Archive for September, 2012

Twitter picture from ALT-C

September 19, 2012

Sandra Partington, who was one of the co-authors of our ALT-C contribution last week, has appropriately used Twitter to post a photo from the session.  Here’s her shot of me with Mo Pamplin in front of one slide from our Pecha Kucha session – I’m on the left of the photo in the light coloured shirt.

Different views on Apple

September 14, 2012

In the interests of balance, the BBC website has posted two contrasting opinion pieces about Apple’s launch of its iPhone 5: a favourable piece written by an editor from MacUser magazine, and a critical one from a writer and comedian who had at one time set up a blog satirising Steve Jobs.  Curiously, both contributors agree that the latest iPhone is an evolutionary and not a revolutionary step; they differ on whether it’s really what Steve Jobs would have wished, and on how likely it is to maintain Apple’s commercial success.

I wouldn’t like to predict Apple’s prospects in the medium term, because it’s in the nature of working with new technology products that the biggest challenges are frequently about dealing with products and services which haven’t been invented yet.  But I have noted before that Apple’s success has stemmed from being able both to launch completely new products, and from being able to handle evolutionary change very well.

So I would take issue with the critical post, because it simply focuses on one product announcement which, unsurprisingly, is evolutionary.  Of course, there is some discussion of what revolutionary products Apple might be preparing to spring on the market, and the thought that the Apple television, for all its hype, looks unlikely to materialise (perhaps it’s the networked equivalent of the Dyson washing machine, which made few inroads into a very established market).  Apple has managed to re-invent itself over the years, morphing from a computer company to a music distribution company to a phone hardware company.

The remark in the critical piece, that the iPhone was initially like a new top-of-the range car from BMW or Porsche doesn’t quite work.  Apple and BMW actually have a lot in common with strong brands and a ‘mass affluent’ strategy.  For BMW a central tenet could be summed up in a few words, to make products which are high enough up the scale to be perceived as exclusive, but are still at a level where they sell in large numbers.  But to get the pricing, the publicity, and what I’ve heard described as the polish of the design right to achieve this positioning is really difficult.  To sustain it over years or decades in which the market can change, in BMW’s case in a world where the city boys might have fallen out of love with glossy cars, is more difficult still.

That’s why I’m sure that Apple’s fundamental decision to make the latest iPhone an evolutionary step is a sound one.  The decision to make it longer and thinner, to keep the user interface similar but to add a single extra line of apps, may not look like much.  But it does have the mark of careful, evolutionary, design, of creating something that’s similar enough to attract existing Apple devotees and offering something new enough that Apple users will want to upgrade.  Whether they have succeeded, I don’t know and this is an area where classic ideas around market research and usability testing don’t really work.

Finally, I’d remark that Apple’s engineers haven’t usually been original thinkers.  They have been good at spotting innovations that have originated elsewhere and at bringing these to market, and if anything they did this best way back in the 1980s when the first Mac computers were launched.  So the other thing that Apple-watchers should be looking at, is what innovations Apple might have seen elsewhere that they are looking to convert into products.

Via Oxford Road

September 13, 2012

Forgive my eccentricity about listed rail stations but one of the benefits of going to a conference at Manchester University is the opportunity to travel through Manchester’s Oxford Road station, which is close to the main university area.  It’s an extraordinary building,  dating from 1960 and constructed mostly from wood, and it looks magnificent (just my opinion, of course)

Using a pattern language

September 12, 2012

One other workshop which I attended was from Yishay Mor, who one of the people behind this online course created by the Open University.  I was drawn to his contribution by his use of the pattern language created by Christopher Alexander as an influence.  As discussed in the workshop, Alexander is an architect and the concept of the pattern language was, in simple terms, to rationalise the characteristics of places where people would enjoy living and working.  Yet his concepts are more widely used in computer science where the word ‘architecture’ has acquired its own meaning.  A siginificant point here is that the workshop opened with a quick, structured, particpatory exercise to get the attendees to talk about their own uses of educational technology.  The structure – based around groups of three, with one telling a story, one questioning, and one writing down, was a fairly pure example of a reflective dialogue but was also introduced as an illustration of how an educational exercise can follow a pattern language.

Networks old and new

September 12, 2012

This afternoon’s plenary speaker at the ALT-C conference was Natasa Milic-Frayling from Microsoft research, looking at how you can analyse the different connections between participation in social networks.  As you might expect, there was lots about the use of Twitter and Flickr and the maps that could be created through analysing interaction between users, but I also noted that she referred to analysis carried out on Usenet – a really early set of text-based discussion groups – way back in 2004.

Our reinforcing loop

September 12, 2012

My contribution to the ALT-C conference was a joint presentation with Mo Pamplin, who is one of the e-learning support people from our school of social sciences.  We were discussing the use of lecture capture, where lectures are recorded on video so that students can catch up with them afterwards, and picked up on the module on which I had used this technology because I had used a lot of interactive activities, and the students seemed as keen to use lecture capture to reprise student presentations and group discussions, as to review formal material that I had delivered.

