Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bon appetit on the net

Way back in the fifties they tried to add smell to feature films (smell-o-vision) by scraping a card at a given moment and thereby being able to capture, for example, the doft of spring flowers or newly-cut grass. The technique was a flop of course and despite today's advances in HDTV we still can't smell or taste anything we see on screen. Imagine how popular all those cookery shows would be if we could smell and taste what they make!

However you can still use the net to taste and smell food. At work today we have been hosts for a fascinating initiative where juries around Sweden have been tasting and judging locally produced food products by video conference. Under the guidance of French gourmet Paul Le Mans, groups sat in 8 video conference studios around Sweden and tasted different types of bread, meat products and cheese. The aim was to develop the vocabulary of describing taste, smell and touch. All participating groups had the same selections of produce and tasted one after the other and agreed on common descriptive terms.

This event was part of a project called Eldrimner (main site, in Swedish), a national resource centre for artisan food, which focuses on promoting local food produce around Sweden.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Open high school

With all those open educational resources available out there it's no surprise to see brave attempts to create net-based schools or universities around them. Previously I've referred to the projects University of the People and Peer 2 Peer University and now I've found a high school in Utah that is completely on-line and uses OER. It's called the Open High School of Utah, a public high school and free for all residents of the state.

The idea is to use existing learning objects as study material sewn together by teachers available via the learning management system and e-meetings. They offer students free computers and individualised curriculum and presumably the students are expected to study completely from home. I assume they are somehow connected to a more established school but that is not clear from the website. They've just closed applications for the first semester and it will be interesting to see how the school develops.

The freedom and creativity of this kind of school gives a new dimension to home study students and those living in remote areas. How they develop sporting activities and foster group work is not obvious on the net. The experience of attending a real brick-amd-mortar school with all the social contacts, sports and networking will not be replaced by the virtual high school but the future will undoubtedly offer many hybrid forms.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Attention please

I enjoyed reading an article (Attention literacy) by a guy called Howard Rheingold about his efforts to grab the attention of his students. It's a recurring theme in many edublogs and it's not clear whether everyone in class who are busy checking Facebook, MSN, eBay etc are skillful multi-taskers or are simply not paying attention to the class.

Howard teaches a course in social media and communication at Berkeley and his tactics were to film his students and show them what the class looked like from the front; "... I realized that none of the students knew what it feels like to stand up in front of a room full of people who are not watching me or each other, but appear to be hypnotized by something on their computer screens."

The interesting point here is that Howard has spent time with his class teaching the important skill of attention; something that is not instinctive and must be learnt. It's important sometimes to create space to be able to think without all the distractions available all around us. Insights and ideas often come to us in moments of silence or even boredom but if we constantly fill the spaces with noise we'll never be able to reflect.

Have a look at Howard's video on the subject:

Friday, April 24, 2009

Is cheating creative?

I read a short article in my local newspaper yesterday about a survey of the most popular websites amongst 10-15 year-olds. The top two were predictable, YouTube and MSN, but in third place was a Swedish site called This web address can be translated as Here you get masses of cheat codes for virtually all games, enabling you to beat everyone without bothering to learn the finer points yourself. Many games take weeks or even months to work up to a higher level but many players are evidently tempted to take short cuts to glory.

Similarly, there’s the phenomenon of people selling ready-made heroes or high status attributes on eBay and suchlike. Those who have no patience with the long learning process in the game can buy their way to instant status.

Does this mean that cheating is becoming more acceptable? The site doesn’t try to disguise its content so the word must be more positive than in the past. The “cheaters” compete with each other in trying to uncover the bugs and loopholes in the latest games and make them public as quickly as possible. Those who spend their time testing and finding cheat codes are indeed creative talents and actually provide some pretty concrete feedback to the games’ programmers by revealing the glitches. However those who simply use the cheat codes to find a short cut to beating their friends are not being particularly creative.

Sometimes you have to admire the ingenuity involved in cheating effectively. Why not use that creativity to do something more positive instead? But then again there’s the challenge of beating the system and the glory of succeeding. The file sharing community is very much about “beating the system” and finding ever more ingenious methods for doing so and avoiding discovery. At the same time the companies they are fighting against battle in vain to close down the loopholes and improve security. It's a fascinating battle.

