Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Wikis – wickedly clever, underused learning tool

A few years ago Wikipedia was academia’s bête noir, now almost everyone uses it, including academics and students. It’s the biggest, best and most used knowledge base in the history of our species. But few know about the many wikis that are used for learning around subjects, courses, and projects, the wiki workhorses. Fewer still know about the wikis on the web around people’s hobbies and enthusiasms. The world of Wikis is far more diverse than Wikipedia alone.
Wikipedia – the start line not the finish
The impact of Wikipedia on learning is incalculable. Too often attention is drawn to the idea that it creates a ‘cut and paste’ culture of plagiarism. This has a grain of truth but didn’t we always walk up and down library shelves for books, then do the same thing? For me the great advantages are the speed and convenience of getting to something as useful as a Wikipedia page as a starting point. For most it is the first door you open to knowledge on a topic, a reasonably short and structured introduction. Once through, you can move out of that room and explore the edifice that lies behind by following up citations, links, images, videos, articles, academic papers, books and so on. Wikipedia is the start line not the finish.
Wikipedia and knowledge
With Wikipedia, the printed encyclopedia industry was dead. It is not just its size that matters. It completely screwed the paper encyclopedia industry because it was dynamic, easily updated and made distinctions between levels of knowledge: certain knowledge, knowledge that needed citations and knowledge that was open to discussion. Any epistemologist will tell you that knowledge is not a fixed entity but a moving feast, affected by new research and new findings. Some, such as Quine, go as far as saying that all knowledge is corrigible and therefore subject to potential revision. Wikipedia doesn’t pretend to be absolutist, it knows that what it knows should be open to scrutiny.
Wikis in learning
There’s lots of talk in learning about collaborative skills but action is rarer. A wiki is a strongly collaborative medium that forces people to be collaborative. More than this, it teaches you to be collaborative within a set of rules, where negotiation, decision making and eventual agreement are necessary. It also forces you to reflect on the very nature of collaboration in terms of the roles of individuals within a process.
It also teaches good writing and editorial skills. A good wiki must be pitched at the potential audience, have a consistent voice, be concise, accurate and error free. It may also teach good research skills in terms of quality links and precise citations. There is an in-built peer-process at work here, as contributors have to critique the contributions of others.
The advantage of a wiki over a blog is the structure, menu and navigation of a wiki is easier for a wide range of interested users. Then there’s the widgets you can add embed in educational wikis, such as calendars, videos, slide shows, polls, and spreadsheets. There’s even a Wiki on how to use Wikisin education, with loads of resources, examples and discussions.
Teacher wikis
A Wiki is content focussed. It works when a group of people want to create content around a topic. This can be a group of experts, teachers, trainers or lecturers who want to collaborate to come up with an expert perspective on a specific subject, project, course or institution. Here’s an example on using blogs for learning, another in ICT resources for teachers. They exist at all levels in education from primary schools to Universities.
When a Wiki is used to build a course or course materials, it has the advantage of containing relevant content, links, reading lists, exams and so on, which can be updated when necessary or when a new member of staff joins. Some have even used Wikis as alternative to the more common VLE, as they are extremely open, flexible and updatable.
Student wikis
A group of students can also be set the task of building a Wiki as part of their learning. For students there’s a double dividend, the content as well as the skills acquired in contributing collaboratively to the wiki. You really do get to grips with as a subject when you have to write about it for use by others in a collaborative environment.
As all edits are logged, you can assess the collaborative contributions by different students, identify non-contributing students, identify lack of evidence, need for citations and suggest suitable directions. Peer review assignments can also be handled through Wikis, where specific students are assigned to review other students work.
You can, of course, get students to contribute to Wikipedia, which always creates a buzz and sense of achievement.  Wikipedia, or other Wikis, can therefore be used as an assignment tool, where students are asked to review a page(s) identifying weaknesses, a lack of citations and even implement improvements. Wikipedia even has a page devoted to this task.
One free resource, that has been a boon to educators, is Wikispaces, which has hundreds of thousands of educational wikis. It’s easy to get started with a topic based wiki, class schedules, homework, notices for parents, and showcases of student work and you can make it as private or public as you wish.
Wikis & informal learning
Never heard of Wikia? Astonishing though Wikipedia is, Wikia is just as interesting from a learning point of view. In this particular corner of the wikisphere, the sheer enthusiasm of fans for their subjects often spills over into fanaticism. It has over a quarter of a million communities on people’s passions, whether it be lifestyle, news, games, culture or entertainment. It is people doing it for the fun of it, the funhouse of the wikisphere, with a lot more detail for fans of a topic than a typical Wikipedia article. It was also started by Jimmy Wales and operates under a copyleft licence – free to distribute and modify.
Wikis are wickedly clever. Jimmy Wales should get a Nobel Prize for Wikipedia, as it is probably the most powerful learning resource ever created. Yet wikis in education are more than just reference tools for flat knowledge. Like blogs they are content-driven but more collaborative and structured than blogs. They offer a free way of publishing for teachers and students as well as a way of building collaboration, negotiation, research and editorial skills. The wonderful world of wikis is one of those technical surprises. It exploded unpredictably onto the scene and no one foresaw the scale of Wikipedia’s success or its dramatic impact on education.

Monday, December 03, 2012

City & Guilds acquire Kineo - a meeting of minds (2+2=5)

City & Guilds, the UK’s premier brand in vocational education, have bought Kineo, the UKs premier brand for LMS and content. First, I have to say that I know both sides well. I’m on the Council of City & Guilds, and I know the guys at Kineo very well, as I hired them all. They were my management team at Epic and left at around the time I left Epic, when it was sold. They’re smart people who had a smart idea (rapid e-learning and commercialise Moodle). It's great to see two UK organisations get serious about building something bigger in the vocational market.
What does it mean?
This is a huge boost for vocational learning in the UK, both in organisations and colleges, as C&G now have a smart technology platform and production house for deliverables straight to employers, including technology, consultancy and content. It has also given C&G a much larger international profile and reach for their qualifications and future deliverables. This is all about moving towards real deliverables over and above accreditation. This is a 2+2=5 deal.
Meeting of minds
This is also a meeting of minds as they’ve been working together for a while on real projects. City & Guilds have Kirstie Donnelly and a good technical team that are keen to innovate. They’re already using e-volve and e-logbooks as well as creating tablet content and m-learning apps. Kineo are used to responsive deign across all platforms and can bring content to life. Totara has proved itself as a LMS with teeth (I assume that City & Guilds have also acquired Kineo’s minority share of Totara). For existing customers it should be business as usual.
What’s important here is that C&G don’t crush the entrepreneurial spirit of Kineo and that they embrace the technology and go on to turn C&G into the organisation it could be. So well done Chris Jones, Kirstie Donnelly and the team at C&G and well done to Steve Rayson and his team at Kineo.

