Personas – or who are you?

I was playing with Personas this morning a gadget from the MIT Media Lab. You give it your name, and, according to the site it “scours the web for information and attempts to characterize the person – to fit them to a predetermined set of categories that an algorithmic process created from a massive corpus of data.”

Basically, it combs the web and spits out a pretty bar chart that characterizes you into different categories based on what it found associated with your name.

There are some really interesting ways you could use this in class. The one that immediately jumps to mind is to bring home that trope of “the Internet is your permanent record” to kids – even if you think things are private, they’re not – and look this Web site can find it all out.

But I think another great use would be to show kids how fallible the Internet can be. I searched for my name three different ways: 1) my maiden name, which  I used as a byline as a tech reporter, and which also happens to be the name of a semi-famous artist; 2) my married name, which was remarkably popular with 19th century German nuns; and 3) what I tend to go by now, First Maiden Married. Comparing the three results is informative, to say the least.

The Personas site is quite upfront about this issue. In the FAQ, under the “these results are not me” section, the site responds “And what is “you?” We are only given a name, and that is what we search for. Reflect on issues of privacy and anonymity online, and the issues surrounding name collisions and uniqueness. This is an issue of large society implications, as the TSA recently testified to Congress.”

That should really get kids thinking. If “the Internet” can be utterly wrong about who you are, how do you know whether it’s right about anything else? How do you decide? Who says?

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That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.
– The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
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Plagiarism connundrum

How to deal with this one? It’s not that these kids don’t know any better, but even when you explain it to them, they just don’t care.

At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.

I used to think that they would start to care once they started writing, because after all, they wouldn’t want someone to take their stuff, would they? But now I don’t know.

The anthropologist quoted in the piece says that while she is disturbed by the high incidences of plagiarism,  to some degree this is due to a new style in writing.

The idea of an author whose singular effort creates an original work is rooted in Enlightenment ideas of the individual. It is buttressed by the Western concept of intellectual property rights as secured by copyright law. But both traditions are being challenged.

But why does that mean you don’t have to cite your sources? Pastiche all you want, just give credit.

Update: Jonathan Adler at The Volokh Conspiracy makes a similar point (better than I do)

 The mash-up culture is not a culture of plagiarism.  Those who copy music, lift riffs, or appropriate images don’t usually claim authorship of the original source material or claim it as their own.  They use this material in works of their own, while freely acknowledging its provenance.  The creativity and originality comes from finding the right source material and putting it to good use, not from denying the original source.  Whether such copying and appropriation should be legal, it’s not the same as plagiarism, as it’s sourced.  Web links often serve as source attributions, and even Wikipedia pages demand footnotes.  Even in the Internet Age, we recognize the difference between incorporating the work of another and passing it off as one’s own.

What he said.

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Authority and historiography – who says?

One thing I’ve been thinking about this week is teaching children critical thinking regarding the Internet. Not just the safety issues – but how to evaluate sites, how to judge what you’re reading and why it’s there.

As a former reporter, issues of credibility are near and dear to my heart. And the Wikipedia issue comes up over and over again when dealing with students. But a comment that Danah Boyd made in this interview struck me: essentially she says that while Wikipedia gets a bad rap among some educators, it can also be a great tool in that it makes visible the process of how knowledge is created. When I was in school (many years ago) my history teacher made a point of teaching us historiography as well as history. We had weekly discussions about the historians who wrote the texts we used, and what their motivations were, and why they wrote what they did. For instance, compare Howard Zinn and Samuel Eliot Morrison on the Civil War.

Here’s where Wikipedia could be a great tool, I think. Unlike standard texts, you can actually see the process that the article goes through as it’s written and edited. You can follow discussions and arguments about what should or shouldn’t be included. And you can track down just who is saying that (to some degree, the site still allows some anonymity.) I can envision an assignment asking students to compare several articles on a single topic – using Wikipedia and more traditional reference sources. Who wrote this? How do we know that? What might their motivation be?

The topic works for learning about history, but also for developing a critical eye when evaluating resources. The comment that kids today believe anything they read online, but it’s true in some cases (and not just kids, I can’t believe how many times I send my parents links to Snopes.)

