Sunday, February 24, 2013

Too cool for school: 10 reasons why tablets should NOT be used in education

1. Do pupils buy them? NO

I'm writing this on a laptop. I have an iPad but wouldn’t dream of using it for research, note taking, writing or business. It’s used in our house as a sort of look-up device, more ‘search, see and watch’ than ‘write, create and work’. My kids never use it. When I asked them if any of their mates had bought one, they laughed. No way, “Well pricy for what it is – they all have laptops”. They want something for Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, email, sound/video editing, games, coding and bitorrent. Of my two sons, one has a Macbook, the other a juiced up PC. I never use my iPad as I’m mostly writing and communicating – it’s just too awkward and limited.
2. Do students buy them? NO
Beyond school, college and university, students seem to prefer laptops, again for note-taking, essay writing and so on. They want the flexibility of a full-milk computer, not a ‘look-good’ consumer device. Our lecture halls are not full of tablets. Students research, communicate and, above all, need to write substantial amounts of text, even code. Tablets don't do it for them.
3. Do employees use them? NO
Then there’s the workplace. I’ve yet to see a workplace that has decided to standardise on iPads or tablets, unless it’s for esoteric reasons around ‘agency’ image. Again, at work, people want full-milk, networked computers that allow them to do functional tasks, quickly. When I see an iPad in the workplace it’s usually in the hands of an older person at meetings, where they finger-peck notes (slowly), struggle to download documents and spreadsheets, and are often the very people who demand paper copies of all the working papers before the meeting. I’m happy with my £299 netbook and no paper.
 So why this rush to get iPads and tablets into schools?
Putting aside this buying evidence, why the obsession with iPads? I don’t buy the arguments and wouldn’t buy the kit. If, like me, you see education as producing autonomous people who can create a life where they feel confident with technology, gather skills in its use and get the most out of it at home and work, an iPad or tablet is an odd choice and here’s why….
5. Writing
Core to primary, secondary and tertiary education is the basic skill of writing. Children need to be encouraged to write a lot to learn, whether it is note taking, assignments, reports, data manipulation, creative writing or essays. Touch-screen keyboards are awkward with high error rates and the process of storing, networking and printing from iPads is tortuous. This takes us back to the Victorian slate, indeed it is worse than a slate. I have one and find it easier to write on the slate than type into an iPad. Interestingly, you may hold young learners back from writing by providing a device that is so hostile to its creation. To respond by saying that you can buy keyboards for tablets is to admit defeat. It’s saying tablets only work when you turn them into laptops. And the additional costs?
6. Creative work
Tablets are for content consumption, laptops content creation. Just because things look good on an iPad doesn’t mean they’re easy to make on an iPad. The tools of creation in most trades and areas of art and design are very different from the tools of delivery. Try using Photoshop or Illustrator or 3D Studio on a tablet. Try doing pixel by pixel selection, layers and pinpoint adjustments. The screen is simply not big enough for this sort of work. It’s a hand held device not a working tool. Tablets are rare in the world of work and the writing, keyboard skills and skills with tools you may need in the real world of work are unlikely to be learnt on an iPad.
7. IT/ICT/Coding
Whatever the aims of learning IT/ICT/coding in schools, I don’t think the iPad or tablets are appropriate. Learning how to manipulate a spreadsheet on an iPad is painful. Learning to code, ridiculous. Who in their right mind would use touchscreen to code, which involves lots of detailed writing, deleting, inserting as well as a more open environment.
8. Consumer not learning device
Above all, the iPad is a CONSUMER device, read not write. It has a role in learning, especially with pre-school and early years children but beyond that there is no serious argument for large scale investments in tablets. The proof is that when real school kids and students buy computers, they do not buy tablets. They buy computers, netbooks and laptops.
9. Teacher unfriendly
Here’s a school that swapped its laptops for iPads and wantsto switch back, the staff room is full of regret and teaching problems were clear. Technically they proved a nightmare. Many teachers and teacher resources are in Word and Powerpoint, which has proved a problem in some schools. Some teachers have had to resort to remoting content, leaving you open to connection problems. There were also problems with the iPads 4:3 output on screens and web/proxy filters. But the big one is storage and the lack of a USB port. This means using more complicated methods such as Dropbox with all the attendant problems. It is not a teacher-friendly device. Without a deep understanding of software and teacher-needs, the advantages for learners may go unrealised.
10. Expensive
iPads are expensive to buy and repair, and are difficult in terms of networking and peripherals. They are designed to be used casually in the home, not in school, the lab or classroom. This is born out in Honywood Community Science School, a recently formed Academy, that bought 1200 iPads at a cost of £500,000 where half are now broken. So there’s a real question over the robustness of the technology in a school and in school bags, where they get knocked, dropped and scratched. What’s more, 20% of those sent for repair were on their second trip, some on their third. Although parents were asked to pay £50, the devices cost £400 each and there seemed to be a problem with getting pupils to look after something which they hadn’t bought. The true cost, when one adds actual repair costs will prove very high indeed.
Vanity projects
A very knowledgeable person, who attended a high-level Government meeting that arranged to get tablets into schools, told me that it was painful and shambolic. The school got its donated tablets from the global IT company and they were duly delivered to the school, where the Headteacher hid them from the teachers. The whole exercise was a case study in how NOT to use technology in schools i.e. buy a load of cool kit, deliver it in boxes and hope for the best. This is the danger with tablet projects, the driver is rarely a full needs analysis on the most appropriate technology and that people are driven by Apple hype or Apple fanboy advisors. We need to avoid bandwagon, vanity projects that assume what’s consumer cool for adults is cool for school.
I’ve spent the whole of my adult life encouraging the use of technology in learning but want to make sure that we don’t repeatedly shoot ourselves in the feet with projects that have not taken the above seven points into consideration. To be honest I’m not at all sure about shoehorning technology into classrooms. Let teachers teach or if you do introduce this stuff – use a good portion of budget for teacher training.
Good technology always has an allure and iPads have tons of allure, but it’s an allure that appeals to adults not children. I can see a use for tablets with young children 3-9 and perhaps in special needs. Once beyond the basics of play, the iPad is a luxury that schools cannot afford. Neither are they desirable in terms of the type of learning that schools largely deliver. These initiatives are often technology and not learning-led.
Note that this is not an attack on iPads and tablets. I bought one and like it. It’s a set of arguments against their use in education. Learners at school, college and university do not buy them with their own money. Neither do they use them when given the choice. Even if they were provided, they are largely inappropriate for writing, tools, IT/ICT/coding and other curriculum tasks. That’s because they are essentially output, not input, consumer devices, read not write, with an emphasis on consumption, not creation. Teacher friendly they are not.
I'm conscious that I may be missing something here and keen to hear about research on actual improvements in attainment, as opposed to qualitative surveys and questionnaires.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Sperling: most important man you’ve maybe never heard of in online learning

