USA 2006

A week in the USA - how can I begin to capture all of what I saw in words? Just a few notes:

  • It was strange having to go through the "Aliens" line. Unfortunately, no picture-taking allowed. I gave my fingerprint, was photographed and let in.
  • JFK airport is still a zoo.
  • The cars on the highway respect neither the speed limit nor the keep-right rule. Everyone drives as they please.
  • Each exit along the highway has i gas stations, j restaurants, and k hotels. Every now and then there is also a strip mall available. The brands are the same, the food is the same, the rooms are large (but even the shabby ones cost a lot of money) and the air conditioning is cold.
  • Hotels now have "complementary Continental breakfast" - that includes many American things like waffles - made by pouring the contents of a little container of waffle mix onto a hot iron hidden behind signs noting that they are hot. Each breakfast produces more plastic garbage than the weight of food eaten.
  • Standard American coffee makes Blümchenkaffee look like a strong cup of coffee. Starbucks is better, but they put sugar in everything.
  • All food seems to be sugared and have fat added. But it is cholesterol free, yippee!
  • Fuzzy dice are very important car accessories.
  • Pickup trucks are very popular in rural Virginia.
  • The SUV seems to be dying, what with gas up to (gasp) 3$ a gallon or more in the NY area. That's 3.78 liters, that gallon, so it is about 80 US cents a liter or about 65 Euro cents. I'm happy to find gas for under 1,30 Euro a liter (or $6 a gallon). It is all a question of perspective.
  • The in course for your kids this season is sign-language lessons. I taught my youngest niece how to sing Kumbaya with sign language, they really do pick this up fast.
  • Sales tax in such large amounts scares me, I forget to calculate that in. Should just take Dollars = Euros, because Dollars + Tax is about = Euros.
  • I've forgotten how to tip.
  • Service in a German restaurant in New York is just as bad, if not worse, than in Berlin. But they sure expect their 20% tip!
  • Now there are many more flavors of soft drink: Cherry Mountain Dew, Lime Cola Light, all sorts of tea-based drinks. No real mineral water to be had for love or money, it's all natural spring water.
  • Cabs are still cheap in New York.
  • The MoMA is divine - and the Dada exhibition is out of this world! So many women suddenly who were doing Dada. Sophie Tauber-Arp, Susanne Duchamp, names of wives and lovers mentioned on the explainations. Marcel Duchamp Rotary Demisphere acutally working.
  • The guide books all say that the MoMA is closed on Wednesdays. It's closed on Tuesdays.
  • Fox "news" is atrocious.
  • It is hard to get a real paper (i.e. New York Times) in rural areas. The Post is, however, easier to read on the subway.
  • Leaving JFK you have to take off your shoes and put them through the X-Ray machine. You walk (barefoot or in socks) over a filthy piece of floor to a plastic mat. The lady sprays the bottom of the metal detector with an anti-something spray. You walk over, and try and get your shoes back on without the help of a shoehorn or a chair. The Berlin security took my bag apart, checking the laser pointer and a metal box I have. JFK didn't care, the main thing was that they saw through my shoes.


Black - Red - Yellow

Yes, folks, these are the German colors, a well-kept secret over the last few decades. Germans were ashamed to show their colors, so they remained in the closet, only to be trotted out at international sport competitions when a German showed up on the winner's plattform, which by and large is the case, no matter what sport we are talking about.

But now we have the world cup in Germany, and things are changing. You suddenly see cars like this with American-style flagpoles on them (but flying the German colors. This one, btw, is from my university parking lot!). There are flags hanging outside every bar and restaurant that now has a TV and will be having it on during the games. There are flags hanging from many balconies (the newspaper Tagesspiegel notes that you officially have to ask permission from your landlord to do this. What is Germany coming to, if people do stuff they want to without asking permission??). I much prefer the multi-culturalists who hang out a garland of the flags of all 32 participating nations.

The clothing industry laments that no one wants to buy German-colored shoes or clothes. The only thing they can sell is the black-and-white jerseys. But anything in the colors of Brazil, the favorites for winning, anyway, sells like mad.

