Google Is Not My Curator

I don’t want anyone else to curate search results. If I want to curate my own experience, I want to do it on my desktop, on my terms, with my data and my experience. Not with their data, with their choices, with their algorithms and frankly their shit. I can curate my own search results, thank you very much. I guess I’ve gone from Google fanboy (basing an entire course around it) to disgruntled search addict. You know you’re a bad company (yes, you Google) when Microsoft and Yahoo look good in comparison. I wonder if DuckDuckGo is any better? It sure as hell couldn’t be any worse.

Here’s a link to a PDF of the FTC document filed by Centre for Digital Democracy.

Reflections on Week 1 of Udacity’s CS101

Udacity’s CS101 is a beginner programming course, which I’m taking (even though I’m fairly well versed in programming, having done web programming for years prior to getting into e-learning). I’m not all that interested in the content, however the introduction to Python will be interesting, and the project, building a search engine, is very appealing.  Python is a language that I’ve never learned, and always felt I should – it strikes me as a handy complement to PHP (which is bloated) and Perl (which does text processing well, but suffers in other areas).

I am in the course because I’m curious how the course works. When you have a course the scale of this, what checks and balances are there? I’m sure there’s analytics behind the platform that describe how much time the viewer spends on each page. What’s really interesting is the students in the course – many of whom have professed to be excited for homework for the first time. I’m sure the vocal ones will be pumping the tires so to speak, and there will be many who are not excited for homework, or found that the first week was just a bit too much for them – those people we’ll never hear about, because they’ll just stop and do something else. The ones who are excited for homework (and no doubt will be a soundbite that Udacity uses over and over to legitimize their approach) are excited because they are motivated (some for the first time). They signed up, they chose this course because it suits their needs, and frankly, they should be excited and motivated. It’s not often higher education gives something away.

I haven’t done the homework yet, but here’s some criticisms of the videos, and general approaches to the teaching. For those not taking here’s how a week works – several topics are broken down into chunks – usually 5 to 8 minute videos interrupted by a quiz, then another video, then an example code chunk to write, which is the best part. While the videos are good, they do take up the whole screen, so YouTube in their infinite wisdom, obscures things drawn on the screen in the video with their branding, and controls (should you want to rewind). The production values for the course are par for education, which means they could be improved by a bumper at each end, with some visual written title to further accentuate what we’re watching.  As much as I like the instructors, I don’t think their two talking heads interlude, congratulating the student, is necessary. Your students should be motivated, they signed up, they are watching – wait to motivate us (and do it in an authentic way, not wooden as this video comes across). I think the course could be vastly improved if we could have the development window and the video at the same time – that way experimenting as the video explains. I understand that cognitively, it’s not ideal, but it would be useful to actually write out the code that’s being explained and run it.

My biggest peeve is that any work done in their interface is not downloadable – at least isn’t clearly downloadable. I wish I could take those example scripts and build on them. Again, this would save me time doing the homework… something I am not surprised I do not want to do. I guess it shows how much I value an essentially useless piece of paper that will be unlikely to be recognized anywhere as an accomplishment of anything. Another issue, while this isn’t a big problem, I know how to write a couple lines of Python – but shouldn’t I actually be taught early on how to write a whole python script? You know, something as a standalone file with a dot py extension? Isn’t that the point of this – and fundamental to the use of Python (and modularity in programming…)?

At best I see this as a replacement for HR training for some – so that labour costs can go down again (hiring laypeople who are just out of high school, then run them through a series of training courses over a few weeks to get them trained how you want the job to be done, with no transferability). Maybe that’s overly critical. Udacity’s model is clearly rooted in a very American approach to education, which as a whole is outdated and certainly ripe for revolution. That’s not Udacity’s fault in any way, but as long as jobs require degrees, this will not be socially transformational for the majority of the population – unless Udacity figures out the accreditation part of the deal.  Which I suspect will require some sort of money.

With all those criticisms aside, they’ve done an admirable job in developing a free course that seems to be scalable.  They do attend to ones needs, and are quick to respond to bugs and errors that are found. The community around CS101 is quite impressive for being about a week old, and that’s in part to the efforts of the Udacity community representatives.


Walled Garden or Safe Space?

I’ve been to several, if not hundreds of community gatherings, discussion groups or encuentro (as the Zapatista’s put it) where there was always a safe space for members who wanted to engage but felt marginalized. The idea of the safe space is for those that feel marginalized could be empowered by taking some of the space of the gathering and discuss and bring forth issues that are of importance to that group (and eventually bring those forth to the larger group).

