Monthly Archives: October 2006

MLearn: Mobile Devices and Coursework

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I wanted to take a moment to reflect on two very interesting presentations I attended yesterday; one about museums and coursework by Mike Sharples from the UK Open University, and another by Maria Parks & Mark Dransfield from York St John University in the UK about occupational therapy students blogging from mobiles. I wanted to hear the presentation about museums because I figured many of the issues present in “the one-off museum visit” are similar to the ones faced by librarians. I was definitely right in part, though the museums have a few advantages we don’t quite have as librarians.

He started by explaining that museum visits by classrooms are often isolated from coursework. Teachers spend a lot of time working out the logistics of getting students to the museum and when their lunch break will be, but less time connecting the visit back to curriculum. He had some interesting ideas around how to link these two locations up through technology.

The term of the moment: “enquiry-led museum learning”. Of course my ears perked right up, as I’ve been hearing a lot of conflicting ideas about what “inquiry-based learning” meant. He expressed a definition much like the one that resonated most with me; a structured experience with a specific question to answer, where the way to the answer is what the student determines for him or herself. In the example he showed us, the students were prepared with a question about D-Day; was it a success or a failure? They were given mobile phones that could take pictures and were connected to a piece of software that would organize and post the pictures they took and the comments they had. So they students were set free in the museum to find evidence to support whatever conclusion they came to. Since the museum is a very visual place, the photographs made sense as evidence.

When I thought about this class project, and tried to imagine it in a library context, I realized that he was using photographs where we already use print and digital resources; while we rarely frame academic work as a journey toward an evidenced-based result, that’s exactly what it is. It would be harder to use photographs to prove a point in a library. What are the copyright implications of taking photographs of images in books, after all? A library activity even close to this one would be mostly spent, not running through the stacks, but sitting in front of a computer linking up digital resources or creating a bibliography. Not quite so exciting, really.

Though you could do fun library school assignments like this, taking photographs of the funny bits of LC (where socialists sit next to criminals, for instance).

The mo-blogging presentation was somewhat similar (but very different). The occupational therapy students were given cell phones hooked up to flickr and blogger. So they blogged from the phone, could take pictures and blog those (but not of broken legs and such like they wanted to, that went against the ethics board). It was a very interesting presentation, and definitely exactly the kind of reflective learning that we’re talking about at UTM, so I was paying close attention.

One of the other themes of this conference (which is very very excited about cell phones, let me tell you) is that the cell phone interface is preferable to “today’s kids”. I’ve heard repeated versions of what I think is the same story about a kid in South Africa who would rather type out his essay on his cell phone rather than sit at a computer with a keyboard. I’m fairly sure the stories I kept hearing like this are all about the same kid. The presentation from York absolutely underscored this; half of the occupational therapy students had a full-sized bluetooth keyboard to connect to their cell phones, while the other half did not. Maria Parks shows us examples of the blog posts written by the students with keyboards; they had pictures, and tons and tons and tons of reflective text. And then she showed us examples of blog posts by the students with no keyboards; one line. Pictures, basically no text. The feedback they got: “I wanted to write more, but the phone was so annoying!” Maria said it was a good thing their assessment was based on other things, because the difference between the two groups was so extreme. How can you assess reflection based on one line every few days or so? And what that one line contained: some basic description of things that happened, or things they needed to do: “Hypersensitivity must control pain”. Versus the paragraphs of text from the other students.

It’s just a strange thing how the over all feeling of what was “right” and true was so different from the projects on the ground running.

But also, the difference from country to country; in a place where computers and internet connections prohibitively expensive, but cellphones are cheap, it makes sense that people would feel more at home with the cell phones. But that’s really not the way work here.

I came to this conference to figure out how I felt about mobile devices in education at my own school; I’m still not quite sure yet. It will take a bit more reflection to sort through it all.

MLearn: South Africa and the Problem of $100 Laptops

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The One Laptop per Child program is creating a lot of conversation and consternation at the MLearn conference. There have been an interesting series of (still hopeful) criticisms of it, particularly from the delegates from South Africa.

The stunning comment that threw me into a whole new mind set was this: “If you give children laptops, you’re making them targets of violence, theft, and possibly death.”

