Monday, February 08, 2010
  Visualising Biblical Data
Exhibit is claimed to be a "simple widgets tool" enabling mere mortals to make useful, interactive web-based visualisations of data sets easily. It is open source :) with samples like these:
There have to be ways to use this in teaching our disciplines, but I wish I had some immediate ideas, so I could try it ;) Just looking at it though suggests a fine playroom where pericopae were listed by size, genre, location etc... and one could see various cuts of this information...

HT Jane Hart

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Friday, January 15, 2010
  Google, politics and diplomacy
Commenting on my "Has Google gained a conscience?" post below Bill said:
Timing is so critical. I suspect it's a good thing that Google waited as long as it did to make this a line in the sand. The Chineese people are more likely to notice, now.
This is a really interesting comment, and even more striking are the thoughts it provokes. For Bill is likely spot on. If enough people in China have become Google-dependent, especially families of people with influence, then this new hard line of Google's could be effective.
Image from La Gaceta
If it is, it could also be the point from which future historians date the beginning of the state of Google, Google's definitive entry into politics and diplomacy. Already de facto if not de jure Google controls a huge proportion of the global access to information. It also wields significant economic power, if it adds to that an active use of its "hearts and minds" power Google has the potential to significantly impact global politics and diplomacy. For many years people have worried about the monetary "clout" of large corporations (though these worries may be due more to miscalculations than reality), perhaps though the information barons pose the real threat to democracy, as well as or after the threat they pose to tyranny.

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Saturday, November 28, 2009
  Degrees of presence V: Works I should have cited and didn't
AKMA in his comment drew my attention to his reflections on presence I should have Googled his blog earlier, there's at least a really interesting reflection from Saturday, February 09, 2002, and the piece from 2006 Plus Ça Change that ended with a facscinating paragraph:
Of course, the church has been trying to think through the importance of non-spatial identities for centuries, which helps explain my confidence that a theologian’s perspective can contribute to the discussion. All along, people’s identities have been constituted by the memories, links, knowledge, and patterns that they share (or not) with the rest of the world; in our digital environment, those aspects of identity come to the fore. Let’s not shackle them to simulated spatiality, but instead let’s seek out a way to work with identity in ways indigenous to a non-spatial identity ecology.
Photo from Brownblog
Forgetting simulated spatiality, which is only an issue in distance education for the goofs who are using second life to mimic classrooms, ARE there ways in which non-spatial identity or presence have a distinctly different ecology? or Are we merely talking about different media of communication? Does the absence of smell (to take the most evident example of a difference in mediation between physical and distance modes) REALLY make a qualitative difference?

Then (not temporarily since I am mentioning the items out of order, or rfather in my own chosen order), when having talked about the AKMAs his physical presence might with varying degrees of falsity bring to mind in someone experiencing his presence:
a tweedy academic in a town overrun with tweedy academics or a visibly-identifiable priest (at a cultural moment when any given (male) priest bears the suspicion that he has done horrible things to children)
He concluded talking about:
[a] new, freshly ambiguated zone between full physical presence (and I've learned enough from my postmodern studies to doubt the obviousness of "presence") on one hand and merely-verbal communicative absence (on the other) that we wrestle with the messages that come to us from we-know-not-exactly-where. As we learn how to live appropriately, I might say "authentically" to bring us back around to the topic we were talking about when I first met many of you, under these unfamiliar conditions, we will find neither that "religion" is passé, nor that we are truly immaterial beings trapped in decaying flesh, but that there's more to cyberplace than just immaterial or physical existence, more even than we have dreamed of.
I am again left wondering if the different mediation of "cyberspace" is not more significant than the "cyberspace" idea suggests, and therefore the difference in "presence" less significant...

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Friday, November 27, 2009
  Degrees of Presence IV: My experience
I have already mentioned the striking presence some students presented to each other in the blog assignment. This kind of experience has been often repeated, though not with quite that dramatic intensity. Such assignments which force students to interact with each other's thought, and not merely with that of unknown "scholars" who (despite being named in the heading, and sometimes being easily Googleable) remain somehow "anonymous", impersonal, to most students, who do not read enough to pick up the peculiar tone and voice of individual scholars. (Is it just good-old-days-ism or did we really read more and more intensely?)

