Thursday, October 29, 2009

Coping with distractions

When I was a student back in the seventies there were plenty of distractions during lectures. Some doodled, some wrote notes to each other, some read a book or a newspaper and some even slept. Many actually took notes on the lecture but if that got boring we soon switched off. So there's nothing new with the current debate on digital distractions in class or at conferences; it's just more visible than before when the teacher faces a sea of laptops.

There's a good discussion going on the Learning Circuits blog (New Presenter and Learner Methods and Skills) about what you can do as a teacher in a classroom full of distractions. The use of back channels (instant messaging, Twitter etc) is now widespread at conferences and in class and the lesson is that if you don't provide an official one the participants will start an unofficial one themselves (or several). However it can be unnerving for the teacher to see the constant stream of comments roll in via Twitter as you speak. It's hard to concentrate on what you're presenting whilst keeping an eye on all the comments. Then again the comments are directed towards others in the audience not at you as presenter. However, what do you do then when laughter bursts out in the room at a tweet that you haven't seen? Do you immediatley realize that they're not laughing at you (quickly check that all clothes are still on, hair in right place etc)? Do you pause to let the laughter die down and continue uneasily waiting for the next witty remark to turn up in the arena that you are unable to participate in? Wait a minute, who's show IS this?

However back channel comments at least show interest in the subjetc of the session. What do you do when the audience has virtually left the room; the lights are on but there's no-one home. many will say that a bored audience will find other things to do and while that may be true to some extent, is audience boredom only the fault of an uninspiring presenter? Some concepts are tough to explain, some things take time to go through and simply cannot be full of stimulating content. Sometimes you have to concentrate hard and really struggle to come to grips with complicated theories. We tend to zap past channels that are not instantly appealing and risk losing a great opportunity of learning something really new.

I have read several pieces by Howard Rheingold (see several earlier posts on this blog) on how we need to teach the art of attention and how important it is that people learn to switch off the distractors and really concentrate. No significant learning takes place whilst multi-tasking (or pretending to). Read the discussion on Learning Circuits for more on this.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Web addresses soon in Arabic

A report from BBC reveals that it will soon be possible to use non-Latin characters in web and e-mail addresses. Seemingly the organisation in charge of web addresses and suchlike, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is due to discuss this breakthrough at its conference in Seoul this week (see notice). It will soon be possible to have web addresses in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi or Urdu.

This restriction has always struck me as extremely unfair to the majority of people in the world who do not use Latin characters and so far has ensured that if you want to use the net you need to learn our alphabet. Evidently even if the change is approved it will take some time before the new addresses are up and running since there has to be some kind of transliteration tool so that our computers can cope with non-ASCII addresses. However they say that Arabic domain names will be available as soon as next month. This should make the net more accessible to even more people.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

At last - a universal cellphone charger!

A BBC news item today made me jump for joy (well, almost). The International Telecommunications Union has announced that they have approved a new universal cellphone charger that will work with all handsets in the future. I think we have seven or eight different chargers lying around the house plus duplicates at work or in bags. Every time you get a new device you get yet another charger that doesn't work with anything else. ITU, I love you!
Now how about sorting out electricity sockets?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How free is free?

We all assume that everything on the net is free and that somehow advertising pays for all the services we use. As a result we upload tons of content to servers somewhere out there and believe they're safe there. But what happens when the company providing that service has financial problems and decides to charge for the service or, worse still, decides simply to pull out the plug?

There's a critical article on this theme in Times Higher Education by Tara Brabazon, Beware writers bearing promises of a free internet. In particular Chris Anderson's book "Free" comes under fire as it shows the "freemium" movement to be ultimately highly commercial rather than the philanthropic movement it is sometimes presented as.

"His (Anderson's) “free” is corporatised. The cost of free is permanence, reliability and stability. The old cliché is correct. We get what we pay for: when the price is free, then the “service” can be removed without questions or reprisal."

Brabazon used a web service for storing her audio files that suddenly disappeared because the owners decided that the service wasn't being used enough. Since it was "free" they had no obligation to communicate with the users. In addition, the cost of using many free services is the irritation of having sometimes highly inappropriate ads next to your content; especially sensitive if you're using it for teaching.

We trust companies like Google and Ning but if times get tough who knows what may happen. Our information is at their mercy. Terms can be changed at the drop of a hat and it's important we are aware of this and not place unlimited trust in companies that, after all, are there to make money. The free services are, of course, mostly there as bait to get you into the premium services. I admit the irony of writing this on a free blog tool!

The article does however point us in the direction of a genuine non-profit archive for digital material, the Internet Archive. This is a massive library of films, photos, audio, texts and an archive of 150 billion web pages from 1996 to the present day. The archive “is free and open for everyone to use ..... to encourage widespread use of texts in new contexts by people who might not have used them before." This is possibly the real meaning of "free".

