Stubborn school administrations

Inspired by Downes’s super collection of ideas, and appalled by the discussion 1) in our country about keeping full presence classes, I need to write down some thoughts despite I am not a practitioner in this extremely difficult craft.

Of course I can imagine how terrible the weeks with closed schools have been, thinking of a family in a small flat having children doing their online classes and caring for younger siblings while parents are trying to combine home office with explaining content to kids. And yes, this widens the social gap.

But what I hear everywhere is only about the conditions, not about the objectives. Why don’t we consider

  • drastically reduced curriculum content,
  • drastically reduced summative assessments,
  • and drastically refocussing on independent learning competencies?

We have an emergency! We cannot stubbornly stick to the prescribed catalog of facts to cram into pupils. I am old enough that the narrations of war and post-war plight from my parents were very vivid to me. In WWII, several cohorts had to do a “Not-Abitur” ( = emergency A-levels), and my elementary school teacher’s training was reduced to two years. But he became a great teacher. In Grammar School, we had a “Kurzschuljahr” (= shortened school year) when the start was switched from Easter to summer. And more recently, they made the experiment of “G8” (8 instead of 9 years). All without leading to the End of the world.

Instead of questioning the prescribed objectives, I hear everywhere just lamenting about, or arguing for, the changed circumstances,

  • the technology (which many have just obstinately ignored for 20 years),
  • asynchronous vs. synchronous,
  • without vs. with eye contact and “togetherness” (Bates),
  • and the feat of creating motivation for what pupils normally just let wash over them.

Of course, “ceteris paribus” ( = all other staying equal) this is impossible. Asynchronous mode furthers, but also requires, more independent work, which cannot quickly be learned in addition to all the traditional subject matter. But isn’t independent thinking the ultimate goal that is normally the effect of dealing with all the McGuffin of content?

(Yes there is content that may need to be quickly acquired. How the ventilator in the ICU works, for example, cannot wait for independent insight by the student. If some effective “Nuremberg Funnel” can optimally animate or simulate the necessary theoretical knowledge, we will welcome it, although it might skip the fostering of independent learning.)

For remote learning, without permanently being nudged, it is much more important to have an honest and plausible justification of why the stuff is relevant. A desired Unit 1 may require some Unit 2 for understanding, and in turn, Unit 2 may presuppose some Unit 3. In a flipped classroom, all this is flipped upside down. No longer does the teacher do the sequencing (Unit 3 > Unit 2 > Unit 1) to push stuff to the learners. Instead, the dependencies may be discussed on the face-to-face day preceding the canned-stuff day, and then the pupils pull the units themselves.

A rhizome
Pulling out a rhizome. Click for a post from #rhizo14

1) This Tweet shows a snippet from a German newspaper quoting a notice from the regional government in Münster to teachers: “Parents […], local politicians […] and colleagues don’t want to hear that you have doubts — but that school is a safe place.

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Reading in the Digital Age

The new book by @gerhardlauer challenges “the gloomy song” “of the end of the book and the end of reading” (p. 222).

Particularly, I liked the recurring emphasis on “the cultural technique of mastering the switching” (p. 51) between the different formats, “the fluid switching between these modes of reading, […] organ stops of reading” (p. 171), “the metacognitive capabilities: to know which reading mode is suitable for which reading” (p. 170). Also, how we “become symbiotic with our computer” (p. 72).

Lesen im digitalen Zeitalter

The most interesting new thing I learned was the historical role of the “immersive, self-absorbed reading that is fevered with its heroes.” (p. 36): It was “the ideal way of bourgeois individuation and thus also the necessary condition for the implementation of a bourgeois public.” (p. 36); “Books and the bourgeoisie are relatives” (p. 37).

This is a better explanation for why immersive reading is so much idealized, better than arguing if it is really so uniquely valuable.

(All translations are mine and unprofessional.)

