Sunday, January 30, 2011

The human factor

Since I work with net-based education some people think that I want everyone to sit in front of computers all the time. Indeed there is a tendency to over enthusiasm amongst tech-friendly educators that scares less committed colleagues; for example, wild claims that a certain gadget or app will make schools/teachers/classrooms obsolete. The net is an arena for human communication and gives us opportunities for meetings and cooperation that were extremely difficult, if not impossible, to arrange only 20 years ago. The net expands our horizons but it's not some kind of alternative world.

The problem with terms like cyberspace, e-learning, m-learning, virtual reality and so on is that they give the impression that they are not part of our physical "reality" and have totally different rules. Whatever tools we may use and however removed from everyday life they may seem (World of Warcraft, Second Life etc) we are still the same people behind the cool screen images. There is no cyber, it's just plain old me talking, writing and interacting.

Every so often you read claims that we will learn everything on the net, indeed Bill Gates said something along those lines last year. I agree that net-based learning will be the norm in the fairly near future but it is rather naive to suggest that learning will take place exclusively on the net. A good blog post by Chris Lehmann called Perspective - The autodidact and Khan Academy discusses the limitations of video lectures like the excellent Khan Academy. Video lectures like these are good reinforcement for learners but they don't provide context or reflection. Someone has to set the scene first and explain why we need to learn these concepts as well as showing how they can be applied later. The delivery of content is highly effective on the net but you need someone to put it all into context and help you to draw conclusions. That is of course the role of the teacher.

"But let's never forget that -- even in the best case scenario -- once kids have learned the mechanics of the math that Khan explains, then they have to figure out how, when and why to use the math they learn. And I feel like Khan Academy does little to move us closer to that. For that, most kids will still - and always - need people (adults, fellow students, whomever) who will spend the time to help them make sense of their world."

The teacher can of course also be on line and the whole course can be carried out perfectly well on the net but there are also enormous advantages of face-to-face meetings and discussions. The one does not rule out the other. If all participants can be gathered together for a physical meeting then you should do so, if they can't then the net offers very interactive arenas that can also be exploited. The key factor, whether on line or face to face, is the human element; to teach, inspire, encourage, provoke and challenge.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Less spam on Facebook

Teenagers show little interest in e-mail, dismissing it as a typical tool for parents and teachers. In addition many say that e-mail is mostly spam and they're quite right (see Wikipedia). Evidently about 80% of all e-mail is junk and it is therefore interesting that, despite this, it is still the communication tool of choice for most adults, especially at work. Admittedly most of us see very little of all the spam because our company's firewall works non-stop filtering out all the garbage that floods in round the clock.

SPAM by AJC1, on Flickr

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  AJC1 

A critical success factor for Facebook, which is almost as ubiquitous as e-mail now, is to keep annoying junk messages off our news feed. I very nearly gave up with Facebook due to drowning in irritating updates of friends' activities in Farmville, Mafia Wars and assorted horoscope games and I know several who did leave. Of course you can easily switch off these updates but new ones keep turning up. However, according to an article on CNN, How Facebook killed (most) spam, there are new and painless methods for minimising the amount of irritating messages you receive.

Facebook evidently track how we react to different posts. If millions of people hide certain updates then Facebook will block them and notify the company responsible. If the company is concerned about its image they will find another way of spreading the word on Facebook. It becomes a sort of self-regulation since the responsible companies want people to like them. The problem is that the real spammers don't care what we think of them and will just keep pumping out the digital sewerage. Facebook will have to keep working hard to block the social spammers.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Share and use

I talk and write a lot about the benefits of using Creative Commons when publishing texts, photos and films on the web. It would save so much time and confusion if all material had a label on it that stated what you may or may not do with it. If I clearly state via a Creative Commons licence that you can copy and reuse my photo then you know the conditions immediately. If I don't want my work to be copied then it should say so. Whether people respect that or not is another matter but at least my wishes as author/creator are clear.

This is still rare on the web and one fine example is YouTube. All films there have an embed code that enables you to post the film on your blog (as I do regularly). By making it so easy to embed it's no surprise that people do just that but I wish the embed code had, for example, a Creative Commons licence attached so that everyone can see on my blog who made the film and what conditions apply. If you post on YouTube you should have the option of allowing embed or not. If you don't provide guidelines there will be confusion.

