Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Trends, predictions and black swans

As the year winds down the net is full of lists. Everyone is nominating the top ten hits/flops/trends of 2011 or predicting the equivalent for 2012. In technology it seems that touchless control could well be the next big thing. We've only just got started with touch screen mobiles and tablets and now we won't even need to make physical contact any more. CNN's Top 10 tech trends for 2012 predicts that gesture and voice control will feature heavily in 2012 whereas touch screen control will move into the laptop market that is still dependent on the trusty but now threatened mouse. They also expect bendy mobiles that allow you to control for example zooming or scrolling by flexing the device (as reported here actually!).

In terms of education tech the theme seems clear; open or closed. This year has seen significant advances in open education with the Brazilian ruling that educational materials produced by state teachers should be freely shared by Creative Commons licences and several other similar moves in other parts of the world. Stanford and now MIT have hit the headlines by offering free and open courses to the world and a partnership of universities launched the OER University initiative that certainly challenges many time-honored academic traditions. These developments are nicely summarised by Audrey Watters in a post called Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011: “Open”. There have indeed been many reasons to be cheerful this year in terms of open education but Audrey also points to some rather black clouds on the horizon. Parallell to the drive towards more openness we also see the industry giants trying to pull us into their own walled gardens and we also sense the academic publishing industry hitting back and defending its role.

"Will more universities offer opencourseware and demand open access? Will government funds help promote OER? Will these funding efforts subsidize open content from a closed set of “common” standards? Will “open” become the magical marketing term that giant education companies adopt? What happens to the open Web when companies like Facebook, Apple, and Amazon want to attract consumers to their Internet silos, and similarly what happens to open content when publishers must scramble to adapt their business models to a digital world?"

Openness is best but it can be hard to manage. How do we "organise freedom" as Björk sings in one of her songs. Quality open resources can be very hard to find and there's a bewildering range of sources. Many people in the end will sacrifice an element of freedom if they can have a reliable, easy-to-use and ready-made walled garden delivered by a big name company.

"What does it mean — culturally, technologically, philosophically — for example, that Google’s Chrome browser has now surpassed the open source browser Firefox for market share? Do folks really care if something is “open”?"

Dave Cormier, one of the leading MOOC pioneers, looks forward to 2012 with a selection of What if ... predictions, Seven black swans for education in 2012. He descibes his predictions as black swans;
"A black swan is a suprise event that changes the whole nature of a conversation."
What would happen if  some country/institution invests a pile of money in producing high quality free textbooks and making them available to the world? What if a university like MIT decides to start providing accreditation for open online courses? What if international students stop coming to our universities because they can get the same education elsewhere and much cheaper? What if a completely free learning management system really takes off? Some thought-provoking scenarios here.

2012 will feature much more openness in education but also a lot of reaction as the mainstream begins to take notice. So far most of the OER movement has been under the radar of university leaders and has been allowed to progress relatively unhindered. However when openness really begins to ruffle some feathers there will be a reaction.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

MIT up the stakes in open education

Open online courses at university level are gaining momentum. There are the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) run by George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier and colleagues, a wide range of open courses facilitated by Peer 2 Peer University and now Stanford University's headline grabbing Artificial Intelligence course with over 50,000 students. They all offer exciting new arenas for collaborative learning and offer people a chance to participate in a stimulating and challenging learning environment. However none of them offer full university credentials - yet.

The free students on the Stanford course took the full course but were not eligible for university credits. Instead they received a certificate from the teachers but without the Stanford stamp of approval. P2PU are experimenting with badges as a means of acknowledging student achievement and this may well lead to new ways of giving credibility to informal learning. Several universities are experimenting with MOOCs but noone is putting their name on any grades.

MIT and Boston by opencontent, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  MIT campus by  opencontent 

Enter MIT. As pioneers of open educational resources MIT have been openly publishing their course material for several years now via the OpenCourseWare initiative and anyone can access it and work their way through the courses. However there has so far been no support from the university nor have there been any credentials on offer. This week came the announcement of the formation of a new online learning initiative called MITx (see article MIT launches online learning initiative). A range of courses are to be offered free via a new online interactive learning platform; the course material, virtual labs, assignments and study guides will all be available online and students study together as in many MOOCs. At the end those who pass will get an MITx certificate. It's not quite the real McCoy but the MIT name is there. They insist that assessment will be as rigorous as on the full campus version and the MITx certificates will not become short cuts to credentials. The full university experience is still number one for MIT but for many people MITx will be the next best thing. Plus you don't have to move to Boston to study.

It's part of a clear strategy to extend the global reach of MIT. According to MIT President Susan Hockfield:

“MIT has long believed that anyone in the world with the motivation and ability to engage MIT coursework should have the opportunity to attain the best MIT-based educational experience that Internet technology enables. OpenCourseWare’s great success signals high demand for MIT’s course content and propels us to advance beyond making content available. MIT now aspires to develop new approaches to online teaching.”

The learning software will be open and other educational institutions are free to develop their own versions. One aim of MITx may well be to use it as an experimentation area for new learning technologies and methods with students and other institutions contributing to development. One question that springs to mind is whether the MITx certificates will become more sought after than those from smaller universities. Is there a risk that the MITx label could in some places have more credibility than local certificates?

A two tier structure is emerging in higher education. The mainstream system with both campus and online courses and a parallell open system free to all but without the same level of tuition and support. The latter form is the university's contribution to global lifelong learning. This is the rationale behind another exciting initiative, the OER University, that is being launched by a partnership of 14 universities. The demand for higher education is growing so fast today that we simply can't build or staff enough universities to keep up. Offering these free open courses does not involve great costs to the university, does not compete with the core business but helps meet the global demand for higher education. Then of course there's a good helping of positive marketing for the university included in the deal.

Read more in an article in Inside Higher Ed, Advancing the open front.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gesture control

Remote Control by sm3287, on Flickr If you've ever been alone in a friend's living room and decide you want to watch some TV the big challenge is finding the correct remote control to get the thing started. It's even more fun when you've mislaid the control and are virtually helpless without it.