In a place where the economy is so shaky, where items like cell phones and laptops are just as appealing to the black market as they are to students and teachers, how do you concieve of the prospect of using this technology, giving these (valuable) items to children, encouraging them to take them home and carry them around, when we understand that we’re painting targets on their backs? Even for parts those laptops would have value on the black market. The laptops come with a certain amount of security, but how long will it take for the ravenous black markets of the world to disable it? At what point does risk outweigh benefit? Is there any way (shy of full government and social overhaul) to lower the risk of theft and real physical danger and protect these children? Can we give them technology and keep them safe at the same time?

There was a considerable amount of talk about the value of ownership; when the laptop is theirs, there is a different learning outcome. I’ve seen this kind of process play out myself, so it strikes a chord with me. (I’ve spoken before about the difference between posting on a message board “owned” by the instructor and posting on a blog “owned” by the student; you get a different kind of committment, different kind of content, different kind of interaction. I’ve struggled with how to express the value of ownership, but I feel it rearing its head again here. What if the laptops are one per child, but don’t leave the school? I have a feeling the value of them drains right out with that scenario.

It’s a difficult question, and I’m pretty relieved that it’s not me who has to come up with an answer. I wouldn’t know where to start.

MLearn: Don’t forget about Training!

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There’s a bit of a recurring theme to the presentations so far that hovers around teacher training in particular, and training in general. It started with the Keynote (which I blogged about yesterday), its head was raised again in this morning’s keynote (about the “Net Generation”) and crops up here and there in various presentations. It seems there’s a devout belief from on high that training is simply not necessary, particularly not for anyone under the age of 23.

I’ve fought this beast a million times. First: there have been legitimate studies that indicate that access to a computer doesn’t make students any smarter, or get them better grades. I think I’ve already blogged a few of those studies. A computer alone doesn’t solve anything, and even if a student knows how to play WoW (World of Warcraft), it doesn’t mean she is a technogenius. In my experience, undergraduates are not only not “digital natives” in the way that people over 30 like to think of them; they have cell phones, they have IM, but they have no idea how to find information on the internet, are floored by a new web application, aren’t comfortable playing around with something like a wiki to see how it works, and no idea why it’s not a good idea to send email from their h0tchk1987@yahoo.com account to the registrar’s office or two a potential employer. Technology literacy cannot be judged by a person’s gadgets; I often think these ideas are generated by people who are in awe of the toys available and find them difficult to use. Seeing that their 12 year old daughters aren’t intimidated by these gadgets, they decide that kids just Get It. It’s just natural for them, somehow.

I really wish the people who write these things would stop using their (genius!) 12 year old daughters as models and would instead ask the people who actually work with students on a regular basis. I did. I asked at UTM’s Computing Services what they thought about this idea of younger age == tech virtuosity. Their experience: just because a person is 19 years old doesn’t mean he knows how to set up his wireless, or knows how to do a windows update, or can work out how to configure his email account. Technology is a wide world of its own, and you can be extremely proficient at one part of it and be hopeless with another.

The result of this deep-seated belief that Kids are born with a USB plug in their mouths had a serious impact; my friend Minna Saulio from Finland reported in her research from South Africa that private corps provide money for computers, but no tech support; they have rooms full of computers they can’t use.

In sum: training is important!

MLearn: Gadgets and their Uses

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One of the pieces of the puzzle I wanted to sort out coming to this MLearn conference was the issues of tech toys; are we trying to integrate Treos and Blackberrys an ipods because they’re cool, or because there’s actually some pedagogical value to using them? I’m personally of the opinion that there are lots of cool things in the world, and lots of things that students enjoy, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all cool things can or should be used for our purposes. There are some things I think maybe we should leave alone.

But if there’s a good reason to use something, I’m all ears. I’m here to be convinced. And I’m not even a hard sell, I just want to see the extra pedagogical value that we can’t get any other way. I want to see that extra piece that takes a technology beyond “that’s cool”.

