El Puente de Puerto Rico: A Bridge of Postcards

Are you stressed, tired in the middle of your semester?

Imagine your classrooms, campus, students not even sure if they have water, electricity, food, much less internet, just because the place they live was twice in the path of hurricanes. Imagine you are a citizen of the United States of America and hear its leader blame you for this problem, and not delivering a fraction of the aid seen in Texas and Florida.

Imagine your syllabus when, as university professor teacher, your are hoping just to contact students, and figure out how to continue classes.


Like several of my colleagues, I have been very worried about our friend, colleague Antonio Vantaggiato (@avunque), and relieved when he was finally able to message us that he was okay.

Antonio has been a generous soul in our field, arranging for me a slot at the TEDx event he organized plus a month long fellowship he arranged for me at Universidad del Sagrado Corazon.

I don’t think he bumped into Zuck’s avatar.

A few people have been asking how we can help, and Antonio is working to come up with some needs and suggestions.

As a very small thing I thought we could do now, I suggested we start a campaign of mailing postcards to he and his students just to say, that unlike our President…. we care.

Send a postcard to Antonio and hist students at Universidad de Sagrado Corazon

It’s really simple. Do you know what the postage is to mail to Puerto Rico? Easy, the same as mailing something to me in Arizona or some clown in Washington DC. You seek, Puerto Rico is in the United States of America (someone mail that to the clown).

That is 34 cents to mail from the USA to the USA.

So I am asking as many people as possible to send a We Care About Puerto Rico postcard message to:

Also, some things Antonio and I have talked about:

  • We will plan a DS106 Daily Create on Wednesday October 18 as another way to send a message of care.
  • Ask people to tweet messages of support with #care4sagrado and/or any of his course tags: #inf103 or #inf115 or #inf1034 or #inf1037
  • As Antonio teaches his courses via blog syndication http://inf103.com/ and http://inf115.com/ (where you can already see some posts like Rebuilding after Maria), he’s thinking about setting a way people could blog messages to his students via RSS feeds
  • We are thinking about doing a podcast / storytelling project about teaching and learning under these conditions

These are small, but as Antonio and his university develop their continuation plans, we will wait until he can share some more specific needs of his students.

In my month in Puerto Rico, I experienced an overwhelming amount of friendliness, generosity, and spirit despite what were challenging conditions before the Hurricane. And I am horrified by the tone and lack of empathy our President is sending out; he does not speak for me.

I’d like to think a pile of postcards might let our friends and fellow US citizens in Puerto Rico know that others feel like me.

As I was scrambling to find a first card to send, I ony had a few left from some old movie postcards I bought last year. But the one I did pull was for the movie El Puente de Waterloo (The Waterloo Bridge) — so with some editing via Sharpee pen, I want to declare it as part of a Bridge of Care to Puerto Rico.

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Collaborative Annotations You May Want to Join

woman and 2 kids read on couch

I am always on the lookout for collaborative hypothes.is annotations – articles or sites out there that others have put out calls to annotate. I do this for three reasons:

  1. I can use them as examples in workshops I give to faculty about annotation, and I noticed my colleague use them in individual consultations with faculty to showcase the tool;
  2. I like to use them in my class so my students get to see the global potential of collaborative annotation; and
  3. For my own professional development – I discover interesting reading material and it makes reading less lonely and often a richer experience, like an asynchronous reading group.

Here are some that are worth looking into:


Marginal Syllabus “convenes and sustains conversations with educators about issues of equity in teaching, learning, and educations via collaborative web annotation using Hypothes.is. They organize monthly annotatathons taking place over a certain period of time (usually a few days) and you can know ahead of time which articles will be annotated on which dates. Check out their entire  2017/2018 syllabus here and you can plan to invite your students or colleagues ahead of time. Most recently, they’ve been annotating work on participatory culture in conjunction with the DML Conference.

Online Teaching Manifesto

If you work anywhere near the area of online teaching and have not seen the University of Edinburgh’s digital education team’s  Online Teaching Manifesto, you should probably take a look at it now. Creativity in the Open is an event organized by Tania Dorey-Elias which has a virtual “before workshop” component – including annotation of the Online Teaching Manifesto (on the conference site) and it already has a lot of rich annotations.

The Copenhagen Letter

I recently heard of the Copenhagen Letter (again, if you work in edtech and have not read this, you probably should) and decided to annotate it in class with my students and invite others to participate as well. This also has an interesting conversation going on.

Annotating Privacy Policies #DigCiz

Earlier this summer, the team doing #DigCiz proposed to annotate the privacy policy of Slack. I think this is a really useful exercise, and a way to help us all think critically about the terms of service and privacy policies of different tools we use – sometimes looking at how others have annotated a privacy policy will point us to things we had not noticed on our own (these documents are often inhospitable in terms of jargon and length, but can seem less daunting when you see how others are responding to them).

Are there interesting recent/upcoming annotatathons that you know of? Tell us in the comments

“Book Club– The Big Wave” flickr photo by betsywatters http://ift.tt/2xC0ztt shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

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10 Brutalist Websites to Inspire Your Next Web Design Project

Web design trends change all the time. By the time you find a designer you can work with, decide on a look everyone can agree with, get the work done, and finally go live, what’s cool and fresh and trendy has changed. Enter brutalist websites.

