Timeline + Map Web Tool Comparison

I prepared this brief for a pair-taught course on monasticism, in which the professors wanted to explore using chronological, locative, and narrative data from historical, ethnographic, archaeological, literary, and visual sources to facilitate sophisticated comparative analysis. In particular, they hoped students would make connections and distinctions between phenomena that were non-obviously juxtaposable. They wanted to present this data visually on a website, using both a timeline and a map, with some navigational latitude available to site visitors.

Best Options

I've bolded the most salient items for each option.



  • Allows points, lines, and polygons for representing locative data.
  • Date ambiguity representation
  • Sophisticated object metadata
  • Baselayer choices
  • Active development, at an academic institution
  • Self-hosted


  • Nontrivial learning curve
  • Sophistication accompanied by sophisticated interface that can be distracting/annoying for students. Requires solid explanation and clearly defined metadata requirements
  • Interface impermanence
  • Standalone, no embedding

Representative Example:Ibn Jubayr



  • Google spreadsheet for data store (with implication of using Google Form for student contributions)
  • Data decoupled from presentation
  • Wide range of media embedding
  • Responsive design
  • Embeddable in other sites, such as WordPress
  • Good with BCE dates
  • Simple setup and use


  • Interface impermanence
  • Limited customizability, though can be deployed to Heroku
  • Uncertain development, sponsored by not-for-profit

Representative Example: Panhellenic Competition at Delphi



  • Multiple options for data, including both Google spreadsheet (with implication of using Google Form for student contributions) and local
  • Data potentially decoupled from presentation
  • Self-hosted
  • High level of GUI customizability
  • Baselayer choices (though more limited than Neatline)


  • Old code
  • Interface impermanence
  • Mobile interface unknown
  • Embeddable as an IFRAME only, usability unclear

Representative Examples: Google spreadsheet with additional arbitrary data points, Themed data



  • Entries commentable
  • Dedicated iOS application for mobile use
  • Clear data export to CSV, KML, and PDF
  • Embeddable
  • Easy to use points, lines, polygons
  • Variable placemark colors
  • Can 'play' the timeline like a slideshow
  • Semi-automatic semi-multilinguality


  • Tightly coupled data and presentation
  • Privileges linear reading, though not a requirement
  • Unsophisticated design
  • BCE dates don't seem to get calculated and stored accurately

Representative Example: Early Mesopotamia


In all cases, you'll have to identify distinct start and end dates rather than using century-level notation. The individual dates don't have to be more precise than a year. BCE dates are often added by prepending a negation sign before the date (e.g. -200 is 200 BCE).

Additionally, it always needs to be said that at any moment, development on any of these might cease or changes in browsers and student browser usage might render the code unusable. Even on the options being actively developed, the development team might make a material change in the interface, altering substantially how it looks and works. Other technological or cultural changes can't be ruled out.

Other Options

Most other choices focus on locative storytelling, constraining a visitor to moving along a linear path:

Using Online Photo Albums for a Shot Breakdown Assignment

The online photo album is not a complicated tool. But it can be used to do more than share pictures of junior’s first trip to the zoo.
While prose writing is still a crucial skill our students can acquire, our students often need to analyze visual materials or to present analytical material in some visual form. Online photo albums are a simple way to do this. The photo album doesn’t do the work for you; you still need to know:

  • what you’re saying,
  • what the tool does,
  • what your options are–tool-wise, and more basically.

A familiar assignment in film studies is: the sequence analysis or shot breakdown.

  • The student analyzes a short clip.
  • She makes a table representing formal features–e.g.,
    • how many close-up’s vs. long shot’s,
    • how many still vs. moving camera shots,
    • etc.
  • Then the student typically writes a prose essay summarizing the results.

An online photo album can make a good alternative or additional assignment.

  • A visual presentation can be an intermediary assignment leading towards a prose essay.
  • Or it can represent a visual summary, an expression of some of the same ideas in a different form.

Trailer Shot Breakdown Analysis
A photo album will not capture all the nuance of prose: but reducing one’s arguments to a few points, or focusing on developing only a small compass of ideas can have a wonderfully clarifying effect. It’s like writing an abstract with pictures.
Ideas can be expressed in a photo set verbally or through the arrangement of images.

