Archive | June 2009


I, Tom Curtis have finally (and I mean finally), joined the mobile internet revolution.

I’ve purchased (after alot of g1 vs iphone deliberation) an iPhone.

The irony is not lost on me, (for those that didn’t read cart before the horse where I discussed the cost of smartphone  and how it may hinder development of mlearning solutions) I singled out the iPhone as the worst of these due to its high purchase and running costs.

So why did I not go with the cheaper google phone?

Three reasons:

1. The G1 doesn’t natively support Microsoft Exchange, it is possible via an external app but even then its not perfect. Prior to my purchase I used a 1g iPod Touch and have grown used to how simply and easily it integrates with the Colleges email.

2. Android looks promising, but I think there will be issues regarding compatibility; especially as newer handsets come out

3. Chess with friends

Ok Ok, its not a work or critical need, but I love this app and theres no version of it for Android (yet) and it’s a lot of fun 😛

SO lets move onto the thorny issue of cost:

Everyone + dog is buying a shiny new 3GS, which means alot of 1 year old 3g’s on the market for (releative) buttons. I managed to snag a 3G iPhone on a forum for the princly sum of £210 inc next day shipping (and it came with all the 3gs bits: small charger etc).

I’m currently on a £15 a month plan with o2, (it should be £15 but being the silver tongued lothario that I am, I got it reduced), I’ve whacked a 7.50 unlimited web bolt on that brings my total monthly phone expenditure to £22.50


hard//soft ware

These are very cool:

Tiny plug sized pc’s

Taking a standard 3 pin power plug and revolutionising it:

The Plug sized pc especially so!

Cart before the horse

As you might know,  I’ve been developing a mobile learning platform to give Students access to learning resources from anywhere.

It’s baby steps; but a lot of the groundwork has been completed (discussions, project plans, proof of concepts etc), the main issue is money.

Or more appropriately the complete disinterest of any current smart-phone manufacturer to offer an educational discount.

Facts and Figures:

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it does represent the huge barrier to mobile development in education:

  • Google Developer Phone: £244
  • Apple iPhone:  PaynGo (O2 uk): £342 + £10 minimum top up a month
  • HTC Touch: £489

If the College follwed ACU’s path we’d need an iPhone each:

x4 iPhones: £1368

1 Year of top ups (£40 x 12 months ): £480

Year one costs:  £2400 (and then £480 a year for n years)

Compare this to the development phone:

x4 ADP1: £976

Year one costs:  £976

Being Sim free, we can use our existing Sim cards when we need to test outside the College meaning that not only is it cheaper to buy, its total life cost is significantly cheaper as well.

The iPhone has the best interface and the slickest hardware but unless Cupertino does something shortly we’ll be talking to Google.

Running to Stand still

I visited Hastings College last Friday to meet with Apple Distinguished Educator Steven Molyneux to view his latest e-learning project.

Hastings is in the middle of  a sea change, a paradim shift if you will, a transition between two implacciable foes.

I’m talking of course about Apple and Microsoft.

With Steves guidence, Hastings are replacing all teaching and learning PC’s with Mac Mini’s, whilst keeping the administrative staff running on Windows.

So far so average, but this is where it gets interesting:

They are removing their VLE.

A FE/HE institution with no virtual learning enviroment, how will people work?! Perhaps its not as insane as it seems,  a poorly implemented VLE is nothing more than a content repository,  almost a digital library of sorts that people dip into when they need to find something.

They’re replacing it with OS X Server which comes bundled with: Podcast creator, wiki server and combined with the ilife suite makes quite a compelling learning solution….

After a reasonably speedy journey driving in the beast with my collegue Jim accompanied by playing Mettalicas Death Magnetic at ear bleeding volume, we arrived at Hastings College.

I should preface this next comment with the statement that Hastings is in the process of building a new Campus with upto date facilities and on looking at the current one,  I can safely say that the new build can’t be finished quickly enough (old school doesn’t even come close, think of the worst ‘building of the future’ 60’/70’s constuction and you would be getting close).

We met Steve and headed straight to a hair & beauty class that had been using iPod Touch’s as a learning aid to support activities both in and out of contact ours. Students would access course content by viewing the wiki and streaming video/audio/text where appropriate.

Except some students couldn’t get the videos to work, others didn’t bother to use the devices except in class and others either didn’t have internet at home, or if they did failed to have WiFi.

