Archive for August, 2008

There have been some huge developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially those around the internet and the way we learn. The “X” in “X.O” represents “fault lines” or tensions between local and global, groups and networks, structure and chaos, homogeneity and diversity, teacher-led vs facilitated and simple vs complex. With each tension comes a lot of hard work and experimentation, sometimes building on existing paradigms, sometimes with novel approaches. This post tries to summarize the different X.Os in one place.


The X in X.O represents versions or generations of thinking and capacity. Not unlike versions in software or documents, X.Os represent change and a philosophy of transformation. While Generation 1.0 showed us the power of visualization, of search over aggregated knowledge, of 3D immersion, of multimedia based learning, Generation 2.0 has facilitated for us the power to network and to leverage collective insight through social networks, learning 2.0 styles, collaboration and ever growing news forms of media. Generation 3.O is still very nascent and further improves on Generation 2.O by adding ubiquity and context to the teaching-learning process.

The caveat, and there is always one, is that the internet is a powerful medium, but only to those for whom it is accessible. We must leverage alternate forms for audiences that are either not empowered or not influenced by these technologies. In the end, technology is an enabler – not the knowledge itself, not our relationships with others in a network and not our own little hype that we believe is the only solution. We have to learn how to use these effectively and judiciously and it equally behoves those that have this access to disseminate it to others who do not.

Generation 1.O

Gen 1.O has shown us the power of Web and computer based learning. This generation of learning has become popular and has an established art, craft, business and science. What is this generation? It started with small computer programs that were used by teachers to explain and simulate educational problems. These evolved into computer based training or CBT modules that became richer and more appealing with the advent of multimedia and the evolution of the personal computer. But an inflection point emerged with the birth of the Internet towards the end of the last century. Suddenly a new accessible medium and a common presentation language  enabled us to create web based training – training that could be placed (hosted) on a server on the Internet and be used across the world. This shift enabled immense economies of scale to corporations that were able to save costs of training logistics and precious travel time. As bandwidth improved, video conferencing evolved to provide immersive situations for collaboration and communication.

For teachers and students, all this marked the beginning of a change in the way instruction was designed and delivered. No longer did we have the flexibility of a classroom, board and chalk. We did not even have the chance to know a student by name and look her in the eye. We lost conversational ability and had to strive to ingenuously incorporate that ability within WBTs using third person role-plays and scenarios. We also tried to reinforce and replicate the same fundamental ways of teaching – only magnified the scale through a global platform – and kept the expert, now a mix of multiple more rigorously defined skills such as instructional and graphics design, at the centre, rather than the learner. The limitations of the WBT were sought to be overcome in part by virtual classrooms and satellite based video conferencing. Te teacher could at once scale to multiple locations via a global classroom with the help of technology using simple, rapid elearning tools such as Powerpoint (somewhat misplaced, no learning is that rapid to create, deliver or experience). They also brought with them the reinforcement and perpetuation of systems that promoted the teacher at the core of the learning experience.

Even bigger innovations brought together learning theory and technology to create real-life immersive simulations and a high level of engage through gaming and virtual reality. Parallely, systems for managing learners and administering learning programs and content (LMS/LCMS) – also evolved to manage the huge amount of training content and delivery that was created. Industry, government and academia got together to build standards such as SCORM.

The benefits were enormous. There were huge improvements in terms of standardization and quality of presentation of content. The space became more specialized and verticalized in terms of both skills and solutions.

Improvements were largely innovation-led through advances in pedagogy and technology. Elements such as 3D graphics, simulations and gaming are still high-cost, esoteric and time intensive to create.

But still, such a lot of effort, suffering from tensions of art vs science, autonomous vs teacher led, local vs global, has still left an entire generation dissatisfied!

And the main reasons for this dissatisfaction are not hard to find! Cost is one factor. Learner engagement is another. Lack of personalization is yet another key cause. Teacher awareness and skill and sharing of best practices have been challenges. Key challenges such as learner retention, visualization and real-life immersion are the learning domain’s own unique and continual challenges.

Generation 2.O

Then the internet changed. Fundamentally. The next generation is radically different, both in core technology and it’s application in learning. The next generation of the Web was christened Web 2.0. The most fundamental elements of this new generation are user-generated content, social networking, mashups and remixable data sources. Let us examine these elements in greater detail.

User generated content

The web was deemed “read-only” for the vast majority of users. This meant that you needed specialized expertise to author and publish content on the web. This is different from e-mail that is used to communicate one on one or one t o group easily. It was the process of being able to create something to share with the global community that was esoteric. Some of us embraced that technology readily while a lot of us struggled with using even the most basic tools, let alone be capable to generating highly sophisticated elearning.

