There's a fitness tracker for your vagina. Quantifying your life has gone too far

A Guardian article from  Jess Zimmerman. The arguments are inelligent and Zimmerman recognizes the value as well as the dangers of socially-enabled biofeedback devices. The kGoal (tagline ‘Fitbit for your vagina’) actually sounds like rather a good idea, but the cons are significant. I particularly like “But the pitfall of data devices … is that they hijack your reward pathways” and “The quantified self … takes theaggregate self out of the equation”. Good food for thought, and some important lessons for those seeking to gamify many things, including learning and teaching.

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Google Cardboard


At first this seems a little silly and then, after a second or two’s reflection, turns out to be profoundly marvellous.

Google Cardboard can be made at home. It consists of a cardboard box (a large pizza box is recommended), cheap lenses, a magnet, Velcro and a rubber band combined with the Cardboard app for Android and a moderately decent smartphone (most popular modern phones will work). The result is a full stereo virtual reality (VR) experience similar to that of the Oculus Rift but at a tiny fraction of the price. It uses things like motion sensors, NFC, magnetometers and other features built into most modern smartphones to work its magic, so moving your head changes your point of view. Note the cut-out for the camera – some great potential for augmented reality (AR) apps here, blending the real world with full 3D high resolution renderings of virtual objects.

The carboard box is low-threshold enough to kick-start development using the new VR Toolkit that makes it all work. This means there will likely soon be a flood of apps for this, and it is almost certain that more polished versions of the viewer will soon start to appear on the market for those who don’t want to make their own or advertise their pizza-eating habits to the world. And, assuming it takes off (which I think it should) there will then be dedicated VR glasses that make use of it. Indeed, it seems logical that this is what Google Glass will evolve into. Taking the long view, this could be an extremely disruptive innovation, providing a simple and already-available set of standards to drive VR and AR development.

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Nostalgia and Newspapers: Clay Shirky (and an idea of my own)

Clay Shirky makes a very forceful claim that physical newspapers and attempts to save old newspaper business models through paywalls are a lost cause, and we are doing students of journalism a serious disservice if we do not help to prepare them for a world with much less print and much more open access and diversity. As he puts it,

If you want to cry in your beer about the good old days, go ahead. Just stay the hell away from the kids while you’re reminiscing; pretending that dumb business models might suddenly start working has crossed over from sentimentality to child abuse.”

Of course, there are always exceptions, and Shirky may be a tad overstating things. While the vast majority of wood-based newspapers are on their last legs, it is almost certain that a handful will survive for at least a few decades in some form, and there are still a few benefits to paper. As someone who has almost entirely given up print-based newspapers, I have a hell of a time lighting fires, protecting floors and mopping up spills, for instance (and I have a few other reasons for just occasionally preferring print, for now). The jury is also still out on business models relying on paywalls or, more accurately, the technologies to support such things are in flux and there are some highly motivated people seeking new ways to make a profit from online news, so it would be unwise to declare the game over yet. I have some ideas about that which I present below.

Babies and bathwater

Kushner’s attempts to inject new spirit into local communities via print media are almost certainly misguided, as Shirky claims, but the general principle and intentions behind it are mostly pretty sound. Something is lost when everything is equalized on a single screen. While there are plenty of locally-focused spaces to be found almost everywhere on web and on mobile devices, on a single screen they tend to blend and coincide in ways that may not be uniformly beneficial and that lack the cohesive power of centralized media. There is something socially binding about physical objects like newspapers. Their benefits don’t outweigh the relative disadvantages and risks, but they have something going for them. In a related way, centralized media of all kinds can bind us. As a kid growing up in the UK, my first experience of TV involved only 2 channels, which meant a large number of people were sharing the same experience, and talked about it with one another. This did not mostly lead to brainwashing, at least in the way it was done in the UK, but it provided a catalyst for negotiating meaning and exploring our identities, a centre around which we could co-develop a shared culture. We could equally find things to disagree with as well as to agree with. The same is true of newspapers, especially local ones – they are (or were) objects around which people create and share culture and connection, inhabit shared common ground and make sense of it together. They make it easier to feel we are a part of a shared physical community, with a shared commons. The Internet and diversification of centralized media have diluted that, reducing the things we share with those around us and distributing social attention more broadly and less evenly. Meanwhile, they have amplified and redistributed the common ground in new and not unequivocally good ways, in the form of filter bubbles (we see more and more of what we want to see, that we agree with or that interests us, to the exclusion of everything else, so we increasingly separate into isolated online communities of interest or affinity) and memes (our universally shared objects become the lowest common denominators, like cat pictures and Korean dance videos). Swings and roundabouts – this does lead to a great deal of good in a great many ways that I reckon far outstrip the things we are losing, but that doesn’t change the fact that something worth keeping is lost in the process.

