Monday, May 30, 2011

The Sirens' call

We should stop complaining that teenagers can't pay attention to lessons and are forever distracted by digital devices. We adults are just as bad, if not worse. Just look around at meetings, conferences, coffee breaks and social occasions - we simply can't resist the digital sirens' alluring call. Every slight vibration or beep makes us check our mobiles just to see who has contacted us. How much of our attention is actually focused on the meeting we're physically present at?

I'm guilty too I freely admit. My constant stream of updates and comments is just too interesting to turn off sometimes and at the slightest sign of boredom in a meeting I'm in there checking the latest. However I am beginning to force myself to switch off the distractors more often to be able to get things done. It's easy to create the illusion of being really busy reading updates, retweeting, chatting and so on whilst the activity you really need to concentrate on lies underneath all other applications open on your desktop.

Despite being a devoted Twitter user I'm beginning to have doubts about having it on screen as a public back channel during conferences. As a speaker it's good to get some visual feedback from your audience that you're making some kind of impact - smiles, nods, puzzled expressions all help. Speakers have always been encouraged to make eye contact with the audience but what do you do when noone is watching you? Now you only see the tops of people's heads as they stare into their laptops and tablets and the only feedback is on the screen behind you. Some are even watching you via the webstream on their screen! Without that contact it gets pretty lonely on stage.

Of course we could abandon lectures altogether and in many cases it would be fully justified but I've seen excellent and highly entertaining and informative lectures where many in the audience were more interested in playing games or chatting with friends. I'm not sure they even give the speaker a chance. The tweet-flow on the big screen can certainly add to a presentation if it is done properly; moderated and the questions are forwarded to the presenter. However mostly the speaker is unaware of what's going on and participants enjoy the chance to show off their wit/irony on the big screen. At a recent conference for teachers that I attended, one presentation featured pupils from a school showing how they worked online with assignments. One pupil had been following the back channel and bravely commented on the audience's comment feed as "childish". Et tu Brute!

As additional reading on this theme have a look at an article in Big Think called Backchannel backlash. Thoughts along similar lines can be read on two Swedish blogs that I follow (see posts in Swedish at Lilla Gumman and Digital Kultur).

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Textbooks - the end is nigh

Textbooks account for a major post in every student's budget but not for much longer. I've written many times on this theme and can find very few arguments in favour of keeping the printed tomes. Textbooks are first in line to go digital. Printed textbooks are always out of date (especially technology and science), cannot be updated without printing a new edition once a year and are very expensive investments considering their short sell-by date. Online resources can be updated daily and are subject to constant peer review. Just try and change a Wikipedia article and see how long your change lasts before being erased if you aren't able to provide references.

Textbooks (001/365) by timuiuc, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  timuiuc 

There's an excellent post on the need for course literature to go fully online by David Warlick, Six reasons why textbooks should stop being textbooks. He argues the case for open source textbooks online which can be updated regularly and scrutinized by the most demanding of reviewers - the teachers who use the resources. He gives six convincing arguments for this development that can be briefly summed up as follows:
  • Technology exists already
  • There's a wealth of content already freely available
  • Plenty expertise available (ie teachers)
  • Communities are already in place
  • Learners should be part of the process
  • It's about developing literacy into the digital domain
 He's against the official approval stamp that authorities give traditionl textbooks since today's information society is too fluid to be able to decide that any particular book is approved for several years to come.

"Do textbooks, from the bookstore reflect today’s prevailing information environment? No! But do digital textbooks, that are stamped “Approved” by some government agency, reflect an increasingly dynamic information environment and rapidly changing world any better? I think not! Teachers should be collecting, evaluating, editing and assembling their own textbooks, because it requires them to practice and talk about the contemporary literacy skills of a digital and networked information landscape — in front of their learners."

Instead of publishers and authorities deciding what students shoul read the decision making is now delegated to the teachers and to an increasing extent the students and pupils. New literacy skills are essential for teachers and students to be able to collaborate on what reading (and other media) should be included in a course. This negotiation is a process that leads to a deeper understanding of the subject since all are involved in exploring the latest ideas and theories.

The potential of tools like OER Glue (mentioned in a previous post) points the way forward I think. Using freely available resources teachers and students can together collaborate on compiling course material and resources. The learning experience will be greatly enhanceddue to greater invilvement but before this can be realised we need a change in attitudes towards what we mean by education, teaching and learning. We need new attitudes towards collaboration and new literacies. That is the challenge facing education today. The future is waiting but how do we get there?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Connecting people

The stats behind the rise and rise of Facebook are impressive and very good for wowing disbelievers at conferences and meetings. 600 million people have Facebook accounts and they spend an average of 700 billion minutes a month updating their profiles, chatting and sharing. It is now the default community for virtually the whole world (China is a noteable exception). The opposition has simply been blown out of the water and they march on unchallenged.

