How Disaggregation Will Affect Our Jobs

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. This time we decided to write about how disaggregation will affect our (your) jobs. This post is a remix of existing content on the web. We were not allowed to write any original content but had to compose our post from at least 5 different sources on the web. Any web content could be used. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

Photo by Flickr user Lee J Haywood, CC-licensed
Photo by Flickr user Lee J Haywood, CC-licensed

Content sources are disaggregating. Courses, albums, newspapers, and even TV programs (i.e. the 5 min YouTube video) are fragmenting into smaller pieces. Which, of course, increases options for re-creating/remixing (smaller the size, greater the opportunities for repurposing). (source)

Librarians and publishers are familiar with the term “the least publishable unit,” which referred to e-journal articles at the time they came into vogue. Now, “microcontent” is generally used to describe even smaller units of content that come from some larger whole. [..] E-learning disaggregates the learning process from the institution as students avail themselves of the “least unit”: a course can possibly be independent of place and time—tied to the parent institution in name only. Banking online reduces “the bank” to a series of activities, and the ordered presentation of a library’s physical collection of content and its highly structured services can be irrelevant and even inhibitory in a digital world. A nine-year-old’s Web page about spiders coexists with a presentation at a conference by the world’s expert on spiders and may be deemed more useful to a nine-year-old searcher than the expert’s paper. It’s about more than just content. It’s about context. (source)

[slideshare id=1572111&doc=reformation-2-090612001717-phpapp02]

Reuse, remix, mashup open learning:


Today while more data is reaching us faster, our capacity to absorb and process this information has limitations. Rather than reading long passages of information, users merely “scan” for information, prompting web writers to group chunk information into smaller, consumable portions. According to Wikipedia, chunking is a method of presenting information which splits concepts into small pieces or “chunks” of information to make reading and understanding faster and easier. Chunked content usually contains bullet lists and shortened paragraphs with increased usage of subheads and scannable text, and bold key phrases. [..] Today our expectations for information equals our need immediate gratification. We want to-the-minute updated information and content, in an easily consumable form. It is therefore not surprising to see new forms of information consumption (and disbursal) have evolved to keep pace. [..] Examples of this type of microlearning include reading a paragraph of text, listening to a podcast or educational video-clip, viewing a flashcard, memorizing a word, vocabulary, definition or formula, selecting an answer to a question, answering questions in quizzes etc. By delivering learning content in small, consumable portions, mobile learning enables educators to supplement mainstream education through a method of quick review and research. (source)

As an instructional technology, microlearning focuses on the design of micro learning activities through micro steps in digital media environments, which already is a daily reality for today’s knowledge workers. These activities can be incorporated in learner’s daily routines and tasks. Unlike “traditional” elearning approaches, microlearning often tends towards push technology through push media, which reduces the cognitive load on the learners. Therefore, the selection of micro learning objects and also pace and timing of micro learning activities are of importance for didactical designs. (source)

New “tagging” technologies and practices, creating “soft” metadata, show a possible way to new kinds of collaborative knowledge environments. It will be shown that is not only microcontent itself, but also its contextualization through learner-centered approaches, discussion through trackbacks or commentaries, and “soft” object metadata which contribute to an understanding of microlearning and provide insights for implementing personal publishing systems in (educational) institutions. Until now, most of these conceptions are emergent on the web, so future research would have to identify possible uses and integration into learning environments and didactical applications. (source)

What Makes Goodreads a Great Website?

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. This time we decided to write about what makes Goodreads a great website. First we sat together for an hour and used Gobby to collaboratively write a rough draft of the text. Each of us then edited the draft and published the post separately. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

What is Goodreads?
Goodreads is Facebook and Wikipedia for readers: a social network of people that love to read books, full of features that readers might like. It allows you to keep many “shelves” with books that can be shared with other people on the site.

