Thursday, April 30, 2009

Weird finger test for Gen Y

Hold your palm up as if stopping someone from passing. Now ask the other person to pretend your palm is a door bell and ask them to press the bell.

Baby Boomers use their index finger, but Gen Ys use their thumb. Apparently, it’s do with their texting and game playing habits. (I've added a hypothetical middle finger for Millenials!)

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Is ‘Digital inclusion’ actually exclusive?

Spoke at a ‘Digital Inclusion’ conference today but wondered about its purpose. We never had an ‘Analogue Inclusion’ movement and those face-to-face types exclude people all the time. The BBC speaker was truly dire and managed to deliver nothing but a set of general sales statements about the BBC. I suppose making the license fee compulsory is one approach to inclusion. When asked by the Chair whether she thought there was a tension between the BBC’s local news services and other local news providers she spouted some crap about partnerships, side stepping the question completely. At lunch there was much talk of the BBCs inflated and destructive role in all this. They may be inadvertently stifling innovation.

Lord Carter was pretty focussed after this waffle.  The first commercial, domestic broadband connection went in 1999. In less than 10 years we’ve seen amazing progress and this has been achieved by not interfering with the market. If you set rules you tend to chill the market. Good start. However, now that he’s been Lorded by government and asked to write reports for Gordon, he’s changed his mind. Now is the time for intervention and Government spending on inclusion – just as money is getting tighter than a submarine hatch.

Amazingly analogue

But it was in the afternoon workshop that I got confused. The audience were curiously non-digital and analogue in both their questions and comments. It was all about preserving face-to-face contact, traditional teaching and walk-in centres. Well meaning (but digitally deluded) do-gooders, get very worked up about digital exclusion and the digital divide. The glass is always half empty and government funds must be directed to those who have no access (mostly no interest) in using technology and the web. They will not be satisfied until they wire up every pensioner, homeless person and NEET. Forget keeping warm, a good meal and avoiding prison – use Twitter!

Analogue abyss

You don’t hear of people talking about the ‘analogue abyss’, which is far wider and deeper than the ‘digital divide’. Fewer people buy analogue books than use the internet. Analogue school education in classrooms has huge levels of failure as does most other forms of analogue delivery. Students in our universities still have to suffer the boredom of analogue lectures, which are almost never captured and distributed. Training in both public and private organisations is still all flipcharts, cheap hotels and bowls of Foxes Glacier Mints. The analogue world, by definition, relies on human delivery and is therefore massively inefficient as it is not scalable.

Analogue literacy

People also have huge problems with analogue literacy, unable to write, fill in forms, communicate with others face to face, open a bank account and so on. Is there enough focus on these issues before we point the finger of failure at the digital world? The fact is that digital take up has been faster than any other form of technical advance in the history of our species. The computer, consoles, mobiles and web have stratospheric growth and ubiquity figures way beyond any previous technology and media. Mobile devices, especially among so called ‘difficult to reach’ groups are so ubiquitous that many have more than one and certainly have skills way beyond their social work minders - middle-class, well-paid professionals who are trying to reach them. Try texting!

Digital denial

There was much talk, though few participants, on the forums around  frameworks, standards and policies, most of which focus on prohibitions. It was all ‘Yes...but..’ and not ‘Yes...and..’ people. It’s not the consumers that are the problem but often the gatekeepers. Analogue professions and analogue media types are often the first to hold back digital progress on the basis of digital exclusion. You don’t hear educators complain about using books in learning despite the fact that books are rarer in low income homes than computers, and are inappropriate for people with visual impairment and learning difficulties. Yet it’s the first question to come up whenever technology is mooted in a school to solve a problem. The digital divide is used by schools keep out digital services. Those whose very profession is the analogue delivery are generally negative about the role of technology in learning. Digital inclusion has long been used in government to stop reasonable efforts being made in the delivery of services to citizens.

