Announcer: Jean Claude Bradley, an associate professor of chemistry at Drexel University, is a pioneering practitioner of open notebook science. On this edition of Interviews with Innovators, Bradley explains to host Jon Udell that he believes scientific research happens better and faster when the entire process is transparently narrated online. From IT Conversations.
Phil: Hi, and welcome to IT Conversations. I'm Phil Windley, the executive producer. Today, I'm happy to bring you another program from Jon Udell's Interviews with Innovators. This program is made possible by Microsoft's Channel nine and Channel 10.
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Phil Windley: And now, here's Jon Udell.
Professor Jean Claude Bradley: So, I started to do open notebook science in the summer of 2005. I've been a professor at Drexel since '96, and I've worked in several labs, doing gene therapy work, making DNA chip type of chemistry, and my background is a synthetic organic chemistry PhD.
So, I have experience in different labs. And one of the things that you notice if you work in a lab is that most of the stuff that you do never gets seen by anybody. As a chemist, you do an experiment, and you have a lab notebook, which is generally paper. I understand the industry, they're moving more towards the electronic notebook systems. But, there, also, the control is pretty tight. So, effectively, it's pretty similar to the kind of exposure that you'd have with paper.
At least, within your own company, you could share things. But, in terms of other people that you don't know benefiting from what you've done, I always wondered if there would be a way to do that.
And it really took until about 2005, when social software technologies were really very, very easy to use. And there are plenty of examples of people using blogs and wikis and these kinds of things, and you could get free, fully hosted services that would be inconceivable just a few years earlier. Because that's the other thing that was really important to me. I want to spend my time being a chemist. I don't want to spend my time managing a server.
Jon Udell: Yeah.
Professor Bradley: In chemistry, if you want to do a lot of the high end technical stuff, with respect to computers, you try to find a student that is comfortable, or even interested in, programming work as well as chemistry. And that's actually not that easy to find.
Jon: Yeah. That's always a bottleneck. So, I just want to ask. You mentioned that an idea here was for you to be able to share your work with other people so that they could benefit from it. But, I assume that there is an inverse thing happening here, too, which is that perhaps other people can help you with your work when they see what you're doing or what you're trying to do.
Professor Bradley: Yes. I mean, originally, I don't know what my expectations were in terms of what would happen. Theoretically, people could come in and start to comment on our experiments. And we have had that. We did get a few comments from people that just came out of the blue. But, mainly, people are not that willing to go out and do that. The main benefit that I've seen, from our end, is really to be able to find new collaborators that we would have otherwise not found.
Professor Bradley: So, it's data finding data.
Jon: Yeah, exactly. So, explain how that actually happens for you, what the process looks like.
Professor Bradley: OK. So, the notebook that we're using, the actual lab notebook where each page is an experiment, that's on a wiki. I use Wikispaces. It's free. It has a Creative Commons by attribution license by default if you have the free account. And their service has been great. They have great functionality. No limitations on the free account. The pages look pretty similar to what they would in a book, except that we can do more stuff, like we can link to the raw data, actually.
So, if someone wants to dig to a particular spectrum, or they want to zoom in to something, or they want to verify a statement that the student or the PI made, they can do that. So, that's a requirement, that our lab notebook on Wikispaces is our official lab notebook. Students are free, certainly, to use paper for any purpose they wish, but the official lab notebook has to be on the wiki.
Jon: And who has been discovering and exploring these notebook pages and the data behind them?
Professor Bradley: Well, we get about 150 to 200 hits a day. And its people that vary from the educational side of this, which we haven't really talked about, to people looking for the NMR of like this morning, something was looking for the NMR of crotonic acid. If your listeners don't know what that is, it's basically just information about a compound. You wouldn't think to use Google as your first resource for that, but honestly people are using Google. I find myself using it ahead of using anything else, just because it's so quick.
And the fact that people are actually getting the information that they're looking for. I mean, we have taken the NMR of crotonic acid, and people can actually look at that and dig into any part of the spectrum that they want to.
So, I see a lot of that kind of stuff happening, where people are looking for very specific information. They might be looking for a boiling point of a solvent or something like that. And I know from their hits that, most of the time, I think, they're actually finding what they're looking for.
Professor Bradley: But, people are not very willing to contact you about that. So, I know what they were looking for. I know that they found it. But, I don't know if they went on and actually did an experiment from that, because that's something that I can't control. I can't actually contact the people because all I know is their location.
Jon: Yeah. But, you did mention that, through this process of exposing your work on the blog, you've come into contact with people who have become collaborators.
Professor Bradley: Yes. So, I didn't say "never." I just said most of the time; people don't end up contacting you. But, once in a while, you do, in fact, intersect with someone who is interested in open collaboration, and they're willing to participate. They have the skills to actually do something.
For example, we're making anti malarial compounds. So, one of our collaborators is Rajarshi Guha, from Indiana University, and he does docking calculations. So, he basically uses just a computer to tell us which compounds we should make. And then, since we're the synthetic organic group, we can actually go out and make those compounds, and the have them tested somewhere else. For example, Phil Rosenthal's group at UCSF has tested our compounds for anti malarial activity.
