Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Fair to the Truth

NPR's new handbook caught my attention today. I doubt I'm alone.

Boing Boing reported on this, linking to the Pressthink post, and these are the kinds of outlets that lead to wider coverage.

Most of the new handbook is pretty standard stuff, but the concept of "fair to the truth" is bound to get attention, and it's is worthy of any attention it gets - particularly in a world where ideas about the media, authority, context, and the value of information are all in flux.

From the handbook:
...our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the age of digital information places the burden of context in the hands of the critical consumer. I see NPR's concept as a way of placing their services in the middle of that context-sorting process.

NPR is acknowledging that the information is all out there, and the older paradigm's attempts to report all points of view does not help consumers - the news has become a series of opinionated people telling us what to think about an event.

Instead, NPR would like to add a lens to their reporting that acknowledges how news maker's often seek to spin a story.

Critics will howl, as is their want. They'll view this as an attempt to allow editorial views into the news content - where it doesn't belong. But a critical consumer of news knows that there's always been an editorial view in our news content. The people who decide what news gets covered are making editorial decisions (btw, did you know we've been at war for the past 9 years?)

So now we have this new concept: fair to the truth. I'm interested to see if the concept gets traction outside of NPR.

I have long since grown tired of watching political bickering being portrayed as news. I hope this is a shift away from that.

I just hope it doesn't change the format of Wait, Wait...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Reaction to "We, The Web Kids"

Below is some of the best writing about the internet and culture that I have ever read. It is Piotr Czerski's "We, the Web Kids."

It's been translated from the original Polish and posted on Pastebin. (Go Central European thinkers!)

I think this text should be required reading for anyone looking to talk about the role of the internet in society. 

Best quote: "What unites us is not a common, limited cultural context, but the belief that the context is self-defined and an effect of free choice." 

While I think the text is fantastic, I do have a thing or two to say about the way Czerski sets the Web Kids apart from older generations.

I am not a Web Kid. Czerski states that the Kids who grew up with the web did so over the past 15 years. I was 21 when that period began. Not a kid.

It is true that I didn't grow up with the web. Instead, the web grew up with me.

I remember going to my friend Ryan Raddatz's house and setting a phone receiver on a modem to dial into BBSs where we downloaded space-based strategy games and lists of other BBSs. That was probably in 1989 or 1990.

I remember the Gopher competing with the world wide web back when I was a freshman at Columbia College in Chicago (before I transferred to Madison). The computer geeks who lived down the hall showed me that there were in fact two internets to search.

By the time I was finishing college, the web started to look something like what it has become, but my generation watched it mature through a very difficult awkward stage.

I can't claim to have had much of an impact on its development, but I do think the relationship between my generation and the web is unique - and that relationship blurs the line Czerski uses to divide his generation from my own.

I did not grow up with the internet, but I bore witness as it changed us... and as we changed it.

The Web Kids have a different perspective than the generation that proceeded them, but my generation benefits from a different kind of knowledge. We know how much the Web can change. The last 15 years of web development have been amazing, but that is also true of the last 25 years.

For me, the Web isn't a part of who I am, it is more like a familiar companion with whom I grew up.

And there's a powerful bond between two who endure their awkward stages together.

Psst, hey, Internet. If you promise never to tell anyone that Poison was my first favorite band, I won't tell anyone that you used to think AOL was the coolest. 

Oh, and btw, if you want to read a fun inter-generational battle on Czerski's piece, visit The Atlantic's posting of it and read the comments.

Piotr Czerski
We, the Web Kids.
(translated by Marta Szreder)

There is probably no other word that would be as overused in the media discourse as ‘generation’. I once tried to count the ‘generations’ that have been proclaimed in the past ten years, since the well-known article about the so-called ‘Generation Nothing’; I believe there were as many as twelve. They all had one thing in common: they only existed on paper. Reality never provided us with a single tangible, meaningful, unforgettable impulse, the common experience of which would forever distinguish us from the previous generations. We had been looking for it, but instead the groundbreaking change came unnoticed, along with cable TV, mobile phones, and, most of all, Internet access. It is only today that we can fully comprehend how much has changed during the past fifteen years.

We, the Web kids; we, who have grown up with the Internet and on the Internet, are a generation who meet the criteria for the term in a somewhat subversive way. We did not experience an impulse from reality, but rather a metamorphosis of the reality itself. What unites us is not a common, limited cultural context, but the belief that the context is self-defined and an effect of free choice.

