Wednesday, October 31, 2012
It is estimated that getting on for half of all internet traffic is file sharing. Something like a quarter of a billion users in 2012 used BitTorrent technology (at any one time, this is more than YouTube and Facebook combined). So has this revolutionary technology, of connection not collection, also to hit the world of learning?
The internet is actually a huge distribution network, with a clever failsafe structure. If one part of the network fails, the rest will get the data to its destination. This idea was developed as a protective device against possible nuclear attack. Of course, this structure also allowed file sharing and peer file sharing software to flourish, with massively disruptive consequences for the music, movie, TV and newspaper industry.
It was 1999, just as the dot-com bubble burst, when this new kid appeared on the block – peer-to-peer computing. And it was literally a new kid on the block, the 19 year old Shawn Fanning, who wrote a piece of file sharing software, for MP3 music files, in just three months that was to change the media world forever. It was an immediate success and campus bandwidth was eaten up as fast as it could be built. The digital genie was out of the bottle and it was an immediate threat to billion dollar media companies. Free shared music, and eventually films and other media were now available on the web.
File sharing wasn’t entirely new. A few years earlier Ian Clarke, a University of Edinburgh research student, has written Freenet, a pure file exchange system, with no central repository (Napster had a central server for indexing and identification). The Seti project had been using shared processing power for some time. Napster, however, captured the headlines and imagination. It spawned hundreds of imitations. Gnutella released in 2000 was the first completely decentralised file sharing system, with no central server. Kazaa used supernodes to increase effectiveness. The BitTorrent protocol, written by Bram Cohen, was to take file sharing even higher, using a swarm of hosts to download and upload across networks.
Interestingly P2P services don’t really rely on altruism. You contribute by simply participating. When you download a file, your files are exposed for download by others. Consumers become involuntary producers. This is not new. The telephone, like its predecessor the telegraph, used peer-to-peer systems. What is new is tha massive increase in productivity file sharing provides and viral distribution.
P2P and learning
When I saw Kevin Kelly speak about Napster at TechLearn in the US over ten years ago , we pitched an idea to the organisation responsible for innovation in Local Authorities, and built a P2P system for authoring and sharing learning content across the Local Authorities in England and Wales. Rather than develop a huge repository of content, we wanted to allow people to freely build and share content, using a Napster-like file sharing approach, with a central repository, for searching and identification of learning content. HTML, PowerPoint, PDF and Word files were tagged with mandatory and optional information and shared. The project ran for some time but was eventually sold and has gone back to a Moodle-based service run a private company delivering content to the public sector, who are still loyal to the principle of shared content. This is what happened in the Napsterisation of learning. The principle of free, shared content became embedded in the culture of learning, through Wikipedia and OER.
Democratisation, decentralisation and disintermediation of learning
Graham Brown martin argues that Naspster paved the way for Apple’s iPhone and iPad and he’s right, as it led to disintermediation in the music industry. Does this apply to the learning industry?
The Napsterisation of learning can be used literally, as the use of file sharing software to enable learning. In the wider sense it can be used to describe the democratisation of learning towards learners and away from reliance on middle-ground institutions, companies and teachers. Millions, daily, access Wikipedia, Google Scholar and dozens of other sources without the mediation of teachers or librarians. Decentralisation. away from centralised institutions, such as schools, colleges, universities, libraries, publishers and companies, down to actual learners, through web-based services has certainly occurred and is accelerating. But the real shift would disintermediation. Cutting out the middlemen, especially over-expensive institutions. There are signs that this is happening. Peter Thiel’s description of HE as an over-inflated bubble has taken root. Content providers also have much to worry about, as their content is easily pirated.
It remains to be seen if the education and training world will be as deeply challenged and changed as the music or newspaper industry. It is certainly as vulnerable.
Napsterisation of content
Wikipedia has already Napsterised the encyclopedia business with a product that’s bigger, better, faster and free. The whole canon of western literature is largely available free online from sites such as Project Gutenberg. TED, YouTube and other video services have disintermediated video companies. Open Education Resources grow in quantity and quality by the day.
Napsterisation of software and courses
Moodle has bitten deeply into the commercial VLE market and Totara is doing similar things in the corporate market. Why pay top dollar for an LMS or VLE when you can get one for free. Courses are unlikely to be file shared but MOOCs certainly promise to reduce the cost with their focus on online delivery and volume. Skillsoft and other courses are available on pirate sites if you look around. There is absolutely no doubt that this is rife in Asia and China.
Napsterisation of eTextbooks
One example of this vulnerability is the rise of eBooks and eTextbooks, we have already seen signs of Napsterification of textbooks, which are often too expensive to buy, especially for learners in developing countries. There is now a large number of file sharing sites that had got round the DRM and other restrictions that eBook publishers use. This is one of the reasons educational publishers have been reluctant to enter the eBook market. We may yet see the Napsterification of learning in this market.
Publishers have learned (maybe not) from the music industry and come down hard on eBook file sharing sites. Library.nu and ifile.it (based in Ireland) had distributed hundreds of thousands of eBooks before being shut down, making millions from advertising and donations. This year (2012) seventeen publishers across seven countries issued legal action against a rack of eBook file sharing sites, but as soon as one closes another crop pops up. This is likely to continue.
The technology of Napster and BitTorrent file sharing has had some effect on learning. However, it has had a profound effect on the way media files are shared and, as a consequence, attitudes and behaviours on the web. It’s specific technical influence on learning has been confined to e few isolated projects and lots of eBook file sharing sites, but the Napsterisation of learning in the conceptual sense, where learners do it for themselves and disintermediate teachers and institutions has been profound.
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Twitter: in learning less is more
In the psychology of learning ‘less is more’. The learning industry, education and training, is plagued by overlong manuals, powerpoints, papers, books, talks and lectures. Cognitive overload is the norm, forgetting and failure the consequence. This, I suspect, is why twitter is so damn popular. It’s short and sweet.
If the internet has taught learning professionals anything, it’s the fact that most of what we do is unnaturally long-winded. In all media, the internet has acted like a massive experiment, where real people have shown their preference for information in shorter pieces. Why - because that’s how real human communication and learning works. If you sat down next to someone in a plane, asked them a question, and they replied with a 50 minute lecture, no matter how knowledgeable they were, you’d want to strangle them. So the internet has spawned media such as Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, Wikis and YouTube, all of which have brevity as a virtue. And none are as brief as Twitter.
Who would have thought?
Who would have predicted the rise of a social networking site based on short 140 character posts? People were, and many still are, baffled by the success and popularity of Twitter. Yet it was really a confluence of two already successful technologies, txting and posting on social media. It combined 160 character txting (shaving 20 characters off) with the continuous posting flow of social networking (followers as friends). You follow people you respect and they follow you. More promiscuous than Facebook or blogging, it’s like having lots of small encounters with people from all over the country or world on a daily basis. So what use is it in learning?
