Posts Tagged ‘technology’

Article Acrobatics

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

I’m part of a medical education journal club. Before each meeting, the organizer circulates a PDF file of the assigned reading via e-mail. When we want to share an article with students, it’s common to post the PDF file on Blackboard so the class can access it. At my own website, I maintain a reading list of faculty development topics, many accompanied by PDF files of articles.

The ubiquity of PDFs (a product of Adobe) has made scholarly life easier. I know I greedily hunt out PDF versions of articles to save to my hard drive when I’m doing a literature search. But a post on the blog Savage Minds questions the long term consequences of making PDFs the default academic format.

For one thing, it’s a proprietary system. I can read PDFs for free, but if I want to annotate and manipulate the files, I need to buy the $300 Adobe Acrobat software. It’s also possible for publishers to place restrictions on files that make them more difficult to circulate. With the rise of e-books, there are several alternative models out there for reading files on a screen. The next time I attach a PDF to an e-mail, I’ll think before I send.

Learning On-Line

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Doing educational research is tricky. Unlike in clinical trials, investigators can't limit all variables or deny some students knowledge. The slipperiness of qualitative research has left many questions about the effectiveness of on-line learning unanswered.

A report this summer for the National Bureau of Economic Research adds another finding to the ongoing debate. The authors, academic economists, attempted to create a controlled experiment by dividing students taking a microeconomics course into a "live" learning group and a virtual group. They found that low-achieving, male, and Hispanic students performed significantly better with the in-person format.

All the usual limitations on educational research apply to this study, but it does suggest that synchronous learning still has its benefits. Just like e-readers are not replacing traditional books, all these teaching methods can exist simultaneously. The internet is not a panacea for higher education, but it offers powerful tools for learning.

Backing Up

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

It's a researcher's nightmare: you are close to completing a large project, and your computer crashes, taking the data or the analysis with it.

Graduate student John Boldt thought he could avoid the problem by storing his nearly finished thesis on a laptop and a backup on an external hard drive. He left them in his car when he went for a run. When he came back, both copies were stolen.

Sometimes when I lose a piece of writing I'm working on, it's a blessing in disguise. I'm forced to go back and recreate my thoughts. The second time is usually more succinct. Still, I don't like that feeling of seeing all my efforts get deleted.

I back up on a shared drive, but usually only once a week. I've also tried thumb drives to ferry files back and forth between my work and home computer. There's an on-line service called Dropbox that gives users 2GB free storage on the cloud. I'm not sure there's a single best way to back up as long as it becomes a consistent habit.

Living Unplugged

Monday, August 16th, 2010

So much of our professional lives involves digital technology. From our phones to our computers, we rely on instant connectivity. Then, when we relax, we use some of the very same machines to entertain us.

During this month of vacations, I'm reminded of an experiment popular in many media studies classes. Students go a day without accessing any form of media. When it's over, they write about their experiences. Not surprisingly, some of them can't even make it to the end of the day without plugging in. But for those who succeed, there are rewards.

When I returned from vacation, it had been a week since I checked e-mail and as long since I read a U.S. newspaper. I found that I had not missed much by skipping my daily blog scans and Facebook messages. At the same time, I became more aware of the place where I was and the world around me.

It's also humbling to realize that when you're unplugged, the workplace and the news cycle continue just fine without you.

Scheduling technology

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Between the Mentoring Task Force, the Faculty Development and Diversity Committee, the Awards Committee, focus groups, journal clubs, and working groups, it seems like I spend a significant chunk of time scheduling meetings. Everyone is so busy that finding that golden hour when all the participants are available can be impossible.

So far, my technological solution has been to use Doodle. The free version allows users to set up several potential meeting days and times and then generates a link to a grid. All the invited attendees can add their availability by checking boxes. Doodle tallies up the yeses, and highlights the slot that most people can attend.

I recently heard about an alternative called The website works in much the same way, but with far more powerful features. It allows you to link to Facebook and Twitter profiles and to sync with Outlook or iCalendar features to automatically avoid conflicts. Of course, to get those robust options, users have to sign up and download an application that connects to their calendar software. That may be more work than I can expect busy academics to perform.

Ideally, Outlook would incorporate these features and mesh seamlessly with the Department's room scheduler. Until then, I'll probably stick with Doodle.

E-Mail Jail

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Chris Shanahan, one of our faculty members, gave a seminar this week on how to break out of e-mail jail. At first I thought the title referred to how tightly Outlook tethers us to our computers, but at the session I learned that some colleagues reside in a more literal jail. Their accounts are so full that they cannot receive mail. One audience member counted 3,000 messages in her inbox!

Chris's presentation borrowed from 12-step programs to approach the problem. He advised breaking the task into more manageable chunks and committing to clearing out the inbox by the end of everyday. This goal may be unrealistic, but by aiming for an ideal, you're likely to settle for something better than the status quo.

As a long-time Mac user, I tend to blame part of the problem on Microsoft's clunky design. At least in Outlook 2003, the interface makes efficiency a challenge. What's the difference between "Personal Folders," my mailbox folders, and favorite folders? For some reason, I have a "Calendar" and a separate "Calendar in Personal Folders." And these don't share a screen with my inbox.

It's like what economists have learned about motivating workers to invest in retirement plans. If you make it automatic, people will do it. But if you set up barriers to efficiency, most people will stay disorganized.