Monthly Archives: March 2009

Free Ivy League Education, Delivery Included

Why shell out $34,000 a year when you can load up on Harvard learnin’ for free? So far, the new site Academic Earth has videos of thousands of lectures, including entire courses, from Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale. Meanwhile, YouTube has debuted their own college lecture channel, YouTube EDU.

Some, like this physics course with audience participation, are a lot livelier than others.

For the full college experience, be sure to skip a video occasionally and watch some of these.

[via Lifehacker]

Animated Biology

As part of their Revolutionary Minds series, Seed Magazine has profiled five people breaking new ground in science education. The stand-out is Drew Berry, a biomedical animator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia. That’s a fantastic job title; as you might guess, Berry uses 3-D animation to depict various biological processes accurately and clearly. Revolutionary Minds

This type of animation is a welcome bridge between scientists and the rest of us. From the article:

An unexpected side effect of Berry’s work has been that when laypeople view the animations, they intuitively grasp the cutting-edge science. Berry says, with some amazement, “The more hard-core it is, and the more complicated visually it is, the more people respond.” Seeing the cell’s activities conveys something fundamental to viewers, something that Berry sees in his mind as he digests the journal articles that contribute to each animation.

What I’d love to see now is a biological video game series.

[via Workplace Learning Today]

Better Product Pitches Through Stop Motion

In a post on Open Forum, Guy Kawasaki sings the praises of Atelier Transfert’s stop-motion-loaded product videos. As Kawasaki points out, many Web companies fail abysmally at explaining what exactly they do. The Canadian studio’s masterful pieces quickly and clearly define the problems to be solved and the way the products solve them.

Email Center Pro from Atelier Transfert on Vimeo. Tutorial Video from Atelier Transfert on Vimeo.

Incidentally, according to an online French dictionary, the company name translates to “Transfer Studio.” French speakers, please correct me if I got that wrong.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes peek at how they made the Email Center Pro piece:

A Making-Of: Email Center Pro (the Breakdown of A Sequence) from Atelier Transfert on Vimeo.

They also do recipes: Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe from Atelier Transfert on Vimeo.

Mmm… cookies.

It took me a minute to realize that a big part of the appeal of these is the classic Sesame Street vibe:

[via How to Change the World]

Fascinating Jobs Explained

McSweeney’s has a new installment in their growing collection, “Interviews with People Who Have Interesting or Unusual Jobs.” The writers do a great job eliciting clear explanations, and the subjects have some fascinating stories.

The newest addition is an interview with a 911 dispatcher. The “keep him on the line so we can trace the call” movie cliche drives me nuts, so I cherished this exchange:

Q: Can you trace where people live based on their phone number?
A: Assuming it’s a land line—a regular home phone—the screen shows your address and the phone number the call is coming from.
Q: And how about cell phones?
A: For all cell phones that are phase-2 wireless, we should be able to get a hit within 50-foot accuracy.

If you have or have had a fascinating job, McSweeney’s wants to hear from you, at

Cutaways Gone Wild

Illustrator Scott Campbell’s cutaways aren’t exactly real explanations, but they appeal to the same part of the brain. This is also the brain section responsible for drawing elaborate space bases, I believe.

Scott Campbell's Lincoln House

Campbell’s “Home Slice” show is on display through March 23rd at the Nucleus Gallery in Alhambra, California. Several great ones are still for sale on the Nucleus site. Plenty more awesomeness on his blog.

Another taste:

Scott Campbell's Wild West House

This American Life vs. Financial Jibber Jabber

This American Life recently broadcast the third installment in their fantastic series of shows explaining our current financial mess. All three episodes are available for free online:

  1. The Giant Pool of Money
  2. Another Frightening Show About the Economy
  3. Bad Bank

This article from the American Journalism Review notes that the series impressed even government big wigs. Montana Senator Max Baucus and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner apparently sang its praises during a congressional hearing last week. Baucus would like government officals to follow T.A.L.’s example and explain themselves better. Hear hear!

The article also quotes Alex Blumberg, the producer who spearheaded the series. This insight sure rings true to me:

Blumberg thinks part of the formula’s success is not getting caught up in the jargon. “We have outsider status. We are not a business program, and we were never a business program,” Blumberg says, admitting that before he started the project he was as ignorant as the next person about the intricacies of high finance.

