Lak11 Week 1: Introduction to Learning and Knowledge Analytics

Every week I will try and write down some reflections on the Open Online Course: Learning and Knowledge Analytics. These will by written for myself as much as for anybody else, so I have to apologise in advance about the fact that there will be nearly no narrative and a mix between thoughts on the contents of the course and on the process of the course.

So what do I have to write about this week?

My tooling for the course

There is a lot of stuff happening in these distributed courses and keeping up with the course required some setup and preparation on my side (I like to call that my “tooling”). So what tools do I use?

A lot of new materials to read are created every day: Tweets with the #lak11 hashtag, posts in all the different Moodle forums, Google groups and messages from George Siemens and Diigo/Delicious bookmarks. Thankfully all of these information resources create RSS feeds and I have been able to add them all to special-made Lak11 folder in my Google Reader (RSS feed). That folder sorts its messages based on time (oldest first) allowing me some understanding of the temporal aspects of the course and making sure I read a reply after the original message. A couple of times a day I use the excellent MobileRSS reader on my iPad to read through all the messages.

There is quite a lot of reading to do. At the beginning of the week I read through the syllabus and make sure that I download all the PDF files to GoodReader on the iPad. All web articles are stored for later reading using the Instapaper service. I have given both GoodReader and Instapaper Lak11 folders. I do most of the reading of these articles on the train. GoodReader allows me to highlight passages and store bookmarks in the PDF file itself. With Instapaper thus is a bit more difficult: when I read a very interesting paragraph I have to highlight it and email it to myself for later processing.

Each and every resource that I touch for the course gets its own bookmark on Diigo. Next to the relevant tags for the resource I also tag them with lak11 and weekx (where x is the number of the week) and share them to the Learning Analytics group on Diigo. These will provide me with a history of the interesting things I have seen during the course and should help me in writing a weekly reflective post.

So far the “consumer” side of things. As a “producer” I participate in the Moodle forums. I can easily find back all my own posts through my Moodle profile and I hope to use some form of screen-scraper at the end of the course to pull a copy of everything that I have written. I use this hosted blog to write and reflect on the course materials and tag my course-related post with “lak11” so that show up on their own page (and have their own feed in case you are interested). On Twitter I occasionally tweet with #lak11, mostly to refer to a Moodle- or blog post that I have written or to try and ask the group a direct question.

What is missing? The one thing that I don’t use yet is something like a mind mapping or a concept mapping tool. The syllabus recommends VUE and CMAP and one of the assignments each week is to keep updating a map for the course. These tools don’t seem to have an iPad equivalent. There is some good mind mapping tools for the iPad (my favourite is probably iThoughtsHD, watch this space for a mind mapping comparison of iPad apps), but I don’t seem to be able to add using it into my workflow for the course. Maybe I should just try a little harder.

My inability to “skim and dive”

This week I reconfirmed my inability to “skim and dive”. For these things I seem to be an all or nothing guy. There are magazines that I read completely from the first page to the last page (e.g. Wired). This course seems to be one of these things too. I read every single thing. It is a bit much currently, but I expect the volume of Moodle and Twitter messages to go down quite significantly as the course progresses. So if I can just about manage now, it should become relatively easy later on.

The readings of this week

There were quite a few academic papers in the readings of this week. Most of them provided an overview of education datamining or academic/learning analytics. Many of the discussions in these papers seemed quite nominal to me. They probably are good references to keep and have a wealth of bibliographical materials that I could look at at some point in the future. For now, they lacked any true new insights for me and appeared to be pretty basic.

Live sessions

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend any of the Elluminate sessions and I haven’t listened to them yet either. I hope to catch up this week with the recordings and maybe even attend the guest speaker live tomorrow evening.


It has been a while since I last actively participated in a Moodle facilitated course. Moodle has again proven to be a very effective host for forum based discussions. One interesting Moodle add-on that I had not seen before is Marginalia a way to annotate forum posts in Moodle itself which can be private or public. Look at the following Youtube video to see it in action.

I wonder if I will use it extensively in the next few weeks.


One thing that we were asked to try out as an activity was Hunch. For me it was interesting to see all the different interpretations that people in the course had about how to pick up this task and what the question (What are the educational uses of a Hunch-like tool for learning?) actually meant. A distributed course like this creates a lot of redundancy in the answers. I also noted that people kept repeating a falsehood (needing to use Twitter/Facebook to log in). My explanation of how Hunch could be used by the weary was not really picked up. It is good to be reminded at times that most people in the world do not share my perspective on computers and my literacy with the medium. Thinking otherwise is a hard to escape consequence of living in a techno-bubble with the other “digerati”.