Maybe all this can be seen as necessary irritants to force an otherwise complacent industry from getting too powerful. They are forcing the computer, telecom, music, film and gaming industries to be constantly on their guard and in some cases realize their vulnerability if they don’t adapt. It’s all part of a grey zone between relatively honest creative experimentation and the hardcore criminal activities of the major hackers.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Questioning the course

A few weeks ago George Siemens and colleagues organised an original on-line conference about how to make conferences more communicative and interactive (see my review in an earlier post). Now they are organising a similar activity and this time the concept of the course will come under the microscope (see From Courses to Dis/Course). We organise nearly all education in tidy packages known as a courses but is this model in need of re-assessment as the potential for net-based collaboration and informal learning develops? The seminar will take place 14-15 May using the e-meeting tool Elluminate as well as Moodle. More information will appear shortly on the blog.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Distance learning is good for you

I've just read a new Canadian study from Memorial University of Newfoundland entitled The Impact of High School Distance e-Learning Experience on Rural Students’ University Achievement and Persistence (Dodd, Kirby, Seifert, Sharpe. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume XII, Number I, Spring 2009).

The authors examined the success rates of first year university students and compared those with experience of distance learning from high school to those with only traditional classroom learning at high school. The results show that those with previous experience of distance learning had a higher success rate at university than the control group (regardless of the type of instruction used at university).

To quote from the abstract:
"The rapid growth of information technologies has influenced the way in which education is delivered and experienced. Little is currently known about the impact of distance education experience at the secondary level of the educational system on subsequent educational pursuits in the post-secondary education system. This research utilized archival data to explore the impact of high school on-line education experience on students’ performance and persistence in the first year of university. The results of this analysis suggest that first year university performance and persistence is significantly different for students who have previous experience with on-line education experiences and those who do not."

The reason for this would seem be that the distance students had developed a higher degree of self discipline and more independent study habits and as a result were better equipped to succeed in higher education.

I often get asked if distance courses are as good as campus-based ones and I reply that in many courses the net-based version is better in that you learn so much more. It should be seen as an advantage that you have taken a net-based course since not only have you studied the subject, you have also developed networking skills, learned to use a variety of net-based communication and presentation tools and participated in virtual teamwork. All those skills are vital in today's globalised job market and should be taught to all students.

Nobody asks if accountants really need to use Excel and net-based accounting resources; they are essential tools for the job. Why should we be so cautious with technology in teaching?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Sharing and caring

What happens when everyone shares everything? The music and film industries are struggling to come to terms with a world where copying is so easy and virtually impossible to control. The publishing industry is also under threat and the educational sector can't quite decide if the power of new web services are a threat or an opportunity. More and more information is being shared thanks to various wiki projects and educational material is more freely distributed than ever before. At the same time as we can share our own material we are also able to "share" other people's material with or without their permission.

I love the idea of open learning resources allowing access to educational material without a price tag. I'm not so sure about file sharing when the product of several months of an artist's/author's/actor's life can be distributed without that person getting any financial reward or credit. However the technology to do so is available and we have to adapt to a new reality where many established businesses will disappear in the next few years.

The power of sharing is a disruptive process and threatens many established structures. Mark Pesce has posted a lecture on this theme (see below) and is well worth a look. He examines amongst, many other areas, the possibility of creating a truly open university with lectures available from anywhere at any time and rated by students and peers. Many areas of university administration are being slowly opened up and put into the hands of the consumers (students). What will happen to the bricks-and-mortar campus ideal when you can choose when to study, where to study, what pace to study and are free to choose which lecturers to follow? Can this change be managed and structured or will the customer decide? Have a loook ..

See even Mark Pesce's blog The Human Network.

Share This Lecture! from Mark Pesce on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sign language on-line

Whenever I see groups of people discussing in sign language I feel rather ashamed that so few of us with good hearing bother to learn even the basics of a language used extensively throughout the country but inaccessible to most. Why isn't basic sign language compulsory in schools? Just enough to handle simple situations.

A new EU project can help the situation. It's called Spread the sign and is a cooperation between 10 organisations in 8 European countries as part of the Leonardo daVinci programme. It is basically an on-line dictionary where you can enter words, phrases and sentences in the languages of the member states and get a video showing the sign language equivalent for each country. This can be of great use to those who just want to learn some basic phrases but most of all the resource is to help deaf people around Europe to understand each other. Sign language is just like the spoken language in that every country has their own language and this is a problem for, say, deaf students travelling on exchange programmes around Europe. Spread the sign enables you to at least practice the rudiments of the target language.

The project was officially launched by Queen Silvia of Sweden 31 March and you can read more about that on the official press release. Plans are to expand the project to become a global initiative by including countries outside Europe such as Japan. See also an article from Swedish SVT on the inauguration (article in Swedish).