This post is a quick summary of a New Technology Day event that took place at The Open University London regional centre on Saturday 14 June 2014. I’ve written this post for a number of reasons: for my esteemed colleagues who came along to the day, so that I help to remember what happened on the day, so that I can share with my bosses what I’m getting up to on a day to day basis, and for anyone else who might be remotely interested.
One of the challenges that accompanies working in the area of technology, particularly information technology and computing, is that the pace of change is pretty relentless. There are always new innovations, development and applications. There are always new businesses doing new things, and using new techniques. Keeping up with ‘the new stuff’ is a tough business. If you spent all your time looking at what was ‘new’ out there, we simply wouldn’t get any work done – but we need to be understanding ‘the new’, so we can teach and relate to others who are using ‘all this new stuff’.
The idea for this day came from a really simple idea. It was to ask colleagues the question, ‘have you heard of any new technology stuff recently? If so, can you tell me about it?’ Rather than having a hard and fast ‘training’ agenda the idea was to create a space (perhaps a bit like an informal seminar) to allow us to have an opportunity to share views and chat, and to learn from each other.
After a brief introduction, I kicked off with the first presentation, which was all about cloud computing. A couple of weeks back, I went to a conference that was all about an open source ‘cloud operating system’ called OpenStack as a part of some work I was doing for a module team. The key points from the presentation are described in a series of two blog posts (OU Blog)
Towards the end of the presentation, I mentioned a new term called Fog Computing. This is where ‘the cloud’ is moved to the location where the data is consumed. This is particularly useful in instances where fast access times are required. It was interesting to hear that some companies might also be doing something similar. One example might be companies that deliver pay-on-demand streaming video. It obviously doesn’t make a lot of sense if the movies that you want to see are located on another continent; your viewing experience may well be compromised by unforeseen network problems and changes in traffic.
It was useful to present this since it helped to clarify some of my understandings, and I also hoped that others found it interesting too. Whilst the concept of a ‘cloud’ isn’t new (I remember people talking about the magic of an X.25 cloud), the technologies that realise it are pretty new. I also shared a new term that I had forgotten I had written on one of my slides: the concept of a devop – someone who is also a developer and an operator.
The second presentation was about the JuxtaLearn project, by Liz Hartnett, who was unable to attend. Liz, however, still was able to make an impact on the event since she had gone the extra mile to make an MP3 recording of her entire presentation. Her talk adopted the PechaKucha format. This is where a presenter uses 20 slides which change every 20 seconds. Since her slide deck was setup to change automatically, it worked really well.
We learnt about the concept of the threshold concept (which can be connected to the concept of computer programming) and saw how videos could be made with small project groups. I (personally) connected this with activities that are performed on two different modules: TU100 My Digital Life, and T215 Communication and Information Technologies, which both ask students to make a presentation (or animation).
OU Live and pedagogy
The next talk of the day was by Mandy Honeyman, who also adopted the PechaKucha format. Mandy talked about a perennial topic, which is the connection between OU Live and pedagogy. I find this topic really interesting (for the main reason that I haven’t yet ‘nailed’ my OU Live practice within this format, but it’s something that I’m continuing to work on). I can’t speak for other people, but it has taken me quite a bit of time to feel comfortable ‘teaching’ using OU Live, and I’m always interesting in learning further tips.
Mandy has taken the time and trouble to make a version of her presentation available on YouTube. So, I’ve you’ve got the time (and you were not at the event), do give this a look. (She prepared it using PowerPoint, and recorded it using her mobile phone).
The biggest tip that I’ve made a note of is the importance of ‘keeping yourself out of it’, or ‘taking yourself out of it [the OU Live session]’. When confronted by silence it’s easy to feel compelled to fill it with our own chatter, especially in situations where students are choosing not to use the audio channel.
One really interesting point that came out during the discussion was how important it is to try to show how to use OU Live right at the start of their journey with the OU. I don’t think this is done as it could be at the moment. I feel that level 1 tutors are implicitly given the challenging task of getting students up to speed with OU Live, but they will already have a lot on their hands in terms of the academic side of things. I can’t help think that we could be doing a bit better when it comes to helping students become familiar with what is increasingly become a really important part of OU teaching and learning.
It was also mentioned that application sharing can run quite slowly (especially if you do lots of scrolling) – and one related thought is that this might well impact on the teaching and learning of programming.
A final point that I’ll add is that OU Live can be used in a variety of different way. One way is to use it to record a mini-lecture, which students can see during their own time. After they’ve seen them, they can then attend a non-recorded discussion seminar. I’ve also heard of it being used to facilitate ‘drop in sessions’ over a period of a couple of hours (which I’ve heard is an approach that can work really well).
Two personal reflections that connect to this session include: we always need good clear guidance from the module team about how they expect tutors to use OU Live, and secondly, we should always remember to give tutors permission to use the tool in the ways that make the best use of their skills and abilities, i.e. to say, ‘it’s okay to go ahead and try stuff; this is the only way you can develop your skills’.
The March of the MOOCs
Rodney Buckland, a self-confessed MOOCaholic, gave the final presentation of the morning. The term MOOC is an abbreviation for Massive Open Online Course. From the sound of it, Rodney has taken loads. (Did he really say ‘forty’? I think he probably did!)
