Fast Follower course

My colleague Paul Lefrere suggested at lunchtime that we should put on a course on how to be a successful fast follower.  (i.e. How to successfully let others pay the price of being first mover and early adopter, and rushing in to new technologies just at the moment they begin to look like they’ll deliver serious value, but ahead of the mass/commoditised/me-too phase.)  He’d looked around but not seen anything like that.

But after some discussion, we decided it would be wrong to do that.  Better to wait until just after someone else does it first.

Technology of memory

I wrote a while ago about the science of memory – I’ve just come across an interesting Wired article about Piotr Wozniak and his own-life project based on implementing an idea about how to remember more stuff, via his software SuperMemo.  The website and software seem terribly clunky, but the idea has some appeal.  It’s at least one level if not two levels of description up from neurotransmitters, which makes implementation look more convincing.

The finding – allegedly supported by lab research, but I’ve not chased that down (yet?) – is that recall tails off exponentially, and that the rate of fall-off reduces with subsequent reminders, and that there is therefore a pattern of optimum reminder times to learn something – like this:

Now, I’m generally suspicious of the notion that really good learning requires a lot of memorisation, for all sorts of reasons (not least that it’s so often used as an excuse to teach only rote memorisation and not do more fundamental stuff).  And I’m also suspicious of the idea of learning facts in isolation.  (I’m also not entirely sold on the idea that there exist unproblematic ‘facts’ that are unproblematically available to educators to deploy

But I do buy the argument that a certain amount of memorisation is needed in some areas.  And a structured remembering system for some things – e.g. tasks – seems like a really good idea.  It might be a better plan than the Remember The Milk/Getting Things Done approach too.  (Considered thoughts on which are for another post, but I’m deliberately putting off getting in to organisational systems since – for me – it would be a terrible – and ultimately fruitless – distraction from actually getting things done.)

I wouldn’t go all the way that Wozniak has done and turn one’s entire life into a rational project, but I do believe that it is often possible to change the way one is in quite powerful ways.

Subtleties of systems design

Relatively small, simple changes to the design of a system can have profound effects on the effectiveness and acceptability of the system to the users. 

(This probably won’t be news to anyone reading this, but I keep coming across it in so many places.  It’s definitely somewhere in my Top Ten Things In Educational Technology That Are Well-Known Or Ought To Be, below “More research required”, “Learners can fail to understand things in ways you never imagined” and “Trying to use one teaching method as if it were a different teaching method probably isn’t a great idea”, but perhaps above “Asking whether technology-enhanced learning is better than other forms is not a very illuminating question”.)

Anyway – my example for today of small systems changes is CCTV.  The UK is covered in “security” cameras.  This includes an awful lot of cameras pointing at roads. 

In England, only the Government can see what’s on those cameras.  Oh, plus anyone the Government decides to let look at them.  So your experience as a user is of being spied on: you see all these cameras, and imagine that the people watching them might be up to no good. It’s creepy and feels like you’re being snooped on.  Hence scare stories like this one about US agencies being allowed to spy on UK motorists

In Wales, the Welsh Assembly has made live images from the cameras on the motorways freely available on the web.  You can zoom in on your favourite bit of the M4, click on a camera icon, and see what’s going on right now.  (There’s even handy ‘typical views’ for comparison with the current view.)  All of a sudden, your experience changes.  The cameras start to look like a useful social tool to you.  And  when you think of the people watching those cameras you think, blimey, that must be one hell of a boring job.

Such a small change in systems terms, but a huge one in the user experience.  (Or at least in mine – I certainly feel a lot happier on the M4 in Wales than in England.)  And another example of how making stuff openly available can often get you much more benefit than restricting it (though not always).  Which is probably another for my Top Ten – hmm, I think this may be heading for a Top Fifty if I’m not careful.

Academics do politics differently

I used to be actively involved in my trade union, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), now merged with its traditional rival, NATFHE, to form University and College Union, (UCU).  For various reasons – most pressing a lack of time – I’m no longer very active, but I do keep up with what’s going on.

I received an email from a colleague urging me to vote a particular way in a particular upcoming election.  (In a doomed attempt to keep this blog focused, I won’t go in to the details – but happy to discuss them, in brief or at length, with anyone who wants to know.)  I laughed out loud when I read this bit at the end:

Whatever you do please read the election material and the statements issued by both candidates..When you have done so I hope you will come to the same conclusion as me and vote for [my preference]

Fantastic campaigning there – real “rectify the anomaly” stuff.  (For those who don’t know, “Rectify the anomaly” was an infamous slogan of the AUT’s from a 1970s campaign for better pay.)  Polite, reasonable but leaves you clear enough what they’re trying to tell you.

It is actually pretty smart campaigning – academics and related staff generally don’t take kindly being told what to think in the way of traditional politics.  Which is part of the challenge of working effectively in higher education.

Rovio: I for one welcome our new robot underlords

Another cool thingummy that’s now on my “persuade Will to buy an evaluation one”/Christmas present list – Rovio, a Wifi-enabled location-aware robot with streaming audio and video:


The idea (in the stuff I’ve seen) is that you log in to this little thing when you’re out of your house, and you can send it around the place, watching and listening to what’s happening there.  For me checking up on the house while I’m out doesn’t seem that interesting – although I can imagine it might be a lot more fun than a phone call.  But checking in on colleagues in – say – an open-plan office environment – seems better.  Just the job to set off a new lab!