One of the slides that we used contained this diagram here.  It’s deliberately presented as a ‘reinforcing loop’ where two different effects at least have the scope to complement each other.  It shows the relationship between using an innovation, in this case lecture capture, as an adjunct to existing techniques, and the use of the same innovation as an enabler of new techniques.

The concept in the middle of the diagram comes from Randy Garrison, of the University of Calgary, who is a prolific and influential writer on the use of technology in education.  Moreover my own practice is influenced  by Garrison, notably through his contribution to the community of inquiry model.  But I’m not sure that I really accept his dismissal of new technology when it’s added ‘as an extra layer’.  One aspect of my use of lecture capture was that in some cases it made sense to regard the lecture capture camera as a true ‘fly on the wall’ where I didn’t allow it to affect my practice.

There’s a particular reason that I didn’t want to change my practice: where lecture capture is based around a camera focused on the lecturer’s traditional workspace at the front of the room, it’s tempting for lecturers to adopt a didactic style of simply holding forth to a group of students.  The dichotomy between the adjunct and the enabler is one that I’d suggest applies to most innovations in teaching and learning.  But lecture capture is unusual – though I suspect not unique – in that its effect on teaching and learning styles could appear regressive, that it could be seen as most relevant to the most traditional approaches to teaching, because so much of the innovation in recent decades has been about moving towards participative approaches.

RSS as glue

September 12, 2012

I’m in a workshop right now at ALT-C run by Guy Saward from Hertfordshire, who is bravely doing a live demo and editing some material on his university’s long-establihsed Studynet system (their own learning enviroment built on top of Lotus notes) in front of an audience.  He’s looking at the connection between universities’ own systems, such as the one he’s using, and the social networks, notably Facebook, that students use, and raising the question of how they can be linked and indeed in which type of place academics should be most active.

He’s using RSS feeds – a technology that many of our students have heard of but fewer know how to use – to build links between the different sorts of system.  RSS isn’t a new technology but in the educational setting it’s one that may be set to become more familiar than it has been so far.

Slightly unexpectedly, at the table where I was sitting, we got into a fairly involved conversation about how RSS feeds and Facebook content works.  It turns out that material delivered to Facebook through an automated feed doesn’t necessarily get posted in the way that automated material does.  Arguably this challenges the tacit assumption that different online tools can be linked together and content from one tool can be embedded in another at will.  But it’s also a nice illustration of a case where understanding the technical policies used by an organisation can affect educational approaches.

Body language in the connected conference

September 12, 2012

Posting this from mid-session in ALT-C (and just to show the connectedness of the whole process there’s a QR code on screen which some of the participants are scanning in the room).  Of course, this being a learning technology conference, the space here in Manchester has a wireless network, and participants are encouraged to blog or tweet.  So it’s interesting to see how much this connectedness alters people’s body language.  Historically, a participant in an audience getting out a computer or a phone might have looked like evidence of them losing interest.  Now it could be evidence of a participant picking up on a point – either by publicising it or by looking on the web for background information.  I’m doing both right now: the organisers have helpfully put individual wireless network credentials on the back of the conference badges.

Incidentally I note there’s a qualitative difference between using a laptop, as I’m doing now, because it involves the screen appearing as a sort of barrier between the member of the audience and the speaker, and using a tablet which can sit flat on a desk and so is less obtrusive.  Also I note how readily people use their tablets as cameras – they may be a very different shape from other cameras, or camera phones, but the body language of somebody taking a photo with an iPad is remarkably similar to that of somebody using one of the old Polaroid cameras in a previous generation.

I guess that right now about 60% of the people in the room are using devices of some sort right now.  And I notice that people are putting the devices away, rather than getting them out, as a formal presentation comes to a close.

Liveblogging in the coffee break

September 12, 2012

Today’s the occasion for my visit to the ALT-C conference (I’m just attending for one day so had a very early start this morning).  Our presentation on lecture capture  took place and seemed to go well – I’ll post more reflections on that later.  But there were several other interesting presentations: the first was from Clive Young at University College London about the role of some of the new facilitators who have become involved in setting up e-learning materials.  And there was an interesting talk by Catherine Naamani from Glamorgan about a peer marking tool which was used in connection with Turnitin, to allow students to comment on each others’ work online.

Meanwhile on the other keyboard

September 10, 2012

Just by chance this morning I had a visit at home from a piano tuner, at the same time that I was trying to resolve some problems with a desktop computer that lives in the same room as the piano.  My efforts with the desktop computer, which had lost all connectivity to the Internet despite being on a router, and a broadband connection, which was working perfectly with several other devices, weren’t very successful, as I haven’t even been able to switch it into ‘safe mode’ using the F8 technique recommended for Windows.  The computer in question was infected by some sort of ‘trojan’ virus and while the anti-virus tool has successfully removed the virus, it’s disabled the Internet connection as an element of collateral damage.

Musical instruments with broadband connections definitely have a place in the Internet of things, but ours is a traditional upright piano made by Cramer – which for much of the 20th century appears to have been a very respectable middle-of-the-market British make.  But Johann Cramer was a noted musician and composer, and his company appears to have been influential in agreeing the standards for musical pitch.  Which raises an interesting thought, that standards are as important in music as in electronic communication, and that they have emerged over a very long time.