Monday, December 24, 2012

People don't need experts; they just need someone who knows

This is a really good analysis. I think you correctly identify the missing bit – helping students over those rough patches.

Interestingly, to my mind, although the problem of understanding and responding to a student question is an almost intractable problem for machines, it is generally pretty straightforward for humans. So what we have tried to do with cMOOCs is connect people with the humans they need to connect with to get over the rough patches.

You don’t need an expert for this – you just needs someone who knows the answer to the problem. So we have attempted to scale by connecting people with many other students. Instructors are still there, for the tough and difficult problems. But students can help each other out, and are expected to do so.

An example of what I mean: I just purchased a new xBox and a copy of MLB 2K12, which is a baseball simulator. My first effort to puitch saw me walk most of the batters, throw numerous wild pitches, and finally get out of the inning only after giving up 14 runs. The problem was, I didn’t know what to do; the MLB 2K12 instructions are far too vague, and if there’s in-game help,. I haven’t found it.

I don’t need an expert in MLB 2K12 to show me how to pitch. I just need someone who knows what to do. Someone who can say “Well you move this control here then here and you’re trying to line this up with that.” Million s of people know the answer to this question. but I’m connected to none of them.

Indeed, I don’t even need then to do the actual explaining. They simply need to recognize what my problem is, then point me to a video or instructions that outline the solution.

Machines will eventually be able to do this, but they will first need to master natural language processing. This is going to take a while. In the meantime, if we want massive learning, we need o structure learning in such a way as to make asking questions easier, and as necessary, to provide more incentives to people to answer them.

I don’t think the xMOOCs are ever going to do this, because their focus is on placing all the emphasis on the expertise of the instructor. To the extent that they respond to this need, they will become cMOOCs. But to the extent that cMOOCs become viable, the value proposition behind the elite universities is weakened. People don’t need experts; they just need someone who knows.

Friday, December 21, 2012

2012 in Words and Pictures

It's Mayan Apocalypse day, I'm listening to 2112 as I type this, and it seems appropriate to reflect on the end of the world through the words that caught my attention over the last twelve months.


Some time today, fittingly, Psy's monster hit Gangnam Style is going to reach a billion views - it's about 998 million and counting as I type these words. The song is of course a parody of Seoul's posh Gangnam neighbourhood, and the style secret to the video is, "dress classy and dance cheesy." Making fun of the rich and their excesses is nothing new, but nobody did it better than Psy in 2012, and boy, it needed doing!

What's ironic is the phenomenon that made this possible, K-Pop. Psy is but one of a collection of Korean musicians who hit the charts in 2012 - I spent a week in September exploring bands like Sistar, Girls' generation, Big Bang, SM Town, The Wonder Generation, and the puzzling Man With a Mission (from Japan).

K-Pop is big business. According to Wikipedia, "The Korean music industry grossed nearly $3.4 billion in the first half of 2012, which amounts to a 27.8% increase from the same period last year, according to Billboard." Most of the music is manufactured; "In K-pop these record labels also function as agencies for the artists. They started operating as such at the beginning of the 2000sThey are responsible for recruiting, financing, training, marketing and publishing new artists as well as managing their activities and public relations." It's worth listening to this Al Jazeera examination of K-Pop.

Korea as a country is a lot like the nouveau riche Psy is depicting; there's a lot of excess, a lot of cheesyness, a lot of prancing. We are tempted to be swayed by the success of some of the new economies - and here I would also include countries like Russia, India, Taiwan and China, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia - but it's important to realize that this new wealth is superficial, that much deeper issues remain under the surface, and that it could disappear as quickly as it was created.

Oh, and the Gangnam Style view count? YouTube froze it for most of the morning at 998,976,706. So nobody knows exactly when the views hit 1 billion, nor exactly who viewed it. And yes, the image above is something I created this morning. Because in the brave new world of Gangnam Style, even our cultural moments and history are manufactured and fake.


OK, so Sandy wasn't a hurricane when it hit the U.S. eastern seaboard. It wasn't even a particularly big storm, historically. But what it did do is to dump an unprecedented amount of water into lower Manhattan and the New Jersey Shore, flooding homes businesses and subways while knocking out power for millions of subscribers. The term 'stormpocalypse' didn't really catch on, so we got 'superstorm'.

