29 Oct 2007

Learning leads to... more learning

I've been in Turkey on an extremely intensive five day study visit of Ankara Vocational Education and Training projects and institutions. It was enlightening to spend some time in the field among the young and not so young that are the object of many learning initiatives.

Especially since in Turkey there's so much investment of new education products going on, I had the opportunity to see the many stages of education development. During the different insights I gathered in numerous meetings, one was this: it takes a lot of learning to enhance the learning experience. And it usually starts with languages.

Perhaps in the past learning could be straightforward. There would be some subject you could be taught about in a certain time frame.

No longer is this the case. Acquiring knowledge is a much more incremental process, where the process is often part of the objective. So when I want to learn about a political structure of a country, I can do this by reading books about that country. This is learning old style.

I can also visit Wiki pages in the country's language(s), and count on the fact that some of the key concepts will be in a language I can comprehend. Which they will often be. I can try translating certain parts through one of the excellent translation sites. But all this means that I will first have to learn the language of Wiki, the way it works, the value of the contribution system.

In this case, my seeking of knowledge will make me acquire other knowledge first.

In the same vein, as a teacher teaching about the political structure of a country will it no longer be the teacher's job to write or provide books about the subject, but to teach how to access the available sources. The way Wiki works, the value of blogs or the relativity of them, the journalistic principles.

And of course how a library works, but perhaps this will also be available in accessible form so a teacher won't have to make it up all over again.

It's the teacher as coach idea, but it is of course broader than that. It's also the value of teaching respect for other ways, other languages, and an insight in the particularities of learning another than one's own language.

The net is multi-language and instead of being a drawback, this can be an aid to understanding.

When I was in China, it was obvious many Chinese are pragmatic about this; they use English when speaking to foreigners. Of course they are well aware of the fact that Chinese will get them very far in a large part of their world, but they know that by learning the lingua franca, more information and opportunities become available.

It is a message I can't stress enough: languages are a good way to speed up learning. If I want to learn something about the latest technology, do I have to confine myself to my own language to look for sources? Or can I use more to get to understanding faster? If I want to ask a question to an engineer, will it not help if I understood her or his language?

There is so much language learning material readily available, it would be short-sighted not to use it. I've been learning Portuguese both formally and online and in the twelve years since I started being interested in it, so much has become available. And this for the fifth language in the world. Just imagine what you could find in English!


22 Oct 2007

The Killer App for Iphone

During a discussion about the possibilities of the Iphone this weekend I came up with the ultimate killer application.

The problem is, it already exists. The good thing about this is that it will not take long to develop.

It's not a software application but a hardware addition for the Iphone. And why is it important for e-learning? Because it would make the ubiquitous computer a reality. Ubiquitous computing already exists since quite some time. But to make it the most used tool around, it lacks something. It lacks vision.

You can take that quite literally. The tiny computers of today are exactly that, tiny. Screens between 3 and 5 inch, making it difficult to read on them for any longer period of time. I'm not talking about space technology like projection into glasses or goggles or something as 70's as that. I'm talking the perfect hardware tool to go with your Iphone. It's so cool everybody will want it and of course, will want the phone as well. You can take online courses anywhere, read and write blogs and all this with a device that fits in the palm of your hand.

Suppose you could put your Iphone into a small cradle on your desk, in your car, in the subway. Suppose this cradle contains a high definition beamer which works up to 6 feet or 2 metres with power cord and cooling, or 1 foot / 30 cm without. Bingo. You've got your new desktop computer. Of course, the cradle would have to be almost as small as the Iphone itself. Otherwise it would just sit on your desk. But for some people, this would do. A cradle at work, one at home, all with the same, OSX powered computer. You could produce them with a folding keyboard or with that old MIT invention, the handheld keyboard.

Now wouldn't that be the killer app? One Iphone for all your computer needs. I can envision shopping malls with cradles for friends enjoying their favorite you-tube clips, or computer learning centres without computers.

White spaces on walls would be used intensely for projection. People would share their experiences much more than they do now. We can discuss what's on the wall and feel good about meeting others we can discuss things with.

So, who'll build this wonderful device? I'll be the first to buy one.

