Thursday, March 31, 2005

I know what you're thinking...

Recently my attention was drawn to Google Suggests. This is an interesting tool for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it is interesting to see what Google suggests as you type your search terms. It works a bit like predictive text, but it seems to base its suggestions on the popularity of words used in searches. Google therefore guides you to use keywords that will help you narrow your search. Teoma does something similar when it suggests ways to refine your search, however, Teoma doesn't do this until after you hit the search button: Google Suggests does it in real time as you type! Not only that, but it tells you how many hits you will get for each set of keywords it suggests - again before you hit the search button.

Secondly, it does all this in real time! Now, I can hear some people saying, "So what!", but think about it for a minute - what usually happens when you type something on the web? Say you type a new web address (URL), or enter a search term and hit return, or even just click a hyperlink; your actions generate a request from your machine, which is sent through your Internet Service Provider (ISP), onto the Internet to travel through some convoluted path to a machine somewhere else on the Internet, which then does something with your request and (hopefully) sends something through the Internet, via your ISP and back to your machine. All this takes time. Even with a broadband connection, it can still feel like you are using the World Wide Wait.

Somehow or other, Google have got a web based service acting like it is an application running on your machine. How can Google Suggests do it all so quickly? To be honest, I don't know (...yet) but that's why it is not just interesting, but (and I'm sorry for sounding like a geek) stunningly impressive too!

If Google are able to create Web based applications like this, I assume others are doing it too. I hope to have a look for more examples and find out more about how Google have done it. I'll let you know if I find anything interesting and I'd be grateful if anyone can direct me to similar Web based applications.

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Monday, March 28, 2005

Bloglines to the rescue?

Bloglines say they have reset my feed, but I still do not see any of my recent posts. Is it working yet?

Friday, March 25, 2005

I think I broke it!

I have added a trackback feature to my blog courtesy of Haloscan, but neither of the posts I have made since seem to have been syndicated. I have edited some of my earlier posts after I discovered they had odd characters and odd html to see if that was causing the problem. I am trying an absolutely plain vanila post just now to see if I can wake it up again. If not, I will get rid of trackback and see if that helps. See you in Bloglines?

Computers Bad: Jotters Good?

Professor Magnus Nystedt posted a clipping from the Telegraph: Students make more progress in 3Rs without aid of computers. He posted it without comment... but I've seen that type of headline before and as always, the devil is in the detail.

Now, I haven't read the report yet, so I may be going off for no reason and talking rubbish (what's new!) but I remain equally unconvinced by the doom-sayers like this and the techno-evangelists that see computers as incapable of doing wrong.

What reason is given for the poorer performance? Well the Telegraph reports it as follows - "The more access pupils had to computers at home, the lower they scored in tests, partly because they diverted attention from homework." Well that makes sense! The problem is that children aren't doing what they are supposed to do! Should the headline be - "Students make more progress... without playing outside after tea"! Anything that distracts children from their work could be blamed for poor performance at school. They also report that, "Pupils tended to do worse in schools generously equipped with computers, apparently because computerised instruction replaced more effective forms of teaching." Again, no surprise there. Poor teaching is poor teaching and adding technological bells and whistles doesn't change that.

The question is not whether computers are used, but how they are used. Computers are a tool that can be misused just like any other tool. A hammer is a useful tool for hammering in nails, but worse than useless when you want to wire a plug. I read a report a few years ago on a research survey from America. It had a similar headline, essentially saying computers bad, jotters good. When you read the report however, it came down to how the computers were used. Children who studied for science tests by playing educational games (edutainment!) did worse in test than those who just swotted - surprise, surprise! However, children who used spreadsheets and databases to collect and analyse data did better in science test. In other words, the children who used computers the way scientists used computers became better scientists.

Eventually I'll get around to reading the full report and if I find I have to eat my words, I'll let you know here... In the meantime I'll continue to explore with teachers how to use Computers more effectively. Could it be jotters good, computers better... sometimes?

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Thursday, March 24, 2005

Screencasts: A repeat... already?

I continue to be interested in the educational possibilities of screencasts and screencasting. Once again, Jon Udell has got me thinking.

First of all, I came across his screencast on I've been trying to explain to students how these public bookmark sites work and the advantages of social tagging. Jon's screencast does it in a very clear and easy to grasp way. Just what I've been looking for.

Even better though, I came across an article, Fast-forward learning with screencasting, by Jon where he describes how even he was surprised at useful screencasts could be. I don't know how many times I wanted to be able to re-wind a maths' lecturer to see the bit that was obvious to them, but that I needed some time to wrestle with before I could get it. As Jon describes it, what I needed was a screencast!

