Friday, February 21, 2014

Amazing 3D phone from Google (Kinect in a phone)

Google have just released details of their 3D sensor phone. It’s a sort of Microsoft Kinect in your phone.  It combines that personal, powerful and portable device with the very environment in which you live in and move through. To put it another way it automatically creates and stores context. This is much bigger, I suspect, than the promo video suggests.
Why does this matter?
Well, most people have a rather primitive view of perception and consciousness, as if our perception is some sort of x-ray vision that reaches out to the world and scans it as we move and think. The very opposite is the case. We recreate that world in our brains and re-present it in created consciousness. We recreate our environment in 3D as we perceive and move through that world. This phone does something similar – it recreates the world through which you move. How? It’s an Android phone with sensors that makes over a quarter of a million measurements every second. 
Initial applications include the use of this recreated 3D world for the visually impaired and blind. You could also use it practically for mapping your home or a room for decoration or garden for redesign. Eventually it will scan 3D objects for storage and 3D printing and so on.
Contextual learning
My interest would take things much further. I’d use it to create your own personal environments for contextual learning. We have long known that learning, specifically retention and recall are increased through context. Sit an exam in a room where you actually learnt that material and you do better in that exam. For most 'learn by doing' tasks this is especially true.
Imagine creating a lab, workshop, shop or any other physical space where that 3D model can be used to create context-specific, simulated learning. Induction (onboarding), product knowledge, sale straining, health and safety and hundreds of other business as usual training tasks could be constructed for your personal working environment. All it would take is an authoring tool with the ability to tag objects and locations, then add a learning layer. You could even use it as a memory aid, locating what you want to learn in your known locations then use the memory palace technique for practice, retention and recall.
I'm currently involved in two brilliant 3D sims in vocational learning where we're creating 3D environments for training, assessment and certification. They really do measure competences in detail and could revolutionaries this type of learning. Eventually this sort of simulation could be personally created and commonplace.

Boy things are moving fast in the mobile arena. It may not be robots in the home that matter after all, but our homes with robotic ability to enhance our lives. I want one…..

Friday, February 14, 2014

Imperial’s Debra Humphries hits bum note on MOOCs

Just back from a European Summit on MOOCs in Lausanne and this is one of the shortest blogs I’ve ever written but something made me mad. Debra Humphries from Imperial College London gave a keynote speech and quoted Diana Laurillard "very intelligent people leave their brains behind when it comes to technology" and quite without irony, didn’t realize that most of the audience thought this applied to her. 
I hate how this quote is being misused i.e. as a statement that really suggests ‘I know it all, you know nothing’. This is NOT what Diana meant, as she’s a considered person, as much against the lazy thinking as anyone. But it’s being used as an accusation towards people doing good things by people who are largely behind the curve or even worse haven't done their homework. In practice, the quote is probably best applied to the very people who quote it.
What also annoys me is the fact that so-called experts are being put on panels and talking about MOOCs, without having taken one or even doing the necessary research. I first experienced this at WISE in Doha Qatar, where the two people on a panel of four had not taken a MOOC and had cliched views about what they were. The same thing happened in a debate on MOOCs at Online Educa, where the two people arguing against MOOCs hadn't even looked at one. This is unacceptable, especially among academics and educators. At least do your homework.
I saw no reason for the inclusion of Debra in the programme. She was late, didn’t engage with the conference, had her head in the sand and said nothing that was either interesting or new. She claimed to be taking the strategic view (in a tone that suggested no one else was) but when asked what that was, couldn’t really say. The lively and excellent chair, Pierre Dillenbourg, lost patience and had a go at the end of her talk – “these people have paid to be here, why not tell us something”. Exactement!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