  • In the case of a verbal commentary or analysis, that can be put:
    • in the caption of each image;
    • or it can be inserted through explanatory slides created in Powerpoint or Keynote (or similar).
  • In the case of the visual elements, even changing the sequence of the images allows students to explore different ways of creating meaning. The images can be sorted:
    • sequentially, as when representing the shots of a scene in the order in which they appear in the film; or the images may be sorted
    • logically into types or kinds. In this case, they kinds represent the argument.

To show these options, I have grabbed still frames from the first two minutes or so of The Maltese Falcon.

  • This is a familiar movie, and the opening is (or used to be) used to demonstrate editing and its analysis in Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art textbook.
  • Normally, a student would analyze a scene or other more-organic unit of a feature film. In this case, I’ve studied only a fragment, as that simplifies the demonstration.

Captions May Supply the Verbal Content.

This Google Plus Photo album adds captions to screenshots to call out important dimensions of the clip (like framing and duration), while other important elements of storytelling are previewed and narrated.

  • Clicking on an image brings up the image on one side of the screen and the caption on the other.
  • Adjusting the browser’s degree of zooming allows the caption to take up more space on the screen, thus making a good balance of image and analysis.
  • As an added bonus, a ‘backdoor’ lets you create an embeddable Flash-based slideshow you can put in Classes*v2, WordPress, etc.

    • The annotation obscures the image, but it’s an interesting option.
    • N.B. To do this, the photo album must be set to public.

Slides May Supply the Verbal Content.

The verbal analytical dimension may be added by generating text slides in Keynote or Powerpoint to create a ‘visual essay’ which analyzes the clips using brief text slides interspersed between frames representing the shots.

  • This example analyzes the shots in order.
    • The text slides preview key things to look for in the subsequent few slides.
      • This approach suggests the viewer will go back and forth to connect the argument and the evidence.
  • A different approach is to organize the shots by type or kind in some way.
    • This album counts how many shots of specific types and then labels and sorts them.
    • By labeling, sorting and re-arranging the elements one is analyzing, patterns emerge that may not have been apparent in the un-remixed text.
      • This could be called the basis of much analytical thinking: re-sorting experiences to compare them and find non-apparent patterns and resemblances.
    • What counts as a ‘type’ can be motivated by one’s curiosities or observations.
      • In this case, the symmetries and asymmetries of gender become revealed in neat ways by sorting the shots by various formal and other criteria--I.e., an idiomatic folksonomy rather than a scientific taxonomy.

In this case, the album with the captions was made first and then the photos copied to new albums.

  • Hence these images all bear captions, though in practice that would likely not happen.

An additional challenge is how to represent movement or duration.

  • Long takes or camera movement could be represented by multiple frame grabs.
  • The one-frame-per-shot ratio has the virtue of visualizing the shot count.
  • Whichever choice the author makes, clearly labeling the result helps orient the end-user.

–Edward R. O’Neill, Ph.D.

Visual Annotation & Commentary: Three Vernacular Tools

For a long time, scholarship largely focused on words and numbers.

  • Yes, art historians and theater scholars and radiographers thought a lot about images.
  • But today the visual dimension of knowledge increasingly leaves mere words and numbers in the shadows.
  • Chalk it up to the proliferation of screens–on our desks, on our walls, in our backpacks and pockets–or to whatever you like.

But it is in many ways a welcome change.

Many of us involved in scholarship and teaching spend a lot of time using images: gazing at them, thinking about them, writing about them; but also collecting, organizing, commenting and publishing them.

But how do we do this? Using what kinds of tools?

Those who manage large collections of images have specialized tools. And art historians and film scholars still write (lengthy) prose essays.

But using images to think about images has a special appeal. And tools like from making and giving presentations, editing movies, and sharing photos are all relatively easy enough to make them good candidates for vernacular scholarship: serious thinking that takes place in popular media.

When thoughtful people take up a medium, they think seriously about genres and forms.

  • Am I writing a novel or a tweet? A memoir or a lab report?
  • Am I drawing a landscape or a portrait? A wall-sized canvas or an ivory engraving?

