on Learning Technology and Future Opportunities

After Dinner Talk, 21 October 2010

I would like to start by thanking Harriet Stairs for inviting me to speak to you today. This topic is of personal interest to me, and I hope that enthusiasm gets through despite the wonderful meal I've just eaten, and the natural tendency to want to sleep!

As to my background: I am today at technology strategist at BMO (which is how Harriet found me). But before that I worked as an instructional technology / web consultant at the University of Toronto, and before that as a physicist / postdoctoral researcher. That is in itself a long story. But a key theme of my days at UofT, and before then, was the use of technology to support my research, and to support teaching - an interest that has stayed with me during my years at BMO. So it's nice to get the chance to indulge and reflect on that passion before a captive and willing audience.

Today I want to talk about three themes in emerging learning technology: openness, collaborative and social context, and smartness. Each of these brings something slightly different to how we can use technology to help in learning - or in research. And indeed these uses and opportunities are still being understood and explored. But I think you will find many interesting ideas to explore and take advantage of out of today's available offerings.

1. Open.

By "openness" I mean the free availability of information or tools for reuse. I am sure you all know of open source software, and potentially about the open source / open access movements, creative commons, copyleft licenses? Well, one of the new emerging trends is the creation and publication of "open source" materials - computer code, documents, whatever - that anyone can then leverage or reuse, subject to similar "restriction." This has led to an enormous new economy of openly contributed material - and learning is one of the great beneficiaries of this movement.

It benefits first through opencourseware - http://www.ocwconsortium.org - a movement to publish course materials - lecture notes, videos, exams, quizzes, and so on - such that anyone can read, use, or take advantage of this material. Initially started out of MIT the movement has grown to cover dozens of Universities, and thousands of courses. Of mixed quality, mind you, but there are many gems well worth the price of admission - or perhaps better put, worth much more than that!

But the movement didn't stop with Universities. There is also opencourseware for K-12 schools - and hundreds of courses available, most listed at http://www.ictliteracy.info/open-courseware.htm. So two good questions to ask might be: how can we leverage this material, and are there benefits / opportunities to contribute our own course materials to the opencourseware movement?

A second benefit is through open standards for authoring course modules that can run on instructional platforms (e.g. course notes, tutorials, quizzes, sequences of course modules, audio and video multimedia, scoring and tracking, etc.). This means you can in most cases author course modules on one software platform, and later on move them to another platform.

And the third great benefit is in open source elearning platforms. There are lots of these, which means that you can in practice set up and run your own online course offerings at rather modest cost. The slides in the accompanying PowerPoint presentation show some example screens from Atutor - http://www.atutor.ca/, one such open source package, in this case authored by Greg Gay of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD - http://idrc.ocad.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=118&Itemid=116.

Tools such as this are generally straightforward to download and setup. And in the case of Atutor - you have local Toronto support.

Some other platforms I know of (I am sure there are more than this, however):

So a second question for you is: are there any opportunities to set up and leverage an online elearning platform?

2. Collaboration and Social.

Learning and work go best in a social environment: everything we learn is in some way obtained or validated through interaction with others.

But I don't think many people appreciate how fundamentally the new technologies of collaboration are changing how we can better work, think, create, and learn collaboratively.

I want to give you a few examples of how this is changing - in this case from the research world, but the parallel to school learning is obvious.

Although you may not know it, blogs and wikis have become powerful new tools for scientific collaboration. Michael Nielsen, a physicist and one of the founders of the field of quantum computing, sees it as a fundamental paradigm shift, and you can read a bit about his thinking on his blog (naturally), at http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/doing-science-online/. This shift is being driven by online tools for collaboration - in particular blogs and wikis - and by open sharing of scientific information and research results, through a model called open notebook science -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Notebook_Science.

