Reflecting or objectives?

In the final week of the #OpenEdMOOC, I learned some connections that I had not been aware of: How openness is also related to learning analytics and algorithms. I had been familiar with the idea that algorithms must be transparent (mainly via K. Zweig and her and I participated in the ‘data donation’ that took place before our federal election in September and attempted to get this transparency. But I had not thought about how companies would be tempted to abuse student data when they are trying to sell their ‘secret sauce’ of learning — although I had been skeptical against such recipes before.

At least now, this MOOC paid off for me, and it was the first one after a long time that I did not drop out before the last week. So I want to share what I noticed about my own learning and motivation and reluctance.

There were elements that motivated me to reflect and engage, and there were elements that put me off. The latter ones often included a task, or an objective, or the big final project, and I was surprised about myself how often the edX platform with its rigid goal-directed framing, increased my reluctance to ‘obey’. For example, the ‘prompts’, the ‘due dates’, the ‘next’ button, the ‘activities’, and in particular the size of the ‘project’: a 1 hour lesson. (I did not mind writing the three little essays in CCK08 despite I was not a for-credit learner because this felt like just the right size for voluntary engagement.)

I don’t doubt that such tight pacing, or ‘lock-step’ walkthrough, across a wide field of content might be useful for some at-risk learners. But I think many adult learners do not like such a tight prescriptive style, and for workplace learning such formal structures are even more unpopular.

But even worse: I noticed that for me, such MOOC ‘objectives’ (“Detail how…”, “Describe how…”) actually inhibit reflections in the sense of: What struck me as susprising or salient or resonating?. Because, for the latter, a ‘broad vigilant attention’ is needed (sorry for borrowing once again from McGilchrist), while the guiding objectives switch off this kind of attention and turn over to a ‘narrow focus’ kind of attention, to follow the tip of the teacher’s pointer stick, so to speak. So, the well-meant suggestions for ‘activity’ may just put off from reflective activity — and maybe this is why reflecting is so unpopular among pressed students?

Image: adapted from Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing (under CC-BY-SA) and Rodin (Public Domain).

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What counts as effectiveness?

Week 5 of #OpenEdMOOC is about “Research on OER Impact and Effectiveness”. Certainly, OER adoption would somewhat increase if this research could prove that OERs do function equally well as commercial textbooks. To prove this, the research would have to copy the goals and measures from the traditional expectations that people have. I think there is a danger, then, that such expectations focus too much on how easily stuff can be ingested — a Nuremberg Funnel would be the ideal exchange value for the many dollars of a commercial textbook, wouldn’t it?

But such a measure of effectiveness would be questionable. In my own discipline, math, we have the saying: “A king’s road to mathematics does not exist.” There are, instead, two completely different goals. One is to learn how to apply the rules for the necessary calculations that you may have to carry out in later life. The other one is to learn mathematical thinking. If you focus on making the former as easy as possible (which is a legitimate goal), it is less probable that mathematical thinking emerges. For example, if you always have perfect pictures, visualisations and simulations in your textbook media, you will memorize the concepts and procedures quicker, but you won’t develop the ability to visualize difficult relationships on your own, i.e., if the abstract is made less abstract for you, you won’t learn from it how to cope with new abstract things.

To repeat an older metaphor: If we compare learning to carrying a load upstairs to the attic storage, there are two distinct goals. One is that the load should be stored up there, and the other is to work out one’s muscles. If it is only necessary that the stuff is accumulated up there in our brain, a ‘lift’ would be a welcome optimization.

Picture: ‘Attic storage’ by Flickr user adriane_l CC-BY

So, if measuring the ‘effectiveness’ is mainly about knowledge content and about storing it safely away (in a compressed way, i.e. in isolated chunks that are typical for ‘left-brained’ thinking), it will be very unbalanced.

Measuring OERs, by contrast, offers the opportunity to try out and define new criteria. An obvious new affordance is that you practice your mental ‘muscles‘ more if you have to find your stuff on the web, by navigating and traversing the very connections that ‘are’ the knowledge. But there is much more to research of distributed learning, and much of what I wrote 9 years ago in week 12 of CCK08, does still apply.

