Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Head of Digital Engagement -old disengaged duffer wanted

Interesting ad for a rather odd job. Isn't this simply a resurrected 'e-envoy' job that Andrew Pindar had some years back? When confused simply invent a role, quango, project, institution, academy or whatever; launch it with much pzzaazz, then watch it produce a long unreadable, and rarely read report, that is out of date as soon as it is published, become obsessed with its own survival, until finally some future Minister says - what do these guys actually do? Then order the flowers for the funeral. Alternatively it will linger on and die a slow and painful death, sustained by a drip feed of residual funding.

In an attempt to juice up the Job Description, and 'get down with the kids', among the endless life sapping, jobsworth tasks, is the peculiar, 'Introduces new techniques and software for digital engagement, such as 'Jams' into Government'. What the hell is a ‘jam’? The last time this was tried - BBC Jam – several tens of millions were wasted. The job is doomed from the start, as it seems to focus on writing a strategy report, with all the usual bullshit about being able to liaise with ministers, civil servants, industry and so on.

Hire a maverick

To be effective they need to hire a maverick who can work within the online world, using those tools to create change; not a report writing, policy wonk. Don’t hire someone whose career has been in a big IT department or big corporate – they’re blockers not innovators. Don’t hire a luvvie from the BBC, broadcast TV or film background – that’s fatal. Don’t hire someone who wears a bad suit, with a combination lock briefcase, and feels uncomfortable not wearing a tie. Make sure they have a credible history disrupting, blogging, social networking, tweeting etc. Hire a trouble maker. No doubt we'll get some worthy or ex-corporate IT guy like Leitch or Pindar, even worse from another quango, who likes to churn out endless platitudes about globalisation in print and thinks that Twitter is a make of birdseed.

Sector Skills Councils don’t have the skills

Most of the people I know who are engaged in real delivery of learning have little or no knowledge of the Sector Skills Councils. They can’t name them and often don’t know which one represents them. What Sector Skills Council do you e-learning people belong to? What do you mean you don’t know? Let me put forward a few candidates.

Skillset – learning for luvvies

Skillset, like the media supplement of the Guardian on a Thursday, still lives under the illusion that the internet is a passing fad, and that film and TV are the ‘real’ media. Its own website always puts Film, TV, radio and animation (in that order) above that nasty upstart – web, games, etc. Its board is so dominated by TV and film types that it can’t possibly cover web-based industries.

Clive Jones GMTV, Stewart Till UK Film Council, David Blaikley Warner Bros. Distributors, Paul Brown The Radio Centre, Andrew Chitty Illumina Digital (TV), Gaynor Davenport UK Screen Association, Jeremy Dear,NUJ, Julia Dell five, Marion Edwards Red and Blue Productions (TV), Donald Emslie Scottish Media Group plc, Michael Fegan ITV News Group, Diane Herbert Channel 4, Iona Jones S4C, Ian Livingstone Eidos, Nigel McNaught Photo Marketing Association International, John McVay Producers' Alliance for Cinema and Television (PACT), Ian Morrison Carlyle Media, Christine Payne Equity - The British Actors Union, Dot Prior BBC, Mairead Regan UTV plc, Martin Spence BECTU, John Woodward UK Film Council

Is it any wonder that all of us working in what these old broadcasters call ‘new media’ are blissfully unaware of Skillset. What these people know about the web could be written on a pixel. Perhaps it should be renamed as ‘Skilluv’ with the strapline - ‘Skills for Luvvies’. 

Lifelong Learning UK Council - stops dead at 22

Licensed over four years ago, this organisation is almost invisible. Learning for these people is the antithesis of ‘lifelong’, for them it’s formal Tertiary Education. Astoundingly, it has ‘workplace learning’ in its remit, a difficult ball to juggle as there’s no serious input from employers on their board. It’s basically a bunch of University and College administrators with a couple of librarians thrown in for good measure.

As it says on its website, ‘The strategic significance of Lifelong Learning UK cannot be underestimated.’ True, it’s not underestimated: it’s completely ignored. I haven’t come across a soul in the learning industry who knows that it even exists. Apparently, ‘employers ...will look to this SSC for the standards and qualifications of the people who deliver learning in their own workforce.’ That would be good if employers knew it existed. It will also be taking, ‘strategic actions that will impact as much on the supply side as on the demand side.’ Lovely, but neither side know that it exists. So who are these people and what have they being doing for the last four years?

Lifelong learning? It’s actually about lifelong teaching, not lifelong learning, as no private sector supplier gets a look in. The board has not one person from the private sector or representing the private sector training industry. LLUK has a policy of maintaining reserves at a level which would meet the costs of maintaining and closing down the offices over a 3 - 6 month period. Now there’s an idea!

E-skills - well maybe BT skills

I had some dealings with e-skills, an outfit ridden with dissent and organisationally dysfunctional. It had the ‘Towards maturity’ campaign foisted upon it and Laura Overton is doing a grand job here, but they’re sleepwalking when it comes to e-learning and technology in learning. Its strategic plan is full of that general rhetoric one finds in all quangos – ‘emerging new world order...global economy...’ Its National Skills Academy will cost £60 million – what a waste of time and money. The National Skills Academy is fronted by Dragons' Den millionaire Peter Jones, who made loads of money for appearing in BT ads that encourage small businesses to outsource IT (the academy was launched by BT’s CEO Butler). Rather than improve the existing system, or invest in workplace learning, we invent another institution. These agencies simply spawn other entities.

