Thursday, December 30, 2010

Taking risks

One of the main reasons that the uptake of technology in education is so slow is the simple fact that it requires effort and a willingness to move out of the comfort zone. If you'rea teacher and you have successfully developed courses and teaching methods that work reasonably well, why should you try to change a seemingly winning formula? If you're a student and you get on well enough in school by simply doing what the teacher asks, why should you put in extra effort to learn things that are not demanded of you?

Play at Your Own Risk by sjgadsby, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  sjgadsby 

Isn't it all about willingness to take risks and try new ideas without knowing whether they will work or not? The question is if risk-taking is encouraged in education. I suspect the answer is no. The general trend is to play safe, otherwise you might fail your exam or risk criticism from colleagues, students or parents. Playing safe means resisting change and that's all too common in education today no matter how much we enthuse over the enormous opportunities that are available using digital media. Even if we present a compelling case for change the same arguments always come echoing back:
  • It's too expensive, we can't afford all that just now.
  • There's not enough scientific evidence that it works.
  • Your ideas sound very interesting but we have to deal with real world problems before we can consider all this high tech stuff.
  • Aren't you being a bit too optimistic? We tried all that 10 years ago and it didn't work.
Many teachers who try to innovate meet with these objections and it's hard not to go with the flow in the end. Even if the teachers agree to innovate it's not always so easy to convince the students that innovation is good. Sometimes students can be more conservative than the teachers and questions like "Is this bit in the exam?" can have an immediate deflating effect. The problem is that by playing safe you learn very little.

There's an article on this theme in Faculty Focus by E. Shelley Reid called Teaching Risk-Taking in the College Classroom. We need to create an atmosphere of risk tolerance where you get credit for innovation even if it isn't as polished as playing it safe.

"Risk taking and right-answer achieving can appear to be contradictory goals for students in our classrooms. When the correctness stakes are high and no other criteria are visible, everyone plays it safe. If we want our students to take risks, we need to create classrooms in which, at least in some designated zones, risk taking is more visible, accessible, and desirable than the alternatives."

Encouraging risk-taking leads to new discoveries and learning opportunities. Students and pupils need to realize that they are learning for their own future, not to please the teacher or examiner. You could say that if it's not in the exam, it's probably worth learning.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Cheating or learning ?

All through school and university I was conditioned into thinking that learning was a solitary process. Studying meant hiding away in a room for hours, sometimes days, silently reading, memorising and note-taking. The idea that I could learn anything from my fellow students never really occurred to me; only teachers could teach me. Group work was extremely rare and academic ability was assessed on what you could write during a 3 hour session, completely unaided and relying solely on memory.

Self study at study by Hermés, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Hermés 

This attitude to education is still very entrenched in society although many educators are trying to change things. In most workplaces you can't simply sit on your own to solve a problem. You need the ability to quickly find people who can help you.with a problem. No-one expects you to solve things completely on your own and even if you did you'd still need to sell your solution to your colleagues. The modern workplace demands teamwork, social competence, networking and information retrieval skills; none of which are given much time in the traditional educational system.

I've just read a good article on this theme in The Washington Post, What some call cheating can help learning. The author points out how inconsistent the education system is today when it comes to student collaboration. In one school pupils are allowed to take notes into the exam hall whereas another school wuld consider that as cheating. Some schools encourage group work and collaboration whereas others outlaw it since they want to assess each pupil on thier own skills.

"At these two institutions dedicated to equality under the law, what my daughter did during exams at one could have been considered cheating if she attended the other. What are we to make of the uneven nature of such rules, just as unpredictable as those found in our public K-12 schools? Open-book exams are okay some places, not in others. Cooperating with friends on homework is encouraged by some teachers, denounced elsewhere as a sign of declining American moral fiber."

Would we ever be faced with a task at work where we would not be allowed access to reference material or advice from colleagues? Don't we "cheat" every day at work by seeing if we can find a colleague with previous experience of the same problem? The article suggests that homework would be far more effective if the social learning aspect could be stressed as opposed to the solitary and often dull activity it always has been.

Maybe it's time for the education system to find ways of assessing a pupils skills at teamwork, networking and collaboration and valuing them as highly as the individual skills presently assessed.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Delicious - we were only kidding

No sooner than I had posted my farewell to Delicious than Yahoo went public and claimed that they had been misunderstood (see Delicious blog post What's next for Delicious?). They are looking for someone to buy Delicious and insist that they hope that the service will live on. It would have saved a lot of rumour spreading and speculation if this had been clear from the start.

Or maybe they got cold feet when they saw the damage that dumping Delicious would cause to their reputation. That seems to be the conclusion drawn by amongst others Tech Crunch (Yahoo just killed ... consumer confidence in them). From the reactions I saw on Twitter we Delicious fans are a dedicated and vociferous group. It may be a fairly plain vanilla tool with few bells and whistles but it does an excellent job for those of us who like to share our knowledge. With a bit of imagination and a committed owner it could be a star albeit on a limited academic stage. A bargain in the social media Christmas sale?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Goodbye Delicious

One of the main drawbacks to using all the free tools and services on the net is the fact that at any time the owners can pull out the plug leaving you high and dry. That is just what is happening with the social bookmarking tool Delicious, as the owners, Yahoo, have decided suddenly to close it down. I have used Delicious for a couple of years now and have collected an awful lot of bookmarks there, all classified and tagged. I have also built up a very useful network of researchers and enthusiasts whose bookmarks I can follow thanks to RSS subscription. Now it's all being shut down because Yahoo don't seem interested in social bookmarking any more.

Social bookmarking has always been the ugly duckling of the social media scene and as a result is vulnerable to cuts. Since the users are mostly academics it isn't ever going to bring in lots of advertising revenue. I've suspected for a while that no-one was really trying to develop Delicous since I saw very few new features being introduced. Unlike many other social tools it was available only in plain vanilla flavour with few options for personalisation. However I'm convinced that social bookmarking is vital to researchers and business intelligence workers since it enables you to store enormous amounts of bookmarks, tag them for reference, access them from anywhere and share them with colleagues. On the other hand it's never going to make megabucks and is of very limited interest to advertisers.

In the world of free it's inevitable that services will come and go and we just have to accept it. But it is still frustrating to have put a lot of work into building up a collection only to see it closed down. Maybe the academic community or some other public body should try to adopt such important tools and run them as a public service instead of putting our trust in market forces.

