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I am the "IBM Collaboration & Productivity Advisor" for IBM Asia Pacific. I'm based in Singapore.
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eLearning - are we there yet?

having two teenagers in two of Singapore's top schools, friends providing eLearning solutions and interesting conversations led me to a lot of interactions with schools, teachers and other educators. The education space is getting more and more attention from technology companies and passionate educators: Even if some activities fail the trend is obvious: Tech is taking over. Not so fast!
Speaking to teachers I can sense as much excitement as angst. After all teachers are most impacted by the changing landscape of education. Online education brings globalisation to their work: from being a monopoly (this is your Sec2 math teacher) they jump with little notice to global competition, where they need to match the best (recorded) teaching lessons on the planet. Recordings come with a pause and a rewind button, teachers not so much. The teachers role is changing rapidly:
The Education Evolution.jpg
To make this transition successful, more focus needs to given to empower the dedicated educators to adopt the new roles. I'm certain, if done right, their job satisfaction will grow, students will like school more than they do now and the skills for the next generation can emerge. LKY knows this, he reminded us: What worked {for Singapore} for the last 30 years, will not work in the future.


Age of first interest – Teach what is interesting, useful or captive! Black holes, Dinos, Knights and Smartphones

This article is a translation, paraphrase and comment of Daily Dueck 180, Dezember 2012 titled (with the friendly permission of Prof Dueck):

„Age of first interest“ – Bringt bei, was interessiert, nützt oder fesselt! Über Schwarze Löcher, Dinos, Ritter und Smartphones

I find translating a text into my second language much more challenging than back to my native language. While it is comparable easy for technical text, it becomes more challenging for philosophical texts, especially when it deal with subjects that have a high cultural context, like this one. Nevertheless I give it a shot. Where it deems necessary I'll add remarks for readers with no exposure to German culture and world view (and I know we are often perceived like this). Anyway here you go:

Parents want the [German] child to be able at the first possible moment to: crawl, walk, get teeth, speak, be potty trained, say thank you, clean up the room and brush teeth. Kids are taught that, whether they like it or not. "Cut your teeth! Other babies already have an advantage!" What interests the child itself is perceived rather irritating. "You can't do/understand that yet". Other stuff shouldn't interest them. Better never: Sex. This adult posture conditions the children instead, where one could be helping them to develop their potential.

Maybe I have a bad-Google-day. I searched for "Age of first interest", „Earliest age“ or „first interest“, but only got hits like „first age of intercourse“. Is there a list about one's first interest for: Dinos, planets, atoms, knights (In the US it probably would be rather cowboys or Jedi knights), witches (alert girls like witches better than princesses) or computers? Couldn't we just make all that, what generated a keen interest in kids, subject to the school lessons, at least for a large chunk?

Once kids get interested, they bombard us with questions. Why don't we take advantage of it? They learn ten times faster and much much more. If it is useful, kids (actually anybody) learn even ultra boring stuff, like the written driven test (That's a 50+ multiple choice test you must pass otherwise you can't even get to the car to take the real test), which is passed by EVERYBODY, even high school dropouts and illiterates. Why do we grumble about the kids' clueless use of the internet? We could demand that they pass an internet driving test, in stages like the swimming badges. They will do that! Happily! Free surfing!
Anybody likes to learn if one or more of following applies to the learning subject:

  • it is [personally] useful and enables progress
  • it arrests attention or is a source of joy and fun
  • it opens doors to new interests

Driving school is useful, first aid is useful. Witches, zoo animals and smart phone capture. Often knowledge opens a new view and creates a life-long interest. Construction kits "create" engineers, books humanities scholars (we do value them in Germany), an internship in a retirement home a career in human care. Role models help, as do impressive experiences, victories in sports, music, going on a journey - encounters that stick and often unleash huge amounts of energy: delight, creative enthusiasm, entrepreneurship, conscientiousness or self control.