Any the wiser?

The sad truth is that these organisations are not representative of employers or the supply side of the learning industry. If they disappeared tomorrow nothing would change. The solution is to simply stop all of this now. They are a million miles away from the real world of training, which is not obsessed with qualifications and largely ignores educational institutions.

These organisations are already widely believed to be ineffective and way behind the learning curve. You’d imagine that organisations specifically set up to advance the skills agenda would understand something about, well ‘skills’. Don’t believe a word of it. Their skills in terms of their core function are largely non-existent. They know little about learning and are largely ignorant of the role which technology does and can play in learning, the ‘close to retirement’ brigade who lack the agility to really innovate. They have to be relicensed by the National Audit Office, so let’s hope they have the balls to shut down the ones that aren’t working. 

Susan Greenfield - science and snobbery

Does screen-based media change our brains?
Susan Greenfield, the Topshop dressing Professor of pharmacology at Oxford, is all over the news at the moment promoting her dodgy book The Quest for identity in the 21st century. After a quick introduction to brain science through the concept of plasticity, genetics via single gene therapy, the London cabbie experiment and the piano experiment, she gets to the point – is ‘screen-based’ media changing our brains? All cognitive activity changes our brains, but the real question is - from what to what?

As a species we are unique in our ability to learn and adapt, primarily because of our brain size, which is capped due to our skulls and the need to come down the birth canal. The brain is a very plastic and dynamic organ subject to constant change, so much so that every human is unique and different from every other human in history. This seemed like a very obvious point but she makes much of it. She presents this as if it were sound science but there are many in her field who would see her explanation as leaning too far towards the ‘blank slate’ end of the spectrum. Indeed she actually uses the phrase ‘tabula rasa of the infant’ on p229, something very few scientists would dare to do. Her argument is that genes are necessary but not sufficient. This is quite simply wrong – insome cases genes are necessary and sufficient. Genetic diseases such as single-gene defects, multiple gene disporders and chromosomal defects are common. As it is the premise for her entire book, if it is false, she’s in some trouble. The mind is certainly not a blank slate, it is also shaped by genetics.

The examples she quotes are well known, and indeed fascinating. London cabbies have large hippocampuses, as they need bigger working memories. The discovery of the role of the hippocampus in memory is fascinating, with work by Kandel (Nobel Prize) and others leading the way. Just as interesting was the ‘piano practice’ research by Pasceuel et al (1995), where those that simply rehearsed piano practice in their mind showed the same brain activity as those who did the real thing. Hold on - this seems to suggest that virtual mental rehearsal, as opposed to real-life experience is just as effective in learning - the opposite of her later arguments.


You’ve got to worry when Baby Boomers like Greenfield boom out the word ‘Cyber-world’, it’s so 1980s, and a sure sign that they don’t actually know much about technology and the web. There’s much talk, but little evidence, about technology ‘softening our sense of identity’. Indeed, she’s drops unsubstantiated anecdotes like a pub raconteur. For example, on p6, ‘One particularly depressing anecdote I heard after 9/11…there were some who couldn’t really believe that the planes crashing into the Twin Towers…were actually real…so similar were the events to some games’. OMG!

This is where she literally abandons science for speculation. Her big idea is that technology, in particular ‘screen-based culture’, MAY be CHANGING young brains. She was quick to add that she ‘didn’t want to be judgemental on this, as the jury is out’. So far so good. But no, she becomes very judgemental, shifting from MAY to 'DOES' and CHANGING to 'DAMAGING'.

Her categories – Someone, Nobody, Anyone are laughable. The younger generation are in danger of becoming Nobodies, whereas she and her Baby Boomer mates are all Somebodies. This is her crude triumvirate. It’s simplistic, and even if true, her real mistake was to confuse the medium with the message. This is an exercise in crude, unscientific categorisation – and it doesn’t wash. She needs to take a first year course in philosophy.

Dodgy survey

She quotes, without reference, ‘one recent survey’ as showing that children between 8-18 spend 6.5 hours per day online. She raises this, spuriously, to 8.5 hours due to multitasking. It’s a not so recent (March 2005) US only survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and is certainly not a respected authority on such matters. This statistic has been used by the right wing press for some time. In fact it’s a con. The statistic includes TV (3.51 hours), radio/music (1.44) and online a mere (1.52).

The book v screen debate is another of her false dichotomie. The web is full of text; articles, blogs, wikis, journals, even books. It’s where I buy most of my many books. Her attack on all things virtual is based on a simplistic idea of what virtual experiences offer. There’s been a renaissance in literacy on the web and has she never seen an e-book reader?

She loves books (text is her thing) but doesn't really understand that the internet is still largely a text medium. Kids read a lot online, used sophisticated communications tools, Wikipedia, Google and so on. It is semantically rich. Her view was that the internet was episodic, all images and no words. Interestingly, she didn’t attack the Baby Boomer media of film or television, the two most dominant forms of screen based media. ‘Suspension of disbelief’ (a phrase she carefully avoids) is OK it seems, as long as it’s on the media she’s familiar with, books, film and TV.

Her solution
Her solution is a future where creativity was a primary goal. What she forgets is that the internet’has promoted massive levels of creativity, opening up opportunities for personal creativity, user-generated content, music composition, video, personal photography, blogs (text),wikis’ (text), social networking, collaboration, sharing and so on. We are witnessing a renaissance of creativity and communication. More people are better educated and it’s about time the Baby Boomers stopped carping on about the internet, (which they all use to buy books, book their fancy holidays and generally keep the world and wealth to themselves). It’s always tempting for academics to worship the book and their world as intrinsically superior. They’d love us to believe that bookish people are, by definition, better people. I don’t buy this. They really are a smug lot!