Great Features
Here are some of the features (in no particular order) that make Goodreads work so well:

  • The site is not only useful when you are a member. Even if you are not logged in it still is a pleasant site to read and browse for book lovers.
  • It allows you to keep track of your own, yout friends and “the crowds” books. If you see an interesting book you can put it on your to-read shelf, if a friend reads an interesting book than he or she can recommend it to you.
  • Statistics can suggest recommendations based on my shelves, reviews and friends.
  • There is a distinction between friends (a symmetric relationship) and followers (an assymetric relationship).
  • There is a book comparison feature: it finds the books you have both read and compares the scores you have given to those books.
  • It is very easy to invite your friends into the site. You can put in their email address, or you can give Goodreads access to your webmail contacts (sometimes this is a questionable thing, but Goodreads isn’t to pushy (it doesn’t send out Tweets without you knowing it for example)).
  • They have a great “universal” search box where you can search books on author, title or isbn from the same field.
  • It makes use of Ajax in the right locations, allowing you to update small things (“liking” a review, noting what page you’ve reached, handing out stars to a book) without having to reload the page.
  • The user profile page is related to the contents of the webservice: for example, it allows you to say who your favourite authors are.
  • The site supports many different ways of viewing and sorting your shelves. You can look at covers or at titles and sort by author, by score, by last update and more.
  • Before building a great iPhone app, Goodreads made sure their website had a great mobile version of their website. When you access the website with a mobile browser it automatically redirects to a mobile version of the website, so even if you are accessing the site with your Windows Mobile device you have a great experience.
  • Not only is it very easy to put data into the Goodreads ecosystem, it is also very easy to get your data out again. You can download a CSV file with all your books (including the data you added like reviews, date read, your rating and the metadata about the book that Goodreads has added like the ISBN or the average rating). The smart import feature looks at an HTML page (e.g. an Amazon wishlist page) and imports all the ISBNs it can find in the source code of the page. Like any good webservice it imports files that are exported from their competition (Shelfari, Librarything and Delicious library).
  • There seems to be an evolving business model. Initially there were only (onubtrusive) adds, but now they are starting to sell e-books, integrating this into the social network.
  • Often when you read a book there are sentences or passages which really impress or inspire. Most of the times you then forgot these. Goodreads allows you to favourite and rank (and thus collect) quotes easily by author or by book. You can add and export quotes as well.
  • Sharing your Goodreads activity to other important webservices is built in. There are integrations with Facebook, Twitter, WordPress Blogs and MySpace. Goodreads also provides embeddable widgets that you can put on another website (e.g. a box with the most recent books you have read). A simple integration allows you to instantly find a book that you are looking at in Goodreads in your favourite online bookstore. And of course there is the ubiquitous RSS.
  • A site like Goodreads get is value from the data that its users put in. Goodreads allows this at many levels. There are trivial ways of adding information (i.e. saying you like a review by clicking a single link, allowing Goodreads to display useful reviews first), but there are also ways of adding information that take slightly more effort. For example, it is fairly easy to get “librarian” status which shows the site trusts their users. As a librarian you can edit existing book entries. A low entrance level is key to crowd sourcing. Another way to involve people is to allow them to add their own trivia that other users can try and answer in trivia games.
  • It allows users to flag objectionable content.
  • Goodreads has its own blog, keeping you up to date about the latest features and their direction.
  • It has an element of competition, you can see how many books are on your shelf and how many books are on other people’s shelf, but there are more metrics: you can see who has written the most popular reviews, your rank among this week’s reviewers, or who has the most followers
  • It has a great and open API. This allows other people to build services on top of Goodreads. The potential for this is huge (the very first Goodreads iPhone app was not made by Goodreads itself, but was made by a Goodreads enthousiast) and I don’t think we have seen what will be possible with this yet. A lot of the data that Goodreads collects is accesible through the API in a structured and aggregated form. It should be very easy for other book related sites to incorporate average ratings from Goodreads on their own pages for example.
  • It is in continual beta and their design process seems to be iterative: it keeps evolving and adding new features at a high frequency like the recently added stats feature.

