Monday, March 31, 2008

interlude: fun with fonts

I will interrupt my already sporadic posting with this important public service message: Picking the right typeface is important. See exhibit A, below:

These signs are all over the university. They sit over those cauldron-looking things that contain a pot of the daily soup special. But when I look at this, do think "mmmm homestyle"? Do I think of fireplaces with kettles of simmering soup? No. I think about cyclons. I think about paper without corners and spaceships and Edward James Olmos. That's right, this is the font used for the title of Battlestar Galactica. If it's not the exact typeface, then it's darn close.

Even if I didn't have other associations with this particular typeface, I would still find it inappropriate. It's decidedly modern looking, and doesn't bring to mind images of fireplaces and old-fashioned kitchens, much less anything to do with soup.

So why am I posting this? Because I laugh a little every time I see one of those signs, and wanted to share it. And because I think this is a really good example of how a choice of typeface can add (unintended) meaning to your message.

Friday, March 14, 2008

reading response: Phenomenon

Self-directed learning is, by nature, a very personal process. It’s experiential, and varies greatly between individuals. Perhaps this is why it can be hard to define. As part of my own research process, I have chosen to undertake a learning project and reflect on that process. I’ll be honest – the reflection process hasn’t been recorded as much as it could be (there’s lots of room left in this blog!), but I’ve certainly been thinking about it a lot. In the course of my research into the literature of SDL, I’ve seen theories and models and surveys… but this study in particular caught my eye, thanks to a different research approach. Donaghy decided to approach the study of self-directed learning on a more personal level: with influences from phenomenology, he interviewed four of the leading contributors in the field, and employed hermeneutics to interpret the results. This article was a pleasure to read, if only for the introduction it provides to some of SDL’s most prevalent researchers. I have run across Roger Hiemstra and Huey B. Long before, but Ralph Brockett and Lucy Guglielmino, while I have heard these names before, were new to me.

The basis of the study consisted of the author asking each expert the following four questions:
1. Could you describe the experiences that led you to first get involved with the study of self-directed learning?
2. Could you describe your experiences with self-directed learning over the years?
3. How has your thinking on self-direction evolved over time?
4. Could you describe your future vision for self-directed learning?

One thing I really enjoyed was reading about each subject’s “personal theories of learning”. This seemed to be the confluence between theoretical influences, experience and thought processes, distilled into an organic, unique and very human viewpoint. Not only is this more enjoyable to read than dry theory, it provides insights that formal academic models don’t seem to currently embrace.

It’s also interesting to see that Donaghy included a section devoted to the importance of collaboration in self-directed learning. Apparently this is something that all of his subjects brought up. Experience with other people has an impact on everyone’s learning.

The future of SDL was also discussed, with themes about social considerations and qualitative research as “one of the different lenses through which SDL is now
being viewed” (Donaghy, p. 8). Roger Hiemstra’s view of the immediate future was a bit gloomy, as he believes that current governments and administrations don’t see the real importance of SDL. He does comment on the role of the Internet in the field: “His opinion is that the Internet “emphasiz[es] self-directed learning . . . and so there’s a big role for adult educators in the future” (p.186)” (Donaghy, p. 9). Huey B. Long also gave me some hope for my own research endeavors: “Long noted that changes in technology increase the requirement for more research concerning SDL” (Donaghy, p. 9). Right on, there’s still work left for me to do!

All in all, I found this article to be a very useful study. Seeing how the scholarship of important researchers has developed really gives insight into how the study of self-directed learning itself has developed, and some of the influences that are affecting the field as it currently stands.

Coming up: my answers to Donaghy’s questions.

Donaghy, R.C. (2005). Studying Self-Directed Learning: The personal stories of four scholars. International Journal of Self-Directed Learning 2(2) 1-11.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

fun with fonts: the evolution of handwriting

I found this delightful video on Ralf Herrmann's Typography Weblog. It's a great piece on the personal evolution of handwriting and letter creation. I love how the little boy is obviously taking cues from his older brother, adding flourishes and mimicking the shapes of the letters.

