Learning in the Open

Here’s a piece I wrote for the WSJ on open source education resources. It’s part of the free section of WSJ.com.

A revolution of sorts is sweeping education.

In the past few years, educational material, from handwritten lecture notes to whole courses, has been made available online, free for anyone who wants it. Backed by big-name universities in the U.S., China, Japan and Europe, the Open Education Resources movement is gaining ground, providing access to knowledge so that no one is “walled in by money, race and other issues,” says Lucifer Chu, a 32-year-old Taiwanese citizen and among the thousands world-wide promoting the effort. He says he has used about half a million dollars from his translation of the “Lord of the Rings” novels into Chinese to translate engineering, math and other educational material, also from English into Chinese.

The movement started in the late 1990s, inspired in part by the “open source” software movement, based on the notion computer programs should be free. Open-source software now powers more than half the world’s servers and about 18% of its browsers, according to TheCounter.com, a Web-analysis service by Connecticut-based Internet publisher Jupitermedia Corp. Behind its success are copyright licenses that allow users to use, change and then redistribute the software. Another inspiration was the proliferation of Web sites where millions share photos or write encyclopedia entries.

Free Online College Courses Are Proliferating – WSJ.com

Learning in the Open

Here’s a piece I wrote for the WSJ on open source education resources. It’s part of the free section of WSJ.com.

A revolution of sorts is sweeping education.

In the past few years, educational material, from handwritten lecture notes to whole courses, has been made available online, free for anyone who wants it. Backed by big-name universities in the U.S., China, Japan and Europe, the Open Education Resources movement is gaining ground, providing access to knowledge so that no one is “walled in by money, race and other issues,” says Lucifer Chu, a 32-year-old Taiwanese citizen and among the thousands world-wide promoting the effort. He says he has used about half a million dollars from his translation of the “Lord of the Rings” novels into Chinese to translate engineering, math and other educational material, also from English into Chinese.

The movement started in the late 1990s, inspired in part by the “open source” software movement, based on the notion computer programs should be free. Open-source software now powers more than half the world’s servers and about 18% of its browsers, according to TheCounter.com, a Web-analysis service by Connecticut-based Internet publisher Jupitermedia Corp. Behind its success are copyright licenses that allow users to use, change and then redistribute the software. Another inspiration was the proliferation of Web sites where millions share photos or write encyclopedia entries.

Free Online College Courses Are Proliferating – WSJ.com

How to Add Half a Year to Your Life

By Jeremy Wagstaff

At the risk of boring you all to death this week I’d like to talk about folders. Yes, I know it’s not the most exciting subject in the world, but I’ve seen too many people make a mess of this that I reckon reading this article should save you on average about 10 minutes a day, which over a lifetime adds up to nearly 180 days, so you can thank me when you’re in your retirement home.

The problem is this: We create files, we save files, we copy files, we move files. We delete files, we edit files, we rename files, we back up files. We lose files. It’s the last bit that I want to focus on. In short, we treat our computer like a store cupboard that we never organize and never clean out.

When you buy milk you know where to put it, right? In the shelves built into the fridge door, right? You put the washing back in the cupboard when it’s all folded, right? When you bake a cake you put it in a tin, right?

But when we create, move, save, rename, copy, backup a file we rarely do anything similar. If we’re disciplined we put it in the My Documents folder (in Windows) or in Documents (on Macs.) If we’re feeling really energetic we might even make a special folder called “Other documents” or something equally imaginative.

This is about as far as we go. It’s like throwing the milk anywhere in the fridge, or the towel in the nearest drawer, or the cake in the nearest cupboard. The more files you have, the harder it’s going to be find them. You’ve probably found that already.

So the obvious first lesson is: organize your folders. I’ve told you about that before, so that’s not really the lesson. But it’s worth saying again: organize your folders. Make new folders for new projects, and make them subfolders (i.e. folders within folders) of bigger categories. Projects, for example, may be a main folder, but have other folders within it called ‘Logo design project’ or ‘Cake baking’.

Doesn’t matter, so long as it’s logical and you get into the habit of storing all related documents in the same folder.

Now, here are some tricks to make this process easier. In Windows you’ll see a little icon in the box that appears when you want to save a file (what’s called the ‘Save As Dialog’ that looks like a folder with a corner of it on fire. This is the button for creating a new folder. So navigate to the folder or place where you want to make your new (sub) folder and click that button. Type in a name, hit enter, and then save your file there.