See press release here.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

The Big Debate – Berlin Educa - ban diplomas and degrees!

‘This house proposes a ban on diplomas and degrees’ –sounds extreme, and since I was arguing FOR the motion to a large audience,who make their living from teaching, designing an delivering diplomas and degrees, I woke up the night before with the thought that I’d be lucky to get any votes at all! Here’s what happened.
It was two against two. Jef Staes and I against Sue Martin and Kirstie Donnelly.
We are all sheep
Jef Staes (my partner) argued, using a brilliant set of posters, which he got members of the audience to reveal one by one (including Jay Cross), that we had become sheep; parents, pupils, teachers, lecturers, politicians - all marching our kids through a process that doesn’t deliver. We have 2D teaching and 2D testing that leads towards 2D thinking and 2D people who live and work in a 3D world. Where’s the passion? Where’s the real competences? It was witty and delivered with his characteristic flair.
7 FAILS! (when diplomas & degrees go bad)
I went for the 7 fails I’d give the system if I were awarding it a qualification.
FAIL 1: Qualifications-led culture has crashed
The London riots by disenfranchised youth, riots in Greece with 55% youth unemployment, riots in Spain with 53% unemployment, the same in Portugal, now Italy with 35% youth unemployment. Meanwhile the graduates financiers, bankers and politicians who caused this mess remain untouched and immune. Inequalities and hardship are rising. Education, in its current form has failed. Similarly in the Arab world, where the Arab Spring was led by young people suffering from unemployment in the face of nepotism and corruption. This is a serious issue, not just a debating point. The massive increase in investment in education and testing has led to this position. We don’t have a qualifications shortage, we have a skills shortage.
FAIL 2: Teach what is easy to test
This slide tells you everything you need to know about the failure in assessment. First, the obsession with maths. Who really does need to know algebra and Pythagoras Theorem? I’m 56 years old and never once had to use it, except I the context of my kids’ homework. Secondly, the question can be answered in many ways, by guessing, drawing it to scale, knowing the 3/4/5 triangle rule and lastly, the most awkward solution, Pythagoras Theorem.
This slide tells you everything you need to know about the alternative. The kid who answered is exactly the sort of person I and most employers admire and would want to hire. He or she is way smart, innovative, a touch of humour, lateral thinking, good communicator and a  REAL problem solver. It’s borderline genius. Yet look at the teachers ‘red’ mark. RED pen, which has its origins in the deficit side of a ledger. No marks. Marking is a plague in education. It has replaced meaningful, formative feedback and acts as an end point – failure for most and even for those who get good scores a sign that they’ve achieved competence, even though they scored only 80%. What abut the other 20%?
What’s more, testing abstract knowledge completely ignores what we’ve known about for centuries in the psychology of learning, that we learn by doing and that many competences need to be tested by showing that you can DO something. Essays test an extremely narrow skillset. In any case, as we still expect pupils and students t sit exams using pen and paper, they test almost nothing but memory. No one writes first drafts that are any good. The essence of good writing is redraft in, reordering, shortening, changing words – so let them use word processors. When you don’t they MEMORISE essays.
FAIL 3:International arms race in assessment
Whole countries are now being assessed and seeing themselves as having failed. This deficit view of education has been caused by the leaning tower of PISA, with its obsession with maths and infected politicians with assessments. Test them till they bleed!
FAIL 4: Distorts teaching, learning & life
We know that it’s now all about teaching to the test. Around the world we’re tutoring our kids into submission, turning them OFF subjects and ON to learning how to simply pass exams. Memorisation, cramming, even drugs to get you those pieces of paper. Go to Hong Kong and see the hideous posters on hoardings and buses for celebrity tutors and read about the kids who are being tutored until the early hours of the morning and falling asleep on their desks at school. Entire families are subjecting themselves to stress leading to anger and conflict because of the paper pressure. Parents against children, parents against teachers, students against teachers. No one is winning here, except the very few who get the most paper, then go onto screw the rest of us over. The system is distorting learning, teaching and life itself. Life is NOT a course!
We all leave school and never go near qualifications again. Most learning is informal and even formal learning (training) in organisations is rarely accredited. I spent most of my adult life delivering online learning and almost nothing was accredited. Adults need to be trusted not subjected to primitive testing (usually of short-term memory – read Ebbinghaus).
FAIL 5: Holds back adult education
When I was a Trustee at Learndirect I saw how we could get people back learning through good online work on numeracy and literacy but many would fail to turn up for the physical assessments in colleges, as those places were associated with their past failure. Governments have become obsessed with testing as they think it shows progress – it doesn’t, it shows that we teach to the test.
FAIL 6: Qualifications bubble?
When Peter Thiel put forward his argument that HE is now a bobble waiting to burst, he wasn’t far wrong. The price of a degree has been rising way beyond the rise in inflation or even house prices – that spells trouble. Student loan debt is now well past credit card debt in the US. For the first time in history the number of jobless workers over 25 have been to college. This has all the signs of being a bubble. More worrying is the recent research by Arum that shows how students are spending more and more money but doing lass and less serious study at University. Their work on problem solving, writing and critical skills, shows a worrying lack of improvement
FAIL 7: Testing for profit
Finally I pointed out that Sue, my first opponent, was the Global Certification Director for SAP. She is in the BUSINESS of SELLING certification that locks people into her company software. Kirtsie works for City & Guilds, the UKs largest certification body in vocational learning. To be honest I have some sympathy with Kirtsie, as I’m on the Council of that organisation (unpaid) and feel that vocational learning has been screwed over by excessive University funding. That’s what’s got us into this mess. My final act was to ask the audience of they knew who the Platinum Sponsor for the conference was? Answer – PEARSON – I rested my case!
We won by a comfortable margin.
These debates really enliven conferences and, I think, make people think and reflect beyond the normal presentation format. The audience participation was fantastic and the whole event felt like something really different and worthwhile. Every conference organiser should take note. Forget the endless presentations, landfill black bags. Push those boundaries with real discussion and debate.
Sue, Kirstie, Jef and I are still al good friends and thanks to the audience for such great contributions. It was a huge amount of fun.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Jay Cross: informal learning guru

