14 November 02013

Round-up of recent and current work

In the four-minute video below, I describe how a small charity created a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for over 1,000 people. This was the open course in Technology Enhanced Learning (ocTEL) which I managed from inception to completion of its first run. This is one of a set of films about projects that the Association for Learning Technology has recently published.

ocTEL is one of the major projects I've been working on over the past year. Here are some others.

  • For Myscience, which runs the national Science Learning Centres and National STEM Centre, I co-wrote an Online Strategy for the continuing professional development which they provide to teachers. My company was the lead contractor for a team including Seb Schmoller, David Read, Dominic Tinley and Jonathan Drori. Having got approval to proceed the strategy from Myscience's stakeholders, we are now exploring how we might help with implementation.
  • The work that I mentioned last year to provide support to support to learned societies considering the transition to Gold Open Access publishing is now available. The publishing businesses of learned societies operate in a complex ecosystems with a rich variety of disciplinary traditions and institutional histories. Being helpful is not always as easy as it might seem.
  • Following last year's work for the Higher Education Academy — to reorient their online resources to make them more useful to teaching communities of practice — Knowledge Integration won a contract to implement a new repository and take forward some of the recommendations. I am helping them ensure that the implications of this for the user experience are borne in mind.
  • My main current project involves the creation of another large-scale online course for adult learners. The Citizens' Maths project aims to develop free and open online maths course that could support hundreds of thousands of learners. The first run of the first part of the course is scheduled to be next summer. The project page has more details. I am the project manager.

Meanwhile, I had hoped to revamp this website this year, but it is now likely to be some time into 2014 before this happens. It still runs on the same Movable Type platform as it did ten years ago. If you know anyone who understands the details of making the transition to Wordpress (including maintaining old URLs so that inbound links here are not broken), please ask them to get in touch. I will pay well for the right kind of help. And once that transition is complete, more frequent blogging will follow.

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2 March 02012

Deskilling Learning? On "strong" and "weak" agile learning

Having saddled myself with the agile learning term, one of the hazards I can't complain about is having to explain it: What does it really mean? What's different about it? What's agile about it. There's a working definition of the key elements on the agile learning wiki, which I continue to develop slowly and sporadically. Recently I've been reflecting on some more nuanced, but still half-formed, ideas, which feel more like blog-conversations than wiki-definitions. These are partly prompted by reading Douglas Rushkoff's excellent Program or Be Programmed (which deserves a blog post of its own), and also by the Learning Analytics course, devised by George Siemens and colleagues, which I'm currently participating in (and blogging about in detail over here).

What I'm toying with at the moment is a distinction between "weak" agile learning and "strong" agile learning. This is after John Searle's distinction between "weak" and "strong" artificial intelligence, but I suspect this kinship may be tenuous and, certainly, vainglorious. They might equally well be called, say, pragmatic agile learning and principled agile learning — or something else.

  • Weak agile learning is based on whatever works, as long as it's within the definition. Analytics, automated processes, traditional tutor-led power relationships are all fine if they're open (as in open educational resources), collective and flexible.
  • Strong agile learning is committed to the values of making everything — process, resources, algorithms and the context in which the learning is framed — visible, transparent and manipulable to the learner. So it's taking a more radical definition of openness.

The weak version allows for things like intelligent curriculums, gamification and personalisation by the provider. The strong version wants to trust in learners' intelligence and give them the information and the data to personalise their own experiences.

Pragmatically, I'm drawn to the weak version. I distrust purism, believing every oyster needs some grit (for most of my three decades as a vegetarian, I've eaten meat a few times a year). But ethically and aesthetically I feel the strong version needs shouting about, because gung-ho enthusiasm for the Big Data/Scientific Management seems to be leading down a dangerous path. Let me explain.

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23 January 02012

Notes on Emergent Learning

As part of updating the wiki on agile learning, I've been reading up on Emergent Learning. As long ago as 2004, Michael Feldstein was arguing that "Emergent Learning" is an oxymoron. In brief, his argument was that the term was being used very loosely to describe any circumstance where learning emerges as a by-product of collective activity. Certainly that looseness still exists in some accounts. However, I'm interested in digging into a couple of examples where the term may be applicable in the strict sense to which Feldstein is committed. It turns out that this leads to some counter-intuitive conclusions.

Here is the nub of Feldstein's argument:

[S]ome philosophers of mind suggest that consciousness is an emergent property of brains. Each individual neuron is simply a mechanical switch responding to triggers in its immediate environment. But when you string a bunch of these switches together in the right way, you suddenly have an aware being. The neurons aren’t individually conscious; it’s the brain as a collective entity that posesses the emergent property of consciousness.

When people talk about "emergent learning" these days, this is not generally what they mean. What they generally mean is some form of rapid consensus-building in which a group of people can share observations and make coordinated decisions without any one person filling the role of executive command and control. This is, no doubt, an important phenomenon to understand and try to cultivate. However, it is not emergence. A democratic decision-making process is not sufficient for an action to be called "emergent." Almost by definition, if you have the kind of self- and group-awareness that is usually entailed when we use the word "learning", you can’t have emergence. You can say that a colony of ants "learns" what the best foraging strategy is, but it is the colony as a whole that "learns," not the individuals. If the individual ants were able to learn the best foraging strategy, communicate it throughout the hive, and consciously arrive at a consensus, then their adaptive foraging would not be an emergent behavior. So "emergent learning" as the term is currently being used is actually an oxymoron.

Remember this: none of the ants has learnt, or knows, the strategy, but collectively they can put it into action. If you look at the case studies in this recent Special Issue of the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning on "Emergent Learning, Connections, Design for Learning," it's clear that the learning and knowledge of individuals remains the primary focus. "Emergent" in this context seems to be another way of describing the knowledge and skills — some of them tacit — that individuals accrue from taking part in self-organised and/or very fluid learning experiences.

By contrast, look at this from A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. It doesn't use the term "emergent learning" but nevertheless describes the kind of collective (not individual) mastery that Feldstein insists is the mark of true emergence. So here emergent learning would not be an oxymoron?

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20 December 02011

School it Yourself: Review of The Edupunks' Guide and How to Set Up a Free School

Covers of The Edupunks' Guide and How to Set Up a Free Schoo

We're in one of those periods when real change in education might be possible. This doesn't happen very often. Here's why. Education is probably the single most powerful means by which our societies and our cultures reproduce themselves — institutions, values, character and differentials… the works. Hence the number of interest groups with a stake in education is enormous. Of all the culture-breeding channels available to those in power, education is in principle the one that lends itself most readily to engineering and design. However, in practice, everyone sticks the oar in and change is piecemeal, compromised and fragile.

So it's rare for sufficient powerful forces to align and overcome the drag of inertia. Now is such a time, and I think we're just seeing the beginnings of changes that may take a decade or two to work through. Donald Clark writes of technology enabling "more pedagogic change in 10 years than in the last 1,000 years". Then there's the impact of economic retrenchment and austerity on learning, which I've been writing about on and off for over two years, arguing that cases where people have to "make do" in their learning may have something to teach us about how to improve more "advanced" techniques.

On top of factors like these (the full set would be a whole essay in itself), there's a cultural mood that has arisen from year-upon-year of different kinds of disruption — from hurricanes and ash clouds, through financial punch-drunkenness to the effects of technology reaching the professional middle classes for the first time. We don't believe in the return of business-as-usual any more; we don't trust the age-old educational conveyor belts to drop us off at the right spot in the factory.

In different ways we're questioning the educational provision that's been handed down, and wondering if we couldn't do better ourselves. Let's explore what I mean by that by looking at two "How To" e-books about education, published in recent months. In many ways they're chalk and cheese. One's American, the other British. One is a student's-eye view, the other a parent and school-builder. One is very "2.0" in its sensibility, arguing that students can remix their learning experiences from multiple sources. The other is, well, the mischief in me would like to call it Web 0.0, but really it's from a place as yet uncolonised by either software or version numbers, so let's christen it "RLP" (Received Learning Practice or Revised Latin Primer). In one of the very few passages where Young articulates what he thinks should actually go on inside a school, he describes a visit to an independently run Swedish school,

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1 August 02011

Round-up of recent writing in other places

Foraging BeeAgile learning: How 'making do' can evolve into 'making good' is my latest attempt at developing and honing what I mean by agile learning and why it's important. Written for the newsletter of the Association for Learning Technology, it's aimed at the ALT constituency which is mostly people in Higher and Further Education along with a scattering of commercial learning tech companies — and, at just over 2,000 words, it's reasonably long. One of the ideas I use as props is the learning ecosystem. Since I wrote this, Adam Curtis's TV essay picking apart the ecosystem metaphor has been broadcast in the UK. I like having my premises challenged, sometimes, and hope to explore this in a forthcoming post.

Also for ALT I contributed a short presentation to the Making the Most of Informal Learning webinar. You can watch and listen to the full recording: best experienced from the beginning (which, oddly, starts at 1 hour 9 mins on the clock) with Jane Hart and Charles Jennings presenting before me, then I come on when the clock says 1 hour 40 mins. You can also download my slides, though they make little sense without the accompanying ramblings.

I'm one of the friends of New Public Thinking, another of Dougald Hine's many interventions into learning and intellectual culture. My contribution so far is called When Should We Eat Our Brains? It's a sceptical look at the idea that getting a bunch of clever people to "co-create" is the answer to any and every problem.

The open source movement has got us into the habit of believing that "with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow". But lots of the problems we face are very different from debugging software. Solving them is more like unpicking knots. The more hands and eyes you devote to unpicking a knot, all at once, the tighter the knot gets.

This piece is a kind of companion to another I wrote last year for The Future We Deserve book, which, frustratingly, has yet to be published. You can see what I submitted, which pulls the lens even further back to ask whether we have what it takes to husband the planet, comparing the prognoses of Stuart Brand and James Lovelock.

On a completely different note, here's my review of a Trembling Bells gig in Lewisham.

Finally, I'm blogging more frequently (though erratically as ever) on the Agile Learning amplify site, plus occasionally on the Everything Unplugged group site.

Bumble bee photo by tassie.sim, licensed under Creative Commons.

17 January 02011

Do we need an agile learning community of practice?

Here's are the slides for the presentation I gave last Friday at the Be Bettr conference.

Click through to the slideshare page to read the speaker notes for each slide. From my position on the stage, I didn't feel that the delivery was my finest hour, so you're not missing much by not having been there… But the question in the title slide is a genuine, open one for me, so I'd be very grateful for any thoughts and comments, either here, privately or via twitter.

See also Patrick Hadfield's reflections on his involvement in putting together the Unplugged newspaper. [Update, 20 January: and Paul Miller's record of his presentation, which preceded mine.]

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6 January 02011

Unplugged! The Agile Learning newspaper

Agile Learning newspaperHere are the copies of the Agile Learning newspaper, of which I took delivery this afternoon.

You can read the full text at the foot of this post, after the links which augment the physical version of the newsletter, including the unabridged versions of the interviews.

If you'd like to keep in touch and find out more about the ideas in the newspaper, there are several things you can do. Tell us what you'd like to see next via the Agile Learning survey. Follow Agile Learning on Twitter, Amplify or Facebook. And if you're near London, please join our meet-up group on Facebook or GroupSpaces.


Here are the full versions of the interviews (they're 3-5 times as long as the versions in the newspaper, which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your orientation):

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9 December 02010

Can we make a newspaper about self-organised learning?

Editorial meeting at the Royal Festival HallI'm still digesting the eight interviews I've done on these pages in recent months under the Agile Learning banner. (I know, I know: if I haven't digested them yet, how must you feel?) A few kind souls say there's some valuable stuff in them, and a handful have even taken on the challenge of producing a newspaper that uses the interviews as a starting point.