Look to the market for innovation and demand that policies mandate the use of productive technology in learning. Why? The greatest obstacle is not the Digital Divide but Digital Denial. It’s those who are too old, too technophobic and too stuck in their ways to do what is necessary to make this whole thing work. They need to get out of the way.

Conclusion

Don’t let the digital exclusion tail wag the digital dog. Ultimately, the markets will drive progress through ever cheaper and easier to use technology and services. Public intervention often merely slows things up with the illusion that things are being done. What really matters is compelling reasons to buy and price point. Make things compulsive and cheap, then people will buy. This happened with television, telephones, mobiles, games consoles and iPODS. Let the market innovate and produce the goods that people want. That will push us towards inclusion.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Sex and accountancy

HR Taliban

Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work finds workplaces saturated with sex, with HR as the Taliban, who police and contain any signs of immoral behaviour. He notes that the sexual impulse is everywhere in the workplace as it’s unnatural to cram thousands of people into small spaces, five days a week for years on end, without them rubbing up against each other. The HR manual in the accountancy firm he visits is crammed with petty rules about sexual behaviour and he notes (wryly) that porn set in offices has exploited this tension.

Trite slogans, such as ‘We like people who demonstrate integrity, energy and enthusiasm’ adorn walls, yet within they get on with the murky business of tax dodging and signing off the false accounts of banks. They’re a little hostile and cold towards him as they know that his curiosity is likely to result in mockery, and so it does. Auditors have made their peace with ‘oblivion’. They know they have made a choice to make money at the expense of fulfilment. The training is in the ‘laboured tone of away day seminars’ and the CEO is a cipher, spouting nothing but clichés.

Work shy

Work, for Botton, is an unexamined mystery. He’s puzzled at its absence in literature, film and TV, apart from ‘cops and docs’ shows. So he follows a tuna from the Maldives to Bristol and wonders at the logistic complexity of the journey. In a biscuit factory he finds that there are five categories of biscuits; everyday, treats, seasonal, savoury and crackers. For the Design Director biscuits are a branch of psychology, not cooking. He encountered no jokes at any biscuits expense! Unfortunately he drifts a bit in the chapters on painting and entrepreneurship but the essay on electricity pylons is beautiful – honestly!

Careers advice

Therapy culture has also invaded the workplace and he gently mocks the psychotherapist whose advice is largely to repeat ‘I am and here only for you’ and getting them to repeat ‘I am the author of my own story’. The poor, deluded chap is a follower of that charlatan Maslow, travelling the UK staying in joyless Ibis hotels doling out meaningless personality tests.

Worked as distraction

It’s only in the last 200 years that work has been seen as a worthwhile pursuit. Before this it was slavery, serfdom and servitude. It is only recently that work needed to become meaningful (for many it remains meaningless). This is difficult as many are very remote from the final product or outcome. Above all he sees work as a distraction. People seem to need to be distracted from having to think and do things for themselves, so they delegate this responsibility to others, employers. This gets interesting. In work, time masters you, you are not the master of time. You give up responsibility to become part of an organisation.

Work – fulfilling or instrumental?

There’s a big difference between working class and middle class views of work. The working class, by and large, work to put food on the table and have a good time at the weekend, whereas the middle class see work as a means to personal fulfilment. Nothing new here, but he cleverly takes it one step further. Unemployment for the middle classes is psychologically catastrophic, and in the current recession we’ll see lots of this.

What’s relevant here is the false assumption that everyone wants to learn and be trained. Millions see both work and learning as a necessary chore. Their heart will not be in taking the course. Work is instrumental, not fundamental. It is therefore utopian to see training as personal development, as many don’t live to work, they work to live.

HR

HR puzzles him as it is seen as a joke department, so he shadows them in their attempts to get large numbers of people to work together in a confined space without killing each other. He has a go at their cringe-worthy, David Brent-like language and techniques, but ends up grudgingly admiring them.

Learning

A telling comment is his view that most of the jobs he observed were undemanding. They could be done by a smart 12 year old, as the essential skill is common sense. Education is relatively futile, as most of what we learn we never use. Education and qualifications are all about keeping people out of the middle class professions, they are not about essential skills. All professions are truly a conspiracy against the laity.

