Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Oculus Rift: learning machine that will blow your mind!

One of the most talked about and exciting devices (to be
released 2014) is not the Apple Watch or iPhone 6), it’s the Oculus Rift virtual
reality headset, priced at less than £200, which gives full immersion in a 3D
world. I’ve tried it, here in Starbucks of all places, and several times since,
and it blew my mind.  The experience is
so real, so vivid and so memorable that I can remember every last detail weeks
later. This matters in learning, as the trick in simulations is transfer, all
the way back to Thorndike, rarely efficient, except in simulations and in this
case super-efficient.

YouTube has videos showing people freak out when they play horror games with total immersion and 3D sound (watch this guy get freaked out), get their head chopped off by aguillotine in the French Revolution (your head falls into the basket and you
look back at your neck!). It will spawn a new generation of compelling games
but also a new generation of compelling learning experiences.

Learning machine

Vocational learning has lots to gain from this cool device,
as it’s made for learning by doing, real world tasks, not only for acquiring
competences but being assessed for those same competences. The possible
applications come at you in a rush when you’ve tried it..

1. First person thinkers

‘First person shooters’ is the big genre in computer games; Quake,
Doom, Halo, COD – legendary games that sold in their tens of millions. The
immediacy of the experience where split second decisions mean the difference
between life and death make it still the genre of choice for most gamers. Think
now of First Person Thinkers where the player/learner has to make decisions in
response to real word events and I mean human events – management training,
health and safety conflict resolution, you name it….

2. Training within 3D worlds with 3D

I’ve seen a simulation on domestic house gas inspection that
simulates scenarios so well it’s now used as a large part of the assessment,
saving huge amounts of money in the US. You’re free to move around the house,
check for gas leaks, do all the necessary measurements using the right
equipment – a completely open training and assessment environment. With Oculus
Rift it is far more realistic than a 2D screen showing a 3D simulation.

3. Safe failure

Training that involves experiencing things that would be
impossible to experience in real life as it is likely to result in harm, even
death, can be delivered virtually. Emergency incidents, health and safety,
military operations, medical treatment, surgery – you can be put through
experiences where safe failure is possible just experience an emergency
evacuation from an aircraft once on an Oculus and you’ll never need to listen
to that boring speech again before you take off on an aeroplane,

4. Soft skills

I’ve seen sims that really do train people how to sell,
interview, deal with conflict – even made a few myself - they work. But they’ll
work even better with Oculus, as the level of physical and psychological
fidelity can be finely tuned to the task. Note that this is not all about
physical hi-fidelity. The Oculus, especially the high definition version,
delivers this. It’s the psychological fidelity of being there in the moment
with complete suspension of disbelief. It’s almost impossible not to believe.

5. School curriculum

Experiencing real physics experiments and lab work without
the expense and danger from objects and chemicals is just one set of scientific
learning experiences that can be fully simulated with the Oculus. Get a head
start with live history and walk around a Roman Town populated by Romans
(already exists), a trip across the solar system, into the bloodstream, into a

6. Attitudinal learning

The intensity of the experience is perfect for affective
learning, where motivation or attitudinal learning is needed. This may be,
values, compliance, ethics, sexual harassment, anything that requires a

7. Assessment

Many competences an only be measured by someone doing
something. Yet most exams come nowhere near measuring competences. This is head
and shoulders above traditional paper exams for many vocational and practical
tasks, real skills. Your performance can really be measured. Your assessment
can be your performance – complete and you’ve passed. This is already a reality
in many simulations, flight sims and so on. It can also be true of many other

Psychology of learning

In terms of the psychology of learning it hold the attention
of the learner, a necessary condition for learning, rarely achieved for long
periods in lectures and classrooms . You stay on task (almost impossible not
to) providing intense and sustained learning experiences. Safe failure is possible,
taking the learning experiences beyond what can be done in the real world.  In terms of memory, these experiences result in
deep processing in memory, increasing effective storage, recall and retention.
Importantly, as this is a huge problem in learning and training, it results in the
superior transfer of skills from the learning experience to their application
in the real world. It is literally a learning machine.


Oculus Rift may remain just a games’ peripheral but I doubt
it. Whenever I’ve got learning professionals to don the headset, they get it immediately – this thing is a turbo-charged,
learning machine. The fact that it’s cheap, open in architecture and will be a
widely available consumer device, gives it the coolness and kudos that will
make it irresistible to anyone who wants learning to be a transformational
experience. All I can say us try it – it will blow your mind.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Armando Pisani: the pioneer who holds the key to immediate increases in school attainment?

Want immediate improvements in student attainment in schools,
especially in maths? Listen to this guy. He’s a pioneer. Armando Pisani is
unique. Why? He’s a high school teacher who teaches 14-18 year olds in maths
and physics and is unique in that he records all of his lessons on video for later
use by students. He is also unique in that his academic background is in data
analysis, so he has gathered a great deal of useful data on his work in his
school. If his data is correct, and I think it is, he could be the catalyst for
a huge increase in productivity in schools across Europe. The following is the
result of a structured interview I did with Armando in Trieste.

What are the
advantages of recording lessons?

To learn efficiently and deeply,
students need to be able to “review, not
miss things through inattention, being distracted, illness, student absence,
teacher absence or  language difficulties
– some students have other languages as their mother tongue
”. The lack of “supply teacher availability is also a
”. Recorded lessons give the students the ability to “catch-up and cover work not covered in a
teacher’s absence

What data did you

The survey data is outstanding,
with evidence on how much was watched, when it is watched, how it is watched
and the resulting rise in attainment. Another fascinating side to the data is
the acceptance of the method by parents.

First the results...

Black no lectures  Red watched lectures

What percentage of students use recorded lectures?

 Do you think the lectures give you good help and support?

How much time do you spend watching the lectures?

Do you watch lectures in your normal study time or spare time?

Would you recommend the use of lectures to other students and friends?

What device do you use to watch the lectures?

Would you suggest that parents watch the lectures online?

Parents - have you seen the online lectures?

Parents - are you in favour of online lectures?

Parents - do you think online lectures help your child to study?

What are your
views on homework?

He is appalled that some teachers
and schools consider dropping homework. “Spain’s
plans to drop homework nationally is crazy
”. The “Italian word for homework is ‘Compiti’ with its root in the idea that
you’re closing a gap in your knowledge
”. Homework, he thinks, is an
essential part of the learning process, the place where one gets reflection,
gap-closing, deeper understanding and practice.

Has recording
lessons affected student behaviour?

Students appreciate the effort you make to record your lessons and
moderate their behaviour
” he claims. “As
every teacher knows students get bored and often do ask to go to bathroom. When
I’m recording, they never ask to go out of the bathroom
.” Other changes in
behaviour include, “less disruption, more
questions asked by students, staying afterwards to ask questions
”. After
recording 182 lessons, he “can’t think of
one incident where a student disturbed the lesson
”. In some cases, “they are keen to know about the content of
the next lecture

What about parent

In Italy there is a strong family
tradition and education “must involve
family – school is part of that family
”. That is reflected in parent
involvement in schooling, with four meetings a year, “the first to meet and get to know the teachers and vice-versa,
especially in the first year but also to show parents the school’s plans and
activities. Subsequent meetings are for progress and to solve problems and

More than this Armando sees
parents as a key driver in the use of his recorded lessons. Parents “like to see what students do during lessons
and some parents “loved the subjects when
they were at school
”. “I had assumed
parents like it (recorded lessons) less than students but the opposite is true
He thinks this is because parents they tend to think of it as “learning, students as  a task or work”.

What is the
technical set-up?

