The Future is Technology? Don’t make me laugh.

The future is technology. So goes the idealistic vision of the future theme of edcmooc and the happy dreams of those who dream of a digital utopia in which our lives are enhanced by amazing geekery and augmented reality.

My world is different. Mine is a world in which technology doesn’t work. It claims to work but forgets to mention the endless hours you will spend trying to get it do what you thought, foolishly, that it would do. Don’t even mention the word “GLOW” in my presence.

I bought a Sony Bravia TV because it had internet connectivity. It does, sort of, but not the way I understood it. It connects to a half-rokuassed clunky version of the internet. It doesn’t, after all, play stuff from the web. I doesn’t let me browse. At all. I discover that I can jigger about with things to make it do that, sort of. I bought a Roku Media Streamer so I can stream digital media from my network to the TV. It does, sort of, but not the way I understood it. It has an interface clunkier than a clunky thing from clunky-land in the far forgotten time of the early nineties. I took it back. boxeeI bought a Boxee Box which according to the manufacturers, does all the things I want it to do. It does, sort of, but not the way I understood it. It falls over a lot. The display is intermittently broken and it switches sound output on and off suddenly, threatening my lovely expensive speakers (which were made in the 1970’s by the way and still work when not rapidly switched on and off by a dodgy boxee). I took it back.

I got an Asus Nexus Google 7 tablet which has had a flickering display fault since the day it arrived and despite being returned to the manufacturer twice, still has the fault. The audio output has never worked. I’m sending it back. Again.

The future may be technology but don’t you rely on it doing what you think it will do. It will, sort of, but not the way you understood it.


e-learning and digital cultures

e-learning and digital cultures: a digital artefact – my assignment for the EDCMOOC. Comments welcome.

Human 3.0

Why 3.0? Let’s characterise the development cycle of the human.

Human 0.2 (Alpha Prototype)


Homo Erectus (Wikimedia Commons)

Homo erectus developed bipedal motion, migrated out of Africa 1.8 million years ago and quickly populated the old world, mastering fire 1.2 million years ago. The lighter and more adaptable variant, Homo sapiens, appeared in Africa 200,000 years ago and was more tolerant of the variation in diet caused by weather fluctuations, spreading to the rest of the world. All humans alive today are descended from a single female who lived in East Africa about 120-150 thousand years ago.

Human 0.9 (Beta)

From the time of this single woman, our most recent common ancestor (there are other ancestors, not common to all of us), expansion displaced the neanderthals, with the last of them dying out as recently as 25,000 years ago. Before about 50,000 years ago, social behaviours in humans were primitive and indistinguishable from the neanderthals. At this time, complex tools began to be developed by H. sapiens, and artwork appeared for the first time, indicating what is called, the Great Leap Forward. By the time we get to 30,000 years ago, there is ample evidence of figurative art, music, trade and burial rites. The evolutionary development of human intelligence is linked with either sexual selection or social competition, according to different models. There is also the not insignificant factor of improved diet leading to more advanced cognitive development. The last non-sapiens species of human, floresiensis, dies out 12,000 years ago.

Human 1.0 (Production)

The relatively modern human history of the past 10,000 years or so has seen the rise and fall of various social and political structures. The competition between these has brought us incredible advances in technology, transport, communication, infrastructure, health and weaponry. Metaphysical development has given us religion, politics, science and economics. The politics of the collective has yielded trade, nationalism, slavery, racism, class and empires in addition to these.

Human 2.0 (Adaptation)

The present revolution, which brings us globalisation, the internet, instant communication and transparency of events, is beginning to give us new expectations. We live much longer than our parents. We don’t care what the skin colour or sexual habits of our facebook friends are. We speak English. We are losing patience with those who would get in the way of our freedom to choose our own path. Our energy and mineral resources are becoming critically precious. We are beginning to seek new economical and political models which will sustain us. We recognise that political groupings need to be educated as children do. This is the current model.

Human 3.0 (Social Evolution)

fsmSo we arrive at my peek at where we go from here, reeking of my own prejudices and hopes. The New Human, physically very similar to our Beta ancestors, is socially and cognitively evolving away from our backward grandparents in another Great Leap Forward, stimulated by information and interaction. We have no need for rituals, religion or quackery. We make better choices to sustain our environment and resources. We manage production and reproduction. We are aware that elsewhere in our Galaxy, we have cousins who are evolving as we are but know that we will never interact with them. We are aware that it could all be Game Over at any moment and that there is nothing we can do about it. We are confident. We are happy.

