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July 17, 2006

Digital natives

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This article in the Sunday Times is an interesting discussion of the concept of being "digitally native" or a "digital immigrant". Emily, who's 20, is a digital native:–

Technology is an essential part of my everyday social and academic life. I don’t know where I’d be without it.

But her mum, who's 55, isn't:–

Though 55–year–old Christine happily shops online and e–mails friends, at heart she’s still in the old world. “Children today are multitasking left, right and centre — downloading tracks, uploading photos, sending e–mails. It’s nonstop,” she says with bemusement. “They find sitting down and reading, even watching TV, too slow and boring. I can’t imagine many kids indulging in one particular hobby, such as birdwatching, like they used to.”

The interesting question is whether this distinction between people who have grown up with and always had access to some technologies and who use it continuously, ubiquitously and in a multi–tasking way, and people who are IT literate but not dependent in the same way signifies anything. Are twenty year olds in some significant sense different to 50 year olds because they're more dependent on their mobiles and they surf the web, email, text and IM, sometimes all at once? The article quotes people who think that the answer is "yes", but they mostly seem to be stating without proof:–

Something as massive as our — for many people — daily interaction with computers and video players is bound to have a significant effect.

And another suggestion is that being digitally native implies an acceptance of rapid change which is less apparent in older people. But I don't think this is anything to do with technology per se; it's just that when you're younger, you're more accepting of or enthusiastic about change than when you're older. Since technology is changing quickly, young people are more comfortable with it than older people, but it's not the technology that's significant, it's the change; you could argue exactly the same thing about fashion.

So I don't know. There's nothing in this article, interesting though it is, that seems to offer any kind of convincing evidence that digital natives are different in any substantive way to digital immigrants except in the observable sense of how they use technology. Whether it's made them more intelligent, or shortened their attention span, or made them better at responding to certain stimuli seems to be an open question. I wonder what an academic who has been teaching for many years would think? Arguments about whether the work students do at school prepares them for university as well as it used to are well rehearsed, but if you were to try and control for that in some way, would students today be observably different to how they were twenty years ago? And if they were, would the difference be plausibly attributable to their being digitally native?

July 14, 2006

Adults and MySpace

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Excellent essay by Stephen Downes on the real versus perceived dangers of sites such as MySpace, and what might constitute a proportionate response.

After all, if a grown man came to a school playground and started swearing and drinking and making lewd remarks, we would react by removing the adult, not by preventing children from accessing the park.

Thoughtful and measured, as always.

July 04, 2006

Compulsory Tablet PCs

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Tablet PCAccording to this news item Virginia Tech Polytechnic in the US intends to make the use of Tablet PCs in class compulsory from Autumn 2006.

As part of a new partnership with Fujitsu Computer Systems and Microsoft, Virginia Tech will be using new Fujitsu LifeBook T4000 computers to change the way its engineering classes are taught, particularly at the introductory level, the school said.

The bitter pill of compulsory use will be sweetened somewhat by the fact that the institution will be giving these devices to its students, not requiring them to buy them for themselves, though it's not absolutely clear whether it's a permanent or a temporary arrangement where the students will have to return the device at the end of the year or the course.

Either way, though, the interesting question is, what will the tablets be used for? What's so compelling about these devices that it's worth going to what presumably will be quite a lot of trouble and expense to get one into the hands of every student? The article hints at the sorts of uses being envisaged:–

Students will be able to take notes and construct designs on their LifeBooks, which are intended to make it easier for students to collaborate with each other and share their work with instructors electronically.
[The institution] will be providing training this summer so that faculty can adjust to using the machines in classroom presentations, the school said. The software that will be used includes Microsoft Office OneNote, SketchUp and Classroom Presenter.

I can see that engineering students could in principle benefit from software designed to let them draw and sketch as part of their note–taking process. And collaboration and sharing are the motherhood and apple pie of education these days, so it's hard to argue with anything which supports that. But I remain slightly unclear about how exactly this will work when next autumn rolls around. Will students be turned away from class if they turn up without their tablet? Will the institution fit power outlets to every seat in all the lecture theatres and other teaching spaces where these devices are to be used? (Tablets tend to have a battery life of about three or four hours, so you couldn't go a whole day without recharging it somewhere.)