19 Oct 2007

Collaborating online is so much richer

This is a wonderful collaboration project by 200 students. Their message is short but not so simple. I consider it more of a state of affairs for youngsters today.

I wonder what their ideals are and their ideas of their future? They can do so much but will they do it?

I'm hoping everyone will get convinced of the value of peer learning such as in Facebook/ Myspace/ Addyourfavoritetoolhere. Unfortunately, a lot of young people are told that what they consider learning is a waste of time. Let's all stop doing that. But can we?

18 Oct 2007

Wiki's about mass and me being part of it.

A couple of days ago, I was talking about wikis and we all agreed that they are wonderful. And so they are. I use wiki a lot, find much on it in different languages and I find the quality generally excellent.

So I contribute regularly to wikis, don't I? Well, no. It seems I haven't yet found the wiki that arouses my curiosity enough to want to contribute to it. I've been thinking about organizing a wiki for our extranet, but I find it hard to think of things to write about.

I realized that everything I want to find already exists. Of course, I am a regular contributor to several knowledge databases. Some of the subjects I write about are boats and sailing , general politics etc. But I rarely add knowledge to wiki-style environments. So why don't I? Not because I have nothing to tell, surely. It's due to me not having an interest in contributing to a knowledge base available to the outside world.

I'm not saying I'm not interested in sharing. It's just that I haven't found that one topic in which I am specialized enough to write about. Often we need an external incentive to persuade us to invest time in something. So if someone can provide me with an external stimulus to share what I know, I'd be happy to comply to this and tell you what I know.

Now only to find those interested in my knowledge to convince me. And then I still have to find the time to do this on top of all my other activities. Isn't everybody constantly weighing time and interests?

This is why web 2.0 will only keep working when enough of us often enough decide in favor of spending time on this mutual project to keep it going. This mass of people can never be wrong - in the long run.

17 Oct 2007

Towards a model of knowledge transfer with e-tools

An important issue with e-learning projects and projects in general is follow-up. Many good projects stop after a short cycle and its results are rarely used for follow-up projects.

After a walkthrough meeting I attended last year, a very good presentation was made by Maria Kochanska, who hosted the meeting. Her mindmaps are here: http://www.le.ac.uk/beyonddistance/Files/Mind%20map.ppt#256,1,Dia 1 1

One of the conclusions is exactly the same as the topic I address here: We don't try hard enough letting others benefit from our experience. When I suggested yesterday in yet another workshop we use the available knowledge more efficiently by providing a database of people with certain experiences, the replies I got weren't all positive.

Often people are afraid they will become a commodity for too many others. My response to this: it's a market, baby. How are we going to make the results of projects known if the people that were involved in them are afraid to show themselves? And if enough others are interested, what you know becomes valuable and you can price it. And if you really want only to disseminate to very few, price it high.

In e-learning this model has been adopted from the start. Since the folks involved in e-learning are aware of their price, they routinely charge for what they have to offer. This is not all bad, as long as you adopt a balanced strategy. If some of what you learned was publicly funded, it's only fair to charge less to public bodies. Who knows how you'll benefit from what you've shown to others?

An even better model would be to transfer your knowledge to organizations, as they are generally more capable to retain knowledge. But the scale is also important here. Large organizations tend to protect their embedded knowledge stronger so perhaps it's advisable to transfer what you know to people in medium-sized companies or institutions.

Working out a model to distribute costs for knowledge transfer is one of the more poignant tasks, which I feel is certainly worth pursuing. Certainly e-tools are very helpful for this. I'll try to elaborate on this later.

16 Oct 2007

Back to school

As I was preparing my talk on portals, one of the messages I wanted to bring across turned out to be this: All the above 30's had to learn how to write. All over again. My first writing experience was over thirty years ago. My second round of learning to write was about ten years ago, when I started writing articles.

And now, it's the third time. I've resisted long and hard. My website (all four versions of it) is still written old style. I still work a lot of my time on documents that I write alone and then distribute for discussion.

So I have to start writing 2.0 style. Short bursts, open documents with room for input. Collaboration is key, and I'm still learning how to do it in my own workspace.

