Sunday, October 4, 2015

Can closed support open?

Can closed or restricted learning environments actually complement and enhance open learning? I've been thinking about this for a while and see a clear connection. I believe firmly in openness in education but there are problems with everything being wide open. In an open course, especially a massive one, there is a lot of noise (comments and discussions everywhere and hard to find any structure) and many learners who are unused to online learning simply give up in the face of the overwhelming volume. In all this noise what on earth can I contribute? If I ask a simple question will they ignore me or laugh at me? In order to start learning we all need to feel comfortable and secure in a place where we can ask "stupid" questions, test ideas and find support. In the noisy environment of an open course full of strangers, some of whom seem to be almost over-qualified for the course and are already discussing issues I don't even understand, it's hard to find a quiet area for smaller discussions. If the course is in English maybe I would like to discuss the content in my own language and be able to clear up misunderstandings.

I see a future for creating more closed groups as part of an open course to provide safe havens for discussion, language support and academic support. I suspect that many drop out of open courses because they feel inadequate, overwhelmed and confused. The opportunity to step aside into a more closed environment to get support and build confidence can enable learners to re-enter the open course with more confidence. This group could meet face-to-face once a week at a local library or cafe, hold regular online meetings and share a closed group on Facebook or Google+. They may not know each other at first and it takes a week or so before a comfort level is reached but once established the mutual support can be crucial for the learners' participation in the open course.

Of course it is not possible for MOOC-providers to offer such safe havens, their job is to offer the course and the learning environment. The closed spin-off groups must be arranged by a wide number of organisations who see a need to support open lifelong learning. Some study groups can be spontaneously formed by learners themselves but I also see a role for libraries, vocational colleges, community centres, learning centres and suchlike to organise local or regional groups of open learners who can meet regularly, face-to-face or online, to discuss course content and assignments, preferably in the learners' own language. This may already be happening and I would be interested in getting any links to examples.

An open course (I use the term to include those that are not covered by the term MOOC) can thus be developed into a whole ecosystem of open and restricted communities that are mutually supportive and that may continue to thrive long after the official course has ended. The original idea of a collaborative MOOC was to create a learning community to investigate a topic and hopefully continue to develop outside the scope of the course. The question is how open courses can facilitate the establishment of these safe, restricted environments and see them not as a threat to openness but as a natural complement. Communities within the community.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

PISA - worth digging below the headlines

Most people don't really like change and secretly hope that any new challenges will simply go away and we can all get back to normal again. This is certainly true with educational technology and every time some study indicates that technology has not made the impact many had hoped for there is a great cry of "what did I tell you" from the tech skeptics, often lead by the popular media. In the past couple of weeks we've seen a new wave of this after a new OECD/PISA report, Students, Computers and Learning, indicated that pupils' test results in reading and maths had not risen despite considerable investment in technology (laptops and tablets for all). The findings showed that pupils who spent most time on the net often had poorer test scores and this was taken as "evidence" that technology was not helping education.

... even countries which have invested heavily in information and communication technologies (ICT) for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science.

This lead of course to headlines about the dangers of technology in education and gave fuel to arguments that the use of mobiles and laptops should be restricted. An example of the simplistic interpretation of this report was the BBC article, School technology struggles to make an impact, nicely commented on by Steve Wheeler in his blog post A message to Auntie. The truth, as ever, lies in the small print and the OECD report was actually arguing for more enlightened use of technology in education.

The OECD report explained the poor results by stressing that the focus of many schools and authorities has been on simply implementing technology without first reviewing and adapting the pedagogy and giving teachers adequate support. The report outlined several weaknesses in many schools' implementation of digital technology (see slideshow below):
  • overestimation of the teachers' and students' digital skills
  • naive policy and implementation strategies
  • resistance of teachers and students
  • inadequate pedagogy and instructional design
  • poor quality educational resources and software

What seemed on the surface to add fuel to the tech-skeptics in education was in fact a call for a deeper and more informed integration of technology where learning is always the focus but where technology offers a wide range of supportive tools and methods. Teachers need to see technology as an enabler rather than a threat and that digital tools can complement and enhance traditional methods rather than simply replace them as many fear. As I have written so often we need to stop these polarised discussions of digital versus traditional and focus on the pedagogy with a wide range of methods and tools to support it.

These issues are further discussed in an article from Merlin John Online, Computers and Learning: Missing the Connection, which describes a number of impressive examples of schools who have achieved great results by implementing a more enlightened approach to the use of educational technology. The head of one school, Jonathan Bishop of Broadclyst Community Primary School in England, makes a particularly apt statement:

ICT on its own is not going to raise the standards of education or the outcomes for children. What will raise those standards and outcomes is high-quality teaching; ICT used appropriately and effectively in the hands of capable professionals can deliver greater efficiencies, more personalised learning, enriched opportunities and greater outcomes for children.

As is often the case, we should not simply blame the technology but the superficial implementation of the technology. PISA's reports are often criticised by educators for simplifying education into league tables but if you read beyond the headlines they often have very sensible proposals down in the small print. This report is a good example where we need to dig to find the valuable information.

