Archive for the ‘ICT and SMEs’ Category

How to make multimedia learning materials for the construction industry

August 20th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

by Graham Attwell, Owen Gray and Martina Luebbing

We wrote in an earlier post about the Rapid Turbine app which we are developing through the Learning Layers project. Rapid Turbine is a prototype demonstrator, designed to show the potential of mobile devices to support learning by apprentices in the north German construction industry training centre, Bau ABC. Apprentices at Bau ABC learn through undertaking a series of practical projects, detailed in a paper based White Folder.

The task sheets are used both outlining the tasks to be undertaken, the tools required, materials and health and safety concerns etc and for recording learning. Through developing a mobile app it is intended to make updating 0of tasks easier but most importantly to allow closer links between the learning apprentices undertake in the training centre, with their courses in vocational schools and with their work undertaken on construction sites.

The task we are developing for the prototype is called Rohrleitungsbau (pipe and sewer laying). Our main aims are to test the pedagogic approach and design of the app and to develop a work flow so that trainers can themselves produce mobile learning materials.

One of the key aims for the Learning Layers project is to encourage the development of peer produced learning materials. Peers might be apprentices themselves or trainers in the training centres. We are aware that a major barrier to the take up of technology for learning in Small and Medium Enterprises is the high cost of buying or commissioning the production of learning materials. Furthermore we are aware of the need for vocational expertise in the development of these learning materials, expertise we do not have as researchers and developers.

Although it is beginning to change, most traditional e-learning has been very heavily text dependent. This is not really suited to practical and wok based learning, especially using the mobile devices which can allow apprentices to access learning materials directly in the training centre or workplace.

Therefore we are keen to videos into the app related to the different tasks being undertaken. Once more, fairly obviously the trainers are the best people to make these videos. Originally we had thought of going to Bau ABC and filming these videos ourselves. But this would have been very time consuming and is not really sustainable. Our next thought was to use wearable video devices and we experimented with prototype smart glasses with video capacity. However, the quality was not great and the controls were difficult to use.

So our latest solution is to use an Go Pro camera, attached to a construction site safety helmet. The cameras are reasonably easy to use and importantly, having originally been designed for recording extreme sports,  are extremely rugged, and with the cover fitted, water proof and dust proof. They can also be controlled through a Wireless based phone app. We need more work to find out what makes a good short learning video to be accessed on a mobile device. We’re starting out trying to make a series of handy tips, based one each task, but will review this as we go. And we are encouraged that some of the trainers have already been making their own videos using an ipad. I suspect they will have more ideas than us.

The helmet mounted camera will be delivered to the training centre tomorrow and as soon as we have some videos we will shared them on this site.

Some thoughts about MOOCs

August 14th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

I’ve avoided writing  much about MOOCs lately. Not because I am not interested or because I don’ think MOOCs are important, but mainly because I have been overwhelmed by the deluge of announcements and developments, blog posts, studies and lets face it, just hype.

Some couple of weeks ago, I was invited to join a partnership for a tender application to the EU about MOOCs for web developers. So I have spent soem time looking rather more intensively at the literature and trying to make some sense of it. Here are a few observations.

Firstly are MOOCs really disrupting universities. I guess the answer is yes and no. The great majority of MOOCs are free, and despite emergent business models around for example, selling e books or charging for accreditation, there remains question marks over the business models for MOOCs. Of course if the purpose and structure of universities is to provide free and open higher education then this wouldn’t be so important. But in an era where university funding in many countries is increasingly reliant on fees, this does become a major issue.

However, I am by no means convinced that those signing up for MOOCs – and there are a lot of enrolments – are students who would have previously signed up for a fee bearing course. Instead I think the real phenomenon of MOOCs is that they show the massive pent up demand for education. Some of this is to learn new skills but I suspect many participants are just driven by personal interest. Indeed a study we undertook some six or seven years ago on the use of technology for learning in Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) (download book as PDF here), found that although few employers were aware of the potential, many employees were participating in job related on-line learning, more often through participation in communities, out of personal interest.I suspect that MOOCs should better be compared to community and adult education, rather than to university programmes. In some countries such as Germany face to face provision of community education is continuing to thrive, but in other countries like the UK the economic crisis and subsequent cuts in public expenditure have devastated provision.