So how do others make this transition? Now that's what I want to know.

11 Oct 2007

Who are we?

This is a very funny cartoon. Will our children be named after computer characters in the future? Or is this already happening? With all of our aliases and user-ID's, it can get hard to maintain ones identity.

But seriously, with all the identity management related problems, how can we keep ourselves from developing split personalities? I am sure many of us have already developed interesting sides of ourselves in parallel universes. I am aware of at least four or five identities of mine which may share traits but don't match entirely.

I am several people. Everyone is. But once we start roaming the electronic seas, we develop prolifically. In an online game I may be a really obnoxious person which in real life I generally ain't. Gaming is a very good example. How many of us are an entirely different being while gaming? You can be a clumsy shy real life person with an entirely cool avatar and who can tell what you really are? People often get trapped in their bodies - even though I never believed in the head-body divide. This works similarly with computers and communicating through them.

One of the truly new ways in which the human race is developing, gives us the ability to become part of communities which value us in an entirely different way from the perceived normal ways. You can be a highly valued scholar in a certain subject, even though you never acquired any formal degree for it.
But as always, the proof is in the eating, and sometimes the personalities have to meet. So it's perhaps a good idea to smuggle some personal traits into your avatars. Otherwise you get what I observed several years ago in a real life meeting with a group of chatters. One of the coolest people in the room turned out to be a very shy, quiet young man who never spoke during the entire evening. And afterwards, he was still very popular but in private some of his remarks were commented in the light of his appearance. Should he not have shown himself? Au contraire, he should have shown more of his personality in his online musings so the contrast would have been more understandable. After all, chatting is always also about showing those parts of yourself you rarely get to show IRL.

Similarly, the online teacher benefits from using her or his life as material for an e-learning presence. The chance of actually meeting students always exists and don't all of us want to be valued for who we are? Our personal story is full of interesting details that may not be of much interest to the people around us, but become much more interesting to those we know from afar. And students always want to know about their teachers, from high school classes and its iconic figures which everyone remembers to the public speakers we sometimes go to lectures from, who say things we hadn't heard before. So let them know who you are and who knows what the result might be?

9 Oct 2007

From competency to portfolio

Very interesting speech I saw. How to start with competency-based learning and end with a personal portfolio. Pdf of the presentation with Dutch captions here. Any e-learning concept should entrail portfolios.

8 Oct 2007

E-learning: from hard to easy to hard

Learning used to be very hard. In a lot of places in this world it still is. After you made it to school, which could well take several hours, you have to stay awake even though you already were since 4 a.m. Teaching often occurs in a language quite unlike your own. Different accents, pronunciation or a different language altogether, it's all very common.
Even in my own country, up until 50 years ago the majority had to take its education in the language of one of the minorities. It should come as no wonder this kind of stifled development of this majority and led to numerous problems, one of which is a still existing feeling of inadequacy among its members. And I should warn you that this group has since long become the major economic as well as cultural reference point in the country. Only in recent years has the suppressing minority woken up to the fact that it is wise to learn some of the language of the majority in my country.
But, as this shows, I digress. After going to the classroom and learning all this very valuable and interesting knowledge, all was not well. The learned had to be put to work. And by this I mean both the knowledge and the person. And as educated people tend to get better jobs where they can use the acquired wisdom, this has always been a sure way of socially upward movement - up to a certain point, on which I will elaborate later.
In the 1960's a small elite of citizens climbed the social ladder for the first time in recent Western history. Since I am not a historian and also don't know about other periods when this type of event occured, I guess it was unique. It was a very revolutionary activity which was the result of years of social struggle achieved by the social-democratic and communist tendencies in the West.
They had to overcome the European language barriers, the corporatism of the higher classes and their own cultural background. Those who achieved this hard ordeal, were convinced that for their struggle to succeed, the education system had to become more democratic. This means very specifically that access to education had to become guaranteed and progress through the school had to be detached from cultural and hereditary background. the first was done by heightening the compulsory schooling age to first 16, then 18. The latter was never reached. Steps were made in the right direction but the corporative organizations were and are very reluctant to give up their natural born power in society. And, of course, men were unwilling to yield to women.
So those with better educations now started working and moving up the social ladder. Two systems held them back. One is the glass ceiling, the other is fear. These are well known phenomena and I will not talk about them here. Just ask any Muslim if they know about fear and they will tell you about it. Don't use the word racism as this is just fear-induced behavior. Ask any woman about the glass ceiling and she will say what she experienced. Don't use sexism as this is also about fear of becoming irrelevant.

