June 2006


Technorati Profile

[Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 127 – Blogging].

I need to experiment more with blogs – who doesn’t? – to see how they are best optimised. Today I have been looking at technorati and setting up a link (see above). Earlier in the month I saw that Charlene Li in her blog Calculating the ROI of blogs (5 June) was saying that she did not know how much of a return there was on her efforts from blogging and the following week Roy Greenslade from the Guardian was writing about blogging being a big experiment for him. But both of them have got effective ways of independently promoting the blogs, which I haven’t.

Mine seems to be averaging about 10-12 viewings a day over the last month, though I had 120 on one day, thanks to a mention by Chris Swaine from Becta in their Apollo listing. I also want to know how many organisations are using a blog as a way of communicating with the users and members instead of a website, like the Connaught Adult and Community Learning Centre in Hove. Charlene Li from Forrester Research Group, which has just recently carried out an evaluation of 9 blogging platforms, comments that “The general take of the report is that blogging is quickly moving beyond simply managing posts into a lightweight content management system.” Its use is certainly being widely encouraged in the US in the corporate sector, as a way of engaging with customers and clients. The WordPress platform used for this blog comes out in the report as a leader in terms of functionality in a group with two others, iUpload and SixApart.

What is the potential for blogging for adult learners and how are they being used at present? There is some useful background material about blogs on the aclearn.net staff development e-learning centre (SDELC) site. An interesting weblog pilot, supported by NIACE, has been run between October 2005 and March 2006 in several ACL bodies in England. Experience differed and depended substantially on the subject matter, group members, PC skill levels and the enthusiasm of the tutor. But Sarah Sweetman’s conclusions about the experience of Bromley Adult Education College were clear: “An unexpected benefit (although perhaps it should have been anticipated) was that the weblogs catered for a different learning style….. [With some caveats] I would definitely recommend weblogs to other tutors and will be promoting them within our college.”

Comments and advice from other people on this range of issues about blogging would be welcome! Is it easier to get the tutor to write and get the learners to respond? Who has used it to encourage their students to link with a photo gallery on flickr.com or similar site? What tips are there for using technorati to widen your readership?

[Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 34 – Gates Foundation].

Dollar signs. When I was in Seattle in 2002 researching my Digital nations in the making book, I made contact with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), as I was aware of the role that foundations were playing in funding projects to tackle the digital divide. The Gates Foundation, already the largest in the world, had made substantial grants both in America and to support libraries in the UK – and was playing an even bigger role in developing countries to support health and disease eradication programmes.

With an asset base of $30 billion and donations of over $10 billion already committed, the Gates Foundation has made a very significant impact and is increasingly concerned to create partnerships which are effective at delivering specific objectives. It’s already geared up for giving with a staff of 280 and has plans for a new campus in central Seattle. It is likely to become even more interventionist now that Bill Gates has said that he will be devoting less time to his work at Microsoft. I left the city thinking I should keep an eye on developments.

I wasn’t prepared for the news story in the Wall Street Journal (26 June), which I found as I opened the paper two hours later on the way home on the plane. Warren Buffet, the second wealthiest man in the world had decided to enlarge the BMGF warchest by handing over $37 billion of his Berkshire Hathaway stock, on condition that it was to be used annually to fund $1.5 billion of donations in line with the foundation’s mission. The full text of his letter to the Gates makes very interesting reading. We are likely to be hearing much more about the BMGF’s work over the next decade. Although some may complain about the ‘corporatization of philanthropy’, it’s likely to be an effective way of getting things done and saving lives in many countries. Who can argue with that?

POSTSCRIPT: A fuller discussion of this can be found in the Economist (July 1st) cover story, “Billanthropy” and special report “The new powers in giving”, pps 73-75.

Headquarters of Amazon in Seattle seen from the downtown offices of internet start up zillow.

It’s been listen and learn week for me in Seattle for the last few days; and hard not to bump into people who are involved in web start ups or pushing at technology’s frontiers. Take Song for instance, who I was introduced to by my daughter Chloe down in Fremont. He’s working as a product manager in an ‘old’ internet company Amazon, but soon had me fascinated by the concept of agile software development .

Things change so fast and the outcomes can be so uncertain when you are developing an innovative technological feature in a competitive field, that you have to be agile. What does this mean in practice? Programmers and others usually working together in ‘bullpens’ in real time in close teams can only set objectives for short ‘timeboxes’ of 1-4 weeks ahead. Song was clear about this. Old style project management with long time frames and scores of listed outcomes just doesn’t work here.

I’ll admit that just for a while it had me thinking the impossible – what if we could get the resources to build materials and features like this for promoting adult learning? What a shot in the arm we would have for the WEA’s Community Grid for Learning if we had a team of agile programmers and developers to develop new content to motivate learners and support tutors and resources to market these effectively!

On Thursday I saw Bob Hughes, Dean of Education at South Seattle Communty College (SSCC), with David Keyes from the city’s Department of Information Technology. I’d met his predecessor back in 2002 when I was first doing research for my Digital nations in the making book, so this was a good chance to update what I had written there about SSCC. With a large and growing immigrant population and over 850 students taking ESL classes, Bob was taking advantage of the State of Washington’s scheme for promoting progression through the VESL (Vocational English as a Second Language) programme. This provides funding for the college to have two teachers per class – say the specialist in nursing or in automobile repairs and the ESL tutor.