We also found out through the SME study that most SME employees were not particularly concerned with accreditation and certification – indeed some told us that if the learning programme was to be assessed that would be a deterrent to their participation. So although it is often said that the lack of accreditation or credentialism other than certificates of participation is a problem for MOOCs I am far from convinced this is so.

A further much commented issue is the very high drop out rates – or non completion – on MOOC courses. Once more, I am unconvinced this is a major issue. I suspect that many MOOC curriculum designers may be underestimating the time it takes to properly participate in a course and that of course is a problem. But I suspect that many people are dropping in and out of courses, following the parts in which they are most interested. I suspect that large MOOC providers like edX and Coursera may change their design to provide shorter or unit based programmes.

There is nothing new in this of course. Curriculum designers have been providing modular or unit based courses for years, and despite the danger of incoherence, these have been largely successful. In our study of the use of technology in SMEs, we were surprised at the ability of learners to structure their own learning and to judge the level of learning resources that they needed.

The lack of feedback and support for learners through a MOOC may be a more serious issue. Of course this varies greatly, with cMOOC providers seeking to develop community peer support.  I think MOOC designers are going to have to rethink how support can best be developed in the future.

Many observers have pointed out that in reality there is nothing new about MOOCs and in a densely cited Wikipedia article on MOOCs traces their precursors back to the correspondence courses of the late 19th Century. And indeed, although there is considerable innovation in the original cMOOC design, many of the ‘mass produced; MOOCs show little different than online courses which have been available for some time. To that extent MOOCs may just mark the final coming of age of Technology Enhanced Education or whatever we choose to call it. Possibly the interest may reflect a younger generation who have grown up with Google and are used to managing their own learning to a greater or lesser extent through the web. Possibly it may also reflect more ubiquitous connectivity, the spread of mobile devises and the ease of producing, distributing and consuming video. Indeed perhaps most worrying is that many MOOCs retain the weakness of previous incarnations of online learning with little interactivity or social learning.

having said this, there are many flavours of MOOcs and I suspect that we will see more and very different models develop over the next year or so. Perhaps calling them all MOOcs is not particularly helpful and there have been many suggestions of different names of different varieties. Yet the term MOOC has seized public attention – or more prperly the attention of teh press. Incidentally, the fact that some of the more right wing news media are using MOOCs to announce the end of public education should not put us off; such pronouncements can be found with the advent of radio and television as well.

More important is the learner experience and here more work is needed on design rubrics and evaluation tools: data mining cannot provide sufficient feedback alone.

My own interest is in the potential of MOOCs for vocational and occupational learning, both initial training and perhaps more importantly continuing education and training. Here I think their are some significant challenges which I will write more of tomorrow.

 

Mobile work based Personal Learning Environments

July 8th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

This week is my favourite annual conference – the Personal Learning Environments Conference. And tomorrow I am off to Berlin, where the conference is being held at the Beuth University. The deadline for full papers was last weekend – so I am might relieved to have at least got a first draft of it out by today. It is co-authored with my colleagues Ludger Deitmer and Lars Heinemann from the University of Bremen and is based on work we are doing under the Learning layers project, seeking to develop and up-scale the use of apps for informal learning in the construction and health sectors. The paper focuses on the nature of knowledge used within work processes – what we call work process knowledge and how we can develop co-design processes to support work based learning.

The introduction is posted below and you can download a PDF copy of the full paper.

Introduction

While Technology Enhanced learning (TEL), Personal Learning Environments and the use of mobile devices have been suggested as a means to address the challenge of supporting learning at the workplace, their potential has not yet been fully realized. Despite much theoretical research in the use of mobile devices for work based learning there are still few compelling example of effective practice. Where there are case studies of both mobile devices and PLEs supporting work based learning, these tend to remain isolated with limitations on upscaling or wider adoption.

A critical review of the way information technologies are being used for workplace learning (Kraiger, 2008) concluded that most solutions are targeted towards a learning model based on the idea of direct instruction. TEL initiatives tend to be based upon a traditional business training model transferred from face to face interactions to onscreen interactions, but retaining the standard trainer / learner relationship and a reliance on formal and to some extent standardized course material and curricula.

