Some thoughts on starting year 5 (and French comics)

The image below, from the French comic book Carnets de thèse (“thesis notes”), has been on my mind as I begin my fifth year of grad school. I bought Carnets de thèse as a present for myself for my last birthday, expecting it to be an educational glimpse into the French grad school experience and a dose of humor to get me through the rest of my own studies. Jeanne Dargan, the protagonist of the book, begins grad school with an excitement to begin her studies, a surefire plan to finish in three years, and a clear idea of what she wants to write her thesis on. However, as the picture below shows, the next five (not three) years end up being a slow descent into grad school madness punctuated by an annual tradition of changing her thesis topic. After finishing the book, it should come as no surprise to the reader that the author wrote and drew the book after leaving her own graduate studies. If they were anything like Jeanne’s, I can’t blame her.

I’m happy that I’m excited to be going into my fifth year, and not just because it means the end is in sight. Even though my dissertation topic has also probably changed once a year, I haven’t had to deal with the lack of support, the obstructionist secretaries, the unfairly-revoked salary, and the disintegrating relationships that turn Carnets de thèse into a very dark comedy (if it can still be called a comedy). I feel privileged, fortunate, and blessed to be able to say that, and I feel a great obligation to make sure the grad students I mentor in the future have an experience more like mine and less like Jeanne’s.

Public data and digital research ethics

The Verge recently posted an article that highlights some of the ethical dilemmas involved in collecting publicly-available data for research purposes. The article begins by describing the work of a researcher working on facial recognition of people before and after hormone replacement therapy:

On YouTube, he found a treasure trove. Individuals undergoing HRT often document their progress and post the results online, sometimes keeping regular diaries, and sometimes making time-lapse videos of the entire process. “I shared my videos because I wanted other trans people to see my transition,” says Danielle, who posted her transition video on YouTube years ago. “These types of transition montages were helpful to me, so I wanted to pay it forward,” she tells The Verge.

At first glance, YouTube videos seem like a perfect dataset for this sort of thing. They’re being freely provided and are generally available under a Creative Commons license. However, in the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm:


Again, from the article:

Danielle, who is featured in the dataset and whose transition pictures appear in scientific papers because of it, says she was never contacted about her inclusion. “I by no means ‘hide’ my identity,” she told The Verge using an online messaging service. “But this feels like a violation of privacy.” She said she was gratified to know that there are limits on the use of the dataset (especially that it wasn’t sold to companies), but said this sort of biometric collection had “all sorts of implications for the trans community.”

The idea of having one’s picture—especially a transition picture—appear in scientific papers without ever having consented to it seems highly problematic. And yet, I’m obviously in favor of using publicly-available digital data for research; after all, I rely on public Twitter data for nearly all of my research. So, how can I continue to use this data while not crossing any lines? I don’t claim to do this perfectly, but here’s one way Josh Rosenberg, Leigh Graves Wolf, and I described our efforts in a recent article:

Twitter and other Internet data provide new ethical challenges for educational (and other) researchers. Inspired by medical research, the concept of human subjects research has long been the distinguishing factor in whether researchers are required to submit their work to institutional review boards (IRBs) for ethical review (Markham and Buchanan, 2012). However, data such as the collection of tweets described above frequently do not qualify as human subjects research; indeed, this study did not require review by an IRB according to the definitions set out by Michigan State University. However, Internet researchers are increasingly vocal in their arguments that existing ethical frameworks are not well suited to digital data (Markham and Buchanan, 2012) and that the limits established by the law are also inadequate for determining what constitutes ethical Internet research (Eynon et al., 2008).

In response to the absence of universal, clear guidelines for Internet data, we have taken explicit steps of our own to report our findings ethically. Most notably, we have tried to avoid the use of direct quotation throughout the paper, even when referring to particular tweets. Twitter’s search function is powerful enough that even a small but distinct quotation may be sufficient for identifying a particular tweet, and while tweets can be considered public documents, we feel that it is important to acknowledge that notions of publicity and privacy on the Internet are mediated by varying expectations, intentions, and contexts (Eynon et al., 2008; Markham and Buchanan, 2012) and that no one has provided explicit consent for their tweets to appear in this paper. When we have chosen to quote from tweets, we have made modifications such as excerpting tweets and removing URLs to personal blog posts in order to preserve as much anonymity as possible.

There’s a lot more that could be said—and that I ought to write— on this subject, but I was glad that I ran into this article to get my mind working on this subject again.