This is an experiment — which means it may fail to achieve the goals we have in mind now, but equally it may lead to other outcomes we haven't anticipated. The immediate goal we have in mind is to have the newspaper ready by the second week in January, for distribution to attendees at the Learning without Frontiers and Be Bettr conferences. (I'm also speaking at the latter, but don't let that put you off registering — only £10 with the discount code "b3b3ttr" on the registration page.)

We will be editing the interviews to be much shorter and aiming to present them in a more fun, irreverent style, a little more lively than their dry presentation here.

We had an initial meeting to kick this off yesterday (pictured). Fancy joining in? This is an open project with no money changing hands, aside from the physical production costs of the newspaper which I'm underwriting from DJ Alchemi. We may have one or two face-to-face meetings in London, but most activities will be coordinated via a wiki along with email, twitter and suchlike. Help with creative layout design would be especially welcome, so if you know anyone…

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6 December 02010

Tony Hall on teaching by not teaching

Tony Hall at the Royal Festival Hall

Tony Hall takes photographs and makes photomovies. At the same time he describes his interests as "thinking about sustainable learning communities, shared learning in public spaces, using social media". Like me, he's a regular at our weekly meetings on self-organised learning, so I've absorbed his views about learning through conversations by osmosis and, indeed, many conversations.

But that doesn't mean that I always agree with him. I've done only a light edit on the transcript of this discussion with Tony — which took place in our regular spot in London's Royal Festival Hall and also involved Patrick Hadfield, Fred Garnett and David Pinto. Hopefully this captures some of the spirit of the conversation, as it circles around rather than progressing linearly, veering as it does so between the serious, the subtle and the throwaway. You may also detect a hint of amused frustration from me (though the most flippant and testy exchange has been edited out, at Tony's request).

As well as conversations, key words in Tony's vocabulary are gentleness and conviviality. Some of my frustration stems from my attempts to square this emphasis with the idea that learning frequently involves elements of challenge and risk. While Tony wriggles away from my attempt at confrontation, it's clear by the end of the discussion that he's no stranger to risk and conflict in his practice. So his way of dealing with my questioning is perhaps an instance of gentleness in action.

I'm not convinced yet, but I am intrigued, and I hope you will be if you cast your eye over the discussion.

Meanwhile, I'm not sure if this will be the last of this series of interviews, at least in this form. The format is obviously text-heavy — which I defend in comparison to audio or video since it's much easier to skim and select from — but the transcription and editing process is not that agile (it's taken me over three months to get from recording this discussion to publishing the blog post). Advice or suggestions for alternative approaches very welcome.

David Jennings: How did you get into teaching, and how did you learn your craft?

Tony Hall: I got into teaching through not wanting to teach, basically. I got into teaching because a few people in a youth centre were interested in something I was interested in: photography. They felt that I could probably help them. "Help" is the wrong word. Not help, just get involved in photography in some way. And being outside of school was important and interesting.

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23 November 02010

Ollie Nørsterud Gardener: an entrepreneur's vision of peer-to-peer learning in organisations

Ollie Norsterud Gardener

Can social networks be environments for real learning? What would happen if you tried to mash up social networking and knowledge management with a human-centred approach to how people learn and develop in organisations?

Up until now, the interviews that I've been doing under the Agile Learning banner have been outside my "home territory" of workplace learning supported by technology. There were a couple of reasons for that, but this interview with Olaug (Ollie) Nørsterud Gardener brings it all back home with an account of a start-up technology that uses the connection-centric focus, familiar from social networking, to help people share material that's relevant to what they're doing at any moment.

Fittingly, I came across Ollie via the ambient awareness provided by Twitter. I can't remember whether I started following @olliegardener from my @agilelearn account, or the other way round, but I noticed she was going to be in London for the Connecting HR unconference. I was too late to get a ticket, but during her visit Ollie was kind enough to spare me 45 minute in my regular haunt, looking over the Thames from the Royal Festival Hall.

Ollie is co-founder of the Oslo-based NoddleSoft. Their first offering, as a start-up company, is a platform called NoddlePod, offered on the Software as a Service (SaaS) model with a monthly subscription. One of the things that really got me interested was the thinking and attitude behind NoddlePod. As Ollie put it in her blog last month, 'I just simply don't believe that people can "be developed".' So goodbye to that what an old colleague used to call the sheep-dip approach to Human Resource Development, where everyone gets to jump through similar hoops or gets similar stuff thrown at them.

Noddlesoft's approach assumes that learners want to find things out. It helps them do this by sharing resources and connecting with each other. Even if learners are undertaking the same range of activities — Ollie uses the example of corporate Graduate Programmes — this approach opens out a space for participants to self-organise. They bring their own motivation to bear, based on the challenges in the context they share, and what they learn is then more salient and meaningful than if it were just fed to them in some abstract or remote setting.

Are you in or near London on 15th December? Ollie is going to be in town again then, and we're considering inviting her to one of our weekly learning discussions in the Royal Festival Hall. With it being close to Christmas, we're not sure whether people will have other things on their minds. So, if we're pledging to run this discussion with Ollie only if at least ten people register to attend. Please do this here if you'd like to talk more with Ollie.

How did you come to found NoddleSoft and where have you got to with it?

Olaug Gardener (OG): I founded NoddleSoft out of frustration — frustration that I was in a role where my role was to enable learning, yet I came to feel that what I was doing was more about managing and controlling learning. I felt more of a bottleneck then an enabler.

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18 November 02010

Resilience and scaling down in the face of decline (Dougald Hine discussion, part 2)

With hindsight, it was surprising that the first part of my discussion with Dougald Hine kept to a disciplined track for as long as it did. Perhaps it was the novelty of having the recorder turned on that kept the forces of entropy in check. But entropy will out.

On one level the discussion that follows has almost nothing to do with learning. On another, it has everything to do with learning. Part of the longer discussion we've been exploring concerns how you pull back the lens on your learning context, and what happens when you do? Do you develop a meta-awareness of your own learning process and a critical assessment of the systems in which it is embedded? Or is the meta-level not higher, but just different. I'm not sure now whether the discussion is profoundly important or just by the bye.


But here we start talking about scaling down and becoming more self-reliant. To what degree is this a response to a perceived, or real, decline in the fabric of our lives and infrastucture of our society. (Remember, I kicked off this thread 15 months ago talking about learning in the context of "progressive austerity" — a term that has since lost whatever charm it might once have had).

A reminder that you can also read Dougald's own take on the same discussion, including an audio edit. Here we pick up the discussion where Dougald Hine has just been talking about the complacency of Higher Education in the face of a potential "scaling down" in the institutional infrastructure you need to organise rewarding learning relationships.

Tony Hall: Is there a name for the process of the scaling down? Because I am thinking of Illich again and Tools for Conviviality, which influenced me incredibly in terms of giving me the confidence to say the only tool I need to work with in education is my camera. And that is what I have always done — because everybody, more or less, has a camera. So you could just use that as your educational tool — you need nothing else in a way. Is that whole sense of "scaling down" is that a Dark Mountain thing, a Collapsonomics thing?

Dougald Hine (DH): The Collapsonomics stuff I have been writing recently deals with the sense that, in some significant ways, the middle class existence is being eroded. We are living through the immiseration of the bourgeoisie.

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24 October 02010

Dougald Hine on School of Everything and asset-based development

Dougald Hine at the Royal Festival Hall

Dougald Hine is of the co-founders of the School of Everything. He's also a prime mover in several social enterprises across the spectrum from practical action (Space Makers, which matches creative people and ideas with empty shop space) to cultural movement (Dark Mountain, exploring new artistic languages to help us deal with environmental and economic decline). See his website for the full range.

I first got to know Dougald through London networks like the Tuttle Club and Long Now meetups. Then, a year ago, Dougald and Tony Hall started a weekly series of meetings about self-organised learning under the title School of Everything Unplugged. Through these meetings, we've had fascinating discussions with, to pick just a few,

I'm now one of the organisers of the weekly meetings and we're experimenting with the format, so that, as well as guest-led discussions, we're doing reviews of resources, problem solving, lightweight projects… and group interviews. Candidly, the last of these gives me the chance to kill two birds with one stone: to keep the meeting programme ticking over and to add to my series of Agile Learning interviews. And into the bargain I get to share the hard work of interviewing — coming up with good questions and being alive to the responses — with some smart people.

Thus it was that I came to interview Dougald, in our usual spot looking out over the River Thames from the Royal Festival Hall, and supported by contributions from Clodagh Miskelly, Tony Hall and Patrick Hadfield. And so it was the discussion ranged far and wide. Perhaps a little further and wider than I was anticipating, so I'm splitting this record of it into two.

What ambitions did you have in creating School of Everything?

Dougald Hine (DH): I'd been reading [Ivan Illich's] De-Schooling Society in 2004 and getting very into Illich generally. A year or so later I met Paul Miller who was at Demos at the time and he was the first policy person, the first think-tank person I had ever met. I trapped him in the corner of a pub and talked at him for about an hour about Illich. Luckily Charlie Leadbeater, who Paul had been working with on a pamphlet called the Pro-Am Revolution, had also just become very enthusiastic about Illich. So rather than just thinking that I was this hairy nutter from Sheffield he thought "This is interesting, I'm hearing about this from more than one direction."

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29 September 02010

Home rules: Annie Weekes on how and why home education works

Annie Weekes in The Bishop, East Dulwich

When I first wrote about what I'm now calling Agile Learning, just over a year ago, I started off with some quotes from my friend Guy (sample: "learning is simple; it's one of the few things we can't help ourselves from doing"). Guy and his partner Annie educate their two boys, now young teenagers, at home. Having teased them about being anarchists, I thought I should find out a bit more about how home education is (self) organised.

My discussion with Annie is a deliberate switch from the theoretical and occasionally abstract drift of recent Agile Learning interviews (1, 2). We concentrate on the decision to home educate, the variety of approaches and the learning environment (in the broadest sense of that term).

This interview differs in other ways, as well. It was even more relaxed and informal than my usual approach. I've known Annie and her family as friends for seven years; they live a few minutes' walk from my house, and, for this discussion, we met in the nearest pub. My concession to professionalism was to drink in half-pints. I had sent Annie a set of questions in advance, but, as friends in a pub are wont to do, we wandered around the topics. At first, when I listened back to my recording, I felt awkward about this lack of discipline. But by the end it felt like an entirely appropriate approach to the topics: form follows content. Please bear this in mind when when reading. Another factor is that it's important to depersonalise any details relating to children — so I've had to edit the several references Annie and I made to her children.

Other anxieties also stalked me throughout the discussion. As we began, Annie told me how many parents in our social milieu displayed a curiosity, bordering on suspicion and denial, about the home education road her family has gone down. I scanned my memory of previous chats to assess whether she meant me. Then Annie told me how more researchers seem to be taking an interest in home educators recently, dressing up everyday reportage with references to Michel Foucault and Thomas Kuhn. Another shot across the bows.

Just about every interview I do these days (I've got two more recorded, but not yet transcribed) seems to start with Ivan Illich, and this was no exception. Annie and Guy didn't set out to be home educators, but neither were they unprepared. Annie had read Illich's Deschooling Society at school, although at that stage it was an academic, rather than a personal, interest. A long-term resident of South-East London, Annie's contact with Camberwell Small School and the Sydenham Home Educators group left her, and Guy, with the feeling that, if school didn't work out for their newly born children, there was a viable alternative.