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Didactic sliders

I liked the idea of the sliders by Krommer, Klee & Wampfler (in particular, “As much simple technology as possible“), and I reused it in my simple Tool:

A screenshot of the task
Click to play

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Service interface

In his latest presentation, Stephen Downes again explained personalized learning. It occurred to me that the problem with this is very similar to what I don’t like about the current trend with personal productivity tools, such as some new note-taking apps:

There is a service interface. There is a system that interacts with you, not a helping tool that you can wield like a hammer.

It feels both pampering and patronizing, and more ‘push’ than ‘pull’. By Krakauer’s terms, the service is competitive (prosthesis) rather than complementary (real tool).

Sure, you need to contribute and enter stuff yourself. But the expectation is that the system will optimze it for you. For example, some note-taking systems will be generating automatic ‘serendipitous’ backlinks of your hoarded notes, as an ‘idea factory’ that makes you more productive and saves you effort.

Similarly, interactive textbooks do require your input, but the interactivity is typically confined to a sequence of requests and response presentations, with reading separated from writing, rather than ‘collaboratively’ creating an artifact for insight which would be possible, for example, by flexible mapping and annotation.

The predefined optimized service interface separates the system like an independent actor, whose contribution is perceived as a separate unit of independent work.

And such a system creates and reinforces expectations, and eventually an attitude of entitlement to get some turbo results with less efforts. This prospect is, of course, more sexy than my think tool which works more like a hammer (i.e. you have to do the thinking yourself). Similarly, Downes’s self-directed personal learning might be seen as less attractive than personalized learning?

A vending machine whose display shows idea icons (light bulbs).

I wonder if there is also a difference between paid learning and free learning involved. Does the paying impact the expectation of more effortless, more turbo learning? When I was at school, we belittled the few private grammar schools as something for the stupid among the rich. So, Jan Blommaert’s summary resonates a lot with me:

“I grew up and studied in the welfare-state educational system of Belgium, […] I’m very much a product of a big and structural collective effort performed by people who did not know me – taxpayers”

Today, of course, much has changed also over here in Germany. Maybe “Taking Ownership of Their Learning” (as in the presentation title) is unattractive when someone already feels “owning” it because it was paid for?

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Intelligent textbooks, rejected

I submitted a short paper to “intelligent textbook” researchers, arguing that we are still stuck in the 2-dimensional page paradigm, and offered a link to an interactive alternative in the references. As expected, they rejected the paper, and probably they did not notice how much their response confirmed my observation:

They wanted a diagram, instead.

(I deliberately did not include a static diagram because it is only after immersing for a few minutes in the interactive app that one appreciates the difference.)

Here is the paper


and here are the reviews:

----------------------- REVIEW 1 ---------------------
TITLE: Split Pane Interactivity
AUTHORS: Matthias Melcher

----------- Overall evaluation -----------
SCORE: -1 (weak reject)
----- TEXT:
Roughly the first two pages are irrelevant. The paper 
boils down to a claim that replacing pop-ups tied to 
the position of the item being referenced with the 
equivalent text being displayed in a fixed location 
is superior. This could have been explained far more 
clearly and succinctly without invoking the irrelevant 
issue of 2D interfaces being unchanged from paper. 
There is no empirical support for the claim, or even 
a significant argument that the claim should be true.

----------------------- REVIEW 2 ---------------------
TITLE: Split Pane Interactivity
AUTHORS: Matthias Melcher

----------- Overall evaluation -----------
SCORE: -2 (reject)
----- TEXT:
This opinion article advocates for alternatives to 
the conventional 2-dimensional page paradigm. 
Unfortunately, the article is hard to understand and 
I was not able to follow the main thesis:
* I am unfamiliar with split attention theory and 
the author doesn't define it
* I am unfamiliar with drone and ballistic design 
principles and the author doesn't define them

I recommend the author to work on the presentation 
of the main point(s).  Perhaps a diagram of what the 
author means by "split pane interactivity" could be 
helpful? Perhaps writing the paper in a more 
traditional "academic" structure could help readers 
understand the author's intent better?
The paper was rejected and the response unintendely confirmed
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Large maps

After describing two other use cases of my think tool

I am going to describe a third type of maps: very large maps.