With Web 2.0, these barriers to creation and sharing of content have been significantly reduced. Anybody can contribute – all it requires is web browser, an internet connection and lots of ideas and experiences. Blogs provide, for example, a channel through which anyone could share content with the global community. The web has become writeable. Not only could you write textual content, but could also author and share other forms of content such as pictures, audio, pictures with audio and many other continuously emerging new forms of media. As a result, the amount of content generated over the past 2-3 years has been many thousands of times the amount in physical form ever created by man. This sudden explosion has been facilitated by advances in software, hardware and networking, very specifically, by advances in storage, processing power, improving network technology and virtualization.

Social Networking

But being able to author content on the web is not enough. The real power lies in being able to share it. As humans, we have an innate need and desire to communicate with each other. We build relationships, we create networks, whether they be friends, family, colleagues or just about anyone else. We learn through these networks by sharing and communicating thoughts, ideas and experiences. Web 2.0 enables us to create digital social networks, virtual communities of people irrespective of who and where they are. These networks have the potential to grow virally and have sen tremendous growth in the past few years.

What does that do for us? It enables us to draw upon the shared thoughts, ideas and experiences of people globally. The internet is now suddenly not a website anymore. Rather it is an open space for dialogue, debate or collection of information and critical thinking. It is a space that can help us leverage collective insight. It can help and grow relationships and reduce the asymmetries of knowledge and information. Correspondingly, it provides tools to search and source knowledge from millions of different sources.

An element of this generation is the ability to create one’s own classification or interpretations of knowledge. A name or place or visual could mean or evolve associations differently for different people. Which means that if it is classified using a particular standard taxonomy like in libraries or directories, it may never be found by someone who associates a different taxonomy or interpretation to it. This new way of classifying information, the personalized or group taxonomy, is called Folksonomy (more popularly known as social bookmarking or tagging). A fundamental change brought about in this generation is not only the ability to tag but also to be able to share these tags with your communities.


The third most fundamental element of this new generation are mashups. Prior to the introduction of this element, software applications such as an order and pay ecommerce application were standalone islands that architecturally, were not built to inter-operate (thence standards such as X.12 and EDIFACT) and share their data with other software applications (at least not easily). Today it has become easy for even novice users to create more complex views of information (e.g. Dapper), e.g. combining pollution indices with geo-spatial maps. Web services now provide the glue through which these can happen. It has become very easy to “plug-in” and integrate functionality pieces from multiple sources into your own application or portal – skills that were uptil now, the domain of skilled programmers. For example, Yahoo! Pipes and RSS combined can place the knowledge of your interest area at your disposal.

Remixable data sources

The power of this fourth fundamental element lies in the ability to look at the internet as a large database system.  The world’s data, in this view, becomes a set of inter-related structure (not unlike an RDBMS), with elements semantically related with each other through defined and dynamic associations. As Sir Tim Berners Lee believes, the semantic web is something that we can use very intelligently to perform a lot of tasks triggered by these associations. Over time, these tasks could be handled by agents without the need for human intervention prompting futurists like Ray Kurzweil to talk about the future half machine half human social form.

Learning 2.0

Consequent to this fundamental transformation and aided by continued frustrations with the existing teaching-learning process and the evolving behaviour of digital social networks constituted by new age digital learners, is the push towards the next generation of learning. Founded on an epistemological framework that defines knowledge as being emergent, adaptive and composed of connections and networked entities (Stephen Downes, 2006), George Siemens posits connectivism  as a learning theory that suggests that the act of learning is largely one of forming  a diverse network of connections and recognizing attendant patterns (Siemens, 2006).

Stephen Downes is widely credited with the term Learning 2.O. According to him learning is not negotiating an organized repository of knowledge, but like electricity or water – available through networks like on tap. This is a fundamentally new view representing an entirely new way of learning steeped in the belief that networks can produce reliable gains in knowledge more effectively than traditional systems. Learning 2.O enables a digital generation to connect, collaborate and co-create knowledge and collective insight through relationships and identity in a network.

Changing Roles of learners, teachers and learning managers

Learners are changing from passive receptors of information and training to active participants in their own learning. This is a viral change, so it is really fast. Today’s digital learners are part of communities. They share their interests with members of their community. They twitter. They blog. They rake in RSS feeds and bookmark their favorities on de.li.ci.ou.s. They share photos on Flickr and videos on YouTube. They share knowledge on Slideshare and Learnhub or Ning. They share ideas. They grow by meeting and engaging peers and gurus alike using the LinkedIn or Facebook. On their laptops and on their mobile phones.

Traditional instructors are now moving from being trainers to being facilitators, guides and coaches in a collaborative teaching-learning space. The instructors need not treat their learners as passive receptors, rather they can actively shape, by dialogue and discovery, the nature of their learning.

