Tag Archives: technology

Renewal

by Susan Thomas

renewal1

Snowdrops and crocuses heralding spring.

As spring struggles to take hold and overcome the last vestiges of our stubborn winter, the budding leaves and emerging flowers hold the promise of renewal for the natural world around us. The lighthearted feeling that warm sunshine and chirping birds induces within us reflects how these changes can bring us out of the doldrums, lift our sagging spirits, and sometimes inspire us to smile despite our problems.

But renewal from without can be limited and ephemeral, especially in today’s world where the frenetic pace and our overloaded schedules loom like a cloud over us daily. We worry constantly that we’ve forgotten something. And when we remember, we worry that there is not enough time to accomplish whatever we’ve finally recalled. We need renewal from within.

Finding sources of personal renewal can be challenging. Hardly anyone goes anywhere these days without some technological device tethered to them, and new wearable devices will exacerbate the problem being connected presents for us. Overuse of cell phones can be dangerous, of course, and we’ve all seen people of all ages misusing their devices, motorists texting while driving, swerving in their lanes, pedestrians stepping out in front of oncoming cars. A few years ago, someone talking on their phone while driving sideswiped my car.

Family time?

Family time?

Even when we share meals with one another, we are constantly checking in to see what we may have missed, sometimes to the extent of ignoring the person across the table. But it isn’t so much the rudeness or the lack of safety that such use represents, it is how it limits our opportunities to engage, learn, and grow from each other and from tech-free activities. It prevents us from living in the moment.

Admittedly, it is not always possible to cut ourselves free of the daily grind. Reports still have to be submitted, email still has to be answered, phone calls still have to be made, evaluations still have to be conducted, and the list goes on. Both personally and professionally, our time is seldom our own. But even a few moments can make a difference. The key is to consciously think about small ways to free your mind. I’m not advocating that everyone should take up meditation or practice yoga. Just find something that works for you. It could be a beautiful image or meaningful music, or even deep breathing. Life is too short to neglect what’s most important.

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Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916.

How Self-Driving Cars Could Change Our Lives in Unexpected Ways

by Christopher Metivier

Who's there?!

Who’s there?!

A couple of weeks ago an unusual thing happened to me. One of my neighbors knocked on my door. I haven’t lived in my current house long, and he just wanted to tell me that his lawn mowing had blown some grass clippings in my driveway and to assure me that he intended to clean it up. I certainly wasn’t worried about grass clippings in my driveway, but it was a polite way for my neighbor to introduce himself, and I was glad that he did. He’s a nice guy.

Afterward, my housemate remarked that it was strange for someone to just knock on the door. Typically when that happens it’s some sort of solicitor, and I’d just as soon pretend I’m not home as answer it. He said that he’s actually annoyed when someone knocks on the door unexpectedly. If it had been a friend, he said, we’d have known they were coming.

We considered how we came to have this attitude of preferring to avoid unannounced visitors. It occurred to us that this is the same way we feel about receiving calls from unrecognized phone numbers. I don’t know about you, but I usually ignore those calls, because again, it’s typically a solicitor. The unexpectedness of a visit or phone call implies that it’s likely to be unwanted. That small bit of information is what we’re acting on when we decide to ignore a knock on the door or a ringing phone.

Just Dropping By

Just dropping by. Remember when that used to happen?

He mentioned that when he was young, it was common for family friends to drop by unannounced. It was a normal social practice. But it doesn’t happen any more. We concluded that the ubiquity of cell phones is at the root of this change. We know now when someone is on their way over because they—knowing that I always have my phone with me and they theirs—will call (or more typically text) to let me know they’re coming. I usually don’t even need to answer my door. If I’m expecting someone, I just make sure the door is unlocked so they can just walk in.

This change in attitude toward visiting someone’s home is sort of an unexpected side-effect of cell phone technology. I wouldn’t have guessed that the portability of telephones would lead to a shift in attitude toward something that isn’t obviously related to telephones. It made me think: what other technologies might have unexpected effects on our attitudes toward common social practices?

Google Self-Driving Car

Google Self-Driving Car.

Some days later I was driving on the highway. There was some traffic and I got to thinking, if only everyone would drive exactly the same speed, there would be no traffic. Then I thought, those Google self-driving cars could do that. In fact, those Google self-driving cars could probably do it much more safely and efficiently, with smaller gaps between cars even at high speeds. I suspect they could merge in and out of traffic with flawless precision. There would be no traffic bottlenecks at major junctions. Maybe I’m expressing more confidence than the technology merits, or maybe anyone who doesn’t is a technophobe. (There. I said it.)