I would recommend you make it really simple for yourself by making folders like C:Documents and C:Downloads and C:Dump and C:Backup to store your stuff. (The C: refers to the hard drive, which is always called C for historical reasons.) You can make subfolders below these, but having these folders in what is called the root directory makes it easy later.

The problem is that once you start making lots of folders, you’ll find that the Save As dialog doesn’t always open in the folder that you want it to, and navigating around subfolders is slightly less fun than visiting the dentist, even if you’ve put them in the root canal, sorry directory.

Here are a couple of tricks to make it easier in Windows. If you use XP, download a little piece of free Microsoft software called TweakUI (UI stands for User Interface). You can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/2meyw (just scroll down the rights hand side until you see the download link.)

Once you’ve installed the software launch it (you’ll find it in the Powertoys folder in your Start Menu) and select the Places Bar item in the Common Dialogs entry. Once you’re there type in the names of the four or five folders you use most (if you’ve used my suggestions above, this is easy enough to remember. If you haven’t, jot down the full path (with all the backslashes and stuff, and type them in. I know it’s not fun, but it’ll be worth it.)

Once this is done, click OK, and try opening a Save as dialog in one of your Windows program. You should notice an extra little pane in the left hand side with your newly entered folders appearing in a list. Click on one of those and you’re magically shuffled off to that particular folder. Now you should be saving precious minutes already. (Thanks to Dennis O’Reilly of CNET for this tip.)

A word of warning: This doesn’t work in Microsoft Office, which uses a slightly different dialog box. There you just navigate your way to the folder you want to save, right click in the left hand pane where the special folders are located and select the “Add ‘[the name of the open folder]’” option.

I’ve got one more tip for you in this field, which will help if you’ve got more than five folders you want to access or save files to. A small, free, program called FileBox eXtender (from http://tinyurl.com/yjhns8) will add an extra couple of icons to your Save as or Open dialog boxes which will contain a list of your recently used folders. (The software is useful but not that intuitive; if you’re having problems try an alternative, also free, called Direct Folders from http://tinyurl.com/ynt235.) Both should work with Vista.

I’m not aware of Mac programs that do this, but doubtless I’ll hear from users and be informed/chastised accordingly.

Jeremy Wagstaff writes for The Wall Street Journal Asia and the BBC World Service. His guide to technology, “Loose Wire”, is available in bookshops or on Amazon. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

Tibet and the Information War

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From EastSouthWestNorth

Rebecca Mackinnon of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre in Hong Kong does a great job of looking at how Chinese are increasingly skeptical of Western news agencies’ perceived bias about what has happened in Tibet:

Hopefully most of China’s netizens will draw the obvious conclusion: that in the end you shouldn’t trust any information source – Western or Chinese, professional or amateur, digital or analog – until and unless they have earned your trust.

She provides some great examples including the apparent cropping of photos on CNN.com to shape the story. It’s well worth a read.

Ethan Zuckerman takes issue with one BBC reporter who, he says, take all the criticism of coverage he has received as coming from government stooges: “In other words, there may be angry Chinese citizens contacting BBC reporters to complain about their coverage, but they’re being controlled by Chinese state media.” (There’s no link for the report so I can’t follow this up.)

This is a fascinating discussion, because it represents something of a watershed in different ways:

  • What was originally perceived to be a crisis for China’s image of itself in the world may end up being something else. Too early to say yet;
  • The first big international story that may, in the final analysis, be defined not by the (Western) mass media but by an online debate (kind word)/’information war’ (probably more accurate word);
  • The extent to which a country/nation defines itself is drifting from an official function to an informal, online one. An online fightback, and one which is done by its passionate and angry citizen, has much more credibility than a state-sponsored one.

‘Stories’ are shaped early on and it’s a brave journalist who defies preconceptions and refuses to pander to them. (Brave usually because their editors will yell at them to provide copy and content to match their competitors, but also because they face viewer/reader harrassment.)

The Tibet story, which has not yet played itself out and may have more twists to come, is one of those stories any media should be mature enough to cover in a nuanced and unbiased way.

RConversation: Anti-CNN and the Tibet information war

Power to the Consumer. (Is That All?)

