Remembering to remember

I often struggle to remember the names of my students, especially in large classes. Like most people, using my visual and spacial memory helps. Classes with fixed seating arrangements are out because you want students to mix partners. Attendance lists are frowned upon at the institution I am currently working for.  This had me in a bind.

So Khushi suggested something that I have in fact done: Students formed study groups, made name tags, and I took a photograph of each group holding up their tags. Looking through the pictures I now see myself walking around the room that day to where they were sitting that lesson. Finally, names are starting to stick.

Josua Foer summarizes the technique of the Memory Palace, arguably the best way to memorize individual, unconnected items in sequence by connecting and associating them with 3-D navigation through an imagined scene. He mentions that ancient orators used this topographical technique to learn their speeches by heart, and points to the connection between “topic” (and topic sentence) and “topos”, or place.

The entire art of memorizing is to make items meaningfully connected. But more still, as Foer says about the techniques of the Memory Palace, “They work because they make you work. They force a kind of depth of processing, a kind of mindfulness, that most of us don’t normally walk around exercising. There are no shortcuts.”

Finally, he points out the essential importance of memory,  namely that our lives are the sum of our memories. So we need to process deeply. We must remember to remember.

What psychologists are saying about how technology affects us

Speaking about “The Secret Powers of Time”, Stanford professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo (famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment) explains how various perspectives of time – past, present and future – influence our actions and relationships. There are six main orientation time zones:

  • Past: Past positive (nostalgic), or past negative (regretful)
  • Present: hedonistic (seeking pleasure, knowledge), or fatalistic (“It doesn’t pay to plan”)
  • Future: resist temptation for future benefit, or geared to reward after death (both build on trust or expectation)

Catholic nations are more present and past oriented, while Protestant nations are more future orientated.

He says we are going through a time revolution. Children are naturally and essentially hedonistic and present-oriented. What schools around the globe do is to give them a past or future orientation (depending on the predominant culture). Now computer games are increasingly keeping children in their present-hedonistic state, rewiring their brains, so they will be bored in the analogue classroom. Games are indeed addictive, and “all addictions are addictions of present hedonism.” School and education is all about delaying gratification, but present oriented kids will not relate the messages to themselves and their future. I hear echos of my father talking about “instant gratification” as a key element of hedonistic pop culture back when I was a teen in the 1970s.

Philip Zimbardo (2008): The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. Free Press.

Sherry Turkle, professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, writes that mobile devices are becoming the vehicle for intimate relationships, as robots take on responsibilities previously born by friends and family. The instantaneous, engineered response is in fact allowing us to flee from conversation, which takes effort in terms of time and patience, and hence requires us to build those essential skills.

“Most of all, we need to remember — in between texts and e-mails and Facebook posts — to listen to one another, even to the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another.”
Sherry Turkle: The Flight From Conversation, NYT April 21, 2012

Sherry Turkle (2011): Alone Together. Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books.

iCloud: iUnderstand

This is one of Steve Job’s last presentations, still explaining “his” products with inspired simplicity and clarity.

Focus with me for a moment on his metalanguage (often called signposting), that is the language he uses to take us from one point to the next. Metalanguage or signposting varies widely between presentation types, and is generally very different in product marketing, say, than in a presentation of technological developments to other specialists. Likewise metalanguage in academic science presentations that rely heavily on visuals will differ completely from those in economics, with their charts and empirical data, or from lectures in philosophy. At one level the difference is connected to the way each type of presentation communicates concepts. The more abstract and involved concepts get, the more difficult it will be for the audience to relate to and follow the speaker communicating them, and the more necessary it becomes to talk about what has already been said and to connect it to what is coming up next. In other words, there is no one formula for signposting, no instant phrases to learn by heart and simply apply to presentations. One size does not fit all. Every genre is different!

Just listen to the type of metalanguage Steve Jobs uses. It’s unbelievably simple:  Introducing a new product: “You like everything so far? (Audience: Yeah!) “Well, I’ll try not to blow it.” Moving from one feature to the next: “So that’s Contacts; here’s Calendars. Works much the same way.” Each statement backed by the trademark big, beautiful pictures. His authentic and communicative body language suggests that everyone is really getting the message. He doesn’t explain the technology in a way that goes over anyone’s head. And should anyone not get it completely, he draws them in, not through information, but through

  • Empathy: “Keeping those devices in sync is driving us crazy.” “You might ask, Why should I believe them? They’re the ones that brought me Mobile Me. It wasn’t our finest hour, let me say that, but we learned a lot.”
  • Emotion, quasi-religious feeling and humor: “Some people think the cloud just a hard disk in the sky… We think it’s way more than that.” “The truth is on the cloud.”
  • Reassurance: “It just works.” “Pretty cool.” “It’s that simple.”