Since so many people are already in there, that's where discussions tend to happen and we increasingly combine work and leisure activities and contacts. It's easy to get swept away by the fun of Facebook and forget that they are after all a company who are making a lot of money from our identities. By getting virtually every website on the net to include like buttons after every article (2.5 million sites did this in the first year of the service) Facebook can gather astounding amounts of information about our lives, preferences, interests, friends and family and this information is extremely interesting for advertisers. Few people even bother to go through ther security settings on Facebook making it even easier to gather data. Furthermore, the problem that they keep tweaking the security settings without fully explaining what's going on makes it very hard for all but the most dedicated to make the necessary changes.

Can anyone challenge the might of Facebook any time soon? Can we have a more secure alternative that is run on more altruistic lines? Enter Altly, an embryo community that at present is trying to pitch the concept of a free alternative to FB. They aren't ready to launch yet but they invite you to reserve your identity in advance. Their blog provides the rationale behind the concept (The need for an alternative to Facebook).where they sum up their principles as follows:
  • Privacy is ULTIMATELY important.  
  • We should know EXACTLY who can see what information about us.  
  • Control of our information should be in OUR hands, and it should be EXTREMELY easy for us to control it.  
  • WE should choose what information is stored, how long it is kept, and who it is available to.  
  • Our digital life, our personal information is EXTREMELY valuable, and each of us should not only control who has access to it, but BENEFIT from it.  
  • Advertisers should be part of our community, but should NOT have an unfair advantage over us. 
  • All of our data should be OURS, and no one else’s.  If we choose to leave our social network, we should be able to easily take ALL of our data with us, and COMPLETELY delete all data if we choose.   
  • If other social networks should be developed, they should be able to interoperate with one another.
I agree with all the above and wish them luck but they've got a massive challenge in front of them.

Just for a little extra reading, have a look at a New York Times article on Facebook's plans for media sharing, Facebook is developing ways to share media.

    Sunday, May 22, 2011

    All lies but who cares?

    Statuary by Caucas
    Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Caucas' 

    I can't help mentioning an intriguing new angle on net-dating. It's not a subject I write about but I saw an article in the New York Times (I'm not real but neither are you) about a service called The idea is that you create a totally fabricated profile for yourself complete with celebrity photo and wait for other heavily disguised soulmates to make contact. Everyone is lying but what the hell?

    Admittedly many profiles on regular dating sites are probably slightly economical with the truth so it's almost refreshing to see a service that admits freely that everything on it should be taken with a sackful of salt. The original idea was that the service could create Facebook accounts for your highly enhanced personality so that you could engage in your fantasy relationship in the midst of your regular FB life. However that fell through since Facebook was less than enthusiastic about being swamped in false profiles. Thank goodness for that.

    However the idea of forming fantasy relationships online is not new. Virtual worlds like Second Life are full of avatars that bear little or no relation to their owners and when you meet people there you have no idea who you are really talking to. Many people manage to live their second lives and form relationships based on mutually agreed deception. I spent a lot of time in Second Life a few years ago and created 3 different avatars just to see what it was like to "be" someone else. I realized that I'm no good at role play and even if my alter egos were unlike me my personality shone through anyway. I stopped the deception and used an avatar that looked like me and had a similar name.

    For many the opportunity for online roleplay can certainly be very valuable. Whether a real relationship can develop from one based on blatantly false identities is another matter.

    Saturday, May 21, 2011

    Build your course with open resources

    I've just discovered a tool that seems to have enormous potential for more adventurous teachers who want to teach with open educational resources (OER). It's called OER Glue and it enables you to build a course around open content from a wide range of sources. The idea is that OER Glue provides a course structure similar to that of an LMS and you simply select the resources you need and "glue" them together. You don't need to embed or copy the resources you need, they stay on their original sites and you simply show them in their original setting. In this way, if a resource is updated, it is updated on your course and in that way you ensure that all resources are relevant. You can mix all kinds of resources: texts, video, audio and photos. OER Glue provides the framework for you to link the resources into a coherant course.

    Could this be a way of bypassing the standard university LMS and creating a more dynamic course structure? Could this be a breakthrough in helping more teachers use OER more effectively? It certainly looks promising.