My current stats for 2010
My current stats for 2010
  • It is easy to delete your account, deleting all your data in the process. This makes for complete transparancy about data ownership, an issue that other sites (Facebook!) have been struggling with lately.
  • It has a kind of update stream which let’s you easily keep up to date with your friends, groups and favourite authors status.
  • The service has ambitious and lofty goals: “Goodreads’ mission is to get people excited about reading. Along the way, we plan to improve the process of reading and learning throughout the world.” (see here). I do believe that this clear mission has led to many features that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. For example, there is a book swap economy built into the site allowing people to say that they own the book and are willing to swap it for other books. Another book lovers feature are the lists. Anybody can start a list and people can then vote to get books on the list. Examples of list are The Movie was better than the Book or Science books you loved. Another feature are the book events. You can find author appearance, book club meetings, book swaps and other events based on how many miles away you want these to be from a certain city or in a certain country. Of course you can add events yourself, next to the ones that Goodreads imports from other sites, and you can say which events you will attend, plus invite friends to these events.

How Goodreads could improve
As said, Goodreads is continuously changing, there are still some things that require some change in the right direction:

  • Ocassionally the site feels a bit buggy. I have had a lot of grief updating the shelves of books using the mobile site with it not doing the things I wanted it do.
  • It is not always clear what kind of updates are triggered by an user action. I am not sure what my friends see. Sometimes you find your Facebook Wall flooded with Goodreads updates because your friend found a box of long lost books in the attic which he entered in an update frenzy.
  • Usability: Some features are hard to find. Like the new stats feature discussed above, you can only find it hidden away on the bottom left of a page in some obscure menu. Other features are hard to use, requiring many more clicks than are actually necessary.
  • They could improve on localisation and on the translations of books. In your profile settings you can select your country, but you cannot select in which languages you are able to read books.
  • The graphic design of the site isn’t top notch. When people initially see Shelfari, it might have more appeal just because it looks a tad better.
  • In-app mailing or messaging systems are always beyond me. Goodreads also has an “inbox” where you can send mail to and receive mail from your Goodreads friends. I would much rather use my regular mail and use Goodreads as a broker so email addresses can be private.

Some thoughts on the process of writing this post
Gobby is a multi-platform text editor that allows multiple people to work on the same text file in realtime. It uses colours to denote who has written what.

A Gobby Window
A Gobby Window

This was an experiment to see how it would feel to work like this and whether it would be an efficient and effective way of working together. I thought it was quite successful as we produced a lot of material and helped eachother think: building on the point of the other person. It was helpful to do an initial draft, but it does require some significant editing afterwards. I thought it was interesting to see that you feel no compunction to change the other person’s spelling mistake, but that you feel less free to change the contents of what they are writing.

This time we were sitting opposite each other while writing. In the future it would be interesting (firewalls permitting) to try and do this over a longer distance. Then the unused chat-window might become more useful and important.

You can download the original Gobby file here (it requires Gobby to make sense).

Hopefully this post about Goodreads is an inspiration to anybody who tries to build a social network around a certain theme and remember: if I know you I would love nothing more than to be your Goodreads “friend”.

Parallax Revisited 1 Year of Constraints

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. July marks the first year of the parallax series. To celebrate we look back on the past year and review our: favourite topic, favourite personal post, favourite post of the other and a review of the formats. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

When I started blogging in the summer of 2008 I decided I would stay away from writing “meta posts”. I never like it when people write about their own blog (how many posts they have made, comments received, visitors had, etc.). If you don’t like that either, then I suggest you skip this post as I am going to break my own rules.

This animation is an example of parallax. As the viewpoint moves side to side, the objects in the distance appear to move more slowly than the objects close to the camera. CC-licensed by Natejunk2004

When Arjen Vrielink and I realised that we would no longer work together at Stoas Learning, we decided that it would be nice to stay in touch and find a way to continue the conversations we had. Arjen thought it would be a good idea to write a monthly blog post. We would share a title and we would publish at the exact same time linking to each others posts. Neither of us would read what the other had written before the posts were published. I thought “parallax” would be a good name for the series as it is the name for the fact that two viewers looking at the same thing from a different location see something different. We did as we agreed and have now written twelve parallax posts. This is number thirteen.

