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Blurring the boundaries: how technology is changing the way we experience learning

In the first of two articles, Oakleigh looks at how technological developments that are leading to the blurring of distinctions between the real and online world are contributing to changes in education that move learning beyond the formal classroom environments to become part of social and leisure activities.

In this article we look in more detail at the 'hands on' technologies that integrate real and online worlds; and enable learning to take place 'whenever and wherever'. In our second article, coming soon, we will focus on the underlying systems and software that are required to make this happen.

Developments in education are looking towards the use of technology to support learning beyond formal situations such as inside a classroom, library or training suite.

The objective is to enable learners (be they school pupils, students in higher or further education, or employees involved in professional development) to personalise they way they learn, making educational content and access to this relevant to them, the way they want to learn and the way they live.

Learners are no longer just recipients of information, but can become collaborators in the teaching and learning process.

Web 2.0 and Social Networking

One way of enabling this is via Web 2.0 technology and social networking applications. Web 2.0 is a term describing the trend in the use of World Wide Web technology and web design that aims to enhance creativity, information sharing, and, most notably, collaboration among users.

Particular focus is given to user-created content, lightweight technology, service-based access and shared revenue models.

One of the most notable results of Web 2.0 activity has been the rise of social networking sites and services. Sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Twittr and Bebo which cover a broad range of social activities, including music, photos, online games and blogging from personal and business perspectives.

All of the sites are based on the concept of a group of friends or contacts interacting at frequent intervals using different technologies. Another Web 2.0 phenomenon has been the ability easily to post video clips on sites like YouTube. Meanwhile technologies like Skype provide free and almost free international voice over internet protocol (VoIP) calls.

It is likely that moving forward we will see combinations of these services, either from the providers themselves or via 'mashups', where users generate web pages which combine the functionality from other services.

The inclusion of video and voice calling into the social networking world will vastly increase the scope of interaction between users until they become a primary focus for communicating, possibly to the extent of replacing the telephone.

Social networks are also becoming mobile. Whilst simple access of social networking websites is available now from mobile devices, web enabled applications will enable the use of device functionality in conjunction with web information. This will lead to real world social interaction applications, involving voice, video and location triangulation in real space.

In Our View

Web 2.0 technologies, combined with the phenomena of the 'social network' bring together aspects of life that were previously separate.

At the moment, this technology is restricted only by the need to be sat at a computer to access it. As these services become combined by internet-connected applications, and are rolled out into the mobile device space, this final restriction is removed.

The user's context, in terms of their location, and whether they are engaging in business or social activities, can be derived by the mobile device, and appropriate services and connections can be offered, on the spot and in real time.

In this way, the online world starts to become merged with the real world, rather than being a separate world that disappears when the computer is switched off.

Virtual Worlds

According to virtualworldsreview.com, "a virtual world is an interactive simulated environment accessed by multiple users through an online interface".

One of the big developments in the virtual world space, of which Second Life is probably the most well known example, is the development of new ways to control the interface.

Devices such as the Remote Eye Tracker (which detects where a person is looking) and the Neural Impulse Activator (allowing control of avatars through facial movements and specific thought patterns) promise an ever more intuitive and immersive experience in the online world - blurring further the boundary between real and virtual.

Virtual worlds are the subject of much academic research - especially in the higher education sector.

For example, interesting work is being done by Coventry University Serious Games mapping the virtual world onto the physical one, allowing location based access to information regardless of whether a user is physically or virtually at a location.

These developments have the potential to enable students and their teachers or trainers to meet at the same location, either in the real world or online, despite being physically separated - the capability being brought about by real-world and avatar-based positioning.

Within the private sector, a number of high profile brands have established bulkheads in Second Life. Brands such as Coca Cola and Reebok, and technology brands such as Cisco Systems and IBM have created 'islands' which are used for marketing and seminars.

Despite the hype, however, reports suggest that these bulkheads are not achieving the success that was hoped for. However, the importance of these technologies is signified by the corporate response that "the risks of not being part of Second Life are greater than the risks of jumping in too early."

In Our View

We would suggest that virtual worlds are still very much in their infancy and have yet to achieve the success of social networking sites. In the short to medium term, this situation will probably change as the two technologies merge, and broadband speed increases.

As more companies move into the virtual space they will encourage users into the virtual world to reap the benefits of their investment.

The more people who occupy a virtual world, the more enticing it becomes. For this reason, although we see a multitude of different (non-game) worlds appearing, these will likely be restricted to niche markets; with two or three main players taking the majority of users.

These will not necessarily be those that are popular today, but will be the players with the best commercial model for advertisers, as it is advertisers who provide free content that attract users in the first place, and will probably support features to allow the importing of avatars and property from other virtual worlds.

The other key factor will be the compatibility of the environment with emerging interface controller and sensor technologies.

From an educational context, we expect to see a shift from the study of virtual worlds in their own right, to the development of subject specific environments in the virtual space.

This may be in 'general purpose' worlds such as Second Life, or in more specifically targeted worlds allowing virtual immersion in say, atomic level concepts. There is still the issue of how to engage with those who do not find this an interesting activity, whether through "luddite" tendencies or through not having the means to access.

Handheld Devices

Web 2 technologies are moving into the mobile space, as the handheld mobile device becomes ubiquitous. Already the current trend is to cram more and more functionality into handheld devices.

