The DEMML™ blog is about the Distributable Educational Material Markup Language™,
an XML standard being developed by Grant Sheridan Robertson.
Learn more about learning more at

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Letter to Developers

To any developers interested in contributing to DEMML:

I am currently still working on the XML schema. It will be relatively involved and I am currently working entirely alone, so it may take me a while. If you already know about XML and designing schema then, yes, I would really love some help with that right now. If you do not know about XML Schema then I suggest you learn. I firmly believe that XML is the way of the future for data and data transmission. Solid XML standards will pave the way for developers to create standard APIs to allow many different types of applications from many different vendors, in many different languages, and on many different platforms to interoperate. I highly recommend "Beginning XML Development 4th Edition" from WROX Press and "Definitive XML Schema" by Priscilla Walmsley. (Avoid the O'Reilly Press book "XML Schema" like the plague. The author seems to think if he obfuscates everything as much as possible it shows that he is smarter than other people. Ether that, or he is trying to hide the fact that he doesn't really know what the heck he is talking about.) As DEMML is an XML schema it will be important for developers to know how to write code that deals with XML.

Once you understand XML well enough, then you will need to learn about DOM and SAX to write code to read and write XML properly. I just finished an independent study course working on a simple project to read and display some basic XML so I could help you out with that some if you don't already know it, although I am far from an expert. I highly recommend "Core Java" volumes I and II by Cay S. Horstman and Gary Cornell. Those guys really know how to explain things so you can understand it and they don't skip the important details. So many Java examples and tutorials I have found out there, including the Sun tutorials, seem to simplify many things to the point of being wrong. Their sample code works but it does not follow best practices. It is just barely good enough to get the job done. But real developers want more than that.

Once you know how to write code that handles XML well, then you might want to learn about how to display XML content that contains HTML markup in a window that uses the engine from a solid web browser such as IE or Firefox or Opera. One of the goals of DEMML is for it to be able to contain and present any content that could be displayed in a web browser. This includes JavaScript, Flash, videos, etc., using the same plug-ins that are already installed in the user's regular browser. (It is important to keep in mind, however, that all of this fancy content must work when all of the files are stored on the user's hard drive. They cannot rely on a connection to any server at all. This is so users in the most remote rural areas of underdeveloped countries can still use the content once they have gotten it onto their computers.) I have yet to figure out the technical details of how the heck to use the browser engine technology. I do not know how to develop a browser or how to use the engines for existing browsers, such as the Gecko engine for Firefox. So this would be a very good area where you could help a lot.

If you are more interested in internet routing protocols then you may want to help develop the routing protocol I invented to make it possible to distribute all the content out to areas where there aren't internet connections. I would like to refer you to an idea I posted on my personal blog. It is for a new type of "network" routing protocol that doesn't actually require a network at all. Devices would transmit data to other devices as they happen to come into contact with them and transfer messages on an ad-hoc basis. The messages would hop from one device to another till they eventually got where they needed to go. The post is merely an idea, with no actual implementation whatsoever. However, I have placed that idea and a full outline of how it could be implemented in the public domain. Anyone is welcome to develop the idea and I will be happy to provide more feedback with additional ideas to help anyone complete that project. My hope is that someone else will work out all the details and write all the code and then I won't have to. This is the true spirit of open-source development. Everyone contributes what they can and then everyone benefits from the results. The protocol is called The Intelligent Epidemic Routing Protocol and you can find my post at It would make a great graduate thesis project for a computer science graduate student. If you were to write the code to actually implement this idea, you would be famous. You would be able to get a job just about anywhere you want.

One of the best things is that, once I have published the DEMML schema, anyone will be free to develop software that makes use of the schema. I will be encouraging any and everyone to write software (open-source and commercial) that creates and/or uses DEMML content. Just as there are a bunch of competing web browsers and dozens of different HTML editors, I want there to be lots of competing software for DEMML. I will be founding a non-profit soon (eventually). One of the purposes of that organization will be to develop software libraries to make it easy for developers to develop software that makes use of the DEMML standard. I hope to eventually be hiring full-time developers to work on those types of things.

If you are interested please contact me.

Grant Sheridan Robertson

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

DEMML for Organizing Audio Books?

