Sunday, March 10, 2019

Myths that refuse to die - open-plan offices

For some reason we keep building open-plan offices despite frequent studies that show them to be counter productive. I seldom meet people who actually enjoy working in this type of environment though many put a brave face on it and echo the organisation's belief that it promotes openness and synergy. The latest evidence against open office spaces comes in new research from Harvard University summarised in the British Psychological Society's Research Digest, Open-plan offices drive down face-to-face interactions and increase use of email.

The study monitored the behaviour of employees who had recently moved to an open-plan office and shows that they became significantly less collaborative than they had been before the move. Instead of engaging in all the spontaneous lively discussions and collaboration envisaged in the popular mythology they became silent, preferring to discuss with each other by e-mail or chats. The most striking result of the research is the magnitude of the reduction in face-to-face interaction in the open-plan office.

We began with a specific research question: does removing spatial boundaries at work to create open, unbounded offices increase interaction? Our two empirical field studies were consistent in their answer: open, unbounded offices reduce F2F interaction with a magnitude, in these contexts, of about 70%. Electronic interaction takes up at least some of the slack, increasing by roughly 20% to 50% ...

A common complaint about the open-plan office is the lack of privacy and the difficulty of speaking to a colleague without everyone else overhearing you. The constant movement of people in and out of the room also disturbs thought processes and keep you wondering where a colleague is going now or where they have been. Transparency becomes a distraction rather than a stimulus to increased activity. The BPS article states:

If you’ve ever sought refuge from the gold-fish bowl of an open-plan office environment by cocooning yourself with headphones, or if you’ve decided you’d rather not have that challenging conversation with a colleague in front of a large group of your peers, and opted to email them instead, then these findings will come as little surprise.

Many such offices fall silent since every conversation risks disturbing someone and as a result many people wear headphones all day and communicate by text. The next question then is why bother to travel so far to the office to sit all day doing work that could be done just as well from home? The incentive to come to work is even lower when you have no assigned space and have to take whatever desk is free when you arrive. This lack of personal space where you have your family photos, mascots, a plant or other comforts reinforces a feeling of anonymity and the feeling that if you left no-one would notice. Of course there are exceptions where an open-plan environment really works but the evidence against the concept is stacking up and I wonder how much longer it will continue to be ignored. As one article points out  (Inc. It's Official: Open-Plan Offices Are Now the Dumbest Management Fad of All Time) even if the real reason for open-plan is simply to save money on office space the amount of money lost to the resulting inefficiency should make organisations think again.

Conclusions? We need a variety of spaces, both physical and digital, for different types of work. People need private space to feel secure and work well but they also need spaces for discussions, meetings and interaction. Working from home offers greater flexibility but to make it work well we also need digital meeting spaces for spontaneous discussions and collaboration. We can move between these spaces during our daily work but a fundamental requirement would seem to be a quiet space to call your own.

ReferenceEthan S. Bernstein, Stephen Turban. The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences. 2018.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Informal networking - the missing link in online conferences?

Mingling by Alaska Library Association, on Flickr
"Mingling" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by Alaska Library Association
If we are going to see a rise in online conferences in order to reduce the carbon footprint of educational conferences, we need to find ways of replicating the most positive features of the on-site conference. For most people the best part of a conference is the chance to make new contacts in the informal spaces of the conference: during coffee and lunch breaks, between sessions and during the social programme. Online platforms can already deliver the keynote lectures and we are learning how to run interactive workshops and seminars online using collaborative documents, breakout groups and so on. However the chance meetings in the corridor or at an informal reception are where the online meetings fall flat.

However, a colleague recently showed me an online meeting platform called Sococo that offers a way forward for online conferences. Sococo is aimed at the corporate market but the concept can certainly be developed for academic purposes, either by them or a completely different organisation. Have a look at the video below to get an idea of how this works. Basically you can design a virtual office with a lobby, group rooms, large meeting room and so on. The plan shows where each participant is and you can move to different rooms to talk with someone or have a small meeting. Or everyone can gather in the main hall for a large meeting or lecture. Everyone in a room can then have video and audio contact with everyone else as well as being able to screenshare and chat as in all other web meeting platforms. The difference is that you can invite someone to meet you in the lobby or in a smaller room for more informal contact, or even in a hall or lobby. You can even knock on the door to a room and ask to join the discussion in there.

I particularly like the simple interface with the participants represented simply by coloured dots and names. When you are in a room you can see everyone via their web cameras but the office plan shows you where everyone else is at the moment. The step from the most popular web meeting tools to this one is therefore very small and is therefore more appealing than using a virtual world solution where you first need to create an avatar and then work out how to navigate. I don't think Sococo is designed for large conferences but it would be interesting to try it with smaller gatherings. We could also offer virtual city tours using GoPro cameras. The conference dinner will be hard to accomplish but maybe you could create a number of web meeting group rooms, divide up the participants into random groups and ask them all to have their own dinners in front of them.

Creating a sense of space and interaction is a vital factor as we develop more engaging online meeting environments. I don't think we can fully replicate the advantages of face-to-face on-site meetings but if those become less acceptable this is the only way forward.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Is digital life without the big five possible?

