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January 2007

Ray Ozzie

This (which I got to via Jon Udell) is from 2003:

Many years ago, in the mid 70's at University of Illinois, I was fortunate enough to have been touched by something called PLATO - an acronym for Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations. At the time, PLATO was a mainframe-based time sharing system with about a thousand custom multimedia terminals - that is, 512x512 graphics, touch screen pointing device, synchronized microfiche and audio, and "always on" connectivity - quite an achievement for the time, particularly given that I was still using coding sheets and Hollerith cards to do classwork.

Although primarily intended as a computer-assisted teaching system, PLATO evolved into the first large scale "online community", with eMail, online discussions, instant messaging, chat rooms, remote screen sharing, and massive multiplayer gaming. We established long-distance relationships for work and for love; we balanced the duality of our real and virtual lives. In short, the tens or hundreds of thousands of us who had a chance to experience PLATO in those days were afforded a preview of what was to come in the Internet era - an era of global ubiquitous communications and interaction.

As many of us who had spent years immersed in the PLATO environment left and entered the "real world", we were shocked and dismayed to find a world lacking electronic connection. And as I entered the business world, it simply made no sense to me that computers were being used solely for computing and "data processing"; the collaborative online work environment that I'd taken for granted, that I'd used day in and day out, was simply missing in action. Our work lives are all about interpersonal connections, our businesses processes are structured into connections amongst people and systems that must be coordinated. What better use of technology than to help people to connect?

And so, for most of my life since that time, it has been my goal to explore what lies at the intersection between people, organizations, and technology. To attempt to utilize technology - to mold it, to shape it into a form such that it can help organizations to achieve a greater "return on connection" from employee, customer, and partner relationships, and to help individuals to strengthen the bonds between themselves and those with whom they interact - online. Because - empirically - collaborative technology has substantive value, in reducing the cost of coordination, in providing shared awareness across differences in space and time.

The way that I explore is to build products, and to see how they are used. To see what works, and what doesn't. To listen, to interact, to refine. Because cooperative work exists at the intersection between people, organizations, and technology, collaborative systems are truly fascinating: in order to serve people effectively, technologists must, for example, understand social dynamics, social networks, human factors. …

The bottom line to "why?" To create real value in a dimension that I passionately believe in.

I'm staying out of the Lotus Notes quagmire ('We spent years and years at Lotus trying to convince people of the "higher order" value of collaborative processes, sharing, and KM.  And I learned the hard way that fighting what appear to be natural organizational and social dynamics is very tough'), but am just recording here something I read today, found inspiring and really rather astonishing — not as much for its content as for how Ozzie traces the roots of his vision back to something he was working with in the mid-70s. It made me look out again his more famous posting about Live Clipboard:

I’ve been wondering, “what would it take to enable users themselves to wire-the-web”? … The world of the Web today is enabled by the power of a simple user model – Address/Go or Link, Back, Forward, Home. And certain “in-page” models have emerged from the ether: clicking the logo in the upper-left is Home, search in the upper-right, Legal/Corporate/Privacy/etc at the bottom. How we interact with shopping carts is now fairly standard. But each site is still in many ways like a standalone application. Data inside of one site is contained within a silo. Sure, we can cut and paste text string fragments from here to there, but the excitement on the web these days is all about “structured data” such as Contacts and Profiles, Events and Calendars, and Shopping Carts and Receipts, etc. And in most cases, the structured form of this data, which could be externalized as an XML item or a microformat, generally isn’t. It’s trapped inside the page, relegated to a pretty rendering.

So, where’s the clipboard of the web? Where’s the user model that would enable a user to copy and paste structured information from one website to another? Where’s the user model that would enable a user to copy and paste structured information from a website to an application running on a PC or other kind of device, or vice-versa? And finally, where’s the user model that would enable a user to “wire the web”, by enabling publish-and-subscribe scenarios web-to-web, or web-to-PC? …

I’d like to extend the clipboard user model to the web.

Of course, that was posted in March last year and since then everyone's been asking 'What happened to Live Clipboard?' and 'Where's Ozzie?'. We may have some answers to both these questions this year.

There's only so much partisan OS/platform war one can take. The really important question is that one about the read/write web: 'What would it take to enable users themselves to wire-the-web?'. I love the way Ozzie set that question in the context of 'the wild world of the web', mashups and all: 'mashups demonstrate how quickly a “mesh” can form when the process of wiring together components is made easy'.


To the Cobden Club (Kensal) last night to hear Gabby. After last year's shocking diagnosis of cancer of the thyroid, and subsequent treatment, Gabby is again playing and singing. She held the Cobden crowd and her voice is better than ever.

She has a website, you can buy her CDs here and keep an eye on upcoming gigs here. (I didn't take any photos last night, but there's a handful of my shots on Flickr from an Oxford gig last year.)

Gabby's talent was very evidently noticed last night — you could feel and see the room shift its focus and lock on to the singer-guitarist — and she had a lot of compliments paid afterwards. Great things ahead.

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London (week two)



Celebrated this, the second week of living in London by dashing off to the Velázquez at the National and the British Library's London: A Life in Maps.

