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Interview with To Vhma X-RAM magazine,
July 2001

1. There are voices arguing that e-learning is not going to be the big business of the digital era. What do you think?

I hope these voices are right! New businesses will surely emerge: online music for example, or perhaps new payment methods to ease the costs of transition to the Euro. But I would hate it if e-learning were to become as big a business as say Amazon is now. It will seem paradoxical that I say this, because I worked on a big Web application for teaching economics called Virtual Economy, and we have set up a business, Virtual Worlds, to do more work of this kind. So how can I want to run a business where I want no business?

My ideal was demonstrated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when they announced this April that they would make their courses freely available on the Web. This is a stunning amount of material: lecture notes, reading lists and exercises for over 2000 courses from engineering to sociology. I copied a quote from their president: "With the content posted for all to use, it will provide an extraordinary resource, free of charge, which others can adapt to their own needs. We see it as source material that will support education worldwide, including innovations in the process of teaching and learning itself.". He talks about how this will help developing countries. Isn't that superb?

Virtual Economy is free too, so anybody can access a wealth of information about the lives of the great economists, theories of unemployment, the economic effects of Income Tax, ... plus an interactive economic model that allows you to understand taxes and interest rates by changing them and observing the effect on growth, inflation and unemployment. Make your own boom-bust cycle! I am writing this on June 7th, the day of our General Election: try out the policies of William Hague or Tony Blair for yourself: thengo and vote.

If we believe in democracy, it's necessary that the public understand the effects of their governments' economic policies. Web-based programs like Virtual Economy can teach these vividly, and without the difficulty of travelling across land and water to bookshop or public library. But if people have to shovel coins into a box on the side of their PC before they can access these programs, we inhibit their use and we inhibit public education. To quote MIT again: "The plan will counter concerns about the privatization of knowledge. Many universities see the Internet as a way to deliver revenue-generating distance education. But making course information freely available will build on the MIT tradition of open dissemination of educational materials and innovations in teaching.". E-learning must not become a business in the sense that it charges at the point of use.

On the other hand, I need to eat while programming my HTML tables and Java servlets. So as a public good, e-learning should be funded by taxes through the national research councils, and from educational trusts. This is how it was with Virtual Economy (paid for by the Nuffield Foundation) and is with MIT.

2. Can you give us an example of a successful on-line teaching scheme in the UK? Was this cost effective?

I'd say Virtual Economy is successful. We didn't measure cost-effectiveness though, we just went ahead because it was fun. How might we estimate this? Well, there are two versions of Virtual Economy. One is on the Bristol University "Business in Education" server; the other at BBC News Online, where it is used every year to help the public understand the Budget. Together, they have been run about 400,000 times. It must be the most-used economic model in the world! Now, Nuffield gave us £40,000, and there was another £6,000 to port it to the BBC site. Do the division, and you get a cost of 12p per run. That seems pretty cost-effective to me.

However, different applications must be judged in different ways. In e-learning, we talk about Virtual Learning Environments. These are systems which give the teacher methods for monitoring and communicating with students (for example through various kinds of chat program) and for programming interactive assessments, e.g. by multiple-choice questions. Because Virtual Economy does not have these monitoring and assessment facilities, it is not a VLE - though it could be made part of one.

VLEs take more effort to develop. For example, Oxford University has two successful e-learning courses, in Local History and in Computing. I have some figures from an expert there, Jonathan Darby. He estimates the typical cost of developing a course to be £250,000, of which £160,000 is staff costs and the rest is software licenses, servers, and overheads such as accomodation. Much more than Virtual Economy, but the Oxford courses are different. They offer a qualification - an Advanced Diploma - and are paid for by the student, to be taken one unit at a time over a year. There are a variety of media types: for example, the Local History course uses QuickTime VR to display historic buildings in 3D. So they're more complicated.

Also, Virtual Economy requires very little maintenance. We look after its Web server, and every year we update its economic baseline with new information from the Treasury. But these are small costs. With a VLE on the other hand, you have the constant overhead of the tutors who are working on-line with the students. Jonathan Darby estimates this at about £700 per student per year. I've heard that the only on-line courses where these costs can be recovered are postgraduate (Masters or MBA) ones; there are no cost-effective courses for schools or undergraduates.

3. It seems that advanced e-learning requires some intelligence in its software. It also requires security and privacy. What do you think are the limits of the Web technologies with respect to security, privacy and intelligence?