A final statement in the Merlin John article sums it all up:

In other words, is it the misuse of ICT, rather than the technology itself, that we should be blaming?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The spiral of silence - not just an online issue

Spiral staircase by aotaro, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by aotaro on Flickr

Social media should enable greater communication and discussion and the opportunity to interact with people we would seldom if ever be able to meet in person. In many respects these aims have been met but I get the feeling that the communication aspect is stagnating and that instead of real discussion we are retreating into cosy echo-chambers or simply exchanging pleasantries, selfies, cats and endless quotations. We naturally surround ourselves with friends who have very similar views as ourselves and so any discussions that do occur tend to be mostly mutual confirmation of shared values. In more public communities most people prefer to play safe and stick to non-controversial issues often in fear of provoking responses from net trolls.

The absence of genuine discussion is reflected in a study from last year by Pew Research Center, Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’, that showed how reluctant people are to discuss potentially controversial issues on social media.

A major insight into human behavior from pre-internet era studies of communication is the tendency of people not to speak up about policy issues in public—or among their family, friends, and work colleagues—when they believe their own point of view is not widely shared. This tendency is called the “spiral of silence.”

The study showed that people were much more guarded in sharing their opinions on Facebook and Twitter than when discussing in face-to-face groups of friends and family. No surprise really. Did we really expect people to be more open online?  I suspect it is not simply a physical/virtual issue since we tend not to make controversial statements at face-to-face meetings involving large groups of people we don't know so well. Social media are the digital equivalent of sitting in a crowded room and in both spaces you generally focus on small talk and safe subjects. We only discuss complex or controversial issues in small groups where all have similar opinions and the risk of serious conflict is low.

In education this has relevance for our expectations of student involvement in online discussion forums or large classroom sessions. To get any meaningful discussion you need to break up the crowd into smaller groups and focus at first on establishing a comfortable and supportive atmosphere. This reminds me of Gilly Salmon's five stage model for online learning which emphasises the online socialisation phase as the key to deeper engagement. This process generally takes time and effort but only when the members feel at ease and safe with each other will they begin to explore more uncomfortable issues and risk any kind of conflict. I think we are often too impatient with online students, expecting them to open up too quickly and not allowing the groups to settle before introducing more complex tasks. Simple socialisation activities should not be underestimated and the first weeks of the course should focus on team-building. If that magical group feeling can be established the real work can then begin. Without it the spiral of silence kicks in.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The end of the career path?

The highway bridge to nowhere, Cape Town by jbdodane, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by jbdodane

I have been working in the field of educational technology, distance learning, e-learning and so on for 11 years now. It has been a fascinating journey from my almost total ignorance at the start to a more qualified understanding today. By discovering openness and social media I was able to develop a rich global professional network and by sharing my thoughts and reflections I got invited to all sorts of interesting projects, conferences and networks. It has been indeed a life-changing experience even if I sometimes feel we keep discussing the same things and sometimes get frustrated by the painfully slow progress in the field. The field is still characterised by projects, pioneers and enthusiasts and there is still a strong common feeling of fighting the establishment that binds us all together. We all meet regularly in different constellations at conferences and in projects as we try to help our colleagues and institutions understand the potential of using today's digital media as tools for learning.

But what happens when we succeed in our mission, when all teachers use digital media and tools as a natural part of their teaching and when our authorities, schools and universities have digital strategies? A new post by Tony Bates raises this issue, Is there a future in online learning?, by stating that There is no (long-term) future in being an online learning specialist. Basically don't plan your career around this field. This seems rather surprising given the growth of educational technology but he too sees a future when educational technology becomes fully embedded into teaching and the role of the educational technologist becomes largely superfluous.

For the next five to ten years, there should be plenty of jobs for highly skilled instructional designers, but sooner rather than later institutions will be forced to ensure that their instructors are trained and qualified to teach effectively with technology. It will be a core part of their work, and as a result the demand for specialist learning technology support will decrease. The main role then will be providing some of the initial training for post-secondary instructors. 

There will always be a role for specialists but it would be unwise to plan for the log-term since there is little room for advancement in the academic world unless you can combine it with other academic pursuits. At the same time I think we will see the redefinition of many aspects of education and learning in the coming decade. The roles of universities, schools, teachers and students as well as the value of traditional credentials and educational structures are likely to be redefined. Stephen Downes comments on his blog OLDaily that there may not really be a future in teaching since the traditional teacher's role is rapidly fragmenting into different specialisations.