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24 August 02010

Agile Learning meetups in London

Photo of meetup at the start of AugustHaving taken a few soundings — and please complete our short Agile Learning survey if you haven't already, as we're keen to get a broader input — the first meetups are under way in London. In fact, this isn't so much a new activity, as an evolution and gentle morphing of an existing one. More on that in a moment, but first the key points:

  • Self-organised discussions on the themes of self-organised, flexible, sometimes disruptive (vis-a-vis established habits and institutions) approaches to learning
  • A mix of invited guests, interviews, group problem-solving, themed chats — maximum dialogue and minimum structure
  • Every Wednesday morning, 10.30-12.30 (the first 30-45 minutes is usually the most informal, with introductions and establishing a shared base)
  • Level 5 of the Royal Festival Hall, London, SE1 8XX (free wi-fi available)
  • Free, open and hopefully welcoming to all
  • Details and sign up (not mandatory) are on Meetup.com, including tomorrow's.

This series of meetups began a year ago as the "unplugged" offshoot of the School of Everything, with Dougald Hine inviting a series of fascinating guests. Tony Hall has been co-host, and the meetings have also come under the umbrella of The Learning Co-op. For a while I considered setting up a separate strand of meetings under the Agile Learning banner, but the momentum and energy favour collaboration at the moment. As you can tell, these arrangements are very lightweight and flexible, so new paths may emerge, fork or diverge further on.

As a form of collective self-discipline, we set aside two meetings this month to reflect on the meetups so far and to plan directions for the future. The photo above (by Tony Hall) is of the first of these sessions, three weeks ago. Given the voluntary, self-selecting attendance at the meeting, I guess it was inevitable that most people had mostly positive things to say about the meetups they'd attended. We talked about practising what we preach in terms of self-organised learning groups. Fred Garnett referred to Mike Wesch's work on organising groups according to their learning purposes (I think this link refers to that) and the WEA's Learning Revolution project was also mentioned.

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17 August 02010

Agile Learning is what you do when you have to 'make do'

We've known for decades that we need to keep learning throughout our careers. See the lifelong learning movement, for example. But either creating or doing a course is too big an overhead for many learning needs.

Since the web arrived, we've grown to use it as a just-in-time performance support system. As Dick Moore put it, "every Google query is a piece of shallow Agile Learning." And the ecosystem of the web has responded to this with growing sophistication in the resources and tools it provides — often free or near-free — to support learning.

Agile Learning recognises that this shift is accelerating, driven by a sudden fall in the funds available for bespoke learning infrastructure. At least that's how it looks from the UK, where we've seen the demise of the agency promoting technology in education, the Building Schools for the Future programme has been scrapped, and the decimation of the Harnessing Technology grants for schools. Training budgets in the private sector are being slashed amid poor Learning & Development impact. In the developing world, meanwhile, many who have never had access to learning infrastructure and institutions have a real prospect of cheap learning devices and mobile learning coming within reach.

So here's another stab at definining what Agile Learning is about (to add to my earlier efforts): it's how you learn when you don't have a heavyweight institutional and technological infrastructure, and a large teaching staff, to support you.

Agile Learning is what you do when you have to 'make do'. We don't have a lot of evidence yet — the Hole in the Wall examples being the most inspirational recently — but I'm playing my hunch that, as and when we get good at 'making do', we may just find it's more fun, more flexible, and more cost-effective, than the old heavyweight institutional approaches.

  • If you don't have a building, a stock of textbooks and all the other trimmings, you might try some Agile Learning techniques.
  • If you're wanting to pilot something in a corporate environment, and can't justify using a full-scale Virtual Learning Environment, there should be an agile solution.
  • If you've got a group of peers — whether entrepreneurs or hobbyists — Agile Learning can help you exploit resources online, and in your group, to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps.
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27 July 02010

Fred Garnett on how to create new contexts for your own learning

Fred Garnett with Paul (or John, or George, or is it Ringo?)

I kept coming across Fred Garnett's name so often in my favourite online spaces that I began to believe we must have met some time ago, and I'd just forgotten it. As it turned out, when I introduced myself in June, Fred couldn't remember us having met either [Update: Seb Schmoller has reminded me that Fred and I were both participants in the email group for the Network Users' Forum a decade ago!]. Yet, as soon as we started chatting, we came across more and more areas where our interests coincided, from learners bootstrapping their own learning to innovations in the use of recording studios. In fact, Fred has explored where these two fields intersect — but more of that in a moment.

Following a range of teaching posts, from US universities to UK Further Education and Head of Community Programmes at Becta, Fred is now affiliated with the London Knowledge Lab. He's active in the informal Learner-Generated Contexts group. He's interested in how learners deal constructively with the unknown and how they reframe problems in an unpredictable world.

In some ways, Fred's work represents a more involved conceptual discourse around the themes in my interviews with and by David Gauntlett. So this interview will appeal if you want to dig deeper in those areas. Partly as a consequence of this, it is more dense in terms of terminology and concepts from educational theory. Hence a slightly longer preamble before we get to the interview proper.

What drew me to Fred's work was the focus on how learners can create the conditions to manage their own learning. This develops some of the themes in my interview by David Gauntlett, particularly around authority and power in learning. The challenge it represents to teacher-led learning is anathema in some quarters.

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15 July 02010

Elaborating on Agile Learning

David Jennings, 2007

I resist requests to pin down Agile Learning with a tight definition. I see it as a family of approaches, and when you've seen a few of these approaches perhaps you start to detect the family resemblances, and spot more distant relatives. Sure, the approaches share some things in common. The main thing, I think, is that they offer a response to the unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves in now, characterised by enormous richness of learning resources and tools, combined with harsh austerity in financial (and thus human) resources. I also happen to think that a degree of self-organising by learners is a promising path to take.

But this is an open and open-ended endeavour. It will evolve in unpredictable ways, which is why I think 'fixing' it in manifesto-style language. Yet, at the end of my interview with David Gauntlett, David asked if he could turn the tables and ask me a few questions. I left the tape rolling (actually an MP3 recorder) and recorded the impromptu discussion that followed. I confess that, in transcribing the recording, I have taken considerable liberties in rephrasing and elaborating what I said!

David Gauntlett: So why Agile Learning?

David Jennings: First there's a practical concern, that we've just gone through a period — starting with the dotcom boom but continuing only slightly abated since then — where a lot of money has been pumped into internet-based learning initiatives with Grand Designs. This has been based on growth projections, a few celebrated success stories like Google and Amazon, and large doses of faith and optimism. Although the small-pieces-loosely-joined ethos and Web 2.0 approaches have been with us for years, there's still been a tendency — especially in an era of an interventionist public sector, which I know well — to Think Big and vastly overestimate the profile and mindshare that top-down initiatives can attain.

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13 July 02010

David Gauntlett on "making is connecting" and the end of factory learning

David Gauntlett at the Royal Festival Hall

The second in the series of Agile Learning interviews is with David Gauntlett, Professor of Media and Communications at University of Westminster. I first came across David at the time of his inaugural lecture, which, unfortunately, I missed because of a last-minute issue with my son (then just a few months old). Happily, I've been able to get to know David over the last year through our participation on the School of Everything Unplugged meetups in London.

A second reason to be cheerful is that David makes his ideas very accessible. This he does in at least two ways. First, his website and YouTube channel provide lots of ways to get a feeling for what he's about in 15 minutes or less. For example, here's a quick overview of his "Make and Connect" agenda and here's a slightly updated version of the lecture I missed.

David also makes his ideas accessible by expressing himself in very straightforward everyday terms, more or less jargon-free. This is a welcome and somewhat uncommon trait for an academic (especially one on the editorial board of a journal called Foucault Studies). But it's very much of a piece with the agenda that David is advancing, one that puts a lot of store in giving people the means to influence and remake the worlds they live in through creative engagement with their environment and each other. This echoes one of the influences he cites: Ivan Illich, whose books like Disabling Professions and Tools for Conviviality look towards a gently radical empowerment of citizens.

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16 June 02010

Dick Moore on Agile Learning, Agile Software Development and the Mobile Internet

Dick Moore

Dick Moore was, until a week or two ago, Director of Technology at Ufi/learndirect — I've known him since his days at Doncaster and Sheffield Colleges, and then at a Santa Monica dotcom. We started talking about Agile Learning shortly after my last post about it, and I quickly felt there were enough interesting ideas in the conversation to make it worth developing and sharing. So I suggested doing an interview with Dick, and sent him a few questions to think about…

A few days ago, I received a comprehensive document with Dick's thoughtful replies. Hence what follows is as much a 'guest post' as an interview, though we did have a follow-up chat. Dick has a deep understanding of tech infrastructure and methods, so the first section is his take on the possible mappings between Agile Software Development and Agile Learning. The later sections weave together Dick's answers to my questions with some additional material from our chat.

Dick's blog is at ToolsAndTaxonomy.com and you can mail him at dmoore [at] MooreAnswers dot co dot uk. [Update, 15 July 2010: Dick has now posted his version of this interview, so have a look and check for comments there as well.

I'm interested in doing a series of interviews like this, with people who have different contexts for, and angles on, Agile Learning. If you'd like to be interviewed, please get in touch.

Agile Learning and Agile Software Development

What do we mean by Agile Learning? In software development, the 'agile' movement was as a reaction against large scale development projects governed by a monolithic organisational standard perceived to be overly bureaucratic, costly and slow for what is often small scale development. Not all development is suitable for such an approach in much the same way that not all learning and assessment could be considered suitable for an agile approach (though there may be elements within large learning programmes that might benefit from agile methods to better reflect real world situations).

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14 May 02010

Agile Learning: better results for less money

Create, adapt, remix your learning to meet your needs — and pay much lessAgile Learning logo

That's the current tagline for an initiative we're soft launching, with the aim of bringing together people (you?) curious about self-organised learning in commerce, community and education.

How can you design and create your own learning experiences — or help your others to do so — and save money in the process? We don't have all the answers to that, but we know many learning initiatives of recent years have wasted a lot of money by being over-engineered and inflexible. We're interested in developing alternatives to this that are leaner, vastly more responsive to learner needs, and supported by more lightweight infrastructure.

Have online tools and resources got sufficiently sophisticated that, with a bit of ingenuity, you could create a social learning experience that delivers what you and your friends, colleagues or associates want?

We're placing a bet that in some circumstances they have, and you could. And we're calling this Agile Learning, because the approach is quick, responsive and keeps learners in control. It fits your timescale, learning preferences and outcomes you need, enabling you to change things as you go along, while sidestepping institutional inertia. It builds on some of the ideas that Seb Schmoller and I started writing about last year: see this post and this one. (Seb and I are the core of the 'we' in this post.)

We're not entirely sure how this Agile Learning group is going to work. The last thing we'd want to do is to over-specify it! We're anticipating some learning activities — online and offline — to pool experiences, resources, and generally accelerate our exploration of what makes this kind of approach work. But for now we're just floating the idea and inviting feedback from whoever's interested, in whatever format suits you.

You may be thinking that this seems a bit abstract… Help us choose where to provide or develop concrete examples. If you've got experience of agile techniques or tools, I'd love to do an interview with you, to be written up on this blog and/or elsewhere online. Or, if you share a specific learning context and problem, I'll have a go at outlining what an agile learning solution might look like.

If you can spare ten minutes, it would be immensely valuable if you could say a bit more about your particular interests by completing our survey.

And/or just contribute ideas directly via this forum.

We've just started an Agile Learning Twitter account and Facebook page. We'll run these in parallel for a while, and possibly add a wiki and/or social network platform, before deciding whether to keep multiple channels going or focus down. In the meantime, please retweet, become a fan, share with your friends, and so on.

In June I'll be convening some face-to-face meetings in London where we can review initial ideas and feedback and start self-organising the next phase of activity.

