The EDUCAUSE NGDLE and an API of One's Own (Michael Feldstein)

Michael Feldstein responds on NGDLEs with a brilliant in-depth piece on the complex issues involved in building standards for online learning tool interoperability and more. I wish I’d read this before posting my own most recent response because it addresses several of the same issues with similar conclusions, but in greater depth and with more eloquence, as well as bringing up some other important points such as the very complex differences in needs between different contexts of application. My post does add things that Michael’s overlooks and the perspective is a little different (so do read it anyway!), but the overlapping parts are far better and more thoroughly expressed by Michael.

This is an idea that has been in the air and ripe for exploitation for a very long time but, as Michael says in his post and as I also claim in mine, there are some very big barriers when it comes down to implementing such a thing and a bunch of wicked problems that are very hard to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction. We have been here before, several times: let’s hope the team behind NGDLE finds ways to avoid the mistakes we made in the past.

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How Do You Google? New Eye Tracking Study Reveals Huge Changes

Over the past ten years, the ‘golden triangle’ (the sequence of where people look when viewing Google search results and, indeed, many web pages) has changed to a fuzzy line straight down the left of the page. It used to be that people started on the left, scanned to the right, then moved on down the page – that’s what we have taught in interaction design classes, at least for web designers, for quite a while. Now, they just scroll down. They also make faster (but are they better?) decisions about where to click.

There are clearly many factors that influence this, not least of which being Google’s UI changes, improvements in Google’s algorithms, as well as increasing familiarity with the tools – people are getting better at knowing what to ignore, perhaps less influenced by a lifetime of reading on paper, not to mention the effects of the massive increase in mobile device usage, in which scrolling is pretty much the only game in town. It’s a massively complex self-organizing system and fascinating to see how design and use responsively interact on a web-wide scale. So, now, designers will work on the assumption that people are going to be scrolling down, so that’s what users will learn to do, more and more, and what they will come to expect. But will it last?

It’s intriguing to wonder what will happen next. Though I remain a bit sceptical about wearables like the Apple Watch (at least until battery life gets better and app makers get away from behaviourist models of user psychology), I suspect that might be the next thing to stir up this complex ecosystem. I expect to see more single-glance sites coming soon.

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A $77 3D Printer is Unveiled! Say Hello to the Lewihe Play –

To be fair, there’s not much you could do with this $77 printer – it needs a fair bit more stuff added to it before it is fully functional, and more than a bit of assembly and skill is required to make it work. None-the-less, this is a sign of a more general trend. Good 3D printers that are easy to use (albeit mind-numbingly slow and not as reliable as 2D printers) are at least as affordable as laser printers used to be 10-15 years ago. They are increasing in quality, dropping in price, getting faster, becoming more flexible, and are getting closer to standard commodity items with each passing week. There is still a big leap in price from hobbyist machines that do fun and occasionally useful stuff (with some effort) to commercial machines that do really useful stuff (with relative ease), but the gap is closing fast. I want one. 

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Smart learning – a new approach or simply a new name? | Smart Learning

Kinshuk has begun a blog on smart learning and, in this post, defines what that means. I particularly like:

 I have come to realize that while technology can help us in improving learning, a fundamental change is needed in the overall perception of educators and learners to see any real effect. Simply trying to create adaptive systems, intelligent systems, or any sort of mobile/ubiquitous environments is going to have only superficial impact, if we do not change the way we teach, and more importantly, the way we think of learning process (and assessment process). 

This very much echoes my own view. At least that fundamental change is needed in the context of formal education. Outside our ivory towers that fundamental change has already happened and continues to accelerate. Google Search, Wikipedia, Twitter, Reddit, StackExchange, Facebook and countless others of their net-enabled ilk are amongst the most successful learning technologies (more accurately, components of learning technologies) ever created, arguably up there with language and writing, ultimately way beyond printing or schools. 

