Sunday, October 31, 2010

Farewell AM radio

The news that Swedish Radio (SR) are closing down their medium and short wave transmitters today gave me a good excuse to be a bit nostalgic (see article in Ny Teknik - in Swedish). We haven't really noticed it but hardly anyone transmits on those wavelengths any more and so a central part of my childhood and teenage media landscape is put to rest. The radio was a magic window allowing me to hear radio from other countries and although I understood nothing it was still exciting to listen a while to German, Dutch or even Russian stations. The short wave was a gold mine full of radio stations from all over Europe. In a way the closest we had to today's web.

ASA radio by Andrei!, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Andrei! 

Growing up in Scotland in the sixties there was plenty exciting new music but the BBC didn't play it more than a few hours a week. As a result we had to listen to Radio Luxemburg and the so-called pirate radio stations broadcasting from ships out in international water in the North Sea (familiar scenario isn't it?). Radio Luxembourg was great but the reception was unreliable. Just when your favourite song came on the interference increased and for a few minutes it was virtually impossible to listen to. The pirate stations were also great but sometimes were closed down for a while if they got raided. The best reception was from the Dutch Radio Nordsee and it was thanks to them that I first heard all sorts of great music. In the end the BBC realised that pop music was here to stay and created Radio 1 in 1967 and as a result the pirates gradually disappeared.

Disruptive technology that brings about a major change in the way mainstream media operate. Sounds familiar doesn't it?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Copyright confusion

I've just read a post called Common copyright mistakes that can still get you sued on the blog 10,000 Words. It explains some of the most common misconceptions about copying material on the web and has some pretty sound advice. Of course it's extremely easy to copy and paste photos, texts and films from one site to another and there are plenty people who exploit this. Photographers who try to live off their skill have evidently a hard time since it is so easy to copy their work and noone wants to pay for something that they can so easily do for free (plus the fact that the chances of anyone noticing and doing something about it are pretty small).
© by Mikelo, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Mikelo 

I think however that most people (including probably me) are simply not aware what is and is not allowed in this area. I always try to use Creative Commons material and always give credit to the source (please tell me if I fail on that). In most cases I am directing traffic to the source material and thereby helping to spread the work to a wider audience and that is what social media do so well. Anyone who uses this blog and at least gives me credit is welcome to do so!

However I wish that material on the web could be automatically marked to show what the rest of us may or may not do with it. If you post a photo or film or write an article and there was a mandatory field to fill in where you put a Creative Commons licence on it or mark it as copyright then we all would immediately know the rules (Flickr already does this). If I choose to ignore that then I can't say I haven't been warned. If the rules are clear and up-front we'd all be better off. It won't stop the illegal copying but it will help those who do want to stick by the rules.

One tool that helps is ImageCodr. If I find a Creative Commons photo on Flickr I can paste the URL into ImageCodr and I get html code that I can paste into the blog. This produces the photo plus a CC-attribution automatically. This saves me a lot of time but sadly only works for photos on Flickr. A similar tool for other material would be useful.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

How do you learn?

When you want to learn something, what do you usually do? Look for a course? Or do you start asking friends and colleagues and search the net for more information on the subject? Most of us start asking people we trust and searching for information. Most of what we learn is integrated into our everyday lives and not through formal education. Although this informal learning takes place all around us it seldom gets recognized. We hardly even notice the process. We just realize one day that we know how to do something that we couldn't do a couple of weeks ago. The formula is usually a mixture of asking questions, watching what others do and a lot of trial and error.

IMG_3678.JPG by tantek, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  tantek 

This type of natural, informal learning is the subject of an excellent blog post by Jane Hart, The state of learning in the workplace today. A great deal of money is spent on formal training in companies but it could be argued that real learning takes place outside the classroom during normal working time. Hart points out that a great deal of learning is virtually unconscious:

"In the workplace, informal learning takes place all the time whilst at work, and in some cases it is indistinguishable from working, which has led Harold Jarche to say that "learning = working = learning". Most workers don't even realise they are "learning", because they have been conditioned to think learning only takes place in a formal educational or training context!"