The most immediate aftermath of Sandy wasn't the flooding, damage or power outages, however. It was the caterwaul of denials that the storm had anything to do with global warming. In an otherwise good article, for example, the Washington Post hastens to tell us "Sandy should not be 'blamed' on climate change. Climate change does not cause storms and did not cause Superstorm Sandy." Perhaps not. But what the Post could have - and should have - done was to say, "climate change caused Sandy to be a superstorm."

Much better was Business Week's (surprising) headline, "It's Global Warming, Stupid." For a long time climate change denial has been a hallmark of all politics to the right, but perhaps this is changing. "If all that doesn’t impress, forget the scientists ostensibly devoted to advancing knowledge and saving lives. Listen instead to corporate insurers committed to compiling statistics for profit."

Insurers pegged $71 billion of damage caused by the storm. It puts all those stories about the 'economic effects of the Kyoto Accord' into perspective, a bit. And maybe now that business (and insurers) are paying attention, perhaps climate change will recapture the attention it deserves.


Speaking of preparing for the apocalypse, one of this year's biggest (but unfortunately under-reported) story was the one about businesses hoarding trillions of dollars in overseas accounts. So it's official - the corporate culture has gone from being merely psychotic to full-blown cat hoarder.

Here's what Psychology Today said about corporations back in 2011: "Corporations have no innate moral impulses, and in fact they exist solely for the purpose of making money. As such, these "persons" are systemically driven to do whatever is necessary to increase revenues and profits, with no regard for ethical issues that might nag real people."

So the news this year should come as no surprise: "A global super-rich elite has exploited gaps in cross-border tax rules to hide an extraordinary £13 trillion ($21tn) of wealth offshore." To put that into scale, the BBC tells us, "The figure is equivalent to the size of the US and Japanese economies combined."

Naturally the first reaction of business is to try to place a positive spin on the story. ""From another angle, this study is really good news. The world has just located a huge pile of financial wealth that might be called upon to contribute to the solution of our most pressing global problems." But of course, unleashing such a huge amount of money would instantly crash the economy.

So of course we're in the middle of a recession, governments are deep in debt and going deeper, businesses are still lobbying for lower tax rates (and of course tax cuts for the rich), and from what I can see, all of this has been caused by the almost pathological siphoning of money from the rest of us by the super-rich, an amount of money so large there's nothing to spend it on. Except, maybe, paying off government debts (but of course, they would never do that).

Ironically, about the only things the rich are willing to spend money on (besides floating cities) are elections. With regulations limiting super-PACs in the U.S. ruled unconstitutional, the dollars flowed into lobby group coffers, all with the intent of electing a government that would allow the rich to - what else? - keep on hoarding.

“The establishment of the candidate-specific super PAC is a vehicle to completely destroy candidate contribution limits,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance reform group Democracy 21. “It is a vehicle that will spread to Congress and it will lead us back to a system of pure legalized bribery, because you will be back, pre-Watergate, to unlimited contributions that are going for all practical purposes directly to candidates.”

Peak Apple

So back in July I learned I could upgrade my Palm Pre (if only I would sign a newer richer mobile phone contract) and, wishing to join the rest of the world, I did. But I did not follow the masses and buy an iPhone. I bought a Samsung Galaxy SIII, which has just come out.

So what inspired me to buy the latest in Korean technology? It was not so much the style and marketing of the phone (though I do admit, they're beautiful). It had a lot more to do with what I couldn't do with the Apple. I couldn't add memory. I couldn't change the battery. I couldn't run it without iTunes. And so on and on it goes.

Today I am basically inseparable from my mobile phone - this was never the case with my Pre (which I frequently lost) or any other phone before then. I use it as my music player (replacing my small and locked-down iPod touch), my telephone, my calendar (which syncs with Google Calendar and Outlook), my pocket camera, my map, and much more.

It's as though my new phone represented freedom while the iPhone represents control (but in the back of my mind I know it's all an artifice).

