Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Dumbness of Crowds

This phrase from Kathy Sierra has been bouncing round the blogosphere and it’s so applicable to the fad for learning ‘communities’ and ‘collaboration’.

The Wisdom of Crowds
If you’ve read Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds you’ll know that he didn’t mean groups of people working collaboratively. He extols the virtues of INDEPENDENCE, diversity and decentralisation in crowds. It’s the fact that they DON’T collaborate that makes them powerful and wise.

Learning 2.0 and Web 2.0 not collaborative

As for the Learning 2.0 idea, that collaborative user-generated learning and content works, we need to examine its parent; Web 2.0 content. Most people search for something they want as an individual or 'lurk' free-riding on the veiws of others. Blogs are written, by and large, by individuals, as are YouTube entries and most other forms of useful content. Even Wikipedia is written by separate individuals, not collaborative groups. It’s the independent contributions and sheer scale and searchability of the content that makes it work i.e. decentralisation and diversity.

Person as portal
When the learning folks want online collaboration, they often mean centralised, moderated, teacher-like control, the opposite of almost everything Web 2.0 has to offer. In e-learning most online collaborative environments are either empty, dead or populated by comet tails of schoolboy humour. There are rare exceptions but given the amount of time and effort that has gone into these environments the returns have been meagre. Barry Wellman, the social network theorist, explains this well. The web offers networks, not communities. It's loose, exponential in growth and most people in networks don't know who most of the others are.

Collaborative learning is slow learning
I’ve never really bought the idea that I’ll learn from a group of learners who know as little about the subject as me. I don’t force my twin son to learn French from his equally poor French-speaking brother, and am now convinced that much of what passes for groupwork in primary and secondary school classrooms is just chaos. Classrooms are not all the better for learning because they have 30 plus pupils crammed in there. If that were true we’d be increasing class sizes. And in training I’ve witnessed unbelievable amounts of wasted time and effort in breakout groups and supposed collaborative efforts. Much of the time is wasted just agreeing on who will do what and hanging around.

Ultimately, I feel that deep learning is very personal. It’s one brain focusing and giving full attention to a learning experience. Collaborative learning is often like putting your right hand over your head to scratch your left ear. It just takes too long. Sociology has infected learning theory to such a degree that we no longer pay attention to the simple fact that it’s about single brains acquiring, storing and recalling knowledge and skills. The person is the portal for learning.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Freud a fraud?

I posted an attack on the scientific validity NLP in November last year and am still receiving comments, although they’re getting weirder by the day. This led me to some further reading on psychotherapy and Freud, as it wasn’t clear to me whether any of Freud’s theories are now used in modern psychology. I was familiar with Popper so started with Polayni and Nagel. All three show that Freud’s theories are largely self-fulfilling and not scientific in the sense that Freud claimed they were. So far so good. Then I tried Grunbaum which led me to Macmillan and Frank Cioffi.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer scale of the debunking. Little, if any, of Freud’s work has survived the scrutiny of later research, either of Freud’s methods and data or the phenomena themselves when examined with scientific rigour. The list of debunked theories include:

Freudian slips
Free association
Id, ego and superego
Transference (and counter-transference)
Penis envy
Oedipus complex
Infantile sexuality

In short, Freudian psychoanalysis has been abandoned by serious, scientific psychology. It turned out to be a non-empirical mess from which nothing was salvageable. Of course, I could just be suffering from any combination of the above conditions.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Games.learning and bunking off

Bunking off
11 am at the Science Museum in the games exhibition, just a few kids either bunking off school or fed up with the duller displays outside, and who can blame them. If you're really interested in games and learning but feel you don't really know much about games give this experience a try. In a couple of hours you'll get a crash course in gaming which focuses on learning by doing, 30 years of gaming experience in one dollop. What's more, you'll get to play with the latest in gaming, the Wii and PS3.

