Wednesday, December 29, 2004


When you first buy a microwave, you instantly rely on it like it's been part of your kitchen all along. If you lose it, you can't remember how you ever got along without it. How exactly do you warm up lasagna without a microwave? A cell phone is the same way, once you have it, you need it. Which is why I resisted buying one for so long, though now I've officially been 'assimilated'.

But I've had my new GPS device for about 3 months now. I use it all the time, and continually am finding more and more things to do with it. I love it. But not in theh same 'gotta have it' kind of way I do my phone or microwave. If I were to lose my GPS reciever tomorrow, I'd be sad but I just wouldn't feel like I had lost my right arm. I wouldn't have the same sense of withdrawal that comes when you lose your microwave and have to warm up leftovers on a skillet.

Having got a car adapter for Christmas, I can now just turn the GPS on and leave it on. I tracked how long it took me to get to work today.

2.81 miles in
6 minutes, 31 seconds stopping only
1 minute and 21 seconds.
Moving average speed was 25.8 mph while my overall average was
21.4 mph
Top speed was 44.5

Almost as fun as the device the pioneers had.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Marion's New Blog

I just helped Marion set up a blog of his own, since the whole 'blogging experience', is a little addictive. Anyway, if you would like to continue following his thoughts on instructional design and his path to a degree (or insanity), you can click here.

Monday, December 20, 2004

New Poster...

Well, I've wrested the site back from my friend, Marion Jensen. Matthew Buckley is once again in charge of this site. :)

For those not keeping track at home, I was setting up this site for my book, and Marion asked me if he could use it for his class. Since I didn't have anything to post back then, I decided to be nice (fill my quota for the year), and allowed him the courtesy. Sometimes he's not so good with technology, though he probably doesn't want his professors at Utah State to know that.

Anyway, I've started writing a few things about my book. I'll post them here in the very near future. As way of introduction, however, my name is Matthew Buckley, and I originally started this blog to track the progress of a book of mine that will be published next spring. I'll bore you with details later, but I did want to start with the actual site of where my book takes place. Technically, the book never really comes out and says where the story is occurring, but if you go here, you can see the homestead where the summer of the evil chickens and demon goats took place. This is the spot where the age old truth was rediscovered; the fact that chickens do not have armpits.

Look for more to be posted soon.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Final Thoughts...

I recently read a somewhat scathing review of Wikipedia. The article was written by Robert McHenry, a former Editor in Chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

In his article, McHenry makes fun of pretty much everything Wkipedia attempts to accomplish whether it is the general idea of social software, or to J. P. Barlow and his ideas of information. To illustrate the futility of the entire project, McHenry picks apart a wikipedia article on Alexander Hamilton by showing that it does not contain several pieces of information that McHenry would deem necessary to meet his standards of a good encyclopedia article.

McHenry's concludes his article by comparing Wikipedia to a public restroom. "It may be obviously dirty, so the users knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him."

This article is discouraging. The idea of self-organization rests on the idea that there is power in a thousand learners seeking out knowledge together. Many types of social software such as fan fiction, wikipedia, online games, and USENET, support learning. This idea of using social software to support learning does not diminish the learning potential of a a more traditional learning environment, rather it suggests that self organization and social software provides an alternative means to the same end; the end in this case being a person learning. As Dave mentioned in his week 14 lecture', "Formal education is one piece of machinery that can facilitate learning. There are potentially many others. A key piece of being able to build innovative learning technologies is being able to think differently about learning."

But McHenry's castigation of wikipedia, and those working on the project, brings the idea of self organization into question. Does McHenry have a point? Is using social software to support learning a cheap imitation at best to 'formal instruction'?

McHenry does have a point, but he comes to an erroneous conclusion.

To compare the wikipedia to an encyclopedia, or fan fiction to a formal creative writing class is a mistake. There are enough differences to make the comparison pointless. What needs to be compared are the outcomes. What are the writing skills of an active participant in fan fiction compared to a participant in a formal creative writing class. What is the understanding level of a user of wikipedia compared to a user of the the Encyclopædia Britannica. It is the ends that need to be examined, not the means. An encyclopedia article can be completely accurate, but if the users does not get the information he seeks, is the article useful?

