Saturday, February 25, 2017

Trends take time - evolution not revolution

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Trends are generally about relatively slow change processes rather than a quick flip from one state to another. This is especially true for digitalisation and despite optimistic claims of revolutions and disruption we're in the midst of a long and slow evolution in which some traditional concepts will disappear but many will continue to thrive alongside digital alternatives. Here are a few signs I've noticed this week that show that we're maybe not as digital as the popular narrative suggests.

I came across a new report on online learning behaviour, GoConqr Online Learning Report 2017, that contained a few slightly surprising observations. GoConqr is a social learning network where users can create their own learning resources, share them, create networks and collaborate. The report is the result of a survey on the online learning preferences of 2.5 millions users on the platform. Of course the learners surveyed here represent a very wide range of online learners and the platform does not represent any formal higher education but some of the findings are worth discussing.

The first concerns online collaboration, or rather the relative lack of it.

Despite the prevalence of social networking, online study tends to be a solitary activity: 79% of people choose not to study collaboratively when they are online.

This doesn't surprise me at all because effective collaboration is an advanced skill that takes time to learn and develop both face-to-face and even more so online. Most people can certainly post a comment or share a photo but collaboration involves working asynchronously on a common document or work space having agreed on ground rules on how to collaborate and using the right tools for the job. Online collaboration is an increasingly vital work skill today but is seldom taught in schools and universities. Most people still assume that online learning is by default a solitary pursuit and don't expect anything else even when joining a social learning community like GoConqr.

The next eyebrow-raiser is the claim that surprisingly few learners use mobile devices when they want to access educational content or create their own learning resources.

Learning is lower down the list of priorities for users of mobile devices. Using mobile devices for education is quite low compared to other activities.

This also goes against the prevailing narrative that learners are using mobiles to access courses and learning resources. The report suggests that although mobile use has exploded in the last 15 years we use them mainly for communication and more social activities and that mobile learning is maybe not as prevalent as we have assumed. I suspect that mobiles are used for access to content, checking schedules and chatting but maybe creative activities are more easily done on larger screens. I would like to see if universities can observe similar tendencies among students or whether GoConqr's survey is more typical of less formal learning.

Another digression from the standard digitalisation narrative comes in an article in University World NewsStudents not abandoning pen and paper – 10-nation study, referring to a new study by Jane Vincent (University of Surrey, UK), Students’ use of paper and pen versus digital media in university environments for writing and reading – a cross-cultural exploration (Journal of Print and Media Technology Research V (2) 97-106), showing how students still prefer to take notes by hand on the grounds that the physical action of writing seems to aid memory more than digital note-taking. There have been a number of studies in recent years all reinforcing the value of handwriting and warning against schools taking an over-enthusiastic emphasis on digital devices. Vincent's surveyed the writing preferences of 650 students from Europe and Asia and concludes that students are continuing to write by hand when that form has an advantage over digital media.

“There is no doubt that students have embraced the use of digital technologies in the educational setting of their university with enthusiasm but they have also found that the affordances of chirographic writing and the use of paper have special qualities that cannot be matched by digital media.”

Many tech skeptics pounce on studies like this to maintain that traditional media are still best but this study, like all the others I have read, shows instead that physical and digital media exist happily side by side and complement each other. The skill required today for both students and educators is being able to decide which tool or arena is best for the task in hand and stop seeing it as a conflict between tradition and modernity.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Over the horizon

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It's February so it's time for the annual NMC Horizon Higher Education Report on trends and challenges in educational technology. It is an extremely challenging task to select and define the key changes taking place or waiting ahead and since this is done every year the view towards the horizon will inevitably change from year to year. As a result technologies and trends seem to come and go almost at random and old friends return to the report after years of absence. This inconsistency is discussed and tracked by Audrey Watters in a commentary on this year's report, What's on the Horizon (Still, Again, Always) for Ed-Tech. Trends from previous reports suddenly disappear, prompting questions on whether they have flopped, been successfully adopted or are no longer considered relevant.

Although the report makes it clear that higher education faces daunting challenges in the near future it offers many useful examples of innovative projects and initiatives that point the way forward and show that there are answers to these challenges. However, the report is based on the assumption that the world is developing in a democratic and rational manner and that the political and social structures of the last 30 years will continue to develop in a linear and predictable way. The development of open learning, collaboration, innovation, learning analytics and artificial intelligence depends on a society that values the common good and respects its citizens. How will the growth of authoritarian, populist governments affect education, especially when representatives of such political movements openly question and even scorn the value of science and education? Surely the most wicked challenge for education today is political, as Watters points out:

There’s no mention of Trump and little discussion of state and federal education policies (accreditation, financial aid, for-profit higher education, DACA, Title IX, campus carry, for example). No mention of academic freedom (although, to be fair, there is a brief discussion of adjunctification). There’s very limited discussion of funding (that is, limited to discussion of “funding innovation” and not to funding higher education more broadly or to how students themselves will pay for post-secondary education or personal computing devices and broadband). Education technology in the Horizon Report is almost entirely stripped of politics, a political move in and of itself.

