Monday, February 13, 2012

Object-Oriented Instructional Aesthetics

Using Technology Requires a Framework.

Recently, I gave a talk about Twitter.

I gave the talk in the form of 52 tweets--140-character messages.

My larger point in the talk was not Twitter itself. Rather, I wanted to show that it's ideas or frameworks that allow us to integrate technology into the teaching and learning process.

If you have a framework--an idea or matrix of what happens in education--then you can plug in any technology, no matter how trivial.

Twitter can be trivial. A tweet might be: "Just got out of the shower." Stop the presses.

So how do new uses of learning technology get generated?  To my way of thinking, practical arts are more like object-oriented programming than applications of a theory.

In object-oriented programming, instead of the software executing commands, it builds objects. The objects have properties. Methods do things to the objects--copy them, modify their properties, etc. Java is a programming language used for object-oriented programming. Java's own example is:
  • A bicycle is an object or a class.
  • Ed's bicycle is an instance of a class.
Practical arts generate new instances of a known type. So I wanted to show that Twitter could be used to carry the same kinds of methods as the chalkboard and the overhead projector, pencil-and-paper, Powerpoint, etc.

The Aesthetics of Demonstration.

My own presentation tried to clone the presentation-object onto the Twitter platform. There is something aesthetic about this: using Twitter to talk about Twitter.

Not that my presentation on using Twitter was a work of art. But neither was it a telegram or a laundry list--the fastest simplest way to dump information somewhere.

I love reflexivity: things that point to themselves. Words about words, paintings of paintings, movies within movies. It's art-y, yes. But it's something I find enjoyable.

In fact, every demonstration has a reflexive aspect.
  • A demonstration shows something by doing it.
  • You do something and point to specific parts or aspects. "Notice the way I hold the needle." "Don't hold the thread this way, hold it this way."
  • A demonstration is reflexive.
And when you're using a real thing, not a mock-up, a demonstration is also a proof-of-concept. Look: it works. It can be done.

This does not mean the doing is the proving, and that is the end. It means the doing is a kind of proving, and it is part of a discussion. The doing can then be dissected, argued with examined.

And very important in a liberal arts context: the doing that demonstrates becomes an experience and a text everyone can respond to.  Someone's now Storified my presentation and blogged about it.

Look, I'm doing this. What do you think of that? Do you think it succeeds? Do you think it fails? Does the demonstration undo itself, unprove its assertion?

That's for others to debate. That is one of the urgent messages of a liberal arts education. Look. Test. Try. Decide for yourself. Come to your own conclusion. Don't be persuaded: persuade yourself.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Why Twitter--as an Instructional Technology?

Asked to give a presentation on instructional technology recently, I chose Twitter as my test case. I chose to talk about Twitter to make a few points. 

And using Twitter to talk about Twitter seemed to underscore my points--so that approach seemed good.

My general point was: the tool or technology does not matter; the goal matters. Any tool can be plugged into the teaching and learning process: almost any.

Does anyone really believe there was something magical about slate and chalk? Or pencils? No. These were convenient. The former were re-usable. The latter were long-lasting and could also be erased. Why use an overhead projector and marker rather than a chalkboard and chalk? You can re-use your 'overheads,' as people called them.

The tool doesn't make learning happen: the people do--the people and the design of the learning process.

second point in tweeting about Twitter was to explore the tool or platform itself.

One of the most important things students can get from their education today is:  platform-flexibility or tool-flexibility.

Back when I taught face-to-face--I now support others' face-to-face teaching and only myself teach online--I taught a course which involved an interesting exercise. Students experimented writing in different genres or formats. Students wrote in the style of: a software manual, a children's book, a movie review, etc. They chose the genres.

The course topic was non-academic writing about television: books like Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.  So one of the course questions was: 
  • How does the mode, style or genre of writing relate to what's being said? 
  • What can one say (or not say) about television (for instance) in the genre of advertising copy about cigarettes, as opposed to say, a cooking recipe?
One student from this course now manages social media campaigns--especially on Twitter. Twitter did not exist when he was in college. Another one of these students is now a journalist and photographer. There were no photography courses in our 'digital media' program.

The point is: college graduates are not learning software tools. Our liberal arts training is not primarily technical: it's not about tools. Likewise, when I was a college student, we did not spend any time in our writing courses discussing different models of typewriters or fountain pens. College graduates are learning (among other things): how to write on different platforms, to use different tools  for communicative, strategic, expressive, aesthetic and other purposes.

