Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bay Area museum training future scientists

  SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The California Academy of Sciences runs a state of the art museum in Golden Gate Park, but may people don't realize that behind the scenes the academy is also a world class research institution. Academy scientists estimate only about 10 percent of all life on Earth has been discovered. That unknown 90 percent could hold the cure to cancer, critical information about climate change, or a way to feed a starving nation. But the number of scientists looking for new species is dropping and university programs to train them are disappearing. So the academy is stepping up its effort to inspire and train a new generation.

Dave Kavanaugh is senior curator of the academy's entomology department. He says "It's very frustrating to realize that the students that can do this kind of work are not being developed and the skill is being lost." So Kavanaugh and other academy scientists are mentoring promising high school students.

For the past year, Kavanaugh has worked with 18-year-old Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski. Cueva-Dabkoski says she never expected to be bonding with beetles. "My idea of science was kind of wrapped up in a book, something very dry." But, that was before Cueva-Dabkoski joined the academy's Careers in Science program, aimed at high school students from under-served communities. She went on a field trip collecting bugs near the Oregon border and she was hooked. "I discovered I really like beetles. They are gorgeous. All my friends laugh that I say that."

But Kavanaugh isn't laughing, he's cheering. Cueva-Dabkoski is now a Student Science Fellow, part of a new academy program to train future scientists and give them hands-on research experience. Kavanaugh says "The school system doesn't really offer an opportunity, even at the college level in most universities, to do what these students are getting to do."

For the past 10 years, the academy has worked with Chinese scientists to collect all kinds of specimens in a remote part of China. Kavanaugh himself collected 50,000 beetles. Now comes the detective work -- figuring out whether any of the beetles are new species and how each one fits into the eco-system. Cueva-Dabkoski is on the team. She says "It's given me an idea of what it is to be a scientist."

Cueva-Dabkoski spent months tracking down ancient descriptions of beetles, corresponding with curators of insect collections all over the world, and examining historic specimens that were sent to the academy for comparison.

The work is paying off. Kavanaugh and Cueva-Dabkoski now believe they have discovered at least one new species. Cueva-Dabkoski says "It's really exciting!"

She starts at Johns Hopkins University this fall and plans to keep learning about the natural world creature by creature, with an eye toward a future career "saving the organism and also the large eco-system that it lives in."

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

Famed Bay Area musician helps with brain research

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Famed Bay Area musician Mickey Hart has long believed that music is the best medicine. Now he's helping uncover the science to prove it.

Hart is best known for the rhythms he created with the Grateful Dead. But lately, he's more concerned with a different kind of rhythm.

The rhythm in the brain, finding out what rhythm central sounds like," Hart said. "It's the master clock. It makes everything go."

In his years on the road, hart says he always felt music had a special power over the brain to heal and awaken it.

One day, that hunch became a certainty.

"My grandmother, who had Alzheimer's, advanced Alzheimer's, and she couldn't speak, she hadn't spoken in over a year, I played a drum for her, and she spoke my name," Hart said. "She started to become connected again -- to become verbal."

The improvement lasted only a moment, but Hart says it changed his direction in life forever.

Now Hart is participating in an experiment where he wears an EEG cap and each of the electrodes are help detect the very subtle signals that have rhythmic activity being generated by the neurons in his brain.

Hart is taking this gear on tour with him so live audiences can watch his neurons pulse as he plays the drums.

It's the beginning of something much bigger.

It all started by accident, when Hart was asked to do a speaking engagement with UCSF neuroscience professor Adam Gazzaley. Gazzaley was studying how to retrain the brain using video game technology. But using that technology to look at the brain was an entirely new idea.

"This concept that rhythm might be therapeutic has been around for a long time; there's just really not studies that have carefully controlled a rhythmic experiment and looked for changes in the brain," Gazzaley said.

Only now are computers powerful enough to show those changes live.

Now, Hart is the first subject in a new experiment: seeing his own brainwaves as he drums. He tries to control the rhythm of his brain by changing the rhythm of the music.

"I move into its time, and try to do what it's doing and go with it and I try to entrain with it and stay there as long as possible, and then move it slightly, you know, turn it to the right, turn it to the left," Hart said.

Hart says it's a dance, one Gazzaley says could hold great promise for patients whose brains have lost their natural rhythm.

"If we could help reorganize those rhythms, re-entrain them, then hopefully we can improve cognition along with that," Gazzaley said.

A drug of sorts with huge medicinal promise -- that for Hart is also recreational.

"You might say it gets you high because you're connecting with the real you," Hart said.

(Copyright ©2013 KGO-TV.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Caltrans Willits freeway project comes to halt

  WILLITS, Calif. (KGO) -- Work on a controversial Caltrans freeway project came to a sudden stop on Wednesday after Mendocino County revoked a permit in the morning.

Caltrans is building a $300 million bypass around the town of Willits, right through sensitive wetlands.

In the last few days, crews have begun dumping fill-dirt on the site. Environmentalists sued, saying the county did not do the required environmental review of the dirt excavation site and it could contain toxic material. Caltrans claims the toxins in the dirt are below the allowed standards.

A hearing was set for Wednesday, but before it could happen, the county revoked the permit. A letter from the Chief Building Inspector said the permit "was issued in error."

Caltrans told ABC7 News they will begin trucking dirt from another site. Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbee said, "As early as tomorrow evening we will begin night work to move excess fill from the south interchange area to keep the project moving forward."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also notified Caltrans it is out of compliance with other critical environmental regulations on the Willits project.

Link to Caltrans letter in response to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

US Army Corps "Notice of Non-Compliance" to Caltrans document

Link to the new lawsuit

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

(Copyright ©2013 KGO-TV.

View the original article here

Willits bypass faces new legal challenges

  WILLITS, Calif. (KGO) -- A controversial Northern California freeway project is facing new legal challenges with new charges Caltrans is violating environmental requirements.

Caltrans is building a $300 million freeway bypass around the town of Willits in Mendocino County. The project will impact up to 80 acres of sensitive wetlands. Caltrans is installing wick drains to speed up the drying process and then packing fill dirt on top as shown in photos from The Willits News.

Environmental groups filed suit against Mendocino County on Friday. The suit charges the county did not do the required environmental review of the site where the dirt is being excavated.

The county counsel told ABC7 News he is reviewing the lawsuit. Caltrans has not commented. A hearing on a request for a temporary restraining order to stop work on the project is scheduled for Wednesday.

Meantime, a court decision on another environmental lawsuit concerning the bypass project is expected any day.

Just days ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers notified Caltrans it is "out of compliance" with other critical environmental regulations. Caltrans meets with the Corps next week to try to resolve those issues.

Link to Caltrans letter in response to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

US Army Corps "Notice of Non-Compliance" to Caltrans document

Link to the new lawsuit

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

(Copyright ©2013 KGO-TV.

View the original article here

Caltrans may face fines for Willits project

Willits bypass project in Mendocino County Caltrans is building a $300 million freeway bypass around Willits in Mendocino County. (KGO Photo)

WILLITS, Calif. (KGO) -- Caltrans may face fines or even be forced to stop work on a controversial project that is out of compliance with environmental regulations.

Caltrans is building a $300 million freeway bypass around Willits in Mendocino County. The freeway goes right through a sensitive wetlands area, so Caltrans is required to do $50 million in environmental improvements to compensate.

However, the US Army Corps of Engineers says Caltrans failed to get a qualified contractor and meet required deadlines for the environmental work. The Corps calls the violations "very serious."

Caltrans sent us this statement in response: "We are committed to the 2,000 acres of mitigation and other efforts to protect and enhance the environment in the Little Lake Valley. We are working closely with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and are taking all requested steps to ensure compliance with our permit." (Copyright ©2013 KGO-TV.

Livermore's Camp Milagros helps lift childrens' spirits

LIVERMORE, Calif. (KGO) -- A lot of people may not know that thousands of children suffer with arthritis.

ABC7 News anchor Cheryl Jennings had a chance to learn more about this painful illness, thanks to the Taylor Family Foundation, which hosted a camp for children with arthritis.

Music therapy is the newest fun and creative way to help children who live with a life-long disease. They all have a form of arthritis, which was a shocking diagnosis for them and their families.

"I always thought that it was only for old people, for some reason. But now that I have it, now I see all these kids that have arthritis. So, it's kind of, like, changed my mind," Daniel Camacho of Daly City.

"My arthritis was really bad when I was young but it's gotten a lot better," said Lindsey Fredericks of Los Gatos.

"We found out that it was lupus. Lupus is like a different version of arthritis," said Shalimar McGinnis of Morgan Hill.

"I would say arthritis is, just in its simplest form, inflammation of the joint. And that could include swelling. That could include redness," said Lucile Packard pediatrics rheumatologist Dr. Nina Washington.

The children are among a growing number of young people who are finding their way to a free summer camp provided by the Taylor Family Foundation in Livermore, Calif. Each camp is individually designed for the children's special needs.