And critical writing is no different–except that we who do critical writing could really spend more time thinking about genres, especially as we do and encourage critical writing on web pages and through viral videos and as info graphics.

Happily, some critical genres cut across media and can serve us well as we act critically in popular media: annotation and commentary are two crucial genres for critical analysis, and both of them lend themselves to visual media as well.

Both annotation and commentary bear a strong relationship to the text they comment on.

  • Annotation usually implies the presence of the text. An annotated edition is a manuscript that bears the annotations right on or beside the text.
  • Commentary may stand apart from the text it comments upon, but “apart” is often not far.
    • My edition of Hamlet contains some commentary in footnotes, and other commentaries before and after the text itself.
    • DVD (and now Blu-Ray) commentary tracks yoke together a text and a commentary: the two are synchronized.

When we use simple tools to share visual material, and when we try to work critically with these media, what features of the tools are we using? How do we annotate and comment?

I wanted to explore these issues by putting a dozen or twenty of the same images into three different readily accessible tools.

  • iMovie is a popular video editing tool which now costs about $15.
  • Google+ Photos is a service for sharing photo sets or ‘albums’: with a few people or the entire world-wide web.
  • Powerpoint is the ever-present
    • These files may be uploaded to Google Drive and published there
    • You can also record a voiceover and publish the presentation and voiceover together as a movie. But I skipped this, because I used iMovie to accomplish the same results.

What I Did and Why.

  1. I’m an amateur photographer, and I adore Hollywood glamour portraits of the ’30’s and ’40’s. I have books full of them, and over time, I’ve collected 50 or 80 such images from the web. So that determined my topic: convenience.
  2. I had the files in Dropbox, but I uploaded them to Google+ Photos, since I could organize them in a sequence there. The uploading involved selection.
    • In this case, I intuitively put together images that seemed to me related.
    • I had some notion of comparing images of men and woman, so that provided a sort of rule or principle.
    • But as I moved the images around, I found myself pairing them along the lines of similarity and contrast.
  3. As I browsed and sequenced the images, I started formulating my ideas about them.
    • The sequence turned out to involve shades of similarity.
    • I started with one that was highly emblematic of the whole: a kind of titular representation.
    • And then I arranged images of women, followed by men, with sub-similarities.
  4. I downloaded them all from Google+ Photos–simply because they were all in one place and neatly arranged.
  5. For iMovie I drag-and-dropped them onto the timeline. Once there, I composed some voiceover, which I recorded right in the software. I was then able to cut it into bits and slide it here and there to fit the images.


“Affordances” is the fancy word for the features of tool that let you do certain things.

  • The weight of a hammer determines whether it can tack carpet or crush rocks. You could say the ability to crush something heavy is an “affordance.”
    • The idea is to get away from features and to wonder aloud about what they get you.

iMovie has specific ‘affordances’:

  • It lets you add a voiceover.
  • It lets you add titles over images and between them.
  • It has a ‘Ken Burns effect’ in which still images are zoomed or panned across, to keep some visual interest.
  • And you can choose different transitions between still images (or video clips).

What would I do with these?

  • The voiceover seemed perfect for commentary. I could use the auditory channel for commentary, since the visual channel was largely full of what was being commented on. It was a neat divide.
  • I decided to use the titles to spell out the main topics.
    • Sure they were said out loud. But in some cases, I realized I had not recorded anything announcing the main topic.
    • So the titles became unifying themes that brought together multiple images, as well as the voiceover.
  • The Ken Burns effect is somewhat random in how it pans or zooms.
    • I decided that I could start in close on the visual element being described. Then I would zoom out to see the whole image.
    • So the pattern was to focus on a detail and then reveal its context. I did this with every single image. I decided consistency and repetition would make things easier on the viewer.
  • Finally, iMovie allows a transition that looks like un-focusing and re-focusing. It’s different than a ‘dissolve,’ in which one image slowly replaces another.
    • Since the context was cinematic, I thought the cross-focus transition fit nicely.
    • I used no other transition, as the images are from ‘classical’ Hollywood, and part of that classicism was parsimony: very few effects used carefully. So I wanted to match the material in this regard.

Link to visual commentary example created using iMovie

For Powerpoint, I went a bit further.