Organisations should encourage employees to make use of the social media for more effective learning. Many may need a short course to explain how to exploit social media in this way but the main point of the article is encouraging the development of smart workers. When a problem arises you contact your network and see who can contribute. Some people are able to do this already but many will need guidance. The role of the HR department is to help people to use the right tools in the right way.

"By helping individuals work smarter, organisations can reap huge rewards, for it is in social (workflow) learning that the “real” learning in the organisation takes place."

There are two issues here. Firstly that we don't realize how we really learn and secondly that we believe that learning can only take place in a setting that resembles a classroom. There are advantages of gathering people together in a classroom setting but not as many as we have been lead to believe. The trouble is that formal learning is easier to validate and certify whereas informal learning is extremely difficult to measure and assess. We need to become more aware of how we really learn and this is where schools and universities must contribute. Employers will be increasingly interested in hiring already "smart" people who have learnt how to learn. If students already have an understanding of this and have acquired good learning strategies and wide contact networks they will be more attractive on the job market.

Monday, October 25, 2010

End of education in Second Life?

Many universities are having to consider pulling out of Second Life if the owners, Linden Labs, implement their decision to charge educational institutes full rates for using the virtual world (see article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Academics discuss mass migration from Second Life). Up till now educational users have been able to use SL at a discount rate and as a result there is considerable academic activity there.

Earlier this year the social networking tool Ning decided to make all users pay for the service and this resulted in many networks being forced to find a new free host environment or closing down for good. This is of course one of the risks of using freemium solutions run by commercial players - at some point they may very well decide to charge for the service or raise the rates. It's no real surprise but we seem to think that free will always be free.

Linden Labs would seem to  risk losing a considerable and dedicated group of followers if they carry out this price hike. Already some educators are planning to migrate to other virtual worlds but the same questions apply as in the case of Ning. How do you know that the solution you move to will not raise the price later on? Commercial solutions need income to survive and if the free model doesn't meet the profit demands then the price will go up. Solutions like SL cost a lot of money to run and develop so what's so surprising about the company wanting to raise the price?

I suspect that those who are committed to using Second Life and have clear reasons for being there will pay up and continue. Those who are not so dedicated will of course close down or move elsewhere. There are plenty other worlds to inhabit though maybe not as diverse and populated as Second Life.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Making sense of it all

There's an interesting article in the Huffington Post (What innovations will rock our world in the next 25 years?) that presents a few technology trends that are most likely to make a major impact in the future. The trends spotted here are mostly unsurprising: cloud computing, nanotech, mobility, networked objects and focus on design.

The part that most interested me was about how we make sense of all the information that flows past us every day. I collect an awful lot of links and ideas in the average week which I dutifully bookmark and tag them on Delicious, spread them on Twitter and blog about some of them. However once I've done that I admit that I have great difficulty in finding it again in say 3 months even if I have tagged it. There's simply so much material that I need a meta-organiser to make sense of it all for me. What trends are hiding in all the content? How can I classify it all in more meaningful ways?

This is a point raised by George Siemens in a post How do you manage your information? that I also found yesterday. I work with a scaled down version of the model presented in this article but the points he raises about finding trends and patterns is very relevant. Most of the filtering and sorting we do today is manual and not very efficient. New applications like Flipboard (that I'm just downloading) claim to select and organise interesting content from the people I follow in various social networks. Tools like this are already filtering some of the content and saving us a lot of information overload stress. But what's still missing is the ability to see patterns and present trends in it all. If we can achieve that we will really have made a breakthrough.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Get out of the classroom

Hundreds of years of tradition are very hard to break. If we were to invent education from scratch today would anyone come up with the classroom model? For most people education takes place in a classroom under the leadership of a teacher - anything else is simply not real education. Even when we move education out on the net it takes place in "virtual classrooms" using tools with names like "blackboard." School is such a central part of our upbringing that we assume that learning can only take place when we gather in a room that resembles the classroom of our youth and take part in an organised pre-determined course.