Honestly, I find this video almost hypnotic. Job (the older brother) does lovely brushwork, and the slightly sped-up aspect of the video really makes the process flow. Makes me want to get out some paper, ink and big brushes, and make me a mess.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

personal SDL project: this hospital is a serif-free zone!

One of the most interesting and wonderful things about self-directed learning is the way it begins to affect your every day life. Your attention becomes focused in different ways, and whatever you have chosen (or not) to learn about becomes a lens through which you start to see the world. I’ve noticed letters and signage and fonts for pretty much my entire life – my parents have some weird stories about the things I noticed as a small child. This is one of the reasons why I decided to focus on typography for my personal learning project.

Over the month of February, I found myself waiting in hospitals for an inordinate amount of time. As such, I found my attention focused on the sheer amount of signage in this type of space. I didn’t take out my digicam, just because taking pictures in hospitals seemed a little wrong, and rude somehow. Instead I scribbled down some notes and drew a few pictures, which I have attached here for your amusement. Signs are essential to the functionality of a hospital. People need to know where they are going, and where to find stuff, and they need to do it quickly and efficiently. Most surfaces are covered with signage of some sort. Room numbers, labs, doctor’s offices, facilities (both medical and the more regular type, like washrooms), warnings, directions, phone numbers…. It’s a long list. Like most other institutions, hospitals have developed signage styles and systems. Familiarity accounts for a lot – when signage is consistent, users who can retain information (this doesn’t count for everyone - these abilities vary, and some people are unable to retain certain types of information), they don’t have to re-learn the system every time and can find their way more easily.

One of the most striking things I noticed about the typefaces used in St. Paul’s hospital is that they are all sans serif fonts. I mean it. All of the directional and informational signage is serif free. The only exceptions were for some logos, like for the hospital itself and the St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation. This seems to be the case for the majority of all institutional signage. I simply assume that this was because sans serif fonts are easier and faster to read… but as I thought about it some more, and some of the things I’ve been reading about typefaces started to trickle through my brain, I realized this didn’t make complete sense. After all, reading words and letters is all about quick and easy recognition, right? And, to a point, more recognizable features (like serifs) make words and letters easier to read. I decided to do a little more research about how serifs affect readability, and ran across a really great literature review on the topic. As it turns out, no one has really come to a firm conclusion either way about how serifs affect readability. Some claim that it clutters the letterforms, while others claim that the serifs act as additional recognition factors that make words easier to recognize. The origin of the serif, while not carved in stone (pun intended – keep reading) seems to be a little more agreed upon. Serifs seemed to arise from the practicalities of carving letters into stone – the additional points hide the effects of wear over time. It seems reasonable to extend this to other materials, with letters being carved from wood or cast from lead and other metals for the printing process. Now that most printing processes are digital, we aren’t bound by this kind of thing. Is that why serifs have disappeared from lots of print? Or is it simply the fashion of the time? If I got into my time machine and went to a hospital in another 100 years, would the signage be in blackface and old gothic fonts? That’s kind of a funny image…

I also found it interesting that good old handwriting still plays a major role in the hospital environment. Nametags are hand written, charts are filled out by hand. There are also a fair amount of handwritten signs, usually meant to fill in functions and gaps left by “official” signage. Some of these gaps are obvious and a little disturbing. The “emergency exit only” sign was seen on a stairwell that didn’t have any other official markings about its function on it.

Other gaps seem to occur over time, and have more to do with the regular usage of space and equipment, and the preferences and needs of the staff who actually work in the space:

“Keep this door open at all times”

“Keep this door closed at all times”

“This phone does not dial out”

That kind of thing. Nurses on the whole seem to have reasonable handwriting (unlike many doctors I’ve met). This seems to be important for many of the same reaons why teachers have good handwriting – people actually need to read and understand what you’re saying.

