Frontier of Physics: Interactive Map | Quanta Magazine

This interactive map is an extremely useful overview of what is happening in physics right now. This is where I am hoping concept maps can eventually go: it is dynamic and effortless. It allows the user to stay on the surface for the big picture or to drill down deep.

Explore the deepest mysteries at the frontier of fundamental physics, and the most promising ideas put forth to solve them.

This is a fascinating resource. One of the many things that this does right is graphically represent the connections between the theories:

The map provides concise descriptions of highly complex theories; learn more by exploring the links to dozens of articles and videos, and vote for the ideas you find most elegant or promising. Finally, the map is extensive, but hardly exhaustive; proposed additions are welcome below.

Source: Frontier of Physics: Interactive Map | Quanta Magazine

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Time Saving Tips for Teaching Online

English: Pierre_Le_Roy_chronometer 1766

Pierre Le Roy’s Chronometer, 1766 (Wikipedia)

I often hear that online learning takes a lot of time for instructors. I have found that it can, but when a course is set up in advance, using the appropriate tools, a lot of time can be saved. There are tools that can help save time as well. A little work and planning in advance can save teachers a lot of time when it will really count. Also many of these techniques make for a more engaging experience for the students and make teaching online less stressful for instructors.

1. Create a “Welcome Letter” that not only introduces the instructor and the course but gives detailed instructions on how to access the course and where to get help.

2. Use a “Week Zero” that opens up before your class. Create a module in your online class that is always open that tells students how to use the online tools for your course. This module would be a good place for links to online student services that may be available to your studnets.

3. Create a comprehensive syllabus.  Use the syllabus to let students know how to find tech support, tutoring, and a librarian. If your college does not provide online tutoring for students, be sure to check out OpenStudy which provides free, facilitated, online peer tutoring.

4. Use a syllabus quiz. Creating a quiz or syllabus scavenger hunt will help students understand how your course is organized and where to find help. I found this to be even more effective if it were worth a few points.

5. Make your course easy to navigate. Keep as much content as you can no more than two clicks away. Use a consistent format week-to-week or module-to-module. Remove buttons or tools you are not using.

6. Schedule your time. Do not work on your online course because you can; work on it because you have scheduled the time. Let the students know your schedule. Access your course consistently (e.g. three times a week) and respond to email promptly (with-in 48 hours).

7. Be consistent about forms of communication. Let students know how you want to be contacted and be strict about only using that method. If you give students multiple email and messaging accounts to contact you, be prepared for students to use them. Some instructors do not receive class related email but take course related questions only through the learning management system. Some will only use email. Some only take assignments in drop box. Make sure you are clear about how you want to be contacted.

8. Automate your course as much as possible. Take advantage of the time-release feature of announcements and other content in the tools that you are using like your learning management system. Record and reuse lectures. Let online tools handle as much of the grading as you can.

9. Distributing and exchanging documents. Use the assignment feature of your LMS instead of e-mail. Encourage students to share documents using Google Docs or Dropbox.

10. Centralize question and answers. Use a discussion forum for “Frequently Asked Questions.” Create a FAQ page. Ask students to ask questions in the forum rather than e-mail so everyone benefits from the answer.

11. Use online groups with a deliverable. Let the students do the work. Do not respond to every posting, respond to the group deliverable.

12. Use a “common responses” file to quickly paste in answers to common questions. This file can be a Google Docs file that you can open on any computer.

13. Allow students to facilitate online discussions. Giving students an opportunity to discuss what they have learned in their own voice can really help students learn.

14. Use a detailed grading rubric to help answer questions in advance.  Teachers can create rubrics online using tools like RubiStar.

15. Encourage student-student interaction and study groups. Give them the space to solve problems.

16. Communicate to the entire class regularly. Use audio and/or video each week. Try to anticipate problems or sticking points in a class and record a video to address these issues. We like to suggest tools like Screencast-o-Matic. A YouTube account is also very handy.

