Dissemination Station: The Road to Academia


Exploring Language, Culture & the Digital Humanities.

Students’ Conceptions of Digital Learning: Survey Session # 1 Results

While the scope of this project (23 participants) is significantly smaller than my taboo language project (110 participants), the first survey session certainly yielded some interesting and significant results, paricularly in the ‘open-ended’ responses, and thus for all intents and purposes (with regard to what I want to do with the data and for whom) I consider it a success.

The first survey session asked students basic questions about their learning preferences with regard to taking hybrid courses.  Topics ranged from group work (with mixed groups of F2F and Distance Education (DE) students), to time commitments, performance, instruction method, sense of community in the classroom, class discussions (both in-class and those facilitated by the online discussion board), and so forth.

Students were presented with a statement, e.g. “Taking a hybrid course as a DE student is more of a time commitment than taking a hybrid course as a F2F student”, and then asked to check the corresponding box –Strongly Agree (SA), Agree (A), Undecided (Un), Disagree (D), Strongly Disagree (SD) — to indicate their feelings.  After each category of ‘questions’, participants were provided with a space to elaborate, of which they were encouraged to do during the survey prompt and in the instructions.

Participants included eighteen females and five males (including three, female non-traditional students), which is likely a fairly representative female-to-male ratio of the technical communication/PCDM program.  After going over the results, some interesting patterns have begun to emerge, of which I will use to revise my second survey instrument and ultimately craft the interview questions.

Below I list and briefly discuss some of the emergent themes from the student responses, and then begin to  pose potential questions that I will incorporate into the second survey session and interviews.

MAIN THEME: Preference for Taking Hybrid Courses as Face-to-Face (F2F) Students

Contrary to An & Frick’s (2006) and Sitter et al’s (2009) findings that students preferred whichever method (F2F or DE) proved to be the quickest and most convenient (“speed and convenience”) in the given classroom atmosphere, participants indicated that they prefer (65%) taking hybrid courses as a F2F student as opposed to as a DE student. Considering that 48% of particpants indicated they they take courses in both delivery methods (and another 9% say they are currently enrolled solely as a DE student), I found this to be rather interesting.

It seems that limited offering of tech comm/PCDM courses is the main reason for this apparent contradiction in their responses, with 65% indicating that they needed to take a course as a DE student due to scheduling conflicts.  Of course, what this also points to is that, despite scheduling conflicts, students are still in fact able to take these courses and thus continue to make progress toward earning their degree.  However, given the nature of some of their open-ended responses at the end of this section of questions, it seems as though many of them struggle with their DE experiences.

Students reported “a feeling of discontent”, that it was “more difficult to keep up with classes” (a repeating sentiment), that “the didn’t get as much out of the class” or “just did the homework and didn’t really learn any of the material” and that they felt “out of the loop” or “disconnected from the other students” in taking a hybrid course as a DE student, and so forth (to be discussed in more detail below).

Interestingly (but not really surprising), all three of the non-traditional students indicated that they preferred taking hybrid courses as a DE student, citing reasons that related to the “freedom that [such courses] allowed” and the do-it-anywhere/any time concept of the delivery method.  This of course makes sense given the “other stuff” that these non-traditional students cited in their responses.

Sub-Themes: Why Do Students Prefer F2F delivery (and what can be done to improve DE delivery)

Clearly, what we need to find out from here is exactly WHY students feel this way and IN WHAT WAY might their experience as a DE student be improved.  The above theme is the major finding of this first survey session, and thus below I will list the sub-themes (the reasons why) that emerged primarily as a result of the open-ended questions.

1. Communication with the Instructor

One of the recurring themes that came up in participants’ open-ended responses was that they did not feel as though some of their instructors were very good at communicating with them, especially with regard to ‘turn around time’ in their email responses.

This is consistent with Koh and Mill’s (2009) and particularly Van den Berg’s (2009) findings that DE students expect their instructors to serve as a ‘facilitator’ in four meaningful ways (1) academic (2) social (3) managerial, and (4) technical, and that, no matter in which of these four roles, that instructors need to “provide prompt and meaningful feedback”.

In discussing why one of my male participants said that he prefers taking courses as a F2F student, he said that “he needs that direct communication with [his] instructor” otherwise “he doesn’t really know what is going on” and tends to “get confused” and “overwhelmed” when an instructor won’t get back to him promptly via email.

In what is the most frustrated response, one student writes that she feels that in most DE courses she gets “zero feedback from the professors…[and that she] may as well read a book about the subject and forget about spending [her] money on a class if the professor is unwilling to participate – after all, they are supposed to be the instructor.”  Clearly, she is having troubles adjusting.

2. Understanding Course Objectives

Again, one of the repeating frustrations of taking courses as a DE student came to light through the open-ended responses.  It seems that many students often find that they are confused with regard to what is expected of them in a given class, or with a given assignment.

One student said that “it’s easier for [her] to stay up-to-date on all of the important information and material when she’s physically in the classroom,” another said that “assignments aren’t always clearly defined over the ECHO captures, and since I’m not in class to ask questions — or hear the questions that other students might ask — I usually don’t know what is going on and have to email my professor, and some times I might not hear back from [my profesor] for a day or two, or even longer!”

This finding is also consistent with other related research in the field.  Song, Singleton, Hill and Koh (2004), Van den Berg (2009), and Cleeton and Cleeton (2009) all found that ‘understanding course material’ was one of the major barriers of learning for distance education courses.

Clearly this is also an issue of mis- or poor communication, although I feel that there are other ways to combat this issue, which I will discuss in the ‘questions to ask’ section below.

3. Sense of Community and the Difficulties of Group Work

Despite the actual responses to the survey questions more or less coming out 50/50 with regard to whether or not students felt a part of the class community and how they felt about DE students working in primarily F2F groups, the open-ended responses tended to show otherwise.

One student said that she “felt disconnected when [she] took online courses and [also] really dislikes being in a F2F class with online students… because we don’t know anything about them, and rarely interact with them in a real way,” and another said that he feels that “DE students are not equal members in the class because they cannot take part in conversations that are had in class.”  A third student, talking about a specific group experience, said the following;

“I consistently asked for a job and to be updated on what was going on in our group but never was.  I  discussed this with the teacher several times but nothing within the group changed.  It got to a point where I felt I was annoying my teammates; however, I didn’t want my grade to suffer.  For me, it is very difficult being the only online group member.”