Then I got to thinking about how different traveling by road would be if every car on the road was self-driving. Not only would you probably get where you’re going faster, because of the elimination of most traffic problems (like some idiot doing 55 in the fast lane), you’d also know exactly and reliably when you would arrive at your destination. No longer would “traffic” be an excuse for showing up late. And you couldn’t fudge it. If you left behind schedule, there would be no making up the time by driving extra fast. The self-driving cars would always move at the same speed. Robot cars have no sense of urgency.

Nissan Autonomous Drive

Nissan Autonomous Drive Vehicle.

Furthermore, since there would be no driving extra fast, there would be no breaking the speed limit. Maybe the notion of a speed limit would become nonsensical, since the self-driving cars wouldn’t travel at some range of speeds with an upper limit, they would travel (except while merging) at exactly one speed. Probably other kinds of traffic laws would become obsolete as well.

Think about how common it is to exceed the speed limit, and think about how you feel when you suddenly notice a police cruiser on the road behind you, or on the side of the highway. Maybe you don’t do this, but I immediately feel tense, nervous, guilty. Maybe your stomach lurches a little. Maybe you reflexively take your foot off the gas. I do all those things, even if I’m driving below the posted speed limit. I feel like a criminal, who will suffer or avoid punishment, only on a whim of some guy in a uniform. (Who does he think he is?! Ugh! Cops!)

Well ... rats.

Well … rats.

Now think about how you react to seeing a police officer while you’re both on foot. You don’t feel guilty. You don’t feel nervous. You probably feel safe. You might even smile or nod. You don’t have to avert your eyes for fear he’ll memorize your shifty face so as to apprehend you later. When you’re on foot, police are there to protect you, not to persecute you. The only trouble is that this doesn’t happen all that much. The bulk of a typical (non-criminal) person’s experience with police is on the road, where we’re suspicious of them, the threat of punishment implicit in their mere presence.

It's a beautiful evening to be on a foot beat at the park!

It’s a beautiful evening, isn’t it?

I suspect this is a common attitude toward police. When you’re on foot, they’re your allies. When you’re behind the wheel, they are symbols of authority who are only out to enforce laws against you. My prediction is that if self-driving cars were common, people’s attitude toward law enforcement would change dramatically. Most people’s negative experience with the police are over speeding tickets. Since self-driving cars would make the very concept obsolete, the negative experiences (including anxiety) about contact with police would be eliminated (except maybe for parking tickets).

Sure, there are other reasons people might have negative attitudes toward law enforcement. But I’m willing to bet that most folks are like me. If I didn’t think that all cops were out to give me speeding tickets (because of some insidious quota program that the state will obviously deny, but I know better), I’d be likely to have a much more positive attitude toward them.

I know this isn’t really a big deal. It’s not going to change our lives in any really significant way (more than self-driving cars would already). I know attitudes toward police aren’t a serious societal problem that many people give much thought to. And I know that self-driving cars are technologically possible now, but economically a long way off. This is just an exercise in thinking about the ways technology might change our lives in ways we don’t expect at first. It’s an exercise about excitement for the ways in which our lives might be different, and better, due to minor, indirect effects of new technologies. Sure, I’m being optimistic, and sure, you can be be a future-dreading techno-pessimist if you want. But the future will arrive in spite of pessimists, and there will be myriad benefits for those of us who embrace it.

Who's Driving this thing?!

Wait … who’s Driving this thing?!

The First Day of School

by Matt McKinnon

Well, it ain’t what it used to be.  The first day of school, I mean.

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And I don’t just mean the back-to-school shopping, though that has changed a lot, to be sure.

We did most of ours online this year, since navigating Walmart.com is a LOT more appealing than navigating an actual Walmart.

And since many public schools have gone to uniforms, there’s not really much fun in back-to-school clothing shopping with the kids:

“How about the khaki pants and red polo shirt?”

“No, I won’t be caught dead in those.”

“Okay, then there’s always the red polo shirt and khaki pants.”

McKinnon Boys on First Day of School

Gone are the days, at least for those of us in uniform schools, where back-to-school shopping was a creative endeavor to get the coolest outfits possible, actually enjoying the prospect of new clothes.