MOOC Factory – boy was I impressed

Just back from a European MOOC Summit in Lausanne, and I'll write about that later, but first let me tell you about something I saw - the MOOC Factory. 
The MOOC Factory at EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de lausanne) is a well oiled machine and it’s no accident that this is a centre of MOOC excellence, as they are a practical organisation and I strongly believe that MOOCs have a huge role to play in vocational education. They have several big advantages:
1. Leadership
2. ‘Can do’ mindset
3. ‘Vocational’ mindset
4. Solid approach to production
5. Global ambitions
1. Leadership: (President) Patrick Aebischer
This guy’s a mover and shaker and asked a simple question, not What will happen? but What has happened? with MOOCs. He asked for data – and gave us some. He had commissioned 20 MOOCs, through the EPFL MOOC Factory reaching 400,000 students. He was clear about the fact that the data shows that the age of MOOCers is older and with a much wider range than traditional campus students and that there was a huge demand for practical, vocational courses. This has led him to the correct conclusion that MOOCs have huge potential  as an astounding tool for continuous education”.  This was a recurring theme for the Lausanne summit.
2. ‘Can do’ mindset
There was none of the woolly, old-school, defensive mindsets of traditional academe, where people tend to fire off arrows, draw a chalk circle around the arrow and say ‘Look, I’ve scored a bullseye!’ There's no 18 year old students there. What about driopout?….. They have faith in courses that are massive, open and online, backed up with a strong moral outlook, that says, this is not about the traditional campus student and academics but CPD, vocational learing and the developing world.
3. ‘Vocational’ mindset
It is no accident that a strongly vocational institution has forged ahead here. First, they have the resources and skills to get things done but they also realise that there is a huge thirst, backed up by the demand data for MOOCs, by people in employment for courses that they take of their own volition. This CPD and vocational market is huge, Udacity are there, Coursera are moving there, EdX is also there and so are these guys. They were all in the 'business' track at the summit - which I thinkw as the most interesting.
4. Solid approach to production
They have a slick, rolling programme of production, with a skilled and enthusiastic (important) team and a focus on production values, that is very professional. I got a tour of the production facility and studios and was impressed. Most of their MOOCs are in STEM subjects, including many in computer science and coding. So their core studio production process involves lectures and demonstrations, where the teacher is writing symbolic stuff with semi-transparent hand, on a tablet or cutting to head and shoulders when talking. It was not only a superb set-up but run by people who really know what they are doing in terms of process and production.
5. Global ambitions
They have been impressed by the take up of their courses in Africa and see that as a huge market. In Africa, they see a strong demand for 1) Foundation courses, and 2) Priority themes such as water, energy, nutrition, health and agriculture i.e. vocational courses. I couldn’t agree more. Abstract, academic, liberal arts courses are inappropriate in many places. A rising Africa needs practical, not academic education. Even in the developed world we have come to realise that we have let the vocational sector atrophy, compared to the academic, so why foist a broken model onto others.

My Lausanne trip was interesting for two reasons. First, it confirmed my view that HE may not be the true vocation for MOOCs. In fact HE may be a sideshow compared to the already evident data that shows MOOCs being enthusiastically taken up by people who work in corporates, government and not-for-profit organisations. It’s a global CPD, lifelong learning, vocational market. Second, as I’ve always believed. MOOCs, if they are to retain learners, like any other medium, need professional input, not only on strategy but also platform selection, costing, production and marketing. More on this later.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Boom! First pure online degrees get through QAA review

Two good thing happened in 2012; 1) loans for part-time students in HE and 2) alternative providers (those not in receipt of funding from HEFCE) could apply to QAA. Martin Bean and I lobbied for these in a meeting with David Willetts.
IDI (Interactive Design Institute), who I’ve written about before, are one such innovative ‘alternative provider’. Formed in 2004 to deliver visual arts and design courses online, IDI teamed up with the University of Hertfordshire in 2008. Since then IDI have adapted a number of UH undergraduate degree programmes for pure online delivery. Currently they deliver, end-to-end online: BA (Hons) Graphic Design, Photography, Illustration, and Interior Architecture & Design. An online BA in Fine Art is planned for 2013, with online MA courses in design to follow.
Zero face-to-face learning
IDI students have their own online studios, with world class software designed around detailed feedback, where they access learning materials, projects and activities and communicate with their tutors on a one-to-one basis (asynchronously). They interact with their fellow students within online forums. All assessment takes place online. The only time students ever get together in a physical location is when they attend their graduation ceremony, held each November at Edinburgh Castle. I’ve been gowned up, given speeches and handed out prizes at both of the last graduations and both were eye-opening experiences, where I got first-hand feedback from learners, tutors, IDI staff, the Dean and Vice Chancellor.
Mulltiple and flexible intakes
IDI have three intakes a year in October, February and June. They offer both full time and part time study routes and currently have 500+ students enrolled across their undergraduate degree programmes. Their students are primarily UK based, but they have students in ones and twos in over 68 countries worldwide, and international student numbers are growing. To date IDI show consistently low drop-out rates and high levels of student satisfaction and achievement.
First purely online degree provider through QAA
Importantly, they were among the first of the ‘alternative providers’ to apply to be reviewed by the QAA, and the first purely online provider of Higher Education degree level courses ever to go through a QAA review in November 2012.
QAA results
IDI has been through a Review for Specific Course Designation by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and has received its final report, which is available in full here. and have received the following judgements from QAA:

The review team has confidence in The Interactive Design Institute's management of its responsibilities for the standards of the awards it offers on behalf of its awarding body. The review team has confidence that The Interactive Design Institute is fulfilling its responsibilities for managing and enhancing the quality of the intended learning opportunities it provides for students. The review team concludes that reliance can be placed on the information that The Interactive Design Institute produces for its intended audiences about the learning opportunities it offers.”
In plain language this is good news as they have been been approved in terms of QAA standards but more than this, the QAA review team identified the following good practice:
  • use of the virtual learning environment to encourage student engagement in enhancement activity
  • engagement of students in designing the content of the virtual studio and an application for mobile phones and tablet computers
  • online student support mechanisms identify students who are not engaging with their learning.
Unique model – secret sauce
What makes IDI’s model unique, and is key to its success, is a belief that students studying at a distance require more support, not less. A network of qualified tutors, who are subject specialists, communicate with IDI students on a one-to-one basis within individual online studios. This communication is mainly asynchronous – a deliberate choice. This is their secret sauce – asynchronous but considered, constructive feedback that leads to reflection and is fully archived. My own belief is that this is a superior to many campus systems based on synchronous lectures and often scant feedback that takes ages to get back from tutors. Students can normally expect a response from their tutors to any message within 24 hours Monday to Friday.
Plenty of discussion
Students engage with their peers within online forums. There are forums for each course and module, as well as for specific activities. Forum participation is largely informal, however the forums are also used for group activity, and at key stages, participation in a forum can form part of a formative or summative assessment.
Continuous review
Fundamental to IDI’s approach to course development is an understanding of how students learn. The team have developed a methodology for taking the university curriculum and adapting it to provide structured and logical learning paths which consist of comprehensive support materials and practical activities. The course materials deliver the teaching, whilst IDI tutors provide critical feedback, advice and encouragement. The course content goes through a continuous cycle of review in response to student and tutor feedback. This feedback is gathered at regular intervals at a 4 week student feedback questionnaires, module reviews and course committee meetings, which take place each semester, and feeds in to the University’s Annual Monitoring and Evaluation Reports (AMER).
Strong support
Behind all of this, a dedicated team of Course Managers and Student Support Advisors provide students with pastoral support, monitor student engagement and liaise with colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire to coordinate the assessment process. This means that tutors are entirely freed up to able to focus on the student’s learning.

This pure, online offer is clearly successful in terms of quality, student achievement, peer communication, student and tutor support. It is groundbreaking and if we are to change HE for the better we need a massive expansion in this type of delivery. Why? This proves that we can lower costs and keep quality, increase the number of intakes per year, not rely on expensive campuses and spend less money on degrees that are as good and arguably better than their campus equivalents. If you are genuinely interested in deleivering pure online degrees, speak to these guys, they’re passionate about their students and learning and have built a model that is now proven in terms of quality.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Year of Code boss Lottie Dexter is a car crash. Is coding the new Latin?

