December 30, 2002

See what I mean?

The current issue of eLearning magazine concludes with a guest editorial by yours truly entitled See What I Mean? Click "More" to see it. Caution: it's 211K.

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Write 4 Komputer?

The Effects of Computers on Traditional Writing

in The Journal of the Electronic Publshing

Writing for the web is different from writing for publication -- you can feel it in your bones. I was really looking forward to exploring those differences with this article but I came away feeling it had only scratched the surface. I'll quote a few passages (the brown text), following up with observations of my own.

Electronic writing is characterized by the use of oral conventions over traditional conventions, of argument over exposition, and of group thinking over individual thinking. The oral conventions are evident in the way people subvert or abandon traditional conventions of grammar and punctuation in electronic writing. Meaning is very often conveyed by cues recognized only by users of computer-mediated communication. Some examples are acronyms like BTW (by the way) and IMO (in my opinion), and specialized use of typography -- for example, *word* to signify italics and the use of nonverbal icons or emoticons like a smiley face :-) -- which differ from traditionally recognized textual cues.

The oral part. Well, yeah. A new medium frees authors of the traditional constraints of tradiitonal print media. But smileys and acronyms and *asterisks* were ways to overcome the limitations of ASCII text. I've written hundreds of thousands of words in my blogs, often pushing the limits of grammatical convention and getting in authority's face, but I've managed to do so without so much as one smiley. In a GUI world, I can have bold without the asterisks, so I don't use many of them either.

Scholars have been fascinated by the uninhibited, sometimes even aggressive approaches in computer-mediated communication... (e.g. flamers, trolls.)

Now flaming is an interesting psychological phenomenon, as are cracking and viruses, but I don't think it has that much to say about writing. Remember John Seabrook's article in New Yorker, My First Flame? He received an email that ripped him a new one in the coarsest street language imaginable. It left him reeling.

More interesting than the nature of the writing are issues of interacting from behind a veil of anonymity, hearing from people under the influence of drugs or personal demons, watching others act out their fantasies, and so on. Cool! Let's watch the freaks.

Finally, computer users often treat electronic writing as an oral medium: communication is often fragmented, computer-mediated communication is used for phatic communion, and formulaic devices have arisen.

This, I think, is a benefit. Writing that says what it means. Thoughts that are not distilled through the school-imposed filters of archaic written forms. Tell it like it is. Cut the crap. Get to the point. It's the Cluetrain Manifesto's message: Be honest. As Martha used to say, "It's a good thing."

Due to its emphasis on connectivity rather than linearity, hypertext discourages the use of coherent narrative (Gibson, 1996a, Gibson, 1996b). Traditional writing delivers a coherent narrative in large chunks of text; large chunks of text defeat the purpose of hypertext. Hypertext allows writers to organize information loosely, rather than in a well-developed thesis. Many Web pages are, in fact, simply loose collections of links thrown together by their creators to reflect, for example, a "few of my favorite things." Those favorite things may be of interest to their creator, but do not always clearly express a common thesis relevant to the reader.

WTFIGO? (Computerish acronym for What's Going On?)

Hypertext gives me the freedom to hop around; it doesn't force me to do so.

"Well-developed" is not always good, particularly if the author is not trying to sell his or her conclusion so much as to arouse curiosity or throw an issue open to debate.

And what, pray tell, is this article, if not a few of the author's favorite things? Its paragraphs may be of interest to the writer, but do not always necessarily express a common thesis relevant to this reader.

Reading traditional texts is a passive and solitary activity; reading electronic texts is an active and engaging process, as the reader makes choices about where to go, and then navigates using links and online forms to get there. Additionally, as Bolter (1991) observes, a reader who follows links is interpreting the author and the medium. Because the reader has a choice of which links to follow (and even whether to follow the links), the reader becomes the author's partner in determining the meaning of the text.

This strikes me as very important. If I can be the author's partner in discovery, I receive greater rewards than simply being an adoring fan. Our intellectual mission in life is to grow, is it not?

I enjoy writing online. While given short shrift in the article in JEP, I enjoy being able to process the words, i.e. to return to the original text to make it better. This also makes me a fearless writer, knowing that when I put on my editor hat, I'll tame down the words that could land me in jail.

I love having control over the appearance of my output. Wow. How can one complain about having more tools with which to do the job?

I should know better than to read academic journals in my leisure time. Their obfuscation and unwillingness to make a commitment drive me up the wall. This early paragraph should have tipped me off that I was going to be disappointed. The computer, developed in the mid-twentieth century, is undeniably a product of a literate and technological society. Prominent scholars like Bolter (1996), Heim (1987), and Ong (1982) consider computers to be late developments of the print age. Yet to consider computers merely an extension of the printed page is to ignore their unique nature (Ferris & Montgomery, 1996; Langston, 1986).



Phatic = of, relating to, or being speech used for social or emotive purposes rather than for communicating information. (I had to look it up.)


ROTFL = Rolling on the floor laughing.

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If you're planning on being in Manchester (UK) in mid-March, please drop by to hear the opening address.

Do you think I look sufficiently professorial to play in the UK?) I know my friends are chuckling.

By the way, if you have any nominations for "Five ways to win big with e-Learning and five ways to lose your shift," please click Make a comment and share them with me.

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eLearning Developers' Journal

Here are two great reasons to join the eLearning Guild, which comes with a subscription to eLearning Developers' Journal:

1. It's free.

2. The articles are great. (List follows. Click "MORE".)

Establishing and Fostering Collaborative Online Communities in the Workplace
By Katherine J. Werner
As organizations grow into global entities, the need to develop communities of practice (CoP) is also growing exponentially. There are many key factors to ensuring that your CoP is successful and you'll find a great summary of them in this article... You need to have a sound strategy, and good technology to support that strategy. Learn how Tellabs tackled this challenge within their decentralized Product Services Training group using Groove.

Steps to Creating a Content Strategy for your Organization
By Ellen D. Wagner, Ph.D
Content always plays a critical role in supporting the learning function in organizations. It has now evolved to become a key resource fueling organizational innovation. To leverage intellectual property in support of this role across the enterprise, the first step is to develop a content strategy. In this article, allow the experts to show you how to take your learning to the next level...

An Accessible e-Learning System: From Concept to Prototype
By Martie Buzzard
The Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitative Services' need to develop a fully accessible e-Learning course that conformed to Section 508 requirements was the motivation behind an exhaustive search for tools and design strategies to support the challenge. Finding little to support their efforts, they adapted tools and developed their own guidelines and templates. If you're not currently designing fully accessible e-Learning, you soon will be. This article is packed with strategies, checklists, and references you can use today!

Achieving Maximum Return on Instruction (ROi) with e-Learning
By Conrad Gottfredson, Ph.D.
Optimizing return on e-Learning requires an implementation strategy that helps learners get all they can -- and need -- from the courseware. Involving more than just instructionally sound e-Learning, the implementation should be a blended learning system that includes both on-line and off-line components. From the learners' guide through on-the-job coaching to management participation, only a comprehensive plan will maximize results.

Developing e-Learning In-house: A Nonprofit Case Study
By Kathy Napierala and Lynn M. Tveskov
United Way's foray into e-Learning was confronted by a number of challenges: a small budget, a small team, and resistant learners. Learn how this non-profit consensus-driven organization overcame these challenges to create not only a successful e-Learning program, but also a highly functional template that could be applied to all future e-Learning development efforts.

