The Social Media Game

I have keratoconus, which is a degenerative eye condition, and it’s flared up, resulting in a dramatic loss of vision, primarily in my right eye. This means that I can’t read, let alone write, for more than ten minutes at a time before fatigue and headache sets in, which is not very useful in my line of work. I have an appointment to see what can be done about this tomorrow, but for the last few days I’ve just be meandering around the world, trying not to look at things.

Which means I’ve been thinking a lot about my second love, teaching, and how I can integrate the modern into to the classical (if you will allow a blind man a little leeway in his similes).

I don’t know how many of you follow my Twitter account (@HORansome) but I recently found out that the course I helped redesign, PHIL105, has a a twitter feed, and that got me to thinking. How, I asked, can we integrate the twitter feed into the teaching of the class? At the moment the twitter feed is used outside of class, mostly to point students towards examples of bad reasoning, but there is no reason why it couldn’t be used in class by the students to suggest examples, in real time, to the teaching team.

The same should be true for the class’s bespoke e-mail address; why not get students to, say, submit their reconstructions of arguments in standard form via e-mail rather than the currently lengthy process of getting them to read out the reconstruction as someone at the lectern writes it out?

So, sometime next week we are going to experiment with the idea of integrating e-mail and Twitter into the class. It needs to be done with a certain amount of style; you can’t really have the lecturer constantly looking at incoming e-mails and tweets because it will disrupt the flow of the teaching, so a qualified assistant is going to be needed, one who can sort the good questions from the bad and know which reconstructions are going to be the most productive to put up on screen for the world to see. We also need to be cautious not to reveal who is sending us the questions or reconstructions; one virtue of going all ‘social media’ in the classroom is that people who might not want to raise their hand to ask a question might be willing to tweet or e-mail material if they know they won’t be outed.

I’m quite excited about this; I like teaching and I like making it easier for students to engage in the learning process. Now that wifi connections are pretty ubiquitous at the University of Auckland, and a lot of students have laptops of portable internet devices, this means we can make use of the technology1.

More, as I say, news as it comes to hand.


  1. Of course, it would be better if you could have integrated computers at each seat in the lecture theatre; that way you don’t have the problem of the person who might like to tweet a question but can’t because they have no tweeting device.

To do with teaching, somewhat

Morning all.

It’s almost the end of the first “half” of Semester One and rather than working flat out on my thesis I find myself working flat out turning a course designed for hundreds of students into a course that functions for six; this is very difficult to do and I wish I had been advised just how small the enrolment was going to be before taking it on.

Still, one must make do.

As some of you are doubtless aware, I record my lectures and provide the narrated slides to the students. It’s a good idea for two reasons; I have to keep on my toes and make sure I’m actually being rigorous in my pedagogy… and the students benefit because they can revisit my explanations at a latter date (as well as catch-up should they miss a class).

The long-term plan is, once the thesis is finished, I will put, online, a series of videos on Critical Thinking; a sort of online primer made up on ten minute chunks of argument detection, extraction and analysis.

Which leads me to my related point; at the moment everything I put up online for the students is H264 video with either MP3 or AAC audio. Some of you might be aware that H264 is currently not the darling of internet nerds and geeks because it has patents attached to it and someone, somewhere, has to pay a license fee for you to watch material encoded with such a codec. There is a good argument against the use of such patented video codecs; programmers in developing nations are not usually in the position to pay the MPEG-LA group the necessary monies to license H264 and there are issues even in the developed world, with Firefox, famously, refusing to pay that license (and thus needing a little ledgermain to view H264 outside of a Flash container).

Theora is the darling of people who argue this way; it appears to be patent-free and Wikipedia, for one, is pushing it hard. Theora is based on a much older encoding algorithm than H264, but it’s free and, the argument goes, we should prefer to use free software whenever possible.

It also produces much larger, uglier files than H264, and this is what concerns me. I need my recordings to be small and tight; I don’t want my students to waste their precious bandwidth downloading these files (for foreign readers: most citizens of Aotearoa/Te Wai Pounamu do not have unlimited bandwidth in re their internet access) so size matters. Visual quality; not so much; it is mostly text and I can happily reduce the framerate down to about 8 frames per second, with infrequent keyframes, to little visual detriment.

The other issue is that Theora encoding is slow; in the time it took to write this post I could have outputted my H264, remuxed the audio and had coffee; I’m only 42% through the Theora encoding at the moment, which, to use the vernacular, sucks.


The resulting file is, well, bigger and slightly blurrier than the H264 encode. 20% larger is a significant difference in size and it seems pretty consistent; I’ve tried re-encoding several other lecture recordings and the results are bigger and blurrier every time.

I’m keen to use patent-free video codecs and when I do the video primer I’ll look into this in more depth to see how things stand, but at the moment, it seems patent-laden codecs really are more user-friendly and easier to work with.

Sad but true.

Final Call for the Conspiracy Theories course

You can still enrol; I know it starts on Monday but if you were thinking about enrolling and have not got around to it I’d just like to say that it’s still open and it would be great to have you along for the ride. Especially since this may be one of the last times it gets offered; given the adult education budget cuts coming in next year and the year after next courses like this one may well be part of the 80% of courses that will just disappear.