Wikification

I’ve been using wikis for years now, without really thinking too much about how they work and for what purposes they are best suited. Coming from a strong web development background, where so many things are quite complicated or at least time-consuming, the only real things that struck home about wikis were that they were so easy to use, and yet so conducive to collaborative writing.

For those who have not yet tripped across a wiki, you should run –not walk– to Wikipedia.org and see what these folks have been up to. Basically, a wiki is a large collaborative website where almost anybody can go in and add or modify pages. Yes, you see a page, you want to change the content, you hit “edit” and you can publish your changes without knowing HTML formatting, database functions or even who runs the joint. The Wikipedia is actually a giant, sprawling community-driven encyclopedia that grows by leaps and bounds every day. In fact, I’ve heard tell it’s already three times the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica (although the content is far more variable, as one would expect). Smaller and more specialised topic wikis can be used to discuss text editors, horticulture, pop stars, and every topic under the sun.

So, since I’m preparing an online version of a high school English course for the province, I’ve started examining the possibilities of using a wiki for more educational purposes. I have set them up in the past for other courses I’ve taught, mainly technical, and they were all very well received. But could a wiki work for an English course?

My thoughts on this so far:

  1. English, and all other liberal arts, are often best learned in a fully collaborative environment. “Listen, and repeat after me,” or “Read this page, then do this exercise on your own,” are not exactly conducive to the subject matter. After all, if the outcomes are best served through shared experience and the search for meaning from differing viewpoints, the students will not be able to reach these in isolation. A wiki allows students and teachers to work together on a “collective” series of documents with input from all involved. This can work especially well from a distance.
  2. The Internet is transitory, and if it is used as an integral resource for an English course (almost essential for online learning and distance education), there should be an easy way to update all of the resources to keep them current and relevant. With a wiki, not only can the teachers do this with a simple and non-technical tool, but the students can as well.
  3. A wiki can be used as a way of not only giving assignments, but collecting and presenting them as well. A teacher can assign work to students that involve adding to or improving the information contained within the wiki, thus furthering its relevance for all involved.
  4. Peer pressure is an amazing force that can be used for good or evil. In a wiki, the collective eyes of the group provide strong motivation to not only do the best job you can, but to screen out undesirable information. With a simple click, the teacher can see all recent changes to the wiki, and check their appropriateness. If necessary, the pages in question can be “rolled back” to a previous version. This is not to mention that changes can be logged to show which inviduals contributed what, enabling the teacher to contact them about their material if need be.
  5. The essence of Language Arts is the exploration of meaning. The native form and function of a wiki encourages cross-linking to relevant items, and thus exploration. Therefore, students do not necessarily receive a very narrow viewpoint of the material, but can “leap off” into alternate theories, related subjects, debatable issues, and external resources that can foster a somewhat-controlled environment of discovery.
  6. Many students, raised on high-tech and the Internet, will no doubt be able to push the wiki to its furthest. However, this also puts some pressure on the teacher to learn its techniques and benefits, and to encourage its use on a daily basis. (Any tool will degrade without proper usage and maintenance.) That being said, if a skilled administrator sets everything up beforehand (including user accounts and permissions), any person with a modicum of computer experience under his or her belt should be able to run matters very smoothly within just a few days of regular use.

A wiki can obviously be a highly effective and very advantageous tool for delivering Language Arts material online. While the benefits are many, and the strikes against it are few, the biggest challenge in fostering its use is the sudden shift in paradigm that many teachers will no doubt face. After all, if one is used to being in a classroom, dealing with students face-to-face, reading body language and often-subtle hints to determine the effectiveness of the current lesson, the whole notion of online teaching is difficult enough. Now, if you deviate even further from the norm, from the usual “progression of steps leading to an inevitable conclusion,” how can you feel comfortable in your role as educator? The ease of exploration and self-discovery inherent in a wiki provides so many possibilities that turn sequential education on its ear, that empower the students to more actively pursue meaning, it is difficult to predict how most traditional teachers will adapt to this new medium. Add to this recipe the advantages of other web-based and multimedia technologies, like blogging, software-driven presentations, A/V editing/distribution and Flash authoring, and the teachers of the new millenium face a world unlimited in both potential and complexity. Thankfully, a wiki is but a small step in this direction, one that most teachers should be able to make without great stress, trepidation or confusion. In this way, it is but a gentle and effective introduction to modern educational technology.

Boy, that ended up sounding like an essay. Must be the influence of all those textbooks I’ve been reading lately….

Welcome to a New Brain

I’ve been the proud owner of a Palm since the original Pilot days, and have rarely been without one for nearly six years. In that time, I’ve logged thousands of meetings, appointments, contacts, memos and tasks. I’ve read my daily news using AvantGo or Plucker rather than read a newspaper. I’ve even written thousands of pages, either using an add-on keyboard or plain Graffiti hand-writing recognition (which I can now do as fast as regular hand-writing). In short, these handy little devices have been my back-up brain for years.

