Sunday, August 30, 2009

New AGO Shows Strength of Good Design

I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) today for the first time since their extensive renovations. Although this doesn’t have anything to do with Internet topics, it does relate my thoughts on design and functionality.

My wife and I were members of the AGO for years, but with the arrival of my daughter, we let our membership lapse. Considering that the ROM’s remake has made it child-hostile and with Toronto’s equally hostile climate, we needed something to do indoors. So we renewed our membership (the coming of King Tut was a determining factor).

Overall, I really like the new AGO. If you haven’t seen it, check out these Flickr pix. The collection and architecture are quite good. But there are few missteps and missed opportunities.

Here are my thoughts as we traversed the gallery:

The old building was drearily forgettable. The new building isn’t Gehry at his most delightfully whimsical, but considering the restraints of the retrofit, I think it is excellent. (I was hoping he’d get a brand new site, but that’s too grand for Toronto).The new façade gives the front grandeur and drama. While passing aboard the streetcar, the gallery is stylish and inviting. The back has a new blue, squarish building floating above the Grange. The building is a nice companion to its colourful, eccentric neighbour, OCAD. At night or sunset, the building is even more dramatic and striking.

Glad to see Henry Moore’s sculpture is still present to greet visitors and now has more space around it to show it off properly. My daughter loved climbing it and remarked “It’s so nice they have art for kids”.

The gallery is set close to the street and I like how the gallery shops and restaurants open out directly to encompass the activity of the street. However the space under the façade is otherwise lackluster. Toronto has some great outdoor out, which I’ve blogged about, but other than the Henry Moore, there’s none at the AGO. Even two pieces along Dundas St. would not only invite people into the gallery but interact with the community. Come to think of it, considering Grange Park’s attachment to the AGO and OCAD, why isn't there any public art there? (Okay why don’t most Toronto parks and civic locales?)

Entrance (ground floor)
The first thing one notices – its not the Gehry touches - but the reception desk. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it sets the tone for a drab entrance. A serpentine wheelchair ramp is the only point of interest, albeit a really imaginative and child-pleasing one.

I love how Gehry re/aligned the central axis of the building to include the entrance, Walker Court, and the Grange. It is definitely easier to situate oneself now. This is about the only improvement to way-finding as signage is otherwise missing or vaguely useless.

Walker Court (ground floor)
This is Gehry’s interior piece-de-resistance here. The spiral staircase is incredible, such that a security guard described it as “the feature staircase”. Architecture is an art, so its fitting it’s featured in a gallery. Unlike the ROM none of Gehry’s features get in the way of displaying objects, navigating space, or overshadow the collection. The AGO seems so set on showcasing this staircase they have denuded the Court of all other objects, save some dubious cow sculptures. I like the openness and lightness of this room, but its minimalism is sterile. I wonder if this minimalism based on aesthetics or economics as keeping it empty makes it easier to set up for cashcow weddings – hey, now the cows make sense.

Tanenbaum Sculpture Atrium (ground floor)
This used to be my favourite room in the old gallery. The atrium was glass above and to the side that beautifully embraced the historic first gallery, the Grange. It was (and still is) a lovely setting for sculptures. But to call it an atrium now is a stretch. The new back building has reduced it significantly, a necessary trade-off, no doubt. There is a wonderful, surrealist sculpture that fills and invites one to play with the space and work.

The Grange (ground floor)
This is now the member’s lounge. It is a pleasant place to relax or have a coffee. Membership has its privileges. Much as I like this lounge, I was saddened to see history purged from it as it is one of Toronto’s most historically significant sites. I recall much of the Grange furnished in period pieces and volunteers baking period snacks in the basement oven (I definitely remember free yummy food). I can see how the art gallery would want to stick to its mandate, but I think they could have found a more appropriate use for the building than as a lounge.

Kids Area (basement)
My daughter had fun here, so that’s the ultimate appraisal. It had inventive and playful ways to engage children in creating. Their best feature are sculptures to assemble using found art of crocs, dishes, pool noodles, toys, etc. Flower pots and walls can be decorated with chalk. There were also the obligatory drawing, Lego, and reading centres. We also devised a scavenger hunt to help engage (and placate) my daughter. We were golden for one trip. But overall, I am a bit worried that repeat visits with kids may be strained. So hopefully the kids area will evolve (unlike the ROM’s).

