Friday, October 31, 2014

Beyond edtech skepticism

Online learning has still not come of age in terms of faculty acceptance and the concerns of 10 years ago live on; completion rates, absence of human contact, academic depth etc. Old truths or half-truths die hard in the academic world and this is brought home by an article in Inside Higher Ed Online Ed Skepticism and Self-Sufficiency: Survey of Faculty Views on Technology, which summarises the views of around 3,000 university teachers and educational technologists around the USA. Despite the advances in online learning and the MOOC explosion of recent years, the majority of faculty still believe that online courses are inferior to classroom teaching. Not surprisingly the most negative attitudes to online education came from teachers with little or no experience of the field. The more experienced they were the more positive attitudes prevailed, but even among the experienced teachers there was a deep concern about the lack of meaningful interaction.

Virtually all faculty members and technology administrators say meaningful student-teacher interaction is a hallmark of a quality online education, and that it is missing from most online courses.

Here is a curious paradox in the use of technology in education. There are hundreds of tools and services available that directly facilitate increased interaction and collaboration, both synchronously and asynchronously, yet most online courses fail to exploit these and continue to be largely text-based, content delivery with little space for interaction. Even if there is a wealth of research and practice showing that they keys to student retention are creating a sense of community, fostering multimodal collaboration and interaction and providing timely support, many choose to continue with basic e-learning 1.0. Indeed over 90% of the respondents say high-quality online courses provide meaningful interaction between instructors and students, so why do so few measure up to that? The bad reputation of the past is still used as an excuse not to get involved or not to fully explore the potential of today's online education. In the article Ronald Legon, executive director of the Quality Matters Program, says:

..  My general reaction is that the data show that the more exposure a faculty member has had to online or blended learning, the more positive their view ... But, clearly, not all faculty have seen the potential of online learning to match and even exceed the effectiveness of face-to-face learning, because they have not had the opportunity to become familiar with best practices and research-driven course design and delivery.

We also need to look more carefully at what actually goes on in the classroom and whether the interaction there is as good as we imagine. How many students actively contribute to a class discussion and how many say nothing? How interactive and challenging are our classes and lectures and could some discussions be more interactive online, especially if we make use of video and audio to supplement text communication? So many online environments are completely text-based and this one-dimensionality puts many students at a disadvantage. More opportunities for using video and audio in discussion rooms gives everyone a voice and makes the communication more personal.

I sometimes feel that many conveniently dismiss online education as second-rate due to outdated information and without really investigating current research and best practice. Once again I must stress the need to stop making unnecessary comparisons and really look at how technology can be used to enhance all learning, wherever it takes place.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

New roads to certification

kumiyama00 by Ken OHYAMA, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Ken OHYAMA

When I was trying to decide what to study at university back in the mid-seventies I was told that it didn't matter so much what I studied, the possession of a good degree was enough. Once in a job the organisation would provide me with the training needed for that sector. So I studied English language and literature simply because it was interesting and didn't really think about employment until my final year when I realised that my employment prospects were somewhat limited. That sounds extremely irresponsible and naive today when higher education makes you ready for specific employment and companies expect you to be productive from day one. If degrees are the hard currency of credentials then universities still have the sole right to print that currency, accredited by national bodies and subject to rigorous controls that guarantee the credibility of that currency.

However in recent years that exclusive role has come into question as employers become increasingly critical that universities are not teaching the skills needed in the modern workplace. The degree certificate states what subjects the graduate has studied and how long it took but says little or nothing about what skills the student has mastered and concrete evidence of those skills. What really is the difference between the grades in a qualification, how much more skilled is an A student compared to a B student? An article in Harvard Business Review, The Real Revolution in Online Education Isn’t MOOCs points to competency-based learning as the game-changer in higher education rather than the over-hyped MOOCs. Competency-based learning is about credentials for proven skills, often by at least partly recognising practical work experience and validating prior learning. Traditional degrees focus on years of study whereas competency-based learning sees time as a variable.

Competency-based learning flips this on its head and centers on mastery of a subject regardless of the time it takes to get there. A student cannot move on until demonstrating fluency in each competency. As a result, an employer can rest assured that when a student can use mathematical formulas to make financial decisions; the student has mastered that competency. Learning is fixed, and time is variable.

Using this method you can be awarded credentials without attending courses if you can prove that you fulfill the requirements. This demands that the awarding institutions have sound validation processes and can verify that the candidate has the competence required but the advantages are clear. Companies can employ people knowing that they have the right skills and learners can get recognition for what they know without always having to take lengthy courses. If you have the skills and knowledge a one year course could be completed in half the time or less. Greater global mobility and migration means that fully-qualified and skilled professionals are forced to repeat all or a great deal of their education in their adopted country simply due to lack of recognition. This can often be so demotivating that the person simply gives up all hope of ever working in their field and resigns herself to lower paid and less skilled work; a lose-lose situation for the country and the individual.

One variation on this theme is MOOC pioneer Udacity's venture into customised nanodegrees; six to nine month project-based courses designed in collaboration with major companies with the aim of developing key skills for employability.