17. Save a tree. If you are still printing out papers, learn to use the “Insert comments” feature in your word processor. Downloading papers, printing, then scanning and re-uploading is an enormous time sink. Find out if your college uses “TurnItIn” or some other such service with quick grading tools for documents. If you have not learned how to do this, it will make a huge difference. (And yes, we still have teachers doing this.)

18. Link to Tech Support. Make sure that there are clear links to your school’s help desk or IT support in your syllabus and in your LMS or course web page. Make it clear that you do not provide tech support. Also, if you are using an LMS or specialized software, find links to “how-to” videos. Let the tech experts provide the support.

What about you? How do you streamline your online teaching process? Leave a comment below if you have any time saving tips.

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Information Management in 1912

One of the reasons I just hate the internet is that while searching for something that no longer interests me now, I accidentally clicked on something that I found so mesmerising and intriguing, and yet I really didn’t know why. It is not a subject I am in the least interested in. I wound up downloading it to read it in my Google Book account.

The Official Railway Equipment Register: Volume 27, Issue 5 has been added to your library.

I was searching for something, (actually looking at some equations in Google) and in the results was “The Official Railway Equipment Register” of 1912. I had no idea why that would show up, apart from the fact that there were a lot of numbers in it, and clicked on it, of course. It is basically contains reports from every railroad company in North America in 1912 on what kinds of railroad cars they have, what they are doing, and who are the people making them run.

Long Island's entry for  Official Railway Register of Equipment

A selection from the Official Railway Register of Equipment

It looks like each railway company sent in reports and they were collected into a annual digest. It boggles the mind to imagine how this huge amount of data was actually used. What I was immediately interested in, was the fact that even though there was some sort of template that all of the information was collected in, the choice of fonts, additional logos and illustrations of the cars they handled or manufactured that seem to come from the individual company’s corporate letterhead – they are all different. The rest of the annual contains tariff, fees, and toll tables; railroad car demurrage charges; lists of traffic representatives of mercantile, manufacturing, and industrial interests; the Master Car Builders Association Definitions and Designating Letters; the Code of Rules Governing the Condition of, and Repairs to Freight Cars for the Interchange of Traffic; and even more tables and lists that go on for over a thousand pages – tables, lists, digests, illustrations, and maps.

Chicago Railway

Dig the Chicago style font!

So if you are still reading this posting, and I congratulate you for that, you might be wondering if I have gone totally around the bend. What could this possibly have to do with academic technology? But the reason I am posting this is because the existence of this journal is proof that information over-load is not really a new thing. A large group of people decided that this information was important enough to collect, analyse and share. They sent this huge journal out via post on a regular basis. They used this information to make decisions of every kind. Such information would have been the subject of broader conversations across greater networks via mail, telegraph, and ticker tape, and when I look at it now, I can’t possibly imagine how such huge amounts of information could possibly be used in any useful way. But it was used – the railroads were the machines of the empires of the robber barons. This information was an important node in a vast network that ran the North American continent.underwood It was the job of thousands to put this information together and it was the job of a few hundred to actually use and implement this information. Railroad employees and business men were trained and mentored in how to use this information and how to leverage the networks that kept everything running. It is as if they had all the components of an internet. It was an internet, but one of a different kind in a different era. We have always been doing this, but this is the first time in history that so many have access to the information and the knowledge about how to use it. The information management equation of the last century is now inverse: there are millions providing the information but there are now equally millions who have the ability and the means to access and use that information. Teaching students how to negotiate those networks, how to manage that information (and their own) is one of the single most important things that educators can now be doing. The economic consequences are just as great. Wabash


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#prisoner106: Better Philately Than Never

Talky Tina Stamp

Q. What did the envelope say to the stamp? A. Stick with me and we’ll go places

Spent an amazingly productive evening at home: made bread, yogurt, put away laundry, watched the episode “Living in Harmony,” AND learned how to really use layers in GIMP. I thought I was going to be cute and make actual postage stamps at a number of sites that allow you to actually upload art and make real postage. That was funny. Zazzle sent me an email and asked “What does ‘Questions are a burden to others’ mean and why would you want it on a stamp?” I tried to play cute and said that it was ironically satyrical or something like that. In the end, they decided that it was a copyright issue, but I was impressed that it was a philosophical or political issue first. So that means I am making my own based on my experiences in the course. I have been using GIMP for years (Gnu Image Manipulation Program) but only for quick edits and resizes – I rarely go under the hood for anything which is why I am in this class. I like GIMP because it is open source. I also can’t stand what a resource hog everything Adobe is.

