Wikipedia, Ants and Stigmergy

herring swarm

Swarming herring


I like to discover new words, new fields of study - new things in general. My new one for today is STIGMERGY. According to Wikipedia (an apt source or the definition, as I will explain) is stigmergy is a "mechanism of indirect coordination, through the environment, between agents or actions.” That is not a very clear definition.

The concept of stigmergy has been used to analyze self-organizing activities. Those activities cover a wide area: social insects, social media, robotics, web communities, and the wider human society.

One principle of stigmergy is that the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent. This can explain the way an ant colony operates. It can also explain how Wikipedia articles are created and changed.

Social insects, like ants and bees, have long been a model of collaboration. Global knowledge sharing through asynchronous collaboration is a newer example. I believe I may have heard this word a or concept more than a decade ago when "Web 2.0" was a new and much-talked-about idea. Now, I hardly ever hear Web 2.0 mentioned - and that's not because we got past it and into Web 3.0.

The word is not all that new. It was coined in 1959 by French biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé in reference to termite behavior, from the Ancient Greek stigma, "mark”, “sign" + ergon "work”, “action."

You might hear the word used in a conversation about swarm intelligence. Swarm intelligence (SI) is the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems, natural or artificial and it is employed in work on artificial intelligence and applications such as cellular robotic systems. It has been studied in the natural world in ant colonies, bird flocking, hawks hunting, animal herding, bacterial growth, fish schooling and the somewhat scary world of microbial intelligence.

The World-Wide Web is the first stigmergic communication medium for humans. The earlier telephone and even email don't count as stigmergic communication since they are only readable by the people on either end. Stigmergic communication means the messages are readable by everyone. And radio and TV don't fit the definition because they are read-only mediums for most people (until the Web emerges and the read/write of Web 2.0 takes hold). 

Wikipedia with its millions of contributors is an example of stigmergy. Its editors are a good example of how these traces of articles and edits left in the wiki environment stimulate the performance of a next action, by the same person or a different person(s).

I discovered (or possibly rediscovered) stigmergy from an episode of the playswellwithothers.org podcast with guests Katherine Maher, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation and Clint Penick, an ant researcher and assistant research professor in the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University.

 

FURTHER READING
https://wiki.p2pfoundation.net/Stigmergy
"Stigmergy as a universal coordination mechanism I: Definition and components" 

Farewell to Apple iTunes

Whether you loved or hated Apple's iTunes, it was a big step iTunes as a media player, media library, Internet radio broadcaster, and eventually as a mobile device management application. Now it is being unbundled and essentially phased out, according to press release from the latest Apple Worldwide Developer Conference.

Apple Inc. announced it as a new service and tool on January 9, 2001. It was used to play, download, and organize digital multimedia files, including music and video, on personal computers running the macOS and Windows operating systems. It forced you to purchase through the iTunes Store.

My own professional interest in it focused on iTunes U which allowed universities to offer content, including courseware (mostly lectures at first) and other "podcast" materials and even print content, in a open way. I have been writing here about iTunes since 2006.

The latest move by Apple is probably much more tied to changes in the music industry and the way consumers listen to and purchase music. Apple has been pushing users to its Apple Music subscription service, like Spotify and others. That is a better deal for them since it means a guaranteed monthly fee instead of waiting and hoping that a customer will buy songs. I have not subscribed and I have not purchased music from their store in several years, and I suspect I am not alone in that trend.

Apple is phasing out iTunes in favor of three apps called Music, TV and Podcasts. This is very much how those services are already divided on iPhones and iPads.

From what I have read, iTunes will still exist as a standalone iOS app and on Windows PCs and your previous purchases and libraries will be maintained in each new app on Mac computers.

podcasting at NJITI have not found any information on the future of iTunes U. My university, NJIT, was one of the "sweet 16" schools to be there for the launch of iTunes U in May 2007. But with iTunes version 12.7 (August 2017), iTunes U collections became a part of the Podcasts app.

NJIT stopped using their iTunes U instance several years ago. They were not alone in higher education. That is a trend that does not please me as it took away one source of open courseware. But some schools have moved that content to other MOOC platforms which offer richer environments for full course offerings.

Apple says that it will not be remotely deleting years of downloaded and purchased songs and movies, but will probably find a way to bridge, manage and access downloaded content in other ways. A clear cut-off date for iTunes has not been set.

Mergers and Acquisitions in EdTech

Mergers and acquisitions are not just the business of Wall Street. They happen in education - especially in the technology side of higher education.

Last week it was announced that Cengage and McGraw-Hill plan to merge. (A move that may have monopoly implications.) They are both at the top of the country’s textbook publishers. With a merger, they would have 44,000 titles in a range of fields. 

This week, John Wiley & Sons announced they are buying the assets of Knewton. Knewton started out as an edtech company with adaptive-learning tools that could work with content from commercial publishers. But beyond that attraction, Wiley is probably interested in Knewton's more recent move towards being a platform that incorporates open educational resources (OER). In 2017, Pearson moved away from using Knewton’s adaptive-learning technology. Knewton's Alta digital-courseware is its OER platform.

Wiley’s president and chief executive, Brian Napack, told The Chronicle that the product costs students about $40 per course, and that Wiley wants to “double down” on low-cost options, "because we think the future needs to look different than the past.”