The answer to the closure of Delicious is to transfer all bookmarks to the rival and admittedly more versatile Diigo (to see how to do this see Michael Wacker's easy instructions). I did this a few weeks ago just in case but I still have to do a lot of tweeking and adjusting to find the same functions in the new environment. I'm sure I'll find many new openings with Diigo but I'm also sure I'll lose some useful functions from Delicious.The question is how long Diigo will last and if it doesn't is there anyone out there willing to maintain this important service and guarantee continuity?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Think before you post

This simple picture says it all about how we should use social media. If we all followed this advice we wouldn't get so many scandal headlines about the supposed dangers of socialising online. It's so easy to blame the medium (mostly Facebook of course) rather than the users' lack of respect or good judgement.

If you have hundreds of friends on Facebook it might be a good idea to divide them into different categories (best friends, work, old school, relatives etc) and choose which groups should be able to see each comment you make (see instructions on how to do this at 10 privacy settings every Facebook user should know). Then you can post those party photos but only to those who need to see them. Just try to remember the questions below and if in doubt don't post it!

Creative Commons License
Think before you post by Royan Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at

Social media nativity

With Christmas fast approaching I can't resist spreading this excellent video of how the nativity might have looked if social media had been available back then. The main message is the power of the net to access information, collaborate and spread news. Otherwise this blog will remain guaranteed free of all traces of animated dancing Santas, holly, reindeer or jingle-bells.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The future ain't what it used to be

This week's OECD report about the state of education in 65 countries has sparked thousands of articles debating why South Korea, Finland and Singapore are top of the rankings and why everyone else isn't. It's time for the never-ending discussion about how to reinvent our school system to be more in tune with the challenges of the 21st century. I agree that there is a lot that can be done and there are plenty of examples of innovative approaches to be inspired by if the responsible authorities care to look. For an analysis of the practice of producing educational league tables see Tony Bates' article Interpreting international comparisons in academic achievement.

Dreaming of the future... by Temari 09, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Temari 09 

However, I got a fascinating link from a Twitter contact pointing me to an article that's nearly as old as I am, from 1960, Education for the community of 1985 by Leonard S Kenworthy. His vision of the school of the future is actually not so far from what many are expressing today and one quote in particular sounds very familiar:

"Scarcely any of our schools in the United States have wrestled realistically with the curriculum changes which such trends suggest ( ie greater international understanding, cross-cultural awareness, importance of science and technology). Most schools are still satisfied with their existing curricula, which were designed for an 18th or 19th century rather than a 20th or 21st century world."

The main focus of the article is internationalisation and the need to understand other cultures and viewpoints. To improve this the author suggests a greater focus on foreign language teaching in schools and colleges as well as encouraging study vists and exchange schemes with other countries. One particularly attractive idea is that foriegn students could be invited to local schools to talk about their homelands. Now that would still be a novel approach to internationalisation that very few schools have tried. The same goes for getting older people involved in schools. Think of the gold mine of memories the neighbourhood's elderly possess.

Even if the net allows us to communicate with pupils and students from just about any country in the world for free we're still discussing how to open up the classroom. Another of Kenworthy's visions is still unfulfilled:

"But I hope that in the next few years schools will begin to develop 'affiliations' with schools in other parts of the world so that every child will have had some continuing experience with pupils in at least three or four parts of the world."

It's a classic lesson in the principle that history repeats itself. In 1960the idea of opening up the classroom to the world was a challenge since contacts were mostly by post in the form of pen friends but today there simply is no excuse. The world is out there, just open the door.

"In conclusion, stress in the past has been upon the child-centered school and upon the community-centred school. Neither of these needs to be discarded. But our schools in the years ahead need to add a new dimension - the world-centered school."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Your body is your keyboard

We are now interacting with computers through gestures and movement with gaming platforms like Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect and voice recognition technology is beginning to mature so we can have accurate speech to text interaction in the near future. However the old interfaces are still going strong and it's actually remarkable how resilient the good old QWERTY-keyboard model has been, striding the gap between the typewriter and today's touch screen devices. Even the mouse has shown impressive staying power as a tool for interaction. We have simply got so accustomed to using a mouse and keyboard that we find it hard to imagine life without them.

Can we instead go all the way and simply use our bodies to communicate with computers? An article in Illusion 360, Turn your body into a touchscreen interface gives a glimpse of what may be in store and the video below demonstrates how the body-based console works. The rather clumsy hi-tech armband used in the film looks a bit too geeky but I assume it will all be in the best possible taste by the time the concept is mature enough for the market.

Wearable computing has been in the pipeline for many years now and there have been many experiments with virtual reality helmets, smart clothing and so on. I remember a concept called Body Area Network, a type of LAN but using the body to send digital information from one device to another. One idea was that by shaking hands you could send your digital business card from your mobile to your colleague's. Experiments are clearly continuing but no-one has so far found the application that will cross over into a mass market. There's always a gap between what is technically possible and what people will actually adopt and pay for.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Meet the MOOC

New and mysterious acronyms appear every day. Most of them we instantly forget but a few get established and even make it into everyday speech. I don't think the acronym featured in this post will get into the Oxford English Dictionary any time soon but the phenomenon it represents is highly relevant in today's education debate.

Meet the MOOC - Massive Open Online Course. It's what happens when formal university education meets informal online learning. A free university level course that uses only online open educational resources where the course content and direction is negotiated continuously by the participants and there is no clear teacher role or predetermined syllabus. The most prominent example of this type of course has been this term's Personal Learning Environments Networks and Knowledge course (known to friends as PLENK2010) run by Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Rita Kop and Dave Cormier, all leading figures in the open education movement.

The course had over 2,000 participants when it started and although there were considerably fewer there at the end it's important to realize that all concerned had learned different things in different ways. The goal is not to get good grades or even complete a syllabus but to participate and learn. All material on the course is open and it's perfectly possible to go through all the material in retrospect and learn a lot though the key is participating in the discussion and negotiation during the course. Participants' own blogs are woven together with the course wiki as well as synchronous discussion meetings (recordings of these are available).

Here's a short film by Dave Cormier that explains the principle behind a MOOC.

If you want to try out other MOOCs have a look at the collection of courses at Massive Open Online Course. Then there is of course Peer 2 Peer University which runs courses with the same principles of openness but which opts for small enrolled groups instead of being open to all.

You can learn almost everything on the net. The material is there, you can link up with others with similar interests and you can even participate in free courses. The question is whether all this can be incorporated into the structures of formal education and there are ways of getting recognition of what you have studied.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Revolution or evolution?