However research suggests that (not only) in SMEs much learning takes place in the workplace and through work processes, is multi episodic, is often informal, is problem based and takes place on a just in time basis (Hart, 2011). Rather than a reliance on formal or designated trainers, much training and learning involves the passing on of skills and knowledge from skilled workers (Attwell and Baumgartl, 2009). In other words, learning is highly individualized and heavily integrated with contextual work practices.

In the past few years, emerging technologies (such as mobile devices or social networks) have rapidly spread into all areas of our life. However, while employees in SMEs increasingly use these technologies for private purposes and to a lesser extent for information seeking and informal learning, enterprises have not generally recognized the potential of such technologies for supporting learning.

As a consequence, the use of these emerging technologies and support for Personal Learning Environments have not been systematically taken up as a sustainable learning strategy that is integrated with other forms of learning at the workplace.

Reaching out to Developers

May 27th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

One of the things I am working on in the Learning layers project is user engagement.

Learning Layers is based on user centred design model, involving end users and organisations in developing solutions to promote both formal and informal learning using technology in clusters consisting of:

  • Small and Medium Enterprises.
  • Regional Education and research institutions; typically upper secondary level and tertiary level)
  • regional authorities, national and European – policymakers responsible for incentive systems for regional growth and innovation, and for developing policies and initiatives for initial and continuing vocational education and training
  • Investors, banks, investment funds, business angels, public bodies- funding and supporting innovation.

Engaging with users and involving them in design of new solutions is also part of the research strategy. Layers researchers obtain research data from the interaction with users in the design based research model.

I am basing the strategy on a model of open innovation and will publish more about our ideas on this over the next few days. One of the things is to move away from the traditional project approach of dissemination of the end results to potential users and stakeholders to a model based on active participation – and on an architecture of participation. We have produced a table of different stakeholders in the project and are trying to understand from what direction their interest might come, what they want to get out of the project and what active contribution they might make.

Based on this we are putting forward a number of concrete initiatives the project can take over the next three and a half years.

One such idea is Layers PBL, standing for Layers Problem Based Learning, Practice Based Learning or Project Based learning depending in your way of looking at it (I see it as all three). This involves connecting outwards to engage with student groups, who in computing or business ICT are often required to undertake a one semester programme undertaking a real project in conjunction with companies.

We have piloted this approach with a team of students from HsKA, the Technical University of Karlsruhe. They are working on an idea for an app based on talks we had with a doctor at a Layers meeting held in Bradford earlier this year. The idea is that in their limited free time (in the car between appointments and meetings) users can reply to a series of questions on their phone. They can move between questions through a voice command and the app will communicate with a webs interface to produce a transcript of their answers which can then be edited and downloaded. The web interface also allows people to build their own (scaffolded) sequence of questions – which we call a stack – and to share them with other users if they wish. They can also rate different stacks.

So far it is going pretty well. The web interface is pretty much finished and they are now developing the mobile interface. The students are using SCRUM programming with weekly sprints. We usually meet online for about 20 minutes a week for them to present their progress and for us to provide feedback.

Last week I talked with Chris Whitehead who ia programmer with Tribal, another partner in the Layers project. Chris has helped develop m-learning. a content development tool for mobiles. And he suggested that we could link the app being developed by the Karlsruhe students (code named Reflect) to the m-learning application. I talked about this to Andreas Vratny, one of the Karlsruhe lead developers, on Friday. And hey presto, by Sunday we had an API and an OAuth system to allow single log in to the two systems.

The present version of the app is being developed for the Android operating system. We will release it on the Pontydysgu site as soon as it is ready, as well as on the Android store. If it catches on we will try to port it to iOS. And we are thinking about extending our development activities to further universities with a the development of a Layers Design Library to support developers. If anyone is interested please get in touch.

 

Open Design

April 18th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

Over the last few weeks I have been thinking hard about the role of different stakeholders and potential partners in the Learning Layers project. As regular readers will know by now, Learning Layers is a large scale EU funded project, seeking to develop the use of technology and particularly mobile technologies for (informal) learning, initially in the construction and medical sectors.

The project has adopted a user centred design approach. This involves a series of use cases and studies, with direct involvement of potential end users in design workshops, leading towards iterative software development.. At present Layers is working on four design ideas, looking at functional requirements but more importantly sketching wireframes and designs and sharing these with users.