Conclusion

Alain de Botton’s is way beyond the journalistic jottings of Gladwell. I thoroughly enjoyed his book Status Anxiety where he sees happiness as equalling expectation over achievement. Apply this to work and for many work leads to drudgery and disappointment, as we realise that that we have to settle for what we’ve got, based on some odd decisions and accidents in our early lives. Work is almost tragic in its consequences.

Britain has an anti-intellectual streak, and unlike the French, doesn’t like deep analysis of everyday concepts, but Botton can certainly craft a sentence to strike a melodious chord. Of course, Botton is actually Swiss, and not short of a bob or two, but maybe this is why he can look upon the topic with real objectivity and depth. Works for me!

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Digital Britain - Drool Brittania

Digital Britain starts late as Minister’s train is slow, a bit like Virgin or BT Broadband. As usual, the debate has been hijacked by the BBC, BT, Virgin, Universal, Mirror Group and some irrelevant London web companies, who are really TV production companies in disguise. And, there's too many old guys in suits and ties. It’s a bit like the media supplement of the Guardian, where media equals TV and print. Nick Higham, from (yes you’ve guessed it) the BBC, is chairing.

Fittingly enough, the event’s taking place in a library – how British is that? So we have a brief interlude from the CEO of the British Library, who seems like someone from another century - that's because she is - just obvious cliches. The train-handicapped Minister, Andy Burnham, arrives, and opens with a statement of astounding stupidity, 'the British Library has long been the cornerstone of Britain's knowledge economy." Is this a joke? Nobody's laughing, but there's some puzzled looks.

Brown says ‘bugger blogs’

OK so he didn’t actually say that, but it we knew that he was thinking as much. Brown reads out the usual ‘digital revolution similar to industrial revolution’ line, but his heart’s not in it, as internally he must be cursing his digital demise by email and blogs. He’s been crucified with Damien McBride and Derek Draper as his convicted companions. Lots of old 1980s talk of ‘creative industries’, ‘creative talent’ and even ‘creative genius’. Is he turning into Tony Blair?

Only 200 people at the event – not quite enough for a revolutionary movement, unless we adopt some Al Qeda tactics, but this is how government operates. They tend to exclude the innovators in favour of civil servants and big corporate flunkies. Indeed, coffee break is 35 minutes, as most of the delegates are getting on a bit and couldn’t get through the morning without bladder relief.

Mandy – living proof of reincarnation

Next up is that living proof of reincarnation, and proof that it doesn’t depend on good deeds or moral character – Peter (sorry Lord) Mandelson, or ‘Mandy’ to his close friends, and enemies. This is the man who is so in touch that, when faced with mushy peas in his constituency fish and chip shop, he inquired about the ‘guacamole dip’. He whips us up into a frenzy with some quick quips and bon mots, then suddenly just as we reach the climax, he pulls out. ‘There will be a Government announcement on Monday!’ Oh Mandy.........

Oh no – it’s Anthony!

Oh no Anthony Lilley chairing, of the suitably and archaically named Magic Lantern, a company so inept that it only survives on government grants and handouts. I’m sure he won’t be mentioning the BBC Jam project (cost £75 million, products – nil). Magic Lantern is one of those London ‘electronic window dressing’ companies that survives through media contacts. I suppose he’s one of the creative geniuses Brown alluded to.

Sure enough we have Jess Search, despite the hip surname, she’s a C4 film documentary flunky luvvie – how un-digital is she? Lucian Grange, from Universal Music (actually a French company as it’s wholly owned by Vivendi). Johannes B. Larche CEO of Hulu (fair enough), Newscorp’s video site, and last but not least a TV web guy, who works on cross-platform projects for the BBC and C4! Illumina is another leech digital company, really a TV production company dabbling in web promotion for TV and film projects. It’s a bunch of analogue guys putting digital make-up on old media. Ooops the truth has just slipped out, we’ve slipped from 7th to 12th in the European league and Japan, China and India are leaping ahead. Reality can be so embarrassing.

