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education

09 Sep

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A discreet hotline for politicians to get tech advice. Worth doing?

September 9, 2013 | By |

We keep seeing politicians making decisions about technology and the web that seem odd and ill-informed.

In some cases, this might be due to lobbying, and that would be annoying. In other cases, it might be pure ignorance, and those I would chalk up as lost cases.

What would be the worst, though, is if a politian who is motivated and willing and just lacking the time to develop a deeper understanding makes a bad call, because of that’s preventable.

Politicians and their staffers work under immense time pressure. What’s more, they need to be informed about a huge number of topics, and the intricate, often complex details of how (for example) certain elements of the web work simply can’t get the amount of attention to grok it.

If a politician is high enough up in the proverbial foodchain, they might be able to muster the resources to have that research done. But not everybody can do that.

In the past I’ve often been the friend called by journalist and politics friends who needed a bit of trusted tech advice, and I’m always happy to give it. But not everybody is in a position to call a friend who knows this stuff.

Given the harsh, often ridiculing treatment politicians get when mentioning anything about the web online and getting even a tiny detail or reference wrong, I can almost understand why they don’t dare openly asking for advice. (Almost. But still. Nobody should be ridiculed for trying.)

So how about a hotline of sorts where politicians and their staffers can call for a quick briefing. Discreetly: Nobody but the two people on the line need to know. So they can ask away and need not risk being publicly mocked. In short time, they’d have a better understanding of how stuff works, and could make better informed decisions. A safe space to learn, in brief bursts of briefings.

Bonus: I think lobbyists would hate it, at least the one thriving on knowledge gaps on the politicians’ side. (Copyright lobby, I’m looking at you!)

Personally I wouldn’t mind setting aside an hour or two a week to have a few chats that way. And I’m sure we could find another half dozen of people, experts in their fields, trustworthy not to spill the details of these conversations.

Worth doing? [Y/N]

25 Feb

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Thoughts about the MIT Media Lab Class Learning Creative Learning

February 25, 2013 | By |

Neighborhood Mario

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been following Mitchel Resnick’s Learning Creative Learning class at the MIT Media Lab online.

It’s a big experiment, trying to get the in-class experience online – and for free, too – and supplementing it with an online component that consists of groups in email lists, Google+ and any channels the groups might want to use additionally.

I’ve found the course to be a quite interesting experience. On one side, I found some aspects a bit frustrating, and on the other hand I’ve been enjoying it a great deal. Let me try to articulate the pros and cons so you can judge for yourself if this is for you.

The content and focus is great, and there are brilliant and fascinating guests. The in-class format consists mostly of a conversation between two people, a sort of dialog-slash-interview situation, which works fine. There are, of course, the tech problems you’d expect, like the occasional freeze or lag – once between the speakers and the class room (if contributing remotely, which seems the norm), and once between classroom and the remote attendee (ie. me or you). These tech problems, while a bit annoying at times, aren’t too bad. If you’ve survived conference calls on Skype before, you’re mentally equipped to follow a class on Google Hangout. So the “provided” content, while often on a meta level (after all, it’s a class on learning), is top notch.

Then there’s the interactive elements, and here’s where it gets more tricky. It’s a big online audience – I think I remember hearing the number 30K, or was it 40K? That’s a lot of people. They’re broken down into small groups, either self-organized if you put down a group name (I tried to get into “webmakers”), otherwise you’re assigned based on time zones. From what I can tell, groups seem to consist about maybe 15 people.

The mechanism to hook you up with the group is a mailing list – from then on in it’s up to the participants to coordinate. The “recommended” thing to do is start a Google+ community to complement the global G+ community (which has several thousand members).

Every week, there’s a bit of recommended reading/watching, and an exercise to share with your group. Which can be great, or it can become a bit of a problem. Because it’s clearly a course which you get much more out of the more you put in. Not a surprise really, and actually every class is like this, but since it’s designed around learning groups this is particularly true here. Now, for the oldest and lamest of reasons (little time & somewhat incompatible scheduling on my end) I’ve not really contributed much, and instead I’ve been pretty much lurking. Which isn’t a good thing and makes it entirely my fault I haven’t been getting as much out as I liked.

So I’ve been wondering: What could be a good, simple mechanism to help me and others in similar situations to get the group dynamic going?

Maybe a weekly shared watching experience in one room could help to connect, followed by a group discussion? This would at least cluster the time investment, making it easier to set aside a chunk for it. This would mean not watching the discussion live, but not being on the backchannel during the discussion doesn’t seem too much of a sacrifice compared to gaining a discussion group and the video recordings are perfectly fine.

Just thinking out loud – is this something that many folks in Berlin would be interested in? Let’s level up together.

12 Nov

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Mozfest: Thoughts on a more sustainable Summer Code Party

November 12, 2012 | By |

Summer Code Party. Image by Mozilla

This year has seen Mozilla’s first Summer Code Party. SCP is a decentralized, global series of community events, and a simple toolkit to help local organizers get their events set up more easily. It’s also a template for three event formats ranging from so-called Kitchentables (3-5 friends hacking at home) to Hackjams for up to 50 participants.

At Mozfest, Mark Surman hosted a brainstorming session that also touched on the question how the Summer Code Party can be both spread even further and made more sustainable.

There were a few key thoughts and ideas that emerged in our group – apologies for not being having the participants’ names at hand – that I’d like to share. Curious to hear your thoughts on them.

For one, localized resources are always helpful. The more language are available in both tools & materials, the better. Everything that lowers the barrier of entry. While in our tribe everybody speaks English, to reach out to all the people beyond the inner circle it’s key to make participation as easy as possible, and language is a big part of that.

Another way of spreading the word is to make use of cultural specifics per country/region. As one participant pointed out, in Austria there is one presence reliably in every small town across the country: A local brass band. Is there a way – any way – to take advantage of that fact? Can the brass band be harnessed as an ambassador for an educational endeavor? What other cultural hacks can we come up with to tap into local communities? I’m sure there must be more of these types of very specific cultural and local hacks to grow Summer Code Party.

The third big point is to coordinate with the probably largest network of learners and educators, namely by partnering with the school and university system. The advantage in size is obvious. However, there are also specific challenges and needs there. Concretely, it’s anything but a given that educators have the skills and/or the confidence to teach web making. Providing more formal resources could be one way of getting them onboard. I think there might be a more appropriate way, though: Educators should use the same tools and formats that the Summer Code Party proposes to the “end users” – by hosting peer exchange Kitchen Tables or Hack Jams or similar formats. That way, educators become an integral part of the Summer Code Party, and like the kids they try to encourage and empower they, too, would be both teacher and learner simultaneously.

Curious to hear your thoughts.

15 Nov

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Mozilla Festival 2011

November 15, 2011 | By |

Fox, girl, squirrel by Peter Bihr #mozfest
_Image by Peter Bihr, Creative Commons (by-nc-sa)_

Mozilla Festival (aka #Mozfest) is over, and it was intense. Throw a mix of 500 journalists, hackers, web devs and activists in a room and shake it up, and interesting things are going to happen. As well they did.

There’s plenty of good reviews out there, so I’m just going to highlight a few points that stood out for me.

Education for the open web

Ben Hammersley, who among many other things advises the EU in digital matters, made a point about the importance of education: Those who decide upon the future don’t understand the present.

We have several digital gaps in education – education in all things digital, about all things digital, across all things digital. One, there’s a gap along education lines. Two, there’s a global divide. Three, there’s a gap along income (and education) of parents that prevents kids in poorer neighborhoods the same chances to participate online (which might enable them to bootstrap knowledge).

And then we have – four! – a gap between those who by belonging to the group that really gets the web and how it works and those who don’t, where politicians are mostly on the wrong side of the gap. It’s a structural divide more than anything – give it a few years and things might work out fine, but as it stands (repeat!) Those who decide upon the future don’t understand the present. And this is something we need to work on. Luckily, it’s easier to educate some smart folks than change whole strata of society. (At least in theory.)

This is where we all can come in and help out. If you find yourself talking to a politician, help them out. Take the time to explain stuff. Don’t be snobby about it. It’s politics where we can leverage power, and it’s politics where the foundation is laid for how our most important infrastructure will work (or be broken) for years.

Let’s all work on some truly relevant things.

Mozfest from above, image by Pierros Papadeas Image by Pierros Papadeas, some rights reserved

Data Journalism Handbook

Just a brief shout out: A large group of journalists and data diggers gathered and wrote a Data Journalism Handbook. It’s not finished, but it’s an impressive draft and a great basis to extend over time. They just dug in, and built something cool over the weekend, then took it from there. This is the way to go, really.

Popcorn – making your videos talk to the web (and the web talk back)

The real killer – a real eye opener! – for me was certainly Popcorn.js, or rather the Popcorn Maker. Popcorn.js is a framework to make video on the web more interactive – more of the web – an event framework, or in other words: a little toolkit that helps you make your videos interact with the websites around them and vice versa. For example, you can pull maps or Flickr images or a live Twitter search into your video, or into an adjacent box (or pretty much wherever you like, really).

It’s harder to explain than to understand, so here’s a Popcorn demo.

And the Popcorn Maker, launched last Friday, is a web-based authoring tool to make all this more accessibel to non-developers – you need only the most basic understanding of HTML etc to use a video you uploaded to Youtube or Vimeo and enrich it with web data.

It’s super impressive, and it’s great how this has come about since last year‘s Mozilla Festival in Barcelona.

It’s also very clearly alpha software at the time, so try at your own risk – in a first test, I wasn’t able to save a project, but could pull a Youtube video and add map data, photos and tweets within less than 5 minutes – it’s really quite something.

Standards for space, time and the web

Every morning, I went for a run. Since my hotel was close by, my run would take me around the Royal Observatory. At the Observatory there are a number of mindboggingly interesting things on display: The Prime Meridian, the original kilogram, a measurement of feet and inches (to compare with your local merchant), as well as the (probably) first clock to display Greenwich Mean Time to the public (since 1852). There’s also a red ball on one of the rooftops that every day would be pulled up slowly, then drop at exactly 13:00h every day. The ball was visible from the river Thames, allowing the ships to reset (and thus synchronize) their clocks.

The Royal Observatory was by and large the center of standardization for most of the world. From here, standards of space and time would ripple and spread throughout the Commonwealth.

It’s a bit like what the W3C is for the internet today. And like we needed to agree on standards for space and time 150 years ago, we need to agree on standards for the web today. The more open they are – the more they allow us to look inside the box, and tinker, and exchange data, and the more anybody can use and contribute to them – the better off all of us will be.