Get Your Head Out Of Your Asana & Look Around: An Introduction

“Asana is a simple way to stay on top of your classes, assignments, and student club activities. Before you get started, it’s important to understand how to set up Asana.” – Asana.

The Digital Communitas project, Student Voices, is actively soliciting blog posts, vlogs, and mp3 audio from post-secondary students at Canada’s universities to share their experiences in the classroom with digital media. Sara Humphreys, our fearless leader, has challenged both my colleague Shannon Haslett and I to come up with a blog post which meets the precipitous of the guidelines of the call for posts. I have come up with the idea for a series of posts under the title “Get Your Head Out Of Your Asana.”

One of the tools we use to communicate with each other and control workflow for Student Voices is through an app called Asana. Asana is project management software intended to replace the need for email by making work more “social.” In learning to use Asana, I visited its “Getting Started” page, and immediately noticed the language they used to sell you on their product especially its big-headed and “new-agey” marketing rhetoric. Looking at Asana critically, I thought it would be fun to pick on it to create a series of posts which comment to what level digital technology provides a source of assisting in our education and to what level they provide us with a distraction from learning. How much attention is the twenty-first student paying to Wikipedia and YouTube in the classroom as opposed to well-trained instructors? Or engaging with projected PowerPoint presentations instead of with their peers for in-class discussion? Or looking down at their various digital devices instead of observing the world around them? Where platforms such as Asana or Blackboard provide excellent tools for managing and synthesizing information, to what extent are they becoming a priority for institutional investment at the expense of learning resources whether digital or physical? Is ease of access and coded interactivity truly more important than the information we engage with? Could Marshal McLuhan have been right? Has the media, or the tool, really become the message?

Cool app or Kool-Aid?

Asana was started up by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and ex-Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein in 2008. Their goal is to revolutionize the way we communicate with each other by basically ridding the need to communicate needlessly via email and other, presumably, face-to face means (no more virtual water cooler chit chat), so more actual work can be produced. It professes to replace perceived idleness with efficiency yet it is a bit oxymoronic; replacing traditional digital communications with social communications so you can communicate less.

Ironically, Asana also refers to a yoga position which literally translates to the art or “mastery of sitting still.”  There is no real ‘sitting still’ embedded in the Asana software despite its name, unless they are referring to the ideas that are stagnating. It claims “[y]ou’ll spend less time reading and writing emails and more time getting work done.” Less time reading and writing… hmm. In actuality, it replaces not idleness with efficiency but creativity with efficiency, for out of boredom and dialogue, ideas are born. In the humanities, the work being done is about people and their interaction with (fill in your specialization here).

So, is Asana a good tool for education? What Asana proposes is digital Fordism or Taylorism, where we work with parts never being able to conceive of the whole. And isn’t trying to understand the big picture what a good education is really about?

In their own words,“Asana is the single source of information for your team.  Add projects, tasks, and comments as you go, and you’ll instantly build a team archive that’s easily accessible whenever you need context or information.”  Unfortunately, Asana is about Asana.  It’s mission to keep our heads in our Asana and out of other digital and physical spaces.  However, the truth behind the rhetoric is that Asana can only provide limited information and context, obvious to anyone who takes the time to logout and look around.

 

 

 

 

Gaming, digital futures and Curtis Bonk! | Day 2 at #DEANZ14 Conference

Sara Humphreys:

Wonderful overview of a conference I am sure we all wish we could have attended!

Originally posted on Disrupt & Transform:

Last week, I managed to attend a day of the DEANZ conference, a great opportunity to catch up with those involved in research and practice related to e-learning and distance education in the schooling and tertiary sectors.

While one day couldn’t really capture the conference as a whole, there were a few takeaways for me that made me wish I’d managed all three days!

2014-05-01 09.18.58Keynote:  David Gibson – Games and Simulations

Associate Professor at Curtin University, David’s focus is in supporting university departments to further e-learning design as part of their programmes.