There are about ten other responses that express this same feeling of disconnection and lack of community.

Koh and Hill (2009) also found that “it was generally agreed that establishing familiarity with group members” was amongst students biggest concerns in taking courses as a DE student, while Cleeton and Cleeton (2007), Palmer and Holt (2009), Sitter et al (2009), Van den Berg (2009), among others, found similar results.

Questions to Ask

Based on this first survey session I think that it’s going to be important to revise the second surveys to include more room for students to express their real thoughts through incorporating more open-ended and short response questions.

Such questions easily gave me my best data in this first survey session, and with the right type of direction, could truly get to the heart of what I want to know about students’ conceptions of digital learning and digital learning technologies.  These responses will also give me a better opportunity to create meaningful questions for the interviews (at the end of April) and also single out those students who I feel have better insight into the issue at hand.

While I do have a few specific ‘rating questions’ (SA, A, Un, D, SD) that I’d like to keep in the second survey, particularly those that address student’s conceptions of specific technologies and how they are employed by their instructors and used by the students themselves, e.g. questions about ‘in what circumstances and to what extent do they view ECHO captures’; preferences for ‘how course documents and other content is organized in D2L”, and so on), my main focus is going to in trying to learn more about the thoughts expressed through the prompts generated from the themes above.

Having taken many hybrid courses as both a DE and a F2F student, I feel that students would benefit and some of these problems would be reduced if there were some sort of ‘department wide protocol’ for how to teach a hybrid course for both groups of students.  Certainly such a protocol would not prescribe a method of teaching, but rather would provide a framework for instructors on how to organize content, facilitate discussion boards, group work and student responses, and in general better meet some of the dominate and repeating concerns of the students.  This type of ‘collaborative organizational model’ would make life easier for the DE student, as well as for the professor who would have fewer frustrated students on his or her hands.

I am quite content with how the first survey session panned out, and I look forward to rolling out the second survey, which I plan to do before the end of March.


Filed under: Digital Humanities Capstone, , , ,

“The Siren of the Web”: Getting Intimate with Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other” (2010) is a powerful book that investigates the relationship between human beings — both as individuals and as a collective — with the contemporary technologies that have come to dominate our global culture.

While Turkle offers us something of a ‘history of the evolution of social technologies’ (from social machines to social networks and beyond) over the past thirty-some years, which is fascinating in itself, what makes “Alone Together” so compelling is how she, educated in the Freudian psychoanalytic school of thought, addresses the impact that such technologies are already having on individuals and their relationships with one another, and what the implications could be for the future.

The first half of the book focuses on the evolution of sociable and helper robots, from MIT’s human-esque ELIZA, Kizmet, Cog, Mertz and Domo, all programmed to respond to, ‘learn’ from, communicate with, and, to a certain extent, look like real humans, to their robotic pet ‘dog’ AIBO and Japan’s Paro (which was recently released in the US after huge acceptance overseas) Hasbro’s My Little Baby, Japanese sex robots that can be designed to look like anyone the purchaser choses, NurseBots, and so forth.

Turkle’s thirty-plus years of researching such technologies and the people that use them, along with her access to ‘behind-closed-doors’ content via her position at MIT, gives us a panoptic view of how these sociable robots are being designed, developed and tested, how both the designers and the users react and respond and relate to these robots, and what the future likely has in store for such technology on the societal, private and business level.

For Turkle, while she agrees (to a certain extent) that these new technologies may help fill a gap in such areas as caring for or serving as companions for the elderly, the lonely and for children, what is most important in the advancement and integration of these technologies into our everyday lives is that we must never forget what it means to be human.  More specifically, while these machines may appeal to our human side and thus appear to us being “alive enough” to satisfy a variety of our practical, emotional and social needs, while they may appear to us as distinct ‘Others’ through the mimicking of human social behavior, practices and even in their appearance (humanoid bodies, ’emotional’ eyes, capacity for facial expressions, etcetera), and while we may even feel as though they are ‘better’ than any real human could ever be — never disrespecting or deceiving, always attentive and ‘on call’, always willing (programmed) to ‘hear’ us out — that they are, in the end, only machines, and will thus never be able to replace the true ‘Other’.

This first half of the book calls to mind John Searle’s famous “Chinese Room Argument” in where he argues that, no matter how intelligently a program (in this case, sociable robots) is made to behave, no matter how ‘deeply’ a program is made to compute, interpret and respond to a human in communication, even if that program is designed so expertly that it could fool even an intelligent speaker into thinking that it is in fact ‘understanding’ him or her, that the fact remains that the program does NOT understand, but that it merely is simulating understanding.  Since it does not actually understand, it can not be said to be ‘of thinking mind,’ and thus it will always be a completely alien Other, non-human and therefore foreign.  To summarize, Searle famously writes that “syntax is not semantics” — that to simulate a mind is not the same as to have a mind, to simulate understanding is not the same as to truly understand.

Turkle’s careful and considerate balance of highlighting the potential benefits of such technologies while warning us of their silent pitfalls is what truly holds this book together, and is what could even be said to be her overall message.  This theme is taken to a new and, at least for me, a more familiar and relatable level in the second half of the book.

While her investigation into how we relate to sociable robots was extremely interesting, I found that her examination of how we relate to ourselves and each other in the age of social media, CMC and the various digital devices that have become ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives, struck at the very heart of my interests and own concerns.  It seems that Turkle feels that this one of the major challenges of our time with regard to ‘advancement of the individual’, and if so, I would agree.

While the first half of the book, although certainly meant to serve as a ‘warning’ of what could become of us if we rely too much on such technologies, still seemed to have an essential optimism to it, discussing in some depth the positive role the social and helper robots could have for many different areas of life, the second half of the book was markedly more dark and pessimistic.

