Monday, 13 July 2009

Mobile Learning: Telling Tales

On Thursday I attended Mobile Learning: Telling Tales (#mimasmob09), a one day MIMAS event on mobile devices in education. This was an interesting day - lots of frustration but flashes of genius. There are many interesting developments in the field, but few of them are sustainable.

Graham Brown-Martin was very engaging. I always warm to people with a foot in many camps - he's very much the entrepeneur, but also a self described geek with an arty side who ran off to join the circus!

Graham gave a clear explanation of the importance of gaming in learning, as a way to engage learners and experience learning. I've been dismissive of this in the past, as I couldn't see past all the hype over Second Life. I'm still convinced Second Life in particular has little value but Graham's demonstrations of games / virtual worlds for young children were fantastic. I have no idea how we could apply this in a HE context though, and it looks fantastically expensive.

Graham was also very clear in his condemnation of closed VLEs such as Blackboard, and believes that in future the educational technology market will be dominated by consumer industries rather than educational-specific providers. He had a moving anecdote to demonstrate that unless your VLE is accessible on home devices you a disenfranchising vulnerable parts of society.

John Traxler had the wisest words of the session - that we should "stop funding good projects in the hope that they become sustainable, and instead fund sustainable projects in the hope that they become good". Mobile learning currently has two many amateur enthusiasts. It's difficult to scale stuff up. Few if any projects evaluate their pedagogical impact.

We are teetering on the edge of allowing users to provide their own mobile devices, and designing learning around that. This is difficult with mobile platforms in flux. There is no stable infrastructure to build on. [Perhaps the mobile web - HTML - is the best we have?]

Geoff Butters referenced the Demos report Their Space in his explanation of how young people learn [I must read it]. He then described the EU funded Emapps project. This was interestingly conceived, but by the time it was implemented the project was already out of date. Much of the money was spent on devices and mobile data bills. Sadly an example of the unsustainable approach to mobile learning.
Hilary Smith had a very different approach- using childrens' own mobile phones and free tools such as Youtube, blogs and wikis for Key Stage 3 science. I like the approach, but there were huge practical barriers. Too much time was needed to install third-party software no childrens own mobiles. More fundamentally, almost all schools ban children owning mobiles! Many also block sites such as Youtube. The willingness of teachers to cede control or comfort using technology which may let them down was also an issue.

I missed my ex-colleague Andy Ramsden's presentation on QR codes, as I was in a parallel session. I remain to be convinced that QR codes are the right solution to any real problems - the readers aren't built-in to mainstream mobiles, and they are just a bit too geeky! I hope they get leapfrogged by some other technology.

I also missed Stuart Smith's presentation on the mobile website, but I like it as a very practical example of the real-world benefits of mobile learning - taking education out of the classroom and into the salon.

Gary Priestnall's presentation on the SPLINT project was fascinating. This used PDAs on geography field trips. I saw for the first time how augmented reality - display additional data overlaying the real world - can be of educational value. I also now understand why Apple have a digital compass in the iPhone 3GS.

James Clay of Gloucestershire College wrapped up the event and gave the best presentation of the day. He is passionate about learning, understands technology, and is an excellent speaker. His presentation really deserves a blog post of its own - but better still watch The Future of Learning on his own blog.

News of the World phone hacking: how did they do that?

The media was abuzz last week with allegations that investigators working for the News of the World 'hacked' mobile phones belonging to scores of public figures.

How did they actually do it? Graham Cluley, Sophos guesses that they simply accessed the voicemail boxes of the phones concerned. This could be done by a little social engineering. Simply contact the phone provider claiming to be the individual concerned, with a little 'personal' information to convince them. Even easier, try the default PIN code - many people don't change it.

Some suggestions to stop this happening to you:
  • Change your mobile phone PIN code from the default to something only you know.
  • Keep your private personally identifiable information (things like your mother's maiden name) secret. That's difficult to do I know...
  • Do you really want voicemail anyway? Many people find it frustating - often a text is more useful. In that case, just disable it.
On a broader point - mobile phones are one important function which most corporations have already outsourced. Remember the News of the World story when considering outsourcing other services to cloud providers. Obviously similar risks could exist on in house systems, but such problems are easier to fix if in house.

Finally, read confessions of a tabloid hack for a revealing insight into the illegal activities of the press.
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Thursday, 9 July 2009

Why did JANET Talk fail?

A couple of years ago JANET(UK) announced a pilot VOIP service for UK HE, JANET Talk. The pilot has now finished, and will not be extended to a production service, as there is little apparent demand for it. It was obvious to me from the start that JANET Talk wouldn't be a success. I remember pointedly suggesting as much at the Networkshop session where it was launched. The reason? Network effects - or the lack of them.

Imagine you owned the first telephone in existence. It is completely useless - there is nobody to call. It only becomes useful when someone else bought the second telephone. More precisely, as a telephone network grows, its usefulness increases in proportion to the number of potential connections between people in the network - the square of the number of people. 

JANET Talk was only for people in UK HE to talk to others in UK HE. In todays world - a networked, global world - there is no way that a communications service for such a small group of people will be successful. It will inevitably be overtaken by other services with a larger network of users. People will choose to join the larger, more successful service, as that is what their contacts already use.

There are ways you can let a small network benefit from network effects - by connecting it to other networks. The Internet itself came into existence as exactly that - a network of networks. For a VOIP service, the best way to do this is to allow calls to and from the PSTN. Unfortunately JANET Talk was restricted so that you couldn't receive calls from the PSTN. JANET did this deliberately. They don't want to become a public telecommunications provider, as that would potentially open them up to more regulation. It's a very understandable decision from their point of view but sadly it made JANET Talk irrelevant.

Why is this important? Network effects don't just apply to telephones. Everything these days is networked. Web 2.0 is all about social connections & communications. The same factors explain why only a minority of colleagues at Bristol use our calendar service. It's internal only. This is no help to you if if you collaborate with people outside the University. Instead people choose to use - a free, web-based service which individuals adopt of their own accord, with no involvement from the institution.

I've instinctively understood network effects for years. I learnt my lesson launching ResNet Chat. I watched the small, lonely procession of users log in to the chat room one by one, saw the tumbleweed howling through it, and log off, never to return again, while MSN beckoned brightly. 

Don't let it happen to you. When planning a new service, see if it has built-in positive network effects. It is doesn't have these naturally, find a way to connect it to larger networks so it can benefit from theirs. If you can't find a way to do this then you are dooming your project from the start. You're better off doing nothing, unless you want to see your service become irrelevant, pushed to one side by a larger, more popular one.

(image of network effects courtesy of Wikipedia)