Thursday, 30 August 2012

If You Build It... So What?

"If you build it, he will come", from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams is a very familiar quotation. (Ranking 39 on the American Film Institute's 100 Top Movie Quotes.) It is also something of a catch phrase to be ripped apart these days, as in our digital age it no longer seems relevant. I'm not going to imagine I'm doing anything new here by commenting on that fact (indeed, here's someone speaking in a similar vein from a month ago), but I do have some personal touches here that might keep you reading.

What is comes down to is that 'Building' it is not enough anymore. And I'm not just talking about building a product - building a monument, building a blog/readership, building a resume, I think it all applies. I think the problem is twofold:
1) Supersaturation - Everyone is building things now. While that's nothing new... thanks to the internet, awareness of them is. (No more are wars being fought for an extra week before word reaches the battlefield.) So you have to really stand out/have good quality or have good PR/StreetCred to get noticed in the crowd. Hence networking and word of mouth.
2) Timing - We only have so many hours in the day. So we take shortcuts. What was built physically can be looked at online, what was built online needs to turn up in the first few hits, and whatever you're looking at directly in front of you may well be forgotten in five minutes. So after being noticed, you have to be unique to hold attention.

Just to speak about online for a moment, Eli Pariser gave a good TED talk about online filter bubbles - in brief, you only get more of what you start clicking on, and thus miss differing viewpoints. (Which could explain the recent political polarizing going on.) I suppose this might change one's interpretation of unique. Though naturally, Eli's view has it's own rebuttal, so here's a link to a marketing blog which appeared in my top hits when searching for said talk.

Anyway. Here's three particular situations, then I'll call it a day.

1) Twitter/Blogging

I joined twitter at the start of the summer. There were a few people I already knew who were tweeting, and I added them. Then I added a few 'celebrity' twitters (which for me include Lewis Lovhaug and David Hewlett, so there), and then a few news sources, and then a number of active math teachers via mtt2k, and... already it was becoming more than I could keep up with. (Which doesn't bode well when my days get busier.) Now, I know there are tips out there for handling the volume - in fact here's a site with a bunch of ideas.

I did try adding people to a list, but pretty much found that the only thing that happened was that I wasn't looking at the list anymore, only the main feed - plus lists are an organizational tool, they don't change the sheer volume. Crippled by timing (aka I wasn't willing to invest a lot in managing Twitter), I'm now at the point where if I see a retweet that catches my interest, I'll glance at the profile, but if the person updates frequently, I won't add them unless at least half of those remarks catch my interest. Strangely(?), I'm more inclined to add if someone updates less frequently.

This may be why I still have less than ten followers, despite the occasional retweet by those much more popular than I. Of course, I also grant I'm not that interesting.

I also started blogging (obviously), and again, with Blogger there's the option to track other blogs out there. I added teacher ones to mathtans, and friend ones to this account, but again, there's a limit on what I can process in a day. I know I've only touched the tip of the iceberg too - you can find over 50 Teacher Blogs at that link, and a recent initiative by Sam Shah attempted to get even more teachers blogging. (Which I leaned about via Kate Nowak's blog.) Heck, here are 100 Blogs every new teacher should read! It's too much.

Okay. So, let's say you've built twitter and blog accounts of your own. So what?

In my case - ultimately, it seems they're for me. They allow me to learn more about some of what's going on in the world, and for friends to learn more about me. No one's coming. Or perhaps they're coming, glancing, and moving on, I've no idea - I know I've done that with other blogs. But I suppose that's enough. Life goes on.

2) Taylor's Polynomials

I had the idea fifteen months ago - personification of mathematical equations. I've had ideas before, stories that got stuck, anime music videos that never got past the planning stage... this felt different. I jumped into it July 2011 because I wanted to make sure I kept it going. I have done so, twice a week, every week, for over sixty weeks. I've added colour, and since mid-series 2 I've had at least a link-an-ep to other web content.

With regard to pushing it further, I credit Rob Barba's column "Launch or be Lunch", from FanToPro.

It came out in August 2011, a month after I'd started, and spoke about a lot of behind the scenes details for the "Claude and Monet" webcomic that Rob and Ayne were launching. (Do I now read said comic? Uh, no, it didn't really look like my sort of thing... but I've never forgotten it, and now I'm indirectly plugging it.) One of the things that stuck with me at the time was the marketing details.

There was a whole column about the evolution of their logo, for instance. I realized, hey, I don't even have one. I forget if business cards were referenced in the same series or they were something else posted up by Steve Savage, but I thought, hey, that might be fun. (And thus the tagline 'because equations are people too was born', incidentally.) I made cards, I started to pitch these out to friends, and colleagues. Including at conferences. Their effect?

