Fast-forward e-learning

A few weeks ago, my blog featured a screencast with Jason Hunter, a Java expert now working for Mark Logic. Jason's current fascination (and now mine) is the XML-oriented query language, XQuery. During our 12-minute demo/discussion, he alternated between applications shown in a browser and code exposition in a command shell.

A few days later, inspired by what Jason had shown me, I began working with the Mark Logic engine myself. As is my custom when learning a new programming environment, I opened up a flock of browser tabs. Some I filled with documentation about the XQuery language, others with code examples.

And then a funny thing happened. I found myself ignoring all those tabs and returning again and again to the screencast. Jason's demos were springboards for the things I wanted to do, and his code narration had shown me how to do them.


It wasn't just that Jason had transferred parts of his mental map to me in the ancient way: monkey see, monkey do. His live performance merely showed me what was possible. I still had to revisit scenes in order to learn the details, and thanks to the video, I could.

People with seemingly superhuman memories give us clues about how this works. When asked about their talent, they invariably say they've learned to hang information on a narrative that structures what they know and makes it easy to access. We're hardwired to tell ourselves -- and one another -- stories, and to filter our understanding of the world through them.

Civilization took a great leap forward when we learned how to write stuff down. Now we're learning to film our stories and to TiVo them. Fasten your seat belt. [Full story at]

In response to this column I've heard about a number of online video-oriented e-learning sites. Clearly these are now poised to flourish, as we always knew someday they would. What I hadn't fully anticipated, though, is the radical democratization of the means of production.

Recently on a visit to Redmond I was on the receiving end of a demo given by a Microsoft product manager. A few minutes in, two things struck me. First, if he were to screen-record the demo, he'd have bottled something that could be redistributed internally. A one-to-one communication could also reach many. Second, if he were willing to give me the recording (edited as necessary), I could use it to take his story (with my further edits and additional commentary) to my wider audience. The following dialogue ensued:

Him: How would I do that?

Me: Download and install Windows Media Encoder 9.

Him: What's that?

Me: A free Microsoft product.

Him: Where do I get it?

Me: (googling)

Him: How come an InfoWorld guy knows this and I don't?

Me: Shrug.

For some reason, I'm wired to notice things that are lying around in plain sight, that are of enormous value, and that are overlooked by most people. So even though I've said this before, it bears repeating. If you're on Windows, Media Encoder 9 ranks right up there with fast search as one of the great undiscovered gems.

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