Monday, December 26, 2011

Google-izing Online Learning.

Recently, I wrote about the emerging social learning platforms--and why they are all a bust.

In short, I said that learning requires tasks, criteria and a curriculum. That is: there must be tasks in a sequence, and each task needs criteria that define success or failure. At a minimum, learners need to know: "Am I succeeding or failing?" And after they know that, they can learn a degree of mastery--"How can I do a bit better?"

Already you can guess why so much teaching transfers so poorly to the web. Professors are experts with vast quantities of rich information and complex ideas at their fingertips. So a terrific professor is apt to tell you the twelve things wrong with your work--rather than simply "You're on the right track, but head a bit more in this direction." And it's the latter communication learners really need: right track/wrong track, steps for improvement.

So if learning is to transfer successfully to the internet--how?
What special role could software play? What kind of software?

Again, I've already suggested that to transfer learning here or there, you need to think "learning how" and not just 'learning in general."

And this brings us to how the current social learning platforms get learning wrong.

It's true that a curriculum is a sequence of tasks. It may involve resources like books or web sites or videos. The Khan Academy seems to believe--wrongly, I think, and I can prove it--that a series of videos and online quizzes make up a curriculum. If you believe this is right, go watch a video and take the corresponding quiz and see if you learn what's in the video. An eight-minute lecture of a whiteboard capture or an interview no more causes learning to happen than a classroom lecture. It may, but it may as likely not.

A list of videos and some quizzes does not a curriculum make. It might, if the learner were prepared and the degree of feedback on the quizzes were tuned to the learner's level. And it also might if there were practice that helped you get it right. But that's not where we are yet.

The thing software could really get right is the sequencing of tasks in the curriculum.

The flip side of the "social" web is not just sharing ratings with friends: it's crowd-sourcing. That is the secret behind Google's phenomenal early success. Every other search engine wanted either to individually evaluate web sites or to jigger the search rankings by taking money from web sites to put their url higher in the search results. Google refused to do this.

Google observed that when they returned search results, those results were on their own page. And Google therefore knew which of the results uses clicked on. Therefore Google's own traffic showed them which results were better--and could be fed back into the search algorithm.

That's it. That's why Google was better than the search engines you've forgotten about--like Lycos.

And that's why a web-based curriculum will be as good as the size of its user base.

If a curriculum is a series of sequenced tasks with matching criteria, a web-based repository of tasks could collect what educational researchers today only dream of. Namely, such a web site could capture the exact likelihood of a learner performing better on Task B after performing Task A.

That is the heart of a curriculum: the likelihood of performing better on one task after performing another task. That is a curriculum: a sequence of tasks arranged so that success on one task makes success on the next task more likely rather than less. If you're not doing that, you're just frustrating learners with obstacles--because any task that does not improve learning is an obstacle, and it more likely demotivates than motivates.

The rest is a statistical nicety to be debated by stats wonks. (And the company with the best stats wonks will win--another Google Takeaway.)

In short, online learning tasks need to be Google-ized: ranked by effectiveness.

The rest of the details of a good social learning platform could be inferred from other examples. But I'll blog more about that later.

In the meantime, I think the idea of a self-adjusting system that ranks tasks (with clear success criteria attached) is enough for one day.

--Edward R. O'Neill

So-Called Social Learning Platforms

Truly the phrase "social learning" is a bit like the phrase "wet water." I personally don't recall attending school alone. Yes, we did homework alone. Anything else was called "cheating"; nowadays it's called "collaboration."

But most of the time I was in school, I was in groups. We attended lectures as a group. We had discussions as a group. We had partners in labs. We did projects in groups.

This was not because we were lemmings. You watched fellow students make mistakes you would not, and you felt better that you were a bit ahead of the game. And you watched fellow students make mistakes you would have made--and you quaked a bit inside that you were Not Getting It.

Yes, people learn in part from watching. Learning is social. Some reading and drills can be done alone: go to a library, and you'll see students doing this. But much learning is social. So much learning is social that there's little point in calling some learning "social"--as if to imply there's some "non-social" learning. (At the exact historical moment when some people are obsessed with the brain and its role in learning, others are insisting on networks rather than brains.)