Maybe the notion of a traditional career path is what's really under threat and that we all need to be equipped to deal with changing roles and adapting to  new circumstances. Like many people I have changed path several times in my life and have had to learn new skills and subject areas when a previous avenue was closed. There is maybe no long-term future in being anything in particular. The idea of following a particular career path may soon be obsolete as life becomes more like a pinball machine than a straight and steady ladder. I'm sure that most of today's e-learning professionals will be doing something different in 5-10 years. What you need is the ability to learn, relearn and adapt. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Learning means getting below the surface

When I was a student I knew a few guys who almost never went to lectures and spent most of term either asleep or in the bar. Then a couple of weeks before the exam they suddenly burst into action, borrowed friends' notes and assorted books and then scraped through the test. I imagine there are still people like that at most universities. They didn't learn much but they had worked out the secret of knowing enough to pass the exam. It worked at least for the first two years but I've no idea how they got on after that. Hopefully they woke up and got involved when the course began to get more interesting. The reason I bring this up is to show that some people have always tried to take shortcuts, even on campus courses, and that this is not a problem exclusive to online education as many people try to make us believe. Some courses, both face-to-face and online, make it too easy to take shortcuts and not surprisingly many people are happy to capitalize.

A couple of articles in Inside Higher Ed sparked off this train of thought. Firstly one about cheating in some MOOCs, Multiple Personalities, Disorder, where researchers from Harvard and MIT have discovered that some participants were using multiple registrations to find out the right answers to the tests. Many courses use multiple choice tests to assess progress and when you have completed the test you can see the answers. So once you've seen the answers using your fake identity you simply log in as yourself and pass the test. If you make it so easy to cheat then it's no surprise that some people do. These types of self-correction tests are fine for helping students to grasp basic concepts and as a quick memory check but they should not be used as criteria for awarding certificates.

Secondly an investigation into the shortcomings of introductory courses provided by non-traditional education providers, General Ed Cheap and Easy. There are a number of online educational companies that have set up MOOC-like courses and the article shows how easy it is to get certificates and in some cases the opportunity to be awarded university credits without having understood so much. Once again the courses basically packaging content and then asking you if you remember what was in unit 2. The author tried a course in marketing and was able to get good results despite very little knowledge of the subject and without having to read too much.

Through inferring the correct answers, lucky guesswork, and trial and error, I completed 40 of the course’s roughly 240 units. I have a perfect score in all but two. I have never taken a course or worked in marketing.

This type of content delivery and memory testing can of course help you get a very broad grasp of a subject, just like reading a book or watching a few lectures. But the worrying thing is that some of these courses are getting accredited and can lead to you being awarded university credits. There's a lot of discussion about the unbundling of education and the promise of non-traditional providers and alternative paths to learning. I have written enthusiastically on this many times here and believe there is huge potential here, if managed carefully. However we have to be wary of courses that merely offer simple information transfer and superficial testing and not confuse these with courses that promote real learning and force learners to discuss, question, rethink and come to their own conclusions. Learning means digging below the surface of facts, figures and multiple choice tests. Many new providers have very slick and convincing marketing to show that they are more flexible, learner-centred, effective and enjoyable than traditional education. The sirens sing very enchantingly.

Some providers deliver what they promise but many are simply old wine in shiny new bottles. Some are pure bluff, verging on degree mills and suchlike. The problem is that they reinforce the view that this is typical of online education. The online element does make it easier to set up less professional operations but bad practice is not simply connected to form of delivery. When well designed and professionally run, online education can be as interactive, challenging and engaging as any face-to-face course. Those who offer accreditation need to learn how to see through the smokescreen and tell the serious professional providers from the rest. It's also our responsibility to become more discerning students and learn how to filter out the buzzwords and glossy surface.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Webinars and wifi - not a happy couple

Conference Audience, Anno 2010 by Adriaan Bloem, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by Adriaan Bloem on Flickr

A very common complaint about webinars and other synchronous online meetings is poor audio and video quality. This is generally caused by a number of factors, for example not checking your computer's audio and video settings and putting too much trust in wireless connections (wifi). I am involved an a lot of webinars, as organiser, host, speaker and participant, and this is a recurrent issue that causes lots of badwill towards online meetings. The wifi issue is particularly tricky since wifi access is now so popular and it's hard to convince people that it presents serious issues for synchronous high bandwidth communication.

There's an excellent post on this topic on Ken Molay's webinar blog, WiFi Wreaks Webinar Woes. He explains why wifi is not ideal for webinars, especially for those who need to be seen and heard in the session. Wifi is fine for participants but far too inconsistent for hosting.

The problem with WiFi for streaming content is that it is inconsistent. Even running the standard pre-webinar quality tests is no guarantee of performance thirty minutes (or thirty seconds) later. A little bit of interference from other signals on the same channel, a small shift in your device's antenna orientation, or instantaneous local load as your neighbor starts to stream a movie or download a giant email attachment can interrupt the flow of data to your system.

I've had quite a few webinar flops at conference venues who assured me that they had an excellent wifi connection and there was no need for wired internet connections. However once you assemble a couple of hundred eager e-learning experts, each with at least two devices, in a conference venue the available bandwidth for a single user often gets strangled. A webinar tool like Adobe Connect that streams video, audio, presentation slides, chat, participant lists, polls and more, chews up an awful lot of bandwidth and is very sensitive to delays. The success of the webinar depends on everyone seeing and hearing the same thing at the same time and being able to answer polls and chat questions. If some are experiencing delays everything gets out of sync. The result is a session with long delays making interaction impossible and often wild variations in sound and video quality. Sometimes it simply gives up and crashes. I always insist on a wired connection when hosting webinars from conference venues but even then there can be trouble just around the corner. At one venue I had a wired connection that worked very poorly and after enquiries I found out that the wire simply went to a wireless router and a wifi connection! At another conference the audience was asked to stop using their devices for a while because the keynote speaker couldn't show a film due to lack of bandwidth. In such cases there should be a separate internet connection for speakers so they don't get mixed up with the conference buzz.