It this a chance for right-wing patriots to "let it all hang out"? I was discussing this with a friend on Tuesday, I am kind of amused at the lumbering way in which Germans are starting to use flags and colors. She was violently against all this nonsense, seeing right-wing sentiment in all of the colors. And all the patriotism makes her sick, why should she be "proud" of the happenstance of her birth? We progressed to other topics.

Then I heard an interview in the car yesterday on Inforadio. There is a mosque in planning in Pankow/Heinersdorf by a group that currently meets in Reinickendorf, a part of Berlin. And the locals are protesting. They had a demonstration yesterday, chanting "no, no, no to the mosque". Inforadio interviewed participants. And their answers made me shudder. Fear of foreigners and right-wing sentiment all around. "They are only 200 people, they should meet somewhere else" - "I want to be able to walk around nights without getting a knife in the back" (Hey, guys, the knifeman at the opening of the Hauptbahnhof was a "full-blooded" German!) - "They should stay where they are, they are not welcome here" - "There will be more and harder protests if they insist on coming here". A mosque is actually not a political party headquarters, but a place to pray in 98% of the cases. Just like the churches in the US. (Inforadio doesn't seem to have the transcript on its web pages.)

This sent cold barbs up and down my spine. This is the general public speaking, not the people I meet at university. Combined with the flags I am suddenly quite concerned. How do you stop something like this, make the average Joe (or Franz) realize that people are human beings, no matter where they come from? The government had better figure this out fast. Maybe even before the World Cup is over.


My First Videoblog

Oooh, now I have my very own Videoblog (and thankfully, some wonderful helpers to get the techonology sorted out so I just have to blab into the camera): http://evideo.fhtw-berlin.de/weblog/.

Should be available for the general public, but it is all in German. Or rather, German with an American-Berliner accent...


Advanced E-Learning@Berlin

The Free University of Berlin invited an illustrious group of researchers and administrators to participate in a two-day conference on E-Learning. The videos are being made available.

The gist of the conference is: there are management freaks who are heavily into using LMS (just use one, anyone) to set up courses automatically, cram this down people's throats and call it e-learning. We are not amused. Then there are a few visionaries who have understood that collaboration and interaction are the next wave of e-learning. I want their toys, it sounds good!

I was bored during the final podium which is being held by people who were not present for the lectures before or who do not seem to really understand what was discussed previously. So started this, reporting top-down, with my favorites first, after exchanging silly emails with colleagues who were equally bored.

  1. Eric Duval from the Catholic University in Leuven in Belgium. (Man, he already has this in his blog!)
    One of the members of the podium stated that a book would always be better than e-learning (why was he up there, anyway?). In the ensuing coffee break Eric noted that a flower is much better than a book, so maybe we should all be opening up flower shops. Right on, Eric!
    His topic was: Open Matters! And people don't care about open source, they want open standards so they can do new things with old toys. And all that without having to ask permission to use the stuff. He coins the word "coopetition", cooperation and competition together. He has an open Metadata system Globe (Global Learning Objects Brokered Exchange) which looks fascinating, you can search in many repositories with a single, simple search. He is also involved with Ariadne.
    We spun this idea during the coffee breaks about how to get e-learning to your average professor of Greek. We take as a given that the university pre-populates his course for the LMS used at the school. Now we want to offer him some goodies for adding to the site. On the basis of what we know about him (never used the LMS before, teaching Greek, etc) we offer him some stuff from a repository. If he links to it, we count this as a plus, and look for more. Eric would go sofar as to data mine his email to get more clues on what the Greek professor works on. I don't know about that.
    We also spoke about privacy issues - there is a lot of personal data floating around (and being mined!) any more. Eric thinks we need some way of calling back our data, terminating the "contract" (you give me your location data all the time and I'll send your telephone calls to your mobile phone) and being able to delete those traces which become uncomfortable.
    The next biggest thing, he says, will be attention and is working up a site on Attention trust meta data.
    He also mentioned the Network of Excellence in Professional Learning, ProLearn.
  2. Reinhard Keil, University of Paderborn
    Medi@rena seems cool! He has a paper on it (the access is locked, but the paper is in Google's cache): Semantic Positioning as a Means for Visual Knowledge Structuring, Patrick Erren and Reinhard Keil. The ideas are wonderful and demonstrate how a collaboration could work virtually. His major thesis: Knowledge must be transformed, not transferred! People must work at and with knowledge, not just recieve it. This means writing, not just reading. And making semantic links, just like Vannevar Bush's Memex, outside of the the primary medium.
  3. Peter Baumgartner, now back in Austria at the Donau Uni Krems (he has a blog, too, Gedankensplitter)
    " If content is King (Duval) then context is Queen"
    Discusses a little-know book by Michael Polanyi, "Personal Knowledge" (that's the guy with the "inert knowledge" stuff the constructivists rabbit on about).
    He expressed shock at the number of people equating eLearning with LMS systems. Quotes David Wiley - "If content is all we need, libraries could do the job."
    His talk was on social software and got into some details on social bookmarking, communities of practice and participation/ePortfolios: www.web2null.de - sekretaria.de
    "We need to learn to trust our students!"
  4. Peter Schirmbacher, HU Berlin
    described the work they do using Moodle as the default LMS. They are currently running over 800 courses on Moodle, in answer to the question "But does it scale?"....
  5. Sabine Jeschke and Christian Thomsen from the TU Berlin showed a remote experiment and a virtual experiment tool. Very nice, but hey guys, my colleague Horst Schwetlick at the FHTW has been doing this in his project WebLab for years. In passing they mention Genesis, Gender sensitive Virtuelle Wissensräume. I must have a look. Can't find a web-site, but a paper: Genesis: eLearning and Diversity in Mathematics and Natural Science. Nina Dahlmann, Sabina Jeschke, Ruedi Seiler. Recent Research Developments in Learning Technologies (2005)