The painting shown above, An Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618, oil, 100.5 x 119.5 cm, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), is my favourite of those on show. I love its colours, its use of light and shadow — and its striking use of a double perspective: I didn't buy the catalogue, but I browsed it and recall it as talking quite excitedly about how we look down on the eggs, the bowl, the knife, the knife's shadow … and directly at the boy and old woman. Fascinating. The small, free exhibition guide takes a rather different view: 'he is not able to fuse the independently studied parts to create convincing space'. The boy-painter, just 19, may well have struggled, but I still find the painting utterly memorable and the two angles of vision are part of what makes it stay in my mind. That, the colours, light … and the humanity of the two figures.

Rod's piece about the Velázquez is here, says many good things and makes many good links. More about the maps later — I've got Peter Barber's book to read and I want to get hold of Peter Whitfield's London: A Life in Maps.

ICT skills and schools

Everything tells me that you don't teach IT/ICT in a vacuum. People learn how to use IT by … using it. It should be taught through and in the range of activities — curricular and extra-curricular — that a school engages in and with the keenest possible awareness of how such technology is being used by students in their wider lives.

I think I'm encouraged to read this BBC report, though I'm confused as to how it's all ending and unsurprised by the weary tone of the aptly named head of ICT whose comments are recorded here:

England's exams regulator is advising ministers to scrap their plans for a compulsory computer test for teenagers. The aim is for all 14-year-olds to do the online test in ICT (information and communication technology) from 2008. It is currently being piloted widely. But ministers have questioned the need for another statutory test, and the QCA watchdog has now decided it is an unnecessary "burden" for schools. …

The minutes of the QCA board meeting in November say its members agreed "that it was not necessary to burden schools with an additional statutory test, considering that ICT was something that should be embedded into other subjects". …

One highly experienced head of a secondary school ICT department, Roger Distill, told the BBC News website he thought the imposition of the test was "outrageous". He said that over the years his job had been to teach students the growing number of skills and concepts which had emerged in the rapidly developing field of ICT. Initially it had been very technical, with a large element of programming. Then came applications such as word-processing, databases and spreadsheets, then presentation, painting and drawing packages and later still e-mail and the web. With the national curriculum had come the requirement for an awareness of the intended audience in the creation of digital products, and a focus on fitness for purpose.

"All of this was good," he said. But it was also complex to develop and it became obvious that, although ICT was developing at a tremendous rate, the curriculum was "dragging its heels - it simply could not keep up". He said: "We were forced to teach things, the relevance of which was now becoming questionable, while emerging technologies such as digital video production, animation, music sequencing and digital image editing had to be ignored."

The two 50-minute online test sessions assessed "the old spreadsheet, word-processing and presentation applications which I was teaching 15 years ago, plus a bit of e-mail". … "One does not need to be a computer geek to realise that the technologies in the real world will have moved on amazingly in that time, while education, as usual, gets left behind as we continue to train our students in the old and limited techniques required to succeed in the test."

Buried in an odd place in the BBC report is a paragraph which runs, 'But to recoup the cost of developing the test, the National Assessment Agency had said that it would continue "in its current form" until 2013'. I hope that's not the case, though the article clearly conveys that there's some face-saving going on.

A particularly good bit of this short report runs:

Mr Fairhurst, who is head of Shenfield High School in Brentwood, Essex, said the test interface was unlike standard Microsoft or Apple-Mac programs. So it had taken his school's ICT advanced skills teacher 50 minutes just to figure out how to work it, he said. As that was half the test time, "needless to say he didn't finish it".

Visions for education

Some notes, marking writers/blog postings/books I need to follow up soon.

Last October, I read John Hagel's post, Halloween Goblins, and homed in on what he had to say there about education:

Education (and let’s throw in training while we are at it) is bankrupt – we don’t need to fix it; we need to start from scratch and re-think it, starting with the terminology. It represents a huge drain on resources at best and, at worst, takes bright and inquiring minds and slowly but inevitably extinguishes passion for learning. … education starts with a push mindset. What we really need are more effective pull platforms to foster learning. … We need … to develop new institutional learning architectures recognizing that learning is a life-long requirement and that push approaches play an increasingly marginal role in successful learning.

There's more by John about pull/push at the link he gives above. For example:

Push approaches are typified by "programs" - tightly scripted specifications of activities designed to be invoked by known parties in pre-determined contexts. … [But now] broader deployment of more flexible technologies, tools and infrastructures makes it more viable to design and manage pull models. As a result, pull models will increasingly displace or marginalize push models in broader arenas of human activity.

From the same place: 'In education, we design standard curricula to expose students to codified information in a pre-determined sequence of experiences'. Good to know John is co-authoring a new book with John Seely Brown. (NB: Judy Breck's and JSB's 109 Ideas for Virtual Learning: How Open Content Will Help Close the Digital Divide.)

