Wednesday, September 13, 2006

safer cycling for hairy ones

As a keen cyclist I came across this interesting article which suggests that if you want to be safe on the roads you should wear a long wig.....

get geeky!

Sometimes one sees things that are seriously geeky that just make you smile, and one I have just come across is USB at

They offer a wide variety of things including USB powered gloves (that would stop you wandering away from your computer), USB powered shredder (for business cards only as far as I can see) and USB powered pencil sharpners. Is there no end to the futility of man?

Monday, June 26, 2006

hijacking technology

Apparently children are using the noise that was designed to be audible to them, but not to adults, as ring tones. The noise was created to discourage children from congregating in places like shopping centres. However children have now started using it as a ring tone on their mobile phones. That way teachers (or at least most teachers) will be unable to hear it, whilst they can.

Besides showing the ingeniousness of children it also is a wonderful demonstration of the law of unintended consequences.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Wikis and blogs

I have been thinking about wikis and blogs - and other parts of Web 2.0 - lately, and thinking that perhaps the ideas are not so new after all. The illustration here is taken from the talmud, which is around 1500 years old. It is somewhere between a blog (additive with an original posting and then a series of comments) and a wiki (postings updated and altered as time goes on, but possible to see the history).

Starting with a small piece of the Mishna there are a whole series of commentries on, written over hundreds of years and many places. Commentaries are continuing to be written on it, so that the discussion continues. An interesting article showing some the parts and a translation of a page (though with embedded Hebrew in the translation) can be found at

Friday, June 02, 2006

Personal learning environments

Like Graham Attwell I too have been asked to produce a paper for the PLE workshop next week. My thoughts are below, and comments are most welcome.

Why Personal Learning Environments?

This paper looks at some of the drivers behind Personal Learning Environments (PLE), and what their implications are. This is followed by a brief discussion of the learning environment as it currently stands and how I believe that it will change over the next 5 or so years. The conclusion that I arrive at is that PLEs are at best a temporary phenomenon as what we are aiming at is a personal environment covering work, leisure and learning and that there is a need to be able to integrate all these better. Within this environment there will be some specifically educational tools.


Drivers for PLEs fall into two categories: social / political / educational and technical and it is worth looking at each of these and their implications for PLEs

Social / Political / Educational Environment

There are a number of important changes in the social and political environments that will have an impact on PLEs and their adoption; some will encourage their use whilst others may act as barriers and it is important to be able to use the former and be aware of the latter and if necessary attempt to circumvent them.

  • Assessment is a huge barrier to change in education, and never more so than now, with more and more assessment (SATS, GCSE, AS, A2, modules and degrees). Assessment drives the curriculum as schools, colleges and universities encourage students to do well at their examinations rather than concentrating on education. Many assessment agencies are terrified of cheating in general and plagiarism in particular. This may affect their views of PLEs, and they need to be actively sold to assessment and QA agencies.

  • E-Portfolios are currently being pushed heavily by the government, and hence by government backed agencies. Currently there is little clarity as to the function of portfolios as they can be used for any of three purposes which are difficult to reconcile and require different forms of control and ownership.

    • Reflection - Here students are expected to keep work, including work in progress, and to reflect upon it. It means that much of the content of the portfolio will be private, or semi-private and will include things that have not worked as well as things that have worked. This has been widely used in the art and design community for over 100 years.

    • Assessment - The portfolio will contain that which the student wishes the assessor (tutor) to see. It may include intermediate stages if that is required, but will be intended to gain good marks rather than as a resource to learn from. It may (but need not) contain the assessments, transcripts etc.

    • Publication - For use as a CV it would contain the best pieces of work (not all work that needs to be assessed) and transcripts, grades, awards etc.

  • Life-long learning implies that learners will be moving between schools, colleges and universities and building up their skills and knowledge base to meet their own personal goals (work and leisure related) and here may be one of the main drivers for PLEs. However, it needs to be noted that life-long learning has dropped down the government's agenda (at least in England) with the priority being learners under 30 at the moment.

  • Personal choice is another big buzz phrase at the moment, however as has been frequently pointed out it often conflicts with efficiency (a choice of schools implies empty places for instance).

