Thursday, November 8, 2007

13th Sloan-C Conference Nov 7-9, 2007

Florida landscape--ironic actually--really more water than land--but to return to the original thought: Florida--land of enormous natural beauty; blue waters at every turn; birds, fish, white beaches, the Okefenokee swamp, palms and lush plants of every variety; yet, slowly, that natural landscape feels bounded, increasingly penetrated by roads and choking cars, the relentless advancing frontier of houses and development: America's now ubiquitous urban sprawl but here especially painful to see, juxtaposed against aboriginal natural beauty.

New hotels with ersatz waterfalls decorate their pastel walls with pictures of that older Florida--hoping, I suppose, to remind travelers, tourists, bustling businessmen and women, of the Florida now quickly fading, of an older reality and sensibility, a Florida now morphing into another place, one less pristine, less natural; more cars, more people. The Florida panther lives on but on a smaller patch of land and water, the occasional dog is eaten by the occasional alligator but the gator is quickly caught and "removed" or, if unlucky, shot by local police.

I've come to attend the Sloan-C conference one of the nation's foremost venues for discussing online learning. Frank Mayadas' leadership of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Asynchronous Learning Network division has been crucial for co-creating, for shaping, the revolution in American and global learning at the university level. ALN's 13th annual conference is being held this week (November 7-9, 2007) in Orlando (once a tiny backwater in older Florida's vast empty stretch of swamp and--well--more backwater). Its been fun being here to visit with old friends and see the terrific growth of the conference; one speaker reported that the first "conference" was little more than a table full of attendees; today some 1400 educators, professors, web designers, administrators, have come to lovely Florida to talk about the revolution they are collectively creating.

A few folks discussed the irony of last week's article by the educational editor of the NY Times acknowledging, while lamenting, that online learning seems to be here to stay. Ironic, I suppose because the editor of the Times education beat is just now! coming to suspect that perhaps the application of technology to higher education is here to stay. It certainly feels that way here in Orlando: its as if the American university complex has reached a tipping point and its many components, stakeholders, are beginning to actually come to grips with the reality of this new world.

Similar to my lament for the passing of an older, pristine Florida, the older pristine, face-to-face university--an institution serving the town, state or region: University of Hartford, the University of Wisconsin, the SUNY system; an institution of familiar roles for professors and students, for librarians, department chairs, deans and assorted administrative denizens, is facing an enormous challenge to its existence as we know it today. We've all become familiar with the statistics counting the explosion of online enrollments, but like Florida's everglades its only in the last few years that we are collectively coming to grips with the shape and character of those changes to Florida's swamps and natural environment.

Today's panel discussion, aptly entitled "The Role of the Professor: Archetype, Anachronism, or Work-in-Progress," was well attended, filling the room with interested educators, clearly wondering where all this is going. Moderated by Boria Sax, the panelists included Anthony Picciano, Carla Payne, Phylise Banner, Mary Jane Clerkin, and myself. A range of suggestions about the emerging role of the professor in the new university were aired.

We heard much about the pedagogical implications of online learning, the need to embrace the current and quite refreshing revival of Deweyian "constructivism," a nod here and there was given towards new active learning strategies (tools) in this new "architecture," the new digital classroom. With others, I raised the possibility that this new "age" might see a renewed interest in professional organizations (national and international) for professors and university professionals. As the older university, the university of locale and state, is superseded by institutions with global reach and aspirations it seems necessary for professors, as other educational professionals, to organize not only to defend their financial interests (especially the accelerating trend to adjunct more courses--piecework)--but also to defend and define their "content" rights (similar to the digital distribution concerns of the members of the Writers' Guild) while working with administrators and web designers to write new policies addressing issues of class size, online support services, pedagogical standards and a host of vexing issues that can only be sorted out by revising and modernizing accreditation standards for the emerging online university; "new" professors all decked out in their ancient academic "garb," but now assigned a host of new digital "rights and privileges."
(Let me add a shameless plug: I've written an extended article on many of these same issues, "Constructing the Cafe University: Teaching and Learning on the Digital Frontier" to appear soon in a special edition of the online journal On The Horizon edited by ALN's own Boria Sax.)