Nanodegrees are designed to help you become job-ready. Similar to our course experience, you'll work on projects. Unlike our individual courses, you'll need to submit your projects by a given deadline for validation. Each course and project builds on each other so, at the end, you'll have a portfolio of projects to demonstrate to potential employers that you're job-ready.

But is this really a university education? No it isn't but there is clearly a need for a more varied ecosystem of qualifications otherwise major companies would not be so interested in competency-based learning. Many colleges are already working in this field and many will offer both traditional 3-4 year degrees as well as competency-based certifications. I still think there is a place for the more rounded education and life experience of a traditional university education but it is no longer the only path to employment. Education is undoubtedly the key to economic development but we are beginning to realise that this does not mean simply sending everyone to university. University's do some things very well but we need credible alternatives too.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Not so lost in translation

translate icon by misterbisson, on Flickr
CC BY-SA Some rights reserved by misterbisson
The universal translator is on every science fiction fan's wish list but it looks as if we're getting close to a breakthrough, at least between the major languages of the world. An article and film report from CNN, Taking a cue from science fiction, Microsoft demos 'universal translator', shows how Microsoft's voice translator technology is being implemented by Skype and the word is that some kind of pilot service will be launched in the near future. Of course they're not alone in their search for the next potential golden goose of technology; Google are also working hard developing their already successful Google Translate into voice recognition.

According to Gurdeep Pall, Corporate VP of Skype:

The idea that people don't understand each other, it's going to be a thing of the past,... In the same way it's hard to imagine a world before you were able to travel to different places and quickly, whether it be in a car or a plane, we'll never think about, wow, those were the dark ages where people couldn't understand each other. That's where we're headed.

The film below features a demonstration of Skype translating very well between English and German and if it can deliver that level of accuracy the market will be enormous. The text translations provided by Microsoft and Google can now provide readable versions as long as you stick to the major European languages. As soon as you stray outside the mainstream of English, French, Spanish, German and possibly Italian the translations can sometimes still lapse into incomprehensibility. I doubt if the voice translation will be as good as text but for a few languages it could well be good enough. I suspect that this will be a premium rate service once it is fully launched.

I still think we're a long way from replacing a professional simultaneous interpreter who will still be needed when the stakes are high and misunderstandings are to be avoided at all costs. However in many meetings and discussions an interpreter is far too costly or completely impractical so technology could be the next best thing. Of course many people are gifted in languages but when one of the parties in the discussion is forced to use a language they are not proficient in it can result in just as many, if not more, misunderstandings as voice translator technology.

Anyway, so far so good. Judge for yourself by watching the CNN report here with Richard Quest:

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Webinar as arena for learning

Conference venue, Umeå university
Webinars can be interactive arenas for learning and sharing ideas but running a successful webinar is more demanding than many expect. What are the key factors behind a successful webinar where everyone feels part of an active community?

Online discussion
As the first activity of our new project (Webinar - for interactive and collaborative learning) we ran a combined face-to-face and online workshop at the Swedish conference for teaching in higher education, NU2014, in this year's European Capital of Culture, Umeå. The aim of the project is to test methods for making webinars more participatory in cooperation with several partner organisations from a variety of fields: education, public administration, industry and associations. There are six of us in the project from five different countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Austria) and we have all extensive experience running webinars, though we realise we still have so much to learn.

Some of the on-site groups
In this workshop we had about 25 participants in the room in Umeå, another on-site group in Salzburg, Austria, plus online participants recruited through our Facebook group. A basic question that was raised was how to define a webinar. I had rather loosely mentioned at the beginning that we saw a webinar as involving more than say 30 participants but this was rightly challenged on the grounds that it is basically a web seminar and therefore can even be used for relatively small groups. I think it is impossible to give an exact cut-off figure for when an e-meeting becomes a webinar but maybe when you have so many participants that it is difficult if not unfeasible for all to have video and audio capabilities it becomes easy to lapse into broadcast mode.

