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Three Questions, One Answer

In a recent blog post , Doug Mckee addresses three issues in how he should teach this fall.

1. Should I ban laptops in lecture?
2. Should I make discussion sections mandatory?
3. Should I cold-call students during lecture?

Basically: no, no and no—all for the same reasons.

1. Should you “ban” anything in lecture?
Or rather: were you to try, what would be the justification?
In teaching we do things for very few reasons.

a. Because they are inherent in the discipline and academic life. “We’re reading Durkheim because he helped to found the discipline.” “We’ll use APA style because that’s what professionals do.” “You must offer arguments, not opinions, because in our domain, opinions have no value.”

b. Because they are convenient. “We need to get all your papers at once so we can compare them and grade them before the next work is due.”

c. Because they adhere to university policies and laws. “No smoking in the back row.” “Grades are due on the 11th.” “No sexual harassment.”

d. Because they embody our values about human freedom and responsibility. “You must take up your own argumentative position.” “You may turn in the work late, but it will be marked down.” “Write about the one topic on the list that interests you most.” Pursue your freedom. Experiment. Explore. Fail. But take on the responsibility of existing and choosing.

(I can’t think of many other justifications for why we do this, that or the other in teaching.)

And all of these questions are opened to reasoned debate—because that is one of our values.

Once you say “You will not open your laptops,” you are dictating. And you have lost. Now you are a cop, not a teacher.

Practically speaking, I know professors who have had good luck with the “three states”: put your laptops away and focus on this (discuss with a peer, whatever); open your laptops and do this specific task; leave your laptop open or put it away—I don’t care, just don’t distract your neighbor.

You can also play with the sequence. If you ask them to use it, then to close it, the act of opening it may be more self-aware.

2. See “1” above.

a. What does “mandatory” mean? Again, from my perspective this is the wrong relation to the student.

We can mandate little in teaching. Rather, we reward and we punish. (Behavioral economics and game theory surely apply here–though I fear that those theories have no moral code embedded in them, and therefore they may be useful tools but they are not arbiters.)

Extrinsic rewards don’t motivate learning very well. So you can reward and punish for attending or not. But neither will help students learn.

Why not go the other way? “Go to section, don’t. No points for it. Go if you value it. And we’ll try to make it valuable.” Ask every week how section could be better. Make it a discussion topic in the web site. When you can’t decide in advance, make it a learning experience.

Hence…

b. One good principle in planning teaching is: treat all questions about teaching as something to be proven experimentally by teaching.

Reframe the issue as: What could I learn about making the section worth going to?

Survey students weekly–did you go or not, why? Ask the section leaders to experiment, to explore how best to meet the students’ needs. Maybe the first few weeks the sections would have different specific activities that students rated, and thereafter, students chose “which activity should we do today?” Make it their section. Meet their needs.

Or just put super-important things in section. Sell how great section will be, and then say “of course it’s totally optional.”

3. See “1” above.

a. They are coming to lecture to learn. Would you pick on someone for not having understood the material as well as someone else? That person needs more help, not public shaming.

b. I tried this once. I would never do it again.

I once put the students’ names on index cards. I shuffled them and picked one at random.

Once the index cards came out, students sat up straight in their chairs.

I called a name, and the student stammered and hemmed and hawed. Other students tried to rescue those I called on—defended them.

One student shot his hand up later, after not having known the answer to an earlier question, and after class explained to me: “I knew the answer, I just couldn’t think of it, and so I had to show you that I’d done the reading.”

And I thought: who am I? To make someone prove a point to me?

After that I brought out the index cards and put them on the desk. They were radioactive. Students would stare at them. If no one answered a question, I moved towards the cards, and a voice would ring out with something to say.

It wasn’t motivated by something good. But I got good discussions. Not because of randomly calling on students all the time, as a policy. But by making a point that we needed to discuss and that I would do what it took to make that happen. They didn’t want that.

But I would never teach that way again.

4. Learning devolves on human agency.

Agency is the center of learning. Through learning, I become more capable, and I feel myself to be more and more of an agent, less and less of a passive, receptive entity and more and more myself.

Humans become more capable by overcoming meaningful challenges in an increasing order of difficulty, a difficulty matched to their abilities. (It’s tragedy when someone is outstripped by the task he faces; tragedy defines common humanity by contrast.)

