Replacement vs. Reinforcement

I came across an idea about how machines interact with people while watching some TV. They were joking about Sat-Nav devices and all the silly voices they can make when it occurred to me that Sat-Nav devices are indeed replacing our natural abilities to navigate and know where we are and how to move around in our urban areas. (Most of us have long since lost our ability to know where we are and how to get around in the wild)

This is an example of a device which replaces a natural talent so well, that we find we don’t need our mental functions any more. But of course the one great evil of this is that we no longer know how to operate without them, thus Sat-Nav will always be required by people who use Sat-Nav a lot. (forgetting of course people who couldn’t operate at all until Sat-Nav came into being)

Picture showing a set of microschips on the left, a nerve cell on the left.

So what’s the alternative to technological replacement? I think one idea is technological reinforcement; the idea that the best technology improves the human operator through it’s use. Take Wikipedia; the fear is that no one will never need to remember anything and we’ll all forget to remember everything. But using Wikipedia seems to do the opposite, reinforcing information and making us more certain about some of the billions of facts we can hold in our heads. (but maybe it hasn’t been around long enough to show it’s effect)

So this got me thinking about what I would like a Sat-Nav device to do, to help me reinforce and hone my skills navigating the streets. Partly it could help by always stating the names of the roads when you’re in a local or frequently visited place. “Turn Left” is an instruction but “Turn Left at Washington Street” is educational and reinforcing if I take that route a lot. The information is certainly being presented at the right time for me to combine it with other sensory information so I can call it back up later. Another idea is to mention the absolute direction, North, South etc so we get a feel for the absolute direction we’re traveling in.

Of course none of this might work, so to test we could see how Sat-Nav devices effect people’s ability to judge medium and long distances. Most devices mention how many yards/meters it is until a junction so it’s already going into our heads and reinforcing something in there, but maybe we can’t process it because we don’t really have a sense of speed (in a car, I do on my bike of course). Maybe the brain just throws all the information away, but I find that hard to believe since brains are really good at learning to understand all sorts of data.

What do you think?

Learn in Fractal

If you’ve ever been involved with teaching then you’ll know that you teach the small stuff first, little lies, small over simplifications that get the students off in the right direction. Sometimes this is characterised as getting students on the first rung of the ladder of learning.

Then there is the fear that our modern world is too complex, it’s pushing our children to think, process and work out their mental faculties more and more. Some say you can see the result of this in the ever upwardly reassessed median IQ. Others say you can see it in the stress levels, the increase in trivialities and the reduction of curious pursuits.

But what I see is something different. There are and always will be a range of people with a range of mental facilities and abilities, that not everyone understands computers doesn’t mean that everyone is expected to grapple everything. We worry about the lowest common denominator focus of society, but the common don’t.

When you see the world looking a little simple, basic, too well understood, not progressive enough, I recommend looking a little deeper because it’s fractals all the way down. You used to learn how to farm wheat, now you learn how to drive a tractor, one day you’ll learn how to press a tractor robot activation button, but there will always be more to it and deeper understandings to have for those that seek them.

Don’t refrain from making things simple, the simpler they are the more you can zoom in to greater complexities. The simpler the big stuff is the more you can get on with making progress.

Don’t worry about the apparent deficit of mental alacrity in the general population, it’s always been like that, if anything things are getting slightly better though the shaping and presentation of learning to even the unenthusiastic student. Some are saying that we shouldn’t teach children facts and figures, who cares who the third US president was (Tom) as soon we’ll all have mobile computers with permanent access to wikipedia where all our fixed knowledge can be stored.

Is that progress? do facts help us think up new idea, or do ideas and concepts only matter? Do we need new narratives and tales to pass on these concepts to our children?

Your cognations?

Community Second Line Support

Recently a number of well known people in the Ubuntu community got an interesting email from Ross Peoples, I’ve seen Ross comment on my blog before and I asked him if I could blog about his email and he agreed. In order to do this I have to show you the email:

Hello, my name is Ross Peoples and I have been using Ubuntu for about 4 years now, on and off. I love it and I am really hoping that it will begin to take off more in the mainstream. I am a very technical person and I usually can solve most problems myself, but every once in a while, I need a helping hand. Before I continue, I want you to know that I don’t usually send out cries for help, but I feel this topic deserves some attention.

I know of several resources that are provided for support of Ubuntu, such as the forums, the IRC channels, Launchpad, as well the
documentation. These resources are invaluable for your average user that needs some help getting their documents to open or their laptop to connect to a wireless network. In fact, I think that new users are well cared for, as there are other new users that had similar problems and are willing to help. My concern is not for new users, but existing users, such as myself. The questions I ask in the forums usually go unanswered, as do my IRC questions, and even my Launchpad bug reports can go years without being addressed.

