eLearning live!

A few years ago, I remember hearing the word eLearning for the first time. I had accepted a job with NRC circa 2001. I knew there was an eLearning team in Moncton. I remember thinking they were lucky because Moncton is a relatively cool city.

I vaguely remember meeting Stephen Downes for the first time. He probably doesn’t remember me though. I was in a basement and had nothing close to an office. It wasn’t so bad though, but because very quickly we moved to a beautiful office where I had a gigantic office. In any case, I see this tall angry man come in and try to plug is laptop. Can’t remember what wasn’t working, but I remember he was quite angry. This was eLearning for me at the time.

Fast-forward a few years. I’ve grown convinced that eLearning is there to stay. As Stephen might put it: we’ve now integrated technology without changing our ways in any fundamental manner. Next step is to change our ways. Gone will be the lecture halls. Campuses will be lifestyle choices.

It is easy to predict such revolutions, but you need evidence to back your statements. Well, blogging is one such sign. I read many exciting blogs by students, but two come to mind right now Claire’s and Didier’s. Claire is struggling to finish her Ph.D. while Didier is probably a top 1% undergraduate student. Of course, there are many examples of exciting blogs by students… but I pick these two because they are great examples. There is a tight integration between the learning process and the content of the blog. The blog is part of the learning process. You can see it live. In Claire’s case, it is not so much the content of her Ph.D. that is integrated with the blog, but rather the process of writting the damn thing and the usual Ph.D. versus employment struggle. Though Claire might have another blog strictly about the content of her Ph.D. As for Didier, he writes about the content of his classes and textbooks.

In many ways, I feel like Didier could be a student at my school. A relatively close student. Claire could be down the hall some place and we could chat about academia, industry and all the usual stuff. But this is happening on-line. This is all happening without a building. There is no brick-and-mortar involved. I suspect I might know a bit more about Didier and Claire than some of their professors do… This is what physical campuses are up against.

Technology in the classroom is not what eLearning is about. eLearning is about abolishing the classroom just like libraries have been abolished. I still go to libraries, but for the lifestyle effect… not to buy books. If I want to buy a book, I do it on-line.

In many ways, on-line learning is more human, it has more soul. It is about real people communicating, becoming part of a rich networking. Learning and growing together.

(Oh! And my blog is a student’s blog as well. I just happen to be on the other side of the fence, the side charging tuitions…)

Marketing will never be the same

Cringely points out that Apple is slowly making the normal retail and marketing process obselete.

This is the end of the RIAA and the big recording industry. Apple in the last year has signed deals with more than 300 independent record labels, most of them not big enough to do much promotion. But now they don’t have to because that promotion will be handled by mtv.com and every music web logger, now that they have a material incentive to make recommendations and print lists. If I recommend a song — IF I JUST TYPE A FEW WORDS — and a thousand people decide to download based on my recommendation, heck, I just made $50 bucks. This is like sending tens of thousands of record sales people out on the road except that they can sell anything THEY like — any of the one million iTunes songs — making them salespeople with real conviction and maybe even with good taste. Maybe.

To me, this is extremely interesting. When the dot-com era started, people began talking about the new economy. It was a catchy phrase, but it turned out to be wrong. There wasn’t a new economy, yet, but mostly an extension of the old one using new tools. However, the new economy is slowly emerging out of the burning ashes of the old one. Here is what is being transformed forever and dramatically: marketing and distribution channels. I think we are moving to a more distributed world. And I have the nagging feeling that Internet publishing will be the core element. We will buy and sell according to what we read and experience on the Web. Who controls that? Right now, the rising force are blogs. Blogs are essentially distributed publishing units. This is where the future lies, maybe.

Chronic lack of time in academia

Yes, I know, everybody runs out of time. All employees in the world have too much work…

But academia is kind of special because you have one of the most complex job description you can imagine. You are a teacher, a researcher, sometimes an engineer, sometimes a manager, sometimes a public speaker, sometimes a consultant and many other things yet, all wrapped in one job. And you are supposed to be very good at all those jobs. You do spend your typical day wearing many hats. I don’t think there are many jobs where you are expected to wear so many hats.

So, what happens? You run out of time. Which means you don’t do certain things. At some point, you learn to say “No”. Everybody has to say no, but I think that professors have to say no far more often than others. I think. But I’m currently wearing my blogger hat, and I have to quickly go back to my must-work-on-funding-application hat so don’t mind me.

PlanetMath a free/better alternative to Mathworld?

Mathworld is a mathematical encyclopedia on the Web. Up until now, I thought it was the only one. I was a bit annoyed at having to use Mathworld because it is owned by the Mathematica people and so, you never know when they won’t pull a Microsoft on you.

