Friday, November 08, 2013

The Utopias and Dystopias of Digital Culture - #edcmooc

I have just started taking E-learning and Digital Cultures in Coursera. In the first week we had to watch four short movies and discuss them in term of being a utopian or dystopian view of technology. After watching a the four movies, I have decided to post my take on them answering the questions and commenting in terms of their utopian\dystopian depiction of technology. Finally we had to come up with our own utopian or dystopian story told in a movie,

Here is my take:

Bendito Machine III and  Heaven Sent Technology

While watching the movie, I kept thinking to myself about the messages it was trying to convey. One message, in my opinion, was that technology brings progress and change. If this change and progress is for the better, is another issue. As I watched these heaven sent novelties take over this little tribesmen lives and make them neglect other aspects of their existence, I could also see that it brought information and entertainment. However, as I saw old technology being dumped because of the new one, I have to agree that it suggests that this obsession with technology, so present in our world, has a great impact on the environment because it generates a compulsion for thoughtless consumption and, as a consequence, the habit of dumping the old to welcome the new. The characters in this short movie do not seem to have a choice concerning the technology they use. However, they could create something instead of waiting for it to fall from the sky. To me, they seem a bit idle and always wanting to be entertained by a technology that is alien to them. It does not seem that technology provides them with what they need, they seem to simply get used and addicted to it. The technologies portrayed in the film are generally, as I have pointed out, alien to the characters, subject to constant glitches, unpredictable, and unreliable. The view of technology is quite dystopian and it enslaves the characters.

Inbox and the Utopian Idea of Perfect Communication

This short movie shows how people can connect through web-based technology. At first, one could argue that it is a utopian account of how humans interact with and use technogy because it shows it is possible to meet people in many ways. I could even say it is neither, because I have grown to believe that the way we meet people on the web is not very much different than the way we meet people in real life. There are always limitations and insecurities as go back and forth in our minds never sure what impact we cause on others. When we first meet someone we never know if we will meet again and communication breakdowns often occur independent of medium. It is, in my opinion, a realistic account, if it is possible to say so, because to me it seems utopian the idea of communication and romance without glitches and communication breakdowns.

Thursday and The Illusion of   Gaining  Control

The film presents technology as something that many times blinds humans preventing them to see the beauties of the natural world that lie above their heads, beneath their feet, and in front of their very eyes. Technology is portrayed as a second class substitute for brighter and enhanced equivalents in nature. It suggests that the price we pay for replacing the affordances of the natural world by manmade wonders is losing contact with ourselves and with the cycles of nature. On the other hand, making such substitution we gain control of our own bodies, our emotions, and our routine. Tech gadgets are the ones who have agency in this film. However, I ask myself, is it possible to have control? Isn't it utopian to believe we can take the reins of our emotions?

New Media x Bendito Machine


In both short movies the machines have a great ecological impact. Just like in the first one, the second contains a reference to the skies thus implying a sort of helpless situation in which once characters\humanity cannot control the skies they cannot control the machines\technology.


The first difference is that Bendito Machine depicts a world that is still run by the characters, whereas New Media shows us an apocalyptical scenario in which whoever and whatever existed is a process of being destroyed, drained, or controlled. In addition to that, in Bendito Machine technology is not necessarily evil, it is asked for in a sort of prayer to the gods, while in New Media it looks more like an uninvited or invading alien force. In the first movie, technology comes into one form only and seems to be present only at one sphere of life and characters seem to have a choice, in the second movie it is ubiquitous occupying every corner of the habitat, even our bodies, and there is no choice. In the first movie technology is subject to glitches and needs constant updates while in the second it is state of the art and evolved to have a mind of its own. Finally, the ecological impact seems to be localized in one (limited to a landfill) and overspread in the second.