The report, as usual, discusses trends, technologies and challenges under various categories and classified under a timescale of 1-2 years perspective, 3-4 years and 5+ years. Of course you can discuss the classification, the names given to the different phenomena and the timescale but in the introduction the report's authors readily admit the difficulties of pinning down trends that are continually changing, shifting focus and tend to merge with each other. 

In observing the numerous overlaps from edition to edition, it is important to note that while topics may repeatedly appear, they only represent the broad strokes of educational change; each trend, challenge, and technology development evolves over time, with fresh perspectives and new dimensions revealed every year. For example, both mobile and online learning today are not what they were yesterday.

Very simply we're in a period of evolution as digital technology enables new approaches to education and learning. Educators and learners are trying out a wide variety of technologies and mixing them with traditional methods to create new solutions that may or may not have lasting effects. The technologies are so interrelated and their success so dependent on pedagogy, leadership and structural support that it is hard to classify them as the report tries to do. The key to change lies in attitudes.

... technology alone cannot cultivate education transformation; better pedagogies and more inclusive education models are vital solutions, while digital tools and platforms are enablers and accelerators. 

The report introduces six meta-categories which I think are more useful for understanding what's going on. All the developments listed in the report each fall under one or more of these meta-categories.
  • Expanding Access and Convenience. This includes access to content, communities, support, collaborative tools etc from any device and in any location. This of course assumes that you have the necessary hardware and infrastructure; something that is not available at present for millions.
  • Spurring Innovation. Institutions developing a culture of innovation, openness and collaboration for both staff and students as well as between institutions. Culture change in organisations is an extremely difficult challenge and requires full leadership commitment that is met by a grassroots interest.
  • Fostering Authentic Learning. Easing the transition from study to work by developing essential skills such as teamwork, collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking and project management (both online and face-to-face). This requires considerable development in terms of learning spaces (physical and digital), course design, teaching and administration.  
  • Tracking and Evaluating Evidence. This includes learning analytics, adaptive learning and other technologies that offer the promise of personalised learning. Many concerns need to be resolved here about the ethics of storing vast amounts of student data and where it is stored. 
  • Improving the Teaching Profession. The future role of the teacher has been discussed for many years and even if perceptions are changing, the barrier of tradition is hard to overcome. There is still a general lack of incentives for innovative teachers, little professional support in terms of effective use of educational technology and a lack of recognition for pedagogical excellence.
  • Spreading Digital Fluency. I like this term since it has different connotations to digital literacies. Literacies are about awareness but fluency suggests skill and the ability to combine literacies in a professional manner.
The meta-trend that is missing is the increasingly unstable political climate in so many countries and the threat that poses to how the net will be used in the future and how that will affect education. Making predictions with a horizon of more than one year suddenly feels unrealistic. Let's see how this influences next year's report.


Download the NMC Horizon Report > 2017 Higher Education Edition (PDF)

Finally have a look at this film that takes you quickly through the main areas of the report in just under eight minutes.




Sunday, February 12, 2017

Change is a shared responsibility


I read a short article on the news site eLearning industry, Why There Is Lack Of Enthusiasm Some Employees Have For Social And Collaboration Tools? about why digital collaboration has not really become mainstream, despite so many compelling arguments. The article deals with the difficulties of convincing employees of the benefits of online collaboration in the corporate sector.

... while many organizations have been full-heartedly adopting social or collaborative tools, these solutions work best when all members of a team use them. In most organizations, there is an evident struggle to get all employees interested in utilizing these tools to their fullest capabilities.

The article goes on to list barriers to the adoption of collaborative tools: lack of value, poor user interface and too many features. All of these are familiar issues, both in the corporate sector and in public education, but I would like to add what I think is the most crucial barrier to technology adoption - our instinctive aversion to unnecessary effort when we are faced with change.

Those who are curious about new solutions and embrace change are generally not satisfied with the status quo. Some are naturally inquisitive and are constantly looking for new ways to solve daily problems and are willing to put in extra hours to test and refine them. Change comes at a cost; long hours of trial, failure and frustration. However, if the potential reward seems great enough we'll make that effort.

On the other hand the vast majority of us are wary of change, primarily, I believe, because change comes at a price. If we're relatively content with the way we work today, there is little motivation to adopt new technology. Even if we suspect that the technology may make some aspect of our work more effective, that improvement is not worth the time we fear it will take to master the innovation. There's also the fear of failure - what if it doesn't work, what if I make a mess of it? The longer you avoid addressing this change the greater the effort required and this creates a vicious circle that I suspect many teachers are caught up in today. Many realise that they should have adopted technology many years ago but now it feels like the gap is so great that trying to catch up at this late stage is futile.