Twitter and learning
Twitter can be used at a number of levels in learning; personal, at events, within formal classes/courses and inside organisations. Its use as a networking and knowledge sharing tool for learning professionals is clear, as is its virtual expansion of events such as conferences, where the backchannel enhances the event for attendees and non-attendees. However, it is not at all clear that it is useful as a structured learning tool in schools and classrooms, where the effort taken to plan and execute Twitter-based learning experiences are often forced, a little artificial even shallow. However, even here, it is early days and things may emerge that prove useful.
Twitter and professional network
As Twitter use has exploded so has its adoption by academics and experts in all sorts of fields. Following experts gives you all sorts of useful ideas and links for research and assignments. In this context, tweets often have links to deeper content that allow you to connect things and deepen your knowledge and exploration. These links often lead to blog posts, articles, papers and events. It is often forgotten that twitter signposts up and coming events in the real world. Sometimes they signpost conferences, lectures, talks that are happening at that moment. Indeed, most tweets from learning professionals point towards something interesting they’ve found. In this sense, Twitter is like a recommendation engine, supplying you with contemporary ideas on your subject or profession.
Twitter as backchannel
At a major educational conference I attended in Doha, Qatar, a huge slide went up asking all delegates to switch off their mobile devices. We took a photo of the slide and tweeted it (tweetpic), saying “don’t be stupid, the sign should say the opposite”. The next day the chair confirmed that we were right. A Twitter backchannel is a virtual extension of a real event and allows participants, both at the event and beyond, to observe, communicate and share ideas. It greatly enhances the event and can be fed back into the live event, either on a screen or as questions for speakers, discussion etc.
A hashtag (#) is a collective link that collects tweets around a specific event. Many find it useful to tune into a hashtag to get the gist of a talk, key concepts, quotes and comments, without having to attend the conference. Tweeting pictures can also be useful, especially key or summary slides in presentations. Given the 140 character restriction, this is a way to get more detailed information across. We all know that talks and lectures are padded out, so this can be a useful way of getting the crystalised thoughts of the speaker.
Beyond this many tweet points of agreement and disagreement, so that critical thought and discussion becomes part of the experience. This can develop into short dialogue using Reply function). Hashtags can also be used for questions to speakers, lecturers and teachers. I’ve answered tweeted questions during, at the end and after talks. This widens the opportunity for questions to those beyond the room, as well as allowing more introverted attendees to ask questions. Some make such Tweets visible on a big screen which encourages self-moderation and gets the debate out on the floor.
So, going back to my Doha example, announce your hashtag at the start of a conference or event (It is amazing how rare this is) or several may arise, causing confusion. Then encourage tweeting. They are honest and provide a blow-by-blow account of the event. People also Tweet at the end of a conference which is also useful. So why not harvest these instead or as a useful, evaluative supplement or replacement to your happy sheets. My guess is that the tweets would be far more detailed and useful.
Twitter & courses/classes
Lots of teachers/lecturers/trainers have used Twitter to enthuse learners. Some, have students Tweet as characters, fictional and historic. The discipline of 140 characters teaches you to construct concise and sharp sentences. In language learning Tweeting short sentences can get students going in the actual use of a language. Following famous people who Tweet in the language you’re learning gives you a steady stream of relevant and realistic comments to try to translate. Or you can follow people directly and tweet in your target language. Pass the Tweet is a creative game where one person comes up with the title, the next the opening sentence and so on around the class, good fun, highly creative and a great writing task. You can go one step further and set up an account for your class. I’ve also seen teachers open up their class to outside Tweeters, by inviting tweets from the outside. Twitter chats are pre-defined periods where a question is posed and the contributors tweet answers in reply. This can be used to connect students within a class, across different classes, schools, even countries. Trips are always more interesting when photographs and comments are made along the way. So, on trips to museums, art galleries and especially journeys and field trips, encourage tweeting from mobiles.
Twitter & workplace learning
Whether it’s a project, initiative, launch or change management problem, lots of organisational activities will benefit from being tweeted, if only to keep people informed but also for inviting suggestions and feedback.
https://www.yammer.com/ is a Twitter clone that you can use privately, within a company or organisation to access experts, ask questions, organise events, poll or private message. Benefits reported a dramatic reduction in email and increased productivity.
One could also argue, that it’s often introduced as a bit of a gimmick and wastes more time than it saves. Twitter’s strength is its almost organic growth and use. As soon as it starts to be used in a formal classroom or training context it can seem a little forced or fake. Its strength is as an informal personal learning tool or as a backchannel at events. As a formal learning tool it’s unproven.
Twitter can also be a distraction among learners leading to rude tweckling (heckling using Twitter) and inattention. Your Twitter stream can be flooded with automated feeds from your other social media. You also have the problem of inclusion, namely two groups, one Tweeting, the other having no idea what’s happening on Twitter. It can also be more impressionistic and less coherent, than say a blog post about a talk or conference, with poor searchability.
Twitter has been boosted by the rise in mobile, social networking. This has taken it into cafes, onto trains and into conferences, lectures and classrooms. At first sight, Twitter seems an unpromising candidate for learning. Yet once we grasp its fit with the psychology of learning, its multiplicity of uses and popularity, it seems entirely relevant, as long as we don’t force it into inappropriate formal contexts.
Sunday, October 28, 2012
Blogs: vastly underused teaching and learning tool
You’re reading this on a blog. As a blogger since 2006, with blogs on technology, art and travel, I can only say that it has been one of the most important learning experiences in my life. I don’t go on courses or attend an educational institution but I do write blog pieces and read oodles of stuff on other blogs.
For me, a blog is more than a diary. It’s a place for honest expression, a bit of reflection, and some sharing and collaboration. You learn from putting yourself to the test, by writing a piece that is readable by others, but also benefit from the comments that come back, challenging or supporting your view. A blog is an invitation for dialogue. So what’s its contribution to learning?
As a learning experience the benefits are clear. The act of writing forces you to précis your thoughts, reflect on experiences and come to some conclusions. The problem with much education and training is that written analysis is either too short (multiple choice or word/phrase answers) or too long (the long-form essays in higher education). Blogs provide a far more useful format. A blog post shouldn’t be too short or too long. Some topics require no more than a paragraph or two, others a more considered couple of pages of detailed argument. Blogs force you to be concise but substantial.
Blogs and memory
Another great advantage of regular blogging is that the act of writing a clear post involves deep processing in memory that results in better retention. I have a much better memory for the topics, exhibitions, books, films, events and journeys I’ve blogged. The very act of blogging not only boosts memory but acts as an aide memoire. I often go back to my blog posts when I have to give a talk or need to respond to a query on a specific topic.
