May 2006

Well the parcels arrived today at midday, so thanks to Charlotte at NIACE and the printers. We have finally got Digital nations in the making out before the end of May. This is good, as I had wanted to get some copies available for tomorrow's Big Lottery Fund Event in Birmingham. This is for Community Grid and NOF Digitisation projects, which received funding from 2001-2006. The event sounds interesting and there should be people there interested in the book's themes.

It's time too to announce that NIACE are offering two prizes of £25 vouchers (to be spent on any NIACE books) to the first two people who have bought a copy of the book and get the answers right to three questions about Digital nations in the making. So here's your chance to pick just what you'd like from NIACE's excellent booklist! Here are the 3 questions!

Q1: What is the date of the most current reference in the endnotes of Digital Nations in the making, what is its theme and to which two US cities does it refer?

Q2: On what page is a poem by Ted Hughes mentioned and to what does it refer?

Q3:  Which Canadian novelist is described in the book as using a telechiric device and what is the device called? 

To claim your prize send your answers by email with proof of purchase of the book to Charlotte Owen at NIACE. Her email is

To judge by the current Adult Learners week ending tomorrow, adult learning is alive and kicking and meeting a need for a large number of adults of every age. But the key question is will there be enough people who are willing and able to pay for it, as the Government looks for more of the funding to come from fees and other sources. The autumn term will be decisive and it’s a fair bet that there will be statistics and articles showing that the numbers of adult learners are considerably down on previous years. This is bad news as the numbers of adults in the UK taking part in learning in any one year are already under 20% – an issue explored in Digital Nations in the making.

Despite the importance that has been attached by Government ministers to developing ICT skills and harnessing technology, there are signs that the enthusiam for tackling the digital divide and putting resources into local neighbourhoods to generate confidence and the skills to be effective in the Information Society is waning. However it has been good to see this week NIACE’s announcement that the LSC has agreed to a £3.7 million programme for developing the ILT programme for the ACL sector for the next 12 months. The project areas being proposed for bidding will certainly help to encourage a more active and imaginative approach to transforming the delivery of programmes for adults.

In the longer term however we need to know what the LSC’s approach will be to promoting e-learning in support of the DfES key e-Strategy report, Harnessing Technology. Responsibility for promoting and synthesising the different programmes in the e-Strategy is now Becta’s role. Although there are a few instances of local LSCs being willing to support this area and fund projects, it has not been seen as a priority. Most local LSCs do not now have anyone with a more than passing responsibility for e-learning.

The six themes in the LSC’s agenda for change proposals (August 2005) are being actively pursued. The outcomes of Theme 7 – Transformation of the LSC have not been fully worked through yet, but are likely to result in more direction coming from the regional level and a much less significant role being played by the 47 local LSCs. If ACL services are to be effective here in arguing a case for receiving support for their e-strategies, they will need to speak with a common voice regionally and find ways of collaborating to achieve their objectives more efficiently.

On this theme it’s interesting to see the remarks of Bill Rammell, Minister for FE and HE at last week’s Centre for Excellence in Leadership Conference. His advice to colleges and others, quoted in the 19 May TES FE Focus (‘Rammell hints at revolution’) was to form federations to make the most of their resources. ACL needs to note the advice – combine to make most effective headway in e-learning!

There’s a report ‘Fuzzy maths’, on Google in this week’s Economist (13 May), pps 83-85, which is worth reading for an analysis of the company’s strategies and ‘click-per-view’ business model, its rivalry with Microsoft and the founders’ faith in their mathematical genius.

What struck me first though was its opening paragraph referring to a ‘recent’ billboard, greeting drivers in Silicon Valley, which sought answers to a cryptic question about a “10-digit prime”. I’d seen some nice adverts myself in San Francisco and have included some (see below) in my book, Digital Nations in the making, so wanted to find out just what the Economist was talking about.

Advert for Java software in San Francisco. Billboard in San Francisco in 2002.

Thanks to, its tagging technology and modernemily’s photo (see below) I was able to discover just what the advert said and found that her photo had been posted way back in July 2004! It remains though a tricky question – definitely for geeky mathematicians.

The upshot of all this? Well I’m starting a competition today to find the coolest or funniest ads or street art on an IT or learning related theme, to be seen on either side of the Atlantic. If you’re a tutor and have some learners on a course, why not ask them to go hunting with a digital camera for good examples? The six best entries will be published on this blog at the end of July. Images should be sent to me with information about location and context.

Spacer only. Advert from Google in Silicon valley in 2004.