How does this work? As an example let's consider a blog by the mathematician Terence Tao (an example at http://terrytao.wordpress.com/2007/03/18/why-global-regularity-for-navier-stokes-is-hard/). Now Terence is not your ordinary mathematician - he is a superstar, and won a Fields Medal (the Nobel prize equivalent for mathematics when he was 31. This guy is scarily bright.

But he also blogs. Prodigiously. Over 100 postings a year, mostly profoundly insightful questions and musings about mathematics that he posts so he can share / discuss with thousands of other mathematician. His postings often garner 70-80 follow-on comments, suggestions, additional ideas from other mathematicians - a bit like having a hallway conversation with your office mates, except in this case hundreds of them, independent of time and space.

We see the same pattern in anyone who is learning and who has access to a community of peers - Fields medal winning mathematicians or school children.

So the question here is: can you see any way to leverage blogs or other social media to extend your own conversations about the work you are doing, or to create a social community for the people you are trying to help?

And yes, you can plug things like blogs, etc, into other social tools like Facebook!

3. Smart.

My last theme is about smartness - how our knowledge and intelligence about how learning happens can be embedded in the elearning tools we use. The example I use is a program called Fast ForWord, produced by a company called Scientific Learning (http://www.scilearn.com/).

For the past few years the Toronto Board has run a pilot program at Yorkwoods Public School, a K-7 school in the Jane Finch area. This school has many children with English language challenges, and the program is proving to be quite successful in helping kids learn, and getting kids motivated.

I know of this program through a good friend, Robert Lines, a teacher at this school who has been championing this program for the past two years. Rob is very impressed by the results, and is happy to share this with others. So should any of you be interested in visiting the classrooms, please contact Rob at <roblines AT sympatico.ca>, or 416-766-2981.

As a company, Scientific Learning asked the question: how do people / brains acquire language skills? They then developed entertaining, adaptive, drill-based skills training systems that are built around the company's model for the underlying cognitive processes people need to acquire. To students it works like standard drills: they listen to recorded text and answer questions based on understanding, and the software automatically tunes the questions so that the students get 80% easy ones, and 20% hard, only graduating when they achieve 90% success.

The academic research backing is quite impressive: one of the founders, for example, is Paula A. Tallal, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist and Board of Governors' professor of neuroscience at Rutgers, a board certified psychologist; the co-director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience; and an author of over 200 professional publications; and a holder of several patents. She was selected by the Library of Congress to be the Commentator for the Field of Psychology at its Bicentennial Celebration and earned the Thomas Alva Edison Patent Prize for her work leading to the development of Fast ForWord software.

The first photo in the PowerPoint deck shows Paula Tallal with some of the kids at Yorkwoods.

The school currently runs 50 kids a day through the facility, and recently started a cohort of grade 1s. The kids love the program, and see enormous value in attending. As an example, Rob related the story of one grade 5 student who walked up to him and said "Mr. Lines I'd like to get into this." When Rob asked him what he knew about it, the student said "It's for kids who can't read or talk right." Rob told the student he would need to get his teacher's permission to take the course: so the student went straight back to his homeroom teacher to obtain it. Another student went straight to the principal to make a similar request.

One of the photos shows a group of the kids with Mrs. Warsame (an educational assistant). The second photo shows a young girl, Keshara, and her mother - both listening in on the audio, and doing the exercises together.

Kids enjoy it - it seems like play. But the data, such as the sample data on the last slide of the PowerPoint presentation shows that real improvements in language comprehension are occurring, after only a few months.

Now how can the Psychology Foundation leverage this? That is not so clear to me. However, the thought that we can embed knowledge of how we learn into a learning system to help people learn more effectively seems a powerful approach to improve online learning. Can that principle be applied here?

I started out with the title "The Future of Instructional Technology." But I believe I've actually shown that the future is already here, just not evenly distributed. These technologies, and many others, are here today and available to be part of your future. You just have to find out which ones will help most and - in the words of Jean-Luc Picard, my favourite star ship captain - "make it so!"