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January 30, 2007

Grad School Boot Camp

For the second time in as many weeks, I feel that I am going off to some final, epic battle. Epic in terms of my life - not in terms of the cares of the universe. A sort of combination between the Last Samurai and Real Genius. It is not a pleasant feeling.

You see, big research universities pride themselves on their rigor. (That word brings to mind apt phrases like rigor mortis, by the way.) And that is one of the major arguments such universities make against the less traditional but more adult-friendly ways of providing advanced degress - that somehow, the traditional, residential path has more rigor than the adult-friendly programs that encourage commuting and even distance education.

So, I have been looking for this prized rigor this year as I suffer crushing loneliness and a nearly impossible schedule to experience a traditional, residential doctoral program.

Is it in the classroom? No. I have now been at (combining undergraduate and graduate programs) 5 colleges, and I see about the same percentage of professors who teach really well and who merely phone in (unfortunately NOT literally) their classes. In fact, the professors who taught at a distance did a better job of teaching, using a variety of modalities and giving critical feedback on assignments.

Is it in the advising? No. A friend of mine has spent 4 years floundering about without guidance from her advisor. 4 YEARS of time, that while not wasted, is tribute to the fact that anything humans do can be done badly by someone who doesn't care. Most programs take students at least 5 years to complete. Not because the programs actually require that amount of time to instill knowledge but because of confusion over what should be studied. My advisor, who I believe to be a concientious person, has actually been able to meet with me once about my process this year.

Is it in the research? Possibly. Here is place where workiing from a distance would be a challenge. Although working face to face is also not at all efficient. Face to face meetings over three months have not yet gained us any progress toward completion of a presentation due next month - unless you want to count a presentation about the difficulties of the process as progress toward an unrelated goal.

Informal community building and apprenticeship? Well, yes, that does happen and is valuable. Book reading groups; group data analysis; learning what journals, books, conferences, and professional organizations are valuable; and brown bag presentations are all part of the process of becoming a member of the academic club. And if you've read anything about apprenticeship into professional organizations, then you know how important these mundane activities are. And yet, can we point to this as evidence of rigor??? It is the equivalent of a garden party, which can be seething with import and meaning, but is not something we want to point an accreditation board to as evidence of how good we are as academics.

No, the answer occured to me this morning. The rigor is in the boot camp sort of atmosphere that lies under the surface. Except that the military is smarter and works to ensure that recruits who have any shred of ability are given the tools to make it.

Or maybe, it is more of a prison without walls. Consider.

Even before you arrive here, everyone is working hard to gain resources in the form of access to faculty, labs, offices, printers, libraries, etc. There is no straight-forward method to do this. You need to find out who knows what and whom - and convince them to either give you information (such as the next person in the chain who might know something) or to grant you some artifact such as a key to a door. Time is a precious resource bartered over, especially with faculty. You have to give them something in order to get their attention and aid.

You arrive not knowing the rules and need to figure them out slowly and carefully. Status as the student of a certain faculty member grants you priviledges, but you need to figure out what they are - and with whom that status cuts any ice. Some things appear magically, and some you need to scramble to get. There seems to be no rhyme or reason, as with any system in human society. You need to figure it out. Orientation? Forget it. Actually, yes, boot camp would be preferable to this insane asylum sort of atmosphere.

Expectations shift - often at a whim - and you are literally at the mercy of your advisor. I have worked hard to meet challenging deadlines only to be told after the fact she'd changed her mind and I should have done something else. Or, I'll prepare for a meeting to have the focus of the meeting change, and I'll find myself playing catch-up because I was not at some private meeting with another student and didn't know that plans had changed. Favored students spend lots of time in process and are praised for how hard they are working while those who actually achieve something are often censored - especially if they dare to voice what they need in order to achieve objectives, which is usually time spent actually working on those objective.

It is the constant flux and shift, along with the oft capricious play of power, that I think sends many grad students off to find a world in which plans are actually completed. The completion (or rather the drop out) rate - along with the number of years to get a degree - that many institutions point to as evidence of their rigor. They only graduate the best - see the evidence in the number of failures that they managed to cut out of the pack.

Those who remain have, boot-camp-like, been broken and reborn as academics. They think, value, and act in certain ways. It is a traditional way of taking people from one sort of life and suiting them for another. But the cost is high in terms of mental and emotional stability. Even the Army is beginning to reconsider its methods of bringing new recruits into its fold, recognizing that its traditional methods do not result in the kinds of people it needs in the modern world.

Maybe it is time for the academy to do some soul-searching as well. I think it is clear that the formal schooling system will change in the near future, from kindergarten on up. We will need different ways to train the people who run these systems. And it may be high time to rethink what we value in teachers and academics. I can only hope that in this overhaul, we take a good look at what our search for "rigor" in the academy has cost us.

January 28, 2007

What is ethnography?

Hammersley, M., & Atkinson, P. (1986). What is ethnography? Ethnography: Principles in practice (2nd ed.) (pp. 1-53). London: Routledge.