I am not an expert on the technical side so I'm sure there are factors in this that I haven't realised but I think one of the problems here is that we have become so accustomed to everything working all the time that we take bandwidth for granted. As soon as we get more bandwidth we use even more of it and quickly reach congestion level again. E-meeting tools are constantly trying to find new ways of compressing sound and video but unless they can use a dedicated link with guaranteed bandwidth the troubles will probably continue. Ken Molay's article offers no real solution to this problem at present. However it would be good to increase awareness of the limitations of bandwidth and why the problems that are often linked to webinars are often not the fault of the tools or the organisers. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

MOOCs for development

Keeping Goats and also Texting by Ikhlasul Amal, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by Ikhlasul Amal on Flickr

The original idea of a MOOC back in 2008 was that anyone can start a course and create a learning community around a subject of common interest. Open tools and platforms should be used so that there are no technical barriers to participation. Basically if you and some colleagues would like to investigate a particular subject or test some ideas you can invite the world to join in. There are still plenty of truly open grassroots MOOCs, more or less massive, but the vast majority today are highly polished professional productions from major universities and often extremely expensive to produce. As a result many smaller institutions, especially in developing countries, are discouraged from even considering open education. If the role model is a slick multimedia course from a high status university with over 100,000 participants it's easy to fell overwhelmed.

But a MOOC doesn't have to be so massive and the production costs can be kept low without compromising pedagogical quality. The promise of MOOCs was to widen participation and access to higher education especially for those who cannot afford a regular campus course. The problem with the high profile MOOCs is that all the video content, animations and other bandwidth heavy content puts them out of the reach of millions in developing countries.

Commonwealth of Learning (CoL) has now launched a free and open MOOC platform to enable smaller organisations in developing countries to run MOOCs without needing to invest so much money. The concept is called MOOC4D (MOOCs for development) and is built on the platform mooKIT offering a low bandwidth solution that is free to use for courses of up to 10,000 participants. The concept is that running a MOOC should be as easy as taking one. The platform offers participants the chance to download text and audio content for offline use and none of the content should use much bandwidth. At present there is only a limited range of courses available (Mobiles for development, ICT Basics, Climate change in the Pacific, Teacher training in the Seychelles and a MOOC on MOOCs) but the potential for this kind of platform is immense. The first course, appropriately a MOOC on MOOCs, has now been evaluated and a report is now available with analysis and conclusions, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on MOOCs: Course Evaluation. Here's an introduction video to the mooKIT platform.

Another fine example of low-tech online learning is a MOOC on horticulture taught in Hindi and run by the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur with support from CoL. This MOOC uses only mobile phones for distribution with regular short audio lessons being stored on voice mail and always accessible. Tests in the form of quizzes are also carried out by phone. The prototype course with over 1000 participants has been evaluated and a report has been published about the results with recommendations for future development, MobiMOOC - a massive open online course on horticulture - an effectiveness study, Uttar Pradesh State, INDIA.

The exciting thing with this type of initiative is providing a simple, open platform that enables institutions in developing countries to offer open courses that are adapted to the technical limitations of the areas they serve. It can also mean that more MOOCs are produced in smaller languages and thus offer a tool to empower local language and culture. Surely the real benefit of the MOOC movement is enabling everyone to participate in online learning.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Goodbye MOOC, hello microcredentials

Blended learning (Biology) by queensu, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by queensu

MOOC spin-offs are coming thick and fast as the term starts to dissolve into lots of new concepts. The free plain vanilla MOOCs are still flourishing but they've now developed a layered structure where you opt to pay for tutoring, assessment and even credits. Coursera's signature track option now offers verified credentials for a fee and this has spawned equivalent solutions in most MOOC consortia. These are not university credits but they are verified by the awarding university.

Slowly the term MOOC is fading and being replaced by terms like microcredentials and nanodegrees with students being able to study a series of short online courses that lead to verified certificates or badges whose real value on the job market is yet to be established. They aren't degrees or credits but they may be the next best thing and many hope they may create a new niche. Short online course modules offered by MOOC consortia are being packaged into a new qualifications shorter and more accessible then the traditional degree. Coursera offers what they call Specializations, EdX offers XSeriesUdacity offers nanodegrees and there are a number of other solutions such as Udemy for business. Many of these non-credit programmes are developed in close cooperation with major corporations (in particular Udacity's range) and are marketed as teaching students exactly the skills they need for employment. Most seem to be aimed at graduates as part of their professional development rather than trying to offer an alternative to traditional degrees but who knows how this will play out. If employers accept these new credentials then who knows.