Here's a short film about the benefits of Creative Commons that is a year or so old but had escaped my attention until now.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Critical consumption

As I've written many times before, I firmly believe that in this world of information overflow we all need to develop our ability to crtically analyze what we read. Since evryone is able to publish whatever they want on the net today there is inevitably an awful lot of nonsense out there. The ability to question what you read, hear and view is an essential literacy and one that does not get enough attention in schools and colleges,

I have admired Howard Rheingold's work for some time and he makes an excellent argument for the need to focus on what he calls "crap detection" or, more academically, critical consumption. Deciding what sources to trust is not just an individual task, you rely often on the opinions of people and organisations that you trust. Building up a trusted personal network helps to find reliable information. In a series of three short videos Rheingold takes you through the principles behind critical consumption and its key role in education at all levels.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Avatar control gets physical

It's been a while since I wrote about Second Life and I confess my visits to the virtual world have become all too seldom. I still find the whole concept fascinating but I simply don't have the contacts there that I used to have and I haven't found a reason for going there recently. However I found a short item on the SL blog New World Notes that shows a nice link-up between Second Life and Microsoft's new gesture-controlled gaming system Kinect.

Instead of controlling your SL avatar by mouse clicks you can use your body. Your avatar will imitate your physical gestures (within limitations of course). At present my avatar just stands passively all the time unless I prompt it by clicking on a gesture menu. If I could get it to mimic the way I really gesture this would add to the communicative potential of SL. Since body language and gestures are so crucial to communication maybe this is the way forward to making virtual worlds more compelling places for holding meetings.

Here's the video:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Whose truth?

Everything is subjective. You write from your own unique perspective and even if you try to present an objective argument you find that true objectivity is like the fruit dangling above Tantalus in Greek mythology (whenever he reached for the fruit it moved just out of reach). We would like to believe that our most revered reference works give a balanced and objective view of the world but even the most academic entry in an encyclopedia has been written from someone's point of view (and reviewed by other learned people often with very similar viewpoints and frames of reference).

This is why Wikipedia is so fascinating. On its 10th birthday it's in the media focus and there are plenty of articles and blog posts on this theme just now. The idea of a collaborative encyclopedia that everyone can edit is inspiring but there are huge problems. Whose "truth" is most valid on Wikipedia? That's the topic of a fascinating article on Slate called Jesus of Wikipedia . The wikipedia entry for Jesus Christ is one of the encyclopedia's most troublesome since just about everything written about him has been contested by somebody. As soon as one version was published new edits were made. Sometimes finer theological issues were disputed, sometimes the whole question if his existence was challenged and sometimes there were simple acts of digital vandalism.

In the end the entry has been "locked" and only a few trusted experts can now edit. This keeps the digital vandals at bay for a while but somehow defeats the original vision of Wikipedia as an encyclopedia that everyone can edit. Similar problems have afflicted other religious figures in Wikipedia as well as controversial political movements. The discussion tab on a Wikipedia page presents a history of the changes made to the entry and an insight into the problems of presenting a "balanced" view of any topic. If you want to get a flavour of the controversial issues the discussion tab is the place to go.

Somewhere along the line, however, you have to decide whose truth is most valid or at least present the most important interpretations. Letting everyone edit freely is probably just not practical.

For a general summary of the state of Wikipedia on its 10th birthday, here's the official video.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dear diary

With everything on the net going social it's always interesting to find a tool that goes in the opposite direction. That's the case with Penzu, a tool for private diary entries. Refreshingly simple, Penzu enables you to write your private thoughts and opinions and promises not to let anyone else see it. It's your own space locked away somewhere in the cloud.

Secret Diary. by oindrila., on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  oindrila. 

Security is the main sales argument. You can share an entry if you want to but otherwise it's completely unsocial. Passwords are encrypted and each entry can even have its own password. If you decide to pay a $19 annual subscription you can get the Penzu Pro edition with even stricter encryption. It's basically blogging for an audience of one.