Toughskins jeans.  Converse Chuck Taylor hightops (later surpassed by real leather offerings from Addidas and Nike).  Cool football jerseys.  A new jean jacket.

Toughskins

Man, those were the days.

And it didn’t cost $250.00 to fully outfit two kids for the entire school year.  (Or at least until they get stains all over their shirts and wear holes in the knees of their pants.  Do kids not wear patches on pants anymore?)

And picking out your clothes for the first day of school was just as exciting, and became even more important the older you got.  After all, I had to make a nice impression on those 10-year old girls I was not going to talk to.  Or even look at.

But now the shopping carts are virtual and the clothing is all the same: red polo shirts and khaki pants.  Maybe shorts.  If you’re feeling crazy…navy blue.

Of course, school supply shopping is still best done at an actual store, especially since the local Walmart and OfficeMax and Staples all have lists sent to them by the school district and even the local schools.  And then there’s the additional list that the teacher sends out.

Back to School SuppliesThe cumulative effect of all this is that there are three lists for each of our two elementary-age kids that my wife and I have to carry around with a real shopping cart (the one with the wheel that won’t swivel right), juggling from one list to the other, trying to mark off what we have while we search for what we still need, all the while trying unsuccessfully to keep items not on the list out of the basket.  (How we ended up with a “Duck Dynasty” pillow in the cart I will never know.)

Not to mention that our high school junior is too cool even to shop with everybody else, so we had to make a special late-night black-ops trip, just he and I, outfitted in dark clothing and sunglasses, so no one he knows will see him…with his dad…shopping at Walmart of all places.

And not to mention that the entire school supply deal set us back about $150.00.  A hundred and fifty dollars?!  For notebooks and paper and pencils?

Yes.  And pens, and erasers, and binders in every size and color imaginable.  And glue and glue sticks.  And highlighters, and rulers, and note cards, and composition books.  And more binders.  And pencil boxes, no wait, they have to be bags with three holes to fit in the binder.  And lunch boxes.  And Clorox Wipes and Kleenex (are those really our responsibility?  Whatever happened to that green stuff the janitor would just spread around on the floor when some kid threw up?)  And we still can’t find any graph paper.  Does Walmart have something against graph paper?  Are American kids just not expected to plot graphs anymore?  No wonder we’re falling behind the rest of the developed world.  I bet they have graph paper in Sweden.

But I digress.

I’m not talking about any of that.

No, what I mean when I say that the first day of school ain’t what it used to be is that, as someone who taught mainly face-to-face classes for years but who now teaches entirely online, the first day of school just isn’t quite the same.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I am NOT complaining.

Just observing.  (I tell my wife this all the time.)

First Day of Class

There used to be a nervous energy about the first day of class—when that meant standing in front of a theatre-size room of 100 students or so.  There was electricity in seeing the fresh faces of students experiencing their very first day of college, or even in the nonchalant smoothness of seniors who had waited until the very last moment to complete their GEC credit.

There was magic in the anticipation of how hard the course might be, or how boring the professor was, or how anything I was saying would have any bearing on anyone’s intended career.

I used to enjoy coming up with new ways to start the first day: by proclaiming to the class, for example, that the only thing I hated more than the first day of class was…the next day of class.  Or by moving everybody outside to enjoy the weather.  Or even sitting at a desk like everybody else: just sitting, waiting, and watching as the time for class to start came and went, and still no teacher.  And then getting up abruptly, as if annoyed, audibly mumbling something to the effect that if nobody else is going to teach the damn course, then I might as well.

Yes, those were the days.

But those days are gone.

And again, don’t get me wrong: I am not complaining.  Only observing.

I love teaching online, and have come to see what we do in the BLS program as not just a service to the University, but more importantly, as a service to students—some of whom may not be able to take classes or finish their degree any other way.

And my students, overall, tend to be older, more mature, more driven, and actually interested in what is being taught.

And there is certainly energy and magic in the first day, though clicking on a link to make the course available doesn’t quite compare to bounding around a lecture hall like Phil Donahue in his prime.

No; it’s just not quite the same.

Even though this year I tried.

Fresh Shave and a Haircut

I got a haircut.  I took a shower.  Heck, I even shaved, and thought about adding some color to my graying beard before deciding against it.

And then I sat down, clicked on “Make Course Available,” and…

Well, nothing happened.  At least nothing spectacular.