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
Over the last year I have made a few attempts to limit my exposure to some of the tech giants services and make it harder for them to track everything I do. I have stopped using Chrome as a browser, stopped searching with Google, deleted Google maps from my mobile, reviewed all the privacy settings in my mobile and deleted a lot of apps. However this all seems rather futile after reading and watching a fascinating series of reports by Kashmir Hill, Goodbye big five. She decided to try to live without the big five tech giants one week at a time: Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. My attempts are simply superficial because between them these five companies control virtually everything on the internet. Services that we use every day and never even associate with the big five use their cloud hosting services, map functions and other tracking and ad-based services.

Hill took on one giant at a time and with the help of an expert colleague blocked all traffic from known IP addresses connected to Amazon, Google etc. Amazon alone controls over 23 million addresses which means that living without them is extremely difficult. So just stopping using the companies main site is not going to get them out of your life. Virtually everything we do online is dependent on five gigantic companies.

It’s not just logging off of Facebook; it’s logging off the countless websites that use Facebook to log in. It’s not just using DuckDuckGo instead of Google search; it’s abandoning my email, switching browsers, giving up a smartphone, and living life without mapping apps. It’s not just refusing to buy toilet paper on; it’s being blocked from reading giant swaths of the internet that are hosted on Amazon servers, giving up websites and apps that I didn’t previously know were connected to the biggest internet giant of them all.

The most interesting week of her experiment was when she blocked all five and tried to live with a non-connected digital camera, a no-frills Nokia mobile and a PC running open source OS Linux (watch the video about this week below). Suddenly she had almost nothing to listen to or watch since services like Spotify and Netflix are dependent on the big five. All streaming services were off limits as were most communication channels. Sending messages and files became extremely difficult because even if there are open alternatives they tend to be harder to use, less attractive in design and the people you need to communicate with are not on them. Hill calls the final stage of her detox as digital veganism and in the film below she interviews a tech expert who lives that way.

Basically we have allowed these companies to expand without any regulation and now when they control most of the internet it seems a bit late to try to fix things. Attempts are being made, most notably in the EU with, among other things, the recent GDPR legislation but there are few signs that the present US administration is considering any moves. The moral of the story from Kashmir Hill's experience is that we need to at least to become more aware of how dependent we are on the big five and try to limit that exposure to some extent. A certain amount of digital detox is recommended for all but at the moment it seems virtually impossible to escape completely.

Some final words from Hill's article series:

I went through the digital equivalent of a juice cleanse. I hope I’m better than most dieters at staying healthy afterward, but I don’t want to be a digital vegan. I want to embrace a lifestyle of “slow Internet,” to be more discriminating about the technology I let into my life and think about the motives of the companies behind it. The tech giants are reshaping the world in good and bad ways; we can take the good and reject the bad.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

How would you change education if you could choose?

What would the education system look like if you had the power and resources to change it? We have all been discussing educational change for years at conferences, in publications, communities and blogs, pointing out shortcomings of the present system and proposing new strategies, teaching methods, organisation forms, platforms, devices and tools as possible solutions. But what do we actually want? What would our schools and colleges look like if you could choose? That was the basis of a panel discussion at this week's ICDE Lifelong learning summit 2019 in Lillehammer, Norway that I attended. So I decided to take up the challenge and try to briefly outline what sort of education system I would like to see. This is very much a first draft with some general principles but maybe the starting point for further discussion and reflection.

Schools and universities are part of society but also oases for reflection and perspective.
Education must become more integrated into the surrounding community with more opportunities for pupils and students to get involved in real community projects and work experience. This is already happening but must be further strengthened to let students apply their knowledge and skills in activities of real value and learn to work in a variety of different fields and with a wide range of people. Similarly companies and local authorities need to be more visible in the schools and colleges. At the same time it is also vital that educational institutions are also places where you are able to step back from the world around you; an oasis for reflection. We must not allow our education system to become simply training grounds for the labour market and there must be space for studies in philosophy and the arts to provide a healthy counter-balance. Sometimes we need an ivory tower to sit in for a while.

From bubbles to an ecosystem
Our education system is made up of a lot of bubbles. We divide schools rigidly into age-group bubbles as well as dividing the curriculum into subject bubbles, thus creating artificial barriers for the sake of administrative convenience. We need to find new ways to let age groups and subjects interact naturally, learning to use a range of knowledge and skills to solve problems together. This ties in with the increasing involvement of the community in education and of education in the community outlined above. Of course, this continues all through life and the concepts of school and college evaporate into a fluid education ecosystem for lifelong learning. Everyone in society is engaged in learning activities all through life and schools and colleges provide a framework for this. A classroom full of 12 year-olds will in this context become a rather absurd notion from the past.

Schools and colleges should be spaces that are open to all sections of society and where we have a chance to learn to live and work with each other. If we want to have a tolerant and cohesive society we need to foster this in our schools. Technology can help us here with tools that make learning more accessible to all and allow us to collaborate not only on-site but with colleagues from anywhere in the world. Concepts like virtual mobility allow our students to learn to work with students from many different cultures and circumstances. Technology can allow people with special needs to participate more fully than ever before in school and college work. In addition we have more teachers and other professionals who are trained in supporting people with special needs and can help to make our schools more inclusive.

Distance is no object
Today there is a vast range of online and distance learning opportunities in most countries in the world. This will continue to flourish but we need governments in particular to provide funding for  support structures to help disadvantaged people and people in remote areas to take advantage of opportunities like this. Combinations of online courses and local support are essential if we really want more inclusive education. Universities need incentives to open up their courses to the wider society and create new paths to higher education. Technically we can widen access to education but the educational systems are not quite ready for the challenges.