This is a fairly labour intensive job. And even in a generously funded project, it is dubious whether we will have the resources to develop all four as full and mature applications. Furthermore, the more we talk with end users, the more ideas they are giving us for possible applications. So should we stop collecting design ideas? And how do we prioritise development activities?How do we overcome the limited resources we have in terms of developers?

I was talking with Raymond Elferink last week in Dublin. Raymond runs Raycom, a Dutch software SME. I asked him if he would like to join our stakeholder group of Layers Associate partners. And naturally he asked me what Raycom would get out of such involvement. Well, I stuttered, you will get early access to our products. And we will invite you to an annual stakeholder meet up. Oh, and yes, we will send you a half yearly bulletin. None of this really seemed to cut the ice. So we talked longer about what a project like Layers could offer to engage software developers. In line with most information technology projects funded by the EU, Learning layers is committed to releasing code under an open source license. It is also envisaged that we will try to build a community of developers to guarantee the future development of teh project following the end of EU funding. But to Raymond it was not the code that was so important. As he siad, he can write the code himself. But what he saw as potentially valuable was access to design ideas – and in particular to design ideas that have been codeveloped and validated with end user groups.

This got me thinking. Instead of waiting until we have code and developing an open source community around that code, could we develop design ideas and build communities around that. We could even run hack days and launch competitions around the best prototype for a particular design idea. And instead of shutting out new ideas and designs, we could continue to develop such designs, with the community being encouraged to come in early, take the deigns and build applications. Layers could help and advise developers, as well as giving access to user groups for feedback and validation. In other words we could open up the project at an early stage to a wider community of developers. OK, I don’t know of any European project which has done this before but this does not seem impossible to do.~ At the moment, most of our design activities are coordinated through a closed wiki. But we could ensure that each design idea has a corresponding page or space on the project web site and make sure this is updated as each ‘mature’ version of the design idea comes out, rather in the same form of versioning which is used with open source software.

In fact, we have sort of started this process. In February, we had an ‘Application Partner Day’, with medical practitioners and administrators, in Bradford in England. Jen Hughes got talking to a doctor who said the main barrier to learning for him was lack of time. The only real time he got for reflection was when he was travelling in his car between meetings, appointments and visits ot patients. Jen and me dreamt up a mobile app to allow him to structure his thoughts and ideas whilst he was in his car. And through Andreas Schmidt, a professor at the HsKa institute in Karlsruhe, in Germany, we got to pitch the idea to a group of students on a business iCT course. they have a semester long course where they undertake a project for a commercial client. happily to say, the students voted to develop our app, codenamed ‘Reflect’. So the project is based on a design idea which has come out of the Layers project, but the resources to develop it further are external to the project. I will write more about this as the project takes shape.

 

Supporting different kinds of knowledge aquisition and exchange with technology

April 16th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

In the past, I spent a lot of time researching different kinds of knowledge and how they could be supported by vocational education and training. In particular, I was trying to counter the reductionist approach, as embodied in the then National Vocational Qualifications in the UK, which came from a narrow understanding of competence. Lately I have been returning to that research to try to understand how technologies can support the development of vocational competence and knowledge in a workplace setting.

This is an extract from a paper entitled  ‘Work process knowledge, Communities of Practice and the development and introduction of mobile learning applications in the workplace’, submitted by myself, Ludger Deitmer, Lars Heinemann and Pekka Kamarainen to the ECTEL 2013 conference. You can download the full paper in PDF format here.

When thinking about knowledge development in a richer way, it may be useful to distinguish between different types of knowledge. Lundvall and Johnson (1994) identify four different kinds of knowledge, each requiring different types of mastery: know-what, know-why, know-how, and know-who.

Know-what refers to knowledge about ‘facts’: it can be considered as equivalent to what is normally called information and related to the knowledge ‘corpus’ that each category of experts must possess. Know-why refers to scientific knowledge, influencing technological development and the pace and characteristics of its applications in industries of every kind. Also in this case, knowledge production and reproduction take place within organised processes, such as university teaching, scientific research, specialised personnel recruiting, and so on.

