Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Papert – Logo, Lego and constructionism…

Seymour Papert is a constructionist (not to be confused with constructivist), who worked with Jean Piaget and built on his theories to redefine how education could function on a constructionist basis. The Logo programming language was a tool he wrote to support this approach to learning and he has been a stern critic of traditional schooling. A politically socialist activist in South Africa, he claims that his work in education came from observing irrational racism and he has worked with disadvantaged groups all of his life. He cofounded the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT with Marvin Minsky and was a founding faculty member of the MIT Media Lab.


Constructionism implies a hands-on approach to learning, to learn by doing, even in abstract subjects like mathematics, where digital tools allow one to play with real world machines and build virtual models. The learner comes up with a solution to problems and makes things happen in the real or digital world. His constructionism saw learners as using the physical (or virtual) world and external objects to learn, as opposed to the more purely cognitive and mental theory of constructivism. He is very much a precursor to the maker movement, where learners construct, use and code actual physical objects, such as controllers, mini-computers, robots and so on.

Technology and learning

He was among the first to realise, and create projects, that saw computer technology as realising new pedagogies around how he saw children actually learn. The technology, he claimed, would use electronic resources, interactive video and virtual reality, to allow new forms of learning, with schools having to adapt to these changes. For Papert, computers and the web are not merely tools but ways of thinking, in the same way that writing is a way of thinking and expression. 


To encourage problem solving through play Papert wrote, with Wally Feurzig, programming language Logo that controlled a Logo Turtle. This language has more recently been used to programme the Lego ‘Mindstorm’ kits, named after one of Papert’s books. These commercial kits allow you to put together blocks with motors, gears, sensors and a computer, then programme it to do things. It is this interest in technology, put to use in education, which fascinated Papert. As a major player in the OLPC (One-Laptop-Per-Child) initiative, he also tried to take these ideas to a wider, global audience.

Critique of schooling

For Papert, school is a process of regimentation through age segregation, a fixed view of knowledge, of what is ‘right’, too teacher-led with too much focus on academic, abstract thinking and reading, pushing what he calls the ‘epistemology of precision’. For Papert, children should play and personalise their learning through play, improvisation and doing. They should be encouraged to see knowledge as incomplete and accept vagueness and imprecision. 
As a mathematician he is highly critical of both ‘what’ maths is taught and ‘how’ it is taught in schools. Most of what is taught, he thinks, is irrelevant to most people. He thinks this is the result of paper-based learning – the ability to write and manipulate symbols on paper. How it is taught, is also flawed, as it does not connect with the real world.

Knowledge machine

As part of his constructionist vision, he speculated that a Knowledge machine could be built, that takes anyone, especially children, into a learning environment, where they can interact, problem solve and develop. His knowledge machine predicted the virtual environment that appeared as the world-wide-web and the move towards virtual learning worlds. In this he was prophetic, as the web produced devices and resources that were almost unimaginable when Papert first realised this idea. 


Papert may have underplayed the importance of direct instruction and the need for underlying knowledge to frame, understand and solve problems. It is difficult to see with subjects other than the geometry and physics he explored, the possibility of emergent knowledge and problem solving through his methods. Another problem with constructionism is that it can be time consuming, wasteful and can lead to disadvantaged learners losing out in collaborative work. The OLPC project has also been the subject of many trials around the globe, yet none have been shown to have led to significant increases in educational attainment. The MIT Media Lab, in general, has also attracted criticism due to funding and other links with Jeffrey Epstein.


Papert was deeply interested in the psychology of learning and his practical work and theorising on education was built upon a Piaget-inspired theory of constructionism, which shaped his subsequent work on Logo, Lego and learning. He was also prophetic on the use of computers and the web in learning, claiming long before it was fashionable, that every child will have their own, personal computer. In many ways he took learning theory into the brave, new, digital world of computers and has been influential on many teachers and online learning specialists, who built upon both his work and enthusiasm.


Perceptrons, (with Marvin Minsky), MIT Press, 1969 (Enlarged edition, 1988),
Papert, S. & Harel, I. (eds). (1991) Constructionism: research reports and essays 1985 - 1990 by the Epistemology and Learning Research Group, the Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ablex Pub. Corp, Norwood, NJ.
The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer (1993) 
The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap (1996)

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Ng & Koller – Academic and corporate MOOCs…

Ng and Koller were two Stanford academics who set up Coursera. They claim that Coursera could never have happened within Stanford, as it needed to be an independent company to raise capital and focus on its MOOC mission. Their role in the development of an early large MOOC provider, as well as their research on what we can learn from MOOCs, has made them significant players in online learning.

MOOC phenomenon

The MOOC acronym was created by Dave Cormier in 2008, a label he attached to a specific source, the course Connectivism and Connective Knowledge by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. This was described by Siemens and Downes as a connectivist MOOC. We then had a hiatus. Thereafter the MOOC phenomenon was massively amplified by the Khan Academy, who was using his method in 2004, but quit his job in 2009 to get the Khan Academy going, with its millions of video views and free courses. Sebastian Thrun (who publicly acknowledged his debt to Khan) and Peter Norvig of Google, were then significant, as their AI course, in the fall of 2011, caught the imagination and boosted the phenomenon even further. Stanford University also played an important role, as it produced a number of courses and entrepreneurs, especially Ng and Koller.