This would be a good book to pick up for the collection on research methodologies. At this rate, I'll need a house just for my books!

The authors review problems they perceive with two traditional frameworks of ethnography: positivism and naturalism. Instead, they suggest that researchers recognize that the researcher is part of the social world studied and that there is "no escape from reliance on common-sense knowledge and methods of investigation" (p 21). They do not see this fact as a problem but rather an opportunity to create records of the social world seen from a particular point of view and using the research to trigger reflection on the social world seen from this vantage point.

January 26, 2007

Journal of Educational Computing Research

One of many - too many! - recommended journals for those of us interested in the intersection of education and computer technology, this one is currently available entirely in electronic format, although it is not free.

Try accessing it through your institution's e-journal access portal. If it is not there, please suggest it to your librarian. They are often unsure about what journals to include in their offerings and will usually appreciate the suggestion of faculty members.

Link to the publisher's introduction to the journal: http://baywood.com/journals/PreviewJournals.asp?Id=0735-6331

January 21, 2007

Technology and Culture

Recommended Journal: Technology and Culture.

Current issues are available through MUSE (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/technology_and_culture/) and archived issues are available through JSTOR.

January 16, 2007

Free Online Games

No, this is not an advertisement or some attempt to grab your password. I don't even suggest that you access the site or play any of these games. I just find the list - which I assume is updated by someone else, if the Force is with us, so I don't have to do it - a potentially valuable resource.

I also need to put up the disclaimer that I didn't even find the list. Another student located it and parked it on a group page.

And another disclaimer, I've actually played a number of these games. Some are good and some are awful, but then, that can be said of games for which I've paid good money. None are favorites the way World of Warcraft and Second Life are, but some could be, if they possessed a single, critical element......

..... friends who played them.

For me, the greatest draw of any game is the social aspect of it. MMOGs must provide me - after a week or so - with people I like who I can be reasonably sure will be around when I am also in the game. World of Warcraft excels in this. Not only are many of my friends and acquaintances and fellow researchers involved, but I also have developed social networks (guilds and alliances) in them as well.

Second Life and Gaia Online also work well this way. I am a member in many groups and have steadily been picking up friends.

By contrast, Star Wars Galaxies, after nearly 6 months now, is not holding my interest because I can't seem to get friendships going either in or around the game. I post requests to join groups on forums, associated sites, and in world mail without a single bite.

Many of these boutique games are in the same category. Without a large following outside of the game, the odds that anyone I know is playing the game are pretty slim. And many of them do not have robust systems that allow making connections with people in them.

Still, any one of them has the potential to be useful in the right circumstances, and if there is a gem in there that is not as expensive as the big boys ($50 for the game and $15 or more per month to play....that's hard for educators to justify), it might be a wonderful alternative.

The trick will be, of course, to figure out where the gem is hidden.

January 15, 2007

The Importance of Software Tutorials

On behalf of all software developers, I apologize.

Over the two months, I've been treated to an experience that any software developer, if she is at all reflective in nature, should experience - watching the ideal user try to learn a critical piece of software. It has been a disaster, from the standpoint of actually using the software, but a clear reminder of the importance of good software design, help systems, and introductory tutorial. A reminder, actually, of what happens when these things are lacking in a shipped product.

Although, now that I think about it, what I'd really love to do is take VPs of marketing and/or development, strap them all to chairs and gag them so that they could watch these scenes unfold. Then, no other enlighted project manager would need to explain why they need customer feedback and strong, well-designed support tools.

The software itself, NVivo, is a wonderful tool, but I have to question how many customers reviewed the product during development. I watched as a user of similar tools, dug through menus, tabs, and buttons looking for how to perform functions she knew had to be in the product - and couldn't find them because they had names that she did not recognize. Novelty is no virtue in software. It should use terms that are standard in the industry for which the software is built. If a researcher can't find the right concept in a tool built for research, the tool is wrong.

In their defense, it is possible that QSR did field research on their product and just did not solicit feedback from some segments of it. Qualitative research is done in many fields; finding terms and organization schemes that make sense to all of these fields may be impossible. I've seen focus groups that cannot agree on the meaning of a term, so I try to cut the developers some slack here.

The tutorial, on the other hand, is designed not be used. That's the best I can say for it. Or the worst. I've been in their position, pressured at the last minute (as the product is stable enough finally to build a tutorial!) to whip up something to ship "with the box" as a tutorial. This is where I'd like the VPs to really wince and consider that as expensive as the software is to develop, a few more thousand dollars to make sure it actually gets used and recommended to others is a good thing.

Why is it so bad? A couple of things off the top of my head....

The tutorial is not sufficiently modular. Which also makes its components each too long. I sat through it dutifully (my advisor told me to do so, I agreed, so I endured it - but I've had better moments getting a biopsy without anesthesia) for a good two hours. Broken up in three segments, each segment was about 45 minutes long - too long. A module should take no more than 15 to 20 minutes. That makes it interruptable so that it fits into a busy person's schedule around email, visits, and phone calls.