John's most recent post looks at Gaming and Learning:

Educational institutions are becoming progressively marginalized as it becomes apparent that learning is a life-long undertaking and that the success of all of our institutions hinges on the ability to support learning activity.  As the working paper [by JSB and Douglas at USC, entitled The Play of Imagination: Extending the Literary Mind – pdf] makes clear, the most valuable learning is certainly not at the level of compartmentalized skills; it is much more about developing and evolving appropriate dispositions and the ability to integrate in new ways, as suggested by the notion of conceptual blending.

(There's a stub-posting on Wikipedia about conceptual blending and Amazon UK stock Mark Turner's The Literary Mind.)

Significant connections with Henry Jenkins' work (see Gaming and Learning) — eg,

If we were to start from scratch and design an educational system to meet the needs of the culture we have just described, it would look very little like the current school system. Our schools doubly fail kids -- offering them neither the insights they need to avoid the risks nor the opportunity to exploit the potentials of this new participatory culture. Indeed, the skills kids need to function in the new media landscape are skills which are often read as dysfunctional and disruptive in the context of formal education. Kids are, for the most part, learning these skills on their own, outside of school, with the consequence that they are unevenly distributed across the population.

Optimism about technology in education isn't exactly widespread yet, and Howard Rheingold's answer to the Edge World Question Center 2007 ('What Are You Optimistic About? Why?'), The tools for cultural production and distribution are in the pockets of 14 year olds, is some statement of faith and hope. But educators who work without hope for the future and faith in the young are in the wrong job (and will be harming those in their charge): if we perceive grounds for hope in technological developments then it's also our job to do all we can to help the young use technology to good ends — and this (of course) involves us being challenged, too. (Thank God for the young.)

These nuanced comments of John Seely Brown at a conference at MIT late last year (as reported by CNET here) point to a lot of what's afoot here:

Seely Brown argued that education is going through a large-scale transformation toward a more participatory form of learning. Rather than treat pedagogy as the transfer of knowledge from teachers who are experts to students who are receptacles, educators should consider more hands-on and informal types of learning. These methods are closer to an apprenticeship, a farther-reaching, more multilayered approach than traditional formal education, he said. In particular, he praised situations where students who are passionate about specific topics study in groups and participate in online communities.

"We are learning in and through our interactions with others while doing real things," Seely Brown said. "I'm not saying that knowledge is socially constructed, but our understanding of that knowledge is socially constructed." In one example, architecture students work on group design projects in a public setting. A professor's critique of a project is instructive to others. Collaboration is valued and encouraged along with individual achievement. Perhaps most meaningful is the students' process in completing the project, he said. "As you work shoulder to shoulder with other kids, all the work you do and work in progress is done in public. So others understand what you're thinking," Seely Brown said. The evolution of the Internet can facilitate this approach, he said. Web 2.0 tools, such as wikis and blogs, make information sharing and content creation easier.

In 'Stolen Knowledge' (pdf, 1992), JSB and Paul Duguid wrote: 'In the workplace, learners can, when they need, steal their knowledge from the social periphery made up of other, more experienced workers and ongoing, socially shared practice. The classroom, unfortunately, tends to be too well secured against theft'.

The CNET article continues:

The Internet is also helping drive a transformation from a mass media model--where information is delivered from experts to consumers--to a situation that allows people to create content online, often by using existing content, he said. Seely Brown showed off a remixed video that took the soundtrack of a Matrix movie trailer and superimposed it on a Japanese comic story. This sort of activity encourages individuals of all ages to learn a topic--in this case the Japanese comics story Naruto--and "tinker" with the material, which is essential to learning, he argued. "There is a rise of an amateur class of kids and adults that love (the Internet) as builders, as researchers, as scholars and as inventors," he said.

Using these practices in the classroom, however, poses some challenges. One MIT class, for example, scrapped the large lecture setup in favor of several smaller groups working together with computers, aided by roaming teachers. The experiment has been favorable, but the instructors had to modify several practices, such as grading students to encourage collaboration. "With every new piece of technology, to make this technology work, you have to change your teaching practices," Seely Brown said. "Part of it is (thinking about) how to go from sage on the stage to being a real mentor." He suggested a "hybrid" learning approach. Schools can teach essential knowledge and critical thinking through somewhat traditional means. But they should complement that teaching with what Seely Brown called "passion-based learning" that focuses on getting students more engaged with topic experts.

Incidentally, I was struck when reading this recently on PILOTed

With a daughter applying to university, we’re wondering why we should be spending $40,000 a year for four years, when great learning materials are available free online.

The Open University in Great Britain has just started OpenLearn, which will provide free university level online learning to anyone. This month’s PILOTed interviews Patrick McAndrew, Director of Research and Evaluation for Open Content Initiative at The Open University. 

The OpenLearn initiative could have a huge impact on how universities operate. And maybe, my daughter’s daughter will have very different options.

If you haven't been watching what the OU's up to, do go and read Mitchell Weisburgh's post at PILOTed. I have no trouble imagining the growth of academically accredited courses, at secondary and tertiary levels, along with significant changes in patterns of social behaviour (eg, the rise of home schooling and new extra-curricular opportunities), in response both to the expense of education and the failure of institutions to develop courses that offer what students are looking for. And much more besides.