What is Ubiquitous Learning?

There is a lot of talk at the moment about Ubiquitous Learning. But what exactly is it, should we care, and how should it be implemented? This article by Edutech Associates member Nick Fekos explores these questions.

Ubiquitous computing is a model of human computer interaction in which computer processing has been integrated fully into daily activities, and also integrated into objects with which we routinely interact.  A Ubiquitous Learning Environment enables learning at any time, at any place.

Imagine you are a high school physics teacher and you are teaching concepts like gravity, friction, velocity and inertia. In a classic learning environment, you would be in your classroom with your students at a preset school period. But what if you could teach these concepts by taking your students to a soccer game or baseball game –

Origins of UL  

Mark Weiser from the Xerox PARC Lab ‘fathered’ UL more the twenty years ago. He envisioned three computer waves: mainframes which were prevalent at the time, personal desktop computers which were just appearing, and ‘Ubiquitous’ computing (also known as ‘ubicomp’), as the future. This third step is often referred to as reaching a point where the user is not aware of the computer, whatever form it has taken, but focuses only learning and the related materials.

Weiser identified three types of computer devices:

  • Wearable
  • Handheld
  • Interactive Boards

And their main characteristics would be:

  • Helpers/Servants
  • Quite and Invisible
  • User not necessarily aware of their presence, just the interaction
  • Should not demand attention

Key characteristics of Ubiquitous Learning

The main characteristics of ubiquitous learning are: (Chen et al., 2002; Curtis et al., 2002)

  • Permanency: Learning materials are always available unless purposely deleted.
  • Accessibility:  Access from everywhere as personally required
  • Immediacy:  Wherever a student is, he/she can immediately access learning materials.
  • Interactivity: Online collaboration with teachers and/or peers (chat/blogs/forums)
  • Situated instructional Activities: Learning in context (on-site).
  • Adaptability: Getting the right information at the right place for the right student.

Pedagogical Basis of UL

The main pedagogical premise of Ubiquitous Learning is related to ‘situated learning’ (see J. Lave and E. Wenger, 1991) which is a general theory of knowledge acquisition that is based on the notion that ‘true’ learning occurs in the context of real life activities. In contrast, formal classroom learning implies knowledge abstraction and decontextualization. This abstraction may not be such a problem, but learning in context (as illustrated at the beginning of the article) can certainly improve learning (as does engaging learners in authentic tasks).

Another pedagogical premise of UL would be collaborative learning (involving social interaction), again undoubtedly improving the learning process.

UL in the Context of Today’s and Tomorrow’s Technology 

Today’s technology seems to be trending towards the actualization of the original UL concepts as described by Mark Weiser.  Two out of the four essential components have already been established, and two are just now appearing as described below.

1. Mobile Devices: powerful, personal mobile communication, processing and storage devices

The proliferation of personal mobile devices, starting from smart mobile phones and currently progressing to tablets, has created an important shift in the direction of innovation as an intrinsic aspect of technology.  Perhaps not yet widely apparent in terms of the potential, but the shift has happened and is irreversible.

We now have a hardware device (a tablet) that is highly ‘personal’, similarly to how personal a mobile phone is, but much more personal than a desktop pc or a laptop.

This computing device, although in exchange for a certain degree of ‘personalization’ compared to mobile phones, is able to powerfully communicate, store, process and access information. It has the mobility and autonomy of a mobile phone, but the processing power and screen of a computer, and so it is much more suitable for broader and more fundamental use. Importantly, it provides the opportunity to move away from an ‘Angry Birds’ takeover of mobile technology

2. Cloud Computing

Cloud platforms can now provide the server side ‘omnipresent’ aspects of UL.  Any system with UL characteristics would have to be fully cloud based so as to ensure reliability and seamless scalability.  If design and development is originally geared towards maximizing efficiency by keeping required cloud power low, ‘lean’ cloud applications can be developed that can then be scaled much more powerfully, thus enabling efficient and robust UL.

Intelligent Personal Agents/Knowledge Objects

Given that we now have widespread truly mobile hardware devices, the next step is intelligent personalized software.

