Friday, January 30, 2009

Spaced practice in learning - at last!

I read a story in the Guardian today that literally made me whoop out loud. I've been going on about this for years, but at last someone in the schools system has had the courage to accept the science and get on with the practice. Ebbinghaus in 1885, supported by a century of follow up research showed that spaced practice works. It IS how we learn, yet hardly anyone in education and training puts this theory into practice. Education and training is largely blind to the basic psychology of learning, yet this project supports the idea that they'd better wise up - and fast.

A school in North Tyneside put students through a spaced programme interspersed with physical exercise and it had spectacular results. 80% of the class of 46 achieved acceptable results in GCSE Science module. I'm not entirely convinced that the project was properly structured (spacing seemed too tight) or researched, but it suggests that this is a fruitful line for further work. 

Little and often learning works as it gives the brain time to encode and fix memories, as well as reinforcing those memories over time. The traditional sheep-dip approach (the norm) does neither. This focus on actual learning takes brain science and memory theory seriously. Can I suggest that you read this again in ten minutes, then again tomorrow.

Speaking to Dr Itiel Dror, he was aghast at the lack of basic knowledge in the psychology of learning in learning professionals. He also suggested some basic controlled research into a traditional lecture versus the same lecture on video (with learner control) and the same lecture in an e-learning format. Seems obvious but it hasn't been done - or has it?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Games result in real learning

An ingenious piece of research neuroscientist Paul Fletcher did the research at Cambridge and showed that playing games had a direct influence on subsequent real life choices. The study took 22 volunteers and got them to sip drinks while doing a cycling game. A follow up three days later showed aversion/preference to different team jerseys.

The good news is that we seem to be entering a period when games are becoming easier to make, with authoring tools such as ThinkingWorlds from Caspian Learning, Flash and so on. Participation in games results, as I always suspected, on much deeper processing than many other learning methods - lectures etc., so that retention is higher, but more importantly learnt skills result in actual behavioural change. We've known this from Flight Simulators for decades. The nice thing about this study is the elegance of the experiment, which isolates the causality.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Dinosaurs do not give birth to gazelles

BETT 2009 was weird this year. Confusing and oddly old-fashioned. It was more Flash Gordon than Google. I knew something was wrong when I heard senior government people talk about the next big thing – the Multi Touch Table. I couldn’t get my head around this – tell me again, you sit down at an interactive screen on a table? I’m old enough to remember Star War games on tables in pubs – they died a quick death because games migrated to PCs, consoles and mobiles. So my immediate thought was that this is a stupid,old-fashioned idea, the wrong technology at the wrong time. My first impressions were confirmed. It is horrifically expensive, hyped by Microsoft and hopelessly misguided.

Let’s lay some cards on this table. It’s a means for Microsoft to get into the classroom and ultimately into every school. Since when did Microsoft become the experts in hardware? You don’t look to them for innovation – they’re the ultimate jumpers on bandwagons. It’s simply a way of them getting their feet literally under the table. Remember Bill gates saying "The Internet? We are not interested in it." (1993). Dinosaurs do not give birth to gazelles!
Like the Whiteboard fixation, it suits people who only believe that technology should only be used in the classroom. All of the Interactive Multi-touch Tables I saw (RM. SMART, VIPRO and Microsoft Surface) were expensive cons. They overhype collaborative learning and at a prohibitive cost. I couldn't even get my legs under one, as it was box-like. Spend your money on more teachers, books, netbooks, woolly hats....anything other than these expensive table-tops.

CES 2009 far more interesting
There was none of this nonsense at CES. What’s was new there and how will it impact e-learning? First - realism. The future is tight, and we’ll all have to squeeze our spending. But in recessionary times, some technology is timely. At CES the technology is smaller, lighter, smarter, greener and easier to use. It’s wireless and more connected. But here’s the killer – it’s cheaper.

In learning, technology is always ahead of pedagogy and sociology. In fact, technology seems to be creating its own sociological patterns and pedagogies through massive, global business models, tested on the web and filtered by the opinions of millions of users and buyers. On top of the huge advances made through Google, Wikipedia, media sharing, blogs, wikis and social networking, we now have an explosion of cheap, powerful and easy to use technology. 2009 promises to be a period of evolution not revolution where things really do get better, cheaper, smarter and greener.

Another pesky Seven Great things to watch list
1. Netbooks - next big small thing
Sales of these tiny laptops are expected to triple this year, as dirt cheap as $2-300. The lovely Assus Eee PCs are an astonishing $269-699 with one model offering a swivel screen that turns it into a tablet. HP, MSI, Sony and others have an array of little wireless laptops that will slip into a sizeable pocket. With ubiquitous wireless this will allow mass market mobile internet access. These cheap netbooks and laptops work because of wireless.

The one laptop per child programme is getting into gear and Moore’s Law has some way to go, with some predicting the $10 pocket computer. This points towards a future where every child, even in developing countries could have access to a wealth of educational resources. It simply makes lots of sense for every pupil and student to have such a device for research, writing, assignments, submitting assignments, accessing content, communications with peers and teachers. The first step is to make IT a necessary condition for a job as a teacher, trainer or lecturer. The next challenge is content.

