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Category Archive • Computers in education
November 29, 2004
The portable and networked educational revolution

The always useful Adriana (of this fame) emails with the link to this, the technical nuances of which I can't say I understand very precisely, which in its turn links to another posting, about a University … saying no to blogging as an educational technique. Right? (Or maybe just pissed off with an insubordinate subordinate. It all rather reminds me of this.)

This bit, however, I do understand:

… Ubiquitous networking and portable devices provide a backchannel environment that changes discussion in the classroom in a profound way. …

Any teacher who sells himself as the fountain of knowledge (rather than as a person who introduces his pupils to the fountain and gets them interested in it and drinking of it, without pretending to control it or to know all of it) is asking for trouble nowadays, and has been for many years, surely. I mean, surely this is problem that has been with teachers for as long as their pupils were able to obtain their own choice of books.

Nevertheless, the latest wave of electronics, which now makes information nearly ubiquitous, like oxygen, has altered the balance of power. To make sense of books, it helps a lot to have teachers who explain them. This electronic stuff now explains itself.

The last big lurch of this kind that happened that I can remember was when TV took off its black bow tie and went into colour, and when rock and roll got into its stride. But at least the clever ones remained dependent upon their god almighty teachers. But now here's this damned Internet, which is TV and rock and roll for the scholarly types, for the university students. Tellly and rock and roll destroyed the authority of the average school teacher type. Now, the Internet is destroying the authority of the average university professor type, whose interpretations and simplifications are now just a few among thousands that the clever student can access.

Portable devices have a particularly revolutionary effect on education, because pupils, who tend not to have fixed work places, so this turns the world into being totally computerised, having only a moment ago been not computersied at all. So portable computer power turns computers into a permanent threat to the "authority" of any teacher silly enough to regard them as an enemy, rather than as one of the objects of the whole exercise.


And blogs will also have particularly revolutionary effect on education, because they are the friendly front end of the Internet. Like a good teacher, they help you to find your way through the infinity of the information that is now out there. They are a threat to editorial writers of the traditional sort. And they threaten teachers who want to go on deciding what everything means on behalf of their pupils, instead of helping them decide for themselves.

Gratuitous pictures, of happy student above, which I found here, and of kid with laptop computer, being helped by a nice teacher, which I found here.


And, by connecting the kids to each other, never mind to the big wide world, networked computers are the ultimate note handed around at the back of the class, and as such another gigantic kick in the gonads for the orthodox teacher from whose sacred mouth and white-board all wisdom is still supposed to flow.

In sensing some of this, if it did, this university was definitely on to something.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:17 AM
Category: Computers in education
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November 09, 2004
The Great UKeU Learning Experience

The BBC reports on a fairly typical piece of public sector failure, in this case of the inelegantly named UKeU. See also these earlier BBC reports, here and here.

The basic problem seems to have been that the people running this thing thought that a good educational idea (even assuming that this is what it actually was which it probably wasn't) is enough for the whole wants-to-be-educated world to come pounding on your door. But, in business in general, and most definitely in education in particular, there is a little thing called reputation. You have to have one of these, it has to be good, and it can take a while to establish it.

And the other problem, of course, is that shovelling stuff onto the internet and exchanging emails with students is no longer rocket science, and is being done by other universities. As Americans would say: wow, never saw that coming.

The attitude of the Minister who inherited this mess reminds me of those comedy sketches about maintenance men who say "Who installed this then?" when the answer is: "You did, mate." You, as in this government. You set it up.

Current Minister Howells says that the "marketing" was poor.


... he would not call the failure of the project a disaster because he was interested in the lessons learned.

Ah. A learning experience.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:31 PM
Category: Computers in educationHigher educationPolitics
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November 08, 2004
Laptop Secondary

And (for the second time today) … a Times Online link, this time to a story about laptop computers.


There are plenty of reasons for St Cecilia’s to be popular. Sheer newness and glossy, high-tech appearance for a start. Even the head teacher, Jeffrey Risbridger, admits that from the outside St Cecilia’s, with its large plasma screen flashing up the names of guests in the foyer, looks more like a plush new office block than a high school. But it is the school’s laptop policy that may be its biggest lure for parents and pupils.

St Cecilia’s, building its way to a full complement of 900 pupils, currently has just 11, 12 and 13-year-olds on roll. But every one of its 300 pupils has their own laptop, picked up in the morning and used across subjects until the school day ends at 2.30pm. If they then want to stay on to complete homework the building is open – and the laptops are available – until 6pm.

The laptops are a vital part of a state-of-the-art information and communication technology (ICT) scheme in which the latest radio technology and extended battery power are used to avoid the need for cables. Every classroom is equipped with electronic whiteboards, upon which teachers flash up their lessons, consigning the old-fashioned handout to history.

As I have said here before (and I will have to dig up the link later because I can't now find it), this kind of thing only works if you have staff who are committed to making it work, as this school obviously does.

