Alexandria Online

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Why Do We Listen to Lectures? Authors and the Web of Authority

The Shipley School, Penn Charter and The Episcopal Academy, three k-12 co-ed independent schools in the Philadelphia suburbs, held a joint professional day last week. By pooling our funds, we were able to hire an eminent and expensive scholar in the field of educational innovation and reform, Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap.

Tony have a well-polished presentation to about 400 teachers and administrators, including a half-hour documentary that he had produced. My colleagues and I had differences with various points, but there was general agreement on the high caliber of the presentation. We accepted him as an authority on his topic.

His first slide, appearing in giant dimensions on a theater screen, prominently displayed just his name, department and academic institution. The picture (this is a link to says it all:

Harvard: if you graduated from there, and someone asks you what college you attended, you know that you have to react to or somehow deflect the response you are going to get. Shy people just say "Boston" and change the subject; even the arrogant twitch a little when they answer. Harvard has almost become a parody of Harvard in the current college admissions environment; likewise, it's authority has almost become a parody of academic authority.

When we three schools got Tony Wagner on board we got a lot of message power regardless of the actual message: a living, breathing authority in front of us, an excellent presentation, his authoritative book, his authoritative documentary, the Harvard effect, and 400 other people all listening at the same time. We saw his body language, listened to the timbre of his voice, asked questions, watched him move. Harvard approved him, three schools approved him, and all the people in the audience approve of his importance if not his message.

You can read Tony's blog,, and you can read his most recent book, but nothing pushes ideas around as much as getting 400 people in a room and making them listen to him in person. It's like spinning a web: every time related ideas emerge from other sources, they get tied into the experience of hearing it from the author himself.

Almost being there is almost as good as being there for tying an idea into the minds of the listeners. At The Episcopal Academy, one of our graduates, Bernard Yaros, spoke at an assembly from Yemen via google video chat about the political upheaval there. I was skeptical of the impact this would have and worried about getting it to work, which was my responsibility, but my doubts were assuaged by the quality of the experience.

First, and most importantly, Bernard's presentation was excellent: perfect length, perfect message, great transitions, articulate speaker, a  seamlessly coordinated PowerPoint, and beautiful photos that he himself had taken. The quality of his presentation was equivalent to Tony Wagner's, which made us all proud.

While we could hear Bernard perfectly, the video was of pretty low quality. The entire presentation could have been digitized and played back with higher fidelity and much less hand wringing about whether or not it would work, whether Bernard's electricity would cut out, whether Yemen would shut down the Internet as Egypt had just a few weeks before.

Not only did Bernard present; he also answered questions from the students. This feature made the the experience much more authentic. Then there was the danger factor. Bernard had been at the university a few days earlier and had been walking home when he heard the shots that produced a massacre there. We were witnessing Bernard in real-time, just as he had experienced the danger at the university in real-time. Not the same as watching something prerecorded. I think our students feel they got the real story from a highly authoritative source.

Authority is a web: we know Bernard, we know where he went to college (Williams -- as good as Harvard for all intents and purposes) and we know what a young man like him would be doing in Yemen and consider his motives legitimate. He does not have a book or a tenured position, but he is one of us. We hear his voice and see his face. The school has authorized him to speak to 400 students and teachers who listen intently to him. We recognize the quality and character of his presentation as something we associate with authority.

This sort of venue -- a speaker presenting to an audience in person or virtually in person -- will become more important as people use online resources more. We can only trust what we read online if we have a trustworthy web of authority to bind it to. The strands of that web build gradually over a lifetime of experience.

Authority originates from individuals. By sitting in the audience at these two presentations my web expanded a little. I got to know Bernard Yaros, and through him, the political situation in Yemen, and Tony Wagner, and through him the global changes in education.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Making Toast with a Toaster: The Problem of Convergence

My smartphone, a Blackberry Bold 9700, belongs to The Episcopal Academy and is controlled by our Blackberry Enterprise Server. It is my administrative leash. Every employee's email address, work phone, and home address is in there. The emergency phone numbers of all the parents and guardians of our 1,250 kids are listed there as well as my own personal contacts. It keeps my professional and personal schedule.

Now it has also become my GPS, my point-and-shoot camera and my password keeper. The greater part of my life-time music collection is stored on a 16 GB micro SD card the size of my pinky nail that I slid into my phone like a little plastic splinter. Pictures, songs and passwords all sync to my desktop.

I was inspired to try this experiment in convergence by this article in the "Personal Tech" section of The New York Times by Sam Grobart:

Grobart lists devices and services which most of us deal with in our lives and which we might do well to do without. He puts great hope in convergence to smart phones: GPS, music player, and camera should all be ditched, he suggests, and we should put our phones in their places. Surprisingly, he recommends keeping paper books.

Achieving convergence, howerver, is not easy. I got myself all tangled up. I complicated the transition by attempting to synchronize everything using bluetooth. Don't try it. It doesn't work. I ended up getting my paws into our blackberry enterprise server, changing all sorts of settings on both my blackberry, my desktop and the blackberry desktop software, only to end up with my phone calls coming out throught the speakers of my computer. No bluetooth please.

I had my Blackberry hooked up to the car audio system and was smugly listening to my music when, of course, my phone rang. Now what? Naturally, the music stops and I grab the device that has so abruptly metamorphosed back into a phone, just as Cinderella's chariot reduced itself to a pumpkin. So that was odd.

For the average user who isn't looking for a fight that he can blog about it, having a separate camera, gps and music player makes a lot of sense. They are all pretty cheap. You can keep the gps in the car; you can lend the camera to a friend without handing over your life; you don't have to spend hours making transitions and learning new ways of doing what you were already doing just fine. Divergence works too sometimes.

In the old days, technology came with instructions which people actually read. If you wanted to make toast, you bought a toaster and used it exactly how the instructions described its operation. But how can we write instructions for a device like a smart phone that can do so much? The poor instruction manual writers have no idea what you intend to do with it aside from talk on the phone. And even that is pretty hard to describe.

This is why students still carry textbooks and why Amazon still sells plenty of bound paper books. CDs have yielded almost completely to music downloads, but the bound paper book won't go away yet. It is the toaster of the information world: you take it off the shelf, open the cover and immediately start reading; whereas, just opening the cover of the new iPad 2 is an extravaganza. The bound paper book does not need AT&T or Verizon; no wireless configuration, no charger, no apps, no usernames and passwords, no upgrades, no obsolescence.

Convergence crops up in funny places. At home we most often watch movies streamed from Netflix through our Wii. The speakers on my TV (which is "3D" only in the sense that it is an old, bulky, not at all flat, CRT, or "Cathode Ray Tube" for you youngsters) lie dormant and all my sound passes through my music amplifier to my 30-year-old floor speakers. Lots of appliances, new and old, playing happily together.

My home music configuration began with a turntable. Then a tape player was added. The tape player went away and was replaced by a CD player. Then both the turntable and the CD player were replaced by a digital music streamer (Logitech Squeezebox.)  Some folks just use their DVD player, Wii or TIVO box to stream their music, but I decided to diverge instead of converge.

Convergence and divergence maintain a delicate balance. As technologies evolve, devices begin to compete across categories. Then new devices appear. But perhaps the most powerful driver behind these changes is desire. People keep changing what they want as they see what new technology can do.

Some people just want a nice, warm, buttery piece of toast in the morning with a cup of coffee. They don't need a microwave/toaster-oven that can defrost, brown, bake, roast, broil and toast. They want to put a slice of bread into the slot, press down the little black lever, and wait for the toast to pop up.