Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Carl Sagan on the Magic of Books (TftD #22)

Thought for the Day:

"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."

-- Carl Sagan, Cosmos Episode 11: The Persistance of Memory

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Sir Ken Robinson - The Swinging Pendulum of Ed Reform

Recently, in the TAG Workplace Learning Society group on LinkedIn, there was a posting of the famous TED Talk that Sir Ken Robinson gave in mid-2006.  A question was posed about how much in the educational world had (not) changed in the 7 years that have passed, and how people generally felt about the talk, in hindsight (" you think Sir Kenneth Robinson is having an impact other than making smart people laugh?").

I recall viewing Sir Ken's TED Talk shortly after it was originally posted in mid-2006 and hurriedly passing the link on to just about everyone on my contact list.  It was a breath of fresh air and it caught my attention and imagination.  Given that it's been viewed 20.3 million times (on TED's site alone - likely several multiples higher when considering other hosts, like YouTube), I wasn't alone with the excitement I felt and hopes that it might be a tipping point of change.

As with most things, there is always a ying to one's yang, and since Robinson has become an Ed Reform poster child (man?) there have been a few critics that have emerged.  I always like to listen and consider alternative viewpoints so I don't fall into the modern trap of a confirmational echo chamber, so you may find something of interest in one/both of the following randomly selected blog entries:

I share these alternative views to promote healthy conversation and appreciation of the complexity and nuances of the issue at hand.  Educational reform is a politically, logistically, and emotionally charged topic that cannot be 'fixed' with a few tweaks and adjustments.  I still like Robinson's talk very much, but time has mellowed my thinking a bit...

Do I think the overall message Robinson has called attention to is on the mark?  Yes.  I don't think there are many defenders of the status quo in terms of today's educational practices.  Do I think the critics have some interestingly valid points? Again, yes.  But I'm not sure that's a bad thing....

I think that Robinson may be taking the same approach that the Head of my grad school program (The Institute for the Learning Sciences), Dr. Roger Schank, adopted.  That is - say some things that are a bit extreme but have enough truth in them to get people to pause and think.  It's only after you get people's attention with the exaggerated claims ("all schools should be burned down") that critical thought and consideration is evoked, which leads to what (I believe) his real goal is - serious thought about how we can do better in education.  He isn't actually seeking people to line up and agree with him lock/stock/barrel (he openly says even he doesn't agree with some of the things he's said!) - he is a catalyst who makes claims towards the extreme end of the spectrum in order to get people to engage in discussions that are more mainstream.

(You can get a feel for Schank's positions and personality via:
(1) a video intro ( to Engines for Education (, a free "hyperbook" that I help get on the Internet back in the dark ages of the Web, or
(2) his blog, Education Outrage (

I agree that change can feel frustratingly slow in these times of instant everything, but considering how long the current system has been in place and how many supporting structures have been created to prevent change, reform efforts may actually be moving at a faster rate than one might expect.  It's pretty amazing that there are currently several working examples of MOOCs (warts and all) available to the curious masses for free, when MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative was launched barely a decade ago.  Systems of higher education that were centuries in the making are now teetering on the edge of pretty dramatic change, largely because of advances in technology and the ability of the market to accelerate the pace of change with their wallets and feet.

The K-12 world is less 'market-driven' (for better or worse, depending on your viewpoint), so the pace of change lags a bit, but the options available to parents and children for alternative programs that 'foster creativity and independent thought' (as Leigh Anne Lankford said), focus on less common subjects, or allow for a competency-driven instead of age-driven path through curricula is astoundingly greater than just a few years ago.

Educational change is inevitable, but we should not/cannot rest on that undeniable truth.  Work remains.

As Sci-Fi author William Gibson said, "The future is already here - it's just not evenly distributed."

Saturday, November 16, 2013

TftD #21

The nature of an innovation is that it will arise at a fringe where it can afford to become prevalent enough to establish its usefulness without being overwhelmed by the inertia of the orthodox system.

