Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why Google Will Blink First in its Staredown with China...

Over the past two weeks the battle between Google and China has been chronicled all over the place. Today, Thomas Friedman, writing an op-ed in the NY Times, takes the cake for gross over-exaggeration of Google's power and influence.

Google discovered in December that it was the victim of cyberattacks by hackers within the Chinese government. They were mad as hell and weren't going to take it anymore (despite previously being totally ok with government censorship policies). In a must-read statement, the Official Google Blog posted the following...

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered -- combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web -- have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

Some commentators saw the threat as heroic. Others as business suicide.

It's high noon. Will Google shut down its business operations in China, or will the Chinese government start lifting its censorship policies?

My money's on China not changing a thing. It'll either say sayonara to Google, or Google will simply retract its bluff. I completely agree with the Silicon Alley Insider's assessment...

Google may have taken its stand and its threat a few words too far. We still think the situation will likely be resolved through a back-room compromise, with both parties declaring victory and Google staying. But Google's black or white approach -- stop censoring or we leave -- has left it with less wiggle room than it would otherwise have had. A more flexible approach might have been wiser.

So let's get back to Thomas Friedman. The globalization guru argues that China's crucial entrepreneurial sector relies on high-value business and information flows. "Network China", he says, cannot survive without having unfettered access to these flows...

That is what the war over Google is really all about: It is a proxy and a symbol for whether the Chinese will be able to freely search and connect wherever their imaginations and creative impulses take them, which is critical for the future of Network China.

However, Friedman is seriously over-exaggerating Google's importance. First of all, Google is only one company, and one that is, for that matter, far less influential in China today than it is in, say, the United States. If Google withdraws, there are still plenty of search engines who'd love to take their market share, not to mention new startups eager to take their place.

Second, technophiles are drinking their own kool-aid. The internet has a great ability to influence political cultures, but influence is a type of soft-power. Governments have actual hard-power capabilities. Google isn't even in the same ballpark as the Chinese government when it comes to being able to create real policies of authority.

Really, does anyone truly believe that if Google went out of business tomorrow that governments around the world would suddenly be toppled by revolution? We all know and love Google's search engine, but let's remember that the company isn't actually that important.

The bottom line is that, without Google, life in China would go on without hardly a hiccup of interruption. I know Friedman was speaking mostly in symbolic terms, but this idea that shutting down Google will somehow lead to the extinction of the Chinese Communist Party is going far beyond making a mountain out of a molehill.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Does Blogging in the Classroom Help or Harm Students' Writing?

A thought dawned on me a little while back. While at a conference on how to teach writing skills to college students, the most popular presentation by far was on the panacea of blogging. Indeed, everyone in education talks up its merits - even those teachers who haven't implemented blogging into their curriculums yet (and bemoan their lack of technical skills as the culprit).

But amidst all the hype, is there any evidence to suggest that blogging actually helps students' writing?

In fact, couldn't you make a plausible argument why blogging, in fact, harms it?

Exhibit A: I've personally integrated blogging into my classrooms, using trial-and-error to find what works best. Requiring students to start their own blogs led to lots of (mandatory) participation, but not great content, and ultimately I'm not convinced it helped develop their writing skills at all. A second tactic was to run one class blog myself, and encourage student commentary - but that only led to more work for me, and hardly anything gained, again, by the students.

In retrospect, the students would have been far better served by devoting more time and effort to the substantive course material.

Exhibit B: There is not a single research study that I've been able to find (if you know of one, please let me know) linking blogging in the classroom to improved writing skills. Thus, until one is performed, educators ought to step back and remember that the idea remains simply theoretical.

Exhibit C: After my own experience taught me that blogging wasn't much use to students, and since no scientific evidence exists rebutting that conclusion, let me share another insight provided by a colleague of mine. He emphatically insists that requiring students to blog was the worst idea he's ever encountered as an instructor. In fact, he believes (in not so soft terms) that the students' blogging made them far WORSE writers.

When pursuing a low-stakes approach to writing, it's inevitable that plenty of grammar and spelling mistakes will arise. But, ironically, those students most comfortable with the blogging format - the so-called "Digital Natives" - produced posts that were almost incomprehensible, filled with BTWs, IMOs, and other LOL-speak that would make any academic roll their eyes.

Furthermore, because the course was designed to only grade whether the low-stakes blogging assignments were completed or not, a perception arose that those highly active digital native students with the worst LOL-speak were actually succeeding in the class because of the manner in which they were participating. The worst writers were being rewarded the most.

Obviously, some ways of integrating writing assignments into the classroom are better than others. But based on my experience, and contrary to what many academics are postulating, blogging in the classroom hasn't helped students' writing at all.

I'd love to hear any feedback on this subject...

Digital Storytelling Forum...

A rising cyber-phenomenon has been the art of Digital Storytelling, and it has gained enough traction in academic circles to warrant its own scholarly forum, created by HASTAC.

Depending on the context in which it is invoked, the term "digital storytelling" can refer to a disparate range of practices, theories, and issues -- from performance works staged in Second Life to questions about the implications of undocumented immigrants sharing their stories via cell phones. In this forum, scholars reclaim digital storytelling's richness of meaning via the work of a diverse group of scholars...

  • Digital Storytelling: Community Empowerment (Ana Boa-Ventura, University of Texas - Austin)

  • Digital Storytelling: Re-Defining the Role of the Academic Library (Sherry Tuffin, Wayne State University)

  • Digital Storytelling: Purpose, Practice, and Potential (Jeff Watson, USC School of Cinematic Arts)

The Scholars ask questions such as:

  • What is digital storytelling and how is it different than non-digital storytelling?

  • Can mobile and ubiquitous computing change the game when it comes to who gets to tell stories and who doesn't? How does it change storytelling itself?

  • How can librarians best archive and present digital stories and storytelling technologies? How are librarians both gatekeepers of stories, as well as storytellers?

  • How does an archive also produce a story? What does it mean for a librarian, museum curator, graphic artist, or blogger to be a storyteller?

Most fascinating to me is the idea of digital storytelling as a separate art form. Years back, comic books were suddenly recognised as being a similarly separate type of narrative work, and it's interesting that the same is now true of digital works like "undocumented immigrants sharing their stories via cell phones" and through text messages. This new forum ought to make for some great conversation-fodder reading.