A couple of years ago, a household incident in my absence involving my wife’s cooking and a smoke detector caused a nasty crack to develop on my Palm IIIc. Well, more than a crack… crazy glue and gaffer’s tape have barely managed to hold it together ever since. But a month or so ago, my beloved handheld finally stopped syncing with the computer, and the keyboard, modem and camera would no longer attach correctly. This was the beginning of the end. Without syncing, I had no way of keeping my data safe, no way of transferring information, no way of getting my news… I had so come to rely on this seemingly simple daily act of information interchange that without it, I was reduced to complete chaos.

After hyperventilating for a day or so, and then after I regained consciousness, I decided that this was not a problem. I would revert to … *gasp* … paper! I used to tote around a business-style DayRunner, and in my more prosperous days I would stock it to the brim with every dollar-a-sheet add-in there was. Now faced with empty pockets and no Staples in sight, I spent a couple of nights of developing templates in Illustrator, and I printed some beautiful double-sided sheets that would give any DayRunner/DayTimer designers a run for their money.

The “classic-size” DayRunner was dutifully stocked with my masterful little creations, and sections were added for each of my current projects, as well as for notes, ideas, diagrams and more. A nice calendar was inserted , to-do lists created, and I broke out my nicest pen and pencil to accompany my leatherette friend. I threw in my patented DayRunner calculator, hole punch, Today ™ bookmark/ruler, zip-lock accessories, business card holders, receipt/expense envelopes, and all the little DayRunner trinkets I thought might prove useful.

And then I didn’t carry it anywhere.

It was too unwieldy, too bulky, too heavy. Sure, it looked nice. And sure, if I carried it with me everywhere, it would probably prove useful. But after carrying around something not much bigger than a stack of playing cards for years (which could store *much* more information), the DayRunner became a bit of an albatross. Although it was a rather sensuous experience to write with a real pen on real paper again, that was the only thing going for it. In terms of convenience or immediacy or helpfulness, it couldn’t measure up to the Palm IIIc. Soon, I rarely had it handy for contact information or notes or project files. And soon, the inevitable decline into chaos once more.

Tungsten EThat changed recently, when a friend who was upgrading to a pricier model sent me his six-month-old Palm Tungsten E (thanks, Scott!). Within a day or two, all my important personal infomation was installed on it, and I discovered where my efficiency had gone. Also, on this model, a few notable “upgrades” from my old model: a much faster processor (capable of playing music and video); much better colour and screen resolution; a built-in MP3 player; compability with my lonely 512Mb SD card (and therefore 70 times as much space); scores of new applications; and a much slimmer and attractive design. I can now use a good word processor (WordSmith) and outliner (Progect) on the Palm at the same time as I can listen to music. What’s not to like? (Well, compability with my previous keyboard, modem and camera would be nice….)

I beamed some useful applications and good books to my old handheld, packed it up with all its peripherals, and gave to my wife’s sister Renate for her organisational needs. I shed nary a tear for that old combat veteran, still bandaged and triaged with tape and glue. (The Palm, not the sister.)

So, the poor old DayRunner is once more being relegated to the closet, a symbol of all those times that I have retreated away from technology and back to traditional ways of doing things, yet ever to return to the modern world with which I feel constantly at odds.

Hmm. Maybe a paper journal again? Something I can stick in my little gadget bag and use a real pen with…? Perhaps a Hemingway-esque moleskine…?

Timeline

After watching the film Timeline a few nights ago, I had to stop and wonder why it was such an extraordinarily bland movie. Many of the elements of a catchy blockbuster were there: a big time director (Richard Donner, of Superman and Lethal Weapon); it was based on a bestseller whose author has a pedigree of hits (Michael Critchton, of Jurassic Park, Sphere, Great Train Robbery, Andromeda Strain, ER fame); science-fiction style time travel; medieval heroic action; and a lot of very attractive people running around looking, er … attractive. Throw in the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly for a dash of levity, and you have yourself a sure-fire hit, right?

Unfortunately, there is no real recipe for box-office success, although the Hollywood movie mills do try their best to grind out variations on time-honoured formulae. However, I was quite expecting to like this film, and perhaps that’s why it was all the more disappointing. You see, I have a dirty little secret: I have actually read a number of Crichton books, and have even enjoyed a few of them. While I was quite bored with a lot of the “running around in dark passageways” type of action in the Timeline novel, I did quite enjoy the pseudo-lessons in quantum physics and medieval history, and they provided the framework to make the rest of the book, well… tolerable. So much of the imagery, I noted, could work so much better in film than in the book (at least, given the skill and approach of its author, or lack thereof). And the plot and characters were just dimensional enough to work within the two-hour confines of cinema. Top that off with the fact that I am a closet medievalist, and I hoping for a nice little historic treat.