But soon all this will be history and remote controls will be one more example of obsolete technology to tell your grandchildren about (see a list of other rapidly disappearing gadgets, Ten tech items you won't be needing anymore). Gesture control is hot technology and will very soon be helping you link up with your TV, computer and mobile, as reported in a BBC article, Touchless smartphones and TVs could be on sale in 2012. Motion capture technology is already established in Microsoft's Kinect and Nintendo Wii but now an Israeli company XTR3D is getting noticed for developing gesture control using 2D cameras to enable us to control our TVs, computers and mobiles by just waving our hands. Screens can be controlled from up to 5m with simple gestures enabling you to choose functions, flip between photos, scrolling a list or enlarging an image.

Here's a quick publicity film of what's in store. One advantage is that you don't get the screen stained with sticky fingerprints.

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licenseby sm3287

Monday, December 19, 2011

Future skills

Future Or Bust! by Vermin Inc, on Flickr
CC BY-NC-SA by  Vermin Inc 
21st century skills is a pretty well-worn concept by now but despite repeated calls from industry the education sector is still rather slow to react. The California-based Institute of the Future has now released a report called Future Work Skills 2020 and the findings are worth quoting here. They do not discuss what jobs or fields will be at the forefront in the years to come but have investigated which skills will be essential. The findings are brieflt summarized in an article in Gigaom, The 10 key skills for the future of work.
Have a look through the list and decide if schools and higher education are able to address these issues and if not, what needs to change?
  • Sense-making. The ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed
  • Social intelligence. The ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions
  • Novel and adaptive thinking. Proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based
  • Cross-cultural competency. The ability to operate in different cultural settings
  • Computational thinking. The ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning
  • New-media literacy. The ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms and to leverage these media for persuasive communication
  • Transdisciplinarity. Literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines
  • Design mind-set. Ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes
  • Cognitive load management. The ability to discriminate and filter information for importance and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques
  • Virtual collaboration. The ability to work productively, drive engagement and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team

Friday, December 16, 2011

Innovation yes, but not here please

Just about every organisation on earth has a business plan that claims to embrace innovation or welcome change. It's very easy to use buzzwords like these in strategic documents but another thing altogether to really encourage innovative thinking. The difficulty is that innovation is disruptive and means that we have to reassess our comfortable routines. New ideas lead to change, insecurity and the fear of not being able to adapt. The easiest strategy therefore is to dismiss the innovative ideas as impractical, too expensive or unrealistic and continue with business is usual.

This is the topic of an article on Psyblog called Why people secretly fear creative ideas. We are all creatures of comfort and once we're found a good strategy that works well enough we tend to stick to it. We tend not to welcome criticism of these routines and certainly not ideas that may force us to completely change the way we work. The article cites a study that showed how teachers tend to dislike creative pupils since they challenge the rules and ask too many questions. That applies in most organisations.

"... the more uncertain people feel, the harder they find it to recognise a truly creative idea. So as a society we end up sticking our heads in the sand and carrying on doing the same old things we've been doing all along, just to avoid feeling uncertain."

I think almost all of us who work with net-based learning and the use of technology in education recognize this scenario. In an already cash-strapped education sector the idea of radical change in the way we teach, the structures we've trusted for so long and the institutions we work for is rather frightening. It's going to cost a lot of money, take a lot of time and force us to revise many of our most deeply imprinted beliefs. The really worrying problem is the longer we delay and deny the more disruptive the change will be when it finally comes.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

YouTube for schools - all the good stuff minus the distractions

There has been a vast collection of educational video material on YouTube for years now, mostly under the YouTube EDU brand but even on TeacherTube as well as the open YouTube. However all these suffer from ads in the margins, irrelevant (and irreverant) comments and other distractions. Now Google has cleaned up the act with a new service YouTube for Schools that filters out the distractions and only allows the educational content to shine through. The idea is that schools and colleges can sign up, create an account and then fill their own channel with the material they want to use.


This is a strategic move by Google to help YouTube become accepted in schools that have so far blocked the service completely. YouTube for Schools allows schools to in effect censor what YouTube content students can access in school and teachers can create playlists and select from all the educational content without seeing the wilder side. An article on the Open Culture blog quotes a YouTube representative:

“We’ve been hearing from teachers that they want to use the vast array of educational videos on YouTube in their classroom, but are concerned that students will be distracted by the latest music video or a video of a cute cat, or a video that might not be appropriate for students,” writes YouTube Product Manager Brian Truong. “While schools that completely restrict access to YouTube may solve this distraction concern, they also limit access to hundreds of thousands of educational videos on YouTube that can help bring photosynthesis to life, or show what life was like in ancient Greece.”

 A welcome initiative though the downside is that the students can probably access the full distraction of YouTube on their own devices anyway. Also, somewhere along the line we still need to discuss issues like attention, distraction, source criticism and information retrieval so that they can find the good resources for themselves despite the distractions. We need to be careful of the line between benevolent protection and censorship.

Monday, December 12, 2011

When social media get too social

An innocuous and untalented video clip gets posted on a web site. Someone likes it and puts it on YouTube and before long several thousand people have seen it and passed the clip on via Facebook and Twitter to thousands more. In a matter of hours the clip has gone viral and out of control whilst the person who made it is still blissfully unaware of their new-found stardom. This is the scenario presented by Tom Scott in this TEDx talk.

The scenario he describes is not true (yet) but it's made up from several true stories and shows the potentially frightening power of today's social media. Certainly makes you think about taking control of your digital identity before it's too late.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Creative commons explained by a weasel, a crocodile and a goose

We need to keep spreading the word about Creative Commons in education so that we can share resources without having to ask permission. It's a simply system really but takes a little explaining before it becomes clear. There are lots of films and other resources out there to help people understand how CC works but this film is rather different. Explaining CC with the help of glove puppets and some baking.
The creator of this has a whole YouYube channel with lots more films featuring Randy Weasel and his friends. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Me and my iPad

When do people use tablets/iPads and when do they use laptops? This is discussed in an article I've just read on Google called Consumers on tablet devices: having fun, shopping and engaging with ads. They've surveyed the habits of tablet users to see what they do with them and when. The result is that tablets are mostly used at home for entertainment, reading and social interaction whereas the laptop is generally for work. Tablets are often used whilst doing other things, like watching TV or eating breakfast and we like to carry them around the house. However whenever we walk out the front door it's the laptop we generally take with us. It seems the tablet is finding its niche and that it isn't replacing the laptop, simply complementing it.