Thern, all of a sudden, there was so much learning going on in the 1980's and 1990's that learning had become easy. There have never been more books, experts and public information about learning as there have been in the last twenty years. The yuppies came and they were convinced learning, just like everything else, was easy, though still not much fun. What they figured out is that even though learning wasn't necessarily fun, the same tools could be used for fun things. I'm talking about computers and learning via computers or e-learning.
As a life-long learner I have worked with computers since age 14. I owned my first at 16, second at 20 and third, fourth etc. up till now, when I use my 4 computers alternatively. I lost count of all the computers I've used and they go well into the hundreds. And I'm not exaggerating, I tried to count them and lost track at 700.

And guess what? Every single one of them was useful and has been used for learning, by me. Not all were fun, though. Let me try to give some examples. The first one, an Apple II (in secondary school) taught me how to draw in colour by mixing coloured planes. The second one, clone IBM PC, showed me how it would not keep anything in memory when switched off. I learned a valuable lesson about electronics. After several others in school, at friends places, I used an Amiga which has learned me probably 10% of what I know today. I got hold of the Internet when it was still Usenet. Then there are hundreds and hundreds of computers, each teaching me something about themselves and the world. In China, I learned to use the Internet in Chinese in several internetcafés. I learned some Chinese words on my computer before going there.

So after this personal biographical history class (What have you learned?) I know that learning has never been easier.

I'll repeat it: learning is easy. By this I mean using the tools for learning has become easy. Most people can click a mouse, while pointing the thing may still be a challenge to some. The combination of internet and computing has brought a wealth of information to our homes, this is certainly not new. To acquire knowledge, we only have to use the available information. Grab it, digest it, arrange it.

So how come I've managed to go back to hard in my title? Well, that's because of the role of the teacher. When I grew up, the teacher claimed he or she knew everything we could learn. It was a very comforting world, especially with the Russians on our doorstep (but not inside the house because our intelligence forces kept them out).
Now we know the truth is not as simple. We know from our plentiful sources that a supply of information is not enough to assure us knowledge. From all of the available information, I know that the communists were harmless, murdering bastards, who failed economically while shooting capsules into space with technology that has until today never been bettered, all the while reading the most refined philosophical treatises and sitting on the most advanced designs in cars everybody in the Western world is now regarding as the most sought for object that doesn't drive and was never owned by any of the people that built them in terrible conditions and inhospitable factories which now leave behind wastelands which will remain deadly for decades to come.
You think I'm exaggerating? It's all checked and verified on the Net. The key word here is obviously complexity.

When information is written into knowledge, people transmogrify it. They transform it while adding some of their own insight, history, opinion. And if you already knew what I meant by transmogrify, this means I have not been telling much news. The information after transformation becomes more interesting to me while apparently losing none of its verity. It still seems to contain the same informational truths as before I started editing it. I could add some of my new knowledge to a wiki and as long as others don't call me a liar, my version of what I gathered is verifiably truthful.

While we lose the authorities (the authors until the early sixties) we gain a multitude in which everyone is looking for a personal aspect to internalize the mass of information while still maintaining the belief that any truth is first and foremost personal. Personal as in attributable to me or somebody else as a person. And so we make our own unique truth while we look for others to tell us our truth is a more interesting one than the one next door. As Wired wrote in "Capturing Eyeballs", getting others to regard you as someone worth looking for becomes the highest value.

But when you're 14, and are used to computers as being all around you since age 2, parents lose focus as primary eyeball catchers and information agents. Then you are faced with the biggest challenge in your life: Where shall I look for my knowledge? What shall I learn and how high will I value it? And how volatile will I allow it to be?

And that, undoubtedly, is hard.