What’s that, you ask? It’s when you buck the trends and purposefully design your website to be ugly. And if it’s not straight-up ugly, it’s at least free of frivolous/superfluous design elements.

Brutalist websites are a relatively new thing among purposeful designs, but a lot of them draw inspiration from the early days of the internet. The days when Angelfire and Geocities were the pinnacle of awesomeness. The days when the only HTML you needed to know were a href and img src.

The web has moved on since then, but good (or maybe good-bad?) design hasn’t. On one hand, brutalism is about function over form. If it works, let it work. On the other, it’s about being punk af and making the user work for whatever they get out of your site.

No matter which way you wanna go with it, I’m sure you can find a way to brutalize your next design project after you’ve checked out these glorious monstrosities.

1. craigslist.org

brutalist websites

Y’all, Craigslist is ugly. No, don’t defend it. It’s a monster. Black text, blue links, white background. It’s not pretty. But it doesn’t have to be.

Because it works. That’s what is important. Part of brutalism is UX, and CL has that down. You can find what you need to buy or sell without any fuss or muss or extraneous moving parts.

2. Konsept83.com

brutalist websites

Like Craigslist, Konsept83 looks to the early days of the internet for inspiration. Grey background, typewriter font (a brutalist website staple), and all the links that spell out precisely what you’re clicking into.

The interior pages are just as spare–they just have images embedded.

3. pictureshow.tv

brutalist websites

Pictureshow.tv only works in landscape mode on mobile (or on desktops). It’s a video series designed to look and feel like an old VHS tape. You even click into the other pages, and they act like they are VCR setup menus.

But you know what? The site works, you know what to do, and you’re not lost for a moment.

But man. It’s ugly. And beautiful at the time time. And the best part is that you have no question about how to use it.

4. chris.bolin.co

brutalist websites

Have you ever seen an offline website? No? Me, either. And then I found this beauty.

Chris Bolin designed this site to be as brutal to web users as possible: you gotta disconnect to connect. Automagically, the content appears, and you see a simple message about simplicity presented simply.

Brutalism, man.

brutalist websites

brutalist websites

4. http://ift.tt/2yDUMUm

brutalist websites

One of her talks (and the way I became acquainted with her work) is called Everything I Learned about Web Design, I Learned from Geocities.

I don’t think I need to say anything else.

5. wolftonechambers.com

brutalist websites

Talk about brutal. There is content here. Lots of it. Good info that’s well written. But it’s all but hidden from us by a sea of ASCII.

You can’t say this is visually appealing, nor is it terribly functional. But it’s memorable. It’s strangely clean despite all the clutter, and the weirdest part is that after you scroll a bit, you do see how it works and how to find info with no directions. Which means that, again weirdly, this is how UX should work.


brutalist websites

6. allanyu.nyc

brutalist websites

Part of the beauty of writing and publishing on the web is that your users don’t see the revisions and changes you make to your stuff. You can put new content out there or adjust old content, and no one will be the wiser (unless they check Wayback Machine archives).

Allan Yu, though, uses brutalism to show the revisions he makes to his site as though they’re physical revisions in a notebook. It makes the overall experience less clean overall, but the messiness adds to the user experience so everyone is aware that he not only grows in style, but ability and creativity.

Not a design you’d find on a major news outlet (wouldn’t it just be fun to see editorial marks on CNN?), but for a designer or agency who has relatively slow updates, this style would probably work well.

7. Brutalist Redesigns

brutalist websites

Making brutalist websites is far, far harder than you’d think. Because it’s easy to make a website ugly. It’s also easy to make a website simple. And it’s easy to make a website look dated.

But it’s hard to do all of those at once. So Pierre Buttin took some of the cleanest, most popular apps (like Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat) and redesigned them as examples of how you can maintain form and function while removing superfluous flash that adds nothing to the experience.

8. morgane.com/pixel- lab

brutalist websites

(Maybe new pics on laptop of whole page.)

Indie video game developers are a quirky bunch. The folks at Pixel Labs don’t stray from that description. Their website is a single page that looks like it was written in the early ’90s, and the color palette probably was.

That said, they know what they’re doing. They have a showcase of their work, an invite to their Slack server, and a desire to help other people.

Their use of web design removes any obstacles between them and their audience.

9. wekflatm.kr

brutalist websites

I think this may be the perfect website. Seriously. I’m seriously considering making the page showcasing my novels work like this.

It’s ecommerce at its most fundamental and perfect: Here’s a chair. Buy it. Want a sofa? Okay. You can buy them over there.

No wish lists, no searches, no variations or user reviews. Just item, price, buy.

It ain’t pretty, but it ain’t ugly, either. It’s simple. And it has personality. It’s everything you need in a website and nothing you don’t.

10. keyaar.in

brutalist website

I bet the first thing you’d do on this site is click a shape. Because shapes. Then you’ll read the labels–which don’t really tell you much.