A user can learn from reading an encyclopedia. A user can learn better grammar from taking a formal writing class. Are these formal pieces 'better' instructional tools than their self organized counterparts? If students are learning just as well using other methods, and if more students are learning using other methods, then it becomes a question of how do you measure 'better'?

If, as McHenry suggests, wikipedia is not as complete as an Encyclopædia Britannica article, does that mean students will not learn as well? If the feedback from a fan fiction article is not as thorough as the feedback from an English teacher, does that mean students will not learn as well?

The Pareto principle states that "for many phenomena 80% of consequences stem from 20% of the causes." This 80-20 rule is often used to describe a variety of events in the business sector. Twenty percent of your stock takes up 80 percent of your warehouse. Twenty percent of your clients do 80 percent of your business. Twenty percent of of a projects work (the first and last 10 percent) take up 80 percent of your time and resources, etc. etc. etc.

But the Pareto principle also has it's place in education. Couldn't it be argued that only about 20 percent of what is learned in formal education actually is needed for employment? Other job requirements are learned after an employee has been hired in the form of on-the-job training, or unofficial training. Many of the skills have been learned or reinforced outside of formal education such as communication skills, social skills, or many types of technical skills.

So if a learner only needs 20 percent of what formal education is offering, and a social software provides that 20 percent without as much of the other 80 percent, wouldn't it be better (in some cases) for a learner to explore these alternative options? If the end result is that the necessary knowledge is learned, what does it matter by what methods that knowledge was transferred?

Some will say that a formal education is more 'complete'. An electrical engineer learns math, but also about other cultures, history, current events, etc. While this is true, the same can be said about online self organized communities. If I learn the 20 percent needed to do my work, I have more free time to explore other areas of interest. Just because I'm not in formal learning doesn't mean I can't learn about other cultures, history, or current events.

The wikipedia failed to mention that the birth year of Alexander Hamilton is in question. *Because of this, McHenry declared the wikipedia to be inferior to the more traditional encyclopedia. Because the wikipedia did not contain 100 percent of the information McHenry deemed necessary, it is therefore unreliable. There are probably countless participles that get dangled on fan fiction, and are never corrected. Incomplete answers are given on USENET and bulletin boards every day. But people are reading, writing, and experimenting because of these pieces of social software, and most of the information out there is correct, useful, and direct. If it's not, users would stop using the social software! More people use these kinds of software every day. And as more users log on, the information gets better and better. The end result is that more and more people are learning. The means may not appear as professional or organized as formal education. The journey may be a bit rough, but if the end result is a student who has learned something new, how can you attack the method with which they have learned?

I submit that self-organization can be a very viable alternative to getting relevant, direct, useful information into the hands of more learners in an efficient, economical manner.

* It should be noted that since the writing of McHerny's article, the wikipedia entry has been updated to include this information

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

MIT Excursion

I've always wanted to try out one of MIT's open courses, and it looks like I'm finally going to do it. A group of friends over at the Grey Labyrinth have all decided to go through a course. Since we usually talk politics at the GL, and nobody can pony up the big books for a book, we are going through this political science course. Most of the readings are online in pdf format.

It's kind of fun to see self-organized collboration already taking place. Some of the reading is online, and some of them were in texts, but it's all 'old' stuff, so I mentioned in our forum that we can probably find the rest of it online somewhere. Two posts later, somebody posts an entire list of the readings of the course. You can read our thread here, and if you want to join in, please feel free to do so!

Monday, December 06, 2004

6 Smart Bots

OK, here are my two images...

The top one is probably cheating, but in 250 days I was able to get 6 learners up to 2510 in the 'know' score.

The second one was a bit trickier, but I found that when there was a good number of learners, and the learning objects were fairly difficult, and people were both helpful, but not patient, it seemed to cause quite a bit of question asking.

Like Kami, I found it interesting that the fewer the learners seemed to increase what was learned. I'm not sure why that is the case in this simulation. I would think in real life that the more learners you have, the more of an 'expertise' you have access too, but then I guess you also run the risk of information overload. So many questions being posed that the flow of information becomes too unwieldy.

Overall, similar to my experience with flocking, I found myself moving sliders just see what happened, then using that information to try and predict, and get the desired results. I would need to play with, or look at the calculations behind, the system more before I feel like I really understood, and could predict what would happen. Several times I would move a slider and get an exact opposite reaction than what I expected.

