The home stretch..

As finals come to a close, I’m thinking about the semester: the classes I teach, the cognitive psychology class that I’m taking, and of course, our seminar. I came across a few things this week that seemed to put things into place.

The first is a blog post that I’ve had on my “I will read this as soon as I have time” list, which finally happened this week! It’s a high school physics teacher’s post about his vision for a Physics iBook. Does it contain chapters of a textbook? No. Does it include videos of professors’ lectures? No. It provides students with tools for them to create their own labs and BE scientists not passively “learn” science. I started looking around at his blog posts and found another great one on $2 interactive white boards. Yep, it’s just one of those table sized white boards…and, it’s pretty interactive. Much more so than the ways most teachers use their SmartBoards.

This reoccurring theme of not doing the same old thing with new technology seems so obvious, yet so many resources are used to do just that. Maybe we need to get some department of education folks, school board members, curriculum developers, and state legislators to read Illich and Nelson.

There was also an explosion of new education-focused TED talks. While Ken Robinson always sparks my interest and I love his new talk, there was a new 6 min talk that some of you may have missed by a high school chemistry teacher discussing motivation, science, a kid’s innate curiosity, and what we can do to capitalize on (instead of killing) it.

Seminarians, you are awesome

Wednesday’s seminar was a blast; I couldn’t have been happier to be a part of the Mind Squad! For all of you seminarians who are reading this, thanks so much for jumping right in feet first.

Joycelyn’s idea to have the groups tie Illich to the Hip Hop lyrics was so inspired and Kimberley’s suggestion to have all of you bring in your the artifacts was such a wonderful opportunity for me to learn more about each of you.

And the students! Wow, Tony and Gardner, what a great idea to bring them in as your artifacts! Can I please steal all of those students away and have them take my course?

How do we proceed in deschooling society? It seems like apprenticeship programs are starting to become fashionable again; that’s at least a start. With meet up, I think people are forming their own peer networks and I do know of a couple adopt a physicist programs where students and teachers can be in contact with a content “expert.” I’m torn on how to balance letting students choose their interest and also engaging students with some sort of basic literacy in all content fields. Educators and practitioners can make their content appealing in order to motivate students, but without a centralized school, the students would have to already be interested enough to find us. Maybe each student would need to meet with at least one person from a variety of fields?

Perhaps we can adopt Google’s 80/20 but instead of the 80% being traditional school, the 80% is the content/problem solving that we want them to learn, but they can be creative and have choice in how they go about learning that content.

What I do know is that my little elementary-school aged nephew and niece love to learn (whenever I visit, they love doing science experiments, trying new origami, learning new skills in sports), but getting them to do their homework is already a battle for their parents and seeing letter grades and test scores on a 4th grader’s report card is just a little disconcerting.

Finally, Terry’s point about citizenship is one that I thought about a lot when I was teaching undocumented high school students. I think we should have a country of engaged, critical thinkers who know how their society functions and seek to make it better. I strongly feel like part of my job is to educate our youth to be informed citizens who have developed a scientific way of thinking. Even though many of them couldn’t participate as citizens in the legal sense, many of them displayed citizenship: they volunteered in the community, pushed for social justice, and hardly ever took a moment of their education for granted (especially when compared to our US-born students).

Turkle has exploded my mind

I was absolutely blown away by Sherry Turkle’s “Video Games and Computer Holding Power.” As someone who hasn’t seriously played video games in 25 + years, I knew that I had friends who are addicted to gaming (one almost failed out of college during his freshman year), but none of them has ever articulated why…Turkle’s interviews opened up a new world for me.

Jarish was perhaps my favorite; an adolescent searching for meaning in real life can create his own through gaming. He wants to use the “boring physics” he’s learning in school to develop his own program. Frustrated by manufactures sealing the game in a cartridge, he envisions a world where he would have access to the program so he could modify it and make it his own, a world which would be governed by rules, but he would be the designer of those rules.