Focusing primarily on the age group that grew up learning with and dependent on these emergent technologies, Turkle paints a picture of a generation that is seemingly devoid of substance, lost in a fog of text messaging, chat rooms, IMing, Facebook and MySpace profiles, and ‘Second’ lives lived on the screen.  She tells numerous stories of young men and women, boys and girls, who dread face-to-face encounters, who know no solitude or genuine direct experiences, who have 1000 Facebook friends but no intimately close friends off the screen, who prefer to live as an Avatar in a sociable game than as a person in reality, and so on.

This darker, almost ominous theme might be best summarized by Turkle’s explanation of how individuals respond to Second Life (SL): “The joy of SL is the heightened experience.  Time and relationships speed up.  Emotions ramp up.  The time from meeting to falling in love to marrying to passionate break-ups… can all happen in a very short order… [and that] it is easy to get people to talk on SL about the ‘boredom of the everyday’,” and that  “life on the screen moves from being better than nothing, simply to better” (217-218).

The final sections of the book, with chapter titles like “Anxiety”, “Nostalgia of the Young”, “Reduction and Betrayal”, “True Confessions” and so forth, and quotations from teens about their sense of isolation and loneliness, their unsatisfied need for space and solitude, their sense of loss without ever ‘having had’, certainly help paint the picture of Turkle’s overall message (or warning rather) that if we continue on our current path with regard to our relationship to technology, and thus our relationships with ourselves and genuine Others, that we are destined for a dark and hollow future.

But, while we may be “consumed by that which we are nourished by,” to borrow from Shakespeare (a repeating quotation Turkle uses throughout the book), the author doesn’t leave us on a totally sour note, and instead uses her final chapter as a ‘call to action’: “Yet, no matter how difficult, it is time to look again toward the virtues of solitude, deliberateness, and living fully in the moment…” [and that] “when it is we who decide how to keep technology busy, we shall have better” (298).

I could see a whole body of work that follows as a result of Turkle’s call — both in support of and against — and I hope that she will continue to lead the way in this line of thinking for years to come.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone, from professional scholars to passionate intellectuals, social philosophers to psychologists, teachers, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, gamers, geeks, texters, bloggers, IMers, Facebookers, and everyone in between.

Filed under: Digital Humanities Capstone, , , , , ,

When the Self is Reduced to its Performance

I just finished my final draft of the proposal that I’m going to be submitting to AoIR’s “Internet Research 12.0: Performance & Participation” conference (due Tuesday), so I figured that I would share it with you.  Any thoughts or relevant literature that you think could influence me in building this paper would be much appreciated.

When The Self is Reduced to Its Performance: Toward a New Ethic of Being & Being with Each Other

The digital realm is a new space for performance and connectivity where “online language [is] a medium in which we project our existence” (Capurro & Pingel, 2003).  It is a space that is increasingly becoming a major part of many people’s lives to the extent that, especially for the younger generation, “some live half their lives in virtual spaces” (Turkle 2010).

Clearly, there are many benefits and conveniences in the migration of the global culture to the digital realm, from the political and societal, to the financial and social, and so on.  But, especially in terms of the latter, when ‘the social benefits of the global network’ come to include performance and negotiation of identity, there are many things that must be considered before we answer the questions:

Is this medium for performing and negotiating the self positive or negative for the individual?

Is it positive or negative for the human community?

As a new space, the digital realm has its own ontology, and this concerns our understanding of being: where once being human was exclusively considered in terms of bodily existence, the predominance of the digital casting of being has lead to the idea of not only displacing, but even replacing bodily existence (Kurzweil 1999, Capurro & Pingle 2003, Turkle 1997, 2010).

This idea is certainly intriguing, but the fact remains that bodily existence has not been replaced, for as John Searle (1995) reminds us, “we live in exactly one world, not two or three or seventeen.”  Thus, in trying to weigh the value of the digital realm as a medium for performing and negotiating the self, it is crucial that the subjects of our investigation be viewed not merely as identities on the screen, but also identities in the physical world, as beings-in-body.

“Internet spaces have often been seen as distinct and separate from offline, or “real” social life, encompassing relations and practices of their own” (Markham 2008). This approach to studying beings-in-digital-space is hugely flawed, and it negates the very essence of what it means to be human.  For example, in a study on teen happiness, simply analyzing the use and nature of emoticons on message boards will only give a researcher a view of how these teens use language markers (in this case, ‘emotion markers’) to perform the emotion that they want to convey to a particular audience, rather than what they may actually be feeling.

What’s more troubling than the methodological issue here though, is that people of all ages, and young people in particular, are in fact using these emoticons, and language in general, in a space that is removed from the physical, removed from that face-to-face interaction with the Other.  Emmanuel Levinas (1969) writes of the Other as being unknowable, that which we cannot make into an object, and that which gives us an ethical obligation toward one another.  In the digital realm however, the Other is made into an object, as an individual’s blog, message board, or Facebook posts, and so on, become permanent data accessible to anyone with an internet connection, and “with the persistence of data there is the persistence of people” (Turkle 2010).

What happens to our relation to the Other when the face is removed, when people become objects?

Clearly this is an issue of concern. But this issue goes beyond simply how we relate to each other, for in a world that is ‘always on’ and able to be carried with us at all times through mobile devices, what happens when an individual becomes constantly ‘on call’ to uphold his or her performance of the self, when an individual always has a means of escaping into his or her face-less networks, and who thus has little opportunity to spend on actually developing and thinking about the self?

Solitude and stillness cannot be found in the digital realm (Lightman 2002, Turkle 2010) and thus self-reflection, the questioning of who we are, and life off the screen in the company of our own thoughts, or for that matter in the company of other humans-in-body, are threatened to become things of the past.

As the digital realm offers us new and exciting opportunities, it is an exciting time to be alive.   Before we get too far ahead of ourselves however, it is imperative that we learn to find a balance between our offline self and our online self, and, both as researchers and as individuals, to never forget that being-in-body precludes being-in-digital-space.

This paper will address the issue of performing identity in the digital realm and will serve as a model for the development of a new ethic of being and being with each other in the contemporary world.

Filed under: Digital Humanities Capstone, Studies in Philosophy & Ethics, , , , , , , ,

Taboo or Not Taboo? That is the Question.

I love to swear.

I think it adds life to language – like adding a ghost chili to a bowl of soup.

It has the power to persuade, build friendships, make people laugh and, in devious hours, shock people too (in a good way though!). 