In order to truly implement UL and make ‘real’ use of available hardware and software platforms, the implementation of a personal knowledge object/agent that is ‘intelligent’ is essential.  Using Artificial Intelligence Techniques, this object/agent would take part in a ‘learning network’ (i.e. learn automatically) and would contain a rule base from which to make decisions.

This knowledge object/agent would model the ‘learner’ and would be dynamic.  It would have attached processes that would implement functionality like the ability to interface with other objects like itself, or to other non-intelligent objects (e.g. Word document) or to other systems (e.g. SharePoint) or devices (e.g. a telescope).

This interface functionality would be implemented using standardized file formats and access languages, like HTML5, SQL, RDF and OWL which are available today. The latter two introduce the idea of semantic processing, moving beyond the ‘text’ level into concepts and conceptual organization schemes (Ontologies).  Once we move into the conceptual processing realm (Artificial Intelligence), then very important and exciting functionality, like knowledge inference (reasoning) can be provided, which will mark a true technological turning point.

In summary, this platform independent knowledge object/agent would be the main vehicle for implementing Ubiquitous Learning (as described above) as it would know:

  • Who you are
  • Where you are
  • What device you are using
  • Dynamic skills and ability profile
  • Whether it is night or day
  • What time its
  • Who is near you
  • What devices are near you

Although seemingly too ‘futuristic’, the proliferation of wearable online devices will further the implementation of UL. A good example is Google Glasses (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Glass), with many more on the way.

A specific example

A student carrying a tablet approaches a telescope at school. The telescope ‘broadcasts’ its availability to the tablet which then informs the student of this. If the student agrees, the tablet connects to the telescope and sends information through its intelligent personal learning agent about the student, for example age, class, learning profile, interests, past projects and so on.

The telescope then transfers information that is appropriate for that particular student about itself, what it can do, and perhaps showing on the tablet screen what it is seeing right now. Also, the telescope connects to a cloud astronomy app, or to the Microsoft World Wide telescope for added experience and information.

Finally the telescope proposes a small interactive game from which it can assess the student to see what has been learned or not, and then perhaps contacting a fellow student to join the game online.

One thing is certain: the students would enjoy this, and so learning and assessment will have been achieved. This of course would be part of a broader educational strategy that would include other forms of learning, including classic learning paradigms.

Many of the pieces of the UL puzzle are now starting to fall into place, as summarised in the diagram below:

Please contact nikos@edutechassociates.net for more information.

School Technology Innovation Centre, Brussels

For the next few months I’m delighted to be able to be based out of the School Technology Innovation Centre (STIC) in Brussels. For anyone with a passion for Education Technology this is simply Nirvana!

If you can get to Brussels, put a visit to the STIC at the top of your agenda.

So what is the Brussels STIC? First of all, it’s an education area in the Microsoft Executive Briefing Centre (EBC) in Brussels – an environment dedicated to showing the full spectrum of Microsoft technologies in real-world contexts. The EBC contains a home environment with the latest in 3d television technology, full spectrum of entertainment, electronic music, and home control software. On another floor is a HP Private Cloud datacentre connected directly to the Microsoft Public Cloud in Dublin – complete with a spectrum of demos set up to show what can be achieved with Cloud computing. A large telepresence enables an “in the same room” experience with locations all over the world.

The STIC itself comprises two learning spaces packed with the latest cutting edge education technology. The STIC is run by Jacques Denies, a highly knowledgeable former teacher who is able to demonstrate a wide spectrum of applying technologies to learning scenarios.

Visitors come to the STIC from all over the world. Most visitors are senior decsion makers – for example, within a two week period the entire leadership team of the Thailand Ministry of Education and a delegation including ministers of Education from 14 African states have visited the STIC for workshops.

Finnish Minister of Education, Ms. Henna Virkkunen
European Educators Forum with EU Commissioner Fiegel and ‘DigiGirlz’

The types of activities that are hosted at the STIC range from 3 day workshops to 3 hour briefings/creative brainstorms, to competitions and award ceremonies. World class conferencing facilities and a huge range of equipment make just about any kind of workshop possible to run there.

