Saturday, August 29, 2009

Good enough

I've just read a good article in Wired Magazine called The Good Enough Revolution; When Cheap and Simple is Just Fine that had me nodding in agreement most of the time. Many of the most popular applications on the net are successful not because of their high quality but because they're easy to use, always available and most importantly cheap or preferably free. The concept of "perpetual beta" for many applications has become the norm and users are quite willing to put up with shortcomings if they get it all for free.

The music industry is a perfect example of good enough. 30 years ago music lovers dreamt of buying a state-of-the-art hi-fi system with massive speakers, hi-tech amplifier and super-sensitive turntable all stacked up to impress in the corner of the living room. Perfect quality was the objective and buying a hi-fi system was a major project. Today I seldom see such sophisticated systems and mp3 is the choice format, much to the dismay of the music industry. The sound quality is not impressive but it's a convenient format and you can have your entire music collection in your pocket.

It's a similar story in many other areas. We use Skype for communication despite occasional lag, use cloud computing applications like Google Docs that lack all the features of Microsoft Office but do the job well and fly with no-frills airlines despite their indifferent customer care.

... what consumers want from the products and services they buy is fundamentally changing. We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect. These changes run so deep and wide, they're actually altering what we mean when we describe a product as "high-quality."

Is the current interest in free and open education typified by pioneers like Peer 2 Peer University and University of the People a further example of good enough? I hope not and believe that they are necessary to jolt the mainstream universities into more innovative strategies for expanding the reach of higher education. Is there a risk, however, that we see the growth of a cut-price sector in education with freelance faculty working for low wages and without job security? Quality is essential in education and quality costs.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


There's nothing really new with multitasking, it's just got a cool name. In black and white days we used to get distracted by phone calls, corridor conversations, smoking breaks or listening to the radio. Today we've got many more distractors but the problem is how well we can concentrate on more than one thing at a time. I admit I like to have several applications running on my computer while I'm working (e-mail, Skype, Twitter, web radio, several web pages ...) and if I'm trying to write something I don't really want to do I've got lots of reasons to avoid doing it. However if I need to really concentrate and think clearly all the distractors have got to be shut down.

Multitasking is often seen as a symbol of being modern and flexible. Interestingly we often see multitaskers as highly efficient whereas in the past they may often have been dismissed as not being able to concentrate on the task in hand. An article in The Huffington Post, Study finds people who multitask often bad at it, describes a new piece of research that suggests that people who like to multitask are actually not very good at it and this leads to errors and carelessness. Indeed the more media they use the worse they perform.

However the report suggests that further investigation is needed into the reasons for multitasking and whether it is a natural reflection of our personality. Some people have a talent for detailed and thoughtful analysis and to do this they shut off all distractors. Others, the multitaskers, are inquisitive and enjoy experimenting and are seldom content to concentrate on on matter at a time. When is the multitasking approach fruitful and when is it not? For the full study see Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers by Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, Anthony D. Wagner (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA).

Another angle on the subject can be read at, Drop that Blackberry! Multitasking may be harmful.

You've got five minutes

When speaking to an audience there's an old adage that it takes much longer to prepare a short talk than a long one. The art of conveying a clear and convincing message in less than 10 minutes takes time to learn but is highly effective. Few of us really listen to anyone effectively for long and so if you really want to get the message across it's best to do so as concisely as possible before your audience's attention starts to wander.

This has been taken to heart by Ignite which is an event concept where invited experts are allowed 5 minutes each to get their message across. It's a bit like the classic talent show where singers or comedians are given max 5 minutes to convince the audience that they are any good. In the case of Ignite evenings it's not amateur hour but a showcase for highly gifted speakers to make their mark. On the website you can sample some of these short talks.

The concept seems to be popular and I wonder if it can spark more focus in schools and universities on presentation skills. We tend to play down this important skill today and I think we could all (students and teachers) benefit from more practice at communicating effectively in a limited timeframe.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Coming to a cinema near you ...

I love old movies and couldn't resist passing on this wonderful pastiche film trailer for an open access course Social media and Open Education. The course is free to join!

Blogging in a nutshell

Every time I check my flow of Twitter messages I discover at least one useful link. Last night several people recommended a disclaimer of all things. Could this be the first disclaimer ever to be actually worth reading?

It appears on Chris Lott's blog Ruminate and is actually a justification of blogging in general. He basically writes that his blog is not an academic publication, it represents his spontaneous thoughts and opinions and as such he is liable to sometimes contradict himself and reconsider his previous opinions. The reader must accept these conditions and not see the blog as any more than a representation of the writer's thought process; sometimes logical and measured, sometimes chaotic and confused.

