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Archive for September, 2013

I just came across a new biometric+ device called Nymi. It is a wearable bracelet that captures your unique heart rhythms and provides a unique identification for you. Obviously, the most powerful feature is the authentication. But by adding an Internet dimension to it, the Nymi can be used not just for authentication but also alerts and notifications. By adding a gyroscope and an accelerometer to it, the Nymi can catch your motion. Nike FuelBand helps you do something similar with motion. And LeapMotion seems to be another technology that can do some cool things with motion. Additionally, by using Bluetooth Low Energy, the Nymi can detect proximity to other Nymi devices.

The Nymi, in other less physically intrusive form factors (perhaps a finger band or behind the ear) perhaps, and at much lower cost factors (at $79 today, it is more expensive than our Indian tablet, Aakash), may be an interesting piece of technology.

Also interesting are SmartWatches. The Galaxy Gear can take photos, run apps, and send & receive messages and calls. Apple is reportedly working on using curved glass (Corning Willow Bendable Glass) in its products, perhaps even making smartwatches.

Obviously Google Glass heads the pack with its potential and sophistication. Features include voice commands, apps, digital overlays, sharing & collaboration, and many other affordances. Perhaps it could be tied with behind the ear biometric devices or with motion sensing devices such as the Kinect.

Also, there are some existing technologies that all these can leverage and add-on. Take for example location services with GPS. And there are some important concerns that they solutions need to address, such as Privacy and Data Security.

What do these augur for learning?

Right off the bat, any biometric device is most useful in tracking and authentication scenarios – examinations, attendance and so on – where it is critical to check identity, location and presence.

With these technologies, for proctoring as an example, scientists could probably track differences in body internal or external indicators (heart rhythm, looking away from the exam paper or screen, pausing between writes etc), tracking an audio conversation, sensing another human or digital presence, that could pretty much alert/signal cheating, thus possibly making large scale proctoring possible.

Access to knowledge and services is another aspect that these devices can provide on the go in many new ways. For example, these devices can sense or take more as an input than simply text or voice search. But like TinEye, they can perhaps take complex, contextual (and personal) data to determine what knowledge is required or what service is desired. For example, a stroke patient unable to dial 911 or press a button, could have these devices signal for help; or a student’s level of enthusiasm in a class or while learning could be correlated; or if a student is stuck, it could trigger a mentor service.

Easier accessibility to device functions, such as in sending a message or clicking a photo, will make the uptake of these solutions higher and higher. Add to this the ability to collaborate through existing social networks and the Internet will further enhance the usability of these devices for all activity, including learning.

I think the proximity function (pairing, detection) can be extremely useful in physical settings, and new patterns can emerge if one looks at who we students hang out with and how they all learn and share.

Exciting possibilities emerge for merging learning experience around concepts. Let me explain. Today the workhorse is the human mind that is trying to connect, for any single concept, various learning experiences. So if  I want to learn about thermodynamics, I will read the concept on my reader or from a textbook, discuss it in class with my teacher, clarify with my fellow students and experience in multiple real life situations. Each of these are disconnected from the other, except being chained by myself or through the facilitator. What is we could remove this isolation and really bring connectedness? Like what happens when I see a truck on the road – how can I get connected to what its relevance for me is if I am studying engineering, or if I am studying law, or if I am studying civic administration? This would enhance learning to a really high degree by making the entire world a LAB or a playground.

And then, feedback. These devices can signal digitally or physically, when something is right or when something is wrong. This could be enhancing the body’s signals or by inducing an externally generated signal. What if I am think/enacting the wrong solution to a math problem? Can the device vibrate in a manner that tells me I am doing it wrong? Or (for an easier scenario), can it tell if I am holding a teacup right?

I think these technologies have the potential to go far in education! Perhaps some day we will see some of these ideas come to light.

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Does a particular type of education system tend to produce the same outcome irrespective of the underlying environment?

Or is it that the underlying social, economic and political environment will cause pretty much any educational system to tend to produce the same outcomes?

Or is it that the outcomes emerge as a result of the interplay between the educational system and the components of the ecosystem it lives in?

The reason I am asking is because everywhere I look (at least in democratic societies), the problems of education are pretty much the same, although the scale does vary. I hear people across school, university, professional and vocational education mulling over the same problems with as much inertia or angst, in India or in the UK or the USA or Australia or elsewhere. In the case of democratic, market driven countries, there may be a stronger set of patterns as well (as the case may be for authoritarian regimes or other sociopolitical structures).

Common refrains include ones such as teachers are not trained enough, children are not getting 21st century skills developed in them, employers don’t feel happy with the levels of employability of students that graduate, not enough e-Resources are available, there is an issue getting learning to remote and economically weaker sections of society, and policy makers are slow and bureaucratic. And then there are people who proclaim variously that the education system is broken, or that it is obsolete and cannot be “fixed”.

If it is indeed true that educational systems  are invariant to the underlying environment, then there are obvious design faults, that when rectified should cause the systems to improve dramatically. Perhaps the current educational systems may be replaced by new designs instead of being redesigned or “fixed”. The aim then becomes to understand the elements of design of the educational system and overlay them with the current and estimated future contexts, to arrive at new constellations of those design elements.

If the conclusion is the reverse, that educational systems don’t have much to do with outcomes, rather the outcomes are really driven by the underlying ecosystem, then perhaps the answer lies in reforming or redesigning other structures that provide inputs or receive outcomes and outputs from the educational system.

The possibility that outcomes are emergent (i.e. they emerge out of the interplay between the networks of our education system with the rest of the socioeconomic fabric) exists. People will say that the educational system shapes and is shaped by the underlying ecosystem in which it operates. But that does not explain commonality of outcomes observed globally.

I have also started feeling that traditional educational systems are far more chaotic than Connectivists would like to believe. As an example, a degree is given the same level of recognition in most countries, however the conditions of obtaining that degree, whether it is the curriculum, the quality of teachers, the infrastructure or any other design element, vary hugely from University to University. I did this exercise recently when I tried to compare the same named courses across multiple Indian and Foreign universities, and could not find more than a 20-30% similarity in most cases between the syllabus and teaching method of one university versus that of the other.I don’t think two universities would really agree on what (say) a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics should really contain, but they will still award the same degree! The traditional systems seem very chaotic, but are also very highly constrained (duration, method, engagement, assessment…) and designed towards very fixed goals – like closed loop systems – they do not present much opportunity for non-linearity.

So it is really an interesting question to try to answer, at least for those who are looking to engineer the next generation education system(s).

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