As educators and learners we are living in a wonderful moment in the history of education. We are fortunate to be able to observe and shape the most momentous changes in the institutions and structures of American and global higher education since at least the Guttenberg printing press. But Florida's timeless landscape is also changing, perhaps has already changed beyond recovery and in ways we cannot bring back. In shaping, in transforming, our educational landscape we need to take this moment to think carefully about our pedagogical goals, to make our educational institutions, increasingly corporate and market driven, yield to learners' needs, student imperatives; to respond to John Dewey's timeless pedagogical goals of constructivism and democratic community.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Gamblers, speculators all! Sat, Oct. 13 pm

My friend Bill sent me this: Here are a few lines from Douglas taking the train in 1881 through Utah.


“…[T]he traveler… has time to think of the strange fate which induced a community… devoted by the very articles of their creed and the rules of their church to agricultural and pastoral pursuits, to plant itself in the heart of these mountains, where its members are industriously reclaiming the desert and tilling every nook and crevice among the mountain’s recesses which will raise a blade of grass, while around them surges a population of restless, reckless miners and speculators – gamblers all – their very opposites in character and pursuits; and one wonders what the upshot will be!”

Traveling by car through Utah, New Mexico and today the Texas panhandle, the traveler still has time to ponder answers to Douglas' musing about the fate of the West. Funny, they are all here and all still wildly pursuing their sometimes opposing, sometimes reinforcing
goals. Church and nation, cross and flag now dominate the symbolic visible landscape of western America. A scan of the radio dial yields little more than evangelical ministers calling for a new social redemption and gospel music (alternating ironically with rap and hip hop). Crosses (often lit up at night) have been erected in the fields and on rocky outcroppings illuminating the path ahead for wayward travelers. Yet these same agriculturalists and pastoralists: "industriously reclaiming the desert and tilling every nook and crevice among the mountain’s recesses which will raise a blade of grass . . ." have become as dedicated to individual pursuit of wealth as their "reckless" mining and speculating neighbors. The "social" gospel of the panhandle and much of the rural west is a gospel of individual wealth--in their parlance--"freedom." These pastoralists now lease their land for wind mills, oil rigs, coal mines, feed lots and every other way they can find to exploit the land for every dollar it can grow, produce or yield. Not sure what Douglas would say today as he looks out upon a landscape where the dollar is the crop of choice.

Yet what anger and discontent seethes just below the surface. While pursuing economic change--the main chance--these same good Americans and good Christians are angry at every other kind of change: angry at immigrants, ragheads, the Indian shop keepers who now own or operate every motel and gas station in the West, gays and lesbians, liberated women who refuse to obey their husbands. (Its worth reading
carefully the news accounts and transcript of the trial of the Utah Mormon tried as a polygamist and rapist, [or was it the reverse], whose vision of good social order placed himself in the center with his numerous wives revolving around his sun.)

Yet, ironically the old West--the West that Douglas imagined and was probably never there--has also grown amazing crops of urbanity and sophistication. Places--perhaps outposts or better, inposts--have sprung up in the rural centers; places like Austin, Rio Ranchero, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and more, places that glitter with a sense of community, albeit yuppie middle class technological community, slowly sowing the seeds of social change: "liberalism," god forbid!, and its urban cousin "tolerance" for true individualism, i.e. cultural and individual difference. Amen brother. Written from somewhere in the Texas panhandle where Bush continues to reign supreme.

