OpenFiction [Blog]

New tOFP toy

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 12, 2005

My hosting service offers a free wiki, so it looks as though I’ll be able to wikify the craftbook on the courseware site. It’ll probably take a couple of weeks for me to get it set up, and I’ll have to give some thought to how it will work with the site… It continues to amaze me how relatively cheap and easy-to-use all of this is.

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Point of View – Reminiscent narration shifting

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 11, 2005

What’s this?

The current challenge I’m working through with the novel is dealing with one of two chapters from Foster’s early years. The first is the prologue, which recounts his father’s disappearance when he was ten years old. The second (currently Chapter 7) tells the story of his mother’s death when he was 13. They were originally conceived and written as back story, without the intention of actually being included in the novel itself. Especially the prologue, though is a piece of writing I really like, and believe adds important depth in understanding Foster’s urge to preserve the situation in Edenboro.

The problem I face, though, is that the point of view used in these two chapters is not consistent with the rest of the novel. Both are done using a reminiscent narrator, but the narrator in the other parts of the novel is in his forties, and the narrator in these two chapters is much younger. Here’s a small example of the reminiscent narrator in the second chapter:

We watched from the lockmaster’s tower as a boat passed the lock. The chamber was half as long as others on the river, and the rafts had to be moved through in two parts. Together, the lock and boat crews worked to unlash the front four barges and winch them into the lock. Free of the tow boat’s firm control, the barges drifted, striking the chamber with a hollow boom like thunder—so much so I glanced up at the gathered clouds. I would learn the sound traveled far, so that sometimes in downtown Edenboro you could hear it. You would stop in the street and listen, wondering if it was a storm in the distance; then you would hear it again, and maybe again, and after you heard it a few times you would know for sure either way.

The phrase “I would learn” places the narrator ahead of the present time of the story, looking back. The reader learns through other such references that the narrator (future Foster) is looking back at the person he was during the present time of the story. Now here’s an example from chapter 7, as Foster recalls coming out of the movie theater his family would go to when he was a child and meeting his father:

She took me by the hand then, and June held onto the twins–Cara and Kathy–as we walked up the aisle and through the lobby. Everything looked swimming and unsteady as I rubbed my eyes, squinting, and Papa appeared suddenly out of the brightness. He wore his best dark suit and always had a flower in his lapel, a red carnation. He pulled it out and gave it to June, then picked up the twins one in each arm. Mark, a moody and sulking teenager, strayed away from the rest of us as Papa kissed Mama on the cheek. Together we all walked to the Big Boy, where we at burgers and fries, food we weren’t allowed to eat at home. We shopped for whatever Mama wanted, new clothes or china or curtains, and June and Mark and I were loaded down with packages. Afterward, we went to Rourke’s drug store and bought comic books and balsa wood airplanes, and paper dolls for the twins.

In this passage, the phrases “always had a flower” and “a moody and sulking teenager” mark the narrator as reminiscent, but other word choices, including the use of “Mama” and “Papa,” place the narrator as younger than the one in the previous passage. Here’s the same passage reworked to address the difference:

She’d take me by the hand then, while June held onto the twins–Cara and Kathy–as we walked up the aisle and through the lobby. Everything looked swimming and unsteady, and as I rubbed my eyes, squinting, my father would appear out of the brightness. He wore his best dark suit on Saturdays and always had a flower in the lapel, a red carnation. He pulled it out and gave it to June, then picked up the twins, one in each arm. Mark, moody and sulking, strayed from the rest of us as my father kissed my mother on the cheek. Together we all walked to the Big Boy and ate burgers and fries, food we weren’t allowed at home. Afterward we would shop for whatever my mother wanted, new clothes or china or curtains, and June and Mark and I would be loaded down with packages. When she was done shopping, we went to Rourke’s drug store and bought comic books and balsa wood airplanes, and paper dolls for the twins.

Even retyping these side-by-side, I’m becoming aware of changes I didn’t know I’d made to shift to an older narrator. I’d guess this is because it’s a matter of locking into the voice of the older narrator, rather than making conscious choices at a line-by-line level.

Producer culture and knowledge innovators

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 10, 2005

So, more about how the producer culture model may fit better than the consumer culture model in describing users of open educational resources. The consumer culture model, which I’m suggesting applies to learning objects as they have been conceived, positions users as consumers of knowledge–i.e. they go and find the learning object that fits their learning need, interact with it, and come away with some specified chunk of knowledge acquired. Educators using these materials assemble the proper combination of objects for the learners under their direction. The goal of the process is to find the learning object that exactly fits with the need.

