Coursekit is a free online learning management system. I’ve used a lot of the heavy duty, clunky systems over the years, such as Blackboard, WebCT and Moodle and most of them feel stuck in 1996. Right now I use Omnium for my online teaching. It’s something I’ve put a lot of time into helping shape in the early days, but I’d be fibbing if I said it couldn’t do with a bit of an UI update.

I haven’t used Coursekit yet – these days I mostly create a blog for my students and let them use whatever tools they like – but it looks promising and is really how these systems should look and feel. Light, uncluttered, user-friendly. Obvious, really, except to university IT departments.

The only worry is its financial model, which is the build it and hope they will come approach. I’d like to know they’ll be around in 5 years’ time.

Via Veronica Grow (@oldschoolthenew)

Teaching, Learning and Mazes

The COTEN project is gaining momentum and there are some excellent discussions going on. A lot of the conversation is about different teaching and institutional structures and the styles of learning they encourage or discourage.

I just wrote a response to a post, which delves a little bit into my PhD subject, which is about understanding interactivity through play. As I came to the end of my PhD I realised that the principles of interactivity that I developed (more on this soon) held true for a number of other areas, including teaching and service design. I posted a response on the COTEN forums, but I’d like to air it here as a blog post in its own right:

Teaching, Learning and Mazes

Over my years of teaching I’ve tried all sorts of approaches, from leaving things very open to having things very structured. I have found it to be totally context dependent. Some students love to be left to their own devices while others crave structure. The challenge is to cater for both. It also depends on individual courses and the backgrounds of those taking them.

I also realised that the more I hands-on helped, the more helpless my students became because I was doing all the learning on their behalf. When I first started teaching, it took me a semester before I realised that helping them less actually helped them more because they worked things out for themselves and learned by doing.

Finding the right balance is the main skill of teaching I think and you really have to go with your intuition combined with direct student feedback and ignore most of the other pedagogical literature. I’m sure colleagues will shoot me down for saying that, but I found this when I did study the literature and work on this on a short post-grad course in teaching at higher education level – in the attempt to create the perfect course, it just got over structured and sapped the life and energy out of it for both me and the students.

Writing my PhD on interactivity and play, I developed a set of principles for understanding interactivity through the lens of play that I think applies here. Bear with me, because it’s going to sound like I’m going way off topic, but we’ll come back to the point:

The central principles, among others, are about finding the “magic circle” – the space of play that defines being in play and out of play (such as the lines on a football pitch, the sides of a cardboard box, etc.) and the rules of play. These rules allow for different behaviour during play (e.g. you can tackle someone holding a ball to the ground) than during “normal” life. One of the things that I argue is that knowing these two things is essential to any interaction – from interpersonal through interface to society. On the interactive interface front, users need to understand what game they’re playing and the interface needs to be set up in the right way. In this way you can explore, analyse and design for both tightly controlled UI environments such as an iPhone app or a part of an operating system, but the principles also allow for the same analysis of an interactive art installation. The key is understanding the context. In the latter example, it might be desired that the interactor is deliberately tricked or gets lost or that the interface is ambiguous unlike the clarity of an iPhone app. On the other hand that iPhone app might have playful elements that encourage you to explore the boundaries of the play space (the magic circle) and help you to learn the interface without ever really feeling like you’re learning at all, such as the iPhone’s “one free interaction”.

In the art installation example, the critical aspect of getting the interaction right is that interactors understand that they are meant to be lost. That is, they understand that they’re supposed to not understand the interface straight away and that discovering how it all works is part of the experience. Experienced videogamers will understand this idea straight away, because in most videogames the point is not to read the rules and then play the game, the point is that finding out what the rules are is part of the gameplay experience.

It struck me a while ago as I was deconstructing all of this how much it parallels the learning experience. Learning, by definition, involves a journey into unknown territory, otherwise you would not need to learn it (because it’s not unknown). This is often and usually inherently uncomfortable – nobody likes to feel stupid or confused. It’s rather like being in a maze – at least it is if the teaching and learning experience is going well, because when you are in a maze you know that you are meant to be confused and that somewhere there is a way out and/or if you yell out, somebody will come and help you. This kind of learning experience is usually very positive and why we hear so much terminology of good teachers being ‘guides’. But simply giving someone a map would be “cheating” in play and game terminology and we all know that this takes the fun out of playing.

Another kind of learning experience that is extremely negative is feeling lost, but not knowing you are in a maze that you are supposed to work your way out of. When that’s the case, you just feel lost and confused and it’s all pretty scary because wherever you turn it seems like a dead end. In this example, a map of the maze is equivalent to the tools and methods and technology or techniques that lost students often cling to at the expense of the learning experience they might have if they could work out their own way out of the maze. It’s a completely understandable emotional state, but it doesn’t lead to much lifelong or long-lasting learning.

In both cases you are in a maze, so the context is the same, but the overarching difference is the conceptual space you are in mentally. Setting up this space – the magic circle and the rules of play – seem to me to be the skill that not only the teacher needs to bring to the learning experience, but also that the institutions structures need to encourage.

Most of the time it seems that a lot of effort is spent on making maps to the maze and not on trying to develop the mental space. I think this is because the former is concrete and feels manageable and measurable, while the latter is highly personal and not directly measurable (but the results do show). It’s rather like the difference between Apple’s approach to usability and Jakob Nielsen’s obsessively warped understanding of it (in which he exclaims that, “users don’t know where they can click” when referring to a multitouch device).

