27 December 2011

Steve Jobs, Apple ... and education

(c) Katerha
I just finished reading Walter Isaacson's superb biography on Steve Jobs - the first full book I read on my e-reader, btw.  I'm not an Apple fan.  I find many of their products overpriced and I don't like the way they lock you into their software and file types.  Nevertheless, I decided to read the book, because of Jobs' achievements, co-founding a great and enduring company and disrupting various industries (animation, music, pc, phones, publishing, retail).

The end-to-end integration of hardware and software that distinguishes Apple from rivals such as Microsoft (before) and Google (now)is an important theme in the book.  In an open system operating systems would be licensed to different hardware manufacturers and hardware from different manufacturers would be easy to connect.  Adopting an open system has lead to a dominant position of Microsoft and may lead to a similar dominance of the Android OS.  An open system may also - over the long term - result in more innovation, because more people have access to the source code, resulting in more competition.  Apple still has a stellar team of designers and engineers, but it was the 'magical genius' of Jobs to focus on a few key products and have an incredible eye for perfection that glued everything together. Jobs himself is not an engineer and praises himself (and Apple) to be at the intersection of technology and 'liberal arts', giving them a better vantage point from which to detect people's wishes and desires.

According to Jobs, a closed system is more than a clever strategy to lure the consumer into using exclusively Apple products. Apple's vision is to create a seamless consumer experience, focused on simplicity and user-friendliness. iPhones suffer much less from baffling error messages, faulty apps or malware.  Separating hardware from software would reduce that vision.  Most people may well prefer a products that looks and works perfectly and don't feel the urge to connect  different systems and start tinkering.  

Apple was very early to recognize the 'digital hub' strategy with a computer, and afterwards the cloud functioning as a digital storage place for data on iPods, iPhones etc. More and more people have multiple digital devices and Apple's tight integration of software and hardware has clearly served them well, overpassing Microsoft in 2010 as the most valuable technology company.

Jobs has a strong-voiced opinion about nearly everything, including education.  Isaacson recalls a discussion between Jobs and Bill Gates during which they discuss education.  They both agree that technology has influenced education much less than it has other domains, such as medicine or law. Jobs mentions two main challenges:

1. Teachers should be treated as professionals and not as industry assembly workers. Principals should have more power to set the curriculum and to hire and fire teachers, based on their performance.  Schools should be open until 6 p.m. and 11 months per year.  This reminds me of a post in Larry Cuban's blog in which he quotes two interviews with Steve Jobs:

I used to think that technology could help education. I’ve probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I’ve had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.

The most important thing is a person. A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity; and machines cannot do that in the same way that people can. The elements of discovery are all around you. You don’t need a computer. Here – why does that fall? You know why? Nobody in the entire world knows why that falls. We can describe it pretty accurately but no one knows why. I don’t need a computer to get a kid interested in that, to spend a week playing with gravity and trying to understand that and come up with reasons why.

2. Jobs does see an important role for digital learning materials, all available on one iPad, replacing the scores of heavy and over-priced textbooks. The book mentions it was one of his dreams to shake up the education market by developing digital resources for the iPad, not to replace teachers, but to enable them to deliver more personal instruction and motivational feedback.  The profusion of (educational) apps for the iPad may soon very well shake up the educational market.  As Audrey Watters notes in Hack Education:

There's also an argument to be made, I think, that the explosion in educational apps for the Apple iOS ecosystem has changed everything -- or at least, it's helped change the ed-tech business landscape this year. If you look at the bestselling educational apps in the App Store, for example, you'll see titles from startups and small companies, not just from the educational publishing giants. There's the promise too, of course, that iPads will replace those heavy textbooks; no doubt, the educational publishers are scrambling to go digital, to stay relevant.
iPhone for sale in Phnom Penh

Despite the premium price, iPhones and iPads appear to be popular in Cambodia as well, with many people preferring them to cheaper devices and even going to lengths to acquire genuine ones instead of ubiquitously available fakes. It would be interesting to compare the effect of distributing (or subsidizing the purchase of) iPads compared to traditional notebooks to lecturers in teacher training colleges.  The visual attractiveness and amazing intuitiveness of iPads could lure teacher trainers into exploring multimedia for education, or it could be nothing more than a novelty effect, quickly wearing off if underlying barriers are not addressed.

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22 December 2011

Adult Learning and Professional Development in Cambodia

Workshops and trainings are favourite instruments of donor organisations to develop capacity with their target groups.  Also VVOB Cambodia regularly organizes workshops, usually trainings on pedagogy and multimedia geared towards teacher trainers and government staff.  Measuring their success is notoriously hard.

Read further here (new blog address)
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Vocational training in Cambodia

Technical and vocational training has received renewed attention by donors after a strong focus on general education in the 1990s.  The author focuses on the specific Cambodian context.  In Cambodia the formal vocational education (VE) component is very weak.  Only 0.7% of the country's labour force comes from publicly-provided VE institutes.  There's a widening skills gap in the country's two main economic sectors, garment industry and tourism.  Its post-conflict society counts a large number of vulnerable youth, who dropped out of formal education and lack supporting family structures.

In a successful VE model should not only focus on employability, but also on social and psychological needs.  Hsuan stresses the need to empower students, working on their confidence, critical citizenship, moral values, identity and learning attitude.  He suggests a three-tier approach to create such an empowering learning environment.

