Knowledge & Content

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I was recently reminded of a post I wrote in 2006 about various online collaboration tools. Needless to say that these early starters, like backpack, evolved rapidly and are at a very different position than when they were reported. Some made it into the “establishment” of a solid online market for project collaboration, others trundled along for some time, stagnating and perhaps disappearing altogether from the scene. The need for such platforms, however, and the desire continuously hedged by developers to provide for it, hasn’t waned. New solutions have emerged and are today widely established in project teams of all sorts. Among them are trello or slack, which enjoy wide acceptance in productive distributed communities and teams. A useful review of competitors for “backpack-style” productivity can be found here.

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It’s extremely difficult to characterise different generations and generational shifts in societal attitudes. Not everyone of the parent pre-1960’s generation was a frugal family person nor is everyone of the 2000’s an entertainment junkie. Yet, there are certain signature traits in behaviours, attitudes and values that make up the mainstream and stand for an era.

This interesting piece of writing looks at the rise in supersticious beliefs and the anything-goes society. The author argues that with the dramatic changes in the 1960’s society (sexual revolution, hippies, etc.) a new mentality formed in the US that allowed for unscientific knowledge to become part of the local and national narrative. Especially, Americans became open to conspiracy theories of all sorts that still surround us today. What’s worse, it seems that these have now fully entered politics and the government, shaking the foundations of our democracy.

With Star Trek and the likes an integral part of my (European) youth, it never occured to me that most of the space sci-fi ideas emerged in the US, including UFO sightings, aliens, utopian and dystopian cartoons and documentaries, etc. This is well documented in Hollywood and TV productions from Battlestar Galactica to E.T. Europe was at that time (the 1960s and 1970s) still working on its post-WWII trauma and settled with glorifying the past (empires). There was very little if any of its movie productions that portrayed the futuristic, the out-worldish, or the supernatural.

Whether it is true or not, what the author implies, that Americans today are prone to believe whatever they want, as implausible as it may be, the internet has certainly contributed to the spread of misinformation to the credulous. Recent electoral events indicate a firm rejection of facts and science – to the extent where researchers feel the urge to protest for being sidelined.

What is equally worrying is the decline in reliability of information through the use of “social media” in journalism. I mean the references in traditional and well-established papers to social media “news” on the basis of their virality. This way, a single tweet can transform the worldview of many people – and are we really able to detect all the “fake news”, propaganda, and hoaxes? Losing reality by a variety of (technological) means, e.g. fake news, opinion manipulation via facebook, VR, dark web, entertainment, and so forth, jeopardises our  consensus-based democracy. It seems that different mob-created “worlds” emerge for us to pick and choose, or to create our own – including delusions of caliphates and other tribes.

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Happy were the days when righteous Hollywood heroes persisted in their search for the truth despite all obstacles and deterrents.

The reality is, of course, very different. We live in the post-truth era, where (true) information is declining in value and belief is everything!

The bizarre thing is that we have more data than ever before, yet less facts can be deducted from it with certainty. Why is this? Let’s start with the economy, where data has been long used to find the best solution to anything and investment. Economic data despite its abundance holds any answer someone searches for. Algorithms dictate the value of stocks, prices and futures. They change in milliseconds and interact with one another – they are connected. People cannot keep up with the speed of machines and have no way of understanding what triggers events in machine agents. People then resort to plausibility, trust and beliefs (such as brand value). Companies can no longer be valued in real worth or assets, only in virtual billions that could be halved the next day.

News is another information channel that has become unreliable as a source in the search for facts and “truth”. News media are profit making organisations that feed on popularity not on truthfulness. What’s popular doesn’t have to be true. Any scandal is better than the truth. News media love Trump because he provides them with popular stories. Trump loves the media because they give him publicity and he doesn’t have to admit to anything they write about him, no matter how scandalous. Post-truth holds no proof. Even if the Intelligence Service would publish the Russian link to the election hack – it could be easily refuted as fake news or dark plot against him. Secret services are not employed to serve the truth, but to serve the enacted politics of the government (and their own interests). The electorate knows this. People only believe what they want to hear to confirm their beliefs!