I've got the entire Apple family to help me through the day: iPod, iPhone, iPad and MacBook (honest, I'm not an Apple devotee, it just happened that way). All of them are at least a year old so I can't impress anyone anymore but it's interesting to reflect on how they are used. I too only use the iPad in the house, mostly for social media, especially flicking through news feeds and social networks via the excellent Flipboard. The laptop however is almost exclusively a work device but I take it almost everywhere since I try to be as paper-free as I can and I take most of my notes on the laptop.

If I try to rank my devices in hours of use the laptop is way out in front followed by the iPhone and then the pod and the pad bringing up the rear. They all get used but since I spend a lot of my life at work then the two most useful work devices get the most attention. The pad and the pod are almost exclusively for free time. I expected the iPad to replace the laptop and would still like that to happen but so far I haven't been able to fit it into my work routines other than for reading and browsing media. But now I realize I'm not alone in that respect. How about you?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Teaching the test

The educational debate in many countries centres around measuring the quality of schools and universities by their test scores. More and more league tables are produced and papers love analyzing the winners and losers. Schools that get good results will survive whilst those at the bottom of the league will be forced to close. This is creating a false sense of security since it assumes that the tests really do measure skill and intelligence and that everyone is honest. Neither of these assumptions, sadly, are true and as a result the system simply doesn't work.

This is explained in an excellent article by Jonathan Keiler in Education Week, When test scores become a commodity (subscription only article, some of it is quoted on Will Richardson's blogg). He argues that test scores have become commodities and trading is therefore not always honest. Since schools are paid by results and good results enhance reputations there is a great temptation for some to sugar the results to increase income and prestige. Teachers are judged as good if their students pass the tests and this can result in teaching the test. Competition between schools and between teachers means less collaboration and less sharing of resources. This in turn leads to everyone having to reinvent the wheel over and over again. The students may pass the tests but have they really learnt anything? Teachers who don't focus on tests risk being seen as incompetent. The result is a test factory that has little to do with producing the critical independent thinkers and innovative entrepreneurs that industry keeps asking for from the education system.

Schools could become little more than test-preparation institutes, ignoring subjects and skills that are not assessed, with faculty members who resent and distrust one another. Meanwhile, many honest and dutiful teachers will go down in flames.

Then there is the matter of student cheating. Keiler argues that the commodity approach invites this since test results become hard currency and when a commodity is valuable there will always be people tryig to cheat the system to earn a fast buck or two. That happens in most areas of society and it is no wonder that it also occurs in education.

Related to this is an article in the Washington Post, School board member who took standardized test, about a senior school board member who decided to try the tests that his school students had to sit. He failed spectacularly of course but his criticism and insight afterwards are interesting:

“It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities....
 It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.”

I'm not against testing. We all need challenges and ways of tesing our skills in realistic situations and we thrive on a certain level of competition. We need to focus on what and how we test so that students' futures are not simply decided by how they perform in an exam hall. There are plenty of excellent examples of meaningful assessment and examination but the debate keeps veering back to simplistic views of assessment and an unfortunate association between education and the market place. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Redefining e-books

We keep using new technology to repackage old concepts. A lot of e-learning has simply put classroom practice into a digital framework. You're still in a classroom and what goes on there is mostly or wholly hidden from external view and the material is mostly text-based. Recorded lectures are extremely popular today but again we're simply digitizing the tradtional format and even if many lectures are stimulating and sometimes inspirational we're not exactly breaking new ground. We simply create an alternative version of traditional practice without considering how new technology could actually chage the way we teach and learn.

The same is true in e-publishing. I've written many posts about e-books in the last year or so but I wonder if we should always define the new in terms of the old. Maybe the concept of book is firmly rooted in the printed version and when we make it digital it ceases to be a book? Why just digitize a winning concept - why not change the concept and make the electronic version something distinctly different? That's the theme of yet another good article I've found on Mind/Shift, Blowing Out the Digital Book as We Know It. E-books in black and white divided into pages and loaded on to specially adapted devices doesn't sound too innovative. Does material designed for today's laptops and tablets need to be in book form? Is page division still relevant?

A company called Inkling is trying to design a new form of interactive "textbook" (it is hard to escape the old terminology) that is interactive with fully integrated video, search and social notetaking. Instead of basing the digital version on a published print book they are creating the digital version from scratch. The video below gives you an idea of the concept.

Inking - A textbook case of innovation. from Inkling on Vimeo.

Another contender in this attractive market is Chegg who offer similarly interactive textbooks adapted for use on a tablet. Here's their demo video:

The article on Mind/Shift asks the ever popular question of whether these new forms of digital publishing add morevalue to the learning process than print books and the answer is, as always, that it depends on how you use them. No book adds to the learning process by itself - you need to do something meaningful with the content with the help of a teacher, colleagues or both. Computers, books, mobiles, blackboards, notebooks and so on do not lead to better learning; it's what you do with them all that counts.

Maybe books will not die as many predict. Print books are extremely effective for packaging say fiction and have the clear attraction of not being subject to battery power. Print books will certainly decrease in number but maybe we need to see the digital market as a new concept that will complement some areas of publishing, replace others and create new ways of sharing and constructing knowledge and learning.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Changing campus

In a meeting this week I was presenting arguments for investing more in distance education. One objection was raised that if we have too many online courses we won't be able to fill our campus places and our classrooms won't be used so much. That's both right and wrong. On the one hand it's normally the case that online students study that way because they don't want to move to campus (because they are already established in their home town with family and career there) and therefore distance learning is not a threat to campus. On the other hand however it is a valid argument since as we move even campus courses online there may not be such a need for the classrooms and lecture halls.

The latter argument is well discussed by Tony Bates in an article Is online learning a waste of space? An increasing number of courses use blended learning (hybrid courses) where classroom teaching is combined with online discussion. Input (lectures) is recorded in advance and available on the net and much of the course's discussion and collaboration takes place in discussion groups and social networks. As more and more realize that there's little point in gathering students together simply for one-way communication there's more focus on using the classroom time as productively as possible. Not all campus students actually live on campus so when you demand that they gather there many have to travel across town or commute from the suburbs. You need to offer something really interactive to justify calling them all in. That means the classroom time will be more viewed more critically in the future and as a result there will be less need for classrooms, at least of the traditional design. There is also likely to be more focus on field work and project work in companies and organisations. The campus will not disappear but the infrastructure will certainly change over the next ten years.