The Prestige

© Warner Brothers (mp4 (8MB))

Who needs a teacher when you’ve got Khan Academy?

maxAccording to the strapline at the head of this website, “Any teacher who can be replaced by a machine, should be”. The operative word here is can. The context and threat is the increasing use of video lectures and tutorials in delivering learning. The more paranoid teacher will wake up cold-sweating in the night from dreams of having been replaced by online video, screaming Kirk-like: “KHAN! KHAAAN!”. Worse, of having been assimilated within the technology.

The explosive interest in TED and the like reveals a world-wide hunger to know stuff: to learn new things and to keep up with the latest discoveries. The contemporaneous growth in the availability of broadband internet access has fed this demand and the relative inexpense of hand held and tablet video platforms has fuelled the explosion. The attraction is, of course, that users (I don’t like the term, “consumers” of data) can access a vast range of online material at their own convenience: in video bite-sized chunks in the train, the toilet, the traffic jam. As these slices of opportunity to access video get shorter, they fit in the spaces between all the other activities of the day and night like grains of sand in a jar of peas.

Get with it, man, MOOCs are the future

This proliferation of opportunity has led to the MOOC – the Massively Open Online Course – and the packaging of chunks of online reading and viewing into a complete short course has great appeal, judging by the uptake.


Dear Charles Atlas, I have completed your excellent “he-man” course. I look forward to receiving my muscles.

The problem with moocs, however, is that they are massive and open. The course creators rely on large numbers of participants self-organising around social networks to create “vibrant communities” in a paradigm of students supporting and encouraging each other. The reality I have found in the mooc I am following is that the cacophony of the many drowns out the quality of the few. Thirty thousand voices shouting, “look at me!” over the lone quiet voice whispering, “look at this”. This has been of such concern to one mooc educator that they walked away. As a student, I have found that the contributions of the community do contain incisive, stimulating, funny, challenging and articulate contributions but you have to wade through the other 95% to find these. This has become so frustrating that I am now looking less at other contributions, in favour of concentrating the available time on the course materials alone.

Who needs teachers?

Bad ones? Nobody. Mediocre ones? No, thanks. Give me Khan. A book. Anything else. The ones that bring you to the penny dropping, the light coming on, the rush, the boom, the click, the whatever-happens-in-your-head-when-you-finally-get-it? Now you’re talking.

So what is it about the teacher that cannot be replaced by a machine? What makes them so magical? The clue is in the video clip at the top of this post. The magician knows how to manage expectations, create perceptions and deliver a satisfying climax to a sequence of events. Most importantly, he knows all about the observer’s perspective: the entire sequence is designed to achieve an effect in the audience.

The magical teacher plans, organises, details and delivers the learning with a full and detailed understanding of the student experience and perspective. He or she understands that the stages in the lesson have resonance with the stages of magic described by Michael Cain. The Pledge begins in prior learning and relevant context. The Turn is a hook, perhaps new knowledge or skills, something interesting or engaging, full of promise and misconception. The Prestige is the moment when understanding reveals itself – the flourish, the step from dark into light, the feeling that fills your heart, the satisfaction. It takes place in the Zone of Proximal Development.

We can get The Pledge and the Turn of learning by ourselves, given the resources. The irreplaceable teacher brings us The Prestige.

The Naked Ape

Forty-odd years ago, Desmond Morris brought the study of humans as animals to the common man through his book, The Naked Ape. This work was the first to make me think about what it is to be a human, something which has been exercising many of us in the EDCMOOC this week.

Phaedrus’ Knife

morrisThe advancements in our understanding of the physics, chemistry and biology of living things, in particular of DNA, have allowed us to begin to appreciate that the traditional classifications of living things are in need of revision. We have developed in recent centuries the classification, naming and organisational structures which allow us to understand the connectedness of life on this planet. These have been largely derived from observational field- and laboratory-work and have been almost entirely empirical until Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, the molecule of complexity common to all known life on Earth. The naming and classification of living things has been subject to the same influences as the naming and classification of non-living things.