So what is the answer to the question posed by the article? A lot of responsibility lies at management level, leading by example and using digital tools in an exemplary way. Fostering an inclusive sense of community in the organisation where innovation is encouraged and most importantly recognised and rewarded. Providing support to staff, both in terms of educational technologists and online support, is essential so that no-one feels alone and that innovation is a shared process. Increased use of online collaboration tools can also be a feature of a sustainability programme, helping to reduce paper consumption or travel. If the change is a community effort and you know you are part of a planned and shared development with support and clear rewards great things can happen. Most importantly, we need to find ways of sharing and thus reducing the extra effort and risk involved in daring to change.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Layers of openness


I have been talking and writing about openness in education for the past ten years or so and still believe that openness in terms of access to educational resources, the right to reuse and recycle existing material and the open publication of research and academic discussion, is vital to a democratic and tolerant society. However my belief in openness has been shaken by the rise of "alternative truth", intolerance and demagogy that so dominate the public space today. I cannot unreservedly support openness as I would have done a year ago. Belief in the benefits of openness, crowd-sourcing or the wisdom of the crowd are based on an assumption that the crowd is benevolent, supportive and behaves in a civilized manner. Sadly we see so often that the wisdom of the crowd can easily turn into the rage of the mob.

How much openness in education can we advocate? Can we recommend students and colleagues to publish their reflections and findings in an open arena where there is a risk of being attacked, humiliated and threatened? Advocating openness is easy for those of us who have never been the subject of bullying, hatred and ridicule but we need to be more aware of the risks and make sure that we don't risk pushing vulnerable students into danger. An article in Campus Technology, Top Fears Shutting the Door on Open Education, looks at ways of helping teachers understand the benefits of using open educational resources and practices but also warns educators about an uncritical approach to openness. Words of caution come from Rolin Moe, formerly Seattle Pacific University:

Moe wants to see more administrators think critically about open pedagogy, using open pedagogy where it's most appropriate, rather than using it for its own sake. Scientific work, for example, might be more appropriate when taught openly. But something like creative writing, which is tied to the identity of a student, should perhaps be taught in a more protective environment.

Maybe we shouldn't aim for openness as default. The level of openness can depend on context and in some cases there are compelling arguments for using more closed environments. Of course there are many places where open discussion does take place without toxic comments but that fear will naturally make many people think twice about participating. I admit that I am much more cautious about joining certain discussions now and try to think at least twice about what I publish and where. If learning is hindered by openness and we learn better in restricted spaces then maybe that's where we need to focus our attention. Moe continues:

"My fear is that we're so beholden to this idea of open as a good, that we hold that above what the true purpose of learning is supposed to be in some cases," said Moe. "I want to encourage people to learn in grand and wide networks, but there are times when that's not going to be the best way to do it."

I wonder if we have to redefine openness into a layered approach; levels of openness depending on context. Simply insisting that everything must be open is sadly not realistic in today's society and when we do step out into the open we need to be prepared both for the opportunities and the threats. Preparing for openness means first working in more sheltered environments where mistakes can be made and analysed. Students who are worried about going open should be respected and an alternative safer arena chosen for sharing their work. More time must be spent on discussing what can and cannot be published openly, how to handle discussion threads, how to deal with trolls and how to use the safeguards, filters and settings available on most publishing tools. The open ocean is probably not the best place to learn to swim.

I still believe in openness but I see many benefits in closed or restricted environments. They allow us to create a learning community based on mutual trust and respect, where mistakes can be made and learnt from. Full openness demands maturity, confidence and skill to negotiate.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Identity a major factor in online course completion

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One of the key factors to course completion is identity; feeling that you belong to a group and are acknowledged as such. This sense of belonging is relevant both on campus and online but if it is not achieved the resulting isolation is more acute in online courses. In for-credit online courses where numbers are limited there are many strategies for creating an inclusive community for the students, see in particular Cynthia Clays5 Principles for Maximum Engagement and Gilly Salmon’s five-stage-model for online learning. However in a MOOC with thousands of participants teacher contact becomes impractical but that doesn't mean that you can't create a sense of community anyway.

This is the subject of a new study by RenĂ© Kizilcec and colleagues at Stanford University, according to an article on Stanford News, Brief interventions help online learners persist with coursework, Stanford research finds. They noted that participants from countries with a lower rating on the United Nations’ Human Development Index were less likely to complete a MOOC than those from countries higher up that index. There are several potential barriers here such as inadequate infrastructure, lack of  up-to-date devices or limited ability in English, but this study decided to look at the issue of social identity and a feeling of inadequacy when joining a course.

Kizilcec and others theorize that a psychological barrier contributes to the global gap in MOOCs, namely social identity threat, which is a fear of being seen as less competent because of a social identity. Research has demonstrated that social identity threat can impair a person’s working memory and academic performance.