Technology is important but so is the absence of it
When I started thinking about this I realised that today I do not want to put technology in a headline role in my dreams of a future education system. Technology has a supporting role in all of the above but should complement and enhance human contacts. As technology becomes ubiquitous in society the need arises to find spaces where we learn to survive without it. Even if artificial intelligence will soon learn to write novels, compose music, solve complex problems, play chess, speak any language and drive our transport we will still want to be able to do these things ourselves as well. Schools of the future will need to create offline time where these skills can be learnt and practiced. Learning how to switch between plugged in and unplugged is a key literacy for the future.

All these ingredients are already present today to varying degrees around the world. I would just like us to work together to magnify them.

After posting this I realised that I had forgotten to mention the theme of so many of my posts over the last couple of years - digital literacies and data security. Schools and colleges need to be able to make informed choices about the platforms and tools they use and ensure that students' data is protected from commercial interests. Similarly we need to help students make wise choices about how they use tools and services and be aware of the opportunities and limitations involved.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Massive for-profit online courses

I wrote a few years ago that it was time to forget the acronym MOOC and realise that this umbrella term was too limited to cover the number of variations trying to shelter under it. Today a majority of so-called MOOCs are just regular online courses that can cost you quite a lot of money if you want any kind of certification or even credit for your efforts. Even the content is disappearing behind paywalls as the platforms focus on return on investment. One major platform, the Australian Open2study has recently closed down completely. Of course there are still genuinely open MOOCs delivered in a spirit of sharing and outreach, but they are generally low-profile and hard to discover unless you know where to look. Free and open education sounded great but in the end someone has to pay.

A possible obituary for the MOOC as we imagined it appears in an article in University World News, MOOCs fail in their mission to disrupt higher education. It refers to a new study from MIT in the journal ScienceThe MOOC pivot, that examined MOOC statistics from the platform edX and found that the vast majority of participants do not return to take other courses and that there has been virtually no change in the extremely low completion rates in the last six years. Furthermore there are no real signs that MOOCs have succeeded in reaching the original intended target group, those who are unable to access traditional higher education. On the contrary the participants are mostly affluent professionals with a traditional university background and of course they are the people most likely to be able to pay for certificates, tuition and so on.

Rather than creating new pathways at the margins of global higher education, MOOCs are primarily a complementary asset for learners within existing systems.

The main reason why non-traditional learners are not attracted to MOOCs is that they are unfamiliar with the concept of online learning and need support and encouragement, generally face-to-face, in order to get on board successfully. This is where most MOOCs fall short since they often assume that the learners have good digital and study skills.

Reich and Ruipérez-Valiente point out that there is a basic problem if MOOC providers are competing to undercut traditional providers in this market and attract the less traditional consumers – potential students from less well-off families, especially from families with no history of attending higher education – since research shows they typically perform worse in online courses and most need human support in the form of tutors and peer learning groups.

The courses formerly known as MOOCs are now competing with all other online courses and degrees and are thereby part of the system that the media hype claimed they were going to disrupt. Of course the universities offering these courses have learned a lot from the experience and there are now alternative and more flexible pathways to higher education, but I don't think the results are particularly disruptive. The people who have been unable to access higher education due to socio-economic factors are still unable to access higher education. If we have to use acronyms let's call them MOCS, minus the word open.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Online degrees and physical presence

Online degrees are still not even recognised in many countries and even when they are, they are generally viewed with a degree of suspicion. The reasons for this suspicion are understandable. The whole field of online education is still evolving and so there is a much higher degree of experimentation and remodeling, with subsequent successes and failures, than in traditional campus education. Online courses over the years have been largely based on self-study with very little interaction or teacher presence and this model still dominates the public perception. Online education tends to be part-time, home-based and in combination with work and family and students do not benefit from the many advantages of being on campus: developing contacts, social interaction, strong student identity, academic community. The courses may cover the same topics and have equally high demands but the campus version still has higher status because of the added value of these intangible elements.

The question of whether online degrees will ever be seen as equivalent to campus degrees is examined in an article by Eric Stoller in Inside Higher Ed, Online Degrees: Prestige, Acceptance, and the Big Picture. Even if there are excellent examples of collaborative and engaging online education, the value of a course or degree is closely tied to the reputation of the awarding institution.

Online degree prestige at present is directly connected to the perceived prestige of the brick-and-mortar institution that's offering the program.

This argument is particularly true for MOOCs, where courses from high-status universities attract the most attention, even if that particular institution has never previously been recognised as a provider of quality online education. The global ranking systems that focus on research funding and citation impact do not always correspond to pedagogical excellence but prestige is still what counts when assessing the value of a course or degree. So a MOOC or online course from the likes of Harvard or Stanford will always attract more learners and have a higher perceived value than one from an obscure college, even if the actual course at the smaller institution is better designed and more engaging.

Perception is everything when it comes to prestige and certain institutions have an almost insurmountable amount of prestige.

Place and tradition are extremely important in human society. A university needs a physical presence and a long history to instill trust and credibility, even if it offers online degrees. This physical footprint creates a sense of permanence and a demonstration of its commitment. You can go there to see the staff, researchers and students going about their daily work. The more online an institution, the more invisible it becomes and the harder it gets to visualise what goes on there. We still tend to value online courses from well-known physical institutions with a long history higher than virtual institutions with little physical presence and a very short history. Association with a physical footprint makes a difference.

