Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Of Complexity, Ignorance, and Educators

Now here’s a scary thought:
“The less people know about important complex issues such as the economy, energy consumption and the environment, the more they want to avoid becoming well-informed, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association. “
So reads a press release about a recently published study that explores the links between awareness of social issues and dependence on and trust in government.   Researchers at the University of Western Ontario and other universities reached these conclusions following a series of studies in the US and Canada.   

Researchers presented participants with simple and complex descriptions of the same problem and found that people reading the more complex description felt higher levels of helplessness.  One of the conclusions that co-researcher Aaron C. Kay, reported was that:
“people tend to respond by psychologically ‘outsourcing’ the issue to the government”   
So what does this mean for educators, especially those who teach complex issues and like to emphasize critical thinking?  The authors suggest:  
“Beyond just downplaying the catastrophic, doomsday aspects to their messages, educators may want to consider explaining issues in ways that make them easily digestible and understandable, with a clear emphasis on local, individual-level causes.” 
To learn more, check out Ignorance Is Bliss When it Comes to Challenging Social Issues at

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Who Cares about Their Customers? Who Doesn’t? Website Responses Are Telling

The experience of contacting companies through their websites about problems provides some interesting insights into their real attitudes towards customers.

Who cares?
  • La Quinta Inns. 
  • Cheesecake Factory.  
  • Starbucks 

I reported issues to each of these companies over the summer and heard back from each within 4 business days—each offering an apology.  Starbuck’s sort of freaked me out (in a good way) because I sent the note at 6:30 pm and heard back at midnight.  I realized, at some point, that they must have an off-shore customer service team.  (Just a guess.)  

Both the managers of the La Quinta Inn and Cheesecake Factory I wrote about personally contacted me, one by phone.  

But other companies are another story:   
  • Delta.
  • Air France.
  • Loblaws

Delta responded within 48 hours, but offered an empty apology and made no effort to correct the situation (which was not a weather-related delay, which is beyond their control).  

Air France outsourced the response to a concern about a letter with a refund check that contained no refund check to Delta.  Writing on behalf of Air France 6 weeks after I sent my note, Delta told me that they couldn’t do anything (why the person didn’t refer the issue to the appropriate person at Air France is beyond me.)

At least these airlines had the decency to acknowledge the concern.

Loblaws? Happy to take my money; could care less about responding to my concern. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Happy Holidays Thursday

The holiday season has Black Friday to kick-start in-store sales and Cyber Monday to pump online sales.

Today must be Happy Holidays Thursday--a new event, 10 days before Christmas--when every organization to whom I have given money, conducted business, or just merely written for more information sends me a Happy Holiday card.

But I'm not sure if they really care about my holiday or just want to make sure that the season doesn't end without my buying or donating.

Technology and the Schools in the Popular News

Technology and the schools has made the popular news on both sides of border in the past week or so.

On the one hand, the Globe and Mail has run a special section on education, with a discussion of the need to re-design primary, secondary, and tertiary education to take advantage of the technologies now available for teaching. 

On the other hand, the New York Times has published a couple of articles raising the red flags about all-online schools.  The first appeared in Gail Collins' column, in which she raises a red flag about too much technology in primary and secondary education, specifically raising concerns about the tendency for many states to outsource online school programs to the for-profit company, K12 Inc.--and the lack of research evidence on the effectiveness for children of learning full-time in an online environment.

She’s right to raise that flag. Although the research is clear that online learning is at least as effective as classroom learning, none of the studies were conducted in full-time, long-term environments.  Studies of long-term, full-time effects would, by necessity, need to look at side effects of learning, such as the effects on social development of spending most class time on the computer rather than with other children.

She also raised a red flag about the sales pitch used to generate enrollments in these online programs, positioning “online learning as an alternative to a violent in-school experience.”  See her column at

The Times  followed with an in-depth of the for-profit charter school industry this Monday.  Profits and Questions at Charter Schools by Stephanie Saul provides an-depth exploration of online charter schools, suggesting that they perform better on Wall Street than Main Street.  Among the measures on which the schools are underperforming include student-teacher ratios, churn rate (numbers of students enrolling then transferring out), and all-important standardized tests.

The article concludes that K12, one of the leading for-profit companies running these schools "a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards."

View the entire article at

The common themes underlying all of these articles are that technology in the schools is still viewed as something separate and something to be viewed with suspicion, and that some of the implementations of technology--intended to promote its virtues--only deepen those initial concerns.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Alternative to Blackboard and Moodle?

Fast Company reporter and Do-It-Yourself college education advocate Anya Kamenetz reports on Coursekit, a free online application that is positioning itself as a more student- and teacher-friendly alternative to market leader Blackboard.  

Kamenetz focuses her December 5 article in Fast Company on the business model used by Coursekit.  Coursekit is available free and ad-free for the next year (its first year in operation).  After that, it will continue to be free (that’s its value proposition) but could feature ads as a means of generating revenue.  

To provide background, Kamenetz notes that Coursekit was developed by some dropouts from the undergraduate program at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania to provide an easier-to-use experience than Blackboard.  (I had actually read this before; whomever is launching this company has hired a great PR firm.)

That intrigued me, because when Blackboard first hit the scene a bit over a decade ago, its ease of use was the key to its success.  Instructors could easily create course websites without knowing anything about HTML or Dreamweaver.  All they had to do was upload Word, Powerpoint and Excel documents, and fill in a few templates.

But after a semester or two of work, Blackboard looked clunky and I returned to writing my own course websites in HTML.  