But taking von Hippel’s thinking about user-innovators and applying it to users of open educational resources would suggest we think of them as “knowledge innovators.” In addition to indicating that it is difficult to create a learning object that will exactly fit a wide range of educational needs, as I mentioned in a previous post, von Hippel’s book also would suggest that educators and learners may not be looking for a resource that exactly fits their educational needs. Take the following, and substitute the educator/learner for engineer:

…engineers seldom even want to see a solution exactly as their competitors have designed it: specific circumstances differ even among close competitors, and solutions must in any case be adapted to each adopter’s precise circumstances. What an engineer does want to extract from the work of others is the principles and general outlines of a possible improvement, rather than the easily redevelopable details.

While there are certainly circumstances in which the consumer model works for open educational resources (witness the popularity of lecture videos available on a number of open educational sites), and this use is far easier to document than adaptation of open educational resources, von Hippel’s writings suggest that learners operating at a high level and especially educators might be gaining more benefits through the process of adaptation (innovation)–the producer culture model–than through simple access to the materials. That is to say that there is an intrinsic value in the experience adapting materials created for one set of circumstances into materials designed for another set of circumstances. While some learners would benefit from watching a lecture video, few teachers would benefit from repeating that lecture verbatim.

My experience as an instructor is that reading and repeating an observation about fictional craft is not sufficient for me to truly understand it. I’ve said before that I learned much more about fiction by teaching it than I have by studying it, precisely because teaching demands that I take new information and reinterpret it within the framework of my own understanding of the craft and the particular needs of the students I am teaching. It’s not enough for me to read passages of Seymour Chatman’s book to my students. I must adapt the content to where we’ve been and where we’re going in understanding fiction.

Another example: I am finding intrinsic value in applying the open (ignoring that I bought the book for convenience) educational resource von Hippel provides to the issue of open educational resources, even though the specific content of von Hippel’s book does not address educational innovation or educational resources specifically. The specifics of his examples (mountain bikes, construction materials) are less useful and interesting than the principles, illustrating cross-disciplinary power of adaptation over direct use.

Description – Chapter endings

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 9, 2005

What’s this?

In writing a novel, I am really getting to recognize the techniques I lean on and use again and again. One clear tendency I have is to end chapters (or in some cases, passages) with description. Two examples from early in the novel:

End of Chapter 3:

It didn’t take much imagination to picture the damage a wall of water and churning concrete might do to Edenboro’s waterfront. The dark clouds above brought the town ever closer to such a possibility as rain swept across the valley in sheets, each drop of it collecting in rivulets and creeks, pulled downward by gravity, adding weight to the rushing mass that crested the dam below.

End of Chapter 5:

I did not know then how our lives might become enmeshed, but it made me happy in that moment to know that the wounds were starting to heal. Who knew what she thought of me, or even if she thought of me at all, but suddenly the night air flowing in the truck’s window felt vibrant to me in a way it had not before the meeting. The rain had stopped, and the wisps of cloud and fog that clung to the ground blew past my headlights like the passing of ghosts.

I use this kind of description more often than not in ending chapters. Not exclusively, but enough that it’s clearly emerged as a pattern. I often become impatient with writers who lean on one or two techniques throughout novels, and so I’m always on the lookout for this kind of thing in my own writing. The goal is not to eliminate the use of techniques, but to be sure I vary them enough throughout that they don’t become an affectation or distraction.

The rise of producer culture

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 8, 2005

I was on the road with my family over the weekend, visiting relatives. As always, I overestimated the amount of reading I might be able to do on the trip and brought three books with me–Sen’s Development as Freedom, Lessig’s Free Culture, and Eric von Hippel’s Democratizing Innovation (download a copy for yourself). While I was reading bits of the three, I’ve been continuing to think about a better language to express my continued misgivings with the learning object model. (I should say again that a few years back, while I was creating the course that became tOFP, I was very much a learning object enthusiast, but over time have begun to wonder if the approach will work.)

It occurred to me that Sen, Lessig and von Hippel were all describing–in somewhat different terms, the rise of a producer culture very different from the familiar and well-described consumer culture that dominates now. Von Hippel describes numerous examples of how individuals and companies innovate in-house, creating custom-tailored products–often in cases where it doesn’t make economic sense to do so–rather than use mass-produced alternatives. Lessig’s work, through projects like Creative Commons and CC Mixter, has long been about the empowerment of the creative individual and community as opposed to hegemonic consumer culture and the law that it employs. And Sen turns traditional consumer models of development–income levels, for instance–on their head, suggesting development should be measured instead by the ability of people to create (in this case meaning in their lives), to choose a life they value.

