Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What we learn from MOOCs about Professional Development and Flipping Classrooms - GLoCALL Ahmedabad 2014

This post aims at sketching out a plenary address to be given Oct 11 at the 2014 GLoCALL conference in Ahmedabad It will be webcast on WizIQ and will be billed as a Learning2gether event, as shown below. I'll be working on this blog post between now and then.

There have been many talks at the conference on flipped classrooms, but so far, no flipped presentations (except for mine). My slides for my workshop on Oct 9 were posted in advance of the event, and I posted my blog URL in the discussion forum at the WizIQ link below the day before the event, and am about to post my slides as well.
Meanwhile, this is still a WORK IN PROGRESS

LEARNING2GETHER Sat Oct 11 0800 GMT Plenary Session #4: Vance Stevens

You will find the following abstract for my talk at
Chaos and Learning: What we learn from MOOCs about Professional Development and Flipping Classrooms 
The first MOOC was conceived in 2008 as a model of connectivist learning theory. Its proponents George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and Dave Cormier almost inadvertently seeded a revolution in re-thinking how we conceive learning in a highly networked digital age. Since then, MOOCs have tended to fall between two extremes which have come to be known as cMOOCs and xMOOCs. These are differentiated in part in the way they approach their subject matter; i.e. the degree to which they expose participants to the chaos they are likely to encounter in the real world, and the degree to which they engage learners in resolving that chaos. This talk examines what MOOCs can teach us about the role of chaos in our own learning, and suggests how we can apply MOOC models to our contexts of facilitating our students’ learning, and in learning from one another in our ongoing professional development.

Parsing the abstract

What is all this about? I should start my plenary with a poll,

When the poll is pushed, you can participate by going here

If we can pull off this brief poll, this will help me pitch my introduction of the concept of MOOC and outline a brief history starting in 2008 when George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and Dave Cormier famously invented the concept, and coined the acronym Massive Open Online Course. You can bone up on your basic MOOC lore at any of these links:
That of course was a "c" or connectivist, MOOC. George Siemens wrote perhaps the seminal article on connectivism (2004)which can be summed up in the metaphor of the pipes being more important than the content within the pipes, or as Stephen Downes has often expressed it, knowledge in a network is theoretically available to any one in the network, as long as that any one can access that knowledge on a just-in-time basis via tools available on the network.

George Siemens has articulated how a cMOOC works to counter the irrelevance of modern educational systems, which teach on a just-in-case basis, a sort of a one-size knowledge-base fits all. Siemens points out that he has no idea why a given individual is taking his classes or what that person needs to know to improve his life, prompting him to say, at min 1:13 in this video recording
In his view an instructor who marks out the learning path too carefully for his students 'eviscerates' the learning experience. He thinks learning best takes place when learners are faced with doubt and chaos.
"I’m not aware of any research actually that says linear structure produces better outcomes than more chaotic meandering structure ... the experience of learning, making sense of that chaos, is actually the heart of the learning experience, but if an instructor makes sense of that chaos for you and gives you all the readings and sets the full path in place for you then you are eviscerating the learner’s experience because now you’ve made sense of them and all you’ve told them is walk the path that I’ve formed. When it comes to complexity I’m a great fan of letting learner’s hack their way through that path and getting the value of that learning experience and that sense-making process.” 
From Howard Reingold interviews George Siemens:

Chaos, incidentally, is what Downes says is what we see all around us, all the time, everywhere we look (get used to it :-).

Dave Snowden is working on a Cynefin model that shows how problems can be obvious, complicated, complex, or chaotic, and what strategies are needed to address the range of problematicity. He points to the cliff where, if you try to go from a training regime preparing you solve simple problems, you risk a heavy fall when confronted with chaotic ones.
I refer to my own experience as a PADI dive instructor to show that my teaching people to dive amounts to training. The knowledge and skills required can be trained and exercised in a way that works predictably from one student to the next. Language learning can be trained only in the way you would train a parrot. We can get students to pass tests in memorized verb conjugations but in reality, what one needs to know to become fluent quickly becomes chaotic. And what one needs to know varies markedly from one person to the next.
In such situations, where the problem to be resolved tends toward chaotic, a connectivist approach might be appropriate. Connectivism leverages the fact that knowledge required to address the problem exists online in the form of web pages and tutorials but more importantly in the form of people who can either help by sharing expertise, or who are willing to accompany you on your learning journey. 

So, what are MOOCs?