Thing is, though, you know pretty much what each one is when you click it. Work is a gallery of, you guessed it, work. NSFW is a blog, but even before that, you know you’re getting into something personal, if not intimate. And KL11? The design agency themselves. All the info you need is there.

What more do you people want out of a website?

Brutal, shmutal

You may not want a suite of brutalist websites in your portfolio. That’s fine. This design scheme is absolutely not for everyone, and some clients are sure to balk when you pitch an ugly site.

But there are lots of design lessons you can learn from these sites.

I do challenge you, though, to try to make a brutalist site. Boiling the whole thing all the way down to the essentials will make you confront your preconceptions, as well as your strengths and weaknesses. Sure, it’ll be brutal, but you’ll come out of it a stronger designer.

And maybe a stronger person, too.

What do you think about brutalist websites? Let us know your thoughts on this trend in the comments

Article thumbnail by Kaleo / shutterstock.com

The post 10 Brutalist Websites to Inspire Your Next Web Design Project appeared first on Elegant Themes Blog.

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How To Participate In Digipo (September 2017 version)

How To Participate In Digipo (September 2017 version)

Every time I say I can’t make it easier to participate in Digipo, I find a way to make it easier.

The current process involves no skills greater than knowing how to work a word processor, and (more importantly) allows students to participate anonymously if they wish, without having to sign up for Google accounts or have edits tracked under pseudonyms. We accomplish this through a Microsoft Word template and by submitting the files into public domain.

You can of course use a more complex process, sign your name to the article, and use Google Docs as your central tool. Depending on your needs and skill level you may want to do that. It’s just not required anymore.

Here’s the steps.

  1. Read (at least some) of the book.
  2. Pick a question to investigate from our list of 300+ questions, or make up your own.
  3. Have your students download this Microsoft Word template that guides them through an investigation of a question. Apply the skills from the book.
  4. Do whatever sort of grading, assessment, or feedback you want.
  5. Take student reports where the students have agreed to submit them into public domain, and zip up the word documents. Mail them to michael.caulfield@wsu.edu. Make sure you introduce who you are, what the class is about, and a bit about your experience as I do not open zip files from random people. Also give me a blurb about how your class would like to be identified on the site (they have the option  of remaining anonymous too). For verification purposes, send it from your university account. I may email back to verify.
  6. I’ll put them on the Digipo site in a subdirectory with a bit about your class and give you a password that allows them to edit online going forward.
  7. At a later point we’ll assemble a small panel of professors who will go through the student work and choose ones to “promote” to the main directory based on quality. The key question reviewers will ask is whether the document provides better information than at least one of the top ten Google results for the question.

That’s it!



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The History of the Future of Learning Objects and Intelligent Machines

This talk was delivered at MIT for Justin Reich’s Comparative Media Studies class “Learning, Media, and Technology.” The full slide deck is available here.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to your class today. I’m really honored to be here at the beginning of the semester, as I’m not-so-secretly hoping this gives me a great deal of power and influence to sow some seeds of skepticism about the promises you all often hear – perhaps not in this class, to be fair, as in your other classes, in the media, in the world at large – about education technology.

Those promises can be pretty amazing, no doubt: that schools haven’t changed in hundreds if not thousands of years and that education technology is now poised to “revolutionize” and “disrupt”; that today, thanks to the ubiquity of computers and the Internet (that there is “ubiquity” is rarely interrogated) we can “democratize,” “unbundle,” and/or “streamline” the system; that learning will as a result be better, cheaper, faster.

Those have always been the promises. Promises largely unfulfilled.

It’s important – crucial even – that this class is starting with history. I’ve long argued that ignorance of this history is part of the problem with education technology today: that its promises of revolution and innovation come with little to no understanding of the past – not just the history of what technologies have been adopted (or have failed to be adopted) in the classroom before, but the history of how education itself has changed in many ways and in some, quite dramatically, with or without technological interventions. (I’d add too that this is a problem with tech more broadly – an astounding and even self-congratulatory ignorance of the history of the industries, institutions, practices folks claim they’re disrupting.)

I should confess something here at the outset of my talk that’s perhaps a bit blasphemous. I recognize that this class is called “Learning, Media, and Technology.” But I’m really not interested in “learning” per se. There are lots of folks – your professor, for starters – who investigate technology and learning, who research technology’s effect on cognition and memory, who measure and monitor how mental processes respond to tech, and so on. That’s not what I do. That’s not what my work is about.

It’s not that I believe “learning” doesn’t matter. And it’s not that I think “learning” doesn’t happen when using a lot of the ed-tech that gets hyped – or wait, maybe I do think that.

Rather, I approach “learning” as a scholar of culture, of society. I see “learning” as a highly contested concept – a lot more contested than some researchers and academic disciplines (and entrepreneurs and journalists and politicians) might have you believe. What we know about knowing is not settled. It never has been. And neither neuroscience nor brain scans, for example, move us any closer to that. After all, “learning” isn’t simply about an individual’s brain or even body. “Learning” – or maybe more accurately “learnedness” – is a signal; it’s a symbol; it’s a performance. As such, it’s judged by and through and with all sorts of cultural values and expectations, not only those that we claim to be able to measure. What do you know? How do you know? Who do you know? Do you have the social capital and authority to wield what you know or to claim expertise?