The group work focused on identifying key factors for a successful interactive webinar and everyone had access to a common virtual workspace using the extremely handy tool Padlet. This enables participants to write notes as well as upload links and photos to a space that all can see and which can be further developed after the webinar is over (see our results). Here is a summary of some of the main points that emerged from the discussions.
  • Awareness of participants' skills in the online environment
  • Plan your marketing and use registration to get information on the audience (where they work, type of work). Registration list can also be used for follow-up, eg sending the link to the recording to all registered participants.
  • Technical issues - pre-webinar information on settings, technical requirements etc 
  • Implement a "thermometer" where participants can grade the audio-quality of whoever is speaking at a certain time in the webinar. 
  • Introduction on how to participate, co-created rules for interaction 
  • Make it clear when the session is going to be recorded and when the recording is over. 
  • Allow time for socialising and getting familiar with the environment before the webinar starts. Welcoming atmosphere and stimulating layout. 
  • Webinar etiquette and meeting culture - tips about using microphones, chat, asking questions etc. 
  • Be aware of cultural differences when an international group is assembled. Many people are not used to active participation. 
  • Moderator has a key role. Must be familiar with the tools and be able to multitask (checing chat, seeing who has raised their hand etc) 
  • Using different types of poll questions to check audience experience, opinions and to get feedback.
  • How to focus attention. The "choreography" of the session is important - using different layouts for different purposes, eg make chat window small when we need to focus on a speaker, then large chat window when we ask for comments and questions.
  • Creating breakout groups and having a common work space to gather all notes and conclusions. Alternate who speaks and have assignments that include listening and observation. 
  • Interactivity after every slide. 
  • Language can be a barrier to interactivity. Group work allows for own language use though conclusions must be written in common language.
This was a relatively complex webinar since we had face-to-face groups on two sites plus online participants using breakout groups. In addition we used Padlet to gather notes from the group discussions and this worked well though not all groups made extensive notes. We tried to extend the event by using a short promotion video that was spread via Twitter and Facebook and the Padlet page offers participants the opportunity to add ideas even after the session is over. The page is still open for comments if you feel inspired. I had a project colleague to moderate the online discussions whilst I and a colleague concentrated on the classroom. From the above conclusions I would like to find a kind of sound quality thermometer so people can indicate how well they can hear the speaker without interrupting. I also realise that we can do much more to provide clear pre-webinar information and providing clearer instructions on how to participate. There is also plenty scope for developing the moderator role and providing the right information at the right time. The next step in the project is seeing what methods and tools to use with our partners in the pilot cases. I will no doubt return to this topic again many times in the future.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Can open badges become educational hard currency?

IMG_4338 (Tom Lee Yamaha Music Course Ce by Dennis Wong, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by Dennis Wong

Can open badges become accepted as credible credentials in education or will they remain as an optional extra with very little impact on the labour market? The concept of open badges is to provide a digital certificate for skills and achievements with links to skills required, awarding body, assessment criteria and date of award. You can be awarded badges by your employer, college, association, training provider or even peer groups and they can give proof of proficiency in soft skills and competences that regular certificates seldom acknowledge. The idea is that badges as well as formal qualifications can all be included in your e-portfolio giving future employers a more detailed and fair overview of your skills and ability from a wide range of perspectives rather than the limited skills assessed in traditional qualifications. Badges can therefore complement rather than replace traditional credentials.

Open badges have made considerable progress in the USA where they have the backing of major organisations like the MacArthur Foundation and several elite universities like Carnegie Mellon and Purdue have already started testing the concept. However mainstream uptake is slow and an article by Bernard Bull, 10 reasons why people are not using open badges, presents some good reasons for this. Being new there is an understandable suspicion that they may be easily faked or copied. Teachers are naturally wary of a concept that is still not completely user-friendly and badge design still demands technical skills. The badges movement is still in the pioneer phase and although there are communities and help sites it needs to be more standardised and streamlined before most teachers will start showing interest.

For those who have heard about digital badges, most still have limited understanding of their affordances and limitations. There are not many resources that explain different usage scenarios in a quick and easy to understand format. We have the cases from the Digital Media and Learning Competition a few years ago, but beyond that, there are not many places to go and look through examples of how badges are being used.

Bernard also points to the valid objection that badges are seen by many as the digital equivalent of the gold stars pasted into our old school exercise books, simple rewards for making an effort but academically empty (see his post Beware of badges as biscuits). There is a risk of organisations awarding badges in a trivial manner but the transparency of badges means that all award criteria and information about the badge must be available in the metadata and therefore any badges awarded for simply trying hard or being there will be revealed by the lack of solid evidence behind the award. Traditional certificates actually show very little detailed information about learning outcomes, skills and requirements unless you contact the awarding institution whereas badges can reveal full details at a click.

Digital badges are a new currency for credentialing in a world of connected learning. They are more than glorified digital biscuits for good behavior. While they may have motivational elements to them, their greatest potential is in revolutionizing how we think about credentials in the digital age.

But maybe the main problem at present is the term badge which for many people trivialises the concept by association with scout badges and gaming. This is not surprising since that's where much of the inspiration behind open badges has come from but maybe it's time to change in order to gain more credibility. A recent post by Valar Afshar in the Huffington Post, A Solution To The Massively Disengaged Workforce, offers one solution:

One way to position badges away from games and marketing is to give the concept a different name. At UC Davis, for example, the achievements are called "skill qualifications" (SQs) to give them more career relevance and to set them apart from game-oriented achievements.

This article also cites a recent survey of employers' attitudes to badges and the main reasons for the slow uptake are given as: better industry and market recognition and acceptance of specific badges (67%), standardized requirements of criteria for similar achievements (55%), and lower cost systems to implement badges (37%).

