Archive for the ‘technologies’ Category

What is an algorithm?

September 3rd, 2018 by Graham Attwell

There was an excellent article by Andrew Smith in the Guardian newspaper last week. ‘Franken-algorithms: the deadly consequences of unpredictable code’, examines issues with our “our new algorithmic reality and the “growing conjecture that current programming methods are no longer fit for purpose given the size, complexity and interdependency of the algorithmic systems we increasingly rely on.” “Between the “dumb” fixed algorithms and true AI lies the problematic halfway house we’ve already entered with scarcely a thought and almost no debate, much less agreement as to aims, ethics, safety, best practice”, Smith says.

I was particularly interested in the changing understandings of what an algorithm is.

In the original understanding of an algorithm, says Andrew Smith, “an algorithm is a small, simple thing; a rule used to automate the treatment of a piece of data. If a happens, then do b; if not, then do c. This is the “if/then/else” logic of classical computing. If a user claims to be 18, allow them into the website; if not, print “Sorry, you must be 18 to enter”. At core, computer programs are bundles of such algorithms.” However, “Recent years have seen a more portentous and ambiguous meaning emerge, with the word “algorithm” taken to mean any large, complex decision-making software system; any means of taking an array of input – of data – and assessing it quickly, according to a given set of criteria (or “rules”).”

And this, of course is a problem, especially where algorithms, even if published, are not in the least transparent and with machine learning, constantly evolving.

Digitalisation in / of Vocational Education and Training

August 20th, 2018 by Graham Attwell

Last November I facilitated a workshop at the European Skills Week event on research in vocational education and training. The workshop was entitled digitalisation in /of vocational education and training. There were some five of us in the workshop and we had about two hours to answer a series of questions based on the following framework.

vet research framework

Despite the too short time, I think what we came up with is a good starting point and the discussion will continue in a round table session at the European Conference on Educational Research in Bolzano, Italy in September.

Research Desiderata & Questions

The following central research questions and / or desiderata in this field were identified:

  • How do processes of digital transitions and transformations impact on VET and what are the mediation processes and artefacts involved?
  • Digital technologies are changing the nature and organisation of work, and the skills and competences required. This is happening simultaneously at a sectoral level and a global level. The new skills and competences are mediated in interactions between different actors but also between actors and objects. These processes of mediation to a large extent shape the practices of using digital technologies.
  • In a critical appraisal of digitalisation in VET, what are the different possibilities for the future: What is and more importantly what could be?
  • There is a tendency to take technologies and replicate past paradigms – hence for instance the idea of a ‘digital classroom’. Yet digital technologies open new possibilities for vocational education and training. To understand what ‘could be’ requires a critique of existing practices in VET and of the early adoption of technologies for teaching and learning.
  • How do digital technologies and transformations affect the creation and meaning of work at a sectoral and global level?
  • As technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence are fast being adopted in different sectors and occupations, the future form of work and work organisation is being questioned. Alongside the digital transformations impacting in many sectors, sections of capitalism have advocated digital disruption based on new business models. The use of technology in this way raises Issues of social justice and values. What should be the role of VET in providing the skills and competences to shape the meaning and values of future work and innovation?

Explanation & Justification

Analytical Level

Macro Level

The changing nature of work due to the emergence of new technologies can potentially be shaped. To an extent how technology impacts on work is dependent on values. Equally digital transformations can build on existing skills and competences and older forms of knowledge. To understand these processes requires research at a sector level.

Technological unemployment should not be viewed as simply an issue requiring upskilling, but as questioning forms and organisation of work within society. Life skills are equally important in developing resilience for future employment.

We need a greater understanding of how old knowledge forms are transformed into new knowledge in the digital age.

Meso Level

Institutions mediate processes of skill and competence formation related to digitalisation. What is the relation between specific digital skills required in different sectors and occupations to basic and transversal digital skills? How can skills and knowledge acquired formally or informally in the workplace be linked to education and training in VET institutions.