One of the tech toys I was expecting to see here, and expecting to not be impressed about, is cell phones. Like many other educational “toys”, it often seems to me that we adopt these other media when the standard one is still the best. For instance, while it’s great that it’s possible to download a PDF file to your cell phone, it would be easier, faster, and cheaper to download it on a computer. Does anyone actually want to read a PDF on a cell phone?

But I did hear some interesting things about cell phones so far. First, there was talk about sending broadcast messages from instructors to students via text message. There are a few things that make this interesting; first, email is on the decline. Frankly I’m delighted to hear that, because email should be used for the thing it does best (exchanging lengthy messages in text over the internet that aren’t necessarily instantaneous) and not for everything (rapidfire email chat, file transfer, important alerts). There was one example, that came from student feedback, about helpful messages sent to students over the Easter holiday while they were working on reports; I like the idea of instructors being able to give last-minute help (“That book we talked about in class, the one that’s so critical to this assignment, went missing from the library, but there’s another source that’s just as good, there’s a copy of it available on the course website.”). Of course there’s a training piece there for instructors; text messages cost the student money, so they really need to not send many of these things, and make sure the messages they send are really awesomely important. But I don’t think it’s a horrible idea.

Immediately someone in the room said, come on, how are we going to get faculty to take care of get ANOTHER piece of this tech pie? They have a hard enough time just getting student emails, now you want them to get student phone numbers? I think there’s a simple answer to that, though. Faculty shouldn’t be information collectors. The LMS should handle that, the SIS (student Information System) could be (and should be) the repository for all student information. The LMS should draw that information out of SIS for use in classrooms. That way students could just toggle the SMS option on or off, and faculty could just make use of it if they want to or not.

Second, they showed us a project they were working on in the UK where students could send pictures from their phones to a sort of discussion board. On its own, this idea isn’t that exciting, but in a course that has assignments based on things that require images, I think it’s great to have students go out on field trips and share a record of what they see with the class. Of course, you don’t need a cell phone to do this. You could use a camera and just upload the photo. But I do like the idea. I spoke with a woman from Athabasca University over lunch about using GPS software in a cell phone to trigger a series of sound/audio files on a handheld, so that students could walk around a site, and, based on their precise location, hear details about it. We talked about the idea of having a variety of students do projects about a specific site, from the perspective of different disicplines. So you could get a perspective of the place as a site of religious ritual, or from an architectural perspective, a religious perspective, an anthropological or sociological perspective, and so forth. Environmental, even biological projects. And what an amazing final product it would be! Students could create content for an interpretive centre that could offer up a multi-disciplinary tour of a site, complete with audio recordings, images, and text. Very cool.

In another session, one about the Mobile Library (how could I help but attend?) the idea of making your library’s catalogue browseable via Treo or Blackberry arose. On one hand, I sat there aghast. Browsing with a cell phone in Canada is just way too expensive for students. It’s way too expensive for me and I have a full time job. I know it’s cheaper in other countries, but I just can’t see it as being feasible here. But on the other hand…the idea of a mobile device in the stacks intrigues me. It would be great to be up in the stacks, hanging out among the books, and be able to punch in a title and get a call number without having to go back downstairs to a computer. It would be additionally awesome to hook it up with GPS and have it map the route out for you; how to get from where you are now to the book you want. Can we provide that? Can we provide handheld devices so that students can wander the stacks and find what they’re looking for? I can’t imagine how you’d do that. But it’s a neat idea.

So my personal jury is still sort of out on the use of the gadgets. But I’m starting to see some interesting applications for some creative assignments.

MLearn: One Laptop Per Child

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I’m blogging from the MLearn conference in Banff, Alberta. Things are moving very fast, so I’m grabbing what time I can to process the sessions and blog about them.

The keynote this morning was by Mary Lou Jepson of the One Laptop Per Child Initiative, nurtured, of course, by the MIT Media Lab. I’ve heard about this project, but I hadn’t really sat down and considered what it truly meant. Mary Lou framed it in terms of a social welfare and social activism more than anything else; education reform is no minor issue worldwide. She noted that, in a country where they experimented with paying parents to send their kids to school rather than the other way around, the kids themselves grew several inches taller than their peers. (This isn’t a crazy notion; height isn’t only about diet, as it turns out. Cuture, social safety nets and education have an impact on us physically as well as mentally.) So this isn’t just about spreading toys around the world, they see a real impact in the countries where they’re starting to rollout these laptops.

