A ‘free’ online learning experience

2862656849_f0fa5c78bf_oI’ve blogged about various experiences of online learning I’ve taken part in over the years and wanted to reflect on the most recent one. Coursera’s three week Introduction to Ableton Live.

Learning more about learning is one of my personal goals this year. And I find writing out loud to be useful tool in thinking. So that’s mostly the point of this.

I take these courses mostly because I like learning new things, but also because I’m interested in online learning more generally. How do you most effectively transfer knowledge, skills and motivation via the web, and/or about the web? That question is often on my mind.

Almost all of the projects I work on at Mozilla are somewhere in the education space; directly with Webmaker or Mozilla Learning Networks and tangentially in the topic of volunteer contribution. Contributing to an open source project as complex and distributed as Mozilla is a learning experience in itself, and sometimes requires specific training to even make it possible.

To further frame this particular brain dump, I’m also interested generally in the economics of the web and how this shapes user experiences, and I have strong feelings about the impact of advertising’s underlying messaging and what this does over-time when it dominates a person’s daily content intake. I’m generally wary of the word “Free”. This all gets complex when you work on the web, and even directly on advertising at times. Most of my paycheques have had some pretty direct link to the advertising world, except maybe when I was serving school dinners to very rich children – but that wasn’t my favourite job, despite it’s lack of direct societal quandaries.

Now, to the content…

If you’re like me, you will tend to read notes about a topic like ‘commerce in education’ and react negatively to some of these observations because there are many cases where those two things should be kept as far apart as possible. But I’m actually not trying to say anything negative here. These are just observations.

Observations

All roads lead to… $

$ Coursera

My online experience within the Coursera site was regularly interrupted with a modal (think popup) screen asking if I wanted to pay to enrol in the ‘Signature Track’, and get a more official certification. This is Coursera’s business model and understandably their interest. It wasn’t at all relevant to me in my life situation, as I was taking a course about how to play with fun music software in my free time. I don’t often check my own qualifications before I let myself hobby. Not that anyone checked my qualifications before they let me work either, but I digress. Coursera’s tagline says ‘free’, but they want you to pay.

$ Blend.io

All assignments for the course had to be published to Blend for peer-evalutation, Blend is like Github but for raw audio production tracks rather than source-code. I didn’t know about Blend before the course, and really like it as a concept and how it’s executed and for what it could do for collaborative music making. But I note, it is a business. This course funnels tens of thousands of new users into that business over the course of a few days. There might not be any direct financial trade here (between companies for example), but users are capital in start-up land. And I now receive emails from Blend with advertisements for commercial audio production tools. My eyeballs, like yours, have a value.

$ Berklee College of Music

While hosted on Coursera, the content of this course is by Berklee College of Music. The content they ‘give away’ would traditionally only have been available to paying students. Berklee’s business is selling seats in classes. This course isn’t given away as an act of kindness, it’s marketing. Three weeks is short and therefore the content is ‘light’. Lighter than I was expecting (not that I’m entitled). But halfway through, we receive a promotional email about Berklee’s own online education platform where you could create an account to get access to further ‘free’ videos to supplement the Coursera materials. I found these supplementary videos more useful, and they lead to offers to sign-up for extended paid courses with Berklee Online. For Berklee, this whole excercise is a marketing funnel. Quite possibly it’s the most fun and least offensive marketing funnel you can be dropped into, but it exists to do that job.

$ Erin Barra – Course professor and artist

Now, I write this with genuine sympathy, as I’ve walked the floor at countless venues trying to sell enough music and merch to cover the petrol costs of playing a gig. But this is a commercial element of this learning experience, so I will note it. At many points throughout the three weeks, we had opportunities to buy Erin’s music, t-shirts, and audio production stems (these are like a layer file of an original recording) for consumption and or remixing. I know you have to hustle if you’re making music for a living, but the observation here is that the students of this course are also a marketable audience. Perhaps only because they arrive en-mass and end up slightly faceless. I’m sure it would be weird for most teachers to sell t-shirts in a class-room. It wasn’t particularly weird online, where we’re desensitised to being constantly sold things. And I may have only noticed this because I’m interested in how all these things fit together.

