Landing : Athabascau University

Demonstrating gadgets and feeds

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News from Google

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Welcome!

This is a pinboard that I have created to show how it is possible to integrate different sites and different information using Google Gadgets and RSS feeds. 

There are thousands of Google Gadgets available. Many are pretty awful, but there are some gems to be discovered at http://www.google.com/ig/directory?synd=open 

On the right of this, a clock and calendar, and some Google news. More examples are shown below.

The time and date

Athabasca University

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Twitter

The widgets either side of this one show gadgets displaying Twitter feeds. I used the Gadget available at http://www.gmodules.com/ig/creator?synd=open&url=http%3A%2F%2Fhosting.gmodules.com%2Fig%2Fgadgets%2Ffile%2F101874429875337446119%2Ftwit.xml&lang=en but there are several others available that do much the same thing. 

Jon Dron on Twitter

RSS feed from jondron.org

Some time today my email address and all its aliases at the University of Brighton will suddenly cease to exist, vacuumed away by an automated script that doesn't care.

It has been 30 years since I sent my first ever SMTP email from that address, from a Vax terminal, carefully ending it with a single dot on its own line to signal the end of the message. Among the (yes) millions of emails (for years, well over 100 every day) that have since been sent to and from the account have been announcements of the births and deaths of many loved ones, job offers, notifications of awards, letters to and from long lost friends, and a metric tonne of spam and bacn. Among those messages were expressions of love, sorrow, pleasure, anger, and joy. It has been the tenuous thread connecting me with those I love when all others have failed. It has helped me make new friends and keep old ones. It has taught me, and I have taught with it. It has given me delight, angst, inspiration, frustration, fear, and exaltation. It has, in the past, been so much a part of my identity that my students used to refer to me as jon-dot-dron. I've been through eight physical addresses and at least as many phone numbers in the time I've had the account. It has been my prosthetic memory and my filing system. Its archives contain (or contained) records of the history of half my life. Some of those emails are what made that history. There are/were messages in it from more than a few loved ones who have since died, or with whom I've lost contact. It followed me through many jobs and roles at the University of Brighton - student, IT manager, lecturer, honorary fellow, and more.

But the Centre for Learning and Teaching to which my final role was attached is no more, and so my email account must now die with it.

I can think of no other digital entity associated with me that has lasted as long as that email address apart from, perhaps, the user account with which it was associated (which is also disappearing today). The nearest thing to it was my 'Ship of Theseus' PC that existed for over 20 years, from the 1980s to the 2010s, every single part of which had been replaced multiple times, and which (like the Ship of Theseus itself) had spawned a few offspring along the way that were made from its discarded parts. I was a little sad to let go of that, too, but its surviving contents lived on in something better, so it was no great loss. This is a bit different.

Pragmatically, it is pointless for me to retain my Brighton email account. With just a handful of exceptions a year, the only emails ever sent to it nowadays are spam or bacn, I hardly ever send emails from it, and it takes effort to maintain the thing. But I will miss it. The comfortable fiction that we are just what goes on in our brains and bodies has seldom seemed less believable. Our minds extend into those around us, the artefacts we create, the artefacts we use, the people we cherish. Those emails contained a bit of me, and a bit of all those who sent them. It was where our minds met. I think this should be recognized with more than a shrug. And so I write this both to celebrate the existence and to mourn the passing of a little bit of me. 

jon.dron@brighton.ac.uk/jd29@bton.ac.uk

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2 days ago

Nobody learns anything online or at a distance. Nothing at all. You are always learning it where you are now. All learning is in-person learning, and it all takes place within a physical environment, part of which (only a part) may include whatever technologies you might be using to talk with people, read, watch, listen, and so on.

But there's a distance component to all in-person education, too. People who learn with teachers in a physical space are almost always also interacting with other participants in the teaching role at a distance, usually in time and space - authors, classroom designers, editors, illustrators, timetablers, curriculum designers, and so on. And, for 'in-person' institutional learners, most of the learning itself also usually occurs at a distance, outside the classroom. This is most tangible in the form of assignments and homework but, if teaching works, sense-making connections always occur after the lesson is over, and continue to do so long after (sometimes decades after) the teaching event, almost never in the same place that the lesson originally occurred. So all learning is distance learning, in the sense of occurring somewhere and somewhen other than where and/or when teaching occurred.