And even if they did overcome the access issue, it still left a bad taste in my mouth as we’re just replicating the same solutions over and over again.

The iPod being utilised as nothing more than a passive viewing medium, almost as if it were a laptop rather than a mobile device,  the iPod is a device born of web 2.0 it is an amazing collaboration and communication tool like no other before (in terms of accessibility, speed and ease of set up).

Why do we in education always seek to reinvent the wheel? Got a homework diary? Have a digital diary! Got a portfolio? How about an ePortfolio! In class poll? Have an online poll!!

The list goes on,  but its always the same things, when will we stop replicating and start to really innovate.

Terminating Education?

This an open ended blog post that asks a few questions but doesn’t answer all of them, that’s where you come in!  I want to hear from you, so tweet, comment on the blog or email me as I’m sure this may ruffle a few feathers!

Today’s post is about Libraries, books and their relevence in learning today, if you haven’t heard about Governer Arnold Schwarzenegger’s speech this week on the controversial topic of Digital textbooks, Here’s a snippet:

“Starting this fall with high school math and science, we will be the first state in the nation—the first state in the nation—to provide schools with a state-approved list of digital textbooks.

Think about this. Traditional hardbound textbooks are adopted in six-year cycles, so as soon as they are printed, then the next six years you don’t get the latest information. So just think about the last six years, all the things that happened. For instance, the Iraq war, the country’s first African-American president, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression or the decoding of the human genome and the list goes on and on. So all of this you wouldn’t
have in those textbooks. Discoveries, science and progress are happening so quickly.

So the bottom line is, I feel how can kids compete in the global economy when the information
the schools feed them is stale and is outdated and is old?

So digital textbooks will change, of course, all of that; they can be frequently updated to better prepare our student. And there will also be more opportunities for interactive learning and you know how exciting interactive action is. Students could read about a science experiment and then click onto a video and then see immediately a kind of demonstration of this science project.

This is what kids love and it will make them much more excited about learning. I know my kids have—I have four kids, so I know how much time they spend on the computer when they do their homework and the exciting stuff that they see when they study.

So I think that’s what we want to do here, just really upgrade all of this. The digital textbooks are good not only for the students’ achievement but they’re also good for the schools’ bottom line. And this is the important thing here. The average textbook costs up to $100.  So think about it, if each of California’s 2 million high school students use digital math and science books, that would mean that you could save the schools $300 to $400 million and that’s money that could be used for hiring more teachers or to make class sizes smaller. And if you expand this to additional textbooks, then you can save an additional few hundred million dollars.”

First a little imagination exercise:

Think of your typical library in your town or city, regardless of its construction it will be filled with row after row of books, probably similar to this picture:

Is this still how we access content in a digital world?

Books that are probably out of date, in a shabby condition or (if yours is a university library) covered in hand written notes and underlining.

Questions, Questions, Questions

When studying how often do you read a book cover to cover?

I’d wager that you will dive into the book get the quote or section needed and put it back on the shelf, where it will stay until the next person needs it. If no one else checks out the book what is its purpose? There are likely to be 100’s of books that are never checked out of the library creating rows upon rows of dead space.

If the majority of people use books merely as quick reference tool to pull out selected quotes, what benefit is a library?

How do we deal with library collections ageing ?

Collections are normally refreshed every six years or so, with every year that passes the books contained therein get more and more out of date.

How can we expect our students to excel if the books they read have information that is at best inaccurate, at worst irrelevant?

Access Denied?

Within education we have students with a wide range of abilities, but what help is a book to someone with a visual impairment?

Granted we have magnifiers to enlarge text, screen readers to read the text to them, but one can argue that this only differentiates a student with an impairment from their fellow students. With e-readers such as the plastics logics reader or Amazons Kindle range we can provide all students with the same learning tool that will allow each student to customise text size to their own preference, without singling them out as different.

Access when you need it?

When I was studying at university I remember having to get to the library as quick as possible after a seminar to ensure that I would be one of the lucky few to grab a copy of the text needed for an essay. Often libraries only have 5 or so copies of a particular book (especially when it comes to technical or classical texts), 5 books will not be able to support a class of 30, let alone an entire program.

Why should it be a case of survival of the fittest, just because I could get their first, does it mean that my learning was more important than others?

What about students with a physical disability, do we ignore them?
What about students with a visual Impairment, do we ignore them?