UF HHP Classroom Plastic Wooden Desks De by cdsessums, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  cdsessums 

We demand hard research-based evidence that flexible net-based learning really works but I seldom hear any demands to justify the traditional model. What is so good about gathering 30+ children of the same age (but varying skill-levels and interests) in a classroom and teaching them as if they all learn in the same way? How many kids are turned off education for life because they don't fit in to the classroom model? However because the classroom has such deep symbolic value in society we simply can't imagine any other models for learning. Those who enjoy classroom learning tend to become teachers and thus perpetuate the system. Maybe it's time to recruit teachers who didn't enjoy school.

I have learned much more from colleagues, friends and self study than I probably did in the classroom. It's probably the same for most people, we just don't realize it. We learn every day but the only learning that is officially recognized is the sort that is based around a classroom and a set syllabus. Infomal learning on the net offers enormous opportunities for everyone and the most important task for the established school system is to help pupils to learn how to learn. I've heard many people say that they need to learn a certain skill or subject but they don't have time to go on a course or that there aren't any courses at suitable times. We're stuck in classroom mode and can't see that we can learn whenever and wherever we want - we just need to know how to network and use the material that's freely available out there.

Today we have the opportunity to create a new infrastructure for learning. We have a vast range of open educational resources plus tools that enable collaboration and discussion. Many people are already involved in collaborative learning but the vast majority are not. Society is changing more rapidly than ever before and the traditional classroom is too limited to cope with the accelerating need for life-long learning. People simply can't wait for a suitable classroom course to become available in their town at the right time. We need to be able to take charge of our own learning and network with others who share that need. We need to get out of the classroom.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Creative Commons - how to share your work

Here's an excellent presentation by Rodd Lucier from Ontario, Canada, whose blog, The Clever Sheep, I can thoroughly recommend. It's all about using Creative Commons licensing to ensure that other people can use your work and ideas without breakig copyright law. If you don't know too much about this important subject this film deals with all the principles clearly and simply. If you don't use Creative Commons your work will be locked down under copyright law for in some countries up to 70 years after your death. Couldn't we save an awful lot of time and expense if we shared our ideas a bit more insteading reinventing the wheel evey week?

See Rodd's blog post, Creative Commons: what every educator needs to know.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Innovation takes time and persistence

At a conference in Stockholm last week I saw one presentation that made an impression. Dai Hounsell from my alma mater, the University of Edinburgh,  talked about the difficulties of genuine innovation in higher education. All too often you hear colleagues dismissing new technology or methods by saying things like "We tried that 3 years ago and it didn't work." The question is if they ever gave it an honest chance. Did they fully understand the innovation, did they properly plan how to implement it, were they using it in the right way, had they looked at how others used it? It takes time to get things right of course.How often do you get things right first time?

People make similar mistakes when it comes to social media. It's easy to start a blog, wiki, Facebook page or Twitter account but it takes considerable work to get people to notice you never mind follow you. Some people seem to think that as soon as you put something on the net the world flocks to your door. Unfortunately you have to do quite a lot of marketing before anyone but your closest friends will give you a second of their time Few will follow a non-celebrity Twitter account unless you regularly deliver useful information to your target group. Facebook groups can sometimes gather quite a few "fans" at first but if you want to generate any kind of interaction and discussion there you need to come up with something special. The same was true for many universities' experiments with Second Life, often abandoned after a short project and unrealistic expectations. Those who persisted and tried different approaches found in the end successful models.

This ties in with an article in Times Higher Education, Don't be afraid to share, which looks at the reluctance of many in higher education to use social media. Media focus on the trivial uses of Twitter and Facebook frightens academic users from even trying social media in "serious" situations.

Alan Cann, senior lecturer in biology at the University of Leicester, says it is very difficult to change the minds of people who disparage social media and dismiss them as useless - partly because it is hard to convey the nature of the experience to those with no familiarity with it. "It's frustrating because all of this is experiential," he says. "When you have someone who doesn't use Twitter, it's very difficult to explain the value of it."

Innovation takes time and it is essential that universities create a climate which doesn't expect instant success and allows new ideas to be tried and tested. This is very difficult in times like these when cash is in short supply and budgets are tight but it is even more of a waste of funding to make impatient and only partly thought-out innovations that are abandoned without a fair trial.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Who can you trust?

Many people are wary of the reliability of information on the net: Wikipedia is still far from welcome in many classrooms despite being the most comprehensive reference work ever written. The problem is of course that we don't really know who has written the entries or whether they are academically reliable sources. Books and articles from reputable publishers are looked upon as reliable sources but I sometimes wonder.

