Microsoft Holodeck 1.0 Almost Here (BYO 360° Treadmill)

Microsoft has patented a projection system that provides an “immersive display experience”. The system would use a traditional LCD or Plasma display in front and supplement this with a 360° projection system to throw images on the walls to the sides and rear. Imagine the learning games and simulations possible when this technology matures. Ars Technica says the patent hints at Kinect-style depth sensing cameras and the ability to actually look behind you to see your enemies”behind” you in the game. I’m imagining a science student “visiting” different biomes such as the tundra, a temperate rainforest, or even a newly-blasted volcanic landscape on another planet. Many possibilities.


Classrealm is an idea for a learning management system (LMS) unlike any I have seen. It’s a struggling idea (failed its kickstart fundraiser), but worth thinking about.  The LMS itself will be nothing new. But layered over the LMS nuts and bolts will be a Tolkienesque fantasy world. Students have a hero persona that advances a la video game style as the student completes assignments. The fantasy component is meant to motivate students to learn the standard state/local curriculum. Gamification, as Classrealm’s creator suggests, is a way to motivate students to complete otherwise unappealing tasks.

My take is that Classrealm is more of a different way of grading than a different way of learning. Instead of a grade point average, you have a hero persona with health a la a video game. Assignments are linked to quests and so on. My first impression is that Classrealm will only function as a crutch to help a curriculum that students do not find interesting. Nevertheless, it may very well find success in reaching students who would otherwise fall behind their classmates.

I see great potential in using games for learning and development in every part of society, but they have to be designed from the ground up. I think that the real sea change in using games to teach will occur when professional game designers with a serious budget (think Sony or Nintendo) are presented with the task of creating games to teach the content.

Sept 30 update: I started a Gamification course created by Keven Werbach at UPenn delivered through Coursera. Apparently, the field is moving more quickly than I thought. I found two up and running gamification services: Bunchball and Chore Wars, but there are more out there. Very similar to ClassRealm, both reward users for tasks completed outside the game. Chorewars is free/cheap and aimed at home users or cubicle workers who are tired of cleaning up others’ break room messes while Bunchball looks like a more serious business venture for more serious subscription rates. Personally, I would like to see some webisodes of a show about heavy users of Chore Wars in the same vein of humor as The Guild or The Office.


Simulated Field Experiences

Getting out of the classroom is almost always a relief for students. Teachers typically enjoy it as well, albeit less so if the students are coming along. I’m kidding! I always loved field trips with students. I do recall that the administrative burden was irritating and legal burden of leaving school grounds with students was worrisome.  Those practical considerations aside, just about any contemporary theory of learning and development will argue that field experiences should happen as often as can possibly be facilitated. I think this is supported by the fact that while I regret a few of my lectures or activities that bored or confounded students, I do not regret a single trip, as they all provided memorable, fun learning experiences.

Simulated field experiences can be either a second-best option or can offer good pre and post trip activities. Gigapan allows users to upload and view very large pictures. The images are so large, they allow a level of zoom that feels to the viewer like “traveling” through the image.  They are typically so detail rich, one image alone could be the topic of a lecture or an assignment. A teacher can throw with a digital projector onto big screen to support a short lecture or class discussion. An instructor could also use an image as a source material for an assignment requiring individuals or small groups to explore the images, both at a wide-angle view and in close detail.

Special cameras are used to capture many of the following images, but you may be surprised by the resolution of some older technologies. Be sure to use the zoom feature and wait for the image to clarify if you have a slower connection.

mLearning: Education on a Wireless Plan

The term mobile learning, or mLearning, refers to the use of mobile devices as part of a structured learning experience. Although learning in the field is not a new idea, using technology to asynchronously link teachers and students outside of the classroom is.  Recent mobile technologies are impacting mLearning in substantial ways.