Whether cMOOC or xMOOC, MOOCs share the following characterisitics:
  • Course - this is an easy one. A MOOC is a course. It starts and it ends. When it ends the instructor or moderators can switch off the lights, but the community may remain, and often does.
  • Online - another easy one, it's online. People can access it on the Internet. Some people might enroll in a course at a university for credit that also operates as a MOOC, but the interaction is mainly online, and with a wider community of virtual interactants. Online also sets the MOOC in a world of abundance, whereas other options are more impacted by scarcity.
  • Open - this is a more problematic concept (for some). Open means anyone can access the course materials, artifacts, and archives without having to log in or provide credentials. Nothing is forever but open implies that the archive will be available to anyone for some time to come, ideally, in perpetuity. It can be argued that a course that disappears shortly after running, or that is available only to logged in participants, is not truly open (though it might have been free, as in beer).
  • Massive - this follows from open. A massive course is available to anyone, so thousands might sign up. Of these, hundreds might actively participate throughout the course. Despite what you may have heard about high attrition rates in MOOCs, they commonly matriculate many times more than would be expected in a traditional course running at a brick-and-mortar institute of higher education.
Stephen Downes 2012; posted in Alan Levine:

Massive requires a different approach to educational design than heretofore. For one thing courses have to be designed so that they scale.  Algorithms might be necessary to augment some aspects of course management. For example, if anyone can "participate" with no login, who are your participants? Stephen Downes has a tool called gRSShopper that allows people on a MOOC to register their blogs with the course, and the script finds their posts relevant to the course when they tag them with the course tag. This allows thousands of participants to have at their fingertips the hundreds of blog posts and comments that might derive from the MOOC on a given day.
Here's an example from a MOOC where a participant engineered similar aggregation capability and shared it with participants in the MOOC. Notice how word spreads in a MOOC, node to node throughout the network.
Of course having access to content "at your fingertips" is like having a TV -- it doesn't mean you can actually know what is happening every moment on every channel, or that you might even care. With TV our real-life filter mechanisms are such that we don't worry about what we're missing each second, never mind the articles appearing in newspapers and magazines, the radio shows, the tweets, the Facebook posts we're missing. In this world of pervasive media, the best-adjusted work with what we pull toward us, not what is pushed at us.

Dave Cormier has suggested five stages of succeeding in a MOOC. First ORIENT in the MOOC, figure out what is there, and at some point, DECLARE who you are and how you think you fit in. Now you are in position to NETWORK with others declaring interests similar to yours, and if you hit it off with certain people in the MOOC you might form a CLUSTER. This might even lead to collaboration, in the FOCUS stage, where you get out of the MOOC what you want, not what someone thinks you should learn. But keep in mind we are talking about cMOOCs.

cMOOCs are a connectivist solution to chaotic problems, but understanding how they work is ineffable. Despite the fact that you really have to be there in order to understand how learning takes place in a MOOC, here are two more examples. In the first, I had noticed that a participant in Rhizomatic Learning had created a tool that would map who was using the MOOC tag, in this case #Rhizo14

This seemed to be an interesting tool for tracking who is engaged in your tag, so I wanted to have this for an EVO session I was moderating, but getting it to work was not an obvious or simple problem. I reached out to the network, whose participants helped me generate the tag map of users of my tag #evomlit:

More explanation of what is happening in the above graphic can be found here:

And finally, as evidence that MOOC learning persists after the MOOC has ended, I just the other day noticed a post on "Learnification" and clicked on it to see what such a clever and enigmatic term could possibly be about.

Not surprisingly, the writer was reflecting on something stimulated by a colleague "whom I met virtually via a mooc, and from whom I continue to draw insights on things related to education." It is not at all unusual for countless such relationships to form in the network and cluster phases of succeeding in a MOOC, but it's not every day I manage to capture such an exchange and use it to make a point in my own blog post.

So this so far has been an attempt to convey a sense of what goes on among interactants in MOOCs, and what many nurtured on the early MOOCs, consider to be the great strength of MOOCs. That is, they are not only a means to learn something concrete, but they model a means to learn along the connectivist ideals of the creators of the concept. However, many who are being exposed to MOOCs now are not necessarily aware of that early history and theoretical underpinning.

There are also xMOOCs

The first xMOOC was the brain-child of Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvik, who took the Downes-Siemens-Cormier notion of "build a MOOC, they will come", and in 2011 opened a course on artificial intelligence at Stanford to just anyone, for free. As can be seen in the article above, it attracted 160 million participants. But this was not a connectivist MOOC in the Siemens-Downes-Cormier sense. It presented a course of training that would enable anyone who wanted to follow it to earn credit at Stanford. Amazon provided the online testing infrastructure to ascertain that students were covering the material. The concept was so successful that shortly thereafter Thrun left his tenured position at Stanford to start a company called Udacity that was the first of the so-called xMOOCs. Coursera formed soon after, followed by EdX, whose name Siemens co-opted in making the distinction between cMOOCs and xMOOCs.

As Siemens characterizes it in the 2012 post where he coined the term xMOOC ("xMOOC?""Our MOOC model emphasizes creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning. The Coursera model emphasizes a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes and testing. Put another way, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication."  

Flipped Classes

Flipped classroom techniques, where educators record in advance and enhance with media what they would want to present in a lecture on their topic, have a history dating back to the late 90's according to, but may have been first used in MOOC-style courses by Salman Kahn, founder of the Kahn Academy, in 2004
As can be seen below, Thrun and Norvig are preparing tutorial videos to in effect "flip" the teaching in their MOOC, so that students can access the content in didactic mode away from the main focus of interaction and when interacting with professors or with one another, discuss the content in a way that helps them to understand it, after presentation.

