Sunday, January 31, 2010

To see ourselves as others see us

I meet a lot of people who are sceptical about the possibilities offered by technology in education. My enthusiasm to explain and encourage the use of open educational resources, wikis, blogging, social networking and social bookmarking is sometimes met by a lack of interest that I find hard to counter. How can they not see the benefits that are so obvious to me? Are they not even curious to see what the fuss is all about?

I read two very relevant reality checks last week. One was a discussion thread on Cloudworks, Motivating teachers to use technologies, and the other was a post on the excellent blog The Tempered Radical entitled Why teachers "give up". Both stressed the problem of getting a reasonable return on invested time and that in many cases new shiny technologies just end up taking too much valuable time to be worth the effort. As Bill Ferriter writes on The Tempered Radical:

"Like professionals in any field, teachers judge the transaction costs that change requires before taking action. When new practices or strategies require tons of investment - complicated planning, intensive research, sophisticated interactions with colleagues, specialized resources or tools - teachers must be convinced ahead of time that the benefits are going to outweigh these new costs of action".

I've been lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time learning new tools as part of my work. However there have been cases when I've given up with some technologies that just didn't live up to expectations. One fine example at present is Google Wave which I had a look at but didn't get hooked on and that lies cast into a dark corner waiting to see if I will return. I like the idea but have no need for it for the time being. I'm sure many tech-sceptical colleagues will recognize the feeling. You have to see the immediate benefits.

One comment on the Cloudworks discussion interestingly compared the use of ICT in education with losing weight in that, to be successful, you need a supportive environment and a permanent change in your way of life:
"For long-term weight loss the changes have to become "standard practice" - their way of life - for the person. If they don't become their way of life, the change won't last. They will revert. If the environment doesn't help, encourage and support people to maintain this way of life, the change won't last. The environment within higher education is not conducive to help achieve and maintain long-term weight loss".

The key is the supportive environment. If technology is seen as an integral part of everything that goes on at an institution and there's plenty of support and encouragement amongst colleagues even the most reluctant will get involved. The opt-out choice is simply not interesting any more. The most innovative groups/departments/schools are the ones that have reached this level. Getting there is the hard part.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Another iThing for your collection

Apple's new iPad (watch Apple's iPad video) has been unveiled and the media coverage has of course been immense. No point in including links to the countless number of articles and blog posts on the subject, in comparison to which this humble contribution is a mere speck. One article described the iPad as an "iPhone on steroids" (Wired Campus) and certainly iPhone users will feel immediately at home with the layout and feel.

My immediate reaction was that this could be the device that will finally get e-books and e-magazines into centre stage. The screen size, resolution, feel and graphics would seem to completely blow away competitors like the Kindle. Magazine stands could also disappear fast as we download multimedia versions of our favourite publications in preference to the static paper versions. I can see a case for such publications continuing to differentiate, as they do today, between two types of publication: the free web site and the e-magazine. If the e-magazine has a clearly defined role and offers excellent material in innovative ways I'm sure people will be willing to continue to subscribe. Maybe one way of providing subscribers with added value is to give them full access to back numbers (even those from the days of paper).

However, just like the Kindle the iPad is locked into a proprietary mode where you access your books via iBooks, your music via iTunes and so on. For students the idea of having all your course literature on one A4 size tablet is very attractive but I wonder how the iPad handles other types of digital publication from sources other than iBooks. No chance of buying from Amazon I suppose or downloading the increasing amount of free literature available. It's a wonderful garden but it's still a walled garden and that is what a lot of the critics are concerned about. When we get an unbundled version of the iPad that can acces material from all suppliers then I think we'll really have a breakthrough. This is of course a business decision, not a technical one.

The iPad fits in somewhere between a laptop and an iPhone and does the job extremely well. I don't think that the iPad is the answer to all our tech dreams but, like the iPhone, it points the way for the whole industry. We're freeing computers from their wired shackles, moving from geek-friendly to intuitive commands as well as making computing truly ubiquitous. It's only a matter of time before this type of device can take over the role of the laptop and handle all the office applications as well. The future of computing looks more like an iPad than anything else around at the moment (I may regret that statement in a year or so, let's see).