John Sperling came from a poor background and became a 50s beatnik, merchant seaman, activist and self-made billionaire, who founded the University of Phoenix in 1973, one of the most successful educational organisations in the world, built on a mixture of online learning and traditional course delivery. As they say of education “If you want to move a graveyard, don’t expect much help from the occupants!” Sperling understood this and as a maverick educator and pioneer in adult and vocational learning, opened up a challenge to traditional education.
You’ve got to love a man who became an entrepreneur at 53, campaigns for the legalisation of cannabis, funds longevity and environmental research, funded the first cloned cat and contributed large amounts of money to the Obama campaign.
Jumped ship
Sperling was born into a poor background, dyslectic and was seriously ill as a child, spending six months in bed. He became a seaman, shipyard worker then academic and trade-unionist. Unsatisfied with being a professor at San Hose State University, he started to create vocational courses but became disillusioned with the view that a University didn’t need more students. At this point he decided to jump ship.
University of Phoenix
Sperling came late to education and resented the traditional model that sees the 18 year-old undergraduate as the archetypical learner. He was also critical of the poor pedagogy and teaching in traditional Universities and wanted to create a modern institution that focused on the student, with new models of teaching. So he cleverly grabbed the University of Phoenix brand and from those ashes created one of the largest Universities in the world.
Faced with ferocious, and as he describes it ‘mean-spirited’, opposition from all quarters of the educational establishment, he forged ahead. This was long before the internet matured but Sperling spotted the opportunity to learn online and built systems that fuelled the growth of the University of Phoenix, which had to fight against traditional educational detractors, even to survive. The success of the project in student numbers, output and business terms has all but silenced these sceptics.
Unusually, for a billionaire, he is left-leaning and driven by a passion for helping poor students get education and jobs. It was Sperling who opened up the educational landscape in the US and elsewhere, so that 12% of all US undergraduates are at private universities and take up 24% of grants for low-income students. In The Great Divide: Retro Vs. Metro America we see a highly political animal, fighting for the Democratic Party and against the old racial, ethnic, religious, political and geographical divides in the US.
Learning from Sperling
What can we learn from Sperling?
Innovation comes from outside. Innovation in education tends to come from outsiders. Sperling was a maverick who succeeded because he was not hidebound by tradition and institutional inertia. With the objectivity of the outsider who entered the system with some worldly experience, he felt it was narrow, overly-academic, had poor pedagogy and not at all meritocratic. Education is a slow learner and needs to be hurried along by external tutors.
Technology scales. He showed that technology, within reason and in a blended context, was the key to reducing cost, personalising learning and capable of meeting the need of students who didn’t want to be campus-bound. Most pedagogic advances have indeed been made from technology, such as search (Google), crowdsourced knowledge (Wikipedia), video instruction (YouTube) and so on. Sperling was among the first to apply online technology to volume courses in Higher Education.
Higher Ed is NOT just about 18 year olds. Adult learning (lifelong learning) has come of age and the 18 year old undergraduate is no longer the sole model for Higher education. Sperling, came to tertiary education late and saw how poorly he was treated. Convinced that there was a mass market in vocational and adult education, he created one of the largest universities in the world, largely on the back of the promise of employment.
Vocational learning matters. Mass youth and graduate unemployment has taken root in many countries around the world and governments now recognise that an educational system too weighted towards academic subjects may do as much harm as good. Economies with a good blend of academic and vocational, such as Germany and some countries in the Far East flourish, while those that have the dead hand of history on their education systems falter. Everyone has to leave school sometime and to leave vocational learning poorly funded is a mistake,
The University of Phoenix, with over 500,000 students, is now part of the Apollo Group, an international private educational group, that owns BPP in the UK, and universities in Chile and Mexico. But it is not without its critics.
The University of Phoenix, and its clones in private education, have been accused of luring unsuitable candidates into courses that prove unsuitable, resulting in high drop-out rates. The result is large numbers of students saddled with debt, that don’t end up with any real advantage in the job market. Sperling has responded, by some pretty tough lobbying in Washington, arguing that his model enfranchised huge numbers of people and that drop-out is common in many traditional educational institutions, and that one would expect it to be higher in his demographic.
In his book For-profit Higher Education: Developing a World Class Workforce (1997), a look at three types of funded education; 1) public, 2) not-for-profit and 3) for-profit, he gave an analysis that showed public and not-for-profit education incurred state costs of several thousand dollars a year, compared to the gains of several hundreds of dollars a year for students from for-profit organisations. This is an interesting analysis in that it attempts to lay bare the complete (and complex) cost model. Sperling has a PhD in Economics from Cambridge and understands the cost variables that are often quietly ignored by those justifying ever-higher levels of state funding in education. This has turned into a complex, but healthy, debate in the US around the true cost of education, including drop-out rates, defaults on loans, lost opportunity costs and so on, something that is starting to happen elsewhere in the world, as debt-driven, economic woes stalk the planet. Whatever, your political beliefs, it is vital we address the true economics of education, to optimise the system as we go forward.
Sperling is a provocateur, constantly at odds with the establishment views on education and other topics but has always been committed to students from poor backgrounds. His principles include; ignoring your detractors, taking ‘bet-your shirt’ risks, challenging authority and never setting a goal. This unorthodox approach to education and business has broken the mould and shown that online education works on scale for adults who won’t or can’t conform to traditional timetables and courses. As one of the most successful examples of online learning on the planet Sperling is a true innovator in online learning.
Sperling, John (1997). For-profit Higher Education: Developing a World Class Workforce. Transaction Publishers, U.S.
Sperling, John (2000). Rebel With a Cause. Transaction Publishers, U.S.
Sperling, John (2005). The Great Divide: Retro Vs. Metro America. Polipoint Press.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Prensky: game on - digital natives, immigrants and aliens

Mark Prensky is a lively New Yorker and ex-teacher who set the pace on the use of games in learning with his evangelistic book Digital Game-Based Learning (2001). Prensky claims that today's educators/trainers and learners are from separate worlds. His proposition is that learners have a short attention span nowadays - for the old ways of learning! His point is that the old ways are inappropriate for the new generation of learners. His argument is that games make learning cool. School and most learning experiences are not cool.

Digital natives’ versus ‘Digital immigrants’

It was Prensky who was responsible for this useful, and some claim, overused phrase. These terms have become commonplace and Prensky helped make them common currency in the learning field. Digital natives are those who grew up with computers, texting, searching, games consoles and thrashing about in software – the twitch generation. Digital immigrants are those who have had to enter their world and learn about them later in life. Then there’s the often forgotten, but not uncommon Digital aliens, those who remain outside of the system.