At the same time, digitalisation provides new possibilities for teaching and learning, for example through augmented reality. This in turn requires the adoption of new pedagogic approaches for VET. Present practices in the adoption of Learning Management Systems form socio-tech systems and may prioritise or marginalise different skills and knowledge.

Micro Level

What are the skills and knowledge required not only to deal with and shape technology in the workplace (in different occupations and sectors) but also for living in the digital age? How does technology transform the work identity of individuals and how do individuals change their own identity for dealing with the changing world of work? What are the life skills that develop the residence required by individuals to deal with digitalisation at a societal level?

Analytical Focus

Learners / Students

Understanding the processes of digital transformation is critical to developing future oriented curricula for learners and students. At the same time, emergent technologies – such as robotics and artificial technologies – call into question existing societal forms of wage labour – once more requiring new curricula for life skills.

We need to focus not only on formal initial training in VET, but on informal learning in the work process leading to identity transformations.

Object / Process

Objects and artefacts play a key role in mediating learning in VET. These artefacts are themselves becoming transformed through digital technologies.

The use of technology opens up new possibilities and contexts for learning, including directly in the workplace. It also potentially empowers processes of social learning, with learners themselves acting as facilitators for other people’s learning and for developing and sharing knowledge within social settings.

This requires research for understanding how such social learning processes can be developed, how new forms of knowledge are acquired and what role objects and artefacts play in these processes.

Trainers / Teachers

There are many examples of good practice in the use of technology for learning in VET and of teachers and trainers sharing knowledge and experiences online. However, many teachers and trainers also feel left behind by the rapid changes in technologies both within occupations and for teaching and training.

Research suggests that best practices are not being generalised because existing models of professional development for teachers and trainers do not scale to meet needs.

An understanding of the possibilities for future VET, requires an understanding by teachers and trainers of the potentials of using technology in their own practice.

Thinking about change

August 9th, 2018 by Graham Attwell


I like this video by Kate Raworth about Three Horizons Framework, created by Bill Sharpe, and presented as a useful tool for sharing with groups thinking about transformative change. I am not sure if I agree with their different categorisations but it does not really matter – the point is that the tool is only trying to get people thinking. And it overcomes the myth that the way we introduce technology – or any other change for that matter – is inevitable. We have choices to make about how society utilises technology. Those choices do not have to be soley in teh hands of the big corporations.

Finally the video is very well scripted and narrated. I particularly like the ideas for how the Framework could be used in a teaching and learning context

Public policy is key to the digital economy

February 7th, 2018 by Graham Attwell

Interesting research from Harvard Business Review who have introduced the Digital Evolution Index  to trace the emergence of a “digital planet,” how physical interactions — in communications, social and political exchange, commerce, media and entertainment — are being displaced by digitally mediated ones.

They outline five “features of the global digital economy”:

  • Digital players wield outsize market power.
  • Digital technologies are poised to change the future of work
  • Digital markets are uneven.
  • Digital commerce must still contend with cash.
  • Digital technology is widespread and spreading fast.

Each of these five features, they say, “contains both upsides and challenges. Moreover, how strongly each of them is felt varies depending on where you are in the world”

The report produces a map of counties digital development divided into four zones: Stand Out, Stall Out, Break Out, Watch Out.

But by far the most interesting comments come in the conclusions:

Digital innovators should recognize that public policy is essential to the success of the digital economy. Countries with high-performing digital sectors, such as those in the EU, typically have had strong government/policy involvement in shaping the digital economies.

This comes despite the popular business press obsession with so called digital disruption which poses public policy as a barrier to change and innovation.

Learning about technology

September 12th, 2017 by Graham Attwell

According to the University Technical Colleges web site, new research released of 11 to 17-year-olds, commissioned by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, the charity which promotes and supports University Technical Colleges (UTCs), reveals that over a third (36%) have no opportunity to learn about the latest technology in the classroom and over two thirds (67%) admit that they have not had the opportunity even to discuss a new tech or app idea with a teacher.

