Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Future of Reality

Reality.  It is something we all encounter, every day.  “In philosophy, reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined” (Wikipedia Apr. 28, 2012).  I wonder what our definition of reality will be in the future.  I just read iStock_000015885386XSmallan article “the Future of Food” (The Futurist May-June 2012, p.24-28) that talks about the efforts to genetically engineer / modify organisms.  There are scientists experimenting with creating transgenic crops (eg, a potato with a chicken gene), referred to as Frankenfood, interestingly.  They are creating rice with vitamin enhancements, hardy corn crops to grow under harsh conditions, etc.  Some geneticists claim that one day we will select flavors, textures, and colors for our tomatoes with the a few clicks of a mouse.  In the future will our food be real, as we know it?

Another article in the same issue of The Futurist, “Unlimiting Energy’s Growth” (p.29-31) describes work to create superlight smart materials that more flexible than rubber, 100-500 times stronger than steel, and thus cars and airplanes that weigh 1% of current models.  These materials will be self-healing (eg. a scratch in the paint on a surface might repair itself as if the scratch never occurred).  They also may have photovoltaic capabilities such that cars and airplanes may run off solar power.

Google recently put out a video to show case their vision for augmented reality glasses.  Check out the story here and in particular the video below.

Augmented Reality

This would be a pretty cool way to interact with the world.  Some apps on smartphones can do some of this but not nearly as seamlessly as the Google Glasses might.  This sort of innovation will push reality as we know it into a new space.  Until then, you might want to check out Wikitude, which adds location based augmented reality to iPads, iPhones, Androids, and Windows Phones.  “For location-based Augmented Reality the position of objects on the screen of the mobile device is calculated using the user's position (by GPS or Wifi), the direction in which the user is facing (by using the compass) and accelerometer” (Wikipedia April 28, 2012).

How might K-12 students benefit from access to augmented reality tools?  Perhaps they could be creators of the digital enhanced layer of an augmented reality field trip.  Imagine students learning about rock strata and with mobile smart devices, they record observations, geo-referenced of course, and later add further data.  Their work and analysis is uploaded to the school augmented reality channel on some cloud service.  Then when other students go on that particular field trip, their mobile devices will present previous students observations and research as the same ground is covered.  They could connect with the previous students, ask questions, challenge assumptions, etc.  It could be a way of continuous learning, sharing learning, and challenging each successful set of students to add to the body of knowledge.  Or perhaps students research historical information and add it to locations around their school or town with links to reflective blog posts iStock_000010314279Smallthey’ve written about the events and places.  Students could role play within the augmented or virtual reality environments to relive situations or make changes and play out the new versions of reality.  The possibilities are endless.

Augmented reality is likely a key gateway to the merging of reality, as we know it, with virtual reality (VR).  We have students and teachers in one of our schools creating a 3D immersive learning world where reality is as they define it.  They started with a predefined environment and are now creators of their own through the BC Learning Nexus.  VR will cost effectively merge with 3D immersive learning worlds and as students learn they will transcend the constraints of the “real” world.  I previously wrote some fiction about this possible future here and here.

In my opinion if we continue with the current trajectory, the future of reality is in question.  Unless we change course, the lines will increasingly blur between reality and augmented, virtual, artificial versions.  Is this a good thing or a dangerous path to follow?  What do you think?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Share the Learning

Sharing with others what we’ve learned is rewarding.  Others are able to benefit from what we’ve discovered and we feel good about helping others with their learning.  The saying “it is better to give than to receive” really is true isn’t it.  I think the “movement” to document student imagelearning provides a powerful way to share and reflect on learning.  In my work in my District I have the privilege of visiting classrooms and documenting and sharing the learning teachers and their students are experiencing.  Visiting classrooms regularly is one of my personal goals.  One such recent visit was to a Kindergarten class to talk with the teacher and one of her students.  The teacher had documented a young learner who became a “Mathematician at Work” one morning. 