And if one were being ruthlessly cost–benefit about it, is sharing sketches and notes wirelessly from one tablet PC to another really thousands of pounds better than sharing (higher resolution!) notes and sketches made on paper, using a photocopier and some shoe leather? I watch with interest to see if Virginia Tech report back on the value of the program after the first semester is done.

June 19, 2006

How to cheat good

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Amusing blog entry from a professor in the US tired of seeing incompetent plagiarism from his students:–

When you copy things from the web into Word, ignoring #3 above, don’t just “Edit > Paste” it into your document. When I am reading a document in black, Times New Roman, 12pt, and it suddenly changes to blue, Helvetica, 10pt (yes, really), I’m going to guess that something odd may be going on.

Sound advice.

June 17, 2006

GCSE maths

I was pleased to discover, via today's Guardian (p28), that were I asked to take it, I would pass this year's GCSE maths paper.

June 16, 2006

Universities in fifty years time

At a conference last week I got into an interesting discussion about whether technology is going to be highly disruptive to universities. Others in the discussion thought that it will be, and that what universities do and how they do it will be fundamentally changed by the rise of the PC, the web, the network, and so on.

But I didn't. I tend to the view that universities have been doing what they do for a very long time, and have continued to work in more or less the same way despite the arrival of such earth–shattering inventions as the printing press, radio, television, the VCR and whatever other inventions one might reasonably class as earth shattering. If you went back to, say, the eighteenth century then what's surprising is not how different universities would look to you, but how similar: clothes, language and presentational aids aside, what you would see would be recognisably similar to what happens today: large groups taught in large rooms, small groups taught in small rooms, exams to test understanding. Or at least knowledge. Or at least retention.

Of course, the fact that something has been around for a long time doesn't mean that it's guaranteed to stay around for the indefinite future. Lots of things have changed or dwindled away as the internet has grown: bookshops, brokerage services, or travel agents for example. But my prediction is that universities will carry on much as they have done, using new technologies to improve and extend what they do, but not to fundamentally change it. So I offered my colleagues at the conference a wager: in fifty years time, I said, I believe that universities will be essentially unchanged from how they are now, with large groups taught in large rooms, small groups in small ones, and written exams at the end of the course. My colleagues were all happy to take the wager on the assumption that I would lose. Would you take that wager?

June 07, 2006

More laptops in lectures

Follow-up to Laptops in lectures from Autology: John Dale's blog

A month ago, I wrote about the use of laptops in lectures, prompted by reports of American academics who have decided to ban them. I wondered whether the problem was really the laptop, or the internet access that often goes along with it, and I've been interested to read that some US institutions are giving lecturers the ability to disable internet access in the lecture theatre if they wish.

Since then there's been more debate on the subject, including an article in the Times Higher from June 2nd which rather disconcertingly quoted my previous blog entry. It's an odd sensation to see yourself quoted in print when you aren't expecting it. But much more entertainingly, they also reported that:–

New students at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California are told of the perils of digital distraction. Earlier this year, the campus installed a parabolic mirror at the back of a new classroom and plans to put in more. The mirror allows lecturers to keep tabs on students, but "it also makes the subtle statement that [lecturers] can see who's on email", says John Clarke, assistant dean and chief information officer.

I'm not sure why, but I find that faintly comic. If you don't want students to use laptops, you could ask them not to, or you could disable internet access if you're worried about web browsing (as the University of Virginia has done). But a giant mirror? What do lecturers do, call out people if they spot web sites they don't like? "You, near the back, reading the Onion: Out!".

In studies cited in the article, though, the problem does seem to be a real one: students allowed the use of laptops in a test group performed significantly less well in retention tests than students who weren't.

But not everyone sees the problem the same way: I was also struck by these quotes in the Chronicle of Higher Education (the US version of the THES) where this topic has been discussed on their forums:–

I figure it is my job to make what I do in the classroom more interesting and more pressing to the students than their friends' MySpace profiles. I tell students that laptops are fine for taking notes. Also that if they open a laptop, I am going to call on them, repeatedly, to summarize something I just said. This method works and is not very hard. And yet here we have people wishing for a mechanical control to make up for their not running their classroom sensibly?
Many of us are crackerjack lecturers— and that's what my ratings say, too. But the web, IM, and e–mail are like visual heroin — best left out of lecture.