So, those are the kinds of collaborators that I'm very excited to be able to interact with, because they're doing exactly the part of the process where we're not the expert.
Jon: Yeah. So, in the normal course of events say, 15 years ago you would have run into people like this at conferences, or you would have read papers that they had written. In other words, it's not that there was no way for people to discover collaborators and to get together. Is it just a question of, it's one of those differences in degree becoming a difference in kind, kind of a thing?
Professor Bradley: Well, it has to do with speed, essentially...
Professor Bradley: Because it's very true. I mean, I can write a paper, and someone can find that paper. But, in order to actually get to the point of having a paper, you already have had to do a lot of work that actually works into a nice, little story. And a lab notebook isn't like that. A lab notebook is basically just stuff that you tried, and you try to get to a conclusion as quickly as you can, with sometimes limited information. And so that's a totally different kind of interface.
But, I should say. You were asking about the whole system. The lab notebook is definitely an integral part of the system. But, there's also a blog. There's also use of other social software, like FriendFeed and all these different, additional ways to connect up with the information.
But, regardless of how I talk about it, I'm always able to put a link. So, if I make a comment on my blog that's higher level, I don't want to repeat all the experimental details. I can just shoot a link over.
Professor Bradley: If someone has an issue, they can look at that. And I think, that's more where the utility is, if anyone wants to dig into any statement, they can. It doesn't mean that everybody's going to do that. It's only going to be the people who have a vested interest in a particular reaction, for example, that might bother.
Jon: Yeah. But, it's there if they choose to follow it.
So, there are, well, a variety of reasons why this isn't the dominant way things are done yet. And I guess we don't know if it will become the dominant ways things are done. But, talk about some of the push back, the reasons why, for publishing and tenure issues or for competitive issues, people would tend to not want to go this route. And how do you have that conversation with people?
Professor Bradley: Well, yeah, you're absolutely right. I mean, there are a lot of issues to consider, and they get brought up often at conferences. I really like to see the people's opinions on that. Although, at these conferences, to be fair, it's a self selected group, so a lot of the people there will be open already to openness.
But, you're absolutely right. In terms of doing traditional research, depending on the field but in organic chemistry, it's generally fairly secretive people do talk about their early results at conferences sometimes. But, this whole openness like you has, like with the genome or some specific datasets like that, and is not part of the culture in chemistry.
You also have the issue of intellectual property. So, obviously, if I'm doing my work in real time, I'm showing everything that's going on. I don't have time to protect it.
Professor Bradley: Now, in the US, you could still get away with that, but it's just easier to just not deal with the intellectual property. There are plenty of areas in science where intellectual property doesn't even come up, like cosmology, and there are still people interested in doing that.
So, I think, for chemistry, what kind of shocks people sometimes is that they sort of assume that everything they're doing can be turned into a profitable patent. But, the reality is that, most of the time, that's not true, and it's also a lot of hassle to actually go through, and it's very expensive for the institution.
So, it's really not that different than sending a paper out. As soon as that paper goes out, and if you haven't submitted at least a preliminary patent, you're not going to be protected. So, that's an issue that you have to wrestle with.
It's not something that I'm trying to convince people to convert to. I'm just basically saying I have a hypothesis that making your research fully transparent and as close to real time as possible is going to actually produce a qualitatively different kind of science progress. And that's going to require the cooperation of some people, but not necessarily the majority of scientists.
Jon: That's a good point. That's a good point. So, this network effect could be very powerful, but involve relatively few notes, in fact.
Professor Bradley: That would be fine.
Professor Bradley: Yeah. For me, I also want to move towards more automation, where machines are actually designing experiments, executing them and analyzing them, and then sharing their results. And in order to get to that kind of a system, for me it's obvious that everything has to be open, because, if not, the barrier that you have to go over to pay for services and try to get special permission to access people's data, it's just so large that it's just not going to happen very soon.
But, if all this information is open, anyone in the world who wants to, for example, look for correlations in our data, they can write a script, they can read it, and they can say, "Well, look, why don't you try this experiment?"
And ultimately, we'd like that entire process to be fully automated. So, one of the things that we're actually looking at this week, we have Mettler Toledo, they're doing a trial with us. They brought in one of their automatic reactors. They were going to see if they can get people to suggest experiments for us to do during this trial of a few weeks.
So, ultimately, I have a destination beyond the human to human collaboration. My view on it is skewed with respect to that. And you don't need to get the majority of people contributing to have that effect.
Jon: You said, in passing, something kind of provocative: that the machine would be designing the experiments. What did you mean by that?
Professor Bradley: So, we're mixing these compounds together, and we actually don't know right now what the governing factors are on getting pure products as precipitates.
Jon: So, it's kind of a large possibility space. And if you could automate the sort of march through that space, then you'd like to do that.
Professor Bradley: Yeah. And that's not going to be us doing that. That's going to be people from the artificial intelligence community, or from the bioinformatics community, who may take an interest. And I can't predict that. All I can do is I can make it available, and I can make it as convenient as possible for people to get the information.