Using notebooks for beginning-of-semester planning

One of the first posts I published to this blog was a lament that I just couldn’t get notebooks to work for me. About a year ago, though, I finally found a routine that got notebooks working for me. I started off working my way through two copies of a Self Journal before borrowing some of the best elements of the Self Journal and adding some features I felt were missing in a homebrew, quasi-bullet journal style mashup. I’m still highly dependent on digital tools—mostly Things 3—for task management and reminders, but I’ve found a few areas where analog works better for me than digital:

  • Note taking: I have never been good at taking notes digitally because I feel like I have to have a comprehensive system. With a notebook, I can just give myself permission to scrawl a few things down on whatever page is handy and flip back to it when I need to, and that seems to do the trick.
  • Goal setting: Things 3 works great for task management, but I’ve been trying to work harder to actually set goals for myself. Writing goals down rather than entering them into an app feels like a better way of reflecting on what goals I want to set and getting them present in my mind.
  • Planning: Just as Things 3 works great for task management, digital calendars do the trick wonderfully when it comes to scheduling events. However, there are plenty of non-scheduled parts of my day that I need to plan, and there are way too many office hours that I’ve been late to because an event being on my calendar doesn’t mean it’s on my mind. Taking the time to write out a plan works much better for my awareness of that period of time.

With goal setting and planning in particular, I try to take the time to sketch out every day, every week, every month, and every semester. When those line up, it leads to a busy Sunday night, as it did this past weekend. This is a pretty big semester, though, since I have plans to defend my dissertation proposal and start applying for jobs, and it was great to think about how those two big goals and corresponding plans look at those four different scales. I’m really glad that I’ve found a way to fit notebooks into my routines!

A couple of podcasts on screencasting

I’ve posted before about teaching CEP 813, a class on electronic assessment that features a unit on game-based assessment in Minecraft. This unit is by far the most intense in terms of technical support, and we had a major hiccup earlier this month that caused some frustration for the whole class (and instructional team). After some tinkering, we were able to figure out how to make it possible for everyone to complete the assignment. While the solution wasn’t terribly complex, it was definitely easier to show rather than tell, so I whipped up a couple of quick screencasts to walk people through what they needed to do.

This got me thinking about how I’d love to use more screencasts in my teaching. I’d like to think that producing these YouTube videos was more engaging, more helpful, and more personal than any text-based solutions I could have provided, and I imagine that’s true for a lot of online teaching, not just tech support. I still have a lot to learn about screencasting, though, so I’m glad there are some good resources out there. This includes a couple of podcast episodes that I’ve listened to recently and that I thought I’d share for anyone else interested in incorporating some more screencasting into their online (or other) teaching:

The first is an episode of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast where Bonni Stachowiak talks to Brandy Dudas about pencasting and other uses of video in the classroom.

The second is an episode of Mac Power Users, with Katie Floyd and David Sparks talking to JF Brissette about screencasting on a Mac and iOS. It’s not directly related to teaching—and certainly less useful if you’re not in the Apple-sphere—but it does a great job of getting you excited about the power and potential of screencasting.

Remembering to be a regular person (and not just a grad student)

Last Monday night, I went with some friends from church to an “all-you-can-eat chicken wings” event at a local restaurant. The company and conversations were fantastic, but I still left after a couple hours second-guessing my decision to go. The service had been slow, so I wound up staying longer than expected, which led to going to bed late and without my nightly routine of planning out the next day. Plus, spending $18 for the privilege of eating as much poultry as I could stomach probably wasn’t great for my bank account (which has been getting slimmer since my daughter was born), my waistline (which hasn’t followed the example of my bank account), or for my growing conviction that I really need to be eating more tofu and less meat.

Despite all of that second-guessing, though, I’m very glad that I went. I really needed to take the time to be a “regular person” and not just a grad student, something that the tweet above shows I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I do a fair number of things outside of grad school, but not enough of them are unstructured opportunities to just spend time with other people. I remember turning down an invitation to a Dungeons and Dragons group as a first-year grad student because I already knew that I needed to set aside a lot of time for this exciting new adventure, and things have only gotten busier since. While it’s definitely important to know how to manage your time—and while I’ve found other, less time-intensive ways to get my D&D fix—I haven’t been great recently about being a regular person, and I’m glad I took the time to make a step toward that direction.

Swiss accents and using the Internet as a French teacher

Last week, on August 1st, I popped over to Radio Télévision Suisse to spend a couple of minutes celebrating the Swiss national holiday. While I was there, I spotted an article containing five “spoken portraits” of Swiss Francophones from different regions. Each portrait highlighted a different accent (or two) from Francophone Switzerland, and it was a lot of fun to spend part of my morning listening to each of these different accents, some of which were familiar to me from my time in Switzerland.

I’ve written before about how wonderful it is that the Internet can make cultural artifacts easily available to language teachers, but this was an especially nice resource to find because I specifically remember trying to find YouTube videos of Swiss accents as far back as five years ago (and arguing with classmates about whether the one video we could find was an authentic accent or just someone being goofy). One thing I always try to do when I’m in French teaching mode is to reinforce the idea that the Francophone world is more than just France (heck, more than just Paris). While the Internet—like any medium—tends to privilege dominant forms of expression, I think that it also makes more peripheral linguistic cultures accessible in a way that would be much harder than with just textbooks. Representing the French language as a monolith, when it’s full of regional and national variants, does it a disservice, and I think the Internet can help with that—I recently discovered the Francophone African word essencerie (instead of station-service) thanks to Wikipedia, and now it’s the word I always want to use for gas station!