As learning goes more online and as we realize that we can meet and discuss more flexibly, both physically and online, the use of campus floor space will radically change and some buildings may no longer be needed. This creates tension since the image of a university is so intimately tied to the campus buildings and environment. Venerable old buildings as well as shiny new ones are highly visible symbols of the university's academic status whereas a great virtual campus on the net does not attract such attention, even if it is likely to be more beneficial to students.

Bates wonders, therefore, if there are any studies on how online courses impact on campus infrastructure and whether any universities are planning accordingly.

"Also it means not looking at campus planning in isolation from plans for online learning. I don’t know of any institution that has tried to look at the costs and benefits of a move to online learning in this way (if so, please let me know!), but a more holistic approach to the planning of campuses and online learning could lead to improved efficiencies and even perhaps improvements in quality of the learning experience at the same time."

He concludes by asking the following questions and it will be interesting to see what answers come in:

1. Is the impact of online learning on physical space an issue that is appearing or has appeared on your campus? if so, how is it being handled? 
2. Do you know of any study that has looked at the impact of online learning on campus facilities? 
3. Is this a road worth travelling? Are the benefits likely to prove ephemeral or impossible to measure?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Music you won't enjoy

Repetition and patterns are the reasons we enjoy music. Here's a fascinating TED talk by Scott Rickard about the challenge of writing a piece of music that has absolutely no repetition or pattern but is not simply random. The technology behind sonar signals for submarines lies behind what is called the world's ugliest music. Pure mathematics actually. Enjoy - or not!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Twitter for academics

I've been using Twitter as a tool for work for almost three years now and it's one of the most important sources of information about work-related topics that I use. Very few people I know in Swedish higher education use Twitter and although I can understand a healthy bit of skepticism I think there should also be a bit more informed curiosity and willingness to experiment. Most colleagues simply can't see a use for Twitter and many see it only as a medium for updating friends about where you are or what you're eating just now. Twitter is sadly mostly associated with celebrities and chit-chat. It took me a few months before I realized the potential of Twitter but once I realized it just took off!

My Twitter Followers by Brajeshwar, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Brajeshwar 

However if you're doing research or just want to keep up with the latest news and articles in your field Twitter is invaluable. I've built up a network of around 400 people who I follow on Twitter (too many I suspect) and all work with various aspects of e-learning. I get a constant stream of links to relevant articles, news and videos that I can dip into any time and this forms the basis of my own blog posts and articles. I in turn tweet links to all the articles and news I find every day to anyone who wishes to follow me (@alacre).

A new guide has been produced by the London School of Economics to help academics discover the benefits of using Twitter as an integral part of their research activities, Using Twitter in university research, teaching and impact activities. This is a downloadable guide taking you through the most important features in Twitter and heling you to create your own network and using Twitter with your students. The contents of the guide are sumarised as follows:

  • Building your following and managing your profile 
  • Using Twitter to maximise the impact of your research project 
  • Making the most of Twitter alongside your own blog
  •  Using course accounts with students 
  • A step by step guide to adding a Twitter feed to Moodle 
  • Extra resources and links to blog posts and articles on academic blogging and impac

Have a look at the guide and I think you'll see that there are many benefits in getting started with Twitter. The authors of the guide are keen to get feedback so feel free to contact them at

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Quality is in the eye of the beholder

One of the key issues in the adoption of open educational resources in higher education is how to guarantee quality. When resources are shared freely on the net without the traditional publishing process of peer review and publisher approval, how can we know if that material is reliable or not? How can we build up processes for assessing the credibility of these resources so that teachers will be able to use them with confidence?

Stephen Downes has just written a highly relevant blog post highlighting some problems with the quality assessment of OER, in particular in the context of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). His article, MOOCs and the OPAL Quality Clearinghouse, is in response to the questionnaire on quality assurance and open educational practice as part of the Open Education Quality Initiative (OPAL). What really attracted my attention in the post was the idea that quality is not an objective attribute that is decided in advance by experts. The quality of a resource lies in the view of the beholder - how valuable is this for you?

There is not the presumption that (a) there is a single type of quality that applies to all participants, and (b) that this quality could be recognized by course facilitators. Accordingly, what we observe in a MOOC is that participants will cluster around different types of materials or media - for example, they may cluster around a discussion board, social network site, or virtual world. Quality is then indicated in different ways specific to those environments.

So in the open learning environment of the MOOC, where each learner has their own learning objectives and follows her/his own path through the material, the question of any pre-determined quality label is largely irrelevant since it is the process resulting from the resource that determines the quality for each learner.

'Quality' in a MOOC is defined not as the exceptional nature of published materials, but rather the richness and utility of conversation and discussions mediated by those artifacts and other activities. Hence, quality is determined post-publication, and even post-distribution, as an emergent property, and not aninherent property of the resource itself.

Downes' answers to the OPAL questionnaire raise a number of fascinating new issues about quality in open learning that need to be discussed further. One important aspect to remember, however, is that MOOCs tend to attract highly educated and digitally literate participants and the wisdom of the crowd will therefore work well. I'm not sure we can work in the same way with student groups who are less digitally literate and more accustomed to traditional teaching. I'm sure we do need quality assurance for OER but maybe we need to realise that in certain environments like MOOCs the need is not so great. I look forward to more on this.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

When in Rome

I remember a TV comedy sketch from way back (can't remember what show) about people who go back to ancient Rome in a time machine. When confronted by Roman soldiers one guy says proudly that he got top grades in Latin at school and he would do the talking. So he said proudly "voco, vocas, vocat, vocamus, vocatis vocant" (present tense of the verb to call) to the puzzlement of the Romans. That summed up what Latin meant to many school pupils of the past; endless recitations of verb and noun declensions without any understanding of what it was for.

I belong to one of the last generations who learnt Latin at school as a matter of course. Latin was simply an integral part of your education though few of us ever realised why. I studied it for four years but learnt very little, though I must admit I'm tempted to try again some time since I now see the point and would be highly motivated.

