A Possible Future for Distance Education

Chris Lee over at Are Technica recently wrote an article outlining a number of the issues that are facing both teachers and students when it comes to remote learning. Every point that he makes is spot on and, what's worse, is that a lot of the comments that people have left in the few hours since the article went live are also spot on. Educational institutions and teachers of all stripes have made some admirable efforts to make systems like Zoom, Teams, Slack, and a host of others work to replicate some aspects of in-person learning, but these tools are designed for business use and, damningly, they're not even very good tools for business. Suffice it to say, the current crop of digital tools that people are expected to use to conduct person-to-person lessons are a poor substitute for being in a classroom, regardless of how many people might be occupying that space. As Chris says, teaching is an intimate activity.

What's the solution, though?

This is a question that I've been thinking about for quite some time and not only because I work for an education-providing organisation. Chris Lee and the commentators are all correct that the tools we have need to be better in order to resolve some of the fundamental problems faced when trying to replicate a traditional environment — whether it's a classroom or a meeting room — on a laptop, tablet, or phone. First, let's list out some of the most common problems that create the friction we all despise:

  1. Camera angles are unflattering
  2. People don't mute their microphones
  3. People don't attend while in an appropriate environment
  4. The sound quality is generally awful
  5. Eye contact is literally impossible
  6. Visual cues and subtle body language is much harder to pick up on
  7. Note-taking (and sharing) is a pain when it's not 100% text presented in a list format
  8. The tools have complex, convoluted, or otherwise confusing sets of menus to perform typically common activities for online meetings
  9. We have no idea who is paying attention or currently present

We can even reduce these nine items down further to:

  1. What we see is suboptimal
  2. What we hear is suboptimal
  3. What we use is suboptimal

Mind you, there are some groups of people who have had so much experience with online meetings and seminars that many of the items listed above are non-issues. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule. How would one go about resolving some of these issues, though?

What We See

A year or so back I started toying with the idea of an application that would first map our face to build a 3-dimensional understanding of what we look like, then present that to people. Our current facial expressions and mouth movements would be tracked and sync up with whatever it is that we're doing and, because it's essentially a living avatar that's being presented to the other people on the call, a person's angle and eyes could be better lined up for the viewer. The participants would all have their cameras on, after all, so it wouldn't be impossible to have an on-screen avatar's head and eyes "follow" the current location of the participants. This would be rendered locally, too, making it relatively smooth and natural in appearance. This would have the added bonus of giving people the option to "tweak" their appearance for the day. Didn't shave? No problem! Still in your pyjamas? Don't worry about it. The avatar will look just like you on your best day.

This would solve items 1 and 5 in the first list above, but probably contribute to number six.

What We Hear

One of the most frustrating elements of every meeting that I attend online is the sound quality. A lot of people do not use a headset with a microphone for some reason and a lot of people do not seem to realise that typing on a laptop that has its microphone built into the base of the unit results in a painfully distracting series of taps that can bring any productive conversation to a halt. I've had meetings with people who were obviously sitting at a Starbucks. I've had meetings with people who were driving down a highway with their windows open. I've even had meetings with people who might have been at an outdoor rock concert. There really is no limit to the number of inopportune environments a participant might find themselves in when attending an online class, seminar, or meeting.

With this in mind, the solution I have been toying with builds on the visual idea of using a rendered avatar. A person would "train" the avatar to speak in their voice. There would be a multitude of sentences that a person would have to say when first setting up the application so that the general tone and pitch of the voice is captured. By doing this it becomes possible to send none of the audio from a person to the participants in the class, seminar, or meeting. Instead, the words that are spoken would be transcribed and transmitted as text along with a musical representation of what they said. This would then be reconstructed on each of the participant's devices. This would mean that people in very noisy environments would sound incredibly flat to the listeners, but it would be superior to the cacophony that so many of us are subjected to with today's solutions.

This would not be a great solution for people who need to convey sound that is not spoken words, but there is no reason why people couldn't choose to listen to the raw audio if they so chose.

What We Use

This is the hardest of the three fundamental problems because different groups need different solutions. What works for a class consisting of 30 teenagers learning geography may not necessarily work for 15 young adults practicing the violin or 10 middle-aged managers discussing next month's production quotas. However, if we take the first two technical solutions and carry it forward, what we could have is something very compelling: Virtual Reality.