One thing's for sure, if they can keep their promise of selling them at $499 they should sell like hotcakes. I may well be there in the queue.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sleeve notes to make a comeback?

One of the joys of youth was spending hours in dingy record stores checking out all the new albums and listening to a few tracks on the headphones that generally hung in a dark corner. Hundreds of artists to choose between and often interest in a new band was awoken by the album cover. Sometimes the artwork was enough to motivate a listening and often a purchase. I confess to being particularly fond of Roger Dean's fantasy art that appeared on the albums of bands like Yes, Uriah Heep and Budgie. I also enjoyed thumbing through friends' album collections looking at the covers and sometimes reading the sleeve notes.

That pleasure has gone now that my entire music collection is stored on a thin little box called an iPod. Admittedly the player downloads a photo to go with the track but it's not much to look at, especially in the small window on the player. I've downloaded plenty of music that I know very little about and sometimes miss the old album covers with artwork to admire and sleeve notes to read. The mp3 format is music stripped bare; just the track and its title.

But wait, help is at hand according to an article on, Is the world ready for the successor of the MP3? The mp3 format has been enhanced into musicDNA, a format that allows the automatic downloading of photos, notes and updates on the artist as well as the track itself. The battered and groggy music industry suddenly sees some relief in that there may be a way after all to provide added value for those willing to pay for their music. According to the musicDNA site the format allows legal sites to bundle other services with the format whereas the free mp3 download will be "naked".

Sounds reasonable though it's probably only a matter of time before the new format gets pirated too. Those who want everything for free will always find a way but the developers of this technology are hoping there are enough people out there willing to pay a little for the extra service.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Horizon report 2010

The publication of the annual Horizon Report has become one of the highlights of the edtech year. Which technologies will be in the spotlight this time? What challenges does higher education face? This year NMC actually released a sneek preview version of the report in December to set the discussion in motion. Now the full version has hit the streets and this will no doubt be one of many reviews and summaries that appear in the coming weeks.

The format of the report is as ever: six technologies are nominated that will have a major impact on higher education in the short, medium and long term. However I find the most interesting parts of the report are the pages where they list the challenges facing universities today. In the face of the social web revolution of today the very role of universities is being questioned:

"Institutions must consider the unique value that each adds to a world in which information is everywhere. In such a world, sensemaking and the ability to assess the credibility of information are paramount. Mentoring and preparing students for the world in which they will live, the central role of the university when it achieved its modern form in the 14th century, is again at the forefront. Universities have always been seen as the gold standard for educational credentialing, but emerging certification programs from other sources are eroding the value of that mission daily."

Ubiquitous learning has become a reality with students able to access information anywhere, any time and in many ways. Informal learning and alternative education paths are challenging traditional forms. According to Horizon the critical challenges today are:
  • Role of academy - adapting education and teaching methods to the needs of tomorrow. Implementing and integrating new technologies.
  • New forms of scholarly publication using net-based collaboration
  • Digital media literacy vital in all disciplines and levels
  • Financial constraints hit higher education. How to innovate and adapt despite the crisis.
I'd like to add another major challenge and that is the growing digital divide in higher education; those who understand the social web and are trying new models and methods and those who still work with the tools of the last century. When Horizon talks of technologies becoming mainstream they are talking about the edtech front runners. I suspect the majority of institutions today are still grappling with establishing LMS, using one way web sites and use mostly e-mail for communication. How do we win over the edtech sceptics?

The technologies

It's no great surprise that mobile computing and open content are the two technologies that occupy this year's category Time to adoption: one year or less. The advent of the iPhone and Android have brought mobile computing to everyone's attention even if there are still concerns with security, privacy and classroom implementation. They symbolise the concept of ubiquitous education and are becoming the devices of choice for many students. The challenge is for universities to harness this potential and find ways of integrating this technology into courses. The report, as ever, provides plenty of inspiring examples of universities using these technologies.

