Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Kevin07? More like Internet911

Minister Conroy on: Promoting a civil and confident society online 22 December, 2008

505 comments, 10 comments per page, 51 pages

This is or was the government blog.

My plan was to read the comments until I reached a comment that supported Conroy. There are some great comments in there. I reached page 10 and every single comment was against Conroy.
  • 100 comments against Conroy
  • 0 comments supporting Conroy
The people have spoken. This attempt by the government to appear tuned in to the blogosphere has turned into a public relations fiasco.

(btw the title of this post is from one of the blogger sigs)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Carl Wieman: optimizing learning

Optimizing Science Education and the Myth of a Necessary 'Super Teacher' by Carl Wieman (an educator who also happens to have won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2001 for creating a new ultracold state of matter, the so-called Bose-Einstein condensate)

This is written from the perspective of University students and teachers. Nevertheless, it is also a very interesting commentary about learning theory and the role of technology in education in general.

I've been saying for some time that there is no unified learning theory and that good teachers cherry pick from a variety of approaches. Wieman's approach plays nicely with my views.

His debunking of Myth 1 is valuable:
Myth I. Optimum teaching and learning styles are specific to each individual teacher and student
He argues that good teaching can be learnt and that the concept of individual idiosyncratic student learning is sometimes overdone

His learning model is built on four principles, which I paraphrase / rehash as follows:
  1. Current state - we build on what we already know
  2. Effort - extended, focused effort it required for deep learning
  3. Motivation - we learn more when motivated and we are more motivated when we know why it is of value
  4. Memory - there are limits to our short term memory and instructional design needs to take account of that
These similarities in how we learn dwarf any alleged differences in learning styles. Individual differences and gaps in knowledge can be systematically categorised and built into the instructional design framework. I'm familiar with this from using the interactive Learning in Science approach (Osborne / Freyberg), which systematically explores children's existing views of various scientific phenomena.

Timely well targeted feedback which directly addresses ones reasoning and says what is right and wrong about it is very valuable. (As part of the optimization approach he subsequently argues that if teachers had marking assistants then this feedback would be more timely and could even make larger class sizes realistic)

I would argue that the principles which comprise Wieman's model are all necessary but not exhaustive. For example, the Idit Harel approach to teaching fractions (Instructional Software Design Project) incorporates all of Wieman's principles, either explicitly or implicitly, but has far more constructionist emphasis
Myth 2. Educational technology is a crutch for poor teachers but unnecessary for good ones
Wieman identifies the value of computer simulations that provide suitable challenges and timely, effective feedback and evaluation of student strengths and weaknesses. He points out that an expert instructor is still essential because computer programs are currently at the point of identifying student thinking and not yet so good at providing regular effective feedback

This fits in with Alan Kay's observation that computer based mentoring systems still have some way to go (... the dynabook is not here yet)

Once again, Wieman's approach is a good one but I think the Idit Harel study cited above is more adventurous in its use of computers

There is more to the Wieman article. His focus is about how to optimize university instruction to increase effectiveness and productivity. His critique of current practices in Universities is most enlightening. The whole article is well argued, well written, worth reading in full and much of it is applicable in other (non university) settings.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Teach for Australia, revisited

I wrote a blog about Teach for Australia in February 2008 and it is still attracting comments, so I'm revisiting it here.

In a recent comment, franith has referred to the last three paragraphs of this article in The Australian, dated November 28, 2008:
"The commonwealth has already committed to funding a $500 million national partnership to improve teacher quality, and Ms Gillard announced on Wednesday night a scheme to attract the best university graduates into teaching.

Ms Gillard called on businesses to support the program, based on the successful Teach for America scheme, which will recruit top graduates to work in disadvantaged schools before they start their careers in areas such as law, accounting or management consulting.