…an intellectual scalpel so swift and so sharp you sometimes don’t see it moving. You get the illusion that all those parts are just there and are being named as they exist. But they can be named quite differently depending on how the knife moves. . .

Pirsig, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

The term Human, then, has no meaning for anyone but those using the term. It’s a general description of a group of things with broadly similar characteristics distinct from another group of another name. How you choose to classify and name is – or should be – entirely up you, appropriate to the purpose. There are areas we dare not yet go, however. It is difficult to describe a black man as “a black man” without somebody wailing and shrieking that you’re a racist.

Education is a Dying Art

Steve Fuller’s Tedx talk considers what it is to be “human”. In it, he throws out the phrase, “Education is a Dying Art” in context of being human in terms of Artifice, as if somehow the thing that distinguishes humans is the notion of being something more than just enough to survive. Becoming human here implies gaining skills, knowledge and awareness of the part of the human in the collective of humanity. This is for me, society: this being the analogue of how the fish is part of the school or the ant is part of the colony. Each has a part to play which must be learned or acquired somehow and for the last few hundred years since the Industrial Revolution has become part of the organisation of society. Education has evolved within the society we are building for the purposes of making humans part of the machine that functions to sustain us all. Those who have learned to play their part function within it.

My thoughts on Fuller’s statement about education being a dying art are that formal, state or society-sponsored preparation of people to play their part in the machine of society is changing. New levels of choice are open to many, not just in the First World of post-Industrialisation, but in the new interconnected world in which access to new roles in the emerging Global Society are possible where they have never been before.




The evolution of our society as a life-form collective which has developed the ability to extend its influence beyond that of any individual’s for purposes beyond mere survival and procreation (which is arguably the limit of DNA-mutation evolution) has reached what might be called a tipping point. There are new realisations that the collective impact of our society is potentially threatening to our survival, but these are incapacitated from mutating survival enhancements by properties of the society itself. We are able to sustain and enhance physical potential beyond what would have been possible without intervention – Steven Hawking, and many more like him – but we do so at a cost we have not yet perhaps become fully aware of in any sense that we can do something about it.

At the individual level, however, things are brighter. Those who would, a hundred years ago, have forever been denied the slightest chance of realising their potential to contribute to the collective, are now finding it possible to participate in opportunities to contribute (and benefit themselves and their families) and make a real difference to the development of all of our health and prosperity. This, through the technologies of infrastructure and communication, increasingly at our fingertips and part of us as the new humans.

The Truth is Out There

I’ve been thinking about some of the ideas and aspects of what it is to “be human” in this week’s edcmooc activities. Whilst doing that, I was prompted by a tweet on Edison’s birthday:


I don’t know if you know about Edison. He is often, as the tweet suggests, regarded as a visionary man who worked hard to achieve his ends. The record shows him to have been an utterly ruthless man who went to extraordinary lengths in a battle of competing technologies to win, regardless of what the cost to other people (and animals) may have been. I leave it to you to find out how he tried to discredit Tesla’s AC power solution by, inter alia, publicly electrocuting dogs, horses and even an elephant and by inventing the electric chair as a means of human execution. You might say that the technology corrupted his sense of decency to the point where his behaviour can only be described as inhuman. Is this about technology or about being successful in business? Anyway…

Another world, just below the surface

We might see ourselves as somehow separate from the technological world with which we clothe ourselves, or at least, those of us rich enough to do so, do. The Toyota video suggests that there’s a “truth” beneath the veneer of the ordinary lives we lead, Matrix-style, that we can break out of. Kris Marshall’s Adam seems aware that his chance of retaining the modern family unity intact is going to be enhanced by phoning, rather than FakeBooking Jane.

binit1One of the reasons I like technology tools is that I can walk away from them. Take the mooc, for example. If I were enrolled in a traditional course, I’d have all kinds of logistical imperatives to keep me attending, not least the cost implications of dropping out. It’s hard to stop attending if doing so has a penalty that’s not easy to pay. The mooc, however, is easy to walk away from. If I were to do so, I would incur no cost, no embarrassment, no challenge to explain. No penalty. It’s like I could just close the browser, shut the lid and go for a pint or paint the bathroom. If push came to shove, and I felt the need to break out, my iPhone and everything else would go straight in the nearest bucket. How liberating. Why are my palms sweating? Anyway…