Open content is another disruptive technology that threatens many traditional activities like academic textbook publishing but which is judged to have sufficient momentum to have a significant impact this coming year. Having so much open content available increases demands on digital literacy and so-called 21st century skills:

"Open content shifts the learning equation in a number of interesting ways; the most important is that its use promotes a set of skills that are critical in maintaining currency in any discipline — the ability to find, evaluate, and put new information to use."

On the 2-3 year horizon the report nominates e-books and augmented reality. E-books are of course already evident but as more versatile, attractive and reasonably priced devices appear they will become mainstream enabling students to store all course literature onto one device and forcing radical changes in the publishing business as well as libraries. The report gives links to universities that are already using e-books and e-journals and have encouraged the uptake of e-book readers amongst students.

Augmented reality is being driven by the mobile computing boom with apps available already in both the iPhone and Android. Pointing the camera at an object, building or person will activate icons on the screen that can be touched for information. Google's SkyMap allows the user to see AR information on stars and constellations by pointing mobile device at them. There are also apps (see video TAT augmented ID) that will show you information about people, such as which social networks they belong to. There is massive potential in this technology but already the personal integrity warning lamps are flashing.

On the far horizon are gesture based computing and visual data analysis both of which are already evident but which will take a few years to become everyday technologies. Gesture based computing is already available in gaming with Nintendo Wii and the new challenger Xbox Natal but will no doubt become the natural way for us to interact with devices.

"The kinesthetic nature of gesture-based computing will very likely lead to new kinds of teaching or training simulations that look, feel, and operate almost exactly like their real-world counterparts."

Visual data analysis deals with presenting complex data in advanced graphical representations and manipulated in real time. At present this is restricted to fields like physics, chemistry and advanced mathematics since it requires enormous amounts of processing power.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Copyrighted punctuation

It's hard to avoid smilies/emoticons in net-based communication these days but they haven't managed to break through to being accepted punctuation marks yet. However one mark hopes to make it on to your keyboard, namely the sarcasm mark or SarcMark. This looks a bit like a variation on @ and should be used to show the reader that your statement should not be taken too literally. There's an article on this on, Sarcasm punctuation mark aims to put an end to email confusion. Personally, I'm quite happy using the well-tested ;-) in informal communication.

What is most amazing about this not particularly useful innovation is that it is copyrighted. To use the new punctuation mark you have to download it from the company SarcMark for $1.99. Watch their amazing commercial below and wonder. I can deal with a new punctuation mark but doing business with symbols seems rather absurd. By the way, the full stops in this post are sponsored by Acme Enterprises International ....

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

If only Darwin had Facebook

Social networking is nothing new really; we've always been doing it. We've just not had such powerful tools to help us as we do now. In the past I could write this and send it as a letter to a friend, who could in turn quote me to several friends and so on. The great thinkers of old networked intensively sending vast amounts of letters to colleagues around the country and even abroad. That's how ideas spread; slowly but surely.

There's a great video on this theme from Stanford University that I paste in here showing how many of the great names of the 18th century such as Darwin networked (evidently Darwin sent over 15,000 letters in his career). It's easy to draw the conclusion that these people would have been able to achieve much more if they had the instant mass communication we use today. However, maybe the slow method had some advantages; more time to formulate your ideas, more time for your colleagues to read and assimilate them, more time to think more deeply. Read more on this video on the blog post Networks and the information glut.

There's no doubt that today's ideas spread instantly and to a mass audience. Academic discussion was previously the domain of a privileged few whereas now anyone can access the thoughts of the experts. One major difference between the two approaches is that Darwin's correspondence is still there for us to read whereas much of today's correspondence is rather emphemeral and may be very difficult to trace in 100 years from now. What price The Collected Tweets of Charles Darwin?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Participation literacy

Most social networks and discussion boards I know tend to be dominated by a handful of people contributing over 90% of all content. This small core group (sometimes simply one enthusiastic individual) keeps the site alive by providing input and trying to encourage everyone else to contribute. The big problem is how to foster active participation.