Flipped classroom techniques are characteristic of all kinds of online and blended learning environments, not just MOOCs. However, the ability to flip effectively with media verges on another literacy skill, one called Digital Storytelling. I would like to focus now on how these developments have impacted how we are coming to interact with each other as teaching professionals in a connected / connectivist world, and how this should be informing our teaching.

Connected Courses 2014 and DS106

There is a MOOC going on right now that encapsulates much of what I have to say this morning. First of all, it's run by three people who are very well known in the world of connected educators. 

Howard Rheingold is an eccentric Stanford professor who has written several books on net litereracies. His language is as colorful as his shirts; for example one digital literacy skill mentioned in Netsmart is crap detection.

Jim Groom is a professor at Mary Washington University and is famous for at least three significant initiaties. One, he is the poster boy of EduPunk, a mindset of improving quality in education by disrupting it. Two, he preaches a domain-of-one's-own and has managed to implement the concept where he teaches by getting his college to empower all incoming freshpersons to maintain e-portfolios under their own domains and on their own servers. And three, he teaches DS 106, or Digital Storytelling 106. 

Alan Levine, who blogs on the name CogDog (featuring his favorite pet saluki). One of his best-known posts is 50 ways to tell a digital story, so for obvious reasons he has worked closely with Jim Groom on DS106.

Why stories?

Connected courses teaches what you need to know to create a domain of your own and tell your own digital stories and connect your digital stories to those of others. As indicated in our cultures' rich heritage of mythology, storytelling is how we make sense of chaos.  According to Jim Groom, digital storytelling is a narrative of your thinking. 

So this MOOC has it all. It's a free course you can choose to take and learn from three of my digital heros (at other times you can take MOOCs put on by Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Dave Cormier, so heroes abound in the world of MOOCs). You can join it any time, its teachers have flipped the classroom and put tutorials online to walk you through what you need to know to get the most out of the courses. It's a cMOOC, so you can connect with others in the course and learn from and with them. You connect by reflecting on what you are exposed to and blogging a narrative of your thinking. Thus #ccourse14 addresses that critical element in learning as opposed to training, the chaos factor. It presents a world as it is and a way to find a path through that world. This path draws on strategies such as connecting with others and sharing stories.
Stephen Downes famously said (first time perhaps at a WiAOC conference in 2007) that students practice and reflect, while teachers model and demonstrate. So I would like to wind up this plenary in sharing stories with you, and model how this helps us make some sense of chaotic issues, and also to model, in part by sharing this plenary online via WizIQ, how connecting with other educators as a habit in our daily lives, can help make us better teachers to students where we work.

Carrying MOOCs, flipped classes, and digital storytelling into the classroom

We are running out of time for a 50 min plenary address. However we can draw meaningful conclusions from our examination of MOOCs and how they impact the efforts of practitioners in their quest for effective professional development. Teachers who change their notions of how best to conduct their PD efforts through interaction with other teachers online will think of ways to effect similar changes in the way they approach their students.

One way that I effect change is by carrying on week after week, since 1998, so for 16 years now, is through Learning2gether. You can find more about L2g at As mentioned earlier, this plenary is being webcast as a L2g event on WizIQ -

Online and face-to-face professional development opportunities to help teachers keep their batteries charged

Some of the Hangouts archived at ELT Live

Regarding my personal stories, a convenient starting focus is something that happened online on Tue Sep 30. Learning2gether was in a Hangout on Air that day courtesy of Jeff Lebow and ELT Live#5. The topic was close to the heart of anyone who would take the time to participate in such an event, how doing what we were doing together online, and carrying over into face-to-face encounters with other educators in online venues, excites and inspires us to become even better educators.

The hard part is how to characterize those beams of energy that are drawn from disparate corners of the edusphere, ranging the breadth of my PLN and that of countless others. These worlds converge in the online and f2f spaces we co-inhabit and collide in a burst of energy once critical mass is reached. This is happening all the time in my world, and it is this energy that re-charges my batteries and those of colleagues I work with in these mutual spaces.

On Oct 9 I demonstrated Hangouts at a workshop here in Ahmedabad and this led to a story I'd like to tell as a means of  winding up my plenary talk. The story follows from the one above and is here at the moment

I'll write it up properly here before my talk tomorrow and post a link to the slideshare.


Perhaps we can begin by telling the story of the five people at the online event, one of many I have engaged in weekly for the past 15 years, whom I have known the longest. I met them all online years ago, and I have met two of them personally at conferences in the USA. Let's start with them, as these associations will help me recount some of the stories that brought me here  today.

