Friday, November 28, 2008

Whakakotahi: Communities of Practice , West Coast Tertiary teaching & learning conference

Yesterday afternoon, I travelled across to the West Coast to present a workshop at the inaugural West Coast Tertiary Teaching & Learning Regional Conference sponsored by Ako Aotearoa & Tai Poutini Polytechnic.

I was teaching all day yesterday so just managed to catch the opening of the conference that evening which featured a powhiri followed by welcomes from Russell Nimmo, chair of the West Coast Tertiary Education Forum, Dr. Peter Coolbear who is Director of Ako Aotearoa & Geoff Knight, ex- motorcycle gang member turned opera singer. Dr Coolbear introduced the audience to the work that Ako Aotearoa is taking on to improve the educational outcomes for all learners through. This is accomplished by the dissemination of funds to further research in the tertiary sector and providing opportunities for the building of communities of practices. Geoff Knight performed two opera pieces and gave a very inspirational, well delivered and thought provoking presentation. In particular, he was lucky to come across key mentors and supporters at crucial times of his life & these provided impetus & support for him to develop his gift.

The conference is a wonderful initiative to provide professional development to tertiary teachers based on the West Coast of New Zealand. A beautiful area which has a low population spread along 600 kilometres.

This morning started off with a keynote from Dr. Marion Bowl, from the University of Canterbury who spoke on communities of practice (COPs) & how the concept could be useful for both the formal & informal tertiary sectors of the West Coast. She also covered the factors that hinder or inhibit the formation and continuation of COPs, the supporting factors that encourage COPs to form & grow in organisations & at a local level eg. Buller ACE sub-network.
Workshops followed on a range of topics. I presented one, so only able to attend one by Peter McRae from Tai Poutinit about developing a programme beyond unit standards. Feedback from employers in the civil plant industry was that skills, knowledge & licencing were important but attitude was the most important. Therefore work attitudes need to be integrated into pre-trade programmes.

The after lunch keynote was from Dr. Tony Barrett (ex-Lincoln University) on how the social nature of learning shapes our student’s identity and ability to build knowledge. Activity, learning & identity are interlinked. Social activities are part of learning and becoming. COPs are easier to analyse than to describe ie COP formation is organic & based on the context, social organisation etc from which they evolve therefore to impose rules on how they form, stops them from forming in the first place. A good overview of the concepts of COPs including the need to offer authentic learning experiences, the roles of learners in COPs & the need to identify processes important to the understanding a concept and then making them visible to the learner.

A plenary panel session with Dr.Coolbear, Dr. Barrett, Dr. Bowl & Dr. Sheila Granger (principal of Buller High School) on learning as a social process followed afternoon tea. This consisted of questions collected from the audience & answered by members of the panel. Most of the questions were on the concepts for COPs, how to involve more people, keep the COP going, ignite passion for learning etc. The discussion moved across to the role of technology in supporting COPs & the ways in which technology may be used to better connect with learners. There was also a need for institutions to provide support to staff who are working on projects that have goals of improving learner outcomes. Suggestions for future conferences included having more students attending / presenting & looking at other models for structuring / organising a conference.

A successful conference was then closed by Marja Kneepkins who is the campus manager for Tai Poutinit Polytechnic (Westport campus) who provided a personal summary. A poropororaki then officially closed the conference.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Another way to connecting mobile learners

After mlearn2008 & Handheld Learning 2008, I indulged in a spot of travel and joined a bus tour that took me from London to Rome via Paris, Lausanne, Venice & Florence. All up, 10 days of travel which provided a quick overview & introduction to the possibilities for more travel in the near future.

As usual I took the opportunity to make observations about the uses of technology by both the tour company & the tour participants. The young English tour director (who also spoke French, German & Italian fluently) make copious use of her cell phone to liaise with a multitude of local tour guides, hotels, restaurants, shops & other tourist attraction operators. The majority of the tour participants were aged over forty but the dozen or so younger participants were queued up in front of the hotel internet or would pay for the hotel wifi access every time the tour checked into a hotel.