I feel increasingly uncomfortable about the terminology I use every day to describe what I work with. I talk and write about e-learning, m-learning, net-based learning, distance eductaion and so on as if they were something completely new and different from all that has gone before. Similarly there's a tendency to present radical visions of how the web will make schools, universities, libraries and books virtually obsolete. Examples of this are Bill Gates a few months ago proclaiming that In five years the best education will come from the web and Nicholas Negroponte at the same event claiming that The physical book is dead in five years. I fully understand how they think but maybe the shock tactics cause more harm than good.

Trench Direction Sign by Kevin H., on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Kevin H. 

There's a lot of truth there and I do believe that we are seeing a major change in how education is perceived but it's important not to polarise the issues. The web is not going to wipe out the great universities and kids will still need to attend school in the future. To sweep them away completely is simply too radical and we'd then need to create new fundamental structures in society. Similarly the way we access books and magazines is changing but the concept will remain roughly the same. What would we replace them with? Can't they evolve and develop?

Some people react to our talk about net-based learning by thinking that we're against all physical meetings. They mistakenly think that we want all learning to take place via a computer and that we reject anything that is not digital. This kind of either/or interpretation is very damaging and often leads to entrenched positions at schools and colleges between traditionalists and the net educators.

We need to gather round the concepts we all believe in such as learning, education, teaching, training and study and then look at how they can be developed using the tools and methods available today. I don't think there is any e-learning or m-learning; it's all learning but using different media when relevant. Sometimes chalk and talk can be very effective and other times social media can be used to great advantage. We should welcome new technology and ask ourselves what new avenues can we explore with their help rather than digging trenches against the threat of innovation.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Taking the initiative

I wrote a while back of learned helplessness when it comes to education and training. We've been conditioned into believing that the only way to learn new skills is to go on a course lead by a teacher and generally help in some kind of classroom at assigned times. Many wait in vain for the opportunity to go on a course instead of going out and finding the required knowledge and people who can help. We're stuck in a classroom mentality and are not equipped to take responsibility for our own learning.

This is the theme of an excellent article by Ewan McIntosh in the Huffington Post, Schools are churning out the unemployable. The traditional approach to education stresses dependence on teachers, syllabus and assessment instead of fostering independence, initiative, ability to network and innovative thinking. These are the qualities required in the business world but are often, according to McIntosh, sadly lacking in school leavers and graduates.

" ... everything being done to formal schooling by the political classes in America and England runs against what business actually requires: self-starting, creative, entrepreneurial youngsters. I realize that this approach alone isn't a savior of schooling, and that there are many other tactics as well as strategic approaches that help move us away from a factory model to a studio model of learning. But the conversation that I find the hardest is with those who don't even see that the model is no longer effective, who believe that "it was good enough for me so..."...."

Of course, many schools and universities are fostering these skills and are offering students much more freedom to innovate and create. However the mainstream has not caught up yet and we are still often bogged down in vote-winning back-to-basics campaigns and the illusory league tables of result-oriented education. Tasks that are set simply for the teacher to grade and hand back are artificial and not taken seriously by many students. If the tasks are put out in public view or are actually used by others in real work situations you get a much higher level of motivation and enthusiasm. Letting students contribute for real sharpens concentration and prepares them for the future.

In conclusion McIntosh asks if the system is so broken that we will need to replace it or whether we just need to do a renovation job.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

You've got mail

E-mail in notes by dampeebe, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  dampeebe 

 Whilst teenagers seem to have completely rejected it, good old e-mail still dominates as the most common means of communication for those of us on the mature side of 30. I've been trying to use other solutions for activities that e-mail is simply very poor at: arranging meetings, group work, projects, longer discussions. Although I now use a wide range of social media that have enabled me to network and collaborate like never before, I find that I can never completely escape the gravitational pull of e-mail that repeatedly drags me back screaming into its time-consuming clutches.

Arranging meetings is one of my least favourite tasks (I suspect I've written about this in a previous post). There are two excellent and easy-to-use tools to arrange a meeting without sending dozens of e-mails; Doodle and Meeting Wizard. The only snag is colleagues who have very efficient firewalls that see e-mail from a source like Meeting Wizard as spam and therefore block it. The result is that you don't get a reply from one or more of your target group and in the end have to start the e-mail carousel to ensure that all are on board. The other danger is that someone in your group simply ignores or trashes the message from an unknown source without even reading it, assuming it to be advertising. In the end I revert to clumsy e-mail exchanges just to make sure everyone gets the message.

I work in many groups and have tried to get the group to use some kind of forum or social network so that all communication takes place there and not by e-mail. I've used Learning Management Systems like Moodle or its Learning as well as more open solutions like Ning, Groups and Google Groups. The key issue is that everyone in the group is equally enthusiastic about the group site. Often it's yet another network that requires yet another user ID and password and, snce you already belong to too many, it's easy to forget. The trouble is that if even one of your group finds the group site inconvenient for some reason you soon have to revert to the common denominator of e-mail to get your message out to the whole group.

When I'm the one who creates the group site I can't understand why anyone would find it complicated. On the other hand I'll admit to getting stuck with group sites that someone else has created. Just recently I had trouble with a WordPress site where I was registered under a new WordPress identity which conflicted with a previous WordPress identity. Whenever I tried to log in, my computer automatically went to the old identity and I couldn't access the site I wanted. I've had similar trouble with multiple identities in Google.Sometimes you can simply have too many identities.

E-mail is a messy solution for many types of communication but it is taking longer than I thought to wean myself off it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The web finds its voice

One of my main sources for news in the field of e-learning is the Tunisia-based e-learning portal e-Taalim (it means e-learning in Arabic). They've just added a nice new feature; a built-in text-to-voice function that allows you to listen to all content in all three languages (Arabic, French, English). Each article has a listen button and you can even download the article as a sound file (mp3). Read more at eTaalim: the first Tunisian website to vocalize entire content.

Of course you can get text-to-voice for web pages in other ways but you need to know how to activate them. This service is attractive because you can't really miss it and you simply press the button to start. I hope this type of service becomes even more widespread and even simpler to access. It should be as simple as possible to listen to web content, to enlarge text size and to adjust text colour and contrast as a service to all. This is also one area where e-books win over print. Think of getting an e-magazine or e-book that you can listen to in the car and then continue reading when you get home as well as being able to take notes and look up unfamiliar words. Plus being able to adjust the brightness, contrast, size and colour of what is shown on the screen.

The question is whether publishers are willing to bundle in this way and how they charge for it all. It could be a winning combination.