Even in criminal courts finding an objective truth isn’t as easy as one would expect with all the forensic tools now available. Why else would we find this proliferation of criminal and terrorist activities with comparatively little or no convictions for lack of proof? Risks for criminals or extremists of getting caught and convicted are minimal – which itself sounds contradictory to the age of Big Data, ubiquitous surveillance, and integrated systems.

Far from finding an objective truth, even subjective truths are an endangered species. In a post-truth society an almost religious belief in perceived realities has developed that finds confirmation and amplification wherever data is abundant and where sources are better connected. Proof can no longer be provided.

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There have been persistent calls for transparency and algorithmic accountability in learning analytics. Quite recently, there was a discussion at an LASI event in Denmark on that topic.

There are good arguments for more transparency in developing and delivering learning analytics products. Presumably, teachers can derive better informed interventions from visualisations of learning data when they understand what goes in, how it is weighted and processed, and what comes out.

However, the discussion also moved very much into the direction of “personalised learning analytics” with questions like “at what point of comprehension educators are happy to trust products”, or asks whether this might be achieved if “the analytics system demonstrates to your satisfaction that it is attending to the same signals that you value”.  It goes on to challenge vendors (and researchers) that “information should be available and understandable to different kinds of learning scientists and learning professionals”. Ulla Lunde Ringtved asks: “do we need a kind of product declaration and standardization rules to secure user knowledge about their systems?”

I think this is going too far, without much hope and without much value to end users. After all, we are talking about “products”, i.e. ready made things. Vendors would not and could not deliver out-of -the-box, build-your-own, tweak-the-data, customise-the-algorithmic-process learning analytics tools. And data consumers would not want it! Teachers and students are surrounded by black boxes of all kinds, including Google, Blackboard and other VLEs, Facebook, etc. There is evidence that lack of transparency has no correlation to trust. In our lives, we don’t understand most of the tools that we use: the digital camera, the electronic alarm clock, and so forth. And we don’t have to! As long as they work.

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There is too much information in the Information Society! Un-vetted information that is. The readiness of available information leads to circular confirmation of misinformation or misinterpretation of so-called “facts”. There are a number of indicators for this situation:

  • information overload: people exposed to too many news sources suffer from anxiety of (a) missing something (like in a facebook news stream), (b) trusting the source, (c) trusting their own capability of evaluating information to sift out misinformation. It’s connected to the paradox of choice.
  • news loops: news publishers, especially on the internet, are challenged to provide up-to-the-minute news, which leads them to neglect their own analysis and research and instead copy-paste from press agencies. This is why news in all news outlets are to 80-90% identical – including their “own” opinion. Or have you not wondered why some geographic areas suddenly disappear from all news channels? It’s news going round in circles. China’s regulator even went so far as to decree the verification of news stories.
  • social media: up-to-the-minute info by news publishers nowadays references and takes for true postings on social media channels like twitter or facebook. The assumption seems to be that if many people (only the ones connected to twitter and facebook) express a strong feeling about something – then this must be a valid quantitative measure of satisfaction on political and other issues. However, as the run-up to the Brexit votum showed, manipulation and propaganda on social media is on the increase.

This kind of information society does not lead to more self-determination by individuals nor does it empower the powerless. It’s steering rapidly to a 1984 scenario where people are no longer able to distinguish truth from make-believe.

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This is sad news, as an e-mail notification from Santa Fe institute reached me this week saying:

“Complexity Explorer has been supported by a grant to the Santa Fe Institute from the John Templeton Foundation.  This funding is nearing its end, and in order to continue supporting our online education program, we will be changing how a few things run on the site.  Until now all of our courses have been completely open and free.  To offer you these courses, maintain the website, add new functionality, and create new courses and tutorials, we need to raise a quarter of a million dollars a year.  The Santa Fe Institute is committed to bringing complexity education to the world through the Complexity Explorer, but grant funding and donations alone cannot sustain us indefinitely.  We have a number of different funding avenues we are pursuing, one of which will be modeled with our Introduction to Agent-based modeling course. You may have noticed a lock on the course logo.  This lock is an indicator that the course session will be a paid session”

I very much liked their course! It was a true MOOC – open for anyone and everyone, free, and high quality. I regret the circumstances that led them to start charging, at least for some parts. But, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that free open courses aren’t free for those who offer them. We have seen this many times before with MIT’s Open Courseware, or the Open University’s OpenLearn – both heavily funded by foundations with lots of money. In my previous university, we had to abandon the “good cause” in 2007 due to the adverse economic conditions associated with free open course provisions.

