Thursday, 21 October 2004

The Buntine Oration: Learning Networks - 0

I finally have a quick read of the remarkable, inspiring piece by Stephen Downes. His talk has given me plenty of things to think and reflect on. I intend to write a series of posts to document my thinking and reflection triggered by this piece.

I have a career life, with some different twists and turns, quite similar to Stephen. Like him, I am

a learning technologist, a researcher, a sometime programmer, a speaker and writer, and a passionate believer in the value and importance of education.

However, I would like to start this series of posts by paying salute to four of my former brilliant students. What happened almost 20 years ago have changed my life and my view. These four gentlemen are now very successful in their career and making significant contributions to the world. If they read my blog, they will know I am referring to them.

It was near the summer holiday and they have just finished their certificate of education examination. They came back to school and visited me. We had our usual chat, covering computing, physics and anything that interested us. Then I suggested that I would like to build a local area network for Apple II which our school had previously purchased. That little suggestion started a project in the summer and we built a local area network for Apple II.

One of them, Yiu, designed a circuit board with diodes and resistors which plugged into Apple II's game port and interface in parallel with other similar boards connected by a 4-core cable.

Another, ChongFish, wrote the communication kernel, in machine language. The kernel triggers the voltage of the wires. He used CPU clock cycle to do the timing. NOP was added to delay the change of voltage if necessary. This is a remarkable piece of software and we achieved the lightning fast speed of 56K baud - much faster than the reading speed of the available floppy disk at that time.

Another, Lau, wrote a network filing system from scratch. His filing system handled users account, user storage as well as communication between machines.

The local area network would not have fun if it was not "playable". We added "novice" programmability to the system by extending the Applesoft Basic. Yes, that part was written by the fourth guy.

We have fun throughout the summer. The most important change to me is that I deleted the word "impossible" from my vocabulary and added "network" to my 100 most frequently used words.

Things changed from this point onward. I later had the opportunity to wrote a teacher support system for supporting schools from a central location. TeleNex, the name of the system, has many features similar to today's web-based learning systems. When I came to Australia, I have the privilege to work for EdNA for a couple of years (part-time) and do some work in early IEEE efforts in learning object metadata. Today, one of my companies represents the first SCORM-compliant certified LMS (WebMentor) here in Australia and New Zealand. Hence I am also heavily involved with SCORM (and recently SCORMplayer).

The line between a teacher and a student is thin, very thin indeed. I think I learnt more from the Apple II local area network project than my students. Although this project had helped some of them to secure scholarship they desperately needed at the time, the impact on me is greater than on them. Today, I am as much a student as yesterday, yesteryear or decades ago. Learning has never ceased and will never stop.

My current work is more focused on "structured" formal learning. This is where Stephen and myself may differ. This will be reflected in the coming posts. Tomorrow, I shall reflect on what I called "co-operation of subject gateways" and what Stephen called "federated search".

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