Thursday, February 20, 2014

Google+ Ghost Town?

"Google Plus, the company’s social network, is like a ghost town. Want to see your old roommate’s baby or post your vacation status? Chances are, you’ll use Facebook instead." So said Claire Cain Miller in her 14 February 2014 New York Times piece. Such comments have been around for a while, are common, and are wrong.

Her quote above betrays a zero-sum mentality that equates the success of one company with the loss by another. It also assumes that all social networks are like all other social networks. Neither assumption is correct.  That she made those assumptions shows a lack of understanding of how diverse are the social communities on the internet.

Facebook is, indeed where one will go to see "your old roommate's baby or post your vacation status."  While you can find such things on Google+, it is more likely you will find photos of amazing people, landscape, or weather phenomena.  You will find people connecting on Google Hangouts or interacting in Communities discussing topics of mutual interest.  Little of that happens on Facebook.  

Here some examples of how Google+ is NOT a wasteland:

Google Hangouts go on 24 hours a day on varying and interesting topics. I use it to communicate with several of my professional acquaintances in higher education. We share experiences and practices. The tools of Google Hangouts permits us to actually discuss things face-to-face, by use of chat to pass along useful links, and to even share our desktops to show how we use various educational tools.  I also use it for virtual office hours for students who need assistance outside of normal class hours. 

Google+ Communities has proven useful in my classes as an area in which students can easily share stories and ideas about the subject at hand. Since the Google+ app is available on both Android and iOS, it is easily available to essentially the entire student population. Popularity is growing.

So, if you are looking for the photos of your college roommate's baby, or wanting to check in on what your old high school friends are doing, go to Facebook. However, just because you don't find that on Google+ does not mean G+is a ghost town. Far from it.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Do Professors Matter, Any More?

Well, the short answer to my "upworthy" headline is, yes.  But, there is a catch, and the catch is nuanced.

Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times, has been taking some heat recently.  In his Sunday Review piece, Professors, We Need You!, he admonished academia for hiding its intelligence behind cloistered walls of unintelligible writing style and obscure journals. He fretted over the lack of public intellectuals who actually had real impact on the public debate.  While exceptions to his argument can be found, they are notable by their rarity. Sadly, then, I must agree with him.

However, to the question as to whether professors matter, of course they do. We are an important vector for imparting both knowledge and methods of research to the world. In an ideal college, professors would work individually with students to encourage curiosity and teach them how to impart their newly found understanding into practice.  Theory is good and often necessary, but if disconnected with the practicum, becomes nearly useless. We professors are there to show how theory connects to and informs practice.

The problem is that we don't understand exactly why we matter and don't do a very good job of presenting our case to the public. As Nick notes in his essay, Rick Santorum went so far as to call President Obama " 'a snob' for wanting more kids to go to college." Such anti-intellectualism is, unfortunately, becoming widespread among some circles and fuels the debate on public education, climate issues, reproductive matters, and other social issues. There seems to be a real mistrust of anyone who spends time actually researching important matters.

We are the partly the cause of this problem. While most of us justifiably take pride in our research and believe that basic research to unearth new knowledge is important, too many of us hide behind that wall. We too often forget the two most basic questions about our research - (1) so what? and (2) who cares? If we can't satisfactorily answer those two questions, we may be in serious trouble.

Now, the answers to those two questions don't imply that if no one immediately cares about what we are studying we should abandon it. It does require that we seriously consider how we will answer those questions. And, we should answer it in a manner that "normal people" will understand.  An excuse that the subject matter is too complicated for the masses or that the public "can't handle the truth," is a cop out.  A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein admonishes us "if you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." Too many of us can't explain our most serious and important work simply enough.

There are many explanations as to why this came about. Easy to blame are the arcane practices of academic departments and their hiring and promotion practices. These encourage dense writing and use of highly specialized language.  They also encourage publication in obscure (to the public) journals that are not widely read outside the specialized field. They rarely insist that research be aimed, at least partially, at the formation of public policy.

