Adult & Community Learning


It’s over a year since I posted a note (8th January 2007) on this initiative for online learning in developing countries, so I thought I’d check how it is being implemented on the ground. Contrary to the pessimistic views of some within the IT and education sectors, the evidence so far suggests very positive results when the laptops are in the right hands.

Two examples caught my eye. The first project in Peru is in the village of Arahuay (Altitude 2600 metres) with a total population of 742 people. The village is about 100 kms from the capital Lima and the school has just forty six students and 3 teachers. The account of the experience contains substantial detail about implementing the project in June 2007. This includes the opening event when the XO laptops were handed out, the attitudes of staff and parents, the motivation of the children and technical issues, etc. It makes fascinating reading.

What struck me most were the technical and social hurdles that have to be overcome in remote rural settings likke this and the enthusiasm of the teachers – an essential ingredient –  who were supported in the initial phase by the OLPC team.

The other example was a set of photos from Ulaanbataar, Mongolia where pairs of children (see below) were concentrating on using the XO machines on  a project which had just been started.
Two chiildren in Mongolia sharing the use of a XO laptop.

Peter Warren writing recently in Technology Guardian (7th February) warns that security experts fear a growth of spam and internet crime in the developing world through the spread of botnets infecting these cheap PCs like the XO. But haven’t we made it bad enough already in the developed world?

The case studies above from Peru and Mongolia represent very different cultures where the OLPC scheme is being implemented, but they have in common a search for how technology can develop the skills and knowledge of young people for the benefit of their local communities.

If they also provide further opportunities for cybercrime, we indeed need to make sure that computer security issues are addressed worldwide and not just in and for the benefit of the richest developed countries.

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[Digital nations in the making: Update Pages 11 & 32 – Use of mobile phones]

When making grant applications for IT and web-based projects, I’ve always been a tad hesitant when it comes to answering the environmental benefits question. Can I really claim, hand on heart, that the intended activities will really bring benefits – for instance by reducing participants’ travel and thus lowering their carbon footprint?

Well, recent studies in Japan – where I have been this month – have come up with some fascinating findings. A survey of 1000 people for Gulliver International, a major used car dealership chain, comparing 2007 with 1997, found that their major areas of interest were now the Internet [74%] and the keitai (mobile phone) [56%].

Details are in an article “Interest wanes in cars” in the Asahi Shimbun (30 January) and include another survey by the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA), which showed the numbers of 20-25 year old young men, not owning a car had risen significantly in just four years from 1 in 5 in 2001 to 1 in 3 in 2005 (21% to 32%).

Costs of car ownership, congestion, more urban living and good public transport were all likely causes as well, but the findings show that the car is losing out as a ‘must-have’ status symbol with the young.

On the plane coming home, I did an informal survey myself on these results with two young women, Mikiko and Ayaka, who were in their first year at university studying nutrition. All twenty students in their group had keitai and some like Mikiko had two. No doubt there about the importance they attached to this communication tool for the social networking generation.

“What about the decline in car ownership?”, I asked them. They smiled and nodded in agreement. I could see them asking themselves, “When you’ve got a cool keitai, who needs a car?”

Maybe I can answer those environmental questions now with a clearer conscience!

NOTE: For more on the use of keitai in Japan, see my blog posting exactly a year ago, “Setting standards in the Land of the Rising Sun”

[Digital nations in the making: Update Page 6 – Community Grid for Learning]

A couple of weeks ago I was at an event in Oxford evaluating a beta version of Phoebe, a learning design tool which could have substantial potential for adult and continuing education and FE. When there’s so much out there already, is there room for more? Yes I think so, but I’ll backtrack a bit to explain why.

When we set up a server and website in the WEA Manchester office in 1996 with a high speed JANET link, I was excited at the prospect of developing a distributed learning network. Our tutors were isolated, working in many separate centres. Our small staff team, spread thinly, was stretched to provide even limited support.

The potential was there to build a new kind of learning community – sharing resources, collaborating, swapping experiences, building on good practice. An early diagram showed how we intended to link up provision in unemployed centres, libraries and community venues.

Bringing life to this early adult education electronic network was stimulating but slow. It led however in 2002 to our setting up with partners the Community Grid for Learning (CGfL) to develop networked learning with a strong social inclusion focus.

The CGfL website (www.learners.org.uk) still has good interactive courses, games and activities to stimulate learners, but funding dried up; and although over 2000 people enrolled for this online learning, there’s been only limited use of the material by tutors.