A joint venture between Noel Pearson's Cape York Institute and Macquarie University is expected to launch Teach for Australia next year"
This sounds more substantial than other ALP government initiatives since IMO teacher quality is the central issue - will have to keep an eye on Julia Gillard, she may be evolving into a real educational reformer

The "Teach for Australia" proposal is based on, but, is also different from the "Teach for America" scheme. One important difference is that TF Australia pairs experienced mentors ("Fellows") with new recruits ("Associates"), which, I believe, TF America does not

What Gillard announced was support for a 'Teach for America' type scheme in disadvantaged Australian schools. Then The Australian newspaper added on a separate paragraph about an expectation regarding the Pearson / Macquarie University 'Teach for Australia' scheme, intended for remote indigenous school, in the most disadvantaged areas of Australia. ie. Gillard did not announce a 'Teach for Australia' scheme, which is a significantly bigger commitment to what she did announce. This may well be a newspaper beat up

I should try to contact Macquarie University in the new year to find out more about this

Here are some other related blogs I have written on this topic (most recent first):

staffing high needs schools

learning evolves pyramid

wendy kopp's book

teaching to the test

teacher training

it sounds like a miracle

curriculum reform will not improve education without quality teachers

teach for australia

mckinsey: run schools as you would run a successful business

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bryan Berry's Nepal XO notes

Notes from Nepal’s OLPC Deployments

Bryan Berry raises some important points and conjectures. It is best to read his original, (I left a comment there)

1) Manual dexterity block point
"While the teachers learned how to use the XO very quickly, I miscalculated how difficult certain actions would be for them. Specifically, it took them a while to learn “dragging and dropping” with the touchpad. Many of the best activities on the XO require serious dexterity with the touchpad such as TurtleArt, Etoys, and Scratch. For this reason we couldn’t cover these activities during training. I recommend starting teacher training with activities that do not require a lot of dexterity with the touchpad"
2) What the curriculum demands
In OLPC-land we like to talk about lofty concepts such as constructionism, co-learning, collaboration, etc. Meanwhile, teachers at Bashuki and Vishwamitra have more pressing concerns. The Nepali system does not practice social promotion. Children have to pass year-end examinations to move on to the next grade. Nepali teachers are interested in constructionism, co-learning, and collaboration as long as they don’t hinder their students progress through the educational system. Our teachers are quite happy with the E-Paath suite of educational activities that OLE Nepal developed in accordance with the national curriculum. The real attraction of OLPC for teachers is that in class they can task students with a problem on the XO and then spend much of the period working with students that need help
3) Top Requests from Teachers and Kids
  • Easier way to play music and video
  • A better E-Book reader
  • A lot more activities for learning English
  • All the Nepali textbooks in digital format
  • A comprehensive digital library with lots of Nepali-language reading materials
  • A Typing Tutor program for learning English and Nepali
  • Interactive learning activities that match the Nepali curriculum
  • A car racing game (the kids)
and other very interesting points in his article as well:
  • amazing enthusiasm from teachers
  • ability of XO to diagnose if any particular hardware component has failed (“test-all” command in the XO’s OpenFirmware)
  • it is feasible to train teachers how to fix hardware problems but more difficult to teach them how to fix software problems in the linux kernel or within Sugar
  • The XS (school server) has improved under the leadership of XS architect Martin Langhoff
  • XO project in Nepal expanding to 15-20 schools in 5-6 districts in April 2009

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

universal communications

I've started a new wiki, universal communication. Tony Forster, who understands the engineering side better than me is helping too.

It is for documenting research about bringing communications technology and electricity to the developing world. At this stage it is mainly for notes about understanding concepts / terminology, resources and thinking aloud

It might be useful for:
  • those thinking about how OLPC fits into a bigger picture of third world development
  • more generally the connection between poverty, electricity generation and communications technology
  • understanding the situation on the ground for those planning to visit and / or work in developing world (eg. Oceania, Nepal, Afghanistan, many African countries, etc.)
  • understanding successful models about how it has been done, eg. PFNet in the Pacific

Friday, December 12, 2008

poverty and OLPC affordability

Apart from Australia and DR Congo (included as benchmarks) the following are most of countries to which the OLPC has already been deployed in significant numbers or to which there are reported plans for significant deployments in the near future. The figures are in Purchasing Power Parity PPP$ (adjusted income per person) of selected countries. The data is from the Gapminder site [1]

USA 31,133
Australia 24,219
Uruguay 8,653
Mexico 7,762
Columbia 5,877
Peru 4,670
Papua New Guinea 1869
Ghana 1515
Mongolia 1285
Mali 1084
Nepal 1052
Rwanda 983
Ethiopia 824
Afghanistan 740
Haiti 709
DR Congo (poorest) 230

Here are some figures of the numbers of XOs deployed to some of these countries [2] [3]:

Uruguay 130,000
Peru 70,000
Mexico 50,000
Birmingham, USA 10,000

Colombia is reported to be about to buy 20,000 and Ghana is reported to be about to buy 10,000.