Nightmare scenario: this school is brilliantly successful, and is copied by other schools who think that flinging money at computer companies will guarantee success, even if the staff don't have a clue about how to use all their new toys, and think that the toys will rise up magically and do their job for them.

The bad news about this school and its laptops is that they can't be taken home and worked with there, because they would then be stolen by marauding gangs of less educationally advantaged youths. So I guess the next step is to fix it so that the pupils can access all the same material from their home computers, with some kind of networky thingy arrangement.

See to it, Professor Jeeves.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:32 PM
Category: Computers in education
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September 08, 2004
Computer games for life

Deepest thanks to Antoine Clarke for emailing me the link to this. This being Professor Instapundit himself, holding forth for Tech Central Station about the educational benefits of computer games, one in particular:

A while back, I speculated that videogames were good for children. My focus there was primarily violent computer/videogames (and porn!), but on further reflection I think that even non-violent videogames just might be helping America's kids.

I came to this realization when I heard my daughter and one of her friends having an earnest discussion:

"You have to have a job to buy food and things, and if you don't go to work, you get fired. And if you spend all your money buying stuff, you have to make more."

All true enough, and worthy of Clark Howard or Dave Ramsey. And it's certainly something my daughter has heard from me over the years. But they were talking about The Sims, which has swept through my neck of little-girl-land faster than a mutant strain of flu through Shanghai. Thanks to The Sims, they know how to make a budget, and how to read an income statement -- and to be worried when cash flow goes negative. They understand comparison shopping. They're also picking up some pointers on human interaction, though The Sims characters seem a bit dense in that department at times. (Then again, so do real people, now and then).

And, shortly, The Sims 2 will up the stakes. Among other things, it will allow you to "Mix Genes: Your Sims have DNA and inherit physical and personality traits. Take your Sims through an infinite number of generations as you evolve their family tree." What more could a father want, than a game that will teach his daughter that if you marry a loser, he'll likely stay a loser, and your kids have a good chance of being losers, too?

All joking aside, though, I'm impressed with the things that these games teach. …


Thanks again Antoine. I would probably have got to it on my own eventually. After all, Instapundit himself linked to this piece. But my surfing is erratic and certainly doesn't, as they say in America, cover all the bases. So emails to interesting pieces are always extremely welcome.

However, I still haven't got around to sorting out brian@brianmicklethwait.com, so try brian@libertarian.co.uk instead. Sorting out brian@brianmicklethwait.com is no doubt extremely easy. As are the 7,354 other things I also need to do urgently, a lot of them before I can do any of the others.

Maybe there's a computer game I need to play, where you are rewarded for doing lots of little things right. Maybe all computer games are like this. So, thing 7,355: get into computer games (apart from Solitaire I mean). I will not be doing that actually.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:14 PM
Category: Computers in education
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July 06, 2004
How computers are teaching "tactical Arabic" to the US Army

The world is full of pessimists about whether computers will ever make much of a contribution to education. I am an unashamed optimist, first, because the Internet already is making a massive contribution to education, and second because the standard of computerised teaching will quickly rise to the level of the cleverest schemes doing this, while the rubbish schemes will be quietly forgotten.

So I was especially intrigued by this article in the New York Times, about how the US Army is being taught "tactical Arabic" with virtual reality computer simulations of the problems they face.

In a dusty valley in southern Lebanon, "Sgt. John Smith" of the Special Forces scans the scene in front of him. Ahead is a village known as Talle. His immediate mission: to find out who the local headman is and make his way to that house.

All discussions with the villagers will have to be conducted in Arabic, and Sergeant Smith must comport himself with the utmost awareness of local customs so as not to arouse hostility. If successful, he will be paving the way for the rest of his unit to begin reconstruction work in the village.

Sergeant Smith is not a real soldier, but the leading character in a video game being developed at the University of Southern California's School of Engineering as a tool for teaching soldiers to speak Arabic. Both the game's environment and the characters who populate it have a high degree of realism, in an effort to simulate the kinds of situations troops will face in the Middle East. Talle is modeled on an actual Lebanese village, while the game's characters are driven by artificial-intelligence software that enables them to behave autonomously and react realistically to Sergeant Smith.

The Tactical Language Project, as it is called, is being developed at U.S.C.'s Center for Research in Technology for Education, in cooperation with the Special Operations Command. From July 12 to 16, real Special Forces soldiers at Fort Bragg in Northern California will test the game and put Sergeant Smith through his paces.

The user plays Sergeant Smith, while the other characters are virtual constructs. Using a laptop, the user speaks for the sergeant, in Arabic, through a microphone headset and controls the character's actions by typing keyboard instructions.

The project is part of a major initiative, financed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, to explore new ways of training troops by making use of the large installed base of existing technology, especially laptops.

"I'd like to be able to send something like this to every soldier stationed in a foreign country," said Dr. Ralph Chatham, the Darpa project manager.