Blogs and sharing
It is important to remember that blogging is an open invitation to converse with others on a topic. In some cases, such as my critical posts on NLP, I’ve had acerbic, personal attacks. It’s all good and I rather like the idea that the blogosphere is a bit rough and tumble. More importantly, I’ve often had good examples, new perspectives and arguments I hadn’t considered before.
Blog and ‘voice’
Good blogs have a ‘voice’. In fact blogging allows you to find your voice. The best blogs are written by those who do it for themselves and find in themselves the joy of writing. I am so glad I’ve blogged for all these years as I feel I’ve produced material that would have been lost to my mind and memory. As you can probably guess I’m not a fan of blogs from organisations – no real voice and too much direct marketing for my taste.
The admirable Millie Watts, the social networking teacher, had a blog ‘What I taught this week’. This was obviously useful for her students. Most teachers leave no trace at all of their lessons, yet we know with absolute certainty that learners need repeated access to knowledge to learn. A teacher’s blog can summarise what was covered in lessons, included media content such as diagrams, photographs and video. It can also link to useful external resources. As a resources for learners who may have found the lesson to difficult, were off ill, have English as a second language it can be a useful safety net. In doing homework or revision, it is a useful resource for all.
In many ways it is almost odd that a teacher, lecturer, trainer, instructor does not blog. They are in the business of imparting knowledge and this is a simple way to do precisely that, and it’s easy to use and free!
Similar arguments apply to leaders and senior managers in organisations. Many CEOs and other senior managers and experts within organisations blog. This humanises the organisation, gives people a voice and a chance for others in the organisation to get to know that person better.
Benefits of blogs for learners include summarising their experience and better retention. Useful notes for revision are also created for reinforcement and revision. The blog format not only improves writing and communication skills, it is a powerful form of preparation for exams that demand reflection and good written answers. It can also be used as a form of peer-to-peer learning, where other learners are encouraged to comment on each other’s posts. This can be left open or done formally.
David Mitchel is a huge evangelist for pupil blogging. He didn't set one piece of homework all year, yet his pupils worked producing 70,000 words+ on their blogs from home. His primary school has also shown measurable improvements in writing skills. Millie Watts encouraged her students to write ‘What I learned this week’ blogs. Blogs encourage students to write the right way, not over-long essays but short, sharp pieces that communicates ideas.Blogs and assessment
A learner blog gives a running account of what the learner is learning. It acts as a form of continuous formative assessment. There is an argument for replacing the drudgery of homework with learner generated blogs that force the learner to reflect on what they’ve learned. There's a degree of honesty and substance in a learner blogs that one is unlikely to find in formal testing.
There are millions of bloggers who have been energised to blog on almost every imaginable subject. The blogosphere has, in effect, become a source of knowledge sharing in all professions and all subjects. No matter what subject interests you, enthusiasts are no longer tied to the narrow-cast journals or trade magazines. The blogosphere is a rolling wave of knowledge leaving a useful archive in its wake. For me it is perhaps the most tangible evidence for the health of informal, lifelong learning.
Blogs and politics
At another level, that of political engagement, blogs have played a significant role, not only in stable democracies but perhaps more relevantly in repressive regimes and most notably in the Arab Spring. Bloggers have written about corruption, presented alternatives and galvanised people around causes and real events. To be absolutely clear here, for some naive commentators have dismissed this activity, bloggers have been murdered, imprisoned, tortured and harassed in many countries.
Blogs and publishing
Finally, it has to be recognised that the blogosphere is a publishing medium in its own right, as well as a source for authors, columnists and journalists who can emerge in a meritocratic fashion, to publish their own work. Entire works of fiction and non-fiction were blogs or have emerged from blogs.
Blogs are a potent and vastly underused teaching and learning tool. The habit of regular writing as a method of reflection, synthesis, argument and reinforcement is suited to the learning process. Blogs encourage bolder, independent, critical thinking, as opposed to mere note taking. For teachers they crystallise and amplify what you have to teach. For learners, they force you to really learn.
Saturday, October 27, 2012
Do the maths: 7 reasons why the obsession with maths doesn’t add up
FAIL 1 Numeracy not maths
There is persistent exaggeration in the size of the so-called maths problem. This is caused by people shooting arrows, drawing a chalk circle around the arrow and calling it a bulls eye. Typical is the recently formed National Numeracy charity, which claims we have 17 million (nearly half the working population) with poor numeracy. They do this by relying on one ‘survey’ and conflating numeracy with maths, as their definitions are based on GCSE achievement.
This exaggeration is endemic and a simple failure in statistics. The actual needs in the real world match what we call ‘functional maths’: basic numeracy, use of a calculator, some understanding of statistics etc. This is not congruent with what is actually taught in GCSE maths. If they were represented as sets there would be a small overlap. When employers talk about poor maths, they are largely talking about poor numeracy. These are two different things. In fact, almost invariably people conflate and confuse maths with numeracy (or functional maths). A simple Venn diagram is all that’s needed to make this clear.
FAIL 2 Most maths quantifiably irrelevant
What’s the quadratic equation? What’s a surd? When was the last time you divided two fractions? When did you last use algebra? Ask a large audience these questions, as I often do, and you’ll be lucky to get one or two hands raised. The recent report into the teaching of maths confirmed, yet again, that the curriculum is largely irrelevant to most students, as they are unlikely to use much of it in later life. They rightly recommend a new qualification in functional maths. If taught GCSE maths were a pie chart, most of it will not be used in later life. In any case, if we do need the more complex stuff, we can learn it later. Do the maths. It doesn’t add up.
FAIL 3 Maths is easy to test
Rather than test what really matters in problem solving and real life, we’ve stuck to a lazy and often irrelevant method of testing that puts maths at the top of the tree. Why because it’s easy to test. Maths problems have single solutions and are therefore easy to test. Actually they don’t and this is why a real understanding of maths is difficult to test. Nevertheless, problems, largely of calculation, are perceived as being a good test of one’s ability in a general sense. This is nonsense. Maths problems are rarely realistic. Nobody goes around using maths to share marbles, split up pizzas, share out cakes at parties or dilute orange juice. There is a critical failure to ‘bridge’ between the real world and its representation in mathematical language. But in an age of perpetual testing, maths is an easy, read lazy, option.