Jay Cross has been credited with inventing the term ’e-learning’ and continues to be a pioneer in both the practice and theory of technology in learning. After developing the first courses on the hugely successful University of Phoenix, he set up the Internet Time Group. A tireless thinker and presenter on learning, he has pushed the learning world to think seriously about informal learning, and working smarter.
Informal learning
Workflow learning ties learning into the actual workflow within an organisation. According to Cross it takes us to support and on-demand services that are designed to exist within the real tasks we do in our everyday work.Out of this work on workflow learning came an even wider, and what he regards as more important set of reflections.
Averse to detailed semantic analysis, he compares the difference between formal and informal learning to the difference between taking a trip on a bus and driving your car. In the former, you’re on a set route and not in the driving seat, in the latter you go where you want, when you want and on the route you choose. His reflections on the failure of training to really recognise informal learning is well represented in his oft-used ‘spending paradox’ slide. 
Cross is often ahead of his time and with one simple, diagram, he opened our eyes up to the fact that most learning is informal yet almost all the spend is on formal courses.
He invites us to think about learning in a more naturalistic way, seeing learners as real people in real organisations who use real tools in real networks, both offline and online. Informal learning is driven by conversations, communities of practice, context, reinforcement through practice and now social media to “optimise organisational performance”. Blogs, wikis, podcasts, peer-to-peer sharing, aggregators, social media and personal knowledge management are all emergent phenomena, unlike the top-down tools and content that traditional e-learning has provided. When we look at the internet we see powerful tools and techniques emerge through genuine use. It is these, he believes, that point us towards success in learning.
Formal still matters
Note that he has never claimed that formal learning should be abandoned, only that informal learning needs to be recognised and supported. There’s still a need for underpinning learning with good content, from books to full courses, especially for novices and business critical training such as compliance. You can’t let people who don’t know what they need to know, drift, so there’s a time and place for structured, formal learning. Cross simply wants us to also identify and use natural pathways, the unofficial, unscheduled events that take place in real contexts. For cross this is underpinned by personal, intrinsic motivation.
Business focus
Cross has all the charm of a Berkley liberal but when it comes to training he has bite. What matters is execution and performance, real business objectives and metrics ”if it doesn’t make business sense, don’t do it”. He agrees with Roger Schank that “training is really schooling” and therefore “often superficial, boring and, irrelevant” and “as not reinforced by doing often forgotten”.
Rather than an unbalanced focus on top-down classes, tests and certificates, networked learning organizations need blends of workplace learning that include the experiential, unplanned, and informal. This has to be done systematically and not left to chance, which is where ‘Working smarter’ steps in.
Working Smarter
Informal learning is not some vague from of drift with chance encounters. You need to take control of your own learning and organisations need to inseminate and stimulate communities of practice. What gave Cross’s theories a boost was the explosion of social media that provided communication through blogging, facebooking and tweeting, as well as media sharing through YouTube, Slideshare and so on. It’s fast, cheap and ubiquitous so “connectivity has undoubtedly shifted the 80%/20% ratio of informal to formal learning; it’s probably closer to 95%/5% these days.”
Push and pull
Cross is sensitive to the language of learning and rarely uses the word ‘learning’, these days as he thinks it leads to the default - schooling. Even his old distinction between formal and informal has given way to ‘push and pull’, where training is ‘push’ and learning is ‘pull’. Even ‘e-learning’ is avoided as it also leads to a default of dull, page-turning courses. Like Schank, he’s keen on a more experiential approach that doesn’t simply place content centre stage.
He is fond of the 70:20:10 model (70% experiential, 20% working with others, 10% formal instruction). The 20% he sees as driven by managers and supervisors, who push, provide feedback and coach others. It’s the part training departments rarely reach, so, “this is where the giant upside for improving learning lies”. To take advantage of the 70% learners have to learn to pull and that means learning how to search, remember, take part, create, share and communicate. This means a culture of openness and optimism that embeds learning
Far from decimating the training department, he wants to see learning as a constant in organisations, not only inside the firewall but for all part-timers, freelancers and partners. The wall between company and customers is also crumbling, creating a new culture of customer education.
Characteristically, Cross has moved on to embrace the idea that happiness and well-being underpin business success and promote a culture of learning. The danger here is to jump on the Seligman bandwagon, just as the focus on ‘happiness’ is fading. Nevertheless, Cross is no slouch and may very well provide us with a deeper understanding of how to get learning embedded and taken up on a personal level within organisations with a subtler psychological approach. In this age of greed, corruption and alienation, we may be in need of his advice.
Cross has contributed much to the development of new ideas in learning and e-learning, especially in his push to get workflow and informal learning recognised as important features of the learning landscape. More than just the theory, he has actively engaged in debate and widely disseminated his ideas. Cross asks us to reflect on the obvious, but shocking, fact that almost all of our attention (and spend) goes on the formal side, while the majority of the action is informal. Much to his credit he does not abandon formal learning, but asks us to consider the accelerating role of technology in on informal learning. He moves us beyond traditional LMS and content model and beyond blended learning to a newer more naturalistic model of learning, based on real behaviour and contemporary technology. Lastly, and I say this as someone who has learnt a lot from Jay Cross, when he sees a weakness in his theories , he’s not afraid to admit he got it wrong and move on. In this sense he is a model of honesty and authenticity and exemplifies the core idea of personal development, something he has always held dear.
Cross J. (2004). Implementing e-Learning, ASTD
Cross J. (2006) Informal Learning, Pfeiffer
Cross J. (2011) Working Smarter Fieldbook, e-book (download)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Roger Schank: Only two things wrong with education: 1) What we teach; 2) How we teach

