Anytime, Anywhere Learning finally achieved (but not here)

A couple of years ago, I asked Berthold Weidmann, esteemed director of NETLinc, whether he thought school students in Lincolnshire would all be carrying laptops by 2007. This was a target being promoted by Microsoft’s Anytime Anywhere Learning initiative.

His answer, unequivocally, “No.”

“But” he continued, “it doesn’t matter because they all have mobile phones.”

I’ve been puzzling since over just how Berthold’s vision was going to develop. It’s not the devices I’m worried about. There are several PDA + Phone combos on the market now, and by next year prices will have dropped to levels where kids will buy them. What’s concerning me is the cost of bandwidth. I don’t believe either schools or parents will be willing to pay even a small fraction of the costs that online lessons would cost over a GPRS or G3 network.

Now, reported in the Korea Times, (via Anthony Townsend), we can see a model starting to form. The Korean government is subsidising its phone operators to offer this gadget at a knockdown price. The significance is that this phone/PDA will access Nespot in preference to the phone network if it can get a signal.

Nespot is a national network of Wi-Fi hotspots. Korea Telecom (KT) say

At present 12,000 NESPOT zones (Hot spots) use NESPOT service and wireless high-speed Internet service.
Other areas use [mobile phone] service, so that users can economically use the Internet anywhere, any time, in Korea. This is the actual service launched last February by KT and KTF.

So, the Korean model is

  • a national network of low-cost Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • a usable browsing device that can switch between phone (expensive) and Wi-Fi (cheap) networks.
  • a government subsidy sufficient to make the whole system popular, which will bring costs down further.

It takes very little imagination to fill in the last bits of Berthold’s jigsaw puzzle. Put Nespot Wi-Fi hubs into every home (in Korea they cost $20/month which is about half the price of an ordinary ADSL connection here) and into every school. They are already in public transport nexi and other places where kids congregate. Inspire the content creators (e.g. me and my editorial staff) to produce stunning materials that really use the networked abilities, and which compensate for that small screen.

And you’ve done it. Anytime, anywhere learning achieved with three years to spare. Provided you’re in Korea, that is.

Differentiation strategy for online materials

Saqib Akram, a very proactive teacher from Derby High School who uses our online GCSE Applied Business course, emailed us today with some feedback from his students

The wording on all assignment questions eg. Module 1 portfolio A Cameron balloons. All pupils felt that the questions asked could be simplified as they found it difficult to understand. They also felt that question had too much text in them which put them off reading all of the question.

We’ve also had equal but opposite feedback from other teachers who fear that the work does not stretch their students enough to aim for an A*. All entirely normal stuff; students of that course cover the whole ability range and you can’t please everyone. Or can you?

Right from its inception, Paperless School was designed to invisibly manage differentiated material, applying the right level of a course to each student, without involving the teacher in a load of dreary admin. Challenge number one, which with Saqib’s impetus we’ll address over the Summer, is to produce parallel versions of the core course modules.

Challenge number two is more vexing. How do we know each student’s level? To begin with, it’s easy. We simply ask the teacher to predict that student’s grade. But what if the student improves? Or backslides?

We could use each student’s current marks to determine a level, perhaps. But then one fluke good grade could bunk the student up into a level where they flounder, or vice-versa. Perhaps an average over the last three assignments would be enough to demonstrate a level that was both current and sustainable. We’re going to have to experiment widely with this before we get it right, I think. Until then, it will still be down to Saqib and his colleagues to periodically update the system’s knowledge of his students’ abilities.

NLP Conference

NLP Conference

My introduction to educational publishing came when I co-authored a book of worksheets on self-motivation and related topics, called Goal Setting and Decision Making. I found the process sufficiently rewarding that I acquired the publishing rights to it, along with some 39 other titles, and used them to found the Chalkface Project. I’m proud to say that it still sells well 15 years later.

That book was based on a (then) very new branch of psychology called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). I had recently completed training in this and it had made a huge difference to my life. I wrote the book because I wanted to find a way to give back.

I still feel that sense of obligation, so when I was asked to develop the website for November’s NLP Conference in London, I naturally agreed. That website is finally ready, and you might be interested to know that it features a very interesting-looking track on NLP in Education.

The joys and sorrows of Open Source

Like most people who run large web-based projects, I’ve had good and bad experiences with open-source software. Generally, I’m very pro open source, for the simple reason that it enables me to offer better (much better!) value to Chalkface’s customers.

Where I’ve had bad experiences, they have been a result of my failure to weigh carefully the advice of over-zealous advocates for the open source movement. Given this, I was fascinated to read Michelle Levesque’s paper Fundamental issues with open source software development (via OL Daily). She correctly identifies all the issues I’ve faced and gives some very sound advice on dealing with them. If you are making an open source vs. proprietory decision, make sure this is on your reading list!

The timing of this article is particularly apposite because we are this week in the process of installing a new development server with a new software configuration. If successful this configuration will be carried forward to our main production cluster in about six months’ time. The new configuration is:

  • Operating system: Gentoo Linux (was Red Hat Linux)
  • Web server: Apache (no change)
  • Java server: Tomcat (was Jrun)
  • Database: MySQL (no change)

This represents a further shift towards open source. JRun is a fully proprietory product, and Red Hat has become a licensed product even though it’s a distribution of Linux. I’ll report in a few months whether this experiment has been a success.