Blinkie and the Valley of Confusion

One of my projects these days is MOOCery. MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses- courses offered for free online, and open to everyone. The formats these courses take will vary, but they often include lectures on video, discussion forums, and assignments. I’m working on two courses right now, and it was very tempting to sign up for more.

One of the courses is Design and Development of Educational Technology, offered by the MIT. I’ve been curious about Ed Tech since taking Introduction to Learning Technologies at the University of Saskatchewan, and the course seemed a good opportunity for further exploration. Part of the course involves reflecting on both old and new educational technologies, and I have a bit of homework in that regard: comparing and contrasting a new and an old technology.

The New: Demystifying the Valley of Confusion

A simplified geological map

Geological map of the Valley of Confusion

First-year geology students are asked to do a very complex task: view a two-dimensional representation of the intersection of a complex geometric surface with three-dimensional subsurface structures (also called a geological map), and understand what the heck they are looking at.

Here’s an example of a simplified geological map. In this image, the coloured patches represent different rock layers that you would see if you could strip away all of the soil and expose the rocks beneath. If I were to ask you how those rock layers were arranged within the Earth, you might say that they were folded. It certainly looks that way. In fact, they are not folded at all. They are in flat layers, all tilting to the east at an angle of 30 degrees. Students are expected to arrive at that interpretation by looking at maps like this one.

The map in the image above is actually a birds-eye view of this:

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 11.57.55 PM

Valley of Confusion in three dimensions: not as confusing

Here you can see on the side of the block that the rocks are arranged in flat, tilted layers, not curved and folded ones. The reason they look folded on the map is that the surface is actually a valley. The numbered black and grey lines in the first image represent the elevations at different points in the valley.

This is why Visible Geology is so useful. It is an online tool that allows users to construct and view three-dimensional models of geological structures. Users start with a blank cube, then add layers to represent different rocks. They can manipulate the layers by tilting them, folding them, or faulting them. The cubes can be rotated to allow a view of all of the sides. Users can also print their models, cut them out, and fold them up into cubes. Visible Geology is also a good example of what Seymour Papert referred to as a low floor: it is very easy to get started with, and users get results immediately. I created both of the images above in under 5 minutes using Visible Geology.

Visible Geology is particularly interesting because it began as a project by a student who was learning about geological maps and geological structures. He happened to have programming skills in MATLAB which allowed him to build visualizations to help himself and his peers. From there, he developed Visible Geology into an online tool.

The goal of Visible Geology is to make it easy to visualize the three-dimensional structures formed by rocks. The lament I hear most often from my first-years is, “I just can’t see it!” Visible Geology solves that problem by allowing students to explore different configurations and scenarios. It is engaging because it has an interface that is user-friendly: it is colourful, it’s functions are intuitive, and it is not at all intimidating (unless you find large buttons with pastel-coloured illustrations intimidating). Students can learn from Visible Geology by experimenting, but would also benefit by attempting to reproduce the geological maps and structures in their assignments.

The Old: Blinkie Computes

owl calculator

Blinkie (The National Semiconductor Quiz Kid)

At some point in the early 1980’s, I received a National Semiconductor Quiz Kid as a gift. This toy (henceforth referred to as Blinkie) was a calculator that looked like an owl. Blinkie didn’t work like a regular calculator, though. When you entered a mathematical operation (“4 + 3 =”) he calculated the answer, but he wouldn’t tell you what it was. You would have to supply the answer. If your answer were correct, he would blink a green LED eye at you. If it were wrong, he winked a red LED eye. Blinkie came with a book of math questions, and was intended as a drill tool for children learning their pluses, take-aways, timeses and divide-bys.

I’m sure Blinkie was effective as a math teaching tool (I can add, after all), but that isn’t my main recollection of Blinkie. I liked Blinkie because the keys made a satisfying click when you pressed them. I liked Blinkie because if you turned out the lights and hid under the covers, then covered his eyes with your thumbs, the red eye would glow through your thumb, but the green one wouldn’t. Most of all, I liked Blinkie because I could use him to check my math homework, and not feel that I was cheating. So, although Blinkie was intended to teach me math (and perhaps save my mom some time making flash cards), his most substantial benefit was to reduce my anxiety. Once you do that, the math comes a lot easier anyway.

Blinkie Versus the Internet (or, Bringing An Owl To A Gunfight)

Comparing Blinkie to Visible Geology is not like comparing apples to oranges. Comparing apples to oranges is much easier than finding characteristics that Blinkie and Visible Geology share. They are very different tools.

For one thing, their approaches are very different. Blinkie was a tool for practicing math skills. He told you whether you got the answer right, or whether you got it wrong. Visible Geology is about exploring. It allows the user to be creative, and to experiment risk-free. It is about “what if?”

The motivation for creating these tools was also very different. I suspect that at least some of the motivation for building Blinkie was that new microprocessors had been developed, and that development had to be funded commercially. National Semiconductor had a hammer, and was looking for a nail. In contrast, Visible Geology was created by someone who experienced a need for a visualization tool, and built what he needed.

The most obvious contrast is the difference in technology, but it is also the least relevant. Blinkie is old technology, but back in the early 1980’s, he was pretty cool… heck, anything with lights and buttons was cool back then. The point is, he did his job, and I didn’t feel that I was missing out on anything. Today, as amazing as Visual Geology might be to a Blinkie-era person, it is nothing special technologically to the eighteen- to twenty-year-olds that I usually deal with. It does its job.

I was excited to discover both of these technologies, but for different reasons. Those reasons are related to context. I faced Blinkie as a learner. Blinkie was novel, and so was math. He and math were intertwined in a new tactile and visual experience. As far as I was concerned, Blinkie wasn’t for teaching me math, he was entertainment, and I just happened to be learning math at the same time. My perspective on Visible Geology is as a teacher. It is a tool that I’m excited about because it fills a definite need that my students have to see the three-dimensional structures they are working with. When I play with it, the purpose is to create a teachable object. There isn’t the same element of novelty and discovery as there was with Blinkie, back when math was something new.

I think that for my students, Visible Geology will be a Blinkie experience. They are discovering geology, and Visible Geology will be entertainment inseparable from learning. They can use it as a way to “check their homework” by comparing their expectations with the results of combining geological structures with different surfaces. It may even lessen the anxiety they feel when geological maps just aren’t making sense. Nevertheless, there is one thing they will be missing: Visible Geology will never make their thumbs glow.



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