There has been much criticism of this distinction as being too black and white, encouraging the view that all young people have full, online, literacy skills, which they clearly do not. However, the distinction is a useful heuristic device in that it points to the obvious generational shift in terms of the commonplace use of online technology, especially computer games. There has been a demographic switch and demonstrably higher use of technology by younger people. They literally learn technology skills at a very young age, such as using software, apps, texting, posting, messaging and increasingly the use of cameras, images and media production. His arguments about context are clear.

To be fair Prensky moved on and his redefinition towards ‘Digital Wisdom’ has tackled some of the older criticisms. His primary arguments are that education has a problem with relevance, context and audience. The curriculum, he believes, is antiquated, the world for which students are taught has irreversibly changed to include both personal and workplace technology and the students have new experiences and different expectations. We have seen huge changes in pedagogy, especially since 2000, with search (Google), crowdsourced knowledge bases (Wikipedia), video (YouTube), audio (podcasts), social media and voice. These are all radical pedagogical shifts that require new skills, for both teachers and learners. 

Games and motivation

The real power in Digital Game-Based Learning (2001) comes from the arguments he gathers on motivation, and using game techniques to improve learning. Professional games' designers know a lot about motivation. They have to - or their games won't sell. There is, therefore, real mileage in taking some of the magic dust of game design and sprinkling it on learning. His analysis of what makes games tick is exemplary and matched by a similarly strong analysis on learning in relation to simulations. 


The primary advantage of gamification is motivation but this can be short-lived if it simply means introducing extrinsic behavioural rewards. There is also a difficulty  in bringing the two worlds of games and learning together. Prensky is not entirely convincing in making these two worlds congruent. Games may not be as widely applicable in education and training as he imagines.  There is also a whole raft of arguments against the use of games, especially in reflective, higher forms of learning.

For example, it is quite difficult to argue that the violence in games has no effect whatsoever on players, then argue that games make great sense for behavioural change, for example in military simulations. Why has the military spent so much on games and simulations if it has no psychological effect? This is a dimension to the 'games in learning' debate that is often underestimated by the games evangelists. Games can distract, disappoint or even destroy learning.

Cognitive load - Gamification may well introduce extra cognitive effort that may outweigh any planned advantage. This may result, not in cognitive gain but cognitive overload. This can be counterproductive and can hinder rather than help learning. Don’t imagine that games techniques can be inserted into learning experiences without extra cognitive effort. 

Distraction - Games can distract from true learning. In learning, often contemplation, steady progress and cognitive calm are required - not the cognitive distraction of cheap gamification. In this sense, needless gamification can hinder learning. As Merrill said, “there’s too much ‘-tainment’ and not enough ‘edu-‘ in edutainment products”. True motivation does not come from gimmicks, it comes from a true understanding of the needs of your audience. For adults, this may not mean gamification.

Disappointment - this is a danger where the learner is set up to experience a game which actually turns out to be rather weak. Poor efforts at games and gamification can disappoint. Children brought up on a diet of blockbuster, real-time games are often bored by poorly designed, educational games. The problem with games is that although they seem exciting and fun, they are actually fiendishly difficult to design and make. The lesson here is that learning does not always need to be ‘fun’. It sometimes needs to be taken slowly, seriously, with intense focus and persistence.

Destruction - in some cases, games can even destroy learning. This is the argument put forward by Neil Postman. If game-playing induces an expectation that learning must always be an amusing experience, then setting such an expectation risks producing the opposite effect in contexts where amusement is absent. In this way, a games-based approach might undermine other more traditional forms of education and training. 

Pejorative -  ‘Game’ can be a pejorative word for some. Not all older learners appreciate the idea of games in learning and may find it faddish, even condescending. Games of a certain type may also exclude female audiences. It may be difficult to get gamified learning experiences accepted by the people who have to implement them or older, more conservative, audiences.

Naive behaviourism - collecting coins, rubies and other tokens may be fine, if you're 10 years old, but less interesting to adults. This simple Pavlovian form of rewards is often little more than behavioural rewards. The aim is often the false god of extrinsic rewards. Unfortunately, this may be all too short-lived and as one becomes habituated, gamification becomes a little tired, even tiresome.


Computer games have long used smart pedagogy; learning through failure, level structures, keeping users within a defined skill level until mastery is achieved, simulations and constant feedback, are all strengths in games with real pedagogic worth. Some also argue that games may turn out a generation with better IQs, better skills, more attuned to technology with a more enlightened learner-centric attitude towards learning than any previous generation. Many also argue that we should harness the strength of games, while setting their weaknesses to the side. Whatever your view, Prensky is a pioneer and tireless campaigner for games in learning.

Prensky M. (2001) Digital Game-Based Learning
Prensky M. (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (From  On the Horizon (MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001)
Prensky M. (2006) Don't Bother Me Mom - I'm Learning Paragon Press
Prensky M. (2010) Teaching Digital Natives—Partnering for Real Learning Corwin Press
Prensky M. (2012) From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning
Prensky M. 920120 Brain Gain:Technology and the Quest for Digital Wisdom
Bennet S (2008) Journal of Educational technology vol. 39, no. 5, pp. 775-786, 2008

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Nielsen: When online goes bad - Flash 99% bad, eyetracking data, bad internal search

