of myself – to investigate, read and connect. Duh, right?

It was a terrific course – thoughtfully put together, well-organized, and welcome range of jumping off points to investigate and connect. Thank you, Cathy Davidson, and the whole team “behind the camera”.


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The Alameda Antiques Faire



I’ve been reading about the first-Sunday-of-the-month Alameda Point Antiques Faire ever since we moved here in September.  After a couple of failed attempts – holidays, confusion with the Alameda Flea Market, and a rain-out – I finally made it there today, along with what looked like at least a couple of thousand other cars.  Whoa.  I had no idea it was so huge

If you’re looking for anything from used furniture, to kitsch, to collectibles, this is the place to be.  According to the Faire’s website, roughly 800 vendors set up shop on the old runways of what was once the Alameda Naval Base at the west end of the island of Alameda.

Unless you’re planning on giving over a day, it’s impossible to see everything – the place goes on forever, with the gorgeous San Francisco skyline in the background. We opted for a one-aisle strategy, walked the length of it, trying to keep our detours to the meaningful, then walked back along another aisle.

Coffee urns, plastic matadors, Bakelite Jewry, steamer trunks, Where’s Waldo dolls, LPs, life preservers, buttons, parasols, bathtubs, church prayer rails… if you can dream it up, you can find it here.

Fortunately for us, we found the food aisle in our perambulations.  There were plenty of delicious options – Lockeford sausages, handmade donuts, tacos, gyros, kettlekorn,  deli sandwiches, and a delectable home-made popsicle vendor from whom we bought a confection called “Night Time in Bangkok” which I can’t even begin to describe.

The parking is free but there is an entrance fee ($15 for all day but only $5 per person if you arrive between 9:00 am and 3:00 pm). They also offer free flat card usage to haul your purchases from the faire to your parked car.


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Flow: One Painting, Eight Times

The same painting done eight different times.

One painting, eight ways.

Since we moved to Alameda last fall, a bike ride out to Alameda Point (and the decommissioned Naval Base) is part of my regular routine. Roughly a 7-mile round trip ride, it’s good exercise and I enjoy the strange isolation of the abandoned base, the wide open spaces, and the breathtaking views of San Francisco. Riding out there this weekend I was struck by the fact that every time I go, I see something previously unnoticed…an unusual building, a road option, a strangely worded sign, or a half buried railway track. This weekend it was the airport control tower, squatting at the western end of the base. How had I missed seeing that before?

My spurious powers of observation got me thinking about the value of repetition.  How much easier it is to find your way around a place that you’ve been to before.  How much more you notice on a subsequent visit. How much better a recipe turns out the second or third time its made.  How much more help you can be to someone new to a task when you yourself have done it before. And how much more I notice each time I visit Alameda Point.

Repetition is what I’m talking about here. Not redundancy. It’s pretty tough to stand up for needless duplication, boring drills, or mind-numbing recurrences.

Repetition, not redundancy.

Repetition, not redundancy.

The lesson took on a new dimension with a small water-color painting of a plucked flower, pictured at the top of this post. I sketched, then painted it. Unhappy with the result, I decided to try it again.  Better.  Maybe a third time?  Much better. Ok, so maybe I took the idea too far by trying the same painting eight times, but the resulting output was intriguing. It wasn’t a steady improvement where the eighth painting turned was the best of the bunch. Rather, some elements improved steadily – color blending, perspective on the leaves – while others (the sketched arch of the plant) were best in the earliest iterations.

It wasn’t the productivity or consistency sought in the automation of a process (such as the value of an assembly line) but there was a state of flow to the endeavor. My brain was fully engaged with the task and certain parts of it became easier and easier to do because I didn’t have to think about them too much.

Perhaps the most interesting part to me was the experience of inhabiting the process – dwelling there for more time than I normally would have devoted to it – which served up the opportunity to observe a range of possible outcomes.  There was comfort, even pleasure, in the recreation and insight to be gained.


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Ten Tools Challenge: Prezi (Tool #2)

"I accept your challenge!"