K-Tech and the Samsung represent a trend that I have come to think of as 'Peak Apple'. I described it in my newsletter as follows: "Apple has long exhibited the 'NIH' syndrome - 'not invented here' - and sought to clamp down on the user experience with total control over key aspects of its operating system environment. It also has a penchant for launching billion dollar lawsuits against its suppliers. This is now biting them back. Your evidence: a Tumblr dedicated to the new Map application for the iPhone, widely touted as a disaster. Apple stocks, which have been nudging the magic $700 mark this week, will never be higher than they are right now. Never. Enjoy your maps."

The problem, of course, is that Apple feels it must own, manage and trademark key aspects of the user experience. For example, in another move, it patented page-turning. Here's the patent. "It won’t be long before Apple files a trademark application for the first person pronoun, or as Apple calls it, 'A personal pronominal inanimate graphical mark or figure of the first person singular nominative, roman minuscule.' The goal in doing so? To improve our experience as users of ourselves."

So yesterday, the eve of the Mayan apocalypse, it pleased me to read that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is rolling back some of the key patents in the Samsung case. The USPTO ruled that all twenty claims included in Apple's so-called "rubber-banding" patent are invalid. It had also ruled against the patent on 'snapback scrolling' back in October. So it looks like Samsung will prevail.

One would think we have learned the dangers of business models based on hoarding - whether it be hoarding of knowledge, money, information or technology. Eventually, whatever has been hoarded becomes unusable. But no, that still seems to be the dominant model for our times.


The technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been a hot topic around New Brunswick this year, and so I read, across North America as well. Basically it involves injecting a mixture of water and chemicals at high pressure into sedimentary rock layers two kilometers or so deep, fracturing the rock in these layers, and releasing natural gas trapped in bubbles in the rock.

There has been widespread opposition to the technology. People argue that it pollutes groundwater and causes earthquakes, among other things. It may well do these things; it's hard for me to tell. However, from my perspective, these problems pale in comparison to some of the damage caused by traditional energy, such as Exxon Valdez or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to name just a few.

Many of the protests against fracking are well-intentioned. In general, I think, the problem people have with fracking has very little to do with groundwater or earthquakes, and rather more to do with the contribution more gas exploitation will do to the climate in the long run.

Because, here's the thing about oil: it's making a comeback. Due to new discoveries and new technologies, the United States is poised to become the largest oil producer in the world by 2020, a turnaround that started this year. "In a report released on Monday, the world's foremost energy watchdog, the International Energy Agency (IEA), said the US would benefit from so-called unconventional sources of oil and gas, including shale gas and shale oil, derived from fracking – blasting dense rocks apart to release the fossil fuels trapped within."

This is exactly the wrong development at exactly the wrong time. "If pursued with vigour, they would also lead to huge increases in greenhouse gas emissions that would put hopes of curbing dangerous climate change beyond reach."

In posts this year I have supported fracking under three conditions:
- the industry completely compensate for any damage caused
- profits from the industry be shared with the people of the province
- developments in natural gas be used to cease production of coal and dirty oil

None of these conditions has ever come close to being met in any statement from out government ministers. I doubt they have any intention of fulfilling them. The intent is to add to the hoard of cash, to hell with global warming.


The jury is still out in Canada as to whether election results will be overturned, but the issue of robocalls points to a wider phenomenon undermining out democracy.

The concept of a robocall is simple enough: a computer automatically dials phone numbers and plays a pre-recorded message.  They are so common as to be ordinary. It is when they are misused that they raise wider issues.

For example, Canada recently instituted a 'do-not-call' list so that people would not be interrupted at the dinner table by marketing robocalls. What happened, however, is that people who registered for the list received an increase in the number of calls. Marketers were simply using the lists to program their computers, ignoring the law.

The Canadian election of 2011 saw an even more disturbing use, and the case wound its way through the courts through 2012. Robocalls were used by unnamed parties - famously using the alias 'Pierre Poutine' - to tell people intending to vote for the Liberals or NDP that the location of their polling station had been changed.

Although blamed on rogue individuals, it was a massive effort. "Documents show the probe of voter suppression calls has expanded to encompass 56 of the country’s 308 federal ridings... in a growing controversy that has led to accusations that widespread electoral fraud distorted the outcome of last year’s election and helped Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives win a majority government."

