Saturday, February 28, 2009

E-books get serious

E-books have been around for a long time but few people have found the idea very appealing. I can read a few pages of a report on a screen but then it becomes a strain on the eyes. We're all waiting for an e-book reader that is light, easy-to-use and has an eye-friendly screen.

Amazon's new Kindle e-book reader could be the answer according to reviewers. It's lighter than most paperbacks, can contain a couple of hundred books, newspaper or blogs and you download your content via a wireless link. Very similar to the iPod for music. The catch is that just as Apple virtually cornered the market for legally downloaded music so may Amazon for printed material.

In an article in Slate magazine, Fear the Kindle, Farhad Manjoo argues that Kindle gives Amazon a virtual monopoly on the e-book market since you can only buy content for your Kindle from Amazon. I love the idea and would love to try it out but I only wish that we could somehow move away from all these proprietary solutions and have devices that are compatible with all suppliers. Imagine a cross between the Kindle and the iPod that could hold books, news, music, photos, films and games and could access the combined resources of all suppliers. I'm sure the technology exists but the business model is the problem.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Time for change?

Obama's promises of change has spawned lots of ideas in every line of business and education is no exception. For example, Marc Prensky has written an open letter to Barack Obama where he argues that it is time for radical changes in the way we approach education in order to equip students with the skills necessary for the 21st century. Much the same letter could be sent to just about every world leader actually.

In a similar vein, the Hoover Institution's journal Education Next contains a discussion article by John E. Chubb, Terry M. Moe and Larry Cuban entitled Forum - Virtual schools Will education technology change the role of the teacher and the nature of learning? In general they seem optimistic that we can see major changes in education in the near future but not without a struggle.

New technology is basically disruptive to existing structures, and generally provokes strong resistance. As a result we should expect evolution rather than revolution. Often technical innovation comes from external sources (industry pressure, government initiatives etc) and teachers are not involved in the process apart from the implementation. That often leads to resistance and the innovation process fizzles out.

"Their (public educators') approach to information technology is rooted in the status quo: it is about making the existing system work better without really changing it. In the new social reality, however, this isn’t going to cut it. There will be competition. There will be pressure. There will be change."

Although almost everyone in higher education has access to the net it has still had little effect on teaching methods. It is not just a matter of implementing new technology into the existing system, the whole system needs an overhaul. Fundamental principles such as the age-graded school need to be re-examined, according to the article.

More and more students will study to some extent outside the traditional classroom model and it will eventually become the norm despite hard resistance. The core learning processes will be on the net and although there will always be a need for face-to-face interaction the traditional school model will be much more fluid.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Better conferences

Last week (18-20 Feb) I took part in an online conference, Spaces of interaction - an online conversation on improving traditional conferences, the theme of which was how to make academic conferences more inclusive and interactive. The traditional conference format is hard to change despite all the social tools we have at our disposal today and even conferences that examine the forefront of net-based learning tend to consist of the time-honoured format of lectures, panel discussions and keynotes.

This conference lasted 3 days and consisted of a social network site (based on Ning) for discussion and networking as well as synchronous presentation sessions using Adobe Connect. The presentations I saw were well attended with around 80 participants. As ever there was plenty of discussion in the chat session which can be a bit of a distraction for those of us with limited multi-tasking skills. All the presentations were recorded and can be accessed by anyone (watch all the recorded sessions) and the advantage of watching the recordings is that you have a better chance of assimilating both the presenter's arguments and the sometimes intensive back channel debate in the chat session.

It's impossible to summarize such a conference since I've only really taken part in fragments. A further problem is finding time to check out some more of the sessions in between "regular" work and routines. The problem with online conferences is that it's difficult to concentrate on them for more than an hour or two and they tend to get drowned out by the noise of work. If you're actually at an event you have a certain licence to disconnect with normal routines and can concentrate on the conference.