It's a strong article that compares and generalizes the approaches of 9 NGOs active in VE in  Cambodia.  It proposes a valuable model of how vocational education (not vocational training) could be strenghtened and moved beyond the sole focus on employable skills, taking into account the post-conflict and cultural background of Cambodia.  It remains to be seen though, whether public authorities share the underlying vision that all students should be educated to empowered and critical citizens, regardless whether they are in vocational or general education.

* Cheng, I-Hsuan (2010) 'Case Studies of Integrated Pedagogy in Vocational Education: A Three-Tier Approach to Empowering Vulnerable Youth in Urban Cambodia', International Journal of Educational Development, 30, pp. 438-446.

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21 December 2011

Environmental life skills?

Today was the last day of our nation-wide workshop in Cambodia on biodiversity and environmental life skills in education. Unfortunately not everyone has moved up to practice mode yet.

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18 December 2011

Reinventing Education with Khan Academy and AI Class

The Khan Academy and the Introduction to AI course at Stanford University are two examples of innovative use of the internet to increase access to quality education and challenge traditional educational  models.  Khan Academy is centered around a library of short videos on (mostly) science and mathematics.  The AI course from Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun at Stanford University attracted more than 58.000 students and 175 countries.

In this interesting 45’ video they discuss their experiences with online learning and how they see the future of education.  George Siemens, a lecturer from Athabasca University and pioneer of open courses such as the LAK11 course, provides some thoughts on the video discussion on his blog.

Elements that stood out for me were:

They expect a (further) decoupling of the teaching and the accreditation.  People will pay for rigorous assessment and subsequent accreditation, but they will have more options on how to prepare themselves.  They may enroll into a formal course, learn from work experience or use Open Educational Resources (OER).  This reminds me of the TOEFL test, which offers an internationally recognized accreditation for the level of English, but you can learn English in a variety of ways, not limited to the courses offered by the credentialing institute.  This tendency will force institutions to rethink their roles and business models, as their oligopoly on education and accreditation will be challenged.

One-shot high-stake game
Online learning opens up opportunities and removes stigmas for non-traditional student groups.  Many of the AI students and Khan Academy users are adults (as at the OU, btw).  Online learning enables combining learning with other commitments of life.  Also, online learning allows them revisiting concepts and asking questions that they might find embarrassing in a traditional classroom.  According to Sal Khan, traditional learning often is a one-shot high-stake game.  If you’re a bit too rebellious at 18 or have some personal problems, you may miss out on a degree with lifelong consequences.  Online learning makes that people can always start pursuing a degree, even if they-re 80 (as are some participants at the AI course!)

Online learning permits more easily ‘flipping’ the classroom. Students watch lectures at home, then work on problem sets in class, where the teacher can assist them one on one. More importantly though, students can work at their own pace. Khan is convinced that most students want to learn, as long as it is adapted to their pace and needs.

Both the AI course and the Khan Academy are creating tremendous possibilities for learning analytics.  The effect of small changes in content, learning experience or other motivating factors can be analysed or preference different explanations of a concept.

Science videos
I liked how Khan recalled the origins of Khan Academy and muses that the non-professional look-and-feel of the videos might actually be an important reason for their success.  The videos feel like it’s their elder brother explaining a concept to them.  Khan admits that if he would have received a million dollar grant to develop the videos, they would probably have looked like sleek McGraw-Hill videos with a polished voice-over.  In Cambodia VVOB has developed 185 short science videos, in which science teacher trainers explain low-cost science experiments.  In the programme we have given priority to quantity and content, rather than to production quality.  It would be great if some teacher trainers could continue the work and make their own short videos, explaining concepts or experiments, just as Salman Khan has done for his cousin and is now doing for thousands of students.
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17 December 2011

What Technology Wants

I found ‘WhatTechnology Wants’ from ex-Wired editor Kevin Kelly an inspiring book.  It doesn't focus on a particular technology or a specific period in time, but it takes a wide philosophical sweep across the ‘technium’, the term coined by Kelly to describe everything useful that has been produced by a mind, including texts, laws and lines of code.  It's an ecology of different artefacts that are interdependent and interlinked. It's like a coexisting species with its own inherent biases and tendencies, a superorganism.  Kelly argues that technological evolution is an accelerated continuation of biological evolution.

Biological and Technological evolution
Biologicalevolution is determined by a triad of structural (inevitable), functional(adaptive) and historical (contingent) factors.  The structural relates to the inherent tendency towards certain forms, such as eyes or venomous spines.  The adaptive refers to the process of natural selection. The contingent refers to the accidental, but also to the limiting effect of past choices.  In technology there is also inevitability in the sequence of technologies.  Technologies open up possibilities for new combinations or applications leading in turn to new technologies.  Many inventions are developed simultaneously by several people.  The adaptive refers to the relentless engine of optimisation and creative innovation, resulting from the collective choices of free-willed individuals.  The contingent refers to the influence of past technologies exert on new ones, through standards or consumer habits.  23 people came up with the light bulb, butthe particulars on whether they were carbon or round were not inevitable. But the electric producing of incandescent lighting was.
Certain technologies are inevitable. No matter what happens, we were going to get cars, electricity, rocket propulsion and the Internet. And we're going to get human cloning, gene therapy, nuclear fusion power, daily gene sequencing, brain implants anyway. But whereas certain technologies are inevitable, what we make of those technologies is not. The internet is inevitable, but is it going to be open sourced, run by the government, non-profit, commercialized, flexible, rigid or transparent?

