Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The End of Expertise Scarcity

The holy grail of learning is: expertise.

The expert doesn't just know more and better than the beginner: she knows differently. (This implies that knowing is a how and not just a what, an action and not just a state.) 

Learning involves "automaticity": making a series of steps into one whole thing which we can do without thinking. It's a form of efficiency. Experts get things in and out of memory more quickly and in larger and more complex patterns

This is not a new insight: Aristotle already connected excellence to habit. 

But expertise is a hot topic. Malcolm Gladwell made it a hot thing by flagging the idea of "10,000 hours of practice" in one of his nerd-hot books. There is more research than you can shake a stick at. (Yes, there are expertise experts.) And there is no shortage of good advice about how to teach and train for expertise. 

All very well. We're all shooting for expertise.

Here's the rub. Most higher education rests on a single assumption--one that is increasingly dubious. This assumption is: expertise exists at the center of an economy of scarcity.

Consider the classroom. There is only one expert (a few, if you count the Teaching Assistants). The expert is the summit of a pyramid or the hub of a wheel's spokes. Everyone needs to be connected to the one expert.
  • We read experts' books.
  • We listen to the expert's lectures.
  • We give your work to the expert for feedback.
But the expert's time is limited: she's a scarce resource. So the access is limited. The opportunities for feedback are limited. Lectures are deemed the most "efficient" way for the expert to share her expertise--no matter how much evidence might question that assumption.

Nowadays it is fashionable to assume that the Massive Open Online Course (the MOOC) will change all this. But the MOOC  still has a single expert or two, and the "feedback" from experts is highly limited.

Say you want to learn how:
  • to knit, 
  • to sew, 
  • to play the guitar, 
  • to apply stucco,
  • to rewire a lamp,
  • to write a sonnet, 
  • to build a web site, 
  • to calculate an integral. 
Today there are no lack of resources from which to learn. We're fairly drowning in information--as has been observed for several decades. Now you can find an online video showing any of these things 50 times over. But stored media resources are very limited.
  • Which resource is the best? 
  • Where should you start? 
  • Are you doing a good job? 
In short:
  • What is the curriculum--the sequence of tasks which supports success?
  • What are the standards that define excellence?
  • Where's the feedback on my performance?
The contrasting term for scarcity economy is: the network. A network is not a pyramid, and it is not the spokes of a wheel. Instead of a single one-to-many connection, a network is connections: one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many.

Sociologist Manuel Castells described the features of a networked society. Instead of scarcity being the key question, the networked society has three key questions:
  • Can you find the node you need?
  • How far is it from one node to another?
  • Are you connected to the network or offline?
Today there really is no scarcity of expertise: you just don't know where it is. You can't find it, don't know how far it is, and may not be connected. There could be an expert next door, down the street, in your home town or in your social network. You just don't know it yet. 

If expertise were networked, the scarcity economy would end--and the model on which higher education is based would go with it.

A digital economy already reaches beyond scarcity. The recording and movie industries have already been transformed because an audio recording and a video are now easier and faster to make because they no longer require a separate physical medium: they use the same media the computer uses for so many other storage and retrieval tasks.

Now that we are all networked with various devices--phones, tablets, laptops, computers--when it comes to learning, it is now possible for us to shift away from the scarcity economy of expertise. The internet should do for learning what it did for music and movie buying, listening and watching.

It comes down to sharing. If we had a platform to share expertise with each other, the scarcity economy that defines higher education would be gone--and the price would fall. 

--Edward R. O'Neill

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Is Higher Ed the Next Hollywood, Tower Records, Borders, Etc.?

Higher education faces serious challenges. Their ability to generate intellectual property still matters. Their reputations still matter. 

  • But the physical plant--the campus--is expensive.
  • Long-term contracts are already being unilaterally re-written at state universities under the cover of state budget crises. But the precedent has been set.

To think this through, it can be helpful to remember two industrial transitions: (1) Hollywood after World War II, and (2) bookstores, video stores and music sellers in the last decade. 

Take Hollywood first. The declension is three short steps.

1. The status quo is very profitable. Hollywood's business model is simple.
  • Own the whole chain--from production to distribution to consumption (movie theaters). 
  • Own physical plants: film studios and movie theaters.  Costs to start a new production are minimal. You must produce a lot of product so as not to have unused capacity. Owning theaters means you can always show sub-par product.
  • Keep top-notch talent under long-term contract. 
  • Collude to control supply.  The major players only produced a limited amount of product.