There were also stories of both youth and adults looking for a sense of control, finding an almost meditative state through gaming, focusing so hard on the task at hand that they can’t be distracted by life, combining conscious problem-solving with the muscle memory of athletics. All of these things reminded me of why I love (and some might say addicted to) physical activity.

I find that meditative state through long runs or bike rides. During swim practices, I’m too busy calculating intervals to think about anything other than swimming. Rock climbing is so addictive because you’re faced with a problem (bouldering routes are actually called problems)and it’s that combination of thinking through how you can solve a problem and building muscle memory so that you can do it smoothly. Just like Jarish, I think about how I can use physics (though I would never say it’s boring) to my advantage…I finally get it. Just like I need physical activity to center myself, to know I’m in control, to release the stress of the day, gamers have their outlets in fantastical worlds.

Of course, Turkle also realizes that sometimes, gamers prefer the simulated worlds over the others and if kids are substituting gaming for traditional role play (you play teacher, I’ll play student), they may be missing out on opportunities to develop empathy.

Could this be solved with games which encourages kids to play together? Games where the script is loose? Where shy kids can have a chance to build a community?


Our copier just decided to stop working when we have 1500 exams to print. Argh. Technology.’s been a stressful week, but then I realize that life is good here in Blacksburg. Remembering the victims of Boston (and of course our own anniversary of April 16th) put everything in perspective.

So what is this post doing here on the New Media blog? How is our relationship with media shaping these events? Google person search is letting families find each other, wow..Technology.

Will the media coverage and all the posts on social media lead to a copy cat phenomena? Or will it lead to a sense of solidarity and connectedness?

And what about digital forensics? Authorities are asking for all the spectator footage, but it turns out that we don’t have a centralized system for folks to upload these videos and the mass amounts of digital video and images taken by spectators as well as by government and business cameras will need to be collected, processed into one format, then watched and coded manually…by HUMANS. What? We don’t have an algorithm for that? Where are you, technology?

Have we turned into cognitive “heel strikers”?

It’s finally spring in Blacksburg, so that means that after months of neglecting my Vibram Five Fingers “frog shoes” as my friend calls them, it’s time to bust them out again for some minimalist running.  You might have seen folks wear them around campus or heard about the Barefoot Running movement popularized by Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run.

Basically, McDougall was a recreational runner who would quite often be injured training for small distances and wondered how, with our fancy shoes designed to prevent injury, we seem to suffer from running injuries at a greater rate than the Tarahumara Indians who run 100+ miles in sandals. While there is still some heated debate about this topic, the idea is that humans evolved to run long distances and by creating these comfortable, cushioned shoes, we’ve actually put ourselves at greater risk. If you run without shoes, you’ll notice that you’ll automatically hit with a mid-foot or fore-foot strike (landing with a heel strike is incredibly uncomfortable, so you naturally shorten your stride and let your arch do the work it was “designed” to do. With the advent of shoe technology, we can comfortably hit with our heels first, which, according to the barefoot movement, causes a jolt through our joints and puts us at risk for injury. They also argue that the arch support we obtain from the shoes weakens our arch muscles (now they don’t have to do the work) and thus puts us at even more risk.

Is there an analogy with our mind? If shoes with arch support weaken the arch due to lack of use, does my GPS weaken my spatial relations ability? Does having every phone number in my address book weaken my ability to use my working memory and store/retrieve things from my long term memory? Are we going through our cognitive world with a heel strike?

What a textbook could be

Last week, Ralph was kind enough to lend me a copy of Simply Physics, an introductory physics textbook that his father, Terry Hall, wrote in 1980, the year I was born.

A clear example of how Simple Physics uses clear, simple diagrams which encourage thinking about how to design experiments to test physical phenomena.

A clear example of how Simply Physics uses clear, simple diagrams which encourage thinking about how to design experiments to test physical phenomena.