The efforts to subvert democracy were not limited to Canada. There were widespread reports of efforts in the United States election to turn voters away or discourage them from voting. These efforts were mostly focused toward urban votes, as in Ohio, where advanced polling was going to be available only to Republican-leaning districts (the plan was cancelled at the last minute), and minorities, as in Florida where new voter ID laws were drafted to enable voter suppression.

Not to be outdone, governments in other nations around the world, such as Russia, ran their own questionable elections. And so in the same year we were celebrating things like the Arab Spring, we were at the same time undermining the principles we have been working toward for so long. In psychology this is called self-sabotage. Just one of the many psychoses our society seems to display.


Yesterday I paid five dollars online to download a rare concert recording of Neil Young and the Bluenotes in 1988 from a site called Wolfgang's Vault. I've been listening to concerts (and playing them on Ed Radio) for a number of years, so when the site converted to a subscription model this year, I was willing to pay the fee.

I have been paying for an increasing number of online goods and services. I've always paid for internet access, of course, currently subscribing to Bell Aliant's fibre-op service. I pay for a dedicated server for my websites as well as another for my radio station, and of course I pay for domain registration. I have paid Flickr for several years, and also have purchased subscriptions from LogMeIn, Photomatix, and many more goods and services.

I've even purchased access from Major League Baseball. Not video access - the blackout zone for Toronto Blue Jays games is all of Canada, which means that despite being 1,000 kilometers from home plate (pretty much on the nose; I've measured it) I cannot watch the games on video. No matter; I'm much more of an audio person anyways, so I listen to all the games on web radio.

So where do I draw the line? It's clear from my own actions that I can at least tolerate, if not enthusiastically endorse, a commercial web. But it's also clear to me that I purchase these because I can, and that in the main, people get the web they can afford.Beyond a certain point, the commercial web ceases to be a good way to make a living (and a great source of rare music and fancy software) and begins to act against society.

I find that in practice I react negatively to the commercialization of knowledge and research, education, and news media. So I have reacted negatively to reports that the local newspaper is behind a paywall, that the Globe and Mail (Canada's self-style national newspaper) has gone behind a paywall, and so on and on it goes.

People who know me know of my lifelong campaign for free learning. But I am equally passionate about a free press. So one of my projects over the last 12 months has been the Moncton Free Press. This is a local news cooperative founded to create an alternative free and open media in the city. As a secondary project (since the primary Drupal site is so unsatisfying) I'm setting up gRSShopper as a news media aggregation service, which I'll roll out in 2013.

The impetus for the original Moncton Free Press project wasn't news media paywalls - those came later - but rather last year's Occupy protests. The coverage of Occupy was so one-sided, and so contrary to what I actually witnessed with my own eyes, that it became clear that an alternative was needed.

You see, it's not simply that commercializing science, education and news media makes them inaccessible to the poor. That could simply be addressed with money. It's that commercializing them changes them. It changes the message. It politicizes them. When you see the news from free, open and non-commercial sources - we aggregated the CBC, Rabble, NB media Co-Op, Global Voices, indyMedia, EFF, and many more - you see a different reality. A reality that is more about people, and less about manufactured history and culture.

Oh yeah - I gave most of these money too. Not because I believe in 'voting with my dollars' - that game is rigged and I could never win. But because I can, and it seems like the only way to practice epistemology in contemporary society. I've very aware that my own prosperity could disappear in a moment, and all of this would go away. But I do what i can while I can.

Wrecking Ball

In the summer of 2011, U2 came to play in Moncton. It was the last show of their world tour, a huge event for the city, and a brilliant evening on a beautiful day.

The internet has opened my world to music and art in ways that used to be impossible for me to imagine. I used to spend most of my mental life thinking in words - a constant internal monologue, playing and replaying scenarios, working out ideas, thinking in alternative realities. I would spend my evenings in silence, or listening to the radio, reading science fiction and philosophy, and of course writing.

With the coming of MP3 players, music exploded in to my world. With the coming of digital cameras, everything around me became art.

It's not like you think. I didn't suddenly take out a Napster membership. I actually paid for my music - most of it in te form of vinyl, some of it on CDs and casette tapes. I painstakingly recorded almost all my music collection from over the years, and the 1980s were reborn. Bands I had not listened to for years, like Luba and Styx, reminded me of the role music had played in my youth in helping me define and understand my own values.