2. A big change comes. In 1948, Hollywood studios were forced to sell their theater chains. At the same time, television comes along. 
  • The physical plant and long-term contracts are now drains on the bottom line, rather than advantages. 
  • The new distribution system of TV brings lower costs in the physical plant and creates an advantage for temporary labor.

3. Competitors proliferate; the big companies downsize. Hollywood studios sell their physical plants. They get rid of long-term contracts for talent.  They start selling to television.

Recently we've seen something similar with books, music and videos.

Convenience.  Small bookstores and videostores were never wildly profitable. But people liked the convenience of a local vendor, curated contents, knowledgeable sales staff.

  • Now, social networks mediate recommendations.
  • Crowdsourced reviews tell shoppers what they need to know.
  • The convenience of online and overnight delivery trumps the convenience of leaving the house and walking a few blocks or driving a couple of miles, stopping in the middle of a trip, adding one more errand.


  • Shopping becomes more convenient, efficient and impulse-driven. The shopper need not leave the house. Only a click is required. 
  • Everyone buying from the same vendors means information can be aggregated to help the shopper. Shoppers choose based on other users' input, and software steers shoppers towards likely interests.
  • Delivery efficiencies emerge. Books show up on your doorstep. Music downloads to your computer. Movies and TV shows stream to your phone.

Downsizing. Borders is gone. BN.com is hanging in there: some say its chief value is now in its ebook reader. The major music chains--Tower, Virgin--are gone, their flagships now selling inexpensive furniture (in some cases). Blockbuster closed locations. A kiosk outside of the 7/11 is the new form of convenience.

In this context, it's not hard to see what will happen to higher education. An Amazon will come along. Or an iTunes or a Netflix or a Youtube or a Hulu or a Redbox. 

Surely, you say, education cannot be like making movies or selling books, videos or music. Maybe not. 

But if distance learning is not the Amazon-iTunes-Hulu-Netflix-Redbox for higher ed, then something else is.

--Edward R. O'Neill

The End of Higher Education

Say Goodbye, Mr. Chips. It's Game Over for higher education. 

Higher education as we know it is a zombie. It's basically dead: it just doesn't know it yet.

Why? The business model sucks.

What is the business model of higher ed? A very expensive and labor-intensive service requires keen reputation management, as well as control of labor. 

These are the unspoken directives of higher ed as we know it.
  • Maintain a large physical plant: the campus is the place the learning happens, and the customers live on-site.
  • Keep top talent under exclusive long-term contract: professors get jobs for life, even though you don't own much of what they produce.
  • Accumulate intellectual property: professors' patentable work brings income.
  • Accumulate prestige: more intangible cultural capital gets accumulated by building the reputations of faculty.
Belief in the system is paramount. You can deny the value of faculty poets and critics: cancer researchers and engineers, not so much.

What beliefs sustain this system? 
  • An excellent education requires living on-site or very close by:  quality demands proximity.
  • Learning requires face-to-face communication, close-quarters socialization, and working in isolation: learning is transmitted by contact, like sound waves.
  • The more famous and expert the faculty, the more learning they will cause: learning is osmotic.
In short, colleges and universities are to the mind what monasteries once were to the spirit: places where you lock yourself away in close proximity to powerful souls whose vibrations will influence you deeply by a kind of prayerful osmosis.

Enter networked computing: the internet, web 2.0, the social web, whatnot. A mix of mediated human social interaction and automated human-computer interaction.

Can learning take place via remotely networked computers?

Basically, it's already been demonstrated.  

Yet still there is a kind of mystical belief in colleges and universities as physical plants with housing and on-site instruction, and talent under long-term contract. 

That will change. Slowly or rapidly, that will change.

Once the belief is gone, it is Game Over--which means that it is basically Game Over now, and it is just a matter of belief catching up. Consciousness always lags a bit behind perception: it's practically definitional.

So now when you pass a college campus just picture Wile E. Coyote, running in place just past the edge of a cliff, not yet aware that the ground is far, far below--but approaching fast.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Four Ways of Looking at Lana Del Rey

What does an online visual analysis look like? Even a rudimentary one? What are the basic steps for each?

