Reverse Hacking Education

Disruption, reinvention, and even hacking have become very common themes in the discourse of higher education lately. As I sit down to write this post on the theme of hacking (for the fourth week of #clmooc, a connected learning community/course), I am thinking about how buzzwords tend to carry truckloads of irony and how often those who jump on the bandwagons of buzzwords with the most excitement don’t realize (or care about) the complexity of their words’ meanings, origins, uses, and effects. As a teacher, I am fascinated by the educational potential of irony and paradox in buzzwords, grand narratives, and over-sized belief systems. So, I often ask students to unpack the irony/paradox of overly popular words and their collocations. The intersection of the word “hack” and “education” seems so rich that I want to write an essay on it myself.

Assignment X: “Pick a word or phrase that has become unusually popular in the field of education (or another broad subject/context of your interest), study its meanings, origins, uses, etc, and write an essay in between 1000 and 2000 words.” Continue reading

Not Sure If I’ve “Taken” a MOOC

I find a lot of things about MOOCs confusing. But when I was responding to Lenandlar Singh’s blog post in which he asked the following three questions (paraphrased), I was more confused than ever before: 1. How long should videos in MOOCs be? 2. How well are discussions happening in MOOC discussion forums? and 3. How long should MOOCs ideally be? Continue reading

Education is NOT Just the Content Part of it

I can’t believe what I typed in the title, but let me share some reflections I was sharing after reading a Chronicle blog post on Facebook earlier today.

I used to think that one has to be phenomenally stupid to think that a “course” (particularly in the US higher education system) can be “licensed” to a third party to teach it, to think that it can be “sold” like a gallon of milk that the buyer can use it as they like. I used to wonder if these new types of buyers and sellers of education (keen on making money, cutting cost, creating efficiency, etc) define “course” without the “teaching” part in it? I used to be confused if they’re simply talking about videocapturing every minute of the professor talking and call that the “course.” That wouldn’t make a lot of sense at least for anyone trying to “license” any of the courses I teach because they have to also videocapture the interaction with and among a particular/unique group of students I teach in a particular place and time–and then, what, “play” that video for future groups of students?! I thought that if by “course” they were only referring to the syllabus (course description, objectives, reading list, assignment descriptions, and course policies) and schedule, then these are not always original and many professors put them online and they often don’t care who takes and uses them. I borrow and lend syllabi and assignments all the time with colleagues.  Continue reading

Writing Engaging Blog Posts

I don’t want to reinvent any wheels on the blogosphere: you can find a ton of good advice on how to blog effectively by simply Googling for a while (this was my first find). So, let me briefly summarize what we’ve been discussing in the specific context of our class, adding a few points to the list.

Use a Telling, Interesting Title
image credit:, the title is not just the “topic” of your post. The title should name the “topic,” say, “the attention economy” (also, not just the broader subject of your writing, which could be, say, “social media”). If you provide a specific “title” for your particular post, say “How the Attention Economy is Disrupting Conventional Marketing Practices,” readers, including your classmates, can see what your post is specifically about. If the title is informative, readers can get a sense of what you are writing about (and decide if they want to read it). And, if the title is also interesting–attention-grabbing because it is funny, creative, new, or otherwise striking–then they may be more willing to read the blog. Let us add a creative twist to the title above: “Look at Me! — How the Attention Economy is Disrupting Conventional Marketing Practices.” Just don’t go overboard, which you can if the creative twist can’t be justified logically or rhetorically. If your blog’s theme makes the title too large and long, you can either edit the CSS or put the subtitle at the top of your post. 

Remember the “Hook-Hold-Payoff” Idea
Unlike the simple/universal idea of beginning, middle, and end, this one comes from “story design“: it is one of the most powerful ways to think specifically about the audience engagement, and it seems very useful for blogging (especially due to the lack of attention on the web).

Hook (or an attention-grabbing act) should start with the title and it should continue into the introduction paragraph, which should be short and effective.  Remember that you should “hook” the reader while also providing the context of your writing, the main point/argument or question at the heart of your post, a sense of post’s scope, and if necessary explicit statement of significance of your topic (normally, the answer to “why does this matter?” should be implicit in the rest of your intro). This means that you can’t just play some gimmick but instead have to get to the point and be interesting and engaging to the reader. Of course, you should not try to save any secret about your main idea (unless that’s the point of your writing and you’re confident that the reader won’t smile and go away; remember the Facebook tab!). Also, save any “background” information and condense and merge it into the body of the post. Look at this NYT blog post (on the topic of “attention economy”) to see what hook techniques the writer uses.

As you move on to the body of your writing, continue to “hold” the reader’s attention. You can do this by NOT burying your main idea in the middle or even end of your paragraph (except when you mean to save the main idea for a rhetorical reason, especially once you are confident that the reader is engaged in the main idea). This is not to suggest that you should use the simplistic old technique of “topic sentence”; however, whenever possible, you should a start paragraph by giving the reader a sense of direction or provide them a striking point on which you build the paragraph. Within the paragraphs, you can sustain the reader’s interest by using an engaging voice, appropriate pacing of ideas (elaborate when necessary, otherwise move on quickly), (see below for Nicole Gartner’s B-L-O-G idea). 

image from idea of “payoff” has to do with the sense of “benefit” that you should try to provide the reader by the end of your blog post. Readers need at least one considerable takeaway–and their decision to start, continue, and finish reading what you’re writing is based on that desire. So, even though it may be impossible to “benefit” any and all kinds of readers by the same post, you should imagine one or more types of readers (or rather interests) when writing. For instance, if you expect college students of business, bloggers who write about marketing, your colleagues at work, and family members to read your post about the “attention economy,” you could assume that these readers will benefit from learning “about” the concept (this means that you might want to define/describe or illustrate the concept as you write), from learning how the strange new type of “economy” affects them (if so, you might want to explain how), and from getting to see what you have to say about the topic (as an individual with your own ideas/perspectives). There may also be more direct benefits (some readers may change their marketing strategies), and there may be emotional benefits (you make readers laugh/smile, cry–just kidding–or be inspired by your ideas/feelings about the topic).