Fail 4 Maths a transferable skill
If knowing maths teaches you to think clearly, how come the world has been plunged into a financial crisis by people who are good at maths but couldn’t see the problems they were causing. The answer to this problem was identified by Thorndike over a century ago. ‘Transfer’, the degree to which learning transfers to actual performance in the real world is still a largely misunderstood or ignored issue in education. Learning is largely (not always) a means to an end, namely the application of that knowledge or skills, yet few educators know or care much about transfer. They assume it exists where it doesn’t (for example in maths and Latin) and make little effort to make sure it happens. Thorndike showed that transfer depends on the similarity of the situations or domains. This principle of ‘identical elements’ led him to recommend problem solving and practice in real-world contexts, so that the learning tasks and context matched the real world. Has this lesson been leant in the teaching of maths, or Latin? No.
FAIL 5 Calculators calculate
Almost everyone has a calculator in their pocket, as it’s a native app on almost every mobile phone and computer. Yet we insist on teaching people how to ‘calculate’ as opposed to useful, functional numeracy. Experts, like Wolfram and others, have pointed to the crude culture of ‘calculation’ in school maths, at the expense of real, functional and conceptual maths. Richard Norris has shown that maths in the workplace is intimately tied up with computers, spreadsheets and others forms of software. Yet maths and ICT are treated as two separate subjects. Isolating ‘maths’ in this way presents it as a purely abstract and often irrelevant subject.
FAIL 6 Miscalculation on teachers
Statistically, your child was, is or will be, almost certainly taught by someone whose knowledge of maths is rather poor. We know, with mathematical certainty, that primary school teachers have poor maths skills. The recommendation of the recent Government report into Maths teaching is a minimum B pass in GCSE before you’re allowed to teach the subject. This sounds like a bad joke until you realise that our children are being taught by largely primary school teachers with an absurdly low competence in maths. It claims that, “Almost all of those on primary PGCE courses gave up studying mathematics at age 16. So, by the time they taught their first classes, they had not studied mathematics to any meaningful level for at least six years.” Only about 2% of primary school teachers have a degree in science or any STEM subject. Another shocker is the fact that in secondary schools, “24% of all children in secondary schools are not taught by specialist mathematics teachers”. Read that again. Most maths is not taught by maths teachers or even by teachers with a solid grasp of the subject.
FAIL 7 PISA ‘standards’
The PISA results show plummeting performance in maths by our young people. The Chinese have screamed to the top. We’ll be an economy the equivalent of Bangladesh in a few years if we don’t get our maths scores up. None of these sentences are true, yet the leaning tower of PISA, many claim, show a badly built edifice with weak foundations that will eventually topple. This is all baloney. A more detailed analysis of why PISA is wrong.
This is a common mathematical problem among politicians, employers, even so called experts in education. Our performance has remained stable. There is no ‘drop’ in standards. If you construct a league table, you can, mathematically, rise and fall in that table while remaining the same in terms of competence. That’s the problem with league tables – they create the illusion of winners and losers.
Gove is an English graduate with scant knowledge of maths and science. I know because I challenged him on a shared platform at the Tory Party Conference in Blackpool when he claimed that all schoolchildren should know that the orbit of an electron relies on the same force as the orbit of the planets around the sun! There were guffaws from the audience, so I suggested he needed a new example as the forces at work here couldn’t be more different (true story). He went apeshit but he was still hopelessly wrong. His EBacc has all the hallmarks of a PISA-led curriculum, far too academic, and exclusive. His greatest crime is to have moved the goalposts after goals have been scored. If you change the goalposts so dramatically and quickly, you simply condemn 85% of students as failures (only 15% currently meet the Ebacc standard). What’s worse, Gove is applying the measure retrospectively. This is like moving the goalposts at the end of the game and disallowing goals scored. It’s madness. Do the maths. You can have schools with high achievement in Maths and English plummet down the new league tables from near the top to near the bottom, as they haven’t focused on humanities or languages. One weird consequence is that a student who does Latin and Ancient History will be judged above those who do Business Studies, Engineering, psychology, a third science and lots of other subjects. It’s worse than bad, it’s perverse. I’m glad my kids are leaving secondary education, as it descends into this backward looking nonsense.
We don’t actually live in a more mathematical world. We live in a world where most maths is done by calculators, computers and machines, or a relatively small number of experts. The vast majority of us need little actual maths, other than ‘functional maths’. To funnel all young people into a path that demands a mostly irrelevant, maths curriculum is to turn them off school and learning. This obsession with maths may, mathematically, be the very things that lowers our general educational attainment.
Thursday, October 25, 2012
3D printers: gimmick or game changer? Next big thing or expensive way to produce lots of ‘small, useless, plastic things’?
OK, if you have a spare grand or so for a 3D printer. Are they the ‘next big thing’ or merely an expensive way to produce lots of ‘small, useless, plastic things’? Apart from adding considerably to planetary waste, what impact will 3D printers have in learning?
Not a game changer
Technology is unpredictable. When Gutenberg produced his 2D printing press it led to massive social and political changes, and a shift towards putting learning literally in the hands of learners. This was to drive a religious reformation, scientific revolution and a rich cultural life based around writing and reading. In education, books and text remain the mainstay in most subjects.
Could the 3D printing press have a similar result? Well no. Books had been around for 12 centuries in learning prior to being printed. Little plastic objects have also been around for a long time but are not used that much in learning. Sure, there will be some applications in learning but this may not be a game changer.
Technology starts out expensive, experiments with formats, then prices plummet as the technology settles and becomes an affordable product. Laser printers, when invented 1969, were $20,0000but are now around 0.5% of that price, $100. This already happening with 3D printers. Sure, you can buy a $20,000 professional HP 3D printer but a $1200 3D printer is already available.
First came Cupcake and Thing-o-matic then Makerbot Replicator with a single or dual head so that two colours or two different materials can be used in one object. Repraps such as Prusa, Mendel, Darwin etc are hacker designed using open source. Ultimaker, originally a student Msc project in Holland is now a viable $1194 machine. Makerbot, has had $10m VC funding, and its Replicator2 comes in a box. The market is still young, with a wide price range, different types of technology, using different materials producing different levels of quality.
How do they work?
Depends. Some squirt molten plastic or resin from a nozzle in layer after layer as both a table and nozzle move in three dimensions. Others use powder, ceramics even metal. Formlab’s laser plus resin is $3000 but resin is expensive $150 a litre, three times the price of plastic. Plastic around $50 per kilo but you can make hundreds of objects
Printers can print themselves
This is exaggerated, but it is true that some of these printers can print off some of their own components. The more they can print the cheaper they will be to replicate in other locales. More interesting is that the technology has benefited from the open source movement, in both software, hardware and the sharing of3D objects.
What do you do with them?