Jakob Nielsen, a Dane, has long campaigned for better usability on the internet. A ferocious critic of excessive and self-absorbed web design, especially Flash, and highly critical of designers who see the medium as a mere form of expression, rather than performing real acts of communication and learning, he offers sage advice on best practice is based on actual user responses (thinking aloun and eyetracking).
Best practice
A key concept for Nielsen is consistency. Users, he claims, crave for consistency. They expect to learn how to use a website or piece of online learning, but don’t expect to worry about the rules changing. The unexpected breaks the user’s confidence in the system making them feel insecure. This is especially destructive in online learning, where the cognitive dissonance disrupts the learning experience. In general, what’s important for Nielsen in screen interfaces is:
Easy to learn
Low error rate
This is why it is important to test, through voiced user trials. Users matter as users are either your customers or learners. Annoy them or switch them off any you switch off revenue or learning.
As readers scan screen text, far more than they scan written text, Nielsen advises corrective techniques:
bulleted lists
highlighted keywords
short paragraphs
a simple writing style
de-fluffed language devoid of marketese
His later three year, eyetracking trials confirmed how little text people actually read on websites. Heat maps and gaze plots were used to recommend best practice on page layout, menus, site elements, images and advertising. This was a more objective form of user-watching, and ‘thinking aloud’ which has remained his primary method of testing for over two decades.
Flash 99% BAD
His famous ‘Flash: 99% Bad’ article characterised Flash as a usability disease. He does not criticise the tool itself, only its tendency to work against usability. Flash makes things unusable for three main reasons.
First, it encourages design abuse through gratuitous animation. Since we can make things move, why not make things move? It’s not that animation has no role to play, only that, on the whole, it’s a distraction. Interestingly, this was backed up in detailed research by Mayer. Animation takes up useful cognitive attention and distracts from learning unless it is relevant and purposeful.
Second, it reduces the granularity of user control, reverting to presentation type sequences. Flash sequences at the start of websites are among the most indulgent and annoying feature of the web. This also annoys users and learners and contributes to users switching off attention.
Third, non-standard interfaces are introduced and not easy to use by users and learners who are used to more common conventions. True and disturbing.
These usability problems are not inherent in Flash and use of this tool has improved over the years. Indeed, he developed usability guidelines for Flash (that were mostly ignored). His position remains as follows, “The problem with most Flash is that it’s irrelevant and gets in the way of users. The download time is only one of the many problems, and even with instantaneous download, users prefer to visit sites that contain more straightforward content.
However, much Flash design continues to encourage these types of abuse. In the end Flash, like many proprietary tools, has become a cul-de-sac and seems to be on the way out. It arose because of the weaknesses of HTML, especially in not supporting video. Then, with Apple declaring war on Flash, and Google getting on board, we’ve gone through a period of black squares and requests for plug-ins. HTML5 now means that coders do not have to rely on Adobe’s Flash or Shockwave to achieve results. Mobile has also led to the abandonment of Flash. Nielsen is not the only one that will not be sorry.
Nielsen’s study on Disabled Accessibility: The Pragmatic Approach, showed that accessibility problems should come as no surprise, ‘After all, countless usability studies of websites and intranets have documented severe usability problems, low success rates, and sub-optimal user performance, even when testing users with no disabilities.’ In general, improving accessibility improves usability, which in turn improves performance, leading to cost benefits and savings.
The value of Jakob Nielsen’s prioritised approach is that he undertook real accessibility trials of websites with users with several different types of disabilities on a range of assistive technologies, including a control group. His conclusions could be said to run against the grain, in that he recommends a pragmatic, gradual approach to making existing websites (and online learning) accessible. His advice has largely been ignored by an over-prescriptive approach to accessibility, whereas most have quietly adopted his pragatic approach.
It can be argued that users also want aesthetic and other effects which enhance their experience when using screen-based interfaces. His ‘ideal’ websites and home pages do leave one underwhelmed. So they have a point, especially in learning, where motivation and sustained attention are important. There are many tribes in web and online learning design – usability experts. Like Krug, Norman and Nielsen, learning experts, graphic artists, who treasure their aesthetic and design judgements, coders and the customer, who often wants to impress their bosses (and users) with something that looks, well ‘flash’. Most websites and online learning are therefore compromises.
Yet, his work remains relevant, especially in pointing to the excesses of elaborate design. He’s not arguing for ugly content, only usable content. He has no problem with using readable fonts, especially for longer pieces of text. Few notice that Arial is the default font in Wikipedia but it is, and with good reason. On the whole, readers tend to prefer non-serif fonts like Arial, Verdana or Tahoma for screen text. Nielsen’s point is that, in the end, it’s users that matter and successful businesses, like Google and Amazon, keep things simple.
Bad internal search
He claims that the biggest fault in contemporary web design is bad internal search. Poor headlines and page summaries are another bugbear. He feels that too little of the budget is spent on this feature. I have to agree. What users enter into your search box is perhaps the most important data you can gather. It shows what users, and not designers, really want.
Nielsen is not afraid to challenge those who see the internet as a medium for designers as opposed to users. His user-centred research confirms, time and time again, that real people want simpler, more consistent and less elaborate models and content. His advice, informed as it is by research, is invaluable for e-learning and web designers alike. But we should be cautious about seeing everything solely through the Puritan eyes of the usability expert as there are other qualities that matter in some contexts. On the whole however, he’s just plain right.
Nielsen J. (1990) Hypertext and Hypermedia (1990)
Nielsen J. (1993) Usability Engineering (1993)
Nielsen J. (1999) Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity 
Nielsen J. (2001) Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed
Nielsen J. (2006) Prioritizing Web Usability
Nielsen J. (2008) Eyetracking Web Usability
Nielsen J. (2012) Mobile Usability

Monday, February 18, 2013

Norman: tech should be 'invisible' in learning

Let's face it we all have problems in using technology and software. My own pet hate is screen projectors, I'm sure you can name a few. This space between humans and technology is messy. Donald Norman’s touchstone for successful technology is that it should be invisible, intuitive and so easy to use that we can focus on the real task. Technology must conform to human needs, not the other way around. We must therefore use ‘user-centred design’ to humanise technology. This is true ergonomically but also true of interfaces which should render technology invisible.
Usability and learning
Usability, or user-centric design, is critical in online learning, as the crippling restraints of working memory mean that any cognitive overload or unnecessary cognitive effort on navigation will, by definition, squeeze out or delay learning. I see this time and time again with confusing menus, icons, whizzy graphics and unnecessary clutter. Distractions destroy attention, so confusion in navigation and usability undercuts learning.
Technology first, invention second, needs last
Although Norman is an academic, he believes that technology drives progress in user interfaces and design, providing lots of incremental changes in functionality and usability. He is no believer in ethnographic oracademic studies that attempt to find out what people do and want. In this sense he is a follower of Brian Arthur and believes that ‘science, engineering and tinkerers’ produce the real progress. Research should focus on user-centred research on actual devices to make improvements, not try to define the future.
The Psychology of Everyday Things
Norman made his name with The Psychology of Everyday Things, where he takes a wry look at product design in everyday objects such as computers, telephones, car windows, dashboards, doors etc. to show good and bad practice. It’s full of examples explaining why people push when they should pull, click the wrong buttons and generally fail to complete the simplest of everyday tasks with physical and online technology.
Don’t keep user in dark
His advice is straightforward and has plenty of relevance in online learning and web design. His first rule is ‘Design for usability’. Usability, or ease of use, is paramount. Don’t make navigation difficult. Make things visible – don’t keep the user in the dark. A good example of how this goes wrong is the poor use of icons in navigation. Programmes sometimes have graphics that look like icons but are not active, merely illustrative. You click on them and nothing happens. Even worse, you may click on an image or icon and something unexpected happens.
Mapping is another of his principles in design. To steer a car you turn the wheel to the right to go right and left to go left. This is mapping. Apply this to navigation on the screen. To go forward the arrow should face to the right and left to go back. Pull fingers a[part on touch screens to enlarge, pull together to reduce in size. In general, in navigation, feedback (another Norman design principle) is also important. You need to know when you’ve arrived at a destination.
Use conventions & coherence
In his later works, such as The Invisible Computer he tackles, not objects, but computer interfaces. How do new users understand what to do? First, follow conventional usage, both in the choice of images and the allowable interactions. Convention can constrain creativity, but on the whole, unless we follow the major conventions, we usually fail. Those who violate conventions, even when they are convinced that their new method is superior, are doomed to fail. You cannot successfully introduce a non-qwerty keyboard today, or reverse the window scroll bar convention. For better or for worse, human culture changes slowly, if at all.
Use words to describe the desired action (e.g. ‘click here’ or use labels in front of perceived objects). Words alone cannot solve the problem, for there still must be some way of knowing what action and where it is to be done. This requires a convention of highlighting, or outlining, or depiction of an actionable object. It is also well known that single word labels fail for most people. Thus, road signs often use graphics - an international standard on road sign graphics exists.
Follow a coherent conceptual model so that once part of the interface is learned, the same principles apply to other parts. Coherent conceptual models are valuable and necessary, but there still remains the bootstrapping problem; how does one learn the model in the first place? Use conventions, words, and metaphors to increase invisibility.
3 forms of emotional design
Do screen projectors, alarm-clock radios, lights in hotel rooms annoy the hell out of you? Have you given up trying to programme your household heating system? Norman sees our emotional responses to design in terms of:

  1. Visceral (appearance)
  2. Behavioural (performance)
  3. Reflective (memories and experience)
Interestingly he thinks Americans value 2 more than 1&3, whereas Europeans, at least the cultural classes, value 1&3. This is fascinating. He claims that different people buy things with different fuel mixtures of the three emotions. Different companies design to different types of emotions. Greta companies deliver all three.
As he explains in Living with Complexity, it is not that technology delivers too much complexity. The fact is, we live in a world of complexity, with complex technologies that do complex things. Live with it – that’s reality. The enemy is not complexity, it is dreadful design. You should not be expected to shake out some salt or pepper on to your hand to determine which cellar contains what. Complexity needs to be tamed, masked or made invisible with good design.
Norman’s books can be a bit trying to read as they jump between different styles and approaches. Nevertheless, they constantly illuminate the design process. A consistent critic of inconsistent and gimmicky web design as well as common mistakes in the design of hardware and interfaces, he was a pioneer in seeing user-centred design as a game changing force, not only in real-world objects, but also on the screen. We are only now starting to see the importance of his advice in online learning and web design with interfaces which are truly invisible in the sense that that they allow learners to learn, avoiding the cognitive effort taken to use a cumbersome interface.
Norman, D. (1986) User Centered System Design
Norman, D. (1988) The Psychology of Everyday Things
Norman, D. (1992) Turn Signals are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles
Norman, D. (1993) Things That Make Us Smart
Norman, D. (1994) Defending human attributes in the age of the machine
Norman, D. (1998) The Invisible Computer
Norman, D. (2004) Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things
Norman, D. (2007) The Design of Future Things
Norman, D. (2004) Living with Complexity

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Humble hyperlink - warp-drive of learning - a profound MOOP (Massive Online Open Pedagogy)

The humble hyperlink has now had a profound effect on learning. It is the ‘warp drive’ of online learning. You can find, locate, explain, look, buy, sell, bid, follow, friend; literally go at hyper-speed to new worlds. We now do it without thinking, in every Google search, Facebook update and Tweet. It is the springboard to further knowledge and takes you in leaps to people, places, products and pleasures you would never have dreamed off before the coming of the web.
Hyperlinked brain
Knowledge is not held in our minds alphabetically or in a linear or hierarchical menu structure. Knowledge is held in different ways, procedural, episodic, semantic, and called up into working memory, but it is fundamentally a neural network, physically and representationally. A hyperlinked representation of knowledge is therefore a much more useful learning tool as it reflects this structure and allows us to learn new knowledge structures that fit into our existing pre-requisite networks. These networks are personal and hyperlinked networks allow us to move through knowledge in a way that fits our existing structures, expectations and intentions. The brain is hyperlinked and so knowledge needs to be for efficient learning.
Knowledge wants to be free
You can tell that knowledge wanted to be free from the tyrannical, linearity of print by the evolution of the page itself, page numbers, footnotes, appendices and indexes, all things we find in print used to find things quickly, follow up, expand on a topic or go off and find another suitable text. These physical link devices, in print, show a yearning for hyperlinks long before they were actionable on the web. This yearning is driven by curiosity and learning.
Break with linear past
Hyperlinks are therefore profound in that they make a break with the largely linear past. Print, film, television and radio are not neutral in terms of their pedagogy. They are linear media that instil linear habits in learners. Books are greatly loved but their linear format and print publishing formats, it has been argued, have led to long linear formats that trap learners into a specific view by a specific author. Long reading lists have become the norm in Higher Education, which is more process than pedagogy. I have argued that this ‘reading’ of texts from lecterns led directly to the one hour, uninterrupted, linear lecture, which is a pedagogic dead-end. Broadcast television led to half hour and one hour formats that were blown apart by YouTube, Khan and TED. Overlong formats tied to schedules. Similarly with radio, freed by podcasts. Both video and audio have been time shifted and can be used by learners where and when they want to.
Further opportunities for learning
At one level hyperlinks can be used for simple clarification by linking to the meaning of a word or glossary definition. More expansively they can link to citations or other links on the web. However, their real force is in following your line of inquiry into more detail. Far from being a shallow medium, the web offers much depth through such links. Wikipedia has lots of useful links making it a network of knowledge, unlike paper encyclopaedias, arranged alphabetically. This makes the knowledge base more useful as there’s not only more opportunity for further research, it’s faster and one can get back in a click.
Social media and links
Hyperlink holds the web and networks together, the links between content and people. It’s the ‘social’ glue in social networking that hold people and people together. Facebook and Twitter are packed with hyperlinks and people tweet links as a matter of course. Social media is hyperlinking.
Adding a hashtag (#) to a string of letters in Twitter e.g. #todaysevent brings Tweets under that name together, so that you can click on or search for what’s being said under that topic. This is what allows things to trend. This takes hyperlinking to a new level, acting as metadata for a search. It not only aids search, it has allowed people to Tweet learning conferences, talks, lectures etc. and others to read their tweets, amplifying the event. Similarly, with @donaldclark, used to tag Tweeters. This is hyperlinking to streams of past and live content.
Web and links
Links were seen by Tim Bernard Lee as a fundamental part of HTML. He understood the importance of links as a navigational feature from within documents and screens. The cleverness of a hyperlink is that it can leap to a URL, webpage or place within a webpage, even a file or page within a PDF file. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) attribute a font, colour and style, even have a hover box. It is important that hyperlinks are clearly differentiated on screens and it is good design practice in online learning to avoid images and words that look like they hyperlink but don’t.
Object hyperlinking
The web of things connects objects with embedded computers. This is everything from mobile phones, household appliances, clothes, cars, sensors and so on. These are already used to control household energy consumption. Work is being done on wirelessly, linked devices such as Tricorders that record vital physiological signs, even blood analysis for dynamically gathering data about your health. Protocols have already been developed for such links. This has interesting possibilities in learning as it extends the reach of simulations and learning by doing.
Invisible adaptive hand
But something far more radical has happened with hyperlinks. Google and other large scale web companies, like Facebook an Amazon, have algorithms that harvest links and their use. The quality and quantity of links matters and that data is used to refine search and drive recommendation engines. So, behind the scenes, links are used to improve search and recommendations and therefore improve the speed and quality of learning experiences.
This is the promise of ‘adaptive’ learning, from companies like Cogbooks, where algorithms get to ‘know’ your pre-requisites and needs, then deliver learning to you, like a SatNav, keeping you going in the right direction and getting you back on course when you go astray or get stuck.
Hyperlink as MOOP
As a MOOP (Massive Online Open Pedagogy), the pedagogic power of hyperlinks is immense. They are immediately available to the learner at the appropriate point in their personal learning experience, can immediately link to any other point in any other digital asset, reducing research time, and the learner can get back through the browser to the point of departure. Hyperlinks are automated, research pathways, available to the curious and critical learner. It fees learners from the linear constraints of print and reaches out into links to other media, such as video, animation, graphics, images and audio, greatly expanding the possibilities for more efficient learning. They also work behind the scenes in search and recommendation engines to improve the power of the learning experience for the individual.
There is, of course, the danger that we suffer in learning from having too many links and therefor too many choices. We've all, at some time, found ourselves linking and vectoring away across the web and not having gained much. While this is true, the freedom of choice is largely a positive thing in learning. It frees us from fixed, linear narratives and opens up the possibility of multiple sources and a breadth and depth of opportunities unknown in our history. It is a far more natural way of dealing with new learning as it matches the way our brains learn. In all of these senses it is irreversibly positive.
Like all great technology the humble hyperlink has become so well loved and used that it has become all but invisible. We use them constantly but are barely aware of their immense power. They are literally intuitive extensions from the web that is our brain to and from the web and eventually to the internet of things. Above all, hyperlinks enable personalised learning. It’s wonderfully simple and may turn out to be one of the greatest inventions in the history of communications and learning.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mosquitos and turtles: how to fund great education projects

