Monthly Archives: February 2009

LIFE for design solutions

By chance, I stumbled across an interesting paper produced by people from the University of Roma Tor Vergata. They are working on a project called LIFE and developed an interesting technological implementation of the Show&Tell methodology for problem-project-process based learning (P3BL) in the area of (any) design.

A previously published article is available here, which covers a preliminary description in English of the method, their teaching practice and the Virtual Show&Tell tool. It’s worth noting that their work is open source, it would be worth while investigating whether it can be integrated with other platforms and VLEs.

After substantial further investigation into the LIFE project, I came across this link to their site. This was not easy to find. Type “life” into Google and you can imagine what the results are. Additionally, the project site is, as you would expect, in Italian.

What I like about their work is the collaborative nature of the learning process for design. The tool provides (some) automatisation for it. The first step is conceptualising the object of design (could be a place, product, a course or anything else), then it is contextualised in a problem space in 2D (e.g. functional – emotional, social – personal, or any other choice). The tool allows you to set the parameters and variables, synthesise multi-user perspectives and plot them onto a graph. The activity can be led/guided by some moderator or tutor. The output is a simple visualisation that draws the peculiarities of the design space onto a graph for further problem solving.

The authors (team around Carlo Giovannella) are quite modest about their approach and product, but I believe this to have enormous potential not only in a learning context, as a tool used in a VLE to support brainstorming sessions and conceptualisation, but also for industrial use in innovative product design and problem-based/solution-oriented activities.


We need a new Internet – part deux

At the same time as our lives become more and more digitally dependent, trust-based Internet is failing. I have long expected a new approach to the Internet emerging, but it has not taken shape yet. What I am talking about is the “Personal Web” (- don’t want to call it Web3.0!). Instead of the lawless state of cyberspace where everyone is and does what they like – and mind, this is NOT only a good thing -, we might see an “Authenticated Web” rise out of the ashes of Web2.0.

So far, we have given unique identifiers (URIs) to resources and webspaces (URLs), it would be only logical to apply this to people in the same way as we do in real life (birth certificates, passports, registers, citizenship, etc. etc.). These UPIs (for ‘Unique Person Identifiers‘) could be reusable in many contexts, such as personal records (e-portfolios), but also in setting up services and businesses online. Instead of visiting a Website we would visit a person In analogy to real life, businesses and organisations would become legal persons in such an environment.

As an enthusiast of the social revolution on the Web, I would find this kind of authenticated cyber citizenship of course highly undesirable, but we might see governments soon being forced to take such actions to protect people from fraud and exploit.

We need a new Internet!

Evidence that the Web is becoming a bad place is snowballing. The NY Times calls it the “bad neighbourhood of cyberspace” and asks for a new beginning. It is not, as you would immediately suspect, cyber criminals who’re after your digital identity or credit card numbers that pose the greatest danger.

The biggest threat to present day Webbing are the data giants, Google et al. Privacy concerns are dramatically on the rise with Facebook’s new Terms of Service that allow them to hold and use your content forever*. I have recently moaned about Skype not letting you delete your account and keeping your addressbook locked in their servers. And then there is Google with its dodgy book settlement, Latitude and other ‘services’ of obscure nature. Cloud computing becomes a farce under these circumstances, where the user has no guarantee to have reliable access to their own data, whereas the companies that are entrusted with this content do have all rights! In this environment, sharing of your photos, music taste, experiences, and location spells danger.

Many users tend to turn a blind eye to the problem by feeling they’ve got nothing to hide and nothing to lose. This attitude, while making many social sites a success story, also means depriving originators of content and private data and information to be controlled by third parties.

* I hear that Facebook reviewed their situation and reinstated the old terms for now, due to user uproar.

Growing into the net generation

Being a parent of two teenage sons is a challenge in itself, but today this includes providing advice and guidance for safety in cyberspace. In many a conference it had been stressed how we, the educators, need to help students to learn safely online and how to make them recognise the dangers and pitfalls of the Web and how to judge the value of the information and communication received.

This always sounded too pretentious to me, for I myself, despite all the Web experience I have, felt in no position to claim invulnerability in terms of Web safety. At the same time, I enjoy what I get on the Web and would like my children to have a positive attitude towards technology. Spreading fear therefore is not a preferred option for teaching them cyber behaviour.

Evaluating online children sites is daunting, and all the more I am delighted to receive some help, that avoids myself dressing up as a toddler and lurking in the virtual playground to see what’s going on, in order to take a decision on what advice to give my kids. One of the very positive examples my younger one discovered recently was Club Penguin:

Club Penguin parent guide

Club Penguin parent guide

I think this is the right approach! It allows you to see what your child is doing online without being too obtrusive or without using their account. We want to see more responsible offers like this.

Recommenders for education

ReadWriteWeb identified four main approaches to recommendations: (1) Personalized recommendation – recommend things based on the individual’s past behavior; (2) Social recommendation – recommend things based on the past behavior of similar users; (3) Item recommendation – recommend things based on the item itself; (4) A combination of the three approaches above.

I wonder whether this is a purely commercial approach like in Amazon, or whether this categorisation can also be applied in learning and education. Systems recommending learning resources and peers for support are high on the wishlist for distributed learning networks, and work is currently happening here at the Open University of the Netherlands to develop such recommender systems based among other things on Latent Semantic Analysis and Natural Language Processing in combination with competence profiles of students to increase relevancy.

Item recommendation in traditional f2f teaching often happens top-down, via e.g. a reading list supplied by the lecturer. A recommender system here would have the democratising advantage that teachers and learners can benefit from the discovery of new qualified resources, and re-negotiate these resources.

Does the suggestion “people who studied this unit of learning also took that one” promiss wider take-up? Can this be a new business model for education to stimulate more studies? It could perhaps even replace current curricula structures (at least for optional modules) to support personalised learning paths?

One thing to consider, though, is that student advice to peers often happens on another level than rational study recommendations based on relevance. It’s the ‘funny’ lecturer and the ease of effort that offer the most attractive path, not the most educationally valid one. This can of course be reflected in social tagging of course offers, but what will happen to more challenging offers?

My first gut conclusions would be: (1) we need to make sure that this approach is widening access and outreach and goes beyond the already converted and eduphiles? (2) how much can people really be influenced by recommendations, i.e. what’s the business return on the effort (compare e.g. spam suggestions vs. real take-up).

Professional learning: standards versus diversity

As the discussion about competence definitions and professional standards in the acknowledgement of learning gathers pace internationally, we may want to take a closer look at the potential effects this might have on the learners and on innovation. The assumption is that educational standards and benchmarking of people’s competences can assure better acknowledgement and improve competence development in the areas of professional learning, APL, and personal development.

Standards are difficult to reach. They require consensus and general agreement on what something should look like or how it’s supposed to perform. Once this agreement has been found, technical standards make things easier. However, I have severe doubts when this principle is applied to humans. Humans do not perform in the same way and we don’t want them to, for good reasons. Some political regimes have tried this, but failed. Humans are not assembled according to a technical spec, like computers are.

One thing that I see wrong with applying standard competence definitions to people is that it squeezes people into boxes. Because of this, standards are the natural enemy of interdisciplinarity, and, because interdisciplinarity is the breeding ground for many new things, they are also the enemy of innovation and out-of-the-box thinking. In Higher Education this is nothing new. In fact most curricula in HE have been adjusted to suit interdisciplinarity as opposted to the rigid dogma of subject domains that ruled the past.

Standards for professional competences are likely to be as much debated as any imposed standard on humans, and at least as much as curricula. If they are not radically imposed through an untimely top-down power relationship I cannot see how general acceptance could be reached. After all, they only show a meager segment of a person – that segment that the profile covers. I have yet to be conviced that this does more than a job description.

My most treasured iPhone/iPod Touch apps

I only have an iPod Touch and currently waiting for the microphone to hit the high-street shops, which will enhance the powers of my device. So, at a later stage I will probably put fring and shazam among my top ten apps. In the meantime, these are the ones I find most useful in no particular order:

  • WifiTrak: Find open wireless LANs and autoconnect
  • TwitterFon: Twitter application
  • ShopShop: Shopping list
  • iProcrastinate: Task management
  • Measures: Converting tool between a world of measures and currencies
  • Instapaper: Read websites offline
  • BBCReader: News reader
  • Memory Stick: upload and view files from your computer
  • File Info: Traffic reports from the Netherlands and surrounding countries
  • WhiteNoise Lite: ambient sounds to sooth and relax you

As you can identify from this list, the apps typically relate to keeping me informed, productive and on the go.

PS: I do also have games on the device, but that’s another story…