I have a possible solution. It’s a slightly wild idea and I don’t know whether it has already been done, but it seems plausible.

Blending the physical and virtual


With tumbling hardware prices making dedicated e-reading devices almost a throwaway commodity and it becoming the norm for individuals and families to possess multiple devices, a more acceptable approach for newspaper companies, especially those running local presses, might be to sell a subscription hidden in the cost of a simple single-purpose single-news-source-reading device. This might be returned for recycling at the end of its life (when purchasing a new one, say) and/or it might be sold at a loss then topped up with pay-as-you-go cards.  So, rather than firing up an app on a general-purpose device, you would pick up the ‘newspaper’ device itself to read and perhaps interact with or contribute to its news. Branding and maybe sponsored adverts could be physically inscribed on the device itself. It could add value such as instant access to latest news (even when abroad), allowing browsing of links, and enabling interaction with other subscribers. Accessibility options would allow for things like large/different fonts and colour schemes, as well as text-to-speech. Annotation features (perhaps shareable) could be provided. It would not take up the space or resources needed to print newspapers. Its single-purpose nature would mean it could be optimized for speed and ease of use. Perhaps it might even double as an e-reader for other things that might even be sold as a revenue generating stream, though because part of the value of it would be its specialist nature, which is what would differentiate it from other locked-in and more general-purpose ecosystems (iOS, Kindle, Android, etc), this should perhaps not be taken too far. For chains like Freedom, perhaps it could offer access to other local newspapers in the chain too, or local library books, or suchlike. If the model spread, one might imagine you could purchase a physical ‘deviceshelf’ that would act rather like a bookshelf, in which you keep your different devices for different content and media from different publishers. In short, it would have many of the benefits of both the Internet and print technologies, occupying a middle ground between them, with most of the advantages (to publishers and readers) of both.

All of the functionality and access to news or other content would be embedded in the original purchase price or through tokens for add-ons that would be akin to pay-as-you-go phone cards. This is not a typical digital subscription model as such inasmuch as it is not simply rental of a service. Content would be downloaded and persistent, even after the original period has elapsed, and available for archive purposes. You could even purchase a new device every year and keep old ones on your deviceshelf for reference. Another significant difference is that, as long as vendors were sensible about avoiding the tempting but ultimately counter-productive path of linking you to the machine, you could lend the device to someone else, or sell it on (with remaining subscription), just as you might with a physical paper text. You could send one as a gift to a family member living in another town. There would be no need to sign up to anything or give away your personal information – indeed, that would reduce the value of the device for resale. By associating the payment with a device rather than a person, you could neatly sidestep the ugliness of subscriber models and even of visible DRM. The temptation to grab personal information might be high, but publishers would be wise to resist it. There would still be plenty of really useful and mostly anonymous data that could be garnered from device usage without having to do the greedy thing.

Some obstacles

This idea is kind of wasteful (though recycling benefits would be significant) inasmuch as all of the digital content could just as easily fit on a single device with far greater efficiency. It is antithetical to or, at best, complementary to the trend to generalization in which everything fits in one small pocket-sized device. Although it bypasses some of the ugliest issues with explicit DRM, it is some way from the open access model that I would normally be promoting. Having access to content through a single device is a bit of a retrograde step, and may sometimes be inconvenient. E-paper (with its long battery life) would likely be necessary until battery technologies improve, which would limit the range of media it could display to text, graphics and maybe podcasts. Even then, assuming a typical month-long charge life, charging multiple devices on the bookshelf might be a pain. Simple wireless power technologies are widely available, but the cost might be a bit high for now and standards are still emerging. Having said that, benefits to the manufacturers of not requiring any sockets for input or output would be quite high, reducing the chances it might get hacked to some extent (if it breaks, it could simply be exchanged for a new one and recycled) and making it possible to read in the rain or bathtub. There are environmental and human costs in the production of electronics, especially given that many of the cheap ones (in particular) are produced under oppressive and poorly monitored conditions. It would be helpful if standards were developed: as such devices became popular, it would be more than a slight nuisance to have to use different adaptors, have differently sized device shelves, and wildly differing device formats. More significantly, standards would also contribute to ease of recycling – standard parts like cases, screens, batteries and so on would often be re-usable, perhaps across multiple devices from different manufacturers. Some major infrastructure would be needed to handle recycling, distribution, and so on, but it is fairly unlikely that this would be as environmentally unfriendly and expensive as the cost of printing, distributing and recycling newspapers. I am not sure that I trust publishers not to try to harvest personal user information for more targeted advertising, to sell on, etc. It would ultimately be self-defeating for them to do so and would reduce one of the main unique selling points of the idea, but short-term gains might be tempting and history does not make me optimistic about this. I’m similarly distrustful that they would exercise restraint and avoid the easy path of adding more and more features and for-purchase add-ons, even though they would inevitably wind up competing with (and losing against or being sucked into) the likes of Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon.