When it comes to VR — and its related technology, Augmented Reality — I have been a bit of a cynic. The hardware requirements were always too great for the average person and the use cases all seemed to consist of graphically violent games or vivid sexual fantasies. However, if the goal is to simulate a traditional environment as much as possible to enable or encourage an intimate setting where people come together to solve a problem, be it learning the quadratic equation or discussing corporate strategy, and many of the problems that people have involve poor visuals, poor audio, and poor tools, then perhaps an immersive setting would resolve some of the issues. People would have the ability to write on virtual whiteboards, present virtual models of possible products for participants to examine, and more. The cost for VR equipment has come down quite a bit since 2010 with some headsets being available for around $300 USD. This cost would certainly be a barrier to entry for some, but this could solve some of the problems that people face when working with colleagues a continent away or with classmates who are quarantined.

But then we have many of these technologies already, don't we? Second Life is an online world with almost a million people. The platform would not be a panacea, but it is one place to start. Issues involving system resources, frame rates, and congestion would need to be resolved before groups of more than a dozen could get together in any meaningful manner, but technical issues are rarely insurmountable. Something like this might be the stepping stone to a better virtual learning environment. Some schools have a presence on the platform already, too.

Further research will be necessary.


A nearby kindergarten held a little bit of an open house today as part of their regular efforts to recruit students for the next school year. Working from home means that instead of relying solely on Reiko's judgement for which school the boy should attend1, I can visit the schools and act as a second set of eyes. More than this, I attended a French-Immersion kindergarten in Ontario. There's no way I can pretend to know what goes on in a Japanese school unless I see for myself.

And see, I did.

The basics of kindergarten are all the same as I remember from 37 years ago. The playground is large and well-trodden. There are toys strewn all over the place until the teachers come along to pick them up. Teachers work in teams of two for classes larger than 25 kids2. The facilities are generally locked down to prevent weirdos from coming in. A rabbit is sitting in a cage outside, generally enjoying not being bothered by children. There's nothing sharp anywhere.

The differences stood out like a sore thumb. There was nudity.

At first I thought this was that sort of "silly nudity" where a young child will take their pants off for a joke or just to get a reaction out of a teacher. But then I saw a second child without pants. Then a third. Then a fourth. In a classroom of at least 25, a good number of kids -- both boys and girls -- were running around half-clothed. Some kids chanted "がんばれ!" while others went into a small room. Some were watching the group of 10 parents who were walking through the school.

"Before classes go out for a walk, children are encouraged to go to the bathroom. For children who are not completely potty trained, this is a reassuring way for them to learn."
-- the lead teacher guiding the group

Maybe this is something I just don't remember but, to the best of my knowledge, there was never a "potty activity" when I was in school. Kids would sometimes have accidents and that would cause a bit of a problem, of course, but this was completely new to me. Reiko was also a little surprised to see it as it wasn't done at her kindergarten, either. My reticence to having teachers encourage my kid to take his pants off in front of a group may be due to a Christian upbringing in Canada, where nudity is "shameful" and must never be done ever, ever … but I'd really much rather the boy not get into a state of undress in front of his classmates or teachers.

A moment later we moved on to the next part of the tour where we went up to the roof of the school3, where another class was putting their hands or feet into shallow buckets of paint before stepping on large sheets of paper. The kids were having a lot of fun on the roof, but I had to question why they weren't in a classroom with air conditioning. The roof was at least 30 degrees in direct sunlight, which was certainly a bit warm for me.

It's different.

All in all, the school looked like a decent place for the students that we saw and most of the parents seemed happy with everything they heard. Would I be comfortable sending the boy there? Not completely. While the rooftop activities would be fine on a cooler day, I'm not at all keen on dealing with heat stroke. I've had that twice before, and it's no picnic4. As for nudity? I'm really not comfortable with this.

There are three other schools that Reiko, the boy, and I will be checking out over the coming months. One of the three will likely not even warrant a visit as the reviews online are all negative, with most mothers complaining about the lack of learning their kids are doing. The other two, however, show some promise.

  1. I would be completely fine with this, as Reiko has been a teacher for her entire professional life. She knows what to look for in educators and institutions. That said, what's the point of working from home if I cannot actively participate in the boy's development?

  2. I can barely manage to stay sane with just one kid. How do kindergarten teachers manage to do what they do?

  3. School roofs are generally evacuation areas for neighbourhoods in times of flood, so there are strong fences and safeties in place to ensure nobody falls off. This is quite different from the schools I attended in Canada, where the roof was pretty much "off limits" and impossible to get to.

