Category Archives: Technology

The Digital Education Revolution

Over the next six years, the federal government will inject $2.2B into the Digital Education Revolution (DER)program.

  • provide senior high school students (year 9-12) with laptops
  • provide schools with broadband ($100M)
  • provide online education resources ($32.6M)
  • train teachers in utilising ICT
  • support parents through learning and access

Of these initiatives, the vast majority of the funds ($2.1B) will be spent on the National Secondary School Computer Fund (aka laptops for students). The aim is to achieve one laptop per child by 2012. The actual implementation of the program has been deferred to state governments.

The NSW DET has provided a resource for ‘head teachers’ to assist with the transitions relating to the DER.

Over the next four years, the NSW government will inject $158M into the Connected Classrooms Program (CCP).

On a side note, these sites (specifically the NSW DET resource were absolutely appalling. Both in terms of high and low level information design, this site is one of the worst I have seen in quite a while. The mix of video segments and basic hypertext documents is interesting, but feels clunky and confusing.

David Merrill says I can be his research bitch (Yay!)

One of my upcoming assessments is to choose a technology (inc. PowerPoint, Excel, Animation tools or web development) to create a small computer-based learning tool. The idea is that based on your level of experience with things geeky, you can create a self-directed project that is interesting but achievable.

Feeling that I have done quite enough PowerPoint and Excel in the last fifteen years to give me a pretty good handle on them, I have decided to ask the course coordinator if I can do something a little different. My first choice would be to do some original research/thinking into how Siftables could be integrated into the classroom. I thought it would be wise to see if any similar work had been done, and if the people actually working on the technology (now being commercialised within a venture called Sifteo) thought it would be worthwhile.

Within 24 hours, David Merrill actually wrote back to me! Now all I need to do is convince my course coordinator that it is a worthwhile endeavour…

Hi Brett,

Thanks for getting in touch. We have done some investigations in the past about the types of educational material that Siftables would support best — but not anything as comprehensive as a full analysis / report. If you're interested to dig into that, feel free to proceed — we'd be happy to learn the results! Mapping the connections to curriculum, and storyboards about the types of interactions that would support the material, would be particularly interesting.


 -David M.

On Tue, Mar 2, 2010 at 4:03 AM, Brett Rolfe <> wrote:

Hi Sifteo team,

After following the groundswell of interest in the Siftables project triggered by your TED talk I was very excited to hear you guys have put together a commercialisation venture – awesome stuff!

I am currently a postgraduate student in Australia studying teaching (focusing on the first few years of schooling) – unsurprisingly I am very interested in the application of Siftables (and similar technologies) as flexible interactive learning tools. I presume you have a lot of interest at the moment, and are no doubt receiving many (and varied) requests, inquiries and suggestions!

What I am curious to know is whether you (or anyone you have been in touch with) has reviewed the relevant literature on learning/schooling and written an overview of the ways that Siftables could potentially be deployed into classrooms given current best practice thinking? As I see it, this could be on an 'overall potential' level, or on a more detailed 'where is it appropriate, and what applications would be relevant' level.

This is an area I would be very interested in exploring over the next few months as part of my course if you feel it is a productive field of investigation. If not (for whatever reason), I would be very interested to hear any other areas you feel would benefit from some form of academic review or analysis with respect to school use of this technology.



Brett Rolfe

Aids to Computer-Based Multimedia Learning (Mayer & Moreno)

So I started out all excited about this reading, and then quickly realised it was a little bit ‘not exactly rocket science’ territory. Having said that, it’s sometimes nice to see some robust research (ignoring sample size concerns) that reinforce a model which I probably would have accepted at face value.

In essence, Mayer and Moreno provide a five-point plan for building audiovisual explanations to teach concepts (for example, consider the awesome recent YouTube clip explaining the credit crisis). By drawing on some pretty straightforward cognitive psychology (mainly around the issue of ‘cognitive load’) they posit and then find supporting data for the claims that…

  • you should use present the explanation using both words and pictures (multiple representation principle)
  • you should present the words and pictures at the same time (coherence principle)
  • you should not include extraneous material as it uses up cognitive processing bandwidth (coherence principle)
  • you should present words as auditory rather than written, otherwise they use up visual processing bandwidth (modality principle)
  • you should not supplement the auditory narration with written text for the same reason (redundancy principle)

So, fairly obvious if you were thinking about it from a cognitive load point of view, but a couple of counterintuitive ones in there if you are approaching it from a ‘more is better’ or ‘add some interesting bells and whistles’ point of view.