“I accept your challenge!”

In January, I decided to take up Jane Hart’s Ten Tools Challenge.  I’ve already blogged about my Tool #1, Explain Everything, and here is my tool #2 (ok, ok I’m a bit behind schedule):  Prezi.

As many of you know, Prezi is a zooming presentation tool – an alternative to PowerPoint and Keynote.  It lives online and, with a free account, you can create your own Prezis that also live online (or you can download them to your desktop).  Here’s a good example of a well crafted prezi, featured on the Prezi site, to give you a feel for what’s possible.

While I’ve used Prezi in the past, I’ve just recently surfaced from a Prezi-deep-dive –  five presentations (on wildly different topics) in one month.  So it seems like a good time to reflect on its strengths and weaknesses.

First, a little about how Prezi works.  Unlike Keynote and PowerPoint, where the navigational metaphor is a series of index cards or slides to progress through one to the next to the next, a Prezi presentation exists on a large (endless) canvas.  You plop content (text, images, video) down on the canvas in any order and then create a pathway through your content.

So here’s a sample from a recently built Prezi::

Part of a Prezi, showing various content pieces in a frame.

Part of a Prezi, showing various content pieces in a frame.

The blue circle is a “frame” and the little content bits and bobs within the blue circle are all related to the topic of that particular frame. Once you upload your content into the frame, you then decide in what order to display them. Here’s that same frame of content, with the “pathway” turned on.

Same Prezi frame, with the editing path turned on.

Same Prezi frame, with the editing path turned on.

With that as backdrop, here’s what I think are the advantages of using Prezi:

Easy modification. Whenever I am asked to give a talk, I usually reconfigure the content to reflect the interests of the group. Sometimes I add new information, cut back on less relevant things, or change the order to accommodate schedules. By having all of my content on one canvas, I can easily change the pathway and modify for a new audience. All the content is still there (on the canvas) but may not be included in this particular pathway.

Focused attention. The zooming capability makes it possible to focus the viewers’ attention and indicate emphasis in a dynamic, visual way.  This is particularly useful when you want to emphasize forest-to-trees relationships.

Visual context. If used well, Prezi can help you do a better job of using physical space to assist your audience and help them remember how the parts of your talk relate to each other.

Easy importing.  You can import a PowerPoint slide deck to Prezi.  While the import function works well, you have to massage the slides to take advantage of the zooming and other features.  Keep in mind that animation effects you created in PPT, won’t survive the import.

Easily displayed and shared online.  Since Prezi is an online tool, it is easy to neatly (without ads or distractions) embed it, display it, or share a link. Of course, you can use SlideShare or Speaker Deck to do that with PPT and Keynote files.  Oh, there’s a Prezi iPad app too.

Helpful tutorials. Prezi’s done a very good job with video tutorials and masterful cheat sheets on their website.  Nicely done.

And now the disadvantages:

It’s a bit gimmicky.  If you want to be precise about it, Prezi is still a linear presentation tool.  Afterall, you are just proceeding along nodes on a linear path. Those that complain about death-by-PowerPoint could still complain about death-by-Prezi.  But I do feel that using this tool urges me on to be more visual in my thinking.

You don’t own it. Because your presentation lives online, it’s got all the advantages and disadvantages of a cloud-based existence.  Namely, you can access it from any where and easily share it.  But, you could also loose it (Prezi could go belly up).

Size limitations. Prezi works on a Freemium model. The free public version gives you 100MB of storage space (enough for 4 or 5 Prezis).  To get 500MB of storage space you have to pay $59/year.  (2GB for $159/year).  I found the limits of my free allotment when I created a Prezi that included four short video segments.

Motion Sickness.  Some people complain that swooping Prezi’s give them a headache or make them feel slightly nauseous.  As one prone to motion sickness myself, I’m always careful to limit the amount of swooping and turning. Using frames, being judicious about effects, and strategically positioning your content (shortening the path points) makes this easy to control.

