Saturday, February 28, 2015

Glocal MOOCs

You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. Similarly we can offer MOOC students discussion forums but we can't make them discuss. The topic of learner engagement in online courses (not just MOOCs) has been a recurring theme over the last twenty years and it's clear that meaningful discussions don't just happen, they need to be nurtured and managed. Simply providing a space to comment leads to either complete silence or streams of unconnected random comments ranging from supportive to abusive and distasteful.

In online education students are generally reluctant to participate in discussion forums unless there is a clear value in doing so. Discussions work when there is a limited number of participants who already have a sense of community and trust and where the purpose of discussion is clear to all. In a MOOC where there are thousands of participants the forums become crowded, disorganised and above all daunting for newcomers. A post on the site MOOC Lab, Why MOOC forums fail to deliver highlights another factor inhibiting MOOC forums:

The forums also tend to be dominated by a small group of avid participants, isolating the “masses” who feel too intimidated to join the conversation. The percentage of students registered on a course who participate in the forums is minute.

How can we create learning communities in a course with thousands of participants? One gigantic forum for all clearly doesn't work but it's also extremely difficult to herd participants into smaller discussion groups. That was tried with disastrous effects by Georgia Tech on their aborted course Fundamentals of Online Learning a couple of years ago. They tried to get participants to form smaller study groups; a noble plan but a case of trying to herd cats. Since then many other universities have been grappling with the same problem but rewarding discussion doesn't seem to scale.

David Hopkins (Learner engagement in MOOCssuggests designing MOOCs with a rolling schedule with a new group starting each week.

Instead of having a MOOC that runs twice a year with 10,000 learners each cohort, would it be better suited to run every week with 2-300 learners each week? The learners would progress with those other learners who started in the same time frame as them, therefore building more meaningful relationships with their fellow learners. 

This would avoid the chaos of mass forums but there is still the problem of organisation. It's hard enough running a standard 6 week MOOC but starting a new one each week would add to the university's costs and there is still the problem of how to foster meaningful discussion even in these smaller forums.  Someone has to manage the discussion. Someone has to lead the way, keep the discussion on track, encourage and question. Uncertain participants need to feel that their contributions are welcome and that it's safe to enter the discussion. Faculty are unlikely to have time to manage these discussions so maybe students could be recruited to do so. As long as there is someone who clearly manages and can establish trust among the participants.

What we're all searching for is a way to combine scale with intimacy. Can we design glocal MOOCs combining the advantages of education at scale with a sense of community and small group discussion? What sort of scaffolding and forum management can be provided without significant expense. Could local actors like further education colleges and libraries be involved in creating a local context to global courses? I'm sure it's possible but it will require opening up the MOOC concept outside the confines of the host university or consortium. Universities can't provide all the support themselves so why not open up the concept and allow others to contribute? MOOCs need an open API so that other actors can build support services, offer local variations, translate content and so on. Then maybe we can see open education really taking off.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Designing for MOOC accessibility

MOOCs attract large numbers of learners from all over the world and the vast majority of them are in English to cater for that global audience. However many participants are far from fluent in English and many others are unused to studying online. Clearly a major factor for not completing a MOOC is not having the language or study skills to keep up. Many of courses are challenging enough for native speakers so for non-native speakers to have a chance of keeping up with the pace there is a need for some language support. If we want to improve MOOC completion rates we need to provide scaffolding for these learners.

Stella Li writes about this in Inside Higher EdTranslating MOOCs, stating that the language barrier is one of the three most common reasons for Chinese students dropping out of a MOOC. Once they start the course they find the material simply too demanding; the spoken language in the video lectures is too fast and complex and the forum discussions are dauntingly full of confident English users. Those who are new to online education need clear instructions and information from the very start and need to feel welcome and safe in the new environment. The risk otherwise is that whenever they get stuck they will assume that they are not good enough for the course and disappear.

Many people register for a course not only to learn the subject but also to improve their English and this is a motivator that should be acknowledged more. MOOCs could therefore develop an interesting by-product if designed accordingly; as a medium for teaching English as a second language. Stella made a study of 20 MOOCs from a number of consortia and presents a number of course design strategies that would provide linguistic scaffolding for non-native speakers. One key factor is writing in plain English and avoiding idiomatic or over complex language, especially in the course description, instructions, guides and support information. Pre-course information should clearly explain how non-native speakers and learners with disabilities are catered for. There should always be alternative forms of accessing the content. Videos can easily be sub-titled in English allowing learners to both read and listen. Audio and video material can also have a downloadable text version as many will prefer to print out the text to read on the bus or train. Basically it's a matter of designing for accessibility.

