Thursday, December 30, 2010

Taking risks

One of the main reasons that the uptake of technology in education is so slow is the simple fact that it requires effort and a willingness to move out of the comfort zone. If you'rea teacher and you have successfully developed courses and teaching methods that work reasonably well, why should you try to change a seemingly winning formula? If you're a student and you get on well enough in school by simply doing what the teacher asks, why should you put in extra effort to learn things that are not demanded of you?

Play at Your Own Risk by sjgadsby, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  sjgadsby 

Isn't it all about willingness to take risks and try new ideas without knowing whether they will work or not? The question is if risk-taking is encouraged in education. I suspect the answer is no. The general trend is to play safe, otherwise you might fail your exam or risk criticism from colleagues, students or parents. Playing safe means resisting change and that's all too common in education today no matter how much we enthuse over the enormous opportunities that are available using digital media. Even if we present a compelling case for change the same arguments always come echoing back:
  • It's too expensive, we can't afford all that just now.
  • There's not enough scientific evidence that it works.
  • Your ideas sound very interesting but we have to deal with real world problems before we can consider all this high tech stuff.
  • Aren't you being a bit too optimistic? We tried all that 10 years ago and it didn't work.
Many teachers who try to innovate meet with these objections and it's hard not to go with the flow in the end. Even if the teachers agree to innovate it's not always so easy to convince the students that innovation is good. Sometimes students can be more conservative than the teachers and questions like "Is this bit in the exam?" can have an immediate deflating effect. The problem is that by playing safe you learn very little.

There's an article on this theme in Faculty Focus by E. Shelley Reid called Teaching Risk-Taking in the College Classroom. We need to create an atmosphere of risk tolerance where you get credit for innovation even if it isn't as polished as playing it safe.

"Risk taking and right-answer achieving can appear to be contradictory goals for students in our classrooms. When the correctness stakes are high and no other criteria are visible, everyone plays it safe. If we want our students to take risks, we need to create classrooms in which, at least in some designated zones, risk taking is more visible, accessible, and desirable than the alternatives."

Encouraging risk-taking leads to new discoveries and learning opportunities. Students and pupils need to realize that they are learning for their own future, not to please the teacher or examiner. You could say that if it's not in the exam, it's probably worth learning.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Cheating or learning ?

All through school and university I was conditioned into thinking that learning was a solitary process. Studying meant hiding away in a room for hours, sometimes days, silently reading, memorising and note-taking. The idea that I could learn anything from my fellow students never really occurred to me; only teachers could teach me. Group work was extremely rare and academic ability was assessed on what you could write during a 3 hour session, completely unaided and relying solely on memory.

Self study at study by Hermés, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Hermés 

This attitude to education is still very entrenched in society although many educators are trying to change things. In most workplaces you can't simply sit on your own to solve a problem. You need the ability to quickly find people who can help you.with a problem. No-one expects you to solve things completely on your own and even if you did you'd still need to sell your solution to your colleagues. The modern workplace demands teamwork, social competence, networking and information retrieval skills; none of which are given much time in the traditional educational system.

I've just read a good article on this theme in The Washington Post, What some call cheating can help learning. The author points out how inconsistent the education system is today when it comes to student collaboration. In one school pupils are allowed to take notes into the exam hall whereas another school wuld consider that as cheating. Some schools encourage group work and collaboration whereas others outlaw it since they want to assess each pupil on thier own skills.

"At these two institutions dedicated to equality under the law, what my daughter did during exams at one could have been considered cheating if she attended the other. What are we to make of the uneven nature of such rules, just as unpredictable as those found in our public K-12 schools? Open-book exams are okay some places, not in others. Cooperating with friends on homework is encouraged by some teachers, denounced elsewhere as a sign of declining American moral fiber."

Would we ever be faced with a task at work where we would not be allowed access to reference material or advice from colleagues? Don't we "cheat" every day at work by seeing if we can find a colleague with previous experience of the same problem? The article suggests that homework would be far more effective if the social learning aspect could be stressed as opposed to the solitary and often dull activity it always has been.

Maybe it's time for the education system to find ways of assessing a pupils skills at teamwork, networking and collaboration and valuing them as highly as the individual skills presently assessed.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Delicious - we were only kidding

No sooner than I had posted my farewell to Delicious than Yahoo went public and claimed that they had been misunderstood (see Delicious blog post What's next for Delicious?). They are looking for someone to buy Delicious and insist that they hope that the service will live on. It would have saved a lot of rumour spreading and speculation if this had been clear from the start.