TedTom Sat. October 13

I'm writing from one of my favorite places: a Borders in Rio Ranchero New Mexico. A day into 64; spent my birthday (my very deep thanks to all of you who sent me notes and called!!) evening under the stars in Chaco Canyon (here is a nice site:, a place I have always wanted to visit for myself. Spent two days and one evening wandering around the valley looking at the ruins of ancient pueblos and ceremonial buildings (perhaps)and structures. Hawks, ravens, lizards, rabbits and birds of many sorts shared the space with me. The damn raven and chipmunks enjoyed my uncooked rice and peck a neat hole in (right precisely in the middle) my plastic gallon water jug--I hope the thirsty devils enjoyed it. But my friend Bill says i have to write more about myself--he says thats what my audience--any audience--wants to know is what the writer is really thinking and experiencing. Probably true.

Anyway the best thing that happened on this "small" loop from the Grand Canyon (visited in the morning Thursday Oct 11) to Monument Valley where I spent that evening (and I'm without words to describe) on to Chaco Canyon to celebrate my birthday with the ravens--was, picking up TedTom an older Navajo man sort of hitchhiking on his way to Farmington NM--about twenty miles--to run some errands. TedTom was actually sitting outside the trading post at a small crossroads somewhere south of Mexican Hat (man there is so much to tell you guys about. If you are ever in Mexican Hat, stay at the San Juan Inn and Motel for the evening or week of your life-- indeed click on this link). Well, old Tedtom and I set off after I bought us both a cup of coffee for the road. I asked only one thing in return for the lift: that he allow me to take his picture--he agreed and off we went.

We drove first to his home about 4 miles away where he showed me his horses about to be raced at the Tuba City annual fair and introduced me to his granddaughter whose picture I took with her grandfather--now that cost me 10 bucks which I offered and she accepted. TedTom also showed me his sacred Hogan built by his father and replastered a few years before by him and his three sons. TedTom was born on September 22, 1940 which he remembered for being born in the family "Shake" house--a typical regional wooden structure made of small trees and branches--brought at some labor from the nearby mountains--and used for all ceremonial gatherings of the family and friends--births, weddings, parties, and just nice dinners. I felt myself to be quite lucky to be allowed to visit TedTom's home, his Hogan and his Shakehouse. Not many white men--as he called me--had been to his home.

Then, off again to Farmington where TedTom had a few things to do. After further conversation I found myself giving TedTom a little money to pay a water and electric bill; afterwards we said good bye. Now, I admit it did cost me 30 dollars to give this old Navajo gentleman a lift but it was the best thirty dollars I ever spent.

Well, and now on from here over the Rockies onto the desert (again) of west Texas. The last time I crossed the panhandle of Texas, Merle Haggard's Okie From Muskogee was playing on the jukebox of the very hostile joint I mistakenly ventured into wearing my hair fashionably long--some might have called my wife and children--hippies but we thought of ourselves as students and respectable folks. Well let's find out how things have changed; I need to add one of those smiley faces here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Glacier National Park

Talk about missing a few posts! Nobody skips Glacier National Park, the incredible coasts of Oregon and California and the absolutely magnificent Redwood Giants. I did and apologize. I also apologize for not posting my pics. Can't seem to do it for some reason. I have them and will post one day soon.

Leaving the Museum of the Plains Indians I started up the eastern face of the Lewis Range (Rt 89) hoping to cross the Park through Logan Pass (Going to the Sun Road) but before reaching St. Mary's I found the Pass closed for repairs (met an amazing woman living on this barren and wind swept Front Range, raising horses and providing lodging for folks in the summer). I was already impressed: the mountains were beautiful and rugged beyond words; the wind was cold and blowing at gale force, snow was beside the road now. Natives said the Front Range always blew but even they said today was severe. A guide mentioned his car being blown across the road on a similar day. Still, it was invigorating, if a little scary. Not being able to cross at Logan I took 89 south again until I found that I could possible take a shortcut to West Glacier by taking Rt 49--also closed but you could take "your chances." It was wonderful. I an another car traveled together over Looking Glass Pass seeing fabulous vistas; so glad I took the small risk. At the very top of Looking Glass I met Scott who bicycles to the top of the Pass every day and has since his childhood! Had a great cappuccino at Brownies in the lovely little village of East Glacier and left from there for West Glacier. 55 miles from East to West but what a climate and biology difference! The east face of the Rockies is bitter cold and windy, the 55 miles (here at least) mark more than a continental divide--the western slopes are much, much warmer, more tall pines and greener vegetation--warm and comfortable enough for me to get my tent out and go back to a T shirt. Slept well--proud of myself for getting the tent out and spending the night there. More tomorrow--maybe!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Chief Joseph and Shaka Zulu: The Great Plains September 19, 20, 07