And so, I'm using things like Google Docs, Google Spreadsheets, as ways of quickly sharing information, the summaries of the lab notebook, and getting people to put reactions that they want to do in another Google spreadsheet. So, now there's the opportunity to make the Google spreadsheet completely public. I don't know if you're aware of that.
And so, that's actually pretty cool. So, that means that people don't have to register and log in and do all kinds of things.
Professor Bradley: They can just find it, dump their information. And ultimately, I'm in control. But, if I see that we have the ability to run an extra few reactions, why not? And that would be something that the whole world would benefit from.
Jon: [laughs] That's a really interesting take on this that I hadn't heard before.
So, you've talked a little bit about this kind of machine to machine possibility. In the human domain, I guess there's still an awful lot of what I tend to call tacit knowledge involved in understanding how you actually get a result from an experiment, which involves a lot of variables that you may not even perfectly understand yourself. And so I know that you've been very active in the use of screencasting as a way of kind of capturing... Well, you should talk about, actually, how you see that sort of show and tell piece of it fitting into the picture.
Professor Bradley: Yeah. In terms of screencasting well, following your lead, of course I think, it's a fantastic technology. And I've used it pretty extensively for teaching. All of my classes in organic chemistry are recorded, and students can access them from anywhere. And it really does replace, in the sense of a classroom kind of interaction or I should say a lecture style interaction with students, it really does replace it.
If you have a really good screencast, good audio, everything that you do on the screen is recorded, students can get exactly the same kind of information that they can in a live classroom. That's actually allowed me to stop doing lectures, and assigning the screencasts in the same way that I would assign a book chapter.
Jon: Ahead of class?
Professor Bradley: Yeah. I mean, there is no lecture anymore in my course. It's all workshops.
Professor Bradley: So, the students watch the screencast, do the problems, and then they come to the workshops and I can help them one on one.
Jon: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
Professor Bradley: So, it's a fantastic technology, very simple. It reminds me very much of the social software, because of how simple it is and the leverage that it has.
Jon: So, in this case, you said that having seen the screencast, which replaced the lecture; they then can come and receive really kind of individualized instruction. Is that actually happening kind of one on one? And if so, what's the continuing role for getting the class together as a group, physically?
Professor Bradley: I don't see a purpose of getting the entire class as a group together.
Professor Bradley: My objective is the students learn the skills that I outlined in my syllabus.
Professor Bradley: I test them on that, and if they understand the material, they will do better on the test. So, my role as a teacher is I'm looking at the student learning. That's what I'm focused on. And if that requires me to spend three and a half hours with a group of a couple of students because that's how they learn best, that's fine. If other students can just go out I get a lot of pre med, and they're very busy. If they can do very well, and if they can understand the material from the screencast and from reading the book, that's great, too.
Professor Bradley: I know that some teachers do take it personally, this whole attendance thing. But, to me, leverage the technology. Keep remembering what it is that you're trying to do as a teacher, and if you can do it as effectively with technology, you don't necessarily have to be face to face.
Jon: So, I assume this is at least somewhat controversial. [laughs] You're in a business which, for a thousand and more years, has been kind of predicated on the lecture format to a group of people assembled in one place.
Professor Bradley: Yeah. Yeah. And they are still getting that, in the sense of the screencasts are simply recordings of those lectures. It's just that they can pause it. They can fast forward through it. It is still the lecture format.
Jon: They don't have to take notes. Yeah. Yeah. Oh yeah.
Professor Bradley: They are still used to someone's going to write something on the board and somebody's going to explain something, so I think, it's not that difficult for them to migrate from that.
And the big controversies about doing podcasting classes: will students still come in? It depends what the intention of the professor is. If you actually do take it personally that your students are not going to show up, and you do things like leave out certain things from the podcasts or you only give audio if you leave things out on purpose, then of course they're not going to do as well if they don't come in.
But, I'm not approaching it like that. I'm just approaching it: can I replace the lecture interface? And I do think that we can do that. It works pretty well, actually.
Jon: And then, so talk a little bit more about this other aspect, the sort of face to face, personalized instruction. How is that evolving? Because there's time constraints on that. So, how do you manage your time?
Professor Bradley: It depends on how many students come. Like they just had a test yesterday, so there was a pretty heavy review session today. If a few students have a similar problem, I might just go to them, have them work together. If there's only one student that has that particular problem, I have no difficulty with just working with them one on one.
Professor Bradley: I typically will not give them the answer. So, they'll show me what they're doing, I'll give them a hint, and then I'll move on to the next student or next group of students. And I'll rotate like that. And I think, that works pretty well. Sometimes it's a little bit strained, like the last 15 minutes of the last workshop for the final exam. Yeah, it's going to get a little not everybody's going to get their questions answered, necessarily. But, all the other workshops, really, there is plenty of time to do that and does it well.
Jon: There are all sorts of things that you can imagine once you eliminate that particular constraint of "we're all in the classroom together at the same time." And one of those is that, well, your class is one of a number of classes that are going on in various parts of the country, various parts of the world.
So, at the same time, there actually are other people who are teaching and other people who are learning the same subject. And then, if you relax the same time constraint, while there's the class that did this the year before and the year before that, and also in these other locations. Do you know what I mean?
Professor Bradley: Yeah.