…and his audience laughs and believes it understands. A socially very powerful approach. Remember we are talking about an app that takes all of the information on your personal phone and removes it to an external something, somewhere, which should at least invite questions. But no, it’s all good.

It’s really an understatement to say that Steve Jobs’ iconic presentation style perfectly matched the Apple image. As a consequence of these presentations, Jobs was Apple. He’ll be a hard, no: an impossible act to follow. RIP.

The sixth sense

MIT’s Pattie Maes presents Pranav Mistry’s Sixth Sense, a wearable device that enables new interactions between the real world and the world of data. The geniuses at MIT have turned your hand into a computer interface. Do I want to read the tags from someone’s blog projected onto that person? Well, no, not really. Like Minority Report, indeed. The information design and management and data security implications of this work in progress are really astounding. Information being universally accessible is nothing new, but it’s becoming more and more visible. The quantity changes the quality – especially when it becomes completely portable and affordable!


For over a year now my dear host Christian has put up with my Moodle platform. You’ll remember, I ran a few courses on it and did something for the LMU and for the VHS, and I was intending to run a train-the-trainer session for MELTA. But being hacked has come as a shock and is just really the last straw in a process that has turned me off to Moodle.

The problem with my Moodle is, frankly, that my business clients will always get in touch with me using their preferred means, their messaging systems, not following some unique rules that a Moodle course sets up for them. Moodle is good for schools and universities that need to manage complicated distance learning setups, because teachers need to impose discipline to manage the large number of people and tasks involved. That’s why Open University and the Fachhochschule für angewandtes Management use it successfully. But in adult education as a platform for blended learning providing space for projects? I think using other applications, such as a proper wiki, is probably better.

It’s been kind of cool to be able to show my Moodle site to people. It used to frustrate me at teachers’ conferences, when techie teachers talked about what they were doing and how they were doing it, to notice that they knew how, theoretically, but they weren’t really applying it because there wasn’t much demand, or because, frankly, it didn’t work all that well and the content and didactics were slave to the technology. I’m a very practical person, and the only way to find out whether something is good is to work with it, intensively and extensively, with different types of users or learners.  Since I’m not afraid to make a fool of myself, I was able to show my Moodle stuff for what it really was.

Right now there is other work to be done, so I don’t know how the saga will continue. Maybe this is the final curtain for my Moodle. Christian has offered to have a second look. So maybe not. But as far as my interest in online learning is concerned, this is most definitely not, as the Germans say, das Ende vom Lied :-) !

Facebook owns you. Forever.

“Facebook’s terms of service (TOS) used to say that when you closed an account on their network, any rights they claimed to the original content you uploaded would expire. Not anymore. Now, anything you upload to Facebook can be used by Facebook in any way they deem fit, forever, no matter what you do later. Want to close your account? Good for you, but Facebook still has the right to do whatever it wants with your old content. They can even sublicense it if they want.”
Chris Walters/ Consumerist seen on Oetting
It reminds me of Hotel California: “You can check out, but you can never leave.” There’s already an action group on Facebook calling for a return to the old rules.

IT and content

It’s very interesting working as an intermediary between the low-tech EFL teaching and writing world and the high-tech IT world. Very different things are important to the people working on either side of that great divide, and they have little understanding or patience with the concerns of the other side. I think the people in IT have a harder time, because if something doesn’t work, well, it doesn’t work, and everyone can see that. No place to hide. It’s showtime 24/7. At first glance, writers have a lot more leeway: The difference between a well-written and a badly written text or test/poll is diffuse and the effect can’t be registered immediately.

But that’s just level 1. Because the effect of good or bad work only emerges over time, and that’s true for the technical and the content side of things. IT can work well enough, but can still be really lousy, because it limits thinking or doesn’t allow the intuitive approach to structure most producers of content need. And going from “functional” to “facilitating” is a real challenge. Likewise, producing content to really use the possibilities IT provides, thinking about the “web life” of content and how people will be using it in the greater context of things requires writers to really refine their output … and start talking to IT!

I can’t wait to see the site I’ve been involved in go live and to watch how it’s used and think about how we can improve it :-)