We'll start with Rita Zeinstejer, an English teacher and teacher-trainer in Argentina who joined Webheads in Action near to the time I started it in 2001-2002. Webheads in Action is one of my most persistent endeavors, a significant turning point in my career and in the lives of many others. It actually started in 1998 as a community of language learners and teachers interested in understanding the emerging online / blended learning environment, but 2002 was the year that I moderated an EVO session (Electronic Village Online, to model what I had been doing with students for a group of teachers who to this day still call themselves Webheads. 

One of these Webheads, Buth from Kuwait, turned up in Cairo at a conference where I was giving another plenary talk, and because of this connection we hung out, and as she was often with me, she was invited to social events arranged for invited speakers. When introductions were made at these formal events, esteemed professors were introduced by their name and affiliation. I was introduced as one of the speakers at the conference, and Buth was introduced as "a Webhead." After that had happened a couple of times she remarked that "Webhead" was apparently perceived as carrying a status on par with other professional titles.

It is a title with some substance. In 2003 Webheads participated in one of John Hibbs's Global Learn Day events. GLD was a 24-hour webinar that circled the globe region by region. I had a arranged to hold our part of the event in an auditorium at the Petroleum Institute where I worked at the time and I invited my colleagues there to attend. Webheads co-founder Michael Coghlan flew from Australia to Abu Dhabi for the occasion, and Buth flew down from Kuwait. So when our time came to engage the global audience, we had three of us physically present on stage and 62 people in the online virtual audience. In the spacious auditorium at PI we had a handful of people, 5 at the most, who stopped in for some part of the proceedings. So Webheads had the gravitas to pull in colleagues from around the world for this event, but had little appeal locally, which is in a nutshell the story of my professional life, but also the reason I am in Ahmedabad Oct 11, 2014.

So getting back to Rita, she was one of the first people to join Webheads in 2002, and one of many who have worked closely together ever since. I met her in person at two TESOL conferences in the USA, but our most significant work has been online. Our most successful project was Writingmatrix, a term coined by Nelba Quintana, another Webhead from Argentina, when we decided to test an idea I thought might work Richardson had explained quite clearly how tags in blog posts could be aggregated through RSS feed readers in such a way that a teacher could follow blogs maintained by students in a class, and tease from those blogs posts meant for the class. He called RSS the 'next killer-app for education' idea was to see if we could expand the classroom to include classes from around the world. Apart from Rita and Nelba in Rosario and La Plata in Argentina, we also enlisted Doris in Venezuela and Sasha in Slovenia to get their students keep blogs for the course and tag their posts 'writingmatrix'.

At the time there was a tool, Technorati, that would troll the blogosphere and return to us hits on any blog containing that tag. We had researched our tag beforehand to find that before we started the project we had zero hits, and once the project got under way we found that no matter where we were in the world, we could find blog posts from Argentina, Venezuela, and Slovenia written by students in participating classrooms, and from that these students were encouraged to read each other's posts and comment to one another in English in a cultural exchange. All teachers involved reported positive attitude shifts toward language learning in their students. Rita said her students were not at all interested at first, but they soon got into it, and produced some charming videos, where one decidedly cool students says, for example, "Wanna know where it's at? (pause) ... Tagging, man!"

After the project was under way, Carla Arena and Ronaldo Lima joined it from Brasilia. They did so by simply having their students tag blog posts 'writingmatrix' and those posts started turning up in our Technorati searches. Thus we had found a way for students to join an international exchange project without having to formally pre-arrange with other teachers. Students anywhere in the world could self-select, if they wanted, to join the writing exchange.

In this respect we had presaged one cornerstone of MOOCs -- we had come on a means of a theoretically massive, scalable at any rate, number of people joining a project to interact with other student writers, and cluster in such a way that they would pick and chose what they wanted to learn and from whom, and how much time they wanted to devote to the effort. Besides being scalably Massive, it was Open and Online, and for the teachers mentioned and their students, a part of their Course.

Technorati no longer works the way it once did. It has become more a tool for the establishment blogosphere and no longer returns results on blogs with no credibility (i.e. typical student blogs). However, as I am making these remarks in India, a land with a recognized wealth of clever minds working on developing technology, I suggest that the next killer-app for education will be something that does what Technorati once did in the way I describe it here. This has never since been replicated. It has been approached, as with Stephen Downes's gRSShopper, but his script requires that bloggers register their blog with the script. This works in MOOCs where participants register their blogs and tag some of their posts with the MOOC tag, and the script searches in registered blogs for posts with that tag and aggregates its output in a way that others in the MOOC can track what one another are doing. I have spoken with Stephen about a script that would simply find the tag wherever it happened to be in taggable posts (besides blogs:Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) but he said that such a tag would quickly be picked up by spammers; hence, the need for registration to filter out unwanted posts. However, writingmatrix was never spammed, and an app that would recover that simple functionality would be a real Killer App for Education.