This book by the Baroness (only in the UK do we love these feudal monikers) is actually rather rushed, and overlong on personal musings and surprisingly low on science. All pretence at objectivity goes quickly out of the door. However, it does raise interesting cognitive questions, that are probably best answered by others.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Singularity University - the twilight zone

Singularity University? De di de do, de di de do. The name seems like a bit of hubris from Ray Kurzweil (one of its founders) and the prices are astronomical at $25k for a 10 week course, but despite the economic downturn, it’s due to open in June 09. Unashamedly ‘techy’ with a focus on biotechnology, nanotechnology, computing, robotics, space, AI and so on, but curiously, it has more of a religious feel than a university, its stated goal being to solve humanity’s greatest challenges – hunger, poverty, climate change, energy and disease. In fact it has all the hallmarks of a ‘Kurzweil and Diamontis’ cult.

Singularity University aims to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges.” All in a 3 or 10 day course.

A focused attempt to bring together top minds to solve immediate problems may sound utopian, but given the scale and number of the problems, could we give them the benefit of the doubt?

I’m afraid not. There’s several problems here. Kurzweil’s singularity concept is nowhere near a strong enough concept to act as the brand for a major educational institution. It’s not quite as bad as the Trump University, but not far off. Diamantis is a huckster, who seems more interested in private sector space travel, at whatever environmental cost, than solving global problems. In fact, when you look at the faculty, the claim that "We are reaching out across the globe...” is laughable. It’s almost all US faculty, with far too many of Diamantis’s ‘space-buddy’s’ (Robert Richards, Michael Simpson) on the Board, and faculty. Looks like a get rich quick scam.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Anatomy of a classroom: think out of the box

"If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom. And if you wanted to change things, you might have to...start over." Dr John Medina

Out of the box At a Futurelab conference, while I waited to give a keynote talk, the organiser gave us all a piece of card, which you could fold up into a box. We were told to ‘think out of the box’, write fresh ideas on each face, then fold it up, to create ideas on the ‘outside of the box’ (geddit). My first scribble was ‘the classroom’s a box’. The other five were, ‘don’t box-in technology – keep it out of classrooms’, ‘whiteboards are blackboards’, ‘class is a soapbox’, ‘class is limiting factor’, ‘Pandora’s box – unexpected consequences’.

Just days after this event, I started a series of classroom visits, as a school governor, in my children’s secondary school. Teaching hadn’t really changed in the 30 years since I’d last been in a classroom as a boy, with exactly the same dynamic between largely distracted learners and hard working teachers. A few lessons were exemplary, but the truth was that in many others, the students were not engaged, easily distracted and learning very little, sometimes nothing at all. We need to face up to this challenge and think outside of the box that is the ‘classroom’.

Pandora’s box The class, or period, is the basic unit of currency of education. It is the formal box into which everything must be unthinkingly squeezed. But cramming people into a classroom has all sorts of unexpected consequences, not all good. In terms of learning, they are often bad. The classroom is a Pandora’s box, where dysfunctional things can happen simply because it’s a classroom. Most of the time, these problems are contained by the hard pressed teacher, but as young people become increasingly less compliant as learners, it can be depressingly ineffective, erupt into a hothouse of hostility, sometimes collapse into chaos (I witnessed all three). Yet there’s very little reflection on whether the basic classroom is the optimal location for learning. In education, most pedagogic and technological debate simply assume that the classroom should be the primary focus of learning. 

One of the indirect consequences of the dominance of classroom teaching, is that the teacher, by definition, becomes the focus of attention. The learners face one way, and there’s a dominant space where the teacher sits/stands. The teacher adapts to the threat of the crowd by claiming this wall, corner or space at the ‘front’ and the learners cram, as best they can, into a space that is unnaturally small for 30 plus energetic students. It’s difficult to concentrate and levels of attention are almost impossible to sustain in such a crowded, distracting environment. This pushes the teacher’s into a soapbox role. The whole dynamic is set up to encourage a forced, didactic form of teaching where teachers feel duty bound to play the role of classroom manager and lecturer. Top-down lecture methods are still the norm in universities and as degrees are required for teacher training and lectures still practiced in teacher training, so there’s enormous modelling pressure to ‘teach by lecture’ (Brightman 2007). We know that teachers do too much talking and not enough teaching. As a defence mechanism, inexperienced teachers end up keeping learners quiet by being didactic, talking at them. We know that this often results in cognitive overload for learners, a failure to differentiate and low levels of personalised feedback. Teachers get trapped in this soapbox role as their backs are against the wall.

Personal space
Classrooms are often cramped, pushing young people into uncomfortably close contact with each other, causing niggles and a never-ending series of petty distractions. They poke, kick, snigger, talk, doodle, throw things and disrupt others. Distraction is such a confined space is viral. 30+ learners in a relatively small space is a recipe for disaster. They seemed programmed to play and boxing them into tight spaces creates well know territorial problems. This is an area well studied in psychology. Hall described the ‘emotionally charged bubble of space which surrounds each individual’ and research by Felipe and Sommer (1966) showed extreme discomfort among people who have their personal space invaded. Fifty years of research have shown that this matters in terms of psychological discomfort. Classrooms break almost every rule in the book on territoriality. On top of this, to move from class to class means that the learner has no defined territory, and cannot mark and defend their personal territory. The learner is set adrift. These territorial spaces, such as one’s bedroom or favourite chair, are a feature of one’s identity. Classrooms deny almost every aspect of this basic human need. 

