Tuesday, June 17, 2008

How Many Majors Are There in the Department of Irony?

As I'm working on the new book about educational institutions as digital media-makers, where I look at scandal, mistakes, and miscommunication at universities that involve computer-mediated communication, I'm drafting a chapter about distance learning snafus, which starts with the story of the "Baked Professor" as follows:

On September 6, 2006, Howard John Hall began what was supposed to be a typical lecture for his class at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business. To students who were taking his course for credit via the school’s distance learning program, the graying professor with wire-frame eyeglasses at first appeared as he normally would on camera, in a sport shirt against the blue draperies of the stage. Yet instead of providing a more conventional presentation about the history of management, the supposed subject of the day, Hall began by looking at his audience conspiratorially and reciting the lines “Listen my children, and you shall hear / of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” Then he continued seemingly to free associate for the next thirty-five minutes during which time he recited the classic Boston rhyme about the Cabots and the Lodges, discussed the etymology of the word “khaki,” argued with a female student about her travel plans, and talked about the origins of various profane words and obscene gestures. Even Hall’s body language showed the degree to which he had abandoned all academic decorum as the cameras rolled and his performance was streamed on digital video onto the Internet. At one point he rolled on his back, laughing uproariously with his midsection exposed; at another he displayed his middle finger to the camera. About halfway through the first segment, Hall announced, “Life is not about business. Life is not about management.”

After the link to the digital file of Hall’s disastrous online lecture was featured with derision on several popular blogs, and the video was reposted with titles such as “The Stoned Professor” or “The Baked Professor,” the university moved into damage control to protect the reputation of its business program. On the technology blog for The Chronicle of Higher Education, administrators explained what seemed to be their only course of action.

McCullough, senior associate dean at the college, said Mr. Hall had been relieved of his teaching duties, pending a review of his employment status. Mr. McCullough said he had received a half-dozen calls so far from “the curious public,” adding that there are some “unfortunate things” going on with Mr. Hall. “This is a human problem, not an institutional problem,” said Mr. McCullough. “This man has problems.”

The original video was soon pulled from the university’s website, and the copies on online video file-sharing sites were removed by the hosting service on the grounds of copyright violations. As university spokesman Steve Orlando
explained , “It wasn't really serving the primary purpose, which was an educational purpose.”

The video continued to resurface, however, as a notable Internet meme throughout the year. It was re-cut as an abbreviated summary, remixed as a psychedelic version with digital effects, and parodied in other online videos on YouTube.

Yet, even as he was achieving his ten minutes of solo fame, Hall wasn’t entirely without minders in the room. Given the technical demands of this kind of multimedia distance learning course, a lecturing professor on stage may not be the only one managing the pedagogical show. Like many who teach in programs with online video, Hall was clearly accustomed to collaborating with his instructional technology personnel, who were apparently just off camera during his bizarre lecture. For example, in explaining what was supposedly a response to the threatened mutilation of English longbow soldiers, Hall appeals to his tech person “Anthony” not to film the visual part of his explanation, since “I’m going to shoot them a finger.” At another point, he asks “Belinda” to “zoom in on this.”

What's interesting to me about the story is the second hour of the lecture, after Hall resumes the class after the break. He's considerably more lucid -- although he also relies heavily on PowerPoint slides, in-class video, and other prepared materials during this segment. During the section that few watched on the Internet, Hall delivers an extended critique of Taylorization, which he applies very specifically to the distance learning situation and its principles of "scientific management. "

At first, he's merely pointing out the university's obvious role as a Weberian-style bureaucracy. For example, when talking about the growing size of organizations, he says, “think about the University of Florida." Later, he expands upon this example.

University of Florida is a bureaucracy. I don’t need to tell you this. How many levels do we have? We go from faculty to department chairs to associate deans to deans to the provost to the president. I don’t know. I’ve lost fingers here. Six. Yeah. A bunch.

Sometimes Hall's criticism of the educational system sounds more like David Noble's blistering attack on digital delivery systems for higher education, which Noble calls "Digital Diploma Mills", rather than the kind of personal moment of failure or breakdown that is so often popularized on YouTube. Listen to this part of Hall holding forth before the class:

I’m going to pick on myself . . . what about schools? What about schools? You know we had the model of the little red schoolhouse. How did we develop this. Hello, can you say scientific management. Straight rows. Everyone has their own book. Everyone has their own text. What’s the nature of work? We don’t work like that anymore. But that’s the way we work and the way we teach and isn’t that baloney. We’ve had enough of this nonsense haven’t we?

(For more about Hall's life before his Internet celebrity, here is his official c.v.)

So, it is rather ironic that -- as I'm writing about distance learning -- I find myself enrolled in an online course. I had wanted to take a digital compositing class at my local Academy of Entertainment Technology from a live teacher and to do so required a semester of Photoshop training for design professionals, so I find myself not entirely willingly engaged this summer in learning within a computer mediated setting.

One of the funny things about the "orientation" program to the college's suite of distance learning courses is how much instructional time is spent on praising online learning. For those of us who still teach the old-fashioned way, we don't spent our first class talking about how great traditional classroom pedagogy is. Students also learn that the ideal online learner is full of positive personal characteristics that they should want to emulate. It's an interesting psychological tactic that makes problems communicating seem a function of the student's personality rather than of possible systemic flaws.

So far, I've certainly watched the videos of my instructor Jack Duganne, but it is interesting to see how much of the course relies on content from sub-contractors in the online courseware world. For example, some of the class material comes from one of the stars of the design software training industry, Deke McClelland, at lynda.com, in a course that emphasizes "one-on-one" learning, although it is clearly one-way communication that only purports to offer intimate communication. From being a student in previous courses, I knew about the existence of some of these gurus, but this is the first time that these cults of personality are a key aspect of the curriculum.

I've been particularly amused to be told about the "ExamGuard" features from Questionmark, which boasts of its abilities to foil online cheating by forbidding students to resize browsers or surf the web during exam periods. Of course, many students -- particularly design professionals -- are likely to have more than one computer. (In our household we have eight working systems.) I was amazed to see the online course offerings even cite Calibrated Peer Review as being among their course resources. Those who might be wondering why I express distaste for this robotic form of distance writing instruction, can read what I've written about CPR before in this paper.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home