No wonder they call Easterners "effete." Once you cross the Red River (of the North) at Grand Forks you enter the Great Plains and the real West--the Old West of legend and the New West of oil, coal, farming, poverty for some, enormous riches for others--especially corporations. But above all it is a big landscape; bigger than an Easterner can appreciate in "one sitting." As Minnesota's endless trees slowly recede into my rear view mirror I'm confronted by rolling hills and flatland, by the Dakota's proverbial "Big Sky," by a growing sense of loneliness and smallness, the puniness of human effort. But that doesn't stop us. Our dreams and grasp grow to accommodate the landscape. Tractors that I thought large and impressive have grown now to 12 gigantic drive wheels (or often equipped with caterpillar threads), outsized chisel plows, enormous cultivators. Ironically, since most old equipment doesn't get destroyed it remains lying about the farms: many farmers have taken to put the old tiny, steel wheeled gas tractor and equally tiny cultivator on a nearby hillside for all the world to see as we pass in our endless ribbon of cars and trucks on old Rt 2 or the ubiquitous interstates.

Rolls of hay stretch as far as the eye can see; an eastern farmer's best fields and first cutting would only bring a smile to the agriculturist's of the western prairies. Grass is king. Sure they grow sugar beets (the smell is stifling, suffusing the air of East Grand Forks) and corn, wheat, sunflowers (smiling everywhere but at you) soybeans, who knows what else, but they cut and bunch grass--hay--for sale and for the consumption of their cattle. They graze their animals on it and like the grasses of Africa, like the grass dominating the high veldt of central South Africa, grass creates a culture. The African tribes that pushed south onto the rich prairies of today's South Africa, the Zulu, the Xhosa and others all built their cultures around the grazing of cattle. Brides are paid for with cattle or husbands are bought with cattle; a cow is slaughtered to feed the mourners on the death of even the poorest member of the tribal community--and all are invited to come, feast and mourn. The white Afrikaner eats meat: beef and lamb. Like his black (or coloured) native counterpart he or she eats vegetables to provide a momentary respite from more meat. The "Brai," similar to an American barbecue (which Afrikaans laugh at for cooking hot dogs and hamburgers over an open flame), roasts piles of meat: chops, wursts, steaks, legs; slow roasted and skewered over coals lovingly heaped together after a celebratory wait of at least three hours. My friend Harry says that the brai is over once the meat is put on the coals. It is in the waiting that the Afrikaner celebrates his and her victory over the tribes of southern Africa, victory over a landscape every bit as treacherous, dangerous and immense as north America's Great Plains. Like Afrikaners, white Americans also celebrate their victory over the natives that "roamed," that is, grazed their own "cattle" the buffalo from which they also created a culture and way of life rooted (no pun intended) in the enormous landscape dominated by grasses.

It is no inappropriate comparison. The temperate southern part of southern Africa looks like the American West, a rising veltd giving way to the high buttes and arid low mountains of the desert American southwest with the extraordinary Drakenburg Mountains, like the Rockies, looming over both the veldt and (in this case) eastern coast of southern Africa. Both landscapes have eroded out fossils; dinosaur bones continue to come to the surface in the Dakotas and Montana as I found to my delight in Glendive, Montana. In both instances, Afrikaan and American (U.S. Canadian and Mexican), natives "had" to be exterminated or pushed aside; reserves established; cultures twisted into conformity (later I'll devote more time to Shaka Zulu and the native peoples of southern Africa). I ended my day (Wed. 9/19/07) in the rugged badlands of eastern Montana in a wonderful state park, Makoshika State Park in Glendive, Montana--one of 13 stops on Montana's Trail of Dinosaurs. After a nice hike of about a mile I saw my first
fossilized dinosaur remains still encased in the red sandstone that engulfed them 65 million years before. Simply amazing.