The Matrix and the Singularity 

As we become more dependent of technology and technology itself moves towards integration with gadgets and with our own bodies in so many ways, The Matrix is a perfect dystopian story for our times. The movie tells the story of how technology took over our bodies and minds and controlled the world. In such an apocalyptic world as the one depicted in the movie, I ask myself, if it is really a dystopic story. I really believe that this singularity is humanities future and the technology featured in The Matrix seem to protect humans from noticing the grim reality surrounding them. Thinking like that one can draw a parallel between the heroes and the family of birds in Thursday: they seem lonely and doomed to disappear as they struggle to survive. Survival of nature and of reality as we perceive is doomed in a world dominated by technology. If The Matrix world will become a reality maybe we are just starting to sleep. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Rhetorical Appeal to Stop Desertification

One of my tasks in my MOOC on Rhetorical Writing on Coursera this week was to watch ten minutes of the this video and post my analysis. It was a good exercise.

 In his speech on desertification, the rhetorical appeal Savory uses most successfully is logos. His logical argument stands firm on a claim, a reason, and an unstated assumption.

He claims that the “most perfect storm\tsunami” is “bearing upon” humankind who is facing a grim reality in which the world is getting hotter due to climate change that is being caused, among other factors, by desertification. He makes his point by showing evidence via images of before and after coupled with anecdotes collected through his vast experience as a scientist and researcher in the field.According to his argument, the reason why we should something about this problem, is because we are directly affected by it once we are also victims of climate change. Finally, his unstated assumption is that we are on the verge of disaster and that our civilization will perish (just like the Mayans as many others) if we do not find a way of reversing desertification.

His appeal is also logically strong because it is well supported by statistics, causal statements, and relevant examples.His statistics’ citations include the percentage of Earth (about two thirds) that is turning to desert and the amount of rain fall in Yemen and the fate of that water. His causal statements depict how land that was once covered by vegetation becomes desert. He also shows how livestock plays an important role in preventing desertification from happening.

Finally, he shares evidence that shows that, contrary to what many believe, it is large herds moving, grazing, and trampling the soil that makes vegetation come back and thus prevent desertification. Therefore, we should consider having large herds of livestock roaming in the land if we are to stop this disaster. Last but not least, I should say that the strength of his argument lies in the fact that he does not only appeal to logic, but also to ethos (his vast knowledge on the field), to pathos (his tone of voice and the life changing effect of his experience with elephants in Africa), and to kairos (he speaks at the right time, in the right place, and for the right audience).

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Other Writers and I

06-08-10 And With Heart Shaped Bruises And Late Night Kisses

                                               photo credit: Βethan via photopin cc

As I sat at my desk this morning staring at my computer screen, I was convinced one more time that I was not a born writer. In so many ways life has taught me that we have to fight many battles. So, as I crusade against the keyboard and a torrent of ideas for this essay, I was assaulted by the daemons of my fears and insecurities and many times I had the desire to take the road back to the couch and watch TV instead of writing. However, just as a farmer knows he has to plow the land if he wants to harvest something, I said to myself that if I had to engage the enemy in myself, I had to attack the dragon, rescue the princess of my self-esteem and write. Isn’t the creative process like this for everyone? Isn’t life a battle of some sort for every human being?

Growing up in a developing country is not easy and learning to write depicts it quite well. In this manner, after clashing with many other possible titles, I kept the one I had chosen for my second assignment: ”a struggling writer.” I grew up the rural area of Midwestern Brazil in a poor peasant family. Therefore, as I scavenged the archives looking for stories, I came across three narratives of struggle that resonated with me and helped me paint a portrait of my adventures with writing and education in general. The first was "White Trash Writer" by Lucinda Eby, the second "I Am an Apprehensive Writer and Blogger" by Nancy O'Kelly, and the third "My mother, My Abuser, My Inspiration" by Alison Guynes. These three stories inspired me in different ways and I will try to weave them into my saga as a writer in the lines below.

Lucinda Eby tells us in her wonderful narrative that she was raised in a “book culture.” Finding out that her father, who had another family and was an absent parent, used to come once in while with a truckload of books, made me a bit envious because I wished I had been given more books as a child. Had I had half of the books she had, would I have become a bit better with words, a better writer? I wonder. Although my father was always loving and present, this story of scarcity unites us in some way because despite the absence of books, I grew up in a sort of “educational culture” and that was “one of the pieces of luck I had.” Our family kept moving from farm to farm and my parents would only accept to work in a place that had a school nearby. Nearby, many times, meant a two-hour walk to a place in the middle of nowhere with only one instructor to teach reading and writing to about thirty kids ranging from first to fourth grade crammed into a single room. Consequently, I grew up walking to school and learned to value every step of the way. Looking back now, I guess my parents’ passion for learning was in so many ways what saved me and my four siblings not only from poverty, but from ignorance.

