Archive for the ‘technology’ category

Thinking about the digital economy

December 5, 2017

Some years ago when I was spending a morning in a somewhat obscure library in London looking for materials relevant to the development of a British trade union in the 19th century, I came across a sermon delivered shortly after 1800 in a London church. The clergyman in question was most exercised by what we would now call the impact of new technology. He feared that humanity’s ability to perform ‘miracles’, which should be the sole preserve of God, would create a materialistic society in which a very small number of people would reap the rewards of science and engineering, while the majority would become redundant and face destitution.

I was reminded of this recently when the US company Boston Dynamics, a spin-off from MIT, unveiled a humanoid robot that could jump up and down on various obstacles and, finally, do a back somersault. You can see the whole spectacle here. This display quickly led to a whole tsunami of online anguish about how we are all doomed. If a robot could successfully mimic an athlete, then humans might as well all just go home and wait to be put out of our misery by the new artificial master race. You get the idea.

As for me, I thought the Boston Dynamics machine was pretty smart engineering, but to be honest I was less captivated by it than by another recent item of news: a group of engineering researchers helped by an economist were able to design a robot which delivered a lecture to economics students and successfully answered questions from them at the end. Apparently the robot answered questions with stuff like ‘Well, this is a hotly contested point, but I tend myself to support the view that…’

Today, lots of people are talking about the digital economy and what it may involve and what it may do to us. The science and engineering of it all is of course important, but it may be as important for us to come to grips with what it all means: how it affects our understanding of humanity and human purpose. This isn’t a debate about automation; that’s a debate we’ve been having for 250 years, and to be honest there aren’t many new things to say. It’s a debate about who we are, and how we will harness human ingenuity, and how we can ensure that we evolve successfully to engage that ingenuity with the new means at our disposal.

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Screen them out?

November 28, 2017

One morning in 1986 I walked into a classroom in Trinity College Dublin to deliver one of my scintillating lectures. Just as I was about to start, the lecture theatre door opened and a student walked in carrying – no, I’ll say lugging – what turned out to be a so-called a ‘portable computer’. It was ‘portable’ in the sense that someone was carrying it, but if I remember correctly not without a lot of physical effort and perspiration. He then settled down, sort of, on a seat, and what ensued was a search for a socket so he could fire up the machine. This involved carrying the plug, which was at the end of a pleasingly long cable, to the not-quite-nearest wall where he had identified the presence of a source of power. He then switched on the device (though not before tripping over the cable on his way back). The device, we soon discovered, had an industrial-quality fan that managed to drown out various other noises coming from the floppy disk drive (5 1/4 inch of course). So settled in and visibly proud of this epoch-marking technological marvel, the student turned encouragingly to me to await my pearls of wisdom; and as I delivered them, the clicking of his keyboard was almost audible above the storm-force fan.

Yes, dear reader, you could say that was distracting. But it was also invigorating, as we all had a ringside seat as the new digital era was ushered in. And how far we have come since. My sister has just bought a laptop which, as far as I can make out, would fit easily into a modest document folder and which makes no noise whatsoever unless specifically asked to perform in this way. And of course you and I have all sorts of technology available to us, from phones that would put a 1986 mainframe computer to shame to tablets on which you can read the most extensive textbook while simultaneously listening to Taylor Swift. And all of these devices are in every classroom.

But not to everyone’s satisfaction. Susan Dynarski, Professor of Education, Public Policy and Economics at the University of Michigan, has had quite enough of laptops:

‘The best evidence available now suggests that students should avoid laptops during lectures and just pick up their pens.’

She has concluded this on the basis of research carried out in two Canadian universities and, curiously, the United States Military Academy. This research, in summary, suggested that laptops stop students from learning effectively: not just the students using them, but anyone within a reasonable range. Other studies appear to support this conclusion.

It seems obvious enough to me that my student in 1986 was himself distracted and had a distracting effect on others, as would be the case if, say, someone entered a classroom on a motorbike. But the rest of this seems to me to be more arguable. What matters much more than the technology or the device is the attitude of the teacher and the engagement of the student. Technology is good if used well and bad if used badly. Achieving the former (beneficial) effect depends on the skill of the teacher and the approach to pedagogy. I suspect that the analysis of educational technology needs that a more elaborate consideration of what may constitute good practice. And by the way, during the same lecture in 1986 a student’s pen broke while he was writing sending ink through the air landing on his neighbour’s clothes. That was even more distracting, not least because his neighbour reacted slightly violently. Maybe they shouldn’t reach for their pens, either.