Below are four sample presentations
  • These were created purely as technology demonstrations for an undergraduate gender studies course. 
  • A convenient topic was: a visual analysis of recent pop singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey.
  • The analyses follow no particular method and represent no general theory: 
    • they just show some things that can be done to analyze visual materials on different platforms.
    • If each varies in quality--use of the medium, complexity--they can also serve as objects of critique, an opportunity to discuss evaluation criteria.
  • The actual url's have been passed through a link-shortener with customized url's to make them easier to share.

1. Publish images and text slides as an online photo set or 'web album.'
How I Did It.
  • I searched for images using images.google.com.
  • When a surprising image came up--like '20's "It Girl" Clara Bow's image in results for "Lana Del Rey"--I searched the new topic to find more relevant images.
  • I shuttled back and forth between the images and more searches.
  • I saved the photos locally.
  • I drafted some notes and used them to sequence the images in Picasa photo organizing & editing software.
  • I published the resulting album to the web from within Picasa.

2. An online photo set like those in Picasaweb can also be pulled into Cooliris Express. 
  • This link connects to the same images, but in this browser-based application, the images become an interactive gallery wall.

3. Use iMovie to edit images of video and add commentary.

How I Did It.
  • I downloaded a music video that I found intriguing from Youtube using keepvid.com.
  • I brought that video file into iMovie.
  • I selected one short 45-second clip that used a lot of motifs I wanted to point towards.
  • I added titles over the images to highlight certain meanings and categories the video consistently draws on.
  • I rendered the video and published it to Youtube.
  • Clearly, just a few descriptions on the screen is not the same as an analysis.
  • Given that the images move quickly, still frames might be better.
  • Further, having the keywords come and go with the images does not solidify the running themes for the viewer. 

4. Use online presentation software--such as Google Docs.
  • By selecting related visual images and juxtaposing them with an analytical quote, you can make a very small network of themes.
  • In this case, I took the main topics from the quotes and made them into 'tags'--just a word that floats near the image and highlights some aspect of it.
    • Clearly, this is not the richest, most sophisticated way to do this.
    • A next step would involve: editing the images to highlight the elements, or constructing a richer dynamic between words and images.
The workflow is:
  • Create an empty presentation in Google Docs.
  • Find images and drag the image from an open browser window directly into the Google Docs presentation.
  • Add text quotes and 'tags.'
  • Publish by using the "Share." Button.

This does not exhaust the options. But it shows some of the possibilities.

--Edward R. O'Neill 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Goodbye, Powerpoint: Sharing Multimedia Analysis & Presentations Online

Recently I consulted with a professor who wanted her students to do some visual analysis. In essence, her students will:
  • find five to ten images, 
  • develop a commentary or analysis, 
  • combine text and images to present the analysis, 
  • publish to the web using any platform, and 
  • share the link with peers and the instructor.
Students are connected in online software (the campus LMS) so they can view and vote on the work of a limited peer group. (It's a large course--150 students.)

To help support the course, I visited the classroom and  showed four different sample presentations using four different tools. Students have a clear goal, but then they have a choice of pathways and tools. This seems to be the New Classroom: in the era of free web-based tools, software-agnosticism is the new normal. 
  • Why tell students which software to use, when it's not licensed by the university nor even the best option? 
Let the students find their own pathways--with guidance--and then decide if some tools truly yield better results.

So here are some main options--and some steps or details about each. (I'll publish the actual examples separately.)

1. Publish annotated images to the web as a photo album by re-purposing consumer photo-sharing software.
  • Download Picasa. (It's free Google software.)
  • Search for and save images to a local folder that Picasa is "watching." 
  • Create an "album" in Picasa and drag relevant photos there.
  • Generate explanatory slides in Keynote or Powerpoint &  export them as jpegs.
  • Sort your images and slides as you like. Delete those you don't need. (The original file is not deleted.)
  • In Picasa, choose 'sync to web' and your album will be duplicated online. Be sure to make it 'public.'
In theory, if you allow web syncing, when you modify the local album, the web version stays in sync. This would be nice, because sometimes you want to rewrite and replace a slide, and this would make the process automatic--though I haven't tried it myself and so can't swear to it.

One wrinkle is: the folders go to Picasaweb, but also to Google Plus Photos. 
  • They're really just two entrances to the same building--so two distinct url's--but each has different features. 
  • Picasaweb lets you sequence the images; G+ Photos doesn't. 
  • But G+ Photos has a nicer interface for presenting--should you be doing that.
Other tools don't have the same kind of desktop tool, but they can be just as easy. Flickr is very easy to use, and it's built-in slideshow mode with a black background is attractive.