You can clone, create, prototype, share and replicate objects. Clone objects using a 3D scanner then print as many off as you wish. This has already happened in Metropolitan Museum of Art hackathon, where exhibits were scanned and cloned. Greek statuary from the British Museum has also been 3D printed. Create new objects, anything from new art to practical devices. Prototype objects, so that they can be refined, tested ergonomically and aesthetically, even presented to raise funds. Share objects, as they are all ultimately, relatively small packets of data, that can be shared, uploaded and download like any text, audio, image or video music file. Tens of thousands of 25000 objects can be downloaded from sites such as thingiverse.com and grabcad.com. Replicate objects on site or closer to their point of sale. Why ship objects when they can be manufactured on demand? It gives a whole new meaning to just-in-time production.
Long tail attached to one large beast?
This is a Chris Anderson, long-tail product that caters for all sorts of small batch, even one off objects for design development and actual delivery. This is interesting for a retailer, such as Amazon, where you can satisfy long tail demand in books. However, it’s likely the Amazon model will prevail, namely domination by a major player. For example, a new factory was opened this year in New York, the Mayor opened it with a pair of 3D printed scissors. This factory will 3D print any object you want in whatever colours and numbers, prototypes or finished products. It prints 3D 50 industrial printers.
How can they be used in learning?
Isn’t it odd, however, that we teach and learn people about the 3D world largely in 2D? Yes, but how often do you actually need a 3D object to learn or understand something?
Art & design
Museums are already using these printers to replicate some of their objects. The creative possibilities are endless, where students create forms and prototypes for sculptures, jewellery etc. It is likely to spawn new art in itself.
Archaeology in 3D is revolutionising the copying of bones of early. Louise Leakey’s African fossils. But other rare objects such as cuneiform tablets, coins, almost anything we pull out of the ground can be replicated on demand.
Unfortunately, we in the UK have started with the rather cumbersome £6m research centre Engineering and Physics research Council, which says it is working with industry. What this lacks is real entrepreneurial push. However, it is clear that 3D design, prototyping and testing will benefit from this relatively cheap technology.
Maths & physics
Maths can be visualised, from simple geometric shapes, volumes, surface areas, intersections, to sophisticated topographies. In general it offers huge opportunities to teach maths using real maths problems with real object creation as the goal. This could surely add a welcome boost in motivation for students who fail to see the connection between abstract maths and real world applications. The physicality of the process has been shown to instil curiosity and understanding. Interesting paper on this.
In medicine, there are niche applications, such as anatomy, rare physiological conditions etc. However, it is likely that the real practice of medicine has more to gain than learning such as customised hearing aids, dental implants and so on.. Prosthetics can be created anywhere at anytime in remote places, customised legs, arms, hand etc. What’s more, with a scan of your existing leg an exact mirror copy from the digital file can be created.
More ambitiously, Professor Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow has been working on models downloadable chemistry sets that can make complex drugs. The3D printer created the chambers and tubes which you fill with the correct, commonly found ingredients, and out pops a drug.
Bioprinting uses bioink (cells) to build layer upon layer to create tissue. Ultimately it is hoped that entire organs, heart valves or bone implants could be created this way. In the short term a 3D printer could print skin cells directly on to a wound. Printed meat could also be used by pharmaceutical companies for testing, saving huge amounts of money.
The real world is in 3D (well maybe more but let’s put esoteric maths and physics aside until 6D printers come along) yet science is taught in 2D, largely in print or from 2D PowerPoint presentations. Molecules in chemistry, organic forms in biology, planets and comets in astronomy the list is endless…..
You can even print your own flute! See this video. Other instruments are also possible.
You can even print your own flute! See this video. Other instruments are also possible.
The Cube is a Chinese 3D plug and play printer for kids/families which can produce small toys, such as figures, robots, dinosaurs etc. in many colours for $1299. You buy cartridges just like a normal printer. You can print off clothes and accessories, such a bikinis, plastic shoes and purses. Rather worryingly, you can create replica keys really easily and a 22 calibre handgun has already been created! I feel a film script coming on…
This is exciting, 3D objects for the developing world. Water pumps, frames for eye glasses (which break more often than the lenses), replacement parts on vital machines, such as sewing machines etc. are all possible. The problem with poor and remote economies is that the cost of shipping is often prohibitively expensive. By simply shipping the software, objects can now be printed at the point of need.
Every educational institution could have a 3D printer that can create objects across the curriculum, on demand. STEM subjects are often the first port of call, but many other subjects can benefit, especially art and design. While it is true that the potential of a technology is often realised once people start to use it in anger, 3D printers are in danger of being the ‘next big thing’ when they are, in fact, just expensive machines that churn out ‘lots of useless small things’, more gimmick than game changer. Time will tell. What is clear is that 3D printing is a game changer in the real world outside of learning.
Thanks to Carlo at the wonderful International Centre of Theoretical Physics for his excellent recorded seminar on this topic that can be found here.
Thanks to Carlo at the wonderful International Centre of Theoretical Physics for his excellent recorded seminar on this topic that can be found here.
Monday, October 22, 2012
Values as ‘crap acronyms’?
I was on a conference panel last week, when someone flaunted their ‘values’ approach to training. Now whenever values and training collide inside the ‘round and round the table’ Hadron collider of HR, the net result is usually a ‘crap acronym’.
Bacronyms: values created to fit word
Chances are that some wag in HR or training has shoehorned some abstract nouns into a word that sounds vaguely positive, completely losing sight of the original intention. Are they telling me that their values ‘just happened to fall into this acronym’? Actually, what happens is that at least some of the values emerge from the acronym.
How about this for banality from a Cheshire voluntary group: FLUID: Freedom 2 Love Ur Identity. Or another real example of a crap acronym: VALUE: This HR person went online as she could only think of Value Added….. and wanted others to fill it out! They did, and she was delighted with, Value Added Local, User friendly Experience. What a load of guff. When values are created to fit a word you want to say – shove your course….
Using middle, lower case letter in acronym
PEOPLE: Positive Spirit and Fun, HonEsty and Integrity, Opportunties Based on Merit, Putting the Team first, Lasting value for Clients and People, Excellence through Professionlism. One overlong, impossible to remember acronym with eleven nouns, and I love the way they have to use the ‘E’ in the middle of HonEsty to make it work! This, by the way, is from an HR consultancy.
AAAA (Association Against Acronym Abuse)
It’s not that I don’t like acronyms (Abbreviated Coded Rendition Of Name Yielding Meaning). They’re great as memorable cues. For example, I rather like ABC (Airways, Breathing, Circulation) in first aid and the customer care acronym GREAT, as an aide memoire, where five simple things can be recalled on the job:
Greet all customers & make them feel comfortable
Respect cultural & other personal differences
Evaluate how your customers want to be served
Adjust your approach to match your customer's needs
Thank your customers for their business.
