Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why is ITA invitation-only?

I was reminded today that ITA came and went earlier this month, so I've kept alive my five-year-long streak of not attending.

By all accounts, ITA is now a major event on the information theory calendar: the participants page lists over 350 attendees -- maybe a bit less than half of an average ISIT. And the ITSoc boldface names are attending; insofar as the meeting-and-greeting career implications are concerned, I suppose I should be attending too. In the past, my excuse was that ITA was an invitation-only conference, both for attendance and for paper presentation, and I had never been invited. Maybe my impression was wrong, or maybe this year it changed: it seems like the plebs can register, but papers are still by invitation.

Is there a good reason why ITA is invitation-only? It's clearly not intended to be a small gathering, and never has been: the participants page for the original workshop lists over 200 researchers. Perhaps the organizers are trying to spare themselves the effort of organizing reviews, but the IT community is reasonably self-selecting, and the Allerton organizers allow unsolicited papers.

On the other hand, I can think of three good reasons why ITA should not be invitation-only. First, I'm not sure ITA should be described as a "workshop" (which suggests "conference") if the purpose for non-invitees is to hear pre-selected lectures; that strikes me as more of a "school". Second, it reinforces the stereotype of ITSoc as a "clubby" society; as an information theorist, you are either one of the inner circle who gets an invite, one of the outer circle who doesn't get an invite (but who goes anyway to hang around with the cool kids), or a nobody. Third, ITA is killing CISS: at last year's conference in Baltimore, the decline in attendance was stark compared to past years; since CISS takes submissions, this removes an opportunity for the less-well-known to publish. Consider the impact of that on cross-disciplinary work.

On the other hand, maybe ITSoc is sending a message that there's no such thing as a less-well-known information theorist?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Social Media and the Modern Day Classroom

(I was invited to speak at Social Media Week on Social Media and the Modern Day Classroom. These are my remarks.)

I was hired at York University in 2006, and -- like most new faculty -- I was full of ideas and energy for transforming undergraduate teaching as we know it. At the time I was also starting to play around with blogs, so it seemed natural to try to bring the blog into the classroom.

My idea was to replace the standard course website with a blog: the unchanging details of the course (schedule, location, etc.) could still be hosted in some static place, but the blog would communicate the day-to-day details of the course. My first attempt, still online, can be found here. It was an incredible success: the blog formed the core of a vibrant community, which allowed the students to communicate both with me and among themselves. One student was even inspired to start his own blog, transcribing my course notes after each lecture. Not all of the feedback was positive, of course; I kept the commenting system open to allow anonymous comments, and students took full advantage to express their frustrations and problems. But this was also a huge positive -- too often, the professor gets a sterile view of how the students are doing, because nobody is brave enough to speak up.

So began my efforts to integrate social media into the classroom. In addition to blogs, I've experimented with three other social media sites: facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Each has its own unique features. Facebook and Twitter are quite similar: in Facebook, my approach is to create groups for each class; in Twitter, I create a class twitter account which students follow (and vice versa). These sites are, I guess you could say, "democratic" (although a less charitable word would be "anarchic") -- unlike a blog, there is far less room for the instructor to direct the conversation, and it shows. YouTube, though it re-creates the experience of listening to a lecture, turns out to be surprisingly passive: again unlike blogs, my students are reluctant to use YouTube's commenting features to leave feedback, which takes away from the sense of community (then again, perhaps this is not so surprising, since YouTube is comparable to the highly passive activity of watching television). In comparison, I would argue that the blog is as close as one can get in social media to the lecture: a blog post sets out a particular thesis, and permits an organized discussion on that thesis.

It's worth considering whether social media can replace the university classroom, and I'm going to cop out by answering "yes and no". For one thing, social media is unlikely to replace the small undergraduate class. To form a community based on social media, you need a critical mass highly committed "community builders", who are willing to jump in and participate in whatever media is in use -- be it a blog, facebook, or Twitter. In small classes, there simply aren't enough people to form a critical mass, so anyone trying to participate is left to feel awkward. However, for larger classes, social media does indeed pose an alternative to the traditional classroom order. We have already noticed the trend towards distance learning, so students are already willing to miss out on the impersonal 200-student lecture, even without social media tools at their disposal. A well-thought-out social media strategy, coupled with a high-reputation distance-learning program, could indeed recreate much of the classroom experience, and pose a viable alternative (or threat?) to the traditional university experience. The comparison between traditional universities and traditional media is chillingly apt.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Not because it is easy, but because it is hard

Today President Obama announced that the United States would not be returning people to the moon, or sending them anywhere else beyond Earth orbit. Now, people can certainly argue that robots are more efficient, and spaceflight is expensive, and blah blah blah. But I think I'll leave the case for manned space flight to the man who proposed the lunar project in the first place.