Jon: There's this notion that there's a kind of a wide area kind of collaboration that we can at least imagine would reshape the process of education in pretty interesting ways. Have you had a sense of how that could develop?
Professor Bradley: Yeah. I think, one of the best ways of doing that is through Second Life.
Professor Bradley: Because my students have extra credit assignments where they need to represent like a reaction that they learned in class onto Second Life. And we now have tools that allow us to build molecules pretty easily like full 3D molecules that are realistic looking using some tools that Andy Lang has actually developed with me. And so I've had my students do that. And they also can take quizzes in Second Life.
Jon: So, you're saying the molecular modeling is being done in Second Life, or it's being done in some tool which then imports the thing into Second Life?
Professor Bradley: Yeah. I mean, technically, it's done. What we need to figure out is the SMILES, or the InChI code, for your molecule.
Jon: The which code?
Professor Bradley: It's called SMILES.
Professor Bradley: It's a way of representing a molecule with a string of text.
Jon: Yeah, OK.
Professor Bradley: And that you can get from a number of places. We typically use like ChemSpider, or ChemSketch.
Professor Bradley: They're both free. And you can just draw the molecule and just export the SMILES. And then you basically go in Second Life. I give them this little machine. It's called a rezzer.
Professor Bradley: And they simply talk to it. They just dump the SMILES there, and the molecule, it actually hits a couple of servers to minimize the molecule to make it look realistic. And it uses that information to build it right in front of you. It's pretty neat, I have to admit. The first time the students actually see the molecule being built in 3D in front of them, it's great.
And the nice thing with these new tools is I don't have to spend any time whatsoever talking about scripting or anything like that. It's very, very simple.
Jon: What's the Second Life connection here? In other words, you could refer a student to a web page that would launch something that would build the molecule and enable them to view it in a 3D fashion. But, there's more to this, I assume, right? There's this notion that, well, there's kind of a shared space that they're virtually present in. And so, what's the significance of that in this context?
Professor Bradley: Yeah. The power of Second Life, a lot of people don't realize. It's not so much the 3D world; it is the network. And so, what you do is these molecules are basically presentations. They just happen to be in 3D instead of in a poster format.
Although they do have to write a little something about what the molecule is, and if they're doing a reaction, they explain what it is, and other people can come and visit it. So, that's one place where there could be an interaction with other organic chemistry students from around the world, or with even teachers who teach chemistry.
Jon: So, this is actually occurring? And if so, can you kind of characterize what that interaction is like? Are people kind of standing around watching a molecule being built in Second Life and having a conversation about chemistry? I mean, is that what's actually happening?
Professor Bradley: Well, the building of the molecule may or may not happen in front of other people. It depends on who happens to be there.
Professor Bradley: But, these presentations are left there.
Jon: So, people can walk up to them after the fact and...
Professor Bradley: Yeah. On various islands. Like we have Drexel Island. We have Nature Island, called Second Nature. There's American Chemical Society Island, where I've participated in some of the construction there. So, there are these even chemistry specific resources, where you're pretty likely to find chemists there, especially on a place like American Chemical Society Island. So, definitely there's networking possibilities.
Jon: So, in that case, then, it's a question of, on the one hand, you have synchronous communication, like, "Is the person here now? Can I talk to them?" But, more broadly, there's asynchronous communication, which wouldn't really require Second Life at all. It could just happen on the web, right? So it may be, actually, a broader opportunity.
Professor Bradley: Yeah. I mean, if you think about Second Life as primarily a tool for connecting people together, there are a lot of asynchronous interactions. For example, there's a chemist who, nearby to my lab area on ACS Island, built a peptide. And she was looking at it and wondering if the chirality was right on the different atoms. I wasn't there when she had that issue. But, she IM'ed me. And what happens in Second Life is, if you're not there, it goes to your email.
Professor Bradley: So, I get this email. She has a question. So, I log in a couple of hours later. She's not there. But, I go to her peptide, which is in 3D, and I look at it, and I confirm that, yeah, in fact this is the wrong chirality for this amino acid. And so I leave her a message.
Professor Bradley: And then, maybe next time, we're both there at the same time and we can talk about it synchronously. But, you can absolutely interact with people asynchronously as well.
Jon: Yeah. Although, I guess what I'm getting at here is the fact that this is occurring in Second Life is kind of tangential, in a way, right? Like it all could happen in other ways on the web.
Professor Bradley: The thing is that Second Life is very sticky, so you are more likely to find people doing stuff. Whereas, if you just went to a chat room, for example, I don't think that would work very well in chemistry, because it's difficult to show what's going on. There's not a sense of identity. The avatar effect is actually very powerful, in terms of people identifying with their avatar. And most students, after a couple of times in, want to know how to change their avatar to look like something else.
Jon: Mm hmm.
Professor Bradley: And that's the kind of involvement that you will not find in a lot of these other social software kind of interactions. So, yeah, it is actually different in that sense, I have to admit.
Jon: This is a little bit of a tangent, this whole thing, but since you brought it up. I mean, my sense right now is that, as a mainstream kind of phenomenon, Second Life is gated by the pretty intense amount of UI machinery and sort of conventions that need to be mastered in order to just navigate and be in the space in an effective way. Do you know what I mean? It's like there's a fair amount of overhead there for people to get over.
