Steve Jobs: Star of Informal Learning

The sad news today of the passing of Steve Jobs brings a deserved flurry of tributes and perspectives on his work. This morning, close to one-fifth of all Twitter comments had to do with Steve Jobs. American president Obama described Jobs as being “among the greatest of American innovators.” Besides the immense consumer appeal of the  iPad, iPod, and iPhone, there is the multi-faceted impact of Mac computers, and Jobs’ reinvention of film animation at Pixar. I would like to relate a personal story of how Jobs’ innovation both affected an industry and reveals the power of informal learning.

Steve Jobs in an early Stanford computer lab of Macs. Courtesy of The Seb on Flickr

When I studied computer programming in the 1980s, I worked on an IBM 360/370 with terminals. After graduation, I took a job with a printing company in Chicago and tried my hand at typesetting. My father was a printer; he used to set type the ancient way, with little pieces of metal held together in a mold. At my company, we used a new-fangled method called phototypesetting, a combination of computer tech and photography. I typed commands (which were strangely similar to html) at a terminal, pressed a few buttons, and out came the imprinted photographic paper dripping with fixing fluid, ready to be hung up to dry.

My husband was also from a family of printers. Once on a visit to their company, my mother-in-law showed me this little computer called a Macintosh. She demonstrated how she could set type in a wysiwyg environment, using both a keyboard and a mouse (which I could not get my head around). When I saw how simply I could select fonts and sizes and see the piece laid out on the screen, I had a feeling that everything was about to change. Indeed, the desktop publishing revolution was right around the corner, and everything did change.

The Mac was the first computer to pay any attention to typefaces. If you watch Jobs unveil the Mac in 1984 (worth a watch for many reasons), you can see how important he felt it was to get typefaces right. Jobs learned about typefaces in a college calligraphy class, which he attended after he dropped out of college. Without a degree yet with academic instinct, Jobs applied what he learnt and made it integral to the Macintosh. He famously insisted on quality design and beauty at every hidden level of all of Apple’s innovations.

First Macintosh showing off typefaces - from the demo video on YouTube

My current SCORE project about iTunes U as a channel of free learning resources ( has let me appreciate this public platform given to universities and educational institutions. It’s not all philanthropy; of course iTunes U shows off how nice multimedia looks on the various i-gadgets. And yet, my research into how iTunes U materials are used by ordinary folks has revealed their importance as informal learning resources. It’s almost as if Steve Jobs brought his academic experience full-circle, allowing lots of people to ‘audit classes’ even if they are dropouts or never accessed higher education.

Thanks, Steve, for a lifetime of innovation and inspiration.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and SCORE Fellow

Please can we stop e-learning…

I tried a little experiment as I walked back from the Beyond Distance Research Alliance to the Department of Engineering the other day.  You could try it for yourself.

Walk around the university campus – or shopping centre – or another public place and count the number of people using mobile devices. Estimate the proportion of people using mobile devices – iPods, phones, whatever. Of the 48 people I counted, 20 were using mobile devices (most of them phones) – so about 40%.

Now try the same experiment at home. My wife, my son and I were sitting down supposedly watching television last night.  However, my wife was playing scrabble on her iPod with my son on his iPhone (in between both text messaging.)  I was emailing and generally browsing on my laptop.  So that’s more than 100%. And of course we were interacting in the real world too (if you count Eastenders as the real world …)

Slightly changing the subject – I’ve just acquired an iPhone – having had more conventional PDAs for as long as I can remember – certainly 20 years.  Of course it’s not a phone really.  Indeed, I’m not really sure how to make phone calls on it but I’m sure it’s quite easy if ever the need arises.  I use it for emails, social networking, running apps to tell me the tides in Teddington, entertaining my granddaughter …

I “attended” the Follow the Sun conference just before Easter.  I say “attended” as I was attending another conference in Canterbury at the time.  But I joined in and found myself talking to my laptop in a crowded junior common room – utilising the free WiFi there.  Ten years ago, people would have stopped and stared.  I don’t think anyone batted an eye lid – there’s nothing more usual than talking to your computer.

So can we really talk about the “virtual worlds” – about “online learning” – as if they’re something different to reality?  This is the world in which we live.  One which is densely interconnected. One in which the physical world that you observe is just one of several windows on the real world that you interact with.

