Sunday, March 24, 2013

7 researched ways 'tablets' can inhibit learning

I've already given a general critique of why tablets should not be used in schools in Too cool for secondary school: why tablets should NOT be used in educationbut there is one issue that gets to the heart of the matter. Typing, text and data manipulation is important in learning. Many learners will be expected to write, edit and input data, not only while they learn but also when using computers at work or at home for leisure. If tablets make you write sloer, edit slower, even alter the way you write down to shorter sentences, they may actually inhibit this important dimension in learning. As you progress through the education system you are expected to write more, in more styles and to a higher standard. Given the increased use of tablets in secondary schools and universities, we must also ask whether typing is better on touchscreens or keyboards. Are we missing the fact that touchscreens may inhibit or even damage this dimension in learning?
Research comparing touchscreen with physical keyboards goes back over 20 years has consistently shown that touch screens produce slower and less accurate performance when compared with physical keyboards; Barrett & Krueger, 1994; Wilson, Inderrieden, & Liu, 1995; Schneiderman (1998); Ryall (2006); Hinrichs (2007). Benco (2009) at the University of Washington’s Information School, with Microsoft Research, showed accidental touches and a 31% lower typing speed (or 20 words per minute faster). But there’s even more bad news.
1. No feel for keys and boundaries
As there is no feel for key and keyboard boundaries, it is difficult to gauge when you have found the right key, especially at speed, so you can’t make small adjustments. This has been found to lead to slower typing speeds and higher error rates.  With no haptic or tactile feedback through a physical keyboard, you fail to feel key and keyboard boundaries.
2. Slow visual checks
You also require visual checking while you type, which slows down typing speed and increases error rates. Barrett (1994) claimed that touchscreens “pale in effectiveness” when compared to physical keyboards, largely because of the lack of feedback and need to visually check the touch keyboard. In learning, you want students to focus on the text and tasks not typing.
3. No home row anchor
‘Home row’ resting means that typists can rest their hands on a physical anchor, the lowest row of keys, to help them calibrate their finger movements when typing. They can then look at the screen without interruption to increase speed, reduce error rate and more importantly, focus on the writing task – meaning , expression and so on.
3. Text editing slow and difficult
A cursor, operated by a mouse or fingerpad is pixel accurate compared to a finger, which makes highlighting, cutting, copying and pasting more difficult and more prone to error. This causes real problems when doing pieces of even basic writing, where learners have to learn through failure and do lots of error correction, rewriting and reordering of words of prose. In more complex pieces of writing it becomes critical. The danger is that touchscreen keyboards, being more difficult to use, hamper progress and limit skills progression in writing.
4. Inappropriate for high-level tasks
Some learning tasks, such as coding, require large amounts of character editing, and would be severely restricted on touchscreen. Mathematics quickly requires high-level symbol manipulation. Additionally, when it comes to creative tools such as graphic, audio and video media creation and manipulation, progress is quite literally impossible with touchscreen. Fingers may also obstruct text that is being manipulated.
5. Tilt matters
Typing on a surface that is flat also brings problems. A notebook or laptop screen sits up at an angle from the keyboard. This angle is typically between 100 and 120 degrees. You may not have noticed but when you go into an Apple store every Macbook is at exactly the same angle. Employees use Simplify Angle, an iPhone app, to measure this angle of elevation when they open the store!
A device that has the keyboard at a 180 degree angle to the produced text is a problem as it leads to awkward lean forward positions or requires the addition of a special add-on, at extra cost, to tilt the tablet. Even then you have to hold your hands in the air and this leads to fatigue, which may result in less produced work and limit the amount of effort the learner will put into a piece of written or other work.
6. Detracts from sustained use
Morris (2010) claims that touchscreens, compared to physical keyboards, puts a brake on sustained use. For learning professionals this is a real worry as students may stop prematurely or reduce performance in a writing task, simply because of the limitations of the input device.
7. Alters linguistic style
Touchscreen may even alter style of expression, Wigdor (2007). It may limit experimentation, more complex sentences and playing around with vocabulary and style, all tasks which are important for skills development. This is even more worrying.  Of course, physical keyboards can be added to tablets but at extra cost and one could argue that this just reinforces the argument for buying a notebook or laptop in the first place.
We can use this evidence to identify the point in education where learning may become inhibited, if not damaged, by tablet use. Note that this is not a fatal objection to the use of tablets in education. It is, however, a severe warning about their appropriateness for deeper and mature learning that involves even modest amounts of writing, note taking, data input, use of mathematical notation, image, audio and video manipulation, coding and so on. The danger is that we are being lulled into believing that tablets are appropriate by qualitative reports from students (who let’s be honest don’t mind doing less!). What’s needed is more hard-headed research, not on attractiveness but on attainment.
Morris, M.R., Lombardo, J., Wigdor, D. 2010. Search:  Supporting Collaborative Search and Sensemaking on a  Tabletop Display. Proc. CSCW 2010, 401-410. 
Benko, H., Morris, M. R., Brush, A.J.B., Wilson, A.D.  2009. Insights on Interactive Tabletops: A Survey of  Researchers and Developers. Microsoft Research Technical  Report MSR-TR-2009-22.
Wigdor, D., Penn, G., Ryall, K., Esenther, A., Shen, C.  2007. Living with a Tabletop: Analysis and Observations  of Long Term Office Use of a Multi-Touch Table. Proc.  Tabletop 2007, 60-67. 
Hinrichs, U., Hancock, M., Collins, C., Carpendale, S.  2007. Examination of text-entry methods for tabletop  displays. Proc. Tabletop 2007, 105-112. “Text entry a major deficiency in multiple studies”
Ryall, K., Forlines, C., Shen, C., Ringel Morris, M.,  Everitt, K. 2006. Experiences with and Observations of  Direct-Touch Tabletops. Proc. Tabletop 2006, 89-96. 
Barrett, J., & Krueger, H. (1994). Performance effects of reduced proprioceptive feedback on touch typists and casual users in a typing task. Behavior & Information technology, 13, 373-381.
Wilson, K.S., Inderrieden, M., & Liu, S. (1995). A comparison of five user interface devices designed for point-of-sale in the retail industry. Proceedings of the Human Factors & Ergonomic Society 39th Annual Meeting, 39, 273-277.
Shneiderman, B. (1998). Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human Computer Interaction. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tablet madness: Would Amplify pass a CRB check? And hideous tablet for women