  • map/navigation software on mobile devices
  • GPS (longitude/latitude/altitude) function of mobile devices
  • QR codes – can link a mobile user to a physical location or a location to a website viewed on mobile
  • Instant wireless upload capability of mobiles to Web 2.o tools
  • Augmented reality – by taking advantage of a mobile devices camera, accelerometer, and GPS, users can view their surroundings through their phone. Similar to the heads-up displays in modern aircraft.
  • podcasting – an instance of “flipping” the classroom
One of the hurdles that schools face is making content relevant to students’ social and professional lives. Many bored or frustrated students ask, “Why am I learning this?” mLearning methods allows teachers to respond to this question by blurring the line between academia and experience. These methods have the potential to mix “book smart” and “street smart”. Ideally, learning and life become one holistic entity. Looking across human history, we see our “traditional” classroom as an aberration, with most learning happening in genuine contexts. mLearning allows teachers to “Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war [or lore!]”.
I have an exhibit in Artomatic 2012 that demonstrates a few simple instances of how QR codes can be used for mLearning. It’s an unusual venue to present a topic in education but a very good location for mLearning experiences.  The QR codes link to materials that support different types of mobile learning experiences. Viewable on the ninth floor, my space is on north side past the double glass doors.  (Spoiler: The answer to question 2 in my exhibit is “The type of rock in the lobby is granite. The lighter color is caused by the predominance of orthoclase feldspar and quartz. The key is finding the rock that is a mix of several minerals as shown in the table, one of which looks like the orthoclase feldspar in the image”.)
Another example of mLearning could be a Facebook group created for a Spanish class. Students would turn the language setting on their Facebook accounts to Spanish and leave it there for the year. Homework assignments could be given through Facebook each week. Students would upload topical photos or videos and caption them in Spanish. Other students could also respond in Spanish. Learning experiences should be  relevant to students’ lives and mLearning is one way to facilitate this.
A third example is this Google Map of Presidential Memorials. High school or college students could use this as a basis for a walking tour. A teacher could provide writing or talking prompts to which students could respond by uploading captioned photos to Picasa or videos to Youtube. Took me about ten minutes to make and will give students a two-hour field experience to be completed at their convenience.

Learning Moodle


I have known about Moodle for a few years, but I have not fully explored its capabilities. To familiarize myself, my plan is to create a simple course using Moodle,  about Moodle. I will update my progress as interesting things happen. I am hoping to complete in less than a week.

So far, I have found a slideshow that uses a Lego blocks as a metaphor to explain the modular nature of Moodle. This model provides both a structure for this mock course as well as content, so I will speak to this model as I make progress. According to this model, any Moodle course will include four elements:

  • information storage
  • communication among classmates
  • evaluation of self and others
  • collaboration on projects and problems

These four provide an easy-to-understand yet powerful model of what should be in a course. If the designer can meet the requirements of all four components, a robust learning environment is probably being created.

3/28 update: The course outline is up. Some of the supporting activites need to be completed, but essentially, I have met my goal of publishing a Moodle course to the Web. This was easier than I thought it would be. If you are familiar with any LMS or CMS, you should be able to navigate the design interface pretty quickly. I would think that any course with a solid set of supporting materials in digital formats could quickly be uploaded to create a good hybrid or e-learning course.

7/31 update: I just completed a contract to create a course in Moodle! My task was to convert a three-hour-long narrated slideshow  into an online DIY course using Moodle.  I decided to break the slideshow up into 7 sections and create a module to go along with each section. Within each section, I created supporting documents, quizzes, and forums. Unfortunately, the structure of the content is all proprietary, so I can’t share it.  I did it all in about 35 hours (with breaks, of course!).

eLearning Tools

The following are commonly used eLearning tools. Development in this area is rapid, so this is far from a complete list. There are a few links to items I have written.

Development – These tools allow you to write, edit, and publish modules that are in commonly used file formats such as .swf (a Flash movie).

  • Articulate, a powerpoint add on, based around slides, with options for quizzes and spacial organization of information (flowcharts, etc)
  • Camtasia, another powerpoint add on, but video rather than slides
  • Captivate, more robust, but essentially more of the same from Adobe
  • Flash, by far the most versatile, but requires a more extensive set of skills to wield effectively.
Content Management System –  Tools to organize collections of content so that users can navigate to what they want.
  • WordPress – easy to use, intended for blogging but one could easily use wordpress to share reading course materials with students
  • Joomla – open source, harder to use in that you run from your own servers, used for many different types of sites
  • Youtube – easy to use, millions of free videos of all kinds, used by everyone on the planet
  • JStor – if you’ve written a research paper, you likely used JStore. Lots of peer-reviewed journal articles.

Learning or Course Management Systems –  These tools facilitate learning goals by organizing content, allowing communication between teacher and students, provide a means for teachers to give and receive assignments.

  • Blackboard – proprietary, typically used by larger organizations with large budgets
  • Moodle – open source with many extensions and add-ons

Technology Standards – These “tools” take care of certain kinds of compatibility issues involved with plugging modules into an LMS.

Web 2.0 – These tools can support social aspects of learning.

  • Facebook
  • Ning
  • Yahoo and Google groups
  • wikis – set of user-editable pages where a group of learners/practioners collectively write and edit to develop a body of knowledge into a mature reference work

TED-Ed: Adding Animation to Great Lessons

I have mentioned TED talks in previous posts. TED-Ed is an initiative to have professional graphics developers animate selected teachers’ best lessons for web distribution. The TED-Ed introduction video is only two minutes long and shows what TED-Ed envisions better than I can write. The video itself is the case in point! Better to show and tell than just tell. Top comment on the video as of my viewing was “I hope this turns out to be something like an animated Khanacademy 😀 [sic]”.

