Tangibles, tabletops or mobiles: which is best for collaborative learning?

Liveblog notes from an IET Technology Coffee Morning by Yvonne Rogers, on Tangibles, tabletops or mobiles: which is best for collaborative learning?

(Podcast version will be available at podcast.open.ac.uk)

Review of her work over the last 10 years. Has been looking at new technologies – shareable technologies – and how they support different activities.

15-20 years ago, students working together f2f would huddle round a PC. One would take control of the mouse, the others would be onlookers. Taking control was awkward. Touchpads and laptops allowed people to move outdoors – but interaction much the same.  Then 10 years ago, mobiles came along – designed for one person to use, but children use them in pairs.

Now, new technologies – tabletops, tangibles – designed specifically for multiple users at one time. Reactable for collaborative music-making using tangible things on a tabletop.

These seem to give better support for collaborative learning than 1-person PC. But which works best for what activity? What are the opportunities and constraints of these technologies and contexts?

Continue reading “Tangibles, tabletops or mobiles: which is best for collaborative learning?”

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Information Use on the Move

Another IET Technology Coffee Morning, this one presented by Keren Mills, from the Open University Library.

Keren spent 10 weeks at Cambridge through the Arcadia Programme, funded by the Arcardia Trust. It’s a three-year programme in to improving library services, especially moving research libraries in to the information age. She wanted to find out what people actually wanted.

When you talk about mobile libraries … people think about vans full of books. But widespread perception that mobile internet is slow and expensive.

Students are in to texts, though – 58% of OU student respondents to Keren’s survey already receive text alerts (and continue to receive some) from their bank or whatever.  A student services pilot in sending texts was successful, sending prompt SMSs to students to remind them about study, upcoming TMAs, and so on. Students felt the university cared about them and were thinking about them – even if they didn’t need the reminder they appreciated the communication. Feedback survey showed most students wanted exam date notification and results.

Mobile-friendly websites: AACS noticed people using our websites using mobile devices.  50% of student respondents access mobile internet via their phones; 26% once a week or more. Very little interest from Cambridge students – might be younger than OU ones (on average) but they’re local to the University.

The perception is that mobile browsing is expensive – it’s better than it was, but still costs.  Some better than others – Virgin currently cap 3G data at 30p/day for up to 25Mb.

Only 26% of student respondents have downloaded apps to their phone and would so so again – higher than for overall, but not much.  iPhone might be changing that. (E.g. app being developed by KMi – the Virtual Microscope project and some others.)

Use of media on phones – students view photos most (75%)! Staff listen to music more (60%), and have more podcasts/journal articles/e-books exposure.  Students don’t, probably because we don’t prompt them to.

(An interesting discussion ensued about authentication to get access to e-journals.)

OU Library have been working to make their site more mobile-friendly. They’re using autodetecting reformatting software, which tries to suss the resolution, strips out the pictures, and reformats it.  It’s the same content, navigation and so on.

Students were particularly interested in location details and opening hours, and being able to search the catalogue. So they’re trying to make that easier. Moving towards a more CSS-based system in the future.

Safari – information skills site – has recently been overhauled.  Developed some mobile learning objects for reinforcement and revision – cli.gs/mSafari. Using their LO generator developed in-house.

Also – iKnow project – mobile learning objects, currently under evaluation.

About 33% of OU respondents have used text reference services (e.g. rail enquiries); a further 26% said they might, having heard about it through the survey.

General pattern of increased interest among OU students than others, probably because of our distributed area.

There are a range of mobile devices and emulators available in the Digilab.

Discussion

The autodetect and reformat software doesn’t work well with mobile version of Safari – so the Library site treats iPhones and iPod touches as ordinary browsers. Best practice is to give people the option of using mobile or standard version.

Technology in PI and ERA projects

Liveblog notes from IET Technology Coffee Morning by Eileen Scanlon and Mark Gaved on Technology in PI: Personal Inquiry and ERA (Enabling Remote Activity) projects: Challenges and lessons learnt.

(I liveblogged a previous talk on ERA (Enabling Remote Activity) last December.)

Personal Inquiry

PI – 3y EPSRC/ESRC TEL programme funded. Scripted learning envrionment to guide learners through inquiry process. Oakgrove School KS3 geography students (N=300); GCSE Urban Heat Islands, across MK and Northampton; Year 8 Microclimates, around school grounds. First pilot run with 80 (!) students in 2008, second one large too – so calling them ‘trials’ rather than pilots.