  4. Funny story about heat stroke. When I was 17 I was out playing baseball for about 11 hours on a sunny Saturday. That night I went to bed and woke up Monday afternoon. Apparently my sisters couldn't wake me no matter what they tried. Wait … that wasn't funny ….

We Shouldn't Be a Fan of Our Work

Last year, after almost a decade of circumventing rules at the day job to help people serve students better, I was moved out of the classroom and into a full-time development role to continue doing what I was doing as an instructor, but without all the cloak and dagger to make it happen. A lot of people were happy with the news, including myself. It meant that I could play a role in making something that colleagues all over the country might find value in, rather than something that just a handful of schools would use without really saying much to upper management about it. Over the last 15 months, though, I've come to dread going to work. I despise checking email. I want to be invisible on Skype all the time or, better yet, just shut the distraction down so that I can make it through the day without wanting to hurl a computer five stories to the pavement below1.

The problem is not with my colleagues. The problem is not with the endless complaints from people who storm into the little space where I do my work. Believe it or not, the problem is not even with the sound of silence from human silos within the organization who refuse to share their knowledge of the home-grown CMS my project must interface with. The problem boils down to a very fundamental issue that will never be resolved so long as I am working for someone else.

The issue is the result of an unsharable vision.

Steve Jobs and the First iPad

Way back in 2010, soon after Steve Jobs walked on stage and showed the world the iPad, I started thinking about how such a device could be used in education. By that time I had been teaching for almost three years and had the hubris to think that I could write software for a tablet that would make education easier for teachers, students, and all the support staff that are required to make a school function. Looking back at the early design sketches, I almost cringe at the naivety on display. The concepts I was dabbling with were far too similar to the way Microsoft approached tablet software in 1999.

Suffice it to say, the sketches went nowhere and I shelved the idea for a few years, revisiting the idea whenever I'd read an article about how tablets were being used in education.

Fast forward to 2013, I was asked to create a special kind of report for a new type of class that was being trialled in the area. Excel was a mainstay at the day job, and every report we gave to students or their sponsor came from this spreadsheet software. Me being me, I was one of the few people responsible for writing all of the reports in the region to ensure that every student and every sponsor would see a consistent message with consistent formatting and consistent quality. This new kind of report, though, needed something that Excel was not particularly good at without a complex series of macros. Instead, I used this opportunity to push through an idea that had been bouncing around in my head since the year before: build a data-collection website that is designed to be finger-friendly so that teachers simply tap-tap-tap their feedback and let the database do the heavy lifting.

Selling the idea was not easy, as people "just wanted an Excel report", but I used a long weekend to prototype the site and build some dummy reports. I presented it to the managers the following week, and they loved it.

This was shortly after my employer had rolled out iPads to all of the schools in a bid to make us seem more efficient and professional. Both counts failed and the project was bleeding money but, again, I had enough hubris to think that I could push through my own agenda while using company resources to solve company problems. Within six months the project had expanded to include several different types of reports, and people were generally happy with the system. A few times the project came close to being shut down when certain members of IT learned of the project2, but there was always just enough pushback from the local schools to keep the project alive.

In 2015, after a redesign of the iPad software teachers were supposed to use in class, a number of people gave up trying to use the tablets in the classroom. We still had to use them to record attendance, lesson goals, homework, and other details, but a large portion of the teaching staff gave up trying to use the tablets beyond the bare minimum. The problem was that the software was poorly designed for the job it was hired to do. The textbook application was nothing more than a frustrating PDF reader that stuttered and crashed every 15 minutes. The pedagogical tool was sluggish, hard to look at, and buried all of the student profile information, making it very difficult to learn more about students — or record updates — before walking into a classroom. Despite transitioning from paper to digital two years beforehand, people were pining for the day when we'd drop the iPads and go back to paper records. The older textbooks that made use of cassette tapes were easier to use and less embarrassing than the iPad software.

So I decided to do something about it.

Again, over a long weekend, I mocked up a new pedagogical system that would work on the tablets while making the system easier to use for teachers and staff. Information would be easier to find and filter. Textbooks would be searchable and come with custom lesson plans to help inexperienced or fatigued teachers. Reports — my specialty — would be built in to the pedagogical system meaning that teachers would spend less time writing them while students and sponsors received more data from them. In the space of four days the demo was ready and I started to show it around to people at the day job.