I also have a soft spot for funny acronyms, such as ALITALIA (Airplane Lands In Turin And Luggage In Ancona), BAAPS (British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeon) unbelievably a real organisation and DIMWIT (Don't Interrupt Me While I'm Talking).
…it’s just that I’m a fully paid up member of AAAA, the Association Against Acronym Abuse.
This type of ‘affective’ training is delivered by sincere people who don’t know the slightest thing about how people learn, so we get poor presentation-driven pedagogy. Values need to be believed and felt emotionally. You need pretty sophisticated experiential training, through scenarios or fist-person-thinker simulations to do this well. It can be done and one of the best I’ve seen was for Apple, which was seriously scenario-led.
Injecting values into an organisation is hard and most often fails. It failed in the banks (catastrophically), it failed with politicians (expenses, morals, snobbery etc.), it failed in journalism (watch Levinson). I have a confession, I’ve delivered a fair number of these programmes into banks and similar organisations. They’re always the same, some fatuous acronym and values that stand no chance of widespread adoption through training. Why? You can’t teach values from a flipchart of PowerPoint. The acronym is usually a flipchart and PowerPoint gimmick. A list of abstract nouns is not a list of values. People see through the artificiality of this stuff as it doesn’t relate to them personally.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
Clickers: formative feedback key to better learning
Earlier, we saw how Victorian slates were used as whole class feedback devices, when students were asked to complete a writing task and hold the slates up in the air for perusal by the teacher. Clickers perform the same function electronically. It is a profoundly learner-centric piece of technology, which also happens to be an effective device for shaping teaching. They can be used for polling, whole class assessment, individual assessment, answering multiple choice questions, short answers, peer assessment even mood measurement.
Schools suffer from one major drawback, class size. Teaching is largely a one-to-many activity and it is difficult for even experienced teachers to know what is going on in the minds of so many students. Black & William claims that this feedback failure is a major problem in poor teaching. He recommends ‘hinge’ questions that allow teachers to assess whether what they’ve taught has hit home.
Clickers allow the teacher to poll students or ask key questions to get anonymous or identifiable feedback. This feedback is important as it allows the teacher to identify whether actual understanding is taking place, before moving on. Failure can be a destructive force in learning wen learners are exposed to embarrassment even ridicule.
From the learners’ perspective, this type of interaction is challenging and forces them; first, to raise attention; second, to reflect on the topic; third, assess themselves; fourth, see how the class as a whole is doing; fifth, get some help. Anonymity can be a virtue here.
Mazur – peer instruction
Eric Mazur, who teaches physics at Harvard has been using clickers to improve his teaching for many years. Rather than deliver long lectures, without interruption, he stops at key points and asks diagnostic questions. These questions tend to be natural language questions that really test the underlying principles of physics, rather than the application of formulas. If the histogram shows that many of the class have not understood the point, he arranges them into groups so that peer-to-peer learning can take place, asks the question again, then moves on. The data he’s gathered suggests that this approach has led to significant increases in attainment and many universities have since adopted this approach. Note that it is the feedback process that is important. Mazur claims that coloured cards work just as well.
Mobile devices as clickers
Web-based response systems link teacher and students across the web and allow them all to set questions and see the results. Several systems now exist for using student mobile devices. These can be used to poll or answer like other clickers but SMS messages can also be sent giving another more detailed level of feedback. Forums can also be added that allow peer-to-peer comments and answers to questions. With the increasing availability of wi-fi, browser-based solutions are easy to access and use. These systems are obviously far superior to Bluetooth, infrared or radio frequency systems.
A dedicated hashtag (#)allows students to answer/comment, as people often do now in conference sessions or on courses. This can be used with closed systems such as Yammer.
This simple piece of technology is one of the few technologies that were designed to inject interactivity into the classroom, a one-to-many teaching environment. Its usefulness, proved by the likes of Eric Mazur, has meant further development across a range of technologies. Profoundly learner-centric, it provides a feedback loop that allows the teacher/lecturer to dynamically assess the effect of their teaching. Given the low cost, ease of use and pedagogic power of this simple piece of technology, it is a wonder that so much money has been spent on whiteboard technology, when audience response technology is available?
Tuesday, October 09, 2012
Calculators: Education stuck in pre-calculator age
Archaeological evidence for an abacus goes back to 5th century BC Greece, however, there is indirect evidence of their use in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Persia. It is still widely used in Asia. The humble electronic calculator was the first computer to impact teaching and learning. It quickly replaced mechanical slide rules and mechanical calculators in the 1970s. Calculators now include scientific, algebraic, trigonometric and graphing functions.
Education is still stuck in pre-calculator age
Everyone’s miserable about maths: employers, politicians, teachers and especially learners, many who fail and hate the subject with a passion. Indeed, governments have become obsessed with the subject, largely on the hysteria surrounding the PISA rankings.
One issue that is receiving intense attention is ‘calculation’, which is kicking up a storm in maths education. The ubiquity of calculators has led some to question the way we teach maths in schools. They claim that the world has changed from analogue to digital and the teaching of maths needs to respond accordingly.
Some argue that calculators have led to a reduction in numeracy and maths skills. They recommend not using calculators in schools until a certain level of competence in mental arithmetic is reached. Others argue that the traditional focus on ‘calculation’ needs to be replaced by a more sophisticated curriculum of solving problems using maths. Why teach long division, when you are unlikely to ever use it in real life? Calculators can also be used to do the necessary calculation spadework on algebra, trigonometry and graphics.
Maths need exaggerated
Some, like Roger Schank, believe that the need to learn maths is grossly exaggerated as only a tiny proportion of adults will use the maths that is taught, beyond basic arithmetic. His point is that most of what is taught, especially algebra, is of no real practical use and does not help people to think logically. He often asks highly educated audiences to tell him the quadratic formula – few ever answer. Sure, some will need maths in their later career, so says Roger, let them learn it later. Roger has traced this obsession with maths back to early 19th century curriculum choices and claims that this is a historical problem, fuelled by the fact that maths is easy to test, especially ‘calculation’
Too much calculation
Conrad Wolfram decries the focus on ‘calculation’ in school maths. We spend most of our time teaching calculations by hand, which any calculator and computer can do better than any human. Practical, mental arithmetic is fine, but what are these numeracy basics? Automation pushes the user towards using the tools in more sophisticated ways. Maths is not calculation and over the last thirty years calculation has been automated by calculators. Education is still stuck in a pre-calculator age.
Far better to understand what you’re trying to achieve. He recommends that programming is a better way to do maths. It makes maths more practical and academic at the same time. He goes further and argues that the obsession with calculation in maths kills off the initiative, intuition and perseverance that maths needs. In other words we’re turned off maths by maths. Students learn to look for and apply formula, which they then proceed to calculate. Text books are full of primitive, dry, exercises that seem like chores. Many now argue that real life problems should stimulate mathematical enquiry through the use of more word based problems.