Most of the problems I can foresee in this can be largely overcome, and the benefits might be worth having. It would have very interesting sense-making benefits, would combine the benefits of physical objects with virtual content and, rather than competing head-on with open content, would offer a complementary and profitable approach that would sustain many of the benefits of traditional paper with relatively few of the disadvantages. I assume that most newspapers would still maintain a freely accessible online presence too – they would be foolish not to – so this would not subtract much from what we already have. This is not meant as a replacement for anything but paper’. And, of course, it is not limited to newspapers. Similar fixed-functionality devices might be provided by companies, universities, local councils and authorities, libraries, and organizations, with different customizations related to different needs. This is not a radical departure from existing practices, nor does it demand any major new invention. Indeed, it could all be done with off-the-shelf technologies and a little software customization. It is simply a means to reify social objects and to help organize our lives, of sustaining connection and shared understanding with communities that we live in. It’s a little counter-intuitive and goes against the existing flow, but it could work.

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LearningLocker LRS – version 1.0 now available

Learning Locker has left beta and is now at version 1.0. This may be a significant milestone in a series of developments that could profoundly affect the future of online learning and perhaps the whole educational system.  

Learning Locker is an open source implementation of a TinCan (xAPI) learning record store (LRS). It provides a repository to record information about learning activities and outcomes, using open standards for import and export. That’s about it: some sorting and search tools, some export facilities, and the means to store information about learning from other applications. While other xAPI LRSs already exist, this open source implementation seems the most promising so far, the most feature-complete, and the most likely to see widespread adoption. OK, unless you are a learning technology geek I realise that this might sound rather dull and arcane, but the potential for disruption, especially given widespread support for the experience API (xAPI) standard in a wide range of applications, is quite high. Amongst other things:

  • it is a critical part of the infrastructure to free us from the mediocre monolithic silos of learning management systems which, in educational systems till now, have typically been the place where learning activities occur, content is produced, and progress is recorded. By separating the function of recording progress from the means of delivery, it massively increases the range of information and applications that can be used in an integrated way for education, from games to social media systems, MOOCs to traditional classroom activities, and everything between. It allows a great many more forms of progress to be recorded at any level of granularity, from solving a puzzle in a game to looking at a web page, from doing an exam to writing a thesis. It makes it significantly easier to switch between platforms.
  •  it allows any and every kind of evidence of learning to be recorded, of great benefit to lifelong learners wishing to provide evidence of,  and to reflect on and to plan a learning journey. Freeing such data from guarded silos means learners can control their own learning records, keeping them in a cloud, on their own servers or their own computers, transferring them as and when they wish. This goes far beyond the basic functionality of an e-portfolio system, but integrates beautifully with one. It, or something very like it, is a vital piece in the move towards truly open learning at a level that has the potential to disrupt the traditional education and training system.
  •  it makes possible a wide range of analytics for the benefit of learners (and, potentially, for the benefit of teachers and organizations) that go far beyond the structured assessment and activity records that can be captured by an LMS. From finding people with a particular set of skills to analyzing holes in your own learning to organizational learning profiling, the possibilities are huge.

This just scratches the surface of the potential of this technology and standard, and it is just going to get better. More information about Learning Locker is available at

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Affinity space – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Terry Anderson drew my attention today to the concept of the ‘affinity space’ from James Paul Gee (always an interesting writer), which bears a marked resemblance to our understanding of the set as a social form for learning, and with which I was previously unfamiliar. This is certainly something I need to investigate further. At first reading I think the affinity space is a (large and probably the most important) subset of what we mean by a ‘set’ – it is concerned with people sharing an interest and a normally virtual space but otherwise having no social connection to speak of, which is exactly how we distinguish set from net social forms.  It is also a close cousin of communities of interest and interest (or interest-based) networking, that are very much in the same area but that gained their names from people with perspectives slanted by where they already had expertise and experience. I like the term ‘affinity space’ far better than those terms for the reasons mentioned in the Wikipedia article, which are very similar to the reasons we went for the term ‘set’.

