Saturday, April 24, 2010


Video gaming is massively popular and the top games have a level of realism and depth of experience that is at times breathtaking. So what's the world's biggest computer game then? World of Warcraft? FIFA 2010? Nope, it's Farmville, the very low-tech game on Facebook that is played by an estimated 73 million people. I must admit I've never been attracted by the game so I can't make any direct judgements but what is interesting is that such a game can be so popular.

I've just read an article on Farmville by A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz called Cultivated play: Farmville. Seemingly the main attraction of the game is the simple fact that everyone else is playing it. It's a bit like the Tupperware concept: it's very hard not to buy when your best friend or neighbour is the salesperson. You get invited into Farmville and you're hooked. There's not a lot of skill involved, nothing much happens and you don't get a lot out of it. It's just there and demands attention. There's a lot of debate about whether or not people will be willing to pay for news content from the major newspapers on the net but people have no trouble paying real money to improve their virtual farms.

"The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity. It is rude to refuse a gift, and ruder still to not return the kindness. We play Farmville, then, because we are trying to be good to one another. We play Farmville because we are polite, cultivated people."

It's very similar to the Tamagotchi phenomenon of 10 years ago where you had to care for an electronic pet who got angry or depressed if it didn't get attention regularly. If you didn't keep it fed and cared for it died. Similarly your farm demands regular work and will quickly suffer if you are not a good farmer. We have enough duties and bad conscience in the real world without playing games that add to that. But against all logic such games flourish.

It may not be exciting, immersive, engaging or impressive but Farmville does something that may more impressive games fail to do. It makes money, and lots of it. Evidently Zynga the company behind Farmville and several other similar social games is tipped to earn $300 million this year, mostly on in-game micro-payments. Underestimate trivia at your peril.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Always on

Social media can be addictive. Once you start networking and communicating it's very hard to stop. If you do stop for a while you soon get messages from friends wondering what's wrong with you. If you don't update your profile, add a blog post, comment on Twitter or log into Messenger or Skype you simply disappear off the social radar. It's fun, stimulating, rewarding but also stressful and demanding. Without even noticing it many of us are quite simply hooked.

A recent experiment at the University of Maryland, Students addicted to social media, asked 200 students to take part in 24 hours of unplugged media abstinence and then write about the experience. Most of them had problems. Interestingly very few missed accessing traditional mass media simply because they don't use them anyway. Very few watched broadcast TV, radio or read newspapers. Very few even read the online editions of recognized newspapers preferring to get their new via social media like Facebook, Twitter, blogs or through text contact with friends.

What worried them most was not being in touch with their networks of friends. Mobile devices let us keep in touch with all our friends all day, no matter where they are and this creates a sort of comforting cocoon to our lives; constantly updated status reports, comments, mood statements and chat. This coccon follows us everywhere. Our friends are always with us just as we are always with them and this comforting background noise becomes a sort of digital oxygen. Add to that the constant soundtrack we have to our lives as we listen to music almost everywhere and the comfort cocoon is complete. The unplugged students expressed considerable anxiety about being disconnected:.

"Texting and IM-ing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort," wrote one student. "When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life. Although I go to a school with thousands of students, the fact that I was not able to communicate with anyone via technology was almost unbearable."

All this communication shows that we are part of a community and are accepted and valued by others. Nothing new there, it's just more pronounced than ever. The equivalent for those of us who remember life before the web would be not getting any phone calls or no letters in the postbox. Being left out of the conversation has never been pleasant. The Maryland students just felt the social isolation more intensely because today's social interaction is so much more intense.

Read the study blog A day without media.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Informal learning

Still on the theme of open educational resources (OER) I enjoyed an excellent summary of current issues in a New York Times article, An Open mind. Hundreds of universities now offer lectures and course material freely on the net as a recruitment and market strategy and it seems to be working. Open University, for example, claim to have recruited 10,500 students at least partly as a result of its OpenLearn initiative and by making lectures available on iTunes U (see ALT Newsletter 18, Jan 2010).

As more universities offer open resources the whole concept, unthinkable 10 years ago, suddenly seems logical. The university is not the content it produces but the learning process that takes place and the context provided by teacher-student interaction.

"If the mission of the university is the creation of knowledge (via research) and the dissemination of knowledge (via teaching and publishing), then it stands to reason that giving that knowledge away fits neatly with that mission."