So far studies have indicated that the majority of MOOC participants are graduates with good study skills but if universities are really interested in reaching beyond this group then accessibility must be top priority. Using plain English benefits everyone and even native speakers will appreciate subtitled videos and printable text versions of video and audio material. If MOOCs really want to contribute to lifelong learning for a global audience they must be designed with that diverse audience in mind rather than simply adopting the language and design principles of campus education.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Horizon Report 2015

It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future, as the great baseball player and coach Yogi Berra is reputed to have said. However every year at the start of February New Media Consortium unveil the influential NMC Horizon Report on technology trends influencing higher education. Each year the eagerly awaited report features six trends, technologies and challenges and divides them according to an estimated time to implementation. This year's report has the following line-up:

Short-term: increased use of blended learning, redesigning learning spaces
Mid-term: measuring learning, proliferation of open educational resources
Long-term: advancing cultures of change and innovation, increasing cross-institution collaboration

: blending formal and informal learning, improving digital literacy
Difficult: personalised learning, teaching complex thinking
Wicked: rewards for teaching, competing models of education

Short-term: flipped classroom, bring your own device
Mid-term: makerspace, wearable technology
Long-term: internet of things, adaptive learning technologies

Most of these trends are no surprise to anyone involved in e-learning and regular readers of the report recognize some issues that have been on the list for many years, always just around the corner but never quite going mainstream. Concepts like flipped classroom, blended learning and open educational resources do not seem particularly new but I think the justification for including them is that they will finally move from being pioneer projects to full acceptance. The influence of the digital revolution on education does not move in a predictable linear progression but comes in fits and starts with a number of Gartner hype cycles all intertwining with each other. As a result trends that seem to be on the near horizon suddenly appear further away and other ones can suddenly appear right in the foreground from nowhere. A bit like quantum physics ...

However for me the report has two very important roles. Firstly it's a solid report that can be used to influence decision-makers, outlining clearly the key challenges for universities in the next 5-10 years without being too unwieldy. It can be read in under an hour and provides a good foundation for strategic discussions. Secondly I appreciate all the references to current projects and initiatives in each of the fields covered. Each year I discover real pearls in these lists that can be used to inspire others. I haven't clicked on all the links yet (and maybe never will) but here are some excellent take-aways from this year's report:
  • Competency-Based Education Network - A network of 33 US universities working in the growing field of competency-based education - recognising workplace skills and combining academic and professional education. 
  • Code of practice for learning analytics (JISC) - As the field of learning analytics finally begins to mature many institutions are concerned about student data being in the hands of commercial interests. This handbook from JISC provides a sound foundation on the legal and ethical questions involved.
  • Blended Synchronous Learning Handbook - Result of a recent Australian project investigating how web-conferencing and virtual worlds can be used to unite campus and online students.
  • Learning Space Rating System - The development of flexible and creative physical learning spaces is very much in focus as many universities consider redesigning their campus. This is a set of criteria for assessing how well your classrooms facilitate active learning activities.
  • ePortfolios & Open Badges Maturity Matrix - Result of a recent European project ( that provides criteria for assessing the maturity and validity of inplementing e-portfolois and badges in an institution.
The trends and challenges are of course essential reading but it's the practical examples that make it worthwhile. 

Photo: CC BY Some rights reserved. Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., and Freeman, A. (2015). NMC Horizon Report: 2015 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Breaking up is hard to do

sas-ipad by zandwacht, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by zandwacht

Tradition is a powerful factor in slowing the uptake of new methods and tools in education. It's hard to say goodbye to old trusted friends and even if new solutions are clearly more effective we simply have invested too much time and effort in the old ones to let go without a struggle. This is especially true with services like e-mail which is so ingrained into almost all workplaces as the default method of communication that we keep on using and abusing it even when more effective and communicative solutions appear. The benefits of new solutions are often only evident when the old one has been fully replaced and running two rival solutions in parallel is simply ineffective. But making the clean break with tradition is traumatic.

The same is true with another old friend (or enemy for some) the pdf file. Pdf is the format of choice in most scientific publications and remains firmly entrenched despite its age (been around for 24 years!) and limitations. Once an article is in pdf format it is trapped in a format that cannot be changed and which denies peers the opportunity to comment and review. In addition pdf is a proprietary format that requires users to download a reader and this can be a barrier to many. Ijad Madisch makes a plea for change in a Guardian article, Researchers: it's time to ditch the PDF.

The PDF is the digital equivalent to the desk drawer – a place where scientific results are hard to find and easily forgotten. And yet the PDF is still the default way for scholarly publishers to disseminate research on the web.

There are many much more attractive and flexible reading formats available that could allow readers the opportunity to engage with the author but once again I think tradition is the main factor for the pdf's longevity.

The solution is to embed research results into their natural – their social – context. Publications are only small snippets of a researcher’s knowledge. To get the full story you need to connect with the researcher. This way, authors get feedback on their work and readers an idea of its impact.

Proprietary formats like pdf have become so accepted that more open alternatives struggle to gain acceptance despite clear advantages (above all not requiring users to download extra software). We continue to use pdf, Word, PowerPoint, e-mail simply because we always have. I don't think there are necessarily any ulterior motives here except the power of tradition and the fact that breaking up is so hard to do.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Learning by degrees

Higher education is steeped in tradition and although many are fine and noble it's healthy to question even the most ingrained ones. Seventy years ago a university education was only possible for a relatively small section of the population and many of those who got a degree went on to an academic research career. It was essential therefore to make sure that 3rd and 4th year students were well grounded in research methods and degrees were designed to lead students towards research. Today, when in many countries over 50% of the population study at university level, this structure is clearly inappropriate and maybe it's time for change.