Google isn’t making us dumb, but ‘smart’ is changing


It started with Asi’s comments on Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? article. Forty-five minutes later I had Googled through laterally-related sites, read several blog posts – one or two both considered and longlistened to a lecture and found a book I hadn’t known about but will probably read.

Has any of that made me dumber? No. Does it conform to what we have been taught to consider smart? Probably not. And there’s the problem. Carr is looking through the telescope from the wrong end. It’s not that Google is making us dumb, it’s just that what we used to think of as ‘smart’ probably wasn’t that smart after all.

The main thrust of Carr’s piece is that the web encourages us to skim and is re-wiring our brains so much that we’re unable to read and concentrate deeply anymore. Moreover, this fuelled by Google’s desire to earn click revenue from this kind of behaviour – this was the conspiracy theory aspect that Asi felt was a step too far, whilst he identified with the skimming behaviour.

Carr draws upon the work of developmental psychologist, Maryanne Wolf, to explain that, “Reading is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is.” Except that speech probably isn’t etched into our genes in that way. According to Steven Pinker and others, the form of language arises from the way with conceive of and perceive the world, not the other way around as Linguistic Determinism would have us believe.

Carr quotes a study from University College London that examined how users use a database of journal articles, e-books and other written material:

“Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.”

(Carr doesn’t provide a reference, by the way, but you can find a PDF of the report from the British Library and download the full study from UCL).

Underlying all of this is the notion that deep reading of long passages is inherently ‘smarter’ reading than skimming, browsing, clicking and hopping. This goes hand in hand with the idea that retaining information makes us smart. It’s no wonder – the way we are educated places great emphasis on the ability to regurgitate information in exams, but that, as many educators know, tends to encourage surface as opposed to deep learning.

Very crudely, surface learning is about learning facts and ideas uncritically and deep learning is about tying ideas and concepts together and making links between them. Which one of those sounds more like reading online? (In case it’s not obvious to you ‘dumb’ people out there – I’m suggesting it’s the latter.)

As Asi points out, is a kind of repository of stuff that I may never go and read again, as is the “To Read” folder permanently on my desktop. But these are like über notes – rather than my scrawled lines, I have a link to the original material, some of which makes it into my own personal databases.

As is often the case with notes, I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now. The act of saving the article or posting it to helps me remember that it exists at all. Not only that, but it helps me find other links to material I never knew about, which is largely Steven Johnson’s point about serendipitous learning (the ultimate in serendipity has to be StumbleUpon).

Bear in mind that the study Carr quotes was in partnership with the British Library and that studies often ‘find’ what you are looking for in the first place. This part of the report that looks at the truth in the ‘Google Generation’ myths stuck out for me:

They prefer quick information in the form of easily digested chunks, rather than full text

Our verdict: This is a myth. CIBER deep log studies show that, from undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, `?icking’ behaviour in digital libraries. Power browsing and viewing appear to be the norm for all. The popularity of abstracts among older researchers rather gives the game away. Society is dumbing down.

Hang on. It’s quite a leap to say that ‘power browsing’ means society is dumbing down. Do they really mean that all those students, postgraduates and professors are dumber? It’s not easy to get a professorship or a postgraduate degree (which tend to be the most research intensive). My experience and impression is that it is often much harder than it used to be.

Could it not be that the ‘older researchers’ research differently because that’s simply what they are used to? Or maybe they haven’t ‘smarted up’ yet. The study notes this ‘pre-digital’ memory as being a factor in the different styles.

I think people use Google not just because it’s easier, but it fits the way with think better than most research library databases, which tend to have dreadful interfaces and force researchers to think like a database programmer, not like a person.

The ‘smart’ that the study defines is really about knowing the foibles of these systems; it’s got little to do with actual learning. The study notes this: “young people do not ?nd library-sponsored resources intuitive and therefore prefer to use Google or Yahoo instead”.

The problem isn’t the dumbness of the searchers, it’s the dumbness of the interface. Academic databases are really quite rigid and linear as research tools and they don’t encourage much in the way of joined-up, linked and network thinking.

Knowing how to apply and connect knowledge and information is a much more important (and future-proof) skill than simply knowing the information, but most educational institutions are used to being guardians of knowledge and information, which is why they’re panicking. What we used to think of as smart may not be anymore (and it’s probably why hot-housing your kids doesn’t work).

Ironically, given Carr’s reading of Google through the lens of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s industrial efficiency, it is precisely this Industrial Revolution style of thinking that we’re moving away from. Pat Kane argues the point in The Play Ethic:

“[F]or the culture of industrialism, in which an individual’s submission to routine is what is most valued, a network society is something of a disaster. The industrial mindset is too brittle to cope with the way that networks operate.”

What we are seeing in the transformation of media, advertising and marketing, learning and teaching, and culture in general is that the way we used to measure the value of any of those things no longer works the way it used to. It’s not that those things suddenly have less value or are dumbed down, but that we’re not measuring them fairly or correctly. (For a brilliant treatise on this, see Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You.)

Reading a book is a different experience than surfing the web, but you’re in dangerous and murky Andrew Keen territory to make the qualitative judgements Carr comes up with, as Asi notes. Reading a long, linear book is no guarantee that it’s automatically a deeper, more learned experience. (Have these people ever read John Grisham?).

So, I’ve just spent nearly two hours putting together this post – reading lots of material and becoming aware of a great deal more that I’ll look up when I need it, just as Einstein did. I’m reasonably sure he wasn’t that dumb. Am I?