However the most interesting part of this trend is how it affects informal learning. According to the article 43% of those who use MIT's Open Course Ware and 69% of those using Open Yale are independant students, studying without formal structure and for personal development.

"M.I.T. officials like to tell about an unsolicited comment they received one day about the online course “Introduction to Solid State Chemistry. “I learned a from these lectures and the other course material,” the comment said. “Thank you for having it online.” The officials did a double take. It was from Bill Gates."

There's nothing new about informal learning. People have always read books and journals in their spare time out of pure interest. The difference today is the medium and that the universities are making formerly exclusive material freely available. Today you can listen to top professors as you sit on the train to work in the morning. The question is whether we can find ways of validating such study. Once you've gone through the OER material on a certain subject area you may be interested in submitting a paper for assessment by a university or other accredited organisation. Many would be willing to pay for this. It wouldn't be the equivalent of the full campus experience but for people with jobs and families it may well be good enough.Will universities be interested in providing this service or will it be seen as undermining the "core business?"

Another essential 21st century skill for schools and universities to encourage is the ability to select and learn from the best resources and how to build personal learning networks. If no teacher is available you can still learn a lot by working collaboratively. You can't always attend a formal course when you need to learn something and the ability to link up with others interested in the same subject and studying together will be invaluable in the future.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

TED talks on new media in education

TED is a fantastic resource for inspiring talks on all aspects of life and I would just like to recommend a special TED event that took place in New York 6 March 2010, TEDxNYED (click here for access to all material). The idea was to invite leading figures in educational technology to present their ideas on the changes taking place in education today; "examining the role of new media and technology in shaping the future of education."

The line up at TEDxNYED was impressive with for example George Siemens, Henry Jenkins, Lawrence Lessig, Mike Wesch, Amy Bruckman, Gina Bianchini and Jay Rosen among the speakers. Since I'm particluarly interested in open learning resources at present and am part of a Swedish national project in that field I was particularly inspired by David Wiley's talk Open Education and the Future and embed it here as a taster from the meeting.

I particularly liked the idea that education is inherently about openness and sharing and that without sharing there is no education. Why then are so many people dedicated to locking it away and protecting it? According to Wiley we have a situation where we have unprecedented capacity to share knowledge and ideas as well as a massive interest in doing so but this movement is in conflict with "outdated thinking reinforced by law." So far we have used new technology to reinforce a closed system locking knowledge away behind password-protected gateways.

The talks in this series provide some glimpses into what the future may hold.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ning dumps free

The big news this week has been a major policy switch on the social networking site Ning. They have decided to jetison the free service which enabled you to set up your own social network free of charge as long as you accepted limited advertising on your site. Ning has rapidly become the choice social networking app for educators around the world and there must be an impressive number of educational Ning sites in operation. Those will now close unless they can afford to upgrade to a premium subscription and of course a large number of them will not be able to do that.

It's not really so surprising really that Ning want to concentrate on their paying customers. The free model attracted enormous interest but now that they've got a customer base it's time to monetize that. Ning claim they will offer attractive solutions to educators who want to stay with them but I suspect that many network will simply die or move elsewhere.

Is this the failure of he freemium model? I don't think so; it's simply the next stage. If you're a company you want to make money and the initial free offer is mostly to attract attention. Will Twitter or Facebook start charging if things get tough? Are people willing to pay for such services? They are in some cases as Second Life or World of Warcraft clearly show. People happily pay money for virtual products or for magic powers. Maybe the moral is not to assume that today's free services will always remain so. There's always a risk that either you will be forced to upgrade your account or the company will simply go bust.

If you want things free then you should look at open source solutions. They may not be so attractive or user-friendly but the driving force is global collaboration without the need to show a profit. A list of alternative social networking solutions to Ning is available in an article on Electronic Papyrus, Ning - where to go when the public square charges an entrance fee.

Read also a good summary of all this on Mashable, Ning: failures, lessons amdsix alternatives.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Knowledge management

Freedom of choice has been a favourite phrase of politicians all over the world in recent years. The problem today is that too much choice causes increasing stress as we try to decide which brands of margarine, pension funds or internet service providers to choose. Most of us resort to just picking one and hoping for the best or sometimes not even choosing.