His keynote made some exciting (and mentally stretching!) points about the way gaming structures can enhance learning pathways. For example:

  • He…

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Blackboard 9 or Taylorism in the 21st Century

Fasten your seatbelts: I am critically analyzing aspects of Blackboard 9. I tried to think through the positives as I use Blackboard 9 as my digital classroom. I am not convinced that universities should implement platforms like this without student and faculty collaboration prior to implementation. Overall, Blackboard 9 is not as collaborative or as pedagogically friendly as it could be but there are useful and important features. So far, the one feature I like is the wiki option, but guess what? Only one person can be on it at a time, apparently, and it’s very glitchy. Often the Java does not function well in ANY browser and so the buttons do not work or say what they should say (e.g. “submit” reads as “????wiki????” or some such nonsense). But why does the “submit” button say “submit” anyways? Why doesn’t it say what it really does, which is “save” or “save changes.” -Blackboard, I am sorry to say, has mediocre design; the functionality is clunky and glitchy; and the pedagogical choices are fair to suspect.  But this isn’t a rant without proof – read on!

In  Norman Fairclough’s Language and Power he writes that institutions are ideologically constructed by social relationships that are realized through particular discourses. In other words, social hierarchies and structures are constructed by overarching concepts, such as capitalism, that prescribe ways of behaving and thinking. In turn, these overarching concepts are the structuring principles of institutions, including educational institutions. Through this kind of analysis, we can envision the university as a workplace that places certain ideological demands on its workers, including faculty. How do these demands translate into digital spaces and what effect do such demands have on pedagogical practice?

Admittedly, Fairclough’s work seems rather out of date, with the bulk of his research published on the cusp of the digital age. Despite this fact, Fairclough’s theories are enormously important to understanding the networks of power that underpin the digital tools and user interfaces (the point of contact between human and machine) we engage with on a daily basis. Fairclough’s formulation of critical discourse analysis (CDA) is all about tracing and tracking the social relations of power that determine our social positioning. Further, Fairclough’s main purpose in using CDA is to make people conscious of the way power operates in their everyday lives, because such consciousness “is the first step toward emancipation” (Language and Power 1).

By using the loaded word “emancipation,” I mean to say that in order to use this platform and its associated tools effectively, we need to be aware of how this system is presented to teachers and students. Not to mention that through such knowledge, teachers and students can make requests of the Blackboard developers and their own institutions to improve the user’s experience.

What follows is not an exhaustive analysis, but offers a way to read the user interfaces in academic spaces that are becoming more common and institutionalized.  I know that I tend to use an interface as quickly as possible to tell the program what I want it to do. But what if we slow this process down and think about the content and form of the narrative voice that tells us how to use the interface? What rhetorical acts does this voice use and what kind of actions are we being guided towards? What are we being steered away from? These are some of the questions I am going to tackle in this post on Blackboard 9, the latest iteration of the enormously popular Blackboard learning platform. If you are a post-secondary student or teacher, dimes for dollars you have used or know someone who has used Blackboard. The latest iteration is much more 2.0 friendly, encouraging social interaction and more extensive use of popular social media tools (for more on the 2.0 functions and possibilities of Blackboard 9, please see the interview with M.J. Pilgrim). The user is invited to spend much more time within the digital space of Blackboard – so what does this mean for post-secondary education?

• Is this push toward collaborative, interactive communication inclusive or are certain users marginalized?
• What beliefs and values are narrated via Blackboard 9?

We will find that Blackboard narrates a digital form of Taylorism. However, if the user is savvy enough, this strict, almost frightening model of clock-time efficiency can be by-passed for a more friendly experience for teacher and student.