Jennifer Lawson

Come along with me and enjoy Keira’s learning journey…

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Our District created a focus group this past school year.  About 20 K-3 and literacy support teachers are researching and learning how to capture and share student learning.  I’ve written previously about the group’s journey, in particular how they are using technology to support their work:

These teachers might use this approach to support students reflecting on their learning.  Students watch video or review pictures of themselves and/or other students learning while their teacher observes and hears their comments.  Teachers might record their students explaining their emergent writing and pictures so they can provide accurate written feedback to their students.  Parents are able to “see” how and what their kids are learning, on a regular basis.  It is likely that this approach to documenting learning will reduce formal reporting for early learners.  Perhaps one day more learning will be documented and reported through the use of a learning portfolio that begins in Kindergarten and carries on to Grade 12.  Such portfolios could become powerful living learning spaces that inform students, teachers, parents, and later, universities or potential employers.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Learning, Just in Time

I remember the good old days when I used to have ample time to learn something new.  Back in the late 80’s I was working for the Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans Canada as a Systems Analyst in the data centre of a fishery research facility.  I remember being given a project to plan for and execute, wait for it… upgrading the Fortran programming language on the mainframe.  Wow, how exciting is that.  I took a couple of months to learn about, research, and plan for this change.  Learning and change back then was glacial compared to now.  I remember worrying about a lot of details I didn’t completely understand and made sure to learn everything possible before acting.  Things have certainly changed…  Those of us engaged in the digital world are having to adapt, learn, unlearn, relearn iStock_000019296536XSmallconstantly.  Essentially, I now subscribe to the “fearless learner” philosophy.

A few weeks ago I was asked by the professional development rep for one of our secondary schools if I would lead a workshop for their teachers on creating Prezi presentations.  I’m always up for a new challenge so I said “yes”.  Then it set in…  I remembered that I’m not an expert on using Prezi (my Prezi’s).  Sure, I’ve created a couple but I wouldn’t claim to be expert at this.  I began to wonder what I can share with these teachers to help them become proficient Prezi users.  Based on my experiences and frustrations last year using Prezi, I wrote an “open” letter to Prezi.  In preparing for this upcoming workshop (next Friday), I’m learning the new and improved capabilities of Prezi.  A few improvements I’ve discovered include:

  • better text formatting including coloring of individual words
  • bending and coloring arrows (shapes)
  • very flexible path editing
  • inserting Powerpoint slides and Prezi-izing them

There seem to be two main types of learners, those that need instruction to be able to move forward with something new and those that are comfortable with the unknown and are able to learn something new, ‘just in time’.  I think it is important to respect these differences in people.  However, I think it is equally important to help people shift into more of a learn as you go mode.  Things change too quickly to get caught up in needing to be taught all the time.  It is important however that people see and understand the big picture, the purpose of what they’re contemplating or being asked to do.  With context and purpose, they can hopefully anticipate what to expect from the new thing they are learning.  I also believe that people need to be reassured that failure is on the pathway to learning and that it’s okay to make mistakes.  In fact, if we aren’t making mistakes, I would say we’re not learning enough!

Back to my Prezi workshop.  The pro-d rep sent a message to the school staff about the events of the upcoming pro-d day which imageincluded “The incomparable Brian Kuhn will be here to further your Prezi knowledge”.  Okay, now the pressure is on!  Fortunately with Twitter and Google, one can easily find material so as not to reinvent.  I stumbled across this useful and comprehensive page of links to Prezi advice that you might be interested in perusing.  It seems everyone must have a top 10 list so here’s mine for presentations using Prezi:

  1. visualize a canvas, an illustration, a backdrop that will support your content and the pathways that engage the user with the content; the best Prezi’s I’ve experienced have a graphical illustration to represent the theme of the presentation and the text, pictures, and videos are then carefully placed and navigated within this
  2. use zooming and rotations purposefully – not just because you can and you think it’s cool; any movement should tastefully support your message – ie, to emphasize, to draw attention, to amplify a message, etc.; if you are too radical with these features,  your audience can become ill, literally
  3. be thoughtful in using zoomed pictures and images – they blur when zoomed and can become background noise rather than support for your message
  4. don’t use the built in templates or themes unless you really have to – you risk becoming a mini-me of 1000’s of other designers; think about creating something original instead – it’s more work but it will be yours
  5. don’t try to cram too much text into a frame – minimal but impactful words are best and then when you present you can embellish the story – this is a general rule of thumb, you should never (well rarely) read your presentation content or make your audience have to read paragraphs of material while you’re speaking
  6. with Prezi you need to think in 3 dimensions; move from “slide” to “slide” but also into a slide, ie depth is the 3rd dimension; eg, you could have an impactful word like “Engage” and your next point or a picture / video is embedded in the circle that forms the top of the letter “g” in “Engage” and perhaps that next point is a word that begins with “g”; technically you could build an entire presentation using one starting word and embed the rest within it and subsequent words, but only if that makes sense for your message
  7. so that you don’t inadvertently lose your work, make sure to save your Prezi regularly – don’t trust the auto-save feature (this is true of any tool)
  8. you can create a Prezi that could be used by viewers independent of you presenting live; create your Prezi then using a screen casting tool (eg, Jing), you record your voice while you click through the Prezi – this will put your Prezi with your voice into a “movie” that can be easily shared with others
  9. consider live editing of your Prezi while presenting;  for example if you are using Prezi as a lesson delivery tool in a classroom, you could also edit it with student contributions during class discussion
  10. make sure you have a screen capture tool like Snagit (there are many others) so that you can scrape content from the web or other applications to embed in your Prezi as supporting material

After providing some guidance around creating presentations and exploring key elements of Prezi, workshop participants will play: “be like teenagers and learn by discovery”.  Following this, they will learn Prezi and incorporate various features by converting or creating a lesson in a Prezi format which they could teach with.