People loved it. Managers loved it. Even some of the students commented and said that it looked simpler. HQ, however, wouldn't hear of it. There were processes and procedures and hierarchies to obey, and I was bucking the system. They demanded it be shut down, even though there was zero student information in the system. I "conveniently forgot" to do so.

Then, in the fall of 2015, an interesting thing happened. The president of the company caught wind of these projects I was working on and asked to see them. He then asked why I "was being wasted". A week later I was approached with the opportunity to transfer to do software development in the IT department and, in March 2016, it became official. That 4-day design of the pedagogical replacement system is still being worked on and refined today, and people are generally happy with it … except when they aren't.

Back to the Problem

Earlier I said that my problem boils down to a very fundamental issue that will never be resolved so long as I am working for someone else, and this is completely accurate. I have been working quite hard on the problem of creating effective software for use in education for almost five years, the first four years of which was in near isolation where I was able to design and implement features and functions as I saw fit. When I would watch people interact with my software, I would find problems. These were often actions they would do that I never once considered, and I would go back and find a better way to support their goals while also ensuring mine were met. People would come at me with ideas or complaints, and I'd listen and find ways to make the system better for them, again ensuring that my goals for the system were not lost along the way. The way I looked at the tool was very simple: the UI is for the teachers, the printed reports are for the students, the database is for me.

By doing this I was able to create something that teachers actually liked to use. Students were happy. I had a nice database full of numbers from which to quickly answer questions from managers.

Since moving into a role with IT this has changed. People at HQ are accustomed to working with software that fights you every step of the way. Want to record someone's attendance? You'd best have 3 minutes to spare, because what used to be a circle or an X on a piece of paper needs to be infinitely more complex in the name of "security". Want to know what textbook your student will be using after they finish their current book? Go ask one of the school's support staff, because the teaching software will not let you know that information without a fight. This is the state of corporate software in the world, and the previous solutions for the iPad and schools all came from this group of people. My software with it's opposite approach to the same problems is completely alien to the way they think about the job. This isn't a criticism or a disparagement. It's a fact. They're looking at problems as A⇢B⇢C⇢…⇢Z, and I'm looking at problems as A⇢F⇢Z.

It's no wonder there is a great deal more confusion at head office than at the schools. It's no wonder that when members of the various departments in Tokyo report "bugs" in my software, it's because they're not accustomed to software understanding a person's job and performing a bunch of steps transparently on their behalf. From a big picture point of view, I completely understand this. In the heat of the moment when I'm reading that email or new issue on GitHub that has nothing to do with an actual bug and everything to do with making the software harder to use, however …

Flip that Table!

I'm too close to the project. I've invested a great deal of time and effort into making something that is designed to be used by people who really couldn't care less what the corporate interests are. That's why I invested so much time into making the UI for the people who would actually use the software rather than the people making snap decisions months after the initial decisions had already been made. This is why I call people people instead of using the same language as other people in the corporate structure. The whole thing has been designed to serve the people at the bottom of the totem pole. HQ wants things changed to serve their interests3, and I am growing tired of pushing back.

There are, of course, a lot of people that I've worked with over the last year at HQ who do understand the goals of this project and have gone to bat on my behalf more times than I can count. A lot of very smart people with very sharp insights have helped take a rough idea hammered out in 4 days through to the state it's in today. Many of them are just as frustrated with the various emails, non-issues, and Friday 5:30pm deployment cancellation calls as I am. But there's not much that can be done to change this. The vision of the project is simply too foreign at the moment for people, and the sole developer is too angry all the time to cast it in a positive light. I really need to take a step back …

… and another step …

… and one more.

Because it really doesn't make much sense to continue dreading going into work. There is a lot of good about going in, too. I like a lot of my colleagues. I like the ridiculous amount of freedom I have within the organization. I like seeing people use my software without realizing they're doing more in 30 seconds today than they did in 5 minutes last year. It's a great feeling! I just need to stop being so attached to this specific project.

  1. This would be especially bad, given that I'm using my computers at the day job.

  2. these are the same people I work with now

  3. 15 months into the project, mind you …

Considering More Education

Last month my wife graduated from university with a Master's degree, bringing her one step closer to her dream of working as a professor at a respected institution. The topic of my own education would occasionally come up in the evenings where she would encourage me to return to school with the goal of earning my own post-graduate degree and deepening my understanding of a subject I'd be willing to invest myself into … and there are a lot of subjects I'd absolutely love to deep dive into. Palaeontology, archaeology, sociology, astrophysics, and astrobiology are just a few of the fields of study that have fascinated me for as long as I've been self-aware. More often than not, though, I'm encouraged to pursue a higher education in the computer sciences.