Therefore, as I journeyed through elementary and middle school I was mostly a reader who incorporated stories into my dreams and nightmares. In high school, my penmanship made a debut in writing book reports and compositions in which I started expressing some of my own ideas and discovered I had a voice. I once managed to craft four different versions of the same book to help some classmates that were too lazy to read or just did not know how to do it. It was in a sense that hint of invention and trickery that made me suspect that there might be some hidden happiness, a lost treasure, in writing. A fascination with words was taking me over. That was when I developed an interest for song lyrics and was mesmerized by the way musicians played with words, the poetry within songs overwhelmed me. Inspired by the beauty of song lyrics, I made some attempts at writing poetry that I compiled in a little notebook of poems I used to read to my teenage peers.

As I grew older and prepared to enter college, the door of poetry shut as the curtains of academic writing opened in front of my eyes. I came across the mandatory composition prep course that culminated with the life and death challenge of a test. Such an exam was a turning point in my life because my choice of topic for the college entrance composition (dreams) made me a psychologist instead of a journalist. Maybe I just wanted to escape writing somehow. Can we escape fate? I ask. It seems we really cannot escape destiny. When I ran away from writing about social injustice and escaped being a journalist, I fell into the trap of being a psychology major who in the first semester just felt hypnotized by the writings of Sigmund Freud (the first one I read, The Interpretation of Dreams) and realized that a great deal of psychologist work is that of writer whose narrative that requires fine writing skills.
Different from Lucinda Eby, who says her English composition classes were not very helpful, I owe a lot to my academic experience with writing once it poured content\ideas into my soul. As a psychology undergraduate student, I read a lot of books about psychology and psychoanalysis. These readings taught me the importance of considering an audience and once again helped me develop my voice. As far as writing is concerned, I don’t think I wrote anything worth remembering as an undergrad. However, in my master’s degree I was coached in writing and learned, among other things, that one needs commas for breathing and that writing drafts and revising them as much as possible helps a lot in the composing process. Due to this coaching, I was always able to complete my assignments and that made me feel proud of what I had done.
Not a born, but a runaway writer, I became a blogger and an apprehensive essayist just like Nancy. Similar to her, I sometimes feel paralyzed in front of a writing task because I also "question every word, every sentence." Just like Nancy, when crafting blog posts, I fight battles all the time to compose a bit more than snippets. Nonetheless, a little different from Nancy, I do revise what I post despite feeling also “nervous and afraid” whenever I face a writing task. The psychologist in me reminds me that anxiety when facing a challenge is expected. If writing is such a struggle, why do I insist on doing it? Why did I enroll in this course?  

Wrapping up my chronicle as a learner and a writer and reflecting on why I keep fighting this battle, I guess I can relate with Alison Guynes’ narrative. She tells us that she started reading as a cloak to escape her bipolar, abusive mother’s fits of rage. I read and study as a shield against a government that does not invest in education, a way of escaping ignorance. However, Alison goes on to tell us that her camouflage was lifted when her mother told her to write her a story because she sure had something in her “useless little head”. Her first story was a success and she wrote many more and that did not only change her mother’s mood, but made of her a fan of her writing and a friend. So, thinking about why writing is so important to me, I guess that with my blogs I try to share some of the things I have my “useful little head” with my peers. Like a child that vows to conquer his mother’s love, I try to conquer some fans and friends through writing. Composing seems to emerge from the compulsion to tell stories, teach something to my peers, and unfold the creative process within my soul. The act of composing is a process of discovery in which I reveal and hide many aspects of myself. It is a chance to contemplate my multiple identities, my many possibilities. My camouflage is lifted and put back every line, every time I copy, cut, and paste. Writing allows me to deal with my fears and reinvent myself to keep fighting the daily battles within my soul.