"We work closely with the doctors, the nurses, the counselors, the camp directors and we huddle, and we meet. And we talk about what does their camp look like for the best experience," said Executive Director of the Taylor Family Foundation Angie Carmignani.

The name of the camp is Milagros which is Spanish for miracles. It's the only camp in Northern California designed for children ages 8-13, with juvenile arthritis and related auto-immune disorders.

The motto of the camp is "Kids get Arthritis too." And the numbers are staggering. Three-thousand kids in the Bay Area, 38,000 in California and nearly 300,000 across the rest of the country are affected. And those are just the reported cases.

"Girls are affected more than boys. We usually see about two-thirds girls, one-third boys. I don't think they know why yet. No, we're still looking for a cause and we're still looking for a cure," said Emma Davis of the Camp Milagros Arthritis Foundation.

"In basketball, when I jump it hurts my knees and sometimes when I shoot, my elbow just hurts," said Camacho.

He started showing symptoms when he was 3-years-old, but nobody thought to look for arthritis. He started limping as he got older and was finally diagnosed two years ago by a specialist.

Fredericks, 13, was diagnosed with systemic arthritis when she was 3-years-old. But it took time to figure it out.

"For a while, they thought that I had like bone tumors or leukemia. So, it was really scary for my parents," she said.

The kids share information at Camp Milagros about medications, injections and sad stories from outside camp; because they can't keep up with school activities or because they look different.

Asked what happens if she doesn't take her medicine, McGinnis said, "Well, usually my joints will hurt a little bit. Like, if I write or something, it might hurt here. Or my face might get like, really red and puffy."

"Bullying is really challenging and a lot of our children face bullying on a daily basis," said University of California, San Francisco pediatric nurse practioner Tara Valcarcel.

"I was so scared that they might make fun of me. So I just never said it," said Camacho.

When Camacho was asked what he wanted kids to know now about his disease, he said, "that it's really hard. It's a really hard disease and you shouldn't make, you shouldn't make fun of people that have it."

"I think if it was more out in the public, like cancer, I think there could be more fundraising and they could raise more money to be able to find a cure for arthritis, so that kids like us don't have to live with it," said Fredericks.

At Camp Milagros, kids get to run and jump at their own pace if they're able. They also all get to share something special -- making friends who understand them.

There is a Taylor Family Foundation Fundraiser on Sunday, August 25.

(Copyright ©2013 KGO-TV.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Exploratorium training program accepting more teachers

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- California is one of 26 states that have joined forces to improve science education. A group came up with big changes on how science is taught from kindergarten to high school. California's board of education is expected to adopt the new standards this fall and they will most likely be implemented the following school year. But some teachers are not waiting around.

You may know San Francisco's Exploratorium as a hands-on museum, but it's also a cutting edge training site for teachers.

The Exploratorium has run a summer training program for science teachers for more than 25 years.

The program is so popular the staff has to turn away two of every three teachers who apply.

However, now the Exploratorium has moved to a new larger building, so they'll be able to accept a lot more teachers.

The timing is perfect because California is getting brand new science standards for all grades and teachers have to learn to put them into action.

"We were so happy to see the new next generation science standards because this is what the Exploratorium has been doing forever," Senior Scientist Paul Doherty said.

The new standards call for more hands-on learning, with interactive lessons. The focus is on making sure students have the knowledge and critical thinking skills they will need for 21st century jobs.

"Finally, the emphasis isn't going to be as much on what scientist know, but what they do," Teacher Institute Director Linda Shore said.

That could mean expensive equipment and supplies, but the Exploratorium is showing teachers how to create meaningful experiments with everyday materials and free resources they can find online.

There is a website that allows users to make stop action animation. The camera in the computer is taking still pictures as the teachers pose for all kinds of crazy movies. It's silly and it's science.

"They are modeling kinematics and physics. They are doing constant velocity, acceleration and deceleration," Doherty said.

The new science standards also include engineering, a new challenge for a lot of teachers.

"I might look at something and wonder as a scientist myself, how does that work? An engineer looks at it and goes, how can I make that better?" Shore said.

Denise Torrisi teaches junior high in Fremont. She's been to the Exploratorium Teacher Institute before and now she's back to get engineering instruction. There is an experiment that involves solar cells and little motors that spin.

"It's like a science camp for teachers to learn, to explore, to get rejuvenated for the new school year," she said.

The teachers attend for free and even get a small stipend.

Although they are supposed to be learning themselves as soon a child arrives, some can't resist switching right back to teacher mode.

For information about applying to the Teacher Institute jsut go to their website.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

U.S. troops prepare to leave Afghanistan

The Afghan Army and police are taking the lead now in combat operations against the Taliban as U.S. troops get ready to leave. But in this case, the administration is not declaring victory or even saying that the violence is under control.

It's America's longest war. And in many ways it's most frustrating.

"When the Taliban were driven out of Kabul and Kandahar and their military forces were defeated, that would have been a very good time to leave," said Dr. Kalev Sepp, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

That happened more than a decade ago and we did not leave.

Dr. Sepp is a former green beret, and one of America's foremost experts in fighting an insurgency.

He says nation-building in Afghanistan once the major combat was done was difficult, bordering on the impossible.

"This isn't fixing a few roads and bridges and helping set up television stations," said Dr. Sepp. "This is, you know, you're talking about lifting a society where most people don't have access to electricity."

In Iraq, General David Petraeus and the generals who followed him ran a classic counterinsurgency campaign, supporting the government, protecting the populace, even paying insurgents to lay down their arms. It allowed coalition forces to cut the number of insurgent attacks and stabilize the government long enough for troops to pull out.

That's called continuity of leadership and it was not the way things worked in Afghanistan

"By my count right now, we've had 11 overall U.S. commanders in Afghanistan during 12 years of war," said retired U.S. Army Lt. General David Barno.

Barno would know something about that. He commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

"No university and no business could survive that kind of turnover and remain successful," Barno said. "We're doing this in the middle of a war where the enemy is actively trying to make you fail."

U.S. forces have now taken up a support role, letting Afghan forces plan and conduct raids, find and defuse bombs, and provide security in the countryside.

Most American combat troops are supposed to be out of the country by the end of next year, leaving behind a small counter-terror force of several thousand soldiers.

But the Obama Administration is threatening to pull them out sooner because of erratic behavior by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

And that could lead to this worst case scenario.

"One of the possible outcomes is having some kind of proxy civil war erupt in Afghanistan where the neighbors are using forces, whether it be the Taliban or other ethnic forces in Afghanistan, to fight each other," Barno said.

General Barno says that would be very bad for the United States. Best case scenario, he says a new president, a competent Afghan defense force, and maybe $10,000 U.S. troops to guard against a resurgence of al Qaeda.

Bay Area company working to preserve John Muir's home

  MARTINEZ, Calif. (KGO) -- John Muir is one of the country's best known conservationists. But what you may not know is that he launched his preservation campaign from the Bay Area. Now, a local company is preserving his home for future generations, and they are using a high-tech method to do it.

It was from a house in Martinez that Muir wrote about the natural beauty of the west. His writings would ultimately inspire the creation of the national park system.

"He wasn't just this person who was walking in the wilderness with his tea and his little pieces of bread, but he actually led a really rich life and had a rich family life and this is where it was all based out of," National Park Service Deputy Superintendent Sue Fritzke said.

Muir's house was built in 1883 and is now a national historic site open to the public. Its colorful rooms paint a picture of a privileged life.

"It doesn't speak to John Muir when you walk in here; this is not what people imagine," Fritzke said.

If an earthquake or fire were to take the house down, that perspective would be lost forever.

"There's always a risk of having things, you know, having something happening to a feature like this," Fritzke said.

The National Park Service has teamed up with Oakland-based non-profit Cyark to make a 3D model of the Muir house. They use a laser scanner actually developed for oil and gas exploration.

"What the laser scanner does, is shoot a pulse of light at the structure behind us and that and that light will bounce back and create a point in space," Scott Lee, of Cyark, explained.

Millions of those pulses of light will record the depth and color of every room in the Muir house -- a comprehensive record of every nook and cranny.

"We're capturing points every three to five millimeters," Lee said.

Those points are meshed with photos taken with a still camera. The results are three-dimensional images of the Muir house.

The Muir house project is part of Cyark's mission to document 500 cultural heritage sites in five years. They've already completed more than 100 around the world.

This is just the first part of the Muir project.

"John Muir is generally better known in America, particularly in California, less well known in the land of his birth, which is in Scotland," Scottish National Heritage spokesperson Richard Davidson said.

Muir's home was in Dunbar, Scotland. He moved with his family to the United States when he was just 11 years old. The Scottish equivalent of our national park service has preserved his childhood home, and is also working with Cyark to make a 3D rendering of it, and the surrounding neighborhood.

