Friday, August 13, 2010

The Open Data Meme

Here it is in today's Times: "Rare Sharing of Data Leads to Progress on Alzheimer’s". The article goes on to report the leaps in our understanding of the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in the human brain, traced back to the work of scientists and executives from the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and others from industry, beginning in 2003. Evidence of the value of the sharing comes with new tools for early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s using methods like PET scans and tests of spinal fluid. "More than 100 studies are under way to test drugs that might slow or stop the disease.

And the collaboration is already serving as a model for similar efforts against Parkinson’s disease. A $40 million project to look for biomarkers for Parkinson’s, sponsored by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, plans to enroll 600 study subjects in the United States and Europe.....the key to the Alzheimer’s project was an agreement not just to raise money, not just to do research on a vast scale, but also to share all the data, making every single finding public immediately, available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world." (NYT, Aug 13, 2010).

This links nicely to the book we were tipped to recently while visiting at the Census Bureau, "Open Government"** a collection of essays that center around technology as an enabler of the meme. This from the text:

"Government 2.0 is not a new kind of government; it is government stripped down to its core, rediscovered and re-imagined as if for the first time. … There is a new compact on the horizon: information produced by and on behalf of citizens is the lifeblood of the economy and the nation; government has a responsibility to treat that information as a national asset. Citizens are connected like never before and have the skill sets and passion to solve problems affecting them locally as well as nationally. Government information and services can be provided to citizens where and when they need them. Citizens are empowered to spark the innovation that will result in an improved approach to governance. In this model, government is a convener and an enabler rather than the first mover of civic action."

The meme has escaped even its early proponents. Openness will be seen, this blog believes, not just germane to data, but to all forms of information. Despite the controversy around the Wiki Leaks' and specific foreign policy issues, the Obama administration's position on openness and transparency* is already underway at the cabinet level in his government. It did not begin there (for example: the NIH's initiative originated during the second Bush administration), nor will transparency go away because it inevitably winds up putting governments in the hot seat.

This is not, strictly speaking about communications technology. Openness has been possible since Gutenberg. Technology is not the driver. Culture is.

** Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice By Daniel Lathrop, Laurel Ruma Publisher O'Reilly Media Released: February 2010

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Learning Limits of Animation? (MM pattern)

What's better, a movie clip of an internal combustion engine, or a series of stills depicting the critical phases of the combustion cycle? Evidently there is some pretty solid evidence that, at least as far as learning goes, there is little added value in watching an animation of dynamic physical processes over looking at comparable, but static graphics.

Moving illustrations may be prettier, and take up more "reel" time, but based on experimental evidence (referenced below), it seems that learners can do as well or better looking at the stills. Why?

A couple of explanations are possible. One is that the sheer speed and control of the animation may outpace the viewers ability to grasp it.  Second, the moving depiction of complex processes may result in too many visual elements to observe at once. If two or more critical events occur simultaneously in the animation, the viewer may not catch them. Suppose we are looking at a cross-sectional view of a 4-cycle engine. In the time-locked presentation style of movies or television, where the learner has no control of the time-sequence, it may be difficult to see the relationship of say, the piston rods down here and the valve lifters over there on the camshaft at a given moment in time.

From a contstructivist perspective, this makes sense. Animation may be inherently more interesting at first, due to our visual brain's "orienting reflex", gaining initial attention. Understanding the action depicted however, requires independent construction, one where we perform the animation in our heads. We can do this more readily when the action is frozen and critical elements are juxtaposed and labeled properly. Putting the static pieces together allows the learner to form concepts transferrable beyond the lesson.  A little of our earlier discussion of best practices for voice-over and onscreen text can help us round out this pattern.

What does the science tell us is the best practice then for demonstrating dynamic processes?

1. Offer clear visuals, the more diagrammatic the better (excluding distracting detail)
2. Offer a "structuring explanation" with VO or text (not both)
3. Offer them as stills, allowing the user to spend as much time as they need to grasp the essential parts and relations,
4. Only then do you animate the process, allowing user control over rate and direction if possible.

Ref: Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, Richard E. Mayer, ed. Cambridge University Press, p. 457