The open badges movement is in that difficult transition period from pioneer phase to mainstream acceptance and is caught in the situation where uptake is slow because it's still relatively unknown and lacks mainstream credibility but it can't prove itself unless some major organisations implement and evaluate it seriously. Maybe that name change could be the catalyst.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Distance no object – reflections on a study visit to Scotland

Inverness castle and River Ness
Today’s educational technology has the potential to offer education to all. Net-based learning at its best can offer levels of interactivity and collaboration unthinkable only a few years ago and educators are having to revise their ideas of online learning as being largely instructivist self-study. Courses can be offered completely online, face-to-face or in blended or hybrid solutions and distance is becoming less of a issue, at least in technical terms. However attitudes change more slowly than technology and there is still a perceived divide between campus and distance that is preventing many institutions from fully integrating technology and offering truly flexible education where distance is no object.

Last week I saw some interesting and inspiring examples on this theme when I was invited as a guest on a study trip to various Scottish educational organisations with a delegation from the Danish (FLUID) and Norwegian (FuN) associations for flexible learning. I very seldom get the chance to visit my homeland in a professional role so it was an interesting experience to see things from two perspectives; as a native and an international visitor. The delegation consisted of representatives from a wide range of educational institutions: universities, vocational and online training providers, local authorities and consultancies. In only three days we met seven organisations in four cities from Glasgow to Inverness via Edinburgh and Perth.

Here are some of my impressions and reflections on the main themes of the visit.

Work-based learning
Glasgow Caledonian University
The integration of higher education into the workplace is a major global trend, especially at master’s level where students are more independent and able to apply what they learn directly in the work environment. Glasgow Caledonian University is making an impressive mark in this arena with its Scottish Centre for Work Based Learning. The centre designs and delivers tailor-made university programmes for professionals in cooperation with companies. Many of the students applying for these programmes have relevant practical experience and in-company training certificates and need to have these skills recognized and accredited. The unit specialises in the recognition of prior learning for gaining entry to courses and students can study at for a wide range of qualifications up to MSc.

Glasgow Caledonian is the only University in Scotland to offer the opportunity to gain awards by work based learning from Higher Education Certificate through to full MSc. This is achieved by using academic models and theories to frame, analyse and solve real work based problems. We offer these programmes on an individual, group and company basis and although all of these differ to some extent they share the notion that the workplace is the site of knowledge creation and that academic and work based knowledge can be integrated to enrich both the workplace and the University.

The traditional campus concept of university studies is being eroded and augmented to include a wide variety of learning arenas that include the workplace. As this happens universities need to work intensively with developing new methods to validate prior learning and practical skills rather than solely basing admission on formal qualifications. University is wherever you work.

Skills development
At the other end of the scale we visited Skills Development Scotland, a national government agency who provide career and training advice and guidance for young people leaving school with a particular focus on those with few or no formal qualifications. The Scottish government guarantees everyone between 16 and 19 a place on some kind of education or training and SDS offer a range of services both face-to-face and online to help young people take charge of their own future. Via a dedicated online guidance and self-help service, My world of work, young people can search for training opportunities, apprenticeships and courses in a variety of forms, including online training. We also met representatives of Scottish Union Learning, an umbrella organisation that funds education and training for union members, sometimes in cooperation with employers but often outside working hours. This type of training is aimed at improving basic skills but is increasingly offered online given the difficulties of arranging face-to-face training in some industries.

Online learning in this area is still not completely mainstream but its further development is key to making education and training accessible to all. Face-to-face training normally requires a critical mass of students before it can be offered and many people today miss out on training opportunities because they live in the wrong place and are unable to travel to where the training is based. Online delivery means that training is more accessible regardless of location but for many there is a high threshold; they simply lack the digital and study skills to benefit from this form of training. That’s why we need more local support for online learning, learning centres or libraries where people can get practical support and encouragement.

MOOCs as a catalyst for course development
Discussing MOOCs in Edinburgh
It was particularly interesting to visit the University of Edinburgh since I graduated from there in 1980 and our meeting took place in the same building as many of my undergraduate classes and tutorials way back in the seventies. Edinburgh has attracted considerable global interest in its approach to MOOCs with 23 courses so far in two different consortia: Coursera and the UK-based FutureLearn. Incredibly these MOOCs have attracted almost one million people and even if that does not translate into as many course completions it still represents an unprecedented outreach, enhancing the university’s reputation and stimulating the further development of online learning at the university as a whole. They have carefully monitored the courses and have produced detailed reports and analysis that have been widely referred to by researchers and commentators in the field.

The visit further confirmed my conviction that real change in the use of technology in education can only happen when the enthusiasm and energy of faculty pioneers is met by a genuine interest from the top with serious strategies and objectives. When the management clearly understand the issues and creates favourable conditions for innovation and experimentation, as at Edinburgh, things start happening. In this case there was £5 million central strategic funding dedicated to developing online learning, focusing at present on MOOCs and the development of online master’s programmes.

Producing successful MOOCs has stimulated faculty to start looking more carefully at their traditional offerings and there is now a genuine interest to integrate technology into mainstream courses that was missing before. A vital factor behind this success has been that the initiative to start developing a MOOC comes from engaged faculty rather than management asking them to develop a course. A sense of ownership is essential for success and sustainability and this cannot be created when the initiative comes from above. Teachers who want to start a course get central support but they must take charge of the project.