Conferencing and workshop facilities

The technologies on display at the STIC are far too numerous to list fully here, but a sample include:

The latest in IWB and creative furniture solutions

IWB and creative furniture solutions

Classroom On Wheels


Communication and Collaboration


Assistive Technologies

Assistive Technologies

To book a visit to the STIC, contact Mike Lloyd mike@edutechassociates.net

Specific technologies on display include:

MultiPoint Server + hub (HP & NComputing)

Full spectrum of creativity and productivity desktop applications including Office 365

Windows Phone solutions

SharePoint based e-Learning environment

Assistive technologies on display include:

Ease of Access Center; ZoomIT; Kurzweil; Super Nova; Reporter; Tobii

Mouse alternatives; Specialised keyboards with trigger buttons

Partners include:

Samsung (MyPC, printers, displays)

SMART Technologies (Interactive Whiteboards – tablet)

Sanako (Classroom Management – IT-Lab)

ELearningforce Sharepoint LMS – managed learning

Neo (Mobile Class – Presenter)

OnWijs (Multi-touch applications)

ICTwijs (Assistive Technology)

Sensotec (Assistive Technology)

Putting the “i” into Singapore Schooling

With top rankings in PISA and TIMMS, Singapore is the envy of many schooling systems around the world. Whilst ICT is just one of a range of factors that affect learning outcomes, it is a key tool for meeting at least two of the four key desired outcomes of the Singapore schooling system – for all students to become self-directed and collaborative learners.

Singapore was one of the first countries in the world to have a national strategy for ICT in Schools. A succession of well-planned, funded and executed programmes focussing initially on infrastructure and training, and more recently focussing on self-directed learning – has driven effective use of ICT. For details of Singapore’s main ICT projects, see http://wp.me/P16Iyp-46

A great showcase for the effectiveness of this investment is Crescent Girls’ School, a member of the “Future School” programme, and recently awarded the status of Mentor School by Microsoft. Crescent also hosted the CRADLE conference on 1st – 3rd August.

On the surface, Crescent could be any other Secondary School, but a quick glance at the trophy cabinet next to the reception makes it clear that this school is totally committed to high performance. Crescent’s aim is to be at the forefront of harnessing technology to enhance learning outcomes. ICT is used extensively in both delivery and assessment and the school’s 1300 students each have their own Tablet PC. The goal of using ICT is to give students a degree of choice over what they learn and how they learn.

The students engage in a wide range of activities including 2D, 3D animation and robotics; multimedia production; photo-shooting and editing; and development and use of e-books. Particularly impressive is the use of Tablet PCs’ “inking” features for a range of activities including highly impressive manga artwork.

Crescent is moving towards project based learning with a series of “Integrated Secondary Curricula” programmes.

Virtual Reality is used at the school too. For example, in Geography, students experience immersive content showing erosion in a river – a concept that is much easier to grasp when viewing 3d animated rocks being swept along by the current from the perspective of the river bed.

Particularly impressive at Crescent is the way that teachers engage in the content creation process. For example, a complete suite of applications and content have been developed for the Tablet PC that not only exploits the pen and inking technologies but also address a range of different learning styles.

Taking this process further, teachers specified collaborative games to take advantage of the MultiTouch features in Windows 7 and HueLabs’ “Heumi” multitouch (Surface) devices. This means that students can now engage in a wide range of collaborative learning experiences, such as learning to write Chinese. As impressive as the technology itself is the way in which the room in which the Heumi devices are deployed. Here, in the “iCove”, strong colour coding of the devices and the seating, enable teachers to group learners according to their learning objectives.

More recently the school has introduced a biometric system that not only automatically records the students as present but takes their temperatures as they come into the school in the morning, enabling their health to be monitored.

The infrastructure that sits behind Crescent’s ICT provision is highly impressive. The infrastructure foundation is a Campus-wide wireless network with 100 Mbps Broadband. Tablet PCs are stored in steel lockers, and batteries are charged at charging stations.

