Tag Archives: communication

Sleep Well…

By Marc Williams

In a previous post, I wrote of my enthusiasm for football and my favorite team, the Detroit Lions.  As a die-hard fan, I follow the team year round and I read every single article written about the team via the web sites of the various Michigan newspapers.  In fact, ever since these papers started publishing web content, I think I can safely say I’ve read every word they’ve published about the Detroit Lions.

As blogs, podcasts, chats, message boards, and other web content delivery systems emerged over the past fifteen years or so, one of the Lions’ beat reporters, Tom Kowalski, embraced these new ways of bringing content to the fans.  While I’ve read the work of many sports writers, I’ve read more content by Tom Kowalski than any other reporter.  In part, this is because of Kowalski’s use of new media platforms—his daily web articles, opinion columns and blogs, fan chats, video blogs, email Q & A sessions, comment rebuttals, Twitter, radio interviews, and podcasts provided Lions fans with a bounty of material to devour.

Sadly, the operative word in that last sentence is “provided.”  Last Monday, August 29, I was spending a few free minutes scanning Twitter as I often do.  I was stunned when I came across this tweet in my feed:

espn_nfcnblog ESPN Blogs NFC North: No words for death of Tom Kowalski.

Tom Kowalski

This news had a profoundly strange effect on me.  Of course I’ve dealt with death before: friends and family, students, teachers, and many others.  And obviously I read about death every day, including people in the public eye who I admire or whose work I enjoy.  But my internal reaction to the death of Kowalski, affectionately known as “Killer” by his readers, took me by surprise.  My experience was not like the death of other journalists and writers I remember.  I was sad when playwright Arthur Miller died but my reaction was not visceral.  Miller’s work certainly moved me—it continues to move me—but I did not feel a sense of personal loss when he passed.  For Kowalski, I felt.  It didn’t feel as if a stranger had died.

I didn’t understand why my reaction was so extraordinary.  And while I’m not sure if I’ll ever know for sure, I’m now convinced that I actually did know Tom Kowalski.  He certainly did not know me, but he shared a lot with his readers.  Personally, I read every word he wrote for at least twelve years, maybe more—and he wrote a lot.  And because he used so many interactive tools to deliver content, he ended up having real conversations with his readers.  In fact, the night before his death he was tweeting with readers who didn’t understand the difference between man coverage and two-deep zone coverage.  Over time, readers learned more and more about his personality.  For instance, almost every night he signed off of Twitter by writing, “Sleep well and dream of large women,” a quote from his favorite movie (The Princess Bride, which he quoted frequently). In fact, his final sign-off from Twitter was a sadly ironic quote from the film:

TomKowalski36 Tom Kowalski OK fellas, here we go … Sleep well, I’ll most likely kill you in the morning …

Kowalski did something special as a writer and a journalist: he actually revealed his personality to his audience.  As writers, we are always thinking about audience—who is actually supposed to read this writing?  Knowing one’s audience is crucial in determining what to write, how to write, and the proper format for writing.  Because Kowalski was so highly interactive with his audience, he eventually got to know them as a group and he allowed the group to get to know him as well.  He didn’t write for a theoretical audience but rather wrote for the specific audience with whom he had interacted for years.

Kowalski's cubicle at the Lions' headquarters in Allen Park, Michigan. The press room has been re-named "The Tom Kowalski Press Lounge" in his honor.

I’m not a journalist and don’t know if Kowalski’s personal touch would be considered “good journalism” by professional standards—but that’s not the point.  There are many stories today about how social media and virtual communication threaten human interaction, yet Kowalski’s work demonstrates the best potential of these technologies.  Kowalski used these tools to better understand his audience, to better serve them as a writer, and to interact with them genuinely, as a real human being.