I found a vintage postage stamp that I liked and removed the text from it by cutting and pasting a selection from the stamp. I used the Village font and made that layer 40% opaque to pick up the texture in the layer beneath. I yoinked a picture of Talky Tina from her blog, resized it, drag and dropped it into a layer and applied the “Canvas” filter to it, and made it black and white. In the future, I will try to match the dark purple I think. Any way, I learned a lot about GIMP tonight.

The first stamp is a “Talky Tina” stamp (first issue, exceedingly rare). It costs only one work-unit, and as with all the postage stamps I will be issuing in the Village, they are for local delivery only. Collect them all. Be seeing you.

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#prisoner106: The Stanislavsky Hangover

The Russian actor and director Constantin Stan...

The Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski in a production of Goldoni’s Locandiera in 1898 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am still working on the opening scene that occurs at the beginning of each episode. Again, I like that The Prisoner begins with some basic questions that we should all be asking ourselves, much like Stanislavskyi’s questions for the actor. Stanislavskyi says that there are seven questions any actor should ask when approaching a new part. These are useful for readers as well as writers: and I sometimes think that they are just good life questions. These are good questions to ask on your birthday or if you are ever gassed and wake up in a strange Village. Each character has different answers to the questions and drama begins when those answers are at odds with one another. Here are the questions:

1. Who am I?
No. 6 in this scene looks like he is recovering from an epic hangover, but the scene covers Stanislavsky’s three aspects of character: physical, psychology, and sociological. We get a sense of his physicality (what an odd scholars hunch No. 2 seems to have), his willfulness in resigning, and how he positions himself in the world (car choice, driving habits, fist banging, etc.).

2. Where am I?
There is the jarring shock in this scene when he expects to see his London neighborhood and he is in a holiday resort instead.

3. When?
The Village has elements that are a hundred years in the past and a hundred years in the future (Rover and universal health care). The behavior of his fellow prisoners and the society that they are building create a sense of disassociation with time. And there are some episodes where time is everything (e.g. Chimes of Big Ben)

4. What do I want?
No. 6 is always making No. 2 aware of exactly what he wants and vice-versa: escape and information.

5. Why do I want this?
“I am not a number, I am a free man!”

6. How will I achieve my goal?
These are the basic actions of the play – the stage blocking and what the actor is doing. No. 6 is in the position of plotting escape 24/7. No. 2 is stuck administering The Village and monitoring on top of that – this is a high-turnover job!

7. What must I overcome?
This is a complicated question for No. 6 because he has issues with himself, authority, and his society. The various No.s 2 seem to be struggling with limitations of their “science” – human behavior (and will) is not so easily measured and computed.

Finally, I have made a brief film that hints of where I think I would like to go in further examining The Village:

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#prisoner106: Once More, with Feeling!

Each episode of The Prisoner begins with the story of the arrival. I think that it is important because it is the central myth that informs what ever happens next. No matter how wild or ludicrous what might happen next, it is informed by the intensity of the arrival and nothing speaks more to that for me than this moment captured in an animated GIF:


For me, this mood of focused intensity and purpose are captured in these few seconds that are in each episode. I think I once disliked the repetition of the opening but I now see it as a central informing myth or ritual that must accompany each episode much like the Eucharist in the mass. I have been using GifGrabber to make animated GIFs is this course. I like the program: it captures GIFs easily and allows one to fine tune exactly which frame one wishes to start or end with. It also has a great window that allows the user to center the frame on the subject which has been very effective with the GIFs that I have submitted to this course. I really don’t know why I would use commercial video software to do this – some of the participants seem to go through a lot of steps to make an animated GIF. I would love to hear in the comments what programs you use and why.

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ds106: Open Pedagogy or Personality Cult?