I think most people who write blogs could easily paste this disclaimer on to their sites.
For another very convincing reason to keep blogging, have a look at Seth Godin and Tom Peters in a recent interview (YouTube video).

Friday, August 21, 2009

Peer 2 Peer University open for business

Last year I wrote about a new initiative in open education called Peer 2 Peer University (see Peer Learning). The idea is to combine freely available educational resources, collaborative learning, study guidance from volunteer tutors and assemble short university courses free of charge. Now P2PU are accepting enrollment on their first seven courses, starting on 9 September.

At present there is no accreditation so anyone taking one of these first courses will only receive certificates of performance from P2PU. That is the main obstacle the fledgling university has to address in the near future and they can count on strong resistance. One suggested course of action is to show your course material and assignments at a "regular" university and ask them to validate your performance. It will be very interesting to hear what happens when someone takes such action.

The experiment will hopefully be closely studied since it offers a radical new angle to the whole concept of education. The "free" aspect will of course attract interest but it is essential that the students are already well-versed in the principles of collaborative net-based education. Those who expect to be taught in a traditional way may well be disappointed. On the web site they do hint that small fees may well be introduced on future courses since running university courses does indeed cost money and you can only do so much with volunteer tutors. The key element to education like this is the role of the teacher/tutor and their ability to offer students a context for their studies and qualified feedback (even if much of the interaction is between students). Good tutors will not work long as unpaid volunteers. Their regular job will always have top priority.

I'm not sure if P2PU has a long term future as a university but since mainstream universities are reluctant to really experiment with new models this is one way of testing ideas and assessing what works and does not work. The lessons learned by P2PU and other similar projects will hopefully inspire established institutions to try new ways of reaching out to learners who are at present outside mainstream higher education.

For further variations on the theme of "free" in education have a look at Seth Godin's blogpost Education at the Crossroads.

Update 27 August: 227 people applied for the 7 P2PU courses this term. A manageable number for to get started with.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A night at the Twitter opera

Inspector Morse would definitely not have approved. The Royal Opera House in London have started a project to compose an opera libretto from a string of 140 character Twitter messages according to an article in the Daily Telegraph. Everyone can contribute by logging on to #youropera and tweeting suggestions for the next line.

"Extracts of the opera will be performed in an informal setting around a piano in the Paul Hamlyn Hall as part of the Deloitte Ignite Festival from September 4-6. Laptops for "tweeting" will be available during the event to aid the creative process."

The idea is of course to create audience involvement but at the risk of trivialising a very complex process (creative writing and composition) and facig the obvious charges of jumping on an already rapidly moving bandwagon.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Virtual worlds after the hype

The massive hype around virtual worlds died down over a year ago as the spotlight shifted over to Facebook and Twitter. According to Gartner's newly released 2009 Hype Cycle Report, virtual worlds are stuck in the deep valley of their trough of disillusionment (nice name for a blog that!) as is the supposed fate of all superhyped phenomena. They may have sunk below the media radar but there's plenty going on as a recent short article in the Guardian (Virtual worlds are getting a second life) shows.

According to the article, "membership of virtual worlds grew by 39% in the second quarter of 2009 to an estimated 579 million". This includes all types of virtual world with World of Warcraft, Second Life and Entropia being the most famous. Hardly the trough of disillusionment.

The main point of the article is that virtual worlds are actually earning money in stark contrast to Facebook and Twitter. This income comes from millions of micropayments since members are willing to part with real money to buy virtual fashion, weapons, special powers, real estate and so on. There's so much focus just now on the free aspect of the net that it's fascinating to find an area where everything costs, but not enough that you'd notice. Virtual clothes, bodies and weapons are indeed digital but in the virtual world they are scarce resources, difficult to reproduce and therefore they can be bought and sold. The inhabitants of SL and WoW seem to have bought into the concept of a commercial virtual world and I haven't heard many cries for it all to be free.

SL has suffered over the years for its infamous tendency to lag and crash often due to the fact that all the content is user-created and sometimes an area is too graphics intensive to support more than a handful of avatars at one time. Giving users the ability to freely build and create and then earn money from their creativity is the main strength of worlds like SL but the downside is that this freedom is at the expense of performance reliability. WoW on the other hand has excellent graphics and less lag due to the world being created by the owners and with very little user creativity.

The next stage is the long awaited ability to move from one world to another and resolving the graphics issues. Then maybe the technology will merit a place on Gartner's slope of enlightenment leading to the plateau of productivity.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be, part 34

I can't help recommending a couple of articles on the theme of technology that has recently become obsolete. The first is from PC World and is a top 40 of obsolete technology that you hardly noticed disappear; typewriters, phone booths, dial-up modems (if you feel nostalgic there's a web page with the sound effects!), VHS, floppy discs, camera film or ghetto blasters. We never really had time to say goodbye!