Online Learning Is Not All in English

globeAmericans are rather well known for being American-centric. President Trump's "America First" speeches make that clear. Despite what Copernicus pointed out, we tend to think we are the center of the universe. This also tends to be true when it comes to MOOCs.

MOOCs from outside the United States don't get the same amount of attention as ones from within. I started a group on LinkedIn back in 2012 when I was offering a meta-MOOC on their rising use in academia. That group over the years has been much more international and broadened the discussions to online learning in general. 

Of course, even an American MOOC taught from Stanford is international in its participants. I try to take note of international courses and efforts.

Globally about 75% of all MOOCs are offered in English. Translating MOOCs taught in English to other languages can increase participant enrollment and disperse course knowledge to non-English language learners. However, it takes a significant amount of time and resources to translate text from English into another language, and then manually replace the translated text in the targeted language.

"China's higher education is facing problems, such as traditional teaching approaches, content and the quality of teachers not meeting student demand in the new era," said Zhan Dechen, a professor at Harbin Institute of Technology. Could MOOCs could be a solution to those problems? More MOOCs in China creates its own set of challenges.

The Online Education Development Office (OEDO) in Japan has trained teaching assistants who support faculty members in all aspects of Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and Small Private Online Course (SPOC) planning, production and course running as well as assistance with copyright issues. They offer a MOOC Development Toolkit which include Microsoft Excel and Python scripts to speed up the translation process in Open edX Studio. OEDO developed a Content Modification Tool that replaces English text with translated Japanese text in a localized version of Stanford University's MOOC on “Creating Effective Online and Blended Courses”, for Japanese faculty/staff development.course development in edX Studio.   

Still, that 75% of MOOCs in English have international appeal, translated or not. Google launched a MOOC to train entry-Level IT Support Staffers. It was intended for use with Americans. Before Google created its certificate program through Coursera, Google training programs designed to help low-income young adults get into the information technology industry by learning the fundamentals of tech support were being offered. Through its work with a relatively small number of learners who participated in Google internships or an IT residency program, the company discovered it could get them qualified very quickly. This is the type of course that if it was a truly MOpenOC, and translated, it could be offered for a much more global audience.

Digital Humanities and Open Pedagogy

human network

I see that the Google Science Fair is back and, though many K-12 teachers are at the end of their academic year, this summer is the time to plan for what students could do in the fall. This seems like a "science" activity, but this is where the phrase "digital humanities" should be.

Looking at the the website googlesciencefair.com, you find projects that take the science well beyond the science classroom. Closely related are the activities in Google's Applied Digital Skills curriculum. Here you can find some well-constructed lessons that can be done in as little as an hour and ones that could stretch across a week or unit.

For example, one suitable for middle and high school students is on creating a resume. It's something I did with students decades ago in a non-digital way. The skills involved here are many. Obviously, there is the writing, some research and some analysis of your own skills and ambitions. There are also the more digital forms of collaboration, document formatting and submission. I did this with undergrads a few years ago and required each of them to research and submit their resume to an internship opportunity. 

A longer activity that fits in so well with topics currently at the top of the news is about Technology, Ethics, and Security. Students research technology risks and dangers, explore solutions, and create a report to communicate their findings.

I would also note that the digital humanities must include what humanities teachers do in their work. 

Quizzes in Google Forms have been around for a few years and educators have used them for class assessments and in unintended ways as a tool. New features were recently added based on feedback from teachers' creative uses of the Quizzes. 

One example is that now, using Google’s machine learning, Forms can now predict the correct answer as a teacher types the question. It can also provide options for wrong answers. A simple example is a quiz on U.S. capitals would use this feature to "predict" the correct capitals for every state.

That doesn't mean that Google doesn't have a special interest in the computer science side of eduction. They offer special resources in those areas and professional development grants for CS educators to support those in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

I don't want to sound like an advertisement for Google - though advertising free and open resources isn't like selling something. Much of what the digital humanities can do moves teachers into an "open pedagogy." It changes the way we teach. 

This is more important than just finding resources.

David Wiley has written
"Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about open educational resources, but precious little has been written about how OER – or openness more generally – changes the practice of education. Substituting OER for expensive commercial resources definitely save money and increase access to core instructional materials. Increasing access to core instructional materials will necessarily make significant improvements in learning outcomes for students who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to the materials (e.g., couldn’t afford to purchase their textbooks). If the percentage of those students in a given population is large enough, their improvement in learning may even be detectable when comparing learning in the population before OER adoption with learning in the population after OER adoption. Saving significant amounts of money and doing no harm to learning outcomes (or even slightly improving learning outcomes) is clearly a win. However, there are much bigger victories to be won with openness."

Too much emphasis when talking about OER is on free textbooks and cost savings and not enough on the many other resources available that allow educators to customize their curriculum and even allow for individual differences. The longtime practice of curriculum designed around a commercial textbook needs to end. 

I have written here about what I called Open Everything. What I am calling now Open Pedagogy would be under that umbrella term. Others have called this pedagogy Open Educational Practices (OEP). In either case, it is the use of Open Educational Resources for teaching and learning in order to innovate the learning process.  In this, I include the open sharing of not only the resources, but also of the teaching practices.

Currently, I would say the level of openness we see is low. Others have defined the levels as: Low - teachers believe they know what learners have to learn. A focus on knowledge transfer. Medium - Predetermined Objectives (closed environment) but, using open pedagogical models and encourage dialogue and Problem-based learning. And the goal is for the highest level when Learning Objectives and pathways are highly governed by the learners.