Marketing ignorance?

English literary tradition has produces a number of great works with which we should all be familiar. Schools are doing a good thing when their required reading list includes such works as Of Mice and Men, Moby Dick, Lord of the Flies, and, as much as I despised reading it, maybe even Jane Eyre.

But like any good student, you want to get out of as much work as possible. So, in combining the old and the new, you buy a set of Cliffs Notes and pop popcorn with a movie rental to see if you can glean enough of the story line to pass the test. Noticing the spike in literary movie sales at exam crunch time, MGM marketing director Chris Franchino and his colleagues at Fox Home Entertainment decided to make things even easier by repackaging a few classic movie titles together with the popular study guides.

“Maybe this isn’t a bad idea,” Franchino says of the strategy involved in the new series. “The students are already doing it and maybe we can actually try to make it more educational.” jam!

Thus the Cliffs Notes Ultimate Study Guide was born. And available at my grocery store.

But wait! Why stop at high school and college kids trying to cut a few corners in their reading list? There is also a new Follow Along series aimed at young children to help improve reading skills. Busy parents no longer have to sit down and read to their children to promote literacy in early childhood. Now, it is as simple as turning on the captioning button.

As a word is spoken, it lights up in the oversized captions. American educator Helen Hoffner, who has spent two decades researching the potential of captioning before consulting on these DVDs, tells Sun Media that the series has a simple, elegant benefit.

“I see it building language skills. It is something very easy and inexpensive for parents because it is as easy as turning on the captioning button. Children, when they’re two or two years old, have to get the idea that these squiggly symbols that are letters really represent words.” Ibid.

We have talked about what happens to the brain during television viewing before. But even very young children are already being immersed in media, and most parents think it is good for children. With reviews like this, who is going to question that? So now we will attempt to learn to read with captioning and learn about our literary tradition with MGM. I guess it fits.


Dispelling common myths about the so-called developing world

Hans Rosling, professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska University made a rather dramatic presentation at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) in February 2006. I always appreciate good speakers (and writers), and his ability to make these kinds of statistics both entertaining and relevant is truly amazing. This video is a little long (20 minutes) but worth every minute. He quickly shows you why everything you thought you knew about the third world, health and poverty are wrong. There are a few things I could possibly take issue with, but think about the following while you watch and I think you will see why I enjoyed this presentation beyond his wonderful humor.

  • While he is talking about global health, it becomes increasingly clear that the problems are local. There may well be a number of things that “we” in the Western World can do to help, but global initiatives which look at the Third World as a whole likely will not be useful. Even regional data is not detailed enough to formulate policy.
  • The gap between rich and poor? That really surprised me. The whole concept of developing countries and the traditional idea of aid is questioned. Watching the graph as the years progress really fascinated me. It put a new facet to my view of wealth. All of these countries are closing in on us, something that we hear continually lamented by President Bush. After all, this is a graphic depiction of the global economy we are worried about competing in. But what happens to US wealth as the other countries close in?
  • There is a catalyst in the upswing of many of these nations: loosening of trade regulations and a general freeing of the economy.

So basically, he very graphically presents my view of wealth: wealth generated by the free market generates wealth and problems need to be addressed at the local level rather than globally. Enjoy!

The half-life of knowledge and the shape of education

We do find ourselves in challenging times. Our economy is changing rapidly. From agrarian to industrial to service-oriented to information-oriented all in just over a century. And what of this information?

Technology is placing unique requirements on people in the workplace, compelling a sharp focus on training and education. One of the most persuasive factors is the shrinking half-life of knowledge. The “half-life of knowledge” is the time span from when knowledge is gained to when it becomes obsolete. Half of what is known today was not known 10 years ago. The amount of knowledge in the world has doubled in the past 10 years and is doubling every 18 months according to the American Society of Training and Documentation (ASTD). Benchmarks Online

How do we prepare our children for a world in which the need for information is expanding so rapidly, and in which the knowledge we are presenting them with today may well be obsolete by the time they graduate? How do we structure our education system to meet these challenges? And how do we overcome them in our homeschools?

While preparing students for the 21st century may be one of the stated goals of No Child Left Behind, I doubt that increased standardized tests and the increasingly standardized curriculum are going to meet the needs of an increasingly diversified economy. George Siemens challenges the dominant learning theories of behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism with an interesting alternative: connectivism. I think I agree with Professor Verhagen that what he proposes is more of a pedagogical view than a learning theory, but that isn’t what I want to explore. I think the quote he shares summarizes the view pretty well:

Experience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge. Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge. ‘I store my knowledge in my friends’ is an axiom for collecting knowledge through collecting people (undated).