Print dame's obituary

It’s getting worse, we have Sly Bailey from the Mirror Group. Since when was the Mirror a leading light in the digital world? She’s also a non-exec at EMI, known for its inept response to the digital music revolution. Despite astronomic pay rises she has seen circulation figures and the value of the group plummet to all time lows. What does she have to say on our digital future? You guessed it – absolutely nothing. Sorry, it was like watching someone reading out their own obituary. Ms Bailey slammed the Digital Britain report for only mentioning newspapers four times. That’s about four times too many for me. Wake up Sly. It’s not up to government to fix your outdated business model.

Future mired in the past

So concludes the Digital Britain debate. It's all so depressing. We’re gazing at the future but mired in the past. A tiny London coterie of TV, film and print people are sounding off about a world they despise and know little about, while the innovators are sidelined and ignored. As long as Digital Britain is in the hands of old analogue aunties, and pretend digital TV production companies, we’ll drop even further behind. We know what works in online media – it’s small techy companies doing innovative and disruptive things, being properly capitalised through angel and VC finance. Where are they?

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Newton lectured to empty rooms

Death by lecture

This month I sat through a lecture by an academic who was so mind-numbingly dull that it created genuine anxiety in the audience. We were dying a slow, internal, painful death. It was an assault on our human rights, mental torture. The content was banal, the PowerPoint screens of text overwhelmingly dull and simply read from the screen, and the delivery metronomic and monotonous. After the talk, this person was no better, unsmiling and uncommunicative. Turns out this person was a Professor of Communication (I kid you not) at a prestigious University. What’s going on here?

Autism in academia

It made me think. Is there a tendency (only a distribution skew) among academics towards austism/aspergers? Newton was famously introverted and anti-social. His lectures were so bad that he often delivered them with no one in the room (how weird is that?). Einstein had similar tendencies and his lectures were regarded as messy and confused. This autism hypothesis among high-end academics was discussed in an article in New Scientist by Baron-Cohen, an expert in the subject.

Michael Fitsgerals of Trinity College Dublin, has published three books linking autism with academic and intellectual achievement. He arues that Hans Christian Anderson, Lewis Caroll, Bruce Chatwin, Conan Doyle, Herman Melville, George Orwell, Jonathan Swift, Yetas, A.J. Ayervan Gogh, Lowry, , Spinoza, Kant, Bartok, Beethoven, Bob Dylan, Glen Gould, Mozart, Satie, van Gogh, Lowry and Warhol, had this condition. (The Genesis of Artistic Creativity: Asperger's Syndrome and the ArtsUnstoppable Brilliance: Irish Geniuses and Asperger's Syndrome andAutism and Creativity, Is there a link between autism in men and exceptional ability?)

All of this has entered popular culture through movies, TV programmes and comedy sketches of the 'absent-minded Professor'. My favourite absent-minded professor story is of geneticist Sewall Wright who spent hours chalking up blackboards with his back to his students. He is said to have once accidentally used a guinea pig as an eraser! In other words, there some truth in the idea that many academics are somehwat disassociated from other people and the world.

Lectures allow academics to keep distance

This skew does explain the fondness academics have for lectures, as it is a minimalist approach to teaching. Few academics have a heavy teaching load, cretainly nowhere near that of a school teacher. But more significantly, it keeps social contact to an absolute minimum and minimises personal contact with students. It’s a solitary profession and I'd posit that those that choose this path (many but by no means all) may have a tendency to shun jobs with complex, social contexts. 

On the whole the academics I know don’t relish the idea of contact with students. They like to keep their distance. Indeed, many have a disdainful view of their charges, moaning about their lack of curiosity, literacy and plagiaristic tendencies. On the whole there is an expectation that students are there to shut up and listen. It’s not the job of the lecturer to motivate, entertain or raise interest, merely to deliver their acquired knowledge. It’s so basically behaviourist that it beggar’s belief.

