The 5 Minute University

How long have teachers been hearing about the shortening attention spans of students? I'm sure teachers in the 1950s were hearing about that in relation to increased TV viewing. The rise of cable TV and then video recording took that up a few notches. And then came the Internet. And now it is smartphones.  All of out attention spans have shortened as the option of things to engage with have increased.

When I first starting designing and teaching online courses around 2000, recorded lectures (mostly on VHS tapes) were the standard 90-minute lecture in length. Some were less than that, but we started hearing that research showed they should be less than 20 minutes and even better at under 10 minutes. That did not go over well with most faculty i worked with on instructional design.

While I was not surprised to read about the idea of the 5 Minute University (5MU) project, I am sure that many faculty in higher ed would still scoff at it. This project is aimed the other way - at the instructors. 

It is instructor professional development and intended as an approach for K-12 through higher education. Faculty are as pressed for time as their students and keeping up with the literature or attending an hour or a day at faculty development workshops isn't always practical.

Do they have 5 minutes?

It is compared to movie trailers, giving you enough details to know what the basic premise is but hopefully leaving you wanting more information.

For this project, faculty co-investigators developed 5MU videos about topics related to teaching, learning, and general faculty life. Each presents one topic with a general overview, enough information to get started, and a handout to continue individual development. 

This project started as a collaboration between the schools or colleges of pharmacy, health sciences, and medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Northeastern University, the University of Arkansas Medical System, Palm Beach Atlantic University and Pacific University. Their initial target audience was pharmacy and health profession educators, but it would work as well for any field.

Actually, there is no reason why the concept could not also be used in producing 5-minute videos for students as a way to introduce topics. perhaps in an online course, they could introduce the chapter or topic for the week.

This also reminds me of the print introductions offered by EDUCAUSE as "7 Things You Should Know About" which are quick reads on emerging technologies and practices that include potential implications and opportuntities in education.

Here is what one of the 5MU videos looks like.

Here is a page with additional videos and content.


Social Media Ethics and Law

social media law I'm working on a presentation titled "Social Media Ethics and Law" to be given at the NJEDge.Net Annual Conference (Princeton, NJ) in later this month. That is also the title of a a course that I have in development.

Social media is redefining the relationships between organizations and their audiences, and it introduces new ethical, privacy and legal issues. The audience for my presentation is schools, primarily higher education, but this topic is one that is unfortunately not given a lot of attention for many organizations. Educating employees about responsible use in the organization and also as individual users is necessary. We need to have a better understanding of the ethics, and also the law, as it applies in these new contexts.

To use a clichéd disclaimer, I am not a lawyer, and my focus will be more on ethics, but at some point ethics bumps up against law. Pre-existing media law about copyright and fair use was not written with social media in mind, so changes and interpretations are necessary.

Technological advances blur the lines of what is or is not allowed to be published and shared and issues of accuracy, privacy and trust. A obvious example is the reuse of images found online. Many people feel that the Millennial and Generation Z individuals in particular have grown up with a copy/paste, download-it-for-free ethos that can easily lead to legal violations online as students and later as employees.

Coding as a (second) Language


There is global interest in teaching programming in schools. Initiatives that come from outside education, like, which is backed by Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, are trying to get more students learning a second (or third) language, but it's not one that is spoken. But I also see a backlash of those who say that writing code is a terrible way for humans to instruct computers and that newer technology may render programming languages "about as useful as Latin."

I support some middle ground. Teaching some coding as part of regular language study in English and world language classes.

This week I am giving a presentation at the NJEDge.Net Faculty Best Practices Showcase that I titled "Code as a (second) Language." It's not about becoming a programmer. Learning about code, like learning about grammar, is about understanding how a system of communication works below the surface.

There are several "computer science, meets humanities" programs. One is at Stanford University, which offers a new major there called CS+X  which is a middle ground between computer science and any of 14 disciplines in the humanities, including history, art, and classics. 

What are the cognitive advantages to learning a second language? Learning any system of signs, symbols and rules used to communicate improves thinking by challenging the brain to: recognize & negotiate meaning, work within structures and rules, and master different language patterns.

As a longtime language teacher - and shorter term coder - I know that code-switching (and that is the term) occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation. That can be done between English and French, but also between English and Java. 

Whether you are working in a traditional language class or a programming class, memorizing rules and learning new vocabulary strengthens overall memory. Multilingual people are better at remembering lists or sequences. Language study & coding forces a focus on knowing important information & excluding extraneous information. We have all heard and read beautiful” and elegant language, such as in a Shakespeare play or great poem, but programmers and mathematicians also talk about beautiful and elegant code and equations.

logoThe conference this week is about STEAM -- STEM plus the arts, including language arts.

Engineering and other STEM subjects are appealing to students in part because they often include hands-on, real-world applications. Many students also feel that these majors lead to better job prospects. Of course, learning to think like an engineer could be useful no matter what students decide to pursue. An increasing number of high schools offer introduction to engineering courses that are project-based, an inquiry-centered. 

There is a Code as a Second Language National Initiative that brings tech professionals and software engineers into schools to introduce students to coding in classes, but also in after-school sessions and events like coding jams. 

This is all great, but my interest here is bring the coding found in STEM courses into languages classes. 

How is a programming language comparable to a spoken language?

My idea is not without precedents. Natural language processing looks at syntax, semantics and models of language analysis, interpretation & generation. Human language technology continues to grow. On a large scale, products like Google and other search tools and Apple's Siri and speech drive commercial uses. The field of computational linguistics is one that grew out of early machine translation efforts and generated mechanized linguistic theories.

There are many programming languages we might use, depending on the grade level and applications. Although JAVA is the most popular programming language, and the AP computer science exam uses a Java subset, it is more than many students will have time to learn. There are coding options that I have written about here for using simpler languages (such as SCRATCH) and tools to aid in writing programs

Although Java might not be the coolest language to use these days, you can do many things with it - including tapping into the current interest by young people for Minecraft. Using mods for Minecraft makes Java more beginner-friendly.  

Language teachers can work with STEM teachers, especially in K-12 schools, to show students the connections between concepts like syntax and help bridge student knowledge of the two fields and also understand commonalties in communications.

The 2016 NJEDge.Net Faculty Best Practices Showcase is a venue to showcase faculty work, work-in-progress or posters to the New Jersey Higher Ed and K-12 communities. Registration and Information on the presentations at

View the "Coding as a (second) Language" slides via Slideshare by Kenneth Ronkowitz