What is Truth?

In the New Testament Bible, John 18:38, Pilate responds to Jesus’s statement that he should bear witness to the truth with this question, “What is truth?”  Two thousand years later, we seem to still be grappling with this question.

TruthThis past year, 2016, was a year in which “truth” became very nuanced.  Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as the 2016 international word of the year.  It defined post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  We saw this play out in the United States presidential election.  Fact-checkers described numerous times when candidate Trump stretched the truth, and yet this seemed to not matter to his followers.  According to a Washington Post-ABC News post last November, Trump was seen as more honest than Clinton by an eight-point margin.

This is the backdrop to next week’s EDU 6323 lesson on web-based search.  Google Search is the most used search engine on the web, handling more than 3 billion searches every day.  Last year’s statistics ranked it with nearly two-third’s market share globally.  The main purpose of Google Search is to hunt for text in publicly accessible documents offered by web servers. It was originally developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1997. I remember using Alta Vista before that…but Google rapidly became the search leader. Google Search provides several features beyond searching for words. These include synonyms, weather forecasts, time zones, stock quotes, maps, earthquake data, movie showtimes, airports, home listings, and sports scores. There are special features for numbers, dates, and some specific forms, including ranges, prices, temperatures, money and measurement unit conversions, calculations, package tracking, patents, area codes, and language translation. In June 2011 Google introduced “Google Voice Search” to search for spoken, rather than typed, words – an alternate to Apple’s Siri.

Search EnginesMy lesson includes an exploration of advanced search on Google, as well as an exploration of web site ownership through WhoIs and the Wayback Machine. I am asking my students to pick a 2016 political action committee from this website … and then first search for this PAC using Google to provide the baseline information for analysis. They will then compare their Google returns to those generated by Bing, DuckDuckGo and the Chinese search engine Baidu, Do they get the same results?  What is different? Which do they prefer?  Then I will have them analyze the website for their SuperPac to see if they can find who registered and authored that website. Using the Wayback Machine, they will see if they can determine how long the has website been around.

My hope is that this exploration will generate some discussion around “truth”.  Dan Rockwell noted this past week that when he asked CEO’s at a dinner what kept them up at night, several shared ideas around truth (among others):

  • Biased media creating mis-perceptions.
  • Seeking input from others.
  • Being viewed as trustworthy.
  • Navigating transparency.
  • Getting it right when people ask for advice.

The Chronicle of Higher Education this past week published a special report called “The Post-Truth Issue.”  Two articles stood out to me. Safiya Noble, in “Google and the Misinformed Public,” noted that “…Google and Facebook have no transparent curation process by which the public can judge the credibility or legitimacy of the information they propagate.”  She goes on to say:

“Online search can oversimplify complex phenomena. The results, ranked by algorithms treated as trade secrets by Google, are divorced from context and lack guidance on their veracity or reliability. Search results feign impartiality and objectivity, even as they fail to provide essential information and knowledge we need: knowledge traditionally acquired through teachers, professors, books, history, and experience.”

Lucy Ferriss, in “Post-Truth and Chaos,” had an interesting closing:

“Truth, in other words, is a thing — a goal, a bedrock, a provable hypothesis, a conclusion from evidence, an insight to which, per Keats, the perception of beauty can bring us. Post-truth is a strategy. Its relationship to truth is strategic. Its goal is the exploitation of emotion. And while it cannot kill truth, it does in a way look past it, as a hubristic traveler might try to look past that North Star, and find beyond it utter darkness, nothingness, chaos.”

Determining validity on the web should be a part of digital literacy.  At lunch this past month with Enoch Hale, Director of VCU’s new Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, he made an interesting comment that his job really was more about “thinking” – thinking critically – than teaching or learning.  As we approach this next week, I want my EDU6323 students to think critically about what they find on the web, and about truth.


{Graphics: Edgar, EvidenceUnseen}

Deeper Searches

google-search-resultsIn the third week of EDU 6323, my students explored web searches.  I had them read the second chapter of Michelle Miller’s Minds Online, Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid, Eszter Hargittai and colleagues’ Trust Online, and Clive Thompson’s Why Kids Can’t Search.  I also covered advanced search techniques on Google as well as the use of WhoIs and the Wayback Machine.