I’ve said that keeping my book Digital Nations in the making current was one of the aims of this blog. But I didn’t expect to see this argument vindicated so quickly! Monday: Charlotte Owen from NIACE emailed me to say the final galleys for the book had been sent to the printers. Brilliant – I couldn’t have had a better pilot to steer the book through. Tuesday: My reading and emails bring up a new reference I had missed from last week, which I’d be kicking myself to have missed, so here it is – Emerging Technologies for Learning. [Ref BEC 1 – 15410]. Becta. 56 pps. 2006.

I’ve written a section in the book about Web 2.0 and the potential of social computing for adult learners, but had wondered why other people weren’t getting excited about it. So it’s good to know some are! There’s a chapter by Leon Cynch on Social networks, where he provides more details about the innovations that I have been discussing – like BitTorrent technology, blogs, wikis, podcasting, RSS feeds etc. You can download an electronic copy of the report or order a hard copy from the Becta publications website. [DNiM Update Page 99 – Social computing]..

Cynch’s concluding comment that “web connectivity is likely to become an always on utility like heat, light and water” reminds me of trekking last August with our son Barney, who’s head of Expedia’s Asia Pacific operations. The photo below shows him in the Chinese Himalaya high above the Yangtse river and deep in a conference call with colleagues in Beijing. The Blackberry made it possible for him to be in constant email communication with work, while enjoying the trek with us. As they say “you’re never alone with a Blackberry”!

Barney Harford trekking in Tiger Leaping gorge, Yunaan.

I was out today for the open source mapping event in Manchester, organised as part of the wider project to create free mapping data under the auspices of About  40 people turned up and took to the streets in an experiment in ‘citizen cartography’. Armed with a cheap GPS, camera, pencil and laptop volunteers spread out by foot, bike and car across the centre of Manchester to create GPS tracks; and by the end of the weekend had a good base for a test case city centre mapping guide for the Futuresonic International Festival to be held in the city 20-23 July, which Drew Hemment is organising. See detailed results from the weekend here.

Interesting discussions with Chris Perkins and  Martin Dodge from the University about possible linkups with the WEA Community Grid for Learning. I’m convinced that this has great potential for developing a range of community learning projects and scenarios. They are ahead in the use of GIS in North America as I found out when researching Digital Nations in the making, but things could be taking off here. When I asked Steve Coast from what was his aim, he answered simply: “To map the world.” Well why not?

Mapping Manchester among Sunday walkers in Piccadilly.

Two things cause me most continuous hassle with a computer – spam and passwords. In a nutshell I want none of the former and one of the latter. Is that too much to hope for? A couple of reports out today make particularly interesting reading and give me some cause for optimism.

Congratulations to Michael Pollitt for his On the trail of the spammer, in Technology Guardian for tracking down BonSilver, Berk and Exploy, who've been raiding website guest books round the world to fill inboxes (including mine) with thousands of messages about pharmacy products. It hadn't dawned on me that that they had a business model and it was based on a payment per click-through system!

The other report in MIT's Technology Review is about authentication systems. This may sound boring and technical but has enormous significance. I've a particular reason for being interested in this. The WEA Community Grid for Learning, through some pioneering work by our lead e-learning developer, Maria Toro and Gary Herman is now developing a partnership model for extending the use of its online learning materials at Three library authorities are already signed up. Using a Content Management System, we are offering an own label or customised CGfL website to libraries, schools and learning centres, which they can manage themselves and use to track the progress of their learners.

We want to offer also access to other resources and restricted materials, which can be made available to WEA students via JISC services. The rub is that they are password protected. At present this would require a learner to remember not one but two passwords. JISC has been helping to develop Shibboleth, a new authentication  procedure which enables System 1 to interrogate System 2 and have verified the authenticity of a potential user, whilst maintaining the anonymity of that user. This has great potential.

The MIT article on Universal Authentication suggests that this is one of the top 10 emerging technologies. It quotes Scott Cantor, a senior systems developer at Ohio State University who led the development of Shibboleth, as wanting to extend its reach to a wider web system, "allowing users to hop securely from one site to another after signing on just once".  I'll certainly buy that.

Becta has just announced today the release of a whole lot more of the Round 4 NLN materials for downloading from the site by the ACL sector. These have been delayed so this is good news.

Good to hear too that Scotland's New Curiosity Shop based in Edinburgh will be holding a free Virtual Open Week during Adult Learners' Week 20-26 May to show just what a range of online courses and materials they have been developing. Dave Egan, who was previously working as coordinator of the WEA CGfL and I have been in touch for a time with Noel Chidwick, one of the founders of the project. They now have established a new arrangement to promote online learning with Newbattle Abbey College, which specialises in work with adult learners. This makes a lot of sense. I've been impressed by their energy and enthusiasm.

Why not visit them in Open Week and get to know more of what is going on north of the border? And while you are about it, take a look at Learning and Teaching Scotland's website, and their Connected Magazine. In the most recent issue (No 14) there's a good article in ICT in Practice on using Google Earth with students.

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