  • Powerpoint allows you to use simple, stock visual elements: like arrows.
  • You can record a voiceover, but I decided I had just done that: I would force myself to find a different pathway with Powerpoint.
  • The author can also create specific transitions: one image bumping another off to one side, etc.

I decided the visual logic of a video and a presentation were different.

  • A voice speaking to you over related images is very different than the same images presented without a voice.
  • So I decided I needed to structure my commentary more clearly.
    • Instead of a series of observations, I wanted to show consistency, repeated elements.
  • So I organized the images a bit differently.
    • And I tried to make very clear themes with sub-elements.
  • The images sat to one side–the right–and the themes and sub-themes were spelled out on the left.
    • First the viewer sees the image.
    • This way you get to see it with your own eyes.
    • The next slide spells out the theme and sub-themes: in this case, the effect the photo produces, and how it’s produced, the techniques.
  • Finally, I decided to use those simple stock visual elements:
    • I put arrows connecting the techniques to a specific place on each image.

To publish the presentation, I uploaded it to Google Drive.

  • Google Drive can then autoplay, and it lets the user choose a smaller number of transitions.
    • I chose a fairly slow pace, to give the viewer time to look and read.
    • By using a transition in which one image instantly replaces the next, my themes and sub-themes suddenly appear, and so do the arrows.
      • There is an animation-like effect.

Watch the Powerpoint-made presentation in a separate window here.

Finally, for the Google+ Photo album, I used the feature of ‘captions.’

  • Each photo can have a bit of explanation about it.
  • So I elaborated on my voiceover text here. There’s a little more space, so I could add some extra detail.
  • The casual browser might read these or not. So I tried to write them to reward reading.

In short, for this tool, I was relying largely on sequence.

  • Google+ Photos does let you edit the images. I could have emphasized some visual characteristics. But I opted for restraint. Let the images speak for themselves, and let my voice be softer, less obtrusive.

Going to Picasaweb.google.com lets you find code to embed a slideshow. (Somehow Google+ users don’t rate access to this feature.)

Hollywood Publicity Portraits of the 1930's & 1940's

And there’s a more static embedded version.

Both draw on the original photo set.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Three Questions, One Answer

In a recent blog post , Doug Mckee addresses three issues in how he should teach this fall.

1. Should I ban laptops in lecture?
2. Should I make discussion sections mandatory?
3. Should I cold-call students during lecture?

Basically: no, no and no—all for the same reasons.

1. Should you "ban" anything in lecture?
Or rather: were you to try, what would be the justification?
In teaching we do things for very few reasons.

a. Because they are inherent in the discipline and academic life. "We're reading Durkheim because he helped to found the discipline." "We'll use APA style because that's what professionals do." "You must offer arguments, not opinions, because in our domain, opinions have no value."

b. Because they are convenient. "We need to get all your papers at once so we can compare them and grade them before the next work is due."

c. Because they adhere to university policies and laws. "No smoking in the back row." "Grades are due on the 11th." "No sexual harassment."

d. Because they embody our values about human freedom and responsibility. "You must take up your own argumentative position." "You may turn in the work late, but it will be marked down." "Write about the one topic on the list that interests you most." Pursue your freedom. Experiment. Explore. Fail. But take on the responsibility of existing and choosing.

(I can't think of many other justifications for why we do this, that or the other in teaching.)

And all of these questions are opened to reasoned debate—because that is one of our values.

Once you say "You will not open your laptops," you are dictating. And you have lost. Now you are a cop, not a teacher.

Practically speaking, I know professors who have had good luck with the "three states": put your laptops away and focus on this (discuss with a peer, whatever); open your laptops and do this specific task; leave your laptop open or put it away—I don't care, just don't distract your neighbor.

You can also play with the sequence. If you ask them to use it, then to close it, the act of opening it may be more self-aware.

2. See "1" above.

a. What does "mandatory" mean? Again, from my perspective this is the wrong relation to the student.

We can mandate little in teaching. Rather, we reward and we punish. (Behavioral economics and game theory surely apply here--though I fear that those theories have no moral code embedded in them, and therefore they may be useful tools but they are not arbiters.)

Extrinsic rewards don't motivate learning very well. So you can reward and punish for attending or not. But neither will help students learn.