The most basic of mobile phones is now commonly a camera, a music player, and has internet access. Address book and calendar functionality are common with synchronisation with PCs almost a standard feature.

Most phones now offer Bluetooth technology for wire free headsets and hands free operation as well as file transfer and modem capability.

The ubiquitous nature of the handheld mobile device sees its use blur across a range of business and personal applications. As a result, use of devices does not vary greatly between the public and private realm.

The use of email on devices such as the RIM Blackberry, Microsoft based SmartPhones and more recently the Apple iPhone has meant that these devices have necessarily started to become an official part of the corporate infrastructure, with consideration being given to security of access to corporate systems and protection of corporate data.

One change coming to the mobile device arena is the idea of third party applications (that is, applications not provided with the phone by the manufacturer or network provider).

This would seem like a no brainer, but has been a long time coming due to the vastly different platforms adopted by the mobile manufacturers, and the short lifespan of the device, and therefore low perceived value of applications. Microsoft was among the first to address this issue with the Windows Mobile Smartphone platform. Aimed mainly at businesses, it required the phone manufacturer to provide a platform that supported the Windows Mobile OS.

These platforms will allow the developers of software to exploit the connectivity and portability of mobile devices to develop an exciting new breed of applications. These will be focused around location, peer-to-peer communication, and timely delivery of information to the device.

Device users will be able to configure their device and carry it as an extension of themselves, continuously broadcasting personal information and matching against location based services and other individuals in whom they may be interested.

In Our View

The future of handheld devices looks assured. Devices in the near future will be connected to the internet via a high-speed link, regardless of location, and making use of several connectivity technologies to achieve this. Video will feature strongly; as devices are used for social networking on the move.

The increased availability of ever smaller storage technology (which we will examine in the second of our articles) will enable devices to become repositories of personal information, photographs, music and video - all accessible from the device and sharable via the web.

Location based services, in the form of applications providing mapping, advertising and social contact will start to become more prevalent as more devices are fitted with this technology.

Finally, standardisation of applications and storage will enable these to be transferred to a new device as the old one is outmoded and replaced; allowing the continuation of the mobile device as a fashion accessory.

Thus the mobile device becomes the central point of access to the internet coordinated with personal information and location - opening the way to a whole range of new applications.

Tablet Devices

A possible alternative to the handheld device, especially for younger learners, may be the use of tablet devices. Although the Tablet PC has existed in one form or another since the early 1990s, the format really took off in 2002 with the release of Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.

Tablet PCs are perhaps more suited to an educational environment than a traditional desktop PC and monitor. The format lends itself to the classroom, doing away with the 'hiding behind the monitor' scenario, and wireless connectivity allows the devices to move beyond the traditional 'computer lab'.

Indeed, Project Chaos (Children Have Ownership of Schooling) in New Zealand has found that tablet PCs can help speed up the transition from written numeracy to digital numeracy with a device that has no keyboard or mouse.

In Our View

While touch screens have traditionally been expensive options, the work of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organisation suggests that the technology will become available more cheaply.

If this does happen, then is seems likely that the tablet will be the format of choice in the learning environment. The 'flat on the desk' format, coupled with wireless technology lends itself well to a good classroom paradigm.

The Future: Portability and Innovation

In conclusion, the technologies that individuals currently use outside formal learning establishments focus mainly on aspects of social interaction, as well as easy access to personal data such as music, images, video and games.

In the future, one factor affecting the effectiveness of all of these categories will be increased portability of the devices delivering these features.

The ability of the new web technologies to allow sites to combine features from other sites will empower innovation by combining services such as video, location technologies and internet telephony with existing social networking capability.

The coupling of delivery onto new platforms, especially in the handheld arena with high-speed mobile broadband and an order of magnitude increase in available storage helps provide a blurring of the online and real worlds and a resulting step change in the ease with which communication and social interaction is carried out.

The divide between reality and online is becoming further blurred by the use of Virtual Worlds, and, as these become successively specialist and niche, we expect them to leave just a few generalist players with standardised avatars and virtual property allowing inter-world movement and featuring many more visual, audio and location based interfaces with the real world.

There will perhaps be an increasingly important economic aspect to this, as financial exchanges within virtual worlds have a value within the "real" world.

Research into Virtual Worlds is being extensively conducted and virtual worlds can be used in an immersive fashion (such as for remote learning, or for role-playing) or an augmentative way such as using the world as (just another) 3D design tool or viewer.

In the future, specialised worlds could focus on specific augmentative or immersive tasks and be developed to target specific curriculum or subject areas.

Teaching methods are likely to increasingly use technology to provide a flexible curriculum that uses common standards. The use of tablet devices in schools and colleges is likely to replace the use of traditional PCs and provide a more congenial and effective environment for learning.

Teaching can combine use of the smart whiteboard with targeted information on the learner's tablet device to allow greater interactivity during lessons and integration with the wider world via standardised curriculum applications, perhaps provided on a 'Software as a Service' basis.

We will look at software as a service (SaaS) in our next article, but broadly SaaS (typically pronounced 'Sass') is a model of software deployment where an application is hosted as a service provided to customers across the Internet.

In our next article we will look at the important role played by the underlying systems and software with a specific focus on Software as a Service; green computing; radio frequency identification devices (RFID) and smart cards; and business process management solutions.


If you have any questions about the subjects covered in this white paper or you would like to find out more about how Oakleigh Consulting could help your organisation, please contact us on 0161 835 4100 or email us.

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