It is not surprising, therefore, that no significance difference is normally found between online and in-person learning outcomes because they are essentially the same thing.

That doesn't mean that there are no consistent differences between the experiences of what we describe as online and in-person learners: very far from it. Some of those differences are inherent in the medium, whether online or in-person. But the big differences that actually make a difference are not in learning: they are in teaching.

There are (or should be) huge differences between distance/online teaching and in-person teaching. The most important differences are not technological, as such, nor do they lie in the physical distance between learners and teachers. Michael Moore very usefully talks of distance in terms of structure and dialogue to describe the transactional distance that matters more but, as I observed in my first book, from a system dynamics perspective, transactional distance is mainly a measure of the locus of control, not structure or dialogue as such. There are other differences that matter, but control is the big one.

Control in in-person teaching

Pedagogies are solutions to problems, and the physical context is rife with problems, most notably that it makes it far more likely that teachers will control much of the process. There are a great many reasons for this, most of which have nothing at all to do with pedagogical intent: it's mainly physics, economics, and biology, and the consequences that follow. Though many teachers try to avoid it, doing so is a seriously upstream struggle. It causes immense problems, primarily because of the great harm it does to intrinsic motivation. Learners lack autonomy and are often over-challenged or under-challenged (thus undermining the two central foundations of intrinsic motivation) because, by default, everyone is forced to follow the same pace and method, determined by the teacher.  Good in-person pedagogies compensate for these inherent weaknesses, by allowing (emphasis on allowing) learners to personalize their own learning, by engaging in dialogue, by building communities, by helping learners to find their own motivation, and so on.

Control in online teaching

Without significant coercion, the learner is always far more autonomous in almost any online or distance teaching context. Students don't need to follow the teacher's plan because they are not bound to a scheduled classroom, with all the problems of being heard, being present, and working in lock-step together that arise from it.  Unfortunately, far too many online teachers assume that they have the same level of control as their in-person counterparts and, usually, it becomes a partly self-fulfilling assumption through coercive methods like frequent grading, draconian scheduling, and tests. They consequently often make use of very similar pedagogies to those of their in-person counterparts, struggling to find simulacra or workarounds for the affordances of physical spaces that are no longer available, and vainly believing that the learner is going to follow the path that they have determined for them. An unfortunate unintentional consequence of in-person teaching is thus too readily accepted as teaching's central motif.

To make matters more difficult, educational institutions impose other stupid ideas that are side-effects of teaching in physical classrooms like fixed-length (or multiples of fixed lengths) courses, deadlines, and failure (what the heck?). I think this picture helps to illustrate my feelings about this:

Dealing with this kind of problem may require some big changes at an institutional level because teachers too rarely have much choice as to how long their courses might be, or whether students should receive grades for them, or how they are scheduled, and so on.

Outside of arbitrary institutional constraints, online courses do not have to be a particular length, because more complex scheduling is possible (and easily automated) and, if they are self-paced, there's no good reason for them to have any schedule at all, nor for them to end on a particular date, as long as they can be funded. Credentialing and learning are two completely different processes that (thanks to the motivational impacts) are in many ways mutually exclusive. They must therefore be decoupled, as much as possible. It makes no sense to talk definitively about failure when you are learning: learning is either accomplished or not accomplished yet, and failure is an integral part of the process of accomplishment (ask any gamer). And, though they might not always get a credential on the first try, students never need to irrevocably fail to get them: they can just keep going until they succeed, or until they lose interest, much as we do for driving tests.

Distributed in-person teaching

Such issues highlight the fact that it is not just the designated teacher who teaches. Obviously, the main teacher in any learning transaction is the learner, sometimes followed by the designated teacher or writer of a textbook, but the rules, structures, processes and methods that define the educational context also teach. So do other students, especially in an in-person context thanks to the fact that they are all forced to be in one place at one time. In an in-person context, from the simple fact of having to turn up at a particular place and time to the structures of courses, assessments, classroom spaces, cafes, and schedules, the institutional context controls the learning process in profound ways.