In essence, what he appears to be arguing is that we no longer need to know how and why, but where and whom. It is of little importance what we know, but that we know where to go to get the information when it is needed. It is an alluring theory.

But I’m not sure that I wholly accept the basis, yet. The amount of knowledge set before us is a bit overwhelming and beyond the capability of any single human to process. Networks of systems and people are vital for processing even the minimum required for a small business. But if all you had were the network and the knowledge of how to use that network, would you be educated? Would you be suited for any station in life? Without some depth of understanding, are you really able to process the information, much less contribute anything new?

It reminds me of the superficiality of knowledge D.H. Lawrence discusses in his essay, perhaps intensified by the use of technology, but still relevant. We may know more superficially, but this seems at the expense of actually understanding anything. And how are we of value if all we can do is connect with others? Each member of the network needs to possess an area of expertise, something to contribute to that network. Each needs to know something deeply.

There was another time in our history when we stood at the threshold of a radically different world. How were we to prepare for it? How did the education of our founding fathers prepare them to invent that new world? And what gave rise to this booming information-oriented economy in the first place?

It wasn’t a centralized education system focused on giving every child the same education. As Noah Webster writes in his essay, On the Education of Youth in America,

Artificial wants multiply the number of occupations, and these require a great diversity in the mode of education.

If we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century, now more than ever we need a diversified education system. Local control, not centralized control, will keep us competitive in the 21st century.

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Keeping in touch or personal touch?

Weary Parent’s group writing project asks what advice we were given as teens that we took to heart. Now, either my parents were not the advice giving sort or I really wasn’t listening because I do not remember a single piece of advice they ever gave me. I did, however, hear a frequent command which has proven to be very beneficial to me and those around me:

Dana, get off the phone.

My parents just wanted to be able to make a phone call. But I began to realize something. All humans have an innate desire to develop and maintain relationships with other humans. The telephone is a convenient means of keeping in touch, but without the touch. As such, it is nothing more than a substitute for real human contact. It touches the surface of a need, but cannot satisfy it.

I spent my senior year in Germany and there I read a book which had a somewhat profound effect on my thinking for some time: Homo Faber by Max Frisch. The title emphasizes the entire thesis of the book. It juxtaposes two ideas of man: homo sapiens, man the wise, and homo faber, man the smith or maker. The main character of the book is a Swiss technologist who views men much as he views the machinery with which he works. They are nothing more than the sum of their parts, and as such are somewhat interchangeable. He is cool, distant and detached from what is going on around him. He lives in a world of black and white, right and wrong, actions and consequences but void of forgiveness. And through the developing plot, he records everything with his camera.

It is his way of seeing everything and experiencing nothing.

In our high-tech society, we have more ways of communicating than ever before. We have email, instant messenger, blogs, online discussion groups, telephones and cell phones. We can remain in almost constant contact without actually having any physical contact. I am reminded of AT&T’s old advertising slogan, “Reach out and touch someone.”

Except you cannot actually touch anyone through a telephone. You remain distant and the connection is superficial. It is little wonder that researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found a link between increased internet usage and mild depression (pdf), especially in those who sought to form relationships via the internet as opposed to those seeking entertainment. The spirit yearns for physical contact and is only placated, never satiated.

My parents may not have realized they were giving any profound advice as they cut short my telephone usage, but they did provide the impetus for recognizing the importance of real, personal human contact. Technology can be a wonderful tool, but it can also become a distraction, preventing us from truly connecting with those around us and silencing our needs for contact without fulfilling them.

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Planetarium for your computer

I love the night sky. I used to spend hours gazing up at the stars, wondering what all was out there beyond what I could see, what brought it all about and just in awe at the majestic beauty of the night sky. I would stay up all night to see a meteor shower or a planet, and spent a good deal of the daylight hours reading books about astronomy.

Now we have our very own planetarium on our computer, thanks to stellarium. From their website:

Stellarium is a free open source planetarium for your computer. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope.
It is being used in planetarium projectors. Just set your coordinates and go.

You can set the coordinates for your town (or somewhere you are visiting), select the time of day you wish to view and even set the speed of the passage of time so you can watch the stars as they rise and set. There are several interesting features which allow you to see the sky as it appears, with lines for the constellations, labels for astronomical features or even with constellation artwork. We have been enjoying just playing around with the features, but I am looking forward to our first formal unit on astronomy even more now.

While you are enjoying the night sky from your desktop, another good site is The Night Sky This Week which, as the name implies, lets you know of all the objects of interest in the night sky for the week.

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