I’m not sure the form factor is quite right for that, though.  It’s very trip-overable, although the noise it makes as it moves probably gives enough notification to eliminate immediate snooping concerns.

Only $299 … but alas, not avaialable until “Early fall 2008” – which is Ok for Christmas I suppose – or indeed moving in to our new building.  (When it’s recovered from the initial invasion of RC helicopters we’re likely to inflict on the atrium.)

iPlayer on Wii

I was excited last month about the BBC’s iPlayer service being available on the iPhone and iPod touch.  Today I’m excited about it being available for the Nintendo Wii.  Internet TV … on the TV!

It’s pretty easy – you just need the Internet Channel (Nintendo’s silly name for Opera for the Wii, and an excuse to charge you £3.50 for a browser that’s available free on pretty much every other platform ever) and then … just go to the iPlayer site and off you go.

(Incidentally, the Internet Channel on the Wii is a fantastic idea, but really brings home to me a) how poor a TV set is as a computer display and b) just how desperately poor the text-entry system is on the Wii.  Watching YouTube is workable and more fun than on a computer.  Very little else is.)

Of course, it’s been possible to stream videos from your PC to your Wii via the Internet Channel for a while, through various bits of software.  And it is also entirely possible – if somewhat dubious – to strip the DRM from iPlayer downloads so you can stream them.  (Or indeed blow them to DVD and walk them through from the PC to the living room.  Never underestimate the bandwidth of sneakernet!) So this has been possible in principle for some time, but a lot more technical faff than most people can be doing with.  iPlayer is about bringing P2P to the masses, rather than the geeky copyfighting few.

As another aside, I’m amused at the ISP industry taking against iPlayer.  (See, e.g., El Reg’s piece on the recent spat between Tiscali and the BBC.)  Parts of the IT industry often seem to want to defy ordinary economic gravity – I’m reminded of the dot-com nonsense (“How could that possibly make money?”  “If you read our business plan you’d see that we will develop a monetisation strategy in Q6”).  In what other industry would businesses get terribly unhappy if the demand for their product increased beyond what they had ever anticipated?  Madness.

To be fair, it’s more as if they’ve worked out one way of making money and don’t want technical development and change to stop that working.  Rather like mobile phone ringtone vendors, traditional record industry executives, blacksmiths and indeed the original Luddites, then.  For technology companies to take that position is particularly odd.  And life-limiting.  I’d advise against buying Tiscali stock.

Anyway!  Enough asides.  What about iPlayer on the Wii?  Is it any good?

Alas, no.  At least, not for me tonight.  The resolution is great.  There seems to be far more content available than when the iPhone/iPod touch version was launched.  But the bandwidth is so rubbish as to render it unwatchable with stutters and stops.  Don’t know for sure what that’s down to – no problem at all on my desktop PC over Ether to my router, or my iPod touch using the same WiFi network as the Wii.  Anthony Rose from the BBC mentions in his announcement that they’ve had to up the bitrate for the Wii from 500 to 820 Kbps because they need to use a less-efficient codec to work with the ancient version of Flash the Wii uses.  That could be it.

Still – maybe the BBC’s wizards will fix this with tweaking.  Maybe I’ll think of some way round the physical barriers to running a hard connection from my router to the Wii.  Maybe something even better will turn up next month!

And while I’m waiting, my copy of Dance Dance Revolution Hottest Party for the Wii should arrive very soon …

Free roaming Wifi (if you’re already rich)

For those of us who work in academia, there’s very good news afoot in the shape of the JANET roaming service, part of the eduroam federation.

Eduroam logoIn a nutshell, this is a reciprocal free wifi arrangement between academic institutions, in the UK (JANET) and beyond (eduroam) – parts of Europe and Australia for now, but under development in the US and Japan.  If you’re an academic, with a bit of luck that’ll be a large proportion of the places you go anyway.

I think it’ll work really easily as a user.  There’s some fiendishly clever stuff in the background, and the official JANET docs make it seem dreadfully complex to use.  But if I’ve understood right, and if/when it’s all working, you simply use the same username/password combo to access wifi at your home institution at any other participating institution.

To set it up you just select the right network to connect to at your home institution (the ‘eduroam’ SSID – there will probably be others locally) and get the right username/password for it.  (This is locally determined, but very likely to be your standard university credentials or a simple permutation thereof.)  Once your device is set up that way, poof!  Off you go to any participating location and free wifi is yours with no more fuss. 

(There is probably a little extra fuss if you want to be able to do more than web browsing – e.g. VPN, non-web email,  remote logins.  And visited institutions may have more restrictive traffic rules than your home one.  I wouldn’t bank on Skype or your favourite BitTorrent client working, for instance.)

For those very local – the OU – the word on the authoritative grapevine is that it’s coming here “Real Soon Now”.  It’s under testing, and you can see ‘eduroam’ SSIDs around the place already.

I’m really looking forward to this.  I experience the net as pervasive at the moment, since I have wifi all over work and home, which is pretty much everywhere I might want it.  Except when I find myself somewhere like an airport, hotel or railway station … there’s Wifi, but suddenly I have to pay some extortionate rate for it.  Or – at other Universities – consider resorting to a flagrant breach of the JANET T&Cs to get at it in less than the six weeks an offical application for local login credentials might take.

It’s great to have an extension to the almost-there pervasive network!  One day, mark my words, there’ll be free-at-the-point-of-use wifi everywhere.  Well, almost everywhere.  Which is a much easier target.