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Blink twice and you’re on the internet: Augmenting reality with new technologies

Arizona State University‘s Dr Mina Johnson-Glenberg recently made some interesting observations in her presentation, titled Embodied, Gesture-based Learning – Mixed Reality and Serious Games at a Learning & Teaching Research Cluster meeting here at Macquarie University.  Her research looks at the impact of embodiment and gesture on the learning that occurs in virtual settings. Some of her research programs involve getting students away from computer screens and into display spaces that require gestural input to make things happen.

According to Dr. Johnson-Glenberg we’re about six years away from having commercially available contact lenses with built in displays, capable of putting up a net browser or augmenting the visual reality with additional text-based information.

Here’s an amusing and slightly dystopian view from Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo. on how augmented reality might work in a personal sense:

Sight from Vimeo.

The video clip from Keiichi Matsuda, below,is another commercially-enhanced view of how augmented reality might appear from the user’s point of view:

Augmented (hyper)Reality: Domestic Robocop from Keiichi Matsuda on Vimeo.

The Google Glass project incorporates a single-eye heads-up browser/data display into a lightweight headband. The latest version also captures and shares video. Like Dr Johnson-Glenberg, Google seems keen to get people away from the desktop and more into the (augmented) environment. The design team made deliberate choices about the positioning of the image viewer (above the direct line of sight, monocular only), presumably to discourage people from viewing while driving or walking into traffic.  Like mobile phones, this technology offers incredible advantages such as access to instant information for its users, but also come with its own risks in terms of personal safety.

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The MOOC experience: Learning in free online courses

A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) offers anyone with the time and and an internet connection to explore a large range of educational topics in depth,  usually for no cost apart from net connection fees.  Available topics range from complex courses on micro-electronics that duplicate face-to-face courses taught at institutions such as MIT, to less formal, peer-driven courses based on a community of enquiry model.

One of the great things about the internet’s expanding web of connections around the world is the increasingly large number of free online education opportunities that come with it. The MIT/Harvard consortium called edX has recently added UC Berkeley to the mix, making it the first consortium to include a public university in offering free not-for-credit courses, according to this article in the Los Angeles Times.

The MOOC early-adopter institutions include Stanford University in California, offering videos of Masters course lectures in the late 1990s, MIT with OpenCourseware and more recently with MITx, Yale University’s Open Yale courses, and the Open University‘s LearningSpace in the UK.

Peer-driven learning spaces rely on the enthusiasm of learners who are curious enough about a topic to freely offer what they know already or to join a group of learners who may help them to learn further.  A good example is Peer to Peer University (P2PU), which describes its mission as providing a place where: “people work together to learn a particular topic by completing tasks, assessing individual and group work, and providing constructive feedback”.

Acquiring knowledge for its own sake is one thing, but some learners want acknowledgement of the time and effort they put into learning a new skill or discipline, either to reinforce feelings of self-worth or to enhance their future job prospects.  Mozilla Open Badges caters for learners who want visible recognition of the skills they have acquired online or out of school by offering badges that represent attainment in online courses or projects run by affiliated members.

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Bisociation: Koestler’s Take on Humour and Scientific Enquiry

An image of the Carbon 60 molecule, also called Buckminsterfullerene

Buckmiinsterfullerene (C60) - image via Wikipedia

One of Hungarian-born Arthur Koestler‘s best-known non-fiction works is probably The Act of Creation, written in 1964.  In this seminal text he explores the notion of human creativity from a number of angles, including humour, science and the arts. Koestler’s premise is that creative acts are likely to involve the synthesis of concepts derived from two or more different bodies of thought or disciplines that are not normally related, a process he called “bisociation”. The concept has since been formalised as “Conceptual Blending/Integration” theory within cognitive science by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner.   A relatively recent example of this associative process in science is the discovery of the structure of macro molecules of Carbon 60 (C60) in 1985 by Harold Kroto, Richard Smalley and Robert Curl at Rice University. They determined that a stable allotrope of carbon consisting of 60 carbon atoms could be produced with a high energy laser directed at a graphite disk, but were initially unable to determine its exact crystalline structure.

