Monday, June 30, 2003


This ideaCity conference sounds amazing -- bringing interesting artists, scientists, designers, and other thinkers together to talk about ideas that cross disciplines. Would be great to blast your brain with all those ideas for a few days -- must be so much cross-pollination thinking going on there. Stephen Downes' weird notebook scans aren't particularly useful, but are somehow compelling. One of the sponsor/organizers also looks interesting -- Access Learning does educational programming in Alberta, including an interactive mulitimedia division that seems to be doing some cool work.

Benefits of Online Learning

Next week I'll be starting the fourth course in my online master's program, and I'd have to agree with most of these points:
Ten Ways Online Education Matches, or Surpasses, Face-to-Face Learning

There are lots of problems with online learning, and a wide range of quality in the instruction/facilitation of the courses, but it's still better than anything else I have access to.

Design Impasses

Discovered a cool article from Boxes and Arrows today:
Ten Quotable Moments, Challenges and Responses for UI Designers

I've heard all of these objections in various design meetings -- they describe many of the issues interaction designers encounter. In my lunch with George last week, we talked about how the elearning community (and education in general) needs to learn more from user-centered design and usability. You could substitute "learner" or "student" for "user" everywhere in this document.

Saturday, June 28, 2003

Links for Later

A couple of links from Stephen Downes that I want to read fully later...
Popular Culture, Textual Practice and Identity
BLOG SPACE: Public Storage For Wisdom, Ignorance, and Everything in Between


A bit of seredipity this week connected me to a favourite teacher from high school. We had a quick conversation about education, career planning and all that, which was great. Later, I was telling Angelo about the meeting and remembered that Mr.Fisher taught me some of the most important things I learned in school...some of them even related to the courses he was teaching at the time:

1. clear understanding of the political spectrum...most people I know still don't understand left-right political alignments
2. quality of life is more than GDP and consumer spending...we did a massive unit on quality of life indicators, and it's guided my lifestyle decisions and perceptions of global economics ever since
3. "when in doubt, do" mom is the one who reminded me of this one most often, but she always credited Bob with the maxim
4. "life is about the journey, not the destination"...which came out of several philosophical discussions about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which nobody else I knew had ever even attempted to read
5. his observation that I had always been a "seat-of-my-pants" athlete, which made me impossible to coach...I've often thought of this truism when considering how I learn in relation to others

So sometimes I write off the entire education system as flawed, but I guess I did pull a few nuggets out of those 13 years. Thanks to Mr. Fisher for guiding me to a few gems.

Saturday, June 21, 2003

Vacation Disclaimer

Ahh, summer vacation. Aside from some mandatory reading on doing needs assessments in programme design, I'm attempting to turn my work brain off for a week or so. Is that still possible/allowed in the Internet Age?

Friday, June 13, 2003

The Snake Game

I was thinking about self-directed learning last night, and Stephen Downes' metaphors I linked to yesterday. If traditional learning is like a scripted play, and new learning is more like a game, it's almost like the difference between reading a book (sequential) and doing some net searches (open-ended, self-directed). I thought I'd share some of my experiences with my daughter Ivy, who will be turning two this month. She's loved books since she was a tiny baby, and hopefully always will, but even as a toddler she is learning the power of the web.

She currently loves snakes, and many of her books contain pictures of them ("the scariest thing in the forest is...a HISSING SNAKE!"). Interestingly enough, she doesn't seem particularly interested in entire books about snakes -- perhaps they all look the same after a while, and she loses interest. Anyway, one day this past winter, I was working on the computer when she walked in and wanted to participate. We have a few online games we sometimes play, and I didn't feel like playing them -- they're sort of pointless, so I went to the google image search and did a search for snakes. The screen immediately filled up with pictures of snakes, and Ivy was delighted. We also searched for dogs, fish, beavers, and other animals she suggested.

So, as a way to entertain a toddler with pictures on demand, it was a cool little activity. But the real power comes when you click into some of the pictures and find that the sites they're from have all kinds of related information. So a site with a cool photo of a salmon might also have a picture of a killer whale, with a video of a surfacing orca. And below that might be a picture of a loon that links to a list of birds with sound clips of their calls. She dubbed the activity "The Snake Game", and requests it instead of the Dr.Seuss games site.

We all use the web like this every day, following our own threads of interest, but it was fascinating to see Ivy make those choices at her age -- pointing at the things that caught her attention, with me as her virtual mouse. It's cool that she calls it a game. My role isn't to tell her about snakes, it's just to help facilitate her search. I can fill in the things she needs help with (like reading the captions) or give her ideas for new exploration. But she's in control, which is the magic learning ingredient missing from most formalized education. That control means she might start with a picture of a python and end up on a science site watching a video clip of a tornado sweeping through Kansas, and she loves it. What if the entire education system was set up to allow that type of exploration?

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Scripted Play vs. Playing a Game

Another excellent article from Stephen Downes, related to my post from yesterday:
Learning: More Than Just Knowledge

He uses two metaphors to contrast approaches to instructional design, equating traditional education with actors in a play, and introduces a game metaphor to describe a loosely structured learning environment that gives learners control over how to achieve their desired outcomes. Brilliant!