Why teachers should use Twitter

Many people I meet have the impression that Twitter is simply for telling people where you are and what you're doing and can't imagine how it can be relevant in education. In the last year and a half I've built up a wonderful network of educators who constantly provide me with links to articles, news and ideas that help me in my work. In return I pass on all the links I find that I think will be interesting to my network (I'm @alacre on Twitter).

Here's a very short film that explains why the tool is useful in education - in 60 seconds!

Sedan kan du får många praktiska tips om Twitter via en länksamling, 100 ways to teach with Twitter.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Video roulette

Post-interview video editing with Final by mobilechina2007, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  mobilechina2007 

Looking for a relevant video to use on a course is a very difficult and time-consuming task. There are millions of videos out there of course but apart from the title there's very little to tell you if it's worth watching or not. You can spend 10 minutes watching a film only to realise that it is not relevant or of poor quality. Search engines can't sift through video in the way they do with text and most video lacks consistent tagging.

Read a good blog post on this subject, Why learning from videos is difficult, that gives two contrasting examples. The first is the norm, a video posted without any contents or useful tags, and the second is the ideal, indexed with contents and the ability to click through to the relevant section of the video. Of course indexing the film takes time but if you really want your film to be used by others it's well worth the effort. Quality work will spread quickly and earn you and your school plenty gold stars in the digital margin.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Short little span of attention

The seemingly short attention span of today's children and teenagers is much debated. We've talked a lot about homo zapiens and how multitasking youngsters seldom concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. At the same time we are equally worried about their incredibly long attention spans when it comes to playing engaging and complex online games or participating in lengthy chat sessions. It seems that the problem is that they don't direct their attention towards the activities that parents are familiar with.

homework. by apdk, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  apdk 

This is the theme of an article by Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times, The attention span myth.Is there really anything new about the attention span issue? Some people simply find it difficult to sit still and concentrate and did so long before computers and mobiles came on the scene. Many creative and artistic talents were very poor at fitting into the school ideal of the silent diligent pupil. We all have the ability to concentrate on something we find interesting and engaging but most of us are also less tolerant of activities we find dull. When we worry about our children's short attention span we have to think back to our own childhoods and wonder if we were as concentrated as we would like to remember.

"At some point, we stopped calling Tom Sawyer-style distractibility either animal spirits or a discipline problem. We started to call it sick, even after an early twin study showed that a relatively short attention span is virtually synonymous with standard-issue irritability and distemper. But the fact that the attention-span theory makes news of what was once considered ordinary or artistic behavior is not what’s wrong with it. These cultural transitions — disruptive as they are — happen all the time as society’s demands on individuals change. 

Instead, the problem with the attention-span discourse is that it’s founded on the phantom idea of an attention span. A healthy “attention span” becomes just another ineffable quality to remember having, to believe you’ve lost, to worry about your kids lacking, to blame the culture for destroying. Who needs it?"

I've never had a very long span of attention and am guilty of zapping backwards and forwards all the time. I love reading but seldom manage more than one hour at a stretch. I just get bored easily and have to switch. I've always been like that and I don't think computers or other digital devices are to blame. We do have an unprecedented amount of media to deal with today and this can make short attention spans more visible but it's absolutely nothing new.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Digital blackout

Why is mobile data roaming still so expensive? Every time I cross the Swedish border I have to cut myself off from the net and practice digital celibacy unless I can find a free wifi zone. Yesterday on a train to Oslo I sat watching all the other passengers communicating on their smartphones and laptops. Why is it several times more expensive for me to access the same services as them from the same place? Do the charges match the costs and what is it that costs so much? Once I forgot to turn off my iPhone's settings for data roaming and let it merrily download e-mail and updates as usual. The bill came as a reminder not to do that agian.

As I leave the country I cut off all lines of communication apart from texting and the occasional phone call. I've tried buying local top-up cards but it's all a bit of a fuss and I long for the day we can just use our devices wherever we go.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Missing the target

A colleague made a very relevant observation today. He felt that we fail to convince colleagues and decision makers about the relevance of technology in education because we use the wrong rhetoric. We use terms like technology, IT, social media, web 2.0 and so on and often only succeed in alienating or intimidating our less enthusiastic colleagues. Of course we're using new tools and new technology but aren't we basically doing what people have always been doing (communicating, sharing, learning) but with a much wider scope than ever before?

This ties in with an excellent post by George Siemens, It's new, it's new, which questions some of the enthusiasm about net-based learning. Many of us claim rather optimistically that a total transformation of education is needed and that past practices must be swept away. Siemens calls for a more pragmatic and less revolutionary development and warns against elements of arrogance:

"First, we need to get over the view that our generation is astonishingly unique. Hasn’t every generation faced new technologies to solve problems not foreseen? The present moment arrogance that invades much of school reform thinking is frustrating.

The skills needed to be a good educator or learner are, in essence, much the same as they always have been. Siemens lists six key skills for educators of any century:
  • Technical competence - knowing how to make best use of the available tools of the day.
  • Experimentation - always trying new ways to nurture learning, teacher as researcher.
    "Educators should constantly be experimenting with new technologies and pedagogies, refining their learning approach to constantly changing contexts."
  • Autonomy - developing learner autonomy, students as teachers, teachers as students.
  • Creation - fostering learner creativity.
  • Play - learning should be more fun.
  • Developing capacity for complexity - learning, like life, is complex. We must learn to deal with disorder and the unexpected.
So are we looking at a revolution in education as many predict or at a more gradual adoption of new opportunities provided by the net? Maybe if we stress the continuity aspect we might find it easier to win over the tech-skeptics. The adoption of new technology is simply doing what good educators have always done. At the same time there is a danger that not adopting the communication tools and methods used in the rest of society may render the education system irrelevant. Not changing is not an option though it is the easiest one. We need to move educational technology from a pioneer movement to mainstream and maybe the revolutionary fervor sometimes voiced is counter-productive.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Misconceptions about online learning

Here's another good presentation that I'd like to pass on, The five big mistakes in virtual education. It deals with the main misconceptions that people have about net-based education. The slide show is self explanatory and is worth clicking through. The main mistakes pointed out are:
  • Online education means mass education. You can have a lot of students on an online course but it won't work unless each one is treated as an individual.
  • Online education is often seen as complex and mysterious. It's still about human relations and communication. A good teacher will be good in any environment.
  • Putting technology before pedagogy.
    "Technology is the tool that helps the teacher create materials to share with the student."
  • Underestimating your teachers and students. Standardised, closed-in tools stifle creativity and openness.
  • Taking the fun out of education.Many online courses are dull industrial processes full of mechanical modules and self-tests.
    "Education shou.d be accidental, unpredictable, unscripted."
I'm not so fond of the term virtual in this case as it tends to imply an inferiority to the "real thing", whatever that may be. Learning can take place in many different environments and is no less real if it takes place on the net. However take a look through this and see what you think.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Digital footprints never fade

Footprints in the sand are notoriously short-lived, in sharp contrast to the ones we leave on the net. It's a curious paradox that whilst many people are concerned about integrity and security on the net many of them show little practical interest in the problem. Facebook profiles are often wide open and many people tend to post comments and photos first and ask questions later (or never).

