Archive for July, 2008

An Innovation for Informal Learners

July 30, 2008

Clayton Christensen is the Tallest Innovation Guru Around

Clayton Christensen is the Tallest Innovation Guru Around

Best-selling author, Harvard B-school professor and innovation guru Clayton Christensen has been saying since at least his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, that technology is just about to shakeup the entrenched world of education.



Innovator’s Dilemma, the first in Christensen’s innovator’s franchise, was first published in July 1997.


We’re still waiting.


Perhaps to help catalyze that change in education, Christensen has recently released a new book called Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.


Maybe one of those disruptors will be the small online education company Agilix Labs, and its social network product… still in beta… called BrainHoney.


BrainHoney allows you to offer a class with text graphics and video using a Powerpoint like interface. Then you can add quizzes, tests and games. In that way it’s not much different from Instructables, WikiHow, and ExpertVillage.


What does make BrainHoney distinct is that they’ll host your courses for a nominal fee and then split the proceeds from the sale of your coursework. You could be teaching a class on your favorite topic tomorrow and earning a little scratch besides.


Already some 230 lessons have been loaded on BrainHoney, including a course on how to make a lemon-battery, how to play a guitar chords, and how to make ice cream that tastes like hot chocolate.


Potentially this is a boon to informal learners and teachers. Unlike TeachStreet, which helps you find people willing to tutor you face-to-face in your own town, BrainHoney represents asychronous learning. That is, you don’t have to be there at the same time as the instructor and thereby opening you to a world of learning.


Who knows whether Agilix and BrainHoney will survive and thrive? A better mousetrap alone is no guarantee of business success. But I whether Agilix does or someone else does, I expect we’ll soon see a huge inventory of courses for informal learners.


An Informal Learner Using Repetition Spacing Software

July 23, 2008

Brisbane Programmer and SuperMemo User Chris Khoo

Brisbane Programmer and SuperMemo User Chris Khoo

On May 6, I posted on the Wired piece on

Piotr Wozniak, the polymath inventor of SuperMemo, a software system which promises to help remember forever the things that you’ve learned. Then July 20, Chris Khoo, a 26-year-old enterprise software developer in Brisbane challenged the post in the comments saying in effect, isn’t it better to remember than have to keep relearning stuff. Chris has been using SuperMemo for several months now and I asked him to comment on his experience.

Here then is an online interview with SuperMemo user Chris Khoo. 

  1. Tell me about yourself. Where do you live? What you do you do? What’s your age? Where did you go to college (if indeed you did) and what did you study? The usual. 

Based in Brisbane, Australia.  26.  Studying university part time doing Business & IT & working full time doing enterprise software development at a big company.


  1. What were the circumstances when you first started using repetition spacing software? 

Supermemo was mentioned on a forum, and I started reading more about it on  After being fairly convinced that the methodology was sound, I gave it a go and after awhile, really got to enjoy using it daily.


  1. Which product do you use? 



  1. How did you choose it over the other options? 

Hmmm… I chose it mainly because I found Piotr’s website to be very open and informative (especially his articles on sleep & learning – I could relate it to my experiences on polyphasic sleep).  I did some quick evaluations of the paid & open source alternatives, and other blogs tend to mention that they chose other products because they feel they didn’t need the bells & whistles of Supermemo.


Although I didn’t initially understand the need for some of the features in Supermemo, I found Piotr’s writings to be very sound and fluff-free.  I tried the free Supermemo 98 for a few weeks, and then went and bought a license for 2006.  I then persisted with it and over time have grown to understand and appreciate some of the features like incremental reading.  So I’m very happy I made the decision to go with Supermemo.


  1. How long have you been using it? 

2-3 months now.


  1. The reputation of Piotr Wozniak’s SuperMemo is that the software is difficult to master. What’s been your experience with the repetition spacing software that you use? 

It definitely takes lots of time initially.  I’ve found that I needed to frequently change how questions are phrased over the first few weeks – just to learn how to ask the right questions which give some context without giving the answer away.


I also found personally that auditory questions that triggered visual memories increased my recall dramatically – I’ve come to realise this is more natural since when people ask you questions verbally, this should trigger some sort of visual in your head.


I probably spend on average 1-2hrs a day at the moment.  I expect this to remain fairly constant for awhile as I’m studying @ university.


I have spent up to 4 hours one day on the weekends, but that was doing alot of reorganising & rephrasing of questions.


It’s like any new hobby/skill – you spend a truckload of time on it initially to get to a decent standard, and then slowly taper off to a maintenance level. 


  1. How does the repetition spacing software actually work, in your experience? 

Not difficult really.  It ask questions you’ve added, you think of the answer, click a button to show the answer, and then rate how well you think you went.  Based on your rating, the system will determine when to ask you the question again.