Or maybe they got cold feet when they saw the damage that dumping Delicious would cause to their reputation. That seems to be the conclusion drawn by amongst others Tech Crunch (Yahoo just killed ... consumer confidence in them). From the reactions I saw on Twitter we Delicious fans are a dedicated and vociferous group. It may be a fairly plain vanilla tool with few bells and whistles but it does an excellent job for those of us who like to share our knowledge. With a bit of imagination and a committed owner it could be a star albeit on a limited academic stage. A bargain in the social media Christmas sale?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Goodbye Delicious

One of the main drawbacks to using all the free tools and services on the net is the fact that at any time the owners can pull out the plug leaving you high and dry. That is just what is happening with the social bookmarking tool Delicious, as the owners, Yahoo, have decided suddenly to close it down. I have used Delicious for a couple of years now and have collected an awful lot of bookmarks there, all classified and tagged. I have also built up a very useful network of researchers and enthusiasts whose bookmarks I can follow thanks to RSS subscription. Now it's all being shut down because Yahoo don't seem interested in social bookmarking any more.

Social bookmarking has always been the ugly duckling of the social media scene and as a result is vulnerable to cuts. Since the users are mostly academics it isn't ever going to bring in lots of advertising revenue. I've suspected for a while that no-one was really trying to develop Delicous since I saw very few new features being introduced. Unlike many other social tools it was available only in plain vanilla flavour with few options for personalisation. However I'm convinced that social bookmarking is vital to researchers and business intelligence workers since it enables you to store enormous amounts of bookmarks, tag them for reference, access them from anywhere and share them with colleagues. On the other hand it's never going to make megabucks and is of very limited interest to advertisers.

In the world of free it's inevitable that services will come and go and we just have to accept it. But it is still frustrating to have put a lot of work into building up a collection only to see it closed down. Maybe the academic community or some other public body should try to adopt such important tools and run them as a public service instead of putting our trust in market forces.

The answer to the closure of Delicious is to transfer all bookmarks to the rival and admittedly more versatile Diigo (to see how to do this see Michael Wacker's easy instructions). I did this a few weeks ago just in case but I still have to do a lot of tweeking and adjusting to find the same functions in the new environment. I'm sure I'll find many new openings with Diigo but I'm also sure I'll lose some useful functions from Delicious.The question is how long Diigo will last and if it doesn't is there anyone out there willing to maintain this important service and guarantee continuity?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Think before you post

This simple picture says it all about how we should use social media. If we all followed this advice we wouldn't get so many scandal headlines about the supposed dangers of socialising online. It's so easy to blame the medium (mostly Facebook of course) rather than the users' lack of respect or good judgement.

If you have hundreds of friends on Facebook it might be a good idea to divide them into different categories (best friends, work, old school, relatives etc) and choose which groups should be able to see each comment you make (see instructions on how to do this at 10 privacy settings every Facebook user should know). Then you can post those party photos but only to those who need to see them. Just try to remember the questions below and if in doubt don't post it!

Creative Commons License
Think before you post by Royan Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at

Social media nativity

With Christmas fast approaching I can't resist spreading this excellent video of how the nativity might have looked if social media had been available back then. The main message is the power of the net to access information, collaborate and spread news. Otherwise this blog will remain guaranteed free of all traces of animated dancing Santas, holly, reindeer or jingle-bells.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The future ain't what it used to be

This week's OECD report about the state of education in 65 countries has sparked thousands of articles debating why South Korea, Finland and Singapore are top of the rankings and why everyone else isn't. It's time for the never-ending discussion about how to reinvent our school system to be more in tune with the challenges of the 21st century. I agree that there is a lot that can be done and there are plenty of examples of innovative approaches to be inspired by if the responsible authorities care to look. For an analysis of the practice of producing educational league tables see Tony Bates' article Interpreting international comparisons in academic achievement.

Dreaming of the future... by Temari 09, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Temari 09 

However, I got a fascinating link from a Twitter contact pointing me to an article that's nearly as old as I am, from 1960, Education for the community of 1985 by Leonard S Kenworthy. His vision of the school of the future is actually not so far from what many are expressing today and one quote in particular sounds very familiar:

"Scarcely any of our schools in the United States have wrestled realistically with the curriculum changes which such trends suggest ( ie greater international understanding, cross-cultural awareness, importance of science and technology). Most schools are still satisfied with their existing curricula, which were designed for an 18th or 19th century rather than a 20th or 21st century world."

The main focus of the article is internationalisation and the need to understand other cultures and viewpoints. To improve this the author suggests a greater focus on foreign language teaching in schools and colleges as well as encouraging study vists and exchange schemes with other countries. One particularly attractive idea is that foriegn students could be invited to local schools to talk about their homelands. Now that would still be a novel approach to internationalisation that very few schools have tried. The same goes for getting older people involved in schools. Think of the gold mine of memories the neighbourhood's elderly possess.

Even if the net allows us to communicate with pupils and students from just about any country in the world for free we're still discussing how to open up the classroom. Another of Kenworthy's visions is still unfulfilled:

"But I hope that in the next few years schools will begin to develop 'affiliations' with schools in other parts of the world so that every child will have had some continuing experience with pupils in at least three or four parts of the world."