Ng is an AI specialist in machine learning and deep learning, using neural networks trained using deep learningalgorithms. Koller’s area of research is AI in robotics biomedicine. They launched Coursera, a for-profit company,  in 2012. Coursera partners with major Universities to deliver courses across a range of subjects, providing a consistent platform for the delivery of online courses, with video, interactions, various forms of assessment and social communication and learning.
It has increased its courses to include what it calls ‘Specializations’. These are bundles of courses that teach skills in a specific subject. They also deliver degrees and courses for workforce training, for businesses and government organizations.
From 2017 Coursera offered Master's degrees, first in Innovation and Entrepreneurship from HEC Paris and Accounting from the University of Illinois. They have added Computer Science in Data Science and Business Administration, from the University of Illinois. Many other degrees have been added since.
In Coursera MOOCs, there are various levels of assessment. In addition to multiple-choice questions, there is the automatic grading of short open answer input, math expressions, models, even software assignments (seeing real outputs). Ng and Koller claim that peer grading correlates well with teacher grades. They also claim that self-grading correlates even better. 
Their model is to partner with Universities and other organsations across the world to deliver high-level courses. They currently have over 200 partners in over 50 countries and over 4000 courses.

MOOCs influence

MOOCs have been criticized for high levels of drop out and the fact that it is mostly well-educated graduates taking the courses. Others counter that to compare MOOCs to traditional 18-year-old undergraduate courses is a category mistake and that drop-out is less important than the huge number of people that drop-in. It is also natural, that in the early stages of MOOC marketing, that the early adopters would be the well-educated, as they are the group that know about the phenomenon and want to try it out. MOOC providers have started to move away from purely academic learning, with a move towards practical courses on IT, business, health and other vocational subjects.
MOOCs can be taken on their own but they can also be seen as part of university courses. However, their lasting influence may be the way they made every higher education institution at least consider the strategic option of online learning. They have also furthered research into what works online, in terms of video length, content, assessment and social components.

MOOC movement

Ng and Koller see MOOCs as serving a role in overcoming scarcity of higher education in the developing world but even in the developed world the rising costs of tuition is making education unaffordable. Andrew Ng teaches his machine learning course to 400 students at Stanford, it would have taken him 250 years to teach the numbers that turned up to his machine learning MOOC. 
It is this combination of the possible with the necessary that, she thinks, has made MOOCs fly. They broke the back of the one hour lecture, provide alternative resources and avoid the one-size-fits-all model. Around all courses, communities form, within forums, on social media but they also self-assemble with meet-ups. Personalisation is also important. She quotes the Bloom 2 Sigma paper, and claims that MOOCs are now pushing towards personalized delivery. MOOCs are also being produced in many languages, moving beyond the institutional model, which is that everything is taught in one language.

Research in learning

The data collected is a huge research opportunity, giving data opportunities way beyond any individual institution. Poor questions and weaknesses in course design can be identified, optimal video lengths and other optimal instructional and support techniques can be studied and finessed. There has been a wave of innovation within MOOCs as well as beyond MOOCs to online learning in general.


Ng and Koller’s Coursera was neither the first, nor the only, MOOC provider but it was hugely significant in expanding the movement and delivering the majority of MOOCs worldwide. They were also significant in exploring the monetization of MOOCs through recruitment, certification and other sources. Ng and Koller are part of a new breed of educationalists that come from AI backgrounds. As part of the revival of interest in AI, they turned their attention to education, with notable success and influence.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Mitra – Hole in the wall… but holes in the research…

Sugata Mitra has become famous for his hole-in-the wall projects and has gone on to evangelise his SOLE (Self Organised Learning Environments), the granny and now the school in the cloud. His TED talk is well known.


Mitra placed an online computer in a wall in New Delhi in 1999, available to anyone to use. Mitra then claimed that children not only used the computer but began to navigate and learn, even deep conceptual learning, without instruction. The experiment was repeated in many locations in different countries and termed MIE by Mitra – minimally Invasive Education.


Self Organised Learning Environments are structured, three-phase, learning sessions – question (5 minutes), investigation (40 minutes), review (10-20 minutes). It involves group work (groups of four), each group with access to a computer, students can move groups at any time and it is OK to share. It is not clear how this is a particularly new approach to inquiry-based learning, other than the prescriptive nature of the groups and computers. The School in the Cloud is a structured environment for safe search and tools for curation. An addition feature is the use of grannies to support the learning. The rather misleading term ‘Grannies’ refers to any online facilitator, male or female, young or old, who mediate SOLE.  They operate from schools, community centres or private homes, using Skype. 