"Next year, when this project is finished, people visiting the house here, will be able to find out a lot more about where he grew up in Dunbar, Scotland, and hopefully build a much better, clearer picture of who John Muir was," Davidson said.

Scottish park officials are hoping the 3D model will also boost tourism, by encouraging people to visit Muir's birthplace. It will be on display at the Martinez home.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Why universities should acquire – and teach – digital literacy

Students on laptops

Students are digital natives. Photograph: Alamy

Sebastian Faulks observed recently that ease of access to the internet is leading to a "net loss of knowledge" in this generation of adults, leaving the modern intellectual world in a "kind of catastrophe". But is there another side to this gloomy story? Once time and brainpower are freed up from memorising, will other skills come into play, bringing hitherto unimagined benefits?

One such skill is broadly labelled digital literacy. The phrase is used to cover everything from grasping the basic functionality of a computer/tablet/smartphone, to mastering the sophisticated techniques and attitudes needed for online collaboration and communication through social media. Widely understood to be essential to success in the workplace and modern life, it is a subject that is beginning to emerge as key in the world of higher education.

Higher education usually happens at an intermediary stage between childhood and adulthood when students acquire some of the life skills that will be needed after graduation. Part of what a university can do is provide new graduates with the skills and knowledge to take them into the workplace.

Current undergraduates have never known a life without the internet – it is the glue that holds their personal and social lives together. It makes sense that universities should be nurturing students' familiarity with technology, encouraging its use in teaching and learning, and paying attention to developing broader digital literacy skills.

However sensible this might seem, the reality is somewhat different. Lecturers (who are powerful role models for students) can be very resistant to adopting new digital teaching practices, and will vary in their ability to engage with the online world. Few universities seem to have adopted a digital literacy agenda in a widespread or meaningful way.

While the use of online courses and e-books is growing in UK education, they are still a minority interest. Lectures are often delivered using traditional methods, with a great reliance on dead tree materials, and physical core textbooks continue to hold ground over digital versions.

Raised tuition fees may be the factor that forces change in the UK higher education sector. Universities, now competing more intensely with one another for the best students, are increasingly seeing their own technical preparedness as a differentiating factor, and some are offering technical enticements to prospective students – free devices or free e-books.

At the HE Academy annual conference in 2012, the vice-chancellor of the Open University, Martin Bean, reflected these sentiments in his keynote speech. He noted: "In an era of raised fees, when students need to see the value of their loans, we need to find ways to bring to life the magic of high quality teaching."

Once an institution buys into a digital or e-book platform for the delivery of core course materials, they begin to discover just how much it can help with teaching and learning. Interactive resources, audio and video can all be embedded into the e-textbook, bringing the materials to life and giving instant feedback.

Textbooks can be built in the university virtual learning environment, linking to online course materials already prepared for the student. In some cases, university administrators are able to use analytics to monitor overall usage and engagement with e-textbooks supplied to students.

Digital literacy starts with the mechanics of using digital resources and digital devices. It's through e-textbooks, library resources, online databases, or even the web that an expertise in searching, finding, critiquing, absorbing and referencing multiple sources is learned.

Students also find out how to handle information overload, shutting off distracting online sites long enough to focus on one piece of work that they need to get done on time.

Additional layers of digital know-how can to be added as the student moves to a deeper lever of expertise. With all the facts at their fingertips, students can learn to collaborate to add context and meaning to the facts, drawing analogies, preparing theories, and building conclusions. They can learn how to communicate and present their ideas expertly through social networks to colleagues and peers inside and outside their usual network. They can practise working with feedback, and conversing in an iterative loop.

Universities can do more to teach the basic digital literacy skills that students are seeking to prepare them for the workplace. They can recognise that digital literacy skills in their broadest definition will bring great benefits to students, to their eventual place of employment, and to their lifelong working and personal life.

Students, already expert users of technology, need direction to turn their technical skills into skills for learning and employability. They will recognise the value of an advanced digital literacy agenda provided by a university.

• Fionnuala Duggan is managing director for CourseSmart International, where she oversees its e-textbook platform and digital course material for international markets.

View the original article here

Top UK universities launch free online courses

Prof Martin Bean, vice chancellor of the Open University, which has led the way in online learning

Prof Martin Bean, vice chancellor of the Open University, which is funding FutureLearn. Photograph: Kelly Cooper

Eleven top UK universities are joining the Open University to launch free internet courses, in a bid to catch up with the elite US institutions that have led the way online.

King's College London, along with the Universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton, St Andrews and Warwick have partnered with FutureLearn, a company set up by the Open University that will offer free, non-credit bearing courses to internet-users around the world.

The courses are modelled on the US phenomenon 'massive open online courses' (Moocs), which have attracted millions of users across the globe, and are especially popular in emerging economies – a key market place for UK universities.

FutureLearn will promote UK institutions to international students, said Prof Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of the Open University.

"At the moment foreign students' perception of UK universities is: wonderful history, great tradition, really good teaching, but a bit boring.

"It's absolutely unacceptable that the number one or two brand for higher education in the world should be lagging in the areas of innovation in terms of HE. We need to inject that front-foot, innovative flavour if we're to compete with the US."

Universities minister David Willetts said the partnership – which has received cross-party support and involves universities from Scotland, Wales and England – will put the UK at the heart of online education.

"Massive open online courses present an opportunity for us to widen access to, and meet the global demand for higher education. This is growing rapidly in emerging economies like Brazil, India and China."

The UK higher education industry, which is worth £14 billion, stands in the top five export earners for Britain.

Moocs have grown rapidly in the US over the past year, with two providers leading the field. Coursera offers courses from 33 universities, including Princeton, Brown, Columbia and Duke and has reached more than 1.7 million users.

EdX, a nonprofit start-up from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has 370,000 students enrolled on online courses this autumn.

Simon Nelson, one of the key architects of BBC Online, will head FutureLearn as launch CEO. He says that the company will focus on providing quality education rather than targeting large numbers but expects it may attract millions.

"It's a really enlightening move for these universities to come together – we'll punch so much harder collectively than any other university would individually."

Partner institutions will be responsible for their own content while the OU, which has been providing distance learning courses since 1971, will assist with course delivery and infrastructure.

While the courses are not meant to rival traditional degrees, Prof Bean hopes the partnership will help democratise education.

"This is also about unlocking institutions to citizens in the UK as well as abroad. There will be people who want to use it for employment outcomes, and we contemplate users will be abe to do a formal inviligated exam if they want to show they were tested to a higher standard of rigour."

A charge for (optional) certificates and exam inviligation will form the company's primary revenue stream. The Open University is the company's only shareholder, though it is not expecting big profits, says Prof Bean.

Details of further universities who may sign up to the deal will be revealed in the new year, as will the courses on offer. "People are really interested in breadth," says Prof Bean. "FutureLearn will roam the tapestry of HE and not be bound to any particular discipline. But ultimately the crowd will decide."

Leighton Andrews, Welsh minister for education and skills has welcomed the partnership, saying: "I have encouraged the higher education sector in Wales as a whole to engage with this is a serious way. The area of open education resources is a fast-moving field in which the power of the internet and information technology can transform access to learning globally."

Leeds University say the partnership will also benefit students studying on campus: "And our current students will have access to a rich, interactive set of resources, from both Leeds and our partners. In line with the Leeds Curriculum, this will help give them a deeper and fuller understanding of their field of study as well as encouraging them to broaden their education beyond their main subject areas."

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Bay Area doctors create snake bite nasal spray treatment

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Bay Area doctors have made a breakthrough that could save tens of thousands of lives. In some developing countries, the number of people who die from snake bites is comparable to death rate from AIDS. However, a groundbreaking experiment at UC San Francisco, with collaboration from the California Academy of Sciences and a hospital in India, could revolutionize snake bite treatment.

It's been two years since the California Academy of Sciences launched a major research expedition to the Philippines. Scientists were looking for new species. Dr. Matt Lewin was in charge of keeping them safe and was especially worried about venomous snakes.

"Unfortunately at the California Academy we've had the experience prior to my arrival that one of the scientists died from a snake bite," Lewin said.

That incident occured on an expedition 10 years earlier, but there have been no advances in treating snake bites for decades. If you can't get to a hospital fast the outlook can be bleak. There are an estimated 5 million snake bites a year and more than 100,000 deaths.

"Not only is it a global problem, it is probably the most neglected of neglected tropical diseases," Lewin said.

Lewin made emergency snake bite kits for researchers in the Philippines, but he knew they would be very difficult for someone with no medical training to use.

"What it did have was a lot of needles," Lewin said.

Luckily no one on the expedition was bitten, but on the way home Lewin started thinking he had to come up with something better. And eventually, he thought of the idea of using a nasal spray instead of a needle.

"It's a new trick for an old drug," Lewin said.

When Lewin got back to the Bay Area, he started talking with colleagues and little by little they came up with an experiment.