$ Ableton

The course was about learning Ableton Live. A commercial audio production tool. So at some point, the cost of Ableton had to be considered. Ableton offers a free 30 day trial, which works for this course and they kindly (or sensibly) agreed to let people taking the course start a new trial even if they’d used their 30 days already. Good manners like those are good for business. Anyway, I already owned Live 9 Intro (aka the cheap version), and for a three week intro course it does more than enough to learn the basics (I guess that’s why it’s called Intro?). But the course taught and encouraged the use of Live 9 Suite (the EUR599 rather than the EUR79 version). Until some people complained, the use of features in Suite was required to complete the final assignment. Reading between the lines, I doubt there was any deliberate commercial discussion around this planning, but the planning definitely didn’t stem from the question: ‘how can we keep the cost down for these beginners?’. At the end of the course there were discount codes to get 15% off purchasing anything from Ableton. I didn’t use Suite during the course, but I’m playing with it now on my own time and terms, and may end up spending money on it soon.

Reflections

It’s wonderful, but it’s not Wikipedia. The course opened a lot of doors, but mostly into places where I could spend money, which I am cautious about as a model for learning. It was valuable to me and prompted me to learn more about Ableton Live than I would have done in those three weeks without it. So I’m grateful for it. But I can’t in my heart think of this as a ‘shared public resource’.

For my own learning, I like deadlines. Preferably arbitrary. The fact that these Coursera courses are only available at certain times during the year, really works for me. But I struggle with the logic of this when I think about how best to provide learning material online to as many people as possible. The only MOOC style courses I have finished have been time-bound. I don’t know how many people this is true for though.

People will learn X to earn Y. For me this course was a form of hobby or entertainment, but much learning has a direct commercial interest for students as well as educators. Whether it’s for professional skills development, or building some perceived CV value.

There is no ‘free’ education, even if it says “free” on the homepage. There is always a cost, financial or otherwise. Sometimes the cost is borne by the educator, and sometimes the student. Both models have a place, but I get uncomfortable when one tries to look like the other. And if the world could only have one of these models for all of education I know which one I’d choose. Marketing fills enough of our daily content and claims enough brainprint as it is.

Conclusion

I thought I might find some conclusions in writing this, but that doesn’t always happen. There are a lot of interesting threads here.

So instead of a conclusion, you can have the song I submitted for my course assignment. It was fun to make. And I have this free-but-not-free course to thank for getting it done.

Remembering maps from memory

Today, I found this awesome post on Uncertain Cartographies (via Flowing Data), and it immediately took me back to something I made when I was in college and studying fine art.

So check out that link first, as this post will make more sense in relation to it, and it’s pretty fascinating anyway.

Then I’ll continue my reminiscence… ūüôā

I used to have a framed print of a map I’d drawn on the wall at home, though when I say “print” it was ~10 bits of A4 photo paper I had carefully cut and glued together. It lasted about 6 years on the wall before the ink faded and the paper peeled and I had to take it down. And I hadn’t thought about this map again until today.

Then after reading this paragraph in particular, I really wanted to find my old map:

“Places where I once lived are deeply etched in my mind. Given a blank sheet of paper, and a little lenience, I can draw a respectable map of Murrays Bay, Mount Eden, Kingsland, Longburn, Summer Hill or Mana from memory. Yet most New Zealand localities are at once familiar and largely unknown to me.”

I went searching for my old map.

Amazingly (to me at least) I managed to find a copy of my original Photoshop artwork file on an old archive CD-R that’s followed me from desk to desk, between many house moves and a couple of countries and that I’ve not had any cause to look at until today.

I’ve posted the map below, but first here’s some context:

This was something I created 10 years ago when I was 18 and I’d been driving for less than a year. I didn’t really use maps for directions, but I drove quite a lot to play gigs with my band, and to visit my girlfriend (now wife) who was studying in Exeter. I knew my way around by which junctions led to where, but I’d never had to ‘map’ these places in a proper geographic context in my mind. This is pre-Google Maps/Earth (hence the AA roadmap styling) and it’s interesting now to think how the ability to browse maps so quickly and fluidly online shapes the way we visualize the abstraction of location in our minds. Even more so when you factor in navigation aids.

To create the map, I sat down with a pen and a large piece of paper and drew the roads leading out around me to all the places I had traveled in recent months. I didn’t allow edits or corrections, and there was no advanced sketching of where places were located. I drew the roads and made the links between places in one go. I did this until I ran out of roads I could meaningfully label. Scanned the whole thing in and traced the lines in Photoshop (no fixes allowed). I recall this “giant” file crashing my computer on a regular basis, though looking at it now, it’s only 50mb.

Anyway, that’s getting a bit nostalgic and I don’t mean it to. What I meant to do was post this map as a response to the thought provoking piece I read today.

