Launching Digital Nations


[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’ve spent three days this last week at ALT 2007, the annual conference for learning technologists working primarily in higher education. With 196 papers, posters, presentations and workshops to attend, there were plenty of signs of ingenuity and creativity in the sector. The event was well planned and organised by the ALT team, though I was sorry they had not managed to attract more participants from further and adult education.

There were compelling keynote speeches from Michelle Selinger, Cisco’s Global Education Strategist and from Dylan Wiliam, Deputy Director of the Institute of Education on Assessment, but the one that had caught my eye before arrival was the concluding one, “Learning in an Open World” by Peter Norvig, an acknowledged expert in Artificial Intelligence and Director of Research at Google, where he oversees a range of their cutting edge research initiatives. [Update16/9/07: There’s some comment on the details of these keynotes by ALT’s CEO Seb Schmoller in his fortnightly mailing – together with a link to an upcoming interview with Peter Norvig.]

I was interested to hear Peter’s views on current developments in search strategy and algorithm generation, as there’s been quiet beating on the tom-toms on this theme over these last three months. Google claims that it ‘stands alone in its focus on developing the “perfect search engine”‘, but in a New York Times article, ‘The Human Touch that may loosen Google’s Grip’ (June 24th), Randall Stross reported a host of small start ups were kicking at Google’s heels.

He highlighted in detail the case of Mahalo, which is developing a search technique with human editing for improved and more focused results. This was picked up by Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team who indicated that changes were in the air at Google and was himself reflecting comments earlier in the week from Marissa Meyer, Google’s Vice President (Search Products and User Experience) [Guardian blogs].

In the event the point wasn’t covered in Peter’s speech, so I asked him at the conclusion if he thought user generated content could help to improve and refine their search algorithms, the key instruments of this $160 billion company, now the largest media company in the world. His answer, interesting for its rationale and conclusion is below.

“I think the problem that there is too much information is that there really is that much information. It’s not just a problem of overloading people with the presentations …… No one really cares that there’s a million resolved and they’re not going to go to the end and look at that.

“So the results are up there and really the question is how much time do they have to investigate this area and how much time are they willing to put in; and can we find the good stuff for them in that allocated amount of time.

“And given that, I think there is room for user generated commentary to help that process. To an extent Google has always been driven by user generated content – so there are users who happen to be web masters who publish material, there are other users who are web masters who link between the materials; and that provides sort of codes, that we go on, to judge appropriateness.

“We also go by looking at our users’ address activity to judge what is important and so on. So it’s done by algorithms but all these algorithms have, after inputs, actions that offset the punts of the user.

“Now I think we can use additions to those sources that we’re already using. We can use some more explicit ones – people loading ‘Yes – This is a good site for this topic, or for this keyword, or for this area’; and getting more people than just people who traditionally have had access, network access to try to open up that form to democratise it more, so that other people can put in their voices as well. So that’s an area we are certainly looking at”.

The Economist’s recent article, ‘Inside the Googleplex’ (1 September) chose to use “The Simpsons” TV programme portrayal of Marge Simpson typing her own name into a Google search engine as a sign of the company entering mainstream US culture, but her amazement to find 629,000 results doesn’t quite hit the right note now. Companies like Amazon, epinions and Trip Advisor have been using UGC with marked success for a good few years, so it will be fascinating to see how quickly Google follows the trend and moves in this new direction.

In my last post of 2006 I said that the new year was likely to see a growth of wi-fi and mobile services. The Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, opening today in the US, will be showcasing many of the hand held devices that will be vying to speed this process.

Improvements in battery life, brighter screens and more memory are contributory factors and are all part of the story.

Just as important though is connectivity and access. When I was in Seattle last year, I spent a morning with David Keyes, the city’s Community Technology Officer talking about Mayor Greg Nickells’ plans for free wi-fi access. These have attracted considerable corporate sector interest and will involve a pilot project in two neighbourhoods and four downtown parks. [Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 68-69 – Seattle]

Things have been moving fast though on this side of the Atlantic too, spurred among other things by the Government’s Digital Challenge initiative. Ten local authorities were short-listed last summer and final details of their proposed strategies and action plans for digital inclusion are being hammered out this week to meet the 19th January deadline.

Manchester’s bid ONE-Manchester, coordinated by the City’s Digital Development Agency (MDDA), looks strong on digital inclusion, has taken a bottom up approach and has succeeded in drawing in neighbouring Salford, Tameside and Trafford to create a unique ‘city-region’ laboratory for digital experimentation and testing.

Its outline bid had some interesting elements of a framework like Digital Action Places and Personalised Netstart programmes for local residents and organisations, which will need some thinking through prior to implementation.