I like to read the One Laptop Per Child News blog. It is not an official blog of the OLPC project but the author often posts interesting things related to education in addition to just the latest news about the XO laptop or the OLPC project. The other day I read a post about whether it was practical or beneficial to distribute XO laptops in areas that don't have internet connections. I decided that I have been keeping DEMML™ a secret for far too long and posted a comment about that article. Here is what I wrote:

Over the past few years I have been working on a solution to the exact problem you discuss in this article. I have invented a system for organizing and storing educational content such that it can be used even if there is no internet connection. I call that system the Distributable Educational Material Markup Language (DEMML). You can find more information at

I have also invented, though not implemented, a communications protocol that can distribute the content, or any other content, to intermittently connected computers. I call that protocol the "Intelligent Epidemic Routing Protocol." You can learn more about this at

I have been keeping rather quiet about these so far because neither of them are quite ready for prime time and I haven't had much time to work on them due to the demands of school. I am also concerned about those with far more skill than me wresting control of my idea from me and turning it into yet another proprietary lock on the one type of information that truly needs to be free. However, it seems that I can't (or shouldn't) keep my cards close to my vest any longer. As I have always expected DEMML to be used with XOs I have decided to mention it to you first.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A story to illustrate the usefulness of DEMML

Somewhere in a small village in some underdeveloped country there is a young boy. Let’s call him Hidarth. Like over 121 million young children worldwide (1), Hidarth cannot go to school. There is no school in the village where he lives and it would take him far too long to walk to the nearest school several villages away. His village has no phones or internet connections. However, Hidarth was recently given an XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child project (2). While playing with the computer is fun, he has no internet connection in his village so he can only learn how to do the few things that are available to do on the laptop. Hidarth quickly gets tired of taking and drawing pictures and leaves the laptop under his bed, leaving his education behind.

One day Hidarth’s friend, Leelum, stops by for a visit. She has an XO as well and asks Hidarth why his is under the bed collecting dust. After agreeing that just playing with a computer doesn’t really get one anywhere, Leelum shows Hidarth some new software that actually teaches her whatever she wants to learn. She shows him how to transfer the software to his computer along with her entire library of educational material. Hidarth is impressed but sadly can’t really use any of the material Leelum gave him because he is far behind her in his schooling. So, Leelum shows Hidarth how to mark the topics he would like to learn about and indicate his learning level. A click of a button then makes Hidarth’s computer send Leelum’s a message requesting the content. Leelum explains that while he won’t get the content right away, the next time Leelum is in town her computer will automatically download the requested content and store it till Leelum can visit Hidarth again where the content will be automatically transferred.

Leelum doesn’t come by Hidarth’s village again for over a week, but, when she does, her computer transfers more than enough content of various learning levels for Hidarth to study for over a month. As he studies, the software keeps track of how fast Hidarth learns various types of material. Over time it learns much better exactly which type of explanation will help Hidarth understand which type of subject matter the best. This way, it can request more material that more closely matches his learning style.

This goes on for a few months and Hidarth is getting very excited about all the new things he is learning. However, Leelum doesn’t come by nearly often enough these days to keep Hidarth stocked with fresh material. So Leelum explains that Hidarth can just use one of the free thumbdrives being given away at the school and place his requests on it. He can give that thumbdrive to his father who walks into the nearest town about once a week. His father can simply walk into the schoolhouse and plug the thumbdrive into a special computer and that computer will automatically read Hidarth’s requests and place the requested content onto the thumbdrive. In this way, Hidarth can be continuously stocked with educational material that exactly meets his needs and allows him to learn all on his own without having to walk most of a day just to attend class and without needing to have direct access to an internet connection.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the United States, there is a young girl who does have a classroom to go to (they even send out a bus so she doesn’t have to walk at all) and she hates it. She spends much of her time sitting with her chin in her hands because she doesn’t understand a thing the teacher is saying most of the time. Mary is a one of the 30% (3) of sixth graders in America who doesn't know it yet, but will never graduate from high-school. She does OK on some subjects but she just doesn't understand the more technical subjects like math and science. The teacher goes too fast and Mary doesn't have time to understand what he is saying before the teacher moves on to the next subject. So Mary quickly gives up, gets bored, and decides that science is just for boys. Mary eventually drops out of high-school and gets a job at a local fast-food restaurant.