"We did this all in our spare time. We had no funding and we just kind of invented this as we went," Lewin said.

Some snakes, including cobras and kraits, kill with a neurotoxin that paralyzes the victim and stops them from breathing. A drug called neostigmine has been shown to reverse paralysis, but it's administered with an IV in a hospital. So, would it work as a nasal spray anybody could use?

"Drugs are absorbed through the nose very quickly," Lewin said.

The team had to find a volunteer willing to be paralyzed in controlled conditions. The experiment was done at UCSF with extensive safety precautions. The volunteer was carefully monitored as he was given a drug that paralyzed him, similar to the effect of a cobra bite. Then doctors administered the nasal spray.

"We didn't even need to do the measurements, the change was so dramatic and so obvious," retired State Department Dr. Lance Montauk said.

It worked and the results were so exciting that Lewin gave a talk on it at a medical convention.

A doctor named Stephen Samuel was in the audience and he joined the collaboration. They raised money for further research in India where snake bites are an extreme problem. Samuel was at an Indian hospital when the nasal spray was tried for the first time on a snake bite victim. Then, Lewin got the news a short time later.

"I got an email that said - we've done it. We've had a complete reversal and so I was practically in tears," Lewin said.

That patient in India is now fully recovered. The nasal spray is still in the experimental stage and won't work on every type of snake bite. However, it could be the start of a safe, cheap and easy way to save tens of thousands of lives. Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

(Copyright ©2013 KGO-TV.

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Advent of Google means we must rethink our approach to education

Sugata Mitra Educationalist Sugata Mitra with pupils at a primary school in Gateshead. Photograph: Mark Pinder for the Observer

Would a person with good handwriting, spelling and grammar and instant recall of multiplication tables be considered a better candidate for a job than, say, one who knows how to configure a peer-to-peer network of devices, set up an organisation-wide Google calendar and find out where the most reliable sources of venture capital are, I wonder? The former set of skills are taught in schools, the latter are not.

We have a romantic attachment to skills from the past. Longhand multiplication of numbers using paper and pencil is considered a worthy intellectual achievement. Using a mobile phone to multiply is not. But to the people who invented it, longhand multiplication was just a convenient technology. I don't think they attached any other emotions to it. We do, and it is still taught as a celebration of the human intellect. The algorithms that make Google possible are not taught to children. Instead, they are told: "Google is full of junk."

In school examinations, learners must reproduce facts from memory, solve problems using their minds and paper alone. They must not talk to anyone or look at anyone else's work. They must not use any educational resources, certainly not the internet. When they complete their schooling and start a job, they are told to solve problems in groups, through meetings, using every resource they can think of. They are rewarded for solving problems this way – for not using the methods they were taught in school.

The curriculum lists things that children must learn. There is no list stating why these things are important. A child being taught the history of Vikings in England says to me: "We could have found out all that in five minutes if we ever needed to."

One of the teachers who works with me said to her class of nine-year-olds: "There is something called electromagnetic radiation that we can't see, can you figure out what it is?" The children huddle around a few computers, talking, running around and looking for clues. In about 40 minutes, they figure out the basics of electromagnetism and start relating it to mobile signals. This is called a self-organised learning environment, a Sole. In a Sole, children work in self-organised groups of four or five clustered around an internet connected computer. They can talk, change group, move around, look at other groups' work and so on.

One of them says: "Aren't we going to do any work?"

"What do you think you were doing?" asks the teacher.

"Learning about electromagnetism."

"What's work, then?"

"Work is when you say things to us and we write them down."

Methods from centuries ago may seem romantic, but they do get obsolete and need to be replaced. The brain remembers good things from the past and creates a pleasant memory of the "good old days". It forgets the rest. It is dangerous to build a present using vague memories of the good old days.

Any standard room in a Holiday Inn is better than the best facilities in an emperor's room in the 15th century. Air conditioning, hot and cold running water, toilets that flush, TV and the internet. The middle class lives better today than any emperor ever did. Going back to horse-drawn vehicles is not the solution to our traffic problems and pollution. Beating children into submission will not solve the problem of educational disengagement.

If examinations challenge learners to solve problems the way they are solved in real life today, the educational system will change for ever. It is a small policy change that is required. Allow the use of the internet and collaboration during an examination.

If we did that to exams, the curriculum would have to be different. We would not need to emphasise facts or figures or dates. The curriculum would have to become questions that have strange and interesting answers. "Where did language come from?", "Why were the pyramids built?", "Is life on Earth sustainable?", "What is the purpose of theatre?"

Questions that engage learners in a world of unknowns. Questions that will occupy their minds through their waking hours and sometimes their dreams.

Teaching in an environment where the internet and discussion are allowed in exams would be different. The ability to find things out quickly and accurately would become the predominant skill. The ability to discriminate between alternatives, then put facts together to solve problems would be critical. AThat's a skill that future employers would admire immensely.

In this kind of self-organised learning, we don't need the same teachers all the time. Any teacher can cause any kind of learning to emerge. A teacher does not need to be physically present, she could be a projected, life-sized image on the wall. A "Granny Cloud" of such volunteer teachers have been operating out of the UK and a few other countries into schools in India and South America for more than five years, using a combination of the internet and admiration to provide a meaningful education for children. We don't need to improve schools. We need to reinvent them for our times, our requirements and our future. We don't need efficient clerks to fuel an administrative machine that is no longer needed. Machines will do that for us. We need people who can think divergently, across outdated "disciplines", connecting ideas across the entire mass of humanity. We need people who can think like children.

Sugata Mitra is professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, and the winner of the $1m TED Prize 2013. He devised the Hole in the Wall experiment, where a computer was embedded in a wall in a slum in Delhi for children to use freely. He aimed to prove young people could be taught computers easily without formal training.

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Facebook success highlights challenge of turning friends into learners

facebook on phones

A girl takes a photo with her mobile phone in Cairo. Cheap handsets are opening up access to social media sites such as Facebook for young people across the Middle East. Photograph: Peter Andrews/Reuters

A Facebook page aimed at English language learners in the Middle East and North Africa is attracting more than 10,000 new fans every week. The Learn English MENA page, which is maintained by the British Council has over 1 million "likes", an increase of more than 200% in less than 18 months, the Council says.

Those figures put Learn English MENA far ahead of other English learning pages on Facebook. The Learn Real English page, which offers lessons based on authentic conversations between native speakers, has over 300,000 likes, while Voice of America's Special English page attracts over 200,000 endorsements for its video based learning content.

The Council says that demand for English is growing rapidly in the region as is the popularity of Facebook which has 45 million monthly users. But the success of the page is also down to careful targeting and promotion.

Learn English MENA is designed for young people who receive daily alerts to learning content across a range of British Council Learn English websites. They can also ask for advice from the "English Doctor Service". These are interactive sessions held three times a week during which a British Council teacher is available online to answer learners' questions and help them develop their skills.

According to Dalia Adel, MENA digital English project manager at the Council, Facebook provides valuable data on how learners are using the page. "We use surveys and analytics to ascertain what the fans want on the page, and then provide appropriate and engaging new content every day in order to help boost confidence and improve vocabulary, grammar, conversation skills, fluency and pronunciation," Adel said.

The success of the page is also down to a long-term marketing campaign by British Council offices in the region. Caroline Moore, a former Council manager who helped to set up its Learn English website and who is now an education app publisher, says that MENA staff have been using Facebook to build relationships with learners and teachers for many years.

"This success hasn't just come out of the blue. Council staff have been building audiences through Facebook for some time now. Where ever they go they are using Facebook to keep in touch with the teachers and learners they meet," Moore said.

But while the numbers of likes are impressive, Moore warns that the real test of a Facebook page is the depth of engagement. "You can collect thousands of likes for a page but getting people to return to it on a regular basis is the hard part. Facebook works best when there is interaction and exchange between users."

Satish Mayya, CEO of BPG Maxus, a leading digital media consultancy based in Dubai is impressed with the way the Council is using social media in the region.

"It has understood the importance of Facebook and has tailored its social media strategy to target its audience through the platform. The British Council is making the best use of technology to reach those who have limited access to training, and supporting learners in the region. It has done this through maintaining a balance between listening, talking and engaging with their users on this social platform."

Others are more cautious. Leading ELT digital technology trainer Nik Peachey says that the content that the Council produces on its Learn English websites is impressive, but there is less evidence that its Facebook page is contributing to learning in the region.

"The Council is using Facebook effectively to put people in touch with really good quality learning materials, but most of those materials are delivered through independent platforms. Facebook is just a means to funnel people to those materials. Real learning is dependent on the quality of those materials and the quality of interaction built around them," Peachey said.

He points out that the English Doctor Service attracts only 200 likes per session which is a tiny fraction of the total. "I think before making bold claims about the effectiveness of Facebook as a learning tool we have to be realistic about just how much engagement that amounts to."