Each parallax post comes with restrictions. The idea being that constraints actually induce creativity. We have used different types of constraints. The most simple limitation was on the number of words. We used this a couple of times and each time it forced me to rewrite a lot. This probably created better English (which isn’t my mother tongue as you might have noticed) and more readable posts, but also forced me to leave out arguments and points that I thought were important. Other times we forced each other to use a particular medium (e.g. a video or a type of picture) , we stole a format of a magazine (e.g. the “What on earth is” series by Linux Format) or we used Tweets about an event to tell a story (e.g. Drupaljam). I have come to realise that these constraints can really be helpful in the writing process and I would like to continue to explore new formats.

My favourite post
One of the nicest things that can happen when writing a blog  post is receiving comments. It is therefore that my post titled A Design Concept For a Mobile Moodle Application is one of my favourites. Writing the post allowed me to think quite deeply about what a Mobile application for Moodle should look like and it integrated some of the ideas that I had had for a long time. It triggered a lot of discussion with a fast reply from the lead developer from Moodle and it made connections to other people who are making these ideas a reality.

My favourite post written by Arjen
It has been interesting to see how often Arjen and I take a very similar approach to a topic. One example being the similar kind of caveats we have written in reaction to the title of the post. Arjen’s posts are often more blunt than mine and slightly more provocative. Many of his posts have made me laugh out loud.
My favourite post of his is the one titled What on earth is Remote Sensing?. It starts with the classic question: “I’m not interested in another Swami theory, so please …” and then goes on explaining a relatively complex topic, “remote sensing”, in an extremely clear and humorous way. I like it when writers manage to open up a new world for me and that is what Arjen did with this post.

My favourite topic
Parallax has also created the time and space to write about the things that I always meant to write about, but could never get to. The Influence of a Workspace On Performance is probably my favourite topics where this was the case. This post brought together my thoughts on how the environment affects behaviour allowing me to use great examples from people like Corbusier, Hans Monderman, Jane Jacobs and David Leon (and from products like IE6). These topic continues to fascinate me and I would gladly write another post exploring some of these ideas further.

The future of parallax
Looking back I can now clearly see the way forward for Parallax. I think it has more than delivered on what it set out to do:

  • It made me stay in touch with Arjen: at least every month we have some email back and forth on the topic and the constraints and sometimes we do things together so that we can write about it.
  • It helps me accomplish one of the main goals of my blog: reflection. I am not naturally a very reflective person and don’t take the time to think (every second of open time is spent reading or listening to informative podcasts, I never stare in the distance and ponder, sadly making my morning shower the most reflective part of the day). Writing is reflecting and thinking and would be worth it even if nobody would ever read this.
  • It allows me to react on my very “corporate” job. I can, covertly, challenge some of the ways of working in my company and think about doing things differently.
  • It opens up conversations with people from all over the world.

The one thing that I would like to do in the future is to get more guest writers to participate. I think it would be great to have a constantly changing third voice to our posts. I hope Arjen agrees!

ReWork Rehashed

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to write about the 37signals book Rework. Each of us will write about the three things in the book that we already do, about three things we will do from now on going forward and about three things that we wish our employers would do from now on. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.


Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals and Ruby on Rails fame have just written a new book titled: Rework (you can download a free PDF excerpt). Reading it gave me an ambivalent feeling: these authors are obviously very good in what they do and they have managed to build a successful business monetizing different parts of their talents, but the book feels like a monetization effort too and the number of words per Euro are very low. Arjen Vrielink has written a quite damning review on Goodreads.

Nonetheless it has some interesting lessons to offer. It has about 100 pieces of advice for people starting their own business or working in a business. Some of the advice I already practice, some advice I will try to practice from now on and I wish that the company I work for would practice some of the advice going forward.

Three chapters about things I already do:

Build an audience (page 170)
Traditional PR and marketing is about going out and trying to reach people. The ubiquity of the Internet allows you to let people come to you instead of the other way around.