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

E-book competition hots up

I've written several times about e-book readers, especially Amazon's Kindle, and would really like to try one out. They are just becoming available in Europe so maybe I can do so in the not too distant future. Now there's a tough new rival on the scene. I see lots of articles hailing the Kindle's first real competitor - please welcome ladies and gentlemen, in the blue corner, from Barnes & Noble, we give you the Nook!

Yes, the giant US bookseller Barnes & Noble have launched their own e-book reader, the Nook, linking up with their own Wi-Fi network points and able to download e-books from you know who. One attractive feature of the Nook is that it allows users to lend each other e-books (as you would with hard copies) and you can even lend the e-books to friends who have iPhones, iPods or Blackberries as long as they have the necessary B&N software. Sounds promising though I sadly can't find any mention of sharing with a Kindle.

I'm really waiting for a non-proprietary device that allows me to download books from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or whoever else has what I'm looking for. Let's have the freedom of choice in the content and software but not yet more gadgets that are tied to one particular company. Whatever one you choose there's something good that you can't do. The Nook seems a step in the right direction but a long way from making a real breakthrough. I may have to wait a while longer.

Read more at Barnes & Noble, CNN, Read Write Web.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Nine till Five

Remember that seventies comedy with Dolly Parton about life in an office? Thirty years on, we've dumped the typewriters but most of us are still stuck in the office working nine till five as the song goes. We study more and more on-line and flexible learning has become an relatively accepted part of educational terminology but what about distance working? We can network with people from all corners of the globe and all knowledge is just a mouse click away but we still spend hours commuting to get to the place from where we do all that.

There's an article on this theme in Inside Higher Ed, Decentralized Work: The Final Frontier. Many universities that have extensive distance learning opportunities have not developed distance working to the same extent. I must admit I work very seldom from home even if there is seldom any good reason for not doing so. But very few of my colleagues do so and it just doesn't seem totally acceptable unless in exceptional circumstances. There's no law against it but the important point is there's no encouragement to do so either.

We're still set in our old industrial ways and somehow the feeling that if you're at your desk you're being productive is hard to erase. With all the fuss about swine flu I would guess that home working would be one way round the problem of infection but I haven't heard of any organisation that has tried this. Of course most people enjoy the social side of the workplace and there's no doubt that all the corridor and coffee room chat is important. However I find some days that I have more interaction with people in other towns and countries than I have with colleagues in the same building and therefore I could probably be able to do most of my work from home without interfering with my social contacts.

As the article writes:
"Whether you call it teleworking, Web working, telecommuting, distance working, or e-working, the concept is the same: Work isn’t some place you go, it’s something you do. It focuses on the information-age idea of decentralizing the office, as opposed to the industrial-age idea of bringing everyone to one single location."

Many people would probably work more efficiently from home and many would benefit from not having to commute every weekday but it requires the management to lead the way and make it not only possible but accepted. The technology is all there it's just the mindset that hasn't caught up.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

40 shades of green

A couple of months ago there was a fascinating debate on the net inspired by a session called The VLE is dead at the ALT-C conference in Manchester. The debate was about whether or not universities needed to use learning management systems (or Virtual Learning Environments) like Blackboard or Moodle. Could we not simply let teachers and students use their own blends of social media, so-called personal learning environments, and escape from the central control and uniformity of the VLE? There's always a tension in most organisations between demands for central control and efficiency and demands for decentralisation, freedom of expression and diversity. Creating a balance between these poles is not easy and I find myself swinging between them almost every week.

One side of me is attracted to the idea of the university deciding on one LMS/VLE plus a select few other common tools and providing coordinated practical support for both students and teachers. The majority of faculty are not familiar with the latest social media and simply want to use reliable, easy and standardised tools. Too much choice can cause stress and confusion so a limited selection of tools with practical support appeals to most. There is a widening digital gap and I suspect that many people realize all too well that they missed the boat many years ago and feel they have no chance of ever catching up. As a result, some of them steer clear of IT as much as possible. The last thing they need is to be presented with the Aladdin's Cave of digital delights that is Web 2.0!

On the other hand there are the experienced teachers who are constantly trying new approaches and experimenting with new technology. They're the ones who feel restricted by the constraints of the standard LMS/VLE and advocate a free PLE approach. It's essential that we explore all the new opportunities available on the net but how do we encourage that without alienating the majority who want a stable and secure learning environment? I like the idea of breaking out of the walled garden and creating truly flexible learning environments but the vast majority of staff (and probably students) are not ready for such freedom.

I don't think students would appreciate a situation when every course they take uses a different mix of tools all with different log-ins (of course!). How does the university provide support for such diversity? How do we link them all with our administrative systems? How much academic freedom can you allow before it becomes unmanageable?

