Blackboard tries and fails to get a clue

Blackboard, the horrendous courseware behemoth, has heard about this Web 2.0 stuff and decided the right response is to clone — as a closed system inside Blackboard!

Survey about BlackBoard Scholar

I love the bit about how "limiting access to Blackboard users" is supposed to contribute to the goal of "a new way to find educationally valuable resources".

If only they’d put a little effort into opening Blackboard up, for starters by supporting e-mail and RSS subscriptions so students wouldn’t have to log into Bb’s nasty multi-click frames interface to keep up with their classes.

Ah — Googling a bit I see that Blackboard Scholar permits non-users to search its collected bookmarks, but only lets registered users create bookmarks.

It’s part of the Blackboard Beyond Initiative, which is at work on "e-Learning 2.0". Trying to read through the marketing murk, it sounds like the BbBI people themselves may actually have found that elusive clue; let us wish them success at revolution from within.

Unknown knowns and knowledge management

A link from the ever-fascinating Language Log took me to the ever-enigmatic k’alebøl‘s post on Rumsfeld, Bush and the Swedenborg conspiracy.

In it he discusses Donald Rumsfeld’s famous fascination with known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Now, I have my differences with Donald Rumsfeld, but I’ve never understood the ridicule he’s gotten from some quarters on this point. To me it seems like sound epistemology and an extremely useful thing for a man in charge of a war to be be aware that there are threats he doesn’t know to be afraid of and questions he doesn’t know to ask. In fact, my criticism of Rumsfeld’s policies could hinge on my belief that he has failed to take his own advice.

Anyway, I had noticed the same thing that k’alebøl did: one of the cells in Rumsfeld’s contingency table is missing. Rumsfeld doesn’t address unknown knowns.

From the Knowledge Management Systems class I took this spring I gather that KM consultants see that cell as their bread and butter. In their jargon it is called “tacit knowledge” (which differs somewhat from the use of the term in psychology). The KM expert’s job is to help you capture tacit knowledge, tame it, burn your brand onto its rump, and move it into the Known Knowns corral.

(At which point you can fire the staff who knew things you didn’t know they knew and move operations offshore to where people know only what you tell them to.)

DEVONthink / schoolthink

My hunt for a PDF-wrangling tool continues. DEVONthink is a personal knowledge management app for Mac OS X with which you can maintain a collection of text files, PDFs, HTML and XML files, bookmarks, images and so on. Its big claim to fame is associative searching: select a document and it will show you the others which are related to it. The details of the search mechanism are unexplained, but my guess is it’s a form of latent semantic indexing.

DEVONthink got a lot of attention recently when science writer Steven Johnson wrote an NYT piece about it and similar tools, crediting them with helping him come up with the ideas that go into his work. But in two subsequent blog posts he convinced me that his techniques are not generalizable. He had a research assistant to copy quotes and marginalia from his reading into DEVONthink, and he says directly that its success depended on the quality and granularity of what he saved: “most of the entries are in a sweet spot where length is concerned: between 50 and 500 words. If I had whole eBooks in there, instead of little clips of text, the tool would be useless”. Since I need a tool to manage larger, still undigested documents (i.e., PDFs I haven’t read yet), it wouldn’t work its magic for me. Furthermore, DEVONthink only supports a single hierarchical organizational structure without tags or bibliographic metadata. So I’m still looking for a personal library application.

There — I wrote in two paragraphs what it took me eight pages to do for a class assignment this week. I’m having fun at school, but there’s something about the artificial nature of school assignments which makes me feel I’m doing far from my best work. The two contexts I’m used to working in, on the job and in casual (though not necessarily frivolous) online writing, feel very different. They encourage getting to the point, pruning the decision tree, and writing in a tone suited to the job at hand rather than the stilted mock-scholarly voice that intrudes in my head when I’m writing a “paper”. One of my challenges will be to get my own voice back and to get control over the subject matter — if something’s not worth my or the reader’s time, why put either of us through it?

And in case you missed it, I am enjoying school. Class is still a pleasure, and even the occasionaly painful assignments (and the train wreck of a schedule by which they pile up in clusters on my calendar!) give me a sense of having survived an ordeal once they’re over. The bit of dissatisfaction that’s creeping into this experiment has to do with the concern that I may, as Twain put it, let my schooling interfere with my education.

Managing PDFs with iPapers

Revisiting the topic of how to manage a personal collection of PDFs, Don Turnbull turned up the interesting program iPapers by Toshihiro Aoyama. It manages PDFs in an iTunes-like interface:

It’s a nifty program but it does have a couple of limitations. It’s intended for use with the medical bibliographic service PubMed, so incorporating PubMed articles is a simple matter of dragging and dropping, and iPapers will then retrieve the bibliographic metadata from PubMed much as iTunes retrieves track listings. For non-PubMed articles, though, the import process is much less straightforward. An obvious improvement would be to make drag and drop work for any PDF and to pop up the dialogue for hand-editing bibliographic data by default when the program can’t retrieve it from PubMed.

Even better would be to support plugins so third parties could write interfaces to PubMed’s counterparts in other fields, perhaps to CiteSeer or Google Scholar. The hardest part there might be determining unique identifiers by which to do the lookup.

Another limitation is iPapers’ model of metadata. It is strictly oriented toward journal articles, so books, handouts, PDF archives of webpages, etc. fall outside its scope. Maybe more importantly, iPapers doesn’t currently allow for user-definable fields or tags. I’m hoping for a tool which will let me sort PDFs by topics, courses, and my own writing projects.

But it’s new and hopefully Toshihiro Aoyama is still adding features. Check it out and send him your encouragement.


Too many people have been decrying the word folksonomy for me to link to them here. Personally I think folksonomy is quite cute, but it drives me crazy anyway because it implies that a folksonomy is a taxonomy. In fact it’s nothing of the kind: a taxonomy is by definition hierarchical while a folksonomy is all about overlapping categories.

However, in one of the texts we’re reading for a KM course I found an absolutely horrendous word:


Meaning technology as applied to knowledge management. That’s so ugly it’s beautiful.

Personal KM: How do you store journal articles?

[Repurposed from a class blog. Sorry if you see this twice.]

I’m now squirreling away the PDFs of papers that I download for iSchool and once I got into the low double digits I realized that I really need a system. I haven’t found a good one yet. Anybody else?

For starters I’m trying to rename them to something logical (Norman-1993-ThingsThatMakeUsSmart.pdf, Markman-2001-Thinking.pdf).

But beyond that I need to keep them organized (1) in an inbox of assignments to be read and (2) with the courses for which they were assigned. I could also use a way to group them (3) by papers I’m writing. I’ve been bitten by the recent fad for (4) tags, so that would be nice. Since book chapters are often scanned without a title page an ideal system would (5) attach them to whatever I’ve got that resembles a standard bibliographic citation. And (6) any system I come up with should scale up and be portable for longer-term use when the semester or indeed iSchool are things of the past.

I could probably do all of the above except for (5) with aliases: put everything in a single folder and drag aliases into separate folders for each course, paper I’m writing, and topical tag. But that sounds pretty klunky, in part because keeping a lot of Finder windows open is problematic on a 12″ laptop.

So what are other people using?