One day Mary sees an advertisement on TV about a way she can finish her high-school diploma and maybe even test out of a lot of college classes just by studying at home on her mom’s computer. She tries it out and discovers that this is nothing like the computer programs they made her work on at school. Instead of just repeating the same stuff for everybody, whether anyone understands it or not, this program has lots of different explanations for the each and every thing she needs to learn. And since all the content - contributed by people all over the world - is checked by real teachers, Mary knows that what she is learning is guaranteed to be reliable, unlike some of the stuff she finds on the internet. And now, when she doesn’t understand what the computer says, she can just click a button and get a different explanation. Pretty soon, the computer somehow knows just what explanation to give her without her even needing to ask any more.

Mary quickly works her way through all the material she needs to get her GED. She can’t believe how much she can remember either. It’s not like in school where she would just cram for the test and then forget it all the next day. The program keeps asking her different questions about the same stuff but at just the right times so her brain just naturally decides to remember it, without her really trying that hard. Soon Mary is working on testing out of college level classes in science and math, subjects that she has taken a renewed interest in now that it is so much easier to learn them.

What could possibly have helped both Hidarth and Mary learn. Two people from drastically different backgrounds and life situations? Both were using software that made use of educational content in the DEMML format. The Distributable Educational Material Markup Language™ (DEMML™) will be both a free and open XML format for marking up educational material in a highly structured yet incredibly flexible manner and a system for authenticating and distributing that content throughout the world, even to areas that have no internet connection at all. Once distributed, no internet connection is required to use the material either. This material is organized and classified to a degree never before attempted, using what turns out to be a rather simple system of encoding the hierarchical tree of all possible educational material right down to the paragraph level. This allows anyone to easily contribute any amount of material to what will quickly grow to be a vast library of vetted content for all to use. In addition the format facilitates a new level of flexibility in computer based learning by allowing educators to specify what material the student should study while still allowing the student instant access to additional material as their needs require. Multiple different explanations or presentations can exist for any one fact within any very specific topic. This allows any student at any level to quickly find just the right explanation that helps them most efficiently understand the topic at hand.

To be clear, DEMML™ is not yet another Computer Based Training (CBT) system. Nor is it yet another Wiki or lesson-plan repository. Instead, it is a way of creating a library of educational material in a standardized format which all compatible CBT systems can easily and automatically draw from, with no content editing whatsoever. Existing CBT software can be modified slightly to make use of this content or modified even further to employ the rich functionality that only DEMML™ provides. Just as hyperlinking existed long before Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and HTML, CBT has been around a long time before DEMML™. Before HTML all hyperlinking systems were proprietary and only worked within limited confines. Similarly, current CBT systems are all either proprietary systems or are relatively unavailable to the public. DEMML™ will be to CBT what HTML and WWW have been to hyperlinking. It will open up a world of possibilities by making education easily available to everyone, everywhere.

Only when students can easily obtain and master all the material necessary for a course of study entirely on their own will they be free of the barriers that stand between them and knowledge. Only when everyone in the world has free and easy access to all the education they want or need will we be able to overcome the suffering created when the uneducated are left to fend for themselves against the unscrupulous.

People all over the world, in all walks of life, desperately need a new way to learn. They need to be able to learn at their own pace, using content that is fine tuned to their specific learning style rather than having canned content regurgitated at them by over-stressed teachers. I believe that DEMML will be that new way. I believe that DEMML will create a paradigm shift in the way people learn. Unfortunately, DEMML™ is not quite ready for prime time yet. I will be creating the first version of the XML Schema next semester and will begin forming a non-profit organization to oversee the standard soon. Would you like to play a part in ushering in this new era of education? If so, please contact me and let me know.

1: Anup Shah. (2009, March 22). Poverty Facts and Stats — Global Issues. Global Issues. Blog, . Retrieved October 4, 2009, from
3: Jay P. Greene, Ph.D., & Greg Forster, Ph.D. (2003). Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States. Education Working Paper (p. 32). Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute. Retrieved October 3, 2009, from