Enough about Rita, let's talk about Jeff. I met Jeff once or twice in New York but he is living in Pusan Korea at the moment. Jeff has a long history going back through Tibetan activism, but his world collided with Webheads in 2005 when he started webcasting through Worldbridges in a quantum burst of convergent energy that produced a series of three free online wordwide 3-day conferences called Webheads in Action Online Convergences Jeff's work also verges on MOOC, as when he organized a Webcast Academy 
designed to teach educators how to simulcast events and then have them pay forward by training others in a phenomenal example of crowd-sourcing learning. Jeff's more recent efforts include a series of ELT live webcast Hangouts, of which the story-starter on this page was number 5.


Where is this headed?

I'm getting off topic and running out of time. I am pursuing the storytelling route because stories are a way to make learning occur from chaos. We should pass this through Connected Courses MOOC. As Jim Groom says, a digital story is a narrative of thinking; so my plenary grapples with chaotic ideas by constructing a narrative of thinking about them.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Some SMALL thoughts on CALL expertise

I've just been asked to fill out a questionnaire directed at my definition of and attitudes toward expertise in CALL. This drew out my thoughts on the topic and I decided to blog them. I've been thinking lately that the notion of CALL is becoming anachronistic because there is almost nothing in modern life in the developed world that is not computer-assisted. And what we regard as "computers" has changed as well. I have several computers on my desk right now.

The one I used to think of as a computer, a desktop PC on the floor next to my desk, is almost a dinosaur now and not actually in use just now. I have a couple of laptops and a netbook which is more convenient for travel than the laptops. One of the laptops is my work computer (we don't have desktop computers at work). The EdTech Crew let slip in a recent podcast that if they wanted to get any "real work" done they used PC's but of course there are a lot of tablet and mobile devices which they train teachers to use in schools, and which I've also got around my house, the iPad and iPhone pictured here. Since I was picking up computers I grabbed my dive computers as well though I don't know how they would be used for language learning. But the point is, the notion of CALL is changing with the technology, and as we start to integrate our computers with items as mundane as telephones, the whole notion of 'computer-assisted" starts to blend in with the woodwork.

This is why I have been talking about SMALL lately, or social media assisted language learning, and have more recently modified that to social media assisted lifelong learning. When I've bounced the idea of SMALL off colleagues I get all sorts of alternate suggestions in return, such as TALL or TELL (technology assisted or enhanced) which is to say that my acronym might not be the one that sticks, but teachers are in the main coming off the idea of 'computer-assisted' as defining what we are doing.

This is why I fudged my definition of CALL experts as people who have some experience in the use of microprocessor-based devices in the implementation of language learning. They have conducted research in the field or have published or blogged widely on the topic and / or have been involved in numerous on-site or online efforts in sharing their expertise toward helping others to understand proper implementation of use of computers, tablets, or mobile devices in language learning. They are master learners; which is to say they model and demonstrate what they know, and they reflect through social media about what they learn and practice in order to learn more.

They have unique skills, the main one being not related so much to technology, but having accredited knowledge of how people learn. In accordance with SMALL and with one of its theoretical frameworks, they need a working knowledge of networking and social media. Of course they should have a demonstrated track record of implementation of CALL projects and presentation of methods and findings at conferences and online venues frequented by language teaching practitioners.

CALL experts are inherently trouble-shooters who struggle with new media-based devices to overcome difficulties in understanding their use, and who develop means to leverage their affordances in ways that will help others to use these devices creatively and critically. They open people's eyes to sometimes obvious but often novel uses of technology in learning. A CALL expert needs to be able to help competent teachers enhance their teaching capabilities through the use of technology, and to understand what the affordances of these technologies are and how these affordances can be utilized in enabling students to learn what the language teacher already understands to be the most effective means of learning languages. If the purpose of language learning is understood to be learning to communicate through writing, listening, reading, and speaking in a foreign or second language, then CALL experts should be able to demonstrate convincingly and in simple terms how CALL can help with real communication, asynchronously and in real-time, not only in terms of finding audiovisual and reading materials online, but in speaking to and writing for audiences composed of native interlocutants and peers in language learning, and interacting with them meaningfully in the communities that form around their communications (which for the language learner, may come to be perceived more as an exercise in meeting people online and exchanging ideas and culture, than as "language learning" in the traditional sense).

Obviously experts in any field have to have strategies for keeping up to date with what is happening in the field. In my case, I blog instinctively, as I am doing here. I write articles and book chapters, and I write regularly for professional journals and serve on their editorial boards ( I meet people regularly online (at least once or twice a week) for presentations and conversations on topics pertinent to the field ( I participate in and coordinate communities of practice online ( I present at and attend many online and face-to-face conferences annually. I interact with colleagues at work and sometimes more intently with colleagues worldwide after my official working hours. I keep connected professionally through several social media services (listed in the sidebar to the right of this blog post).