Should bad teachers be allowed to teach?

I should add that this is not an attack on those who have autism, aspergers or who are simply quiet, introverted or shy. Neiter is it a general attack on those who teach. It’s merely an observation that suggests some filtering by academia in terms of who teach. Bad lecturers don’t teach, they turn students off the subject, doing far more harm than good. Almost everyone can remember a bad teacher that put them off a subject, even a subject they enjoyed or loved. Bad lectures and teaching are incredibly destructive forces. They diminish learning. We demand justice when a politcal advisor shoots off a few loose emails, policemen tred beyond their duties in demonstrations and social workers make mistakes. Shouldn't we call time on those who pretent to teach, but actually parrot the written text with no added value?  

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

E-learning reaping rewards of recession

Successful IPOs

Today, Bridgepoint Education floated successfully raising $141.8 million. Look out for the Rossetta Stone IPO within the next few days, raising well over $200 million. These are the only two IPOs this year. Prior to this Grand Canyon floated and raised $144.9 million.

UK growth

In the UK, LINE Communications have seen splendid growth and  announced record results for its 2008 financial year end. The achievement of revenues in excess of £7m (an increase of 40% on 2007), sits on a three year growth period which has seen high levels of planned growth and profitability for the company. In the period January 2006 – December 2008, LINE’s overall growth has exceeded 135%. Kineo have seen similar growth, heading, I believe towards £4 million, not bad for a three year old company with no debt. Futuremedia was bought by Edvantage, showing that there’s some M&A activity. The successful companies are certainly getting offers to be bought, but as they’re growing they’re in no rush to sell.

Frustration

At a dinner I hosted with 10 UK e-learning CEOs, they all seemed quite bullish, seeing increased sales on the back of the need to cut back on the money squandered on inefficient and ineffective stand-up courses. Their only frustration was the lack of a body that truly represented the growing market. Clive Shepherd has done a great job in getting the E-learning Network back on track, but it’s still small, with no real money to expand. Jack Wills is a real enthusiast and does some great things at BILD, but it’s still too small. Donald Taylor has established Learning technologies as the premier e-learning conference in the UK, as WOLCE has fallen away and seems stuck in the depressing NEC. Laura Overton has made great strides with the Next generation at Work campaign, but it’s only a campaign. Towards maturity is a credible framework, but doesn’t have the clout it needs. E-learning barely figures in the Sector Skills Councils and has little political clout. What’s needed is one entity that has the critical mass and resources to really develop and grow the market.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Bayard throws the book at books

Just finished a wonderful little book called How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Professor Pierre Bayard. It’s about books of course, one of those books (sorry texts) that only French academics seem to write, and is written with, dare I say it - panache. It’s not flippant but a deep analysis of the ambiguous role of readers and books. We take books too seriously, forgetting that many are bought and not read, skimmed or talked about as if they had been read, even forgotten. Bayard throws the book at books.

Reading is forgetting
Books have a special status as ‘almost objects of worship’ and non-readers are stigmatised. Yet reading is often non-reading, as we forget most of what we read almost as quickly as it is read. As we forge forward, content is forgotten in the wake of memory that disappears behind. Most reading is forgetting. He’s really on to something here. I habitually underline, mark, comment and summarise on the books I read. Yet it is almost taboo to underline, mark books, and blasphemous to tear out a page or chapter Life is short and books are long. It’s OK to skim, as many books are padded out to conform to the standard £9.99/250 page norm. In fact, for many, the fact that most of what you read will be forgotten, means a summary is adequate.

Academics  cook the books
As an academic, he is at his best in describing a world he knows well, where academics discuss and teach books to students who have also not read the book. Teaching pressurises teachers into talking about books they have not read. Students respond by pretending to read long reading lists they never in fact read. Short-cuts are taken by all. It's a game where reading is the facade and non-reading the reality.

