Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Social lurking

Most people who have ever started a web community or discussion forum have probably noticed that the vast majority of contributions come from a small minority of dedicated participants. Most members are content simply to read and follow. It's especially true on Facebook in my experience. I have belonged to many Facebook groups who have numerous members (or rather people who have clicked the "like" button) but where almost nothing ever happens.We're all rather good at liking all sorts of causes but very few do much more than that. The fact is that although the social web has given everyone the chance to contribute, most people are quite happy simply being consumers.

That's the theme of an article on CNN, Many social networkers happy just to lurk. The number of people involved with social media is increasing dramatically but the number of people who actually create content remains stable. Maybe it's a case of TV syndrome. We've been brought up on the passive consumption of broadcast media so it's no surprise that we have so far viewed the net in the same way. The idea of everyone being creative and engaging in political and cultural discussion is very appealing but I think we have to accept that most people are very happy to simply watch from a distance; as they would at a physical meeting.

This reminds me a bit of when I was an English teacher many years ago. We had so-called conversation classes for people who wanted to discuss in English. They were often very tricky since many of the participants had very little to say and I struggled to create a relaxed atmosphere for discussion. It took me a while to figure out the problem but realised that many of them weren't particularly talkative in their own language. I felt that some possibly thought they could learn to be more social in English than they were in Swedish. Unfortunately if you are quite and thoughtful in one language you are unlikely to be different in a second language. The same applies in social media and the figures in the CNN article are simply stating the obvious.

The moral is possibly that when you have something to say you have plenty of opportunity to make yourself heard today. If you have nothing to contribute, then just sit back and enjoy what others are discussing. We all need to lurk sometimes.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Making tech more human

The previous post had a video about a robot teacher and the moral of that story is that we should be trying to make the technology more human than the other way around. Here's another film, this time a TED talk, about making mobile devices more human. A cellphone could, for example, be built to distribute its weight according to function. When following directions in a city the mobile will shift its weight to the left when we should turn left and forwards when we need to go straight on and so on. The deice can also be built to vibrate more intensely when something exciting is happening and calm down when we stroke it reassuringly.

Shades of the tamagotchi really but probably just an extension of similar attenpts to make technology more intuitive. Remember Microsoft's Office assistant? The friendly paper clip/dog/cat that would appear on your screen with sometimes irritating regularity and suggest better ways of doing what you what you were trying to do. The idea was basically good but most people soon got tired of the know-it-all agent and discarded it.

I also remember experiments with a desktop where applications behaved like pets trying to get your attention. Applications that you often use would jump at you on the screen almost begging to be clicked on whereas system applications that run in the background almost hid themselves from you. That didn't really catch on either.

I'm not sure if we really want to have more human machines. Maybe its better to keep them as simply machines. Anyway, watch the film and draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

We are the robots

The following video is a fine example of what technology in education is NOT about (a video report from The Chronicle of Higher Education). Robot teachers have been a feature of sci-fi movies and literature for decades and although these Korean cyberteachers are rather charming and have no doubt excellent technical merits they have very little to do with teaching. At best they are extremely expensive self study tools based on the assumption that teaching is the transfer of facts.

The role of the teacher is indeed changing. Instead of deciding what to learn, today's teacher concentrates more on helping students discover how to learn as a vital life skill. Learning is a social activity and it's very difficult to learn effectively without getting feedback and encouragement. The teacher's role as a mentor and facilitator is a supremely human one and the children in the film seem soundly skeptical to the robot's lame and disengaged encouragement.

If there is a lack of native English teachers in Korean schools why not get schools to link up with teachers via Skype and collaborate with English speaking kids through social media? Technology provides us with great tools to help us with uniquely human processes.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Web video key to innovation

Having been reared on TV and film most of us find video an excellent medium for learing. We learn by watching and imitating and printed media are simply not very good at that. Video on the web has exploded in recent years and there are predictions that 90% of all web content will be video in a few years from now, The power of YouTube and suchlike is that someone with talent or an idea can communicate it with potentially millions of others and in turn inspire others to further develop the idea.

This is the theme of Chris Anderson's recent inspiring TED talk, How web video powers global innovation, embedded below. He shows examples of how ideas have spread thanks to the web and how innovative ideas from all over the world can be highlighted as never before.The implications of this movement for education are for me clear. Why then is the education system often so sceptical towards the role of technology? Fear of losing control?

Watch this in combination with Sugata Mitra's TED talk from a previous post and you get a new perspective on how technology can radically change education.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Lecture notes

Recorded lectures on the net are becoming big business. Hundreds of universities now offer free lectures via channels such as iTunes U, YouTube Edu and Academic Earth and many more distribute recorded lectures internally. According to a new survey reported in Campus Technology (College students on streaming video: get me outta class!) about half of the students claimed that they preferred the recorded versions to actually sitting in the classroom. Now admittedly this survey was sponsored by a company that sells videoconferencing equipment but I suspect that the student attitudes are fairly representative.