Please don’t get me wrong – I like to be organized as much as the next person, but there are so many calendars, reminders, bells, whistles, pokes, and shoves toward academic efficiency in Blackboard 9 that the effect, I argue, is overwhelming and feeds into  concept of efficiency first brought into being in the early 20th century. In 1911, Frederick Taylor published Principles of Scientific Management in which he claimed that worker efficiency could be increased by measuring production, locating inefficiencies, and then allocating tools to improve the speed of production. Charlie Chaplin satirized what came to be known as Taylorism in his 1936 masterpiece Modern Times. In the scene depicted below, the main character is subjected to a feeding machine that will lessen the time that he takes to eat lunch.

I bet someone took this machine seriously.

This principle of using tools to increase efficiency over and above pedagogy is at the heart of Blackboard’s design. There are calendars, reminders, and alerts that inform both students and instructors that they have work to do – so get to it! What Blackboard offers is a means to make sure everyone is efficient over and above collaborative communication, pedagogical innovation and communal learning spaces. Welcome to Taylorism in the 21st century.

The Sandbox:

I am going to use the sandbox area of Blackboard as a case study for the whole platform since it is the space in which instructors can let their pedagogical creativity loose and design test courses. As an aside, I really doubt that many instructors outside of software development actually know what a sandbox is. When I attempted to see if this information is readily available for instructors to look up, I was met with no results in Blackboard help – oh dear. The sandbox is meant to be a space of play and experiment and this one does allow instructors to build test courses, but there are some serious issues with this area. Case in point, I was excited when I saw the link to the “course module” link (see below) where I thought I’d find some really exciting content, perhaps linked with library resources at Trent….

No such luck: imagine my dismay when I was taken to a list of modules that included content by NBC? Yes, the U.S. network provides content from their NBCLearning.com enterprise. I am flabbergasted. If you don’t believe me, check it out:

Even if this is K-12 content, it’s pretty shocking that this stuff is in a Canadian post-secondary institution. Click on the image for a surprise.

Believe me, I wanted to like Blackboard 9 and I looked forward to its release since the previous version was, for want of a better term, clunky. Unfortunately, there is little for post-secondary instructors to use in the Sandbox, unless they want to use McGraw-Hill content or material from NBC. If we consider that social interactions and structures are formed via the conventions associated with certain social institutions, then what does this sandbox offer instructors? There are no less than five different organizational tools on the homepage: Alerts, To Do, My Calendar, Needs Attention, and What’s New. Even though these tools can be removed,  because they are located on the homepage, they are given importance by default. Fairclough states that we are constructed via the order of discourses that tell us how to behave and react. When faced with an overwhelming number of Taylor-esque modes of time organization, I can only assume that time measurement and not pedagogy is the main ideological thrust of Blackboard 9. Should these tools be given primacy? Why can’t instructors be given a list of digital tools and options on the homepage?

For another approach to online course management, check out Moodle, where instructors are invited to create collaborative communities that share knowledge. While these kinds of functions are available in Blackboard 9, the impetus is, again, on time management and organization, which is not collaborative or community building.

Public Feeling and Iconic Images: Mass Cultural Exhibitionism?

Co-authored by Sara Humphreys

 

“Kent State Murder”

Type it into Google and a number of images, websites, and blogs will come up, along with the Neil Young song above.   The historical moment is repeated, consistently, through images and through the circulation of these images on the internet and through other mediums.  Digital culture has canonized this moment of grief and loss.  It has canonized the moment of turmoil and fear that shook America when the Kent State tragedy was publicized in newspapers and broadcast on the news days after former President Nixon announced that American troops would be invading Cambodia, as a side mission to help “success” in Vietnam.  When students protested Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, Nixon ordered the National Guard to restore order on Kent State campus and the result was that four student were shot and killed and many more were injured (Hariman and Lucaites in No Caption Needed:Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy).  The iconic image of a young woman wailing over the dead body of her friend, who lies flat on the sidewalk, has become one of the most circulated images of the 1960s and is symbolic of this historical period.