So I hope we can stop talking about e-learning soon.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy talking about it – and I like writing about it and being a part of BDRA.  But I hope that we’ll just take it for granted that this is normal – why would we want to teach and learn in any other way?

Professor John Fothergill

Head of Engineering, University of Leicester

European Apple Leadership Summit – Part 1

On 11 January 2011 I attended the European Apple Leadership Summit at the Mayfair Hotel in London. This was a by-invitation-only event; my invitation was based on a few things, one of which is my work on the SPIDER project, looking at iTunes U as a distribution channel of open educational resources (OER). This meeting was Apple’s chance to make the case to those in leadership in European higher education that Apple software and hardware should play a role in educational technology. They mostly let case studies do the talking.

A Paperless Conference

This meeting was a one-day conference — keynote, invited speakers, and individual workshops. Apple did not hand out any papers nor post any charts in the lobby listing where each workshop would take place and who was signed up where. Rather, they gave all attendants an iPad for the day. I actually received an iPad for Christmas, and said to the nice Apple lady, “I have my own.” She said, “You’ll want ours, because it’s pre-loaded with conference stuff.” Indeed it was. There was a custom-made app for the conference, showing the Twitter stream, a little movie welcoming me to the event, bios of all the speakers, agenda for the day, list of delegates’ institutions, and an interactive survey to be filled in at the end. Because I signed into the app, with the same email address by which I registered for the conference, it knew who I was and which workshop(s) I signed up for, so it gave me a pop-up window telling me I had 10 minutes to get to my next session and displayed a little map showing me which room to go to. It did not work perfectly, but it was pretty close, and therefore pretty impressive. Of course I used the iPad throughout the conference especially to tweet. It was also a good chance to check out some of the new apps created by featured educators and speakers; while speakers were describing how they made these apps, I could check them out on my iPad. A couple of negatives about giving me an iPad: I had planned to take notes on my own iPad. If the Evernote app had been installed on the iPad they gave me, I would have been sorted; as it was, I quickly decided to take notes by liberal tweeting and a few paper scribbles. Another negative was that I would have liked a list of other delegates’ emails, or at least the emails of the speakers. But I handed in the iPad at the end of the day and had no list of delegates; of course I made contacts on my own, but it’s nice to have a list of delegates’ emails given to you. If this had been a proper academic conference, I would have thought the app should be tweaked to send a delegates’ list if desired.



'Globe' iPad app. Photo by kenco on Flickr.


News from Pearson Publishers

A very senior person from Pearson described how they are producing their textbooks in format suitable for all e-book reader devices: Kindle, epub for most e-readers, and media-rich epub for the iPad. She identified the iPad as the best vehicle for textbooks, because one can have colour photos and embedded movies and sound. The Open University, for example, has produced many free e-books (available on their iTunes U site) with embedded audio and (I believe) embedded video as well. The question I have here is: yes, iBooks displays multimedia-rich e-books beautifully. iBooks is Apple-only. Will there be an iBooks-type software for Windows computers and for nonApple handheld devices– how long will it take for something like this to appear?

There is more to report from this event. I shall write more in a future blog post.

Terese Bird

Learning Technologist and Assistant Keeper of the Media Zoo

E-Books: Permeating and Complementing

Beyond Distance first began to research the use of e-book readers in higher education back in 2008 at the beginning of the DUCKLING project. From our research, distance students overwhelmingly reported that accessing course materials on the e-reader was a very flexible, convenient study method which helped them target the most relevant readings, well suiting their busy, on-the-go lifestyles. Yet, especially in the earlier stages of the project, I wondered about the long-term viability of e-books and e-book readers. E-book reader prices were not terribly far off from the price of netbooks, and publishers did not seem to be in a rush to make books available as e-books.

Photo courtesy of ceslava on Flickr

Today, especially since the UK launch of the iPad in May and Amazon dropping the price of the Kindle in June, the scene looks very different. But it isn’t just the low price of the Kindle or the cool tech of the iPad. It’s the fact that huge players like Apple and Amazon are managing to persuade publishers to make books, even textbooks, available as e-books. It’s also the fact that Amazon wisely made its Kindle App (the programme which nicely displays the e-book) freely available for iPad, iPhone, Android, and both Mac and Windows computers (and it seems to be do-able in Linux as well).

So now, students can take their reading list, check titles on a growing list of online e-book vendor websites including those of W H Smith and Waterstones, and download the e-book right now and likely for a lower price than the paper version. If they are lucky enough to have a reading list filled with the old classics such as Plato’s Republic or Huckleberry Finn, the e-books are free. Some good sites for free e-books are Project Gutenberg,, and, and most of the e-book sales sites also feature free e-books.

E-books won’t be pushing paper books out of the picture anytime soon. However, with their mobility, convenience, instantaneous delivery, and (usually) lower prices, they have managed to permeate the marketplace and complement the use of traditional books. They are here to stay, and their presence and use will only grow.

Terese Bird

Learning Technologist and Assistant Keeper of the Media Zoo

An Initial Reaction to the iPad

Steve Jobs’ 27 January unveiling of the Apple iPad has drawn reactions running the gamut from adoration to ridicule.  Most comments in the latter category take aim at the device’s name. Other negative opinions focus on the iPad’s inability to multitask, lack of a camera, or the fact that it isn’t more like a netbook.

I for one agree with Jobs’ quip in his keynote: “The problem is, netbooks aren’t better at anything.” He goes on to show how the iPad is designed to do chosen tasks better — the chosen tasks being email, displaying photos, watching videos, playing music, browsing the web, playing games, and, yes, reading e-books. In addition, one can create Keynote presentations, spreadsheets, and word-processed documents using iPad versions of these apps, features which look quite impressive and set the iPad notably ahead of both the iPhone and arguably netbooks.

Those who have test-run the iPad testify to its clever usability and speed, courtesy of the new custom-silicon A4 chip. The iPad’s price tag is very reasonable, and its 3G data plan with AT&T is surprisingly low-priced and flexible, with no contract to sign. This alone well positions the iPad for all kinds of users — businesspeople, artists, students, academics, everyone. And since, in many parts of the developing world, 3G is the most common method of internet access, the iPad is in this respect well-positioned for new inroads into international markets.

For me, the most interesting, even revolutionary, news about the iPad was not only that e-books would now be available for purchase through Apple just as music and films have been, but also that Apple has been negotiating with textbook publishers to this end. In the UK we have had Sony e-readers and Waterstones, while the e-books scene in the States has been dominated by the Kindle and Amazon, but neither Waterstones nor Amazon has been offering very much in the way of textbooks for e-readers. We at Beyond Distance have been evaluating the use of e-readers by masters-level distance students as part of our DUCKLING project. As a part of this project, publishers Routledge made a special deal to allow us to include their textbook on the e-readers supplied to students, and we will be sharing with Routledge the results of our research. Now that Apple has taken the major step of promising textbooks on iPads, we should begin to see textbook publishers not only provide their materials for e-readers but hopefully benefit from Apple’s consistent “cool factor” with students.

Vive la revolution!

Terese Bird

Perils of the puppet-master’s strings

Several of us rocked up in Bath last weekend to celebrate a special birthday of a very special person. Better bloggers than me will soon post more eloquent prose in praise of the party we had. Suffice to say, an absolutely wonderful time was had by all!

It is to share some experiences – which I had with state-of-the-art mobile technology and the perils it presents, while getting to and attending the party – that I put fingertip to keyboard today.

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague at Beyond Distance had written passionately about the disturbing attachment that some of us were developing to iPhones and its utilities.

I too have owned and used this phone for about four months, but it was in the last 24 hours that I realised just how much I was in its thrall.

It started with a phone call to say that the colleagues giving me a lift to Bath were nearing my residence. On meeting up, we had a quick meal of Cornish pasties near where I live, during which my phone was borrowed to enable the look-up of the origins of the Cornish pasty on the ‘Wikipanion’ application (app) on the phone.

We were enlightened with the knowledge that pasties were originally made as nourishing food for Cornish miners, and that currently there was a campaign underway to give this delightful regional fare the same ‘specialist rights’ enjoyed by the Melton Mowbray pork pie, Stilton cheese and Champagne.

Throughout the journey to Bath, we used the ‘Map’ function on the iPhone to track our progress (though the readings show in kilometres, the ‘Conversion’ app quickly assured us that it was 1.6 km to the mile). The ‘My football’ app helped me track the Premiership football scores throughout the drive and we managed to locate the pub we were supposed to rendezvous at, thanks to the ‘Urban Spoon’ app.

At the pub, while devouring some delectable items from the menu, two of our party played songs off the MP3-player on our phones, making another fellow diner wonder aloud as to how usual musical offerings of the pub had improved so drastically. On realising that we were playing the music saved on our phones, she too decided to play a few numbers from her’s and the right ‘notes’ were instantly struck with a complete stranger. Though striking-up a conversation at a pub does not exactly qualify as online social networking, that fact that it was enabled by mobile technologies was undeniable.

This begged a question from a contrarian colleague to the effect that ‘What can the iPhone do that my Nokia can’t?’ The debate was an absolute non-starter, as some incredibly clever apps were promptly demonstrated by iPhone-brethren and the contrarian appeared convinced.

One of our designated drivers had incidentally forgotten to print out the instructions so kindly provided by our hosts. Though, thankfully, he remembered an email with the instructions attached sitting in his inbox. This was quickly retrieved using the-you-know-what and once the post code of our final destination was known, the ‘Map’ function kicked-in once more to land us within metres of where we were staying the night.

At the party itself, we lustily but tunelessly belted out a parody of an Abba hit, in praise of the special person whose birthday we were celebrating. Later my curiosity led me to check out how badly/cleverly the original lyrics had been parodied, using the ‘Safari’ (browser) function.

Very… very late into the night, in a moment of sudden and absolute panic, it hit me that I was missing my iPhone. A call to my number was made and seconds later, to general mirth, it was established that I had kept it ‘safely’ in the inside pocket of the jacket, draped over the back of my chair… Whew!

It was possibly a combination of the momentary horror of the imagined loss and the effect of the inebriating liquids then coursing through my digestive system, the realisation suddenly struck home.

The sheer versatility of the iPhone and what the apps on it allowed me to do – just in the course of this one 24-hour trip – made mere usefulness assume levels akin to addiction and dependency.

In this technologically deterministic age, what had started as a desire to make connectivity easier had become something without which I felt lost.

Had I – for 600 minutes talk-time, 500 free texts, unlimited data and WiFi – sold my soul, for 18 months for £35 a month?

I felt totally and absolutely lost, despite being – like the proverbial puppet – tethered to end of imperceptible strings held by an invisible puppet-master, who seemed to know that I was getting more and more entangled.

And the puppet-master knew that I knew.

And also knew that I could do little about it.

-Jaideep Mukherjee (15 March 2009)


Those who have ventured onto the 18th floor of the Attenborough Tower in the last couple of months will have noticed a recent outbreak of iPhone-itous. Like many of its medical cousins iPhone-itous is also a highly infectious and addictive disease which can cost you lots of money in the short-term and most likely your friends in the near future! But who cares when you have the super-hyper-mega-fast-wicked-cool world of the web at your fingertips?!?


After much consideration, which did involve testing other such smartphones, I was infected by the iPhone bug for some of the following reasons:

  • I can use it is a mobile-phone (obvious to some but not to all);
  • I can access my emails & calendar 24/7 without needing to get the laptop out;
  • I can search the Internet (albeit needing to constantly adjust my screen);
  • I can entertain myself and others around me with useful and fun applications;
  • I can spend a copious number of hours sat at a computer updating all my music albums to play through the iPod functionality (not figured out how to update my old skool rave cassettes yet)!

I guess being a learning technologist I wanted to look cool with the latest ‘must-have’ gadget but maybe all it has done is make me look geekier… I used to take the micky out of Apple users for being uber-geeky whilst I retained my mainstream credibility! Don’t laugh! However, when I updated my Facebook status telling the world that “an iPhone was for life not just for Christmas” these poor suffering uber-geek people enacted their revenge – I was hoping they would embrace me as one of their own..!

There has been much debate (and banter) about iPhone-itous in the department; its addictive nature, and the risk of squinting eyes, work-overload and numerous other potentially dangerous symptoms.



Nevertheless, I warn you now, once you have experienced a smart-phone you will instantly see its personal appeal to you. You will purchase one, if not soon then in the future. Oh, and it might reverse the previously feared ‘Gaming Thumb’ syndrome because you will need to have delicate and soft fingers to operate the iPhone successfully!



Matthew Wheeler



Ps. I wrote this from my iPhone whilst watching TV, talking with my family and stroking my dog – multi-tasking is another side-effect!

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