A little insight into my earlier years
A little insight into my earlier years

 

 

My First #Mozfest

Mozfest 2013I have an hour free this morning, so wanted to quickly write up my thoughts on Mozfest before my memory fades too much. This will be a rough, but f*** it, ship it as they say at Mozfest.

I bought a Mozfest ticket in July with next to no expectations and just a little hope that meeting some new people might trigger some new ideas. It’s fair to say that this was a massive under-prediction on my part.

A couple of months later, with about a month to go until Mozfest, my boss (@ade) mentioned some sessions that might be interesting for WWF and my work in fundraising. A couple of introductory emails and a Skype call later and I’d put my name down for a yet-to-be-confirmed session called ‘Pass the App’.

We were going to use a new tool called Appmaker to build a donation app in a three hour session. At this point in time Appmaker didn’t do a lot. It was pre the version that would be called pre-alpha. I looked at Appmaker for a few minutes and worried I’d just agreed to waste the first quarter of Mozfest.

I had some time off and a couple of weeks went by. With two weeks to go, I wanted to get setup with Appmaker in a dev environment before the day so I didn’t waste people’s time with silly questions about configuration when we could be building things. Work was a bit crazier than usual and another week went by before I finally sat down to look at some code.

It was quite astounding how much Appmaker had evolved in those few weeks. The team working on this are incredible. From thinking the morning would be wasted, it now looked like a tool with enough components that with a little imagination you could hook up all sorts of awesome apps. My goal was to add some kind of payment to that.

The components in Appmaker are built with HTML, CSS and JavaScript and looking at a few examples I was happy I could build something by copying and adapting the work that’s already been done. But getting a development environment setup to work with these technologies I know pretty well required diving into a number of technologies that were completely new to me.

The deadline and motivation drove me through some of the initial hurdles and learning, and jumping into the IRC room for Appmaker I received great help and support from the team. I was worried about hassling them for their time while they were busy getting ready for Mozfest, but I was welcomed very warmly. It was a really great experience working with new people.

I guess the lesson here is: If you try and make something new, you cannot help but learn something new. And also that deadlines are amazing, as we’ve discussed before.

There were ten tracks at Mozfest, and at any given time I wanted to be in about eight of them. After the Saturday morning Pass the App session I was planning to alternate between the Open Data and Privacy tracks for lots of interesting things, but it didn’t work out that way. I didn’t actually make it to any other sessions. I got hooked into (and hooked on) making things in our scramble to build a working Pass the App demo, which we did. Here’s a link to the write up. I won’t re-tell that story. I got to work with kind and intelligent people making something valuable and learning a tonne. You can’t ask for more than that from any conference-esque event.

My hour of free time is up now, so I’m going to ship this despite the vast amount of things I was grateful for and wanted to talk about.

And I’ll say a quick hi to the people from the pass the app session,

And the many other lovely people I got to meet for the first time.

Drawn: Multi-armed Bandit Experiments

I read this really interesting article on multi-armed bandit experiments the other day, and while I enjoyed the graphs and the stats, I got distracted wondering what a multi-armed bandit experiment would actually look like? So I had a go at drawing one last night.

Multi-armed Bandit Experiments
Getting a little practice with my wacom tablet.

Why removing evolution from science textbooks might not really matter

This needs more thought, but writing this has helped me to join up a few ideas I was stewing over with my coffee yesterday morning while my son was napping. So I’ll publish this as is, and your thoughts are welcome.

Question the Answers
Question the Answers

While it’s useful to teach the fundamentals of physics, chemistry and biology in schools, I think what we need to start with and to prioritize is teaching the scientific method, the importance of curiosity and the need to question the answers. As an aside: Question the Answers is also the name of my favourite Bosstones album.

Rather than teaching the latest and best hypotheses, we should be showing kids how science as a whole works. How a community of disparate researchers come to agreement on an idea, and how people continue to challenge that idea as best as possible even when it looks like we’ve answered the question well. The value of a published scientific paper is more than just the text it contains; it’s the fact that it has been offered up for critique by the rest of the world, and it has passed this initial test, at least for now. Until people understand the differing value of the words in a newspaper opinion column and the words in a scientific publication, we will struggle as a society to make sound decisions.

This doesn’t mean everyone has to be a scientist, but ideally everyone would know enough to understand what “scientific consensus” means, and not to be surprised when every other day their favourite newspaper is giving them the latest contradicting health advice from “scientists”. Rather than complaining that “scientists keep changing their mind”, we would instead hear people praising scientists for never really making up their mind (which is much more difficult to do). And in this ideal world, people would know enough to understand what a double-blind controlled clinical trial is before they spend money on alternative medicine (though they should of course be free to take whatever medication they want).