The other article is about the death of handwriting, or rather cursive handwriting, in Time magazine (Mourning the death of handwriting). Almost no-one under 30 writes cursive anymore and you would expect the reason to be technology. However since few schools have taught computing skills until very recently that cannot explain the demise of handwriting.

In the past people took great pride in their handwriting and a well-written letter showed not only a command of the language but also the ability to write in an aesthetically pleasing way. Elegant handwriting was equated with refinement and education. Today of course we let Word, PowerPoint and Acrobat help us to present our written thoughts in an elegant and professional manner. We write very little by hand apart from post-it notes, Christmas cards and shopping lists.

I don't think we'll miss floppy discs or typewriters but I wonder if the demise of handwriting falls into another category. Look at the long traditions behind calligraphy in Japan, China and the Muslim world. There it is an art form and people are expected to be able to read such texts. Maybe we're carelessly throwing away something rather beautiful.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tweeting the night away

I've been twittering (@alacre) for a few weeks now and despite my initial scepticism it has certainly provided me with many new sources of information and inspiration. Many tweeters have some great links and ideas to share if you just follow them even if discussions via Twitter are a bit like casting your ideas to the wind and hoping someone's out there.

There's a conference in Vancouver (Open Education 2009) just now that I'm watching from afar. Sessions are of course streamed and available afterwards as usual but it's the first conference that I have tried to follow on Twitter (#opened09). The comments and link suggestions came thick and fast from both delegates and on-line participants. It's really a variation on the chat room theme but combining the live video feed with the torrent of tweets as well as being able to click on all the links certainly keeps you busy and must require serious multi-tasking in the conference hall. The back channel for delegate communication is now out in the open and is rapidly becoming a required conference feature. If you don't provide that channel the delegates will fix it themselves, just as many students do in class.

There's no doubt that Twitter is the tech flavour of the year but it seems to be the 30+ sector of the population who are driving development. Contrary to popular belief, it hasn't really taken off with teenagers. A recent article on the site Mashable, Stats confirm it, teens don't tweet, created a long and fascinating discussion (read also a blogpost questioning the validity of such media-friendly surveys). Teenagers, according to the article, are mostly concerned with communicating with friends and not broadcasting to unknown readers. Twitter, just like blogs and wikis, is too blunt an instrument compared with MSN, Skype or Facebook where you communicate with known and accepted friends. The Twitter discussion at Open Ed 2009 is, like most of Twitter, wide open for anyone to view.

I suppose we can divide these tools into more or less open and closed social networks. Open tools let you communicate with anyone (blogs, wikis, Twitter) whereas closed tools allow you to communicate with strictly restricted groups (IM, texting, Facebook). Adults tend to be more attracted to communicating with a wide and largely unknown audience wheres as teenagers concentrate more on cultivating relationships. Such generalisations are always rather sweeping and hardly original but I think I see a trend!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A classroom without books

Strange days indeed. A couple of years ago I went into a bank to deposit cash into my account and was informed by a proud employee that this was a cash-free bank. Now there are quite a few cash-free banks much to the irritation of the customers in striped jerseys and masks.

The classroom without books is a similarly bizarre concept but is becoming increasingly attractive. A few months ago Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger caused quite a stir by announcing that schools would be encouraged to phase out expensive textbooks in maths and science and replace them with free, on-line educational resources. Whether Arnold is well-versed in the benefits of Open Educational Resources and Creative Commons or not is of little importance. The point is that it has started a process and given teachers an opportunity to seriously start using digital learning objects.

An article in the New York Times (As classrooms go digital, textbooks are history) today presents a positive angle on the book-free classroom. Using on-line resources frees students from the restrictions imposed by the physical classroom and traditional teaching meodels. As a school superintendent says in the article:
“We’re still in a brick-and-mortar, 30-students-to-1-teacher paradigm, but we need to get out of that framework to having 200 or 300 kids taking courses online, at night, 24/7, whenever they want.”

Many schools are already providing students with laptops as part of a regional initiative called Beyond textbooks, encouraging teachers to share material and make use of net-based resources. The publishers of school textbooks are of course particularly at risk in this initiative but some are evidently already offering more e-books. One interesting development is the development of "flexbooks" where basic material is made available on the net and teachers can add to them and adapt them to their own school.

The key factor in this type of initiative is to ensure that the digital divide is not widened. Many students do not have internet access from home and it is vital that the move to on-line teaching does not only benefit students from wealthier families. It's worth keeping an eye on developments in California.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Note-taking goes global

As a student I spent most lectures taking feverish notes in almost illegible handwriting, trying to create a record of what the teacher had said. If you couldn't go to a particular lecture you could ask a friend for a copy of his/her notes (often even more illegible). Some desperate characters were even prepared to pay for a whole term of lecture notes since they had spent most class time elsewhere. Lecture notes, however, are of course totally subjective and there's no guarantee that the note-taker was listening attentively all the time. Their value to anyone else but myself is probably very low.

