Sunday, January 16, 2011

JISC a minute! Why JISC can’t deliver innovation.....


Many moons ago I was contacted by JISC to speak at one of their events, but when I provided the usual biography and picture, they got back to me saying I couldn’t speak as I, “was not affiliated to an educational institution”. I pointed out to the hapless girl on the phone that it was THEY who had asked me to speak. So much for engagement with the outside world. It would seem that not much has changed.

JISC censorship

No surprise this year then, when friend of mine found himself in a similar Kafkaesque position with JISC. They had asked him to speak on mobile learning (he really is an expert here) but when he submitted his abstract they hastily arranged an ‘Elluminate’ meeting, where of a group of 7 JISCers (overstaffed I’d suggest?) began to unashamedly edit the talk. They literally outlined what they wanted him to say. His response: “To which I replied ‘fuck off’” was natural. He explained that he was very busy and wouldn’t become a proxy for their views, and offered to ‘univite’ himself from the conference. They relented and let him speak.

The point of these stories is not to say that JISC is wholly and utterly useless. It’s not. In fact, it has many good people and strengths. It is, however, at times inward looking and sometimes institutionally blinkered, especially on innovation. First, it’s just too big and amorphous. There’s been an army of JISC bods around at conferences over the last few years. Many are pretty good and knowledgeable. Fair enough, as I applaud efforts to get some innovation in FE (which is normally ignored) and HE. Problem is, I don’t see enough innovation in HE and FE. It’s not that JISC isn’t trying to be innovative; it’s just that the model is wrong. They have several things going against them. As one senior FE person said to me last week, “FE and HE don’t innovate because they ’ve never had to”. But it’s really about a fundamentally flawed approach to innovation and cultural change.

JISC and innovation

Look up JISC on Google, and it says JISC - Inspiring Innovation. But does it? The website still has David Lammy as the Minister for Higher education, and there's a feeling that its insularity is a problem. The name's a bit of a giveaway as it has its roots, not in educational innovation but IT; Joint Information Systems Committee.

JISC can’t be the major innovator, as much of the major innovation in FE and HE has come from the outside. The technology is the domain of the private sector, OER is largely driven by Foundations and pedagogy is still, well stuck in the ‘lecture’ driven rut. They mention the word ‘pedagogy’ a lot, then default back to lectures. Try questioning the ‘lecture’ - I did and got crucified at ALT, but when the talk was released on YouTube it attracted lots of positive attention (lesson learnt – get out more).

Large scale institutional change in FE and HE, such as the OU, Learndirect, University of Phoenix, MIT and other innovative organisations, have often come from external sources of inspiration, whether it’s politicians, smart public servants or entrepreneurs. I’m not saying innovation is solely in the domain of the private sector, but it’s certainly not natural territory in the public sector. We need both.

Some JISC innovation projects have to be seen to be believed. Well, maybe not even seen. Take the “Blind interactive simulation cricket user training”. Surely this is proof enough of the second and third rate ‘faux’ research in this area. The project objective is to “create a bespoke digital interactive practice and coaching space for Blind Cricket”. This is ‘donkeypedia’ territory.

People, not processes, innovate

You can look at innovation in technology and education in two ways:

1. Diffusion (nudges, gradualism, lots of small projects, pilots etc.)

2. Disruption (big thinking, strategic change)

I fear that the first has been the model for far too long and has failed in so many ways. Colleges and universities have failed to climb the e-maturity path, share little in terms of best practice and tend to default to traditional, embedded norms.

The second, disruption, is possible, I think, because the political climate wants cost savings. There is the real possibility of reshaping education with increased use of the OU and OER model. This is all about SCALABILITY, whether it’s recorded lectures, online content, alternatives to lectures, a fourth semester, reduced capital expenditure and OER. SCALABILITY is the key term for me, which is why I object so much to the 'it's not about the technology' line. It's the technology that gives us pedagogic scalability. That's what makes Google, Wikipedia, iTUNES U, Youtube, Facebook and OER resources work. We have seen how the OU and Learndirect have positioned themselves as effective and scalable solutions in everything from basic skills to PhDs, yet few in JISC would have the slightest idea of how this is done in a real delivery organisation like Learndirect, as they don’t engage with many outside of FE and HE.

JISC, and others, by definition, can never lead, or even discuss, radical innovation. They are reduced to ‘nudges and pilots’ which fail because there’s no real subsequent sharing and adoption of best practice. There’s no shortage of good of ideas, just a shortage of will and impact. I had a lecture from someone at BIS last week who talked about this very problem. There are lots of ideas but little changes, as dissemination and adoption is weak. He rolled out the usual ‘stimulate, incubate, adopt’ model, forgetting the simple fact that processes don’t innovate, PEOPLE innovate.