Outsourcing Your Blended Learning
By Heidi Fisk
Outsourcing should not mean that you're going to lose control of your department, minimize your staff's involvement in training, or lessen the reputation of the training department -- in fact, it should have the opposite results. In this issue, you'll get the nuts and bolts of outsourcing your blended learning solutions.

Hey, I Don't Cost You Money! I Make You Money!
By William Horton
Radical thought: e-Learning doesn't cost organizations money, it makes money. In this humorous (but practical) article, you will discover how to sell e-Learning, as well as how to use e-Learning to get to market quicker, promote products and services, and sell conventional training. Download this issue...

Teach in Your Pajamas: Becoming a Synchronous e-Trainer
By Karen Hyder
Distance learning always appealed to me, but I doubted the technology could ever make the experience equal to the classroom. I feared the interface would seem sterile and cold and that students wouldn't participate. What I found out, with simple adjustments to my communications, was much different. Here are my "lessons learned".

Developing Best Pr actices for Knowledge Work: ISD plus KM, Supported by Software
By Cindy McCabe and Chet Leighton
The traditional process-driven approach to developing best practices has been a top-down model, which assumes that there is one "right" way to perform. We believe that developing best practices for knowledge workers requires a different approach -- one that takes into account both the task and the performer. Here is a best practice model that blends ISD and Knowledge Management by using performance support software.

How to Determine the Real Cost of e-Learning Programs
By Kevin Moore & Greg Harmeyer
Since the advent of training, all those involved in profitability or Return on Investment (ROI) have struggled with how to accurately cost learning programs. e-Learning is no different! Paying attention to the variables will increase the probability that you won't go over your budget... of if you do, that you'll certainly know where it happened!

Talk the Talk: Sound like a Project Manager
By John Hartnett
With the explosion of e-Learning, many instructor-led and traditional training managers suddenly find themselves in an unenviable role of being software project managers. Newly-minted Project Managers can never show weakness in front of their bosses or their vendors. If you've ever wondered about "taking discussions offline," "QA'ing and alpha," or budgeting for a "golden final release" of your e-Learning project, read-on.

How to Build Composite Learning Progressions Using Approximations
By Bill Brandon
With all the new media and delivery choices available today, static courses are no longer the default for learning. This article will help you learn how to approach the creation of the new composite learning environments. Here's a step-by-step process for quickly and easily describing job tasks, choosing instructional methods, and choosing delivery formats to create successful planned learning progressions using approximations.

Bring Top Classroom Features Online -- No more Boredom!
By William Horton & Kit Horton
Traditional classroom training has a number of unique benefits that have been difficult to replicate online. The good news is that technologies are changing rapidly and now, with a little effort and imagination, you can bring top classroom features online! Here's a practical look at how you can integrate lectures, examples, stories, demonstrations, and animations in your e-Learning with low-cost solutions starting right now!

Improving Online Sales Education: Learning Styles and Streaming Media
By Ronald B. Marks
There are several reasons for the interest in in applying e-Learning to sales education. However, e-Learning has not yet fulfilled its promise, primarily because much of what has been produced to date is overly text-oriented and does not accommodate diverse student learning styles. Increasing media richness, especially through the use of streaming media, can address both of these problems.

The Power of Simulation-based e-Learning (SIMBEL)
By Randal Kindley, Ph.D.
Creators and managers of e-Learning are under pressure to obtain the highest leverage possible in every learning experience. Simulation-based e-Learning (SIMBEL) offers the optimum experience in may cases, especially when blended with instructor-led activity. Simulation makes it possible to maintain learner enthusiasm and to support real performance change. This article presents a delivery method that can surprise and delight learners and managers alike.

Instructional Design Certification: Are We Ready Yet?
By Suzy Cox
Instructional Designers lack formal processes for gaining acceptance as professionals in the field. This makes it extremely difficult for employers to know who to hire and what to expect of an "instructional designer". Does the field of Instructional Technology at large, and e-Learning in particular, need to implement certification procedures? Here's one very interesting perspective on this thorny issue.

The New Frontier of Learning Object Design
By Ellen D. Wagner, Ph.D.
Learning objects appear to have significant potential for creating highly personalized learning programs, easily updated courses, and performance support tools. However, as e-Learning has become heavily dependent on technologists, producers, and funders, learning designers have lost their voice and often seem to drop out of the conversation. Learning designers must think about better ways to conceptualize and create resources and programs. Here are some promising leads...

Peer-to-Peer Computing, Improve Your Interface, and more...
By Bill Brandon
This weeks issue of the Journal highlights commentary from Bill Brandon, the Journal's technical editor. You'll find four brief and interesting articles on peer-to-peer computing, instructional design-speak (just what is SOAP anyway?), improving your interface, and curriculum planning and knowledge half-life.

What is Personalized Learning?
By Margaret Martinez, PhD.
The Learning Orientation Model is an adult learning view of the key sources of individual learning differences. The model portrays how three construct factors interact, and it suggests specific strategies for accommodating learning needs for online audiences. The model provides a missing link in the instructional design perspective -- an understanding of the impact of emotions and intentions on how individuals want or intend to learn differently.

Stolen Moments for Learning
By David Metcalf
Wireless e-Learning is growing in importance as part of a blended learning solution. More important than the technology is how you develop content and structure the learner's experience. The "instant learning" involvement with wireless is more like performance support than training. It can not be delivered using the same techniques as other web-delivered learning content.

Six Principles of Effective e-Learning: What Works and Why
By Ruth Clark, Ph.D.
To readily identify effective e-Learning, we need fewer end-user and expert opinions and more data. Decisions about e-Learning courseware must begin with an understanding of how the mind works during learning and of what research tells us about the factors that lead to learning. Here are six principles that have emerged from controlled experiments in how to best use multimedia to optimize learning.

Beyond Interactivity: Immersive Web-based Learning Experiences
By J. Alan Whiteside, Ph.D.
Instructional designers can take many cues from successful immersive experiences found on the Web. While only some training solutions call for the use of the most immersive technology, the principles used in these contexts apply to most e-Learning. This article defines an instructional approach that will engage more than just a small amount of learner attention and lead to more significant and substantial learning.

First Project: An e-Learning Odyssey
By Jean Marrapodi and Tracy Byrnes
At Private Healthcare Systems (PHCS) Corporate Learning Services we decided to begin the journey into e-Learning. We pulled together a team of technically experienced people - then our troubles started. None of us had ever implemented a web-based e-Learning project from conception to completion. Nor had we ever worked with an authoring tool, a learning management system, graphic or animation software. Here is what we learned...

Rapid Task Analysis - The Key to Developing Competency-based e-Learning
By Conrad Gottfredson, Ph.D.
Rapid Task Analysis (RTA) is a systematic process for identifying job competencies, up front, in the design phase of e-Learning development. Done right, RTA can deliver an instructionally sound, competency-based plan for producing all the learning modules for a course. Ignored, and you stand a high probability of producing e-Learning courseware that won't deliver much strategic or instructional value. Here is a step-by-step explanation of how to make RTA work.