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

Some Education Statistics to Brighten Your Day

Of the 2.2 billion children worldwide there are anywhere from 33 million (1) to 121 million (2) who are not even enrolled in school. Countless more are enrolled but don't or can't attend. The average adult has spent only 6.2 years in school (3). Only 44% of people get to their senior year of high school (4) and only 28% even make it to college (5). Closer to home, the high-school drop-out rate in the U.S. is almost 9% (6). Only 70% ever graduate and only 32% are actually ready for college (7) if they do graduate. Although, 63% of high-school graduates enroll in college, 25% don’t make it to the end of their first year (8). In even the best educated areas of the country, only 33% make it all the way through (9). After taking thinner and thinner slices of the worldwide education pie, we can see we live in a world that is woefully uneducated. Almost every education-oriented organization in the world has the same solution to this problem: Produce more and better teachers. It sounds like a worthy goal. However, the world’s population is expanding exponentially while the number of colleges remains relatively constant. In addition, the average burn-out rate for teachers is about two years. As Malthusian as it may sound, there is absolutely no way the world can produce enough qualified teachers fast enough to keep up.

I originally gathered up these statistics for my class about GrantWriting. The point is not to depress you but to demonstrate that a drastic change in thinking is needed within the education community. Millions of dollars are granted to non-profit organizations every year for programs to increase the number of teachers available or to make a few more teachers available in some remote areas. I do not believe this will ever be enough. In fact, I am starting to believe that providing these "services" is starting to become a major industry, simply because the problem is so insurmountable. There will always be room for one more service agency. It is easy for anyone to demonstrate need simply by describing how bad things are in any one location. Heck you can't swing the proverbial dead cat without hitting on some location that needs better educational services. We need something that will completely change how we think of education. We must empower every individual to educate themselves (entirely on their own if necessary). I believe DEMML can be that change.


1: Children out of school, primary (most recent) by country. (n.d.). . Retrieved October 4, 2009, from

2: Anup Shah. (2009, March 22). Poverty Facts and Stats — Global Issues. Global Issues. Blog, . Retrieved October 4, 2009, from

3: Average years of schooling of adults (most recent) by country. (n.d.). . Retrieved October 4, 2009, from

4: Senior Secondary > Educational Attainment statistics - countries compared - NationMaster. (n.d.). . Retrieved October 4, 2009, from

5: Educational Attainment tertiary (most recent) by country. (n.d.). . Retrieved October 4, 2009, from

6: The NCES Fast Facts Tool provides quick answers to many education questions (National Center for Education Statistics). (n.d.). . Retrieved October 3, 2009, from

7: Jay P. Greene, Ph.D., & Greg Forster, Ph.D. (2003). Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States. Education Working Paper (p. 32). Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute. Retrieved October 3, 2009, from

8: Kinzie, J. (. L. (2005). Understanding and Reducing College Student Departure (review). Journal of College Student Development, 46(2), 213-215. doi: 10.1353/csd.2005.0016.  

9: Getting in isn't enough - The Boston Globe. (2008, November 17). Newspaper, . Retrieved October 4, 2009, from

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Philosophy Statement

When discussion turns to "educational technology" many consider only those "technologies" that can be used to augment a typical American classroom. Thoughts turn to digital projectors, computers, software, and the internet. All of these technologies can be quite beneficial. They allow teachers to illustrate principles that would be very time-consuming or difficult to illustrate using only a chalkboard. Computers and software can provide drill and practice with much more immediate feedback which greatly enhances learning. And the internet can be a source for a vast wealth of information, providing access to almost all the knowledge of mankind right in one's own bedroom. They are the power-tools of education. Unfortunately, these power-tools are being used in the same old context as the previous "hand-tools" represented by chalkboards, pencil, and paper. Just as power tools make building a house faster and more efficient, if one builds that house using the same plan as in the past then one will end up with the same old inefficient, thin-walled, rectangular, box. Sometimes, however, a new tool or material will come along that has the power to entirely change the industry. Rather than build houses out of 2x4 studs and drywall, some are experimenting with spraying structural foam onto a form made of nothing more than a bubble of plastic sheeting. Many of the same tools (power and hand) are used to finish up the building, but the entire definition of a house has changed. Similarly, adding technologies to the classroom while keeping the same old educational system will result in the same old, ineffective, shallow, rubber-stamp learning. The only way technology itself can truly affect the educational system will be if that technology is revolutionary enough to completely redefine what we mean my "education."