Writing this, I am aware that I am abusing the pronoun ‘we’, as our ‘we’ is fluctuating, discontinuous, blurred, according to old categories: temporary. When I say ‘we’, it means ‘many of us’ or ‘some of us’. When I say ‘we are’, it means ‘we often are’. I say ‘we’ only so as to be able to talk about us at all.

We grew up with the Internet and on the Internet. This is what makes us different; this is what makes the crucial, although surprising from your point of view, difference: we do not ‘surf’ and the internet to us is not a ‘place’ or ‘virtual space’. The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment. We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it. If we were to tell our bildnungsroman to you, the analog, we could say there was a natural Internet aspect to every single experience that has shaped us. We made friends and enemies online, we prepared cribs for tests online, we planned parties and studying sessions online, we fell in love and broke up online. The Web to us is not a technology which we had to learn and which we managed to get a grip of. The Web is a process, happening continuously and continuously transforming before our eyes; with us and through us. Technologies appear and then dissolve in the peripheries, websites are built, they bloom and then pass away, but the Web continues, because we are the Web; we, communicating with one another in a way that comes naturally to us, more intense and more efficient than ever before in the history of mankind.

Brought up on the Web we think differently. The ability to find information is to us something as basic, as the ability to find a railway station or a post office in an unknown city is to you. When we want to know something - the first symptoms of chickenpox, the reasons behind the sinking of ‘Estonia’, or whether the water bill is not suspiciously high  - we take measures with the certainty of a driver in a SatNav-equipped car. We know that we are going to find the information we need in a lot of places, we know how to get to those places, we know how to assess their credibility. We have learned to accept that instead of one answer we find many different ones, and out of these we can abstract the most likely version, disregarding the ones which do not seem credible. We select, we filter, we remember, and we are ready to swap the learned information for a new, better one, when it comes along.

To us, the Web is a sort of shared external memory. We do not have to remember unnecessary details: dates, sums, formulas, clauses, street names, detailed definitions. It is enough for us to have an abstract, the essence that is needed to process the information and relate it to others. Should we need the details, we can look them up within seconds. Similarly, we do not have to be experts in everything, because we know where to find people who specialise in what we ourselves do not know, and whom we can trust. People who will share their expertise with us not for profit, but because of our shared belief that information exists in motion, that it wants to be free, that we all benefit from the exchange of information. Every day: studying, working, solving everyday issues, pursuing interests. We know how to compete and we like to do it, but our competition, our desire to be different, is built on knowledge, on the ability to interpret and process information, and not on monopolising it.

Participating in cultural life is not something out of ordinary to us: global culture is the fundamental building block of our identity, more important for defining ourselves than traditions, historical narratives, social status, ancestry, or even the language that we use. From the ocean of cultural events we pick the ones that suit us the most; we interact with them, we review them, we save our reviews on websites created for that purpose, which also give us suggestions of other albums, films or games that we might like. Some films, series or videos we watch together with colleagues or with friends from around the world; our appreciation of some is only shared by a small group of people that perhaps we will never meet face to face. This is why we feel that culture is becoming simultaneously global and individual. This is why we need free access to it.

This does not mean that we demand that all products of culture be available to us without charge, although when we create something, we usually just give it back for circulation. We understand that, despite the increasing accessibility of technologies which make the quality of movie or sound files so far reserved for professionals available to everyone, creativity requires effort and investment. We are prepared to pay, but the giant commission that distributors ask for seems to us to be obviously overestimated. Why should we pay for the distribution of information that can be easily and perfectly copied without any loss of the original quality? If we are only getting the information alone, we want the price to be proportional to it. We are willing to pay more, but then we expect to receive some added value: an interesting packaging, a gadget, a higher quality, the option of watching here and now, without waiting for the file to download. We are capable of showing appreciation and we do want to reward the artist (since money stopped being paper notes and became a string of numbers on the screen, paying has become a somewhat symbolic act of exchange that is supposed to benefit both parties), but the sales goals of corporations are of no interest to us whatsoever. It is not our fault that their business has ceased to make sense in its traditional form, and that instead of accepting the challenge and trying to reach us with something more than we can get for free they have decided to defend their obsolete ways.

