Predictions

My prediction for the upcoming year is that Luddism will gain traction. And we should take it seriously.

Up to now, technophobes tended to be quiet in a niche trying to conceal that they were apparently more IT illiterate than their acquaintances. Now it becomes clear how far left behind many others are, too, most notably the schools who have practically ignored and slept away the development of the last 20 years.

Many have never been comfortable navigating the web until the big platforms prescribed them what to see in their stream. Many have never been comfortable using a desktop computer for personal exchanges until Whatsapp offered them a crippled form of communication on the mobile.

Despite the plague, they just wanted to carry on as usual as much as possible, when they were suddenly forced to have the classroom right within their living room, and the crippled systems replaced big parts of their usual reality. Of course this makes angry. And it made them notice that ‘virtual’ is different from authentic and real.

Popular IT offerings have often focussed on noisy and colorful sounds, pictures, movies, or VR, to create a lively immersive experience similar to TV consumption. (Which was good for commerce but was not what the unique novel strengths of IT are: for example, simply sorting and rearranging large data sets, or overcoming the book’s limitations by simultaneously showing overview and detail.)

Now after many hours of zoom, people are craving for the real, the genuine and the authentic.

(A few avowed technophobes have always made a cult out of their craving for more haptic devices, such as their beloved fountain pens and their good-smelling notebooks. But the general trend has been even leading away from haptic affordances. For example, the very efficient ‘direct manipulation’ methods like drag and drop (e.g. dragging a file onto different apps) have largely been lost on the mobile where fingers cannot perform the same fine motor-skills as a mouse pointer.)

Now, the idea of the authentic and genuine is very important when we consider artificial intelligence. Yes, AI might eventually behave very much like a human, even create unique, individual artworks (simply by leveraging a random number generator.) This might even satisfy some desire for novelty, to overcome boredom, e.g. by juxtaposing a surprising combination of objects. (See some quotations of what McGilchrist writes about boredom and novelty here).

But some features of the human mind require authenticity. For example,

“Children eagerly imitate other human beings, but do not imitate mechanical devices that are carrying out the same actions.18 This is like the finding in adults that we make spontaneous movements signifying our involvement in events we are watching evolve – so long as we believe them to be the result of another’s action. Such movements are, however, absent when we believe that (in other respects identical) results have been generated by a computer rather than a living being.19” (McGilchrist p. 249; footnotes point to 18 Meltzoff, 1995, and 19 Prinz, 2005a, 2005b, see bibliography)

When we notice that we are being tricked by a fake, the functions are blocked, much like we would reject counterfeit money (my interpretation). So, we need to timely consider required legislation, of transparency and e.g. a mandatory labeling of artificial communication partners.

Kanchipurum silk weaving loom
Loom, by Jenny Mackness, CC-BY-NC

I think we should not just dismiss the concerns of upcoming Luddists as primitivist. Least of all the concern that machines might have more weight on the labor market than humans, because, same as in the original Ludd’s century, the new ‘looms‘ represent the capital.

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Visualizing my Twitter network

I follow exactly 100 twitterers (and frankly, I have no idea how I could deal with more). So I thought it would be nice to see how they follow each other.

Once the edge list was done, it was easy to create some visualisations using my tool — I wrote about them on the product site: http://condensr.de/2020/12/05/another-large-map-example/ .

I thought that I might see at least two major clusters: the elearning people and the personal knowledge management/ visualisation people. But it turned out that they are so much interconnected that most layouts show just one large hair ball.

Screenshot of an interactive H5P page that is linked to the image.
Click for the H5P interactive page

So I have to admit: it’s a bubble.

By the way, I color-coded two of the maps by gender. I wonder if 62 males and 34 females is too biased?

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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

split-pane-interactivity.pdf

and here are the reviews:

----------------------- REVIEW 1 ---------------------
SUBMISSION: 4
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 ---------------------
SUBMISSION: 4
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

Philosophers
Folders (2)
Folders (1)
Ancestry
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 Condensr.de:

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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