Monday, April 25, 2016

Meeting the tech-skeptics

Why do so many educators still feel daunted by technology and avoid using digital media as far as possible in their teaching? Of course you can teach very well using only traditional methods and and I would never say that those methods should be abandoned. However since our students are preparing for life and career in an increasingly digital world they need to develop the necessary skills and literacies and if we do not address these in our teaching our courses will not be fully relevant. Digital tools can enhance classwork, extend discussions and practice outside the classroom and facilitate collaborative learning. So why is there still so much reluctance to engage with technology, despite years of initiatives, funding and development?

An interesting project called Unfolding the arms took a new approach to understanding why many educators avoid technology. The project title refers to the posture we all use when we simply don't want to do something, folded arms, and the aim of the project was to find ways of unfolding those arms and finding a way forward. They interviewed a number of teachers who were negative towards using educational technology and tried to analyse why.

So this is our idea. Talk to six (or seven, or eight) educators, who feel any sense of dread, impostorship or resistance when thinking tech. Ask some carefully crafted, genuinely open questions, shut up and listen ... Then, whilst the data is being analysed, offer each person generous enough to give of their time some one-to-one coaching with the Digital Nurse, to help them break through something that’s holding them back. Finally, ask them how they are doing and present the findings in some technology-enhanced way.

Two major lines of resistance were described, The first is termed Untrue Limiting Assumptions often centred around the belief that you are "no good at technical things" or are too old to start. Then there is the Impostor Syndrome, the fear of being "found out" and therefore avoiding the issue completely. I think many are well aware that they have fallen so far behind that the effort of trying to catch up now seems simply impossible, especially due to all the other pressures they have and the lack of time for competence development. The key to this experiment was letting the interviewees talk and voice their concerns and then letting them talk to a digital nurse who would offer help for them to overcome some of the easiest hurdles. Getting one-to-one support and taking small practical steps at a time seems to be a way of winning round many skeptics. Often the root cause is a lack of confidence and a fear of not being good enough. Many had tried to use digital tools but had encountered problems or complete failure and this created an aversion to the whole area. If no support is available, teachers who feel alone in the face of daunting technology will understandably retreat to traditional methods instead of persevering. The article focuses on digital resilience as a prerequisite and this only comes when professional, hands-on support is provided.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Is free sustainable?

I use and recommend all sorts of excellent free online educational tools and resources but only very seldom am I willing to pay for the premium version. I think teachers in general are happy to use the free versions but become extremely wary of paying even small fees for the full version. Somehow there is the feeling that everything on the net should be free and there is little thought for how the people who create the tools and services are going to support themselves. Giving away something for free sounds wonderful but how do you pay for development, support and simply making sure that it keeps working? Unless the product is supported by government funding or a benevolent financier it won't take long before you have to work out a business plan. But why should we pay when there is always a free version somewhere out there?

This issue is raised in an article on EdSurge, What Does Free Mean? questioning why educators are so reluctant to pay for a tool or service they use regularly. If we base so much of our teaching on free services there's no guarantee they will still be there next year, or even next week.

Many edtech products are cloud-based, but that doesn’t mean the companies that build them run on air. Educators should recognize that free tools may not survive for long. Without fully understanding how free tools are sustained, they run the risk of adopting and relying on technology that may change significantly—or not exist in a year’s time.

I freely admit that I have a lot of material stored on free accounts that could easily go up in smoke any time. Over the years a few of them have suddenly decided to become pay services since the freemium model simply wasn't sustainable. The result was that I had to move my material as fast as posible to another, free, service. But if our favourite tools are going to survive they need a sustainable business model and in the end we are going to have to pay something for them, unless they come from the likes of Google or Facebook where it is often claimed that you are the product. The article argues that schools and colleges need to consider costs for digital tools in the same category as more traditional tools for the classroom like textbooks, paper, pens and so on. Educational software is a vital element in teaching today but since we mostly use the free versions it never shows up on the expenses list and therefore is undervalued and taken for granted. Things that cost are seen as more valuable.

I believe teachers should be empowered to have more say in what technology tools are purchased. They should be allowed to advocate for the tools that work in their classroom - and perhaps even be given a budget for making purchasing decisions. ... This sort of empowerment can change teachers’ mindset about paying for the tools that will, in the long run, also help support the work of entrepreneurs that are developing them.

Maybe it's time to consider paying for the services we appreciate because if no-one does so they may disappear, taking our content and ideas with them.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Learning in the blender

I've always been a bit uncomfortable with the term blended learning. It refers to courses that combine both classroom and online teaching and I sometimes feel that its popularity is because it represents a safe compromise between the two forms of delivery; exploiting some of the flexibility of online delivery with the familiar traditions of campus. For those who are skeptical of fully online courses, blended learning is a safe option. I'm not against blending online and classroom, far from it, but I don't think the blend we really need is centred around physical/digital delivery.

I enjoyed reading a new article by Sir John Daniel, Making Sense of Blended Learning: Treasuring an Older Tradition or Finding a Better Future?, arguing that the blend we should examine more closely is not simply about rooms and virtual spaces. Today there is very little difference in student performance between well-designed online courses and their traditional counterparts. In some cases the online environment can in fact foster deeper discussion and greater sense of community. The key quality element is in the course design, not in the delivery form, and Daniel proposes that the real blend we are looking for is getting the right mix between independent and interactive activities (regardless of delivery form).

Independent learning takes place outside the classroom, even on the most traditional campus course, and today that means mostly online. Students need to learn how to study independently, find resources and investigate further than the prescribed reading lists. Learning how to learn is a key literacy. However independent learning is only half of the blend and courses need to include interactive learning, both with peers and especially with qualified faculty in seminar or tutorial form. This can take place both face-to-face (F2F) and online and the choice of arena will depend on the context. If it is possible to gather the group for F2F meetings then do so, but make sure the meeting is really interactive and not simply information transfer. If F2F is not feasible then use appropriate online arenas. Here even the term F2F is appropriate because when I have online meetings at least with smaller groups I can see everyone face-to-face, sometimes with excellent video quality. F2F today does not necessarily imply sharing the same physical space.

There is of course no magic blend, especially not in terms of technology, but Daniel identifies four vital principles:
  • Focus on learning outcomes. The blend of interactive/independent and F2F/online must fully support the learning outcomes. If that can be achieved fully online then that is fine as long as the quality of the learning process is assured.
    ... in optimising the blend of online and interactive experiences the focus should be on attaining the learning objectives of the courses/programmes and not on wider purposes, such as how to sustain the campus, important though such aims are.
  • Practical and laboratory work. Of course this aspect demands work at a physical location but with so many online simulations and virtual labs available the actual time in a physical lab can be reduced to a few intensive meetings.T
  • Teamwork and division of labour. Course design and delivery is not a solo project but teamwork involving different areas of expertise. 
  • Keeping costs down and quality up. These are perhaps the most important elements in the blend.
I urge you to read the article to grasp these points more fully but the rationale behind reviewing terms like blended and hybrid learning is summarised as follows:

What this new age requires is hybrid learning where the whole system is redesigned to create a happy blend of student-teacher conversations and online learning. This essay has highlighted, in particular, two important ways to make higher education more effective for the 21st century. First, students need to engage more fully with independent work. Online technology can help them do this ... and must be used intensively to free up time for students to prepare assignments and for teachers to use their interactions with students over their assignments as a prime vehicle for teaching. Second, teachers must help students, via apprenticeship-style sessions and commentary on their assignments, to develop skills and acquire academic knowledge.

My main conclusion from this article is that the blend we should be discussing is not a simple matter of F2F versus online, but a more complex mixture of independent and interactive learning where delivery form can vary according to context and where the learning outcomes are the driver. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Open education for all - but so few know about it

When I attend conferences and meetings it seems we're working with widely accepted concepts but as soon as I leave that intimate arena I get a reality check; most people have never even heard of MOOCs, open educational resources, open access and so on. Even students seem only to have limited experience of the vast range of online learning resources and open courses available.

The problem is that the people who use all these online resources are mostly those who are already well-educated and digitally literate. The often stated target group for open education, those who have so far been excluded from higher education due to financial, social or geographical barriers don't even know that it exists and even if they do they are often unable to take advantage of it. This is the theme of an article on Quartz, The Americans who’d benefit the most from online education have no idea it exists, that reports on a new Pew Research Center report (Lifelong learning and technology) on the use of the net in education.

This presents a paradox, the study’s author John Horrigan tells Quartz. The more rich and educated you are, the more technologically savvy you are, and the more you know how to use digital learning tools. While many low-income and low-education Americans would benefit from e-learning, they don’t have the income or education level to access it.

Despite the massive hype around MOOCs over the last 5-6 years only 5% of Americans are familiar with the concept. Even something as mainstream as distance learning is familiar to only 16%. Open education attempts to offer access to higher education to those previously excluded from it but they simply don't know these opportunities exist and even if they did they lack the skills to take advantage of it. Most Americans in the survey consider themselves as lifelong learners but learning is still strictly traditional in the form of adult education classes, reading books, joining clubs and training at work. Interest in learning is high but awareness of online learning is low, in stark contrast to a lot of Silicon Valley hype.

Of course it doesn't matter how learning occurs, the most important finding in the survey is that the majority of those questioned were involved in some form of learning. The question is why online learning has still not made the breakthrough in terms of mass uptake. Learning is available at a click wherever you are and whenever you want it but first you need to know how. The people surveyed go to local classes, read books, ask friends for advice and use trial and error to learn new skills and should of course continue to do so. However the vast opportunities for learning available through digital media would give them so many new opportunities that are totally impossible using traditional media. The breakthrough for online learning will come not through marketing and hyped news reporting but through local support and incentives through schools, libraries, community centres and other local institutions, helping people learn how to learn.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Digital life after death

A few weeks ago a colleague of mine passed away after a short illness. A sad event for all who knew her but for me this was the first time that someone I knew prepared us for her passing via Facebook and Twitter. The first I knew was a Facebook post with a photo of her from the hospital bed and the stunning news that she was preparing for a journey of no return. There were a few other posts until the tragic announcement of her passing was posted on her account. These posts haunted me for days and even though we'd only met face-to-face twice at conferences our discussions on social media created a bond that would never have been possible in pre-digital days. Those who criticise Facebook as simply a channel for trivia and self-indulgence fail to acknowledge the enormous potential for sharing, strengthening friendships and simply keeping in touch with each other. I felt part of a farewell process and all the messages of support and sympathy that accompanied the posts on Facebook showed how powerful the medium can be.

This is echoed in a BBC article by Brandon AmbrosinoFacebook is a growing and unstoppable digital graveyard, where the author describes how Facebook keeps the memory of a departed aunt alive by providing a digital memorial which can be visited by family and friends. There are today tens of millions of dead Facebook users and the number increases by an estimate 8,000 per day. If no-one is able to access your account and turn it into a memorial page then your digital life will continue with Facebook reminding your contacts of your birthday and so on, something that can be distressing to many. Just as we all need to take active responsibility for our digital footprints when alive we also need to plan for our digital death. You need to pass on your passwords to your next of kin and leave instructions on what they should do with your different accounts. If managed well your Facebook page becomes a place of remembrance providing insights into your life and personality that no other medium can emulate.

As I’ve told my mother, my grandchildren may be able to learn about her by studying her Facebook profile. Assuming the social network doesn’t fold, they won’t just learn about the kinds of major life events that would make it into my mom’s authorised biography. They’ll learn, rather, the tiny, insignificant details of her day to day life: memes that made her laugh, viral photos she shared, which restaurants she and my father liked to eat at, the lame church jokes she was too fond of. 

Social media have taken a central role in our lives and consequently become an important aspect of our deaths. We can choose to ask a relative to simply delete everything or we can ask them to preserve your memory as a place of solace and grief for those who live on. As I write this post my departed colleague's Facebook account has posted an invitation to a remembrance meeting of friends and relatives. I can't attend but I still feel part of a process that would not have been possible without social media, indeed a friendship that would never have existed without the net.

In Facebook, all places are present, all times are now. My Aunt Jackie exists in this medium just as I do. In a way, there is no moving on without her. There’s no moving on without any of the millions of dead Facebook users.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

As you can clearly see on my next slide ...

I feel sorry for PowerPoint, the butt of so many jokes and unloved by so many conference delegates and students. It's so easy to blame the tool for our own shortcomings and most cases of the famous death by PowerPoint are due to users' lack of ability to exploit the functions available in the tool. Some people proudly announce that they have not prepared any slides for their talk and I often sense a murmur of approval from the audience glad to find someone who dares to go back to basics. The problem is that a talk without any visual support demands tight structure and considerable rhetorical skill and few speakers who decide to go "unplugged" realise this. I've heard many such presentations that ramble from one anecdote to another and I've completely lost the thread, if there is any, after five minutes. I retire gratefully into my laptop and attend to other matters while the presentation wanders off into the fog. Had the presenter used even a few slides they might have been able to communicate some kind of structure but without it we're lost. Unless of course the speaker is a true orator.

An article in Times Higher Education, Learning to live without PowerPoint, makes the case for researchers freeing themselves of their digital shackles and presenting their findings unplugged. The problem is that when your slides are your presentation and you simply read the text slide by slide any technical problem like a faulty projector means disaster.

When we are training our PhD students in the art of presentation, are we giving them the necessary advice – the confidence – that will allow them to avoid an addiction to PowerPoint and ensure that they may experiment with using it less or not at all? At the very least are we making sure they are adequately prepared to still deliver a meaningful presentation even when the computer stops talking to the projector?

PowerPoint can give many speakers a false sense of security if they use the slideshow as a script. Many researchers cram enormous amounts of text or data onto each slide so that the audience focuses all attention on trying to decipher your information overload instead of listening to the speaker. You may have wonderful graphs in your research article but in a presentation try to simplify the graphics and highlight the most important points. Those who want the details can read the article later; the aim of the presentation is to raise interest in your research.What you have to say should preferebly be there in your head or on a piece of paper in the form of bullet points or a mindmap. The slides simply reinforce your message and provide structure through appropriate images and keywords. In this way it is still possible to give the presentation if the technology fails even if it will lack the attention-grabbing features that a good slideshow can provide. If used wisely a slideshow is still a highly effective tool to getting your message across but sadly most people only use a fraction of the tool's potential. For tips on how to get the best out of PowerPoint have a look at Jonathan Wylie's post, PowerPoint Myths: Busted!

However there are more subtle agruments against presentation tools like PowerPoint. Andrew Smith wrote an interesting article a while back in the Guardian, How PowerPoint is killing critical thought, arguing that the pedagogy of the presentation comes from the business world. The classic presentation full of bullet points is a way of leading a customer through the sales pitch and convincing them to buy rather than inviting an open discussion. PowerPoint encourages a process of persuasion rather than dialogue.

Bullet points enforce a rigidly hierarchical authority, which has not necessarily been earned. One either accepts them in toto, or not at all. And by the time any faulty logic is identified, the screen has been replaced by a new one as the speaker breezes on, safe in the knowledge that yet another waits in the wings. With everyone focused on screens, no one – least of all the speaker – is internalising the argument in a way that tests its strength.

Slides with convincing bullet-points are hard to argue against and a potential dialogue is turned into one-way communication. Many advocate using images to accompany your talk with an absolute minimum of text. I must admit I have cut down on the text content in my slideshows and prefer now to have interesting photos plus a few keywords and talk around them.

However I think there is more to this problem than simply blaming the presentation tool. The setting, usually a lecture theatre or a classroom with people sitting in rows, is for me the real barrier to dialogue It's simply not a good place to start a discussion, not matter whether the speaker uses Powerpoint or not. Another factor is tradition; if everyone is in lecture mode then it will be one-way communication and few in the audience will dare to speak out of turn or disturb the speaker's flow. The lecture is an academic tradition that is proving extremely hard to break. I'm sure that PowerPoint can be used in more imaginative ways in new settings that are more conducive to dialogue. Don't shoot the piano player.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Collaborative overload - pleasures and dangers

The more you build your professional network, share ideas and resources and participate in projects the more work you get. Networking enhances your reputation and more people ask you for help, invite you to join new projects, collaborate in exciting new initiatives or speak at conferences. The spin-offs keep coming making you feel respected and part of a larger context. This is exactly what I have experience over the last few years and it has lead me into new areas, meeting lots of interesting and talented colleagues from all over the world. I have benefitted immensely from sharing, networking and collaborating, both professionally and personally.

However there is a downside to this and that is raised in an interesting article in Harvard Business Review with the simple title, Collaborative overload. Highly collaborative people get drawn into so many peripheral activities that they are often unable to focus on their primary work and as a result they become ineffective from their employers' point of view despite being highly effective in all they activities they are involved in. The more you collaborate and help others the more work you get.

In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance. Their giving mindset and desire to help others quickly enhances their performance and reputation.

Good collaborators become highly sought after and find themselves involved in ever more projects, meetings and groups both inside and outside the organisation, inevitably spilling over into evenings and weekends. This can of course lead to stress and even burn-out. We all enjoy helping others and are often flattered when colleagues respect our expertise. Sharing a few links or quick words of encouragement are easy but the real time drain is when you have to provide hands-on assistance. Many people become unofficial help desks in their department, solving acute problems that really should be solved by others. For example many educational technologists get trapped into "putting out fires" rather than really adding value to their institutions use of technology. The article recommends managers to help their top collaborators be more selective and avoid the trap of being everyone's problem-solver.

Collaboration is indeed the answer to many of today’s most pressing business challenges. But more isn’t always better. Leaders must learn to recognize, promote, and efficiently distribute the right kinds of collaborative work, or their teams and top talent will bear the costs of too much demand for too little supply.

However, this advice applies to collaboration in large companies where employees' time management and activities are monitored and analysed in a way that is completely alien to universities or schools. The education sector is full of volunteer work that takes place under the radar with teacher networks, unofficial projects and suchlike and once you get involved here the boundaries between work and leisure completely dissolve. I have devoted enormous amounts of my free time to stimulating projects and collaboration that have developed me professionally but which often lead to even more spin-offs. Today I belong to many groups and networks and have loyalties towards them that are completely outside the scope of my work. The difficult part is being able to see when all the collaboration becomes a permanent feature that prevents you from focusing on your most important duties. I try to keep a balance but I see the dangers of collaboration overload. How about you?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Platform diversity in online learning

How many different platforms should you offer in an online course? Should everything be included under one roof in a learning management system (LMS) or can we offer a number of social media where discussions take place, leaving it up to the participants to decide which spaces in which they wish to be active? Traditional e-learning favours the one-stop shop of the LMS (Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas etc) where one log-in gives you access to everything you need to complete the course. However we find that many participants prefer to discuss the course, for example in their own Facebook groups, rather than using the LMS discussion forum and to cater for this tendency many course providers offer a choice of arenas for interaction and collaboration. Most LMS now offer integration with social media to allow for platform diversity. However when courses offer a diversity of arenas they run the risk of confusing participants who find it hard to move between the LMS, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and others and it becomes impossible to get a clear view of the course as a whole. The one-stop-shop solution runs the risk of being too controlled and resstrictive (and often less open) whereas the eco-system alternative risks confusion and lack of overview.

This problem is highlighted in an article in eCampus News, Can social media enhance the MOOC experience?  which describes a study on the Carpe Diem MOOC that was run in 2014 by Swinburne University of Technology in Australia. The MOOC used Blackboard's CourseSites as platform and blended this with discussion and support via Facebook and Twitter. Participants could get support and engage in discussions on social media as an alternative or complement to the central platform. The interaction between participants on this course is analysed in an article by Gilly Salmon, Bella RossEkaterina Pechenkina and Anne-Marie Chase, The space for social media in structured online learning. Research in Learning Technology. The findings are not surprising but raise important issues for all involved in online course design. You would expect that many of those following a MOOC like this one would be comfortable negotiating multiple platforms but the study reveals that over 40% of survey respondents did not use Facebook or Twitter at all and focused solely on the activities in the LMS. As one respondent put it:

I did not use Twitter or Facebook. Those are social sites. For professional work, I prefer it to be on a professional platform.

Many are reluctant to mix private and professional roles in Facebook and many see Twitter simply as a medium for gossip, celebrities and publicity rather than as a professional networking tool. The benefits of using social media for professional development are not widely accepted and many learners are wary of them.

I am involved in running an online course called Open Networked Learning together with colleagues from 4 other universities. The course is offered as professional development for teachers in each of the participating universities but is also open to learners from other institutions. As a result an internal professional development course becomes an open international course with a wonderful multi-cultural mix. To avoid discussions of which university's LMS we should use we choose Google+ as our platform complemented by a WordPress site with all course information and resources. In addition we use Twitter (#ONL161) for chat sessions, Diigo to gather useful bookmarks and each participants reflects on their learning on their own blogs. One of the main ideas behind the course is using multiple platforms and tools and investigating the potential of these to enhance learning but the downside is that many participants find this diversity confusing and this leads to some dropping out. We try to compensate by offering lots of support from a network of facilitators and co-facilitators but it is still a major issue that juggling between platforms makes it hard to see the bigger picture.

I suspect most of us really prefer to have everything under one roof since the course is one of many activities going on in our lives. We have some participants who succeed in juggling with all the platforms but the majority focus on maybe a couple, primarily the study group's own community in Google+ and then less attention to the other spaces. The delicate balance is to promote diversity whilst avoiding overload, offering a choice without dictating and providing timely support to those who feel insecure.

The main conclusion of Salmon et al is to see value in including social media as alternative arenas but make it clear that learners have a choice whether to use them or not.

When designing for MOOCs or online learning, participants’ preferences for social media use should be taken into account ... One solution is to offer a few different platforms, in addition to the LMS, but not require that learners use them if they feel uncomfortable. Alternatively, ask learners to create professional identities on social media for all formal learning and professional development uses.

SALMON, Gilly et al. The space for social media in structured online learning. Research in Learning Technology, [S.l.], v. 23, dec. 2015. ISSN 2156-7077. Available at: Date accessed: 06 Mar. 2016. doi:

Sunday, February 28, 2016

MOOCs going mainstream? Reflections from eMOOCs 2016

University of Graz
Social learning, secure online examination, new pathways to credentials, unbundling and the application of learning analytics. These are some of the main themes of lat week's eMOOCs 2016 conference in Graz, Austria, that I attended together with MOOC practitioners mostly from Europe but some from further afield. Earlier conferences attracted many policy makers and managers but now the focus was very much on sharing experience and moving MOOCs to a new level. The overall tone of the conference was that MOOCs are beginning to mature and the earlier criticisms of instructivist pedagogy, low completion rates and hyped glossiness are now being addressed. Many MOOCs now offer virtual proctoring to enable MOOCs for credits, micro-credentials though badges are improving learner motivation and the focus is now on social learning rather than self-study. The business models of the main consortia are built around a freemium model with only access to course material available for free and a host of layered value-added options available at a price.

The conference featured two inspirational keynote speakers, Anant Agarwal (Professor at MIT and CEO of EdX) and Pierre Dillenbourg (Professor at EPFL Lausanne), and the rest of the time was devoted to practitioner experience, research findings and workshops. Agarwal gave an infectiously enthusiastic presentation of the EdX consortium's progress and future direction, stressing the need for MOOCs to break the sonic barrier of credits. This demands of course increased accountability. MOOCs should be as good if not better than traditional courses and this is achieved by innovative solutions, virtual proctored exams, social learning, project teams, tutoring and teacher grading in combination with peer assessment and guided studies that have become a hallmark of the genre. Verified certificates have increased course completion rates to around 60% whilst more advanced verification and course packages have given even higher rates.

Conference begins
Offering MOOCs as a stepping stone to campus studies is already in place, notably the Global Freshman Academy initiative between EdX and Arizona State University. This involves replacing the freshman year with MOOCs with open admissions. When you sit the course exams you only pay for credit if you pass. Admission to campus studies from year two is available for those who pass their year one courses and pay for the credits, what Agarwal referred to as inverted admissions. The big question here is whether more universities will accept this concept and give learners access to year two of a degree programme on the basis of credits gained from other universities' MOOCs, even with proctored examination. A similar concept is that of micromasters, bundles of MOOCs with tutoring, project work and proctored examination, which are being developed in cooperation with major companies (see also for example Coursera's specializations concept and  project-based courses). These micromasters can be counted as half of a regular masters degree thus allowing learners to complete their masters degree at half the normal price. The partner companies are on board but it remains to be seen whether this approach will gain acceptance throughout the higher education sector and widespread employer recognition.

The frequently voiced concerns about the credibility and security of online examinations may well be addressed by the practice of virtual proctoring through companies such as Software secure and Proctor U. These companies have centres where virtual proctors monitor thousands of online examinations using webcam, microphone and screen surveillance. Student computers are locked down and only allow the examination application and the webcam will register any activities like checking a mobile under the table. The software registers all exceptional behaviour and movements both on screen and in the room and these can later be investigated if there is any suspicion of cheating. This is already in practice in MOOCs for credit as well as in regular for-credit online courses though as far as I could gather had not really been tested extensively in Europe. I can imagine that European universities will be unwilling to risk such extensive surveillance data being stored outside the EU but I'm sure there will be a solution. The claim is that this technology will make online examinations at least as secure as traditional on-site exams (ie. not completely cheat-proof but probably good enough).

The conference closed with a thought-provoking speech by Pierre Dillenbourg who called on European universities to agree on how to recognize each others' MOOCs and open the way for real virtual mobility through a kind of virtual Erasmus programme. He argued that we already have the key ingredients in place; we have a common academic currency in terms of the Bologna agreement and ECTS, we have publicly funded universities giving around 4000 potential testing centres and we have cultural diversity so why can’t we offer credits for MOOCs? He urged universities and university associations to start discussing this and there were several representatives in the hall who immediately agreed to investigate further. The conference Twitter feed immediately informed us that there is already a cooperation in place between a few universities for exactly this sort of virtual mobility called Opening universities for virtual mobility.

My one concern with all this is that that the potential of MOOCs to truly open up education is being tamed and adapted to fit nicely into the traditional model. The focus now seems to be on the value-added layers and the promise of examination and credits. The wider potential of open networked learning I believe will be the task of non-traditional educational organisations rather than the higher education sector.

There were of course many other extremely interesting presentations and discussions and I may well return to them in a later post as I may do about my own contribution.

Download the full proceedings of the conference.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Amazon goes OER

Are we in the midst of a major change in the distribution and sharing of open educational resources?
Just as I had published my previous post on the platform panOpenI read that even Amazon are entering the OER arena. Amazon have announced a new platform called Amazon Inspire that will allow schools to search for, share and manage resources in an environment that will to some extent resemble the massively successful Amazon website. They promise that the service will be completely free for all schools and a beta version will come online for pilot testing in the next few weeks.

An article on Edweek Market Brief, Amazon Education to Launch New Website for Open Education Resources, describes the platform:

- Users of the site will be able to add ratings and reviews, and to receive recommendations based on their previous selections. Educators will be able to curate open resources, self-publish material they have developed, and put a school’s entire digital library that is open and freely available online.

This sounds very similar to the platform offered by panOpen except there's no mention of the twist that they offer; charging students for access and offering revenue sharing to contributing teachers. The difference is of course the sheer clout behind Amazon in terms of being able to sweep the board if their idea hits the soft spot. Schools and teachers can upload their resources and make them available to all, assumedly with Creative Commons licenses, and Amazon offers powerful search, analytics and safe storage. The problem with OER has always been the lack of consistent metadata making many resources extremely hard to find as well as the lack of efficient search tools that can harvest suitable material from the myriad of OER repositories that exist. If anyone is able to pull it all together then Amazon seems like a good bet given the success of their business so far with recommendations based on previous searches and preferences.

Matt Reed in Inside Higher Ed is enthusiastic about the new venture, Amazon OER? He sees a similarity between Amazon's interest in OER and Apple's interest in podcasting when it launched iTunes and the iPod. Most of the podcasts available on iTunes are, like OER, largely free and produced by enthusiasts but the impact of some podcasts is global thanks to the power of the iTunes platform. Similarly hundreds of universities already offer over 2 million lectures free to download on the iTunes U channel. 

In the best of all possible worlds, the podcast analogy comes to fruition. Apple was the first to bring podcasts to scale, and itunes is still the most popular place to find and distribute them. But there’s no shortage of alternatives. (I’m a fan of Pocket Casts, fwiw.) It’s easy now to listen regularly to a host of podcasts without ever dipping a toe in the Apple universe. If enough alternatives come along to Amazon that it can’t control the market, even if it remains prominent within it, we could all win.  

The inevitable question is what Amazon gets out of offering this platform. There must be a business model in there despite their insistence that they will never put it behind a paywall. The logical conclusion is that they will try to sell commercial resources based on your preferences and this was indeed the logic behind Pearson's Open Class venture a couple of years ago. It will be up to the user to decide whether the openr resource is better than the commercial one but I don't think it needs to be an either-or issue. In some cases the commercial resource will offer opportunities that no open reosurce can match and then the price is justified. There must be room for commercial high-quality material as long as we can make wise choices. The other attraction for Amazon must be big data. A platform like this if it takes off will get millions of clicks and the user data must be worth quite a bit for developers. Amazon, like the other giants (Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook etc), are drilling for the new oil, data. The rewards are in how you refine that crude oil into new products and services.

Could 2016 be the year OER go mainstream and at what cost?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Open for business?

Openness is in the eye of the beholder and new variations on the theme seem to pop up every week. The open component in a MOOC has become very flexible indeed, sometimes meaning something as restricted as being accessible only to those who register and log in. MOOCs are now commonly offered in layered versions with a plain vanilla view-only version available free of charge. The problem with open and free is how to build sustainability beyond grassroots volunteer work. Open education depends on enthusiasts and volunteers who earn money somewhere else and are willing to work extra for the sheer enjoyment of it. Is there a business model for openness and how can you reconcile that with the original concept?

The field of open educational resources (OER) depends on educators sharing their openly licensed resources on public repositories, mostly without reward or career recognition. Is there a business opportunity even here? One answer to that question is a platform called panOpen where open textbooks and OER can be gathered and offered to students in a convenient package of services. Many of the resources are aggregated from other repositories but panOpen offers a convenient channel with attractive functions for educators such as LMS integration, data analysis, gradebook syncing, quizzes and note-taking functions. The twist to the concept is that they offer revenue sharing to educators who provide new content to the platform, no doubt attractive to those who commit months of work to write an open textbook. Teachers or schools can upload content, adapt existing resources (according to the Creative Commons license terms) and create customised repositories for their students. The platform guarantees quality by peer review of all resources and users are encouraged to add own reviews and comments to material.

The business model for all this is to pay educators for their work and charge students for access. Students pay $25 per course for access and this income is hoped to sustain the teacher commitment to add new resources. This has of course caused a stir in the open education community since open resources suddenly have a pricetag. This is especially tricky for material that has the Creative Commons Non-commercial requirement . Open is no longer free. PanOpen explains this as follows:

“Open” does not necessarily mean “free.” Not all OER materials are free and likewise, not all free materials are considered OER. Usage rights - not cost - primarily define OER. That said, when there is a cost, OER are typically significantly cheaper than textbooks - a factor students especially appreciate.

The argument is that the resources are available elsewhere for free but that panOpen provides the aggregation, LMS integration and quality control and that is what the students pay for. Compared to buying their textbooks the costs for students are radically cut. In an article in Inside Higher Ed from 2014, OER Beyond Voluntarism, panOpen founder Brian Jacobs states the rationale behind the new venture.

A better way forward is to compensate the stakeholders -- faculty, copyright holders, and technologists, principally -- for their contributions to the OER ecosystem. This can be done by charging students nominally for the OER courses they take or as a modest institutional materials fee. When there are no longer meaningful costs associated with the underlying content, it becomes possible to compensate faculty for the extra work while radically reducing costs to students.

The definition of open takes yet another turn as new business models are tested in an attempt to build a sustainable framework for OER. We will undoubtedly see many more new interpretations of the word in the future, some of which will succeed whilst many will flop. Somewhere along the line someone has to pay for the work involved, as part of teachers' regular work or by incentives from the educational authority or another organisation like panOpen. What is evolving is a layered approach to OER whereby you have open and free access to all resources if you are willing to search through various repositories but you may have to pay to access value-added services such as those offered in panOpen. If you want a good analysis of the future of openness in education you should have a look at Martin Weller's excellent book The battle for open (free to access online).

Monday, February 1, 2016

Swedish MOOC report is published

Slightly revised version 2 Feb 2016.
Sweden has been rather late in reacting to the MOOC boom and only in the last two years have a handful of universities started offering courses both on the major MOOC platforms Coursera and EdX but also more home grown channels. Last spring the government commissioned the Swedish Higher Education Authority the task of writing a report with recommendations on how MOOCs could be promoted within the framework of Swedish higher education, outlining opportunities as well as barriers. I was invited to join the reference group for this report and on 27 January it was time to publish the report with an accompanying seminar for invited guests in Stockholm. The report is at present only available in Swedish so I will provide here a summary of the main findings as well as adding my own comments and conclusions.
Download the report here (in Swedish).


The report was based on a survey that was sent to every state-funded higher education institution in the country during autumn 2015 asking about experience with MOOCs so far, plans to launch MOOCs, motives for investing in MOOCs (or not) as well as potential benefits and drawbacks. Six institutions have so far officially offered MOOCs but there are several others who have offered massive open courses without actually labeling them as MOOCs. There is still considerable uncertainty as to what exactly a MOOC is. Swedish universities have for the last 20 years offered a wide range of short online for-credit courses (usually 7-15 credits) as part of the higher education system. There are no fees but you have to apply for admission and fulfil the prerequisites for admission. Many understandably see MOOCs as simply massive versions of what we have been doing for years and wonder what the fuss is all about.

The question to be answered in the report is really about whether MOOC development should be financed by tax-payers' money, how they can be incorporated into the educational system and if so how much funding should go to this new area. The report offers the following recommendations to the government (my own abridged translated summary).

The report is positive to the development of MOOCs within the state-funded education system and Swedish institutions should be encouraged to develop open courses in line with international development. The main reasons for this are to showcase and raise the international profile of Swedish universities and higher education, reach out to new student categories and contribute to lifelong learning. Furthermore, it is hoped that MOOC development can lead to improvements in universities' regular online courses, both technically and pedagogically. The report also recommends a greater focus on pedagogical development in e-learning.

Proposals to the government

  • Institutions should be free to develop MOOCs and other open courses and therefore new regulations concerning this form of higher education should be drawn up. However MOOC participants cannot be considered as students in the legal sense of the term and there is no question of participants gaining credits from Swedish MOOCs.
  • Institutions are allowed to use a certain amount of their state financing to develop and run MOOCs. It is up to each institution how much of this should go towards MOOC development. 
  • All institutions should be able to develop open online courses and to achieve this funding should also be available to cover professional development in digital pedagogy.
  • Although MOOCs are free it should be possible for institutions to charge fees for certificates, as often required in many international MOOC consortia.

Proposals to higher education institutions

Existing experience of developing and running MOOCs should be shared between institutions. The report identifies three possible lines of development for open online education:
  • Institutions who wish to develop and offer MOOCs should be free to do so.
  • Institutions may also develop hybrid courses which are available both as part of regular for-credit courses and as open non-credit courses (MOOCs).
  • Institutions should be encouraged to collaborate to produce open, national versions of introductory courses and skills courses that today are duplicated by many institutions. The common online course material can then be complemented at each institution by on-site seminars and support.
The authority believes that these recommendations will lead to higher quality and increased efficiency however it will be up to each institution to decide the extent to which they will follow the guidelines.

Discussion points

This report offers universities the opportunity to develop MOOCs and join international consortia but does not dictate exactly what they should do or how they should do it. The authority simply wants to remove potential barriers to MOOC development in Sweden but leave the strategic decisions up to the institutions. Many are wary of entering the MOOC arena due to uncertainty about legal aspects such as where course material and student information are stored and how that information can be used by third parties. These issues are still unresolved but maybe the coming debate around the report will result in some new initiatives.

The report finally gives MOOCs official recognition in Swedish higher education and that the further development of such courses can benefit regular degree programmes, reach out to new groups of learners and showcase Swedish education on a global level. I suspect however that the report will loosen the lock on Pandora's box and that there will then be a number of important issues to resolve such as openness, sharing, recognition of prior learning, competence-based degrees etc. The report does not offer any new guidance in terms of copyright issues (that was not within the scope of the commission) but points out some of the areas that need further investigation and urges universities to work together to find a common praxis. This, I think, is a pity because I don't think that type of collaboration will happen without a catalyst from above. I believe we need a national policy on openness recommending that educational resources financed by the state should be available to all under a Creative Commons license. Without that we will continue to produce hundreds of variations on the same theme and reinvent the wheel at the taxpayers' expense. However, the report opens the door to universities collaborating to produce national MOOCs in subject areas that are common to all students, eg study skills, academic writing, scientific methodology.

One of the trickier points in the report is allowing universities to charge fees for MOOC certificates. This breaks a central principle of Swedish higher education, that it should be free from tuition and examination fees. Many will feel that this move could set a dangerous precedent but the reason for the change is to allow universities who are part of the major consortia like Coursera, EdX and FutureLearn to follow consortium policy. Most MOOC consortia today charge for certification and allowing learners with Swedish universities to get free certificates would create conflict within those consortia. This issue is likely to become even more complicated with Coursera's recent moves to make many of its courses fee-paying by default with free participants only entitled to view a restricted amount of the course content (see article in Inside Higher Ed, Limits of open).

In addition many institutions are worried about the implications of awarding certificates in their name to MOOC participants where it is almost impossible to verify that the participant has actually done the coursework themselves. Secure forms of online examination are still an issue and as a consequence the recognition of MOOC certificates for students applying for regular university courses presents challenges that require national and international coordination.

Finally many of the unresolved issues here boil down to a crucial issue; quality. If we can agree to implement existing quality assurance guidelines on all open online courses we can establish criteria by which to assess the validity of courses and set requirements for recognising certificates.

An English summary of the report will be available in the near future but otherwise you'll need to run the present version through Google Translate to get the gist of it. I hope my summary here has at least given you the main points.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The distraction society

We live in a world where distraction is default and uninterrupted concentration a luxury that few are able to find. I'm writing this in a cafe with rather irritating and hard to ignore music in the background (it's almost impossible to find a silent cafe) as well as screens showing brightly coloured adverts and the usual billboards and logos on everything. Add to this the siren's call of my mobile buzzing to alert me to a new e-mail, text or update and it's clear that you need enormous willpower to shut out the distractions and really concentrate. We've become so used to distractions that we don't even realise their effect.

A post in Inside Higher Ed, Digital Distractions, describes the findings of a new article on digital distractions in class and student attitudes to them, Digital Distractions in the Classroom Phase II: Student Classroom Use of Digital Devices for Non-Class Related Purposes (Journal of Media Education). Most students admit there are disadvantages to multitasking in class, even resulting in lower grades, but simply can't stop themselves, citing the main reasons as wanting to keep updated and fighting boredom. However the vast majority believe that they can handle the distractions and are completely against banning devices from the classroom. The comments to the article show divided opinions among teachers from those who advocate banning mobiles completely in class to more pragmatic attitudes of allowing but trying to promote more enlightened use. I think the answer lies in the whole class agreeing on a common class culture of how to deal with distractions even if this can take time to establish. The difficulty is that society is built on distractions, digital or otherwise, and its a mindset that is hard to break.

Digital media and devices have indeed increased the distraction level significantly but there are many more forms of distraction built into today's society so the digital element is not the villain of the peace but simply a symptom of a wider trend. Digital tends to magnify existing trends in society but is not the root cause. Ubiquitous music, news updates, advertising and the ludicrously overwhelming range of shops, products and services that clamour for our attention mean that distraction is now default, especially for those born in the last thirty years or so. We simply accept distraction as perfectly normal and the problem for education is helping students to find ways of escaping and consciously creating their own bubbles of concentration. In all levels of education as well as in workplaces we need to discuss issues like distraction, attention, focus and work on consciously creating such concentration bubbles for ourselves where we allow ourselves time to think and concentrate. This is a real 21st century skill and takes time and courage to develop.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Credit for peer review

365: day 141 by Nick in exsilio, on Flickr
"365: day 141" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by Nick in exsilio
As researchers gain more visibility by publishing articles in open access journals and expand their networks through social media and research communities it's time the reviewers also received more public recognition. Peer review is the foundation of all scientific research but those who do the work get little reward for their efforts apart from a thank-you e-mail from the publisher. Being asked to review for a scientific journal is a considerable merit but it has so far been difficult to show publically. Reviewing is a demanding and time-consuming unpaid task often squeezed into reviewer's evenings and weekends. Can peer review be made more open and can reviewers get visible credit?

One solution to this that has been in operation for a few years now is called Publons. This is a community of over 50,000 reviewers who can register their verifiable peer review assignments and make their experience visible in their profiles (so far 281,239 reviews in 16,192 journals). Publons' aim is to allow members to:

Record, verify, and showcase your peer review contributions in a format you can include in job and funding applications (without breaking reviewer anonymity).

Most reviews are of course anonymous and cannot be published publically except when all parties agree and such cases can be read on Publons. Otherwise the service is based on the recognition e-mails from the publisher which are also verified in cooperation between Publons and the major publishers. Registered reviews can also have their profiles automatically updated if the review for a publication that is a Publons partner. The result is that reviewers have a verified profile that can be used in funding applications or when applying for a new position. You decide how your information is presented and the level of detail.

Services like this are giving long-awaited recognition to the vast amount of previously invisible work that lies behind every published article and even if there are still no financial rewards at least reviewers have reliable evidence of their expertise. 

Read more about Publons in an article from Nature, The scientists who get credit for peer review.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

MOOCs and crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is a method of sharing work between a theoretically unlimited amount of people and allows enthusiasts from all over the world to collaborate on a project. The most famous example is Wikipedia where millions of people have contributed to varying degrees to produce the largest reference work ever and now available in hundreds of languages. Projects like this would be impossible using conventional methods but have succeeded through contributors' dedication and willingness to contribute to a common purpose, without a thought of financial gain. If open crowdsourcing (there are more commercial variations too) can achieve so much could there be implications for massive online learning? Many crowdsourcing projects involve massive collaboration over a limited space of time to achieve a clear objective and the similarities between this and a MOOC are striking.

This is the subject of an intriguing new article by John Prpić, James Melton, Araz Taeihagh and Terry AndersonMOOCs and crowdsourcing: Massive courses and massive resources (First Monday, Volume 20, Number 12). The original connectivist cMOOCs explored the potential of large groups of hundreds or even thousands of learners exploring a subject together, sharing knowledge, co-creating new resources and forming networks to investigate further. This type of educational ecosystem sometimes lasted well beyond the confines of the original course and became a variation on the crowdsourcing concept. The later more massive xMOOCs (Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn etc) form massive communities but seldom extend beyond the framework of the typically 6-8 week course format.

The article outlines a number of similarities between cMOOCs, xMOOCs and open collaboration crowdsourcing such as how IT is used for collaboration, different levels of openness, different types of crowd (general or specialised) and the size of crowd. The authors investigate potential areas of development for MOOCs based on crowdsourcing. One interesting avenue is to crowdsource feedback and formative assessment where large numbers of volunteers could each provide valuable interaction with learners as microtasks.

For example, already existing rubrics could be transposed into microtasks, or one entire microtask, to be put to virtual labor market crowds for evaluation. Then, given that virtual labor markets allow the massively parallel undertaking of tasks at low cost, virtual labor market evaluation of student work could provide almost instant assessment feedback. Though some may doubt a crowd’s ability to render accurate assessments, the research indicates that in some very complicated venues a crowd can perform as well or better than experts (Lee, 2013; Mitry, et al., 2013; Mortensen, et al., 2013).

Considering the dedication shown by Wikipedia contributors without any tangible recognition or payment as motivation there could be potential in crowdsourcing MOOC evaluation. However given the commercial nature of the main MOOC consortia (compared to the non-commercial, open, sharing culture of say Wikipedia) any MOOC solution should include some system of micropayments as motivation. Alternatively I can see space for microcredentials such as badges for those who volunteer to help MOOC learners. Students could earn badges for contributing to a MOOC that can enhance their CVs, showing professional engagement and proof of facilitation and assesment skills. This idea is no threat to teachers since they have no chance of even attempting to provide personal feedback to learners on a course with thousands of participants. Today's automatic testing provides basic feedback but direct contact with a human facilitator could provide the spark that can enhance completion rates. The challenge for MOOC-providers is to harness the potential of crowdsourcing and develop facilitator communities, possible by recruiting successful participants from previous MOOCs and providing attractive incentives.

Could a MOOC be run as a crowdsourcing project, offering a collaborative space to allow large communities to investigate and discuss a common topic? Where do we draw a border between a MOOC and a community or do we even need to define borderlines? Maybe the C in MOOC could stand for either course (a structured and limited format of guided instruction) or community (a less structured arena for collaboration around a common topic). The ideal scenario would be that a successful course seamlessly evolves into a dynamic community that takes over after the course ends.