What we see is the idea of free learning going into free fall” said Payal Arora. When Arora came across these two ‘hole-in-the-wall’ sites (Almora and Hawalbagh in northern India), she discovered not the positive tales of self-directed learning but failure. One was vandalised and closed down within two months, the other abandoned and, apparently, had been mostly used by boys to play games. A real problem was sustainability, as no one seemed responsible for the electricity and maintenance bills. My own research into a hole-in-the-wall project uncovered the same story - empty holes in the wall, resentful teachers and testimonies that claimed the whole project was a failure from start to finish. People arrived at their school, knocked holes in their walls, inserted computers and left. They felt violated. The computers rarely worked, as the DSL line was often down, and when it did work, the larger boys dominated them, playing games.

Little independent evidence

As Arora (2010) points out, there is little real independent evidence, other than that provided by HiWEL itself and one must always question research funded by those who would benefit from a positive outcome. The lack of independent research on the sites is astonishing, something noted by Mark Warschauer, one of the few critics who have actually visited a site. Most of it comes from Mitra himself, or those in his team, almost all from one Journal. Control groups were given questionnaires at the start and end of the period, but those in the experimental group were tested every month. The obvious problem here is the polluting effect of effect the regular assessments. Indeed, as De Bruyckere et al. (2015) say, there is ample research, from Reedier & Karpicke and others on the positive effect of testing.
Arora exposed a glaring weakness in the design of the experiment. The 75 days of learning (with a mediator) was compared to the same period in the local school but like was not being compared to like, so the comparison was meaningless. It was not comparing the amount of time spent on the hole-in-the-wall material with the same or similar amount of time in school.

Role of schools

Schools are obsolete” said Mitra. Far from being sited in open places, HiWEL sites were later invariably in school compounds. By being in the school it is difficult to do research that isolates the experience from the school, difficult to disentangle the role of the school (teachers, books etc.) and the hole-in-the-wall computers. Indeed, as HiWEL has explained, they involve ‘teachers’ in their implementation and mediation, making it almost impossible to isolate the causes of educational improvement. One could say, with Arora, that this has become “self-defeating”. The ‘hole-in-the-wall’ has become the ‘computer-in-the-school’. This is a subtle switch - evangelise on one premise, deliver on another.

Role of teachers

As HiWEL makes extensive use of mediators (teachers), the real lesson of the hole in the wall experiments is that teachers, or at least mediators, seem to be a necessary condition for learning to combat exclusion, mediate learning and avoid the vagaries of child-centred behaviour. Yet this is not what the TED talks and hole-in-the-wall evangelism suggests. Another problem is that by seeing teachers as ‘invasive’, such initiatives can antagonise teachers and educators, leading to poor-support.  I found this in my research in Africa, where the teachers were resentful. Arora concludes are that these experiments do not work when not linked to the local schools and that, far from being self-directed, the children need mediation by adults. Arora goes further and claims that disassociating learning from adult guidance can lead to uncritical acceptance of bad content and bad learning habits.

Low level learning

Warschauer (2003) is even more critical than Arora. He claims that “overall the project was not very effective”, with low-level learning and not challenging. In addition, he found that some of the many problems were the fact that the internet rarely functioned, no content was provided in Hindi, the only language the children knew, and many parents thought that the paucity of relevant content rendered it irrelevant and criticised the kiosks as distracting the children from their homework. Sure they learned how to use menus, drag and drop but most of the time they were “using paint programs or playing games”. This is hardly surprising and seems to confirm the rather banal Influence that when you give kids shiny new things, they play with them. 


It is not clear that this is anything other than traditional project or inquiry based teaching. The TED effect has given Mitra a celebrity status but little independent research has been done on his work and when researchers do look, they find a rather different story. What we can say is that his work has stimulated interest in how far we can push independent learning, given the power of new technology.

Arora, P. (2010), Hope-in-the-Wall? A digital promise for free learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41: 689–702.
Koseoglu, S. (2011). The hole in the wall experiments: Learning from self-organizing systems. Retrieved from
Mitra, S., & Rana, V. (2001). Children and the Internet: Experiments with minimally invasive education in India. British Journal of Educational Technology, 32 (2), 221-232.
Mitra, S. (2003). Minimally invasive education: A progress report on the ‘Hole-in-the-wall’ experiments. The British Journal of Educational Technology, 34 (3), 367-371.
Mitra, S. (2005). Self organising systems for mass computer literacy: Findings from the 'hole in the wall' experiments.  International Journal of Development Issues, 4 (1), 71-81.
Mitra, S. (2006). The Hole in the Wall: Self-organising systems in education. Noida, UP: TataMcGraw Hill.
Mitra, S. (2009). Remote presence: ‘Beaming’ teachers where they cannot go. Journal of  Emerging Technology and Web Intelligence, 1 (1), 55-59.
Mitra, S., Dangwal, R., & Thadani, L. (2008). Effects of remoteness on the quality of education:A case study from North Indian schools. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 24 (2), 168-180.
Mitra, S., & Dangwal, R. (2010). Limits to self-organising systems of learning - The Kalikuppamexperiment. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41 (5), 672-688.
Roediger H.L. & Karpicke J.D. (2006) Test enhanced Learning, Psychological Science
Warschauer, M. 2003. Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Warschauer, M. 2009. ‘Digital literacy studies: Progress and prospects’. In The Future of Literacy Studies, edited by Baynham, M; Prinsloo, M. London: Palgrave Macmillan: 123–140.