After a long ride the next day (Thurs. 9/20/07) across these same prairies of central and western Montana, I was compelled to stop to visit the Museum housing many of the remnants of the Battle of the Bear's Paw (mountains). The battle marks the end of the "roaming' of the Nez Perce people and their eventual confinement to the "res." Chief Joseph's haunting words of surrender speak for natives' worldwide:

"Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead.

Tu-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Here me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever." (Found many places but see Friends of Bear Paw, Big Hole & Canyon Creek Battlefields)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Long Lake: Hubbard, Minn. Tues., 09. 18, 07

Left logging country--Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox Country--this morning; turned south off Rt 2 heading back in time to visit my Grandfather Neal and Grandmother Elsie's small resort on the east bank of Long Lake in Hubbard County MN. I only visited my grandparents there twice, each time for a single week long after I was an adult. My biological parents were divorced when I was two or three and I lost contact with my father Bud's parents--my grandparents--until I was twenty one. years old In the next ten years or so I was fortunate enough to visit Elsie and Neal near the village of Hubbard at their small resort (their home and 7 tiny cottages on stilts) on Long Lake.

I headed there this morning, drifting south about 150 miles from Rt 2, out of logging country into a mixture of farming and small resorts--lots of wild rice and fishing but like most of rural America, more and more decay and decline. I seem to find the old place easily, turning off the main highway onto East Lake Road and suddenly saw my grandparents turnoff. The old garden, so carefully nurtured by Neal and Elsie, was still there at the top of the hill but now just a pitiful remnant of its former glory. All the carefully tended raspberry bushes were gone, the gentle slope that carried the sheep manure mixed with water to the root crops and tomatoes also long gone. Now, on both sides of the old place were new large "camps" typical of the American excesses of recent years--"camps:" really fully insulated houses out sized and out of place for the forested lake shores they now dominate. Neal and Elsie's place was still there-a little run down--but still much the same as I remembered it from a more idyllic time.

Finding no one to speak with, I turned north first going into Hubbard looking for the village coffee shop--long gone--another casualty of the decline of rural America. Glad to be moving again, I now found myself in country quickly opening up, larger and certainly more prosperous farms--the Red River Valley --deep black soil, flat land, easy to cultivate; made difficult only by the enormous acreage each farmer and his family has to contend with. Enormous tractors, plows, implements: fields of sugar beets, wheat, sunflowers, corn and field after field full of round bales of hay. Only the high veldt of South Africa compares in my own experience, although the similar pampas of Argentina and Brazil are equally productive I'm sure.

A brief but wonderful lunch at Whitey's--founded as a speakeasy by Whitey Larson in the early 1920s--let me revel in the fabulous art deco of the period, so wonderfully preserved in Whitey's, East Grand Forks, Minnesota. The original Whitey's building was lost to the horrifying flood of 1997--6 feet of water in the restaurant--but the new owner, Greg Stennes, lovingly took it apart and put the original magnificent glass and neon back into a new building. Try the famous onion rings washed down with a good beer on tap drawn from the taps in the original magnificent art deco "Wunderbar" built by Whitey himself all those long, exciting, prohibition years ago.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Must Be Crazy

I'm too tired to write much tonight; I'm holed up in a clean if cheap room in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Terrific thunderstorm with hail and ferocious lighting. Glad to get in. Long tiring day but more anxious and even scared than exhilarated. After driving down around the top of Lake Michigan I arrived at my dear friends, Ann and Rod's house in Neenah Wisconsin several days ago--Thursday afternoon. The upper peninsula, UP, of Michigan is a long stretch of nearly barren road in the Hiawatha National Forest--today much of it is logged and the few houses one passes have logging trucks or skidders in the yard. The few restaurants and motels are mostly struggling to survive--and mostly failing at that. once one turns south along the beautiful lake suddenly the human geography changes from poverty and extractive industry to manicured lawns, expensive homes looking out on to the lake and the wealth that is middle America today. instead of logging trucks and scattered farms one encounters Hummers and the usual assortment of chains that past for most of America today. Why would anyone buy a Hummer for God's sake? I'm even afraid to give this question much thought.