News Corp know a fair bit about mobile technology, as they have ‘hacked’ their way to ignomy. You’d think, after the Millie Dowler scandal, and their downright evil attitude towards hacking the mobiles of parents, children and the general public, News Corp would avoid the education market. But no, here they are selling mobile devices to schools. Have they NO shame?
And it gets worse. Amplify is headed up by Jo Klein. If you don’t know Klein, he was the odd guy sitting behind the Murdochs at the select committee on phone hacking (he’s a lawyer) and was hired as a Murdoch ‘fixer’. Note that this inquiry uncovered the close links between Gove (ex Murdoch journalist), Murdoch and Klein. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these hideous devices pop up in government funded initiatives in UK schools. This is how Gove likes to work – behind the scenes.
Even worse, in one of the worst examples of Government excess and nepotism, Rachel Wolf, ex-Gove advisor, and odd recipient of government funds, has also joined News Corp and Amplify. This is truly worrying. Why? Rachel has no academic background in education, had barely finished as an advisor, first to Boris Johnson then Michael Gove, when at the tender age of 25, she suddenly received from Gove, a cool half million of funding. This was for a charity she had started just a year earlier, called the New Schools Network, advising on ‘free-schools’. There was, of course, no tender - clearly an inside job. Let’s be clear here - this was a lobbying organisation that received direct government funds to advise on educational policy. I should add that this ‘charity’ refuses to name its other benefactors. I wonder why? Could they include some private sector interests in school networks? Read this.
The Asus tablet, a 10 inch Asus tablet running Android’s Jellybean OS, costs $299 but you have to buy a 2 year subscription at $99 per year. That makes it just short of $500 per pupil. Or you can buy the data plan at a total 2 year cots of over $700. Are they kidding? Let’s do some maths. You want to gove (sorry give) this to just one class of 30 kids – total cost £21,210. OK, you want to do it in a 1200 pupil school, that’s $848,400.
Tablets of stone
I don’t like this top-down, lockdown, command-and-control approach to devices in schools. This tablet is a bitter pill to swallow as it locks you into the News Corp ecosystem. It is openly marketed as a device that gives you ‘control’. Beware of their ‘curated’ apps and the ‘all eyes on me feature’ (I kid you not) where teachers can switch off all devices with one click. These guys have history, a horrible history of deception and misinformation. We’ve just managed to fight them off in the press, let’s not turn our schools into a similar battleground.
Don’t keep taking the tablets
This whole ‘tablet’ thing is getting out of hand. We’re forcing them down the throats of kids who would never dream of buying one themselves. Don’t let education walk blindly into lockdown tablets like the iPad and Amplify. To compare apples and oranges – both lock you in.
Tablet for women
Now for something even more disturbing, coming out of Dubai, that great city of moral rectitude and women’s rights, comes this hideous device. In many ways this is worse, a tablet that has all the usual stereotypical apps around yoga, perfume, weight, dieting, clothing, shopping and groceries (I kid you not - looks at apps on screen). 
I am all for technology in education but wary of shiny ‘tablet’ initiatives that are largely, expensive, technology-led projects. Even worse are tablet projects by organisations like News Corp that, on the grounds of moral bankruptcy, should be kept away from our children and remain on the other side of the school gate. It’s not often I say I want technology to fail but I really do hope and pray that these die an immediate and deserved death.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Top Ten Mistakes in eLearning