It's a classic lesson in the principle that history repeats itself. In 1960the idea of opening up the classroom to the world was a challenge since contacts were mostly by post in the form of pen friends but today there simply is no excuse. The world is out there, just open the door.

"In conclusion, stress in the past has been upon the child-centered school and upon the community-centred school. Neither of these needs to be discarded. But our schools in the years ahead need to add a new dimension - the world-centered school."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Your body is your keyboard

We are now interacting with computers through gestures and movement with gaming platforms like Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect and voice recognition technology is beginning to mature so we can have accurate speech to text interaction in the near future. However the old interfaces are still going strong and it's actually remarkable how resilient the good old QWERTY-keyboard model has been, striding the gap between the typewriter and today's touch screen devices. Even the mouse has shown impressive staying power as a tool for interaction. We have simply got so accustomed to using a mouse and keyboard that we find it hard to imagine life without them.

Can we instead go all the way and simply use our bodies to communicate with computers? An article in Illusion 360, Turn your body into a touchscreen interface gives a glimpse of what may be in store and the video below demonstrates how the body-based console works. The rather clumsy hi-tech armband used in the film looks a bit too geeky but I assume it will all be in the best possible taste by the time the concept is mature enough for the market.

Wearable computing has been in the pipeline for many years now and there have been many experiments with virtual reality helmets, smart clothing and so on. I remember a concept called Body Area Network, a type of LAN but using the body to send digital information from one device to another. One idea was that by shaking hands you could send your digital business card from your mobile to your colleague's. Experiments are clearly continuing but no-one has so far found the application that will cross over into a mass market. There's always a gap between what is technically possible and what people will actually adopt and pay for.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Meet the MOOC

New and mysterious acronyms appear every day. Most of them we instantly forget but a few get established and even make it into everyday speech. I don't think the acronym featured in this post will get into the Oxford English Dictionary any time soon but the phenomenon it represents is highly relevant in today's education debate.

Meet the MOOC - Massive Open Online Course. It's what happens when formal university education meets informal online learning. A free university level course that uses only online open educational resources where the course content and direction is negotiated continuously by the participants and there is no clear teacher role or predetermined syllabus. The most prominent example of this type of course has been this term's Personal Learning Environments Networks and Knowledge course (known to friends as PLENK2010) run by Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Rita Kop and Dave Cormier, all leading figures in the open education movement.

The course had over 2,000 participants when it started and although there were considerably fewer there at the end it's important to realize that all concerned had learned different things in different ways. The goal is not to get good grades or even complete a syllabus but to participate and learn. All material on the course is open and it's perfectly possible to go through all the material in retrospect and learn a lot though the key is participating in the discussion and negotiation during the course. Participants' own blogs are woven together with the course wiki as well as synchronous discussion meetings (recordings of these are available).

Here's a short film by Dave Cormier that explains the principle behind a MOOC.

If you want to try out other MOOCs have a look at the collection of courses at Massive Open Online Course. Then there is of course Peer 2 Peer University which runs courses with the same principles of openness but which opts for small enrolled groups instead of being open to all.

You can learn almost everything on the net. The material is there, you can link up with others with similar interests and you can even participate in free courses. The question is whether all this can be incorporated into the structures of formal education and there are ways of getting recognition of what you have studied.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Revolution or evolution?

I feel increasingly uncomfortable about the terminology I use every day to describe what I work with. I talk and write about e-learning, m-learning, net-based learning, distance eductaion and so on as if they were something completely new and different from all that has gone before. Similarly there's a tendency to present radical visions of how the web will make schools, universities, libraries and books virtually obsolete. Examples of this are Bill Gates a few months ago proclaiming that In five years the best education will come from the web and Nicholas Negroponte at the same event claiming that The physical book is dead in five years. I fully understand how they think but maybe the shock tactics cause more harm than good.

Trench Direction Sign by Kevin H., on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Kevin H. 

There's a lot of truth there and I do believe that we are seeing a major change in how education is perceived but it's important not to polarise the issues. The web is not going to wipe out the great universities and kids will still need to attend school in the future. To sweep them away completely is simply too radical and we'd then need to create new fundamental structures in society. Similarly the way we access books and magazines is changing but the concept will remain roughly the same. What would we replace them with? Can't they evolve and develop?

Some people react to our talk about net-based learning by thinking that we're against all physical meetings. They mistakenly think that we want all learning to take place via a computer and that we reject anything that is not digital. This kind of either/or interpretation is very damaging and often leads to entrenched positions at schools and colleges between traditionalists and the net educators.

We need to gather round the concepts we all believe in such as learning, education, teaching, training and study and then look at how they can be developed using the tools and methods available today. I don't think there is any e-learning or m-learning; it's all learning but using different media when relevant. Sometimes chalk and talk can be very effective and other times social media can be used to great advantage. We should welcome new technology and ask ourselves what new avenues can we explore with their help rather than digging trenches against the threat of innovation.