Learning Managers, though, have perhaps the biggest challenge. Undisputedly, an organization that has both the vision and a demonstrable culture of continuous learning, collaboration and improvement, will benefit natively from the formalization of this style and the adoption of the available tools. This kind of an organization worries about functional excellence and the ability to transform the domain in which they operate through leveraging individual and collective insight.

Several metaphors of the educator have emerged. John Seely Brown posits the notion of studio or atelier learning portraying the educator as a master artist in an art studio who observes student activities, points out innovation and uses the activities of all users to guide, direct and influence the work of each individual. Clarence Fisher talks about the teacher as a network administrator who help students construct personal networks for learning. Curtis Bonk talks about the educator as a concierge who directs learners to appropriate resources that they may not be aware of. George Siemens suggests educators must behave both as curators – experts and guides who encourage exploration and create learning spaces or ecologies. And this participative pedagogy is what is a dramatic change or reform for the existing system.

Emergence of new media forms and collaborative learning

Learning 2.0 has spurred interest in collaborative learning and new forms of media. Immersive collaborative learning, which is really an immersion of self within a networked learning ecology, has been very evocatively been drawn out by solutions such as SecondLife. The practice of teaching and learning can now benefit greatly from these and structured techniques for collaborative learning suc as collaborative online brainstorming, voice and video blogs, voicethread type learning triggers, life threads (that follow an individual online) etc. Communities of Practice, I believe will be an important source of new media forms. CoPs provide an open space for collaboration around a specific interest area and because of that new types of collaboration artefacts stand a good chance of getting created that become a knowledge point in the learning experience.

Generation 3.0

The latest X.O is the third generation of web and learning. What seems to be emerging as unique characteristics of this web generation are ubiquity, context awareness, location awareness and mobility.

By ubiquity we mean an omnipresent network, connecting devices and humans alike to each other blurring the man-machine interface.

By context and location awareness, we mean that our networks will increasing be ware of not only what we need but also where we need it. For example, teaching in class is a context and location combination that should trigger off a lot of relevance to a teachers activity within the classroom.

If we add the temporal aspect, technology could become even more useful in channelling the right knowledge to us and in the right form. This might become a very useful thing because for example, a teacher’s timetable could be synchronised with the frequency of her RSS feed from Yahoo! Pipes or become a trigger for analytics to be fed in from the world on the common problem areas on the topic she is teaching.

Mobility is the other key aspect of the 3.O Web. By this we imply devices that are geared towards specific types of work or as generic tools, that can be added-on to the learner wherever she goes. Examples include some ongoing research on wearable headsets that provide the power of your PC, social network and the internet wherever you go.

It is then not inconceivable to think of the next generation of learning – Learning 3.O. This generation of learning is considered to be ambient – residing in our environment and ready for us to access when we need to. Pundits for this learning technology futurecast it to do to our world what electricity did for the industrial world.

In summary

And there will be more X.Os to come as we grapple with the fundamental transformation of our digital lives. There will always be competing approaches. The challenge for all of us is to be open & receptive to this change, critical in what we accept and be ready to experiment.

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The 20th ICCE at Mauritius in retrospect was an exciting conference. What I was thrilled by is the amazing variety of approaches that teachers and educators are using to teach Chemistry. Peter Hollamby was using simple Powerpoint, Excel and Word macros along with Flash based animations to do a variety of cool things – like drag and drop and MCQs. The Cross River project from Taiwan had school students capture ecological data about Taiwan’s main river (that runs from the mountain to the sea and cuts across as many as 14 different indigenous sub-cultures) and not only collaborate on the scientific aspects but also learn about the indigenous cultures. Another one from Taiwan studied how ICT could be used to monitor and report polluting vehicles, thereby really increasing students’ awareness on environmental pollution issues. SATL, a systemic approach in teaching and learning chemistry, seemed to be another innovative approach as were approaches to use didactic games and problem solving approaches to teaching and learning. Of course, visualization got a huge lot of focus because of the higher effectiveness of that approach in chemistry especially at the “invisible” molecular level. Then there was Shalini Baxi’s presentation on ICT – the challenges of science education, a history of previous low-cost initiatives and learning X.0 evolution.

All in all, I found it a very enriching and rewarding experience to be part of this conference, so expertly organized by the University of Mauritius (Prof. P Ramasami) and my best wishes to the organizers of the Taiwan conference in 2010.

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I wrote this summary a few months ago. The paper focuses on the generations of learning and the web that we are hearing about and their importance to organizations. Download it!

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I was fortunate enough to be part of Prof. Roald Hoffman’s plenary session at the 20th ICCE today. Prof. Hoffman is a Nobel prize winner in Chemistry. More than anything, although he was talking about chemistry, his talk inspired me to look at technology and learning in ways I had not conceived of before. He started by talking about chemistry in culture and culture in chemistry. His belief is that chemistry is not separable from arts and social sciences insofar as how we perceive our world, though the operational aspects may be entirely different. He held forth three views of chemistry.