Kinshuk goes on to talk of an ecosystem of technology and pedagogy, which I think is a useful way of looking at it. Terry Anderson, too, talks of the dance between technology and pedagogy with much the same intent. I agree that we have to take a total systems view of this. My own take on it is that pedagogies are technologies – learning technologies are simply those with pedagogies in the assembly, whether human-instantiated or embedded in tools. Technologies and pedagogies are not separate categories. Within the ecosystem there are many other technologies involved in the assembly apart from those we traditionally label as ‘learning technologies’ such as timetables, organizational structures, regulations, departmental roles, accreditation frameworks, curricula, organizational methods, processes and rituals, not to mention pieces like routers, protocols, software programs and whiteboards. But, though important, technologies are not the only objects in this ecology. We need to think of the entire ecosystem and consider things that are not technologies at all like friendship, caring, learning, creativity, belief, environment, ethics, and, of course, people. As soon as you get past the ‘if intervention x, then result y’ mindset that plagues much learning technology (and education) research, and start to see it as a complex adaptive system that is ultimately about what it means to be human, you enter a world of rich complexity that I think is far more productive territory. Its an ecosystem that is filled not just with process but with meaning and value. 

On a more mundane and pragmatic note, I think it is worth observing that learning and accreditation of competence must be entirely separated – accreditation is an invasive parasite in this ecosystem that feeds on and consumes learning. Or maybe it is more like the effluent that poisons it. Either way, I’d prefer that accreditation should not be lumped under the ‘smart learning’ banner at all. ‘Smart accreditation’ is fine – I have no particular concerns about that, as a separate field of study. In some ways it is worthy of study in smart learning because of its effects. That is somewhat along the lines of studying oil spills when considering natural ecosystems.  Assessment (feedback, critical reflection, judgement, etc), on the other hand, is a totally different matter. Assessment is a critical part of almost any pedagogy worthy of the name and so of course must be part of a smart learning ecology. I’m not sure that it warrants a separate category of its own but it is certainly important. It is, however, highly dangerous to take the ‘easy’ next step of using it to assert competence, especially when that assertion becomes the reason for learning in the first place, or is used as a tool to manipulate learners. That is what predominantly drives education now, to the point that it threatens the entire ecosystem. 

That said, I’d like to think that it is possible that the paths of accreditation and assessment might one day rejoin because they do share copious commonalities. It would be great to find ways that the smart stuff we are doing to support learning might, as a byproduct, also be useful evidence in accreditation, without clogging up the whole ecosystem. Technologies like Caliper, TinCan, and portfolios offer much promise for that. 

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The cost of time

A few days back, an email was sent to our ‘allstaff’ mailing list inviting us to join in a bocce tournament. This took me a bit of time to digest, not least because I felt impelled to look up what ‘bocce’ means (it’s an Italian variant of pétanque, if you are interested). I guess this took a couple of minutes of my time in total. And then I realized I was probably not alone in this – that over a thousand people had also been reading it and, perhaps, wondering the same thing. So I started thinking about how we measure costs.

The cost of reading an email

A single allstaff email at Athabasca will likely be read by about 1200 people, give or take. If such an email takes one minute to read, that’s 1200 minutes – 20 hours – of the institution’s time being taken up with a single message. This is not, however, counting the disruption costs of interrupting someone’s train of thought, which may be quite substantial. For example, this study from 2002 reckons that, not counting the time taken to read email, it takes an average of 64 seconds to return to previous levels of productivity after reading one. Other estimates based on different studies are much higher – some studies suggest the real recovery time from interruptions to tasks could be as high as 15-20 minutes. Conservatively, though, it is probably safe to assume that, taking interruption costs into account, an average allstaff email that is read but not acted upon consumes an average of two minutes of a person’s time: in total, that’s about 40 hours of the institution’s time, for every message sent. Put another way, we could hire another member of staff for a week for the time taken to deal with a single allstaff message, not counting the work entailed by those that do act on the message, nor the effort of writing it. It would therefore take roughly 48 such messages to account for a whole year of staff time. We get hundreds of such messages each year.
But it’s not just about such tangible interruptions. Accessing emails can take a lot of time before we even get so far as reading them. Page rendering just to view a list of messages on our web front end for our email system is an admirably efficient 2 seconds (i.e. 40 minutes of the organization’s time for everyone to be able to see a page of emails, not even to read their titles). Let’s say we all did that an average of 12 times a day –  that’s 8 hours, or more than a day of the institution’s time, taken up with waiting for that page to render each day. Put another way, as we measure such things, if it took four seconds, we would have to fire someone to pay for it. As it happens, for another university for which I have an account, using MS Exchange, simply getting to the login screen of its web front end takes 4 seconds. Once logged in (a further few seconds thanks to Exchange’s insistence on forcing you to tell it that your computer is not shared even though you have told it that a thousand times before), loading the page containing the list of emails takes a further 17 seconds. If AU were using the same system, using the same metric of 12 visits each day, that could equate to around 68 hours of the institution’s time every single day, simply to view a list of emails, not including a myriad of other delays and inefficiencies when it comes to reading, responding to and organizing such messages. Of course, we could just teach people to use a proper email client and reduce the delay to one that is imperceptible, because it occurs in the background – webmail is a truly terrible idea for daily use – or simply remind them not to close their web browsers so often, or to read their emails less regularly. There are many solutions to this problem. Like all technologies, especially softer ones that can be used in millions of ways, it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it. 