Here's an excellent presentation by Australian educator Jenny Luca called Nurturing your digital footprint. She presents examples of indiscrete use of social media and gives practical tips on how to take control of your digital profile. This is all essential knowledge in terms of digital literacy and relevant to all age groups.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Can you borrow an e-book?

We tend to define innovations in terms of their predecessors. One proposed use for the telephone was to enable people to contact the local telegraph office. The first cars were basically horse carriages without the horse and it took many years before they realised that cars could look different.

It seems to be the same with e-books as described in a BBC article The rights and wrongs of digital books. If I buy a printed book I can read it and then pass it on to a friend or even sell it. However this isn't possible with digital books and publishers are taking great care to stop us doing so. Since any digital material can be copied in seconds and infinitely they rightly fear that once that particular Pandora's box is opened there'll be no future for the business. So various technologies are used to prevent copying. So if you buy a digital book you can't lend it to anyone whereas the print version is much more flexible. E-books are not really exportable either as publishers stop Amazon and Barnes & Noble from sending them out of the USA or UK. If I can order the printed book from Amazon why can't I get the e-book?

What happens then if you borrow an e-book from the library? What happens after your loan period is up? Does the book just disappear from your reader, self-destructing like the tapes on Mission Impossible? If you can borrow an e-book from the library why would you ever want to buy it? You can't show off your e-book collection to admiring friends so there isn't much point in holding on to them once you've read them. It'll be very interesting to see how libraries lend e-books since they would seem to threaten the publishers' revenues more than ever before. Or maybe they'll have to pay a lot of money for the right to lend.

However, the wealth of protective measures being taken in the publishing industry to restrict e-books from being lent, exported or copied suggests that we're still at the stage of phoning the telegraph office to send a long distance telegram. No-one has really worked out where e-publishing is actually leading us yet.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Farewell AM radio

The news that Swedish Radio (SR) are closing down their medium and short wave transmitters today gave me a good excuse to be a bit nostalgic (see article in Ny Teknik - in Swedish). We haven't really noticed it but hardly anyone transmits on those wavelengths any more and so a central part of my childhood and teenage media landscape is put to rest. The radio was a magic window allowing me to hear radio from other countries and although I understood nothing it was still exciting to listen a while to German, Dutch or even Russian stations. The short wave was a gold mine full of radio stations from all over Europe. In a way the closest we had to today's web.

ASA radio by Andrei!, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Andrei! 

Growing up in Scotland in the sixties there was plenty exciting new music but the BBC didn't play it more than a few hours a week. As a result we had to listen to Radio Luxemburg and the so-called pirate radio stations broadcasting from ships out in international water in the North Sea (familiar scenario isn't it?). Radio Luxembourg was great but the reception was unreliable. Just when your favourite song came on the interference increased and for a few minutes it was virtually impossible to listen to. The pirate stations were also great but sometimes were closed down for a while if they got raided. The best reception was from the Dutch Radio Nordsee and it was thanks to them that I first heard all sorts of great music. In the end the BBC realised that pop music was here to stay and created Radio 1 in 1967 and as a result the pirates gradually disappeared.

Disruptive technology that brings about a major change in the way mainstream media operate. Sounds familiar doesn't it?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Copyright confusion

I've just read a post called Common copyright mistakes that can still get you sued on the blog 10,000 Words. It explains some of the most common misconceptions about copying material on the web and has some pretty sound advice. Of course it's extremely easy to copy and paste photos, texts and films from one site to another and there are plenty people who exploit this. Photographers who try to live off their skill have evidently a hard time since it is so easy to copy their work and noone wants to pay for something that they can so easily do for free (plus the fact that the chances of anyone noticing and doing something about it are pretty small).
© by Mikelo, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Mikelo 

I think however that most people (including probably me) are simply not aware what is and is not allowed in this area. I always try to use Creative Commons material and always give credit to the source (please tell me if I fail on that). In most cases I am directing traffic to the source material and thereby helping to spread the work to a wider audience and that is what social media do so well. Anyone who uses this blog and at least gives me credit is welcome to do so!

However I wish that material on the web could be automatically marked to show what the rest of us may or may not do with it. If you post a photo or film or write an article and there was a mandatory field to fill in where you put a Creative Commons licence on it or mark it as copyright then we all would immediately know the rules (Flickr already does this). If I choose to ignore that then I can't say I haven't been warned. If the rules are clear and up-front we'd all be better off. It won't stop the illegal copying but it will help those who do want to stick by the rules.

One tool that helps is ImageCodr. If I find a Creative Commons photo on Flickr I can paste the URL into ImageCodr and I get html code that I can paste into the blog. This produces the photo plus a CC-attribution automatically. This saves me a lot of time but sadly only works for photos on Flickr. A similar tool for other material would be useful.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

How do you learn?

When you want to learn something, what do you usually do? Look for a course? Or do you start asking friends and colleagues and search the net for more information on the subject? Most of us start asking people we trust and searching for information. Most of what we learn is integrated into our everyday lives and not through formal education. Although this informal learning takes place all around us it seldom gets recognized. We hardly even notice the process. We just realize one day that we know how to do something that we couldn't do a couple of weeks ago. The formula is usually a mixture of asking questions, watching what others do and a lot of trial and error.

IMG_3678.JPG by tantek, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  tantek 

This type of natural, informal learning is the subject of an excellent blog post by Jane Hart, The state of learning in the workplace today. A great deal of money is spent on formal training in companies but it could be argued that real learning takes place outside the classroom during normal working time. Hart points out that a great deal of learning is virtually unconscious:

"In the workplace, informal learning takes place all the time whilst at work, and in some cases it is indistinguishable from working, which has led Harold Jarche to say that "learning = working = learning". Most workers don't even realise they are "learning", because they have been conditioned to think learning only takes place in a formal educational or training context!"

