Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Worldreader and biNu

WorldreaderWorldreader is a US and European non-profit whose mission is to make digital books available to children in the developing world, so millions of people can improve their lives. As of March 2012, they have "put over 75,000 e-books - and the life-changing, power-creating ideas contained within them – into the hands of 1,000 children in Sub Saharan Africa. Those children now read more, read better, and are improving their communities." In many African countries, 80 percent of the population owns a cell phone. Up to now, Worldreader has focused on distributing Kindles to classrooms (the organization’s founder is former Amazon exec , but by making e-books available via cell phones the organization can reach a much wider group of readers.

Worldreader's app was developed by Sydney-based startup biNu. It is currently in beta. The app uses cloud-based data compression technology to enable any Java-enabled phone (non-smartphone) to download e-books and access news websites and Facebook over an ordinary mobile signal. This is a huge step in cost reduction.

biNu is a fascinating project in itself: "With over half the world’s population owning a mobile phone today, but less than half that number having regular access to a computer, we are driven by a passion to help bring the reality of the Internet, along with its economic, educational and social benefits, to everyone." They are basically bringing the internet to regular phones.

"biNu approached this challenge by devising a patented software platform that delivers Internet applications to “low-end” mobiles with almost instant response times and efficient use of network bandwidth."

Although reaching 75,000 students in Africa is just a drop in the bucket, this project is very important because it is significantly lowering the cost of books and most importantly, access to information.
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Saturday, April 07, 2012

Mobile Learning: Education is Everywhere

IPad Mini
This is an article I wrote for the "Tech Beat" column for the Times-Standard:

Darrell is a part-time student who does not own a car. Every Tuesday and Thursday, he takes the hour-long bus ride to school. Like many students at his community college, he works nearly 30 hours a week while taking three classes. Between work, commuting, and attending classes, he is hard-pressed to find time for studying.

Fortunately for him, though, while taking the bus one morning, he found himself sitting next to one of his fellow classmates, Julie. He told her about his frustrations with his schedule and the homework and how he didn't feel like he had time to see a tutor. She told him about the many educational sites that can be accessed on the phone. Sites like the Mobile ESL page from Athabasca University (http://eslau.ca) that has online grammar lessons and short self-tests that will help you check your work. She also pointed out that parts of the college's own learning management system were accessible by phone. She even had one instructor who was using an electronic textbook that was accessible by smart phones.

Darrel quickly took to the world of mobile learning. His phone was no longer just for texting and music.

What exactly is mobile learning? Mobile learning (often called “mlearning”) is any learning or instruction that takes place at a specific location but relies on a mobile device to access the information or event.

Mlearning often depends on “smart phones.” Smart phones, such as the iPhone or Android, are basically minicomputers that can connect to the Internet via wifi or through the phone network. Any phone that can connect to the Internet can participate in mlearning. Mlearning is also taking place on tablet computers such as the iPad and the highly portable netbooks. Not all phones are smart phones, but they are becoming more and more widespread and common. Soon, there will be no other phone but a smart phone.

What are some ways that instructors can use phones for learning? They can host content that is easily accessible to phones on the Internet. Many software packages make mobile-friendly websites out of the box, and many phones have simplified web browsers that help make accessing the information easier.

Many resources and institutions, such as the New York Public Library, have mobile-friendly sites. And speaking of libraries, a number of libraries, such as Oregon State and Yale, are taking advantage of mobile phones with a “Text-a-Librarian” service.

Mobile phones often have applications on them that will allow them to read electronic books. Tens of thousands of books are available for free on the Internet through sites such as gutenberg.org. Amazon's Kindle software is available for phones, but there are many free non-corporate readers out there as well.

Instructors can ask students to gather data with their phones. Often, smart phones include cameras. That, combined with the Internet connection, allows students to post photographs online. Students can also post data to websites, blogs, or wikis. This can allow students to gather information in the field.

Mobile phones can also read barcodes and special versions of barcodes called QR codes that will allow users to interact with objects. QR codes are used in science and art museums on the description cards for exhibits or works of art. When they are scanned, they might give more information via text, audio, or video, or it might take the visitor to a webpage.

