Archive for February, 2015

It’s rare, but occasionally, even on the Internet, I stumble upon something that seems almost beyond description.

In the beginning of our digitally literate journey, we had to do some digging and discover what exactly it meant to be digitally literate. If we had to dig deeper and find something, like an online class, that perfectly embodied putting what digital literacy is into practice, it would be ds106.

digistorytellin Photo CC-by digistorytelln

Digital Whosawhatnow?

Digital storytelling. In a nutshell, without Wikipedia’s help, digital storytelling is the usage of all mediums of technology both audial and visual: written, filmed, recorded, drawn, photographed, read, etc. for the sake of telling one’s life story and sharing one’s life experiences. Each and every one of us is on a journey, and no two are ever the same. We feel a basic need as human beings to connect with one another – how better than to swap stories, even if by non-conventional methods?

ds106 is an open source, open-enrollment online course, originally offered at the University of Mary Washington and now available as a drop-in, drop-out, all resources available online course. No enrollment fee, no grading, all it takes is some participation, and a hell of a lot of creativity.

Something in me is inherently leery about something this open. Where’s the catch? All these resources, all these testimonials at my fingertips. I’ve been here before. “Hear our glowing customer testimonials!” “See what others think!” Page after page of falsified reviews and bogus claims give the Internet and I a love-hate relationship.

The thing is, I see no reason to disbelieve. All over the place there are videos offering reviews / advice to oncoming students about the class. Everywhere you look: Twitter, Gravitar, YouTube, WordPress, you see the real work of real people as they try to flex their creative muscles and learn a thing or two about technology in the process. As an educational tool, this is the real deal.

opensourcedotcom Photo CC-by opensource.com

Talk Techy to Me

I’ve made the analogy several times already that creativity is a muscle, but it’s something I truly believe. Use it or lose it – great ideas are good, but they benefit no one trapped inside your head!

Scam or no scam, cult or no cult, aliens or no, ds106 wins in my book for two reasons.

  1.  Promoting Digital Literacy
    1. A huge part of ds106 is learning how to tangle with the Internet’s different beasts: Twiter, YouTube, Gravitar, WordPress, Facebook, Internet Radio, Flickr, video manipulation software, photo editing software, etc. all are part of the many various creative assignments offered by ds106. In order to participate, you’ve got to be ready to tackle some serious tech. This is a great way to introduce those unfamiliar or leery of some of the many services offered online: I was the type of person to scoff at both blogs and Twitter feeds until I was forced to maintain ones of my own.
  2. Creativity
    1. “Storytelling”. That’s the focus of the class. It just happens to be digital. ds106 offers an untold number of different ways to put your creativity into practice. Writing prompts about fanfic characters? Check. Conversations with celebrities using soundboards and audio editing software? Check. Photography exercises focusing on colors? Check. Creation of old-school, 50’s style educational videos in favor of a topic of choice? Check. The possibilities here are nearly limitless. There are even assignments focused around creating animated GIF images, and if that’s not outrageous enough, there are 3D Printing based assignments. Holy hell.

The applications for this class, to me, transcend the bounds of education. Teachers who are passion-focused or looking for ways to hack education: this is it. Students learn practical / new skills, students learn (and tell us) about themselves, and students are allowed to be creative and kept from doing needless busywork. Hell yes. For others, it’s a great crash-course in Internet-ing. For others still, it’s a good chance to experiment with different forms of creative expression.

So, it’s a free, open-source, do-as-you-please class where all the material is available online, the assignments are all open to tweaking, and you’re heavily encouraged to share your work with others and network with people about what you’re doing and what you’re learning?

Sounds like digital literacy 101 to me.

Ex nihilo

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By reading this short sentence, you are recognizing a series of pictures, attaching meaning to each of them, and then combining them to mean something totally different than what they mean individually.

Crazy, huh?