Know-how refers to skills – that is, the capabilities to do something in different contexts (e.g. judging the market prospects for a new product, operating a machine-tool, etc.). Of course know-how is typically a kind of knowledge developed at the individual level1, but its importance is evident also if one considers the division of labour and degree of co-operation taking place within organisations and even at the inter-organisational level (for instance, the formation of industrial net-works is largely due to the need for firms to be able to share and combine elements of know-how). Know-who is another kind of knowledge which is becoming increasingly important, referring to a mix of different kinds of skills, in particular the social skills, allowing the access and use of knowledge possessed by someone else.

Rauner et al. (2013) modified these categories in order to bring it in line with the ideas of situated learning and communities of practice, emphasising the role of work processes and the corresponding work process knowledge. The categories of know-what and know-how still refer to ‘factual’ knowledge and the ways of ‘expressing’ it in a work process. The third category, know-why, refers to why to carry out a specific task in a certain way (or, if more appropriate, in another). This modification is due to the insight, that work tasks as well as work processes in post-Taylorist work organisations do not follow a logic of right/wrong. Instead, a solution to a problem can be more or less adequate. This adequacy depends on a number of partly conflicting factors, One may programme the control of a car’s motor giving different weight to factors like acceleration, fuel consumption, high speed, exhaust emissions, etc., according to the intended main use. An electrician may counsel his or her customer on the design of a lighting system regarding costs, efficiency, ecological aspects, sustainability, ease of maintenance, etc., according to the end-users’ ideas. This, then, has the consequence that vocational learning has to address all these three dimensions of knowledge as a whole. The ‘reflective practitioner’ (Schön 1983) is not someone reflecting on what he or she has done after work, using analogue or digital media. ‘Reflection’ is a category built in the expert solution of work tasks requiring a deep knowledge of the work process a given task is embedded in.

Each kind of knowledge is characterised by different channels through which learning takes place and can be supported in different ways using technologies. The easiest cases are those of know-what and know-why, that can be obtained through the typical channels of knowledge acquisition (watching videos, accessing data bases), while the other two categories are rooted primarily in practical experience and in terms of technology enhanced learning have been more problematic insofar as they require the availability of informal social channels. Apprenticeship is a fundamental channel for acquiring know-how knowledge: it represents the most important way for skilling newcomers in an organisation, but these protracted processes of learning by doing are also frequently the responsibility of those who are considered the experts in an organisation, capable of above-average performance. Technology can be used to bring together novices and experts Simulations can be used as shortcuts for reproducing the many aspects of the know-how acquisition available in real situations. Mobile technology can capture know-how in the application of knowledge within the workplace. Know-why can be facilitated by helping to make traceable the processes guiding expert workers’ decision making. In general, this points to a use of digital media going far beyond the transmission of information.

References

Lundvall. B.; Johnson, B. (1994) The learning economy, Journal of Industrial Studies, 1.

Rauner, F., Heinemann, L., Maurer, A., Haasler, B. (2013) Competence Development and Assessment in TVET (COMET), Dordrecht: Springer.

Sharing Turbine

April 4th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

Project websites are usually pretty dire. A short piece about the project taken from the project application, a list of partners, news updates of meetings and links to downloadable products.

And that was how we started our website with the Learning Layers project. However, we soon realised that this would not suffice. Our aim is to dramatically scale up the use of technology to support informal learning in Small and Medium Enterprises. To do that we need a forward facing web site -something we can show off to SME managers and be proud of. But that in turn requires content which they will understand and engage with. That is a much trickier part. We need more of a newspaper or journal type website than a traditional project site. This has led to a lot of discussions and we haven’t got all the issues resolved yet. But one thing we have done is moved to an editorial model where instead of having a web site moderator we have an editor. His role is to commission content from the different partners in the project.

And I have been messing around with how to write about project development in a way that it is understandable to those without an advanced knowledge of the technologies, processes and ideas that we are developing.

Here is my first attempt – about one of the design ideas we are pursuing codenamed ‘Sharing Turbine’.

“The Learning Layers project aims to develop a number of new applications to support informal learning in the workplace.  In the first stages of the project we are working with Small and Medium Enterprises in the Construction sector in north Germany and in the healthcare sector in north England.