But there is "no system behind it". If there would we just could follow it. However our education systems gravitate towards rigid systematic structures leading to an industrialisation of education (Note the irony of that. We concluded the post-industrial age, moved on to the information age, but the education system is still working on industrialising, so it is 3 ages behind). The structures seem immune against reproaches like these:

  • Boring to the death, annoying, way too abstract
  • Useless. Nobody needs that in life unless you want to study it
  • No examples, it is not real life

Again and again people are interviewed in TV: "How much [of your education] could you actually use?" The answers are always sobering. In real life one could use economy, psychology, communication, management, law, business processes or medicine, but they are not school subjects. Why learn Latin? Why are the scientific subjects organised that way? It seems the whole science curriculum (mathematics of differential and integral computations, chemistry and the atom model) had been lobbied by early 20 century physicists, so A-level would perfectly prepare one to study physics? Are Horace, Faust II (You might need to add your own figures of history and literature here, the examples are very German) und quantum mechanics the destiny of our existence, that unfortunately is about anything else both during and after school? Did the physicists, literature teachers and classic scholars imprinted our lives for ever?

I try to understand how those principles of education came to be. Anybody knows (maybe Ken does)? I sense the following principles:

  • The accredited historical and cultural values are taught, with disregard of time. Example: Latin is precious (precious in a sense of "valued by scholars"), English useful (insert your own second living language here, like Spanish or Chinese)
  • New stuff is only taught once it has been accredited, gained patina so to say. Useful is what has been time tested for decades
  • Teaching is abstracted and systematic - strictly sticking to scientific structures and principles
  • Everything is taught as early as possible and, if necessary, with multiple levels of abstraction
  • Education is organised by year of birth to ease logistics and form large homogenous classes
  • The driving forces to learn all this are: discipline, diligence, tidiness, sense of duty and suppression of aversion, delight and interest in anything else
  • A self-denying sense of duty isn't the goal of the education, but a prerequisite for its success. One has to have it (implanted by parents or if lucky born in)

These principles are the worst energy vampires you can imagine. Even Kant concluded, that life is easier when affinity and duty converge - but duty coming out on top. According to Kant you perform best when you do with delight what you have to do. Our education principles require this implicitly.

All other life forces remain unused, since they would challenge or weaken those principles. Who wants to unleash kids' "full speed ahead" has to cope with disadvantages and make unpalatable compromises (so it seems). Why do we all read Faust, memorise it and deliberately don't understand what he wants to tell us: „Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.“ = "Dear friend, all theory is gray, And green the golden tree of life"

Kids could learn ten times more, but that would require to grow their talents, gifts, aptitudes, powers and affinities as and when they surface. Sights on scientific approaches have to be lowered - in favour of individual content and exemplary problems, which would have more power as symbols or examples and simply could be fun, where science would be dry ("gray"). Sights have to be lowered in systematic and exam logistics! Yes "swallow toads"! (That is German figurative speech for making unpalatable compromises). We all bitch and moan about too systematic knowledge that inhibits, higher valued, networked, associative and creative thinking. Duty needs to be unthroned, it is the primary virtue of a weak underling, as seen by a ruler of times past - or the teacher/crammer of today.

Why not challenge that package of logistics-ruler-scientists-systematic-duty? It is to GRAY!

There is so much green and gold. Any child could master a bachelor in: dinos, comparative smartphonic, black holes, life carrying planets, pop-hit lyrics, witchcraft spells or Jedi knight science. Any! The very moment (s)he develops an interest for it, whatever age. No duty required - affinity alone.

Let us preserve rather than dismiss the largest part of human energy including all those humans who only carry alternative energy, with lots of affinity and not so much duty.

(Please pardon the Gerlish/Denglisch)


Information Technology and Education

Today Jotterlab launched their eLearning platform to Singapore's schools. Since CHS is one of them they approached me to deliver a keynote to their audience. I used the "deck" below. Some of the items only make sense with "sound" which I haven't recorded. But you get the idea!


