Libraries & adult learning

[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.


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.

Getting Digital nations in the making published has been an interesting journey and it’s brought home to me some of the contrasts between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ media. Amazing to think that – with the mobile technology we had – I could have published here within minutes this photo, taken last August in a mountain café in Yunaan in the Himalaya at 10,000 feet, high above the turbulent Yangtze River!
café table and mobile technology.

Writing a blog is certainly a rapid process – and a good way of getting adults to develop their skills and knowledge – but I’m not writing books off just yet! Reminds me to make sure I get the quote in Digital nations from Ted Hughes’ poem for the UK Libraries People’s Network report: Where any nation starts awake | Books are the memory. And it’s plain | Decay of libraries is like | Alzheimer’s in the nation’s brain.

Charlotte has been letting me add extra content for breaking news or to quote useful references about emerging technologies. The most recent (and probably the last to be added before publication) is ‘Among the audience’, a 16 page report by Andreas Kluth in the Economist (22 April). It’s a riveting review of what’s happening in the new participatory media world of blogging, wikis and podcasting; and what this means for the mass media, democracy, skills – and adult learning. There’s also an audio interview with him.

From now on though new ideas and links about technology and adult learning will be appearing here only, as the printer’s ink will have dried! Thanks to new media, the old world of books can be given an extra lease of life. Watch out for more.