That's why I was intrigued to read an article in Mind/Shift, Can an Online Game Crack the Code to Language Learning, about a Latin teacher in Connecticut, Kevin Ballestrini, who has created a language learning game for Latin that has really caught students' imaginations. In the game students are taken back to ancient Rome to solve a mystery and where their progress through the game is dependent on them mastering various features of the language. Another fine example of how education can learn from gaming to make learning more compelling. The virtual environment makes ancient Rome come alive and the language has at last a clear relevance that we never had access to.

Another student observes a huge difference in how the game format has helped her learn this obsolete language. “I took Spanish for four years and I don’t think I’ve learned as much as I have in that class as I have in just two months,” said Caroline Scheck. “I can write sentences because we’re using it like we’re writing a story. As a child, you’d learn Latin by people speaking to you in sentences. You know how sometimes in languages you just learn words and then later on you use sentences? This time, we’re just learning it as if someone was speaking to us.”

They may not be as good as we were at identifying the ablative absolute (Hic rebus dictis: these things having been said - I'll never forget that!) but they can actually use the language in a constructive way.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The bookless library - good idea but there's a catch

Who needs books? by quinn.anya, on Flickr Continuing on the theme of e-books (see earlier posts Why students don't use e-books as much as expected and Library extreme makeover) I'd like to return to the subject of bookless libraries. We've already got banks that have no cash and the paperless office is fully feasible though seldom seen. So what about the bookless library? As sales of e-books and varieties of tablets, e-readers and iPads increase the need for libraries to be filled with books becomes questionable. So let's move out the books and journals and create the library of the future.

But is there a catch here?

There is a problem and that becomes clear after reading an article by Barbara Fister in Inside Higher Ed called The myth of the bookless library.The problem with collections of e-books and e-journals is that the library has to pay a hefty yearly subscription to gain access to them. If you stop paying you lose the collectiuon. Instead of winning freedom by going digital the library commits itself to often extortiate annual fees to maintain its virtual collection. The books you used to buy were not cheap but once they were on the shelf you knew what you had. Not so with much e-literature.

"When you know that a subscription you’ve been spending tens of thousands of dollars on will vanish if you fail to pay the rent, you trim where you can, and for the past thirty years, that’s been the book budget, which is more discretionary than those demanding subscriptions. No wonder university presses and other scholarly book publishers are banding together to license digital book collections by subscription. It seems the only way to guarantee your product will get into libraries is to charge a lot for something that disappears if you stop paying."

Interestingly there is no sign of print book production falling despite the hype. We've never printed as many books as we do now so they won't be disappearing any time soon. It's easy to fall into the trap of seeing all digital resources as free. Yes there are plenty of open educational resources and open access material out there but the publishing industry is busy remodelling its business for the digital market and there's a lot of money being made out there still. The transition to the bookless library will not be such a smooth one.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licenseby quinn.anya 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

PowerPoint is innocent!

Everyone loves to blame PowerPoint for boring presentations and dull meetings. But wait a minute, isn't it the speaker's fault if the presentation is boring? PowerPoint is just a tool and it's up to you how you use it and what you put on it. Have a look through this self-explanatory presentation that stands up in defence of poor old PowerPoint and instead points the finger at lazy users who don't spend enough time thinking about the message they want to communicate.

is it the car's fault if you're a bad driver?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Library extreme makeover

As the shelves of books become less relevant there's plenty speculation about the future of the public library. The library's future roles of digital information hub and learning space are well discussed. Traditional librarian skills such as information literacy and source criticism will be even more essential in the future as the vast amount of information mushrooms. Libraries may well need to change their name to encompass their new roles as they turn into community centres, learning spaces, information centres and cultural arenas.

3D Printer at the Fab Lab by kakissel, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  3D printer by  kakissel 

However there may be other roles for libraries to adopt and one possible avenue is described in an article on the excellent news site Mind/Shift, The public library, completely reimagined. The article describes a library in the USA, Fayetteville Free Library, that has recently been completely rebuilt and, in addition to the roles described above, hs also taken on the role of techshop or as they say Fab lab. Here visitors can borrow equipment such as 3D printers to design and produce plastic shapes and designs or a laser cutter. Basically you can learn how to use expensive and new technical equipment with assistance at hand and develop new skills and new project ideas. The library becomes a workshop and the fundamental idea of stimulating culture and education takes on a new dimension.

In the past, books were seen as a luxury so libraries gave everyone access to that knowledge for free. Now that books are accessible for all libraries can instead offer public access to new technologies that are beyond the reach of the average citizen. Devices and tools that would otherwise only be available to employees of major companies can be tested by anyone and in this way new skills can be learned and new ways of using technology may be discovered.

Librarian Lauren Smedley, one of those responsible for building the new library in Fayetteville, says in the article:  

"... libraries aren’t just about books. They are about free access to information and to technology — and not just to reading books or using computers, but actually building and making things."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why students don't use e-books as much as expected

We keep hearing about the boom in e-book sales, especially in the USA, but according to an article in Mind/Shift (Why aren't students using e-books?) students aren't using them as much as expected. You could interpret this as evidence that they prefer print format but the truth seems to be the lack of course literature available in e-format. A survey by e-book provider eBrary shows that e-book sales to students have leveled off over the last three years, whereas the mainstream fiction market for e-books is growing rapidly. But it's not because students don't want e-books; it's simply too complicated. According to the eBrary survey:

“the vast majority of students would choose electronic over print if it were available and if better tools along with fewer restrictions were offered.”

”E-Book auf dem Ipad”– Projekt 365 – by Stefan Bäsmann, on Flickr

Firstly there's a reluctance by publishers to release e-book versions of profitable textbooks and when they are available they cost almost as much as the print versions, despite the problem that you can't lend your e-book or resell it after the course as you can with a printed version. Then there are all the different formats available for different e-book readers, iPads and tablets. It's simply too time consuming and expensive and you can't just buy all your e-books from one place.

Students are becoming increasingly vocal against the high cost of textbooks and their built-in obsolescence - since they're revised each year the second-hand value is zero. E-books are the obvious way forward but the business model needs changing. Publishers are of course reluctant to give up a very lucrative business but the growth of free course literature on Wikibooks or Flat World Knowledge is a significant disruptive force. Integration with social media to create social reading also needs to be developed. The industry needs to streamline and focus on new models rather than simply preserving the traditional model.