Through all of these examples, I’ve begun to see the outlines of a new producer culture taking hold especially in digital domains, in which the consumer culture is being (in some cases rapidly) displaced. As the costs to produce cultural artifacts (movies, news and opinion articles, music, software, etc) decrease, individuals increasingly position themselves as producers rather than consumers, often in ways that threaten established consumer culture industries. I’ll just toss out a sketch of some of the contours I see:

– custom-production or niche-market production versus mass production
– production as an end unto itself–a creative activity–versus production as a means to financial gain
– open source and community-focused modes of production
– culture that invites parody, reference and derivation versus one that discourages it
– products that invite modification, subversive and alternative use versus those that discourage it
– decentralized modes of production and distribution versus centralized
– community-recommendation versus advertising

Sunday’s Times Magazine carried an article that captures exactly the rise of producer culture. On the drive home last night, my wife and I were able to name a whole range of things that carry the hallmarks of producer culture–blogs, wikipedia, computer-game modders, del.icio.us, P2P sharing, etc.–and even sillier ones like American Idol, in which everyone fancies themselves a producer and audience participation helps determine the outcome. The effects of producer culture are already impacting news reporting (via blogs) and will likely affect movie and music industries, not through the red herring of piracy, but more likely through the diminishing importance of blockbuster films and top-40 albums, consumer culture products designed for the widest possible appeal. As more and more people produce more and more music and movies, and people are able to follow niche interests rather than consume mass fare, the economics that support the consumer culture models may collapse.

To bring this back to learning objects, one of von Hippel’s points is that the larger a “market” a product is designed for, the more dissatisfied on average any one user will be. That is to say, if you create an educational resource for a small group of people (say, a class), the satisfaction levels are likely to be very high. If you try to create it for a much larger audience (say, the whole world), satisfaction levels are likely to decline, because of your inability to predict cultural, academic and technical variations within the market. This would suggest (as I’ve also suggested before) that any reformatting effort beyond that required to publish an educational resource is at best a gamble that is likely to not exactly work in most circumstances. The idea should not be to create one mass-production item that fits all needs, but to provide as many examples as possible of resources used in particular circumstances, all of which are available for derivation (and reuse where appropriate). Even the idea of learners as consumers of learning objects (even if they “custom-tailor” their learning experience) may be misguided. Learners may well be most usefully thought of as producers of learning resources as well. In other words, learning objects may ultimately be a consumer culture approach misapplied to a producer culture environment.

Another tOFP first

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 7, 2005

A while back, as part of the ongoing experiment with open sharing, I posted a listing of tOFP on MERLOT, the Calfornia-based open referratory of learning objects. I noticed this morning that it has been added to the collection of one MERLOT user, an educational technologist from Monash University in Australia, in her collection titled “Interactive modules for self-directed learning.” It is listed in her collection along with the following:

Adventures in Statistics – Cartoon Learning Modules
The Scientific Method
Biological Molecules Test

Here is an example of how is is difficult to presuppose the end use of digital materials–I really don’t see tOFP as being all that revolutionary a model for self-guided learning. It’s really not that much more than a book that permits some non-linear navigation and allows in some circumstances for feedback from an instructor. Interesting that it would be picked up first as an example of interactive learning rather than a tool for teaching and learning writing. This may be an effect of the audience, though, as I think tOFP may be the only creative writing content on MERLOT (though it’s not clear where one should list creative writing materials, so there may be others I am unaware of). Still, cool to see it picked up by a MERLOT user.

tOFP to go

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 4, 2005

Last month, I posted a zip file of the entire tOFP site on the home page, and I’m happy to report that last night, a visitor downloaded a copy. I’m glad someone found the materials interesting enough to download, and I hope they’ll get good use out of it. For tOFP, these downloads are only good news, but for grant-funded projects the offline use of materials poses a dilemma–the single most influential metric by which these projects are measured is traffic to their site, and every time a user downloads material to a local machine, it drains traffic off of the live site. The purpose of many open sharing initiatives, as indicated by the explicit permission granted for the creation of derivatives, is for the materials to be adapted to local educational situations. This use, though, is really painstaking to document, and even more difficult to quantify. For me, I lose the ego boost of seeing more traffic to tOFP. For grant-funded open sharing initiatives, the lost traffic can be a much bigger problem.

Plot – Concordance

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 3, 2005

What’s this?

In the process of drafting, my novel has gone from a contemporary to a period piece. I wrote the very first piece of it in 1994, which is also the present time of the story. Since I’ve managed to not finish it in the intervening ten years, I now have to spend some time remembering exactly what things were like ten years ago, especially where technology is concerned. No one in the novel, for instance, uses a cell phone, and the protagonist (so far) doesn’t have a laptop. A different world.

Beyond this curiosity of the drawn-out drafting, there are an increasing number of other chronology-related issues I’m having to deal with. Most arise from the multiple storylines I’m including, and from the complexity of the civil engineering project which is at the center of the drama (doesn’t that sound enticing?). Present time of the novel is 1994, the protagonist is 36 years old, so he was born in 1958. His sister died when he was 11, which is 1969 and the earliest action of the novel. There is a story line from the end of his college years, when he meets his wife, 1979-80. His wife’s mother came to Kentucky in 1956, his wife was born 1961. The dam Foster is evaluating was built in 1925 and expected to last 50 years. The site selection process has gone on for 12 years, so since 1982. And so forth and so on.