  1. In your comment you said that not having to relearn stuff you already ostensibly know allows you to devote more time to creative endeavors. What creative endeavors do you now give fuller expression to than before? 

As a software developer, I can sit and code without having to look up documentation as much as before.  This gives my mind alot of room to think through things and essentially manipulate code in my mind without writing it down on paper.  I used to always have to write things down on paper, and now I rarely do it.  I can’t definitively say it’s a causative relationship – i.e. not having to relearn stuff made me more creative, but I’m alot quicker than before at my work.


  1. What kind of demands on your time does the repetition spacing software place? 

At the moment, 1-2hrs a day.  I expect this to slowly come down to 1hr as I become settled on how to write good questions and as the existing questions space themselves out more as I recall them better.


  1. Do you recall memorized stuff at 90 percent recall as advertised? If not, what would you say your recall is? How do you test your recall? 

There’s a statistics option which says my retention is 88%.  I haven’t measured it rigorously but anecdotally, I know my memory’s improved.


  1. What other kind of advantages does remembering well confer? I got to believe there’s some bar games you’re really good at.  

I definitely have more confidence now.  I can rattle off memorised material at work meetings and people have noticed the improvement.


  1. Have you ever tried going on a game show? If so, what happened? 

No – never intend to.  I enjoy programming too much to devote my mind to other pursuits at this stage.


  1. What’s the breadth of the memory? That is, are you good at remembering number sequences, or faces, or the periodical chart, or how to conjugate verbs in Latin? 

Haha, I guess the software is an aid really.  I’m not sure of your programming knowledge, but there’s a fairly cryptic language called “regular expressions”, which is almost like shorthand for validating bits of text.


To give you an example of how weird it can look, something really simple like /^\d{7}$/ means that you can only enter a 7 digit number (maybe a phone number).  I rattled off some expressions during a work meeting because I could remember the characters in my head.  Most people would usually use some sort of helper software to help them write up up their regular expressions.


Right now, I’m also slowly developing a mnemonic system based on associating 3 digit numbers with images.  And I’m using those images to remember friends’ and family mobile numbers.  Although you can rely on your phone’s phonebook to store them, I find it’s a neat way to learn the images so I can eventually build a system where I can memorise and recall numbers easily.  Repetition spacing software definitely makes the process more meaningful & efficient.


  1. Are there strange holes in your recall? For instance, do you have trouble remembering what kind of dog food your dog likes, or your mother’s birthday? That kind of stuff. 

Funny you mention that.  I found that both short term & long term memory have improved.


I used to remember that every time I go to bed, I would start to worry about 5 minutes in thinking whether I switched on my alarm or not.  That doesn’t happen anymore.  It seems like I can remember things I did earlier in the day alot better than before.


And for the long term, if I want to remember something, I just put it into Supermemo.  I don’t just do facts and figures.  I’ve got personal questions about username/passwords, questions about people’s birthdays, and as mentioned before, people’s phone numbers.


  1. Anything else I oughta know or that you want to share? 

It’s hard.  Like Piotr says on the website, it’s mentally taxing when trying to recall.  The best time to do it is in the morning, and don’t start off doing 1 hour recall sessions.  Probably best to limit it to 30mins for a week or so before ramping up.


It’s actually amazing how much brain energy recalling takes.  It made me realise most of us are so mentally unfit today because of things like PDAs & Google.

The Informal Learners Toolkit

July 17, 2008

Informal learning doesn’t really require much more than a certain intellectual curiosity. Isaac Newton changed the world with not a whole lot more than just what lay between his ears.


But there are some things, a toolkit if you will, that enable informal learning. What follows are some of the things in my informal learning toolkit. I’m anxious to hear what’s in yours. Please comment if there’s something in your informal learning toolkit, that I haven’t listed here.


But first some definitions of informal learning, non-formal learning and formal learning just to give the discussion some shape. These definitions come (more or less) from ERIC, the Educational Resources Information Center, a very large US government database of all things educational.


Informal learning: Casual and continuous learning from life experiences outside organized formal or nonformal education. 


Non-formal learning: Organized education without formal schooling or institutionalization in which knowledge, skills, and values are taught by relatives, peers, or other community members.


Formal learning: Organized education from schools or other institutions that typically leads to some kind of academic recognition.


My toolkit is grouped into two categories: Stuff made of neurons and stuff made of atoms (I know, I know. neurons are made of atoms. But you get my point).


