Friday, October 28, 2011

When apprenticeships go bad (7 fails)

When I was growing up in Scotland I knew lots of people on ‘apprenticeships’. My uncle, adopted by our family at 16 (we shared a room), became an apprentice joiner, and went on to work all over the world in Africa and the Far East, eventually becoming a Director in the Local Authority. It served him well. But the whole system was dismantled by both Labour and the Tories, one seeing it as second-best, the other killing it off as part of the free labour market. Big mistake.

I have some sympathy, however, with the current government’s attempt to bring them back. With £1.4 billion of funding in 2011-12 it should have some impact. But ask yourself a few questions. Do you really know what a modern apprenticeship is? How long does it last? Can you name the politician in charge? Can you name the Minister in charge? Do you know what government department is responsible? This shows the  myriad of problems, here's just seven of the 'fails'

1. Brandless
What is an apprenticeship? Well, it’s been widened and diluted so much that it’s hard to tell. A qualification needs to be a brand that employers trust. If you simply rebadge short-term, low-level training as an apprenticeship, you do untold damage.
2. Lack of leadership
Ever heard of the National Apprenticeship Service? No? Hardly surprising. The problem is that it falls between two stools, the Department of Education, who are too obsessed with schools and HE to manage it properly and BIS, who don’t have the skills (sic) to manage the process.
3. Wrong people
Only 7% of the recent increase was in 16-18 year olds, the target audience for traditional apprenticeships. This is shocking, and a con. The reason is that most apprenticeships are being mopped up by older people in employment.
4. Wrong level
Apprenticeships are meant to be a clear route to picking up a craft, making you employable. But when they’re stuck at shorter Level 2 apprenticeships, they’re little more than mop up exercise for bad schooling. The recent announcement on increased numbers are really just low level placements.
5. Lack of quality
Believe me, there will be sizeable fraud and lack of quality in apprenticeships as employers see it as a shortcut to increased profitability and government lack the wherewithal to oversee the process. In its modern reincarnation, it covers too many levels and is still mired in an old mix of largely discredited qualifications such as BTEC.
6. Cheats
Employers have spotted the weakness. Take your older, low-paid workers, switch them to apprenticeships and draw down the funding. Supermarkets, like Morrisons, have been shelf-stacking apprenticeships like crazy, with 18,000 people over 25 atLevel 2, almost every single one an existing employee. Impact on youth unemployment – zero.
7. Really part of the benefits system
We have an opportunity here to create a vocational qualification that has a trusted, quality brand, led by a known organisation and targeted at young people at the right level. This should be part of or national growth strategy, instead it’s turning into a minor arm of the benefits system, a half-baked YOP scheme, without the Y.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

