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!