Thursday, December 19, 2013

PCAST report and recommendations on MOOCS

Last year, PCAST, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, turned their attention to smart radio technology and spectrum sharing and their work yielded an executive order on the sharing of federal spectrum.

Now they have issued a short report with recomendations on MOOCs.

The report states that they are interested in MOOCs because:

MOOCs offer something different from radio, video, and even Internet courses of the past. Improvements in bandwidth and software innovations have enabled enormous improvement in the speed and quality of communication among large numbers of students and between students and teachers.
They continue with a concise, documented survey of MOOC developments (in the US), and discussion of the possible benefits from MOOCs and the criticisms that have been leveled against them.

They conclude with three recommendations:
  • Let market forces decide which innovations in online teaching and learning are best.
  • Encourage accrediting bodies to be flexible in response to educational innovation.
  • Support research and the sharing of results on effective teaching and learning.
Their faith that the market will do the right thing got my attention -- is there no proactive role for the government in this? Would we have the Internet today if it were not for the government's role in developing the ARPANet and seeding connectivity with NSFNet?

I'd also be a bit worried that flexibility in accrediting might mean lower standards, but, in this case, I think market forces -- the job market -- will trump credit. College students will pay for training that leads to jobs.

Update 12/20/2013

PCAT has published a MOOC Hierarchy:


Update 12/20/2013

PCAT has published an infographic Harnessing Technology for Higher Education.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

A Hole in Space -- envisioning and demonstrating video chat in 1980

Product development often begins with a speculative vision like Vannevar Bush imagining a global network of scientific workstations (see this presentation) or the work of artists and storytellers.

But, most visions are no more than that -- visions. The critical next step is building an engineering prototype demonstrating the vision -- "demo or die." Think of Daimler's early autos, the Wright Brothers' Flyer, or Doug Engelbart and Ivan Sutherland's work in our field.

Artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz combined vision and prototype when they created a "Hole in Space" by linking bigger-than-life displays in New York and LA with a NASA satellite feed. It was the mother of all video chats -- they showed that size and bandwidth matter in communicating presence and emotion.

Galloway and Rabinowitz documented the installation in a video. Below you will find links to both the full video and selected excerpts. If you like the excerpts, you will love the full video -- it is full of emotion and humor.

More information on:
Excerpt video (4m 49s):

Full video (29m 44s):

Monday, December 02, 2013

Amazon photos -- yesterday, today and tomorrow

These photos are from coverage of Amazon by NPR and Sixty Minutes. They illustrate Amazon's policy of investing only in things that enhance the customer experience and create loyalty, the improved density and efficiency of their warehouse/fulfillment centers and experiments with 30-minute delivery of orders by autonomous drones.

1999 warehouse and fulfillment center

2013 warehouse and fulfillment center

Robots scurrying around with picked items

Amazon corporate office, 1999

Jeff Bezos' makeshift desk, 1999

Bezos' hopes for 30-minute delivery via drone in 4-5 years

A delivery drone prototype

Eight electric motors

Taking off from a fulfillment center

Autonomous flight

Landing, dropping package and leaving for home

The spotlight on Jeff Bezos and Amazon

I surveyed my freshmen students this term, asking if they knew who Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Larry Page, Sergei Brin, Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs were.

They all knew who Gates and Jobs were, but had never heard of any of the others.

It seems that some tech entrepreneurs are public figures and others are not and it looks like Jeff Bezos has decided to go public.

A book on Amazon was recently published and Terry Gross interviewed the author, Jeff Stone, on Fresh Air. The interview covers Bezos' intention to make Amazon an "everything store" from the very start, his foregoing of quick profit to build customer loyalty and long-run profit, working conditions in Amazon warehouses, Bezos' management style and his purchase of The Washington Post.

Last night, Sixty Minutes also did a segment on Bezos and Amazon. You get to know Bezos and get a good look at the operation of the fullfilment centers they are building all around the country. The highlight is video of a research prototype -- autonomous drones delivering packages to homes. Bezos warned that this was early research, but expects that his drones will by flying in four or five years.

Links to some Sixty Minute videos on Amazon (with commercials):

If you only watch one video, make it this one from 1999 when Amazon was just a book and music store:

Update 12/2/2013

I've selected 11 still images from these videos, creating. They illustrate Amazon's policy of investing only in things that enhance the customer experience and create loyalty, the improved density and efficiency of their warehouse/fulfillment centers and experiments with 30-minute delivery of orders by autonomous drones.

Update 8/31/2014

Google has had a delivery drone project for two years according to the Atlantic Monthly. Drones from either company will face many non-technical challenges.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thrun shifts Udacity toward lifelong vocational education

You will want to read this article on Udacity's Sebastian Thrun, the man who popularized MOOCs with his 2011 artifical intelligence class.

He has abandoned the goal of bringing conventional college courses to low performing students in developed and developing countries, and pivoted toward vocational education.

The switch was motivated by the poor results of San Jose State University students who used Udacity material rather than conventional textbooks in "flipped" classrooms. The results left Thrun dissilusioned -- "I'd aspired to give people a profound education--to teach them something substantial, but the data was at odds with this idea."

Thrun himself prepared the material for an introductory statistics course to be used at San Jose State. He did his best, stating that "From a pedagogical perspective, it was the best I could have done -- It was a good class."

But the students did poorly and Thrun concluded that they had a "lousy product."

I think Thrun's elite background led him down a garden path. Any San Jose State professor who had taught an introduction to statistics could have told him that many (most?) of his students would not have basic arithmetic skills and would "hate math." They are not Stanford students.

His response to this experience is to focus on industrial education, stating that "At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment." As such they are developing an AT&T-sponsored masters degree at Georgia Tech and training material for developers.

Thrun's revelation has produced a sense of schadenfreude among some academics, who were happy to say "we told you so" and perhaps breathe a sigh of relief that their jobs will remain secure.

But, even if many college courses are best taught in a conventional classroom or in a flipped class with a conventional textbook, those jobs may still be in danger. If Thrun is right about industrial education -- jobs -- being the true value of education, we may see more and more students foregoing college altogether for offerings like Thrun's.

Those San Jose students want jobs and they are increasingly aware of the rising direct cost and opportunity cost of a college degree.

When speaking of his five-year old son, Thrun reveals his vision of the future of education, saying "I hope he can hit the workforce relatively early and engage in lifelong education -- I wish to do away with the idea of spending one big chunk of time learning."

Udacity has already moved into workforce training, and I think they have been working on lifelong learning all along.

Update 11/30/2013
There is a long discussion of this post on Slashdot.
Update 3/25/2014

As Udacity moves away from university education, Coursera hires a university administrator as CEO -- Richard C. Levin, who was president of Yale University for 20 years. No one seems to have figured out the university-course business model, but Levin's international experience indicates that he sees a global market -- for students and teachers.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Wolfram Language -- a paradigm shift?

As technology evolves, working with new data types becomes economically feasible. The first computers worked on numbers, they "computed." Then came alphanumeric data, text, speech, music, etc. This table shows the decade in which each data type became widely available:

Wolfram Language sounds like it might change this paradigm. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Stephen Wolfram's symbolic math program Mathematica. While Wolfram has introduced several "products" over the years, his has been a 25 year research and development project on generalized symbolic programming -- developing what he calls Wolfram Language.

Here is how he describes it:
There’s a fundamental idea that’s at the foundation of the Wolfram Language: the idea of symbolic programming, and the idea of representing everything as a symbolic expression. It’s been an embarrassingly gradual process over the course of decades for me to understand just how powerful this idea is. That there’s a completely general and uniform way to represent things, and that at every level that representation is immediately and fluidly accessible to computation.

It can be an array of data. Or a piece of graphics. Or an algebraic formula. Or a network. Or a time series. Or a geographic location. Or a user interface. Or a document. Or a piece of code. All of these are just symbolic expressions which can be combined or manipulated in a very uniform way.

And here is how he visualizes it:

It sounds like a uniform way to represent and operate on everything from text strings to user interfaces.

Wolfram's blog post is vague but enticing. He promises to make Wolfram Language freely available in the cloud so we will be able to see it for ourselves. If this blog post had been written by someone at a Silicon Valley startup, I would have dismissed it as pre-marketing hype. But, it wasn't. Instead, it reminded me of of the "Preliminary discussion" of the von Neumann architecture I read as a student many years ago.

Jon von Neumann beside the IAS computer at Princeton

Update 11/18/2013

John Graves commented on the natural language processing promises in Wolfram's post.

Update 11/22/2013

Wolfram has posted a Language reference manual on their site. It primarily a reference manual, but there are some examples and tutorials.


Update 12/8/2013

Stephen Wolfram gave the keynote talk at The Next Web in Amsterdam (video below).  He mentioned Mathematica, but spent most of the time on Wolfram Alpha, Wolfram Language, complexity arising from simple procedures and data analysis and visualization.

He put the language in context by saying that "Wolfram alpha is basically 15 million lines of Wolfram Language code plus some number of terabytes of raw data plus a whole collection of real time feeds."  The description and demo of Wolfram Language begins around the 6m 50s point in his talk.

Wolfram talks fast and is somewhat elliptical, but he peppers his presentation with demos.  One might be tempted to write him off as hype, but the demos are real. The most impressive was this one liner:
which produced real time edge detection as he moved his hand in front of a camera. (It's at the 10m 10s point of the video). Impressive as that was, one has to wonder how brittle the system is. Wolfram knew the language included an edge detection algorithm, but can it be used for a variety of problems and applications? I cannot figure out a query that will get Wolfram Alpha to tell me the number of LTE mobile subscribers -- that is a bad sign.

Here's Wolfram's keynote:

Friday, November 15, 2013

Crowdsourcing college rating and innovation -- President Obama's affordable college initiative

Department of Education officials, led by Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, were on our campus last week, soliciting input on the president’s College Value and Affordability plan.

There were open forums and a lunch with several faculty and administrators. I was not able to attend the open forums, but was at the lunch.

The Los Angeles Times covered the forums, reporting that the plan met with skepticism about the feasibility of developing an effective rating system. Politico's coverage of the event also focused on the difficulties.

The lunch meeting was similar. Ms. Kanter described their plan and asked for input. While we all favor increased market transparency to help students pick a college, doing so is difficult. Many of the comments were warnings about shortcomings -- unanticipated side-effects of any rating system, differences in student preparation in high school, differences in levels of State support for schools, etc.

A multivariate problem like selecting a college or comparing two colleges does not have a single solution. It is like the proverbial blind men exploring an elephant -- complex and subjective.

But, that does not mean there is nothing for government to do. The role of the government in this case is to gather and publish data, not to analyze it. (Or to be only one of many analysts).

The government should publish data on colleges and outcomes in an open, easily manipulated format. Let the people -- policy experts, teachers, administrators, prospective students and their families -- anyone with an interest -- do their own data analysis and draw their own conclusions. The system should also provide a platform for presenting, sharing and discussing those analyses and conclusions.

Tools for analyzing and visualizing the data should also be provided and it should be possible for a person to document their analysis using these tools in such a manner that others could replicate it, re-run it over time, or modify it. The analysis and visualization toolkit should also be open and, of course, users should be able to analyze and visualize the data using their own tools and methods.

In short, government should publish accurate, open data and let a thousand eyes see it.

The President's plan also addresses educational quality. Their Fact Sheet on President Obama’s Plan to Make College More Affordable, discusses technology-enabled innovation, singling out several examples at elite universities and Coursera.

Coursera and elite universities are developing valuable technology and pedagogy, but, just as I would open the data analysis process, I would have the government promote open innovation in education. There are gifted teachers and innovators in schools, colleges, high schools, design firms, etc. throughout the world. Furthermore, faculty in these schools often have more experience with the sorts of students who cannot afford education today than do those at elite universities.

Can we find ways to include the contributions of those people in the President's program?

For example, MIT, Stanford and Google are collaborating on an open source platform for MOOCs, ( An open, hosted version of that platform would be a valuable resource for faculty and others around the world. Google has the infrastructure – not just connectivity, but services like Google Plus Communities, Hangouts, YouTube and Google Drive – to create that hosted platform. It would be terrific if the Department of Education could work with them to create an open "YouTube for education". (If Google were not willing, the CSU system or others could do it).

There are also many examples of the use of fine-grained, focused modules in education -- most prominently at the Khan Academy. Modular material can take many forms – a short PowerPoint presentation or video demonstration, a thought provoking quote, an anecdote, an image, an animation, a question, an assignment, a simulation, a grading technique, etc. can be effective and of use to others. Every teacher has some such "modules" that could be of use to others. The trick is to make them discoverable. Could the Department of Education create a system for doing that?

High school teachers and others working on Common Core curricula are also a resource for colleges. Dominguez Hills and others spend a lot of time on remediation. We should encourage colleges to discover and incorporate teaching material and insights from those working on the Common Core.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.


Update 11/19/2013


Update 11/25/2013 This article on the forum appeared in our campus publication, Inside Dominguez. It contains several student and faculty comments. -----

Update 11/25/2013

There is a fairly long discussion of this post On Slashdot.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Los Angeles to request city-wide fiber proposals

Ars Technica reports that the City of Los Angeles plans to issue a request for proposals (RFP) to bring fiber connectivity to every resident. The RFP is not out yet, but it sounds as though they are not looking for a retail Interent service provider, but for open infrastructure which competitors could use to offer Internet service.

The article is vague, but it seems the city envisions an open network with wholesale pricing for any one who wants to compete as a retail Internet service provider. That is reminiscent of the successful approach taken in Stockholm.

But it is also reminiscent of the thwarted desire of Congress in passing the Telecommunication Act of 1996 in the United States. The incumbent telephone and cable companies used the courts, lobbying and claims of limited facilites to kill the would-be competion.

The rumored RFP has characteristics of Google Fiber, like free or ad supported low speed connectivity for all, tiered pricing for high speed Internet, television and telephone and free or subsidized connectivity to non-profits. On the other hand, Los Angeles is said to seek business access, which Google does not allow.

Speaking of Google Fiber, they may very well have plans to go nation wide -- might they be a bidder in Los Angeles?

The article says the RFP has the support of recently elected council member Bob Blumenfield and new mayor Eric Garcetti.

I live in Los Angeles, and long ago gave up hope that Verizon would deliver their fiber service, FIOS, to my neighborhood, so am stuck with only one viable Internet service provider. (Yes, it's a monopoly). I would love to see something come of this, but seeing is believing.

Update 7/22/2014

The city has received 34 responses to its request for information (RFI). They came from city departments as well as private companies, including my current monopoly ISP Time-Warner Cable and an optimistic report from Angie Communications, a Dutch company. The city will now take these RFIs into account in drafting a request for proposals.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Grading systems -- how do you grade?

I just saw a post by Kevin Werbach that links to a post on the grading system used by Liz Lawley -- she gives only three grades: A for "good work," C for "mediocre but acceptable work" and F if "they really hadn’t mastered the material."

That got me thinking about grading. I will tell you how I grade and would like to hear how you grade.

For final grades, I curve students relative to the top person in the class, so they are not competing against each other. I also put them in heterogeneous groups and give significant bonuses to groups with low-variance, encouraging them to help each other.

Part of their grade is based on assignments. Since I give a lot of small, focused assignments, I had to devise a grading system that did not take a lot of time. I grade assignments as satisfactory and on time, satisfactory, but late, or not satisfactory. They get full credit for assignments that are satisfactory and on time and half credit for those that are satisfactory, but late. If they are not satisfactory, I explain why and they have the opportunity to re-submit a satisfactory answer for half credit. This method makes grading relatively quick and encourages students to keep up.

But, I am still grading at the course level, which is inappropriate for many subjects. For example, to say that someone received a C in an introductory statistics course means they did not learn significant parts of the material -- perhaps understanding descriptive statistics, but not hypothesis testing or estimation.

Instead of one grade, I'd prefer a fine-grained system in which one could, for example, pass "measures of central tendency," then "measures of variability," then "basic probability," etc. In that case, "passing" an introduction to statistics would mean passing each of a series of ordered modules and understanding all of the concepts and skills presented in the course.

I've advocated and used modular teaching material for many years, but always within the confines of the standard grading paradigm -- assign a letter grade from A to F for an entire course. With today's technology, we could combine modular teaching material with pass/fail grading at the module level. The technology is the easy part. Breaking up the traditional transcript -- our current system of grading and certification -- would be tough.

But, enough blue sky dreaming -- I am curious to know how others grade. I've outlined my grading system and that of Liz Lawley -- how do you grade?

Bill Gates talk to community college leaders

Earlier this month, Bill Gates addressed the Leadership Congress of the Association of Community College Trustees.

He described a few of the projects they have funded -- flipped classrooms, using MOOCs and other material:

We don’t have to have 20 different people in a large urban area all giving a lecture in the same introductory course. We can get the greatest lecturers in the English-speaking world, every student can listen to them – and the instructors who used to spend their time preparing and delivering lectures can become 21st century community college instructors.
This implies a different, but important role for instructors:
These instructors are gifted at relating to students, running small group learning sessions, and matching up students with the best resources available – the best lectures, the best problem sets, the best assessments. They have more time to get to know the students, explain difficult concepts, and trouble-shoot when students aren’t thriving. They are the architects and motivators of learning.

The smart use of technology doesn’t replace faculty – it redeploys them, to the benefit of the students.
Gates emphasized remedial classes and his funding of the Khan Academy seems like a good fit for the approach outlined in this talk. You can read a transcript of his presentation or watch this video:

Friday, October 25, 2013

PBS Frontline report provides context for the current NSA scandal

I figured everyone else was publishing information about NSA spying, so I had nothing to add, but I came across a PBS Frontline report "Top Secret America – 9/11 to the Boston Bombings," which provides context for the action of Edward Snowden. It aired on April 30, 2013.PBS describes the report as follows: "In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, Frontline investigates the vast maze of clandestine government efforts created after 9/11 for the purpose of hunting terrorists and preventing future attacks."

Here are a couple of quotes from the transcript:
NARRATOR: Ten years after September 11th--Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dana Priest investigates the creation of Top Secret America.

RICHARD IMMERMAN, Asst. Dpty. Director, DNI, 2007-08: What happens after 9/11 is this tremendous ramping up.

DANA PRIEST, The Washington Post: The money just came out of Congress- it was flying out.

ALLISON STANGER, Rohatyn Center for International Affairs: It’s shrouded in secrecy.

GARY SCHROEN, CIA, 1970-02: We weren’t going to play by the old set of rules.


NARRATOR: But finding the exact needle would take manpower, lots of it, and in a hurry. The NSA turned to a new force in the covert war, private contractors. (LP: one of which, Booz Allen Hamilton, employed Edward Snowden).

DANA PRIEST: You had this boom in the corporate intelligence world, as well, companies like CACI, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics. Just all the old-fashioned industrial, “We’re building ships and submarines”-type corporations quickly moved into the intelligence and information space.

NARRATOR: The NSA spent billions of dollars on more than 480 private companies. Gen. Michael Hayden led the effort in the days right after 9/11.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

MOOC competition is heating up -- two European MOOC providers are going live

I discussed the global nature of online education in an earlier post. While MOOCs started in the US, and US companies and universities have offered the majority of classes to date, online education will be a global market for providers as well as students.

Two European MOOC providers, iversity and Futurelearn, are going live this month. The first course offered by Futurelearn, a coalition of UK universities, starts October 21. It is an ecology course called "Fairness and nature: When worlds collide" and it will only last two weeks. I will enroll to get a look at the Futurelearn delivery platform.

Iversity began with a scholarship from the German Federal Ministry of Science and Technology and is now venture funded. They will be offering MOOCs by university professors from around the world and are launching with six courses this month. Their course promotion videos are innovative, for example, combining video and graphics and using 3D video, as shown below. I want to keep an eye on their platform as well.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Gallup poll on traditional versus online education in the U.S.

During the first week of October, Gallup polled U. S. adults on their opinion of online education. in the U. S.

They found that online education was rated as better than traditional education at providing value and a variety of courses. On the other hand, the respondents see student success as more likely in traditional classes. They also rate traditional classes as better at individualized instruction and delivering high-quality instruction from well-qualified instructors. They see traditional classes as more likely to have rigorous testing and grading that can be trusted, which correlates with a belief that they are more likely to be viewed positively by employers. Here is a summary of the results:

The survey was done over the phone (50% cell and 50% landline) and the results are weighted in proportion to U. S. demographics. Gallup says they are 95% confident that the results are within +/- four percent.

Five percent said they were currently taking an online course and they tended to be relatively young and focused on school work as opposed to job skills or recreation.

These results are indicative of general public opinion, which may give some insight into the future of public funding for online education as well as its worth in the job market, but I wish they would survey people who have recently or are currently taking a class online -- asking what they were taking, why they took it, whether it was massive, open, a traditional college class online, etc.

For this survey, I have the impression that many of the people who were taking online classes did so as part of a degree program, but that is not made clear. I hope Gallup will follow up with surveys of online students.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Freedom House report -- "Freedom on the Net, 2013"

Freedom House publishes an annual report on Internet freedom and Freedom on the Net 2013 was published last week.

The report "headline" is an Internet freedom score for each of 60 nations. The score is based on:
  • Obstacles to Access—including infrastructural and economic barriers to access, legal and ownership control over internet service providers (ISPs), and independence of regulatory bodies;
  • Limits on Content—including legal regulations on content, technical filtering and blocking of websites, self-censorship, the vibrancy/diversity of online news media, and the use of ICTs for civic mobilization;
  • Violations of User Rights—including surveillance, privacy, and repercussions for online activity, such as imprisonment, extralegal harassment, or cyber attacks.
Here are the controls in effect in the top and bottom five scoring nations:

The USA rank will probably drop next year, reflecting the ongoing revelations of the extent of NSA Internet surveillance. (For the full list of national controls click here).

While the index is interesting, the meat of the report is in essays on the state of the Internet in the various nations. These are concise and well referenced. They focus on developments during the year, but are a good starting point to understanding the Internet in a nation.

The report also includes graphic presentations of the data, for example, an interactive map in which data is displayed when the cursor hovers over a nation:

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Chromebook + Chromecast = winner

In a recent test, I discoverd that my laptop was not fast enough to cast video from a browser tab to a Chromecast. The audio and video stuttered badly because, as you see here, the CPU was maxed out:

This was not surprising, since my laptop fails to meet Google's recommended specs for tab

But, I posted a query to the Chromecast community on Google Plus asking whether any Chromebooks could cast a video tab. I expected that the (very expensive) Google Pixel, which has an Intel i5 CPU, would be the only one that could, but I was wrong.

James Welbes commented that he was able to cast video tabs using his Samsung 550 Chromebook, which has a dual core Celeron processor. That led commenter Joe Phelps to speculate that "Chrome OS must have very little overhead." That makes a lot of sense -- it does not have to deal with things like overlapping windows and a local file system.

The next generation of Chromebooks has been announced.

I expect that they will all cast tabs well. If that is the case, and one of them has a decent keyboard and screen, I will use it in my den for watching video and in my Chromecast-equipped office for work.

The Pixel was a proof of concept and the new Chromebooks are the first production machines. I will still use laptop and desktop machines, but the Chromebook will get plenty of use.

Update 11/26/2013

Acer announced a $300 touch screen Chromebook today. (I believe the only other one is the expensive Google Pixel).  This sounds really cool, but it only has 2GB of RAM.  I keep a lot of tabs open so suspect that would be a performance constraint.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

A terrific article on the development of the iPhone

The New York Times magazine published an article by Fred Vogelstein on the development and announcement of the iPhone: And Then Steve Said, "Let There Be an iPhone."

The article describes an enormous challenge with 80-hour weeks and frayed tempers, the risks they took, the secrecy around the project and a fascinating behind the scenes look at the preparation for the risky on-stage demo Steve Jobs did at the product introduction (starting at 21m 3s -- watch at least through 24m 30s):

Here are a few quotes from the New York Times article to pique your interest:

It’s hard to overstate the gamble Jobs took when he decided to unveil the iPhone back in January 2007. Not only was he introducing a new kind of phone — something Apple had never made before — he was doing so with a prototype that barely worked.

Very rarely did I see him become completely unglued — it happened, but mostly he just looked at you and very directly said in a very loud and stern voice, ‘You are [expletive] up my company,’ or, ‘If we fail, it will be because of you.’

But every time Jobs and his executives examined the idea in detail, it seemed like a suicide mission. Phone chips and bandwidth were too slow for anyone to want to surf the Internet and download music or video over a cellphone connection.

Above all, Jobs didn’t want to partner with any of the wireless carriers.

Apple designed and built not one but three different early versions of the iPhone in 2005 and 2006.

No one had ever put a multitouch screen in a mainstream consumer product before

Jon Rubinstein, Apple’s top hardware executive at the time, says there were even long discussions about how big the phone would be.

The iPhone project was so complex that it occasionally threatened to derail the entire corporation. Many top engineers in the company were being sucked into the project, forcing slowdowns in the timetables of other work.

Big companies like Marvell, which made the Wi-Fi radio chip, and CSR, which provided the Bluetooth radio chip, hadn’t been told they were going to be in a new phone. They thought they were going to be in a new iPod. “We actually had fake schematics and fake industrial designs,” the engineer says.

Even people within the project itself couldn’t talk to one another.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

User interface design -- fad or function?

Microsoft started with the flat Metro interface of Windows 8. Apple flattened iOS 7 and now Google has flattened their logo.

Is this based on human-computer interface research or is it style and fad? Years ago, I taught an HCI course in which we read about controlled studies in making user interface design choices. Google is said to be engineering driven, researching everything from the optimal number of seats at cafeteria tables to the number of pixels devoted to a particular icon on the screen.

But, I have the feeling that the rush to simple, flat user interfaces is driven by fad as much as function. My wife uses an iPhone and an iPad. She is probably a typical non-geek user -- using relatively few apps and features. Our daughter was all excited when iOS 7 came out -- she grabbed my wife's iPad and iPhone and installed it the next day.

After using iOS 7 for a few days my wife says she sees no advantage for her usage mix -- the only change is that she has to learn how to do what she always did in slightly different ways. She also likes 3-D buttons that are obviously clickable and give feedback when you click on them.

My wife thinks it is fad, not function and it reminds me of the Pantone's annual fashion color palette and their color of the year:

If these changes were driven by functional considerations, I'd love to see the old-fashioned HCI research that led to them. If not, fads tend to be cyclical, so we can look forward to a return to 3-D skeuomorphism in a few years. As you see below, the designers are already working on them.

(You can make your own goofy logos at


Update 9/29/2013

This child was even more upset than my wife with iOS 7:

Friday, September 27, 2013

Purdue Signals -- giving students feedback on how they are doing

I give my students feedback as to how they are doing relative to the class on assignments and quizzes throughout the semester. I also do informal, anonymous surveys to give them feedback on their relative level of effort, for example asking how many many actually watched a video that had been assigned or how long they spent studying a module or doing an assignment. These low-tech surveys take only a few minutes to administer and tabulate. My goal is to put information, and therefore responsibility for the outcome, in their hands.

Purdue University has a more ambitious effort for monitoring student progress and giving them feedback during the term. Since 2007, they have used Signals, a system that mines student data to predict their success in a course. They look at demographic, help-seeking and performance variables to judge how well a student is doing as the term progresses. Student feedback includes a red/green/yellow signal to indicate their overall progress as well as "canned" emails from their instructors and suggestions as to how to improve and where to get help.

Purdue reports that graduation rate, retention rate and grades have improved for students taking Signals courses. For example, Signals students got better grades in these courses:

This and the other results reported by the Signals team are encouraging, but there are many confounding variables. For example, professors choose whether or not to use Signals in their courses and those who choose to do so may be more more committed to teaching than those who don't.

If this sounds interesting, you can visit the Signals home page, read this short report on the project, read this discussion of ethical considerations in mining student data in this manner or watch these one minute videos.

Explanation of Signals for students:

Comments from two faculty members:

I am not sure whether I would use Signals if it were available to me as a teacher, but my low-tech approach to feedback on relative performance and effort is simple and I can do it on my own.


Update 9/28/2013

Andrew Stewart suggest that we look at JISC's work in this area, writing:
Some interested findings emerging from Jisc's Assessment and Feedback programme around this area. As a distance learning student myself I'd love to have this kind of information at my fingertips.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Chromecast -- the $35 decision support room in your office

In an earlier post, I discovered that my old laptop was too slow to cast video to my TV set, but it worked well when displaying still images like a PowerPoint presentation on a TV set equipped with Google Chromecast.

It not only works for a presentation by one person to an audience -- several people in a room can actively share a heads-up display. Augmented meeting rooms in which participants have connected computers at their fingertips, were invented by Doug Engelbart in the 1960s envisioned and invented much of what we use today during the 1960s.

In the 1980s, local area networks became common, and the University of Arizona, Xerox Palo Alto Research center and others began experimenting with augmented meeting rooms with shared displays. Meeting participants could brainstorm ideas, rearrange document outlines, edit documents, vote and conduct polls, etc. and companies like Groupsystems marketed upscale decision support rooms like this one.

Those rooms cost a fortune and were used as corporate boardrooms, but interest in them has waned.

A large TV set with a Chromecast dongle is not as powerful or opulent as a decision support room, but for $35 it might become the decision support room for (small groups of) the rest of us. Below you see a simple test in which two users are editing the same Google Drive document with the result displayed on a TV set.

This sort of setup would allow several people in a room to share a heads-up display. I tested it with a simple Google doc, but one can imagine using it with the kinds of software found in expensive decision support rooms -- software with modules for voting, brainstorming, outlining, writing, etc. and features like selective anonymity and podium passing. We may find Chromecast displays next to those whiteboards in our offices in the future.

Update 10/2/2013

Commenter Martyn Williams noted that the Chromecast will work with an HDMI-equipped projector, which would enable larger displays in your office or conference room.

Commenter Roger Jennings suggested that the Chromecast could save bandwith in casting pages if it had more "intelligence" -- for example being able to display PDF, Excel, Powerpoint, and Word files.

Together, these comments suggest a future where we have dumb displays with upgradeable, external intelligence. I have changed the TV set in my den 3 times in the last 35 years, but change computers every couple of years. I don't want a smart TV set, I want a dumb display with an upgradeable "chromecast."

Monday, September 23, 2013

Globalization of MOOCs: Futurelearn announces first courses

When you think of MOOCs, edX, Coursera and Udacity come to mind, but global online education is taking off.

Futurelearn, a coalition of 20 UK and international universities, the British Museum, British Library and British Council, has just launched with 20 courses starting this fall and winter. The courses are 6 or 7 weeks long and require 2 or 3 hours per week.

I checked out their "beta" Web site and few things caught my attention.

Their slogan is "Learning for life," indicating a focus on students who are not seeking credit and degrees. That audience may turn out to be more important than traditional university students -- more lucrative and more beneficial to society.

They also show interest in training for job-related skills. One of the initial courses is Dental photography in practice.

Their tagline is Enjoy free online courses from leading UK and international universities, indicating a global focus. In addition to international universities, they will be serving international students. One of their partners is The British Council, the UK international cultural organization, which offers classes (online and off) and arranges cultural and educational exchanges and events. The British Council has offices in 116 nations and they will no doubt help with marketing and spreading the word.

Futurelearn is later to the game than the big three U. S. MOOC providers, but the game is just beginning -- the technology, pedagogy and place in society of online education are all changing rapidly. Furthermore, FutureLearn is a private company wholly owned by the Open University, which has been doing distance education (online and off) since 1971.

I've enrolled in a course and am anxious to see their platform and pedagogy. Stay tuned.

Beware of the Nexus 7 and the Hush-a-Phone -- they may damage your network

I heard a rant by Jeff Jarvis on the This Week in Google podcast. It seems that he got a new Nexus 7 tablet and Verizon refused to add it to his LTE account because it had not yet been verified. He tested it with a SIM from a different device and it worked fine. He also pointed out that Google had advertised that it would work on the Verizon network and that the terms of Verizon's FCC license required open access to any compliant device.

(He has documented the story in this blog post).

Verizon said they had to certify the device -- have it tested to be sure it would not harm their network.

That reminded me of the Hush-a-Phone. In 1956, the courts overruled an FCC ban on Hush-a-Phone, rejecting AT&T's claim that it posed a risk to the network and would degrade call quality.

Here is a picture of the Hush-a-Phone -- you can decide how grave the risk was:

What if AT&T had prevailed in the Hush-a-Phone case and the subsequent case of the Carterphone, a device for patching radio calls into the telephone network? (Yeah, hams used to do that).

It seems that Verizon is unclear on the meaning of "open" -- they are still nostalgic about the good old days, when only the phone company could sell you things like phones, modems, DSL routers, answering machines, etc.

Friday, September 20, 2013

If you build it, they will come

A lot of folks are saying that phones are so fast these days that the 64-bit processor in the iPhone 5s does not change the user experience -- it is nothing more than a marketing gimmick.


This reminds me of the time I was consulting to MicroPro International, publisher of WordStar -- the most popular word processing program of its time. I was fired as a consultant after telling them that the second-generation word processor they were developing, WordStar 2000, was a loser because it was not graphically oriented. They ignored me because, hey, a graphically oriented word processor would require 64 MB of memory and 16 MB was a lot of RAM at the time.

In a Moore's Law world, you design for the future, not the present. Apple's 64-bit CPU will not make placing phone calls or texting any faster, but it provides a new platform on which to build new applications. For example, we will see the substitution of computation for hardware in making better videos and photographs -- the 41 megapixel camera in the Lumia 1020 will not seem so amazing in a few years. Improved voice recognition and synthesis will demand more horsepower. Wearable things and physiological monitoring applications will be developed to use all the processing power we can muster.

And, how about something mundane like PC replacement?

My main computer is a Dell Precision M4400 laptop. It has a dual core 64 bit processor with 410 million transistors that is clocked at 3.06 GHz. It has 8GB of memory and a 256 GB solid state drive.

I do 99% of my work on that machine, and unless I am streaming or rendering video, it seems quite responsive. If the CPU were ten times as fast, I don't think I would notice much increase in my productivity.

The iPhone 5s has has a dual core 64 bit processor with "over 1 billion" transistors that is clocked at 1.3GHz. It has 1 GB of RAM and up to 64GB of storage. It also has a motion sensing coprocessor.

Anandtech reports that the new iPhone is substantially faster than its quad core, faster-clocked cell phone competitors -- Apple is using those billion transistors well.

The iPhone is faster than other phones, but how would it compare to my laptop if it were plugged into a keyboard/monitor docking station?

Both have dual core, 64 bit CPUs and judging by the transistor counts and cell phone benchmarks, the iPhone processor should be able to beat my laptop. But, what about the low clock speed and relatively small memory? And two cores sounds kind of lame these days.

Apple has kept clock speed, memory capacity and core count low to save power, but, when docked, power is a minor consideration. I bet Apple's clever engineers could design a dual mode machine, that slowed and saved power when not docked. (Cooling would be a problem when docked and running fast).

Canonical is taking a shot at cell phone docking with Ubunto for Android. It is vaporware for now, but they have a cute video to illustrate the concept:

Apple traditionally does a major iPhone upgrade every two years. This was the year for a minor upgrade, but it laid the foundation for the future. I do not know what applications will be developed to utilize that 64 bit address space and processing power, but ... build it and they will come. ----- Update 9/21/2013 Last week, I asked my class whether they thought the finger print reader on the new iPhone 5s was a big deal. They did not think so -- they said they would be willing to pay from 0 to about $10 for the added convenience. Then I asked them about using it as general ID for authentication and for purchases in stores and online. That perked their interest up. But, will that happen? Brian Roemmele thinks it will and builds a strong case in his post What is Apple’s new Secure Enclave and why is it important?. It turns out that some of those billion plus transistors in the the A7 CPU are devoted to the implementation of patent protected security features.
If Roemmele is right, we will see a slew of authentication and transaction-oriented applications for the iPhone 5s and future devices using this technology. Here is the conclusion of his post:
Apple has taken a very slow and methodical approach with the release of Touch ID. We can see that there was a tremendous amount of amazing work that has gone into this project. All of this convergence took over seven years of very hard work. It includes many patent applications, the acquisition of AuthenTec, the selection of the A7 processor and the integration of the TrustZone suite all baked together into what we now know as Touch ID. This has been a long journey that has only just been made public and I am rather certain that Steve Jobs would be quite proud.

Update 10/22/2013

The new iPad and iPad mini are out and Gigaom's first look singles out the speed of 64-bit apps and predicts that other developers will follow suit. Here is a quote:

The native Apple apps open super quick and there’s no lag when scrolling or paging through content in Pages or iPhoto. You tap and the device responds. Obviously Moore’s Law is at work here, but it helps that Apple has rewritten its native apps for 64-bit compatibility to be fully optimized with the A7 chip. Developers will be doing the same over the next year, so the iPad Air is likely only going to get better until the next model arrives.
Apple built it and they are coming.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thirty eight percent in the US watch Netflix online -- each one knows how to "cut the cord"

Yesterday I posted a note on Netflix' vision for their company and the TV industry in general. They now see themselves as a "movie and TV series network" and predict rapid growth for Internet TV. Today, I came across a Nielsen survey that supports both of those contentions.

The survey showed that 38% of the people in the U. S. subscribe to or watch Netflix streaming video service. That is up from 31% last year.

I don't know about you, but that is a lot more than I would have guessed. It is about 119 million people if they consider the entire population -- babies and all. Note also that Hulu and Amazon also have significant, growing numbers of subscribers.

Netflix' view of themselves as a series network is also confirmed by the study. Forty five percent of Netflix streaming subscribers say the types of shows they watch when they stream are original programming -- series like "House of Cards."

And, when they watch those series, they tend to “binge.” Eighty eight percent of Netflix users and 70 percent of Hulu Plus users report streaming three or more episodes of the same TV show in one day. As we pointed out in our previous post, both consumers and creators like the full-season format of Netflix productions.

The survey also showed, that Netflix and Hulu are watched on a variety of devices:

The above figure also suggests a trend away from computers and game machines toward phones and tablets. People want to watch TV on any device at any time and at any place.

"Over the top" Internet television is not just for geeks any more -- 38 million people understand how easy it is to defect from cable and satellite TV, to "cut the cord." As the quality and variety of Internet TV material improves, it will be easy for them to drop their cable and satellite subscriptions. When we reach the tipping point, the transition will be rapid.