Some have claimed that one who swears regularly is trying to account for either a lack of vocabulary, or a lack of imagination, but I entirely disagree — some of the smartest people that I have known have also been the most extraordinary of swearers. 

This next week I’ll be collecting data for the my project, “What Did She Say?!? How Context Affects Hearer Perceptions of Offensive Language,” while visiting Menomonie, home of UW-Stout.  I learned a lot from the research project that I did in the spring/summer of 2010 on students’ perceptions of the appropriateness of taboo language in social contexts, and I have high hopes for how this study is going to turn out, and even higher hopes for the chance to present my findings at the I-Mean 2: Meaning & Context conference at the University of West of England  in April.

My hypothesis is that participants will rate the de-contextualized list of taboo words (17 in total) in accordance with previous studies on the perception of offensiveness, which is to say that same words that past taboo language researchers have found to be high frequency (highly offensive) I will also find to be  high frequency (words such as motherfucker, nigger, pussy, etc.).  This won’t really be a surprise, and that’s exactly what I’m going for.

Furthermore, I expect that the same participants will say that those same words that they ranked as ‘high frequency’ on the word list, will, when presented in a dialogue-based scenario (survey) in a face-building manner (Brown & Levinson), rank the words as low-frequency, i.e. ‘not offensive.’  In doing so, I will show that the perceived offensiveness of a given taboo word is dependent on its context (the pragmatic construction of the specific utterance in the specific social context), rather than on its inherent semantic meaning.

For example, as something of a professional swearer (I’ve worked in the music business for six years now!), I know exactly how to use what have been shown to be the most offensive words in such a way that I can build friendships and trust with them in the proper context.  The word “motherfucker” is wonderful  in this regard.

Shown to be one of the most high-frequency taboo words, I’ve used “motherfucker” in a face-building way for many years now.  Often I use it as a greeting marker amongst my friends and brothers, saying something to the tune of: “What’s up motherfucker!  I haven’t seen you for years!”  In this context it is likely the relationship between the interlocuters that removes the threat of the usually high-frequency word.  However, I’ve also used it with people that I hardly know, who I’ve recenty met, and whom I only recently started working with.

My first week at the Westcott Theater was an interesting one.  I observed how they speak amongst themselves, and soon started using similar speak, introducing the word “motherfucker” as a face-builder within the first two weeks of my employment.  Now everyone uses it in this way, and thus it has been elevated to the level of “improving or contributing to organizational solidarity,” which in my mind is a higher order form of a face-building act (beyond the individual and onto the group).

This is basically where I got the idea for this study from, and I’m excited to test it out this next week while at Stout.  Finding participants shouldn’t be too tough — first off, I’m paying them for their time (through the grant), and secondly, if you put the words “potentially offensive” or “taboo” in front of a group of college studenets, 9 out of 10 times they’re going to be lining up to see what all the fuss it about.  But again, we shall see.

I’ll get back on here once some of the results start coming in…

Filed under: Taboo Language Study, , , , , ,

Consciousness, Mystic States & Other Fun Stuff too…

So, as I mentioned in my most recent post (just a few minutes ago), I was recently accepted to present at the Towards a Science of Consciousness conference in Stockholm. 

The paper that I was accepted for, “Existential Evolution & Enlightenment,” builds off Richard Bucke’s and William James’ writings on mystic states/direct experience; Pierre Tierhard de Chardin’s notion of the noosphere as the next stage in the evolution of existence, and on mystic philosophy (Vedic, Taoist and Buddist traditions), along with making commentary on contemporary cosmology (Penrose, for example). 

The paper is a beast, and I fear that I’m creating too many openings from which I can be attacked, especially being something of a ‘newbie’ on the consciousness scene and thus lacking the mental library of context. 

But no worries, thus far everything is coming along rather smoothly, and so long as I keep it tight and focused, and am careful not to drift too far from the path (Dante warns us of the ‘dark woods’ into which he strayed — let’s not venture into those depths!), all should be ‘good in the hood.’  I’ll be sure to keep updates coming as the paper continues to develop. 

In the second half of the semester (which is certainy not to say that the Enlightenment paper is going to be done by then!) I’m going to be returning to the digital realm — an emergent space for new and exciting research, and no doubt a good platform from which to build an academic career. 

Dr. Daisy, who has already accomplished this,  recently sent me a link to the Internet Research 12.0 conference on performance and participation.  One of the conference themes, “Performance of Identity,” caught my eye in particular, and although I really didn’t know what to do with it at first, I feel as though I now have a pretty good ‘starter’ idea.

At this point, I’m heavily considering writing a paper (roughly) titled “Consciousness & the Digital Realm: Performance of the Personal, Participation in the Collective,” which should already give you a pretty good idea of what it’s going to be on. 

The paper (as I’m conceiving it) will build off Searle’s notions of consciousness and social reality, but will primarly focus on the ontology of the digital realm and the ‘stuff’ that it is made up of, namely, ‘the stuff of the personal consciousness,’ e.g. thoughts, knowledge, ideas and so forth. 

I will attempt to make the claim that in putting something online — writing a blog, updating a wiki, creating a website, social networking, and so on — we are PERFORMING our personal consciousness, negotiating identity (in the sense that we don’t put all of our thoughts and ideas online, but rather do so selectively), so that others can readily see, acknowledge and either agree with or confront it. 

In doing so however, we are also PARTICIPATING in this human-exclusive space that is outside of our individual self, and thus contributing to ‘the stuff’ that by essence is what makes up the digital realm, and thus PARTICIPATING in a readily accessible, ‘always on’ (Capurro), language-based environment.  Furthermore, if what we do online is performing our personal consciousness, than the digital realm, as a construct, must be the collective consciousness.

That’s the skinny of it at least, and I’m sure that you can tell I’m still only at the conception phase of the project.  But while the proposal is due March 1, which should give me plenty of time to develop the idea further, the paper itself, if accepted to the conference, wouldn’t be due until July 1 — more than enough time to get some serious reading done (especially since I’ll be done with everything else) and focus on making this a strong one.

I have a feeling that this line of thinking may lead me to some very interesting places of Mind, perhaps even build a foundation for the stuff that careers are built from.  We shall see.