Stock images with txt
Unedited blocks of txt
Unnecessary animation
Txt plus identical audio
Inconsistent navigation
MCQs on nouns from text
No ‘doing’
Annoying music and sound effects
Corporate crap/Educational hubris

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Google Glass: 7 amazing uses in learning

Google Glass is due to be launched in 2013 and like all innovations will take time to find its feet. Much is made of smartphones and tablets in mobile learning but these are still clumsy ‘hand-held’ devices. Wearable technology, that is simply there in line of sight, may finally have arrived. We know that it will be both voice and finger activated with bone vibration technology for hearing and allow us to learn in the following ways:
1. Record video & pictures
Record a lecture, presentation, slide, conversation, bits of TV or browsing the web. This could be a sort of Evernote function through video, audio and images. This habitual capture of relevant learning experiences is now a key method of informal learning. Note that the prototype also promises a ‘search pictures’ function.
2. Learn by doing
Learning by doing will be eminently possible using playback video, audio, text and images. Initially one can learn skills through exemplar video (see video as MOOP (Massive Online Open Pedagogy)). At the next level a step-by-step walk-through as you perform the task. At yet another level you can perform and video the task for assessment. This will be a boon to those learning vocational and practical skills.
3. Search
Search was the first major MOOP (see search as MOOP). With search you have unparalleled access to the hyperlinked (see hyperlink as MOOP) world of knowledge. It is this ability to simply call up what you need at the very moment you look at or do something that can really enhance experience.
4. Translate
We have long known that language learning is slow and ponderous in the classroom and that it needs immersion, regular practice and reinforcement. Presenting common phrases and vocabulary in context and through spaced practice is one idea. More powerful uses of language could be encouraged through task-based learning, with support on the Google Glass display.
5. Use Google Now
As an extension of Google Search, Google Now enables personalised search and retrieval on cards that are be tailored to your personal learning needs, based on repeated use . It uses Knowledge Graph to analyse meanings and connections that make the presentation of learning material more relevant in terms of pre-requisites and adaptive learning.
6. Communication & collaboration
First, you can communicate with messages. Google Glass also comes with Google Hangout, promising higher levels of interaction with your tutor, teacher, trainer or instructor or other learners in collaborative learning. More specifically, for practical, vocational learning, you can imagine being ‘talked through’ an event or get feedback on a performed action.
7. Reinforcement
Edited down Google Now cards could then be retrieved and used to reinforce learning to shove it from short to long term memory. We may finally have the solution to that age old problem – the forgetting curve. Specific applications could take learner-generated cues from a specific course, lecture or presentation, and present them at spaced intervals.
Powerful mobile pedagogies
This is a pretty powerful set of seven mobile pedagogies. Each and every one has huge learning potential. This goes well beyond the plethora of other basic information applications, such as getting directions, weather, news etc. So, if they can overcome the issue of social adoption, we could be on to something.
This is the first move to technology that simply taps directly into the senses. You can see the display at any time, You can say things and it will listen and react. You can hear things directly. You can touch to control. With its camera it is always pointing where you are looking - another interface leap. It is the truly invisible in the sense that it is not visible to the wearer. I'm almost never aware of the fact that I'm wearing glasses. This is what makes it special and more interesting than the much talked about iWatch. It's invisibility is its primary virtue. Expect an initial slew of GPS games that you can play in real locations. If you want to see how this could work conceptually, watch this Battlefield game.
However, it does have to content with its high visibility to others. Whether it will become cool or calamitous depends on whether they can tap into the Ray Ban, or other style brands, to overcome its Google-ass type quality. In time, and Google says this is merely the first iteration, we know that it will become smaller and even more invisible, perhaps totally invisible as the battery, electronics and camera are hidden entirely within a normal sized frame.
As you don't need to put it in your pocket or bag or on the table, it has the advantage of being less prone to loss or theft, although we can quickly expect a few grab and run incidents. This is no small advantage.
Expectations for Google Glass are riding high. Some expect this to be the product that Apple wishes it had invented, establishing Google as the new post-Jobs Apple. Whatever the truth, it is a ground-breaking product with enormous potential. It promises to put mobile learning on the map, as it is an always there, hands free device that plays to the idea that learning needs to be part of one’s everyday life and reinforced through habit and spaced practice. For a good review of the product and to see it being used, watch this video.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Negroponte: 10 reasons why his Ethiopian project smacks of Educational Colonialism