Technology gives us tremendous ability to hide from each other.  We can remain anonymous, faceless, or even invisible.  Kowalski, on the other hand, demonstrated that technology can allow us share our humanity. Given that the BLS program at UNCG is online and that students and professors never actually meet each other face-to-face, what steps can instructors and students take to keep classrooms human?  What can we learn from Kowalski?  And what are some other examples of people using technology to express their humanity?

Mobile Learn

By Marc Williams

On Monday, I wrote about the Blackboard upgrade at UNCG and some of the differences I’ve noticed so far.  Perhaps my favorite new feature of UNCG’s version of Blackboard is its compatibility with Blackboard Mobile Learn.

We use our wireless devices for virtually every aspect of life nowadays so the developers at Blackboard wisely designed an app that gives students and instructors mobile access to Blackboard for a variety of devices (Android, Blackberry, iPhone, iPad, iTouch, Palm).  The app is free–I certainly recommend downloading and trying it out.

I’ve already found the tool useful for managing my courses on the go.  I’ve been able to use the iPhone app to respond to student questions posted in threaded message boards found on Blackboard.  And it is easy–the discussion boards look and feels like my iPhone’s text interface.  In fact, message board discussions on the mobile app feel cleaner and more efficient than the discussion boards in the standard version of Blackboard.  Blackboard apparently designed a mobile app for each individual device, working to embrace that particular device’s personality and functionality.  In this regard, the Blackberry version of Mobile Learn doesn’t look or feel like the iPhone version–it is customized for Blackberry users.  Here’s a video about the iPhone version,  here’s a video about the Blackberry version, and finally an Android demo.

The app is apparently still in development and some of the tools and features of the standard version of Blackboard are not yet completely functional in the mobile version.  For example, the “Grade Center” that instructors use to view grades and find assignments that need grading is not yet available on the mobile app.  Some Blackboard content may need to be converted into different file types in order to work on the mobile app.  For example, audio and video content need to be offered in universal formats like MP3 (audio) and MPEG-4 (video).  As the mobile app develops and as instructors learn to make their content “mobile friendly,” our BLS classes may become not only virtual classrooms but also mobile classrooms!

It’s Complicated

By Marc Williams

One side effect of the pervasiveness of technology on school age kids, as many have observed, is that young people consume technology at a surprisingly high rate.  Young people spend countless hours on cell phones–usually texting–as well as online, or in front of a television or video game.  Parents, schools, and advocacy groups have done much to curb tech usage among kids and teens, hoping to reduce teen alienation, “popcorn brain,” and other ill effects associated with constant internet and wireless gadget access.

Similarly, the Boston Health Commission recently sponsored a workshop for teens centered on a very particular socio-technological issue:  online breakups.

Late last month, 200 teenagers from Boston-area schools gathered to discuss the minutia of Facebook breakup etiquette. Should you delete pictures of your ex after splitting up? Is it O.K. to unfriend your last girlfriend if you can’t stop looking at her profile? And is it ever ethically defensible to change your relationship status to single without first notifying the person whose heart you’re crushing?

To be clear, we’re not talking about online dating services like Match.com or eHarmony.  These are teenagers who know each other and see each other at school every day.  When teens in a relationship decide the relationship should end, many of them go to Facebook and change their relationship status from “In a relationship” to “Single” or perhaps “It’s complicated.”  While changing the relationship status in and of itself may not seem unusual to social media users, the phenomena may seem a bit unsettling if the pair haven’t actually talked about their relationship ending.  Some teens are using their Facebook relationship status as a virtual breakup tool, avoiding the difficult “breakup discussion” altogether.  The Boston Health Commission’s workshop sought to bring awareness to the issue and provide some practical tools for handling breakups.

[Organizers] encouraged the crowd to eschew parting ways over text message or Facebook, the most common teen breakup methods. (A bisexual 15-year-old confessed in a morning session that she learned that her girlfriend of two years had dumped her only when she changed her relationship status to single.) Attendees were advised — with mixed results — to bravely confront the awkwardness of face-to-face breakups. When the facilitator in a session titled “Breakups 101” suggested that teenagers meet with “and come to an agreement or mutual understanding” with a soon-to-be ex, a skeptical 19-year-old nearly leapt out of her chair in protest. “So, you’re telling me that you’re crying at night, you’re not sleeping, you’re eating all this food to make you feel better, and you’re supposed to just come to an agreement?”