I often wonder if the traditional LMS could be a safe space for students. Not to knock the decentralized approach of DS106, because I too value the idea of putting an idea out into the open, seeing if it resonates with anyone else, and building on it. But I often think there’s a value to having everything together in one spot, to help students learn. The decentralized approach clearly works, because you can see where and when DS106 is successful. The arguments against LMS’s are fairly well trodden, they are locked down and unable to share externally – which is true in their unadulterated stated. However, you can easily embed a wiki, or other community based site (like YouTube) bringing the community in, and partially exposing the real world (as much as the Internet reflects the real world). At times in higher education, I think there’s a value in providing a space where one can experiment with ideas without having the pressure of the real world to bear on them. That should be what education is about.

I have a vested interest in keeping the LMS at the University I work at, because frankly, that’s my job (with that said, if it ever were to be decentralized, I’d be nimble enough to support blogs, wikis and other web 2.0/3.0 tools as well). I often say that there’s value in having a central location to reside in. Of course, there’s too few reasons to go to most courses – no sense of community, no value placed in a discussion online, no reward for student engagement… the list goes on and on. I can’t see great advancement in the use of LMS’s in general until faculty are looking for ways to connect their classrooms with the world.

CCK12 – Week 3 – It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know.

I’ve only been peripherally involved in the fourth offering of Connectivism and Connective Knowledge – the course hasn’t evolved that much (at a cursory glance) and I must admit, the centralized discussion boards really helped with my engagement in the community. Of course, I don’t really know any of the participants, which is frankly my fault. So because I don’t know anyone, is there a sense of lost community with this offering of CCK? Perhaps. It certainly has a motivational effect on me – I’m not particularly motivated to read (or re-read) because I don’t think I have anything to add that I would’ve the last time (CCK08 Version of Networked Learning) – however through my experience with informal learning, you have to have good sources who are willing to ask good questions for this to work.

That process is very much trial and error, finding people seeing who they follow, following them for a while… all the pieces are based on networks and loose connections to each other. Howard Rheingold talks about this process, and the thing that strikes me about it is that it is entirely iterative, which is something I first came across in playing in bands. We’d write things, then build on them, then take them apart and re-work a different bit, always evolving, until the three or four of us feel it’s ready. Even then, it could mutate when played in front of an audience… The next time iterative development came through my life was in the process of software design. It’s interesting how much further iterative approaches have come in the last decade, and lets face it, an iterative approach makes sense in education.  The personal learning network (PLN, an acronym I don’t particularly like, mainly that I learn from everyone and everything, I shouldn’t have to make it explicit), is also iterative in how you feed it and how your network feeds you.

iTunesU Content

I’d never really paid attention to iTunesU, until a colleague in the Library here mentioned that it might be a place for an instructor to host content (content that was too large for the LMS and really needed a streaming media server solution). I finally added the app last night and delved into it and felt, underwhelmed. The organization of the content was difficult to navigate. For instance, I was looking for lectures on Human Computer Interaction. So I put that in the search bar, found several courses, downloaded a bunch from Stanford. Search function is great. The problem is that the browsing experience sucks. I like looking at disparate ideas and how the connect – so where does a 21st century literacies course end up? Humanities? Computer Science? Really, it should be both and multidisciplinary. Turns out there’s ones that might be there as well as in Social Sciences, and elsewhere scattered throughout the possible categories.

So really, iTunesU is ill prepared for what I think is how higher education needs to re-organize, and that’s as a multidisciplinary ground floor and further specialization higher up the food chain. It used to be in Ontario that you could get a taste of what University would be like in Grade 13, or more recently OAC. My OAC year at high school was difficult, but not too bad. I’m sure the teachers liked it too because they could actually challenge students, whereas it seemed in earlier years it might’ve been a rubber stamp process. I’ll never forget being asked in Grade 12 Math if I was coming back to do OAC Math. When I said, “no”, I got my 50%. Many high school graduates in Ontario don’t have the fundamental understanding of how to write an essay, never mind several basic literacy issues. I could talk about the literacy levels of my former employer at length, and how most of the first year students should have been in a remedial writing class, which would’ve burdened the entire system so much they had to allow some students to just get by so they could manage the workload of teaching.

Anyways, I feel as we’ve seen with many disciplines that the silo approach doesn’t work – there’s too much overflow. I’m working in education but my history of computer programming, media creation and educational theory come into play each week. I’m sure many educators feel the same – they not only need to be educators, but technical enough to run computers, handle marking spreadsheets in addition to the social work skills to deal with students. This isn’t new, but it’s getting more difficult, and more complex to deal with on a daily basis. So how does iTunesU deal with the complexity? Shove it in a tube labelled one of many things, that essentially hides content or reveals it. I’m left wondering why have categories at all? Why not just make them self-identified tags and leave it at the search, which is ubiquitous in modern life and works well enough.