The Amish
An important question in the book is how to deal with the increasing pervasiveness of technology in our lives.  The Amish have an elaborate and surprisingly scientific way to deal with new technologies.  They’re often portrayed as Luddites, but in reality they’re active technology hackers and tinkerers.   They adopt technology but:
  • They are selective
  • They evaluate technology use wit criteria. These include whether technologies enhance family and community values. Technologies can be rejected again after evaluation.
  • Their choices are communal.

For example, they have horse and buggies because horse and buggies have a 15-mile limit. It allows them to stay in their community, shop in their community, visit the sick and their friends. It's not that they don't use cars, they just don't own them. They're allowed to use the Internet at libraries. They just don't want it in their house because people will face outward instead of facing the family.

Conviviality of technologies
Kelly introduces the concept of ‘conviviality’to evaluate manifestations of technology. Manifestations with a high conviviality are more sustainable, because they align with the fundamental evolution of the technium.
  • Cooperation (It promotes collaboration between people and institutions)
  • Transparency (Its origins and ownership are clear. Its workings are intelligible to non-experts. There is noasymmetrical advantage of knowledge to some of its users.)
  • Decentralization (Its ownership, production and control are distributed. It is not monopolized by a professional elite.)
  • Flexibility (It is easy for users to modify, adapt, improve, or inspect its core. Individuals may freelychoose to use it or give it up.)
  • Redundancy (It is not the only solution, not a monopoly, but one of several options.)
  • Efficiency (It minimizes impact on ecosystems. It has high efficiency for energy and materials and it is easy to reuse).
Despite the strong evolutionary forces that direct technology evolution the predictability of technologies is low.  Initially new technologies are often used to do the old job better, like the first generation of e-books are little more than scanned paper versions. Innovative uses of technology in learning don’t try to recreate, but question the traditional classroom and educational structures. 

Technology empowers
By taking this broad view on human and technological evolution Kelly let me realise how intertwined technology is in our lives.  Switching off technologies is no longer an option.  Symbiosis really is the appropriate term to use, as technology still requires human ingenuity, but humans are utterly dependent on technology for their survival.  Kelly doesn’t share the pessimism that technologies make humans less happy.  Technology allows people to excel, to encounter new ideas, a chance to be different from their parents and to create something. Technology empowers and create choices.  Technology provides the tools to allow each person to develop his/ her unique combination of latent abilities, handy skills, nascent insights, and potential experiences that no one else shares,like the technology of vibrating strings opened up the potential for a virtuoso violin player.

If the best cathedral builder who ever lived was born now, instead of 1,000 years ago, he would still find a few cathedrals being built to spotlight his glory.Sonnets are still being written and manuscripts still being illuminated. But can you imagine how poor our world would be if Bach had been born 1,000 years before the Flemish invented the technology of the harpsichord? Or if Mozart had preceded the technologies of piano and symphony? How vacant our collective imaginations would be if Vincent van Gogh had arrived 5,000 years before we invented cheap oil paint? What kind of modern world would we have if Edison,Greene and Dickson had not developed cinematic technology before Hitchcock or Charlie Chaplin grew up? (pp. 349-350)

How many geniuses at the level of Bach and Van Gogh died before the needed technologies were available for their talents to take root? How many people will die without ever having encountered the technological possibilities that they would have excelled in? I have three children, and though we shower them with opportunities, their ultimate potential may be thwarted because the ideal technology for their talents has yet to be invented. There is a genius alive today, some Shakespeare of our time, whose masterworks society will never own because she was born before the technology (holodeck, wormhole, telepathy,magic pen) of her greatness was invented. Without these manufactured possibilities, she is diminished, and by extension all of us are diminished.(p. 350)

I agree with many of the points Kelly makes in his book, and the idea of thoughtfully selecting the technologies we use based on their potential to serve convivial ends in our lives as well as enhance our autonomy and choices are right on target. Too often I think people consider “technology” as a monolithic concept, and want to embrace or reject it as a whole rather than take a more discriminating and thoughtful approach.  It’s good to have criteria for your technology use and reflect how certain technologies affect your time and life.  Similarly, in education, it’s good to reflect on how certain technologies affect how students learn, relations within schools and relations between the school and the wider community.  Criteria such as Kelly’s conviviality characteristics or the practices of the Amish can help us with that.
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28 November 2011

Dealing with Complexity in Development Cooperation

ODI recently published a working paper by Harry Jones, called ‘Taking Responsibility for Complexity’ (Working Paper 330, June 2011).  The text is not an easy read, but makes it up in interesting content, that it contains.

I created a Concept Map from the text, outlining and connecting its main ideas.  It doesn’t replace for reading the text though and I would certainly recommend giving it a thorough read.  However, it may convince you to read the text and may contribute to its digestion.