  • Personalised learning (also referred to as child centred learning and student centred learning) is seen to be of growing importance, with a recognition that each learner is coming from a different understanding and has different learning goals. However, this is contradicted by the National Curriculum.

  • National Curriculum defines what, and increasingly how, children should learn with the literacy and numeracy hours dictating teaching at the micro level and the new requirement to teach reading with synthetic phonics. There are also effectively national curricula at higher levels defined by GCSE and "A" level curricula and on many university courses by validating bodies (such as the general medical council).

Technical environment

There are a number of developments in the technical landscape that will have a significant impact on education and these are not all pointing in the same way.

  • Portals offer an integrated environment that provides access to a wide variety of tools and information sources through a single (web) front-end and increasingly integrated back-end in order to provide value-added services. However, portals belong to institutions and primarily provide access to their resources and working methods. While portals can offer significant amounts of personalisation this is within limits set by the system owner.

  • Web services allow applications to be broken down into smaller units with standard interfaces so that applications can be built from a variety of sources and allow institutions or users to assemble a set of services that meet their specific needs. It is not clear (to me at least) how big an impact web services will have on the way that applications are developed and more importantly on users.

  • Application services that host applications for clients are becoming increasingly important form of outsourcing, and are likely to be particularly important for schools and smaller colleges who may not be able to retain all the expertise that is needed to manage all their applications for themselves. This can be done by commercial organisations, clusters of schools or by a university or college for the schools in its area.

  • Web 2.0 which is moving the web from being transmissive and concerned with information to being concerned with community building, collaboration and sharing.

  • Ubiquity and mobility means that people are now working with varied types of device (desktop and laptop computers, PDAs and smartphones for instance).

Ownership and control

One of the key tensions that will become more apparent over the next few years is ownership, and there are several aspects to this: ownership of the information and ownership of the assessment / validation processes and consequently ownership of learning.

Ownership of information

There are three types of information that are relevant here, and they have very different legal, social and educational implications.

  • Learning information - including learning objects are created and owned by individuals, publishers and institutions. The rights that students have to use these vary enormously from those published under a creative commons license to those under very restrictive licenses. However, once a student has imported the information into their PLE they are going to want to be able to access it whenever they review the content of that unit. If they are sharing information with others, because they are discussing their learning at work for instance, they will want to be able to share all relevant content. There is thus a huge issue of property rights that needs resolving.

  • Student created information Students create considerable amounts of information in their learning including notes, essays, project reports, portfolios and so forth. In schools there are often limits on who they can share that information with; many schools have blogs that are only visible within the school. Again, with a PLE the student has far more control over what they can do, and this will cause conflicts between those that want to control what students may do and the students themselves.

  • Assessment information It is logical for students to want to be able to keep all their learning information together, including grades and awards. However, clearly they cannot be allowed to edit that information. It could be that students only hold a copy or that the information is digitally signed, but a solution will be needed to this.

Ownership of assessment / validation process

Assessment (especially summative assessment) are highly controlled and fiercely guarded; indeed the awarding of degrees is universities' unique selling point. Only they (plus now the Law Society) are allowed to award them. Through their oligopoly this gives universities huge power over their students. The same can be said of students in compulsory education.

Assessment bodies and their agents (schools) have huge power where education (and especially the resulting qualifications) are instrumental. This has effectively meant that what the university or school says goes. If you don't like it then you don't get your qualification! This, for instance, has allowed universities to continue with attendance based qualifications rather than competence based ones, and why the selection of VLE is often made for the way it will work with the student record system rather than for its educational benefits; although to be fair these are poorly understood at the moment.

Development issues

The question then is what type of environment do students want, and conversely what type of environment are they going to get and in particular where will control lie? I cannot pretend to have the answer to these questions, but here are some pointers which I think will determine the shape of environments for the next few years. Institutions will not be willing to let go their control, so PLEs will have to adapt to the environment that is being used by institutions (whether that is a VLE, portal or e-portfolio). This has huge implications for the way in which PLEs are designed and implemented.

  • They will need to work with content elsewhere; and especially that which is accessed through institutional portals and VLEs

  • They will have to offer considerable benefits beyond those offered by institutional systems if they are to gain currency.

