Data Flow - Visualising Information in Graphic Design

You see more and more information being displayed visually online and in print.

Diagrams, data and information graphics are often used when complex elements are presented in magazines, non-fiction books, business reports, product packaging and newspapers.

It's an element of design in a course that I teach. I recently came upon a book called Data Flow - Visualising Information in Graphic Design that catalogs some very creative data visualizations, AKA infographics.

This is way beyond archetypical diagrams such as pie charts and histograms. (Though there is a donut chart.)

The book has manifold types of diagrams developed for use in particular applications. There are chart-like diagrams such as bar, plot, line diagrams and spider charts, graph-based diagrams including line, matrix, process flow, and molecular diagrams to my own favorites which are some really complex three-dimensional diagrams.

Data Flow is not a cheap book with all those illustrations. (I actually "checked it out" in that Library 2.0 - the cafe at a Barnes & Noble store.)

Some of the graphics bump up against being artwork. It's interesting that in many cases, the more abstract the information, the simpler the graphics, while the more concrete data sets often get the most sophisticated and intricate graphic representations. There's also a video from the publisher at the that features the book's co-editors, Nicolas Bourquin and Thibaud Tissot, talking about what they were trying to show about infographics by putting together this collection.

Giving Thanks For Technology

On ITworld, with Thanksgiving approaching, they asked some IT experts what technologies they are most thankful for.

They didn't mean actual Thanksgiving tech - like the online turkey cooking calculator - but big areas like open source and the Internet.

Of course, I'm more in the other IT world - the big I little t world of Instructional technology. (AKA EdTech)

What instructional technologies are you thankful for these days?

Of course, the Net and open everything applies to us too, but our thanks are probably somewhat different from the people in the server room.

So what is the answer from instructional technology land?  I decided to crowdsource the topic. I sent out emails to some colleagues and asked that question, and here's the thanks list from the campus green:

Using eTutoring, especially in writing, gets the nod from Greg F. "Its use has swept our institution.  Students and faculty alike are thankful"and also from Elizabeth N.

J.J., who bridges the K-20 experience, gives thanks for Internet2video conferencing for enabling virtual field trips, Google Apps allowing collaboration, and course management systems like Moodle making classes more interactive in a hybrid environment.

Never at a loss for words or links, Victor P. serves us a multi-course tech feast, starting out that he is "Intrigued by the g-speak platform - check out the overview on - kinda Minority Report-y.

Plus Microsoft’s Surface for hands-on manipulation will be slow to roll out but allows more intuitive interaction by the operator. I think it will help capture and retain attention for longer. A larger scale more in-depth use of technology already proven popular with the iPhone & now with the new Blackberry.

Vic is also hoping proximity-based WiFi systems NEVER get embraced, as he sees "the same foot-in-the-door approach by advertising as with every other available medium."

And how about the increasingly cheap jumpdrives, handheld multimedia devices, ultraportable laptops, anything that makes data sets portable and "portably manipulatable" (Victor says that Word doesn’t think those are words but he's goin’ with it)

He alos muses that there will be "nothing but more ubiquitous – until we have returned to our nomadic hunter-gatherer roots and roam the planet untethered by our work to desks and institutions." And finally, he is thankful for "Pi (Blueberry instead of Blackberry) and Apfel Crumb instead of Apple, and Open-Faced sandwiches instead of Open Source operating systems."

"I'm thankful for all technologies that are free, easy to use, and serve a purpose!," says Patty K.

From Joan C.: " I’d have to say Jing because it allows me to easily, effectively, and efficiently explain and demonstrate activities that text alone does not successfully communicate."

Nick T. is thankful for "virtual computing software which enables me to run Windows on top of the OSX platform, streamlining any updates that require a MS environment while affording me the stability of a Mac."

Norbert E.: "I am, believe it or not, thankful for educational technology. Course management systems such as Moodle, presentation software such as Camtasia, and collaborative platforms such as Drupal have enabled me to be in close contact with my students, whether we meet synchronously in a classroom or asynchronously across time and circumstance. I am better for this technology, and students now get a kind of education--intense, deeply responsive, demanding--that would be impossible for them. For lives demanding workplace and family duties, eLearning is the vehicle for educational opportunity."