Importantly the City has like Seattle gained a lot of national attention for its wider plans; and it’s gathered substantial corporate sector interest in establishing a 100 square mile free wi-fi network, Europe’s biggest, to help draw in the 40% of residents not presently engaged.

As Dave Carter, Head of MDDA told me when I met him, Manchester and its partners are now taking digital inclusion very seriously as were the company representatives at the Request for Information and Comment (RFIC) meeting I went to in December.

The bid is a strong one and deserves to do well in a very competitive field. Whatever the outcome, Manchester could be creating models and structures for implementing the Information Society in large metropolitan areas for the next decade. [Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 108 – Greater Manchester]

[Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 20 – Broadband take-up].

Digital Nations in the making was always intended to track the relationship between technology change and the potential for adult learning. But this created a problem in a fast changing world. How do you keep readers abreast of change after a book is published? It was a problem Virman Man, NIACE’s books editor and I identified at an early stage; and was the origin of this Transforming Learning blog, which could provide links to current data and research.

At the end of the 2006 – and almost seven years since the UK Government announced its ICT infrastructure for the Community plans – it’s time for an update on access rates and penetration and for a few predictions for 2007!

Getting a link to the internet for their students is always an issue for adult educators, but things are changing. Home dial-up connections are declining sharply as take up of broadband services – in response to lower costs – climbs. Providing always-on connectivity and rapid downloading of multimedia and audiovisual material, broadband offers great opportunities we need to seize.

 Just three years ago only 19% of connections in the UK were broadband, but by September of this year the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reports that this figure had reached 75%, compared with 59% in October 2005 – a figure I quoted in Digital Nations in the making.

From some recent research I have been doing, I have learnt that online learning is not yet a big area in either adult education or further education, but the possibilities are opening up, as ONS figures show that 85% of people accessed the internet in 2006 from their own homes.

With many adult services developing their own learning platforms like Moodle, there’s more incentive for tutors to create activities which can reinforce their own classes and link to media rich material created by others. A good example is languages for listening to audiovisual material of people conversing and practising pronounciation. There’s plenty out there like the BBC’s Talk Greek programme.

For 2007 I’m betting that using mobile devices for informal learning and access to web services via ubiquitous wi-fi will be fast growing areas. 

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

The mid November Economist had an interesting article on ‘blogging professionals’ (Going Pro, p. 67, 16 November 2006). These are people whose blog readership generates sufficient income from click-through advertising to enable them to concentrate solely on blog production to the exclusion of other work. They represent a small percentage of bloggers, but are by no means restricted to the technical.

dooce.com is a good example from a disillusioned Mormon woman – who has suffered from depression and chats away about home, kids, husband and the world – and shows the kind of advertising she has attracted to the site. She shares high popularity rankings with the author of You-Tube’s geriatric1927, whose wartime memories, recorded on simple home video, have found a seam which absorbs the interest of thousands of people.

One blog mentioned in the Economist article was that of Om Malik, which I was particularly interested to see, as I had used his excellent material in Digital nations in the making when writing about developments in Web 2.0

Another sign of the times for blogging is the attention paid by the mainstream press. Most have links on some day of the week. The Wall Street Journal (27 November 2006) for instance had Jessica Marmor’s Blog Watch on the highly topical issue of Weather and Climate. Two caught my eye as being of particular interest to tutors and learners studying environmental topics. 

Jeff Masters, an expert in air pollution meteorology, who has literally flown into the eye of many storms to collect data, has  a wunderblog, full of informed views and data, including a good review of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. Another site realclimate.org has expert contributors from many countries and significantly looks at the politics as well as the science relating to climate change. Both are well worth looking at.

For the last (and best) word on the subject of climate change, Jeff Masters recommends “for every citizen of the globe” the website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of over 2000 scientists from 100 countries, mandated by the UN.

We are inviting people in ACL, colleges, schools, the voluntary sector and elsewhere to debate the 3rd set of recommendations below from Digital Nations in the making and the wider issues raised by the QIA’s Pursuing Excellence Consultation Report over the next 5 days using the comments section of this blog. The background to this debate is set out in the Invitation to Debate written on this blog on 2nd October.

LOOKING to the FUTURE to PURSUE EXCELLENCE (14th-18th October)

Recommendations:

No 1. Create toolkits and guidance for ACL providers to show how new technologies could be introduced to improve and transform a range of existing functions like tutor training, course plannning and marketing.

No 9. Develop a kitemark quality system for those UK online and neighbourhood centres and Community Grids for Learning, which offer community learning opportunities. Once assured these bodies could receive LSC and other funding against agreed widening participation outputs and be subject to lighter monitoring.

No 11. Seek funding for a three year VCS ‘think tank’ for promoting next generation content creation, organisational transformation and the application of ICT for Community Learning and Community Development in support of key Government policies for skills development, digital inclusion and active citizenship.

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