And best of all:–

I make my students strip down to their skivvies before they enter my classroom. Inside, they have to take notes with lumps of charcoal on flat rocks (though in upper level classes I allow home made quill pens and birch bark). We speak to another in Old English. I mean, why should I have to change my pedagogy to keep up with information technology? What do you think I am, someone in the information business? Traditions so sacred as ours are not to be questioned.

May 15, 2006

Deaf studies at Bristol

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Bristol University has a Centre for Deaf Studies. Impressively, their web site is augmented by providing video on all the major pages containing both British Sign Language and International Sign Language together with sub–titles.

One small thing I don't get, though: most of their audience, deaf or otherwise, will be able to read. So what's the problem which adding sign language to their pages is intended to solve?

May 07, 2006

Laptops in lectures

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I was interested to read this article about more lecturers (in the US) deciding to ban student use of laptops during lectures. The argument is simple enough: laptops, at best, turn students into stenographers; at worst, students are playing online poker, IMing their friends, emailing, blogging, anything except engaging with the lecture itself.

At the University of Pennsylvania, law professor Charles Mooney banned laptops from his classes two years ago. Around that time, said Mooney, he was serving as an expert witness in a lawsuit. During a break in his deposition, he recalled asking the stenographer if she found the case interesting. She replied that she didn't remember anything she had taken down, Mooney said. "I thought, 'That's what my students are doing,'".

To me the interesting question is what laptops in lectures are actually good for. Taking notes faster, on the basis that most people nowadays can type faster than they can write? Getting notes in electronic form straightaway rather than having to copy–type them later, so that they can be more effectively searched and cross–referenced? Easier inter–mingling of the lecturer's handout materials with the student's own notes (assuming that the handout is already on the laptop when the lecture takes place)?

I notice that none of these uses require an internet connection. It's possible in principle, I suppose, that a wifi–equipped laptop could be useful in allowing the student to look up additional content relating to the lecture via Google or whatever. But I bet nobody actually does this effectively; it would be too difficult to multi–task the searching, the listening and the note–taking. So if internet–equipped laptops in lectures serve no useful purpose, then rather than penalising students who find laptops a better way to take notes, would it be a better strategy just not to provide wired/wireless networking in lecture theatres?

April 26, 2006

College bans MySpace

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A college in the US, Del Mar College in Texas, has prohibited access to MySpace from its campus. Not because they disapprove of the content or the site, but because they estimated that it was consuming an unbelievable 40% of all their bandwidth.

Users trying to access sites other than MySpace were complaining that their browsing experience was poor, and the college decided that their needs outweighed the importance of students being able to check each others' garish, witless profiles fifty times a day. (Disclaimer: Del Mar College didn't use the words "garish" or "witless" in its statement.)

April 24, 2006

University costs & incomes

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Interesting report on the BBC news site about the costs and incomes of UK universities, culled from the HESA returns:-

  • Total income of £18bn in the last academic year, a rise of 6.5% on the 2003–04 total of £16.9bn.

  • Spending rose by 6.7% to £17.8bn, so the surplus within the sector overall fell from £237m to £213m.

  • Staff costs rose from £9.7bn to £10.4bn.

March 24, 2006

Students' shameless emails

Follow-up to About email from Autology: John Dale's blog

Following on from my recent entry about email I was amused at yet another attempt by the THES to generate a shocking headline from a not-especially-shocking story: the headline reads:-

Shameless students put tutors in e-mail hell

and the article asserts that students:-

… bombard lecturers with e-mail messages at all hours of the day to make banal or impertinent queries in a manner that ranges from the overly familiar to the downright rude.

Now I'm sure that this happens. But is it a widespread problem? Is it, as the article clearly wishes us to conclude, ubiquitous? Further down the article, we're told that the examples quoted emerge from:-

an informal Times Higher survey of UK academics – who were only too pleased to divulge their experiences.

