Flight of the ‘Solar Impulse’ – Educationally Relevant?

[Note: This post contains two articles, by Harry Keller and John Adsit, that were written in response to the Online Live in RealTime article by Claude Almansi. Also see John Sener‘s response to this article. -js]
Picture of Harry Keller and John AdsitBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

The flight of the Solar Impulse is truly a technological tour de force. I was very impressed by the charts and virtual cockpit with the map of the plane’s progress. I didn’t even know that this amazing flight was taking place until Claude‘s note. Then I saw the headline in the NYT, “Solar-Powered Plane Flies for 26 Hours.” I have to wonder how many people see that headline and realize immediately the remarkable fact that such a flight requires flying a solar-powered plane for hours in the dark.

We see plenty of emphasis on STEM education in the U.S. these days. I am very biased toward the S (science) part of the acronym but see the importance of technology as a means of engagement. Mathematics gets enough attention on its own and can be better taught, IMO, in conjunction with science, technology, and engineering until students have enough sophistication to study things like group theory that are much more abstract. But I’m biased, as I said. Continue reading

The Internet Helps Us to Be Smarter – A Reply to Nicholas Carr

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

A couple days ago (June 8), Claude Almansi posted a comment in our ETC listserv, inviting us to submit articles on the “furious* debate going on in the Media Ecology Association mailing list around the new(?) The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains book by Nicholas Carr, of ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ fame.” I poked around in the links she provided and decided to share my two cents.

I haven’t read The Shallows, but from the articles I’ve read, the assumptions underlying Carr’s views seem to be: (1) human beings are prone to distraction and the internet exacerbates the problem and (2) unitasking is healthy and multitasking is not.

The problem with these assumptions is that they oversimplify the thinking-learning process. Distraction is a facet of our ability to multitask, and as such, it can be both good and bad. It’s great to be able to concentrate on the road while driving, but it’s critical for us to be able to react immediately to a car that swerves, without warning, into our lane. This ability to focus on and respond to more than one thing at a time is essential for survival and for thinking. In this case, knowing where the other cars are at all times will determine whether we can safely slow down, speed up, or swerve into the next lane. Continue reading


An interesting theme arose for me in a recent e-mail conversation with my ETC Journal colleague Claude Almansi. She said Twitter is “so simple to use: all you need is to have an idea of what you want to achieve by using it, and be able to effectively communicate in 140 characters.” This got me thinking about effective communication and how hard it is to achieve. This challenge, coupled with Twitter’s ambiguous purpose, makes it easy to see why so many are confused about what Twitter can do. This column defines basic Twitter terms and address some strategies you can implement to communicate more effectively the relatively amorphous Twitter environment.


RT – ReTweet. To share a Tweet you found interesting, use the ReTweet function. This is like crediting the original writer for sharing the information.

DM – Direct Message. This is a private message between two people. Some businesses and organizations set Twitter up to automatically DM people when they follow an account. To many Twitter natives, this is considered impersonal and irritating. Use a DM when making plans or when writing something that only affects you and one other person. This saves your common followers from a timeline cluttered with things they find irrelevant.

a red and a green bird tweeting

@ – A Twitter reply. Place @ in front of the username of the person you are writing to. For example: “@etcjournal Thank you for the article! It helped answer my questions!” In this case, @etcjournal would see your reply and know that you enjoyed one of the articles we posted. The followers you have in common with @etcjournal would also see this reply.

# – Hash tag, used for earmarking Twitter search terms. For example, if I wanted to make ETCJournal searchable on Twitter and encourage other people to do so as well, I might say something like “I just read an article on blended teaching and learning in #ETCJournal. It was very helpful!” Then, to search, one would visit http://search.twitter.com and enter #ETCJournal to see all tweets that incorporate that hash tag. Hash tags are especially useful for facilitating conference back channel conversations and identifying themes in your tweets. Note, however, that hash tags are not stored forever and when used too liberally can become clutter.

Lists – A relatively new Twitter feature, lists allow you to organize those you follow into lists based on a theme. For example, adding ed tech colleagues to an “educational_technology” list would allow you to filter out and view what they are saying, obscuring tweets from users not on that list. This tool is helpful for users who follow several hundred individuals to manage what they see and when. To create lists and see who lists you, visit http://www.twitter.com and click Listed (to see who lists you) or New List to begin creating lists of your own.

Back-channel – At conferences, there will often be a “back-channel” of users sharing ideas and thoughts on the conference in real time using Twitter or other social networking sites. This is useful for following others at the same conference who, perhaps, attend different sessions.