As an exercise for the week, my students were tasked with picking a 2016 Presidential candidate … and then first searching using Google to determine the “Super Pac” that is backing that candidate … and then trying the same search using Bing and DuckDuckGo to see if they got the same results.  One of my Asian-American students added Baidu, which was rather interesting!  They then were to explore more deeply the website for the SuperPac they had chosen to see if they could find who registered and authored that website. Using the Wayback Machine, they explored how long has the website had been around.

This was the first time I have tried this particular activity in one of my online classes, and I was impressed with the analysis of my students.  First, they learned a lot about SuperPacs, One of the go to websites was OpenSecrets.Org – which they in turn analyzed for validity.  Several were surprised to find SuperPacs supporting Bernie Sanders (though this apparently was not reciprocated).  Several not only found the founder of certain SuperPacs, but then dug deeper into data about this person and how that might influence how the SuperPac was being used.

I found the reflections around personal searches most interesting.  As one student noted, “…everyday web searching is superficial compared to the possibilities.”

An interesting quote from one student:

“At this point I took a pause to think about the article “Is Google making us Stupid?”  because in just under half an hour I had learned something very significant about political campaigns in this country, I had read (not skimmed)  several articles, and I certainly felt wiser and more informed.  When I first read the article, before doing this search exercise, I was in agreement with the author– afraid of my thought processes becoming like an algorithm. But last night, when I went to go read a new book that I have,  I noticed something interesting. In order to read a book, I need to take my body off of high alert. It may seem like we are passively searching the Internet, sitting on our butts on the sofa,  but I noticed that my breathing was different,  my calmness level was different, and even the way I felt about reading was different when I was holding a physical book in my hand versus being online.”

Most noted they had used Google without much thought, and appreciated the new awareness of both alternatives as well as search shortcuts within Google.  Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo tended to return similar sites, but the look and feel was different.  All seemed to return news stories ahead of the SuperPacs themselves, which helped reinforce the concept of PageRank.  Interestingly, Baidu returned similar sites, but the taglines in some cases were several years older. Most of my students had not heard of the Wayback Machine or WhoIs before and liked the ability to better understand the history of a website.  Several noted that they could now as parents help their children more critically search!  They seemed to agree that teaching search skills is a digital literacy that needs to start in K-12 and be reinforced in higher education.


Most disagreed with Carr’s viewpoint on Google making us stupid, though his point about skimming over deep reading seemed to resonate.  Most noted that Google is a tool that can make us more efficient…or lead to superficial search.  As one student noted, a hammer can build or tear down.  It is not the tool but the use that counts.  One student suggested that mainstream media and its soundbite mentality had more to do with skimming than any website.

Miller brought up the use of technology to mitigate against cheating in online classes in her second chapter, and that led several of my students to discuss cheating in a digital age.  Most seemed to think that focusing on cheating only in online courses missed the broader point.  Several also suggested that deeper engagement by students could lead to less problems with academic integrity.

So, I was very pleased with how this week’s thought exercise worked.  Next week, my students will begin using Diigo and explore the concept of tagging.

{Graphic: Geomarketing}

The Digital Divide – Students versus Faculty

As you know from my last post, I spent Friday with Jeff Nugent co-facilitating a full-day workshop at the INFORMS Teaching Effectiveness Colloquium.  It was rather exciting to spend a full day with a room full of mathematicians!  I am still reflecting on what transpired, but wanted to share some thoughts on one aspect, triggered by a couple of articles today.

The October 17th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education contains an interesting article by John Seely Brown entitled “How to Connect Technology and Content in the Service of Learning.”  Brown noted that:

“Web 2.0 has blurred the line between producers and consumers of content and has shifted attention from access to information toward access to other people.”

In a view similar to Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody, Brown illustrated how the internet offers incredible opportunities for like-minded passionate people to connect and explore their passions.  These niche communities provide an environment which supports lifelong learning.  If we are not tapping in to these social aspects of the internet, we are missing an opportunity to connect with our students.

Meanwhile, the corporation CDW-G released a report entitled “The 21st Century Campus: Are We ThereYet?“.