7 reasons why Siri could be a breakthrough in e-learning

I thought the breakthrough in natural language would come through games - I was wrong, it’s come through mobile. My son’s friend has a new iPhone and asked, “What is the meaning of life?” It answered, “Chocolate”. Rude requests get “I’m not that sort of personal assistant”. Good to see that Apple still has a sense of humour. But it will be the serious applications that will drive Siri.
Voice recognition is not new, Android have had it for ages, but it was seen as something to use when driving. This is a good thing, and undoubtedly saves lives, so on this advantage alone, Siri has a head start. But Siri is different. It may become as common as people using earpieces, odd at first, then annoying, then mainstream. The problem with mobile conversations is that the person can’t see the environment in which the other is talking, so it gets awkward; secondly people tend to talk too loud as they can’t overcome the natural brain response that you’re talking to someone at a distance. But the fact that Siri senses when you’ve lifted the phone to you ear is wonderful.
So what’s a natural language interface’s potential in learning?
1. Talking means better learning
E-learning usually puts something between the learner and content – a device. It can be a keyboard, mouse, touchscreen, joystick… whatever. This physical device requires cognitive effort and almost certainly distracts and diminishes the cognitive bandwidth available for attention and processing by the learner. Ideally, there would be no such device. Voice is, in fact, how most everyday communication takes place. We see and speak to each other without any interloper. You didn’t have to learn to speak and listen but you did have to spend years learning how to read, write and use computers. It’s good to talk as it’s how we learn.
2. Siri as personal assistant
This has HUGE potential. The problem with much e-learning is the linear, over-structured approach that lacks the flexibility to respond to personal learning issues. These may be; getting stuck, not quite understanding a point, needing more information, needing more depth, wanting to know why and so on. The learner is an individual and needs variance in response. Siri may turn out to be the ancestral Lucy that leads to systems that really do provide powerful, personalised, adaptive learning.
3. Siri as coach
Going one step further, Siri-type coaches may help you resolve things or lead you through a learning process with prompts that suggest alternative sources, strategies and solutions. The Siri voice is already a calm, slightly robotic but friendly, coach-like voice. ‘PersonaI assistant’ is only one step away from ‘coach’, and I can see it being a coach for real, when the software becomes really AI driven.
4. Siri as reinforcer
We’ve known since Ebbinghaus, in 1885, that we forget most of what we try to learn and that the cure for this rapid and inevitable forgetting is reinforcement and practice. Siri, or sons of Siri, could offer the promise of prompts, reminders and practice that really does push knowledge and skills from short to long term memory. It’s something that you carry with you and ideal for spaced practice.
5. Siri and language learning
Learnosity has pioneered the use of mobiles in language learning. You do your homework or assignments as voice and get them graded online. Imagine using the language you’re learning and getting immediate dialogue and feedback from Siri in that language. They say the best way to learn a language is to get a foreign girlfriend, well this is the next best thing, a personal assistant. Backed up with regular prompts, as in the previous point about reinforcement, and you have a powerful, semi-immersive, language learning system.
6. Siri and numeracy
Numeracy remains a stubborn problem in education, with millions failing to pick up even basic skills. Here’s a way of making that dull stuff dynamic. You talk to the phone, and it takes you through maths using natural language. You answer with voiced answers. Analysis of your answers prompts positive feedback and a reasonably constructed system will know your personal level of competence, so you don’t get left behind and progress at a rate that suits you. Siri, unlike most maths teachers could be an expert, constructive, consistent and infinitely patient.
7. Siri as assessor
Learnosity have already used voice for assessment, but the principle of voiced answers, checked by a language recognition system has fascinating possibilities in all subjects. It also allows you to assess people who have problems with written language e.g. dyslexia or physical disabilities. In any case, all those written exams taken by kids who don’t use pen and pencils in real life is rather odd. If you ask someone a question you expect a verbal reply. This could be the answer to remote assessment.
Is this a breakthrough or false dawn? To me it feels like a breakthrough, as it could change a basic behaviour, allowing the device to do things traditional teachers do well – talk to you, give you answers to your questions, help you progress.  It’s a breakthrough because it’s part of the consumer electronics revolution and hasn’t come from the educational world (where breakthroughs are rare), that means it has a chance of succeeding and becoming mainstream. I'm not saying that Siri in itself is the breakthrough, but it's the hole in the dam for natural language computing. Most of all, it’s cool and interesting. The Siri sites showing ‘fails’ and Siri talking to Siri, have already gone viral and viral is what we need in learning.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