Many institutions are now prepared to let others build their MOOCs instead of devoting so much internal resources to course design and creation. The Dutch company MOOC Factory offers universities and corporate customers expertise and an attractive platform to build online courses and course modules that use methods and tools from the MOOC movement but that now may not be so open or massive. The lessons learned from the first years of MOOCs are now being refined and developed in less massive closed online environments.

An article in Inside Higher Ed, Establishment Goes Alternative describes a new initiative from a group of seven US universities to offer skills-based microcredentials by offering a range of online modules, skills assessment and tutoring under the banner of University Learning Store. The venture is not yet in operation but the article describes the plans to create an alternative credential solution that offers sub-degree qualifications.

The idea is to create an “alternative credentialing process that would provide students with credentials that are much shorter and cheaper than conventional degrees,” said David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at Wisconsin Extension.

What's interesting with University Learning Store is that it is driven by the universities and colleges themselves, thus creating a new tier of higher education that may other compete with or complement the traditional degree system. The other players, although involving the higher education sector, are generally driven by commercial interests and venture capital. I suspect that the main target group for microcredentials are those who already have a university education and are looking for career development courses that are not as long and demanding as regular post-graduate qualifications like a masters degree. This also links in with the growth in competence-based degrees where professionals can progress more quickly to degrees by getting credits for proven skills at work and where assessment is based on real work projects.

These new types of credentials will I believe only enrich the education sector and provide people with alternative paths to learning new skills. Maybe it's time for universities to offer alternatives to traditional degrees such as microcredentials before that niche is taken by the corporate sector.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Flipping meetings

StaffMeeting by ransomtech, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by ransomtech on Flickr

The concept of flipping the classroom is rapidly spreading to other contexts. The underlying principle is to make sure that when we ask a group of people to come to a face-to-face meeting, the time should be spent on interaction and constructive activities rather than passive information transfer. The information can easily be sent to participants in advance as a video or audio file or in document form and this can apply equally well in all types of meetings. Valuable meeting time can then be spent on discussion and group work where the participants have had time to consider their opinions and can offer more informed comments than the spontaneous reactions heard at meetings where the information is delivered traditionally. Schools, conferences and meetings all suffer from the outdated belief that the only way to inform people is by gathering them all in a room and lecturing them.

In schools this concept is already well-established but now the focus is moving to reinventing the dreaded staff meeting. An article on TeachThought, 5 Challenges We Overcame Moving To A Flipped Staff Meeting, offers advice to managers who realise that their staff meetings have become stale rituals.

What if teachers could go to staff meetings and be actively collaborating? What if teachers looked forward to going to staff meetings? What if teachers could leave a staff meeting having been fully engaged for its entire duration? What if staff meetings were the place to learn, innovate, and transform teaching practices?

Some people may of course appreciate being passive for a while and getting the information they need in one convenient meeting. However what I notice today is that the information provided at meetings is more relevant to some than to others and as a result many people check their e-mails, prepare coming activities or simply get nervous as they realise they have many better things they could do with their time. I'm sure all meetings would benefit from a flipped approach and that active participation and involvement would also eliminate most multi-tasking. If people are actively involved then they won't have time to even think of multitasking.

However the article warns that attitudes are hard to change and that shifting to more active and meaningful meetings means abandoning past practices. There will be objections at first; the traditional meeting is comfortable and passive. You're asking people to do extra work and to come to meetings we--prepared rather than just showing up at the last minute. But if the extra work results in more informed and committed staff (or students) who see staff meetings as an opportunity for learning and development then the effort is well worthwhile.

Changing the way you do staff meetings is going to be a mindset shift for everyone. Attending a traditional staff meeting, although boring, tends to be pretty easy. You just have to sit there. And now teachers will not only have to be active during the staff meeting, but also watch a screencast prior to the meeting. My advice is to trust the process. Once everyone realizes the benefits of flipping staff meetings, people’s mindset will begin to change.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Me and my avatar

My Twitter Background by Ken-Lee, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Ken-Lee on Flickr

What sort of profile photo or avatar do you use on your social networks? Do you use the same one everywhere or do you use a variety, one for each network? Do you use a photo of yourself and is it passport style, in profile, only part of your head, upside down, from behind, in sunglasses, only your legs? Do you use an impersonal avatar in the form of a cartoon character, a symbol, a logo? Or do you simply use the anonymous default silhouette avatar that all networks offer? How do you react to different avatars in your networks? Do some seem more trustworthy than others? Do you tend to follow people with photo avatars or does it make no difference what avatar people use?

A recent post by David HopkinsDoes your avatar matter?, caught my attention. David is a rare exception to one of my own rules - I tend not to follow people without a photo of themselves. David has previously used a cartoon character as his trademark in social networks (especially Twitter) and in the blog post he explains how he has experimented with different types of avatar over the years. He now uses a photo instead of the cartoon but the transition took time, first by showing part of his face and then a blurred version and now a full-face view. Even if the cartoon avatar had become a sort of trade mark he realised that his students had a right to see him in person. First impressions are important and your choice of avatar says a lot about you; even a non-choice is a choice.