One radical change is suggested by David Colquhoun in the Guardian, Honours degrees aren't for all – some unis should only teach two-year courses. Offer shorter first degrees taken at a more intensive pace (similar to secondary school) and then have specialist research universities to offer more advanced levels of study. Many students today study at unnecessarily advanced levels and maybe it's better to get a grounding in two years, start working and then top up with more advanced courses as they become necessary.

I believe that all first degrees should be ordinary degrees, similar to those offered by US liberal arts colleges, and these should be less specialist than what is now offered. Some institutions should specialise in teaching such degrees, others should become predominantly postgraduate institutions and have the time, money and expertise to do proper advanced teaching.

The division of higher education into teaching institutions who offer a wide range of ordinary degrees and research institutions offering advanced research-based education would certainly cause considerable uproar in the academic world since the role model of almost every university is the high status research university. However many claim that professional training has become too academic and needs to be more skills-oriented. Maybe it's time to question some traditions. Why must degrees take a certain amount of time? How can we shift the focus from knowledge to skills? How can we integrate education and the workplace? How can we allow people to gain their qualifications without having to move from their home area (combating the brain drain in remote areas)? How can we make it easy for people to retrain, switch career focus and develop their professional competence?

Many current educational trends like MOOCs, open educational resources, competency-based degrees, peer learning and nanodegrees should be seen as part of a quest to find new models and structures for learning and education. Models are constantly being tested; some will succeed, some will fail and some will be reworked and evolve into something new. The idea of two year degrees should not be simply dismissed. It doesn't need to change the system completely but maybe some alternative structures are necessary. We need more people to start asking "What if ...?"

Monday, February 2, 2015

Giving credit

pelotón de fusilamiento by kinojam, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by kinojam on Flickr

We live in the age of ubiquitous photography. I remember the days when I wondered if I should take one or two film rolls with me on holiday and the cost of developing 50 photos was considerable. Today I just snap everything I see and come home with hundreds of photos, some of which are quite good. An astounding amount of photos are stored and publicly shared in various cloud repositories like Flickr or Picasa and once there they can then be shared and reused by thousands. Once your photos are out there they develop a life of their own and you no longer control your creations.

In a world full of mashups and remixes we borrow from a wide range of sources and create new works. However it is seldom you see the original creators getting any credit and although the practice doesn't result in a copyright lawsuit it would be only fair to give credit to those who have inspired you. Professional photographers are generally good at protecting their work and being explicit about rights but the hordes of good but not professional photographers are often less careful and their work is then reused without credit. Putting a Creative Commons license on your work makes it clear how you would like your work to be used and always demands that reusers clearly credit the owner of the work and link back to the original. The problem is that people need help to give credit in the right way and that's where new tools are needed.

A new service called is hoping to help people acknowledge their sources. has been started by a Swedish guy called Jonas Öberg, who describes himself as "a technologist, teacher, software developer, project manager, non-profit serial entrepreneur, husband and father."The service that allows you to search for the source of any photo you find on the net and generates a ready format for acknowledging that source. The aim is to encourage a sharing culture where credit is freely given to people who are willing to share their work. This should be common practice in schools and universities where citing text sources is obligatory academic practice but where photos are often used without credit, especially in PowerPoint presentations. But it's not just about giving credit. hopes to help build a community of photographers and offer a community service where everyone contributes and benefits. Since it's an open source solution the field is open for new add-ons and developments.

This isn't limited to photographs: knowing who authored something is essential to be able to give credit to that person. In school, we've come to learn and appreciate the need to cite our sources, to give reference and credit to the authors whose work we use. When others cite you and give credit to you, they help you build your reputation, something that's vital if you are to succeed with your ambitions, whether you're a budding writer, journalist, photographer or scientist.

At present the app is available for Chrome and Firefox. The service is still in its early stages and although the present volume of photos covered by is considerable it needs money to keep expanding. That's why they have started as a crowd-funding project so you're welcome to donate to the cause. Here's the introduction film to give you an idea of what Elog-io has to offer.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Making feedback more personal

My New Podcasting Workspace by Brad.K, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by Brad.K

Online education is often accused of being impersonal self-study with predominantly text-based communication that lacks the intimacy of meeting teachers and fellow students face-to-face. The discussion forums of many courses are indeed rather impersonal with many students and teachers opting not to show photos of themselves. The teacher may provide recorded lectures but generally there is very little personal contact in such environments; face-to-face contact is missing and students seldom hear the teacher addressing them directly. As a result it is extremely difficult to foster a sense of community and when interaction is limited and relatively impersonal it is no surprise that many learners simply give up or slowly fade from view. As low bandwidth has become less of an issue in recent years online learning should have been first to reap the benefits of synchronous and asynchronous audio and video communication to provide a more media-rich learning environment and enable more personal contact between students and teachers.