Again, for teachers, good pedagogies have to compensate for the problems that such things cause, as well as to take advantage of the positive affordances the physical context provides. There are many of those. A great deal of learning can be assumed to occur in journeys to and from classrooms, in canteens, in common rooms, in libraries, and in other shared spaces, for example. Combined with the fact that a great deal of the organization is done by others, and that institutional credentials motivate (not in a good way), institutions (not just teachers) themselves teach through their physical, temporal, and organizational form. Combined with the many other teachers involved in the process (the learners themselves, textbook authors, illustrators, designers, etc) this means that in-person teachers don't actually have to teach very well in order for their students to succeed. The systems mean that students are drowning in a sea of teachers.

Distributed online teaching

The online teaching context is, in principle though not so much in practice, more malleable, diffuse, and affording of learner control, but it almost always lacks much in the way of controllable infrastructure that learners can safely be assumed to inhabit, so teaching generally needs to be pretty good because, without care, that might be all there is. However, there are ways to help provide a bit more of the structure that also teaches. Some people try to create simulations of the in-person infrastructure, such as learning cafes, less formal social spaces (such as Athabasca Landing), etc but, though they can help a bit, they seldom work very well. Partly, this is because of the too common focus on explicit outcomes and grading found in most institutional teaching together with failure by students and teachers to recognize the critical role of in-between spaces in learning. Mainly, though, it's because it's not just there: students aren't going to pass it on their way to somewhere else or be there for other reasons (like a need for rest or refreshment). They have to intentionally visit, typically with a purpose in mind but, as the main value of it is its purposelessness, that's not often going to happen. It would be better to embed such spaces in the intentional teaching space, to allow informal interaction everywhere, but too few teaching systems (notably none of the mainstream LMSs) support that.

It can help a little to make the need for such engagement more explicit in the teaching process: to tell students it is a good idea to engage beyond the course. It doesn't have to be virtual, or planned, or catered for by the institution or teacher. We could just suggest that learners talk about what they've learned with someone they know, or that they should visit a place where people do talk about such things, or share via social media. But we can and should provide social spaces where they can interact with one another beyond the course, too.

Another way is to acknowledge the physical and virtual context of the learner, and to design flexible learning experiences that allow them to apply what they are learning to where they are, or to make use of what is around them (virtually and physically) to support the learning process. This is a pedagogical solution that, for some subjects, fits very well. For instance, I can rely on nearly all of my students working or studying in a context that can be used for analyzing and building information systems. It's harder in the case of subjects that are much more abstract, or where engaging directly with the subject might be dangerous or prohibitively expensive (e.g. nuclear physics or medicine).

Really, though, the big problem is one of perspective. It's that we see our virtual institutions as analogues of our physical institutions, not as something really very different. Even quite enlightened edtech folk talk of students bringing their own devices, or bringing their own networks to the learning space. That's laudable, in a way, but it's completely the wrong way round. Instead, online and distance students bring their own institutions (plural), or bring their own courses into their own spaces. The need to go to an institution is a side-effect of the physics that co-determines how traditional teaching occurs. Students shouldn't need to go to an online institution; institutions should come to them. That is, in fact, the reality of learning through online means, but almost everything we do works on the assumption that it is the other way round: that they visit us.

Conclusion

We (the teachers) are not, cannot be, and should not try to be the sole arbiters of how our distance/online students learn. Unless they want it, we should not even be managers or leaders of it. Instead, we should think of ourselves as parts of their support networks, available to provide help and direction as and when it is needed. If they want to delegate some of the control of the process to us then that's great, because it keeps us employed and we're often pretty good at it because it's our job, but we should not take it unbidden.