Concept Map of ODI Working Paper "Taking Responsibility for Complexity"

The author makes an apt analysis of some problems that follow from addressing complex situations as simple situations, dominated by assumptions, log-frames and policy cycles.  He hits the mark when he notes that many reporting is quite separated from the daily work, and that plans, reports and tables tend to be used only for reporting purposes.  Complex situations often trigger more in-depth analysis, more elaborate reporting requirements and a tighter watch on indicators.  Local staff flights in a compliance strategy, characterised by risk aversion, instrumental use of tools and a focus on ‘low hanging fruits’.

Planning, monitoring and evaluation (PME) is necessarily a tick-box exercise (to fit in with unrealistic assumptions embedded in the tools) drawing efforts away from the ‘real work,’ to justify projects ex post and explain how everything went according to the plan initially set out (whether or not this was in fact the case). (p.13)

Studies have shown that, in this context, M&E is often carried out to ‘prove not improve’: for example, monitoring activities frequently revolve around reporting on expected indicators as predefined in a log frame, rather than providing real space to look at the unfolding effects and side-effects of an intervention (Bakewell and Garbutt, 2004).

Complex situations are often encountered in development practice contexts.  In Cambodia we link high repetition and dropout rates to the quality of teaching.  Increasing teaching quality through the introduction of student-centered methodologies will reduce dropout rates.  Many other factors that affect dropout rates are not forgotten, but considered as assumptions outside the scope of the programme.

The more difficult the problem, the greater the perceived need for careful planning, intricate assessment and consultation and negotiation with partners and interest groups before anything is done.  Implementation is firmly fixed in advance, with programmes and projects tied to specific activities and outputs that result from extensive, even multiyear, negotiations. Efforts during implementation are then restricted to following a rigid preset schedule and plan of activities. (p.12)

But how to deal effectively with complexity?  Assumptions are often outside the scope of small development organisations such as VVOB, even if we would take complexity into account.  Complexity might be used as an excuse to dodge responsibilities for not reaching goals.  One possible strategy is to free up resources and time for a wider range of activities that may affect the assumptions such as advocacy.  For example, in Cambodia we have spent considerable time helping the Ministry of Education updating the teacher training curriculum.   Although not directly within the programme’s objectives, it does affect the assumption that the teacher training curriculum should support student-centred education. Another strategy is to move away from simple, preset indicators that give the illusion of measuring outcomes and impact of the programme, and move towards ‘principle-based’ and ‘mission based’ monitoring and evaluation (p.27).

The text doesn’t put forward a simple recipe to deal with complexity, but rather a set of principles, concepts and case studies that may be useful in certain contexts and are loosely based on concepts of complexity theory.  It advocate sweeping away traditional tools and instruments, but recognizes that a combination of tools is likely.

What is clear, however, is that complexity can no longer be swept under the carpet. While there is not yet one comprehensive framework, there is a growing collection of models, tools, and approaches to effectively develop interventions in the face of these multifaceted problems. (p.x)

Shaping policy will always be a matter or degrees, and a negotiation between bottom-up and top-down structures, between planned and emergent responses and between technical and participatory guidance. (p.21)

Decentralisation is a central ingredient of a strategy in complex situations.

One aspect is that decentralising tasks within government will often require building capacities at lower levels of organisation – in local government bodies and elsewhere. There may be a ‘chicken and egg problem,’ whereby there is reluctance to decentralise tasks to lower-level units until they have proved their capacity to carry them out, even though it is impossible to do this until decentralisation has actually occurred. One solution is to begin by decentralising simpler tasks for which lower-level capacity is clearly evident or for which the costs of failure would not be severe (Marshall, 2008). (p.25)

However, one major criticism of pilots is that too often they are not allowed to ‘fail,’ and hence they provide less opportunity for learning. The importance of ensuring that you can learn from an intervention is emphasised in Snowden’s concept of ‘safe-fail experiments’ (2010): these are small interventions designed to test ideas for dealing with a problem where it is acceptable for them to fail critically.

Constantly questioning one's strategy is crucial in efficiently obtaining long term impacts.  A paper like this provides inspiration to distance oneself from the strategy that we may take for granted too often, and adopt a critical approach, realizing that the chosen approach may not be the only (or the best) way to success. 

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16 November 2011

Thinking positively

In Cambodia VVOB focuses on student-centered approaches in science education in teacher training institutes.  Teacher trainers are guided towards adopting approaches to teaching that involve students, stimulate them to think and engage instead of passively noting down and regurgitating what the teacher declaims.

Some student-centred approaches focus on stimulating students' writing skills.  Writing and the skills that accompany it (collecting thoughts, filtering, structuring, creativity, conciseness...) are arguably important 21st century skills.  To extend writing in science lessons beyond copying teachers' notes we introduced techniques such as 3-2-1 sheets, 2-minute papers and creative writing (link to my presentation on these).  These techniques aim at stimulating students to write about what they have learned in their own words.

There may be unintended benefits as well

Interestingly, New Scientist refers to a study from David Creswell from Carnegie Mellon University that revealed that letting students write about what they have learned, stimulating qualities such as creativity and independence, gives them 'self-affirmation' that enables them to perform better.  

'Compared with a control group, students who 'self-affirmed' in this way had lower levels of adrenaline and other fight-or-flight hormones in their urine on exam day.'  (Health Psychology, vol 28, p 554, quoted in New Scientist, 27 August 2011)

Apart from letting students re-interpret what they have learned, these writing exercises may also - if well designed - contribute to improving students' sense of self-worth.