I wrote the following on the topic (in the Moodle forum for week 1):

Indeed the complete US-centricness of the service was the first thing that I noticed. I believe it asked me at some point on what continent I am living. How come it still asks me questions to which I would never have an answer? Are these questions crowdsourced too? Do we get them randomly or do we get certain questions based on our answers? It feels like the former to me.

The recommendations that it gave me seemed to be pretty random too. The occasional hit and then a lot of misses. I had the ambition to try out the top 5 music albums it would recommend me, but couldn’t bear the thought of listening to all that rock. This did sneak a little thought into my head: could it be that I am very special? Am I so eclectic that I can defeat all data mining effort. Am I the Napoleon Dynamite of people? Of course I am not, but the question remains: does this work better for some people than for others.

One other thing that I noticed how the site seemed to use some of the tricks of an astrologer: who wouldn’t like “Insalata Caprese”, seems like a safe recommendation to me.

In the learning domain I could see an application as an Electronic Performance Support System. It would know what I need in my work and could recommend the right website to order business cards (when it sees I go to a conference) or an interesting resource relating to the work that I am doing. Kind of like a new version of Clippy, but one that works.

BTW, In an earlier blogpost I have written about how recommendation systems could turn us all into mussels (although I don’t really believe that).

Corporate represent!

Because of a very good intervention by George Siemens, the main facilitator of the course, we are now starting to have a good discussion about analytics in corporate situations here. The corporate world has learning as a secondary process (very much as a means to a goal) and that creates a slightly different viewpoint. I assume the corporate people will form their own subgroup in some way in this course. Before the end of next week I will attempt to flesh out some more use cases following Bert De Coutere’s examples here.

Bersin/KnowledgeAdvisors Lunch and Learn

At the end of January I will be attending a free Bersin/KnowledgeAdvisors lunch and learn titled Innovation in Learning Measurement – High Impact Measurement Framework in London (this is one day before the Learning Technologies 2011 exhibit/conference). I would love to meet other Lak11 participants there. Will that happen?

My participation in numbers

Every week I will try and give a numerical update about my course participation. This week I bookmarked 33 items on Diigo, wrote 10 Lak11 related tweets, wrote 25 Moodle forums post and 2 blog posts.

Kaizen versus Good Enough

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 how Kaizen (the philosophy of continuous improvement) relates to the rise of the Good Enough paradigm. The post also has to include a non-digital example of Kaizen versus Good Enough. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

The world is full of badly designed things. I find this infuriating. A little bit of thought by the designer could make many things so much easier to use. My favourite book on this topic is The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. It is years ago since I read the book, but I can still remember Norman agitating against all kind of design flaws: why would an object as simple as a door need a manual (“push”). I have therefore decided to start a new Twitter account titled unusablestuff in which I post pictures of things that fail to be usable.

Through Alper I recently learnt about the Japanese concept of Kaizen. This is a philosophy of continuous improvement that aims to eliminate waste (wasted time, wasted costs, wasted opportunities, etc.). Kaizen as described on Wikipedia is very much a particular process that you can go through with a group of people:

Kaizen is a daily activity, the purpose of which goes beyond simple productivity improvement. It is also a process that, when done correctly, humanizes the workplace, eliminates overly hard work [..], and teaches people how to perform experiments on their work using the scientific method and how to learn to spot and eliminate waste in business processes.

I’d also like to see it as being a mindset.

Another thing I recently read was a Wired article titled: The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple is just Fine.

Cheap, fast, simple tools are suddenly everywhere. We get our breaking news from blogs, we make spotty long-distance calls on Skype, we watch video on small computer screens rather than TVs, and more and more of us are carrying around dinky, low-power netbook computers that are just good enough to meet our surfing and emailing needs. The low end has never been riding higher. […]
what consumers want from the products and services they buy is fundamentally changing. We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect. These changes run so deep and wide, they’re actually altering what we mean when we describe a product as “high-quality.”

The article is full of examples where cheap, convenient and fast wins out over high quality. Think netbooks, MP3 files and the Flip videocamera.