We really need to let go of the notion that learning only takes place when and where our teaching happens,  and that we are the sole directors of it. We need to acknowledge everything that learners bring with them, in prior learning, in digital and physical systems, in networks, and in pedagogical tools. But it's not about bringing stuff to us: it's about bringing it to their own learning. Above all, we need to recognize that online students do not come to institutional environments, but that they bring those institutions into their own environments. From that simple shift in perspective, myriad improvements follow.

December 3, 2021 - 11:42am

Perfect. Just perfect.

If anyone would like to collaborate with me to submit a paper to the Journal of Universal Rejection, feel free to contact me. I probably won't answer.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.universalrejection.org/

December 1, 2021 - 11:22am

The other day a small group of students and I had a really interesting experimental classroom session in Gather. The article linked here describes a much bigger-scale and intentional approach.

If you're not familiar with Gather, its a web-based real-time social environment. Its deceptively simple (to the point of silliness) 8-bit interface provides a 2D top-down view of a virtual space that very closely resembles that of a 1980s video game - in fact, it's even simpler than the seminal multi-player Habitat, that came out in 1985, inasmuch as it is only top-down. You could think of it as much simpler and flatter but vaguely in a similar vein to Minecraft or Habbo, but it's easier to create new spaces (people have replicated whole buildings, islands, and villages, in 2D 8-bit form - there are even pubs and bars). Your cartoon-ish avatar can be moved around with really simple cursor-driven movements, though more complex interactions with objects require you to press the X key, and/or to make selections from menus or move things with your mouse. Spaces can be any size, you can create them and objects within them (including in the free version), and there are mapping tools to help you find people and places.

So far so not very interesting: been there and done that.

Immediately under the surface, however, is a full-fledged, very modern web-conferencing system with a wide range of options to share audio, webcams, documents, videos, images, whiteboards, screens, chat, calendars, and so on, which is (almost) infinitely extendable through embedding of any website. Objects left in the space can be persistent, so it's not just about real-time meetings. You can send and leave messages, videos, voice recordings, and more. There's a lot more to it that I've yet to explore, but I've not found anything I could do in almost any collaboration system that I could not do here. Functionally, it is not dissimilar to MS Teams, but there the similarity ends: this is way better in almost every way.

Though it looks like an ancient video game, the interface is actually extremely smart, because instead of interacting with a fixed, typically hierarchical, abstract set of documents and containers, it gives you an intuitive spatial view on everything, and the space is very easy to create, incredibly flexible, and visually well differentiated (not perfect for people with visual disabilities, but they are catered for).  You can enter a private space with others if you wish, a bit like breakout rooms in conventional webmeeting systems except that it is easy for anyone to (literally) wander between them, to see who is inside (if enabled) and for the moderator of the space to be seen and heard by everyone, wherever they are. By default, outside a private space you can generally only hear and see someone if your avatar is near to theirs, so you could have hundreds of people in a space but only chat with those around you, much like a physical social gathering. As you move away the voice and the webcam video of those no longer proximal to you start to fade until they disappear altogether, while others you approach fade into view. Digital objects (e.g. files, presentations, videos, websites, etc) can be placed anywhere, in arbitrary but potentially meaningful spatial relationships with one another, and visitors can work on them or view them together.

The sense of social presence is very palpable in a way that far exceeds conventional webmeeting tools - it's incredibly effective, without being intrusive, difficult, or demanding explicit interaction. No uncomfortable silences or artificial instrumental activities here, and you get to do things together, not just stare at one another's faces or watch a document. In this space you could have a private office that people can 'see' you inside, but have to knock to come in and chat (without being heard by others). They can see if you are interacting with others (who can be anonymous shadows) and are therefore busy, or they can join in the conversation - they cannot overhear anything without you knowing they are there, much like in meatspace. You could 'lock' the room if you don't want to be disturbed at all. You could leave your office to visit a common room, or classroom, or conference, or whatever. You could just stop by someone else's office to chat, or they could leave messages and so on for you.

And, of course, you could use if for teaching, which is exactly what this linked article describes. It provides a really good in-depth description of how the author is using Gather to manage a very large introductory computing class, that goes into plenty of detail about how Gather works and what you can do there. The uses involve nothing more than plain vanilla options that take a few minutes to configure - a lot more is possible - but it's easy to see how incredibly effectively it marries the digital environment and our evolved ability to navigate physical spaces, without trying to exactly mimic the real world beyond what is absolutely necessary to get around.