Problem is, I end up having to do calculations like the above as I’m drafting, which is really distracting. I’m trying to remember, but I think I took at least two novel writing classes in graduate school, and while both were great classes (Margot Livesey and Chris Tilghman–both wonderful people, great writers, and fantastic instructors), neither provided any advice on dealing with such issues. Surprisingly (or maybe not, given that he is a plot-driven writer working on deadlines) the best advice I’ve found for this issue comes from Stephen King. King’s work is not a favorite of mine, but I do think he has some sound advice for writers (not the least of which is to lock yourself in a room for three hours a day. If only…). In his book Misery, which is an extended inside joke for writers, his protagonist describes a notebook he keeps for organizing such information, which he calls his concordance.

The protagonist in Misery is the author of a series of books about the same character, so the need to organize this information is greater, but I’m getting to the point where I’m going to at least have to create a chronology for the book as a reference. I’m a little loath to do this, as it’s going to mean taking a break from the drafting, but I think the gain is fast becoming worth the pain.

So, about PayPal

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 2, 2005

I promised a post explaining the thinking behind the submissions page (incidentally, I’ve always found the language of “submission” with regard to writing a little odd–but I do like the big-brotherish title of the “Submit to the OpenFiction Project” page). I’ve felt a little odd about including the submission page, especially given that I’ll be surprised if I get any submissions. There were a couple of reasons I went ahead and included it anyway.

First, I was looking at what technologies had become easy enough that any bonehead could use them in an open sharing environment, and it’s clear PayPal is one of those technologies. It took me maybe an hour, including the page coding, to get the submissions page set up. So as a technology experiment, it demonstrates that it’s not hard or costly to do.

Second, I wanted some control on contact from site users. I’m kind of an easy-going person, and know that if I started getting e-mails from users asking, “Would you mind letting me know what you think of this exercise/story?” I’d be likely to respond. For my own sanity, and the peace of my household, I needed to set some sort of limit on this kind of thing, so this gives me a clear boundary for myself. It also provides the possibility for me of keeping my fiction instruction skills honed to some level. Realistically, if I were ever to get a significant number of requests for feedback, I’d have to rope some colleagues into taking on some of it–tOFP fellows?

Third, sustainability is going to be an ongoing issue for any project such as this. The hosting costs for the project are actually really minimal, but there are a number of things I don’t have time to do, but could conceivably shop out should I have the money to do so–improvements in coding, accessibility, improved images, a wiki craftbook, etc. Any submissions (or donations) income would provide funds for this.

So, for all of these reasons together, I decided to go ahead with the page. Early on, it is one of the more visited pages, though I’ve not received any feedback on it one way or another.

tOFP by the numbers

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 1, 2005

A large part of my day job is analyzing and reporting on web metrics, so I can’t help myself. Here are some stats from the first full month of tOFP:

Total Pages: 917
Total Visits: 222
Total Unique Visitor IP addresses: 98
Pages per Day (Ave/Max): 30/112
Visits per Day (Ave/Max): 7/57

Top 10 URLs:

1 /
2 /wp211.css
3 /about/
4 /submit/
5 /asgnmt/
6 /units/
7 /calendar/
8 /about/aboutme.htm
9 /about/syllabus.htm
10 /resume/

This seems pretty consistent with both people exploring the site and the pages crawlers are most likely to hit.

Visitors:

No surprise I am the most frequent visitor to my own site, as I’ve been working to get things set up and making tweaks here and there. I’ve made 35 visits this month. Another significant chunk appears to be web crawlers of various types (Google, RIPE, Asia Pacific Network Information Centre). I’d guess roughly half the traffic represents actual visits.

Non tOFP referring pages (referred visits):

http://openfiction.blogspot.com/ (14)
http://openfiction.blogspot.com/2005_06_01_openfiction_archive.html (6)
http://del.icio.us/ (5)
http://www.whois.sc/ (4)
http://www.whois.sc/tofp.org (4)
http://h2obeta.law.harvard.edu/62411 (3)
http://del.icio.us/inbox/thamshere (2)
http://h2obeta.law.harvard.edu/searchPlaylists.do (2)
http://openfiction.blogspot.com/2005/07/plot-dramatic-questions.html (2)
http://www.bloglines.com/myblogs_subs (2)
http://www.google.com/search (2 – this was me)
http://www.merlot.org/artifact/ArtifactDetail.po (2 – me also)

Other than the brief flirtation with del.icio.us, whois, and bloglines, these are all links that I have initiated.

————-

No big news, just a baseline set of data.