-- Kevin Kelly, Co-Founder of  WIRED magazine

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

TftD #20

I am not worried if scientists go and explain everything. This is for a very simple reason: an impala sprinting across the Savannah can be reduced to biomechanics, and Bach can be reduced to counterpoint, yet that does not decrease one iota our ability to shiver as we experience impalas leaping or Bach thundering. We can only gain and grow with each discovery that there is structure underlying the most accessible levels of things that fill us with awe.

But there is an even stronger reason why I am not afraid that scientists will inadvertently go and explain everything — it will never happen. While in certain realms, it may prove to be the case that science can explain anything, it will never explain everything. As should be obvious after all these pages, as part of the scientific process, for every question answered, a dozen newer ones are generated. And they are usually far more puzzling, more challenging than the prior problems. This was stated wonderfully in a quote by a geneticist named Haldane earlier in the century: ‘Life is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.’ We will never have our flames extinguished by knowledge.

The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder, but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.

-- Robert Sapolsky, The Trouble with Testosterone: And Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament (1998)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Idea: MOOC's Completion Problem and Loss Aversion

A few days ago, in the Instructional Design group on LinkedIn, Franciso Costa posted a thread about an upcoming MOOC on The Future of Storytelling. In a skimming rush, I misread the meaning behind the title, but it resulted in a 'happy accident' that triggered an idea....

One of the common criticisms of MOOCs is their generally low completion rate (most people who start a course do not finish it). Although it's arguable whether or not this actually IS a negative (different students have different goals, after all), if some future MOOC host does have the explicit goal of maximizing completion rates, I wonder if there might be an angle to play by exploiting most people's feelings about money and loss?

I'd originally misread the thread's title ("This course is for FREE with certificate") to mean that "if you complete the course and receive a certificate, it'll be free. Otherwise, (if you sign up but do NOT complete it), it'll cost you $X." 


This is clearly a knee-jerk idea that blossomed out of my reading haste and, thus, probably has some holes in it, but maybe there is something here.... Would this be a viable alternative approach to addressing the "completion problem" that might provide the extra 'umph' some learners need to stick with the course and see it through? Maybe it could be a sliding scale concept, where learners receive progressively larger discounts (starting at 0% and running up to 100%) with the number of sessions/modules/units they complete?

Does the whole psychological principle of "loss aversion" apply here?  Perhaps people will be more interested in NOT losing money than they are about gaining the (free!) knowledge/skills associated with the course's content (as sad a commentary as that may be)?

Thoughts? Thanks!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Future Has Arrived: Leap Motion

It was only a little over a decade ago that I went to the theater to see Minority Report with Tom Cruise and my jaw went slack over the computer UI of the future, based on gestures:

More recently, the theme returned in the Iron Man series:

Yesterday, the future arrived on my doorstep in the form of a small square box from Leap Motion Inc.

Although it's very clearly a cutting edge technology and the practical uses beyond novelty and games remains to be seen.... it's about the coolest thing I've played with in a while!  Sure, it has a few idiosyncrasies and takes a few moments to get acclimated to, but it is totally intuitive, it works, and it doesn't cost a ton (~$80).  I'm hoping the developer nation follows soon with some apps that take advantage of this advance, but until then, I'm going to enjoy being Tony Stark Jr.

Check it out:

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Irrelevance of Educational Horseless Carriages

A few weeks ago, a meme popped up within the Education community that put me a little on my heels, forcing me to reconsider the 'educational reform' question from an entirely different perspective.  I've been trying to noodle on my thoughts about it, but didn't want to postpone getting a posting up for too long, so...

The crux of the question/argument is grounded in the (quite common, these days) rant that the current (US) educational system is "broken" and the highest order attention should be invested in "fixing" it.

What if this perspective is well intended, but misguided?
What if the current educational system is actually awesome - arguably near perfect - at achieving its intended goals?
What if it'd be more productive to cease trying to "fix" it, but rather simply recognize what it was original designed to do and stop considering it to be some timeless 'silver bullet' to address society's ever changing needs?

What if the current educational systems isn't "broken" but is simply "irrelevant" (as Heather Hiles puts it)?