The social academy?

April 3, 2017

You’re all very young, so you’ve probably never even heard of Bebo. But actually, Bebo was the real thing in social networking before Facebook got going properly.

Anyway, I first came across Bebo (and social networking) in 2006, when a colleague in my then university asked to see me urgently and rather urgently implored me to ban access to the website, particularly in the library, but also everywhere else. Students were, he told me, logging in to it at all times and were neglecting their studies. Some could even be seen looking at Bebo during lectures (on their laptops, no real smartphones in use back then) and inviting others to look over their shoulders. The world as we knew it was about to end.

It was not just my colleague who was concerned. A few weeks later I received an email from a student, complaining that she could not get access to computer workstations in the library because other students were on Bebo and were preventing her from using them for her studies.

Nevertheless, I decided I would join Bebo, which I did that year. And as I became aware of it I also joined Facebook in 2008; and Twitter in the same year. As some readers will know, I am a regular twitterer, though a more restrained user of Facebook. I occasionally use WhatsApp and Instagram.

Fast forward to the current decade, and Bebo has been bought and sold and bankrupted and re-released as something entirely different; but Facebook and Twitter are still very much there. In universities in the meantime the discussion is not about whether or how to ban social networking on campus, but how and whether to include it in the academy’s armoury. This has become even more important as students have tended to move away from other forms of electronic communication (including email).

An interesting study carried out in the University of Glasgow revealed that 68 per cent of students think social media can enhance their learning experience; though it also concluded that inexpert use of social media can make it all go badly wrong. Overall, it is hard to ignore social media – and universities cannot operate in an environment that is divorced from the experience of their students. Back in the early 1960s I learned to write with a nib pen that you had to dip in an inkwell every few words. We don’t use that now, nor should we expect students to use the technological equivalent (for them) of the inkwell.

Universities are generally taking a more direct interest in social media as marketing tools. But the more interesting potential lies in pedagogy, not least because social media, as the name implies, provide a social experience which can be an enabler for learning collaboration. Some interesting work on this has been done by Dr Fiona Handley at the University of Brighton.

The significance of social media in higher education is not that universities can invade their students’ social spaces, but that they can adopt the look and feel, and the potential for learning interaction, that social networking platforms provide. That is the place to start.

Thumbs down for educational technology?

October 24, 2016

It is exactly 30 years ago today that I took delivery of my first personal computer. It was an Apple Macintosh, and it had an incredible 1 megabyte of RAM and, er, no hard drive. A week later I produced my first computer-generated presentation for my industrial relations class, which however I had to print out on acetates in order to display the slides on an overhead projector. For me, technology-enabled education had begun. Colleagues looked on in admiration.

We have of course come a long way since then. Nowadays every higher education curriculum in any institution will feature a truckload of technology-enabled learning, the assessment of which is then crunched on various data programs to produce good-looking spreadsheets to please any board of examiners.

But is it adding value to the learning experience? No, according to the results of a recent survey conducted by Inside Higher Education. Or rather, not necessarily. Academics seem to value the opportunities for innovation provided by technology, but are sceptical as to whether the accumulated data gathered by IT systems is being used appropriately; or whether the quality of the learning experience is being much enhanced. They suspect that technology is deployed more to impress those evaluating institutions than to help students.

We must not be Luddites: educational technology is here to stay. But it must be used properly, and for the right reasons. This must mean in particular that the design of technology must be driven by academics rather than administrators, and must target the student experience and pedagogy rather than efficiency of processes. And there must be a clear understanding of how standards are affected – for good or bad – by online methods.

Talking points: Keeping watch

August 8, 2015

Is the Apple Watch a major success or has the company made a mistake? Those assessing this particular product don’t seem too be able to make up their minds, or agree. Recent reports suggest that Apple may have got it right again. If so, it is ironic that Apple may be about to revive the fortunes of a particular accessory – the watch – that its other products had been busily killing. A group of students told me recently that they would not wear watches because their iPhones told them the time; watches were superfluous and awkward.

But of course the Apple Watch is more than a chronograph. It puts a number of elements of my smartphone on to my wrist, and it monitors my lifestyle and my health. The information it gathers can of course do more than amuse me; I suspect insurers would love to have it.