If Curiosity Killed the Cat …

Education is an incredibly valuable tool. The more we know, the more we realize what we don't know. This in itself can drive a person to seek the answers to questions that few even know to ask. I'll admit that the idea of returning to school in order to gain a much better understanding of data encryption or distributed systems or low-level kernel design would be invaluable for future personal projects, and might even lead to positions at organizations that have goals that closely align with mine. Stranger things have happened, after all. So, if I were to go back to study complex concepts, participate in academic discussions, and write a Master's thesis on something that is far more complex than anything I've developed in the last decade, what would be my ultimate goal?

10Cv5, Anyone?

Like a lot of hypothetical situations, I've put a lot of thought into this one. If I were to go back to school and study computer sciences, I would focus on two of the areas I mentioned above: data encryption and distributed systems. My goal would be to make a truly distributed version of 10Centuries. I would want to give people the ability to host their own content and have it safely backed up on other 10Centuries systems across the planet. Using a combination of BitTorrent and BlockChain technology, it would be completely possible to make a robust system so that, in the event a person's server went down or an entire country vanished from the Internet, the data would still exist. Trusted servers could be configured to act as online archivers so that, if a server did vanish, the missing content could still be accessed, much like Archive.org or the Way Back Machine works. There would be no reason for anybody to lose any data. If a person set up a new 10Centuries server, they'd be able to enter their credentials and the system would automagically reach out to collect all of the posts, images, and other files from the various encrypted repositories spread across the globe. There wouldn't be any need to worry about making backups (which surprisingly few people do) or handle messy export/import processes (which always seem to require a good amount of metadata loss).

A pipe dream, no doubt. One that few would even pay attention to, as well. People on the web are consolidating towards well-established, well-funded organizations that make people feel good about giving up information and privacy. But there's always going to be that group of people on the fringe who want something different. Something that's secure. Something they can trust. This is what I would love to build for the world if I had the skills.

With a bit more education, it might actually be possible.

For The Sake of Technology

Over the last two years my employer has been hard at work building its next corporate management system which will also see the company move away from Windows XP to 7. The move has been long overdue, and the new computers that will replace the ageing desktop machines in the office will be a welcome change from the 11 year-old machines that some of the employees have been using for their entire career at the company. At the same time as the office staff receive new machines, the front-line instructors who interact with the clients face-to-face will be issued iPads to review and record information. This is perhaps the single-largest capital investment in technology the company has made since computers were first introduced to the branches 18 years ago. I've been reviewing the upcoming changes since whispers of the move surfaced last year and, to be completely honest, I have yet to see a cohesive vision behind the project. By this time next year, I believe we will see some elements of the project pushed through out of spite, while other elements abandoned.

The element that I am most curious about, however, involves the iPads. There has not been a decent deployment of tablets for educational purposes anywhere in the country. Despite what many people would think, the education system in Japan does not make good use of technology. In fact, there is very little technology in use in most of the schools that I've been to over the last few years. Seeing how my employer implements their vision of technology-enhanced educational seminars will be quite interesting to say the least. My concern is that, in its current incarnation, the iPad program is little more than the use of technology for the sake of technology. There is no benefit to the students whether instructors use a tablet or paper-based textbook. On top of this, most of the "digital textbooks" are no more than PDF scans of our paper resources.

Seeing this new system in action will be interesting.

No More Training Wheels?

At what point should the virtual training wheels come off with regards to being responsible on the Internet? Is there a predetermined age where a person is expected to be able to safely navigate the web without exposing themselves to malware, giving up loads of personal information, and spamming their friends with ads for "get rich quick" schemes and sex toys? If so, at what age should the training wheels come off? Is it 35? 45? 60?

This is a question I've struggled with for years so, when Mr. Patrick Rhone put out a call for writing topics, I jumped at the chance to get his insight on the matter. He has decades of experience consulting on technical matters such as this, and he's raising children who will grow into responsible members of society. We often hear in the news about public schools trying to impress the idea of responsible web usage in the classrooms, but so many people who have long since given up their textbooks for a full-time job and the burdens of adulthood never had the opportunities to learn about the dangers of the Internet and what shape they might appear in.