The tutorials are also not context based or topical. A user can't put the software in context - why it would be used or how it would fit into a larger research project - and so a novice user can't see why they are being asked to click certain buttons nor what the pay back is for doing so. This means that they - like me - probably won't remember what they learned in the tutorial and won't be able to do the task at the right time when the real situation triggers a memory of the related action from the tutorial.

Also, since they are not topically segmented, a user can't go back and pick up the module an activity that was not clear the first time. You have to start each module and skim through it - much like fast-forwarding an old cassette tape rather than accessing a song on your favorite CD.

Finally, the help system suffers from the same problem as the software with terms that the researcher did not recognize. As many user has complained to me (sometimes with software I helped design and program), if the user doesn't know the right term for the search, they can't find the information. Most help systems now do not cross-reference common synonyms - in large part because they are mostly build by automated programs and not people. If a user needs to find how to do some action, but only knows his term for it (say "pattern") but is looking for something called in the software a "template," he probably will never find it.

All in all, I know we spent four hours jointly (times the number of people at each meeting!!!) trying to learn this software. Many times, the researcher commented that it was unfortunate that NVivo was really the only possible software to use. Competing products are both very, very few and not as well designed. If there had been an alternative, we would have switched.


January 13, 2007

The Social Life of Information

I remember well the first time someone told me that the paperless office was coming. It was 1987, and I was a young manager in a customer service department of a Fortune 500 company talking to a records management expert. We were in the process of setting up a new office, and I was sketching out the locations of the file cabinets and quick-access racks that would hold customer files and copies of the myriad of forms required for taking and completing orders.

My company RME told me not to spend too much time worrying about where I was going to keep years and years of paper data. The paperless office was coming, she assured me. Everything would be kept on the computers - only the computers - and all of my paperwork would soon be a thing of the past.

It has been 20 years, and I'm still drowning in paper. Every office I set up requires some attention to document storage - and ever increasingly requires even more attention to protection of the security of that documentation than the actual storage considerations.

Given the exponential increase in computer use for most routine orders and communication, this seems to be a conundrum - and yet it (and many other promised, just around the corner changes) can be explained if you examine the human and social factors involved in communication and information handling.

With that tantalizing preview, I leave you with the citation for a fascinating book by John Seely Brown and my recommendation that you read and ponder it.

Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (2002). The social life of information (Second ed.). Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.

January 11, 2007

Meetings

Meetings are the perennial bane of the knowledge worker, but it seems worse in my situation than it ever did before since, for me, the overhead of each meeting is so very, very high.

It is never appropriate to waste someone's time. Time is all we really have, and we have far too little of it - less than we usually think.

But when time in a meeting is purchased by several days away from family, friends, and work, this really begins to be more than a little frustrating. I estimate that no better than 1/3 of my meetings are actually worth my time. The other 2/3 are agenda-less and often stem from someone's insecurity over taking risks without involving a committee of people with whom to take the fall when things go wrong.

When the grad students are just that, it is already inexcusable to waste their precious time. When grad students are parents and spouses and employees, one has to question a system that assumes that an underling's time is pre-purchased.

The old system of a research university, built on the back of cheap graduate student labor, needs to be re-evaluated as the demographics shift to older, already-professional students. I wonder, cynically, if this is not one of the factors that makes traditional universities and graduate programs reluctant to embrace the older students who are attracted to distance-based advanced study. You can't waste the time of people who know the value of it so easily. They will rebel - and since they are also savvy consumers - this does not bode well for universities supported by tuition and tax-payers.

Paper Chase

Recently, I have felt trapped in a badly written remake of the classic movie "The Paper Chase." Fellow students seem to delight in name-dropping, one-up-manship, cutting down other students' work as insignificant. The favored ones put projects in jeopardy by missing deadlines and yet get rewarded with the best offices, the most respected publication opportunities, time on their projects, and socialization with professors.

It can be discouraging, and I wonder, along with Tim Allen's character in a different movie (Santa Clause), if I can get a direct connection back to reality.

Part of the problem is that academia knows such cut-throat competition precisely BECAUSE the stakes are so very low, as a good friend once noted when I asked - rhetorically - why the turf wars in the university are so vicious but over so very little. These embarrasingly, revoltingly stereotypical graduate students are actually appropriately rewarded for their poor behavior precisely because they are learning to play the game of being an academic in a research university.

This world, if we step back for a moment and look at it with the eyes of an ethnographer, is actually one in which cutting critque - if not outright criticism, stiff competition for a few priviledged slots, non-collaboration, and a sneering attitude toward the public activity of the institution (teaching) is the norm. Academia is, in many ways, the moral equivalent of the lawyer profession, for all we would like to laud our mission as one of helping students learn. In truth, we focus on getting ahead as much as any top-flight law student - and use equivalent tactics.

Frankly, I think the law students were in a better place, morally. At least they made no pretense in their struggles to be the top rat in the rat race.

My life needs a better editor!