I have given lectures at the highly
innovative International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste (they built
the 800 euro hardware) for three years and this is one of the best
presentations I’ve seen there. He uses ICTPs EyA system at a total,
all-in cost of 800 Euros. “I do this on
my own, with no help – it’s easy
”. With no more than a 5 minute set-up he
can record his lessons, including questions from students, although they are
left out of shot for privacy reasons.


Having been involved
in technology based learning for 30 years I am not easily impressed but Armando
impressed me greatly. First, he is obviously a great teacher but more than this
he wants, and this is his great strength, to turn his students into more
independent learners. He really does understand the idea that teaching is really
about motivating learners and giving them repeated access to good content.


A fuller version of the study is to be found here in the European Journal of Open, Distance and E-learning. Armando is well aware of the limitations of the study in terms of sample size, especially when comparing students who don't use the lectures with those that do. However, he is convinced that the poorerstudents tend to get more out of his lectures, He is keen to move on to the next stage of his research. It would be great if this were done in the UK.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Sceptics & social media: 5 stages of grief

I’ve long been an observer of
the way newspaper, radio and TV journalists have dealt with social media. Many simply
snipe away. We’ve heard the weary tones of TV pundits who have been forced by
their Producers to refer to their web page or Twitter accounts at the end of
the programme. Others can’t wait to find a story that confirms their deep
prejudice against any form of mass communication that doesn’t involve them. This
week, the press have discovered the word ‘troll’ and there’s no end of attacks on
Twitter from people who probably had to look up the word on Wikipedia.

TV, radio and newspapers have
been full of this over reaction this week. To take just one example, the
normally rational Simon Jenkins, in the Guardian, describes Twitter as “a harmless pastime for show-offs and
voyeurs…the crack cocaine for the commentariat
”. NO matter that journalists
regularly use Twitter to get more reach for their work. No matter that many
Guardian columnists now read like second rate bloggers. No matter that the
newspaper industry is only just recovering from phone hacking practices that
make the occasional troll seem like a choir boy. Journalists are keen to punish
trolls but less keen to punish their own.

What is missing here is good
‘journalism’. Few discuss the detail around the protections that existing laws
provide, whether it be harassment, confidentiality or libel. Few actually know
anything about the procedures which Twitter and Facebook have in place to deal
with extreme transgressions. Few bother to even find out.

Five stages
of grief

It struck me that there’s
some merit in applying Kubler-Ross’s ‘five
stages of grief
’ to their behaviour in facing up to the realities of
contemporary mass communication and journalism.

Denial: Work of the
devil. I’ll have nothing to do with it.
Most journalists completely ignored
the presence of social media, even when millions were using it and it was
feeding images and reports into mainstream media.

Anger: Snipe and sneer
whenever it’s mentioned
. Suddenly, they were no longer silent but openly resentful
and hostile on TV, radio and in print, with the usual ill-informed remarks
about media they had never used and barely understood.

Depression: Why don’t they
want me any more?
Panic then sets in as they realise that newspaper
circulation is heading towards disaster. They are in danger of missing out on a
means of communication they need to both ‘pull from’ and ‘push to’, as a valuable
source for stories but also dissemination of their work.

Bargaining: Maybe I’ll give
it a try…
 Then it literally clicks.
This stuff is here to stay. They take a couple of baby steps and find out that
it’s easy to use but do so irregularly and clumsily, with more than a tinge of
residual scepticism.

Acceptance: Know how many ‘followers’ I have? Suddenly,
they realise it enhances their reach, reputation and personal brand, and jump
gleefully on to the bandwagon. Then you can’t stop them.

Flip media

But something else has happened, a sixth phase, which I’d
call the ‘flip’. This is when traditional media relies so much on social media
as a source – Tweets, Youtube, mobile cameras etc .that it resorts to simply
telling people what they already know.

I liken this to two tectonic plates colliding. As the new
online media plate crashes into the old offline media plate, the old plate
starts to be pushed down and as it is submerged, it sends out lots of tremors,
earthquakes, even volcanic explosions. Arguments erupt, as the old world tries
to deal with the new reality. Calls are made for more censorship, arrests, jail
sentences – even torture (Manning) prosecution and persecution (Assange). It’s
the wretched acts of a defeated army in retreat.


There is something inevitable about all this. Technology is
always ahead of the sociology. What matters is that the early adopters and
people with some foresight ignore the naysayers and get on with their blogging,
contributions to Wikipedia, YouTube uploads, Facebook posting, Tweets,
whatever, and ignore the sceptics.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Wikipedia Zero – mobile as lifeline to learning

It jars when I
hear people say online learning isn’t used. Don’t you use Google, Wikipedia and
lots of other online services to learn? I know you do, because the stats are
overwhelming. In fact billions use online learning, daily.

this is done through mobiles. Compare the 6 billion mobile subscriptions in the
world to the 600 million broadband connections. We’re close to seeing mobile as
the most ubiquitous piece of personal technology ever, and it’s the developing
world that’s experiencing the fastest growth. Check out this table which shows the countries with the highest mobile access to Wikipedia.

in the developing world, where mobiles have become massive, internet
connectivity is scarce and expensive, tariffs remain a problem. Here the mobile
is often the only means of accessing the internet. A mobile is a godsend to
someone who is poor, often their only link to erratic employment opportunities,
services and money management. Yet access to learning is hampered by cost. Call
and data time is precious and used carefully and sparingly.

Zero tariffs

An idea that
has been around for some time is now getting real traction – zero tariffs for
education on mobiles. Simple, but it opens up knowledge and educational
opportunities to billions who do not have easy access to books, libraries,
schools and learning. As Eric Schmitd says in his new book The Digital Age (a
largely tedious tomb) in the developing world the mobile phone is often the
only “lifeline to learning”. I first heard of the Zero tariff some years ago in
relation to Dr Maths, in South Africa. Started in 2007, it grew rapidly, and
unexpectedly to thousands of users. 
Maths tutoring is delivered, largely through MXit. Tutors, from anywhere
in the world, help students with questions and homework. It uses text
messaging. Interestingly, when they faced the problem of scalability (tutors
are the scarce resource) they upgraded the architecture so that content could
be created to produce ‘bots’ or automated replies, reducing the load on live
tutors. Geoff
Stead also points out that it has happened even in the developed world, with free
SMS messages for TextForBaby in the US, a mother and child healthcare service. 

Wikipedia Zero

But the big
news is Wikipedia Zero, now available to an astonishing 470 million subscribers
in Africa, India, Eastern Europe and the Far East. Of the 25 countries that have the highest rate of
mobile traffic on Wikipedia, the top eight are in Africa and an astonishing 22
are in the developing world. Wikipedia Zero is also now available in India to 60
million subscribers (through Aircel). Note that in India, mobile penetration in India is over 70 % at 867 million subscribers,
compared to only 77 million people with access to the internet (Comscore, June
2013). This move is born of necessity as the context has turned the developed
world’s model on its head. Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia,
Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and many other countries are on board.

Local languages

An interesting
side effect is the stimulation of language versions of Wikipedia. To be really
useful Wikipedia must be translated into local languages. This statistic says
it all;  Hindi Wikipedia, has 22.1 % of page views globally from
mobile, compared to 17.3% for ALL other languages. Wikipedia Zero, I suspect,
will accelerate translation into many other languages.


Even on a
purely commercial basis, I see this as a win-win situation; learners getting free
services and telcos increased reputation, reach and market edge. Like Google
and Facebook, learners get a valuable service for free, the companies increase
their brand capital and deliver adjunct services.