English: Jim Groom as Edupunk

Jim Groom.   God he must be tired of that picture. He looks like he is about to be led away in handcuffs.

I think it is important to talk about why DS 106 is successful as a class. In some online conversations, the question has come up over whether or not the course can be reproduced elsewhere or not. As an instructional designer, I disagree with the idea that success of DS 106 is driven by Jim Groom‘s personality. I disagree with that idea as much as I disagree with the notion that courses succeed through indefinables like “magic” or “secret sauce.” I believe that courses succeed for a set of reasons and that they fail for another set of reasons. Now I happen to love Chairman Groom and a lot of what he has done in education, and his personality is obviously part of that. And that his how it should be. Instructors who are engaged in their courses, for good or ill, will stamp the course with their personality. But I have seen great people teach badly and faculty who were very not known for their sparkly personalities shine online. If students can actually describe their teacher in an online class, that teacher is doing something right, something interesting, something engaging. I was a quasi-lurker/student in one iteration of DS 106 where Jim was very present. And I am in a current iteration with another faculty member who is as deeply engaged, leading to a similar success – but definitely a different kind of personality – both classes are successful. But I would argue that there are three things built into DS 106 that significantly contribute to its success that can be separated from personality: instructor presence, student support, and student engagement.

It is not the personality that creates the success; it is the engagement of the instructor. I know that some personalities are more “engaging” than others. But instructors who make regular videos, podcasts, send weekly emails, and comment frequently on student blogs are experienced by the students as an instructor who is present in the course. That is not “personality cult” that is “instructor presence” and there is a lot of research out there that shows that instructor presence is essential for student success in online learning. Instructor presence occurs not only when an instructor responds to an assignment, but when an instructor utilizes a wide-variety of social media to connect with the students who may be using a wide-variety of devices and social networking platforms to connect with one another. In other words, many students are already using this media – one can be present by showing up where the students are already at. An instructor can connect their networks together (upload once, send out to many), and create an effective level of presence. Some of this can be automated; RSS feeds can be gathered to a page, a posting in WordPress might go out as a Twitter as well, but the automation is purposeful – it is always done with connecting others in mind. DS 106 encourages this through the Domain of One’s Own and Reclaim Hosting intitiatives: students and instructors are using WordPress and other tools in their own domains to connect with one another.

Student support is critical to online success, and this support should be built into the course. DS106 provides a detailed, extensively annotated syllabus as well as a “DS106 Handbook” that tells students not only about policies and assignments, but also the kinds of tools they will need, links to information about how to use the tools, and where to go to get help. In fact, getting help is the first item. Other so-called innovative xMOOCs just figured out that student support is essential to online student success and are slowly backing away from the table. Student support is built into this course in many ways. If a student has questions about an assignment, there are multiple social networks (e.g. Twitter) where a student has immediate access to students who have either finished that assignment or one quite like it. Good documentation is critical to student support. The documentation for ds106 works so well that the course could be run by the students based on it. It is a different course, but it is definitely ds106. Good documentation or a well-thought out syllabus can be just as useful as any textbook. When I think of good documentation for leaderless organizations, I like to think of the AA big book or even the Little Red Book of Mao. People have used these successfully as organizational guides (see “The Starfish and the Spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations.”)

The third thing that ensures the success of DS 106 is student engagement. Student engagement does not mean “attention grabbing” or “entertaining” as you might suppose from the way xMOOCs are written about. Student engagement is the interactions between the student and the teacher, the students with one another, and with the content of the course. Student engagement is one of the leading factors in online student success. Other MOOCs are basically places where one watches a video of a certified master and then takes a test. There is little to no student-student engagement. DS 106 defaults to open and is highly collaborative. The assignments are meant not only to be shared but they invite the participation of others. The assignments are written with collaboration and engagement in mind. The course only works if you share what you are doing with your fellow students. And because many of the assignments are written by the students, they speak to the students. The students have a great sense of ownership to their work because it is not just another disposable paper. I love Wiley’s term “disposable assignments” – assignments where the students are all doing to the same thing, the teacher is the only one that reads them, and then they go in the trash. This is not that class.

