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Education and clocks

November 20, 1998
by Alan Levine

Oops. Since this randomly written column has not updated since May, I guess you could say it has a bad random seed. Pat just said I was voidP! Perhaps the profit sharing with the DOUG executive board has yet to kick in. Maybe I am just plain lazy. Or busy.

I'd love to talk about beta testing Director 7... but I keep my promises. Sorry.

During an August trip to San Jose, I had the chance to visit 2/3 of the DOUG team. The adventures of staying at Zav's San Francisco abode is another story but talking with Pat at his home in Oakland generated this column. Pat suggested writing about the aspects of multimedia development in the educational world. (Well, I think that is what we talked about).

And just for you code hungry folks, near the end I'll share my Lingo screen clock behavior/object thing.

The WeRLd oF EduKashun

Here is my disclaimer-- I am by no means an expert in education market. To be honest, I am not an expert in anything.

There is a lot of buzz these days about the great potential to grab the education market, especially for someone to come in with lots of corporate backing (say the family Milken) or of Gatesian stature. And not just selling products, but actually offering educational services in direct competition to the traditional, tax supported, government blessed school systems.

Big universities are worried. The very meaning of the word "university" is a physical place that people come to receive knowledge imparted by renown experts, professors. Schedules were established that were most convenient for the institution (9 to 5, closed in summer).

The rules are changing. Working students are looking for more flexible delivery of applied knowledge. They seek educational opportunities that meet the schedules of non-traditional work schedules, that can be juggled with family obligations. They might opt for an alternative that was perhaps cheaper.

How can Big U compete with Ziff Davis University, where for $7.95 per month, you can take as many classes you like via the net?

Actually, they can compete quite easily. Big U can offer more in services and the social environment that a campus offers. They can offer first rate programs that cannot be effectively taught in a remote environment. They can tailor offerings to the students that come to them. They can provide world experts in leading research fields. They have football teams and parties.

Some educators fear a future where all learning is done at home in front of a computer, where there are no classes (and no need for teachers or campuses). Ridiculous! There will always be a large part of education that is done in a place where people gather to learn. We don't work and socialize in such a Orwellian environment, why should that be the future for learning?

What lies in the future are creative hybrids of traditional classroom learning and technology delivered alternatives. What does change is the notion of expert-led instruction to more project-driven, collaborative learning models. It's happening all over.

Yes, there is more than just a semantic difference between the words "teaching" and "learning"-- it is a move from the familiar transmission of information/facts from me to you to a shared exercise of learning by doing, by thinking, and by creating. Think of those big conferences where you sleep through some droning, moronic presentation or cliche bullet slides in a dark auditorium (more or less a lecture) as opposed to the dynamicism of exchange in the demo areas, the vendor booths, or the hands on labs. That is the difference between a paradigm of teaching and one of learning.

Beware of slick talkers who use the words "training" and "learning" interchangably. (I've heard from some Macromedia sales pitches) They are not the same. A trainee is dependent upon some master to deliver (spoon feed) a recipe for how to do something; the learner engages in a cooperative exchange where they use intuition, past experiences, to solve problems, that are not laid out in a 1,2,3 list. Again, another comparison. Do you learn more about Director programming from passively sitting through some $1500 "Learn Lingo in 3 Days" seminar or by banging your head against the Lingo manuals working on your own deadline driven project?

What about the materials of the education trade? A few colleges have gone to solutions where students are required to have their own laptops, either college supplied or affordable rentals, that are used in all of their classes. Classrooms, libraries, dorm rooms, are outfitted with network ports. With shrinking sizes of computing devices, down the road look for students asking questions via email from their Palm Pilots or using a handheld PC to research the libraries all around the world... while they sit in groups underneath the old Oak trees of the Quad.

It's more likely that portable, powerful, wireless networked devices will be as ubiquitous as pagers and cell phones are today.

And books? They won't go away. But the publishing game is changing dramatically. It cannot be cost effective to print small runs of textbooks in obscure academic areas. The CD in the back of the textbook is more than common; what might be changing is the CD becoming the textbook, or the web site becoming the textbook. Or they are electronically purchased and loaded on their electronic book devices.