As George Couros said recently, where there is Internet, isolation of teaching professionals is now a choice, not a condition to be taken for granted. I advise teachers wishing to enhance their technology skills, and learn how to aim them effectively at pedagogy, to get connected and find out what others are doing in CALL. Interact with other teachers in MOOCs and take advantage of the many and constantly happening online professional development opportunities to learn how to learn through the affordances of modern technologies. Develop your PLN or personal learning network, and ask them whatever questions come to mind. Share what you know and what you create with your PLN. Try out things with your students, learn from them and with them, make it clear that you can help them find answers since now no one can be expected to know all the answers in a world where new things are discovered and invented constantly. Encourage them to experiment with you. Don't give up, learn something new every day, and write it down somewhere and share it with those you work with and with your PLN online.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Abundance of Big Data

The other day I was facing a long drive with nothing to read, so I went onto Audiobooks and grabbed the first thing that came up, Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think (2013) by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston and New York.

I learned in the book about the algorithm by which Amazon is able to "recommend books to users based on their individual shopping preferences ...Amazon analyst Greg Linden saw a new way of doing things ... What if the site could make associations between products themselves rather than compare the preferences of people with other people? In 1998 Linden and his colleagues applied for a patent on ‘item-to-item’ collaborative filtering and the shift in approach made a big difference – a big data difference."
Quoted from the book in this blog post:

Linden is himself quoted in the book as saying the ideal algorithm would not show you dozens of recommended books but only the very book you were next going to buy. This is exactly what happened when I went onto the site, saw the first book offered, recalled having heard about it on, possibly in connection with Edward Snowden's revelations of NSA spying, and in a click dealt Audiobooks another data point.  The fact that Audiobooks would be able to pinpoint my interests so accurately suggests that NSA is not the only entity interested in my data. The fact that we collectively take this and all Facebook knows about us in stride (and Amazon, Google, Wallmart, and any given phone provider etc.) shows how much we accept this as normal behavior, and the book Big Data details how pervasive and normal this is. In fact, most of us accept websites tracking us as a fair trade, our data for their free services. We are only slightly annoyed when we find that corporations are doing this extensively, as when Apple was found to be tracking user movements via the GPS on their newly purchased iPads without their knowledge (as reported in the book).

Transparency is in fact the issue here.The problem with NSA spying, as Michael Geist points out, is that the government conceals and dissimulates about what they are doing with their harvest of big data. Writing in the Canadian context, he reports where a Canadian 'official' "remarked that in the wake of the Snowden revelations the political risk did not lie with surveillance itself, since most Canadians basically trusted their government and intelligence agencies to avoid misuse. Rather, the real concern was with being caught lying about the surveillance activities. This person was of the view that Canadians would accept surveillance, but they would not accept lying about surveillance programs."

Canada's neighbor to the south has not instilled confidence in its government's integrity lately, but that aside, the book Big Data is mind opening in explaining how that government's approach to data mining is not at all unusual, is in fact the norm for use of the abundance of data available in our era, and is certainly what we can expect more of in the future.

The book explains the shift in statistical analysis that big data has evoked. In the past, when data were tediously collected and analyzed, the empirical approach was to form a hypothesis and attempt to then support that hypothesis by constructing an experiment to establish causality from one variable to the next through random sampling, and extrapolate that out over larger populations.  Random sampling was shown to be reasonably reliable, where N size was large enough, to make predictions accurate for the population at large.

However, where the availability of data approaches infinity, and N equals "all" (all available data can be aggregated and analyzed through computer algorithms) then it turns out the approach to research is not to form a hypothesis at all, but to examine correlations in the data and see what patterns emerge. Thus the emergent approach to research in education, to take the instance that is the topic of this blog, is not toward replicating and inventing new experiments with inevitable shortcomings in data collection methods, where extrapolability to wider populations is always in doubt, but toward harvesting as much data as possible and seeing what pops out, as practiced with "learning analytics".

Where the number of data points is massive, and the amount of data is almost limitless, the results produced this way are exceedingly predictive, to the point where real-time pictures of happening phenomena (like the spread of flu outbreaks) can be inferred through correlating data points, and to where it is getting impossible to compete in markets without having the edge over rivals on data aggregation, storage, and algorithms for analysis.

Big Data takes pains to point out that correlation does not imply causality (it is what it is; when this and that are present then something else tends to happen as well, and the data show where this has historically been true, though they do not tell us why or how). However, it is possible to arrive at hypotheses to explain observed trends and then continue to observe that subsequent data support that hypothesis. For example, Ray Kurzweil has collected copious data to support the contention that technology improves on an exponential curve which on closer examination is seen to be comprised of repeated S movements as paradigm boundaries are crossed. This prediction is akin to Moore's Law which stated (in 1965) that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years, and this has proven to be the case ever since. Kurzweil postulates that from such data computers should move beyond human comprehension at a point called Singularity, which is predicted as early as 2030, or by Kutzweil's reckoning, 2045 (more information on Wikipedia and at, and in Kurzweil's words in a TED Talk, below).

