Textbooks = Explaining Fail?

Seth Godin thinks so:

Textbooks have very little narrative. They don’t take you from a place of ignorance to a place of insight. Instead, even the best marketing textbooks surround you with a fairly non-connected series of vocabulary words, oversimplified problems and random examples.

I agree that textbooks of this sort fall flat on their faces, and it sounds like textbook standards have slipped considerably. But I firmly stand by the idea of a textbook. To me a single volume that takes you from zero knowledge to thorough understanding is invaluable. Popular nonfiction publishers are less likely to approach subjects that way, because it can result in hard-to-market doorstop-sized behemoths.

But I also like Godin’s alternative proposal:

The solution seems simple to me. Professors should be spending their time devising pages or chapterettes or even entire chapters on topics that matter to them, then publishing them for free online. (it’s part of their job, remember?) When you have a class to teach, assemble 100 of the best pieces, put them in a pdf or on a kindle or a website (or even in a looseleaf notebook) and there, you’re done.

“The Secret Life of Magnetic Fields”

How do you explain something that’s invisible? Making it visible seems obvious in retrospect, but I’ve never seen any representation of electromagnetic fields remotely like this before:



Magnetic Movie from Semiconductor on Vimeo.

This is the work of of Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt of Semiconductor Films, commissioned for Britain’s Channel 4. The shapes are based on actual electromagnetic activity:

The secret lives of invisible magnetic fields are revealed as chaotic ever-changing geometries . All action takes place around NASA’s Space Sciences Laboratories, UC Berkeley, to recordings of space scientists describing their discoveries . Actual VLF [very low frequency] audio recordings control the evolution of the fields as they delve into our inaudible surroundings, revealing recurrent ‘whistlers’ produced by fleeting electrons .

[via Boing Boing]

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]

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]