Approximately 30 on-premises servers perform a range of essential back-end functions from authentication to content management. The Server infrastructure – based on a Microsoft platform – supports a rich tapestry of capabilities including:

  • i-Connect Learning Space – a role based portal for organising student’s learning and activities
  • Pearson’s Write to Learn – a system that helps “automate” the marking of essays
  • HeuX – Huelabs Classroom Management System – with lesson management, digital book library, real-time Communication and Collaboration include notes-sharing and social media; screen monitoring and broadcasting; Presence awareness; attendance; Video Conferencing
  • i-Media – content management system.
  • Interactive books

These solutions are supported by Windows Server; SQL Server; Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server; System Center; Live Communications Manager; Hyper-V and Live@Edu. Much of the learning that takes place at Crescent happens after school hours, and the Virtual Private Network enables students to have 24×7 access. It’s not uncommon to see the portal being used by students at home at 2.00AM.

Singapore schools benefit from very high quality teachers (only 10% of applicants get admitted into teacher training). This is reflected in the staff at Crescent. Principal, Mrs Eugenia Lim, supported by Chief Technology Architect for Learning, Mr Lee Boon Keng, have a highly structured and team orientated approach, underpinned by a strong focus on continuous professional development.

Every hour, the chimes of Big Ben ring across the school signifying a change of lesson. As with Cornwallis School in Kent in the UK, I was totally inspired by what I saw at Crescent but couldn’t help wondering whether a shift from time-based to a performance-based model would better fit such a technology rich approach to learning. Nonetheless, Crescent’s use of ICT is without doubt world leading.

Whilst Crescent Girls’ School is clearly a leader amongst leaders, it’s far from unique in Singapore in the way in which it innovates with technology. Singapore schools benefit from long term, consistent policy and investment in ICT in schooling. With their structured approaches, strong management and deep understanding of how ICT can make learning more effective, Singapore schools look set to continue to show the world how it’s done.

Fortunately for us all, Crescent Girls’ School are “giving back” by encouraging people to visit the school – both physically and virtually.

Thanks to Eugenia Lim, Lee Boon Keng and all the staff and students at Crescent Girl’s School.

CRADLE Conference, Singapore

On August 1st I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to deliver the Keynote at the CRADLE conference in Singapore.

The presentation contained a mix of material contained in “Schooling at the Speed of Thought” and some of the articles in this blog, especially the Transformation Phase article. Here’s the key points:



Singapore was one of the first countries in the world to have a national strategy to roll out ICT to all schools. Key challenges addressed in this initiative are to:

  • Prepare students to meet the challenges of the 21st Century
  • Bring about improved learning and increased engagement through the use of ICT
  • Enable more self-directed learning

In summary, the challenge is to make schooling in Singapore even more effective through the use of ICT.

To address this, we need to ask three key questions:

1. How can software accelerate the learning process?

Computers in learning are increasingly being used as tools for creativity rather than as machines to deliver the curriculum. So, with a proliferation of new hardware and software developments, what new creative options are there for learning? How can software help to personalise the learning experience and open up completely new learning opportunities?

2. How can software be used to make better decisions?

How can schooling information and data be leveraged to get maximum impact from precious resources; what do we mean by “intelligent intervention” and why it is so important; how can we empower all stakeholders with information; and how do we drive alignment and performance towards strategic goals?

3. How can Cloud Computing be exploited to cheaply deliver massive-scale, high-quality learning solutions?

We don’t normally expect a school to generate its own electricity – but we have expected our education institutions to be experts at running their own “IT Power Stations”. How can Cloud Computing change this?

With the advent of Cloud Computing, also comes the realistic prospect of providing anytime anywhere learning for all. So how can massive, cheap, and highly available computing services be combined with a range of access technologies and high quality learning content to open up learning opportunities to all citizens of Singapore – and especially those who are in the greatest need of it?


With highly developed infrastructure, talent and innovation, Singapore is in a great position to exploit technology even further. The concluding part of this presentation asked what world-leading innovations and software solutions can be leveraged in Singapore and how we can architect “anytime anywhere learning for all?

For a copy of the presentation please go to: http://bit.ly/pRZUMJ

Thanks to my colleages in Singapore – Horng Shya Chua; Jason Trump; Gerald Tan; Puay San Ng; Eugenia Lim, Lee Boon Keng and the staff and students at Crescent Girls’ School. Thanks also to all those who attended the CRADLE event.