    For a more detailed review of OER Glue read Trent Batson's article in Campus Technology, OER Glue: 'Use Open Education Resources Where They Are; Integrate With Everyone'.

    Have a look at this introduction video.

    Monday, May 16, 2011

    Badges of learning

    We all learn new things every day. We learn by asking, watching, imitating, practicing, testing and thinking. In fact we learn much more outside formal education than inside it but we don't get any credit for this. What counts are the degrees and certificates you get for attending classes and passing formal exams. However increasing numbers are learning on the net through informal communities, watching TED-lectures, Khan Academy or iTunes U or getting involved in collaborative work designing new open source applications. How do we recognize lifelong learning?

    Peer 2 Peer University, the collaborative learning initiative that already runs a wide range of online peer-driven courses, is examining the idea of badges that can be awarded for successful completion of courses. Together with Mozilla they have started the Open Badges project to create a structure for all sorts of adult education institutions and other organisations to award digital badges that can then be shown on your website, social media sites and CV. They can be awarded for completion of courses, demonstrated skills or for significant work in online projects.

    All sorts of organisations could issue badges but one issue that will undoubtedly be raised is that the actual badges will be so easy to copy. How will they ensure that you really have deserved that badge on your profile? I would imagine that each badge will link to the issuing organisation who should quickly be able to confirm that you have indeed been awarded it.

    P2PU is already piloting open badges in their School of Webcraft courses. By successfully completing course assignments participants can unlock various skills badges that show what they have achieved (see more about the P2PU badge scheme). Badges can be awarded by peers also participating on the course. The framework for tyhe open badge system is outlined more fully in a draft article called An open badge system framework.

    This could lead to a whole new landscape in terms of how we demonstrate our skills to future employers. The formal system is not going to be swept away by this development but the new badges offer a way forward to recognizing people's real skills and should complement existing structures. Hopefully the formal system will see this as an opportunity and not a threat. For Open Badges to gain credibility it is vital that some more forward thinking higher education institutions join up with the project.

    For more thoughts on this read article by Michael Sean Gallagher, Open Badges and Acknowledging Decentralized Activity in Learning

    The computer is dead, long live the cloud!

    Our computers are going on a crash diet and could soon be ultra-thin. This video from Google could just be a major landmark in the history of IT. They are releasing a new concept in laptops, Chromebooks, and the revolutionary feature is that they do not need heavy programs, file managers and tons of extras like the standard laptop. Basically the Chromebook lets you access the net and that's it.

    It's a logical step really since you can do just about everything you want in the cloud today, so why bother filling your hard drive with uneccessary flab? Without this heavy burden the Chromebook can start up almost immediately (the desktop I'm writing on now can take at least 5 minutes to get up and running). If everything is stored in the cloud you don't need to download anything and consequently there's no need to have virus protection. Irritating updates and patches will disappear since the version on the net will always be updated. When you can easily and cheaply subscribe to a massive cloud-based library of music/films/books/games why then go to the trouble of downloading copies? Of course people will always find ways of beating the system but this innovation could lead to the end of file sharing since there will be little point in it.

    How long will it take before our trusty desktop computers and software-heavy laptops head the same way as the fat TV and CD-players? The tide could turn very quickly if the price is right. The only problem could be that the whole concept of cloud computing is still relatively unknown to the vast majority. It might however be easier to use than grappling with the extremely unpredictable and infuriating quirks of the average desktop.

    What will this mean for education? It could make computing affordable for all since such thin terminals shouldn't costs anything like today's laptops. What does this mean for all the schools and universities that have just invested heavily in providing students with laptops and iPads?

    Read Mashable's summary of this, Google explains life after the desktop.

    Saturday, May 14, 2011

    E-books coming of age

    I have not been terribly interested in e-readers like Kindle because they are simply electronic books. They don't offer much more than the printed version and there isn't much more you can do with them apart from reading text. In addition they are in black and white with no photos or illustrations. There is simply few compelling reasons why I should buy such a limited device.

    The iPad and all its competitors have really swept the e-readers away since they do so much more and can offer a reading experience that printed books can't deliver. E-books have to be different from print, they have to offer features you can't get in print and only then will people really start buying them.

    He's a recent TED talk by Mike Matas showing a new type of interactive e-book that points the way forward.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011

    Social art

    One of the advantages of today's social web is that you can get a constant stream of recommendations and tips from friends and applications that can sometimes lead you to discovering new books, music, films and interests. In the early days of the net we simply surfed, often aimlessly from one link to another and now and then you stumbled upon something really interesting that you didn't know existed.