TweetUp – An in-person meeting of Twitter users. TweetUps are common at conferences and in larger cities, and an excellent means for building your network and meeting new people with interests or locations in common.

Basic Strategies

Be social. Find people who have similar interests as you, and interact with them. ReTweet the resources they post that you find interesting, and open a dialogue using @ replies and DMs. Often, when people are deciding whether or not to follow you back, they will look at your Twitter page and ascertain whether you interact with those in your followers list. If your account is all one-way, with you merely pushing information outward, they will choose not to reciprocate the follow or view your account as SPAM.

Be approachable. If people are making assertions that you do not agree with, try sending them a DM with your perspective, as opposed to an @ reply. Try to be open to ideas that differ from your own. This was one of the hardest hurdles for me to overcome in my Twitter use.

Attend local and conference TweetUps. Especially at conference, TweetUps can prove to be a valuable resource and a lot of fun. If you are attending a conference, ask the conference staff if they know of a scheduled TweetUp. If there isn’t one, schedule one yourself, using the conference hash tag. Conferences like Educause, SLOAN-C and Purdue’s Teaching and Learning with Technology conference all schedule TweetUps as part of the proceedings to give Twitter users participating in the conference back-channel a chance to meet in person and share what they have learned.

Further Reading

10 Ways You Can Use Twitter Lists

7 Things You Should Know About Twitter

10 Twitter Tips for Higher Education

ITForum Discussion on Accessibility

Claude AlmansiBy Claude Almansi

Editor, Accessibility Issues

The URL for the video below is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTvHIDKLFqc.The possibility to automatically caption YouTube videos in English was announced by Google on Nov. 11, 2009: a huge step forward for deaf people that benefits all users. And this is typical of most accessibility measures.

About the discussion

Photo of Roberto ElleroFrom November 29 to December 2, 2009, Roberto Ellero and I animated a discussion about Web accessibility on the Instructional Technology Forum mailing-list.

This mailing list is private (if you wish to join, apply at it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/Subscribing.html), but our initial notes for the discussions are in a public wiki, accessibility4all.wikispaces.com, where the e-mail discussion has been copied to the accessibility4all.wikispaces.com/Discussion page.

The participants in the accessibility discussion were instructional design professionals, teachers and students. Therefore they were already well aware of the need for accessibility in teaching and of the existence of requirements for its enacting.

For instance they all knew that non-text objects – pictures, videos, audio files – conveying info but not accessible to all can be used, but that an alternative must be provided for people with disabilities preventing access to such objects. Nevertheless. as accessibility4all.wikispaces.com/Discussion shows, some interesting questions and issues emerged in the discussion:

General themes

Among the general, conceptual themes of the discussion:

Universal design and redundancy

Universal design, i.e., planning something that everybody can use (whether in real life or on the Web), may not be fully reachable, but it is a goal that must be kept in mind from the start of the designing process.

Redundancy – i.e., offering the same info/knowledge in different forms – is a means towards that goal. Alternative formats can be linked to in order to avoid cluttering a given web page.

Accessibility tools

The phrase “accessibility tools” is used to describe different things:

  • Assistive technology for people with disabilities: e.g., screen readers – like JAWS – for blind people.
  • Emulators of assistive technology used by designers to check how a page will be perceived by people who have to use an assistive technology: e.g., screen reader emulators – like the Fangs addon for Firefox.
  • Automated accessibility checkers used by designers, but only indicatively – just as automated spell checkers are only indicative.

Specific issues

Among the more specific and concrete issues discussed:


In the context of online learning materials, if web sites must be accessible to all, including people with language disabilities/problems, won’t that entail a stylistic flattening? Or, as Robert Becker put it, in connection with the Universal Design theme:

. . . So, to make a point, I could say that assigning Chaucer’s Middle English or Shakespeare’s Elizabethan text is to erect a barrier to learners. That may be, but to do otherwise is to erect an even greater barrier to Learning.

I recall a personal experience teaching English to inner city adult students trying to earn associate degrees. I dumped the prescribed reading list full of “accessible” texts and replaced it with real literature. The memory of watching most of my students successfully engage with Jane Austin will never fade.

In Learning generally there is no greater barrier than the absence of challenge and aspiration.


Tables can be a barrier for blind people, because reading with your ears with a screen-reader means reading linearly. This issue  was first raised – in connection with the Universal Design theme, again – by Beverley Ferrell,  moderator  of the ITForum list:

If blind people read in a completely different manner ( and we may not be aware of this) and screen readers read like this:

http://wac.osu.edu/webaim/ tables2.htm then layout tables and data tables have to be designed differently.