Simulations: Creating Engaging e-Learning Worlds
By Eric Parks, Ph.D.
There is a simulation designer waiting to emerge in each of you. In designing e-Learning, we create worlds in which learners live for a few minutes, an hour, or even a day. We must ask ourselves -- would I want to live in that world? Is it interesting, engaging, challenging? Here's a set of simulation design guidelines you can put right to work.

Reach Warp Speed with CourseBuilder's Interactions
By Ann-Marie Grissino
It's the end of the month and your online course prototype deadline is looming ahead. You've written the course content as tightly as possible, supported concepts fabulously with animated graphics, and chunked just the right amount of information for each e-Learning page. But, you know that you must engage the learner more by inserting something that requires the learner to act. Your instinct tells you that interactivity is the way to go. But, how?

Putting the Learner Front and Center
By John Kruper
e-Learning products, in spite of careful research and design, frequently fail to provide a satisfactory user experience, and drop-out rates between 30% and 75% prove it. e-Learning is treated as a disposable commodity, and e-Learning providers are constantly challenged to prove their worth. User centered design gives us a chance to "get it right" from the start.

Developing e-Learning Simulations With Tools You Already Know
By Mike Smialek
Simulations can be very expensive to build due to the time it takes using traditional e-Learning tools (not to mention the learning curve required). This article will introduce you to capabilities of a tool that you probably already use -- Excel -- that is also an excellent simulation development tool. Here's a step-by-step process for quickly and easily creating rich simulations for a fraction of the cost you'd expect.

Putting It to the Test: Quality Control for e-Learning Courses
By Barb Lesniak
In the e-Learning development cycle, the alpha and beta tests are essential to ensure the quality and usefulness of your course. Unfortunately, these two steps are often done incorrectly or skipped entirely. Reviewing the specific objectives and guidelines for the pool of testers, and making sure they are followed, guarantees that your program is truly complete and is a characteristic of a professional developer.

It's All G(r)eek to Me: Terms You Should Know
By Bill Brandon
Our understanding of interactivity and its role in e-Learning is evolving. This issue looks as some research around interactivity, and also at some developments in learning theory. Another buzzword often thrown around in e-Learning is "XML" or Extensible Markup Language. But do you really understand what XML is and how it can be applied to e-Learning? In this issue we review XML and its relationship to the structure and portability of e-Learning applications.

Designing e-Learning for the Global Audience
By Bjorn Austraat
Translating e-Learning courseware into other languages is only a small piece of the answer to taking that courseware to international learners. Throughout the planning and design stage, internationalization has to be an organic part of every decision. There are dozens of challenges in the typical project. Here's a checklist to get you started.

Authoring Simultaneous e-Learning and Print Courses
By Larry Ford
Combining web-based training and paper-based manuals can be a cost-effective and timely way to provide training to a busy and diverse workforce. This article and its supporting online documents show how one small company provided e-Learning by using an inexpensive and quick method for delivering multiple-media training.

Details on these downloads: This issue includes a dozen detailed screen-shots to illustrate the author's points. Thus, the Hi Resolution file is large -- so we also provided a Lo Resolution file. To ensure that you can review the screen-shots clearly, we have added a special Zip file that includes all of them so you can choose to download and print them out as well. Finally, the Zip file of Sample Course Templates further illustrate and reinforce the author's points and provide you with templates you can actually us.

Storyboards: Ready? Set? No!
By Chris Frederick Willis
The best opportunity to ensure on-time e-Learning development within budget and scope comes after the storyboards have been approved but before actual interactive development begins. Here are four steps that will get your team off to a good start.

Macromedia Flash MX and XML: More Than Just Movies
By Gregg Wygonik
This issues looks at how we can use XML and Flash MX to represent the user interface and the sequence of content, not the content itself. The project demonstrates how to build a small "shell" application in Flash MX that will be able to work for many projects without the need to recompile anything.

Here's Looking At You: Image Compression and Optimization Techniques
By Jacqueline D. Beck M.ED. and Bill Brandon
Images included in e-Learning applications have a profound effect of the learners experience. Fundamental decisions about image compression and optimization, made by the developer, will determine these outcomes. Yet these can be confusing choices to make, and painstaking to execute. Here are the basics and a step-by-step guide to the process.

Synchronized Course Maps on the Fly
By Ann-Marie Grissino and Jim Allman
We wanted a course map object for a six-course curriculum. It had to be one that project writers could use to add and test course information with a minimum of effort and training. We found that client-side JavaScript offered the perfect solution.

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December 28, 2002

Syndication & RSS

This is the first of several entries on the topic of "The medium is not the message."

If you look down at the bottom of the left column of this page, you'll notice a little orange button labeled "XML." You'll be seeing a lot more of these this year. They tell you the Internet Time Blog is syndicated. Let me explain.

Push the orange button and you'll see some gobbeldygook, e.g.,

    <?xml version="1.0" encoding="iso-8859-1" ?> - <rdf:RDF xmlns:rdf="" xmlns:dc="" xmlns:sy="" xmlns:admin="" xmlns=""> <channel rdf:about=""> <title>Internet Time Blog</title> <link></link> <description /> <dc:language>en-us</dc:language> <dc:creator /> <dc:date>2002-12-27T12:34:23-08:00</dc:date> <admin:generatorAgent rdf:resource="" /> - <items> - <rdf:Seq> <rdf:li rdf:resource="> <rdf:li rdf:resource="> <rdf:li rdf:resource="> <rdf:li rdf:resource=">

That's a description of the contents of this page in XML. Suffice it to say that XML enables computers to talk with one another.

What's the point? Anyone on the web can set up a simple, free piece of software to automatically gather up XML feeds from a variety of sites. This is quite a time-saver.

One evening before Christmas -- starting from scratch, mind you -- I downloaded the reader software (called an "aggregator") and asked it to keep track of eLearningPost, eLearnSpace, OLDaily, Learning Circuits blog, JOHO, and a few others. From now on, I can scan one page of the latest headlines (and mini-descriptions) at the push of a button.

Bloggers and news sites crave readers. Syndication spreads the word. And it is easy to provide -- syndication is built in to most blogging software.

Readers get the equivalent of a personal newsstand, tailored to one's current interests. (It's easy to add and delete subscriptions.) When an item catches my eye, I click its link to pull up its source. (Here's the downside of this -- I just got carried away chasing down interesting stuff for 30 minutes. For those of us who are insatiably curious, reading syndicated news is playing with fire.)

Like a good newsstand, my syndication page lets me look over the covers. It's pushed at me but from the titles I chose. Unlike email lists, I drop by this newsstand on my own schedule. It's pull/push/pull.

Syndication will become part and parcel of knowledge management. It's bottom-up. It saves time. It's practical. The technology is nearly free. It spreads knowledge.

Syndication is yet another tool for building learning organizations.

How to set up your own headline reader
Surf to Amphetadesk. Follow the download instructions (i.e., download the file & unzip it). Click on the pill icon. Add or delete from the list of sites. Start reading.

For a technical slant on all this, see Mark Pilgrim's recent article What is RSS?

Coming in April 2002 from O'Reilly

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December 27, 2002

Macromedia Contribute

"Web Publishing for Everyone"

"Now anyone can update a website without knowing HTML," says Macromedia, in introducing the latest addition to its Studio FX Suite (Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Flash, etc), Contribute.