He mentioned some of the most popular platforms. These include: Coursera, Udacity and FutureLearn (which is a collaboration between the OU and other universities). Rodney also mentioned a swathe of less well known MOOC platforms, such as NovoEd. A really interesting link that Rodney mentioned was a site called MOOCList which is described as ‘an aggregator (directory) of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from different providers’.
Rodney spoke about his experience of taking a module entitled, ‘Science of the solar system’. He said that the lecturer had really pushed his students. ‘This was a real surprise to me; this was a real third level physics module’.
A really important point was that MOOCs represented an area that was moving phenomenally quickly. After his talk had finished there was quite a lot of discussion about a wide range of issues, ranging from the completion rates (which were very low), to the people who studied MOOCs (a good number of them already had degrees), and to the extent to which they can complement university study. It was certainly thought provoking stuff.
Assistive technology for the visually impaired: past, present and future
The first presentation after lunch was by my colleague Richard Walker. Richard is a visually impaired tutor who has worked with visually impaired students. He made the really important point that if an associate lecturer works for an average of about ten years, there is a very significant chance that a tutor will encounter a student who has a visual impairment. Drawing on his previous presentation, there is an important point that it is fundamentally important to be aware of some of the challenges that visually impaired students can face.
Richard recently interviewed a student who has a visual impairment by email. Being a persuasive chap, Richard asked me to help out: I read out the role of his student from an interview transcript. The point (to me) was very clear: students can be faced with a whole range of different issues that we may not be aware of, and everything can take quite a lot longer.
Another part of Richard’s presentation (which connects the present and the future) was all mobile apps. We were introduced to the colour recogniser app, and another app called EyeMusic (iTunes) which converts a scene to sound. Another really interesting idea is the concept of the Finger Reader from the Fluid Interface group at MIT.
A really enjoyable part of Richard’s session was when he encouraged everyone to explore the accessibility sessions of their smartphones. Whilst it was easy to turn the accessibility settings on (so your iPhone spoke to you), it proved to be a lot more difficult to turn the settings off. For a few minutes, our meeting room was filled with a cacophony of robotic voices that proved to be difficult to silence.
Towards utopia or back to 1984
The penultimate session of the day was facilitated by Jonathan Jewell. Jonathan’s session had a more philosophical tone to it. I’ve made a note of an opening question which was ‘how right or wrong were we when predicting the future?’
Jonathan referenced the works of Orwell, Thomas More (Wikipedia) and a vision of a dystopian future depicted in THX 1138, George Lucas’s first film. Other subjects included economic geography (a term that I hadn’t heard before), and the question of whether Moore’s Law (that the number of transistors in a microprocessor doubles every two years) would continue. On this subject, I have sometimes wondered about what the effect of software design may be if and when Moore’s law fails to continue to hold.
A great phrase was infobesity – that we’re all overloaded with too much information. This connects to a related phrase that I have heard of before, which is the ‘attention economy’. Jonathan made a similar point that information is not to much a scare resource. Instead, we’re limited in terms of what information we can attend to.
We were also given some interesting thoughts which point towards the future. Everything seems to have become an app: computing is now undeniably mobile. A final thought I’ve noted down is Jonathan’s quote from security expert, Bruce Schneider: ‘surveillance is the business model of the internet’. This links to the theme of Big Data (Wikipedia). Thought provoking stuff!
Limits of Computing
The final talk of the day was by Paul Piwek. Paul works as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computing and Communications at The Open University. Paul works on a number of module teams, and has played an important role in the development of a new module: M269 Algorithms, Data Structures and Computability. It is a course that allows students to learn about some of the important fundamentals of computer science.
Paul’s brief was to talk about new technologies – and chose to explore this by considering the important question of ‘what are the limits of computability?’ This question is really important in computer science, since it connects to the related questions: ‘what exactly can we do with computers?’ and ‘what can they actually be used to calculate?’
Paul linked the title of his talk to the work of Alan Turing, specifically an important paper entitled, ‘on computable numbers’. Paul then went onto talk about the differences between problems and algorithms, introduced the concept of the Turing Machine and spoke about a technique called proof by contradiction.
Some problems can take a long time to be solved. When it comes to computing, speed is (obviously) really important. An interesting question is: how might we go faster? One thought is to look towards the subject of quantum computing (an area that I know nothing about; the page that I’ve linked to causes a bit of intellectual panic!)
Finally, Paul directed us to a Canadian company called DWave that is performing research into the area.
After all the presentations had come to an end we all had a brief opportunity to chat. Topics included location awareness and security, digital forensics, social media, the question of equality and access to the internet. We could have chatted for a whole lot longer than we did.
It was a fun day, and I really would like to run another ‘new technology day’ at some point (I’ve just got to put my thinking hat on regarding the best dates and times). I felt that there was a great mix of presentations and I personally really liked the mix of talks about technology and education. It was a great opportunity to learn about new stuff.
By way of additional information, there is also going to be a London regional ‘research day’ for associate lecturers. This event is going to take place during the day time on Tuesday 9 September 2014. This event will be cross-faculty, cross-disciplinary event, so it’s likely that there might be a wide range of different events. If you would like some more information about all this, don’t hesitate to get in touch, and I’ll point you towards my colleague Katy who is planning this event.