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21 August 02009

Progressive austerity and self-organised learning

Shake Up Your Class, by Gideon Burton

A month or so ago, my friend Guy, whose children are educated at home, treated me to one his occasional rants. "People know there's an Arms Lobby," he said, "so they're very wary about calls for more spending on Defence and question whose interests these serve. But there's an Education Lobby too, and it always wants more spent on educational initiatives and new technologies. Because it frames its proposals as Public Goods," he went on, "middle-class liberals find it harder to see through this hucksterism."

I don't think Guy was having a go at me specifically — I neither support nor participate in any formal lobbying activities in education. But I couldn't escape the fact that a good slice of my consulting income comes from public funding for educational initiatives and new technologies.

And there's no escaping the fact that that funding will not be sustained in coming years as it has been for the last decade. Earlier this year I did some work for the Learning and Skills Improvement Service. Via Seb Schmoller comes a quote from the head of a think tank under the heading of Progressive Austerity, "Any agency with the word 'improvement' in its title could probably disappear without discernible negative effects." Hmmm.

We're all programmed to learn

We all need to take responsibility for finding ways to do more with less. I'm with Guy and many in the growing Collapsonomics wing in thinking that the silver lining to this particular cloud may be not just quite substantial but also very necessary.

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7 July 02009

Round-up of talk and interviews

In a brisk (?!) follow-up to my last blog entry, I did a talk to teenagers from three Sheffield schools on the subject "Big Brother is Logging You", sharing the platform with Dave Pattern, Library Systems Manager at University of Huddersfield, who also featured in the TILE libraries event. This was part of the Sheffield 14-19 Diplomas initiative. It was also an experiment in speaking to one physical audience and two 'virtual' ones via videolink, with the occasionally sub-optimal results you might expect with remote teenagers. Both my and Dave's presentations are available online, as Powerpoint, Word supporting materials, and Quicktime video of each section of our talks (unfortunately not embeddable, as far as I can see).

Bringing things almost bang up to date, I was at the Reboot Britain yesterday, and recorded a couple of short interviews with Steve Lawson on AudioBoo. In the first one I revisit and update one of my old, old hobby horses, scepticism in the face of hype about games in learning. Then another old chestnut, mentioning how what Tony Ageh said yesterday about opening up the BBC Archives reminded me of similar proposals made almost five years ago.


Later Steve got me together with Stan Stalnaker of Hub Culture for a discussion. I'd literally only heard of Hub Culture three minutes before the discussion began, so you can hear me trying to work out whether this is an up-market managed workspace or an invitation-only business network, or some combination of the two. Even after hearing Stan speak later in the day, I wasn't entirely clear. Steve was kind enough to tweet my off-the-record explanation for why I didn't answer his second question.


There are plenty more Reboot Britain audio interviews, along with social media of all flavours.

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6 February 02009

Applying the lessons of Last.fm to libraries and learning

ALT Newsletter mastheadIf fans can discover interesting new music by comparing their listening profiles with those of people with similar tastes, why not apply similar principles to students' discovery of books as they explore how to get the most from university libraries. I have an article in the Association of Learning Technology's current newsletter. It's based around a day of talks about the TILE Project (that's Towards Implementation of Library 2.0 & the e-Framework, in case you couldn't guess), and it starts like this:

"You looked at The Complete Essays by Montaigne; you might also consider The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader edited by Whitlock." Most of us are familiar with Amazon’s gently pushy way of suggesting further purchases. If you're a music fan, you may have tried “scrobbling” each song you listen to into the massive Last.fm database of listener behaviour. In return for this gift of your data, you get to explore the habits of others who share some of your tastes, and you get a series of recommendations for other music you might enjoy.

Then it goes on like this. It's kind of surprising that these methods are now fairly well established in retail and entertainment, but not in learning. Perhaps that's because educational institutions remain wary of the ways of informal learning, as though such social propagation of ideas were somehow an unruly and untutored threat (it's not).

This may be starting in university libraries, but my hunch is that it's going to spread through all large-scale learning provision over the next decade. I wonder whether this on learndirect's corporate radar (I'm sure some individuals there will have been thinking seriously about it already).

1 May 02008

Culture and Learning: response to consultation paper

A couple of months ago the UK think tank Demos published a consultation paper with the title Culture and Learning: Towards a New Agenda. The paper aims to challenge cultural professionals and educationalists "to provide a new and coherent direction for creative learning and for encouraging creativity through culture", and the consultation period runs until next Tuesday.

I find it a curious intervention, because in some ways it seems to be swimming against the tide. There is a strong emphasis on centralisation and standardisation, the favoured interventions of old-school bureaucrats.

Hat tip to Bridget McKenzie whose own response to this consultation brought it to my attention. And following her lead in making her response public, here is mine, organised according to the six issues that the paper encourages us to address.

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3 January 02008

Looking for examples of social networking for professional development

I'm copying here something I've just added to the OpenRSA blog, relating to some work I'm doing in collaboration with Seb Schmoller:

I'm looking for examples of organisations (or looser affiliations of individuals) who are using social software for professional development. Does anyone have any suggestions that I could follow up?

By social software I mean social networks (e.g. Facebook, Ning), blogs, wikis, shared bookmarks etc. And professional development can mean many things, but I'm mostly interesting in enhancing intrinsic job-specific skills on the one hand and broader scouting of collaborative/entrepreneurial opportunities on the other. The organisations could be membership-based, employers, educators or just self-organising networks.

The selfish part of this is that it relates to some work I'm doing for the National College for School Leadership, who are interested in extending the way they use social software with their constituency of school leaders. I'm happy to feed back the lessons from any leads that anyone gives me and share them with readers of this blog. Look forward to hearing from you if you can recommend any suitable examples (with contact details if possible). Our immediate deadline is 18th January, but happy to continue the discussion beyond then…

Any suggestions welcome, either via comments here, or private communication.

30 July 02007

Top Ten tools for learning

Jane Hart, Head of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, is polling a number of online learning professionals and bloggers about their favourite tools for learning — from RSS feed aggregators to paper and pencil. Here's the list of Top Tens so far and here are my selections. The latter are a mix of old favourites (some of which may no longer be best-in-class, but in which I have too much time invested to make switching cost-effective) and a few recent discoveries that I'm still exploring.

Jane would welcome you submitting your own list, if you haven't already.

She's compiling the Top 100 tools by aggregating all the submissions. The value of this chart isn't at the top, which comprises common and mostly generic tools that you already know about (unless this is your first day online) and have probably already considered. The interesting stuff is lower down the chart, where you find more specialist and niche tools that may fill a need you have.

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1 January 02007

Personalised learning

My frequent associate (and all-round good egg) Seb Schmoller has been polling views of e-learning practitioners on 'personalised learning', including what the term conjures up for you. He asked me for my thoughts. I wasn't sure I had any, but I find that, if I imagine myself in the role of a jaded old cynic (it's a challenge, but I rise to it), the opinions just come flooding out. So I posted them in the comments on Seb's blog entry.

Apart from mine, Seb's already got contributions from several leading lights in e-learning, and I think he's open to further input, if you feel so inclined. All comments will feed into a presentation Seb is making in a couple of weeks' time, and he will post the notes he collates from everyone on his site.

Today the BBC has one of those predictions for the coming year features, which includes some rather vague references to personalisation, such as "all the companies are talking reputation management and melding it with personalisation so when you get recommendations you can trust them," according to someone with a nice line in lime green cowboy hats. (Disclaimer: I'm just poking fun in a friendly way; please don't anyone take offence.) See also: The Guardian and the failed promise of personalisation.

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18 December 02006

Blogs, wikis, 'voice' and accountability

Impossible object
Photo copyright and cc-licensed
by extranoise.

In the course of writing my book, I started by describing blogs and wikis as two examples of the same thing — user-generated content. Towards the end of the book, I came up against the ways in which they are opposites: blogs reinforce individual voices, points of view and attitudes, while wikis efface this individuality and the accountability that comes with it.

Wikis have some advantages over blogs. Their design encourages users to aim for consensus, whereas the design of blogs encourages a kind of Tower-of-Babel cacophony. However, here I'm going to focus on one of the downsides of wikis. This is a philosophical piece that accompanies a more practical article over on my book blog.

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19 November 02006

Just what the world needs: another music wiki

I checked the Alexa traffic ranking for this site last week, and it's down 60% in the last three months… I will be emerging properly from hibernation in a couple of weeks, and livening things up around here.

In the meantime, does anyone know what happened (or is happening) to Napster's Narchive (this link doesn't work for me at the moment, but it used to be the Narchive's address and I can't find one that does)? I mentioned it when it was launched six months ago, as "the people's music archive". I added some comments to one or two entries shortly thereafter, and I noticed the level of activity was low. For a month or more, now, I haven't been able to reach it at all. Have Napster quietly killed it?

Part of the reason I ask is because, I've just come across the Wiki Music Guide, which is in beta (isn't everyone?), and seems to be aiming to occupy a similar space, albeit with a format that's much closer to Wikipedia and also uses MediaWiki software. I added a brief profile of Philip Jeays. Right now, there are fewer than 250 artists on the guide, and those that are there vary between stubs and puff pieces that wouldn't qualify under Wikipedia's neutral-point-of-view criteria.

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18 September 02006

Wikipedia to bifurcate?

Just last week I was writing (for my book), "No one is going to set up a new free wiki-based online encyclopaedia any time soon: there can be only one." Now I'm considering whether I can edit that to say "No one is going to initiate from scratch a…" or should I just delete it altogether. This in the light of the news that Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger is setting up the Citizendium project, which he describes as a "progressive or gradual fork" based on Wikipedia. The difference between this fork and the mothership? Experts have the final say over edits.

There has been some scepticism about Citizendium, but I think it's an interesting and healthy challenge to any dogma of hardline bottom-up evangelists. In the end, the opinions we experience are a mix of expert and amateur, qualified and ad-hoc. Why not try and build that mix into the ecosystem of an encyclopaedia system?

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3 August 02006

Knowledge, power and mobilising a lobby through Wikipedia

Last night I added my tuppence worth to Wikipedia's entry on the History of Virtual Learning Environments. As manager of an online learning consortium in the late nineties, I helped the software company Fretwell-Downing Education build a pilot web-based Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Though you would not know it from the entry as it stands at the time of writing, the description I've added of this case study — and the catalogue of others being collected in the Wikipedia entry — are not there just to add to the store of the world's knowledge: they are there to prove a point.

Last week the e-learning systems company Blackboard announced that it had been issued a patent (in the US) covering a number of software features that have been standard components of VLEs for several years. This quickly had several e-learning bloggers up in arms: I found out about it from Jay Cross and Seb Schmoller; and Stephen Downes has a good round-up as usual.

I share the widespread contempt for this development, and the disrepute that it brings on the ethos of patents. That's why I was more than happy to add my contribution to the Wikipedia entry to demonstrate the 'prior art', which could invalidate the patent by showing that the claimed invention was in public use prior to the date of the patent filing. Nevertheless I can't help feeling slightly uneasy about this politically and commercially motivated use of Wikipedia.

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8 July 02006

Learning Light web site launches, research published

Learning Light is a not-for-profit organisation set up in Sheffield to "overcome the everyday obstacles our members face within the field of e-learning". It is supported from Yorkshire's regional funds but is open to more or less anyone.

I did some work for Learning Light last summer to build up their Knowledge Base, working with Seb Schmoller and David Kay (plus David's colleagues Liz Wallis and Camilla Umar). You can now register with Learning Light (free of charge), and thereby gain access to three reports, including one that I co-wrote.

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3 June 02006

Blogging, learning, and going off at tangents

I start off questioning the value of blogging an event that you know in advance will be blogged to death from every side. Does it really help anyone to have multiple perspectives on one thing, when the inevitable inconsistencies between them may be confusing? And if there are six accounts already, what added value is there in a seventh?