But while the Council might need to try harder to convince some that its current Facebook presence is having real impact, education experts agree that the social media site continues to be relevant.

"Facebook is a logical choice as a learning platform for a variety of reasons, not least of which is its near global coverage, its ability to work on cheap phones, and the prevalence of mobile phone infrastructure over fixed-line broadband coverage," said Gavin Dudeney, of online training providers The Consultants-E

"In many contexts it makes little sense to adopt or build other platforms when potential learners are already in a space, communicating and engaging with content. Interacting in the spaces where learners already exist gives a higher chance of getting them to engage with learning content," he said.

Peachey says that Facebook can be most effective when teachers use it to extend their students' learning beyond the classroom.

"A lot of teachers are using Facebook to supplement face-to-face teaching mainly because their learners are already on Facebook, It's easier to use than email and it's more interactive," he said.

Peachey has seen at first hand how Facebook is providing a bridge beyond the classroom in countries such as Pakistan and India . "In many of the schools I visit student are demanding that their teachers 'friend' them. The use of Facebook is being driven by students who don't want their interaction with their teachers to be limited to classroom time."

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A teacher's graduation wish: remember the value of face-to-face interaction | Kristina Chew

Graduation Day, Sheffield, Britain - 14 Jan 2010

 High student debt and budget concerns have led some universities to consider online courses for their students. Photograph: Rii Schroer/Rex Features/Rex Features

I teach classics at a small, Jesuit university on a well-trafficked boulevard in Jersey City, across from lower Manhattan. With another school year ending, I'm feeling wistful to be saying goodbye to my graduating students.

But in our technological age it might be said that there are no real goodbyes anymore. I've been friended and followed by students via Facebook and Twitter, and some read my blog. They ask for recommendation letters and tell me about graduate school acceptances via text messages. As often noted, theirs is a generation for whom computers and cell phones are commonplace.

Being virtually connected is, of course, different from having face-to-face contact. The latter – conversations with friends in the wee hours of the night or with professors after class – is what I remember most from college. The internet offers plenty of resources (images of archaeological sites, famous classicists lecturing in the Roman forum) that can enrich my teaching of the ancient world – especially since my classroom is often filled with the wailing of police sirens or garbage trucks's grinding.

But I also carry around five dry erase markers so I can write (and sometimes draw, terribly) on the board. To show the students all the grammatical forms of the middle/passive voice of verbs, I climb onto a chair, because whoever installed the boards did not have five-foot tall classicists in mind.

That gets students' attention, as does telling them that scholars estimate that about a third of the population of ancient Rome were slaves, and that Roman slavery was not based on race. When teaching about citizenship and elections in ancient Athens or in the Roman republic, my students – African American, Hispanic and Asian, and many not born in the US – quickly realize that none of us would have been able to vote.

I also point out that all of us in a classroom would have simply been impossible in the ancient world, not least because I'm a third-generation Chinese-American woman, whose grandmother never learned to read or write, and who was certainly the first in her family to study ancient Greek.

I decided to learn Greek after I stumbled upon a book of Greek myths in the tiny library of my fourth-grade classroom. The stories of Perseus and Andromache, of medusa and the minotaur, and of all the oh-so-human gods, entranced me. The myths hold the same appeal for my students: any lesson on the uses of the ablative case is enlivened by discussing mythology. Students often know these stories through video games like God of War and Skyrim, which take liberties with the Greeks' versions. But seeing students so enthused reminds me that that is what matters.

Similarly, while I have much to critique about the movie 300 – its portrayal of the Persians, its use of Greek history – I have to admit, it has gotten students to study Greek and even to feel a little chill when they realize it's the dead Spartans speaking in Simonides' epitaph for those who died at Thermopylae: "O stranger, tell the Lakedaimonians that here we lie, their orders we did obey."

Very few, if any, of my students will go on to study ancient Greek or Latin, and many will very likely spend the rest of their lives, or at least their working lives, in front of a computer. That's why, as much as students have to know how to conjugate verbs and decline nouns for an exam, I not only hope they've learned something of Greek or Latin, but that they've learned the value of a real, living teacher, especially because college is becoming more and more of a virtual experience, with some universities are allowing students to take "massive open online courses" (Moocs) for credit towards earning their degrees.

Could the day come when, seeking to keep costs down and trying to combat the huge debts saddled on undergraduates, schools have students take Moocs rather offering courses taught by their own professors? 

For the past couple of decades, colleges and universities have been watching the bottom line, and that affects who teaches undergraduate classes. The number of full-time, tenure track faculty at US colleges and universities has drastically fallen to that point that today, about 70% of teaching faculty are not on the tenure track. In most US schools, the majority of courses are now taught by adjuncts. My colleagues and I have talked about the likelihood that, in the not too distant future, smaller schools likes ours will start using Moocs or other cost-saving "innovations". Except at elite schools, full-time, tenured faculty are becoming an endangered species.

Will students' memories of their college days be about watching pre-recorded videos by a famous professor, of clicking "send" to submit their major papers electronically? My students may not recall all the details of the grammar of ancient languages or the causes of the Peloponnesian war, but they likely will remember me pulling over a chair and filling every space of the board with Greek words in purple and green.

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California inmates starve for more freedom

A hunger strike at several California prisons has entered its fourth week. The inmates want California to limit the use of small cells known as Security Housing Units, inmates call it solitary confinement. Our media partners at the Center For Investigative Reporting obtained exclusive video of these cells and were granted rare access to the state's highest security prison - Pelican Bay. They found inmates who have spent years and even decades locked up in these cells.

Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City was designed to hold the state's most dangerous inmates. Inside a bunker-like high security housing unit, hundreds of men have been held in isolation for more than a decade.

For the last five years, Peter Sartorezzi has spent 22.5 hours a day alone in a small cell. A federal lawsuit filed last year by a coalition of civil rights groups, alleges that inmates are held in isolation based on the slimmest of evidence -- tattoos, greeting cards and even a simple "hello" has been enough to lock up a convict.

"We're not allowed a cup. We're not allowed a bowl," said Sartorezzi, "We're not allowed phone calls. I haven't seen my family since I've been busted."

Sartorezzi is serving 25 years to life for attempted murder. Prison officials say he was separated from the rest of the prison population because an informant identified Sartorezzi as a member of a violent prison gang called the "Mexican Mafia."

"I'm not here for violence; I'm not here for discipline. I'm here because a man decided to use me as his way out." Satorezzi admitted, "I might have a few tattoos. This is prison, you know what I mean? I was never able to confront those who confined me here. It's all hearsay."

The suit asserts that years of solitary confinement causes severe physical and psychological damage, violating a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Pelican Bay Warden Greg Lewis rejects charges of abuse, "It is my position, and always has been my position, that these men are treated very humanely."

Lewis says the units are necessary, and alleges that all the inmates here are dangerous gang members.

"These are not your burglars, not your street corner drug dealers. These men are highly violent and it provides for the safety of my staff, which is paramount," said Lewis.

On July 8th Pelican Bay inmates launched the hunger strike. The action has sparked protests throughout California led largely by inmates' families. They are demanding limits on the amount of time inmates can be held in isolation. They also want more family visits, phone calls and rehabilitation programs.

Marie Levin is from Oakland. Her brother Ronnie Dewberry was originally convicted of murder and is locked up at Pelican Bay as an alleged gang member. He is one of the hunger strike leaders.

"The United Nations has declared that 15 days is the maximum amount of time that any one person should be in solitary confinement, but yet they have allowed my brother to be in solitary confinement for 29 years," said Levin.

The department has made some changes. It lifted a decades' long ban on inmate photographs, allowing prisoners like Peter Sartorezzi to begin sending new pictures to their families. Sartorezzi's mother, Madeleine, hadn't seen an image of her son in nine years.

Madeleine said, "He's alive, but you can't touch him, you can't hear him, you can't see him. That's what they call a ghost."

The family posed for a group photo and sent it to Peter. Madeleine just received a new picture of her son. She says it's a step in the right direction, but it doesn't go far enough. Like other families, she wants prison officials to ease restrictions and move more men to regular prisons. Protestors are demanding that men held in the security units for more than 10 years be let out within six months.

The strike, however, is now in its fourth week, and with both sides digging in, inmates say they are prepared to starve themselves to death.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

(Copyright ©2013 KGO-TV.

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Moocs are the clever way to keep up to date


 308,000 students from 167 different countries signed up to the first UK moocs last year. Photograph: Gary Chapman/Getty Images

The world of distance learning has changed beyond recognition since the first correspondence courses dropped onto doormats more than 40 years ago. Classes of thousands from around the world can now join interactive lectures for free. This is the world of moocs – massive open online courses – which have blazed a trail in the US. This autumn, 21 UK universities – including Bristol, Leeds and Southampton – are preparing to launch their own moocs in partnership with the Open University.