2. e-books – it’s about reading not ‘books’
This is the first wave of a technology that will not go away. There’s the Kindle, Sony Reader, Astak, eSlick and a few more with good feeds from publishers.The idea of having thousands of books on tap is mouth watering for everyone but those who ‘just love the smell of books’ (toxic bleaching chemicals).

For learning, we have Nintendo releasing 100 Classic Books for the DS at £20 and, of course, the internet projects such as Project Gutenberg, with over 25,000 free e-books available on the web. Their aim is to "to provide as many e-books in as many formats as possible for the entire world to read in as many languages as possible."

3. Mobiles – more power in your pocket
Apple still lead the pack with astonishing iPHONE and its wonderful apps, but Android has a growing developer community and a slew of Android phones will appear this year. There’s a resurgent Palm, gesture enabled and LG in catch up mode. Coming soon is the ability to watch TV on your mobile. Two wackier variations on the mobile are the Watchphone, a mobile on your wrist with camera for videoconferencing (LG), and the mobile that’s also a projector. Oh, and I nearly forgot, Google’s voice activated search from Mobiles. Then there’s the add-ons for mobile devices. Cinemiser – specs that plug into your iPOD to watch video, these are also 3D. I’ve tried these are they really are very impressive. Great for long flights. And microphones for iPODs, good for recording lectures to distances up to 45 feet.

From a learning point of view, it is the open developer environments and applications that are of interest. The Touch Physics game is a sign of things to come but it must surely be useful to use these devices for language learning and a host of other subjects. Everything points towards mobile devices being more learning friendly. You can record video, record audio, communicate, organise and project. It’s simply a matter of integrating them into the learning process. The first step should surely be the universal recording of lectures for replay by students.

4. Toys – play to learn
Furry pets that purr and spring into life when you touch them, iPOD singing furry animal speaker pods. Little chicks that chirp and wriggle. Facebank piggybank that it eats your money through a moving mouth. Then there’s the more sophisticated literacy and numeracy toys.

Learn while you play. This market is huge as concerned parents want to give their little darlings a head start. Toys already have immense computing power and clearly do have the power to improve competence at an early age in key skills for learning such as reading, writing and numeracy.

5. Mind blowing control
I can remember selling headband controlled stress busting software in the 1980s! It’s only now we’re starting to see this creep into computer games and now, in an $80 blow football game from Matel.

Early days but one can see how this type of focus and psychological attention (a core problem in teaching children) could result in dramatic increases in learning and retention. We know that learning depends on attention and internal rehearsal. For some tasks this direct form of contextualised control could result in significant increases in understanding and retention. This could be a real breakthrough technology.

6. Game on
Computer consoles have become very powerful and relatively cheap. The Nintendo DS showed that there’s demand for handheld consoles and demand for games beyond the traditional genres. Games design is now being seriously applied to learning even in the consumer games market, with the likes of Buzz and Brain Training.

Brain Training showed that a simple handheld console game can be bought and enjoyed by all ages. The games industry is already producing credible learning software with a study showing that Brain Training improves numeracy in primary schools. Good authoring software for 3D games is available from Caspian Learning and there’s an understanding that game pedagogy has massive motivational advantages.

7. Cloud on the horizon
Conceptually, there’s a cloud coming in computing, which combined with cheap wireless laptops may truly put learning in the hands of learners at very low prices. We really do have to question the vast expense of VLE installation in schools when a cloud solution is around the corner. Why get every school to procure, install and maintain their own VLE when this type of service is available outside of the institution? Interesting security gadgets include physical security devices that scans everything before it enters your PC and identification devices like Yubico with their three factor authentication.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

People are our greatest asset (and liability)

The mantra that keeps HR and learning professionals going, oft repeated at conferences, is that ‘people are our greatest asset’. It’s not that it’s entirely untrue, just simplistic. And defending it often results in a tautologous argument i.e. when you point out that people can be a liability or that people manage other more valuable assets, the response is still ‘that just goes to show that people are always your greatest asset.'

It is not an immutable law, as there are many counterexamples, neither is it particularly useful as a rule of thumb for managers. It’s too all-inclusive. The problem is in the formulation of the statement ‘people are our greatest asset’. There’s a category mistake at the heart of this simple sentence. It’s the mapping of the word ‘people’ to the word ‘asset’. People are both an asset and a liability in an organisation.

Other assets can matter more than people

Assets come in all shapes and sizes. The assets of an organisation may be cash, equities in other companies, intellectual property, brands, land, property, commodities and so on.

Cash can be an organisations greatest asset, at times in an organisation’s growth. It can make the difference between death and survival. This is why capitalising a business often results in the decision to reduce the burn rate by losing unnecessary staff. In some organisations the cash pile can certainly be its greatest asset. If you have a company that is protecting itself against a fierce financial downturn, cash can certainly be a greater asset than people. This is also true of organisations that are vehicles for investment protection.

Intellectual property right are often an organisations greatest asset. Whether it’s cats’ eyes, a clever piece of engineering, high tech or a beautiful piece of software; patents can be your primary asset. Some organisations quite simply manage a single patent or patents. In many cases the only people gaining are the offspring of the inventor. This would be to equate an accident of birth with talent.