Retention and the emotional dynamics of video

Taking the Hersh article, then, there are what seems to me to be false arguments about why students accessing learning through a LMS like Blackboard or Moodle drop out so easily in comparison with those who have to drag themselves into lecture theatres. Video is offered as mitigation against this but I don’t think that’s it. Sure, retention might be improved by increasing social interaction but you can still walk away. Is it because the virtual learning experience is less real than the one that requires your physical presence? Is it so evidently a false experience that when the expectations aren’t realised, we can just “switch it off” with impunity? The idea that the “illusion of non-mediation” through the “emotional dynamics of face-to-face” is created by making videos of yourself is frankly ludicrous. Even people who shout at the TV know the difference between “real” and “video”.

I was told once that chess was developed as a game of battles so that real battles wouldn’t need to be fought. I’m not so sure, having experience of Uckers in the Army. Here, what’s real and what’s the analogue are hard to distinguish once the chaos of the end-game apocalypse begins. Anyway…


One of the rushes I’m getting at the moment is the realisation that this information renaissance we are living in now is transforming education, kicking and screaming. The transformation is coming about because we are beginning to learn how to cope with the contradictions of information flow in the new age. Let’s take this mooc as an example. We are all accessing the same information which are resources we all should view, read, or whatever. Because we are so diverse geographically and socially, we can’t all do this at once, so we do so asynchronously, at our own convenience and on our own terms. The tech allows this. But the mooc isn’t 40,000 (or however many are left) people independently doing the same things in isolation, it’s a community, or rather, a community of communities of shared experience who interact with each other. One of the ways we are interacting is synchronously through twitter chats and Google hangouts. These move very fast indeed and keeping up with the pace of discussion requires not only appropriate technology but also all the wits you can muster. It’s like a new level of consciousness. This is the new sh*t. New education not only is spawning new channels for students to access learning, it should be spawning new stimulus from educators (after all, that’s their role) for learners to cope with the emergent properties of these new channels. Anyway…

I’m going to abandon the technology for a couple of days and go immerse myself with a friend up in the real world at Loch Rannoch. The truly amazing thing about it is that this is a world which made itself in all its complexity and beauty out of Hydrogen. A lot of Hydrogen and a lot of time, but it did so with no engineer or designer or World Builder. That’s the truth.


Being human in a digital learning age

One of the reasons I’m taking e-learning and digital cultures (edcmooc) is that I’m interested in being an effective educator. The world is changing fast as technologies and channels of communication evolve and I’m interested in adapting and riding the wave of opportunity they represent. I’ve trialled things like VLEs and websites in various forms, I’ve made audio and video podcasts, played with pdfs and had students submit homeworks in any number of forms including video, audio and even labanotation. I’ve learned several things.

  1. Personalisation and choice is important
  2. People think differently and communicate differently
  3. Some things take time and effort to understand
  4. Replay is powerful
  5. Good things happen when people meet and talk
  6. Learning is possible in anarchy

These point to several crucial factors for the learner.

  1. I want to learn what I’m interested in.
  2. I want to be able to think it through, over and over if necessary, until I understand it.
  3. I need to be in control of my learning resources.
  4. I need stimulus.
  5. I may need encouragement and support.
  6. I need access to a civilised environment.

Through all of these points, I see the role of technology in terms of providing access to resources on the learners’ terms: asynchronously, in a medium he or she is comfortable with, replayable, searchable, indexable, clippable ad aggregateable. I see the role of the learner as whatever he or she needs it to be, for his or her purpose. I see the role of the teacher to provide stimulus; resource; challenge and support and to facilitate meetings – ideally real but virtual if there’s no other way – between learners of the same material who can respond to the teacher’s prompting in order to develop further learning.

This describes for me a model of learning in which there is structure, content, challenge and assessment within a very human context – socially constructivist, if you like – which is made available through the enabling channels provided by technologies. These technologies offer recording and playback, tagging and organising by the teacher and the learner.

I think this model of learning is called, “blended learning” and I think it’s here, in the room, now. You might have noticed that I have not included peer commentary here – I’m not convinced that it’s necessary although I can see that it’s helpful.