Still, there are small towns that hint at an earlier America: bucolic Neenah is pretty neat all over even though there are working class neighborhoods and quite a few real factories still producing real products. Downtown Neenah has the usual assortment of small retail shops and restaurants owned by local people and hanging on for dear life. Ann, Rod and I went to my favorite: Zacatecas owned by Ruben Hernandez, MaryLou Hernandez and their son Ruben Jr. Wow--what a great place to eat. Fabulous salsa, hot chillies and terrific combinacion platters. Like so much of the Midwest today the Hernandez's came to Neenah a few years ago bringing new tastes and, at least for some, a welcomed diversity. Sadly, some midwestern Americans whose parents and grandparents arrived from Germany and Scandinavia a scant generation or two ago now don't want to make a little room for newer immigrants but the Hernandez's are hard working folks who have built a wonderful restaurant and business in the part of Neenah most vulnerable to decline. I'll post a few pictures when I can get my pictures downloaded.

I have to admit that on my way out of town I stopped for coffee at Starbucks happy to find their great flavors there but a little embarrassed that I wasn't giving my business to a local coffee shop on Main Street instead at the interstate exit. Rt. 41 took me north a short way to the rural farms now of central, north central Wisconsin. Hundreds of old barns litter the landscape--almost all in some state of decay. The rural land remains, but the once tiny farms are almost all gone, the farmers working in nearby cities or trying to farm their few acres sometimes producing cabbages, pumpkins, anything but the proud dairy farms they once were.

Tomorrow, the Great Northern Woods and the magnificent Muskie fishing of northern Wisconsin. I must be crazy to be doing this--gas prices are unbearable and the old $35 motel is almost gone the way of the little farms, collapsed barns and empty silos; not sure how Americans make a living today but a drive through the upper midwest is pretty devoid of farmers, factory workers, and miners. Every little coffee shop, restaurant, motel that does live on has its own collection of photos of past endeavors--working men and women whose day has come and gone.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sudbury to Lake Huron

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pretty amazing day. With two choices to turn out of the motel in Deep River this morning, I went East. After 9 kilometers I regained my senses, turned around and headed West. Spectacular country: the Near North of Ontario along Rt 17, the King's Highway, is vivid, deep greens, splashed with crystal blue lakes and small ponds, predominately pines and softwoods, endlessly fascinating. Naturally, the logging trucks and trains with cars specially developed for carrying logs can be found here and there on the landscape but without the sense of violence one feels in Oregon and Washington passing mountain sides completely clearcut. The off road reality might be different, but its impossible to see very far into the dense forest cover. The Canadian Shield of bedrock to the surface is much in view the entire length of the 300 miles or so I drove today. With glaciation and thin soils, bed rock is exposed almost everywhere--fascinating for the geologist and the interested layman like myself.

Lunch found me in North Bay, larger version of the smaller towns and villages along the route, but nestled against Lake Nipissing where I found the most amazing hamburger joint. Hamburger World lived up to its billing. Packed with local folks taking a break from there work , lined 6-8 deep to order the one young man at the flaming grill was yelling orders and his assistants were jumping to bring more plates, more burgers, more fries, more everything. the resulting cheese burger with the works: relish, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, dill pickles sliced thin and longways, hot peppers, ketchup and mustard was fantastic. Sensibly, if stupidly, I ordered a single when i saw the triple burgers! going out I was envious! I beat it before I succumbed to temptation.