However, lines can be crossed. The point is made more than once early in the book Big Data, and elaborated on in a later chapter, that such analysis can help authorities predict who will commit crimes before they happen. If arrests (or assassinations) are carried out on the basis of such models, is this itself a crime, a violation of supreme law of the land? On reading this book, it seems more in context now why governments venture toward this grey area in an era where all sides are seeking to leverage big data, or risk being one-upped (though some matters of conscience and justice remain unchanged, or should, and therein lies the conundrum). In its last chapters, Big Data explores the risks and implications for individual freedom and privacy.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Learning2gether with Everybody

Do you ever feel you are verging on giving more time to your online endeavors than you feel you can use productively in your face-to-face ones? Whether or not that's actually the case (I haven't undertaken a systematic time analysis) I sometimes feel that way. That problem prompted one of my connections, frustrated in doing it himself, to run out of time and send me a notice to be posted on his behalf to one of my networks, and I responded with help for him to troubleshoot the problem. The time it took for that was probably more than if I had simply posted his notice, but posting on behalf of others as community leader could imply endorsement, and it's best if everyone in the community is enabled to work independently. But mainly, as I explained in my reply, I encourage independence because we all only get so many keystrokes in a day.

The above has been an aside by way of introduction, but I have been thinking to document one aspect of online community steerage that consumes a lot of those keystrokes; i.e. making announcement on social media sites. Intelligent use of tagging, and exploiting scripts and connections between social media sites might help to attenuate the problem, but writing it out might help me to see where there is potential for that, or potentially of even more value, maybe someone will comment with a useful solution to the problem.

One problem is that the social media landscape changes so often. I became aware a couple of years ago that social media specialists and consultants were being hired by entities seeking to manage their social presence (not only in getting out the message but also the quality of their footprint) but it is only recently that the abundance of social spaces that people inhabit has got to the point, for me at any rate, where it is running up against that finite number of key presses you get in a given day. Those consultants must earn their pay, if only in compensation for carpal tunnel.

Let's take for example the next Learning2gether event which is coming up in a few days, and I need to get the word out. Learning2gether is organized through a wiki, which means that a community can contribute key strokes to entering the events, but in practice those keystrokes are mostly mine. So most of what you see at is my own input, though occasionally that of others (and much appreciated!).

So the events themselves are shaped at that wiki, and when it's time to announce them, I scoop out the text and copy it into a Notepad on my PC, from where I can fashion versions to be sent out to various social networking sites. If we are planning to use HoA (Hangout on Air) I then set up with an announcement of the upcoming event. I use that page to keep our connection with the and communities current.

One place I post it is here: Tyson Seburn has worked with Learning2gether in the past - on Monday, May 6, 2013, we helped him host TESL Toronto presents: Aga Palalas – mobile apps for language learning, His calendar is not the ultimate solution to the world's educators' pooling in one place a comprehensive listing of all online and f2f professional events of interest to them (such a feature would be a script that goes into the wild and harvests all such notices tagged with the tag it is looking for; spam could be prevented by people posting such notices registering with the script, as with Stephen Downes's gRSShopper: but is at least easy to use manually, and events posted end up on the calendar.  I learned about it from Graham Stanley's posting here:

Then I'll post to relevant Nings. I don't use Ning much any more (here's why: but if the event is related to a Ning that is worthwhile and is supported by an institution that will pay for it, I post to that one. For example I post all L2g events at the TESOL Arabia EdTech SIG page at

Next I'll post an event on the relevant Google+ Community. This pushes it out to all subscribers at that community, and it can be shared (as an event) with one other community. I don't understand why just one, though it's possible to initiate the event elsewhere and share that with another community, thus getting your event out to 4, or to 6 or 8, but this cuts into our daily ration of keystrokes. I can understand the implications for flooding communities with events, but as a responsible user, I would prefer to make that decision (and let Google decide for all the irresponsible users :-). Ok, we've enjoyed my painting myself into a corner, and since I don't like to overdo the events, I simply copy and paste the descriptions of the event into "Share what's new" in a number of other Google+ Communities.

Here are some of my own communities:
Next comes Facebook.  I post announcements on the relevant FB groups, and here, as with G+C's I'm careful to include the relevant #tags. The posting itself is relatively easy; normally I just copy and paste what I put into my G+C's to each group.

Again, some of my communities
Indeed, reading this, I can see that I need a script that posts from one place into FB (not to my main page, but to the groups I specify) and same for G+ Communities I specify. Many social networks allow you to post on Twitter and to your wall at FB at the time you make a post on that network. I notice that a lot of my colleagues do this. Perhaps someone will remind me of the killer app that will do just what I want it to, directed at just the communities and groups I think will appreciate the information (or offer to help me code one).

Finally, I post to the Yahoo! Groups that have held their communities together for a long time and whose community members often support Learning2gether.  The two that I maintain are:

Personally I feel that Twitter is most effective nearer the time of the event so I don't usually post to Twitter until the event is nigh, though after the event I'll move its archive to and erase it from Once it's archived I'll here:, and let that one send a tweet, or to FB if it was my presentation.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Why you can never recall your dreams

One of life's more interesting phenomenons is waking up from a dream in which you have just unravelled one of life's great mysteries, created the most amazing invention, or imagined the poem you always meant to write. You jump out of bed and rush to your writing desk.  Pen in hand, you sit poised, and ... gone!  Where did it go?