U2, of course, is well-known as the band trying to do some good for the world, sponsoring campaigns like Live Aid and One. The best progressive politics money can buy. These have faded into the background in these years of austerity. These campaigns have been, of course, trivialized by the media. But I am hopeful the seeds they plant bear as much fruit as those that were planted so many years in me.

In 2012 we had a visit from an artist of a different kind as Bruce Springsteen brought his Wrecking Ball tour to the Hill. Springsteen's activism is different from U2's. Rather than haunt the halls of the United Nations, Springsteen seems more comfortable on the factory floor and the workplace. And he sings of a world that's more familiar to most of us:
Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it's been given to the dust
When the game has been decided and we're burning down the clock
And all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires are scattered through the wind


Most  of the summer this year Moncton was without a bus service. Here's what happened: the contract expired and bus drivers sought to earn the same rate as other drivers for the city, proposing that the contract go to arbitration. The city refused, but at least they kept talking.

Until after the election, that is. Less than a week after the mayor and most of council were re-elected, they pulled the plug and locked out the transit workers, refusing to budge for almost half a year. The city's responsibility to provide public transportation was essentially abdicated.

The media couldn't help itself, continually referring to the lockout as a strike. The local newspaper (now helpfully behind a paywall, but still spreading its propaganda though its paper edition) called for the essential elimination of the service, arguing that we should instead embrace a system of small buses run by private operators.

It was a bad year for public transportation in the region. The intercity bus service, Acadian Lines, announced that it was ceasing operations. The company, which had been purchased by a Quebec operator, was eventually replaced by a local company. The company planned to coordinate with the regional rail service, but that too was cut back - now we have one train three times a week.

I would also use some of the space here to talk about the NHL payer lockout, but it's difficult for me to care. The union is dissolving, at which point it will file an anti-trust suit. The rest of us meanwhile are wondering how we allowed control of our national pastime to be monopolized by a couple dozen or so billionaire owners. But I'm thinking, why not? We've allowed the same of every other part of society.

The local newspaper is owned by the local oil company. Its primary advertisers are local car dealerships.

The Beautiful Wild

Every summer for the last few years Andrea and I have been vacationing for several weeks by the seashore in Prince Edward Islands. This year was no exception.

The Beautiful Wild is the name of an album released this year by Jenn Grant, a Halifax-based artist who grew up near where I go camping every year. I can picture it in my mind, because it's very similar to my own upbringing in rural Ontario. "Never knew we were living in the beautiful wild".

I came to know of Jenn Grant through some advertising she did a few years ago for a local children's hospital. I found her most recent album by accident in a bin at the local used music store. I'm a regular in there; it's nice to go in and talk about the concerts and buy good music at reasonable prices.

The beautiful wild keeps me sane - not the music so much (though it helps) but the wilderness through which I cycle every year, the highways and back roads of West Prince. That part of the island feels like my second home. It's far away from anything and in the opposite direction from the Green Gables house and the commercial development around Cavendish.

This year my work is being pitted against my wilderness. While the bulk of my travel is funded by conferences and educational organizations, NRC has at least allowed me the time to go. This year management has decided I would do better research in the confines of my own office than by meeting firsthand with educators and researchers around he world. So I've been using vacation time to travel.

Now, not only am I running out of the vacation time I've accumulated over the last ten years, my summers on Prince Edward Island are being threatened. It's all in the interests of our new business plan, a commercial focus, and an emphasis on outcomes.

I don't think I would waste anyone's money were I allowed to manage my own time. But we've entered a new era in the workforce where management no longer trusts the employees. We've entered an era where management is embracing a sort of psychosis.

At the end of the day, the world didn't end after all. That doesn't mean it's not going to. We as a global society are not well. We are imbalanced and behaving irrationally. Our institutions are psychotic. We are unable to cease self-destructive and self-defeating behaviour. We lie to ourselves, hoard all our resources where they cannot be used, and seek dirty energy like an addict looking for his next fix.