This use case is the one that is most similar to cartographic maps, and its purpose is to show many connector lines (‘roads’ and ‘streets’) and detailed items (‘villages’ and ‘towns’) but, at the same time, to retain a sense of orientation and gestalt. The orientation to see similar items in close proximity, and the gestalt to see recognizable patterns and clusters of similar items.

(Ideally, then, one would discover new connections within the condensed topic space. Or at least, become somewhat familiar with a new knowledge domain, by merely fiddling around and juggling a lot of its items.)

So, unlike many popular data visualizations, the map should not be an amorphous cloud of fancy arcs and tiny dots with random sampling just for marveling at, but rather, show identifiable connector lines and ‘palpable’, rearrangeable, items.

The orientation makes a difference that can best be seen in the short video here:

which is contrasting a navigation across an amorphous database, to a navigation based on spatial proximity respresenting the content similarity.

Now, the latest release of my tool offers some functions for teasing out how complex such a map might become before we are losing that sense of orientation. Max out the showable complexity by filtering more or less items and connections.

Originally, this third use case was not an intended application of the think tool. Rather, it emerged over time through single special maps as by-products. Click the examples below to see the respective posts.

Luhmann’s zettels

Folders (2)
Folders (1)
Words (2)
Words (1)
Forums posts
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Sense-making workflow

In a previous post I showed screenshots of processing my own notes and ideas. Here, I want to describe how I use my tool trying to make sense of an existing text by someone else.

This example is the extreme opposite of the former: It was a long text, and because it was a difficult one for me, I used a “close reading” option to split it up into single sentences, and I did not add many thoughts of my own.

What you see below is the raw text pasted onto the canvas, each icon representing one sentence. Most icons’ labels don’t contain words yet. While reading one sentence after another in the detail pane on the right, I add a few important words to the label by selecting them in the right pane and pressing “B+” (Bold special). Similarly, I successively add the connector lines.

Raw unconnected itemsMost of the connector lines simply echo the sequence and hierarchy of sections and sentences. If the content of two distanced items is related, I use a different color (often yellow).

Connected iconsNext I recolored the connector lines.

Colored connector linresAnd finally i rearranged the map a bit. (Take a close look on the demo site.)

Rearranged final screenshotOf course, the map still looks dauntingly confusing, but I have learned a lot while making it. Note that I don’t normally use such a map to show it off to someone else.

Sometimes, I draw another map with reduced content. Many of my maps contain an entire paragraph per icon. Many contain additional items with my own comments, typically yellow icons simulating sticky post-its.

A few more details:

Sometimes, a paragraph does not contain content that is interesting enough to label it; then I re-color it into “pale”. Sometimes, the train of thought is only loosely connected, then I color the line “pale”. Some items represent headings, which I’ve come to recolor blue (because it is not too obtrusive). However, when I cluster some items around a “tag”, I often use red color for the tag, like it was a town on a geographical map which is surrounded by villages. The direction of the arrow lines does not really mean anything; often I just point them towards a major “town” just to preserve legibility.

Splitting up a text into paragraphs or sentences is not always satisfactory. In the above example, I found image captions or other inserts — but they can quickly be removed. Othertimes an abbreviation period or a running title disrupts a thought into two items — but they can quickly be connected. Conversely, when I think an item should be split, it is easy to copy and paste some part of it as separate item (Rightclick > Advanced > Paste here). I also used “Copy as list” a few times. For lazy labeling, I mostly use the existing words from the detail pane, even if the grammar of the label line then becomes awful. Rarely I type more text other than question marks, ampersands, commas etc.

Finally, I try not to forget to copy and paste the source URL (yielding a pale icon labeled “Source”), because the idea of thought-condensing only works when I can quickly get back to the uncondensed versions.