Social issue: the flight from science in schools. Difficult to persuade young people of relevance of science to their lives. So inquiry important theme in project to make the learning of important scientific principles relevant to you as a young person – hence Personal Inquiry. Focus on formal and informal settings, and devices including personal mobile technologies and shared classroom displays.

‘Scripted inquiry learning’ has some ‘studied ambiguity’ – building on the  ‘discovery learning’ literature.  Also more technical meaning of ‘scripted’. Inquiry learning lit review as first stage, shared model of Inquiry Process. Took that representation, rendered it as an Activity Guide (or orchestrate, direct, or be ordered about the inquiry process), with support for what you need at each stage: Find our focus, Decide our hypothesis, Plan our methods, Collect our data, Present my data, Write my report.  Shift from collective to individual – exam board requirement to be individual – so working in groups to collect, but then individual inquiries.

Lot of technology: ultramobile PCs – Asus Eee PC; Scienscope data loggers and sensors (CO, temperature, IR irradiance, anemometer, humidity) – rugged, precise, quick to report; standalone GPS – Garmin eTrex; digital cameras – Canon A460 Powershot digital cameras (‘Sir, we’ve taken 500 photos already and don’t have room for any more’!); wifi – standard 802.11; OU web server; web-based Activity Guide as coordinating interface. Data saved locally on Eee when mobile and don’t have the network.

Enabling Remote Activity

Remote access: Enabling mobility-impaired students to participate in geology fieldwork and complete learning objectives. SXR 339 Ancient Mountains, one-week residential school in Scotland.

Remote collaboration: Group work involving students split between field and lab locations; one-day trial.

Geologists want to see both the big picture (view of whole land feature) but also very close-up.

Technology: server/client – Sony laptops, Asus Eee PC; video – IP security cams, Eee built-in; images – digicams, wifi cams; audio – walkie talkies, VoIP phones; transient wireless network – Linksys access points, external antennae on lighting stands, 12V batteries; local web server; web-based interface.

The ideal mobile device – looked at PDA, phone form, normal laptop, Asus Eee – Asus Eee settled on, but not perfect.  Portability is a challenge – but groupwork helps since can distribute some problems, e.g. weight. Multiple cabling and multiple devices not helpful – so built-in webcam in Eee halves number of batteries; wifi camera simplifies cables/card transfer; walkie talkie headsets free up a hand.  Power another one – full days in field, battery/generator, overnight recharging.

General points across both projects

Web-based interface big win in ERA and PI. Interface very familiar, little training needed. Continuity of field and built environments on different machines.  Issue of field machine browser connecting to local server (need later sync – challenge with large numbers of machines) or connecting to remote server (requires connectivity – challenge in the field).

Connectivity on the edge: tension between interesting locations and well-connected locations.  School networks not designed for roaming connectivity; poor line-of-sight in field.  Firewall issues too.  Local connectivity hard but backhaul even more tricky.

Bridging environments tricky. Solutions to technical issues may work (network keys, proxies, transitions) but social issues may override (e.g. teenagers grounded from internet use!).

New ways of teaching – technology fitting in to existing practices. Challenge of orchestration between multiple tutors and researchers – scaffolding by scripting (PI) is one solution.  (Although this requires intensive preparation and thinking-through by researchers beforehand; not ideal for lightweight usage that’d facilitate abduction/appropriation by the teachers/tutors themselves. Always a big challenge for tech innovation learning research projects – including at the OU. How do you get the great mass of teachers able to pick up the tech and redeploy it to meet their needs? Good examples as models from research projects help.)

Need pragmatic, participatory design – tutors/teachers and students crucial input but are very busy.

Graceful degradation – always have a Plan B – teachers/tutors do this by instinct anyway, technology needs the same approach, including fallback technical solutions: spares, redundant communications routes, etc.

Scaling issues: identical setups helps, but takes time to set up/turn around 30 machines – real challenge on a daily basis. Needs room and power to do it. “How many sockets do you want in the new building?” “Oh, 88 should do us.”

