Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mobile learning

Where does learning take place? We still tend to think that we learn when we visit certain buildings labelled school or university. Indeed, we still build such places on the assumption that they encourage and stimulate learning. Our students gather in classrooms for lectures and seminars but most of the learning that goes on happens elsewhere; in cafes, bedrooms, parks, trains, buses etc. Those places have always been learning environments. Discussions in student cafes were often more stimulating than the rather contrived discussions that took place in the lecture hall. The difference today is ubiquitous net access allowing students not only to discuss with colleagues but also with a global network of students and experts who share the same interest. Basically we have instant access to unlimited knowledge, the latest research is instantly available and in many cases you can easily start a discussion with the author of a report or thesis.
I’ve been looking at the impressive collection of lectures and teaching resources freely available on iTunes U. Almost 50 universities offer a wide range of video lectures in all subject areas that can be downloaded to your iPod completely free. All universities in this venture are in the USA but the question is when European universities take the step. Many universities are still sceptical to filming lectures and making them available on the net. Many are worried about copyright and teachers are worried that their jobs may be threatened if all their teaching is out on the net. MIT’s OpenCourseWare has made whole courses freely available to anyone in the world. Wikiversity is built around the idea of teachers from all over the world sharing learning objects and making them freely available.
We’ve seen the revolution that has happened in the music industry over the last 10 years. Remember record stores? The ones that are left are in trouble and instead we now download all the music we want and mix our own playlists as many times as we want. Is a similar process under way in education?
If you can access all the lectures, simulations, literature, research and discussion on the net what is the future role of the university? The trump card is still examination – you can access all of MIT’s courses but you can’t get the qualification unless you enrol and pay your fee. The key is the teacher’s role; not as lecturer but as guide: Helping the student to choose the most relevant material, developing their information competence and encouraging critical thinking. There is so much knowledge out there it is almost frightening. We need help to filter it all, to organise it and interpret it. Teachers who can help students with this and encourage them to exploit the potential of the net will be the key to the next generation of higher education. The ability to stimulate net-based group/project work and create dynamic virtual discussions will be essential.
Could we be able to compile a course with material from many sources in a similar way as we compile a playlist? Instead of receiving the traditional course literature list the students could be able to find their own course material consisting of both literature and multimedia. The teacher’s role is to be able to help the students choose wisely and providing them with a sounding board as they navigate their way through the course. No longer would the student be restricted to discussing only with classmates and teacher. Contacts from all over the world can be involved in the discussions and experts can be consulted at any time.
Where, then, does learning take place? Anywhere. Any time. Anyhow.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Everything 2.0

We live in a world of never-ending upgrades and enhancements all carefully designed to make everything instantly obsolete and ensure that you can never get off the rollercoaster of consuption. This has been going on for years of course so it's interesting that the current craze for Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 etc has only got as far as 2.0. We should be in double figures by now at least - makes me think of an old joke about the big Hollywood tychoon (maybe Sam Goldwyn) commenting on the latest Biblical epic production, "What, only 12 disciples. Think I'm some kind of cheapskate. Get me hundreds!" I'm keen to see what happens east of the decimal point in the near future; whether we get into web 2.3 applications and how they differ radically from web 2.2. Actually there's a very interesting blog called Life 2.0 which has many thought-provoking articles on creativity, innovation and our relationship to technical advances.

I'm compiling a guide to all those Web 2.0 applications and have tested quite a few to see how they can be used in education. A major hurdle for the curious investigator is that you have to become a member of everything and that means lots more user IDs and passwords. I try to use variations on a theme for the swelling number of clubs and services that I belong to but it gets harder to keep tabs on them all. The answer is of course to use one of those password services that store all your passwords behind one master password. Attractive but isn't that a giant security risk if someone gets their hands on the master password?

I'm trying a lot of different services, some of which may transform the way I work and others that will have little or no effect. Social networking hasn't really inspired me so far though I can see enormous potential for those more "social" than myself. I've been using Facebook, Linkedin and a few others but they seem to demand a lot of care and attention to become really worthwhile. They need to become firmly embedded in your daily routines and need regular updates (that word again!) in the form of new fun objects, links, films, comments etc. How many such applications can one person juggle with effectively as well as everything going on IRL (in "real" life)? I've been working with Second Life for over a year now and the learning process involved in getting established there took a lot of time and energy. It's funny how many of us claim to suffer from stress about all the demands of modern society and at the same time willingly join up for activities that demand high levels of participation.

The minute I join yet another community/service/club and the welcome message plops into my mailbox I accept a certain level of responsibility. I want to be a "good" member of the community, show that I'm active and creative and feel that I'm contributing to the cause. Sadly, however, I don't always reach that level of commitment and it gets added to the list of things I feel slightly guilty about not finding time for. Becoming a member of something is, at least for me, a commitment and at present there are several potentially interesting communities that I'd like to find out more about but am unsure if I want to become a member of. Illogical I'm sure but it bothers me. How many things can you be an active member of? Writing this blog is a commitment too even if my readership is bubbling around zero at present.

"I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members." Groucho Marx

Saturday, April 5, 2008


I've contributed to a few blogs but never considered starting my own until now. The biggest obstacle has been the fact that the net is bursting with blogs that virtually no-one reads and why should I add to the pile? I belong to a generation that feels that you have to work hard to get published and if you can publish absolutely anything without even a bit of a struggle then what's the point? The point of this and probably the majority of blogs is not to become famous but simply to write down ideas and impressions and be able to access them anywhere. If you have a few friends or colleagues who want to contribute then that's a bonus.

I'm interested in seeing what happens when I start this blog and how it develops. I don't have a clear idea of what I want to do with this but I like the idea of just casting off and letting the wind blow me along. Will anyone stumble upon this and comment? How do you get noticed in the world of blogging? Will I turn up on other blogs? If I continue writing like this, probably not.

Has anyone done any research into dead web sites, defunct blogs etc? There must be millions of sites where nothing has happened for years but they still use up space on someone's server with digital tumbleweed blowing across the home page. Google sometimes offers one as a possible answer to a search but when you get there and it says "Last updated 20 July 2002" you get a sinking feeling. How many petabytes of space could be saved by dumping all that digital trash? Or should it be saved for posterity and if so who decides? If you want some web-based nostalgia take a look at the Internet Archive which has a vast archive of old web sites but I'm not sure how much of the blogosphere they preserve.

I promise to press the self-destruct button on this one before the tumbleweed hits town.