Every trick in the book
What’s clever is the way he hauls in authors to support his case. Montaigne’s honest reflections on reading, Oscar Wilde’s ‘100 worst books’ (books we should not read), David Lodge’s expose of the Academy’s dependence on unread books. Umberto Eco, Balzac, Green, Shakespeare, Joyce, Proust and others are all used to build a case, not against books, but against the bogus idea of books as being pure and sacrosanct. These chapters are wonderful and perfectly skimmable!

Book groupthink
Excessive reading can strip readers of imagination, especially the narrowcast reading of modern novels, the books one is felt socially compelled to read. This is reading by the book, a Richard and Judy show. Book groups can trap readers this way, cornering readers into reading second rate contemporary novels and coming up with second rate critiques. Not for book groups the difficulties of Plato, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, or Virgil, Milton and Dante. Not for book groups the intellectual challenge of science, economics and politics (unless its a racy biography). Book groups lead to groupthink.

You can’t judge a book by its lover
So reading, and the culture of reading, is not what you think it is. It’s full of deceit, snobbery and false claims. Bayard exposes many of these taboos. Take a leaf out of his book and see reading, not as being synonymous with books, but in all its wonderful variations in terms of style, length, authors and media. New media and self-publishing are tearing apart the myth that reading is synonymous with books. Reading in many ways has freed itself from the tyranny of books.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Tired of tools talk?












Geez I’m tired of all this techy tools’ talk. A large portion of the e-learning industry has decided to become experts on DIY tools rather than experts on learning. Hundreds of the damn things are being showered upon us, discussed, and of course, mostly ignored and discarded. A huge amount of energy is being diverted towards techy tools, which are largely toys for the boys, the trainspotters of the e-learning industry.

There are many reasons for calling time on this stuff, but here are four for starters:

1. De-accelerating progress

If we devoted more time to actually delivery, rather than endless speculation about the means of delivery, we may accelerate progress. There’s definitely room for experts in this area, such as the excellent Jane Hart, but we don’t need to dominate discussion with tools talk. It’s mostly a diversion.

2. Distracts from mainstream tools

What’s worse is the fact that this obsession distracts many from looking at, and using, the tools that have already become de facto standards. Word, PowerPoint, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, YouTube, iTUNES, Google Docs, Email, Messenger, Skype – these are tools with hundreds of millions of users. Remember, we’re in the stone-age technically in learning. We don’t even record lectures for Christ’s sake!

3. Tools need skills

Most tools offer only the 'promise of productivity' as they ignore the time taken to become proficient. While recommending this never-ending torrent of tools, few discuss the need to learn how to use them, the actual skills base and the distracting effect this can have on actual delivery. We’re like those people who’re always fiddling around with cameras, tripods and lenses, but never really get round to being a photographer.

4. Diminishes e-learning

Tool up by all means but don’t get obsessed or worse, addicted to techy tools. It makes us look like learning geeks, and places us in a dark corner where we’re more likely to be by-passed and ignored.

Let’s get back to the business of learning, the psychology of learning, performance, change management and the real business issues in education and training, before we bore everyone to death with these ‘tools of a tired trade’. Turning e-learning into a giant B&Q or Wal-Mart is to caricature the industry.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

10 reasons for death of cinema


1. Big screen TVs - similar experience at home


2. High definition – getting better and better

3. Timeshift – people want to watch when they want to watch

4. Video on demand – slicker and slicker with hundreds of movies available

5. Prices – home movie is priced at less than 2/3 of one cinema ticket

6. Munching – morons slurp coke, scoop popcorn and rustle sweet wrappers

7. Mobiles – ringtones & screen lights that illuminate ten rows behind

8. Talking –are people chatting more during films

9 Poor movies- Slumdog Millionaire Best Oscar Picture?

10. Piracy – easy to capture, copy and distribute

According to a global survey of movie goers by PA Consulting and the Motion Picture Association of America, taken in seven American and three European cities, the global decline in cinema attendance is not a just the result of poor content. It’s a combination of a ‘dissatisfaction with the movie-going experience’ and ‘increasing competition for the consumer’s share of time and money’. 86% were annoyed by hikes in prices, 63% disliked the ‘popcorn’ culture and lack of alternative food options, and so on. “In order for it to maintain sustainable growth, the entertainment industry must take a long look at how consumers are balancing their lives. Survey respondents have shown that they intend to increase the time spent on socialising, using the Internet and participating in other leisure activities aside from going to the movies and watching DVDs and TV.”

