Product placement in HE

Product placement is in the news at the moment, with the leaked announcement that the ban on that form of advertising in UK television is to be lifted and Liam mentioning it as part of the changes underway in the television world in his talk this morning. Obviously, commercial broadcasters like ITV – faced with plunged advertising revenues – are very keen to open up a potential new source of funding, and advertisers are apparently keen to hawk their products and services in this way. And it’s the most obvious solution to the increasing ‘skip the adverts’ problem, which the shift to Internet-enabled TV is making far worse. If the adverts are deeply integrated in to the programme, you can’t skip them,  you can’t edit them out, and you might not even notice they’re there.

Which leads on to the the two huge issues with this sort of advertising: transparency and editorial independence. Will people know or realise that the judges on X Factor are taking regular sips of Coke because the Coca Cola Company paid handsomely for them to do so?  How can broadcasters possibly keep editorial decisions and advertising decisions apart when the advert and the programme content happen at the same time?

Those aren’t often seen as big issues for Higher Education. But actually, I think they are.

We make extensive use of branded products and services in our offerings to students and staff – particularly educational technologies.  Books, journals, VLEs, computers, all sorts of things.

Routinely we get an educational discount for this stuff – which is really product placement.  The main differences I can see is that we generally get paid far less than the products themselves are worth for advertising them to our captive audience of students, and we don’t usually recognise the transaction for what it is.

(We also cheerfully take people’s money and in return name buildings, or Centres, or endowed Chairs after them – but there the transaction is recognised as sponsorship by everyone involved, and the deals are made accordingly.)

The twin challenges of transparency and editorial independence (or pedagogical independence if you prefer) apply just as much to these transactions as they do in the world of TV.

I’m definitely not saying we should avoid all such deals, or only ever use open source technologies in our teaching.  (Though that’s not a bad starting assumption.)

But I do think we need to be aware of the influence that the ‘educational discount’ has on what we do as educators, and be very careful we’re not unwittingly turning ourselves into corporate shills – and doing it on the cheap.  Even when we’re using ‘free’ (as-in-beer) products, we need to remember that free-at-the-point-of-use from a commercial outfit emphatically does not mean they’re not getting something valuable from us.

The OU Is Only Ten Feet Away

Learning about the opportunities of Internet-connected TV with a Boxee application.

Liveblog notes from a Technology Coffee Morning given by Liam Green-Hughes, held in the Jennie Lee Building Laboratories, 16 September 2009.

Continue reading “The OU Is Only Ten Feet Away”

Martin Bean: A Journey In Innovation

Liveblog notes from watching (the Elluminate-mediated broadcast of) Martin Bean (OU VC Designate) keynote address at ALT-C 2009. Abstract:

Innovation in ICT continues to enable new and effective ways to open learning to all who seek it. The challenge for The Open University from the beginning was to deliver mass higher education on an individual basis. That challenge remains the same today. The Open University asks for no entry qualifications and delivers to over 200,000 students and users of their course materials each year. In this presentation Martin will reflect upon The Open University’s pioneering use of technology for large-scale delivery of educational opportunities over the last 40 years and contrast that with where The Open University sees the greatest opportunity for the application of ICT and innovation over the coming years.

Welcome. Martin Bean, Vice-Chancellor Designate of OU Open University. Had been in the UK for two months; this is his first keynote speech. Shows his commitment to learning technology. He’s bringing together complex perspectives from two worlds: the commercial software platform world, and our world of education.

(Martin Bean arrives)

This is the place I like to be best, a pleasure to accept. This is the world he’s spent his entire professional life in – the intersection between education and technology, and bringing them together in a meaningful way.  International personal background. Spent last 15 years working in commercial software companies, all engaged in education. Last five at Microsoft & Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Then made decision to move from theoretical R&D to practical, last November.

This is also the way innovation comes to bear, same journey. Less about pivotal points, but we are custodians of a piece of a journey.