Boxed in
Given what we know about the brain and learning the last thing we’d design is the classroom. We evolved in the open savanna, and our brains are designed to solve problems in open environments on the move. We are have not evolved to be sedentary learners in a sealed box. Our evolutionary envelope is not that of the classroom, it is a set of cognitive dispositions that demand interest to gain our attention. The mind has its own box from which it must escape to learn. This is where we should focus our attention. Talking of attention, we need to be psychologically attentive, calm and focused to learn. This is the starting point for learning, without it, learning does not take place. As psychological attention is needed for learning, 30 other people in such a small space means that the room is crammed with distractions. For young children this means wanting to play, flee or fight with others in the room. With teenagers, there’s the powerful sexual distraction of at least fifteen or more potential mates, the other half being competition. Then there’s the windows, promising that longed for freedom. Classrooms are a cornucopia of distractions, which is why so much time and effort is put into behaviour management and not learning. The context is so unnatural that the teacher’s efforts are mostly spent on control. This is why the job is so exhausting. The children go to school to watch teachers work. Spaced practice, a proven, fundamental, scientific fact in the psychology of learning, is largely ignored because it is difficult to accommodate in timetabled, classroom structures. Dr John Medina had trialled spaced practice with mathematics, showing powerful increases in learning, by repeating practice later in the afternoon after morning sessions. A similar trial in a Teeside school showed significant improvements in GCSE grades. It works, but unfortunately it can’t be made to work within the classroom model. Timetables cripple any attempt at repeated practice and most teachers are unaware of the basics of this practice. Learners are boxed in psychologically in a classroom. It’s crowded, rushed and distracting with not enough room to focus, explore and learn. On top of this, it excludes the opportunities to apply, practice and reinforce what you’ve learnt. One has to repeat to remember. 

Madness of moving
Why do hundreds of thousands of students have to up sticks and walk to another room every hour? Can you imagine this in any other walk of life? Let’s say in companies and organisations up and down the land every employee had to stand up and march off from one box to another, every hour. The amount of time spent just packing up, rising, walking, sitting down again and unpacking is astounding. Huge amounts of time, every day, by learners, crushed into corridors, which are rife with friction and bullying. It’s madness. In fact, the one hour period, in itself, is rather odd. There’s nothing in the psychology of learning that points towards an ‘hour’ being a basic unit in learning. We only have hours because the Babylonians had a base-60 number system! We could at least have just three learning periods a day; one up to first break, the second up to lunch, and one after lunch. It can be done. I know, as we’ve implemented this in our own school.

Black boxes
Technology fits uneasily into a classroom. We’ve seen technology get smaller, faster, smarter, easier to use, wireless, connected and cheaper. It’s personal and portable, not fixed to any one location. All of this is at odds with the very idea of the classroom. Technology provides, by definition, personalised learning. There is barely a child or student in the land that doesn’t have a powerful computer, whether it be a mobile phone, PC, Mac or laptop. It is now clear that one laptop per child is a laudable aim and gets learning content, contact and collaboration into the pockets of learners. Contrast this with the rather quaint and useless Multi-user table top classroom computers being mooted at present. If you design technology to fit classrooms you get these ugly, expensive classroom-driven aberrations. Technology frees learning from the tyranny of time and location, to screw it down inside classrooms is to abolish those freedoms and advantages. Classroom geography demands a dominant wall, with a whiteboard. There is no evidence for their efficacy, other than anecdote. Indeed, Professor Frank Coffield claims that ‘the two major studies in the UK show no significant effect on learning’. Tech-savvy children feel frustrated when they see the teacher struggle with simple tasks as they are used to being in control of their online environments. It’s odd for them to simply watch online material on a large screen under someone else’s control. The blackboard was invented in 1870 and we are in danger of keeping it alive well by its sell-by date. It promotes a ‘chalk and talk’ approach to teaching which is at odds with the psychology of learning.
If technology is to be used sensibly in learning it must be embedded in the learning process, not fixed to the walls and tables in classrooms. Consumer demand for small, smart, cheap, wireless devices seems insatiable. This tells us something.

Staffroom as a box
When Malcolm Gladwell was asked what one thing would most improve education he replied, ’Abolishing teacher staffrooms’. He may have been right – a survey published in 2007 showed that teachers top the worst ‘gossips at work’ poll, with 79% talking about their colleagues behind their back. John Taylor Gatto, a National award winning teacher in the US gave up teaching quoting one of the reasons as he could no longer stand the culture of the staffroom. Teachers may lose rank among their peer group if they don’t join in the gossip (Nias 1989) and, worse, may be subjected to rumour and gossip if they shun the classroom (Rosenholz 1989). These studies show troubled teachers, in particular, being at risk. Kainan’s 1994 study of staffrooms found that they were largely simple, colourless, monotonous, devoid of clear functionality and were often split into several cliques; veteran, novice, supply and student teachers. It was a clear hierarchy. Worse than this is the Hammersly study in (1984) that found conversation about students and their parents/carers, was largely condemnatory. Is there a case for scrapping school staffrooms? No other professions have a ‘panic room’ just for managers to chill out, so why have school staff rooms? Surely that’s exactly the time when students are at their most vulnerable in terms of bullying? It’s out of the box, but interesting.