Summary points

  • technology intervention changes the learning activity – transformation of practice
  • test in field (in authentic contexts) as much as possible
  • important to co-design activities (participatory approach)
  • evaluation of interventions crucial but challenging (practicality, control groups)
  • need sustainability and exit strategy

(… which I think stand as very good general points for most technology interventions in teaching – or indeed any teaching innovation)

The sky is not falling in

Good, well-grounded article by language legend David Crystal in The Guardian this weekend, on texting.  Countering doom-mongers like John Humphrys, who claimed (in the Daily Mail!) to hate texters:

They are destroying [our language]: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.

David Crystal explains that the distinctive SMS orthography (‘txtspk’) found in SMS messages is not new, not restricted to the young, is a small fraction of the text found in SMS messages, and alludes to evidence that it helps rather than hinders language development.

Some people dislike texting. Some are bemused by it. But it is merely the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings. There is no disaster pending. We will not see a new generation of adults growing up unable to write proper English. The language as a whole will not decline. In texting what we are seeing, in a small way, is language in evolution.

It’s great stuff.  I couldn’t help thinking, though, that his argument would have been much stronger without this section:

Sending a message on a mobile phone is not the most natural of ways to communicate. The keypad isn’t linguistically sensible. No one took letter-frequency considerations into account when designing it. For example, key 7 on my mobile contains four symbols, pqrs. It takes four key-presses to access the letter s, and yet s is one of the most frequently occurring letters in English. It is twice as easy to input q, which is one of the least frequently occurring letters.

… which makes me worry he’s never encountered one-tap/predictive text systems (like T9 and iTap), which have been standard on mobile phones for … what, five years or more?  I’d certainly expect that the introduction of predictive text dramatically reduced the usage of the distinctive SMS orthography.

(Edit: Stephen Downes points to it too, linking to a longer discussion by Graham Attwell at Pontydysgu.)

Gadgets gadgets gadgets

It’s been a great time for gadget enthusiasts recently. By ‘recently’ I mean the last few months, but of course, the last thirty years or so have been pretty good on the gadget stakes.

Anyway – there’s the iPhone and its phoneless little sister, the iPod touch, there’s the Asus Eee (and its distant cousin the XO from the One Laptop Per Child project), and now there’s Amazon’s Kindle.

iPhone and iPod touch

I have an iPod touch and it’s absolutely marvelous. The interface is just so right. I mostly use it for wireless web browsing. It’s physically slightly smaller than a PDA, but the web experience is so much better. The finger scrolling and text resizing is a wonder.

The Wifi just works. It’s been a nightmare on every PDA I’ve ever used – endless fiddling and tweaking and unreliable. It’s not always smooth on laptops either. But everywhere I’ve tried the iPod touch, it’s been a dream. If it’s a new network, it asks if you want to connect first, and then – boom (as Steve Jobs would say) – you’re in. If it’s a network you’ve connected to before … you’re just connected. The experience is the antithesis of the configuration fiddle of Bluetooth, which was my least-loved technology until fairly recently. (It’s now Adobe’s PDF plugins for browsers.)

The web experience is so wonderful you can even use the execrable Outlook Web Access on it without it being too painful.
The text entry is way better than I expected. In my own personal and highly unreliable testing, I scored 26 wpm on it, versus 31 wpm using predictive text on my phone, and I expect the difference will reduce as I build up practice on the iPod touch. (For comparison, my legible handwriting is 35 wpm, illegible scrawl is 50 wpm, a PDA fold-out keyboard rates 86 wpm, and a full-size keyboard is 104 wpm. Worst score ever was 6.4 wpm for handwriting recognition.)

The down side is mainly stuff it simply doesn’t do. The Calendar is next to useless since you can’t add entries (and I can’t sync it with my work calendar, but that’s true of anything ever, and I can at least see it via the web). You can’t sync or suck down fresh data by wireless. Except, of course, if you want to pay money to iTunes for a fresh tune.

This is part of the secret of Apple’s success with hardware, though: if they can’t do it well, they simply don’t do it, which makes the total experience so much nicer.
Sitting around the house, reading the very latest news, watching silly YouTube videos, catching up on what friends and interesting people are up to via their blogs … all via a tiny thing that sits in one hand … it feels like I’m living in the future.

Mini-laptops (Eee, XO)

These are very impressive at first glance, and lots of fun. It’s clearly a new form factor niche between PDA/smartphones and more full-function small laptops/tablet PCs. It’ll be interesting to see if that is a big zone outside of us initial technical enthusiasts.