Akasaka, 2008

Jan Chipchase, roving Nokia researcher, as ever inspires and provokes with this piece on the psychology of the coffee cup:

This Akasaka coffee shop includes a row of accessible power sockets (running a long the edge of the window) primarily to support laptop use – though over the course of an hour a number of people charged their phones (yes people here sometimes carry petite phone chargers). Recharging mobile devices in coffee shops is nothing new – but to what extent does the explicit nature of the infrastructure lead to new behaviours? Like? Well, maybe plugging in a printer? Or setting up a server. Or, or…

Jan points to the issues raised by offering power to consumers:

In some ways customers that don’t use the power socket are subsidising those that do – after all they pay a the same for a cup of coffee. Or do power using power-users spend more money either on more items or on items that will last longer? What if the electricity socket was a stand-alone working micro market? As you plug into the socket your devices authenticates itself to the system, negotiates how much power (or fuel-cell fuel) it needs and charges away. As with the explicit presence of the socket to what extent does the explicit presence of a micro-market for power this extend existing behaviours? And given the relaxed ambiance that this coffee shop is trying to create is it desirable to create a market in this context?

It fascinates me that the average high street these days is as likely to have as many coffee shops as it is other kinds of outlets. And that people work, live, play, cry and get divorced in them. Why do we need the hustle and bustle of others to be productive?

But for me the biggest mystery is why these outlets don’t bother to try to sell something more than just coffee, crappy CDs and bad finger food to these customers. Selling power to them might be a cheap shot, but let’s face it, you’re not really selling them coffee. You’re selling them a place to work. A noise, an ambience. You’re selling them the chance to feel cool. To show off their Air. To furtively check out members of a sexually appealing gender. To have physical proximity. To engage with engaging staff. A chance to get away from the office/family/silence.

That’s what they’re buying. But what about what they’d like to buy, that they just haven’t considered yet? A chance to meet the people around them? A way to build an informal network with other users? To be able to print from their computers? To arrange pick up by FedEx? An ATM machine?

To me, Starbucks is never really about the coffee. Well, it is for the people who go in there, queue and then take it with them (and then, I think for a lot of them it’s about delaying arrival in the office, or having something in their hands as a sort of weapon to take on the day; if it’s halfway through the day it’s a chance to get out of the office on an errand that is acceptable.) But for the people who stay in Starbucks, they’re buying something else. And who knows what else they might buy if you try to sell it to them?

Jan Chipchase – Future Perfect: Behaviours Reflected

Reforestation, Google Earth Style

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Here’s a very cool way to mix technology and environmental stuff, via the Google Earth Blog. (Interest declared: It’s part of the NEWtrees project, the brainchild of my publisher and friend Mark Hanusz):

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) offers you the opportunity to buy a tree which will be planted in a rainforest in Sebangau National Forest in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. In return, they not only plant the tree, but give you a Google Earth KML file in return with the location coordinates of your tree. Theoretically, as Google continues to update with higher resolution satellite and aerial imagery, you should be able to watch the growth of your tree (and the others who donate trees) over the coming years. To get started, you simply go to the web site mybabytree.org. They have a very cute animation that will guide you through the process, and you can use Paypal to make your donation. You can see the location and list of trees purchased so far here . Borneo is another location, like the Amazon, where rain forests are disappearing due to logging at a freightening pace. I hope WWF will extend the concept to the rapidly declining rain forests in the Amazon.

Why’s this so good? Because it leverages straightforward technology — GPS, Google Earth — to make the global significant on an individual scale. I remember when I was a kid my dad planted a tree for me in Northampton as part of a local Men of the Trees project (now the International Tree Foundation). Sadly the project was bulldozed to make way for a bypass, but hopefully that’s not likely to happen in Kalimantan. Certainly I could relate a lot more to one tree than a forest.

 

Google Earth Blog: Buy a Tree for the Rainforest – Get a KML

Laptops Aren’t the Problem: The Meetings Are

Some interesting discussions about whether laptops should be allowed in class or meetings. This from Cybernetnews (via Steve Rubel’s shared Google Reader feed):

At the start of my last semester of school, I was taken back when I read the syllabus for one of my classes. It read something like: “laptops may not be brought to class because they distract both the student and the teacher.” For most of my college career I had gotten used to bringing my laptop to class to take notes because I could type much faster than I could write, and sorting and organizing notes was much easier. Here I was in my last semester and the teacher wasn’t going to allow a laptop. I was annoyed, but life went on without my laptop and I had to get used to writing my notes once again.

This is also happening in business meetings.