But the phrase "social learning" is not going away. And it underlines something important and connects with major trends, so we need to make our peace.

Almost every web site now needs a social dimension. This means: I don't just listen to music or buy things; I rate songs and artists, share my ratings, view my friends' ratings, meet new friends through their ratings and reviews. And the same goes for buying things. I can announce to my social networks what I just bought--or hide the fact, and of course getting the sharing/privacy part wrong is the big pitfall.

On the one hand, all this truly makes one long for the days when listening to music or reading a magazine was a blessedly solitary affair. You listened to music alone because it would be rude to listen to music while with others. (Ahem.) You complained about your new toaster to the air, your wife or anyone within earshot at work.

Now online social learning platforms are beginning to bubble up. Most 'social learning platforms' get it wrong. Giving people a wiki no more makes social learning happen than giving pens makes people writers, giving them whisks makes them cooks, or giving them bongo's makes them musicians.

But social learning happens. It is real. People learn by watching others. People learn by hearing stories of others' learning experiences. People learn by formulating and sharing their own stories. That's three ways learning can be "social" in a non-trivial sense.

But what does a social learning platform look like?

We've all been in one: it's called a classroom. Or if you've been to a line dancing group, you did some social learning. You watched others, tried it yourself, got feedback, gave pointers where you could.

Try joining a writer's group, and you'll see how it works. Nothing magical happens there--except learning. People share their work. You see others practicing their craft. Writers get feedback and give feedback. And you learn from all these: what other writers do well and poorly, what other writers believe is good feedback, what you experience as good feedback. That's the heart of the matter. It works.

Emerging social learning platforms we're seeing now are a bust for three reasons: tasks, criteria, curriculum. There's no learning without tasks. If you can't perform a task at the end of the learning process, a task you couldn't do before or couldn't do as well, there's no demonstrable learning.

You can go to a writer's group forever and learn to make some very clever comments. But until you pick up the pen and try to write a sentence, no one can say whether or not you can write. (Another remarkable thing about writer's groups: often pretty much everyone agrees 'this is good,' even when their own style or goals are different.)

So a meaningful curriculum is a series of tasks with criteria. Barring this, no social learning platform can really do anything meaningful. They're all just a blackboard and some chalk--and no one ever called a blackboard and chalk "a social learning platform."

Admittedly, this is where our K-12's are having problems. A pencil-and-paper test with multiple choice questions has become the only benchmark for demonstrating learning. Basically, when someone comes up with better, more nuanced tasks, tasks that are interesting, involving and even social, tasks that both help make learning happen and demonstrate it, and when there is a back end to track task performance, the pencil-and-paper tests that educators hate so much--partly for the right reasons--will be history.

As to what such a curriculum or software would be like, that will have to wait for another blog post.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Introductions in the Syllabus-Free Course

The other day, I introduced the idea of Introductions. (What follows was originally part of that post--which I decided was too long to chew up in one sitting.)

Introductions are short things. They could be prose or images or something else. (Mightn't an Introduction to Beethoven have a few tunes in it?)

Introductions introduce a topic, idea or thing by giving some locating information. Introductions answer the question: "Where the heck does this thing sit in the network of stuff I might know about?"

For instance, I might like an introduction to:

  • Belgium,
  • Heidegger,
  • object-oriented programming,
  • chaos theory,
  • 20th-century American poetry,
  • theories of management.

Introductions could be a nice form & format for higher education. Higher ed desperately needs to go beyond the term paper, research paper, lab report, five-paragraph essay and Powerpoint presentation. New forms might include: the timeline, the small database, and the Introduction.

Hence Introductions could fit some neat pedagogical purposes: they wouldn't just be resources, they could be tasks. Indeed, in the framework of a course, it couldn't take that long to generate some decent introductions.

I sometimes advocate to teachers--in part purely for the purpose of raising some issues--the notion of the Syllabus-Free Course. That is: what if college courses did not have that defensive document saying what the course would and would not address, what books were trustworthy authorities on the subject, what fit within the field and what did not.