Innovative Scepticism – soundbits from a teacher’s conference in 1703 – ‘students today can’t prepare bark to calculate their problems. They depends on their slates which are more expensive. What will they do when slate is dropped?’; then 1815, students depend on paper to omuch. 1907, students depend too much on ink. 1928, students depend upon store-bought ink.  1941, students depend too much on fountain pens. 1950 ballpoint pens will be the ruin of education in our country.

It’s always been up to us – who see the innovations – to bring education along for the journey.

Thomas Friedman, ‘The World Is Flat’ – changing landscape. Turbo-charged environment, Two years ago this talk wouldn’t have been broadcast like this, and wouldn’t have Twitter feedback and critique – which he will read afterwards (!).  It’s hard for institutions to accept this, and the role that we play in this.lifetime

Employment vs lifetime employability. Education is not a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it’s a lifetime experience. Shifting gears.

Changing nature of HE – three categories: Globalisation, Massification, Privatisation.

Globalisation – 2.5m students learning outside their home country. Bologna process, e.g. of initiative designed to facilitate this.  Unprecedented growth in distance education. In Singapore – 200 possible online MBAs – will do a degree in how to choose!

Massification – macroeconomic environment, some massive increases in supply, but generally the world can’t supply enough to meet demand if we stick with the traditional model.  So have to move from bricks and mortar to clicks and mortar. We’ve seen 20, 30, 40% increases in supply. But in Sub-Saharan Africa, 5% increase a year is nothing like enough.

Privatisation – Tax-funded education is in retreat mode. Private sector the fastest-growing. One in three students studies in a private HE institution.  Has very different motivation to other universities. At the OU, wakes up every day thinking about social justice, giving people access.  Private organisations, wake up every day thinking about shareholder value.  That makes them extremely formidable competitors – fastest-growing, massive uptake of technology, riding the wave of distance education.

So what do we see as our colective challenges?

UK and US overshadowed by India and China – number 1 and number 3 in the world. China’s R&D investment is massive; the rankings for research instutitions will be dramatically different in 20 years.  When PhD students went to the US, they used to stay – now they go home.

Need to educate citizens for new types of work.  UK for adults of working age, just shy of half are not qualified about level 2. If we’re to underpin UK as world leader, thriving and prospering, have to face up to skills agenda, right skills.

STEM is key for a competitive workforce – but is challenged.  Why critical? It fuels innovation. Only future for economies like UK, Australia, US, is innovation.

Increasing importance of sustainability.  Key times in history to make people uncomfortable enough to make a big change. Not about giving courses in green jobs, engineering environment – it’s horizontal, in to all teaching, research, leadership agendas.

Transforming information into meaningful knowledge. 21st media skills, sage on stage to guide on side. Rote memorisation and assessment over. School is like on an aeroplane, have to put all your confidence in someone up the front, and you have to turn off all your electronic devices.  Classic examination setting: put them in a room, take away all their tools bar a pencil and paper. Somehow we’re measuring 21st century skills?

Doesn’t believe that a Powerpoint has a constitutional right to start and finish (!), coming from Microsoft.

Student expectations

Many students never known world without web, sms, MP3s, etc. Heavy use, including social networking. Uptake of technology in homes, roughly 70% in 2008, when up by 2m homes in a year.  We need to continue conversation about access, but must get real about their expectations.

What do they want? Values: autonomy, authenticity, connect and share, creativity, constant stimulation. Priorities: friends, fun, music – real-time interaction and self-presentation. Likes: Devices, cool stuff. Hates: Complexity, bad design, costs, things that get in the way of expression. Really the Internet enables what students wanted before, but faster and at bigger scale.

Crisis of relevance in Higher Education. To be more relevant, blend digital lifestyles and digital work styles: don’t unplug them, make best of both. Future jobs will require those skills.  Lifelong learning – we can’t depend on young graduates. Continual development, learning in the workplace needs to be integral. Breaking down barriers between informal and formal learning – HE must remove artificial barriers, so people can knit pathways together to weave in and out of HE as they need. Our systems look like they’re designed to stop this.  That’s not what everyone needs, not what a quality HE experience should be. Must put learner in the middle; HE is about making sure that learner is at the middle, the support revolves around them.

