Monday, January 14, 2013

When Form Fractures Function

"Form follows function" is, for me, one of those "truisms" the realization of which distinguishes between a merely "educated individual" and a more fully "cultured mind."  As a matter of fact, I am confronted by that very distinction several times every semester when an otherwise bright and insightful student makes the heartfelt claim that s\he deserved a better grade on an assignment because "I put a great deal of effort into the assignment."

How do you explain that effort is only important to the extent that it produces results?  I often fall back upon the parable of  "the ladder and the wall."  You can dress it up however you want.  I tell a version that places two competing protagonists in a lane enclosed on both sides by tall walls.  The Ruler has placed something of great value - again your choice - behind one wall. The task is to find the treasure, and the competitor who does so will win the treasure. Both competitors begin to build ladders.  One builds a very strong and well-designed ladder, almost a stairwell, leaning against one wall.  The other simply cuts notches into a slender tree trunk.  The second competitor swiftly leans the tree trunk against the same wall as the slowly growing stairwell, scampers up, sees nothing, scampers down, shifts the tree trunk to the other wall, scampers up and claims the prize.

The defeated competitor claims the competition was unfair.  S/he claims that s/he should have been declared the winner as s/he had produced a far superior ladder. A claim to which the Ruler responds "it doesn't matter how good your ladder is if you lean it up against the wrong wall."  I hope the student can make the leap to the idea that effort is meaningless unless it is employed to accomplish the task.  Once we reach the university level we no longer grade on "effort" or "intent," we evaluate results - who found the treasure?  And finding the treasure is usually closely tied to a thoughtful application of the notion that "form follows function."

The last couple of weeks have reminded me how easy it is to let that vital relationship between form and function get out of balance.  In our classroom relationship the function is education.  My job is to provide you with the content germane to the course in a context that helps you absorb and understand the content.  The form in which that pedagogical function unfolds is, and always has been, constantly shifting - from lectures under trees to slate tablets, to computers, to tablet computers and smartphones.  But the idea is always that pedagogical form follows educational function

In the 21st century, in countries whose communication systems are predominantly digital, education is increasingly being conducted in virtual environments.  Those environments are commonly referred to as Learning Management Systems, or LMSs.  You have probably experienced a number of them like Blackboard or Vista.  Moodle is the most widely supported LMS here on our campus, and mediasite is one of several systems supported on campus that allow for the asynchronous capture and distribution of both video and audio content.  I mention those two because, as you now know, they are the two systems upon which I depend most heavily - and both of which developed significant glitches over the semester break.

"Fixing" those glitches was complicated, in our classes, by medical issues that prevent me from coming to campus.  Maybe it was that additional anomaly that distracted me, but I finally realized over the last few days that I had become obsessed with making the software and hardware work.  I knew what the various LMSs were capable of and for some reason it became important to make them do what I knew they were capable of doing - even if that got in the way of actually teaching the content.  I had fallen into the trap of trying to force a function into forms that were - for the moment at least - inappropriate for the pedagogical tasks for which I had always used them.  I knew that Moodle and Mediasite were usually good ladders - and for some reason I insisted on slamming them up against a wall where they no longer fit.

I have no doubt that once I am allowed to again go visit my  support folks over on campus, we will discover the new "improvements" that currently make my old tools more hamper than helper.  We will figure how to once again manifest the notion that form follows function. Until then I need to remember that education is the function and I need to stretch the gray matter a bit more creatively to discover the form best suited to that function in my current situation. I need to remember that, no matter how awesome the ladder, you get no credit if you lean it up against the wrong wall.

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