I definitely think it’s distracting to a teacher or presenter to have people tapping away on laptops. And, perhaps more importantly, distracting for people around them. Speakers at tech conferences can feel themselves battling for attention in a room full of laptop users who rarely look up. I often bring a laptop to interviews and type directly into it; I can tell some interviewees find this distracting, and it’s not good for the ‘hold eye contact to make subject comfortable and stick to topic” routine I try to instill in students.

But laptops are part of our culture now in the same way that notepads and pens were. The truth is that laptops are part of our productivity, and removing them doesn’t make sense since it punishes those people who have succeeded in meshing them into their lives. And besides, few of us have got so much to say, and are so good at saying it that members of the multitasking generation can’t do a few other things while they’re listening to us.

The downer is if the user is clearly not actually taking notes. Or not using the laptop to dig up useful information to contribute to the meeting (my favorite example of this is PersonalBrain demon Jerry Michalski, who can dig up interesting links related to what’s being talked about in seconds). And there’s another aspect to this: the flattening effect of the backchannel, where participants at a conference discuss what is going on onstage among themselves. In one sense this is good, since it gives a passive audience a tool to control the session, but in another it’s simply another distraction.

But I think we presenters/meeting leaders/speakers need to think harder, and throw out the old rule book.

I’ve tried to analyse why I as a teacher find it distracting. One student has been tapping away almost incessantly in class when I’ve been talking. And until recently I’ve had no way of telling whether she’s been writing a letter to Aunt Joan or IMing  or whether she’s so impressed with what I’m saying that she’s taking it down verbatim. But I’ve figured out the solution: just lob a few questions her way and see whether she’s flummoxed or in the flow.

The truth is that while it’s great to have everyone’s eyes on you when you’re talking, rapt fascination sculpting their features into a permanent O shape, those people are not taking notes. We don’t assume that people writing longhand are goofing off (although in my students days that was exactly what I was doing, writing lyrics) so shouldn’t we give laptop users the benefit of the doubt? I’d rather students had some record of what I was saying in class, even if it means they’re also checking email.

The bigger solution, of course, is to ditch the whole ‘presentation thing’ in favor of participation. I know my class are more attentive if they know I’m going to ask random questions of them. An audience is going to be more attentive if the speaker is not merely droning on but offering a compelling performance and engaging them as much as possible. A meeting leader is going to have the attention of the room if s/he doesn’t waste their valuable day giving some PR schtick but keeps it short and genuinely meets the other participant, rather than lectures them.

In short, the onus is always on the person who leads the meeting/class/conference to engage the participants. It’s not rocket science to figure out that all the laptops will clamp tightly shut if the meeting is so absorbing and lively that participants don’t want to miss a second of it, and feel their voice is being heard. And the teacher/presenter/meeting leader should make sure that there’s a decent record of the meeting so those who participate aren’t punished because they haven’t had a chance to take notes.

Laptops have been around long enough for us to have figured out a better way of absorbing them into our workflow. Campuses now have power outlets and lots of tables where students can work on their laptops. This is great to see (and I find it a tad strange that some lecture rooms don’t have the same deal.) These students are used to doing stuff on their laptops, and they’ll enter the workforce with the same mentality. We should be encouraging this. We need to figure out ways to work with this, not against it.

No Laptops Allowed! A New Trend?

Why Reporters Hate PR Professionals

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Peter Shankman recently told the story of how lazy/dumb/thoughtless PR types can be when he forwards a journalist request and gets mostly lame and irrelevant replies. His conclusion:

Is this what the agencies are teaching their employees to do?

If it is, reporters have every right to hate public relations professionals.

We’re not doing our job.

At best, we’re an industry that relies on hope, and not skill, on the off chance that we’ll catch a break.

We’ve become an industry of posers, hoping that we’ll get through another day without being exposed as a fraud.

Peter’s response to this industry-wide problem was to set up a Facebook group. Now that’s gotten too large he’s set up a website and list, to which PR and industry types can subscribe. Peter will post journalist queries to the list. He tags on an excellent proviso: 

By joining this list, just promise me and yourself that you’ll ask yourself before you send a response: Is this response really on target? Is this response really going to help the journalist, or is this just a BS way for me to get my client in front of the reporter? If you have to think for more than three seconds, chances are, you shouldn’t send the response.

