Wednesday, March 23, 2011

No More Books

It's interesting how an initiative touted by one group as being a revolutionary improvement will often be seen as counterproductive or ineffective by another group.

At a recent faculty meeting, where discussion of a new writing center was taking place, I was witness to such an example. One faculty member pointed out that as important as it is to help students improve their writing, which the writing center is intended to do, there is unfortunately something else that has the potential to hurt our students even more.

What's the insidious plague about to be unleashed on our students' writing skills? It is an initiative aimed at reducing the amount they have to read. If we require them to read less, it will have direct impact on their ability to write. Well, of course, the matchup between reading and writing seems pretty obvious, but why would anyone propose to dramatically reduce student reading?

It turns out the faculty member misunderstood the initiative. The proposal is to create integrated learning environments where students can access multimedia, direct themselves to activities based on formative quizzes, oh yeah, and read. His understanding was that the multimedia and pretty websites were going to replace books.

While it's true that the goal is to move away from traditional printed textbooks, the same text from the publishers is going to be integrated in an electronic form with the bells and whistles that improve student engagement and track progress in ways that a plain old book could never do. I know a lot of publishers create companion websites where students can access some bonus materials, but they're not integrated with the text. Bringing them together in one place reduces the extraneous cognitive load associated with having the text and bonus features in completely separate mediums, giving them more time and mental capacity to devote to their reading.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Sitting in on some meetings with faculty members from several different departments, the discussion turned at one point to staying on top of student opinions, experiences, and problems they might be having.

photo by sue_elias

Various methods of keeping tabs on the student experience were discussed. One in particular was worthy of note. A faculty member shared her habit of trolling the course message boards and encouraged others to do the same. (Just to be clear, these are message boards open to anyone working on a given course, not locked down to just one section of a course inside an LMS.)

I alternated between staring in disbelief and suppressing laughter as I pictured a seemingly polite and professional faculty member taunting students in the official university message boards. I could understand if she wanted to do it under a pseudonym on a third party site. I mean, who doesn't do that, right? Right?

Obviously the behavior she engages in is lurking, not trolling. As nefarious as it sounds to be a lurker, it's really no big deal. It's just someone who sits by and watches the conversation but doesn't contribute. The real life equivalent of lurking is somewhat awkward; just sitting around watching people and listening in on their conversations is not considered polite. In the online world, however, lurking is often recommended, primarily as a way to get acquainted with a community before actively contributing in order to get a handle on the norms of that particular group and to get to know who the trolls are.

That brings us to trolling. It really doesn't have anything to do with trolls, as nasty as they are. Rather, it comes from a fishing term describing a method of dragging a lure behind a boat. The lures are often designed to mimic dying or injured fish. The idea is the troll tosses the bait out there and drags it around looking for easy prey. The victim thinks they're attacking a helpless victim, but they thus become the victim as they take the bait and are unwittingly dragged into an argument. Getting into an argument with a troll means you have lost. You are the victim. There is no way to win. The argument is what the troll is looking for. The flame war is the desired end result. Even the most glaring hole in a troll's argument cannot be addressed, because it is often simply more bait designed to keep the "conversation" going.

Chaos is only avoided by ignoring the troll or calling him or her out directly as a troll and then proceeding to ignore. I recently watched a video of a dude hitting himself in the face with a racquetball. In the comments, a troll starts an argument by claiming that the sport they were playing was squash, not racquetball. It's clearly racquetball. No logic prevails, as any evidence is simply countered by "it's squash". At one point, the troll even directly admits to being a troll and then immediately parrots back the line again, "it's squash" and the argument continues.

What's the point? Why would someone do that? It doesn't matter. Analyzing why someone would do such a thing is beside the point. The only thing that really matters is recognizing it and disengaging immediately.

Now imagine with me again the kind-hearted faculty member leaving our discussion on how to best engage with and assist our students, pulling up her laptop in some dark corner of the hallway, and leaving provoking comments on the student message boards.