It is surprising therefore that we are only now beginning to exploit the use of audio and video in education. This is highlighted in an article by Steve Kolowich in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Could Video Feedback Replace the Red Pen? It describes how teachers are providing feedback on student assessments by posting short videos instead of commenting in text. The advantages of video feedback are many but above all it makes the teacher-student contact suddenly more personal, offering contact and empathy in a way that text can never convey. The article quotes student reactions to video feedback as overwhelmingly positive, claiming that the communication was real, honest and authentic in comparison with text feedback. The teacher addresses the student directly giving a few minutes of specific feedback and this can make the difference between the student opting out or staying the course. In addition teachers found it quicker and easier to make a video commentary with a mobile and any hesitations or repetition was seen by students as adding to the personal touch of the message.

Instructor feedback seems like a natural fit for video, especially because short videos have become easy for anyone to make and distribute. The Monash instructors, for example, recorded theirs with webcams and iPhones. And yet they found few documented cases of similar experiments in the research literature. Most studies have focused on videos directed at an entire class, they said, rather than ones tailored to individual students.

We should not simply focus on video either. Audio has many advantages and also offers a more personal contact than text. Recording an audio message is simple on any device and audio files can be easily embedded into a Word document or a PowerPoint slide enabling the teacher to give specific feedback on the student's work. Although it's good to see the teacher's face now and again it's often better to hear the voice while looking at the work being commented on. For students with bandwidth limitations audio feedback is not demanding and provides that direct contact between teacher and student that text fails to provide. The British organisation JISC's guide, Using Audio Feedback for Assessment, provides good advice on using audio feedback with students. They have also produced a specific guide to adding audio comments to a Word document.

Some research into the effects of student feedback on their development has brought up themes of staff effort gone to waste and students not digesting feedback, therefore hindering their development (Hartley and Skelton, 2002). As a result numerous case studies have investigated the potential for successful audio feedback to be an improvement on written feedback in the perception of students and assessors.

Audio and video can also transform the discussion forum offering students a choice in how they contribute. It also increases accessibility for students with impaired sight or dyslexia many of whom will feel much more comfortable making an audio comment than writing text. I know several teachers who use the tool VoiceThread to create discussion threads with a combination of video, audio and text communication and this gives a real voice and face to all participants who, on a more traditional online course, would never see of hear each other at all. Basically a variety of media makes a richer learning environment for all. Imaginative use of media for asynchronous communication can help to narrow the distance in online education. Soon the concept of face-to-face will not necessarily mean being in the same room. It can even be applied to asynchronous communication.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Soft skills are key to employment

The skills that employers value most are not the skills that tend to be examined and rewarded by universities. What employers are most interested in are soft skills such as teamwork, initiative, creativity, critical thinking and practical experience and these are all notoriously hard to quantify and examine within the traditional academic structure. This is further confirmed in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, College Students Think They’re Ready for the Work Force. Employers Aren’t So Sure. The article discusses the findings of a new report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Falling short? College learning and career success, which is a survey of 400 employers and 613 students on how well students are prepared for employment. There is a clear mismatch between the expectations of employers and graduates' self-assessment especially when it comes to so-called soft skills that are seldom visible in academic certificates.

The students indicated that they felt qualified in areas like written and oral communication, critical and analytical thinking, and applying knowledge and skills to the real world. But employers consistently rated students lower than they rated themselves. For example, while 59 percent of students said they were well prepared to analyze and solve complex problems, just 24 percent of employers said they had found that to be true of recent college graduates. (Chronicle article)

It seems that employers are less interested in grades and formal credentials and want instead to see evidence of practical work experience and proficiency in soft skills. This does not mean that formal credentials are not relevant but that they come further down the list when compared to hands-on experience. According to the report the demand is for generalists rather than specialists:

... employers say that when hiring, they place the greatest value on demonstrated proficiency in skills and knowledge that cut across all majors. The learning outcomes they rate as most important include written and oral communication skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision-making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings. Indeed, most employers say that these cross-cutting skills are more important to an individual’s success at their company than his or her undergraduate major. (AACU report)

There are of course many university programmes which focus on problem-based learning, work experience, real-life projects, internships and so on but studies like these also highlight the need for credentials to be more granular and include evidence of soft skills. The use of skill badges to complement traditional credentials can be one way of rewarding students especially if they can be awarded by the organisation the student has worked with during studies. The growth in interest in competency-based degrees can also be seen as a response to employers' demands. A university education can thus include a variety of certificates/badges awarded mostly by the university but also by other organisations who have benefitted by the student's work. In this way we can make academic credentials more granular and the student will have references from several sources. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Are MOOCs really about rebranding?

Branded by derekGavey, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by derekGavey on Flickr

What's the difference between a MOOC and a regular online for-credit course? That's the question asked by David Wiley in a post entitled Koller, Thicke, and Noble: The “Blurred Lines” Between Traditional Online Courses and MOOCs. Most people would answer that scalability is the key feature of a MOOC with tens of thousands of participants signing up for the most popular courses. However there have been many massive online courses even before the four-letter acronym was invented, for example the popular summer math refresher course, Sommarmatte (site in Swedish), run by several Swedish universities for many years. Here hundreds of high school graduates refresh their math skills helped by student mentors in the sort of peer learning that many MOOCs are working with. So if scalability is nothing new what then is so special about MOOCs?