During the tour, several visits were made to tourist attractions like Versailles, the Vatican & Sistine chapel & the Coliseum & Forum using the ‘whisper tour guide system’ or similar. This was an FM radio system that supplied a transmitter to the tour guide & a receiver plus earphones to the tour participants. The tour guide could then discourse on the various aspects while tour participants wandered around inspecting the area or reading visual material. The entire tour could listen to questions posed by the more inquisitive tour members & participants who were ‘wanderers’ could keep track of where the main body of the tour was without becoming totally separated from their tour group.

The sound quality was good even over quite long distances & between several rooms. So this technology would be very useful in some areas we teach in at CPIT which have a high level of noise. Examples include the bakery, mechanical engineering & panel beating workshops. Classes that take on field trips should also benefit from this system along with practical sessions that spread learners out over a wide area (building, horticulture etc). I will need to see if the elearning team is interested in investigating this option plus I will have to look at how to better use Twitter as another way to replicate some aspects of the FM link up with hardware the students now all carry with them & as an option.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tablet & rugged UMPCs for mobile learning

As a follow up to looking a UMPCs & netbooks as alternatives to mobile phones, I did a bit of desk research on how many possibilities there might be. Googling netted a currently incomplete comparative chart on Wikipedia.

The Kohjinsha range was recommended to me by the team at Canberra Primary School in Singapore as one of the hardware possibilities for their mlearning project. The school is a ‘future school’ @ Singapore & involved in rolling out mlearning to the entire school over the next two years. There are also a large number of schools in the Uk who are using game consoles like the Play station portable (PSP) & the Nintendo DS for mobile learning.

Therefore I googled Kohjinsha & New Zealand and found the Australian / NZ distributor for the Kohjinsha series. Emailed them to find out if I would be able to have a look & play with one. The email reply came back promptly from the Tegatech Sydney office & the NZ representative contacted me.

The price of a Kohjinsha in NZ is pretty steep (over $2000!!) which would allow the purchase of 3 or 4 asus eees. However there is the added lure of the tablet & touch screen. The agents also emailed specification for three ruggedised UMPCs which would be more suited to use in a trades workplace environment. All of these are tablets as well. They included the GETAC , the Eo TufTab & a sahara tablet. All looked great but very expensive!

The above caused me to look at tablet netbooks that would help obviate some of the evaluations of the small keyboard & screen we have had from apprentices with the current crop of 7” to 9” screen size netbooks. Not many around but there should be more in the next couple of years. Looks like we will have to keep working with mobile phones for the moment.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Checking out tech gadgets in Singpore

I have not been to Singapore for almost four years, so took an afternoon to check out the shopping centres which specialise in IT & mobile tech gear. Here are some observations on changes I saw in the tech gadget shopping centres in Singapore ie Funan IT & Sim Lim Towers & Sim Lim Centre.

Mobile has grown. In the three places I visited & other city & suburban shopping malls, shops that stock mobile phones outnumbered generic electronic goods stores which stock consumer products & computer gear. The range of brands (there are many Chinese & Japanese branded phones I have never come across) & models is mind boggling.

Trends for higher end phones seem to be larger screens, at least 3” across for a better web surfing experience. Phones that can take photos up to 8 megapixels & touch phones were the latest trend. Wifi capability on phones has to be a given. Singapore has many readily accessible Wifi hotspots – wireless@SG hotspots. The international airport terminals offer free internet & free WIFI! Inspired & perhaps indoctrinated by the seductive TV ads of the iPhone, touch screens are seen to be a standard requirement. Slide out keyboards are not cool as it leads to having to carry a ‘brick’ around. The preferred look was for thin, sleek phones that allowed you to clip-on your choice of faceplate. Clamshells were being superseded by touch phones.

Net books abound. I managed to test drive the MSI Wind U100 with a 10” screen along with netbooks from Toshiba & Dell. The asus eee 7” was often sold (or offered for very low prices) with mobile broadband / mobile cards for ease of use. I was not able to find a Kohjinsha UMPC which has a touch tablet but will make a more concerted effort to trace one back in NZ. In Singapore, netbooks are seen to be alternatives to the poorer connectivity speeds & expense of using a mobile phone to surf the web by mobile white collar professionals who tend to carry a mobile phone & a laptop as a norm. The netbook replaced the laptop but they would still carry a small ‘hand phone’ for phone calls & texting.