Brands can be more important in the long terms than the current crop of people in an organisation. This is especially true of brands that have been around longer than any current employee. Coca Cola may be a good example. There are plenty of others. The actual ‘asset’ as measured qualitatively or quantitatively may be greater than the intellectual or human capital at that one time in an organisation. Let me give another example. Many major universities have brands that go back hundreds of years. This is their core asset – their history, past reputation and now their current brand capital. A university's students come and go annually, their staffs come and go, it doesn’t own the IP in its research, which is published by publishers in their journals. In short, its people come and go but its brand remains the constant.

Assets such as artefacts in museums, artworks in galleries, land and houses in the National Trust, archaeological sites in English Heritage and so on, may all value their assets as, in both the short and long term as greater than their people. Equipment, real-estate and property can also be classed as tangible balance sheet assets, which in some cases, may be of greater value than a relatively small number of employees.

People defined as customers can be your greatest asset. Most would agree that Facebook's greatest asset is its users, similarly with YouTube. Wikipedia has a tiny number of employees but tens of thousands of contributors. Its greatest asset is its massive content and contributors.

People can be an organisation’s worst asset

There are organisations where the people are quite simply corrupt. Madoff, along with his fellow cronies and corrupt auditors, managed to siphon off $50 billion from investors. OK that’s too obvious.

There are also organisations where the people are quite simply incompetent. I can think of innumerable private and public organisations that ended up stuffed with people who were just riding out their time to retirement. They were wisely closed down by their investors or politicians. Think of Carter & carter, UK Universities or the NHSU. There are charities where the employees milk most of the cash, leaving little for the cause.

There are organisations where the leadership have become self-serving and destructive. You see this in political parties, where those in power start to become self-righteous, lazy and ineffective. George Bush is an obvious example, but it happens to many elected governments after being too long in office. Family owned businesses often suffer from a sort of in-breeding of behaviour, leading to the downturn and extinction of an organisation. And there’s possibly no better contemporary example than the banks, where overeager leadership training and greed allowed people to destroy the very basis of their trade.

In some organisation, people can become the primary barrier to progress. Imbued with old values, groupthink takes hold, and change becomes difficult, and in some cases impossible. One can encounter this in many private and public organisations. The ‘Yes...but.. .’ culture can be palpable, which is why change management is so difficult.

Organisations where management and union activity destroy the organisation is another species of the self-destructive organisation. In the automotive industry there were plenty of examples in the UK in the seventies, and arguably many now in the US, where both management and employees are poor assets. Excessive wage demands, top-heavy pension agreements and reactive management have led to the near insolvency of General Motors and Chrysler.

People may become a liability because of government legislation which increases the cost of hiring or retaining employees. There are examples of restrictive labour laws that have resulted in overvaluing people as an asset. Punitive penalties can stop employers from hiring the very people the legislation is meant to support.

People are both an asset and liability

Empirically, most boards do not believe this statement. They do believe that people are BOTH AN ASSET AND A LIABILITY. This is the right, and balanced, way to view an organisation. One has to look to the right balance between the two and sometimes get rid of poor performers and develop and hire better people. And don’t come back with ‘this is exactly what I mean by people being your greatest asset’ argument. This is like the Marxist who explains everything in terms of class dialectics, or the religious fundamentalist who explains all in terms of the will of (their particular) religious beliefs. At times they can become a liability, especially when there’s a rapid downturn or radical market change.

Beyond assets and resources

I should add that my own view is the people should not be equated with the word ‘asset’. This is why I dislike the term ‘Human Resources’. I don’t like being seen as an ‘asset’ or ‘resource’. The whole language of dealing with people is an outdated, industrial vocabulary that paints professionals into an uncomfortable corner. Remember how balance sheets work - they are the sum of your liabilities and other assets. You have to report on both, and people can be both an asset and a liability.

The problem with the word ‘asset’ is that it has a technical meaning related to the reporting on balance sheets. For balance sheets to work one must value assets including; liabilities (important), stock, earnings, etc. Then there are current, prepaid and deferred and intangible assets. The area of ‘intangible’ assets is notoriously difficult in terms of assigning value. In some ways this is exactly where things have gone wrong in our system. We have assigned value to things that had no value, or declining value. As we now see, this is a dangerous game.

Accountancy is a sophisticated system, designed to assign true value to an organisation. One could go down the route of assigning real cash value to human asset beyond their salary and other obvious pay and rations categories. This is not easy. In fact, one would have to accept the reporting of people as liabilities as well as assets. Only slaves and footballers can be bought and sold in this fashion. Best avoided!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Olympics: hubris of participation and education

The Natural History Museum’s main hall, with its statue of Darwin and huge dinosaur, is a great room, and having dinner there is a great experience, except when Seb Coe is the after dinner speaker. In a room full of Ministers of Education from around the globe, he managed to deliver a masterclass in appalling delivery and teaching. He droned on about the causal effect of the Olympics on education. By the time the overproduced, cheesy video was shown all on my table were on their mobiles, texting, updating Facebook or whatever.