When I put these points to cinema lovers they mention the ‘cinema experience’. But the visual and aural experience at home is moving towards matching the cinema. The levels of suspension of disbelief are similar. I’ve never really bought the ‘social’ experience factor, as you go to get your belief suspended, not to chat. Increasingly, it’s becoming an inconvenient, uncomfortable and expensive experience, that's what the PA survey, along with attendance figures show.

Of course, what’s happening is substitution. Broadband, cable, games, internet use are all on the rise. After the plateau in 2002-2005 people shunned the cinema. Admissions dropped by 5%, from 164.7m in 2005 to 156.6m in 2006, according to figures from the UK Film Council. Despite the fact that older audiences are proving robust, younger audiences (over half of all cinema goers are under 25) are finding other things to do. This decline among cinema viewing among the young has continued. And this is not a UK problem alone, both the US and Europe experienced a drop in attendance in 2007. And just to rub it in, it also remains to be seen what effect the recession will have on attendance.

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Lecturing - stupidest profession?

ONE thing could revolutionise education. Force teachers, trainers, and especially lecturers, to record their efforts. Suppose that a movie was only shown once, your local newspaper read out once a day in the local square, a novelist reads his book only once to an invited audience. That’s live lectures for you. It’s that stupid. Put aside the hopeless nature of the lecture as a teaching method (I actually don’t see the need for live lectures at all), why don’t lecturers record their lectures?

What do they fear? Don’t they want their audiences to learn by being allowed to view it again and reflect? It basically shows a complete lack of professionalism and lack of awareness of the psychology of learning.

Recording

Good news is that I’ve seen a flurry of activity around recording of lectures. There’s lots of systems around and lots of debate around the best method. I’m simply in favour of anything, no matter how simple, on the principle that anything is better than nothing. Students are already using mobiles devices to record lectures – phones, iPODS and laptops.

Marco Zennaro, of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, showed me a superb system that videos the lecturer as well as taking stills of the blackboard every 15 seconds. It took some time for lecturers to accept the system but they now have 100% use. Students love it. The use of the recorded lectures is way beyond that of the live lecture in terms of learning time and they’ve distributed lectures worldwide.

The key is to keep costs low and automate as much as possible. With plummeting costs for cameras and computer controlled stills capture, this has become dirt cheap. A good system can be had for just a few hundred dollars. I like their EyeA system because it will capture, people, PowerPoint, chalkboard, overhead projection, slides, laser pointing – you name it, this will record it. A 150 Mb lecture plus stills can be zipped and an entire conference will fit on one DVD or put online. It’s that simple. These guys really practise what they preach as they are world leaders in distributing mathematics and physics to the developing world.

Student opinions

In a student survey of five Diploma courses, they had a 70% response. All but one (he hadn’t watched any of the recordings) found the system useful . The advantages noted by students were:

Original lecture went too fast

Review lecture

Revision for exams

Clarification of difficult handwriting

English was student’s second language

Recap after losing notes

Avoid writing notes (focus on lecture)

See lecture after missing it through illness

Relax when tired of reading

Students are watching 13 hours a week on average, completely revolutionising the traditional teaching and learning model. There’s also the possibility of monitoring and improving the quality of the lectures themselves.

So the advantages are mind numbingly obvious. You can stop, rewind and repeat. You can watch them at any time. You can watch them at any place. You can take notes second time round. You can stop and drill down on a point through research, then resume. You can move through the course at your own pace.

A note on distribution

A server is used to automatically store and distribute lectures, in ZIP files, but as worldwide demand has been so great they allow content to be set up on proxy servers and even sent hard discs by plane to places in Africa, where it’s cheaper to fly the data than download it.