Nicholas Negroponte has stated publically that he wants to ‘parachute’ tablets into remote villages in Africa. Is he out of his mind? Does he know nothing about the history of Africa? This idea stinks to high-heaven of educational  colonialism.
1. Negroponte: the bull that brings his own china shop
It’s not as if Negroponte hasn’t tried this before in Africa. His first failure in Africa, goes way back to 1982, when he and Papert set up Le Centre Mondial to use Apple IIs in schools near Dakar in Senegal. It was a spectacular failure ending in acrimony with Papert, Negroponte and others fell out with the locals and simply walked out. The funders, French Government, wisely killed off the project and the centre. It failed because Negroponte is the sort of bull that brings his own china shop, charging in with solutions that are ill-planned, ill-researched and often inappropriate.
2. What’s to prove?
Much is made of the fact that the Tablets were just left there in their packages. Well maybe not. In fact, the adults were taught how to mechanically recharge the laptops. A special building with solar panels was built for the project in the village. There seems to be lots of interaction between visiting OLPC technicians and lots of obviously staged photographs. Nevertheless, it would seem that the kids were literally left to their own devices. But so what? There seems to be an almost racist assumption behind the doubt that African kids could manage to press a few buttons on a new, shiny, touch-screen tablet. Every parent on the planet could have told you that kids use this stuff without manuals and adult instruction. That’s a given, it merely proves what we already know.
3. Never seen letters?
Serious doubts have also been expressed about Negroponte’s claim that these people have never seen print, even road signs or words on packaging. Many Africans have expressed astonishment at this statement. It’s only 50 miles from the capital Addis Ababa. Beni, an Ethiopian, says, “I know part of Wonchi and it is not as remote as you displayed it.” Another says “I bet there is a good number of people in that village who write and read. I bet these children have their own "school" that teaches them something in "Amhari" or probably even some English….I seriously doubt the very "strange" picture painted here.” Indeed, it’s on the lip of a well-known tourist spot the Wonchi Crater, which has a lodge hotel (previous residence of Haile Selassie) and is a centre for Eco-tourism. There’s even Tripadvisor reviews for the place and lots of pictures taken by tourists as the crater rim is an established trek route, which you can do in a day from the capital.
4. Interventionist
What’s not clear here is how much the reports rely on data from the swapped out memory cards. Just because screens are accessed doesn’t mean the content’s been understood and certainly not that anything has been learnt. You really do have to question the testimonies of the paid OLPC workers who visit these villages and swap out the cards. This is not objective research, it’s interventionist and fails on the very first test for ‘objectivity’. If you drop some spectacular shiny $300 toy into a village, build them a spanking new building and install solar power, all for free,  where people survive on a dollar a day, don’t be surprised that they pick it up, touch it, press buttons and see things move and hear sound which you can mimic. This is not surprising at all, it is predictable. Do we imagine that the children in this village are miraculously free from the influence of the adults? If you were a poor adult, wouldn’t you be encouraging the kids to use the shiny toy the rich foreigners gave you, in the hope of more visits, more money?
5. Inappropriate content
Parachuting in US software, Disneyfied stories of Princes and Princesses and programmes with obscure and irrelevant vocabulary has been widely criticised by African commentators. To wilfully ignore context is not just to miss the educational opportunities, it is ‘cognitive colonialism’ of the worst kind. In some parts of Africa, and the rest of the world, this approach would be widely resented. Imagine, say the Chinese, dropping off tablets for poor kids in rural America or the UK, pre-loaded with Chinese only content, apps on the Chinese alphabet and Chinese stories. We’d be claiming ‘propoganda’ quicker than you could open the packages.
6. Ignores context
If they live in such a remote rural location, why are these kids being given English alphabet apps? A visitor reported seeing the kids use the ‘Alphabet Game’ where they were ‘reciting’ A for Apple, C for Cat… O for Octopus – OCTOPUS! The stories were similarly inappropriate, largely Western, with themes such as Princes and Princesses. You get my drift. First, why give these children content in English and not their own language, Amhari? As Meron, an Ethiopian, says, with some obvious resentment, “we have our own language and alphabet.” Second, why give them Western Disneyfied fairy stories and not Ethiopian stories? Third, and more obviously, why not give them content that is relevant to their world, that would have some causal impact on their lives? The educational and colonial assumption is that we are superior and you need our stuff to progress.