An article in Inside Higher Ed (Taking notes beyond the classroom) discusses the current growth in lecture note-sharing services on the net. There are now several sites that allow students to share lecture notes and create networks around them - for example GradeGuru and ShareNotes. Students can upload their notes that are then assessed according to popularity and recommendation from fellow students. The sites even pay students if their notes get good reviews from users.

I can see potential in this type of service if it results in students collaborating to produce more than just notes. If a class can collaborate to write "meta-notes" and then build on them by reflecting on and drawing conclusions from what was said in the lecture, the process of comparing lecture notes could lead to a deeper understanding of the subject. This type of collaborative learning can take place using a number of tools such as discussion forums, wikis and various social networks. Start with your rough lecture notes and build on them.

However, if the notes are only used as raw material for cramming before an exam I am less enthusiastic. A simple record of what was said in a lecture does not of course constitute learning and these note-taking sites tend to confirm the myth that passing exams is still all about memorizing what the professor said. With so many lectures being recorded and distributed on the net via iTunes or YouTube, I'm surprised the note-taking sites do so much business. Now you can replay the important parts as often as you like and have access to hundreds of other lectures on the same subject from other universities. Just reading through your (or someone else's) lecture notes will not get you far, it's what you do with them that counts.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Critical thinking

I enjoyed reading Michele Martin's blogpost on the question of teaching critical thinking skills to students Forget the Kids--It's the Adults Online Who Need Critical Thinking Skills. We're often so concerned about our children's vulnerability on the net that we forget how easily fooled most adults are. Very few kids reply to spam e-mails (they don't even use e-mail) but lots of adults do.

It's all part of the digital natives/net-generation discussion that I've referred to many times before. Age has nothing to do with digital competence; many youngsters have very poor computer skills and many older people are excellent (and of course vice versa). Kids have certainly different ways of communicating compared to their parents - MSN instead of e-mail, text instead of phone calls etc. But that does not mean that they are more skilled in using the net in general. There are simply digital natives of all ages and then many more of all ages who lack the necessary skills to use the net effectively.

There's a very good blogpost about all this by a young Swedish blogger, Gustav Holmström, who writes about the digital skills of his schoolmates. Just paste the Swedish text into Google Translate if you want a translation of this article.

Monday, August 3, 2009

IT priorities

Web 2.0 technologies are challenging the role of the central IT department. Traditionally IT have managed the university's IT infrastructure and campus licences for commercial learning management systems, Microsoft Office, finance and personnel systems etc. They've ensured security and protected the rest of us from mountains of spam, trojans and other threats.

However, this central role is being undermined since increasing numbers of staff and students are using non-approved social networking services and storing learning resources on external servers (ie Google Docs, Flickr, YouTube etc). How do we ensure security and interoperability as well as encouraging innovation and open participation?

These are the themes taken up in Educause's newly released edition of their annual survey, Top-Ten IT issues 2009. The top ten issues can be summarised as

1. Funding IT
With budgets being cut IT-spending comes under scrutiny. How can IT work with faculty to provide solutions that are effective and help to save money? Can more services be virtualized by using web-based solutions?

2. Administrative/ERP Information Systems
These systems, essential for admissions management, records etc, are becoming increasingly complex and harder to manage. Are there advantages in using open-source systems or can they be outsourced?

3. Security
Does the university have a clear security policy? Are all staff fully aware of security issues? What are the risks of using social networks in communication with students?

4. Infrastructure/Cyberinfrastructure
The university does not need to host everything today. Outsourced e-mail (eg Google mail) and open source LMS (Moodle, Sakai) are becoming more popular. What are the implications of this trend for authentication?

5. Teaching and Learning with Technology
More and more learning is taking place outside the classroom and with an inceasing diversity of tools. IT staff must be more closely involved in faculty development.

6. Identity/Access Management
How strictly should access to university systems be monitored. What should be private and what should be public?

7. Governance, Organization, and Leadership
The role of IT leaders in the management of the university.

8. Disaster Recovery / Business Continuity
Does the university have a clear plan on how to deal with emergencies, including serious IT outages.

9. Agility, Adaptability, and Responsiveness
Are IT leaders driving change in the organisation and are they helping the organisation to deal with change in a strategic way?

10. Learning Management Systems
The LMS has become a vital part of a university's infrastructure. Should it be proprietary or open source? How can we integrate social networking into the LMS?