Now, the real question is what to do about it.  Stay tuned for the next part as we tackle that troublesome next step.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The (continuing) Adjunct and Non-Tenure Track Debate

There is no move to unionize non-tenure track faculty here in Texas, but the push to hire per-course adjuncts is strong and growing. I just had a discussion with a [professor in a position to know these things] who told me that the university urges departments to hire per-course adjuncts to cover lower division large section courses. The principle reason for the push is economic. , i.e., it is cheaper. The university will pay an adjunct about $3,000 per three hour course and will not have to pay any benefits.

The senior faculty generally don't like this push, but find themselves in a hard spot due to lack of payroll.  With the increase in student population the courses have to be covered. With a significant number of senior faculty not willing to teach the lower division large section courses, department chairmen find themselves in an instructor crunch.  They are essentially forced to hire per-course adjuncts.

Now, not to put my university in a bad light, there is money for non-tenure-track lecturers. In the past, my department hired recently graduated Masters students to teach as Lecturers. Here, lecturers (and Senior Lecturers) are full time, teach a 4+4 load, are not expected to research, and get full benefits.  It is a good deal for many people. The department is now on a push to replace their Lecturers with PhDs. Given the overpopulation of PhDs trying to find academic positions, there is room for PhDs as Lecturers. This does get PhDs teaching Freshmen and Sophomores.

A new way of thinking in academia could be to provide Lecturer positions for newly graduated PhDs unable to find tenure track jobs a place to land. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Podcasts (Netcasts) and Music

Many of the professors I work with listen to one or more podcasts on a routine basis. The subjects of the podcasts (or netcasts, as Leo Laporte prefers to call them), are widely divergent, obviously depending on specific interests. I listen to Leo's TWiT network. My favorite programs are This Week in Tech, This Week in Google, and Windows Weekly. I also listen to most of Security Now and check out most of Mike Elgan's new Tech News Today and Tech News 2Night.

Keeping track of them is easy, letting an app do all the work. While there are many good "podcatchers" out there, I have settled on Pocketcasts.  Available for the iPhone, iPad, and Android, it automates most of the mundane tasks of keeping track of new podcasts, downloading them automatically, and setting up playlists.

Most of my listening is done while driving, generally to and from work. I have a half hour commute, not long as commutes go, but it is made more pleasant by listening to some interesting and generally useful tech information.  Rarely does a day go by when I don't pick up some new tidbit that I check out once in the office or upon return home.  Given that my work is not in the tech industry, listening to tech podcasts is primarily how I stay up with what is going on in the tech world.

With Bluetooth in my car or headphones while walking, it is easy enough to stay up to date.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Tasks, To-dos, GMail, and Google Calendar

A key organizing tool is how to manage one's To-do list,  a Task List,  and how best to integrate them into the Calendar. Along with that is how to integrate e-mail,  from where many tasks and To-dos arise.
In my case,  after checking out several options, I have settled on the Google solution. However, there are limitations, even there,  which I will point out.

Right now, I use Gmail,  Google Calendar, and Google Tasks. These tools are good,  but to make it work best across all platforms, some help us needed. For Android, I use Tasks by Team Tasks. There are other Task and To-Do apps, but this one seems to be best-suited for synchronizing with Google Tasks on the desktop and presents a simple, clean, easy to use user interface in Android. For GMail, I use the Google GMail app instead of the stock Mail app on my phone. For my phone and tablet calendar, while the stock calendar app and the Google Calendar app are both good, I find that the user-interface on DigiCal works best for me.  It synchronizes with Google Calendar, including multiple calendars. While the free version is good, I paid the money for the DigiCal+ version.

To get it all working together, Chrome is simply the best browser to use on your desktop or laptop.  I have to pull out Internet Explorer for a few use-cases at my university, as well as Firefox, but for the most part, Chrome answers all bells.  

GMail is my main entry point for accessing all my e-mail. I set it up to pull in my university email as well as my private email accounts.  I put it all in one Inbox with labels to clearly show from where each email came.  However, for those who aren't comfortable with that, it is easy enough to setup multiple inboxes in GMail. 

