Friday, July 25, 2008

Augmented learning – mind blowing!

All in the mind
Nintendo took e-learning to the global masses with the DS and Brain Training. At the same time they gave us the Wii remote, allowing us to play tennis, box and generally get hot and sweaty while playing games. Then there’s the Wii Fit, a board that allows you to do yoga and exercise. Looks as though they’re planning to shape the future once again with a brain control interface.

The EPOC headset from Emotiv has 16 sensors on the scalp. The electrical activity in the brain is translated into actions on the screen. We already have prosthetic control by the brain for those who have lost limbs. The next step is to take mind-control to the next level, in learning.

This could transform the way humans interact with computers. When people communicate the use facial expressions, body language and intuitive judgments. Tap directly into the brain and computers can understand these conscious and pre-conscious thoughts which can be used to trigger actions. There are three main areas:

Expressive – facial expressions

Effective – emotional experience

Cognitive – ability to control objects by thought

The latest Emotiv wireless headset (with gyroscope to track head movements) will use head movements and cognitive control within games.

Augmented cognition
In the late 80’s I sold an application called ‘Managing Stress’. You put a band around your head, which measured skin resistance, hooked it up to the back of the PC, and had to get a balloon to rise as you relaxed. Not exactly brain control, but close.

This approach has morphed into augmented cognition is big news in military research, where the augmented soldier gets a significant advantage in the battlefield. There’s brainwave binoculars that detect objects see but not noticed. The binoculars are linked to scalp sensors which detect pre-conscious events. Another military project used augmented cognition to help military analysts improve their performance.

Augmented learning
What’s far more interesting is the possibility of augmented learning, where this technology helps us hugely improve performance by using thought control to learn faster and improve retention. Here’s why:

1. Dramatic increase in psychological attention leads to better understanding, storage and recall

2. Visioning in the mind is in itself rehearsal and practice, allowing efficient encoding and storage

3. Diagnostic potential will mean the ultimate in personalised learning

3. Recall can be measured directly allowing unmediated assessment

This is literally mind blowing. The problems teaching and learning is that it is very difficult for the teacher to really know what’s going on in the mind of the learner. With strong feedback mechanisms this could potentially do better than any teacher. The learner also has to literally understand and do the right thing. You can’t drift through class or wing it.

Mind blowing
It is not hard to envision a future where games become a normal part of a child’s learning process. I’m willing to bet that the increased use of something like a DS and Brain Training would already dramatically increase numeracy and literacy, and there’s a growing body of evidence showing that maths and basic literacy works gives dramatic improvements in performance. This stuff could push augmented learning into the position of being the most significant improvement to the productivity of learning that we, as a species, have ever seen. Truly mind blowing!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Diplomas – deepening the divide

There’s always been a distasteful apartheid in UK education between academic and vocational subjects. In practice, the use of these mutually exclusive terms is all wrong as most academic subjects would be better taught with a healthy dose of real world practice. It’s downright stupid to pump out GCSE students who can solve a quadratic equation but couldn’t tell you anything about personal finance, tax, mortgages and so on. We put aside practical literacy in a headlong rush to pump Shakespeare into every young child before they can even comprehend the themes. And to teach a dead language, Latin, rather than prepare young people to become autonomous adults, is just perverse. I could go on….

Diplomas – bad brand
At last, however, the government, or at least the civil service, have come up with a solution that was meant to solve the problem, but threatens to deepen the divide – diplomas. Rather than extending the A-level brand to cover these qualifications, they have created a separate brand ‘Diplomas’ that cleaves these subjects off to one side. Type ‘diplomas’ into Google and right below the DFES (yes that old brand is still hanging around) is the diploma company advertising ‘The best in fake diplomas and novelty transcripts!’ This is not a brad with enough academic kudos to carry this initiative forward.

Diplomas - teachers
BECTA’s recent Harnessing Technology report had a harrowing graph showing that most classroom practice is hopelessly outdated:

Common classroom activities

In which three of the following ways do you do most often in class?

(Magnificent example of an ungrammatical sentence, pouring doubt on BECTAs ability to write English)

Copy from the board or a book 52%

Listen to teacher talking for a long time 33%

Have a class discussion 29%

Take notes while my teacher talks 35%

Whatever way you cut this, the current school system is hopelessly underskilled in terms of delivering Diplomas. These methods won’t cut it.

Diplomas – schools
The only way to make this work is to share resources, something schools just do’t do, or at least don’t do well. They generally hate each other, having been placed in a position where they have to compete for pupils. From this position of mutual hostility, they are expected to share subjects and send pupils to various locations across towns. How will this work? Who’ll be there to welcome and look after these kids? How will they handle moving into another hostile culture? The planning has more holes than a barrel of Swiss cheese.

Diplomas – parents
Because of the general confusion around what they are and when they’re arriving, and an almost willful failure to inform parents, when these strange qualifications are offered, parents recoil. In some cases the take-up has been zero.

Rather than creating a single system, with a range of sensible options, this half-baked idea is being launched like an axe, dividing the curriculum in two, taking us back into a grammar/secondary modern model – all because of amateurish branding and planning.

Hapless Huveaux

Well Epic’s free from the clutches of hapless Huveaux’s John van Kuffeler, and his hopeless sidekick, Gerry Murray. Huveaux is basically a bunch of washed out, paper publishing guys (ex-Emap) who think the internet’s a sort of giant magazine. Their board was, and still is, a bunch of lazy boomers who can’t buy, integrate or sell businesses, especially online businesses.