7 compelling arguments for peer learning

Learning lurches between extremes: the formal v informal, didactic v discover , self-paced v social, teaching v learning. But is there a bridge between these extremes, something that cleverly combines teaching and learning? Over the years, starting with Judith Harris’s brilliant (and shocking) work on peer pressure, then Eric Mazur’s work at Harvard but also through several presentations at a recent JISC E-assessment conference, I’ve been smitten by peer learning. The idea is to encourage learners to learn from each other. Compelling arguments?
1. Powerful theoretical underpinning
The bible for ‘peer’ pressure, and why parents and teachers should know about this stuff, is Judith Harris’s wonderful The Nurture Assumption, the work for which she received the George Miller Medal in psychology. Stephen Pinker sang her praises in The Blank Slate, and claimed that she had turned the psychology of learning on its head. I think he’s right. In a deep look at the data she found something totally surprising, that far from parents and other adults, like teachers, influencing the minds of young people, she found that 50% was genetic, just a few per cent parents and a whopping 47% peer group. The initial evidence came from linguistics, where children unerringly pick up the accents of their peer group, not their parents (I know this from experience).
2. Massively scalable
Given the massification of education, here’s an interesting argument. Peer learning may actually be better with large classes, as you have more scope in terms of selected peer groups. As many struggle with the challenge of large classes, here’s a technique that amplifies both teaching and learning. Peer reviewing and learning works because it is scalable, especially when good web-based tools are used.
3. Learning by teaching is probably the most powerful way to learn
Unsurprisingly, to teach is to learn, as peer learning involves high-order, deep-processing activity. In fact, the teacher may actually gain more than the learner. In any case, the peer’s voice is often clearer and better than teacher’s voice as they are closer to the mindset of the learner and can often see what problems they have, as well as solutions to those problems.
4. Encourages critical thinking
You can easily see how peer learning produces diversity of judgement. It is this enlargement of perspectives that is the starting point for critical thinking and complex reasoning, the very skills that Arum found lacking in his recent research in the US.. It also increases self-evaluation.
5. Group bonding a side effect
In addition to enhanced social and communication skills, peer groups bond. In one nursing case study at the University of Glasgow, the students started off a bit sceptical but soon demanded and volunteered participation.
6. Dramatic drops in drop-out rates
In all the case studies I saw, higher attendance and lower drop-out rates were claimed. This is not surprising, as continuing failure and disillusionment are often the result of isolation and a feeling of helplessness in learners, especially in large classes and courses.
7. Higher attainment
Mazur has recorded some startling improvements, not only in the core understanding of physics, but in general measured attainment through summative assessment. The peer learning was, in effect, the result of clever formative assessment. In a nursing course, they experienced better note taking and higher attainment and in a psychology course with 550 students, reciprocal peer critiques also led to higher attainment.
Do students muck about? Apparently not, in the case studies I’ve seen the groups self-moderate. Indeed, the peer pressure prevents disruptive and non-participatory behaviour. It becomes cool to participate.
How do you know they’re not feeding each other false things? There’s certainly the danger of the blind leading the blind, but overall, the case studies show that real growth occurs. There’s real peer pressure in terms of not being exposed and not bullshitting the others. The approaches and tools help overcome this danger through the clever selection of mixed-ability, peer groups.
Of course there’s a difference between peer marking and peer review. Some advise against peer marking as it can be seen as a step too far, peer review, with constructive comments, however, seems to be more powerful.
Peer tools
You don’t actually need any tools to get started. As Mazur has shown, simple coloured cards that allow students to respond to the teacher’s diagnostic questions can be enough to spark peer group learning. He actually uses clickers, with histograms appearing on the screen, but mobile phones are increasingly being used for this function. However, for more technology-driven peer learning, Aropa, Peerwise or Peermark can be used.
Aropa is an open source tool from the University of Glasgow that allows teachers to set assignments then set up peer reviews between students. You review other students’ work, then receive reviews on your own work.

Peerwise is a free tool from NZ that flips assessment and allows students to create questions, share and see answers, a sort of peer-based, formative assessment generator. I like this angle as building good questions really does make you think in depth about the subject. It’s used by hundreds of institutions.

Peermark allows instructors to write assignments, from turnitin, the plagiarism folks. You set dates, can see how many assignments have been submitted, set how many students you want to review each assignment and whether you or the students choose what to review, pair up students, add review questions, reorder them. There's a nice video demo here.