I started thinking about this when I was doing work for my library and technology class, but, oddly enough, I was brought back to it in the reading for my Children’s Literature class. Reading “My Brother Sam is Dead”  I was struck by the sympathetic portrayal of a Tory family in the Revolutionary War, something I can’t recall coming across as a child. In fact, I don’t think I had ever come across a positive portrayal of the British in that context until about a year ago, when my local PBS station aired Rebels and Redcoats, which tells the story of the American Revolution from a British perspective. When you suddenly have to think about “well, who says” it can change your view of things.

So, still developing this thought, but I’ll have to see how I can work this into my studies. Think there could be some good potential here.

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So, for a new class I’m having to work with a lot of audio. Podcasts, vlogs, video downloads etc. And they . . . just don’t work for me. I’ve been around tech for years , and I’ve been exposed to enough new types of tech to know that not everything works for everyone, and boy, is this not my learning method.

For one – I can read faster than you can speak, so anything work or school related that comes this way just seems inefficient to me. But it’s not just time – there’s something about the audio format that doesn’t pull me in. I get distracted, my mind wanders, in a way that doesn’t happen when I’m reading, or even watching a presentation. I’ll start clicking elsewhere, looking away, reading something else.

It’s not just podcasts – I don’t like audiobooks, I almost never listen to NPR. I’d rather watch the pitch-by-pitch cartoon updates on my blackberry then listen to a baseball game on the radio.

I’m hoping that having to take notes while listening should help. Video definitely does.  And I’m hoping that learning how to *create* the audio will help me learn how to listen to them. But I do think that some of this is just innate – some people are just visual, and not aural. I suppose that’s a good general lesson as well; a reminder that while some tools are great, not everything works for everyone, and you can’t expect students (or library patrons) to all react the same way.

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going digital

A school in Florida is following one in Boston in making the switch to digital. Clearwater High School will replace traditional textbooks with e-readers, likely Kindles according to this piece in St. Petersburg Times.

And last year, Cushing Academy in Massachusetts replaced a large portion of its library with e-readers, computers and other digital sources.

I’m not shocked that the schools would start to move this way, though it does seem a bit gimmicky (remember when everyone was going to get a laptop, or an iPod?). In Clearwater, for instance, the e-reader project will cost around $600,000 – the funds that were allocated to the school for technology and classroom materials over six years, the article said.

The idea behind the Kindle switch seems to be “hey we can save money buying texts electronically” and save kids schlepping around multiple texts.There area  host of issues here, of course. Damage, theft and loss, obviously, but also rights management, and Internet access. Will kids each get their own and add their own books each year? In which case, how do you reuse texts for the next class?  I’m also not clear on how this would work with an image-heavy text (say a biology book that has lots of pictures and illustrations). I love my Kindle, but it’s not meant for viewing photos. And a recent study at colleges found that the kids didn’t universally love using e-readers instead of traditional texts, faulting the devices’ ability to accept highlights and annotations, and saying it was difficult to juggle multiple documents at once. (That study also prompted issues with disability access).

That’s not to say that I don’t see the appeal of digital texts. When I was working on a recent project at the local high school, I noticed that the encyclopedias were covered with dust. The kids never use the print versions, the librarians said – they go online. And many of their resources are available as e-books, which allow multiple children to use the same resource, in school or at home.

I’ll be interested to see how this plays out. The article on the Florida school also noted that the district hasn’t yet signed a vendor, and has no quote from Amazon. I will be very curious to see what they say to this. Amazon making a move into the ed market would be very interesting. Apple had dominated that for years, and while PCs have made inroads due to cost, I imagine they would jump at the chance to see the iPads start popping up in K-12. Given the fighting between those two companies over publishers and digital rights, it should be interesting to see where this goes in the next few years.

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The Kno – right for students?

The Kno tablet made its debut at the D: All Things Digital show on Wednesday.  Linux-based, with two 14-inch touch screens, it seems designed for students. The company says it will be less than $1,000, and comes with a stylus for note-taking, as well as calendars applications and folders where students can store notes, videos and highlighted book passages.

According to the Times, the company already has deals in place with textbook publishers, including Pearson, McGraw Hill Education, Cengage Learning and Wiley, to make their texts available on the device.

The publisher support seems key to me; I love my Kindle, and would definitely want to get textbooks on it. Last semester I used a netbook for class, but I could see the appeal of a table that I could write on. If I could have the text with me as well, that would be pretty cool as well: yeah, it’s five pounds, but my textbooks weigh more than that now; add in a netbook and a notebook and the Kno looks pretty appealing.

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