10 tips for speaking online when teaching...

For speaking online, there are several recommendations:
1.     Audio really matters
Use a good microphone (this makes a big difference) – research shows picture quality doesn’t matter for retention, audio does. The room really matters, so try to work in a room that has little echo – soft furnishings help and close to router or booster. And get rid of your head when showing slide content - they need to focus on hte content - the rest is noise.
2.     Speak informally
Speak in an informal and relaxed manner – research show that this aids learning. Start by describing where you’re speaking from, your room, be personal, relaxed.
3.     Slow down
Speak a little slower than is comfortable, as learners need to process the information.
4.     Top and tail
Use spaced practice by recapping what you said in last session and summarising what you’ve just covered at eth end of the current session. It aids retention.
5.     Chapterise
Chapterise things more with clear signalling when changing topic, Introduce each new topic with a simple orientation.
6.     Use cursor
Use the cursor deliberately to circle target items (movement catches the eye) if showing slides
7.     Screen directions
Use screen directions and descriptions explicitly, such as ‘look at top right hand corner where you will find…’
8.     Stay on relevant screen
Stay on that screen for the whole explanation, only then move to the next. Avoid referring to past or future screens.
9.     Tell them to take notes
Tell learners to take notes (in their own words) – 20-30% increase in retention
10.   Use a clock
Use a clock and place ahead of you as we tend to speak too much and go on longer than we should ( a common phenomenon)
Remember, less is more. They will learn more from what they do after you’ve spoken to them, away from the screen. Keep the talking to a minimum and lead it into active, effortful learning – assignments (be absolutely clear about length, expectations, format etc), quizzes, discussions, further resources online etc.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Khan - Khan Academy… a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere

Like Google, Salman Khan’s Khan Academy, a not-for-profit, has an ambitious mission statement, to provide “A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere”. He is an outsider in education, in that he comes from business, namely hedge-fund management and attributes his success, to not being part of the educational establishment. It is this that allowed him to get on and do what he did, which was create a large set of YouTube videos and learning management software, now used by millions around the world.

YouTube videos

Khan’s work started by accident, when his cousin Nadia failed a maths test. Others, such as her brothers joined in and word spread. He tried Skype but it was too unwieldy for four or more students, so he recorded sessions and uploaded them to YouTube. The YouTube videos have proved immensely popular. There would be no Khan Academy without YouTube, a good example of how synergistic online services can mutually support each other. Innovation begets innovation.
He decided, boldly and deliberately, to keep the background black, like a chalkboard and eliminate the talking head. This was to make students feel as though he were sitting next to them not talking ‘at’ them. Faces, he thinks, are a distraction from the content. The advantages of recorded videos include the ability to stop, rewind, replay, take notes, hear again (especially if it is in your second language), practice and revision.
Khan does feel that educators fail to act upon their best research. Recognising that the standard lecture is an arbitrary time period and overlong, his videos are relatively short. He discovered that lessons of about ten minutes were long enoughHe is particularly scathing about the lectures he received at MIT, many of which he decided to skip. In fact, by deciding to skip the “tired old habit of the passive lecture” he managed to do many more courses, double in fact. His anti-lecture stance was confirmed by his time at Harvard Business School, where case-based learning is the norm.

Flipped classroom

Having content on YouTube led to another innovation. On homework he is highly critical of teacher training and the fact that most teachers ‘wing- it’ on the design and setting of homework, with too much focus on quantity not quality. This led to the idea of the Flipped classroom, the idea that homework could do what was traditionally done in the classroom, deliver core content, leaving teachers free to do what they do best in class, teach and help students understand things they are having difficulty with. He acknowledges that it wasn’t his idea but his work allowed it to happen in practice.

Khan Academy

From the start the Khan Academy included question software and, in adding a database early in its development, he found that the data was a useful learning management tool. His ‘knowledge map’ concept laid out subjects showing what depends on what, allowing recommendations on what should be taught next, not in a strictly linear way, but based on dependencies, not moving on until you had mastered the prerequisite learning. Mastery learning was his adopted teaching method, and he recognises that Benjamin Bloom was an important precursor. Self-paced learning was the means to deliver this mastery, competence-based learning. He is critical of traditional assessment and marking, claiming that partial success can be a problem. He calls it the ‘Swiss Cheese’ problem. He is not against testing but poor and inadequate testing. So on assessment he had streak tests of ‘ten-in-a-row’. He admits that ‘ten’ was an intuitive’ number but wanted the tests to be aspirational as well as motivational (when they got all ten right). In addition to tools for tracking progress, tools for teachers and exercises, there is also an adaptive, online exercise system, that personalises the learning and provides useful analytics.

