My teacher is an app turning me into a robot

I have just been listening to the excellent series on technology in education on BBC Radio 4 called “My Teacher Is an App”.

It was extremely balanced in showing the growing commercialisation of technology in schools and in particular pointing out the possible perils of having students doing programmed lessons that supposedly lead to higher achievement levels in standardised tests.

I was particularly impressed by the teacher from the Waldorf School in Palo Alto, California, otherwise known as “Silicon Valley“, the home of the great microtechnology innovations, who stated the reasons that Google and Apple employees were sending their children to a school that eschewed the use of technology by their pupils until they were 13 years of age! To  read more about the school see this informative article from the New York Times.

The reasoning of the tech people was that many schools using the commercialised programs with their students were effectively “programming” the children to become good at taking tests. They were concerned about the lack of creativity and how the products of these schools could become human “robots” capable of doing a narrow range of activities very well but not equipped to cope with the  ever-changing global economy that we live in and capable of tackling the many problems that our world is beset with in regards to global warming, poverty, political destabilisation and growing urbanisation.

Perhaps the greatest problem in relation to the growth of this educational technology is the new players on the scene. The likes of Rupert Murdoch and Pearson were mentioned as huge commercial interests that have seen education as a growth area for making huge profits. Their influence has grown in the last few years and they have brought their “robot making” machines into schools. This is particularly seen in the poorer areas of the United States where Government money has been spent to create charter schools sponsored and supplied by these commercial giants. The growing threat to teachers of this commercialisation was covered extremely well in a blog article by Will Richardson in 2011, also called “My Teacher Is an App“.

There was also an interview with Salman Khan the founder of the “Khan Academy” whose video lessons have supposedly transformed education leading to the popular idea of the “flipped classroom”. No mention was made about the quality or accuracy of many of these video lessons which have been found to contain inaccuracies and which, in respect of the style used, present a “show, tell, lecture” approach that is all about filling empty minds with supposed important knowledge.

I think they key point to this very worthwhile discussion is to get us to realise the huge conflict that is happening within the world of education between those who are concerned with testing and standardisation and want a return to the values of the past and are backed by huge commercial interests that are able to pressurise Governments into using their “technology”. The other side is fighting for an education system that uses the technology to promote the 21st century skills of “creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking.”

Technology is not, in itself, an answer. We should all be involved in the debate about the use of technology in education. I am so pleased that the BBC has taken this subject seriously and has made such an interesting and well-balanced series of programmes which I would commend you all to listen to in order to work out where you stand in the debate.



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My “Digital Classroom” Hangout

Today I participated in a G+ Hangout called “The DigitalClassroom”. This was a general discussion by a really good group of educators, as follows:

1. Sean Cavanagh:@EdWeekSCavanagh(Moderator)
Assistant Editor for Education Week

2. Angela Maiers:@AngelaMaiers
Founder and President of Maiers Education Services

3. Troy Hicks:@hickstro
Associate Professor of English, Central Michigan University

4. Jackie Gerstein Ed.D.:@jackiegerstein
Online Adjunct Faculty for Departments of Education

5. Darren Burris:@dgburris
Teacher & Instructional Coach at Boston Collegiate Charter

I was able to follow the discussion and participate by making comments as I watched. I therefore found myself responding to details of the discussion by the speakers and also to respond to my fellow participants.

There was general agreement by us all that new technology is a game changer but, as Jackie Gerstein stated, the mere fact that it exists in a classroom does not mean that it is effective. Angela Maiers talked about the need to realise that Web 3.0 is about “contribution”.

By the end of the discussion I felt that I had gained more than any Twitter discussion that I had participated in before. I strongly recommend you to look at the YouTube video of the Hangout. It shows the power of the media and the potential for this kind of thing for students as well as teachers.

Designing a new mobile phone interface: The GSMA mWomen Challenge


The above video was one of the entries in an intriguing design competition to make a user-friendly interface for mobile phones that could be used effectively by women in the developing world who currently have no access to their use.

The mobile phone is probably the best technological development for communication, business and learning that has ever happened for developing countries. They often have isolated communities and bad roads, they have problems with access to health and other amenities and they do not possess a fixed telecommunications system as exists in the developed world.

The problem is greater for women than men because they are often barred from mobile use because of cost, opposition from partners/husbands and their literacy levels (which are related to social and cultural factors that deprive many women of a basic education).

I was very impressed to see the results of a competition run by the mWomen section of the GSMA, the mobile phone developers organisation.