"In a play, the only indication of success is adherence to the role, in other words, remembering your lines. Placing a student into a play is, therefore, nothing more than a fancy way of making that student memorize facts and perform by rote: just the sort of pedagogy we thought we could overcome with modern information and communication technology.

In a game, however, there is no fixed script. The student must actively decide what to do at any given time. And these decisions have consequences, as the game has various possible outcomes (usually characterized as ‘win’ or ‘lose’, though many more sophisticated scoring systems are possible). In a play, the use of a learning object or resource is by direction, just as it would be in a classroom under a teacher’s instruction. But in a game, the use of a learning resource is motivated by a desire to obtain a successful outcome, and such a motivated use is more likely to be an active use."

College for Everyone?

We have an internal discussion board at work, and it occasionally digs into some interesting ideas. I thought this question from my interaction-design partner-in-crime was particularly astute:

Gwen: One of the questions that's come to my attention and has been swirling in my head is "Are college degrees the new high-school degrees? In other words, is it even more imperative now that people go to college?" As expected, there are differing answers to this. Some say that it's silly to expect all kids to get college degrees. We just don't need that many educated workers. Not all students are cut out for college.

Others say that the base level of skills/knowledge needed to succeed is such that a student must have a college degree in order to survive. This is where the quote about college grads making 90% more than high school grads is brought in. Where does our company and its products fit into this? How do we position ourselves if the trend is towards pushing all kids to college regardless of their interest in it?

Here's an editorial on "college hype" from the Center for Jobs and Education in Wisconsin:
Why must all be prepared for college? (Word document -- use "guest" as username)

My response: Fascinating find, Gwen. That guy is really fired up. Some of his stuff is a rant, but you can't really argue with his numbers. Even though 79% of jobs in 2010 will require less than a bachelor’s degree, there's the sense that we (middle-class folk, or everyone who aspires to be) don't really want to get stuck in those jobs. So competition heats up for the other 20% -- the supposed good jobs -- and level of education becomes the differentiating factor. Personal example: I didn't need a Bachelor of Education degree to work in customer service when I started here, but it probably got me in the door ahead of someone who didn't.

I thought this paragraph summed up the crux of this issue:

"Individuals who have higher educations are more likely to have higher incomes and be more successful in life. Therefore it is claimed that “all” students must be prepared to enter higher education and hopefully graduate because “all” students who are not prepared for higher education are doomed to “dead end” jobs and failure in life. The problem is that the great majority of jobs require only short-term or moderate length training or on the job training and many of these jobs do not pay a family living wage."

Tough questions...and worth asking. The entire discussion takes place in the context of the American Dream. We want to believe that everyone can succeed, own new cars and fancy houses. Even though we know that's just a dream for most, we certainly don't want our kids on the wrong side of the equation. And for most of us, success is defined by wealth. And as a corporation, we follow the dollars. We have to create products and services that parents or schools or whoever are willing to pay for. Ideally, those products/services don't trample our collective values, but the guiding value of a corporation is to generate profit to prolong its existence.

Today's comments: Is this focus on capitalism too cynical? If it's true that most of the jobs in the future will not require college, but those jobs won't pay a living wage, isn't that a recipe for some huge societal clash? One right-wing rebuttal I've heard is that all those college grads will create their own new and wonderful types of employment...which implies that the Department of Labor's forecasting isn't even close...but who gets stuck doing that 80% of the work that won't pay decently? Perhaps the whole discussion is based on old-school assumptions about jobs and work, but it does seem kind of scary. Here's a depressing chart showing the 30 Occupations with Most Annual Job Openings. Granted, it's Wisconsin, but I doubt the rest of the continent would be much different.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Education in a Wider Context

I've been mired in writing an essay for my current course for the past week or so. The topic: how instructional designers determine, select and create learning materials as part of a sytematic approach to educational programme design (I can actually hear the sound of your eyes glazing over). I couldn't really care less about the topic because it's not particularly relevant to me right now, and I was struggling to string together 3,000 coherent words about it. But yesterday I had two epiphanies that helped me get over the hump.

The first was simple enough: determining content for an educational programme isn't all that different from the work I do in creating web sites or applications. Information architecture is about selecting, organizing (and sometimes creating, or assigning the creation of) content, and interaction design is a series of decisions about how people will access and use that content. Suddenly the middle 1,000 words of the essay wrote themselves. Now if only I can find some official-sounding references.

The second epiphany came while viewing Stephen Downes' latest powerpoint presentation about learning objects in a wider context. In the broadest definition, learning objects are chunks of content (usually digital) that may be used for instructional purposes. The dream has been that educators and instructional designers would have access to vast repositories of learning objects to combine in sequences for lessons, units, courses and programmes. One of the messages in Stephen's presentation is that although this is possible, it's probably not how things should be done. The old model is built on industrial-era assumptions about learning -- that the purpose of education is to get as many people to learn the same things at the same time and the same pace. This is enforced through curriculum, timetables and the (gasp!) design of programmes.