Iconic images are felt individually, but often have a social function as well.  I was wondering how images circulated through digital media affect users differently, since digital media users are exposed to a plethora of images on the internet.  Whether advertisements (which often plague the internet), video, film, memes, GIFs, etc, images are everywhere.  I am using Kent State as an example.  In education, especially in history and historical research, photos are primary evidence that can be used to better understand a particular time.  Historical moments like Kent State resound through historical, literary, and sociological research.  Kent State is the epitome of student subjugation and the image is still circulated widely in universities.  What is more, the image also serves as an excellent example of cultural exhibitionism – something that the digital generation is very practiced at.  Since it is so circulated, does it affect us anymore?  Rather, should it affect us anymore?  ?  Sometimes the line between the real and the digital gets blurred.

The technology we use surrounds us like a fishbowl, surrounding us with a false sense of agency and knowledge.  The internet is another world, one of which, according to Geoffrey Nunberg in his article “Farewell to the Information Age,” “promises to disrupt this process [between sender and receiver]“.  It is a mediation ground that sharply increases the proportion of writers to readers.  There is far more content being produced than actually read, since it has become so easy to produce content on blogs, youtube, and elsewhere (518).  Images like “Kent State” become memes and, through this hyper-reproductive process, I wonder if they lose their meaning.  I weave Nunberg’s article in here because he talks about how the internet affects how readers use information:

“On the Web, that is, you can never have the kind of experience that you can have with the informational genres of print, the experience of interpreting a text simply as a newspaper or encyclopedia article without attending to its author, it publisher, or the reliability of its recommender.  We read Web documents [including images] not as information but as intelligence, which requires an explicit warrant of one form or another” (519-520).

So, we read the Kent State murder differently on the net than we read it in another medium (such as in the book I am reading now).  Since information on the net comes from a dynamic set of sources (some good, some bad) readers have to pry through information to find good sources.  The internet makes information casual, including something as iconic as Kent State.  I use Nunberg’s article in this post because Nunberg’s article disagrees that the internet will overtake print as the key source of information.  Although he acknowledges that we are in the digital age, he states that the information age still holds a strong influence on how we gather, share, and learn information through a variety of mediums.  In fact, without the groundwork that this age, the digital age would simply not be.  It is clear that humans cannot exist without sharing information using all sorts of language.  Digital technology simply presents a new means of sharing, one that interweaves a multitude of languages and mediums.  Digital technology shows the evolution of language technologies.   Kent State becomes a narrative that is accessible through a variety of these technologies.  We can access it through video, music, scholarly articles, and journalistic accounts.  The single event becomes accessible through the medium of choice and the reader can see how social this event actually was.

This brings me to a key point in this post.  I noticed that in No Caption Needed, Hariman and Lucaites write about iconic photographs from the early-to-middle twentieth century.  What makes a photo “iconic” seems to be linked to this age, when photos were circulated only through certain networks.  The general public was at the whim of journalists and news corporations, who presented certain images that would attract readers to a story.  In the introduction of their book, Hariman and Lucaites provide an extensive definition of what they mean by “iconic.”  I include part of this definition below:

Iconic photographs provide an accessible and centrally positioned set of images for exploring how political action (and inaction) can be constituted and controlled though visual media . . . . These images were obviously highly specific objects of memory and admiration, yet also somehow abstract representations whose value was far more symbolic than referential, and more a public art form than objects for connoisseurship (5-6).

Photojournalism played a major role in chronicling the twentieth century, the age of information.  However, we are now in the digital age.  Information is no longer as sacred, or rare, as it used to be.  We no longer share only through specific ways (i.e. phone; photograph) or through specific cultural practices (i.e. story-telling; conversation).  We now share through all these ways in a very abstract fashion.  Information is everywhere and the internet has made society a network (or networks) of information.  We are on a constant, continuous search for it.