Mainstreaming blended learning

Perth College, one of the UHI campuses
I have long been an admirer of the unique approach of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) to providing university education to students in the sparsely-populated north and west of Scotland. The university is a federation of 13 partner colleges spread around the highlands and islands, each with their own focus areas, providing different mixes of higher and further education as well as hosting university research centres. What impresses me most is that they have succeeded in fully integrating technology into all aspects of the university and the campus/distance distinction is becoming largely irrelevant. Nobody is really a distance student. Students enrol at their nearest college even if the course is run from another college in the UHI federation. Students can therefore study from their home area with their base college providing administrative, technical and certain academic support and the teachers available online. UHI’s geographic range means that digital is central to the whole operation.

UHI Executive Office, Inverness
Another impressive feature at UHI is their Learning and Teaching Academy which offers academic, pedagogical and professional development to faculty. Digital skills are integral to staff development and therefore integrated into all activities. An internal fellowship scheme offers recognition for good teaching and innovative practice and to qualify for a fellowship award a teacher is required to present an e-portfolio of work in the form of digital resources (films, podcasts, articles, course modules etc). Requiring the inclusion of digital material for professional recognition reinforces the central role of technology in the university.

Moving online learning from optional extra to recognised mainstream practice demands understanding and active support from the top management. Technology is an enabler that can widen the reach of education and can help to unite students no matter where they are based. Distance is no longer a handicap and online learning is not a "second best" option. When a university can offer courses to students in many locations using a variety of learning arenas and with both online and face-to-face support available to all we can truly say that distance is no longer an issue.

Read more reflections from this visit on the Flexible Learning Norway website, Look to Scotland.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Open educational practice stimulates less used languages

Click on image to go to the webinar recording
How can open educational practices empower less used and minority languages? This was the question behind a webinar I had the pleasure of moderating a couple of days ago - watch the webinar recording. The webinar was part of the European project LangOER that aims at enhancing the teaching and learning of less used languages through open educational resources and practices. About 70 participants (193 registered) took part in the live event which featured presentations from Sylvi Vigmo (University of Gothenburg, Sweden), Kate Borthwick (University of Southampton, UK) and Anna-Comas Quinn (Open University, UK).

I was particularly interested in the ideas of how openness can empower smaller languages and that we need to think more carefully about reuse and adaptation when we create new resources. Anna described the growth in open translation communities, often centered around educational content providers like TED (Open translation project), Khan Academy and Coursera (Global translator community). Course material, mostly lectures, are translated into hundreds of languages by networks of enthusiasts making the material accessible to local communities who would otherwise never benefit from such services. Translation of Wikipedia material into hundreds of languages has been going on for several years and the existence of an online encyclopedia in a less used language can become a source of pride for the community and a catalyst for further activities to strengthen the language and culture. School classes, student groups, academics and other experts can all help to create educational resources in smaller languages that would never be viable projects for commercial publishers.

But simply translating English language resources is only the tip of an iceberg of opportunities for smaller languages and cultures. Open education gets really relevant when resources are designed with reuse and adaption in mind, allowing other users to modify the material to be more relevant to local culture and practice. The majority of open resources today are not easily adapted and were developed for one particular context without considering who else might use it in the future. I would like to see a set of simple guidelines for OER sustainability that all educators could easily check when creating new resources. How to ensure that your material can easily be translated, edited, supplemented to fit other contexts. Maybe such a checklist already exists but it needs to be more widely distributed and used.

This applies not only to resources in English but equally to resources created in other languages. Resources created in a country's dominant language should be created with reusability in mind so that minority languages in the same country can benefit. If common guidelines are followed it will be easy for minority language teachers to adapt each resource to their language and culture and at the same time following for example the national curriculum. Resources created in one smaller language can then easily be spread to related languages, thus saving many people from reinventing the wheel.

I look forward to following this discussion in the future.

Have a listen to this short interview I made with the project leader of LangOER, Katerina Zourou, for a general background to the project.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

New isn't always best

I've written many times about the unnecessary polarization of the debate between traditional and digital educational practices. It's all too easy to create conflicts when there shouldn't be any. It's true that we need to move away from all over-reliance on lectures and instructivist pedagogy but we shouldn't simply abandon methods that can continue to play a role in education. There are times when a well-planned lecture is exactly the right method to deliver a message and simple multiple choice tests can serve a useful purpose.

I was interested to read a post by Ryan Tracey, Let’s get rid of the instructors! where he presents a defence for the more traditional xMOOCs of Coursera and edX, often criticised for their lack of collaboration and learner empowerment. He lists several cases where an instructivist approach with recorded lectures, prescribed reading, self-tests etc is probably the most appropriate. When you are new to a subject and want a basic introduction then it's good to have it presented in a structured and logical manner. Inquiry and collaboration require a higher level of knowledge and are time-consuming so if time is short the traditional approach will be best. If you need to learn something to do your job you have no time to spend on exploring and working it out for yourself; you want the information presented clearly and then put it into practice. Of course, once you've grasped the basics you can explore and collaborate to learn more but the initial phase may be less interactive. A lot of learning is about repetition and memorization, requires stamina and enormous patience and is generally a solitary effort. Repetitive traditional drills are often the only way to learn.