The current model was created for a variety of reasons, most of which were quasi-legitimate at the time (an Industrial Age demand for lots of similarly skilled/thinking workers to fuel the new demand for mass-produced goods may be the primary one.  See Roger Schank's "Making Minds Less Educated Than Our Own" for a deeper dig on why we are taught what we are taught).  But we are living in dramatically different times now, so wouldn't it naturally follow that the goals/objectives of a system of education from yesteryear may no longer apply?

When the car first came out, many had a predictably hard time getting their heads around what sort of change it represented.  According to a Microsoft whitepaper, it is said that banks held the position that "The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad." and that even automobile inventor Daimler predicted that the long-term market opportunity was limited to ~1 million cars due to their cost and the shortage of capable chauffeurs.  For a short period of time, people tried to "fix" horse-drawn carriages to accommodate for this new transportation development, even to the point of mounting horse whip holders on the sides of the new 'horseless carriages'.

Perhaps we are clinging to the old and familiar models of education simply because they are that - old and familiar?  With the advent of online learning, is there really any reason to move children through an age-based, cattle-call, lock-step process (treating them like widgets on an assembly line whose most important defining characteristic is their date of manufacture (nod to Sir Ken Robinson))?  Does the modern marketplace (primarily) require that schools produce millions of workers who are obedient, able to follow instruction, and not 'ask questions' because the answers have already been determined?  Are we still ruled by the supply and demand limitations of expert and novice ratios that prompted the 'efficiency' of the 'little red schoolhouse' (and its current day equivalents)?

Modern day demands and skills require modern day educational options and processes.  Our time, money, and intellectual/creative resources may be best leveraged by giving up on trying to 'band-aid' a philosophy that simply doesn't apply any longer and (re)focusing on new vistas of opportunity.

Are we creating the educational equivalent of rotary phones with touch-tone buttons or bluetooth earpieces for smartphones?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

TftD #19

Everyone is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it's stupid.

--Albert Einstein

Friday, May 17, 2013

PBS Superheroes Save The Future!

Who will save humanity from "...brain-shrinking reality TV and watch the world...LEARN!"?

It's the "PBS Avengers" - Carl Sagan, Mister Rogers, Bill Nye (the Science Guy), and Bob Ross!

We should only be so lucky....

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

TftD #18

As children get older, schools progressively focus more and more above the waist… above the neck… slightly to one side.

--Sir Ken Robinson

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

TftD #17

Our children grow up in a culture permeated with the idea that there are "smart people" and "dumb people". The social construction of the individual is as a bundle of aptitudes. There are people who are "good at math" and people who "can't do math". Everything is set up for children to attribute their first unsuccessful or unpleasant learning experiences to their own disabilities. ... Within this framework children will define themselves in terms of their limitations, and this definition will be consolidated throughout their lives. Only rarely does some exceptional event lead people to reorganize their intellectual self-image in such a way as to open up new perspectives on what is learnable. 

-- Seymour Papert: Mindstorms (pg 43)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Louis C.K. on Creative Work

An interesting bit on the value of struggle during the creative process from comedian Louis C.K. (from the 4/25/13 Rolling Stone):

"When it's time to write, I have one computer that has no ability to get on the Internet.  Because the ability to just move your finger less than a millimeter and be looking straight into someone's #*$^ or at a new Porsche, or a whole movie - To Kill a Mockingbird, let's just sit here and watch the whole thing! - it's too much.  So if you put a couple of moves between you and that, you've got a fighting chance. 
When I hit a stopping moment in what I'm writing, a moment of agitation - that itch always leads to a brand new thing, to inspiration.  But if you bail out and buy a product online, you're robbing yourself.  It's terrible, so I sit there: "F*ck, f*ck."  The worst thing happening to this generation is that they're taking discomfort away from themselves."

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Lawrence Lessig's Grand Plan to Recover the Republic

Lawrence Lessig does it again with a stunningly compelling call to arms for fixing the growing issues within our government that simply cannot be ignored and must be reformed.

Crazy facts (3:00) :

  • .26% of American gave $200 or more to any federal candidate.
  • .05% gave the maximum amount to any federal candidate.
  • .01% (1% of the 1%) gave $10,000 or more to federal candidates.
  • In the last election cycle, .000042% (that's 132 Americans) gave 60% of the Super PAC money spent.