The spread of the web has created a division of labor into two types of web-workers:

    1. web professionals
    2. content contributors

Contribute caters to both groups. It enables content people to update websites without messing around with website structure and code. Built-in version control and a check-out system keep things in sync and reduce the risk of one author's work overwriting another's. The Web pros get to control who does what -- and protect the integrity of their sites.

The content provider browses to the page she wants to change and clicks "Edit." Then she may enter new text, insert an image, or drag in a Word document. The system administrator may grant more extensive permissions, e.g. to add new pages.

Live Test
I set myself up as a user and surfed over to Clicked "Edit." Changed "presenter" to "speaker." Changed a few other words. Changed alignment of an image from Default to Right. Changed margins of several tables. Applied yellow highlights. Clicked "Publish." All the changes took. Easy as shooting ducks in a bathtub.

I've used Dreamweaver to put together webpages and manage websites for several years. It is, well, a dream to use. Contribute's interface is similar to Dreamweaver's minus 90% of the buttons. Less is more. (I wish Microsoft would do the same for Word.)

First Impression
I predict that Contribute is going to be a big success. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, and Contribute makes creating webpages no more difficult than word processing.

Macromedia is emphasizing delegating content creation to the subject-matter experts. Contribute contains everything the content creater needs and sells for only $99, a quarter of the cost of Dreamweaver. This price will drop as competitors mimic Macromedia's strategy.

In time, the benefit of speeding the flow of timely information by making just-in-time changes will kick in. In the old pre-intranet days, organizational policies changed at the rate it took to move paper physically from one place to another. Paper-intensive organizations such as banks were inevitably working from out-of-date manuals. The advent of networks made it possible beat the paper chase by updating one online document to share with all. The time-delay was formatting the document for the web.

Products like Contribute put web publishing in the hands of decision-makers and cut the time from decision to dissemination to zero. (This is a orime reason I've been touting blogs as knowledge management tools.)

Free-market economist Milton Friedman has said that in addition to "the invisible hand" helping steer things in the right direction, we must watch out for "the invisible foot." Rumors are flying that Microsoft will purchase Macromedia. Lordy, I hope not.

Contribute is providing an unexpected benefit for me. I've started using it to edit my own sites directly. It's a breeze. Let hassle than the way I used to do things, first editing in Dreamweaver and then FTP'ing completed items to my sites. (Yes, I know I could have done the FTP from Dreamweaver but I like to see the changes I'm making.)

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December 24, 2002

Design fundamentals

Great synopsis of formal visual design on Kuro5hin.

The elements of design are considered to be the atomic components of any visual work. They are formatted according to the principles of design, resulting in sound composition and good form.



The elements of design are considered to be the atomic components of any visual work. They are formatted according to the principles of design, resulting in sound composition and good form.


This is the most basic of elements, manifested in the material world with just slightly more gusto than a mathematical point (which is visually quite dull). In terms of actual media a point is a single mark from a pencil, a blob of paint, a pixel. In technical terms a point can be implied by diminishing perspective. In conceptual terms a point may refer to a specifically emphasised area or region of focus for the eye of the viewer.


Lines can be literal, like the outline around a cartoon drawing, or incidentally formed by an edge, a shadow or an intersection of two objects. A line might be implied by a series of shapes arranged loosely along a linear or curved path. In a good composition lines often serve to connect the areas of emphasis in the image, giving the eye a pathway from one focal point to another.


Shapes are distinct, contiguous areas of visual information. Shapes can be defined in terms of positive space (draw a triangle) or negative space (an anti-triangle shape is rendered in the white space surrounding the triangle when I draw a triangle). Emphasizing incidental shapes in an image helps to raise the level of abstraction, drawing the viewer's attention away from the literal forms depicted and focusing instead on their more geometric and aesthetic qualities.

The structure of common shapes lends them cross-cultural connotations drawn from the way similar shapes behave in the real world. For example, an inverted pyramid contains a far greater degree of built-in visual tension than a non-inverted one, because in the real world the former is as precarious as the latter is stable. Similarly, shapes that converge toward the top appear to be ascending and shapes that converge toward the bottom appear to be descending, because of the way these shapes mimic the effects of optical perspective distortion in the real world.


In most visual media, with the clear exception of sculpture and midget-throwing, mass is implied rather than actual. Illusions of depth, volume and weight are created by manipulating the apparent mass of an image. In general, darkness lends more mass than lightness; areas of visual tension weigh more than relaxed regions.


The relationship between visually complex regions and visually stark regions has a profound impact on the composition's sense of weight and balance. On the surface space is simply the opposite of mass, but the relationship is in fact more subtle: beyond the literal spatial relationships of the visual components arranged in the image plane there is also implied space or imaginary volumes created through illusion. This space, while virtual, can be as impactful as actual space in the mind of the viewer.


This element is often needlessly broken down into sub-components such as time, motion and transition. The common spirit is one or more attributes of an element differing across time. The change can be actual, as in the case of motion graphics and animation, or the change can be virtual, implied by something as simple as "motion lines" in comic book illustrations. The principles of tempo and rhythm guide the application of change.

One of the best examples of using subtle (but actual) change to create a hypnotic effect is the renowned painting La Joconde (also known as "The Mona Lisa") by Leonardo DaVinci. Leonardo pioneered a new oil painting technique in that work by using dozens of layers of semi-transparent applications of glaze and paint to build up the image: the effect is one of exceedingly subtle depth, leading to the eerie feeling that there is a woman trapped inside of the picture plane with eyes that follow the viewer around the room when they move. The change in the painting is almost undetectable, but it is unanticipated and can be very disquieting. (Naturally, the effect cannot be captured by conventional photography, thus leading millions of people over the years to wonder just what the hell is so special about that lady's smile.)

My personal favourite work that embodies the notion of represented (as opposed to actual) change is Marcel Duchamp's Nu descendu une escalier, a painting which depicts several seconds of quick motion as a rhythmic smear.


Value is a measure of the brightness of an image. Value can be used in a very formal, abstract way (darkness is heavier than lightness, so value can be manipulated to balance a composition), as a narrative device (to connote ethereal versus earthy characteristics), or simply as a tool for emphasis (look here).


Colour is one of the most accessible elements of design, in that it is the element most often claimed by fluff-brained amateurs to be well within the range of their intuitive expertise. This is true in some rare circumstances; it is more usual for colour to be badly managed by the well-meaning boob.

The basis of any colour system are its Primary Colours. The exact hues vary depending on the medium: televisions (RGB), oil paints (RYB) and advertising posters (CMY) each use different primary colours. Common to all is the fact that primary colours cannot be created through mixing in a given system, and are equidistant when represented on a colour wheel (where chroma is represented as a value in degrees between 1 and 360, expressing the entire spectrum available (or gamut) within a given system).

Colours diametrically opposite one another on a colour wheel are known as Complementary Colours (contrary to popular belief this term does not mean "colours that look good together"). In many familiar colour-spaces red is the complement of green: this means, among other things, that red looks redder when surrounded by green, red can be shaded by mixing with green, and that staring at red and then looking at a neutral field will cause the optical illusion of seeing green. Complementary colours can be used to accent one another (via juxtaposition) or to subdue one another (via intermixing).