When asked about the tech skills they would like to learn the top five were:

Building apps (45%)
Creating Games (43%)
Virtual reality (38%)
Coding computer languages (34%)
Artificial intelligence (28%)

Jobs of the Future

August 22nd, 2016 by Graham Attwell

There is a lot of speculation at the moment as to the jobs of the future. On the one hand, it is said that we are educating young people for jobs which do not yet exist; on the other hand there are dire predictions that up to of existing 55 per cent of jobs may disappear to automation in the next five years.

If it is hard as a researcher who works with labour market data to make sense of all this, imagine what it is like for young people trying to plan a career (and if doing a degree in the UK, running up major debt).

However, there is beginning to appear some more nuanced research on the future of jobs. Michael Chui, James Manyika, and Mehdi Miremadi have just published the initial report on a research project looking at how automation will affect future employment. The report, entitled ‘Where machines could replace humans—and where they can’t (yet)’, is based on detailed analysis of 2,000-plus work activities for more than 800 occupations. Using data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and O*Net, they have quantified both the amount of time spent on these activities across the economy of the United States and the technical feasibility of automating each of them.

Their overall finding is that while automation will eliminate very few occupations entirely in the next decade, it will affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of work they entail.
automation
Each whole occupation is made up of multiple types of activities, each with varying degrees of technical feasibility. In practice, they explain, automation will depend on more than just technical feasibility. Five factors are involved: technical feasibility, costs to automate, the relative scarcity, skills and costs of workers who might otherwise do the activity, benefits (e.g. superior performance) of automation beyond labour costs substitution and regulatory and social acceptance considerations.
The likelihood and ease of automation depends on the types of activities organised on a continuum of less susceptible to automation to more susceptible to automation: managing others, applying expertise,  stakeholder interactions, unpredictable physical work, data collection, processing data, predictable physical work. Thus occupations like accommodation, food service and manufacturing which include a large amount of predictable physical work are likely to be automated, similarly work in finance and insurance which involves much processing of data. On the other hand jobs in construction and in agriculture which comprise predominantly unpredictable physical work are unlikely to be automated, at least at present. And there is good news for teachers: “the importance of human interaction is evident in two sectors that, so far, have a relatively low technical potential for automation: healthcare and education.”

The return of printed books

July 25th, 2016 by Graham Attwell

The various reports (see for example this article in BoingBoing) detailing the upturn in the sale of printed books in the UK, and a corresponding downturn in the sales of e-books are interesting, if only because it shows that trends towards digital products are not irreversible.

And although I eagerly embraced the ebook trend, I find myself increasingly buying traditional books. Why? Firstly, I think a book is just more enjoyable as a product, as a design artefact. Secondly, whilst I bought an early Kindle, I refuse to be tied in to Amazons social and economic ecosystem. I use a Android tablet now as an ebook reader and it generally works OK, but can be fiddly with different formats and finding downloads (NB Verso books has the answer – providing multiple formats, no DRM locks, and a variety of means of accessing copies). However, the tablet screen is not really readable in bright light, which certainly is a disadvantage in southern European countries.

I very much like the Chrome plugin allowing users to browse books on Amazon and then providing information on where they can be bought in the nearest bookshop. But although Amazon’s recommender system was a novelty at first, that novelty has worn out. It is just too damn predictable: the joy of bookshop browsing is in finding the unexpected and of course the ability to read the first few pages before deciding whether to buy. From a research point of view I find it much easier to recall where in a paper book the quote or section I want is, although that is probably my incompetence with productivity tools in electronic media.

And just like record shops, independent bookshops are upping their game, becoming more community and event oriented. It is difficult, if not impossible, for online bookshops to compete on these terms (although once more Verso does a pretty good job).