Strangely, the article declines to mention the survey size, the number of respondents who didn't suffer these sorts of problems, or how the respondents were chosen. Sometimes I think the THES aspires to be the Daily Mail of Higher Education: SOMETHING MUST BE DONE ABOUT THIS OUTRAGE!

March 14, 2006

OU goes free

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The OU has announced a plan to spend almost six million pounds to provide e-learning content freely on the internet. Half of the money is being provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. From the press release:-

The Open University will draw on its experience in supported open learning to provide an environment which contains both high quality learning materials and a range of learning support and informal community building tools. There will be one site that is primarily for learners, where material with suggested learning pathways will be offered. A second site will be primarily for other course creators; it will foster the concept of sharing and re-use of materials. Through the development of both sites the University plans to take open content delivery on to a new level.

In principle, nobody is better placed to do this than the OU. But there have been similar initiatives before, notably MIT's OpenCourseware project, and it's hard to deny that there's a pretty serious gulf between providing content and, if you will, meta-content about how to use the materials, and the actual process of delivering learning. It's not clear to me who the teachers using this content will be and who the students will be. The press release says:-

the University will select and make available educational resources from all study levels from access to postgraduate and from a full range of subject themes: arts and history, business and management, health and lifestyle, languages, science and nature, society and technology. Learners will also be able to benefit from a range of study skills development material.

which sounds great, but are materials such as these educationally valuable outside the context of a university in which to deliver them? The text mentions some pre-existing OU intiatives to help support learning in sub-Saharan and other African institutions; perhaps the rationale is purely about helping other HE institutions which might otherwise struggle with the costs associated with providing learning materials. An interesting project to watch.

March 12, 2006

About email

So we've been doing some interviews with our colleagues in academic departments about their uses of and aspirations for IT in their work. Something that has come up repeatedly is the crucial importance of email, either implicitly, because "email" is the answer to the question "How do you do x?" for lots of values of x, or explicitly, where our interviewees go out of their way to tell us that email is the single most important application to them, hugely more important than anything else.

This clearly isn't stop-the-press stuff; the email outage last Christmas and the intermittent problems with it since then have already provided plenty of proof that email is a Really Big Deal to people. But I think there's another interesting question which one can ask; when and why did email become so mission critical? Ten years ago it wasn't unusual to find members of the university who didn't use email at all. Five years ago most people used it, but my sense is that they didn't depend on it as they seem to now. What's changed?

In part I suspect it's a network effect: if everyone else uses email then you have to. If everyone else responds to their email within the hour then you seem unresponsive if you don't. There's an interesting article called What's the secret to your success? by Michael Hyatt, the President of Thomas Nelson Publishers:

If I really, really had to boil it down to one thing, I would say this: responsiveness. … Reality is that we live in an “instant world.” People want instant results. They don’t want to wait. And if they have to wait on you, their frustration and resentment grows. They begin to see you as an obstacle to getting their work done.

If that's right, if expectations of responsiveness have grown, then you can see why not having your email would be a problem. I think there could be other reasons too:-

  • For some people, their email folders have become their de facto filestore. They receive all their documents by email, they file their emails in a well organised structure of folders, so the documents and files they need are stored in and retrieved from their email folders instead of their C drive or H drive. This also makes the files available from almost anywhere, which may be a deliberate decision or an accidental by-product.

  • Some people use email as their to-do list manager, either explicitly by maintaining calendars and to-do lists and contact lists within their email system, or implicitly because their inbox represents all the things that currently need their attention. No inbox means no sense of what the next thing that needs doing is.

These two functions could be moved out of email if necessary, of course. If it was easy to store and access and share files on the desktop or via the web then the need to use email for those purposes might diminish. Likewise rich, shareable to-do lists and calendars and directories. If there was campus-based instant messaging, would that reduce reliance on email for quick, short, immediate interactions? (None of which is to say, of course, that one should move these functions into different applications, only that one could.)

So if we ignore these other aspects of email for a moment and concentrate on the core business of sending and receiving messages, what's the nature of the dependency? Clearly it's different for different people and at different times. I speculate that most people have occasions when email is crucial; you're waiting for the job offer, or the authorisation to proceed, or the whatever. But for how many people is that the state of affairs all the time? Try this thought experiment: you move to a different university which has a distinctive email policy as follows:-

We deliver email to your in-box at 8am only, and we collect it from your out-box at 6pm only. There are no deliveries or collections at weekends or on public and customary holidays. Nobody should be a slave to email at the University of Gedankenexperiment.

