Friday, June 17, 2011

Negative Space

In art, negative space is an important yet occasionally overlooked concept. There are a couple different types of negative space. If you google the term, the results are mostly all types of silhouettes, where an object doesn't actually appear in the image at all. What is missing is what you're supposed to actually see. An example of this is the arrow in the FedEx logo. What arrow, you ask? Well, go look real quick, and then come back. ... Pretty cool, eh? The silhouette walking across the street here is another more obvious example.

The other type of negative space is a type of balance or contrast to the focus of the piece, also apparent in the photo of the sign pictured above (which iboy_daniel was so gracious to share with an open license). The same picture taken head on would simply not be as interesting. Negative space used this way adds a level of depth that is missing otherwise. The divine proportion and rule of thirds are related to the concept of negative space.

In images with a lot going on, photographers will often use a large aperture, resulting in a shallow depth of field, meaning that only a small range of the picture is in focus. This artistic blurring of the foreground and background is negative space that makes the pieces that are in focus almost pop out at the viewer. The out of focus elements are important because of the context they provide to the in focus elements.

In a recent conversation with a former employee of mine, we got to talking about the importance of negative space in the workplace, although we didn't call it that at the time. It's the idea that time spent sitting around talking, grabbing a cup of coffee, running to the break room to play ping pong, going to lunch together, or otherwise spending time together not immediately engaged in "work" is an important aspect of the workplace.

An article in the paper about a team running the Ragnar Wasatch Back Relay, which happens to have started today, points out this same concept. A business sponsored a team a few years ago for the 200 mile 12 person relay race through the mountains and found clear benefits in the way of increased collaboration and connections among employees back at the office long after the race ended, so they've continued doing it.

Being able to step away momentarily from the task at hand to do something that doesn't really matter helps increase focus on important issues upon returning to work. These important issues are often lost if taken on too directly with nowhere to allow the eyes or mind to rest. Of course unrealistic deadlines, high travel costs, juggling multiple projects, and other factors can make such downtime seemingly difficult to fit in. It doesn't have to be huge, though, and probably shouldn't be. Care does need to be taken to ensure the focus isn't moved off what is important and onto elements that should be in the background.

In virtual teams, instant messaging can provide some of the same downtime to a limited extent, but getting together in the same physical location occasionally can do wonders to reinvigorate a project or team that is suffering from lack of contact. Whether or not the in-person time is "productive", it can help remind everyone of the importance of their piece in relation to the big goal and that there are real people receiving their submissions on the other end of the line.

I often practice a negative space technique when working on a paper or presentation. A month or two out I'll review the requirements and read some related articles or books but not write anything. A week or two goes by, and I'll put together a basic outline of what I'm going to write or talk about. I'll sit on it for another week, while in the back of my mind I'm thinking of stories, articles, events, theories, videos, and all sorts of related issues. This cycle progresses until it's relatively close to the time of submission/presentation, depending on its size and importance. When I do sit down to knock it out, the whole thing flows from my fingertips in a way that was not possible the month or two prior, because of the downtime I'd had to process it.

I always did like it at the moving company I used to work for when the person over our crew on any given day was a smoker; it meant we would get a 10 minute break every hour instead of one 15 minute break every four hours. The focus there was always on when the next break was coming. Everyone filed out of the warehouse like kids following an ice cream truck when the snack truck would pull into the parking lot every morning and save us all if he was ever late. At a physically demanding job, that negative space is closely guarded and for good reason, but at white collar jobs it can be easy to forget or to spend your downtime alone.

So be positive. But don't forget about the negative.

16 Free Tools to Create Media in eLearning

From a presentation at eLearning DevCon 2011 by Jeff Batt, a trainer with Rapid Intake.
I can vouch for Audacity, GIMP, Kuler (my new blog colors are from the Retro Package color scheme), and obviously Sumo Paint.

Now start creating!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Enlightened Eye

I just wanted to jot a few notes down from Elliott Eisner's 1991 book The Enlightened Eye: Qualitative Inquiry and the Enhancement of Educational Practice.

Eisner discusses 6 features of qualitative study:
  • qualitative studies are field focused; that is, anything that is important for education is potential subject matter, from observing teachers in the classroom to how children play to the design of the trophy case in the school
  • the researcher as instrument; we all make judgments as to what is or isn't important, and calling out one's own biases is as important as identifying those of others
  • a qualitative study is interpretive; thick description, motivation, underlying attitudes, and nuanced differences are essential
  • expressive language and presence of voice; this goes along with the researcher as instrument in that it is false to assert a neutrality that does not exist
  • attention to particulars; rather than run details through a statistics engine to arrive at a general statement, the analysis of outliers and unique details of an individual situation, individual, event, or object provides a flavor that is often lost
  • triangulation; qualitative researchers look for multiple sources to validate findings, not a sterile statistical test of significance.

I'm reminded of the story of a quantitative and a qualitative researcher observing a man mowing his lawn. The quantitative researcher measures the length of the grass before and after it is cut, in addition to the average and standard deviations of the length of the grass of his neighbors, and explains that he was cutting his grass in order to keep it within a certain threshold acceptable for that street. The qualitative researcher asks the man why he is cutting his lawn, to which he replies he is doing it early in the morning to get back at the neighbors who were up late loudly partying the night before.

Of course, both quantitative and qualitative are important, and you can't really have one without the other. Straight quantitative research loses touch with reality fairly quickly, and qualitative research simply isn't scalable. Problems can be identified by either method or a combination of the two. Heavy quantitative analysis is often used to develop and validate interventions that work for the majority, but then qualitative work is necessary to really understand whether the desired effects are taking hold and to work with those who don't fit in the majority mold.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Course Design Rubric

As a follow-up to my last post presenting the idea of a design rubric, here is the first real draft of the course design rubric.

I haven't worried yet about putting the rubric items in any specific order or weighting them in importance at all. That will come later. I will probably group them together somehow so related rubric items are next to each other. They will also be fleshed out with better descriptions of what it takes to get a certain score. There's only so much space in each little box.

The way a rubric like this works is that the rater starts at 0 and moves towards 3, stopping whenever criteria are no longer being met. So you can't meet the criteria for a 3 if the criteria for a 2 were not met. In working to validate the rubric, I'll look at an overall score out of 21 by adding up the 7 individual scores, the correlations between individual rubric items and external criteria, and the correlations/dependencies among rubric items.

There were a few times that I debated which items would score higher on a given criterion when one was not naturally subsumed by the other. For example, what if the recommended learning path does build effectively but is not flexible? Or what if learning activities provide new experiences as a foundation for the content to be presented but do not build at all on student experiences prior to the course? Those are obvious holes that will need to be patched before this is production ready.

As I hinted I might do in my last post, I did decide to combine the Measurable and Clarity items into Clear and Measurable Objectives. That was a more interesting decision to make than it seems. As I wrote last time, the goal was to write a rubric that allowed for rating the design of a course before it was developed. What I've been leaning more towards, however, is a rating of a developed course. Most of the items could still be used in a design-only situation (and really should be if you're not shooting from the hip and developing without designing first), but combining those two items related to writing good objectives in effect serves to weight that portion less than some of the other items that apply more naturally to a developed course.

Of course, the real power of using a rubric is not so much that you can use it to come up with a grade but rather that it can be used during the creation process to improve the quality of the end product.

So what's missing? What's redundant? What's out of order? What can't be measured?