In addition, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Haiti, Mongolia, Afghanistan have approx 5,000 XOs each provided by the Give1-Get1 program.

So far, the governments which have purchased large quantities (not just pilots and not recipients of the G1G1 – Give one, Get one - scheme) of XO’s are Uruguay, Peru and Mexico.

These Latin American countries are not the poorest in the world. Many African countries are the poorest along with some Asian countries. These countries are roughly 5-10x poorer than those which have actually purchased the OLPC

Each OLPC or XO costs about $180 per person. The Total Cost of Ownership is higher and has been estimated at about $450 over a five year period (disputed figure)

Apart from OLPC, other possible information technologies come to mind for poor countries, which are being used for education:

OMPT (one media player per teacher) - One portable media player with speakers and power source costs as little as $50. This small cost can change a classroom of 40 or 50 individual lives

Mobile phones - for example, see the MobileED project

Telecenters - "I found computers in all the centers, but bicycles, books, cell phones, community radio stations, and video tapes were also used to obtain and share information" (olpc-news article by Robert Kozma)

Internet Kiosks - A day in the life of a village kiosk operator in India

I am not suggesting that the OLPC is not a great technology for the poor children of the world. They need personal computers for maximum benefit. But due to the economic bottom line for some countries at the moment it is too much to expect that they will get there without assistance. Also we need to consider transition technologies like the above to bridge the gap.

Another related issue is the best method(s) of electricity generation for poor countries. This is held over for another article.

Reference / Footnotes:

[1] Gapminder provides some great visual representations of dry statistic

[2] OLPC Community News attachment, July 6, 2008 shows a graph of deployments at that time

[3] OLPC:News provides regular information about deployments

engelbart: co-evolution of humans with machines

It's hard or impossible to imagine a world without all the things that Doug Engelbart demonstrated at his 1968 mother of all demos ("... a computer mouse, which controlled a networked computer system to demonstrate hypertext linking, real-time text editing, multiple windows with flexible view control, cathode display tubes, and shared-screen teleconferencing" 40th Anniversary)

But with respect to his vision it does seem clear that we have become far too techno-centric in the way we conceptualise the computer - as a bunch of more or less independent applications to get various jobs done, rather than as an integrated vehicle to augment our co-evolution.
By 1959 he had enough standing to get approval for pursuing his own research. He spent the next two years formulating a conceptual framework for a new discipline that became the guiding force for his 1962 seminal work, "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework," ...

Concepts such as augmenting human intellect, improvement infrastructure, co-evolution of artifacts with social-cultural language-practices, and bootstrapping evolved directly from this work, as did the following twenty years of applied co-evolution. Motivating that framework were, and still are the assumptions that complexity and urgency are increasing exponentially and that the combination of these two will soon challenge our organizations ...

A myriad of technical and non-technical elements came into play, such as tools, media, language, customs, knowledge, skills, procedures, and so on. He perceived that these elements had co-evolved slowly over centuries, but that with the explosive emergence of digital technology, the technical elements would shoot way ahead of the non-technical and cause a trend toward automating rather than to augmenting peoples' activities
- A Lifetime Pursuit by Christina Engelbart

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I'm from the government, I'm here to listen to you

Senator Conroy (The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy), the filter guy, has created a blog!

Although the stated purpose of the blog is to listen to our
"thoughts and ideas about the digital economy ... We aim to release the Future directions paper early next year"
... nevertheless, most of the comments I have read (there are hundreds) are articulate, well reasoned protests against Conroy's plan for a mandatory ISP level internet filter.

So be it. If this is meant to be an exercise to demonstrate that our government is going to listen to us then let's hope they take the hint.

Monday, December 08, 2008


alan kay:
"Jerome Bruner ... wrote the best book on education that has ever been written, Towards a Theory of Instruction"
- Squeakers video at 2 min 30 seconds, included in this mark miller blog
I followed this up and found a great page (jerome bruner and the process of education) which summarises Bruner's thinking. I notice how Bruner takes concepts from both sides of the conventional curriculum wars and welds them together, for instance, he thinks that both structure and intuition are important. I summarise his approach as briefly as possible as incorporating structure, readiness, intuition, motivation.