The key to the future of online degrees is that they are subject to the same rigorous quality assurance as all degrees and that this is communicated clearly to the public. Online education is unlikely to match the prestige of a campus education, even in the future, but Stoller stresses the need for accreditation to ensure that your online degree will allow you to pursue your chosen career.

If you get an online-based degree twenty years from now, I would hope that as long as it comes from a reputable institution (regardless of its perceived prestige) that's been accredited by a legitimate accreditor that your credential allows you to do whatever you hope to do with it regardless of the crest atop the gate at XYZ university.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Goodbye Google+

Google are pulling the plug on their social network Google+ with as little ceremony as possible. It's not even clear exactly when the lights will be switched off but it will probably be in April. It is no big surprise to many users since the service has been largely left to wither over the last few years with few signs of any loving care from its owners. It now follows a line of Google services that have been quietly laid to rest over the years when they failed to gain the impact that their often over-hyped launches promised. Remember Google Wave for example? It was the platform that would revolutionise online communication and was introduced cleverly by invitation only in 2009. Invitations to try Google Wave became status symbols and expectations were sky-high. However the platform didn't meet these expectations and was quietly phased out a mere two years later.

There's a good eulogy to Google+ by Gideon Rosenblatt, Can You Fall in Love with a Social Network?, where he tracks the rise and fall of the platform and explains why he embraced it so enthusiastically, as did many others including myself. Although it is often presented as Google's challenge to Facebook, Google+ offered a different approach built on forming interest groups based on circles of friends and colleagues. I've been using it for several years as a platform for our online course Open Networked Learning, both as a community for the whole course and for small communities for each of the study groups in the course. It has worked very well and has an attractive layout that is easy to work with. A few years ago Google+ was fully integrated with Google Hangouts, the web-conferencing tool, and this made group work extremely easy, allowing all participants to arrange and run events in the form of a Hangout. Sadly Hangouts was suddenly disconnected from Google+ a few years ago and we have had to find other conferencing tools instead. Hangouts still lives on as a service, but it is very much under the radar and I hardly know anyone who uses it any more. Another case of a good service dying through neglect.

The main lesson here is that platforms and tools come and go. That means you will always need a plan B and somewhere safe to store the data you value.

The main lesson of Google+ is that it’s time to stop trusting our creations and our relationships to companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, in the hopes that they will do the right thing with them. They will do the right thing as long as it maps to their primary purpose, which is maximizing returns for their shareholders. When that stops being true, well, then, that assumption of trust disappears. Google+ demonstrates this problem more vividly than any product or service shutdown that I can remember.

I will miss Google+ but not in the form it has taken in recent years, where it became less useful with every so-called update. It lost its spark a few years ago and instead of being a place for innovative new functions and dynamic communities it became a slowly stagnating backwater. Our online course is now using BuddyPress, a WordPress plug-in, to create communities and this looks like a more reliable solution that we have greater control over and can run on our own server.

If you want to see how you can save at least some of your content on Google+, I can recommend a post by Sue Beckingham, Google+ is now closing in April 2019 – How to download what you have curated.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Covering your digital footprints

CC0 public domain on Pixabay
I learned a new term today that encapsulates what I have been worrying about for the past year or so when working with educational technology: surveillance capitalism. Our tools, platforms and channels are watching and storing our every move and happily profiting from our data. Our most treasured possessions are bugging devices that we happily spend enormous sums of money and time keeping up-to-date and always connected. Forgive me if I write yet another post on this topic but the topic is simply too big to be ignored. This past year I have made a few adjustments to my digital life in an attempt to become a little less dependent on the commercial tech giants. I have dumped Google Chrome as my browser, I search with Duckduckgo, thoroughly reviewed my security settings on Facebook (but can't bring myself to leave), tried Mastodon, the non-commercial alternative to Twitter and a few other changes, but I realise I'm still in too deep for my own good.

So how can we help our students to navigate this minefield and what tools and platforms should we use to maintain a decent level of integrity? An article by Erin Glass on Hastac, Ten weird tricks for resisting surveillance capitalism in and through the classroom . . . next term!, contains some excellent advice for educators who would like to move to a more responsible use of edtech without risking data leaking to unknown companies. The article kicks off with a snappy challenge:

Are you watching in sheer terror as BigTech's four horsemen Surveillance, Exploitation, Manipulation, and Cataclysmic Hubris gallop wildly down the information superhighway, downloading their user-friendly death and destruction as far as the eye can see?

The article is not, however, simply doom and gloom. It offers a list of concrete measures for raising awareness among students and colleagues through classroom activities and the application of critical thinking to the platforms and tools we use every day. Just as we need to combat fake news with an increased focus on source criticism we also need to investigate the infamous terms and conditions we so happily have agreed to over the years. What exactly have we agreed to? How can I reclaim my data, if at all possible? What sort of data is stored? How can I delete my account and if I do is the data really deleted? It may seem like a daunting task but the important thing is to realise that we can do something and these issues must be discussed.

Transform your personal paranoia about surveillance capitalism into fodder for cross campus dialogue, research, policy development, and community building. Reach out to your librarians, digital scholarship/humanities specialists, IT workers, humanities centers, and other campus organizations about exploring options to raise awareness about these issues, such as reading groups, talks, and workshops.