I’m really convinced that this moves us on. We have to bounce teachers and learners out of that mindset that sees teaching as one to many and adopt the wisdom of the network. Pamela Katona at the University of Utrecht showed that students are less than satisfied with the teaching and feedback they receive. So many learners wait too long for feedback, receive cursory feedback, don’t have access to the marking scheme and often don’t see the final marked paper.
Arum, in Academically Adrift, has presented good research to show that critical thinking, complex reasoning and communications skills are all too lacking in our universities. So here’s a technique that moves us on, combing the best of teaching with the best of learning. All it takes is just that first step towards student interactivity and participation. And, to repeat, it’s SCALABLE, indeed, the more the merrier.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Only one thing lacking in Educating Essex – education!

Television has a nasty habit of showing state education as dysfunctional. If you have any doubt about Channel 4s intentions check out the sleazy publicity above. Suggests it's more about Essex Schoolgirls (nudge, nudge) than education. They view schools through a pathological lens, with an unnatural focus on problem kids. Channel 4 are obsessed with this approach. Educating Essex, like C4s ridiculous Jamie’s Dream School before it and again C4s The Unteachables before that, are a disgrace. This has become a TV genre all of its own promoted by the Tristams; TV types, who, in my experience, largely went to private schools, where problem kids are filtered out of the system.
The makers of this programme certainly lack the objectivity and professionalism of real documentary makers, as they simply select ‘discipline’ themes from hundreds and hundreds of hours of tape. It’s yet another example of a London-based, editorial class pushing their personal agendas. It’s the same with Channel 4 Learning, who burn millions year on year on dubious games to tackle social problems. It’s a patronising view of state education by a bunch of posh kids in Horseferry Rd.
The programme started well but I didn’t expect EVERY episode to descend into yet another ‘chav-porn’ series of portraits of individual children causing havoc in front of the cameras. It’s exactly what Owen Jones wrote about in Chavs, about the demonization of the state system. There’s precious little coverage of any of the hundreds of other ordinary children getting on with their education, only insanely detailed coverage of Sam, Vinnie and whatever lad they’ll choose next week as it makes for ‘good TV’. Have they no shame?
Where’s the teaching and learning?
In one of the few glimpses (that’s all we get) of actual teaching, we see a teacher make the classic mistake of introducing PI without any adequate reason or explanation. The charming young Carrie’s reaction was pained but rational, “What is PI? Where did it come from?.....” Cue the difficulty of teaching maths. This could have gone somewhere, but it was only used as an amusing clip. In fact, look carefully and it shows a typical maths teacher with his back to the audience simply reading out a Word document from the and e screen, and has failed to break the solution down into steps comprehensible by the class.
I’d like to know if this absence of teachers and learning was the result of editorial bias or at the request of the teachers and/or the teachers’ unions. As a governor in a comprehensive school I and other Governors faced extreme resistance when we tried to report honest observations from our scheduled classroom visits. We were eventually told that classroom visits were banned! If this is true, it would be a shame, as I’m sure many of the teachers in the school are good, inspiring and professional. The problem the programme makers may be up against is the hagiographic idea, sometimes promoted by the teaching profession, of all teachers being brilliant and inspiring, when many, like any other profession, are just average. I would much rather have seen the truth, than this wildly distorted, corridor-only, punishment room view of the school.
Administrators galore?
The one thing you do notice is the relatively large numbers of support staff on camera. This is exaggerated by the angle taken by the editors (problem kids), nevertheless, from the Head of Inclusion to the pair who sit in the support unit, the sympathetic Miss Baldwin and Mr Tracey, as well as Mr Drew and a team who are always in and around his office, it seems that teachers and teaching have been curiously erased from the programme. We saw a lot of Miss Conway, head of house and PE teacher in the last episode, but we’ve yet to see any sport or teaching of PE.
Obsession with  uniforms?
I really like the Headmaster, Deputy Heads (the legendary Mr Drew and Mr King) but shouldn’t they be doing more teaching? An unbelievable amount of time is spent policing school uniforms. Is this really what matters in schools? High school students in Finland don’t wear a uniform and it is one of the highest performing systems in the world. Imagine if all that time, effort and money went on education, as opposed to enforcing uncomfortable and impractical ties and blazers.
They get through the exhausting and difficult days with a healthy mix of banter and humour. No shots of the staff room though. I wonder why! Could it be that these were edited out? Surely we can take some reality here. These are real people with a real sensitivity towards the children. Those we see do really care, we just don’t see enough of them teaching or kids learning. We’re four episodes in and I have no idea what’s taught or how it’s taught – hopefully the next few episodes will enlighten me.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Facebook saved my sanity - remarkable story of Jan Morgan