Atomic Tools: 

  • Learner’s Journal—Really want to capture something? Write it down for the now and the forever.
  • iPod—All but indispensable for informal learners on the go. Also helpful on the train or bus to tell people to bugger off.
  • Recorded Books—Learning aurally really gets in your head.
  • Kindle—It’s probably too soon to say for sure but increasingly it looks like Amazon’s innovations and marketing muscle have effectively whipped the electronic book bugaboo.
  • Live Lectures—Still the best way to learn in the company of others.
  • DVDs—Whether we’re talking documentaries, instructional offerings, or something else, a well-made video is a wonderful aid for informal learners.
  • MP3 Recorder—Inspiration often strikes in the car or other places or times when a pen and a learner’s journal aren’t convenient to use. So carry an MP3 recorder or tape recorder.
  • Computer
  • Books and Reference Materials
  • A Technique for Memory and Recall—It is possible to remember things forever with nearly 90 percent recall. But it ain’t easy.
  • A Mentor or a Tutor—Wait, you say. A tutor takes this out of the scope of informal learning and into the realm of non-formal or even formal learning. Maybe. But part of what defines informal learning is how it’s rewarded. Informal learners commonly learn for the joy of learning. If you take piano lessons from a teacher because you love the piano and not because of the gold stickers the teacher may give you, you’re probably still learning informally.

 Neuronal Tools  

Exercise Your Way to A Smarter Brain

July 9, 2008

By now it’s clear that if you want a healthier, longer-lasting body, you need to do physical exercise. As I’ve written in this space before, it’s becoming clearer that mental exercise yields a more robust, healthier brain.


But does physical exercise do anything for the brain?


In a review of existing literature in a paper published in the January 2008 issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Charles H. Hillman, Kirk I. Erickson, and Arthur F. Kramer professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana come to a tentative yes.


The paper called “Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effect on brain and cognition” concludes: 

There is converging evidence at the molecular, cellular, behavioural and systems levels that physical activity participation is beneficial to cognition. Such evidence highlights the importance of promoting physical activity across the lifespan to reverse recent obesity and disease trends,as well as to prevent or reverse cognitive and neural decline. Accordingly, physical activity can serve to promote health and function in individuals, while also lessening the health and economic burden placed on society. 

How might this work? In an interview Professor Kramer told my fellow blogger Alvaro Hernandez 

We do know…that physical exercise has a multitude of effects on brains beyond neurogenesis (the growth of nerve cells), including increases in various neurotransmitters, nerve grown factors, and angiogenesis (the formation of new blood vessels). 

So it appears that regular cardio work probably helps build the brain. Does it make sense to crosstrain; that is work your heart and brain muscle concurrently?


Yes. In fact Kramer suggests you do it in combination with social interaction. He specifically suggests starting a ‘walking book club.’


What else could informal learners do to simultaneously exercise their brain and their brawn?  

  • You could listen to or watch instructional CDs/DVDs or books on tape as you go through your paces.
  • You could dictate material as you move your grooved thing.
  • You could load up your iPod with informational podcasts and review them while you sweat.
  • You could do mental calisthenics. I know how tired I am in part based on how well I do when I’m going through the multiplication tables in my head. If I can’t do or remember what 14 times 14 is while I row, I know my body’s tired.

Informal Learning on the Street Where You Live

July 2, 2008

\Imagine if thought balloons appeared above people’s heads that told you exactly what they were willing to teach someone like you. 

  • Maybe the gentle-looking white haired fellow you pass in the aisle at the grocery store could teach you about the miracle of forgiveness.
  • Maybe the tattooed and be-pierced kid at the library texting her boyfriend could help you work through a thorny CSS challenge.
  • Maybe the well-dressed woman in the Lexus in front of you could help you understand the Upanishads. Or, belly dancing. 

Now it appears that a Seattle outfit called TeachStreet is doing just that. (Though not exactly with thought balloons).


Presently in beta, TeachStreet links together teachers who are willing and presumably able to teach students in Seattle. They claim to have in their database 25,000 classes, teachers, coaches, instructors and schools just in the Emerald City.


Here’s how it works. Suppose you’re a student who wants to learn, say, conversational Italian. You plug in the term ‘Italian language’ into the site’s search engine. When I did 86 results popped-up. Currently you can narrow the search by geography, class size, ability, schedule, and price.


I selected personalized lessons, evening classes, and beginner status, which left me with a more manageable six results. I clicked on the one taught by a Valentina Preziuso… whose name sounds wonderfully Italian… and it took me to her biographical area. So far Valentina has yet to post anything about her background. There’s a review section as well, but for Valentina that too is blank.


At the page for the class, I found a link to Amazon products and a Google Ads column, as well as information about the class and cost, times, days, etc.  


The class and teacher profiles are free to registered users.


TeachStreet is the brainstorm of Dave Schappell, the founder and CEO, and a director at Amazon from 1998- 2004, who was, as his bio says, a driving force behind Amazon’s marketplace platform.


So far TeachStreet is only in Seattle, but plans are in the works to expand the concept to “San Philayorkizona,” the website reports.


The Buddha is supposed to have said; “when the student is ready the teacher appears.”


Time will tell if there are enough students ready for 25,000 teachers in Seattle.