For that, I’ll have to wait for the next 48 days—or however many are in this first session.

But of course, it’s not that bad…

After all, other than strippers, “escorts,” and the occasional politician, who else do you know can go to work not wearing pants?

Comforts of Home

Yes, there’s something to be said for the comforts of home.

Deleting the “Human” Factor

by Wade Maki

History is often divided into ages based upon a particular trend. The age of reason, age of invention, enlightenment, information and industrialization are but a few examples. Some ages are known for conflicts, others for prosperity. As we are 12 years into the 21st century, I’m noticing a trend that may make this the century we delete the human factor from decisions.

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“I’m still here! Turn the lights back on!”

This summer my department was moved into new offices. Of course they are not new so much as new to us with some recent updates and fresh paint. One of the first things we noticed was how the traditional light switches were replaced with motion light sensors to automatically turn the lights on when we enter and off when we are not around. One might be tempted to see this as motivated by convenience, but one would be wrong. The idea here is to save energy (ergo money) by removing the human factor from the equation. Humans tend to leave lights on and so the automatic sensor is there to handle things without having to rely on flawed human judgment. Even though the motion sensor must use some additional power, it has been determined that the sensor will be more efficient than people. As with anything new the bugs haven’t been worked out such as the daily tendency for the sensor to turn off my light when I read, work on my computer, or just sit mostly still for awhile. Thus, I must pause in the dark and wave my arms in the air to get the sensor to turn my light back on. True to the trend of deleting the human factor there is no way for me to override the sensor.

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We’ve all been here.

This summer I made several airline flights to conferences and events. At every airport where I used the restroom I found a similar trend of removing the human factor from the equation. Want soap? Put your hand here and the sensor will decide how much to give you. Want water? Hold your hands here and a pre-determined amount of water will flow. Want a paper towel? Wave your hands and a predetermined (always too small amount) of paper will be dispensed. The goal, as with my light sensor, is to remove my decision from the equation in the name of efficient use of energy, water, paper and soap. Why this became of interest was that in one of the airports most of the sensors had apparently stopped working leaving only a couple of sinks operational. If you’ve ever seen a busy airport restroom this was quite a sight to watch as dozens of people were dumbfounded (they waved their hands in vain but no soap or water came). You see, as with my light switch, the ability for an actual human being to turn on the water or pump the soap had been removed rendering the sinks non-functional.

The trend then is for small groups of humans (committees I’m guessing) to decide that in the name of efficiency, safety, or some other good purpose, systems should be designed to remove human decision-making entirely. Lest you think that it stops at switches and faucets please know that Google is close to perfecting the self-driving car. As anyone who drives around others knows, the machines can’t possibly do it worse… can they? I suspect this is only the beginning of a century long trend of deleting the human factor.

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Self-driving Google car

If this trend continues what will life in 2099 look like? My life will be managed by devices that wake me up, remind me where to go and what to do, perhaps even when to shower (and for how long). My car will drive me where I need to go. Manual driving will be too risky to allow, but drinking and riding while on your phone is perfectly okay. My refrigerator will know what’s inside and order anything I need from the store, which may deliver it (or have my car add a grocery stop to my commute). In addition to managing my life, my devices will track and report my activities to ensure public safety (this is already occurring and will continue to expand). I could go on, but it is enough to note how some of these things we can see coming by 2099 and others are almost here already.

Of this trend most will ask the wrong questions. Most will ask “how does this make life more efficient and convenient?” Some will ask “what are the costs to us by this loss of control?” In both cases there will be important points on each side to be weighed. However, perhaps the most important question we should ask is “how does removing humans from decisions change us?” Who will we become when we make fewer decisions and cede more control to machines (and to those who program them)? By comparison we know how using cell phones has resulted in a generation that no longer remembers numbers and has forgotten many social amenities. What will life be like 2099? I can give you a rough sketch of this future. Who will people be in 2099? That, may be a much more disconcerting question.

Choose Your Own Adventure

By Carrie Levesque

Recently in the Russian Novel of Conscience course we have been discussing Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We, about a highly mechanized and regimented totalitarian society (the One State) hundreds of years in the future where citizens have achieved the ultimate happiness: unfreedom.  Taking as our starting point Marx’s claim that machines, invented to help man, have become the symbols of his servitude, we debate the extent to which machines and technology have enslaved or liberated men in today’s world.