7. Anti-teacher
This is a dangerous assumption and comes straight out of Negroponte’s association with Papert at MIT, whose constructivism can be traced back to Rousseau. The idea is that children are natural learners and that we need only get adults out of the way and all will be well. Really? The whole problem here around illiteracy and poor knowledge of health issues is the fact that there’s been no sensible schooling. The problem is a lack of trained teachers and absentee teachers. David Hollow, of Jigsaw, is worth listening to, as he has worked in some of the Ethiopian schools where Negroponte has placed his devices.  “Whilst many children enjoyed playing on the laptops, there was limited, if any, integration into the classroom routine. Most teachers objected to the way the laptops were distracting the children, leading to some of them banning laptops from the classroom entirely.”
8. Costs
David also gives a detailed breakdown of costs, in relation to Ethiopia, showing that these projects are incredibly expensive and that money would have been better spent on textbooks or teacher training and salaries. The African commentators on his post certainly seem to agree that textbooks and other resources would be a better way to spend the money. We know that these tablets are around $200 but the total costs of solar power, maintenance and support adds considerably to this. If we take the number of people who live on less than $1 and $2 a day  (20% & 40% of world’s population) we see that they would have to spend a huge proportion of their earnings to use this technology. The global average of ICT spending is around 3% of income, so these people can only really afford around $10-$20 at most. And that would have to be seen as relevant. That’s why cheap mobile phones have been such a hit in these countries. It’s affordable and has some obvious economic advantages. Latly, remember how ruthlessly commercial Negroponte's goal is here. He's already had a competitive spat with Intel and wants to sell millions of tehse computers to the developing world.
9. No comparisons
A glaring omission in this so-called research, are comparators. These are expensive projects with expensive kit, new buildings, solar power installations, on the ground technicians, visits every week to the locations, academics flying regularly in and out from Europe and the US. Let’s pause and ask whether other interventions, such as books, small libraries, teachers, buildings, vocational training, radio even one-to-many devices may have been better. Did no one think to compare this intervention with others in terms of cost, learning and impact?
10. Hacked off
Perhaps the most famous, and hyperbolic story that emerges from the ‘experiment’, is Negroponte’s claim that these kids ‘hacked Android’ to switch the tablets camera on. There’s remarkably little information about the supposed ‘hack’ to Android. Backtracking later on Negroponte’s hacking comment, Ed McNierney, OLPC’s chief technology officer, said that the kids had ‘gotten around’ OLPC’s effort to freeze desktop settings. Did he mean touching a few buttons until the camera turned red? Hardly hacking. Did these kids write or change code to do the hack? No. Did they simply change the ‘settings’? Probably. Did an adult do this? Maybe. Did a visiting adult do this? Possibly. Or did they just switch on the camera? Likely. Was the camera working in the first place? Could be. We don’t know because there’s no science here, no real attempt to isolate fact from testimony. There’s a lots of people here with agendas, and clearly few with the objectivity needed in such a project. (PS A quick look on YouTube shows a Camera settings icon on the Motorola Tablet)
I should end by saying that some of the OLPC initiatives, in Rwanda etc, I support to a degree, as I can see a strategy. What I dislike is this YouTube, TED talk 'feelgood' approch to research. What happens when the academics have had their fill, and Negroponte has done the rounds of the international conference circuit and needs a new topic, they’re off abandoning these children and projects. Is this anything more than TED fodder for the egos of US academics? These parachute interventions are easy but not at all informative. Indeed, they may well be counterproductive, leading to the wrong type of spend by Governments keener on photo-opps than real learning. They may even damage the effort needed to implement sustainable learning that is relevant and changes lives. I’m off to Africa this month and again in May, where I hope to learn a thing or two…..  I’ll keep you posted.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