Wikipedia came
out of the blue to become a consistent top ten website, showing that there is a
massive thirst for online knowledge. What was even more astonishing was that it
was crowdsourced, for free. No one saw that coming. Now we have the opportunity
to extend free production to free distribution on powerful, portable and
personal devices that have become ubiquitous in the developing world. If that
doesn’t make your heart leap with hope and optimism, what will.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Good, bad and ugly: 7 critics of social media

I’m of an age
(56) where lots of my contemporaries show contempt towards social media. It’s
rarely a reasoned argument, simply a sneer accompanied by a ‘I’m too good for
that sort of thing’ attitude. Euan Semple made the valid point on Facebook that
Not being attracted
to the social web is OK but adopting a sneering tone when you tell me that,
frankly, isn’t.
” and that it’s not easy dealing with the
criticism as the debate as it’s very difficult arguing the case for something
your opponent has never used or has no real knowledge of.

1. Know nothing critics

Unfortunately, the most common are those who simply scoff
and start with something like “Why would
I want to know that someone is having a cup of tea…
” Barely a week goes by
without me experiencing this type of criticism. They haven’t used social media but
assume they’re experts on the subject, pull the ‘ugly’ face and sneer as the
rest of us. It’s a sort of superior attitude usually accompanied by simplistic,
ill-informed views of how social media is actually created and used. All of
those Wikipedia articles you’ve used, they were crowdsourced. Ever watched a
YouTube video, someone made that and uploaded it.

2. Know a little critics

A little learning is a dangerous thing and some use one
aspect of, say facebook, but have no idea that the tool also includes messaging,
apps and other functionality. It’s like someone who thinks a car is only useful
for social visits to friends and relatives. NO - you can also use a car to get
to work, do work, engage in poltics, visit interesting places, go on holiday
and so on. Social media for many people, replaces email, voice calls and txting
and the sheer range of social media options means that it has many different

3. Lurkers

First, it’s OK to lurk. Some of you reading this sentence
will be lurkers, indeed the evidence suggests that in many social media, and media
sharing services with a social dimension, the great majority of users are lurkers,
who rarely if ever post or comment. What is odd is when the lurkers turn into
critics. They take out a lot, but only give back criticism, sharing is a
mystery to them.

4. Hypocrites

Let me give you an example.  Pew surveyed 2,462
middle and high school teachers and found that , when it comes to Wikipedia; 1)
Teachers recommend that students do not use it, warning them that its
accuracy can’t be trusted, but 2)  Teachers
overwhelmingly use it themselves for research and preparation. In fact, they
use it “at much higher rates than U.S. adult internet users as a whole (87% vs.
53%), Pew also found that Wikipedia reliance “does not vary across teachers of
different subjects, grade levels, or community types,” and only varies ever so
slightly by age, with 90% of the youngest teachers using it versus 85% of those
55 and older. This is ugly. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Teachers-and-technology.aspx

5. Know but don’t engage

Some don’t do social media because they simply don’t want to
or don’t have the time. That’s fine. This is good. These critics I like. It’s OK
not to engage in social media in the same way that it’s OK not to engage in
lots of social events, go to the cinema, theatre, football, cricket or music
festivals. It’s not for everyone. These people don’t moan and whinge about
social media, it’s just not part of their lives. In fact I rather resent the
social media Taliban, who insist on everyone being online and everyone needing
to be highly ‘social’.

6. Privacy (weak)

Some don’t like to put their neck out and have their lives
out there for others to see. This is good, as long as it doesn’t tip over into
criticising others for being more social, taking risks and enjoying the range
of social, professional and interesting interactions that social media brings.
I’ll come to a theory on this later.

7. Privacy (strong)

A stronger argument is the species of critic who values
their privacy and has suspicions about government, big business and other shady
institutions knowing what they’re up to. I respect this position and think that
for some, it is a valid argument. Julian Assange, for example, never uses
Facebook for that reason. Given recent revelations, the US government is
clearly not to be trusted on the matter. However, I think it’s exaggerated.
What exactly in your life do you think they can use against you?

Characteristics of critics

Here’s an observation, not based on any research that I know
of, merely a hypothesis. I have noticed two specific characteristic that
distinguishes enthusiastic users of social media, from sceptics and critics; 1)
personality type and 2) risk taking.

1) Introversion and extroversion.
On the whole, the people I know who are extroverts are enthusiastic users of social
media, introverts tend to be non-participants or critics (3 good, 2 bad, 2
ugly). This is not a criticism, merely an observation, and it perhaps reflects a
general attitude towards networking and social activity by extroverts and
introverts both online and offline. This is reflected in my full acceptance of
non-participants and the privacy stance (weak and strong). The downside of
extrovert dominance is the tendency for people to present their ideal lives
online. There’s a lot of showboating that masquerades as sharing.

2) Risk taking. For
me, this is a more interesting issue, as I suspect that much of the criticism
of social media comes from an intrinsic fear of taking risks that expresses
itself as derision. Nervousness often expresses itself as scepticism and scorn.
On the whole, the risk takers I know, in business and life, tend to be users of
social media, or at least willing to give it a try. Good risk takers are also
able to distinguish between good and bad risks, that’s why I respect those who
are wary on the grounds of privacy.

Social media Taliban

After all I’ve said above it may surprise you that I don’t
follow the groupthink view that we should strive to get everyone online. I’m a
libertarian at heart, and for me going online and using social media is a
matter of choice. I have little time for spending huge sums of money on this
form of mock inclusion. Make it cheap and compelling and they will come. I can
remember when print and TV journalists constantly sneered at social media and the
web, now they all have their blogs and Twitter accounts. The numbers speak for themselves.

Neither am I a social constructivist and therefore keen on
those who see all learning as social and ‘connectivism’ as a valid ‘theory’ of
learning. I spend relatively little time, for example, in MOOCs on forums, and
don’t much like the diffuse chat that passes for learning or training sessions
where round tables construct flipchart pages blue-tacked to the walls. On the
other hand I see social media as an invaluable part of my life and learning.


Having used social media since its inception and blogged,
facebooked and tweeted for many years, I’ve come across a large number of
critics. I respect those who simply opt out as well as those who don’t
participate on grounds of privacy (weak and strong). That’s three of my
categories. On the other hand, I resent those who simply sneer and/or don’t
have any real knowledge of these media in terms of their functionality, actual
use and potential. I’m also impatient with the hypocrisy behind lurkers who
sneer, and duplicitous hypocrites who condemn but use it at the same time. Stay
clear or share, don’t just take or sneer.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Cambodia: what do you do when all teachers are killed?

Teachers annihilated

Cambodia all but wiped out its teachers in the 1975-79 Khmer
Rouge genocide. In a curious twist of fate, many of the senior cadres and
architects of the revolution had been teachers and many of prisons were former
schools, including the notorious S21 in Phnom Phen. Think of it –being a
teacher would most likely get you killed. Think of the problems they’ve faced
after this holocaust; no schools, no books, no professional teachers, no
cultural capital around teaching and a generation of people left illiterate. The
numbers are shocking. Soviet sources state that 90% of all teachers were killed
by the Khmer Rouge. Only 50 of the 725 university instructors, 207 of the 2,300
secondary school teachers, and 2,717 of the 21,311 primary school teachers

The Khmer Rouge took away the very things the people held
dear; family, religion and work. Children were separated from parents, husbands
from wives. Intellectuals, teachers, monks and eventually even city dwellers
were seen as the enemy. It was ‘dialectics’ picked up by intellectuals who had
studied Marxism in France, taken to surreal extremes. 