It's much the same with knowledge. In the past we had a limited number of books to read on a certain subject and they had all been approved by publishers. At school we usually had one book which we read our way through each year. Since that book was part of a national curriculum we all assumed that it contained the truth and nothing but the truth.We seldom had access to books which presented alternative interpretations. History was always presented with a strong national bias and our own country was seldom if ever presented as being "on the wrong side" in a war. If you read school history books from different countries describing the same conflict you wonder if you're reading about the same events. Take a look at encyclopedia entries from different countries and you'll see how villians become heroes depending on the nationality of the authors. Yet in the absence of any alternatives we all accepted our textbooks as the truth.

Today it's much more complicated. On the net we have access to an almost infinite variety of sources when researching; from all countries and from all political viewpoints. Who's telling the truth? Who's biased? Is anyone, even the most eminent professor, objective? When we had a limited choice of sources it all seemed so easy. Today we can see the complexity of most issues and reach the conclusion that there are many truths and no one solution to a problem.

The vast range of information on the net is of course bewildering and the fact that everyone and anyone can contribute is disturbing for many. Clearly there is no real "truth" and that only by reading a variety of accounts can we reach some kind of balanced interpretation. We should treat everything as one writer's contribution to a discussion. Everything is a blog post and you always have the write to comment. Instead of consuming knowledge by accepting what we read we should be entering the discussion and contributing to the development of knowledge. Maybe that is one of the key 21st century skills for schools to focus on.

Photo: Used books by babblingdweeb on Flickr, Creative Commons BY-ND-NC

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Outsourced grading

In a world where just about everything seems to have been outsourced it was no surprise to read in the Chronicle of Higher Education that a university in the US is sending student papers to India to be graded (Some papers are uploaded to Bangalore to be graded). Courses with hundreds of students make it impossible for the teachers to do all the grading and so there's now a company that will take strain by sending papers to Indian graduates to grade. The argument in favour of this is that it provides neutral assessment and allows the teachers more time for teaching and discussion with students. Another argument against teachers grading their own students is the risk of subjectivity and favoritism.

In reply to the Chronicle article is a blog post by Dean Dad on Inside Higher Ed, Outsourcing grading, claiming that this type of outsourcing is far from new. Larger universities have always used graduate students to grade undergraduate papers and whether these graduates are on campus or in Bangalore shouldn't really matter much. Neither should we claim that such outsourcing will lead to poorer quality in grading:

"I don't buy the 'quality' argument against it, either. If radiologists in India can read images, and programmers in India can work on developing and fixing incredibly sophisticated software, then surely some smart folks in India can handle some freshman comp papers. Seriously. Other information-based industries have endured outsourcing without the quality of the work suffering. Given the inarguable indifference with which our large universities have handled undergraduate teaching for so long, to suddenly get huffy and puffy about standards is disingenuous at best."

When education resembles industrial mass production as in classes of hundreds it is probably inevitable that industrial methods are used. The academic ideal is a low teacher student ratio but there is seldom the money to finance it. Curiously the smaller (and often less prestigious) institutions are the ones who can often offer closer student teacher contacts.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Goodbye cellphone

With over 100% penetration in many countries and 4.6 billion subscribers worldwide the cellphone has become more than just a communication device. I remember in the early nineties hearing friends scoffing at the idea of owning one at all and the idea that everyone in the country would own at least one would have been dismissed as wild fantasy. Losing your cellphone today is for many people worse than losing your wallet.

However the role of the cellphone has already changed radically. It is no longer primarily a device for voice communication. We still use terms like cellphone and mobile phone but will soon have to change our vocabulary. According to an article from The Guardian, A new first in mobile,  mobile devices are now used more for data than for voice. We're using them to check websites, socialising on Facebook and Twitter, watching videos, taking and sharing photos and films and so on. The telephone function has officially been relegated to accessory. We can see this trend most clearly amongst teenagers where phone calls are few and far between and texting and instant messaging dominate. As George Siemens comments on his blog elearnspace:

"I would rather give up the call functionality of my phone than data/app functionality. My voice time is rather limited – I spend my time looking at my phone, rather than talking into it."

The moral of all this for education? It's time to revise our views on the use of mobile devices in school. It's time to take them out of quarantine and see them as the students' device of choice for net access. Instead of saying "take out your books and turn to page 54" we should be saying "switch on your mobiles and check this link."