I suspect that I’ll be learning as much from the workshop participants as they will from me.  Together, we will be ‘learning, just in time’.  I think my role will be more of a guide than it will be as an oracle!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Technological Progress to What End?

I received an email from a teacher friend yesterday referring to an article in the Vancouver Sun with the title “Pope: Technology without God is dangerous”.  In this article the Pope said:

“technological progress, in the absence of awareness of God and moral values, posed a threat to the world”

My friend asked “what happens if we have technological progress WITH moral values, BUT in the absence of an awareness of God; how will the world fair then?”  I think this is a great question.  With full disclosure that I am a believing Christian (not Catholic), I’ll try to answer this question as it fits my blogs purpose to write about about the future and technology.  I should be clear about my understanding of what morality is and where it comes from.  This Wikipedia article sums it up:

“Morality (from the Latin moralitas ‘manner, character, proper behavior’) is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good (or right) and those that are bad (or wrong)…  The adjective moral is synonymous with ‘good’ or ‘right.’”, Wikipedia April 8, 2012.

One of the challenges in understanding the source of morality or a moral code is being able to separate what humans have done to corrupt it.  We’ve all read or heard stories of wars and abuses perpetrated by various religions. The problem with any religion or church is that they are filled with people who are imperfect.  Often iStock_000013896856XSmallreligious people will argue that morality or moral values are not possible in the absence of religion.  Unfortunately religion is a man-made set of rules and history teaches us that people left to their own devices will corrupt any set of rules in self-serving ways.  Would anyone argue that corporations or governments have a strong sense of morality?  I doubt it…  Personally, I believe that a pure or true morality, a set of moral values, can not be created by human beings, and cannot exist in the absence of God.  There does not seem to be much evidence in our history of this occurring.  But I will leave it at that as this post isn’t meant to argue belief systems about God or religion per se.

To answer my friend’s question, I think technological progress must occur with a strong set of true moral values if our world and its inhabitants are to benefit and not suffer.  In the absence of an awareness of God, I’m pretty sure (again history tells the true story) there isn’t the capability of our world to agree on and practice what a strong set of true moral values would be.

I do worry about where our accelerated technological advancements will take us.  As we are able to interface ourselves with technology whether through machine replacement parts or injectable custom nanobot technology to interfere in our biology to cure disease, we may lose our humanity. 

“By the 2020s nanobot technology will be viable, and brain scanning will be one of its prominent applications. As described earlier nanobots are robots that will be the size of human blood cells (seven to eight microns) or even smaller.44 Billions of them could travel through every brain capillary, scanning each relevant neural feature from up close. Using high-speed wireless communication, the nanobots would communicate with one another and with computers compiling the brain-scan database. (In other words, the nanobots and computers will all be on a wireless local area network.)”, The Singularity is Near (Kindle 2898)

Or, how many of us are aware of the rise of robots and other technology to increasingly replace human workers?  You may be interested in what I’ve written about on this topic previously.

“‘In the years ahead,’ Rifkin wrote, ‘more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization ever closer to a near-workerless world’”, Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy (Kindle 118)

It’s also pretty obvious that war and destructive tendencies have benefits significantly through technological development.  How do you feel about the rise of machines to monitor, record, and control us.  Increasing numbers of us happily share every little personal and professional detail about our lives, in online spaces.  We get frustrated when privacy laws designed to protect us, end up iStock_000012625357XSmallinterfering with freely posting information.

I think the slippery slope phenomenon is at work.  Our technological progress conditions us to accept the next progress and the next, often without considering the moral consequences.  It is amazing what human beings can be convinced to accept as “okay”.  To close, I think our technological progress should cause us to increasingly pause and reflect on important aspects such as morality and our belief systems.  We should think about whether our belief systems and moral codes will serve us well in making the best decisions about what to allow technology to be and do in our lives.  If we don’t, it’s probably not a stretch to imagine a world described in the Hunger Games, is it?  I wonder what others think about this topic?