Alja Photo CC-by Alja, and also RELEVANT

This week, Ms. Fish and I decided to take a lighter version of a lesson considering that the week was jam-packed with responsibilities, including unplanned ones like a work shift to be covered and a trip up a mountain and subsequently back down again on two pieces of wood (skiing, we went skiing, okay?! and jeez, guys, I’m so bad at it. I hurt.)

With a fogged-over car window as an improvised whiteboard, we’re off!
Recognition

I’m beginning to be able to recognize and say certain characters. With that, I’m also discovering that certain characters can have multiple meanings. The word for “both,” dou, is also the word for “all.” Simultaneously. Not contextually, nor tonally, but simultaneously. Both, and all. This is a concept that’s kinda funky for me to wrap my brain around. Apparently, as the teach tells me, the idea that we have two different words for these would be strange to Chinese students.

I’m not fantastic, but I am at a point where I can recognize some super-basic sentences. I can also recognize Tristen’s name in Chinese, but only because she writes nice things about me with it. I presume. I guess she could theoretically be writing naughty things, but I’ll choose the optimistic outlook. 😛

Stefan Photo CC-by Stefan, a language long ago in a galaxy far, far away

Same Page, Different Book

In a similar vein to the “both / all” fiasco, there are also different ways to say something with the same meaning. I’m not talking about synonyms, I mean contextually. The word for “very” in Chinese is dependent on if an adverb or an adjective is being described by said “very”.

Wait, it gets better. The Chinese have only (relatively) recently incorporated a question mark at the end of sentences to signify a question. Traditionally, there’s a word specifically to denotate that a question has been asked.. and it goes at the end of a sentence. Roughly, if I were to translate asking how someone was in Chinese, the English would be something along the lines of “You good question.” What. The hell.

The foreshadowing of the lessons to come sparks a fire in my curious brain and brutally strangles the part of my brain that expects everything to fit in my little, comfort-zone based box. Hm? What’s that? Oh.. wait, are you serious?

I am now being told that there are different words for things depending on pluralities, as well as differences in words written vs. words spoken orally, such as for the form of currency. The word “tiao” is apparently a measurement form for things like pairs of pants… or fish. “Long-ish things,” the teach tells me is how she remembers it. That’s planned for the future.

My head hurts.

Dolor

One glaring issue with the Internet is the complete and total lack of quality control. It’s a true double edged sword: we’re allowed to express ourselves in almost any way we see fit, connect with any and everyone about infinite potential topics. That being said, that also leaves infinite potential for the toxic. The boundless range of the Internet is how we get trolls, keyboard critics, and spammers.

So how do we combat this? How do we keep the riff-raff out of our newly built networks?

Turns out, there are a few ways.

Scott McLeod Photo CC – by Scott McLeod

Step by Step

It’s a multi-step process. You’ve got to explore, search, follow, fine-tune, and feed.

When building your own network, post-exploration, there’s going to be a big sudden influx of information taken in. It’ll get overwhelming, and it’s going to need some filtering.

A common method of finding people to add to a PLN (personal learning network) is a Google search, but that’s definitely narrowing one’s scope. Certain classmates (*cough* tristen *cough*)  had the genius / obvious idea I overlooked of searching for particular hashtags on Twitter, finding posters that were interesting, and checking to see if they would be the right fit for their PLN. I did not do that thing.

I did, however, network off of followers I did find. I followed a lot of suggestion lists after following new people, leading me to discover a lot of my new followers also follow each other. This network is already established, and I’m the new blood in it. This is where one of my biggest issues is with maintaining my PLN: feeding.

I’m a sponge. Sedentary by nature, and always intaking. I take in what those around me have to say – I absorb, and I gather. I collect my thoughts in a vault in my brain and lock them away in case I may need them one day. When I’m in the ring with successful publishers, literary agents, and authors, my brain goes “pfffffft, these people don’t need my input!” I feel as though my input will go unappreciated, my questions will go scoffed at (or ignored altogether!), and there is no feeding done. That’s an issue, because what you get out of a network is what you put into it.

