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.


Unknown said...

I think a combination of mobile hardware enhancements (through netbooks and mobile phones) along with high adoption of the cloud computing environment could drastically change the way we look at data. This combination would provide consumers with the ability input and access data at anytime, anywhere.

My company, AirSet ( is working on a cloud computing solution for groups and life management. We are constantly looking for complimentary hardware to work with as entry point into this new and exciting market.

Dick Moore said...

Strongly agree with your take on Electronic tables, good grief, anyone seen what happens to school desks ! Look to "android" the operating system designed for phones to impact what most people will have in their pockets 18 months from now.