Both ideas have their appeal to me, but at a superficial level they might seem to contradict each other. Why would you spend a lot of time trying to continually improve on something, when good enough is just good enough? This contradiction isn’t truly there. Good enough is essentially relevant at a higher level than Kaizen. Good enough means you design for a specific task, context, audience or zeitgeist and don’t add things that aren’t necessary. It is about simplicity and lowering the costs, but not about lowering the design effort. Kaizen is about the details: once you have decided to build a netbook (smaller screen, less processing power, but good enough for basic browsing on the net), you should still make sure to design it in such a way that people can use with a little waste as possible.

Oscar in the classic bin

Oscar in the classic bin

Let’s look at garbage bins as an example. A garbage bin is a relatively simple product. It is a bin with a lid that can hold a bag in which you put the garbage. Oscar lives in one of the classic bins. In essence this is good enough. You don’t need auto-incinerators, sensors that tell you when the bag is full, odour protection, etc. The simple bin-lid-bag concept does have a couple of issues and problems that can be solved with good design.

The Brabantia 30 liter Retro Bin is a bin that has done exactly this. What problems are solved with the design of this bin and how?

Problem: Sometimes you need two hands to get your garbage in the bin. If you have to scrape some leftover peels from a cutting board for example. In that case you have no hands free to lift the lid of the bin.
Solution: You create a bin with a foot-pedal. A foot-pedal also keeps you hands clean as you don’t have to touch the lid of the bin which is often dirty.

Problem: When the bin is empty, pressing the pedal might make the bin move.
Solution: A rubber ring at the bottom prevents the bin from moving on any flooring.

Brabantia Retro Bin

Brabantia Retro Bin

Problem: It can be irritating to constantly have to press the pedal if you want to throw away multiple things and have to walk back and forth to get the garbage to throw in the bin.
Solution: Hinge the lid in such a way that if it opens all the way it stays open. Allow this to be done by a persistent movement of the foot on the pedal.

Problem: If the bag gets really full (by pressing down the garbage) it might press against the mechanism that is used to open the bin, making it hard to open.
Solution: Make sure that the mechanism for opening the lid on the basis of the pedal movement lies completely outside of the bin and is unaffected by the pressure.

Problem: When you put in a new bag it often happens that there is air trapped between the bag and the bin. This makes it hard to throw aways things as the full space of the bag is not used.
Solution: Put little holes in the top of the bags. This allows the air to escape when putting in a new bag.

Problem: There is often a vacuüm between the bag and the bin when you try to lift a full bag out. This gives you the feeling that the bag is stuck.
Solution: Have little holes in bottom of the sides of the bin. This way air can come in, preventing the vacuüm. Brabantia rightly thought that holes at the side of a bin look a bit weird, so they have created an inner bin and outer bin. This also solves an aesthetic (if not design) problem: the top edge of the bag being shown. This top edge now hides between the inner and the outer bin.

Problem: A lot of garbage has some liquid components. These liquids sometimes drip from the bottom of the bag.
Solution: Create an extra strong bottom for the bag of an extra impenetrable plastic.

Problem: When a bag is full it can be hard to tie it up.
Solution: First make sure that the bag is slightly bigger than the bin. Once the bag is out of the bin, the garbage has more space to spread and the top of the bag will have more space to tie up. Next, have a built-in string that can be used to tie up the bag (also highly useful for lifting out the bag). Make sure that this string is long enough to make for an easy knot.

I have had all these problems with garbage bins at some point, the Brabantia bin solves them all.

Many people will probably consider me a whiner (there are bigger problems in the world, can’t you get over these minor garbage issues?) or a weirdo (garbage bins, honestly?) and both are probably true, but that doesn’t negate my point. Getting a product on the market requires that is designed. Now think about the extra design effort to create a bin that solves common bin problems. How many more man months for the Brabantia design than for the classic “Oscar bin”? Now imagine the small problems that a user of a classic garbage bin encounters and multiply them by all the garbage bin users in this world. Any idea how many times an hour something is spilled in this world because there is no pedal on the bin? People like to blame themselves (“I am so terribly clumsy”), I like to blame the designer. Why not just spend some extra design effort and get it right?

I want to draw an analogy with the design of software. I think the believe in Kaizen is what makes Apple products stand out. The example I love to show people is the difference in the calculator on the Symbian S60 3rd edition (I used it on the Nokia E71, my previous phone) and on the iPhone (my current phone).

A calculator is a simple thing. Most people only need addition, subtraction, multiplication and division capabilities. Both default calculators deliver exactly this functionality. Nokia’s effort looks like this:

Nokia's default calculator

Nokia's default calculator

You need to use the keyboard (there are designated keys for the numbers) and the D-pad to make a calculation. The D-pad is necessary to navigate from one operator to the next. To do a simple calculation like 6 / 2 = 3 requires you to press eleven buttons!