Anything that takes away from the agency of the learner is bad for learning.

Yes, we need rules and limits.

But when possible, all meaningful choices should be passed to the student.

To experience one’s humanity through the responsibility of choice, to embrace the possibility of failure, and to own’s one’s successes: this is the heart of education.

— Edward R. O’Neill, Ph.D.

Robin Ladouceur Moving to Yale Graduate School Deanship

I am equal parts excited and sad to announce that ITG’s Robin Ladouceur will be moving to a new position in the Yale Graduate School as Assistant Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences. Robin has worked in ITG for four years supporting courses, primarily in the English Department and managing our Instructional Innovation Internship program. She has recently helped advance mobile learning initiatives like our iPad loan program. Before coming to ITS, Robin worked at the Yale Center for Language Study and earned her Ph.D. at Yale in Russian Language and Literature.

Robin, thank you for your years of service and we wish you all the best on your return engagement at HGS. On a personal level we will miss you but we’ll see you around campus and, as you’ve assured us, when Peeps Fest rolls around.

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 11.47.38 AM

Large Horizontal Image Presentation

Cross-posted from my project journal site

Since the close of classes in May, I’ve found more time to work on getting into the weeds with my 絵巻物 project and have made some forward motion.

One of my best discoveries has been that Adobe Photoshop CS 5.1 will execute the image tiling needed to allow zooming as happens in most of the typical large image presentations that I’ve found online. (For some scroll examples, see my post at Digital Humanities Questions and Answers.) Though I’ve only done it with my proof of concept section of the scroll, it was not a horribly intensive or time-consuming procedure. Strictly speaking, what Adobe has done is to bundle Zoomify capabilities into Photoshop. Using the steps described by Adobe’s help documentation, the output is not only the image tiles for my TIFF, Continue reading

New York Times series on Digital Humanities

The New York Times has just issued the first in a series of articles about “Humanities 2.0: Liberal Arts Meet the Data Revolution.”

The article quotes Tom Scheinfeldt, managing director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Tom will be speaking to Yale’s Digital Humanities Working Group this Thursday. The session is open to the Yale public. Please join us!

November 18
Tom Scheinfeldt, Assistant Director of the Center for History and New Media
4:00 – 5:00 pm
Whitney Humanities Center, room 208

Flash, H.264, and WebM

I know, another post on WebM – it is just that significant. As more rumblings are heard of, and more beta versions of Firefox 4 are released – the WebM question continues to resurface. Mozilla seems fully intent on including full WebM support in this release, and Opera 10.60+ / Chrome 6+ also support the codec for playback. As mentioned earlier you can also view some WebM videos via YouTube, and even encode some of your own.

All of this is fun and interesting stuff – but the question must be asked, how different will all of this be from the existing way in which video is delivered over the web? I realized that I neglected to mention, though depending on who is reading this might be self-evident, that WebM in its HTML5 manifestation runs without needing a plugin (a la Flash). Now, H.264 video will also play in its own HTML5 manifestation in Safari, Chrome, and the forthcoming IE 9. The difference (at the moment) between these two (or three if you also want to take Ogg’s open-source Theora, which plays in Chrome, Opera, and Firefox into account) is that H.264 is a patented, proprietary codec, managed by the licensing body MPEG LA; while WebM is still open-source, and encoding options are growing.

What may very well be brewing here is a kind of showdown between the two codecs for the final title of HTML5’s video standard. As was already outlined in a post by John Paczkowski at Digital Daily back in May, and the author of the x264 Developer Blog the day after the Web release – ‘With regard to patents, VP8 copies too much from H.264 for comfort, no matter whose word is behind the claim of being patent-free. This doesn’t mean that it’s sure to be covered by patents, but until Google can give us evidence as to why it isn’t, I would be cautious.’ So, there has been some talk of MPEG LA seeking to develop a patent pool that might allow them some legal recourse against both WebM and Ogg’s Theora. So, the future remains uncertain with regard to the developers and users seeking a truly open-source, royalty-free codec/container that would begin to eliminate many of the plugin/codec related issues that arise when streaming video on the web. Next, I hope to give a look at some actual numbers related to CPU usage while playing back videos in a couple of different containers.