Being boxed in, physically and psychologically, is perhaps the primary problem in learning. It’s unnatural, cramped, at odds with the psychology of learning and a management nightmare. Teachers are overwhelmed by over-stimulated and territorially challenged youngsters, and forced into shouting, soapbox behaviour, demanding that ‘work’ be started, continued and finished. This is no way to run a learning organisation. For once, let’s think out of the box, and design learning around learners, not teachers and buildings.
I should add that I'm not arguing for the scarapping of all classrooms and all classroom learning, only appealing for a balance between this and other contexts for delivery, which include; open learning spaces, libraries, large audience events teaching hundreds at a time, e-learning, home learning, event learning, museum and gallery learning, workplace learning, outside in the sun learning and so on.
By the way, when Pandora opened her box, against the wishes of Zeus, all the evils, ills and diseases of mankind escaped, but at the very bottom there lay ‘hope’.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

E-learning a winner in US Stimulus Bill

E-learning a winner in US Stimulus Bill

In a matter of days the economic stimulus plan in the US will be passed in Congress, and, barring any amendments, e-learning looks like a winner. A pile of money is being spent in double quick time, in line with the stimulus idea.

$1 billion of new funds have been added to the existing $267 million in the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program. 50% of the money will go directly to Title 1 schools and 50% through competitive grants. 25% of the money a school district receives has to be spent on professional development. The expected timescale is fast, with $500 million going to states in July 2009, to be used by September 2010, and the other $500 million in July 2010, to be spent by September 2011.

On top of this, there is $6 billion for broadband and wireless services in underserved areas to strengthen the economy and provide business and job opportunities in every section of America with benefits to e-commerce, education, and healthcare. In the Senate version there is $9 billion for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program to improve access to broadband. This very likely will help school districts, especially in rural areas.

Now that is bold.

Compare it to the incredibly woolly and confused text in the Digital Britain Interim Report on Education and skills (they actually mean education, not skills) and warble on endlessly, using ten year old new labour ‘Creative Industries’ language. Cool Britannia lives on, if only in the minds of official government report writers.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Can ‘skills’ be learnt online?

Google, Wikipedia and other services are great for learning ‘knowledge’, but skills are different. A useful starting point is to replace the crude knowledge/skills distinction with a more sophisticated view of performance, based on types of memory.

Declarative – conscious recall

Semantic – non contextual knowledge

Episodic – contextualised by time and place

Procedural - skills

Prospective – remembering to remember

When the ‘knowledge/skills’ debate is unpacked like this, in terms of actual encoding and recall, it’s more complex, so this is a much better way of answering our initial question, as the web and technology is useful in all of these forms of learning. In practice skills acquisition involved knowledge acquisition.

Declarative – semantic

Semantic – non contextual knowledge

The web and technology have allowed us to develop simple skills around searching, bookmarking and retrieval, which allow us to rely less on the conscious remembering of factual knowledge. Google, Wikipedia and other more detailed and specific services, such as Google Scholar, Google Books and Amazon’s search within a book feature, all help us outsource and lessen the need for declarative, semantic memory. In this sense we have developed a set of skills – search, bookmark etc – that have replaced the need for detailed encoding and recall from long-term memory. However, knowledge still needs to be acquired. Blogging gives both bloggers and readers the reinforcement of semantic knowledge, improving their ability to learn and recall by committing their knowledge and observations to print. Facebook and other social networking increases the social contacts and encounters, strengthening one’s knowledge and recall of knowledge exchanged with friends and contacts. There’s also evidence that all of this online activity and games playing holds off dementia and other features of mental decline. . We write more, look things up more, read more and learn more, so I’d say that declarative, semantic memory has been hugely amplified, improved and enhanced since the appearance of the web and technology.

Declarative - episodic

Learning and recall, contextualised by time and place, has been similarly enhanced by the web and technology. First we capture much more of our autobiographical past through digital photographs, video and audio. Even if we don’t do it ourselves, others may be recording our talks as podcasts and so on. The tools that allow us to store these episodic memories, allow us to retrieve, alter, enhance and distribute such episodes, all the while reinforcing them in our own memories. My travel blog and photographs has greatly enhanced my ability to recall and use the things I’ve learnt from my travels. We now know that our brains have a specific module for remembering faces. This, I believe, has been enhanced through the use of social networking. Putting faces to names is something I can do much better, since I’ve become a frequent social networker, as I’m being constantly exposed to those faces, linked to their names. Visual memories are being reinforced all the time on the web as we see so many relevant visual images online, of people, places, things and events. YouTube has given me almost instant access to short pieces from opinion leaders (TED), politicians, talks, speeches and so on. I can recall dozens of useful things from theses short, episodic videos. Similarly with podcasts. They are much more memorable that TV because I’ve sought them out and they’ve had my full attention.

Procedural - skills

But this is the big one, as it’s the one most relevant to the ‘skills’ debate. The distinction between ‘knowing that’ and knowing how’ has been around since the Greeks, and recently we’ve seen the rise of the ‘How to...’ sites. These differ from the ‘Knowing that’ sites, such as Wikipedia, in that they show you how to DO things. ‘How to’ is the most commonly asked question on the web and ‘How to’ searches account for around 3% of all searches in the US. So skills acquisition has become an entire genre on the web.