And then the penny drops, and I realise how to answer my question: I'm not doing this just for your benefit, dear reader, I'm doing it for mine. It's a means of consolidating my reflections. I leave them on my doorstep, and if you pass by and find them interesting, so much the better. But I'm under no obligation. Did you think I was aiming to be 'customer-centred'? Pay me some money, become a customer, and I might be. Until then, if there's no value in this for you, well, you can have a refund. For blogs to have an authentic voice, people have to speak first as citizens, not try and fit what they say into customer/supplier roles.

All of which is a lengthy preamble to a few comments I wasn't expecting to make on yesterday's blog.ac.uk conference.

Continue reading "Blogging, learning, and going off at tangents"

13 May 02006

Book announcement: Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll

People have access to vastly more music, video and other entertainment than ten years ago. In the case of music, record companies are releasing twice as many new albums per year. Not only that, but some are 'rescuing' old and deleted tracks for release in the digital marketplace.

So how do people find out about all this material? How do they judge what they might like? I'm writing a book that addresses these questions. The title is Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll: Who knows what's next in media and music in the new era of digital discovery and the download culture (the lengthy subtitle may change). It will be published next year by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, UK publishers of John Battelle's The Search and many other titles on digital enterprise and learning.

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14 April 02006

blog.ac.uk: educational use of weblogs

On 2 June I'll be participating in the blog.ac.uk one-day conference on educational use of weblogs and weblogging software. It's in London at Living Space, and is free to attend. There's an embryonic web site for the event, which will develop over the next six weeks.

My involvement comes through a connection with Josie Fraser, who (along with Steve Warburton) is a fantastic catalyst for bringing together bloggers in the learning area. Register your interest in attending by emailing Josie via her posting about the event

27 March 02006

UKLeaP learner profile published by BSI

A piece of work to which I completed my contribution almost two years ago has finally seen the light of day. The UK lifelong learner information profile (UKLeaP) has not been published as a British Standard, as originally expected, but as a 'Draft for Development'. I think this reflects some ongoing debates among different standards bodies and regimes, trying to bring their different perspectives into harmony.

  • Part 1 (DD 8788-1:2006, £20) is a guide to UKLeaP specification, aiming to help people who develop, select or implement software that makes use of learner information;
  • Part 2 (DD 8788-2:2006, £40) is a code of practice aimed at analysts and other people interested in designing and specifying systems that are to comply with the UKLeaP specification;
  • Part 3 (DD 8788-3:2006, £90) is the specification itself.

I'm sorry things have been quiet here recently: I went cross-country skiing for the first time two weeks ago, and returned with the obligatory fracture (to my elbow), which was followed by a chest infection. I've got plenty of things to post, but am still recovering and catching up with things like VAT returns.

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1 February 02006

Publishing your perspective and expertise with Squidoo

Here's another Web-2.0-style tool for aggregating information and links. It's the idea of Seth Godin, who has made his name from a series of books on innovative approaches to marketing in the age of the web. He sees this service, called Squidoo as a means for others to make their names in their areas of expertise — as captured in Squidoo's tagline, "a co-op of everyday experts".

I've created my own Squidoo 'lens', reviewed some other people's, and read Seth's free ebook about the concept behind squidoo. What follows are my reflections on these.

Continue reading "Publishing your perspective and expertise with Squidoo"

13 December 02005

E-learning 2.0, whatever that is

What is E-learning 2.0? Well first of all it's a rhetorical manoeuvre by e-learning suppliers and consultants to distance themselves from the failures of the first wave of e-learning. Secondly it appears to be the bastard neologism offspring of e-learning and Web 2.0 technologies.

I only came across the term yesterday when I did some search-aided browsing to explore ideas for supporting informal learning with Web 2.0. The term doesn't have an entry in Wikipedia yet, which suggests that I'm not too far behind the pace, as surely someone will write one soon (after they've applied for the trademark).

In the spirit of what, no doubt, will be heralded by some as yet another 'new paradigm', I won't try and develop an argument about the topic or reach any conclusions; I'll just provide some links, some second-hand content and a bit of attitude. All you free-range learners can make some sense out of that, I'm sure.

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31 October 02005

E-learning podcasts and the wonders of transcripts

E-learning figurehead Elliott Masie is offering a wide range of podcasts in connection with the current Learning 2005 conference in Florida. In keeping with the reflexive tradition of the medium, this includes a podcast about podcasting…

The implementation of the podcasts is as professional as you'd expect: there's an option to play the audio with a Flash player (courtesy of Audioblog.com, as explained in the how-to-podcast feature), and there's a PDF transcript of all the audio.

Paradoxically, it's the availability of the transcript that draws attention to the limitations of the medium.

Continue reading "E-learning podcasts and the wonders of transcripts"

15 October 02005

Games, puzzles, simulations and role-plays

The email exchange between Seb Schmoller and me continued after my last entry on games and learning, and we discovered we were writing at cross-purposes, as we had different ideas about what counts as a game. This is my attempt at some brief definitions of different kinds of play, and their relation to learning.

It started with a discussion about production values — does the idea of games in e-learning imply the same kind of expensive production values evidenced by the computer games industry? Seb wrote, "there are some circumstances in which low production values do not get in the way of a good game, with crosswords and sudoku being good examples of them". But I said these don't need high production values because they're not simulating anything outside themselves. And anyway, I'm not sure sudoku is a game; I think it's a puzzle.

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12 October 02005

Games and learning design

Like many people, I often accumulate knowledge by seizing on 'facts' that reinforce my intuitions and prejudices. So, given my feelings about use of games in e-learning, my radar jumped on the ESRC press release that says, "young people's experience of playing games (76% at least weekly in 2003) had a negative effect when they approached science simulations like a computer game and did not take them seriously" (via Seb Schmoller's mailings).

One way of reading this is that the attempt to sweeten the pill of learning with the sugar coating of a game fails to take account of young people's media habits and expectations. If you make it look like a sweet, it gets treated as a sweet: the sugar rots the kids' teeth, and they don't digest the pill! As Seb says (in a personal email), "You'd also need to know more about which learners reacted this way — level, ability; and how good the simulations were". Neither of us have been able to find the report which the press release describes, but my searching threw up a few interesting leads.

Continue reading "Games and learning design"

6 September 02005

'CMALT' launched at learning technology conference

As trailed previously, the CMALT (Certified Member of the Association for Learning Technology) accreditation scheme is being launched today at the Association's annual conference. This scheme is a portfolio-based means of recognising the experience and competence of professionals working in technology-based and technology-assisted learning.

Since we developed the scheme last year a second pilot has been run, and work has started on an e-commerce-enabled document workflow system for the submission and review of applications for CMALT status. The latter will come into use next year.

Somewhat inadvertently (and I hope this doesn't sound disingenuous, because I don't think it is), I became one of the first people to achieve CMALT status. As part of our work in developing proposals for the scheme I filled out an example application form, based on my experience. The intention behind this was as illustration and 'proof of concept'. I wasn't at the meeting where it was discussed, so I was surprised to hear later that not only had our proposal for the scheme been accepted by our clients at ALT, but also I had been accepted as a Certified Member. I've now updated my CV (115 KB pdf file) accordingly.

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26 July 02005

Jotspot wiki for e-learning guidance

Wikis are great for supporting long-term or large-scale collaborative projects, enabling multiple team members to edit the same document, with the scope to view or 'roll back to' older versions. But for smaller projects the 'entry cost' of configuring them correctly and getting your material into wiki format, which is not standard HTML, can be a barrier to using them (I touched on this tangentially in last year's posting on building a wiki). Jotspot offers an alternative way in to building wikis, using MS Word-style WYSIWYG editing, and a straightforward way of importing content from standard file formats like Word and Excel. It also has a valuable set of applications that you can plug into your wiki to add functions, from project management and tracking to forums and polls.

As part of my work for the TUC, I used Jotspot to create an online version of guidance about managing TUC e-learning. This was initially produced and edited in Word, but, once we reached 'version 1.0', we wanted to have a means for the document to be shared by all potential users — meaning that they could update it in the light of experience, and everyone would always be able to find the latest version.

Continue reading "Jotspot wiki for e-learning guidance"

23 July 02005

BBC 6 Music podcasts and learning

It's almost exactly a year since I posted my review of BBC 6 Music as a learning resource on this site, and nearly eight months since I commented on the disappearance of some of the web resources from the 6 Music web site. Now 6 Music has begun a weekly podcast of speech highlights from its programmes as part of the BBC's download trial, so it seems a good time to review what's changed.

Continue reading "BBC 6 Music podcasts and learning"

19 June 02005

Evaluation of Learning Activity Management Systems

I've finally finished the rigorous evaluation report of Learning Activity Management Systems (LAMS). Seb Schmoller has an overview of the report and commentary on the small number of actual LAMS implementation cases.

One strand of the report jumped out at me. It observes that "it is less easy to adapt [a] lesson 'on the fly' in LAMS than in a traditional teacher-facilitated session," and that "some [students] were frustrated by the inflexibility of a LAMS sequence". Elsewhere the report refers to the linearity of LAMS sequences as restrictive and less than satisfactory.

What this suggests to me is that LAMS — in common, it must be said, with most e-learning approaches — reinforces the separation between the planning of a learning experience and its execution. This separation reduces the scope to be sensitive to the interactions with (and between), and to adjust and improvise accordingly.

Continue reading "Evaluation of Learning Activity Management Systems"

19 May 02005

Teaching as performance

Doug Brent has written an interesting paper in last month's First Monday on how historical trends are being played out in online education. He draws a distinction between "knowledge [or, more strictly, teaching] as performance and knowledge as thing" (emphasis in the original). Loosely speaking you could map this onto my process-versus-product distinction in e-learning.

What Brent adds to this simple opposition is an explanation of the trend towards the thing/product end of the spectrum. He follows the work of Shoshana Zuboff in seeing it as an example of the increasing recording or 'textualisation' of work, which can be traced back at least to the Scientific Management school of the early twentieth century. In this trend, work is increasingly written down in manuals and procedures, or embodied in ICT systems, so that there is less reliance on the more oral traditions of apprenticeship and learning by interacting.

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16 May 02005

Bootstrap Network/interview with me

I met Graham Stewart a few months ago in connection with some online social networking developments. Graham's very active in building, and experimenting with, social software. His latest endeavour (with Neil McEvoy) is the Bootstrap Network, a "self-organising community of Internet entrepreneurs seeking to collaborate and create new business ventures". (For geeks, the Bootstrap Network, like Ecademy, is written in Drupal.)

Graham recorded an interview with me, posted in his Bootstrap Network blog, which covers some thoughts on online learning, and on music-related learning resources with particular reference to podcasting. The interview was done over the phone, so please excuse some of the awkward pauses and less-than-articulate mumblings.

12 May 02005

BBC geek archive (sort of)

One news service to which I subscribe described the backstage.bbc.co.uk beta as "the talked-about BBC content archive", which confuses it with the pilot of the Creative Archive, which it isn't. But it's easy to see how this confusion arises. The backstage site headline (at the time of writing) is "Build what you want using BBC content", which is pretty close to one of the stated purposes of the Creative Archive.

backstage.bbc.co.uk is targeted more at techies than at 'creative media' producers — a distinction that is becoming increasingly blurred. The content that it offers is not programmes but a collection of RSS feeds and APIs (RSS definition, API definition). A software development kit is also promised in the near future. This content and data isn't licensed under the Creative Archive Licence but under some terms of use that have a remarkably similar gist to the CA Licence.

