Rhetoric Makes Me Cynical and UX Makes Me Critical

I remember voicing a complaint in my Historical Foundations of Rhetoric class several years ago that all this “rhetoric stuff” was making me cynical (well, even more so than I naturally am). I felt like it was leading me to over-analyze everything and to think that everyone had hidden agendas and manipulative motives.

Well, I’m experiencing a related reaction toward the texts I’ve been reading about user experience and user-centered design practices. Although instead of becoming even more cynical (I think I’ve hit my ceiling), I’m just becoming hyper-aware of every little error message, dialogue box, and confusing task or setting on every single piece of technology I use.

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13 Ways the Internet is Making Us Smarter

Image of a man with a "networked" brain

David Weinberger published a piece on Huffington Post a few days ago about 13 Ways the Internet is Making Us Smarter.

The entire article is worth a read, but here are a few points I found particularly thought-provoking:

Linearity of the Book Limits the Reader (But Empowers the Author?)

“Books have favored long-form, sequential chains of thought that lead readers to the author’s conclusion. That’s one useful way of thinking, but it reflects the limitations of paper. The author has to try to keep us on the bus rather than letting us explore more widely because paper knowledge is hard to traverse. The author has to anticipate objections, rather than entering into real-time conversation with readers, because paper knowledge is only made public once it’s done. And it has given us the overly-simplistic idea that a world as complex and chaotic as ours ultimately reduces to long, knowable sequences of logic.”

I’ve thought for a long time now that the hyperlinked and “webbed” nature of the internet is a much closer model to the way we think than the linear form of the book. We think in a messy, jumbled fashion that’s characterized by random connections and associations.

But while the internet itself more closely resembles the way we think, is it the best way to formulate a strong argument to present to others? Maybe it’s the technical writer coming out in me, but I really value a clear, concise, linear argument–one that lets me know exactly what the author is trying to make me understand or see.

A sentence may be made up of a string of independent words. But those words only make sense if you string them in a particular order. If you change the order, you change the meaning (or worse–lose ALL meaning).
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Mobile Devices and Education: Consumption v. Production

Images of different mobile technologies--iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Nook.

Designing the Obvious (2010) author, Robert Hoekman adamantly encourages developers to design with mobile applications in mind. While mobile devices, such a the iPad and iPhone can be limiting to expert users who need more intensive tools, these devices do all the tasks that most people need from their technology:

And while many people in the tech industry still see some of these gadgets as luxury items—often even wondering what on Earth they would do with a tablet—these devices are designed for the other 99 percent. They’re designed for that large segment of the population that uses computers for paying bills, social networking, making plans, watching videos, checking the news, listening to music, digging up recipes, learning new skills, creating spreadsheets for work, writing memos, and of course, checking email. These people use computers primarily for media consumption, web browsing, and basic document-creation. And that’s exactly what the iPad and other tablets are designed to do best. (Kindle Location 156-1490).

The last part of that quote made me pause: “These people use computers primarily for media consumption.” What is the relationship between media/information consumption and production within the context of the college classroom–more specifically, a classroom within the Humanities?

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Anthologize: Turn Blogs into eBooks

Screen Capture of Anthologize home page

Anthologize – Interesting app developed at George Mason University that lets users grab content from WordPress 3.0 blogs and compile them into an book.

Content can be saved and published digitally in PDF, ePub, or TEI formats.

I read about it in an article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed on the Challenges of the Digital Humanities. The article was a response to some of themes being discussed at the recent 2012 MLA conference.

Udacity: Start-up Education

Udacity Logo

Came across this article on The Chronicle of Higher Edthis morning: “Stanford Professor Gives Up Teaching Position, Hopes to Reach 500,000 Students at Online Start-Up

Sebastian Thrun, a computer science prof., has given up his tenured track position at Stanford to teach programming courses online through his start-up venture Udacity. Thrun began offering online videos as a part of one of his face-to-face courses at the university and soon realized the online component was more popular than the in-person lectures. Of the 200 students enrolled in the course, only 30 continued coming to class. The Chronicle article notes that “the experience taught the professor that he could craft a course with the interactive tools of the Web that recreated the intimacy of one-on-one tutoring.”

There are several things that really struck as I was reading the article and exploring Udacity.