One more thing: we do not want to pay for our memories. The films that remind us of our childhood, the music that accompanied us ten years ago: in the external memory network these are simply memories. Remembering them, exchanging them, and developing them is to us something as natural as the memory of ‘Casablanca’ is to you. We find online the films that we watched as children and we show them to our children, just as you told us the story about the Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks. Can you imagine that someone could accuse you of breaking the law in this way? We cannot, either.

We are used to our bills being paid automatically, as long as our account balance allows for it; we know that starting a bank account or changing the mobile network is just the question of filling in a single form online and signing an agreement delivered by a courier; that even a trip to the other side of Europe with a short sightseeing of another city on the way can be organised in two hours. Consequently, being the users of the state, we are increasingly annoyed by its archaic interface. We do not understand why tax act takes several forms to complete, the main of which has more than a hundred questions. We do not understand why we are required to formally confirm moving out of one permanent address to move in to another, as if councils could not communicate with each other without our intervention (not to mention that the necessity to have a permanent address is itself absurd enough.)

There is not a trace in us of that humble acceptance displayed by our parents, who were convinced that administrative issues were of utmost importance and who considered interaction with the state as something to be celebrated. We do not feel that respect, rooted in the distance between the lonely citizen and the majestic heights where the ruling class reside, barely visible through the clouds. Our view of the social structure is different from yours: society is a network, not a hierarchy. We are used to being able to start a dialogue with anyone, be it a professor or a pop star, and we do not need any special qualifications related to social status. The success of the interaction depends solely on whether the content of our message will be regarded as important and worthy of reply. And if, thanks to cooperation, continuous dispute, defending our arguments against critique, we have a feeling that our opinions on many matters are simply better, why would we not expect a serious dialogue with the government?

We do not feel a religious respect for ‘institutions of democracy’ in their current form, we do not believe in their axiomatic role, as do those who see ‘institutions of democracy’ as a monument for and by themselves. We do not need monuments. We need a system that will live up to our expectations, a system that is transparent and proficient. And we have learned that change is possible: that every uncomfortable system can be replaced and is replaced by a new one, one that is more efficient, better suited to our needs, giving more opportunities.

What we value the most is freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of access to information and to culture. We feel that it is thanks to freedom that the Web is what it is, and that it is our duty to protect that freedom. We owe that to next generations, just as much as we owe to protect the environment.

Perhaps we have not yet given it a name, perhaps we are not yet fully aware of it, but I guess what we want is real, genuine democracy. Democracy that, perhaps, is more than is dreamt of in your journalism.

"My, dzieci sieci" by Piotr Czerski is licensed under a Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Na tych samych warunkach 3.0 Unported License:

Contact the author: piotr[at]czerski.art.pl

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Have We Truly Democratized Data?

Dora has a friend and former classmate who worked at Lehman Brothers in 2008.

I was working at a business school at the time, but even in that environment, I had never paid much attention to economic news. If it hadn't been for that friend of Dora's, that personal connection to the first facade to crumble, I likely would have continued to pay very little attention to economic news, even at the beginning of the largest economic crisis of my lifetime.

But I had a personal connection, and I was keeping a blog back then. So I wrote a little something about the fall of Lehman Brothers.

The effort plugged me into the story. I sought out resources that would help me understand what I was living through, and I found Planet Money. Planet Money was a podcast published three times a week (now they publish twice weekly). The producers come from the NPR News team and the This American Life team. In the early days of the economic crisis, they worked to produce economic news stories that the average listener could understand - more than that, they strove to make those stories engaging (they still do).

It worked on me. I didn't miss an episode, and I got what felt like a peek behind the curtain of the world of economics. I came to have a fairly strong grasp on how complex quantitative tools of analysis, tools only understood by a few, made the mortgage market appear safer than it was for several years. The savviest of investors recognized the risk a little before the general public, but even those investors had spent years pouring capital into mortgage securities constructed by "quants" using algorithms the investors themselves didn't understand.

And we are still dealing with the aftermath.

The role quants played in the economic crisis has many parallels to the role of the people doing the tagging of data on the internet. The people who use HTML to code the massive amount of information posted online everyday have a grasp on the data that few information consumers can understand. The people who tag the data know where the data come from, how its connected to other sources, and how its distributed. Meanwhile, the people who use that data to make important decisions in their lives would not know how to get at the information's information.

In economic terms, that represents information asymmetry, and it rarely ends well. 