Some of the themes I did pick up were:
  • Social tools can be effectively used as pre- and post-conference activities; encouraging delegates to introduce themselves and their interests, link up, start discussion threads, follow up conference themes etc.
  • Facilitate more networking and exchange of knowledge by using a variety of communication channels
  • How useful is back-channel communication? Chat sessions and Twitter are used increasingly to enable delegates to discuss during lecture sessions. Distractor or facilitator?
  • Let presenters record short video previews to post on the conference website to help delegates choose what to attend.
  • Can you charge fees for participating in online conferences?
  • Not all activities need to be interactive, there's still a place for a really stimulating presentation
  • Allow for more open and unplanned spaces in conferences where discussions can take place. Too easy to fill every hour with planned activities.
The question is, as ever, how to find the right balance. Too many bells and whistles may annoy many delegates just as others find the traditional format stifling. I also suspect that many of us quite like the traditional format as a way of stepping back from work for a couple of days and just going with the flow. We do like traditions and routines and don't like being shaken up too much. However, there's plenty scope for new ideas and I hope this initiative sparks further discussion among conference organisers.

For another person's view of the conference see Carole Turner's entry on the conference Ning.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Textbook revolution

There is a vast amount of free learning resources available on the net today; video podcasts on iTunes U, whole courses from MIT Open CourseWare, books at Wikibooks and photos, films and diagrams at Wikimedia Commons. All sites encourage sharing and collaboration in order to make good educational material available to all. I've now discovered a wikisite called Textbook revolution which is run by students and aims at at offering free course literature as e-books. No copyright issues either as authors freely make their material available under Creative Commons or as public domain.

I wonder if there are any studies being done about how all this is actually being used on courses. Is it used as supplementary material, as recommended study material or does anyone put together whole course modules full of on-line material? Most people take pride in producing their own material and have an in-built unease about borrowing from others. In addition, there are many who are uneasy about e-books and the problem of reading long texts on a screen. I don't see so many colleagues who make use of all these free resources but awareness is definitely growing. It would be interesting to see if there are any patterns on who is using most e-resources, which subject areas, types of institution, country etc.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

At last - cellphone compatibility (maybe)

How many cellphone battery chargers do you have lying in drawers at home? Every time you buy a new model you need a new charger because no two models seem to use the same type of charger. You would think that since the manufacturers are able to invent such incredibly smart devices they could manage to develop a universal battery charger.

However there is hope. An article in The Guardian claims that mobile manufacturers have actually agreed to implementing a universal battery charger enabling us to use the same lead even if we change model. This is part of a wave of "green" measures announced at the Mobile World Congress being held in Barcelona. Other new features will include devices with solar panels and devices made from recycled material.

Laptops in the classroom

Laptops are now commonplace in lectures but what are they used for? As a lecturer it's of course tempting to believe that everyone is making copious notes about your fascinating lecture. However, just sit at the back of the hall and you'll see what really goes on. Many check their e-mail, some check the latest news, Facebook, iTunes and so on. Multi-tasking? Boredom? This isn't just student behaviour, we seniors do the same when given the chance.

Tony Bates writes about this in a new blog entry Laptops in lectures
"If most students have laptops, why are they still having physically to come to a lecture hall? Why can’t they get a podcast of the lecture? Second, if they are coming, why are the lecturers not requiring them to use their laptops for study?"

An article on the site On Campus, Can I have your half attention please?, claims that we are developing a culture of "constant partial distraction" with students easily distracted from the subject being taught. One teacher had managed to get students to accept a ban on laptops in the classroom and this had led to better results but such tactics were unlikely to become widespread.

If we have the technology in place let's either make use of it in a constructive way or decide together that we make some sessions "unplugged" (as MTV used to do with rock groups). Seminars where students are expected to discuss and debate should probably be unplugged to ensure full concentration whereas other sessions could involve groups searching for information or using the net for on-line discussion.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A new internet?

Is it time to reinvent the net? With increasing concerns about security threats and criminal activity on the present internet set-up, people are suggesting starting up a new internet. According to an article in The New York Times (Do we need a new internet?) there are many who advocate a new, more secure internet though the price we pay for the increased security will be reduced anonymity. The idea is to create a kind of "gated community" where your anonymity and certain freedoms are traded for safety from fraudsters and viruses. Evidently the criminal activity on the net today is a major threat to the security of governments, companies and individuals and a major security attack is a question of "when" not "if".

Of course many of us share the vision of the net as a democratic force allowing us to share knowledge, experience and ideas but sadly the openness and creative freedom of the net is being exploited by criminal elements. According to the article we may be left with choosing between the safe but monitored net and the open and free net where you wander at your own risk.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The paperless classroom

Remember the paperless office from the nineties? It never happened. We thought that by using computers and the net we wouldn't need shelves full of ring files and heaps of paper on the desk. Yet here we are today and most offices I know, including my own, are still full of paper. Why do we keep printing so many unnecessary copies?