The post has not surprisingly sparked a good discussion. Many people see their avatar as a trade mark and a selection of their personality and are of course reluctant to change that strong image for a mere photo. Many people involved in political opposition and other sensitive issues have very good reasons for not revealing their true identity and for many it is indeed dangerous and foolhardy to do so. It is often important to draw a line between me as a person and my political/professional role. Many politicians who tweet or blog have one avatar for their official role and another for their personal networks. If your account is mostly used for professional purposes it can be confusing for your network if you intersperse that with highly personal information, party photos etc. Such accounts can also be manna for the tabloid press.

I have always used a photo of myself and update only occasionally. Changing too often can cause confusion. Especially in professional networks I think it's only right to show who I am. Otherwise it's like turning up to a meeting with a paper bag on my head. When I choose who to follow, the avatar does influence me. I'm least likely to follow people with default avatars and cartoon characters because I'm unsure of who they are and of their credibility. The crucial factor of course is their profile information and the value to me of what they offer. I always check profiles to see how they describe themselves and then check their latest messages to see that they are relevant for me. Those with a good reputation will be followed almost regardless of avatar but those of us who are less known need to win trust and anonymity is not the best way to achieve that.

But one thing is clear, your choice of avatar does matter.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

MOOCs for teacher development

Traditionally teachers seldom get a chance to watch each other and share experience. Teaching has been an individualistic rather than collective career where you work out your own strategies, create your own courses and learn from your own mistakes. Even with the advent of online learning, courses tended to be centred around one teacher and the course material was locked into a virtual classroom to which other teachers seldom had access. Of course there is widespread use more collaborative teaching, especially in schools, but in higher education the lone teacher approach still dominates.

An article in the Atlantic, The (Accidental) Power of MOOCs, looks at new statistics on MOOC demographics that not only confirm previous findings that most participants already have a university education but also reveal that as many as 39% are teachers. The attraction is obvious; a chance to see how other teachers work and an opportunity to learn new methods and tools that can then be applied in your own teaching.

That they would voluntarily participate in an online-learning experience focusing on a field they already know isn’t that surprising; as practitioners of education, teachers may also have an interest in the processes and applications of MOOCs, studying how questions, assignments, and tests are handled in online teaching environments, for example. Nor is it surprising that teachers are interested in pedagogy—watching and learning how an applauded instructor delivers a lesson.

For many the subject matter will probably be familiar so they take the course as part of their professional development, especially if they are themselves teaching in an online context. MOOCs can also enable teachers to expand their professional networks and so the MOOC can be a springboard to future international collaboration. It may not have been the outcome the MOOC providers intended but the article sees the professional development of teachers as an accidental effect of the MOOC movement. Thus MOOCs are inspiring traditional teachers to rethink their own classroom practices and use digital media to enrich their own teaching.

But it's not only that teachers are learning by following courses in their subject area, there are a growing number of MOOCs about using technology in education and these are filling competence gaps that many institutions and authorities fail to provide for their teachers. A European project called Handson ICT have recently published a guide for teachers looking for a suitable MOOC to learn about using technology in education, MOOCs as Continuing Professional Development (CPD) in Educational Practice. A practical guide for educators. Here they examine quality criteria for these courses and present a thorough benchmarking overview of currently available MOOCs for educators.

... there are increasing numbers of MOOCs on the market and while the richness of the options is exciting, it may also be overwhelming, especially to those new to online CPD. This document, therefore, aims to help any educator wishing to undertake a MOOC as part of their professional development to an enriching learning experience.

The project also runs its own professional development MOOC, Learning Design Studio for ICT-based Learning Activities, and the next course starts in late October. Here's the preview video for the course.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Supporting new learners in open education

Help! by GotCredit, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by GotCredit

Last week I attended a conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm called MOOCs in Scandinavia which was an opportunity to take stock of the development so far and hopefully create a springboard to future development. Scandinavia is a rather late arrival on the MOOC front and there are still only a handful of institutions offering courses in the major consortia but there are also many examples of off-piste open courses that haven't got the MOOC label but are extremely interesting nonetheless. The highlight of the event was of course the final keynote from George Siemens, MOOCs and Learning Sciences: Where we have been. Where we are going, who concluded by claiming that MOOCs are actually rather irrelevant but that they raise important issues about how higher education needs to adapt to the digitalisation of society. A welcome perspective to warn against focusing on just one interpretation (or misinterpretation) of open learning.