Looking to the Future and Metaphor

goopI’ve just been reviewing the “week 2 responses” digital artefacts posted by our full-time cousins, the MSc students on this course. I’m afraid they’re all a bit too arty-farty abstract for my taste (or stage of cognitive development, you decide). I feel like I’ve just eaten a bowl of what Dozer would call a…

…single celled protein combined with synthetic aminos, vitamins, and minerals. Everything the body needs.

from the Nebuchadnezzar.

Popular Cultures

gazBack in the 1970’s I was an avionics technician in Her Majesty’s REME. I remember thinking, as I was stuck in the cramped access hole under the screaming turbine and gearbox of a Westland Gazelle helicopter, balancing a 2kg AVO meter, instrument screwdriver and cables as I adjusted the flight idle busbar voltage, “wouldn’t it be nice to have some kind of head-up display device here, showing me the procedures and settings for this operation?”. I’m not claiming to have invented augmented reality, having seen head-up displays on fighter jets. I think I did see that it would be a logical application of technology to make operations like this safer and quicker.

Later, working at Boeing in Seattle, there was talk – never realised as far as I know it – of having maintenance procedures available for ground crew working in difficult places or situations, through the use of a lightweight helmet-mounted display system. How different are these ideas in principle from the visions offered by Microsoft and Corning of a future day of glass? Or indeed, the cheesy short, “Sight“?

Metaphor and learning

As a student and teacher of physics, the use of analogy, simile and metaphor is essential to developing cognitive models of the universe. When used intelligently, they are a powerful tool for understanding. Intelligent use means being aware of the device when using it – many teachers and students fall into the trap of accepting the analogue as reality. This is OK on a temporary basis such as when teaching children about electricity but when the development doesn’t proceed beyond a certain stage, people can be stuck with a seriously wrong understanding of the thing they think they know, often for the rest of their lives. The metaphor’s limitations should be understood when put to use. XKCD again:

It could be said that all learning, if you subscribe to the constructivist model of learning, is based upon building analogies or connected patterns of related things. Our brain has evolved as a pattern matcher and it makes synaptic connections very quickly between associated patterns. These patterns could be ideas, sensations, emotions: we are, after all, limited to experiencing the universe through our senses and only consciously through what our brain’s processes allows us to perceive as significant.

The Fad of the MOOC or a new MP3?

My father had a collection of long-playing records (ask an older person) called, “teach yourself code”. I still have them. These were a course which, if completed, would render the student an expert in Morse Code. He didn’t get past the first disc.

The MOOC is for me a modern analogue of those LPs. Modern, in that it represents the new internet expectation that things are free, including information. The MOOC, through structure and content, gives me information and the opportunity to acquire it in a critical and thinking way. This for me is its value.

Learning is changing. Schools in Scotland are beginning – in small numbers, but watch this space – to offer students a blend of learning experiences which include academic “traditional” school and vocational opportunities, with online courses from the likes of the Open University. This is a fantastic development which blurs – and will break – the boundary between school and life-long learning.

Visions of The Future

I’m just about to settle down and get stuck in to the week 2 material for #edcmooc which is tagged, “Looking to the Future”. Before I read anything, I’m going to make a few observations on how I see looking to the future as a purposeful activity.

crystalballsWinston Smith would no doubt recognise the doubleplusgood duckspeak of much of today’s pronouncements on education, if the future described by his creator wasn’t so utterly way off the actual outcome. Hello. Is it me you’re looking for? Lionel Ritchie was in the charts in the UK in 1984 and I, thankfully, was in Seattle doing some damned clever things for Boeing with software that you compiled overnight and stored on 20-kilo, 80MB disc packs the size of dustbin lids. I had TV-screen glasses, a moustache and a Suzuki v-twin. Some of you reading this will need to ask an older person what a dustbin lid is.

The track record for insightful forecasting of future worlds is pretty weak, in my experience. Nostradamus. Orwell. Wells. TV21 comic. Russel Grant. Mystic Meg. Jesus. Ian Smith. I have no reason to believe that the authors of the latest four visions of Scotland’s education in 2025 will be any better than those.

So with that as context, I think I’m ready for a look at what can only be regarded as the fiction of the future and as one who has been called Davros in the past 24 hours, this should be entertaining.