Analogous Colours are three hues that are adjacent to one another on a colour wheel such as blue, blue-green and green. A good colour scheme often consists of two sets of analogous hues, and one set of opposing complementary analogous hues based on the average hue of the two sets on the other side of the wheel.

For terminology fans:

A "tint" is a given hue with added white.

A "tone" is a given hue with added black.

A "shade" is a given hue with added complement.

Colours have psychological connotations, in great part influenced by their real world expressions. Green, for instance, is perceived as lush and vibrant due to an association with flora, and blue is perceived as open and serene due to an association with clear skies. Red is the most primal colour, linked with deep reactions in the limbic system in the brain; cultures with only one word for distinguishing hues from black or white invariably identify red, cultures with two words identify red and green, cultures with three words identify red, green and yellow, and so forth in a predictable pattern of cumulative complexity. Cultures that can identify violet and indigo are considered to be sophisticated in terms of colour differentiation; cultures that can identify taupe are just pretentious.


As we acknowledge that a point is not a point of mathematical precision or that a line is really a smear of graphite of finite width on paper, we must also take into account the effect the medium we are using has on the image we are creating with it. The media can be relevant through actual visual traits (quality of the paper/videowall/filmstock from which the work is viewed), illusory traits (impressions of glossiness or coarseness created through artifice), contextual traits (a farm scene painted on a wooden panel gives a different impression than a farm scene rendered out of neon tubes), and tactile traits (the actual feel of the materials used in sculpture, art installations and industrial design).


Despite the fact that typefaces are compound visual objects they play such a significant role in visual design that they are considered to be an element unto themselves. The mastery of typography is a refined and subtle art covering an array of skills whose depth and dullness is beyond the scope of this article.


Frequently and mistakenly mixed-up with ratio, a principle of design, scale is one of the most basic building blocks for framing how a work will be perceived by the viewer. For instance, a finger-sized figurine of the Hamburglar has a distinctly different feeling than one thirty storeys tall. Similarly, viewing an encyclopaedia thumbnail of Michelangelo's David makes a different impression than standing at the foot of the superhuman-sized original.


The principles of design represent the most general classes of tools available for determining the ideal arrangement of the elements of design for any given visual work.


The concept of balance is fundamental to well-formed design. Most of the following principles are forces which are used in opposition with one another to make artful use of visual tension; when these loci of tension are aligned with one another in such a way as to serve the overall form of the design, the image is considered to be balanced (or to "have good composition").

The twin underlying principles of good composition are balance and direction (discussed below). In the most basic sense, balance ensures that the design is perceived by the viewer as stable (factoring in effects such as the imaginary sense of gravity imposed by the human psyche) and direction ensures that the design is perceived as interesting (the eye finds things to see in the places where it is pushed to look).

Overall compositional balance can be achieved most directly with simple symmetry, but this is seldom desirable because perfectly centred compositions tend to be boring (due to an imposed excess of unity, discussed below). Dynamic but balanced compositions can be created by arranging elements in mis-matched opposition. For example, a large shape on the left can be balanced by a small shape on the right, if the smaller shape is darker (or otherwise visually "heavier" due to added visual tension, complexity or mass illusions created through shading).


The course a viewer's eye will take through a composition is shaped by actual or implied lines, and actual or implied geometric shapes. Manipulating this course well is the mark of a master designer.

The viewer's eye should be considered to be like water. Once it has entered the picture plane it will seek the course of least resistance, left to its own devices content to slosh around randomly and be tugged upon by imaginary gravity and the conventional reading direction of the viewer's society.

By using line, direction and emphasis the artist can provide strong pathways for the viewer's eye to adhere to, sweeping through the prime areas of focus and steering safety away from falling out of the edge of the picture plane. When this manipulation is perfected the viewer will feel that they "cannot look away" from the image.

In general, images dominated by rectilinearity (strong verticals, horizontals) have a more static or stately quality compared with images dominated by diagonality (slanty lines, triangles) or orbicularity (sweeping curves, spirals) which tend to impart a feeling of sweeping motion and dynamism.


This principle refers to the proportions of elements within a given composition (distinct from overall scale, which is the size of the work itself). The relative sizes of things can be adjusted for the purposes of creating a perspective illusion, exaggerating comparative apparent attributes, as a message or metaphor, or simply to achieve a balanced layout in terms of the distribution mass and space.

Ratios can also be considered on a purely aesthetic basis. The Ancient Greeks had a number of homoerotic cults dedicated to mathematical masturbation among whose principle fetishes were various quests for divine ratios. Their most famous product was the Golden Section (also known as Phi) which can be found so: divide a line (AC) at a particular point that will yield unequal sections in which the smaller one (AB) is to the larger one (BC) as the larger one (BC) is to the entire length (AC), or AB:BC = BC:AC. The ratio can also be expressed as 1:1.618. Common in nature (in the Fibonacci spiral of a snail's shell, for instance) and universally pleasing to the eye, this ratio is at the heart of many world-famous sculptures, paintings and buildings.

Another source of inspiration for those clever, lusty Greeks was the human body itself. The proportions of pillars, porticos, platforms and all sorts of other forms in architecture directly reference the human proportions of hand to forearm, head to body, leg to foot. Human beings are designed to find human proportions pleasing -- curves and spatial relationships semblative of human biological design often score high points with the viewer's subconscious.


Also known as proximity, juxtaposition is the act of placing one thing next to another for the purposes of harmony or contrast in visual form or in meaning. Very different images can be placed side by side in order to force the viewer to confront both simultaneously, or very similar images can be juxtaposed in order to blend with one another seamlessly. Juxtaposition is one of the most powerful tools for creating tension, by pinching spaces between some objects and bloating the space between others, alternately constricting or expanding the passage the eye is inclined to follow through the work.


Repetition is the process of creating identical instances of an element or assemblage of elements. (Repetition is the process of creating identical instances of an element or assemblage of elements.)


Variation is the process of creating non-identical instances of an element or assemblage of elements by adjusting one or more attributes, such as hue, value or direction. (Variation is the act of reproducing a given element as a nearby permutation of the original.)


Patterns are regular assemblages of repeated and/or varied elements. There are ten generally recognised classes of pattern: orbicular (anything derived from playing with pi, like circles, spheres, radia), mosaic (many images combine to form a meta-image), lattice (periodic configuration of interlocking elements), polyhedral (repeated shapes), spiro-helix (including volutes), meander (organic wandering river-like lines), bifurcation-circulation (branching, some Arabesques), modulation/phasing (waves), reflection (symmetries) and fractal (reiterations of a single element, self-same on all scales).

Pattern is a powerful tool and should be used carefully. Different patterns can stimulate sensations of motion, directional forces, scintillation, roiling and crawling in human vision. Patterns figure heavily in tribal art, dream imagery and narco-hallucinatory experiences. Scotsmen and DeadHeads alike agree: patterns are trippy.

An article in the December 2002 issue of Scientific American describes computer analyses of several famous "action painting" works by Jackson Pollock, revealing that Pollock built up fractal patterns through a methodical layering process. Human test subjects reacted strongly to a specific range of fractal complexity in which Pollock's works lie, which may dispel the mystery of why the "action paintings" created by your kindergartener don't hold the same appeal to the world at large as their multi-million dollar counterparts hanging in museums: not enough fractal structure.