Wiley presents a long list of common features between MOOCs and online courses and concludes that the main difference is the type of platform:

The more I think about it, there seems to be only one practical difference between MOOCs and traditional online courses – the platform they are offered on. Online courses are offered via Blackboard and Canvas, while MOOCs are offered via Coursera and EdX.

In the traditional online course the focus is on the university and its faculty and the choice of platform is largely irrelevant for the students. In a MOOC, however. the platform has star billing.

In a traditional online course, the lead brand is the institution, followed by the faculty member, with little or no consideration for the LMS the course is offered in. (Have you ever seen an ad for a traditional online course that touted (or even mentioned) which LMS the course was offered in?)

By contrast, with MOOCs the lead brand is the LMS – you’re taking a course on Coursera! It happens to be offered by MIT. And there is probably a list of “Course Staff” buried at the bottom of the About the Course page.

Is the MOOC movement really about rebranding education? I don't see higher education being swallowed up by MOOC consortia but there are certainly concerns about who owns what and how the major consortia will be able to use their vast amounts of student data for future learning analytics applications. I don't see the present MOOC consortia as a threat and there is clearly an interest in the courses they provide. However, as I have written in several previous posts, there must be alternative paths available. It's perfectly possible for a university to go it alone and offer an open and scalable variant of an existing online course. Whether they label that as a MOOC or not is irrelevant, it's the openness that matters. Wiley sees the adoption of open licensing and the resultant sharing, reuse and adaptation of learning resources as the alternative path forward allowing greater access and improving quality through co-creation and peer review of resources and methods. MOOCs in their present form are simply one of many variations in online education. How we interpret the word open is the key issue to investigate in 2015.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Paths to openness

path path path by hockadilly, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by hockadilly on Flickr

Martin Weller's new book The battle for open provides an excellent overview of the role of openness in higher education today. It charts the development of the main strands of openness (open access, MOOCs, open educational resources and open scholarship) and suggests that although the MOOC boom has made people more aware of the opportunities of open online education it is a false dawn. Interpretations of openness vary greatly and most MOOCs choose to only focus on free access but maintain full copyright on the material. Major investments of venture capital underpin the mainstream MOOC movement and many academics are concerned about the commercialisation of higher education.

One might therefore expect this to be a time of celebration for the advocates of openness. Having fought so long for their message to be heard, they are now being actively courted by senior management for their experience and views on various open strategies. Open approaches are featured in the mainstream media. Millions of people are enhancing their learning through open resources and open courses. Put bluntly, it looks as though openness has won. And yet you would be hard pushed to find any signs of celebration amongst those original advocates. They are despondent about the reinterpretation of openness to mean ‘free’ or ‘online’ without some of the reuse liberties they had envisaged. Concerns are expressed about the commercial interests that are now using openness as a marketing tool. Doubts are raised regarding the benefits of some open models for developing nations or learners who require support. At this very moment of victory it seems that the narrative around openness is being usurped by others, and the consequences of this may not be very open at all.

Weller points to the Silicon Valley narrative that education is broken and that commercial solutions will reinvent the sector. It's an attractive and media-friendly argument that has won many supporters and I'll admit that I've been won over by many of the articles and videos that have gone viral in recent years. The image of a hopelessly outdated system based on dull lectures and exam halls and failing to exploit digital technology may have some truth in it but is still a sweeping generalisation that fails to acknowledge the advances made in online higher education in the past 15 years. The MOOC concept was after all developed by university faculty and researchers as pedagogical innovation, Silicon Valley latched on and adapted the idea several years later.

So with the spotlight still focused on mainstream MOOCs some of the really interesting develoments have been taking place in the shade. If we are at a crossroads in the development of openness with one road leading to commercialisation we also need to see an alternative route where resources and tools are shared openly with permission to reuse and remix. One possible avenue could be the new initiative Unizin which is a consortium of American universities whose aim is to take control of their own infrastructure, resources and tools and offer a non-commercial cloud-based platform for higher education, outside the influence of commercial actors. Many fear that by linking up with major corporations and venture capital sponsored MOOC consortia higher education may be selling its soul to big business. Unizin wants to create a common cloud repository for educational resources that can be freely shared. The main driving force behind this is the potential of learning analytics and if student data is kept within the educational domain then it can be analysed for educational purposes.

Our goals and purpose in endorsing Unizin are simple: As professors and members of the academy, we want to support faculty and universities by ensuring that universities and their faculty stay in control of the content, data, relationships, and reputations that we create. As we look at the rapidly emerging infrastructure that enables digital learning, we want to bias things in the direction of open standards, interoperability, and scale. Unizin is about tipping the table in favor of the academy by collectively owning (buying, developing, and connecting) the essential infrastructure that enables digital learning on our campuses and beyond.