Obviously, I’m really curious about taking this type of research-based approach into more interactive, and technologically recent types of environments. Perhaps more of that in the weeks to come. One of our assignments is to develop a multimedia piece, drawing on these guidelines. Given that the aim of the assignment is for us to build skills, I am tempted to look at creating an explanation using augmented reality and 3D modelling. Just for fun 😉

Changing How and What Children Learn in School with Computer-Based Technologies (Roschelle, Pea, Hoadley, Gordin & Means)

Back in 2000, Jeremy Roschelle and colleagues published this review of research to date into computer-based technology in schools. While comprehensive, the article skews heavily toward considering more progressive applications, and away from ways that computers were being used to support repetitive drills and other more traditional pedagogic approaches.

They note that research results have been inconclusive for a number of reasons;

  • wide variety of specific pieces of hardware and software being used
  • blurring of the effect of technology and other concurrent reforms within schools
  • lack of decent longitudinal studies.

Following from the title of the paper, the authors look first at how computer use in schools relates to a number of findings from cognitive research into learning (the 'how'), and then provide a brief review of the application of computers to a number of different subject domains (the 'what').

In terms of cognition, they assert (drawing on examples) that computers can provide excellent learning support as suitable software applications can create learning environments that;

  • actively engage the student
  • facilitate group participation
  • provide interaction and rapid feedback
  • are related to real-world contexts

In terms of subject matter, they discuss applications in

  • science (primarily interactive modelling and visualisation tools)
  • mathematics (again, dynamic interfaces for visualising abstract ideas)
  • 'social studies, language and the arts' (briefly mentioning applications that move students from being appreciators to creators)

The authors identify developing teachers' skills, revisiting assessment, modernising curricula, and creating cultures of change as critical challenges to introducing these types of technologies into schools.

What I found most intriguing about the paper was the repeated assertion that various applications had dramatically improved students abilities to comprehend concepts and their application, but had limited impact on more traditional test scores. In one typical case students 'scored about the same on standardised math tests, but showed significant improvement in their ability to solve complex problems'. Beyond the initial question of 'Can our tests really be that crap?' This raised several thoughts for me;

if certain applications can improve conceptual understanding and application, but not fact recall and rote procedure, then clearly we need to think clearly about the two as different domains of knowledge

if we think about the limited time available for learning, then focusing time on 'conceptual learning' will necessarily impact our 'fact recall' achievement

this has probably been one of the key reasons that institutions have not pushed harder in this area, as it was not being suitably measured by their KPIs

if we take it that conceptual knowledge is more valuable than rote knowledge, any institution that starts to adopt this type of teaching (including but not limited to this kind of technology use in class) will suffer apparently poor performance by widely established metrics

an institution trying these methods will need to convince parents that test scores are not the primary objective, and will ideally have to work with those institutions that students will move on to (high schools or universities etc.) in order to give them an understanding as to how the true merit of the students should be judged

The issue was raised eloquently by Postman and Weingartner in their strident 'Teaching as a Subversive Activity', when they acknowledge the impact that the critical analytic approach they take to education will have on students' standardised test scores.

Beyond test scores and implementational challenges, Roschelle and his co-authors struck a chord with me when they point out that, at the end of the day, '[t]ime spent preparing students to do well on numerical calculation tests, vocabulary, or English mechanics cannot be spent on learning about acceleration, the mathematics of change, or the structure of Shakespeare's plays.'

On a side note, the description of the ThinkerTools application intrigued me enough to go see what they have been up to over the past decade. Looks like US Berkeley continued tinkering with their tools, but have been very quiet since about 2006 sadly, and no downloadable applications are available. 🙁

Another area I am keen to explore (and a big hello to you, Ben), is the use of simulations of complex systems to teach concepts without the underlying maths (p.87 of the paper). In particular, the paper by Resnick, 'Turtles, termites and traffic jams: Explorations in massively parallel microworlds' sounds intriguing. 

Harnessing social media flash-fads

Kate @ Stickywood recently invited me to write a guest post for her blog, talking about branded content. Unable to resist any soapbox opportunity (thanks Kate ;), I thought it might be fun to think about the opportunity that transitory digital 'micro-fads' present to brands…

Alright, who's old enough to remember 'All Your Base Are Belong to Us'? Back in 2001, AYBABTU was one of the first 'internet memes', fads based on creating, sharing and remixing content around a specific idea or theme. Since then we've seen everything from dancing hamsters and leet-speaking cats to Diet Coke+Mentos cocktails and the comeback of the most exciting and dynamic musical genius of recent times.
Digital media and the internet have provided us with easy means to make our own digital content and remix content from other sources. The advent of online communities and social networks has dramatically increased the ease with which we can share this material.

These technological facilities have fuelled our passion for participative fads. Driven by the desire to share rituals, to have a sense of belonging and purpose (however transitory and apparently superficial), we seek out new social content and forms of social play. The speed with which we can discover and exploit novelty has increased with each new form of social technology, compressing the adoption curve until we now move from inception through cool to lame in a matter of weeks if not days.