As in music, rhythm is the use of similar motifs or stresses in a specific sequence, pattern or grouping of more than one element. Rhythm can be used with narrative time (as in animation) or in subjective time (as the viewer's eye takes a path through the work). Likewise, tempo can be literal (a time-lapse movie) or not (a frenetically busy illustration of a street scene). Rhythm and tempo figure heavily in the graceful use of type.


Emphasis, also called focus in some schema, is the act of causing some regions of an image to seem more important than others. Creating a balanced series of emphases is critical to creating a good overall composition: too many emphases is chaotic, too few is boring. When the eye is not directed where to look, it tends to just look away.


To contrast is to set elements in definite opposition, in order to highlight differing attributes or juxtapose similar qualities. Irony, satire and morally didactic messages can be communicated through the effective use of subtle contrasts of subject-matter. Manipulating the colour or value contrast in photography can dramatically change the feel of the light in an image. High-contrast images tend to have more apparent abstract qualities, highlighting graphic shapes over actual forms.


Too much variation and/or too much contrast between elements can ruin an image's sense of harmony. In a harmonious composition, even the elements that stand in opposition share enough common attributes with their surroundings to seem a part of the whole. Harmony in design is about finding a kind of visual rhyme-scheme, expressed through any single attribute or sets of attributes; for example, faint touches of colour in common can connect two otherwise unrelated quadrants of an image.


Often mistakenly confused with harmony, unity is a stronger quality in which all elements of a composition are directly linked by one or more attributes. Images where unity is required but absent seem weak and insipid; images where unity is present but unnecessary seem static and cramped, locked into place. Flags, seals, and logos feature extreme unity. In some media more than others a certain amount of unity is imposed by the medium itself: in black and white photography, for instance, all aspects of a given image are united in terms of hue by default.


Yes Virginia, there is such a thing as art for art's sake, but it is rare. Everything else has a more definite function, and this is a principle which far too many visual designers trample upon or ignore. In many wise lectures on the principles of design the concept of function is not even touched upon, thus arming a generation of university-trained designers with nothing more than a furrowed brow and a grunt of confusion when confronted with the realities of having to compromise a design for the sake of delineating intelligent information flow on websites or assuring readability in broadcast design packages.

The bottom line is that in the real world things have to work: design must serve function. No matter how beautiful a design may be, if it interferes with functionality it is unadulterated guano.<

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December 23, 2002


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December 22, 2002

Personalized or snoopy?

High-tech billboards tune in to drivers' tastes
Roadside signs coming to Bay Area listen to car radios, then adjust pitch

Robert Salladay, SF Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, December 22, 2002

The billboard is listening.

    In an advertising ploy right out of Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report," electronic billboards in the Bay Area and Sacramento are being equipped to profile commuters as they whiz by -- and then instantly personalize freeway ads based on the wealth and habits of those drivers.

    For example, if the freeway were packed with country music listeners, the billboards might make a pitch for casinos. If National Public Radio were on, the billboards could change to ads for a high-quality car or a gourmet grocery.

    The billboards -- in Palo Alto, Daly City and Fremont -- will pick up which radio stations are being played and then instantly access a vast databank of information about the people who typically listen to those stations. The electronic ads will then change to fit listener profiles.

    In the buzzy hum of 21st century commercialism, it's the latest way for businesses to target consumers without wasting money on scattershot appeals. Many auto dealerships already use a similar system to identify the stations people are listening to as they pull into a car lot -- and then place ads on those stations.

Don't get me started on John Poindexter's Pentagon operation that wants to put together the world's largest data warehouse from phone, purchase, tax, travel, school, passport, military, Internet, and other records to predict whether you're a bad guy, all without violating your privacy. Uh huh.

two hours later

An article in tomorrow's New York Times (it's already tomorrow in New York) reports that "a prototype [of Poindexter's Total Information Awareness project] is already in place and has been used in tests by military intelligence organizations."

    Total Information Awareness could link for the first time such different electronic sources as video feeds from airport surveillance cameras, credit card transactions, airline reservations and telephone calling records. The data would be filtered through software that would constantly look for suspicious patterns of behavior.
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Early presents

So many nice things are popping into my emailbox that it feels as if Christmas has arrived a few days early in Berkeley this year.

Here's a great eLearning Market Map. I've been toying with new models for eLearning myself. Mine include corporate goals, the learner environment, and informal learning but I haven't figured out how to show everything in one diagram. Maybe a model in Flash, like this one.

MIT Media Lab's Future of Learning site. "The Future of Learning Group explores how new technologies can enable new ways of thinking, learning, and designing. The group creates new 'tools to think with' and explores how these tools can help bring about change in real-world settings, such as schools, museums, and under-served communities."

Cory Doctorow explains why meta-data standards face a few, um, issues, in his Metacrap screed.

elegant hack is a marvellous blog about design, IA, and anything that catches the author's eye. Isn't this home page pretty? I've got to re-do my sites.

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December 20, 2002

KM = BS?

The Nonsense of Knowledge Management by T.D. Wilson


    Examines critically the origins and basis of 'knowledge management', its components and its development as a field of consultancy practice. Problems in the distinction between 'knowledge' and 'information' are explored, as well as Polanyi's concept of 'tacit knowing'. The concept is examined in the journal literature, the Web sites of consultancy companies, and in the presentation of business schools. The conclusion is reached that 'knowledge management' is an umbrella term for a variety of organizational activities, none of which are concerned with the management of knowledge. Those activities that are not concerned with the management of information are concerned with the management of work practices, in the expectation that changes in such areas as communication practice will enable information sharing.

The author obviously enjoys himself while poking holes in the pipedreams of consultants who continuously recycle old material with new labels:

    'Where did knowledge management come from?' (Prusak, 2001) This is an interesting paper, which cleverly tries to defuse the proposition that knowledge management is nothing but a management consultancy fad, claiming that, 'knowledge management is not just a consultants' invention but a practitioner-based, substantive response to real social and economic trends'. However, no evidence is produced to support this contention, so we must assume that it is little more than management consultancy rhetoric.

    ...those papers that seriously address the question of whether knowledge can be managed generally conclude that it cannot and that the topic breaks down into the management of information and the management of work practices.

The author shows the fallacy of Nonaka's descriptions of converting tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge. (You can't know the unknowable.)

    Implicit knowledge, in other words, is expressible: tacit knowledge is not, and Nonaka would have saved a great deal of confusion had he chosen the more appropriate term. The critical reader might ask him/herself: 'Does it make any difference to the argument if, in the diagram, we replace "tacit knowledge" with "knowledge" and "explicit knowledge" with "information"?'

The author searches the empires of Microsoft, the World Bank, Accenture, McKinsey, E&Y, D&T, Cap Gemini, IBM, Pricewaterhousecoopers (what a mouthful), et alia, inevitably finding the emperor unclothed.