As a class, we’ve compiled a pretty good list of technology’s benefits (efficiency, convenience, online degree programs!) and costs (myriad media addictions, a privileging of online relationships at the expense of face-to-face ones).  At midterm, several students have written excellent papers on how we have created a sort of One State within the United States through certain government policies and technologies which reduce rather than foster our individuality and humanity.

Many of these discussions have stirred up nostalgia for simpler times, when it seems people had different values and a different relationship to one another.  They’ve made me think about a book I read recently on a more extreme response to this question, the Back to the land movement (which is a great deal more complex than just ‘living simply,’ but I’m limited to 800 words…).

I grew up in a remote area of northern Maine that has always attracted Back-to-the-landers.  What possesses these diehards who apparently find the southern Maine homesteads of the followers of Scott and Helen Nearing not austere or isolated enough, that they would haul their few remaining possessions to the place where the logging roads end and call it home, I can’t say for sure.

But I’ll admit to having a touch of that idealism myself- to unplug, to live off the land, to disconnect from our nonstop media and rampant consumerism of all the latest technology (though you’d have to be insane to choose the wilds of northern Maine, a place with two seasons: Brutal Winter and Rainy Black Fly Infestation).  Though I now prefer a more comfortable climate, I understand the appeal of living in a beautiful, natural setting, devoting most of one’s time to work in the outdoors without a care for whatever new technology or entertainment the rest of the world is enthralled with.

Coleman Family

And yet, through a closer examination of life ‘off the grid,’ I’ve also come to a greater appreciation of many benefits of our modern life. I recently read Melissa Coleman’s memoir This Life Is In Your Hands about growing up the daughter of famous homesteader and Nearing mentee Eliot Coleman. She chronicles the great strain that the demands of homesteading put on her family, resulting in her father’s ill health, her baby sister’s tragic death and her parents’ divorce.  (On a lighter note, she also reveals some of the purist Nearings’ well-kept secrets: Helen’s love of ice cream, mail order fruit and other delicacies.  Even the folks who wrote the (sometimes a tad righteous) book on living local and off the grid indulged a little on occasion).  Though there were certainly aspects of their lives on the homestead that were richly satisfying, some readers may come away wondering if their chosen cure for the ills of modern life wasn’t in some ways as harmful as the disease, physically as well as spiritually.

Another interesting look at the real-life struggles of those who lived in those idealized ‘simpler times’ is the PBS reality series Frontier House.   In 2001, three families (selected from among some 5,000 applicants!) lived off the land for six months on the simulated frontier of 1880s Montana.  The success of their venture was assessed by historians based on whether each family had put by enough food and fuel over the summer and fall to survive a Montana winter.  Though they labored admirably, through all sorts of drama, if memory serves it was decided all would have perished.  The simpler times were never as simple as they seem.   (Frontier House is available in UNCG’s Instructional Film Collection, but sadly, not on Netflix).

There are no easy answers to the question of man’s relationship to technology.  Most people I know lament their dependency on smart phones, social media and a food supply so highly engineered that many of us have no idea what we’re really eating half the time (pink slime, anyone?).   Yet we have so much to be grateful for.  We live in a time of amazing medical advances.  Whatever may plague or disappoint us in our lives, we have the freedom and resources at our fingertips to research alternatives and connect with like-minded people to find a solution.  For all our similarities, thankfully these United States are not the One State.  Our ultimate happiness is not to be found in our unfreedom, but in our freedom to negotiate these complex choices and relationships, to choose our own adventure.

Will it Play in Peoria? (Putting More “Distance” in Distance Education)

By Matt McKinnon

That should really be: Will it “Work” in Peoria?

Or better: Can “I” Work “from” Peoria.

I have been involved in “distance education” in the form of teaching online for six years now. For the first five of these, I, like many BLS instructors, taught traditional face-to-face classes in addition to my online offerings, working a joint appointment in both Religious Studies and the BLS program.

My approach to online education was probably pretty common: It’s just like my “regular” courses—only entirely online: lectures can be morphed into notes that students can read, the discussion board will work just like class discussion, and the rest is really just students reading books and writing papers.

Distance education, I assumed, meant distance “learning,” and any differences between the teaching I did in my face-to-face classes and that of my online courses would be logistical—and up to the students to work out.