Other talks:
  1. Serge Goldstein from Princeton belongs to the management freaks. Princeton used Blackboard, populates the server with material for all courses, and has a Video-on-Demand server so that teachers can use films in class. They request a film in the library, the library buys the DVD and puts it on the server. The teacher can assign mark in/mark out pieces or the entire film. The films can ONLY be viewed on campus at special machines without DVD-burners for obvious copyright purposes. They have a portfolio on line with links to some interesting stuff.
  2. Rolf Schulmeister, normally a master speaker, gave a talk about e-learning in the US. Seems this is mostly used for Associalte Degrees. People save money by getting an AA or AS degree at the local (cheap) community college, then transfer to Prestigious University for the last two years. Saves 2 years of tuition (Princeton is at 40.000 $ / year by now - smelling salts!) and you still count as having your degree from PU. But he tries to turn this into a flame of the bachelor/master Bologna process and this does not work. Look, Rolf, just because this is causing the Universities headaches is no need to fret. The FHs in Germany have been doing module examinations for years, we just called it something else. And we survived. The Bachelor will be okay - especially when I see the great students we currently have!
  3. Nicolas Apostolopoulus from the FU Berlin is another management freak. The FU Berlin got a pot of money and are squandering it on management. Sigh.
  4. Manfred Gross, from the Charité in Berlin spoke about ELWIS-MED. Management freak squared, he rabbited on about balanced scorecard and such. Teaching is not the same as selling shoes!! Have I mentioned this before?
  5. Our Vice-President in charge of E-Learning, Hans-Herwig Atzorn, attempted to explain what we are doing at the FHTW Berlin. Although all the active colleagues were in the audience, he didn't ask one to even look at the slides and pick off the worst mistakes. He also didn't mention any of our exciting stuff. The next speaker noted dryly that we seem to be concentrating on only doing things which we believe people can be forced to do, and that is mostly in the administrative area. I apologized profusely for the talk all around (I mean, we had people here who evaluate proposals, don't want them to think that at the FHTW e-learning means doing class registration online - which at times is acutally the position of the administration.....) and pointed out some of the great stuff we are doing.
  6. Peter Stucki, Uni Zürich
    How can you present a dead horse as being a prospective winner in the next derby? That's what he did, pushing the Swiss Virtual Campus and the Virtuelle Hochschule Bayern (gotta have JavaScript turned on to be let in the door....). Another management freak - counts all sorts of stuff that has nothing to do with eLearning. Well, at least our VP didn't hold the worst talk at the conference....
The podium discussion was a disaster, it would have been better to sit in the nice gardens of the Harnack House and speak with the others over another cup of coffee.