Sudbury helped to suppress my appetite. Nickel and copper have been dug from the rocks here for a long while, smelting, with the largest smokestack in the western hemisphere (once the largest on earth if memory serves me), has spread toxic wastes mostly acid for miles to the east--reaching just to the western outskirts of North Bay. With each passing mile the once beautiful landscape becomes bleaker; the trees more stunted, white birches all broken at the tops more and more exposed black rock. I first passed through Sudbury on my way back to teaching at the University of North Dakota, then it was an absolute nightmare--no vegetation to speak of at all--just soils of a gray clay; no trees and a landscape more akin to the moon. Today its much better thanks to the environmental concerns raised by young people and others following the first Earth Day in the early 1970s.

Immediately to the west of Sudbury the landscape shows little ill effects of the acid that follows the prevailing winds to the East. In a few miles, Rt 17 intersects the North Channel of Lake Huron at a place called Spanish. From here to Thessalon, where I'm staying the night, Rt 17 traces its way along the shore of the lake; here and there one is offered glimpses of extraordinary natural beauty. The day, after yesterday's rains, is cold with blustery winds but incredibly bright and sunny. A great day for traveling through the past and present of Ontario. Rt 17 as it winds its way up from Ottawa is also following the Ottawa River for several hundred miles the path of choice for the Voyagers including Samuel D. Champlain who traversed much of the distance by canoe that I followed in my trusty old car today. Was a nice day. See you tomorrow.

On The Road, September 12, 2007

Swept up in the euphoria of the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Jack Kerouac's On The Road I, in a crazed moment, began preparations to drive alone in my new (well, new to me) dark gray--sort of blue--1997 Toyota Camry from Plattsburgh on the shores of beautiful Lake Champlain to California and back. I awoke yesterday feeling a mixture of dread and excitement. Mostly, I ws totally unprepared, practicing lifelong habits of not planning ahead too much. Not sure i understand this part of me: I find myself usually responding to the newest alteration--sometimes crisis--in my plans and that seems to almost always work out for me--anyway, thats the pattern of a lifetime probably too late to change but not too late to reflect on it. I've come to distrust "planning." I mean we need to do something like it but most plans seem to go awry, at best and at worst create chaos if we call them ideology or build our institution's secure future on them. Iraq is another example of the same mix of ideological zealotry (neocons and Bush) and, in this case, weird planning. Somehow believing that government has no role in the life of a society or nation, that after you decapitate the leadership and then fire all the police, army and most of the civil servants the civil state will pick itself up, hold elections and rebuild a nation state--truly amazing. Rumsfeld, Chaney and Bush clung to that plan until Iraq settled back into tribalism and anarchy.

So, how did my day go: lack of planning didn't help much either--total chaos. The "last minute" purchases--battery for the camera, bulb for the overhead light in trusty car, and worse, trying to fix the "check engine light" create endless frustration, I agonized as nothing went "as planned." Finally, at 2 pm I set out from the burgh, just happy to be on the road and Free like JK. Stopped to take a few pictures of the amazing windpower plants--windmills--now growing out of the farmer's fields of northern NY--now this is a real crop for which each farmer who allows one of these enormous futuristic corn stalks to be planted is paid a handsome sum.

After missing the turnoff to the cross border bridge at Cornwall, retracing my steps I began to relax, the gale force winds were a little tough and the sheets of rain were blinding but still i was underway and beginning to enjoy my adventure. Relaxing best by chewing on sunflower seeds I immediately broke my front tooth on a freaking sunflower seed shell. I'm sorry i just have to say fuck man. How could this happen. I've had this front tooth on-a-post for years it must have withstood far worse than this puny sunflower but maybe this is true sunpower. Anyway, I heard "crack" and knew it wasn't a minor matter. Well it is broke but thankfully stayed in place and even better doesn't hurt--yet. Any kid raised in the 50s knows that what follows cracking sounds in his mouth is--pain--not from the tooth--from the dentist. Nothing in a long life of pain and sorrows is worse than the dread of going to the dentist in 1955! Good God! Shit! The drills were driven by little beltlike rubber bans; as the dentist applied pressure to drill the damn things slowed down to a crawl and smoke and steam came from your mouth. If you moved or tried to cry out he only increased the pressure and nicked you to make sure you stayed immobile. Then, out came the "shot" oh my god , he tried to hide it but any kid knew what was coming: with gigantic needles three times the size of today's little gentle pins these things were like nails --it was better to let him drill without the novocaine than endure the pain of the shot--well a slight exaggeration but not by much.

