Expertise: a long and winding road

The idea that experts tackle problems that increase their expertise seems supportive of the self-efficacy behind ACT-R:

  • Reinvestment – the  motivational aspect
    • conserving resources to have energy to put back into new problems
  • Progressive problem-solving – the cognitive aspect
    • tackling more difficult problems AND tackling more complex representations of recurrent problems
    • represents working at the edge of competence (ZPD)

Pattern learning, which occurs without extensive effort, involves choosing the right patterns and recognizing when no pattern fits. This seems to equate with imagaic memory which is efficient for spatial and temporal data.

Procedural learning starts as step-by-step problem solving which become “chunked” into a single procedure; while this automaticity frees resources, it becomes a handicap in the improvement of performance. However, automaticity does not inevitably lead to inflexibility if automated skills are building blocks to new skills that are not automated.

However, learning is also pattern and procedural learning; what distinguishes expertise is the seeking of complexity. Complexity is described as a matter of the number of constraints. Because most real-world problems are not reducible to a step-by-step economy, we use simplified representations (akin to simulations). The class of problems that are endlessly complex are the constitutive problems of a domain.

Experts are motivated by:

  • flow:  total absorption and feeling of control, loss of normal time; becomes addictive to the point that problems are invented
  • second-order environment: the expert sub-culture where your recognition as an expert matters to you (not useful in fostering early development of expertise)
  • heroism: effort disproportionate to rewards

Competitive environments foster expertise. However, so do expert sub-cultures which may not always involve competition but always involve recognition of success and help/cooperation leading to success. The expert environment constantly changes as the experts become more expert; the reason experts help each other is to help that environment conttinue to get more difficult (i.e., inventing problems). Expert teams are one example: everyone more or less knows how to do everything so the focus is on the goal, not on individual achievement.

Merlot – not just a wine

MERLOT, the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, is a learning object repository (a collection of instructional modules which fit varying definitions of “learning object”). However, MERLOT is more than simply a collection of resources; it also includes communities, not only for disciplines but also for specific learning environments. The most helpful (and unusual among learning object repositories) feature is the inclusion of ratings and reviews of contributed materials.

There are a few design issues with the site itself (it would be unfair to evaluate MERLOT on the basis of design issues with the contributed materials):

  • The scrolling banner at the top can be annoying
  • The site is not XHTML compliant (according to the W3C validator at
  • Not 508 (WCAG Priority I/II/III) compliant (according to the Cynthia validator at
  • The site itself is somewhat busy:
    • search and advanced search at the top
    • tabbed navigation at the top (and text navigation in the footer which also contains additional non-navigation links)
    • 3-column format with primary navigation in the left column, alternate navigation in the middle, and login and multiple organizational links in the right column
    • no use of boxes that open and close (see
  • The multiple methods for getting to the learning objects may offer increased utility but seems confusing; for example, to get to materials in Biology, you can:
    • enter search criteria (simple or advanced) in the Search header
    • select Learning Materials in the top tab
    • select Learning Materials from the middle column
    • select Biology community from the middle column
    • select Science collection from the left column

That said. MERLOT is a valuable resource and provides access to more than 20,000 resources. Technically, MERLOT is a referatory (it contains only links to the objects on the servers of their original creators) rather than a repository, but that distinction does not detract from its utility. In addition, while only a portion (20%?) of the objects are reviewed or rated, the fact that ANY evaluations are included set MERLOT apart from other libraries of learning materials and allow users (in the sense of using the objects; contributors are also users) to more quickly search and locate appropriate materials. The advanced search is further enhanced through metadata fields; while the material category is inclusive (if somewhat confusing), the technical category needs work (for example, it includes both Quicktime–a video format–and video) as it mixes specific file types with presentation and distribution technologies.


  • Community
  • Subject
  • Language
  • Material
    • Animation
    • Case Study
    • Collection
    • Drill and Practice
    • Learning Object Repository
    • Lecture/Presentation
    • Online Course
    • Open Journal-Article
    • Open Textbook
    • Reference Material
    • Quiz/Test
    • Simulation
    • Tutorial
    • Workshop and Training Material
  • Technical format
    • Active X
    • Audio
    • Authorware
    • Blog
    • CD-ROM
    • Director
    • Executable
    • Flash
    • HTML/Text
    • Image
    • Java
    • Javascript
    • PDF
    • Podcast
    • Quicktime
    • SCORM
    • Shockwave
    • Video
    • VRML
  • Audience
  • Learning Management System
  • Cost involved
  • Copyrighted
  • Section 508 compliant
  • Source code available

The peer reviews and ratings  use “star” icons (like Amazon); peer reviews are anonymous while the ratings (which include mandatory comments) are attributed. In addition (and perhaps even more helpful), each object also shows the number of personal collections each object belongs to (collection usage) and the number of assignments created around the object and contributed to MERLOT (pedagogical usage). Finally, some objects are also distinguished by “Editor’s Choice” and “Classics” awards.