First options for WebM Compression

As an addendum to my previous post, there are now two free options for getting your files compressed into the aforementioned WebM container (and both work on Mac and PC). In terms of viewing the final product on a website, someone with a greater degree of webpage/server knowledge will have to take that one up. For the time being though, if you download the most recent version of VLC, you can play the files locally (with varying levels of success).

The first, and I think more successful, of the two options is the Miro Video Converter (www.mirovideoconverter.com). It is available for both Mac and PC, though it looks like it might have been intended as a Mac application first. MVC is free, open-source, and is on version 2.2. An added bonus is that the application is very simple to use and will perform a number of ‘hands-off’ conversions (MP4, Theora, WebM) as well as conversions designed for portable/mobile devices (Android, PSP, iPhone, iPod, iPad). The GUI is extremely simple, using a drag & drop + drop-down menu design. The actual WebM conversion left me less than impressed in most areas other than size. I was able to take a 2.1 GB uncompressed HD video stream down to a 2.8 MB .webm file. The motion estimation was decent, though with lots of movement the file quickly pixellated. The color was also slightly dull as compared to a similarly compressed H.264 file (2100 kbps, Medium Quality, Automatic Keyframes), with colors in the red spectrum being particularly muted (though as Joe noticed in an older post, H.264 tends to boost colors, so maybe this is the effect that I was experiencing when comparing side by side).

The second is Sorenson Squish (www.sorensonmedia.com/video-content), which uses a web-based Java app in tandem with your computer’s processing power to compress files into a number of different codecs/containers, of which WebM is the only one allowed in the free trial. The GUI is similarly accessible, and anyone who is able to use in-browser uploading systems like those employed by Flickr, YouTube, or even blogs will have no trouble using Sorenson Squish. The Java applet runs in most browsers (not Minefield, but regular Firefox, IE, Chrome, and Safari work fine), compresses the source file on your machine, and uploads only the compressed file, which takes much less time (and allows you to use a higher quality source file) than a service like Zamzar. You can choose to save a copy of the file on your local machine as well. The qualms with the resulting file are similar to MVC, but moreso, due to the fact that one ends up with files that run at around 425 kbps, and as a result look very poor. You also have to register for an account to use Squish, though doing so gives you 1 GB of online storage and lets you see what your videos look like when played inside a browser. I believe a paid upgrade is necessary to unlock some of the fine tuning features.

Both of these applications, as I note in the earlier post, suffer from too little user-control. I also think that the VP8 video codec is not quite as robust as Google/On2 made it out to be. I still think H.264 looks better, though VP8 is still in its infancy and very well may, due to its open code, surpass H.264’s longstanding ascendancy in the world of video codecs. I can see this occurring especially in ratios of quality:size. The Vorbis audio codec was also intermittent in its functionality, a few times putting files out that only had a loud hiss for an audio track. In any case, it is still exciting to see new technologies embracing WebM, and I am sure that the manifestation/practical side of the equation will improve, especially as the demand for files packaged in WebM increases.

The WebM Project: Open Web Media

The picture will become clear shortly – Pam recently clued me in to an interesting development in the area of ‘open video formats’, known as WebM format. The format is actually composed of (1) A video stream compressed with the On2 VP8 video codec (2) An audio stream compressed with the Vorbis audio codec (3) The aforementioned elements wrapped up in the WebM container, which is relatively similar to the Matroska media container (you may have seen this as .mkv, WebM is actually a subset of this open-source container). Now all of this may sound foreign to those who do not spend their days mired in codecs, so allow me to explain a bit more. This explanation will also allow me to outline some of the reasons as to why this WebM business is fairly exciting for end-users and compression junkies like myself alike.