"... it does highlight the ways in which students’ needs aren’t being met yet by digital content providers. That means there’s still a huge opportunity here to reshape what the textbooks of the future look like. Openly licensed content, for example, could address students’ concerns about sharing. Better social tools could help meet their needs for social reading and learning. Open educational resources could provide content, while an iTunes model of sorts — one that sold the “song” (or rather the chapter) rather than the “album” (the whole book) could save students money."

  Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Stefan Bäsmann 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Flipping the classroom

Here's a good diagram that explains the thinking behind the concept of the flipped classroom. The principle is that by using recorded lectures and examples the teacher can set the input as homework and use classroom time for practice, discussion and tutoring. In the traditional setting the pupils practice at home and when they get stuck the teacher is not there to help. Parents are not always a reliable option!

Of course this assumes that the pupils will actually watch the input at home at all. Then again the traditional set-up is not working either so it's well worth seeing if the flipped model can raise motivation.

Flipped Classroom
Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Adding the spark

I stumbled upon an old article in The Guardian earlier this week, Why do 60% of students find their lectures boring?. It is based on a 2009 study of student attitudes to teaching by Dr Sandi Mann and Andrew Robinson of the University of Central Lancashire. I've written several times about the limitations of lectures and the need to spend classroom time on more interactive activities and let students access lectures on their computers or mobiles. This article breaks no new ground by criticising dull lectures but the interesting part was that students find even lab sessions uninspiring. According to the study the practical work sessions were even worse than the lectures.

"We might expect more hands-on practical sessions to be more engaging but, surprisingly, lab work and computer sessions achieved the highest boredom ratings in our study. One of the problems with lab studies is that the experiments the students conduct are often just controlled exercises where the results are already known"

The main reason for this is the fact that although the students were practising necessary skills the sessions were merely exercises following strict guidelines (ie. do it like this) and without any element of discovery and creativity. Doing is simply not enough, we need to be more engaged in the process and feel that we are discovering new skills for ourselves or in collaboration with our peers. Prescriptive workshops are similar to lectures in that they are clearly teacher-centred. The shift towards learner-centred activity is not an easy one for teachers raised on the traditional paradigm and it is all too easy to revert to old habits.

So what kinds of activities then will inspire students and pupils? How do we create engagement and enthusiasm? A superb example can be seen in an article and film on Mind/Shift, Technology Adds Spark to Science Education. The film, produced by KQED Education in conjunction with Northwestern University’s iLab, shows pupils using various laptops and tablets to perform virtual science experiments, create their own simulations and studies and interact with complex experimental equipment in labs on the other side of the world. The enthusiasm and creativity is clear and the fact that they can perfom experiments that could never be performed in the classroom (dangerous radioactivity experiments demanding extremely expensive equipment for example) adds to the interest. Instead of controlled and predictable training exercises they are interacting with the real world and with the teacher's help reflecting on their experience and learning together.

I just wish they would stop using terms like cyber-learning as if it was something just landed from outer space. It's about learning - with the tools and media available today.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The flexible smartphone

The mobile business has been so dominated by Apple, Google and Samsung in the last couple of years that the grand old master of mobility, Nokia, has been virtually on the ropes. However, last week they bounced back with a vengeance announcing a new line of very attractive smartphones using Microsoft's new mobile operating system, but even more impressive was demonstrating their new prototype flexible mobile. Called a kinetic device, the idea is that you control functions by bending and flexing the device. Instead of the finger movements that control most touch-screen devices today, Nokia want us to bend and twist our mobiles in an intuitive way.

Mashable's Pete Cashmore, writing on CNN (Why your next phone might be bendable) claims that this bendable mobile will herald an even more important breakthrough, the foldable screen:

"You see, the biggest limitation of any device these days is screen size. There's a constant tension at play: You can have a small screen that fits in your pocket (your phone) or a big screen for home use (a tablet computer). But you can't have both. Or can you?
The ultimate dream for these flexible displays is that they could roll up: Imagine a phone-sized device that could unfurl to be the size of a tablet"

Just around the corner are wafer-thin flexible screens that can be folded away and placed on any surface. Now that has enormous implications for us all. How about digital paper? As foldable and flexible as paper but a full screen that you can take anywhere. The race is on. Here's a short video showing Nokia's prototype.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it

Does technology improve learning? Will results improve if all school pupils have laptops? Two frequently asked questions by tech skeptics and the answer in both cases is probably no. Technology on its own is not going to make people learn more and no amount of laptops or wireless broadband capacity is going to make pupils and students more insightful. At the same time we have no evidence that books make people learn better or that lectures have any effect on learning. You can have access to all the wisdom in the world without actually learning anything from it.

The key to learning is how all that information is woven together, the discussion that arises from it and how people discuss and develop those ideas. The central role in this process is that of the teacher, providing the context and inspiring reflection and inquiry. If that role is not developed then no amount of investment in resources will make a difference (whether they be physical or virtual resources). This is clearly stated in a blog post by Dennis Pierce, On ed tech we're asking the wrong question:

"Few people would suggest that textbooks—by themselves—hold some larger power over whether students learn. But if we wouldn’t expect this of textbooks, then why should we expect it of educational technology?"

We seem to be preoccupied with asking the wrong questions.Technology never promised to be an instant cure. It all depends on what you do with it. Too many initiatives buy the hardware first and then wonder what to do with it. We need to invest much more in helping teachers make the most of all the exciting tools and methods that the net can offer today. We need more vision, strategies and above all leadership in helping all sectors of education become relevant for the 21st century instead of entrenching itself in the structures and practices of the 20th century.

"Technology can facilitate this learning process; it can open up new avenues for learning; it can provide teachers with useful information about their students, and it can point children to lessons geared toward their particular needs. It can do all of this in ways that are clearly superior to other resources or methods of instruction. But technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For technology to have an impact on student achievement, schools also need sound teaching, strong leadership, fidelity of use, and a supportive culture, among other things."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Quality matters

Here's a short film with an excellent selection of quotes from the EFQUEL Innovation Forum 2011 that I attended in Portugal in September (read my post on the conference).  Statements on the importance of quality in e-learning and the spread of open educational resources from the main speakers at the conferences such as Wayne Mackintosh, Asha Kanwar, Ulf-Daniel Ehlers, Claudio Dondi, Steve Wheeler and many more. There's even a contribution from me in there. The overall message is simple but enormously challenging to everyone concerned with e-learning: creating quality e-learning leading to credible credentials. Get the gist of a whole conference in just ten minutes!