When you build an audience, you don’t have to buy people’s attention – they give it to you. This is huge advantage.
So build an audience. Speak, write, blog, tweet, make videos – whatever. Share information that’s valuable and you’ll slowly but surely build a loyal audience. Then when you need to get the word out, the right people will already be listening.

Emulate chefs (page 176)
In this chapter the authors make a case for sharing everything you know, something which is anathema in the business world. They use famous chefs as an analogy. The best chefs share their most valuable recipes in their cookbooks. Why? Because they know that their business as a whole cannot be copied. What better way to show you are an excellent cook, then by sharing your recipes?
I am convinced that there are only benefits to sharing everything I know about educational technology and innovation with anybody who is willing to listen. Doing this is the only way to take part in the incredibly valuable discourse on this topic and taking as much out of it as possible.

Forget about formal education (page 215)
Companies still over-value formal education from. I have personally decided to attend as little formal education as possible from here on further. The key qualities that somebody needs to have are curiosity and the ability to learn. If you combine these two, then there is a whole world out there from which you educate yourself. You don’t have to go and sit in a stuffy classroom and listen to some academic lecturing. Don’t get me wrong: academics are hugely valuable. It is just that you don’t have to join a university to engage with them.

Three chapters about things I will try to do from now on:

Embrace constraints (page 67)
This chapter starts as follows:

“I don’t have enough time/money/people/experience.” Stop whining. Less is a good thing. Constraints are advantages in disguise. Limited resources force you to make do with what you’ve got. There’s no room for waste. And that forces you to be creative.

This is a principle that I am already highly aware of (it is actually embedded in every introduction to any Parallax post on this blog). It is not something I am naturally good in though. I love gadgets and these things often create a lot of extra affordances and thus complexity. I need to tone this down to allow a better focus on things that really matter. First step: “downgrade” my current Ubuntu 10.04 setup which allows me a lot of flexibility (and gives me wobbly windows, that’s not me by the way) to the Ubuntu Netbook edition.

Focus on what won’t change (page 85)
This is probably advice that anybody tasked with working on innovation should heed to. Naturally we like to be focussed on the next big thing. The danger is that you will focus on fashion instead of on substance.

The core of your business should be built around things that won’t change. Things that people are going to want today and ten years from now. Those are the things you should invest.

I will try and use this advice while thinking about the next iteration of our learning landscape. Which aspects are lasting needs and wishes and which are just fads?

Interruption is the enemy of productivity (page 104)
I work in an office with about 10 other colleagues (if everybody is in). During a working day I receive about 50 emails in my work Outlook inbox and have multiple instant messaging conversations. This means that I barely have a couple of minutes without any interruptions. I have to admit that I am probably the cause of many interruptions too, as I constantly share the things I find fascinating or funny with my co-workers.
This is definitely not beneficial for my ability to do work on things that require a bit more concentration and need me to be focussed. It takes a lot of time to write anything which is more than a page of two for example. Usually I can only do it if I work from home and I turn Outlook off. From now on I will try to block a couple of hours every week during which I will sit by myself, turn off my phones, IM and email, refuse to look at Google Reader and just work.
It is as the authors say:

Your day in under siege by interruptions. It’s on you to fight back.

Three chapters about things I wish my employer would do going forward:

Meetings are toxic (page 108, available in the free excerpt)
This one is pretty obvious, but we still have a complete meeting culture. Everybody knows that meetings are not very effective at what their intent is to do and still we have way to many. Some of the reasons the authors give for why meetings are this bad are:

  • They usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute
  • They require thorough preparation that most people don’t have time for.
  • They often include at least one moron who inevitably gets his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense
  • Meetings procreate. One meeting leads to another meeting leads to another…

If you still need to have a meeting I like their simple rules:

  • Set a timer. When it rings, meeting’s over. Period.
  • Invite as few people as possible.
  • Always have a clear agenda.
  • Begin with a specific problem.
  • Meet at the site of the problem instead of a conference room. Point to real things and suggest real changes.
  • End with a solution and make someone responsible for implementing it.