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Finding or creating OERs

Week 4 of OpenEdMOOC is about Creating, Finding, and Using Open Educational Resources. I don’t plan do fulfill the task of delivering a 1 hour lecture using OERs, but I was curious how much I would be able to find and how much I would need to create by myself. I was surprised how easy it was to find things.  This is the short message of this post.

If you are interested in a little example from the History of Data Communication, read on.

I have long thought that one day I should create a little graphic, perhaps even an animation, about the OSI 7 layers model, because whenever I saw such a graphic on the web, I was frustrated that it did not emphasize the few aspects that I found fascinating when we built prototype OSI networks.

The basic idea of the services is very simple: Think of two 7-story buildings. In the left-hand one, on the 7th floor, someone wants to send a message to their peer on the 7th floor of the other building. For this purpose, he or she just turns to their aides on the floor below to get this done, without need to think about how all the lower 6 floors of all buildings will collectively delivery that service. The aides on floor 6, in turn, use the services of the all the lower 5 floors in just the same way, and so on.

Now all graphical descriptions that I had seen on the web, enumerated the seven services one after the other, in a loveless way, as if it was a bothersome obligation, such that the listener (if he was not yet asleep) found himself wondering: now what is the difference between transport layer (4) and network layer (3) whose descriptions sounded pretty much the same? (Or likewise, between TCP and IP?) Graphics that left out any 3-floor buildings in between, did not make clear the relaying and routing function of layer 3 and the end-to-end function of layer 4.

Today, the first OER that I found was sufficiently emphasizing both sorts of stacks. I think this is good news.

Source: lecture 1, slide 18, from MIT OCW, CC-BY-NC-SA.

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Working memory

The short-term memory (or working memory) is a device with wonderful capabilities, and it is a pity that it is often seen as just a bothersome pre-stage of the aspired long-term memory.

It plays a great role in processing both temporal and spatial perceptions. Baddeley’s model contains, among others, the “phonological loop” (audio over time) and the “visuo-spatial sketchpad”. And these dimensions are closely related:

  • Vision is not exactly like a photographic snapshot at a specific point in time. Rather, our eyes cover only a small area of our viewport at a time (like a torch flashing for short moments to light up a single spot in front of us us). As Nick Sousanis put it, they are “dancing and darting”, and we need to fill in all the rest of the picture from our memory, to connect the “disconnected snapshots” and make the view complete (“Unflattening”, p. 90, with a reference to E. Pelaprat and M. Cole.)

Photo by Flickr user stormcab, CC-BY-NC-SA

Photo by Flickr user stormcab, CC BY-NC-SA

  • A well-known study showing the increased hippocampus brain region of London taxi drivers, is often used to demonstrate their increased spatial sense of orientation. But a taxi route through London is also a temporal, sequential performance.

Now, the spatial and temporal functions may be not only be interrelated. Stephen Downes now expressed the idea that they are indeed similar:

“we perceive objects in time in the same way we perceive objects in space.” And “what about persistence across time? […] how do we distinguish between something that is fleeting and ephemeral and something that is (more or less) object-permanent? Enter working memory.”

This is a plausible idea, and it is fascinating, in particular in the light of McGilchrist’s account of isolating (spatially) and fixing (temporally) and of how similarly they are done by what he calls the emissary.

Downes then applies his new idea to the Cognitive Load Theory. This theory, which is often used in a ‘folk theory’ way, does not only remind us that the working memory is limited (to the famous 7 +- 2 ‘chunks’ of objects), but it also has a tendency to argue against broad presentations (simultaneous, rich) such as multimedial ones, and in favor for longer, slower, sequential approaches. But Downes suggests that

“cognitive load isn’t really a measure of the number of objects we are presented, but the length of time it takes to present the objects.”

Perhaps the perceived ‘load’ is greater when it takes longer before we are able to connect the sequential objects? Such that the number of unconnected objects causes the pain? This would be rather the opposite of what the Cognitive Load Theory suggests: that the integration of multiple items (e.g. visual and verbal) means effort and load. As I understand it, this effort is posited as a given.

(BTW There is a similar, posited effort that bugs me, in the theory of “split attention” by Chandler and Sweller. It would mean that there is increased effort to ‘dart’ one’s eyes into the upper right corner of my think tool (an offloaded ‘visuo-spatial sketchpad’). But this totally contradicts my experience, and it probably ignores that a saccadic eye motion (as shown in the picture above) is different from an intentional search for an item on a viewport. But this is another story.)