Why not go the other way? "Go to section, don't. No points for it. Go if you value it. And we'll try to make it valuable." Ask every week how section could be better. Make it a discussion topic in the web site. When you can't decide in advance, make it a learning experience.


b. One good principle in planning teaching is: treat all questions about teaching as something to be proven experimentally by teaching.

Reframe the issue as: What could I learn about making the section worth going to?

Survey students weekly--did you go or not, why? Ask the section leaders to experiment, to explore how best to meet the students' needs. Maybe the first few weeks the sections would have different specific activities that students rated, and thereafter, students chose "which activity should we do today?" Make it their section. Meet their needs.

Or just put super-important things in section. Sell how great section will be, and then say "of course it's totally optional."

3. See "1" above.

a. They are coming to lecture to learn. Would you pick on someone for not having understood the material as well as someone else? That person needs more help, not public shaming.

b. I tried this once. I would never do it again.

I once put the students' names on index cards. I shuffled them and picked one at random.

Once the index cards came out, students sat up straight in their chairs.

I called a name, and the student stammered and hemmed and hawed. Other students tried to rescue those I called on—defended them.

One student shot his hand up later, after not having known the answer to an earlier question, and after class explained to me: "I knew the answer, I just couldn't think of it, and so I had to show you that I'd done the reading."

And I thought: who am I? To make someone prove a point to me?

After that I brought out the index cards and put them on the desk. They were radioactive. Students would stare at them. If no one answered a question, I moved towards the cards, and a voice would ring out with something to say.

It wasn't motivated by something good. But I got good discussions. Not because of randomly calling on students all the time, as a policy. But by making a point that we needed to discuss and that I would do what it took to make that happen. They didn't want that.

But I would never teach that way again.

4. Learning devolves on human agency.

Agency is the center of learning. Through learning, I become more capable, and I feel myself to be more and more of an agent, less and less of a passive, receptive entity and more and more myself.

Humans become more capable by overcoming meaningful challenges in an increasing order of difficulty, a difficulty matched to their abilities. (It's tragedy when someone is outstripped by the task he faces; tragedy defines common humanity by contrast.)

Anything that takes away from the agency of the learner is bad for learning.

Yes, we need rules and limits.

But when possible, all meaningful choices should be passed to the student.

To experience one's humanity through the responsibility of choice, to embrace the possibility of failure, and to own's one's successes: this is the heart of education.

— Edward R. O'Neill, Ph.D.

ITG Helps with a Creative Classroom

We're glad to see Professor Elihu Rubin’s thoughtful use of technology in his pedagogy getting some notice. Late in the spring, Professor Rubin's work on Interactive Crown Street caught some news, and a couple weeks back (don't ask us how we missed it) there an item appeared in Yale News about his investigation with students into New Haven's infrastructure. Professor Rubin and the students in the cross-listed Architecture and Political Science course created an online guide by using Yale's Academic Commons, an instance of WordPress founded and managed by the Instructional Technology Group. Pam Patterson of ITG as well as Ed Kairiss and Edward O'Neill of Educational Technologies supported the course.

DHSI 2014: Data Mining for Digital Humanists

Digital Humanities has become quite the buzzword of the academy in the last few years as the community recognizes the new areas of inquiry opened by this field and methodology. In order to further explore this area, I am attending the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria. It has been quite the whirlwind! Over 600 people have congregated to learn, share and make together over a week. Wide ranges of courses are offered in areas such as TEI, GIS, networks, mapping, pedagogy, gaming and project management. I enrolled in Data Mining for Humanists.

The course has been exciting and intense. We are rapidly exploring data mining techniques such as Bayesian classification and support vector machines. The instructor has paired this with a crash course in probability that has been key to understanding the probabilistic approaches such as naive Bayes. The only drawback is that we aren’t programming along the way, which makes it difficult to move from the abstract to the hands-on. I hope we will work closer with the scikit-learn Python package we were asked to install before attending, as actually working through some data will help solidify the concepts.

On a side note, I began using IPython Notebook, which sits on your computer but runs on your browser. It allows you to easily edit, run and plot code. You can also share your notebooks easily. If you are using Python, I suggest exploring it!