Though the college is doing limited online provision, Bob has been pursuing the ideas about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which have been promoted by the Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST), where he previously worked. The objective is to create materials, which can be accessed by anyone regardless of their learning disability, impairment or English language skills. CAST has been responsible for setting up the Bobby scheme to promote accessible webpages and has worked to implement the concept of the electronic ‘standard source file’ to counter the limitations of print technology for people with disabilities.

These guidelines are now embodied in the NIMAS (National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standards) scheme, agreed by CAST and the US Department of Education under the terms of the Disabilities Education Act. Bob is looking to extend this UDL idea by putting in for a grant under the 2006 National Science Foundation’s $39 million Advanced Technological Education (ATE) scheme for an inclusive multimedia automobile technicians course. “Expensive yes, but we can build it up incrementally – and cars are not going to go away.” [DNiM Update Page 86 – South Seattle Community College].

I had lunch later in the day up in Redmond with Lonn Lee, who’s recently joined Microsoft’s Learning team as a product planner. He’s working on some interesting ideas for developing their educational programme, which we kicked around for an hour or so. From a background of internet start ups in Canada, Lonn was fascinated by the depth of projects and research going on there – a view reflected in very upbeat comments on recruitment of new researchers and product managers by Bill Gates and Craig Mundie in last Sunday’s Seattle Times (A conversation with Bill Gates, 18 June). Yes I thought as I drove away, this is a technology company, not an online store. They may be going to lose income from their lucrative Windows licences as the focus moves from the desktop to web services, but don’t write Microsoft off just yet!

carnival supporters with a huge balloon. If you are here in Seattle, it would be hard to miss the mid-June Fremont fair and solstice parade. The weekend starts at noon on Saturday with a glorious street carnival of floats, dancers, naked bikers, installations and lots of street bands. This is liberal Democratic country so it has a fair bit of anti-Bush sentiment as you might expect. This year was the 35th and quite why it is has achieved its particular shape, I haven’t yet been able to find out. It’s a lot of fun and as I’m meeting one of the bikers tomorrow, I may be a wiser man by the evening!

It has interested me for another reason as well – community photo sharing, which has a lot of potential for promoting adult learning. The photo above has been rendered from my flickr.com photo gallery . “Pushing together in Fremont” captures the spirit of the event, which is all about cooperation and working to end poverty in King County. 

The photo is one of a set from the 17th June parade, which I took and uploaded to my gallery on 18th June. I gave them several ‘tags’ or descriptors – ‘Seattle’, ‘Fremont parade’, ‘dancing’ etc. and by 19th June there had been 55 separate viewings of my photos from people I did not know at all. The potential for a group of learners in a WEA or other adult education class to learn new IT skills by sharing and commenting on each other’s work in this way is there for the taking. I’d be interested in comments here from tutors and teachers who have been experimenting with this, so let me have your views and experience.

View of Seattle skyline from the ferry from Bainbridge.

It’s starting to look like this is becoming a letter from America, but there are two good reasons! Firstly our scheduled return from Seattle to the UK has been delayed as my wife, Lindsay has needed to recover from a broken femur after a fall on some stairs. Secondly the last week has brought technology news from Seattle and the west coast, which has sent out much wider ripples. What’s the relevance for adult learners?

On Wednesday the New York Times (14 June) led with a front page story “Hiding in plain sight”, on Google’s new secret weapon, a complex being built beside the River Columbia on the Oregon-Washington border. Why? To add muscle size to its already existing stock of 450.000 servers, which make up the “Googleplex” network around the world. Success depends on the fastest possible response to search enquiries from anyone using its flotilla of websites. As it increases its web services – the source of its huge revenues – so the need for computing power and data centres expands.

But in a fercely competitive world, they’re not the only ones. Microsoft too is moving in the same direction. This can be seen in its fledgling web-based platform, Windows Live. Its plan announced in April to invest $1.5 billion in infrastructure surprised many and caused a one day plunge of $32 billion in its stock value, but the decision to sacrifice short term profits for long term benefits made sense. That decision is reflected in their similar complex being built in Quincy across in Washington State; and as I learnt from a Microsoft executive over the weekend, siting these plant close to cheap hydro-electric power can reduce the high energy costs of cooling the computers by up to 75%.

Which brings me to the other news, which has hogged headlines across the world: the announcement by Bill Gates, the world’s richest man and Head of Microsoft, that he intends to stand down as Chief Software Architect by 2008. His plan is to concentrate on the work of the Gates Foundation, which he and his wife Melinda have used to distribute $10.5 billion to support major library, education, health and disease eradication programmes across the globe.

Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker’s comment that “Bill’s step is good for Bill, good for Microsoft and good for the world” seems to have had wide echoes, although some have seen it as a sign of his difficulty in facing up to the challenge from Google. For some comments and pictures about a meeting of Microsoft employees immediately after the announcement, see Alex Barnett’s blog posting.