Khan Academy in schools

Khan Academy started to be used in schools, initially in the Peninsula Bridge project in San Francisco. Early work identified the need to identify who got ‘stuck’ where, which became a key and sophisticated mathematical feature later in the development of the software. One of his conclusions was that this approach could avoid the downside of streaming by ability, which tends to bake inequality into the system. By allowing competence-based progress, this can be avoided. Another interesting finding was that students who struggled at first, sometimes streaked through when they had gained confidence, suggesting that Carol Dweck’s growth-mindset factor was at work in maths.
It was an email from a black student, that said “…can say without any doubt that you have changed my life and the lives of everyone in my family” that led Khan to leave his well-paid hedge-fund job. By this point he was getting more views on YouTube than Stanford and MIT OpenCourseware put together. Then, in 2010 Google, Ann Doerr and Bill Gates stepped in with finance and other pilot projects started in Los Altos with positive results. Use in schools started to expand significantly and globally. An interesting additional cohort of learners started to emerge – adults and professionals, who wanted to improve or close gaps in their knowledge of maths. Originally maths, the content has expanded into the sciences, finance, medicine, art history, computer science and continues to expand in terms of subjects and the number of videos and resources.

The One World Schoolhouse 

His book, The One World Schoolhouse, sets out a vision for a free global education. Recognising that parents, and even teachers, may struggle with some subject matter, he sees reliable resources as essential for progress. In addition to the flipped classroom model, where students learn on their own through personalized software and content, then the teacher acts as a coach, enabler or facilitator, to do more sophisticated forms of teaching, the Khan Academy is available 24/7/365. He feels that this can free teachers and learners from the tyranny of time and location. Several other innovative ideas emerged in this text.

Other innovations

Khan favours multi-teacher classrooms on the basis that students and teachers are different and that variety on one side should be matched by variety on the other. Peer support and learning would also emerge, rather than isolating single teachers in their own classrooms. His vision is of large classes of a hundred or more, of varying age, without fixed periods doing a variety of tasks, including online learning.
He would abolish letter grades, echoing Dweck, Black and William. Students would have a running appraisal narrative, helped by software, that leads to rich and fruitful feedback. Mixed age classes would also allow students to help each other, allowing assessment of other social skills.
The ‘agrarian relic’ of the long summer holiday leads to billions of dollars of infrastructure lying inert and empty. It is a period of forgetting, except for the richer students who get enhancement through support at home. He would rather see perpetual learning, with staggered holidays, as in most other organisations. 
He also recommends that we “separate (or decouple) the teaching and credentialing roles of universities “. This would dampen out social inequality and open up access and opportunities for all, as well as lowering costs and student debt. Less lectures, frees time for more intern work, not just during the Summer, and real projects. Subjects would have online support from services like the Khan Academy and others, namely good content plus adaptive software and student tracking.


Errors appeared in some of the content, which he admits and corrects. and he has been criticised for teaching without a deep knowledge of pedagogy. However, every effort is made to re-record and correct errors and improve on teaching methods. The flipped classroom concept has also been criticized for being difficult to implement in practice, especially for students that are not compliant on the autonomous work demanded by the model.


Far from being short of pedagogic knowledge, Khan is highly reflective and critical of the failure of education to pick up on valid research on lectures, competences, homework, efficiencies, cost, forgetting and learning styles. Khan does not like the way education ignores clear findings in research, as it hangs on to the past and fails to innovate. He is also critical of the cost of education pointing out the very high cost of traditional schooling with much of the budget spent, not on teachers but adjunct services. His belief is that the ‘enlightened’ use of technology through ‘technology enhanced teaching’ is the answer. Technology needs to “liberate teachers from…largely mechanical chores”.


Khan, S., 2012. The one world schoolhouse: Education reimagined. Twelve.
Khan, S., 2011. Salman Khan: Let's use video to reinvent education. TED.
Dijksman, J.A. and Khan, S., 2011, March. Khan Academy: the world's free virtual school. In APS meeting abstracts.

Dougiamas – Moodle man…

Martin Dougiamas is an Australian who gave the world Moodle, an open-source Learning Management System. His early education, through distance learning (every two weeks a plane-dropped materials and short-wave radio), from a school 1000 kilometres from his home in the desert, was formative. He found himself one year ahead of his peers in high school and learnt how to get the best out of ‘limited bandwidth’. The transition to doing education on the internet was a natural extension of this experience.


Seeing the gulf between the early internet experts and academics and administrators, he set out, in the early 90s, to use Web CT. Tired of the licence restrictions of the commercial LMS he was working with at Curtin University, he developed Moodle. The beta appeared in 2001, with 1.0 released in August 2002 and now has tens of thousands of implementations, with millions of teachers and learners.
Moodle stands for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment and is the community site, where developers and users discuss support and development. This had to be rationalised as the product developed. There are also many language implementations. Moodle is the most widely implemented LMS in the world, popular in Higher Education, as well as other educational institutions. 
Open source is not a loose community of developers, it has a hierarchy, processes and central organisation and so Moodle has a team of core developers. This is paid for by Moodle partners, who pay royalties that come back to the trust. Partners provide services, often add-ons to Moodle, as well as hosting and other services, even content.
One of its strengths is the directory of shared plug-ins, extensions to the core product, which are available for free to the Moodle community. The Moodle Mobile App has also extended its functionality.