On September 15 2010 I saw this appear on facebook:
"hello , this is Imogen , Jan's daughter , just to warn you if you are meeting up with her or due in work from her or whatever - she is in hospital after a stroke on monday night so will not be able to do anything for a while."
Jan Morgan, a well known e-leaning professional, had suffered from a stroke. (This message came from her 12 year-old daughter. How brave and mature is that?)
iPhone lifeline
It wasn’t long before the redoubtable Jan started to post from her iPhone in hospital. At first the posts were a little scrambled, and the spelling amusingly idiosyncratic. But as she recovered the spelling got better, the humour kicked in and she was soon posting about the awful food, asking for all visitors to bring a Starbucks and my favourite, “Nurses telling meboff for playing with my phone too much”. What was interesting was the way the staff kept complaining about her using her iPhone, yet as she says “it is my lifeline and link to the outside world hugely reassuring”. Then this lovely message “It would appear that I am sending bizarre messages as my spelling is atrocious and I'm not noticing before pressing send so apologies to everyone jan”.
Among lots of updates on her progress, including several on the slapstick process of physiotherapy, a genuinely moving moment, “Had a few blubbery moments over the weekend... I miss Imogen, I miss my home and I've had enough of this game can I stop now please? ... But I've made such a fuss about the food and gone on strike as I just can't face it anymore ...” But D-day was not far off, “20th December -my discharge date... I'm going home hip hip hooraaaaay:):):)thank you everyone for your support these past 11weeks”. The lack of stimulation in hospital was clearly annoying her, “Given that the only entertainment offered by the hospital is Wednesday "art&craft" classes- currently making Xmas cards and looking like a morning at playgroup or Friday morning bingo classes.... Watching kettles boil would provide more stimulation!”
Now if you’re fortunate enough never to have suffered a sudden unexpected deterioration in your health or spent an extended spell in hospital, this was an extraordinary series of posts over several months. Jan is currently writing a book about her remarkable experience. (if there's any interested publishers out there - contact me.) What was fascinating was the way she overcame the isolation of the hospital experience by posting on Facebook. She was humblingly honest, frank and downright funny about her own recovery. Listen to this, on hospital food,“Salad today consists of grated carrot, cress - slices of orange and lemons.......truly weird”. We all experienced her progress by proxy and it was always fun to see Jan post yet another reflection on her predicament (often in weird spelling). It was truly life affirming. This record, of her posts during recovery must be a mine of useful information about the early stages of cognitive recovery. Then a gear-shift.
“I went home this morning:):) gosh! My stomach has been burbling since 6 am and ive been shaking - bit like stage fright, a few tears too. I managed the stairs up& down and the front door step. Only need grab rails by front door and additional support rail at the bottom of the stairs so minimal. I failed on the coffee test though as my legs were shaking so much I couldn't stand, so Imogen made instead:)” We were living this realtime journey with Jan, always posting replies, not just out of sympathy, but out of sheer admiration for her gutsy refusal to get downhearted.
Finally Jan got home and started to adjust to the life she temporarily left. Again her posts were full of laughs as she struggled with the simplest of tasks. But it was her adjustments to the benefits system that were fascinating. The realisation that she had now to survive on a greatly reduced income hit home and I’m sure it was a dose of realism for all of us. Benefit cuts seem very abstract unless you know someone who relies on them. It was a laughable, at times harrowing, description from inside the Kafkaesque world of the DWP, disability benefits, disabled parking permits, phone calls, form-filling.
“They don't do home assessments and if I miss the appointment I will need doctors written statement saying why! No they cant see the medical information already held by DWP due to Data Protection... How often is the Data Protection Act misused and misunderstood ? Meanwhile I stiill only receive £65.45 per week”
‎”... I have to have a DWP formal fitness to work assessment - study scheduled my appointment for 8:45 next Thursday, in Birmingham- I was supposed to make my own way there on public transport …I can't even walk as far as the nearest bus atop yet.”
Again, it was a window to a world few of us know much about. The labyrinthine processes and exhausting complexity of the benefits system was a revelation. Then arranging care and support. How do I find people? How much do I pay?
In a truly remarkable act, she posted her own brain scan, showing where the artery had burst. This was merely another post with a minimum of fuss. I can’t say how much I admired this small, matter-of-fact post. It said volumes about her as a person. What we witnessed was her cognitive recovery, day by day, as the spelling got better and the messages more coherent. I have no doubt that the iPhone and Fecebook contributed greatly to diminishing her sense of isolation by keeping her in touch with the outside world. A bolder claim, and one which I hope she discusses in her book, is the claim that it helped her re-learn and recover that much quicker.
So thanks Jan (and Imogen), for your bravery in sharing what was clearly a massively traumatic event in your life. Thanks for your honesty and humour. We’ve all grown through this experience.