And I think, we're like a generation or two away from this being a naturalistic enough kind of an interface, that people will spend way less time figuring out how to drive their avatars around and can focus more on what's actually happening in the environment. Do you think that's a reasonable observation?
Professor Bradley: Yeah. That is a very important factor if you consider using Second Life. And that's where the workshops are extremely handy; because the students bring their laptops, and it takes like five to 10 minutes to get a student, totally naive to being able to do everything they need to do walk around, fly around, click on a quiz, build a molecule. And that happens very easily if we're in the same place at the same time.
But yes, if I just tell you, "Go onto Second Life," most people will get pretty frustrated because you end up on these orientation islands, where the purpose is more general. They're trying to show you how to do all kinds of different things. But, I don't need my students to learn all kinds of different things. I just need them to fly, walk, teleport, maybe talk, chat with who they want, and add a friend.
Professor Bradley: Then, if they want to change their appearance, for example, that's great. But, you shouldn't make that a necessary thing in order to participate in the process.
And again, I can't overemphasize how important it is. That face to face time with the student's laptop can make that process almost painless.
Jon: Or, I guess, actually capturing in a screencast some of the instruction that you do in that face to face environment. So, that also could be...
Professor Bradley: Yeah, absolutely. I haven't done that. I've thought of doing that. I mean, students also have issues with their computer. I can tell if their video card isn't good enough to run Second Life...
Jon: Yeah. Yeah.
Professor Bradley: Yes, the screencast would help a little bit, but it's really nice to have that face to face.
So, yeah. I mean, it's just a factor. And once you take that into account, then it becomes pretty usable. Now, I don't make Second Life mandatory in my class. That's a whole different question.
Jon: Right. Right.
Professor Bradley: If I have 200 students, it's not feasible for me to do that.
Jon: Right. Right. Right.
Professor Bradley: Yeah.
Jon: So, [laughs] I didn't realize you were so deeply into that. That's interesting to hear.
I'm a little bit skeptical about it, just because I'm trying to focus, in my own work and in my own stuff, on things that are, I would say, more accessible to everybody, and where the barriers to entry are lower.
So, here's the thing. Even when you strip away all of the technological barriers so, if everybody had the right gear and the right amount of bandwidth and things like that there's still sort of like conceptual hurdles that people have to get over, right? I mean, you crossed a huge conceptual hurdle when you got into open notebook sites, right? There's no high tech really going on there.
I mean, yeah, you mentioned that while it helps to have these services kind of floating on the net that we can just use for this purpose. But, it's more sort of getting the idea, right? That intuition that you have, that by operating in this transparent way, the science will progress faster and better than it otherwise could, right?
Professor Bradley: That's the hypothesis, yeah.
Jon: Yeah. And that's just a question of getting the idea in your head and then having a sense of how to use some pretty basic, very readily available technologies. So, blogs and wikis had been around for quite some time before this idea started to take hold. You know what I mean? In other words, I'm trying to say it's more of a conceptual breakthrough that isn't really gated to any particular technology at all.
Professor Bradley: Right. And that comes up when we talk about other sciences that may not have the traditional paper notebook. I don't know. I mean, I'm just saying, if you focus on making your science as transparent as possible I like to say, try to have no insider information. In other words, someone observing what you're doing would be able to come to the same conclusions as your internal group.
So, if that gets done with a wiki, that's fine. Everybody's using a slightly different system. And that's what's very interesting to see, that we're learning about not only their science, but also about how they think about science, as they construct their notebook.
Jon: So, tell me this, then, since we would all agree there is an appropriate role for competition and there are also, obviously, lots of ways where cooperation is appropriate, we are always kind of struggling to find that balance. It is not an 'either or' kind of thing. We need to have the right ingredients in the right proportions.
And so, from that perspective how do you see weaving in the appropriate aspects of the competitive nature of science into this environment where, in fact, there is also this transparent work happening? How do you reconcile those things?
Professor Bradley: Well, you are making a supposition that competition is necessary for science to progress, and I don't think that is correct.
Jon: OK. Well, good.
Professor Bradley: Because I think, competition if you have a company and you have a business moral that is based upon intellectual property, then absolutely. Then, you have to build the way that you work in such a way that you are going to be able to protect these compounds and then solve them or whatever you want to do.
In terms of actually getting science done, in the sense that today we are able to do something that we weren't able to do yesterday because we understood something new. Maybe, we didn't understand anything. Maybe, it's purely empirical. Like we just know how to make these compounds precipitate. It will take a year to figure out why exactly, but if we are able to control reality in some new way, then I think, that can be done without competition.
Jon: Setting aside the intellectual property aspect of it, there is just the notion that while being the first one to discover something is really different from being someone who comes along afterward or even someone who made the discovery just slightly after the first person did.
There is a kind of I guess you could call it a game behavior which is, I think, kind of fundamental to human nature. Where I was sort of going with this though is that one of the, I think, still unfulfilled uses of technology in particular the stuff that looks like or can be made to look like games is that there are ways to leverage that sort of game behavior and that competitive instinct which can be useful.