I was first up to speak, after the Minister, at NESTA, that’s Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society (they’ve lost the Big Society as it turned out to be so minuscule it fell out of the policy briefcase and no one can now find it). He looks uncannily like George Osborne, not surprising, as he’s yet another Eton, Bullington boy, and made a couple of interesting points and announcements. 1) Public sector risk averse but can't now afford to be. Needs infrastructure of support 2) Social Innovation Camp will support up to 72 tech based social ventures. Wayra Ultd will support 30 digitally focused start-ups. Was he sincere? I doubt it – he left early.
Geek talk
The room was rammed, not even standing room, and we had some excellent case studies of ‘social good’ projects in health, local government and coding, also some interesting views from investors. It was all good stuff and I applaud everyone in that room, as they’re actually DOING STUFF.
But the danger in these events is in settling into a sort of London luv-in. As soon as I hear the words ‘geek’ or ‘hackathon’ I reach, like Goebbels, for my gun, as I know I’ve entered the dated world of techy-yesteryear. I bumped into my old Head of Programing, Brian Rodway, on the train back to Brighton, he works for a games company that made £35 million profit last year – don’t call him a geek. He hates the ghettoization of coders and coding.
Mosquitos & turtles
I’m here because I have a foot in both camps: private and public sector. I’ve run, helped and invested in private sector companies but, having cashed-in, I turned my attention to do some public good in the education sector in a large charity.
Let’s start with a distinction. First, there’s what I call MOSQUITO projects, that sound buzzy but lack leadership, real substance, scalability and sustainability, and they’re short-lived, often dying as soon as the funding runs out or academic paper is published. Then there’s TURTLES, sometimes duller but with substance, scalability and sustainability, and they’re long-lived. With any luck they’ll be around for decades.
So, what’s a funder like NESTA, Nominet, Education Foundation, Omidyar or UFI to do? First avoid creating large pools of cash that breed mosquito projects with open calls and long-winded application processes, Second, don’t just open your doors and windows to mosquito bids, go looking for turtles – they’re more secretive and bury their eggs in the dark – but they’re there. Be selective.
Note that MOSQUITO projects need not be small, they can be huge AND short-lived. Molenet, NHSU, BBC Jam, many JISC and EU projects (not all) in online learning, are largely mosquito projects. Doomed to succeed in funding but fail in execution.
Crossing the chasm
My point was that crossing the chasm requires some characteristics that are often missing in public sector funding in the education market. Too many projects fail to cross the chasm as they lack the four Ss.:
Senior management team
Sales & marketing
There are two dangers here. First, understimulating the market so that the mosquito projects fall into the gap as they fail to find customers and revenues. This is rarely to do with a lack of technical or coding skills but far more often a paucity of management, sales and marketing skills.
The other danger is overstimulating the market with large projects that stop real innovative projects from evolving and bridging the gap. The danger here is that the large dollops of cash go into too much product development and not enough market development.
There’s another danger and that’s bogging projects down in overlong academic research, where one must go at the glacial speed of the academic year and not the market. These projects lose momentum, focus and, in any case, no one pays much attention to the results. As the old saying goes, “When you want to move a graveyard, don’t expect much help from the occupants.
Either way a serious problem is the lack of strategic thinking and a coherent set of sales and marketing actions. When people think of ‘scale’ they think of technical scale, but that goes without saying on the web, it’s a given. What projects need is market scale. What is your addressable market? Let’s take an example – schools. Where are the budgets? Who are the buyers? Who will you actually sell to? How big is the market? Do you realise that Scotland has a different curriculum? What market share do you expect? Who are your competitors? Answer these questions and you may very well decide to find a proper job.
We need to distinguish between noise and hard-nosed reality. Ghettoising social good through abstruse language and labels is not the point. You can call it ‘Impact funding’, but what’s needed is evidence of impact. Targeted funding and real impact is the point. One sign of the ghettoization, is that despite the fact that I invited the audience, at the start of my talk, to speak to me afterwards, as I’m a Trustee in a charity with £50 million to spent on tech projects, not one person came up to me and asked me for my card. When you network, speak to people you don’t know, not the people you know. That was a missed ‘sales’ opportunity for many in the room. It may be the case, and I’m not saying I’m certain here, that sales and marketing courses is what’s needed, not geekfests and hackathons.
I have to congratulate Katie and the folks at NESTA for organising the event. There’s a lot of energy, talent and entrepreneurial spirit around. There’s also some great people around in NESTA, Nominet Trust and other agencies. There just has to be a more efficient way of speed dating companies and investors to make things happen a little faster. Finally, I apologise of anyone feels that I’m completely off the page here, but I was asked to give my opinion based on my personal experience and that’s what I did. I've focused on the potential problems as that's what we need to avoid.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

YouTube another MOOP (Massive Open Online Pedagogy) Learning will not be televised, it will be digitised.