The commercial solutions are of course extremely attractive, addictive and easy to use and it's hard to see how to replace many of them but we can make a start by testing out some of the tools mentioned in this article. I am currently trying out the Tor browser that not only does not track you but makes your identity impossible to detect for the sites that feed on that information. Another interesting tool is the chat and messaging service Rocket.Chat that offers an alternative to Slack and other similar commercial tools. I'm also considering moving my blogs onto safer platforms using the service Reclaim hosting. This would be a major undertaking for a non-techie like me and my blogs have 10 years of posts to safely move but it sounds like a good New Year resolution for 2019.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Behind the edtech glitter

As the end of the year approaches it is customary for experts, news media and bloggers to reflect on what has happened and try to draw some conclusions for the future. Before you read any of these, I would like to point you in the direction of Audrey Watters' blog post, The Stories We Were Told about Education Technology (2018). Audrey has been a tireless campaigner for a more balanced and mature view of the role of technology in education and has warned repeatedly about the dangers of simply riding the wave of edtech hype and accepting the corporate storytelling. Normally she writes a series of in-depth articles at the end of the year, critically analysing trends in edtech. This year, however, she sees an enormous mismatch between the continued glowing promises of the industry and the harsh realities of today's education system (especially the USA): poor employment conditions for teachers, segregation, increased cyber bullying and hate crime, school shootings, increased surveillance etc. Ironically a major growth area in the edtech sector is now school surveillance and security systems.

This year, she summarises the situation in just one post and conveys a bleak analysis.

If I look back at what I’ve written in previous years, I feel like I’ve already covered everything I could say about 2018. Hell, I’ve already written about the whole notion of the “zombie idea” in ed-tech – that bad ideas never seem to go away, that just get rebranded and repackaged. I’ve written about misinformation and ed-tech (and ed-tech as misinformation). I’ve written about the innovation gospel that makes people pitch dangerously bad ideas like “Uber for education” or “Alexa for babysitting.” I’ve written about the tech industry’s attempts to reshape the school system as its personal job training provider. I’ve written about the promise to “rethink the transcript” and to “revolutionize credentialing.” I’ve written about outsourcing and online education. I’ve written about coding bootcamps as the “new” for-profit higher ed, with all the exploitation that entails. I’ve written about the dangers of data collection and data analysis, about the loss of privacy and the lack of security.

We have all been dazzled by the narrative of transforming education through technology but I think more and more educators are becoming more wary about the technology we use. There are much more pressing issues facing schools and universities than the purchase of every new gadget and device that hits the market and above all we have to reconsider very seriously the systems we use and who can access and exploit the data created by our students. 

Watters' post is not easy reading and contains many home truths. Her role of critically reviewing the field of educational technology has irritated many and the consequent criticism has understandably taken its toll. Critical thinking is surely a central element of academic practice but it takes a lot of courage to question ideas that sound as attractive and exciting as those offered by the edtech industry. Her conclusion is sadly to move on to other projects and reflects in resignation:

This is the ninth year that I’ve reviewed the stories we’re being told about education technology. Typically, this has been a ten (or more) part series. But I just can’t do it any more. Some people think it’s hilarious that I’m ed-tech’s Cassandra, but it’s not funny at all. It’s depressing, and it’s painful. And no one fucking listens.

Many of us do listen and we also need someone to voice our fears in a balanced and credible manner. But it is unreasonable to leave this to just one person so I can only thank her for many thoughtful and investigative posts over the years and the best of luck with new ventures. I suspect however that the blog will continue.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Sharing MOOC resources - whatever happened to open?

CC0 Public domain on Max Pixel
Several years ago there were strong connections between MOOCs and the field of open educational resources (OER). By using OERs you could design open courses that could be offered to large groups of learners - and so the MOOC was born. However, the relationship between the two concepts has become rather complex in recent years, especially since most of the content in MOOCs is anything but open. Indeed, the whole idea of the word open has become elastic.

An example of this is an interesting article in Inside Higher Ed, How MOOC Collaboration Could Aid On-Campus Teaching and Learning. It discusses the problem that most MOOC content is locked into the various MOOC platforms and cannot be reused, not even by the members of the consortium. It seems that not even the institutions within EdX, Coursera or other consortia are able to access each other's course material and this means that some extremely valuable and costly educational resources are locked down. The article looks at a current initiative within Open EdX to share resources among partner institutions and thereby allowing for some level of reuse, especially in regular campus courses.

Sharing MOOC content among partner institutions for the purposes of residential instruction could substantially increase the value-add of participating in a MOOC consortium. The challenges to MOOC providers involve unbundling content from course models, providing interoperability pathways between MOOCs and residential learning management systems, and formulating governance for sharing as more initiatives move toward sustainable -- for-pay and/or for-credit -- models.

Being able to share resources with other member institutions in what is labelled a collaboration economy sounds like an obvious and attractive benefit of belonging to a MOOC consortium. The difficulty at present is being able to search effectively within the platform and easily add content directly into your learning management system. A project at Harvard University DART: Digital Assets for Reuse in Teaching, aims at integrating the university's MOOC content with their LMS, Canvas, and providing effective search and recommendation services. This is so far restricted to using the university's own MOOC resources in their own regular programmes, something that I had assumed was already normal practice. The concept of sharing within a consortium is seen as the next big step but presumably with a price tag.