Monday, April 29, 2013

What kind of writer am I?

flickr typewriter typo?! 
                                         photo credit: bitzi ☂ ion-bogdan dumitrescu via photopin cc

This is an assignment for a course I am taking at Coursera called Writing II: Rhetorical Composing. The first task was to introduce myself answering the question on what kind of writer I was. Here is what I wrote:

First I should say that I was delighted with this task. I always tend to write too much in these “getting to know” you posts. They are always part of online courses and generally very informal, for this reason people tend to write the least they can to avoid overwhelming participants with too much to read. This one, it seems it is required to write a bit more. So, I am not going to feel guilty for writing more than I should. So, here I go.
I guess my introduction partially answers the question about what kind of writer I am. I am a struggling writer who just loves doing it. This love for writing is a newfound love though. I call it new because I love the craft, but I still feel like a beginner since the very act of writing itself is a struggle for me. I also see it as a recent passion due to the fact that it has not always been this intense. In the following paragraphs I will tell you the story of how it all began.
As an undergraduate student in psychology in Brazil and a graduate student in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) in Oklahoma City University City in The U.S.A., I just went through the motions in writing. Although, looking back, I think I already liked it, I saw it as just an assignment. The papers I wrote at the time were for grade and only a requirement to be filed and a form to be filled out. This formal education also gave me a chance to learn something about writing. I remember that when I was getting my master’s I always had a coach (a native speaker) to proofread my work and have always received good tips on how to write a better essay or research paper. One of my professors on some occasions complimented me on how I had progressed as a writer throughout the course. I was glad and flattered by his remarks, but I saw that as a task that had been done and writing as something I would be done with by the end of the course.
 In 2006 I participated in a workshop and was introduced to a new world: web 2.0 and the world of blogging. This new world was what forced to start writing for a different purpose and for a new audience, and as a consequence, forced me to see that I was not done with writing just yet. Now I was not being graded anymore and I was not writing for my professors, but for everyone on web that happened to come across one of my blog posts. It is funny to see now how my idea of what an audience was has changed over the years. At the beginning of my blogging journey, my immediate audience was my students. I wrote posts for them and expected them to react to what I wrote.
After some time, maybe due to my lack of training in the art of writing and also for practical and pedagogical reasons, I started finding that (writing posts myself and asking students to comment) a real drag to my students. I then handled the duty of writing to them. It was a blossoming garden of composing: all my students started blogging. I was delighted to discover how creative they were. They illustrated their posts with their own drawings and I commented on them and also asked them to comment on their peers’ posts. At that time the audience was my students and the purpose was to get them to react to what their peers had written. Therefore, I did not realize I was a bad writer and did not feel the need to start doing it myself.
Fast forward about four years and due to my involvement in professional development and my presence in the blogosphere, I started feeling compelled to take writing a bit more seriously. I had now started writing reflection posts about the things I was doing and how much I was learning. I had a need to start sharing my experiences. That was when I saw that my audience was no longer just my students but educators who were a bit more demanding concerning the quality of what they read. That was when the struggling writer emerged.
When I started writing as an educator, I realized I had a lot to learn about it. From that moment on, I noticed it was hard work to come up with something that went beyond a simple paragraph. I really have some basic doubts on where to place a comma. English, not being my first language, was also another problem because it was always so difficult for me to find the right word. I gave up posting to my blogs many times. Other times it just took me weeks to finish a post and finally add it to my blog. I tried to set a posting schedule and deadlines for writing, but it proved ineffective as a means of making me a more prolific and competent writer. It seemed that writing was not for me.
When I was about to give up, I had an idea and thought to myself that a book about writing would be a good idea. I said to myself “There should be a book with a recipe on how to write a good essay, a good blog post.”  It was with that in mind that I bought the book On Writing Well by William Zinsser. To my disappointment, I discovered that there is not a recipe for writing this or that kind of thing. My problems were far from being over. Nonetheless, this same author showed me that there was light at the end of the tunnel. I discovered through reading (and I already knew it from my own experience) that writing is difficult for everyone and that is something that, like so many other things, is learned by doing. It was about the time I was reading this book that I decided to enroll in this course and here I am. So, my name is José Antonio da Silva (my online friends call me JA), a Brazilian EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher in Brasilia, and I am a struggling writer. It is really nice to meet you all and be able to battle the monster of writing together.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What we learn when we learn by doing

