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A few simple tools I want edu-startups to build

Outside of taking courses in XML, programming logic, and Python, I am not a programmer. I understand the importance of being able to program. I can get by with HTML and CSS. There are few things more irritating, however, than having ideas that one is not capable of activating in a meaningful way. It’s like having a desire to communicate but lacking the ability to speak. This isn’t a huge liability – as long as you have access to people who can translate your ideas into code. Or apps. Or something digital. You need to be part of a team that covers your weaknesses. I don’t have access to a team like this, so I’ll whine here instead.

Here are a few tools that I would like someone, somewhere to build (startups, research labs, competent coders):

1. Geoloqi for curriculum. I love this idea and I’ve been talking about a similar concept for years. Basically, it combines your location with information layers. For example, if you activate the Wikipedia layer, you’ll receive updates when you are in a vicinity of a site based on a wikipedia article. One of the challenges with traditional classroom learners is the extreme disconnect between courses and concepts. Efforts to connect across subject silos are minimal. However, connections between ideas and concepts amplifies the value of individual elements. If I’m taking a course in political history, receiving in-context links and texts when I’m near an important historical site would be helpful in my learning. Mobile devices are critical in blurring boundaries: virtual/physical worlds, formal/informal learning.

2. Visualization and data collision tools. I need tools to help me make sense of complexity. I want to be able to activate an open data set (UNESCO, OECD, local university) and perform visualizations based on questions that I ask the system – i.e. computation meets visualization, sort of like what would happen if WolframAlpha meets Gapminder. I want to be able to manipulate random data collisions, combining (or, at least, position in relation to each other) stats and open data with qualitative data. One of the reasons many people are not very data-based in their thinking and argumentation is that the tools to interact with data are difficult to use and inaccessible. Want to debate the economic impact of the #occupy movement? Sure, let’s fire up SPSS load some economic data, compare that with sentiment analysis in both traditional and social media, and then output a visualization on our blogs. It’s much easier to say #occupy is Awesome/Sucks.

3. gRSShopper. I’ve known Stephen Downes for over a decade. What he’s doing today will be prominent in edtech in a few years (if his early work with OLE (LMS), blogging, RSS, learning 2.0 are any indication). We’ve used gRRShopper, a tool that he developed, for our open courses over the past few years. It aggregates blogs and feeds the ones with a particular course tag into a daily email. Basically, it weaves together distributed conversations (blogs, twitter, moodle). However, it’s a system built for the mind of Stephen. Which means that it will likely not receive broad adoption unless fairly tech-competent educators deploy it. And that’s the problem: many educators do not have a significant programming/technical background. And many programmers do not have a solid educational or learning sciences disposition. In order for gRSShopper and the Daily (email newsletter used in open online courses) to receive broad adoption, they must become push-button easy so any teacher can start an open course as easily as she can start a blog. edufeedr is another tool that offers similar blog aggregation in courses, but I don’t think it’s tied to an email service like the Daily.


  1. Amber Case wrote:

    Thanks for a great post! I have a question though: if you had the ability to program, so to speak, without having to code (i.e. a simple visual editor for adding content to an app like Geoloqi), would you use it? Would it make you feel empowered that you could do things without any code and bring data to life? We’re thinking of finishing off our visual editor and we’d love for you to try it.

    Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  2. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Amber – thanks for your comment. At minimum, I would try it. I’ve experimented with numerous “non-coding” programming tools and they often strip much of the functionality from the programming process. I guess it’s a trade off between functionality and complexity. So, if you are able to share your visual editor once you have it ready, I’d love to try it. There are, as I’m sure you’re aware, enormous learning opportunities with Geoloqi. I’m excited about the possibilities. If you need to connect with me via gmail, I’m “gsiemens”

    Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  3. Amber Case wrote:

    Thanks a bunch for your reply! Have you tried any non-coding programming tools that you liked and still use today? For the ones that you liked, what made them good? For the ones that you didn’t like — what was wrong with them?

    At Science Hack Day last year we made a Geoloqi layer with science trivia questions that people could respond to as they walked around. We hadn’t built out the platform fully yet, so it’s not available in Geoloqi right now, but the experience was tremendously fun. We’ll let you know when we’re ready for you to test it out, and I have your E-mail address stored in my account now! Thanks again for a great article!

    Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  4. Just a note – if you are a Canadian company, would like to build gRSShopper, and are large enough to deal with NRC paperwork *really* sorry about that), then I would be very willing to help you, could offer you my full assistance, and would do whatever I could to make sure you have a successful product with which you can make some money.

    Monday, October 31, 2011 at 6:00 am | Permalink
  5. “I understand the importance of being able to program. I can get by with HTML and CSS. There are few things more irritating, however, than having ideas that one is not capable of activating in a meaningful way. It’s like having a desire to communicate but lacking the ability to speak.”

    I’m glad it’s not just me! I’m forever having ideas for programming projects, but lack the fluency in any language (except BBC Basic – there, that shows my age!) to put it into practice in any reasonable time-scale.

    Monday, October 31, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink
  6. Alex wrote:

    Great post, thank you! Especially I like an idea with Geoloqi. But I think we can await for some analogue for ages. By the other hand, we can chip in together and hire a good coder on some freelance site, for example, to create such an application. What do You think?

    Tuesday, November 1, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Permalink