Oh well, about to start day two of my big adventure. After the tooth debacle I made it to a little town called Deep River in southern Ontario--careful planning made sure that I got the last bed to be found in a 100 kilometer radius of the Canadian military base at Petawawa. My goal--what a fanciful word--my goal for today is to make it to a little town on Lake Huron, Thessalon where i intend to eat white fish (avoiding biting in the front) and enjoy the amazing scenery including the recovering landscape downwind from Sudbury's nickel mining and smelting.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

History and Online Learning

In a response to a fellow historian also participating in a H-Net List for Online Education in the Humanities , I wrote the following and post it here for others reactions:

Stephen: I'm also a historian and must say I agree with you regarding the growing sense of routinization of our online courses. For all the reasons you mention, I believe very strongly we need to be employing better constructivist strategies. I'll just mention a couple of ideas that I have used: I try to involve learners in "doing" history rather than being taught history (even by student-led interactions). I require teams to build web sites where they have to go out to those same museums and collections you mention to create their own slice of history. I also have tried several simulations and think they could be used (much better than I did) to develop learner interest. corky

Some thoughts on Online Learning Structures

I have been contributing to a conversation on H-Net for Online Education: H-Net List for Online Education in the Humanities and thought it might be useful to share my comments here on my blog for others to respond or comment:

Hi Boria, Dale, et. al.: I'm enjoying your conversation and find myself agreeing with both of you (Boria and Dale at this juncture)! I certainly share the sense of the early euphoria of teaching in this new environment and developing our own rules and structures. I taught my first online course in early 1997, built from raw html and focused on a chat room converted to an asynchronous bulletin board. Today the same institution, UWW Skidmore College, is still building each course from scratch using Dreamweaver after involving each faculty member in the initial development stage of his or her course. Naturally, some template qualities have appeared but there is truly no structured CMS rigidity. this term I'm teaching again for UWW and another institution using Blackboard. My sense is that some of the problems we face as instructors follow from the learning culture and structures adopted by individual institutions. I am getting better responses from my UWW students than from my other folks and part of that I believe grows out of BB's more structured environment and very likely from the desire of other faculty members to control their learning space. The result seems to be more like what Boria describes: students with a clear expectation of making as few (and least meaningful) postings possible--until pushed, as Dale suggests, to broaden their postings and the range and quality of those interactions. (If I can get a plug in, my colleague, Carla Payne, and I, have written a piece for a special edition of On The Horizon an online journal that Boria is editing, entitled "Can We Talk? Course Management Software and the Construction of Knowledge," which address many of these same issues in more detail.)

My sense is that we must move away from CMS's like Blackboard or find ways to make these broadcast CMS's more like the internet itself: narrowband, point-to-point. The individual skills, talents and unique vision of faculty have to be respected--as does the need to get learner involvement at the very beginning, as Dale suggests. Moodle or similar Open Source CMS's offer a much better learning philosophy but perhaps not a real great difference in templated structures.

I'm doubtful that we are actually taking learning advantage of the internet itself. We are still in the horseless carriage stage of this new enterprise--borrowing the structures of the past (the horse and buggy lecture) to build the car (horseless buggy BB) of the future. I feel strongly we should be much more concerned about the aesthetics of online learning (color, graphics, images, etc); we should be doing much more serious game playing (simulations); using the internet much more on the fly to reference additional sources and, we need help from our more technically inclined people to build a totally new bulletin board platform. The best I know of now is the latest version of Phorum but it still remains a "forum" (they call them msgs) and "threads" environment. I think we can do better. I hope others will join this discussion--its one of the best I have seen on H-Net for Online Ed. corky