An analysis of these ‘How to’ by Bill Tancer, in his book Click, show seasonal variations in the questions asked with a peak during summer and decline in winter. There’s also considerable national and cultural differences. What’s the No 1 ‘How to’ question in the US? It’s held its position for four years now; ‘How to tie a tie’. American kids don’t usually wear uniforms and ties at school, so rarely pick up the skill until they go to work. In some countries the top spot is ‘How to vote’ or ‘How to write a CV’. There’s then lots of ‘How to’ searches by teens around ‘How to kiss/have sex/make out etc’. There’s also ‘How do I find a girlfriend/flirt’ and other anatomical questions. These may sound shocking or trivial, but they’re not to a 13 year old. A whopping 17.3% of ‘How to’ searches are in this category.

YouTube and other sites are packed with skills videos on IT and software. This is increasingly shown, not as text help, but in video form, so that you can store, stop, repeat and learn. Want to know how to do something in Photoshop or make a video or podcast, there’s a video somewhere showing you how. In fact, when you explore the topic of skills, two things strike you; first the sheer range of skills, secondly their practicality. People have lots of skills deficits and need help there and then. One could call these ‘Life Skills’. This is something that education and training are notoriously bad at. Courses are often wide of the mark because they’re too knowledge-based, long-winded, inconvenient, expensive, out of date or simply irrelevant. Another feature of online skills, is the enormous scale of the direct help provided by altruistic people who have these skills to people who need help. The web is awash with willing experts on almost every subject.

If you look at the skills one can learn online, here’s 10 main categories:

1. Specific tasks

How to tie a tie

How to solve a Rubik’s Cube

How to draw

2. Sexual

How to kiss

How to have sex

How to flirt

3. Health

How to lose weight

How to deal with allergies

How to get fit/do a sport

4. Wealth

How to make money

How to get bargains

How to manage debt

5. Computer skills

How to get rid of a virus

How to remove software

How to use software

6. Careers

How to get a job

How to get promotion

How to careers advice

7. Education

How to pass a test

How to choose a course

How to teach

8. Food and drink

How to cook

How to buy wine

How to entertain

9. Home & garden

How to fix things

How to grow things

How to build things

10. Complex skills

How to write a book

How to manage a team

How to get a divorce

Prospective – remembering to remember

You need to remember to pick up your charging mobile phone before you leave tomorrow morning or take that pill. This is not remembering the past, it’s remembering to remember in the future, an amazing cognitive ability. It is tempting to see memory wholly in terms of the past, but we all have to remember to do things in the future. Learning works when it is applied. To do this our brains need cues to remind us. This is terribly important in the application of learning, where what we have learnt has to be applied in the real world. The curious thing about such ‘memories’ is that they seem to just ‘pop’ into your mind. One school of thought (attention is necessary) claims that we need to be attentive, constantly monitoring to recall the intention. Another school (multiprocess) claims that attention and monitoring is not necessary. Whatever the mechanism, an understanding of what we need to do to encourage prospective memory is important in learning. We need to know how to store learning experiences so that prospective memory is used to best effect. It would seem that deliberately designed ‘representations’ to aide prospective memory really do work and that these need to be part of the learning process.

The web and technology gives us useful tools or aide memoires to help us practically. Outlook, Google Calendar, alerts, project plans, to do lists, intelligent suggestions in Amazon, birthday reminders in Facebook, and so on. This is convincing enough in itself, but is it a skill that can be improved through the use of the web and technology. I think so. These tools promote an approach to future planning that encourage future recall by having always on cues. If I don’t actually remember, then I have the skill and access to tools that do the job for me. I know (in the sense of having a skill) to look at my calendar etc.


Those who claim that skills can’t be leant from the web need to look at the evidence. This avalanche of skills activity wouldn’t exist if it didn’t work. Millions now increase their skills through ‘How to’ queries, and many others seem more than willing to help. All of this is completely outside of the formal education and training system. Maybe it’s about time it was brought into the fold.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Memory games

I have a deep and detailed memory of games I played, even years ago. My son, who has played many more than me, can recall, with incredible rapidity and detail, entire environments in dozens of games. The intensity of the experience, along with repeated, spaced practice results in deep processing and good recall. It made me think that any of these games could be used, as recall aids for other subjects. So I’m exploring a new way of using computer games to increase learning with my 15 year old son. I’ve taken one of his GCSE subjects (Psychology) and got him to link each module to a specific area of the game.

For example, the Psychology module on ‘Aggression’ starts with the distinction between ‘Hostile’ and ‘Instrumental’ aggression, followed by Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory research. I’ve got my son to link the first distinction with the opening sequence of the game where both forms of aggression are shown on the screen, actual anger and violence as well as indirect aggression through gameplay. Then, he teams up with another player who he names Bandura (memory link – he wears a bandana). The first area of the game he relates to the experiment where children watch adults perform acts of violence on dummies and are then observed playing with toys. Each new area of the game is used as a place, with relevant characters and cues to link the learning points with the game itself. To recall any one thing he only has to recall the highly visual HD graphic area of the game and that environment and characters act as cues for recall.

The technique, using a remembered building as a memory location, is an old one. It works because you are using already learnt cues to link to the new learning. These games have the advantage of being highly visual, high definition environments full of potential cues. The player/learner is also a dynamic, interactive force in the game, moving through a sophisticated topographic environment, making decisions in a state of high attention.