Ship Models (basement)
I am eternally grateful to Ken Thompson’s unprecedented cultural philanthropy. However, what is up with the huge space in an art gallery devoted to hundreds of ship models. Yes, they are beautifully presented and yes the workmanship is exquisite, but whom is this extensive collection serving?

Galleria Italia (second floor)
The only thing that would make a stroll down this enchanting space more pleasant is a gelato – and maybe more pleasing artwork. Fronting Dundas, this curved atrium of glass and douglas firm beams affords an engaging view of the pretty Victorian buildings across the street that now house cafes, galleries, and art supply shops. With this space, Gehry has taken the old, closed box that was the AGO and integrated it into the community. Art should be part of society not elitist and cloistered. If Gehry had got a blank slate of a site, it would have never been this close to the streets of the city and consequently been able to so successfully bridge this gap. The artworks in the space (3 variations on tree themes) blend so well with the architecture they are seemingly invisible. More engaging, dare I say colourful, artwork that could be seen from street would further strengthen the effect.

Third floor
The third floor is devoted to event space. Considering insufficient support for arts in Canada, I appreciate that such spaces generate necessary income. Still it is sad that an art gallery has to devote so much of its space not to showing or fostering art or even administrative functions, but to catering to the rich.

Fourth floor
I believe this new space now houses Canadian contemporary art, with many pieces previously undisplayed. The AGO should be proud of so significantly increasing its ability to showcase this type of work.

Fifth floor
A photography collection will be coming. Currently the main reason to come to this floor (other than the café) is for the good view of the city and to begin one’s descent down Gehry’s two staircases. The vantage point to view the city is one of the best in the city.

Looking out at the city from a Gehry building, I was struck by how little of the cityscape is actually worth viewing (OCAD, CN Tower, Canada Life, & TD Centre are worth a look). While standing in the gallery that puts architecture on view as art with its “feature” staircases, the view of architecture was largely dismal.

I haven’t mentioned the AGO art collection. I noticed some new ways of organizing the artwork that were interesting. Toronoist seems to be the only site covering this curatorial departure. For years, I’ve enjoyed the AGO collection with its one of every great artist and strong Group of 7 and Inuit art - now there's more to love.

After the debacle that was the ROM renovation (which I have also blogged about), I was worried that once again I’d feel like the scorned lover (the ROM left me for a narcissistic affair). The new AGO may not provoke a mad a passion in me, but it has definitely rekindled a love affair.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Is Online Learning Better than Traditional?

The US Department of Education recently published a report on online and face to face (F2F) learning which was covered nicely by the NY Times.

The study found "On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction." This is a surprise finding for those that believe online learning is inferior. This report sparked discussion on the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) listerv. It also got me thinking about my Royal Roads e-Learning experience.

Points raised in the AoIR listserv questioned whether the study’s population was representative enough to make such a claim. Some suggested that online learners are more motivated and have a tendency to be over-achievers. With my Royal Roads classmates there were a large percentage of over-achievers, but this could also be due to the program being a graduate degree and marketed to working professionals.

Others AoIRers thought that online learning had the advantage over F2F as it tends to encourage greater teacher-to-student and student-to-student interaction. I agree with posters who believed that such interaction is more apt to instill knowledge than just listen-to-learn lecture classes.

In my experience of online learning at Royal Roads, there was a great deal of such interaction (via Moodle forums). While it had challenges, it definitely was a compelling and enjoyable way to learn.

There are challenges affecting interaction in online learning:

1) Time zones challenges – As students are from across Canada and some from abroad, real-time communication (e.g. chats, Skype calls) can be very difficult. Often I or other classmates couldn’t attend at the chosen time or had to do so at an ungodly hour.
2)Managing volume – Our courses had about 40 students. At this number both real-time online communication and forum postings was difficult. One professor attempted to do Q&As via chat and Skype call. At first, there were no rules in place to manage the volume besieging the professor and chaos naturally ensued. Even with a few ground rules in place, there were still people who joined late or weren’t following the conversation and asked questions already answered. It was also difficult to follow forum postings with that many classmates and with some people posting lengthy epistles. We also introduced the voluntary rule of limiting posts to 100-300 words or less to help, but still speed and selective reading was the only way to manage.
3) Presence of the professor - The volume of postings also affects a professor’s ability to participate. Either the professors spend an insane amount of time reading and replying to everything or selectively respond. All my professors responded to specific questions posed to them in designated forums. For these types of Q&A forums to work, it is important that timely responses be made or someone will resorst to calls, emails, or give up on that venue. Royal Roads professors were incredible in replying to such posts day, night, and weekends. When it came to the general forum, professor behaviour varied. Some commented on most postings, while others only a handful. Some offered insight or a helpful link, while others simply offered a quick response or simple encouragement.
4) Teams – Royal Roads randomly assigns students into teams of 5-6 for the duration of a course. This made managing the quantity of interaction more manageable and allowed one to get to know one’s classmates better. However, this is not without challenges. When the teams meshed well, it was great. But if they didn’t, the discussions languished. Considering that inevitably it seems out of a group of 6 at least 2 will not participate at all or at the bare minimum, it did seem one was communicating with the same couple people a bit too much.
5) Quality of writing – Some postings were hard to read whether due to their untenable length, mistakes, or an inability to adequately organize and articulate thoughts. Forums by their nature tend to be more conversational than other forms of writing, but nonetheless it would help if some people spent a bit more time writing and editing to ensure clarity. Some people are just not good writers and never will be.
6) Time commitment – Courses that required posting could result in a significant time commitment (worsened by the workload of obligatory readings and assignments). Some courses had tight deadlines for postings. This added up to more of a time commitment than occured in my offline studies.

The benefits of more discussion-based learning were:

1) Get to know my classmates much better - Participation is usually a component of offline learning classes, but online it tends to be essential. Most of the F2F classes I have been in have had a large percentage of classmates that never or only rarely participate even when encouraged to do so or graded on it. With online learning I got to hear from all my classmates and regularly, so I got to know all of them and some of them (particularly those assigned in my teams) very well. Living in residence or participating in campus organizations is the only way I found that comes close to this degree of interaction.
2) Depth of subject-matter interaction is better than offline - I have found that students tend to talk rarely about academic topics with peers outside of the classroom. I enjoyed hearing my classmates’ perspective and experience on course material. I also enjoyed getting feedback from classmates on my thoughts. One Royal Roads class had a professor provide uniformly negative comments, so the positive feedback from classmates was really beneficial.
3) More engaged and more often - I have attended good lectures; I’ve fallen asleep at others. Offline classes (even with tutorials) tend to be about 3 hours a week, so even the best of them has a fleeting engagement. Regular posting can foster deeper and more constant pondering. I really did feel that I learned more as a result. And when the material was personally interesting, it was exciting to learn.

Quality and quantity of interactions I found were predominantly affected by the following factors:
  • Optional versus required posting
  • Seeded versus free topic posting
  • Team versus all-class posting

Requiring posting tended to result in huge quantity, serial monologues, and monosyllabic replies. Students focus on meeting the requirments, impressing the professor, and appearing as if adequately participating rather than prioritizing actual interaction and conversation. It also meant that those not inclined or confident to participate are heard from. When participation was optional, only the same keeners tended to chime in, but these students tend to be more interesting and engaged. Even requiring participation did not result in some people actually participating, so optional participation does not work for these students at all.

Seeded forum threads helps students delve into the discussions, but can fail to spark discussions of interst to students. This can result in students just going through the motions making for unispiring reading. Allowing students to post on their own topics resulted in some of the most interesting and educational discussions.

Having the entire class post results in an overwhelming volume, but increases the odds that one will find someone discussing the topics you find interesting and offering insight. Confining postings to small teams makes managing the volume easier, but limits the breadth of discussion.

My experience of studying online showed the complexity involved in setting up systems and norms to adequately foster interaction. When done properly or through happenstance, the experience can be more engaing and effective than F2F education.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Is This the End of Caped Crusaders (In Print)??

I finally logged into my neglected Netvibes page. (My blog wasn’t the only thing I’ve neglected these past few months.)

I remembered why I used to check my Netvibes page regularly, as one of the first items I read captured my interest. The article Marvel Moves Into Motion Comics With Spider-Woman describes how comic publishers are releasing “motion comics” with Marvel’s first major foray into the form with a new Spider-Woman series.

Over the last couple, during the down time of my thesis, I’ve been reading a lot of comics. Toronto’s public library has a bunch (kudos to them for realizing it is a legitimate literary and artistic medium). It started with my young daughter’s growing love of superheroes (one of my proudest moments of her is when she chose to go as Spider-Girl for Halloween) and I wanted to get some comics and DVDs to share with her.

I haven’t read comics at all since the 1980s, so my sudden return has provided an occasion for reflection and nostalgia.