We are aware that for any applications to gain widespread take up, we have to work closely with managers and workers from the industries. Therefore, we have adopted a user centred design process for iterative development.

What does this mean? We started out with a series of interviews with a wide variety of people from the sector. In construction e gave now made over 50 interviews, looking at work organisation, learning and peoples present use and attitudes towards technology. This was followed up with what we called Application Partner Days in both the UK and Germany, where we visited the workplaces and held a series of workshop activities with different practitioners.

The third stage in the development process was a two-day design workshop held in Helsinki. Building on the ideas from the interviews and visits we started to sketch out a series of design ideas for new mobile applications. The working groups for the four design ideas that emerged at the workshop brought together researchers, developers and industry practitioners.

Since then, the working groups have continued to meet online and are using a wiki to develop the design ideas.

Each of the design ideas has been given a working name. The idea for the Sharing Turbine design idea came from the construction industry but we hope it may also be of use in the health sector.

Apprentices in the construction industry in Germany learn their trade in three different locations: vocational schools, on the job in companies and in a training centre. At the north German training centre – Bau ABC – they undertake a series of practical projects. These last from o0ne to three days and may involve working individually or as a team. They are given project briefing sheets and save the report of their work on paper which is collected in a white ring bound folder. This has a number of practical disadvantages. Obviously paper folders do not last well on a building site. And although they can use photographs in the report on their work, the folders are predominantly text based. The use of multi media could allow much more detailed and rich reporting. It could also allow a richer representation of the different physical objects and tools used in construction. In fact one of the reason that elearning has been slow to take off in the workplace may be just this issue of how to combine learning through digital media with the physical nature of much work activity.

So the first idea behind Sharing turbine is to transform the present folders produced at the training centre into an electronic portfolio. This would also have the advantage of making it much easier to update the task sheets. Trainees could use a variety of different media directly from heir phones including audio, photos and video.

However the idea behind Sharing turbine goes much further. One of the aims of the Learning Layers project is to capture informal learning. Obviously when apprentices are working in their companies much of this informal learning takes place on the building site. And if they were able to use mobile devices and multi-media learning on the site could be linked to the skills and knowledge gained at the training centre. The portfolio could also become a resource both for dealing with practical problems occurring when undergoing training, but also after they have qualified. At the same time they can be linked to personal social networks, both as a means of sharing learning and knowledge, but also as a human resource for getting help and advice.

The German so called Dual System is rightly admired in Europe for providing high quality apprentice training> one of its bedrocks is combining practical training on the job with theory gained from block period in vocational schools. However, in practice it often proves difficult to link the different phases of training. Sharing turbine could be a critical tool in allowing these different phases of training to be brought together.

The use of Learning Analytics, a process of recording and analyzing learning as it happens – could also allow apprentices and trainers to understand what learning has happened and what new learning is needed – and to develop and refine curricula and training and learning opportunities and processes.

At the moment the Sharing Turbine working group is at the phase of developing wireframes. Wireframes are graphic mock ups of applications. They can be developed rapidly and used in design workshops to test and refine ideas, prior to programming prototypes.

In the next month workshops are planned with companies to get feedback from apprentices and skilled workers. These are not confined to project partners. If you are interested in our work and would like to contribute please get in touch.”

Things and social practices

March 26th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

One of the issues which intrigues me about the Learning Layers project is the role of physical tools and objects. We are seeking to develop apps to support informal learning in the construction trade. And one of the big things about construction is that they use a lot of tools, machinery and materials – things that can be difficult to represent in a digital world. Indeed, that is one the the reasons I think elearning has been slow to take off in the workplace, despite the increasing power of mobile devices.

In past work we have tried to understand the learning and work eco-structures through the lens of activity theory. To an extent it is useful, but the bucket category of tools fails I think to represent the central role that artefacts play in work processes.

This morning I stumbled on a paper called ‘Towards a Theory of Social Practices‘ by Andreas Reckwitz. It is not an easy read, at least for me with my limited understanding of social theory. But i find his section on things interesting, particularly the idea that the objects – are the place of the social insofar as they are necessary components of social practices.

