Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Technology in the classroom - fond memories

The year was 1969 and Armstrong and Aldrin were soon to land on the moon using the computing power of the average modern cellphone. My primary school class were also making a giant leap by being allowed to follow the country's first TV-broadcast sex education series. Up till then there was little use of television in the classroom but this awkward subject seemed ideal for TV since it meant that teachers would be released from potentially embarrassing lessons to teach. Furthermore all pupils would get the same message.

As I remember, the series was very well done considering the taboos of the period and we got the message with a minimum of fuss. However, all parents had to give written consent to their children seeing the series and a small group were excluded, having to sit in another room and draw or read. Maybe some parents didn't like the idea of such a subject being taught by TV or maybe they thought we should remain sweet and innocent a few more years. Whatever the reason I think the medium was excellent for the purpose and stands in stark contrast to the more traditional method of sex education I encountered the following year.

I was in a new school then and only a few of the pupils had seen the revolutionary television series. So it was the job of the biology teacher to update us all on the facts of life. He was a decent teacher but on this subject he was rather shy. We first got a confusing lesson about all the vital organs with all the names in Latin and diagrams that reminded me mostly of marine invertebrates. Many didn't even realise we were getting sex education. The final and most memorable part of this process was when we watched a film about the mating habits of locusts. They touched each other with their antennae for a while before the male jumped up on the female and they stayed locked together and motionless for some time. I remember one lad asking the teacher if they enjoyed it and he said it was hard to tell. The lad replied promptly, " Look sir, I think that one is smiling!"

That was it. Goodness knows how the kids who hadn't seen the TV series managed to work out the intricacies of sexual intimacy. I'm not sure what the moral of this story is but it's a good example of how far we've advanced in tackling this sensitive subject and how the "good old days" of education were often less effective than we'd like to remember.

Photo: Cheryl Recca, Stockvault.com

Monday, December 21, 2009

Being bored

How often do you simply just sit staring into space, unable to think of anything to do? Or maybe you don't have an iPhone yet. The fact is that we are seldom in such situations nowadays since you can always watch, listen to or read something on some kind of mobile device. Failing that you're never far from a TV screen or piped muzak. Waiting for a bus or train used to be dull but now I can listen to music or podcasts, update Facebook or Twitter (eg I'm waiting for a bus), check the latest news or sport results and even watch highlights from a match. Now you barely notice that the bus went swishing past you ten minutes ago. The soundtrack of our lives keeps playing wherever we are.

In our always-on society we simply haven't any excuse for being bored. But boredom can be beneficial. Those quiet moments give us time to think and that may even lead to creative thinking. A blog post by Mattias Klang (in Swedish) lists a number of things he will miss in the future: bookshops selling more than just bestsellers, newspapers, notebooks and pens, letter writing and of course non-productive time. That non-productive, quiet time is under threat. It's becoming impossible to resist the temptation to connect.

Those of us brought up in the days of one or two TV channels and not many more options on the radio had plenty of media-free time to contemplate. Are we therefore better at handling silence and inactivity than today's youngsters? Is quiet time an essential part of our lives that is now under threat from media bombardment. I feel it may be and that we all need to be confronted with boredom now and again but it's not something we willingly volunteer to do. It's easy to say "just switch off" but much harder to do.

Friday, December 18, 2009


I read a lot of magazines and probably subscribe to one too many; I just can't kick the habit. It means that I seldom get down to reading so many books because magazines get in the way. I also enjoy visiting newsagents and browsing at the ever-increasing range of magazines on offer. There you really see the overwhelming volume of production available today. On the net you only look at one site at a time (mostly) but on the newstands you see them all side by side.

But is all this soon to go, swept away by the same forces that are undermining video hire stores and record shops? Magazines are glossy, attractive and full of top quality photography. Today's e-book readers like Kindle just can't compete with the paper versions but what happens when the tablet readers get the same graphics as the glossy mags? Plus links to video, animations and interactive content.

This film is a vision of a possible e-magazine reader from the Swedish publisher Bonnier (Digital magazines: Bonnier Mag+ Prototype). We're not there yet but soon will be and the big question is whether people will be willing to pay for this sort of attractive content. Could this be a way for publishers to earn money from content? The device is slim and no bigger than the average paper magazine but should of course be able to store hundreds of magazines. Now if that device can also act as a computer screen so I don't need to carry several devices then I'm very interested. When devices like this come on the market the newsagents could be in trouble.

Mag+ from Bonnier on Vimeo.

Putting it simply

I mentioned recently how hard it is to explain educational technology to friends and family and it's always good to get practical tips on how to explain our much-loved terminology in plain English.