What to do?

OK, the times they are a changin’. Has the pressure to innovate arrived? I think so. We have to get the cost side of education down through scalable solutions. That is the realpolitik for the next decade or more. That means radical innovation around scalable solutions, and not some fatuous debate about how many kids on free school meals get into Oxford.

Note, that I’m not saying that JISC should not exist, just that it should be realistic about its role as it is straightjacketed in terms of innovation. There’s a real need for IT support and advice, but not an army of people who inadvertently reinforce the status quo. Grant money can only be claimed by existing FE and HE institutions, and that limits innovation to internal sources. This actually stops innovation. We need to bring together, Foundations, companies, entrepreneurs, politicians, civil servants, FE leaders and HE leaders to tackle the crisis. In many ways I saw an attempt at this at the WISE Summit in Qatar. But trying to do this through JISC is, I fear, ‘doomed to succeed’.

HEFCE review

This review started September last year and is due to deliver Spring 2011. To be honest, the membership of the review group may determine the outcome as it lacks any genione outide voices. Reviews such as this need to have the credibility of objectivity, so I hope they really do show such objectivity, and get over the hurdle of being 'on the inside', the very problem I've highlighted.

Friday, January 14, 2011

OK Jimmy Wales – what's next after Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a miracle and Jimmy Wales walks on digital water. So it was great to both see him speak, and get to speak to him, at Learning Without Frontiers this week. A truly 21st century phenomenon (started 2001) and thorn in the side of those who think that knowledge is the domain of libraries and educational institutions, Wikipedia is BIG, with over 3.5 million articles in English, appearing in 262 languages (not all are fully populated).What’s more, it’s a fantastic legacy, as important as the publication of any book in history, as it has an astounding past (crowdsourced) and a fecund future, in terms of content, access, growth and impact. So what answers did Jimmy Wales have to the following questions?

How many?

Last month there were 408 million unique users. Think about that for a minute. Only China and India have more people.

Who’s looking at what?

Turns out different countries look at different things. The Japanese are obsessed with ‘pop’. Germans have ‘geography’ as their top topic (should we be worried?) and Spain ‘science and technology’. On the whole, however, pop, sex, history, geography, science and health are the big topics. Did you know that the LOST scriptwriting team had to use LOSTpedia to check when new references came up as the whole thing became too complicated to track?

Who creates the content?

Wikipedians are 87% male, average age 26, highly educated (almost all graduates) and the majority do not have a partner or children. Jimmy described them as “intelligent, obsessed guys with too much time on their hands”. Now some could see this as a bit of a problem, but hey, is it our fault guys? Get on there girls.

Wikipedia in China

When Jimmy was in China he was in a restaurant and Wikipedia appeared on a menu. This happened several times and people sent him menus from all over China with Wikipedia dishes on the menu. He guessed that people searched on Google for translations for dishes and since Wikipedia comes up often, it was carried over blindly onto the menus.

More seriously, China banned Wikipedia, but freed up the site around Olympics time, and now only block sensitive pages such as Taiwan and Tiananmen Square. It’s still the one country where whole classes of students have never heard the term ‘Wikipedia’. Everywhere else, the majority have not only heard of it but used it regularly.

Who hates Wikipdedia?

So what did Jimmy think about the ‘haters’, mostly academics? As he explained, they mostly don’t understand what Wikipedia is, in terms of construction, editing and discussion. Sure things are wrong, at times, but as he explained, on the whole, it’s pretty good, and as good as other traditional sources of printed knowledge. To those who say it’s too editorialised, his reply was that you can’t accept all contributions for entry and not have an editorial process. It can’t be completely open. On the whole Wikipedia is built by smart people who care.

What next?

I asked Jimmy whether he ever thought Wikipedia would create an education version, as teachers are not scalable and a step by step instructional adjunct with self-assessment tools would make it more relevant to education. He misunderstood the question a little and referred me to Wikibooks and explained that there’s too many national accreditation boards to consider. That didn’t stop him forging ahead with Wikipedia. Simply go round them. Ignore them. Let users and creators decide on content.

This is important, as Wikipedia broke the back of the encylopedia market, then broke the illusory monopoly that publishers and academics had on knowledge. But more than this, it showed that human beings are decent, altruistic beings who know a good and worthy thing when they see it, and are willing to help create things in education outside of the institutional structures.

I suspect that the next big educational resource will come from another source. Wikipedia is what it is, we need something similar but different.