Filed under: Studies in Philosophy & Ethics, , , , , ,

Buried in Theory (or) The Weight of Ideas

Yes, as I anticipated, this semester is already rather demanding and I only expect it to get crazier as the days roll on. 

On the bright side, my work from the past six months or so has truly begun to pay off.  Good news of the past few weeks includes my being accepted to present at two international conferences; moving and shaking my way (with the help of some KEY faculty members — thank you!) into getting UW-Stout to pay for me to attend both of them; being accepted to the NCUR with a full travel allowance; being awarded a research grant; being interviewed for a feature story in the annual university publication, Stout Quest; making serious waves by helping to revise the dissemination grant; submitting all of my application materials to SU (fingers crossed), and, on a non-academic note, making substantial head-way with planning the wedding for this summer.  So yes, things have been good. 

But now it’s time to take these opportunities and prove to myself (and anyone else who may care) that I am indeed worthy of such good fortune. 

The biggest tasks right now are in collecting data for the taboo language study and the digital learning technology study.  What’s more is that I will have to do the entire first session of data collection for BOTH projects in a five day period of time.  Big task?  Most definitely — especially considering all of the other meetings and tasks that I need to attend to.  But if there is one thing that I’ve learned about myself in the past couple of years is that I have the unique gift of being able to manage my time and resources in an extremely efficient manner, and that, at least thus far, no matter how much I have going on, I seem to be able to pull it off with quite a bit of success.  Hopefully we can keep that going, and hopefully I’ll be able to slice away at my interests after this year to the point where I only have ONE major project going on.  We shall see.

What’s bothing me though, and what the title of this blog post is referring to, is the amount of reading that I have to do. Don’t get me wrong, I love to read, I love to learn new things, and I truly look forward to everything that has been assigned to me or that I’ve assigned to myself… but unfortunately, while this is a good quality to have for one who is pursuing a career in academia, I seem to be a bit too interested in a few too many things. 

While the Scarecrow from Wizard of Oz may have asked for a brain, I often wish that I had two or three that I could assign other tasks and which could report back to BRAIN CENTRAL at the end of the day for processing. 

Currently I am or will soon be reading  Jung’s “Archetypes & the Collective Unconscious,” Searle’s “Consciousness and Language” and “Construction of Social Reality,”  Bucke’s “Cosmic Consciousness” and essays from Emerson and William James for my Philosophy independent study, among other assorted essays and texts no doubt. 

In addition, I’ll be tackling Tannen’s “Gender and Discourse” for my taboo language study, along with the ever-building stack of research artilces related to my topic. 

And for the Digital Humanities Capstone, (continuing) Hargatti’s “Research Confidential” and taking on Turkle’s “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other”, along with a slew of research articles on digital learning technologies and pedagogy. 

But this is not a complaint.  I truly enjoy reading all of this. 

I am complaining however that I can’t do more.  There’s just so many things that I want to get into that it’s truly impossible to cover it all.   Fortunately I had the chance for a little personal reading during the winter break where I could finally get to Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Grey,” which has been sitting on my shelf for some time and which I thoroughly enjoyed (but alas, Tom Robbins, Thomas Pynchon and Mr. Aldous Huxley will have to wait — sorry guys!). 

OK, sure, the workload that I’ve put on myself can be rather taxing at times: between losing sleep under the bright lights of Mind at work, finding myself unable to hold ‘normal’ conversation without the ever-pressing urge engage in debate or general conversation about research and theory, and finding myself dreaming about my various projects when I CAN fall asleep, I would say that I’m something on ‘an edge.’ 

But we can’t know our limits until we push beyond them, and, so long as we can hold on and do not allow the weasels to drag us down once we’ve crossed that line, we can only come out stronger on the other side, and always carry on with the knowledge of where exactly that edge is, and how to traverse the nothingness beyond. 

I’m feeling a bit like a haughty braggart right now, something like all of those who are ‘educated beyond their intelligence’ that I once despised so much, but then I remind myself that I am a very poor blogger, clueless of how to ‘promote myself,’ and that with the exception of a very small number of people (two, really), this blog is really for my own purposes, my own release — and so it is with this post as well. 

And on that note, I’m out of here — back to work.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Rolling Out the Survey: Reflections, Conceptions & Looking to the Spring

My whole motivation for doing this study in the first place came from my own frustrations using the digital learning technologies (DLT) in the spring 2010 semester.  I took 23 credits as a distance learner, navigating the hybrid learning environment through an insane amount of homework, course documents, quizzes, tests, supplementary reading material and deadlines.

The biggest difficulty wasn’t the work load itself however, although it was substantial, but rather it was the inconsistent ways that the instructors used the DLT to delivery their courses.  It seemed that every one of them had their own style and preference for where to upload course documents, and how to organize and label them; their own ideas of what a makes for a good discussion using the discussion boards; their own individual ways and schedule in releasing the course capture (videos), and even their own preferences for when dropbox deadlines should be (9:05 am on Sunday, really!?!).  Something had to be done.

So, in negotiating over my final year’s schedule with my program director  I was given the opportunity to take (something of) a “pilot version” of the newly created “Digital Humanities Captstone” (ENGL 495) — a yearlong course focused on methodology, data-collection and other research practices.  Although I had a few ideas of what I wanted to study, the idea to focus on studying the DLTs, how instructors and students use, abuse and get confused in hybrid learning environment, I knew was a winner.

The two survey instruments that I just designed — one for instructors the other for students — is the most recent development in that effort.  The questions on the instructor survey, interview-based, small in scope, reflect what I’ve learned from doing a literature review of other scholarly articles that have explored instructor conceptions of and preferences for DLTs and online teaching.

The questions are focused around the topics of accessibility, instruction, discussion, construction and collaboration (the ‘hot’ terms that seem to be used in nearly ever study I read).  Primarily, what I’m trying to learn from interviewing the instructors is as follows (these are the guiding questions, NOT the interview questions themselves):

1)  To what extent are the instruction methods (organization, delivery, inclusion, etc.) employed by instructors teaching hybrid courses (using the DLT) effective, clear and meaningful for distanced education and/or online students?

2) To what extent do the instructors feel prepared, properly trained and in command of the DTL themselves?