Personally, the form factor is out of a sweet spot for me. They’re too big to fit neatly in to a jacket pocket (like a PDA/fold-out keyboard combo, or my iPod touch), but if I’m going to have to carry something in my hand or bag anyway, I’d rather have a larger tablet PC.

The price point is extremely attractive, but I hear that Dell has slashed prices on its Vostro range of full-function laptops to $400, so that reason for them is less compelling too.

Amazon Kindle

This is the newest device here – announced officially yesterday. It remains to be seen whether it’ll ever be available outside the US.

The form factor seems just right: close to a paperback book. But the interface and design! It’s just so ugly and clunky, particularly by comparison with the iPhone and iPod touch. I read somewhere that the intention was to make it seem more serious than most gadgets, to appeal to less techie, more bookish people. I think that’s a mistake (lots of techie people are heavy readers too, and they are surely the main market for this), but even if it isn’t, nobody actively wants something that’s hard to use. I’ve not actually played with one yet, so I could be wrong in my extrapolations from the demos, but it certainly doesn’t look pretty and easy-to-use.

The eInk display looks good, and is definitely the Right Thing if you’re trying to replace books. I really hope eInk technology moves on even further – it seems so much better than LCDs.

Not requiring a monthly contract is a very smart move as well. And it doesn’t need cables to get fresh content! You pay to download a book (via One-click, which I always worry about enabling, but then I’m paranoid about accidentally spending money) and it’s beamed to your Kindle via a 3G mobile network.

(It’s a US-only version of 3G, with patchy coverage, which is a potential big problem. I think wifi would’ve been a better choice – at least with wifi, you can set up connectivity yourself at home or at work for fifty quid or so. With 3G phone networks, you have to wait for the network provider to set it up.)

But having said it doesn’t require an ongoing contract, you have to pay a subscription to get a newspaper downloaded. Eh? When I can see newspapers’ websites for free on my iPod? I don’t think so.

And the pricing gets more surreal. You have to pay to get access to blogs. I’m sorry? Pay, to read a blog? You must be joking. And it offers access to ‘the top 250 blogs’, which misses the entire point of blogs. Most of the blogs people will want are way out there in the long tail (like this one!) – hardly anyone reads them, but the few who do are often personally connected.

And yet more questionable. You can read your own documents (Word, PDFs, images) on the device … if you pay to have them converted and downloaded. I have to pay … to read content that I actually wrote and own myself? No.

It offers free wireless access to Wikipedia, which is great … but not the rest of the Internet. Because you might visit the newspapers’ websites, or blogs, instead of paying! This is an extreme walled garden, and, like all walled gardens, doomed ultimately. (Although ‘ultimately’ can be an awfully long time coming – see e.g. Facebook.)

Content is king, and they seem to have the right content initially – plenty of bestselling novels. Unlike every other eBook, including Sony Reader. The price point looks clever too – $10 rather than $25+ for hardbacks.

But the DRM! Oh, the DRM. Electronic books offer the potential for you to do so much more with a book than the traditional paper-based format – to search, annotate, share, edit, comment, cut-and-paste or even, dare I say it, mash up. But the DRM stops you doing anything but a cut-down crap version of the first two in that list. I can lend a book I’ve enjoyed to a friend, scrawl marginal notes on it and give it to a colleague or student, release it in to the wild with a BookCrossing sticker, donate it to a charity shop, or even sell it second-hand – perhaps on Amazon (!). I can’t do any of that with a Kindle eBook.

OU course materials would render much more nicely on this than – to take a random example! – on Open Learn. Students could transfer the PDFs of course materials to their Kindle – for the appropriate fee, naturally – and take a whole stack of units with them everywhere. There’s plenty of bookmarking, but it doesn’t appear to offer much in the way of annotation, which many students find invaluable in studying.

Long-term something like Kindle will overtake books, and generations of readers will form the same attachment to eBooks that the Baby Boomer generation has with print books and Gen X has with the Internet. But it won’t be Kindle that does it. I can see, using a version of Martin Weller’s VLE succession model, that this is another step along the line to a rosy future.

I still think there’s a big window for local print-on-demand for books, though. Amazon’s ability to corral vast quantities of quality content in to electronic format shows that it can be done, and if the deals can be done for an eBook reader, they can surely be done for a proprietary print-on-demand system.

Update: Apparently it can’t read PDFs, at all, even via the paid-for conversion system.  Another nail in the coffin.