After it established itself in the market, other educational technologists, too, tired of Blackboard.  Blackboard and its then competitor WebCT dramatically raised their prices, added a host of features that only a few teachers needed, and drove many schools to the open-source competitor, Moodle.  Moodle operates similarly to Blackboard and offers similar functions, but the software is open source so organizations avoid licensing fees.  I use Moodle but mostly for its privacy capabilities or when I'm told to; my feelings about the application and its usability are neutral. 

So Kamenetz's article--the second I had seen in a week about Coursekit--piqued my curiosity.  I wanted to see whether Coursekit was easier to use.

So I checked it out myself and created a simple course website.  Its interface is cleaner, using a social media feed rather than the announcement boards typical of its predecessors.  The gradebook and submissions processes look much simpler than Blackboard and Moodle.

What I liked the best was the calendar function, which lets instructors present all of the materials needed for a single session together.  I also appreciated the privacy settings, that let instructors keep some parts public and others private.  In terms of usability, the product seems to live up to its promise (won’t know until I use it under the real pressures of a term).

Saturday, December 10, 2011

More about Writing

As I mentioned in my blog post yesterday, good, clear writing is a skill that's needed on the job.

But many people (including a PR firm I once sub-contracted for) mistakenly feel that buzzwords are a tool of clear writing . The PR firm felt that those buzzwords helped build credibility among prospective customers.

But if the Evil HR Lady and the salacious anti-meeting tweeter MeetingBoy are to be believed, all buzzwords do is make people run out for the PeptoBismol.

Find out which buzzwords are generating groans:
  • Evil HR lady:
  • Meeting Boy:

Montreal--One of the Top Ten Hippest Cities in the World

The New York Times and its sister paper, the International Herald Tribune, recently identified the 10 hippest cities in the world.  
The staffs specifically
“examine[d] some cities that aim to be both smart and well managed, yet have an undeniably hip vibe. Our pick of cities that are, in a phrase, both great and good.”
Presented in alphabetical order (so no one knows exactly how each city actually ranked), the cities include:
  • Auckland, New Zealand
  • Berlin, Germany
  • Barcelona, Spain
  • Cape Town, South Africa
  • Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Curitiba, Brazil
  • Montreal, Canada
  • Santiago, Chile
  • Shanghai, China
  • Vilnius, Lithuania

Not only is my city the hippest in North American but apparently, my neighborhood is also among the hippest on the continent.  Both the Utne Reader and the Project for Public Spaces ranked the Plateau Mont-Royal as one of the hippest neighborhoods in North America.  

But the Utne Reader gave that rating in 1997 and there’s no date in the Project for Public Spaces discussion, so I have no idea if the neighborhood is still hip. Or worse, whether I’m personally dragging down the hip factor.  

(To see the original article and find out why the editors ranked these cities so highly, visit

Friday, December 09, 2011

Life Lessons Not Learned in College

One of the ongoing challenges of academic education is preparing students for the real world.

In “What Students Don’t Learn About Work in Work in College” (, US News & World Report blogger Alison Green identifies 10 lessons that are often lost on students.

Several of these relate to one of the skills that I think is so important--especially for students hoping to become instructional designers and technical communicators (the two fields for which I prepare students).  But most are skills that students actually should develop in school.

Green advises students: 
"You need to address both sides of an issue," 
noting that students typically learn to argue 1 side of an issue when preparing assignments for school.  

But this is a skill that can be learned in school.  The best way to argue for one side is to explore the other side of the argument, then explain why that is the less effective approach to the situation.  This balance is also called critical thinking and the extent of that critical thinking is what  distinguishes A papers from the rest.  One need not wait for the workplace to develop this skill; it's something to start while in school. 

But admittedly, some faculty members assume that students know that arguing both sides of the issue makes for a stronger paper and, as a result, do not explicitly explain this strategy to students.  
Green advises students that:
You need to be concise when writing in the workplace. Good writing isn’t stiff and formal.  
Like the last skill, this one can be developed in school.  The truth is, most faculty find stiff, verbose writing painful to read.  Most grimace when reading such assignments.  

Unfortunately, some faculty members do not factor in the quality of the writing when grading papers, they reward such papers with passing or excellent grades.  Worse, because some faculty often assume that students know how to do things without verifying it, they do not comment on these issues when grading papers nor do they address the problems of verboseness and stiff writing with their classes.

The last tip for writing that Green offers is
Procrastinating is a really bad idea. 
That, too, is a skill that students can learn in school if their professors emphasize it.  So often, students can easily get extensions.  (I know well--when I was an undergraduate, I developed expertise in requesting them and, by the time I was a doctoral student, I was the designated "Can you give us an extension" requester in many of my classes.)

But having had learned the same lesson in the workplace--sometimes painfully--(to be honest, I still struggle with deadlines), I have developed a zero-tolerance policy on late assignments. In fact, it's a 
totally zero approach--late assignments receive a 0.  

Recognizing that students sometimes really do need an extension because they're juggling too many due dates for their classes, I do offer a "get out of jail free" card each term.  For one assignment, each term, students can ask to submit it a week late.  This does not work with some time-dependent assignments, such as in-class presentations and exams--but is well received by students.  Students merely need to tell me that they want to take advantage of this before the assignment is due; they do not need to provide me with an excuse and I advise them to take the full week of the extension.  

Such an approach also teaches students how to negotiate schedules and actively confronting their schedules in advance--rather than at the last minute.  Those are important project management skills, and they're ones that can be developed in school.