Organisations should encourage employees to make use of the social media for more effective learning. Many may need a short course to explain how to exploit social media in this way but the main point of the article is encouraging the development of smart workers. When a problem arises you contact your network and see who can contribute. Some people are able to do this already but many will need guidance. The role of the HR department is to help people to use the right tools in the right way.

"By helping individuals work smarter, organisations can reap huge rewards, for it is in social (workflow) learning that the “real” learning in the organisation takes place."

There are two issues here. Firstly that we don't realize how we really learn and secondly that we believe that learning can only take place in a setting that resembles a classroom. There are advantages of gathering people together in a classroom setting but not as many as we have been lead to believe. The trouble is that formal learning is easier to validate and certify whereas informal learning is extremely difficult to measure and assess. We need to become more aware of how we really learn and this is where schools and universities must contribute. Employers will be increasingly interested in hiring already "smart" people who have learnt how to learn. If students already have an understanding of this and have acquired good learning strategies and wide contact networks they will be more attractive on the job market.

Monday, October 25, 2010

End of education in Second Life?

Many universities are having to consider pulling out of Second Life if the owners, Linden Labs, implement their decision to charge educational institutes full rates for using the virtual world (see article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Academics discuss mass migration from Second Life). Up till now educational users have been able to use SL at a discount rate and as a result there is considerable academic activity there.

Earlier this year the social networking tool Ning decided to make all users pay for the service and this resulted in many networks being forced to find a new free host environment or closing down for good. This is of course one of the risks of using freemium solutions run by commercial players - at some point they may very well decide to charge for the service or raise the rates. It's no real surprise but we seem to think that free will always be free.

Linden Labs would seem to  risk losing a considerable and dedicated group of followers if they carry out this price hike. Already some educators are planning to migrate to other virtual worlds but the same questions apply as in the case of Ning. How do you know that the solution you move to will not raise the price later on? Commercial solutions need income to survive and if the free model doesn't meet the profit demands then the price will go up. Solutions like SL cost a lot of money to run and develop so what's so surprising about the company wanting to raise the price?

I suspect that those who are committed to using Second Life and have clear reasons for being there will pay up and continue. Those who are not so dedicated will of course close down or move elsewhere. There are plenty other worlds to inhabit though maybe not as diverse and populated as Second Life.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Making sense of it all

There's an interesting article in the Huffington Post (What innovations will rock our world in the next 25 years?) that presents a few technology trends that are most likely to make a major impact in the future. The trends spotted here are mostly unsurprising: cloud computing, nanotech, mobility, networked objects and focus on design.

The part that most interested me was about how we make sense of all the information that flows past us every day. I collect an awful lot of links and ideas in the average week which I dutifully bookmark and tag them on Delicious, spread them on Twitter and blog about some of them. However once I've done that I admit that I have great difficulty in finding it again in say 3 months even if I have tagged it. There's simply so much material that I need a meta-organiser to make sense of it all for me. What trends are hiding in all the content? How can I classify it all in more meaningful ways?

This is a point raised by George Siemens in a post How do you manage your information? that I also found yesterday. I work with a scaled down version of the model presented in this article but the points he raises about finding trends and patterns is very relevant. Most of the filtering and sorting we do today is manual and not very efficient. New applications like Flipboard (that I'm just downloading) claim to select and organise interesting content from the people I follow in various social networks. Tools like this are already filtering some of the content and saving us a lot of information overload stress. But what's still missing is the ability to see patterns and present trends in it all. If we can achieve that we will really have made a breakthrough.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Get out of the classroom

Hundreds of years of tradition are very hard to break. If we were to invent education from scratch today would anyone come up with the classroom model? For most people education takes place in a classroom under the leadership of a teacher - anything else is simply not real education. Even when we move education out on the net it takes place in "virtual classrooms" using tools with names like "blackboard." School is such a central part of our upbringing that we assume that learning can only take place when we gather in a room that resembles the classroom of our youth and take part in an organised pre-determined course.

UF HHP Classroom Plastic Wooden Desks De by cdsessums, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  cdsessums 

We demand hard research-based evidence that flexible net-based learning really works but I seldom hear any demands to justify the traditional model. What is so good about gathering 30+ children of the same age (but varying skill-levels and interests) in a classroom and teaching them as if they all learn in the same way? How many kids are turned off education for life because they don't fit in to the classroom model? However because the classroom has such deep symbolic value in society we simply can't imagine any other models for learning. Those who enjoy classroom learning tend to become teachers and thus perpetuate the system. Maybe it's time to recruit teachers who didn't enjoy school.

I have learned much more from colleagues, friends and self study than I probably did in the classroom. It's probably the same for most people, we just don't realize it. We learn every day but the only learning that is officially recognized is the sort that is based around a classroom and a set syllabus. Infomal learning on the net offers enormous opportunities for everyone and the most important task for the established school system is to help pupils to learn how to learn. I've heard many people say that they need to learn a certain skill or subject but they don't have time to go on a course or that there aren't any courses at suitable times. We're stuck in classroom mode and can't see that we can learn whenever and wherever we want - we just need to know how to network and use the material that's freely available out there.

Today we have the opportunity to create a new infrastructure for learning. We have a vast range of open educational resources plus tools that enable collaboration and discussion. Many people are already involved in collaborative learning but the vast majority are not. Society is changing more rapidly than ever before and the traditional classroom is too limited to cope with the accelerating need for life-long learning. People simply can't wait for a suitable classroom course to become available in their town at the right time. We need to be able to take charge of our own learning and network with others who share that need. We need to get out of the classroom.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Creative Commons - how to share your work

Here's an excellent presentation by Rodd Lucier from Ontario, Canada, whose blog, The Clever Sheep, I can thoroughly recommend. It's all about using Creative Commons licensing to ensure that other people can use your work and ideas without breakig copyright law. If you don't know too much about this important subject this film deals with all the principles clearly and simply. If you don't use Creative Commons your work will be locked down under copyright law for in some countries up to 70 years after your death. Couldn't we save an awful lot of time and expense if we shared our ideas a bit more insteading reinventing the wheel evey week?

See Rodd's blog post, Creative Commons: what every educator needs to know.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Innovation takes time and persistence

At a conference in Stockholm last week I saw one presentation that made an impression. Dai Hounsell from my alma mater, the University of Edinburgh,  talked about the difficulties of genuine innovation in higher education. All too often you hear colleagues dismissing new technology or methods by saying things like "We tried that 3 years ago and it didn't work." The question is if they ever gave it an honest chance. Did they fully understand the innovation, did they properly plan how to implement it, were they using it in the right way, had they looked at how others used it? It takes time to get things right of course.How often do you get things right first time?