Our concept of the set additionally recognizes learning value in sets that are not directly or only concerned with the kinds of affinity mentioned in the article – e.g. those of people of similar, greater or lesser abilities, those of people simply near to one another, those where personal attributes like culture are significant – which becomes more significant when thinking about how collectives emerge or are formed from sets. Also, we are keen to emphasize the continuous fuzzy boundaries between sets and groups (e.g. tribes, religions, Goths) and between sets and networks (e.g. circles of friends, college alumni), seeing most such collections of people as occupying blended or overlapping social forms. But this is a useful concept that I suspect we will use in future to characterize one of the purest forms of set used for learning purposes and one that has most relevance in an online context. Whatever the minor distinctions, and whether the concepts turn out to be almost the same or just similar, I am glad to know that others, especially those with the intellectual muscle and creativity of Gee, think it is an idea whose time is well upon us.

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It’s Anyone’s Game in the Consumer Electronics Playing Field

Great report from Accenture on the results of an International survey (not including Canada but a good basket of developed countries represented) on use of consumer electronics from 2013. The big takeaways are:

  • Consumers are focusing on fewer, multifunction devices
  • Consumers are not locked into a single platform
  • Cloud-based services are increasing
  • Mobile devices are consumerizing IT in the workplace

The report is very well presented and easily digestible, and is packed with interesting statistics and analyses of trends. As someone with more than a passing interest in technologies and technology trends, I found something fascinating on almost every page. Understanding, reacting to and, ideally, anticipating such changing patterns is going to be vital to Athabasa University as a primarily online learning institution.

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The Web Index

An interesting set of statistics about access to the Web as well as many other metrics relating to use, availability and freedom on the Web, ranking nearly every country on various different scales. Canada makes a mediocre showing at 15th overall, with a disappointing nearly-80% having access, and falling well short of perfect on most other metrics too. The recent CBC report that ranks Canada 53rd in the world on upload speeds is also sobering. Like all such statistics, these need to be looked at critically and considered in context, but it is none-the-less a good starting point for discussion. See for more on the project, and how the figures are calculated.

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Media Multitasking Behavior: Concurrent Television and Computer Usage

This study looks at multitasking behaviour measured by the amount and frequency of attention paid to a computer screen and TV. It is interesting, if flawed, at least partly because of the differences it claims to show between multitasking behaviour in older and younger people. The researchers claim to show that there is not much age-related difference in overall time spent looking at things when multitasking, but that younger people’s gaze tends to flit much more frequently – the differences between age groups on this measure are actually quite huge. The researchers don’t make any notable claims about whether this is a good or a bad thing, but it is a result that helps to explain other findings that older people are better at multitasking, inasmuch as they retain more of what they have been paying attention to and are typically less easily distracted (I think I may be an outlier here!). However, the big flaw that I see in this study is that it used staff and students at a university as subjects. University staff are trained to concentrate in quite peculiar ways because that is what scholarly study is all about, and have typically spent a great many years acquiring that habit, so they are not at all representative of older people in general. It would at least be useful to compare this demographic with other older people who do not habitually concentrate very hard and very persistently on one thing for a living.

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China Wholesale – Wholesale Electronics – Dropship From China

Thanks to my friend Richard for pointing me to this great site for total geeks. Electronic toys galore, at knockdown prices, direct from China. Important proviso – almost all look pretty awful, but the site is honest about their failings and ridiculously rich in information about them, so it is easy to decide not to buy things. But who needs Apple, Samsung, or Sony when you can get a no-name budget dual SIM Android phone for $70? Or any number of watch-phones, projectors, remote controlled doodahs and accessories to fit any need? Well, me. But I like browsing this site.

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EdTechnology Ideas – Education Technology Journal

A new open-access educational technology journal. Looks slick, CC licence, a social approach, and I know and respect a couple of the editorial team, so I think it should be reliable and interesting.

Slightly less clear about the need for yet another journal in a crowded market though I guess it’s good to have a thriving ecosystem with plenty of competing species. However, there is a balance between those benefits and the relatively small amount of attention that can be spread around. Now that there are plenty of open-access journals of this nature I see a strong place for metajournals that consolidate writings around particular themes and/or that use curational skills to identify the best of the best. To some extent this occurs in isolated pockets like blogs and curated sites like Pinterest etc, but there is scope for more concerted and formalized efforts in this field.

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