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Playing with explorable explanations

I threw together this little project over the weekend to practice my javascript skills and explore Bret Victor’s Tangle, a javascript library for creating explorable explanations. I still have lots more to learn, but Tangle is really easy to get started with and I’d love to explore the possibilities of explorable explanations in more depth. When I get a chance, I’ll write up a step-by-step guide explaining how I built this.

Victor develops the ideas behind Tangle in his essay Explorable Explanations and provides his own extensive example of the library in use with Ten Brighter Ideas.

This concept has real potential. Being able to play with the different data points reinforces your understanding of the subject. In Bret Victor’s aforementioned essay, he discusses how this approach could work well with explanations of policy alternatives. And in an organizational context, you could present business cases or proposals as explorable documents so decision makers could really understand the data underlying their decisions.

Oscillating Yarn

This processing sketch is based on Example 3.7 in Daniel Shiffman’s excellent book, Nature of Code, but I removed the line connecting each ellipse to the centre, added some colour and trails and used my own numbers for velocity and amplitude rather than generating them randomly. The patterns created by the oscillators are sized in relation to one another using the golden ratio.

DNLE Assignment #4: Bloom's Taxonomy

This is part of a series of posts I'm doing related to Designing a New Learning Environment, an online course I'm taking through Stanford University's Venture Lab. You can find all the posts in this series here. This assignment was to find an educational technology that addresses each of the six levels of Bloom's Taxonomy.

The following examples are listed from lower order thinking skills to higher order thinking skills: remember, understand, apply, analyse, evaluate and create.


Tool: Flashcards*


This application can help students memorize, identify, recognize or name items from the curriculum.


Tool: Diigo

Bookmarking a site with the Diigo browser extension

Students can link to pages and add tags to the linked page, which (depending on tag choices) can demonstrate interpreting, summarizing, classifying, exemplifying, inferring and comparing.


Tool: Pinterest


Students can use Pinterest to share and write about examples that illustrate elements of the curriculum.


Tool: Flickr slideshow editor

Flickr slideshow editor

Students can upload images on flickr and organize them into a slideshow to compare, contrast and link various ideas.


Tools: Tumblr, Wordpress, Blogger

Blog commenting on any blogging system

Students can comment on and/ or critique the ideas expressed by other students on their learning blogs. They can also write their own blog post to extend the debate.


Tool: iMovie video editor


Students can plan, produce and distribute a video that explores curriculum in more depth.

DNLE Assignment 1: Compare three learning environments

This is part of a series of posts I'll be doing related to Designing a New Learning Environment, an online course I'm taking through Stanford University's Venture Lab. You can find all the posts in this series here.

1. Codeacadamey

Codeacademy is an online learning environment for learning to code in various programming languages. I completed their core set of javascript courses in a few weeks. There is a set of courses for a given programming language with each course concentrating on a specific aspect of the language (e.g., “Introduction to Functions”). Each of the short courses is divided into single page sections. The left side of the page provides textual explanation followed by some exercises while the rest of the screen is occupied by an code editor. Students use the editor to write and evaluate the code to complete the exercises. The system gives each user badges for various learning achievements.

codeacademy screenshot
An page from Codeacademy's jQuery tutorial.



2. ds106

Inspired by an edupunk philosphy, Digital Storytelling, also known as ds106, is the online hub of a network of learners. ds106 is connected to a program offered at the University of Mary Washington, but allows Open Paticipants, online students, to join the program at any point during the term and participate as much as they want. Each student is expected to build an online identity through his/ her own blog and various social media sharing apps such as Flickr or Twitter. As such, there is no online course software. Instead, the ds106 web page aggregates the work of the students, the lectures and the assignments.

The ds106 home page
The ds106 home page



3. Corporate e-learning courses based on Adobe Captivate

I have taken several of these corporate e-learning courses as a student and worked with vendors to produce two other courses. Adobe Captivate allows developers to use text and other media to explain concepts and then test users through various types of exercises.




This is part of a series of posts I'll be doing related to Designing a New Learning Environment, an online course I'm taking through Stanford University's Venture Lab. You can find all the posts in this series here.

One issue I’ve had with Designing a New Learning Environment (DNLE) is with the platform it runs on called Venture Labs. While the site is visually appealing, its interaction design has not been well thought out. For example, it takes about three or four page jumps to get from the login screen to the classroom interface for a particular class. For an online educational platform, this isn’t good enough. Assuming a student is taking more than one class, it should only take two jumps to get there:

  1. A page listing classes after login
  2. With each class link leading directly to the classroom interface.

The platform is full of little issues like this and, to their credit, the stanford Student team who developed it is asking for our input.

I bring this up, not to launch into an analysis of the Venture Lab platform, but as a way of introducing an educational philosophy that takes a completely different approach: edupunk, is a DIY approach to teaching and learning inspired by the DIY ethos of the punk movement. The term was first used by instructional technologist, Jim Groom in a blog post that railed against the commodification of education technology. And you can see the edupunk philosophy in action at ds106, an education program to teach digital storytelling:

Digital Storytelling (also affectionately known as ds106) is an open, online course that happens at various times throughout the year at the University of Mary Washington... but you can join in whenever you like and leave whenever you need. This course is free to anyone who wants to take it, and the only requirements are a real computer, a hardy internet connection, preferrably a domain of your own and some commodity web hosting, and all the creativity you can muster.

The interesting thing about ds106 as an educational platform is that it is the hub of a network of learners and nothing more. Students use existing online tools such as Flickr, Soundcloud and their own blogs to:

design and build an online identity (if you don't have one already) and narrate your process throughout the fifteen week semester. Given this, you will be expected to openly frame this process and interact with one another throughout the course as well as engage and interact with the world beyond as a necessary part of such a development.

The ds106 website serves as a hub to aggregate class materials, class assignments and students’ online activities related to the class. As the site puts it, “it ain’t no silly MOOC”.

I’m aware that this approach to online education is, in many ways, diametrically opposed to the Venture Lab model of educational environment, but if your goal is to create a MOOC, it’s worth your time to consider the ds106 model. It made me realise that perhaps the Venture Lab platform is over-engineered. For example, I find it frustratingly difficult to discover and follow what the other students in DNLE have to say. Sure, the folks behind Venture Labs could improve their journal and forum interfaces, but these problems have been solved a number of times already. There are already great blogging platforms and it’s trivial to aggregate tweets and blog posts by subject and author.

The ds106 model embraces the nature of a worldwide web composed of “small pieces loosely joined” (David Weinberger). And it’s arguably more open then the MOOC model.

That said, it’s not perfect. For many types of online courses, a MOOC would be better. Not everyone has the skills or inclination to create and maintain their own online identities. But for a course on digital storytelling or designing new learning environments I would argue that these skills are essential to the course content.

In any case, a close examination of a MOOC-free educational environment is an important step in designing a better MOOC because it forces us to face fundamental questions about what we are doing and why when we design educational environments.