I will grant that it was Jim Groom’s anarchic, edu punk, DYI spirit that encourages students to roll their own. But there were others attached to University of Mary Washington and beyond that shaped DS 106 in significant ways. The kind of synergy that the students experience is not an accident – it is the by product of a truly open course. The course could conceivably be run by students, with assignments generated by students, and assessed by students (and something like this happened with one iteration of the course). A course with an open pedagogy benefits from everything that the students bring to the table (which includes their networks apart from the class). The course becomes unique to those students in some very profound ways.

I have been looking at cMOOCs for a while now with the idea that there must be a Connectivist model of instructional design. I think I am almost there and DS 106 is certainly a model of that along with CCKo8-12, and Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning. I have written elsewhere here on Connectivist instructional design – principles that I think are reflected in DS 106. The questions I asked there are answered by DS 106:

So given these experiences, what should Connectivist instructional design look like? Based on the principles of Connectivism, learning should:

  • Provide for a diversity of opinions
  • Allow students to create connections between specialized nodes and learning sources
  • Foster their capacity to learn (teach metacognitive learning skills)
  • Increase their ability see connections between fields, concepts, and ideas
  • Teach students to build networks that will allow students to keep current in their field
  • Allow students to choose what to learn and how

All of these principles are attended to in DS 106 and because of that, this course and courses like it, will be going long after the personalities fade. I think the point that participants are trying to make when they say that “it can’t be reproduced” is their sense of connection and their relationships that the course facilitated, but what can be reproduced through a Connectivist instructional design, is just that: the facilitation of instructor presence, student support, and engagement.

NB: This posting grew out of conversations online about whether or not DS 106 could be reproduced, a few of those participants, interestingly enough, wrote a paper “A DS 106 Thing Happened on the Way to the 3M Tech Forum” that talks about utilizing a DS 106 experience to promote an open corporation. This is a very interesting read with a great bibliography.

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prisoner106: Book Cover Assignment

Although my favorite writer of books about TV shows is the inimitable Peggy Herz of “All About Rhoda” and “The Truth About Fonzie” fame, Paul W. Fairman, of the Partridge Family novels, is a close second. He also wrote pulp Science Fiction and novelizations of the “That Girl” TV series. We would order such books from the Scholastic Bookclub at school. I read three Partridge Family novels in a row one summer in the 5th grade, and afterwards, I think I was the youngest person in my grammar school to be filled with a sense of existential dread and a horrible fore-boding about the fate of humanity. Later that year, they re-elected Nixon. I was upset. I was sent home from school for writing his name on my desk in pencil with the “x” in his name drawn as a swastika. I dedicate this assignment to Mr. Fairman and the gang at Miller Street School.


I used the GIMP editor and matched fonts and colors as closely as a could to the period.

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prisoner106: Education Hypecycle in The Prisoner

EasyLearn01Being a Director of Academic Technology, how can I not love the episode “The General”? This episode has everything: a crazy professor, an education fad, extreme B.F. Skinnerisms, a “Trust Me” sign, and crazy Old School Tie outfits complete with top hats and sunglasses worn indoors! I was really laughing as I have not seen this episode in years and the parallels between this and the xMOOC craze are positively priceless; both “Speed Learn” of The Prisoner and xMOOCs are mechanical, one-way dumps of information – education as a transfer of information; both relied on wild claims (“three years in three minutes,” “a hundred percent entry, a hundred percent pass,” and the xMOOC’s “ten college future”); both rely on watching a video and taking a test; both ignore interactivity and engagement, but I must say, the level of student support in The Village is a little better and the retention numbers would be the envy of any college.


