Online 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.


[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 ( 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 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 ( at DCE, who will be pleased to supply you with a password for reviewing Phoebe.

Illustration of laptop prototype. Illustration of laptop prototype for Nigeria. Illustration of laptop prototype with wind-up handle.

More news this time after my posting of 4 December 2006  from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the details of this scheme which will provide $150 laptops to children in the developing world. A key feature is that “the laptop’s creators started from scratch in designing a user interface they figured would be intuitive for children”, according to a recent Associated Press report. One curious feature is that the user interface does not appear to have been trialled with potential users in developing countries.

The XO machines – as they are called – using a slimmed down version of the Linux operating system, are organised round an automatically generated journal, and not through folders. Though the experience will be very different from a conventional PC, there is still the opportunity to create a word document, browse the web and use a RSS feed (for blogs). The project has received at least $29 million from companies like Google, Red Hat and News Corp.

The MIT Review article (1 January 2007) is worth reading in full and there’s a good website on further details of the project at  ( The site also has a FAQ area and a Wiki section which explores many of the issues relating to the ‘One Laptop’ project in more detail.

[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. 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 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.

There’s been plenty going on here in the northwest over the last fortnight, including two popular conferences I’ve attended. The Quality Improvement Agency Skills for Life Quality Initiative event at Wigan provided a good introduction to the Whole Organisation Approach to Quality Improvement. An interesting worskshop on e-learning led by Susanne Johnson left me with the strong feeling that with some training and support, tutors could make far more use of new technologies in their teaching.

There’s a big change taking place now with the Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) being taken over by the LSC and Skills for Life will be a key area. Talking to Sally Thomas, Education Manager at HM Prison Risley, I was impressed by her grasp of how online materials on activities like reading bus timetables, using ATM cash dispensers, food budgetting and preparing a simple CV would be a boon for many offenders approaching release. There are some interesting opportunities here, especially if the DfES is able to find ways of providing internet access for offenders inside prisons. This is already the case in other countries and is being advocated by CILIP and others.

The other event was the JISC Northwest Regional Support Centre’s annual conference at Kendal. John Stone the new CEO of the Learning and Skills Network talked of his experience of e-Learning as Principal of Ealing and Hammersmith College and had some comments about the role of the LSN. He also picked up Bill Rammell’s recent theme about the need for combination and cross sectoral partnerships – which I suggest in my Digital nations in the making book is a hallmark characteristic of the e-enabled organisation.

[DNiM Update Page 3-4 – Learning and Skills Development Agency].

The other keynote speaker was Paul Gerhardt who gave a fascinating account of the BBC’s new Creative Archive scheme. A projected 10 year programme, it will be releasing 1000 hours of BBC film and audio material every year, which can be used for non-profit activities and by educational bodies free of charge. This is a great use of the tax payers’ money for opening up public access rights in the digital age and potentially a huge boost for any organisation seeking to enhance its online learning offer. There’s some limited material already available for which you need to obtain a license.

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!

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