Social constructivism

Dougiamas is more than a developer, he has a PhD in educational theory, on the use of open source software to support a social constructivist epistemology of teaching and learning. This has led to Moodle development that adheres to these constructivist principles. 
Moodle’s course structures and features have emerged from his belief in some firm principles. He believes that everybody is both a potential teacher as well as learner, so forums allow the setup of different roles and permissions, and activity is shared with everyone, not be restricted to a simple teacher-student flow. The lines between teaching and learning are therefore blurred. The Moodle environment is also flexible and can be modified to suit different needs. There is also a focus on learning by doing, with the involvement of others, in terms of observable work.


Dougiamas has had to be tough at times, as this is a diffuse and diverse community. There have been problems with security, the interface and integration but this is not unusual in open-source projects that deliver usable tools with real user interfaces, as opposed to more back-end software.
He drives for consensus but describes himself as a ‘benevolent dictator’, as he has to make difficult decisions between different streams of development. He also successfully fought and won a patent battle with Blackboard in 2003, over what many saw as standard LMS functionality. Many admire him for this rear-guard, revoking action against what some see as an overly aggressive commercial vendor.


Some argue that this focus on social tools is at the expense of more relevant management, teacher and learner functionality, others that the ‘social constructivism’ angle is a myth, as most use it as a repository for fixed resources, used in practice, in didactic teaching. Like many open source products it can also suffer from poor user interface design, often described as clunky and even the use of ‘themes’ can’t hide the problems. Customisation has always been a problem. Although used in corporate and organisations contexts outside of education it lacks some of the functionality one finds in that type of LMS, although Totara, based on Moodle, an open source corporate LMS has had some success. Another problem is its poor reporting.


There are other open source Learning Management Systems, but Dougiamas has built the largest and most successful of these communities. He gave education an open source tool that is used on scale all around the world and really set the tone for this type of open source development in education. It has been a balancing act between core and non-core functionality, central and partner needs, as well as harnessing the effort of the many people who work and maintain the product but his influence is through direct development of a globally popular online learning tool. He can be seen as the heir to Vygotsky and the social constructivists presented earlier in that he brings social constructivism to the real world by instantiating it through open-source software. Whether that is a good thing or has been realised is another matter.


Dougiamas, M. and Taylor, P.C. (2003) Moodle: Using Learning Communities to Create an Open Source Course Management System. Proceedings of the EDMEDIA 2003 Conference, Honolulu, Hawaii.
Dougiamas, M. and Taylor, P.C. (2002) Interpretive analysis of an internet-based course constructed using a new courseware tool called Moodle. Proceedings of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) 2002 Conference, Perth, Western Australia.
Taylor, P.C., Maor, D. & Dougiamas, M. (2001) Monitoring the Development of a Professional Community of Reflective Inquiry via the World Wide Web, Teaching and Learning Forum 2001, Curtin University of Technology, February 2001
Dougiamas, M. and Taylor, P.C. (2000) Improving the effectiveness of tools for Internet-based education, Teaching and Learning Forum 2000, Curtin University of Technology.
Fairholme, E., Dougiamas, M. and Dreher, H. (2000) Using on-line journals to stimulate reflective thinking, Teaching and Learning Forum 2000, Curtin University of Technology.
Dougiamas, M. (1992) Data-Driven Reconstruction of Planar Surfaces from Range Images, Computer Science Honours Dissertation, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Wales – Wikipedia and knowledge…

Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia and Director of the Wikimedia Foundation. It was philosopher Larry Sanger who first proposed the use of wiki technology to create an encyclopaedia in 2001, and Wales created a wiki used for collaborative editing before submission to Nupedia for peer review. Wikipedia then became the dominant force and has grown into the largest and most used wiki on the web, a vast encyclopedia built, edited and policed by its users.


Wales was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. Although not home-schooling, it was close as he was taught in a class of four by his mother and grandmother, who ran the school. He had the freedom to study what he liked on his own terms. "Education was always a passion in my household ... you know, the very traditional approach to knowledge and learning and establishing that as a base for a good life." There are parallels with the Montessori schooling of Larry Page and Sergei Brin, who conceived and founded Google.