My work looks at the broader socio-political and socio-cultural aspects of ed-tech. I want us to recognize ed-tech as ideological, as a site of contested values rather than a tool that somehow “progress” demands. Indeed, that’s ideology at work right there – the idea of “progress” itself, a belief in a linear improvement, one that’s intertwined with stories of scientific and technological advancement as well as the advancement of certain enlightenment values.

I’m interested not so much in how ed-tech (and tech more broadly) might change cognition or learning, but in how it will change culture and power and knowledge – systems and practices of knowing. I’m interested in how ed-tech (and tech more broadly) will change how we imagine education – as a process, as a practice, as an institution – and change how we value knowledge and expertise and even school itself.

I don’t believe we live in a world in which technology is changing faster than it’s ever changed before. I don’t believe we live in a world where people adopt new technologies more rapidly than they’ve done so in the past. (That is argument for another talk, for another time.) But I do believe we live in an age where technology companies are some of the most powerful corporations in the world, where they are a major influence – and not necessarily in a positive way – on democracy and democratic institutions. (School is one of those institutions. Ideally.) These companies, along with the PR that supports them, sell us products for the future and just as importantly weave stories about the future.

These products and stories are, to borrow a phrase from sociologist Neil Selwyn, “ideologically-freighted.” In particular, Selwyn argues that education technologies (and again, computing technologies more broadly) are entwined with the ideologies of libertarianism, neoliberalism, and new forms of capitalism – all part of what I often refer to as the “Silicon Valley narrative” (although that phrase, geographically, probably lets you folks here at MIT off the hook for your institutional and ideological complicity in all this). Collaboration. Personalization. Problem-solving. STEM. Self-directed learning. The “maker movement.” These are all examples of how ideologies are embedded in ed-tech trends and technologies – in their development and their marketing. And despite all the talk of “disruption”, these mightn’t be counter-hegemonic at all, but rather serve the dominant ideology and further one of the 21st century’s dominant industries.

I want to talk a little bit today about technology and education technology in the 20th century – because like I said, history matters. And one of the ideological “isms” that I think we sometimes overlook in computing technologies is militarism. And I don’t just mean the role of Alan Turing and codebreakers in World War II or the role of the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in the development of the Internet (although both of those examples – cryptography and the Internet – do underscore what I mean when I say infrastructure is ideological). C3I – command, control, communications, and intelligence. Militarism, as an ideology, privileges hierarchy, obedience, compliance, authoritarianism – it has shaped how our schools are structured; it shapes how our technologies are designed.

The US military is the largest military in the world. That also makes it one of the largest educational organizations in the world – “learning at scale,” to borrow a phrase from this course. The military is responsible for training – basic training and ongoing training – of some 1.2 million active duty soldiers and some 800,000 reserve soldiers. That training has always been technological, because soldiers have had to learn to use a variety of machines. The military has also led the development and adoption of educational technologies.

Take the flight simulator, for example.

One of the earliest flight simulators – and yes, this predates the Microsoft software program by over fifty years, but postdates the Wright Brothers by only about twenty – was developed by Edwin Link. He received the patent for his device in 1931, a machine that replicated the cockpit and its instruments. The trainer would pitch and roll and dive and climb, powered by a motor and organ bellows. (Link’s family owned an organ factory.)

Although Link’s first customers were amusement parks – the patent was titled a “Combination training device for student aviators and entertainment apparatus” – the military bought six in June of 1934, after a series of plane crashes earlier that year immediately following the US Army Air Corps’ takeover of US Air Mail service. Those accidents had revealed the pilots’ lack of training, particularly under night-time or inclement weather conditions. By the end of World War II, some 500,000 pilots had used the “Link Trainer,” and flight simulators have since become an integral part of pilot (and subsequently, astronaut) training.

(There’s a good term paper to be written – you are writing a term paper, right? – about the history of virtual reality and the promises and presumptions it makes about simulation and learning and experiences and bodies. But mostly, I’d argue if I were writing it, that much of VR in classrooms today does not have its origins the Link Trainer as much as in the educational films that you read about in Larry Cuban’s Teachers and Machines. But I digress.)

The military works along a different principle for organizing and disseminating knowledge than does, say, the university or the library. The military is largely interested in teaching “skills.” Or perhaps more accurately, this is how military training is largely imagined and discussed: “skills training.” (Officer training, to be fair, is slightly different.) The military is invested in those skills – and in the teaching of those skills – being standardized. All this shapes the kinds of educational software and hardware that gets developed and adopted.

One of the challenges the military has faced, particularly in the twentieth century, is helping veterans to translate their skills into language that schools and civilian hiring managers understand. This is, of course, the origin of the GED test, which was developed during WWII as a way to assess whether those soldiers who’d dropped out of high school in order to enlist had attained high-school level skills – to demonstrate “competency” rather than rely on “seat time,” to put this in terms familiar to educational debates today. There has also been the challenge of translating skills within the military itself – say, from branch to branch – and within and across other federal agencies. New technologies, to a certain extent, have complicated things by introducing often incompatible software systems in which instruction occurs. And at the end of the day, the military demands regimentation, standardization – culturally, technologically.

