Automatic shifting and manual steering on the information superhighway

I’d like to thank the folks at the Berkman Center for listening to my talk yesterday, and for feedback that was skeptical about the very points I know that I need to sharpen. The talk is available here in multiple audio and video formats. The slides are separately available on SlideShare. There are many ways to use these materials. If I wanted to listen and watch, here are the methods I’d choose. For a tethered experience I’d download the original PowerPoint deck from SlideShare and watch it along with the MP3 audio. For an untethered experience I’d look at the slides first, and then dump the MP3 onto a portable player and head out for a run. Finally, if I lacked the time or inclination for either of those modes, but was still curious about the talk, I’d read Ethan Zuckerman’s excellent write-up.

After the talk we had a stimulating discussion that raised questions some of us have been kicking around forever in the blogosphere:

  1. Do “real people” — that is, people who do not self-identify as geeks — actually use feed syndication?

  2. If not directly and intentionally, do they use it indirectly and unconsciously by way of systems that syndicate feeds without drawing attention to the concept?

  3. Does the concept matter?

The third question is the big one for me. From the moment that the blogosphere booted up, I thought that pub/sub syndication — formerly a topic of interest only to engineers of networked information systems — was now becoming a tool that everyone would want to master in order to actively engage with networked information systems. Mastering the principles of pub/sub syndication wasn’t like mastering the principles of automotive technology in order to drive a car. It was, instead, like knowing how to steer the car — a form of knowledge that we don’t fully intuit. I have been driving for over 35 years. But there are things I never learned until we sent our kids to Skid School and participated in the training.

I’ll admit I have waffled on this. After convincing Gardner Campbell that we should expect people to know how to steer their cars on the information superhighway, I began to doubt that was possible. Maybe people don’t just need automatic transmission. Maybe they need automatic steering too. Maybe I was expecting too much.

But Gardner was unfazed by my doubt. He continued to believe that people need to learn how to steer, and he created a Skid School in order to teach them. It’s called the New Media Studies Faculty Seminar, it’s taking place at Baylor University where Gardner teaches, at partner schools, and from wherever else like minds are drawn by the tags that stitch together this distributed and syndicated conversation. Here’s Gardner reflecting on the experience:

Friday, I was scanning the blog feeds to read the HCC blogs about the discussion. Then I clicked over to some of the other sites’ blogs to see what was happening there. Oops! I was brought up short. I thought I’d clicked on a St. Lawrence University blog post. It sure looked like their site. But as I read the post, it was clear to me something had gone wrong. I was reading a description of the discussion at HCC, which had included very thoughtful inquiries into the relationship of information, knowledge, and wisdom. Then I realized that in fact I was reading a description of the HCC discussion — because that’s what they’d talked about at St. Lawrence University as well.

And now my links bear witness to that connection, tell my story of those connections, and enact them anew.

This property of the link — that it is both map and territory — is one I’ve blogged about before (a lucky blog for me, as it elicited three of my Favorite Comments Ever). But now I see something much larger coming into view. Each person enacts the network. At the same time, the network begins to represent and enact the infinities within the persons who make it up. The inside is bigger than the outside. Each part contains the whole, and also contributes to the whole.

The New Media Studies Faculty Seminar has given some educators a lesson in how to steer their own online destinies, and a Skid School course on which to practice their new skills. That pretty much sums up my ambition for the elmcity project too. Automatic transmissions are great. But we really do need to teach folks how to steer.

Talking with Sal Khan about YouTube tutoring as guerilla public service

My guest for this week’s Innovators show is Sal Khan. He’s the creator of, a catalog of more than 1000 YouTube video lessons in math, physics, biology, chemistry, and economics. All of these videos are made by Sal himself, in an engagingly personal style, using simple screencasting tools.

When I first got interested in screencasting, I envisioned the medium not only as a way to demonstrate software, but also as a way to share knowledge at Internet scale. Sal’s work fulfills that vision, and points the way toward a profound and much-needed disruption of our educational system.

At its core, Sal’s project isn’t about YouTube screencasts. It’s about intuition.

I always got frustrated by what went on in the classroom. You see otherwise intelligent peers memorizing facts and not really caring about the actual intuition. And because they didn’t care about the intution in their junior year, when that same idea pops up in senior year, it’s like they’ve never seen it before. It boggled my mind. You’re just relabeling the same concept over and over.

Sal cares about the intuition, and he wants others to care about the intution too. The first beneficiary of that desire was his cousin Nadia, whom he tutored remotely. Then followed other cousins and family friends. Then it dawned on him that there were no limits. The project could scale out. He could become a superempowered individual, reaching anyone who finds value in his method.