Wikipedia is a huge knowledge base, or encyclopaedia, that has been created by its users, who can publish and amend without having to download special software. Other users, who correct errors, oversee the accuracy of the content. In addition it allows users to see edit histories and discuss these issues. Realistically, it recognises that knowledge is sometimes not absolutely certain and will be subject to debate and discussion.
Since founded in 2001 it has grown into one of the largest and most used knowledge sources in the world. With millions of articles in over 200 languages, tens of thousands of registered users and thousands of articles added every day; it is one of the most visited sites on the web.
Its remarkable achievement was not only to produce the world’s largest and most popular knowledgebase but to do it through a model that was truly innovative. Previous paper and CD-ROM encyclopaedias, like Microsoft’s Encarta, were produced at great cost by teams with targets and sold to customers to recoup that cost. Wikipedia came along and relied on volunteers who did this for free, relying not on corporate recognition but peer reputation, as writers and editors. This low cost model allowed Wales to offer this wonderful online service for free. It showed that people were willing to create and share for the public good.
There has been some debate about the reliability of Wikipedia but a blind-trial research project published in Nature in 2005 found little significant difference between it and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Its dynamic nature with thousands of new articles appearing every day, along with search capability, links, edit trails and discussion groups makes it a very different type of resource when compared to print periodicals. Its crosslinks, oinks to external resources, transparency on edits, along with discussions also make it different from print repositories of knowledge. 
Wales philosophy to knowledge capture and sharing is what he describes as anti-credentialist, “To me the key thing is getting it right. And if a person's really smart and they're doing fantastic work, I don't care if they're a high school kid or a Harvard professor; it's the work that matters.... You can't coast on your credentials on Wikipedia.... You have to enter the marketplace of ideas and engage with people."

Wikipedia in education

Although derided by many academics and teachers for being inaccurate, it has remarkable levels of use by teachers and learners. On top of this it has been used for assignments, such as editing articles. In practice, however, it is mostly used as a reference tool. Its consistent layout, with a general introductory paragraph, linked index and headings, is appealing to those who want to find things quickly. The fact that it is searchable, cross-linked and provided bibliographies and citations is also useful.


The web now has a plethora of wiki applications including; wikidictionary, wikinews, wikibooks, wikilaw and so on. In addition, wiki technology is being used to revolutionise the way in which we capture, create, publish and update knowledge within organisations. Wikis are becoming common within corporations as a method of knowledge management. Their bottom-up ethos appeals to those who see knowledge emerging from expertise within an organisation, as opposed to being handed down from single authorities.


Wikipedia is one of the world’s most accessed websites. Google even scrapes from Wikipedia biographies to feature as sidebar profiles. It has, in effect, become the world’s de facto standard for knowledge searches. Wales has flipped the traditional publishing model of; expert writes, everyone else pays. In Wikipedia, everyone writes and no one pays. This is a radical shift in publishing and a radical shift in the way knowledge is being made available on the web, and elsewhere. As a learning resource, it is truly one of the modern wonders of the web.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Chen & Hurley – YouTube as a learning platform

Chad Hurley and Steven Chen are the founders of YouTube, one of the most successful and remarkable websites ever created. Hurley studied Fine Art, Chen Science and Maths. Chen who was born in Taiwan met Chad Hurley when they both worked at eBay’s PayPal,  three years later they founded YouTube in 2005. It was sold to Google for £1.65 billion in 2006. 

Use by learners

Studies Moghavveni (2018) show that teachers, but especially learners, make enormous use of YouTube. It is used both as a complementary method for teaching and on a massive scale by learners on almost every imaginable subject. In one study 86% of users reported using YouTube to learn new things. In one study both  Millennials and Gen Z stated that YouTube was their preferred learning method.

Education and training possibilities

YouTube is a huge repository of video clips. It experienced massive growth, not only in the number of videos uploaded but on the number of videos watched. Its staggering success came on the back of word of mouth and word of mouse recommendations, starting with Saturday Night Live’s Lazy Sunday clip.

Although set up to share entertainment, often funny and surreal, it now has thousands of education and training videos. It has become the go to video website for many learners. YouTube shows that searchable repositories need not be confined to text and images. Its mass appeal has allowed it to build and support a service that has a strong brand and a robust infrastructure. It has grown as a bottom-up repository and now contains a huge wealth of useful content in almost every imaginable subject.
Its power comes from the sheer size of the repository and range of content. Like Wikipedia it is growing exponentially and as more serious content appears, teachers, trainers, lecturers and learners can use this content as a free resource. It has also influenced the way video appears and is shown on the web. Most of the clips are short, avoiding overlong instructional content and cognitive overload. These short clips are often low on production values but high on creativity and fun.

Learning platform

YouTube is the new television, the largest audio-visual channel in history and the second largest search engine, after Google. It has uncovered new ways of watching, patterns of attention and new ways of interacting with an audience. In short, it is a new learning platform that breaks many of the old rules around learning. 
Creatively, YouTube has spawned lots of new genres of video instruction:
Khan blackboard and coloured chalk – simple but effective as the learner’s mind is not cluttered with seeing Khan – it is the semantic content that matters, not talking heads.
Thrun’s hand and whiteboard – again it is not Thrun’s head that matters but seeing worked problems and solutions.
RSA animations – clever animations that end up as a single infographic.
TED talks – shows how lectures should be – passionate experts, no notes, no reading, little PowerPoint and short.
Software demos – just show me the steps one by one.
Physical demos – point the camera at the engine, radiator or whatever I need to fix and show me how to do it, with commentary. 
Sports coaching – wayward tennis serve? Watch an expert coach you in slow motion.
If you can video it, it’s somewhere on YouTube. Features such as captioning, automatic generation of transcripts and editing features have increased its usefulness for educators.