I have also repeatedly (though sadly only in private communication not often in the more public forum of "Student Evaluations" of courses and teaching :( noted with pleasure the positive comments students make about my quick response to emails, and discussion forum posts. Several of these comments have been phrased in ways that make it clear that a greater sense of "presence" is generated and supported by this promptitude. Interestingly the student's own presence in the class seems reinforced in this way as well as the presence of a teacher in the class.
Photo by Ed Yourdon
Then this semester I used Adobe Connect to provide a "meeting room" in which I could conduct "distant tutorials". The software allows two way (or indeed multi-way) audio communication, live text messaging either to the group or privately to a selected individual, sharing of screens and programs as well as computerised whiteboard. The idea was to mimic the face to face tutorials in which we led on-site students through the practice of biblical interpretation.

The weekly Connect tutorials were supplemented and supported by other (asynchronous) online interaction: forums, exercises, online tests etc... This is an element of the course that needs more work and to be better done next year. But apart from that, with respect to distant tutorials what did I learn about  generating and nurturing "presence" at a distance?

Microphones: it makes a huge difference when most students have mics that work. Comparing a class where most have the ability to talk aloud with one were only a few have this capacity the difference is huge. (At least for me as teacher, I'd need to do some research to discover if the students' perceptions match mine.) Text messaging, in this multi-medium environment, is great as a back channel, but acts as an inhibitor of "presence" when used instead of voice as the main communication medium.

Multitasking: the multiple channels (voice, screen, whiteboard and text) combined with all the technical issues that need to be resolved, on top of the pedagogical responsiveness needed mean that having one "presenter" is not ideal. Often I was less present, or less effectively present (again targeted research would be needed to be sure which), than was optimally possible.

Task oriented: because it was the first time (apart from a couple of "practice" sessions) I had used the medium, and because I was aware that colleagues would be judging the utility of "virtual meeting" tools like connect to a significant degree based on how students performed in this class, I was too focused on the task. When the speaker is thinking more about the "content" than the communication presence suffers, and the interactive medium becomes more like a video lecture :( Fear of failure has much the same effect on many presenters at academic conferences, as I discovered afresh in a few gabbled sessions at SBL over the last few days - though in the room those presenters were hardly present for me, and I wish I had not been present for them ;)
Failure to encourage “social” contact: (probably one to file under Duh!) related to the above task orientation, I failed to realise that I should make more effort (in a relatively - at least compared with a face to face tutorial) impoverished media environment to generate mutual presence. We should have "wasted" more time on chitchat. By the end of the semester we did at least use the minutes while everyone collected in that way (at the start I am ashamed to note I was too busy with the technology to make small talk).

Despite these teething problems several students have already (without being asked) commented on the richer experience this richer medium permitted, and among these comments some already have chosen particularly to mention terms that relate to "presence" to describe the benefits they experienced compared with a "standard" distance course.

PS: I have not looked at the issues or research around "communities of inquiry" in this series because my goal is not to change the pedagogy we use radically - even if I am convinced such a change is desirable - but to explore the concept of "presence" and how it is experienced in teaching and learning at a distance.

List of works cited in this series so far

Garrison, D. Randy. 1997. Computer conferencing and distance education: cognitive and social presence issues. In , ed. International Council for Distance Education . Pennsylvania State University.

Richardson, Jennifer C., and Karen Swan. 2003. Examining Social Presence in Online Courses in Relation to Students' Percieved Learning and Satisfaction. Sloan Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7, no. 1: 74.

Shatzer, Milton J., and Thomas R. Lindlof. 1998. Media Ethnography in Virtual Space: Strategies, Limits, and Possibilities. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 42, no. 2: 170-89.

Short, John, Ederyn Williams, and Bruce Christie. 1976. The social psychology of telecommunications. London u.a: Wiley.

Short, John. 1972. Medium of communication and consensus. Lond.: Long Range Intelligence Division of Post Office Telecommunications Headquarters.