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‘Text’-book ?

I am no longer on a campus and won’t do the evangelism task of OpenEdMOOC week 3. However, I will at least think about what would be the most urgent cases to address.

There is a wide range of cases for open access, from the one extreme where a publisher just steps in between author and readers and demands money for no service, right through to cases where a large work is assembled through the coordination of many authors including perpetual improvements and enhancements. Textbooks often fall into the latter category, and they are explicitly excluded from the barrier regulations limiting copyright in favor of science and education in Germany.

An important occasion to copy from a textbook is when it contains a great instructional graphic. (Despite the English term ‘text’-book suggests that the text is more important; but in German it is called the equivalent of ‘teach-book’.)

From J. M. Flagg’s famous Uncle Sam poster,

An image says more than 1000 words, and the careful selection of what to show and how to highlight the salient features, is certainly a great intellectual merit. Which deserves credit. But what is protected by copyright is not this idea (at least over here) but merely the ‘work’.

So, what if we take the idea for the picture and draw a new picture, modelled after the antetype of the given one? (Of course not just by following all contours through a sandwich paper or foil.) And then attribute the creator of the original image? According to my legal understanding (which is, of course, not professional) this should comply with the requirements that the work is commercially protected while the idea needs scholarly attribution and credit.

But it is not easy to do such drawings. I tried to redraw some outline of J. M. Flagg’s famous Uncle Sam picture, and miserably failed. (On this occasion I learned that also Flaggs copied the idea from a British precursor).

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The trap of copyright

I liked Wiley’s description of the current copyright situation as a trap (“it can feel really trapping”, 8.24′). Much of what sounds intuitively reasonable is prohibited when a copy of knowledge is treated as economic ‘property’ despite it just doesn’t fit this category in many ways (e.g. the copy is no longer a scarce value, and you can’t inspect it before purchase, you cannot return it and ‘unknow’ it, and so on).

Photo: Trap by Flickr user aydun cc-by

In practice, many try to ignore this trap. For example, when they use the ‘work’ of a textbook image in their course, they often confuse quotation rights with work use rights: if they don’t “critically engage with” the quoted part, they don’t qualify for the former kind of right. Which is meant to apply to an idea which is usually not protected against exploitation but to be tracked for credit and validity. By ignoring this, they won’t notice just how much the trap impedes their teaching even behind a Moodle wall.

Others try to argue ideologically or emotionally, by equating all IP: the rights of a small painter (who makes a living with his works) to the work of a tenured person who writes their books “on their own time” — which nobody dares to critically distinguish from his total time outside the classroom.

But most authors seem to put up with the trap. The prestigious journal is dictator, and they have learned (during their many years as adjunct slaves) that resistance is futile? Wiley has great responses to such kind of senior faculty:

“the only people tying us to the old system is us.”


“science advances one funeral at a time.”


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OpenEdMOOC Test

Testing as recommended on this page:

Course  > Week 1: Why Open Matters  > Getting Ready for the Course  > Course Activities Overview

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Small differences

I have long admired how iMapping uses small differences to make a big change in the User Experience of this interesting think tool.

For example, its “targeted zooming”: If you happen to remember where a desired detail is located on their big overview map, you can directly click it. This does not seem like a big deal because we are used to zooming through several zoom levels and we don’t mind this, really, because we don’t think about the additional steps any more. But each step increases the danger of being distracted by the patronizing user interface — and adds friction to the mind’s operation.

(On the way back, then, I might prefer the step-by-step navigation which is also offered, via Esc, to avoid the ‘sea-sick’ effect known from Prezi.)

Now they have introduced a new export format that has a similar (small & beneficial) effect (and this is indirectly also available to my condensr users who export to iMapping): “Setevi” = Semantic Text View. It allows to selectively expand or collapse the individual items, according to the user’s wishes (personal, not just personalized by the system). One might think: so what — didn’t Dave Winer’s do just that long ago? But the small difference is that Setevi conserves as much space as possible. And so, even a page with many expanded levels won’t get too long — which, in turn, makes it easier to discover similarities and hidden conceptual connections.