Andy Morffew Photo CC-by Andy Morffew, also feeding

Quality Control

This is why fine tuning is an extremely crucial step in the PLN process. Let me put it this way: as I said, I followed tons of writers, agents, editors, publishers, etc. and attracted the attention of a few writing pages.

One page I followed claimed to be for writers, but upon inspection, contained only shallow, empty quotes like “Today’s writing isn’t going to do itself” once every few days. No articles from experts were shared, no publishers listed, nothing. Just these weak inspirational posts and some fans raving about how good the page was.

The page messaged me offering me a job as a writer. Sketchy, eh? I did some digging and found out it was one of those “get paid by companies for your opinion” scams. Yikes.

How can you ensure that your questions go answered and your opinions go considered? Evaluate your network. What types of people are you following? Certain classmates accidentally followed a few Erotica authors in their attempts to build a writing network. It’s easy to plow through and mash the “follow” button, expecting vast riches of information. Doing that is an easy way to get vast amounts of absolute crap.

Make sure those in your network share your interests, or at the very least, your passion. Make sure they’re educated on what they’re interested in, or at the very least, eager to learn. A self-proclaimed “expert” can have merit – but if they’re toe to toe with a professional in a field, it’d probably be safer to bet on the professional. This is not a sports movie, the underdog here is not the winning bet.

As I’ve always said, don’t narrow your scope. Try to explore all facets of your network. I chose writing, therefore I sought out those in the industry, those in the indie scene, and all levels of possible professions. And I still didn’t even begin to cover all that I could.

Sherl Edwards Photo CC-by Sherl Edwards – and also my doctrine 

In and Out

Of course, none of this means a damn thing if you don’t put the effort in. Here’s another big problem with my personal motivations: making time. As much as I can try and deny it, senioritis is creeping into my bones.

A network isn’t a one-way street. It’s a constant flow of feedback from all components, and if you aren’t one of the sources of feedback, you’re deadening the network. Taking in with no giving out is called leeching. With proper quality control of your sources and your information, it ensures that when you do decide to feed your PLN, you will have something worth sharing.

The bottom line of PLN maintenance is effort, and knowledge. If you educate yourself and fight ignorance in your field of study, you’ll have questions worth asking and points worth making. If you put the effort in to share these things with others, you will become a focal point in the network. Don’t wait for time, make the time. Clearly, I need work in this department.

Cratis

So, I do my best to make a weekly blog post that sort of “reviews” my latest find in the world of graphic novels. In a true example of applied learning, I got to thinking about alternative means that graphic novels (or comics) are published. Marvel offers a subscription service titled “Marvel Unlimited” that lets one read nearly their entire catalog for only $10 a month. My Kindle is loaded with comic books.

Recently, the most funded Kickstarter campaign of all time was headed partially by the artist at The Oatmeal, which got me to thinking about how web comics and art as a medium on the Internet seems to be growing exponentially. This week, ashamedly, I didn’t make the time to pick up a new graphic novel.

But I did catch up on some of my favorite web comics.

92419582_ba92b71876_o Photo CC-by Roadsidepictures, tangentially relevant, and absurd

Why Web Comics?

I know a lot of people who aren’t familiar with web comics as a medium, or don’t take them very seriously. Granted, the freedom of the Internet means that anyone can get on and share extremely poor work, but self-publishing is a genuine vessel for success. I’ve done it, and I’ve worked with dozens of others who have as well.

The fact that the Internet is free range tends to make most people write independent artists, authors, and musicians as instant hacks. You haven’t heard of them before, they haven’t achieved commercial success – so why bother? This is an incredibly narrow scope. The Internet is a tool to be used for good or evil, all it takes is a little digging to find the good.

As I stated above, web comic artists are on the rise. Many of my favorites that I follow have several novelized versions of their strips out for purchase – which makes it a graphic novel. There are no shortage of tones, themes, or subject matters to be found even in web comics. Want funny? Dark? Nerdy? No problem. Many of these mediums are single-shot, updating weekly with strips that may have no continuity between one another. Others are long, sprawling plot lines, or at the very least have gags / plot points that show up time and time again.