Mureren med sin murerske
Everyone in the education field is familiar with Dewey's axiom "learn by doing." It is well known that experiential learning is not only preferable by students, but also more effective. I recently started taking a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Coursera that helped me understand better what learn by doing is. While I was going through the weekly readings, I could see that the following three basic questions were being addressed: what is learning by doing? what do we learn when we learn by doing? when learning is not motivated by learning to do something (practical/experiential), what is the motivation behind It? In this post I will try to share some of the answers I found to these questions through the readings and the connections I made to my experience as an EFL teacher using technology to advance my own learning and that of my students.
First let's try to define what learn by doing is and give some examples. Learn by doing is experiential learning. Students learn by doing when they do things instead of being told about things. It is many times easier said than done. In the language classroom, students learn to speak the target language by speaking it, not by being lectured about it. The same goes for writing, reading, and listening. However, for students to speak, there should be a reason for them to do so. Therefore, teachers usually create scenarios or simulate situations to bring about a need to communicate. The more realistic the situation is, the more effective it seems in generating real communication. Having understood that, we should say that using Web 2.0 tools should follow the same "learn by doing" guidelines. Students learn about blogging by actually having a blog, posting, adding, and replying to comments.
Once we know what learn by doing is, we need to understand what one learns when he learns by doing. When there is experiential learning, what is learned cannot be put into words. If you ask a teacher who integrates technology into his teaching to tell you how to create a blog, for example, he will probably be able to show you step by step the procedures for doing it. However, he might not be able to tell you about it without visualing a given blogging platform and actually testing its features. Therefore, when one learns by doing, he learns micro scripts and scripts that help him assimilate and index new experiences. When a student has to create a blog, he first has to create an account. This one is probably a micro script that he has already assimilated. He probably knows automatically that to create an account he will have to provide his e-mail address, a user name, and so on. So what he will learn by doing will be how to customize his blog, how to insert a video or an image using HTML code or just copying and pasting. Besides that, he will also learn how to create a post and with this he will be familiar with rules for typing and editing text. He will learn that paragraphs have to be indented, that capital letters are required in the beginning of new sentences (the later might sound weird, but this is true for my teenage students). So, the scrips I have listed are extensions that are incorporated to the micro scripts he already possesses. The digital native claim proves to be a myth when it comes to creating content. This holds true especially if we are talking about young learners. So that is what is learned when one learns by doing.
However, it is not always that learning is guided by such an experiential tone. Sometimes learning is driven by reasons other than learning how to perform a specific task. In this case, learning is motivated by the willingness of knowing more. This is generally what guides professional development: a desire to learn about the philosophy behind a given practice, a new way of thinking about a given area of knowledge. It is learning for learning sake. I guess that in the field of language teaching this is the reason why EFL/ESL teachers, that supposedly already know enough about the English language, go conferences conferences as attendees or presenters and take other professional development initiatives such as reading/commenting/posting to blogs, connecting with peers through social networking channels, and taking online courses.
Finally, I would like to say that learning by doing also applies to writing. And this is exactly what I am trying to do with this blog and my posts. I confess that writing is not easy for me and I make a big effort to make my ideas come accross the way I want. Nonetheless, I never give up. I have been reading books about writing, I have just decided to blog with my students (I mean writing a short blog post after ech class reporting what went on). I did that because I read that if you ask your students to blog (which I frequently do), you should blog to. Finally, I am just about to begin a course in writing and hope I will feel more confident as a writer when it ends.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Some Simple Activities that Wire Students' Brains

