Monday, August 29, 2005

Learning Wrong

I am back in school, still shopping around for a master's program. I think a lot about a Master of Arts degree. Currently I am signed up for a overview course on Technical Instruction, which has it's roots in things like shop, industrial training and even computer training. I think it will help me with my job, and may give me more perspective on how people learn.

We have to write a research paper during this semester, and I think I may have already picked my subject. It's titled "Learning Wrong: blah blah blah" -- okay, seriously haven't fleshed it all out yet.

Essentially, it has to do with how to approach technology and how it can be utilized. In training on how to use a lathe -- there is a specific set of learning objectives, some of which are necessary to prevent ruining the equipment or the person using it.

However, when technology is being created so quickly that it is hard to define a "right way" to use it, interesting things happen. I recommend watching this video, even if you don't care about or even despise electronic music. Also, a warning -- you have to deal with a few minutes of blah blah blah pseudo-academic talk before you get to the story itself. It is a story that any teacher that uses technology should hear.

Nate Harrison discusses a music device made by Roland that was designed to take the place of a bass player for practice. It used an interface that was completely foreign to it's intended audience, which were guitar players. The manual included lessons on how to use the device, and admonitions to not give up. Still, it was hard for some to use, and it was taken off the market after mediocre sales.

Fast forward 10 years, and people with little money but a lot of creativity are finding these things in pawn shops, etc. Not knowing a "right" way to use the device, new ways are invented to use it as a composition tool. It helps fuel a whole sub-genre of music. It is a irony that software that is a model of the device has been available for a while (Rebirth), but chooses to have it use the same interface as the physical box onscreen, with multiple knobs and an arcane interface.

We have to see technology for what it is at times. It is a creation of us, and it can be shaped by us. Part of creation is defying reason, to break through to a new reason. Sometimes we only see opportunities that we are trained to see.

This may not necessarily mean a free-for-all, because a instructor may have already tried many of these approaches themselves. They can act as a guide, but may have to let students find their own logic. At the same time, setting up an environment of possibilities to be explored can mean that they have to accept that the outcome may be different than expected.

Usually, I am a lot more clear about what I have to say here. I need to think this through more. I think there is a lesson that can be learned from the TB-303.


Thursday, August 11, 2005


Just a little whiff of brimstone here......remember, the Catholics have it right, there are multiple levels of hell.

Electronic content vs. Books. I won't go there. Each has it's advantages. I would prefer for book publishers to make both available, and indeed, that is what some publishers have done.

My gut reaction is that DRM is a bad thing (more on that later) but we may be stuck with it for a while. Bear with me here.

Perhaps DRM is not necessarily bad, but we are working from an extreme position right now. I have focused a lot on digital media (video, audio, software) DRM, because this is the area in which it most likely to be commonplace.

As an example, if we had a video/audio DRM that allowed people to make copies, but didn't let them edit, would that be acceptable? For advertising supported video and audio content -- I would say absolutely. It would not break a business model where content is advertising supported, but would also not prevent users from doing what they are able to do now with older technology, which is record a show onto VHS tape, and share it with their friends. If you want the version without commercials, you could buy that as well.

Now -- let's think what this would mean for advertisers. P2P would suddenly be much better than regular broadcast. Advertisers would like it, because more potential viewers would see their ads, although certainly you could skip through them. Perhaps do what europeans have done, which is put ads at the beginning and end of a program, interspersed with brief cartoons to keep viewer's interest.

However, companies don't often see it that way. Let's enter the strange world of the Sony PSP for a moment.

This is a very powerful consumer media playback device and game system that is sold at a reasonable cost, perhaps for right around what it costs Sony to make it. This is because Sony will make it's money on software that runs on the device. has a memory card slot, so it could be that developers could write their own software to run on this device. So, Sony has to add software to prevent that from happening. Which is promptly broken by an active developer community. Which is then fixed by Sony. Which is then broken again.

So -- we have a device that someone purchases, but if they use it in a way that the manufacturer doesn't want to them to use it, they may be in violation of their end user agreement. Hunh? may be that when you break the seal on your Sony PSP, and turn it on, that you are greeted with a request to agree to not to use software to circumvent copy protection software on the device, and unauthorized software execution may constitute a violation of that agreement. Will anyone get prosecuted for this? Of course not.

But, it does mean that we have entered an era where something that we buy may not entirely be ours to do whatever we want with it. If this sounds far-fetched, it is not. Someone has indeed been prosecuted for selling hardware that circumvented the DRM on Microsoft's Xbox in Australia. They were not necessarily advocating piracy (although there are plenty of cases where people where justifiably prosecuted for doing just that).

The irony for Sony is that they make it easy for consumers to put other types of content on their PSP -- pictures, MP3's, even movies. They even shipped a new firmware update (the PSP has 802.11b, and can be upgraded over the network) which fixed holes in their copy protection, but also gave users a nice web browser, and support for better video codecs (h264 mpeg-4, to be exact). It is almost as if one hand doesn't know what the other is doing.

We are upset about DRM because it takes away abilities that we previously had. The textbook example is easy to get upset about, because we have had books for hundreds of years. For a long time knowledge access was a class thing (are you wealthy enough to own books), but the public library changed that, the printing press changed that. Now the internet has turned publishing upside down, as the very business/distribution model is challenged by one that has much fewer impediments.

So we live in strange times right now. Pushing back against extreme DRM positions by not buying, seeking out solutions that are more reasonable is a good start. To some extent, the marketplace will decide. There were music download services before Apple, but Apple took a more moderate approach to DRM than anyone else, and tied it to a great user experience. It is my feeling that book publishers have not done that yet.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Dead Books

Remember a month or two back, about the public school that decided to move to all electronic content via laptops? One of the comments that was generated was that the "book publishers wouldn't like this".

Far from it. I am betting that the book publishers were in fact a part of the deal.

Academic book publishers have been busy reinventing themselves over the last few years. I remember meeting with a faculty member on a project we had both worked on, where the publisher was interested in bundling our content with their book. I kind of felt that things were backwards, as our imagery was of better quality than what is contained in most text books.

Book publishers are now into lots of things, such as competency testing for students using their content. The biggest proponent of room clickers? Book publishers who seek to bundle their courseware content with instant assessment systems.

The reason is not just to remain relevant "in this electronic age", it also to figure out ways to make more money on the content that they own. The problem with books is that they don't spoil. For the most part, content in a Harbrace from 15 years ago is still relevant, although the order of the pages may be shuffled from one year to the next.

The ultimate solution is to abandon books and go to electronic publishing means. It cost less for the publisher, but of course over the long term may cost more for schools, because you can add DRM, which in one small step changes the way we treat published content in a major way. With the onset of high resolution digital ink devices (such as Sony's Librie), it's possible to have an experience that offers many of the advantages of a book, but the ability to prevent people from viewing the content they paid for, after the expiration date has passed.