‘Year of Code’ is as sure a sign as any that something has been hyped into hubris. Last night, on Newsnight, the Director of ‘Year of Code’, Lottie Dexter, car crashed in a Paxman interview. He knows a fool when he hears one and couldn’t believe the rubbish she was spouting. For Paxman, it was like pulling the plug on a shortcircuited robot that had started to spit out gibberish. She was the perfect example of that age-old coding adage GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. Paxman begins to smell a rat and rips her apart. Watch this from 5.36 in. I’ll use direct quotes (Lottisms) to explain the hubris:
"You can do very little in less time”
This was one of Lottie’s wonderfully confused pieces of advice. Forget the fact that she can’t code, she can’t talk. The one thing I do know about coding is that is needs a crisp, rational mind with some grasp of logic. Poor Lottie can barely express herself in English, never mind code.
“I can’t code… I don’t know how to code”
You could say, well she can learn, but the fact that someone has made no effort to learn how to code at all is an admission up there with Paul Flowers performance in the Select Committee, where he clearly had no idea about finance and how a bank actually works. This is the new age – where, as George Orwell said, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
"It doesn’t mean anything to you or me”
Forget the fact that experience and a modicum of knowledge on a subject should be pre-requisite for heading up an initiative on that one subject alone, to admit that ‘it doesn’t mean anything to me’ is an astounding admission of pure ignorance. You’re heading up and organization and initiative that means nothing to you? This says it all – nepotism and political favours rule over merit and skills.
“3rs and a C”
Coding is NOT equivalent to reading, writing and numeracy. It is not a basic skill in the sense of an activity that one uses in everyday life. It’s esoteric, difficult and it’s a minority who can master it well enough to create truly meaningful output. She also made the schoolgirl error of equating code with natural language. This is wrong-headed. There is no such thing as ‘code’ in this sense. Code is an ARTIFICAL construct, deliberately written and can mean a whole range of things from simple markup languages to those that conform to quite esoteric theories of computation. It is not, like language, something that comes naturally.
 “Every pupil from age of 5 will learn how to code”
This is typical of someone who has read nothing and knows nothing about early years learning. Meaningful coding requires computational thinking and a grasp of maths and logic. Far from shoving this down the throat of 5 year olds, we should be leaving this until they are ready to cope, otherwise it will be an exercise in counter productive education, where more are ‘turned off than on’ by the experience. It’s fine to have coding taught in schools but not a core subject. If you want coders, train them intensively in relevant coding languages as and when they leave school, college or university. It can and is done well. This means that they will be taught language that lead to relevant jobs and can start relevant businesses, rather than learning something that is likely to be gone by the time they hit the workplace. Also, I’m not at all convinced that we have enough teachers with the coding and relevant teaching ability in our schools.
"You can pick it up in a day – teachers can pick it up in a day”
Oh yeah? Right dottie Lottie, we’ll give you a day and see how you get on. Do you have any idea what you’re talking about? What she meant was that you can get started ‘in a day’ but that’s true of anything and everything and an almost meaningless statement. It’s trite and I think I know the reason why. Her job was ‘Communications Manager’ for a Think Tank. Not the CEO, not anything even remotely senior or technical, but a PR person. She thinks in soundbites and spits them out like hoary old bits of snot.
“Who knows I might be the next Zuckerberg”
Let me tell you Lottie, you will never be the next Zuckerberg. You’re a posh girl, who got a PR job (sorry Communications Manager) in a Tory thinktank. You’re unskilled in IT (you admitted it twice), no business experience and no credentials or credibility for your role.
“It’s a leveller”
The idea that it is a ‘great leveller’ is an illusion. When the Telegraph was invented there was a push to teach everyone morse code. This turned out to be a huge waste of time, as the vast majority of people simply needed to write English that was transcribed by a relatively few number of Telegraph operators. There is demand for code and coders but ultimately most of that demand is soaked up by existing supply and/or cheap programming labour in emerging economies.
I ran a large company and hired dozens and dozens of coders over the years but, like any specialist group they were only a subset of a wide range of people I hired, including sales, marketing, finance, project management, graphics, writers, designers, audio engineers, testers. I don’t see a ‘Year of Sales’ being touted, despite the fact that this has long been the real Achille’s Heel in UK business. I’ve recently invested in a company which has a high-end coding team that is as good as anything you can find in the UK but a hell of a lot cheaper, in India. It’s complex, algorithmic software has been rated world class by the gates Foundation and almost all of its work is in the US, bringing in valuable foreign earnings. There’s no way we could have got this work done at that price in the UK. Code is not the future, a potent fuel mixture of skills is the future and coding plays only a small role in all of this.
 “It’s the future”
Coding sound contemporary, all high-tech and entrepreneurial. Politicians and armchair advisors adore the idea that there’s a secret, superior form of expression that unlocks the world and will solve the intractable problems of declining economies and unemployment. Politicians love ‘silver bullet’ solutions. ‘Year of Code’ is easy rhetoric and gives the illusion of a cure for all ills. But it’s a snakeoil solution, all massive promise with little efficacy.
Lottie was the Communications Manager at a think tank founded by Iain Duncan Smith, the Centre for Social Justice. Just last month he gave a speech there defending the ‘compassionate conservative’ bedroom tax. Forget the evidence that the IT system failed  and £40 million had to be written off (so much for their knowledge of coding). The idea that that people have been moved to smaller council houses, freeing up space for larger families, ignores the fact that, small houses don’t exist. Sadly, over half of those poor people (32,432 people), fell into rent arrears between April (when the policy was introduced) and June, a quarter of those for the first time ever. These people are mad, bad and above all, downright dangerous.
Coding is seen as the new Latin by the posh boys - a rather stupid obsession where politicians and PR people, none of whom can code, latch on to 'reports' written by people who have no business sense or worse, a regressive agenda. Even worse, it’s not even as potent as Latin, which in its day was a widely used language of reading and writing. It was the very opposite of code - there are thousands of coding languages but the whole efficacy of Latin was that that it was ONE language. These people are not the future, they want to drag us into the past. 