The Olympics are a politician’s wet dream – lots of pomp, free events, free tickets and worldwide publicity. Now if they were honest and simply saw the Olympics as a means to build some new sports facilities, hold a competition and have some fun, well maybe that would fly. But no, Seb Coe and company have to get transcendental about mass sporting participation, inspirational educational opportunities and young people fulfilling their dreams. In these difficult times at least some brave commentators are questioning the huge expense and hullabaloo of the Olympics and whether it has any real and sustainable effect on participation in sport, and education in general.

My gut feel is that it’s turned into the Frankenstein of sport; something that was fundamentally good but now a huge, sometimes corrupt, sometimes drug fuelled, over-commercialised, nationalistic junket.

Olympics and politics
My earliest memories of the Olympics are from Mexico in 1968, where hundreds of students were gunned down in the Tlatelco massacre. Three Olympic cheers for education! It was also the games in which Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black power salutes. From then on I can remember lots of East German athletes of indeterminate gender throwing, lifting, jumping, running and generally behaving like the drug-fuelled brutes we now know they were. In 1972 we had the Munich massacre of eleven Israelis and three Palestinians, and two black 400m runners banned for life for acting casually during the Star Spangled banner. In Montreal 1976 most African nations boycotted the games after New Zealand rugby team toured apartheid South Africa. The Moscow Games in 1980 were boycotted by 60 countries led by the US, protesting at their invasion of Afghanistan. Boy did history repeat itself. After the massive cost overruns at Montreal only Los Angeles bid for 1984. They won! This time 14 Soviet bloc countries boycotted the games in a tit for tat move, proving that entire nations can behave like spoiled kids. Seoul in 1988 had only 7 countries boycott, but a Korean boxing coach attacked a referee, and although other matches were still going on in the other rings, Korean officers turned off electricity of the amphitheater and went home. 1992 saw Atlanta host hugely commercial games, selling their soul to coca Cola. It was also the scene of a bombing that killed two and injured 111 by a US citizen who was against ‘abortion’ and ‘the homosexual agenda’. It attracts people of fine moral character, the games! Since Atlanta, with Sydney and Athens, we have seen games that swipe badly needed resources away from services that matter, leaving people to pick up the tab for years later, with little to show other than a clutch of poorly used sports venues. Beijing was the biggest PR exercise in history, a vehicle for a nondemocratic state to establish itself as a perceived world power.

Olympic impact on education
There are two separate arguments in relation to the Olympics and education:

1. That it significantly increases participation in sport
2. That sports’ people are ideal role models
3. That it has a positive impact on other educational goals

1. Participation
What I witnessed at Beijing was the UK excelling at sports where we sit down. When it comes to sitting on a horse, bike, rowing or sailing boat we’re fast as hell. In a cynical approach to funding we pour money into sports in which few actually participate, because few can afford the equipment. It’s a wizard wheeze to exclude almost every developing country and compete in minimal participation sports, where there’s a maximum number of medals and a minimum number of competitors. In practice, our participation in sport is falling, not rising, and the responsibility for the participation is splits across too many Government departments to be workable.

I live next to a large local park and deliver my kids to a sports centre four times a week. What I see is football, rugby, tennis, badminton, martial arts, basketball and a few runners. You need only look at the sports on TV to see that football, rugby, snooker and darts are our favourite spectator sports. The Olympics are, for some sports, almost the only reason they seem to exist, for few take any interest in them for the three years between Olympic events. What children have pictures of horse riders, velodrome cyclists, rowers, sailors or ever swimmers on their bedroom wall? I’m not saying these are not worthy sporting pursuits. I do question our winning medals as having much impact on overall sports participation. My own feeling is that the money spent on the Olympics would be better spent on the ground in community sports programmes and schools.

2. Role models
I also have my doubts about sports’ people as role models. The behaviour of sports people is no more exemplary than most ordinary young people, and in many cases worse. Premiership footballers beating people to a pulp outside Macdonalds, fighting in nightclubs, crashing cars, even worse killing innocent drivers and pedestrians. For every Linniker there’s a Gazza and Barton. In fact few would regard the often drunken antics of footballers, rugby players or cricketers with anything but predictable weariness, stalled in their teenage attitudes, they abandon their education early for a sport that dumps most of them in their late twenties.

Then there’s the drugs. First there’s the recreational Diego Maradonna cocaine snorting variety. Doping drugs have also been in regular use at the Olympics since 1904and the revelations of supposed athletes such as Ben Johnson, Nina Kraft, Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Jerome Young, Irina Korzhanenko, Dwain Chambers and so on, hardly make for healthy heroes. It’s a cat and mouse game and everyone knows it’s endemic. An amazing seven horses failed drugs tests in Beijing.

Our current Olympic medal winners have shown themselves to be quite feckless outside of their sport. Their appearance on Sports Personality of the Year showed that the programme is just one big oxymoron. Chris Hoy’s ads on TV are as wooden as his head. This year’s Christmas ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ was the subject of ridicule as our Olympic heroes crashed out on questions that a ten year old would have known. In one case, lampooned mercilessly by TV critics, two of our intrepid yachting medal winners failed to answer the early question, ‘In what field is Ann Wintour known?’ Now that ain’t easy, but the empty headed yachtswoman in the chair said, ’I should know this as I had supper with her last night’. Now how vacuous was that social occasion! She got it wrong.