Author Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler - Image via Wikipedia

The team reasoned that the structure had to be spherical, but it took Kroto’s memory of a visit to Expo 67 in Montreal where he walked into a geodesic dome designed by architect Buckminster Fuller to trigger the realization that the molecule must be based on an icosahedron (specifically, a truncated icosahedron) with 60 vertices; the exact shape of a standard soccer ball and logically the most stable arrangement of that number of carbon atoms. This insight led the team to call the C60 allotrope “buckminsterfullerene” in honor of the genius from another discipline and was the starting point for the whole new science of nanotechnology.

So how does humour come into the picture?  Koestler discusses the mechanism of humour in similar terms to the synthesis of ideas mentioned above. “Punchline” humour, for example, depends on a wholly unexpected conclusion for its effect.  It’s as if you’ve been led down a garden path then directed to turn left, only to be confronted by an elephant’s knee (or a spring-loaded boxing glove). Humour uses exaggeration, imagination and absurd juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated things to create a comic effect, somewhat like the bisociative processes discussed above that are the basis of most creative acts in Koestler’s analysis.

One of the highlights of Open Day at Macquarie University is the Chemistry Magic Show put on in one of the lecture theatres by dedicated members of the School of Chemistry every year.  The master of ceremonies manages to combine humour with science in a wholly engaging way while showing the audience some rather dramatic chemical processes – each of which manages to supply its own punchline.  If only all science subjects were taught that way …

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How Do I Die? The value of catastrophic failure in educational gameplay

A Thales full flight simulator at a pitch angle

Thales Flight Sim -- Image via Wikipedia

At the conference mentioned in my previous post I attended a presentation  where the speaker described a training module to teach safe practices in the mining industry. The presenter demonstrated a virtual world that simulated an emergency in a mine. The learning task was to take the part of a virtual mine worker and work out the quickest way to find a safety and evacuation point. Participants needed to make choices in real time as events unfolded. The task was made ever more critical by the introduction of obscuring toxic smog and the fact that certain tasks such as running up an incline reduced the participant’s supply of oxygen. Failure was indicated by the program re-setting to the start point, but exactly how that was determined was not clear to me. At the conclusion of the presentation I asked the presenter how people died. He seemed perplexed by the question and mentioned that the program merely reset itself. When pressed for more information he said that the design team had discussed this aspect of the game and determined that representing expiration or death in any obvious way would send the wrong type of message to participants, as they wanted to explore the positive aspects of survival, and that allowing people to die was considered an undesirable learning outcome.

This notion is at odds with what I know about how people approach immersive online games. Admittedly, the presenter said that the simulation was not designed as a game but rather as a training module, however the immersive character of what he presented was very game-like in how participants were expected to use it.

Here’s a relevant quote:
“Part of what makes play valuable as a mode of problem solving and learning is that it lowers the emotional stakes of failing. players are encouraged to suspend some of the real world consequences of the represented actions, to take risks and learn through trial and error. The underlying logic is one of die and do over.”
– Jenkins, H. (2009) Confronting the challenges of participatory culture. MIT Press, Cambridge Mass.

This makes a lot of sense to me. One of the first things most virtual pilots do when testing out a new flight simulator is to deliberately crash the plane. Why? Because they need to get a sense of the limits of failure and a sim lets them do just that.

Ask yourself:  would you rather fly in a 747 piloted by someone who has racked up many hours trying (and occasionally failing) to recover from catastrophic failure of a couple of engines in a flight simulator or piloted by someone who’s never had that experience and relies on reading a manual to get out of trouble?

I’d pick the flight-sim veteran every time.

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Learning Analytics: The positive side

I recently attended a conference where the buzz topic was learning analytics (LA) and their use in online learning environments. One of the keynote speakers, Simon Buckingham-Shum, described a possible future where an LA program is used to analyze a student’s input to an online forum using advanced AI techniques.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only member of the audience who cringed at the thought of a machine used in this way.  The idea that your personal thoughts, attitudes or opinions could be dissected using such a seemingly inhumane approach goes against the grain for a lot of people. But what if that same analytic engine was used in a formative learning setting where the whole idea was to support a student’s learning and provide learning materials appropriate to the level of mastery attained so far?