For some years I have been actively warning people I know about this, that, and the other thing online. They've clearly become complacent over the years as my words fall on deaf ears. Not a week goes by where I don't get spam in the form of a direct message on Twitter or in my email inbox from a friend or family member who foolishly signed in to some garbage website with their Twitter account for some downloadable sugar, or installed some "free" app on their cell phone which then uploaded the entire contact list to some server in the sky. Years of warnings and pleas to think before they click are ignored for that sweet, sweet digital candy … which is forgotten as quickly as it is coveted.

Where do you draw the line and let someone loose to run amok until they damage themselves? It's something I still need to think about.

More Men Need to Cook

We need to encourage and support men to learn to cook in order to realise the full potential of healthy living. Far too often we see young males who are perfectly content gorging themselves on pizza, pretzels, and beer until their mid-to-late-20s while playing video games, watching sports, and otherwise monkeying around like Tim Allen on the set of Home Improvement. By learning the fundamentals of healthy eating we can combat the growing divide between skinny and attractive females with the fat and disgusting males that populate many of the wealthier nations.

I don't know about you, but the plethora of articles floating around the Internet insisting that more women should learn how to codeget into sciencedo better in higher maths, or otherwise do the things they may not want to do is getting a little crazy. Why don't we see more articles saying that men need to learn how to do all the things that women are stereotypically supposed to do? Why aren't males expected to wear makeup, reveal a lot of skin, and otherwise have nubile skin and a desirable body? Why are these things always relegated to women?

It is because the people telling women to go and invest a lot of time doing things they might not have an interest in just want to play catch up with the other gender? If that's the case, then we will forever have a failure to communicate.

I've known a lot of women over the years. Heck, I would go so far as to say that half of all the people I've met have not been male. The same can probably be said for most of the people reading this article, too. Women are everywhere and are every bit as important as men. I've learned first hand that women can do everything men can do, plus one. Growing up we were practically hit over the head with the idea that we should let women do whatever the heck they want (career-wise) and that forcing them to fit into the stereotypical moulds our mothers and grandmothers had to live through is ultimately wrong. Women are just as free to choose their own paths as their male counterparts.

So, if this is true, why are we still seeing posts like the ones linked here insisting that schools, parents, and the community at large continue to push girls to learn things that they may not otherwise want to?

Let's look at a few of these articles. The first of which is written by Kathryn Parsons who argues that more women should take a few courses to learn how to write software. With a better understanding of the technology that we use on a day-to-day basis, women will feel more empowered and less intimidated by these powerful devices that rule our lives. On the surface I agree that more people should have the opportunity to learn some of the basics of computer programming … but why does it have to be limited to women? Why aren't more males also expected to learn how to write software rather than throw a ball or fix a car?

The second article discusses how sexual discrimination has pushed a lot of women out of science and, while I admit there is still a stupid amount of discrimination in the world, it doesn't mean that women are not interested in pursuing careers in science. Instead of arguing that there aren't enough women in a particular field perhaps it would be better to argue that old curmudgeons are holding back their own organisations by investing too much into an outdated business model.

The last link talks about how girls are typically not interested in math because it comes across as boring along with the stereotype that boys are just naturally better at it. I don't know about you, but some of the best math users I've met are women who run the household finances1. Truth be told, math is boring. I love the way numbers come together to do some amazing things, but every math teacher I ever had was lost in their own world. None of them wanted to be teaching the subject and, as a result, very few of my classmates ever excelled in the field. Heck, I never really got into math until after I left school and started programming. Then I actually found a better purpose for some of the more obscure equations that we had to memorise in high school. The failure here isn't so much with gender stereotyping, but with how the subject is taught.

Heck, looking at all three of these issues, none of them have anything to do at all with what sexual organs we're born with. They all have something to do with the adults in charge of leading our young. Parents and teachers alike.

Rather than focus on gender equality in each of the different subjects we learn, perhaps we can look at ways to make the things children are required to study a little more grounded in reality. Academia is fine for university students, but most people will not go so far as to earn a Masters or Doctorate in any field. Why should we learn programming? Why is it important to have scientists? What purpose can math serve in a world where everybody has a calculator in their pocket? Let's teach kids the answer to that question before saying there aren't enough of one particular group in the job pool.

Anything else is just a waste of time.

It's Like Beating A Dead Horse ...

