Thursday, 8 April 2010

Faster better cheaper through reusable learning objects

Learning and teaching is essentially about telling stories and making them come to life. The best story tellers help you visualise what they see . They also help you see things from different angles to gain different perspectives and insights. It relies heavily on communication, which is 90% non verbal, yet 90% of learning content I have found is verbal, generally written word and a challenge to anyone with reading difficulties. To maximise the impact of our teaching we need to address this and embrace current technologies that make non verbal communication easier in todays world and develop skills around non verbal discourse. Designing for humans not for technology

Many web based data visualisation tools are now freely available but each requires a certain degree of technical skill to operate. I've created a prototype which makes the process of adding visualisations to learning content much easier with no skills required other than filling out a form. The intention is to make the process much like embedding a youtube video where you are given the code to embed after configuring the video exactly as you require. Yet your students can still have the option to personalise the object to their needs if you allow it. 

Currently it's possible to switch between multiple sources of data and visualise this data in multiple tools including line , bar, area and pie charts. Providing multiple solutions for visualisation allows for personalisation. The data itself can be adjusted through a form as can the height, width and title of the visualisation. Image based charts are better suited to mobile devices, others to visually impaired, and others to those with reading difficulties.

Students can be sent to the tool at and it can also be embedded alongside other content. Being a web application it is available to all with an internet connection both within the UK and internationally.

Planned improvements include:
  • support for external data sets such as those at which removes the need for entering the data
  • chaining these charts with other visualisation tools to create more complex and interactive tools. An example at uses a time line approach to show data at particular points. This would add multiple visualisation options to the data.
  • easier embedding
  • user interface improvements such as making the tool easier to configure and reuse
  • publish the code and supporting documents, probably on

The tool is being developed using open source techniques with existing best of breed open source tools. Developing for the web is becoming increasingly complex given the number of technologies that must be mastered and the many permutations of user and device that are now possible. So I've used components designed with all these challenges in mind that are already in use on other sites with hundreds of thousands of users. This ensures excellent quality for minimal resource and excellent flexibility.

Opensource approaches also allow a scientific approach to delivering applications such as these. It's common to provide support tools such as wikis and issue resolution tools to encourage community involvement. By encouraging the community to review the source, check its validity and offer improvements the tool constantly improves. At the same time we show others just how simple it is to make such difficult concepts accessible and provide a simple framework for anyone to create their own learning objects. Because each tool is free to use the more learning objects available, the more education benefits, because barriers to learning fall. With sufficient objects an 'app store' would be possible to deliver the benefits many vendors are seeing at this time.

The barriers to developing these tools have become so low that there is also potential that students could create these learning objects themselves as part of their learning and even as evidence of it. We could then become facilitators of an open learning community by providing support, for example a shared place in which to make the tools available. A place with defined standards to ensure quality and safety and a rating mechanism to ensure users have a voice. Along with sandboxed areas for development and testing on the path to achieving the required standards.
Much like we facilitate students skills in discourse through writing essays. Skills in data visualisation and creating tools for data visualisation are increasingly necessary as part of making an argument and being part of a discourse. That is how our society is involving. Data is becoming a language we must be fluent in. We must embed it in all learning. It's also important for those who have trouble reading or writing because it provides different forms of expression.
It's also about improving learning through inspiring collaboration and communication. By publishing and following guidelines for high quality learning objects. Students could produce their own. Be it a youtube video google gadget or other.

In essence I want to lead the way in the discourse of how to enable learning in a connected world through delivering learning objects in the way that we deliver essays. Each object takes the argument forward or furthers the discussion much as essays published in journals do for classical science. 

Further details
The prototype mentioned can be found at At present it's a very rough early proof of concept. It shows what is possible with just a few hours. Making the point about what could be achieved given more time. The slider controls the bar chart and the images showing what might happen once the nutritional formulas have been applied.

After talking this through with colleagues I've realised I just want to make it easier to visualise data. Make it easier to use data in discussions and debates to support arguments. With this in mind I've put another quick demo together at . This demo shows how easy it is to use the visualisation tools that already exist. I just added a form so you can directly change a few values and see the chart updated straight away.

I plan to incorporate this into the registration and saving features at using standard technologies

I've also just added another prototoype to show use of external datasources over the web such as government data. The data is at and was originally from as  Household nutrient data from 1940 onwards . I'm starting to be able to show that we actually eat far less than we did years ago, even during the ration days of the war, yet we're getting fatter and fatter. The other side to this is that we are being far less active, but I'll show that when I find the data. This is the advantage of being able to visual data from external sources.

Long term I would see this process automated. You'd use the form to set up the chart how you liked. Then save the configuration values and get a set of code to embed on your site. Just like youtube. The embed code then calls the visualisation tool with the correct values and displays the chart you designed. Voila. You spend more time developing your argument. Less sorting out the tools.  I also plan to support visualisation tools from multiple vendors such as google, yahoo and jquery to offer great choice.

This is a revised draft of my earlier article 'An idea for modelling nutrition'. I've collected my thoughts and hopefully made it a little easier to understand what I'd like to achieve.

I've also found a cloud development environment and uploaded the tool to

Trying out an iframe

Embedding solutions into existing pages is key in my mind. So wanted to tackle this early. Here's an example of embedding one of the charts that I've made. Right now the chart is too big for the space allowed. That's something to work on. I'll also look into other ways of embedding visualisations.

Another iframe

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