Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How green is the net?

We often claim that using the net more will cut our carbon footprint. More e-meetings mean fewer flights and car journeys. There's no doubt that we can save enormous amounts of money and time by having smarter ways of meeting and collaborating.

But maybe we shouldn't be too smug here. Better not mention concepts like the paperless office - ever seen one? Despite everything being on the net we still print embarrassing amounts of unneccessary hard copies every day in every office I've ever been in. Then there's the question of all the equipment we throw away every couple of years. Perfectly good machines are being sent to the scrapheap after only a few years because the industry demands that we update regularly.

There's a new report from the British organisation JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) called Sustainable ICT in Further and Higher Education that deals with the environmental footprint of our computerised higher education sector. They estimate that in UK higher education alone there are nearly 1.5 million computers plus around 250,000 printers and a similar number of servers. The electricity bill for all these is substantial but the main worry is that all of these have fairly short useful lives before new software and capacity demands render them obsolete. Computer graveyards are overflowing.

The report looks at the problems and offers a variety of possible solutions. The thin-client/cloud computing model seems promising since this puts the applications in "the cloud" rather than on your hard drive and maybe we won't need to replace our terminals so often. We can learn to print out less, manage our storage space more actively (many servers are clogged up with useless and obsolete files) and find more ways of saving energy.

There are many excellent proposals here but it's a hard battle when the industry demands new products every month and make sure that whatever you buy today will be hopelessly out of date in a couple of years. The first wave of flat screen TVs are already turning up at the recycling plants.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Horizon Report 2009

This year's Horizon Report has just appeared and is, as usual, full of interesting predictions and observations. Many of the hot technologies from previous years have moved from the horizon to the foreground and the predictions have generally been accurate. The key trends they focus on this year are centred around concepts such as increasingly globalised collaboration, the growth of collective intelligence, using games as learning tools, visual literacy and mobile access to everything.

The chapters deal with the impact of a number of key technologies such as cloud computing, mobility, location awareness, the personal web and semantic aware applications. Each chapter contains a description of the technology, relevance to teaching/learning/research and excellent links to relevant projects and examples of the technologies under discussion. Briefly, the key technologies are:
  • Mobiles
    Not only does virtually everyone own one but they will soon replace the computer as the choice device for accessing the net. The iPhone can download a host of intelligent widgets and some universities are already making use of this in order to offer students greater flexibility in how they access and interact with the university's resources. See especially Stanford's impressive iApps.
  • Cloud computing
    The thin client returns. Applications run on many computers in a "cloud" and storage space is cheap. As a result we can run everything on a simpler low cost terminal (a mobile for example) as long as it has good net access. Collaborative work becomes simple and IT costs will drop (we hope!).
  • Geo-everything
    Geo-positioning will be present in all devices and services will be customised to your present location. Your photos and films will be automatically geo-tagged and immediately linked on to, say, Google Earth.
  • The personal web
    Web 2.0 moves on and the web becomes increasingly tailored to your own preferences. You control the news feeds you receive, the networks you belong to, the way you organise your work space and social life. Your profiles and settings are available form any device, anywhere.
  • Semantic aware applications
    Search engines today search for key words but cannot understand context. Future applications will be able to provide more relevant information based on contextual information.
  • Smart objects
    All objects can be tagged with small chips/smartcards/codes to enable them to be located and traced. A web search could even provide the exact location of a particular object on a map.
However, the most interesting part for me is where they list the critical challenges facing higher education. These include (read the report for the full story of course):
  • There is a growing need for formal training in digital literacy for both students and staff. Too much today is left to chance, hoping that everyone will somehow pick it all up instinctively. Even our so-called digital natives need help.
  • Teaching material is still based on methods and thinking from last century. We need to adapt to the needs and skills of tomorrow and update our materials. Many of our students will work in jobs that do not even exist today.
  • Higher education is facing growing demands to put educational content on the net and in appealing formats. Demands for access to learning via mobile terminals will increase and only a few institutions are really responding at present.
  • Traditional structures for scholarship and academic review are out of step with how work is carried out today on the net.

Pioneers and enthusiasts at all universities are trying to make all this happen but all too often these efforts crash into a glass ceiling because these issues have not fully filtered through to the heads of faculty. Many universities today are still based around the traditional campus model despite the fact that the majority of their students are studying on the net, often in combination with a career and family. Lifelong learning is a growing market for higher education and it demands a mature IT-strategy to make it work. The universities that see this market as core business and invest in competence development for staff and support for net-based students will succeed.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Get a life, part 347

Today I discovered a stunning new service for the iPhone - iGirl!!
Definitely not quite politically correct but evidently popular, this new service enables you to have your very own virtual girlfriend in your phone. She speaks, dances, sings and will wear whatever you give her. Seems like a variation on the tamagotchi figures that drove many people mad about ten years ago.
See article in TechCrunch.