Why do we continue to invest in a medium that restricts learning and (by denying students access course texts) harms academic performance? With a digitised collection we can (with appropriate licences) supply enough texts to ensure that every learner is able to access the information relevant to their course and in a manner that suits each individuals needs.

I wholeheartedly agree with the Governor but I also think he hasn’t gone far enough: I think we should remove physical libraries from education.

Now that’s a controversial idea.

Hearing Voices

Empowerment, it is the sole function of technology.

To do more with less, to reach out in new ways, to make life that little bit easier, but most of all technology allows us to communicate information and ideas astonishingly quickly.

If something big happens in somewhere in the world, it will be global news in a matter of minutes, news flashes will hit websites and tv channels, forums and social networking sites will burst forth with discussion, linking to new information the second it becomes available.

So technology helps us communicate, but its that manner of communication that has started to change teaching.

For a long time education has been stuck in the traditional 20th century style of teaching, teachers at the front of the class informing and instructing, students listening but not engaging and responding. However with the advent of forums, social media websites and telecommunications; Students are now used to commenting on a range of issues that concern them, whenever they like.

Students were speaking but we as educators weren’t listening

If we aren’t listening to our students, how can we ever hope to satisfy their needs?

Thus the concept of the learner voice was born and combined with ICT we’re giving students the tools to comment on everything we do. Through the use of surveys, forums and student controlled content management systems we are giving students the power to talk back and be heard.

A good example of this happened on our forums a couple of months back.

Since its inception the College has had a no hats policy for a variety of reasons, students have always had issue with this but have been unable to force any change.

Timeline of change:

And then on the 08 Dec 2008 at 09:38 a student posted the following in our Student Council Forum:

“why are we not allowed to wear hats in college? I can understand not wearing huge stupid hats, but it is really cold, and wearing a hat keeps you warm. When you get told to take it off, you just end up getting really cold ears!”

Students soon started posting messages agreeing and asking for a petition to be formed, within the thread Students started asking who to meet with to discuss the issue further. Staff members soon responded to the student debate, informing them of the issues (security) why hats were not allowed.

Students then debated how a hat would stop people from commiting crime within the College:

“To be honest, If a student or ‘intruder’ really does want to do anything bad in college they will enter without a hat. Then, before they do what ever they do (without wanting anyone to know who it is) they will put their hat on.

Therefor the chances of them being told to remove their hat is very unlikely and if a tutor is there to tell them to remove the hat surely they will be caught doing what ever it is they are doing.

Once they have done what ever it is they are doing they will surely flee then later remove their hat.

Thus rendering the whole no hats concept pointless unless college searches our bags for hats before we enter…”

The thread on the forums had now exceeded 140 posts and over 2500 views, the students were starting to get noticed. As a result of the student discussion the College created a online survey to find out their views on the current hat policy, what they would change and why.

Selection of questions & responses from the Survey:

“Do you think changes should be made to the current policy?”

75% of students said yes

“Do you feel that people should be able to wear any type of hat?”

Yes 48%
No 52%

“Do you feel that if the “no hats” policy were removed, it would give the wrong message about acceptable behaviour to students and staff?”

Yes 26%
No 74%

It was clear that Students wanted change but they understood that not all hats were appropriate and that they did not see an issue with presentation or security.

In April 2009 the Student Council posted the following in the hat thread:

“Change to the Student Code of Conduct
Following recent consultation with students and staff concerning the wearing of hats, it has been decided to amend the Student Code of Conduct as follows:

Point 9 under the Behaviour heading will be removed and replaced with:

Hoods must not be worn in College at any time
Caps or hats of any type must not be worn in an examination
Students must remove hats or any other head covering whilst talking to a member of staff or in class if asked to do so by the member of staff
Students must not wear hats or any other head covering whilst they are wearing a uniform or protective clothing required for their course
Students must remove hats or any other head covering whilst working in certain environments eg: engineering workshops or laboratories
Hats and any other head covering must be removed whilst photographs for College ID cards are being taken.
The only exceptions to the above are those who wear hats or head covering for religious or medical reasons with permission.”

The Student Body had spoken with one voice and through their use of the forums facilitated a large scale change in College Policy.

Without the Forums to serve a melting pot for the debate and the Students enagement of it as a discussion platform, it is unlikely that any of the above would have occoured.