Alfie Days is one of my son's friends, lives in the next street, and his Pointlessblog has nearly half a million YouTube subscribers, and at 19 earns a lot more than his parents. This is the power of YouTube.
I'm not in that league but often start lectures and talks with the statement that the lecture or talk is a waste of time if it's not recorded and put up on YouTube, as many more people will watch online than offline. This is an obvious pedagogic benefit - you reach more learners. But its a lesson that's lost on most traditional educators, who largely deliver once-only, sheep-dip experiences. You're restricted to numbers in the hundreds or a thousand or two at conferences but online, the sky's the limit
Learning platform
YouTube is the new television, the largest audio-visual channel in history and the second largest search engine, after Google. Over a thousand people earn over $100,000 from YouTube advertising on their channels and over a million earn other sums. It has uncovered new ways of watching, patterns of attention and new ways of interacting with an audience. In short, it is a new learning platform that breaks many of the old rules around learning.
Unlike education, the web has a habit of producing pedagogic models that have massive user adoption. Short, instructive video is one such Massive Open Online Pedagogy (MOOP). YouTube showed that short, video clips have a serious contribution to play in learning. YouTube EDU put lectures online but if anything this was the old world porting its old bad practices into the new world. A bad one hour lecture isn't made better by putting it on YouTube and believe me, YouTube EDU is  jammed with bad lectures. It’s TED, Khan, Thrun and the millions of other short instructional videos that have irreversibly changed the learning landscape. These are innovators who understand the use of video in learning and have adapted it to their audience's needs. Education will not be televised, it will be digitised.
Hurley and Chen
Chad Hurley and Steven Chen are the founders of YouTube, one of the most successful and remarkable websites ever created. Hurley studied Fine Art; Chen Science and Maths. They met when they both worked at PayPal and three years later founded YouTube in 2005. It was sold to Google for £1.65 billion in 2006. Youtube’s word of mouth and word of mouse recommendations, starting with Saturday Night Live’s Lazy Sunday clip, led to immediate exponential growth.
How it works
Anyone can upload and share their clips (up to 10 minutes) for free. You can upload in a whole range of video formats which are then converted to Flash Video (.flv) for presentation on the YouTube site, a format that is widely compatible. The video clips also have some HTML that allows them to be linked to from blogs and other sites, with an autoplay feature. This is especially useful in social media where both feed off each other.
Education and training
Although set up to share entertainment, often funny and surreal, it now has thousands of education and training clips. Its mass appeal has allowed it to build and support a service that has a strong brand and a robust infrastructure. It has grown as a bottom-up repository and now contains a huge wealth of useful content in subjects as diverse as language learning, science, medicine, mechanics, plumbing and so on. You name it, YouTube will show you how to do it.
Its pedagogic power comes from the sheer size of the repository and range of content. Like Wikipedia it is growing exponentially and as more serious content appears, teachers, trainers, lecturers and learners can use this content as a free resource.
KISS (Keep It Short Stupid)
YouTube has certainly influenced the way video appears and is shown on the web. Most of the clips have the pedagogic advantage of being short, avoiding overlong, instructional content and therefore cognitive overload. It has put paid to the half hour and one hour programme, driven by broadcast TV, which was only that length as it had to fit timetabled schedules. How long should an instructional video be? Only as long as it needs to be and no longer i.e. short.
Quality and learning
A second change is that many of these short clips are often low on production values (less of an issue now as even low cost cameras produce high quality images. This confirms the research by Nass and Reeves at Stanford, who showed that the quality of video is not an important factor in learning and retention. This is because our visual system has evolved to cope with low quality images such as poor light conditions and so on. Note that the quality of audio does have a strong effect on learning and retention. You can’t get away with tinny or variable volume in your audio.
New pedagogic approaches in video
Creatively, YouTube has spawned lots of new genres of video instruction:
Khan blackboard and coloured chalk – simple but effective as the learner’s mind is not cluttered with seeing Khan – it’s the semantic content that matters, not talking heads.
Thrun’s hand and whiteboard – again it’s not Thrun’s head that matters but seeing worked problems and solutions.
RSA animations – clever animations that end up as a single infographic.
TED talks – shows how lectures should be – passionate experts, no notes, no reading, little PowerPoint and short.
Software demos – just show me the steps one by one.
Physical demos – point the camera at the engine, radiator or whatever I need to fix and show me how to do it, with commentary. I just take my tablet to the place I need it.
Sports coaching – wayward tennis serve? Watch an expert coach you in slow motion.
If you van video it, it’s somewhere on YouTube.
Learning by doing
Learning by doing has always suffered in the unreal world of the classroom and school. An important advance has been made through YouTube in vocational and practical learning, where real tasks are shown on video. These often involve the manipulation of real objects and the demonstration of processes, all of which can be seen full screen, increasingly on portable tablets and mobile devices. The pedagogy of learning by doing can be brought into the learning environment via YouTube.
Video and motor skills
Even sports and other motor skills can benefit from coaching on YouTube. Musical education has been revolutionised by the demonstration of fingers on chords and other techniques. Sports coaching in almost every imaginable sport is commonplace
TED talks
Easily denigrated, the talking head is still popular on YouTube. The video blog, expert talk and many other examples of someone giving their all, is still there. TED is perhaps the most interesting example, a respected brand that focuses on the expert speaker to deliver punchy sessions that eschew traditional lecturing for short, passionate and informative talks. TED gives strict instructions to their speakers and understands that video and lectures are not about the transfer of knowledge but the passion of the expert and a vision.
What you don’t see much of on YouTube is drama. It’s not that drama can’t be used for teaching and learning, just that it’s expensive and difficult to produce. Corporate training videos used to be full of TV presenter-led instructional videos and drama (I know I used to make them). This has died a death and often seems rather wooden and indulgent.
Context missing
Beyond ‘channels’ what YouTube doesn’t give you is context or structure. People like Roger Schank recommend indexing videos and using learner-led questions to find video answers, especially from a bank of experts. Khan has software that contextualises maths in terms of pre-requisites and so on. In other words, video often needs to be used in a blended context if the learning experience is to have breadth and depth. Nevertheless, there’s still a massive role for the one-off video that solves one query or practical problem.
YouTube has the advantage of being a powerful global brand. The fact that video cameras have become cheap, even embedded in phones, has meant the massive creation of content, as well as watching. It is shaping the way video is created, distributed and watched on the web. It has the potential to act as a vast education and training resource of free content, lowering costs for learning. More than this, it has introduced pedagogic changes around the use of video; its length, quality, format and breadth of uses. As a pedagogic approach it is clearly useful in both formal and informal learning, an enduring Massive Open Online Pedagogy (MOOP).