Calculators and computers
A calculator is pretty standard as a native application on PCs, Macs and mobile devices. Tills automatically calculate the correct change for customers. Calculators are therefore embedded in newer forms of technology making them more readily available. This is one potential use of mobile devices in schools that teachers should consider.
Maths is forced, by law, upon people who see it as lacking relevance and don’t want to learn it, taught by people who, because they’re good at maths, often don’t know how to teach it. Yet the curriculum is aimed, largely at those very few who will use high-level maths professionally.
Monday, October 08, 2012
TV: from Goggle box to Google
Since its inception TV has been used to educate. Indeed the first TV company in the world, the BBC, still has ‘educate’ in its mission statement. As a mass-broadcast medium with almost full penetration in the population, it has the ability to reach very large numbers of people. For many it is the most popular activity, after work and sleeping, yet few would see television as a truly educational technology and many see it as working against the education of children and adults. Sedentary, couch potato television is certainly not seen as an educational medium.
Television’s main educational genres are:
· formal course material
· children’s TV
Some of these, like formal Open University or PBS lectures for courses and adverts on public safety and health are direct. Others, such as documentaries are a bit less direct and often rely on the entertainment and production values of television for their effect. Others still, such as teledramas, children’s TV, such as Sesame Street, and drama are a lot less direct, even indirect in their intention. So TV has number of formats spread across the formal to informal spectrum.
The rather unpopular term ‘edutainment’ sums up the dilemma that television faces in education. Its primary function as a one-to-many entertainment medium can aid but just as often hinders its power as an educational medium.
TV and formal learning
The UKs Open University has had a long standing relationship with the BBC. It is not entirely clear that this has been money well spent. The early broadcasts were neither powerful ‘lectures’ nor good TV programmes. These course-based TV programmes, famous for their wooden presenters, beards and kipper ties, were commissioned from 1971 onwards, and finally canned in 2006, as newer technology was cheaper and better.
Unfortunately, the tradition has continued with the trite History of the World (backed by the OU), presented by political journalist, Andrew Marr. The current strapline is “The Open University and the BBC: bringing learning to life”. With this series it is killing it stone dead. TV proved to be a poor partner in formal learning.
A great many excellent documentaries have been made on almost every imaginable subject. History has a slew of its own channels but there seems to be a curious skew towards the history of war that betrays TVs populist appeal. Nevertheless, science is well represented as is the natural world, although again there seems to be a skew towards predators and more bizarre sides of nature. There are also dedicated arts channels.
TV’s allure, on the surface its greatest strength is actually its greatest weakness in learning. The flood of beautifully shot images and steady narration sweep the learner along but at a cost. There’s no rest for reflection, little time for critical thought and much sinks and is forgotten behind this bore wave of presentation. You are forced to go at the pace of the narrator, and before the ability to record, stop and rewind, have no chance of recapping things you may have missed. In many ways TV was like the ancient scroll that simply rolled by at a steady pace, without page or chapter breaks.
Most children’s TV attempts to be directly or indirectly educational. Sesame Street is perhaps the most famous example but there are plenty of others.
Critics point to the dangers of using TV as a babysitter, the passive viewing and impact of advertising targeted at children. A wider argument still rages over the role of TV in robbing our children of their childhood, obesity, isolation and brain development. Much of this debate has shifted to online activity by children, but the arguments are similar. The ‘goggle box’ has been blamed for encouraging sedentary activity and passive viewing in young children, as well as promoting violence.
Fictional drama, especially telenovelas in Latin America, has been used to indirectly educate viewers on topics such as literacy and family planning. Soap operas have also deliberately included social themes into the scriptwriting, in an attempt to raise awareness in the specific target audiences that watch these programmes.
This approach is parasitic in the sense of relying on sedentary soap opera watching to get to an audience entranced by television. It’s a Trojan horse approach.
The University of Industry advertised around prime TV spots to reach learners who had disengaged with education and successfully got 3.5 million learners on board. Others have used adverts to get students into their courses and universities. This is perhaps one of the more successful uses of TV in education.
Governments have also used television to get educational messages across, especially about health and road safety. Political parties have also used the medium as a platform for advertising their politicians and policies. There’s also televised political debates and current affairs programmes.
The downside is the blatant consumerism of advertising of non-nutritious food and toys, especially to young children, at inappropriate times. Again, TV is Janus-faced as it relies on this direct blanket advertising to pay for the very programmes it sees as educational.
TV formats restrictive
Most educational TV is slotted into existing TV schedules that started on the hour or half past the hour. This is why TV largely conforms to the half hour or one hour format. You have to schedule programmes at predictable times which people can remember. This is fine for long-form documentaries but, as we have seen with video on the web, most useful instructional video needs to be a lot shorter. There is no ideal length, indeed, the rule could be that it need only be as long as it needs to be, and no longer. This generally means a few minutes, rather than a full hour. Only very expensive documentaries can sustain audience attention in this long format.
Amusement is not learning
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman warns us against mistaking the rhetoric of a broadcast medium for learning. Stripped of dialogue, the flow of film and television strips us of our ability to reflect, think, deduce and resolve issues. It stops us learning. However, his main argument is that teaching, as a form of dialogue, is being replaced by entertainment or amusement. Video is also difficult to index and search, another pedagogic drawback.
Technology has a tendency to carry over its ethos and methods into newer emerging technology. Early printing mimicked manuscripts. The typewriter locked us into the QWERTTY keyboard and so on. TV has also had a limiting effect on online learning. Too many projects, especially public funded projects, were in trawl to TV and disastrous projects, such as BBC Jam wasted tens of millions with little or no output. More worryingly, is the broadcast mentality that forces overlong video sequences and high cost production on content, with little advantage in terms of learning and retention.
TV has educated millions, largely informally, through news, documentaries and drama. It has also helped reach people through advertising to get them into education. In this sense it has been a social good and served us as best it could. However, the downside is that it has always been a one-way, overlong and inflexible broadcast medium. While still a force in informal learning, through the documentary format, its role in formal education and deep learning proved to be short-lived, as it has been shown to be inferior to online delivery.
Sunday, October 07, 2012
Radio education: huge and hugely underestimated
For over 80 years it’s been quietly delivering formal and informal learning to millions worldwide, especially the poor and marginalised. Far from being an old technology it is now transforming itself through podcasts, digital and internet radio.