The advantages of having lectures available online are, according to students in the survey, that they allow you to review them whenever you want, catch up on missed classes, be able to take multiple classes and allow you to fast-forward through the uninteresting parts. They also claimed that recorded lectures helped them prepare better for exams.

The lecture as a teaching method goes back to ancient Greece and is still the staple diet of most university courses. It's amazing that it still thrives despite clear evidence that it doesn't work. Some people learn effectively by listening but most don't and the result is a classroom where many are half asleep or distracted by more engaging activities like Facebook or instant messaging. If teachers take exception to this just look at our own behaviour when we're at conferences; how many are actually listening to the speaker?

Even recorded lectures are seldom particularly stimulating unless delivered by a gifted speaker. I would not claim that we should abolish lectures but we should probably cut them by at least half. In the right context a high quality lecture can inspire and provoke but the message of many mediocre lectures could be better delivered as a podcast or written article. The time saved by not giving lectures can be devoted instead to leading discussion and reflection; a much better use of the teacher's contact time with students.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Preparing for the future

There seems to be a wide gap between how young people use technology in their spare time and how they use it in school. A year ago I saw a report on this comparing computer use at home and in school (sorry I can't remember the reference this time) and the gap showed up very clearly with Sweden having one of the widest gaps in Europe. Kids who are intensive users of the net outside school hardly use it at all in school. It seems that some people consider the net as purely for entertainment and therefore not for use in an academic setting. Learning is of course a serious business. This compartmentalisation is rather convenient because it means that schools don't have to teach digital skills since the kids know that already (due to the myth of digital natives/net generation).

There's a new report now that looks into this alarming gap,
21st-Century Classroom Report: Preparing Students for the Future or the Past?. It studies student and teacher attitudes to IT and tries to summarize what students expect of their teachers and schools. Around 1,000 high school students, faculty and IT staff were involved in the study and the results show a worrying mismatch between technology use in school and in society in general.

The key findings are:
  • "High school students say technology is vital to their education and their future, but schools are not meeting their needs
  • Faculty members use technology to teach, but many students lack opportunities to use technology in class
  • To improve, districts should focus on developing 21st-century skills and bringing technology to class."
Often the technology is in place but not fully implemented or understood. I've seen examples of institutions buying in learning management systems that are then used as digital notice boards whilst assignments and material are still rolled off on the photocopier and students submit print versions of their work for marking. The tools are all there but old habits seem to die very hard. especially in education.

Another interesting statistic is that there is a considerable gap between teachers' use of technology at home and in school. Many have smartphones and use instant messenging and e-meetings at home but very seldom at work. So it's not a simple problem of teachers not using the net. They use it but don't seem to see the connection with education. Does school inhibit innovation in some way?

About half of the students felt that school was preparing them adequately for their use of technology in their future careers. In many cases the technology is present in the school in the form of wireless access, smartboards, learning management systems and so on but it simply isn't used to its full potential. Much of the teaching is still based on the communication norms of the past rather than using the media and methods that students are likely to use in the future.

The report concludes by offering practical suggestions on how to improve the situation. Teachers must encourage technology use in student assignments and make sure that material is always available in digital form. The key is to use technology wisely and as a natural and integrated part of all course activity. The net is already an integral part of our lives, both at work and at home. Why then is the educational sector still hesitant? Aren't we responsible for preparing students for a future career?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

'Learned helplessness'

This heading is the name of an excellent post by Peter Kent on his blog Practical Interactivity. My previous post about self-organised learning demonstrates children's ability to learn things through collaboration and without adult guidance. Why then do we seem to lose this ability as we grow older? Does school teach us into a 'learned helplessness' whereby we cannot learn new concepts without someone formally teaching us.

Many teachers are still very wary of technology and all too often wait in vain for some major internal training initiative that will give them the competence they need. Many hide behind the convenient title 'digital immigrant' to explain why they are not using technology in class. That would seem to be admitting defeat before even trying.

"A mindset that insists on Professional Development before integrating technology is flawed.  It is not how we were born.  As children we all learnt to play with our toy, draw with our crayons, and as we learnt we made mistakes.  We did this through experimentation.  It is how we were born to acquire skills, to learn.  How is it now that so many adults are reduced to tears when confronted by an unfamiliar technology? We have learned to become helpless; most likely by playing the traditional game of ‘school’."