However, although I thoroughly enjoyed George's lecture and it gave me several new avenues to investigate further there was another talk that gave me immediate food for thought. Sandra Milligan and colleagues at the University of Melbourne have been researching student data from MOOCs and looking at factors that affect learners' course completion. Their work is presented on the blog Crowd-sourced learning in MOOCs. They see a clear correlation between previous learning experience and depth of involvement in an open course. They describe five types of open learners (expert, competent, emergent, beginner and novice) and the research examines the following hypotheses:

  • there is a complex, latent ‘21st century’ skill required by MOOC participants to crowd-source their learning in MOOC forums;
  • individuals possess this skill to differing degrees and these differences explain in part differences in learning outcomes;
  • forum activities such as posting, voting, and viewing do not in and of themselves generate learning, but skilled learners are adept at using them in particular ways to generate learning; and
  • measurement theory and its associated methodologies make possible a mapping of patterns of forum activity onto a learning progression describing the hypothesised latent skill, and this mapping can be used to infer individuals’ level of skill.
Novices and experts have totally different ways of approaching a MOOC. Novices tend to see the course material as content to be consumed and will only look at the prescribed material and nothing else. They will not contribute to or even read the discussions in the forum and will not build a peer network to help them learn. They expect to be lead by the teacher and do not know how to take charge of their own learning. Experts, however, know how to dig deeper, read beyond the stipulated pages and above all take an active part in discussion. They have learnt how to learn. The research team in Melbourne have produced a useful rubric sheet for assessing a learner's level of participation and this can be used for learner self-assessment and can help to guide learners towards more active involvement..

This leads me into thinking about factors that affect learner involvement in open courses:
  • Study skills
    Those who succeed in online courses tend to be those with good study skills. This means they can find information, check sources, take notes and reflect on what they have found. Online learning today differs greatly from the classroom tradition that most people were raised on and requires new skills that take time to acquire. If we want open learning to really reach out to new categories of learners there must be local support available to help them acquire these skills. Here there is a major role for libraries, learning centres and other further education institutions but they need funding and a clear national strategy. 
  • Learning confidence
    It's not just study skills that affect participation it's also the confidence of the learners. Many new learners are hesitant about participating in a course that they might feel is too advanced for them. The slightest problem or misunderstanding will confirm to them that they are "too stupid" for this sort of course and they will immediately drop out. What happens when confident, experienced practitioners mix with novices in a discussion forum? It's not unusual for experts to participate in a MOOC simply to see how it is run and to get ideas for their own courses. If experts start posting in the forums, as they generally do, the effect on novices can be disastrous. The novices are naturally daunted by the high level of discussion, feel that they have nothing to contribute and are afraid of asking "stupid" questions.
    Here we also need careful scaffolding to give new learners more confidence; progress maps that make learning more visible, mini-certifications like badges,teaching self- and peer evaluation, facilitating collaboration around tasks etc.
  • Language skills
    As I have written earlier I think proficiency in English is a significant factor in online learning. If you are not reasonably fluent you will tend not participate in discussions or complete assignments. English language MOOCs can provide more support for non-native speakers with subtitled videos and transcripts but more importantly the course material could be published under an open licence so that local institutions could provide translated and adapted versions more suited to local issues and culture.
If we really want education to be available to all we need to focus on developing support structures, both online and face-to.-face.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

How sticky are your courses?

Glue goo by Sam-Cat, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by Sam-Cat

How sticky are your courses? What sort of glue is required to keep learners involved? How do we awaken interest and create the critical momentum and engagement that are needed to guarantee completion? It all depends on what type of course we're talking about and the glue needed on an open online course is fundamentally different from the glue traditionally applied.

Traditional post-secondary education is often selective and exclusive. The institution clearly states the prerequisites for application (required qualifications and grades, previous experience etc), the curriculum, required workload, schedule and expected outcomes and the student, by applying, agrees to abide by these. Of those who apply only a select group make the cut and they generally have to apply for a loan or grant to pay the fees and the costs of studying. This group has therefore invested greatly in the course and has agreed to the terms and conditions. Dropping out is a major decision and so the completion rates will naturally be high. The rewards are also clear in the form of a degree, certificate and job prospects. Basically there is a lot of glue holding the students and the course together and this will hold even if the course design and pedagogy are less than ideal. The high completion rates of many campus courses are perhaps an illusion in terms of course quality; for many students dropping out is simply not an option.

On the other hand non-traditional post-secondary education in the form of open online courses do not have these extrinsic motivating factors. The greater the openness and flexibility the weaker the extrinsic motivators and the course has to rely on the students' intrinsic motivation and the design and pedagogy of the course to keep them on board. Learners participate because they want to learn and because the process is stimulating and engaging. The glue needed here is all about inspiring intrinsic motivation by good course design and skilled teaching and facilitation.

A post on Edugeek Journal called What If The Problem Isn’t With MOOCs But Something Else? develops this idea and provides a new angle on the old theme of MOOC completion rates. Maybe it's not the MOOCs that are failing but that the traditional system has made us dependent on grades, exams and credits and we cannot imagine education without them. We have focused too much on the stickiness of extrinsic motivation that we have neglected the preconditions for real learning. Maybe MOOCs are simply revealing a flawed system?

What if the problem is not with the learners, but the way they have been programmed through the years? Grades, credits, failure, tuition, fees, gold stars, extra recess for good grades, monetary rewards, etc are all programmed into learners from a young age.
You can say MOOCs are failing because they lack sufficient “student motivation,” but what if it was actually the case that society has been failing for decades and MOOCs are just exposing this?