I think it makes sense because the encoding, storage and recall cues are all strong. By encoding these memories within a well known environment in an organised fashion with vivid cues and deep processing, recall is facilitated by recalling known, vivid cues. It seems to use episodic memory as a way of meaningfully recalling semantic information. It also, I think, uses topographic memory, which can be used in the same way i.e. the journey through different environments in the game, acts as a topographic landscape, on which memory cues are placed.

It has the additional advantage, in that he can be asked to recall this stuff before being allowed to play the game! If this works, and early results are impressive, we’ll use other games he plays for the other modules:

Social Influence – Runescape
Environment and behaviour – Spore
Perception – Call of Duty
Sex & gender – GTA
Phobias – Bioshock

Time will tell!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Google Latitude - the wonders of Social Co-location

Social Co-location
The strangest example of Social Co-location I’ve seen happened to me by accident. This month, when my niece was staying with us, she left the room with her laptop on. I noticed a strange guy sitting in a room on her screen. Turns out this was her boyfriend, who lives in Beersheba in Israel. They liked to keep each others’ webcams on, for hours on end, as it made them feel as if they were in the same room together. How weird is that?

Social Networking seems to know no limits with 110 million on Facebook, 83 million on MySpace and the world Twittering away. This phenomenon, keeping in touch with others, is a hurricane, still gathering force. Mobile voice was followed by mobile texting, then MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and now Google Latitude. I call this latest dimension to Social networking, Social Co-location, people knowing where others are at any time.
It’s yet another example of the death of distance, taking us back, I think, to more natural social groupings. We have evolved to live in social groups of around 30, with kinship at the core of our groupings. Robert Dunbar then explored the cognitive limits of our social groups, showing that it topped out at around 150. This seems to have been superseded by actual behaviour on social networking, where the 150 limit is exceeded. Or has it? It’s difficult to get average figures for Facebook, but one source quotes; Average Number of Friends 164 and Median Number of Friends: 132, giving some support to Dunbar’s figures.

Google in the desert
Google have wrapped the earth with several beautiful several skins – Google Earth, Google Maps and Google Streets. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Google Earth and literally swooned with admiration. In December, I was planning a walk on the West Bank of Luxor, in Egypt, and did it using Google Earth. As I was swooping around, I noticed some huge mounds of earth south of my planned route. On further exploration of the Wikipedia links on the map, I found that it was an enormous ancient Egyptian harbour. Armed with a colour printout of the area, we walked across the desert, via a Monastery, and ended up showing these images to the dirt-poor kids, with their goats, who lived on the fringe of the desert. They were puzzled at first. They didn’t speak English, and we knew little Arabic. But they got it. I pointed to the sky and showed them their house on the map, they pointed out other features on the printout. It was a fantastic moment, as Google put two 50 year old guys in touch with the curious minds of these young kids. Everywhere we went we were invited in for tea by these wonderfully friendly people. I’ll never forget it.

Lost soul
In a trip into the desert later that week by car, we had to put our guide in the boot of the car as there was no room inside! After a fantastic trip where he showed us ancient tombs and prehistoric rock art, we returned to the Nile Valley road. I was keen to get a photograph of him emerging from the boot, but when we opened it, it was empty! He had lost a shoe and in the cloud of dust, created by our car, had fallen out without us realising. We soon found him, using binoculars, and all had a real laugh. Google Earth was used when we got back to identify what we had seen, even the academic papers describing the rock paintings. Google Earth gave us a view of the area we would never have had on the ground or with maps.

Google Latitude and Co-location
Google Latitude will take all of this to an altogether different level. It layers your location and the location of others you know on to Google Maps. It’s an opt-in system, and useful if you want to locate friends, relatives and colleagues. Nowhere to hide? If you’re a little concerned about privacy, or hiding from your father, mother, wife or husband, you can set your location to somewhere else, on a friend by friend basis. Kid and teenage tracking is likely to be big, but they’ll get round it. They always do. I’m sure we’ll be surprised at how this one is used and look forward to the first batch of divorces as people forget to switch it off and so on.

To get the lowdown on Latitude, and add it to tour computer or mobile click here.
For a video on the privacy features click here.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Lumiar leads learning by doing

Lumiar schools don’t look like schools i.e. they don’t look like factories, hospitals or prisons. And the children are not regimented daily into doing work they find dull. Make no mistake this is a formal learning environment but they have transformed learning into another very different project, far from the current classroom, subject, lesson model. They are not interested in incremental change, which they feel just settles back down into the traditional model. It’s a massive, transformative, gear shift. What they do is swap the traditional knowledge-based learning that.... model, with a learn by doing learning how....model. Learning how to do things becomes the means of knowing things.
The whole thing was started by Ricardo Semler, an industrialist who has written Maverick and The Seven-Day Weekend.

Learning projects
Like DeLorenzo, students have a competency matrix and learning takes place through problem solving and projects, which try to match the student’s interests. Learning Projects, based on work going back to Dewey, lie at the heart of the process, and are renewed at least every two months. Some projects are done by all, others are choices. It’s not that all learning projects have to be ‘fun’ only that motivation must be maintained if true learning is to take place. It’s truly a ‘learn by doing’ model, where core mega-competences and lots of sub-competences, allow lots of choice within a clear structure.