In the old system "education" has meant that a teacher stands up in front of a class and disseminates information in a manner and at a rate designed to meet the needs of the "average" student. Unfortunately, very few students are "average." Students differ in the rate at which they learn as well as in the ways in which they learn. Some learn best when lectured and handed facts. Some learn best when given interesting projects to work on. New, technologies, especially the internet, seem to lend themselves to this kind of project-based-learning. Wonderful "web-quests" have been created to lead students on a journey of learning through the vast pile of content that is "The Internet." For many these are much more interesting, and thus more motivating, than simple reading and lecture. However, for those who lack a solid foundation of knowledge within which to contextualize their discoveries, a web-quest can be nothing but an exercise in frustration. Yes, it is possible to write just the perfect web-quest (or any other lesson) for any specific level of student proficiency. The problem is that only a few students in any one classroom are ever going to be at that exact level at the same time. All others will be either bored or lost. And this gets to the crux of what is wrong with the current educational system. It is a one-size-fits-all proposition. Sure, there are different grade levels but they are based on age, not ability.

Therefore, our revolutionary technology must redefine "education" from "one size fits all" to "every size is available to all." This is not a simple proposition. We cannot simply throw students into a library with internet access and expect them to naturally find the right material for them to learn what they want or need to know at any given time. There is simply too much content available and it is essentially a disorganized pile as far as a young mind is concerned. The enormity of the chore is overwhelming. You are more likely to get small fires than any real learning. On the other hand, there are simply not enough trained teachers to individually guide each student on their own learning path. Again, there is simply too much material out there to choose from, too many methodologies for teaching that particular material, and too many variations in student interest for any one person to keep track of what material should be presented to each student next. There are barely enough teachers to provide one for every 30 students in this country. Not to mention all the children with no teacher at all in less developed countries. This is where technology can step in. It is possible for computer software to test students to determine their interests and abilities as well as track changes in them over time. Based on this information it is possible for software to choose just the right material to present to each student at just the right time. Naturally, this will require material that is highly organized and coded for all these different variables. Although this kind of software and material does not currently exist, it is possible to do. The teacher is then left to do more of the things that only a human teacher can do. Things like motivating students to want to learn and guiding them in a much more general way to ensure that students don't focus their personal learning too narrowly or avoid important subjects as some may tend to do.

For such a computer-based-education system to work it must also follow sound educational psychology principles. It must be designed around the way that people actually learn. Again, there is no need to take a one-size-fits-all approach. Many theorists have many different ideas on how people - and particularly children - learn. Usually a teacher will decide on a particular philosophy and adhere to it throughout their entire career. Software does not need to be so single-minded. Multiple versions of content can be created that teaches the same things but from different perspectives. It can even take many different perspectives into account simultaneously when choosing material to present to a student. A student may be in Piaget's Formal Operational stage of development while still being a person who learns better when an authority figure explains something to them in no-nonsense terms as proscribed by Vygotsky. A student may need motivation to continue with a difficult topic and so may need rewards as described by behavioral theorists, but may also need scaffolding built for them to better understand the material at hand as suggested by cognitive theorists. Many students learn best when they construct the knowledge from project-based experiences but can only be expected to "construct" accurate models in their mind if they already have a solid foundation of knowledge based on drill and practice. Therefore the content must be coded and tagged to reflect all these different aspects of educational psychology rather than simply choosing one to the exclusion of the others.

There is one educational theory, however, that must be adhered to throughout for this software system to be effective. Unfortunately this is the theory that seems to be given the least attention within the educational community. Some textbooks refer to this as brain-based or neuronal learning. Simply put, it is learning based on how our brains actually work at a cellular level. The brains of all animals from the lowly sea-slug to humans work in essentially the same way at the most fundamental level. They remember what is necessary for survival. What is deemed necessary for survival is chosen based on the frequency with which it is experienced. This has been proven to be true at a biochemical level within brain cells. When signals are presented at a synapse within a certain time after a previous stimulus, then chemicals build up in that area which reinforce the growth patterns of that synapse and cause it to stay there. When the signals are not repeated then the chemicals dissipate, the synapse recedes, and that memory is lost. What this means is that it is not enough to teach a student something once and expect them to retain it for any reasonable period of time. That material must be repeated over and over with increasing time period between repetitions until that time period is effectively the rest of the students life (or for however long they desire to remember the material). Unfortunately, that pattern is not set in stone and varies by student and difficulty of the material. It would be impossible for any teacher to calculate exactly when is the best time to repeat previous material, even if they only had one student. It is also impractical for a teacher to ask just the right questions at just the right times over the length of time necessary to build solid memories. And, no, questions on a final exam are not enough. However, it is entirely possible for a computer program to do such a thing. A student's personal learning system can repeat material that was originally presented years earlier and in just the right form to reinforce that learning today.