I think we are especially guilty of inviting too many people to meetings and I would love to meet at the site of a problem instead of a conference room, but am not sure how this is done with IT related issues.

Don’t write it down (page 164)
We spend an inordinate amount of time capturing everything everybody says, needs and wants. We have hundreds of Excel files containing lists of requirements, feature/enhancements requests, issues, etc. We probably spend more time managing these spreadsheets than working on the issues that these spreadsheets are an abstraction of.

There’s no need for a spreadsheet, database, or filing system. The requests that really matter are the ones you’ll hear over and over. After a while, you won’t be able to forget them. Your customers will be your memory. They’ll keep reminding you. They’ll show you which things you truly need to worry about.

Don’t scar on the first cut (page 260)

The second something goes wrong, the natural tendency is to create a policy. “Someone’s wearing shorts!? We need a dress code!” No, you don’t. You just need to tell John not to wear shorts again.

This is how bureaucracies are born according to the authors. They consider policies “organizational scar tissue”. I work for a company that, like most other I am sure, is very scarred. Let’s all stop scarring it more!

I have to admit that a list of three was severely limiting when it came to wishes for my employer. I would have like to have the opportunity to add: Ignore the real world (page 13), Illusions of agreement (page 97), Hire managers of one (page 220) and They’re not thirteen (page 255).

5 Things I Cannot Live Without

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to write about things we cannot live without. The restriction is that the things should have a hierarchical relationship where the lowest level of hierarchy is the microprocessor and the highest level is the Internet. Each thing should be described in 100 words. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

Please don’t take the title of this post too literally: yes, even I realise that I will be able to live without these things. Instead consider this a tribute to these five things. Also be aware that the title is not “The 5 Things I Cannot Live Without”, there are many other things that I find way more useful and crucial (think bed, dishwasher, etc.).

So here goes, in a loose hierarchy from local to global:

CC licensed by Flickr user Stéfan

1. The Microprocessor
What do you know about the microprocessor? If it as much as I used to, then it will be very little! Did you know that the first microprocessors appeared in the early seventies and that they were mostly used for calculators? Did you know that their capacity follows Moore’s law? Did you know that microprocessors not only integrated in computers, but also in cars, toasters, TVs, dishwashers (again!) and most other electrical equipment with some advanced functionality? Finally, did you know the Wikipedia article for Microprocessors needs additional citations and references? Why don’t you get to work and fix it?

2. My iPhone
I don’t think I have yet waxed lyrical about my iPhone. First of all I am late to the party: I have only bought one last December. This is because I resisted buying a closed down Apple product for as long as possible. I really really wanted to buy an Android phone, but all the ones that I tried were seriously less capable than the iPhone. So why is it that much better? Because thought has been put into every single element of the software and hardware design. Nothing is accidental, everything is considered. No other company is there yet.

3. Xs4all
My Internet provider is XS4ALL. There are a couple of reasons why this will be the case for the foreseeable future (even though their price/speed ratio is not competitive):

4. Google Services
Over the last couple of years I have come to rely more and more on Google’s services. So much so that it has become increasingly hard to even list all the Google services that I have an account for or use regularly otherwise. As an excercise I have used this Wikipedia page to list all the products I use regularly (on Ubuntu or iPhone): Chrome, Sketchup, Gears, Calendar, Gmail, Product Search, Reader, Apps, Feedburner, Youtube, OpenSocial, Maps, Aardvark, Alerts, Translate, Groups, Image Search, Scholar, Web search, Analytics, Gapminder, Trends and Zeitgeist. Couldn’t be bothered to link them all: Google them!

5. The Internet
It is a cliché to call the Internet a “game changer”. However, it cannot be denied that it is the most disruptive technology out there. It creates feasibility spaces for social practice (thank you Benkler) and it forces you to rethink traditional ways of doing things. In the field of educational technology for example it has led to, among other things, new course paradigms, an Edupunk movement and deep critiques of the learning function. We cannot fathom what the near future of the Internet will look like as the pace of change is continually accelerating. I cannot wait for it!

P.S. This post was inspired by Techcruch’s Products I Can’t Live Without.