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Horizon Forum mini-conference presentations

The Horizon Forum held a “mini-conference” on April 30, 2007. Here are several of the documents presented at the focused discussion on the future of PK-17 education in Minnesota.

  1. Open Tom Tapper, Superintendent, Owatonna Public Schools: After righting the reforms, are baby steps enough?
  2. Open Arthur Harkins and John Moravec: Debriefing of trip to China and demonstration of innovative Chinese learning devices (read a review of devices demonstrated)
  3. Open Cristóbal Cobo, Director of Communications, FLACSO México: Open learning models in education (view the presentation at SlideShare)

Review: Chinese m-learning devices

I traveled to Shanghai with Arthur Harkins in April to investigate the use of handheld learning devices in Chinese schools. The Chinese are beginning to use these devices to learn English, take tests, and have fun. With grant assistance from Target, we were able to bring two of the devices back with us: The Noah NP890+ and the Ozing V99. Both are priced in the $200-$225 range.

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Noah NP890+

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Ozing V99

Both the Noah NP890+ and Ozing V99 represent logical steps forward in Chinese portable learning devices, in a market cluttered by translation devices geared toward students. It comes as no surprise that both devices are oriented primarily toward English learning. The NP890+ ships preinstalled with 5 English dictionaries, a modern Chinese dictionary, an idiom dictionary, and a cartoon/animation dictionary, among others. The V99 contains 12 dictionaries, covering English, Chinese idioms, modern and ancient Chinese, and whole sentence translation. Both devices are capable of speaking words contained in the dictionaries to the user.

The V99 offers recorded lectures by “teachers with honor” and lectures by “super-advanced teachers.” The NP890+ also provides recorded lectures in an “online teaching” tool that displays a video recording along with lecture notes that can be followed along. Educational games and role playing/simulations software also add to the educational library. Currently, Noah provides a library of 31,693 primary-tertiary level courses available for download through their Web site.

Both devices offer multimedia capabilities, allowing for the playback of mp3 audio and mp4 and XviD video. Both contain 512MB of memory, which can be expanded through the devices’ SD card slots. Response time on both devices is quick, although the V99 seems quicker.

The SD slot provides additional possibilities. Although the devices are not WiFi-enabled as shipped, it should be possible to expand the devices with WiFi capabilities by using a SDIO card that incorporates WiFi. The NP890+ runs on Linux, hinting that it should be easy for any competent developer to incorporate drivers and software necessary to connect to the Web. Although the V99’s operating system is not disclosed, it can be assumed that such expanded functionality would be easy to implement.

Software and user experience for both devices have a long way to go. It appears that these devices have evolved naturally from the manufacturers’ clamshell-style translation/dictionary devices. Building these new devices into more PDA-like form factors represents a natural step in technological change. It is not surprising, then, that the devices are heavily focused on dictionary and translation applications –what both companies have demonstrated they are good at creating. The integration of learning software is a positive step in the development of quality m-learning devices.

Final evaluations

Both devices are derived from the natural evolution of translation devices, and are not invented around a need to change pedagogy or transform education. Both the NP890+ and V99, however, provide relatively powerful and relatively inexpensive platforms for creating new software applications that can transform learning.

Given the software shortcomings, do we need these devices in the United States? You bet! We just need to get the right software on them.

Download a PDF document that outlines the functionalities of both devices.

Ten dollar laptops per child?

George Kubik, president of Minnesota Futurists, sent a note regarding the One Laptop per Child project, and a related article from Fortune Magazine. The $100 laptop is currently looking like a $176 laptop. Although prices are expected to decrease in the future, the $176 laptop is distant from what was envisioned originally.

India’s HRD ministry (which has rejected the OLPC) thinks it can do better, and is soliciting proposals for a $10 alternative. Writes Mark Raby at TG Daily:

The manufacturing cost has already been scaled down to $47, reports the India Times. So far no manufacturer has agreed to the $10 price. “The cost is encouraging and we are hopeful it would come down to $10. We would also look into the possibility of some Indian company manufacturing the parts,” said a ministry official.

Will this create competition in “open source” approaches to mobile educational technologies and lead to greater innovation? I hope so, but I must also caution against “cheapening” the quality and purposeful application of education technologies. Placing such limitations on the technologies could further limit the innovative uses for the devices by children inside and beyond the classrooms they’re intended for.

Legalizing "cheating"

Some troubling news has appeared in media over the past 24 hours. Many news sites and blogs have been citing an Associated Press article that claims that teachers and administrators are dismayed by students’ use of mobile devices to cheat in the classroom. The question is, why not “cheat?” If students will use similar or better information retrieval tools and knowledge generation tools in the workforce, why should they be prevented from using them in the classroom? In the world of desktop and handheld supercomputing, why are we limiting students to primitive pencil and paper technologies? Furthermore, why are we subjecting students to rote memorization when they could produce new knowledge and solve personally meaningful problems?

The Chinese have already figured this out, and are building mobile learning (m-learning) devices for use inside and outside of the classroom. On Monday, I will demonstrate two Chinese m-learning devices, the Noah NP890+ and the Ozing V99, at the Horizon Forum. Reviews of each device will follow on this blog later in the week.

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If the Americans can’t figure it out, we will leave all our children behind?

The question of ICT in development

Dr. Jayson Richardson, guest blogging elsewhere, reflects on a conversation we had recently regarding ICT adoption in developing nations and asks:

The question is how will advances in technology such the Nokia N800, a Wi-Fi Internet tablet which includes VoIP support and WiMax which enables long range wireless broadband access change society in less developed nations? Will these tools along with initiatives like the One Laptop per Child change education in less developed nations?

From his experiences in Cambodia, he believes that the rapid adoption of m-learning technologies should be much easier than implementing larger, infrastructure improvement projects, designed to “update” communications infrastructures to standards set long ago. But, what about indigenous technologies?

Using TVU Player, I’ve been watching a bit of Chinese television –and, accompanying advertisements. One advertisement spot featured a mobile learning device that was shown being used in the classroom to facilitate English instruction. The device itself, costing about $100, is specialized for English learning, but also includes functionalities that children would enjoy (i.e., it incorporates an mp3 player).

Now, here’s the kicker: The advertisement showed students using the device to pass tests.

Here’s the second kicker: The pitchman for the product is a white, American-looking guy (I’ve been told he’s actually Canadian). The message the Chinese are sending themselves is that Americans (and Canadians!) are using these technologies in the classrooms, and that they should be using them as well.

On Friday, I’ll depart for Shanghai and Anqing to investigate the use of these technologies in schools. More soon…