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Predicting the end of the world (or at least whether I’ll complete this MOOC)

26 Feb

A couple of weeks ago I read an article on the BBC news website about researchers who have developed software which could predict future events. You can read the article here:

The article piqued my interest because over the last few weeks I’ve been enrolled in the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC (EDCMOOC). This MOOC has focused on two key themes emerging from popular and digital culture. The first, utopias and dystopias, and the second, being human in a digital age. Notably the article on the BBC touched on both themes.

The BBC article explains how researchers from Microsoft and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have developed a prototype software that uses a combination of archive material from the New York Times and data from other websites, including Wikipedia to predict future riots, deaths and disease outbreaks. While other research has been carried out with similar datasets, this research is the first time that data has been used to predict the future. As Eric Horvitz, one of the researchers on the project, noted, “I truly view this as a foreshadowing of what’s to come,” adding that, “Eventually this kind of work will start to have an influence on how things go for people.”

For me, the “an influence on how things go for people” part of the quote really stood out, as it suggested that technology (software and data) could be used to determine what would happen to people. After reading about social and technological determination in the EDCMOOC, I began to look further into the work of researchers from Microsoft and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

Mining the Web to Predict Future Events

The researchers from Microsoft and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Kira Radinsky and Eric Horvitz, published their findings in the article “Mining the Web to Predict Future Events.” You can read the article here:

In the article, Radinsky and Horvitz explain how they were able to “demonstrate the predictive power of mining thousands of news stories to create classifiers for a range of prediction problems.” The prediction problems that Radinsky and Horvitz focused on were disease outbreaks, deaths and riots. Interestingly their research noted the success rate in their forecasts of between 70% to 90%, a range that they say can serve to guide interventions and “change outcomes for the better.”

The process of how Radinsky and Horvitz were able make predictions is quite complex. Below is a diagram of their process:

Flow diagram

Essentially they created a system that learns patterns from large amounts of data and formulates a prediction.

Being able to formulate a prediction is fascinating, but what does this all mean? In the conclusion to their article, Radinsky and Horvitz write that they hope their work “will simulate additional research on leveraging past experiences and human knowledge to provide valuable predictions about future events and interventions of importance.”

In terms of education, I would suggest that “leveraging past experiences” and providing “interventions of importance” is already happening through the use of learning analytics.

Learning Analytics

While the hot topic in education at the moment is MOOCs and whether they will revolutionize the education system, I would argue that the use of learning analytics could prove to be more revolutionary.

Learning analytics, as the Open University report “Innovating Pedagogy” states, “involves the collection, analysis and reporting of large datasets about learners and their contexts in order to improve learning and the environments in which learning takes place.” You can read the Open University report here:

The Signals project run by Purdue University is the flagship for learning analytics. The Signals project mines data about students from the Learning Management System Blackboard Vista (including academic background and grades) and translates this data into a performance indicator in the form of a traffic light. Green meaning all is well, amber suggesting areas of concern, and red noting significant problems. These colours are then used to communicate to students, providing frequent and ongoing feedback during a course. Undoubtedly a perfect example of “leveraging past experiences” and providing “interventions of importance.”

As the Open University report concludes, distance learning organizations are “well placed to exploit analytics for learning, drawing upon detailed learning and teaching datasets that they have built up over many years.” “The challenge now,” the report notes, “is to bring together datasets and expertise from within and beyond an institution, in order to implement powerful analytics that have a positive and measurable impact on learning and teaching.”

Future Predictions

Interestingly learning analytics and the work of Radinsky and Horvitz suggest a future of predictions. But what would the educational world look like if learners through technology (software and datasets) could predict the outcome of their future endeavours? Is this a utopian dream or a dystopian nightmare? Is this a case of humans controlling technology or technology controlling the actions of humans? The answers to these questions are difficult and complex. However, what is clear is that an understanding of the role of technology and its relationship with human beings is integral to predicting the future of education.

Lessons Learned in 2012 – No. 2: Editing isn’t a quick proofread

28 Dec

Have you ever been asked by your coworker if you have a spare 5 minutes to edit their document? I’m someone who always likes to say yes to this question. A second set of eyes can really help to make the final product much better.

However, the word “edit” tends to mean different things to different people. One thing I’ve learned this year is that where I work the definition of “to edit” doesn’t mean to quickly proofread. Instead, when I start to edit a document I follow the steps outlined in Writing Revisable Manuals. See

For the first draft of a document, I look for the following:

• Completeness and accuracy
• Appropriate organization
• Logic and coherence
• General writing style
• General conformance with the prior documentation, style guide, and style sheet

Typically, I read each section of a document at least twice. Once to get familiar with the content, and a second time to identify and mark errors.

For later drafts, I focus on:

• Style and grammar
• Spelling
• Punctuation
• Usage
• Formatting
• Typographics

Only at this point is the editing process complete.

Lessons Learned in 2012 – No. 1: Style Guide

27 Dec

There is nothing like the end of the year to reflect on what went well and what didn’t. As an exercise, reflection not only tests your memory recall, but enables you to learn from experience. So, in this vein, I’ve put together a list of my lessons learned from 2012.

The first lesson is about the need to develop a style guide that can be applied to all training material that your team produces. Throughout the year, I’ve worked on training videos, procedure guides, quick references guides and cards, but rather than a list of standards or a style guide to create a consistent looking product, I’ve relied on a combination of Microsoft’s Manual of Style for Technical Publications and prior documentation. As you can imagine, this combination has caused debate, from varying font sizes to whether or not bullet points should be indented.