People make similar mistakes when it comes to social media. It's easy to start a blog, wiki, Facebook page or Twitter account but it takes considerable work to get people to notice you never mind follow you. Some people seem to think that as soon as you put something on the net the world flocks to your door. Unfortunately you have to do quite a lot of marketing before anyone but your closest friends will give you a second of their time Few will follow a non-celebrity Twitter account unless you regularly deliver useful information to your target group. Facebook groups can sometimes gather quite a few "fans" at first but if you want to generate any kind of interaction and discussion there you need to come up with something special. The same was true for many universities' experiments with Second Life, often abandoned after a short project and unrealistic expectations. Those who persisted and tried different approaches found in the end successful models.

This ties in with an article in Times Higher Education, Don't be afraid to share, which looks at the reluctance of many in higher education to use social media. Media focus on the trivial uses of Twitter and Facebook frightens academic users from even trying social media in "serious" situations.

Alan Cann, senior lecturer in biology at the University of Leicester, says it is very difficult to change the minds of people who disparage social media and dismiss them as useless - partly because it is hard to convey the nature of the experience to those with no familiarity with it. "It's frustrating because all of this is experiential," he says. "When you have someone who doesn't use Twitter, it's very difficult to explain the value of it."

Innovation takes time and it is essential that universities create a climate which doesn't expect instant success and allows new ideas to be tried and tested. This is very difficult in times like these when cash is in short supply and budgets are tight but it is even more of a waste of funding to make impatient and only partly thought-out innovations that are abandoned without a fair trial.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Who can you trust?

Many people are wary of the reliability of information on the net: Wikipedia is still far from welcome in many classrooms despite being the most comprehensive reference work ever written. The problem is of course that we don't really know who has written the entries or whether they are academically reliable sources. Books and articles from reputable publishers are looked upon as reliable sources but I sometimes wonder.

The reliable sources of fifty years ago may now appear prejudiced, inaccurate or in some cases downright wrong. But at the time they were authoritative. Reading old encyclopedias is a fascinating exercise. What source is more reliable - the work of one person (albeit highly qualified) or the work of twenty people who have together revised and edited the work over several months? Both can be of course be wrong. The professor could have had a personal agenda in writing the book and the facts have been carefully selected to support his/her argument. The collective effort may have overlooked important issues. Truth is in the eye of the beholder.

Which brings me to the subject of course reading lists and their value to students. A teacher selects course literature according to a certain amount of personal taste and experience. No matter how objective we would like to be we never succeed. Today we drown in the sheer volume of material available in every subject area and any list is bound to be a tiny sample and the teacher will naturally select the texts he/she is most familiar with.

Who on earth can you trust? as a famous Swedish protest song of the seventies so nicely put it. Should students put their trust in Encyclopedia Britannica, the official course reading list, Wikipedia, blog posts, academic journals? Everyone tells the "truth" as they see it. We read and construct our own versions of the truth but no-one ever finds that elusive treasure.

I'm not sure that set course reading lists are very useful. They represent the teacher's qualified assessment of the most useful reading for the course but they are still a subjective selection. The main lesson students need to learn is being able to select their own selection of reading material from the overwhelming mass of content available today. A ready-made list is a handy short cut and saves the students all the work of finding their own material. But that struggle with information retrieval, filtering and assessment is an essential skill for future work situations.

Some teachers work very well with social bookmarking where the class builds up its own collective reading list with tools like Delicious or Diigo. All are able to contribute to the list and can collectively assess the value of the different recommendations. The involvement of a librarian in this process is of course extremely valuable. By the end of the process they have an often impressively comprehensive list of resources and have learnt a great deal about source criticism, tagging and information retrieval.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Textbook buffet

With the increasing use of free open educational resourses and the growth of e-books I've been waiting for the established publishers to come up with an interesting response. Many still think they can sell e-books at roughly the same price as the print version but I simply can't see many falling for that one. The print book for me is a proud possession to place on the shelf as concrete evidence of what I read. An e-book is simply not visible and I doubt if I would even want to keep it at all. Once I've read it I might as well just dump it. Furthermore if I can borrow e-books from a library I am highly unlikely to ever want to buy one.

It's similar with audo books. I enjoy listening to them on long car journeys but I have never wanted to listen at home; I would rather read. As a result I have never bought an audio book, I just borrow them from the library. They just don't have the same value on the bookshelf in the living room as the printed book.

I've just read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, As Textbooks Go Digital, Will Professors Build Their Own Books?, which describes a new initiative from textbook publishers. University teachers are now able to select chapters from the publisher's books and order a customised textbook for their students.A sort of textbook buffet where the books can either be printed or delivered as an e-book, often involving considerable savings for the students.

One such scheme is from publisher McGraw-Hill:

"The new Create system lets professors go to a Web site and select sections of 4,000 McGraw-Hill books, thousands of articles and case studies, or any document that the professors themselves upload. A price tag displays how much the resulting book will cost. Professors can then choose whether to make the book available to students as a printed book or an e-book. In a demonstration for The Chronicle this week, a book on health care cost about $6 as an e-book but jumped to $16.96 as printed book."

Of course you can only choose chapters from McGraw-Hill books but it's good to see some new ideas from the publishers. I love the spread of free learning resources but realise that in the end some kind of new commercial model is going to emerge. This could be one way for the textbook publishers to offer a worthwhile service and make some money out of it.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

No excuses

I've just read an excellent post on the blog Dangerously Irrelevant called We can't let educators off the hook. It pulls no punches and basically says that there is simply no excuse for teachers ignoring technology today. The net affects nealy every aspect of our lives today and very few, if any, of the jobs that today's students are aiming for will not require high levels of digital literacy. Why then should schools and universities not adopt the methods of communication and collaboration that pervade the rest of society?

Of course many teachers feel daunted by technology and don't know where to start but we all felt like that in the beginnig. Today there is usually help available and the web tools of today are remarkably simple to use and require little or no technical knowledge. There's no magic solution round the corner, it's time to adapt, experiment and learn from those with experience.

"The reason many of us now ‘get it’ is because we realized that the world is changing, we recognized our responsibility to our students and schools, and we dived in and learned as we went along. Changing inertia into momentum, not waiting for someone to hand us the answer, taking responsibility ourselves rather than blaming others for our own inactivty - that’s what life-long learners do. That’s what effective educators do. That’s what we owe our children."