So with those as backdrops – macroeconomics, student expectations … why is technology relevant? What is the opportunity for technology?

Firstly, expanding the reach of high quality education to all. (OER as one example.) Microsoft research – number one role for technology is expanding access to those who couldn’t otherwise.

Nurturing powerful communities of learning – formally and informally.

Enabling relevant, personalised, engaging learning. Classic textbook model, 4-year refresh, those days are done.

Giving educators more insight and more time.

Nothing new here – the thinking has been around for decades. Instead of lecture like this – all of this could’ve been done in advance, distributed notes. More about assessing where they at, what people got from it. Would allow us to have the most awesome conversation, really get down to where learning takes place.

Also about agile, efficient and connected learning systems. Data is a big challenge: locked up in silos, some home-grown, some off-the-shelf. Everybody wants to unlock the data. MIS or whatever, gives us access to the information we need just when we need it.

Role of technology, where it’s appropriate – but number one thing he’s learned in 25y in the application of technology is that it’s more about the people and the process than it is about the technology.  Why does technology innovation fail in our institutions? Nine times out of ten it’s because we think about the hardware and software and very little about the brainware.

Need to give all stakeholders time and energy, take care of them.

Segue in to talking about the Open University.  Four key themes (Open to People, Places, Methods, Ideas)- will not change, when he’s the VC in two weeks’ time.

(Video of OU history.)

If you’ve every worked for the OU, or been involved, learned, studied – look around – it’s about half the room (presumably mostly IET!). Awesome quest.

Not revolution but evolution.

Student support – it’s always been about personal, but now even more. The OU will ride the web wave to personal. 1.25m teelphone calles, 240k registrations, 800k student assignments, 33k qualifications – every year. We’re going to do this high-touch.  We will redefine our student journey and think about technology at every stage.

Will meet them where they live. If you think they want to hang out in your VLE – ha! – that’s the last place in the world.

Take advantage of changing delivery models, content creatin, consumption and manipulation. iPod would never have worked without Napster, which broke business models.  Same is happening of textbooks.

Being driven by Open Educational Resources – OpenLearn, 4m visitors since launch, very proud of it. Recognise overall initiative to change and lead, the whole sector. The SCORE initiative to help everyone else.

Access: big disruptive: it’s FREE. Free to browse, register, use, adapt, share. Very disruptive indeed.

Going multi-channel: build once, put in repository once, then go meet them everywhere, Miro, iTunes, YouTube.  Visual surfing in iTunes U, if you recognise it’s a place to extend your brand and bee visually attractive. Not a matter of putting lecture notes on to an iPhone, it’s a whole new generation of engaging digital content.  6.12m downloads, 64k visitors, 180k downloads a week. Lots of top-20 hits. Over 50% outside the UK.  How much does it cost? Very cost-effective versus putting signs on the side of buses.

Imagine if .. more than a podcast, but a learning application – the virtual microscope on an iPhone on a Martian meteorite.  Imagine a whole course on that – do it anywhere. That’s the next generation, it’s not just doing podcasts.

Education meets social networking – exciting, fast, disruptive, social (Eboy picture!).  SocialLearn – leveraging Web 2.0 for education, building bricks for a Personal Learning Envrionment.  Learner-centric – not an echo-chamber with comfort zones. Not just a web platform, but architecture of data and services. On Facebook, no breakthrough application for education; what we want is that.

Beyond social networking: moving from people like me, to people who challenge me; quick factual info to learning journeys/depth.

We can build what they want, meet them where they live, break down barriers between informal and formal learning.  Motivated learners are creating their own reuse and sharing models and contects.

Are we prepared to BE our own worst competition?


Australian, David Kennedy, Hong Kong: Wonderful to hear a VC talk about relationship of learning and technology. What will you do to the institutional structures which tend to reward other things?