And then I moved to Peoria (right on the edge of “Forgottonia”) and discovered what anyone who has ever taught online while on leave from the University already knew:

Distance Education means distance “teaching” as well as distance “learning.”

(Well duh! It makes sense now, but as is the case with all Copernican-type revolutions where the “center” gets displaced from it place of fictive prominence, it came as quite an eye-opener.)

Of course this does not change everything; nor should it. Many professors, including myself, still feel that the best way for education at the highest levels to occur is, well, students reading, discussing the material with the class, and traditional assessment strategies like examinations and papers. (And maybe the occasional interactive activity.)

But it does change some things, and one of the things it changes the most is approach to research and access to a top-rated academic library.

Luckily, however, the same technology that is driving distance education has already been driving distance research for quite a while.

I remember way back in graduate school —not long after Al Gore had invented the internet—when I was assigned my first research assistantship. I worked for Father Kurtz, a Roman Catholic priest (a Jesuit in fact) who didn’t have a lot of things to do other than writing articles and books. So he did a lot of research, which of course required that I do a lot of research.

The major religious studies data bases had recently been put online, going in a matter of a few years from print to computer, and then to “computer that I could access from the comfort of my living room.”

I could compile in an hour research that would have taken his previous assistants days to sort through. (He thought I was brilliant, driven, and a workaholic like himself when in reality I was just knowledgeable of the available resources and lazy enough to find a way to access them from home.

The good news is that now BLS students have even better resources available to them—and presumably more comfortable living rooms than a poor graduate student holed-up in Milwaukee.

The place to start is the Library’s own website dedicated to Distance Education Services.

It has links that assists you in getting hard copies of the books and articles that the library possesses (or that may be better accessible closer to you).

It has online workshops where you can participate in seminars on everything from learning Jing to career assistance.

It has a link to “Path,” the Library’s 10 module research tutorial.

It has links to technical assistance as well as the University’s very own Distance Education Librarian, Beth Filar Williams, who is trained to help you with your online research projects.

(Beth can be contacted at efwilli3@uncg.edu or 336-256-1231.)

Some BLS courses even have research guides tailored to their specific requirements (and hopefully more will have them soon). Here’s an example from the Pathways course.

And, by clicking on “Other Help With Research,” it has links to “Research Guides by Subject,” which will put you in touch with all of the major academic data bases that made yours truly Father Kurtz’s star researcher back in grad school.

(I won’t tell if you won’t tell.)

It Takes Audacity

By  Matt McKinnon

Ok, so not just Audacity; any recording and editing software will do.  But Audacity is free, works with all of the major operating systems, and, at least in its basic form, is not hard to use.  (Though in order to export the files, they have to be converted to mp3 format using the LAME encoder.)

A few of my students have had trouble doing this, but most are able to create their own audio files to attach in Blackboard for me and their colleagues to listen to.

And that simple addition to my American Dreams course has added a dimension to online education that, after five years of teaching in the BLS program, I did not expect.

The voices are full of character. Rich in diversity.  Different in their tone and cadence.  Some are smooth and polished, others hesitant.  Some are quite moving, even poetic.  Some are transcendent in their plainness.

But all of them are honest.  Real.

They are like voices out of a Ken Burns documentary: serious, focused, reading (not speaking off the cuff) a personal account of the American Dream.

They add a profundity to the most banal of writing assignments.  They add depth.  They add life.

The assignment is simple: write a five minute reflection on what you think about the American Dream.  And then record it and post it on Blackboard.  Students do this twice—once in the beginning of the course and then again at the end, almost like a personal assessment of how their views have changed.  For the final assignment, they submit the written version as well.  And it is here that I have learned to appreciate the depth, the character that is conveyed with hearing someone speak their own words—as opposed to simply reading their words myself.

Of course there are limits:  I wouldn’t want to hear someone read aloud their five-page paper on politics and religion in America, or worse yet, their twelve-page book review in the Senior Seminar.  But for something short, something as personal and as powerful as a dream, as the American Dream, as their American Dream, it has an amazing effect.

I realized it when I listened to the audio files the first time I taught the course last year.  In a way that the written word cannot achieve, these voices of my students grabbed me—grab me still—and, for lack of a better way of saying it: made it personal.

After all, if we’re honest, we must admit that with all the benefits of distance education (and there are many), one of the things that’s missing is personal contact.  And what’s more personal than a voice?

Ok, a face.

Here’s me and my wife (I’m on the right).

