Friday, 21 September 2007

Elections, elections, bureaucracies

So it seems as thought both Australia and (perhaps) the UK are heading into elections. I've always found it curiously comical that although the UK and Australia have usually had the opposite party in power since the late 70s, the outcomes have all been pretty similar -- interest rates have tracked largely the same in both countries, as have employment figures, and the political agenda (crises about petrol prices and illegal immigration being on the agenda in both countries at similar times...).

It reminds me of Michael Portillo's comment on This Week a year or so ago. He was asked his opinion about why Blair ended up being at odds with Europe when before 1997 he'd campaigned so vigorously that Britain should co-operate more with the EU. Portillo said that he wasn't surprised because he [Portillo] has always been "a great believer in bureaucracies" -- in other words, the issue is always bigger than the politician. It doesn't matter if Tony was pro-Europe in his heart, when he was in power he was there to argue for Britain's interests and they were different from France's interests and so, sure enough, he ended up having rows with Chirac all the time.

But this leaves me feeling vaguely powerless at the polls. Not only won't my vote make much difference (because I live in a "safe seat"), but even if I did change the government, the outcome would be pretty similar. On reflection, maybe I'll go back to pretending that whether Darling or Osborne (and Costello or Swan) is chancellor is going to determine whether I'll be wealthy or destitute in five years time...

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Blog comments

I noticed a curious thing with Blogger's comment system -- although there are "anonymous" and "leave a name, but I don't have a log-in" options, it defaults to asking you to log in. I wonder how many people click "comment", see the log-in box, and run away, never noticing they don't have to log in after all.

Naturally I wonder this mostly for other blogs -- the five or so people who read this one wouldn't make much of a sample! :)

ALT-C, My presentation

My presentation slot was at 9am on the final morning of the conference. Happily I had an interested audience (if a little small), and made some contacts to follow up on after the talk.

I'd been slightly worried that with the conference dinner going late into the evening before, and having to clear out of our accommodation by 10am, maybe there'd only be me and the other presenter in the room as everyone would either have stayed in bed, been packing their bags, or already have hit the road homewards. Thankfully, learning technology conference attendees are more dedicated than that though!

Monday, 17 September 2007

ALT-C, Peter Norvig's keynote

A couple of weeks ago, Peter Norvig, Google's director of research, gave the closing keynote at the ALT-C keynote. For his background reading, he spoke to Hal Abelson, who happens also to have been involved in the Intelligent Book project my PhD came out of. So, of course I was ever so interested because there was lots of common ground with my research and I had a personal link to the background. And I thought it was an entertaining talk. However, talking to a two other attendees (with backgrounds in education) in the cab on the way to the train station, they surprised me by saying they didn't find it very relevant. Well, of course you can't please everyone, but I had to ponder what it was about the talk that left them unenthused and me entertained.

I wondered if perhaps by keeping the talk non-technical, Norvig maybe ended up focusing on material they already knew. Like many AI researchers when they look at teaching technology, Norvig took Bloom's "Two Sigma Problem" as his cue. This is the "problem" that tutoring students one-to-one is much more effective than teaching them in a traditional classroom (specifically, a 1980s US high school classroom) but is also much more expensive. Rather than focus too much on technical matters, he unpacked the outcomes of Bloom's research and what it means for teaching pedagogy, and where technology might fit. This is all interesting stuff for technologists looking at educational technology, even if I'd already come to similar conclusions from reading Bloom's Two Sigma Problem paper myself. But this made me wonder -- the teachers and education researchers in the audience are probably already very familiar with Bloom and his research: he's one of the biggest names in the field. And perhaps, seeing that the keynote was by the director of research at Google, they expected to hear more about what new kinds of technology might be around the corner, how it could benefit teaching, and how to prevent technology from chewing up all their time in learning how to use and administer it?

Or maybe the two people I spoke to were just having a bad day.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

"Digital native" -- the most overused term?

After the first day of the ALT-C (learning technology) conference, one common theme is that almost every talk I have been to has at some point mentioned "digital natives and digital immigrants". And many of the speakers have talked about their teenage children understanding the Web 2.0 world so much better... Maybe it's the reactionary in me, but I think the "digital native/immigrant" term might be becoming a hindrance -- it seems to be prompting people sometimes to think about today's undergraduates as an alien culture they cannot easily relate to or understand. And I don't think that's true. Most of the "digital native" phenomena seem perfectly rational and understandable from an HCI perspective, whether it be using Facebook instead in preference to email for personal communication (no spam, less formal, no need to write down email addresses, etc etc...) or the texting culture.

In fact, if the world wasn't locked into email by network effects ("everyone else uses email and expects me to have email" or "work expects me to have email") I wonder if any of us would really chose email as our method of choice any more, given it is 90% spam now.