3) Do instructors feel that they can create as meaningful of a learning experience for distance education and online students as they do for in-person students, and do students feel as though both learning environments are equally meaningful?

All of which, for our purposes here anyway, more or less speak for themselves.

The student survey however, much larger in scope both with regard to the survey instrument itself and the participant sampling, is a bit more complex.  It’s taken me a while to get to this point, having gone through several different phases of how exactly to approach the data collection for the student demographic, but I’m rather satisfied with the way things are beginning to shape up.

The survey (likely around 15 pages in the end) will be rolled out in three different sessions — the beginning, middle and end of the semester — and ask participants to comment on their frustrations, successes, assumptions, thoughts for improvement and general conceptions of taking the courses asynchronously online alongside in-person students, again, specifically addressing issues of accessibility, instruction, discussion, construction and collaboration.

Although this is by no means set in stone yet, I’m thinking about rolling out the survey as follows:

Phase 1 – Ask the students about learning preferences (online or in-person courses?  Why?);   how they conceive of their own learning strengths, weaknesses, and style in general; what skills they think they need to be a successful online student, a successful in-person student; and more in general about what their past experiences and expectations are in using the DLTs.

Phase 2 – Ask ‘in progress’ questions, specifically addressing the technologies (Desire 2 Learn, Echo 360, etc.).  How are they using the DLT?  What works, what doesn’t, and how might it be improved?  What elements of the DLT or the instruction practices in using the DLT are confusing or frustrating, what elements are rewarding or more beneficial?  And so on…

Phase 3 – Ask reflective questions, building off of the data collected in the previous two Phases of the survey roll out.  This is where interviews will come in (pending IRB approval) and questions that specifically address common concerns and problem areas.

The overall goal will be to create an FAQ (help documentation) for students, both incoming and current, that will help them navigate the often weird terrain of distance and online learning.  This can only be truly effective however, if the instructors can adopts, at least on a basic level, a set of department-wide standards on how exactly the DLTs should be used, e.g. (1) what documents are posted under the Content section and how will they be labelled and organized, and should they be moved to the Archive section once the date of their purpose has passed; (2) how should class discussions on the discussion board be organized and managed; (3) when should the dropbox close for assignments — 11:59 pm for all courses to minimize confusion; (4) how about the use of email and other media — should every new assignment, or every approaching due date, or every discussion board topic, be accompanied by an instructor email to the students, and so on.

A lot of the questions that I’m working into the survey instrument I came up with (A) through my own experiences and reflections as a distance learner, or (B) from the student survey data collected by the department assessing the hybrid course design, moreso the open-ended responses than the ‘rating’ questions, and (C) from similar studies that focus on student conceptions of and preference for online, F2F and distance learning.

I’m excited about doing this study and I think that it’s going to be rather strong.  I have a lot of work to do over break to get prepared for the spring semester — IRB approval, instructor support and re-working the survey instruments — but I’m confident that everything is going to come together.  The biggest task of course, will be coming up with meaningful questions that truly get at the heart of the matter.  Doing a three phase roll out of the survey will work to my benefit in this regard, for I will be able to make revisions and other changes as new data comes to light with each phase.

Another major advantage that I have in doing this study, rather than the department or the university itself doing it, is that I’m a student working for other students, and thus there will hopefully be an extra element of trust and openness in student responses, especially in the interviews (where the highest quality data will likely come out).  Promise a kid that no other professors will see their responses, maybe feed them some pizza or something, and I’m betting that one will get a lot different results than a ‘end of the term’ reflection.  It should make for an interesting semester.

Filed under: Digital Humanities Capstone

T.S. Eliot & the Difficulties of Internet Research

“Our difficulties of the moment must always be dealt with somehow, but our permanent difficulties are difficulties of every moment.”  –T.S. Eliot

Eliot would’ve been a great online ethnographer.  His words capture the theme of nearly every one of the essays and articles that I’ve read thus far on conducting internet research, and that’s certainly none the less true with the three that I read for today from Research Confidential: Williams and Xiong’s Herding Cats Online, Sanvig’s How Technical is Technology Research, and Hargittai and Karr’s What R U Doing?

Sure, Eliot was likely talking about matters of morality, the self, politics, society and the soul, but at the same time one could easily take his quote and stick it in any of the above three essays and no one would suspect that anyone other than each of the respective authors wrote it.  This course seems to be a study in research problems, and one less motivated, self-assured and blindly dogged than myself might see such ‘permanent difficulties’ as a reason to stay far, far away from anything to do with any sort of research or ethnographic study, especially given the entirely bleak outlook for those interested in an academic career in the humanities or social sciences.

But, dogged as I am (likely on the stubborn end of the spectrum), I’m also something of an optimist, and that’s exactly what the three articles that I read for today are asking of the readers to be. Between the three articles, one gets a real good picture of how internet research (and research in general) is maneuvered, and I say ‘maneuvered’ because there are countless obstacles and potential pitfalls that an online ethnographer is and will be confronted with along their path.

Take Herding Cats for example.  Williams and Xiong recount their struggles in doing three different research projects that focused on the communication practices of the ‘inhabitants’ of three massively multi-player online games (MMO): Asheron’s Call 2, World of Warcraft and another (which could not be named due to an NDA with Sony Online Entertainment).

The majority of their problems originated from the fact that MMO’s are relatively new on the research scene, and thus, at first, were not recognized as a media that deserves investigation and thus which didn’t have a large body of previous literature to develop a study from.  A few of the problems that they faced as a result of this included:

(1.) getting IRB approval (who exactly is being studied, where is the research taking place, what risks do your subjects face?) who didn’t understand the concept of an MMO at the time (124 – 125);

(2.) locating subjects and building enough trust within their community of practice to earn their respect so that they’ll participate (the authors talk about how they stirred up the community when at firs they tried to recruit participants) (131-136);

(3.) balancing the give and the take with a company that you are trying to convince to assist and accommodate your research needs — the authors’ research project with Sony was almost shut down because they failed to account for the potential legal issues associated with providing evidence of any level of user abuse for future lawsuits.  In this manner, the authors say that a researcher needs to understand the company’s perspective. (125 – 126)

(4.) the problem of not being understood or even being taken as a threat to established research practices (in doing something ‘new’).  Williams and Xiong suggest to “stand on the shoulders of giants rather than chop at their needs,” (129), which is to say, although it’s important to challenge old systems from time to time for the sake of progress, and that such work is both high risk and high reward, it is also important not to be too brash in one’s approach and to play the diplomatic card rather than the confrontational.