I got a possible answer from Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct. To explain it, he starts by trashing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. That hypothesis was based on bogus data from indigenous North American Indian languages, regarding the influence from language on the world view of the speaker of that language. For example, American Indian languages had such an arcane verb tense and aspect system that their concept of time must be much different from ours. Eskimos had so many words for snow that their visualization of that substance could not possibly be the same for a non-Eskimo. Terms for color in different world languages cause speakers of different languages to fail to distinguish blue from green, for example, ignoring the fact that wavelength of light and rods and cones in human eyes are constant, so as humans we see the same independently of language. The language date used to support these hypotheses was incorrect. Whorf for example relied on interpretations of his study of Apache grammar but didn't actually have informants to present him with material he could use to support his claims in much the way that Margaret Mead idealized the society of Samoans whom she visited and subsequently misconstrued to form the basis of her work.

Having shown that the data underpinning the work of Sapir and Whorf was fatally flawed, Pinker starts putting together an image comprised of puzzle pieces from George Orwell's Newspeak, a simple syllogism and a Turing machine. Newspeak was a language devised by Big Brother which would be devoid of words for certain concepts which its speakers would henceforth be unable to think. This notion forms the outer shell of the following reasoning. The syllogism is that Socrates is a human, all humans are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal. He introduces the Turing machine to show that this machine can be programmed to reach the same conclusion. If language worked like a Turing Machine then it could be programmed to reach conclusions in a predictable manner, and the machine could be made to work in any construct that repeated the same pattern. For example, if your language works right to left, or left to right, or top to bottom, or puts propositions first or last in utterances, the meaning of a syllogism or any utterance can be understood by speakers of your language, as long at the correct pattern is maintained.

However, the human mind does something more than a machine does.  It can infer from context. So when Chomsky tells us that visiting relatives can be fun, we can understand from context who visited whom (Pinker has collected several newspaper headlines whose ambiguities are funny -- e.g. a child's stool is good for the garden -- but which can be unambiguously understood given the context of the news story, or even once we understand that the ambiguous line comes from a newspaper headline ... ah, so that's what it's supposed to mean!). Pinker points out the fact that a given word can have more than one meaning in different contexts is itself evidence that language is something other than coding. Also, there is interesting data from deaf people who have grown up without language, who are highly intelligent, who can function in society, and even mime narratives to one another.

There is a great Radio Lab program on the research Pinker cites, fascinating stuff about the Nicaraguan deaf man Susan Schaller met who had never learned to sign, and a glimpse inside the head of Jill Bolte Taylor after she suffered a stroke that robbed her for some time of language (; and also Charles Fernyhough about the connection between thought, inner speech, and the voice in our heads: Pinker also gives examples of great visual thinkers, such as Einstein, for whom ideas were conceived in thought experiments that were only later rendered into mathematical symbols and other forms of spoken and written language. Coming back through to the outer shell, Pinker concludes that Newspeak would never work. The children of its first speakers would creolize it, and Big Brother would find itself with a fifth column on its hands.

What we glean from Pinker and Radio Lab is clear evidence that thought works independently of language, that is is possible to reach conclusions without having to codify them in any symbol system that can be expressed outside the brain in which the conclusions were reached. You can see that yourself the next time you try to write down or explain to someone the narrative revealed to you in dreams. You might be able to capture some of it if you can move the memory quickly enough into some more permanent location in your brain, but personally, I have never been able to work out how I arrived at the point where I can remember myself flying, for example, or what great insights this gave me that evaporated with the light of dawn. Except that after reading Pinker, I realize now that the dream was a glimpse into thought apart from language.

Stephen Downes covers this post in his Daily for Jan 8, 2014, using it to recall something he had written 25 years ago and extrapolating from that recollection through this post to "the basis for both connectionism, as a philosophy of mind, and connectivism, as a philosophy of education".  In his words on that date
My career as a published academic began in 1987-1988 with a couple of papers entitled 'Why Equi Fails' and 'Conditional Variability', both of which suggest that meaning is determined from context, and not merely content. That's the lesson drawn, Vance Stevens writes, "when Chomsky tells us that visiting relatives can be fun, we can understand from context who visited whom." What this told me is that thought is subsymbolic. "Thought works independently of language, that is is possible to reach conclusions without having to codify them in any symbol system that can be expressed outside the brain in which the conclusions were reached." The brain is not a computer. It doesn't encode'data' and it doesn't use rules or procedures process that encoded data. That - to me - is the basis for both connectionism, as a philosophy of mind, and connectivism, as a philosophy of education.
Downes, S. Conditional Variability. Calgary Working Papers in Linguistics Number 13 1-13. . November 1, 1988. Authors: Stephen Downes. NRC . A - Publications in Refereed Journals