I just want to lay out an abbreviated timeline here to help situate some of my following remarks:

I’m not suggesting here that the Web marks the origins of ed-tech. Again, you’ve read Larry Cuban’s work; you know that there’s a much longer history of teaching machines. But in the 1990s, we did witness a real explosion in not just educational software, but in educational software that functioned online.

In January of 1999, President Clinton signed Executive Order 13111 – “Using Technology To Improve Training Opportunities for Federal Government Employees.” Here’s the opening paragraph, which I’m going to read – apologies – simply because it sounds as though it could be written today:

Advances in technology and increased skills needs are changing the workplace at an ever increasing rate. These advances can make Federal employees more productive and provide improved service to our customers, the American taxpayers. We need to ensure that we continue to train Federal employees to take full advantage of these technological advances and to acquire the skills and learning needed to succeed in a changing workplace. A coordinated Federal effort is needed to provide flexible training opportunities to employees and to explore how Federal training programs, initiatives, and policies can better support lifelong learning through the use of learning technology.

One of the mandates of the Executive Order was to:

in consultation with the Department of Defense and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, recommend standards for training software and associated services purchased by Federal agencies and contractors. These standards should be consistent with voluntary industry consensus-based commercial standards. Agencies, where appropriate, should use these standards in procurements to promote reusable training component software and thereby reduce duplication in the development of courseware.

This call for standards – and yes, the whole idea of “standards” is deeply ideological – eventually became SCORM, the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (and one of the many acronyms that, if you work with education technology, will make people groan – and groan almost as much as a related acronym does: the LMS, the learning management system).

Indeed, SCORM and the LMS – their purposes, their histories – are somewhat inseparable. (And I want you to consider the implications of that: that the demands of the federal government and the US military for a standardized “elearning” experience has profoundly shaped one of the foundational pieces of ed-tech that is used today by almost all colleges and increasingly even K–12 schools.)

The SCORM standard was designed, in part, to make it possible to easily move educational content from one learning management system to another. Among the goals: reusability, interoperability, and durability of content and courses. (I’m not going to go into too much technical detail here, but I do want to recognize that this did require addressing some significant technical challenges.) SCORM had three components: content packaging, runtime communications, and course metadata. The content packaging refers to the packaging of all the resources needed to deliver a course into a single ZIP file. The runtime communications includes the runtime commands for communicating student information to and from the LMS, as well as the metadata for storing information on individual students. And the course metadata, obviously, includes things like course title, description, keywords, and so on. SCORM, as its full name implies, served to identify “sharable content objects” – that is the smallest unit in a course that contains meaningful learning content by itself – content objects that might be extracted and reused in another course. The third version of SCORM, SCORM 2004, also introduced sequencing, identifying the order in which these content objects should be presented.

The implications of all this are fairly significant, particularly if we think about the SCORM initiative as something that’s helped, almost a decade ago, to establish and refine what’s become the infrastructure of the learning management system and other instructional software, as something that’s influenced the development as well of some of the theories of modern instructional design. (Theory is, of course, ideology. But, again, so is infrastructure.) The infrastructure of learning software shapes how we think about “content” and how we think about “skills” and how we think about “learning.” (And “we” here, to be clear, includes a broad swath of employers, schools, software makers, and the federal government – so that’s a pretty substantial “we.”)

I will spare you the details of decades worth of debates about learning objects. It’s important to note, however, that there are decades of debate and many, many critics of the concept – Paulo Freire, for example, and his critique of the “banking model of information.” There are the critics too who argue for “authentic,” “real-world” learning, something that almost by definition learning objects – designed to move readily from software system to software system, from course to course, from content module to content module, from context to context – can never offer. I’d be remiss if I did not mention the work of open education pioneer David Wiley and what he has called the “reusability paradox,” which to summarize states that if a learning object is pedagogically useful in a specific context, it will not be useful in a different context. Furthermore, the most decontextualized learning objects are reusable in many contexts, but those are not pedagogically useful.

But like I said at the outset, in my own line of inquiry I’m less interested in what’s “pedagogically useful” than I am in what gets proposed by industry and what becomes predominant – the predominant tech, the predominant practice, the predominant narrative, and so on.

Learning objects have been blasted by theorists and practitioners, but they refuse to go away. Why?

The predominant narratives today about the future of learning are all becoming deeply intertwined with artificial intelligence. We should recognize that these narratives have been influenced by decades of thinking in a certain way about information and knowledge and learning (in humans and in machines): as atomized learning objects and as atomized, standardized skills.

There’s a long history of criticism of the idea of “intelligence” – its origins in eugenics; its use as a mechanism for race- and gender-based exclusion and sorting. It’s a history that educational psychology, deeply intertwined with the development of measurements and assessments, has not always been forthright about. Education technology, with its origins in educational psychology, is implicated in this. And now we port this history of “intelligence” – one steeped in racism and bias – onto machines.

