Thursday, 26 March 2009

Where did I read that?

I still have a lot of books, especially cookery and recipe books. When I decide to cook one of my favourite dishes I'll go to the book shelf, find the book I want, and thumb though to the recipe I need. I can always use the index as a last resort if that doesn't work. I'd be a bit upset if the book wasn't there. Maybe I'd lent it to someone, or forgot to put back in the right place. But that doesn't happen very often. By and large, I know I can rummage through my book collection for many years to come. Of course, once I've found the book I'm looking for, the recipes are always in there, where they always were, just the same.

Back in 1998 when we were running courses for Headteachers and ICT co-ordinators on using the Internet I always chose recipes as the way to get the point across about searching, at the time using Alta Vista, in pre-Google domination days. Think of what you have in your fridge and store cupboards, type the ingredients into the search box and hey presto, dinner. Even the most odd combinations would throw up some interesting recipes. I wonder, though, how many are still out there, on the same pages, on the same websites eleven years later. If not, does that mean they weren't any good?
I think there is a tendency to assume that the content on the Internet just keeps being added to, because we know that there is more and more all the time. Not true, of course. Yes, the amount of stuff keeps getting bigger, but a lot keeps disappearing too. Not necessarily because it wasn't much good, or that nobody wanted to look at it, but for a whole raft of reasons. No wonder the archivists are tearing their hair out, wondering how they can preserve what is essentially a continually changing scene. The British Library runs a web archiving project to preserve web sites that it considers to be particularly important in the UK domain, and there are others around the world, but between them they will only preserve a tiny proportion of the 'lost' web pages. The big search giants like Google visit every web page regularly and cache the content, but their purpose is to enable us to rapidly find what is actually still there, not what used to be.
One of the key advantages of the Internet as a source of information is that it should be up to date in a way that printed matter can never be. It is this relentless pursuit of the currency of the information that drives web editors to continually purge their websites, removing material that no longer has an owner and which can no longer be updated or validated. Just recently I have tried in vain to find a number of useful web pages that I remembered from several years ago, including on our own corporate web site, and there is a strange sense of helplessness when you realise that they aren't there any more and there is nothing whatever you can do about it. I suppose it's similar to the way that early TV and radio delivered live broadcasts before recording and archiving became possible and commonplace. It was about the 'now' only. The Internet is about now and the very recent past, but how long in the past is totally random and doesn't follow any rules.
So the Internet isn't like a very big library after all. They behave in very different ways. The books in the library are all snapshots in time. They are certain and their contents are secure and unchanging. You can reference information in a book right down to the page, the paragraph and the line. With that reference in your hand you can always go to the source. The Internet is the antithesis of this in both concept and its existence.
I have listened to a lot of presenters over the last few years at numerous conferences banging on about bringing teaching and learning up to date and equipping young people with the skills they need for the 21st century and the information age (much of which I agree with), but I find difficulty with the over reliance on the Internet as a source of information, other than when it gives you access to printed material in digital form (such as the complete works of Shakespeare, or a newspaper archive for instance). Many of the information sources that young people discover through searching the Internet are the ephemeral web pages that this blog entry is about. I don't know whether it matters. I don't know if I want this year's students to have access to all the same good material that last year's students found, or the ones before that. There is all the new stuff, after all, and more of it. Maybe it is all about 'now' and maybe that's the way it should be. But why do I feel uneasy? Is a life without books a good thing unless we find a way of replicating the permanence and the certainty?
This BBC News web page from March 2002 has been preserved in all its glory. Maybe they learnt their lesson after losing all of those episodes of Dr Who.


Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Some green shoots at BETT

For me, BETT 09 at Olympia (14th-17th January) was encouraging. There seemed to be an air of optimism which was at odds with the daily depressing and gloomy news about the global economy. And this was underpinned by some genuinely exciting developments in educational technology.

The event started well with a reassuring speech by 'the minister' which included a specific reference to the use in the classroom of a visualiser. After so many years when the 'educational establishment' has doggedly avoided supporting the most enabling tool that any teacher could wish for, this was a truly remarkable landmark. I spent the rest of the first day being amused by the extraordinary lengths manufacturers of interactive whiteboards have gone to, to overcome some of the obvious and always inherent problems with the technology. Most of these deal with problems of 'shadow' and 'reach'. Just what would we do without ultra-short-throw projectors mounted on poles above boards which move up and down? Well, actually, the same things we have done for years when the same people sold us boards without these 'enhancements'. I guess when a market reaches saturation you have to come up with something new to start all over again. It just seems a bit odd, and rather shameless, to sell new products on the basis of what was wrong with the old ones you sold before!