MS Manual of Style

For me, although I create various formats of training material, I believe it is necessary to have a style guide that produces a consistent look and feel to the content. In my mind, a video demonstrating the steps to connect to VPN should use the same language as a quick reference covering the same topic.

So next year, I’m determined to put together a style guide that covers all bases to make life a little easier and less confusing.

MS Office 2010 training – Marketing the Unmarketable?

26 Apr

At the moment I am surrounded by graphic design books, magazine advertisements, and multiple drafts of posters depicting amateur athletes leaping over hurdles.

Why? Well, recently a coworker was tasked with creating marketing material for upcoming classes on “What’s New in MS Office 2010.” Inspiring employees to sign up for these classes will be no small feat. In fact, because of the lack of enthusiasm around Microsoft products generally, I believe this task will be like trying to market the unmarketable.

Ok, that may be pushing it too far, but without doubt marketing these classes will be a hard job. It requires creativity, originality, and someone with the ability to turn the head of the most jaded employee. Thankfully we are buzzing with ideas – such as amateur athletes leaping over hurdles!

In future posts I will upload some of our marketing ideas. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions on images, inspiring phrases, catchwords or slogans that have successfully marketed the unmarketable, please leave a comment.

The End of Email?

24 Feb

Could I live without email? In short, my answer is both yes and no. I’ll explain …

According to Atos CEO Thierry Breton, “only 15 percent of the 200 emails his staff receive on average are valuable.” As such, Breton wants to dispense with internal email at Atos(check out Clive Shepherd’s take on this story:!/2011/12/can-we-dispense-with-email.html). Personally my percentage of “valuable email” is a lot higher than 15, I would guess even as high as 60-75 percent.

Yes, I filter email out with rules. But I think my percentage of “valuable email” is high because I use email how email is meant to be used – and not as a communication tool that replaces all other communication tools. I try to veer conversations toward IM or the phone – avoiding endless email threads with the subject of “Hi.” And I try to send out email that is clear and concise (not always easy to do, I’ll admit).

And here is the problem, and the reason why my answer to whether I could live without email is both yes and no. Email as a tool can be easily misued and abused and thus become worthless. But if you establish a framework around how you use email, your inbox won’t become a landfill of information waste. Instead, you’ll have a tool that is worth keeping.

How to enhance retention transfer

16 Feb

Robert Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction is a model for planning and designing instructional experiences. For me, the model is the guidebook to the map that an ADDIE based instructional design project offers me. Each instructional event relates to a condition that is required for learning. The nine events are:

1. Gain attention
2. Inform learner of objectives
3. Stimulate recall of prior learning
4. Present stimulus material (content)
5. Provide learner guidance
6. Elicit performance
7. Provide feedback
8. Assess performance
9. Enhance retention transfer

Perhaps of the nine events, enhance retention transfer is the most important. Retention transfer is the ultimate goal of any training, and arguably the only real marker of a successful course.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat in on a presentation by Dr. Daniel Pratt. In the presentation, he posed this question to the audience:

If you had only 20 minutes to learn material that had to be recalled accurately a week from now, which of the following would produce the best results a week later (and why)?

The options were:
1. Four study sessions of 5 minutes each;
2. Three study sessions of 5 minutes each, plus one 5 minute test of free recall, writing down as much as you could remember (no feedback);
3. One study session of 5 minutes, followed by three consecutive 5 minute tests of free recall, writing down as much as you could remember (no feedback);

The majority of the audience selected 2 – three study sessions of 5 minutes each, plus one 5 minute test.

The answer, of course, is 3 – one study session of 5 minutes, followed by three consecutive 5 minute tests.


Because retention transfer is more effective through active engagement, that is encoding and retrieving new material (1 study + 3 tests).

This leads me to other methods of retention transfer, not just testing.

Currently my favourite methods of retention transfer are spaced learning events (for example, recurring virtual meetings or classrooms) and continued support (face-to-face, e-mail, twitter, blogs, wikis). All of these are examples of active engagement.

What other methods do you use for retention transfer?

The need to improve digital literacy in healthcare

14 Feb

Being involved in education and technology, and being an employee at a healthcare organization with over 25,000 staff, one thing always stands out – some staff are incredibly tech-savvy, while others would rather never touch a computer.

Of course, the problem with this wide-range of people is that they work for the same organization.

As organizations become increasingly technology focused, the gap between those who “do” computers and those who “don’t” presents problems to organizations, from how they work, to how they communicate.

Obviously the “digital divide” between the tech-savvy and the technophobes needs to be reduced. But how?

Arguably, the approach to this problem over the last 10 years has been to offer software training classes, e.g. Word, Outlook, Excel etc …

Has this approach worked? Well, from my own perspective the results are mixed. Training on specific software certainly improves skills. But this only happens if staff actually attend classes. Many technophobes are fearful of software specific classes because they are so specific, and as such don’t attend. In the meantime, the tech-savvy embrace the specific classes offered, widening the digital divide further.

Naturally this leads me to more generic “digital literacy” classes. And here’s the problem. Who has run a digital literacy class at an organization? Anyone? No, I have never seen or even heard of a digital literacy class being offered at an organization. Yet, running such a class that focuses on locating, organizing, understanding, evaluating and analyzing information using digital technology has the potential to transform the workforce of an organization.

Instead of offering the same old software specific classes, perhaps we should be offering something new?