Jim Thatcher has a fairly basic tutorial that explains it http://jimthatcher.com/ webcourse9.htm

I have not had time to read and comprehend all of this vs design for data etc such as Tufte recommends, so is it really the best way to display the data for those who are not sight disabled or must we always design two versions? and what about adding mobile issues to this? There are those who disagree with Tufte’s ideas also. Tables might not be useful, so data in graphs etc would be a real challenge for the new person designing accessible information.


I have only highlighted some of the points raised in that discussion about accessibility on the Instructional Technology Forum mailing-list. You can find several other themes  in accessibility4all.wikispaces.com/Discussion. The mailing-list discussion is now closed, but it  can  continue either in the comments to this post or on the wiki [1], which is a more democratic platform than a blog ;-). As the video at the beginning shows, the means to enact Web accessibility are progressing fast, for the benefit of all, not only of people with disabilities.

[1] You can join the wiki at: accessibility4all.wikispaces.com/space/join.

Sloan-C’s Virtual Attendance Option: Real or an Afterthought?

encountersIntroduction: The 15th annual Sloan-C Conference on Online Learning will be adding a new virtual attendance option to its October 28-30 event in Orlando, Florida. Hmmm. Will this online “addition” be anything to write home about? Or is it just an afterthought, a pale reflection of the “real” conference? -Jim S

John SenerJohn Sener, ETC writer, on 15 Oct. 2009, 3:54 am:

Sloan-C’s virtual conference option at its San Fran event in June was very well received by its participants. It’s certainly not intended as an afterthought; Sloan-C is very consciously and deliberately moving into this space of virtual conferences, which is driven in part by the high cost of travel and the budget crunch.

Whether or not it’s a pale reflection of the “real” conference depends on one’s perspective about virtual vs. f2f events, I suppose. Recently I’ve been hearing ads by British Airways touting the necessity of f2f contact to conduct business effectively. I interpret that as meaning that virtual meetings must be starting to cut into their business if they feel the need to counterattack the trend in their ads…

claude40Claude Almansi, ETC editor, accessibility issues and site accessibility facilitator, on 15 Oct. 2009, 5:08 am:

I agree with John Sener. Based on participating in 2 virtual conferences recently:

1. Oct. 3: about digital natives, both real-life in Lugano and online.

positive: brilliant moderator for the online part, quick in accepting chat messages, good at drawing speakers’ attention to them (they were all a bit too old and above all set in their ways to know how to multitask between their in-presence do and reading the chat)

negative: the do was only transmitted in streaming video, and at too high a definition, meaning that the moderator kept sending messages: “If the streaming stops, reload the page.”

2. today: work meeting between folks in Lugano, Luzern, Zurich, Brig and Geneva. Real virtual conference, say like Elluminate but as Web app, so no java applets to install.

positive: again, the moderator was good (though there was no connection to be made with a real-life meeting as there was none, and we were all used to video conference softwares, so her job was easier)

positive: the software allowed folks to indicate their connection type (hence speed), and actually everybody used just written chat and audio (not video)

positive: nice whiteboard for slides etc: much better than having them filmed onscreen in a video streaming

negatives: none

So based on these 2 recent experiences (and some older ones) I’d say that when offering an interactive conference both in real life and on the web, success depends on

  • having a separate moderator for the online part
  • using a real online conferencing software rather than just video-streaming the live event + a text chat.

thompson40John Thompson, ETC editor, green computing, on 15 Oct. 2009, 5:12 am:

A growing number of heretofore F2F ed tech conferences (e.g., TCEA, FETC) are now including a virtual attendance component. I suppose it provides another way to reach out to the ed tech community, and perhaps can be seen as a marketing tool, especially when the virtual conference is free. It also attracts attendees who might not otherwise have participated and provides another revenue stream for conferences, many of which are seeing the effects of the strained economy.

Having F2F conferences offer a virtual choice is similar to print media also offering an online edition. And there you’re seeing a gradual shift to online editions being more like the print edition, not “pale” versions. USA Today has recently initiated a free electronic edition for subscribers that is exactly like the print edition, plus add a reduced size Saturday electronic edition to subscribers. The NY Times and Chronicle of Higher Education are two other print pubs that now offer electronic versions to subscribers that are exactly like the print editions.

Interesting to see Sloan-C charging a registration fee for its virtual component, albeit at a significantly reduced level from the F2F conference registration fee. These are changing times for long time institutions such as print pubs and F2F conferences, and those times are exacerbated by the current difficult economic situation. At the very least, Sloan-C needs to be congratulated for taking the initiative.