In a similar vein the Finnish government has announced plans for a national cloud-based educational platform called EduCloud (information in Finnish only at present) which aims to house a national repository of open educational resources as well as common tools and services. There is no doubt that commercial actors will continue to offer innovative solutions for education but the path to true openness lies in the educational sector taking charge of their resources and services. But this path is not about each institution building its own solution but in national and international cooperation. Maybe this will be a major theme for 2015. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Reflections on a course in open networked learning

CC BY-NC Some rights reserved by ONL141
Over the last 8 weeks or so I've been a facilitator on a course called Open Networked Learning together with colleagues from two other Swedish universities. It is a hard course to pin down since it resembles in many ways a MOOC but has no ambitions of becoming massive. Inspired by the connectivist MOOCs it is open to all who are interested and the content and discussions are accessible even to non-registered learners in a Google+ community though registration is required to contribute. The course material is mostly recycled open educational resources and the majority has a Creative Commons license. This term's version is in turn an adaption of three earlier courses run in cooperation with several institutions in the UK, some of whom have gone on to running their own variations of the basic format. So the concept is sustainable and has spawned an increasing number of variations on a theme. Here are my reflections on the important issues from this term's course.

The importance of community

An extremely useful guide to building communities in open learning has been written by Tanja de Bie (University of Leiden, Netherlands), Community handbook (April 2014). It includes excellent advice on dealing with different types of participants from experts to beginners, passive learners, haters and trolls. Our course happily did not attract any negative participants but they can be a problem in many MOOCs so it is essential to plan in advance how to deal with them so they don't pollute and sabotage the whole course.

The core of our course is online collaboration and therefore learners are encouraged to join PBL (problem-based learning) groups during the first week. Each week the groups are assigned course material to watch and read, choose a case scenario to discuss and finally present a solution. However we realized that not everyone wants to belong to a group so we also offered alternative paths: working with one partner or going it alone.

The results of this choice became quickly apparent. Solo learners dropped out very quickly whereas the PBL groups became lively and supportive communities that helped each other to complete the course successfully. Even if we tried to offer support and encouragement to the solo learners we lost most of them and this is a common experience in open online learning. Leveraging and facilitating the formation of self-supporting learning communities would seem to be the major hurdle to overcome when running this type of course. Once formed these communities will ensure that all or at least most members complete the course. Those who fall outside these communities require strong internal motivation to successfully complete the course.

The value of scaffolding

De Bie describes three phases in an open course: introduction, mature and closure. The introduction phase is crucial and sets the tone for everything else. It's a confusing period for many who may never have participated in online learning before, so nothing should be taken for granted. Facilitators need to work hard in the first two weeks to welcome participants and encourage them to contribute. Activities should have a low threshold so that everyone can be active as fast as possible and all activity should get positive feedback. De Bie suggests providing templates for student introductions, recording welcome videos and compiling an FAQ page as vital elements to a successful start.

We have considered asking participants from this course to act as mentors in the spring 2015 course. The new participants will have a partner in the first two weeks who understands how it feels at first and can provide help and reassurance that could make the difference between dropping out and fully participating.

Many suggest not counting participants until the initial dust has settled and you see who is really on board. There is little point in counting people who register and then disappear. This simply creates unrealistic completion rates since these people never really started the course. Some of them just want to see what's going on but have no intention of participating. Count who's involved after the introduction and work from there.

Synchronous meetings

Although hard to arrange when participants are spread over several time zones, synchronous meetings (using Google Hangouts, Skype, or similar tools) can help groups to bond and create a community feeling. In our course the regular hangouts were often described as essential for participants' continued engagement with the course. Our tactic was that facilitators arrange the first meetings and then pass on responsibility to the participants and this worked very well. By the end the groups organized themselves.

Rewarding engagement

Positive and constructive feedback is of course a major incentive but we shouldn't downplay the importance of simple but effective motivators such as badges. This is an area for future development but awarding a badge for the successful completion of each unit can help retention rates and inspire participants to keep going. Badges could also be awarded for soft skills such as giving good feedback, helping others with problems and being active in discussions. In some platforms you get awarded points for such activities and your score is visible whenever you log in. Another motivating factor can be showing that participants can actively influence course design and that their work will be available for the next course as a good example or as a case to study.

If you feel like joining us in spring 2015 just keep an eye on the ONL website.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Twitter as a tool for discussion

Life On The Wire by wildxplorer, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by wildxplorer on Flickr

I have been an enthusiastic user of Twitter for almost 6 years now and use it mostly as a channel for sharing links to interesting articles and news in educational technology. I have a wonderful network of people I follow who provide me with useful links and ideas every day and often provide answers to questions I ask. Twitter is used in many ways and although my focus is on sharing interesting content it can also be used for discussions in the form of a Tweetchat. I have either lead or participated in many Tweetchat sessions, especially in recent weeks on an open course I'm helping to facilitate, and I thought I could share some experience and reflections.