  • They will have to be extremely simple to install, configure, maintain and backup as without that most students will not be willing to take the time and effort to use them instead of a system provided up and running by their institution. This has the further implication that most students are likely to run a fairly "vanilla" installation unless it is extremely easy to use alternative and additional tools and these interoperate seamlessly with tools that peers and teachers are using.

  • They will need to interface seamlessly with a wide variety of PLEs (including both commercial and open source ones) - so that they can retrieve and post information to them. This implies not so much being standards based as supporting whatever APIs other systems support.

There is an important corollary of the last two points, that there is a grave danger of PLEs, and their tools, only being able to offer the highest common factor and thereby stifling innovation and preventing users from doing what they want. If one party is using a collaborative tool which offers a series of additional features these will be unusable unless the other party is using a tool which offers the same functionality. However, when new tools come out few will be using them and the need to work with others may delay the use of these features.

VLEs, PLEs and PEs

The other problem that I have with PLEs is that they are addressing part of the problem and therefore not solving it. The answer must be to create a personal environment that supports work, leisure and learning and integrates them in a holistic manner so that it is easy to move between them and to organise all ones information, communication and collaboration in a way that suits the users working methods.

PLEs are a step in this direction, but need to bear in mind that they must be extensible to include the areas of life. In effect becoming the users portal on the world. This leads me to a number of design conclusions that will help create a workable model for PLEs.


From the above I would suggest that PLEs need to have the following characteristics if they are too succeed

  • The architecture needs to be very open in order to support the widest possible number of tools - both educational and other; including tools like MSN, yahoo and aim, search tools etc. etc.

  • It must be easy to install and configure and as it will grow with the user easy to adapt as needs and experience change and new tools become available.

  • Information should be held on a server (possibly with local caches) as the user may want to use it on a number of devices (home, work, education - PC, PDA, smartphone), and this will also provide back-up and security. Note that I am not suggesting who should own the server (ISP, educational institution, LEA, employer or government or some other agency).

  • The PLE will be holding a considerable volume of data requiring a complex organisation and good tools for understanding it. There are a few such tools about, for instance TheBrain ( and many potential ways that might be helpful in representing and presenting data are shown at Visual Complexity (

  • It must be possible to move all information from one PE to another, as we will not get it right first time and users will not wish to be tied to one supplier (however friendly they are this year). Also, the tools that suit a primary or high school child may not be the best for a postgraduate or for CPD.

  • It should be capable of being incorporated within institutional portals (both at work and at education).

  • It needs to naturally support a variety of different pedagogic approaches and learning styles and working methods and different ways of learning.

  • it needs to work with multiple data / information / document sources including personal ones, college ones and work ones.

  • It needs to support the user in keeping confidential information confidential (eg. work related information going into public areas).

  • It needs to enable users to publish in numerous different ways information that they want to, including as each of the three types of portfolio discussed above.

Finally, and most importantly of all, there is a need to engage with stakeholders that really drive the educational processes: funders, examination boards, educational institutions, publishers, LEAs. Without that PLEs will be a glorious failure.

Monday, May 08, 2006

An alternative to wind up computers, or are they taking the piss

I have for a long time wanted a computer (and mobile phone etc) that did not require constant re-charging as the battery got flat. Given that perpetual motion seems to be off the cards (I blame the second law of thermodynamics personally) there is a need for an alternative. Solar energy is a problem with PCs, as when they are in use most of the visible area is either screen or keyboard. Windup computers are quite hard work, so this may be the solution.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Portales en la educaciĆ³n superior: conceptos y modelos

My first paper in a foreign language. The paper I wrote for the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education: Portals in higher education: concepts & models available at has now been translated into Spanish (and the abstract into Catalan as well). It available from I am not able to comment on the translation. 1

Friday, April 21, 2006

web 2.0 and personal learning experience

An interesting blog posting from Scott Wilson on web 2.0 and personal learning experience.

However, I think that it is too focused on the technology, and it assumes that everyone will behave like the techno-adventurers who have adopted web 2.0 technology (blogs, wikis, shared bookmarking etc.). As the powerpoint was given as part of a presentation which I did not attend I am missing some of the context.