Do I still have your attention? If so, I’m going to use the rest of this post to share with you some of my favorite web comics that I follow weekly. I’ll do my best to get some variety in here, a lot of the ones I follow are video game-related because I am a nerd.

11085522084_4a153845f0_b Photo CC-by Drew Brockington, found on Flickr – Internet art!

Four of my Favorites

Penny Arcade – (Warning: Vulgar Language / Humor) Written by Jerry Holkins and illustrated by Mike Krahulik.

As far as web comics go, Penny Arcade may be the most successful in jumping to real-world business. Largely video game, technology, and tabletop gaming themed, Penny Arcade follows (mostly) the exploits of Gabe and Tycho as they offer humorous, often cynical or critical looks at the gaming industry. There are frequently breaks in the humor in favor of Medieval or Sci-Fi one-shot pieces where Holkins flexes his diverse set of muscles. Penny Arcade began as a webcomic and has branched out into the Penny Arcade Expo: a yearly convention where the biggest comic book and game developers gather to show off the year’s hottest releases. PA also started a charity called Child’s Play, dedicated to raising money to provide games and entertainment to children who are stuck in hospitals. PA is an example of comics being taken seriously as a medium through longevity and ambition.

Zen Pencils  – Illustrated by Gavin Aung Tan

Zen Pencils is a strip done by a former graphic designer who was unsatisfied with his job. Tan’s approach is unlike many others: he takes inspirational quotes or poems and puts them in a comic strip form. Literary buffs will appreciate tan’s knowledge of poetry, but he covers all ends of the spectrum with quotes from the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Rollins (former Black Flag frontman), Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin and Hobbes), the Dalai Llama, and much more. Readers need not worry about following a plot or vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake. Tan’s work is inspirational, heartwarming, eye-opening, and motivational. Plus he has his own collection of recurring characters. Pretty good stuff.

Poorly Drawn Lines(Warning: Vulgar Language) Written & Illustrated by Reza Farazmand

I don’t have many words that can really explain Poorly Drawn Lines. The art style is often simplistic (but not childish), and the jokes are always off-the-wall. Fans of random, absurd humor will be right at home with Poorly Drawn Lines. Jokes are sometimes pointed / critical of society, but more than often are eyebrow-raisers with little underlying meaning. I can’t really describe this. I’ll just show you:

whole-world

Cyanide and Happiness(Warning: Vulgar Language, Humor, and Graphic Content) Written & Illustrated by Kris Wilson, Rob DenBleyker, Dave McElfatrick, and others

Cyanide and Happiness is a webcomic classic. Almost everyone you know has shared a comic of C&N. Initially a project for fun by one person, C&H has expanded to several artists updating weekly strips with often crass, and explicit humor. The art style remains simplistic, but jokes are often pointed, offensive, and highly critical of most components of society. Fans of dirty (yet smart) humor will be right at home with S&H.

There’s no shortage of subject matter to be found in web comics. There’s also no shortage of writing and artistry talent to be found. At the very least, you now know what it is I do when I’m supposed to be being productive.

ars longa vita brevis

Disclaimer: I’m aware it’s “tone deaf.” It’s a pun, okay? 

Confession time:

I’ve spent two weeks on the same 17 vocab words. When I’m looking at them, I get all scatterbrained. Do I learn pronunciation first? Translation? How to draw the characters? Where do I start? I’m trying to learn another language like I study for a test, and while that’s functional for learning what the words mean in English, it does me little good in pronunciation or application of them. And what about grammar, for that matter?

Yikes.

jonathan kos-read Photo CC-by Jonathan Kos-Read, also, I have no idea what this says

Focus is Key

My biggest problem with this learning project so far is that I’ve been trying to spread myself too thin, bouncing around between things I need to learn. I don’t remember learning English, it’s just something that comes naturally. My teacher has done some lessons in this language before, but it’s been while. I find myself asking more questions than I can answer at once – I’m already constructing basic sentences out of words I’ve picked up and my very (very very) loose grasp on the grammar, but I’m trying to do long division before I even know how to add.