So if you're planning to arrange a Tweetchat here are some points to consider:
  • Marketing. Spread the date and time of the session several times during the week before and make it clear that the session lasts for a certain time (generally one hour). The amount of publicity depends on how wide you want your audience to be, if it's just for one class then you won't need to spread the word any wider.
  • Preparation. I create a Word document and write all my questions for the chat in advance as well as other predictable messages like welcoming everyone to the chat and thanking everyone for an interesting discussion. I also have a list of interesting links to relevant articles, tools or suchlike in case I need to provide them during the chat. This saves a lot of keyboard bashing during the chat. Each message includes of course the relevant hashtag. 
  • Pre-chat instructions. Record a short screencast showing how to participate in a Twitter chat and post it well in advance. Then people know what to expect and how to participate.
  • Welcoming. As moderator I welcome everyone to the chat session and ask everyone to say hello. This is useful because then you know roughly how many active members you have in the chat. Good to know that someone is out there!
  • Questions. Normally the format is a series of questions that the moderator introduces every 10-15 minutes. To show which is which you write Q1, Q2, Q3 etc. Keep them short and sweet - Twitter's in-built 140 character limit forces you to be concise. Some organisers try to get the participants to answer using A1, A2, A3 etc but that seldom works in my experience unless you have a remarkably disciplined group. Normally people forget to even write which question they are answering so it can be hard to a logical discussion flow.
  • Hashtag. Without the hashtag the tweet disappears out into the deep blue yonder, only seen by those who actually follow the sender. Many good comments disappear this way so it's essential to remind everyone to remember the hashtag. If I follow that person or they are replying to one of my tweets it will show up in my personal feed. In that case I will retweet it with the hashtag so everyone sees the comment.
  • Socialising. As a moderator I try to give positive feedback to good comments as often as possible and participants soon do likewise. It's also nice to see them retweeting particularly good comments on to their own networks. Once this is happening more people will be alerted to the discussion and it's fun to see external participants with no connection to the core group joining the discussion. Good to explain in the preparation material that this can happen. 
  • Embracing chaos. Chatting on Twitter is fast and furious; once you get going you seldom have a quiet moment. You'll get answers to Q1 when everyone else is discussing Q3 and there'll be plenty of retweets of earlier contributions. The flow of tweets is seldom particularly logical no matter how careful you organise. This can be confusing for newcomers and many find it frustrating to be forced to discus complex issues in 140 characters. However I find the challenge of being brief is rewarding once you accept the limitations.  
  • Time up. When the time is up thank everyone for their contributions and step away. If some want to continue that's up to them but it's best to end exactly on time than dragging on too long. Most participants are amazed when you say the hour is up.
  • Follow-up. You can save and even edit the whole session on Storify, including flipping the flow order and starting from the first tweet. This enables others to read through the session with a little more logic than in the raw version.
Here are some more articles with tips on Tweetchats:
The Ultimate Guide To Hosting A Tweet Chat (Steve Cooper, Forbes, 2013)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Whatever happened to the education revolution?

Every new device or tool it seems is going to revolutionize education. Smartboards, iPads, Chromebooks, Google Apps for Education, Prezi, Minecraft, Khan Academy, flipped classroom - the list goes on. Somehow that revolution doesn't happen despite the appealing arguments of the enthusiasts. In the past such revolutionary technologies came along every second decade or so but today they turn up several times a year. The hype is wearing a bit thin. Here's a new video by Pierce Cook who argues convincingly against the exaggerated claims made about new technologies in education since the days of radio.

The message here is not that we should dismiss all innovations as gimmicks but we need to look at all methods in terms of how they enhance learning. Cook stresses that learning takes place in the head and is not dependent on any devices or tools. If you have the internal motivation, a supportive community around you and a teacher who can inspire, explain and guide then you can learn, even with extremely limited learning resources. Technology enables social learning in groups that cannot meet face-to-face and can extend and enhance face-to-face meetings but it's the "soft" factors (community, motivation, support, empowerment) that are the crucial elements.

The fact that the promised revolution hasn't happened does not mean that technology has no role to play. It simply means that new technology is not a quick fix and will not result in sweeping revolutionary change. I wrote a while back that the changes in education today are glacial rather than the tsunami of many press reports at the height of the MOOC boom. Education is changing at a relatively slow pace though in places there are significant leaps. Change is rippling through education rather than sweeping forward in a torrent. Sometimes it may seem like one step forward and two steps back but under the glacier the landscape is being reformed. When the glacier moves away we will not recognize the newly revealed environment. Those who have followed the changes and have reacted will adapt to the new conditions whereas those who thought they were on solid ground will struggle to cope.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

From awareness to participation

Lecture Hall by ahyang, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by ahyang on Flickr

Can we please stop using the word "lurker" to describe people who follow online courses but make little or no active contributions? The word has rather negative connotations that have little or no relevance to online learning, but for some reason taking a back seat is seen as a lazy or less honest approach. Active participation is seen as evidence of engagement and passive reception is viewed with suspicion.

At the same time isn't this the way most of us learn at first, by watching and listening to others and reflecting on that? It's hard to actively participate when you don't feel comfortable with the terminology, the environment and the other participants. Many people are more introverted learners who dislike the irritating complexities of group work and enjoy being able to get on with the process in their own way. Some like to reflect on what they read and hear and don't feel the need to ask questions or make spontaneous comments. They may not be posting comments on Twitter or in forums but that doesn't mean that there is no learning taking place. Learning doesn't have to be out loud. This phenomenon is of course nothing new. We've always had quiet students who sit in the back row and never say a word in class and the same is true online. Some of these back row students go on to get top grades and some of their more vocal colleagues drop out. But we need to respect both groups and encourage them to "cross over" now and again. The silent learners can benefit from some active participation and the "noisy" learners can benefit from quiet reflection too.