Short, John., Joint Unit for Planning Research. Communications Studies Group., and Great Britain. Post Office. Long Range Intelligence Division. 1973. The effects of medium of communication on persuasion, bargaining and perceptions of the other. Long range research paper, 50. London: British Post Office.

Stacey, Elizabeth. 2002. Social Presence Online: Networking Learners at a Distance. In , ed. Deryn Watson and Jane Andersen, 39-48. Springer, August 31.

Wheeler, Steve. 2005. Creating Social Presence in Digital Learning Environments: A Presence of Mind? In Learning Technologies 2005 Conference: Combined Presence. Queensland.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009
  Degrees of presence III: Research findings
Frustration! by basykes
Duh! That's what I should have done first (if you don't know what "that" is you could read the previous post Degrees of Presence II: the backstory) after working some while on my circular rotating device for easier locomotion I consulted the literature and found a body of research on the topic of "social presence". (I am unclear still why the qualification "social" is needed, surely presence that is non-social is what I'd mean by non-presence!?) The key canonical text is Short, Williams and Christie (1976).

They defined social presence as a communicator’s sense of awareness of the presence of an interaction partner. This seminal work came out of research sponsored by the British Post Office in the 1970s (John. Short 1972; John. Short, Joint Unit for Planning Research. Communications Studies Group., and Great Britain. Post Office. Long Range Intelligence Division. 1973)⁠ If this sponsorship puzzles you think of the then growing ubiquity and use of telephones - yes, landlines mobiles were not yet invented, except on Get Smart ;) As well as providing the dominant definition they also noted that the social effects of a medium are principally caused by the degree of social presence it affords. ⁠

This concept of "social presence" is significant for the processes by which we come to know and relate to others (John Short, Williams, and Christie 1976)⁠. So better person perception and more meaningful interactions are a result of increases SP. If SP is low group members feel disconnected, but when it is high they are more engaged and involved. Stacey emphasises the role of the teacher in distance education as facilitator of such presence. (Stacey 2002)⁠

[Another influential strand in this involved a redefining of Social presence as “the degree to which participants are able to project themselves affectively within the medium.”, thereby presenting themselves as 'real people.' (Garrison 1997)⁠ But I have not yet worked through whether I find this shift a helpful one.]

The cues we use to build our sense of the social presence of another, or to consciously or unconsciously project our own vary dramatically in different communications media.

  • text-based media like email and discussion forums - use “tone”, emoticons, self disclosing narratives
  • audio adds inflection, ambient sound, paraverbal utterances ("Uh huh" in various inflections, or the sound of a students toddler playing as she attends class - the single mother not the toddler ;)
  • video – adds visual cues
This list (or one like it) has been argued to be a hierarchy, which given its additive nature has face validity (Shatzer and Lindlof 1998)⁠

Yet before we rush to assume higher in the hierarchy (or lower in my listing ;) means better we should pause to consider more anecdotal and research evidence, that suggests different students respond very differently to different media. Some students love email, others require a phone call to really feel they have been in contact with the teacher (social presence).

Wheeler studied how different styles of being a student interact differently with different media. (Wheeler 2005) Using Entwistle's Approaches to Study Inventory he distinguished students into three groups. Like but perhaps distinguishable from Entwistle's three learning styles: autonomy, surface and tenacity. (p.6)

For my presentation I'll ignore the surface learners. They are the ones I try to convert to one of the other types ;)

In a natural co-present learning space (face to face) his autonomous students,
(due to their independence?), neither need nor experience a great deal of
social presence. Tenacious students, conversely, tend to experience high levels
of social presence. But when telephone is the medium of communication the effect is reversed, autonomous students perceive higher levels of connectedness. Using e-mail too students scoring higher on autonomy perceive less social presence (perhaps because “not in control”?), whilst more tenacious students experience higher perceptions of connectedness. He notes the special affordances of e-mail as a less immediate, but more permanent medium. These may fit also with the known liking for e-mail of the introverted, and an often expressed frustration with e-mail among more extroverted colleagues ;)

Mark N added in a comment on the previous post that there is also a literature around "transactional distance" that I must explore too. Second "duh" moment, I should have picked his brains first, still I will now have two wheels, and they do say that we only really learn what we discover for ourselves ;)