Millions of people enroll in courses with low levels of self confidence that are often unintentionally reinforced by the way they are introduced to the course. Many are taking their first hesitant step into higher education with a strong built-in feeling that they are probably not good enough. Whenever they encounter unfamiliar terminology (especially academic terms) or unclear instructions their first reaction is something like "I knew I wasn't clever enough for this course" and unless they can get some support they are very likely to give up. This feeling is magnified if the course forum is full of confident and articulate native English speakers. It is vital that these learners get some positive reinforcement right at the start of the course.

The Stanford study tested pre-course activities where participants could write about how the course could support their most important values and allowed them to read testimonials from previous participants about how they overcame feelings of isolation at the beginning of the course and were able to succeed in the end. These activities did not require direct teacher interaction but simply giving learners the chance to state their own values and reflect over how to succeed in the course had a remarkable effect on the learners who otherwise were most likely to leave the course. The completion rate for learners from less developed countries was raised from 17% to 41%.

“It is an impressive result which suggests that social identity threat can be a barrier to performance in international learning contexts, even in online environments with little social interaction,” Kizilcec said. “It goes to show that a small change to the online experience can have profound and lasting effects if it influences people’s perceptions of an environment.”

This confirms how vital it is to create an welcoming and supportive course introduction and to offer learners a chance to reflect on their own values and objectives before starting. Course information must be as inclusive and clear (jargon-free) as possible and a variety of tools and strategies can be used to help everyone identify with the course and feel part of it. Online questionnaires like the ones used in this study are one way but others can be allowing learners to create study groups in their own languages or with people from the same region. Short personal and encouraging weekly video messages from the teachers can also help to create a sense of belonging. Often the difference between drop-out and completion can be a few kind words of encouragement.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Combating academic spam

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One of the week's most interesting stories is the disappearance of Jeremy Beale's (University of Colorado at Denver) excellent watchdog site on predatory journals and publishers. According to an article in Inside Higher EdNo More 'Beall's List', the site was suddenly taken down and replaced with a notice "This service is no longer available" and since then Beale has not been available for any comment, leading to speculation in social media and news sites. According to an article in ScienceInsider:

Beall declined to comment. But a CU Denver spokesperson told ScienceInsider that Beall made a “personal decision” to take down his list of low-quality journals that charge authors a fee to publish, often with little or no review or editing. The spokesperson says the blog was not hacked, nor was it taken down as a result of legal threats, and Beall will remain on the school’s faculty. The spokesperson could not confirm whether the blog's removal is permanent.

Beale's list has become an important monitor of publications that spam academics, offering publication at a price and falsely claiming to use peer review, as well as a myriad of bogus conferences that invite academics to contribute (at a price) and then at best only offering a token event. Academic spam is a major issue and it can be hard for many to tell between the serious journals and conference organisers and the bogus ones. I'm not a very significant name in the academic community but even my in-box receives several academic spam mails per day offering me the chance to publish in some obscure journal or an appearance at a conference on a theme that I don't even work with. The extremely long list of so-called open access publishers in Beale's lists could be seen to discredit the open model but at the same time there are thousands of serious peer-reviewed open access publications. Whenever new models are tested there will be people who will try to exploit new freedoms and therefore it is vital to have watchdogs and whistle-blowers who can expose the less serious actors.

According to some reports, the site and its related Facebook group has been withdrawn due to pressure or threats, though there are no precise details on this. Anyone providing such a watchdog service risks the fury of those who are blacklisted and Beale has certainly had to put up with considerable opposition over the years. At the same time there is always the risk of accusing an innocent party. This is a major undertaking and is simply not sustainable if it is run by an individual, not matter how dedicated. A better solution would be an international organisation with high credibility to take over the role but more in terms of quality assurance rather than as whistle-blower. A colleague of mine suggested that the list could instead be one of approved journals and conferences and that a quality assurance framework and certification could make it clear which journals were serious and which were not. We need to build on and promote internationally recognised quality labels for open access publications to make it easier to spot the fraudsters.

Not surprisingly Beale's list has now been republished on a number of sites but such measures are only a temporary solution. The list must be continually updated and reviewed and it is also essential that those on the list are given a fair chance to improve and be taken off the list. Jeremy Beale has done a great job over the years but one pioneer cannot keep such a service going. Which organisation can step up and take over?

A detailed chronicle of this story is given in this blog post, What Happened to Jeffrey Beall’s List of (Allegedly) Predatory Publishers?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Embracing imperfection


We learn by enlightened trial and error. In fact failure is essential for learning. We try something, it fails and so we try another strategy and this process is repeated until we feel we have acquired the desired skill. The assistance of someone else who has already mastered that skill can help us but we still need to make our own mistakes.

An article by Maha Bali in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pedagogy of Imperfection, argues that we should embrace imperfection in education and stop demanding perfection either in ourselves or in others. An imperfect lesson is not the result of not being prepared, it's because no matter how carefully you prepare, your students will react differently according to mood, time of day, external factors. You may have prepared meticulously but when you meet the class something distracts or disturbs you. Many teachers set themselves unrealistic targets because they adopt the traditional role of the infallible teacher. If you can't answer all the students' questions you haven't prepared well enough. Good teachers are not necessarily the best prepared but those with the ability to improvise and react to the mood of the students and are willing to allow the students room to find answers. If the teacher immediately answers a question then the students are denied valuable information retrieval skill development. They need to learn how to find reliable information rather than learning to become dependent on the knowledge of others.