As you can see, advantages and disadvantages.  I would say that when I sit down to create a PPT or Keynote “deck”, I always just open the application and start plunking things down.  With Prezi, my first instinct is to create a storyboard, so that I can understand the whole of what I’m trying to accomplish before I get into the trap of bulleted-list thinking…and that just feels like a good thing.


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I spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about the resistance to digital and social media among higher ed faculty.  I’ve read and listened to Gardener Campbell’s insights on the matter and regularly find relief from his wonderful “Bag of Gold” analogy, in his talk No More Digital Facelifts (definitely worth a listen).

Always on the hunt for new insights to understand the nature of the problem, a colleague shared an article with me this week that definitely fit the bill. “Technological Change and the Professional Control in the Professoriate” by David Johnson (University of Georgia), published in Science, Technology & Human Values.  In the article Johnson takes a fascinating look at how university professors perceive instructional technologies focusing on three questions:

1.  How do professors perceive instructional technologies?
2.  How do they perceive administrative initiatives to encourage the adoption of instructional technologies?
3.  What work outcomes do professors experience when they employ technology in their work?
He starts with a review of historical perspective – the thought that the professorate’s concerns about technology is that it will unbundle the academic role.  That is, the use of technology will break apart the functions of research and teaching as well as divide the teaching function into constituent parts managed by others – instructional designers, web producers, programmers, etc.  With that as backdrop, this article’s author set out to investigate faculty perceptions of technology in teaching/learning. He interviewed 42 professors at three research-intensive universities (various departments), all of whom had a documented organizational commitment to technology use. His goal was to look closely at the context of work as experienced and seen through the eyes of the professors exposed to pressures for technological change. Technology in this case was defined as “knowledge-derived tools, artifacts, and devices by which people extend and interact with their environment.”
He chose his interview subjects through contact with department chairs, asking for professors with known use of instructional technology.  Strikingly, even among that population, technology use was quite limited –  the most commonly used was PowerPoint (48%) with course management systems (26%), class web sites (19%), personal response systems (12%) and listservs (7%) listed next.  Powerpoint?  Really?
So, here’s the meat of what he found: the study participants perceived technology tools as lacking an obvious function or value and were very skeptical of the gains derived. Not only did these faculty perceive new technologies to be of limited value, many viewed technology-rich instruction as detrimental to student learning – in their words, “technology as a substitute” – both for attending class and for understanding (e.g. “students want to have the machine do the thinking for them”). Here was a revealing quote from a biologist:
“Technology has a problem.  The slide rules we used to use were wonderful because they gave an intuitive understanding of what you’re trying to do.  The calculators spit out numbers and there’s an incredible loss of intuitive understanding about what your’e doing.  That problem is really magnified when you get to computers.  You have to really know what’s going on and to make sure you don’t lose an intuitive understanding.”
The article’s author goes on to explain that since these professors view the tools as ineffective, coercion (on the part of the administration) to adopt them could feel as though they were being undermined, that they were losing professional control of their work and threaten their sense of autonomy. After all, what tools you use and when you use them is most certainly a key factor of professional autonomy in any field and if you feel the prescribed tools are ineffective, well…
What’s more, the professors who do use technology aren’t necessarily connecting their technology use to pedagogy. Rather, they regularly refer to the context of student motivation and students’ prior socialization to technology.  Here’s another revealing quote:
“You have to keep bombarding them with visual material, even if it’s only peripherally related.”
The perception seems to be that students will disengage if instruction lacks entertainment value. In addition to that context, many of those interviewed describe their technology use as necessary to handle larger-than-desirable class sizes.
When viewed in that context, a picture begins to emerge where academics perceive new technologies as tools to help with peripheral problems (large class sizes and students who require stimulation) but of limited or no functional relevance to instruction. From there, it’s not a far step to conclude that instructional technology contradicts their professional values.
The professors interviewed also believe that administrative plans for campus technology use are driven by marketing (so that the university is seen as “on the cutting edge”), cost saving goals and to achieve economies of scale. With those perceptions, a boundary is drawn (as the Johnson puts it) “between the professional and proletariat”.  That divide is furthered by the perception among these faculty that they were excluded from decision-making, even though they commonly expressed unawareness or disinterest in campus decisions about instructional technologies.
Questions asked about incentives and rewards for using various forms of technology in teaching revealed a familiar dynamic.  Faculty view the work required to learn and incorporate new technology as a burden and a constraint that yields no rewards for them.  Beyond the fact that that they receive no recognition or support for the extra work involved, they perceive themselves as occupying a lower-status position in the department with time spent refining their teaching. The article’s authors point out the stark contrast to the freedom faculty have in selecting research topics.
This article really helped to ground my thinking about the challenge of integrating new media into teaching and learning. It’s clear that we will continue to meet with resistance among faculty until:
  1. The motivation for using technology can authoritatively shift to a quest for a superior means of delivering instruction and improved learning.
  2. Academics become a source of influence in technological change and not a passive recipient of a mandate.
As I continued to connect Johnson’s insights to my own experience, working with faculty, I am reminded of the huge gulf in understanding what technology use can bring to learning between these faculty and those who advocate its use.  We all struggle with the best way to bridge that gap, but it feels clear that whatever methods are used should keep this resistance (and the reasons for it) firmly in mind.