As I fingered through it, I knew that this book was different than our text now. First, it’s small: less than 200 pages, as compared to our current book which is a order of magnitude greater. What also struck me were all the simple images of lab equipment and the ties to how you could test these fundamental physics ideas in the real world. Now it seems that texts are filled with these ridiculously long passages of text, complicated images, and almost no discussion of how you could design experiments. In fact, eye-tracking software has actually shown that students spend more time looking at the distractors in these complicated images than the relevant picture. For instance, if there’s a truck on an incline plane and the truck driver is standing near the truck, people divert their attention to the driver rather than the truck. Simply Physics keeps it simple. It’s about the physics, the experiments and practice problems for students to try on their own. Hmm..if Terry Hall wrote Simply Physics in the world of new media, what could his book do?

Last class, Janine and Nathan challenged us to create a metaphor for future new media, and Bob’s Dream Machine seemed to strike a chord within our group (Ralph mentioned guitars..I can’t help myself). This got me thinking…what if we could take a book like Simply Physics and make it an interactive simulation (go ComputerLib!) which anticipates our thoughts and reasoning processes in order to provide us with a targeted laboratory experience?

The screen opens with a virtual piece of lab equipment (let’s say it’s a pendulum bob) and shelves of tools/meters/watches/probes etc. You begin to play with the equipment while eye tracking software and mouse tracking software record how you observe and interact with the pendulum. It then asks you to state your observations and based on these inputs, it presents a few open ended questions to guide your thinking towards important relationships. What do you think would happen if the length of the string were longer? Like a good inquiry based teacher, it won’t let you try it until you give a prediction. You enter your prediction, then change the length of the pendulum and record your new observations. If there’s something that you notice (it swings faster at the bottom now than it did before) but you didn’t notice that the whole swing took a longer amount of time, it might say, “What do you think would happen to the period of the swing?” You give it your prediction. “How can you test this?” You have to realize what equipment to grab, get it from the virtual shelf, and try it…Students can create their own experiments (motivation!) and be prepared for a more elaborate lab experience in the classroom setting.

Could this be the future of pre-lectures? I think it would beat Khan Academy.


As a physics teacher, I was immediately struck by their foresight of utilizing animations  and simulations for education. I’m currently doing my best to use these in my large lecture class (it’s difficult with a common course that needs to be okayed by multiple instructors and faculty) by incorporating physics simulations as pre-lecture assignments. I’m hoping that by encouraging students to play in a virtual world, we can elicit both a greater curiosity (and thus motivation) as well as a deeper understanding of the underlying physics.

With sims, students can perform experiments before they learn the “correct” physics. Sims also open up the opportunity to do experiments that are impossible on Earth. What would happen if we tried this on the moon? What would happen if there really were no friction (an assumption that we physicists think makes problems easier but sometimes results in students being confused because the predictions made by our models don’t correspond to their real life experiences). By letting students experiment with changing the
parameters of the experiment, they can CREATE and test their OWN physical models instead of just adopting the ones told to them by an “expert”.

If you’d like to play with some science and math sims (do it!), one of my favorite resources is PHeT!

Can we ditch the dirty looks without ditching the teachers?

As Ted Nelson leads us through his view of traditional education, I’m drinking the kool-aid right with him. Yes, our educational system DRAINS our students of their curiosity, creativity, and motivation! Yes, we need to change (I’m not ready to fully give them up) the arbitrary divisions between subjects. Just adding computers to our current educational practices isn’t going to make any significant changes. Indeed, we need to hone in on the individual interests of our students instead of treating them as one homogeneous bunch.  Agreed, teacher’s dirty looks have no place in our schools…but I think the role of teachers, as mentors, guides, motivators, and role models gets lost in Ted Nelson’s view.

New media could potentially fill a wonderful void; students would no longer have to study in an isolated room with a textbook. As a physics teacher, I see media as bringing students a virtual lab that they would otherwise not have access to, they could get immediate feedback on their problem solving, and they could link up with other students/teachers at any time. But the role of physical social interaction, both with the teacher and the student seems to be missing from his view. Where are the students learning how to work in a team? Where are they communicating their ideas?