But we’re also porting a history of “skills” onto machines as well. This is, of course, the marketing used for Amazon’s Alexa. Developers “build” skills. They “teach” skills to the device. And it’s certainly debatable whether many of these are useful at all. But again, that’s not the only way to think about teaching machines. Whether or not something is “pedagogically useful,” here are reasons why the stories about it stick. The narrative about AI and skills is something to pay attention to – particularly alongside larger discussions about the so-called “skills gap.”

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I’ll Take That Text Extra Large: Bigify It

Some people like to spend their long airplane time watching movies or playing phone games. That’s fine. Me, I usually sleep, but on my cross country flight yesterday I wanted to try building a little HTML/jQuery tool.

Because it’s something I can use this week.

Because I can (running in my laptop’s localhost).

Well almost. I lacked the internet to look up more of the code I got wrong. But I got about 80% there.

Presenting… Bigify. The thing it does?

There is a small form field at the bottom; whatever is typed or pasted there is “bigified” on the main display.

Stunning, eh?

I have a few days this week of hand on web workshops; I won’t be doing slides, mostly web demos. There is this part when I want to have everyone go to the same site, I will make shirt URLs, but still, it seems useful to display them as Big On Screen as Possible.

There are a number of jQuery code bits to dynamically resize text to a window size, I decided to try FitText, that is what I downloaded before my trip. I also made sure I had a local copy of jQuery as served by Google just so I could play while not connected.

There’s a lot of room for improvement; I wanted to make the form field disappear when not being edited, but the show/hide jQuery worked to hide, but never to show (same with CSS hover tricks, maybe it’s the absolute positioning??). Maybe it could use query parameters to save pre-configured strings as URLs. Maybe some options for different display colors (light text a black background for contrast??).

Got ideas? Fork this thing!

Who knows? I have a flight home Wednesday, maybe I will do an update.


Thank for John Johnston or forking and putting into play better interface- a form field element that replaces the display text, so it feels like editing it right in place.

SOme more tweaks coming output, but this now uses a better fonf on mobile devices (I hope).

Featured Image: Large Order Of Toast flickr photo by JD Hancock shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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Visualizing future trends for education and technology

With the help of Future Trends in Technology and Education friends and Patreon supporters, we now have a first FTTE infographic.

The idea was to organize all of the 85+ trends the report tracks into a single image. This first design is aimed at appearing as one page, such as for a workshop handout.

FTTE visualization

The heart of it is the group of three main columns, which contain the bulk of FTTE content.  The very top contains the higher ed crisis or bubble trends; they appear up there because they rest on other trends, like pillars.  I showed the connection between specific technologies as they appear in the world and their educational instances (3d printing, digital video, etc) by aligning them up within a colored box.

Each trend contains countervailing trends as well.

Later I’d like to edit and compress it down to smaller sizes, as for a card.  That would most likely involve combining trends into rubrics or mega-trends, like piling VR, AR, and MR together.  I can also turn this into an interactive object, with links from each trend.

What do you think?

from Bryan Alexander http://ift.tt/2ubmINB

Information Underload

For many years, the underlying thesis of the tech world has been that there is too much information and therefore we need technology to surface the best information. In the mid 2000s, that technology was pitched as Web 2.0. Nowadays, the solution is supposedly AI.

I’m increasingly convinced, however, that our problem is not information overload but information underload. We suffer not because there is just too much good information out there to process, but because most information out there is low quality slapdash takes on low quality research, endlessly pinging around the spin-o-sphere.

Take, for instance, the latest news on Watson. Watson, you might remember, was IBM’s former AI-based Jeopardy winner that was going to go from “Who is David McCullough?” to curing cancer.

So how has this worked out? Four years later, Watson has yet to treat a patient. It’s hit a roadblock with some changes in backend records systems. And most importantly, it can’t figure out how to treat cancer because we don’t currently have enough good information on how to treat cancer:

“IBM spun a story about how Watson could improve cancer treatment that was superficially plausible – there are thousands of research papers published every year and no doctor can read them all,” said David Howard, a faculty member in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University, via email. “However, the problem is not that there is too much information, but rather there is too little. Only a handful of published articles are high-quality, randomized trials. In many cases, oncologists have to choose between drugs that have never been directly compared in a randomized trial.”

This is not just the case with cancer, of course. You’ve heard about the reproducibility crisis, right? Most published research findings are false. And they are false for a number of reasons, but primary reasons include that there are no incentives for researchers to check the research, that data is not shared, and that publications aren’t particularly interested in publishing boring findings. The push to commercialize university research has also corrupted expertise, putting a thumb on the scale for anything universities can license or monetize.

In other words, there’s not enough information out there, and what’s out there is generally worse than it should be.

You can find this pattern in less dramatic areas as well — in fact, almost any place that you’re told big data and analytics will save us. Take Netflix as an example. Endless thinkpieces have been written about the Netflix matching algorithm, but for many years that algorithm could only match you with the equivalent of the films in the Walmart bargain bin, because Netflix had a matching algorithm but nothing worth watching. (Are you starting to see the pattern here?)