“The one thing I do have expertise in is figuring out how to tell a story. All these storytelling tricks we have learned over the years we have brought to bear in the same way,” Blumberg says.

When you’re breaking down a difficult subject for a general audience, a non-expert storyteller is usually the best explainer for the job. If you’ve just learned something yourself, you’re better able to relate to the audience. You know what they know and don’t know, and where the most confusing hurdles are.

Dave found the story via @jayrosen_nyu, who is wondering why the established press isn’t capturing the market for good news explainers. Excellent question.

Putting Explainists on Call?

This is a cool idea: Aardvark promises to connect askers to qualified answerers. ReadWriteWeb explains:

Aardvark is a neat new service that lives in your IM client and which routes any question you might have to an Aardvark user who has the right expertise to answer your query. In return, Aardvark will also send you a few questions every day that fit your profile. You then decide to either answer the question or refer it to another friend. Of course, you can also always pass if you don’t know the answer.

The examples on Aardvark’s site are in the helpful tips vein (e.g. “What’s the best place to go biking around Golden Gate Park?”), and I expect this will be the way most people use the service. But depending on how the matching system works, it could also be a great way to find good “why” explanations too — like a clear breakdown of a difficult concept or a plain English definition for an unfamiliar term. Yahoo! Answers, Answerbag and similar sites get lots of these types of questions and the answers are almost always terrible. You get a random selection of people typing out their best guest, whether they know anything or not. By finding the right expert for you, maybe Aardvark will improve the signal to noise ratio.

I’m looking forward to finding out. It’s supposed to come out of private beta at South by Southwest, which kicks off on Friday.

[via ReadWriteWeb]

A Communications Primer

Okay class, we have a movie today. Somebody get the lights please.

This 20-minute 1953 film from renowned married designers Ray and Charles Eames falls into one of my favorite genres: contemplation of a familiar subject as seen from a removed vantage point. In this case, the subject is communication, with a focus on binary information.

Frame from A Communications Primer

The film may not teach you much you didn’t know already, but it’s a showcase of ways to build an explanation with engaging imagery. It’s also a prime example of an excellent explanation trick — illuminating multiple subjects by casting them as different versions of the same thing. The film shows how painting, speech, telegrams, printed images, text, computer programs, etc. all have the same core components: information source, message, transmitter, signal, receiver, and destination. Focusing on the fundamental similarities cuts through potentially confusing details to give you a solid model for understanding each one.

Frame from A Communications Primer

On top of that, it’s loaded with the warm, warbly woodwind music of classroom films (in this case, composed by the late great movie score composer Elmer Bernstein). If you were a kid in the 50s through 80s, you probably know this as the music of education. Or desk naps.

[via Kottke]

New Explaining Tool… Not Explained So Well

I saw on Workplace Learning Today that Microsoft has launched Semblio, a new tool for creating snazzy video/animation/text-loaded interactive educational content. The Semblio landing page has an intriguing animated spiel that invited me to give Semblio spin to make a bouncy “truly individual learning experience.”

Semblio example

It sounded like a grand old time to me, so I clicked the link to the Semblio blog, hoping to learn how one would actually do this, but got a Page Not Found page. Then I clicked on “How Does Semblio Work,” which led to a more enlightening demo video, as well as this mystifying word blob:

Using Microsoft Semblio, you can create rich, immersive multimedia learning material that’s highly interactive and fosters exploratory learning that teachers can customize, and that promotes collaboration. Because Semblio takes a platform approach to content creation —- leveraging the flexibility of the Microsoft .NET Framework —- it works across software, services, and learning management systems. This allows you to meet the demand for more customized solutions, while still providing you with control over how your material is adapted.

Run-ons and non-sequitors and business-speak, oh my!

Anyway, I eventually figured out that Semblio in its current incarnation is a software development kit (SDK) only, meaning .Net developers can work with it at the moment, but not me. By early next year, the Microsoft Office application suite should include content creation tools for the rest of us. This Read Write Web post explains that this may be a big step for electronic textbooks:

In their current state, electronic textbooks are often relatively static versions of their physical counterpart, with maybe a few videos thrown in for good measure. As these electronic textbooks are slowly making a push into the textbook market, tools like Semblio should allow publishers and teachers to create interactive textbooks that actually fulfill the promise of the medium instead of just recreating the traditional textbook experience in the digital world.

Could be pretty neat, as long as Microsoft can explain it to users by then.

[via Workplace Learning Today]