The placement of signs was also interesting. Most of the big directional signs were hung from the ceiling, out of most people’s line of sight. You have to go out of your way to see them. However, it seems to be an issue of efficiency. Where else would you put stuff without having people run into it? Of course, this might get people to actually read the signs, which from my experience is a difficult, if not impossible task.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Reading response: Socratic Dialogue in Self-Directed Learning

Despite the "self" part, social interaction and dialogue is a big part of self-directed learning. The social realm is in itself a subject explored by many self-directed learners, and other people are an important resource for learning.

The term "Socratic dialogue" describes the exchange between teacher and student, or between learners. The term stems from the philosophical tradition of Plato and Socrates. But, as anyone who has had to read classics like the Republic may have noticed, there wasn't much of a two-way conversation. The following is a conversation between Socrates and Glaucon in book 8 of the Republic:

And what do the Muses say next?

When discord arose, then the two races were drawn different ways: the
iron and brass fell to acquiring money and land and houses and gold and
silver; but the gold and silver races, not wanting money but having the
true riches in their own nature, inclined towards virtue and the ancient
order of things. There was a battle between them, and at last they
agreed to distribute their land and houses among individual owners; and
they enslaved their friends and maintainers, whom they had formerly
protected in the condition of freemen, and made of them subjects and
servants; and they themselves were engaged in war and in keeping a watch
against them.

I believe that you have rightly conceived the origin of the change.

And the new government which thus arises will be of a form intermediate
between oligarchy and aristocracy?

Very true.

Such will be the change, and after the change has been made, how will
they proceed? Clearly, the new State, being in a mean between oligarchy
and the perfect State, will partly follow one and partly the other, and
will also have some peculiarities.

True, he said.

In the honour given to rulers, in the abstinence of the warrior class
from agriculture, handicrafts, and trade in general, in the institution
of common meals, and in the attention paid to gymnastics and military
training -- in all these respects this State will resemble the former.


Here's a hint: Socrates is the one with the long bits, and Glaucon is the guy that agrees with him. Rather than being a free exchange where the learner is able to deduce and choose a path to understanding, the narrator constructs the argument and leads the others participating in the dialogue to a predetermined conclusion.

Fortunately for all of us, the concept of the Socratic dialogue in education has been refined, and expanded to include dialogue amongst a group: "the Nelsonian Socratic Dialogue is a conversation in a group. Each participant has the opportunity to act as a 'midwife' for the development of the ideas of every other participant. Ideally this leads not to the insight of a single individual, but to philosophical or mathematical knowledge that is shared by all members of the group" (Saran & Neisser, p. 10). Now there are differences in opinion about how and where such a dialogue progresses. Can a group come to a consensus? Can a group discover universal truth? No one is really sure. The only constant with the concept seems to be that this dialogue method requires a facilitator - someone who functions to mediate the conversation, keep it on track and keep everyone involved. I've seen this happen, particularly in online formal learning environments, and I know that it's important, and that it works.

But, of course, I still have questions. What about non-formal and informal learning environments? There rarely seems to be a formal facilitator of sorts. So does that mean that authority is spread out among group members? Are learners in this type of environment more self-directing and take more initiative to manage their own learning? And what about learning outcomes? Is learning achieved effectively? Is it more effective, or less? Does this work better in some situations, or for some learners?

... I'm talking to myself here.