Remember Nicole Gartner‘s B-L-O-G Idea
I don’t want to steal Nicole’s thunder, and I have asked her to kindly write/reblog an entry on this wonderful idea of hers on our class blog, but just to remind you the idea that she shared in class, here are some mental notes I took that day.
image from Be prepped: Have something to say, do your research, think through the idea, talk about the subject, be passionate about it
L- Language matters: Write in a language that is personable, in your own voice, using the tone that fits the subject, talking directly to your audience
O- Opinion matters: Be opinionated and in a good way, argue (make) a point clearly and strongly, have something to say something that engages your audience
G- Go for it: Go for it, don’t hesitate or wait until you grow up, there’s a community of people in the world (which is no longer limited to your university or your town) who are interested in the subject and you can reach them wherever they are, blogging is not a tool but a medium to participate in a community of people who care about something so find that community and go for it

Don’t Forget the Context
image credit:
In the case of the Blogfolio Project in the course Writing For Your Profession, the intellectual and professional context of your blogs is your professional portfolio. This means that you should not simply blog about anything (I call that “blobbing”)– don’t do it. While there is no need to tell the reader “how” each of your blog entry helps to showcase your achievements achievements and expertise, enhance your professional image and profile, etc, it is important that your blogs are relevant to your overall profile. If your overall profile is that of an emerging academic scholar of biochemisty, do not add blog entries about William Shakespeare, attention economy, the concert you went to last night, or your old blue cat–unless you mean to and can successfully situate or show genuine significance of your posts to the overall portfolio. Write about biochemistry, its application, its connections, its challenges and prospects, your experience/knowledge and expert opinions, something funny or thoughtful about the subject and its many topics/issues, etc, etc, etc. Yes, if you also want to add social, personal, community service or any other dimensions to the portfolio by blogging about more than the primary area of interest/expertise, you should do so; but the same demand for adding something “relevant” and significant applies here as well.

Organize, Edit, and Proofread Well
The “professional” context of your portfolio also means that you should organize your writing for accessible reading (including short/focused paragraphs, subheadings and other visual elements, images to make reading easier/better); you should also edit and proofread the text carefully because this is specifically a “professional” portfolio and your writing will be judged for the quality of your thought and that of the “product” of your writing. For this reason, don’t publish directly on the web; draft, get feedback, revise, and edit offline before publishing on your site).

Add Images and Other Visual Elements
seeAs I indicated above, visual elements can make your writing more engaging (if used well); you can also use visual design of the post in order to enhance access and ease of reading. For example, if your post is long, you should provide subheadings or simply bold-faced sentences in a few places (if that won’t make the post look odd or if the highlighted text won’t misrepresent the post). Using images (especially with captions) can allow readers who don’t have time to read the text to get the point (if you do it well). Finally, integrating other media such as embedded videos, animated visuals, etc (see relevant section on the “how to” page) can also help you engage the readers better.

Message in a Floating Bottle

. . . A Writing Teacher’s Considerations about Cross-Border Education

I found a plastic bottle floating on the Atlantic at the south shore of Long Island some time ago. It was a warm summer day, and I was playing with my five and three year old children on the beach. As soon as I noticed a piece of paper inside the bottle, my curiosity was piqued and I took it out and read the message. It said: “Come here around this time tomorrow and we’ll talk about our plan further.”

The first thing that came to my mind was: “Gosh, is this message somehow intended for me?” I wondered who the sender of the message may be. Come? That is called an indexical in linguistics: it needs to have a point of reference, that of the speaker’s location, to which the other person is being asked to move. I would need to know who the addresser and addressee are. Continue reading

The Digital Amphibians

As a whole host of new and faster developments are taking place in the domain of teaching/learning online, the theme of resistance versus celebration of academic technology, which I started writing about many years ago,* is intriguing me once again. This time around, when I come across people who either celebrate their preference/interest or express critical judgments about teaching with new technologies, I am reminded of a story.

There  was this poor Nepali family that used to have a hard time because they had guests too frequently. So, the couple developed a strategy to address their challenge: the wife started serving dinner to the guests along with her husband, and as soon as the husband sensed that she may be running out of food for the rest of their family, he said, “We are full, honey! Now, you should serve the kids.”

I think a lot of people–including myself–want to be diplomatic like the host in the story above, but it is easier said than done. When others start defending or resisting new technologies, in spite of our knowledge, understanding, and empathy with both sides, we too fail to rephrase our thoughts and tone down our reactions, to wait and see what happens, to rethink our initial understanding while things evolve and improve. This analogy may not fully pan out, but I think we regularly fail to gently indicate to the guest that kids will go hungry if we keep eating! Continue reading