In my literacy and technology class, I've referred to an argument I've made here about the change in information literacy practices I've witnessed as a writing instructor working during the rise of Web 2.0:
Students no longer have to learn how to find information, they have to learn how to sift and winnow information.

That task would be much easier if my students had stronger functional literacy skills, the subject we aim to discuss today in class. If my students knew how technology delivers data, then the task of tracing information back to a source would be made easier.Their literacies would be made richer.

Stray observations:
  • This experience of thinking about literacy through the lens of technology has led to repeated associations with my enjoyment of science fiction. Early in the quarter I was thinking of Snow Crash and Neuromancer, books that describe the role of information literacy in a not too distant future. This week had me thinking about the back story of the Dune novels, set in a far off future, centuries after a religious war has destroyed and forbidden all machines that reproduce the thoughts of a human - the war was motivated by those who thought such machines took knowledge out of the hands of people.
  • The fact that my own dabbling in digital literacy with this very blog is what led to my engagement with economics is a nice little added bonus.

Monday, February 13, 2012

New Blog Layout

Wow. I decided to update my blog layout, and found that Blogger has been hard at work rethinking what blogs should look like.

I went with the dynamic mosaic layout, and I like the look.

I did lose my blogroll, links, and other sidebar stuff.  But I'm not sure how much of a loss that constitutes.

Anyone want to weigh in on the new look?

Okay. So I'm ditching the mosaic look.  I might try something like that later, but for now I think the traditional look will work best.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Looking Good

This week I'm prepping a presentation on how to use e-portfolios in composition classrooms. I've been spending a lot of time with an open source platform powered by Mahara.

So my head is in an odd kind of space. Presentation prep has me thinking about teaching students to compose academic work for online spaces, teaching a novel interface, evaluating students based on their ability to work in a digital environment, and all while trying to learn the new technology myself.

This has me thinking about what digital texts look like, and that is why, of all the week's reading for my Literacy and Technology course, Matthew K. Gold's chapter in From A to : Keywords of Markup has engaged me the most.

Gold writes a surprisingly engaging chapter on the horizontal rule HTML tag, otherwise known as "hr".

Let's see if I can compose an 'hr'. I'm going to switch my blog's composition box to "Edit HTML" mode and add a horizontal rule.

See. It worked.
And I have a fuzzy screencast video of the process.
(Btw, if you plan to use screencasting software, it looks like you have to pay for quality. Actually, I just needed to learn the software better. I think the Camstudio open source screencasting software will work out just fine.)
But even if my screencast video doesn't look that hot, its inclusion is a vast improvement over the kinds of web-texts I remember from the 90s.

Popular Website from the 90s
The huge number of readers and composers of web-text has resulted in a rapid reconceptualization of the reading space. Both Gold and Wolf call on the Sumerians to help develop an understanding of how even the oldest conventions of text influence web text. Gold explains how the linear divisions on Sumerian pictographic texts depicted a hierarchy of gods, kings, and the vanquished.

While most modern text horizontal conventions do not have quite so stately divisions as the Sumerians, it remains interesting to see how people have struggled with layout. The the gap between the Sumerian writing system and today's web texts is filled with conventions dictated by technology. From the printing press to slow processing speeds, texts have long been restrained by the mode of production.

I found it amusing when Gold got around to describing the worst kinds of ornamental perversions of the HR: flowering vines, fire trucks, and dancing figures dividing the text. It had me thinking of MySpace's downfall - allowing users to add whatever bells and whistles they wanted to their personal page. That was a social experiment that taught us never to distribute an animated dancing baby.

That disaster of popular culture, in turn, got me thinking about Wolf's echoing of Socrates' concerns about the impact digital texts could have - Could we lose our sense of a text's true meaning in the flurry and flood of information now available? Gold reiterates this concern when he quotes Helfand, who describes "a new kind of illiteracy" motivated by the urge to self publish.

Gold does not join Helfand in fretting about the decay of literacy, arguing instead that as the rules change, so too will our conceptions of literacy. I think I sit somewhat uneasily in between the two views. I see the changes taking place, and I believe people will adjust. I also believe, however, that at the moment, most people do not know how to read or compose effectively for digital spaces. That is a kind of illiteracy.

I suppose the question that raises is this: How do we teach society to read and compose for a rapidly changing medium?
Result of an image search for "HR Tag"
 Interestingly, when I did a Google Image Search for "hr tag," the image to the right was the number one result. I find it funny that someone choose to illustrate the HR by dividing pop song lyrics from 2000. It's as though they knew the shelf life of both the tune and the textual convention.

