Thursday, 18 February 2010

Visual Language and its power to communicate

Bronwyn van der Merwe has written an amazing blog post at the BBC, detailing the corporation's detailed plans for re-designing the visual language it uses across all areas of its online presence.

It provides a first rate insight into the importance of design in communication, and the need for media institutions to build consistency and ease of use into the core of their practice. It's an essential undertaking if audiences are to recognise and engage effectively with media companies and their content. It's a long post indeed, but very well worth the effort of reading and looking at in detail.

Pollock, Fractals, and how Maths can make Ed Tech Research Better

As time progresses the way I'm using my blog is evolving.

Last year and the year before, when I started to blog in earnest, I found that I was often making shorter blog posts, as I discovered interesting ideas or technology that I thought might be useful.

Then I discovered Twitter and most of those timely posts have moved there, where I can share and discover the findings of others.

So, where does that leave my blog? For now, it's become the place where I like to write and think synoptically - pulling together patterns that appear before me as I work and research in the e-learning sphere.

This was brought home to me over the last week, as I started my next module for my MA in Online and Distance Education at the Open University. My new course, H809, is called Practice-based Research in Educational Technology. The first reading, dating back into the dark ages of 1989, is all about statistics and the reliability of hypotheses and data.

In brief, the article looks at the early developments in e-learning (or Computer Mediated Communication) and the degree to which asynchronous online communication made learning better or worse for students.

The problem the researchers had was that they developed over 50 hypotheses and the sample groups they used weren't large enough, or clearly defined enough, to make the resulting data produce results that were meaningful. Consequently, the language in the report hedges its bets with 'ifs', 'on the one hand', and other similar expressions, to gloss over the fact that the numbers game just didn't produce clear and consistent outcomes. Of course, in education that's often the case, and basing policy on numerical data alone probably isn't wise. That's why we need experts to make value judgements that combine data with a broader perspective.

While I was musing on this, two other articles dropped into my digital lap. The first was all about the rumpus the government in the UK has caused by its proposed deep cuts to university funding. My alma mater, King's London, is set to lose a vast number of academics, including one of the few Chairs of Paleontology in the world. Being a Classicist by academic training, this struck me as a terrible blow to the future of Humanities teaching. If everything is reduced to economic output potential, which seems to be where we're heading with higher education in the UK, then the future looks grim; if we're to maintain a balanced civilization, that combines Arts and Sciences in equal measure.

Jonathan Jarrett's blog post about the cuts at King's covers the main issues in great detail and I recommend spending 5 minutes reading through it. It's a good example of when relying on numbers alone doesn't make learning better.

On the other hand there's no doubt that gathering and exploring data is a vital part of educational research. Personally, I think the ethnographic/qualitative approach suits me better than quantitative mining for truths, hidden within the stats; but that's just my preference. One aim of the course, according to my tutor, Prof Vic Lally, is to enable me to look at published research and form my own opinions about whether or not the data supplied is reliable and meaningful. I won't be a statistical expert by the end of the course, but I should be able to make more sense of it than I can at present. Indeed, when I told the Prof that I'm no expert in stats, he did point out that I'm very happy talking about Web Metrics and the demographics of my school's YouTube channel audience, so perhaps I'm more stat savvy than I thought?

The second article is all about how a Physicist, Richard Taylor, while in the UK studying for an MA in Art History during a sabbatical, became fascinated with Jackson Pollock's drip paintings. He became intrigued with the thought that Pollock might have been using deliberate fractal shapes in order to create what appeared at first glance to be meaningless dribbles on the canvas.

Using some clever mathematics and technology he was able not only to show the degree to which Pollock was indeed creating graduated fractal shapes of differing dimensions, but also to date when within his creative cycle paintings were produced. And that means he can now help to authenticate other works for buyers.

Even more fascinating was Taylor's subsequent work with perceptual psychologists, in which it was discovered that humans have a numerically determined range within which they find geometric fractals appealing. The thinking is that this dates back to our pre-historic time on the Savannah, when an ability to distinguish between wind rippling the grass, and a lion lurking in the shadows, was an essential skill.

And all of that goes to show how the numbers game can add up and produce meaningful statistics that help us understand our world more clearly.

When Disraeli claimed that there were three types of lies, 'Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics' he was expressing a fear that many of us hold, about the complexity of numbers and how to interpret them. The truth is that data helps us make informed choices, and informed choices should make what we do better.

SeeSaw Saw You Wanting TV

News comes in that yet another online TV aggregator has launched.

SeeSaw aims to provide a vast array of TV back catalogues to British viewers, thus filling gaps that the big players like YouTube and Hulu either don't fill, or in the case of the latter, don't yet provide, as Hulu has still not launched in the UK.

The service is free for now, but intends to make some charge, probably for American imports, later in the year, according to a report in the Guardian. By focusing in its PR on shows like Skins, it's doubtless hoping to suck in a younger demographic. Admittedly, YouTube has started to offer full length shows too, so it will be interesting to see how the minnow fares with the shark.

The service is coming out of Beta in the week that YouTube celebrates its fifth birthday.

I was lucky enough to be working in Web TV back in 2000. Looking back, maybe I should have hung around and made my first million, instead of turning my back on it all and becoming a school teacher? On second thought, hell no, I love what I do. But it's certainly true that back in the day we had to encode video into a variety of formats (Quicktime, Windows Media Player, Real Player) at multiple bit rates, manually, for every video. Tedious as a definition couldn't even begin to describe how dull and time consuming that process was!

YouTube's trick was to jump on the Adobe Flash bandwagon, right at the time when Flash become capable of embedding video into its framework, making it a lot easier to embed video across the Web.

It's interesting also to notice the spat that's emerged this week surrounding Adobe's alleged attempts to block the development of HTML5, the new web browser standard which, inter alia, will allow video streaming and 2D graphics within the frame itself. For Adobe, purveyors of Flash, this is a potential disaster; not least because it means all those iPhone users around the world will no longer be barred from watching funky animations as part of their web experience.

What does this mean in the bigger picture? Basically, the delivery mechanisms are moving towards becoming truly platform agnostic, and this might force us back to the concept that content is indeed King, and it will be those who can create narratives for interactive platforms who will succeed.

To see evidence that this where we're heading take a look at the American Beta Google have been running with Living Stories, in which its partnered with The New York Times and Washington Post. Longer running stories are contextualized and re-presented for readers. From Google's viewpoint this enhancement of the user experience might provide more revenue opportunities, in terms of users staying on pages longer (good for advertisers) and content deals with publishers (they acquire an audience online that they're losing in print).

In other words, what we want is meaningful information, and what media institutions need are new ways to connect to us. The landscape in which the two sides meet and interact is evolving rapidly, and those who put up barriers to that process happening any place, any time, on any platform, are deluding themselves that the process can be stopped.