Students need to feel that they are not expected to succeed first time. Learning is an iterative and collaborative process and both students and teachers should be able to admit their uncertainties and shortcomings.

Seeing other people make mistakes, laugh it off, and keep going helps to open doors for others to join in the experimentation. If there is no expectation of perfection, this gives a sense of permission to participate. A pedagogy of imperfection entails teachers and mentors sharing, expressing their own imperfection openly, in order to facilitate it for others.

The author advocates greater risk taking in teaching, especially when using technology. So often teachers get stressed when a tool or device does not work as expected. I often hear colleagues complain about a tool that didn't work perfectly first time and is then dismissed as useless. Expecting perfection can prevent us from ever experimenting and that means we never learn anything new. If something doesn't work, see if the students can help you or simply move on to plan B and try again another time (once you've investigated why plan A didn't work). Students also need to be encouraged to experiment with technology and not expect to succeed first time.

The need to be ‘right’ means they are overly conservative in what they do. Giving them explicit permission to play and explore helps to open up what they can do.

A positive learning environment is one where teachers and students alike are able to admit their limitations and focus on sharing their skills and knowledge. Aspiring to perfection is admirable but so is realising that you may never attain that level.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Online education still in the shadows

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Almost every week I meet colleagues who are skeptical about online education. Online is often considered a poor and limited alternative to the "rich experience" of classroom teaching and many point to lower completion rates, lack of human contact and complicated technology as reasons. The facts, however, point in the opposite direction as an article in Inside Higher Ed discusses, Why Faculty Still Don’t Want to Teach Online. The reluctance to get involved in online education is mostly due to low awareness of the issues involved, lack of practical experience as well as a lack of support and incentives within the institution.

Extensive research has shown that, when well designed, online courses can be as as effective or better than campus courses in terms of student results (see for example the review of research findings in The Effectiveness of Online and Blended Learning: A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature, Means et al, 2013). The key words are well designed and this must be the focus of all courses whether online of face to face. The poor reputation of online education stems from the large number of poorly designed and under-supported online courses that have been produced over the years, often by institutions who have not fully understood the principles and simply focused on content delivery and then left the students to self-study. Such courses have suffered further from the fact that many teachers are assigned to online teaching with little or no training or support and the results should hardly be surprising.

The case against online education is not, in fact, without merit. In the hands of underfunded and poorly managed public and private institutions, online learning often delivers mediocre education at best. If those failures represent the sum of online education, then faculty members who reject it have every reason not only to be suspicious of it but also to discredit it.

The most important barriers to mainstream acceptance of online education are based on attitudes and practice.
  • Those most opposed to online learning generally have little practical experience of the field and are unaware of the opportunities available in today's digital media.
  • Online teaching is seen as a threat to the traditional model, challenging the massive investments in campus facilities and weakening universities' control.
  • Online teaching has very low status in universities and getting too involved can even have a negative effect on career development.
  • Successful online learning demands a rethink of traditional classroom pedagogy. The concept of the teacher being in sole charge of a course behind closed doors is threatened when the course goes online. Online courses require teamwork (as all courses should).
Teaching online is indeed demanding and requires careful planning as well as close cooperation with support staff such as educational technologists and librarians. Many are wary of getting involved because it involves a time-consuming and demanding rethink of existing practices. Considering the pressure many teachers are under in today's cash-strapped institutions this wariness is fully understandable. A new online course needs to be designed from scratch rather than simply uploading campus material to an online platform. As the article points out:

Going online is like moving to a foreign country, where you must learn a new language and assimilate a new culture.

The move to online teaching involves a major effort but if that responsibility is shared by working in course design teams that effort is shared and the work can be a major learning experience for all. The main point here is that delivery form (on-site versus online) is not the real issue. Successful courses in any environment have exactly the same success factors. The best classroom teachers are generally also best in an online environment. Whatever the delivery form enthusiasm, empathy, a genuine interest in students and good planning are absolutely crucial to student engagement and success. I wish we could soon stop comparing delivery forms and focus on what makes a course successful, namely professional course design, clearly stated pre-course information and requirements, creating a sense of community, teacher engagement, a supportive environment, formative assessment, frequent feedback and meaningful examination methods.

Whatever the delivery form, on-site, online or a blended format, the success factors are the same.