This is very recent
history (1975-79) and it’s never far from the surface when you’re in Cambodia.
My tuk-tuk driver’s head hung low when he told me that both his older brother
and father had been killed at that time. It was the saddest and most poignant
moment of my whole trip. This is still a country of graves and landmines, and seeing
people daily with missing limbs is a blunt reminder. Landmines are an evil and
make no mistake, if you sell them, you should hang your head in shame, as
you’re part of that evil.

I’ve reported from schools in Africa, China and the Middle
East and always try to get a feel for education on the ground when I travel but
this was different. We’re talking ‘Year ZERO’ here. Let me tell you one
anecdote. A teacher I met in Cambodia told me of a parent who didn’t want to
send her daughter to school “as they’ll
all (teachers) be killed some time
”. However, this is rare. Cambodia and
Cambodian parents are now almost obsessive about education, partly because they’ve
been through so much.

Meet Sue

I met Sue in Siem Reap market where she was buying a few
dozen pirated DVDs. In her seventies, she’s worked in rural Cambodia for the
last three years. This polite woman from the Isle of Wight came here on holiday
and decided to devote the rest of her life to teaching the rural poor. As she
said, “When I’m gone, I just want to make
sure I’ve left a legacy that works
”. After losing her money on an ill-fated
attempt to buy land for a school, she persevered and the local MP has given her
some land. The main problem here is that it is difficult for foreigners to buy
land (understandable for other reasons) and the difficulty in erecting
permanent school buildings (NGOs often have to build collapsible structures).
She’s here for good and clearly loves the children, people and Cambodia. “I’ve learnt a lot about life since I’ve been
” she said, a lovely role reversed line from a dedicated teacher.

Sue’s scalable technology

Sue has a computer and dongle which she uses for email and
to keep in touch back home but when it comes to technology in her school, she
was smart. The reason she was buying so many bootleg DVDs was that she wanted
to expand her children’s knowledge of English. English is the aspirational
language here, as it is everywhere else I travel. She’s also careful to teach
them Khmer, as they need to read and write in their own language to progress at
school. So she gives them a treat every Saturday, which is ‘movie night’. She
has a TV but is after a projector, as she wants to show movies to 100 people at
a time. Her rationale is that this is scalable solution taps into their natural
motivation to learn English, but expands their knowledge, cultural and
linguistic, in all sorts of ways. Instinctively practical, she knows that the
choke point is the limited sockets and electricity. This is smart thinking.

Another issue is cultural context. Although these are
western movies, she had lots of David Attenborough and National geographic
stuff! She explained that displays of affection, even kissing on screen, can be
seen as shameful, so she carefully views and selects the programmes she shows.

All in all, she was building a sustainable, scalable
solution by fitting the technology to her scant resources with a fair amount of
cultural sensitivity. This is exactly what I presented at Online Africa, and
why I’m so critical of many of Sugata Mitra and Negroponte’s ‘parachute
projects’. Innovation should not trump sustainability. Innovation is only
innovation when it’s sustainable.

Monk and me teaching

While poking around in a Buddhist monastery, I had a second
illuminating experience. No, not religious enlightenment. I came across a monk,
who was teaching English. His kids were not monks but local children, many who
had been sent here by their parents. He invited me into the classroom, which
had no walls, a dirt floor and I did a little teaching. The roof was less than
6’ and I’m 6’4” which led to some hilarity, as I had to cock my head to one
side. They were a lovely and lively bunch, keen to chat and ask questions. They
continued talking to me after the class, keen to extract as much ‘English’
practice as they could. The sad thing was the awful national textbook they were
using, written, it seems, with the intent to prevent you learning English, an
awful, grammar-laden affair full of sentences, no real English speaker would
ever utter. It made me aware of the fact that some schools may be doing little
to actually teach English, just going through the motions.

Then a shock. In a room next to the open classroom was a row
of computer screens all still wrapped in the plastic they had arrived in,
covered in dust. They had never been used as they lacked sockets and electricity.
Once again, my point about sustainability was confirmed.

They had been kindly
donated but no one had really thought about the support resources and how they
would be used. Interestingly, as I was doing my bit in the classroom, one kid’s
mobile went off. Like kids everywhere, they love their mobiles. Everywhere I
went, cheap mobiles were being used to text, make calls and listen to music.

Informal learning

In practice, most people learn their language skills in
work. This is important. Time and time again I met young people who had really
learnt English on the job. Necessity is the mother of language learning. Even very
young kids were picking up languages through selling. This tiny 5 year-old could
count to twenty in three languages and challenged me to a game of tic-tac - for
money! She wasn’t in school but she was as smart as a squirrel.

In my hotel, this young girl, a waitress, was allowed to use
the computers when she had finished her work and no guests were around. She was
doing lots of useful things. I watched her use Google earth to view Angkor Wat,
Facebook and message away. She was constantly reading, writing and picking up
IT skills useful for her future work prospects. E-learning, in Khmer, to learn
English and other practical, vocational skills, would be a godsend.

Schooling not enough

In speaking to young Cambodians, it became clear that some
learnt a little English in schools, but not much. There are real problems with
the quality of teaching, materials and lack of teachers. Teacher attendance in
state schools was also appalling in some areas. Sue had been to schools where
the kids were there and were getting on with learning but the teacher hadn’t
bothered to turn up! To be fair the salaries are between $20-50 a month. Many
teachers have themselves, failed to finish their secondary education, teacher
training is poor and some need to work to supplement their salary.

English is their passport to further education, work and
prosperity. Tourism is growing at an astonishing 25% a year, and I can see why.
Angkor Wat is a dream cultural destination but the country still has that laid
back feel, with good food, cheap accommodation and charming people. What these
people need is some formal learning, in basic English, then support in a
vocational context. An interesting addendum was Sue’s comment that she was
looking for a good local person who could also teach Chinese, as this was the
big growth area in visitor numbers.


So what did I learn from this? First, Cambodia has much to
teach us, as the madness of killing teachers has not gone from our modern
world. I had to cancel a trip to central Nigeria twice this year because of the
threat from Boko Haram (translation: Western Education is bad) and in some
areas of the Islamic world, education is war, with teachers and even pupils
being targeted by religious zealots.

Second, Cambodia certainly needs more good teachers and
schools but it has recognised that vocational training needs to be its main
focus. Sure it has Universities, all private, with fees at $360 for the first
year and $400 thereafter but they’re all in the cities, so travel and
accommodation expenses are a problem. The quality is low and there’s the
usual aloofness and lack of alignment and relevance. But the main focus is,
rightly, on the idea that people need to 'learn to earn'.

Third, what I witnessed was ‘schooling for the sake of
schooling’. The English textbook was ridiculous, teaching hampered by a lack of
training, irrelevant tests and so people were in classrooms going through the
motions. What these countries really need is not more ‘schooling’ but better
‘teaching and learning’. They need curriculum reform, teacher training and a
reboot of the system. I saw lots of great work done by volunteers like Sue but
the sheer scale of the problem, means that a radical shift is required. The
good news is that young Cambodians are getting on and doing it for themselves.
This is a young and vibrant population in a country of micro-businesses. The
problem seems to be the age-old politicians, corruption and their lack of

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

MOOCSs: 20 ways to monetise

MOOCs aren’t all about money but when it comes to their future,
money does matter. Calls for the monetisation of MOOCs are reasonable, although
a little at odds with the failure in the past to look for the monetisation of
Higher Education as a whole. In many ways MOOCs are a response to the
ever-rising costs of higher education that has led to record levels of student debt
and the worry that defaults may be on the horizon.

No one should deliver a MOOC without considering income but
pure ‘monetisation’ is the wrong term, as a MOOC is an activity that needs to
be seen in terms of both costs and income over time. So I’ll come at this as if
it was both an income and cost issue, namely its impact on your profit &
loss account. Note also that an institution could position its financial goal as an investment, aim for break-even or go for profit. Monetisation is ot just about profits.

1. Investment

A MOOC can be seen as a strategic investment by an
institution and be paid for straight from its existing budget. The rationale
for this can be a number of things that we’ll come to in terms of reducing
costs and other revenue streams. For the moment, one could simply fund such an
initiative from your teaching, technology or marketing budget. There is also an
argument for funding it as research. Interestingly, some institutions clearly
see themselves as leading the charge and developing MOOC software for use by

2. Not-for-profits

Not-for-profits have been very active in this area. As a
Trustee of a major education charity, I have supported a very large charity investment
in a single MOOC in the UK. Well known charities in the US have also been very
active. Mitra’s million pound TED prize is going towards a MOOC of sorts
(school in the cloud) and the WISE $500,00 prize is another possible sources.

3. Government

In many countries this is the primary course of funding and
we have already seen government funding go into Futurelearn, via the Open
University, in the UK, albeit in a rather opaque fashion. Tapping into
government funds to increase access, I’d suggest is a good model for killing
two birds with one financial stone, rather than woolly ‘access offices’.

4. Private equity

They have been active in the US, most notably with Udacity
and Coursera, but also in other initiatives. These investors take calculates
risks and this is one way for the system to hedge its risk.

5. Private donations

Institutions often tap into alumni for donations that go
into expensive, and sometimes ill-advised, capital projects, usually buildings
named after the donor. An alternative is emerging, where donors contribute
towards courses. This is a fine idea, especially if the donor is an interested
party, with some background and credibility in the subject.

6. Sponsorship

Google, AT&T and others have been active in sponsoring
MOOCs that seem relevant to their mission. There is every reason to see this as
a substantial and useful source of revenue. It is common the arts and arts
education, so I see no reason as to why it should not be used in education.

7. Students pay

Udemy use this model and with reasonably low costs that attract
students who see value for relatively little money. Freemium models may move
towards fees for popular and sought after courses or a more n-depth learning
experience after a taster.

8. Certification

This is top of the list, as a portion of MOOCers will want
certification and be prepared to pay for it, at various levels. Given the large
numbers of potential participants, even at a relatively modest price point,
this could be lucrative. Remember that, once the fixed, up-front costs have
been paid, the on-going cost-per-student are small. Coursera’s Signature Track
fees are $30-100.

9. Proctored assessment

Many MOOCs offer online and offline assessment, on a shared
revenue basis, with the likes of ProctorU and Pearson VUE. This is an additional
high-value proposition that can attract prices greater than that of volume

10. Books/materials

Some MOOCs have already linked the course to compulsory or
optional course materials such as existing textbooks but there’s also potential
sales from specialised course materials, such as software and equipment.

11. Summer schools

Universities have pitifully low occupancy rates, one reason
for their high costs, so offering ‘summer schools’ or other ‘holiday period’ ;earning
experiences could be one way to generate income, especially from the
intellectually curious, who are less interested in certification. The Open
University, in the UK, has been doing this for decades.

12. Recruitment

Recruitment referral (with student’s permission) is an
existing revenue stream, especially in IT and other technical MOOCs, where
high-end, practical skills are sought from a Global pool. The referral comes,
of course with the employers knowledge of what the MOOC delivers and demands of
its students.

13. Advertising

Any online delivery that attracts large numbers of eyeballs,
can generate advertising revenue. In this case the advertisers know exactly
what sort of audience they’re attracting, and as MOOCs develop, this data will
become invaluable. It’s not just the number of participants, now in their
millions, but the intense amount of times and time they spend on the course.

14. Future indigenous student income

MOOCs aimed at high-school students will increase your
chances of getting those students into your institution or at least getting the
best of those students.

15. Future overseas students income

Overseas income is a £5 billion industry in theUk and could
rise to £16.9 bllion by2025. These have become an essential source of income
for many institutions but as countries, especially in India, China and the Far
East. develop their own, large, world-class institutions, and visa restrictions
bite, revenues may fall. MOOCs have remarkably diverse audiences, with students
often coming from every corner of the globe. This must be a way of attracting
more students to study and pay fees at your institution.

16. Parents of future students

These are the people who pay top dollar for education and
often play a pivotal role in what institutions their children apply to. MOOCs
targeted at this audience make perfect sense. It gives the parent a feel for
the institution and even the academic(s) teaching there. These are the
‘influencers’ that marketeers love to target.

17. Future alumni contributions

MOOCs are already being targeted at alumni, as in many countries,
especially the UK, the vast majority of alumni remain an untapped source of
income. This is a way of staying in touch and marketing to alumni in a way that
is relevant to both parties, intellectually and not just financial begging.

18. Brand capital

A University sees its staff come and go, its students come
and go, its research owned and delivered by publishers and others. The core ‘value’
is in the brand, that’s what endures and has to be built, enhanced and
protected. MOOCs undoubtedly enhance brands as they are a form of massive, indirect,
online advertising.

19. Reduced capital costs

Universities have now realised, despite all the warnings, that
they have been spending far too much money on bricks and not clicks. The race
is not now who has the biggest campus packed with the most buildings but the
online war for students. To continue with endless capital projects at the
expense of MOOCs, and other online initiatives, is simply to load up on-going
maintenance and real-estate costs. Just think what one could do if tere were a moratorium
on building in Higher Education.

20. Reduced faculty costs

Many faculty don’t like teaching seems – OK I’ve said it –
but it’s true. Many yearn for a reduction or freedom from teaching. MOOCs are
one way to lessen the load on faculty.  Take
some high-volume, undergraduate courses and put them online (or partly online).


I’m pretty sure I’ve missed a few other potential income
streams and welcome additional suggestions. I’m also sure there are arguments
to be made on costs and income around lower drop-out rates for students that
prepare by doing a MOOC. There may even be a way of using ‘access’ funds. Whatever
the future for MOOCs, it strikes me that money is not a big problem. The cost-per-student metric shows that MOOCs deliver volume therefore lower costs. This is the scaling up that technology inevitably brings leading to lower delivery costs. It has happened in almost every other area of human endeavour and its about time it happened in education..

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Latin – The Big Debate at British Museum

The venerable Mary Beard, whom I love, not only for her
books but also her television programmes, and the fact that all that bullshit
about presenters having to be groomed clones, is beneath her, invited me to
contribute to a debate on ‘The Future of Latin’ at the British Museum. So how
did it go?


A sell out, with 350 paying Latinists, turned up to hear
Mary chair a debate which pitched David Aaronovitch and I against Peter Jones
and Natalie Haynes. As we walked on stage and introduced ourselves (I found that I was the only person
who didn’t go to Oxford), everybody seemed to know each other (except me).
This is exactly the sort of challenge I like, as although it was a sell-out,
I’m not in the habit of selling-out on my beliefs and principles..

Neither contrarian nor philistine

To be clear, I was not there as a contrarian or philistine,
as I’ve been in love with the classics since I was a boy. My first secondary
school lay astride the Antonine Wall and for over 40 year I’ve been to every
corner of the Roman, Greek and Egyptian Empires, from Scotland to Syria. I
cycled Hadrian’s wall two years ago, still go to Greece every year and never
miss an opportunity to visit sites, especially on the Peloponnese. and will be
going to Egypt, as I do very yea,r for another dose of Egyptology in December. I am,
however, also a rationalist and realist, and my 30 plus years of experience in the
learning game have made me deeply suspicious of the position of Latin, among
many other things, in our culture and school curriculum. I was there to argue
that it should NOT BE TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS AT ALL. These were, and are, my
arguments. Note that I am not against LATIN a a language or even an object of
study, I am against it being taught in schools. The arguments for each of these
propositions were presented by my opponents and audience members. These were my responses.

