Apple EU Education Summit 2011

On Tuesday, I spent a fascinating day at Apple’s EU Education Summit. The summit explored how mobile learning has the potential to act as a transformation agent in European Higher Education. (and in doing so push Apple’s products)

The day started well, with Apple providing all delegates with an iPad for the day, fully loaded with educational applications. A nice touch was that Apple had contracted CampusM, a company specialising in educational app development, to develop an iPad application to support the conference. The app provided personalised information such as timetables, attendee lists, maps and presenter bios. It even alerted you of where you needed to be.

EU Education Summit App

The day was a mixture of presentations and hands-on sessions from Apple employees, Apple Educational mentors and case studies from European Universities. Almost all the sessions focused on mobile learning, usually with the emphasis on Apple products.

The non-Apple presentations started with Theodore Gray, co-founder of Wolfram Research, developer of Mathematica and best known to iPad users around the world as the ‘Theodore Gray’ of ‘The Elements’ fame. The presentation focused on developing ‘coffee table’ books for the iPad. Although relatively interesting, these ‘coffee table’ books are little more than the CD-ROMs of the 90s repurposed for the iPad. Diverting, but little more. Theodore then went on to demonstrate his latest project, ‘the Solar System’. A product that gave me deja vu. I’m sure he must have seen my final year degree project. Other than higher production values (mine was developed on an Amiga), it could have been my project, right down to the animations of flights across the surface of Mars.

Following Theodore was Genevieve Short from Pearsons. Pearsons, like many publishers are struggling to understand how to make the transition from the book to ebooks and Genevieve’s presentation covered some of the approaches Pearsons and Ladybird were trying with and without success.

One issue UK Universities have is that we are a different market to the US, with UK students purchasing far fewer books than their US counterparts. Instead many UK Universities purchase significantly higher numbers of core texts and license much more materials on their students behalf. I’ve often felt that many educational publishers would prefer us to move to the US model. I think tablet-type devices open up the opportunity to move books away from shared licensing models to a personal licensing model utilising stores such as the iBooks store to market directly to the student. If Apple wish to support Universities, they will have to look at different licensing models for books sold through the app store.

Next it was the OU. The Open University has been at the forefront of technology based learning for 40 years and it’s the UK’s biggest, with over 200,000 students. Martin Bean their Vice Chancellor burst onto the stage successfully drawing everyones attention away from their iPads. What’s interesting is that Martin isn’t an Academic, having previously been a General Manager of Microsoft’s Global Education Products group. There’s few UK Universities that would take the bold move to employ a non academic in such a role. But it was clear to everyone in the room through his passion for education and his complete understanding of how fundamental technology is to the OU, that more Universities may have to start to look elsewhere for the next generation of Vice Chancellors.

As a learning technologist, Martin’s presentation is similar to presentations I’ve given myself (mine with considerably less passion and skill). The OU have to adopt new technologies to improve their support for their students, for them it isn’t an option. But it was refreshing to hear somebody speak with passion about how adopting appropriate technology helps us improve the whole student experience.

He also briefly discussed something that’s started to be discussed in hushed whispers within my University. Is it right to continue to expect students to fit into the way we’ve always worked? Instead should we be standing back and recognising this is a new generation of students who have different skills and aspirations than the ‘notional’ student we continue to develop our courses around.

What OU students want

This can (understandably) be difficult for a educational institutes that build courses around the notions of ‘academic excellence’ (assessment) and ‘academic quality’ (assessment regs). Instead of lamenting that students are coming out of school with poorer maths skills or are unable to complete a traditional 5000 word essay, the argument is that we should recognise this generation comes to us with a whole range of new skills that previous generations didn’t have. For example, why shouldn’t a student be able to submit a short video instead of a 5000 word essay? As long as they demonstrate the same level of knowledge and understanding, the medium is unimportant. Understandably, these are very difficult concepts for Universities to tackle.

Nothing changes

The final speaker was Bill Rankin, Director of Education Innovation at Abilene Christian University. He’s one of Apple’s regular Educational presenters and an excellent and interesting presenter. I’ve seen Bill before. His work of restructuring the curriculum at Abilene University to increase the flexibility of their educational delivery, is a model many Universities are looking to follow.

Bill Rankin

Flexible education is seen by many campus-based Universities as integral to our development over the next decade. Access to tutors to support student learning is something that is unique to campus courses so arguably the contact time should be used in the best way possible.

Unfortunately, academia is still ‘wedded’ to ‘chalk and talk’. The chalk may now be Powerpoint, but an inordinate amount of contact time with students is wasted in one way information delivery. Even my University, where most of our staff use technology, the majority of tutors still ‘lecture’ their students. Many still fail to question why they lecture and are happy continuing with an outdated approach that many would argue has never been the ideal pedagogical approach.

The goal for many of us who work with ‘Learning Technology’ is to build better systems and services to help staff understand and adopt different approaches to teaching by utilising appropriate technologies to replace some of their ‘instructional’ delivery, to make better use of their contact time. For example, why lecturer a classroom full of students when you could record a podcast beforehand and then work with the students in class on group work activities.

Most UK Universities are dipping their toes into true flexible learning. But Abilene are already well down the road to developing true flexible campus-based learning. Like many US Universities they aren’t as financially constrained as UK Universities. So at Abilene, every student is given an iPod Touch or iPhone during their first year and this allows them to deliver a range of services and teaching resources such as videos and podcasts to their students.

Abilene are still in the early stages of their new curricula. But there’s already some interesting results. One was that the engagement of students using the iPhone was higher than those who opted for the iPod touch. Because of the social aspects of the iPhone, students were more likely to carry it around with them and so were more likely to engage with learning materials outside of the classroom. They were also introducing flexibility to their assessment strategies allowing students to submit work in different formats.

Overall, the day was extremely interesting. It’s great to see Apple strongly supporting education. I just wish our other system vendors were as fully engaged with education.

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