thought synthesizer
photo credit: krischall via photopin cc
Teaching is a craft that is learned by doing and constantly reflecting on your practice. Knowing theory and getting constant training do play an important role in the making of a good teacher. However, very often, we seem to forget the connection between theory and practice so immersed we are on doing. Of course this kind of "automatism" that seems to come with experience is in part the result of diligent investment in professional development, but we do not always know where we learned certain things. We use a given activity because it works for our students. However, we are not always cognizant about why it works so well. These were some the thoughts that crossed my mind when after being done with the overwhelming end-of-semester teaching duties, I resumed reading a book by David A. Souza called Mind, Brain, and Education (specifically Chapter 3 - Impact of Neuroscience on Teaching and Learning - by Judy Willis). To me, at least, and I am sure to many of my colleagues, what the author had to say about the role "intake filters" play on learning and how research on neuroscience validates what we teachers have been doing, made of lot of sense. Therefore, I decided to write a post to summarize and share some connections I made in relation to the effectiveness of some activities I use in class and how they correlate with the latest neuroscience discoveries on how our brains work.

Questions for conversation/discussion

One thing I always do when teaching upper intermediate and advanced levels is to use "questions for conversation/discussion." Sometimes I create the set of questions on my own or use ESL Discussions questions by Sean Banville. For this activity, I usually give pairs of students a set of different questions and ask them to take turns asking and answering them as if they were engaged in conversation. I generally select questions that have to do with the topic of the lesson we are covering and use them as a lead in or a wrap up activity. For real information gap you might want to warn students not to allow their partners to see/read their questions. According to Judy Willis, one of the reasons why activities such as this one are successful is because they help learners make connections and relate new information with memories they already have. In addition to that, discussion questions allow students to predict what is ahead or review what they had seen.

Run dictation

I also like to use run dictation. This is a very dynamic activity and one of my favorites to use with teens or pre-teens levels. Most textbooks generally feature a series of questions for a lead in, before-while-after reading or a listening activity. So, instead of having the whole class sitting quietly and mechanically asking and answering these questions, I type the questions, ask them to close their books and stick a couple of sets of questions to the classroom walls or outside the classroom. Working in pairs they should run to the board and come back dictating questions one by one to a partner who should write them down. Once they are done, they should get together and answer or discuss them. This is a multisensory activity that activates more than one area of the brain. While doing it, students have to move around, read, listen, and speak. Besides that, it is fun and helps them in dealing with the fear of not knowing in a safer way. Once the responsibility of answering the questions becomes a shared task, it becomes a collaborative endeavor and thus a more rewarding learning experience. This multisensory factor, the author tells us, ends up promoting more connections at the brain and for this reason being more successfully recalled.
True or false
This is one activity I like to use and I always observe that learners cheer at feedback stage as if they were celebrating their luck in a game or the like. I confess, such reactions puzzled me sometimes. We many times take true or false exercises for granted and deem such tasks as only a guessing game. However, according to Judy Willis, the very predictive or guessing nature of true or false exercises can be stimulating for students’ brains. If the student is merely guessing ( in case of a predictive true or false exercise), the dopamine reward he or she gets with the risk associated with making a guess is a guarantee of making learning a pleasurable activity. In fact, it is related to the compelling aspects of achievable challenge present in computer games that our students are addicted to. So, as long as true or false activities are designed to guarantee a reasonable number of correct guesses, they can be a plus for students’ interest and a boost to their brains.

Process writing

In intermediate and advanced courses writing is a vital part of a good English course. This is not different in the school I teach. Therefore, students are supposed to write paragraphs and later four or five-paragraph essays. Using an approach in which they write a first draft, hand in for correction, get feedback in form of symbols and comments on content, and later write a second draft (process writing), seems to be the best way of getting learners involved. The role this plays on students' brain and thus learning is extremely important. The process of revising and giving constant do feedback, the author points out, is a form of ongoing assessment that is powerful in promoting long term memory and developing reasoning and analysis. Besides that, Willis says, we are recognizing learners effort and achievement and providing an opportunity for improvement, and at the same time reducing frustration.

No News

As you could see, there is nothing new. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that many of the things we teachers do find resonance with the latest scientific research. It also reaffirms the necessity of studying and reassures us (as pointed out by the author) that Vigotsky, Piaget, Kashen and others that have guided us in our practice have been pointing at the right direction. I guess, it is above all, a reminder of the validity of investing in professional development as a way of keeping up with or ahead of our own time when necessary. As educators, we should always make an effort to challenge and require our own brains if we are willing to provide food for thought to our students and our colleagues.