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15 November 2011

Limits to Performance Pay

Time in between two OU modules, H800 and H807, leaves me some time to catch up on interesting articles, such as one in New Scientist (9 April 2011) on the alleged effects of performance-based payment schedules, commonly applied in the finance sector.

Making teachers’ pay dependent on reaching certain outcomes is frequently hailed as a way to increase the quality of teaching and education.  However, as New Scientist reported, the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of performance pay is surprisingly weak.  Even more, performance pay may prove counteractive and actually reduce teaching quality.

How does performance pay sound?
A central argument for the use of performance pay is that it increases external motivation, the motivation to do something because of the attached reward.  Conversely, intrinsic motivation refers to behaviour based on what we like or are interested in, without an obvious reward attached.  It appears however, that these two forms of motivation are not independent of each other, but inversely related.  This means that introducing external motivators such as performance pay actually reduces the internal motivation, a phenomenon known as the ‘overjustification effect’ (Deci, 1995).

There are several reasons why this overjustification effect may kick into place.  Performance is notoriously difficult to measure, and performance-related systems often end up measuring the wrong things, such as short-term results and outcomes instead of long-term vision and behaviour.  A teacher's job is more than only achieving satisfactory test results.  Ignoring this multidimensional character of teaching may lead to  “teaching to the test”, a catchphrase used to describe narrowing of curriculum in an effort to elevate student test scores. Moreover, teachers work as members of a team. Introducing performance-related rewards at the individual teacher level might reduce incentives for teachers to cooperate.

Second, gaming behaviour is rife and there may be unintended consequences, like doctors becoming reluctant to accept the most serious cases (study in Annals of Internal Medicine, quoted by New Scientist).  Podgursky and Springer (2007) provide an overview of some documented 'opportunistic' strategies, like assisting students with test questions and ensuring that low-performing students are absent at tests.

A possible explanation for the overjustification effect is that performance-pay related systems come across as coercive and controlling (cognitive evaluation theory).  Teachers may encounter so many rules and administration that their motivation and creativity are being sapped.

Finally, performance pay does appears to be useful in some cases, like for repetitive tasks, but it's unfit for improving learning in complex environments like schools and classrooms. Teachers should be attracted to and retained in the teaching profession with a decent and competitive salary, but maintaining and fuelling their intrinsic motivation seems the best way to optimize their performance.

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5 October 2011

The Master Switch and Education

The Master Switch, from Tim Wu, is a gripping read about technology, communication and by extension, about technology in education.  It’s not focused on the latest technology and how it is supposed to revolutionise education.  In contrary, it takes a look back at the times when technologies such as the telephone, AM and FM radio and television were the latest technologies in town.  Why would the Internet fare differently as its predecessors?

AT&T President Theodore Vail (with telephone) joined the opening ceremony for the first transcontinental telephone line from his home in Jekyll Island, Ga. With Vail (L to R): Architects Welles Bosworth and Samuel Trowbridge, banker J. P. Morgan Jr., and businessman William Rockefeller. Courtesy, AT&T, www.hightechhistory.com
Cult of the amateur
Wu detects a recurring pattern in how new communication technologies integrate into society. First, they disrupt the current order, breaking down monopolies and crushing dominant corporations, like Western Union was beaten by the rising Bell Company.  The result is a period of openness, creativity and experimentation, characterised by a ‘cult of the amateur’.  Unfortunately, this period doesn’t last long, as a few companies consolidate ever larger parts of the market and establish monopolies.  These can be vertical - the same company controls all the steps in the production process, for example from making movies to the distribution in theaters - or horizontal - one company controls one sector, such as all the theaters.  High barriers to market entry are erected and a period of closeness takes hold until a new disruptive technology starts the process again.  This cycle is not a scientific law though and Wu describes how corporate firepower (in case of the radio industry) and government policy (ultimately in the case of the Bell monopoly) can suppress the slow-moving cyclic movement. 

Net Neutrality
The book showed me that the Web 2.0 phase of the Internet is neither the only possible way the Internet works, neither will it likely stay that way.  Web 3.0 is used to describe  the Semantic Web, but in the future we may refer to Web 4.0 as a closed Web. The current openness of the internet is threatened from different sides.  So could the principle of net neutrality be broken.  Net neutrality refers to one of the core ideas of the Internet and implies a network that ‘treats all it carries equally, indifferent to the nature of the content or the identity of the user.’  Internet providers (ISPs) could prefer certain (higher paying) clients or give priority to traffic to (friendly) websites.  Second, companies as Facebook and Apple are building their own ecosystem within the Web, with access and content controlled by them, abusing their power to become a 'switch of necessity'.  Wu highlights the cosy relationship between Apple, the entertainment industry – which sees the prospect on steady revenues thanks to Apple’s closed devices - and internet providers such as AT&T, which get exclusive rights for Apple’s devices.

Google's intentions
Google's position is portrayed as the opposite to Apple in its adherence to openness.  Wu ascribes this openness to a lack of vertical integration. Google hardly possesses any content or hardware. Its search algorithms are its most precious asset.  Not having any content to sell makes that Google doesn’t need to give priority to some kinds of content, making it a 'switch of choice'.  Google’s engine tends to equalise giant and one-man retailers, returning McDonalds and McSpotlight within the same search page.  This lack of vertical integration leaves it vulnerable as well, as network or content providers could decide to leave Google for what it is.  The recent takeover of Motorola Mobility by Google could be a – worrying – venture away from this logic towards a future of more vertical integration by Google as well. This NY Times article on talks between Google and Verizon indicate that net neutrality may well come under pressure.