I got a few contributions from the K-12 world of EdTech too. Dan C. says that e-mail to contact parents comes to mind. "You can fire off several to different parents in a period and not get caught in a lengthy phone call with just one parent. You’ll end up burning off a prep and getting nothing else done. LCD projectors and Internet access (finally!)to show clips, or go to web sites that show current issues in science. A web cam for virtual field trips or sharing data from an experiment with another class across town or across the world. Online job postings (i.e., Applitrack)"

Dana M. also like email, but "to correspond with my students - to communicate with them via writing. This creates a personal exchange of voice that we wouldn't otherwise have amidst the chaos of a high school day. These days, e-mail is so elemental, but I think it allows for teacher and student to use written language for authentic purpose, and to enjoy the facilities of language to express meaning and to have fun as we build and strengthen the teacher-student relationship. This is 21st-century letter writing, and who doesn't love mail? I'm also thankful for great search engines such as Google that allow us to access a variety of sources and types of information so easily. I remember the days of really, really bad searches, so this is really nice."

Dana also wonders about some older things that, of course, were the technologies of their time. "The printed book and the chalkboard. The latter is amazingly durable and useful. After 20 years of teaching, I only this year realized that my chalkboards are magnetic. I'm having so much fun with that. This week we started to dedicate one board to magnetic poetry, and it's really fun to see some of the students come in and get right to work on poems. This has also allowed for collective writing. Similar to electronic technologies, students are collaborating without knowing with whom they're collaborating. I think it's great when technologies have an underlying human component."

Dana is just back from doing a presentation at the NCTE conference and "It went well, but I have to say that the technology was what had me so stressed - worrying if all the equipment would work, if I'd be able to move between PowerPoint and DVDs easily; if anything would freeze or not work. A downside of our use of, and reliance on, technology is that it can cause stress."

Rachel M. adds the SmartBoard to the thanks list.

Pamela M. is thankful for "all the open source and free and SaaS [see Software as a Service] and juicy Web 2.0 tools that are online like Delicious, Zotero, Wikispaces, Blogger etc."

Alan M. adds that he is "thankful for pc’s and projectors in the classrooms, because somehow the students still are impressed with me doing nothing more than knowing “where to look up good stuff” (the phrase said to me in Intro to Lit just the other day)."

Patricia T. in a middle school says "I love technology for the web, email, and texting; however, when it comes to writing, nothing beats a plain single subject notebook for daily journals, drafts, and looking back at your thoughts years later."

While Lonna at a community college says that "I’m having a really hard time not being sarcastic with this question – go figure. I was going to go for clickers, but oh, wait we don’t have those!"

And there's always someone who won't answer the question directly... Cathy K. says "Rather than a specific technology, I’d like to say that I am thankful for the many college faculty members who are game to try new approaches to teaching. So many of our faculty are committed to exploration and development of knowledge in their research, and it is a wonderful thing to see this intellectual curiosity and adventurous spirit extend to teaching and learning."

On my own personal list would be many of those listed above, but I'll add blogging to the thanks list. Not only do I use it with my students, but blogging here (and on a few other non-EdTech blogs) has connected me to a host of other educators and forced me to keep up with what is going on in my field. Blogging has also been the most regular writing activity I have maintained (other than my journals since seventh grade) over my professional lifetime.

And I'd be thankful if I won a free Kindle from ITworld too.


Did You Really Choose to Read This Post?

November 20, 2008 was World Philosophy Day, an annual philosophy event instituted by UNESCO. I'm sorry that I didn't give you some warning here so that you could have taken the day to contemplate your changing existence, or perhaps question the existence of this post, or the screen you think you are staring at right now.

Those questions were actually suggested by David Bain, lecturer in philosophy at the University of Glasgow. They were part of a group of "pesky arguments" in an article I came across online.

At one time, I considered getting another degree in Philosophy for Children. Unfortunately, the school I was teaching at then did not support the idea by granting me a sabbatical as I had requested.

Why philosophy for children?

"The advent of Philosophy for Children also coincides with the recognition that emerged in the third quarter of the 20th century that children are capable of thinking critically and creatively, and that a major aim of education should be to help children become more reasonable-the "fourth R". And as reading and writing are taught to children through the discipline of literature, why not make reasoning and judgment available to them through the discipline of philosophy? However, these benefits don't come from learning about the history of philosophy or philosophers. Rather, as with reading, writing and arithmetic, the benefits of philosophy come through the doing-through active engagement in rigorous philosophical inquiry."

I still believe that teaching philosophy courses in K-12 would be a very good thing - probably a better thing than teaching it in college.