I love the confabulation of The Village with schools. In the beginning when he follows the crowd who are chasing the professor, he is accosted by the usual Village goons – and the exchange is interesting because they ask No. 6 “Are you a student?” and he says “Who isn’t? Are you prefects?” The two goons are even dressed a little like school boys. His critique of Speed Learn is an attack on mass education of any kind that is just about content: he calls the produced students “rows of cabbages.” No. 12 also trips up No. 6 when he asks him a “what” question about a treaty and No. 6 answers with a “when” answer – in other words the “education” did prepare him to apply the knowledge, only to regurgitate the facts. I think this is a clue for him later on to ask the General “why?”

newlookI love the Eton Old School Boy top hat with the Carnaby St. sunglasses. I think we may have found a new elearning uniform for Humboldt State! So in this episode we have yet another example of a 60s super computer that was seemingly killed by an imponderable question, but do you know what really kills computers in The Prisoner-Star Trek-Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea-etc? A freakin’ circuit breaker!! They were 89 cents back then!

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prisoner106: Some Thoughts on Spy Shows of the 60s

Cover of "Our Man Flint"

Cover of Our Man Flint

I was born in 1961 and grew up watching a lot of spy shows. Spies were everywhere: Saturday morning cartoons included “Secret Squirrel and Morocco Mole,” Mad Magazine featured “Spy vs Spy,” and we watched “I Spy,” “Get Smart,” “Mission: Impossible” “It Takes a Thief,” and “The Avengers.” I was never a fan of the “Man from Uncle” bit, but it was on now and then. When we went to the movies we would see movies like “From Russia with Love,” “Our Man Flint” (seriously, they showed this to us at the Saturday matinee, to children), and “The Ipcress Files.” Combine all of that with all of the Cold War nuclear hysteria and you had a really paranoid, but very low-cut and swank cocktail with a side of paisley! What was great about our Saturday matinee at the Santa Maria Theatre was that the owner would get these fourth run movies for cheap and it was usually something like “Murderer’s Row” a Matt Helm movie starring Dean Martin and Ann Margaret. All of this spy stuff pervaded our minds and were the fodder for very elaborate charades at play time. I remember just being old enough to walk down the street to visit friends by myself (but not old enough to cross the street) and one of the first thing we did was start to put together “spy kits” – string, bottle caps, an old block for a secret radio, etc. We didn’t have proper briefcases so we found some old purses. So there we were running up and down the back alleys of Santa Maria toting purses! Needless to say, some of the parents were concerned.

As a teenager I was less inclined to carrying a purse, but still really appreciated shows like “I Spy” which was in constant rerun and Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer in movies like “Funeral in Berlin” and “The Billion Dollar Brain.” The characters played by Bill Cosby, Robert Culp, and Michael Caine captured something of that politically alienated rebel spirit that was more common in the Nixon era. They had personal moral issues about what they were doing and how power and influence were being wielded. The fantasy of the world of the spy is a great metaphor for the alienation of teenagers from the world around them. It justifies their own social awkwardness by giving them a heroic secret.

Many were learning the lessons of the time: one side could be just as bad as the other. We were also learning about the seemingly amoral nature of technology: behind every super-villain, is a really great super-computer.  I am sure someone has written on the role of technology in pop culture of the 60s but it is a really interesting mirror to look into.

None of this is particularly new or profound – but then imagine in the middle of all of this nonsense, a show like “The Prisoner” comes along. At the time I saw it (on public television in the 70s), I had to look past some of its more surreal aspects to really get it. Some of those more surreal aspects, beyond the circus-like atmosphere and the lava lamp fetish, was what I thought an improbable storyline – No. 6 being kidnapped and taken to an island – surely there has to be an easier way to get information from someone? So I looked past all of that and what I found were really interesting essays on psychology, identity, politics and authority.

But looking back on all of this from this vantage point (54) I begin to see repetitions and patterns: political variations on common themes especially now in the post 9/11 Era of “Extraordinary Rendition,” “Enhanced Interrogation” and other Orwellian euphemisms. The series, unfortunately, has an urgent immediacy. People do get taken to figurative or very real islands (e.g Guantanamo on Cuba) on very flimsy to solid pretenses, are held there with out trial or representation, and then tortured for years. If this were happening in the 60s (which had its own problems), there would be a movie with someone like James Coburn rescuing the captives and blowing-up the island. I like that we are revisiting The Prisoner because I think it is an unconscious call back to a moral center that we let fear take from us.

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