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3 May 02005

Update on Learning Activity Management Systems

Seb Schmoller's fortnightly mailing provides the latest news on Learning Activity Management Systems (LAMS), which I touched on last year. The LAMS concept, developed in Australia, now has a web site, from where you view a four-minute Flash demonstration of LAMS in action and download the open source LAMS software. Seb has more details on the background and the UK trial of LAMS. [Update 27 May 02005: the LAMS evaluation report has now been published.]

The LAMS concept depends for its 'pay-off' on teachers developing sequences of learning activities, and then sharing them and/or re-using them themselves. This is effectively a programming task, even if the programming environment is heavily visual, to make it easy to use. And research shows that this kind of 'end-user computing' is bound up with many social, organisational and task-specific influences — because end-users are not drilled in the systems analysis and design disciplines that allow software engineers to abstract from real-world requirements to modules of code. People like Bonnie Nardi have done extensive and insightful research on the social ecology of users participating in the design and re-use of everything from spreadsheets to intelligent agents. It would be interesting to see that kind of research applied to the use of LAMS by teachers.

29 March 02005

Union guide for e-learning

Another Seb Schmoller/David Jennings co-production hits the streets as you can now get E-learning in the workplace: a union negotiation and implementation guide, which the two of us researched and wrote, from this page on the TUC web site. It's a free PDF download, or alternatively, since it's a large full-colour file, you can request a printed copy (also free) by email. I said this would be published by the end of last year — so, only three months late… (it took longer than expected getting organisational clearance for all the quotes, and then the design work had to be done).

The guide is aimed mainly at union negotiators, and others in the trade union movement who have a stake in work-based learning. It provides information and advice to help them represent union members' interests during consultations or negotiations with employers about the introduction of e-learning at work by the employer.

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26 March 02005

Implementing the BS 8426 British Standard for supporting online learners

The seminar on 'Supporting e-learners', at which Seb Schmoller and I were due to present, didn't happen in January and we've been told recently that it's postponed indefinitely. We had already prepared a eight-page handout for our presentation [PDF, 156KB], which we've been given permission to publish.

Continue reading "Implementing the BS 8426 British Standard for supporting online learners"

23 March 02005

New learning styles for digital environments

Chris Dede has an interesting article in a recent issue of EDUCAUSE on how new generations are approaching learning in new ways as they take for granted web, email, instant messaging and mobile communications, distributed knowledge and associational webs of representations. He uses the term 'neomillennial learning styles' though he is not using 'learning styles' in quite the traditional sense or that attributed to theorist David Kolb.

Many people have written about the changes to teaching, tutoring and mentoring styles that e-learning brings into play. These can be summed up by saying that tutors are no longer positioned as the founts and guardians of knowledge, and become conduits for knowledge from multiple sources, or facilitators of learners constructing their own understandings. (And, yes, before anyone says anything, I know that this shift was already under way in learning theory for a decade or two before e-learning took off.)

The learning styles that Dede suggests, based on his (non-empirical) review, do not break ranks with this, but show the other side of the coin.

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16 March 02005

E-learning for music technology

Failures are interesting. It's often said that we would learn more if we spoke more about our failures. But no-one really wants to look bad in public so they just publish their 'little' failures. Like this one, which didn't crash and burn, it wasn't aborted, or even stillborn, because it never got 'fertilised' and never got off the ground.

In 02003 I attended two courses on the SuperCollider environment and programming language for real-time audio synthesis. Despite the best efforts of my teachers, Nick Collins, Fredrik Olofsson and Fabrice Mogini, I never got the hang of it. And I was in good company: other musicians on the courses — people I've paid to see perform — either dropped out or said months later that they were still struggling to get a purchase on how to apply SuperCollider in their work. In my case, the lack of both programming background and any grasp of music/synthesis theory, combined with poor discipline in working on SuperCollider outside of the course sessions, did for me pretty comprehensively.

But that's not the failure I was going to write about.

Continue reading "E-learning for music technology"

25 February 02005

Course in Supporting Learning Relationships Online

Sometimes I miss the most obvious things to record here. For example, the one-day course Supporting Learning Relationships Online that I devised and deliver with Julia Duggleby, author of How to be an Online Tutor (among many other roles). The course is marketed and sold through the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

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19 February 02005

What's wrong with e-learning: product and process

My posting yesterday turned into a bit of a rant in places, particularly on the subject of educational games. Today's is part spill-over of that rant, and part explanation of it.

Leaving aside the disingenuous and diffident aspects of smuggling learning under the cloak of 'fun', what I really want to say is that e-learning should leave space for learners (and, where applicable, their tutors) to re-negotiate the learning process as it unfolds. Learning providers should accept the degree to which this entails some loss of control.

The prevailing model in the market for e-learning is to design it as a product rather than a process. What do I mean by this? I mean that the interaction through which people learn is coded into the bits and bytes of the learning material, rather than being formulated as more open-ended activities that allow learners and tutors to improvise and make up their own interactions. E-learning in the guise of games is one example; e-learning that aims to emulate the production values of television is another, following the Video Arts example — as though adding 'celebrity sauce', by hiring a famous face to shoot a sketch or two, makes the learning more enticing and effective.

Continue reading "What's wrong with e-learning: product and process"

18 February 02005

Adoption of games and wireless technologies for e-learning

In the US, the New Media Consortium and the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative have published a 23-page report on new developments in technology that they predict will have an impact on "teaching, learning or creative expression". You can download the full report for free via Raimond Reichert's review in elearning reviews.

The review itself is an excellent summary and makes some telling points. I'm very sceptical about the faddism of some of the selections.

Continue reading "Adoption of games and wireless technologies for e-learning"

31 January 02005

Resources on e-learning in museums, libraries and archives

I'm surprised there aren't more sets of links to e-learning resources in the museums, libraries and archives sector. Perhaps the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council is in the process of addressing this as part of their recent mapping of e-learning.

The best I've found is the E-Learning Knowledge Base, by MacKenzie Ward Research and curated by Nadia Arbach (now E-learning Curator at the Tate) — with thanks to Seb Schmoller for this link. Launched in 2002, the site is still updated, but I suspect it has not fully kept pace with developments. A wiki site, or even some moderated web links facility, would make it easier for others to contribute to the updating, and more likely that they would.

When it's updated, the web site for the elearning group for museums and galleries, libraries and archives will be a useful way of keeping in touch with the latest thinking and events. The eLearning Centre's General Interest Showcase also includes a number of examples from libraries, museums and galleries.

10 January 02005

'CMALT' Accreditation for e-learning professionals

The fruits of the project I worked on last year on accrediting e-learning practitioners are starting to see the light of day. If you go now to the home page of the Association for Learning Technology you can sign up to receive occasional progress reports, as well as downloading this background to the planned scheme (156 KB PDF).

CMALT stands for Certified Member of the Association for Learning Technology, and the scheme involves providing a portfolio with evidence of experience and achievement in four 'core' areas of e-learning and learning technology and at least one specialist area (as well as a membership fee). These areas are listed in the background document referenced above.

The CMALT scheme will be launched fully later in the year once a web-based system has been developed for portfolio creation, assessment and maintenance.

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16 December 02004

Seminar on 'Supporting e-learners', 20 Jan 02005

I'll be giving a presentation at this E.learning age seminar in Hammersmith, along with me old mucker (translation for non-UK readers) Seb Schmoller. We'll be giving a practical run-through of British Standard BS 8426 A code of practice for e-support in e-learning systems, which we drafted, and suggesting ways to implement it.

Other speakers include Howard Hills, author of Individual Preferences in E-learning, Mike Duckett, MD of Coaching for Success, and Clare Howard, MD of e-coaches. (Disclaimer: I'm not involved in organising the event; this is what I've been told, but don't blame me if it changes!)

Here are further details, including how to book.

14 December 02004

21st Century library services

Yesterday was a big day for announcements about online access to the resources and services you would normally get in a library. The one that has got most attention is Google's press release that they will be providing searchable access to the full text of library books old enough to be no longer under copyright (and possibly out of print) as well as short excerpts of copyrighted works. The agreement with Google is non-exclusive, so in theory Microsoft, Yahoo! etc could develop competing services. The best in-depth features I've found on this are those in the New York Times and John Battelle's Searchblog.

Perhaps less eye-catching, but also interesting, is the announcement that the People's Network Online Enquiry Service will deliver a real-time information service to the public by providing 'live' access to library and information professionals online 24/7. Which sounds a bit like the equivalent of National Health Service Direct to meet all UK citizens' information needs. Here are the details of the Enquiry Service that will operate from March 02005, and according to this information, "the purpose of this service is to provide you with fast and easy access to guidance from trained library staff in your pursuit of information online". [Update 27 May 02005: The service is now operational — see my review comments]

Put these two developments together and you've got a very powerful service, accessible — free at the point of use — to anyone with an Internet terminal. That's real progress in itself. As more music and films eventually fall out of copyright and are properly tagged with metadata, then with time (and a lot of work) it will get even better.

13 December 02004

Measuring learning: how, what, where and why

When introducing this event on Learning Metrics last week, Roger Broadie, Chief Executive of the European Education Partnership, suggested that academic researchers have been unwilling to draw together a common base of learning theory on which to build measures of learning. Meanwhile practitioners have a job to do and have to get stuck in and measure what's going on.

By the end of the event, the conclusion suggested by the examples presented was that there will probably never be a single unified theory of learning, and that a horses-for-courses approach that adapts learning metrics to circumstances will continue to be the most practical and useful. Moreover all the interesting measures depend on judgements that are subject to interpretation: there are no fixed references or quantifications that, on their own, tell you anything very interesting.

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9 December 02004

The limitations of search for supporting learning

Search engines have a high profile on the web, and understandably so. The web changes faster than any human attempt to catalogue it. For most people's purposes in answering specific questions, Google works most of the time — which is a recipe for success.

But the kind of success Google has enjoyed, and the way it has become a part of every web user's vocabulary as well as habits, can create a kind of tunnel vision (the kind where the only tool you have is a hammer, and every problem looks like a nail). Search facilities are necessary and important tools for rich learning resources, and particularly archives, but they have weaknesses, and are by no means sufficient without complementary ways of discovering new material.

As a complement to search, any service that aims to support learning should have some mechanisms for guiding learners (though this doesn't mean constraining them) to explore particular routes.

Continue reading "The limitations of search for supporting learning"

2 December 02004

UK Lifelong Learner Profile (UKLeaP): draft for comment

The draft of this British Standard (BS 8788) is now available from BSI for public comment. I'm not sure of the deadline for comments, but it is usually two or three months from publication. Depending on the comments received, the final standard (which includes guidance, a code of practice and a specification) will be published later next year.

I helped produce the three parts of UKLeaP/BS 8788 as a member of team including the Centre for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards, Knowledge Integration, Seb Schmoller, and Futurate.

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8 November 02004

Learning songcraft via the web

The Edutainment field has, deservedly, got itself a bad name for not delivering on its promises. Often the premise has been that people see learning as boring or stodgy, so it has to be smuggled in, Trojan-horse-style, under the guise of a game or a celebrity-driven story. The Radio 2 Sold on Song web site shows this need not always be the case.

This is a resource that people can either dip into for snippets and details about personal favourite songs or use as an extended, and fairly rich, introduction to songcraft, its leading exponents, and how to go about it. Here's an account of how and why I think this site works.

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4 November 02004

iPods, podcasting and learning

A couple of weeks ago I speculated about podcasting breaking out of traditional radio and journalism models to find new applications. Since then, I've found that many people are ahead of me in thinking about applications, particularly to learning.

I first came across Podcasting for Education by D'Arcy Norman, which makes some suggestions for using podcasts for lectures, interviews and similar audio resources. A couple of days ago, Steve Sloan started his Edupodder weblog, and in his first posting there, he mentions support for learners with reading or other learning difficulties, and multilingual education, among other possibilities.