Collectively, we need to stop. We need to put on some nice music and get out of the city, cycling in the open air, embracing the seaside and the forests and the farms and the cottages, hiking among the windmills of North Point and taking pictures of the seals in the bay. We need to stand out there, let the wind blow in our hair, watch the endless waves, and dream of the day after tomorrow, the day after the end of the world.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Badges and How I'd Make Them

This is my first set of submissions for an online course in digital badges being hosted by BC Campus's Scope Forum. I'm not really sure how I got enrolled, but I did, and it seems like a good thing to be following up on.
Task 1: Describe the merit badge

1. Identify a merit badge you earned during your lifetime.
What did you have to do to earn it? Did you earn more than one badge? And were they awarded by the same organization?

2. Describe how you displayed the merit badge(s).
If you earned more than one badge, did you display them together? Did you display badges from different organizations together?

1. Man of Letters

This was a badge I received as a Boy Scout (I received a large number of badges as a Cub Scout and Boy Scout, mostly based around civic knowledge and wilderness skills - yes, I could survive in the wilderness, and not only that, I would like it). The Man of letters badge was awarded for performing some act of public writing (I forget what the exact conditions were). Specifically, it was awarded for my publication The Eagle Report, a monthly newspaper I wrote and published myself, distributing it around the community.

2. On a Sash

Badges are worn on a red sash worn over one shoulder. They are arranged as you wish (I arranged mine in neat rows, of course). All badges are equal (there is no 'Eagle Scout' designation in Canada). No badges from external organizations were displayed on the sash.

More information:

Here is the list of badges and stars awarded to Cub Scouts (I got all five stars when I was a Cub - there are more stars now - my favourite was the Tawny Star):

Here are the Boy Scout badges, including some of the new higher designations ('Man of Letters' is now 'Communicator').

Just a brief note:

In Scouts, it was very clear ahead of time what the requirements were for different badges, and you could set out earning them. In the examples badges I've seen online (eg. the Mozilla badge program, and this course, even) you are given a sequence of activities and badges just appear at (for me, unknown) intervals.

Task 2: The digital badge

3. Identify the digital and internet technologies best suited to create a digital merit badge. How would you create the digital file (image) of the badge? Is it possible to keep people from copying the badge without having earned the badge?

4. Describe the technologies that could be used to attach (reference or link) the learning to the digital badge. Is there more than one way of "attaching" learning criteria (or outcomes) to a digital badge? Would this criteria differ from a learners evidence toward earning the badge? Could a badge criteria change through time?
(Keeping in mind I don't know the details of how Mozilla set up its program - this is only how I would do it, off he top of my head): The badge itself would be a simple PNG image (or even text script; there's no reason why the badge has to have one and only one visual representation). The image of the badge is contained within a div structure indicating that it is a badge. The code is deliberately very simple: For example:

<div class="badge">

<a href="">

<img src="" /> </a> </div>

  The awarder of the badge (or a third party) keeps a list of the people who received badges. The person is given an image and script referring back to the original list, so when a person clicks on the badge image, they are taken to the awarder or 3rd party certification that the badge is genuine. Here's a sample certificate (could also be in JSON):

<badge resource="">

<badgewinner resource="" /> </badge>

The certificate, in turn, links to badge criteria, again hosted on the awarder or 3rd party web site. This data, available as structured data (XML or JSON) is standardized: name of badge, issuing organization, criteria, category, etc.

For example:


<name>Man of Letters</badge>

<issuer resource="">Scouts Canada</issuer>

<classification resource="">Class / Subclass</classification>

<criteria> ...


The criteria are created though any number of processes, and would be encoded using a JSON  or XML encoder (the number of badges should be sufficiently low that you don't need an automated way of generating massive numbers of badges).

The badge code (hosted at ) lists criteria only - the criteria are listed distinct from any evidence of individual achievement. Each criterion has its own URL, eg:
or  (if it's at a separate URL).
Criteria do not change through time; if the criteria change, a new version  of the badge is created, and badges must be referenced through version number. Hence the record for a badge awarded to a person displays only the criteria in use at the time the badge was awarded.

Evidence publicly displayed (unlike, say, this forum) can be listed in the certificate, by URL. For example, at the document hosted at, the following code can be used:
<badge resource="">

<badgewinner resource="" />

<criteria resource="">

<evidence ref="" /> </criteria>



At least, that's how I'd set it up, first draft...
Do I get a badge now?