10 reasons to leave them to their own devices - BYOD

BYOD isn’t a recommendation, it’s a realty. Everyone’s bought one, everyone uses one and everyone carries it around with them. When we organise a meeting or conference, we don’t send people an email telling them what device to bring, neither do we buy or lease a whole load of computers and hand them out. In our Universities few want to revive those expensive projects where every student was given a laptop or iPad. They bring their own. In business, BYOD is big business. Employees have access to enterprise software from at least two devices. Most employees would be frustrated if their employer did not allow access from their owned devices. Note that there's a big difference between allowing devices to access your network and enterprise software and using BYOD in schools to simply access the internet.
BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) v BEND (Buy Everyone a New Device)
Paul Hynes of the George Spencer Academy in Nottingham operates a BYOD policy that gives access to free, filtered web access (no passwords). He points out that there’s some underlying problems with a tablet-only approach; lockdown, updates, damage, iTunes, the illusion of personalisation, tech problems with displays, printers, wireless, also difficulties in storage and sharing. I’m with him on this and have real doubts about the rush to spend large sums on tablet projects in schools. There are several reasons for preferring BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) to BEND (Buy Everyone a New Device):
1. Reduces costs
The big BYOD advantage is cost, the total cost of BEND in terms of purchase, leasing, insurance, maintenance and sustainability is huge. Then there’s the often hidden costs of procurement and on-going management of owned kit. It may well be defunct long before its depreciated in your accounts. Parents and students have already spent considerable amounts of money on kit they researched, selected and use regularly. Surely we could use our education budgets better to focus on other things, like better bandwidth, teacher issues and learning.
2. Reduces risks
Why would you want to take a punt on untried technology that will bring fiscal, technical, insurance and pedagogic restraints, when much of the kit has already been bought and is in the hands of learners? Create a risk register, with scores for appetite, likelihood and impact, along with ways of making each risk manageable and you’ll see that BYOD, far from increasing, decreases overall risk.  You also head off parental criticism about wasting valuable school resources….
3. Existing skills
The fact that learners know how to use their own kit is a plus. If they don’t know how to do something on their own kit, what makes you think they will on a new and stranger one? In any case isn’t it important to learn how to use your own tools and not other, unfamiliar ones?
4. Motivation
The fact that it is your own kit means it’s less likely to get damaged or lost. There are some horror stories of damaged, knocked and lost kit, with substantial claims on insurance. You automatically tap into the care that personal ownership brings. I’d also wager that you’re far more likely to get students to use their own kit at home, rather than bought kit. One could argue that a wide range of devices may create a range of problems. This is offset by the fact that students are likely to know how to use their own kit and problem solve themselves to get connected, print and save data. They are more likely to own the problems and therefore solve them. Lastly, I suspect that the motivation to learn is more prevalent on owned devices.
5. Learning not leasing
Paul Hynes recommends “10 no-brainer uses with an impact on learning” for teachers and an approach that allows teachers to be confident, manage classes and defend the use of technology. Exactly! Let’s look at learning not leasing. Surely much of the budget would be better spent on teacher impact than capital expenditure.
6. Technology changes
There's advantages to adopting a fixed technology in terms of distribution but technology changes. Today's phone and tablet are tomorrow's antiques. As we dont really know what those changes will be, why lock oneself into long-term contracts?
7. More relevant
BYOD is more relevant in that it is more likely to mimic the real world and the workplace. Few workplaces have iPads or tablets, most have desktops, laptops and mobiles. If we’re creating autonomous adults and learners, surely we must recognise what’s actually used out there rather than locking learners into a consumer, tablet, look-up device.
8. Already happens
At home, school students already use their own devices to do their homework, communicate with their mates about assignments and exams, communicate with the school, even in the school, especially when the school kit is a bit crappy or too slow.
9. Safety
Like BYOD, students can get up to no good. The whole e-safety debate can freeze progress, yet students know the rules and teachers know how to get the rules obeyed. Let’s be clear here, the student should NOT be allowed to access unsuitable content. You need a policy or be brave enough to leave this to the teachers’ discretion. But it’s the same issue BYOD or BEND.
10. Inclusion
Inclusion can also be an issue, as wealthier students showboat their expensive laptops or tablets. However, we can use the money saved to help solve this problem. Data suggests that this is a bottle -four-fifths-full issue, simply needing a top-up. We can’t let the absence of a few pieces of kit cancel out progress. Some kids don’t have books at home, we don’t then say, let’s not use books in learning.
I should add that I’m not a big fan of parachuting computers in any form into classrooms. Classrooms are spaces where teachers interact with learners, places of dialogue and feedback. The introduction of tablets, notebooks, laptops and mobiles are, without very careful planning, most likely to interrupt and slow down learning. Flip the classroom and let students use these for assignments, homework (oh how I hate that word) and exposition. Let teachers teach and students learn.
Prescribed tablet and laptop projects are part of an old-world view that there is an ideal or optimum technology in learning. To be frank, many of these projects are driven less by reason than desire. You can free yourself from idiosyncratic projects, Apple fanboys, large vendors and horrendous insurance and maintenance problems through BYOD. Most of all, the BEND approach is damn EXPENSIVE. What if almost ALL of that money could be saved or spent on learning, teachers and problem solving? Want to help student learn? Leave them to their own devices.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Sugata Mitra: Slum chic? 7 reasons for doubt