For example, a lot of social software is a way for people who are active and who make contributions to take credit for the contributions that they've made, and there can be positive aspects to the kind of competition that is engendered by that architecture.
Professor Bradley: Yeah, I think, in that sense competition can be useful. Like recently I submitted a proposal to the Gates Foundation. Part of the idea is to give prizes to the first people who predict that a compound would be active and make the compound and then test the compound and it turns out to have a minimal activity. Giving out a prize for the first three people who actually do that, I think, there is an element of competition there, but it is not where people are going to work secretly.
Jon: Exactly. This is really just a kind of this line of thinking here. A while ago I interviewed a guy, Ned Gulley, who works at MatWorks, and he designed a contest for Matlab programmers which have turned into a really interesting thing because it is a contest, but it is also a contest that also happens in framework where ultimately all of the code that you write is transparent.
If you are working toward a solution, you can clone other people's codes. You can tweak it. You can completely change it, and so there is this fascinating kind of interplay between. You know, there are incentives for sharing, and there are also incentives for not sharing. And people are kind of walking the line between those two sets of incentives as they play this game.
It is just a real interesting kind of social experiment in terms of how we leverage the competitive instinct in ways that can be most useful and productive in an environment where ultimately it is all transparent.
Professor Bradley: Yeah, that is a great example. It is very analogous, absolutely. You know, in terms of just talking about the simplicity of the software...
Professor Bradley: One of my biggest surprises when I was doing this initially, naively I thought that you just use a blog to record the experiments.
Professor Bradley: It seemed to me to makes sense because you have one post. You can describe one experiment, and then have people comment on it. And then, create a new experiment. That actually didn't work very well, and the reason is there is so much editing that goes on in terms of recording the science. And the wiki is because you are able to access any individual version. You are able to see when conclusions were made, when errors were found and corrected. You are able to see who did each particular contribution.
So, in terms of the software, people do want attribution and using something like a wiki breaks down each person's contribution to such a fine level that, I think, it makes sense for people to participate because you will get credit for exactly what you did. And that is a very special kind of technology that allows you to actually do that. If we did not have wikis I don't think that we would still be doing it at this point.
Jon: Or more broadly, version control.
Professor Bradley: Right, easy version control.
Jon: Yeah. No, I think, that's right, actually. This is an area where relatively few people have yet to experience that effect. Programmers take it for granted. Programmers have been working in source control systems for many years and have at this point an intuitive sense of what it's like to be in an environment where, like you said, each contribution is individually tracked and can be rolled back and so on. Those people who have gotten deeply involved in working in the wiki environment also have developed a sense of that.
But, I think, that is still probably a new experience to most people, the fact that things can work this way that these things can be tracked in this granular way?
Professor Bradley: Yeah, and not everyone is necessarily comfortable working with the wiki right away.
Professor Bradley: It is a minor issue that can be addressed, but that's part of the reason that we use multiple technologies. We also use a mailing list, for example. It sounds very 'old school,' but it turns out that it has a very good role to play for certain kinds of interactions, especially debugging stuff. It has to work pretty well.
You know, it's not like one of the technologies took over. It is all these pieces that actually fit very nicely together. They are all free, and anyone who wants to replicate any part of the system can do so overnight, basically.
That's another reason why I worked with the specific tools that I did because it is always frustrating if you see something that you like that you want to do, and oh, you have to buy software. That's a big limitation for people getting involved.
That's another very special thing that has happened in the past years that wasn't there several years ago.
Jon: I think, I read that you are also sort of the e learning coordinator for Drexel at large. Is that true?
Professor Bradley: For the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel, I am the e learning coordinator.
Jon: Maybe, to kind of close out, you can say a little about how because we have talked a lot about science and chemistry in particular, but what your view is of how these things are playing out in other disciplines at the school.
Professor Bradley: Well, one of the projects that I was involved with pretty heavily is setting up Drexel Island on Second Life. We have about 30 groups on there. And that's been an interesting process, to see what people find to be helpful, what kind of use they make of the technology. A lot of it is basically just advertising their department or class, whatever. And everybody has a different take on it.
And I think, that's been my main focus, in addition to helping people with screencasting. But, in the past year, that's probably been the most intense thing.
You've mentioned that you have some reservations about it, and I absolutely understand that. I was actually not that caught on it for a long time, because it felt like it was using technology just for its own sake. But, I had a friend, Beth Ritter Guth, who was teaching English, and she invited me to her class in Second Life. And once I saw how the avatars interacted together and how it was really different than anything else, I got interested.
Jon: How would you characterize what you saw happening there?
Professor Bradley: It's very personal. In other words, you turn and you can see an avatar. And you have to remember, when you're looking at an avatar, especially for someone who's been around there for a while, that's them. That's who they want to be. Because you can be whatever you want to be. So, you're actually looking at them, in a sense, even more deeply than you would in person, because you can't change everything about yourself in person.
So, there's that very personal connection that you absolutely do not get from a chat room. Because we're still using chat. Or you can use voice. In fact, voice has been a recent addition. And it's kind of interesting: we still don't tend to use it, even though sometimes three or four people are gathered and everybody has voice. You can tell because there's a little white dot that shows up on the avatar's head. But, people still like to use chat.