The 3 Dimensions of Learning Software 2.0

When the telescope was first invented it first gave us a better view of the universe, then it gave rise to a complete new science and completely changed the way we think. The same will probably be said of software for learning. Like the telescope, the first generation of learning software was about representing the world in ever clearer ways. Like the new science that followed the telescope, we are now beginning to see a second generation of learning software which enables learners to construct their own models of the universe.

The clear trend is that learning content is moving from the book paradigm to that of social construct. New hardware and software developments, along with new understandings about learning itself, are opening up some wonderful creative options for learning software. So what then are the principles that we should consider when thinking about new learning software?

1. Make Learning Immersive

The first principle of making learning immersive, therefore, is that Creation Trumps Consumption. Let’s illustrate this with some examples:

Imagine you were learning about the Elements in Chemistry. What do you think would lead to you learn more – 1. Using a software package that illustrates the Elements, and shows what the content provider knows or 2. developing content to explain what you know about the Elements to other people?

Most would agree that you would learn more from 2. because this pushes you to do much more than merely consume what someone else has done for you.

New possibilities for content creation are rapidly evolving. Take drawing and painting, for example. Exploiting large multitouch screen technology to create pictures using Corel Paint it touch or Art rage – or using a pen to work with Photoshop on a Tablet PC – are examples of extending traditional creative skills. 

Mind-mapping, considered by many as a core creative technique, is made a lot more productive when you can manipulate the components easily – something that’s difficult to do on paper. MindV not only enables virtual brainstorming but brings in elements such as video, which takes the technique way beyond what was previously possible. For more technically orientated mind-mapping, Visio enables mind-maps to be converted into a range of technical and business objects.

And how can new development extend writing? Here’s a great example of how a student doctor has transformed hand written notes into text using OneNote, and then developed a mindmap. The Tablet PC offers a terrific ‘sandbox’ for ideation, and creative sketching and inking is great for developing thoughts. InkSeine, for example, is a prototype that can be used as an ink-based search and multimedia notebook tool.  

“Surface” applications open up a vast range of creative possibilities for music making – e.g. take a look at Touch Tones.

Digital games can improve learning through co-construction, collaboration, communication and creativity. Again, creation trumps consumption though. Imagine you were given the task of learning about random numbers – you could play this random number generator game, but you’d learn much more through building a game that generated random numbers, using Excel perhaps. For entry level game creation, take a look at this wonderful collection of games which were built using just PowerPoint. A good example of a game building environment for children is Scratch, and Kodu takes gaming to the next level, enabling children to design games that can be run on the X-Box.

Learning Software 2.0 will have increasingly natural interfaces. Voice, pen, touch, gesture, physical movement etc. are all becoming common ways to work with ICT.

We experience the world in high definition sound and vision, so when building models of the world, learners expect high degrees of realism, including 3D graphics. Texas Instrument’s 3D projection DLP chip and 3D content from the likes of Designmate is bringing affordable 3D learning experiences into the classroom. 3D visualisation tools make complex analysis easier – this example, shows how 3D movements can be tracked and visualised.

Simulation is another area where progress is happening quickly. For example, look at this “Animated Laws of Physics” application. One company specialising in simulation software is Crocodile Clips, and their Yenka product range fully exploits 3D modelling, as does the Microsoft Math

Another key feature of Learning Software 2.0 is that it engages all learning styles – Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic.  

Logo has long been used to connect computers to “floor robots”, so its great to see Focus Educational’s award winning “BeeBot” breathing new life into this area, and engaging all learning styles in the process. BeeBot supports the teaching of literacy, numeracy and sequencing skills through on-screen simulation and uses child friendly 3D software and fun-to-use robots.

Award winning Mantra Lingua not only has a wonderful set of bilingual audio books – like this one – that combine rich graphics with spoken word for foreign language learning, but they have also combined traditional print media with a “talking pen”, combining visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles.

Addressing auditory learning styles is Speech Recognition in Windows 7. Whilst voice can be recorded directly into OneNote and PowerPoint, the latter now enables users to turn a slide deck into a narrated video.

So how can we use learning software to help develop children’s motor skills or their spatial intelligence? In this example, Bing Maps is being used with Kinect to combine kinaesthic and auditory learning styles. 