MB: If we can’t prove the value proposition, sweep people up in what we’re doing, showing them the ‘why’, that we’re willing to invest in enabling the right people and processes, then we won’t break down those structures. Must be aware of two dominant forces: our faculties and academics. Much of this innovation needs to come out of the faculties. They are custodians of quality. Trying to do it skunkworks won’t work. Also the research agenda – OU doesn’t launch anything innovative unless we’ve done a lot of grounded research. Need compelling vision, investment, academics informing the quality, grounded in solid research – and will get it done.

Diana Laurillard, IoE, ex-OU: Changing nature of HE, massification. OU has been exploiting technology like this for ages. Personalisation – key, but difficult to achieve. Greater flexibility – not just of access, but in the way and what you learn.

MB: Diana’s little Apple logo shining at him distracted him from his Microsoft days. Browser is a beautiful thing for enabling multiplatform. When he puts the OU together, it comes through – the personal stuff that we do is key – the AL-student relationship, the peer groups, the phone call when they’re about to give up. Firmly believes we get rid of high-touch at our peril: technology can make this better, not get rid of it.  The platforms allow us to create much more of a personal experience. One AL with 18-24 year-olds (25% of OU students), encouraging them to set up their own Facebook group before the course starts, get to know each other. Across Europe, using Elluminate to create a high-touch personalised experience.  There is always going to be a place for physical touch, but the technology enables it in a special way.  Open Learn is an example of us seizing on technology when it really works. But totally agree, should’ve just said yes.

Shirley Alexander, Sydney Australia: Do students really want us hanging out in their space?

MB: Yes and no. They do if it’s meaningful and relevant. 13yo daughter describes her mother as a Facebook stalker. That’s not what he’s talking about, they don’t want us stalking them. But they do want us to take what they’re using and making it more meaningful for them.  E.g. socialLearn. They don’t want to leave Facebook and come to your VLE, they want to pull it in and stay in their world. Meeting them where they live is like that.  The long tail of learning, what the web provides, can take narrow areas of focus and let people come together. Take that further, giving them scaffolding to make it richer – that’s what he’s talking about. They don’t want us looking at their drunken photos.

John McAlister: Boundaries between FE, HE and schools, will the barriers continue to exist?

MB: For as long as our policymakers and all of us allow them to. We’re the only things standing in the way between primary, secondary, FE, HE working together. They technology exists, the desire from students exist, the funding models and credit models exist. But our courage to get it done isn’t there.

Debbie Cotton from Plymouth: Interested in SocialLearn. Some of our research suggests students switch of Facebook when they’re trying to learn. Do you imagine them flitting between social and learning activities? Students found that distracting.

MB: Those who want to turn it off mode; the net generation can live in a multi-stumulus mode. The real value of SocialLearn is that it’s a platform architecture, they can pull in things as and when they want to bring them in. It’s not designed to take them somewhere else, but be a layer that lets them work within an environment structured with informal learning environments. In closed beta, the UI is key at the moment. I’d rather be the one to figure all that out.

Speckled Computing and Education

Liveblog from Technology Coffee Morning, Jennie Lee Labs, 9 September 2009, given by Eileen Scanlon (IET) and D K Arvind, Director f the Speckled Computing research consortium at Edinburgh University.


For Eileen, it’s the Personal Inquiry project – large collaboration with Nottingham. Inquiry learning in science; a little over halfway through a 3y project.

Hardware is all reasonably off-the-shelf equipment for scientific data capture. Literature-grounded method of supporting the inquiry process by involving young people in empirical work; technology is a way of enabling them to work through an actual cycle of focused investigation, rather than a simulation. Examplar topics: microclimates, urban heat islands.

A lot of previous work to support inquiry learning is about modelling phenomena and processes, often using simulations.

Student feedback says they appreciate real data collection. Project is not tackling issues of modelling and immediacy of feedback.

SensVest, developed at Birmingham as part of Lab of Tomorrow project – vest with accelerometers. Results from pilot trials not very positive.  Hypothesis was that this would be better than looking at readymade or simulated graphs; but not clear that it was. Thought could be because of delay in feedback.

So conversation here is about comparing predictions of a model with data collected in a real-time sense.