Christopher D Sessums
offers a wonderfully simple definition of web 2.0 that I'd just like to pass on (see A simple definition: Web 2.0). Make further suggestions on his blog.

Web 1.0 = me
Web 2.0 = me + you

Web 1.0 = read
Web 2.0 = read + write

Web 1.0 = connecting ideas
Web 2.0 = connecting ideas + connecting people

Web 1.0 = search
Web 2.0 = recommendations of friends/others

Web 1.0 = find
Web 2.0 = share

Web 1.0 = techies rule
Web 2.0 = everybody rules

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Making the grade

Finding a reliable, objective and fair way of quantifying learning is the Eldorado of education. Grades are the standard way of showing how much you learned at school and of showing how well the school has taught you. There are plenty cries today to go back to more standardised tests so that schools' quality and efficiency can be assessed. Parents want to send their children to the best schools; those with the best results.

As a result students learn enough to pass the tests and constantly ask teachers if this information will be in the exam, otherwise it isn't worth learning. Teachers teach to ensure that the students pass the exams and the school remains high in the "league table" and gets generous funding. Students with good grades then naturally expect to get the good jobs.

I admit I was pretty good at the art of passing exams but when I look back I didn't really understand how to apply what I had learned until much later. The CV looked good but did that really mean much? I could have learned so much more if I had been more aware.

Clay Burrell's blog post, Why "academic excellence" no longer cuts it today, claims that mere grades are far from enough today. Passing the exam only takes you half way and Burrell names "withitness" as a vital factor; the ability to really learn and apply that knowledge. It's what gets you the job when there are several other candidates with top grades. It's about having a natural curiosity to find out more and to go beyond the limitations of the set curriculum. In most careers there is no textbook you can learn by heart, no set learning objectives. To succeed you have to go outside the walls and explore, take risks, sometimes fail and above all be open to new ideas.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Glass ceiling

Working with net-based education is fascinating and a never-ending learning process. I often have to revise my views and have no doubt displayed a few inconsistencies since this blog began. The frustrating side is that, despite so much evidence that education can benefit greatly from technology, there is so little enthusiasm from educational leaders. Edtech conferences are nearly always stimulating but tend to be gatherings of the converted; the top decision makers are conspicuous by their absence. As a result there's a massive disconnect between the edtech community and the leaders.

I read Bill Ferriter's blog post, Retaining net gen teachers: an impossible dream, with great interest, nodding in agreement at most of it. His point is that innovative, "net gen" teachers all too often leave the profession after getting little or no response for their creative ideas. I'm not sure about the net gen label he uses as there are plenty of older people who are much more net gen than many teenagers. Let's call them innovative teachers instead.

These innovators soon become frustrated at the built-in conservatism in education and leave to find more stimulating work in the business world instead. Maybe it's all part of the educational cycle where those who enjoyed and thrived in a traditional school environment then study to become teachers and continue the tradition. To break the circle we need more disruptive teachers, especially those who did not enjoy their schooldays. But how?

"Our senior leaders do a ton of talking about the power found in collaborative teams but do little to create the kinds of structures that might make achieving something worthwhile alongside motivated colleagues possible......... Not only will it be difficult within the current structures to find the resources to reimagine our profession, I see little political will to make the kinds of changes necessary to retain Net Generation teachers."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Internet safety - who needs most help, children or adults?

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety has launched an initiative to introduce compulsory lessons in internet safety for all primary school pupils from 2011 (see also a BBC article, Internet safety for children targeted). Good to see coordinated action being taken in this important field but it's not just a case of simply warning the children. Adults must be much more aware of what goes on on the net and the key skill of digital literacy for all comes to mind.

In response to the news there's a highly relevant blog post, So shoot me.., that looks at the real dangers facing children on the net but also stresses the need for adults to learn to become better role models (be sure to read the comments to this post). The net is just a reflection of society and there's a sad lack of respect for other people's feelings and beliefs, not just on the net but in other media. Net bullying, hate campaigns and abusive comments are there for all to see on many websites and children absorb these impressions. Let's help the kids to use the net responsibly but we adults have to radically clean up our act too. It's like insisting on your kids wearing a seat belt or cycle helmet and then not doing so yourself.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The texting myth

One of the most prolific urban myths in recent years is that teenagers' cellphone texting is seriously damaging their writing skills. Tales of students handing in school assignments full of text abbreviations are passed around the net but is there any truth behind them?

It's refreshing to get the answer from one of the most respected authorities in language and communication, David Crystal in his new book; the aptly named Txtng: The Gr8 Db8. There's an interview with him in Visual Thesaurus, David Crystal on the myth of texting where he states that the texted assignment was really a hoax put out on the net to stir up feelings and then became a truth that people were only too willing to believe. Internet myths are much stronger than myths of the past since they can become global "truths" in a matter of hours.