Having bought Epic for over £22 million, Murray put in a series of his mates as managers, none of whom had a scooby about managing an online business. The collapse in revenues and profitability was predictable and it has now been sold for a song (£4.75 million) – got to congratulate the new buyer, as that’s a snip. They had to sell, as the debt burden was threatening to sink them. Of course, that’s not stopped them repeatedly rebasing all of their options to cash in on the collapse of value. This is not the first time that the incompetent Kuffeler has completely destroyed the value of a business. He was involved in the collapse of Eidos, which imploded after late delivery of Tomb Raider product under his watch. Only in the City do ageing, paper publishing men in pinstripes get to manage internet companies. ‘Success may breed success’, but in this case ‘failure breeds failure’. No wonder we can’t match the Americans. What’s amazing is how these guys hang on in there, kicking shareholders and fund managers in the teeth, no matter how much value they destroy.

The lesson in all this is; don’t let paper publishers anywhere near your internet or e-learning company. They’ll kill it within weeks. Thankfully it’s back where it belongs in the hands of someone who knows a thing or two about the e-learning market. What a mess.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Best show you’ve never seen?

I don’t watch much British drama on TV any more. All those rehashed genres; costume dramas (endless Bronte and Dickens), murder mysteries (same old plots, same old bit actors), cop shows (tired and weary cops chase tired and weary bad guys) and science fiction (set largely in disused quarries or London suburbs). It’s the same old commissioners, commissioning the same old writers, in the same old organizations producing the same old stuff (Shameless and Skins excepted).

Cut to the renaissance in US TV drama – The Wire, The Sopranos, West Wing, Lost, Heroes – the list goes on. They rip up the old genres and deliver contemporary drama that is absolutely gripping, and sometimes worthy of the term ‘art’.

I’ve put ‘The Wire’ at the head of my list, as it’s regarded by some critics as being the best TV series ever. Having watched the first four series on DVD, I can’t wait for series five, which starts on the FX channel on Monday. I’m not a fan, I’m an addict

The learning game
In particular, for those in the ‘learning game’, I recommend series 4, as it’s about schools. Well, not exactly, it’s about learning from your peers, the streets and why institutions like schools are now part of the problem and not the solution. It’s complicated, and that’s the joy of The Wire; it’s never what it seems. It’s not a ‘cop’ show; it’s a ‘city’ show. Actually, it’s a deeper ‘game’ show, in the Wittgensteinian sense – showing, not telling, sophisticated characters and issues through the many language games of the many interlocked groups; drug barons, corner boys, dopeheads, cops, lawyers, politicians, dock workers and so on.

Writer – cop and teacher
Ed Burns, the writer, was both a cop and schoolteacher, knows his stuff, and makes the dialogue so rich and real that seasoned cops, teachers and other professionals often ask him how he managed to get the inside track.

So what does he show us? As solid institutions such as the church, work, family and community have fragmented in the face of awful city planning, drugs and increasing gaps between rich and poor, the one institution that has remained solid in this melting icepack is the local school. It is wrong therefore to blame schools for failing to satisfy this deficit in social needs.

No romantic ‘Poet’s Society’
What The Wire does, is dissect a school in the full context of other institutions; city government, police, criminal organisations and so on. This is no romantic, Poet’s Society tale of doughty teachers inspiring young people to succeed. It’s the grim reality of inner city state education, where the web and allure of crime becomes a rational choice for young black kids (Baltimore is 65% black, and in these areas, the schools are 100% black). The bright kids are sought after by the drug gangs to run corners.

The hopelessness of teaching literary criticism and other areas of an outdated curriculum to these kids is show with sensitivity. Yet the educational apparatchiks demand that teachers ‘teach to the test’. Computers lie in their original boxes in basements as the teachers don’t know how to use them. Violence is commonplace. Statistics rule.

Disruptive kids ruin any attempt at teaching in classrooms and only thrive when removed from classes, where they want to show off and play their own particular ‘games’. This is surely right. I’ve witnessed with my own eyes the hopeless attempts at keeping a small number of massively disruptive kids in class. Many of the kids are shown to be street-smart, and the writer seems to suggest that separating the serious problem kids out of mainstream classes, with plenty of outside support, is the only way to keep them and others learning.

Where it scores is in the irrelevance of much of the curriculum and teaching methods. Old fashioned teaching methods are shown in all their magnificent irrelevance, while more relevant, differentiated methods are show to work. Maths is the focus, and Burns shown why most maths teaching fails – as it is too far removed from real life and seen as irrelevant. The kids are delighted to find that probability can be taught by predicting the odds in street dice games. Girls who struggle to do simple arithmetic find they can do it when it’s rephrased in terms of street dollar transactions. The teacher tricks them into learning by making them feel that it’s not learning. He also excites them with a class computer. The less they are aware of it being learning, the more they learn.

Watch it (Mon 21st FX)
Ultimately, however, this is a dark tale that doesn’t pander to clich├ęd hopes and promises. It’s a deep and realistic analysis that will make you reflect, laugh and cry – the characters are unbelievably real (Omar is of Shakespearian stature), the stories complex and the end result lingers in your mind for weeks.