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30 August 02004

Building a wiki learning resource

Over the last month I've built a web site that allows me to test out a few ideas about collaborative and 're-mixable' learning resources. And to indulge a passion for The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, my favourite album.

69 Love Songs information is a 'wiki' site. I've touched on wikis briefly before. The technology — which allows many people to edit the content of web pages without knowledge of HTML or restricted logins etc — has been around for several years, though its adoption has remained most enthusiastic with the technical community. I have found one other wiki site devoted to a cultural artefact or artist — a sophisticated site for They Might Be Giants with over 70 contributors — if you know of others, please let me know.

The rest of this posting covers how the site is built and develops, what its potential for learning might be, and the limitations that I have either hit already or expect to hit.

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24 August 02004

The job I'm aiming for

It's time to come clean about the motivation behind the many articles on this site about how people learn about, and consume, music online. Yes, I am angling for work in this area. My interests are in a niche music-and-learning opportunity that I believe will emerge over the next few years.

Right now this is probably some way from being viable enough to pay anyone a serious salary. In the medium to long term, I feel my mix of experience makes me particularly well suited to being a part of a team that could deliver a full product/service, but I'd need collaborators — both individuals with complementary skills and organisations that might offer alliances and help develop a 'route to market'.

Continue reading "The job I'm aiming for"

6 August 02004

Guidance for e-learning agreements

I am working on a guide for union negotiators that will help them get to grips with e-learning deployment in all sectors, particularly corporate e-learning strategies and agreements with suppliers. The guidance will help assess the possible implications of e-learning agreements on staff and promote approaches with positive impact on them.

The work has been commissioned by the TUC, and I'm collaborating once again with Seb Schmoller. We'll be presenting our work at an event in Brussels on 22 November, and the guidance will be published free of charge by the end of the year.

If you have any experience of implementing e-learning in organisations — from whatever perspective — you may be able to help us by completing a five-minute (I promise!) questionnaire and sending it to me by 16 August. Seb and I will also be arranging 45-minute telephone interview with a selection of people who volunteer, but you can opt out of this.

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23 July 02004

Information on the go: an effective publicity stunt

The launch of the pPod software for the iPod has done its job for its makers by being picked up by much more high profile outlets than this, including the BBC News front page. Using a combination of text, spoken word audio, and music it provides a guide to London's public loos. But loos do not attract far-flung travellers: when you get caught short and need to go in a hurry, you just need directions to the nearest one and cannot afford to be fussy about the "lovely clean mirrors" in the loo.

I suspect therefore that the pPod is a mainly a Shoreditch-style publicity gimmick to draw attention to Nykris's other work, such as the Tate Modern handheld device, which is linked from the pPod page. In keeping with self-publicity, here's a link to some more words of wisdom about mobile information appliances for museums.

The viability and design of location-related information appliances must take detailed account of the circumstances and needs of their users.

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19 July 02004

BBC 6 Music as a learning resource

Born in the digital era, BBC 6 Music is a radio station at the intersection of traditional 'wireless' programming and less linear, on-demand access to audio and supporting material. It's in the vanguard of mixed (old and new) media and the BBC governors apparently want it to go further and "heighten the level of interactivity, develop the use of the archive and strengthen the station's relationship with its audience", according to this recent Media Guardian article (Media Guardian requires free registration to read its articles).

The Statement of Programme Policy includes an explicit, though very general, statement on listeners' learning: "6 Music aims to extend its audience's understanding of popular music, and programmes will continue to examine the cultural development of music, including less familiar genres like ska and backbeat, supported by information online and on-demand recordings." (As an aside, it's interesting to do a word search for 'learn' through this document to see the different contexts in which it arises for different stations.)

The rest of this (long) article reviews the learning features of 6 Music so far and suggests how they could be extended — using 'learning' in the broad cultural sense that I've referred to before.

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16 July 02004

'Innovative practice' e-learning article published

There's an article Innovative practice in the use of ICT in education and training: learning from the winners published in the current issue (Volume 6, Issue 5, 2004) of the journal Education + Training from Emerald. It's based in part on the successful bid for a National Training Award by the Learning to Teach On-Line course, and I am one of the authors.

I have four spare off-prints of this article to give away — first-come, first-served — so get in touch if you'd like one (remember to include your postal address). The article also includes case studies of two other initiatives recognised by the National Training Awards.

5 July 02004

Online tutor workload and poor research publishing

The paper Faculty self-study research project: examining the online workload ought to tell us more about the pressures on online tutors than it does. The gist is that, based on six university staff keeping records of their online teaching time, they found that the total time taken was marginally less than the offline equivalent, but that its impact was potentially more disruptive since the tasks are spread through a day rather than being concentrated in dedicated teaching sessions.

It takes quite a lot of work to extract that unsurprising result from the paper, and I'll be impressed if anyone can get much more substance of it. There's no insight, for example, into the relative time taken by different kinds of tutoring tasks or how to manage online tutors to make best use of their time.

Continue reading "Online tutor workload and poor research publishing"

7 June 02004

Wikis and learning

I don't fully understand the technology that underpins what a wiki is and this article on educational wikis doesn't fully enlighten me. But it doesn't assume any knowledge, and is reasonably concise.

It's important to remember that the web as we know it provides only a limited subset of the features that were envisaged and developed for early hypertext systems. Wikis, like blogs, provide a means to manage the content of web pages without needing detailed web authoring knowledge. The unique feature of wikis appears to be their support for collaborative authoring.

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1 June 02004

Museums and online learning: a case study

The role of museums in online teaching, learning and research is a sophisticated yet concise paper that gives an account of how the J. Paul Getty Museum has developed its thinking and practice in providing digital resources to support teaching, learning and research, based on its collection.

The paper is interesting for its frank assessment of mistakes and surprises experienced over several years of developing resources. It combines an appreciation of the fundamental disciplines of cataloguing with the importance of open standards, and it touches on the need to realign organisational structures and resources to match emerging structures and practices.

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16 May 02004

Learning from Tom Phillips: We are the people

Sample postcard from We Are The People exhibition - click to enlargeFrom abstract theorising about cultural collections to concrete practice. Tom Phillips currently has 1,000 (out of his collection of 50,000) postcards on display at the National Portrait Gallery, as part of an exhibition called We Are The People.

Alongside the exhibition, Phillips guides how people can interpret and learn from the collection. There is a book with essays by himself and others, as well as shorter articles and an audio interview on his web site. The web resources also help put the exhibition in the context of Phillips' long-term artistic engagement with postcards.

This is not just a case of an artist switching hats to become a part-time archivist and interpreter. The collection and exhibition are also about collecting and interpreting, for much of Phillips' work is concerned with layers of meaning and the chance connections that occur when you pile one layer on top of another, endlessly. Playful means lead him to serious ends and vice-versa.

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15 May 02004

More on unprogrammed learning

My last posting on unprogrammed learning was half-baked and unfinished. So will this one be, since I think it's the kind of problem you have to nag away at repeatedly. If and when a solution becomes clear, it will no doubt appear ungratifyingly obvious and simple with the benefit of hindsight...

To recap, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council has set out some proposed outcomes and impact of learning. Some of these seem potentially radical in intent, but I'm not sure if the proposed Generic Learning Outcomes fully encapsulate the deep-seated issues.

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28 April 02004

Mobile information appliances for museums

Earlier this month, the UK's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) announced its support for a project to develop hand-held, touch-screen, wireless computers that will 'offer a host of relevant information including text, video, pictures and sound' when pointed at a museum exhibit.

The breathless stream-of-buzzwords tone is probably just par for the course in press releases, which invariably concentrate on technological fetishism rather than boring old human behaviour. This project is interesting for showing what's technologically possible; but it's unclear how much attention will be given to the ways in which people's habitual and preferred behaviour in the social space of a museum will affect use of the technology.

Continue reading "Mobile information appliances for museums"

23 April 02004

Cultivating unprogrammed learning

There are some intriguing observations in Measuring the Outcomes and Impact of Learning in Museums Archives and Libraries. For example, "Not all museums, archives and libraries see themselves as places that should primarily on the learning experiences of their users," and apparently many of these organisations do not know why people use their materials and what they learn from them.

On the one hand, this is counter-intuitive: what would you use use an archive for if not to find out stuff and learn from it? On the other hand, it's clear that, confronted with the totality of any library or museum, no-one could anticipate the learning outcomes that any one user would take away.

The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council has set itself the challenging but worthy task of helping organisations "anticipate and respond to many of the wider social challenges by developing socially and culturally relevant opportunities for learning."

In formal education and training settings the learning outcomes are specified and learning experiences can be programmed and engineered to that end. In the less structured settings of museums and archives, the challenge is to create environments where learning can happen: gardening provides a better metaphor than engineering, as the aim is to provide fertile resources that enable users to germinate new understandings.

9 April 02004

Learning to serve God online

Something with a vaguely Easter flavour. Never mind that Alanis Morissette wants to use her ordination as a minister to marry gay couples and spite George W. Bush (laudable though her intent may be); what caught my attention was that she became ordained via an online course.

Last year I cited some critiques of e-learning that contested there are limitations to what you can learn online, particularly when it comes to some skills that arguably have to be learnt and practised in situ. I'm sure it's possible to learn the mechanics of conducting a marriage ceremony in a few hours, but is that all you expect from a minister: to say the right things by rote at the right time?

I did some quick research-by-surfing to find out what these online ordination courses offer.

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8 April 02004

Defining cultural learning

I'm interested in how to explore the learning potential of cultural archives and collections — without slipping into semi-animated-catalogue syndrome — so I was grateful to Martin Bazley yesterday for pointing out a useful inclusive definition of learning from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council:

"Learning is a process of active engagement with experience. It is what people do when they want to make sense of the world. It may involve the development or deepening of skills, knowledge, understanding, awareness, values, ideas and feelings, or an increase in the capacity to reflect. Effective learning leads to change, development and the desire to learn more."

This definition isn't particularly concerned with e-learning, but it is nevertheless useful for it — especially when trying to capture some of the more subtle learning that can come from engaging with cultural materials.

The MLA site also has further useful resources connected to its Inspiring Learning for All initiative. I may report further on these when I've had a chance to absorb them more fully.

Martin was speaking at an excellent e-learning seminar in Cambridge, and there are many instructive examples of cultural e-learning resources linked from the seminar web page. [Update, September 02004: the seminar page has unfortunately been removed, but the links included the British Museum's Ancient Egypt site, online resources at the National Maritime Museum, and Hopping down in Kent].

7 April 02004

E-learning metadata British Standard published for comment

Last year I worked on the drafting of British Standard BS 8419 Interoperability between metadata systems used for learning, education and training, as a member of team including Futurate, Knowledge Integration and Seb Schmoller.

The standard is in two parts: Part 1 is Code of practice for the development of localized metadata systems; Part 2 is Code of practice for the development of interoperability between metadata systems .

Both parts are now available from BSI as Drafts for Public Comment, with a deadline for comments of 31 May 02004. Subject to the scope of comments received, the final standard will be published later in the year.

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5 April 02004

Publication of North West E-learning Strategy

A summary of the North West E-learning Strategy that I worked on last year can now be downloaded from a link on the North West NODE web site. Our original report did not include some of the typos, curious formatting and padding that appear in the published version.

Thanks once again to Seb Schmoller whose radar for picking up these links is better than mine.

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18 March 02004

Simple overview of e-learning standards

At a meeting this week (the Advisory Board of CIPD's Certificate in Online Learning) the vexed question of Why are there so many e-learning standards, and how do they relate to each other? came up. I busked an answer, and as sometimes (but not always!) happens the busked version came out more articulate and concise than most of my well-considered and extensively prepared answers. So I'll try and reproduced that spontaneity in writing.