If our writing conventions have the same staying power as our bubblegum, what's a composition teacher to do?

Friday, February 03, 2012

Reaching the Summit

Yesterday I attended the Academic Literacy Conference Summit here at UC Davis.

It was a great experience.
I posted about the event on twitter, which was a fun way to engage in the event. 

Here I want to focus on the table of people with whom I shared lunch.

That was an odd experience.

People who had led breakout sessions were each assigned a table. The idea was that people would have follow-up conversations about what happened in the session. I had missed the first session because I had to teach, but when I arrived for lunch I saw Aaron, Jenae, and Mary all at one table. So I sat down with them at the "Bill Macauley" table.

Bill Macauley is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the University Writing Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. He'd led a session on audiences for student writing. Very sharp man with some great ideas on writing instruction.

It promised to be an interesting table.

We didn't talk much about writing centers, however, or even writing instruction in general. Efforts to dig deep into what it means to facilitate writing instruction were repeatedly stymied by a pair of attendees from a regional college that I'll call Wassamatta U.

The pair took issue with almost any question posed or subject brought up for discussion. Their contention seemed to be that all constructive talk was useless because their students aren't capable of carrying out even the most basic of educational tasks.

Example 1: the pair reflected on the morning's keynote presentation by Jose Rivas. Rivas had demonstrated an entertaining and engaging science lesson on Newton's Second Law. According to my lunch companions, Rivas would not have engaged the students of Wassamatta U. because those students would not participate in activities or respond to problem solving prompts. [laughter]

Example 2: When Luciana C. de Oliveira showed the Common Core expectations for kindergarten level narrative texts, I was told that students at Wassamatta U. were not able to compose at that level. [laughter]

Example 3: When Bill Macauley suggested finding entertaining and culturally relevant sources for developing grammar skills, we learned that the students at Wassamatta U. don't watch television or share any common cultural mores. [laughter]

The easy thing for me to have done would be to dismiss the pair as burntout or bitter. I tried to do as much, but I couldn't shake this question: If things were so hopeless for these two, why were they attending the summit?

Even if Wassamatta U. was paying for the day (which I don't think is the case), no one at the conference was taking role. The pair could have picked up name tags and hightailed it to a day spa. Something didn't fit.

So I turned to one of them and asked about teaching at Wassamatta U.
Here's what I learned:
There's no money. The students arrive with a lot of baggage and few skills. The college and the larger institution to which it belongs offer no real support to instructors. There are colleagues and supervisors who are incompetent.
And then I heard this: "Have you ever used the Yoda Sentences? Students can build all sorts of sentences after just a few minutes with that exercise."

What? Wait...

The person who said that was clearly excited about a student's learning.
That's not the excitement of a burntout teacher. 

And then it hit me. This pair was fighting on the front lines. They worked where most of education's casualties fall. Even if the pair at my table go to work on Monday and work as hard as they can using the best practices available, many of their students are going to fail. A morbid sense of humor is pretty valuable in a place like that.

And that shed a new light onto the rest of the conference.

The Common Core asserts that academically literate students need to reflect on learning experiences and think critically. It sets high standards for students and asks teachers to find a path to reach those goals.

This was emphasized in the afternoon breakout session, which demonstrated ways to help students critically engage what the Common Core has deemed a 9th grade text, "A Quilt of a Country." The methods described are powerful classroom tools. I'm glad I attended. But the text had me thinking about Wassamatta U. The reading refers to novels by Phillip Roth, Francie Nolan, and John Cheever, as well as a "Calvinist undercurrent in the American psyche."

Those kinds of references would have sailed way over my head in 9th grade. I am thrilled that we have set such challenging standards, and I think talented teachers working with motivated students will achieve some wonderful results. But I'm left questioning the meaning of the word 'common' in the Common Core. I don't think the resources required to reach these goals are commonly available in every community.

If we really are interested in such a high level of academic literacy, then summits like the ALS need not only to assess what is at the core of literacy, they also need to describe the tools and techniques communities require to attain academic literacy. Then there's the task of showing schools how to take an inventory of their own learning environments to identify where they need to make changes. It's a tall order. The ripple effect from the ALS has to be very powerful.

I hope attendees feel the weight of that, because it was an impressive group to spend the day with, and I think we could have an impact.