Abbreviations are used in SMS-texting and, indeed, in the more adult arena of Twitter due to space restrictions. We're forced to cut out all embellishments and focus on the bare bones. Teenagers, argues Crystal, are able to cope easily with different registers of language and realize clearly when texting language is appropriate. Interviews with many teenagers reveal that they can't believe how anyone would use texting abbreviations in school work. It simply doesn't belong there and they all realise that. In addition, by analysing large amounts of text messages Crystal found that only around 10% of words were abbreviated at all, thereby deflating the whole debate.

There's nothing new with abbreviated forms of course. I certainly used them in my note-taking at lectures at university and they certainly didn't get reproduced in my essays. Property terms like des res, all mod cons (desirable residence, all modern conveniences) have been with us for many tears without any fears for estate agents' literacy skills. Somehow the use of devices that many adults still feel uncomfortable with makes old habits suddenly seem threatening.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Distractions and their price

My favourite themes at present seem to be multitasking and backchannels and I return to the former once again. New and interesting articles on multitasking just keep coming and the latest one to catch my attention is new research into the effects of pop-ups on our computer screens. In this case it's not the brash, flashing pop-up ads that explode in your face on sites of a dubious nature, it's the pop-up alerts we get to tell us that a new e-mail, tweet or Facebook update has arrived. How much do such interruptions disturb our concentration?

That's the theme of research by Dr Helen Hodgetts and Professor Dylan Jones of Cardiff University entitled Now, where was I? Cognitive models and support mechanisms for interrupted task performance. They show that these interruptions break our cognitive focus and it can take a minute or two to get back on track even when the interruption was of little significance. Not surprisingly the louder or more obvious the alert the greater the disturbance. Evidently discrete audio warning alerts can give us time to decide whether to notice or ignore the coming message and thereby maintaining concentration. The moral of the story is that alerts should be as discrete as possible and that we should be able to personalize them according to situation.

I also plead guilty to allowing alerts to interrupt me while trying to concentrate on reading or writing (right now, though, I've only got background music). I think most of us find it difficult to turn off the e-mail, instant messaging, Twitter, cellphone etc when we really need to concentrate. I really must shut them down more often even if it is fun to communicate.

For more on this research read a report on Live Science, Workers should turn off visual alerts, and from Wales Online, Curse of the computer pop-up costs us so dear.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Backchannel guide

After several recent posts about the pitfalls of back channel communication at conferences I was pleased to find that someone has written a practical guide to this area. It's called The Backchannel Book and is a community wiki full of information on the various tools you can use (Twitter, Jammer, various IM tools, document sharing etc.), how to use them and related articles.

One page in particular that caught my attention with regard to the recent reports of Twitter heckling and disruptive behaviour, is the Backchannel Agreement. This is a list of guidelines outlining a conference code of conduct aimed at organisers, presenters and participants. A very relevant checklist for any conference and, with some adaption, the base of a code of conduct for any class as well.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Terms of participation

Howard Rheingold is a guy I'd like to meet but until that happens I enjoy watching his video contributions and therefore paste in his latest thoughts on digital literacy, The internet as playground and factory.

The Internet as Playground and Factory - Howard Rheingold from Voices from The Internet as Play on Vimeo.

Read also an article by him on Encyclopedia Britannica Blog, Is multitasking evil? Or are most of us illiterate?

So what line of work are you in then?

Do you have the same problem as I have when people ask what you work with? Explaining distance learning can be hard enough since a lot of people have no idea it exists but how do you start explaining social media and how they can be relevant for education? It can be quite a shock to the system to meet people who have no idea of what you're talking about. How do you get the message across clearly, briefly and without frightening them away?

I had such an experience today and I fear that in my enthusiasm to enlight I just succeeded in confusing. Most people still see the classroom as the model for all education and the net as, at best, a source of entertainment. The connection between the two is unclear. Many such people are teachers, working hard and teaching well in most cases. But the potential of the net for accessing knowledge and connecting with others hasn't become apparent to them. How to start explaining?

Then I saw an excellent blog post by Shelly Terrell called Most teachers don't live there which provides a convincing and positive set of arguments for teachers who are doubtful of the value of the net in education. If we are educators shouldn't we participate in discussions with our colleagues around the world? Shouldn't we compare our own work with others and learn from each other? Shouldn't we help students use the net responsibly? To do this we need to be out there reading and writing blogs, participating in forums and sharing our knowledge.

"Technology is not the enemy and ignorance is not bliss. If we don’t show students how to use social media and technology, then we cannot complain when they use this in unhealthy ways."