So I am not surprised at the return of the book but I wonder which sector or product is next in line for reverse digital disruption (unflipping the classroom)?

More thoughts on labour markets

April 12th, 2016 by Graham Attwell

Predicting the future of labour markets is not easy at the best of times. And this is not the best of times. The problems include the long lasting effects of the financial crash, the impact of government austerity policies (and non impact of qualitative easing) as well as rapid changes in the way we work and in the technologies we are using.

Essentially future labour markets are modelled using existing labour markets, with the proviso of different scenarios according to disruption. At the moment disruptions are seen to be overriding the base model, resulting in much uncertainty.This is a big issue for young people setting out on a career or indeed for those thinking of changing jobs or of entering education  and training.

The real problem with modelling is that there is no consensus on what is happening with today’s labour markets. Lately  this debate has spilled out from more academic and economic journals into the popular press, with predictions of a severe squeeze on middle skilled work, especially office work, due to the introduction of robots, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Yet a new  study by Dr Andrea Salvatori of the Institute for Social and Economic Research calls such concerns into doubt.

Although she recognises a bifurcation of labour markets with a decline of middle skilled jobs, rather than robots, the cause, she suggests, is the expansion in university education, “which has led to a tripling in the share of graduates among employees, accounting for the entire growth in top-skilled occupations, as well as a third of the decline in middling occupations.”

“In parallel, the relative performance of wages in high-skill occupations has deteriorated relative to mid-skill ones, indicating that the supply of workers for these jobs outpaced demand and contributed to the continuing shift from the middle to the top. These facts are highly suggestive that the improvement in the education of the workforce has contributed significantly to the reallocation of employment from mid- to high-skill occupations.”

Andrea Salvatori says that far from being threatened by technology the wages of middle skilled occupations have risen in line with high skilled professions, which she suggests may be due to the increased use of technology.

This debate is important. It suggests that rather than the disruption by technology (which it is always presumed as inevitable) it is government policies over education and training that are responsible for the shrinkage in middle skilled jobs. It could also be suggested that that lack of such jobs may in part be to blame fo the persistently low rate of increase in productivity in the UK, especially when compared with Germany which has continued to train for middle skilled jobs through its apprenticeship system.

 

Children in UK spend more time on the internet that in front of TV

January 27th, 2016 by Graham Attwell

The Guardian newspaper reported yesterday on a survey finding that for the first time children in the UK are spending more time on the internet than in front of the TV.

Research firm Childwise found that on average five- to 15-year-olds were spending three hours a day using the internet, compared to 2.1 hours watching TV.

While time spent watching television has been in decline for some years, time online has seen a huge surge according to the research, up 50% from two hours last year.

However, there are  some problems with the survey results. The research, which is based on an online survey of more than 2,000 children, did not distinguish between TV-like services on the internet, such as Netflix and iPlayer, and other forms of browsing such as Facebook, meaning it is unclear whether children are merely watching shows in different ways.

However, says the Guardian “the report says that YouTube has taken “centre stage in children’s lives” with half accessing it every day and almost all using it at least occasionally.

The majority of children who use YouTube visit the site to access music videos (58%), while around half watch “funny content” and a third say they watch gaming content, vlogs, TV programmes or “how to” videos.”

The survey also reported that time spent reading books for pleasure has declined from an hour a day on average in 2012 to just over half an hour on average this year. However, once more this does not include time reading books on computers.

I am not sure that raw figures of time spent watching TV versus time spent on the internet, be it computers, tablets or mobiles is the real story, although it might be of concern to advertising executives. More interesting would be to know more about patterns of use of computers, what levels of interaction there are with others and the degree to which computers are used actively or creatively compared to the passive entertainment which marked most television viewing.

A blog is just a blog

January 11th, 2016 by Graham Attwell

2016 and it is time to return to the blog after a crazy December of meetings, conferences, travel and exhaustion.

