Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Family Meals & Technology Use: A Cause for Concern?

In Networked Families, the Oct 2008 report about families and their use of technology, the authors report that those families with more technology devices in their households are less likely to eat together as a family on a daily basis.

Specifically, they report that 53% of multiple cell phone owners (2+) eat together daily with family members while 66% of families with only 1 or fewer cell phones. Likewise, families which own multiple computers (2+) are less likely to eat together (51%) than families that own only 1 or fewer computers (61%).

Additionally, adults in families which own more technology (cell phones and computers) also report less satisfaction in time spent with family members. It is unlikely that the technology itself is making families spend fewer meals together and be less satisfied, but these findings do remind us that stressful, complicated lives in which technologies dissolve boundaries between work, social networks, and entertainment and so forth may diminish our interpersonal time together.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Can Internet-Based Interventions Work Reach the Underserved?

Richardo Munoz and his colleagues at the University of California at San Francisco have been experimenting with an Internet-based program for stopping smoking. The program is designed to help participants stop smoking. Munoz suggests that this work has the potential to reach poor and underserved populations around the world. In an early report published in Nicotine and Tobacco Research in 2006 the scientists report that the participants are as successful at quitting smoking for a seven day period as people who use nicotine patches. Roughly, about one-fifth of the participants are successful at quitting smoking one year later.

Munoz reports that this program reached 4000 people in 74 countries in the early phases. Since the program was offered in English and Spanish it reached a broad range of people.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What is the purpose of higher education?

What is the purpose of learning on the web? Is it a reference source or is it a "space for investigation, deliberation, and discussion where there are ongoing conversations about the value of different content being circulated." This is how Henry Jenkins frames the questions being asked about the whether or not university websites should be open platforms that allow students and the public to contribute or closed processes in which experts (university professors) provide credible information.

Jenkins notes that if we adopt the open model then

"Everyone in the university would need to have a stake in insuring the integrity of the process and that means being highly critical and skeptical of anything that gets submitted, whether by a student or a teacher."
This is a different model.

A central question in this model is what do you do when bad or wrong information is presented in a university-based website? Jenkins writes,
"It depends on what the university is trying to sanctify: is it seeking to guarantee the integrity of the product (in which case, every bit of content needs to be vetted) or the integrity of the process (in which case, the university is creating a space where people learn through vetting each other's content.) Is the reputation of a university based on the fact that they gather together lots of people who know things or is it based on the fact that they create a context where the ongoing questioning of information takes place?"
In short, are we teaching the content (only the facts) or are we teaching how to think critically about issues and ideas, how to make a persuasive argument and so forth? As teachers we often like to have the last word and to be the best source of information, but in quiet reflection we know that we have often been wrong and that the history of knowledge and science is always about the development of new ideas and throwing away earlier notions that don't hold up. Although we often do have good ideas that are worth consideration, there is still much room for improvement. Likewise, rather than teaching the basic facts wouldn't we be better off teaching people how to think more carefully about ideas in our fields of study?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Wikipedia, Truth and Citations

"With little notice from the outside world, the community-written encyclopedia Wikipedia has redefined the commonly accepted use of the word 'truth'" so writes Simson Garfinkel in a thoughtful analysis of "Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth."

Garkinkel's central point is that Wikipedia is based on a principle of verifiability as a basis for inclusion. Here is the policy statement:
"The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth—that is, whether readers are able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether we think it is true. Editors should provide a reliable source for quotations and for any material that is challenged or likely to be challenged, or the material may be removed."
The Wikipedia policy statement goes on to define what is meant by a reliable source and distinguishes between primary, secondary and tertiary sources. This is a very thoughtful presentation of about the idea of verification and the distinctions between different types of sources. I would suggest that this presentation is as good as any common introduction to the use of source material when presenting ideas. Indeed, I would suggest that many faculty in high school and college could use this site as a basis for explaining to students about appropriate uses of source material. It should also be noted that this is not remarkably different than how other secondary sources (e.g., paper-based encyclopedias, reference books, textbooks, etc.) are created. That is, they are compilations of "verifiable" information from primary sources that are put together to provide information. In short, Wikipedia's verifiability standard is quite similar to other common ways in which teaching and learning materials has been created.

Garfinkel's other major complaint about Wikipedia is its refusal to allow "original research" to be posted. Here is the general policy:
"Wikipedia does not publish original research or original thought. This includes unpublished facts, arguments, speculation, and ideas; and any unpublished analysis or synthesis of published material that serves to advance a position. This means that Wikipedia is not the place to publish your own opinions, experiences, or arguments."
This seems like a very sensible policy and is again a common, but rarely stated policy in regards to printed encyclopedias and textbooks. The place for "original research" is in journals and other forums in which other scientists and peer colleagues can carefully analyze the content, methods and assertions. Wikipedia is correctly acknowledging that its "editors" do not have the technical expertise to make judgments about the quality of "original research." This seems like a reasonable policy. Garfinkel correctly notes that this means that sometimes there are odd results such as when a person seeks to correct an entry or citation about themselves. He gives a good example in which Jaron Lanier (see Digital Maoism) was only able to get his own biography corrected by citing another source as a basis for statements about himself. This is problematic and does point out the that the "no original research" policy is not perfect, but it does not make a convincing case that Wikipedia would be substantially improved by the addition of orginal research in general. Wikipedia is simply acknowledging its own limits as a generally reliable "secondary" source, not a primary source. When it is treated as a secondary source, it is doing a pretty good job.