The reliable sources of fifty years ago may now appear prejudiced, inaccurate or in some cases downright wrong. But at the time they were authoritative. Reading old encyclopedias is a fascinating exercise. What source is more reliable - the work of one person (albeit highly qualified) or the work of twenty people who have together revised and edited the work over several months? Both can be of course be wrong. The professor could have had a personal agenda in writing the book and the facts have been carefully selected to support his/her argument. The collective effort may have overlooked important issues. Truth is in the eye of the beholder.

Which brings me to the subject of course reading lists and their value to students. A teacher selects course literature according to a certain amount of personal taste and experience. No matter how objective we would like to be we never succeed. Today we drown in the sheer volume of material available in every subject area and any list is bound to be a tiny sample and the teacher will naturally select the texts he/she is most familiar with.

Who on earth can you trust? as a famous Swedish protest song of the seventies so nicely put it. Should students put their trust in Encyclopedia Britannica, the official course reading list, Wikipedia, blog posts, academic journals? Everyone tells the "truth" as they see it. We read and construct our own versions of the truth but no-one ever finds that elusive treasure.

I'm not sure that set course reading lists are very useful. They represent the teacher's qualified assessment of the most useful reading for the course but they are still a subjective selection. The main lesson students need to learn is being able to select their own selection of reading material from the overwhelming mass of content available today. A ready-made list is a handy short cut and saves the students all the work of finding their own material. But that struggle with information retrieval, filtering and assessment is an essential skill for future work situations.

Some teachers work very well with social bookmarking where the class builds up its own collective reading list with tools like Delicious or Diigo. All are able to contribute to the list and can collectively assess the value of the different recommendations. The involvement of a librarian in this process is of course extremely valuable. By the end of the process they have an often impressively comprehensive list of resources and have learnt a great deal about source criticism, tagging and information retrieval.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Textbook buffet

With the increasing use of free open educational resourses and the growth of e-books I've been waiting for the established publishers to come up with an interesting response. Many still think they can sell e-books at roughly the same price as the print version but I simply can't see many falling for that one. The print book for me is a proud possession to place on the shelf as concrete evidence of what I read. An e-book is simply not visible and I doubt if I would even want to keep it at all. Once I've read it I might as well just dump it. Furthermore if I can borrow e-books from a library I am highly unlikely to ever want to buy one.

It's similar with audo books. I enjoy listening to them on long car journeys but I have never wanted to listen at home; I would rather read. As a result I have never bought an audio book, I just borrow them from the library. They just don't have the same value on the bookshelf in the living room as the printed book.

I've just read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, As Textbooks Go Digital, Will Professors Build Their Own Books?, which describes a new initiative from textbook publishers. University teachers are now able to select chapters from the publisher's books and order a customised textbook for their students.A sort of textbook buffet where the books can either be printed or delivered as an e-book, often involving considerable savings for the students.

One such scheme is from publisher McGraw-Hill:

"The new Create system lets professors go to a Web site and select sections of 4,000 McGraw-Hill books, thousands of articles and case studies, or any document that the professors themselves upload. A price tag displays how much the resulting book will cost. Professors can then choose whether to make the book available to students as a printed book or an e-book. In a demonstration for The Chronicle this week, a book on health care cost about $6 as an e-book but jumped to $16.96 as printed book."

Of course you can only choose chapters from McGraw-Hill books but it's good to see some new ideas from the publishers. I love the spread of free learning resources but realise that in the end some kind of new commercial model is going to emerge. This could be one way for the textbook publishers to offer a worthwhile service and make some money out of it.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

No excuses

I've just read an excellent post on the blog Dangerously Irrelevant called We can't let educators off the hook. It pulls no punches and basically says that there is simply no excuse for teachers ignoring technology today. The net affects nealy every aspect of our lives today and very few, if any, of the jobs that today's students are aiming for will not require high levels of digital literacy. Why then should schools and universities not adopt the methods of communication and collaboration that pervade the rest of society?