Disclaimer – I’m presenting at the Sloan-C conference this month.

Tech Tools Are Just Tools

Claude AlmansiBy Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues

Has technology “reduced our social capital — the relationships that bind people together and create a sense of community,” as Dider Grossamy wrote in a comment to David G. Lebow’s Ten Dollar Computers and the Future of Learning in the Web Era [1]? Didier Grossamy himself adds: “Even though technological advances have contributed significantly to the problem of isolation, the emphasis on individualism in today’s society has compounded it.”

It might be the other way round: technology tools — the internet, computers, cell phones — are very powerful tools, but just tools. They can emphasize social trends, but they cannot create them. Read/Write tools like blogs, wikis, even Twitter — which might seem at first glance the epitome of self-absorption — can also be used very effectively for the defense of human and civic rights. See Don’t Block the Blog [2], Global Voices Online [3] and the Herdict [4] tool recently launched by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which allows users to report inaccessible sites and to see what site has been reported inaccessible in what countries, thus avoiding false censorship alarms.

Civic and Human Rights


“November 8 [2007]: Karachi Rally – No military rule, imperialism war” by > ange <. Some rights reserved.

These are great tools under dictatorships: when then President General Musharraf proclaimed the state of emergency in Pakistan in November 2007, the first sign was the blacking out of all independent televisions. Within a few hours, their political broadcasts were accessible again on the internet (with audio-only versions for people with low connectivity). Activists used twitter from their cell phones to let others know when they got arrested. And now that President Zardari is more and more emulating his predecessor’s autocratic behavior (look up Zardari in Google News), civil society is ready to use these tools again.

Of course, governments — and not only tyrannies — attempt to control these tools. In October 2004, at the request of the Swiss government, the FBI seized a server that hosted a page of Indymedia giving personal data of two plainclothes policemen who were inquiring about unrest episodes in Geneva during the Evian G8 Summit, with a not-too-veiled threat. The page was still retrievable through Google cache, and it was mirrored in a student’s page at the site of a US university. Indymedia responsibly deleted all attempts to link to that mirror, but it was very easy to find with a search engine (see, in Italian, L’FBI oscura vari siti Indymedia su richiesta della Svizzera e dell’Italia, ma…. [5]) – Oct. 10, 2004).

More dangerously, last fall, a Sicilian judge condemned historian Carlo Ruta for “stampa clandestina” (clandestine press) because he had published his research about the Mafia in his blog, using a 1948 Italian law that makes the official registration of press organs compulsory (see John Ozimek’s How an Italian judge made the internet illegal [6] – The Register, Sep. 26, 2008). As a result, many Italian bloggers now avoid this risk by adding a disclaimer saying that their blog is not a press organ.

Technology Education and Technology Scares


Is Google Making Us Stupid? by Salvor. Wikimedia Commons. In the Public Domain.

The point is, if these tools are to be used positively, people must learn how to use them, as with any other tool. Unfortunately, traditional media — from Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? [7] (The Atlantic, July/August 2008) to David Derbyshire’s Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist [8] (Daily Mail, Feb. 24, 2009) — feeling threatened by these tools, are all too ready to demonize them. And as a result, education authorities tend to block access to these tools rather than face the responsibilities involved in using them at school, where students could learn how to do so responsibly and efficiently.

Most such scare-mongerers’ arguments can be easily refuted, of course. Either they lack scientific evidence, or they quote it only partially, or they use fallacies: Derbyshire, for instance, suggests that the fact that autistic people can express themselves more easily with computers might imply that computers induce autism.

Constructive Criticism

However, we must also beware of the negative effect that an over-enthusiastic advocacy of these tools can have. In 1995, I attended a conference announcing the opening of the Università della Svizzera Italiana and its School of Communication Studies in Lugano (CH), pretentiously entitled “Oxford on the Lake.” I left midways: the zealot enthusiasm and sociological jargon of the “cybernaut” speakers put me off the internet for two solid years.