Since then learning platforms like Moodle and Blackboard have been widely introduced across all sectors and these have started to make us think how best to use a distributed network, holding course modules, video clips, assignments, web links etc. But they still haven’t gone far enough to transform the way that most tutors plan, design and run their courses.

Which is where Phoebe comes in . The tool has been developed by Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education (DCE) in response to a JISC Design for Learning (DfL) funding programme,  where DfL was (2004) described as “an appropriate balance between  e-learning and other modes of delivery.”

Liz Masterman from the University’s Computer Services Department describes its intended use as being for “initial teacher training, staff development and as a productivity tool and source of inspiration”.

As Marion Manton, the Phoebe coordinator at DCE explained, the central focus of the tool is the Design Template area. One of three existing levels can be used – basic, medium and advanced – or these can be altered for individual needs. Users can save their design for themselves – or for public use, allowing others to build incrementally on what they have created. In short there’s a learning community in the making here.

It’s a simple idea, but this is its strength; and the different sections of the tool are supported by help and context material immediately available. There’s a link to a del.icio.us Phoebe site for educause updates; and there are sections like “What can I do with a particular tool?” with alphabetically listed answers and “What technology can I use for …?”. Examples in the latter list include ‘Receive information’, ‘Define problem’, ‘Research’, ‘Analyse information’ etc and then indicates the technologies to consider using for each instance.

Discussions at the meeting indicated that most participants could see a use for the tool. It was better than a Word document or spreadsheet because it had so much other support material available to draw on; and enabled users to build on others’ work. It could make more use of social networking tools to encourage more sharing and communication between tutors – similar to what I was describing in my last post about LiquidPlanner – but these features could be added at a later stage.

Phoebe will be available for institutions to download onto their own servers and customise according to their own needs, but a question arose here about how that would affect the availability and updating of the help and support material. This issue will need a resolution. Phoebe is still in its design phase and will require additional funding to support this in the short term; as well as a business model to ensure its sustainability in the long term.

If you want to take a look, contact Marion Manton (marion.manton@conted.ox.ac.uk) at DCE, who will be pleased to supply you with a password for reviewing Phoebe.

[Digital nations in the making: Update Page 132 – Search technology]

I wrote in my last blog (9th September) about the use made by Google and others of algorithms in search technology. But wouldn’t it be useful I thought, after completing it, to have a straightforward article explaining exactly what algorithms are and do.

Well I wasn’t the only one because last week’s Economist (13 September) provides exactly that in its three page article, Business by numbers. From distributors to retailers, from airports to booksellers, from carriers to call centres, organisations are using algorithms to crunch masses of data to come up quickly with answers to complex questions.

If amazon.com can use algorithms to tell me other books I might like to buy, maybe adult education bodies or universities could use algorithms to inform their learners of other courses or books they might be interested in after entering a chosen subject.

It’s not happening yet, but don’t let this put you off. With so much data out there, algorithms are ‘bound to take over the world’, according to Mike Lynch, head of software developer Autonomy, which specialises in automated personalisation. Find out more before it happens!

[Digital nations in the making: Update Page 98 – Web 2.0 & adult education].

“We have an old Slovak saying”, my interpreter once told me, “’The dogs are still barking, but the caravan’s moved on’”. She was explaining an intricacy of the old communist bureaucracy in Bratislava, but I’ve found myself recently wondering if the same saw applies to the concept of Web 2.0. Is it just a bit of clever marketing by people with an interest in pushing their own product or services?

Tim Berners Lee, founder of the web, has been saying for a while that he never thought it was a useful concept and that the next serious development was the semantic web, which would enable far more powerful manipulation and classification of data on the web – and help usher in the development of a new ‘web science’.

He has a point of course. Anyone with some basic html skills has been able to publish on the web for years, so the likes of blogs, wikis, flickr.com photo galleries etc – which facilitate web publication and contributions by individuals – are not technically major advances.

But for the non-technical and for adult learners they are major developments. They have moreover great potential for tutors working with adults on improving literacy and numeracy skills and for democratizing the web.

Powerful resources and exciting tools are available from a wide range of web sites but surprisingly they have not yet been very actively taken up by tutors and adult education providers – although there are early adopters, who have been keen to innovate. A simple but effective example is the class blog set up last year for Entry Level 3 ESOL students at Dewsbury College.

