Thursday, March 31, 2011

All tagged up

QR codes (quick response)are finally beginning to provide useful services and before long they could be even more common than their less sophisticated cousins the simple bar codes we see on every product in the supermarket. The principle is simple. Most smartphones can download a QR reader app and so if you see a QR-code your phone can scan it and immediately take you to a website or instruction film. No need to put long web addresses on advertising since our mobiles will simply remember the site automatically if the code is scanned.

At the moment QR-codes are being used mostly in advertising where you scan the code and can see more product information on a website. DIY chain The Home Depot have started using QR-codes to let customers access video DIY tips, product demos and further information. You can see how to use the product before you decide to buy. See more on Mashable, Mobile bar codes come to The Home Depot.

In education there are already many innovative applications of this technology, as well demonstrated in this excellent overview (below) by Carol Walker from JISC RSC Scotland N&E (see original post). QR-codes are used in libraries to help students access e-books and e-journas, to speed up borrowing and returning and for catalogue access. QR-codes around campus can be used to help new students get acquainted with the campus. Museums can have QR codes on every exhibit to provide extra information, activate video or audio commentary. Books can have QR-codes leading to new updated material. The potential is enormous.

At the moment this is still not mainstream. You need a smartphone and you need to download the application before QR codes become meaningful. Hopefully new mobiles will have a QR reader pre-installed thus eliminating one major hurdle. We're still waiting for the critical mass to be reached but the potential uses are so wide ranging that the only reason QR won't take off is that an even better solution emerges.

Basically everything could be tagged like this and you can't help wondering when we can have a bar code on our foreheads so people can find out everything about us without all the bother of engaging in long conversations.

The QR-code above will lead you straight to this blog!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Augmented reality gets even realer

I've been following the development of augmented reality (AR) with interest over the past couple of years. It's still far from mainstream but a breakthrough could come soon, especially since so many people now own devices that can cope with it. By viewing the world through your smartphone you see extra layers on top of reality. It can be links to more information on a restaurant, historical building, a house for sale and so on. You could see monsters on your street that you have to fight or see instructions on how to work some equipment in front of you.

If you aren't sure of what effects AR is going to have in the future have a look at this amazing film trailer. It's a German film where you play one of the roles and you see the action in AR through your mobile. You have to actually visit the action scenes and your reactions to each situation determine how the film continues. The potential for educational simulations are enormous; for training emergency situations, safety routines, military training etc. Here you can practice situations that simply cannot be practiced in any other way.

For some more thoughts on why all this is relevant to education read a blog post by Vicki Davis, A lesson in simple augmented reality.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Open introduction

There's an awful lot of uneccessary work in the world, especially in education. So many teachers preparing thousands of very similar lectures on the same subject. Universities and schools spending lots of project money to develop applications and systems that someone else has already developed. Thousands of similar videos helping new students with study skills or admission routines. I'm sure I've contributed to all this in my own way over the years but I often wonder if we could cooperate a bit more and stop thinking we have to reinvent the wheel all the time.

If we use more open educational resources we could free up enormous amounts of time that could be spent on stimulating student discussion. If we had better analysis of what our colleagues around the country/world are developing we wouldn't need to start so many projects to develop what already exists. Why not cooperate on producing a really good interactive course to introduce prospective students to university studies? That is exactly what is proposed by Dave Cormier in a recent blog post, An open university prep course - MOOC for basic skills.

His university, the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada, already runs a no credit online course for prospective students explaining the main principles of university education, study skills and general advice. In this post he's looking for partners to help turn this course into a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) which could be used by students of any university. Since most universities have similar courses it would seem much more rational to pool resources and work together. The best material from various universities can be used and the teaching and administrative work can be shared. Specific local information must of course be produced locally but there is an awful lot of money and time that could be saved if could just work together. As long as those savings are then channelled into financing better teaching and student facilities.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The flip side and Khan Academy

There has been a lot of discussion in recent months on the concept of flipping the classroom. This means that instead of lesson time being devoted to the teacher going over the theory and then the students practicing at home, the lectures are watched at home on the net whilst classroom time is used for practice and discussion..

One of the most amazing success stories in net-based education is Khan Academy. Salman Khan started out by recording some maths tuition for his younger cousins on YouTube and noticed that other people also liked them. Now the website has over 2100 video lessons, mostly in maths, physics, chemistry and biology and has gained world attention, including the praise of big names like Bill Gates.