Monday, October 17, 2011

What did you learn in school today?

In the formal education system the main aim for most is to get the grades needed to get a good job. Passing exams is therefore hard currency allowing you access to well-paid jobs, and so students everywhere learn to give top priority to tasks that will ensure that they pass the next hurdle. It's no surprise then that many are willing to take short-cuts to success by cheating in ever more ingenious ways. That's the theme of an article in Mind/Shift called What's behind the culture of academic dishonesty?.According to the article cheating in higher education is at an all-time high and even the most gifted students are doing it to ensure they get the top grades they need.

Day 23 - Exam hall by jackhynes, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  jackhynes 

An article in Psychology Today (School is a Breeding Ground for Cheaters) by Peter Gray of Boston College argues that the present school system is to blame. You're not at school to learn, you're there to learn how to pass the tests. That's how students and schools are judged and we seem to be increasingly obsessed with league tables showing how effective schools are. This leads of course to schools teaching how to pass the tests to ensure that they move up the rankings. It's a destructive circle.

"Students become convinced that high grades and advancement to the next level are the be-all and end-all of their school work. By the time they are 11 or 12 years old, most are realistically cynical about the idea that school is fundamentally a place for learning. They realize that much of what they are required to do is senseless and that they will forget most of what they are tested on shortly after the test. They see little direct connection--because there usually is none--between their school assignments and the real world in which they live. They learn that their own questions and interests don't count. What counts are their abilities to provide the "correct" answers to questions that they did not ask and that do not interest them. And "correct" means the answers that the teachers or the test-producers are looking for, not answers that the students really understand to be correct."

In stark contrast look at all the learning that takes place away from the classroom. Many pupils and students who go through the motions of learning in school become passionate learners in their "spare" time pursuing their own interests, whether it be motorcycle maintenance, geneology, gardening or following a favourite football team. Learning for the sheer pleasure of discovery and becoming an expert in your particular passion. Think of how much energy people put into this type of learning; hours of reading, long discussions with fellow enthusiasts, endless practice, trial and error until mastery is achieved. There are no exams and nobody cheats - there's no point.

Just imagine that level of devotion applied to school or university work. People love to learn if the motivation is from within and even if there are no tangible rewards apart from sheer pride in being good at something. Whenever we put grading and financial rewards into the equation the stakes are raised and corners are there to be cut. We need to look more closely at informal learning and learning psychology and find ways of making the formal system more meaningful.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

AR - through the looking glass

A few years ago you saw people in town walking or standing with a mobile phone at their ear, talking. Today most people hold their mobiles in front of them texting, checking e-mail or watching a video clip. But in the near future we'll be holding the mobiles in front of our eyes and looking at the world through the eye of the mobile. At least that's what the developers of Augmented Reality (AR) are hoping. By watching the world through our mobiles we get an overlay that provides information about what we see: menus from the restaurants we pass, information on tourist attractions, what rooms are available at the hotels we pass etc.

An article on the site PSFK, Augmented reality: fad or the future? includes the following videoshowcasing potential uses for augmented reality. I've shown several AR videos on this blog in the past and the number of possible applications keeps growing. This article wonders if we really will wander around looking at everything through the lense of our mobile devices but it's no stranger than today's mobile habits. The question is whether we will dispense with the small talk at social gatherings and instead check everyone's details first via AR. Before you've even said hello you will have been through the person's LinkedIn and Facebook profiles and checked out their online CV. Standard chat-up lines like "Haven't I met you somewhere before?" just won't work any more.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Off course

My first Arabic story!
During the spring I started learning Arabic at an evening class in town. I did most of the learning at home and on train trips but the weekly lesson time was a good reminder to keep working and gave me a framework for my learning. We all need a bit of structure in our lives and activities without deadlines tend to get pushed down the to-do list. I continued on my own over the summer but at a much slower pace and very irregularly. I'd like to continue the course but it was cancelled because there were too few participants. I write so often here about self-directed learning that I should be able to continue without the help of a course but I realise that I need those deadlines and a bit of pressure.

How many people sign up for courses at all levels only to be told that there aren't enough participants to start the course? People with ideas, plans and lots of interest. How many give up their dreams there and then? How many come back next term? Here's the limitation of building learning around the classroom paradigm; if the course doesn't run, no learning. It's a supply and demand market but should learning be dependent on such forces? If the course doesn't run just find a group on the net with a similar interest and learn together. Those are the skills that will be needed in future and need to be taught all through school. The art of helping yourself, networking and learning together.

I'm sure there are opportunities on the net to continue my studies. I've got lots of self-study material as well as podcasts and so on but I realise that I need the motivation provided by regular meetings/checkpoints (face-to-face or online) to push me onwards. Any suggestions?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Digital literacy for all

Most media focus is on the glitzy new devices rolling off the production lines at Apple, Samsung, Dell and company but we tend to forget that these are virtually impossible dreams for the vast majority of people in the world. Students and pupils in developing countries have no chance of affording an iPad, a Blackberry or a Kindle but they do need to lean the digital skills that will lead to qualified jobs in the future.

That's why it's good to know that there are companies producing affordable devices that may lack the bells and whistles of the market leaders but they provide people with a platform to learn. First there was the One laptop per child initiative that saw Uruguay become the first country in the world to provide laptops for all primary school children and several others have followed. Over 2 million pupils and teachers are now part of the global OLPC project. The low priced XO laptop has now spread to schoolchildren all over the world and is extremely simple, robust and energy-efficient. The laptops have been sent directly to countries' education ministries and have then been distributedto the schools just like textbooks. The result is that several developing countres have a far greater level of digitalisation in schools than many European countries (including Sweden).

There's more good news for affordable technology with the recent launch of an Indian tablet called Aakash (sky in Hindi) that has most of the features of the more famous touch-screen tablets but retailing at only $35-$50. Initial plans are to distribute 100,000 of these to selected university students over the next few months before rolling out fully. For most students this enables them to fully benefit from the educational resources available on the net in a country where standard devices are far beyond a student's allowance.

