Experimental Lex

Playing with words.

Tag Archives: education

The Speed of Thought

Through some chain of events, I find myself enrolled in another online class.  Last year in 2011, I signed up for Andrew Ng’s excellent Machine Learning class offered through Stanford University. This fall, I signed up my 10-year old kid in a Coursera class called “Learn to Program: The Fundamentals” and helped another friend in Bulgaria sign up for a class.

It is contagious. You cannot browse the course listings without getting caught up in the education revolution. World-class universities and world-class professors are now offering their lectures, homework, and exams online through Coursera. For free. To paraphrase Salman Khan… “Let’s dwell on that for a moment”. Imagine what happens when you democratize education on a global scale. The economics of education have been disrupted. The process of education has been disrupted.

Back to the story… I chose a class called “Writing in the Sciences”. It reflects my desire to expand my career and creative world. I was always a good writer. After all, I have a degree in Rhetoric from U.C. Berkeley, and I have spent a lifetime continuing to improve my writing skills.  And yet, I immediately learned some incredible techniques in the first couple lectures.

As I resumed my online education, I discovered again one of the things I love about it… the ability to play back lectures at higher speeds. In my college training in the field of Rhetoric, we were told that the human ear hears speech at a certain number of words per second.  I forget the number that was quoted, but that doesn’t matter exactly. What matters is the reality that some people digest words faster than others.

Through online video lectures on Coursera and elsewhere, I found out that I prefer to hear lectures at 1.25x or 1.5x speed. It feels perfectly natural.  In fact, when I watch and listen to the video at 1.0x speed, I find that my mind wanders throughout. Even between words, there is enough time for your mind to think about something else.  Now I find that education finally works for me. I understand things because they are being conveyed at the speed my mind wants to hear them. If I miss something, I can always rewind.

This is another area where online education completely blows traditional classroom education out of the water.

Inkling and the Reinvention of Education

We live in exciting times. The next decade or so will see the gradual exit of paper-based books and magazines as printed content moves from the physical world to digital. The digital trendsetters, who already read books and other content on tablet devices like the iPad and Kindle and countless other devices to come, have already embraced this future. The upcoming battle between Apple, Amazon, and Google on this playing field is mainly focused on this audience. However, I continue to wonder if this playing field will eventually encompass education.

The education market opportunity for digital publishing is almost an accepted fact. We probably agree that it’s going to be huge. Yet, we may not agree on what products and solutions will succeed in this market. The reading experience for novels and magazines on tablet devices is a more linear experience than the kind of interactive reading and problem-solving that students must do as part of their homework and curriculum.

And so it is always exciting to hear about new companies and products in the e-learning marketplace that are pioneering the way. Inkling is one such company that is offering an interactive reading/learning software platform for the iPad. When I heard about Inkling, I had to give it a try.

As an iPad app, installation was dead simple. It’s also a free download, so there were no excuses at all. Upon install and after you complete the registration form, you find yourself looking at the one book that is pre-installed. An essential classic — The Elements of Style. Except that it’s not really the Strunk and White edition. It’s the Inkling Edition “based on the work of William Strunk, Jr.”.

You can either feel horrified or amused at this point. They are messing with the classics and adapting them for the digital future. If you want the original Strunk and White, you probably want it to look like the original, front to back. And this is not the old-timer’s original edition. In the first 2 to 3 pages, you will see commentary like “ftw” and “wtf” as part of the dialogue.

However, if you accept that the digital textbooks of the future need to be updated and adapted for the next generation of students, then you will likely enjoy the experience. I’m in this camp and I found it to be intriguing and inspiring… with some reservations.

Test Drive
Here are a few screenshots to help you visualize the Inkling experience. If you have an iPad, just download it and try it yourself. In the opening screen after signing up / signing in, you see the one book. In Part 2 of this article, I will discuss the Inkling business model and speculate about the digital publishing workflow behind this system. It can’t possibly be easy.


Table of Contents

When you open the book, you immediately can see that this is not a traditional table of contents. The TOC is one of the primary areas for enhancement in any digital publication and this one wants you to know that the linear TOC you knew as a child is a piece of history.


Cover Page

In the cover page, you see a nice splashy title and image along with a toolbar on the left and a call-to-action graphic near the bottom to instruct you on scrolling the content using a swipe gesture. Note, that you will need to do a heavy swipe from the bottom of the screen to the top.


Navigation Menu

The menu button in the toolbar shows you several actions available to you. The “Highlights” and “Notes” menu options are particularly interesting. According to the Inkling website, these can contain shared notes provided by other students reading the same pages in the same book.


Search Tool

And lastly, here’s a screenshot of the Search Tool, also found in the toolbar. I found it strange that there were no matches for the word “Footnote”. I felt sure that Strunk and White addressed this topic. We will have to do a little fact-checking.