Of course many teachers feel daunted by technology and don't know where to start but we all felt like that in the beginnig. Today there is usually help available and the web tools of today are remarkably simple to use and require little or no technical knowledge. There's no magic solution round the corner, it's time to adapt, experiment and learn from those with experience.

"The reason many of us now ‘get it’ is because we realized that the world is changing, we recognized our responsibility to our students and schools, and we dived in and learned as we went along. Changing inertia into momentum, not waiting for someone to hand us the answer, taking responsibility ourselves rather than blaming others for our own inactivty - that’s what life-long learners do. That’s what effective educators do. That’s what we owe our children."

Talk to colleagues who are already using the net, learn from them, ask your IT people, get involved. There's more help than you can imagine, especially out there on the net. Technology can help teachers teach more effectively and reach out to new groups. It's still all about pedagogy, effective communication, collaboration and hard work (very old concepts) but with so much more potential and dimensions than the old restricted classroom model could offer.

"It’s not about our personal or professional priorities and preferences, our discomfort levels, or any of that other stuff that has to do with. It’s about our students: our children and our youth who deserve at the end of their schooling experience to be prepared for the world in which they’re going to live and work and think and play and be. That’s the obligation of each and every one of us. No educator gets to disown this."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

My personal learning environment

There are countless web applications out there that you can use to network and collaborate. I've tried a lot of them but only a select few have made it into my daily life in a big way. Some I use now and then, some I simply can't find a use for, some I can't figure out at all and then there are those that I find invaluable. Here's a list of the tools I find essential for my work at the moment (in a year the list could be completely different).
My Netvibes page
This is top of my list because it allows me to follow hundreds of news sites, blogs, bookmarks and tweets from one page. My Netvibes page is my start page on all the computers I use and it even allows me to have three different sites; one for work, one for home and one public. It's basically an RSS aggregator and is extremely simple to set up and personalise. To see what's happening in the world of net-based education I just need to browse throuth the tabs on my Netvibes page and check any new items of interest. That way I can easily see what I might want to blog about later. Everything I find that seems interesting I share via Twitter. Have a look at my public Netvibes page to see what I mean.

It took a while before I realised the potential of this in my work but now it's one of my main sources of information. If you're going to use it in your work you have to spend time finding the right people to follow; those who supply you with useful information. I've built up a long list of people to follow and they supply me with an endless list of links to articles, reports and examples that I can use. I don't follow people who use Twitter to tell about their private lives or just social chat. I never do that either, it's purely a tool for work. To get a good overview of activity on Twitter I use Tweetdeck. Twitter's web site is far less versatile and attractive. Follow me at @alacre.

If everyone was on Skype we'd never use the phone. Better voice quality than most phone calls plus video and chat. My international contacts wouldn't get far without this.

Google Bookmarks
Simple tool but the ability to access my bookmarks from any computer is so helpful. I'm amazed at how few colleagues use this or even know about it.

My three blogs all use Blogger and I find it the simplest blogging tool of all. Maybe not as versatile as Wordpress and suchlike but simplicity is the key.

Google Docs
Sharing documents with colleagues from different organisations used to mean sending versions of a Word document backwards and forwards by e-mail and never knowing which version was the latest. Again I have many colleagues who still do this. Being able to edit a document with colleagues from different locations in real time makes work much easier. You can even use the in-built chat or link up via Skype.

Although I have all my bookmarks in Google bookmarks I also collect them in Delicious. Here I can tag them and see who else has used similar tags. I can build up a more finely grained collection of bookmarks here and share them with whoever may be interested. I can follow other educators and see what they're bookmarking and it's this ability to share bookmarks that makes a tool like Delicious so valuable. I've also started using Diigo which does the same sort of thing plus more but so far I haven't been able to get the two tools to integrate.You can follow my bookmarking at

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Spoilt rotten

This wonderful video is getting a lot of plays at the moment and I can't help spreading the word. We frequently moan about technology that doesn't work instantly or new devices that take more than 30 minutes to learn but sometimes we all need to step back a moment and realize that it's a miracle that such technology even exists. Remember when you only had a desktop phone in your office and if you didn't actually sit there you were virtually unreachable? Remember sending business correspondence by post? Watch this and learn to appreciate what we have!