While moocs mostly don't set entry requirements, they are pitched between "taster" and postgraduate level – short chunks of learning that will enable students to dip their toe into a subject – science or arts – or keep up to speed with changing career needs.

Early analysis of mooc students shows most of them to be mature learners who already hold one or two degrees; this is the experience of the University of Edinburgh, which announced the first UK moocs in July last year and saw 308,000 students from 167 different countries sign up to a handful of subjects, from an introduction to philosophy to the more advanced artificial intelligence planning. While completion rates on nearly all moocs are low – somewhere below 10% – this doesn't matter, says Jeff Haywood, professor of education and technology. Some 12% of students completed Edinburgh's first batch of moocs. Many sign up to "window shop" or dip in and out, which is no bad thing, he says. Edinburgh's students came mostly from the US and UK and those who responded to the survey said the courses met or exceeded expectations.

Those in the know are hotly anticipating FutureLearn's forthcoming courses – because they draw on impressive UK pedigree – many Russell Group universities, the British Library, the British Council and the Open University, with years of experience in distance learning.

This new batch of UK moocs will be typically about eight weeks or less and subjects offered will play to universities' individual strengths. Southampton for instance is considering oceanography, web science and mechanical engineering.

Key to a good mooc is the right mix of intuitive, efficient technology combined with well-designed content and effective peer insights.

"This is the beginning of something – moocs are innovative and evolving," says Alan Greenberg, director of education at video learning platform MediaCore, "Good moocs will be successful; the less good will fail miserably."

Game theory applied to PR

Katy Swainston, 26, completed a six-week mooc in gamification (the application of digital game design techniques to non-game problems) offered by the University of Pennsylvania in partnership with Coursera. She works in PR in London and has an MA in museum studies.

I was really interested in further learning outside my job. This course jumped out at me – it seemed pitched at the right level. About 63,000 signed up. I've spent about four to five hours a week on it – it's a mix of video lectures, live chats with the tutor who was inspirational. I was slightly concerned before the peer assessment (students mark each other's written work) but we were given such good guidelines and it was helpful to get different perspectives. (Online) discussions were useful for ironing out specific questions and communicating with others.

It's been really well-received at work – we have such a culture of knowledge sharing. This mooc was well thought out and engaging and learning was reinforced all the way along so the knowledge stays with you. And it didn't finish with a big exam so there wasn't that sort of pressure but we were learning quite complicated things toward the end. And it was free.

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UK higher education: let's not follow the leader but develop our own vision

OFT investigation - online shopping

 The UK needs to evaluate the disruptive possibilities of MOOCs, and create its own hybrids to energise its university ecosystem, says Saint John Walker. Photograph: AP

An avalanche is coming. Education is broken. Classrooms kill creativity. Higher education is a rotten tree being hit by lightning.

All these things have been said about higher education recently (Clay Shirky wrote the last one if you're interested). In fact, when I playfully did a Google search on "higher education is doomed", it returned some 2 million results. Those who work in teaching, especially in higher education, have had a rough time of it recently. It seems everyone's got it in for them and everyone has a prognosis of what to do about it.

To paraphrase Monty Python, you'd think the university system had kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, gone to meet its maker, joined the bleeding choir invisible. But I disagree. I actually think that higher education system's vital signs are quite healthy even if I do think (to spin out the Palin-Cleese exchange a little further), it's probably been too busy pining for the fjords.

Higher education is often criticised for what it hasn't done rather than what it has.To quote the IPPR report, 'An Avalanche is Coming': "Nothing looked more impervious to revolutionary change than Brezhnev's Soviet Union in 1980, yet just over a decade later it was gone. The hegemony of the Catholic Church in Ireland looked unshakable in 1990, but two decades later it was gone". You get the subtle suggestion – higher education hasn't moved with the times, it needs glasnost and perestroika.

One of the biggest snowballs in this supposed avalanche is the MOOC (massive open online courses) phenomenon which has captured the imagination of so many observers. It's a rather simple and utopian ideal: education for all, free, delivered to your laptop, time-shifted to your schedule not the university timetable. It's also the notion of unlocking quality knowledge from elite campuses like MIT, Stanford, Harvard and UCLA that makes it such a seductive idea.

This story is also inextricably linked to the Silicon Valley meme of technology for good, and the alluring narratives of disruption and technical fixes that will create a new culture of mass learning. One of the noticeable things about this vision of the future is that it is (the launch of FutureLearn withstanding) very much an American story, and it's easy to see the reasons why.

According to the US Department of Education, student debt is now over $1 trillion, and an estimated 53.6% of degree-holders in the US are jobless or underemployed. The contract between higher education and the learner, who is willing to put up with short-term debt to get a great career, has broken down. There is a crisis of confidence.

Add to this mix the prediction that the edutech space is set to be worth $107bn (£70bn) by 2015 and you have a powerful impetus for change. It's often said when America sneezes, Europe catches a cold. Will that be the case in the higher education sphere too?

The European Union registered an unprecedented youth unemployment rate of 22.8% in September 2012, and in the UK 40% of graduates cannot find graduate-level work two years after their degrees. But student debt, despite recent changes, is nowhere near as extreme as in the US.

So, we have a different motive for our changes to education in the UK. We shouldn't just accept US-style MOOCs as a solution that also fits our national landscape. There are alternative narratives, different stories, and a more British vision of higher education that could be articulated.

We could use the language of complementing and collaborating a little more, rather than the US narratives of disruption, competition and overhaul. Let's critically evaluate the disruptive possibilities – good and bad – of MOOCs, and create our own hybrids to energise our particular university ecosystem.

Of course we too need edutech companies, entrepreneurs and educational venture capitalists. But here's my idea for a few acronyms that we Brits should create: POOCs, or Personal Open Offline Complements – real human gatherings based at scale; OAFs, or Open Access Funnels, that lead disenfranchised people from online courses to the real valuable experience of being part of a community at a physical place of learning; and how about hybrid apprenticeship and degree mixes?

There are plenty more acronyms we could create together. Let's include the most receptive and agile universities in those debates, treating them like a living breathing partner, rather than that poor old Norwegian Blue parrot with its feet nailed to its perch.

Saint John Walker is head of development at Creative Skillset, the UK skills council for the creative industries – follow it on Twitter @skillsetssc

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Should Africa beware tech companies bearing gifts? | David Smith

MDG : South African students in IT class with Samsung Solar Powered Internet School

 Mind the gap … South African students in a solar-powered internet school. Not all projects are so successful in educating Africa's children. Photograph: Samsung

When Erin Hayba began a project to bring computers to solar-powered schools in the world's biggest refugee camp, there were plenty of sceptics. "People said, 'No, this can't happen, you're in a refugee camp, why don't not stick with paper and pencil and chalkboards?'" she recalls.

Two years later, there are 215 computers spread among 32 primary, seven secondary and four vocational schools in the Dadaab complex in north-east Kenya, home to more than 400,000 people, mostly from nearby Somalia. Each school has a solar panel.

The Dadaab camp was set up in 1991 and contains about 280,000 children, some of whom were born there. Only about 70,000 attend the camp's schools. But the new technology could boost numbers, according to Hayba, who works works for the UN high commissioner for refugees.

"Many of the youth told me they want to learn computers so they can get a job when they go back to Somalia," she told the eLearning Africa international conference in Windhoek, Namibia, last week. "Teachers are saying some students are coming back to school who might have dropped out."

The project was only officially launched last month, and much has to be improvised. One enterprising student, who had swotted up from books, held the fort by giving lessons to both fellow students and teachers until a specialist arrived. Then there are worries about security.

Hayba added: "This hasn't been done before. I have conversations with refugee leaders under a tree. How can we keep the computers safe in an environment that is very risky? They suggest hiring more watchmen and training them in computers so they understand why it's important."

Hayba emphasised the need to involve members of the community in every aspect from planning to implementation and beyond. She praised Microsoft for providing training and a grant of $250,000 and HP for its support.

But the intentions of the world's leading tech companies came under scrutiny during last week's eighth conference on ICT for development, education and training, attended by 1,500 participants. Efforts to close the gap between California's Silicon Valley and the specific needs of millions of African children were not always successful.

Microsoft's Mark East gave a presentation entitled "Helping to transform education in Africa", featuring a slick video depicting an entire classroom wall composed of a computer touchscreen and an affluent family choosing cooking recipes on a futuristic tablet. He extolled the virtues of the Windows 8 tablet, insisting: "The devices are becoming more affordable, about $300."

That provoked some dissenting murmurs in the audience. Later, Joel Kaapanda, Namibia's ICT minister, chuckled at the notion. "$300 for a tablet is very expensive," he told the Guardian. "It is not affordable for African countries."

Having extended fibre optic cables to every village, Namibia is seen as ahead of the game. But, Kaapanda added, the country suffers from a lack of funds, equipment and content development. "The other inhibiting factor is lack of skills. There are schools that have computers but they don't have anyone to teach computers. We need to embark on massive training."

