January 2009

When mobile learning first arrived on the scene about 10 years ago, it was thought to be like e-learning except on a smaller screen. That is, educational material was packaged as courses, and tests were given on mobile phones. 10 years later, there are many new developments in mobile learning, some of which have the potential of being highly disruptive of how teaching and learning has traditionally been carried out. Here are 10 new possibilities for mobile learning::

1. Micro-blogging and social media on mobile devices
2. Data Collection and Information Retrieval
3. Augmented Reality
4. Mobile Gaming and Virtual Worlds
5. Contextual learning and personalization
6. Rich media production and playback
7. Performance support and coaching
8. Multimodal input
9. Aggregated inputs
10. Self-organized collective behavior

The audience can comment and ask questions, and are encouraged to use Twitter to communicate their thoughts on the webinar with the presenters and each other, as it happens. The webinar is based on three research reports on mobile learning that I wrote in 2008.

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Teaching Machines: a 100 year old vision

by Gary Woodill on January 21, 2009

It has been exactly 100 years since the British writer E.M. Forster wrote a short story describing an audiovisual machine that could deliver a lecture to a remote audience. His 1909 short story “The Machine Stops” foresaw television, videoconferencing and instant messaging. (The story is available here.)

The next 50 years or so saw the development of a number of ideas about how machines could be used in teaching and learning, but practical development of electronic learning technologies needed the invention of computers and transistors before it could really take off. In the 1920s, Sidney Pressey, an educational psychology professor at Ohio State University, developed the first “teaching machine” that offered drill and practice exercises, and multiple choice questions. Various other mechanical devices for “automated teaching” were developed in the 1920s and 30s. Norbert Wiener wrote about human machine communications in his 1948 book Cybernetics, and B.F. Skinner, the well-known behaviorist, invented “programmed instruction” and a more sophisticated version of Pressey’s teaching machine in the 1950s. The ‘50s also saw the growth of educational television, and the first uses of mainframe computers for teaching keyboarding and binary arithmetic, and for modelling human brain functioning.

However, the breakthrough idea that led to the tipping point for the development of faster and more powerful learning technologies was Vannevar Bush’s landmark article “As We May Think” in the Atlantic Monthly in 1948 in which he described a hypertext like device called the “memex”. One of the people strongly influenced by this article was Doug Engelbart, an American engineer who went on to invent the computer mouse, hypertext, new human-computer interfaces, and pioneering concepts of “collective intelligence.” Engelbart is still active in these fields.

What we would clearly recognize as one of the earliest examples of e-learning (although the term was only coined about 1997 by Jay Cross) is the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) system introduced in 1960 on an IBM mainframe computer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The PLATO system featured multiple roles, including students who could study assigned lessons and communicate with teachers through on-line notes, instructors, who could examine student progress data, as well as communicate and take lessons themselves, and authors, who could do all of the above, plus create new lessons. There was also a fourth type of user, called a multiple, which was used for demonstrations of the PLATO system.

In the same year, Ted Nelson tried to implement a functioning hypertext system, called Project Xanadu. The 1960s also saw the development of Sketchpad – the first graphical user interface for a computer, Coursewriter – an early computer assisted instruction (CAI) system, examination scoring by computer, drill and practice programs, and computer networking. The construction of personal computers in the 1970s, the standardization and integration of various computer networks in the 1980s, the rapid growth of compact discs and the World Wide Web in the 1990s pretty much covers the basic infrstructure that we use today. The past ten years has featured immense improvements in the components that make up e-learning technologies, but the focus has now moved to applications for this global machine that we as human beings have constructed.

Utterback’s (1994) analysis of the cycle of innovation would suggest that we are in a levelling off period for hardware innovation, and have moved to a new curve – that of process and application innovation. What we refer to as “content” is exactly that – a mixture of new uses and processes for a technology infrastructure that is starting to mature.

The invention of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s introduced the ability access resources from anywhere in the world through Universal Resource Locators (URLs). But the Web was a step backwards from CD-ROMs in terms of animation and interactivity because of the slowness of computers, modems and the network at the time it was introduced. It is only now that the capabilities of networked computers are catching up to the level necessary to produce the quality of e-learning that was possible using CD-ROMs, 100 years after the vision of an electronic teaching machine began.

(A more detailed “History of Virtual Learning Environments” is available from Wikipedia.)


7 Things You Don’t Need to Know About Me

by Gary Woodill on January 4, 2009


OK, I’ve been tagged by my colleague Janet Clarey to describe 7 things y0u really don’t need to know about me. I’m playing along even though I don’t usually participate in such things, just to show Janet that I am a social guy… So here goes:

1. I love being a grandfather. I have 3 grandchildren, Katie (7), Geoffrey (3), and Morgan (2.5). Morgan has two mothers (my daughter is married to a woman) and two fathers (two guys from New York who are also married). Life is interesting.

2. I went to 12 schools from Kindergarten to Grade 12. One year I attended 4 schools. I think that by now I have lived in over 50 houses, 11 in the last 25 years of my second marriage. This has given me multiple perspectives.

3. I am the oldest of 10 children, but most of my family is not close and highly dysfunctional for the most part. Most of us hadn’t seen each other for over 30 years until my father’s funeral in April. It was a fun funeral, with lots of laughing and story-telling, now that both parents were gone. Did I mention that my parents were cult-like religious nuts?

4. I love trains. We got a new GPS receiver recently and I noticed that it showed the train tracks running parallel to the road we were on. I got excited! During the year that my wife Karen and I spent in France, I had a first class Eurail pass, and must have travelled on 85% of the French railway system. One day I started from Paris in the morning and circled France by train in a day.

5. I’m Canadian, eh. Mostly I grew up in Nova Scotia. But, I feel like a citizen of the world.


6. We have three poodles and 2 cats, and sometimes up to three more poodles come for visits. I refer to my house as “doggie day care”. Oh, yes, one of the cats has no hair (a Sphynx) and three legs.


7. I’m partly color-blind, like 30% of males. I once went to teach at the university wearing one brown shoe and one black shoe of the same style. Karen had the living room painted red in a previous house, and I didn’t notice for three days. Apparently she also gets her hair colored occasionally as well…