Friday, January 30, 2009

A Great Time to be a Graduate Student

It's difficult for me to look back too fondly on graduate school. Certainly I don't miss eating meals composed largely of the following ingredients: potatoes, lentils, beans, and rice (pick two). Or wax nostalgic about being a patient at the university health center where I often had to make small talk with my own students while holding containers with my own bodily fluids when waiting for lab work to be done. Or wish that I could travel back in time to spend months writing something that only one other person on the planet would ever read . . . unwillingly, of course.

But now, thanks to the Internet, graduate students have access to many more tools for teaching, research, publishing, collaboration, and networking than I or anyone of my generation did as PhD candidates.

Today I took part in The Future of (Mediated) Scholarship for USC graduate students interested in taking advantage of multimedia technologies in an afternoon organized by Holly Willis, who pointed out readings by Cathy Davidson, John Seely Brown, and Henry Jenkins in their informational packets and USC's role in developing and promoting Sophie as a platform for online rich media publishing, which is currently being rewritten in Java. (Sophie creator Bob Stein was also in the audience.) Willis also pointed out that too often university programs functioned as separate silos, a problem that the Institute for Multimedia Literacy was trying to address.

In the first presentation Susan Metros, USC’s Associate Vice Provost for Technology Enhanced Learning and Deputy Chief Information Officer, presented findings from the 2009 Horizon Report from the New Media Consortium, which also evolved as developed parts of the document through a collectively written wiki. (One of the committee members is Clifford Lynch, who will be on a panel about open access that I am moderating next week, and open access proved to be one of the themes of the day.)

The Horizon report lists technologies most likely to transform education in the coming five years. Metros began by reviewing software for cloud computing applications and information representation. She noted that her father's collection of World War II photos could be shared with others through tagging on Google's mapping functions. She also championed the evolution of the "personal web" that was still a few years away, despite the fact that such programs have raised privacy concerns for some educators. To demonstrate the potential of the semantic web and smart objects for curricular design and instructional applications, she did live demos with programs like Retrievr and Semapedia (the latter with BeeTagg, her iPhone, and a data sticker on her podium to show how the physical space of the campus could offer more possibilities for learning with the help of ubiquitous computing devices. She also admitted that these technologies could be imperfect: not everything she showed worked, and she pointed out that educational applications currently available for the iPhone generally offered little more than digital flash cards for the user.

Next up, Kathleen Fitzpatrick represented both the Department of English and Media Studies at Pomona College and the consortium for reforming publishing and information dissemination in the digital age, MediaCommons. Fitzpatrick offered an overview of the current state of scholarly publishing and presented research for her new book project titled Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy. Fitzpatrick discussed work being done at the Institute for the Future of the Book and enthused about how sections of Noah Wardrip-Fruin's dissertation on Expressive Processing were vetted by readers of the blog Grand Text Auto using Comment Press software. How Diigo and Comment press did in a "head to head" match-up as social annotation tools for scholars was discussed during the course of the day. Given the audience, Fitzpatrick didn't include the rather dispiriting assessment of Internet scholarly remixing by Chris Kelty of his own book Two Bits or problems with computer servers that have taken important texts, such as McKenzie Wark's GAM3R 7H30RY and two projects by Siva Vaidhyanathan offline as a result of technical problems. It was probably rhetorically appropriate, since Fitzgerald was already giving a lot of bad news about traditional print publishing from academic presses and the threats to those organizations' survival to those assembled.

In Graduate Research 2.0, Mark Marino showed a dizzying array of social bookmarking technologies that could be deployed for scholarly research. Marino argued that sometimes it seemed that "Web 2.0" had become a term like "postmodernism," which had been emptied of its meaning during a period of overuse in the academy. He directed the graduate students in attendance to tips for How to See the Field at a Glance from Digital History Hacks and Dave Parry's advice at academhack for how to turn just about anything into an RSS feed, so that your research can actually come to you rather than you search for it. (Also check out Parry's top ten list of overlooked tools for academics.)

Unfortunately, Marino didn't have time to make it to covering Zotero, the free and open source godsend for those doing otherwise tedious bibliographic citations in academic writing, which I have been not so quietly promoting with librarians and instructional technologists on our own campus, or CiteULike, a tool for managing scholarly references. But he took time that is all to rarely given in these kinds of presentations to pay attention to the back end and explain how content-management systems worked, define terms like "RSS" correctly, and walk students through setting up files for readers and aggregators step-by-step.

As the day came to an end, I showed a number of examples for how to use web design, blogging, wiki creation, online video production, teleconferencing, and space in virtual worlds for teaching and learning that can have a synergistic rather than substitutive relationship to the live face-to-face classroom experience. Here’s the link to the materials from my talk. Like many who teach with technology, I am keenly aware that pedagogy doesn't always mix well with Web 2.0 particularly when it comes to questions of privacy, the public sphere, and the ownership of the creative commons. In that spirit I opened my talk with three essential questions:

1) Is the aim of using computational media and distributed networks intended to establish authority or encourage participation?

2) Does one go indie or institutional? Should scholars depend on university domains? How much does one use existing course management tools?

3) Does one use proprietary commercial software or free and open-source products?

In trying to suggest the many ways one could answer these questions, I argued that there are certainly legitimate pedagogical debates to be had, since convenience, ease of access, and the professional ethos of the instructor are not trivial concerns for teachers, even for pedagogues committed to the principle of openness in the academy.

Update: For more writer-friendly software gizmos, read "DIY: How to write a book" for how cut and paste beats writer's block any time.

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