Something's gotta give...

Hard?  Perhaps.  But what's the alternative?

(then again, maybe it's not so tough... "a single statute... for small dollar-funded elections" (11:30))

Sunday, March 31, 2013

TftD #16

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by, 
And that has made all the difference. 

-- Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Design As If Everything Is Optional

The zest, energy, emotion, and clear communication of need, value, and WIFFY (What’s In It For You) in many courses is often compromised before the project ever fully kicks into gear as a result of one simple Analysis question – Is the course required?   Knowing that the targeted audience has no options regarding enrollment or completion of the training can risk putting the Design team in a complacent position.  If you know you have a captive audience, the perceived need to work to keep them engaged can quickly fade.

I propose that the quality and effectiveness of future training would be improved if we designed with a mindset that considers the threatening possibility that the moment the audience becomes bored, confused, or doesn't see the direct value of the content to their lives/jobs, they may walk away (or exit). We should design as if all training is optional.

Out with the tired “tell ‘em what you are going to tell ‘em / tell ‘em / tell ‘em what you told ‘em” bookend structure that sandwiches dry facts/figures/processes and does little to establish motivation and relevance.  Goodbye to the lean-back, page-turning instructional models that spoon-feed bite sized nuggets of data, immediately followed by obligatory exercises that test for short-term recall (rather than deeper understanding).  Adios to letting the content drive the design because the audience’s physical attendance is a given (even if their hearts and minds are a million miles away).

In with capturing the learner’s attention so firmly within the first 60 seconds of the course that they lean in, wanting to know what awaits them on the next screen, ignoring the myriad of digital distractions that are a mere mouse-click or screen-touch away. Hello to positioning content in such a compelling fashion and with such personal relevance that the learner cannot help but understand and retain the information long after the post assessment has passed.  Welcome to a learning experience that causes the audience to desire ‘more’ and momentarily lose track of time because their curiosity has been piqued and they crave closure to the conflict within the situational story that’s been shared.

We need to design courses with the expectation that without a strong and motivational opening, a satisfying and memorable closing, and relevant and engaging information/activities every three minutes, our learners will simply direct their limited attention and time towards something (anything) else that seems more important or interesting.  We need to operate with the constructive pressure of being only a boring slide or overly complex sentence away from losing our ‘customer’.

How would your designs change if you knew that your course was totally optional, and the only people who would complete it are the ones that you managed to keep interested/curious/motivated enough to choose your instruction over all other options competing for their time and attention?   What would you do differently if success was measured by how many people completed your course because they WANTED to, not because they were OBLIGATED to?

Why not design courses like that anyway?  Is there a downside to purposefully creating compelling courseware?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Wealth Inequity in America

I'm a big fan of figuring out how to make big, knotty, complex, and messy things more understandable.  The following is not only a terrific example of doing this well, it does such a good job that the viewer may be left a little sickened.

Apparently, a couple of researchers (Dan Ariely and Michael Norton) performed a study in 2011 on wealth inequity in the US.  A fine report with several interesting charts, graphs, and analysis.  And, as you might expect, the report went largely unnoticed by the vast majority of the population - it's no surprise that most people don't invest their spare time reading research studies on economic topics.

Cut to earlier this year (2013):

A YouTube user (Politizane) took the report's core content and converted it into a visualization video.  As of late March 2013, it has over 5 million views.  In other words, a repackaging of the original report's data transformed an old study's findings from gathering dust on a shelf to being a viral video hit (and, hopefully, has resulted in a more educated population).

Nice work.

Take a look (but have a sickness bag close by....  you've been warned).  Amazing....

Thursday, March 14, 2013

TftD #15

If a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take it away from him. An investment of knowledge always pays the best interest.

-- Benjamin Franklin

Monday, March 11, 2013

TftD #14

Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant.  Together they are powerful beyond imagination.

-- Albert Einstein (attributed)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

TftD #13

Why is it that in spite of the fact that teaching by pouring in, and learning by passive absorption, are universally condemned, (educators) are still so entrenched in its practice?

Education is not an affair of 'telling' and being told, but an active constructive process.