In the long run, neither the guardians of the campus nor the champions of the digital revolution will claim victory. Already, the educational battleground is populated by faculty members who accept that neither physical nor virtual education will triumph but rather the best pedagogical practices that support active student learning.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Recycling webinars 2

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about how we could recycle webinar recordings and use them for other purposes (Recycling webinars). Not long after that post was published I got an e-mail from a colleague at Karolinska Institute, one of Sweden's leading medical universities, with a film they had made to help teachers think about webinar methodology. The film reuses a webinar I had helped to produce as part of their EdX MOOC, Introduction to urology, in the autumn of 2015. The cooperation was part of a Nordic project on making more effective webinars (see the project site Effective webinars for lots of articles, toolkit and ideas) and the idea of running a webinar as part of a MOOC was one of our most challenging activities.

Karolinska Institute have now used excerpts from the webinar to demonstrate how you can make your webinars more interactive, using different layouts, polls, chat and presenters-only area as well as tips on methodology. The original recording is probably of little interest today but parts of it will now live on in the form of a new product. An excellent example to recycling educational material


Saturday, December 3, 2016

Double-edged sword


The pen is indeed mightier than the sword but in today’s media landscape that pen has become a sword - a double-edged one serving both good and evil. The proliferation of extremist propaganda and fake news are making me reconsider my views on the social media I work with and have promoted so enthusiastically. The ability to build a global professional network, share ideas and learn from others has transformed my life and I spend a lot of my time helping others to use social media to create new opportunities. The net offers us platforms and tools for collaboration, creation, sharing and learning that were simply not possible 15 years ago. However we have rather naively assumed that these opportunities would be used to spread knowledge, learn from each other, build greater understanding, overcome barriers and foster a new spirit of enlightenment. We assume that human civilization has a positive linear development but right now we seem to have encountered some very worrying turbulence.

The tools that enable us to publish our ideas in a polished and professional format and make them accessible to a global audience can also be used to spread extremist ideologies, prejudiced propaganda, hatred and subversion. Lies can be presented as convincingly as the truth and fake news is as slick as the traditional news media. In your Facebook feed it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s fantasy and even checking sources can be difficult since many propaganda sites are disguised under banners like “independent” or “alternative” that can mean just about anything. Quite simply if an article confirms our own world view we will tend to believe it. Some people are good at creating fake stories that will provoke a certain volatile target group and they then sit back to enjoy seeing the chain reaction of anger that their fake article causes while at the same time earning considerable income from their on-site advertising as the click rate goes viral. There have always been extremists and conspiracy theorists but in the past they only reached a very limited audience, often using extremely poor quality pamphlets sent to like-minded people. Today a lone eccentric has a global voice and there are plenty free tools to help him/her create highly professional websites, podcasts, video channels, publications and social media presence. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort you can seem like a whole organisation rather than an individual.

Our basic trust in the development of democracy and increasing transparency has so far lead us to reap the benefits of the internet. We happily embrace the net giants like Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft because although we are concerned about security we trust that these companies are basically benevolent and our governments will make sure that our data is not misused. But what happens as more countries turn to authoritarian populism with less transparency, less accountability and mass surveillance? The media that have helped us foster greater openness and global collaboration are also being used in the opposite direction. Repressive regimes all over the world are becoming very creative at manipulating social media to target dissidents.

How does education meet this harsh new reality where fiction and fact are so hard to tell apart and where monologue is replacing dialoge? Is it wise to continue advocating openness and instead teach how to cover our digital tracks? Are privacy and security the new key digital literacies? If there is a risk that the data will fall into the wrong hands we need to get smart and quickly. Learning analytics offers enormous benefits for education but in the wrong hands the prospects can be frightening. Schools and universities need to put source criticism at the forefront of the curriculum but even that is a double-edged sword. If you are convinced that there is an establishment conspiracy then your source criticism will treat all traditional news sources as suspect.

I have no answers to all this. It's rather complicated at the moment. Where is Gandalf when you need him?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Recycling webinars


I’ve been working with webinars for several years now and recordings of all of them are out there somewhere. Some of them have been watched by several hundred people whilst others sleep peacefully in digital obscurity. I think almost all webinars are recorded and made available for future reference but I wonder how much they are really used and whether we could do something to make them more useful, especially to those who did not attend the live event. The simplest form of reuse is to watch the recording with a colleague or small group, pausing to discuss the questions raised and making the webinar a springboard to further investigation. However large chunks of the webinar will be of little interest to those who didn’t participate in the actual event.

A webinar should be an interactive and engaging live event and therefore a straight recording will not capture that sense of participation. The audience for the recording will have different priorities to the live audience and will not be prepared to devote 45-60 minutes of their time to it. They are likely to be more interested in the most important content, preferably in a digested format. If we can invest time in editing and repackaging the webinar recording I believe that a snappy 10 minute summary with the most important issues, good ideas, quotes and links to more information provides a much more useful product than the standard one hour recording. The material could be enhanced with extra material such as a context-setting introduction, extra slides and maybe even background music (when there is only text on screen). In addition the new video can be tagged, subtitled (original language or translated or both) and indexed making the film more accessible and helping users to go straight to the point they’re most interested in. The new version should also allow educators to easily add subtitles in other languages and you could even consider adding a text manuscript for students with hearing difficulties.