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3 March 02004

E-learning accreditation proposals for comment

Draft proposals for an accreditation scheme for people working in learning technology — commissioned by the Association for Learning Technology — are now available on our project web page. Please comment by answering the eight questions on the feedback questionnaire by 22 March.

The scheme proposes:

  • a definition of a core set of knowledge, skills and values which people working in learning technology need to fulfil their roles effectively;
  • a range of specialist knowledge and skills which are appropriate to professionals in some sectors, posts or stages of their career;
  • Certified Membership of the Association for Learning Technology status for those who demonstrate all the core and a number of specialist outcomes.
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11 February 02004

Why digitise cultural collections?

The Facet Publishing web site currently has a free download of the first chapter of Lorna Hughes' recent book, Digitizing Collections: strategic issues for the information manager. This 28-page chapter introduces the costs and benefits of digitisation in a very straightforward and easy-to-read manner.

The book appears to be aimed mainly at curators, librarians and other managers of collections, particularly linked to universities. Its focus is more on higher education, research and scholarship than what might called 'lifelong learning for the rest of us.'

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3 February 02004

Usability of Online Content

I read the paper A Usability Study for Promoting eContent in Higher Education because the title promises a lot — how to optimise the usability of all that stuff we put online, so that people can learn from it — and I wanted to see whether the authors would pull it off.

I think the paper asks the wrong question. I'm not quite sure what the right question is, but reading helped me think where it might be found.

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22 January 02004

Classifications for tutor support in e-learning

The different pieces of work I've done on supporting learners in e-learning over the last year have required different classifications of the tasks and activities involved. Partly the differences are down to the context of learning, and partly they're down to the purpose of the classification.

I'm not aware of much research that analyses tutors' work supporting e-learners from a management point of view. There's one research paper called Teaching Courses Online: How much time does it take?, which was published in the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks last September. The author, Belinda Davis Lazarus, identifies three main components of the tutor's time:

  • Email — including tutor-initiated messages, learner initiated messages, and exchanges with technicians;
  • Discussions — the courses in Lazarus's study involved online discussions lasting 7-10 days, which the tutor had to monitor, participate in and assess;
  • Assignments — grading assignments submitted by the learners online.

This study and the classification that comes from it are clearly rooted in a particular model of e-learning that puts discussions and tutor interactions at the heart of the learning process. It's questionable how well they would generalise to other settings, particularly since Lazarus's data are based on only one tutor's experience and measurements, and that tutor was her.

Continue reading "Classifications for tutor support in e-learning"

12 January 02004

Workshops on e-learning accreditation scheme

As part of the accreditation scheme project mentioned previously, David Kay and I are running a couple of workshops to consult private sector e-learning employers on the features they'd like to see in the scheme we devise.

The workshops will be held on two of the following dates, according to availability of participants: 19 January am (London), 20 January pm (Sheffield), 29th January am (London or Sheffield), 2nd February am (Sheffield), 5th February am or pm (London or Sheffield), 6th February am (Sheffield). Please contact me as soon as you can if you'd like to attend, including which dates you are available.

9 January 02004

Learning Activity Management Systems

Responding to my posting on the E-learning market, James Dalziel from Macquarie University's E-learning Centre of Excellence has contacted me to let me know of two resources related to Learning Activity Management Systems.

There's a four page article by James and a Powerpoint screenshot walkthrough.

Continue reading "Learning Activity Management Systems"
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3 January 02004

Managing tutor support for e-learning

Prompted in part by the discussions of supporting learners at the Future of UK E-learning Market event, and partly by some work that Seb Schmoller and I have recently completed for an e-learning provider, here are some boiled-down recommendations for managing e-learning tutors.

The term 'tutor support' covers a range of practices. In a lot of Higher Education e-learning settings, the learning experience is very much tutor-guided: the online materials replace rote lectures and note-taking, leaving teaching staff to concentrate on the online version of what would normally be called a 'tutorial.' In other contexts, tutors are there to support learners only when the automated learning path breaks down or learners somehow get stuck.

These six recommendations apply to differing degrees, depending on the context.

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30 December 02003

How boring is the e-learning market?

Having finally moved home and got Christmas out of the way, it's time for some not-very-seasonal, scroogy observations on the Future of UK E-learning Market event.

In 1997 the Internet was really getting under the skin of many in what was then called the Computer-Based Training (CBT) industry. The Net's limited bandwidth and generic browser-based approach threatened their investment in laser disc and CD-ROM media with proprietary viewer software. When we launched our Living IT online Internet fluency courses that year, many people whose opinions I otherwise trusted were doubtful that our approach, which assumed no more than a 14.4 Kbps modem, could work. Instead of packing the interactivity into flash graphics and video, we designed lots of communication activities such that learners interacted frequently with their tutors and with each other (thus exploting the Net's killer application: email).

I'd have liked to have seen this as having the same 'three-chord' immediacy and energy as punk rock, in response to the bloated production values of CBT. But, unlike punk, the response failed to stick. Why and how did the market re-establish itself with the traditionalists still in charge?

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27 November 02003

Event: Future of the UK e-learning market

The line-up for this e-learning event in London on 15 December includes a good number of influential people and interesting speakers such as Diana Laurillard and Donald Clark (plus a few who I feel deserve less influence) — Laurillard will be presenting the DfES's unified e-learning Strategy consultation document.

It looks good value at £110 (or £90 for small organisations and freelancers). If you plan to go, let me know and we can say hello...

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26 November 02003

Skills for Online Teaching

Why do resources become more reference-worthy when other people refer to them? I suppose it's another of those success-breeds-success network effects. So it's only now that Stephen Downes has seen fit to comment on it, that I get round to referencing a document that Seb Schmoller compiled of contributions from me and other e-learning professionals.

Back in September, Seb asked seven of us for 50-100 words in answer/reaction/response to the question, "Embedding the skills to teach online - is it technical or personality (sic) skills that are needed?" Ever the contrary one, the bulk of my response was graphical. You can download the four-page PDF file with the collated responses via the link to Stephen Downes' comment above or via this page (under the title "Paper about online tutoring skills used by Seb Schmoller at South West of England e-Learning Conference").

18 November 02003

Accreditation for learning technologists

I'm part of a team that is starting an assignment to develop and pilot an accreditation framework for learning technologists. The work has been commissioned by the Association for Learning Technology.

Our team includes people with good learning technology contacts in Higher Education, Further Education and commercial sector: David Kay and I are covering the latter. We'll be researching and making contact with many of the bodies that have already done work in this area, or otherwise have a stake in it (e.g. the Institute for IT Training, The E-learning Network, The Forum for Technology in Training, and the CIPD). But if you're working in e-learning/learning technology in the private sector and would like to have an input to what we develop, please get in touch as soon as possible, either by adding a comment to this posting, or by contacting me privately.

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3 November 02003

Online Courses in Contemporary Art Announced

When I wrote about the Tate Galleries' e-learning resources a couple of months ago I said I didn't know of any major arts/culture organisations offering full accredited courses by e-learning.

Since then the Tate has announced details of two new online courses. The Level 1 course is free and starts in January 2004. It looks as thought it will simply offer unsupported, self-managed learning using online materials. But the Level 2 course, available from next October, is a more serious affair, including tutor support and online discussion facilities for groups of up to ten learners.

15 October 02003

LeTTOL wins National Training Award

Congratulations to the Learning to Teach On-Line team for winning a National Training Award last night for the LeTTOL course.

I believe this may be the first e-learning course to be awarded an NTA.

Having done the course myself in 1998, and worked with some of its main architects since before then, the LeTTOL team commissioned me to write their application for the award, and I also met the NTA "inspectors" when they came to visit. The training establishment is still not used to the kind of re-thinking that e-learning often catalyses — especially when, as in the case of LeTTOL, the main driver is not simply cutting costs.

29 September 02003

Seb Schmoller's Online News Service

It's probably past time that I gave a plug to Seb Schmoller's fortnightly mailings, but better late than never, and the current issue is an especially good — and quite representative — mix of general learning and specialist e-learning features, plus news of an interesting conference, and comment on the prospects for improvement in the World Wide Web and other technology applications. From either of these pages, you can sign up to receive a email reminder when a new mailing is posted, with the headlines of the topics covered.

You may say that my recommendation of Seb's site is based on croneyism — we frequently collaborate — but I maintain that I choose my croneys carefully, and Seb is one of the best.

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22 September 02003

Learning through social relations

While looking for something else, I came across the book Learning Relations by Alexander M. Sidorkin. As a Russian emigré living in the US, the book applies the social emphasis of theorists such as Vygotsky and Bakhtin to the current educational establishment in the west (and particularly America).

I've only read the first chapter, available for free on the web, which reviews the way education is organised in society. In a counterpoint to my earlier posting based on Charles Handy's article, Sidorkin sees formal education as an example of the division of labour in society. 'Learning activity' he defines, apparently obtusely as 'the production of useless things' — but part of what he means is that doing things wrong is part of the necessary learning required to do things right. Educational institutions serve the purpose of splitting off this 'useless' production from mainstream production in the rest of society.

Continue reading "Learning through social relations"

15 September 02003

Apprenticeship, and what is e-learning really good for?

Charles Handy, in his article in the August 2003 RSA Journal, argues for more emphasis on learning-in-the-world and less on learning-in-an-institution. The latter is often given more weight for the simple reason that it is easier to measure. Though often, as Handy says, the measurement relates to how well the learner is prepared to progress into more institutionalised learning, rather than progression in the world.

The article never mentions e-learning explicitly yet it is easy to read much of it as an argument against the tide of recent fads in just-in-time learning and knowledge management:

I have never had much faith in "warehoused knowledge" — the idea that we can learn something, store it away and pull it out when we need it.

Handy's gist is also in keeping with Hubert Dreyfus' critique of online distance learning. This critique is expressed at length in Dreyfus' book On the Internet (see a review of this book).

Continue reading "Apprenticeship, and what is e-learning really good for?"

2 September 02003

Tate E-learning — a quick critique

After other dot.com models have been (sometime over-hastily) discarded, e-learning still has that sense of being a 'public good' that, coupled with vestigial fashionability, makes it irresistible to many public/subsidised organisations.

The Tate now has an 'e-learning portal'. But learning about art collections isn't the same about learning how to make MS Office software do what you want, or, say, GCSE English.

I'm not aware of any major arts/culture organisations partnering with with educational institutions to offer full accredited courses by e-learning (if you are, please add a comment to this post). Mostly they dip their toes in the water by taking bits of their archives or collections and putting a thin wrapping around those bits to turn them into in 'digestible packets'. The design is driven by the content available rather than a coherent programme of learning objectives.

With those prejudices of mine in mind, the rest of this post is made up of reviews of a few elements of the Tate's e-learning resources.

Continue reading "Tate E-learning — a quick critique"

29 August 02003

Blogging and E-learning

Having recently started my own blog site (the one you're reading now!), perhaps I should be expected to be enthusiastic about the prospects of using blogs for e-learning.

The Learn to Blog, Blog to Learn article suggests blogs' informality means they can be good learning resources and "the best [of the resources out there] rises to the top." Links between blogs enable the building of learning communities, the article argues.

These arguments seem to me to be at best partial, and at worst tendentious.

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14 August 02003

North West E-learning Strategy

Working with Seb Schmoller and David Kay of FD Learning, I was commissioned to research and prepare a strategy and action plan for e-learning for the North West of England. This strategy was signed off this week.

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15 July 02003

British Standard for Supporting E-learning

Working with Seb Schmoller, I was commissioned to prepare the text for a British Standard that sets out a code of practice for supporting learners when they are doing e-learning courses. This includes automated and human (e.g. from online tutors) support.

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