3. Olympics and education
The Olympics is not a major force for educational good. It’s a blatantly instrumental, political event that barely manages to suppress the nastier side of nationalism. When sport is the only thing a person has it can be an ugly destructive force. Physical education is important and I’d hope that we can increase the amount of young people exercising or participating in sport. But many experience the downside of this push at school. They are pushed into physical participation when they are often too introverted or embarrassed to cope. Many look back at PE with horror at school.

The little girl who was deemed too ugly to sing? Is that the message we want to give our children? If actual talent takes anything away from this push towards physical perfection, it’s censored.

I love sport. Tennis is the only sport I actually play, but I’m a sports fan and watch, in particular, football, tennis and basketball. My preference is for sports that develop outside of the Olympics, and let’s face it, most of the world’s major sports have a paltry Olympic presence. Some are not there at all. I’m for the Olympic but on a smaller scale with less of the participation, role model, educational hubris.

Friday, January 16, 2009

LearningPool – sink or swim

Sometimes you have an idea that is so simple that you can’t see how it can fail. But in learning, being right is not always the quickest way to success.

In 2000 I came back from LearnTech in the US with an idea, which I wrote up on the plane. I think everyone who attends a conference should do a write-up with recommendations. Inspired with the success of Napster, which eventually changed the music industry forever, I wanted to apply the technology to a less glamorous sector. I had delivered a report to the IDEA, the Improvement and Development Agency for local government, showing that training in the 450 Local Authorities in England and Wales amounted to around was over half a billion a year (verified by an Audit last year at £540m), but about two thirds of this was duplicated. Read that again, two thirds of the spend was DUPLICATED – and therefore wasted. Training departments were mostly doing their own thing designing, developing and delivering their own DIY courses.

So I went to the IDEA Director who had commissioned this research and said, “I have an idea that could dramatically reduce this figure”. He had worked in New York as a consultant for Deloittes, so was used to straight ROI talk. “Look, your 450 authorities are not competitors and desperate for efficiencies. Get them to share the design, development and delivery of training, freeing that back-end money for front-line work.”

We did it, dived in, branded it LearningPool, launched it in a bar in Soho, handed it over to the IDEA, and I lost track of its progress. To be honest I thought it had gone the way of most of these things- extinction.

Suddenly, years later , out of the blue, I received an email from two people who had bought the business in 2006 and are now doing what it intended to do all those years ago. They’ve built a successful business,, providing a pool of content and services to local authorities, police, housing associations, schools and universities, on the simple idea of sharing. They have 150 local authority customers and others in other public sector areas. It’s a single pool in which everyone can swim to exchange solutions and solve problems.

For a very reasonable fee you get access to a large and growing library of e-learning courses, an authoring tool, access to the exchange and (the important bit) lots of support in selling and implementing e-learning. Rather than delivering endless classroom courses at a fixed cost every time, you distribute e-learning to all officers, councillors, school governors, or whoever. But it’s the services in terms of being part of a national community that matter. It’s so simple and so obvious that you may wonder why everyone in the public sector doesn’t do it this way.

Duplication of effort, is the primary inefficiency in the public sector. This is especially true in education and training. Duplication in teaching is the norm. Every teacher is an auteur who designs, develops and delivers their own personal lessons and courses. Duplication in processes means that every local authority and school wastes endless amounts of time and money trying to find, amend or invent processes and policies. Then there’s duplication in procurement, where things that should be dealt with at national levels are devolved down to the individual school or college or local authority. In e-learning, the advantages come from volume. It’s a numbers game. Share, and for every pound you invest you’ll get hundreds back.

Speaking to Andrew Pinder this week, who was Chair of BECTA, we both agreed that technology solution cannot be delegated down to individual institutions. The business model must look to solutions that lie above non-competitive institutions where the cost is shared, whether it’s schools, colleges, universities, local authorities, charities, hospitals, GP surgeries, local government, police forces, government bodies and government departments. 

This will need leadership from the National Audit Office, as well as others in government. It's possible, and with over 2.5 million learners through UFI (learndirect) I've seen it happen outside of institutions. A little joined up thinking and government could go a long way here.

It's time to stop splashing about in our own tiny, shallow paddling pools and go for a swim in a pool or better still the sea of e-learning.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dark cloud ahead?

What goes up doesn’t come down

This is my new rule for web applications. All applications, pieces of software or media , eventually migrate upwards towards the cloud away from an offline or client seated environment – and they never come down.

My web mail is entirely in the cloud as is my calendar, blog, Facebook stuff and Twitter messages.

Microsoft are also promising Office in the cloud.

Games were bought on disc or cartridge and millions of players have now migrated online, some with plug-ins, but many now through shockwave and flash, truly in the cloud.

Video was on tape, then DVD then on-demand TV then downloadable through bitorrent and is now streamed from iPlayer or YouTube in the cloud.

With peer to peer file sharing the cloud is our own PCs. Millions are already creating the cloud.

The always-on, wireless-everywhere vision is starting to shape up. It really is useful to have a wireless device on you at all times, as there’s enough lily-pad networks to make it worthwhile. In this sense wireless access is becoming a utility, like water, electricity and gas.