Where GMail excels is the ability to easily attach an email to an event or task. For example, if an email discusses an upcoming event, just click on the More button and then click Create Event. It takes to you a wizard that will permit you to create a new Google Calendar event with the subject email attached. Even if you archive the email (which I often will do to declutter my inbox) when you go to the calendar item, you will find a hyperlink that will bring up the email. It even copies the text of the email into the Description section of the calendar detail.

Related to that, and equally easy, is to create a Task from an email.  Same drill - with the subject email open, click on More and then Add To Tasks.  As with the calendar item, the email is attached to the Task item. You can then put a due date on the task or leave it open.

With that, you now have the ability to manage your email, tie it in with your calendar and tasks/to-do. You can seamlessly manage it from your computer, your tablet, or your phone.

The integration of Google Voice with Hangouts also offers a great tool. I rarely make a phone call on my desk phone or cell phone while at my computer. I merely bring up hangouts and dial in the number. What I am looking for now, is an easy way to manage my contacts from within the web browser. The current GMail Contacts interface is clumsy and slow at best. The easiest way to use it is to type in the phone number. That works nicely, but it would be nice to find an extension that makes it easier and quicker to work with contacts. I also look forward to someone launching an extension that turns phone numbers into Google Voice Hangout links.Right now, there are extensions that work with Google Voice, but it calls your phone in a re-call method. Dialing directly from the computer via Hangout is a nice option that needs to be expanded to work with contacts and phone numbers in websites. If you know of one, let me know and I will put it in here.

Matt Cutts, of Google, has an excellent blog post on how he works with To-do lists and tasks and is worth the read.  He recommended Better Google Tasks as a Chrome extension. However, that app is apparently no longer available.  If anyone knows where it is located, please shoot me a note.

An additional application I use heavily is Evernote. While it is not integrated as I would like, it does an excellent job of saving notes in an easily searchable database.  The Clip to Evernote Chrome Extension makes it easy to clip web pages, articles, and photos from the browser and send them to Evernote. With Evernote available as desktop application, a web application, and on your tablet and phone, it is easily one of the more useful data and information collection tools for researchers of any flavor.  Anyone who can figure out how to integrate Evernote with Google Calendar, GMail, and Tasks will be a hero in my book.

While I am happy with the arrangements described above, there are some additional features I would like to find.  Google Tasks, while useful, needs a simpler method of assigning a date. In the current application, you create the task, then have to click the right arrow to open a new window to assign the task. It would be more efficient if the initial create task window had all that right in it.

Another feature would be a way to easily convert a task into a calendar item.  Right now, while the the Task shows up on a date that you can designate, it is not possible to put in a time and convert it to a full calendar item. The use case here is a task to make an appointment, then, once the appointment is made, to fill in the times and other details, thus removing it from the task list and putting it on the calendar.

Recurring tasks would be a handy feature, too.

Now, I understand that Google is probably working on an integration of Google Keep with Tasks. That makes sense to me and I look forward to that. Keep already permits Reminders, which seems easy to integrate with a calendar for tasks and to-do lists. Keep is a useful tool, but not yet complete. An apparent competitor to Evernote, it does not make it to that mark.  However, if Google integrates it with Tasks, enabling synchronization with Calendar and even with GMail, it will be come a powerful tool for both tasks and to-do lists.

Organizing how one works is nearly half the battle in research, writing, and preparation for teaching.  I probably spend too much time thinking about this and too little actually doing what I ought to be doing, but I do see it as Stephen Covey's "sharpening the saw." A little time spent figuring this part out, makes it easy to save and locate the necessary data for later work. I don't pretend to have this all figure out, but this method does work. As always, if newer and more efficient methods wander within my reach, I will grab them, evaluate them, and, if they pass muster, adopt them. If you have figured out some good tools, pass them along.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Writing in the Classroom - Google+ Communities & Blogger

A recent posting about using Google+ Communities in my university level course generated some interest both on this blog as well as by other social interaction.  Specifically, Anne Hole, a colleague at the University of Sussex, asked how I used blogging, how it was assessed, and, most insightfully, for what purpose.

