Using IT for 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 (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.

I’ve been offline for blogging for the last three months, but a visit to Seattle and the West coast over the New Year has got me moving again. Moving also between different online and offline communities – united by their close involvement with and use of the web to maintain their activities and lifestyles.

Seattle car drivers I know make good use of online road reports to avoid traffic jams; but in winter the skiers join in, piling into their cars as sites like the North West Avalanche Centre  provide detailed forecasts and hourly data about snowfall, temperatures and risks in the Cascade resorts of Snoqualmie, Stevens Pass and Crystal Mountain, all within reach even after a day’s work.

If you’re not so keen on snow-clad bare mountains, the continent’s West coast has warmer attractions too, as the photos below of sunrises for the first 6 days of 2008 show. (Taken in La Ventana, 30 miles south of La Paz). Day temperatures were up to 27° C.

Five separate sunrises in La Ventana, Baja Peninsula, Mexico in the first week of January 2008.

Visiting Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, a two hour flight from Los Angeles, I met up with members of two partly overlapping communities – the surfers and the windsurfers/kiteboarders. Critically reliant on the power of the waves and the winds, both groups are highly dependent on good advice on weather & wind patterns and accurate websites for up to date information.

 All you need is a laptop or a mobile internet device.  www.Iwindsurf.com for instance provides live windcams  and realtime wind speed and direction graphs for selected areas; while surfline.com carries crucial information on the arrival of swell trains travelling across the Pacific. Both sites have forums and gear sections.

Surfers it is said are a bit more cagey about where to find the best conditions as there is only one ‘sweet spot’ on a breaking wave and will go to great lengths to find uncrowded breaks. The world of windsurfers and kiteboarders seems more open. There’s a hard core of them, very relaxed, who are always meeting up according to Marie-Christine Leclerc, a kiteboard instructor, who winters down south in Baja and travels north for the summer to run her Elevation Kiteboarding School, at Nitinat Lake, north of Victoria on Vancouver Island.

Back in Seattle after the New Year break, the pace is much brisker, at least in the internet start up sector, as I found out when invited to a briefing event at LiquidPlanner.  They are building some innovative online project management and scheduling software with integrated collaborative and social networking tools and were meeting with potential investors. LiquidPlanner aims to capture the uncertainty inherent in projects through the use of ranged rather than point estimates – an idea explored in more detail by Bruce Henry, the company’s “Director of Rocket Science” in a recent blog posting.

“Project management is a social exercise.” Charles Seybold, LiquidPlanner’s CEO told us. “The key for our product is to help people manage uncertainty.” That sounded familiar and not so different from the world of education!  With a fair wind behind them, it will be interesting to see where Charles and his team have got to in 18 months’ time. In the meantime they are launching the product at the DEMO emerging technologies conference in California at the end of this month.
 
 

[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 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.

[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.

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