Where does all this leave the teacher? Are they left out of the equation? Not at all. However, only those teachers who are willing and able to make the transition from lecturer to mentor will thrive in the new system. Some may also say that many districts cannot afford more than one computer per classroom let alone one per student. They are likely buying the wrong computers. Students do not need computers capable of editing video in order to learn. XO laptops, from the One Laptop per Child project, cost only $199 each and are more than adequate for most educational content. There are even computers available for only $12 in some countries that can be used to deliver material in this form. Given the high cost in both time and money associated with training a new teacher, and the incredibly high turnover rate, it is far less expensive to provide each student with an adequate computer. Simply put, it is impossible to produce enough teachers to educate all the people in the world but it is entirely possible to mass produce enough computers to do the task.

So, to sum up, my philosophy is that educational technology will only ever be an evolutionary change in a system that no longer meets the needs of students until that technology reaches a new and revolutionary stage. That technology must be able to instruct each student individually while relieving the teacher of the burden of tracking each individual student's progress. Then the teachers will be free to do what they really do best, encouraging and mentoring students in a more general way towards their individual learning goals. Using technology in this way, rather than simply to augment existing lessons, will also free up more good teachers while weeding out those with less motivation and enable us to educate everyone in the world.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

Computers As Writing Instructors by Greg Miller: a Review

Writing-instruction software is designed to analyze the text of an essay and either give it a simple grade or feedback as to what could be improved. Some find it indispensable for improving the skills of beginning writers while others are skeptical as to its efficacy. The primary benefit seems to be the speed with which results can be returned. When students are able to get feedback within seconds and try again right away, it can drastically improve their skills.

There are three major commercial providers of writing-instruction software: Vantage Learning, Educational Testing Service (the producers of the GRE exam), and Pearson Education who charges $30 per student per year. My first impulse is to grate against a commercial service making a profit on teaching children to write. However, I have often paid far more than $30 for a book that taught me almost nothing about a subject. So, if more students are learning to write and gaining the confidence in their ability to learn that comes from that, then I say $30 is well worth it. Although I did find it disheartening to learn that my chances of getting into graduate school may be affected by a computer program.

One factor that limits the usefulness of these programs is that they need to be trained on about 100 human-graded essays before they can be used. This means that these programs could not be used for the unique, context-specific types of essays that most teachers assign for classes. However, those essays are usually used to asses a student's knowledge of the material taught in the classroom, not teach them to write. If the student has learned to write better by practicing using standardized essays and computerized feedback, then they will be more confident and able to focus on the question at hand rather than being hampered by inadequate writing ability.

Some naysayers complain that the software can't measure certain things such as accuracy or clever writing. However, I believe that it is at least a start. No one is recommending that humans be taken completely out of the picture. But the software can be used to quickly and easily bring students up by several levels where the teacher can then take over and start working on the finer points.

I do have one real concern that wasn't addressed in the article: Have the commercial providers patented all of the technology to such a point that it would be impossible for an open-source project to be able to do something similar. This is important because, even though I think $30 is a fair price to pay to learn how to write, it is still a bit too expensive for most of the people in the world. While the commercial programs may have certain special features that many would be willing to pay for, it would be nice if the rest of the world could still have access to the basic algorithms. This would keep the other six billion people in the world from falling even further behind.

Greg Miller. “Computers As Writing Instructors.” Science 2 Jan 2009: 59-60.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

"Flat" is the new "Global Village"

Way back in the late 1980s, just after I had left the USMC and was working at CMSI, the museum hired a new curator named Joseph Deken. This guy had written a book called "The Electronic Cottage" in which he extolled all the virtues of the dawning computer age. In the book he explained how the world was getting smaller and that people would soon be able to do any number of things right from home or anywhere around the world thanks to the magic of computers and near instant communications. It had been incredibly popular. Now, all of us electronics technicians felt we already knew all of that stuff. We chided him for saying what we had already known for years. He wrote the book in 1983.