Salman Khan

Salman Khan: Image by O'Reilly Conferences via Flickr

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed looks at the work done by Salman Khan‘s team of analysts at the Khan Academy, an online learning site that covers a huge range of learning topics from basic maths to advanced calculus, economics, biology, physics and others too many to mention.  I’ve been following the development of this site for several years now and watched a couple of the maths videos to understand the teaching methodology used – and, as a side bonus,  to refresh my understanding of basic maths principles.  Salman’s teaching style is renowned for its relaxed yet clear delivery.  He manages to make even advanced, complex topics seem obvious and easy to understand.  But as Salman himself says; “I think too much conversation about Khan Academy is about cute little videos …”.  For him, the real action is in using data collected from learners who access the Khan Academy to construct LA applications that can ultimately predict their future performance and adjust the learning materials accordingly.

Khan engineers are attempting to promote genuine mastery and to distinguish it from “pattern-matching” exercises, which form the basis of  a large proportion of summative assessments used at all levels of learning and teaching. To accomplish this, they are tracking and analysing student interactions when logged in to one of the Academy’s online courses. Using algorithms developed to predict stock market movements, they can predict  a student’s likely future performance in solving different problem types. If the prediction is that a student is highly likely to correctly solve problems of a similar type, then the inference is that mastery has been achieved.

In my opinion, the Khan Academy’s approach is a great example of LA used for good – as opposed to evil. By that I mean that using LA as a means of summative assessment of a student’s understanding is currently not achievable in any reasonable sense and may amount to an unfair summary of their true comprehension of a topic.

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Ask, Don’t Tell: A learner-centred approach to education

Many institutions teach by showing or telling and assess by asking. i.e. transmission of knowledge followed by elicitation of that knowledge. Whereas, in a learner-centred approach, both teachers and learners learn by asking and demonstrate acquisition of knowledge by building and showing. This mismatch in learning and teaching styles is at the root of many of the problems that occur when educators introduce a new regime of teaching approaches  that fail to take account of the misalignment outlined above.

The Socratic Method

Socrates teaching - Image via Wikipedia

Philosopher Richard Garlikov advocates use of the Socratic Method as a teaching tool, where the teacher asks leading questions of students rather than telling them facts to be recalled at a later time, such as during an exam. In an experiment conducted with 22 third graders in an elementary school (presumably in Birmingham, Alabama), he used a socratic approach to teach the basics of binary arithmetic over an afternoon teaching session.

Richard explains that there are four critical points about the types of questions asked during a socratic method session, i.e:

  1. “they must be interesting or intriguing to the students
  2. they must lead by incremental and
  3. logical steps (from the students’ prior knowledge or understanding) and seen to be evidence toward a conclusion (not just individual isolated points), and
  4. they must be designed to get the student to see particular points.”

This method is complemented by task or discovery-based learning approaches where students are driven by curiosity to discover knowledge, sometimes in order to solve a task or complete a quest.

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3D Google Maps

Checking out Street View in Google Maps recently I happened on a drop-down choice called “3D mode on” that suddenly turned the panorama green and red: anaglyph-image-style. Okay, I know that 3D Street View has actually been around since April, 2010, but I had never bothered to see what that actually meant until a couple of days ago. I slapped on a pair of green and red glasses borrowed from my daughter’s Space Atlas and there was my local street displayed in all its 3D glory. In a previous post, I discussed the impact of 3D technology on perception, but this experience brought the whole thing a lot closer to home.

In a related display approach Google has also created a Mobile maps 3D view  for Android 5.0 systems that morphs from a 2D overhead map into a dimensional view with 3D buildings and landmarks that re-orientate as you pan around the scene in “Compass” mode.  Here’s an introductory video:


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