Interactive Crown Street Installation Opens

We're thrilled to recommend to you an installation this weekend that we've worked on in various parts:


A "Pop-Up" Urban Research Field Office
@ 200 Crown Street
Friday, May 2 — Sunday, May 4
Facebook icon

Opening Reception is Friday, May 2, 6.00 pm. Events are scheduled but participants may come and go as they please. Please distribute — Interactive Crown Street is Free and Open to All!

Congratulations to Professor Elihu Rubin, to Florian Koenigsberger, and to the whole Interactive Crown Street crew!

Mobile Technology Adds New Dimension to Nature Walk

Pulled from ITS Monday Morning News, written by Gary Kidney, Deputy CIO, Academic IT Services

On the afternoon of April 22, I took the opportunity to accompany Dr. Marta Wells and students from her Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 223L class on a nature walk to visit trees the students adopted at the semester’s start.

Tom introduced me to a 150-year-old White Oak and acorn candy. Austin showed me a flying-dragon orange tree with inch long thorns. Kelly told the story of the discovery of a presumed-extinct sequoia discovered in China that led to a 1940’s repopulation of the species. Natalie showed me how to make perfume; we couldn’t use the flowers of her epaulette tree because it was too early in the spring. Samuel screened a music video of a stately beech near the planetarium.

What amazed me was the engagement in learning demonstrated by the students and how that learning ranged from science, forestry, biology, and horticulture to story, music, video, poetry, and history. It was truly a multidisciplinary learning approach that rooted students from far away to a place in Yale’s lawn. Austin told of visiting the nursery where his orange tree began its life in Southern Oregon. Years from now, when Kelly returns to Yale as an Alumna, I suspect her sons and daughters will climb in her redwood. I witnessed some of the great teaching and learning that makes Yale such a fantastic place.

You can learn of the work of Marta and her students by visiting the Yale Nature Walk website. Go visit the students’ trees on a sunny spring day. A GPS map will take you to each location. Take along your mobile device to snap the QR codes to learn the science, read the stories, enjoy the poems, and watch the videos.

Academic ITS helped with the project, thanks to the work of Alina Nevins and Matt Regan. A loaner set of iPads, some support with the website, and a creative faculty member made a learning environment for this class in which you can share (but you missed the acorn candy). In my afternoon with this class, it was easy to see that their leaning was also fun.

Nature Walk

Julia Child On Quiche

Experiencing Mastery—With Julia Child

Julia Child was terrific at teaching us how to cook, eat and live.

I have no monopoly on this insight.

But it's very enjoyable to be reminded not only how much a very effective and hard-working person can do in a very small space, but also how much Julia Child has to teach us about teaching and learning.

Not long ago, I stumbled across a little half-page essay by Child in a cooking magazine. It's a miracle of compression. In less than 650 words (about a half a page), Child:

  1. defines quiche,
  2. tantalizes us with a description of the dish,
  3. chronicles the dish's culinary rise and fall,
  4. whets our appetite for the dish,
  5. inspires us with a story of how make the dish more easily,
  6. gives a recipe for both the crust and the quiche.

All in eight paragraphs! How many of us could teach half as much in twice the space?

What's going on here? How does Child work this magic?

To start, Julia begins with the result, the end-product: its taste and smell and pleasures. Quiche smells good, and it's part of welcoming friends into your home. This is very motivating. You think: "I want to do that!"

Second, Julia makes the process easier by dropping out unnecessary or more-complicated steps. Her inspiring anecdote concerns an anxious neighbor who dread making the dough. Julia comforted the neighbor by advising her to skip that hard part: just buy a pre-bought crust. Who would be the wiser?

The effect was magical: the neighbor brimmed with excitement at her newfound ability.

We may call this "confidence," but learning experts call it self-efficacy: the feeling of 'I can do it!' Apparently, it doesn't necessarily come from experience. Some people just have more of that feeling. But "experiences of mastery" can boost that feeling of self-efficacy, hence preparing us for greater challenges.

That's what Julia did with her anxious neighbor: made the task simpler so the neighbor could experience a success and feel more confident to approach a bigger challenge. Julia was quite the psychologist!