1. LATIN is NOT about choice

Several people argued that Latin is a matter of choice in
schools. I disagree. Latin, as we have seen from Gove’s lunacy, has resulted in
the destruction of choice in the curriculum. Professor
Alison Wolf, Gove’s lapdog, ignored advice from industry and education experts
to crush 3100 vocational qualifications. The EBacc, which had Latin as a core
choice, deliberately EXCLUDED all vocational subjects, even ICT. He’s still at
it, creating a one-sided system that simply reinforces the old apartheid system we have in this country between academic and vocational learning. It’s a
mistake that may take decades to reverse. Who would have thought that with all
of this talk of 21st century skills, mass youth and graduate
unemployment, we’d be discussing the promotion of the teaching of a 2nd
century BC language that no one speaks, as a core curriculum subject.

2. LATIN does NOT help you learn other

Why scratch your ear by going over the top of your
head? Isn’t it obviously easier to just get on and learn Spanish, Italian and
French, rather than the convoluted route through Latin. Thorndike, Sherwin, Haas
& Stern all think so. In the Sherwin metastudy Research and the
teaching of English,
 “the study of Latin does not necessarily increase
the ability to learn another language… No consistent experimental evidence in
support of this contention was found.” Learners have limited time, that time is
clearly better spent on the target language itself. In fact, Latin can
make learning a new language MORE difficult. In Search of
the Benefits of Latin
 by Haas and Stern (2003), who followed up on
Thondike’s work nearly a century earlier, in the Journal of Educational
Psychology is the key paper. They took two groups of German students, one who
studied French, the other Latin as their second language. Both groups were given
a course in Spanish and the results measured. When the results were analysed by
a Spanish assessor (who didn’t know who had taken French or Latin) the French
students made significantly fewer grammatical errors than the Latin students.
As predicted the Latin students wrongly transferred the rules of Latin to
Spanish. For example “misconstructions in verbs emerged to be either highly
reminiscent of or identical to Latin verbs”. The French group turned out to be
much better prepared to cope with Spanish grammar. Psychologically the Latin
students had suffered from negative transfer using false friends in their new
language. The problem with understanding Latin is that you need to pay close
attention to word endings; case markers on nouns and time markers on verbs. But
in English and Romance languages word order and prepositions are more
important. Endings play a minor role. The fact that the grammatical
similarities between modern Romance languages are much greater than that
between Latin and modern Romance languages, means that the defenders of Latin
are flogging a dead horse. Thorndike was right – transfer of the wrong kind

3. LATIN does NOT have an edge in improving cognitive skills

This argument is
greatly loved by the parents of ‘gifted children’ although I rarely come across
a mIddle class parent whose child is not gifted. For gifted, read ‘pushed’ (not
a bad thing but very different). Again Haag & Stern (2000), in a review of the literature found that
Thorndike, “did not find any differences in science and maths in students who
learned Latin at school and those who did not”. Two groups of comparable
students, where one studied Latin, the other English, were assessed after two
years, “No differences were found in either verbal or non-verbal IQ or grades
in German or Maths”. This again had been predicted by Thorndike decades before,
namely that transfer needs common ground in the source and target.

LATIN does NOT help you understand general grammatical structures

Stephen Pinker,
Harvard’s world renowned expert in psycholinguistics backs this up in The Language Instinct, “Latin declensional paradigms
are not the best way to convey the inherent beauty of grammar”. He recommends
computer programming and universal grammar on the grounds that they are “about
living minds and not dead tongues”. 

LATIN does NOT give significant advantages in using English

English is a
Germanic language – we are largely speaking in Old English rooted language. The
TOP 100 words are Old English (sorry three are Old Norse – THEY, THEIR, THEM).
As for one audience member’s argument that it is necessary as all children need
to be able to understand etymology, I disagree. Is there anything more annoying
than the dinner-party bore who stops you and explains the root of a word, as if
it made any difference to your argument or its contemporary meaning. If anything a good course in Old English would be better. Meaning is
use – get over it Latinists.

LATIN does NOT guides us correct use of English grammar

Pinker has a go at
the Latin language mavens who want to pointlessly
foist Latinate rules of grammar into English. As Pinker explains,
this snobbery took root in 18th century London, when Latin was
used as a mark of social class (still true today) and Latin grammar rules were
crudely pasted into books on English grammar, for example, ‘don’t split
infinitives’ and ‘don’t end a sentence with a preposition’. Latin
simply doesn’t allow you to split an infinitive and to stupidly insist
that it’s wrong in English, is as stupid as making us all wear togas.

is necessary for SCIENCE, LAW and MEDICINE

One girl in the
audience, from Merseyside, but remarkably free from any Merseyside accent, was
adamant that Lawyers needed to have studied Latin. This is laughable. Incidentally,
if you’ve heard the argument that Latin helps medical students learn and
understand the considerable amount of medical vocabulary that has to be learned
in medical schools. This also turns out to be false as shown in Pampush and

LATIN brings the joy of ideas and literature

One contribution
from the audience I did like was the idea that Latin bridges us to rich
tradition of thought and literature. He mentioned Roman literature but also the
Magna Carta, Bacon and Newton. First, anyone studying history will not lose out
by working with translations of the Magna Carta or Bacon. And does anyone
really need to read newton’s tortous latin, other then scholars in the history
of maths? I think not.  And why not
Greek? (oops started a sentence with a conjunction – duck). Wouldn’t you prefer
the riches of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, along with the works of any one of
Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes to the largely derivative
Roman dramatists. Even in History, the Greeks Thucydides and Herodotus are a
match for any Roman writer. In politics, our democratic traditions are largely
Greek. Even English law is not Roman (although in Scotland it is). Then there’s
the politics and democratic traditions that are fundamentally Greek. Even in
maths and science the mighty Pythagoras, Euclid and Archimedes trump the

LATIN’s history of exclusion

Of course, Latin
was introduced to this country as the language of the clergy, it was not, as is
sometimes supposed introduced by the Romans, as few Latinate words come from
that era. As the language of the church it largely excluded the laity, as most
remained illiterate and spoke various forms of English. It was then used as the
gatekeeper for learning. This had some benefits, when Latin was sort of
European Esperanto, but continued for centuries after that died and was long
used as the gatekeeper at Oxbridge and other institutions to keep the hoi
polloi out. David Aaronovitch made the telling point that it is still a key
‘marketing’ differentiator for independent schools.

LATIN would NOT die if not taught in schools

There are plenty of
scholars in subjects that are not taught at schools. The bottom line with any
dead language, especially Latin, is that there’s little that is new and to be
uncovered. Compare this to the vast amounts of Sumerian cuneiform tablets that
still need to be both deciphered and excavated. In the end I agree with one of
our greatest living Latin scholars Mary Beard, “the overall strength of the
classics is not to be measured by exactly how many young people know Latin or
Greek from school or University. It is better measured by asking how many
believe that there should be people in the world who do know Latin and Greek.

This about sums up my position. I am not against the study of Latin or any
other historic languages. This is largely a matter of proportionality for our
Universities. By all means let a few study Latin. What I am against is too
prominent a role for Latin in contemporary school curricula. Our young people
have enough on their plate at 5-18, as the range of subjects expands to include
a wider range of science subjects, IT and other vocational skills. A dead
language at this stage is merely the dead hand of educational history being
played out by interested parties.


I rather liked this audience and I especially liked
Peter Jones.  He was my opponent but put
to bed those old tropes about Latin improving your ability to learn languages,
improve intelligence or think logically. He was remarkably free from cant and
any sense of snobbery. What he loved was Latin and his plea was for the beauty
and intrinsic value of the language. With that I have no argument.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

African MOOCs: unlocking a billion more brains

has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an
affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has
more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest

Thomas Friedman NY Times

On this view MOOCs are a godsend for Africa. Free, they have the potential to reach
vast audiences who stand no chance of getting anywhere near higher education as
we know it in the developed world. On the other hand, as the
Namibian President wisely said at E-learning Africa this month, let’s not make
the mistake of following an overly academic approach at the expense of Africa’s
vocational needs, what he called the 'spectacle of hallucination'. African MOOCs will have to be more relevant to Africa’s
vocational needs, such as agriculture, healthcare and entrepreneurship. A third view, is that Africa needs to produce as well as
consume MOOCs. Absolutely. 

The bottom line is that the simple idea of making
and making use of relevant courses, made free (or cheap) and accessible to
millions of young Africans, is as good an example as any of Africa leapfrogging
a Western Higher Education system that has proved slow, cumbersome and far too
expensive. The last thing Africa needs are $20-$40,000 per year undergraduate


Africamooc’ is
alive and kicking, aggregating and hosting MOOCs. Jens Schneider, a wonderfully enthusiastic
Namibian says, “If your course is free,
we host for free
”. This is a useful service as Jens understands the real
needs and contexts in which MOOCs could be used in Africa. Aggregation and
reuse is a start, a good start.

Entrepreneurship MOOCs

An example of a relevant vocational MOOC is Jim
Vetter’s LIFE, a not-for-profit funded MOOC for entrepreneurs from all over the
world, with many in Africa. He uses a MOOC to develop small businesses,
especially tech businesses.
Lessons learnt? Use a pedagogy for a range of literacies, make it multilingual
and make content available on  a range of devices. He also uses learners to
help develop content, as they know a lot about troubleshooting in their own,
local environments. Stories are important, as are JOLTs (just in time learning
tools). What was needed were practical, skills around start-up costs, fixed
costs, variable costs, profit & loss, cash flow and so on. For this he uses
free, open source spread-sheets with P &Ls etc. He delivers in English and
Spanish, and soon in French and Arabic. This is important as 202 countries have
logged in so far and it is widely used throughout Africa. I also likes his free
‘facilitator guide’ downloadable from the site.

Tanzanian IT MOOCs

Even more relevant to African needs is the World
Bank funded Coursera initiative to provide market-relevant IT skills in
Tanzania, where jobs are going unfilled due to lack of relevant IT skills.
Tanzania’s problem is not unusual in Africa where talented students go abroad
to study, leaving the country bereft of high-end skills. They hope to match IT
MOOCs to local employment needs by involving stakeholders such as local IT
lecturers, businesses and entrepreneurs. This is promising as it pays attention
to local culture and context.

African perspective on MOOCs

What’s now
needed are a few home grown MOOCs from African institutions. They need not be
universities. Gertjan van Stam has spent a long time in deep, rural Africa, in
Zimbabwe and Zambia, and has some revealing insights into MOOCs in Africa. The
African perspective on MOOCs, he feels, should be different. Take the rural or
traditional African perspective on the subject and you see things through
different eyes. 71% in his village use the internet for education in deep rural
villages. In his village role models emerged, such as the woman who went online
to get a Degree in Divinity and became an important member of the clergy. His
children use Khan and BBC Bitesize for maths, His wife, a doctor, is doing a
MOOC on mobile health. Most education not accessible to the poor, so MOOCs are
a real educational opportunity.

However, he says that Africa must transmit and not just
consume MOOCs. There’s a real need for MOOCs in indigenous languages, sensitive
to Africa’s oral tradition.  Content in
just western languages is hampering progress. Even worse, it may strengthen
colonial thought. He wants MOOCs ‘contextualised for Africa’ and sees them as
an opportunity to ‘send an African knowledge to the world’. What does this
mean? Ubunto – ‘my humanity is linked to your humanity’, Orality - used
extensively in Africa, where instant discourse influences everything. He’d like
to see MOOCs provide more long-term educational content that ‘withstands
rampant individualism’, especially in the Africa where the short-term is
unpredictable. This is fascinating and opens up the possibility for MOOCs that
are far more oral, immediate and useful than using or repackaged western


these people presented their visions for African MOOCs, it was disappointing to
hear predictable responses about drop-outs, certification and
quibbles about the history of MOOCs. This is to apply old narrow narratives to something entirely new and
disruptive. This was in stark contrast to the visionaries, who were actually
doing real work, on real MOOCs, with large numbers of real learners. We needn’t
worry. The digital genie has escaped from the Ivory Tower and caught the
imagination of people who really care about access. Thinking of MOOCs in Africa makes you see the
potentials for escape from the dominant and oppressive western model of Higher Education;
remote, inaccessible, expensive, elitist and overly-academic. I wish them well.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

E-learning Africa – 7 new narratives

Amazing event - 1500 people from all over Africa, to
discuss, debate, dance, sing and celebrate. I’ve never been to a conference
like it, and believe me I’ve been to a few. I was there to give a keynote,
workshop and take part in the final event of the conference – the Big Debate
but to be honest I gained much more than I gave. To give you some idea of the
humour on hand, during a meal at which I was eating crocodile, zebra, kudu and
springbok, a lad from Uganda asked of Channa (who’s vegetarian), “If you like
animals so much, why are you eating all their food”.

1. New African narrative

(whatever that is) wants to do things its own way. The people at this event
wanted to change the old pessimistic narrative of poverty, starvation, AIDS,
malaria and dependency, to a new narrative of optimism and self-sufficiency. I
met nothing but friendly, enthusiastic, committed people, who want to do things
the African way.

So what is this African ‘way’? What I think lay at the heart
of the sentiment was the idea that Africa had been subjected to foreign
influences for too long. I constantly heard calls for approaches and contents
to be more relevant, contextualised and in local languages. I gave my own view
in The Big Debate, a wonderfully, raucous event held at the end of the
conference, where I presented evidence that Mitra’s Hole-in-the-Wall projects
ad Negroponte’s Ethiopian adventure were dangerous, unsustainable and at times
downright lies. "Don't let
educational colonialism sneak in... with bucket loads of hardware and content
that is inappropriate for your children.
" My formidable opponent Adele
said something similar when she urged approaches “By the Africans for the Africans - and we will share best practice with
you when it's done.
" This debate, on ‘sustainability v innovation’ was
a hoot. Massive audience participation, loads of laughs and although we clearly
won, there was a messy recount and the decision was reversed. When I asked why,
the reply was telling, “Remember Donald,
this is Africa!

2. Mobiles as lifelines

My keynote talk
was on mobile learning, small beer elsewhere but BIG in Africa. The Nokia 3310
has legendary status in Africa, but Samsung’s the new kid on the block. Africa
loves mobile tech. Calls, text, health, finance – they’ve found a myriad of
ways to use mobiles to enhance their lives. Tariffs are still high but
youngsters would go without food for more airtime. As was explained to me in
the Katatura Township, a mobile for someone in real poverty is far more
important than for someone in a developed country. If you rely on piece-work,
you need to be available to take a call at any time. It’s a way of managing and
transferring what little money you have and receiving remittances from that
relative abroad. It’s a way of switching on your electricity and getting
medical help. It’s a lifeline.