But wait – there’s more

Email is just a small part of the problem, though: we use a lot of other websites each day. Let’s conservatively assume that, on average, everyone at AU visits, say, 24 pages in a working day (for me that figure is always vastly much higher) and that each page averages out at about 5 seconds to load. That’s two minutes per person. Multiplied by 1200, it’s another week of the institution’s time ‘gone’ every day simply waiting to read a page.
And then there are the madly inefficient bureaucratized processes that are dictated and mediated by poorly tailored software. When I need to log into our CRM system I reckon that simply reading my tasks takes a good five minutes. Our leave reporting system typically eats 15 minutes of my time each time I request leave (it replaces one that took 2-3 minutes).  Our finance system used to take me about half an hour to add in expenses for a conference but, since downgrading to a baseline version, now takes me several hours, and it takes even more time from others that have to give approvals along the way. Ironically, the main intent behind implementing this was to save us money spent on staffing. 
I could go on, but I think you see where this is heading. Bear in mind, though, that I am just scratching the surface. 

Time and work

My point in writing this is not to ask for more efficient computer and admin systems, though that would indeed likely be beneficial. Much more to the point, I hope that you are feeling uncomfortable or even highly sceptical about how I am measuring this. Not with the figures: it doesn’t much matter whether I am wrong with the detailed timings or even the math. It is indisputable that we spend a lot of time dealing with computer systems and the processes that surround them every day, and small inefficiencies add up. There’s nothing particularly peculiar to ICTs about this either – for instance, think of the time taken to walk from one office to another, to visit the mailroom, to read a noticeboard, to chat with a colleague, and so on. But is that actually time lost or does it even equate precisely to time spent?  I hope you are wondering about the complex issues with equating time and dollars, how we learn, why and how we account for project costs in time, the nature of technologies, the cost vs value of ICTs, the true value of bocce tournament messages to people that have no conceivable chance of participating in them (much greater than you might at first imagine), and a whole lot more. I know I am. If there is even a shred of truth in my analysis, it does not automatically lead to the conclusion that the solution is simply more efficient computer systems and organizational procedures. It certainly does bring into question how we account for such things, though, and, more interestingly, it highlights even bigger intangibles: the nature and value of work itself, the nature and value of communities of practice, the role of computers in distributed intelligence, and the meaning, identity and purpose of organizations. I will get to that in another post, because it demands more time than I have to spend right now (perhaps because I receive around 100 emails a day, on average).

Datawind Aakash Android Tablets

The cheapest tablet in this range is CAD$43, for which you get a 7″ screen device with WiFi, Bluetooth and limited but extendible storage, capable of web browsing, email, Skype, word-processing and e-reading. Not well, for sure, nor with any kind of battery life to speak of, and with a low resolution screen with a viewing position rather than range of angles.

But it’s $43 (Canadian)!

That’s less than plenty of internet-capable radios, MP3 players, electronic picture frames, or even sophisticated alarm clocks, all of which it can comfortably replace and actually do a better job.  In fact, it’s less than a meal for two (with drinks) at my local pub. The others in the range don’t add much apart from a front-facing camera and very slow mobile data ($55), up to 3G phone and a slightly better screen for the top-of-the range UbiSlate3G7 for $90. Not too bad a price for an unlocked if totally enormous smartphone, though not the cheapest around.

The UbiSlates are Canadian, though the primary market for them is India, where they can be purchased for even less, and can come with $2/month mobile Internet (some US versions come with unlimited mobile web browsing for about US$100 a year). I think I might get one of these for the hell of it. 