Monday, February 11, 2013

Google: first MOOP (Massive Online Open Pedagogy)

Seek and you will find
As a kid I never imagined, when watching Star Trek, that I really would have a little device on which I could ask any question, and it would almost certainly give me a meaningful answer. Science fiction came true and I have one next to me now and its main tool is Google search. Google search is probably the most profound pedagogic shift in the history of learning, not a game changer but a previously unimaginable shift towards universal access to anything, anytime from anywhere.
Montessori kids
Brin was born in Russia and educated in the US, Page is from Michigan. Like Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Mahatma Gandhi, Sigmund Freud, Buckminster Fuller, Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell, Jean Piaget and Hilary and Bill Clinton before them, they both attended Montessori schools. Indeed, they both credit their Montessori education for much of their success. It was the Montessori experience, they claim, that made them self-directed, allowing them to think for themselves and pursue their real interests.
They only met in 1995, at Stanford, yet their business, Google, famously based on a spelling error (Google should have been Googol), has become one of the most significant global businesses of our times. The company floated in 2004 and is run as a triumvirate of Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and Sergei Brin.
Most potent, pedagogic, productivity tool ever
As the world’s most successful search engine it has become an indispensable tool for learning and research. It’s a way of learning that has touched almost everyone in the developed and increasingly developing world. Search has transformed the way we search for information and has changed our very relationship with knowledge, making a significant contribution to the very idea of what needs to be learnt and newer. It is, arguably, the single most powerful, pedagogic, productivity tool we have ever seen.
Google – game changer in learning
Google's mission is to ‘organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful’. Specialist searching of text, images, video, books, blogs, academic papers, news, and maps, has given the ordinary user unparalleled access to knowledge stored across different media.
Their mathematical approach to search problems at Stanford led to a search engine that ranked sites by popularity. In addition, the more we search, the greater the data Google has and the better their search engine becomes. As their scalable model looked at links, so the larger the web became the better their engine became.
It is the speed and efficiency of such search that has accelerated our ability as learners to identify relevant knowledge. Learners of all ages and abilities see the web as a useful source of knowledge. Of course, Google also relies on knowledge bases such as Wikipedia, Journals and many other sources to deliver content.
Researchers, from schoolchildren with projects to advanced researchers in educational institutions, now find Google an indispensable tool. As online access to research Journals and scholarly knowledge bases increases, so search has become an indispensable tool.
Google tools and learning
Google Education provides a rack of useful tools for education. Thie rapprocah is to provide productivity tools, not content. Gmail has given users a free email service with substantial amounts of storage. Google Calendar provides individual and shared calendars. Google docs, shared documents. Google+ collaboration and hangouts. Google translate for languages. Google Scholar is even more precise in its intention.
Google Earth and Google Maps are astonishing tools for learning and research. Blogger, owned by Google, provides free blogging software to tens of millions of bloggers. YouTube is the world’s greatest, searchable repository for videos, now a mainstream source of content for learning. These promise to put even more power in the hands of learners, freeing us from the traditional limitations of paper-based libraries and physical ‘places’ of learning.
Outsourced memory
When most knowledge is easily searchable the need to learn and memorise knowledge starts to recede. Indeed, in the corporate world, it is clear that modern managers rely less on knowledge and more on skills. Memory is, in a sense, outsourced, placing less of an emphasis on rote learning and memorisation.
Many argue that this is also true of schooling, where the traditional model has been rote learning and memorisation, as opposed to critical thinking and other skills. Teaching students how to search may be as powerful a skill, as teaching them to read and write. Indeed, Google have a free course that does just that.
Google may also have altered our general idea of what constitutes knowledge. You have to learn to see knowledge as varying in quality and certainty, distinguish different sources in terms of their reliability. On the other hand, some suggest Google search has made us fickle, lazy and fragmented in our learning.
Digital Maoism
Google has its detractors. Jared Lanier warns against ‘digital Maoism’ aided and abetted by Google, that may take the wisdom of the crown and turn us all into slavish followers or tribal groups. The subterfuge is that Google monetises your search data and is “selling people [their advertiser-targetable personal identities, buying habits, etc.] back to themselves“. He goes further in his latest book The Fate of Power and the Future of Dignity claiming that the financial crash and future economy may be undermined by techno-utopianism, where we unwittingly submit to becoming become advertising fodder. These are interesting arguments and well worth noting but they tend to ignore the simple pay-off, that I gain more personally than I risk. Most people seem happy to give up their search data to get such a fee, powerful and useful product in return.
Googling the future
Google are so ambitious and have so many projects on the go that it is difficult to predict where they are heading. Now that they have tentacles into every online and offline person, organisation and place on the planet, including the planet itself, it seems likely that they will move beyond search through an expanding suite of tools to become your personal assistant for almost everything you want in life – knowledge, shopping, jobs…. However, it’s hard to see where Google X’s projects, supervised by Brin, such as the driverless car and Google Glass fit in.
Let’s not forget that Google gave us the Android mobile operating system, a welcome alternative to the closed world of Apple and a strategy one that seems to be paying off. Apple’s walled world is at odds with Google’s open world and in the long term my money’s on Google. Look out for Android games consoles, such as the Ouya. Android’s important as it eats into the OS market with phones, tablets and laptops like the Chromebook.
Page and Brin have created a toolset that has already revolutionised access to knowledge. Their organisation continues to revolutionise learning and to ‘organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful’. The scale of this task is enormous and on-going. It is truly an example of technology making a huge impact on the nature, future and efficacy of learning, a truly momentus pedagogic force. Search as a Massive Open Online Pedagogy (MOOP) is something that is was around before MOOCs and will be around long after MOOCs are gone. It’s long-term effect on learning is irreversible and profound.