The iPhone calculator looks like this:

iPhone's default calculator

iPhone's default calculator

You just use your finger to tap the right numbers and operators. 6 / 2 = 3 only requires four finger taps.

It is not just the touch interface that makes it possible to have a great working calculator. I managed to download another calculator for the Nokia phone, Calcium. It looks like this:

Calcium calculator

Calcium calculator

This calculator makes clever use of natural mapping to create a calculator that is as easy, if not easier, to use as Apple’s calculator. 6 / 2 = 3 takes indeed four button presses. Nokia could have made this. The fact that Nokia was willing to ship a phone with the default calculator as it was is one of the reasons why I have a hard time believing they have a bright future in the smartphone space.

In a next post I might rant about how many designers think the whole world is right-handed. Do you have any thoughts on design?

Why Isn’t There a Wealth of Business Transparency Literature?

The Naked Corporation

The Naked Corporation

In March 2007 I read an article in Wired magazine titled The See -Through CEO. It introduced me to the concept of radical transparency. Ever since then, I have seen transparency as a business value that should be able to provide significant competitive advantages in this digital world. Wired obviously thinks along similar lines. Quite recently, for example, they wrote about how transparency could have prevented and might solve some of the problems that we are encountering in our financial systems: Road Map for Financial Recovery: Radical Transparency Now!

A couple of weeks ago I decided to try and find some books that might explore these concepts further. To my surprise I couldn’t really find much. The most interesting book that I could find was The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business. Tapscott and Ticoll’s wrote this book in 2003. They tried to create a conceptual framework for transparency in the corporate world. In the book they build a rationale for companies to embrace transparency as the basis for a couple of new business integrity values.

To build trusting relationships and succeed in a transparent economy, growing numbers of firms in all parts of the globe now behave more responsibly than ever. Disgraced firms represent the old model – a dying breed. Business integrity is on the rise, not just for legal or purely ethical reasons but because it makes economic sense. Firms that exhibit ethical values, openness, and candor have discovered that they can better compete and profit. […] Today’s winners increasingly undress for success.


Today’s economy depends on knowledge, human intelligence, agility and relationships inside and outside the firm. The fuel is information, and the lubricant is trust. The revolution in information and communication technologies is at the heart of these changes. The Internet and other technologies enable thinking, communication, and collaboration like never before.

They define transparency as the accessibility of information to stakeholders of institutions, regarding matters that affect their interests. The book is chock full of examples of how companies can be successful by being open and transparent. It will help you attract the best employees for example, or can take inefficiencies out of the supply chain preventing overstocking. My employer, Shell, is mentioned in complimentary terms many times in this book (I didn’t realise this when I bought the book…):

Shell’s brand has always stood for reliability […] and consideration […]. Today, Shell places integrity at the center of its brand. Shell is now asking consumers to trust it not only to provide good gas but also to steward the environment and be socially responsible. It positions itself as an honest, transparent corporate citizen. Some critics allege that this is pure window dressing and that Shell’s commitment to advertising how well it behaves is greater than its commitment to behaving well. But there is no comparison between the genuine shift in thinking and behavior at Shell and the thinking at other companies such as Exxon that have just begun to make the turn.

(Look here for a slightly more neutral point of view on Shell’s corporate responsibility. Also check Shell’s values, especially the General Business Principles are an inspiring read.)

The book could have used some heavy editing (honestly: typos??), but still the authors manage to build a convincing case for more transparency and integrity in the corporate world. In short form: a firm should always try to do the decent thing. Doing the decent thing is not always easy and means you have to weigh options and make choices. Only by being clear about why certain choices are made can a company win the trust of all stakeholders: employees, business partners, customers, communities and shareholders/owners.

So back to the title of this post: Why Isn’t There a Wealth of Business Transparency Literature? I think this thinking is still ahead of the curve. Tapscott seems to have a talent for catching on very early (he wrote The Digital Economy in 1996, Growing Up Digital in 1998 and Who Knows: Safeguarding Your Privacy in a Networked World in 1996). When will we get a clear discourse on this topic? I predict it won’t take much longer: expect to hear more!

I would be very happy with any good reading tips on this topic in the comments.

Some transparency from my side: If you click the link to the book you will be taken to The Book Depository. If you then decide to buy something there, I will receive a 5% commission through their affiliate programme.