To give an example, last week, I ran into a critical problem which I posted in the forums. In the week that has passed, I have gotten only a single response from someone who, I believe, genuinely wants to help, but cannot because he or she is not an advanced user, a developer, or a support member. This is generally my experience whenever I ask for help with Ubuntu. I feel that once you have
advanced beyond the status of a new, inexperienced user that you are truly on your own. There don’t appear to be any support options for someone like me, unless I just happen to know someone who is a Linux/Ubuntu guru.

I understand that the experts don’t want to be bothered by simple questions that could easily be solved by a quick Google search or
reading the documentation. I am a Systems Administrator by day, so if anyone understands the frustration of dealing with lazy users on a daily basis, it’s me. I like to think of the above mentioned support resources as Level 1 support. So my question is, “Where is the Level 2 support?” Where can I go to ask the Ubuntu experts for help? I am always looking for ways to help support the community and I do a fair share of helping new users when I can.

I would be more than willing to help set up an effort for a Level 2 type of support for Ubuntu to help those like myself, but I do not
have the expertise to answer the questions myself. I am also web developer, and could offer my limited coding skills to developing a
site for Level 2 support. If nothing else, I could provide the hosting and a domain name for such an effort. I am willing to devote the
resources to this effort, but I need help from experts such as yourselves.

So. Does the community need a better second line support? That’s the question.

The help I’ve gotten on the most advanced topics has predominantly come from programmers, if helps if your a programmer so you can decipher some of the programmer-speek as well as have some detailed understanding of the program your trying to work with.

A few times I’ve managed to get an advanced systems admin to give answers, but not as often. They are busy people after all.

The missing second tier support is probably just a mechanic of the people we’re dealing with. Good programmers and admins are much less likely to hang about in the ubuntu forums or in the #ubuntu channel. So the standard support channels don’t help, it’s true. I can’t remember the last time I went to the forums or #ubuntu and I’m community, more likely to help when asked.

Some have suggested that this is where paid for support comes in, to pay the geniuses and rock stars to give us the advanced support we need. That at the moment is certainly too expensive for most.

I suggest that we could do with educating more people. The user days and programmer days are great, do we need some advanced admin/user days too? Should we have more classes focused on giving members of the community the tools and knowledge to find out how to fix very complex problems? I think that’ll help, it’ll certainly help bring more people up to be able to answer higher level questions in the community.

Your thoughts?

Self Study vs Teacher Lead

We’ve been having some very interesting conversations in the Ubuntu Learning project, part of what we’re still working out is some of the structures we’ll be writing our courses to.

The problem is that the Ubuntu Learning project has an ambitious goal of being a well grounded and at the same time serving a couple of different output forums for different kinds of lessons.

Part of the material will be used to codify and help the IRC teaching sessions that go on in #ubuntu-classroom, both during special events like ubuntu open weeks or during the normal course of the year (people do set up classes ad-hoc). With this target we need materials which are perhaps separated enough to give guidance on each section to the teacher, maybe some sections and images which can be shown via Jono Bacon’s new classroom app.

On the other hand, we’ll also be serving physical classroom needs in real schools or community centers, as well as people who just want to download a course through moodle and be self driven, not requiring any sort of teacher.

There are best practices for how you present information for student self study programs and how you present it for teacher lead classrooms, the kind of language used, the kinds of compression you can use on the language. Is the result going to be a reference for the student or is it going to need to be more substantial?

We might end up needing to have a couple of pieces to each class paragraph, pieces that perhaps build upon each other to produce the different outputs with different verbosities. But in order to model some technical structure around which all our volunteers can write course material, we need more input from real teachers and course writers.

We have the good fortune of having Belinda from Canonical be able to lend us her wisdom, and we also have a couple of other people who have experience in the field. If you think you can add some interesting discussion, we’d love to hear from you either on the mailing list or the IRC channel (#ubuntu-learning).

UOW: The Ubuntu Learning Project

learning-branding-largeYesterday Elizabeth Krumbach (pleia2) gave an Ubuntu Open Week presentation describing the Ubuntu Community Learning Project. This is the project that aims to create the materials that teachers can use to teach Ubuntu and other Free Software tools to everyone.

Firstly I would like to thank Elizabeth for gathering together all the details about the project into an Open Week session, making sure that we stay connected to more parts of the Ubuntu community and hopefully attract more people that want to teach, organise, write and/or illustrate.

Do go read the log here: Learning OW Session

Quick Start Guide

Now that you’ve read the Open Week presentation and have a want, nae a thirst to provide the community with high quality learning materials. What do you do?

Go over to the wiki page and take a good look at the five sections, they’re huge big buttons, can’t miss them. Now inside each on of these lies a page where all the sections are organised.

Job One: Organise

One of the jobs for those with only a few spare minuets in the day is to go through those pages, cleaning up, organising and pruning. It’s a job of research too, since any useful sources of information should be linked into that page for class writers.