Echos of change?

I’m currently writing a section for our e-learning website about the learner voice.

“To do more with less, to reach out in new ways, to make life that little
bit easier, but most of all technology allows us to communicate information and ideas astonishingly quickly.”

Yadda, Yadda, ad infinitum, its your usual happy clappy cliche ridden article about how we’re engaging and listening to the learners.

As you can tell I’m not exactly engaging with my current task.

Teaching has been stuck in the traditional 20th century style for far too long, teachers at the front of the class informing and instructing.With the advent of forums, social media websites and telecommunications; Students and the general public are now used to commenting on a range of issues that concern them whenever they like as soon as it has become news.
Except in class.

And so the concept of the Learner Voice was born and lo happiness was restored unto the land, Students talked, Teachers listened and things improved. Or so the idea was supposed to go, but I don’t think that most institutions have really even gotten close to actually listening to students.

Writing in a Digital world

In the world of today is still important to write?

When I say write I mean the actual process of drawing the typography that represents our language on paper, not the ability to construct meaningful sentences.

Heresy I know but hear me out, how often do you actually write these days? My sum total of writing is in this order:

  • Shopping lists,
  • Random development notes scribbled in a notebook,
  • Birthday Cards

And that’s about it; the rest I do on a computer and print out or email: Letters, forms etc. All are word processed and printed out, I rarely actually write anything of length using a pen.

Perhaps I have a skewed perspective as I’m Dyslexic which means my writing is pretty scrappy if I don’t really concentrate on it; this means that If I can, I type.

I doubted that I was alone in my abandonment of the written word, so I tweeted:

Is handwriting important in a digital world? SeecTom

and got the following response:

Lizthebiz@SeecTom I hope not… my handwriting is positively dire but I can type 63 words per minute!

@Lizthebiz Do you type because handwriting was poor or did your handwriting suffer as a result of you typing?

Lizthebiz@SeecTom Chicken or egg… I’ve never been any good at writing but learned to type at 14yrs old. Now I avoid writing so I don’t practice it

So there were people out there with a similar outlook to writing, in fact you could argue that the concept of the written word is actually holding us back. Just because I can’t spell a word or fail to use the correct grammar does not mean that my sentence has any less importance. Once written a word cannot be changed, which is a lovely dramatic statement but hardly helpful to someone with a learning difficulty.

What I mean by this is that why should we engage with a medium that more often than not makes it harder to communicate by not offering tools to support and aid the user?

I remember writing essays on paper during school before computers were wide spread and I’ve lost count of the number of times I had to start it again because of making too many mistakes (thus making the content harder to read) .

Word processing makes it easier for both the writer and the reader, the written word is just a barrier that only hinders and is just as much a tool of separation as when it was the tool of the religious and intelligentsia.

A word processor aids formatting, spelling & grammar, ensures that the writer is able to make adjustments and corrections without having to start again.

It is the single most important e-learning tool of our time.

In writing this article I made over 27 spelling and probably quite a few grammatical errors.

Perpetual motion

E-Learning for me does not just mean developing applications and websites, no it also means creating a system or dare I use that cliched word solutions to allow teachers to get more out of a session than what they put in.

Over the last year or so I together with Impact have been developing a system that will enable our catering staff to record teaching & training sessions.

First a little information, we’ve got two kitchens on site Ora & Skills; Ora is a kitchen where students cook lunch and dinner for staff and members of the public, Skills is a demonstration kitchen where students learn new techniques. Each kitchen has two PTZ (pan tilt zoom) cameras, three ip56 rated televisions, a touch panel and a control lanyard each. The system is quick to boot up, easy to log in and simple to use to ensure that there is minimum disruption to any session. Once the Chef has logged on he can use the lanyard to command the entire system from anywhere in the kitchens, without having to interact with the touch panel. As soon as the videos are recorded they are transferred to our servers and (pending approval) are viewable by all staff and students. So we’ve created a system that records chefs, this in itself is nothing new, we’ve had the ability to use video cameras in class for years; where’s the benefit to the learners and most of all the teachers?

Lets say we have 20 students in the kitchens watching the chef joint a chicken. The chef proceeds to joint the chicken, students watch and then try it themselves, prior to this system that’s where the lesson stops. What happens if a student has a question, or wants to see it again? The chef has to grab another chicken. Not so with our new system, the chef can instantly play back the recording on any number of screens around the kitchen, enabling them to both demonstrate and instruct which better serves the students needs.