I like this kind of modeling. It reminds me of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. The basic premise is that you cannot predict what a single person will do, or even a group of people, but you can predict what large numbers of people will do. While I'm not sure how closely this model represents real life, it would be interesting to see how close it comes, or what other factors are needed to make it a closer representation.

Flocking, flocking everywhere....

I'm usually an underachiever, but since I have three screen shots, I guess for at least 'one moment in time', I am an over achiever. :)

I did the 'things to try' on the flock of birds program, and came up with some interesting results. It first asked to try to get the flocking patterns tight. I came up with this result.

Linearly that's pretty dang tight.

It then asked for 'loose' patterns. I came up with this:

Not only are they loose, but all they did was circle around. I thought that was pretty fun.

Then I decided that maybe I could get an even tighter flocking pattern that the linear thing I had, and with a little bit of work came up with this:

I figured that was about as tight as I was going to get it. 124 birds on top of each other.

A few thoughts about this kind of 'learning'. I don't think I played with this enough to really understand it (maybe I'm an underachiever after all!). Through trial and error I could come up with the above images, but if I were going to sit down and try to replicate the images, I would have to engage in the same kind of trial and error activity. To me this is interesting because if these images were used to determine whether or not I understood the workings of this simulation, well then, it would be a bad measurement.

But I like this kind of learning. I like the discovery nature of it. You could talk about birds having a low level of intelligence, but engaging in activity that would make it appear they had a high level of intelligence, and the point would never be made to a large number of 'students'. But give them a toy like this, and then explain that with a few simple 'commands', the birds can look as if they are participating in advanced flight patterns. I think if a student were given a myriad of goals, and then some guided questions, more would be learned than by simply reading, lecturing, etc.

This is a fun little tool that needs some more exploring. The biggest question in my mind is can I use this as a strategic advantage in any of the many board games my family will be playing over the holidays.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Critical Mass

In the reading Dave gave us this week, he says, "the success of an OSOSS is heavily dependent on a critical mass of participants". In other words, for a learning community to be effective, they must have a lot of people participating. This increases the level of expertise you have available to the group.

So how does a community achieve this critical mass? Dave mentioned that they provided four features in OLS, the online forums to support the MIT OpenCourseWare project:




Fire Alarm

I think all of these are needed, but I wonder if there isn't one feature that may be also be needed in order for an OSOSS to reach critical mass. In fact I think it may be the most important.

I've mentioned before that I participate in a great online community; the Grey Labyrinth. People at the Grey Labyrinth know each other. Every six month or so somebody hosts a 'gathering', and anybody close enough travels to meet other members in 'real life'. A few people have suffered tragedies, and shared those stories or feelings with other members of the group. Members of this group offered advice and encouragement on my book when I first started writing it. In fact, the title of the book was offered up in a thread I started for just that reason. Several have already 'placed orders'. We have had one official 'marriage' from this community.

I feel that this sense of community is vital to the success and growth of an OSOSS. We cannot learn until we feel comfortable with those we interact with. If we feel uncomfortable with others, there won't be a fear of looking stupid when asking a question. If we do not care for other people, there is no desire to help them. Even though this sense of community has nothing to do with the actual learning, I feel that it is the most important element. I am much more willing to help somebody I love, than I am to help a complete stranger.

So if this sense of community is so important, how is it achieved? There are probably many ways, but the simplest way is to provide an 'off topic' area. It is fun for me to go to the Grey Labyrinth and discuss the subject it was built for (the posing and solving of puzzles), but talking about other topics is when we build that sense of community. We rejoice with member A because he passed his exams. We mourn with Member B because she broke up with a longtime boyfriend. If you are only allowed to talk about Civil War history, you will never build a community. I have looked at the OLS a bit, but haven't seen anywhere this can take place. There are running discussions about each topic, but no general meeting place where you can get to know each other.

Often I go to a site for a particular purpose. I went to the greylabyrinth to solve problems. I went to chataholics to play trivia games. But that gets boring after a while. I need the human interaction. So unless there is a community, I am likely not to stay.

I am going to try to talk a 'cohort' of Grey Labyrinth friends to go through a course with me over at MIT. It will be interesting to see how people who are already part of a community interact in the OLS. I'll let you all know how it turns out.