There will always be new tools. The question is how to use them effectively. If you know how to do that, the tools cease to matter--except as you can exploit them.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Friday, February 3, 2012

Looking to Ebay--for Online Learning?

How to make learning happen online is a big topic these days. 

It should be. Basically, our educational system in the U.S. is failing at every level. It is either not successful, or it is too expensive--or both. In short, it's a lot like the U.S. health care system, which costs more than other systems and is less effective. 

In fact, our major human-oriented support systems in the U.S. are failing: education and health care.

If you look at the top American companies, we can sell people energy or phone service or loan them money or sell them prescription drugs. But we cannot educate Americans or keep them healthy at nearly the same rate as other 'developed' countries. America's top universities are world-class. But our high school students are not.

With both health care and education, the rewards must be in the wrong place. Money is not rewarding success. Yes, there are other rewards, but money is one, and it's not working. Think of paying health providers per procedure rather than for successful outcomes.

And there is no political will to fix either education or health care. If we could find a model for fixing one, we might be able to replicate it. So the stakes are high. An online learning platform might not be better than the best face-to-face educational systems in the world--South Korea and Finland, for instance. But it could be opened to poorer countries and students, and it could be a great leveler in this regard.

If you want to find web sites that successfully enable social interactions, it is not hard to find examples. 

Ebay does not come to mind as a learning platform. But as a platform for highly-structured social interactions--and buying and selling things is a social interaction--Ebay is superb. 

How's it work?
  • People come together based on common interests and clear roles. I want to sell a what-cha-me, and n persons want to buy this kind of what-cha-me.
  • People can find their common interests easily enough. The search engine plays a critical role here.
  • The interactions have a specific time frame. An item is on sale for so long. I can go back as often as I like--or as little. This helps the users to make specific, strategic choices.
  • The number of interactions permitted and supported are limited. I can sell, bid, ask questions, give answers, modify the information about the item, search through past sales for similar items. I have all the information I need to buy or sell effectively.
In essence, Ebay is an information system in which people learn about objects that interest them. One of the things they learn is: Can I afford a what-cha-me in mint condition? Or can I only afford one in non-working condition?

Any habitual Ebay user can learn these things. You browse auctions. You look at past sales. You bid. You might have to bid multiple times to get the thing you want. And when you unwrap it, you discover how worthwhile the whole enterprise was for you.

Ebay is a curriculum--as all markets are. A market is a curriculum in which a sequence of economic interactions teach the participants the values of items and the various economic behaviors needed to operate successfully.

An insightful entrepreneur will simply describe Ebay in an object-oriented vocabulary and then clone an instance of it for learning. One such description would sound like this:
  • The center of such a system would be learning tasks with clear criteria. Some might be completed by interacting with an automated agent and other tasks with peers.
  • Let people come together based on common interests and clear roles. Maybe we both want to learn about economics, but I want to offer a learning task, and you want to perform a learning task. Leverage social affinities to make learning social and appealing.
  • Let people find their common interests easily. If learning materials were inherently interesting, learners could follow their own interests the way web surfers usually do. Other sites could even link to a learning platform--and vice-versa.
  • Learning tasks would probably need some timing--like auctions. Time frames seem to lend a certain mental clarity and facilitate social interaction. There is no waiting for Joshua to take his turn: when the deadline has passed, no more turns can be taken, so if Joshua doesn't take his turn, someone else will.
  • Make the number and kind of interactions simple and clear. Let some tutor, some learn, some contribute materials, some evaluate performances, etc. Let the system reflect as much information about tasks and users as possible--so learners can act strategically to get what they want and need.
The system itself could aggregate information to optimize itself for the learners.
  • A self-adjusting system could right-size groups working on social learning tasks based on behavior within the system.
  • Early in the system's development, users might have a lot of latitude about what tasks they completed when. But when the system stored enough information, the system administrators could know with a good degree of certainty that Task C should not be attempted before several successful performances on Tasks A and B.
  • Whether objective norms or social validation from peers or experts were the best predictor of future task success could also be inferred from system logs.
Ebay did not destroy the yard sale and the junk shop and the police auction. Face-to-face interactions still have their place. But it is a tightly-focused place.

And when someone builds a powerful online learning platform, there will still be schools: but smaller and more specialized schools.