Here's Vicente Fernandez.

And those rare times I have seen a picture of a student in one of the assignments they submit in their Senior Portfolio—usually as part of a photography assignment or a blog—it has had a similar effect: giving an added dimension to someone whose existence to me is represented entirely by the written word.

But there’s something about the human voice.  The old adage is that a picture is worth a thousand words, but if you’ve ever lost someone dear, you’ve probably had the thought: “What I would give just hear their voice again.”

Now here’s Fernández’s voice (and his hat):

But let’s not get carried away.

I have to admit that I hate Facebook, only reluctantly joined LinkedIn (but never use it), don’t care what folks are doing this weekend (or did last weekend), don’t want to see pictures of people from high school whom I didn’t really like in high school (or my second-cousin’s newest baby), and generally believe that our culture has gone overboard with social-networking, the effect being that communication (and society?) has been thinned out and dumbed down.

But when we take what’s useful from these platforms and make judicious use of them in our BLS courses, well, the effect can be startling, enriching, enlightening.

And in the case of Audacity, it can literally be the opposite of dumbing down:

It gives students their voice.

My Experience in the BLS Program at UNCG

By Julia Burns, BLS Class of 2012

I woke up this morning and went into the bathroom to do my daily ritual as usual. The only problem that I have is looking in the mirror at a very scary soon to be 52 year old! Thinking, I realized today is 11th of December and it is 4 more days until I will officially be graduated. I did it! I worked hard to get my Bachelor of Arts degree while I worked making money in a reputable job. It took me 2 years in person and a year online to complete in 3 ½ years what normally have taken in 4 to 5 years. How did I do it?  The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

When I first enrolled, I thought this was going to be a breeze – a piece of cake. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I never worked so hard in my life. A traditional student can walk to class, take notes, study, test, and interact readily with other students; an online student does not have that luxury. An online article by Terence Loose points out the following seven myths about  online learning:

  • Online courses are easier than in-class courses.
  • You have to be tech-savvy to take an online class.
  • You don’t receive personal attention in online education.
  • You can “hide” in an online course and never participate.
  • You don’t learn as much when you pursue an online degree.
  • Respected schools don’t offer online degrees.
  • Networking opportunities aren’t available through online education.

I compared these seven myths to my experience with online classes. I am technologically illiterate. I received a lot of personal attention in online education. I couldn’t hide in an online course and not participate if I expected to receive a grade and keep my financial aid. I learned more from studying on line than I did from attending in person. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro is a well-respected, fully accredited, state university. I made some wonderful contacts online–not just on the North Carolina campus but from all across the country as well as all over the world.  Through online classes, I have learned the art of self discipline, how to prioritize better, how to write for specific disciplines, developed a stronger interest in all types of literature, and a gained great appreciation for all types of anthropology.

Many classes featured heated debates, such as the mock trials in “Great Trials in American History.” This was done live online and all students had to participate. It was a difficult night because in some parts of the country there were terrible thunderstorms and a lot of tornado activity going on. The thrill of the storms and the debate combined was really exciting!

What do I intend to do with this online degree in Bachelor of Arts? I would like to be a lawyer or a teacher. But in the meanwhile, I have chosen neither. I am currently refreshing my algebra skills to take the GRE and get my Master Arts in Liberal Studies. The law has always fascinated me, teaching would be a great challenge, but to become better educated is where I am headed. Who knows–maybe I will get my PhD?

Online Learning: Accidentally Green

This is where I admit I’m a little bit of a green freak. I use an electric lawn mower, an electric weed eater, and an electric leaf blower at my house, partly because they’re less expensive to fuel and maintain, but mostly because it allows me to avoid the wasted fossil fuels and absurd emissions of small gasoline engines. I can’t afford an electric car on an academic’s salary, but I did manage to find an electric scooter that I could afford, and I ride it to work any time the weather’s not too horrible…and as an old motorcycle lover and bicycle nut, I have a ridiculously liberal definition of “not too horrible” for riding. So yeah. Green freak. That’s me. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.When I first started working with the BLS Program in 2004, our primary goal was not to provide a green method of delivering our classes. In fact, it was the least of our considerations. We were mostly concerned with meeting the needs of the nontraditional students who wanted to complete a bachelor’s degree, but didn’t have the leisure to make it to regularly-scheduled classes on campus. The people we thought about were working 8-to-5 and weren’t served by the evening offerings on campus. Or they were working parents and couldn’t afford childcare to go to class. Or maybe they worked in some field with unpredictable hours, such as emergency services, or the medical field, or the airline industry, or even the good old restaurant business (and we have since had students in all of those fields). Whatever they were doing to pay the mortgage and support their children, we wanted to make classes that they could complete from home, in the hours they could manage to carve out of their schedules. From what I hear from our students, I think we’ve been pretty successful at that goal.