Bill Gates’ impact over 31 years at Microsoft has been huge; more than any one else he can claim to have been responsible for bringing the desktop computer into the lives of ordinary people and bringing into existence the millions of IT classes held for adult learners around the world. But the world is moving on fast and web based services and ‘always-on connectivity’ will be the future.

Adult educators need to keep up and see how they can best use this new web enabled world for the benefit of learners. Companies like Google and Yahoo are developing new services at a furious pace and social networking sites are offering compelling new opportunities for the young and the IT proficent to engage and participate. But for many adults these represent foreign lands, from which they feel barred. The problem of the digital divide remains a current issue, as I indicate in Digital Nations in the making.  It will be interesting to see whether Gates in his new role will see this as a priority which needs tackling.

Fred Garnett, ACL policy advisor at Becta, has for long been telling me of the need to link information technology to environmental issues and has been exploring this in Deptford through his involvement with the Creekside Education Trust since 1999. His has been a lonely voice, but it would be good to hear of similar work elsewhere. Post a comment here if you have any information on this or know of a good environmental project with adults in the UK. There's lots of potential here for community learning courses and projects, as councils start to promote green policies more energetically.

In Seattle where I 've been for the last two weeks, this theme has a much higher profile. Last week I was down at City Hall to hear presentations from a roomfull of some 120 pupils from five high schools about surveys they had done with maps and GIS to discover issues about their environment and its social impact through the Homewaters Project, a nonprofit body based at North Seattle Community College. This inquiry based system is linked to the Green Map system and supported by the City's Department of Information Technology.

The results and work of the students were impressive and reminded me of some of the North American environmental projects involving adult learners which I looked at for my book, Digital Nations in the making. This was not an isolated example as Jean Godden, Chair of the City's Energy and Technology Committee reminded us.

The building itself was the only green City Hall in the US, using many recycled materials and meets many of the criteria for the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification – which is being pushed strongly by a number of cities keen to promote effective environmental policies. It was also a very pleasant environment with a small stream running through the hall and down the steps outside. (See photo).
Aerial view of stream and steps leading down from Seattle City Hall.

There's a lot of information available about energy efficiency to be found on the Alliance to Save Energy's website; and there's plenty of interesting work being done elsewhere in the US. In Massachusetts there's an Environmentally Preferable Products (EPP) Procurement programme, which has available downloadable tools  to show how substantial savings can be made on items like light bulbs and toner cartridges. You can read a Q&A article about the EPP work in e-Gov Monitor, which points out that the savings have been 22 times the cost of running the programme.

With its population of 3.5 million, Seattle has a reputation as being one of the the top 10 cities in the US for quality of life, but don't imagine that it is all perfect! Hills and lakes can make it difficult to move from area to area and the public transport system is pretty poor for some parts. Cars flourish in this environment and congestion on the big roads can add long tedious delays. Number 1 priority for Mayor Greg Nickels is to "get Seattle moving".

As you'd expect in a city with big name companies like Microsoft and Amazon, technology can help a little, in the form of a sophisticated network of traffic cameras for the Puget Sound area. You can enjoy the videos from your armchair back home! The montage below is of traffic roaring across the Montlake Bridge over the canal, which links Lake Union and Lake Washington. At least it was moving this time!

Photos of cars crossing Montlake bridge.
More photos of cars crossing Montlake bridge.

I've been in Seattle this week with some of the people I first met back in 2002, when I started the research for Digital Nations in the making. It's been interesting hearing from David Keyes, the city's Community Technology Officer of developments and plans here and we've started to explore how we might arrange some trans-Atlantic links between Seattle and Manchester. The two cities have a lot in common.

What I hadn't anticipated was the interest that the World Cup was attracting in the US – even the Wall Street Journal this week has had  Wayne Rooney on its front page! The great thing about coming to the west coast is that it doesn't take long for something interesting to show up, if you keep your eyes and ears open. So when I heard about Seattle's latest start up, zillow.com planning an evening training session for their Zillow Edge football squad, I thought I'd head down to the University of Washington grounds to see what their form was like.

As you might expect from a team from a company with 65 million properties on its database and a reputation for already breaking the mould of real estate selling in the US, the 18 players took their training pretty seriously. Not for the faint-hearted to judge by the shin pads!

Photo of Zillow Edge football squad with their coach Christin, at an evening training session at University of Washington grounds.

There were 300,000 hits on its site in the first 8 hours after it went live, so Zillow has been turning heads since it was launched last Feruary. With new releases promised through the year and a team headed up by several of the former executives of the internet travel pioneer Expedia, there's plenty of speculation about what they have in mind next. Could I get an insight about future plans from watching the game?

Well not exactly but I did get an idea in the work-out of the drive coming from two of the Zillow Edge planners who were working the midfield, Lloyd and Chloe (see below).  If they keep on like this, it won't be long before we see Zillow in Europe. So watch out Chelsea and Barcelona! And remember when they arrive, tell your friends you heard about them first here. Or in the Digital Nations in the making book – they're there too!

Photos of zillow edge footballers, Lloyd and Chloe.

Next Page »