These problems just add to the long list of issues and difficulties that an online ethnographer is almost guaranteed to encounter (see my previous posts). In this sense, they are both the “problems of the moment” that need to be dealt with, as well as the “permanent problems” that face the entire world of online academic research.  But as Sandvig tells us in How Technical is Technology Research, the importance is not in the fact that there are problems, but rather to know the problems that you are faced with and owning up to (or “celebrating”) them.

Sandvig takes us through his personal struggle as a researcher in the face of technical knowledge, asking how much a social science scholar needs to have in order to study technologies, to what extent he or she must understand the technical jargon (different from ‘in-group talk’ in that it such jargon will be in print somewhere and not exclusive to a certain, isolated community of speakers), and how to determine what technology or feature of a technology to study without knowing what will prove to be significant and enduring and what will simply fade away, whether because of being replaced by a better alternative or simply by being rendered useless in an ever-changing technological world.

For me and my current research project (for this class), the above points that Sandvig makes are of particular interest to me and they make me continue to question what exactly I need to do to approach my research problems.  Part of my problem with the taboo language study was that I wanted to answer too many questions with the one project that I am doing, thus cutting myself too thin and not being able to spend enough time on any one particular research question (or a more refined list of multiple, related questions).  As a result, I had to completely re-structure my methodology, toss out several of the sources that I was using, and find others to help inform the new project’s data collection materials.  Losing all my data with the crash of my Mac actually happened at a rather appropriate time in this regard, for it served as a reset button that forced me to start from more or less stratch and re-think the whole project… and now it’s stronger than ever.

I don’t want that to happen with the project for this class (although I did lose my resources, which are proving un-recoverable), and given my time constraints I have to tread carefully in order to assure that it doesn’t (or at least not the same extent).  Already there is so much that I want to find out through this project, but I need to be honest with myself and simplify it to include only the most important and feasibly approachable questions. Since the end goal is two-fold — (1.) creating a FAQ for student users, and (2.) creating a best practices or style guide for instructors — I need to determine what needs to be included in each of these documents and what the best way is for me to gather the data for such.

Such problems will always face the online ethnographer, and it here that we must take Eliot’s advice and learn to deal with each of them as they arrive, and remain ever flexible with the rapid progress of technological innovation.  As far as my own projects are concerned, and although I only have a limited amount of time to get everything done before the spring, as we learn in Eliot’s Prufrock (5), “in a minute there is time for decisions and revisions that a minute can reverse,” and thus I just need to roll with the punches and keep everything that I’ve learned through these readings in my mind as problems and obstacles arise, which they most assuredly will.

Filed under: Digital Humanities Capstone

Even More Problems for the Online Ethnographer

I wish that I would have had the chance to read the three chapters of Eszter Hargittai’s (editor) Research Confidential that I read for this post — Introduction, Part of the Community, and Online Survey — before I took on Julie Lindquist’s A Place to Stand: Politics and Persuasion in a Working Class Bar, because, especially after reading the Part of the Community section, I realize now that her project wasn’t quite as perfect as I thought it was.

I had a suspicion while I was reading Lindquist that she was perhaps a bit too close (as a member) to her research subjects, but I couldn’t really articulate ‘the why’ at the time.  Although Hargittai advocates “reasonable adherence to community norms and participation in community activities” as necessary for an immersed ethnographer, as are “individual relationships” (71), I feel as though Lindquist was perhaps just too close, TOO immersed, to maintain a truly objective view of her subjects.  To me, this is  clear both in her selection of subjects, people who she seemed the closest to at the bar on a personal level, as well as in her more or less positive portrayal of the bar community as strongly political and intellectual.

Not to say that they weren’t on a certain level both of those things, but at the same time I feel as though she is well too aware that they would be a part of her readership and thus didn’t want to risk her personal relationships with them by ‘telling the way it really is at the Smokehouse.’  As Hargittai says, “Researchers have an absolute obligation to analyze subjects to the best of their ability; researchers with human subjects may face backlash from those subjects; and researchers who have extraresearch relationships with their subjects have a special burden in balancing their roles.” (74) Also, that members of the community being researched will assume that the researcher will put aside his or her role at times to simply engage in dialogue as a friend, which Lindquist no doubt did, but that as a researcher she could not possibly “un-know ther personal information that [she] learned” which thus will almost assuredly “inform her analysis at times.” (75)  For someone as close as Lindquist was to her participants, I’m betting that a lot of the conversations that she had were of a personal nature, and it is my impression that she left a lot of otherwise meaningful (and yet not too personal) information about her subjects and dialogues OUT of her study, when perhaps they should have been left in to give us a more accurate picture of the individual dynamics behind the Smokehouse culture.

Looking back at A Place to Stand with these ideas in mind, I feel as though Lindquist perhaps cast her subjects in the most positive of lights as she could.  The overall results of her study of bar community seemed to be right on to me and very well conceived, but it is the individual descriptions, however in-depth that they may appear, I now feel were to some degree not ‘the whole truth.’  With this in mind, and although I’m sure that Lindquist was aware of this, Hargattai says, “Always, balance is the key: balancing one’s identity as a researcher and also as a participant; balancing sincerely felt friendship with the need to write about those friends in a professional manner; balancing disclosure of research status with ethnographic unobtrusiveness; balancing adherence to community norms with willingness to critique them when they are in violation of other values you hold.”  (77)

With regard to my own research projects that are currently underway, the Online Survey chapter was more personally meaningful to me (although I certainly got a lot out of the above chapter too!), especially at this point in the research where I will begin working on my survey instruments for both my sociolinguistic study of the pragmatics of offensive language as well as my investigation into learner and instructor attitudes of tech comm’s asynchronous learning course delivery system.