The integration of creative facility with social connection in digital platforms like facebook, MySpace and flickr allows anyone to spark a social fad that might be picked up and spread to social circles far beyond their own. Some time back it became all the rage to tag inanimate objects as your friends in facebook. More recently flickr and facebook have become home to a plethora of fake album covers created based on a simple random process. If you feel the urge to share a little something of yourself, you might alternately like to upload a photo of the books you keep beside the bed.

The important thing about each of these flash-fads is that not only are they interesting to participate in passively (are people actually still reading Nicholas Negroponte, at bedtime no less?), they are almost as easy to participate in actively. Perhaps the most challenging thing is to identify those things that have not yet climbed to the dizzying heights of fad-dom, and predict which have the qualities that will capture the imaginations of thousands of followers. In a recent glimpse into a facebook profile (hi Greer!), I stumbled across a remixed Mr Men graphic where you can tag each character as one of your friends… I'd never seen it before, but watch this space.

These faddish spaces provide a rich, fertile territory that is reminiscent of Barthes' notion of a ‘writerly text’, constantly open to interpretation and engagement. It is little wonder, then, that they are so appealing to communications professionals looking for vectors through which to deliver brand meaning. Those who remember cherishing their Coke yoyo will appreciate how powerful a tool these trend-based vectors can be. But what role can (and should) a brand play, in this environment? Where are brands welcome (and even invited), and where will their involvement be perceived as intrusive and unwanted?

There are perhaps three different points that a brand can become involved in a flash-fad, determined by what point the fad is at when the brand engages. Asking which point a brand should become involved is an important question, as different brands have different appetites for innovation. As Grant McCracken discusses in ’Flock and Flow’, some brands thrive on the cutting edge of trends, others are more at home with the mass consumption of the late majority. Misunderstanding the nature of a brand, or leaping onto a flash-fad at the wrong point can be detrimental to the image of the brand and its relationship with consumers.

For most brands, the most obvious approach with flash-fads is 'jumping on the bandwagon', getting aboard a fad-in-progress, and riding the wave to mass popularity. The challenge here is timing and brand fit – if you can locate a suitable trend, the window of opportunity is often narrower than marketing departments need to deploy a campaign. More ambitious is creating your own fad, wading into the murky social waters and sparking your own outrageously successful participative trend. History does not record the many (many) failures, but examples like Burger King's Simpsonize Me show that it can be done.

An interestingly post-modern twist is the option of critically re-interpreting (or remixing) a trend that has already moved through the innovation cycle. Public imagination was captured by Improv Everywhere's mass performance happening Frozen Grand Central. The act was clearly the inspiration for the less-than-inspiring promotional stunt for the launch of M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening in Australia. That effort felt derivative, and in every way 'less' than the original. A much more engaging spin was T-Mobile's tongue-in-cheek dance commercial which remixed and responded to the original in an innovative and imaginative way.

With the creative and connective power of digital technology only likely to increase, it seems inevitable that flash-fads will become more common, faster, and more highly refined. The rewards for brand successfully engaging with these trends are real, but they are limited by the difficulty of meshing with unpredictable social mass behaviour, and ultimately by the speed with which such fads will fade from social consciousness.

How Much to Pay for Digital, Where to Spend it and Who to Get for the Job

I can'te believe it – I was in Marketing magazine last month and I didn't pick up a copy. My mother is going to be mortified! Interesting article with some interesting opinions – very broad overview of the digital agency space.

Here's an excerpt from the article, by Kylie Flavell (Marketing, March 2009, p.26)

Kylie Flavell: What types of things should a marketer be wary about and question from a digital agency?

Brett Rolfe: Everything. It’s sad, but the complex nature of the technology combined with the occasionally cowboy nature of the industry has meant that many clients feel they can’t be expected to understand what the agency is doing, and fear they will look foolish for asking and challenging. If that is the atmosphere an agency has created, you are working with the wrong agency. If you are struggling with an agency, bring in someone you trust – internal or external – to sense check what the agency is saying, to act as a digital translator. Sometimes the problem will simply be that many smaller digital agencies may not have the skills to explain things in marketing-centric language. Other times, the lack of communication may be more malicious.

KF: Marketers are faced with the option of going in-house, using boutique agencies, larger creative agencies, or even some 17-year-old freelancer who works from their bedroom. Are any of these options better or riskier than others?

BR: The difficulty is that it is often the niche agencies and 17-year-olds who can deliver the most innovative and surprising work. For that reason, many clients are exploring the idea of using agencies that can own the strategy and the big idea, but then bring in the best skills to fit any particular problem.

KF: In 2008 Online spend did not match eyeballs in the space – where do you see things heading in 2009?