To begin, let’s talk containers. The best way to think of a container (aka ‘wrapper’) is to think of it like a…container – tupperware, pyrex, plastic, etc. A container can hold a variety of items. You could put leftovers, spices, fresh fruit, liquids, salad dressing, small pieces of wood, rocks, used motor oil, and even mixtures of these items into it. The point to be taken here is that containers are flexible. The same is true of media containers – they can hold one (i.e. still images, audio) type of media within them, but can also hold a mixture (i.e. audio + video). You most likely use containers any time you open a media file, either on your computer or online. Examples are AIFF, WAV (audio only); TIFF (images only); MOV, AVI, MPEG-2, 3GP (combination of audio/video and often other information such as subtitles and metadata). Hence, when you open a .mov (Quicktime Movie Container), you are actually telling Quicktime to read the data within the .mov container, which in theory (not in practice) could be encoded in a variety of ways. This is where containers get to be tricky, and where you very well may have run in to some difficulty in your experience with the files. You can have a perfectly good .mov file, and when you decide to open it, it may even launch QT for you. However, the video and audio streams within the container may very well have been encoded with codecs that have not been loaded onto your computer and hence Quicktime will be unable to decode the files, resulting in some type of error (perhaps imagine getting a box full of spices from India, labeled in Sanskrit – you might be able to identify that you had spices in your hand, but you’d have a heck of a time organizing and actually using any of them in your cooking unless you found someone to be your ‘codec’; a person who could translate the labels from Sanskrit into English). Add to this difficulty the fact that most containers are proprietary and you have a recipe for disastrous video playback problems, which is actually what occurs fairly frequently. Someone might send you a perfectly harmless looking Quicktime file, and next thing you know, you have embarked on a labyrinthine quest through Apple’s support website, Google, and message boards seeking a missing codec that your program has alerted you to (but for some reason rarely helps you find). One good example of some difficulty with streaming containers is our forays into hinted Quicktime streams, which had limited success due to the wide variety of codecs which could be ‘contained’ within the hinted wrapper. So, enter the open video format.

Without worrying a great deal about the video and audio codecs (know that they are both open-source and are both very good, rivaling the long ascendant H.264 as well as MP3 or AAC), the container that WebM has created is first and foremost extremely narrow. So narrow that in fact, a WebM formatted file can only be defined as one that has the video track encoded with On2 VP8 (A Google sponsored open-source video codec), and audio with the Vorbis audio codec (aka .ogg file, another open-source codec). Hence, the reason as to why WebM is a subset of the Matroska (.mkv) container – Matroska allows for a few more options to be contained within. So, WebM is blurring the boundary between codec and container, in that to some extent a container is supposed to hold lots of different materials ( keeping with my ‘spices theme’ – it would be like labeling a container ‘cinnamon-sugar’ in your spice cabinet, with the intent that only those elements be used to fill it). The reason behind this narrow definition is so that you don’t run into the perennial problem of having to download new codecs, or update 50 different codecs to play a video. Additionally, the WebM container is made for use on the internet – ideally in streaming and is thus designed for integration into a browser. In fact, Youtube is kind of secretly using the WebM container and will allow you to see it for yourself – go to www.youtube.com/html5, and near the bottom, enroll in the html5 test. You will need to download a test version of your browser, Firefox has one as does Chrome, and when you search for videos, append ‘&webm=1’ to the url. This will allow you to watch videos in this new, open, format. I found them to look a bit better than the typical YouTube format, likely due to the fact that VP8 is an excellent codec, arguably better than H.264. You can also play files in this container locally using VLC, that Swiss-army knife of players.

Ideally, one would be able to download a patch for the VP8/Vorbis audio combo, start churning out videos in the format, and be uploading amazing-looking streaming videos in no time. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait a bit, especially Mac users. Currently, there is only a integration for ffmpeg, which requires you to encode using terminal commands. The site has some DirectShow filters which make it usable for those running a Windows Media workflow on a PC and will allow you to try and build the codec from the ground up, but those are for the most part outside the realm of even an intermediate codec junkie. One other minus is that WebM/VP8 takes a good deal of fine-tuning out of your hands – perhaps for some, not having to worry about key-framing, B-frames, VBR vs. CBR, and aspect ratio sounds like a dream come true; however, the control-freak compression-tweaker inside me screams out for some more user input here. However, if the trade-off is less codec-based headaches, I will take it. So, as it is a very new release, we must keep an eye on this developing format, especially as it is being tested on YouTube. As of now, there are a few programs which have WebM compression built-in, the most notable of which is Sorenson Squish. There is no support for playback on portable devices, but there has been some talk of integration with the Android in the near future, and Kaltura HTML5 Media Library offers some support for those wishing to host the files.

In the end, WebM holds great promise for taking another step towards a nearly universal video format for use on the internet, and could prove worth waiting a bit for as we at Yale’s ITG seek new solutions for streaming videos in a format that will create the fewest complications for our end-users.

www.webmproject.org

Photo from Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spices_22078028.jpg)