First a quick catch up from Online Educa Berlin. Online Educa is always enjoyable if only because so many friends and colleagues attend it. I am also always interested in the very large exhibition which provides a quick overview of market and to a lesser extent pedagogic trends in technology supported learning. Decembers exhibition was strange, though. Firstly there were no big stands. Go back five or six years and the big stands were from the public organisations supporting the adoption of technology in universities and education in general. The UK Jisc always had a big presence, so too did the Netherlands SURF network. When they dropped away – probably as a result of funding cuts, The Middle East countries took over with colourful booths, even if somewhat lacking in content. And of course there were the VLE suppliers – Blackboard (later to become Pearsons) could always be relied on for a free glass of wine at the end of a busy conference day. At Online Educa 2015 they were all missing. The largest stand was Egypt Arising. However – whether because of their materials not arriving or for some other reason- they has no content and seemingly no representatives on what remained an empty stand. Instead the exhibition was dominated by the cheaper to rent small stands, some from projects but mainly it appeared from start up companies.

It was hard too to discern any particular trends. A few years ago the exhibition was dominated by virtual world type apps. Another year it was all about interactive whiteboards. And the next year it was video apps that were dominating the scene. In 2015 it seemed to be a bit of everything and a bit of nothing.

It left be wondering if the days of educational technology are numbered. Yes we are moving to software as a service and this will impact of education. And of course data (sometimes big data) is making an impact in the form of Learning analytics. Learning management Systems or VLEs stubbornly refuse to go away although all the suppliers seem to stress how their platforms support personal learning pathways. But in truth much of the technology used for learning is little different from the productivity apps and social software being used in everyday business and living. Will 2016 be the year when – depending on how you look at it – educational technology becomes part of the mainstream or the mainstream is just technology used for learning. After all a blog is just a blog.

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    News Bites

    Teenagers online in the USA

    According to Pew Internet 95% of teenagers in the USA now report they have a smartphone or access to one. These mobile connections are in turn fueling more-persistent online activities: 45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis.

    Roughly half (51%) of 13 to 17 year olds say they use Facebook, notably lower than the shares who use YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat.

    The survey also finds there is no clear consensus among teens about the effect that social media has on the lives of young people today. Minorities of teens describe that effect as mostly positive (31%) or mostly negative (24%), but the largest share (45%) says that effect has been neither positive nor negative.


    Robots to help learning

    The TES reports on a project that uses robots to help children in hospital take part in lessons and return to school has received funding from the UK Department for Education.

    TES says “The robot-based project will be led by medical AP provider Hospital and Outreach Education, backed by £544,143 of government money.

    Under the scheme, 90 “tele-visual” robots will be placed in schools and AP providers around the country to allow virtual lessons.

    The robot, called AV1, acts as an avatar for children with long-term illnesses so they can take part in class and communicate with friends.

    Controlling the robot remotely via an iPad, the child can see and hear their teacher and classmates, rotating the robot’s head to get a 360-degree view of the class.

    It is hoped the scheme will help children in hospital to feel less isolated and return to school more smoothly.”


    Gutenburg

    According to developer Gary Pendergast, WordPress 5, Gutenberg, is nearing release.

    Pendergast says: “As the WordPress community, we have an extraordinary opportunity to shape the future of web development. By drawing on the past experiences of WordPress, the boundless variety and creativity found in the WordPress ecosystem, and modern practices that we can adopt from many different places in the wider software world, we can create a future defined by its simplicity, its user friendliness, and its diversity.”


    Adult Education in Wales

    Learning and Work Institute is organising this year’s adult learning conference in partnership with the Adult Learning Partnership Wales. It will take place on Wednesday, 16 May 2018 at the Cardiff City Stadium.

    They say “Changing demographics and a changing economy requires us to re-think our approach to the delivery of learning and skills for adults. What works and what needs to change in terms of policy and practice?

    The conference will seek to debate how can we respond to need, grow participation, improve and measure outcomes for citizens, and revitalise community education.”


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