Wu argues that the cycle has already started swinging in the direction towards a more closed Internet.   The centralisers foresee a future in which ‘the best content from Hollywood and New York and the telephone and networking power of AT&T will converge on Apple’s appliances, which respond to ever more various human desires.’  It’s a future without ‘spam, faulty apps and junky amateur content’, but also a future where Internet devices are made for consumption and not anymore for producing things.  ‘The champions of openness’ propose an untidier world of less polish, less perfection, but with more choice.’

The Master Switch in Education
I believe that the discourse about technology in education experiences the same distinction between these two visions on the internet.  Those advocating the characteristics of Web 2.0 (user-generated content, social, content abundance) and who stress its alignment with recent insights about learning, as a social and constructivist activity favour an open future for the internet.  Those focussing on the attractive educational apps for the iPad or iPhone favour a closed future for the internet, in which the distinction between consumers and producers is restored. 

Wu closes the book with two warnings.  First, the Internet is not just one channel of communication, but combines all channels (telephone, television, radio..).  As a consequence, ‘the potential power to control is so much greater.’  But, finally, it’s up to us ‘to secure our sovereignty over the choices that our information age has allowed us to enjoy.’  For example, when choosing which phone or tablet to buy...

The Master Switch from Tim Wu is published with Knopf (2011)

* Here is another  discussion of the book and here is a fragment of an interview with the author, Tim Wu.

* John Naughton discusses The Master Switch on the occasion of the release of The Artist:
"Wu’s contention is that the history of the telephone, movie, radio and TV industries displays a common feature: they all go through a cycle, in which they start out chaotic and gloriously creative (but anarchic), until eventually a charismatic entrepreneur arrives who brings order to the chaos by offering consumers a more dependable and technologically superior product, the popularity of which enables him to capture the industry. Zukor did that for the movie business, just as — in our time — Steve Jobs did it for the music business. And in The Artist Zimmer immediately grasps the significance of audio and goes for it like an ostrich at a brass doorknob (as PG Wodehouse would have said)."

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3 October 2011

#H800 Final Considerations

With the final assignment, the EMA, submitted, it’s time to look back and jot down some impressions of this online course, the only compulsory one in the road towards the OU’s Master in Onlineand Distance Education (MAODE).

It definitely made sense for me to study technology-enhanced learning, which includes e-learning, through an online course.  I believe that I learned as much from the course materials as from actively experiencing the online course as an ‘informed observer’.  As the course materials were rather heavy on papers, bringing the main debates about technology in learning to the fore, these two forms of learning were complementary.

Online courses are sometimes touted as bringing ‘flexibility in time and space’.  The two should be put into perspective though.  The course starts at a fixed date and features weekly activities and regular deadlines.  You can afford skipping a few days or a week at most, but all postponed work should still be caught up with. Besides, if you’re a few days late you probably miss all the discussion in the forum.  Flexibility in space is more realistic as all course materials and communication can be found online.  However, I found myself still printing most materials as I find it easier to take highlight and notes.  I also found myself working for 90% of the time at the same spot.  A fixed place to study helped me concentrate on my work. 

The weekly course texts are excellent and are one of the main draws of the course.  The texts are clearly composed with great care and written in a style that is accessible and motivating, like someone sitting in front of you is explaining the material to you.  These texts refer to different activities, readings and web links.  Usually readings come with some questions that can be discussed on the forum.  I enjoyed interacting in this forum, sharing my thoughts and readings others’ reflections.  The forum made the course more social and motivating for me, as well as the occasional Elluminate audio conferencing sessions.  Most participants were somehow active in the education sector and reading their take on the questions enriched the course for me.  Unfortunately, some participants preferred not to engage actively in the forum, and the little weight in the assessment didn’t seem motivating enough.

The course is designed by a course team, unlike courses in brick-and-wall institutions, which are often the product of one professor.  A group of about 20 people has contributed to the H800 course, most of them OU staff, some hired from outside.  I believe it certainly enhanced the quality of the course, as each topic has been written by a specialist and team work increases the likelihood that multiple perspectives would be considered.  For example, some of the course team members are clearly more sceptical about the role of technology in learning.  This diversity is for me also one of the advantages of formal studies, as obtaining a similar quality and range of viewpoints would be very hard.

Although the course team has designed the course, all student-teacher interactions are with a tutor.  Positively, my tutor was very active on the course forum and responded quickly to all kinds of questions.  Nevertheless, I would have liked more interactions with course team members, for example to discuss papers they’ve written that were included in the course.

It’s another two and a half months until the final results are published.  The course is a 60 credits one, or one third of a Master Degree.  In the meantime, I will be recharging, catching up on some of the suggested readings in H800 – there were so many, I could easily spend another year reading them – and thinking about the next course.  H807 is the most likely option.
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31 July 2011

#H800 Virtual worlds and Identity

Second Life is one of the topics in week 25 of H800, with in particular a focus on how people engage with an 'online identity', given shape by their physical manifestation online, their avatar.