3/19 update: TedTalks available for streaming on Netflix. Still available free on YouTube.

SCORM and the Value of Metadata to eLearning

What is SCORM? Not the bad guy in a sci-fi film, but a standard for sharing digital content. Developed by Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL), the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) was written to simplify inclusion of learning objects in a learning management system (LMS). SCORM is a set of technical specifications that allows SCORM-compliant products to be loaded quickly into an LMS for students to access. Although SCORM was created for the Department of Defense, it is used outside of DOD by many organizations because it is one of the only standards for sharing digital learning content.

SCORM does not currently include metadata tagging for categories like learning activity type, teaching method, differentiation category, or many other pedagogical considerations. So while SCORM is ‘smart’ about IT issues, it is “dumb” when it comes to issues teachers and instructors face when developming courses. For example, I have  often found myself searching the Internet blindly for a well-packaged teaching activity that I know is out there, is better than what I can create in one afternoon, but not sure what search terms to use to find it. Learning Object Metadata (LOM) is a standard that would solve this problem, but it is not used very widely. LOM tags would make it simple to locate an activity that is, for example,

  • in English with Spanish/Vietnamese supplements for English Language Learners
  • falls under relevant state or Common Core Standards
  • is constructionist in theory and student-centered in method
  • about soil erosion and watersheds
  • includes short video with pre and post-quizzes
  • list of materials for hands-on, small group, 20 minute classroom activity
  • relevant to a particular school district’s watershed (e.g. Chesapeake Bay, the Ogallala aquifer, or the Rio Grande)

The state of LOM and metadata is still in limbo. Researchers at MIT report that “The Metadata Unit has found that even with all the forward thinking and cutting edge tech…it is the traditional cataloger’s sensibilities regarding good descriptions and access…that is most valuable in discovering access to the library’s new class of electronic objects”. <sigh> The problem is the same: search terms on the Internet are analogous to the terms chosen by the archivist in any metadata system. Here in the Information Age, awash in information, we struggle to catalogue it all so that we can use actually use and share it efficiently.

Learning with Microworlds

Microworld is the academic term for a simple learning simulation. The simulation will focus on a dynamic but limited environment with only a handful of operating variables with at least one variables under the learner’s control. In my post on using simple games to teach linear algebra, each game I discuss is based around a microworld. Add gaming elements to a microworld, and you have a simple game.

One of my favorite microworlds allows the learner to play with momentum and gravity. Unlike the linear algebra games, this simulation of gravity in a solar system has no mathematical or gaming elements. The learner manipulates velocity and size of objects orbiting around a star to see the effects.

If students took measurements from a planetary gravity simulation such as this, they could derive principles of gravitation and orbital mechanics in a way similar to the way early astronomers did. Research shows that this type of learning, often called discovery learning or recapitulation, is profoundly more effective than instruction received via lecture or traditional textbook. The affordances of digital devices, broadband, and wi-fi make including elements like microworlds in classrooms easy.

Apple’s iBooks2

Apple is getting into the e-textbook business with iBooks2. However, this may not be the death knell for the big players in the industry, as a few of the big names have been working with Apple on this project. Maybe we’ll get a hint of the direction this takes textbook publishing with a new academic year this fall. Perhaps the $14.99 max price tag will save schools a lot of money compared to $100+ for many traditional textbooks?

1/25 Update: Fox didn’t agree about the pricing. iPads aren’t exactly cheap, even if the texts might be.

My hope is that this release will seed the ground for some open source projects that really do push this idea of interactive textbooks forward.

1) Nearly all of what is taught in schools is public domain. Why do schools pay for textbooks? e-textbooks should be free, and the money should go to other needs in schools. One Slate writer agrees.

2) Bill Gates was on Bill Moyers last night, which I didn’t see, but this brief article relates what I think is THE most important, yet unrealized ability of using computers to deliver instruction: individualization. I don’t just mean a fast student taking 4 months instead 8 months to go through the same course as every other student. I mean courses that can react to student’s learning styles and adjust complexity, depth, or review of material according to a student’s grades or learning style. Individualization does not mean a course won’t be rigorous, or that every student shouldn’t have to do well on standardized test. My thought is that a great e-textbook will offer a student several paths to achieve state learning standards, or do well on the SAT or an AP exam. There is no reason a state, say California or Texas, couldn’t take 10 of their great teachers (capture the “paths” they provide in their own classrooms) and give them a year to write, say, a biology e-textbook with the help of a few graphic designers and software developers, and then provide that e-textbook for free to all the students of the state. Teachers can submit updates that go through committee to keep up with advances in research. Seems simple enough to me.

3/8 Update: Some background on e-books pricing methods in this WSJ article on DOJ’s threat to sue five publishers for alleged price fixing.