As edX and other MOOC providers continue to chart paths to paid, for-credit courses, it is an opportune time to more boldly reimagine the benefits participating in a MOOC consortium brings. Institutions of higher education are beginning to more deeply strategize about how they view the digital learning landscape. And at a time when so many institutions have committed to open online courses, it’s natural to ask how these materials can be used to explore new pathways in both existing and nascent learning settings.

At the same time the solutions proposed in the article would be irrelevant if everyone simply put a Creative Commons license on all the material and shared it openly. But since many high profile institutions have invested heavily in their MOOCs, they are wary of simply opening up to the world and want to protect their investment to a certain extent by restricting the openness to consortium members. But is sad to see that the MOOC movement, built on the concept of openness, has resulted in silos of locked content that may in the future be unlocked to those willing to pay for membership. I really thought the whole idea was to share expertise and make education available to everyone.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

When learning gets real

Photo by Headway on Unsplash
Student assignments (essays, group work, reports) are all too often written for an audience of one, namely the teacher, and for the sole purpose of providing a basis for grading. The student will adjust the effort according to the weight of the assignment (number of credits available) and try to meet that particular teacher's criteria. The idea that anyone else might benefit from the assignment or that it should have some real impact outside the confines of the classroom is seldom considered. However, the assignment can be transformed by making it public or better still aimed at a wider audience which can benefit from the findings. Learning can be transformed when the audience is expanded and the results can make a difference. In addition, most employers are looking for evidence of practical experience so let's make sure that assignments are as real as possible.

This is nothing new of course but the potential was reinforced for me during a seminar I attended in Beirut, Lebanon, this week, Skills needed for the twenty first century and their impact on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.The afternoon session featured interesting examples of how learning is enhanced when a course becomes a stage and the results of the students' work benefit a wide and even global audience. Several speakers described how business simulations generate high levels of student engagement and provide a realistic setting for developing decision-making and teamwork skills. This is combined with teaching and plenty of feedback and tutorials from the teachers. Simulations do indeed generate a high level of student commitment but the bar can be raised even higher when you move from simulated activities to real problems in real organisations and let the students interact with professionals in their field. Two examples in particular stood out for me.

Corporate virtual mobility
One way of raising the bar for students is allowing them to do projects for companies and thus develop their skills, gain work experience and learn to collaborate online and meet real deadlines. A great example of university-industry collaboration was from Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK). They had first linked business students with an international company that was interested in breaking into the Middle East market. The students spent 2 months working as marketing consultants for the company, under the supervision of their teachers and were constantly in contact with company representatives. The final product was a marketing survey that was of great practical use for the company whilst the students had been able to put their theoretical knowledge into practice and also gained practical work experience for their CVs. The success of this venture lead to the university linking up with the Spanish-based academic business network, Telanto. Telanto links companies who have problems to solve (challenges) with suitable university classes who can try to find a solution to these challenges. Students work intensively with the company to solve the challenge and the result is beneficial to both sides. In the case of USEK, several students were asked to join an internship programme with the company or even offered full-time employment on graduation. This is a further example of virtual mobility but this time the mobility is with a company rather than a university. Experience of working in virtual international teams to solve problems is extremely attractive in today's job market and I think we will see many more ventures like this in the future.
See slideshow: Teaching Through Real Cases in Collaboration with the Industry, Tina Habib (USEK)

International film festival
Notre Dame University (NDU) in Beirut organises each year an international film festival featuring short films from young film makers under the theme The power of youth. The festival has an impressive international reputation and attracts a wide audience but the most interesting aspect is how the festival is so well integrated into the academic work of the university with students of many disciplines helping to plan, produce and run it. Film students get the chance of international exposure and students from other disciplines are able to get hands-on work experience collaborating with professionals and working to strict deadlines. Workshops and master classes are run by professional film makers as part of the curriculum. Organising the festival is an all-year activity and students are able to weave their way between theory in class and practice in the festival, often working in multi-disciplinary and international teams. See the slideshow: On the ground. The case of NDU International Film Festival, Nicolas Khabbaz (NDU).

Linking theory with real-life practice and solving real problems take learning to a new level. If you then add elements of internationalisation, virtual mobility, problem-solving and collaboration into the mix, the experience becomes so much richer than in a traditional academic setting. Student engagement levels were much higher since they could see that their efforts really made a difference and there was a genuine sense of pride at contributing to a final product that gained public approval.

See all the slideshows from this seminar (including mine!).

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Taking webinars outdoors

CC BY Some rights reserved by  David Röthler
I organise and participate in many webinars and together with colleagues have been trying to develop methods to make them as interactive as possible, using chats, polls, collaborative web pages and breakout groups. Today many webinars have escaped from the traditional lecture model and try to involve participants as much as possible. However, we tend to be rather static in terms of location; generally sitting at our desks with a background of bookshelves or a plain white wall. This limitation is necessary because wireless connections tend to cause very uneven voice and video quality as well as delay (several seconds is not unusual). However, as wireless networks improve we should be able to take our webinars outside and a whole new range of teaching and learning opportunities arise.

To test this, my colleague, David Röthler, and I ran an experimental outdoor webinar last week, Let's go beyond - extending the webinar, as part of a two-day Webinar Festival run by the Norwegian university NTNU. Here's our abstract for the webinar.