A key element in the discussion on virtual worlds is the concept of identity or, better, multiple identities.

The issue of multiple identities reminds me of the identification concept of Wenger (1998).  Wenger considers identity as a social construct, formed by our participation (and non-participation) in a wide range of communities and our influence in those communities (our ability to negotiate meaning, as he calls it).  In this regard, participation in Second Life adds another identity component.  We have one identity (the ‘self’) according to Wenger, but it is composed of a range of ‘identifications’ in communities.  This resonates with the following excerpts:

What is changing is not the self, but the ability we have to explore different manifestations of this self. ‘In conventional terms of reasoning, post-modern identity can be considered schizophrenic; however, it should not be looked upon as pathology but as a virtue’ (Adrian, 2008, p369 in Peachey, 2009, p.4).

The role of groups in shaping ‘real life’ identities is implicit, as is the multiplicity of ‘real life’ identity. What is interesting and new about virtual worlds is that they make this group-shaping explicit and multiplicity of identity actionable. (Adrian, 2008, p368 in Peachey, 2009, p.14).

Peachey (2009) describes how people construct their avatar very carefully, like spending a lot of time in choosing a name and physical appearance.  First impressions matter, also or even more so, in virtual realities.  For some identification with their avatar can become very strong and spill over to their real life identity, blurring boundaries between the two.  For example, people create Facebook profiles with their avatar name or adapt their hairstyle to match with their avatar’s looks (Peachey, 2009).  Experiences with an avatar may result in increased confidence in real life, or, conversely, may also result in real emotional pain.  A strong identification with one’s online identity makes me wondering about the person’s satisfaction with his/ her real world’s identity.

The notion of extending avatar identity into the real world inevitably raises the possibility of overidentification and withdrawal from essential realities (usually where contributing factors in the real world might predispose such withdrawal). (Peachey, 2009, p.13)

For some students balancing 'real life' and 'virtual' identities may create tensions, fearing that their online identity '[takes over' their real identity.

What comes through most strongly from the accounts … is that there is a tension in students’ narratives between the ideal of an embodied, authentic, anchoring self, the self that goes along to tutorial classes on Tuesday afternoon, and the possibility of other, deviant, less authentic selves which emerge online and which threaten the anchoring subject with the possibility of their autonomy (Bayne, 2005).

I found the discussion on people with disabilities interesting.  For this group of people a virtual world such as Second Life may provide them with an appearance that doesn’t generate the instinctive reaction of ‘patronising convention’.   However, some still choose an avatar with physical disabilities.  .

But what is the potential for education?  The author sees a lot of potential for collaborative learning.  I can see that you can re-create some of the visual clues that are absent in regular online interaction.  I can also imagine that community bonding could be stronger in a Second Life environment than in a regular forum or e-mail discussion.  On the other hand, it is another social network to engage in, another place to login and check updates.  I’m not sure whether the added value of Second Life weights up against this reluctance to engage in another network. 

Within H800 it could be an interesting experience to move some of the tutorials from Elluminate to Second Life.  A disadvantage in Elluminate is the lack of visual clues, which makes it difficult to engage in a muti-person informal discussion.  Second Life may provide a richer and more intuitive environment for discussions.  However, the considerable time investment to get started in Second Life would require using it at least a few weeks to make the effort worthwhile. 
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30 July 2011

#H800 Reification and Participation in Wenger’s Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice are a powerful and highly influential concept, developed by Lave and Wenger (1991) and later refined by Wenger (1998) and Wenger, McDermott and Snyder (2002).  It is an abstract and challenging concept, but, once understood, it results in a better conceptual understanding of learning and design for learning.

Identity is a social construct, according to Wenger.  It is formed by participation (and non-participation) in a range of communities.  There can be communities at work, school, family or nation-wide.  Secondly, identity is determined by the way how we ‘negotiate meaning’ in those communities.  In other words, how we influence the activities in those communities.

Negotiability refers to the ability, facility and legitimacy to contribute to, take responsibility for and shape the meanings that matter within a social configuration.

Wenger identifies two ways of influencing within a community: participation and reification.  Participation is the direct interaction between members of a community.  Reification is the use of artefacts such as lesson plans, guidelines or a curriculum to impose or affect others’ behaviour.  In learning design an optimal combination of both ways is necessary to achieve the learning outcomes.

For example, in a workshop for teacher trainers a focus solely on participation may have the result that participants find it difficult to ‘transcend’ their practice, cross boundaries and develop new conceptual understanding.  Too much focus on the reification, for example by imposing a lesson plan - aspect may lead to alienation with participants, who feel that they don’t have any impact on the design process.  It lowers the status of the participants in the community and they will likely formally comply without creating any ownership.
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22 July 2011

#H800 Communities of Practice, Networked Individualism, Network dynamics and Mycorrizhal networks

Communities of Practice

The concept of Communities of Practice (COP) was introduced by Lave and Wenger (1991) to highlight and conceptualize forms of learning that focus on participation and are not limited to the individual level (don’t stop ‘at the skin of the individual’).  Legitimate peripheral practice is the conceptualization of the apprentice learning a craft with a master, thereby gradually developing mastery in the subject.  In this way he showed that learning was an inevitable aspect of all productive practices and not limited to a formal setting within schools or institutions.  The communities in the COP can be characterised as:
-       Clearly bounded structure, with rules for membership.
-          Single centre of supreme skill and mastery
-          A hierarchical structure where new members (apprentices) start at the ‘periphery’ and gradually move toward the centre of the community as they obtain mastery.  Also called a ‘centripetal’ structure.