First, a couple of general points. I think that much of what he has to say is about more mature, motivated and well resourced students. I think that little of what he says is relevant to, for instance, infants, or disaffected learners or to those who are re-entering learning (that is a large swathe of further education students, who may lack many of the basic skills - including both literacy and information literacy). However, I presume that it is intended to apply from somewhere in primary or early secondary through higher education and on into work-based learning, CPD etc.

Of particular interest are his predictions for 2010, which are worth looking at in some detail, so here goes - in the spirit of friendly discussion, I hope.

Prediction 1: By 2010 at the latest, all learners accessing education will already possess a portable network device with substantial storage capacity, wireless/mobile internet access, processing capacity, and context adaptability. They will expect ubiquitous wireless/mobile access.

If we ignore the groups above that I have suggested that the whole talk does not apply to, then I think that this is largely true. However, it masks a huge range in both the nature of the equipment from a smartphone with only a telephone keypad through PDAs / smartphones with touch screens and or keyboards to laptops and tablet PCs. As well as the range of equipment that is implied by this there will also be a range in what people want to use their devices for, from primarily as a mobile phone through to meeting the majority of their computing needs. It also masks a huge range in sophistication of use of these devices from those who are comfortable and happy using computers for a wide range of activities and make use of Web 2.0 type technologies to those who are unsure of computers and would never post on a blog. This range will still be there in 2010, and the nature of education in schools (at least in the UK) does little to help with this, given the concentration on individual examined work and the inability to share course work at all for fear of being done for cheating.

Prediction 2: Learners will expect education services and resources to be capable of being timeshifted to suit their schedules, rather than the other way around. They will expect the ability to mix, re-arrange, and otherwise adapt educational offerings to suit their needs.

This is already true for much of the learning in universities and colleges, where lectures, tutorials, and laboratory work make up a minority of the learning, with discussions in the coffee room, working in the library, writing essays or reports at home etc. etc. occupying much of the study time and mostly done at times to suit the student. I am not sure that there will be an enormous shift here, as much of the time that is constrained by the university is either social working (tutorials) or constrained by access to resources (laboratories). If the former is to be dynamic (synchronous) then it has to be timetabled and thus it may not be able to suit the convenience of all the members of the group. Similarly, laboratories have limited resources and experiments have to be set up and timetabled. The main activity which it may be possible to timeshift is lectures - a notoriously poor form of teaching, but let that go. Even then, it is not clear that a podcast is as good as a lecture, and many people use them to go over rather than replace a lecture. Similarly, if we are to have cohorts (and most pedagogists argue that learning from other members of the group is amongst the most powerful forms of learning) then there needs to be some form of timetable to help keep people working approximately in step with each other. Therefore, there are strong pedagogic arguments for keeping both an overall timetable for the group and for some activities.

Prediction 3: Learners will be increasingly media-aware, and will be immersed in participatory culture through TV, radio, and the internet. They will be more experienced communicators in a range of media, and will expect a high degree of participation. They will already have their own publishing channels.

I think that this is a generalisation from the behaviour of the current enthusiasts. I am yet to be convinced that most people are naturally participatory. Of the huge many blogs that have been registered how many have ever had more than three postings? I suspect only a small percentage (including at least two I remember registering and then forgetting about). Similarly, most people will continue to be essentially passive consumers of media, restricting their active participation to voting for big brother and similar shows. We live and work in a milieu where these things are taken as the norm.

My suspicion is that a large number of people will use things like socially, but will not use similar things for learning. I can remember a few years ago there was a suggestion that as students were all using mobile phones and txt we should use txt wrt in teaching. However, I argued then, that people are moded - and know that what is suitable for personal or leisure use is not necessarily appropriate or useful for learning. The same may be true here.

I think that this will be helped by "walled gardens" where students can share only with people they want to (their peers), and don’t have to worry about looking a fool to the whole world. I also suspect that the situation is very different in the USA because of the different culture - where "show and tell" encourages students to be more open with their ideas.

Prediction 4a: Learners won’t expect to pay for technology, if anything they’ll expect to be paid for using it.

