And Then Our Tools Shape Us…

The Brain's Homunculus

I think it was from Marshall McLuhan that I first heard:

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Now, for the first time, neurological evidence is demonstrating that this is literally true. Data published in the June 23rd issue of Current Biology shows that when we use a tool, even for a short time, it actually modifies the brain’s body schema. That is, the brain enhances the area of its map of our body associated with the tool. As reported in Science Daily:

“‘Since the origin of the concept of body schema, the idea of its functional plasticity has always been taken for granted, even if no direct evidence has been provided until now,’ said Alessandro Farnè of INSERM and the Université Claude Bernard Lyon. ‘Our series of experiments provides the first, definitive demonstration that this century-old intuition is true.'”

A report by the British Psychological Society describes the experiment:

“After several minutes using the grasping tool, the participants subsequent reaching movements with their hand were slower to start and stop, making them longer-lasting overall, compared with before the tool use – as if their own arm was now perceived as longer. Moreover, when the participants were subsequently blindfolded and asked to point to where they’d just been touched by the researchers, on the tip of the middle finger and on the elbow, the places the participants pointed to were further apart, compared with before tool use, again suggesting that they now perceived their arm to be longer.”

Interestingly the feedback loop from man-to-tool and back again is observed. From Science Daily:

“After using a mechanical grabber that extended their reach, people behaved as though their arm really was longer, they found. What’s more, study participants perceived touches delivered on the elbow and middle fingertip of their arm as if they were farther apart after their use of the grabbing tool.

People still went on using their arm successfully following after tool use, but they managed tasks differently. That is, they grasped or pointed to object correctly, but they did not move their hand as quickly and overall took longer to complete the tasks.”

The authors of the study go on to say:

“We believe this ability of our body representation to functionally adapt to incorporate tools is the fundamental basis of skillful tool use. Once the tool is incorporated in the body schema, it can be maneuvered and controlled as if it were a body part itself.”

Further information on this study can be found here:

Cardinali, L., Frassinetti, F., Brozzoli, C., Urquizar, C., Roy, A., & Farnè, A. (2009). Tool-use induces morphological updating of the body schema. Current Biology, 19 (12) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.05.009

The Teacher as DJ – Rip, Mix, Burn


The notion of Teacher as Disc Jockey goes back at least to the time Apple’s iTunes introduced the concept of Rip, Mix, Burn to the world. Since then trainers, educators and instructional designers have been inundated by reports on social media, Web 2.0 and collaborative learning while fending off rising demands to crank out more educational media in less time, with less money. Now the prevalence of open source media and courseware has exceeded a critcal mass with thousands of open source courses being distributed by organizations like Open Courseware Consortium and ccLearn.

With that in mind educational technologist Scott Leslie of Victoria, BC, has gven an excellent talk on the current state of web-based open source tools and techniques available to teachers who need to rip, mix and burn a new course or presentation. Using the metaphor of the DJ, Leslie’s basic work flow follows these steps:

  • Search – finding the PLE diagrams
  • Sample – grabbing ones that weren’t already easily saveable
  • Sequence – tumblr? how to get in a mediaRSS feed
  • Record – my own PLE diagram
  • Perform – cooliris and wii controller?
  • Share – blog it

The reader should be cautioned: If you are not familiar with Web 2.0 concepts in teaching, this talk will be the proverbial ‘drink from a fire hose‘. Leslie presents dozens of sites and tools that designer and educators can use in the preparation and dissemination of a whole course or simple talk. Having considerable experience with these methods, Leslie suggests that we pick and choose among the sites and services for those that match our objectives and personal style.

“You may find the metaphor of ‘educator as DJ’ doesn’t work for you – fine. Maybe it’s ‘educator as mashup artist’. Maybe it’s ‘educator as painter.’ maybe it’s ‘educator as architect’. But…

I URGE you to seek out the metaphor YOU ALREADY BRING to your teaching practice, because inevitably you do. Becoming conscious of it is important not only because of how it lets you expand on it, but because the act of teaching IS the supreme metaphorical act; just as metaphor allows us new understanding by using a familiar vehicle that conveys attributes to a specific tenor, so do you as teachers seek to help your learners move from their existing understanding to somewhere new.”

Leslie’s talk is presented here in both slide and video formats. Notes and references are also included.

Academic Earth – A Hulu for Education


Website Academic Earth might be the Hulu for learning. Founded by Richard Ludlow out of his need to learn linear algebra at Yale, Academic Earth joins other educational video sites like iTunes U and BigThink in offering intellectual content online. Current video lectures inlcude astronomy, physics, chemistry, computer science, economics, English, history, law, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, political science, psychology and religion. Its mission statement reads:

Academic Earth is an organization founded with the goal of giving everyone on earth access to a world-class education.

As more and more high quality educational content becomes available online for free, we ask ourselves, what are the real barriers to achieving a world class education?  At Academic Earth, we are working to identify these barriers and find innovative ways to use technology to increase the ease of learning.

We are building a user-friendly educational ecosystem that will give internet users around the world the ability to easily find, interact with, and learn from full video courses and lectures from the world’s leading scholars.  Our goal is to bring the best content together in one place and create an environment in which that content is remarkably easy to use and where user contributions make existing content increasingly valuable.

We invite those who share our passion to explore our website, participate in our online community, and help us continue to find new ways to make learning easier for everyone.

A sample video on “Philosophy of Life and Death” by Shelly Kagan of Yale University can be viewed here.

SAGE – Advanced Tool for Mathematics


SAGE is a free open source package designed for symbolic mathematics. It should be useful for instructors and students who need to apply tools and techniques more commonly found in programs like MatLab, MathCAD and Mathematica.

“Sage can be used to study general and advanced, pure and applied mathematics. This includes a huge range of mathematics, including algebra, calculus, elementary to very advanced number theory, cryptography, numerical computation, commutative algebra, group theory, combinatorics, graph theory, exact linear algebra and much more. It combines various software packages and seamlessly integrates their functionality into a common experience. It is well suited for education, studying and research.
The interface is a notebook in a web-browser or the command-line. Using the notebook, Sage connects either locally to your own Sage installation or to a Sage server on the network. Inside the Sage notebook you can create embedded graphics, beautifully typeset mathematical expressions, add and delete input, and share your work across the network.”
A feature tour of SAGE can be found here.

Edmodo – A Twitter for Educators

Edmodo is a free private Twitter-like messaging system that focuses on educational uses. Now in version 2, Edmodo offers a host of interesting features for educators who need to venture into messaging as part of their instructional technique:

  • Microblog
  • Public Timeline (RSS)
  • Assignments & Grades
  • Store & Share Files
  • Notifications (SMS)
  • Share Links & Embeds
  • Privacy Controls
  • Class Calendar
  • Subscribe to Feeds

A podcast on features founder Jeff O’Hara discussing Edmodo and its applications.