Heads in the cloud

When you have our heads in the cloud, you may find yourself experiencing unexpected blackouts. I experienced this in Egypt in December 08 when the whole country experienced a loss of internet access due to a severed underwater cable. It’s frightening. We have to accept that we’ll have utility blackouts when the service is down for technical or natural disaster-type reasons.

Clouds rain down

The cloud may also rain down on us mercilessly with thunder and lightning . We have an increase in crime, hacking and general maliciousness on the web. Phishing has become a massive problem along with spam, scams and malware. Nigeria, as a nation, is now best known for its online scamming merchants.

Clouds and dogfights

Then we have the danger of political dog fights in the cloud - cyberterrorism. The Gaza conflict has sparked a real online war between Israeli and Palestinian sides, taking down each other’s sites and generally disrespecting Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights – the right to freedom of speech. This is now being routinely ignored by major governments.

The cloud is not benign

It hides all sorts of hidden dangers, and before trusting ourselves to a totally online world, we’ll need to know what dangers lurk in this model. Perhaps a better analogy is the ‘mist’ or ‘fog’ which can hide all sorts of nasty phenomenon.


With Lord carter's announcing an intention to bring Broadband to everyone through an industry fund, these issues are closer than ever. Look forward to the full report in June.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Why the web is the real pedagogic engine

My suspicion is that the web has done more for pedagogy in the last five years than the entire output of academic educational departments and other institutions in the last fifty years. This thought was, curiously, sparked off by my visit to the Darwin Exhibition in the Natural History Museum in London.

Web – global test ecosystem
The web is a global test house, where theories and ideas are put to the ultimate test (customer acceptance), on a grand scale. Who needs focus groups, pilots and trials, when you have a daily audience of hundreds of millions? Thousands of ideas are launched every day on this platform and many more fail than succeed. In this sense it is a Darwinian environment, in which the environment itself (medium plus users) determines fitness for purpose. Those that survive are ‘fit’ in the sense that they are rated, reused and recommended.

By contrast, recommended pedagogic progress in institutions has been glacial. Best practice is notoriously difficult to get dispersed and adopted so by and large there’s still a preponderance of old practice. ‘Chalk and talk’ in education and training, and the ‘lecture’ in tertiary education, are still dominant. Shocking but true.

Web – evolution on steroids
The web is like evolution on steroids. Great applications just take off and immediately compete with competitors in a race towards population spread. It is a huge habitat, or rather an ecosystem, with a series of habitats, as language and cultural barriers act like oceans, mountain ranges and rivers in keeping language-specific and culturally-specific habitats or applications apart. A good example is social networking where there are considerable linguistic and cultural differences. However, in this global ecosystem/environment, some applications can transcend these barriers to become almost ubiquitous, namely Google, Wikipedia, web mail services and so on.

We can talk usefully and analogously, I think, about the different levels of activity. In evolution we have the biosphere, ecosystems, habitats, communities, populations and individuals. Similarly, on the web we have the world-wide web as the ecosystem, linguistic and cultural habitats, communities of common interest, specific populations of users and individual users. It is not an exact parallel, but a hierarchical description is useful in both cases.

Webdiversity – a Cambrian explosion
While biodiversity shrinks with the crash of wild animal populations (50% of mammal populations in decline, 36% threatened with extinction and 40% of all species threatened), webdiversity explodes. About 530 million years ago we went through the Cambrian explosion, where most of the major groups of complex animals appeared on earth. We are witnessing a similar phenomenon online, with the rapid appearance of many different species of interaction on the web. The explosive growth of the World Wide Web is, arguably, the electronic equivalent of the Cambrian explosion.

Pedagogy and survival
Of course the deep driver in evolution is the blind mutation of DNA producing variation leading to sexual selection and survival. On the web it is sentient beings themselves who create the mutations, which are then selected by users. It’s not quite as clean and blind as evolution, as branding, partnerships, acquisitions, financing etc also play a role. Ideas are also sometimes selected by technical barriers such as bandwidth restrictions, plug-ins, browsers, client devices etc. This is rapidly disappearing as we move towards the world of open standards and the cloud. But on the whole, the web is an ecosystem that ruthlessly punishes applications that are slow, difficult to use, unfriendly, not useful or expensive.

My argument is that it is also ruthless with pedagogic ideas that are slow, difficult to use, unfriendly, not useful or expensive. Let me illustrate this by example.

Google – a pedagogic paradigm
Google has become the ubiquitous search tool because it was simple, fast, easy to use, powerful, useful and free. There is now a whole ecosystem of Google search applications that have similar qualities such as Google Earth, Google Maps and now Google Street. This is a global ecosystem in multiple languages. Other Google habitats include Googlemail, GoogleChrome, GoogleGroups etc. And sometimes this behemoth simply gobbles up another species; the most famous example is YouTube, now owned by Google. Interestingly, it also seeds the ecosystem with open development platforms such as Android, an interesting and newly learnt variation on web dominance.

So, Google has managed to produce several new pedagogic innovations (accelerators of learning) providing almost instant access to knowledge, answers to questions, location search (GoogleEarth, GoogleMaps, GoogleStyreets) along with efficient variations on communication by email (GoogleMail), browsing (GoogleChrome), media sharing (GoogleVideo and YouTube) and Collaboration (GoogleGroups). This has been a pedagogic paradigm shift.