Watch a TV report on the Aakash tablet from Al-Jazeera.

Here's a report on the story from Newsy videos:

Watch India Unveils $35 Computer Tablet for Students in News  |  View More Free Videos Online at

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Edit your life

Is editing a 21st century skill? This inspiring TED talk by Graham Hill urges us to review the clutter in our lives, create more space and reduce stress. I can strongly identify with this message since I definitely have too much stuff and now feel inspired to do some editing; both with physical possessions but also with the digital clutter that leads to stress and worry. Time to clean up the e-mail in-box, all those old documents on the hard drive, photo albums on Facebook. Maybe tomorrow.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Language matters

We native speakers of English have a tremendous advantage. We are able to use our native language and can make a good impression at conferences with relative ease. Everyone else however has to present their complex ideas using a language that is sometimes their third or fourth language. I have heard many faltering presentations at academic conferences by non-native English speakers where the speaker has not been able to do him-/herself justice because of language difficulties. I often wonder how good they could be if only they could speak freely and whether it would be a good idea for some conferences to arrange for interpreters so that at least 2-3 official conference languages could be used. Interpreters may well be an expensive option but they would give more participants a voice.

In the spring I attended a conference in Spain where 4 languages were used: Spanish, English, French and Italian. Interpreters sat in booths and did a magnificent job translating everything in all combinations of languages. We had panel discussions where every member used the language that they felt most comfortable with and everyone simply plugged in a headset when the language changed. The result was that many people who would have been silent in an English-only conference were able to speak on an equal footing to the English speakers.

I also notice a tendency of native English speakers (maybe even me!) not to make any allowance for the fact that the audience is mostly non-native speakers by speaking at full speed and using idiomatic English. We need to be more aware of what it's like to listen to a foreign language all day long and be expected to contribute to complicated discussions on themes that you understand but cannot formulate well enough in that language. The native English speakers are generally very vocal at conferences but how do we give a voice to those who may well speak several languages fluently but non of them is English? It's convenient to assume that all academics can speak English but it acts as a strong filter, empowering many but disempowering many more.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Why is public research not public?

Open Access by maolibrarian, on Flickr
Public money often funds research. That research is carried out by publically employed university researchers. The research findings are then submitted for publication and are peer reviewed by other university professors to see that the research is good enough for publication. Fine so far but here comes the catch that is attracting increasing controversy. This public research is then published in scientific journals that charge often very high subscription rates. University libraries then pay a large chunk of their budgets to get access to these journals so that students can read them. So more public money is paid to the publishers to see articles written with public money but which is inaccessible to the general public. Amazingly the researchers and reviewers get paid very little for their efforts. The reward for the researcher is of course academic reputation but the cost to public funds is unacceptably high.

In the last few weeks there have been several highly critical articles on this theme, for example Steve Wheeler, Sharp practice:

"For a long time I have felt very strongly that some academic publishers are operating a sharp practice by exploiting the goodwill of scholars. Large groups of lecturers and researchers act as journal authors and reviewers without payment, and then the publishers sell this content on to other academics at grossly inflated prices. Other highly knowledgeable academics give up their time, also for no payment, to review and advise editors on the content, and this can be painstaking work - read this by Martin Weller on the real cost of 'free reviewing'. This is not sustainable and must change."

The answer is of course the now widespread principle of Open Access where articles are published in open journals and are free to all. These journals have not yet achieved the academic status of the traditional publications but they are run by the academic community for the academic community. The peer review process is just as rigorous and the articles are available to the world. Many traditional journals now allow parallell publication whereby the article is also published in an open access journal, often 6 months after initial publication. However many journals still own exclusive copyright, effectively locking away public research from the public.

Last week the academic heavyweight Princeton University made a highly influential move in favour of open access by preventing staff from signing away the copyright to their articles to for-profit journals and insistig that articles also be made avaiable as open access. Exceptions to the rule must be first approved by the university. If Princeton can do this then many other prestigious universities may well follow suit. Read the details of this in an article in The Conversation, Princeton goes open access to stop staff handing all copyright to journals.

In that article the significance of Princeton's announcement is summarised as follows by Professor Simon Marginson (University of Melbourne): 

“The achievement of free knowledge flows, and installation of open access publishing on the web as the primary form of publishing rather than oligopolistic journal publishing subject to price barriers, now depends on whether this movement spreads further among the peak research and scholarly institutions.”

If university libraries did not have to pay millions of dollars/euros to pay for access to articles written by university faculty maybe they would be able to use that money to fund more important work like providing better support to students and faculty. Let's hope more universities take a stand like Princeton and work out a new way forward for scientific publication.

Steve Wheeler has posted a list of recommended open access scientific journals in a new post, The open case.

  by  maolibrarian 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Quality apps

The torrent of apps just keeps on flowing. There are millions of them out there and although there are plenty of excellent apps for education there are also plenty of less than excellent ones. Finding good quality apps is not easy and there's not much help out there even if you want to make a more discerning choice. App stores all have rating systems but they are often a poor guide since most voters give a simply thumbs up or down and little or no explanation. Many of the ratings are done automatically by bots. So how do you know what to download? Sadly there's no answer today.

This problem has been highlighted in an article on Mind/Shift, How do you find good educational apps?. Sifting through thousands on apps on iTunes or Google Apps is a frustrating process and you tend to rely on tips from friends or news articles. Some reviews are helpful but mostly it's a case of trial and error, not a particularly academic process. If apps are going to find their way into university courses and schools there must be quality criteria and ways of in some way certifying that the educational value of the app. Once again we need filters to be able to make more educated choices and it's not enough to only rely on the wisdom of crowds. Acquiring a lot of "likes" doesn't really count for much.

We need a credible peer review process for apps that are aimed at the education sector and some kind of approval stamp that educators take seriously. I read recently that the Danish Ministry of Education is planning to launch an app store for Danish schools by 2012 with approved apps (see article in Danish from ComputerWorld). This is a bold and admirable step and I think this official seal of approval is essential if mainstream teachers are going to take the plunge and try out mobile apps in their teaching. However we still need to develop some international standards so each country does not need to reinvent the wheel.

Read more on this theme in The world of children's apps: a shake-up? on GeekDad.