I first saw Roger Schank talk in Denver, Colorado, over 25 years ago and have barely disagreed with a word he’s said since. Schank is a critic of the current educational system, pointing to 19th century curriculum, teaching by telling, lectures, memorisation and standardised tests, as structures and techniques that distort learning. I’ve seen him ask audiences of academics to tell him the quadratic equation, taught to most children – they can’t. I’ve seen him ask audiences about the safety briefing on a 737, something they’ve seen dozens of times – they can’t.
With characteristic boldness, Schank often starts with the statement, “There are only two things wrong with education: 1) What we teach; 2) How we teach it.” So let’s look at his work through these two lenses.
1. What we teach
Schank’s research took him back to the 1892 curriculum in the US, where he found that the current subjects were fossilised into a curriculum designed for testing and to filter students for university. The very idea of a fixed curriculum seems odd to Schank, as it fixes knowledge and we mostly forget the stuff we’re asked to remember.
His bête noire is ‘maths’. Our obsession with maths and standardised tests impoverishes education. In fact the two are linked. Maths is popular because it is easy to test. Driven by PISA tests, which he debunks by showing that their supposed relevance is bogus, the world has become addicted to tests not performance. Algebra, in particular, he sees as a hangover from a fossilised curriculum.
Similarly with the sciences; physics, chemistry and biology, STEM subjects, he thinks, are overrated. Sure we need to learn how to write well in English but that comes through regular practice, not occasional essays. As for languages, Roger has lived abroad and as he speaks French, he finds the French taught in school laughable, as it rarely results in any real success and is not the language spoken in France. The classroom, he claims is not the place to learn a language, especially in a country where there’s no real opportunity for immersion or practice.
In short, school he thinks, has turned into a funnelling process for Universities. This is a big mistake. His solution is to have lots of curricula and allow people to follow their curiosity and interests, as this is what drives real, meaningful and useful learning, as opposed to memorisation and hoop jumping. Organise school, not around subjects, but cognitive processes that match what we do in the real world.
Higher education?
The idea that everyone should go to college he thinks absurd. It’s fine for some but not all. With impeccable, academic credentials, and a background in cognitive science, computer science and education, he explodes the view that Higher Education has of itself, as the pinnacle of teaching competence and achievement. Professors like research and mostly see teaching and undergraduates as something to be avoided. In any case, he thinks, they’re often very poor teachers, relying on stale lecture series that teach what they research.
To cut to the quick, Schank things Higher Education is a con. You pay through the nose for not very much more than a three or four year vacation and a good social life. The courses are poor and the system designed to select researchers.
2. How we teach it
Schank has a strongly libertarian view in that he wants to abandon lectures, memorisation and tests. Start to learn by doing and practice, not theory. Stop lecturing and delivering dollops of theory. Stop building and sitting in classrooms. We need to teach cognitive processes and acquire skills through the application of these processes, not fearing failure.
What most people fail to realise about Schank is that his recommendations are based on a lifetime academic interest and contributions to cognitive science and a deep understanding of these processes.
Script theory
Based on an examination of language and memory, Schank explored the idea of personalised scripts in learning. This personalised, episodic model of memory led to a theory of instruction that exposed learners to model scripts by allowing them to experience the process of building their own scripts. We need scripts for handling meetings, dealing with customers, selling to others and so on. Knowledge is not a set of facts, it’s a set of experiences. This is not taught by telling, it is taught by doing, ‘there really is no learning without doing’. Interestingly, recent memory research confirms this view.
Learning by doing
He rejects the idea that we have to fill people up with knowledge they’ll never use. Too much education and training tries, and fails, to do this. We need to identify why someone wants to learn then teach it. In this sense he puts motivation and skills before factual knowledge. One can pull in knowledge when required.
Meaningful stories (scripts) lie at the heart of his instructional method. These contextualise learning and link to previous schema. A fierce critic of lectures and classroom education and training, he has developed simulation methods for exposing learners to script building environments, where they can learn by repeated exposure to failure and ultimately success. Expectation failure is when things turn out to be different from what you expected. This is when you learn. Breaking with traditional linguists and theorists of learning, he sees learning as a difficult and messy process, where failure is the primary driver. We match incoming problems to past experiences. Case-based reasoning is therefore instructive, where we learn by doing what we want to do. We also learn by making mistakes and reflecting on what those mistakes were and what we can do about them. Learning by doing, works. Learning by telling, doesn't.
In e-learning this means using case-based instruction, emotional impact, video, role-playing, storytelling. Learners are put into situations that seem realistic to them, to solve problems, and possibly fail, and have someone help them out. Design is hard, reworking the thing into a case-based scenario; something that seems like a goal someone has, then to helping them accomplish it - that's learning.
Story-Centred Curricula
He prefers to deliver learning from mentored experience, not from direct instruction presented out of context. Fictional situations are set up in which students must play a role. They need to produce documents, software, plans, presentations and such within a story describing the situation. Deliverables produced by the student are evaluated by team members and by mentors. The virtual experiential curricula are story centred. Story-Centred Curricula are carefully designed apprenticeship-style learning experiences in which the student encounters a planned sequence of real-world situations constructed to motivate the development and application of knowledge and skills in an integrated fashion.
Cognitive processes

In his latest book Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools he focuses on cognitive processes as the basis for learning interventions.


Conscious Processes
1. Prediction: determining what will happen next 
2. Modeling: figuring out how things work
3. Experimentation: coming to conclusions after trying things out
4. Values: deciding between things you care about 
Analytic Processes
1. Diagnosis: determining what happened from the evidence
2. Planning: determining a course of action
3. Causation: understanding why something happened
4. Judgment: deciding between choices
Social Processes
1. Influence: figuring out how to get someone else to do something that you want them to do 
2. Teamwork: getting along with others when working towards a common goal 
3. Negotiation: trading with others and completing successful deals
4. Description: communicating one’s thoughts and what has just happened to others 
These are the skills one needs to master. By allowing users to fail in controlled environments, he saw that instruction is not about telling, it’s about real or fictionally constructed experience, involvement and practice, including the experience of failure.
Online education
In fact most current online education he sees as just a change in venue, not a change in method. He argues for much more problem solving, simulation and learning by doing. He is also critical of MOOCs largelyjust lectures on line interrupted by quizzes and discussion groups” and he has little time for Coursera and Udacity, which he sees as replicating poor college courses.
Schank has turned most instructional methods on their head by rejecting the subject-led, academic approach for a more meaningful, experiential, learn by doing method. Using sound principles in cognitive science, he uses case-based scenarios and stories are used to create contexts in which learners succeed, and just as importantly fail. As time passes, Schank seems to become more and more relevant. He’s seen as a heretic but most of the actors in education know in themselves that he’s exposing some deep truths.
Schank, R.C. (1975). Conceptual Information Processing. New York: Elsevier.
Schank, R.C. (1982a). Dynamic Memory: A Theory of Reminding and Learning in Computers and People. Cambridge University Press.
Schank, R.C. (1982b). Reading and Understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Schank, R.C. (1986). Explanation Patterns: Understanding Mechanically and Creatively. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Schank, R.C. (1991). Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Intelligence. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Schank, R.C. & Abelson, R. (1977). Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum Assoc.
Schank, R.C. & Cleary. C. (1995). Engines for education. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Assoc.
Schank, R.C (2005). Lessons in e-Learning. Pfeiffer.
Schank, R.C (2011). Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools

Monday, November 12, 2012

Postman (1931-2003): Amusing ourselves to death

New York University’s Neil Postman was one of the first academics to put his foot through the TV screen and subsequent screen-based computer culture. Although best known for his work on television as a cultural and educational force, he has a much wider reach into the broader issues of teaching and schooling.
Technology can impress but oppress
He warns us against the unthinking adoption of technology and schooling without purpose and values. His voice is a valuable antidote to the unthinking adoption of technology in learning. Electronic media may be all pervasive, this is not to say that it is always good for learning and cultural development. In this sense, he is in line with McLuhan in seeing the medium as a force as important as the message but he is much more judgemental than McLuhan.
Amusement is not learning
In his wonderfully titled Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman warns us against mistaking the rhetoric of a broadcast medium for learning. Stripped of dialogue, the flow of television strips us of our ability to reflect, think, deduce and resolve issues. As a top-down medium It simplifies, caricatures and stops us from learning. This attack on pedagogy which relies on long, linear media, such as the one hour lecture, TV programmes and overlong video is sound. Psychologically, the suspension of disbelief one finds in TV and film is not often useful if prolonged, as the mind does not have time to stop, reflect, record and retain the knowledge. It can be fun, and create the illusion of learning, but it’s mostly a forgetting game.
Where Postman fails is in carrying this critique over to new asynchronous media such as YouTube and iTunes has solved this problem, by replacing the idea of the half-hour or one hour programmes, whose length, like the one hour lecture, is designed for scheduling rather than learning. YouTube has shown us that video content needs to be as long as it needs to be, the shorter the better, in line with the maxim that, in learning, less is more.
However, his main argument is that teaching, as a form of dialogue, is being replaced by entertainment or amusement. It is not clear that teaching was or is a dialogue-based activity. The staple one hour lecture in higher education and endless presentations and talking by teachers in other contexts suggest that it is far from a dialogue-driven activity. John Hattie, the master of evidence-based teaching, shows that teachers talk 70-80% of the time and the most common activity in the classroom with children is ‘pretending to listen’.
However, there is something in this argument about amusement, and while the affective or emotional element is important in learning, this can descend into fun for the sake of fun. Humour is surprisingly resistant to retention and the adrenaline driven world of games, along with the additional cognitive load of knowing the rules and extraneous activity, may not result in productive learning. Similar arguments can be put forward for social networking, where it is easy to get sucked into bouts of casual communication.
Information-action ratio
He introduced an interesting concept around media use, the idea that media distances us from relevant, largely local information that leads to action. We become desensitised consumers of information that diminishes our social role. It is a promising concept, that of media relevance, but Postman, as usual derives and ought from an is and sees media as having moral import. This theme, of the deluded masses, deafened by the din of information goes way back, and its rise between 1800-1939 is well documented in John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses. Postman didn’t live long enough to see that social media brings this ratio into play, with its focus on social groups and action. The Arab Spring, for example, would surely out social networking beyond his critique.
The Disappearance of Childhood
Another cardinal theme in his work is the effect of media on childhood. In The Disappearance of Childhood and Childhood: Can It Be Preserved, he identifies the creation of childhood (7-17) with print and reading, certainly since the Renaissance. Television, he claims, destroys that idea of childhood and blurs the adult/child distinction, making children behave like adults and adults like children. Like many of Postman’s big arguments, he takes a grain of credibility and universalises it into a general statement about an entire medium or culture.
This is an interesting argument as one could argue that the internet with its culture of games, social networking and mobiles, may well be reintroducing the separation of children from adults in the way that Postman claims happened with print. Alternatively this may be no more than a temporary phase, as young adopters turn into adults and the demographic of technology use drift upwards.
Schools, he states, along with the family, protect us from this unthinking adoption of technology. They preserve the values of childhood, rooted as they are in the culture of teaching, dialogue and print. This is not to say that schools are all good. Schooling is simply the best we have come up with as a form of introduction to the adult world. In The End of Education he defines the role of schools as both dissemination of values and knowledge as well as the skills of reflection, critique and debate, but fears the effects of technology and claims to see the tangible evidence of decline.
He is right factually, in that schools do preserve a sense of extended childhood but it is not clear that this is necessarily a good thing. Of course, schools have always used technology, from pens, pencils, paper, books, blackboards, slates, whiteboards and now computers. This is entirely reasonable. To isolate schools from the real world is to keep children in a state of isolation, something he accuses media of doing to adults.
Technopoly – culture of consumption
His wider research into technology in culture is well represented by Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Technology is both good and bad. It becomes dangerous when we look to it for the authentification of our culture or allow it to determine our lives through the joy of consumption. He is a jealous guardian of the culture of print and reading and has grounded much of his theory in a defence of the language of dialogue against the language of technology and consumerism. It is through reading, he thinks, that our true educational development takes place.
This is disingenuous. It is to identify, and therefore confuse, text with print and paper. A printed book is a physical delivery mechanism, the text its real contents. New media have separated the two and made the entire canon available, largely for free as downloadable texts. One could also argue that there has been a renaissance in reading and writing with the advent of computer and mobile technology. Young people write far more frequently than they ever did in the past. They txt, email, post and comment on social media. Postman is far too quick to pounce on new media, when it supports many of the virtues he espouses.
In a general sense, technology has freed us from the chains of physical labour, disease  and poverty. As usual Postman sees the piston of technology as half empty rather than half full.
We should not mistake Postman’s critiques of television and other media as complete condemnation. He is not, as some claim, a simple reactionary. He is asking us to think deeply about the effects of technology on both learning and culture. To read Postman is to read a sharp mind who knows how to challenge lazy assumptions with deep questions. Technology can both impress and oppress. He is careful to defend the traditional without being naively conservative. On the other hand he is does seem to fall into the trap of seeing anything old as intrinsically good and anything new as intrinsically bad, which limits his analysis.
Postman, Neil (1982). The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Delacorte.
Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin.
Postman, Neil (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Knopf.
Postman, Neil (1997). The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. New York: Knopf.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Think tanks - 10 rules of techn-ology