There's a blog called Teach Paperless that gives practical tips on how to reduce the vast amount of paper used in education. According to calculations, the money saved by not printing and copying would finance the purchase of the laptops and resources required to make the paper copies useless. Evidently schools in Los Angeles get through 75,600 tons of paper a year. There's an article from The Guardian last year with a good example of a school in Scotland that went paperless.

Many people find it hard to read longer articles on a screen but new e-book readers are coming out that seem to solve some of these issues. Old habits die hard but I'm sure we could all make a difference if we stopped for a moment and thought before we hit the print button.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Google everywhere

I've just borrowed a new book from the library called Googlepedia. It describes how all the various Google apps work and has lots of useful tips. It has also some good background to why Google has succeeded. The author, Michael Miller, admits that writing a book about anything on the net is like shooting at a moving target and a book about Google would seem to be a very swift target to aim at. To keep things up to date he also runs a blog on the subject.

The book is well worth looking at as long as you realize that it will be at least partly out of date by the time you finish it (weighing in at over 700 pages), thus making it a good library loan but a bad idea to buy someone as a birthday present. An admirable project though I'm sure the legendary figure of Sisyphus would have sympathised with the author.

Books on IT tend to be weighty objects and have a very short shelf life. We all have copies of mega-sized guides to, say, Windows 95 or Java programming for dummies lurking somewhere on the shelves helping to prop up other less bulky publications. Despite all the on-line guides and FAQs we still seem to need the reassuring hard copy. However, it is rather a lot of paper for something so ephemeral.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Cold turkey for web addicts

Do you find it hard to concentrate on your work and can't stop surfing the net when you should be doing something more constructive? Well now there's a solution.

According to an article in The Wired Campus, Apple users can download a shareware application called Freedom that blocks your net access for as long as you want. So if you need to concentrate on writing that research paper or report and do not want to be tempted to check the latest sports results or what your friends are doing on Facebook, then you just activate this and you're on your own. Once you've enabled the net-blocker you can't disable it until the blockage time is out (unless you completely reboot of course, but that takes time).

I don't think this will be a massive success but the mere idea that someone has produced a tool like this must say something about homo zapiens. The distractions of the net are rather compulsive.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Money for nothing

In the new collaborative social web that we love so much we assume that just about everything is free. People devote months of development work to a new application and then give it away to anyone who wants it. Indeed, for many younger devotees the net is a vast freebie warehouse.

However, in the present economic crisis it's relevant to wonder how long this generosity can last. There are many web applications with millions of members but where's the income? Of course most of them try to fund their operations by having plenty of adverts but the advertisers are noticing dwindling returns from web advertising (how often do you click on an ad you see on Facebook or YouTube?). Will we see many popular services charging their users in order to survive and how will the users react to such radical moves? Would you be willing to pay for Twitter, for example?

This is the theme of an interesting article by Chris Anderson in the Wall Street Journal (2 February) entitled The economics of giving it away. The free services are indeed often subsidised by those who pay for a premium version (described as the Freemium model in the article) and the free services aren't going to disappear overnight. However Anderson does see more services trying to earn more from their products in order to survive.
"Free may be the best price, but it can't be the only one".

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Digital will?

I'm not a very good member of Facebook I must admit. I don't contribute very often and I can't really find a good reason for doing so. It is however fascinating to see the commitment of many friends in there who clearly use Facebook to keep up with friends and socialize. However one drawback is that once you've made friends with someone you are allowed to view all their on-line activities. People who publish party photos/films/discussions in the public part of Facebook must realize that this material is available to even their most distant "friends" - like me perhaps ;-)

I read an article in the freebie Swedish daily paper Metro (seen on every bus and train in the country) about a girl who is desperately trying to delete her late boyfriend's Facebook profile. Once you're on Facebook it isn't easy to delete it and even harder to do so if you don't have the person's user name and password (as in this girl's case). I can understand that she finds it disturbing that her boyfriend's profile lives on in Facebook and it would be good if there was some way of deleting it or even informing his network of his death.

If we think of all the networks we belong to it might be an idea to write down all passwords and store them somewhere that would be accessible to a family member if the worst ahould happen. Should we have some kind of digital will so that our identities, blogs, avatars etc can be laid to rest with dignity?