Games and learning
Don't dismiss games as a fad or demonise them as being solitary, violent phenomena. It's a rich medium that has a real role to play (literally) in learning. I've used some great games in learning, in both education and training that offer levels of motivation, feedback, personalisation, incremental learning, contextualisation, rich media mix, safe failure, lots of practice/reinforcement and lots of collaboration.

History is junk
The show is presented largely as a timeline but then develops into themes such as simulations, actions games, sound in games, and finally the future of games. The historical stuff is great for us older guys (let's face it, it was mostly guys) who bought some of these boxes. We all started somewhere, and for me it was the Commodore 64. I programmed my first e-learning on this around 80/81 - teaching the Russian alphabet and German vocabulary. Little did I know that this would become my career. They were all there; PDP 1 from MIT, Ataris, BBC micro, Sega Dreamcast, PC Engine, Super NES, Gemeboys, playstations, PSP, Gamecube, Xbox and dozens of arcade games in their full arcade cabinets.
Games galore
But it's the games that bring back most memories. Within seconds you recall exactly what it was like to pay the game and how thrilling it was to see them develop. Over 100 playable games such as Space Invaders (including the pub table versions), Pac man, Asteroids, Super Mario, Sonic, Doom, Myst, Wolfenstein 3D, Populous, Civilisation, Zelda, Prince of Persia. I really enjoyed some of the early vector games, especially REC 2002 with its disembodied mesh avatar. Also enjoyed Tron, arcade Star Wars and a Japanese game called Go By Train (driving a train). Lost some weight on the Dance Mat.

Games design
There's a fascinating wall chart from DMC, the Scottish games developer behind Grand Theft Auto. A lot of people don't realise that this came out of Scotland, not the US. It's a huge whiteboard with coloured post-it notes denoting epidodes, intros, training, rewards and closes. This was used as the meta-design for the game and allows the team to get one large overview. Reading from left to right shows the major routes through the game. I've seen lots of these storyboard techniques before and we in e-learning could learn something from games designers. On the other hand the games industry in the UK is plagued by poor project management and quality control. They could learn from us.

Wii & PS3
Some of the big names such as Pokemon and Tomb Raider are featured here and there's a rather sad tale to be told about Eidos and its crap management. But they saved the best for last with a guitar PS2 game that allows you to hold a plastic guitar and get some metal licks going. This was projected on the wall and the sound was great. But wait for it - there's a Wii and Playstation 3, which you can try out. I had played a Wii before, and loved the boxing, but had a go at the tennis (even managing to put spin on the ball). The gyroscopic input device is fantastically addictive. The PS3 graphics were stunning.

What a fun way to spend a weekday morning. Nothing better than that other feeling I remember - bunking off school to do something interesting!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Big Brother - look and learn

Cleo and Leo
It’s fashionable to rubbish Big Brother but it’s funny how the critics always seem to have watched so much of it. I’ve been a fan from the start.

Forget those crappy soft-skills training courses. If you really want to see social conflict, class differences, homophobia, racism, sexism and ageism in action – then watch and learn. That’s not to say it’s reinforced those values. The UK show has been won by gay contestants and a transsexual.

Big Brother’s - a workplace
TV used to be such a happy place, full of smiling faces. Now it’s getting darker, more honest, and we can all learn from this. It really does get people talking about human conflict and what’s good and bad in the way people deal with each other. In this sense the house has much in common with the workplace; the daily grind, dealing constantly with people you never chose to be with, shared tasks, people leave over time and then there’s a sometimes malevolent, sometimes benevolent master/employer – Big Brother.

Collaborative learning When was the last time someone said, ‘I saw this amazing thing on a softskills training course today’. Big Brother, on the other hand, is talked about. Collaborative learning really does take place around Big Brother wherever people congregate and socialise. Why? Because it’s fascinating to watch real people deal with problems. We watch, comment, discuss, reflect and learn from this.