Radio is a broadcast medium and so has several practical, educational advantages:
· has huge geographic reach
· reaches very large numbers of people
· audio is cheap to produce
· audio is cheap to transmit
· radios are cheap
· local languages can be used
· can be self-sustaining
Formal learning, where radio is used on its own or is integral to a blend of distance learning materials that deliver formal courses, has been delivered for many decades. Unsurprisingly, it has long been used In large, sparsely populated rural areas, where schooling is difficult to organise, such as Australia and in most developing countries. Radio remains the most popular and accessible form of educational technology in Africa.
International Educational Systems has taken radio into marginal populations, such as refugees, nomads and those who simply cannot afford to go to school. Women have also been reached in some societies, where schooling is impossible or difficult, for example the Somalia Distance Education Literacy Programme (Somdel) supported by the BBC Worldwide Education Trust, where 70% of those who passed the course were women.
However, much radio in rural areas is used directly by schools, as it can deliver consistent and high quality content. Radio has been of particular use in health education, especially HIV/AIDS. Farming and food distribution has been taught in 39 African countries through Farm Radio International.
There has been radio delivered teacher training in Mali and training for health and education stakeholders in Sudan. One of the features of many of these initiatives is their delivery in local languages and their sensitivity to local cultures. In some cases, such as the Sudan Radio Services, radio time has been sold to pay for the educational services making it truly sustainable.
However, one of the criticisms of radio education is its focus on outside originated content, abstracts life skills and a lack of practical vocation content, especially farming, as the majority of children are the sons and daughters of farmers. Cheap wind-up or solar powered radios are now widely available from developers such as The Freeplay Foundation. This gives radio a real edge over TV and computer technology. Typical target audiences are in the tens or hundreds of thousands, some in their millions.
Audio and learning
Audio also has several cognitive advantages in learning:
· listening is a universal skill
· note taking is easy
· imagination has to be used
· great for visually impaired
· easy to deliver in multiple languages
· good in language learning
· obviously essential for music
The use of the imagination is a fascinating point as it has been argued that this leads to deeper processing and higher retention in some subjects. The obvious downside is the lack of images and the fact that broadcast media are not under the control of the learner. The lack of control has been remedied by recording and podcasts have significantly improved the power of radio to teach and inform at the learner’s own pace.
A whole culture has developed around radio learning to include ‘listening groups’ and support materials such as comics and workbooks. In Australia, short-wave radio was used to transmit and receive between farmsteads and therefore among groups of teachers and learners, sometimes mimicking traditional teacher-classroom arrangements. Increasingly, for example in Zambia, we have seen radio’s power amplified by the supplementary use of iPods and mobile phones.
Radio is still used to educate in formally. The BBC’s R4 has over 10 million listeners a week and purely educational broadcasts, such as the highly academic ‘In Our Time’ have been running for years with many hundreds of podcasts now free on iTunes, covering science, philosophy and history. Radio has also been used, by the likes of the Open University and others for successful local advertising.
Radio and propaganda
Of course educational radio is not always worthy as it has also been used for propaganda. Major and minor powers still use radio as a form of educational colonialism. The Nazis were the first to see the totalitarian power of radio with Goebbels claim that, "radio will be to the twentieth century what the press was to the nineteenth". The Japanese used ‘Tokyo Rose’ and the North Vietnamese "Hanoi Hannah" against US troops and the Nazis Lord Haw-haw, against the British. The US has used radio for propaganda against many countries including Panama, Cuba and Iraq.
Radio and new media
Podcasting is the true heir to radio. To timeshift an audio experience and put it in the hands of the learner, gives them is convenience and control. Internet radio has given many access to distant radio stations and led to growth in stations with a very specific focus. Far from being a dead or dying medium it is finding new purposes and new channels.
Radio is scalable, in the broadcasting sense. It’s low cost and reach have seen widespread use, not only in the developing world but in developed countries like the UK, where radio has long been respected as a source of high quality educational content. Video is very far from killing the radio star.
Friday, October 05, 2012
Typewriter: relic that left us with QWERTY, carriage return, backspace and shift
Terms such as carriage return, backspace and shift, as well as the QWERTY keyboard layout, remain as hangovers from typewriter technology.
Older than you think
There is evidence of an early typewriter having been patented and built in 1714, but the modern version is recognised as having been Invented in the 1860s. Interestingly many early versions were attempts to build a machine that could allow the blind to type. The first commercially successful machine was sold in 1868 and had the now famous QWERTY keyboard.
The typewriter used the hardware of moveable type combined with the software of a small alphabet, to produce a popular and relatively efficient mechanical, writing machine. Until then, writing was handwritten using pens and pencils. The problem with written text is the legibility (or not) of the writer. The characters are literally propelled onto the paper to leave indelible marks. The other innovation was the moving cartridge that provided accurate lines and letter spacing. Carbon paper could also provide copies.
Typewriter and writers
Typewriter technology literally put typesetting into the hands of writers. Neat books, papers, articles and letters could be written in a format close to what looked like a printed version, almost ready for publishing. Early adopters included Nietzsche and Mark Twain. Kerouac famously typed his entire novel On The Road on a single roll of paper. Even in the age of word processors, authors such as Will Self and Cormac McCarthy continue to use typewriters.
Boon to bureaucracy
Curiously, the first typewriters were marketed as machines at which female ‘typists’ would take dictation from male managers. Indeed, the term, ‘typist’ was a standard job description for decades and the ‘typing pool’ a sizeable department. Although they do not require power or batteries (unless a later electric model) prone to jams and failure, require ribbons and make text difficult to erase, so are not conducive to editing and redrafting, typing was also a boon to bureaucracy. I have visited the Stasi headquarters in East Germany where thousands of typewriters were used to type over 100 kilometers of files on its own citizens. I know this, as a friend of mine, a major Stasi spy, was outed when these files were seized in 1989.
Technology locks in practice
Technology is not always as liberating as we imagine. It invariably has limits and downsides that are not always apparent. The mechanical nature of the typewriter meant that the writer had to be slowed down, as the keys would clash and jam. The solution was the QWERTY keyboard, where letters are deliberately spaced far apart to slow typing down. This keyboard format, a relic from the mechanical past, still dominates the digital future. The word ‘typewriter’ it is sad, is the longest word you can type from one row of letters on a QWERTY keyboard.
This has become a major debate in the online world where several savvy commentators have researched the degree to which Google, Apple and others lock users into their algorithmic model, giving the illusion of openness. Jared Lanier in We Are Not All Gadgets is a strong critic of ‘lock-in’ technologies.
Typewriter technology was a temporary bridge from handwritten writing to word processing. Unfortunately it has become the most famous example of technology locking in a bad and inefficient practice, the QWERTY keyboard. Made rapidly redundant by word processing, with its superior ability on editing and producing digital files, it is now no more than a curious historical relic, a lesson in how quickly human habits can change.