I see this as the way forward - building a pyramid made up bits from both sides of the curriculum wars. eg. don't just focus on motivation but meld it with structure and readiness where readiness is "some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development" (Bruner)

Bruner was a key figure in the development of the "cognitive revolution" but later became critical. His thinking became increasingly influenced by writers like Lev Vygotsky and he began to be critical of the intrapersonal focus he had taken, and the lack of attention paid to social and political context

I've just ordered two books by Bruner:
The Process of Education (1960)
Toward a Theory of Instruction (1966)

Could it be that ideas that are 40-50 years old have more relevance to education reform than many of the educational ideas floating around today?

Could it be that ideas from the pioneers of computing (McCarthy, Engelbart, Papert, Kay) have more relevance than many of the computing ideas floating around today?


Sunday, December 07, 2008

Inform 7

I've been playing with inform 7. It is very interesting and I think I'll be using it in 2009. I'd also like to show it to some English teachers and get their reaction.
"Inform is a design system for interactive fiction ... In place of traditional computer programming, the design is built by writing natural English-language sentences"
To make sense of it I had to read Chapter 2 of the Help. My initial unguided effort of "The cat sat on the mat" produced an image of broken cogs and a problem analysis. The Help explains that you have to create a world first by teaching the program where and what everything is using assertion statements in the present tense:
The cat is an animal.
The bathroom is a room.
The mat is in the bathroom.
"The cat sat on the mat" still doesn't work but I'm getting there.

Some analysis at the psychology of planning interest group:

Here is a quick start, from Brian Slesinsky:

Saturday, December 06, 2008

alan kay: after 40 years the dynabook is not here yet

video Personal Computing: Historic Beginnings

I have transcribed a section of Alan Kay's recent presentation marking "40 years anniversary of the dynabook" because I see it as an important contribution to ongoing discussions about the significance and prospects for the XO, or OLPC

Alan Kay visited Seymour Papert in 1968

49 minutes: Slide that involves Alan Kay

About 40 years ago I went to visit Seymour Papert... because I had started to visit people who could be users of a desktop computer ... and Seymour was working with children ... Seymour was a mathematician who had worked with Piaget ... (talks about Seymour's tragic accident from which he has not recovered) ...

Kay's interpretation of Seymour's work: Children are egocentric in a charming way ...they do everything relative to them ... so if they were a co-ordinate system they would be an inertial co-ordinate system ... and an inertial co-ordinate system is the differential geometry of Gauss ... and if you keep track of this in the right way you get the differential geometry of vectors ... and a child is one of those vectors... and so is the turtle ... and he thought, boy(!), this is so close to the way children think already I wonder what would happen if we put some formalism on it and treat it as mathematics

So ask a little kid to draw a circle with their body and ask them what they are doing ... they say they are going a little and then turning a little, over and over

In logo: repeat 360 [forward 1 right 1]

Tell the turtle to do that ... and by golly you get a circle and you can put in different values to get circles of different sizes ... and so we have a differential equation here which is infinitely simpler than (traditional) differential geometry and which can be understood by a young child

This completely blew my mind! Once you've got something which is incredibly powerful that a child can learn you've no longer got an adult tool ... you've actually got something like a printing press that is one of the great 500 year inventions in human history

If children can learn these powerful ideas then you have a chance to not just increment on what is already known ... they will actually help over several generations to invent something new

So, that combined with just seeing this flat panel display with all these wise words of McLuhans in my mind (mentioned earlier in talk) on the plane back to Utah after meeting Seymour I drew this little cartoon with kids out in the grass ...

... because if you are going to make a personal computer for kids don't put it on a desk ... that isn't them ... so I immediately took the fun idea of a flat screen computer and made it paramount ... you had to make a computer that was in every way made for a child, that they could take away from adults and learn by themselves ... it would have to have wireless, a stylus, a touch screen, a keyboard (because even perfect character recognition is not fast enough to do bulk typing), removable memory ... and so all of those things coalesced ....

(describes how he made the model from a cardboard box)

Alan Kay's definition of portability ... that you can carry something else as well as the portable device ... arrived at the figure of two pounds (which is roughly 1kg)

(some information about head mounted display and a wrist detector by Negroponte left out here)

If you think about this as a service idea then what are the actual services ... (stuff snipped) ...