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  Degrees of Presence II: the backstory
Begging Boy - Agra, India by gregor_y
Discussions on "distance education" (the term is often a misnomer since I have had students living or working closer to the on-site classroom than my home is ;) often get bogged down in primitive notions of "presence". The idea of distance skeptics seems to be that we are only "really" present to each other when in the same room. This is evident nonsense. If Barbara and I are in the same room but she is playing Facebook Scrabble I will be lucky to get a sensible reply to any question I ask. If I am reading a book she will get one of those male grunts that merely means "I think I heard that you said something - but I have no idea what." We are virtually non-present to each other, though in the same room. By contrast if we are talking on the phione about some concern over one of the children, even though in different cities we are highly mutually present.

So, I got thinking about degrees and sorts of "presence" in online education. I remember vividly a long "conversation" between two students in the first class in which I used a blog assignment. Student A began from the position that anyone who was poor was poor because they were lazy, shiftless or anti-social. Student B was living in Thailand. B wrote about his family, a young son who saw a boy his own age "selling" flowers as a sort of respectable begging, and his boy's sympathetic response on learning more about the situation. Gradually over a couple of weeks A's attitudes changed and mellowed. He'll never be a bleeding-heart liberal, but the two students impacted each others' lives and were evidently and richly mutually present.

That got me exploring the research literature on the subject... (which will come in part III: Research findings).

Karyn Traphagen has posted about her presentation Taking the Distance Out of Distance Education to the SBL session: 22-201 Academic Teaching and Biblical Studies: Distance Learning: How to teach traditional topics in a non-traditional format. Here is a link to my notes.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009
  Twitter a survey
Lifehacker recently ran a survey on Twitter. Interestingly, for a fairly techie blog full of early and enthusiastic adopters, especially given Twitter's apparent cult status among the trendy Digerati. About half (47%) of respondants to the poll have no inclination to twit.
Twitter is
a waste of time
less than passionately interesting
mildly interesting
really significant
the best thing since the previous best thing
my life, my soul, my all free polls

This fits my reaction, unlike other trendy tools I have found potentially interesting and explored (for a recent example take Google's Wave) or tried to explore but given up on (like Second Life), I have never been able to imagine the point of Twitter!

I would be interested to know though whether my readers and their readers have a similarly large number of Twitagnostics, or whether "we" have more Twitter-gnostics ;)

So please vote in the poll here, and/or link to it ( so your readers (at least if they are in the biblical studies and related disciplines whether as professionals or amateurs ;) can vote.

You will see from the questions that this is not entirely serious and scientific, but either by polling or by comments I really would be interested to hear what you all think :)

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Friday, November 06, 2009
  Effective communication 3: considers the audience
Photo by jsmjr
Different audiences, even different people in the same audience will respond to different styles, content and delivery.

Avoid words they won't understand - like jargon. Technical terms can be explained.

Kids sadly often look bored in churches (even kids much bigger than this one ;) but only when people persist in talking too long, or over their heads.

Sometimes the invisible audience is the most significant to address!

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Thursday, November 05, 2009
  Effective communication 2: Is concise
Oil Slick? by cyanocorax
Writers and speakers have to earn attention. Readers and listeners need to be rewarded. The more time we expect them to expend the greater that reward should be.

So, effective communication should be as brief as is convenient to communicate the message clearly. This rewards the audience with maximum benefit for their effort.

So, be brief!

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Wednesday, November 04, 2009
  Effective communication 1: Effective communication is clear
Photo by foilman
I subscribe to an email from Steve at Actuate Consulting, which today offered some bullet points on Effective Communication. Since communication is at the heart of most of what I do I thought I'd filter and adapt Steve's ideas into a series of short posts.

In my book the number one has to be: Effective communication is clear. If people do not understand, asking: What did she say? or What did he mean? communication has not occurred. Communication has not occurred unless a sensible message is received, no matter how much you spoke or wrote.

The best aid to clarity is a picky proof-reader. How I wish my students had spouses or friends with the courage to say: I could not follow this bit? What did you mean here? How I wish more biblical scholars and preachers would learn that to say something simply and clearly is better than to say something that sounds profound, but fails to communicate ;)

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