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Understanding human behaviour is vital for good product design. But you can’t just ask people what they need, you have to observe them first-hand. iPods, eBay and TiVo exist because designers watched people, noticed a problem with current products, and designed a solution for a problem people didn’t even know they had.

At OXO Foods in the UK, researchers studied how people measure liquids while cooking, and noticed that most people need to bend down repeatedly to read the markings on the side of the container. None of them reported this as a problem when interviewed. So OXO designed a measuring jug(cup) which could be viewed from above (shown right). This is an example of the growing science of design ethnography – product design based on direct human observation.

How to measure human behaviour “in the wild”?

Observational studies are expensive to conduct, and sometimes distorted because you can’t always observe someone in their natural environment. Fortunately, computers now make it much easier to collect data from “real world” activities. Such data is invaluable – for product designers to better understand their users, and also for us to help us cultivate a deeper understanding of ourselves. Read more »

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Part four: digital classrooms demand a new kind of teacher

In this four-part series, we look at the impact of tablet computing on education: how tablets can save North American students, but how their ability to collect and analyze how students learn will make teaching more accountable — something that unions will oppose aggressively as they try to protect their members’ jobs.

This is a detailed write-up of the Short Bit I first presented at Bitnorth 2010, with lots of background and links to references I found while putting together that presentation. We decided to break it into several parts to make it easier to digest.

Tablet computing is the catalyst that can trigger a classroom revolution: the digital classroom, personalized learning, cheap access to content, and a transformation of how we learn. They promise a shift in education that puts the student, not the teacher, at the center of the learning experience. And tablets can capture and analyze everything about how someone learns.

In other words, tablets make teaching accountable, bringing to it the kind of clarity and can’t-argue-with-that science that has transformed online marketing. But as we saw yesterday, there are powerful forces terrified of what the harsh light of accountability will reveal, as we saw yesterday.

Tablets don’t just display, they collect

Tablets are the ultimate analytical tool. They collect copious amounts of data that can be analyzed, letting us crunch all aspects of a learning experience: What was read, touched, and heard; when and where that learning happened; what was read slowly and what was rushed through. Properly instrumented, a tablet is a window into how a student acquires knowledge. It’s the perfect sensor for educational analytics.

And analytics, as anyone who runs a website will tell you, mean accountability. As we saw yesterday, accountability is something that unions have resisted defiantly for decades.

Tablets, and the digital revolution they bring into the classroom, could radically change the way we learn, and with that, the fate of a society. But they’ll be fought every step of the way by teachers who fear for their jobs. If those teachers win, it’ll be another continent’s turn. So convinced of this was the producer of 2 Million Minutes that, when I saw him speak last year, he admitted to buying a condominium in Mumbai for his retirement because he expected India to have the best standard of living.
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Part three: the problem with teachers’ unions

In this four-part series, we look at the impact of tablet computing on education: how tablets can save North American students, but how their ability to collect and analyze how students learn will make teaching more accountable — something that unions will oppose aggressively as they try to protect their members’ jobs.

This is a detailed write-up of the Short Bit I first presented at Bitnorth 2010, with lots of background and links to references I found while putting together that presentation. We decided to break it into several parts to make it easier to digest.

At this point in my research, as I explained in yesterday’s post, I’d concluded that learning isn’t a priority in North America — politically, culturally, or economically. It seems to me that tablets — with their access to affordable, tailored education — offer a tantalizing cure to the ills of North American’s classrooms, and a path to the digital classroom that can help us catch up with the rest of the world.

When I started looking into the issue of education in North America, I assumed that military spending outstripped healthcare and education dramatically. That’s how it is in many regions. In San Francisco, for example, 21% of a family’s taxes in 2007 paid for war, while just 5% went to education. Globalissues.org puts military spending — and the financing of past wars — at 44.4% of the US tax haul, with education just under 7%.

In absolute terms, the US pays a tremendous amount for its education (putting aside “special budgets” for specific wars). Universities in the US are the most expensive in the world, and despite spending all that money, the K-12 educational system is dysfunctional.

Comparing standardized test scores, spending on teachers in North America climbed dramatically while performance remained flat.

In other words, despite spending a lot on education, we aren’t seeing good results.

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Part two: Tablets could change the fate of the Western World

In this four-part series, we look at the impact of tablet computing on education: how tablets can save North American students, but how their ability to collect and analyze how students learn will make teaching more accountable — something that unions will oppose aggressively as they try to protect their members’ jobs.

This is a detailed write-up of the Short Bit I first presented at Bitnorth 2010, with lots of background and links to references I found while putting together that presentation. We decided to break it into several parts to make it easier to digest.

Yesterday, we looked at the sorry state of Western education. Now we’re going to consider the ways in which a digital classroom — made manifest by the modern tablet — could reverse the decline.

Digital education isn’t a new idea. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project started shipping cheap, reliable computers to students years ago, and the Web has been a critical resource for many rural and remote schools. But it’s the arrival of ubiquitous tablet computing that can really transform the modern classroom.

If students have their own tablets, they’re equipped with a powerful platform for learning. Here’s why:

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Part one: The state of education

In this four-part series, we look at the impact of tablet computing on education: how tablets can save North American students, but how their ability to collect and analyze how students learn will make teaching more accountable — something that unions will oppose aggressively as they try to protect their members’ jobs.