Webinars are becoming an increasingly popular arena for education, primarily in the form of online presentations to distributed audiences or in workshop-like settings. Web conferences erase the barriers of geography and make it easy for anyone to join a virtual meeting from anywhere. However, the webinar experience can be extended significantly if further hardware and software are applied. We can add new perspectives using mobile devices and remote cameras enabling live transmission from field trips and even aerial coverage from drones. This presentation will show and discuss new opportunities for extending the affordances of a webinar using a number of innovative solutions.

I moderated from an indoor studio but David was out in his garden just outside Salzburg and thankfully the November weather in Austria was mild and sunny. This allowed him to demonstrate using different cameras, one or which I was able to control from my laptop in Sweden. One device called Swivl is worth noting since it allows you to mount a mobile or tablet as a camera and will follow whoever has the small microphone that is connected wirelessly. This means that the camera will move from one speaker to another in a discussion but can also give the presenter the freedom to move around, in this case a tour of the garden. It could also be used to move around a room at a museum or show interesting features of a building or historical site.

If you want to take the camera with you on a tour then a gimbal is a useful handheld device that keeps the camera stable while you are walking or even running. However to take the webinar to new dimensions we demonstrated using a drone to show views of the Salzburg suburbs and surrounding countryside. Participants quickly saw educational applications for this that included fields like town planning, archaeology, geography, geology and history. Participant's ideas are shown below.

For this webinar we "cheated" just a little in that David had a wired internet connection from the house to his desk in the garden. This was to ensure that everything worked as we wanted. However if you can make sure you have a good 4G mobile connection or a stable wifi connection then you can start taking webinars outdoors and give participants perspectives that would otherwise be impossible. Virtual field trips can be arranged or, better still, let the participants join via their mobiles and show their locations. Of course, this is not realistic for everyone since wireless internet is still very limited in many areas but why not start experimenting now (reminding the participants not to expect everything to work smoothly)?

Below you can watch the recording of our webinar.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Towards smarter classrooms

Classroom technology can be extremely frustrating. Every room I use seems to have different equipment and controls. Some rooms have old-school wall switches and several remote controls that activate the projectors and screens. Other rooms have a touch screen that controls everything. I tend to get to the room at least 15 minutes before the start of the session, preferably 30 minutes, in case the infrastructure doesn't like me. Sometimes everything just works and I am pleasantly surprised but other times I simply can't work out how to get the system to recognise my laptop or in some cases I can't get the blinds to work. Sometimes there are a row of switches with no indication of what they do and so when I try to turn on a light the black-out curtain starts descending. If all classrooms had the same interface that would be fine but they seem to be all different. This takes up a lot of time and energy from the teacher.

I was therefore pleased to read about a project at Indiana University to create smart classrooms as described in an article in Campus Tech, Are 'Smart' Classrooms the Future?. The vision is to have truly smart classrooms that log you in as you walk in the door and then automatically setting up the lighting, screens, browser, slideshows etc according to your preferences. Students can also log into the room and get access to the necessary resources for the session. No mysterious switches or confusing touch screens to negotiate. If you are going to get teachers to buy into using technology then that technology must make life easier for them and free them from irritatingly time-consuming activities. According to Stacy Morrone, IU associate vice president for learning technologies:

"We want to free up faculty from many of the routine tasks they need to complete during every class period to give them more time to interact with their students, starting from the moment they walk into the classroom."

IU invited a number of stakeholders to participate in a working group to brainstorm ideas for realising the smart classroom of the future. Their conclusions can be found in a report, the Indiana University Smart Classroom Summit. Among the ideas was to have smartboard functionality on walls and tables so that students could write and draw anywhere and be able to save everything digitally. Most importantly the technology should become invisible and biometrically or voice-activated.

Even more interesting would be to have classrooms that are designed to fully integrate distance students into the class with smart microphones and cameras that track whoever is speaking in the room as well as allowing distance students to contribute seamlessly. The vital element here is that the online participants are always visible and can participate in all activities. This could mean that they can be assigned to work in a group with classroom students or working as an online group but contributing to the common work spaces shared by  the whole class. In today's classrooms the online students are usually passive spectators.

I look forward to walking into my first smart classroom where everything just works. 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Student retention in distance learning - tip of the ICEBERG

A generalisation that simply won't go away is that online/distance courses have poor retention rates. This has often been used as evidence against online education and in some countries (such as here in Sweden) has lead to a reduction of online courses in favour of campus-based programmes. Basically drop-outs mean reduced income for the university so it's not surprising that they prefer the security of full-time campus studies. The often discussed low retention levels of MOOCs has fuelled this movement even more. However, this issue is much more complex than simply concluding that online education"doesn't work as well" as traditional campus education.

Students drop out of courses for a wide variety of reasons, often in combination. They may have no academic background and lack support and encouragement from friends and relatives. Many combine distance studies with full time work and family life resulting in tensions and stress that are often most easily resolved by dropping out. They may find the academic environment and terminology daunting and this increases their own feeling of inadequacy and feeling out of their depth. Their previous experience of education may be very negative resulting in a feeling or inferiority and lack of confidence. Many have little or no experience of online learning and lack the necessary study skills and digital literacy to adapt to the course requirements. Added to this are factors that concern the course itself. Many online courses are still basically self-study and this leads to feelings of isolation and the lack of support and teacher presence makes it all too easy to feel that nobody will notice if I simply drop out.