The first was looking at Chemistry from the perspective of a few hundred years ago, before we had chemistry as a formal science and chemist as a formal profession. In those days, chemistry was the art, craft and business (before it became a science) of the transformation of substances – things that are and how they transform. Even then we had products that were utilised to create metallurgical implements, medicines, art, cosmetics etc. For example, the colour blue was made in Egypt (“egyptian blue”) and used by artists who created paintings that are today works of art in our museums. This colour was made by transforming substances. Even alchemists, who are treated as not being scientists, by whose concoctions many a king who desired immortal life perished, sought this transformation. Their work, he says, was fuelled by philosophies of transformation, of desires – the desire to transform sickness to good health, poverty to richness, immortal life. And when it became useful, the normally conceived secretive, abstruse, hermetic became, by the same philosophy of transformation, what was already pre-existing – chemistry!

The second view was that of the internal working of that transformation.  Over the last 200 years, at the microscopic level, persistent patterns or groups were found of what we know as atoms. Suddenly chemistry became the art, craft, business and science of that transformation. There are inherent tensions in this view – for example the one between the simple and the complex. We appreciate quickly the symmetrical, the organized, the simple – whether it be a design of a monument or the explanation of a problem. We even equate our concepts of beauty with this simplicity. But our challenge is dealing with complexity, all that which is not simple or beautiful. The aesthetic is in the diversity. Simplicity is implicit in the nature of science and we must fight that. Beauty, he says, resides between order and chaos. It affects us emotional and cognitively. Prof. Hoffman showed us Mendeleev’s periodic table and one of William Blake’s poems on science. They looked beautiful. But then he also showed us Mendeleev’s explanation or story (which perhaps became better with each narration!) and the last draft of Blake’s poem, both of which showed just how much effort and negotiation in between order and chaos creating these entailed. This he finds beautiful as do I.

His third view is the perception of chemistry today. The inherent tension here is in things like harm vs. benefit. Perception is determined as much by politics and religion as by media and communications today. He reminded us of just how little we learn to appreciate the beauty of the efforts that go in to create a wonder drug or the way a new technology works. He firmly stated that chemistry is about change and there will be ambivalence about our perceptions of it – we need to come to terms with it, embrace it.

These tensions bring with them the potential of change in any culture or domain. We must work to foster these in ourselves and our young generations. I think we must build enough ways to engender critical thinking, creativity and the quest for beauty not only in chemistry but all our domains – in fact, our lives.

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I am at the 20th ICCE at Mauritius and am getting a chance to interact with Chemistry educators and researchers from all over the world on their thoughts and approaches to using ICT in Science education. A very interesting and interactive session by Prof. Peter Mahaffy around climate change and the role of chemistry was the first plenary session. Prof. Mahaffy emphasized the responsibility for chemistry educators to understand the link between human activity and chemical reactivity. He believes we may be at the tipping point for earth’s climate and invoked Faraday when he said we must inquire “What is the cause?” and “Why does it occur?”. He went on to show Flash based animations and simulations that are aimed at removing misconceptions for secondary school and first year undergraduate students and demonstrate the use of visualizations as a key element in bringing about greater awareness in this area.He envisages an entire curriculum built in this fashion around climate change. (Read more at http://www.kvsa.ca)

Prof. Loretta Jones’ presentation on helping students understand better through technology and visualization was also very impressive. Her presentation started with the ways in which we can visualize knowledge (colors, charts, topographical views, animations, 3D etc). And she went on to discuss how we can show that which is not visible – the challenge that chemistry education shares. As part of their research, Prof. Jones looked at how visualization can improve learning. The research carried out was based on pre-tests and post-tests applied to a group of instructors and novices. They researched use of static graphics, use of animations at different levels and use of models and found that visualization, in general, improves learning. However, animations can often be distracting, inaccurate or too fast to be of any great use. Rather, these are contributing factors in creating misconceptions in the mind of the learner. The model that they worked with was a four stage one for a student exposed to an animation – sensory, attention, working model and long term memory – showing that we perceive a lot of things, pay attention to only a few, process even a more limited set and transfer them to long term memory once understanding sets in. One of the other interesting things they did was to ask students to actually build visualizations of their understanding of the topic prior to showing them the animation and then to redo them after they saw the animation and this also provided clues to the effectiveness of visualization as a tool. Prof. Hoffman’s comments on alternate realities (no one “right” way to visualize something) and the importance of tactile learning were important critiques in what, perhaps, looked to him possibly an over simplified approach. But Prof. Jones’ presentation had one approach in a sea of approaches required to actually bring about breakthrough and innovative ideas in education.

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