I think the idea of linking design to real world (especially development issues) is an excellent one. I would like to encourage any readers of this post to try the same challenge with their students (or if you are a student just try it).

Can you design a better mobile phone interface for women’s use in the developing world?

Technology should relate to human use and do what it can do best, make life better. The chance to improve women’s lives has so many resultant potential effects, the decrease in poverty, disease and the raising of literacy and the potential todecrease population growth. This design challenge should be applauded.


A graphic way to learn

I have just read a really interesting article from Scientific American called “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screen”.

This article gave a convincing argument that reading on paper was actually easier for people than reading using a computer/tablet/mobile phone  screen of any sort. It appears that our brains have adapted to using texts by relating it to a form of topography such as a landscape. It therefore allows us to truly “navigate” and we remember instances in a book by where we read them. i.e. on the bottom left of Page 73.

This certainly presents a possible problem for those who are saying that the book is dying and that we will all go on to read only using  digital media in the future. The “book lovers” counter by saying that you cannot replace the feel of a book and their smell, The ability to fold down a page to keep a place and good old fashioned writing in the margins to make a note!

In the article though the last 2 paragraphs put forward the idea that digital media needs to look at how it can make the best use of the facilities that digital technology offers.It does not need to compete with books in terms of the reading of plain text but needs to move forward to interesting innovative ideas.

In respect of this there was a link to a really interesting post called “10 examples of bespoke article design and scrolling goodness”. The best one I found of a really interesting bunch was the Guardian‘s excellent attempt to explain the progress and result of the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election using the idea of a graphic novel.

I really found this a novel way to introduce the subject and maybe a pointer to the way that we need to present textual information to our visually literate youngsters. Plain text for books….. novel and innovative ideas for our digital natives.


10 positive things that can be done with mobile phones in schools

My most successful post so far has been “10 reasons we should allow mobile phones into schools“. Practically every day there are hits for this post, which makes me think that there is a real interest “out there” for getting these useful machines into schools.

But I am concerned that the phones, just like the computers that preceded them in the classroom can be used for passive reception rather than creative invention.

So I went back to look at the facilities available on my (now) ancient Galaxy Ace phone to see how they could be used for creative/collaborative activities and not just as things to read or view that were created by others.

Here is my list:

(1) The camera could be used to create photographs for others to use in group projects or individual photographs could be made freely available for others to use or change under a class/school “Creative Commons” agreement by everyone.

(2) The recording device could be used to supplement multi-media presentations and again kept as a resource for others to use.

(3) The calculator could be used to create problems for others or for solutions to real life problems that are part of projects and not just as a quick answer to teacher-set  exercises.

(4) Use of online communities to collaborate across school/town/country and internationally. I have access to the Google + Communities that has the opportunities to create and use “Hangouts” for communication. I would expect the children to take the lead in the creation and management of these communities as well as

English: Samsung Galaxy Ace
English: Samsung Galaxy Ace (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

setting the ground rules for online behaviour.

(5) Use of apps such as “Google Maps”/ “Google Earth”  to explore areas, landscape and set problems for others to investigate.

(6) Use the News  App to investigate developments in the world. Create a bulletin board with discussion about what is pertinent news, how is it presented and what is included/left out.

(7) Develop their own apps/ games. This is a key thing for taking an active role in using and improving use of the phones. Investigate apps currently used. Develop critical skills about use, entertainment value possible development.

(8) Use a blogging platform (such as WordPress) to create and maintain their own blogs.

(9) Use YouTube to investigate and use video as evidence as well as information. Share links with others.

(10) Use the video facility to create their own videos and animations for personal use, to upload for others to use or for public viewing.

These are just 10 things that could happen using my ancient phone. With the increasing power of phones as well as their lowering cost it seems that it is just a matter of time before schools allow these powerful learning instruments inside of them on a regular basis. When this happens it is of crucial importance that they are used in an active/creative way and not just as a means to quickly access Google and watch some videos and maybe take some photos.

Why the C MOOC is the way forward

I have  been on my latest MOOC, “Learning Creative Learning) (MIT Media Lab)  for the past 5 weeks. So far I can honestly say that I have found this course to be by far the best of the 3 MOOCs I have enrolled at.

The first 2 MOOCs were Coursera courses. They had a defined syllabus and you were expected to do tests and a final project in order to gain a statement of course completion. I found that I was reverting very quickly to the old fashioned model of lecture, note-taking and regurgitation for a test, accompanied by a project that would be written with the aim of gaining a grade.

