Friday, July 17, 2009

Core skills

It's funny that there is so much debate about whether we should use technology in education (ie. computers, cellphones and all sorts of net-based tools). The question should really be why shouldn't we? Why don't we expand the definition of technology to include books, pens, whiteboards, calculators, paper clips and so on?

Back in the early 19th century some educators questioned the usefulness of the blackboard and the slates that pupils wrote on. They were considered expensive and unnecessary (sounds familiar). This interesting historical perspective is featured in an excellent blog post by Ira Socol, Technology: the wrong questions and the right questions. One important point is that the way we were taught is completely irrelevant to today's situation. We learned the skills required for that period; learning by heart, handwriting, exam-based study, hierarchical management etc. Students today need the right skills for the future, in some cases skills for jobs that don't even exist today.

The paradox of the education sector is that today's new generation of teachers enjoyed their own schooldays and therefore tend to model their teaching on their own favourite teachers. The tendency is for the new teachers to simply continue the tradtional forms of teaching since that is the way they learn best themselves. The people who did not succeed in traditional schooling would probably be more interested in experimenting with new methods but they are highly unlikely to be attracted to a career in teaching. So traditions are hard to break.

Howard Rheingold points the way with a presentation of 21st century literacy skills on Personal Life Media (Have a look at the whole presentation video). Here he names five key competences that students will need to build:
  • Attention - in an age of multi-tasking we need to learn how to focus
  • Participation - active participation is the key to working in networks
  • Cooperation - sharing and openness
  • Critical Consumption - critical thinking is vital on the net (read Howards excellent advice on this - Crap Detection 101)
  • Network Awareness - build and nurture your networks
All levels of education should foster these skills and we should never be too complacent. All too often we assume that students already have these skills on the grounds that they are so-called digital natives.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On the bandwagon

After several months of passive membership I have begun playing with Twitter (see my Twitter feed in the right hand column, @alacre). Each year one social networking tool gets the full media spotlight and Twitter is the star of 2009 (Facebook was 2008 and Second Life was 2007). If the present media hype is any guide I'm probably one of the last people on earth to join up but you can't have an opinion unless you've actually tried using something.

The reason behind my hesitant approach is that once you start it's hard to set limits. My three blogs have become rather addictive and they're a bit like those wonderful Tamagotchi creatures that once inhabited people's cellphones; once you've got one you need to feed it regularly or it will die. I'm interested in following other people's tweets to get ideas and links but once you start following you soon feel the urge to start contributing! There are of course lots of tools that can gather all these channels together and I use Netvibes for all RSS feeds from news sites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Delicious and many other clever widgets. Another nice tool for gathering all your feeds in a graphically attractive way is Seesmic.

The key is to integrate all the new communication channels. Back in the early nineties there were numerous e-mail tools which were mostly incompatible with each other. It took a few years before the world could agree on common principles and suddenly we could all communicate. It seems we're heading into a similar situation today. As I write this I have the following communication tools open: desk phone, cellphone, 2 e-mail accounts, Skype, Facebook and Twitter. Then there are several more channels that I use only seldom. All with different user names, passwords, addresses and so on.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Augmented reality

Ever wished that virtual reality and real reality would get together? Maybe not but it's coming anyway in the form of augmented reality, a technique that allows information from the net to be superimposed on real life views via a cellphone camera.

There's an interesting example of this on trial in the Netherlands where you can look at, say, a street scene with your cellphone and it superimposes clickable links that can give you more information about a building, services or shop. This application allows you to see which properties in your viewer are for sale and details on them (see demo video below). It's basically a clever mashup of GPS, maps, Wikipedia, Yellow Pages and other services and is even clearer evidence that the future belongs to position-based technologies.

GPS isn't always spot-on but the next phase could well be image recognition allowing the device to realize where it is and provide the relevant information. Another potential development, according to an article in the New York Times (Kicking reality up a notch), is to use this technology to superimpose games onto reality. Look through your cellphone window and suddenly the world is full of virtual creatures straight from your Play Station. Indeed Sony are planning to introduce Invizimals (virtual monsters) to the unsuspecting world before long.

Maybe flying pink elephants will be an everyday sight in the future.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Most people start off in Second Life with the free basic account. You can see the sights, meet people and change your appearance without paying but after a while you realize that you need a proper account and a wad of Linden dollars to be able to do interesting things like creating objects or getting a more interesting appearance. The price tags on all these virtual clothes, furniture, skins, textures and works of art are very low indeed but people are perfectly willing to pay for them.

Similarly the success of low-cost text messaging has provided mobile operators with considerable income over the years with very little protest from the customers. People have been willing to pay relatively small sums for trivial downloads such as virtual pets, ring tones, icons, sound effects or screensavers. In Japan in particular this trend has been the norm for many years and the key seems to be buying pre-paid credits rather than charging a credit card.

A recent article in Tech Radar, How nanopayments finally came of age, argues that so-called nanopayments could be one answer to the problems caused by file-sharing and suchlike. If we paid very small sums of money (or even virtual money) for services on the net there would be income for the artists/writers/companies but at a level that doesn't make a noticeable impact on users' wallets. In Second Life many people "earn" virtual money in order to pay for their in-world consumption and maybe this would be possible on the net in general (fill in a questionnaire and earn enough to download a few free songs on iTunes).

Somehow the content on the net must be paid for and maybe it's better for millions of people to pay very small fees for a service than a few thousand paying today's commercial rate. The only problem is that such a solution requires universal consent; it won't work if there is still an alternative service that costs nothing.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

In a nutshell

There was a sketch on Monty Python's Flying Circus where contestants on a TV game show had to summarize Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu in 15 seconds. Impossible of course, though the first contestant does make a reasonable attempt. Now with the advent of Twitter and YouTube this idea has really taken off.

First there were all those wonderful five second YouTube versions of movies like Rocky, Titanic, Lord of the Rings and Die Hard (see a cavalcade of them).
In a world where attention spans are shrinking fast, Twitter seems to encapsulate the mood and tweeters are now summarizing literary classics in 140 characters (haven't seen a Twitter version of Proust yet). I can't help quoting the Twitter version of Moby Dick:
Bloke goes bonkers pursuing large white whale across oceans and ends up harpooned to its side. Moral: don't become a fisherman
. (See more at Daily Telegraph Twitter literature: Bloke goes bonkers pursuing whale)

Furthermore, two students at the University of Chicago are about to publish a book (yes, a book!) called Twitterature full of very brief summaries of classic novels

There's a nice post on TechCrunch (Short is sweet) about the background to the current craze for short messages, tracing Twitter back to SMS and even postcards. Evidently the 140 character restriction on Twitter and the 160 limit on cellphone texts relate to the length of the average postcard message of days gone by (Having a time. Wish you were lovely etc etc).

All good fun of course but I wonder if we are sacrificing developed argument for bite-sized quotes and knee-jerk reactions. Is this another sign of homo zapiens restlessness or can we find new creative uses for the short message medium? How about Twitter poetry - maybe a modern version of the haiku?