What we didn’t plan was the myriad ways in which our online classes are so much more resource-conserving than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Here are a few that come to mind.

No Driving — Instead of having each of our students burn a few gallons of gasoline getting to class (a lot of them are pretty far from campus), we use a few watts of electricity to deliver their classes electronically. They can participate in their classes anywhere they can get online, whether that’s at home, at work on a quiet night shift, at their favorite coffee shop, or from their hotel room while they’re traveling on business. It goes even further than that, because many of our faculty also teach their classes from home. Given that we have faculty who live in the Triangle, in Charlotte, and even out of state, that adds up to a lot of driving avoided by teaching and taking classes online.

No Buildings — We don’t need big spaces to gather faculty and students in the same room, so we don’t have to spend a bunch of money and resources building, heating, cooling, and lighting classroom buildings. That means fewer buildings and more green space for everyone, and it adds up to a substantial savings in terms of resource usage. Even with smart climate-control systems, classroom buildings take a vast amount of energy to heat and cool, and because of their scale, they have to be heated and cooled around the clock, even at night when no one’s around. By delivering our classes online to our students, we help reduce the pressure to build and maintain more resource-hogging classroom space. In fact, an online class full of students using their laptops at home, even if they leave them on all the time, still uses less electricity than it takes just to run the nighttime security lighting in a classroom building.

No Paper — Using online discussion boards, and writing, receiving, critiquing, and grading essays online saves reams of paper (literally) for each online class. My writing-intensive class has ten discussion boards, a prospectus, an essay, and a final revision. With twenty-five students in that class, assuming one full page each for the discussion boards, two pages for the prospectus, and ten pages each for the essay and revision, that’s (*does some math*) eight hundred pages that aren’t getting printed. Add in a syllabus that doesn’t have to get printed and handed out to the class, and that one 25-student online class has saved two whole reams of paper. Multiply that by the twenty-four classes we are offering this semester, and that’s a nice, heavy case of paper that isn’t getting deforested, pulped, packaged, shipped, and most likely ending up in a landfill somewhere at the end of it all.

So, less driving, less construction, less heating and cooling, and less paper. As a green freak, I gotta say that’s not too shabby as an accidental side effect. And here we were just trying to make it easier for you to go to class in your pajamas!

Recalculating

By Marc Williams

Anyone in a car with a GPS knows the phrase “recalculating.” Once you program your destination and begin your journey, the GPS expects you to follow the path with unwavering trust. The slightest turn from the designated route—a pit stop, a scenic detour, a bite to eat—will cause the GPS to recalculate the route. If I miss a turn and get frustrated, the Garmin’s voice is steady and confident, never losing sight of the path. It’s oddly comforting to know that someone in the car can keep their cool. Interestingly, on my Garmin system, and on all of the GPS devices I’ve encountered in other cars, the voice that calmly says, “recalculating” is always female. Is that merely a coincidence?

CNN.com’s Brandon Griggs recently wrote about the new iPhone 4S feature, Siri,

and its distinctly female voice. Griggs notes that female voices are far more common in talking devices than male voices, and provides some interesting theories on the various reasons why talking computers tend to be female. For instance, Griggs cites Clifford Nass of Stanford University:

iPhone's Siri

“It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes,” said Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass, author of “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships.” “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.”

HAL 9000 (From Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey)

Another theory suggests that Hollywood uses male computer voices in suspense and thriller movies to create a sound of “menace,” so perhaps we find the idea of female computers to be more less menacing.

Or the historical theory is that WWII aviators relied on females for navigation, since their voices were easily distinguished from the male voices of the other pilots.

In many BLS courses, including my arts courses, gender roles and gender identity are discussed and debated at length. In fact, last week, my “Big Plays, Big Ideas” class was discussing gender attitudes on war in our examination of the Greek comedy Lysistrata.

So what does the trend of female computers say about gender attitudes on technology today?

Siri in action: