Monday, February 18, 2013

MoAR: not many this week, but there's (i) design, (ii) psychology, and (iii) biology.

by accident i saved over an earlier draft [1] of this week's roundup ..
.. which was rather annoying, as i lost a rather long rant in rebuttal to this article about classroom technology.

so here is what i rounded up today, on short notice:

i. mathematically sounding jargon .. from design.

well, apparently i've not been paying attention to the design world!
"If you're paying attention to what's going on in the design world, you've probably noticed the ongoing debate around skeuomorphism vs flat design."

~ from "flat pixels" @sachagreif
apparently, skeuomorphism isn't a special kind of homeomorphism .. not that i can tell, anyway. (it's probably not even a coarse isometry .. or what others call a 'rough' or 'quasi-isometry.')

similarly, i don't think "flat" has much to do with geometry. as the same author describes, though ..
"Flat Style embraces visual minimalism, eschewing textures and lighting effects for simple shapes and flat colors."
.. and apparently, "flat color" is a technical term in art, too. so if one thinks of colors as as a spectrum (i.e. a nonempty compact interval of real numbers) and an image as a function from a rectangle in the coordinate plane to this interval, then would flat-coloured image would be a piecewise constant function?


that seems pretty 'flat' to me. i would prefer the term: "locally flat" ..

.. but anyway, if you were wondering: apparently the image on the left is flat (in the design sense) and the other is not.

ii. revising our assumptions (on MOOCs)

first of all: yes, this is another article about online education. while browsing it, two thoughts came to mind.

ii.1. maybe it's the mathematician in me, but i rarely mind it whenever someone points out the "obvious" to me .. provided that they do so, with style:
"What I’m saying is we have to start from the position that the tidal wave is already here. Indignation, however righteous, is beside the point. The kids who are cutting their teeth on Khan Academy videos for help with their chemistry and calculus homework will grow up correctly assuming that there will always be low-cost or free educational opportunities available to them online in virtually any field of inquiry. They will naturally migrate to the best stuff and be less and less willing to pay for crap. This will cause a lot of trauma for the educational establishment, but that’s not the problem of the next generation that wants to learn."

~ from "the Internet will not ruin college" @salon
i don't know if this is obviously true. for now, however, the availability of search, in some form, seems to be a reasonably good assumption for the future.
as for my own habits, i generally prefer text to video,
so often i browse through wikipedia, pick the wikis i want,
then follow the listed references on them.

ii.2. it's worth noting that browsing for content is something quite different from enrolling in a course, though. the next excerpt is interesting in how psychology comes into play, regarding enrollment.
"It strikes me as a profound realization of the fundamental goal of the university — any university — that a course taught by an icon at one of the most elite institutions in the world would be accessible to me for just the cost of a few clicks ... But it seemed like too big a commitment to make while on deadline, so I ended up browsing..."
so i might have to change my mind in what i wrote in a previous roundup:

i still believe that when students are participating in their online courses, then they are paying much better attention than they would in, say, a randomly selected physical-classroom lecture. that doesn't say anything, however, about how often they will exercise their attention skills.

in particular, if they treat the content like any other media -- such as music, films, or television shows -- then their experience will likely consist of sporadic but concentrated bursts of activity instead of a regular, orderly routine. the problem with digital formats and experiences is that they are largely driven by (near to) immediate gratification. it's not clear to me whether the average student is sufficiently prescient and self-aware to account for this, and subsequently exercise such a deliberate practice.

a course website is still a website. it's probably going to be opened in a web-browser, along with other browsing tabs for email, social media, etc .. and that's only the web browser, a single program that is running on the computer.

maybe the average online student will be a distracted, multitasking one.

so far the "success stories" have a self-selecting population: if you're not enrolled in a university and want to take an online course, then it's your own commitment. what happens when university-enrolled students are drafted into the same environment? can we really expect such a significant behavioral change?

it's not clear to me if this is an effective way of learning anything hard .. especially if, like mathematics, the topic is sequential. i imagine a student following the first few lectures, not visiting the website in a while, and then trying to cram all the video lectures into one big viewing (due to a deadline of some kind). like cramming for exam, this is probably not going to work.

the video format is great when you want to follow an entire procedure or narrative. on the other hand, it is rigid in the sense that it is necessarily chronological. as a result, to guarantee that you get everything you want from it, you either have to (a) sit through all of it or (b) be very good at pause/rewind/fastforward and sifting the information you need.

in contrast, you can easily skim through a wiki; text is spatially ordered, you see .. not chronologically.

i'm starting to wonder: if MOOCs are to eventually fail, then would it be due to students being all too human, carrying on the same bad habits that already lead to disaster in physical classrooms?

iii. organisms are turning into computers, whereas computers are turning into .. doctors?

interesting.  computational biology might suddenly get a lot more real.
"Synthetic biology seeks to bring concepts from electronic engineering to cell biology, treating gene functions as components in a circuit. To that end, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge have devised a set of simple genetic modules that respond to inputs much like the Boolean logic gates used in computers."

~ from "How to turn living cells into computers" @nature
on a related note,
"By using a new framework that employs sequential decision-making, the previous single-decision research can be expanded into models that simulate numerous alternative treatment paths out into the future; maintain beliefs about patient health status over time even when measurements are unavailable or uncertain; and continually plan/re-plan as new information becomes available. In other words, it can "think like a doctor." ..."

~ from "Can computers save health care?.." @iu.newsroom
so by the law of syllogism, surely we can engineer our own cells to become their own doctors? (-;

[1] as you may have guessed, usually i bookmark the articles links over the course of the week .. and when bored, start adding my personal rants to self-servingly-selected excerpts.

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