We assume so often that only by offering extrinsic rewards can we win students' loyalty and so when those rewards are stripped away, as they are in a non-formal educational context the only glue we have is the fundamental joy of learning and teaching.

Traditional education has typically sought for a “suspension of laziness” – looking for ways to get learners to get off their rears and learn (because we always assume that when they don’t want to learn it is their motivation instead of our design). Newer ideas like MOOCs are going past that, to what I guess could be called “suspension of extrinsic motivation” (for lack of better words). What does learning design look like when you remove all of these carrot sticks (or actual paddling sticks) and leave learners to just pure learning? Well… maybe purer learning than what we had.

So it's time to stop comparing these two fundamentally different learning contexts and see open education as a challenge where the focus is fully on course design, pedagogy and enthusiasm.

Friday, May 29, 2015

MOOCs at the movies

CC BY-SA Some rights reserved by Jrosenberry1 on Wikimedia Commons
You've seen the movie now do the MOOC ... This was the heading of a post I wrote back in 2013 and now the prediction has come true. I proposed that film companies could cooperate with universities to produce short open courses providing deeper insight into the topic of a new movie. A movie based on a famous novel could spark interest in studying the author's works and a MOOC could offer the right level of study for the newly inspired learners. We underestimate the power of popular media to awaken interest in a subject and we should take the opportunity to build on that enthusiasm and curiosity. That casual interest could develop into academic studies or a career.

Now TV film channel TCM have teamed up with Ball State University to produce a MOOC based on the channel's film noir season this summer, TCM Presents Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir.

This course will run concurrently with the Turner Classic Movies "Summer of Darkness” programming event, airing 24 hours of films noir every Friday in June and July 2015. This is the deepest catalog of film noir ever presented by the network (and perhaps any network), and provides an unprecedented opportunity for those interested in learning more to watch over 100 classic movies as they investigate “The Case of Film Noir.”

Both the course and the associated films will enrich your understanding of the film noir phenomenon—from the earliest noir precursors to recent experiments in neo-noir. You will be able to share thoughts online and test your movie knowledge with a worldwide community of film noir students and fans.

You might think that course participation would depend on subscribing to TCM but the course description makes it clear that there will be links to lots of film noir examples that are freely available on YouTube. Having access to TCM is simply a convenience but not a precondition but of course TCM are hoping to influence course participants to sign up, just as Ball State might hope to attract new students.

I see this as an exciting development of the mainstream xMOOC model, offering universities a chance to connect with new types of learners, showcase their expertise and link higher education with popular culture in innovative ways. MOOCs can be offered to provide an informed insight into themes raised by films, books, TV series, major events and anniversaries. There is of course a fine line between the scientific impartiality of higher education and the dangers of commercialism but as long as the partnerships are clearly explained, as in the above example, then I think that universities can only gain from such activities. Just let's stop calling them MOOCs please.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Lights, camera, action ..

 by cessemi, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by cessemi

When Ronald Reagan ran for president way back in the eighties there were many sceptics who couldn't accept that a movie actor could lead a nation. Whatever you think of his politics there's no doubt that even if his political background was weak his ability to deliver a message effectively and appeal to the voters was undeniable. As an actor he could play the part in a convincing way and even today he is still seen by many as one of the most popular presidents in history. Much greater politicians with far more ability and knowledge failed to communicate with the voters and struggled to convey a credible message.

So if an actor can be president why not let them lecture on university courses? That is exactly what Purdue University are testing in their professional development courses just now according to an article in Campus TechnologyWhen Actors Replace Instructors as On-Camera Talent; replacing faculty experts with professional actors to deliver more polished video lectures. Many teachers are uncomfortable recording the increasingly polished mini lectures that are so popular, especially in mainstream MOOCs, and the reasoning is that an actor can deliver a script in a more polished and convincing manner. They are comfortable on camera and know how to address an audience. Furthermore they don't introduce themselves at all so that they will not been seen as the subject experts, they simply deliver the message that has been prepared and checked by the real experts. But how did the students react?

The feedback was conclusive: Students still preferred the actor. "We didn't say who was who," Maris remarked. "But they could tell right away. They were telling us, 'Go with the actors. We love our instructor, but we love what she does in the course content. Go with the actors because we love to watch them.' We got the feedback we were hoping for without directly soliciting it."

I can imagine that this idea will provoke outraged reactions from faculty around the world and the discussion thread accompanying the article is filling up fast. However if you clear away the smoke and dust of the shocked reactions maybe it's not so crazy after all. Fronting a video explaining some basic concepts is not the true role of the teacher. Some do that sort of thing well but many do not. Teaching is not simply presenting information, it's more about supporting, mentoring, inspiring and challenging students as well as designing and running courses that lead to learning. Actors aren't going to replace teachers but they may offer a solution to tasks that teachers may not wish or need to do. I don't see this as the beginning of a major trend but I don't find the story particularly alarming.