From OCW, YouTube lectures, edutainment, and MOOCs to graph-based wikis

In summary:

Teach physics through an opinionated wiki built on top of a navigable graph structure.

Each node is a physical topic, it has its own content, and it branches off to connect to other nodes, more or less relevant to physics. The entire graph represents everything that can be learned by student navigating it, with a clear distinction between strictly relevant and breadth based (digressive) nodes, all of which need not (and cannot) be navigated at one time.

An adaptive survey of physics, its language and construct, tools, history, and philosophy

The nodal object itself contains static and dynamic content, which has been added by combining the works of different physicists and educators. The goal is to take all well-developed treatments and analogies on various topics, from online and offline resources, and put them into one navigable, and adaptive graph structure.

The content is adaptive, in the sense that students can view different ‘slices’ of the whole structure, and the nodes they choose would adaptively suggest content that suites with their preferred learning style for some class of topics. Its also adaptive in the sense that the contact keeps changing, like a wiki, where users can embed discussions (which might very well be sparked off by in-line comments and highlights from other users.) Linking diigo‘s library (while avoiding too many mirrors, or data races) for working with internet based text/image content, and SoundCloud‘s capability of in-lining comments with video and sound files, might be helpful.

The goal is to allow students and educators to share different insights, lectures, reading material, historical content, etc. that captured their interests in the first place, and anyone self-learning physics could potentially find such content useful. Different people find different takes on essentially the same concepts more suitable for different times and stages of their learning, so this graph is likely to have a dimension of depth superposed on top of a flat map listing the modular principles themselves (conservation laws.) This is not to say that the graph begins with these nodes, rather, it converges to them. Also, the nodes (projections) adapt (broaden and deepen) with time.

Including the offshoots, digressions, and the head-fakes

While looking for and thinking about different treatments of a subject, one naturally thinks about its applications outside the domains of envelopes, scratch paper, and black/whiteboards. These offshoots could form an essential part of the learning experience, and should be included, with a lot of encouragement for individual contributions from the students.

A modular animation engine

This could be a web based implementation of python’s visual library. I just came across Khan Academy’s JS tutorials, so that might be another option. Either way, trade-offs would be involved on the design side (as suggested by our UX friends!) to make sure that the physics is not compromised in artistic pursuits, but complemented. Another thing would be consider portability, version tracking (git-like something), and exporting the projects to personal machines in case the processing becomes too much for running in-browser.

Not sure if an offline implementation of the entire wiki would work better (with internet connectivity and support for updates, of course.) But it could make content less centralized, and we may lose valuable nodes contributed by off-the-grid users.

Digging through a massive graph

Search algorithms for ‘understanding’ a student’s questions, and linking him/her to the appropriate node. Ideally, such a search tool should be artificially intelligent, such that it can understand the student’s needs, and also the graph’s content, but it seems like students may have to take a lot of initiative by digging through the nodes themselves, initially, before we can perhaps model the digging process to develop a tool that thinks like a physics educator, and re-directs students to suitable (“recommended”?) content.

More writing…

Bias: this builds on top of analogies from the food industry (Malcolm Gladwell.) That might not be the best way to think about education, but it might harbor some cool ideas.

One interesting thing that I have noticed over my education is that the same ideas, theorems, concepts, and equations can be taught in a variety of ‘flavors’. Different educators are not necessarily better or worse, but it seems like the things they focus on, the way they structure a class, the books the reference – in summary, their teaching styles could in fact be very different. So, it is typical for students to go around and look for other educational resources besides what they get in a typical class, just to get different perspectives and insights on the same thing, which could be offered by different educators, bloggers, authors, professors – all people who feed their perspectives into our mind, and we gradually see an understanding of the concept in question emerge.

Now, doesn’t that sound like shopping for different sauces at the grocery store, where we might be thinking about blending some of them together to get an optimum blend, or a fuller taste? Rather, if educational resources were comparable to grocery stores, there are a variety of flavors in which, say, the Fourier transform can be taught, and the same flavor won’t surprise / fascinate everyone! In fact, I feel that students like us really get to appreciate a concept (that could be complicated because its very simple, or because its abstract) by trying out different treatments of the same thing, going through them time and again to “polish” them – to quote my favorite physics teacher – by doing exploring different layers / surfaces of the bigger picture, instead of diving in just at one point / detail.

This brings me to the second surprising thing. Assuming that one educator’s take on one aspect of physics works great for me, but does it really imply that his/her take on different aspects (covered, say, in the same book or course) would work for me? That is, why is it that I end up enjoying some parts of class better than other modules of the same class, given that each of these modules emerged out of a LOT of thinking and research on the part of thousands of people – who surely would have found something beautiful, which was worth thinking about, but its just not coming across in this one educator’s style? Now, I am not saying that I am not working hard enough, nor am I saying that the instructor is lazy, I am just saying that given the internet, we can easily entangle different flavors of the same thing together, into a giant graph structure.

What if we design a website, which is based on teaching a course, in physics, through a graph? This is like the strategy-based videogames, where an explorer can see different known and unexplored sections of a subject on one map, which is a pretty complex map, but not all paths have to be explored in the first pass by the student. Rather, the student takes certain routes, where each nodal concept of the map diverges into a variety of ‘flavors’ for thinking about it, and sequential and parallel connections all slowly come together, allowing the student to gradually see a mind map of the subject.

The best bit might be to have the students add their own nodes, their own structures, links, pitches, explanations, problems – which should be accessible to everyone taking this course. This is inspired by the underlining and comments one sees in a book borrowed from a library, when different students may benefit from what other people got out of a certain line from a talk or a book. The motivation is that a subject tree of this sort can easily evolve to covering a variety of different perspectives and views on each topic, which can be parsed through manually, or algorithmically, by every student who might wish to try another ‘flavor’.

Designing an interface that works for a course like this could be hard, as things would have to be scalable, and frankly, should even cater to the different learning styles of different people. The students should be able to add sounds, plots, images, video clips, and most importantly, in my opinion, there might be a need for a modular library of animations, if its an introductory class on physics, and students want to show how they think a system would react under certain conditions.

So, graphical nodes linking to different educators’ takes on the same material, where students can add original and linked content to an ever-evolving structure, might be a nice way to learn physics. We should work on atleast a demo version of such a tree, and then video game designers and developers involved!

as if their styles engage some learners  more than others. To modify an idea expressed in  a TED talk by the author of Bl!nk,

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