Didier (who I wrongly assumed to be from France initially) pointed out PlanetMath. The cool thing about PlanetMath is that the content is great and released under GPL. This means that they won’t pull a Microsoft on you! You can copy the content and redistribute it if you so wish. They can close their servers, but the data itself is free, free to go with someone else, free to be reproduced, free.

How Google is just plain better

What is one of the most visited page on all of my sites? It is “Jolie, petite coquine”, the Web page of our cat. The page was originally designed by my wife back when she had a Web site of her own. The page ranks high on Voila for some sex bound keyword searches and people arrive at my cat’s page because they are horny. Now, that’s at least 10 hits per day. How come Google doesn’t fall short the same way? I don’t know, but somehow, Google knows my cat isn’t a sex object…

Or is she? Well, check it out for yourself!

Note: in doing research for this post, I found out that dmoz.org actually indexes various sex sites in a taxonomy. But my cat is nowhere to be found.

Living with the fear of failure

Before you start wondering: no I did not fail at anything today. In fact, my life is rather smooth going and while you routinely get bad and good and not so good and not so bad reviews from time to time, all my projects are proceeding forward better than I had a right to expect.

But like so many people, I’m haunted by the constant fear that I may fail. I was reminded of how hard it is by the pressure some Canadian athletes have reported feeling at the Olympics these days. Constant fear of failure is hard because even if your life is beautiful and you succeed in everything, you are still focused on possible failures. Ok. I’ll admit. I’m a pessimist. Or rather, a realist living in a bleak world.

Why do I fear failure so much? Failure is a neutral or even positive force. In fact, many times when I failed, I’ve actually been glad of the failure and found positive things in it… I don’t know… You might not get in the school you want, but you end up getting in an even better school. You do not get to see the movie you wanted to see, but you get to see an even better movie.

I suspect that there is a little cave man in me who fears he’ll get eaten by a dinosaur (yes, I know, I’ve watched too many Flintstones). Failure might be really bad… like having your feet in a dinosaur’s mouth and expecting the dinosaur to start eating you up.

What I know for certain is that fear of failure is a negative force in most of my life. It distracts me. Pulls me away from my family. Makes me dumber. Takes my eyes away from the road and on the ravin where my car will end up.

If you attend all classes, you pass…

Two profs allegedly got fired because they refused to grade students based on “effort” instead of results. Not that I think that recognizing effort in the grading is such an evil thing… and maybe the policy was even acceptable… Saying that students attending all lectures will pass the course might have its advantages… but the fact that the fellows were fired tells us something about the state of education in North America right now… I think there is clearly a downward spiral as far as the academic level goes. Not that I think it is necessarily bad.

It is a bit troubling in the following way however. If Internet is making information more widely available as before, and the university is no long the holder (and certainly not creator) of knowledge… I was thinking that universities could still authenticate knowledge: provide proof to someone that you do, in fact, know about archeology. But I forgot that academic levels have been going down in the last 20 years or so. So what will remain?

Someone commented in one of my earlier posts that universities are good at organizing knowledge. Knowledge might be readily available through Google, but it isn’t validated or organized very well. I guess, this is true: university professors are pretty good at determining what is sensible knowledge, with the unavoidable mistakes and bias. We are also pretty good at organizing it in a sensible fashion. However, time and time again, studies show that students overwhelming enrol in courses and degrees, not to learn, but for the recognition they get. They don’t care so much about the work professors do to organize and validate knowledge. If we lower the academic levels further, could it be that students will just leave universities? I think that if we ever reach the tipping point where corporations lose confidence in the training students receive, and this day is around the corner, we’ll be in trouble.

Most amazing Cringely article ever…

Cringely published an amazing paper on crime in the USA. Turns out that in 1982, a study was paid-for by the American Department of Justice. Three people were involved: Michael Block, Fred Nold, and Sandy Lerner. Cringely believes their study showed that the current sentencing guidelines would lead to a poor, more crime-ridden USA (and it did). The study was “hidden away”. Turns out that killed himself in 1983. Block became a law professor and won’t comment to Cringely about the study. Sandy Lerner went on to found Cisco.

A few things are amazing. The suicide of a researcher who possibly felt like a loser. It reminds me of Wallace Carothers who invented Nylon. It is unclear to me how you can feel like a loser after inventing Nylon, but apparently someone did. The second one is that the USA knows and knew that they were headed for a crime-ridden society and they went ahead anyhow. Why? I can’t figure it out. Lastly, there is the little detail that the statistician part of the study, Sandy Lerner, founded Cisco. This is an interesting contrast with the other fellow who killed himself.