This was written with Jan's oversight and permission. Here's a message from the lady herself....
"You may say i have been an inspiration or whatever but from my perspective it was you and all my other fb friends sending me messages and just getting on with your daily lives that inspired me to get better - the world was still turning out there and I wanted to be included. One year on and attempting to live on less than 18% of my former income, there are moments when my hospital bubble suddenly seems attractive (apart from the food)"

"Adjusting to my new normality is all an ongoing experience, but this time last year my future was bleak. Now I have a future and it is going to be a damn good one and I'm going to have  fun:)"

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

7 reasons to put heads in 'cloud' e-learning

The future has just got kinda cloudy with iCloud and Kindle Fire. Forget the devices, that's just gadgetry. 

iCloud not iPhone
Reaction to the launch of the new iPhone4 was muted, as the gadget geeks expected more, but it was the other release at the launch that was far more important, the new version of IOS.  Look under the bonnet at Apple with iCloud and you see the future, your content in device-independent cloud services.It is expected (Forrester) that the number using personal cloud services will leap from 65m to 196m by 2016. That's a $12 billion market.

Kindle Fire
Just a few days ago Jeff Bezos launched the Kindle Fire. This is the big threat to the iPad because it's cheap, faster and has its head in the cloud with its EC2, cloud-focused 'Silk' browser that caches for speed. Amazon Cloud storage will come free. Again, it's all about device-independent content through cloud services.

Cloud nine promises
One view of the cloud is that it’s no big deal, that we’ve been using online services for yonks, without any fuss. Another is that it represents the most important shift in IT in the last decade. There’s even mention of that dreaded phrase ‘paradigm shift’. I’m in the latter camp. This is big news in IT and  for e-learning there are seven 'cloud nine' promises, seven major wins;  

1. Big migration
According to Gartner, this is the biggest shift in the IT world in the last decade, as IT turns itself upside down and flips applications, storage and processing power to the cloud. We’re now seeing a massive migration of e-learning to the cloud. When servers began to be clustered and virtualised, the real clouds began to form and this has fanned out to; infrastructure (IaaS), platforms (PaaS) and software (SaaS). The game changer was Amazon, with their EC2 and S3 services.