Solution 1: Wiki textbooks

You can create textbooks through wikis, and use collaborative web-based creation and distribution for quality educational content. The problem here, seems to be the fondness for the ‘book’ metaphor i.e. Wikibooks etc. We don’t want books, we want web-based content.

CK12 is a possible breakthrough, as Jimmy Wales is on the board, and it’s well funded. You can use, edit and customise their textbooks. It’s pretty neat with good drag and drop creation tools, but again, it’s the ‘textbook’ metaphor that limits its usefulness.

Solution 2: Questions and answers wiki

Quora may be the sort of thing that will work. It’s created, organised and edited through crowdsourcing, but organises knowledge as answers to questions (which may in themselves be edited). This puts a more natural front-end onto a knowledge base, as queries are almost always framed as questions, not keywords. However, one question, one answer fails to create the dialogue and opportunities for structured learning.

Solution 3: Wiki Self-paced content

Take a structured, subject based resource, similar to BBC Bitesize, and allow it to grow and edit through crowdsourcing, with an editorial eye that knows good questions, good answers and there are opportunities to answer questions by the learner. Note that I’m not suggesting an expansion of Bitesize. That’s defaulted into little bits of animation add-ons.

Solution 3: Self assessment tools

This, I believe is the key to unlocking the open source knowledge market. Educational institutions have a stranglehold on education, making it incredibly expensive. That stranglehold is reinforced by the noose of accreditation. If we can free assessment from institutional control, we free up education for all. A populated open source Assessment tool that allows you to create, edit and use assessments would be a boon to learners and organisations.

Solution 4 All of above

Over the next ten years I see these fledgling wiki-led, open source movements produce resources in learning that are as powerful as Wikipedia. It needs a combination of good content and assessments. It also needs a credible open source brand, like Wikipedia. But Jimmy Wales, is not on this tack. To be fair he’s changed the world forever with Wikipedia, it would be a bit much to expect him to do it twice! If anyone is interested, contact me.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Kinect from Mr Kinect himself at Microsoft

Man or mouse?

Are you a man or mouse? You can now be both, as Kinect gives your body control of the computer. Screens are 2D but the world is 3D, that’s why there’s a mismatch. Computers are poor on real world space, and so we have to tell them who we are and what we want them to do through keyboards, mice, joysticks and touchscreens. But with Kinect, the real world, with you in it, is now an operating environment. Kinect-like interfaces allow 3D interaction without all of those helmets, gloves and body sensors. It’s virtual reality without the hassle of gadget armour. It allows the real person to operate within the computer and within environments generated by the computer. Just step up and off you go.

You as interface

How does it do this? Well, I lucked out this week as I had two sessions with the guy who heads up the Kinect technical team. It was like speaking to someone from the far future. A true ‘Me-interface’ has to recognise you as a body, along with your voice and what you say. This ain’t easy. In Kinectables, you can stroke, feed and train animals. You stroke your chosen pet, and see it respond, then give it a name by saying it out loud. You can toss a ball to your cub and he’ll nod it back and use voice commands, such as ‘play dead’ and he’ll drop.

Your body

The first problem with body position is size: we’re fat, thin, tall, short. On top of this we come in lots of different shapes. Then there’s appearance, in terms of hair, clothes, glasses etc.. Now add in the clutter of a background. How do you pick bodies out? Kinect’s cameras peel you away from your background. Note that 2D doesn’t do it for this task, you need 3D as depth images allow you to recognise body parts.

To understand how Kinect works, you need to see it as a database with over 1 million body positions that is rapidly compared with the output of the depth cameras (infrared plus monochrome). The infrared laser projects a grid of 50,000 dots and the RBG camera picks up the depth difference between these dots through parallax differences. The body is then reduced to around 30 body parts based on joint positions i.e. reduced to angles and positions. It is interrogated and position inferred. In that respect it’s more Deep Blue than a pure rules set. But the software also learns and this is the key to its success. It can track six people but only cope with two serious game players at a time. 1.2-3.5 metres and the tilting motor adjusts the sensor by up to 27 degrees. The Kinect software takes up around 190Mb and is a compromise, as the games guys want most of the available space for their games software.

Your voice

This is not as clever as the Peter Molyneux video suggests as it’s limited to commands, and is currently quite poor on natural language recognition. Just imagine the technical problems of isolating the sound from the background noise during a loud game and tracking different voices in a 3D environment. It does, however, have an array microphone, making it directional, so it can distinguish and isolate several different moving sound sources. You can use this for audio and video chat through Xbox Live.

Looking to the future, natural language processing is notoriously difficult but affordable software such as Dragon is around. Once this reaches a consumer price point and efficacy that allows it to be embedded in games consoles and other mobile devices, another step will have been taken in terms of the ‘Me-interface’. Google Translate for Android has just been updated to include a live conversation translator. You click on the microphone, speak, and it reads aloud the translated text.