In this case at least, the story has a happy ending. Since Netflix is a business and needs to survive, they decided not to pour the majority of their money into newer algorithms to better match people with the version of Big Momma’s House they would hate the least. Instead, they poured their money into making and obtaining things people actually wanted to watch, and as a result Netflix is actually useful now. But if you stick with Netflix or Amazon Prime today it’s more likely because you are hooked on something they created than that you are sold on the strength of their recommendation engine.

Let’s belabor the point: let’s talk about Big Data in education. It’s easy to pick on MOOCs, but remember that the big value proposition of MOOCs was that with millions of students we would finally spot patterns that would allow us to supercharge learning. Recommendation engines would parse these patterns, and… well, what? Do we have a bunch of superb educational content just waiting in the wings that I don’t know about? Do we even have decent educational research that can conclusively direct people to solutions? If the world of cancer research is compromised, the world of educational research is a control group wasteland.

We see this pattern again and again — companies coming along to tell us that their platform will help us with the firehose of content. But the big problem is not that it’s a firehose, but that it’s a firehose of sewage. It’s all haystack and no needle. And the reason this happens again and again is that what we so derisively call “content” nowadays is expensive to produce, and gets produced by a large number of well-paid people who in general have no significant marketing arm. To scale up that work is to employ a lot of people, but it doesn’t change your return on investment ratio. To make a dollar, you need to spend ninety cents, and that doesn’t change no matter how big you get. And who wants to spend ninety cents to make a dollar in today’s world?

Processing and promotion platforms, however, like Watson or MOOCs or Facebook, offer the dream of scalability, where there is zero marginal cost to expansion. They also offer the potential of monopoly and lock-in, to drive out competitors. And importantly, that dream drives funding which drives marketing which drives hype.

And this is why there is endless talk about the latest needle in a haystack finder, when what we are facing is a collapse of the market that funds the creation of needles. Netflix caught on. Let’s hope that the people who are funding cancer research and teaching students get a clue soon as well. More money to the producers of valuable content. Less to platforms, distributors, and needle-finders. Do that, and the future will sort itself out.

I’m guessing if you are reading this you already know this, but if you are interested in this stuff, make sure to read Audrey Watters’ This Week In Robots religiously, as  well her writing in this area, which has been very influential on me.



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Moodle and the next LMS: reflections and more questions

Last week Martin Dougiamas, the creator of Moodle, the world’s leading open source learning management system, joined our Future Trends Forum to discuss the future of that technology.

Someone on the Moodle.com site wrote up an extraordinarily rich report on the session, complete with numerous screen captures.  Bravo!

The full video recording is now available on YouTube:

During the hour Forum participants offered many questions.  Martin tackled a slew of them, yet still more came in.  I’d like to reproduce them here, edited very lightly.  They indicate the richness of today’s unfolding LMS discussion, and help illuminate where things might be headed.

Text question from Ed Finn: OER Game Changer – Moodle Community could separate it from Canvas and Blackboard who keep these types of sharing resources behind a wall.  I see it as similar to the Canvas Commons for resources with a social media component?

Text question from Sonja Strahl: Community question – Will the community you were discussing be available for only those with Moodle as their LMS (for both creation of OER and use of OER)? Or will it be open to everyone, and under Creative Commons license?  

Text question from Richard Wack: Accessibility – Blackboard recently acquired Ally which appears to be a very impressive tool to address accessibility as it pertains to courses. What is the present and future direction by Moodle on this important topic? Thank you. 

Text question from Josh: Anti-LMS – How do you respond to the anti-LMS pedagogy voices, even those who might object to an open-source tool like Moodle?  Does that debate interest you at all?

Text question from Ed Finn: Communication – Just out of curiosity, does Moodle offer social media, text and other communication coordination?  I know that Canvas has a rich development here where you can choose to communicate by email, tweet, text, or app.

Text question from Ed Finn: Versioning – What are your thoughts on different versions of Moodle and sharing between them?  How do you see the community working with multiple versions? 

What are you wondering about Moodle and the LMS, looking ahead?

My thanks to Martin and the Forum community for their generous time and thought.


from Bryan Alexander http://ift.tt/2ubV1RE

I defy the world and go back to RSS

It may be perverse, but in this age of Facebook (now 2 billion strong) I’ve decided to rededicate myself to RSS reading.  That’s right: old school, Web 2.0 style.


A big reason is that Facebook’s front page is so, so massively unreliable.  Despite having huge numbers of people that are my friends, clients, and contacts, it’s just not a good reading and writing service.  Facebook’s black box algorithm(s) may or may not present a given’s user’s post for reasons generally inscrutable.  I’ve missed friends’ news about new jobs, divorces, and deaths because the Zuckerbergmachine deems them unworthy of inclusion in my personalized river of news.  In turn, I have little sense of who will see my posts, so it’s hard to get responses and very hard to pitch my writing for an intended audience.  Together, this makes the FB experience sketchy at best.  To improve our use of it we have to turn to experiments and research that remind me of Cold War Kremlinology.

Twitter helps a bit, but not too much.  They’re running their own feed management software to some unknown degree.  Moreover, while I can use Twitter to find some good content hosted elsewhere (blog posts, articles, podcasts, videos, etc.) I still keep missing items un-tweeted, or at least un-tweeted by people I follow.  So Twitter is a flawed filter.