Electronic dictionaries are a wonderful tool. They can help us quickly find new words to accurately describe a situation, help us get a better understanding of an idea, and even provide a pass time with simplistic games that can build our word power. Millions of these devices are sold every year in Japan for anywhere from 6,000円 all the way up to 80,000円* depending on the features and brand a person might want. Yet, despite the wild success of these tiny computers, I'm often left wondering one simple question: why are these things for sale at all?

Canon WordTank ZThe average electronic dictionary is sold for just over 10,000円*. For this price, people get a device of basic design containing approximately a quarter-million words and definitions. The screens typically look like something from the mid-1980s, and the interface leaves much to be desired. The better machines that come with large dictionaries, regular updates, and color screens sell for over 25,000円. The interface on these machines are just as hideous and cumbersome to use as the cheaper models but, unlike the base units, the mid-range electronic dictionaries come with flashy paint jobs.

Just like with almost every other electronic device sold today, new models come out annually in time for the start of the school year, and are snapped up eagerly by students who have no idea just how long their parents have to work to afford these luxury items that will only be forgotten at the bottom of an over-stuffed gym bag in a month's time. The companies that make these devices, such as Canon, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Sanyo, LG, and Sony, rake in tons of cash thanks to this endless cycle of consumption. And this is where my question comes into play.

If Canon is making a boatload of cash selling these electronic dictionaries in Japan, why won't they stop selling these dumbed-down devices and claim to be more eco-friendly than all the competition?

Before ignoring the rest of this article, hear me out.

The dictionaries that are being sold within these devices are pretty darn good. They come with example sentences, use of words in context, some even speak the word so you can practice pronunciation. This software is certainly worth the developer's weight in gold. The hardware, however, is not. Hardware is a tricky business. You need to buy resources, manufacturing capacity, set plans, pay engineers, create custom components, buy hazardous materials … why get into such a messy field?

Almost everyone learning a language has a cell phone in their hand. Japan's mobile phone companies have finally started opening up their platform to more third-party developers. Apple's iOS devices are seen all over the country. Android phones are making serious inroads on the nation's largest carrier. Why not take advantage of this?

If Canon were to sell their comprehensive dictionaries on these third party devices, they would stand to rake in a great deal more profit. Manufacturing costs would go down. Customers would be quite happy to have the extra functionality built into something they already use. Environmentalists would hail the move as a wonderful gift to Mother Earth as there would be less e-waste making its way to the landfills around the nation. Everybody would win.

On top of this, by eliminating the locally-sold hardware, it would be possible to expand into other markets with minimal capital outlay. Distribution channels? Local corporate sales offices? Warehousing costs? Not so difficult when the business is almost 100% digital. Europe and Asia have historically been two continents where multilingualism is a necessity just to compete. Why confine expertise in just one market when there's a whole world out there to exploit?

It's just a thought, of course.

When I see devices such as these, which are only sold in Japan, a facepalm isn't far behind. This country makes a lot of really good products and has some really innovative and inventive ways to solve problems, but never take it to the next level to sell these concepts overseas. Maybe I just don't understand how Japanese business works (I'm 99.9999% sure about this) but with almost every newspaper talking about stagnant business figures, it seems only natural to take something that's excellent and make it more easily available to all.

There's nothing wrong with putting your software on another company's platform, nor are there problems with providing learning tools to anyone and everyone in the world. If nothing else, it would make the first Japanese company to do so look like an educational pioneer.

Am I completely off base here?

* Depending on where you shop. There are cheaper ones out there, though people are usually aware that they get what they pay for.

The Reason for SkyNet?

A while back Kenji and I were discussing the US Military's recent trend to send machines into battle instead of humans. We looked at issues like rampant obesity, the mounting pressure on the government for each and every citizen killed, and the over-all ROI on a human soldier that has to be fed, clothed, and paid for services that would fill most people with such fear they'd never get out of bed. While some of the items we discussed my be valid, it appears the problem may be a lot more dire; education.

Predator Drone at Night

Brian posted a link to a rather shocking article stating that one quarter of all military applicants with high school educations are rejected because they can't pass a simple written examination. They go on to say:

The main reason for this is that fact that most of the uneducated high school grads are minorities (mainly blacks and Hispanics) from urban schools. Those schools are failure factories controlled by teachers unions, bureaucrats who are willing to sacrifice education for jobs and more benefits. You do not want to mess with teachers unions, as they have a lot of political clout and can make life miserable for mainstream journalists and their editors. What is scarier about the failure rate of high school grads is that the armed forces entrance exam tests for skills common to most civilian jobs. Survey civilian employers, and you will find that they see the same failure rate among applicants who are high school grads.