Kinect 2….

The development kits have not been released, except for current developers and a few universities. Indeed, there’s a debate going on within Microsoft about open v closed development. My money’s on ‘closed’ as it’s in the Microsoft DNA. The hacked MIT open source release is only the for the depth camera, so there’s no body configuration stuff and that’s what really matters. So what’s in the pipeline?

They bought Primesense, bought for their camera technology along with a couple of other advanced camera companies, one is Canesta, and that tells you what’s coming. The next version with increase all dimensions by 4. Remember that increasing a current 50-60,000 number along each axis gives you a quantum leap in fidelity. It will easily resolve fingers and other smaller objects (at the moment it recognises your hands only). Even more astounding is the fact that within two years the ‘parallax’ sensing of the current Kinect will be replaced with ‘speed of light’ Canesta sensing, where differentials in the speed of light determine position. Now that’s not a step change it’s a dimensional leap that gives us accuracy.

Future apps?

Knowing where someone is in terms of body position and gesture has huge possibilities. A hugely accurate and high-fidelity system could replicate you elsewhere either as a hologram or robot, that mimics your every movement. This transportation can replace travel. Here’s a quick Kinect hack with Kinect as a robot (Kinectbot), where it moves around and recognises objects and people, along with gesture control. To give you some idea of the creativity unleashed by Kinect see these 12 favourite Kinect hacks. It can know what you’re doing when driving, so that it could warn you when you’re using a mobile or nodding off. It can take gesture commands, rather than reaching out to buttons on your radio or satnav. Surgeons in operating theatre can use gestures to get up X-rays or MRi scans during operations as they can’t touch possibly infected keyboards or touchscreens.

Incidentally, Steve Ballmer has also announced that there’ll be a PC version.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Kinect for Christmas: future unleashed!

Some pieces of technology just pull the eyeballs out of your sockets. This one had me literally leaping about with delight. I remember seeing Doom, Google Earth, Skype, Wii and iPhone for the first time. You just shake your head at the wonder of what you see, and so it is with Kinect.

It was much quicker to connect and set up than I had anticipated. You just need as a big a space as you can muster, free from things that break, because, believe me, within seconds you’re cutting some weird shapes on the dancefloor, gym mat or game space.

For those of you who don’t yet know, Kinect eliminates the need for a controller (although it can still be used in some games such as Harry Potter). Your bodies are scanned through more than 50.000 dots, so it recognises positions, gestures and on top of this voice, to give you a really new learning and game experience. All the shoot ‘em up fanboys will cry ‘so what’ but my very own Black Ops 3rd prestige level 46 son, was whooping with joy when he gave it a go.

When you see that sensor eye swivel up automatically to get you in shot, you know you’re about to see something special.

Dive straight in

On Christmas Day I had 4 to 80 year olds playing, and lots of ages in between. The science-fiction nature of the technology gets their attention but, as we all know, familiarity breeds contempt, so what kept them going? ‘Ease of entry’ was the big draw. For those unfamiliar with gaming and/or consoles, you simply step up and the sensor recognises you, telling you to simply step back if you get too close. It’s easier than any other games machine to use as it does all the work. The step by step instructions get you to DO things, without having to resort to buttons, joysticks or mice. You’re in and playing before you realise it.

That’s me that is

As your on-screen avatar reacts in exactly the way you do, it’s quite strange to catch yourself, brushing back your hair, scratching you nose, standing in a certain position or striking a pose. We see ourself as others see us. We don’t often see ourselves, except in front of static mirrors and as Kinect shows you moving, it’s sort of familiar yet unfamiliar, fascinating but weird. Once you start playing the doppelganger effect is natural.


You know those photos taken on rollercoasters that you pay $10 for on exit, you get a batch of these for free, taken at just the moment in the game you’re likely to be in an extreme jump or pose. This is a nice piece of after-game feedback, although you need a well lit room for good shots. In some games, such as Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, your body image appears on your avatar, face, clothes and all.

Learning with Kinect

Kinect has to be played to be believed and it turns the Xbox into more than just a games console. You’re witness to the start of something new and big. We’ve had ‘first person shooters’ now we have the possibility of true ‘first person doers’ and ‘first person thinkers’. It really does know what you’re doing, communicating and saying. The sensor’s eye’s the limit.