The biggest two recommendations that Hargittai offers that stuck out in my mind were to “Expect technological difficulties” and to “Save, back up, and take detailed notes,” (117) quite obviously because of the recent crash (or “catastrophic failure” as the discussion boards call it) of my MacBook and the loss of all of my files, which easily was in the hundreds.  Not only have I lost valuable time in doing my work because of the crash (I do a lot of my work extremely late at night or early in the morning — the two times I don’t have access to a computer), but several of the files that I had saved to my computer I either a) cannot seem to find again online, b) never wrote down the names/authors of, or c) in the case of the asynchronous learning project, can no longer access the site where I downloaded probably about 40 or 50 PDFs of articles (it’s a “members only” database that I somehow sneaked into through a digital backdoor one day).  Clearly, these are proving to be major obstacles, and I don’t see any way around them. Lesson learned (thanks for rubbing it in my face Hargittai!).

Although I won’t be administering online surveys, I will be administering paper surveys and thus many of the other lessons that Hargittai covers in this chapter were also extremely relevant, such as being honest with oneself if the study population really represents a larger community, to not try to be too inventive with one’s survey intrument (but instead to rely on similar previous studies to help build a meaningful data collection tool), to “exlude ineligle units from the beginning of the study” (116), and to keep in mind the limits of the study before embarking on the ‘journey.’ I recently completely re-structured my research questions and methodology for my sociolinguistic project, and if I wouldn’t have taken a good look at it from an outside perspective my project would have most assuredly met problem after problem to the point that it may have not been possible to do.  After reading this chapter, I’m probably going to do the same ‘stepping back’ on my asynchronous learning project, as recently I’ve been having doubts to whether or not it’s actually feasible to do in the limited time frame I have to work in.




Filed under: Digital Humanities Capstone

Quality Qualitative Internet Research in a Globalized World

The final two chapters of Markham and Baym’s Internet Inquiry discuss the challenges that internet researchers face in the context of doing quality, ‘global’ qualitative research, what that means exactly, and how researchers can get there.

As Markham point out, “All premisses,… reactions to stimuli in the field,… interpreations of discursive behaviors, and… frames for writing… [are] locked within some powerful and, more importantly, invisible structures for sense-making,” (p. 133) and that “…our research theories, methods, and interpretations are bounded by particular and situated rationalities.  We live, conduct research, and find meaning from particular positions.  As researchers, our understanding of Others is limited by unnoticed frames of reference.”  (134)

These “invisible structures of sense-making” or “unnoticed frames of reference” are particular to each individual’s respective place in life, with regard to physical locality, his or her personal perspective(s) and belief, elements of the political environment as well as such things as privilege, needs (required and meant), among many other factors.  No matter what our peculiar station in life, the author says that it is impossible to truly get outside of the self, no matter how hard one might try to, and thus approaching research from a ‘global perspective’ is an exercise in futility.

The term ‘global’ has been defined in a number of ways, each of which is accurate in its own way, and thus it becomes difficult for a researcher to truly answer the question of ‘how can I be more global in my research,’  (p. 138) especially given the fact that we are locked into our personal (invisible) frame of reference.  For Markham, researchers must engage in an exercise of reflectivity to try to understand exactly where we are coming from and how to make our own position (and our own research) fit within the greater (global) context.  She suggests that researchers turn their eyes on themselves in an exercise of reflexivity in order to help situate his or her research (which necessarily occurs within a local context) for a global audience:

  • “Situate the research question into larger frameworks
  • Situate the local context into larger contexts
  • Situate the research approach within other approaches and research “camps”
  • Situate specific procedures within larger sets of assumption and practices
  • Situate decisions among other, alternate choices and paths
  • Situate the gendered, racial, classed, affiliated, disciplined self
  • Situate the study, as a whole and in its component parts, among larger conversations” (142)

In other words, researchers must situate the self within the Other (“Other as an all-encompassing term involving everything outside the self”), a practice which is advocated in not just internet-based qualitative research, for “… to do good qualitative internet research is to do good qualitative research.” (189)  In addition, in order to conduct quality research, researchers must ask themselves exactly what it is that they are trying to do, what their own perspective is and how will that play into the study, who the study matters to, why they are using the methodology that they are,  and what someone who is removed from the study could get out of it, among other things, by doing some free writing of sorts (in order to get that which is within, without).  In not asking such questions, researchers risk not being totally in-tune with their own studies, and thus likely making many mistakes along the way, some of which may jeopardize the entire study if serious enough.

Socrates (was said to have) said that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and similarly Markham seems to be saying the the unexamined research project is not worth conducting.  “Situating one’s research is a way of enacting global sensibilities.  More specifically, reflexive analysis of one’s own boundaries is an ethically powerful way of identifying for the self and for the Others those limitations and factors influencing one’s research choices.”  (p. 152)

Mark Twain added to Socrates’ classic wisdom however, by saying that it may be true that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but “the life too closely examined may not be lived at all.”  The same goes for qualitative research.  At some point a researcher must pull the trigger on a topic for a project or a particular methodology, for there are no such things as “right and wrong” in making such a choice and that “there are only methods that are appropriate to [the] research topic and the model with which you are working,” or rather “…making wise research choices has never been about distinguishing right from wrong but about finding the most appropriate path given the specific point in the specific project.” (p. 177).

To say that there is not “right and wrong” research project is not to say that all research is equally strong however, and thus Markham lists six strengths that make for ‘quality’ in qualitative research:

“(1) they are grounded in theory and data

(2) they demonstrate rigor in data collection and analysis

(3) they use multiple strategies to obtain data

(4) each takes into account the perspective of participants

(5) each demonstrates awareness of and self-reflexivity regarding the research process, and

(6) each takes into consideration interconnections between the internet and life-world within which it is situated.”  (179)

In something of a final thought, Markham says “We cannot predict the ways in which others may find our work useful.  However, if we are clear in the decisions we make throughout our research practices, document our procedures and reflections well, and provide our readers with concrete thick descriptions and convincing evidence for the processes and logics we describe, then we will have given them the materials to find their own value in our work.” (189)

This was an extremely valuable reading for both of the projects that I’m working on right now (the taboo language study and the study on the hybrid course delivery system), and it actually comes at a perfect time.  More to come soon on the progress and current state of both of my projects… I have a lot to think about.

Filed under: Digital Humanities Capstone

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