First - to what purpose.  It became clear to me after my nearly three decades of service in the United States Navy that writing was critical to my job. I was a line officer involved in various activities including sea duty, working at the Pentagon, and teaching at the Naval Academy.  In all cases, writing was an important skill. What I also realized is that the particular skill needed was the ability to transmit complex ideas in a relatively short amount of time (and space.) In other words, short writing was more important than long writing.  

I also learned that the essay writing taught in High School was woefully inadequate.  And, I learned that most people are lousy writer, myself included.

Not long after I got to my first ship, USS Reasoner, I found myself writing naval messages for the Captain. The bureaucratic process involved me writing the message, having it "chopped" by my Department Head and then "chopped" again by the Executive Officer before giving it to the Captain. After what must have been countless trips to the XO's office and having my writing edited again and again, he stopped me and told me to sit down.

"Don," he said, looking at the message I had just written. "I am going to tell you how to write a message."

I looked at him wondering what was about to happen.

"Paragraph one - Next Tuesday at 1030 I want you to stand on your head for ten minutes."
"Paragraph two - Here is why I want you to stand on your head next Tuesday morning."
"Paragraph three - Here are all the reasons why I came to the conclusion that you should stand on your head for ten minutes next Tuesday."

"Don, you always write your message exactly the other way around. Fix that."

Of course, all the XO was telling me was to put my thesis up front to be followed by the argument.  As the XO pointed out to me, I find the same thing with most of my students, even at the higher education level. They start with "paragraph three" and only get to "paragraph one" later on. By then, the reader has either gotten bored and lost interest or perhaps loses the point of paragraph one in all the other writing.

In the case of the XO's direction to me, after reading paragraph one there would be no doubt in the reader's mind what was expected of them. Now that the writer had the reader's attention, attention could be turned to the explanations as to why such direction was considered necessary.

So, that is why I ask my students to write in blogs and, now, on Google Communities. I find the long term papers to have less and less utility. There are plenty of professors who will teach them how to write long papers, but few work on short writing. Most writing in the "real world" is short writing.  Most of the writing I did for nearly thirty years was short writing. I never wrote a 25 page research paper. If I handed my bosses anything longer than two pages it was unlikely they would read it all.

Get to the point immediately and share the main arguments behind the point. Then, move on. 

Journalists are taught this from day one. In the days of print journalism, the writer did not know where the editor was going to cut the piece to make sure it fit. Our students of today can learn much from that sort of thinking.

In my classroom, I encourage my students to write a lot. But, they write a lot of short pieces, perhaps 250 to 500 words maximum.  The point of the blog and/or Google+ Community is to permit more interaction with other students rather than handing the paper in directly to me. 

As for assessment, I have a simple rubric that seems to work pretty well.  I grade content, creativity, and timeliness.  Each gets from 0-5 points for a maximum score of 15.  I can read the piece and grade it in a few minutes, thus not bogging all my time down in endless grading slogs.  Make up your own specifics, but below are mine for my most recent course on Asian Politics and Government.

Grading Rubric: For this discussion item in the Forum, and for all other discussion items, you will receive a grade between 0 and 15 based upon the following rubric:

Content (0-5):

5 – Covered all major points
4 – Covered most major points
3 – Covered the basic points, but omitted some critical issues
1 – Made a submission, but generally missed the point(s)
0 – Did not make a submission

Creativity (0-5):

5 – Enjoyable and easy to read. No grammatical or style errors
4 – Easy to read, no major grammatical or style errors
3 – Acceptable entry with some grammatical or style errors
1 – Made a submission, but with serious errors in grammar or style
0 – Did not make a submission

Timeliness (0-5):

5 – Submitted the entry by the required deadline
3 – Submitted an entry, but after the required deadline
0 – Did not make a submission

Doodle for Google

I love this annual event.  Get your kids to come up with a great idea for a Google Doodle.  Check out this link --> It's Time To Doodle 4 Google <-- and let's see how many kids from all ages can demonstrate their artistic and creative juices.