This is a Sigatra Mitra ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ site in India. Literally just three holes in a wall. That’s because it failed. The community, as verified by Payal Arora, can barely remember why they were installed or what happened. They do remember that they were vandalised (a known problem with unsupervised children?).
Here’s another, set in a school playground, the computers long gone. “What we see is the idea of free learning going into free fall” said Payal Arora. When Arora came across these two ‘hole-in-the-wall’ sites (Almora and Hawalbagh in northern India), she discovered not the positive tales of self-directed learning but failure. One was vandalised and closed down within two months, the other abandoned and, apparently, had been mostly used by boys to play games. A real problem was sustainability, as no one seemed responsible for the electricity and maintenance bills.
My own research into a hole-in-the-wall project uncovered the same story - empty holes in the wall, resentful teachers and testimonies that claimed the whole project was a faulure from start to finish. Peoeple arrived at their school. knocked holes in theiw walls, inserted computers and left. They felt violated. The computers rarely worked, as the DSL line was often down, and when it did work, the larger boys domiated them, playing games.
My own doubts arose when I gave a TEDx talk and the speaker after me was an academic from Mitra’s department at Newcastle University. She was well versed in Indian education, and went on to talk at length about feckless third world teachers and state schools, but she was also scathing about the hole-in-the-wall research, not only the research methods and conclusions. This made me more than a little curious. Sugata Mitra is treated by the educational world as some sort of saint. Otherwise smart and reasonable people go gaga for Mitra. Hailed as the ‘hole-in-the-wall hero’, few question his questionable research or even more questionable recommendations. Academics, who would go to the wall to defend the ‘lecture’, will hail the idea of replacing schools with hole-in-the-wall computers, not of course in their own institutions but certainly for poor people. Now I’ve spent the whole of my adult life creating and evangelising online learning but even I draw a line at his utopian vision. Here’s why I have doubts.

1. Funding.
Few realise that hole-in-the-wall funding came originally from from NIIT then the International Finance Corporation, a commercial Indian e-learning company and the for-profit side of the World Bank. I know them well and believe me, this is no charitable institution. As Arora (2010) points out, there is little real independent evidence, other than that provided by HiWEL itself and one must always question research funded by those who would benefit from a positive outcome. The lack of independent research on the sites is astonishing, something noted by Mark Warschauer, one of the few critics who have actually visited a site.

2. Holes in the research
Arora, although not totally unsympathetic to the Hole-in-the-wall project, exposed a glaring weakness in the design of the experiment. The 75 days of learning (with a mediator) was compared to the same period in the local school but like was not being compared to like, so the comparison was meaningless. It was not comparing the amount of time spent on the hole-in-the-wall material with the same or similar amount of time in school. This is also true of Mitra's compadre at MIT Negroponte in his Ethiopian work. As De Bruyckere et al. say in Urban Myths: Learning and Education (2015), the lack of serious research is puzzling. Most of it comes from Mitra himself, or those in his team, almost all from one Journal. Control groups were given questionnaires at the start and end of the period, but those in the experimental group were tested every month. The obvious problem here is the polluting effect of effect the regular assessments. Indeed, as De Bruyckere et al. (2015) say, there is ample research, from Reedier & Karpicke and others on the positive effect of testing.