As we drove down the small country roads to Bovingdon, we heard them first, then started to glimpse them through the trees, rearing up and down on rough tracks. Suddenly, one was coming straight at us on the road, then two more. The area was crawling with tanks and armoured vehicles. Every time we saw one we shouted – tank, tank! What a simple, solid word.
Tank techn-ology
Our destination was The Tank Museum. And this is the fine statue at the entrance. I like technology, usually the smaller stuff, computers, iPads, mobile phones etc. What I wanted to know was whether my work in researching new technology, or techn-ology (the science of technology) applied to something as big, bad and brutish as tank technology.
So far, my 10 rules of techn-ology are:
  1. Technology changes RULES
  2. Technology has ALLURE
  3. Technology coalesces PREVIOUS TECHNOLOGIES
  4. Technology is HARDWARE+SOFTWARE
  5. Technology is about SCALE
  6. Technology is UNPREDICTABLE
  7. Technology locks in PRACTICE
  8. Technology can be USURPED
  9. Technology DIES
  10. Technology produces NOSTALGIA
Technology changes RULES
A tank is a moving, armoured vehicle with a gun. So who first invented the tank? Sure the Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans had armoured elephants but it was Leonardo da Vinci who first imagined the true tank, a circular, sloped cone with wheels that allowed it to move in any direction with a turret and gun. But it was the British at the start of the First World War who developed the first metal, tracked tank to breach German trenches.
These huge, trapezoid beasts were to change the face of warfare for the next 70 years. The first tank battles were messy. More men died of carbon monoxide poisoning than enemy fire. They were noisy, smelly, hot, difficult to manoeuvre and easily captured. You can crawl inside one in the Museum and see that it really is a metal tank – like being inside a metal box with sharp angles, rivets and a huge, uncovered engine, taking up most of the space. Just a small hole to see and hand rods to steer. Eight men crews were needed for gear changing, steering and gun handling, with male tanks (big side guns) and female tanks (machine guns). The Germans were truly shaken by this new weapon and all sides in future wars were to adopt the technology as an offensive weapon. The tank played a cardinal role in the Second World War and the threat in the Cold war was tanks rolling across Europe. In the Israeli Arab wars they played a significant role as they did in the Gulf wars.
Technology has ALLURE
Tanks have a special allure, both admired and feared. You need only recall the screaming, screeching, banshee sound of the German tanks near the end of the film Saving Private Ryan, to appreciate the feeling of fear and awe they inspire. Later British tanks had bus engines, designed to make a huge amount of noise, just to terrify the enemy. You can tell by their potent names; Panzers, Tigers and Leopards, that these were predators. As you walk round the Tank Museum they seem dark, impenetrable and lethal – and that’s exactly what they are.
Technology coalesces PREVIOUS TECHNOLOGIES
The tank is really several core technologies in one, with lots of add ons. The core technologies are the engine, gearbox, wheels, tracks, armour and gun(s). All of these had been developed in other contexts. Even now these are the essential, simple ingredients. But it’s all about payoffs. You can have great, heavy armour but you’ll need a reliable and powerful, fuel hungry engine. You can have great robust tracks but you’ll need to drive along country roads. You can have the best tank in a battle but if it’s up against many more, cheaper to manufacture tanks, you’re a gonner. So it’s all about comprimises. 
The accessories are wonders in themselves, those clusters of little tubes that eject smoke bombs to form a circle of smoke around the tank to hide behind. Challengers simply add dye to their fuel and use the exhaust smoke to do the same job. The slatted armour that catches RPGs in mid-air so their fuse doesn’t hit the armour. You literally pull them off like thorns and disarm them. What the tank became was an all-purpose fighting machine with troops, guns, defence, navigation and surveillance equipment all rolled into the one vehicle, taking the best of everything and packing it into a mobile, killing machine.
Smart design was the key to tank development. As the Germans widened their trenches, the tanks got longer. Some major innovations included simply sloping the armour, this meant that bullets and shells had to chew through more armour to get through and the slope deflected the impact. Russian tanks develop long snorkels so they could cross European rivers during the Cold War. Concrete crossing points were even found in the West after the wall came down!
The business end of the tank is the gun barrel. This is what gives it menace. Accurate to within feet at five and half kilometres they destroy their target every time. In a rather sad story, the ex-tank driver told us that only one Challenger had ever been taken out in battle, in the Gulf War. A crew had gone off grid for a spot of sunbathing. Another Challenger had spotted it and at 5 kilometers had gone all the way up the chain of command. They fired and killed the entire crew, who would have known nothing about it.
The barrels are clad, with sights and cameras down their length as even the sun shining on one side will heat one side up and introduce aim errors. Depleted Uranium tipped shells work just through kinetic energy. They punch a small hole on their target tank, literally liquidise the crew and produce pressure so great that it pushes the liquidised contents back out of the hole. But it’s now the software that sets targets, identifies threats, controls fire and navigates the tank that is important as its hardware. It’s the calculations made of cost of manufacture, fuel consumption and numbers that matter.
Technology is about SCALE
A T34 sits there with a roughly cast turret and no frills. They gave their tank crews padded helmets, rather than padding the tanks, saving time and money and although crudely built, they made 84,000 of them with handles for troops to hang on to. The Easter front became a war of attrition with the Russians simply outnumbering the Germans in tanks and men. They also used small Mongolian tanks crew. The rest is history.
Technology is often unpredictable and the tank was to develop into a remarkable flexible workhorse, with grappling hooks to pull back tangles of barbed wire and create a gap for troops and horses, mine clearer with a huge rack of ball and chains up front for triggering mines, train tanks mounted on rails, amphibious tanks, anti-aircraft tanks and so on. There were even fire breathing tanks for burning snipers and troops alive. If their crews were caught they were executed by the Germans on the spot. They were used for many more purposes than were ever imagined when they were first built.
Technology locks in PRACTICE
A serious consequence in the military is fossilised practice, where hardware contracts often stretch out to as long as 30 years, with an inbuilt resistance to change, especially when the weapons become embedded and locked into regimental structures.
Technology can be USURPED
If we see a tank on our TV screens today, it’s likely to be the state using it on its own citizens. We saw it with Gadhafi and now see it with Assad. In these circumstances it’s a blunt and brutal instrument, used to shell urban areas, with many civilian casualties.
Technology DIES
Like most technology, it has largely had its day. There are no British tanks in Afghanistan. Why they’re too heavy to fly in and we’d never be able to fly them out as the air is too thin and the last thing we want is to leave them behind! Besides, in modern urban warfare, tanks are cumbersome. They’re too big to get down streets, vulnerable to ambush and wreck the roads and drainage systems. The last major tank on tank battle was in 1967 – the Yom Kippur War. The British Army has 300 tanks and they’re scrapping 250 of them. In the end tanks lock personnel into relatively easy to identify targets so tanks are giving way to smaller, more flexible, all-purpose, armed vehicles.
Technology produces NOSTALGIA
One need only watch the visitors at The Tank Museum and the newly built tank track stadium for summer events to see that many are fond of tanks and see in them a symbol of power and victory, especially for the British, who invented the tank. Even now they look and sound like dinosaurs, beasts from the past.
Tanks appeared at the start of the 20th century and are now being mothballed. They were the land weapon of choice for nearly 70 years. In the end newer technologies, especially accurate missiles fired from the air, and now from drones, threaten their very existence. So we’re back at our first rule, technology changes the rules, again and again and again. Resistance is futile – even if you have a tank!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Twitter: in learning less is more