Learning portfolio
A Learning Portfolio is used to track progress and discuss issues and direction. This is no libertarian or laissez-faire approach – it is rigorous. Students choose projects with their parents and tutors. Parental involvement, just like the DeLorenzo approach, is strong. They go to great lengths to distance themselves from Libertarian schools, such as Summerhill. The do have a curriculum, namely a Competency Matrix and a methodology, namely their Methodology of Learning Projects, but don’t for one minute imagine that this is an easy ride. It’s tough, demanding but satisfying. Learners are not left to their own devices, but encouraged to go stretch themselves and acquire 21st century skills not 19th century knowledge.

Circle assessment
Traditional assessment is replaced by observation and human discussion, daily, weekly and at the end of projects. The Circle is a collaborative approach to assessment that gets away from the simplistic pass/fail opposition and the language of failure.

Masters and Tutors
There are no teachers as such, only Masters and Tutors. Traditional teaching is split into two separate roles; mentors and tutors. Masters are the project people, responsible for the coordination, execution and evaluation of students doing projects. Tutors are student supervisors, responsible for groups of students, their welfare and assessment.

Like DeLorenzo, technology is not seen as an add-on for teachers, but a learning tool for students. Technology is used to solve problems by the students themselves. They are not learning how to use technology but using technology to learn. Behind the system is a piece of software called Mosaic which is a competency matrix, database of projects and hold the learning portfolios.

Finally, here’s a blog about these wonderful schools...

Forget Sarah Palin, DeLorenzo's the real deal

Alaska has given us more than Sarah Palin, we also have Richard DeLorenzo, an aspirational Governor for Education, who gave a talk at the recent World Education Forum in London. Of course, despite talking good sense, he will be dutifully ignored by all who attended. Why? Like Obama, he wants radical change. DeLorenzo is no ordinary visionary, he actually practices what he preaches and proceeds by proving his concepts before recommending them to others. So what’s his recipe for success?

DeLorenzo points out that the education system is actually a factory of failure. In the US 7000 students drop out completely every day, while an astonishing 15 million fail to reach proficiency annually. In his district the story was exceptionally bad; unemployment 52.3%, poverty at 75.7%, 90% of students could not read at grade level, one college graduate in 20 years and a 50% teacher attrition rate. The traditional system was failing big time. So he transformed his schools - big time.

Time-based TO Performance-based

Textbook-driven TO Research/Standards-driven

Passive learning TO Active learning

Teacher-driven TO Student-driven

Fragmented TO Transparent curriculum

Grades A-F  TO  A-B try again

Low expectations TO International benchmarking

Curriculum irrelevant TO Relevant curriculum

Students diversity ignored V embraced

3 Rs TO 3Rs plus 21st century skills

Teacher judges students’ work TO Everyone judges

Little technology TO Technology embedded systemically


He opted out of the state educational system to design and implement a ‘performance’ rather than ‘credits’ based system. Students did not simply spend seat time moving from year to year through the system. They made progress based on competence, not age using personal learning plans. They simply didn't allow students to fail. And his results have been outstanding, award winning and most of all leading to subsequent success for students. This is no woolly, liberal approach. It's hard headed and focuses on results.

Part of his philosophy is to open out education to other stakeholders in society, especially parents workplace representatives. He hates the idea of a closed system that shuts other institutions out. He listened to businesses and saw that they wanted good transferable skills; conflict resolution, meetings skills, team skills etc, and started to build these into his system.

A shared vision with a burning focus on basic standards was implemented in; maths, technology, social science, reading, writing, cultural awareness, personal/social/health, career development, service and science. A standards-based design underpins the whole approach along with continuous improvement. The RISC approach to learning is where the entire educational system is organized around engaging students in 21st century skills‚ working at their developmental levels and advancing only when they have demonstrated proficiency. To be specific, in reading from the 28th percentile nationally to 71st, in maths from 53rd to 78th and in spelling from 22nd to 65th.

He also believes, and this is critical, in embedding technology systemically into the system, especially one laptop per child.

$10 laptop - India leads the way

At Learning Technologies I talked about the stupidity of the table-top computer in schools and their fondness for DIY IT, whereby every school gets a budget and they all reinvent the wheel by doing the same thing, slowly, expensively and often badly. The well intentioned IT person in every school is struggling to get the website, VLE, security and resources for their schools in order. BETT is the showcase for this amateurism. It’s madness.

That’s why I mentioned the possibility, first mooted by Bill Joy the co-founder of Sun, of the $10 laptop. He saw this as a simple extension of Moore’s Law (exponential processor power) and others have added Metcalfe’s Law (exponential network power) and Reed’s Law (exponential utility of networks). This was reported last week as happening in India, but turns out to have been lazy reporting by the press. It is in fact a $100 laptop, something we’ve heard of before, through the one laptop per child initiative. It is clear that the cheap netbook or laptop is now about the same price as a games console and therefore within the reach of most parents. If we want personalised learning we must use personalise technology. In short, netbook/laptop/mobile technology will get more powerful, smarter, easier to use, wireless and cheaper. There will also be great leaps forward in screen technology that reduces battery power. The $10 laptop will, I believe, come in time. 

But there’s more to this story than meets the eye, as it has another important component, the supply of content through the Sakshat portal. The vision is to link schools via broadband to resources that will be available to every child with a laptop. This is precisely what we should be doing in the UK. We must also remember that good content must be created centrally and distributed at low cost to all schools. You can’t rely on rapid development tools and teachers doing it for themselves, as they have neither the time nor skills to get the job done. God knows we’ve been punting this idea around for nearly 25 years with no progress reported so far.