This is an excerpt from the section of the paper entitled ‘Things’:

For practice theory, objects are necessary components of many practices – just as indispensable as bodily and mental activities. Carrying out a practice very often means using particular things in a certain way. It might sound trivial to stress that in order to play football we need a ball and goals as indispensable ‘resources’. Maybe it is less trivial, meanwhile – after studies of the history of communicative media – to point out that writing, printing and electronic media ‘mould’ social (here, above all, discursive) practices, or, better, they enable and limit certain bodily and mental activities, certain knowledge and understanding as elements of practices (cf. Kittler, 1985; Gumbrecht, 1988). When particular ‘things’ are necessary elements of certain practices, then, contrary to a classical sociological argument, subject–subject relations cannot claim any priority over subject–object relations, as far as the production and reproductions of social order(liness) is concerned. The stable relation between agents (body/minds) and things within certain practices reproduces the social, as does the ‘mutually’ stable relation between several agents in other practices. Moreover, one can assume that most social practices consist of routinized relations between several agents (body/minds) and objects. At any rate, the social is also to be located in practices in which single agents deal with objects (besides, also in practices in which a single agent deals only with himself, with neither other subjects nor objects) and in this sense also the objects – television sets, houses and brownies – are the place of the social insofar as they are necessary components of social practices. There is no necessary link between the observability of social orderliness and ‘inter- subjectivity’.

How can we make work in construction trendy?

March 25th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

For some reason the construction industry is not a sexy research area. Motor cars, yes, machine tools, yes, the computer industry, yes, yes, yes. But poor old construction, boring. Yet in economic terms, construction could be seen as the most important sector in Europe.

Our initial research under the Learning Layers project reveals some interesting contradictions. The construction industry is probably the biggest victim of the present recession. Even the neo liberal UK government is now taking actions to stimulate house building – through the partial nationalisation of mortgage debts. Probably an emphasis on infrastructure projects or on social housing would have had a bigger impact and would have avoided the risk of another house price bubble. But the fact they are doing anything at all shows the problem.

But whilst the recession has badly hit profitability and employment another concern has arisen in our interviews with construction companies. Managers are severely worried about the ability to recruit new trainees and particularly to recruit the better educated apprentices they see as critical to cope with the increasing use of technology in construction. Managers point to the major issue as being the image of the industry – just as in research they consider the industry not to be sufficiently sexy. They are less likely to discuss issues such as wages, opportunities for progression or just the sheer hard physical work involved in many construction trades. Having said that, reality may be very different from practice in other images which have a positive image. Work in the games industry can be hard, poorly paid and boring. And for every kid who makes a fortune out of a mobile app, thousands make no money at all.

Either way they are right in that there will almost certainly be demand for new skills to deal with technology – both in the uses of technology for construction but perhaps more important the changing materials being used in building today, not least due to ecologiocal and energy saving concerns and legislation. Whilst improving initial education training programmes is one response and attempting to improve the image of the industry, the big challenge may be to improve research and development and to develop more continuous training for existing employees. In this short extract form previous research, below, we provide an overview of the industry in Europe and Germany, together with issues in how training – or informal learning – might be improved.

The total turnover of the construction industry in 2010 (EU27) was 1186 billion Euros forming 9,7% of the GDP in 2010 (EU27). The construction industry is the biggest industrial employer in Europe with 13,9 million operatives making up 6,6% of the total employment in EU27. In addition it has a substantial influence on other industries represented by a multiplier effect. According to a study by the European Commission, 1 person working in the construction industry is responsible for 2 further persons working in other sectors. Therefore, it is estimated that 41,7 million workers in the EU depend, directly or indirectly, on the construction sector. Out of the 3,1 million enterprises 95% are SMEs with fewer than 20 and 93% with fewer than 10 operatives.   The level of investment in R&D in the European construction sector is low compared to other sectors. The construction sector only invests a small portion of its total production value in research, development, and innovation.

The developments of new processes and materials provide substantial challenges for the construction industry. The traditional educational and training methods are proving to be insufficient as the rapid emergence of new skill and quality requirements (for example those related to green building techniques) require much faster involvement and action on all three levels (individual, organisational and cluster) in order to react quickly to these changes and exploit opportunities. Without this the market potential is hampered by lack of innovation skills and training gaps (Dittrich, Deitmer 2003). The increased rate of technical change introduces greater uncertainty for firms, which, in turn, demands an increased capacity for problem solving skills (Toner 2011, 7). This situation is aggravated in some fast developing European Regions because skilled craftspeople are missing. Therefore there is increasing need for rapid re- and upskilling of the building workforce across the construction cluster.