I'm not worried about privacy. It should, for example, be impossible for a student to steal another students' marks unless the administrator has done something incredibly stupid, like storing them in a plain text file under the public Web-page directory. But probably the VLE doesn't store marks in any manner that's easy to read, and wouldn't permit the administrator to configure the system so stupidly. Some people worry about teenage geniuses tapping into the phone lines and intercepting passing credit-card numbers - or classmates' exam answers. Frankly, the chance of snooping any worthwhile information this way is too remote to be worth the bother. Anybody who manages it deserves a high grade - not in the topic being assessed, but in Computer Science.

Viruses and worms are little threat, as long as the system administrator keeps up with new patches and security programs. What is serious is Denial of Service attacks, where a malicious hacker bombards a Web server with thousands of bogus emails or requests for Web pages. This will slow it down, and it may crash: something that's happened to Microsoft, Amazon, and even the computer-security centre Cert. The only way to overcome this is to persuade all Internet Service Providers to install new routers that reject bogus data packets; in the meantime, such attacks could be a problem, especially for well-known universities.

By far the most interesting subject is intelligence. Let me illustrate. Imagine a language-teaching VLE, where students are tested by being given sentences to translate. How well could the computer assess their answers? Well, let's imagine these are English students learning French. And imagine that one of the sentences is: "The City Councillors banned the women from parading because they feared violence". Now, in English, the pronoun "they" has no gender. But in French, it does: "ils" for masculine, "elles" for feminine. So for the phrase "they feared violence", which should you choose? Most people would say "ils", because we assume the Councillors are the ones doing the fearing, and the default assumption is that they're masculine.

But now change the verb so the sentence becomes "The City Councillors banned the women from parading because they advocated violence". Our knowledge of the world tells us it's not the Councillors doing the advocating; it's the women. So the pronoun becomes "elles".

The point is that on the surface, both sentences have the same structure. The only way you can realise that the meaning changes from one to the other is by applying the vast knowledge of the real world that you've built up over your lifetime. As well as e-learning, I work in Artificial Intelligence, and I do believe that one day computers will be able to handle such subleties. But they certainly cannot at the moment, and it may take 50 or 100 years before they can.

Such difficulties arise everywhere, even in that most objective of subjects, mathematics. Of course, when testing a student at arithmetic, this is easy. If a maths VLE asks an 8-year old what 10-6 is, it can have no doubt that the answer is 4. But in more advanced mathematics, the teacher must look not only at the answer but at how the student derived it, and must be able to comprehend and criticise his proofs. We are nowhere near software that can do this. To sum up, the limiting factor in our e-learning technologies is our ability to replace the teacher in assessing the student. We just will not be able to do this until we can write programs with the same breadth of knowledge and styles of thinking as a human. So when designing your VLE, realise you still need teachers, and treat them with respect.

4. What is the role of the mass media in promoting public awareness of science and education? You have worked for the BBC; could you say something about its role?

It depends on the medium. The tabloids don't know science exists: you might find a page-long feature on "20 Reasons to Believe in Astrology" or a gosh-wow column on the apricot-and-spinach miracle diet that will make us all live to 100. The broadsheets publish weekly supplements on science and computing: four or five pages on each. The science features can be interesting, although the computer news tends to get bogged down in details of particular operating systems, compatibility issues, and political events such as the Microsoft anti-trust trials. At the moment, I see numerous articles about why Britain is so far behind in high-speed Internet links compared to countries like Germany, Australia and the US. This is important for the uptake of e-learning, of course.

Britain also has one weekly science journal, New Scientist. Good book reviews; amusing opinion pieces on the traumas of underpaid academic life; interesting mini-features on new discoveries and events; but the main features can be terribly uninformative, especially when about chaos, quantum theory, and other topics in mathematics or cosmology. They talk in generalities about not very much, and tend to be illustrated with big crudely-coloured pictures of distorted people amid a whirl of mathematical symbols which make one feel that the artist is fast approaching schizophrenia. Given the cost of printing and distribution, these are an odd way to waste paper; but very few science writers understand how to popularise mathematics.

The BBC has two to three hours per week of regular science and technology programs on both radio and TV, as well as a lot of information on its News Online site. There's occasional coverage elsewhere: this week, for example, Radio 4 had a nice series of half-hour spots on whether, when technologies compete, we inevitably end up with the best. The steam car versus internal combustion; the QWERTY keyboard versus the Dvorak: was the winner determined by chance or because it was the most suitable?

I do find much media coverage unsatisfactory. Perhaps I can explain why. A few weeks ago, I read a feature - I can't remember where - which wrote up a football game in the style of a typical science article. It went something like this:

Many of us saw the wonderful activity exhibited by footballers during last night's Greece-England match. But how many understand how it all works? Football is played on a rectangular area of soil covered with short grass, known to the players as the 'pitch'. This is composed of smaller units, the most prominent of which are two large basket-like constructions formed from a net supported by wooden posts. One of these 'goals' can be found at each end of the pitch. To begin a game, two teams of 11 men or 'players' move onto the pitch with a spherical 'ball' made of cured animal hide or (in modern countries) of plastic, and place themselves around the field in the kind of arrangement typified by Diagram 1. Each team owns one of the goals, and attempts to manoeuvre the ball with the feet as often as possible into the opposing team's goal by transferring it from player to player through a predefined scheme of player-player interactions. These are too complex to describe here, but we can say that experts classify teams in terms of their 'skill', a complicated and ill-defined property which emerges from the success with which the team's players apply this scheme. Generally speaking, skilled teams have more 'fans' and earn more money.

Imagine if every sports feature started this way. The writer would spend all his time describing how to take a penalty, and would never get to the specifics of Paul Scholes's goal-scoring or Nikopolidis's save. This is what happens with much popular science. The radio programs that I mentioned about the keyboard and the car didn't feel they had to do this - everyone has used these items - and were the better for it.

This is where sites like BBC News Online could help. Because readers can visit the site again and again, material that introduces the basics of room-temperature superconductors or the shape of the Universe need not be repeated each time the subject comes up. It could be left online, and features written assuming their reader to have read it (or to have acquired the knowledge some other way). This way, the online media would cater for the more advanced reader. You'd need another version of the feature for the reader who doesn't have such knowledge, so it's more work. But it would be worth it.

5. We know that you designed and developed one of the most advanced Web applications for teaching economics. What were the difficulties you encountered?

Despite its size, very few! It's a big system: two economic models, software for connecting them to the Web, the course materials, and the user interface and graphic design. This was a team effort: no single person could be expert in economic pedagogy, programming economic models, Web technology, server hardware, user-interface design, and computer art.

The course materials were written by Andy Beharrell. These needed as much care as writing a textbook: to keep to a consistent level of terminology and difficulty, to make sure that all novel words were included in the on-line glossary, and so on. To ensure the relevance of what he wrote, Andy needed to know the National Curriculum (which defines the content of UK school courses) inside-out. His writing is humorous, which is important: when you teach, make it fun. He can also write for the computer screen, where you need to be more concise than on paper.

As well as reading well, the course materials look elegant. That's due to our user-interface expert Jan Chipchase, who knows things like where best to put navigation bars and how wide to make the pages (you must avoid horizontal scrolling, because that makes systems really hard to use). Jan is an artist, so was able to choose subtle colours that harmonise well and make the graphs and tables easy to comprehend. Also, knowing the resolution and other limitations of computer monitors and Web browsers, he made his designs work on any system. We avoided tricks like JavaScript, because we wanted to reach the largest possible audience; indeed, VE even runs on Lynx, the text-only browser.

Of its economic models, the macro model predicts the effect of the user's tax changes on aggregate variables such as unemployment. It is based on the equations used by the Treasury to model the economy. These are not simple - there are at least three hundred - and it took some effort before our macroeconomic modelling expert Keith Church could contrive a program that would solve them within the few seconds users are prepared to wait for a Web response.

Having got these numbers, I then had to write code to convert them into the tables and graphs you see on our output page; part of my work was to find a plotting package that could draw the graphs. While doing so, I needed to maintain the correct style, following Jan's guidelines on layout and size to the pixel.

The other model - a microeconomic model named Taxben - applies these changes to individual people, showing how they will affect the income and expenditure of nine sample British families. Unlike the macro model, we didn't have to write Taxben: it's something we already had at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an independent orgamisation set up to help the public understand the effects of Government economic policy. (If politicians were honest, this wouldn't be necessary. But they are not.) I've worked with the IFS for several years, largely with Graham Stark, co-author of Taxben and director of the VE project, and we had already built a predecessor to VE in 1995, by connecting Taxben to the Web. That turned out to be very easy. In fact, it was easy enough to inspire me to write some features advocating that other people who teach with interactive programs should do the same, to make them more generally available. So it's very nice that I can so again through your interview. And if you want an online model of the Greek economy, you know where to come.

18 June 2001

[ Jocelyn Ireson-Paine's Home Page | Publications | Document in Word format ] | Document in Word format, Greek translation (with thanks to Petros Stefaneas) ]