Where's multimedia? All over the place. All of this electronically-delivered learning is aching to do more than turn pages, more than just hypertext and rows of beveled buttons. Animation comes from the words "to breathe" or essentially "to give life to". Educational multimedia is less in need of traditional CBT, click a button and tell me "wrong" or "right" and more in need of simulation, non-linear explorations, problem-solving, and engagement of the mind.

In the late 80s a creative teacher could hole up in their office and develop very innovative Hypercard stacks. With the raising of the stakes by Myst, Quake, MTV, Jurassic Park, Titanic, it is more than one person can do by tinkering in spare moments. It is unrealistic to think that teachers could by themselves create stunning interactive multimedia (although some have done it), but at the same time, academics are very leary of off-the-shelf software.

I almost never recommend learning Director to the teachers I work with (sorry Macromedia). Very few people in general have the aptitude to "get" Director, and it takes solid months of time to do more than the banal and simple. (ok ok, behaviors help somewhat... ). What would help them are open-ended (perhaps Director created) interfaces, for generating compelling, complex content, beyond "click and see" "click and read"... and things that allow them to put their stamp of creativity on it. Tools. Templates. Anything to keep 'em out of the script window.

It's no complex reason why the web took off- the entrance barrier for creation of content is extremely low. Think how much easier it is to creative hypertext in HTML as compared to Director. And the payoff, the results, are almost instant.

So if you ask me, Director wanna-bes, jobs are out there. Companies are still cranking out large number of CD-ROMs. Web sites are in dire need of design and interactivity. Keep honing those Lingo skills (and JavaScript and perl and 3D and...)

Alan's Lingo Clock

If you go this far you can see how long it took to read (or scroll passed) my blaberings above.

This is a clock I have used in several projects where it was important to have a continually update clock on-screen that registered how long I had been in the program.

This is a pretty simple thing to implement. All you need is a field cast member named "clock" with some content in it so you can set the font, size, etc.

The second piece is a parent script:


property pStart_Time
on new me
  set pStart_Time = the ticks
  add (the actorList, me)
end
on sessionLength me
  -- determine the length of time user 
  -- has been in the program
  -- and return formatted output
  set seconds = (the ticks - pStart_Time) / 60
  set hours = seconds / 3600
  set minutes = (seconds mod 3660) / 60
  set seconds = (seconds mod 3660) mod 60
  return "[" & pad(hours) & ":" & pad(minutes)  ¬
    & ":" & pad(seconds) & "]"
end
on stepFrame me
  -- updates the time display
  put sessionLength() into field "clock"
end
on delete me
  -- not used here since I keep it running forever
  -- but you may want to trigger some event that 
  -- deletes the clock object
  deleteOne(the actorList,me)
end
on pad x
  -- insert "0" chars for single digit values of x
  if x < 10 then
    return "0" & x
  else
    return x
  end if
end

The way it works is like this. When the object is created from the script, it is tossed into the actorList, meaning that the object is automatically delivered a "stepFrame" message at every screen update (every frame change, every exitFrame, etc). The stepFrame message in this handler calls a routine (sessionLength) to insert into our "clock" cast member a string representing how many ticks had passed since we started, formatted to be in a time display.

The beauty of putting an object into the actorlist is that it runs on autopilot, and we never have to mess with it again.

To invoke it all we have to do is something like:


on startMovie
  -- start off with a clean slate
  put "[00:00:00]" into field "clock"
  set the actorList=[]
  
  -- now invoke the clock object
  new (script "clock_maker")
end

The first two lines just make sure that the actorList has been emptied Iif we are in authoring mode, we may start and stop the movie many times) and that the field on the screen has a clean display.

The third line creates the clock object and sets it in motion.

If you want a copy of the source code, you can grab it as Mac [9k] or Windows [7k]

Alan Levine is an Instructional Technologist at the Maricopa Center for Learning & Instruction at the Maricopa Community Colleges. Among other random things, he tries to maintain the DirectorWeb, does side work as dommy media, and not often enough, mountainbikes in the desert.

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