That, and I’m busy, man. Seriously. I know this project is something we chose, I know it’s something I want to dedicate time to, but when my options are “do my Chinese homework” and “start this take-home test due Tuesday, then practice for my lesson on Thursday so it’s not a total shitshow” my priorities re-arrange themselves a bit.

I guess that’s something else I’m learning besides Chinese: how to juggle responsibilities. I’m a bit jealous, really – I give my student a writing prompt and the first draft is finished that same day. I highlight it, give my criticisms, and the edited “final” version is done that same day. And I’ve yet to memorize my first 17 vocab words. Damn.

Theen Moy Photo CC-by Theen Moy, and I can’t read this either.

At the end of the day, I don’t have excuses. I need to carve out time for this. When I sit down to do it, I’m always fascinated. I’m never bored. There’s an immense hurdle for me to jump, and I don’t back from a challenge. The trouble is, there are too many directions for me to go. Because I’m an egotist and a bit of an attention whore, it does my heart good to see my pupil excited about writing and eager to continue learning new things.

I wonder if she’ll let me borrow some of her enthusiasm. This is my last semester for my Bachelor’s Degree, and it’s beginning to feel like it.

Nitor

If there’s one thing my time in education has taught me, it’s that regardless of what you plan on doing with your life, there’s one underlying goal to shoot for that will nearly almost guarantee your success.

Like it or not, no matter how good you are, it’s only partially what you do – it’s a lot of who you know!

networkingPhoto CC-by bflshadow, and I can’t imagine the nightmare of cords

“Connections”

Last January, I took a trip to Anaheim, California to attend the annual NAMM Show (National Association of Music Merchants), a convention where over 100,000 performers, merchants, vendors, executives, and every other facet of the music business industry go to peddle their wares. The convention consisted of a lot of panels from successful record executives, audio engineers, and other people who’ve carved a successful path in life.

There were two common elements in each of these panels. #1: Market yourself, what can you do to make someone else money? #2: Get to know everyone. This is the important bit. You never know who you’re going to run into, and you never know if that person will be your foot in the door. I had the guts to head right up to the President of NAMM, Joe Lamond, and ask him for a business card. A few weeks later, he had read my entire portfolio online. Needless to say, I was equal parts excited as well as surprised.

No matter your skills, no matter your ability, they’ll do you no good (in a professional environment, that is) if no one notices. How better to get people to notice you than to increase your surface area of people known?

anne davis Photo CC-by Anne Davis, didn’t bother checking the validity of this quote. But damn, it looks inspirational.

Personalization + Networks = Learning 

In what is potentially the worst instance of “using a word to define itself” ever, Wikipedia’s definition of a PLN (personal learning network) is “A personal learning network is an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in a personal learning environment.”

…Well. That’s literally useless. Let me take a crack at it:

A personal learning network is a series of connections you create with others based on a common interest or profession, primarily Internet or social media-driven. There is perhaps no better way to learn about a subject than seeking out those who have found success in that field. This is another instance of the power of the Internet being used for good: with the right Facebook groups or Twitter feeds, your access to information is literally limitless. 

I resolved to make my PLN about writing. I would love to be a professional novelist or short story writer. The issue here is that to me, that doesn’t seem very realistic. I think what’ll wind up happening is I’ll be a columnist for a newspaper or a website, and moonlight as a horror author. Which would also be awesome. No matter which facet of my would-be profession I approach, the theme of writing remains constant, so that’s where I decided to look.

If you didn’t laugh, we can’t be friends.