This seems like a vastly superior approach to communication than that of nearly all shared-reality VR, that mostly just replicates all the constraints and annoyances of the physical world or, when it doesn't, feels jarring and wrong, not to mention almost always involving a steep learning curve and requiring a mighty machine to run it well (or, worse, separating you from your actual physical world with annoying goggles and headsets). Such a waste of computing power for no good reason. It's not that shared-reality VR doesn't have some compelling use cases - it does. It's just deeply hopeless as a general-purpose social environment.

Though not quite as infinitely flexible as Minecraft or an old-fashioned MOO (that it resembles, albeit highly evolved from there) - at least in what I've seen so far - it's much easier to get started and much easier to get around, plus it's a fully featured synchronous web conferencing system. There's copious and comprehensive help at https://support.gather.town/help. I contacted the company for an educational discount and thereby got involved with their tech support team (because I found a bug/feature that wouldn't let me pay, not that it was needed for this small number of students), and I found them very responsive, friendly, and personally interested.

Gather is also vastly superior to the abstract, alienating, function-driven approaches of most 'grid of faces' webmeeting software like Teams, Zoom, or Webex, albeit that it shares with them the annoying need to visit a separate virtual space (a website), rather than integrating that space in the rest of your own environment. However, the only significant exception to that failing that I'm aware of is the very excellently designed Around, though even that has to become more of an isolated space (albeit with a cute campfire to sit around) if you are meeting many people, and it is nothing like as flexible or powerful as Gather - it's just a meeting system.

Back in the early 2000s I tried to build a much simpler toy system along quite similar lines, called Dwellings. I used a metaphor of streets and buildings (my inspiration was Jane Jacobs's 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' - I tried to enable support for the kinds of things driving successful city areas), as well as a bunch of stigmergic cues to help with social navigation and some ideas drawn from MOOs. These were pre-HTML5 days and, though AJAX had recently been invented, I'd not discovered it, so it really didn't work at all well: I had to invent some really bad and ugly ways to do synchronous stuff. I only got as far as providing clunky text chat, the interface was dire, it only supported sharing of web sites (and graffiti about them) and it was a truly awfully designed and implemented system that ground to a halt under the strain of more than about half a dozen simultaneous users. If you really want to suffer, a version from about 15 years ago is actually still online though I guess I should get round to removing it at some point as it couldn't be much flakier. There were a few papers about it (e.g. this one, sadly paywalled by AACE but available via most university library accounts).  Gather is orders of magnitude better, far more fully thought through and, above all, it actually works, really well, with a very full range of modern, effective features. I don't like that it's a cloud-only service that starts to get expensive for more than a few dozen people, I don't like that it's not open source, and I am not sure that some of my more staid colleagues would take it seriously: it really does look a lot like an old-fashioned game. But it is a really cool place to collaborate, cooperate, and socialize, in a fabulously retro but very modern way.

 

Address of the bookmark: https://celinelatulipe.medium.com/gathering-online-for-cs1-177006c1c4d6

November 9, 2021 - 7:15pm

This is very cool - a library of articles and journals that have been censored in various regions, built inside Minecraft, that thereby evades censorship (for now). It lends a whole different meaning to 'serious games'.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.uncensoredlibrary.com/en

November 8, 2021 - 9:37am
It has taken me over 14 years, with numerous setbacks along the way (some bizarre, some mundane), but, as of today, I am a Canadian citizen. I cried most of the way through the (Zoom) ceremony, and completely choked up singing the anthem. I love Canada. I love that Canadian culture is guilty deep to its very heart (sorry), that caring for your neighbour is fundamental to our (yes, our!) identity, that line-ups last forever because everyone in front of you is having a fine and leisurely conversation with the person serving them, even in the biggest cities. I love Read More
November 5, 2021 - 5:43pm

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The list to the right comes from an RSS feed on my home page of bookmarks to papers I have written.