First, a bit of background. The novel surrounds a group of archeologists who are excavating a series of 14th-century ruins in France. When the professor leading the project disappears during a visit to their funders, and his students dig up his 650-year-old plea for help, they realise something strange is going on. Soon they are called into the funding super-scientific organisation where they will essentially be “faxed” to a parallel universe where the time is around 1350, and where the professor has disappeared during a visit. Well, a head gets lopped off, the courageous students get separated, there’s a bit of jousting and swordplay, a medieval French babe joins the mix, some bad guys threaten our vigilant heroes, and eventually everything comes to a head when the group seeks to reunite and jump back (er, forward) in time, where the laboratory folks are having their own problems. Notice how nothing really imaginative happens here? Yes, it is a formula, but one that works quite well for Crichton: throw some science at the reader, make something that’s impossible seem somewhat plausable (remember Jurassic Park?), and then begin a good ole’ fashioned life-and-death romp through this playland where lots of cardboard characters and evilly-inclined heavies lose their lives. Toss in a token good-guy sacrifice or two near the end, and we have a winner. Indeed, Timeline is but one in a long line of bestsellers for Crichton, many of which bear more than a passing plot ressemblance to each other.

What made the book intriguing for me were the little scientific and historical touches. For example, since one of my interests has been medieval language and literature, I quite enjoyed the fact that modern-day characters had such a hard time interacting with these dead languages. (In my mind, I often used to “speak” these languages to myself, rolling the delicious vocabulary around my tongue and paying attention to the subtleties of meaning and the musicality permeating them.) As each phrase appeared in the book, I sounded out the words phonetically to understand them before the characters could figure out what was meant; it became a bit of an amusing game for me. Now, I warrant that few of Crichton’s readers could enjoy this as much as I did, but I’m sure that what they did understand was that communication across the many centuries created a barrier, one that made the situation far more precarious, far more real. However, when the film’s heroes meet the medieval characters, everything is perfectly understandable. Even the French characters seem to speak perfect 21st-century English. It would have been so woefully easy for Donner (along with a few under-funded scholars) to set up a believable language barrier, one that could be overcome in the course of the film, and build both believability and characterisation at the same time.

And this is rather symptomatic of most of the issues in the movie. The film takes a reductionist approach, which of course is actually a necessity for most movies, since we can’t expect a few dozen hours of reading material to be sufficiently distilled to 120 minutes and include everything of interest. However, any reduction of plot or character should be balanced by other aspects of the film. By eliminating third-string characters, we should see more characterisation of the central ones. By eliminating subplots, we should see a well-developed main plot. However, this movie reduces the main characters –which were unique enough in the novel– into pure stereotypes, and the plot into a loose and unstructured mess. To illustrate, we have a handsome hero with minor foibles, a beautiful and strong-minded love interest that isn’t interested in him at the outset (and who spends far too much time being shocked or worried), a dashing swashbuckler type that falls for a woman he should not have, a professor that is both booksmart and barely effectual, a military guy that barks orders, a bad guy who kills with no sense of morality or even flair, and so on… the characters and plot were so predictable that even if I had not read the book, I could have guessed the whole film from start to finish, and perhaps even have acted it out with a set of Barbies, Kens, and GI Joes. (Which would at least have made the film more original, if not better-acted.)

While the film did have a few interesting moments, such as the siege battle near the end, I found it almost completely devoid of inspiration. Take out the historical and scientific framework that Crichton tried so hard to set up (no doubt he knew how weak the plot and settings would be without it), and you have a film so ridden with cliches and two-dimensional characters that it feels less like a failure to bring an epic-style story to life, and more like an embarassment. Donner should know better: his Lethal Action characters were interesting, unpredictable, and inherently likable, and his Superman turned cartoon characters into real people we could care about. In the hands of someone who cared more about the characters and storytelling, Timeline would at least be as good as Crichton’s book, and perhaps far better.

Alan Moore on Salon.com

Alan MooreProbably the most interesting interview I’ve read in years: Salon.com has an article about Alan Moore (watch the cheesy Flash commercial to gain access). The author quite rightfully calls Moore not only one of the world’s best comic writers, but one of the world’s best writers, period. I am consistently awestruck by Moore’s output. In the 1980’s, this British writer transformed the medium of comic books from a pulpish world dominated by hack-jobs that would insult a child’s intelligence, to a form of high literature which even the New York Times has learned to take seriously. His tales turned a third-rate hollow character (the Swamp Thing) into a book that startled the whole industry and awakened the publishers to the fact that you can have a book aimed at an adult mind. His Watchmen showed us the “true lives” and neuroses of superheroes, making them real for the first time (in a way that Stan Lee, writing for teens, never could). His intricate and well-researched storylines in “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “From Hell” (both of which were shamed by their respective film versions) brought a power to the medium that imitators have yet to grasp. And the man continues to produce work that reinvents not only the industry, but our notions of humanity.

The interview examines Moore’s vision of today’s world, looks at how several of his works predicted current events such as “America’s War on Terror,” discusses the short-circuiting of reality with media, and reveals his thoughts on what an artist must do to prepare the world for the upcoming deluge of information that’s about to sweep us all away. A must-read, even if you haven’t heard of the man.

You can read a bio on his fan site.