By offering all the explanatory lectures on the net Khan Academy allows teachers to flip the classroom; letting students watch the lectures at home and using classroom time for interaction and practice. Khan Academy also offers students plenty of exercises with the principle that you keep practicing until you get it all right. Teachers can let student go through the video material, track the class's progress and see exactly who is having trouble with what.

I know many who are a bit wary of net-based learning and wonder if this type of material is completely sound, whether there is a hidden agenda or whether this is the first step to dispensing with teachers completely. The answers seem clear however. If this material was not academically sound then it wouldn't be used by millions. The whole concept is the result of sheer enthusiasm and grassroots pressure without any commercial interests. Finally, the role of the teacher is enhanced in that he/she can now concentrate on really helping and tutoring instead of smply lecturing.

Watch the lecture below and judge for yourself but at the same time read an excellent post by Maryna Badenhorst, To flip or not to flip.She har drawn up a list of pros and cons on flipping the classroom and many of the drawbacks are well worth considering. In particular, who deletes obsolete lectures on the net? Outdated and inaccurate material will lie there forever and it's important that teachers revise the playlists they recommend to students. It is also important to stress that this method is just one of many ways to teach a subject and that a flexible mix is needed. Blended learning.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Light my fire

Flames by wwarby, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  wwarby 

There are two radio programs that make Sunday mornings so pleasant - one features baroque and earlier music and the other features world music. I'm not an authority on either form but I listen every week, either live or later on the net. The reason I listen so regularly is largely due to the presenters. They both have a burning interest in the music they present and communicate that enthusiasm in an infectious manner. The same program with a lesser presenter would probably not have grabbed my attention.

It's much the same with education. At school I was good at maths and physics but the subject that I went on to study at university was English. That choice was not because I sat and objectively weighed up my future career options and made a rational choice. It was simply because English was fun and my teacher had encouraged my efforts at creative writing. I suspect many career choices have been inspired by one good teacher who has succeeded in lighting a fire.

There's a lot of debate about school today, mostly focusing on standards, quality criteria, learning outcomes and examination. It all seems so scientific and objective but I feel we're missing the most important quality criterion of all - enthusiasm. If a teacher can communicate enthusiasm and curiosity for the subject and inspire the students then that quality is often worth as much if not more than carefully planned lessons and well-formulated learning outcomes. Sheer infectious enthusiasm can compensate for less than perfect planning and slightly chaotic organisation and the positive effect of human energy on students' success rates should not be underestimated.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Now you see it, now you don't

Visiting friends' homes in the past I used to enjoy seeing their record collections. Most people were only too pleased to show off their collection and my musical education was developed by thumbing through piles of records and asking to hear the ones that caught my attention. Seeing other people's extensive collections inspired my consumer instrincts and my own collection was inspired by several friends. Comparing musical taste was a great way of getting to know someone.

Today the music collection is invisible. No groaning shelves packed full of records, just files on an iPod or a playlist on Spotify. Today's music is totally portable, extremely convenient and completely unobtrusive. However it has lost its ceremonial value. It took an effort to take the record out of its sleeve, put it on the turntable and start the player. As a result you sat and listened to the record and did nothing else, often in company. We really listened. Today I listen to music every day but nearly always while doing something else.

The same process is starting to happen with books. Soon our book collections will disappear online and our homes will not show evidence of our reading habits. Noone will see how much you read or what your interests are. Children growing up in homes with lots of books see that reading is important and will generally follow in their parents' footsteps. If they can't see evidence of their parents' reading will they be equally keen to read? A parent sitting with an iPad could be reading Yeats or playing Farmville; you can't tell from afar.

I love the digital revolution but can't help wondering where it is leading. We must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The genie in the laptop

This week's web discovery for me is a very attractive search tool called Qwiki. I've found myself searching images almost as much as text recently and there are many very attractive apps for finding high quality photos. The idea behind Qwiki, however, is unique as far as I know. You search for a town, person, restaurant, activity or whatever and Qwiki presents you with a photo montage about your search, reads an introductory text with the vital facts and presents lots of relevant links for more information. It is a fine example of a mashup featuring material from sources like Wikipedia, Google, YouTube, Fotopedia and others.