I was particularly interested in slides 18-21 -- he's talking about learning objects, but the undercurrent requires reframing the way education is "delivered" today. The fundamental shifts are in the role of the learner from passive to active, and the role of institutions/instructors from disseminators of information and credentials to facilitators of learning. It's constructivism and informal learning, extending the ways people are already using the web to learn -- providing them with what they need, when they need it, and even access to the people they need to communicate with.

Of course all of this flies in the face of the way most of us see education, which is a Good Thing, because most people aren't learning anything very meaningful from the formalized curricula we foist on everyone. When we realize that requiring students to learn the same things at the same time means that most of them disengage from the process, then we'll start to believe that it would be ok for individuals to learn entirely different things in completely different ways, because they'll actually be learning.

Highlights from Stephen's presentation:

Structure of the Language (slide 18)
-- Old: objects are placed in a sequence with (maybe) limited branching -- limited choices, need for uniformity, static, single focus
-- New: objects are placed in an environment -- multiple choices, room for diversity, dynamic, multiple points of focus

The Wider Context (slide 19)
-- Linear --> Multi-threaded
-- Content Delivery --> immersive, interactive
-- Static, paced --> dynamic, unpaced
-- Demonstration --> inference
-- Learning objectives --> learner goals
-- Motivation --> desire

Using Learning Objects (slide 20)
Old: static, paced
-- Objects are organized in a predetermined order -- the idea of succession
-- The delivery or invocation of objects is determined by time or sequence
-- This delivery is defined by an instructional designer or teacher

Using Learning Objects (slide 21)
New: dynamic, unpaced
-- objects are not ordered; each persists independently of the others
-- The delivery or invocation of objects is triggered by events
-- The use of learning objects is based on learner choices

Friday, June 06, 2003

Net Nanny Abuse

We got an e-mail today from a school that uses Net Nanny software to block web pages containing words the administration doesn't like. Ideally, filtering software keeps kids from checking out porn on school computers, but this school was using it to block words like VIDEO. So any page or application on the web that contained that word would not be viewable. Apparently they thought it would make it impossible to play video games. While the ignorance of that assumption is hilarious, the implication of that type of thinking is scary.

One of the assumptions we're making in my work is that if we were able to engage students in the career/education planning process (using social software, games, simulations, whatever), schools would see the value of that and potentially purchase those services. The underlying idea is that students who know why they're learning (or jumping through hoops) will be more motivated, leading to smarter course selection and improved achievement.

So there are two tricks: engaging students in planning processes and convincing schools to pay for it (and allow time for it). This doesn't sound difficult, except we're talking about actual student engagement, which means we're competing with immersive video games, movies, and sites that stimulate with violence, intense action, sex and drug culture. And we're dealing with schools that won't let students see web pages containing the word "video", never mind letting them participate in something that might interest them. That disconnect is so depressing -- how are kids expected to learn if the institution systematically removes every possible motivator?

Thursday, June 05, 2003

Adaptive Path in San Francisco

I just got back from a three-day trip to San Francisco for an Adaptive Path workshop called The Business of User Experience. Don and I went to the preceding version of the workshop last fall, and this one was also excellent. Adaptive Path is a consulting firm with several incredibly smart, articulate information architects, interaction designers, and user-experience experts. Inspirational to hear about their successes and experiments, especially considering the economic situation they're working in -- the Silicon Valley has been hardest hit by the tech slump.

The fun stuff: couple 'a cold ones at a very cool gallery/bar called 111minna on Tuesday night with the workshop gang, riding the train down to Palo Alto with Don for supper with Gwen, touring around Stanford and Palo Alto, walking around downtown at night...

The work stuff...we got lots of practical ideas out of the workshop. One whole session on the politics of site development, and how to help everyone get things done. There were some generalizations about belligerent techies, clueless executives and evil marketing folks, but much of the advice was solid. It's nice to realize that the problems we deal with in our organization are far from unique.

We also spent a fair bit of time on Tuesday talking about Jesse James Garrett's "Nine Pillars", which cover the roles and processes of successful design efforts -- simple and smart. The session on content management systems was most valuable to me for the discussion of metadata. We've paid lip service to the concept, but we've never done very well in managing our metadata. It gave us some ideas for making our next CMS iteration work better for everyone. The final session covered the return on investment for user-centered design -- basically ways to justify the importance of the work we do. A real eye-opener. Design is seen entirely as a cost center...

Sunday, June 01, 2003

How Could Career Planning be Interesting?

How do you make career planning remotely interesting to teenagers? I've been pondering this question a fair bit lately, and I'm not happy with my progress. The most recent phase of this process started with reading The Tipping Point, which didn't really help, except to emphasize the power of networks, and to try to conceptualize something that would build critical mass with teens and take off on its own. Easy to say...hard to do.

Then a couple of weeks ago, there was the discovery of Road Trip Nation, which seemed to have nailed it with rugged individualism, talking to successful people, encouraging kids to create their own excited me enough to order the book...but it assumes a highly motivated teen population that may or may not exist.

While I was sick the last few days, I finished A Tribe Apart, which convinced me that any software or site that might resonate with kids would have to actually address the things that concern them in the present: drugs, sex, relationships, desires. That's no great epiphany, except it means that a school would never pay for it.

Just rambling for now...more later, of course.