Edited and repurposed webinars could also be used as input to new discussions as part of a flipped classroom approach. Let students watch the video as preparation for a classroom or online discussion. The new video could provide the basis of a short learning module using a tool like TEDEd that allows you to add quizzes, provide further information and links to more depth and even access to a discussion forum.

Sustainable webinars!

Thanks to my colleagues Francisca and David for extra inspiration here.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

The choreography of lectures


Despite all the studies and articles about the inefficiency of lecturing we seem to be addicted to the habit. I freely admit that I don't always practice what I preach but the format and location of most conferences make the traditional lecture almost unavoidable. It's rather amusing how many conferences I've attended on subjects like innovative pedagogy or future learning spaces that are based almost exclusively around lectures and the dreaded panel debates. Indeed I've listened to extremely boring lectures about innovative pedagogy.

So if we have to continue giving presentations, how can we lighten them up just a bit? The crucial success factors are of course enthusiasm for your subject and the ability to show an interest in the audience (eye contact, smiles, rhetorical questions etc). Talk to the audience, not at them. However probably most discussed feature of presentations is the question of whether or not to use slideshows. I'm always very wary of speakers who go "unplugged" and present without visual aids. Although there are a few genuine orators who can keep an audience's attention simply by the power of their narrative, the vast majority who try this tactic fail. Without the visual support the presentation becomes aimless and there are seldom any clues on how long it is going to last, what the objectives are or what the common theme is. It's all too easy to lose your audience..

I think we need to consider the choreography of a presentation. Even if it is largely a monologue it can vary in pace, deliver styles and types of interaction. Whether it's PowerPoint or Prezi doesn't really matter much in my opinion but the important factor is how they support your message. Far too many speakers still overload their slides with far too much text in an honest desire to provide as much information/value as possible but forgetting that there is a limit to how much an audience can absorb. Cognitive overload is a common problem and can be resolved by not talking when people need to read and not showing text when people are expected to listen. Use the slides to reinforce the structure of your presentation through keywords and images and provide the details orally. If you do have important information on a slide why not pause to let everyone read it before providing the details? Ask the audience to discuss the issue in pairs for a minute or so or simply ask a question for short silent reflection.

An article in Inside Higher EdA 50% Content / Discussion Formula for Academic Presentations presents a possible solution to turning presentations into discussions; cutting the input quota of your presentation to 50% and using the rest of the time for discussion. Very seldom is there much time for discussion even if that is what we value most at a conference.

Certainly, this 50 percent formula certainly is not the norm for academic presentations. Most academic presentations leave little time for discussion. Content takes up most of the time. Most often, the presenter is rushing to get through all the content that she has planned to present.  Sometimes discussion between the presenter and the audience does happen during the presentation, but that is rare. The larger the audience the less likely there is to be an integrated presentation / discussion format.

The author points out quite rightly that when there is time for questions from the audience it can often be counter-productive. Most questions are not even questions and some participants even take the opportunity to start their own alternative lecture. Question sessions generally fail because they can only accommodate a handful of participants at best, normally those who are most vocal. The majority are still silent.

One way around this could be to finish early and then pose 1-3 questions arising from your talk. Ask the audience to discuss in small groups and post their ideas and questions on a common document (like Google Docs) or workspace (like Padlet). For the last five minutes you can project the results on the screen, comment on some of them and promise to answer the rest later in the day. That way everyone gets to discuss your ideas, ask questions and provide new insights without the awkwardness of the usual plenum questions session.

By paying more attention to the choreography of a lecture we may be able to get more out of it.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The truth is in the eye of the beholder

CC0 Public domain on Pixabay
This week's US presidential election has shaken me to the core. The most powerful man in the world represents the complete opposite of everything I believe in. Living proof that bullying, disrespect, willful ignorance and arrogance get you all the way to the top and to the applause of millions. Many questions are buzzing in my head and no answers. How do we work against bullying in schools when bullying is clearly a winning formula? How will education be affected by world leaders openly showing disdain for scientific research and expert knowledge? Why study hard when a completely inexperienced person can become president? So I started wondering how we got to this stage. Maybe one factor is our love of a good story.

We read a lot about storytelling today, especially in marketing. It's not enough to have a good product, you need to have a good story that people can relate to. Sell the company's history, in glowing terms with high nostalgia factor, and tell stories that create a warm fuzzy feeling for the company/product. Stories have always been central to human culture and they have seldom had a close relationship with the truth. Every country has a host of national stories about heroes and struggles in the past, often highly elaborated and embroidered, with each generation adding new details to the potent cocktail of myth, half-truths and a modicum of reality. Even if historians reveal factual inaccuracies these stories are almost impossible to kill because the desire to believe them is greater than the need for truth. Their function is to hold a nation together. The truth is simply too complex and messy.

The stories behind Trump, Brexit and so on strike a chord with many, providing simple answers to complex and messy issues. The opposition campaigns simply failed to find a more compelling story and assumed that their own cause was so clear that it hardly needed explaining. We take democracy for granted at our peril.