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GRC's | SQRL Secure Quick Reliable Login  

Steve Gibson, a venerable computer guru who has innovated for decades and never produced anything but brilliantly elegant code, as well as being a compelling and thought-provoking writer, presents SQRL. It’s truly ingenious, I think. It provides secure, password-free logins, with unique but anonymous IDs, to any site that implements this standard, in a manner that seems to be far more secure than any conventional username/password design. True, some other form of authentication is needed to set up the app in the first place – you’d not want someone else to get hold of that! Also, it’s not quite as good as two-factor systems for security. But it is much better than username/login combinations, it is much easier for the end user even than using a social media site to provide authentication, and it offers the potential for uniquely identifying an individual without intruding on that individual’s privacy. That’s pretty cool. Two-factor systems may be secure but all are very complex, irritating and prone to error, but there’s nothing to stop someone intent on assuring secure access from using this as part of a two-factor system. Brilliant.

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HP Stream 7 – $120 Windows tablet is remarkable value

I don’t normally link to Best Buy (the name of the company is not entirely accurate!) but, as I got my Stream 7 from there, I figure it’s as good a place as any. You can probably find it a little cheaper elsewhere but Best Buy/FutureShop (essentially the same company) are convenient for most people living in Canadian cities and let you play before you buy.

I’ve written elsewhere that e-book readers are an essential commodity if, as Athabasca University is increasingly demanding, students are required to use e-texts instead of paper books. This device is a serviceable Windows PC that can do pretty much anything any other Windows PC is capable of and that also makes a very decent e-reader. At $120 it is cheaper than many textbooks.

The Stream 7 is a basic 7″ tablet, with few bells and whistles: technically speaking, it has no 3G, no GPS, no 802.11AC wifi, only 5 touch point recognized at once (not normally a problem unless you have a piano keyboard app), slightly chunky construction, a battery life of 8 hours at best (5 or 6 would be more typical), no HDMI output, 1GB RAM, dreadful (but usable for simple needs) front and back cameras, measly speaker and poor headphone output. On the plus side, it does have bluetooth, a pretty generous 32GB of flash storage (expandable via MicroSD), it charges using a standard Micro USB cable, and (notably) the screen is absolutely excellent, bright and vibrant, even if it’s resolution (1280×800) is not quite up there with Retina displays. As an e-reader and for videos it’s pretty good, and it runs pretty much any e-reading software, including the DRM-afflicted and web-based stuff we sometimes use at AU.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about it is that it runs the full and uncrippled version Windows 8.1, not the ugly mess that was Windows RT. Admittedly it’s only 32 bit and is joined at the hip to Microsoft’s mediocre Bing service, but it smoothly runs almost any Windows program you can throw at it, even elderly Flash programs. It’s mostly fairly snappy too, given the constraints of its modest 1GB of RAM. I wouldn’t want to try running lots of programs at once, but for single task activities like web browsing, e-reading or email, it’s absolutely fine and very usable. Windows 8.1 (admittedly a somewhat fuller version than this and without the Bing branding) currently retails at $120, so one way of looking at it is that you get a free tablet with a copy of Windows. Moreover, it even comes with a year’s subscription to Microsoft Office (usual price $100), for those that need it. This is not a thing I’d recommend to anyone, given that there are equally good and often better free competitors available, but it’s astonishingly good value if you are actually thinking of forking out for it anyway. If you do have an existing subscription you can add the year to what you already own, thereby getting a usable tablet for $20 (plus tax and recycle fee).


Of course, if you just want a tablet or e-reader, there are better and cheaper Android devices available, and much better iOS devices if you can afford them. My only reason for getting this was to test web sites using Microsoft’s IE browser and to use some ancient IE-only webmeeting software, and this was the cheapest way I could find to do that. Windows is a terrible ugly mess that appears to have been designed by the makers of Spongebob Squarepants and that is so full of holes it is more like a torn insect screen than a window. I am unlikely to use this device for much e-reading myself because I have much better (and mostly costlier) devices that beat it hands down on almost every front. But, if you need to run Microsoft software and also need a means to read e-books and watch the odd video, this is a pretty cheap and effective way to do it.

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Workflow Automates Any Task on iOS

This is a very cool app that greatly extends the capacity of an iOS device to do many different things. I used a workflow on my iPad to add this link to the Landing from an item saved in Pocket, for instance, simply by selecting the workflow I had created from Pocket’s Share menu. Now, if only I could bundle that up and share it as an app, we could make Landing bookmarking A lot easier. 

This app sorely lacks help so far, though it is early days and clearly this will be coming soon. Though the app is pretty intuitive and has helpful hints, and there are some nice examples to play with, having existing programming skills is definitely valuable. It took me about an hour of trial and error to figure this simple workflow out.

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