Tuesday, January 31, 2006

I've moved to a new blogging platform (goodbye Radio Userland, hello WordPress).

But if you read through an RSS aggregator (this is really important, so pay attention):

If you read directly from the website, everything will work as before at my preferred URL, http://www.semanticbible.com/blogos/. The new site includes several syndication buttons that make it easy to add Blogos to your Bloglines, MyYahoo!, or other readers.

If you have any problems with this, please send me (sean) an email at semanticbible daht com. I don't want to lose any readers in the transition (there aren't that many to start with!).

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In my work role, i keep track of a lot of different information about companies, the products they sell, their customers, etc. I don't want to put this information out on the web, since it's sensitive: but as my laptop has made me into more of a cyborg, i can't effectively keep it in my head either. I've tried several ways to manage this:

  • folders by company with notes in text files is the simplest, but i've grown accustomed to richer text representations (heading, bullets, etc.) and hyperlinked information.
  • I really like the outliner in Radio Userland, which i also use for blogging: it's nicely integrated with hyperlinks. But it's overkill for this task, particularly if you don't live in it all the time (and i don't, for other obscure reasons)
  • you can put hyperlinks in nicely styled Word documents, but Windows doesn't make it very easy to manage
  • of course, you can author full-up private webs with HTML: but that's more effort than i want to expend

So a few weeks ago, i decided to experiment with a personal wiki. Not the public kind you've been hearing about where people scrap to promote their own version of the truth, but one just for me to use in managing my own information. The basic characteristics i was looking for were:

  • very simple setup (i was aiming for under an hour)
  • lightweight enough to run on my laptop
  • simple text styling (headers, bulleted lists) and hyperlinks

A little googling led me to an article comparing several leading solutions (i can't recall the link now), and after a bit more research i decided on pmwiki.  It runs in PHP on Apache, so setup was easy: it took longer to understand the concepts than to actual configure the software. Pmwiki has a deliberate philosophy of limiting feature creep and sticking to the basics, which i find attractive, and there's no need to take advantage of more advanced features if you choose not to. The steps as i now recall them were about as easy as

  1. download and install Apache (i already had it)
  2. download and install PhP (pretty simple: a few glitches where the instructions for Windows were more complicated than they needed to be)
  3. download and install pmwiki, changing a couple of lines in the configuration file
  4. go wild

So far i'd call the experiment an unqualified success. My wiki files are still essentially big text files, but i can link them together and make them more readable with just a little styling. pmwiki supports templates (at page creation time), so i set up a basic structure to make some commonality easy (without being limiting). pmwiki supports "groups" which are sort of like objects: so i have a groups for Company, Product, Technology, and government organization. The keys are keeping it simple and knowing when to stop. For example, i mention a lot of people, but it doesn't make sense to try to re-engineer Outlook's address book functionality here. It's easy to link in news releases and other random bits of web information, in the context in which they matter (other than managing big bookmark structures, or using del.icio.us). Though i'm the primary author, one of my work colleagues who also does some business research can also add information (when i'm in the office and connected to the network!).

I've found it useful enough that i'm building another one now for a class i'm taking on the side (more distance education). Though UMUC has their own on-line learning mangement system, it's a pain: it only works with IE, you have to log on, if you leave the window idle it kicks you out, it's slow and complex, you can't link in to its content from the outside, whine whine whine. So i just download the key content (lesson plan, readings, etc.) and make them the main navigation elements for the wiki. Since a lot of my readings are in digital form, it's easy to have a page per reading, with a link to the actual text, the citation (in APA style so i don't have to waste brain time on that arcane knowledge), and then notes from the reading. I'm hoping that more active note-taking will help me retain more.



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 Tuesday, July 26, 2005
A picture named chomdan.gif

This is just too cute not to share. Here's ChomDan, mascot of Korean National Open University. From their website:

"The friendly character expresses the aim of KNOU, on-going lifetime education. It embodies the endeavoring spirit, and consists of two circles representing the earth and the universe, and in fact technologically advanced distance education. ChomDan is playing the role of a friendly messenger to create empathy between KNOU and its students. "

Doesn't that just make you want to hit the books?

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 Friday, July 22, 2005
Some digital bread crumbs to help me get back later to information about the (now defunct) ArsDigita University, an experiment by Philip Greenspun in free computer science education. The alumni seem to be believers, though it fell victim to lack of continued funding and legal disputes among the founders. Note this was not a distance education program: you had to go to Cambridge for a year. But it is certainly a different model than the traditional pay-to-learn one, and one i'd therefore like to understand better.

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 Saturday, July 09, 2005

I've been reading the work of Otto Peters in my distance education class, and realizing in fresh ways both the incredible possibilities offered by the digital networked environment, and how little most education practices have adjusted so far to take these new possibilities into account. Peters makes an apt comparison to the introduction of cinematography as a technology: it took a great deal of time, and creative rethinking, to move beyond simply filming scenes to all the potential of moving cameras, zooming in, blue screens, animation, etc.

In particular, thinking about moving toward learner autonomy - where learners, not teachers, control the direction, pacing, and goals of their education - and the possibilities inherent in technologies like XML for separating content from presentation, leads to some interesting ideas. Here's one, probably not fully thought out, but still potentially revolutionary in its impact.