The future of (e)Learning

For a very long time teachers and text books have been the single or at least major source of educational knowledge. Until today textbooks are very much subject to political bickering believing in the power of trust students have into the printed word there.
With the arrival of the internet things started to change and slowly we realise that we do live in exponential times where the internet is displacing books as primary source. As early as 1999 Sugata Mitra showed how kids teach themselves and based on further studies makes his case for The child driven education (on a related note my firstborn Anthony remarked: "Couldn't learning be like Fruit Ninja? I just play and learn at the same time"). Mitra's core insight is that learning is a self-organising system. His vision is: "An educational technology and pedagogy that is digital, automatic, fault-tolerant, minimal invasive, connected and self-organised." Short of Summerhill that reads like the anti-theses of how schools run today.
eLearning hasn't been a stellar success in the past. E.g out of 47 large players in the market in 1999 only 6 are still around (IBM/Lotus is not one of them). Or is it the sign of a highly dynamic market? The tendency however seems to be clear: there is a loggerhead fight between OpenSource / OpenAccess and commercial content providers. It looks very much that OpenSource is winning and the money is to be made by running and maintaining these systems rather than selling software licences.
The larger market is in educational content, where the lines between general applications and eLearning applications are blurring. Today one can organise and conduct complete learning experiences using Wikipedia, a bookmarking service (delicious, digg, Lotus Connections), a collaborative platform (Google groups, Lotus Live) and Chat. Only the task assignment and skill verification seem to warrant specialised systems. (Someone has yet to explain the difference between enterprise content management and learning content management. One of the most successful (in terms of impact and attention) learning content providers, The Khan Academy uses youTube to manage their content. Universities like Standford use standard CMS to make their lectures available online. Textbooks are now available under Creative Commons licences from multiple sources: Open Educational Resources, Wikibooks,, Textbook Revolution and many more
So LMS seems to be an endangered species. There are however promising developments under way: self organising, socially connected, mobile learning experiences.
Tools I would watch (in no particular order): Canvas LMS, Moodle, JotterLab, BigBlueButton, JamBok, SpaceED or Rypple. Keep updated on eLearning Learning.
The biggest inhibitor for progress here might be a large frightened body of educators who need to reinvent themselves. The late Arthur C. Clarke told Mitra in an interview:"If a teacher can be replaced by a machine, he should" (Would that be a task for Watson? #tongue -in-cheek). I would translate his remarks like: "Human educators should work in the area beyond the mechanics of learning, they can be guides, counsellors, encourage the struggling and help the bright to excel".
Education IMHO is the key to most of the problems (short of greed, but moral education could fix that too) our planet is facing, so we see a struggle between the inertia of the current system and the nascent possibilities of progress for the better. Of course one question stings: if less and less people are needed, what do do with them? We might not like a possible answer for that (It does have a happy end, go read it). We live in interesting times.


The eLearning dilemma

eLearning has been around as long as the computer industry. Nevertheless it hasn't been a broad raving success story. There are success stories, but eLearning is not ubiquitous as using a spreadsheet or posting to a blog. One reason might be, that the effort to create eLearning materials mostly is grossly underestimated. A recent study put the ratio for highly interactive eLearning to 716:1. Working full time one could create 1 hour of such material in 18 weeks. That's more than 4 month for just one hour. For basic eLearning the ratio is still 49:1. So one spends one week to prepare just one hour.
From my exposure to eLearning projects, admittingly mostly in the corporate space, I had to conclude that most managers sense the magnitude but rather opt to ignore it, based on "we have a 4 month eLearning project and need to deliver" type of pressure. So the usual way out is to implement a Learning Management System (LMS) and then hope for a miracle that makes content appear. There are very good LMS systems at the market, a lot of them Open Source (you need to google the commercial ones yourself) that manage the courses rather well. They don't help in structuring and creating materials, they just look after them. They also don't tie it back to the official curriculum, since there isn't a hook to tie to. Then there are outstanding Learning providers, lot of Open Source text books and Learning communities. On the other side is the official curriculum (e.g. Singapore primary) and the vast experience of teachers and the materials they hold (in their heads, on paper or their harddrives). The dream in for eLearning would be a system that links and connects all these sources into a single blended learning experience. This experience needs to be deliverable for learning institutions (students are supposed to treat learning as their primary activity) as well as corporations (learning is ad-hock as-needed). eLearning could answer the "why do I need Phytagoras" (just watch your carpenter) and "what does compound interest do in the real world". Unfortunately these links don't exist today. Classroom learning is disconnected from online, disconnected from the curriculum, disconnected from corporate learning. The technology is there, someone needs (I would say literally) to connect the dots. Step one would be to make a curriculum machine readable and deep linkable. Unless there is an agreed upon specific format for a curriculum OPML could be a good candidate. Your feed reader already understands it. Who educates the educators about it?