So these xMOOCs do fulfill an important role and we often wrongly assume that all learners have the same preferences as we. Not everyone wants to investigate freely or work in peer groups. Some simply want to get on with it in their way and resent being forced into group work that can be counter-productive if the group does not pull together. As Ryan rightly points out the fact that an xMOOC is instructivist doesn't prevent enthusiastic learners from investigating some aspect further under their own steam or with a small group from the course.

While the learner is free to work their way through the curriculum along the pre-defined weekly path, they are also free to inquire, explore and discover at their discretion within a thoughtfully structured environment.

The point is that we need to choose the appropriate methods for each situation and use the best tools for the job. Not all courses need to be open, constructivist and flexible. Sometimes the old approach is better. In our enthusiasm for the new we should not simply discard the old as irrelevant. Making the right choices is the challenge for today's educators. Let's build on past practices, not just break with them.

As history reminds us time and time again, no one view is ever the “right” one – at least, not all the time. Our perspective is so dependent on the circumstances that we learning pro’s must appreciate the problem before trumpeting or poopooing the solution.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Should we ask students to switch off their devices?

I got a bit of a shock when I read a new article by Clay Shirky, one of the most high profile advocates of the digital revolution, about his decision to ask students to switch off their devices in class, Why I just asked my students to put their laptops away. Up till now such an idea has been dismissed as a sign of the teacher's hostility to technology and that it is the teacher's responsibility to make the class time as engaging as possible to keep students involved and to counter multitasking. However the issue of multitasking and distractions is more insidious and even one of the leading authorities in social media has to take a step back.

The problem is that today's social media and devices are simply too compulsive. Even with the best will in the world to concentrate on one thing at a time we can't stop ourselves from quickly checking what's going on out there, especially with the presence of all forms of alerts to lure us in. Another factor is the myth that multitasking shows that we are effective workers and that sitting in a meeting or class simply listening is an admittance that we have nothing else we need to do.

People often start multi-tasking because they believe it will help them get more done. Those gains never materialize; instead, efficiency is degraded. However, it provides emotional gratification as a side-effect. (Multi-tasking moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.) This side-effect is enough to keep people committed to multi-tasking despite worsening the very thing they set out to improve.

Every time your attention strays to check an update or answer an e-mail you lose something else. You may think you're still listening to what is going on in the room but even if you follow the gist you are unable to reflect or grasp the nuances. While it is true that we have always had distractions in classrooms when things get boring such as writing messages on bits of paper, today's distractions come with graphics, sound and video and are always going to trump whatever goes on in the room.

The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is—really, actually, biologically—impossible to resist. Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect; we are given to automatic responses when either system receives stimulus, much less both. Asking a student to stay focused while she has alerts on is like asking a chess player to concentrate while rapping their knuckles with a ruler at unpredictable intervals.

So what's the solution? Here in Sweden our education minister has proposed to ban mobiles in the classroom to counter multitasking but that seems to be missing the point completely. We all need to learn how and when to use technology and when to switch it off. In classrooms and meeting rooms there are times when the teacher or leader of the meeting is perfectly entitled to ask everyone to switch off because this task requires full concentration. It's like having the door or windows open - it's nice to hear and see what's going on outside but when you need to concentrate it's sometimes best to close the door, shut the window and maybe even pull down the blinds in order to concentrate.

Attention is a vital skill to learn. If we can't focus very little gets done. But that doesn't mean banning devices; it means learning to use them wisely and becoming aware of the irresistible lure of the sirens' cry.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Take note

David Truss (@datruss) started something when he tweeted this photo showing an extreme version of a common phenomenon in classrooms and lecture halls everywhere. The ensuing Twitter discussion then lead to a blog post by David, 4 notes on taking notes.

The problem with this photo is that the students aren't taking notes at all, they're simply copying. They do this because the information shown on the board is only available at that moment and represents a pedagogy of scarcity and exclusivity. If the material was published on the net they wouldn't be jostling to get the best photo, they might instead be discussing the issues raised by the material. Of course it's handy to quickly take a photo of a diagram or slide that you see in class but it isn't worth anything until you actually process the information yourself. The questions that immediately arise for me are:
  • Why didn't the teacher make the slides available to the students in advance and used class time to discuss the material?
  • Why not devote more time to explaining how to take meaningful notes and the importance of processing and reworking information rather than simply copying verbatim.
  • Students are still stuck in the traditional view of learning as the memorisation of facts. 
In David Truss' blog post he comments that taking a photo is a lousy way to take notes since it is not searchable and you haven't processed the information presented. It's the same as copying a friend's notes on a lecture you missed. You get the bare facts but miss the internal processing of deciding what to note and how to express it that is so essential to learning. The learning is not in the notes it's in the process. Instead of copying these students should learn to use mind-maps and other note-taking methods to process and rework what they hear in class or in other learning spaces.