You can:
  • add commentary in the form of captions;
  • use the web discussion tools to have a conversation about your work.
Within this pathway, you can also annotate your images directly.  That is: 
  • don't separate the verbal comments and the visual images;
  • lay the verbal analysis on top of the images; or
  • use visual means to do your analysis right in the image itself.
Think of this as homeopathic analysis or fighting fire with fire.
  • Use Photoshop or other tools to highlight, circle, draw on, type on, etc.
  • Skitch is an Evernote app that runs in the browser and lets you annotate any web page. So web pages (made into still images) are fair game for online presentations too.
You can also pull your online photo album into an interactive presentation tool like Cooliris Express
  • This browser-based app pulls photos from Flickr, Picasa or the like.
  • The wizard in the browser then spits out a url which makes the browser into an interactive gallery wall--according to your parameters (how many rows high, the color of the wall, etc.).
2. Make or annotate a movie using consumer-level editing software.
  • You can pull your images and slides into iPhoto and make a slideshow movie that shows each image for a set number of seconds.
  • In iMovie, you can do more--such as mixing video and still images, adding a new audio track, layering on titles, etc.
In my case, I wanted to comment on a video which was itself on youtube.
  • I downloaded the Youtube video using keepvid.com. Copying the url into a window in the keepvid web site allows the user to download the video in a format such as mp4.
  • I then edited using iMovie. I selected a small clip, and I added titles over the image to highlight some running motifs.
Youtube actually lets users annotate videos. It's therefore possible to upload a video--even one you have not edited or modified in any way--then use Youtube to do your annotation and commentary People use this for casual purposes, but there's no reason it should not also be a scholarly tool.

3. Publish your presentation using online tools that mimic the features of desktop tools like Powerpoint and Keynote.
  • Google Docs allows users to create presentations which play out of the browser. You just need to make sure your presentation is set to "Public."
  • Sliderocket also allows users to upload presentations and then add music or an audio voiceover.
Students seem very attracted by the idea of uploading images which they discuss orally--like a recorded version of a live presentation--rather than writing on, beside or beneath the images.

In addition, there are yet other approaches which I didn't create for this occasion but which are nevertheless easy-to-use and good candidates for this type of assignment.

4. Storify existing web content.
Storify lets users pull in media for other places, such as Youtube and Twitter.
  • The user than adds commentary between the media being pulled in.
  • The media is pulled in live from other sites: there's nothing to download, save or sort.

5. Use tools for saving entire web pages or just links to them, comment on them and share them--with everyone or just a few.
  • Evernote allows you to save pages, comment on them, and share the results. Teachers use it, but students can too.
  • Delicious.com lets users save url's and add tags and comments.

With Delicious, the tags become search terms so www.delicious.com/username/tag1+tag2 becomes the address for username's public saved links that are tagged in that particular way.
  • Thus johnsmith/manet+analysis might be the end of a url where John Smith saves the url's just for jpeg's of Manet's images, and Delicious keeps the comments, including additional tags: brushtrokes, pastels, whatnot.

General Workflow Tips.
  • Search in a branching pattern: follow what’s interesting in one search to a new search, and so on.
  • If you're publishing to a web album, grab as you go and save material locally.
  • Sort & arrange.
  • Pre-write as you go: draft ideas and refine them as you sort through your images.
  • Pick the platform, and find a sequence.
  • Write the verbal commentary where you want it: on the images, as captions, as tags, as titles in a video, etc. In essence: combine your selected and sorted visual material with the verbal material you've generated and refined.
  • Share the link: consider publishing as abbreviated url using bit.ly, tinyurl.com, etc.
Students should also consider their "shooting ratio." When making a movie, it's usually necessary to shoot more footage than you will use. I often tell students: Good work demands omission. 
  • If you only write five pages for a five-page paper, it may not be your best material.
  • Whereas if you write eight pages and then throw out the weak stuff, you will likely get a better result. 
Along these lines, students should consider the amount of draft content they need to find in proportion to the "target size"--the scope of the assignment. To get five interesting images worth discussing in a meaningful way, would you rather sort through 10 images? 25 images? 50 images?

Most people find a 'sweet spot' where they have enough choices without being swamped by choices and overwhelmed by the chore of sorting and sifting.

--Edward R. O'Neill