So, there is something interesting about that, in terms of this kind of barrier. I think, it has to do with some kind of privacy. People still feel a little bit more private when they're using chat.
Jon: We still need to kind of get at why it is that... So, earlier, you said, well, there really isn't an important reason anymore for people to gather together in the physical space of the classroom. At the same time, we're saying, well, there may be a reason why it's interesting and important for people to gather in these virtual spaces. So, why?
Professor Bradley: Well, to meet people. I mean, I think, from my perspective, I introduce my students to organic chemistry. And that has to do with content. It has to do with principles. But, it also has to do with getting involved in the world of chemistry in general.
Professor Bradley: And right now, that's the big opportunity with Second Life, is that doing very minimal things, I can bring a couple of students in who may even be tech averse. And then I can see, once they realize that they can meet new people that become interesting. They can meet their classmates, of course, who they might not have seen because they were taking everything online.
Jon: [laughs] You have to admit, there's a certain kind of circularity to this, right? Its like, [laughs] "We could have just gone to the physical place and met. But, we're not doing that, so now we have to go to this virtual place to meet. But, if we're all students at the same university on the same campus, we actually could have met in the same physical place."
Professor Bradley: I think, it has to do with the term "have to." This is just an additional channel that they can use. So, it's not something that they must do. If I hold a class and I have an attendance policy, I'm saying, "You guys must come here." OK?
Professor Bradley: And that locks me up from doing other things.
Jon: Yeah. Yeah. Really, what we're trying to get to and you started to go there with this example from the English class. What she was saying, what this teacher was saying is that there are aspects to the quality of interaction that can occur in that environment which are qualitatively different and, in some ways, for some purposes, better. Right?
Professor Bradley: Yes. It all has to do with this long tail, I guess. Most students don't participate in it, and that's absolutely fine. And it benefits a certain sub population of the class; just as having a certain kind of workshop with students benefits them in a way that it doesn't benefit other students.
Using the screencasting, that buys me time. And that's the important part of the screencasting. So, by doing that, I'm able to do the Second Life. I'm able to use molecule models, for example, physical molecular models that I can pull out, and we can look at things that are difficult to see on paper.
Jon: So, in terms of, when you said "long tail, " it sounds like what you really were getting at there was that in a class full of kids, as we know, there are going to be a few who are outgoing and social and will perform well and communicate effectively and actually end up taking up a lot of the airtime in that setting. And this is, again, generally true for many modes of electronic communication, not just Second Life.
But, in these other modes, it becomes possible for people who have sort of different comfort levels, different amounts of extroversion versus introversion, and different styles of communication, to flourish where they might not have flourished so well in the face to face environment.
Professor Bradley: Yeah, exactly. And again, the student is in control of this. I think that they're getting their best value with the model that offers different possibilities.
They take a test after a couple weeks, all right? Now, if they get a poor result on that test, at that point we need to figure out, "What is it that you need to be doing? Maybe you thought you could do this class completely online, but it turns out that, no, you've got to come in for one workshop a week." And I can simply advise them of that. From my experience, I know that's exactly what they need. And all I can do is basically just tell them, "These are the options you have in my class. And if I think that you can benefit from Second Life, I'll help you with doing that."
Jon: That's a good way to put it. Yeah.
Professor Bradley: Yeah. And that's all it is, really.
If you were asking me, "What was the benefit of Second Life?" I was sort of looking at the most beneficial thing that could possibly happen is that they would meet someone that, later on, they would end up doing a co op at a company because they met somebody from there, or they would do a PhD somewhere. And those are the kinds of connections that are kind of difficult to make for students who are undergrads, like sophomores. And I think that that can have a tremendous benefit.
But no, I couldn't expect 200 students to go through that process. I mean, most of the students are busy enough just worrying about getting the basic material down.
Jon: Yeah. Yeah.
Professor Bradley: But, it's an interesting possibility and something that I had not really contemplated before I got involved with it, as to why it is a powerful tool. For me, it comes down to the networking, either in teaching or research.
Jon: Well, we're not going to solve it on this call, but it is still to be explained what's the sort of qualitative difference between this style of interpersonal communication and social networking that happens, or can happen, in Second Life, versus the style that is happening in a variety of other environments online, right?
Professor Bradley: Well, a really good example is a chat room. I'm sure you have a lot of experience with going to a chat room. There's 10 people already having conversations and you don't really know what's going on, and you're trying to figure it out. Well, in Second Life, because everyone has an avatar, you can approach a group of people, and you see who's talking to each other.
You can face a certain person, or you can even IM one of the people from the group. It sounds strange, but there's a huge effect. It really feels like you're actually there. To the left of you are Juan, and to the right of you is Mary. And, that's a completely different feeling than being in a chat room where you can't see anything.
Jon: No, it's true. Setting aside all the 3 D modeling, it does seem to be the notion of what you just said. Here I am and to my left is this person and to my right is that person. There is something kind of deep and fundamental about that, that is a little mysterious, I think, but obviously, powerful.