I have some ideas about the role of dialogue in in/non-formal self-directed learning:
  • People are resources. Other people know things you don't. This plays an obvious, and huge role in education in general.
  • Talking to people helps us to externalize our ideas. Studies have proven that this can accelerate and solidify the learning process.
  • Ideas feed off each other. When exploring different viewpoints and possibilities, we can rule out some ideas, come up with others, and eventually come to some sort of conclusion.
Of course, I'm sure lots of other people have done research on this, which I will have to find at some point. If not, well, I guess I'll have to do it myself ;)

Plato (360 B.C.E.). The Repubic Book VIII.
Retrieved from:

Saran, R., & Neisser, B., Eds. (2004). Socratic Dialogue in Self-Directed Learning. In Enquiring Minds: Socratic Dialogue in Education. Staffordshire: Trentham Books.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

personal SDL project: being iterative

In the interests of paying attention to my own self-directed learning as an iterative process (*waves at Rick*), I've decided to start having some fun with the fonts in the header of this blog. I'll change them regularly subject to my font whims, and I've started a flickr set to document the changes and keep track of what typefaces I'm using. Right now I'm using screen capture to make the images from word documents, but I should probably refine that process in the future. I'm also going to try and keep better track of where these fonts come from, who made them, etc.

Reading response: the internet as a cultural institution?

First off, let me start by saying that I haven’t forgotten about the report by Philip Candy in the “currently reading” section – the thing just turned out to be a lot longer than I expected (350 pages!), and it’s taking me a bit longer to get through it. Instead, I decided to tackle something a bit more manageable for this reading response.

In this article, Carr discusses some interesting ideas around learning in cultural institutions like libraries, museums and art galleries. This being a particular interest of mine, I decided to go for it.

Carr refers to cultural institutions as “invitational environments” – that is, they invite learners or users (depending on the type of learning undertaken) to visit. This is an important distinction from other types of institutions, particularly schools, which very rarely “invitational” (sometimes quite the opposite!). Instead, visitors to cultural institutions are offered a variety of resources (usually in one location) and varying degrees of support. Carr also discusses the conditions of learning in cultural institutions, which involves factors ranging from the tools and initiatives employed by institutions for self-directed learning, as well as the messages present in the institutions themselves. Carr states, “because cultural institutions are public places for private learning, the tasks and processes of learners in them is frequently invisible, undocumented, and unassisted. Learners depend on messages from the institution itself about use” (Carr, p. 58). If you stop to think about it, this makes sense. Museums present themselves as important sources and storehouses for information about the past, art galleries provide a window into current and past cultural events and objects, and libraries are a source of general knowledge (or lately, a source of information, a slightly different service). This makes me think: what kind of messages are other institutions sending out? Is there something we can do, at a very basic level, to make places more appealing to learners, to promote self-directed learning?

What interests me the most in this article is Carr’s discussion of the learning skills required to navigate and use the resources offered in cultural institutions. He talks about “museum literacy”, which he describes as follows: “As in other new environments, these skills involve the decoding of signs and the reading of maps. But, they also involve the ability to learn from objects, to generalize across experiences, and to pursue an interlocking chain of data” (Carr, p. 56). These are some very basic skills, which would be valuable in a variety of situations. Do institutions have an obligation to teach these basic learning skills? It seems to me that one of the first and most basic things people should learn is how to learn.

There’s more to the article than I will discuss here, but one thing kept coming up for me: how could this relate to other learning environments, particularly virtual ones – more specifically, would the internet fall under the category of “cultural institution”? I think if I asked, I would get a resounding “no” – simply because the internet is almost completely unregulated. Even so, I believe there is an equivalent “internet literacy” that allows people to make use of this resource for their own learning. Those skills may even be comparable to Carr’s museum literacy, particularly the ability to “pursue an interlocking chain of data” – after all, what is hyperlinking, but a chain of information? The reading of symbols and maps also plays an important role, though the skills would have to be suited to the environment. For example, most people know that blue underlined text denotes a link of some kind, as well as other common layouts and menus. This might be a worthwhile thing to figure out: what constitutes internet literacy skills? How can we use this in media literacy teaching? Can those skills be taught simply through internet use?

Carr, David (1985). Self-Directed Learning in Cultural Institutions. In Brookfield, Stephen (Ed.) Self-Directed Learning: From Theory to Practice. New Directions for Continuing Education, no. 25. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, March 1985. pp. 51-61.