BR: Eyeballs is a misleading term – it suggests that digital is a big broadcast channel just waiting for us to shove advertising into it. Eyeballs reading their emails, eyeballs playing video games, eyeballs reading their friends’ Facebook status – these aren’t the same as eyeballs sitting in front of primetime TV. One of the things holding back digital marketing is our insistence on viewing it through the lens of media that has gone before it, as Marshall McLuhan warned. Things are heading into ever-stranger territory – from social media and collaborative creativity to augmented reality and mobile gaming. Understanding how these technologies can be harnessed will require marketers and agencies to bring together diverse technical and cultural insight with sound communication strategy – but then, that’s the way it’s always been, really. 

A three channel model for digital communication

Ironically, one of the real barriers to innovative marketing is the whole existence of ‘digital’ as a category. The idea of ‘digital’ makes little or no sense from the perspective or either consumers or a marketers. The messy amalgam of technologies that we call ‘digital’ has been lumped together simply because they are a set of communication touch-points that share common technical infrastructure, often require similar executional skill-sets and have emerged at roughly the same time. Given this, it’s no surprise that there is considerable confusion and disappointment when media planners and marketers get excited about ‘the digital channel’.

Many of the more progressive marketers out there have realised that digital is a nonsensical category, and have drilled down to talk in much greater detail. They talk about podcasting, iPhone applications, twitter feeds and streaming pre-rolls. By pointing out that ‘digital is not one channel, but thousands’, we are suddenly in a complex, technically specific environment that makes it almost impossible to build clear, integrated strategies.

I believe that by finding a middle ground between these two extremes, we can create a notion of ‘digital channels’ that is more consumer-centric that the monolithic view, but also more strategically useful that the fragmented view. For simplicity, we might think about digital in terms of three channels; mobile, online, and digital out of home (DOOH). This is a useful model as each of the three channels creates a different sort of engagement with the consumer, providing different opportunities for marketers.

The mobile channel consists of all of those touch-points that are delivered through devices we carry around with us – mobile phones, personal media players, portable gaming consoles and so on. The channel incorporates touch-points as diverse as SMS messaging, mobile in-game advertising, and video-blogging. These can often provide connection with consumers regardless of time and location, but these devices are highly personal and marketers need to understand the value exchange involved in getting this close. The online channel is what most marketers think of when they talk about ‘digital’. Online describes all those activities we conduct while ‘in front of a computer’ – whether that be at home, at work, or somewhere else. The ‘digital out of home’ channel (DOOH) is a fascinating space that is emerging as more and more of the devices around us become digital, networked and interactive. From digital billboards and in-store screens to kiosks and transit media, DOOH presents an increasing array of places to engage the consumer in varying types of public space.

While it’s reasonably straightforward deciding what technologies and tactics sit within each channel, there are obviously grey areas. As mobile phones become more ‘computer-like’ and laptops become more ‘hyper-portable’, the categories blur. As we begin to be able to communicate between our mobile phone and a digital billboard, the categories interact. For the most part however, the three channel model provides a clear first step toward strategically planning communication activity that looks beyond the desire to ‘do something digital’, and identifies the basic nature of the roles to be played by digital within a broader communication strategy.

(cross-posted at the Naked blog)

@brettrolfe isn’t sure yet

So, after years of holding out, I finally succumbed to opening a Twitter account last week (you win, @KateRichardson). I’ve always felt that I was missing the point, and so eventually realised that the only way to change that was to give it a go. I’m giving it two weeks – if I still can’t see the point, at least I can say I tried.

The most interesting thing so far has been trying so hard not to sound like a noob. Twitter is such a public forum, and given that I flatter myself that some people credit me with a modicum of digital savvy, I find myself terribly paranoid of posting ‘those tweets’. You know, the ones where you post a tweet about not knowing what you should tweet about. The one were you post about the collision of personal and celebrity identities in the same channel. The tweet where you ask everyone what the best iPhone app for tweeting is (ok, I caved and posted that one – and thanks Aaron for your advice).

Out of interest, my two favourite ‘people I am following’ (damn, need to find out the Twitter-ese for that) are @darthvader and @Odd_World – which is odd, given that twitter is all about authentic real people.

Digital’s Live Connection, Digital Media (Asia)

A while back I spoke to Sarah Yin, a journalist who was writing about the use of digital to create real-world connections for Digital Media (Asia). Interesting article, came out in March. Apparently this is what I said;

“Digital is a wonderful environment to foster word-of-mouth,” says Brett Rolfe, a director at Naked Communications in Sydney. “It can make it easier to find audiences that you wouldn’t find easily in the real world, and you can be more tailored in your digital communications.”

However, Rolfe warns that digital media can only act effectively in this sort of campaign when clients are clear about two things: who the audience is, and whatmessage they want to communicate.

“We feel that what you should be doing with any communications problem is identifying touchpoints where you want to relate to the consumer. This is entirely influenced by what your product is, who your consumers are and what objectives you have at that point,” says Rolfe.

Yeah, sounds like me. You can check out the full issue here.