Here are 3 philosophical questions posed by Bain that I offer for readers of this blog.


Consider a photo of someone you think is you eight years ago. What makes that person you? You might say he she was composed of the same cells as you now. But most of your cells are replaced every seven years. You might instead say you're an organism, a particular human being, and that organisms can survive cell replacement - this oak being the same tree as the sapling I planted last year.

But are you really an entire human being? If surgeons swapped George Bush's brain for yours, surely the Bush look-alike, recovering from the operation in the White House, would be you. Hence it is tempting to say that you are a human brain, not a human being.

But why the brain and not the spleen? Presumably because the brain supports your mental states, eg your hopes, fears, beliefs, values, and memories. But then it looks like it's actually those mental states that count, not the brain supporting them. So the view is that even if the surgeons didn't implant your brain in Bush's skull, but merely scanned it, wiped it, and then imprinted its states on to Bush's pre-wiped brain, the Bush look-alike recovering in the White House would again be you.

But the view faces a problem: what if surgeons imprinted your mental states on two pre-wiped brains: George Bush's and Gordon Brown's? Would you be in the White House or in Downing Street? There's nothing on which to base a sensible choice. Yet one person cannot be in two places at once.

In the end, then, no attempt to make sense of your continued existence over time works. You are not the person who started reading this article.


What reason do you have to believe there's a computer screen in front of you? Presumably that you see it, or seem to. But our senses occasionally mislead us. A straight stick half-submerged in water sometimes look bent; two equally long lines sometimes look different lengths.

But this, you might reply, doesn't show that the senses cannot provide good reasons for beliefs about the world. By analogy, even an imperfect barometer can give you good reason to believe it's about to rain.

Before relying on the barometer, after all, you might independently check it by going outside to see whether it tends to rain when the barometer indicates that it will. You establish that the barometer is right 99% of the time. After that, surely, its readings can be good reasons to believe it will rain.

Perhaps so, but the analogy fails. For you cannot independently check your senses. You cannot jump outside of the experiences they provide to check they're generally reliable. So your senses give you no reason at all to believe that there is a computer screen in front of you."


Suppose that Fred existed shortly after the Big Bang. He had unlimited intelligence and memory, and knew all the scientific laws governing the universe and all the properties of every particle that then existed. Thus equipped, billions of years ago, he could have worked out that, eventually, planet Earth would come to exist, that you would too, and that right now you would be reading this article.

After all, even back then he could have worked out all the facts about the location and state of every particle that now exists.

And once those facts are fixed, so is the fact that you are now reading this article. No one's denying you chose to read this. But your choice had causes (certain events in your brain, for example), which in turn had causes, and so on right back to the Big Bang. So your reading this was predictable by Fred long before you existed. Once you came along, it was already far too late for you to do anything about it.

Now, of course, Fred didn't really exist, so he didn't really predict your every move. But the point is: he could have. You might object that modern physics tells us that there is a certain amount of fundamental randomness in the universe, and that this would have upset Fred's predictions. But is this reassuring? Notice that, in ordinary life, it is precisely when people act unpredictably that we sometimes question whether they have acted freely and responsibly. So free will begins to look incompatible both with causal determination and with randomness. None of us, then, ever do anything freely and responsibly."

"…the end of our exploring,
Will be to arrive where we started,
And know the place for the first time."
~ T.S. Eliot

Virtually Lively No More

I wrote about Lively, Google's foray into virtual worlds, in July. I have had my doubts about the current mixing of educational learning objectives and virtual worlds, but I think the two will mix in the future as more appropriate "worlds" appear. Lively had possibilities, if only because it offered "rooms" rather than a huge world of islands such as in Second Life.

Google's announcement last week that they were abandoning Lively doesn't really explain what went wrong - low usage, abuse, monetization, tech issues?

After careful consideration, we have decided to shut down Lively.

Since Lively's launch, we have been delighted to see the creative ways you've used the product. We enjoyed hanging out in Jen's coffee house, and checking out the Brasil Party room. We got a kick out of the YouTube videos in a variety of languages telling stories about your avatars. And we've been awed by the elaborate rooms that you've constructed, using mosaic tiles and photo gadgets in novel ways.

We will shut down Lively on December 31, 2008. Embedded rooms in blogs and other web pages will continue to show an image, but users will no longer be able to enter Lively rooms and interact.