We need to foster a spirit of curiosity in schools and universities and if the teachers are not curious then neither will the students be. We all need to take responsibility for our own learning and recognize that learning is a lifelong pursuit. Many people I think realize that they have fallen far behind in terms of technology adoption and become smply paralysed. Catching up seems too daunting so instead you claim that you simply haven't got the time for such things and stick to tried and tested traditional teaching methods, deep down hoping for some magic crash course that will come from above (but never does).

Maybe we need to be inspired by the Indian children in Sugata Mitra's work (see below) and encourage groups of teachers to get together and experiment, preferably with the help of a more experienced mentor. There are no quick fixes to digital literacy. But a positive atmosphere towards innovation and experimentation is essential.

For more thoughts on this theme I can recommend a post by Innovative Educator called Think you're a digital immigrant? Get over it! and a list of key factors for the adoption of educational technology in the post What teachers need to understand.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Self-organised learning

"Good teachers don't go to the places they're needed most."

An excellent quote from this talk by Professor Sugata Mitra at a recent TED conference on his fascinating experiments with self-organised learning among children in underprivileged areas of India and south-east Asia. This impressive work is known as the hole-in-the-wall method. What he has done is to place computers out in the streets of slum areas and let the children just use them as they please. Without instruction or adult intervention the children collaborated and learned how to access games, record themselves, write and find information. This occurred even if the information was mostly in English, a language that few, if any, understood. In all cases the children clearly showed that they had learnt by helping each other.

The effect was evidently even more impressive with the help of the so-called "grandmother method" whereby the children had access to an older woman, often via Skype, who would simply encourage them, ask questions and generally admire them. The experiments have been repeated in several countries and on a large scale and the results have been consistently impressive. As professor at the University of Newcastle Mitra has also been working with children in local schools giving them tasks to work out in small groups sharing a computer but without teacher assistance. The results mirror those in India.

He has coined the term Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE) to describe a small room with computer and screen where children in schoolless areas can gain access to learning under the benevolent guidance of the virtual grannies. With relatively small investment it could make a big difference to a lot of people.

Does this mean that schools and teachers are not needed? Of course not but it raises some important issues about how education works. We probably grossly underestimate children's (and adults') ability to learn and collaborate and we probably overestimate the power of the traditional classroom model of teaching. Mitra's work shows that children are able to learn very effectively in groups with the help of a computer but also that the presence of a mentor figure to guide and encourage them has a very positive effect.

This ties in with a lot of the ideas behind connectivism and collaborative learning. Interestingly Mitra points out that the effects are not so impressive if the children all have computers; group work is the crucial factor. Learning is a social process. The question is whether all this research and positive results can seriously influence our attitudes to education.

Read more about Professor Mitra's work at Hole-in-the-Wall.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Coming to a living room near you

It's rather strange that the net hasn't really reached the living room. Of course it is possible to connect your TV to your computer and watch web TV and so on but it's an exception rather than the rule. The stereo system may have disappeared but the TV is still king of the living room strictly tied to proprietary cable or satellite technologies. The problem is that many of us are getting increasingly bored with the often predictable and limited content available via satellite and cable companies (see Springsteen's famous song "57 channels and nothing on"). Sadly there are very few TV shows that can get the whole family assembled around the TV as we did in the past. Even when we do so there's often one in the family also on a laptop communicating with friends. When is the net going to take over the living room?

The battle is just starting according to an article called Who will own the living room? on Techi. Not surprisingly the main aspirants are Apple, Google, Microsoft and Sony. The problem is how to get all the content of the web streaming into your living room and who will control that access. Is there a future for TV channels or will we move over to purely on-demand services where you can access any film or sports event you want for a certain monthly subscription (or not)? Will we get some kind of Spotify/iTunes solution for movies/sport/news/shows and you watch whatever you want whenever you want it?

We still haven't really got used to the idea of accessing the net via the big screen in the living room. It'll take time to change habits and the TV companies will not give up their dominance easily. First of all we need high speed and reliable broadband acces for all before anything serious is going to happen and that's still a far-off vision in many countries.

Monday, September 6, 2010

'It's not about computers, it's about learning'

The headline here comes from an article I've just read called In Schools of the Future, Students Learn Best by Doing, Vigorously and Digitally (from the blog Connected Principals). So many discussions about the use of IT in education get bogged down in endless discussions about the merits or demerits of various tools and applications instead of examining how we should use technology to enhance learning. As long as the discussion is limited to tech issues the decision makers will tend to simply delegate the question to the tech people. We need to focus on how learning can benefit from the almost limitless opportunities for collaboration and knowledge sharing that modern technology offers.

"It’s not about the computer; it’s about the learning.  Our students today both want and need to be active, engaged, collaborative, on-line, vigorous, empowered, creative,  solvers of real-world problems.   They need to be skilled and informed to do so, but they need to be challenged, motivated, and engaged in doing so."