Take notes or create notes? There are times when copying notes might be a useful thing to do, but for the most part, that is a rather passive way to learn information (unless you use specific strategies to help you take those notes). Students creating the notes, or doing a task whereby the notes are used to help construct a learning experience, is far better than copying words onto a piece of paper, or into a digital document, or for that matter, taking a photo of the information.

This leads into another ongoing discussion about note-taking; whether it is better to take notes digitally or by hand. I have always believed that it's not the device or the medium that matters, it's how you work with them but an article in Scientific American, A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop, claims that handwritten notes are actually more effective. The reason is that we can usually type fast enough to simply write what is said whereas handwriting forces you to summarise and select the information you note and therefore allows you to internalise the information to a greater extent.

Technology offers innovative tools that are shaping educational experiences for students, often in positive and dynamic ways. The research by Mueller and Oppenheimer serves as a reminder, however, that even when technology allows us to do more in less time, it does not always foster learning. Learning involves more than the receipt and the regurgitation of information. If we want students to synthesize material, draw inferences, see new connections, evaluate evidence, and apply concepts in novel situations, we need to encourage the deep, effortful cognitive processes that underlie these abilities. When it comes to taking notes, students need fewer gigs, more brain power.

The moral of all this is not to abandon technology and return to the good old days as some might hope. It is once again a lesson that we need to learn to use the right methods and devices in the right situation and for the right reasons. Taking photos of someone else's notes or copying verbatim may give an illusion of learning but are an example of using powerful technology in the wrong way. We need to learn to use our devices wisely and be more aware of their possibilities and limitations. Instead of seeing a divide between old and new we should see a wide range of tools and methods all of which can help us learn as long as we choose wisely.

Note: I always try to credit the photos I use but in this case I don't know who took the original. If I have infringed on any copyright here I will of course remove the photo and link to it instead.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Who loves conference calls?

Even after many years of synchronous video meetings using free tools like Skype and Google Hangouts as well as more sophisticated e-meeting systems like Adobe Connect, Blackboard Collaborate and Webbex I'm constantly amazed that so many people still use the telephone conference call. The conference call lacks all the features available in even the free e-meeting tools on the net; you can't see who's in the meeting, you don't know who's speaking and you can't share any information. Often it's hard to tell who is speaking and when many participants are calling from their mobiles the speech quality can fluctuate greatly.

A recent article in the Atlantic, Study: Nobody Is Paying Attention on Your Conference Call, looks at conference call behaviour and reveals that the majority of participants are busy doing other things during a conference call. When no-one sees you you're free to carry on doing a host of other things and participants fade in and out of the meeting, only reacting when the subject directly affects them. Leading a conference call can be a very lonely job and sometimes it's hard to know if there's anyone out there at all. I'll admit that a well-chaired meeting with a clear agenda and committed participants can work but the conference call has few positive features to make it worth the effort.

The missing elements are presence and empathy; the feeling that you are part of a group with a common objective and the ability to see colleagues' reactions to what you say. E-meeting tools can go a long way to providing these. A participant list can at least indicate who is logged in, a chat function allows questions to be asked or useful links distributed and of course video makes everyone visible. Of course people tend to multitask and daydream even with these features but that has always been the case even in face-to-face meetings. However, the features of e-meeting tools can help to promote a higher level of participation and thereby combat the passivity of voice-only meetings.

Effective meetings, just like good courses, require focus, participation, presence and empathy. Without these elements participants' concentration wanders and they eventually switch off. Wherever we meet and interact we need stimulating and creative environments where all participants feel welcome and where the aims of the meeting are clear and meaningful to all. This applies equally to face-to-face as well as online meetings. People who feel involved in a discussion don't daydream or multitask. We all need to improve our ability to exploit the available tools and methods (digital and analogue) that facilitate greater participation.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Someone to watch over me

One of the main arguments for online education is that it allows you to study at your own pace. Course material, asynchronous discussion and collaborative tools let you study whenever you want and wherever you are. This works for those who have the necessary self-discipline and study skills but it could be claimed that this flexibility is the Achilles heel of online education. Most people lack the necessary skills to take advantage of online education and as long as those skills are not developed in schools, adult and vocational education this mismatch will continue.

Laura Vanderkam questions whether we are overestimating our self-study skills in her article on Fast CompanyCan people really learn at their own pace?. The article's focus is on corporate training but the conclusions are relevant even to higher education and in particular MOOCs. An increasing amount of training is carried out online and the flexibility and scalability of online training clearly appeals to top management since it allows training to take place whenever the staff have time and does not demand costly formal training days. However when left to our own devices it's hard to prioritise online learning since there are always more pressing tasks that demand attention. Independent online learning can work if there is a clear link to tangible career-enhancing rewards or you have high internal motivation. Otherwise it's hard to keep up the momentum and the result is that we drop out or slowly fade out of the course. I suspect that many of the people who fail to complete a MOOC simply didn't have the positive momentum that is provided by clear rewards, supportive teachers and a sense of belonging to a learning community.