Me and my identities

Like most people I've got an impressive and ever more bewildering collection of user names and passwords to all the different web services I use. It's not always possible to be consistent because a user name that works for some sites doesn't work for others and therefore you need to invent a new variant that you will hopefully remember when you next log in a few weeks/months later. Just coming up with yet another vaguely memorable user name can cause many minutes of creative thought.

Furthermore all the social networking tools encourage you to paste a nice photo of yourself and once again you're faced with choices. Do I put the same boring mugshot on all my networks thereby showing a consistent identity or do I go for variation and show the full range of my personality? Some people put up very artistic photos of themselves taken from curious angles thus revealing their creative flair. Others even upload pictures of cartoon characters they identify with. The question is how many identities can you maintain on the net? I suppose you can present different images of yourself in different networks. You have have to keep track of which is which.

Now I've discovered several places that ask me to create an avatar to represent myself, the latest being the new Xbox (yes I finally gave in to the pressure and bought it, enabling me to continue playing NFL and NBA). I've already got a couple of Second Life avatars and now an Xbox one too. The more virtual worlds you join the more avatars you need. Should I present a consistent "look" in virtual reality, resemble my "real" self or send forth a diverse range of virtual selves none of which have much in common with me at all? I tried having two different avatars in SL but found that behind them lay the real me and I couldn't really take on a new personality. Some people manage to have completely separate personalities in RL and SL but it must take a lot of concentrated effort to be consistent.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Conference 2.0

If the good old lecture format is under fire (see previous entry) then maybe it's also time to examine what we do at conferences. I enjoy attending conferences I must admit and most of the time I learn a lot and meet lots of interesting people some of whom I end up doing work with later on.

However, even if these conferences deal with new technology and new teaching methods we seldom stop and look at how we present it all. Let's face it most of the conferences I've attended (and some I've been involved in arranging!) are extremely conservative and generally involve a cavalcade of traditional lectures to a mass audience with virtually no participation. Keynote speakers are followed by parrallel sessions with coffee breaks and lunch now and then during which time we have to visit the exhibition area. Sometimes you don't really get much chance to meet so many people!

George Siemens excellent blog, elearnspace, tipped me off about a fascinating initiative from the AACE (Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education). They're arranging a virtual conference called Spaces of Interaction: An Online Conversation on Improving Traditional Conferences 18-20 February. The aim of this conference is to discuss how to improve the conference as an event and enable participants to get more out of them using the potential of Web 2.0 etc. The conference will involve both live on-line sessions as well as discussion groups on Moodle and a social network on Ning.

I've often wondered if it would be possible to have a do-it-yourself conference. Participants are usually so enthusiastic that you could probably just put them into groups and let free discussion flowaround a chosen topic or two. I once went to a conference where we actually did this for one session per day. Each group went to a room with coffee and buns with the task of just reflecting and discussing for 90 minutes. No questions afterwards, no presentation to the others, just our own discussion. It was great and not a moment was wasted. I learnt a lot!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Swansong for lecture halls?

Remember all those big lectures you attended as a student? Up to 250 students packed into a big hall listening to a professor lecturing for about an hour with only a blackboard for reinforcement. How many of those sessions were real learning experiences? Of course, there were a few professors who really could talk, inspire and were worth listening to. However there were many more who were showed little or no interest in who they were talking to. This model of teaching has been unchanged through the centuries and is still the dominant teaching form at many schools and colleges. It is indeed seldom challenged even though we all know how limited the method is for real learning.

However things seem to be changing quite rapidly now and the universities themselves are taking action. I recently saw an advertising campaign from Kaplan University in the USA where the official college films clearly state that the traditional lecture form is not relevant for 21st century education. There's also an older and often cited film on YouTube, A vision of students today, that also questions the value of traditional teaching.

Now there's a fascinating story in the New York Times 12 January, At MIT large lectures are going the way of the blackboard. Over recent years attendances at introductory science lectures have been falling sharply and failure rates were on the up. Now they have abandoned the traditional mass introductory lectures in physics and replaced them with interactive collaborative learning. The method has been labelled at MIT as TEAL, Technology Enhanced Active Learning. Students work in small groups solving problems set by the teacher who spends the session moving from group to group assisted by a number of graduate students. The sessions are held in modern multimedia rooms with large screens, smartboards etc.

Interestingly there was student resistance to these changes at first but once in operation the new methods have raised pass rates and attendances are up 80%. Students learn so much more and are in charge of their learning from the start. Teachers are also directly involved in practical teaching and mentoring from the word go and establish direct contact with students instead of just seeing a sea of faces.