Social Network Design in Prevention

This past week my graduate program development course considered social network design for use in prevention and intervention programs. We viewed Howard Rheingold's Social Network Classroom ideas and read BJ Fogg's Mass Interpersonal Persuasion and examined the efforts by the Open University to build a social learning platform.

At the beginning of the discussion I think we were all skeptical of the idea that social networking would work in changing behavior. We gave examples of the various silly activities that were possible in Facebook-- playing games, putting objects and slogans on Facebook walls and so forth and noted that although Facebook could be playful, fun and entertaining with friends and acquaintances it was just not a place that one expected to do anything very serious like thinking about changing behavior or learning something new. Despite Fogg's description of a model for how persuasive strategies could be widely disseminated in a social network environment, we were not convinced that the evidence was there to explain how someone would change a difficult interpersonal (e.g., try an alternative to spanking) or personal behavior (e.g., get more exercise). Also, knowing the demographic profile of social networking (young, better educated, etc.) we were doubtful that many of the people most in need of information and ideas of change, were not likely to have the time or access to this technology.

But then we began to think more cleverly about how we got information through social ties to other people and the fact the challenge of getting people's attention to address real issues in their lives. Most of us acknowledged that we were more likely to try something or pay attention if a trusted friend recommended it than if a stranger suggested it. This reminded us that just getting us to pay attention to an issue in our lives was a challenge that social networks might overcome. We also reflected on a central challenge which was engaging people to think about issues within relationships and families and began to explore ideas for using music and photos as fun ways to begin to explore relationship ideas and information. We mentioned that quizzes about a television show or some life experience (How well do you know your partner?) could often be interesting and prompt us to compare ourselves with others or begin an exploration of an idea. Generally, we began to warm up to the idea that it might be possible to create social communities on the web that captured our attention and fun and interesting ways and drew us into deeper conversations and activities that could change behavior. We haven't seen examples of these types of efforts, but we left thinking that this was possible.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Scientific Storytelling--Radio Lab, WNYC

Scientists should tell stories... this is how Robert Krulwich, maker of RadioLab, begins his commencement address to CalTech students. In a 30 minute speech Krulwich asserts that creationists and other myth makers are busy creating compelling stories about the world works and if scientists don't create their own compelling stories then no one will listen to them. He tells the story of Galileo who he suggests was not only a great scientist, but was good at writing and demonstrating interesting ways of showing people new ways of thinking about the world. Krulwich suggests that if Galileo had been more obscure or communicated his ideas in less interesting ways he would have been far less of a threat.

In another short podcast, Krulwich and co-host, Jad Abumrad, give a behinds the scenes look at how they translate science into a language that the general public can understand. There are the usual Krulwich gags, but along the way they tell us how they create stories out of complicated scientific evidence. Although I am very fond of RadioLab and their entertaining explanations of science, Krulwich and Abumrad, do not tell us much about behavioral and social science. In these areas, we have a different problem of explanation than physics and biology. With behavioral and social sciences, the challenge is that everyone has their own behavioral and social explanations of everyday life. No one says to the physicists, "the quarks in my house don't behave like that" or "my family of quarks work like this..." Behavioral and social scientists have to help people ask tougher questions about the generalizability of their experiences and to examine more data about their hypotheses about how social phenomena work. I think this is more challenging than understanding the realms of science that are outside of human experience.

And finally, here is an interview, Chasing Bugs, with a great scientific storyteller, E.O. Wilson, who not only is an excellent entomologist, but also a great communicator about biology to the general public. In this interview, you get a terrific look at the man behind the science.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Digital Divide is Built on the Literacy Divide

Today, 500 years after the invention of a revolutionizing technology that changed the way people learn and transformed education, one-fifth of the world's population still lacks the fundamental skills necessary to take advantage of that technology.

So what was this revolutionary technology? The printed book.

According to the the Human Development 2007/2008 report by the United Nations Development Programme, world wide literacy rates are at an all-time high, yet only 82% of the adult population has basic literacy skills. For young adults, ages of 15-24 years of age, the literacy rate is better reaching about 87%.

In the least developed countries in the world, only 53% of the adult population can read.

Although literacy rates in the developed countries like the United States are higher than the developing world, US literacy rates are still worrisome at a time when it is increasingly important to continue to learn new ideas and skills in order to succeed in the emerging knowledge economy.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that about 14% of US adults have below basic skills in the ability to comprehend and use written materials. It is also important that literacy rates in the US did not improve between 1992 and 2003.

The digital divide is important to address, but the literacy divide still deserves our attention. Likewise, the digital divide will not be overcome without serious attention to the literacy divide.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Model for Thinking about Web 2.0Tools

One of the challenges with all the Web 2.0 tools is to understand the functions behind the various tools and how they fit together. Kyleen Burgess provides a very nice overview and conceptual picture that provides perspective about how the various Web 2.o tools fit together and how they can be used to carry out the functions of a teacher and provider of information. Burgess' slideshare on this topic also suggests various tools behind each of these areas and how they can be used to improve productivty and effectiveness.