Wikis and Wikipedia – a knowledge revolution
Who would have thought? A not for profit, multilingual encyclopaedia, created collaboratively by volunteers. There’s no way such a project could ever have emerged and succeeded in academia or the print world. With its adjunct features, such as discussions around controversial knowledge, it has become a leading edge knowledge base, almost a news source. Its revolutionary method of production, editing model and vast usage put it among the elite knowledge bases in the world. Now publishing in 262 languages it is a truly global learning resource.

Wikipedia, and wiki production in general, has produced a truly original model for the production, management and access to learning resources. It is astonishing in its success, size and scope. Interestingly, its dominance has come through a symbiotic relationship with Google, where it regularly appears near the top on any topic search.

YouTube and media sharing – a multimedia revolution
YouTube has produced more content than all of the TV stations of the US in their entire history, and it’s all user-generated. It’s easy to upload, easy to view and it’s free. ITUNES has had a similar effect in music and Flickr in photographs. Every medium now has a slew of useful media sharing services that have changed the way in which media is produced, shared and used.

In learning terms YouTube has shown us that the correct pedagogic model is not from TV with the tyranny of its 30 minute and one hour scheduling. On the whole YouTube videos are short and to the point, more importantly they’re as long as they need to be to make the point(s) and not overly produced in terms of production values. Google images allow teachers and learners to draw on millions of images to improve content. Podcasting has had a similar effect in audio. All of this frees us from the stifling dominance of text in learning. Text is fine, but not in places where it’s inappropriate and that includes huge areas of learning. Pedagogically learning has been freed from the constraints of the teacher+textbooks.

File sharing – a distribution revolution
It started with Napster and now there are lots of them, with turbo-charged Bitorrent providing extra power. This is the underbelly of the web, but no less powerful as millions use file sharing daily to their mutual advantage. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. The web showed that users understand the power of co-operation, leading to their mass use, completely reshaping several industries such as music and movies along the way.

This technology has the power to overcome one of the great shames in education and training – duplication of effort. I love the excellent Learning Pool, where users create content then willingly share it with others. In the public sector, this should be the norm. Sadly the opposite is true. Every schools, college, university, local authority and government department goes it alone in designing, developing and delivering learning. The cost and waste is unimaginably high. The pedagogic revolution here is to get sharing.

Facebook, Myspace – a social learning revolution
Social networking came from nowhere. The middle ground of collaboration, where groups of friends keep in touch, has ballooned on the web; people you knew at school (Friends Reunited), people you know at school (Bebo), people you just know (Facebook), people you know in business (LinkedIn). Then there’s Orkut, Cywold, Hi5 and so on covering every imaginable geographic group or community.

Education and training promises social contact with fellow learners and teachers/lecturers/trainers. In practice this is often more of a promise than a reality. Social activity in classrooms can be as much of a hindrance as help in schools, where behaviour management is a problem. Sitting in rows in a lecture theatre or conference room is hardly a powerful social experience. In reality teachers, trainers and lecturers don’t have the time or inclination to be social mentors to their students. True social networking thrives when users see the value and drive the phenomenon. This promises to be very powerful in terms of the social communication and cohesion in groups of learners.

LMSs, VLEs, PLEs – a learning management revolution
Specific online learning systems include whole families of management software that cover, in varying degrees, everything from the design, creation, storage, delivery, management and tracking of content. Learning Management Systems are common in large businesses with large numbers of learners. Learning Content Management Systems tend to focus on repositories of content. VLEs tend to be systems that integrate online functions in schools, colleges and universities. Personal Learning environments tend to be used by users who just like to organise their own news, learning and tools feeds.

Now that everyone has a common platform, the web, education and training can use this to get the business end of learning organised. It makes perfect sense to have an online system that does what a small army of administrators (or teachers/trainers) used to do at great expense. The efficient use of these systems saves organisations huge amounts of money. Pedagogically, this has taken the pain out of learner and content administration. All parties, pupils, students, trainees, learners, parents, teachers, lecturers, trainers, managers and administrators can have access to one system.

Authoring and capture tools – a content creation revolution
For centuries teachers have been designing their own lessons and left alone to deliver the content. This is magnificently inefficient. Media capture and sharing should be used for a portion of this effort, but the creation of good content, from simple learning objects, rapid e-learning, scenario-based e-learning up to games and simulations, good tool are needed to create good content. Tools have now emerged that make this task easier, from simple video and screen capture through to high-end 3D games and simulation tools.

This may not have created an army of teachers, lecturers and trainers who create content, as that was the promise. It has, however, allowed those with reasonable design skills and a knowledge of learning to create content in formats that can be shared online. Word doesn’t make you a novelist and an authoring tool doesn’t make you a learning designer. What we do have is the means to a glorious end – the creation of good, effective and powerful, reusable content.