DVD distribution has been very successful in the US. Colleges such as Aiken College record to DVD then allow the lectures to be checked out of the library. It’s not just that students want to see them again, at their own pace. Some students miss lectures through reasons such as illness. Others like to watch the lecture, then take notes, as it’s difficult to do both first time round.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Montenegran E-learning adventure

The Hotel in Montenegro was an Eastern bloc throwback, with appalling food, a band that played covers on keyboards during dinner and unsmiling service. I cancelled my taxi to the airport two days in advance but it still appeared on my bill. The Hotel Manager was called out and demanded that I pay. When I refused she said she’d simply charge me for an extra night on the Hotel! She’d have been better suited to a career as a prison warder.

But it was the journey back, after speaking at the Conference, with an old mate in a hire car, that turned out to be eventful. We took the long route round an immense coastal inlet in Montenegro which was staggeringly beautiful. A one lane road hugged the shore with the occasional church, house and fortress, the water as flat as glass. We were advised to stop for lunch at the Hotel Conte in Perast – bloody good recommendation. Great fish soup, seafood, beer and coffee on a quay next to the lake in the spring sunshine. Idyllic.

The off to Croatia and Dubrovnik. Or so we thought. Suddenly a policeman was waving us down. We stopped and his first words were ‘You’re in real trouble’. Mark, the driver, got out and was told to sit in the passenger seat of the police car. I just watched as both gesticulated, then Mark retuned to the car and said, ‘Just smile and wave when we pass the police car, we need to get out of here. I’ll tell you what happened round the bend.

He was told that he had crossed the white line (we never saw any white line) and that we were driving too fast. This was difficult as our hire car had a lawnmower sized engine. As the cop took his passport and started writing out a form, he said, ‘You must go to the Magistrate Court at 10 am tomorrow morning.’ As our flight was later that day from Dubrovnic, this was a little tricky. Mark’s a smart guy so he responded with, ‘We’ve just been at a meeting with the UN (true) and we have to be in the UK as we have a meeting with the Government tomorrow (not true).’ He said nothing, handed Mark back his passport and said, ‘off you go’. And off we went - relieved.

Next hurdle was the border. We stopped and the guy was grim and shouted something at us. He had asked us to switch off our car engine. Mark thought he had also asked for his car keys and handed them over – but the guy just rolled his eyes threw them back and said ‘Cur restgration dokmint’. Turns out he had asked for the car registration document. As it was a car hire, so we handed over the hire agreement sheet. He shook his head again and asked for the car registration. After rooting around in glove compartments and door compartments we found something – that was it apparently. This was grumpiness at another level. This guy was a guru of grumpiness And off we went.

Then we hit Croatian customs. Learnt our lesson this time; engine off, car registration document at the ready. And off we went, only to hear a cry, ‘Stop!’. We looked in the mirror and a guy in uniform was shouting and waving on us to reverse back. Apparently we had to go through a custom’s search. We opened our tiny boot, emptied its contents onto a table and he looked inside each of our bags. Packed up and off we went.

Now I never knew much about Montenegro, not surprising as it’s only two years old as a country. I didn’t even know it was in the EU. But what I learnt wasn’t good. The architecture is drab, the food horrible and the people (not all, but most) decidedly unfriendly. I could count the smiles I saw in three days on one hand. There are some beautiful spots, but on the whole it isn’t ready for tourists who want a relaxing holiday. They’re inflexible, seem to want to trap tourists into paying for things they don’t want, and don’t seem to care of you don’t come back.

Our afternoon in Dubrovnik was a joy by comparison. Smiles everywhere, even laughter, beautiful walled city with no cars, coffee and cake in a lovely cafe surrounded by stunning architecture. It felt just calm and relaxing. At the airport, we asked the girl at information whether she had been to Montenegro. Her reply was telling. 'No, I have no reason to go there’. We smiled, she smiled - we all knew what she meant.

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