Naturally, I don't have perfect memory, and when I was first recollecting all this I incorrectly recollected that the book's title had been, "The Global Village," another term that was common back then. In trying to find the book I uncovered 14,990 books with "the global village" in their title dating back to about 1968. And that is on Amazon alone. So, when I read the glowing reviews of Thomas Friedman's new book, "The World is Flat" I was somewhat nonplussed. It seems odd to me that the phrase "global village" has been written about since at least 1968 and the idea of an "electronic cottage" has been popular since at least 1983, yet the notion that the earth is suddenly flat - again - is inexplicably all the rage.

Why is it that the education community is only just now jumping on this bandwagon? I understand that computers were difficult to come by for schools back in 1968. But postage was cheap, yet only a few teachers helped their students find pen-pals. In 1983 personal computers had been around for about seven years and weren't so terribly expensive as to be out of reach for most schools. Certainly less expensive than the new, oak desk in the superintendent's office. And yet, I didn't see a single computer in a single school until I went to college in 1978. It was an expensive private college and they had a mere two computers, one TRS-80 Model-1 and one Apple II. Why is that? Why has it taken 33 long years since the introduction of the first inexpensive, personal-computer for the education community to finally, really say, "Hey, maybe this is something we should look into."

I'm certainly not going to make any friends when I say that I think the main reason is pure laziness. Laziness and fear of new things. When I was in sixth grade it was a risky and experimental proposition for teachers to ask students to work on projects in groups. They had to hire a special experimental and risk-taking teacher to come in and do that. Woop-de-doo! Education theorists from Vygotsky on had been promoting collaboration as a means to better learning since the 30's. It took teachers till 1966, another 30 some-odd years, to get around to it? Laziness and unwillingness to change, that's what I say.

So, some guy comes along, stealing an old term to coin a new phrase which means something we have known all along and suddenly everyone is interested. So what has Thomas Friedman got that Lev Vygotsky and Joseph Deken didn't have? About all I can figure is that he has a better publicist. I guess I should just be happy that the education community is finally getting the message and working on how they can incorporate these "new ideas" into their curricula. I guess I should see the bright side and say, "Isn't it wonderful that everyone is recognizing that a change needs to be made and are working on figuring out how to do that." But I have to wonder, what is going to happen when it is time for the next big change to be made. Is the education community going to sit around for another 30 years, waiting till another crisis of ineffectiveness is ready to burst in their faces like a festering boil, before they - that would be you, current education students - actually do something about it?

You all claim to want to be teachers. So I would presume that you would want to be effective teachers. Well, that is not going to come easy. You are not going to be able to stick to the same old things that teachers have been doing all along. You can't simply teach to the test so your district can claw their way past the NCLB minimums. You must be willing to innovate and change, every darn day if need be. It shouldn't be only the exceptional teachers like Eliot Wigginton who throw the textbook out the window and ask their students to start a project that eventually grows into "The Firefox Book". It shouldn't be only teachers like Ron Clark who "drink the chocolate milk" of creativity and finally get their students to pay attention. Every single one of you has to be willing to really stick your neck out, even when those around you ridicule you or worse. You must be willing to embrace technology - and not just as a way to distract yourself when you should be paying attention in class. Yes, I see you. Unless you actually plan to become one of those "statistics" who burn out after just a few years, you really have to devote yourselves like you have never been devoted before. You must learn how these kids think. Then you have to learn how to get them to change their thinking. They have been trained all their lives to believe that school is boring. You have to break through that. It takes work and practice and skill and more practice.

I know, I am not going to become a teacher, so many of you may think I have no room to talk. But I am doing my part in the way I can be most effective. Are you? Or are you just surfing Facebook, biding your time till the bell rings?

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

Isaac Asimov predicts DEMML (sort of)

In 1988 Bill Moyers did an interview with Isaac Asimov about his (then) recently released book, As Far as the Eye Can See. In this interview, Asimov predicted that we would all eventually be able to have computers in our homes that could connect us to vast libraries of information. The interview is up on YouTube in three parts which I have embedded here. I have also included a few notes that took while watching the videos:

Part 1:

  • 4:17 - Moyers asks, "Do you think we can educate ourselves on […]anything that strikes our fancy?"
  • 6:50 - Learning more makes us more comfortable in the universe.
  • 8:42 - We can have a revolution in learning.
  • 9:30 - If we educate children from the start into appreciating their own creativity, then we can all be creative.