Speckled Computing

D.K. Arvind – a high-level overview. Funded by EPSRC. Not in to the technological detail. Work by concetrating on underlying science and technology to realise the specks, and networks of them – specknets – working very closely with domain experts to see how the specks can be used in applications.

Internet has 1 billion hosts today. IPv6 will support >35 trillion separate subnets, and each one in turn can connect millions of devices. Potential capacity to name/connect every grain of sand. Smart objects – smart meaning objects know something about their environment, and location-aware – not necessarily absolute, but relative: who are my neighbours.

Vision: endow persons/objects with sensing, processing and wireless networking capabilities. Aim to bridge the physical and virtual worlds. (Just what I’m interested in!)

Sensor intelligence as a telecom service – plural services, access agnostic.

Specks: minature programmable devices which can sense, compute and network wirelessly. Autonomous, rechargeable, energy scavenging (e.g. photovoltaic cells tuned to internal lighting – focus on built environment). Specks non-static and unreliable – design protocols for expected failure and intermittent connectivity.

Tens/hundreds of specks collaborate as dense programmable network – a Specknet.  Fine-grained distributed computation – the resources (energy, bandwidth, computing) are scarce here. Thirty years ago (or more!) the integrated microprocessor replaced box of different electronics with a single unit, led to a revolution. So here, encapsulate sensing, processing, and networking in a single ‘device’. If these are unobtrusive, lightweight … This is an enabler technology for Ubiquitous Computing.

Family of devices – 8-bit (med) client, can connect up to four sensors with 32-bit (large) microserve first, miniaturising to give 8-bit 5mm cube client. Freespace optics as comms – useful when devices are stationary. Would love to put sensors in e.g. the Jennie Lee Labs – because they’re static, can have line-of sight. Very small, low-power lasers. When on people, need radio – but that’s wasteful of energy because you radiate in all directions rather than directionally.

Next device: ‘Orient’ – 3-axis gyroscopes, accelerometer, temperature – attach to the limbs, calculate orientation on the devices themselves: leads to real-time capture of 3D motion – liberated from the studio. Lots of applications.

Also: Energy Neutral (EN) platform – capturing energy from photovoltaic sens.

Current motion capture methods: 1. Studio based with cameras, many cameras, reflective markers attached to person; grab info from 6-8 cameras, stitch together to get 3D view – computationally/memory-intensive post-processing. Not real time unless very high-end. Expensive – £30k ?per hour. Occlusion is a problem when capturing multiple subjects – need more cameras, but makes more post-processing.

2. Motion-capture suits. Wired suits, lycra, with a bulky base station/backpack which routes the sensor data to a high-end machine to do the processing (like Gollum).

3. Joint angle sensors. Bulky exoskeleton, cumbersome, hinders movement – not widely used.

So want: fully wireless, real-time and interactive, easy to use, ‘banalise the technology’, democatise its usage. Parallel with desktop publishing.

Orient Motion Capture system – currently sensors are about 30mm, need to miniaturise. (Video using Motion Builder for capture at

Can use real avatars: telepresence; bipedal robots operating in a harsh environment – use entire body as interface. Also in games.  Unobtrusive participation in simulations combining real and virtual players – ‘serious games’.

Applications – lots – Digital media (motion capture, games, sports); Health – with Lothian – looking at:

  • Congestive Obstructive Pulmonary Disease COPD non-invasive monitoring of breathing (devices on the chest wall) – can do analysis/monitoring remotely, with patient at home;
  • Intensive care
  • Clinical gait analysis – not just a few minutes in the hospital, but captured over, say, a week – is there variation over the day, different surfaces, slopes and so on. Much richer information for diagnosis.
  • Physiotherapy. Program them with ideal movement, track improvement over time. Transfer data. Can see how well they’re doing.


Showed avatar control to Linden Labs (Second Life). Not keen because would flood their network.

Edingburgh Science Festival 2006 – learning in informal settings. Put sensors on break dancers (8-10 year old), give them ideas about physics e.g. angular momentum, centripetal forces and so on, based on their breakdances. Competition – who can spin on their head fastest. Not saying you’re teaching – surreptitiously getting them to do things.