For example, I'm involved in a Swedish education network (Dela! - which means "share") which has gathered over 800 registered users since its inception last spring. The problem is how to create a critical mass of discussion. Most users log in and read the latest news but only a minority make regular contributions and the question is how to spread the workload of keeping the network as active as possible.

The same phenomenon appears in course discussion forums where a few students dominate the discussion unless some form of incentive is provided (eg. make at least 2 significant entries in the discussion in the coming week). Without such pressure the general rule holds; 90% are passive, 8% contribute occasionally and 2% contribute a lot. How do we spread the load?

The problem is, I suspect, that people are used to being consumers rather than producers of information. Some students are uneasy about greater participation in the classroom, preferring to simply listen to the teacher's words of wisdom. Larger meetings at work or in the community follow the same lines. Just because social media offer everyone the opportunity to contribute doesn't mean to say that everyone wants to do so. It's so much easier to listen and observe.

Of course people are contributing on a massive scale to Facebook but there's a gap between the chatty social interaction there and the ability to discuss and reflect more deeply in an educational context.

What we need to develop is a kind of participation literacy; the ability to discuss and develop arguments on line. In many ways traditional debating skills are needed but we also an awareness of the rules of engagement on the net; so-called netiquette. The ability to contribute constructively to a discussion needs to be learnt and practiced in school. Those who master this skill will succeed in tomorrow's job market. According to Seth Godin, The future of the library, this type of training could be a new role for libraries to adopt

For more on this theme have a look at Howard Rheingold's interview with researcher Mizuko Ito (see Video interview with Mizuko Ito).

Friday, January 8, 2010

Always on

In the midst of all the discussion around the dangers of multitasking whilst driving, the latest must-have car technology is bigger dashboard screens with internet connection allowing you to browse the net, play music, watch films and navigate. An article in the New York Times, Driven to distraction (watch the video too), describes the latest in car gadgetry with impressive 10" screens right next to the steering wheel. Admittedly the videos and browser won't work unless the car is stationary but the distraction factor is potentially huge here.

The system can connect you to the net via your cellphone and is based around voice interaction to reduce the need for the dangerous distraction of pressing buttons. Cellphone dialling is voice activated as is the choice of music. However, even if the manufacturers insist that the new gadgets have been designed with safety in focus I can't help wondering if the distraction factor is going to increase dramatically. With all the technology available why not concentrate on designing a car that drives itself, automatically adjusting speed and keeping other cars at a safe distance? Then we can just sit back and concentrate on listening to our latest tweets or making Facebook updates.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Virtual worlds are not what they seem

After a couple of fairly intensive years I've become a rather irregular visitor to Second Life. I generally go there to meet someone or do something specific and I seldom spend time generally sightseeing as I did at first. All too often I visit old haunts only to find them completely empty. The crowds have quite simply moved on elsewhere because I can see that there are more people in SL today than there ever were in the hyped days of 2006.

One of the best SL blogs, New World Notes, effectively answers the common criticism that SL is a wasteland in a post entitled The crowded empty paradox. The users are there as a look at the in-world SL map will clearly show. The problem is that most users have created urban environments on their sims with large buildings, shopping malls, conference centres, castles and so on without a population to inhabit them. These buildings are simply impressive illusions of population. The users are not necessarily in the built up areas as we would expect in the "real world". In SL the presence of buildings is no indication of activity and since avatars do not need buildings at all some of the most popular gathering places in SL are open, rural environments.

Many companies built impressive corporate offices in SL with massive futuristic glass palaces that could never hope to be filled. Even if there were hundreds of avatars to fill these sims the server capacity of each sim only permits gatherings of around 40 avatars before serious lag sets in.

The moral of the story? There's plenty happening in SL but don't think it's happening where all the impressive buildings are. Maybe empty sims should be deleted after a while to reduce the feeling of desolation. It's the same story on the net in general where there are millions of dead or near-dead web sites that haven't had a visitor for months. The difference is that when you visit a web site you have no idea if you're alone or have company. In SL you can see who's there, or not.