First person doer

Kinect’s most obvious first batch of applications are around exercise and sports– doing something physical. As it can scan in your body shape it can also have a go at your height, rough weight and BMI. Fitness and exercise games are already available with everything from aerobics, gym exercises, Tai Chi to yoga. Poses in yoga and other light forms of exercise can be tracked, as can balance and actual performance. You can cheat with hand devices by shaking them up and down, you can’t with Kinect’s roving eye. Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, gives you yoga, workouts with weights and gym games. Personal trainers guide you through and give feedback in Tai Chi, Yoga, fitness classes, boxing blocks at they appear, hoops for stomach and hips, stack em up for upper body. Dance is the other obvious first genre and there’s already an eight-ball selection of titles, such as Dance Masters, Zumba and Dance Central.

Then there’s sports and sports simulations. One can easily imagine, superb golf, tennis and otherracquet simulations and coaching programmes that match your performance and shape it towards those of champions. Kinect Sports has football, track & field, boxing and bowling. This really is exhausting stuff.

Alternatively, Kinect Adventures is a good introduction to exercise with fun. River Rush, where you river raft on your feet (on your own or with two on the boat) and is hugely energetic.Rallyball has you returning balls by head, arm, hand, knee or foot; truly knackering. Space pop allows you to defy gravity and fly by raising your arms to pop bubbles. Reflex Ridge has you dodging obstacles in a wipeout game. 20,000 leaks sees you trapped in a glass tank where you reach with hands and feet to plug leaks caused by aggressive fish and sharks.

Moving beyond this to therapeutic physiotherapy, where balance and the regaining of physical skills is necessary, these applications can rehabilitate after a bone break, strain, stroke or amputation, avoiding the lack of compliance and frequent hospital visits.

Then there’s physical tasks at work, such as manual handling, physical maintenance, object manipulation, operating machinery and vehicles. Many jobs have manual components that require learning and actual practice. There could therefore be a role in vocational training for such technology.

This learn by doing can be taken over into kinaesthetic approaches to learning maths, science and other subjects. There’s no reason why objects and symbols can’t be manipulated in calculations and virtual labs. In fact, here’s a hacked example. There is evidence that this ‘apparatus’ approach to these subjects helps with both understanding and retention.

In history, we could wander the streets of Rome (Caspian have already built the 3D model and game for web delivery). Any environment past to present, microscopic to astronomical can be walked through, explored and used in active learning.

First person thinker

Peter Molyneux thinks a slew of new genres will emerge as our imaginations grasp the potential. His Milo demo is already the stuff of legend. In teaching people how to think and behave, we at last have a piece of technology that gets rid of the input barrier; those annoying mice, keyboards, controllers, joysticks and even touchscreens that put so much cognitive lag between what we want to do and what we can or actually do. Input devices are simply the design flaws of immature technology. We don’t carry use them in most real life situations, so when they vanish, everything seems so much more real.

Face to face tasks such as meetings, chairing meetings, interviewing, appraisals, disciplinary meetings, grievance meetings, coaching, counselling and mentoring will become topics in simulators as we learn to do these things in safe environments by simply sitting down on front of the screen. We can make all of the mistakes that others make in real life, to learn from failure rather than inflicting our failures on others.

Customer service skills with a wide range of possible customers, randomly generated, or weighted towards your client base, can be presented and your behaviour and words tracked. Even ancillary tasks such as checking in baggage for airports staff, handing over security badges, searching at security and so on, will be possible.

Sales skills can be sharpened through both visual feedback and voice recognition, so that the right listening skills and reactions can be learnt back at the ranch where they do no harm, and not in front of real customers.

Presentation skills can be taught quickly, with immediate feedback on performance, both physical and vocal. You will be able to see yourself present as well as get an intelligent diagnosis of your faults. Timing, gestures, position, speed of delivery, emphasis should all be trackable.

At a higher level, full organisational and business skills around business planning, sales, marketing and strategic talks can be tackled in realistic simulations.

Me, you, them

Note that in Kinect, or Kinect-like technology there’s:

1. One-to-self learning with you on the screen

2. One-to-one learning with someone on the screen

3. One to one with another real person

4. Or a threesome or more

It’s a self, first, second and many thinker simulation tool. The combinations of all three make this an extremely versatile simulator, come game, learning experience.

Future of Kinect

We are at the start of an era where learning will be freed (where appropriate) from the dry page, freed from the lecture theatre and classroom, and available to all though digital abundance and duplication on affordable technology in every home. This is exciting as much education and training is trapped in the inefficient environments of schools, colleges, universities, classrooms and lecture halls. If we don’t find ways of freeing learning from the huge capital cost of building and running buildings, and paying armies of often stressed teachers, then these possibilities must be entertained. Of course you can always sit back and play non-Kinect games such as the classic Halo, or shove in a DVD.

(Next post on mindblowing Kinect applications already in research and development.)