The MIT Course has, from the beginning been very different. We were allocated to small groups according to where we were in the world and encouraged to sign up for Google Plus Communities. There was a wider, whole course Google Plus Community that I joined. The idea was to encourage participation, exchange of ideas and support from fellow students.

What I have found is that the smaller group , after an initial burst of activity, has ossified. The larger, whole course group though has blossomed. Every  day there are new videos posted, references to readings, examples of work with the “Scratch” program. It has become an exciting place to visit and be a part of. I am learning so much.

If I were asked how closely I have stayed to the course “syllabus” I would say that I have tried to do the assigned tasks but have found that the freedom to explore and interact with others has led me to sometimes wander away from the focus for the week. I am not alone in this, there have been many comments in our community that have extolled its virtues. We have discussed how we can prolong the life of the community beyond the length of the course and the MIT people are looking into this.

Mitch Resnick, the course director, said in a weekly discussion that our course is experimental. The first few weekly discussions were aired through Google Hangouts in real time, they had technical difficulties but a number of outstanding speakers such as Alan Kay, Joi Ito,  Resnick himself and yesterday Gerhard Fischer. They changed the format from essentially “talking heads” to some excellent slides that really contributed to the discussion.There has been a back-channel available for these weekly discussions and yesterday, for the first time, in response to student requests, the speakers were available to take questions and join in the online discussion after the main Hangout had ended.

I have the ability to watch the hangouts at another time on YouTube. There is the chance to contribute to the YouTube discussion as well as reflect or react to the discussion in our course G+ Community.

Despite the technical hitches that are so refreshing to come across from one of the world’s leading technological institutions, the course has been exciting, ever-changing and experimental. As Resnick stated, the intention is to make the course a C MOOC and not an X MOOC. The difference between these two sets of initials is that the X MOOC is very much like the Coursera courses that I first attempted and are about me being taught in some way what the course designers feel they want me to know and showing that I have “learnt” what they want me to know bu passing a number of multiple-choice tests and completing a peer-marked Project. The MIT C MOOC is about connectivity and collaboration. It is about the passing of information in a network that comes from the designers, the speakers and the students. It is well explained in the following video by one of my fellow course participants, Fred Bartels.

I have been looking into the many blog posts written recently on MOOCs and feel that I can state from my own experience that the future should be C and not X. This is surely the way forward for MOOCs. It takes advantage of the power of the net to facilitate communication and brings the idea of study into the 21st century. There is a huge amount of learning going on. How this can be effectively assessed or whether it should be or not, is part of the ongoing experiment that many of us are happily engaged in at present.

Thank you Media Lab for having the vision to start a course such as “Learning Creative Learning”. I hope it acts as a model for many other Higher Education  Institutions when they consider the how of doing a MOOC in the future.


Sparktruck: creativity and design on the road



I have been doing a lot of online research recently into the subject of creativity and innovation. I found that one of the most dynamic and interesting places where these subjects has been looked at and researched is at the Stanford University D School.

I would need a separate post about the  approach and studies going on at this fascinating place. In this post though I am going to be concentrating on a group of D School students who had a simple idea of bringing “making and designing” to Elementary and Middle school students.The way they were going to do this was by purchasing a truck that looked something like a Library Bus and then filling it full of equipment (a mixture of state-of-the-art technology like 3D Printers as well as craft materials like paper, cardboard, felt, pens, paper and lollipop sticks!

They raised the money for the truck by putting out an appeal and then set about equipping it with the materials. They then toured around the Bay Area to try their ideas with local schools.

The initial visits were so successful that they decided to take this experiment on the road and during 2012 they have traveled 14000 miles making 73 stops  treating 2,679 elementary and middle school students to hands-on workshops covering the basics of electrical engineering and digital fabrication, and giving a chance to make cool stuff in the process, like small robotic creatures and laser-cut rubber stamps.

During the course of this “adventure” they found that the children had great fun but found the process of problem solving difficult. This is covered in some detail in an excellent article by Katherine Sharpe in Wired Magazine called  “SparkTruck’s Surprise Lesson: Using Design Skills to Build Kids’ Character”.

The whole enterprise is explained in the following  presentation that the students made at the D-School:

I loved the style of the presentation and the way that the students combined older and new technology in an engaging manner. This whole project has raised questions about the need for creativity and problem solving in education and the need to allow children to have access to make,design, collaborate and investigate in order to get skills that they will need if they (and we) are to survive an uncertain future.