3. School in disguise?
Schools are obsolete” said Mitra – oh yeah? Far from being sited in open places, HiWEL sites are now invariably in school compounds. By being in the school it is difficult to do research that isolates the experience from the school, difficult to disentangle the role of the school (teachers, books etc.) and the hole-in-the-wall computers. Indeed, as HiWEL has explained, they involve ‘teachers’ in their implementation and mediation, making it almost impossible to isolate the causes of educational improvement. One could say, with Arora, that this has become “self-defeating”. The ‘hole-in-the-wall’ has become the ‘computer-in-the-school’. This is a subtle switch - evangelise on one premise, deliver on another.

4. Mediators
As HiWEL makes extensive use of mediators (teachers), the real lesson of the hole in the wall experiments is that teachers, or at least mediators, seem to be a necessary condition for learning to combat exclusion, mediate learning and avoid the vagaries of child-centred behaviour. Yet this is not what the TED talks and hole-in-the-wall evangelism suggests. Another problem is that by seeing teachers as ‘invasive’, such initiatives can antagonise teachers and educators, leading to poor-support.  I found this in my research in Africa, where the teachers were resentful. Arora concludes are that these experiments do not work when not linked to the local schools and that, far from being self-directed, the children need mediation by adults. Arora goes further and claims that disassociating learning from adult guidance can lead to uncritical acceptance of bad content and bad learning habits.

5. Low level learning
Warschauer (2003) is even more critical than Arora. He claims that “overall the project was not very effective”, with low level learning and not challenging. In addition, he found that some of the many problems were the fact that the internet rarely functioned, no content was provided in Hindi, the only language the children knew, and many parents thought that the paucity of relevant content rendered it irrelevant and criticised the kiosks as distracting the children from their homework. Sure they learned how to use menus, drag and drop but most of the time they were “using paint programs or playing games”. This is hardly surprising and seems to confirm the rather banal conclusion that when you give kids shiny new things, they play with them. 

6. Peer pressure
Notice two things about this image – no girls and big boys at the screen. You get an odd skew in the data based on the fact that the few successes tell you nothing about the absent children, that got nowhere near the kiosks – these missing children turn out to be the many, not the few, and lot of girls. We should be careful about saying, like Mitra, that schools are obsolete, as they are our best bet in providing universal access and participation. Unmediated peer learning among children can be difficult as “self-organising children” are rarely optimal learning groups. Indeed, they are more commonly, narrowly defined peer groups, built around class, background, locale, a musical style, fashion, even power. The school playground is a competitive space that many children fear. It is, for many, a place of social isolation and exclusion. Most teachers and parents have experienced the evils of self-organised ‘peer groups’ not just on terms of pressure but also of exclusion and bullying. Indeed Arora (2005) has evidence that boys playing games was the real net outcome in Andhra Pradesh.

7. Educational colonialism. Mitra has been criticised for a form of educational colonialism. Who among you in the developed world would abandon all teaching and install ‘hole-in-the-wall’ learning for your own children? We are being asked to believe that the solution to the lack of opportunities in third world education are computers in walls? Are we really going to dangerously divert funding from rural schools into these schemes? Is this poorly designed research and exaggerated conclusions, from an educational department in a European University, used to justify an approach to education that no parent, even in impoverished countries, would consider for one minute? If Mitra has children, I wonder if he’s allowing them to learn in this way?

Conclusion - a little learning is indeed a dangerous thing
Based on scanty evidence, funded by parties who have a lot to gain then shifted away from hole-in-the-wall to computers-in-schools. Like Slumdog Millionaire, the movie inspired by Mitra’s work, it beggars belief. There’s no silver bullet here and we shouldn’t be lulled into thinking this is the answer. The real danger is that we get carried away by under-researched ‘feelgood’ initiatives. Slumdog Millionaire is typical of the utopian nonsense that can emerge. An overly romanticised, rags to riches, Bollywood Cinderella story that is an assault on probability. Is Mitra’s story also one of ‘Slum chic’? Perhaps the most disgustingly contrived moment of the film is when Jamal says 'You wanted to see the real India' and the US tourist, hands him a $100 note saying ‘Now we'll show you the real America'. This, for me, was reminiscent of the TED Prize.

For more research and my research visit to a failed hole-in-wall site see here
For a critique of SOLE see here

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