Talk to colleagues who are already using the net, learn from them, ask your IT people, get involved. There's more help than you can imagine, especially out there on the net. Technology can help teachers teach more effectively and reach out to new groups. It's still all about pedagogy, effective communication, collaboration and hard work (very old concepts) but with so much more potential and dimensions than the old restricted classroom model could offer.

"It’s not about our personal or professional priorities and preferences, our discomfort levels, or any of that other stuff that has to do with. It’s about our students: our children and our youth who deserve at the end of their schooling experience to be prepared for the world in which they’re going to live and work and think and play and be. That’s the obligation of each and every one of us. No educator gets to disown this."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

My personal learning environment

There are countless web applications out there that you can use to network and collaborate. I've tried a lot of them but only a select few have made it into my daily life in a big way. Some I use now and then, some I simply can't find a use for, some I can't figure out at all and then there are those that I find invaluable. Here's a list of the tools I find essential for my work at the moment (in a year the list could be completely different).
My Netvibes page
This is top of my list because it allows me to follow hundreds of news sites, blogs, bookmarks and tweets from one page. My Netvibes page is my start page on all the computers I use and it even allows me to have three different sites; one for work, one for home and one public. It's basically an RSS aggregator and is extremely simple to set up and personalise. To see what's happening in the world of net-based education I just need to browse throuth the tabs on my Netvibes page and check any new items of interest. That way I can easily see what I might want to blog about later. Everything I find that seems interesting I share via Twitter. Have a look at my public Netvibes page to see what I mean.

It took a while before I realised the potential of this in my work but now it's one of my main sources of information. If you're going to use it in your work you have to spend time finding the right people to follow; those who supply you with useful information. I've built up a long list of people to follow and they supply me with an endless list of links to articles, reports and examples that I can use. I don't follow people who use Twitter to tell about their private lives or just social chat. I never do that either, it's purely a tool for work. To get a good overview of activity on Twitter I use Tweetdeck. Twitter's web site is far less versatile and attractive. Follow me at @alacre.

If everyone was on Skype we'd never use the phone. Better voice quality than most phone calls plus video and chat. My international contacts wouldn't get far without this.

Google Bookmarks
Simple tool but the ability to access my bookmarks from any computer is so helpful. I'm amazed at how few colleagues use this or even know about it.

My three blogs all use Blogger and I find it the simplest blogging tool of all. Maybe not as versatile as Wordpress and suchlike but simplicity is the key.

Google Docs
Sharing documents with colleagues from different organisations used to mean sending versions of a Word document backwards and forwards by e-mail and never knowing which version was the latest. Again I have many colleagues who still do this. Being able to edit a document with colleagues from different locations in real time makes work much easier. You can even use the in-built chat or link up via Skype.

Although I have all my bookmarks in Google bookmarks I also collect them in Delicious. Here I can tag them and see who else has used similar tags. I can build up a more finely grained collection of bookmarks here and share them with whoever may be interested. I can follow other educators and see what they're bookmarking and it's this ability to share bookmarks that makes a tool like Delicious so valuable. I've also started using Diigo which does the same sort of thing plus more but so far I haven't been able to get the two tools to integrate.You can follow my bookmarking at

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Spoilt rotten

This wonderful video is getting a lot of plays at the moment and I can't help spreading the word. We frequently moan about technology that doesn't work instantly or new devices that take more than 30 minutes to learn but sometimes we all need to step back a moment and realize that it's a miracle that such technology even exists. Remember when you only had a desktop phone in your office and if you didn't actually sit there you were virtually unreachable? Remember sending business correspondence by post? Watch this and learn to appreciate what we have!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Social lurking

Most people who have ever started a web community or discussion forum have probably noticed that the vast majority of contributions come from a small minority of dedicated participants. Most members are content simply to read and follow. It's especially true on Facebook in my experience. I have belonged to many Facebook groups who have numerous members (or rather people who have clicked the "like" button) but where almost nothing ever happens.We're all rather good at liking all sorts of causes but very few do much more than that. The fact is that although the social web has given everyone the chance to contribute, most people are quite happy simply being consumers.

That's the theme of an article on CNN, Many social networkers happy just to lurk. The number of people involved with social media is increasing dramatically but the number of people who actually create content remains stable. Maybe it's a case of TV syndrome. We've been brought up on the passive consumption of broadcast media so it's no surprise that we have so far viewed the net in the same way. The idea of everyone being creative and engaging in political and cultural discussion is very appealing but I think we have to accept that most people are very happy to simply watch from a distance; as they would at a physical meeting.

This reminds me a bit of when I was an English teacher many years ago. We had so-called conversation classes for people who wanted to discuss in English. They were often very tricky since many of the participants had very little to say and I struggled to create a relaxed atmosphere for discussion. It took me a while to figure out the problem but realised that many of them weren't particularly talkative in their own language. I felt that some possibly thought they could learn to be more social in English than they were in Swedish. Unfortunately if you are quite and thoughtful in one language you are unlikely to be different in a second language. The same applies in social media and the figures in the CNN article are simply stating the obvious.

The moral is possibly that when you have something to say you have plenty of opportunity to make yourself heard today. If you have nothing to contribute, then just sit back and enjoy what others are discussing. We all need to lurk sometimes.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Making tech more human

The previous post had a video about a robot teacher and the moral of that story is that we should be trying to make the technology more human than the other way around. Here's another film, this time a TED talk, about making mobile devices more human. A cellphone could, for example, be built to distribute its weight according to function. When following directions in a city the mobile will shift its weight to the left when we should turn left and forwards when we need to go straight on and so on. The deice can also be built to vibrate more intensely when something exciting is happening and calm down when we stroke it reassuringly.

Shades of the tamagotchi really but probably just an extension of similar attenpts to make technology more intuitive. Remember Microsoft's Office assistant? The friendly paper clip/dog/cat that would appear on your screen with sometimes irritating regularity and suggest better ways of doing what you what you were trying to do. The idea was basically good but most people soon got tired of the know-it-all agent and discarded it.

I also remember experiments with a desktop where applications behaved like pets trying to get your attention. Applications that you often use would jump at you on the screen almost begging to be clicked on whereas system applications that run in the background almost hid themselves from you. That didn't really catch on either.

I'm not sure if we really want to have more human machines. Maybe its better to keep them as simply machines. Anyway, watch the film and draw your own conclusions.