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Friday, March 18, 2005

Screencasting and the heavy metal umlaut

I was going to do a post on eLearning... maybe another time. Instead, I got sidetracked by a screencast from Jon Udell about the Wikipedia entry on the Heavy Metal Umlaut. I can't remember which blog first pointed me there, but when I first saw it, I didn't realise what it was. I didn't see the video controller thing, because it was off the bottom of the screen. I didn't hear the spoken commentary because I was using my laptop in the living room and had the sound turned down. I was trying to read the article and got very confused when the screen started changing. Silly me! Once I realised what was happening I was impressed.

Can a group of people, working more or less independently, produce a reliable encyclopedia? I remain unconvinced, but this is an interesting analysis of the development of a Wikipedia page. It clearly shows how a Wiki can be fairly robust at resisting malicious damage. (Parental Guidance warning: the screencast does document an act of vandalism that includes some rude words... you have been warned.) It shows what a Wiki is and how it works... and does so very effectively.

However, the main reason I decided to write something about the screencast here is not because of what is says about Wikis. I wanted to write about it because of what it is. It is always interesting to hear people who know what they are talking about discussing something in an accessible way. (It is for this reason I always recommend In Our Time to anyone who will listen to me.) What this screencast does is allow Jon to talk about something in a way that is interesting, visually attractive and, most importantly, dynamic. I've now subscribed to Jon's feed and intend to track down more screencasts.

As an educational tool, screencasting seems to me to have much more potential than podcasting. If you come across any other interesting examples, I'd be grateful if you let me know.

Monday, March 14, 2005

I learn, you learn, we learn... it learns?

I mentioned Conectivism at the end of a previous post. I had literally just come across it and stuck it in to see if it would generate a response. I was intrigued by the idea, but didn't have time to think about it fully. Well I've thought about it, I've read a bit more and here's what I think so far...

First impressions were favourable, but as I read over George Siemens' article on Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, I was slightly concerned that there seemed to be a blurring of the distinction between learning and knowledge. Occasionally I wondered if it was even knowledge perhaps information or just data would describe what was being referred to as learning. Rovy F. Branon picked up on this in his blog article "Connectivism" Interesting, Not Sure It's a Learning Theory. George Siemens tried to defend his position in a subsequent blog: Learning - Actuated knowledge? I'm not sure that the defence is entirely satisfactory, but I'm not sure that the criticism is fully justified either. As you can see, I'm still in two minds myself. I remain a Constructivist at heart.

One of the my sticking points is, can an organisation learn? I think I'm coming around to this, but I'm still not 100% convinced. There has been another report recently that has dealt with the concept of institutional racism. If an organisation can be racist, it doesn't seem unreasonable that it can be said to learn. This is perhaps easier to understand if you take George’s definition of learning as "actionable knowledge". For example, you could say an organisation has learned that it is not appropriate to sack women who become pregnant if their policies, procedures and practices all work together to ensure that it doesn't happen, but that it hasn't learned if the policies and procedures are in place but pregnant women are effectively dismissed anyway. (Perhaps not a brilliant example, but it kind of makes sense to me.)

I also like the idea of the complexity of problems requiring a network of people with different skills to come together to solve it. The network of people can learn to solve the problem in a way (or a time frame) that couldn't be achieved by the individuals working alone. Is it fair to say that the network has learned? If you accept the definition of learning as "actionable knowledge" then perhaps… but I can't help but think it might be easier to assume that it is the individuals in the network who have learned to exploit each others learning in order to achieve a common goal.

If I am uncomfortable with aspects of his theory, why do I keep wrestling with it? Well, there are bits I really like. For example, I think we have not yet fully taken on how much technology has changed learning and teaching and especially how much it should change assessment. Our assessment models are still largely based on checking how much children can memorise and then regurgitate in a written exam. In an age of ubiquitous computing power, when vast stores of information can be accessed more or less when ever we want, is this a sensible assessment model? I suspect not! I often quote a survey I read about a few years ago. Unfortunately I don't remember much about this survey and so inevitably make up the statistics. If anyone out there can point me to the report I half remember I'd be very grateful. Essentially this survey asked business leaders, "How much of the information that you need to do your day-to-day job do you keep in your head and how much is stored elsewhere?" The reply was that (made up statistic warning... but I the basic point is right) about 80% was in their head and 20% was stored elsewhere. The same question was asked years later and the proportion had switched (again made up statistic warning...) and only 20% of what they needed day-to-day was in their head. I wonder what the proportion would be today?

I've gone on too long again. To conclude, I really like the phrase that George uses, "Know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where (the understanding of where to find knowledge needed)". I like that people are seriously considering how technology is impacting on learning and teaching. I like the way that Connectivism is taking a hard look at the social learning environment that networks, the Web, Wikis, blog, etc. help create. But is it learning? I still think Constructivism best describes it - it’s about what happens internally in the learner as they construct their own understanding. Is Connectivism then about supporting this learning process? About the scholarship that leads to learning? About the networks that encourage and enable this learning process? Or is it just learning? Is George right? I don’t know yet, but I'm continuing to wrestle with it.

What do you think? Can you think of examples where the learning is in the network rather than the individuals?

Monday, March 07, 2005

How to dismantle an Atomic Blog - Database or Word Processor?

Stephen said in a comment to Ah'm no weel...


On your technical stuff, as an outsider to your field, I understand how databases can be ubiquitous and hidden. But I don't understand how a blog and a database go together. Blogs and word-processors seem to have a certain commonalty. Can you expand?

OK. It depends how you look at it. From your point of view, you are creating words, laying them down in the right order, formatting them to communicate effectively... it looks to you like you're word processing - I can see that. However, take a step back and think about the object you have created once you have written your article. As I said, with a word processor you are normally creating something to be printed (or possibly emailed) like an essay, or a letter to your Auntie Flo. What happens to the object you create for your blog is quite different.

When you create your blog article, Blogger will stick it on your front page (and eventually archive it when it gets old enough). When the permalink is clicked it will be displayed on its own. If comments are added it may pop-up in its own window. Look at it in your Dashboard view and you can edit it. If an Atom/RSS feed is enabled, then the first few lines might be sent out to news aggregators... In other words, the same object is used in a number of different ways. It is clearly the same object, because you edit it once and every different view of it will be changed. How does Blogger do that? Clearly it would be daft for Blogger to create multiple versions of the same thing that all have to be separately maintained and kept up to date. It would be much better to have a single object that is poured into the appropriate template as required (...and if you change the template, the look of your blog changes, but the content of your blog entry doesn't).

So, it is obvious to me that every Blogger entry must be a uniquely identifiable object held somewhere in the Blogger system. As well as the uniquely object, there must be other data associated with it. For example who created it, when it was created, when last updated, who is allowed to edit it, what blog is associated with it, what comments are associated with it... etc. A uniquely identifiable entity, structured collection of like information... Sounds like a database record to me.

Now I don't know exactly how Blogger does things, but if there isn't a database at its heart then I'm as daft as my dog Archie. (...And that's very daft!) If anyone with a more technical understanding of Blogger and blogs more generally can shed further light on this topic, feel free to join in.

I may have a go at a another blog post on databases... but does the above help in any way?

Two experts divided by a common language

I was going to blog about something else but then Bloglines through up these two posts more or less side by side. First I read a BBC News report about Chris Woodhead's comments on Conservative education policy. I then read David Warlick's post on the Three Rs of High School.

After reading both, I wondered what it would be like if these two got in the same room? They'd use the same words, like "rigour" and "literacy", but I'm not sure there would be much in the way of mutual comprehension.

...Or is that just me being cynical?

Friday, March 04, 2005

Ah'm no weel! ...and thoughts about databases.

A translation of the title is probably in order. My sister, who now lives in London but has retained her Scottish accent, has had to learn to say, "I'm proper poorly", to convey the same thing as the title. Someone I know would say, "I'm lying in a bed of sickness" - a personal favourite of mine! Suffice to say I feel rotten, my throat is incredibly sore and it has taken extreme concentration to remain upright over the last few days.

My original plan was to aim for at least two blog updates a week... failed already.
Sad face
I wanted to develop something I cut from my last post because I thought I'd gone on too long. I was talking about search engines like Google and Teoma as well as sites like Amazon and which make recommendations based on people with similar tastes as well as technologies like, furl and RSS feeds. Now comes the the question. What computer application links all of these? The database.

I often complain to students that spreadsheets are the ignored computer application (people think they're just for financial hard sums but they are incredibly powerful problem solving tools) but databases are the hidden application. All of the above, search engines, recommendation sites, shared bookmarks, and more, are all driven by databases. Databases are everywhere but people can't see them. For instance, I have observed a few students teaching Commercial Data Processing lessons recently and, without exception, pupils think product barcodes contain the price of the item rather than simply a unique identification code that is used to look up a database. (I suspect this misunderstanding is not limited to school children.)

If databases are so ubiquitous, should we teach children more about how they work? The number one application taught in schools is probably word processing. Is this is because education is still geared towards consuming and producing printed information? Does education have to change in a world of ubiquitous Internet access? Would teaching about databases help pupils make more effective use of search engines and tools like blogs?

Ditch the word processor and max out on the database. Worth trying? Waste of time? Tinkering at the edges? Does George Seimens propose something even more radical with his ideas on connectivisim? What do you think?