I like the idea though I'm so used to social tools that I can't really think of anything to write that I don't mind sharing. However if you're making notes on research that you want to keep safe or are busy gathering material for, say, a book it could be ideal in that your material is always accessible rather than being tied to one computer or on paper in a drawer. If you're travelling and need to store notes and reflections safely you can acces this from any computer.

You can, of course, keep your private notes on Google Docs or even on Facebook as long as you lock down the social settings so that no-one else can access them but this is the first tool I've seen that has total privacy as its unique selling point. I might just give it a try.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The flip side of teaching

The standard teaching method when I started was very definitely the "sage on the stage" approach. The teacher was the fountain of knowledge and most lessons consisted of the teacher providing the input that the pupils/students would then work on at home. Classroom time was mostly spent listening and taking notes. But in many schools and universities the sage on the stage is turning into the guide on the side according to a post on The Daily Riff, Teachers "Doing The Flip" To Help Students Become Learners.

More and more teachers are putting the input element on the web or referring to open educational recources and asking students to go through the material at home. Class time is then spent on group work, discussion and investigation rather than note-taking. By switching the input to homework the classroom time will become more of a learning experience with the teacher as a guide/facilitator/inspiration. The following video shows how one teacher has changed the way his classes work with very positive results.

This ties in well with Dr Sugata Mitra's ideas on how schools should shift the focus from teaching to learning and that the goal should be that pupils/students should actually look forward to going to school each day. Here's a new film where Dr Mitra presents his vision of a school day of the future in slightl less than 3 minutes.

MindShift's "School Day of the Future": Dr. Sugata Mitra from MindShift on Vimeo

Friday, January 14, 2011

World domination

This statistical summary of Facebook's rise to world domination is now appearing on many blogs so why not here as well? One in thirteen human beings are already on Facebook and in the USA a staggering three quarters of the population are there. Facebook was recently valued at $50 billion and when you conside how much information they have about a significant proportion of the human race that may even be a conservative valuation.

Who knows how long this boom will last but we would be wise not to put too much trust in one company. The whole concept would have been dismissed as ridiculous only a few years ago - "give us masses of information about yourself and we'll make money out of it." Love it or hate it but you certainly can't ignore it.

Obsessed with Facebook
Via: Online Schools

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Off-piste learning

We love to learn but are not so enthusiastic about being taught. That's the jist of an article I've just read on the news site e-Taalim, Bus routes and bike paths - Jay Cross on informal learning. Cross writes about the importance of informal learning and that most of what we learn in life takes place almost unconsciously. We learn best from discussions, trial and error and simply watching and applying. We are constantly testing and adapting our behaviour, methods and opinions.

Skiing on the rocks by C_Dave, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  C_Dave 

As I have written before, we have been lead to believe that learning takes place in a classroom setting with a predetermined syllabus and an expert who will lead us all to our learning objectives. Cross likens this to a bus trip whereas informal learning is more like riding a bike:

"Formal learning is like riding a bus. The driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride. On the opposite end, informal learning is like riding a bike: the rider chooses the destination, the speed, and the route. The rider can take a detour at a moment’s notice to admire the scenery or go to the bathroom.
Informal learning happens outside of the bus and the classroom. There’s no curriculum and no certificate of completion. It goes on all the time. Informal learning includes things like trying and failing, asking a colleague, reading a book, or watching television. Informal learning is how we learn about life. It’s how we make sense of things.
Formal learning–riding the bus–is great for novices. It’s efficient to have help getting the lay of the land and getting to the destination. Training departments are very talented at setting up bus routes."

What often goes on in formal settings is that the more ambitious learning soon tire of the slow pace of learning and go "off-piste" - often to the annoyance of the teacher who naturally wants to keep the group together. I've been on many training courses (and led them too) where  participants simply go off on their own, either moving on to more challenging tasks or simply switching off and dealing with e-mail or other work until the course becomes interesting again. It's a similar situation on charter tours where the more adventurous tourists tend to wander off on their own rather than sticking with the group.

People who wander away from the formal structure are often seen as being uninterested but the truth is often that they have lost interested in the formal process and prefer to find their own way. We need to find ways of providing a course environment which includes elements of structured learning but with plenty scope for own investigation and initiative.

For more thoughts on this topic read Jay Cross' Informal Learning Blog .