You are taking a course on English Literature. What the heck does the title mean? When I taught in an actual classroom, I used to call the first day "Explaining the Course Title" or "Reading the Syllabus." The syllabus usually sets the student straight on what the course title means: a syllabus is basically a title and then an explanation of its meaning.

Textbooks also shut down a lot of questioning. The Who-za-me Anthology of English Literature has decided what's fit to go inside. But in screening things in and out, the whole definitional process of the discipline is lost--whereas it should be core to what students learn. The idea shouldn't be "English Studies" is perfect as it is: it should be that the discipline was something else, was re-defined--and probably will be re-defined again.

What if students were asked to find out what was and wasn't included in this topic? To present definitions and debate them? The instructor could be an expert and could talk about why literature in English but not from England made up the field. The students could propose ways of slicing the topic that would be most interesting.

Introductions could be a wonderful part of such a course. (In this sense, Introductions are more of a tool in an arsenal than an end-in-themselves.)

Go break the course title down into some parts, you would in effect say to the students. How is a course called "Statistics" not just a math course? Why is it taught in a Psychology Department? What are the Big Things People Do With this "statistics" thing-a-me?

If courses used this strategy, a course on the novel could separate it from the epic--but only partially--and then dive into big novelists and kinds, and along the way students could find: "Jane Austen is what I care about in this whole Novel Game"--or Nabakov or Thackeray, for that matter.

Requirements could spell out how many parents and children and siblings and parts the Introduction should include. The "parents" and "children" are the predecessors and inheritors in a tree; the siblings are items that are similar-but-not-the-same; the parts are--well, just that. So:

  • How many novelists "begat" Nabokov? How many "influenced" novelists should be included?
  • How many similar novelists would be useful to locate VN?
  • How many of VN's novels need we know about to get a good picture?

(Indeed, a clever system might store this kind of information in such a way that users could get only as much or little as they liked.)

I actually think a lot of Introductions could be built up relatively quickly--and then re-used--by just a few courses in each department.

And then everyone in the world could access these Introductions to find their own way.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Introducing Introductions

I have often been frustrated by the lack of a good introduction.

I like flipping through catalogs of catalogs. We all do. is a good example. What is it? A ton of books containing a ton of information. So it's information about information.

In the movie Annie Hall, the Woody Allen-character relates a joke about two old folks in a home. "The food here is terrible," says one. The other replies: "Yes, and such small portions!" Nowadays with information, it's just the opposite: such large portions.

It's been that way for a long time. Go into any library and you'll get lost pretty quickly. There's a lot of sections with a lot of books, and each book contains a lot of stuff--including references to other books. I remember distinctly that the first dozen times I walked into a library, I made a tour of the whole place--and then left. I couldn't find a thing.

Finding things is important: being able to find things. If you leave school and can't find anything--because it was all provided to you, plunked on your desk, shoved into your hands, crammed into your eyes and ears--you really did not learn something very important that everyone needs to know.

The other day I was flipping through a catalog of college courses on DVD and tape. All of calculus or Western philosophy or quasars or neutrino's--in twelve lectures or 24 or 36 lectures. I confess I own several of these already. I've never gotten past the first lecture. Call me ADHD--oh look, a bird is flying past as I type this! But the point is: introducing a topic does not require this much detail: it requires something else.

We live in a culture of experts. There is so much information, and the only way to Be Somebody is to become an expert. We're drowning in experts--when we could really use some good amateurs. That's what good journalists are: good amateurs. That guy at Berkeley who writes about food is that. He goes and tries to find out stuff, and then he tells you about it, and it's interesting, and you can follow it, and you're not drowning in it. Really: the guy has a gift. He can boil what he knows about food--which is a lot--down to sixty pages.

Brevity is a good thing. Not shallowness and not compression but just brevity. What you really want to know is: just enough so you can find out more. Brevity clarifies. Brevity nourishes. Brevity excites. Brevity intrigues.

I really wish our culture had more brief introductions.

A good introduction is a short one. "John, this is Albert. Albert this is John. Albert works in a hospital like you do, John, but in Calgary rather than San Jose. John went to Occidental, and you want to Pomona, so maybe you can swap stories. And you're both married to Swedes." That's a good introduction.