The use of, and ability to create and customise, virtual characters – avatars – will be a key ingredient in the next generation of learning software. An award winning application for foreign language learning is EMAS UK’s Talking Tutor which uses avatars to translate and speak back written text. Another award winning web service that exploits avatars is Mylo.  

Also expect to see more software solutions that exploit gyroscopic motion and location aware computing.

2. Collaborative Learning Experiences

Learning is a social construct and children already widely exploit social networking, mobile telephony, Instant Messaging and multi-user gaming outside school.

Within the classroom context IWBs such as the The ActivBoard 500 Pro series are enabling some great learning experiences.  

Interactive Classroom extends the traditional teacher to student model, and opens up possibilities for students to lead the learning too. Churchend and Torfaen Schools provide good examples of how Surface can be exploited for classroom based collaborative learning.

However, the promise of virtual collaborative learning beyond the classroom is rapidly taking off too.  

Online tutoring, homework help, and managed learning – e.g. tutor.com; Cramster.com and mymaths.co.uk, are examples of this.

A great example of an online learning community is this community generated music tuition.  

Another simple but powerful idea is this online shared-note software from Clever Software. Taking this a step further, OneNote enables collaboration on pages that can contain a full range of media from hand-written text to video – OneNote now also synchronises to SkyDrive opening up a world of possibilities for collaboration beyond the classroom.

Cloud technologies will accelerate the growth of solutions in this area. For example, Office 365 for Education – with tools such as Lync – will greatly extend the collaboration capabilities of Office.

3. Intelligent Intervention

So innovation is flourishing in two of our three dimensions – making learning immersive and collaborative. The less sexy, but vital ingredient, which is yet to be integrated fully into Learning Software 2.0 is Intelligent Intervention – decision support, or automated learning guidance.

Learning software tends to get developed in isolation by competing companies. There are great tools out there for analysing how students are learning, but not much innovation and development in the area of bringing these things together to monitor and report on learning across multiple pieces of learning software. Imagine the following scenario – a child in any one day, plays a game, constructs some e-learning content, gets that content reviewed, uses productivity tools, and collaborates with others outside the school. A lot of learning may have happened, but there isn’t a way yet to automatically track all this learning activity.

The reason this is important is because formal learning should be managed. In schools, it’s not sufficient to just give children access to learning software and hope that learning will happen. Whilst VLEs and MLEs have been around for years, they don’t yet join all the dots.

Therefore, a requirement for Learning Software 2.0 is that it isn’t just implemented in individual packets, but rather as a part of a larger, connected ecosystem. Learning Software 2.0 will need to plug into other systems that enable teachers and/or other software to guide and make decisions about what children need to learn next. For now, though, teachers and children themselves will have to use a mix of methods to capture what has been learned, and make decisions about what needs to be learned next.

There are, however, some interesting developments in this space that are worth exploring. Eportfolios have been around for a very long time, but new developments by the likes of elearningforce are extending what can be done with them. And there’s SRM – CRM for “Student Relationship Management” – take a look at the new lookred video on their homepage to get a good example of CRM enabled data drive decision making.

Parental engagement is proven to have a big positive impact on children’s learning, and schools need to get VLEs and MIS to work together for effective parental engagement. A good example of this is SIMS Learning Gateway. Also, take a look at this example of how software can be used to make regular academic reviews at West Hatch school more effective.

Finally, its great to see one of the biggest challenges in introducing ICT in schooling being tackled – examinations! For years, sceptics have argued that whilst examinations are paper-based, ICT in schooling is a pointless investment. In answer to that, about 6,000 students in Norway recently took exams on their laptops in a trial that could soon be rolled out across the country.

How do You Want to Learn Tomorrow?

We are getting some glimpses of how far we can push learning technology, e.g. 4d learning which uses an immersive environment with 3D content, children can walk through the human body in full 3D. In a realisation of the 4th wall – a science fiction concept – we’re seeing “wall” solutions appear – eg Adobe Interactive Installation and this Music Wall. Other developments, such as this ball-bearing sequencer show how combining two or more simple techniques can produce completely new types of learning experience. 

Thankfully, human beings are capable of more thoughts than there are particles in the universe, so the development of new ways of learning are increasingly limited only by what we can imagine.