I am not sure what is meant by this one, while at the moment we are getting our mobile phones included in the contract, and many online services are free I think that we will continue to pay for, and expect to pay for, much of our technology. Open source will not have won by 2010, Microsoft will still be the dominant desktop operating system and office suite, and probably also on PDAs and smartphones.

Perhaps, people will begin to understand that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that the costs are simply diverted elsewhere - whether into the mobile phone contract or the price paid for goods and services that are paying for these services through advertising. Though, somehow I suspect that most people will not have wised-up by then.

Prediction 4b: Educational services will be expected to integrate with leisure and work services, just like everything else does.

Again, I am not sure what this means - having not been at the talk, but either this relates to prediction 2 about timeshifting, or as that has already been discussed this is about a deeper level of integration. A lot of this is happening already with work based learning, accreditation of prior experience etc. I would be interested to see models of how this will be taken further in the next four years, and I suspect that one of the things that will do most to hold it back is the extraordinarily conservative nature of assessment in this country (with "A" levels seen as a "gold standard" and many banging on about back to basics, drop in standards, not like it was when I was a child / student etc.).

Prediction 4c: Learners will already be part of several online communities when they enter education, and will continue to operate in these networks, and rely upon them for peer recommendations and reputation.

Yes, undoubtedly, but they will also want to build new ones around their study and the shared interest there. Both will be both online and face-to-face as well.

Visual Complexity

Visual Complexity - - is one of the best sites I know exploring the issues around representing complex data. This is a huge problem for all of us, whether we are considering information on the internet, or understanding an area of research or teaching or learning. There are a wide variety of tools that can help, from mind mapping and concept mapping tools to a huge variety of other methods for exploring complexity.

It currently presents nearly 320 different ways of presenting complex data, many of them dynamic allowing the exploration and understanding of the data and underlying models.

Among my favourite are a travel time London Underground map, which shows the journey time from your selected station to the rest of the network.
and Dreamlines simply because it is very relaxing.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The origins of evaluation

"If the problem of fitting the New World into the scheme of history as outlined in the scriptures was the most intractable of matters, explorers and missionaries alike found that, if evangelisation were to proceed, some understanding of the customs and traditions of the native people was required. Thus began their often-elaborate inquiries into Indian history, land tenure and inheritance laws, in a sense the beginning of applied anthropology. The early missionaries, fortified by a naive belief in the natural goodness of man, assumed that native minds were "simple, meek, vulnerable and virtuous" or, in the words of Bartolome de las Casas, tablas rasas, blank slates "on which the true faith could easily be inscribed". The missionaries were to be disappointed. In his History of the Indies of the New Spain (1581), the Dominican fray Diego Duran argued that the Indian mind could not be changed or corrected "unless we are informed about all the kinds of religion which they practiced ... And therefore a great mistake was made by those who, with much zeal but little prudence, burnt and destroyed at the beginning all their ancient pictures. This left us so much in the dark that they can practice idolatry before our very eyes". Such a view became a justification for the detailed surveys of pre-conquest history, religion and society undertaken by clerics in the later sixteenth century. The Spanish Crown was intimately involved and in the process introduced the questionnaire, bombarding their officials in the Indies with this new tool of government. (my emphasis)

Ideas: A history from fire to Freud, Watson p444 (half a paragraph)

So evaluation was invented as a means to be able to persecute the American Indians better! And so often it has barely moved from there, and evaluation is used to control rather than to liberate,

This has to do with power relationships. Where evaluation is imposed from the outside then there is resistance to cooperation and to the conclusions. But worst of all it can be seen as an imperialistic activity about imposing enforced conversion to a new religion, or at least new working practices.

And how often does an evaluation have the luxury of the time to fully explore what the alternatives are, what the users want, and what the implications of any proposed action (or lack of action) really are?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

More readable academic papers

I have just been reviewing some academic papers, and that can be depressing. Not only are many of the papers low on content, but they are frequently very poorly written too.

This is not a new phenomen, as according to Watson in Ideas: From Fire to Freud (p493) the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was the first academic journal, and the Fellows demanded good English in the papers, so they appointed the poet John Dryden to a committee to oversee the writing style of scientists.

What a brilliant idea.

and which poet should have the job now?