How does this effect what it means to be “iconic”?  Is anything “iconic” anymore?  9/11 puts the concept of “iconic” into question, since 9/11 was a recent moment in history that transformed the world in countless ways.  While reading No Caption Needed, I kept thinking of the “Falling Man” image (below).  I have always had a difficult time looking at the image.  In fact, the immediate emotional response is that of nausea and vertigo.  The image captures a moment of complete loss.  An inescapable fall into nothingness.  No Hollywood ending.  The jumper could not escape the fire in the tower and was forced to make a terrible decision.  The “Falling Man”  invokes terror and pathos in those who view it or perhaps macabre glee, but in any case, affect is generated and will do so because this photo is digitally rendered – available for all to view at will.  Perhaps authenticity comes into question when something is seen so many times that the viewer is desensitized to its effect.

Yet, the “Falling Man” seems to still have an effect.   The image also functions as a symbol of national loss; therefore, it functions for nationalistic purposes.  This, according to Hariman and Lucaites, is crucial in the definition of “iconic”: its function for political gain (18).

So, is it “iconic”?  Somewhat.  The digital age, especially the advances in digital technology that were to follow 9/11, has allowed for mass circulation of images and video.  The “Falling Man” has become an iconic image, perhaps the first and last one, of the digital age.  Yet, it also remains among the company of many digitally circulated images and video which have been diluted of their meaning.  They are viewed by so many that it eventually becomes difficult to tell where and when this photo was taken.   Perhaps the image represents the subversion of political meaning.  The photo/video of the “Falling Man” transcends beyond a political purpose nowadays.  It cannot function to support a particular party, nation, or ideology.  The image transcends its iconic potential, since it deals with complete loss.  It deals with death.  In this way it is similar to the Kent State image.  Both situations show tragedy.  In the Kent State photograph, this tragedy functioned to ignite opposition to the Nixon government, the war in Vietnam, and the invasion of Cambodia.  The “Falling Man” was used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2001; however, in 2012, the image is reluctant to show the support of any violence.  It is a still frame of potential devastation.  What happened to the “Falling Man” is not known.  The “Falling Man” does not bestow a nationalistic identity, even though it brings together a nation in trauma.  Due to its mass circulation – a symptom alone of how fascinating, yet ubiquitous, the image is – the “Falling Man” is an image of an uncertain fate, which America faced at the time and still faces.  Perhaps an uncertain identity is the new identity of the digital age.

Digital Media and Transformation of the Essay

Digital Technology and Hybrid Essay Format

One of the purposes of this site is to show that there are other ways of learning over and above standardized methods (like an instructor reading from slides or, worse, a textbook. if you do this: stop – stop it now).  The essay format has been a stand-by in the humanities and social sciences.  Professors swear by it and it has been institutionalized as a trustworthy way of accessing writing skills and critical thinking.  From high school on, students write essays every year and continue these habits as they enter into post-secondary school, regardless of the discipline they enter.  This post will focus on how and why the essay format is changing to accommodate the different modes of presenting a thesis and the arguments that support it. Digital communication is changing the way we interpret and argue, not just the way we learn.

The Law of Identity: Challenging Strict Structure

Active Vs. Passive Voice: There is an emoticon for that.

A thesis is a thesis is a thesis.  A thesis argues a point, like this “essay” is currently attempting.  Students are encouraged to support these points with arguments and conclude them very neatly our essays.  Essays are not simple, but they have a simplified format that instructs students to present information in a structured, logical way: topic, thesis, body, conclusion.  The essay structure has been institutionalized – or shall I say, burned into students’ minds – since high school.  It does have many benefits, including the following:

  •  the essay teaches students to make an interpretation of the texts studied
  •  the essay teaches students how to research and present research in a logical manner
  •  by making a solid claim, the student is learning to have a voice and opinion on what they study.
  • grammar and literacy improves

What else?  Actually, the criteria of essays is pretty straightforward.  It can also be very narrow.  The essay does not always encourage students to explore a topic fully because of the strictures placed by format and structure.  Also, due dates force students to adhere to a structure and essay plan.  After completing essay after essay, the structure is bound to weaken.  However, digital media is changing this.  First, let’s brain-storm how:

  •  the essay format is adapting to incorporate digital media into its structure.  For example, online scholarly databases and journals provide excellent sources of information that is both factual and theoretical.
  • the essay format is being presented on different mediums other than print: online essays, including those on blogs, are providing an innovative new way of presenting information
  • the essay format is changing its traditional structure to include different ways of expressing a central argument (example: images, hyperlinks, podcasts, etc)

The essay format is becoming a product of the digital culture.  With more research online nowadays, students are encouraged to include multimedia in their essays.  This allows for a hybrid presentation of knowledge with the addition of web content for extra information and a more in-depth analysis of a particular topic.  The pros of this are many, one of which is that the transformation of the essay has resulted in a far more interesting product.  Scholarly sources become conversations, not merely one-way, or one-dimensional, presentations.  The essay format is becoming multi-mediated from so many sources – the sources of which most people, whether in higher education or not, are familiar with.

So, am I suggesting that the scholarly essay may be available to the many individuals – a widespread allowance into the information of scholarly institutions?  Although the internet enables students access to previously inaccessible content, copyright laws maintain a stronghold over the rights of academic material.  In “An Empirically Grounded Framework To Guide Blogging In Higher Education,” G. Conole, et al. includes an earnest assessment of some of the drawbacks of blogging, such as the difficulty in getting students completing them.  The article looks at how blogs are often stereotyped as a leisure activity. Conole specifically notes that students are more concerned about the purpose of doing a blog: “the ideals of educators can be difficult to put into practice.  From the student’s perspective there are two fundamental questions they ask themselves about blogs: “why would I want one?” . . . “what’s in it for me?” . . students need to develop a purpose for blogging that is clear to benefit them” (Conole An Empirically Grounded Framework To Guide Blogging In Higher Education).  So, unlike essays, which carry an academic authority due to a long-standing tradition within academia, blogs still struggle with legitimacy.  Conole makes an interesting point, when he states that the blog presents a blurring of the private and public.  The blogger is autonomous over their blog and can network with who they wish; however, it also puts them on a public platform.  The student interacts with a more public stage during their assignment, including their peers.  Blogging allows them to construct knowledge for themselves and not just adhere to a format and strict set of requirements.  Conole does recognize that when students do complete blogs, they find that they have gained many skills that writing an essay does not allow them to gain.  The study also admits to some negatives with blogging, including the finding that 7 out of 9 bloggers eventually use a routine format after blogging.

So is a blog just a blog just a blog?  Or is there uniqueness to each one?  Simply put, blogs allow for the exploration of content that does not exclude other forms of communication, including other types of media.

PhD candidate Melonie Fullick of York University states her article, entitled “Becoming Prof 2.0“:

meritocracy, the notion that achievements are determined by individual merit rather than by a complex of factors (some of which are beyond our personal control), is a concept that is crucial to academic culture and the operational logic of academe itself.  Because students internalize the idea that their success is dependent on this narrow notion of merit, they often blame themselves if they “fail” to perform adequately during the PhD.  They might be reluctant to speak out about problems, since usually no one else is doing so, and they might feel they are revealing personal inadequacies, rather than bringing to light systemic flaw.

Fullick upgrades this essay’s argument.  What about graduate-level education and the transformation of the essay format and the use of digital media as a means to transform of the curriculum?  Fullick admits that narrow definitions of success are plaguing the university curriculum and giving students at all levels a false estimation of success.  Estimating success based on merit, which itself is dependent on arbitrary factors determined by individuals or a committee, can often cost students a great deal, not only in terms of the financial implications, but also affect them in more personal ways.  Faculty who wish to change how they learn and how their students learn often hit a brick wall that has been constructed by those outside of the classroom.  So, challenging curriculum and methodology can be dangerous to some extent.

However, how does an institution evolve?  How does anything evolve, really.

The issue of digital media in the classroom cannot be ignored.  Digital media is changing the way we learn and why we learn.  Its implications on the basic learning styles, including the academic essay, are open to interpretation and opinion, but cannot be ignored.