More webcam than TV
It also tapped into an important idea, that this generation is different – they have less propriety, less modesty and are more open, honest and candid. Interestingly Bazalgette’s book about reality TV, Billion Dollar Game, shows that it had its roots in the web with Jennicam – remember that? It’s fundamentally a webcam format, albeit with multiple webcams, with an added gameshow layer. But it’s the watching that matters. Plots, sub-plots, relationships, villains and heroes emerge over the weeks with the kite being tugged now and again to introduce some instability, which takes it even higher.

Method in madness
“Television is actually closer to reality than anything in books. The madness of TV is the madness of human life.” said Camille Paglia, so look and learn. Reality television is not the end of civilisation as we know it, it IS civilisation as we know it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Vapid development tools

Lots around at the moment on Rapid Development Tools. These are mostly PoewrPoint-plus type tools which begs the obvious question - Why not stick to PowerPoint in the first place?

The advantage of sticking some extra functionality on top of PowerPoint is outweighed by the fact that everyone knows how to use PPT, and it's availabe on most desktops. This makes content easy to create, distribute, share, amend and maintain. In our current world of user-generated content, why lock people out with packages that most people have never heard of?

Once you count up the cost of getting the software, training people up on how to use it and dealing with the inevitable ceilings on functionality, you're as well sticking with something you, and everyone else, knows. For most of us these packages are not rapid - they're complicated.

Besides, the content produced by these tools is usually dull as dishwater as there's the assumption that having atool solves the problem. It doesn't. What would be far more useful is spending time on designing good content for existing tools. We're still labouring under the myth that giving someone Word makes them into a novelist.

And while we're at it, why bother with all of this fancy virtual classroom stuff when we have messenger, netmeeting and Skype. If you want collaboration, it's already there, usually on your toolbar!

Friday, January 05, 2007

Coffield strikes again

Frank Coffield, now at the Institute of Eduction, he who so brilliantly destroyed Learning Styles theory (research which is blissfully ignored by almost eveyone involved in learning), has delivered a superb paper on Government policy in education.

I agree wholly with his diagnosis - too much policy and too many organisations, but nonly part of his treatment. The diagrams are frighteningly complex, showing the whole over-engineered mess in all its dotted line glory.

However, apart from his recommendations on pruning the system right back, he still puts a lot of outdated faith in old-fashioned, Berstein-style, cod-sociology. When things were left to the practioners in education, nothing ever happened.

Some highlights....
A Badly Co-ordinated Sector, headed in the wrong direction

England does not have an educational system, but instead three badly co-ordinated sectors – Schools, Post Compulsory Education and HE.

The scale of the increased funding can be judged from the grant to the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), which will more than double from £5.5 billion in its first year of operation in 2001-02 to £11.4 billion in 2007-08 (Johnson, 2006, Annex B). Investment in FE Colleges has increased by 48% in real terms since 1997 (DfES, 2006a : 14); but investment in schools by 65% (HMT, 2006:131).

David Raffe warned against the danger of seeing English post-16 education and training as “not only distinctive, but distinctively pathological … [where] reform proposals have been dominated by a deficit model” (2002: 11).

the participation rate of 17 year olds in education or training. The latest report shows that the UK record is worse than that in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Japan, Finland, South Korea, Poland, Norway, Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, the Slovak Republic, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the USA, Denmark and Australia (OECD, 2006). The official rhetoric talks of ‘seamless progression’ but every year almost 300,000 fall out of the system at age 16.

Is it any wonder that Ewart Keep (2006) has called state control of this sector “playing with the biggest trainset in the world”?

On pruning
The institutional architecture also needs rationalisation at every level. The LSC should be combined with the SSDA (see EEF, 2006), and the 47 sub-regional offices of the LSC should be quietly abandoned. Some amalgamation also needs to take place between the regional LSCs, the RDAs, and the Regional Skills Partnerships to strengthen regional governance. At local level, the local strategic partnerships should absorb both the LSC partnership teams and the local learning partnerships. And the proliferation of new bodies needs to stop.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Classy ideas for schools

Sometimes, but rarely, someone in the educational establishment puts their head above the blackboard and speaks good sense. Unfortunately, this is always matched by a stream of negative, reactionary drivel.