Survival of the fittest
Ultimately this is a battle between the web and institutional inertia. The web, pedagogically has pushed, and continues to push, us towards more learner-centric models, that fit what we know about the psychology of learning. In evolutionary terms it’s between the dynamic world of the web and the dinosaurs. It’s between sharing and doing everything by yourself. It’s between avoiding expensive duplication of effort and doing things at great cost. It’s between, capturing the minds of young people, or boring them. It’s between the past and the future. In the end it’s about the evolution, survival and success of the fittest. I know where my money’s going.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Libraries are barriers to reading

100 Classic Books on Nintendo

Who would have thought? I’ve just seen the ‘100 Classic Books’ title advertised on prime time TV, just after Big Brother, for the Nintendo DS. Brain Training was a hinge product.  It changed the entire games market. Nothing will ever be the same again. But this is even bolder.

Of course, the traditionalists will be waving their reading glasses in horror, as usual. But to turn books into a fetish is simply to deny learning and access by those who need it most. Real books are great, but let’s not confuse the medium with the content. Just as journalists and newspaper owners fail to realise they’re in the ‘news’ not the ‘newspaper’ business, so book fans and publishers fail to realise that this is about reading, not books. Books are simple a piece of technology. A damn good piece of technology, but one that has some strengths and lots of weaknesses. In time its weaknesses will outweigh its current strengths.

Books destroy trees, need to be expensively transported and stored in expensive libraries and retail outlets. Sure they’re portable, but only one or two at a time, not a 100 or 1000? You can’t search them, and they’re difficult to bookmark, highlight, hyperlink or comment without defacing the product. In time, and it may be a long time, books will be read on screens.

Let’s face it, 100 books for less than £20 is 20p per book and the advantages are portability, storage and bookmarking. William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, R L Stevenson, Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Jonathan Swift, George Elliot, Edgar Allen Poe, Lewis Carroll, Jules Verne and lots more, available on a games console. It’s all good.

This is the shape of things to come, just a tiny glimpse of the possibilities in learning. Nintendo have taken a leaf out of Amazon’s and Sony’s book, with Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader both available with massive downloadable libraries. My brother-in-law, a busy man, who’s always on the move, swears by the latter.

We can now see where this can lead us, or more specifically lead our children. Why lock up knowledge and the ability to learn in libraries and schools, when we can publish and distribute it at marginal cost to everyone. As long as we publish in open standards, the devices will just keep on coming. Leave the device design to the experts, like Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun, I believe that Moore's Law will produce $10 devices by 2020, possibly a lot earlier – we just need to focus on free content.

Fill their boots with books

In my book, this is a groundbreaking movement in education. It is not beyond the wits of government to be bold here and recommend an entire ‘digital canon’ for every child in the country.

Take 1000 or 10,000 books, all of the BBC Bitesize content (we the public have paid for it, surely we own it), lots of e-learning, at all levels, language learning, and give it away to every schoolchild for free. Just hand over the entire canon, all GCSE and A-level subjects and lots of juicy extras. The cost would be a tiny fraction of the overall education budget. In fact, I think it can be done at no cost at all.

Libraries as expensive warehouses

How? This may sound like a contradiction – encourage reading by closing the most costly libraries. There are lots of them. The cost of borrowing a book in some public libraries is greater than the cost of the book itself. This may be hard to believe, but it’s true. Divide the actual cost of the library by the number of borrows per year – it’s shockingly high. I don’t mean all libraries or university libraries, just costly public libraries.

Public libraries are no longer encourage reading. In the age of digital abundance, and cheap books, they’re an expensive obstacle to reading. Libraries spend inordinate amounts of time trying to fine people and recover books that people just find too inconvenient to take back. They stop reading from libraries as they criminalise readers. Librarians have become debt collectors.

My local library in Brighton is a beautiful, frightfully expensive, award winning building, but inside is a scrappy warehouse of cheap shelving and a very sparse book collection. Many libraries are just like this, more like bad second-hand book or charity shops. They can’t hope to match the demand-led approach of a real bookshop.

What the planners had to do, to make the idea fly, was include a CD and DVD lending facility. In other words it had to become a Blockbuster to survive. This is the cul-de-sac that the modern library faces, as in the age of digital distribution and downloads; it’s a service that is heading towards vanishing point.

It wouldn’t be so bad if they actually took a business-like view of the world. This New Year I stepped into the local library in my parent-in-laws’ home town, in Scotland. The library had fewer customers than staff, and I simply wanted to use the internet facility they advertised in the window. I was told that I had to be a local resident. Even the offer of payment was rejected.

Then there are the book wardens – sorry librarians. Let’s be honest, they’re mostly just warehouse workers ordering, stacking, handing out, taking in and stacking again. Yet they cost the earth. As graduates (in stacking?) they demand salaries way beyond what the job requires. And many are seriously deficient on the customer care side. The main cost of any public library is the inflated salary costs. This is why the borrowing cost per book in many libraries has become absurd.

OK, I’m sure there’s a few tramps out there and those earnest parents who drag their children along every Saturday, when they’d much rather be playing football or playing computer games, who’ll be seeing this as an affront to civilisation, so I’ll try another tack.

Close down a whole swathe of libraries and encourage, even subsidise, the big bookshops, such as Borders or Waterstones, to expand their activities. They have all the best sites, good coffee, helpful and knowledgeable staff, and better book collections. Give us all some tax breaks on buying books.