-- John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Story and Data Visualization

An interesting white paper by Robert Kosara and Jock Mackinlay about the potential relationship between Story and data visualization.

...Stories package information into a structure that is easily remembered, which is important in many collaborative scenarios when an analyst is not the same person as the one who makes decisions, or simply needs to share information with peers. Data visualization lends itself well to being a communication medium for storytelling, in particular when the story also contains a lot of data. 

TftD #12

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

-- e.e. cummings

Friday, February 1, 2013

TftD #11

The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don't tell you what to see.

-- Alexandra Trenfor

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Richard Feynman's Ode to a Flower

I'm not sure which came first, Feynman's take or Richard Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow (or perhaps they are complementary but independent), but this is a beautiful illustration of a perspective that's always resonated with me.

Monday, January 28, 2013

TftD #10

Thought for the Day:

A deep, unwavering belief is a sure sign you're missing something.

-- Unknown

Friday, January 25, 2013

TftD #9

Thought for the Day:

When I went to school I did not learn anything much which I now remember, except for this hidden message:

Every major problem in life has already been solved; because I'm a kid, I don't yet know the answers; the answers are in the teacher's head, or in the textbook; the aim of education is to transfer the answers from the teacher to me.

That hidden message from my school, I eventually realized, was not only crippling, it was wrong.

The world is not an unsolved puzzle, waiting for the occasional genius to unlock its secrets. The world is an empty space waiting to be filled. That realization changed my life. I did not have to wait and watch for the puzzles to be solved, I could jump into the space myself.

It is more exciting to know that you are creating a world than to feel you are merely replicating it.

Our Pale Blue Dot (CSagan)

It's home.  The only one we (currently) have.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

TftD #8

Thought for the Day:

A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner.

-- English Proverb

Sunday, January 20, 2013

TftD #7

Thought for the Day:

Q: What does love mean?

A: When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You know that your name is safe in their mouth.

-- Billy, age 4

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

TftD #6

Thought for the Day:

It's because people share the vision.  That the power of computing should be available and accessible to everyone.  That with the right tools, ordinary people can achieve the extraordinary.  That changing the world is indeed possible.

-- Apple Advertisement

Exponential Growth and Paper Folding

Here is a very cool (and surprising.... bordering on the unbelievable) video on the power of exponential growth demonstrated through a simple idea: paper folding.

A great example of how to make difficult to comprehend concepts understandable.  Nice work...


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

TftD #5

Thought for the Day:

There are a million parts in this spacecraft and if any part fails, I can be in deep trouble. Of course I am nervous, especially knowing that each one of these parts were procured from the lowest bidder.

-- American Astronaut preparing to blast off when asked by a reporter if he was nervous

Monday, January 14, 2013

TftD #4

Thought for the Day:


1. Hang a banana from a room's ceiling and put some steps underneath so that it is possible to reach the banana. Make sure there is no other way to reach it.

2. Install a system that makes freezing water fall from the ceiling every time a monkey tries to climb the steps.

3. Put twenty monkeys inside the room and lock it.

4. Note how the monkeys quickly learn that it is not possible to climb the steps while avoiding the freezing water.

5. Stop the mechanism and replace one of the twenty monkeys with a new one. Note how he will immediately try to climb the steps and reach the banana. Without understanding why, he will be severely punished by the others.

6. Replace a second monkey with a new one. He will be punished too. The monkey entering the room immediately before him will be the most severe punisher.

7. Go on with this process until new monkeys have replaced all twenty of the original monkeys.

8. Now, none of the monkeys will climb the steps. If any monkey even thinks about it, he will be severely punished by the others. Worst of all, none of the monkeys will have the faintest clue of why they are doing it. 

This is how the culture of an organization is born.

-- Adaptation from "El Pensador Sistémico"

Sunday, January 13, 2013

TftD #3

Thought for the Day:

When was the last time you did something for the first time?

-- Emirates commercial

Friday, January 11, 2013

TftD #2

Thought for the Day:

An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.

-- Niels Bohr

Thursday, January 10, 2013

TftD #1

Thought for the Day:

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.

-- Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See