Speaking of Data Visualizations….

While poking around looking for great data visualization projects yesterday, I stumbled across the following from Kiva:

Intercontinental Ballistic Microfinance from Kiva on Vimeo.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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Information is Beautiful Awards

Well, it’s about time!

David McCandless, who hosts the Information is Beautiful site, has announced the Information is Beautiful awards, “the world’s first open contest to celebrate excellence and beauty in data visualizations, infographics and information art.” Sponsored by Kantar, the awards celebrate top notch data visualization and information graphics across multiple fields and domains. Artists can submit works in four separate categories


from now until March, 2012. At that time, Information is Beautiful will announce 12 shortlisted entries. Awards will be given to the top three in each category, and all four first place winners will compete against each other for “Visualization Of The Year’ award.”

But wait, there’s more!

In addition to this grand competition, McCandless is also running monthly challenges with their own awards. He’s just launched the first challenge, which runs until October 3, 2011, and it is entitled “Stock Check”:

We’d like you to visualise this data on the Earth’s non-renewable resources. Stuff like tin, aluminium, gold, coal, oil – the stuff that we can’t replace. (Unless a huge, ore-bearing comet slams into the planet, of course).

We’ve done a metric tonne of research into the reserves of various earth metals and minerals. Now we’re looking for a graphic that conveys it all.

The website provides a link out to the data set. Artists have the option of submitting “a finished ‘design’ or a well-conceived ‘napkin’ sketch.” The prize? $2000 for the design challenge & $1000 for the napkin challenge (plus swag for the runners up). Winners are also added to the shortlist for the yearlong competition.

I cannot tell you how exciting I think this is. There is so much amazing work being produced in data visualization and information graphics–it’s about time it received recognition for its dual value as aesthetic and informatic production.

Got your napkins ready?

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The “Nifty Factor”

Come on, what’s more fun than a shiny, new toy, right?

It seems that much of the marketing of educational technology and instructional tools assumes that trainers and teachers are on a never-ending quest for the next, best thing to implement in their courses. It’s what Keith Hopper and Laura Palmer have called the “Nifty Factor.”

In a recent article published in Ubiquitous Learning, Hopper and Palmer argue:

Exciting new technologies present themselves at a rate that seems exponential, and many seem to promise exciting, if not revolutionary, applications in teaching and learning. But Dr. Thomas Reeves (University of Georgia) cautioned us years ago about “Technology’s Big Lie,” that “technology makes learning fast, easy, and automatic.” There is no question that emerging communications and information technologies, particularly the mobile class of technologies, will create an ever-widening sphere of applications and affordances in education. But there is also no question that the mountains of research over the past 100 years on teaching, learning, human cognition, pedagogy, and instructional media will not evaporate by any degree of “nifty and new” in technology. Learning is work, and there is no sidestepping this fundamental reality. This does not mean that learning cannot be exciting, joyful, challenging, collaborative, and facilitated by fabulous new technologies—but authentic learning must always attend to Dewey’s sage insight that “To know is to do.”

Hopper and Palmer provide ID professionals with an important reminder: while technology can indeed transform many processes (manufacturing & banking, for example), making them “fast, easy, and automatic,” learning and cognition are decidedly different processes. Isn’t that exactly the fantasy of something like The Matrix–simply “jack in,” download, and presto: “I know kung fu.”

Certainly with new media come new affordances, and hence new opportunities for engaged learning; the real challenge comes in determining how to leverage these opportunities to support what Hopper and Palmer call “time-proved, hard won knowledge about designing and delivering instruction with media.”

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Social Media and the First Amendment

Last week, the Knight Foundation released its report, “Future of the First Amendment: 2011 Survey of High School Students and Teachers”. It’s a fascinating report, detailing the following Key Findings:

1. Social Media Use Is Related to First Amendment Support
2. Student Use of Digital Media for News and Information Is Exploding
3. Appreciation of First Amendment Rights Is Improving
4. Classroom First Amendment Instruction Declines, Despite Its
Positive Effects
5. Most Teachers Don’t Support Free Expression for Students
6. Teachers Question the Impact of Social Media on Student Learning
7. Most Teachers Feel that Digital Media Literacy Should Be Part of the
School Curriculum
8. Teachers and Students Have Different Digital News Habits
9. For Written Stories, Digital Media Overtake Traditional Media as
Preferred Source
10. Newspapers and Television Regarded as Most Trusted News Sources
by Students and Teachers; Majorities Question Veracity of Information
on Social networks

I am particularly interested in points 6 & 7 above, and the relationship between the two. The Knight Foundation report calls attention to an opportunity for academic programs and practitioners alike to explore ways in which instructional design and information design can be deployed in support of digital literacy efforts–and ultimately as a kind of civic engagement effort.

To explain: we have a growing number of digital natives who are engaged in new media practices on a daily basis. This use, however, does not necessarily imply an engaged literacy–a set of practices that demonstrates how media production and consumption fits within larger social, cultural, and historical patterns. What if, though, K12 students (or older) could engage in meaningful projects that not only allowed them to engage in media production, but to do so in a way that would result in a critical and meaningful exploration of these ideas?

Community engagement projects of a variety of stripes–community mapping, oral history projects, digital storytelling initiatives, etc–have taken on this challenge for some time now: providing a community with the tools to produce media, while at the same time giving them the means to reflect upon and claim a sense of place and identity in their daily lives. I would love to see similar digital literacy engagements that address larger civic issues as well.