One slightly eerie thing about Qwiki is that the computer voice that presents the information has a soft female neutral American accent which reminds me strongly of the soft-spoken tones of the computer HAL in the film 2001 - A space odyssey. I can just hear her saying "I don't think that is a good idea Alastair."

The following film is from the product launch last year and features using Qwiki as your wake-up call telling you what today's weather will be like as well as what meetings you have in your diary. The genie speaks.

Qwiki at TechCrunch Disrupt from Qwiki on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Do not disturb

Information overload and multitasking are fairly frequent subjects on this blog and it's time to revisit this theme. There has been a glut of articles on this theme recently, thus inducing stress at the overload of articles on information overload! Interestingly enough there is a summary of all these articles, for those who don't have time to read about information overload, 8 Must- Reads About Digital Distraction and Information Overload on Fast Company.

The gist of it all is that we are allowing ourselves to be interrupted at an ever-increasing frequency. We can multitask up to a point but then we become incapable of making decisions since we're taking in too much information. I'm guilty as charged I admit. It is increasingly hard to shut down the distractors and concentrate on one thing at a time. Even if most e-mails are relatively dull we can't help checking to see what's new - up to 40 times an hour according to a survey of office workers. The same goes for Facebook, Twitter and many other apps and it's easy for many to immediately jump to the conclusion that all this is a waste of company time.

An article in Newsweek, I can't think, describes recent research into our ability to make decisions when faced with too much information. A reasonable information flow can certainly stimulate our creativity and lead to good decisions but once you reach a certain level we face info-paralysis. If the volume of information is too great our brains just can't cope. According to psychologist Joanne Cantor:
“If you let things come at you all the time, you can’t use additional information to make a creative leap or a wise judgment. You need to pull back from the constant influx and take a break.”

So do we need to switch off and step back? Of course we do and we need to learn when to switch on and when to switch off. We need to relearn the art of attention. It's not just the teenagers who don't know when to switch off, we adults are equally guilty. Just look around at any conference or meeting at what people are really doing on their laptops and mobiles. Schools and universities must make more use of mobiles and laptops in the classroom but it is vital that some activities are tech-free. If the aim of a session is group reflection and discussion it is perfectly justifiable to ask for all devices to be switched off. It's a vital lesson for all to learn; we're here in this room and we're going to discuss but in one hour from now you can switch on again and search for further references. All age groups can benefit from structured non-tech time.

The art is to become multi-modal. Sometimes it's good to "go with the flow" and let all the social media stream in. I really enjoy seeing all the comments, tips, links and discussion and to be a part of it is stimulating. The tricky bit is to turn it off to focus on one important task and spend quality time with it. Sometimes we skim our way around various websites gathering notes and impressions for further use and sometimes we need to deep read an article or report. Some tasks go well with background music, chat sessions, Twitter feed and so on all at once and other tasks go best in silence.

Friday, March 4, 2011

In the bubble

We live in the age of personalization. Products and services can be tailor-made to our individual requirements and we can choose from a bewildering number of alternatives, all to make us feel unique and special. On the net we have Google,  Facebook and all the others checking our on-line behaviour, remembering our preferences and then customising and adapting the information we receive according to our preferences. Several online newspapers, like the New York Times, now feature news items that your Facebook and Twitter friends have recommended so that you get the news you are interested in.

bubble by zzub nik, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  zzub nik 

But there's a darker side to all this. At this week's TED2011 conference Eli Pariser spoke on the theme of his forthcoming book, The filter bubble; that personalisation is actually making us more uninformed. It sounds so positive that filters on the net help us to find the information we really want and that our friends' recommendations influence our search results. However the tendency that Pariser sees is that we end up only seeing information that confirms our present views, what he calls our "filter bubble". Information that conflicts with the preferences of my friends and myself are simply filtered out of the search without our being aware of the process. This unconscious filtering is worrying.

If all my friends share my political views I risk only seeing search results that we all approve of. Conflicting views are quietly discarded and we can be lulled into thinking that our views are correct. We can easily filter our news preferences on the net so we need never be disturbed by uncomfortable information. We risk being trapped in our own information bubbles.

Shouldn't we be able to switch off this well-meaning filter or at least be more aware that it is there? Is the wisdom of the crowd so wise if the crowd all agree with each other?

Read more in a Mashable article Is the personalization of the web making us dumber?