One of the key ingredients of that method is improvisation. These videos aren’t carefully planned, and they aren’t edited. As a viewer, you find yourself looking over the shoulder of a smart and broadly knowledgeable person who is solving problems by thinking on his feet. You watch a practitioner at work: engaged with his medium, wrestling with his tools, correcting false starts.

It was Chris Gemignani who first showed me the value of this approach, in a screencast that teaches how to do unexpectedly powerful and elegant Excel charting. He did it in one take. I’d have been tempted to edit out the false starts. But Chris knew better. Learning how a practitioner really thinks about solving a problem is even more valuable than learning the solution to the problem.

One thing that Sal’s lessons can’t be, of course, is interactive. Nor does he pretend that these videos will make teachers obsolete. But he does suggest, and I violently agree, that teachers can and should become curators of online assets like the ones Sal is creating, and should know when and how to weave those assets into their classes.

Teachers should also become connectors. Sal won’t be the only game in town. Other superempowered tutors will emerge. Each will have a unique style. For a given student, a given subject, and a given problem, one or another of those styles may be right. The best teachers will know their own strengths and limitations, will know which online tutors complement their strengths in a variety of ways, and will connect their students with those tutors.

Sal Khan is on fire. He burns with a passion to share his intuitions with anyone and everyone. It is a beautiful thing to see. He has abandoned a lucrative career in finance to do this fulltime, and I am quite sure he will find a way to keep doing it.

PS: The title of this piece refers to Richard Ankrom’s Los Angeles freeway project. At a busy intersection, millions of motorists have been directed to North 5 by a sign that Caltrans omitted. Ankrom created and installed that missing sign.

PPS: I wrote to my son’s math teacher about Sal Khan. She replied: “Thanks for that link to the Khan Academy. I was overwhelmed by how many video lessons he has! He does seem like an inspiring man. Unfortunately, You Tube is blocked here at the high school.”

Learning lessons from PLATO

If you’re interested in the use of computers and networks to support collaboration, you’ll have heard of PLATO. It was an early courseware system, and by early I mean circa 1960, running on vacuum tubes. But it was also a petri dish in which much of what we now know as online culture first evolved.

I’ve long known that PLATO inspired many other systems, including VAX Notes and Lotus Notes. But I never heard the backstory. So when I found out that Brian Dear is completing a history of PLATO, and planning a conference to commemorate its 50th anniversary, I invited him onto my weekly show to find out more about it. PLATO matters, Brian says, because

it challenges our assumptions of how the online world evolved. It rewrites the history. It’s as if we discovered Wilbur and Orville Wright were not the first to fly a powered plane — that it’d been done faster and longer with a jet aircraft 30 years earlier.

Of couse the same can be said of other early technologies, notably Smalltalk, which introduced ideas and methods that are only now hitting the mainstream. It’s fun to wax nostalgic, but I’d rather explore how these systems arose, why they flourished, and what accounts for the propagation of their memes but not their genes.

From that perspective Brian reminds us, first, that PLATO was expensive. Few universities were willing or able to invest millions in a Control Data mainframe and a fleet of gas-plasma flat-panel bitmapped touch-screen display terminals. Those terminals enabled some extraordinary things, like the interactive music software that captivated Brian as a University of Delaware undergrad. They also enabled a now-extinct species of emoticons, which relied on the bitmapped graphics. But since much of what became PLATO’s essential DNA required only character-mapped graphics, those expensive bitmapped screens became an evolutionary bottleneck.

Another feature that didn’t pass through that bottleneck was PLATO’s ability to make sense of natural language input. Many thousands of programmer hours were invested in enabling PLATO to recognize a variety of human utterances. That in turn enabled courseware authors to create lessons that responded intelligently — and, Brian says, in ways that are sadly still not typical of modern courseware.

Today we can attack that problem by creating open source libraries, by reusing them, and by extending them. That’s a great way to create DNA that can propagate. But it’s useful to consider why it might not. We still, for the most part, create dependencies on specific programming languages, and on the environments in which they run.

As we move into an era of services, though, we can start to imagine a more fluid environment in which capabilities persist across language and system boundaries. Consider this exhibit from an antique PLATO library:

This is a screenshot from the live PLATO system running (in emulation) at It’s a page from the catalog of functions in PLATO’s CYBIS library. Shown here are some of the methods available to process responses to questions.

Some of those methods might still be useful. And if they’d been packaged in a language- and system-independent way, some might conceivably still be in use.

PLATO programmers didn’t have the option to package their work in a such a way. Now we’re on the cusp of an era in which these kinds of library services can also be language- and system-independent web services. Will we exploit this new possibility? Will some of today’s core services still be delivering value decades from now, freeing developers to add value farther up the stack? It’s worth pondering.