The trend is therefore for greater mobility, smaller sized hardware to access the web by free WIFI & increased capability, speed, memory capacity etc. at cheaper prices. Looks also count. Smart phones that look like the iPhone are preferred to those that look like a Nokia N96.

The other item I picked up on was the ability to link your iPod to your car stereo system, something my son had rigged up in my car as well. I also came across an auto audio firm that would link your ipod to the in-car DVD to allow you to play downloaded videos.

Many mlearning projects target their content development on students who are commuters. In NZ, many of our students do not use public transport instead they travel around in their own cars. Therefore, our focus, when creating content for our students, is to ensure that the content is accessible via formats that do that require regular input from the student as they might be listening to the content while they are driving. Also the time our students (within Chch) spend driving to work etc. is relatively short compared to the hours of commuting that people in Europe & Asia complete. Construction of revision content etc. suitable to playback on an mp3 player should therefore be shorter snippets & perhaps more repetitious as our students are not just passive commuters and have to concentrate on driving as well as revision.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

reflections on mlearn 2008 & Hand Held Learning 2008

Spending over a week of immersion in the world of mobile learning provided me with a large amount of information to digest. However, looking back at my notes, I see several patterns emerging that I will carry into the mlearning projects at CPIT.

My basic premise for using students’ own devices (ie mobile phones) & web based platforms is sound. The ongoing work on making computers smaller (ie netbooks like the Asus eee, mobiles more web capable plus increased mobile access to the web means that we are well placed to make use of the building capabilities of cloud computing.

I will need to stay with the overall vision to form eportfolios based solely on mobile phones. There are now many more sites that are mobile accessible, including sites like wirenode, winksite & mob5 which allow mobile phones to be used to set up mobile websites. Capabilities for these for forming eportfolios are still basic but things are moving along to make our vision possible.

Mobile phones will still be the most ubiquitous mobile tool as they now number over 3 billion. The ability of game consoles to take on various operating systems (eg the Nintendo DS) will hopefully be replicated at some stage with mobile phones as well. Although material can be accessed direct via the web, having the ability to distribute content etc on SD cards or similar might be more convenient for some learners. The use of game consoles might be an option to explore with other projects at CPIT

The use of netbooks opens up many possibilities for bringing ICT into the classroom & creating blended learning opportunities in any learning space. In particular, the ability to work on collaborative projects, find information easily, create individual & group resources & to make use of serendipitous learning opportunities. Most web capable mobile phones are also suitable for this teaching method but the cost of web surfing on the mobile phone & the poor reputation mobile phones have in the education sector put mobile phones into the ‘too hard basket’ for this. Will need to lobby for better WIFI coverage at CPIT & to investigate the funding options available to provide class sets of netbooks.

Sharing of resources, content, eportfolios etc. need not be only via the web, bluetooth capabilities on many devices, memory sticks, SD cards etc. are also methods that can be useful for mobile learners to archive & share their work. Need to explore this with regards to the various learner profiles we cater to at CPIT to see which option for transfer of digital material is going to be most useful.

Smartboards seem to be standard in British classrooms. Using smartboards with powerpoint presentations seem to be a real waste of smartboard technology. I will need to have a better play with the ones we have at CPIT to work out the best way to model the interactive capabilities of smartboard technology. In particular, the possibilities for collaborative work in conjunction with mobile devices & blended learning.

There is a great deal of innovation taking place around the world. Passionate teachers are going that extra kilometre to make learning more realistic, authentic, creative & collaborative for their students. Mobile learning enables the classroom to be more easily networked with the ‘real world’ & for students in one geographical location to make contact with students studying similar topics in other places. These are skills we all need to make the world a better place to live in. Teachers who model these skills not only teach their students the importance of these skills but also reap the benefits from their own connectivity.

Flexibility combined with a good underpinning of pedagogy is important when working with any project that is of a cutting edge nature. Persistence combined with the ability to make pragmatic choices are also important attributes!