Would you be better or worse off? Would the institution be better or worse off?

The Sims teach programming

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According to this article in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Carnegie Mellon University's Comp Sci dept is to collaborate with Electronic Arts in order to use assets from the Sims video game series to help teach programming.

Carnegie Mellon University is to announce a collaboration today with Electronic Arts Inc. that will take the popular Sims video game characters into the university's free software used to teach programming skills to high school and college students. The idea is to make the lessons livelier and less confusing for all students — including making them more interesting to girls.

I thought the whole idea of the Sims characters was that they did interesting things.

March 07, 2006

Big–time data theft

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According to this article in Computerworld

Georgetown University in Washington has called in the U.S. Secret Service to investigate a server breach that may have exposed confidential information including the names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers belonging to more than 41,000 people.

The breach appears to have been caused by an external hacker and involved a server that was being managed by a Georgetown University researcher as part of a grant to manage information on the various services provided through the District of Columbia’s Office of Aging.

Ouch. Even better, according to a university source close to the incident who requested anonymity, the server in question was under the control of an individual who was not technically qualified to be a systems administrator. And the story doesn't say, but I'd bet a large sum of money that the server in question was a Windows server.

March 03, 2006


Writing about web page

Interesting idea; a web site where universities or academic departments can publish details of public lectures and other open events. is a place to announce or find out about public lectures, seminars, debates, conferences and exhibitions going on in your area or subject field. is intended to promote active learning and academic collaboration; it is aimed at students, lecturers and anyone with an interest in learning or networking.

It's the work of one man, Steve Cooke, and his reasons for doing it are themselves interesting:-

A few years ago I was unable to work for nearly a year due to injury. To pass the time I attended a number of public lectures run by the politics department at Portsmouth University. In 2005 I realised that I could do something positive to promote these kind of events, which are often sadly under-attended. It's taken me a few months to put this site together, but I hope it will encourage many more people to enjoy the world of public education.

I'll be going back to the site over the next few months to see what volume and type of content ends up being published there.

February 24, 2006

Packet shaping at Manchester

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This article in Computing notes that Manchester University has started using a packet shaping system to try and prevent peer-to-peer traffic. The assertion is that most P2P traffic has been prevented, including Kazaa and BitTorrent, and that nearly 70% of the available bandwidth was being used for P2P before the shaper was installed.

Deploying Packeteer at our network core enables us to block all unwanted P2P traffic while allowing useful P2P traffic such as Skype to transit the network

— Ben Horner, IT officer at the University of Manchester.

Sounds impressive. I wonder whether it's a permanent state of affairs, or whether the P2P will just reappear in a harder-to-detect form such as over http on port 80.

Blogs for recruitment

According to the Wall Street Journal, colleges and universities are beginning to use blogs as one of their resources to try and attract new students. David Hawkins, director of public policy at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling:-

High school counselors and students want highly personal information as part of their recommendations and decisions about which college to attend. The personal, free-form nature of blog writing offers institutions just the kind of insight into the daily lives of students that prospective students are looking for.

WSJ, subscription required.

February 22, 2006

GMail for institutions

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The Google Blog contained an interesting announcement the other day; they're becoming the email provider for an educational institution – specifically, San Jose City College in the US. They'll be GMail accounts, but they'll have SJCC addresses, and they'll be supporting about 10,000 students.

Given that GMail accounts are free to individuals, I wonder how much the college is paying Google for the service?

Google aren't the only ones pursuing this line; Microsoft have a similar offering called Windows Live @ Edu. If anything, Microsoft's offering is even more interesting, since it includes not just hosted email, but contacts management, calendering, Messenger, MSN Spaces, MSN Mobile and SMS Alerts. Furthermore, if I understand the web site correctly, the Microsoft offering is free to the institution with 2GB of storage per student, and the email accounts persist forever – so the institution can offer lifetime hosting for alumni at no cost to itself.


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