2. Full scalability
Cloud services offer contracts that allow you to scale according to actual demand, not forecast guesses on usage. This is important in e-learning, as uptake and usage is notoriously difficult to predict. You can pilot at low cost then scale up over time, in proportion to need.

3. Only pay for what you use
This shift from a fixed to variable cost model, paying only for what you use, can result in huge cost savings.  Learning services tend to be used erratically. It’s the equivalent of switching from using electricity generated by your own generator to using the national grid.

4. Buy less hardware
Dick Moore ran Learndirect’s IT for years and knows more than a thing or two about delivering complex learning services to huge numbers of people, 24/7, at the same time gathering huge amounts of data. He is an evangelist for shifting data to the cloud, virtualising servers, then using that acquired storage and bandwidth to deliver your main services - you don;t need to own all your own metal.

5. Buy less software
Like many in the business world, I first saw the real power of the cloud when I shifted all CRM activity to The benefits, in terms of access and savings, were immediate. It was clear that such a move was necessary to remain competitive and that these SaaS services would mark out the e-learning innovators. But over the last few years more and more e-learning services and content has been delivered from the cloud.

6. Lower energy bills
Hugely efficient data centres, based in cold climates, such as Iceland (the ‘cold rush’), deliver much greener, lower-cost services. If you can wean your IT guys off their old ‘server hugging’ habits, you can benefit through considerable savings on all that electricity used to run and cool your servers. Then there’s the opportunity to run these services on thinner, less energy-hungry, client devices.

7. Device independence
As an added bonus, as we move to an increasingly mobile and tablet driven world, you can support more and more devices. Learning needs to be free, and this means letting it loose on as many devices as possible. The Amazon Fire points the way to a fast, cloud cached, thin-client device and, in general, cloud-based e-learning accelerates mobile learning.

Many VLEs, from open source Moodle to Blackboard, now offer cloud-based services. Google apps, in the form of free email, calendar and collaborative tools, is being used by hundreds of educational institutions worldwide, more than 14 million students and teachers, they claim.  Monash University (Australia) has invited over 50,000 students to use the integrated services Gmail, Calendar for University and personal planning (shared) and Google docs. It’s accessible and efficient. The big advantage is the wholescale outsourcing of services. Google also have an open source, cloud-based LMS called CloudCourse. You can create content, track that content, schedule classes and it’s integrated with Google Calendar.

Kineo, Learningpool and many others offer hosted cloud-based LMS services such as Moodle and Totara, with full scalability through Rackspace. Companies, like Edvantage, just sold to Lumesse (formerly Stepstone) have been offering a complete range of SaaS services for some time, showing that cloud delivery adds value. Cogbooks offer a sophisticated, next-generation adaptive learning solution, that you just switch on from the cloud. Organisations large and small see learning services, as something that can be easily migrated, unlike hardcore commercial, transactional services. And although there’s new distinctions, such as public and private clouds, the bottom line is that cloud computing is the next big thing.

Under a cloud of suspicion?
So the cloud on the learning horizon promises a scalable service with massive savings in cost, a greener service and device independence – what’s the downside? Well, there will be worries about security. This is not to be ignored, as once you’ve shifted your data up and out, it may be subjected to scrutiny by authorities such as Governments and legal plaintiffs. And when you have a breach, you may find yourself unable to have the same level of forensic testing available as you had in-house. Remember that the cloud is not actually a cloud, but a huge data centre(s) somewhere on terra firma, so check what arrangements they have if it gets hit by a tsunami or hurricane. One other point, as Dick keeps reminding me, remember to encrypt your data before sending it to the cloud, doing it there would be self-defeating. In short, you also need to know what you’re letting yourself into contractually.

Of course, we’ve had our heads in the clouds for some time, as email, blogging, Youtube, Wikipedia, shared documents and social networking are just some of the cloud services we use without thinking. But as we've seen, there’s several new imperatives that push us towards use of the cloud, and surely the saved money can be better spent elsewhere. This is not cloud cuckoo land, it’s the future.