This is the scariest part of the whole story. For so many people to be so incapable of functioning in today's world in a country that is (supposedly) as great as the United States is nothing short of astounding. The US was the envy of nations around the world less than a quarter century ago and yet, at this rate, they will be a marginal player on the world stage in another 25 years.

It's no wonder the military is looking for better solutions to the fast-approaching manpower problems. Hopefully other service industries are preparing for the same.

What an iSlate Can Do for Education

Is This the iSlate?As anyone who knows me will attest, I have avoided using Apple products since the Apple II was released so many years ago.  Was it because of the interface? Was it because of the fanbois?  Was it because of the arrogant advertising suggesting that a product containing last year's technology is worth twice the price of a better equipped device from a competitor?  Yes and no.  But all that aside, if the excessive rumors about an upcoming tablet computer are even remotely true, then I'll be the first in line for such a device.

I've been using PDAs for over ten years and, with each device update, there was more functionality and reliability brought to the plate.  Initially the small computer was bought as a customer data tracking device.  When I worked in customer service, I'd have people calling all of the time asking for information.  I had initially used a book to track all of the customers, but this proved troublesome if a co-worker took the book somewhere. Once I went digital, not only could I collect information a dozen times faster, but I could easily transmit a copy of the data to co-workers.

Shortly thereafter, I started writing software for the little machines. They were simple applications that made work that much easier and increased the value of the PDA tenfold.  But that wasn't enough to make them truly useful to my employers, who saw the expensive little computers as being unnecessary … right up until the first BlackBerry was released.  That said, they still didn't see PDAs as anything but a distraction from doing real work.

But now this will change.

PDAs have had one major flaw in their design: their diminutive size.  White a 4" screen is plenty for people with sharp eyesight and agile fingers, they are just too small to be useful to people past a certain age.  On top of that, the user interfaces for most PDAs have left a lot to be desired. Apple's UI, however, seems to require no more than 90 seconds to get accustomed to.

Digital Textbooks & Reporting

Thanks to the larger, finger-friendly screen and super-intuitive interfaces, educational institutions can begin to use these tablets in class.  Maybe not for the students, but the teachers would find them incredibly useful.  No longer would they need to carry stacks of books from place to place. No longer would they need to carry a dozen or so CDs and DVDs for various classes.  No longer would they need to carry paper copies of student records.  This can now all be stored, and encrypted, on a tablet computer.

While I can't speak for every organization that educates people, the ability to have teachers with almost every educational resource in the company's roster at their fingertips would be quite indispensable.  In addition to this, the ability to fill out reports with a few finger-swipes would save loads of time and, by extension, money.  Computers will be able to know what materials an instructor is using in a class, what students they're working with, and what resources they'll need.  Everything could be supplied hours, days, or weeks in advance of any class.

A tablet would also be particularly useful for instructors that travel to companies to perform training.

Archos 9 | A 9" Resistive Tablet PCThis is an idea that I had pitched to the head offices of my employer some time ago.  Using 5", 7", or 9" Archos tablets, language instructors would have a wealth of resources available, including a limited subset of customer information at their fingertips.  Never again would they have to worry about having the wrong book, the wrong CD, the wrong anything.  If a student was bored with a particular lesson, a better plan or game could be called up with just a few taps of the finger.

Not only would this benefit the organization's employees and, by extension customers. But it would benefit me by (hopefully) allowing me to return to a full-time programming position.  The software proposal I had written was quite detailed and included database structures, interface designs, and a means of interfacing with the existing corporate software.

Suffice to say, the idea was shot down before the first page of the proposal was even turned.

So why would an iSlate be any different?

The Apple Effect

Whenever Apple does something, people say it's revolutionary and flock to the idea.  Within a month of the iPhone coming to Japan, HQ was busy discussing what kind of app they could have written for the device.  This is despite the fact that Windows Mobile phones had been available in the country for more than five years.  From what I've heard online, other companies reacted much the same way.

With the release of an Apple tablet, companies may be more willing to invest time and money into developing the efficient software tools that will not only save money, but hopefully reduce errors and relieve some of the frustrations that go on every day in the office.

Well … that's my goal for 2010, anyway.

What do you think of this supposed device? Could your company use them and replace some existing paper-based systems?  Do you want one?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.