The information people need¬†today to research important issues is widely available online. But without an understanding and appreciation of the value of the real scientific process, it’s easy to get lost in a world of pseudo-science websites trying to sell you fifty shades of crap. It’s also worth noting that the the pseudo-scientists and propagators of urban myths spin a fine yarn, and the scientific world can definitely learn from their methods.

It’s good to see that people are bridging the communication gap between the world of science and the general public, without compromising the integrity of the information provided. And in this world of multi-directional communication, the communication itself gets a form of peer-review if the publisher is doing things properly. Rigorous science can be served up perfectly well alongside animated GIFs and cats in space, though I’m going a bit off track with my thoughts here.

What I was thinking about over coffee was that the future of scientific journals will surely require an open-access model to replace the currently prohibitive subscription models and, as an aside, that covering the cost of publishing these journals would be an amazingly good use of public funds given the value it would offer to society in relation to the cost. It would be interesting to compare what Wikipedia has done in terms of access to information versus the public funds spent on distributing educational content in recent years; especially on a global level.

Even if the scientific journals that exist today don’t change their business/access model, it only needs one challenging system to make the open-access model work, and in turn to make the existing publishers obsolete. Again, think of Wikipedia, and then Encarta and then Encyclopedia Britannica.

I’d like to think the future of peer-reviewed science will look something like Stack Overflow¬†does today, where consensus on best-practice programming (including chunks of computer science) bubble up from constructive public debate, and it becomes easy for a member of the public with a small amount of knowledge and an understanding of the process to find a tried-and-tested answer to their given question. And if the answer fails for them in practice, to feedback into the process.

stacks_image_733
This is a consensus, not a debate.

When people understand the scientific method, we can stop using silly phrases like “climate change debate”, and the media will struggle to profit from their deliberate distortion of scientific discoveries. When the scientific method is understood, it doesn’t really matter if some people want to remove a topic like evolution from their local school syllabus. All the evidence, debate and research children need to read in order to understand why evolution makes so much sense is available online right now. They just have to be curious, connected and aware of how science (as a whole) works. And while children have always been curious, today they are more connected than ever.

If the Stack Overflow of science emerges, peer-review and the scientific process can move from being an abstract concept (which is all they are to most people) into something laypeople can witness, interact with and review first-hand. It may not even need specific teaching in schools. Today, if you want to learn how to program or build websites, you don’t need to¬†enrol¬†in a class, you can just start doing. And the people who do, very quickly find themselves reviewing the discussions and conclusions on Stack Overflow.

So maybe we don’t need to worry about the specific topics on the science syllabus any more, so long as we teach the principles of science. After all, it’s the job of the next generation to prove our theories wrong anyway.

On the upcyling fallacy

Turning needless waste into needless trinkets is not going to save anyone or anything.

Every distraction is a hindrance when you’re running out of time, and cashing in on someone else’s waste stream while building a business dependent on that waste stream is counterproductive in the extreme.

We must close the loop; not extend the chain.

Anyone for novelty ‘designer’ candle stick holders?

On 3D printing, and a world unready

With the recent release of the Makerbot Replicator 2, 3D printing tipped into the real world. It moved from a conceptual idea that geeks and tinkerers would try and explain to their doubtful loved ones into something you can have delivered to your door in a matter of working days.

It changes everything, and I think the world will be caught off guard.

Even now, the ~$2,000 price tag isn’t crazy. It’s more than I would pay, but plenty can afford it. And this time next year the price will halve, the resolution will double and it will print slightly bigger things. Same again the following year. In four or five years’ time, almost anyone who wants one will be able to justify the cost of a 3D printer to¬†themselves.

I always imagined playing with Lego with my son when he’s older, but it might be we’re printing our own Lego-esque blocks too.

I can only begin to imagine what this will do to a business like Lego. Sure, it costs you more to print a block than it costs Lego to print a block, but when you pay ¬£10 for a box of 25 Lego pieces you’re not paying for material; you’re paying for branding, marketing, packaging, tax, distribution and their profit. Printing your own blocks will¬†definitely¬†be cheaper for the end consumer and anyone could learn to model a number of Lego blocks in a 3D modelling tool like Sketchup in less than 4 hours.

