Sneaky Education And The Desktop

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 integration. When I listen to a song (such as Hammerfall right now). The artist and track is posted to my 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 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 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, 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.

  • ethana2


    p>I’ve always been of the opinion that genuine curiosity will do more for learning than all the publicly subsidized teaching labor you can throw at a kid; that the best way to advance knowledge is to instill curiosity and provide rapid, easy access to information.


    p> Something I’m… slightly disturbed by I guess.. is that basically what you indicated is that when you’re looking at your own photos on your own machine, using your own free software, you want to see… ads?

    I’m a proponents of simplicity; eliminate extraneous stuff, reduce visual noise, all that.. Generally I’d say that when I’m looking at my photos, I want to see my photos, and only my photos; that if I wanted to see prints and frames, I’d google them. I will say this– it would be extremely handy to have Google product search and paypal somehow integrated with the gnome desktop… I don’t know what kinds of APIs they provide, but if I could have my paypal account info stored in ~/Private and have something in Applications > Business with which I could rapidly price and procure products– and even local services, and access my PayPal stuff using my gnome key ring, I’d install that. It would need to be extremely secure and stable, but I think it would have the potential to be quite convenient.

  • jono


    Something I’m… slightly disturbed by I guess.. is that basically what you indicated is that when you’re looking at your own photos on your own machine, using your own free software, you want to see… ads?

    Not ads, but relevant content. As an example, the other I imported a bunch of photos into F-Spot and I want to print some and have them framed. I would like to access this content in a non-intrusive way. The problem with ads is that they are traditional intrusive. I would like to see useful and relevant content and services merged into our applications.

  • LinuxCanuck

    “I am still learning.” ~ Michelangelo

    Learning is lifelong. What edutainment does is more than disguise learning. Adults unlike children need to give themselves permission to play. We see it as a waste of time. This is why we try to foist edutainment on kids. We don’t realize that they are learning all of time. Children discover the world and learn through play.

    Edutainment for adults is a way that some can rationalize taking the time to play. Fortunately, some of us never grow up and never stop playing. We don’t need to give ourselves permission to play. Playing keeps us young. And as any kid knows playing is learning.

    Keep playing and you will enjoy a long and happy life.

    Cheers, from Canada!

  • C.M

    Not sure if my comment got stuck in some spamfilter because it had three links or something? If it doesn’t show up I’ll try posting it again later.

    One thing about the page itself, it’s a bit slow to load. According to Firebug your recent tracks from alone takes about 5s to load. The summary line says: 53 requests 175 KB (103 KB from cache) 8.11s and that was my second visit. The first one took almost twice the time, and I’m on a fairly good line.

    Anyway, good post! 😛

  • Kevin Mark

    Interesting bit about the integration of information related to the main application. Music is something that people consume throughout their lifetime and usually like to hear new similar artists (the old media way was through dead-tree publications or through f2f social interactions) and collaborative filtering is the new way. This integration can lead to presence information being used to recommend possible gig details which can be use to support artists, this is something where FLOSS can lead and become favored by musicians [tell them you went to the gig because of FLOSS], the other possibility would be to add buttons next to the tracks that linked to micro-payments to the artist (I heard RMS sort of talk about a button on a cd player to do this, to send a buck at each push), so that while you played your music, clicked the ‘loved it’ button also hit ‘support artist’. This too could impact artists to support FLOSS tools. Obviously there are issues with micro-payments such as the processing overhead but maybe the ‘collecting societies’ can setup the accounts and use some know e-payment that is FLOSS-compatible. FLOSS application can lead to people supporting local artists both by going to gigs and compensation.

  • martin

    The famous Leisure Suit Larry (1 and 3) was a effective way of learning English.

    We learned practical English for many interesting situations we would dream to be in.

    The language could be a bit simplified, but it was good learning for a 12 year old: “touch girl”, “talk to girl”, “give flowers”.

    “Edutainment” can be fun! 😉

  • Christoph Burgdorf

    I would love to read a review of the songbird player from you! :-)

  • mrben

    (Heh – it would appear that I now get trackbacks to my blog from every post you make, because of your top 10 list :) )

    Really interesting post. I think it’s very interesting that projects like (in particular) Wikipedia seem to be bringing people back into reading and education in a time where lots of people have previously fretted about whether or not the internet would damage both.

  • Christian Borup

    The automatic querying in Songbird sounds really nice, like you, would love to see that in many places. I don’t think it need be in the app itself though.

    I really liked the promise of the now long dead [Dashboard] ( project. Having apps feed little clues (via d-bus) to a common desktop service, and have that look up news and what not.

  • Christian Borup

    Hmmm seems I misread the markdown instructions for nice looking links :-)

  • Takmadeus

    Well, you remind me of how did I learn to read…. it was when I was 3 years old and It was a book called “answer to everything” which was kind of a dictionary on general culture (mythology, astrophysics, biology, etc) and actually was a rather short book, yet it had so much interesting information about our world that you would’nt believe it….

    now, its cover seemed interesting and with it I began asking my grandma what did every word mean, and so slowly in the course of like 7 months I could read it completely and without help….. so then I finally was able to read….

    Next I was reading James Trefil’s book “1001 things everyone should know about science” (I still have it and I treasure it as my most valued possession)…. which impulsed my curiosity a lot…. and eventually that made me what I am…. a doctor with a great thirst for knowledge….. And so I think…. what would have become of me if i did not find that cover interesting?

    Curiosity is a very influencing stimulus for learning…. trust me

    And if it wasn’t for amarok I would not have found dio, or celesty, or so many metal bands I love….

    And if it wasn’t for wikipedia I would be still ignorant asbout the history of my own country…