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This article may have serious ethical debates on its heels. Apparently, scientists succeeded in boosting or erasing individual memories of mice. As always, they tell us it is for our better future and for research into dementia and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Quite likely also a remedy against Altzheimer’s disease.

Being slightly foresighted, I see further potential in the entertainment industry when it’s claimed that it would be possible to enhance pleasant memories!

But what would this mean for learning? Once we are able to erase or boost individual memories as it pleases [others], we factually destroy the process of learning and knowledge acquisition. Imagine what this does to “critical thinking” and you’ll see the ethical nightmare arising from it. Since our identities are shaped by our experiences – good and bad ones – meddling with memories will change us in what and who we are. Brainwashing has always been the desire of regimes that want “simple” and obedient people to rule over.

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I just read a very interesting article from the University of Waikato, New Zealand, describing a tool they developed at the OER Research Hub to facilitate formal and informal language learning. FLAX, that’s the name of the tool, stands for Flexible Language Acquisition. It compiles text corpora using open content from the OER world, MOOCs, and Open Access articles. The demonstration packs currently available include a collection from law texts and even video transcripts from YouTube and Vimeo lectures about law. They assure us that anyone can create own collections with ease.


These text collections are combined with simple language technologies like frequencies, collocations and Google ngram to detect key concepts and phrases in the texts. They can be enriched with linked data information from Wikipedia and Google, which allows learners to explore legal terminology, like ‘precautionary principle’, find their meaning and usage in sentences or phrases. In this way, it is hoped and hypothesised that independent learners will be able to improve their linguistic skills. A module for Moodle already exists and it is intended that FLAX will also find use in MOOCs to help with domain concepts and language issues.

FLAX is based on Open Source software from the New Zealand Digital Library Project and comes with instructions to set up your own collection.

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The EU has an ongoing row with Google over allegations that it manipulates search results in its favour and generally is becoming too powerful for the Internet market.

I noted recently that Google’s search results show YouTube links quite prominently placed on the first page. Not in a separate box, but among the result links and, hence, pushing other items out of the first page list. While YouTube links are indeed quite relevant in most of the cases, the suspicion arises that Google tries to further traffic to YouTube for reasons of generating advertising revenue.

The danger that the one-stop-shop (that users want) also becomes a manipulative engine in showing the results others want us to see was always evident. But, apparently, a new age may be dawning with Google under investigation and the demand from the Commission that it has to provide the possibility to “forget” and delete information about individuals on request. That will be a challenge and a half, for not only would it be difficult to establish that a request is genuine, but to distinguish between hundreds of John Appleseeds is near impossible.

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My colleagues here at the Vienna University of Education are involved in a series of interesting studies and projects that investigate the interface between the education system (schools) and sciences in real life and the home.


One rather shocking piece of evidence emerging from these is that youngsters behave in a very disparate way to the level of their knowledge! When project researchers in the appropriately called McKioto project tested 800 kids on their general school-informed understanding of biocultural diversity, climatic footprints, and healthy eating, the level of informedness was relatively well-developed and showed no significant divergence in pupils from differing socio-economic backgrounds. On the other hand, when asked about their daily habits (eating, physical exercises, etc.), kids from low income families showed little or no manifestation of that knowledge in every-day life. In a similar vein, according to many studies, the smoking behaviour in society has changed from originally being a high-class habit (gentlemen’s clubs) to a sign of poverty and poor education.

Not that these results provide us with totally new insights, but they raise many questions when one’s confronted with the evidence. Why does knowledge developed in kids stay merely theoretical and in school? Why is the impact on children’s lives so much greater at home (even where parents spend less time with kids than teachers)? Why is unhealthy behaviour so persistent in low-income families. Fact is that healthy eating, physical exercise, avoidance of unhealthy behaviour (e.g. smoking), or clima conformant activities (cycling) are often more affordable than their unhealthy variants. Still, there is a cultural divide that needs to be bridged urgently, and it is critical for the well-being of the next generation that schools play a shaping role in this change.

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