Communities of practice? Most corporations are too short-sighted for them:

    Of course these distinctions would be meaningful if organizations were structured in such a way as to encourage the creation of 'communities' in which members owed allegiance only to one another and had the autonomy to develop their own ways of working. Expertise might well then be shared. However, organizations are not like this and business organizations in particular are certainly not always like this. Business organizations (especially public companies) are generally driven by the idea of 'shareholder value', which emphasises short-term strategies that are likely to increase the share value. Chief of these strategies are those that seek cost savings, leading often to a rather blinkered choice of the reduction of staff to achieve savings. Coupled with the kind of corporate misgovernance that we have seen in the cases of Enron, WorldCom, and others, one must doubt that business organizations are busy building the kind of corporate cultures that will actually encourage 'communities of practice'

This cracks me up. I only regret that Tom beat me to the punch:

    opportunely for the software houses and IT firms, 'km' came along just as they were being hit by the wave of scepticism over the possibility of IT ever delivering more than problems - and certainly never likely to deliver productivity and performance. 'Whoops, we've cracked it!' cried the IBMs and MSofts of this world - 'We should have been dealing with 'knowledge' all along, and now we are - Lotus Notes is no longer groupware and personal information management, it's KnowledgeWare!' So they are happily marketing the same product under a new name.

If this article gets you fired up, pro or con, it ends with a discussion board where you can wrangle with the authors and others.

Extra points: Do you know your ass from your elbow?

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December 17, 2002

How long to develop eLearning?

VNU's Online Learning eNews just arrived by email. Last week a reader asked how many hours it takes to develop one hour of e-learning. Or a page. Or a sim.

My answer:

Jay Cross ( [email protected] ) notes
that the reader's query "presumes that learning should be
measured in hours or pages rather than outcomes.

"Isn't a short course worth more than a long one that
teaches the same thing?" asks Cross, a Berkeley, Calif.,
e-learning consultant.

"The query is akin to asking how long it takes to
write a poem," he says. "It depends on the poet --
and the quality of the poem.

"Most of us could labor a lifetime and not write
a line the quality of Robert Frost.

"On the other hand, I could easily produce hours
of e-learning every day, assuming that quality is
not an issue."

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Moving Beyond the Classroom

Moving Beyond the Classroom With Executive Education
Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

Last April, HBS prof Dorothy Leonard invited John Seely Brown, Peter Senge, Chris Dede, and others to an Adult Learning Workshop to inquire "to what extent should the traditional face-to-face classroom experience serve as the model for online programs."

The recap and conclusions fill two interviews, a white paper, and half a dozen video clips. I enjoyed the three-minute video clips, especially the irony of a talking head telling us that talking head video has no effect.

The conclusion is that "we need to think differently about the flow of learning." Classroom and distant learning each have their place, and it's not imitating one another. We need more than repackaging; we need entirely new perspectives of how people learn.

Here are three kinds of distance learning:

  1. desktop delivery
  2. virutal reality
  3. ubiquitous computing -- overlay reality with virtual pieces
These are wildly different environments, a lot more to deal with than mere online learning.

Marrying Distance and Classroom Education. If we were really clever we would think about taking advantage of both. You heard in the workshop some of the things that are advantageous to the technology side besides the obvious advantages of asynchronicity and not having to travel. Mediated work, for example. [Increasing] the kinds of people who will feel comfortable contributing. Probably a greater ability is…to deliver materials that can be experienced at different levels.

Mentoring—Using the Voice of Experience. Cognitive science shows us is that there are limits to how fast you can drive the learning. A lot of expert knowledge is tacit, and that makes it difficult to transfer because people can't always articulate all they know. That's why they'll resort to stories or rules of thumb and so forth. But again, that's why it's important to work together on things rather than to just tell people what to do.

Earlier related articles:

Working Paper: Transferring Expertise in Startup Companies: Forlorn Hope?

Ways of Learning

Learning in Action, 12/2001. "The most effective learning strategy depends on the situation," writes David A. Garvin. "There is no stock answer, nor is there a single best approach." In Learning in Action, he illustrated the diversity of learning organization strategies with examples from several organizations, including L.L. Bean, the U.S. Army's Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL), AT&T's Bell Laboratories, the Timken Companies and General Electric's Change Acceleration Process (CAP).

Manager or Mentor? Why You Must Be Both. HBS professor David A. Thomas hates the word "mentor." In his opinion, it's as empty a buzzword as "coach." What Thomas prefers, he explained to the group, is the more tongue-twisty but precise term "developmental relationship." But what exactly is a developmental relationship? It pivots on the experience that an individual has when they're engaged in their work, he said. That experience can be heavily slanted along racial or gender lines, he added, offering an example from his own life to illustrate the point.

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December 14, 2002

If everybody had an ocean...

If everybody had an ocean
Across the U. S. A.
Then everybody'd be surfin'
Like Californi-a

Google is the leading eLearning tool for self-directed learners. I've learned more from Google than from two years at Harvard Business School. Friday night Sandeep Sood told me he'd learned more from Google than from U.C. Berkeley.

If Google's this important to you as well, keeping up with new directions at Google is part of learning to learn. Google never sleeps, so my advice is to sharpen your Google skills every six months or so. Not that skill-building led me back to Google today; I was there because Google's fun to explore.

Yesterday I couldn't find a link to Google's new set of pointers to merchandise and today Froogle pops up everywhere I turn. As I get into Christmas shopping, however, I need fewer choices, not "All the world's products in one place," so I wandered off.

And found Google Viewer. This new service converts your search results into slide show format. I put in "eLearning" and watched the first twenty pages go by, discovering three sources I had never visited before. Seeing the pages provides such a powerful snapshot compared to the standard text listing that I plan to visit this one over and over. Hmmm. I wonder if I can feed Google Viewer with a script to make it my site's default entry into Google. Viewer is on the page for Google Labs.

I couldn't resist leaving a note for the development team:

    Google:GoogleViewer :: Command line:GUI

    GoogleViewer opens new doors of perception for visual thinkers. I'm a visual learning fanatic, disappointed that our text-oriented education and training systems retard the progress of most right-brained people. I predict GoogleViewer will be wildly successful.

The main Google interface is so spartan that it's easy to overlook their ever-expanding services & tools page. The same goes for the list of features. As the year comes to a close, check out the Google Timeline.

P.S. Google WebQuotes led me to this description of my own site: eLearning at the Speed of Internet Time.

I must do this more often. I entered for a little ego-boo and came across this review:

    internettime and elearningforum This guy's a genius....
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There's a new blog in town

The Learning Circuits Blog is reborn. I'm the prime instigator, as you can tell from this.

Learning Circuits? It's ASTD's zine, a stream of online articles on eLearning and related topics. Learning Circuits is on my personal short-list of sources to keep up with.

We're recruited a hearty band of thought leaders and contrarians to speak their minds on the blog: George Siemens, Clark Quinn, Bill Horton, Harvi Singh, Jane Knight, Julie Witges Schlack, Lance Dublin, Peter Isackson, Richard Clak, Sam Adkins, and Scott Newman. If you'd like to join the throng, show us your stuff with some incisive comments -- and then drop me a line.

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December 10, 2002

Global culture

Last month at TechLearn I pinned this button to the strap of my over-the-shoulder bag in jest. "Content Wanted" struck me as an epistemological joke. It makes the assumption "Other things being equal," but in reality, other things never are. Content can no more exist apart from context than forest from trees. Content and context are not a dichotomy; they are inseparable. Wanting content is like wanting temperature without the weather, taste without the food, or vision without the viewer.

Mind | Matter
Form | Substance
Content | Context
Subject | Background

Trying to separate the inseparable is, I think, a peculiarly Western idea, often attributed to Rene Descartes, who broke apart cogito from sum.