Golf swing analysis – challenging, limited bandwidth, 2-3 hour tour round club. Data coming in to mobile phone.  Modelled as double pendulum – arms are one pendulum, connected to club which is the other. Equation of motion for double pendulum using Newton’s Laws. Get visual feedback of swinging club in the plane – angles between parts of the arm and so on. Applied sports science unit with biomechanics people helping interpret.

Interacting with robots – Trying to program behaviour, especially standing on one leg, walking etc, is done with heuristics, army of programmers over weeks. Can we capture human motion, analyse, run it on a simulator with physics engine, then select candidates and run on a real robot.  (Extend life of robot by being selective in which gaits to use!)  Get training data from human, segment in to phases. Fantastic videos of arm swinging, standing on one leg, sit-ups: and a great walk by a robot, with no human intervention in the learning algorithm.

“You need to demonstrate before anyone will start adopting these things” – very true.

Health scenarios – Need to validate data. Breathing rate during ventilation – breathing rate validated all the time. Can capture coughs, overall activity – e.g. go to sleep, turn right/left etc. Prosthetic limb adjustment – done by eye at the moment; with their capture data, can make it much closer to the normal/optimal setup. One example – couldn’t do it for climbing up a slope, but can now.

Speckled Computing Applications CEntre (SPACE)

Exists to evangelise! Encourage people to experiment with the technology.  About fifteen applications project, very keen – due to funding! – to see the technology applied, and making a difference.

Example: projectile motion. Take a soft ball with Orient device inside. Instrument thrower with three devices. Thrower throws ball, can detect instant when ball leaves the hand, so only acceleration due to gravity thereafter. Expect an arc defined by good old equation of motion. Study in inquiry learning: try using tangible interface to support learning the laws of projectile motion. Masters student had a first attempt at this.

(The research question here – for me and people like us – is what can you do if motion capture is cheap, easy and near-ubiquitous? Exciting!)


Don’t detect physical location, but can infer it. Treat human body as articulated system of rods. Marker system requires precise placing of markers on parts of the body – here can be anywhere.  Camera-based gives you position information, but have to infer orientation and acceleration.

256-times a second capture. Do-able because done on the devices themselves, so can be done in real time. Base station 33g, sensors 13g. Sensors can talk to each other, but here they all talk to base station.

Feedback not just visual, but audio – a tone – good e.g. in physiotherapy or golf swing. Give audio feedback on how close it is.

Visual feedback on phone for golf – haven’t done any evaluation. They demonstrate they can do it, then work with end users to evaluate it. They work on the speck inside, improving, miniaturising. Applications are collaborations.

Ball-throwing example: very interesting question as to whether the embodied action of doing it makes a difference versus looking at graphs/models. You find the literature says more about the confusion in dealing with messy data. The physics ed literature believes in immediacy and theory-building – but not proven that this is better. Could be that the finding is that you learn better without going near to real things! Some research not finding much difference – or more difficulties in real-world data. Lot of rhetoric about real, authentic experiences as important for learning … but needs to be explored, and can be now. Motivational side is a better argument than representational.

iPhone would’ve been a good bet; have worked on WindowsCE and don’t much enjoy it. Using those in experiments with NHS Lothian. You need a load of software, it’s messy. Happy to work with people to do stuff on more phones, but that’s not their zone. Delighted to work with people to port it – can give you the hooks etc.

Possible applications in Formula 1, Nokia open lab network.

Dance also – tango dancers. Can get metrics about e.g. coupling of motion between leader and follower.

Separate centre for applications, several students, is geared up to use stable versions of their platforms, very open to collaboration.

Motor-control skills development in pre-school children. Ten-week study in a nursery, currently analysing data. Longitudinal study, exploring whether you can spot developmental difficulties.  Previously only possible in very expensive, constrained environment of a lab.  Now can do in ecologically-sound environment – where they normally play.

Wii only gives you acceleration; here get the biomechanics of it.