Digital tools should be as pervasive as pens and paper in the classroom and we need to fully exploit the potential of the net instead of worrying about how it might interfere with traditional classroom structures and models. Most of us learn best by doing and not simply by listening. The real learning takes place when students are working together, discussing, testing, arguing and formalising. Digital skills such as information retrieval, referencing, networking and source criticism will be required in future careers and it is essential that these are integrated into the whole education system.

It's not about learning technology it's about how to use technology. Not about learning only how to use one tool but working out how such tools work in general and deducing strategies for using whatever tools you may need in the future. Computer skills are only a small part of this. The skills that are required are actually not new at all; reading, writing, critical thinking, collaboration, scientific investigation etc. The new element is that we use these skills in new environments and in ways that were not possible before. If we only teach pupils and students to use these skills in the context of printed material and in closed classroom groups we're not providing them with the competence they need for the future.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Campus goes virtual

According to a recent survey in the USA 95% of all campus students today own at least one computer, mostly laptops. I imagine 100% have mobile devices of some sort. This means that students expect their courses to be online and accessible. They need to be able to access their course work wherever they are and not be tied to one location. This means that the traditional computer lab is becoming rapidly obsolete and I doubt if many will mourn its passing (read more in an article on ReadWriteWeb, Virtualizing the University Computer Lab). Few rooms are as soulless as the typical computer lab and they tend to emphasize silent individual study rather than group work.

ES/MS Computer Lab by ACS Amman, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  ACS Amman 

Freed from the confines of the computer labs students are free to work where they want and group work seems increasingly popular. Closing down the computer labs can save the university a lot of money since they will not have to renew the hardware or pay for expensive software licences any more. On the other hand they will need to invest in building new types of study areas where students can work in groups or individually in stimulating environments with flexible furnishing and high speed wireless access.

The need for campus-based technology is also likely to decline as more and more students use the free net-based applications known as cloud computing. This is highlighted in an article in Campus Technology by Trent Batson called Learning Amongst the Riches: Students in the Cloud. Batson sees a clear trend that students are using social media to widen their contact networks and extend the learning process far beyond the limits of the campus. New technology allows them to build their own learning environments that they can build on long after their graduation. The university will no longer need to provide campus-based walled gardens such as learning management systems but will have a vital role in guiding students through the unlimited learning riches that lie beyond.

"The cloud is where new learning conversations and related innovations are happening. Learning itself is becoming virtualized. Universities have a new role, but are as essential as ever: They are guiding learners in the process of learning amongst the riches."

Another useful article on this theme is from Edtech Digest, High expectations for a high-tech campus.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Screen dream

We probably read and write more than ever today but still many people are concerned that we are losing those skills. School kids who in the past would not have willingly written anything outside the classroom now devote hours of their time to writing text messages. Many more hours are spent reading messages and instructions in the games they play as well as communicating constantly with fellow online gamers. Never before have so many people been involved in written communication through blogs, wikis and discussion groups. Yet still many people are worried that something is missing. We don't read books and newspapers so much any more, we read screens.

Screen Time by Geoff LMV, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  Geoff LMV 

This is the subject of an article by Kevin Kelly in The Smithsonian, Reading in a whole new way. We are surrounded by screens through which we gather and spread information, communicate, collaborate, socialize, inform, reflect and entertain. Screens are a much more dynamic arena than a static page; texts pop up, banners flash, links lead you straight to new information plus all the multimedia content. They also demand new reading and writing strategies.

"Books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking. A new idea or unfamiliar fact will provoke a reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen “friends” for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it. Book reading strengthened our analytical skills, encouraging us to pursue an observation all the way down to the footnote. Screen reading encourages rapid pattern-making, associating this idea with another, equipping us to deal with the thousands of new thoughts expressed every day. The screen rewards, and nurtures, thinking in real time."

I certainly read differently on a screen. I skim through texts looking for the main points and am very easily distracted by an interesting looking link or a film clip. I seldom read carefully anything of more than 3-4 pages on a screen. As a result we are learning to write differently for the screen. Long, formal and complex texts simply don't work on the web. No one will have the patience to read them. The question is where we should have such material or if it should exist at all. Not everything can be written in screen-friendly format.

The article contrasts screen reading from book reading but when all books are also on the screen the concept of reading will radically shift. The e-book has many functions that the printed version lacks: note-taking, referencing, links, video material, in-built dictionary etc. Will this change the way we read a novel? Will future novels have hyperlinks and interactive applications? Will people even write novels - why not multimedia games instead? Will the concept of the book change completely once it has moved into the digital realm?