Bureaucracy Reminiscent of School Punishments

Yes, been awhile since posting. Our Imaginality Unleashed product is close to completion, so I have been very busy testing in schools and preparing for public release closer to Christmas (I’ll keep you posted).

As part of this preparation, I needed to set up an international bank account in the USA, which has been quite an experience, and I can’t say a good one. I think I counted about 8 different form I had to fill in, and about 6 verified copies of ID etc.

What really struck me was the number of time I had to repeat myself – I’ve lost count of the number of times I had to write my name, address, phone etc – often more than once on the same form. It reminded me of those less fortunate times at school when you had to write the same sentence 100 time in the hopes you would somehow ‘memorise’ good behaviour. Not that I experienced that too often of course…

So it occurred to me that these school punishments were in fact training me to excel at bureaucracy. Well at least they were good for something.

I guess it just goes to show how good we have it in New Zealand – apparently we are one of the top developed countries for ease of setting up a company, and we also have among the most efficient banks on the world. Not that things are sloppy and backwards over here – I guess we just have the ability to read someones name once and not need reminding on page 3…

Discovery 1 Experimental School - Inspiration on my Doorstep

I recently had the good fortune to visit the Discovery 1 school in my home town, Christchurch, New Zealand. It is an experimental primary level school, which leads into an experimental secondary school called Unlimited. It really was an inspirational tour, as they have changed so many of the tried and true tennants of public education, but always for the better.

From 5 years old, the children learn about what they are interested in so the focus is on them being taught to discover their own knowledge. In addittion, they are also taught the associated skills that support this: choosing educatonal goals, planning how to acheive these goals (so essentially creating their own lesson plans), managing their time,  recognising ‘blind spots’ in their knowledge and resolving them, and at the end of the topic, creating an output that will fairly represent the knowledge they have gained (their equivalent of assessment). The essentials are still taught in more structured sessions, but the majority of time is self directed. The result is that they may now know as many facts, but that they can readily get up to speed on any given topic with no external assistance. I think this is such a valuable technique in the modern world, when your facts can be out of date in six months. Another huge benefit is that students stay modivated, because they are constantly doing what they enjoy, to the extent that while a lunch break is available, most students just stop long enough to eat their food, then get with back to ‘work’, which is probably more like focused ‘play’ to them.

Many things have been changed in interesting ways, often directly opposite to traditional techniques. The school is in the central city, on the third floor, above the central bus station – fitness is done in the town square and they have converted a balcony into a playground. Parents are not only allowed, but encouraged to come to school with the children for extended periods, and help them – they receive training in how to help, and many eventually start helping other students too. There are no distinct classrooms – it is like an open plan school, with different clusters of children. No students have their own desks – they all work on share larger desks, computer tables, beanbags or the floor – wherever they feel comfortable.

The teachers certinly have some interesting stories to tell – they have had over 4000 visitors tour through the school in the last 5 years it has been open, but sadly, they say they have had more visitors from Taiwan than they have from New Zealand’s ministry of education. Having said that the MOE does fund the school like any other (they get no special privilidges) and is interested in leaning from the initiative.
You can find a little more information at www.discovery1.school.nz.

Leading by Example... But What is the Example Again?

In my typical ‘blocking‘ style, I have been going through a few of the 21st Century Learning podcasts, and was I should comment again – this time on Episode 10: SLA, Education Bridges, Info Literacy.
I thought it was interesting that almost three times in this episode, the guys mentioned doing things that they had specifically told their students should not be done.

The first was travelling on a train to meet a guy he had ‘met’ on the internet. The second was peer pressure – “me pressuring you into doing this podcast”. In the third case, the presenter almost mentioned where he lives, but caught himself and instead mentioned the general area.

I’m not shocked and outraged or anything, I just think it is a funny/interesting situation. The guys were aware of it, and if anything, it stressed how easy it can be to do these things. One of them mentioned “adult social pressure is better than teenage social pressure though”, which I can understand – (some) adults understand the deeper implications and risks of what they are doing and manager those.

However, it does pose a problem for teaching younger people these things, especially if you prefer to ‘lead by example’. On the other hand, maybe it just shows that we can’t be simply teaching children by rote (to always do x and never do y), otherwise they may never find their lifelong partner on the internet (probbaly not the most solid example I’ve ever given, but never mind). I guess this leads into “don’t teach a child facts, teach them how to learn”, which was a very clear message from a tour I recently had, and will cover in the next blog entry (Discovery 1).

Great Tips on Getting Organised

I suspect episode 8 of 21st Century Learning (“Getting Things Done“) would be a very valuable listen to what would seem to be a large, and growing segment of the population – people with too much to do and too little time.

I won’t get into the details, but I thought that I would point it out – doing my part to help the ‘cream bubble to the top’ as I heard Stephen Downes say. It has an educational bend as it is a podcast for teachers, and I’m sure there is no shortage of teachers that are keen to get help with making the most of precious time.

A Great Listen: Clayton Christensen - Capturing the Upside

ITConversations.com has an amazing collection of IT related podcasts available, including many comprehensive sets from conferences.

One that really capured me lately was by Clayton Christensen, called “Capturing the Upside“. The link will take you to a good synopsis, but I thought I would also post a short summary of the points that were of value to me:

  • A very good description of what ‘disruptive technology’ is – probably the best I’ve heard.
  • Different types of disruption (e.g. new market v.s. cut-price disruption)
  • Why it is so hard for new companies to compete in existing markets
  • Why it can be so easy for new companies to work in new markets, and why encumbent companies will often run the other way
  • What happens when features or performance exceed customer needs
  • The transition from proprietary to modular and comodotised
  • The resulting shift in who makes more profits when the above transition happens
  • Many great examples of companies dealing with these things – some of whom fail, some of whom turn it to their advantage
  • Some application of this to Open Source software

While it is predominantly tech-oriented, I would still encourage a wider audience to take a listen – the processes and market dynamics he covers apply to almost every product we encounter in everyday life and therefore is very applicable to the educational products we love and hate.

The Roles of the Author, Sub-author and Meta-author

I finally got around to following up a glowing recommendation from Dave Cormier at www.edtechtalk.com about “Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web” by David Weinberger. It looks like an interesting book. A good review (in both senses) can be found here, which includes:

…if you think you’re an architect of anything vaguely Internet-related, you should read this book.

Incidentally, you can read the book online for free at www.smallpieces.com.

But this post is not to review the book (as I have not yet read it). What interests me is some of the history of making the book. The author decided to try writing the book online – posting each day’s work to his website to get feedback and comments. This section stands out:

I received today line edits from a reader, Halley Suitt. … she has lots and lots of good and occasionally deep things to say about the topic of the chapter, sometimes anticipating where I’m heading and sometimes taking the topic down paths I hadn’t thought about. In a sense, her comments are too good; I worry about readers taking over my topic before I can be the one to have figured out how to work it out. Ego? Absolutely! This is the ego required by every act of writing, at least up until now. The writer is saying “Listen to me! I have something to say that you didn’t think of already!” What’s it going to feel like if readers anticipate the ideas I had or, worse, was planning on having? What happens if I drift out of the center of my little universe?

The idea that a reader can come to a conclusion before the author has even thought of it really intrigued me. If this is embraced, then the central author could become something of an author/editor/producer who has the intial idea and the drive and committment to set up a website and promote it, and then posts ideas, develops and moderates the community and eventually assimilates the publicly generated content into a concise, coherent form. Almost a medium through who the public write – I will label these roles as meta-author and sub-author respectively. (This brings up the question of what happens to the roles of the traditional editor and producer, but I won’t get distracted by that at the moment).

So does the role of a meta-author become irrelevant? In some cases, like Wikipedia, the central author has mostly dissappeard (although there are something like moderators/deputants for most pages). However, I think that in some productions, it is still important. In a good book, there are many characteristics (themes, structure, pacing, reinforcement, flow etc) that can span the entire book. I think that these characteristics are largely lost if a series of small peices from sub-authors are loosely joined into a book (I do realise the irony) without a cental meta-author.

I guess it could be argued that the traditional book also becomes irrelevant when there is so much information avilable on the internet. Again, I do not agree – I think there is definitely a place for story and flow that can make a book much more than the sum of its parts of knowledge.

I can understand how some people might be put off by this approach if a considerable part of their intrinsic motivation is generated from the satisfaction of creating new ideas and conceptually going places that are new (or at least novel in the knowledge of the author). In fact, I suspect most creative people (of which most authors (including myself) are a subset) are significantly dirven by this. However, it would seen an ideal meta-author would be intrinsically motivated by ideas in general (not so much creation of their own ideas), would enjoy mediation, assimilation and summarisation, and would probably be an extrovert who is energised by interaction with other people.

So it would seem that the meta-author is quite a different type of personality to a traditional author. This is an exciting possibility – that technology is unlocking a whole new class of authors – that may (with a consciousness enhanced by a sea of contributors) even be able to go where no traditional author has gone before…

Long time, no write, but I have a philisophical reason (excuse)

Indeed, it has been a few months since my last post. A few months I may have apologised for this, but more recently I have been realising this is simply a facet of my personality.

I have come to categorise myself as a “burster”, which I should define before someone gets the wrong idea (which is not hard). I tend to do things in solid bursts – but my head down and try to ignore everything else. At first I thought it was simply a procrastination technique because it seemed to occur most often leading up to an  undesirable deadline. But I have since realise that I do it in many positive ways too – it was simply that stress seems to make me more focused (just not always on the most important task). So I am realising that the key is prioritisation – make sure that I burst on the most important tasks first.

This is actually how I started to realise the benefits. For example I was talking to a client and we decided to attempt something quite novel – unfortunately it was for an expo starting in a couple of weeks. But the rest of my calendar was quite flexible, so I dove in head first, and we emerged on time and on target. the client was astounded at what we had managed to acheive in that short time.

The more I become aware of it and talk to people about it, the more I become aware it bursting can be very beneficial. I classic example is email – I often go a quite a while  without checking my email when I am deeply immersed in something else. I am now hearing more about the “crackberry” syndrome and how many people can’t resist checking their email when they get a new email alert. Combine this with the research that shows that even a very short interruption can retard productivity on the primary task by 10 to 20 minutes and you really start to appreciate bursting.

I have also noticed productivity advisors and sites like www.43folders.com reccommend similar techniques. But the keys are to burst on the highest priority task, to ‘come up for air’ occassionally, and if there are ‘rapid response’ tasks that need to be done, realise that you are not likely to do them well yourself, and therefore, to manage that (by delegation etc).
So I now I should live up to my self-inflicted reputation and add quite a few posts in the next few days. Wee will see 🙂

Oh, and to give this post an educational bend, I have a couple of thoughts.

Firstly, I think school classrooms can be teriible places for bursters. I remember being constantly interupted and distracted at school and being frustrated at not getting much done by the end of the class (having said that, my grades didn’t seem to suffer).

Secondly, it would have been immensely valuable to have been taught some of this stuff in school so that I did not have to discover it the hard way a decade later – certainly more valuable than some of the memorising we had to do which can now be accessed online (with more accuracy) in a matter of seconds. I guess falls into the camp of “don’t just learn, but learn to learn”, which they figured out a long time ago in  “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. Not to be mistaken with “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you get rid of him on weekends” 🙂

EdTech Software Rises and Falls – Can it Rise Again?

At the end of this post are some quotes from a very interesting article by MATT RICHTEL called “Once a Booming Market, Educational Software for the PC Takes a Nose Dive”. It was published by the NYTimes on August 22, 2005 – the original is here.

In summary, the article shows that the retail sales of educational software for home computers had dropped from $498 million in 2000 to $152 million in 2004. Similarly, overall spending on software by K-12 schools was $2.3 billion in 2004, up 2 percent from a year earlier but down from $3.4 billion in 2001. So it may be understandable that companies do not want to get involved in a contracting market. But the article also proposes some reasons why this market is contracting. Below is a list mixed with our own observations:

  • A lot of educational software was ‘bucketware’ – focusing on quantity vs. quality which discouraged buyers, and created unfortunate stigmas. “People used to buy educational technology for technology’s sake…now there needs to be returns, or results for the purchase”.
  • Many websites began offering free reference, educational and entertainment content that ‘bucketware’ could not compete with.
  • Increase of broadband which increased convenient access to these free online alternatives.
  • Online alternatives are even more attractive to parents who can show “frustration at installing new programs”.
  • A move in preschools and elementary schools towards portable electronic gadgets vs. educational software.
  • Increase in computer availability in schools leading to less computer use at home and less educational software purchases at home. “Kids come home and they don’t want to get on the computer.”
  • The statistics support this somewhat – companies making educational software for schools have experienced a less drastic drop of about 33% since 2001, but that is still a significant drop, so some of the other factors in this list are likely to be impacting the school market too.
  • The pass-along effect – one purchase being handed down to siblings, which is possible because “titles and curriculums do not change much over the years”.
  • Children are having more of a say on buying decisions, and choosing entertainment over education, especially given the stigma of education being not fun, only reinforced by unappealing ‘buckware’.
  • Retailers reducing shelf space available for educational software, perpetuating a downward spiral.

However, it does note that overall spending on teaching tools and toys had increased (up to $4 billion on tutors alone). Therefore there is an opportunity for educational software to make a comeback if it adapts to market needs (e.g. points of difference over free internet content and parent’s interest in measuring their children’s academic progress) and perceptions (e.g. making it engaging and entertaining) and takes advantage of new technological opportunities (e.g. using the internet to streamline content delivery and permit the delivery of richer content). “It’s like a forest fire has burned through, making the scorched earth ready for future growth.

Below are a few quotes from the article:

Edward Vazquez Jr., 6, has numerous educational tools at his disposal. He learns math from flashcards and the alphabet from a popular electronic gadget called the LeapPad. But when it comes to instruction, the family’s personal computer sits dormant.

“He has a lot of toys for learning – not the computer,” said his father, Edward Vazquez, 28, a waiter in San Francisco. One reason, Mr. Vazquez said, is “you don’t see a lot of that software.”

That statement would have been unthinkable a few years ago. In 2000, sales of educational software for home computers reached $498 million, and it was conventional wisdom among investors and educators that learning programs for PC’s would be a booming growth market.

Yet in less than five years, that entire market has come undone. By 2004, sales of educational software – a category that includes programs teaching math, reading and other subjects as well as reference works like encyclopedias – had plummeted to $152 million, according to the NPD Group, a market research concern.

“Nobody would have thought those were the golden days,” Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children’s Technology Review, said of the late 1990’s. “Now we’re looking back and we’re saying, ‘Wow, what happened?’ ”

The result in business terms has been a downward spiral. Only 222 educational programs for PC’s sold more than 10,000 copies in 2004, down from 447 in 2001, according to NPD. As sales began to decrease, retailers devoted less and less shelf space to these titles, making recovery for the industry more difficult.

To regain their footing, some companies are starting to create programs that can connect to the Internet and cater to parents’ interest in measuring their children’s academic progress.

One reason for hope is that parents are spending more on educational tools and services than ever. Kirsten Edwards, an education software industry analyst with ThinkEquity Partners, a research firm, noted that overall spending on teaching tools and toys had increased. Spending on tutors, she said, rose to $4 billion in 2004, from $3.4 billion a year earlier.

Yet educational software is getting an ever smaller share of that consumer dollar. It is among the lowest-priced of any software category; in 2004 the average price for an educational program was $18, compared with $23 for the average computer game, according to NPD.

Educational software makers in the consumer market are not alone in their struggles. Those making software for schools have suffered too, executives and analysts said, from cutbacks in school budgets. Overall spending on software by K-12 schools was $2.3 billion in 2004, up 2 percent from a year earlier but down from $3.4 billion in 2001, according to ThinkEquity Partners.

Nonetheless, some say that children’s software can make a comeback. Mr. Buckleitner, an occasional contributor to the Circuits section of The New York Times, says there is still a future for teaching tools for the PC, especially as high-speed Internet access permits the delivery of richer content.

As for the drop in sales, he said, “it’s like a forest fire has burned through,” making the scorched earth ready for future growth.

Gaming and Education according to Will Wright (Mr Sim City)

I listened to a great podcast at www.ITConversations.com called “Lessons Learned from Game Design” by Will Wright (the inventor of Sim City, The Sims, The Movies etc.) during the SD Forum Distinguished Speaker Series (2005). You can listen to it here. It was a very interesting talk in general, but also covered Will’s views on education in gaming. Will talked about how he built lots of models as a kid, and how he sees the irony that he helped replace that hobby, but that he sees gaming as just building different types of models. There were two main points that hit home with me. I have made a clip of this part of the speech available at the end of this post.

How Montessori Can Impact Gaming and Vice Versa. (paraphrasing from the speech)

  • Will was educated at a Montessori school till about 6th Grade and up until then, “did not realise there even was another way”.
  • The Montessori teaching movement was started by Maria Montessori. It essentially says that Children are very good at educating themselves – it’s more about the teacher giving them the right tools and getting out of their way.
  • Maria designed these amazing little things to teach maths, science and geography, e.g. amazing little block sets for teaching polynomial maths and little interactive maps you can piece together to learn geography.
  • Will always thought that computers were ideal for that – children could learn at their own pace, in their own order of what they are interested in.
  • He also saw it related to ‘learning styles’. Every kid can take their own path into it or through it. Bound to end up with a more effective educational medium.
  • It was a big surprise to Will that computers haven’t been used more for this. It seemed to Will that computers are exactly what Maria Montessori would have wanted to use to teach.

It is easy to see how Will was inspired by this in Sim City, and the other games he has created. Keep an eye out for his latest work ‘Spore’, where you start off as a single celled organism and direct its evolution to a sentient species that develops space travel. Info and teasers are available on Spore, but the game is not due for release until 2007. I also totally agree with all these points, including ‘Why have computers not been used more for this?’. Hopefully the Imaginality work I am doing will address a lot of this…

Educational Gaming – Failures and Potentials. (again, paraphrasing from the speech)

  • It has gotten to the point where if it says it is educational, it is the kiss of death in the games industry.
  • Often because kids are now making their own purchasing decisions. That Age is moving down from 12 to 8 to 5. “You don’t sell software to a five year old by saying it is educational”.
  • And also because educational software is traditionally stigmatised as not being fun.
  • Will’s solution is to make it/market it on entertainment value, with education as a side effect. “I think that education and entertainment, when done the right way, become the same thing”.
  • So these market forces have somewhat eliminated ‘shovelware’ educational software (badly designed educational software, focusing on quantity vs. quality).
  • Will would love to see gaming etc influences return educational software to a more mass-market medium.

Hmmm, I guess I had better stop calling Imaginality ‘educational’ ;-). But with any luck, it will be fun and engaging enough to break down this barrier. I’ve noticed that Sony Playstation has pretty much gone out of its way on a number of occasions to avoid being associated with education. I think this is a sad, sad state of affairs indeed, especially if it had the opportunity to do public good like this and turned it down for commercial gain.

My next post actually develops this idea further, with more statistics and opinions from educational software developers.

My last comment is that www.ITConversations.com rocks! This is where I found and listened to this seminar, but they also have audio recordings of a large number of (mostly tech oriented) conferences available for free. Thanks to www.ITConversations.com I have been able to ‘attend’ at least three conferences from the other side of the world, without taking a single day off work, for free. Incredible stuff.

Upgrading to the term Web 2.1

In addition to this blog on Technology in Education, I have started a blog/podcast hybrid on my website www.MindSpaceArt.com on Technology in Art. It has the very original name of the MindSpace Art Blog/Podcast. Occasionally there will be some crossover, and this post is one of those times.

On the MindSpace Art Blog/Podcast I recently posted my perspectives on the O’Reily ‘Web 2.0 Conference’ StyleMark protection issue. In addition to sharing my two cents worth, I mention how it is actually quite damaging for this issue to remain largely unresolved (even though O’Reilly has backed down) and I propose an interesting solution. I have cited this below:

Unfortunately I tuned into this podcast a couple of weeks after the fact, but even so, I’d like to share an interesting perspective. It was one of many discussions that flared up around this blog post by Tom Raftery from IT@CORK (in Ireland) who received a cease and desist letter from the legal team of O’Reilly publishers. Apparently O’Reilly StyleMarked (similar to TradeMarked) the term “Web 2.0 Conference” and after many opportunities, took this opportunity to start enforcing it on a small 1/2 day conference on the other side of the world. Follow either of the above links for more info.

Firstly, I should mention that I am not against companies protecting their ideas and their names, but I think O’Reilly has stepped way out of line for many reasons. Firstly, having known about it for 9 months and waited till the last 2 weeks was just rude. Secondly, not bothering to have a polite discussion and jump straight into legal threats is not only very rude, but very inefficient (unless you like feeding legal piranhas). Thirdly, when I was taught about trademarks, I was told that you had to be careful, because if your trademark becomes a generic term, you loose control of it, so I think O’Reilly has lost their dubious control anyway.

It is almost an anti-climax that O’Reilly have no jurisdiction in Ireland to be trying to enforce anyway – while it is extremely shameful to O’Reilly, it kind of leaves the core issue unresolved. And as I learn from Lawrence Lessig, unresolved issues are a lawyer’s playground, and ‘chill’ the environment. In this case, people in America will still be scared of receiving a letter from O’Reilly, so many will confirm, whether they really need to or not.

So I propose an interesting solution to this issue. I think from now on, everyone should refuse to refer to the term “Web 2.0? and instead use the term “Web 2.1?. Not only does this give O’Reilly no leg to stand on, it also sends a clear message that the social web will not stand for corporate intimidation. So in this way, it is describing a new version of the web, which justifies an incremental version increase. And with an almost self prophetic irony, it is creating a new version of the web that the term itself ushers in. Web 2.0 has been around long enough for it to look significantly different now compared to when it first emerged, so I think it is high time to evolve to Web 2.1. Web 2.1 can also represent the related fights for Internet Neutrality (www.savetheinternet.com and www.itsournet.org) and Free Culture (www.lessig.org and www.eff.org).

To pre-empt any future issues, I’ll state that not only Web 2.1, but Web X.X can now be considered a generic term, so no one can own trademark control over it in the future.

Of course, the only way for the term Web 2.1 to become completely generic and for people to be free of unacceptable corporate restrictions and intimidation is for this idea to be spread and used. Ok, sure, it is a long shot, but if it was to happen, ideally, it should not be used blindly, but should be used with knowledge of what it represents and why it became necessary.

I’ve now dug a little deeper, and found that quite a few people have proposed that incrementing Web 2.0 is a good idea, which is great – it might just catch on yet. Liam Breck mentions that Web 2.5 is already coined for “the fusion of web 2.0 tools with mobile tech” so its probably a good thing we steered clear of that. However, none of the posts that I read went into the same detail I’ve covered above:

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