The Book Depository is a great online book store that has free shipping worldwide and a giant selection (bigger than Amazon as it will allow you to buy Amazon’s collection through its site). Try it…

Authenticity: There Ain’t No Party Like a Leela James Party

Leela James by Flickr user Pieter Baert

Leela James by Flickr user Pieter Baert

Ever since I attended a conference in a Disney World resort in Orlando I have been meaning to write a very cynical post about how authenticity is disappearing from our society (think Epcot: I visited Germany, Japan and Coronado Springs in twenty minutes total). In the post I would lament on how nothing is real anymore and that everything is fake. Have you looked at any ad in Wired recently? 100% photoshopped. Have you been to the great wall of China? No part of it is really old, it has all been “renovated”. Whenever I go anywhere or look at anything the experience that is delivered to me seems over-engineered.

I have decided not to write that post. I experienced some authenticity tonight: Leela James in the Melkweg in Amsterdam. This is the best concert I have ever attended. It was better than John Legend in Bruxelles, better than Postmen in the Melkweg. Even better than Zap Mama in the Westergasfabriek. Leela rocked the house for over two hours and showed that we still have artists that can express true feelings on the stage (shame on you Maxwell). The intensity of her show was incredible and her voice is truly exceptional.

Thank you Leela for keeping it real.

Learning 2008: Wrap up of day 2

Here are some more things that I thought were though-provoking, interesting, relevant or funny on day 2 the Learning 2008 conference:

  • Out of Control

    Out of Control

    One of my personal heroes was speaking today: Kevin Kelly. He is one of the founding editors of Wired Magazine and has an incredible depth and breadth of knowledge about technology in this world. A couple of months ago I read his wonderful Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, & the Economic World. He wrote it in the early nineties, but he was so ahead of the curve that it is only now that people are really starting to get the implications of what he was writing about. In this conference he spoke about his general outlook on technology. He is an optimist and thinks that technology will be a solution to many of our problems (this is also the basic premise of Wired Magazine). If the current technology isn’t working, then what we need is better technology. He even goes so far as to say that technology isn’t morally neutral, but morally good. It is our duty to bring technology to the (developing) world. When it comes to learning it would be interesting to see how we can become more individualised (compare the snowflake effect mentioned in an earlier post) and still leverage the increased power of the group. His recommendation to businesses who want to turn themselves into learning organisations is to start by becoming a teaching organisation. Learning and teaching are symmetrical.

  • I attended a discussion led by Aaron Silvers titled “Rapid Development: Operational & Strategic Impacts”. Most people in the US use Articulate to author content. How do you maintain your content when you use a lot of audio and video? Does video production have to be expensive? Aaron has been using a lot Flip cameras in his company. Devices like this can change the way we create content. My ex-colleague Marcel de Leeuwe has just bought a similar device and has used it to interview me (in Dutch) about my thoughts on the conference: a very quick method that still produces decent quality. Nigel Paine (former learning officer at the BBC) was later in the day talking about how these small video cameras were used by the BBC to capture small nuggets of knowledge or wisdom inside the company. These were then shared and could be rated. This became a big resource which was used a lot and created some true workplace heroes.
  • The session led by Russ Sharp of the BMO Financial Group was interesting for two reasons. Firstly because he told us that the BMO’s LMS is Docent 6.5. They have a license till 2013, but have just heard from their vendor that there is no upgrade path now that they have merged with SumTotal. To me this is another clear indication of why you should try and find open source solutions for your problems: you can be sure that doesn’t happen to you when you are the master of your own software. Russ did not become a pessimist though: he sees the coming years as a chance to reorient the company on their learning strategy. He toured the US visiting companies (like Sun and Cisco) to see what they were doing and looked at 3d worlds, social networking, user generated content, etc. His most important lesson: different businesses have different solutions and there is no silver bullet.
  • In the closing session of the day Masie interviewed Nick van Dam, the Global Chief Learning Officer of Deloitte Touche. He explained the fascinating new HR philosophy of Deloitte. They are in the “Human Capital” business: meaning that they do not have software or hardware to sell, but are all about the people. They need to “grow people fast” and can only do this when they allow people to “customise” their own career. It should be possible to keep on changing your career plan: slow down and work less one year and then speed up the next. This will be the only way that they can Deloitte will be able to keep their employees. Nick also heads the global nonprofit e-Learning for Kids foundation. They are dedicated to putting free and fun e-learning materials on the Internet for children aged 5-12. Pay them a virtual visit: they have some very creative stuff online.

That was all for day 2. Day 3 will be the last day already.