As Microsoft's East looked on, Donald Clark, a British tech investor who worked in e-learning for 30 years, warned the audience: "Be very careful of people who want to sell you tablets. There have been some disaster stories in the UK with tablets going out of the classroom."

Research shows that typing on a tablet is 20-30% less efficient than on a keyboard, he argued, and "kids end up writing in shorter sentences". In a separate seminar he described tablets as "teacher unfriendly", offering no feel for keys, slow text editing, and difficulties in networking.

"We must be careful in terms of thinking all of this is good," Clark said. "There is research that the tablet manufacturers don't want you to read that suggests they inhibit literacy. The keyboard is very important in terms of developing literacy."

In the closing debate of the conference, he took swipes at education tech gurus such as Sugata Mitra and Nicholas Negroponte and urged: "Don't let educational colonialism sneak in through the backdoor with bucket loads of hardware and content that is inappropriate for your children."

A recurring theme was past mistakes in which corporations have thrown technology at grateful African countries like a blunt instrument, offering little training, backup, or reference to a wider ecosystem. The continent has become a graveyard of abandoned laptops and good intentions.

Another tech giant, Samsung, displayed one of its mobile classrooms, donating it to the host nation. Its corporate citizenship manager, Kea' Modimoeng, admitted: "As companies we came to your countries and dumped laptops and we've run away. That's not sustainability. There needs to be collaboration. We are avoiding that situation by coming up with schemes that allow us to monitor implementation."

A smaller California-based company, NComputing, was promoting small black boxes that, fitted on the back of computer monitors, enable one PC to be shared by 100 users. The company claims the devices operate at a third of the cost of a PC, can save 90% on energy, and are less vulnerable to dirt, dust and theft while also reducing e-waste.

"There's been a lot of technology dumped in Africa and it's not always useful technology," said vice-president Mark Pilgrim. "The NGOs could spend their money more effectively."

There were also calls for more educational content to be delivered in indigenous African languages, since the dominance of English in the tech world can be an extra barrier. Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah, director of the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society, told delegates: "No society on Earth progresses on the basis of someone else's language. No society progresses on the basis of a language only spoken by 10% of the population."

He drew a contrast with Asian countries, which have prospered while retaining their own languages. "If you want to make your profits," he told tech companies, "you have to work in depth with the people, not just counting numbers of mobile phones."

Other projects mentioned involved delivering computers to embattled rural schools in Zimbabwe while training more than 800 headteachers, bringing maths and Arabic computer games to Sudan's 3 million children outside school, and using online video to preserve endangered African oral literature. The biggest buzzword, however, was Moocs: massive open online courses, described as "the latest craze in Africa".

A survey of e-learning practitioners in Africa found that 83% use laptops daily to support learning, followed by mobile phones (71%), standalone PCs (67%), TVs (34%) and radios (31%). Tablets were down the list on 20%. Nearly half the respondents admitted they have experienced failure.

Shafika Isaacs, editor of the report, said: "We've had abundant examples of failure. The vast majority pointed to infrastructural and technological shortcomings. In Rwanda, as part of the One Laptop per Child project, I went to a rural school that claimed to have electricity. But when we got there, we found it only had one plug. We were meant to charge 1,200 laptops from that one plug."

Much work and research still has to be done to win over politicians to the e-learning cause, she added. "There is not yet a compelling case of the benefit of technology in education in an African context. There is anecdotal evidence. There is hype. There is PR."

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Higher education: our MP3 is the mooc

 Clay Shirky: ‘In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now it’s our turn’. Composite: David Levene/Sarah Habershon/Guardian

Fifteen years ago, a research group called The Fraunhofer Institute announced a new digital format for compressing movie files. This wasn't a terribly momentous invention, but it did have one interesting side-effect: Fraunhofer also had to figure out how to compress the soundtrack. The result was the Motion Picture Experts Group Format 1, Audio Layer III, a format you know and love, though only by its acronym, MP3.

The recording industry concluded this new format would be no threat, because quality mattered most. Who would listen to an MP3 when they could buy a better-sounding CD? Then Napster launched, and quickly became the fastest-growing piece of software in history. The industry sued Napster and won, and it collapsed even more suddenly than it had arisen.

If Napster had only been about free access, control of legal distribution of music would then have returned the record labels. That's not what happened. Instead, Spotify happened. ITunes happened. Amazon began selling songs in the hated MP3 format.

How did the recording industry win the battle but lose the war? They crushed Napster, but what they couldn't kill was the story Napster told.

The story the recording industry used to tell us went like this: "Hey kids, Alanis Morissette just recorded three kickin' songs! You can have them, so long as you pay for the 10 mediocrities she recorded at the same time." But Napster said: "You want just the three songs? Fine. You want every cover of Blue Suede Shoes ever made? Help yourself. You're in charge."

The people in the music industry weren't stupid, of course. They just couldn't imagine that the old way of doing things might fail. Yet things did fail, in large part because, after Napster, the industry's insistence that digital distribution be as expensive and inconvenient as a trip to the record store suddenly struck millions of people as a completely terrible idea.

Once you see this pattern – a new story rearranging people's sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know – you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don't notice the change. When they do, they assume it's minor. Then that it's a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they've squandered most of the time they had to adapt.

It's been interesting watching this unfold in music, books, newspapers, TV, but nothing has ever been as interesting to me as watching it happen in my own back yard. Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or mooc), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup.

We have several advantages over the recording industry, of course. We are decentralised and mostly non-profit. We employ lots of smart people. We have previous examples to learn from, and our core competence is learning from the past. And armed with these advantages, we're probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did.

A massive open online class is usually a series of video lectures with associated written materials and self-scoring tests, open to anyone. As we learned from Wikipedia, demand for knowledge is so enormous that good, free online materials can attract extraordinary numbers of people from all over the world.

Last year, an online course in artificial intelligence from Stanford, taught by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun, attracted 160,000 potential students, of whom 23,000 completed it, a scale that dwarfs anything possible on a physical campus. As Thrun put it, "Peter and I taught more students AI than all AI professors in the world combined." Seeing this, he quit and founded Udacity, an institution designed to offer moocs.

The size of Thrun and Norvig's course, and the attention attracted by Udacity (and similar organisations like Coursera, P2PU, and University of the People), have many academics worrying about the effect on higher education. In a New York Times OpEd, Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia focused on the issue of quality, asking and answering his own question: "[C]an online education ever be education of the very best sort?"

Now you and I know what he means by "the very best sort" – the intimate college seminar, preferably conducted by tenured faculty. He's telling the story of the liberal arts education in a selective residential college and asking "Why would anyone take an online class when they can buy a better education at the University of Virginia?"

But who faces that choice? Are we to imagine an 18-year-old who can set aside $250K and 4 years, but who would have a hard time choosing between a residential college and a series of moocs? Elite high school students will not be abandoning elite colleges any time soon; the issue isn't what education of "the very best sort" looks like, but what the whole system looks like.

I was fortunate enough to get the kind of undergraduate education Edmundson praises: four years at Yale, in an incredible intellectual community, where even big lecture classes were taught by seriously brilliant people. Decades later, I can still remember my art history professor's description of the Arnolfini Wedding. But you know what? Those classes didn't create genuine intellectual community. They were just great lectures: we showed up, we listened, we took notes, and we left, ready to discuss what we'd heard in smaller sections.

And did the professors also teach our sections too? No, of course not; those were taught by graduate students. The large lecture isn't a tool for producing intellectual joy; it's a tool for reducing the expense of introductory classes.

Cheap graduate students let an institution lower the cost of teaching the sections while continuing to produce lectures as an artisanal product, from scratch, on site, real time. The minute you try to explain exactly why we do it this way, though, the setup starts to seem a little bizarre.

Every university provides access to a huge collection of potential readings, and to a tiny collection of potential lectures. We ask students to read the best works we can find, whoever produced them and where, but we only ask them to listen to the best lecture a local employee can produce that morning. Sometimes you're at a place where the best lecture your professor can give is the best in the world. But mostly not. And the only thing that kept this system from seeming strange was that we've never had a good way of publishing lectures.

The top 50 colleges on the US News and World Report list only educate something like 3% of the current US student population. The entire list, about 250 colleges, educates fewer than 25%. The very things the US News list of top colleges prizes – low average class size, ratio of staff to students – mean that any institution that tries to create a cost-effective education will move down the list. This is why most of the early work on moocs is coming out of Stanford and Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As the academic and games designer Ian Bogost has said, moocs are marketing for elite schools.

Outside the elite institutions, though, the other 75% of students in the US —over 13 million of them—are enrolled in the 4,000 institutions you haven't heard of. When we talk about college education in the US, these institutions are usually left out of the conversation, but Clayton State educates as many undergraduates as Harvard. Saint Leo educates twice as many. City College of San Francisco enrols as many as the entire Ivy League combined. These are where most students are, and their experience is what college education is mostly like.