A good start in opening up debate on this whole area in the world of education has come this year from JISC. In February Theresa Beattie and Chris Barber from JISC’s Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Support Centre led a well-attended Excellence in e-Learning event in Wakefield – backed up by some good online documentation on their Moodle platform – on Web 2.0 technologies and social learning; and in the same month JISC published Paul Anderson’s excellent paper, What is Web 2.0? Ideas, technologies and implications for education“, which is well worth reading.

JISC has also supported the innovative work – discussed at the Wakefield event – which Rose Papworth has been doing at Hull College using the open source e-learning tool http://elgg.org/  The web site for this work at Hull is currently being developed; and further information about the RSC’s Web 2.0 course can be obtained from Theresa Beattie (T.Beattie@leeds.ac.uk).

Like the phrase ‘The Industrial Revolution’, the term Web 2.0 is very broad and generalized but it does encompass one very important notion of opening and broadening the web to far more active engagement of citizens and learners through networking and the use of social software. It may not be a perfect term, but for my money it retains some traction and explanatory worth.

You may wonder though what exactly that other term “web science” is all about, which Tim Berners Lee (TBL) has been pursuing with others at MIT and Southampton University. It’s an interesting idea, but is there really a new discipline emerging here or is it rather a bid to set up some new academic courses? For a report of an interview with TBL on this subject, see The Register (23 March 2007).

“THINK. DON’T PHONE WHILST DRIVING” was the text message flashed to me from the electronic notice-boards on the M62 motorways round Manchester this week. It was a snappy reminder that under a new law I would now be fined £60 and 3 points for dangerous driving if using a mobile while at the wheel. Fair enough but it got me thinking laterally like this – and about the safe use of mobiles and texting.

  1. Short messages can be a very effective medium in the right context
  2. Ten years ago few would have ‘got’ this particular message
  3. The mobile phone medium is now near ubiquitous
  4. How could this pervasive medium best be used to advantage for adult learners?

Since my last posting ‘e-cash and the irresistible rise of the mobile‘ this issue has become in my mind a far more interesting question for ACL tutors and managers as they plan next year’s programme.

I’ve been talking to Paul Wakefield, whose article ‘JANET and SMS’ in the December issue of UKERNA News I came across last week but had missed in the Christmas melée. With money provided by the DfES, UKERNA has already provided fast broadband connectivity via the JANET network for all ACL providers who want it.

One of UKERNA’s big new projects under way is to organise a national SMS (Short Message Service) programme for the entire JANET community.

Their market research and surveys have already shown use of SMS (especially in FE and HE), but a nationally provided service with lower unit costs, potentially allowing two way communication, integration with admin systems and group functionality (for up to ¼ million messages at once) could have a huge impact upon practice across all educational sectors.

Paul’s in the midst of the procurement process at present and UKERNA is on course to sign a contract with the chosen supplier by the end of April, with a ‘go-live’ date following shortly after. “I can see this being a fantastic resource for the ACL community” he told me with obvious enthusiasm.

He’s right and it’s not too early to think how it can be used to benefit both adult learners and hard pressed services. For a start imaginative use could bring both improvements in recruitment and retention of learners – which can’t be bad with a new OFSTED Inspection regime round the corner from next month. In any event look out for the announcement of the details in the early summer.

POSTSCRIPT (13 March) – Paul Wakefield has now posted more details of the planned SMS service on the Development section of the JANET site.

[Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 11 – Mobile phones]

It’s interesting to see that last week’s cover story in the Economist (17 Feb), “The end of the cash era” has a follow-up to my last blog posting on the use of mobile phones in Japan. I noted there how the keitai is being used widely as a ‘cash wallet’ to buy tickets, coffee and much else.

The Economist briefing report on The future of money (Pages 75-78) has an excellent survey on what’s happening with smart cards and and how the Japanese ‘bitWallet’ Edy system – owned by Sony and DoCoMo (the country’s biggest mobile operator) – has already been migrated to over 4.5 million mobile phones for making payments.

Based on “near-field communication” (NFC) technology [See video below], the inserted chip allows paperless transactions to be completed at 43,000 stores – all in under a second by a swipe of the handset. No more wating then in the till queue for your fruit bar or quick fix snack!

Studies by Visa in the US have shown that Americans generally are two times as likely to carry a mobile as cash  and four times as likely if they’re aged 18-24. So in the technology convergence stakes, the coming of e-cash could put mobiles still higher up the list of devices available  in everyone’s pocket, handbag or briefcase.

Isn’t it time we put some more effort into thinking just how best we could use them for attracting and supporting adults back into learning?

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