How does all this affect education (turning to the focus of this blog)? I'm extremely concerned that we have an American president who openly dismisses scientific research and expert knowledge as part of an establishment conspiracy (eg climate change). Top priority in education must be to focus on media literacy and source criticism, teaching students to check their sources and become better at assessing the credibility of the information they find. But what if you don't trust the "establishment" sources and prefer to believe alternative or extremist sources? If you want to argue an extremist view it's easy today to find a wealth of sources that support your argument. You can use the principles of source criticism but arrive at very different conclusions. What do we do if large sections of society see the education sector as part of the "establishment" conspiracy? The danger is that the truth is now in the eye of the beholder.

What now? We have comfortably assumed that everyone shares our vision of a democratic, tolerant, inclusive society that respects the rights of all citizens. It's now painfully clear that this vision is not default and that many see benefits in an authoritarian society. We need to work much harder at justifying our vision and challenging less democratic forces. We need to get our story right.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

There is no university of the future


Every time a new educational model is launched or an existing institution builds an innovative new facility we see headlines about whether this is the school/university of the future. This is another aspect of the tiresome either/or rhetoric that surrounds popular discussions of digitalisation; the new model will replace existing models. If we could just replace the definite article with the indefinite article and state simply that this is a school/university of the future the discussion might be more realistic. There is no one model for the future, there will be a wide range of different interpretations from traditional to innovative.

A recent example of this is an article from BBC newsUniversity opens without any teachers, about a university called 42 (devotees of A hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy will immediately understand) that has no teachers and where students collaborate to solve a wide range of problems and where achievement is measured through peer review and the practical implementation of the problems they solve. There are no tuition fees and accommodation is provided free thanks to the considerable backing of its billionaire owner. The venture started in France and has now opened a branch in the USA with the objective of training up to a thousand students in coding and software development. The students are highly motivated self-directed learners, able to search effectively for the information they need and exploit their networks to develop their skills.

The lack of teachers is indeed a radical solution and the headlines that this initiative has prompted fuels many people's insecurity about technology as a threat to jobs and traditional institutions. The point is that this is simply one of many models being tested today as we experiment with new ways of offering education. Indeed this one is a highly specialised model that the founders admit is only suitable for a certain target group.

Britanny Bir admits 42's methods do not suit all students. During the month-long selection period, some applicants fell out because of the stresses of working closely together. It is easy to imagine reacting badly to a poor mark if it was given by the student in the desk next to you.

"It suits individuals who are very disciplined and self-motivated, and who are not scared by having the freedom to work at their own pace," she says.

42 isn't the university of the future but it does demonstrate a trend that is already evident in universities; promoting active learning through real project work, collaboration and peer assessment. This will suit many learners who feel stifled by traditional teaching methods and want to focus on teamwork, problem-solving and practical application of skills from the very start. Another point is that 42 isn't actually a university in the formal sense of the term. They aren't providing credentials that can be compared to university degrees and should not be directly compared. There are many other examples of new educational models using traditional vocabulary like university, college or academy (Peer2peer university, Khan Academy, Udacity's nanodegrees etc) and being dragged into comparisons with the traditional system. Maybe they should use new terminology to show that they are offering new paths to learning and new forms of credentials that are not comparable to degrees.

What we are seeing today is experimentation with new models of education and the establishment of a new ecosystem where traditional degrees will still have great relevance but new alternatives will be available. If the new credentials are verifiable and trustworthy and employers accept them then they will become hard currency. They aren't the same as a university degree but they widen the credential spectrum.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Silence at last!

I've written several times about how hard it is today to experience silence, especially in public places. We're constantly bombarded by music, advertising, traffic and all the bleeps and assorted sound effects from our mobile devices. Now I've discovered a possible refuge from all this noise, a potentially revolutionary gadget called Muzo.

Muzo is a small device that you place on a table or window and incredibly it tones down all the background noise, creating an oasis of peace for you to work, relax or sleep in. I find it hard to believe that your oasis will be completely silent but if they can relegate that irritating music playing in the cafe you are sitting in then I'll be buying one very soon. Another feature is that you can select your own ambient background music or sound effects to create a more peaceful environment for sleep or meditation. So if you want to sleep you just select the sounds of a summer's evening beside a river with the optional crackling of a campfire. In addition Muzo can create a sound bubble so that you can have an intimate conversation in a restaurant without anyone else being able to overhear. The product certainly seems to have struck a chord with many people since the crowdfunding campaign to finance the product raised more than four times the money asked for.

I suspect that Muzo will be able to tone down a lot of background noise but there will of course be some leakage. I hope it will be at least possible to hear a fire alarm. But the ability to create a quiet oasis around me when I want to concentrate is a dream come true. The irony in all this is that almost noone actually wants the background noise that Muzo will help us escape from. If more cafes and public places would simply turn off the pointless background music (in some cases foreground music) we could have natural peace and quiet.