I’ve found that for many students, online interaction emboldens them.  In some cases, this is a good thing.  However, many students are able to type surprisingly insensitive things–both toward me and their classmates–that I doubt they would say in a face-to-face interaction.  This trend among young people concerns me as someone who teaches online courses. Do tomorrow’s (or even today’s) online students really know how to interact with their teachers or classmates?  Likewise, I wonder if I’m at risk of forgetting how to interact with them.

I provide my home phone number to my online students but very few ever actually call me at home.  While some may think it rude to call an instructor at home, I wonder how many students are simply avoiding a difficult conversation.  If students have concerns about their grade, for example, will they actually pick up the phone to talk to me about it?  Or will they simply write something nasty about me in a course evaluation, avoiding the potential unpleasantness of live interaction?  And I certainly must consider if I use technology to hide from unpleasantness as well.

Bad Apples?

By Marc Williams

Public school performance in the U.S. is measured, most noticeably, by state-mandated standardized tests.  These tests are used to measure not only student achievement but also the effectiveness of teachers, administrators, and entire school systems.

Unlike the SAT and other standardized tests that are administered and proctored by independent contractors, public school tests are typically administered by the school’s faculty and staff.  The teachers and administrators whose jobs are on the line are actually responsible for collecting the data that could either enhance or jeopardize their careers.  In Atlanta, 178 educators appear to have manipulated or falsified testing data in an apparent effort to preserve their jobs.

In Atlanta, teachers who confessed to cheating told investigators they felt inordinate pressure to meet targets set by the district and faced severe consequences such as a negative evaluation or termination if they didn’t. The behavior was reinforced by a district culture of fear and intimidation directed at whistle-blowers.

Certainly schools should behave ethically but the cheating that is being investigated in Atlanta–and across the country–should come as no surprise since schools could face stiff consequences if standards aren’t met.  And since the schools have access to student answer sheets, manipulating data is quite easy.

There are plenty of debates about the value of these tests in the first place, as they typically don’t measure critical thinking, communication, creativity, and other key skills. But if the data on the tests are so easily corruptible, how useful can these tests be in evaluating anything?  How can school performance be better evaluated and measured?

The Things We Don’t Know

By Marc Williams

According to a recent Marist poll, only 58% of Americans know that the United States declared its independence in 1776.  Respondents were slightly better at identifying England as the country from which the United States sought independence; 76% responded correctly.

Revolutionary War Reenactment, Photo by Michael Warner

Similar polls are conducted year-round, demonstrating an often surprising lack of awareness of seemingly important issues.  For example, in November 2010, following the mid-term elections, a Pew Research Center poll revealed that most Americans knew that Republicans gained power in Congress but didn’t realize that Democrats maintained control of the Senate.

Far fewer are familiar with the specifics relating to the GOP’s victories. Fewer than half (46%) know that the Republicans will have a majority only in the House of Representatives when the new Congress convenes in January, while 38% can identify John Boehner as the incoming House speaker (Pew Research Center).

Polls like the one above from Pew Research Center are always surprising on some level.  This is perhaps because media outlets enjoy summarizing the results, highlighting only the most troubling findings. This particular poll examined American awareness on a variety of current events and the respondents did pretty well when asked about the BP oil spill and their general sense of federal budget deficit was accurate.  With that in mind, I wonder if the results really are so troubling after all.

Is this just sensationalism or should we really be concerned?    In the BLS program at UNCG, we examine big ideas about the human experience.  But what about names, dates, and other factoids acquired by rote?  Who is responsible for this information?  Is it really important in the first place?  What, exactly, should we all be expected to know?