Too much flexibility can have negative effects; what's flexible for the teacher becomes a burden on the student or the administration and vice versa. As the conference debate showed there are appealing arguments for both sides of this question and the answer probably lies somewhere inbetween. Standard supported solutions for the majority but some kind of flexibility to let the pioneers experiment as well.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Meeting madness

One of the tasks I hate most at work is arranging a meeting. Whether it is face-to-face or on-line the problem is the same: finding a date and time that suits everyone involved. Most people use the extremely inefficient method of fixing a time through dozens of e-mails between all concerned, often causing confusion and frustration. Even a meeting between 5-6 people can take several rounds of e-mail negotiation and when you want more to meet it becomes impossible and more dictatorial methods are required.

Now there are some excellent net-based tools to simplify matters such as Meeting Wizard, Meet-o-matic and Doodle. Problem solved I thought and started using them. The only problem is that the e-mails they create generally end up in my colleagues' spam folders or in some cases vanish completely in the university's firewall. As a result half of the recipients never even know I'm arranging a meeting and we end up going back to primitive e-mail. If we all had access to each others' calenders it might solve things but we all use different calenders.

Will Google Wave improve this mess? It looks promising but I'm wary of the extreme hype on it just now. However e-mail is becoming too unwieldy and we need new solutions fast. I read somewhere recently that close to 90% of all e-mail today is spam. At least we can say that the vast majority of e-mail flooding the net is spam and that's a clear sign that we need new ways to communicate.

I've just read an article related to all this called The end of the e-mail era in Wall Street Journal. Lots about the successors to e-mail but no clear solution to fixing meetings.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Taking the geek out of tech

One of the best things about using Blogger is that, on the whole, what you write is what you get. You don't need to learn any codes to write your blog and as a result it's highly popular. There are now so many similarly user friendly applications that we have grown to expect full transparency. But things are not always so easy.

I enjoyed reading a post on Lisa's Teaching Blog, Four web technologies that shouldn't be geeky anymore, where she lists RSS, wikis, tagging and embedding as four technologies that should be much easier. They are all extremely useful but in most cases remain relatively inaccessible due to what she sees as unneccessary complexities.

RSS, for instance, is probably my most important tool at work. I use Netvibes to gather hundreds of feeds. I find it easy to use but it still involves the process of finding the RSS button on an interesting website (not so easy even on popular sites), copying the link and then pasting it into Netvibes. One click should do it. RSS is one of the most useful web services around, especially for teachers and researchers, but very few that I know use it. It just hasn't been adequately hyped I suppose. The name doesn't help either. "Really Simple Syndication" - yes, quite.

Wikis are widely used but I also wonder if they couldn't just design them so we could dispense with the few codes and symbols they use. One teacher I know tried to get students to use MediaWiki but they found it too complicated, lost interest and solved the task using other tools. It's not that complicated but for many people the mere sight of coding turns them off instantly. The easiest wiki tool I've used is PBworks which hasn't so far required me to write any code at all.

Of course I admit that these problems could simply be down to my own reluctance to learn the finer points but the four technologies mentioned here might be much more widespread if they were just a bit more straightforward.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Book piracy on the rise

Digital content is, of course, simple to copy and it's getting increasingly harder to persuade people to pay for it. The music and film industry try desperately to stop the copying but unless they can come up with a radically innovative new business model they seem to have a hopeless task on their hands.

Now the publishing industry is also under fire according to a recent article in The New York Times, Will books be napsterized? Until recently there hasn't been much interest in e-books but with more attractive laptops and e-book readers available you can now download many e-books for free. It's not legal of course but just like music file-sharing it's hard to stop.

One possible future model is already employed by some textbook sites; read on-line for free, download a pdf chapter for a small sum or buy the whole book. Even with the increasingly attractive technology on offer today I doubt if many would opt to read War and Peace on a computer screen, even if it was free. But for articles, shorter novels, reference works and so on the free alternative is definitely appealing.

Will this see the end of books? I doubt it, at least not for a long time. Admittedly if all my books were stored on-line we cold free enormous amounts of space in the house and several metres of Billy bookcases from IKEA would be dumped. But it wouldn't be the same. The space once occupied by our old record and VHS collections has admittedly been liberated but books have more intrinsic value somehow; so much more then just naked text. Records and video tapes were short-lived media whereas books go back to ancient Egypt. Our bookshelves summarize our lives and many books are filled with memories and associations that wouldn't be possible if they existed only as digital files. I can't help quickly scanning friends' bookshelves when visiting their homes just to see what subjects we have in common. It wouldn't be the same just scanning their e-book folder.

Photo: © Janne Olander