You really have to have some idea of the end users ... leads into new slide


It's a service idea with serious goals about education, especially self education

Kept (?) standards: Fluency in powerful ideas for > 90% of children

powerful ideas and how to learn them ...


... and with the aid of computing media

Human mentors


Computer mentors

[[Alan refers to these, here and later, as "four ideas", which I understand to be:
  1. What are powerful ideas?
  2. How can they be learned with the aid of computing media?
  3. Can this work with human mentors?
  4. Can it work with computing mentors?]]

I was interested in whether we could make computer mentors because my confidence in adults was very low back then ... and still is. The biggest bottleneck to education reform is the adults that are in the system

In the Third World it is the lack of adults ... But in our world it's almost the lack of adults ... almost no elementary school teachers understand anything about maths and science ... in a way things might be almost better if they weren't there because the children would not be getting misinformation about it

It has to be setup to succeed for 90% of the children, not just the 10% who are naturally good at it

The problem with technologists doing it is that we are all setup by nature to be good at it ... all of us here learnt to program within a weeek ... I'll bet you anything ... it's not that hard if you almost know what it is ... but if you don't almost know what it is, it can be really daunting

This is why computing people generally design terrible computing user interfaces ... they're not only willing to cope with something bad, they are pleased to ... because it's a little challenge for them ....
(this section finished at 1 hr 1 min)

At 1hr 15min the moderator asks:
"Why was the dynabook never built in spite of all these people trying to make it happen?"
Alan recapitulates the four ideas outlined above ... then ...

Working on the first two with our 90% success threshold ... led to 25 years of failure ... we were paying for this research ourselves ... nobody would fund the children's research because we did these long projects ... we didn't believe in most forms of testing that are reported in the education literature ... so we wanted to convince ourselves that the children were getting fluent and that 90% of them were getting fluent ... by those sorts of criteria it was one failure after another .... but after each failure we would learn something

And about 10 years ago one of the systems that we did started teaching many more children with adult help in a much stronger way (I think he means etoys) ... so I think after 40 years the first two ideas and a little bit of what sort of human mentoring you need have been solved ...

BUT, when Nicholas started up the OLPC project my heart sank, even as I supported it ... because if it's tough to get good mentors in the USA then it's really tough out in the Third World ... no user interace today can find out who its user is, what its user knows, what it can do ... it can't find out what level of reading the user can do and help find out the next level of reading

There is common sense in the world concept ... so we make a world populated with objects ... but they didn't interfere with the user strongly

That isn't enough ... pure discovery learning took us 100,000 years to get to science ... so you need learning that is facilitated ... and if you can't make thousands of good teachers in a year then you have to have an interactive user interface to save yourself

This dream of having a UI to facilitate is as old as AI ... it is AI ... if we had this we could make up for no teachers and bad teachers (but we still need good teachers) ... so when the OLPC project started I thought OMG, we are lacking the one piece of the technology ... if we could just ship that machine with a program that could teach children to read in their native language ... that would be the killer app and we wouldn't have to worry about anything else for a number of years ... but that technology doesn't exist ... it is that gap which has to be bridged in order to fulfil the educational goals that the dynabook has ... you have to have a way to get around the adults in the system that make educational reform difficult

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

OLPC: give one, get one, australia

Last time around this was only available in the USA and Canada, from memory

This time you can give one get one in a whole host of countries (44+ in this article) and this now includes Australia, through the OLPC-australia organisation

Contact information

Give 1, Get 1 explained
"Purchase two XO laptops. Give one to a needy child in remote Australia or the Pacific. The other is yours to give to a child in your life"

Purchase form

With the fall in the Australian dollar the cost would be something like AUD$700 ($468.95USD), according to this OLPCnews article

update 7th December:
They are charging $399 for a laptop, with the profits going towards OLPC-AU projects

update 8th December:
Wayan Vota has corrected the above information, the total cost for one is $468.95

I did an order simulation on the olpc-au site and the extra charges are:
GST $20
Shipping and Handling $40
Transaction Fee $10

I also notice that it is not a Give one, Get one scheme because if you order two the price just doubles to a whopping $927.90

OLPC-australia people (Geoffrey Anson, Dr. Barry Vercoe, Dr. Vadim Gerasimov, Rangan Srikhanta)

OLPC-australia history