Learning by doing

Learning by doing has always suffered in the unreal world of the classroom and school. An important advance has been made through YouTube in vocational and practical learning, where real tasks are shown on video. These often involve the manipulation of real objects and the demonstration of processes, all of which can be seen full screen, increasingly on portable tablets and mobile devices. The pedagogy of ‘learning by doing’ can be brought into the learning environment via YouTube. Even sports and other motor skills can benefit from video coaching. Musical education has been revolutionised by the demonstration of fingers on chords and other techniques. Sports coaching in almost every imaginable sport, is commonplace


Easily denigrated, the talking head is still popular on YouTube. The video blog, expert talk and many other examples of someone giving their all, is still there. TED is perhaps the most interesting example, a respected brand that focuses on the expert speaker to deliver punchy sessions that eschew traditional lecturing for short, passionate and informative talks. TED gives strict instructions to their speakers and understands that video and lectures are not about the transfer of knowledge but the passion of the expert and a vision. Lectures, interviews, drama and other learning formats are also common.


YouTube has the advantage of being a powerful global brand. The fact that video cameras have become cheap and embedded in phones, has meant the massive, popular creation of content, as well as watching. It is shaping the way video is created, distributed and watched on the web. It has the potential to act as a vast education and training resource of free content, lowering costs for learning. More than this, it has introduced pedagogic changes around the use of video; its length, quality, format and breadth of uses. As a pedagogic approach it is clearly useful in both formal and informal learning, an enduring massive, open, online pedagogy pushing the creation of video for learning as bandwidth increases and more devices can handle the delivery of video.


Beyond Millennials: The Next Generation of Learners (2018).

Moghavvemi, S., Sulaiman, A., Jaafar, N.I. and Kasem, N., 2018. Social media as a complementary learning tool for teaching and learning: The case of youtube. The International Journal of Management Education, 16(1), pp.37-42.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Jobs (1955-2011) – Apple in education… device fetish?

Adopted and brought up by working class parents who didn’t go to college, Steve Jobs, had a significant advantage for his future role. His father, Paul Jobs was a machinist and mechanic and had a workshop. He instilled an engineering outlook in Steve by giving him his own bit of the workbench when he was 5 or 6. He was encouraged to take things apart, build things and fix them. Being poor meant making do and making things work. He dropped out, after a short attendance, from Reed College in Portland.
Never fond of school “[In school] I encountered authority of a different kind than I had ever encountered before, and I did not like it. And they really almost got me. They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me.” he nevertheless excelled. Neither was his college experience particularly formative “I dropped out of Reed College… I couldn’t see the value in it.” 

Apple devices

His impact on education has been indirect but significant, through the innovative hardware and software Apple has successfully sold. Apart from computers and laptops, some unique devices, notably the iPod, iPad and iPhone have all had uses in learning.
Podcasts were literally named after the iPod and popularised audio only learning. This focus on one medium allowed the learner to take notes (being hands free), review, even listen at double speed using the x2 button. In a sense, the absence of visual distraction allows the learner to focus on the meaning of the spoken content and use their own imagination. It was easy and cheap to produce and distribute and could be listened to on the move. Podcasts, as a medium, have grown into a significant media phenomenon.
The tablet has become common in schools with its easy interface, ergonomics and apps. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Victorian school slate, many claim it has become a valuable tool, especially  in early years and primary school learning. There has been some criticism of its large-scale deployment in schools, when procurement, planning and training for teachers has been poor. 
M-learning (mobile learning) received a boost from iPhone smartphones. Their superb design and great interface has made them the phone of choice for millions. Learning experiences, such as search, Wikipedia, YouTube and other specific, online resources, such as Khan Academy and Open Educational Resources are increasingly accessed through mobile devices.
Above all it has been their attention to design detail, good interfaces and integration that mad them one of the most successful companies on the planet.

Apple Store

Learning content also received a boost with App Store, as a distribution service for educational apps, teachers and learners have thousands of general and subject specific apps available. Schoolwork, assignment, alerts and tracking are all available from Apple educational products.


Apple are, in essence, a hardware company, and many have criticised their activity in education as being a means to, not only establish their brand, but sell their goods. The large scale sale of tablets into schools has been criticised for encouraging device-fetish towards the use of technology in learning. Poor procurement, high costs, little attention to pedagogy and lack of teacher training, has led to a number of failed projects. Huge budgets have been allocated to devices, while bandwidth and software services have taken second place. Major schemes, such as those in California, have been scrapped as the cost, implementation and efficacy proved disastrous. There are also pedagogic problems with tablets, as their affordances make them poor for long-form writing and more advanced skills, such as coding, that require keyboards. Indeed, touchscreen keyboards can actually inhibit writing skills. Price is also a divisive issue for poorer students.


Jobs was a sceptic on the use of technology in schools, where he saw real teachers as having most efficacy. He saw technology as too reactive. However, he was highly critical of state education, supporting a private system with vouchers. “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower” Jobs said and that was his major contribution, a stream of innovative technology that changed hearts and minds. It was this integration of devices and services that made Apple so attractive to both consumers and learners.