Educational Technology Horizons

I’ve been reading the NMC “Horizon Reports” for 2009 and 2010 recently. These are surveys of new technologies that may have some impact on education in the next few years and they’re quite interesting reading. Here are some of the key points.

1) Mobiles

Might possibly have some value. However, as not a few other bloggers have pointed out, things like the iPad are essentially devices for consumption of information, not for production. If we’re serious about research engaged teaching, that is students doing something  collaboratively (ideally)  and writing it up, then I’d guess we still have some way to go. (That said, I’m completely blown away by my iPod touch, which I think is the best small computer I’ve ever seen).  Not that there’s anything wrong with consumption either.  You have to start learning somewhere and reading or watching some multimedia is as good a place as any. Which brings me on to

2) e-books.

There is obvious potential in being able to carry collections of documents around in the pocket, but I’d like to see better annotation tools. If you could use applications like Zotero or Refworks to create electronic card indexes of your references and concepts I think this might be the next killer app. In truth this probably isn’t far away and would go some way to shifting them more to the production side.

3) Cloud computing.

Well, it’s already happening. The OU has moved to Google Apps for its students which will put Microsoft’s nose out of joint. Or will it? There’s a huge cloud of inertia to shift first. For example I’m currently working on a paper with a colleague at a remote campus. Google docs seems ideal for sharing the document, but I’ve found it’s almost impossible to get my colleagye to remember their password, and to stop e-mailing multiple versions of the same paper. It will come, I think but it will take longer than we expect.

4) Open Content.

Not really technology, but there has been encouraging signs that this is being taken up by UK universities, largely encouraged by the JISC funded Repository Start Up and Enhancement programme. What I like about this is that it does encourage production and sharing of work and I think it will really make a difference to the way we think about how we access academic work. There are some issues to be resolved, not least that of quality. Should judgements be made about what we put in repositories, and who makes those judgements? Librarians? Well, they do make judgements about what goes in university libraries, I suppose, although these should be informed by requests from faculties.

Among the other technologies the Horizon reports identify are “simple augmented reality”, “gesture based computing”, “visual data analysis”, “geo everything”, “the personal web”, “semantic aware applications” and “smart objects”. With the possible exception of the personal web, all of these seem to me to have value for specific disciplinary niches, and as I probably won’t know what I’m talking about I won’t go on. (No, I know that doesn’t usually stop me!)  I include the “personal web” in this group because I do think that’s a different sort of niche. A lot of people still seem to me to be very reluctant to engage with this kind of thing, and are horrified by the idea of putting anything about themselves on the Internet. Media stories about identity theft don’t help of course, but as I’ve said before, we can’t be far from a time when not being findable on the web is regarded as the exception. If that’s so then technologies that can keep track of the media we post about ourselves will become quite important tools in sifting through this information. Because there will be LOTS of it.

The question is of course, what should we in educational development be doing about this stuff? I think (hope) we have learnt by now that we can’t just ram new technologies down academics throats, so the question is how do we encourage people who are short of time (and possibly short of inclination) to experiment with it?


I’ve been quite interested in the potential of e-books for some time, but not had any direct experience of using them. Well, happily for me, Santa left an iPod touch in my stocking this Christmas, and I was straight on to iTunes, to download the Stanza e-reader application. From there I went of to project Gutenberg and downloaded a few free copies of public domain books. Well, I am blown away by the ease of reading with this app.- I found myself picking up the iPod at all sorts of odd moments, and as I had to make a short (well, 1 hour) train journey for work on Friday, I was dipping into those PDFs I’d downloaded for reading later. (You know: the ones you never actually read.) Now, I’d probably  never have printed those documents out, let alone carried them with me on a business trip, so, for a short while I was convinced that there might be something in the idea of mobile learning after all. Well, I’m still quite convinced, but I found that we still have some way to go. Accessibility remains an issue, although I think the Stanza app tries hard in this respect, and the inventiveness of the developer community so far makes me reasonably convinced that we’ll see further improvements.

Well, if this is so wonderful I thought, I should perhaps buy a book with real money. So I went to the web site of a leading UK bookseller and looked at their e-book catalogue. There were plenty available. But first, I thought I’ll see if others have reported any technical problems. Indeed they had: – I found  this message on one of the Lexcycle (developers of Stanza) support forums in response to a complaint that the book they had bought wouldn’t open.

This particular error usually means that the book is encrypted with Adobe DRM, which Stanza Desktop does not yet support and the Stanza iPhone only supports the eReader DRM.

Well, fair enough. I’m not criticising Lexcycle for this. Stanza is after all a free app, and for all I know this may have been fixed by now. (The message was from September 2009)  But why are publishers/booksellers using DRM to stop customers doing as they please with their own property? I know they’ll say intellectual property isn’t quite the same as a physical artefact, but the digital world changes business models, as the music industry has found out.  I would have thought selling something that can’t be used as the purchaser wants is probably not the most effective way of ensuring a high volume of repeat sales. If they’re worried about breaches of Copyright law, then there are legal remedies they can pursue.  (Although before they do that, they might usefully look up the phrase “Open Source”).  While I’m on this topic, I was also astonished at the high prices that they charge for e-books. It’s not as if e-books have higher production costs, after all, so presumably this designed to stop e-books undermining print sales.  I think the most likely long-term outcome is that one of the more experienced digital players will come up with some sort of literary equivalent of  iTunes and the traditional booksellers will just lose the business.

Which is a shame, because once I’ve got off my high horse I can see a great deal of potential for this kind of easy document portability in HE, and I think books do need to be readily accessible.  I like Stanza partly because it sits on the iPod which means it’s potentially part of a suite of apps, rather than being a dedicated e-book device, but also because it offers features to bookmark and annotate your text. all we need are  linked Refworks, Blackboard, Moodle and WordPress apps, and we’re away! Paper is so 2009!