A few things I learned about building PLNs:

  • Quantity > Quality
    • At least when it comes to social media resources like Twitter feeds, you want reliable information over numbers. Information is good. Good information is great.
  • Participation is Key
    • A network means a series of exchanges. You’re doing your network no good if you aren’t giving your own ideas and asking your own questions. Active participation will do a lot more in the way of you learning.
  • All Angles
    • Think of all facets of whatever subject you’ve chosen for your network. Part of my network consists of finding publishers, authors, editors, magazines, columnists – don’t narrow your scope.

Since I determined to make my PLN about writing, I Googled “Best twitter feeds to follow for writers,” and found a handy list of literary feeds that gave me a great head-start. Maintaining and building a network takes determination, but 24/7 access to varying levels of expertise, experience, ideas, and stories is literally priceless. Besides, who knows? What if someone in your network is a future employer or job reference of yours? The bottom line is that you’ve got to want to learn. Show everyone what you can do, don’t be embarrassed, don’t be shy, and don’t be humble. You belong here. Act like it.

Reticulum

February means Black History Month, Black History Month means civil rights discussions and remembrance for battles fought, people lost, and societal progress (or the lack thereof). Being born in Baltimore, MD, civil rights and the struggles contained therein are commonplace in everyday education. MLK day isn’t just a day off from class, but a city-wide holiday.

Here, in the (rather conservative and primarily white) Midwest, greater knowledge of these issues takes a little hunting down. Granted, the bullet points are all part of most school curricula: MLK, Malcom X, Brown v. Board of Education, but other than that, it takes some seeking out. There are the conventional means: inspirational films, history lessons out of a textbook, etc. This week, with Dr. Ellington’s help, I discovered a means I wasn’t quite aware of before. The graphic novel, duh.

March by John LewisCopyright – Nate Powell

The Book

“March,” by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, was quite the discovery, and quite the surprise. John Lewis was speaker #6 on the day of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the only one still alive. He is currently a politician, a representative for Georgia, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barrack Obama. Needless to say, the guy has quite a pedigree. Andrew Aydin works under Lewis in his congressional office, and Nate Powell is a graphic novelist known for humanitarian work – he was featured in a collaborative book telling the tales of Darfur.

The tale alternates between the day of the inauguration of Barrack Obama as president, and Lewis’s participation in the civil rights movement. Lewis does his best to educate two younger black boys on, as their mother calls it, “their history.” It details Lewis’s upbringing on a farm, his tending / attachment to the chickens, his enrollment at a Baptists’ college, and subsequent push to be accepted into a college that doesn’t accept colored people.

I’m not sure how Lewis came across the idea to have his tale told in the form of a comic, but I’m certainly glad he did. The book is semi-biographical, semi-fictional, and since I’m an ignoramus, I hadn’t heard much of Lewis. I only knew about the aforementioned figureheads of the movement that everyone else knows about. The story is fantastic – thanks in no small part to it being true. I can’t come up with much to say about it. It’s always fascinating to get the perspective of someone who actively participated in the civil rights movement. It lends the tale real humanity, as opposed to being just another special on A&E or another textbook chapter.

SLJ1309w_FT_lewis_porch The Artwork

The artwork, done by Nate Powell and all black and white, is phenomenal. Each person is done in full detail, quite akin to their actual likeness (if they were indeed real people). As Scott McCloud taught us before, these are real people who had a real struggle. We aren’t meant to be able to insert ourselves into the tale – we’re along for the ride.

Powell’s attention to detail is the strongest point of the artwork. The memory of the run-down state of the colored buses, bathrooms, etc. etc. becomes starkly real.

Other touches that I wouldn’t have noticed without Scott McCloud is the different font styles Powell uses depending on the situation. When police / state troopers are harassing people, the speech bubbles are surrounded by spikes. When the activists sing their songs of victory, the font goes from a traditional one to one in cursive to emulate a hand-written letter.

My only real issue with the book iiiis the fact that I’ve only read the first. Until I continue my search and find the others in the series, I feel as though I can’t comment too much more on it, though I am enjoying it thoroughly.

So, to be continued.

Libertatem