The construction industry in Germany is one of the country’s most stable economic sectors. Providing jobs to more than 2,2 million people it holds a market share of 21% making the German construction sector the largest in the EU27 in terms of production value. In Germany the federal states, enterprises and the apprentices share the costs of the dual education system (practical training in schools and on-site training). The German compensation fund for construction industry SOKA-BAU reported a total of 270 million Euros of training allowances and job training costs in 2010 making it just a little more than 0,1% of the total production value. In fact, the building trade has one of the lowest participation rates for employees towards further training provision than any other sector (TNS INFRATEST 2008). This is because much of the formal training offering is only weakly connected with real work tasks. The cost pressure in building enterprises limits chances for time-consuming training measures far away from the workplace (Schulte, Spöttl, 2009). Any mobile support for learning and informing at the work place would be welcomed by companies as well as by building workers themselves. With enterprises paying for all the costs associated with the on-the-job training, SMEs need a cost effective solution to overcome the issues that occur with the rapid development in the technologies, processes and materials.

Involving users and scaling up applications for learning

March 18th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

I am spending a lot of time working on the Learning Layers project at the moment. There are two interlinked areas on which I have been thinking. The first is design processes – more particularly how we can develop a user centred or co-design process. And the second is how we can scale the uptake of applications and approaches to learning with technology to significant numbers of users.

the two are interlinked, I think, because if we involve users in every part of the design process, we have a reasonable chance of developing software which is relevant to users. However, having said that, we are realising that different users have very different interests. We are working in two main sectors – or industrial clusters – in the construction sector and in the health sector. Motivations and restrains on the use of technologies for learning vary greatly between the two sectors. In the construction sector there seems a general desire to use technology both to improve the image of the sector – and thus attract new trainees – and to update and improve the quality of both initial and continuing learning. In the medical sector, there is probably more concern on how to update learning and knowledge in a situation where time and opportunity for formal learning is very limited. But interestingly, attitudes towards technology also varies greatly between individuals, even in the same workplace.

The original EU specification for the project is that we focus on sectors where the take up of technology for learning has been limited and is lagging behind. This may be a misconception. In truth in both sectors we are finding plenty of examples of learning practice using technology. But we are also finding many examples where there is little use of technology and even where access to social networks or the use of mobile devices is banned. I suspect that we would find a similar pattern in other sectors. So challenge number one is how we involve workers in the codesign process. Should we focus on those who are enthusiastic – as early adapters – or should we try to involve those more sceptical about the potential of technology to support learning in the workplace?

Challenge number two is around the target to upscale to involve significant numbers of users. Although the project is targeted at workers in Small and Medium Enterprises, and we have a number fo these involved as partners in the project, it is clear that we will have to involve industry organisations in the upscaling. the original application was based on the idea of industrial clusters. There is a great deal of research on such clusters, which I will talk about more in a future article. Enough to say, that we are encountering different forms of organisations which bring together different SMEs. These include industrial clusters, usually around innovation such as the use of green technology in construction. But they may also include different networks and communities of practice which may be more or less fomalised. For instance, in Bremen the Electro Innung brings together over 120 SMEs in the electrical sector of the construction trade. It forms part of the structure of craft chambers through which craft trade companies in Germany are organised. And Communities of Practice can cut across more traditional organisations.

At the moment we are working on a User Engagement plan and looking at the potential interests of different stakeholders in the Learning layers project. The intention is that once we have such a plan we can work out a strategy for interacting with these organisations and for taking forward the user centred design process.

Interestingly Google searches on user engagement produce little of interest, mainly being driven by the concerns of social software companies to gain and retain more users. Hover changing the search string to stakeholder engagement yields far richer results. There seems a valuable tradition of research and development by economic and social development organisations and aid organisations seeking to consult with and involve users in various projects. In particular the Stakeholder Engagement toolkit (from which the diagramme above is taken), produced by the European funded REVIT project, provides a wealth of practical ideas.

I would welcome any feedback and ideas readers have found useful around both user centred design and user engagement.

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