There's an interesting article by Donna Smith and Katy Smith on this theme in the latest edition of EURODL (European Journal of open, distance and e-learning), The Case for ‘Passive’ Learning – The ‘Silent’ Community of Online Learners. This describes studies made at the UK's Open University on non-active students in online courses and shows that silence and learning can go hand in hand and that this has implications for course design and teachers' strategies. There is such a strong focus today on getting students to be actively engaged in their courses that we may be forgetting the need to step back and silently reflect. Therefore we need to cater for participation as well as quiet absorption.

There may therefore be a tension: between institutions that expect students to ‘actively engage’ for all sorts of reasons, and learners who may not want to (at all, or some of the time). Institutions therefore need to explain the benefits of ‘actively engaging’, design modules where this is seen as useful by learners, make sure that those teaching the modules understand what is expected of students and know how to encourage participation and have undergone relevant staff development (something which also applies to those writing and designing online modules). Institutions also need to understand that some learners will simply resist engaging as much as possible (making the above strategies even more important, if activity is deemed essential by the institution).

"Passive" learning is maybe not a good term either since learning is an active process even if no noise is made. Maybe "silent learners" is better. We need to make the learning environment supportive and empowering to slowly nudge them towards more active involvement. Learning is at first all about watching, listening, absorbing, imitating and reflecting. As you do that you develop awareness of the issues and for many people that is enough. Awareness leads to reflection and can change the way you view the world. Not everyone wants or needs to take that any further, the internal learning has taken place. The step from awareness to participation is important but we can't force it. Let's give a nod of recognition to the back row. They may be working harder than the ones in front.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Innovating pedagogy

Innovation MK II by Vermin Inc, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Vermin Inc

If you want to get an idea about how education and learning are changing I can recommend that you read the Open University's report Innovating pedagogy 2014. It is their third annual report and is now becoming a much awaited publication on the latest pedagogical trends.

This series of reports explores new forms of teaching, learning and assessment for an interactive world, to guide teachers and policy makers in productive innovation. This third report proposes ten innovations that are already in currency but have not yet had a profound influence on education. To produce it, a group of academics at the Institute of Educational Technology in The Open University proposed a long list of new educational terms, theories, and practices. We then pared these down to ten that have the potential to provoke major shifts in educational practice, particularly in post-school education. Lastly, we drew on published and unpublished writings to compile the ten sketches of new pedagogies that might transform education.

This year's report includes the following concepts, each described in detail with references to practice and theory.
  • Massive open social learning. How do we add the social element to MOOCs and other forms of open learning? Can we exploit features of gaming to increase the level of interaction?
  • Learning design informed by analytics. Learning design shifts the focus from content to learning processes. Can we tap into the potential of learning analytics to make more informed choices in course design?
  • Flipped classroom. This concept is already widely practiced but how does the flipped approach influence how the classroom and other learning spaces is designed?
  • Bring your own devices. This is also well established in many schools and colleges but how does this empowerment of students affect course design, classroom design and the relationship between teachers and students?
  • Learning to learn. The most valuable lesson is learning to be a self-determined learner who can find and filter information, form networks and critically assess sources. This is a long process and needs to be integrated in all subjects.
  • Dynamic assessment. Testing and intervention are intertwined and the teacher supports the student's learning by helping the student through the tests by means of hints and prompts. By following the students in the test teachers can see  what they have difficulty with and offering relevant follow-up.
  • Event-based learning. Creating educational activities around an event over a short period of time can allow for the creation of communities of interest where students can exchange ideas with people who they would never otherwise interact with. 
  • Learning through storytelling. Developing a narrative is part of the meaning-making process. By creating a story around even a scientific experiment students gain a deeper insight into processes and must find creative ways of representing the process using images, film, text and graphics.
  • Threshold concepts. Every subject has threshold concepts that once learnt fundamentally change the way you look at everything else. Focusing on these concepts are an excellent way of grabbing students' attention.
  • Bricolage. Learning by playing with the constituent parts, as a child builds new constructions from Lego pieces. Breaking down, building up, creating new concepts.
Many of these innovations rely on technology but the most important point is that the pedagogy is in the forefront and although technology is often, but not always, a prerequisite there is no specific mention of the tools or devices. Maybe we are at last moving away from lists of how the iPad/tablet/Chromebook is going to change education or how a certain tool will revolutionize your teaching. Instead we focus on pedagogical practice that fosters learning with the understanding that although technology plays a vital role these practices can also apply in face-to-face settings. 

Reference: Sharples, M., Adams, A., Ferguson, R., Gaved, M., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Weller,
M., & Whitelock, D. (2014). Innovating Pedagogy 2014: Open University Innovation Report 3.
Milton Keynes: The Open University.