I’m also worried that if students are purely self-directed, they may never even be introduced into topics that they might find fascinating! While specialization can be “efficient” is it really the best solution? Isn’t it important that each student has some content literacy in all subjects in order to be an informed citizen? The role of the teacher is to motivate them to learn something outside of their anticipated areas of interest. How about we help reform our system to help the teachers utilize (and maybe develop!) new media effectively?

Consciousness: I know it when I see it?

I love life’s intersections. I’m currently taking an Educational Psychology class (how much do I love that VT faculty can take courses for free?!) and we were discussing consciousness. The idea of functionalism arose and it made me think of our seminar and the idea of artificial intelligence. Basically, functionalism is the idea that as long as something functions like consciousness, it is consciousness. While part of me cringes at the thought that we could call machine processing consciousness, I’m also at a loss at how we could recognize or define it without this sort of pragmatism. It’s almost as if we were to try to establish a definition, I think we’d purposefully adopt a definition which a priori excludes this sort of machine “thinking”. Is this sort of Turing test good enough? Is our mind more than a collections of our neural networks? If there is some sort of collective emergent property, is this fundamentally different from the emergent properties of an ant colony? What about a series of data and processing which lead to artificial intelligence? I’m now wishing I spent some time this weekend reading the Alan Turning essay in our text, but alas, as it stands, I still need to find some time today to finish the assigned reading! Maybe over break..

All of this reminded me of a Radiolab that I heard years ago (is anyone else obsessed with Radiolab?). (The picture should be linked to the episode)

This hour of Radiolab, Jad and Robert meet humans and robots who are trying to connect, and blur the line.
We begin with a love story–from a man who unwittingly fell in love with a chatbot on an online dating site. Then, we encounter a robot therapist whose inventor became so unnerved by its success that he pulled the plug. And we talk to the man who coded Cleverbot, a software program that learns from every new line of conversation it receives…and that’s chatting with more than 3 million humans each month. Then, five intrepid kids help us test a hypothesis about a toy designed to push our buttons, and play on our human empathy. And we meet a robot built to be so sentient that its creators hope it will one day have a consciousness, and a life, all its own.

Stolen from Radiolab.

Stolen from Radiolab.

Finding the Signal Amidst the Noise

I was really struck by a few things in the Vannevar Bush’s article, “As We May Think” and I was bummed that I had to leave last week’s discussion early. What really resonated with me was this idea of freeing one’s mind and imagination from the necessity to memorize and remember. When you have the comfort of knowing that you can retrieve relevant information when needed, your limited cognitive processes are less burdened from the mundane and are freed to wonder down more interesting paths.

Of course with the advent of Google, I feel like we have that now to some extent, but it certainly isn’t foolproof. I’ve often found a great article, simulation, or recipe online, thinking I could easily reproduce it with a Google search, but end up falling short when that potluck approaches. To attempt to remedy this problem, I’ve tried keeping bookmarks (both in the cloud and on a computer), but that creates its own problems of organization and retrieval. My less elegant fix is to email myself a link with keywords that I think I might use in a future search when I’m ready to retrieve it. While this fix works well for articles I remember, if I’m not cued to look for that information, it’s forever lost.

As Bush points out, as we collectively store more information, our organization is going to be key in being able to discern the signal from the noise. While I appreciate his fondness for our human ability to make useful associations, I wonder how this could potentially play out. While I see Wikis as being some sort of realization of this idea, I worry that our collection will be useful only to those who think like us. If we organize topics as an expert would, for instance, how useful would that be for someone who is just entering a field? If we organize things in predictable ways for the masses, would that deter revolutions in thinking?

One of my goals of this blog is to bring ideas back to teaching. In our classrooms, how can we utilize the collective knowledge, skills, and imaginations of our students so that they can scaffold on each other while providing a space for all students? What do we expect our students to “know” and what is acceptable for them to recall through a Google search, an equation sheet, notes, text, etc? If a student is freed from having to remember the mass of an electron, for example, she can focus her attention on understanding how an electron interacts with an electric field. But if she can google search “how does an electron move in an electric field” does that free her even more, or, does that deter from her motivation to create new knowledge?