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Remote work (updated)

Updated 2020-03-12: Of course it’s too late now to create a robust version of the synchronous whiteboard described below, too late for the current ‘Great Online-Learning Experiment’. I like CogDog’s advice to do “what the best teachers always do- improvise, change up on the fly when things change.” So maybe distribute and merge some copies of the map manually. See also Stephen Downes’s impressive list of tools, and his comment “We’ve had 25 years to be considered, careful, slow, and deliberate. Now it’s time to just start doing it.” (25 years)

Quick summary of a post and a video I made before the virus occasion.

Large walls of post-its are really very important to get a richer picture of a big project. But how does a large mural full of post-its fit on a screen? When you zoom-in so much that you can read the small print (as the participants standing at the mural can) the famous overview gets lost. But shouldn’t such a technical issue be solved by today? The video shows my proof of concept, using

Here, the details of an item are shown in a fixed corner. And despite what outdated doctrines still demand, they are not displayed close to the item, but where your eyes dart effortlessly, with ballistic saccades.Pictograms: three buildings connected across the globe

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Notes workflow

In a previous post and video I described the workflow of my notes processing in an abbreviated sample demonstration. Now here are three screenshots of the authentic processing.

Note that this procedure applies only to my most precious notes which are not just related to a single project or topic. Still, of course, most of the daily stuff goes quickly to the project folders of the Operating System!

The grey icons below are the 61 precious notes I recorded since Nov 18, in raw chronological sequence, after revisiting them again, and after assigning them provisionally to some existing categories which are shown as green and black icons. The most interesting items are shown as red icons: these denote clusters of notes that might justify a new category.

Screenshot of stage1: note items are connected to categories but not yet rearranged

On the next screenshot below, the clusters are rearranged to facilitate another close examination, one cluster after another. Some cross references shown as yellow lines represent my doubts about the category assignment — and they may later be implemented as “see also” links/ pingbacks in my local WordPress.

Screenshot of stage 2: category revising in progress

On the final screenshot, the assignments are ready for the export to a WordPress WXR import file. One candidate for a new category (in red) has survived the process.

Screenshot of stage 3: ready for exporting to WordPressIt is probably obvious that all this effort is not just for quick retrieval of notes. If I do remember a keyword to search for, I can of course use the full text search of my WordPress. It is for browsing to find patterns that might not have a name yet.

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Aaron Davis linked to an important article from 2017 by Tim Requarth of Slate Magazine about “closing the ‘information gap'” (via OLDaily).

“lectures from scientists built on the premise that they simply know more (even if it’s true) fail to convince this audience”

A gap in the pavement.

The article resonated with me in several respects:


“They may have more luck communicating if […] spending time on why it matters to the author”

This reminded me of the problems that many have with learning the style of scientific papers. Everybody agrees that such papers have to be emotionless and sober, and everybody complains that they are boring and tiring. Of course, the author must not employ emotional rhetoric to try and sway the reader into believing an unsupported claim and compensate for its weak evidence. But reading would be much easier if the author emphasized why some aspects are more important to them, and why they are passionate to find a convincing solution.

But — as if they were not able to distinguish these two kinds of emotions — most authors cultivate a special style that not only sounds maximally unbiased, impartial and emotionless, but also escapes into weird, rare and distanced words, and eventually conveys the impression of disinterest and disrespect and even arrogance towards the reader. I acknowledge that developing such a habit is not easy, and once acquired, this style becomes the hallmark of scholarly ‘speak’ that shines through in each and every public utterance. Certainly, some scientists may be so frustrated about the academic atmosphere of envy and elbow rule that they have indeed become blunted and emotionless, doing without passion whatever the funding agencies currently want to hear.


“communicators can be more effective after they’ve gained the audience’s trust. “

This is the most important, and seems obvious to me: trust has been lost, and the gap has become too wide.


“it may be more worthwhile to figure out how to talk about science with people they already know, through, say, local and community interactions, than it is to try to publish explainers on national news sites”

This reminds me of Downes’s successful networks, which are not centralized hub and spoke networks, but those that work through a ripple effect and propagate the messages on trusted shorter pathways.

In a polarized environment, we cannot expect that someone abruptly changes their mind against all of the closest acquaintances, without gradually seeing their neighborhood rethink, too.

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