I had a quick think about the kinds of businesses who sell cheap-to-make, but expensive-to-sell plastic products whose profit margin is primarily the relationship between their business running costs and the perceived value of the end product. I’m not saying there is no merit to the price we pay for these products today, but we’re¬†definitely not paying manufacturing cost plus ~20%.

3D printing changes everything for businesses like these:

  • Lego
  • Tupperware
  • Airfix
  • People who sell spare parts for things like old washing machines
  • Games Workshop
  • People like Shapeways who sell 3D printing as a service (they’ll soon start to look like photocopying shops do today)
  • And there will be many more

Broke your ladle while cooking? Don’t worry, you can print a new one before you need to serve dinner.

It will almost always be cheaper to ship a solid reel of plastic in it’s compact form than the same amount of plastic in its final product form full of holes and empty spaces.

 

Gorilla Pod and Similar MakerBot tripod

In a few years time, will you buy a Gorilla Pod and wait the tedious ~18hrs for Amazon Prime next day delivery (how slow and old fashioned!) or will you print one out right then and there?

While business is a start, a lens through which we think about the future, 3D printing has implications everywhere in this world.

There’s already been plenty of coverage about the ability to print your own weapons. While you can take the plans off of public websites, the digital files are so easy to share that you can’t take them out of circulation. Weapons may well become less regulated (and¬†regulate-able) then they are today.

In politics, what good are trade sanctions when you can move goods digitally across borders for production locally? Hyper-locally even. This is now impossible to stop. We have to re-think international trade.

In development, what does this mean for people who live in rural Kenya. Do aid organizations deliver end products they think will be useful, or spools of printing plastic to people in need?

Maybe we’ll print our own artificial limbs?

So what skills do we need to be developing? 

I don’t think we all need to be taking a course in CAD, because¬†it’s so easy to share 3D files. They’re smaller than MP3s and much smaller than videos and we don’t seem to have any trouble moving these around the world. A few thousand skilled contributors will produce the bulk of the designs used by the billions of people around the planet. Look at all things you can already download and print today.

What’s the future for the businesses affected?


If I ran Lego, I’d be thinking about how to phase out manufacturing while retaining brand and thought leadership. Not immediately, but probably within five years, ten at most. I’d focus on selling amazing plans for kits and give up on trying to own the right to the blocks themselves.¬†The overall size of the business would shrink, but it might be possible to maintain the profits. Selling plans digitally would hugely cut costs and by¬†embracing¬†this new world, Lego can be a relevant and meaningful part of it. Most likely though, they’ll¬†unleash¬†a team of lawyers on any website that offers 3D models of anything that looks like Lego. People will print their own blocks anyway, sales will decline and there will be plenty of negative press coverage about the company who tries to sue the 10 year old girl who made her own Lego-like designs for her friends birthday. I don’t say this because I think that’s a Lego like trait, but because it’s the way all large corporations today tend to behave when they come under threat.

In many ways, the future will be more different than we can possibly imagine.

Interwoven with bits

The Internet, as a malleable collection of bits, responds to and evolves with the cumulative needs of the connected human race. It rewards, condemns or ignores elements of itself in line with our primitive human desires; growing in places and dying in others. So we, as human beings with our natural, non-digital desires, shape the Internet.

Simultaneously, the Internet changes how we (cumulatively at least) behave. It creates and destroys jobs, it makes and breaks marriages, and it redefines where, how and with who we live and share our lives. And at the deepest level it rewires the chemical makeup of our brains by changing the way we think, speak and remember. While it divides two generations, it keeps them in touch.

We and the Internet are now dependent on one other; we are interwoven with bits. As we shape it, it shapes us.

Just as we are interwoven with books, advertising, commerce, tools, religion, industry, government, agriculture, transport and much much more.

This is not something to be afraid of, but it’s something worth trying to understand.

On the Son of Moore’s Law

Another reflection on an essay from The Devil’s Chaplain.

The Son of Moore's Law - Graph

If Dawkins’ extrapolation of Moore’s Law and it’s application to the speed at which we can read and process genetic information by 2050 is combined with parallel advances in other fields of technology like drones and self powered vehicles alongside the 3D mapping of forests already offered by technologies like Lidar plus GPS and mobile Internet, and some wonders yet to be invented, it seems very likely to me that by 2050 we should be able to release a swarm of mini bots (something resembling bugs I reckon) into our impenetrable jungles to create a species by species map of every single living tree.

It would be a fascinating data set to analyse, so long as we haven’t cut down all the trees by then.