I have an Apple Watch, having been given it as a present. I like it. And I wonder what it tells us about times yet to come.

Analogue tales

July 5, 2015

I was standing behind two teenagers waiting for a bus the other day, and one was telling the other about a get-together planned for that evening with some old school friends. ‘Wow’, said the other, ‘that’s so analogue Facebook’. I chuckled at the expression. But right now we can still laugh because even the two teenagers still had some point of reference to distinguish between a real life meeting and social media interaction. They also understood that many things digital have or had an analogue antecedent.

record

 

But is the analogue world slipping away from us? Or is it more resilient than we sometimes thing? After all, vinyl records are apparently making a comeback. And I have set my Apple Watch (and yes, of course I have one) to show an analogue clock on its home screen. I still have (and use) a telephone on which I can really dial numbers.

analog

And in between reading stuff on my iPad, I still buy hard copy books.

reading

It’s not all gone.

watch

PS. However, all the above photos were taken with the iPhone 6 camera and edited with Photoshop. Hm.

The MOOCs carnival

July 9, 2013

Every so often a fad grabs hold of higher education. Usually there is at its heart some genuine and interesting concept or development, but as the academic community or parts of it start to analyse the concept they become over-awed, and suddenly the hype takes over. A perfect example of this kind of mass hysteria is the noise generated by MOOCs.

A MOOC – ‘massive open online course’ – is a straightforward enough phenomenon, though you might ask what benefit its early supporters thought it might bring. It is a course put on the internet by a university or other institution, and which can be accessed for free by any number of  participants (or students). The level of staff-student interaction may vary, from none at all to intensive. The first serious experiment in this field was a UK publicly funded (or subsidised) venture called UKeU (UK eUniversities Worldwide Limited), which also involved Sun Microsystems as a strategic partner. Its mission was to offer online courses designed by existing universities. It launched the first courses in 2003, but three years later it closed down, having been deemed a failure.

But this failure was a temporary blip, and by the end of the decade the term ‘MOOCs’ had been coined and providers were everywhere. Three major global providers emerged – Udacity, Coursera, and edX – and these (and others since) have offered an increasing variety of courses from partner universities and institutions. And before you knew it, the chatter about MOOCs was to be heard everywhere. The New York Times declared that 2012 was the ‘year of the MOOC’; various senior figures in the academy declared loudly that MOOCs were the future and that any institution that didn’t offer them would perish.

By 2013 some commentators have started to wonder whether the hype is all a bit too much, or whether MOOCs could undermine genuine academic activities and standards. Others have noted that it is not at all clear how MOOCs will ever make any money, or at least enough to cover their costs; even the co-founder of Coursera, Daphne Koller, couldn’t answer that question in a recent interview. However, the ‘MOOC or die’ theme still continues: the most recent prophet is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton, Professor Don Nutbeam, who has suggested that those who don’t embrace MOOCs will decline.

I must confess I am going to stand back from this crowd a little, and won’t be chasing the MOOC beliebers too actively. It’s not that I don’t believe in technology-enabled learning; I do. It’s not that I don’t want easier access to higher education; I do. It’s not that I think that spreading knowledge around freely is bad; it’s good. It’s not even that I would advise anyone not to try a MOOC; by all means do it, it’s free. But as for those people currently hyper-ventilating in the MOOC rock festivals, I would ask some questions, and chiefly this one: what are MOOCs actually for? What pedagogical, social or business objectives do they satisfy? Those who think that MOOCs are the answer to every question, including those not yet even formulated, are not terribly convincing on how the model can be made pedagogically and financially sustainable. Higher education at its most desirable is both expensive and highly interactive. It depends on a high quality personal experience. A mass market product that nobody is paying for or funding is not the most obvious answer to whatever problem you think we may currently have.

I am not suggesting that MOOCs are uninteresting. There’s something there all right, though my thanks will go to the person who finds a less irritating label for them than ‘MOOCs’. I am not suggesting that higher education in future will not involve much more online provision; I’m absolutely sure it will. But if we are to develop a model of provision that actually has clear objectives and a sustainable resourcing basis we have to approach this differently. Free online courses won’t make everyone educated any more than standing at street corners handing people envelopes with $50,000 will make everyone rich.

Right now, there is evidence that the MOOCs excitement is waning a little amongst potential users. This is a good time to reflect a little more about how we can innovate and develop in higher education, but without the hysteria.