If we care about education, we should be most concerned about the results rather than the methods--as long as they are both humane and effective. What is inhumane is having an educational system that is so profoundly ineffective for so many--basically all but those at the top.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Thursday, February 2, 2012

MFW: Teaching & Learning in a Manual-Free World

There are no more manuals. They're gone. No one read them, and so they went away--like childhood toys, now forgotten.

Yes, people still make manuals. And people make manuals for software and hardware that is "missing" the manual. But there are clear reasons to think: the manual is dead. 

Managing resources for software and hardware designers was never easy. A printed manual gets out-of-date quickly. So that was one reason to give up. With always-on internet, an always-up-to-date web site beats last year's manual.

More importantly, the New Design Idea is: manuals are only necessary when the design is bad. Good design means the user interface and experience are intuitive. 

The Coming of the GUI (graphical user interface) was the Going of the Manual.

The Manual Idea was:
  • the user needs to know everything.
  • "Everything" means all the menus and every item in every menu, plus every sub-item.
  • And the user needs to remember where everything is.

The truth is: no one does everything with a piece of software. Increasingly, software and hardware tools have more limited functions. If you think about it, this makes little sense, because the virtue of a computer is: it can imitate many other machines. That was part of the Turing's influential conception: a computer would be a "universal" logico-mathematical machine.

The computer is truly a universal machine.

  • Your computer is a phone, and a phone is your computer. 
  • Your computer is a TV, and your TV is a computer.
  •  Your phone is a camera, and your camera is a phone, and your ebook reader is a camera, etc.
  • Your answering machine is--well, it isn't: it was replaced by a computer somewhere outside your house.

So small computers are everywhere. But then apps give them many functions.

  • There's one app for taking pictures.
  • There's another app for sharing pictures.
  • There's one app for sending text messages.
  • There's another app for tweeting text messages.
  • There's one app to get voicemail.
  • There's another app to record voice memo's.

It's all the same piece of hardware, but we seem to want whichever app gives us that function--taking pictures, sending messages, recording voice memo's--most effortlessly.

So the world of tiny computers as platforms for apps is the manual-free world. 

So how do we help people use these apps? How do we train people? What has replaced the manual? 

The pathway has replaced the manual. Instead of the tree of menus and menu items, we have pathways.

  • Pathways are tasks.
  • Pathways are goal-driven.
  • Pathways are stories. Our brains like stories.
  • Pathways are memorable.

So our new way of training is: teach the pathway, not the manual.

And what will this do for education, the textbook, and expository writing? We are only beginning to see. But the short answer is: look it up in the manual.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tweeting about Twitter for Teaching & Learning

In the fall of 2011 I was invited to give a keynote address to a conference on learning technology. In Singapore.

Sadly, I was to remain in Los Angeles. I delivered the talk virtually--using videoconferencing hardware.

For my topic, I picked: 26 Ways of Looking at Twitter: Three Frameworks for Teaching &  Learning.

If You Don't Know What Twitter Is, I Feel Your Pain.

If you don't know--and there's no reason you should care--twitter is an online service that sends and receives 140-character messages to and from cell phones and computers and other online devices.

The original idea of Twitter was to "blog" from your phone. That is: you'd type a short (SMS) text message, and it would quickly show up on a web site such as  This way, you could keep a kind of online diary, even while on-the-go.

Then Twitter exploded. 

People built all kinds of software tools to send "tweets" to and from all kinds of web sites. Twitter is much-talked-about. TV news shows now invite viewers to tweet (send them messages), and the messages are read on the air. (Phones are apparently too time-consuming, email too taxing.)

Doubling Down on Wallace Stevens.

After drafting my talk, I decided to crank it up a notch. I would not only invent 26 uses of Twitter for teaching and learning: I would write my talk in the form of tweets (140-character messages)--52 of them, to be exact.

My line of thinking began with Wallace Steven's poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." I thought I would double-down on Stevens' poem. If he could poeticize 13 ways of looking at a mere bird, I could certainly come up with 26 ways of looking at a software that allowed humans to tweet like birds.

And from 26 to 52--the number of playing cards in a deck, minus the jokers--seemed to give ample padding. I could write 26 tweets on how to use Twitter for teaching & learning, and another 26 around them about the reasoning process of why those 26 ways--and not some others.

And so began a presentation tweeting about Twitter.

--Edward R. O'Neill