In the psychology of learning ‘less is more’. The learning industry, education and training, is plagued by overlong manuals, powerpoints, papers, books, talks and lectures. Cognitive overload is the norm, forgetting and failure the consequence. This, I suspect, is why twitter is so damn popular. It’s short and sweet.
If the internet has taught learning professionals anything, it’s the fact that most of what we do is unnaturally long-winded. In all media, the internet has acted like a massive experiment, where real people have shown their preference for information in shorter pieces. Why - because that’s how real human communication and learning works. If you sat down next to someone in a plane, asked them a question, and they replied with a 50 minute lecture, no matter how knowledgeable they were, you’d want to strangle them. So the internet has spawned media such as Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, Wikis and YouTube, all of which have brevity as a virtue. And none are as brief as Twitter.
Who would have thought?
Who would have predicted the rise of a social networking site based on short 140 character posts? People were, and many still are, baffled by the success and popularity of Twitter. Yet it was really a confluence of two already successful technologies, txting and posting on social media. It combined 160 character txting (shaving 20 characters off) with the continuous posting flow of social networking (followers as friends). You follow people you respect and they follow you. More promiscuous than Facebook or blogging, it’s like having lots of small encounters with people from all over the country or world on a daily basis. So what use is it in learning?
Twitter and learning
Twitter can be used at a number of levels in learning; personal, at events, within formal classes/courses and inside organisations. Its use as a networking and knowledge sharing tool for learning professionals is clear, as is its virtual expansion of events such as conferences, where the backchannel enhances the event for attendees and non-attendees. However, it is not at all clear that it is useful as a structured learning tool in schools and classrooms, where the effort taken to plan and execute Twitter-based learning experiences are often forced, a little artificial even shallow. However, even here, it is early days and things may emerge that prove useful.
Twitter and professional network
As Twitter use has exploded so has its adoption by academics and experts in all sorts of fields. Following experts gives you all sorts of useful ideas and links for research and assignments. In this context, tweets often have links to deeper content that allow you to connect things and deepen your knowledge and exploration. These links often lead to blog posts, articles, papers and events. It is often forgotten that twitter signposts up and coming events in the real world. Sometimes they signpost conferences, lectures, talks that are happening at that moment. Indeed, most tweets from learning professionals point towards something interesting they’ve found. In this sense, Twitter is like a recommendation engine, supplying you with contemporary ideas on your subject or profession.
Twitter as backchannel
At a major educational conference I attended in Doha, Qatar, a huge slide went up asking all delegates to switch off their mobile devices. We took a photo of the slide and tweeted it (tweetpic), saying “don’t be stupid, the sign should say the opposite”. The next day the chair confirmed that we were right. A Twitter backchannel is a virtual extension of a real event and allows participants, both at the event and beyond, to observe, communicate and share ideas. It greatly enhances the event and can be fed back into the live event, either on a screen or as questions for speakers, discussion etc.
A hashtag (#) is a collective link that collects tweets around a specific event. Many find it useful to tune into a hashtag to get the gist of a talk, key concepts, quotes and comments, without having to attend the conference. Tweeting pictures can also be useful, especially key or summary slides in presentations. Given the 140 character restriction, this is a way to get more detailed information across. We all know that talks and lectures are padded out, so this can be a useful way of getting the crystalised thoughts of the speaker.
Beyond this many tweet points of agreement and disagreement, so that critical thought and discussion becomes part of the experience. This can develop into short dialogue using Reply function). Hashtags can also be used for questions to speakers, lecturers and teachers. I’ve answered tweeted questions during, at the end and after talks. This widens the opportunity for questions to those beyond the room, as well as allowing more introverted attendees to ask questions. Some make such Tweets visible on a big screen which encourages self-moderation and gets the debate out on the floor.
So, going back to my Doha example, announce your hashtag at the start of a conference or event (It is amazing how rare this is) or several may arise, causing confusion. Then encourage tweeting. They are honest and provide a blow-by-blow account of the event. People also Tweet at the end of a conference which is also useful. So why not harvest these instead or as a useful, evaluative supplement or replacement to your happy sheets. My guess is that the tweets would be far more detailed and useful.
Twitter & courses/classes
Lots of teachers/lecturers/trainers have used Twitter to enthuse learners. Some, have students Tweet as characters, fictional and historic. The discipline of 140 characters teaches you to construct concise and sharp sentences. In language learning Tweeting short sentences can get students going in the actual use of a language. Following famous people who Tweet in the language you’re learning gives you a steady stream of relevant and realistic comments to try to translate. Or you can follow people directly and tweet in your target language. Pass the Tweet is a creative game where one person comes up with the title, the next the opening sentence and so on around the class, good fun, highly creative and a great writing task. You can go one step further and set up an account for your class. I’ve also seen teachers open up their class to outside Tweeters, by inviting tweets from the outside. Twitter chats are pre-defined periods where a question is posed and the contributors tweet answers in reply. This can be used to connect students within a class, across different classes, schools, even countries. Trips are always more interesting when photographs and comments are made along the way. So, on trips to museums, art galleries and especially journeys and field trips, encourage tweeting from mobiles.
Twitter & workplace learning
Whether it’s a project, initiative, launch or change management problem,  lots of organisational activities will benefit from being tweeted, if only to keep people informed but also for inviting suggestions and feedback. 
https://www.yammer.com/ is a Twitter clone that you can use privately, within a company or organisation to access experts, ask questions, organise events, poll or private message. Benefits reported a dramatic reduction in email and increased productivity.
One could also argue, that it’s often introduced as a bit of a gimmick and wastes more time than it saves. Twitter’s strength is its almost organic growth and use. As soon as it starts to be used in a formal classroom or training context it can seem a little forced or fake. Its strength is as an informal personal learning tool or as a backchannel at events. As a formal learning tool it’s unproven.
Twitter can also be a distraction among learners leading to rude tweckling (heckling using Twitter) and inattention. Your Twitter stream can be flooded with automated feeds from your other social media. You also have the problem of inclusion, namely two groups, one Tweeting, the other having no idea what’s happening on Twitter. It can also be more impressionistic and less coherent, than say a blog post about a talk or conference, with poor searchability.
Twitter has been boosted by the rise in mobile, social networking. This has taken it into cafes, onto trains and into conferences, lectures and classrooms. At first sight, Twitter seems an unpromising candidate for learning. Yet once we grasp its fit with the psychology of learning, its multiplicity of uses and popularity, it seems entirely relevant, as long as we don’t force it into inappropriate formal contexts.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Blogs: vastly underused teaching and learning tool