Of particular importance is that the soldiers need to learn the body language of a different culture, and not just words. The right words, but spoken in the wrong way, could be disastrous.

Funny how, when a whole bunch of people have to learn and have to be taught, and when the question of fussing about how each of them is doing compared to all the rest is of secondary importance, so long as they all learn it, learning is able to proceed rapidly.

The article goes on to say that this kind of thing requires very powerful computers, of a sort not previously widely available. Part of what uses up all the power is that every individual that our intrepid US soldier encounters has his own reality and his own agenda and his own repertoire of responses, which vary widely depending on how the US soldier treats him.

So, could we now have reached the early phase of a characteristic pattern in the application of computers to everyday life. A new application is roughed out at the theoretical level, and much trumpetted. (In this case "computer assisted learning".) But turning the concept into a working procedure proves to be far harder, and demanding of far more computer power, than was originally assumed, and the thing only starts to come on stream years later, when most early optimists had given up on ever seeing it? Let's hope so.


That's a picture of Dr. Lewis Johnson, the director of the Center for Advanced Research in Technology for Education, and one of the brains behind this project.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:57 PM
Category: Computers in education
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June 22, 2004
"All academic subjects are now deliverable by computer …"

This looks really interesting. Note how public sector failure seems automatically to have attracted the interest of the private sector. The private sector had to solve the problem, and then it decided to go into the business in an even bigger way.

Clowes: How did you become involved in education reform?

Brennan: When we began automating our manufacturing plants in the early 1980s, we discovered our employees were insufficiently educated to do the necessary transactions on the factory floor, so our company went into the education business. Every single employee, depending upon level of education and achievement, was in our classroom for one or two hours a week, using computer-aided instruction.

We had great success with that program – which still continues in our factories – and I recognized that technology has a major place in education reform. But when I tried to carry this message back to the public schools, they weren't interested. It didn't fit their pre-conception of how education should be carried out. Then I recognized that the problem we had in public education was a total inability to effect innovation. That only comes in a market economy, where there are choices.

Computer-aided instruction is the teaching of mathematics, reading skills, language arts, history, social sciences, and so on, by computer. All academic subjects are now deliverable by computer. It's a segment of our education world where a number of companies are aggressively pursuing the continued development of more sophisticated computer-delivered curriculum. Our education company now has a fully supported homeschooling network with high school curriculum delivered over the Internet. We have a very large center of master teachers serving a student population of about 2,500 here in Ohio and we're opening in Pennsylvania.

Sooner or later, computer aided basic education that really works is going to be available free to everyone on the Internet, and everyone is going to know that it is there. There is some way to go before this happens, but when it does, and it will, it will be a different world, my readers, a different world.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:27 PM
Category: Computers in education
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April 02, 2004
"I would like to invite you to visit our site …"

On those days when I have been living life as life is generally understood (i.e. working and going out), I sometimes find myself at the end of the day and in need of a quick posting. And it is at times like those (i.e. these) that I am rather more welcoming of emails like this one than I usually am.

Dear Brian,

I would like to invite you to visit our site at http://www.readingsuccesslab.com and introduce you to the Cognitive Aptitude Assessment Software, developed by internationally recognized Psychology Professor Mike Royer, Ph. D. of the Laboratory for the Assessment and Training of Academic Skills, University of Massachusetts Amherst and software developer Jeremy Wise, Ph.D.

With 15 years of research behind them, the Drs. have recently introduced a free reading assessment test designed for home use and ideal for families, homeschool families, those with special learning needs and educators. The Reading Success Lab™ FREE Reading Assessment Test is a unique screening test to identify readers with disabilities. Other free tests typically ask a series of paper and pencil questions regarding a reader's struggles with reading.

Our test actually tests reading skills. The software measures both the accuracy of response (did the reader make the correct answer), and the timeliness of the response (how quickly did the reader make the correct answer). Measuring timeliness indicates whether the reader has mastered the skill or struggles with the skill.

We believe the application of the software for families has proved to meet many of their concerns about learning problems. The soon to be released full assessment software will provide a full diagnosis with recommendations for intervention, all with ease from home. Test the whole family with software customizable to multiple age levels.

If you try the software, like it and consider it a good resource for your visitors, we would appreciate a link from your site. We believe CAAS, is an important resource for all families.

Dr. Royer and Dr. Wise are very eager for feedback and also for an honest discussion about the software, it’s use and application. Please let us know if you have any questions or comments of any kind.

With kind regards,
Debra Paynter


Other of our sites we welcome you to check out
http://www.jeremywisephd.com/ for Jeremy Wise, Ph.D.
http://www.jamesmroyerphd.com/ for Mike Royer, Ph. D.
http://www.umass.edu/latas/ to visit the Laboratory for the Assessment and Training of Academic Skills
http://www.cognitive-aptitude-assessment-software.com/ for the Researcher Version

Make of this whatever you will.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:40 PM
Category: Computers in education
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