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Month: October 2006

MLearn: Gadgets and their Uses

MLearn: Gadgets and their Uses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MLearn: One Laptop Per Child

MLearn: One Laptop Per Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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