So it is important to pay necessary attention to serious criticism of these tools voiced by people really involved in using them for social and educational purposes. Two recent telling examples:

  • In From Red Guards to Cyber-vigilantism to where next? [9] (Feb. 24. 2009): Rebecca MacKinnon reflects on the limitations of only exposing socially harmful behaviors and human right violations rather than acting to prevent them: “Just because people have an expanded ability to speak truth to power thanks to new technology, that doesn’t automatically lead to a more just society in the long run unless you have institutional change. I wonder whether people will be so distracted and excited about the ability to use the Internet to speak truth to power that they’ll have less interest in such institutional change.” As she is co-founder of the above-mentioned Global Voices Online [3], which aims at giving voice to people directly concerned by events that traditional media do not normally cover, her invitation to go beyond simple information is particularly interesting.
  • In The use and misuse of computers in education: evidence from a randomized experiment in Colombia [10] (Feb. 1, 2009 — with links to the full report as downloadable 3.01Mb PDF [11] or plain text [12] files): Felipe Barrera-Osorio and Leigh L. Linden analyze the results of scientifically conducted statistical surveys of a Colombian project in which more computers were offered to schools and teachers were provided training. In spite of this training, teachers made little use of the increased learning possibilities of computers, and as a result, the impact on students was minimal. Providing computers and training teachers in their use in education — even if this training follows a constructivist pedagogical approach, as in this Colombian case — is necessary, but it is not enough to make teachers effectively use the available computers with their students.

Motivation and Follow-Up

Citizens who struggle to defend their rights under a dictatorship are more likely to be motivated to master the use of information and collaboration tech tools than teachers who have to help their students pass national tests that bear only on memorized notions. Motivation is essential.

But training offered to motivated people cannot be limited to a single initial course because technology evolves and, more importantly, needs to evolve. Therefore people must have the opportunity to further explore these tools “in action.” This can be done online, provided they are initially trained to use online networks where they can find or ask others for reliable additional information and help.

Making Web Multimedia Accessible Needn’t Be Boring

claude80By Claude Almansi
Guest Author
7 November 2008

Some people see the legal obligation to follow Web content accessibility guidelines – whether of the W3C or, in the US, of section 508 – as leading to boring text-only pages. Actually, these guidelines do not exclude the use of multimedia on the web. They say that multimedia should be made accessible by “Providing equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content” and in particular: “For any time-based multimedia presentation (e.g., a movie or animation), synchronize equivalent alternatives (e.g., captions or auditory descriptions of the visual track) with the presentation.”[1]

This is not as bad a chore as it seems, and it can be shared between several people, even if they are not particularly tech-savvy or endowed with sophisticated tools.

Captioning with DotSUB.com

Phishing Scams in Plain English, by Lee LeFever[2], was uploaded to DotSub.com, and several volunteers did the captions in the different languages. The result can be embedded in a blog, a wiki or a web page. The captions also appear as copyable text under dotsub“Video Transcription,” which is handy if people discussing the video want to quote from it. Besides, a text transcription of a video also tends to raise its ranking in search engines, which still mainly scan text.

The only problem is that the subtitles cover a substantial part of the video.

Captioning with SMIL

This problem can be avoided by captioning with SMIL, which stands for Synchronized Multimedia Interaction Language. A SMIL file, written in XML, works as a “cogwheel” between the original video and other files (including captioning files) it links to and synchronizes.[3]

The advantage, compared to DotSUB, is that captions stay put in a separate field under the video and don’t interfere.

This is why, after having tried DotSUB, I chose the SMIL solution for: “Missing in Pakistan – Sottotitolazione Multilingue.[4]

So far, the simple text timecoded files for SMIL captioning still have to be made off-line, though Alessio Cartocci – who conceived the player in the example above – has already made a beta version of an online SMIL captioning tool.

Captioning with SMIL Made Easy on Webmultimediale.it

The Missing in Pakistan example is on Webmultimediale.org, the site where the WebMultimediale project team experiments with the creative potential of applying accessibility guidelines to online multimedia – for instance, in collaboration with theatrical companies.

web_multiHowever, the project also has a public video sharing and captioning platform, Webmultimediale.it, where everyone can upload a video and its captioning file to produce a captioned video for free. The site is fairly bilingual, Italian-English. By default, you can only upload one captioning file, but you can contact Roberto Ellero, the founder of the project, through http://www.webmultimediale.org/contatti.php if you wish to add more captions.

Webmultimediale.it also has a video tutorial in Italian on how to produce a time-coded captioning file using MAGpie, which is only accessible when you are signed in, but as it is in Italian, English-speaking users might prefer to use the MAGpie Documentation[5,6] directly.

Other Creative Potentialities of SMIL

As can be seen in the MAGpie Documentation and in the W3C Synchronized Multimedia page[3], SMIL also enables the synchronization of an audio description file and even of a second video file, usually meant for sign language translation. While these features are primarily meant to facilitate access to deaf and blind people, they can also be used creatively to enhance all users’ experience of a video.