Creating an account is relatively easy (5 minutes). While identifying an affiliation is required and is used to build the user community, this seems the least useful aspect of the site (connecting users). Comments are supplemented with a Technical Remarks box, a Time Spent box, and a checkbox if the object is used in the classroom (this should be termed, “used in a course” to include online instruction).

Each object links to a material details page with a description and metadata (as well as the link to the object itself). Contributing objects or adding comments or assignments requires creating an account which is free and non-expiring; at present, MERLOT has over 68,000 members. While OER proponents may decry this requirement, it provides transparency; at the same time, this very strength may be a weakness–peer reviews (even though not attributed) and comments are public which may inflate ratings and discourage submission. In addition, contributions of instructional materials, even peer-reviewed contributions, may hold little weight in the academic promotion and tenure process (although at least in Texas, Governor Perry has proposed changing this situation; see As a result, the incentive to contribute or to evaluate contributions may ultimately inhibit the growth of this valuable resource.


The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation was already clear to me, although I liked the authors’ delineation that motivation (not just intrinsic, though, in my opinion) “exists in  the relation between individuals and activities.” The distinction that intrinsic motivation is enhanced by a sense of competence only if accompanied by autonomy makes sense although it seems limited; similarly, despite the research cited, I’m not sure that all extrinsic rewards, threats, deadlines, and competition undermine intrinsic motivation. The parallel that autonomy also influences extrinsic motivation implies (obliquely) that competence also influences extrinsic motivation; later in the article, the authors theorize that both relatedness and supports for competence (optimal challenges and relevant feedback) support the internalization of motivation.

The continuum of extrinsic influences seems less a series of 4 distinct types and more a smooth gradient (although three distinctions seem clear: reward/punishment, ego/approval, and self-endorsement). The most applicable idea was somewhat hidden: the potential for intrinsic motivation increases with age, and that learners become more internally regulated over time. If true, this suggests that relying on intrinsic motivation will not be as effective with young learners.

XML: the lingua franca of Web 2.0

lingua franca: a language for communication between communities (Wikipedia)

In the beginning was HTML. And the words were tagged And the words were beautifully simple:

<h1>This is your headline</h1>
And this is your text.<br>
<b>And this is your text in bold.</b>

See the words:

This is your headline

And this is your text
And this is your text in bold.

And then came the browser wars and bloated HTML fell upon us and the bloat was bad for everyone, but especially bad for web developers:

p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal
font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";}
{mso-style-link:"Heading 1 Char";
{font-family:"Courier New";
mso-ascii-font-family:"Courier New";
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-hansi-font-family:"Courier New";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Courier New";}
{mso-style-name:"Heading 1 Char";
mso-style-link:"Heading 1";
@page Section1
{size:8.5in 11.0in;
margin:1.0in 1.0in 1.0in 1.0in;
<!--[if gte mso 10]>
{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
font-family:"Times New Roman";
<body lang=EN-US style=:"tab-interval:.5in">
<div class=Section1>
<h1>This is your headline</h1>
<p class=MsoNormal>This is your text.</p>
<p class=MsoNormal><b>And this is your text in bold.</b></p>

See the bloat:

This is your headline

And this is your text
And this is your text in bold.

And then came XML, the eXtensible Markup Language, to save us from the Babel and babble of proprietary tags and browser-specific coding:

  • XHTML can be thought of as the intersection of HTML and XML.
  • XML 1.0 became a W3C Recommendation on February 10, 1998.
  • By leaving the names, allowable hierarchy, and meanings of the elements and attributes open and definable by a customizable schema or DTD, XML provides a syntactic foundation for the creation of purpose-specific…languages.

Here are three links to get you started:

  • A community-based site for XML standards which goes beyond specifications to include practical applications and free educational resources.

  • As the name suggests, a practical explanation of XML with easy to understand explanations of more advanced technologies such as XSLT.

  • An article on how XML provides access to visually-impaired students.

XML is behind AJAX (which stands for Asynchronous JavaScript And the XMLHttpRequest object), the acronym coined to describe Google Maps. XML is behind the publication of podcasts on iTunes. And RSS, a dialect of XML, is a familiar application. For example, using a styled RSS file like this:

<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 01//EN" "http://www.worg/TR/html4/strict.dtd">
<title>RSS Feed</title>
<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=iso-8859-1">
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="rss.css" title="rssstyle">
<script language="JavaScript" src=" type="text/javascript"></script>
You must have JavaScript enabled to access this RSS feed

enables you to add an XML-driven RSS feed to your Web pages, even to your Blackboard posts; all you have to do is publish an HTML page linked to a CSS file.

  1. Go to our webspace ( and login with your EID.
  2. Create a new folder and name it “www”.
  3. Right-click the www folder, select Manage, and then select Permissions.
  4. For the Public group, select the Viewer (Read-Only) radio button, and then click the Apply button.
  5. Select the option to “Apply the changed permissions to this folder as well as its sub-folders and files” and click OK
  6. Upload all of the files for your Web site into the www folder.
  7. The URLs are shown below (replace my EID with yours).