Part 2:

  • 0:00 - Access to computer based education and information, and the ability to learn at one's own pace will make it so that people will enjoy learning. At school, the one-size-fits all approach makes learning not enjoyable.
  • 1:10 - Computers don't dehumanize learning. They do the opposite by creating a one-to-one relationship between information source and information consumer.

Part 3:

  • This section primarily speaks to the importance of emphasizing science and rational thought over mysticism.

Additional Thoughts:

I think it is important to note how much emphasis Asimov places on individualized learning rather than a one-size-fits-all model. He points out the problems we have in the classroom with trying to educate a room full of students, assuming that they all learn the same. While Asimov did predict the vast amount of knowledge that would be available on the Internet, he did not predict that it would also be a disadvantage. He assumed that the information would be organized like a "library," never imagining that we would be in such a rush to pile content into as many web sites as possible that we would forget to stop and organize it as it went in. This is one of the primary goals of DEMML™. While I have no plans to organize the entire internet, I do plan to organize all of the information that people will need to educate themselves about the world around them. I believe that DEMML™ will finally realize Asimov's dream.

P.S. The entire interview is also available on the PBS web site here.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

The Importance of Fostering Creativity in Education

There is a conference that is put on every year called the TED conference (for Technology Entertainment and Design). This is an invitation only conference for only the best minds in the country. The best scientists, designers, and activists as well as quality artists, static and performing. These are the most creative minds in America giving lectures to each other about their craft or simply whatever they think is important. The motto of the conference is "Ideas worth sharing." So it is no surprise that the lectures are often about creativity itself. How to get it, how to use it, or just how wonderful it is to have it.

What I find most interesting, however, are the lectures about the importance of fostering Creativity in our children, both in the classroom and out. Here are three lectures which I think truly speak to the importance of creativity. The first is "5 dangerous things you should let your kids do." It is about the simple things that we used to do as kids, or at least when I was a kid, that may be a little dangerous but that teach kids many important things about the world around them. The speaker, Gever Tully, warns that by not allowing our kids to do these things we are depriving them not only of the learning but we are, in the end, are making them less safe because they do not learn how to be safe with dangerous things when they do encounter them. You can even download a comic about a summer camp called The Tinkering School, where Tully teaches kids to build things that they dream up.

The second lecture is the best. Ken Robinson is hilarious. His talk, "Do schools kill creativity?" is full of humor but addresses a serious issue. By overemphasizing only the few subjects that turn our children into good workers for businesses we are killing their creativity. Then, just because they don't all fit that one highly restrictive mold we are labeling more and more of our children as ADHD. Think about it, we would rather label children as diseased than simply change the way we teach them.

The last talk is simply about the importance of creativity in our lives. Author, Elizabeth Gilbert's talk "A different way to think about creative genius," discusses the ways in which we treat creative workers differently. Interestingly, the issue of de-emphasizing creativity in our children - because of the perception that they could never get a job actually using their imagination - comes up in this talk as well.

If you don't know about TED then you should take a look. Each lecture is about 18 minutes. They cover topics from environmentalism to new technology to the arts and the talks are given by the very people doing the work. These lectures would be great to use in a classroom or you can just watch them for personal inspiration as I do.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson. team is making educational games available for $12 computers.

There is a group of people from several different universities who have started an organization called to create free educational games that will run on a type of computer that is already being manufactured and sold in India for only $12. The computer is based on the same chip that used to be in the old Apple II computers but is all contained within just the keyboard. It plugs into an existing TV just like a video game. Wired Magazine has an article about it here.

I truly believe this is the kind of "educational technology" that is really going to change the world. It is a simple idea, it is incredibly cheap, the learning can take place at home, and it can be done any time of the day.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

First DEMML blog post

Well, this is my first real post for DEMML blog. I finally got Blogger set up to show the header the way I want it. I will need to edit the web site to point here. Heck, that site needs a lot of updating. I guess I have been pretty busy with school and stuff these last few years. Not that I haven't been working on DEMML off and on during that time but I just haven't had time to update the site.

In the mean time I have a few posts I put up on a blog I was required to create for my Educational Technology course which I will transfer over here.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.