When I was a kid, I owned a Sega Megadrive (Sega Genesis for my American friends). I spent hours on that thing. Sonic The Hedgehog. Streets Of Rage. Desert Strike. Toejam And Earl. I loved it.

One game that was released was Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? Back then it was marketed as edutainment: essentially a sneaky way for parents to infiltrate their kid’s leisure time with learning under the premise of it being “fun”. Of course, kids are smarter than parents give them credit for. Kids were wise to this and often avoided games like that like the plague. The mind of a 12 year-old concluded that enough time is spent in front of teachers, workbooks and exams without it invading precious Sega time. I was one such kid. I hated the idea of edutainment. I didnt want to learn with my Megadrive, I wanted to shoot things with very large, very loud, deeply pixelated guns.

Things change when you grow up (yes, I have grown up, smart arses). I now love learning. I love reading. I spend hours drowning in Wikipedia and exploring our world, our history and our patchwork of cultures. I love learning about people’s experiences, perspectives and attitudes. I no longer have the 12 year-old mentality that learning is for school time. Learning really is genuinely fun.

Naturally, there are some subjects I like to learn about in more detail. Community (zing!). Computers. Free Software. Free Culture. Music. There are however some subjects that I develop a curiosity about and feel an urge to investigate. These subjects are not part of my daily interests and hobbies, but are temporary avenues of curiosity.

One recent example for me is Historical Jesus. A few days ago I read everything Wikipedia had to offer about about the subject. This was triggered originally by a history TV show which in turn inspired me to buy a book about significant events in human history. In this book I read about Jesus’s Crucifixion and decided to further refresh my knowledge of the subject by hitting up Wikipedia. In this example we see two distinctive concepts: Passive Education and Content Aggregation and Linking:

  • Passive Education – in my example of Historical Jesus, my primary focus was gathering the facts and the story. I was happy for this subject’s learning to be passive. I was happy to merely consume the content and not interact with it much more than selecting what to learn.
  • Content Aggregation and Linking – learning has links and connections. I first watched a show about history. This intrigued me to buy the book on historical events. A section in that book inspired me to access specific content on Wikipedia. The thread that connected these different resources together was the subject of Historical Jesus and I aggregated the different pieces of knowledge together in my brain. My current knowledge of Historical Jesus draws from these different resources.

When we learn about our primary interests, learning is different. Our desire is often for Active Learning. We not only want to know the subject, but we want to immerse ourselves in the execution and debate of it too. Much of this is not only collating general knowledge, as I did with Historical Jesus, but learning about more localised information too. When I learn about music, I want to know about local bands. I want to know when my favourite bands are coming to my area. I want to hear about music groups, gigs, and conventions near to me. I want to know about special offers in local music stores. In a nutshell, I don’t just want to consume, I want to participate.

In recent years, computers and the Internet have made both Active and Passive Learning incredibly accessible. The web has bolstered passive learning resources, and active learning has been thrusted towards us with online communities, social networking, community groups and discussion boards. No matter what you want to know about, the Internet can help you in both Passive and Active ways

But lets get back to Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?. Although I could not stand the concept of edutainment at the time, what that game did do that intrigues me is that it delivered education to people automatically. The education was associative: topics and concepts were delivered to you as you played the game.

I find this really interesting. I find the concept of linking and associating different types of education and resources fascinating. This also holds huge opportunity for the desktop.

A great example is Banshee. For those who have been living under a rock for the last three years, Banshee is a media player. I have it open all day, delivering a fresh dose of metal to me all day long. Banshee not only plays music, but it brings many diverse music related activities together under the same roof: digital music, Internet radio, CD playing and ripping, meta-data editing etc. The Banshee bods have done a great job.

But the most interesting feature to me is its Last.fm integration. When I listen to a song (such as Hammerfall right now). The artist and track is posted to my Last.fm account. This in itself is not all that exciting. But what Banshee does that is exciting is look up the artist of my current playing song and use Last.fm to make recommendations. It delivers those recommendations to me inside Banshee itself. That is wicked cool. Sure, I could go and look up these recommendations on the Last.fm website, but I am unlikely to do that: Banshee does the work for me. The result is that this simple feature has helped me discover literally hundreds of new bands. Banshee linked and aggregated the data, and this resulted in better learning for this important part of my interests.

Yesterday I installed the new 1.0.0 release of Songbird. Songbird is an iTunes like Open Source media player that holds some stunning promise. They have used Mozilla technologies and GStreamer to build a cross-platform media player. I know some of the guys who work on Songbird and wanted to give it a try: I had last used an early snapshot. While I don’t want to turn this into a review (if you folks want a review, let me know and I will write one up), it ships with some interesting features that build on some of the concepts seen in Banshee. Oh, and Amarok folks, I know your media player has probably been doing all of this for years, so hold fire. :)

When listening to an song in Songbird, it will go and look up data for the current artist from a number of resources and bring it all together. It grabs a summary blurb, discography, members, tags and links of the artist from Last.fm, a photo slideshow from Flickr, videos from YouTube, and News from Google News. Again, I could find this information separately without ever installing Songbird, but Songbird not only aggregated this content, but it linked it to an opportunity of curiosity (what I am listening to). I might never typically go and look for more details about Hammerfall, but when I am listening to them, it often triggers curiosity. Songbird satisfies that curiosity before I even know I have it.

Another great feature of Songbird that builds on active learning is that it uses Songkick to look up all of the artists in my playlist to see if there are concerts and shows in my area. With this feature I now have a list of all the up and coming shows for the artists I like (including all those obscure metal bands). This provides me with direct access to the local community and opportunities. That is one stunningly helpful and outrageously cool feature. My media player is stopping being a place to merely consume music, and instead becoming a place to aggregate everything there is about the music I listen to and the artists that make it.

This is an even more valuable proposition for a desktop. Just think of the range of types of media we consume and the applications that we use to consume it. Now mix this with the range of online sources of education and content we have open to us. It could be really interesting to pull together these threads into one cohesive experience. I love that Totem in Ubuntu can stream BBC content to me, but I would love it to show me some information and products about that content too. I would love Evolution to provide me with an ability to easily look up terms, acronyms and products in my emails with a single click. When I look at photos in F-Spot I want to see pricing for prints and frames to put my pictures in.

It would also be fascinating to identify the work-flow of education in a computer. From sourcing content in Wikipedia, how does it flow through text editors, communications tools, online services and publishing mediums? How can we identify these links in the chain and optimise them?

Big subject. I know. But huge potential.

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