So what do you think? Are any of you aware of projects like this going on?
Anyone interested in a First Amendment project targeted toward middle school students?

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Agile Course Design

It surprises me sometimes how often we still encounter models of e-learning and distance education that are based upon a transmission model of communication–as though there’s this “stuff” we call knowledge, and our job as faculty is to ram that stuff down a tube of some sort and into the receptive minds of our students. Of course, this model of learning-as-delivery-system is wrong on multiple levels, regardless of the format of instruction!

We all understand at some level, I would argue, that learning is a verb, not a noun. It’s an event of sorts–something that faculty can foster, nurture, and encourage. In short: learning takes place. Here’s the irony, then: if we all get this point at a fundamental level, and we all recognize this “tube” model of education as a gross caricature of the learning process, why is it that so often distance learning courses are still modeled as a form delivery system? We encourage faculty to develop courses that are well thought-out, with lots of interactive modules, and with lots of opportunities for self-paced learning, right? But to encourage instructional design along these lines is, in effect, to structure a course in which learning is once again reduced to a noun–course content that, once properly delivered, will result in “learning outcomes.”

There are other models and other approaches, of course. I have been an advocate of “community of inquiry” models of distance learning for some time (probably because I read too much C.S. Peirce at an impressionable age). Recently, though, I was introduced to “agile” course design methodology by Dr. Laura Palmer, who teaches information architecture, web design, and a whole host of other courses in our Information Design and Communication program here at SPSU.

In short, agile course design borrows from software development methodologies and acknowledges a simple truth in course development: we’re never entirely sure what a class will really need in order to be the best learning environment for the students engaged in the course until the learning is already underway. Agile methods allow instructors to create a framework for learning that is adaptable to the changing dynamics in the classroom, with projects scaled as a series of “sprints” that increase opportunities for feedback and fine tuning. Such an approach, it seems, constantly reminds us that learning is first and foremost a meaningful–and meaning-making–activity, not a pile of “stuff.”

For more on agile course methods, have a look at Dr. Palmer’s prezi slides: “Using Agile Methods in your Web Design Class.”

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Instructional Design/Information Design

At SPSU, we have offered graduate coursework in technical communication, under one name or another, for over twenty years. For the past two years, however, we have also offered a master’s degree in Information and Instructional Design (MS IID). This interdisciplinary degree straddles two worlds–technical communication and instructional design. It’s the brainchild of our very own Keith Hopper, who teaches a number of educational technology and instructional design courses for us. The focus of this unique degree is a direct result of Keith’s own experiences working between these two worlds, and it attempts to capitalize on the strengths of each to address the weaknesses of the other.

Students who enter our MS IID program start off with the same three foundational courses as our Information Design and Communication students: Professional Practices of Communication, Information Design, and Foundations of Graphics. This foundation in writing, visual communication, and holistic information design lays important groundwork for anyone interested in differentiating themselves as a top-notch e-learning professional and instructional designer. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Patti Shank, President of Learning Peaks, about trends in e-learning and instructional design. One of her key points in that conversation was the need for greater interdisciplinary crossover in the skills and strengths of e-learning professionals, namely: instructional designers need better technical writing and technical communication skills to succeed in the workplace. Coupling these skills with a curriculum that focuses on learning strategies and applied research and you have a winning combination. And that’s exactly our goal with the Master of Science in Information and Instructional Design degree.

To read more about the “sister fields” of technical communication and instructional design, have a look at this recent Intercom article, co-written by Keith Hopper and SPSU Honors Program student Wei Sun, entitled “You May Be an Instructional Designer.”

You might also want to have a look at Patti Shank’s latest report for the eLearning Guild, “eLearning Degrees and Credentials: Needs of the eLearning Professional” for more insight into the changing world of instructional design. The dowload report is free to all paid Guild members.

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“Seeing” Information Architecture

The spring issue of The Journal of Information Architecture has a really wonderful Editorial by Dan Klyn entitled, “Information Architecture is a Way of Seeing.” In it, he draws an unlikely parallel between information architects and chiropractors. Suffering from back pain, Klyn heads off first to an MD, then to a chiropractor. What differs between these two professionals is not their intention (to address the pain), but rather how they quite literally see the problem (and therefore how they diagnose and treat the pain). Klyn explains:

The analogy is one I’ve begun to use with my clients and students to explain how information architecture (IA) differs from other approaches to this work. Organizations wrestling with today’s complex information challenges have a wide variety of options they can explore before settling on the fundamental approach to the problem space. What’s different about approaching from an IA perspective? To the organizations and practitioners who are gathering evidence about the “pain” that is correlated with the ways information is organized, accessed, retrieved and understood, how do we characterize information architecture’s unique way of seeing?

Technical communication as a profession and a discipline has been dedicated to principles of usability for decades. As information proliferates online, and as more and more end users gain access to that information, issues of findability, taxonomy, and design become increasingly important. Information architecture provides tools and methodologies for addressing user experience issues as they relate to this ever-expanding body of knowledge. To quote from The Information Architecture Institute’s “What is Information Architecture?”:

As information proliferates exponentially, usability is becoming the critical success factor for websites and software applications. Good IA lays the necessary groundwork for an information system that makes sense to users.

For more on information architecture, and its relationship to usability, information design, and content management, check out the Information Architecture Institute’s recommended reading page, along with current and past issues of the The Journal of Information Architecture.

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