What else can I use to conduct research into the swiftly developing worlds of technology and education?  Some individual platforms let me follow content there or via email alerts (for example: WordPress, Medium, Tumblr), but that fragments the web and becomes unmanageable as the number of platforms grows.

People claim that RSS readers are history.  It’s popular to proclaim that blogs are dead.  I defy them all.

So I’m back to the sweet, open goodness of RSS reading*.  For the rest of this post I’ll describe my current setup.

In 2013 Google Reader died, and I and millions of others went on a quest for a successor.  For my primary research needs I settled on the Digg Reader, and haven’t changed since.  It’s free, reliable, cleanly designed, easy to use.  I run it on several laptops.  On my phone I make do with Feedly, which is pretty but not serious.

Here’s what my feed setup looks like now.  The list of feed categories, organized into folders, occupies the left (grey-ish) column.  Output from one of those folders, Futures and Futurists, runs down the left two-thirds of the screen:

Digg Reader sample screenshot

Let me break this down.

One strength of RSS is the way it lets users arrange feeds into whatever sequence makes sense to them.  I like clumping feeds into categories, then arranging those folders into an order that works for my day.

My RSS feeds, part 1

Starting off that order are feeds directly based on my work (see screenshot to left).  There’s a folder with output from my various blogs, so I can see what impression I’ve leaving, along with keyword searches for myself and my work.

Then there are folders for clients, broken down into different groups.  This way I can follow the progress of schools, organizations, governments, libraries, museums, and individuals I’ve helped and/or are currently working with.  As you can see from their placement in my workflow, they are a leading priority.   Some are represented here by organizational feeds, such as the Ithaka S&R blog.  Others appear through individual faculty members, librarians, or technologists.

Following that are feeds from Future Trends Forum guests.  That growing community is vital to my work, and I learn a great deal from these fine people.  Right after them come a set of futurists and other folks writing about the future (see compressed image up above): again, central to my work.

My RSS feeds - 2

Following that first group of folders (each containing a group of RSS feeds) comes another swarm.  This one is my main politics, economics, and environmental scan.  My readers know these huge trends play a major role in shaping both education and technology.

This begins with a survey of world news, from sources with a minimum of bias.  The Memeorandum trawl is a major force within this folder – and since that’s an aggregator, its results save me some time.  There are also several feeds for local (Vermont) politics, like the excellent web-based Vt Digger.

Then follow feed groups for economics, for environmental news, and for a loose category upon which I’ve slapped the label “information warfare” (some of which is actually about info ops, but also includes linked observations on culture and geopolitics).  Along with those folders are two dedicated to bias from the left and right.  Bloggers there instruct me on what the respective ideologies (and their branches: libertarian, feminist, socialist, etc.) are thinking, and also point me to news articles I might have otherwise missed.

I learn best when starting with a big picture, then drilling down into small units and more finely grained details, so this top-level section fits that mental stance.

my RSS feeds - 3

A third folder group follows, structured upon other dimensions of my research agenda.  Several trends and megatrends from FTTE get their folders here.  We begin with a daily reads list, which includes major publications (ex: Inside Higher Ed), several crucial bloggers (ex: Stephen Downes’ OLDaily), and several friends whose words mean a great deal to me both personally and professionally (ex: Alan Levine, Brian Lamb).

Next we get folders on higher education, libraries, technology, search, Google (because so important *and* so sprawling), and gaming (a rich and special interest).  Then two folders (because of so many blogs) on ed tech; one on MOOCs; one on gaming in education.

Following this third big section is a fourth one for fun and culture.  That has folders on Gothic literature, comedy, science fiction, books, friends with whom I do not have a professional connect, food, and music.  I’ll leave off a graphic for now, because they lead away from my research focus.

So that’s around 40 folders, and maybe 400 feeds.  Naturally I’ve curated these over time, and continue to add and subtract as we progress.

Does this giant pile and apparatus save me time?  Yes.  Instead of leaping from platform to platform, I just inhabit the Digg.  I don’t have to worry if Facebook has hidden someone’s latest, or if a story escaped people I follow on Twitter.

Yes, this is a lot of reading… but I’m a researcher and writer, and need this range of inputs.  We can’t do futures work without diversity and variety of sources.  Moreover, some repetition occurs across multiple feeds, which is itself useful.  I can look for different perspectives on the same story, while noting rising interest in a development as something potentially noteworthy as well.

There’s a politics here.  RSS reading is based on the open web, and I continue to fight for that, even in an age of rising silos and walled gardens.  Less clearly is a theme of conversation through connections, which is increasingly vital to me.  I love being able to arrange feeds across filter bubbles, and to see ideas move across boundaries.

I still use Twitter for professional reasons.  For whatever reason I can’t get professional discussions rolling on Facebook, but do manage to stir up good conversations on politics (!!), culture, and animals.

Is anyone else still using RSS?  Am I bonkers to do so?  Should I do a post like this about my Twitter setup?

(If I have time I’ll write about the foolishness of proclaiming blogs to be dead.)

*I wonder if I need to define RSS in 2017.  How many people will confuse the technological standard with this group?

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