  1. I find it kind of ironic that Thrun has found that a course mediated through technology provides a more “intimate,” one-on-one teaching and learning experience for him and his students. One of the critiques of online learning is that it doesn’t provide a personal experience that is conducive to learning. The feedback loops between the instructor and student that an in-person course provides are often missing from an online learning environment–especially one that attracts students by the hundreds or thousands.
  2. How did Thrun measure the effectiveness of his online learning component? Were the students viewing the course online performing as well or better than the 30 who kept coming to class? Did students perform better that semester than in previous semesters?
  3. Exactly what “interactive tools” is Thrun using in this online environment? Since the first course is at the intro-level, I’d be interested in enrolling in the course myself (with all my free time), just to see what it’s all about.
  4. It’s worth nothing that, again, this is a computer science course–which remains consistent with most of the other popular courses being taught online.
  5. Thrun hopes that the upcoming online programing course at Udacity will attract over 500,000 students. How do you maintain a number that high? How do you get feedback and measure progress from that many students?
  6. Students who complete the course will receive a signed certificate of completion from Thrun and his venture partner David Evans, professor of Computer Science at the University of Virginia. What constitutes “completion?” Watching all the videos? Successfully completing all the work? And who is in charge of assessing all that work?

I’m really curious to see how all of this will pan out.

Social Academia and Collective Knowledge

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a wonderful group of English graduate students in a course about Social Media at Kennesaw State University. I shared with them some of the research interests I have in instructional technology, digital publishing, and usability. I’ve become particularly interested in all the different learning spaces that are developing online and the social characteristics at their core.

Since the course is about Social Media, I thought it would be fun to point out a few of the different “social media” websites or applications that I’ve recently been exploring, such as Kahn Academy, Udemy, Inkling, and Kno. I also suspected that these selections would be outside of the more popular platforms used for social networking, (such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn Delicious, StumbleUpon, or Pinterest) that they’d been discussing. If you’re interested in seeing my full list of resources, take a look at the handout I used during the talk.

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About Face (Part 5): Using Idioms to Re-envision How We Understand and Interact with Texts

This is part four of a series of blog posts in response to About Face, by Alan Cooper, Robert Reinmann, and David Cronin. This is certainly the logest of the five-post series. Apparently I felt strongly about the topic!

What is the balance between meeting user’s mental models and creating new idioms?

There seems to be a slight (but necessary) conflict between two key principles mentioned throughout About Face.  The first half of the text strongly reinforces the idea that programmers and designers must work together with users to understand users’ mental models.  Software should match how users think—even if this contradicts the “logic” within the code.

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About Face (Part 4): About Face and Teaching Writing

This is part four of a series of blog posts in response to About Face, by Alan Cooper, Robert Reinmann, and David Cronin.

How can we use the versioning, auto-save, and undo capabilities to re-envision the ways we teach writing?

 Many teachers will tell you that students perform better when they can see measurable progress. Just like the users of a software program, students want to know “where” they are in a process. Although we can’t always give students a virtual “status bar,” we do try to help them see their improvements.  This is why, at the end of the semester, many writing instructors require students to return to a paper they wrote during the first few weeks of class. The goal is to help students actually recognize how much they’ve (hopefully) learned throughout the semester—in terms of content and grammar, in addition to rhetorical writing strategies.

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About Face (part 3) About Face and Learning Spaces

This is part 3 of a series of blog posts in response to About Face, by Alan Cooper, Robert Reinmann, and David Cronin.

How do we avoid creating situations where users get lost in the interface, or experience “navigational trauma?”

Several times throughout the About Face, the authors quote Antoine de St. Exupery saying, “in anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”

To me, this principle seems to be at the core of usability and good design: Give people exactly what they need without all the other “stuff” that distracts, frustrates, or impedes progress and effectiveness.

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About Face (Part 2): Applying About Face to E-Texts

This is part four of a series of blog posts in response to About Face, by Alan Cooper, Robert Reinmann, and David Cronin.

How might all these principles apply to e-texts?  

Although About Face focuses almost exclusively on desktop or laptop computers and the applications and software designed for these technologies, I kept trying to relate their concepts back to textbooks. At first I found this annoying and a bit frustrating. Finally I just decided to give in and run with it.  Most, if not all, of the principles in About Face can be easily applied to iPad app design—more specifically, texts that can be read on an iPad.  For this reason, many of my observations about and responses to About Face deal with e-texts and come from the perspective of a Digital Rhetoric scholar and English composition instructor.

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