In the hypertext environment, independent learners can always "digress" into a new direction. This is a positive feature, more consistent with educational theory than the traditional teacher-as-presenter, learner-as-receptor model. How can we structure on-line materials to enable learners to explore at varying depths, either a quick glance, a brief look, or a more detailed examination, according to their own interests and needs? At one extreme are the simplest references: a dictionary definition, or the text of a Bible verse. These are so brief they can be simple pop-ups on top of existing material. But this concept extends further: for example, in a educational unit presenting the Christian doctrine of salvation, a reference to "substitutionary atonement" might be hyper-linked to a separate unit on this concept.

Here's where it gets interesting for me. Imagine this unit in its full glory is a detailed presentation that might take a full hour to peruse in depth: drawing on this Wikipedia article for content, such a unit might examine various scripture texts and their interpretations, the arguments in favor of and against this perspective, some history of the classic articulations of the doctrine and its proponents, etc. Now imagine this presentation is derived automatically from a structured representation where the author has distinguished different levels of detail, perhaps into a tri-partite division of brief, light, and detailed treatments. One could operationalize these distinctions: a brief treatment should be capable of complete review in 5 minutes, a light treatment in 20 minutes, and a full treatment in an hour (with additional hyperlinks to other resources that could extend it even further). If - and this is the critical if - the material in its underlying organization can be carefully structured so that shallow levels of detail don't directly reference deep ones, one could imagine allowing the users to dynamically choose the depth they want to pursue, and automatically presenting (via XSLT or whatever) the appropriate content. If the learner wants only a brief digression, they get an overview of the concept, without all the argumentation or supporting evidence. Those with additional time and inclination can get the whole story.

I'd have to try authoring some content along these lines to see whether this could actually be carried out in practice. But it seems like a much more learner-centered approach than offering only the choice of all-or-nothing.


Peters, O. (2001). Learning and teaching in distance education - Analyses and interpretations from an international perspective (2nd ed.). London: Kogan Page.

Peters, O. (2004). Distance education in transition - New trends and challenges (4th ed.). Oldenburg: Bibliotheks-  und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg. [no URL available as of 2005/06/05]

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 Friday, June 17, 2005
A brief comment in one of my distance education textbooks raised an intriguing question: do Paul's epistles provide an early example of distance education, as the field is understood today? I compare one contemporary definition of distance education to Paul's activity: read more about it here.
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 Tuesday, June 14, 2005

I'm doing a lot of reading these days for my course on distance education, particular since it's all online. So no boring lectures, but a lot of time spent poring over prose: and frankly, much of it constructed in a fairly academic style that is no longer as comfortable to me. I'm a professional skimmer, a bullet-pointed powerpoint consumer, a give-me-the-bottom-line manager: it feels like a lot of work to deconstruct complex relative clauses and conjunctive phrases.

All of which got me thinking (when i should instead be reading Holmberg on "the Evolution, Principles, and Practices of Distance Education") ... what if textual representation adopted some of the prosodic aspects of speech? Particularly pauses for emphasis or pacing, volume and tone modulation to make listening more interesting, that kind of thing. Of course, we have some weak attempts, like ALL CAPS that are like shouting, or ... (ellipsis) which can represent a phrase with hanging intonation. Commas can also work indicate timing and phrasing, though they're overburdened with other grammatical functionality.

But different font sizes can indicate volume and tone as well, and different spacing can be used to represent pauses. So here goes. Compare this sentence

The evolution, principles and practices of distance education describes distance education as it is today and does so against the background of its history.

to this one

The evolution,   principles    and practices of distance education  describes distance education  as it is today    and does so  against the background of its history.

Once you get over the unconventionality of the textual representation, which one do you find easier to quickly parse? In the latter, i've decreased the font size of function words, and increased the font size for key content words, and first use of terms. I've also tried to indicate phrases with additional spaces. I believe you could produce something like this automatically with a speech-to-text system that incorporated prosodic information.

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 Monday, May 30, 2005

I'm starting coursework at the University of Maryland in their Masters of Distance Education program, and (assuming i stick it out) some of the results will probably get blogged (specifically this RSS feed if you want to narrow your scope). This is background for some recent interests in how the church might rethink their approach to discipleship by incorporating what we've learned about how people learn, and by building on internet technologies. Here's more information on the program.

Here's the bio i posted for my first class, Foundations of Distance Education.

I'm a manager and computer scientist in the field of human language technology, working to develop and deploy new technologies for finding information in speech and text. I've worked in this field for about 20 years, and (with the graduation of the last two of our five kids from high school this year) it's time to explore some new areas. In particular, i'm interested in how distance education can be used to help churches do a better job of helping adults learn to live out their Christian faith. I live near Columbia with my wonderful wife Donna.

The website reference points to my weblog [Blogos, of course!], where i sometimes muse about various topics related to faith, language, and digital technology. I also operate SemanticBible, "an emerging exploration of new applications of markup and computational linguistic technology to the study of Scripture." The explanation of what this means is a little long to repeat here: check the websites if you want to learn more.

About the picture: this is me, my brother, and my Dad at his 80th birthday party earlier this year. I'm the one with the funny glasses.

A picture named three_boisens_in_disguise.jpg
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