Christine Gilbert, before sticking her head on that thankless spike as head of Ofsted, has written a great report on the future of schools. Ofsted has long supported the idea that parents really do matter in education while schools, unions and the educational establishment does everything to keep them at bay. At last we have a document full of sensible ideas that can influence policy rather than empty posturing around vague ideas on personalised learning.

Fresh ideas:
It points to the need for:

parents to become more involved in the learning process
pupils to be able to choose what they study
ask each other for help in answering questions
mark their own work
grade their teachers' performance
marks would go, to be replaced by "feedback"
teachers duty bound to suggest what steps a pupil could take to improve performance pupils would be entered for exams as soon as they were ready to take them

Surely this is what teachers and schools were meant to do? They don't. The culture is one of classroom-based lesson delivery with minimum effort on; parental involvement, listening to student voices, meaningful feedback and real performance feedback for teachers.

Ask most parents and they'll tell you about the scrappy, erratic and often irrelevant homework (dull photocopied worksheets, no advice on quality or quantity, no objectives), poor feedback (ticks, a score and primitive corrections), the arcane language used in assessment (3 levels - qualification grades, key stages, various unexplained and obscure numbers), and a feeling of being excluded from the learning process (10 minutes with teachers who struggle to remember your child's name). Try finding out what your child is doing in his/her subject week by week and you'll be met by a 'why do you want to know that' response. Parents are prevented from helping their children by being deliberately ignored and rebuffed. Their response is to eventually give up interest. Their complaints, often about homework, as this is the only unmbilical link they have with the school, are routinely ignored. This fantastic resource, parents, is therefore squandered.

Keates knee-jerk
Chris Keates, Head of the NASUWT and expert in knee-jerk reactions replied to the report, "The report rightly seeks to address how parents can become more engaged in the learning process. However, the suggestion that this could be achieved through having access to teachers' lesson plans and schemes of work is misconceived. These are professional tools for the teacher not the vehicles for providing the meaningful and accessible information that parents actually want to assist them in supporting their children's education."

In other words, forget it - keep parents out.

Listen to Christine, Alan Johnson. Looks like she's on to something.

Serious Games - you cannot be serious man!

Collision of cultures
In a collision of cultures the learning and games world have come together and branded themselves as 'Serious Games'. This all started in 2002 with serious We now have 'Serious Games' conferences, talk shops and organisations. This is a blunder of serious proportions.

Wrong adjective
The learning world has reached out to the games world precisely because it is NOT serious. This is the worst adjective that could have been chosen. Games solve learning's great conundrum - how do we motivate unmotivated learners. It's not that people can't learn, they simply don't want to. Games work because they produce adrenaline-driven engagement that is powerful, addictive, fun and challenging - not serious.

Wrong noun
Even the word 'games' is suspect as it is seen as a negative term by many older learners. Sure, games need to be tapped but we can also distill principles from games and apply them in simulations and other learning designs. This is what James Gee has done in his 'What Video Games Have to Teach us about Literacy and Learning'. It's not ALL about pure games.

Inside, not outside, the head
The last time this happened was in the 8os when VR (Virtual Reality) was all the rage. BT and lots of other tecchy carzies were always trying to convince people that this was the future. It turned out to be a sort of Dan Dare past, like rocket-packs, and collapsed as over-funded, technically blinkered academics forced ever more fanciful headsets on to unwilling heads. The games industry swept all of this aside realising that it's what happens inside the head that matters. Suspension of disbelief is just as powerful on a 15" monitor.

Thankfully companies like Caspian Learning realise this with their 'ThinkingWorlds' brand. This is more like it - something that focuses on what goes on inside the learners' heads. Check it out.

My other favourite McEnroe quote is, "This taught me a lesson, but I'm not quite sure what it is."