RSS Plain:

RSS Styled:

If you want to insert this into Blackboard as an HTML page, you must first turn off Blackboard’s WYSIWYG editor so you can add the JavaScript function that processes the feed: PERSONAL INFORMATION > SET VISUAL TEXT BOX EDITOR OPTIONS > Unavailable.

Pretty RSS


Burke, Sean. Making RSS Pretty. Retrieved 2/6/2009 from


The article describes how to marry an RSS feed (which is an XML document) to a CSS file to style the RSS feed for a browser; browsers typically render an RSS feed as an XML tree but by using the xml-stylesheet tag, the tree has “leaves” (sorry to stretch that analogy). While the single line works only with an RSS feed, the author suggests an easy modification to handle RDF and Atom documents. Further, by using XSL (eXtensible Style Language), the author offers a method for marrying CSS to any XML for rendering in an HTML browser.


I discovered this article while trying to figure out how to format a text-only RSS file with CSS in order to bring an external feed into a Blackboard page for a faculty member who wanted to deliver dynamic content. The technique described in the article was actually a dead-end because it works only when you add the xml-stylesheet tag to the original RSS feed (and I was trying to format someone else’s feed). I ended up using the less elegant (but more familiar) link rel=”stylesheet” type=”text/css” tag; however, the article confirmed my belief that I could style an RSS feed, and in that sense, it led to the solution.

SVG Prediction


Cagle, Kurt. Understanding XML: The Future of SVG and the Web (2005). Retrieved 8/19/2005 from although this site throws a 404 error on 2/6/2009. A portion is still available at


While the major prediction of the article–that SVG will be the graphics standard by 2008–has not been realized, the author’s focus on the importance of XML has certainly been realized. In particular, the following predictions have come true (to greater or lesser extents):

  • Syndication replaces the Web page: while RSS has gathered greater market share than Atom, the idea has materialized in feeds and social bookmarking; the advocacy of REST over SOAP is also starting to play out as Google switches technologies.
  • AJAX fades, need doesn’t: AJAX has not faded as fast as it should have, but the identification of the core AJAX technology–the XMLHttpRequest object–as the new paradigm is on target.
  • Ubiquitous personal content: while we’re still not “there” in terms of the portable identity envisioned by the author, the appeal of mashups and personalization drives most of what we call the read/write Web.


Predicting the future is always dangerous: if you’re not right and for the right reasons, you risk having your basic points ignored. However, evangelists must make predictions because they point us to potential futures. Even when they are wrong (as they must be inevitably), they lead us (in the best cases) incrementally. What I especially appreciated about this article is that the predictions were made in advance of the Web 2.0 label.

Cognition: Revisited (Part I)

Winn provides not only a comprehensive overview of cognitive theory but also a thorough integration of constructivist contributions, producing a revised cognitivism which seems both compelling and common sensical. The only issue I had with the article is the length and semantic density; the flip side is that I think I’ll be referring to this article for years to come.

Winn starts by covering the basic issues in cognitive theory:

  • information is represented by internal symbols which map to the  outside world through translations
  • the internal and external worlds are separated physically as well as phenomenologically
  • the separation applies to timing (toss and catch) as well as location
  • the internal representations are idiosyncratic and thus only partially accurate

Four dissatisfactions with this essentially computational view of learning are:

  1. cognitive activity is prompted by environmental changes that are not represented  internally
  2. cognitive activity is not separate from context and is embedded in an environment
  3. the learner and the environment are coupled not separate, although the learner’s history of environmental adaptation is more important than the environment itself (which suggests quantum entanglement)
  4. knowledge value is personal; while anything a learner constructs is of value personally, the community assigns permanent value

Since all 4 dissatisfactions involve the influence of environment, Winn then outlines 4 new approaches to cognition that incorporate environmental aspects:

  • System theory: interactions between learner and environment are complex, mutual, dynamic, and often nonlinear
  • Biological: learning is an adaptation to environment
  • Neuroscience: cognition changes as a result of interaction with the environment, and learning causes physical changes to the central nervous system (interestingly, this branch suggests that the complex behaviors that led to cognitivism may actually be a chain of behavioral S-R events)
  • Neural networks: networks represent information through the way in which the nodes are connected and changes in these connections are the “processes by which learning takes place.”

After tracing the early evolution of Gestalt to behavioral psychology, Winn succinctly differentiates behavioral and cognitive theories: “cognitive psychology is concerned with meaning, while behavioral psychology is not.” And while I may appreciate the freedom of cognitivisim, the real impetus for my belief in this approach lies in the research showing that the parts of the brain that are active when learners report a mental image are the same parts that are active when the learner views an image. Finally, some science behind the idea of imagaic memory. The section concludes with a discussion of levels of cognitive theory: some mechanisms can be explained in biological terms; those which cannot, can be explained in more abstract metaphors for what is taking place.