Key findings of this corporate (and probably biased) study include:

  • More than 80 percent of faculty teach at least some of their classes in “smart classrooms,” yet just 42 percent of those faculty use the technology during every class session
  • Topping students’ technology wish list is online chat capability with professors; just 23 percent of higher education IT staff say their campus offers it
  • Faculty and IT staff agreed that lack of technology knowledge among faculty is the biggest barrier to technology on campus

Biased or not, the findings do not surprise me.  They illustrate that – contrary to conventional wisdom, our students DO want to connect with us, their faculty.

I do not believe in faculty-bashing, but I do fear that a new form of digital divide is developing.  Outside of class, our students are developing skills in connecting and communicating via text, chat, IM, FaceBook, blogs, and video.  With the exception of a few early adopters, few faculty have these same skills.

This brings me back to our workshop last Friday.  I had the 21 faculty brainstorm their assumptions regarding the Net Generation.  Some of their assumptions included:

  • Students want to be in control of their resources
  • Students take a consumer approach to education
  • Students want to be spoon-fed
  • Students want to understand the relevance of what they are studying
  • Student are focused on grades first, learning second
  • Students use the internet to find information and communicate

When I asked whether allowing students to bring technology into a classroom was a good thing or a bad thing, the comments made indicated that some of this group of faculty saw technology as a distraction which broke the rhythm of the class and prevented students from “getting the basics.”

One participant made the interesting comment that he wished students would just take what he was teaching on faith rather than immediately wanting to know why.

I wish I had Jeff Utecht‘s eloquence, but he said it best today, so I simply will quote him:

I have come to hate the phrase “21st Century” whatever: Learner, Thinking, Teacher, Skills.

Has anyone noticed it’s 2008…well 79 days until 2009!

We’re 9 years (depending on how you count) into the 21st Century and we’re still calling for 21st Century things.

I’m sorry we’re in it! These are just skills! They are just what we should be doing and if we’re not teaching them, helping students to understand them then we’re letting them down….big time!

So that’s it…I’m done. No more 21st Century for me.

They just are today’s skills

They just are today’s schools

They just are today’s students

They just are what we should be doing!

No more putting them off.

No more pretending we are thinking of the future.

Either you are a 21st Century school working on preparing students for today or you are a 20th Century school that just doesn’t get it.

That goes for teachers, skills, content, curriculum, students.

Amen, Jeff!

{Photo Credit: Dubber, Unhindered By Talent}

How Much Hand Holding?

On Friday, I attended the ECVA Conference at Virginia Tech along with Jeff Nugent and Bud Deihl.  Two delightful companions with whom to do a road trip – we left Richmond at 5:30am and got back at supper time.

At the conference, we had the opportunity to hear two excellent keynoters.  Michael Wesch talked first about the new literacies required for teaching in the 21st Century.  Sarah “Intellagirl” Robbins-Bell then followed with a discussion about implementing technologies in ways that solve pedagogical issues.

Much of what Wesch covered was similar to a talk he did at the University of Manitoba last June.  He maintains that the old literacy involved reading and writing, but that what needs to be taught today involves reading and writing on the web.  Students today have access to unlimited information, so can find the typical questions one asks on multiple choice tests.  It is more important to teach critical thinking with that information than the information itself.

Wesch made several points that I had not really reflected on before.  First, he noted that the technologies he was using (wikis, YouTube, NetVibes, etc.) did not exist five years ago, so our students have not “grown up” using them.  They have learned them during the same time period that he had.  This goes a long way in my mind to putting a nail in the Digital Native / Digital Immigrant discussion.  I would also suggest that while students today may not have necessarily grown up with the tools in use now, they did grow up with a comfort level to technology that their teachers still do not have in many cases.

The second point he made led to this blog post.  He maintained that he does not need to teach reading and writing to students in college – it is assumed they have these literacies when they come into his class.  In a like vein, he does not see it as his place to teach the use of tools in the Read/Write web to students – it should be a given that students either know how to use the tools or know how to figure out how to use the tools.