Cooking is hard. It's a complex, multi-step, goal-oriented process. Changing the salt here changes the taste and texture there. Kneading more or less there, changing the temperature elswhere––each of these changes the end result. So you might have to go through the same process many, many times in order to get each step just right, otherwise the end result may be inedible.

It's difficult to do something without knowing where you're headed. And too much challenge overwhelms us. So these two strategies work very well: (1) emphasize the end result, the goal, and (2) simplify the complex process, in part by reducing the steps.

So are these two clever methods something that applies only to cooking? Hell no!

There are simple names for these methods. The first is sometimes called reverse-engineering. You take the end result and you take it apart to see how the pieces fit together.

The second is an old educational method called (depending on the context) chunking or scaffolding.

  • The idea of chunking is simply: the average person's memory only holds so much information. So in order to hold a long string of info, break it into smaller bits. We do this all the time when we separate phone numbers into three- and four-digit chunks.
  • The idea of scaffolding is simply to help the learner by building a supportive structure around him––like the scaffolds built around a building to work on it as it's being assembled.
    • You give someone pre-assembled bits of the work, so the work is easier, and then over time the learner is able to do the more complex task.

If you teach or train, you can apply the same methods to any complex, multi-step, goal-oriented process.

  • Say you want students to learn to write solid argumentative prose.
    • You might start by asking them to take some apart. Identify the argument, the evidence, the reasoning. Reverse-engineer what good writing is.
    • Then you might give the students the argument and have them support it with evidence and reasoning. Or give them the argument and a pile of evidence and have them pick which evidence supports and which undermines the argument.
  • You can do the same thing with scientific experimentation.
    • You might start by giving students a finished scientific paper supporting a conclusion based on hypothesis-testing. Working backwards, you can ask the students to explain why this particular experimental method was used, why another one would not have worked.
    • Or you can give the students the experiment to run so they can collect the data, or give them the hypothesis and the data and ask them to analyze the data to see if it supports the hypothesis or not.

In short, Julia Child was certainly a miraculously gifted teacher. And like all gifted people, she worked tremendously hard. But her gifts and hard work follow underlying principles. And one of the inspiring things about Julia Child is how much we can learn from her about teaching. Namely:

Any complex, multi-step, goal-oriented process:

(1) can be practiced forwards or backwards––and should be––

(2) can be practiced from any step or 'moment' in the process to the next––and should be so practiced, e.g., by providing pre-fabricated materials for each step in the process and asking the learner to use them so as to lighten the burden of learning.


Learning is hard.

  • Learning anything complex is harder.
  • Learning a multi-step process is hard.
  • Orienting all your thoughts and behavior towards one goal is hard.
  • Doing them all together is very, very challenging.

Julia Child knew how to lower the difficulty level while keeping us stimulated by the excitement and challenge of a meaningful goal. And she does this the same way we should: by starting from the end, working backwards, and making the steps easier by simplifying them or practicing them separately.

––Edward R. O'Neill

cross-posted to/from blogspot

Tools and Purposes and Other Fairy Tales.

The gift of instructional technology is tools:

  • little tools that do one or two things brilliantly,
  • big tools that do many powerful things quickly,
  • the constant innovation which makes what is hard one day just a click away the next.

And the bane of instructional technology is: tools.

  • Little tools that do a few things poorly,
  • big tools so big they are slow and cumbersome and suck up your time,
  • the constant innovation which takes away your sanity and causes us all to chase the delusion of endless "improvement" which is often only: the need to keep up and to seem to be improving.

Tools are wonderful. Tools are dreadful. When they are new and work, they are magic. When they age and break, they are worse than inert: they aggravate and infuriate; they are deader than the proverbial doornail. And it all happens very, very fast.

Tools are the how, not the why, mere means to ends, and therein lies the problem.

In higher education we are concerned primarily not with means but ends. The human being is the ultimate (earthly) end: her life and purpose and her ability to use her freedom to choose that purpose and to build that life however she sees fit in an understanding that emerges quickly or slowly, early or late, and sometimes even: just in the nick of time.

We subvert the entire meaning of our enterprise when we fixate upon means––tools, that is––and measure those tools only against other tools and not against the purposes towards which our mission points us.