More importantly, what happens if the student has a question outside of the kitchen, or outside of College hours? In combination with our VLE our students can access all the videos from home, bookmark relevant sections and review training sessions whenever or whereever they like.

So we’ve seen how it can benefit students, but how can it help teachers get more out of sessions then they put in?

Over time, Teachers can record training videos of sessions & techniques to create a bank of personalised learning resources that they can access in and out of the kitchens to enhance course content and delivery. We’ve given them the ownership over their own content, no longer do they have to search through youtube videos from tv shows for the 10 second clip required. The chefs can simply navigate to the content they themselves have created and students can see their peers using the same techniques instead of random people from the internet, students are more likely to be engaged with content if its relevant to them and teaching staff work better with students who are engaged with the content.

By creating and using these personalised resources in class, the lecturer can literally be in two places at once, as they can be onscreen demonstrating techniques whilst being able to walk round the kitchens and supervise students replication of the demonstrated technique and support/guide students where necessary instead of just being stuck at the front of the class.

With this system staff can get more in than they get out (and its a lot faster than human cloning).

An improv demonstration of the kitchen recording system

The Cloud and the power cut

Monday evening was eventful to say the least; there I was happily watching a movie when the lights start to flicker, ‘oh’ I thought to myself ‘a small power surge’.

The latter was true, the former distinctly not.

I’ve got an energy monitor that displays your current (badum tish) energy consumption, my normal evening power draw is circa 200-300 watts, when the surge hit it spiked to well over 1.4kw, it continued to spike in this manner for over 20 minutes. Even though all my electronic equipment is on surge protectors, I still ran to the circuit breaker to kill the power and then proceeded outside to see how it was affecting the rest of the street. The power surge eventually changed to an all out power cut and with that Honiton road was cast back to the literal dark ages. So grabbing some candles, I wondered round the house checking things out to make sure nothing was on fire, I then I smelled oh so familiar smell of burnt electrical wires and equipment. However with no power I couldn’t check to see if anything was broken, so I went to bed.

On waking the next morning I hustled downstairs and flipped the circuit breaker back on and nothing happened, no lights, nothing.

There was no power, I was cut off.

Now alongside the usual inconveniences of no kettle, hot water or being unable to cook food, I had no internet.

Big deal right? Wrong

Humans are creatures of habit as am I, before walking to work my routine is this Shower, get dressed and then Whilst making and eating breakfast (via laptop or iPod touch):

  • Review twitter feeds and respond
  • Read/write personal and work email s
  • Check news, games and other websites
  • Download podcasts & other content for the day
  • View e-learning blogs for new content
  • Check up on current Chess games

So by the time I walk to work I’m:

  • Fully informed of current happenings in the world (useful for generating student polls),
  • Have a reasonable idea of what awaits me at my desk (ensures I can hit the ground running)
  • Have responded to any mission critical emails (Quality of service is important)
  • Already musing about blog posts based on websites I visited that morning

In short I am a more effective employee with the internet at my disposal, I can respond to things quickly, ensuring that if something has gone wrong, by the time I arrive at work, I already know about it and can get on with sorting out.

But not on Tuesday morning (sadly I don’t have an iPhone so I had no external internet connection).

I then realised that my entire online life is based in the Cloud: Google apps, Gmail, Flkr, Twitter, Facebook etc. Nothing resides on my local machine, all the data and content is stored on some data centre and processed on a web server. My machine, be it laptop, pc or iPod only presents that data to me, nothing more. Of course I have some applications installed on my netbook but it is no where near the amount it used to be. If you think about it, you can pretty much do everything you would traditionally use a locally installed application online.

Word processing, Calendars, Spreadsheets are well served by Google apps, photo editing by Flkr, you don’t even have to have a printer in your house as you can use an online printing service that delivers direct to your door.

The only application you need to facilitate this is a web browser, nothing more.

Cloud computing is the future (although one could argue that it’s actually a return to the Mainframe and Dumb terminal relationship from the 1980’s), the device is becoming almost an irrelevance, merely a point of access that enables you to connect to your application and services held on the internet.

The cloud is the future; it’s the next logical step in the evolution of both the PC and the internet, but my experience on Tuesday morning leads me to think it can never replace traditional application access methods until internet access is universal.