My keynote was all about mobile learning. The very first
piece of technology was invented here in Africa – the stone axe. And for 1.7
million years this was the dominant technology – the first handheld device. But
there’s something odd about stone axes, as many are found in pristine
condition, unused, or as large axes, far too big to be practical. As pieces of
useful technology, they had ‘status’ value. In that sense we have to be careful
about m-learning as they may be seen by youngsters as ‘too cool for school’. My
second piece of advice was to forget ‘courses’. Mobiles are the GPS for
learning, rather than delivering learning itself. Think search, performance
support, informal learning – not courses. Think of contextual learning,
vocational elearning out in the field, reinforcement through spaced practice.
Think different. Also, be careful with video, as few watch video on mobiles,
think audio and text. Media rich is not necessarily mind rich. What I saw in
Africa was the clever use of mobile technology to enhance literacy and
practical learning.

3. Mobiles as motivators for literacy

In my
workshop on ‘Mobiles and literacy’ I was pushing the idea that mobiles had
produced a ‘renaissance of reading and writing’ among the young. It will, I
think, be the single most important factor in increasing literacy on the
planet. Why? Every child is massively motivated to learn to text, post and
message on mobiles. The evidence shows that they become obsessive readers and
writers through mobile devices.

I saw ample
evidence of learning how to read and write through mobiles in what can only be
described as ‘challenging’ conditions. Cornelia Koku Muganda showed us real
evidence for positive results with girls and women in Tanzania, who not only
had to learn to read and write (txt) but who couldn’t afford to make expensive
mistakes such as wrong numbers, wrong codes for electricity switch-on and so
on. Mignon Hardie had a wonderful scheme for young people in the Townships of
South Africa, gaining not only literacy skills but valuable insights into their
own lives through specially written narratives. Ian Mutarami and Mikko Pitkanen
showed how games technology could deliver mobile phonics apps in local

My own
session focussed on the fact that Africa showed the fastest growth &
massive use of txting. Txting is a significant form of literacy, introduced by youngsters, on their own,
spontaneously, rapidly & without tuition. Oddly, some complain about
poor literacy, but when a technology arrives that provides opportunities to
read and write (constantly) some complain about that! So why the moral panic? Is it a linguistic disaster? No.
Almost all popular beliefs about TXTING are wrong. It’s not new, not for
young only, helps rather than hinders literacy and adds a new dimension to
language use. Language is about being understood and txting has adapted to this
need. Good txters understand that ‘Cnsnnts crry mr infrmtn thn vwls’ and play
with language. Interestingly, women more enthusiastic txters, write longer
txts, more complex txts, use more emoticons, more His & BYEs and more
emotional content (Richard Ling  The Sociolinguistics of SMS)

More importantly, txting
benefits literacy as it is a motivating factor in writing (Katz & Aakhus),
requires phonetic knowledge, has links with success in attainment (Wood & Bell), helps one be concise (Fox)
and helps develop social skills (Fox).

4. Hardware

A huge
debate erupted over what devices should be used in learning in Africa. For my
money, the good projects used mobile or notebooks/laptops. Tablets were being
hyped but when I spoke to people they were wary of their lack of flexibility,
low level learning potential, maintenance problems and costs. While they may be
appropriate in some contexts, such as Merryl Ford’s work in rural S Africa and
in early years or primary school, I have serious doubts about their efficacy in
most other contexts. They are impossible to repair, difficult to network and
can severely limit skills development in writing, coding and the use of more
sophisticated software tools.

I was much more impressed 
with the laptop projects. Nkubito Manzi Bakuramutsa was an impressive
project manager from Rwanda. He stressed the need for proper infrastructure-
it’s all about wifi, electricity, cabling and sockets. But where he was smart
was in his capacity building of teachers. This is, “fundamental – they are your
front line troops”. It starts with 5 days training for heads of schools, each
with one champion teacher,  to
familiarise themselves with tech, then teaching with the laptop. Education must
come before technology. Then the bombshell – he pleaded for a proper academic
study on their effectiveness.

5. Vocational v academic

The Namibian
Prime Minister spoke on the first day of the conference. He was witty but also
wily. I liked him, as he warned us against the ‘spectacle of hallucination’ where technology was used to create
illusory progress. Shiny objects that dazzle but don’t deliver long-term
solutions. He urged us to focus on vocational, not academic, context and
content. Health, farming, tourism, entrepreneurship – employability was the
watchword for Africa.

Big problems need big and innovative solutions. Time and
time again I heard requests for approaches and content that are more sensitive
to context and culture. Too many projects parachuted technology and English
content that had little relevance for learners. The western idea of ’academic’
schooling was being pushed but was unsustainable. Schooling in itself is not
the answer in itself, as almost everyone in Africa leaves school – then what?
Millennium goals around schooling will not deliver unless that schooling is

6. Health, agriculture, public sector,

I saw a myriad of useful projects around agriculture (look
out for the www.ict4ag.org conference in
Kigali, Rwanda, later this year. Giacomo Rambaldi is passionate about the use
of technology in farming, especially around the use of m-banking (Robert Okine
in Ghana), messaging on livestock (Darlington Kahilu in Zambia), iCow in Kenya,
optimising the use of pesticides (John Gushit in Nigeria), vetinary projects –
the list goes on and on. Then the healthcare projects, nurse licence renewal,
HIV counselling (Fabrice Laurentine in Namibia), drug prescription (Lesek
Wojnowski in S Africa). I saw innovative thinking around capacity building in
the public sector. Then there’s the innovation hubs and entrepreneurship
projects. Bloggers, like Mac-Jordan Degadjor, show that the new narrative must
be created from within.

7. Sustainability

My contribution to The Big Debate focused on
‘sustainability’. You can keep on ‘taking the expensive tablets’, buy into the
myth that is Sugata Mitra’s ‘holes in walls’ or believe Negroponte’s Ethiopian
hype’ OR you can start with real problems and real, sustainable solutions.
Tech-led projects can work but only if the risks are understood and assessed
from the start. Innovation without sustainability is not innovation at all. If
you want to avoid massive failure, then watch out for tech that lies at
Gartner’s ‘Peak of inflated expectations’ as it will more than likely end up in
the ‘Trough of disillusionment’.

Africa has had a swarm of mosquito projects, what it needs
are more steady, long-lived tortoise projects. Sustainability comes in several
forms; sustainable in technical infrastructure, stakeholders, teacher training,
learner take-up, maintenance, context, relevance, languages and culture. Above
all, Africa needs sustainability in terms of costs. 20% of the poor  exist on 
$1 a day  20% 40% on  $2 a
day. Now if the global average of ICT spend 3% of income, they can only afford
$10-$20, and it would have to be relevant. In fact they tend to spend this on
cheap mobiles. Think, then, on this. Tablets $200-$300but total costs - solar
power, maintenance & support add much, much more. These expensive tablets
have serious side-effects.


Weber-Fahr gave a potent presentation with a focus on social mobility. The key
point is urbanisation. This is what lifts people out of poverty. But she had a
stark warning. Social mobility is not guaranteed and by no means certain.
Africa has huge resources, huge challenges but also a huge reservoir of hope. I
came away with a different mindset about Africa. Throwing hardware at the
problems is not the solution. True solutions must be home-grown. African
projects, run by Africans for Africans, using African content relevant to
African contents and languages.

Even at the airport I was engaged in conversation with
people from Nigeria and Ghana, all eager to talk and get on with things. On the
plane I sat next to a young girl from Uganda who had been at the conference.
She was from Uganda and was brimming with hope for the future and I look
forward to seeing her next year in Kampala, where the next brilliant e-learning
Africa will take place.


Well done to
Rebecca and her ICWE team for organising the conference. They were magnificent.
From the warm welcome at the airport to the final sundown party at River
Crossing, the whole experience was a joy.