It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out. Sadly, I suspect many PR types don’t really care about relevance or blowing it with a reporter by making an irrelevant pitch; they just want to be able to add another number to their report. As Phil Gomes of Edelman points out, ProfNet owns this field but their usefulness has dropped off in recent years. There’s plenty of room for more and better players. 

(Vaguely related vent: I got another one of those emails with a subject line “May I call you on this?” this morning. How useful is that? Does it give me any idea of whether it’s relevant and interesting to me? That I now have to read the contents of the email to get a clue isn’t going to endear me to you. That you are so keen to phone me tells me you’re a high maintenance PR contact I don’t want to waste time with. I take great joy in sending an empty email with the subject line “No” to these emails. And I add their domain to my “PR spam” filter. I know, it’s harsh, but life’s too short.) 

The home of Peter Shankman – Shankman.com

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Counting the Words

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I’ve been looking recently at different ways that newspapers can add value to the news they produce, and one of them is using technology to better mine the information that’s available to bring out themes and nuances that might otherwise be lost. But does it always work?

The post popular page on the WSJ.com website at the moment is Barack Obama’s speech, which has dozens of comments added to it (not all them illuminating; but there’s another story.) What intrigued me was the text analysis box in the text:

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Click on that link and you see a sort of tag cloud of words and how frequently they appear in the text of the piece itself. Mouse over a word and a popup tells you how many times Obama used the word. “Black,” for example, appears 38 times; “white” appears only 29. That’s nearly 25% fewer times.

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Interesting, but useful? My gut reaction is that it cheapens a remarkable speech–remarkable not because of its views, but remarkable because it’s a piece of oratory that could have been uttered 10, 20, 50, maybe even 100 years ago and still be understood.

My point? Analyzing a speech using a simple counter is not only pretty pointless–does the fact he said ‘black’ more times than ‘white’ tell us anything? What about the words he didn’t use?–but it paves the way to speechwriters running their own text analysis over speeches before they’re spoken. “Hey, Bob! We need to put more ‘whites’ in there otherwise people are going to freak out!” “OK how about mentioning you were in White Plains a couple of times last year?”

Maybe this already happens. But oratory is an art form: it doesn’t succumb to analysis, just as efforts to subject Shakespeare to text analysis don’t really tell us very much about Shakespeare.

The Journal is just messing around, of course, experimenting with what it can to see what might work. We’re merely watching a small episode in newspapers trying to be relevant. And it should be applauded for doing so. But I really hope that something more substantial and smart will come along, because this kind of thing not only misses the mark, but is in danger of quickly becoming absurd.

Perhaps more important, it fails to really add value to the data. Without any analysis of the frequency of words, there’s not really much one can say to the exercise except, maybe, “hmmm.” Compare that with a Canadian research project a couple of years back which developed algorithms to measure spin in the 2006 election there. They looked at politicians’ use of particular words: “exception words” — however, unless — for example, and the decreased use of personal pronouns–I, we, me, us– which might imply the speaker was distancing him- or herself from what was being said.

That sounds smart, but was it revealing? The New Scientist, writing in January 2006, said the results concluded that the incumbent, Prime Minister Paul Martin, of the Liberal Party, spun “dramatically more than Conservative Party leader, Stephen Harper, and the New Democratic Party leader, Jack Layton.” Harper, needless to say, won the election.

Oh, and in case you’re interested, Shakespeare used the word “black” 174 times in his oeuvre, according to Open Source Shakespeare, and “white” only 148, 15% fewer occurrences. Clearly a story there.

People’s Daily Most Read: Tibet

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The annoying thing with social media is that you can’t really control it. If you insist on having a section listing the most-read stories, say, you can’t really fiddle with it without making it pretty meaningless.

The English-language version of the People’s Daily website, for example, doesn’t have any story on Tibet displayed prominently on its front page (at least now; it did before) but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Just check out the Most Popular box near the bottom on the right hand side:

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Three out of five stories on Tibet, two of them unpatriotically above a piece on the NPC:

Tibet regional gov’t: Sabotage in Lhasa masterminded by Dalai clique
Death toll rises to 10 in Lhasa riot
Dalai-backed violence scars Lhasa

Of course the stories themselves, let alone the headlines, aren’t exactly paragons of journalistic objectivity, but I’m guessing you don’t read the People’s Daily for that.

It’s kind of funny. I wonder whose idea it was to include a ‘Most Read’ box on the site. And how long it will be before the feature is quietly dropped, or some filters applied. 

People’s Daily Online – Home Page