Back in the 1980s most comics were still printed on newsprint which limited the artistic possibilities (colour palette, tones, etc.). But, I don’t think it is better stock that is responsible for the changes alone. I’m not sure if more adults are reading comics are its being taken more professionally, but the quality of the artwork has improved dramatically. The individual cells of the comics are much more vivid, imaginative, and better drawn. The relationship between cells and elements has evolved significantly, having moved away from mostly linear organization.

Current story-telling is a bit more adult. The villains are more complicated, as are the inevitable nefarious plots. I don’t remember any mention of sex in comics in the 80s, and death was rare. Not so, nowadays. Superheroines costumes definitely seem to have gotten ludicrously trampy to the point that there’s no way they could fight crime in them without constantly revealing their secret identities. I don’t think superhero comic story-telling has matured as much as the artwork has – perhaps the still tiny size of most comic books limits greater depth. (Of course, there are non-superhero graphic novels that have richer stories and there's the odd exception, eg. Watchmen and more recently Marvel’s Civil War.)

I've regained my love of comics and have now added appreciation for their artistry. The main reason I stopped reading comics back in the day was due to their hefty price, considering that one normally reads a bunch of titles every month. So I was initially excited to see the prospect of comics online in a way more than just scanning old print copies and offering them online.

Apparently, “motion comics” have been gaining ground since last year’s version of the Watchmen. Although the term “motion comics” implies a new medium, the article’s author, Scott Thill, astutely points out that motion comics are not new:
Motion comics, crudely put, are usually Flash versions of their paper counterparts enhanced by voice-over narration, musical scores, camera pans and other cinematic tricks. In other words, animation.”

Watch the Spider-Woman clip below to get the full picture.

But is this the end for caped crusaders? Thill questions if this digital form will eventually be the end for print comic books. But he notes that print has its strengths,“Part of comics’ inherent charm was the soundtrack, voiceover or extra-textual material they inspired in readers’ heads.”

Motion comics/animation and print comic books are completely different art forms. I don’t think one form is better than the other.

Certainly the animation does do some of the work that the print readers did themselves, such as decoding the relationship between cells and between words and art. Readers filling in the story in the spaces between cells, called closure, is fundamental to the form. Granted closure and spatial decoding exist in motion pictures too, but I would argue in a less deliberate and less open manner.

I also think the speed is a defining difference. While animation by its nature does not have to be fast-paced, we do want motion and thus work tends to move from item to item fairly quickly resulting in more visceral responses. Reading the words of print comics, observing the artwork, and decoding the story require a slower pace that I think is more contemplative and imaginative. (Of course, this is a simplification.)

I heard that with the phenomenal popularity of digital music (i.e. iTunes) and consumers downloading mostly single songs, the album as an artistic form will largely cease to exist.

Certainly, the Internet has enabled a much greater spread of artistic work than otherwise possible by price efficiencies and vast reach. But I lament the possible end to an art form that I just recently rediscovered I love.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What To Do With an Old, Neglected Site

This blog is like the dilapidated house down the street. Suffering from ages of neglect, one wonders if it is even possible to restore or it's time to tear it down.

In the last few months, I have not had time – or frankly inclination – to maintain this blog. I have found Twitter provides me a venue to share interesting news and observations in a more manageable form (although the rose is fading for me on this site too). Personally, I find too many bloggers shoot off a post with nothing really to say, adding their yelps to the mind-crushing noise of the Web.

Like most others, I'm a busy guy trying to juggle family and career. Even a hasty blog post takes time to plan and craft. Getting paid to do something is probably the best motivator. But when I was offered money to blog, I felt that it would end up prioritizing my blog higher than my career or family. Since the offer wasn’t that compelling, I opted for the freedom of blogging when I had time and inclination to do so.

Obviously, this hasn't happened a lot lately.

Still, I am rather attached to this old thing. It has opened doors for me – helping me get into conferences, providing a publishing source to add to my resume, recruiting participants for my research, etc. Plus, I've enjoyed the visitors here too and the conversation.

The subdivision of my career is being redeveloped with my plans to start PhD fulltime at University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information. I really have no idea what the future is going to look like. I’m hoping to learn some interesting applicable things and do some cool research that could be shared here. I am hesitant to share research here if it will compromise my chances of getting it published in academic journals (a necessity).

I'm not ready to tear down this blog. I can't promise a glorious restoration. I do hope that it will continue to have enough activity to keep murmurs going about that site house down the way.