A colleague and I carried out a study a few years ago of the retention rates of campus and distance courses and degree programmes at our university and came to the conclusion that delivery form was not the main reason for students dropping out. We found distance courses and degree programmes with higher retention rates than their campus equivalents and also found distance courses with low rates. However what all courses and programmes with high retention rates had in common were course design factors: clear structure and course information, high levels of interaction and variety in the learning environment and good scaffolding.

The importance of course design for raising retention levels is highlighted in an excellent new article by Jitse van Ameijde, Martin Weller and Simon Cross from the Open University entitled Learning Design for Student Retention. They review existing literature in the field and report on a survey of students and staff from the Open University, resulting in the identification of seven key course design principles neatly gathered under the acronym ICEBERG. The definitions of these principles are best read in the article itself but here's a short summary.
  • Integrated. A clear structure where all the activities and material clearly link to the learning outcomes and the student sees a purpose for every element. Constructive alignment in other words.
  • Collaborative. Developing a supportive learning community and fostering meaningful interaction between students and teachers.
  • Engaging. Course material that is relevant and meaningful to the students. A variety of activities and use of different media. Clear teacher presence showing enthusiasm and interest in students' progress.
  • Balanced. Keeping a steady pace and manageable workload.
  • Economical. Avoiding overloading students with too much information and useful material that isn't directly related to the learning outcomes of each course module.
  • Reflective. Helping students to reflect on their learning process and offering frequent formative assessment activities.
  • Gradual. A gradual process moving from simple to increasingly complex tasks as the course progresses including support at each stage.
These principles provide a useful framework for course design and could be developed further into a checklist for self-evaluation. The ICEBERG framework applies equally to all types of course, whether campus, online or blended. However, the article ends by pointing out that retention is not the only factor governing course design.

Similarly, retention is only one aspect that should be considered by course designers, and should not be at the expense of addressing complex topics, or implementing challenging pedagogy. However, it is the authors’ contention that retention is rarely given sufficient attention as a design principle in its own right, and it is a matter of increasing significance to students,educators, institutions and society. The proposed model then is a means of considering any course from the perspective of retention.

Van Ameijde, J., Weller, M., Cross, S. (2018) Learning Design for Student Retention. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice Vol 6 No 2. DOI

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Academic conferences - we can't go on meeting like this

The best part of my job over the last ten years has been the opportunity to visit so many different places and be able to collaborate with colleagues from all over the world. However, in the light of the dire warnings from climate scientists that we need to radically change how we use and abuse the world's limited resources (especially the recent IPCC report), the most obvious way we in education can contribute is to travel less, especially by the forms of transport that cause the highest levels of carbon emissions, namely flying.

The field of education clocks up an enormous amount of air miles per year. It's a multi-million dollar industry. International conferences are important meeting places and offer an arena for all researchers to get recognition and attention for their work. All international projects need physical meetings at the participating institutions to ensure the smooth progress of the work and to disseminate the results through local seminars or conferences. All of this involves a lot of travel for all concerned, nearly always by air. And one trip nearly always generates more contacts and then new invitations to speak at or attend more events or join yet another interesting project. There are thousands of conferences in every conceivable field every week of every year, all battling for attention and registrations.

How can we move to more climate-smart conferences and meetings? The most obvious solution is to arrange more virtual conferences but I'm not sure there is an e-meeting platform that can really create the immersive experience and socialising opportunities of on-site events. There are a few completely online conferences each year but I suspect it's extremely difficult to attract paying delegates since the mindset that online events should be free is so prevalent. The blessing and the curse of online conferences is that you can participate from the comfort of your desk. This is of course convenient and flexible but the curse is that you are also expected to work at the same time. As a result almost noone gets the experience of attending the whole conference, just dropping in now and again as work demands permit. I doubt if many bosses would give permission for you to sit at your desk for two days without doing your normal work. Another important attraction of conferences is that they allow you to switch out of work mode for a couple of days to learn new things and network with others in your field. The advantages of the on-site meeting are many but if the threat of radical climate change is to be met, then we simply can't go on meeting like this. At least not as default.

Virtual conferences, however, could be an opportunity to widen the scope and diversity of academic events. One of the main attractions of academic conferences is to give researchers the chance to present their papers. This is fine if you study at a wealthy university but what about researchers from developing countries? There are plenty of good research projects going on that never come to light because the researchers can't get funding to attend the high profile (and often expensive) conferences in Europe and North America. Tighter visa requirements make it simply impossible for academics from certain countries to travel anywhere. If we take the travel and accommodation out of the equation then we would open up participation to a much more diverse community.

Another opportunity for virtual conferences is offering greater linguistic diversity and giving a voice to everyone who has not mastered spoken English. In an online environment it becomes easier and cheaper to offer simultaneous interpretation of speeches in other languages, either by automatic voice to text translation or by human interpreters who can work from home wherever they may be. I've heard many good research presentations ruined by the speaker's low level of English as they read nervously through a complex manuscript. had we let them present in their native language with an interpreter we would have got a totally different impression of the research and the presenter. In an online environment we can easily add back channels for discussion and questions as well as offering participants the opportunity to discuss in smaller break-out groups.

All this requires a rethink of why we have conferences and new attitudes to how we can exploit online learning spaces. We could cut the number of on-site events if we want to but we need to do some experimentation and dare to innovate. Of course it won't be the same. But it doesn't have to be a poor alternative, it could offer many new opportunities. The main point is we may not have a choice in the near future.