However, recent work by Engeström (2007) challenges Wenger’s analysis by pointing out oppression by dominant figures in communities, and rebellion by apprentices. Therefore, learning is not smoothly and necessarily centripetal. Instead, the movement of learning is shaped by learning’s participants. Those at the hub of the learning experience would appear to exert the greatest influence.

Jones focuses on the successful application of network dynamics in other domains, such as transport and politics.  This enables applying mathematical network ‘laws’ on learning networks, such as power laws, clustering and the strength of weak ties.  Networks can be identified from the level of societies and institutions down to individuals and ideas.  Individuals can be nodes in a network, engaging in linking to other persons, agents and resources.  Or, nodes can be formed by ideas with associations between them forming the links of the network.  His ideas remind me of Connectivism - also discussed in an earlier blog post-, which claims to be a learning theory for the internet age, that also considers learning as building networks, not only of physical persons, agents of learning resources, but of associated ideas.

Engeström considers COP as a-historical structures, which means that they are not connected with the varying dominant organisational structures in a society.  According to Engeström, COP fit within a society dominated by craft and industrial production.  Craft is characterised by a master-apprentice relationship and industrial production is characterised by teams, small groups with well-defined membership, with members who have complementary competences and work together on certain task.  Gradually a ‘co-configuration’ model evolved in which companies became more susceptible for input from customers and other outside sources (co-creation of value as described by Prahalad and Rawasmamy, 2004).  Adler and Hecksher (2006, cited in Engeström, 2007) call the organisational structure for the post-industrial society a ‘collaborative community’

A collaborative community is different from a team in 4 aspects:
-          Boundaries become more fluid;
-          Very high level of division of labour and diversity of knowledge;
-          Authority based on knowledge and expertise instead of status;
-          Values are orienting and motivating elements for members of the community. The increased importance of motivation follows from looser membership rules.

Engeström points out that such a collaborative community is no longer a team, but a network.

Social production and the mycorrizhae analogy

For Engeström the organisational structure of the information society is social production. The flagship example of social production is the open source movement.  Thousands of developers and bug fixers work together in a loosely-structured network without a clear centre – although one could argue that one of the success factors of the Linux and Moodle open source networks is the role of their respective leaders -, but with a compelling common goal, called ‘runaway objects’.  Examples are global warming or a free operating system.

Engeström develops an analogy with a mycorrizhae system.  This is a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and the roots or rhizoids of a plant.  The fungus delivers nutrients and water to the plant, which returns the favour by providing the fungus with energy-rich sugars.

The analogy plays as follows:

-          A underground network of roots with interspersed nodes resembles a loosely connected and expanding network of individuals, exchanging information and with multiple loyalties.
-          Visible fungi resemble the visible, erect, bounded and institutionalised structures that emerge from this network.  Engeström uses the term ‘wildfires’ to describe sudden bursts of activity – in the same of a different place - with long dormant periods in between.
-          There is no hierarchical structure in mycorrizhae as is the case in the root system of plants.
-          The mycorrizhae work in symbiosis with plants, as informal learning networks can work in symbiosis with formal structures.
-          The mycorrizhae is hard to kill, but also vulnerable due to the lack of clear leadership.

Networked individualism

The model is very suitable for a mobile generation of learners, who form temporary networks, dominated by weak bounds, very easily.  Castells (2008) calls this a ‘networked individualism’, claiming that not mobile, but individual is the defining property of the mobile generation, since people experience a much higher freedom.

Final remarks

These post-industrial organisation modes and the mycorrizhae analogy that describes it, seem fit to explain learning activity in a Web 2.0 environment.  Students are developing personal learning networks (PLE) as a complement to the institution’s system (VLE), in which they communicate not only with their peers, but with a wider network of friends, and possibly alumni, bloggers, staff and domain experts.  Twitter seems to me the ultimate tool to facilitate this kind of weak-tie dominated networks, much more than Facebook, which seems to have a more personal and bounded network structure  - An interesting analysis how Google + mixes weak-tie and strong-tie networks was made here by George Siemens.  Traditional classroom practice can be described as a community of practice, with a clear master (the teacher), a bounded membership structure (the classroom) and a clear, externally defined objective (the curriculum and assessment).  The current trends in (higher) education towards a more student-centred learning approach, with a higher responsibility for the student to create a learning network, more flexibility in courses and more fluid boundaries between formal and informal learning seem fit with a network approach and a mycorrizhae analogy.

Main references

Engeström, Y. (2007) ‘From communities of practice to mycorrhizae’ in Hughes, J., Jewson, N. and Unwin, L. (eds)Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, London, Routledge.

Jones, C. (2004a) ‘Networks and learning: communities, practices and the metaphor of networks’, Association for Learning Technology Journal, vol.12, no.1, pp.81–93

Castells, M. et al (2004) 'The Mobile Communication Society: A cross-cultural analysis of available evidence on the social uses of wireless communication technology, A research report prepared for the International Workshop on Wireless Communication Policies and Prospects: A Global Perspective, held at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 2004

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