In a subsequent conversation with Stephen Thomas, an amazingly innovative educator at Michigan State University and the same guy who sent me the article, he reminded me of the TPACK model. The easiest way to think of TPACK is to visualize a three-circle venn diagram – for technology (T), pedagogy (P), content and knowledge (C & T). TPACK thinking suggests that we need to work in the sweet spot where those three circles intersect. That effective technology integration requires negotiating the relationships between the three components. To introduce tools, without content or pedagogy just won’t work  and, similarly, to debate content (what’s the cannon and in what order?) in the absence of technology and pedagogy won’t give the harvest we need. A useful way to address the challenges put forward in Johnson’s article?

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An Little Election Story

Here we are on the big day of the 2012 Presidential Election and I have a small story to tell that will hopefully cheer you, as it did me. I go regularly to a local gym for my morning workouts. It’s a funky place – pretty old, a bit musty and tired, but it works. One of the things I like about this gym is the huge range of people who work out there – old, young, all colors, muscle men and fragile older women.

So, I’m working away on an elliptical, one in a short row of side-by-side machines, and a fellow (about my age) gets on the one beside me.  Soon after he begins his workout, an elderly gentleman walks up to our machines with a book in his hand.  The elderly gent begins to thank my neighbor for the loan of the book and tell him how much he enjoyed it.  I can tell from the nature of the conversation that they don’t know each other well and are navigating new relationship territory through possible common interest in this book, Michael Korda’s book on The Battle of Britain.

Quickly their talk turns to the presidential election (sigh) and it becomes clear that my exercising neighbor is an Obama supporter and the elderly book-returner will be voting for Romney. They make a few stabs at each other, mostly harmless but with an underlying intensity that comes from strongly held opinions.  I can tell that they are walking over familiar  territory.  I can also tell that they will never convince each other to make a different choice, and I can feel myself bracing for conflict.

The elderly gent offers to stow the book on a nearby shelf for its owner so that he can take it home after his workout.  My neighbor, now a little breathless from his workout, gestures with his chin and asks him to put the book over there, near his jacket and hat on the shelf.

“Oh, you mean here,” says the older man, “on the left?”  (intentional pause) “You see, I was drawn to put the book over here – on the right.”   At which point he looks up at me, winks, and says, “It’s just my natural tendency.”  We all three break out laughing and the book-returner tells me to be careful of this guy and I quip, “It’s ok, I’m left of him.”  And we laugh some more.

OK, so we disagree.  So my exercising neighbor will never convince the book-returner to support universal healthcare, a woman’s right to choose, the importance of federal regulations and safety nets, let alone to change his vote – but they can still talk with each other.  They can still exchange ideas about the Battle of Britain and favorite books.  They can still have a laugh.


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