This is a detailed write-up of the Short Bit I first presented at Bitnorth 2010, with lots of background and links to references I found while putting together that presentation. We decided to break it into several parts to make it easier to digest.

In his novel The Diamond Age, author Neal Stephenson describes a digital book his heroine carries with her. Dubbed the Young Lady’s Interactive Primer, this device is part guidebook, part tablet, and part personal guardian. It’s interactive, changing stories and allegories based on the predicaments our heroine faces. Some of its content is recorded; much of it is prepared, on the fly, by actors thousands of miles away.

Much as he colored in the picture of virtual reality — Stephenson coined the term Avatar as a representation of a virtual self, and his novel Snow Crash is the inspiration for Second Life — he may have nailed tablet computing. With the release of Apple’s iPad, we’re finding dozens of uses for a device we didn’t know we needed. It’s a console, a reader, a movie screen, a musical instrument, a game board, and a window into other worlds.

Beyond all these uses, however, the killer app for tablets could be education. Done right, personal tablets can reverse the precipitous decline of learning in much of the Western world. By putting the world’s knowledge at a student’s fingertips virtually for free, making it interactive, and tailoring it to each student’s abilities and interests, tablets could completely alter the way we teach and learn.

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Ben Schneiderman opens HCI2010 in DundeeToday at the opening keynote of the British Computer Society’s HCI 2010 conference, UX pioneer Ben Shneiderman gave an uplifting address about the need to expand the use of technology and social media for civic good.

He gave many examples of existing systems that harness the Internet to help with human problems – such as 911.gov, a conceptual site which would allow US residents to report crimes, but more importantly to request and give assistance to each other. For example, allowing a disabled resident being able to find a volunteer to help them get out of the building in an evacuation. Real-world examples included amberalert.gov and nationofneighbors.net as well as the use of Twitter to track the spread of Californian wildfires. Another example was patientslikeme.com which takes a more open view to the sharing of personal medical data than most current medical institutions, but has shown measurable benefits for the participants.

Ben highlighted the nascent nature of such thinking in the public consciousness, and speculated that greater steps need to be taken to help the public see both what is possible but also to give them the tools to make better use of data for good. To achieve this, he said, we will need deep science research to take place which can then be applied to everyday systems and functions.

As an example, Ben introduced SocialAction, a network analysis tool for researchers which can uncover hidden information in human networks. In the following video you can see the tool being used to uncover the strength of relationships between US Senators who voted the same up to 2007. Read more »

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Computers make better decisions than humans because they aren’t weighed down by biases, ego, and the need to rationalize decisions after the fact. An economically rational player would make more money on Deal Or No Deal than a stupid human. We can’t help it: it’s the way we evolved. Everything from shopping, to teamwork, to the way we elect our leaders is tainted with the stupidity of how we make decisions.

Just as external storage can become a form of prosthetic memory, so computers can become prosthetic decision-makers. If we were to make them understand the dilemmas before us, computer assistants could advise us on the economically rational thing to do.

Would we be able to deal with being told we’re wrong so much of the time?

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A new survey shows that teens in the Ontario average seven hours a day of “screen time”.

The study grouped together time spent watching TV and Internet use as “sedentary behaviour” and suggests a link to a decline in physical and mental health among the students.

What’s interesting here is the implicit suggestion that a person’s entire use of a computer could be considered as a bad thing. Grouping all computer time together with watching TV as “screen time” is, I think, somewhat irresponsible and fails to recognize the diverse roles computers play in our lives.

It’s true that computers can be used for consuming content (YouTube videos or internet TV channels for example) as well as for solitary activities like playing games. These things should perhaps be moderated as you might TV use.

But computers can be used for so many other things now – researching homework assignments, communicating with friends, collaborating with other students, planning trips or shopping. So to group all these activities together as if they are all self-indulgent activities that could be completely avoided is unrealistic at best.

The reality is that computers are now so integrated into our daily lives, and even more so with the younger generation, that to consider taking “screens” out of the equation wholly is simply not possible.

A more interesting piece of research would separate solitary entertainment activities from productive or communication activities, and also look at the differences between students doing such activities offline or online.

It’s also worth considering what the researchers might have found if they’d looked at adults. Most of the office-bound population has seven hours of sedentary time a day – it’s called doing their work at their desk! In this context, the researchers findings are nothing special.

Read more of the study at CBC News.

In other news, researchers find that people use computers a lot…

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French company Parrot demonstrated this impressive piece of technology at Web 2.0 Expo this week. It’s a flying camera drone, that hovers and stabilizes itself automatically in flight, is wirelessly controlled by an iPhone just by tilting the phone, and streams live video back to the phone. It uses augmented reality to overlay game elements onto that video, making it a “video game for real life”. It’s incredible that technology like this is now available to the general public – at one time only the military could access such technology. What will people use these for? Will it reduce the privacy of governments and celebrities?

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In this episode of CBC’s Spark Plus, Nora Young interviews Danah Boyd and William Deresiewicz about the ways in which social networks like Facebook are influencing how we think about friendship and changing what we mean by the term “friend”.

Listen to the MP3 (34:04)

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