I am currently teaching a graduate course in Instructional Uses of the Internet to a bright group of K-12 teachers.  During the first two weeks, we have been focusing on Web 2.0.  Many of my students – some of whom have been teaching twenty-plus years – are frustrated and overwhelmed by the myriad of tools and options afforded by the web.  Several have stated that I as the instructor am not doing enough to “teach” – I am not providing detailed step-by-step processes for each thing I am asking them to do, such as build a homepage in Blackboard, set up accounts in delicious, wikispaces, and Google Reader.  In some ways, I am attempting to model the “messy” way in which learning occurs today on the web, but I am seeing some pushback by these colleagues (and I do think of my students as colleagues).  So I have been struggling with this concept of just how much hand-holding I should be doing with graduate students in a Web 2.0 environment.  From Wesch’s viewpoint, it sounds like the answer is “none.”

I might agree with 18-year-olds, but these K-12 teachers are in many ways just like the university faculty with whom I work.  As a faculty developer, I am mindful that my job in many ways is to act as a problem solver for them.  They do not have the same motivations to “play” on the web that I have as an early adopter.  They have become successful as faculty and researchers using an older paradigm, and are only now slowly awakening to the need for a new one – if they are awakening at all.  Part of this awakening is driven by their students and a visceral feeling that these students know more about technology than they do.  I think Michael adequately addresses this (they do not necessarily – this is stereotyping and students enter with wide diversity of capabilities), and some recent blog posts at NetGen Nonsense back up the growing realization that students are not as tech savvy as we give them credit for being.  But the fact remains that most faculty, and many in my class, remain fearful of trying out these new technologies.

This shifted me into thinking about what Intellagirl said in her talk.  She stated that the process she used in introducing new technologies was to ensure that she had talked through three aspects with her students – The Promise – The Tool – and The Bargain.  She promised that the technology would help create bonds and connections, and also add fun to the course (which I agree is a good thing!).  She tied the use of the tool to the learning outcomes.  She recognized and helped students realize the learning curves associated with technologies and tools.  So, she ensured the students had the time to become familiar with the tool.  She wanted students not to escape into the tool, but to use it as an extension of their learning.  She helped students understand that they left footprints in the web when they interacted with the tool and each other…and she wanted them comfortable with that.  Finally, part of the bargain was that she was going to use technologies to help achieve learning ends, and not because it was just cool to use some tool.

I like Sarah’s approach.  I will discuss this with my class and see where I can assist their learning curve and their comfort level.  I have a wide range of students, so I suspect that I can co-opt some of them into helping others grow in their abilities to effectively use the opportunities afforded by the web.

I would be interested in your thoughts on the balance between hand holding and expectations of self-learning.

{Photo Credits: Steve Rhodes, batega}

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Twenty-First Century Learning?

Cathy Nelson blogged about 21st Century Learner Standards yesterday, drawing our attention to the American Association of School Librarian’s Core Standards:

The Standards describe how learners use skills, resources, and tools to

  1. inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge;
  2. draw conclusions, make informed decisions, apply knowledge to new situations, and create new knowledge;
  3. share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic society;
  4. pursue personal and aesthetic growth.

21 Century Sign

While I only have just begun, I currently have 31 links in delicious on this topic. I hope to put together a faculty learning community next fall to explore this very subject. There is definite commonality among these links but some differences as well. Many focus on the technology alone. While the web may well be ubiquitous, does 21st Century literacy simply mean digital literacy, or is there more to it than that?

Some great starting points that I have found so far:

Jeff Utecht (based on the National Council of Teachers of English) suggested that twenty-first century readers and writers need to:

Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
• Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
• Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
• Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
• Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
• Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

These align nicely with the AASL Standards, focusing on both technological skills and collaborative skills.

I think that it is important that we do define what we mean. I am mindful of an award winning post by Karl Fisch last year on the peril of the illiterate teacher. He chided all of us that we need to model 21st Century skills:

In order to teach it, we have to do it. How can we teach this to kids, how can we model it, if we aren’t literate ourselves? You need to experience this, you need to explore right along with your students. You need to experience the tools they’ll be using in the 21st century, developing your own networks in parallel with your students. You need to demonstrate continual learning, lifelong learning – for your students, or you will continue to teach your students how to be successful in an age that no longer exists.

If a teacher today is not technologically literate – and is unwilling to make the effort to learn more – it’s equivalent to a teacher 30 years ago who didn’t know how to read and write.

To model, we have to define what we mean. So, I am looking for comments and guidance here. What do YOU think are some good resources on what we should mean when we say “21st Century Learners”? Looking for the wisdom of the crowds to help me out here!

[Photo Credit: hyperspace 328]