Damned if I know. None? I know my wife and one of my friends follow, but they were doing that anyway. Aside from them, I've had one unsolicited remark, a couple comments surrounding the mtt2k theme of ep 100, and a mention on another blog when I chanced to bring the topic up. In person, a few colleagues have remarked on it, and some students have said the characters were neat. Had I expected to be the next Hetalia? God, no. But I suppose I thought there'd be a bit more after all this time.

I have actually put some thought into this. I migrated to the blog to make commenting easier. I've also mused a lot on whether my audience is teachers or students (leaning to the former, but admit the jury's still out). When a friend remarked on the cards I printed being one sided, I designed a second side. I want to adapt from the feedback I get, but... there's nothing from my supposed core audience.

Now, I'm sure I'm not unique in getting little to no response. Of note, when I was researching Khan Academy, I stumbled on Sir Terry Matthews, serial entrepreneur and billionaire (Welsh-Canadian with ties to Ottawa) and the quote I ultimately used for ep100 was from a video I watched of him speaking at uOttawa. He makes many good points. Notably don't make a product and then see who's out there. See what people WANT/NEED and make THAT -- BEFORE anyone else.

Cynically speaking, if you're looking for an audience, you've already lost. Everyone's busy with something else. You have to snare them before you start. (That blog I referenced at the start of this post makes a good point too about pre-launch -- and POST-launch for retaining interest.) I'll even blatantly admit there's only about ten webcomics I'M following with any regularity. (A couple are Spiked Math and (x, why?) who started in on the math humour well before me.)

So I built a mathematical web series. So what?

So - ultimately, I suppose it's for me too. I even commissioned a picture of Para when I was at ConBravo last month. And, through it all, I'm still finding it fun... while desperately hoping it's informative or helpful to someone out there, along with being amusing. Otherwise, life goes on.


Then again, my buffer ran out yesterday. I have ideas, but really, nothing about the characters is written... for the first time since July 2011. I'll probably figure something out, but I'm starting to wonder if it matters.

3) Teaching

So, you need to work out a lesson plan - and there's tons of websites and blogs out there, along with material provided by colleagues, and textbooks, each suggesting different ways of doing it. Supersaturation. But you only have a limited amount of time to come up with something. So you have to make due. That's how I started thinking about this, but more interesting is approaching it the other way.

Consider that the students are coming regardless, so in that sense it's less a case of 'If You Build It' and more 'They Will Come, Whether Or Not You Build It'. So, how do you teach a lesson and make it worthwhile for the student? In other words, avoid them ignoring you in class (timing), then running to Khan Academy for all the answers (supersaturation)...?

It's as I was writing this that I realized education is essentially an exercise in the kind of marketing I referenced above.

The students have a need/want... to understand your subject. It may be for personal reasons (an interested public), or simply because they need the credit (not always as interested). It may come easy for them, or it may be difficult. (Oh good, differentiated instruction!) Regardless, you're sort of selling them on your subject as a potential hobby or even career choice. Essentially, how do I get them to like math as much as they do their electives?

Now, the big shift in (math) teaching these days is towards big ideas, and arcing questions, prompting student discussion and self-discovery. After all, that's the enduring stuff, and the details, those can be handled with emerging technology. The more I see this, the more I agree with it... and the more I realize I'm not terribly good at it. (While we're on the subject, I'm lousy at finance too, which is being inserted more into the Ontario math curriculum - as it should be.)

I'm a details person, and weak at applied math. But pointing out how someone usually drops a minus sign at this point in the equation is hardly a selling point for student discovery. So where does this leave me? With a lesson no one's paying attention to? Worse, one that people are listening to, but will forget after the exam? Surely I can't merely be doing my CAREER for myself as well...

No. Here, at last, I think I have some of the necessary feedback, both from students and colleagues. (I suspect Professional Development days could do with even more networking, and that teachers observing teachers might be a good thing - but then, that might lead to Supersaturation.) Thanks to in person remarks, I know I do have something of a knack for explaining finer details, my organized binders and flowcharts have helped others, and I think some of my videos and sporadic songs in class have helped with enduring understanding.

I also know there are people who enjoy the details too, and a guest post by Diana Senechal about TED talks made me think a bit more about how not everything has to be like them. (Also, wow, some polarizing comments there - one guy really lays into Dan Meyer, which I don't agree with...) More to the point, I do make some efforts to balance my strengths with those big ideas of others.

So where does all this leave us?

Well, I've just spent about three hours (no, really, probably more) building and editing this blog post. (I told you, I do details.) So what?

So, yeah, ultimately, it has to be for me. But since I hate feeling egocentric, and it's now out there, there's the hope that maybe someone will stumble upon it and take something useful away. Maybe there will even be a comment. However, given my lil' web series is over six times as old as this blog, and it continues to toil in obscurity, I'm not holding my breath.

Life goes on.

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