My recent foray in Europe, especially my participation in a panel on the cross-cultural aspects of learning, got me thinking about how Western we are making most eLearning. Separating style and substance is the rallying point of the standards movement, as if one could create and infinite number of forests by simply reshuffling the trees. (Meta-tag that timber!)

My gut tells me there are more powerful ways of thinking about this but they elude me at the moment. Join me, if you will, in a contemplative exercise. Check out these award-winning Persian blogs. Unless you read Farsi, you won't be distracted by the words.

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December 09, 2002


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Nano-bio-info-cogno (NBIC) convergence

Interim paper from the National Science Foundation on info convergence. Says Jim Spohrer,

    The basic idea is that information is encoded in atomic systems, molecular biological systems (DNA, cells), digital computer systems (bits), and cognitive systems (neurons, brains, people). Social systems (memes) are another way in which information is encoded. As these separate sciences advance, more interactions are occuring between them. And, here is the big speculation thought, an understanding of how information is encoded and recoded into each of these systems may allow for rapid improvement in human performance.
    Perhaps the convergence is more than one hundred years away, since physicists since the late 1800's have been working to create a unified theory of the physical realm -- nevertheless, the speculations in this material (and most of this work is speculation) are good imagination-stretching exercises for thinking about how future generations may collaborate, interact with their world, learn, and evolve. Fascinating speculation, but not for the faint of heart, since much of this material from the National Science Foundation (NSF) reads more like science fiction than science fact.

Is my influence at work here? I told Jim I enjoyed reading his science fiction when the raw reports were coming out on the web a few months back.

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December 08, 2002

The Muse in the Machine

The Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought by David Gelernter was published eight years ago but its message still rings true: Emotions are part and parcel of thought. AI must include them.

I'm more interested in the application of this viewpoint to human learning. Gelernter posits that we think differently when attentive than when unfocused. As we turn down the focus knob:

Our thinking switches from the logical operations known to cognitive scientists and economists down to the day-dreamy, intuitive state where emotion ties thoughts together instead of rationalization. It almost goes without saying that how we learn shifts whenever we spin the dial. Intuition tells me (I’m a little sleepy at the moment) that this shift in style has more impact than the “natural” learning style instructional designers have been trying to accommodate with so little success.

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Authentic Happiness

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment by Martin Seligman

I haven't finished Authentic Happiness but half-way through, I'm convinced it's a valuable book.

Check out the companion website. You can take the self-tests that appear in the book.

Positive Psychology is so uplifting compared to the usual approach of studying crazies and depressives. It brings a smile to my face to read Marty explaining his own growth. His five-year old daughter asks him to stop being such a grouch – and he does.

H = S + C + V, translated as your enduring level of Happiness is a function of the Set range (your genetic disposition to happiness), modified by your life Circumstances (e.g. being a blind orphan in Bangladesh) and by Voluntary, that is, things under your control.

Circumstantial changes that can contribute to happiness are:
1. live in a wealthy democracy
2. get married
3. avoid negative events
4. acquire a rich social network
5. get religion

But don’t bother with these ineffectual things:
6. make more money
7. stay healthy
8. get more education
9. change your race or move to a sunnier climate

To the extent that you believe the past dictates the future, you will allow yourself to be a passive vessel and not try to change its course. I think past history in general is overrated. Savor the good and de-emphasize the bad. Show gratitude for the good, forgive and neutralize the bad.

MORE to follow

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December 07, 2002

Playing God & The Sims Online

Gamespot has published The Endless Hours of The Sims Online by Geoff Keighley, and if you are interested in the future of simulation, you must read it.

Will Wright's latest creation, due to be released in a week or two, is not a game so much as an environment. This massively multiplayer online world will be populated by real players who pay $10 a month for the privilege. (Gratutitous ghouls with machine guns need not apply.)

The scale of The Sims Online is unprecedented. We're talking several years and hundreds of designers, among them the top game designers in the world.

I've worked with physicians who thought they were "playing God," but they were only messing with one character at a time, not an entire society. Chief designer Will Wright worries about the moral and psychological aspects of The Sims Online:

    ...what mattered most to the team was the metagame, namely the social interactions and how players were spending their time in the world. While The Sims Online is an open-ended experience (there's no linear "end" to the game), the team wanted to make sure the trophy-seeking players didn't overpower those more-creative types who were just looking to chat and build.

The only way to test something like The Sims Online is to release it to thousands of players to test. Last month the programmers had to delete and restart the alpha version. Players were shook up.

    All the Alphaville homes were destroyed, and the Sims Online message board was littered with posts from players desperately trying to reconnect with friends. In many ways, it felt like a tornado had passed through the virtual village.

Its developers expect The Sims Online to live forever:

    ...the concept of "finishing" an online game will still be an oxymoron. "Online games are released, but they are never finished," says community manager Kyle Brink. Indeed, The Sims Online will constantly be patched and updated as it evolves over time. Simply put, there are no final hours of development on this game. That means there will be no euphoric moment when the game is finished and the team can jet off on monthlong vacations. "It's a big mental shift for us," suggests Brink. "For us, the end of the boxed product development isn't the finish line--it's the starting line."

    As Wright walks the halls, you get the sense that he is just beginning to realize that The Sims Online is a project that may never be done. Ask him whether the official release of the game is just the starting point, and he smiles. "Yep, that's right," he says. "Welcome to my hell. I'll be observing and working on this game for the rest of my life."

Obviously, The Sims Online is a radical departure from the typical closed-end simulation we are accustomed to. Professionals in the learning industry are having a tough time wrapping their heads around eLearning where the learner is in charge. (I think of learners as the ultimate "learning management system.") The Sims is the ultimate expression of gaining control by giving control.

    Wright... cautions that he wants to let players decide how to evolve the world. "All of this political stuff has to come from the bottom up," he posits. "We can't do it from the top down and dictate structure." Instead, players need to build covenants with each other and establish the conventions of the world over time. "Totally planned cities don't work," Wright explains. "It's sort of like the Utopian society movement, where there were these guys who went off and started building planned cities. For the most part the cities were total failures."

    With The Sims Online, Wright believes the community will form in a way similar to the one formed around, the popular technology news site. "There's no central editor on Slashdot, but it's a collection of readers who have evolved it into a great site for news." Ultimately, The Sims Online could turn into a similar self-governing world, and Wright and his team could sit back and watch it evolve over time. "I can't wait to be surprised by what people do in the game," says Trottier.

Here's Jay's snapshot of online learning circa 2004:

Monolithic Corporation has started a clean copy of The Sims Online on its intranet. Among the game objects are its product line and that of its competitors. Monolithic's ERP has generated a working input/output model of the company online. The cityscape is peopled with customers and competitors.

Monolithic's employees learn by doing -- in the game. Players can run "what-if" scenarios for various behaviors. The sim environment supports experimentation with different courses of action in the same way that the spreadsheet made what-if financial tinkering viable.

Instead of dumbing down reality to program specific interactions, tomorrow's instructional designers will build artificial environments and delegate the heuristics to the humans.

I won't be surprised if, like in Stephen Wolfram's construct of reality, a few simple inputs generate complex, lifelike behavior.

Posted by Jay Cross at 07:06 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack