Saturday, April 19, 2014

LMS - from red giant to white dwarf?

White Dwarf by dawe2k5, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by dawe2k5

Learning Management Systems like Moodle, Blackboard and many others are the backbone of almost all universities' and schools' use of educational technology. However there is increasing interest among teachers and students in using free and open social media for discussion, collaboration and production. The LMS designers have responded by integrating social media into the platform, thus retaining the one-stop shop status of the LMS. This one-stop shop model (or walled garden in the eyes of its critics) has its advantages in that students get access to all the course resources in one place but despite this students still tend to discuss and collaborate elsewhere.

This is the subject of an article in eLearn Magazine, Outside the LMS box: An interview with Ashley Tan. Dr. Ashley Tan is head of the Centre for e-Learning (CeL) at the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore and has been studying students' use and non-use of LMS. He sees a clear move by students away from the LMS towards social media and that this is tied to a need for more genuine interactivity and sharing than is normally seen inside the LMS.

However, both the instructors and the students seem to be unhappy with the LMS because it is a closed system and less user-friendly than other tools or platforms. Over the last three years, the use of the LMS for social learning has dropped to 50 percent among our serious users of the platform, and the more innovative instructors have moved to open social platforms like Google Sites and Facebook. The use of our LMS is mostly for relatively low-level tasks: content repository, basic online communication, and assignment submission.

 Tan sees the LMS model as focusing too much on content delivery, assignment submission and assessment and offering little to encourage interaction.

When blending learning with an LMS, instructors and eLearning practitioners often focus on content repositories or delivery. The didactic model is dominant. When blending learning with open and social systems, the focus tends to shift to interaction and negotiation. The facilitative model comes to the fore.

So instead of the LMS growing into a red giant offering everything under one roof the tendency is for it to shrink into a white dwarf, used for certain crucial functions and letting the more interactive activities take place outside. Although I agree with Tan's conclusions I don't see the LMS disappearing any time soon. Many students are certainly quite comfortable using a variety of tools and platforms and can certainly handle the diversity of the solution described in the article. However there are also students who appreciate the simplicity of having everything in one place and lack the confidence and digital skills necessary to use a variety of social media. It's a similar situation to the MOOC discussion; the linear and more traditional courses provided by the main MOOC providers appeal to students who need more order and structure whereas the connectivist MOOCs appeal to digitally proficient and self-sufficient learners.

I don't think the red giant model will apply to the LMS. Instead I see them as heading to the white dwarf stage, concentrating on what they do best; offering a secure administrative core for a course where sensitive data such as students identity and examination results are stored. The discussions and interaction can then take place mostly outside the LMS but all examination material must be linked or imported for archiving.

PS. I have a feeling I've written about this a long time ago but can't find it in my blog archives :-)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Of MOOCs and dragons

Sometimes I read an article or listen to a lecture and just nod enthusiastically all the way through. That was my reaction listening to this excellent defence of the whole MOOC movement by Donald Clark, The decentralisation and democratisation of learning. He goes through the list of frequently voiced criticisms (low completion rates, poor pedagogy, business models, low interaction with teachers) and answers them convincingly. I've written about them all here many times (85 posts on this blog with the tag MOOC so far) but it's good to get everything condensed into a lecture of just under 24 minutes.



This ties in nicely with a new article by Dan Butin in Inside Higher Ed, From MOOCs to dragons, that discusses how MOOCs are evolving into much more sophisticated learning arenas that will soon challenge the exclusive and increasingly over-priced campus model. Dan sees three disruptive factors that will lead to a new model for higher education: automated assessment, adaptive learning, and data analytics. As these become increasingly advanced they will offer low-cost and scalable solutions to processes that are at present expensive and time-consuming in the traditional system. These developments can be seen optimistically as a way of offering personalized education for all or pessimistically leading to faculty job losses and a shift of education into the arms of big business. His basic message is that we must sail off the map into the dragon-infested unknown.

Nevertheless, I believe we are at a new moment exactly because forthcoming digital learning technologies will create educational models that mirror and improve current educational practices at a scale and pace impossible before now. So grab your life vest, power up your Google Maps app, and beware of the dragons ahead.

Just watch the lecture and read the article.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Skimming and diving - the art of reading


Are we really forgetting the art of reading? We are if you follow the media discussion that has been going on for several years now. The problem is that we have all become so used to skimming, scanning and zapping from site to site and channel to channel that we find it increasingly hard to simply read a book. This is the gist of an article in the Washington Post, Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say, which reports on concern from researchers that the art of deep reading is being lost in the blur of multitasking.

“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. “We’re in this new era of information behavior, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that.”

The new skills of scanning for information, checking other sources and quickly gaining an overview are of course essential but the big question is how to relearn slow reading? We need to learn to be biliterate; being able to quickly scan and skim for information as well as being able to concentrate on deep reading without distractions. The problem with reading on a tablet or laptop is that there are so many other fun things you can do. While you're reading it's so easy to check for any new posts on Facebook or respond to a tweet. It's often hard to switch the distractions off. A book on the other hand has no distractions, not even a photo, and we're simply not used to that anymore. The article gives several examples of even researchers who find it almost impossible to sit down and read a classic novel without getting itchy fingers reaching for the smartphone, just to check if I'm missing something.

The need to focus on deep reading in schools and colleges is certainly there but I wonder if things are as bad as such articles claim. We are multitasking more than ever but at the same time the sales of fiction (both print and digital format) are booming and the phenomenal sales of the Harry Potter series, fantasy literature and vampire fiction show that teenagers certainly do read lengthy works of fiction without any distractions. However I like the concept of building biliteracy and the importance of knowing when to skim and when to dive.

Read more on this theme in a new article in the Guardian, The internet isn't harming our love of 'deep reading', it's cultivating it.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Turning point in Estonia

This week I was invited to Tallinn, Estonia, speak at the annual conference of HITSA (Information Technology Foundation for Education), a national organization for the development of educational technology: initiating, coordinating and facilitating activities and developments in the field of ICT-supported learning in Estonian higher and vocational education. It was held in the impressive Mektory innovation centre of the Tallinn University of Technology and attracted over 200 delegates from schools and universities. My contribution consisted of a keynote speech on the future of MOOCs (MOOCs - from hype to opportunity) and an overview of the development of OER in the Nordic region (Nordic OER) focusing on three projects I am involved in: NordicOER, OER Sverige and LangOER. Here is a short summary of my impressions from two intensive days.

Estonia is well known as a country that has invested in the use of educational technology, it is of course the home of Skype. They have also made some wise choices in the development of educational technology, for example establishing a consortium offering all educational institutions access to a national installation of the learning management system Moodle and thereby saving institutions enormous amounts of time and money running their own installations. In recent years two national repositories for open learning resources have been set up: one for higher education and one for schools, Kooleilu. Now a new education strategy has just been published by the government (only in Estonian just now), written in broad consultation with all stakeholders. The implementation of digital technologies is one of the key issues in the new strategy. The motto of the strategy is "Learning is a way of life" (Öppimme on eluviis) and it stresses that it is not just about buying new technology but about changing the way we work, study and learn (see article 2014 Estonian lifelong learning strategy is called smart people. A partnership with Finland has recently been announced (see press release) to create a common cloud for storing OER at all educational levels and giving access to other global repositories. The aim is to offer a mix of open and commercial resources with quality assurance criteria. Government will also sponsor the development of quality resources with the cooperation of publishers. Heli Mattisen (EKKA Quality Assessment Council) presented the main aims of the new strategy and stressed the importance of raising the skill sets of teachers, increasing the professionalism of school leadership and implementing new rating systems for schools based on skills criteria rather than simply test results.

The sessions were full of examples of how educational technology is being integrated into Estonian education as well as highlighting international perspectives and trends. Here are a few highlights I'll take away with me:
  • Sixth grade pupils from Gustav Adolf Grammar School in Tallinn presented their perspective on learning and teaching. Their key factors for effective learning were attention, collaboration, respect and active learning. Not to mention a lot of creativity and fun. 
  • There is too much spent on technology for teaching content and nothing spent on helping learning. We need to use technology for learning. Technology can be used in four stages: to exchange, to enrich, to enhance and to empower. Most attention is still on exchanging; using technology to reproduce traditional processes. (Bob Harrison, Education adviser, Toshiba Information Systems UK)
  • We need new spaces for learning to cater for self-regulated learners and flexible teachers. The learners set the objectives and select strategies for learning. The teacher has to become a researcher in the widest sense of the term. (Margus Pedaste, University of Tartu) 
  • ICT use in schools is still dominated by presentation tools like PowerPoint and interactive social tools are very seldom used. We need innovative teachers, innovative schools and innovative education systems. We have to empower teachers to develop, nurture innovation and strengthen the evidence base of new practices. (Marc Durando, European Schoolnet)
  • If it's not digital it has no value. (Tiit Paananen, Association of IT and telecommunications)
  • Kids aren’t all the cool digital natives that the media portray them as. There are digital divides there and many are vulnerable and need guidance. (John Carr, European NGO Alliance for child safety online www.enacso.eu)
  • Hans Pöldoja, Tallinn University, presented his work with open badges on an open course, Preparation for digital learning, and the value of such badges as motivators on open courses without formal credits as rewards.
  • Most classroom time is on the bottom two layers of Bloom’s taxonomy and then we send them home to deal with the upper levels without access to the teacher. Flipping the classroom involves doing the demanding work in class and the lower levels at home. (John Bergmann, Flipped classroom
  • Innovations happen outside established institutions. (Steve Taylor, From Start-Up to Stay-Up)
Finally a very positive feature of the conference was the availability of simultaneous translation so that I and other foreign visitors could follow sessions in Estonian and the Estonians could follow our contributions. This wasn't available in the practical workshops that took place away from the main hall so I wasn't able to participate in them. They certainly looked like fun!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Feeding the blogs

Three Hungry Baby Barn Swallows by mclcbooks, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by mclcbooks

The first of April is the one day of the year where most people have a high level of source criticism. You really have to check your sources and question everything. Most of the jokes are easy to spot but one that nearly caught me out was Steve Wheeler's farewell to blogging, Goodbye. Steve is one of the most prolific and most read edtech bloggers and the idea of him quitting blogging is rather hard to swallow. However he made a very convincing case; describing how blogging was affecting his private life and causing such stress that he could no longer justify it. I was actually just about to tweet the link with a sympathetic comment when I stopped and realised what day it was and that the post did contain some rather odd references to things like telepathy as an alternative to blogging. Normal service was resumed with a new post from Steve today (Seriously, 2 April) where the advantages of blogging far outweigh the disadvantages. The 1 April post was not so much a joke as an attempt to provoke a discussion about the role of the academic blogger.

The original post did resonate with me however. My blogs are not in the same league as Steve's in terms of readership but they do exert considerable pressure on my home life. Once you've built up a readership and set your own pace of how often you publish it is very hard to break the routine. I have built up a whole ecosystem around monitoring what's going on in the field of e-learning and then writing about it on blogs, in articles and various websites. For several years I've been keeping my hungry blogs well-fed and satisfied with this blog getting one or two posts a week and my Swedish news blog, Flexspan, getting 4-7 posts a week. Based on that I have a newsletter (in Swedish) that goes out every Monday with highlights from the week. Completely away from work I even have a third blog, about beekeeping, that demands regular postings. Hungry mouths indeed!

Once you get into that level of production it's mighty hard to break the habit and if you do, you get messages from people wondering if something is wrong. So I recognize the pressure Steve wrote about and the potential for stress that comes from setting a high level of production. Strange isn't it that if I had a boss who demanded this I would probably complain but I've created this all by myself and completely outside working hours. At the same time I realize that my blogs and other social media activities have completely changed my work. By sharing my thoughts and helping to spread others' good ideas I have built up a global network of colleagues who have invited my into interesting projects which have resulted in being invited to speak at conferences and join even more projects. I've visited places I could never have imagined visiting as part of my work and it keeps on developing. For me blogging has opened up a whole new world and even if I find it a strain now and then to think of what to write or to keep to my production schedule it's been well worth the effort.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The red pen


Education is full of stereotyped symbols that are hard to erase. No matter how collaborative, open and innovative we make education, the standard metaphors in the media and everyday speech are still the classroom, the desk, the blackboard, chalk, homework and the exam hall. One particularly enduring symbol is the dreaded red pen. This simple writing tool has become forever type-cast as the villain, an instrument of criticism and correction and is seldom used for anything else. We can happily write in all other colours but the red pen seems forever damned.

This theme is discussed in a post (in Norwegian but try with Google translate and you'll get the gist) by a Norwegian colleague of mine, Torhild Slåtto . Comments written in red on a student's assignment (either by pen or red text in a digital document) are said to have such a demotivating effect that most teachers prefer to comment in pretty well any colour other than red. She gives an example of a student who got a high grade for an assignment but couldn't understand why since there were so many red comments on it. The comments could well have been very positive and constructive but the colour clouded that fact and the student interpreted the comments as negative. If the comments had been in blue or green the effect would've been completely different.

There are many other examples of educational stereotypes and preconceptions that can lead to misunderstanding. The traditional role of the teacher as arbitrator and corrector lies so deep that students often misinterpret efforts to encourage collaborative learning, teamwork and peer assessment as "lazy" teaching. If you expect everything to be teacher-centred then you may view a student-centred strategy as the teacher not doing her/his job. This can result in negative course evaluations, not because of bad teaching but due to very different preconceptions of the teacher's role. In such cases the student may even be disappointed that no red ink was used; "the teacher didn't even correct me."

We need to unlearn old truths before we can move on.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Is a MOOC really a course?

Project365-Day34 by farouq_taj, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by farouq_taj

It is often said that in a MOOC every letter is negotiable. Much has been written about the many interpretations of open but maybe the most problematic is the final letter - C for course. Are MOOCs really courses? Many of the mainstream ones are definitely built like courses with a clear linear structure but the original connectivist model is more fluid. Whatever the intention of the MOOC-designers, the problem is whether the learners see the MOOC as a coherent course that must be followed from units 1 to 10 or whether they see it as content and discussions to dip into and investigate when their curiosity is awakened. Maybe the main reason for the notoriously low completion rates of MOOCs is the fact that most learners do not see them as courses to be followed from A to Z.

Stephen Downes hits the nail on the head in a new post about this issue, Like reading a newspaper. If we compare a regular course to a book which must be read from cover to cover then a MOOC is more like a newspaper that you read very selectively. A course, like a book, is meant to be followed from start to finish and abandoning it midway is seen as a failure to engage. Downes suggests that the connectivist MOOCs he's associated with offer learners a range of learning paths and a flexibility in approach that is unlike a regular course.

But our MOOCs are not designed like that. Though they have a beginning and an end and a range of topics in between, they're not designed to be consumed in a linear fashion the way a book is. Rather, they're much more like a magazine or a newspaper (or an atlas or a city map or a phone book). The idea is that there's probably more content than you want, and that you're supposed to pick and choose from the items, selecting those that are useful and relevant to your present purpose.

A newspaper is not a failure if noone reads it cover to cover just as a buffet is not a failure if we don't eat every dish. I suspect that even on the more linear and traditional xMOOCs of Coursera, edX and others, many learners treat them as newspapers/buffets rather than as a coherent course that must be followed. They dip in and investigate the parts that seem interesting and their disappearance should not be confused with dropping out of a formal university course. The completion rate comparison is comparing apples with pears basically.

Yet another argument for scrapping the term MOOC. How about Massively varying in size, open depending on your interpretation of the term, online (that one's OK), learning arena that may or may not resemble a course ...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

From owning to sharing

Sharing Is Caring - Fotosöndag by Niklas Wikström, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by Niklas Wikström

If a teacher, whose lectures and other course material are featured on a MOOC, moves to another employer, who owns that content? That's the question posed in an Inside Higher Ed article last week, When MOOC Profs Move. Most universities accept that if a faculty member leaves then they take their material with them however there are also rules in place allowing universities to retain rights to material that they have made significant investments in, such as a major MOOC. One case is described of a teacher, Cathy Davidson, from Duke University moving elsewhere and keeping the right to use her MOOC material in her new post.

“I own my own course content,” Davidson said in an email. “No one at Duke (or anywhere) can teach with my videos without my permission. I can reuse my videos and course materials at CUNY, but need to acknowledge that they were produced at Duke.”

The article looks at several cases that were solved amicably but there is always the risk of less easily resolved conflicts of interest. Interpretations of copyright vary from country to country making harmonisation difficult within multinational MOOC consortia like Coursera or edX. The university can be correct to keep the rights to material developed with internal funding and the teacher can also be right to retain control of their own material. However it is important to remember that digital learning resources are seldom the product of one teacher. Most video productions involve a team with other teachers, students, educational technologist, media production specialist, librarian and maybe web designer adding their expertise to the mix. It's simply not the teacher's sole property any more though the discussion all to often focuses on the teacher as copyright holder. The teacher may want to take their recorded lectures to a new university but the production team must also be involved in the discussion.

If the university is bold enough to adopt Creative Commons as a basis for resolving rights issues then the situation becomes immediately more flexible and to everyone's advantage. If the resource is shared under a CC license then the university retains the right to use it in the future, duly acknowledging the author(s), and the teacher can take the material with them. The resource is available to all as long as they attribute correctly, and the potential for disputes described in the article evaporates. Switch the focus from owning to sharing.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Only connect ...


When do we learn? I suspect that despite the best efforts of our teachers and schools we don't usually learn when and where we should. Of course a well-designed course can lead you towards deeper insights, help you form your ideas and practice the concepts but that essential insight may not come as hoped. Learning comes when we least expect it. Suddenly you make that connection and it all makes sense; lying awake in bed, sitting on a train or out jogging. For many of us education can have a delayed reaction and it can take months or even years before you actually realise that you have learned something.

Today education is carefully planned with learning outcomes, assessment, tests and planned progression. We plan courses on the assumption that students learn together and develop at the same pace: after xx weeks you will be able to do X, Y and Z. Isn't that a rather optimistic notion given the widely differing aptitudes, levels of commitment, distraction levels and ambitions among the learners. Some will get it almost immediately whereas others will struggle for ages and may never really "get it". Some will pass their exams and graduate without fully learning. I must confess to falling into that category as a student. I studied hard and passed the exams but looking back I never really understood until years later. I saw my studies as work that had to be done so I concentrated on ticking the boxes as I'm sure millions still do today.

You can't learn according to plan and you can't plan that a diverse group of people learn the same things at the same time. No matter how well educators design courses the outcomes can vary widely. It may seem that all students have fulfilled the course objectives but each one will have done so in their own way and with a wide variety of interpretations. We can learn the facts and apply the theory as the course demands but the real understanding may not be there. Real learning happens when the conditions are right and we can't control this. Serendipitous learning.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

MOOC Book Project


If you're going to write a book about MOOCs then the obvious method to use is to crowdsource it, in other words ask the world to help you. That's what the MOOC Book Project is all about. They propose an outline for the book chapters and invite interested authors to submit an abstract by the end of March. From those abstracts the editors, Dr. Joseph Rene Corbeil (Associate Professor, University of Texas at Brownsville), Dr. Maria Elena Corbeil (Associate Professor, University of Texas at Brownsville) and Dr. Badrul H. Khan (Honorary Distinguished Professor of E-Learning, Egyptian E-Learning University) will then select the best prospects and invite them to submit full chapters by the end of June. The chapters will be then subject to a double blind peer review as in most scientific journals. If all goes to plan the book should be out by mid-2015.

The book will examine MOOCs with case studies investigating the following eight dimensions:

  • Pedagogical - teaching and learning in a MOOC.
  • Technological - infrastructure, scalability etc.
  • Interface design - look and feel of the platform.
  • Evaluation - assessment methods etc.
  • Management - maintenance and distribution.
  • Resource support - online support and resources.
  • Ethical considerations - diversity, accessibility.
  • Institutional - administration, academic affairs.

This book will focus on cases describing issues or challenges experienced by IT and e-learning practitioners, faculty, or students during the design, development and implementation of, or participation in, a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Using Khan’s eight-dimensional E-Learning Framework, authors are invited to submit chapter proposals for cases addressing one (or more) dimensions of the framework. Through analysis, reflection, and discussion of illustrative MOOC cases, missteps in the design and delivery of future MOOCs can be minimized or avoided.

This is an interesting venture and I look forward to following its progress.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Faster horses


A frequently voiced, and understandable, concern about the use of technology in education is that we should not let technology come before pedagogy. The fear is that we are more interested in promoting the use of certain tools and devices rather than how to use them pedagogically and indeed whether they enhance or detract from the pedagogy. But is the issue so simple and should pedagogy always come first? A short but intriguing post by José Picardo, The problem with pedagogy first, argues that the two must be fully integrated before we really see the benefits of technology in education. He quotes the famous line by Henry Ford when developing mass car production: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Today's educational technology is being used to produce faster horses rather than truly opening new horizons. Maybe when the technology is so embedded that it is hardly noticed things will really begin to move forward.

What actually makes sense is to embrace technology and explore how it can support teaching and learning. A school’s digital strategy must ensure that both technology and pedagogy go hand in hand if we are to avoid the faster horse scenario, where our vantage point only allows us a narrow field of view that cannot provide us with the insight and perspective that are required to make educational technology so mundane and so embedded that teachers can focus on the teaching, which is what every teacher in the world dearly wants to achieve.

There's nothing new in pedagogy being influenced by technology. Often it's a lack of technology that dictates such as not having electricity, computers, internet access and so on. It can also be limited by physical environment; a lecture hall with bolted down desks in rows definitely limits the teacher's pedagogy. Administration can also severely restrict pedagogy by creating timetables with 45 minute periods after which a bell rings and the class disappears. 

However today's technology is enabling us to escape many of the above restrictions and create stimulating physical and digital learning environments that were not possible before. By embracing technology we can put pedagogy first.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Science on auto-pilot

robot army by peyri, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by peyri

Fifty years ago each academic field would have a limited number of journals and an even more limited number of conferences and it was quite possible to keep abreast of what was happening. That is simply not possible today with an ever-increasing deluge of publications and conferences in even the most narrow and specialised of fields. With such volume it is inevitable that some events and publications will have serious quality issues. Many less serious journals seem to publish just about anything without any peer review and the same is true for some conferences where accepting all papers can mean that authors will pay to attend.

An amazing news post in Nature, Publishers withdraw more than 120 gibberish papers, reveals that publishers Springer and IEEE are removing more than 120 published papers after discovering that they were automatically generated by computer and were, in fact, complete nonsense. These papers are generated by software called SCIgen that was developed by students at MIT about 12 years ago to see if random generated articles could get accepted for academic conferences. The articles produced by SCIgen certainly look plausible at first glance and if that is all the conference or journal reviewers have done it's possible to accept them. However anyone who actually tries to read them will see the bluff pretty quickly - have a look at one and see for yourself. If you can't spot them yourself then there is even a program that will detect computer generated papers, SCIgen detection. Read more on this in an article in the Guardian,
How computer-generated fake papers are flooding academia.

What's really interesting here is that although SCIgen was developed so long ago, nonsense articles are still finding their way into journals and conferences, to the amusement no doubt of those who submitted the articles and developed the software. In a way you could claim that they are doing an important job by revealing publications and conferences whose peer review of submissions either doesn't work or doesn't exist. These revelations will no doubt inspire some to take a serious look at their routines and some may hopefully be forced out of business.

Academics are under intense pressure to publish, conferences and journals want to turn their papers into profits, and universities want them published. "This ought to be a shock to people," Krohn said. "There's this whole academic underground where everyone seems to benefit, but they are wasting time and money and adding nothing to science. The institutions are being ripped off, because they pay publishers huge subscriptions for this stuff."
Guardian 27 Feb 2014, How computer-generated fake papers are flooding academia

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Accreditation and innovation not incompatible


A major landmark in open education was reached last week when University of the People was finally accredited by the Distance and Education Training Council, a U.S. Department of Education authorized accrediting agency. The online university with 1700 students from 142 countries has been in operation since 2009 with the objective of becoming "the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, accredited online academic institution dedicated to opening access to higher education globally for all qualified individuals, despite financial, geographic or societal constraints." Until now students have not been entitled to academic hard currency in the form of full university credits but with accreditation now in order it is likely that UoP will expand considerably and also demonstrate to the world that this educational model is not incompatible with the academic establishment. Indeed the accreditation of UoP must have raised a host of academic eyebrows and an article in Inside Higher EdAn Innovation Stifler? sees the decision as evidence that accreditation organisations may not be the barriers to innovation in education that they have often been accused of being.

"I have to say that with all the complaints, if they accredited us, they've paved the way to alternative models," says Shai Reshef, founder of University of the People. "We're tuition free, operate on a budget of $1 million a year, use only open learning resources and on a volunteer faculty and a peer-to-peer paradigm of learning -- we're as different as you can get."

UoP had to measure up to all the criteria a traditional university needs to fulfill and had to make several changes to their procedures to gain accreditation, for example introducing checks on students' English language ability. Previously the learning process in many study groups was impaired by many students' low level of English.

The interesting point in this for me is that an innovative organisation offering virtually free higher education explicitly to people in developing countries with a low-tech and low-cost model has been accredited and can now offer real credentials. Similarly there is the OER University partnership which has a different model but can also offer credentials to those who are unable for financial or geographical reasons to participate in mainstream higher education. These and several other open education initiatives are providing what the MOOC movement is supposed to offer but has so far largely failed to deliver. The majority of MOOCs do not lead to credentials and are often rather technology heavy, depending on high quality video and access to broadband connections. If this type of education is to have an impact in widening access to higher education it needs to offer layers of accessibility enabling even those without broadband access the chance to fully participate. Materials need to be offered so that they can operate on any platform and alternative materials must be provided that are low bandwidth-friendly. 

The MOOC revolution is providing plenty headlines and is a fascinating topic to follow but it is sad that the spotlight is so seldom turned on other aspects of open education (in all its 50 shades of openness) because there is plenty innovation going on there too. Now it is even accredited.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Closing thoughts on #OCL4Ed


As I write this post I realize that I have finally completed a MOOC after many attempts (Open Content Licensing for Educators). I have written several times about why I and thousands of others find it hard to stay the course so it's better to reflect briefly on why I completed this one. Firstly the subject is directly relevant to my work at present and I realised that although I know quite a lot about copyright and Creative Commons there's always more to learn. Secondly the length of course was not so daunting, a mere two weeks. Surely I could fit that into my life. Thirdly, I promised myself that this would be the one I'd complete. In other words the ideal combination of internal and external motivation plus the availability of time.

What have I learnt then? 
Online education is virtually impossible if you fully respect copyright laws and the complexities of working in an all-rights-reserved environment are too complex for teachers and students to understand. If full copyright applies a resource is simply locked and without explicit permission you should just link to the resource. The course has confirmed all my suspicions and confusion about copyright and made me even more convinced that as educators we need to show the world what they can and cannot do with our work by marking them clearly as CC.

I also thought that Creative Commons was a user-friendly enhancement and clarification of copyright but I have learnt that it too has its controversies and ambiguities. The main problem area has been the non-commercial condition. I first became convinced that it was a barrier to openness and that the share alike condition would suffice, since it is hard to make money with a resource that you have to share freely. Iam on the verge of changing the CC license on this blog to simply BY-SA. However my course colleague John Edmonstone made a good case for keeping NC by listing a number of valid objections, one of which was:

Any essentially commercial activity is outwith the bounds of the OER community - someone creating materials for profit is not going to share these openly. Therefore the principle of sharing all combinations of OER materials could not be adhered to.

Are we being a little blue-eyed in believing that only responsible educators will be interested in our content and not unscrupulous types out to make a fast buck or two? I fully support the idea that someone, say, in a developing country can earn a little money by repackaging my material (eg making print copies that can be distributed) but the idea that some opportunist could exploit the sharing culture of OER to make a fast profit does not appeal.

I take up these problem areas mostly because I discuss them almost daily at my university with colleagues who have genuine concerns about openness that I can't always answer. I got a question today, for example, asking which CC license would be best for an open access scientific journal. If it doesn't include NC someone could take an author's work and include it in a book without that person getting any royalties.Would a share alike condition be able to prevent this? My colleague argued that maybe a scientific article is such a coherent work that it should not be remixed therefore a stricter BY-NC-ND license would be appropriate. The article may be copied and made freely available but not commercially and only in its original form. Wouldn't remixing a scientific article amount to plagiarism?

The non commercial license has either to be redefined and fully clarified as to exactly what the term means or it should be withdrawn and possible replaced with a less ambiguous restriction. Another post on the course forum refers to a 2012 article by Richard StallmanOn-line education is using a flawed Creative Commons license, in which he argues why CC licenses using NC are flawed. The problem is that almost open licenses such as BY-NC and BY-NC-SA allow derivatives but not in a commercial context. This can lead to many adaptations over the year and then maybe someone wants to use one of these works commercially. Even with NC you are perfectly entitled to approach the author and ask permission; the rules of regular copyright apply here too. But if the work has been remixed several times, who do you ask?

What happens if you would like to use one of those works commercially? How could you get permission? You'd have to ask all the substantial copyright holders. Some of them might have contributed years before and be impossible to find. Some might have contributed decades before, and might well be dead, but their copyrights won't have died with them. You'd have to find and ask their heirs, supposing it is possible to identify those. In general, it will be impossible to clear copyright on the works that these licenses invite people to make. This is a form of the well-known "orphan works" problem, except exponentially worse; when combining works that had many contributors, the resulting work can be orphaned many times over before it is born.

Maybe what is needed is a selection of pedagogical examples for each CC condition that demonstrate when each condition is useful and when it is less so. A number of case studies that demonstrate in practical terms some of the trickier complexities. Could the Creative Commons website develop an interactive game giving educators the opportunity to test their interpretation of CC with recognizable case studies and interactive multiple choice questions. The gaming element could be built in by letting you move to more advanced levels and then some kind of Khan Academy style badges when you succeed. The more CC can be linked to the practical everyday problems faced by teachers the more likely they are to see the benefits.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Something old, something new, something borrowed ...

20-October-2009 - Something old, somethi by I Am Rob, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by I Am Rob on Flickr

This post is another assignment on the course Open Content Licensing for Educators that I'm doing just now. The old custom of what a bride should have on her when getting married, "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue," is rather applicable here as I try to include examples of various license forms in one article to meet the requirements of this week's course assignment. Here's the task:

Prepare a blog post of approximately 700 - 900 words in two parts:
  • Write about a topical concept or interesting idea of your choice (400 - 500 words). You don't need to restrict the topic to education, it could be a hobby or personal interest. This component of the blog must include:
  • Text you can legally copy and modify about 300 words.
  • Sources from a minimum of three different Creative Commons license types or open usage declarations (this is intended to explore your knowledge and the challenges associated with license compatibility when choosing the license for redistribution).
  • Over and above the Creative Commons sourced material, this section of the post must also include an extract of all rights reserved content legitimately used under the exception provisions of your national copyright act.
  • You must include at least one image in your post which can count as one of the required license types for this post.
  • Based on your preferred license preference and the legal requirements of the materials you have copied for reuse and adaptation in your blog, you must apply a Creative Commons license for your derivative work which meets the legal requirements for remix compatibility.
  • Your blog post must include proper attributions for the materials you have reused.
    (Text CC BY Some rights reserved on WikiEducator)
Admittedly this is a rather contrived post as I try and tick the boxes indicated above but it's still a challenging exercise and I have a few questions that I would like to get some feedback on from the course facilitators and other participants. When I started this blog I put a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial, share alike license on it meaning that you are free to copy, reuse and remix the material under the conditions that you do not use it commercially and must share whatever you create under the same license as this. However, over the years I have used a lot of CC photos to illustrate my posts and they have the full range of CC license forms. To avoid conflicts I wrote a restriction on my BY-NC-SA license that it only applies to my texts and that photos may have other licenses (now and again I include a copyright photo that I have asked permission to use). Is this acceptable or do I have to severely restrict the types of CC photos I can include so as not to conflict with the blog's overall license? As I understand it my overall license BY-NC-SA means that I cannot include any CC material that has the condition no derivatives since that conflicts with the blog's overall license. Material that has BY-SA is also not possible since I cannot then share alike if I add the non-commercial condition.
Public Domain CC0

The idea of aggregation where new content is created by mixing other openly licensed content and then gathering the final content package under a license that does not conflict with the licenses of the content used, is not the simplest concept for the busy teacher to grasp and practice. Some colleagues solve the whole problem by simply not including anything they haven't produced themselves and only linking to other sources. This is certainly the safest course if you find the world of copyright simply too complex to spend time on. many years ago when we all discovered PowerPoint our presentations were suddenly full of wonderful photos, diagrams and video clips not to mention those extremely irritating animations and sound effects.

If I was writing this blog as part of my university work and using a blog platform owned by the university I would have more scope for including copyright material in the post, as required in the assignment above. On a university platform I would be able to use copyrighted material under a general agreement in Sweden allowing university staff to use copyright educational material for educational purposes. This is administered by a national organisation called Bonus Copyright Access:

Bonus Copyright Access is a Reproduction Rights Organisation (RRO) that licences reproduction rights to schools, enterprises, public authorities and other organisations. Bonus Copyright Access is a collective rights management organisation which acts as intermediary/facilitator between rightholders and users in the fields of reprographic reproduction and certain digital uses.
However since this blog is private I do not have such rights and unless I get specific permission I can only link to copyrighted resources of quote short text extracts (as I have just done with the quote above!).

To close with here's a wonderful photo that contains several layers of copyright issues all rolled into one image. The actual photo is on Flickr under a BY-NC license (fitting nicely under my blog's aggregated license) but since it's a photo of a company's trademark it could be a case of copyright infringement. However the company here is obviously breaching the copyright of the official copyright logo and the question arises over whether the photographer is wrong to photograph a breach of copyright?

Copyright? by Stephen Downes, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by Stephen Downes on Flickr

Confused? You will be ...
I cannot claim that I am any less confused about digital rights after this course than I was before but I am aware of the complexities in a more structured way. Copyright in a digital environment is today so complex and full of anomalies that no teacher or student can be expected to understand it. They either choose to ignore the problem and go on copying whatever they like in blissful ignorance or do everything themselves. A middle way is essential and Creative Commons would seem to be at least part of the answer. The key is to get CC adopted as mainstream practice.