Teaching - Singapore style

As an "engaged parent" I spend some time with the teachers from CHS to understand how teaching in Singapore works and what's in store for their eLearning initiative. Last year Singapore's Ministry of Education (MOE) decided to roll out Google Apps for Education for the teachers. When I see my gentlemen working they log into Google docs too. However task assignement and full utilization seems to lack. So I got the, very approchable CHS teachers to explain how learning in Singapore works:
Cascading learning in Singapore
The MOE defines the curriculum to be covered by the schools for Primary and Secondary Education and so on. It also breaks that curriculum down into the years (nicely referenced in this booklet) and also publishes (AFAIK only for teacher consumption) a break down into 40 module recommendations how to structure a learning year. I really like their syllabus section for the richness of content, but would love if that information would be available in machine consumable formats (DocBook, DITA, XML etc.) so individual learning items could be cross referenced.
Armed with the 40 module recommendations and the list of approved text books the teachers of each school coordinated by their respective head of department devise the various learning units and how to deliver them (duration, teaching and interaction methods). The individual teacher then breaks out assignments that might be eLearning modules, delivered in class, teamwork or classical homework. It is then up to the student to deliver while the teacher tracks and grades the results.
An learning solution that improves the learning delivery needs to tie back into this flow. Ultimately MOE will need to go ahead and turn the curriculum into something that can be deep linked. Currently MOE is working with Jotterlab to provide eLearning for the schools. They plan to start with the new school year with a pilot. You can follow them on Twitter or keep updated on their blog. I'm curious how they will incorporate modern learning sources like the Khan Academy, The Open Textbook Repository, cK12 Flexbooks or COSTP (There are many more, I'll cover them in due time). Also interesting will be how they include the Singapore Tuition Industry and stack up against their competitors like Grokit.


eLearning in the enterprise vs. eLearning in education

I had an interesting chat with the IT teacher of Catholic High about eLearning. I'm following the subject for a very long time. In the early eighties I bought one of the earliest eLearning authoring tools called OpenICE from Dialog Video (a Swiss company which seems to be history now - the only trace of OpenICE I could google was in a document in the download section of The Morrison Company.
There is a lot of money spent on eLearning both in enterprises and in academic, but the stellar success stories are few and far between. A common fallacy I observed is to spend a lot of money on a LMS or LCMS and have no budget, time and energy left for content. When you hear statements like "Once the LMS is in place we'll ask our SME [Subject Matter Experts] to contribute content" you know your eLearning project is doomed.
Creating good eLearning material is hard and time consuming work. Brian Chapman published research findings in 2007 that put the ratio for slideware to eLearning conversion at 33:1, the creation of lightly interactive courseware at 220:1 and the creation of full fledged simulations at 750:1. So that tiny water cycle simulation of 10 minutes took more than 3 working weeks full time to be created. The study is currently to be updated and you can participate.
Another fallacy is the failure to integrate eLearning systems into the infrastructure. In corporate learning that means eLearning needs to be accessible from the tools I use in the job (a great widget to have is "related learning") and get away with enrolment procedures for short term learning (that enrolment is carried over from academic). In academic eLearning the failure lies in the lack of integration into other delivery methods. If enrolments, progress control, time planning etc. are not fully integrated into presence learning it will not fly.
There seems to be very little fruitful cross breeding between corporate and academic eLearning, which isn't surprising when you look at the core differences:
Enterprise learningAcademic learning
The main purpose of employees is to contribute to enterprise goals (mostly: make money). Learning is an expense, not an outcome The main purpose of students is to learn. Knowledge and skill acquisition is the main outcome (not grades in case someone has forgotten)
Learning works well in homeopathic doses: 10min here and there related to a current job need Learning works best with multiple avenues of delivery (watch for a later post on this)
Learning is very skill focused, so the main delivery is training* Learning is wider and education focused*
Learning has no priority, its purpose is to "get the job done" Learning is the top priority, its purpose is to "get the job"
Learning is focused around a career Learning is focused around a curriculum
Learning needs are only partly planned (mostly by the HR department) and a lot of needs arise based on the nature of job roles and projects. Learning goals change more often as careers and market demands change Learning is planned out well in advanced, often by an external body (e.g. the ministry of education) for multiple years
Success is indirectly measured: can the learner implement in the day job what (s)he learned in the training? Did the ability arrive? Success is measured by passing exams. This is a challenge since learning to pass an exam is only loosely related to the acquisition of ability
Collaboration is strictly encouraged. Good working teams adopt "no comrade gets left behind" attitudes. If you collaborate during an exam you are out, so there is a natural tension.
* In case you don't see the difference between education and training: Most parents should be OK if their teenage kids come back from school and state: "Today we had sex education", but rightly will go berserk if they would hear: "Today we had sex training in school". --- and yes I know that sexual education is the most controversial topic in education, an epic battleground between enlightenment and denial.

I'll share more around eLearning in upcoming posts.


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