(Furthermore, the affordance of personal adjustment within a page, reminds me of the idea of Hyperscope that was derived from Doug Engelbart’s later work.)

Unfortunately, such small differences don’t seem to get much attention from empirical academic studies. Probably, the risk is too high that they won’t yield a neat success within the time-span of a thesis or funded project?

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Mental flexors and extensors

Cathleen MacDonald of @divided_brain asks

“we’re creating a free brain health quiz to raise awareness/educate. What issues need attention?”

and my response does not fit in 140 characters:

I trust that this quiz will not become just a personality self-test (“Are you left brained or right-brained?”) like those that entertained us in the 60s but probably damaged the reputation of any consideration of styles, for decades. And I hope it will not be just a test with “true or false” questions and with the goal of accumulating a maximal number of scores — because such an activity would onty cater to the one mode of operation that McGilchrist compares to a bird’s picking of a grain, using narrow focussed attention.

Rather, the attention involved here, should resemble his opposite comparison: an animal’s broad vigilant attention to detect a predator among twigs in the twilight. So, perhaps the linear list of quiz questions could be enriched by some broader, laminar, picture tasks? Such as a ‘busy scenes’ picture (like “Where is Waldo”), or a task with concepts to be connected or rearranged (like my condensr), or an exploration of some dispersed items (like the doors of an Advent calendar) ?

To spot the ‘predator’ of mental health, it is probably not useful to watch out for the extreme symptoms of an unhealthy unbalance of the two modes. Rather, it is necessary to understand how each of these two modes works in the normal, day to day, operation.

Image: Wikipedia

In my view, McGilchrist’s “Master” and “Emissary” modes are the mind’s equivalent of what bending and stretching are for the body: they are both involved in almost every activity, and if they are not in balance, we fall.

So we need to understand the ‘flexors’ and ‘extensors’ of brain operation, and we need to identify their respective contribution to the balance in everyday behaviors.

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Tools vs. practice

Jim McGee wrote a great piece on tools and practices. He argues that the ease of getting started with the first 5% is deceptive.

“We focus on the details of particular features and functions at the expense of ignoring the cognitive challenges of deep thought and collaborative work.”

I think it is important that we distinguish between “deep thought and collaborative work”. Tools for these two coincide only for roughly 5%.

It is useful, though, to recall that these 5% did have their merit. Almost 10 years ago, I wrote for my users (in German, here,) “What does my personal productivity have to do with ‘social’ software tools? … users use the same tools [for both].” (In particular, social bookmarks and annotations thrived because they were selfishly provided but were useful to others, and on the other hand, blogs and wikis often served also as notes to self.)

Also, I would like to defend the ease of getting started. Trying out a new tool is a risky investment of time. But there is no way of evaluating a think tool without personally trying it out. The closer it is to the mind, the more it can be compared to a tight garment which must perfectly fit.

For ‘deep thinking’, tools need to be more than just logistics (storage and transport) of thoughts. (In his recent blog post on Intelligence Augmentation, Clark Quinn tackled the tight integration of the ‘cognitive and computational architectures’ by carefully carving out some aspects of what the latter can do well — details, repetition, find correlations.)

Now for collaboration, the ‘tight garment’ cannot fit multiple persons simultaneously. A sad practice is often that the group settles on the least common denominator (email) because a stubborn member (the boss?) refuses to try out a better way.

Here it is useful to distinguish between passive acceptance/ refusal, and active choice of one’s pet function. And then apply Postel’s Principle: “Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept“. For example, messages without subject line or with the repeated, misleading subject line, are read but should still be avoided. The trick is then to try out what range of choices are tolerable for everyone to accept — not only which features optimally cater to individual expressiveness.

In practice, important examples of differing tastes are: How much should be sent across ‘push’ channels as opposed to ‘pull’ channels, or: where is more divergent information appropriate and where should convergent contributions prevail. Often, the intervention of a stout-hearted but gentle personality such as the ‘wiki gardener’ is needed. So, to answer Jim’s question “Where are good places to look?“: in gardening 🙂 His guess, software development, does not sound too promising to me — despite the GitHub workflow appears like magic — because tt requires more discipline than is usually accepted.

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