But think about tools we must, for we are IT, and it's what we do. And so we struggle endlessly against the tendency to focus on the how and to forget the why. It is a mental struggle. It is a moral struggle. Sometimes it almost seems like a physical struggle: a gripping in the pits of our stomachs and an itching and tingling in our legs. As long as we live and breathe tools, we will always be uneasy.

What is the prescription for this unease? How in higher ed can we focus away from the tool and towards the ends?

One way is to focus not on the tool but rather on the use case.

A use case is a term of art. It sounds fancy but it's simple. A use case is a story. It's a picture of some things a user does. It's journalistic: like the "lede," that first part of the news story that gives you the whole picture but also whets your appetite to know more.

Write a journalistic "lede" without the "how," and you have a use case: the problem to be solved, the thing our users need to do, the reason that they come to us, their purpose, their 'end.'

  • Who?
  • Does what?
  • When and where?
  • And why?
  • To achieve what?

Subject. Verb. Circumstances. Purpose. A use case is a sentence writ large, exploded into steps. It could almost be the panes of a comic.

And we are the ones who help to figure out the 'how.'

For many use cases, I would like to argue that the 'how' should always be in three sizes.

Just as in the fairybook bears' house, in IT-land solutions come in three sizes. Like the bear story, it's a fairy tale: there aren't really just three sizes. And they aren't just sizes, they're bundles of traits––ownership, complexity, flexibility, and more.

But three is a good number, because looking at and choosing amongst five or seven or ten things is harder. So we in higher ed IT do well to recommend tools in three sizes and kinds.

  1. A free and easy consumer service with just a few functions. It's not meant for professional use but it's adaptable for many purposes. It's not hard to use, though finding all the tricks can take time. And we don't own it.
    • Think flickr for photos, Youtube for video, Dropbox for file sharing, Slideshare for publishing presentations, etc.
    • We don't care that we don't own it. We just need to make the proper warnings about where the data lives, who can access to it, whether the data can be sucked out, our lack of control, etc.
  2. A free service and which has robust-, numerous- and flexible-enough functions that it can be used for many purposes. It takes time to learn, but the learning curve is not steep. And we own and offer and support it, and that means it's geared more towards the kinds of purpoes our users have.
    • At Yale, think WordPress. Anyone can request a site. There are already-built resources. It can be used for courses, working groups, projects, etc. It can be public, private or community-only.
  3. A specialized service which we have licensed or built, which has a high degree of complexity. It can be used for many different purposes. You can use it a little or a lot. The learning curve is steep. Whether it's someone else's or not, we bought it and we provide it and so even if we don't own it 100%, we get the blame when things go wrong.
    • Think a sophisticated digital asset management service, or even Adobe's Creative Cloud suite, which is licensed by and (in aggregate) is off-the-charts in complexity.

As with many choices, it's really a table. This one has one binary distinction and four scales.

type who owns it? how many functions? how complex? number of purposes learning curve?
simple, free & easy someone else few simple one or two none or trivial
our un-fussy service us not too many relatively simple more than a few, less than a dozen non-flat
"our" high-end service us a lot complex many, many steep

But tables are for nerds like me, and a list is more human-readable, and this is one of those distinctions we in IT-land often forget, because "I can understand it," but then I am not the user.

And unlike in the three bears' house, in IT-land each of the three sizes is "just right" for somebody. Every user is a Goldilocks who deserves her chair and bed and porridge just the way she likes it.

  • People who come to us for simple functions can be directed to simple tools––even if we don't own them.
    • And we need to have worked out the use cases well enough so that we can give a short 'getting started' document or demonstration.
    • We don't need to know all the answers––as long as the client knows they are using someone else's pipes.

Unlike many things in IT-land, the process doesn't have 86 steps.

  • Write the use case, and identify the three choices.
  • Give your users a clear picture of the use case: who does what.
  • Help the users choose wisely, and help them get the right amount of support for each choice.
  • Advise your users appropriately of the advantages and pitfalls––learning curve, data ownership, privacy, security, longevity, etc.

If you can get the users to share their successes, then others will see what success looks like, and they too may come to recognize that one size seldom fits all, but there is often one size for each user that is "just right."

––Edward R. O'Neill