The fight over moocs isn't about the value of college; thousands of institutions you haven't heard of provide an expensive but mediocre education. For-profit schools like Kaplan's and the University of Phoenix enrol around one student in eight, but account for nearly half of all loan defaults, and the vast majority of their enrollees fail to get a degree even after six years. Reading the academic press, you wouldn't think that these statistics represented a more serious defection from our mission than helping people learn something about artificial intelligence for free.

The fight over moocs isn't even about the value of online education. Hundreds of institutions already offer online classes for credit, and half a million students are already enrolled in them. If critics of online education were consistent, they would believe that the University of Virginia's Bachelor of interdisciplinary studies or Rutgers's Master of library and information science degree are abominations, or else they would have to believe that there is a credit-worthy way to do online education, one moocs could emulate. Neither argument is much in evidence.

That's because the fight over moocs is really about the story we tell ourselves about higher education: what it is, who it's for, how it's delivered, who delivers it. The most widely told story about college focuses obsessively on elite schools and answers a crazy mix of questions: How will we teach complex thinking and skills? How will we turn adolescents into well-rounded members of the middle class? Who will certify that education is taking place? How will we instil reverence for Virgil? Who will subsidise the professor's work?

Moocs simply ignore a lot of those questions. The possibility they hold out isn't replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility moocs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. Moocs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system.

In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it's a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as songs came unbundled from CDs.

If this happens, Harvard will be fine. Yale will be fine. But Bridgerland Applied Technology College? Maybe not fine. And Kaplan College, a more reliable producer of debt than education? Definitely not fine.

Udacity and its peers try to answer some new questions, questions that the traditional academy – me and my people – often don't even recognise as legitimate, like "How do we spin up 10,000 competent programmers a year, all over the world, at a cost too cheap to meter?"

Udacity may or may not survive, but as with Napster, there's no containing the story it tells: "It's possible to educate a thousand people at a time, in a single class, all around the world, for free."

Once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrolment.

College mottos run the gamut from Bryn Mawr's Veritatem Dilexi (I Delight In The Truth) to the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising's Where Business Meets Fashion, but there's a new one that now hangs over many of them: Quae Non Possunt Non Manent. Things That Can't Last Don't. The cost of attending college is rising, while the premium for doing so shrinks. This obviously can't last, but no one on the inside has any clear idea about how to change the way our institutions work while leaving our benefits and privileges intact.

In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now it's our turn, and the risk is that we'll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can't imagine – really cannot imagine – that the story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it's true. Especially when it's true.

This is an extract from a longer article. Read the original here.

• Clay Shirky is associate professor at New York University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society

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Technology brings classroom experience to distance learners

distance learning

Course materials can be downloaded on to mobile devices and accessed by students wherever they are. Photograph: Mike Harrington/Lifesize

Students on the University of Leicester's new distance learning MSc in security, conflict and international development face more challenges than the average distance learner. For example, some students might spend weeks with no access to an internet connection, working in a refugee camp in post-conflict countries. How does the university make sure these remote students have everything they needed to carry out their studies?

"When you're doing that sort of thing, you can't be carrying huge folders of printed material," says Prof Adrian Beck, head of the university's department of criminology. "It struck us that we needed to find a way for them to transport our materials that is highly flexible but low-weight, and gives them access to all the material they will need while on the go."

The solution was to give every student on the course a free iPad, on to which they could download a bespoke app and all the course materials. Despite concerns from the university about security and technical support, the plan has gone smoothly. A few months into the MSc, no iPads have been lost or stolen and students have responded with enthusiasm.

Distance-learning providers already use virtual learning environments (VLEs) to enable students to read documents online, contact tutors, submit coursework, or engage in discussions with other students. But the increasing popularity of smartphones, iPads and Kindles means that universities are now responding to student demand to access those resources from their mobile devices.

The Open University (OU), for example, is developing a new generation of interactive course materials for tablet computers and has just launched OU Anywhere, a tablet and smartphone app that enables students to download all the course materials they need on to their mobile devices. The app also allows users to access the university's VLE to interact with fellow students and tutors. For distance learners, who often struggle to combine studying with full-time work, this provides a new flexibility. Prof Mike Sharples, chair in educational technology at the OU, says mobile devices are ideal for students who want to study during lunchbreaks or quiet moments at work, or on the train home.

As the cost of technology falls, mobile devices become more powerful and cross-platform development becomes simpler, it seems inevitable that universities will start to take mobile devices into account when they design learning resources.

Stuart Sutherland, senior development and delivery manager at the University of Derby Online, which has recently introduced an app to allow mobile access to its VLE, thinks that the advent of free Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) is forcing traditional universities to raise their game, and to design content specifically for a mobile environment, such as short videos or podcasts. "The small video explaining a difficult mathematic or scientific phenomenon is always a better way of explaining that than text," says Sutherland. Terese Bird, a learning technologist at the University of Leicester who is evaluating the impact of tablets in distance learning, argues that mobiles can be ideal for bite-sized learning: "One benefit identified by scholars is that if you learn something in short frequent bursts, you may very well be able to learn better than doing a five-hour study spree at the weekend."

Opportunities for social learning open up when students use mobile devices: the OU, for example, plans to allow students to share their e-reader annotations online, and to see which other students are reading the same text and chat online to them about it. The Leicester MSc students have an app that allows them to see where other students on their course are located and make contact with them. They can also make video calls to their tutors in given time slots or they can ask written questions, with the answers then made available to other students. Twitter functionality will be built into the next iteration of the app. As one student, RAF squadron leader Julian Turner, says: "I will often be using a note-taking app, ebook reader app and mind mapping app concurrently when studying."

Mobile devices offer not just convenience and flexibility, but potentially a new way of studying. Equipped with cameras, video and sound recorders, and GPS, they enable students to become creators as well as users of information – by recording a short video for a course assessment, for example. John Traxler, professor of mobile learning at the University of Wolverhampton, says mobile technologies can be used to help undergraduates "think like scientists, to have hypotheses and test them by gathering data in the wild rather than re-enacting what Michael Faraday did 200 years ago".

It may be early days, but the potential for using mobile technologies to transform the experience of distance learning is huge. As Beck says: "Distance learning has gone from being something pretty static and lonely to something that is much more dynamic and interactive, and you can find ways to engage students in a community of learners that was quite difficult to do in the past."

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Should 'real' students do an online course on the side?

Student doing online class, mooc

Boost your cv with a mooc. Photograph: Alamy

Universities have started giving away their content free as "massive open online courses", with the satisfyingly ridiculous acronym mooc (I challenge you to say it three times with a straight face).

Eleven top UK universities recently announced they were joining the Open University to launch FutureLearn, in a bid to catch up with the elite US institutions that have led the way in teaching huge numbers online.

It all sounds great for people who, for one reason or another, can't go to a traditional university. But do moocs have anything to offer students already studying at a bricks-and-mortar institution? People like me, who hate the niggling feeling that they might be missing out on a bargain?

Well, I've signed up for a mooc in microeconomics. I did it because I'm thinking about whether to do a masters, and what to study. I'm testing my resolve: if I enjoy it enough to study in my own time, maybe I'm ready for masters. Better to find out before I hand over the money.

Why else would a university student consider a mooc? You could use it to boost CV – it shows you're motivated, you have a variety of interests and you're not struggling with your workload. Although before you sign up for 10 (I mean, they're free, right?) have a read of Leonie Veerman's blog on why you shouldn't live for your CV.

And before you can use an online course to help you get a job, employers have to learn what they are and respect them. University isn't just about what you learn but proving you know it. The only proof you did your mooc is that you clicked on "I promise not to cheat" on the honour code. This is changing though: one of the biggest mooc organisers, Coursera, is trialling facial recognition software to monitor students, and charging a small fee for verification.

Moocs are extra tuition from a different perspective. Dreading that compulsory class you know you'll suck at, the one with the 50% fail rate? Mooc to the rescue. Free preparation: better than failing and suffering the consequences to your grade point average and student loan.

Do moocs pose a threat to old school universities? Should we fear that, before we've even paid them off, traditional university degrees will go the way of floppy disks?

Probably not. As Patrick McGee writes, they are a long way from ready to replace traditional degrees. A mooc v trad uni mega-battle to the death is unlikely – instead online courses offer another option on higher education's menu of delights.

Moocs still have teething problems. A Coursera course – oh so ironically about planning online courses – crashed recently, unable to cope with the thousands of students trying to join online discussions. Moocs are limited to subjects that can be assessed with multiple choice exams, marked automatically. Written any essays in your degree? Your professor's critique of them can't be replicated by a mooc – yet.

As for me, despite not making a single friend in a cohort of 37,000, I revelled in the chance to learn what I was interested in, on my own terms. Moocs are a new take on education – and we traditional university students needn't miss out.

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