Welcoming 2011

This new year sees a number of changes in Beyond Distance, the most significant being the departure of Gilly to take up her new post as Professor of Learning Futures and Executive Director of the Australian Digital Futures Institute at University of Southern Queensland.

(As an aside, Gilly is now living in flood-hit Towoomba, but has reported in safely, as has her new team.)

While we are sorry to see Gilly go, one silver lining to this particular cloud is the collaboration now underway between our two  institutions on the Learning Futures Festival Online 2011, Follow the Sun. With its non-stop, 48-hour, global format, I’m certain this conference will further cement the institutions’ reputations as technology innovators.

Beyond Distance also continues its main work of researching new technologies and pedagogies. Just yesterday, a research pilot project called PELICANS was placed in the Breeding Area of the Media Zoo, and existing projects CALF, SPIDERSWIFTOSTRICH and TIGER progress well.

The Media Zoo continues to disseminate colleagues’ research and, importantly for University of Leicester colleagues, offer hands-on technical advice. The Friday Workshop, a new series of learning technology workshops held every Friday morning 10-12, has just been launched.

Our own Media Zoo will also be collaborating more with the Graduate School Media Zoo (based in the library on the main campus). With its focus on postgraduate students, the GSMZ offers us a chance to bring academics and PhD students together in a single environment  to learn as much from each other as from the Zookeepers.

I’m always amazed by the achievements and knowledge of my colleagues, so I remain certain that 2011 will see everyone build upon Gilly’s hard work to keep Beyond Distance at the forefront of e-learning research in higher education.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Creating Academic Learning Futures: Alternative approaches

At Beyond Distance Research Alliance, creating academic learning futures is firmly grounded in the CALF project, which is making good progress, Sandra Romenska tells me, since her report on the medical students taking a course about the future of medical education – see Congratulations to the September 2010 Futurists. She’s been running more workshops this week during which people help by generating their own ideas about the future of universities while examining the university’s own Learning and Teaching Strategy.

I’ve just heard about a new search engine called Recorded Future, that claims to predict coming events by monitoring ‘buzz’ on the Internet. It has financial backing from Google and the CIA (!). Recorded Future tracks information published online to establish links between people, companies, places and events and put it on a time-scale. It uses everything from news articles to Twitter updates and employs linguistic analysis for its predictions.

So far the company, based in Boston, USA, has a few corporate clients who pay monthly subscriptions to use the tool. A consumer version may follow. Christopher Ahlberg, Recorded Future’s founder, claims: “We found that our momentum metric that indicates the strength of activity around an event or entity predicts future events that correlate with the volume of market activity”.

I asked Sandra what she thought of Recorded Future, which she hadn’t yet come across, and she replied (what a fascinating reply) as follows:

For Recorded Future’s approach to work, they need to have events for which web chatter already exists, so that they can “trend” it. That is, someone (like CALF) has already come up with the vision for what might be possible and Recorded Future will estimate whether it is also probable. It is definitely useful and very interesting, but it is missing the exciting first step in futures work – to imagine things or events which are not in existence yet.

To illustrate it, I’d paraphrase a favourite quote of mine from Donald Norman at Northwestern University that futurists shouldn’t only predict the automobile but also the traffic jam – without projects like CALF enabling people to imagine the automobile, Recorded Futures cannot predict the likelihood of traffic jams.

CALF’s approach is inclusive, in that academics, university managers and administrators and students work together to imagine a future. I would think that Recorded Future captures a rather narrower range of sources since younger people are probably more active on the web than those in full time jobs or those who don’t use technology that much.

Recorded Future’s approach  (wisdom of the crowd) works because it meets Surowiecki’s rules of a wise crowd: Diversity of opinion (yes), Independence (some opinions may be determined by others, but not everyone follows everyone else), Decentralization (yes) and Aggregation (available).

To sum up, when CALF has finished imagining a range of futures, we would be happy to see what Recorded Future can say about the likelihood of our ideas becoming reality.

What chance that Recorded Future could predict the future of British universities? Personally, I’d rather put my money on Sandra Romenska and CALF – and on Gilly Salmon in her new post, as from January, as Professor of Learning Futures at the University of Southern Queensland!

David Hawkridge

PS: Sandra says that good resources on using social media for future predictions can be found from the Hewlett-Packard research labs here  and explained here.

Is the Pad a Fad?

The only Apple device I own and use (reluctantly) is a very old iPod. When my mobile phone contract expired last month, I spent a whole weekend researching alternatives to the ubiquitous to the iPhone, so popular in Beyond Distance. My post today, therefore, is not meant to add another voice to the chorus of adoration for Steve Jobs’ toys. Rather, it is about the technological promise for learning which his latest device, the oh-so-discussed iPad brought. The Economist dubbed it the Tablet of Hope, Twitter is teeming with jokes about its name. In the midst of it all I came across two accounts which felt like glimpses into a fortune teller’s crystal ball – the future….:

Here they are, two generations firmly outside the scope of formal learning, discovering new information, using it in novel ways, creating and communicating, in one word – learning. And learning intuitively, seamlessly and enthusiastically. Now when the learning technology for learning technophobes seems to have arrived, we need to create and adapt pedagogical frameworks which will make its use meaningful and efficient. As to what exactly the windows for learning opened up by the iPad might be, my guess is to do with tactile learning. After the revival of voice, brought in by podcasting, learning by touch may be another of the very primal and early ways in which human beings learn to be rediscovered as a learning technology. Tactile learning will be more object oriented, with smaller elements, with a closer blend of content and collaboration and increased use of video stories and images. The two and a half year-old and the ninety-nine year-old from the videos above are happy enough to learn using a tablet. When enough research evidence accumulates, perhaps academics will be happy to teach using a tablet. Only the future will tell…

Sandra Romenska, 04 May 2010

Latest: the future of learning’s coming along (CALF)

BDRA’s Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) project, in collaboration with the University of Falmouth, is looking at the future of learning. If you’d like to know more, there’s a blog for the project, videos and a wiki.

Last December Sandra Romenska blogged about CALF at Online Educa in Berlin. She mentioned Lord Puttnam (Chancellor of the Open University), one of those behind an initiative to change how we think about education. There’s a We Are the People Weve Been Waiting For website. There’s also a 77-minute documentary. I watched it recently: it’s thought provoking but has too many of the great and good, as well as five children who speak up well about what they haven’t had.

For contrast, you may like to look at George Siemens’ 9-minute video, asking is it possible to de-school society? Across the water, Stephen Downes says that according to the New York Times, “an American kid drops out of high school at an average rate of one every 26 seconds. In some large urban districts, only half of the students ever graduate. Of the kids who manage to get through high school, only about a third are ready to move on to a four-year college.”

Efforts to use IT to upgrade education still fail catastrophically sometimes: in South Korea the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology thought it saw the future and spent about US$250 million to install 65-inch electronic blackboards in 256 middle and high school classrooms across the country, only to find they are little used. For 2010, Lev Gonick considers IT in Higher Education.

Maybe Harvard has a better idea for influencing the future of learning. Stephen Downes notes that to create a new generation of educational leaders, Harvard is launching a three year, tuition-free doctorate which will include a final year field placement. It will initially offer places on the Ed.L.D to just 25 candidates.

Have a look  at the Educause Magazine for January-February Innovation: Rethinking the Future of Higher Education.

The best news is that BDRA is aiming to launch an MSc in Innovative Education and Training (Learning Futures). More details soon.

David Hawkridge

Virtually Futuristic – Attention, Spoilers Ahead…

In line with IMDB’s message board etiquette  I need to warn you that you may find spoilers in the remainder of this post – “remarks or pieces of information which reveal important plot elements, thus ‘spoiling’ a surprise and robbing the viewer of the suspense and enjoyment.” The Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) project here at Beyond Distance Research Alliance is all about spoilers. It is attempting to get a glimpse of possible futures of learning and teaching, and “to reveal important elements of the plot” for higher education with the help of students.

All scenarios that students participating in the project have created so far envisage some form of teaching and learning in virtual worlds in the future. Even students, who did not know of Second Life prior to their participation in CALF, believed that in the future people will learn in “worlds in the computer” as one student put it, as much as they do today in the physical world. Is this shared anticipation a spoiler, a signal of a very possible future? I consider it to be.

Recently there has been a wave of big budget Hollywood films about virtual worlds. There was the premiere of the trailer for James Cameron’s Avatar (it will be the most expensive film ever made, apparently) and this week in theatres on is Surrogates with Bruce Willis. Both films are set in futures where humans live their lives through representations of themselves.  Could these movies be the “spoilers” of possible futures?

 If they are, it will not be the first time that something predicted in a sci-fi movie has come true. In Johnny Mnemonic  humans could have their memories removed to free up space within their brains or so that data can be locked in the brain with codes to protect it and only last week the CNN posted a story about a researcher at Microsoft who is converting his brain into e-memory. In Surrogates people live confined in their rooms while controlling through the nerves of their eyes their robot representations in the outside world – recently it was reported that MIT has developed technology that can help blind people see again by projecting visual input directly onto the brain.

 Perhaps the question then is not “If” there will be teaching and learning in virtual worlds, but instead “What if” there is, how will the world change? In getting me to think about this “ripple” effect of new technologies, I found the Surrogates movie to be well worth the £5.50 I paid for my ticket and I recommend it to anyone who is working on virtual worlds. In the future of Surrogates mortality of contactable diseases had dropped with 90% – because people were not in contact with each other anymore. So had mortality of accidents and crime – everyone was safe in their fortified homes. Birth rates had also fallen for obvious reasons and that had solved the overpopulation problem which would have otherwise loomed because of the increased longevity. The movie focused a great deal on the issues to do with identity and identity theft and while these diversions into causes, consequences and possibilities may have diluted the plot, they made for a very inspiring experience from a futurist perspective.

 In the CALF project, analogy has proven a powerful tool for idea generation for “spoilers” for the possible futures ahead. Encouraging students to seek analogies with things they are familiar with, including science fiction movies, in order to generate and ground ideas about possible futures, has yielded scenarios that are structured and easier and quicker to communicate.

I guess what I am trying to say is – It is Friday today, treat yourself to a movie. And do put a comment here if what you see inspires you to think of a possible future…

Sandra Romenska

Beyond Distance Research Alliance, 2 October 2009

Performance artists feel the fear (of technology) and do it anyway

A dedicated group of choreography and dance students at University College Falmouth in Dartington gave thought-provoking performances illustrating their take on technology and learning futures earlier this week, as part of the CALF project. It was a pleasure to watch them in action, and to join in the discussion afterwards.

The world of performance arts does not, at first sight, appear to have much to do with the world of technology. The dancers confirmed that they were ‘wary of technology’ and ‘scared of technology taking over’. These themes were palpable in the dance by Jessie and Ruth, who literally wrestled with heavy typewriters and film projectors, and led their curious audience down a beautiful grassy pathway through a row of magnificent Dartington Estate trees, to end their dance surrounded by nature. They commented that technology was like a ‘third collaborator’ in their dance, and they felt they had to play by its ‘rules’, such as not using the projector outside.

Kuldip, on the other hand, did a one-man performance in which he interacted with an electronic image of himself that responded to his movements, with the help of a sensor. His jerky, mechanistic dance actions illustrated ‘bodily malfunction’, perhaps prompted by his interactions with the software.

Both performances appeared to reflect rather darkly on the dancers’ views of technology; however, the discussion between performers and their audience afterwards showed a much more optimistic spirit. There was a realisation that as performance artists, the group as a whole did not know enough about emerging technologies to know what was possible, and that a space for playing with technology was needed, as was dialogue with ‘techie’ people.

The conversation was littered with weird words like ‘haptic’ and ‘somatic’, as well as frequent references to plain old ‘bodies’, with lashings of ‘feelings’ and ‘art’, and healthy doses of ‘interaction’ and ‘conversation’. The mood lightened every time someone saw a little window of opportunity for technology of any kind to enhance these valued qualities. I suspect they were speaking for all of us, not just for performance artists.

By Gabi Witthaus

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