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March 13, 2005

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Day 2 at MIT

My colleagues and I had another full on day of absorbing and observing at MIT. the night before, our host and contact Phil Long took us to an outstanding Afghan restaurant in Cambridge, called Helmand. Friday started with a bit of blue sky, but the snow did not wait long to start its thing.

In the morning we met with Ben Brophy who is working on the user interface and design guides for the Sakai project, the open source course management system being developed by Indiana, Michigan, Stanford, and a bunch of other heavyweight universities. You cannot tell a whole lot about a system in a quick demo, but I can vouch it exists, that many great minds and hands are working on it. The gradebook is just being worked on, but we saw a bit of course content, the discussion boards, the "MyWorkspace" portal like view. There is much to be done interface-wide (IMHO) as it feels very much a document and list hierarchy so no more or less different from current CMS-es.

MIT is doing this in pilot phase, as they have Stellar, their home grown CMS that has been around long enough to build a good sized user base. They are not jumping in as quickly as what we hear about Michigan and Indiana, where they have done the full leap into Sakai for current students.

I do wonder if these enterprise systems are an incremental change from what we have now; yes I full understand the potential for add-ins once Sakai is ready for prime time, but for institutions like ours that lack the horsepower to do the integration/conversion of atop university, if the gains will be seen as worth the leap of change.

Next we visited with Kurt Fendt and sat in on a discussion with his students in the Comparative Media Studies Group. They have an interesting media management system called MetaMedia which is a web database of images, documents, videos, sounds files etc mostly for content in the Humanities.

Based on open standards, the Metamedia framework allows the formation of learner communities across disciplines and distances and ensures interoperability with a wide range of current and future media resources.

In MetaMedia, users can create their own "collections" by selecting from icons in subject "archives", thus building personal collections of media. From here, people can add comments and build discussions with others around the digital artifacts, and these are then tools of reflection used to support a wide range of Humanities research projects.

People can also upload their own media, with manually entered meta data via a web form. It has a bit of an eportfolio and a "rip mix" feel, I asked about the potential of folksonomy like tags for informal connections.

Next it was a dash over to the Media Lab where we met with some folks involved in projects in the Human Dynamics Group . After a quick overview of some of the projects, we sat in for a bit of a "class" which has not your sterotypical sitting in rows inside a box of a room. We were more in a lounge/studio part of the building, sitting on soft couches, listening to one of the group members sharing the results of his research project. And it was not a lecture, as it became a forum of interaction, as people freely tossed out ideas, comments, suggestions.

This project was in the Reality Mining Project and was fascinating! In vague detail, it involved providing students a cell phone that had been re-programmed to send information about its location and activities back to a central server, so there was continual data gathering of physical location, and algorithms applied to make good guesses about what sorts of activities the cell phone owner was doing. But it also used Bluetooth to find out what other enabled users were in proximity, so there is a whole layer of social dynamics and group interaction that can be extrapolated from the data.

The Reality Mining experiment is one of the largest academic mobile phone projects in the US. Our research agenda takes advantage of the increasingly widespread use of mobile phones to provide insight into the dynamics of both individual and group behavior. By leveraging recent advances in machine learning we are building generative models that can be used to predict what a single user will do next, as well as model behavior of large organizations.

We are currently capturing communication, proximity, location, and activity data from 100 subjects at MIT over the course of this academic year. Such rich data about complex social systems have implications for a variety of fields. It is our hope that this research will help us explore research questions including:

* How do incoming students' social networks evolve over time?

* How entropic (predictable) are most people's lives?

* Can the topology of a social network be inferred from only proximity data?

* How can we change a group's interactions to promote better functioning?

It was mind-blowing, and we hated to leave, but we were shuttled off to another session where the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature faculty were being given an overview of electronic portfolios. The interesting thing here is that it is a relatively unknown concept here, so they are at the place of trying to figure out what kind of eport they need (assessment, showcase, etc) and looking at what others are doing. The discussions seemed a bit tilted toward the assessment type portfolio (I did toss out the question for them to think who the eport is for- the student or the institution, or both). We shared some of our Ocotillo work in eportfolios as well as the things we got from our recent eportfolio dialogue day. It is very odd to think that we are a bit ahead of MIT ;-) The do have an installation of the Open Source Portfolio system.

The last stop was in the Lego Learning Lab in the lower part of the Media Lab where we heard a bit from Oren who is in the Lifelong Kindergarten Group (love the name) in trying to understand how kids can learn abstract thinking or mathematical thinking from a set of simple blocks, lights, and other effects. It is some very cool stuff, the whole place is a giant "what if" studio of technology, learnig, human behavior.

Beyond seeing a few cutting edge things, the real outcome here was meeting some people in person, and more so, getting a sense of how innovation and experimentation play out here. On one hand, there are your standard square classrooms, auditorium lecture halls, and blacKboards covered in chalk with Calculus, but many other places that have the chaotic studio / lab type environment that seems to faciliate exploration. And the shear brain power radiating across the campus is dizzying.

We also set up some agreements for some cooperation on the iCampus project which offers us access to some interesting interactive web contral-able experiments and simulation applications developed at MIT.

And to top it off, we had a fantastic seafood dinner in North End (The Daily Catch) and were surrounded by a buzz of thick, loud, Bostonian accents.

blogged March 13, 2005 08:07 PM :: category [ pile ]
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