Mobile phones are natural portals to sites like Facebook and Twitter. Some instructors will use services like Twitter to send announcements, as a “back channel” discussion site for lectures, and as a way to continue the community of the classroom beyond the walls of the college.

Sample of a QR code. 
Mobile phones are also used as “student response systems.” Any mobile phone can be used this way. Using websites like Poll Everywhere (www.polleverywhere.com), instructors can set up polls that the students can respond to in class. Give three choices for an answer, for instance, the students can text a number to respond to their choice. Instructors can get instant feedback no matter how large their class is.

Smart phones like the iPhone or the Android have an “app store” associated with them. There are numerous free applications that can be used on a phone that allow students to learn anything from languages to the Periodic Table.

There are many ways that both students and teachers can take advantage of phones for teaching and learning. It is important for educators to understand that students often will be catching what they can of their learning experience when they can catch it. Everyone benefits when we use tools that, by default, make the learning materials as accessible to as many as possible when they need it.

Geoff Cain is a member of the Redwood Technology Consortium and director of distance education at College of the Redwoods. Contact him at geoff-cain@redwoods.edu.

NOTE: Drake Teller posted a comment at the Times Standard: "Also check out Celly, a free service with group texting and instant polling. However, with Celly you can send and receive polls from the web or from any sms capable phone. Thus, it does not necessarily require a smart phone to have class discussions, send alerts, or gather student response (like a software clicker w/o the software). For more info: http://cel.ly/schools
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Sunday, April 01, 2012

Innovation: Of Tide Mills and TED Talks

Tide mills, along with riverine ship mills, we...Tide mills, along with riverine ship mills, were a major early medieval technological advance, allowing to tap the tidal power along the Atlantic Coast for milling. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Watching TED Talks this morning made me think about how different the cultures of innovation are now and a thousand years ago. The TED Talks tend to promote the myth of the lone, gifted super genius entrepreneur. Nothing particularly wrong about that but it is a cultural construct and myth that rarely acknowledges the past work of others, graduate students, adjuncts, the labor or the laborers, the dead ends that others went down so you didn't have to, and positions of privilege.  I would like to see a "TED Talk" of a 6th Century Irish monk from the west coast of Ireland to talk about alternative sustainable energy and if they did that, we would notice a lot of really familiar ideas and "innovations" such as tide mills.

Tidal mills were used since Roman times for grinding mills for cereals (wheat flour) and salt. They have existed for centuries (possibly millennia in some places) along the European Atlantic coast (Ireland, Holland, Britain, Belgium, France, Portugal and Spain), located mainly in pipes, canals and rivers, where the potential energy of the tides was maximal, which allowed them to run for about six hours by flood-tide cycle. They basically existed where ever the Romans built roads. And they were also picked up later by the  monasteries who were often headed up by missionaries from Rome.

I don't know if our star monk could bring in a Powerpoint presentation - maybe he could tell the highlights of the story in stained glass or in an illustrated parchment. But notice that we don't have a record of that particular monk. We don't because they tended not to see themselves as tenure track wunderkind but as a part of a community and, for good or ill, part of the "Great Chain of Being." I think if your innovations survive a thousand years, you should at least get rewarded with a sabbatical or something. We know of very few Roman or monastic innovators by their names. There was learning, apprenticeship, and mastery but it was for a community and tended to not be for any one person's particular gain. No one copyrighted or patented the aqueduct. These were truly, in the best sense of the word, civic works.

The TED Talk I listened to this morning was with David Sadoway who is developing liquid metal batteries. I loved that he gave a shout out to Volta, and his graduate students and assistants - that happens rarely in these talks, mostly because they are so pressed for time and they have to get the ideas out there in that small amount of time.

Which brings me to my next point about cultures of innovation: I love hearing that the Chinese can't innovate: they invented the compass, gunpowder, paper, and the printing press to go with it. What they don't have is a culture of mentorship, entrepreneurship, and creativity that David Sadoway talks about. When they get that, Silicon Valley will seem like a pretty quaint little place.

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