Between now and the end of the year we encourage you to capture all your hard work by taking videos and screenshots of your rooms. Thank you for sharing this experience with us. We've learned a lot about how users interact in rich social environments, and we hope you've enjoyed your time with Lively.

I had hopes that Lively might have educational uses, particularly because of Google's testing with Arizona State University.

Two thousand ASU students joined Google’s Trusted Tester program in September 2007 to try out Lively and provide feedback as part of ASU’s alpha-testing project, codenamed My World.

Rooms in Lively are unique, three-dimensional online spaces that are completely Internet-embedded, enabling users to link videos, photos and other Web-based media into their experience. Users can create their own characters to move around in different virtual spaces, use objects, and communicate with others over the Internet. Users can also build their own rooms and integrate them into any website, including personal blogs or Facebook.

ASU is introducing Lively by Google to the ASU Community as My World, a place for students to interact with their professors and peers, and plans to use this technology as an integral part of several educational initiatives. ASU will use Lively by Google to provide Advanced Placement (AP*) Calculus instruction to students preparing for the Calculus AP exam.

Second Life gets most of the attention these days, but there are other virtual worlds being used in educational settings like Wonderland. Whyville has been around since April 1999. Dr. James M. Bower and his students and collaborators at the California Institute of Technology launched Whyville as the first virtual world explicitly designed to engage young students in a wide range of educational activities. It has a base of over 3 million players. It doesn't try to be a Second Life.

On the other hand, Active Worlds is self-billed as "the web's most powerful Virtual Reality experience." The Active Worlds Universe is a community of hundreds of thousands of users who chat and build 3D virtual reality environments in millions of square kilometers of virtual territory - look at some of their satellite maps and their education pages.

One term you hear used in talking about virtual worlds in education is persistence. Beyond the interest level that a compelling game can have on student players, it allows for continuing and growing social interactions, which themselves can serve as a basis for collaborative education.

Virtual worlds can often benefit classroom activities because of:

  • greater level of student participation
  • allows users to carry out tasks that could be difficult in the real world because of cost, scheduling, location or safety.
  • ability to adapt and grow the environment to different user needs
  • provides user feedback
  • can be accessed from different locations

If not Google, who will create the educational virtual world?

As You Like It: Playing At Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was the son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden. Shakespeare's mother was the daughter of a well-to-do landowner and the family gave its name to the nearby Forest of Arden.

The Forest of Arden is a setting in William Shakespeare's As You Like It. The play features one of Shakespeare's most famous and oft-quoted soliloquies, "All the world's a stage" and the phrase "too much of a good thing."

We are used to seeing Shakespeare in the classroom, and some of us are getting used to seeing gaming in the classroom. Should we be surprised to see Shakespeare gaming in the classroom?

"Arden: The World of William Shakespeare" is a project that was funded by the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Learning program.

The Synthetic Worlds Initiative at Indiana University conducts research on persistent immersive online spaces that host many users. SWI built a virtual worlds based on Shakespeare's works, but most of the SWI virtual worlds are really laboratories for social science experiments.

Arden was an odd case for them. They say that they "put too much emphasis on economic complexity, historical realism, and Shakespearean content, and players did not enjoy our world enough to stay in it. We therefore could not conduct any experiments."

So, what did they need to do to keep players interested for extended periods? Focus on good gameplay.

You can download Arden I, and enter the village where you can talk to Falstaff, play cards with Nym, and ask Shylock about markets. Sounds reasonable, but the problem, as SWI admits, was that players said it was "no fun at all." They say that "If you are thinking of building your own virtual world for education, collaboration, marketing, or some other serious purpose, you should download and experience Arden I to review an approach that, whatever its other merits, did not retain the attention of users."

There's also "Arden II: London's Burning" which is their "fun game" set in a medieval London that's on fire. There's rebellion, monsters, ghosts and you can help either the King or the Rebels. The game is loosely based on Richard III and there are some characters from the play.

"London's Burning" is more of the typical role-playing game. Remember, these weren't created to teach Shakespeare. They were created to conduct an experiment. In Arden II, it worked. 

You can try to replicate their results as reported in this research paper. For example, they found that the Law of Demand seems holds in fantasy environments, and they would like to see more controlled economic and social experiments in virtual worlds at greater scales of both population (thousands of users) and time (many months).

SWI is currently working on a new virtual world with the working title "Greenland."  This one is a multiplayer game about owning and managing land which they call a "PPE" for a Persistent Political Economy. They don't expect this one to be ready for a year or more.

Game on.