You’re reading this on a blog. As a blogger since 2006, I can only say that it has been one of the most important learning experiences in my life. I don’t go on courses or attend an educational institution but I do write blog pieces and read oodles of stuff on other blogs.
For me, a blog is more than a diary. It is a place for honest expression, a bit of reflection, and some sharing and collaboration. You learn from putting yourself to the test, by writing a piece that is readable by others, but also benefit from the comments that come back, challenging or supporting your view. A blog is an invitation for dialogue. So what’s its contribution to learning?
Blogs benefits
As a learning experience the benefits are clear. The act of writing forces you to précis your thoughts, reflect on experiences and come to some conclusions. The problem with much education and training is that written analysis is either too short (multiple choice or word/phrase answers) or too long (long-form essays in higher education). Blogs provide a far more useful format. A blog post shouldn’t be too short or too long. Some topics require no more than a paragraph or two, others a more considered couple of pages of detailed argument. Like good journalism blogs should be concise and compelling. Blogs force you to be concise but substantial. They are a useful alternative to essays in schools and Universities. Blogs reinforce learning, increase writing and communications skills and (often forgotten) increases retention. They build confidence, self-expression and autonomous learning. Even the shyest students can find a voice.
Blogs and memory
Another great advantage of regular blogging is that the act of writing a clear post involves deep processing in memory that results in better retention. I have a much better memory for the topics, exhibitions, books, films, events and journeys I’ve blogged. The very act of blogging not only boosts memory but acts as an aide memoire. I often go back to my blog posts when I have to give a talk or need to respond to a query on a specific topic.
Blogs and sharing
It is important to remember that blogging is an open invitation to converse with others on a topic. In some cases, such as my critical posts on NLP, I’ve had acerbic, personal attacks. It’s all good and I rather like the idea that the blogosphere is a bit rough and tumble. More importantly, I’ve often had good examples, new perspectives and arguments I hadn’t considered before.
Blog and ‘voice’
Good blogs have a ‘voice’. In fact blogging allows you to find your voice. The best blogs are written by those who do it for themselves and find in themselves the joy of writing. I am so glad I’ve blogged for all these years as I feel I’ve produced material that would have been lost to my mind and memory. As you can probably guess I’m not a fan of blogs from organisations – no real voice and too much direct marketing for my taste.
Teacher blogs
The admirable Millie Watts, the social networking teacher, had a blog ‘What I taught this week’. This was obviously useful for her students. Most teachers leave no trace at all of their lessons, yet we know with absolute certainty that learners need repeated access to knowledge to learn. A teacher’s blog can summarise what was covered in lessons, included media content such as diagrams, photographs and video. It can also link to useful external resources. As a resources for learners who may have found the lesson to difficult, were off ill, have English as a second language it can be a useful safety net. In doing homework or revision, it is a useful resource for all.
In many ways it is almost odd that a teacher, lecturer, trainer, instructor does not blog. They are in the business of imparting knowledge and this is a simple way to do precisely that, and it’s easy to use and free!
Similar arguments apply to leaders and senior managers in organisations. Many CEOs and other senior managers and experts within organisations blog. This humanises the organisation, gives people a voice and a chance for others in the organisation to get to know that person better.
Convincing teachers can come through arguments for deep learning, reflection and retention.
Learner blogs
Benefits of blogs for learners include summarising their experience and better retention. Useful notes for revision are also created for reinforcement and revision. The blog format not only improves writing and communication skills, it is a powerful form of preparation for exams that demand reflection and good written answers. It can also be used as a form of peer-to-peer learning, where other learners are encouraged to comment on each other’s posts. This can be left open or done formally.
David Mitchel is a huge evangelist for pupil blogging. He didn't set one piece of homework all year, yet his pupils worked producing 70,000 words+ on their blogs from home. His primary school has also shown measurable improvements in writing skills. Millie Watts encouraged her students to write ‘What I learned this week’ blogs. Blogs encourage students to write the right way, not over-long essays but short, sharp pieces that communicates ideas. Get them to blog for a specific target audience. Oh and don't call blogging homework, a hideous word that turns it into a chore.
Blogs and assessment
A learner blog gives a running account of what the learner is learning. It acts as a form of continuous formative assessment. There is an argument for replacing the drudgery of homework with learner generated blogs that force the learner to reflect on what they’ve learned. There's a degree of honesty and substance in a learner blogs that one is unlikely to find in formal testing.
Informal blogs
There are millions of bloggers who have been energised to blog on almost every imaginable subject. The blogosphere has, in effect, become a source of knowledge sharing in all professions and all subjects. No matter what subject interests you, enthusiasts are no longer tied to the narrow-cast journals or trade magazines. The blogosphere is a rolling wave of knowledge leaving a useful archive in its wake. For me it is perhaps the most tangible evidence for the health of informal, lifelong learning.
Blogs and politics
At another level, that of political engagement, blogs have played a significant role, not only in stable democracies but perhaps more relevantly in repressive regimes and most notably in the Arab Spring. Bloggers have written about corruption, presented alternatives and galvanised people around causes and real events. To be absolutely clear here, for some naive commentators have dismissed this activity, bloggers have been murdered, imprisoned, tortured and harassed in many countries.
Blogs and publishing
Finally, it has to be recognised that the blogosphere is a publishing medium in its own right, as well as a source for authors, columnists and journalists who can emerge in a meritocratic fashion, to publish their own work. Entire works of fiction and non-fiction were blogs or have emerged from blogs.
Blogs are a potent and vastly underused teaching and learning tool. The habit of regular writing as a method of reflection, synthesis, argument and reinforcement is suited to the learning process. Blogs encourage bolder, independent, critical thinking, as opposed to mere note taking. For teachers they crystallise and amplify what you have to teach. For learners, they force you to really learn. A last word for those bloggers who have been jailed, flogged and killed, maybe we owe it to them to do this.