Now on to the good stuff. RM made a spirited first attempt to create some new flexible learning spaces within their own space at Olympia 2. Although I was totally under-whelmed by much of it, lurking in the far corner was without doubt one of the most exciting teaching and learning aids I have encountered, produced by Amazing Interactives. We donned the special glasses and watched with open mouthed amazement as a beating human heart lept out of the screen in front of us. The cut-away view and the flow of blood through the heart were truly captivating. As someone who struggled for years with home-made polarising acetate filters for OHPs, and then later with 2-D computer simulations, to try and get this science across to demanding teenagers, I wanted to wave a magic wand and give this to every science teacher in the country. I suspect the software development costs will remain very high for some time to come, even if we could afford the 3-D projections systems in our 'schools of the future'.

Something else that popped up in several places by at least three companies was spatial recognition technology using sensors to respond to body movements against a projected image. With a mini-football pitch projected onto the ground, you can then kick the projected ball about with your feet, or walk across some ice which appears to break under your weight! Check out OMi's website - there is a video shot in a shopping centre. Also check out SpaceKraft and Avantis. The Avantis system was vertical and the image could be controlled by hand movements away from the screen, wherever the sensors were positioned. Very good for working with a whole class where you don't want anyone to get in the way of the image.

I guess it would be churlish of me, and a little disingenuous, if I didn't at least acknowledge Microsoft's Surface. I loved it, actually. It wasn't immediately obvious to me what teaching and learning problems it was solving but I expect there will be no shortage of people putting them in to classrooms to find out.

I had a good look at Intel's new classmate with built-in and swivel-over touch screen turning it into a mini tablet PC. Very portable and neat, but very small screen. Children in the future are bound to have access to web browsers on a multitude of small portable devices but it's in schools that we can give them big screens to look at. The big display still has that 'wow!' factor because it's easier to see things on it.

OK, those are my green shoots for this year. I probably missed something cool, but I did my best! I should mention that my primary colleagues of course are still swooning over the latest from 2Simple - 2DIY.


Friday, 9 January 2009

Huge learning spaces

Yesterday I was privileged to take part in a visit to the latest prototype Learning Plaza at the New Line Learning Academy in Maidstone, Kent, along with a number of colleagues from Barking and Dagenham and elsewhere. The visit was hosted by Lanway, the technology integrators for the project.

Essentially the Learning Plaza is a huge rectangular cavernous space with room for 90+ pupils, plush carpet and wheelable tables, chairs and raised benching units. Perhaps the most striking feature in walking into the space is the huge 'cinemascope' style projection screen with accompanying twin (and very noisy) projectors. At one end of the space was an impressive video wall made up of nine 40" active panels (although the frames were thick and intrusive), and at the other end a single very large high definition panel. The lighting in the room was fully programmable so that different colours and intensity could be set for different moods. All of this technology was controlled by a single hand held device, so that all of the different inputs (e.g. visualiser, laptops, video conferencing) could be targeted at any or all of the displays. In the case of the wide centre projection screen, two different images could be displayed side by side if required, or one large centered image.

All of this technology was expertly demonstrated to the visitors, but as the event was in the evening there were no teachers or pupils to show how it might be used in lessons. I hope there might be an opportunity in the future to see some teaching and learning going on.

What were my impressions? Well the first one was astonishment at being asked to take off our shoes - a policy that was explained to us as 'creating a business environment'. Personally I have never been in a business environment in which people pad about in their socks, even in Japan. Perhaps they should just be honest about the need to keep the carpets nice. The second impression was the 'wow' factor at the size of the central screen with its twin projectors, although this quickly turned to disappointment at the poor quality of its low contrast image, and the fact that nobody has yet thought about how to get the image aspect ratios right. Nothing wrong with the image quality of the video wall though, just the intrusive screen frames, which was a shame as panels exist with extremely narrow frames for this purpose.

Overall though, I think the thoughts many of us were wrestling with were to do with practical pedagogical issues, and the difficulties there might be in getting prolonged and high quality dialogue in a space with so many pupils and presumably a range of activities happening simultaneously. There is no doubt that the bigger the space the more flexibility you have, which is why in Barking and Dagenham we hope that BSF will give us bigger classrooms. There is often the need to get large numbers of pupils together at one time for demonstrations, lectures, performances etc, but a classroom which is sound-proofed and can be arranged in a horseshoe is best suited for the dialogic teaching we are aspiring to, and which the Learning Plaza most certainly wouldn't allow.

Our ICT Output Specification for BSF indicates a wish for split screen technology - the ability to display, for example, and object on the visualiser and a video side by side. Having now seen this at the Learning Plaza, I am even more keen that the money will stretch to it.

Many thanks to Lanway and the New Line Learning Academy for allowing us to visit.

This is a link to an article in 'The Independent':