Job Two: Get Writing

Once you’ve had a look at those sections, if you see one that your just dying to write as a class, then you should check out the bazaar branch and get writing. Open up a terminal (for now) and change into your projects directory and run:

bzr branch lp:ubuntu-learning-materials

This will get you a copy of the current source files, and you can have a look around to see how things are shaping up. Now you’ll need to pay attention to each of the directories, the maintain, teach, using, develop and community directories are where classes related to the five sections go.

You change directory into one of those, say develop and then have a look at existing classes (if any), be sure that what ever your going to write, that someone isn’t already working on it by noting your name on the wiki page next to the subject your going to be writing about.

cd develop
mkdir python-basics
cd python-basics

Create a directory for your class, say if I wanted to teach python-basics, I’d make that my directory name. Now copy in everything from the commandline-basics class, which I’ve left as a sort of template until our helper scripts are written:

cp -R ../../maintain/commandline-basics/* .

Now all these files make up the source of the class they will be compiled into various published formats such as a website, pdf documents and moodle classes. So things are split out. First things first, edit the authors file and put your name there instead of mine.

Next you’ll want to edit the lesson-plan.txt, this text file that looks like a wiki document and is your starting point. It’s where you go to plan out your class, how it will flow from introduction to topics which neatly come together to explain, demonstrate and then have students perform. Each section should be given thought over it’s order, it’s basically a list that looks like a wiki formatted list.

Each of your sections in that list will be hopefully taught in a single sitting, so don’t put too much in there and try to keep things logical. So for instance for our python-basics I might put:

Python Basics Lesson Plan
Martin Owens
:Author Initials: MO

Class Sections

.List of Sections
* What is Python
* Opening up a Python Shell
* Basic Statements
* Conditional Blocks
* Looping Blocks
* Including Modules
* …

Once you’ve brought order to the chaos by naming your sections, you’ll have to write each one. But we will come back to that part at some other time. Now you have some changes, you should commit them. This part requires you to have a launchpad account and to have your ssh keys set up with launchpad. If you don’t, we’ll be giving classes on it in #ubuntu-learning or you could read this guide.

Assuming you have those set up, you can do the following to change directory into the parent directory of the checked out data and add, commit and push your branch:

cd ../../
bzr add develop/python-basics
bzr commit
bzr push lp:~[lpusername]/ubuntu-learning-materials/python-basics-class

Now you’ve pushed your changes, you should come and tell us in the mailing list and the IRC channel. We can show you where to move on from here and you can talk to other contributors to learn from each other and how we are putting these courses together.

If you’ve got this far, then your probably chatting in the IRc channel aready, it’s where we do most of our chatting so please do joinif you have any questions, problems or ideas.

Document Formats for Learning Materials

A few weeks ago we started really getting into which formats might be better for learning materials for the Ubuntu Learning project. Currently I’ve been writing each class in ODF (Open Document Format) but it became apparent that while it was very easy to edit documents like this, it was very hard to integrate them into translations, diff generation, style guidelines and so on.

So I asked a very good contributor to the Ubuntu Learning project, BiosElement to do some research into various formats and he’s reported back with some findings. I want to distribute these findings to the wider community because I know how useful they will be to other documentation groups. This is a very basic summery:


And now for the meat of the report:

Open Document Format

ADVANTAGES: Pre-Installed on Ubuntu, Open Format, Ease of Editing

DISADVANTAGES: Currently impossible to use with bzr or version control, Difficult to keep consistent styling, Any changes to styles will result in large amounts of labor to update previous courses.

SUMMERY: .odt would be very difficult to keep updated and consistent but is very easy for course creators.

Plain Text

ADVANTAGES: Universal format, Everything from a cell phone to an expensive toaster can read text files. bzr and VCS systems can highlight per-line changes Text-to-Speech works well with it and it is more accessible for those with disabilities.

DISADVANTAGES: Dull, sometimes hard to read, doesn’t support any kind of styling.

SUMMERY: Easier to maintain then .odt but the lack of styling makes it a poor choice.


ADVANTAGES: Same as those of Plain Text with the addition of styling using Restructured Text.

DISADVANTAGES: Limited translation support, Must be compiled into .html.

SUMMERY: Not a bad choice but it has limited use outside python projects. Lack of translation support is a major future problem if used.


ADVANTAGES: Universal format used by many book publishers. Very supported for conversion into other formats.

DISADVANTAGES: XML is very difficult to write, very complex, hard to read and simply not user-friendly.

SUMMERY: Good choice, but the difficult syntax and lack of WYSIWYG Editors creates a massive barrier to entry.


ADVANTAGES: Same advantages of DocBook with the addition of text editing and an easier to read format. Can be converted into DocBook.

DISADVANTAGES: Some may find editing .txt files hard, but I’m not sure there’s any way around this.

SUMMERY: IMO the best choice as it gives all the advantages of DocBook without the difficult syntax or learning curve.

There you have it, please get in touch with us on our mailing list or irc channel if you’ve got any additional ideas and formats to try out.