Introductions are more about where than what. Where is this? Introductions connect, situate and locate along lines and in networks that are important. This is this kind of a person from this kind of a place with this kind of connections to the past and the present and to other people. That's really what the titles in personal introductions do: "This is Dr. John Sussmann, Associate Director of the Marlin Group." Now I know a bunch about John based on his title, his name, his job, and where he works.

But little introduction are now rather big. There's a nice series of books called "A Very Short Introduction To...." And then it's idealism in 90 pages. Or Derrida. Or Genomics.

Wikipedia is really a set of introduction. One lovely thing about them is how they're connected. One can lead to another. If it's an award winner, you find out who won the award the year before and after. That's context. That's part of introducing.

But even Wikipedia can be overlong--as introductions go. (Brief introductions are good introductions.)

There used to be some nice introductions. There was a wonderful 'invitation' to sociology. It was short, and any literate high school graduate could could read it with pleasure. Look at the reviews, and you'll find many who recall it with great fondness. But the introduction or invitation was killed off by the massive textbook tome. This contains everything you never wanted to know about X--and were quite rightly afraid to ask.

So when I want to learn about something, here's the kind of thing I'd like to know.

  1. What the heck is it? What kind of thing is it?
  2. What does it do? What does it accomplish? How is it used?
  3. Where did it come from? What did it lead to? So what came before and after?
  4. What else is like it--but not the same thing?
  5. How big is it? How many parts does it have?
  6. What do people argue about it?

These are actually semantic concepts and relations. What is it called? What are synonyms and antonyms? Aristotle offered his own list. (Of course: Aristotle loved lists. He'd be on my list of list-lovers.) You can find many good discussions--but of course, they're too long. But many others have chimed in--although the field of semantic relations is nowhere near as organized as you'd think it would be.

To my mind, an ideal introduction would be somewhere between a few sentences and a page. But is prose even the best medium? A nicely configured database might allow us to store items with explanations and relationships in a form that could then be browsed by whomever could build the best interface. This seems to be The Way Things Are Going. Yes, Amazon has a store, but it's really a bunch of data about products. And if someone else can create a nicer way to browse it, so be it. (The information is fed out through something called an API, if you're into tech stuff.)

It seems to me some basic semantic concepts that would locate stuff in relation to other stuff would be:

  1. kind
  2. name/title
  3. scope & magnitude
  4. parents & children: where did it come from & what did it lead to?
  5. siblings: things that are similar-and-different
  6. internal parts
  7. debates

These aren't too fussy, but I hope they're not too broad, either. The point is that each semantic dimension is a kind of road or avenue bringing us to meanings--like addresses.

--Edward R. O'Neill

P.S. This post was formerly longer, but I migrated the latter half to another post--on how Introductions fit into the Syllabus-Free Course.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Projecting Your iPad in the Classroom.

So you want to show your class what's happening on your iPad? There are a few things you need to know to display your iPad screen on an LCD, flatscreen or data projector.

You Must Adapt.

First, you will need an adapter. It’s an Apple product, so there is more than one type. (Ahem.)

  • The most common is: VGA. This is the most common type of connection between computers and external screens or projectors.
  • Less common is HDMI. It's less common, but it carries sound as well as picture.

Are You Enabled?

  • HDMI will project everything on the iPad: the ‘desktop,’ the Safar web browser, ebooks, everything.
  • Though the VGA interface is more common, what it projects is more limited.

Displaying to an external device from the iPad using VGA is enabled at the level of the app. Some apps are, and some apps aren’t.

Which Apps Are Enabled?

Some of the most important apps you can display using a VGA connection are:

  • Videos*
  • Youtube*
  • Keynote ($)
  • Photos (in slideshow mode only)*
  • GoodReader ($)
  • Brushes and other drawing/whiteboard apps ($)

* = Preloaded in the iPad Operating System.

($) = not free

Sounding Off

If you want sound, you'll also need an audio cable.

  • The most common type is "headphone mini male to headphone mini male." If you have earphones, this cable will look like the earphone plug--but at both ends.

--Edward R. O'Neill