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

EdX's MOOCman Anant Agarwal loves hype!

Fascinating chat last night with a guy who is possibly the most influential person in MOOCland – Anant Agarwal. There are several things that mark Anant out from the pack. First he’s not overly protective about the Anglo-Saxon model of Higher Education (first degree in India), second he’s a high level academic, reseracher and teacher, third he’s a serious computer and AI guy, fourth he’s passionate about the democratisation of learning through MOOCs , as well as improving teaching and learning on campus. He’s also no slouch on business and a very nice person. He’s rounded.
Hype is a good thing
He describes EdX as an ‘online learning destination’. This is clever – not a platform, not a library of courses, not a business but a ‘destination’, one that is agile and will change as time progresses. Then the killer line ‘Hype is a good thing’. Why do you think sports and pop music is so popular and successful – it  hypes - for hyoe read marketing. That’s why every academic leader on the planet knows about MOOCs, that’s why politicians who shape educational policy know about MOOCs. It’s made us think.
EdX, being an early entrant, now has a strong presence, not only in the US but also China, Japan, France and the Middle East. It’s a global push. 
With 133 courses and 1.8 million learners he’s positive about the MOOC influence on his own organisation MIT, describing a MIT MOOC that needed differential maths but still attracted 155,000 students, more than attended MIT in the whole of its history. EdX's most recent MOOC attracted 180,000, two weeks ago and one on Paul’s letters 30,000. He reminds us that MOOCs are still Massive, still Open, still Online and still Courses. And he is adamant that it’s also improving the quality of teaching and learning on the MIT campus.
Flipped MOOC successes
Solid State Chemistry was a landmark course for him, as it was used as a flipped classroom, with exposition in your own time and classroom for problem solving – the results, he says, were staggering. Five weeks into the term every freshman gets a flag letter, designed to buck up those who are starting to flag on the course. One year ago, before the flipped classroom it was 29, this year it was 2. At San Hose State University, in another flipped MOOC experiment, failure rates dropped from 41% to 9%. He describes a Community College teacher, Jamie Heureux, who took a MOOC on Python (coding not snakes) and now uses it to deliver a Python course in her own college Bunker Hill, in Boston, something that would never have happened withput the MOOC. For him a MOOC is just a different modality on the campus. We have to recognise where technology is today and match our pedagogy to that technology.
He has no truck with those who think MOOCs lack a serious pedagogy. Try a few, he says. There’s rarely hour long lectures but sequenced learning and often sophisticated assignments, coding tools, virtual labs (where for example you can manipulate gene sequences) and a host of other techniques, unknown in many universities. Discussion forums are being brought closer to the content a la Futurelearn. Data is being used to judge optimal attention spans when watching video. At present it stands at 6 minutes before cognitive overload and attention drift takes its toll. Interestingly as an AI guy, he was very positive about the potential effect algorithmic AI will have on MOOCs and learning. This he saw as the ‘quantum leap’ we’ve been waiting for and confirmed that EdX are doing this on a small scale but will be doing a lot more. If they get it right, we have a good part of the solution to personalised tutoring. My own organisation UFI (University for Industry) has funded an AI, adaptive-led MOOC on Functional Maths that takes exactly this approach. We've chosen EdX for these seven reasons.
We both laughed at this. Universities have been around for many centuries and still haven’t found the solution to this, so why the immediate pressure on MOOCs.  At least MOOC provides are coming up with a range of novel models, on investments (not-for-profit, government, sponsorship. private) through to charging for (courses, materials, completion, exams) and increasing brand capital and students coming to your university. EdX are already offering paid for courses in topics such as Big Data, as well as licensing out their content and sharing the royalties with the originators of the course. It’s a typical fermium path – free at point of delivery but look for revenues from higher level services. The primary market drives the secondary.
He agreed with me that MOOCs have moved beyond HE into vocational learning (VOOCs), high school learning (HOOCs), corporates, charities and CPD. MOOCs have already ‘run the gamut’ of subjects and educational domains. Universities, he said, have been around for over 900 years, MOOCs only a few years but look at how much innovation has been achieved already. He was modest but knowledgeable and convincing, and the excellent papers just published by MIT and Harvard on MOOCs, looking at real data, with balanced analysis, make a welcome change from the surface debate full of sneering suspicion that we get in the UK.
He asked if I had watched the SuperBowl last night, I said “no I was watching Andy Murray, single-handedly beat the USA in the Davis Cup. We still have a chance, albeit rather slim!