Author Archives: Stephen Powell

About Stephen Powell

Academic Developer, Manchester Metropolitan University

Cybernetics for clean toilets

Cybernetic explanations are based on a systems analytical approach and are concerned with feedback loops between a system and its environment. The Viable System Model developed by Stafford Beer had at its heart the notion of real time feedback loops that would enable an operation to make corrections to match the requirement of its environment.

Traveling to New Zealand, I came across these cybernetic devices at Singapore Chang Airport which I haven’t seen or noticed before. You can rate the service of the particular toilet attendant by selecting the appropriate button (hard to see but excellent on the left, poor on the right) so that he (and presumably his managers) have pretty much real time information on his performance.

These things are everywhere in the airport and it would be good to speak to the designer/s behind the system to find out what the thought process and inspiration was!

YouTube Captions & Subtitles: David Wiley Presentation

In sourcing material for our open learning project with Shaanxi Normal University, we found a useful resource on YouTube of David Wiley making a TED presentation. Using YouTube Cations & Subtitles for an initial transcription (most usefully it automates the time stamps for synchronisation with the video) followed up by a manual check, we have a resource that now has added value for helping students learn English as well as the subject material of the video.

Despite the subject of the presentation being about openess and the generosity required, I couldn’t see any creative commons licence so if asked to do so we would have to take it down.

Learning for the 21st Century Open Learning Project

A project we are currently working on with Shaanxi Normal University is taking a participative action research approach to developing a course with Masters level students working in the field of education technology. Although primarily using asynchronous learning approaches, we had our first synchronous session this week and this is just the start of us moving to a position where this is made available as an Open Learning course released under a creative commons licence. This is of particular interest to us as we seek to respond to the current economic climate by exploring new models & approaches for higher education as a part of the Universities Coeducate project.

Some of the research questions we have are:
– how to develop a sustainable business model that allows us to continue engage with learners from different Chinese universities at a cost that is not prohibitive to them
– how to allow anyone to participate in the course on a sliding scale from £0 – £cost of accreditation & support
– how to coordinate activities to retain the key element of synchronous conversational practice with proficient English speakers
– and what are the cultural, technological, pedagogical differences between Chinese teaching & learning and the UK.

Many people are well ahead with some of these questions and we are making the effort to learn from them, but at the end of the day what is possible is very context specific so we shall have to work out our own answers as well.

For this first iteration, we have a payment from our Chinese colleagues to cover the work we have undertaken in developing the course and for our facilitation of the online community & expert input into ‘hotseats’. In this particular case, we will also assess the students but credit awarded will be from the Chinese university not Bolton – lots of variations around teaching & assessment & accreditation are possible!

And of course no YouTube, but we do have the local equivalent youku…
Introductions from IEC staff

Another iPad review

For the past three months we have had access to an iPad (loaned from work). Our daughter Lily is three years old and it is her use of the iPad that most interests me. We haven’t bought many apps, mostly using Video to access movies (Shaun the Sheep, Paddington, etc.) and Doodle which is a simple drawing application.

As a consuming device, it works great for a three year old who is able to turn it on, manage the interface to get to the iTunes app and chose and lay videos. As a creative tool, there is also merit in that Lily can easily draw pictures (lines, clip art, etc.).

My observations tell me that this is a ‘natural’ way for a young child to use ICT. When she now tries to use my laptop, the move back to a trackpad and keyboard is difficult and requires some ‘unlearning’ – touching a screen to select icons and dragging a finger to navigate around to make things happen seems natural.

Gartner Hype Cycle meets Google Insights

Over the past few months we have been thinking about how we can identify and embed innovations at the University of Bolton, taking a sociotechnical perspective and including new technology, processes ways of working. To help us with this we have begun to use the Gartner STREET (Scan, Track, Rank, Evaluate, Evangelise, Transfer) process (this book covers it in detail) which is approach to picking the innovation that is right for your organisation informed by the notion of the Hype Cycle.

The Hype Cycle diagram is pretty intuitive when looked at and will resonate with many people’s experiences. Put simply it is a way of plotting the expectations of an innovation (vertical axis) over time (horizonal axis) and illustrating how over inflated these can be initially (‘peak of expectations’) , leading to a reappraisal (‘trough of despair’) and possibly as the innovation matures adoption through a ‘slope of enlightenment’ to a ‘plateaux of productivity’.400px-gartner_hype_cyclesvg

The purpose of this post was to consider how the track part of the STREET process might be informed by Google Insights which is a tool that allows you to ‘compare search volume patterns across specific regions, categories, time frames and properties.’ Below are a few that we tried, do they tell us anything when viewed through the lense of the Hype Cycle? Of course many problems with this approach but it might be that as the period of time over which this kind of analysis is available extends it becomes a useful step in the tracking of innovations.


Open Learning Model

Over on the Coeducate project blog I have posted about open learning as a business model for the UoB. The main idea is illustrated by the diagram below where I have attempted to encapsulate the key dimensions of the model. I think the key question I struggle with, however, is whether HEI are capable of transforming the way they do their business. My observations are that HEI are great at ‘doing’ isolated islands of innovation, but relatively poor at systemic change.


A History of the World – Every Object Tells a Story

Reading the website about this new BBC project I couldn’t help but think back to the Ultralab project ‘Every Object Tells a Story‘ with the Victoria and Albert Museum back in 2004. Not a project I worked on myself, but the parallels with the BBC are obvious, particularly the ability to ‘add an object’ with an account of their significance to individuals and groups participating. Truly original ideas are hard to come by…

BBC iPlayer desktop fix for Mac

Great as BBC iPlayer is, I like many mac users had struggled when using Firefox to download programmes. For some reason, after each download I was prompted to install the iPlayer desktop application again, but in doing so was still only able to download a single programme before being stick in the loop again.

The work round for me was to install Google Chrome which works fine although this is a ‘clunky’ solution as I still use Firefox for my main browser – Google adoption has to stop somewhere!

Motion Chart – English HEI

Hours wasted compiling this spreadsheet and associated Google Gadget, Motion Chart. The data still needs refining and but for many values it works well giving the user the opportunity to view three different parameters (axis of a graph and relative size of the plot) for related items. In my case, measures of different English universities related to the nature of their student populations. To help get the hang of it, set colour to ‘unique colours’; size to ‘total all students’ then play around by choosing data on both axis and select a particular institution you are interested in tracking. Finally, start the timeline…