Professor Bradley: Yeah, and if the person next to you is dressed up as a Goth that tells you a lot about them. You can have a conversation with them that would be totally non existent in the chat room and, you can actually be quiet. So, you can approach a group and everyone will know that you're there, so if they want, they can turn to you and talk to you. And again, that's something that you can't replicate with a traditional chat room.
So, there are a lot of good things you can do. I guess I didn't mention that I've run a couple of conferences using poster presentations in Second Life, and that works really well in terms of having the avatar stand in front of the poster and people come and ask questions.
You can click on the poster to see different slides. And that's something, from a technological standpoint, that's very nice because you can take a PowerPoint and very quickly export the images and upload them in Second Life pretty quickly. So, that's something that I think, is one of the most useful things that you can do with this technology.
Jon: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense because at that level the telepresence is a really effective replacement for taking the plane trip to be at the place. Let's put it this way, on the one hand, it replaces the part where you're standing around looking at the poster and discussing it with the presenter, and that's actually a reasonable substitution. And then, to what extent it substitutes for the conversation that you had in the bar afterwards, your mileage will vary in a whole lot of ways, depending on who you are and who the other person is, and what the environment is.
Professor Bradley: And, what their experience is because if they have a slow video card, you have to realize that they're just spending all their time being frustrated. They're turning right and there are delays. So, those are some of the things that we talk about with new people, and if they're unhappy, we just try to figure out what's going on here. And, if they're computer doesn't have a good video card, there's no point in continuing because it's just too frustrating.
Jon: It's good to hear your thoughts on this because I always like to revisit my prejudices and my biases.
Professor Bradley: I know that feeling.
Jon: You're inviting me to reconsider how I have been thinking about the uses of Second Life.
Professor Bradley: Yeah, let me know if you want a little tour, I'd be happy to give you one. I could show you Drexel Island, certainly, and Nature Island has a lot of good things in terms of science.
Jon: You know, it might be fun to do that and make the movie of it.
Professor Bradley: Yeah.
Jon: Actually, for me, one of the coolest things about Second Life was the camera control, and that there really is this camera there that you can independently move around, point at anything, zoom in or out, and pan. The cinematic graphic possibilities of Second Life are pretty amazing, and I've done a little bit of that, and it would be fun actually to do this.
Professor Bradley: Where did you go?
Jon: Where did I go? Well, actually I was invited to an IBM press conference on Second Life. This is actually what gave me the sense that I still have, which is that a lot of this reminds me of the early days of the web when people would say, breathlessly, come visit my page on the World Wide Web and you're like when?
Corporations were hiring design firms to make their all important home page on the web. And so, when I started, like 10 years later, to hear about companies hiring design firms to build out their Second Life islands, I thought this is just a replay of that and I think, honestly, in some ways, it is.
Actually the movie that I made is probably the funniest thing I've ever done. It's me at this IBM press conference where basically I get there and some guy's showing a PowerPoint that I'm not interested in, and there's a bunch of people I don't know, so I wind up wandering around looking at the fish tank, and eventually I get bored and fly around.
Professor Bradley: You have to have a good reason for going in. Have someone give you a tour. I think, you'll find it much more satisfying.
Jon: Let's do that.
Professor Bradley: Now, what software are you using for recording these days?
Jon: Well, you can do it right in Second Life.
Professor Bradley: The Screencast?
Jon: Yeah, you can do a screen cap right inside of Second Life. Did you know this? It's one of the coolest things.
Professor Bradley: It's built in?
Jon: Yeah, it's built in.
Professor Bradley: I didn't know that.
Jon: You just turn on the recorder.
Professor Bradley: I'll have to check that out.
Jon: Yeah, that part is great.
Professor Bradley: I was using Camtasia.
Jon: No, you don't need to. You can save directly, or you used to be able to. I haven't looked at this in a couple of years.
Professor Bradley: I wonder why I never came across that. That's weird.
Jon: Yeah, you hit the record button.
Professor Bradley: I will definitely check that out. It just records with the camera?
Jon: It records the view.
Professor Bradley: Does it show your little avatar in there?
Jon: It does.
Professor Bradley: Behind your head?
Professor Bradley: OK, cool.
Jon: That would be kind of cool actually. There are precious few actually I would have to say no examples that I know of where somebody can just go, without the overhead of getting into the environment, and learn how to fly the avatar around. But, somebody can just go and see a nice crystal clear example of how this stuff is being used in an educational context, and can take away a sense of what that mode is doing and what the value of it is.
Well, it's been a pleasure to speak with you. I've been hearing about what you do from all sorts of different people who keep on saying that you should talk to Jean Claude.
Professor Bradley: Well, thank you very much. Actually you're one of the first names that I saw. This is when you did "Umlaut".
Jon: Oh, the Wikipedia movie.
Professor Bradley: That was pretty cool. And then, look at what's happened after a few years.
Jon: Which, of course, was not new almost nothing is really new. But, the idea that these representations of what happens in computer screens can be canned and replayed has become how all kinds of software are explained to people now.
Professor Bradley: Yeah, it's a no brainer once you know how to do it.
Professor Bradley: OK, thanks.
Jon: Thanks a lot.
Professor Bradley: Bye.
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