The thrust of this project is to provide laptops to every child in the world, and by extension to create a wireless network (using the laptops themselves as connections for those farther way from the access points) to bring resources into parts of the world where there are none. The technical details and design are amazing, and it’s clear that they’ve proceeded with great thoughtfulness and care.

The budget for this project is, essentially, a country’s textbook budget. So, what these laptops are doing is replacing textbooks in classrooms. When I realized this, my stomach kind of dropped. Is this a good thing? I mean, on one hand, if you had to choose between access to the internet and an ancient textbook that’s been kicking around an elementary school classroom for the last 15 years, which would you pick? I can understand that the internet is going to provide more than a single book (that few governments around the world can afford to replace yearly as knowledge changes and develops), but it’s starkness (“it’s the internet or a book”) that threw me. It’s a dramatic statement. But one that reminds me of what we can do to change the world from the comfort of our own classrooms.

It reminds me all the more how important it is for us (students, faculty, librarians) in the west to make sure those public resources (like wikipedia, like public learning object repositories) are as good as they can be. It reminds me that our own work, our own passions and interests, can translate into real life improvement in the lives of millions around the world. These laptops are going to be different than ours; on one hand, they can do some things ours can’t (work without outlets, without lithium exploding, with a level of brightness that allows them to be used in sunlight), we’ll need to think again about the way we design information for the public. We’re back to 1995 in terms of thinking about easy loading, keeping the images smaller and less frequent, thinking about content over flash. Sure, we can create quicktime movies as learning objects, but if we want to create something for the students in Brazil or Botswana, we’ll need to remember that download speeds aren’t the same there as they are here. I find this challenge exciting and inspiring.

The $100 laptop is designed to be not just an internet portal, but also as an e-book reader. Again you see the original intent; to replace textbooks. Another thing we can do from the richer end of the world is produce e-books for those computers. The term “learning object” seems too empty to me; what if your learning object, produced by students, produced by an entire class perhaps, is an e-book to offer to a country where books are scarce? I’m in a session right now about a class in South Africa that built their own textbook on a wiki. So, even before the laptop project gets started, we’re already doing that kind of work. I like the idea that academic work has a social conscience and a social responsibility. As someone who spent the majority of her adult life in graduate school, I understand the joy or pure academic study, but the part that made me leave graduate school was the lack of impact, the inability to leave the ivory tower from time to time and make that knowledge and depth of understanding useful to someone else. This seems like a bright little light to me.

What’s missing from the laptop program so far is the librarian’s perspective. What they’re creating is essentially a library interface, and in place of working with librarians, they’re working with archive.org. That’s what’s available, right? I think there’s an important role for librarians in this project to make their public resources available and ready for these students, in a format they will be able to make use of.

One of the questions from the audience was about training; who’s going to train the teachers? Who’s going to train the students to use these computers? The answer to this question: Well, kids are good at this stuff. They can pick it up on their own. And then the kids will teach the teachers. My immediate reaction to this was a raised eyebrow. Kids will just pick it up? With no support at all? How will that help the project? If the goal is educational, it seems that providing exactly no support is asking for failure. While I understand their desire not to foist learning theories and curriculum on other cultures, a helping hand would hardly be a bad thing. Some ideas, some pointers, some support. I wondered, as we talked about it, if it might not be the role of both teachers and librarians to provide some training to teachers and librarians in other countries to help them make use of the laptops and the tools. It’s much easier to subvert and be creative with technology if you know first how it works and what it can do. And while the goal of the project is to be technology only, not curriculum or theory, by giving the laptops to the children with the expectation that they will pick it up and teach the teachers, they are bringing that constructivist chaos and reversal of power (the student becomes the teacher) that we so value, but so many feel profoundly uncomfortable with. Are we setting up third world teachers to feel stupid? Are we setting them up to be subverted by their students? It just seems more value-laden than they intend.

But, all in all, I was impressed. Since I’ve been looking for ways to bring courseware out of the classroom and into the real world, this project just adds fuel to my fire.