It’s been over a year now since the last time I’ve taught French, but I still find myself bookmarking these resources just in case I get the chance to do it again!

Helpful resources for principal components analysis in R

I’m currently working on my dissertation proposal, which has meant exploring principal components analysis. I’ve worked with PCA before, but it’s been a couple of years, so I’m trying to refresh my memory, improve my understanding, and get this proposal moving! Along the way, I’ve found (and been recommended) some helpful resources that I thought I would pass along.

For Understanding/Explaining PCA

My advisor recently pointed me to this CrossValidated (i.e., StackExchange for stats) post that includes an engaging and fun explanation of PCA, complete with a fancy animation. This one isn’t specifically related to R, but it’s a good start for understanding what’s really going on “under the hood” when you carry out a PCA.

For some PCA walkthroughs and R code

R-bloggers recently posted a collection of links to YouTube videos and other resources on using the FactoMineR package in R for doing PCA. I found the videos helpful for getting back up to speed with PCA after a couple of years away, and I’m going to keep FactoMineR in mind in the future.

For plotting PCA results

I’m interested in graphical displays of PCA results and of using visualizations to interpret PCA; while I was looking for help here, I found an answer on Cross-Validated that not only provided some helpful advice but also made available some code for creating nice plots of PCA data.

I’m sure I’ll stumble upon some other helpful resources as I continue to work with PCA and move my dissertation forward!

New publication: The Role of Thinking in Education: Why Dewey Still Raises the Bar on Educators

I recently received in the mail a copy of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education: A Centennial Handbook, which contains a chapter that MSU professor Dr. Jack Smith was generous enough to let me contribute to. This has been a fun process for a number of reasons. First, while this isn’t my first book chapter, it is the first book I’ve written for that I have a physical copy of. As much as I rely on PDFs to do my reading and writing, it’s a lot of fun to own a book that has your name in it. Second, writing about Dewey—and especially about Democracy and Education has been a fun way to step away from the educational technology writing that I usually do and to think more about education broadly, its civic role, and how it fits into a democratic context.

As an example of what I mean by that, here’s a blurb from the chapter that I’m particularly proud of:

In How We Think (LW 8), Dewey argues that as thinking matures, thinkers shift from a dependence on authority to a willingness to question, reconsider, and ultimately accept or reject the propositions accepted as true in the wider society. In Democracy and Education, Dewey focuses on the importance of autonomy—and its relation to thinking—in civic participation … for Dewey, thinking is not only the central organization principle of education; it is also the central capacity that students must exercise in asserting their rights and carrying out their responsibilities as full citizens in a democratic society.

I doubt I’ll have many more opportunities to write about the philosophy of education during my career (not least because I’d need/like to be much better read in that area), but I’m very grateful I got the chance to do so here.

New publication: A taxonomy approach to studying how gamers review games

Although most of my research has been focused on Twitter lately, I still have a foot in games and education, and some of my work there with Matt Koehler, Brian Arnold, Liz Owens Boltz, and George P. Burdell has just been published as online-first in Simulation & Gaming.

One of the main talking points for using games in education is that they’re—allegedly—more engaging and enjoyable than other ways of presenting information; however, it’s also commonly held that educational games aren’t as good as entertainment games. To help resolve this dilemma, we wanted to examine how players review entertainment games in order to see what features of the games they found most salient when judging their quality. Previous work has developed taxonomies of game features that can be tied to learning outcomes, so we put the theory to the test by seeing if the dimensions of one particular taxonomy were suitable for capturing the issues mentioned in player reviews from the gaming website VideoGameGeek.

We comment on our findings and on the implications for using game reviews as a data source in our article, which can be downloaded here!

New publication: Using TPACK to Analyze Technological Understanding in Teachers’ Digital Teaching Portfolios

Over the past four years, I’ve participated in research projects on a few different topics, but most of them can be grouped into the broad category of “digital educational research.” As I like to put it, this involves exploring how digital technologies afford not only new spaces for teaching and learning but also new ways of researching those spaces.

One of my first forays into this kind of research—during my first year—was exploring what we could learn about teachers’ technology knowledge (as understood through the TPACK framework) through what they include in their digital teaching portfolios. I’ve worked with Matt Koehler, Josh Rosenberg, and Sarah Keenan in the years since to follow through with our original efforts, and our findings were recently published in the January issue of the Journal of Technology and Teacher Education. We talk about what we found in terms of the technology knowledge that we were looking for and also (indirectly) comment on the implications of our digital research approach.

The article can be downloaded here!