    Today we get recommendations based on profiles, previous purchases, friends and preferences. Amazon were one of the first to offer this and now you can't go far without a message telling you that if you liked A you might also like B, C and D. It's all highly mathematical of course, based on increasingly complex algorithms, but the aim is that the recommendations will eventually reach the level of serendipity - when you stumble upon something you didn't know you wanted but realize is exactly right. A future web 3.0 will allegedly know so much about our preferences and interests that it can serve us with serendipitous links.

    Now the art world is going social with a new social art site called Artfinder . The concept is similar to other social applications; you are lead through a selection of paintings and asked to select your favourites. Artfinder will learn your preferences and then begin to suggest other works and artists that you might also like. The more you use the service the better the recommendations.

    They can't cover the entire art world since many art galleries are not so keen to share their works on the net but Artfinder has signed up a representative selection from many famous galleries. The idea is to help beginners learn about different styles and schools of art and to build on their interest. Once you dip in you can soon get immersed and the recommendations keep coming.

    It's a bit like Spotify for art and you can build up your own virtual collection, share with friends, discuss and collect. For that serendipitous effect there's even a shuffle button that offers a random selection of works.

    Sunday, May 8, 2011

    Be prepared

    Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm Centrum / HU Ber by 96dpi, on FlickrIs higher education losing touch with the demands of the 21st century workplace? Traditional hierarchical management structures are giving way to virtual teams, global project groups and a higher degree of independence and entrepreneurial enterprise. Companies need employees who know how to network, can quickly find relevant information and are completely at home in the increasingly digital business environment. Are universities preparing students for this?

    The answer would appear to be no according to a new article in Times Higher Education by Cathy N. Davidson, So last century.Universities still prepar students for linear careers in hierarchical organisations as was appropriate last century. Once you had gained the academic foundation at university you joined an organisation and then progressed your way through the ranks until you were pensioned off at 65. Today's students are however likely to change career at least four times. The main lesson to learn, therefore, is the ability to quickly adapt and learn new skills on the fly. In the writer's opinion most universities fail to recognize these 21st century skills that are most likely to dominate employers' future wishlists:

    "Think about the skills this environment requires. This end-to-end principle requires new sorting and attentional skills, collaborative skills, judgement and logical skills, synthesising and analytical abilities, critical and creative skills, qualitative and quantitative skills, all together, with few lines between them. These are sometimes called "21st-century literacies", a range of new interpersonal, synthesising, organising and communication skills that companies insist today's graduates lack."

    This is not simply about using more technology, it's about changing the way we approach higher education. Think of how much time is spent by students learning the art of writing academic dissertations and articles. Certainly it is a process that requires discipline, logical thought and excellent language skills but how often do you have to write like this at work? In business such complex writing would seldom even be read. Short and succinct summaries highlighting critical agruments are much more common tasks at work, usually based on a wide and complex amount of background information. The ability to find relevant information, filter it and present convincing arguments from it are essential skills for the future.

    As the article states so nicely in conclusion:

    "My students live an extracurricular digital life that is as rich, varied and ever-changing as is the world of work that lies ahead of them. Sadly, in between their digital personal lives and the digital work life ahead stands the institution of education as stern and unyielding as Taylor with his stopwatch, clocking how long it takes to move a wheelbarrow of bricks from Point A to Point B. This has to change. The time is right, now, to rethink education for the world of work of the present, not for the past. Let's get started."

    Photo: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licenseby  96dpi 

    Friday, May 6, 2011

    The folding phone

    A BBC article heralds the arrival of the folding mobile smartphone, Flexible phone made from electronic paper to debut. Researchers from Human Media Lab at Queen's University, Canada and Arizona State University's Motivational Environments Research group have developed a smartphone on electronic paper that can be bent and folded. You simply fold the sheet into smartphone size and then open apps and flip through pages by bending and pressing the paper. The version shown in the demo below is of course rather unsexy but it's just a matter of time before communication devices can be sewn into clothes of kept folded up in your pocket.

    Otherwise it's interesting how the whole concept of mobile technology has changed so radically in just a couple of years whereas the terminology has stood still. We still talk about them as phones even if fewer and fewer people ever use them for traditional voice telephony (especially so with teens). We need a new name for these mobile devices that gets us away from the phone concept. Maybe when the foldable versions hit the streets we'll find a new name.

    Read the press release from Human Media Lab.