Even if I feel perfectly comfortable with independent self-study I still find it hard to stay focused on an online course. I have a number of self-study projects that I start up with great enthusiasm but which fade away after a few weeks of admirable concentration. I've started studying many new languages this way acquiring a few basics but then when it gets more complicated I tend to find other things to do instead. A couple of years ago I signed up for a very traditional evening course in Arabic for beginners with the aim of at least learning the alphabet and basic phrases. The teacher was friendly but the teaching methods were extremely old-fashioned and uninspiring. I achieved my objectives mostly due to self-study but what kept me going was the "fear" of not keeping up with the class and "disappointing" the teacher. Despite my advancing years I became a schoolboy again and the simple motivation of not wanting to be worst in the class meant that I kept studying during the week. There was no interest in a continuation course so I thought I could go on independently using all the open learning opportunities I write so often about. The problem was that there was noone to impress, no class to keep up with, no teacher to please. It sounds incredibly childish but it points to a key problem with self-study.

The challenge for all online education, including MOOCs, is providing the support, encouragement, challenge and sense of common purpose needed to keep learners on track. I don't think it matters so much whether you meet a teacher face-to-face or online but most of us need to feel that someone is watching over us and has expectations. That person is often a teacher but it could also be a peer group. The most important factor is that someone out there wants me to succeed and wants to check how I'm getting on. Someone to watch over me.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Your book just tweeted

I always like to find examples of how digital and analogue can interact with and complement each other and that there is not always a conflict between the two. Penguin Books in Brazil have gained considerable media attention recently by releasing a smart bookmark that communicates with you via Twitter (see article in Springwise, Smart bookmark lets authors tweet at readers who have neglected their novel). The premise is that we are so distracted by social media today that it's easy to start a book and then forget it. Now the book gets a voice in the digital cacophany.

The concept is well demonstrated in the video below but basically it's a physical bookmark that contains a light sensor, timer and a nano-processor with wifi. You leave it in your book and if you don't open the book for a while the bookmark will tweet you a gentle, witty reminder in the style of the book's author. If you still don't pick up your book you will continue to receive regular reminders. Exactly how the tweets come in the style of the book's author is not explained in the articles I have read but I suspect that each book comes with its own bookmark preloaded with that author's potential reminders. You probably can't use that bookmark in any other book though an interesting development could be allowing the bookmark to register the new book via its barcode.

Yet another example of the internet of things where just about everything in our lives will be able to communicate.

PENGUIN BOOKS | Case Tweet For a Read from Rafael Gonzaga on Vimeo.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Learning is about relationships - and it's complicated

network by michael.heiss, on Flickr
CC BY-NC-SA Some rights reserved by michael.heiss 
An article by David L. Kirp in the New York Times, Teaching is not a business, criticizes two high-profile trends: the market approach to education with a focus on accountability, testing and league tables as well as the over-belief in disruptive technology. Turning schools and colleges into competitive businesses may be a politically popular strategy but he sees little evidence that it actually works. Competition simply widens the gap between winners and losers and strangles the vital roles of collaboration, community and support.

Firing teachers, rather than giving them the coaching they need, undermines morale. In some cases it may well discourage undergraduates from pursuing careers in teaching, and with a looming teacher shortage as baby boomers retire, that’s a recipe for disaster. Merit pay invites rivalries among teachers, when what’s needed is collaboration. Closing schools treats everyone there as guilty of causing low test scores, ignoring the difficult lives of the children in these schools — “no excuses,” say the reformers, as if poverty were an excuse.

This marketization of education is a quick fix that is easy to understand and provides superficial evidence of success with "good" schools and colleges rising to the top and "bad" ones closing down. The underlying factors behind students' underachievement are seldom given much attention.

While these reformers talk a lot about markets and competition, the essence of a good education — bringing together talented teachers, engaged students and a challenging curriculum — goes undiscussed.

Although the article deals mainly with the problems of treating education as a market the author also sees technology as a similar smokescreen that prevents us from dealing with the real issues in education. All the focus is on new tools and devices and far too little attention is given to discussing teacher development, student support and building a culture of learning. Despite my interest in e-learning and the role of technology in education I don't believe that it is the answer to better education. No amount of mobiles, laptops, tablets, social media, MOOCs or open educational resources will lead to better learning because learning is fundamentally about relationships. Many of the most crucial elements of learning are intangible: a sense of belonging, a safe and supportive environment with teachers and colleagues who inspire and support you, giving you regular feedback and challenging you. Technology however can help to create such a supportive environment.

Technology is important because it is so embedded in our workplaces and everyday life that to ignore it would risk making our education system irrelevant. Technology enables us to collaborate in ways that were simply not possible before and gives all schools access to knowledge and resources that were previously locked away or only accessible to a privileged few. The key question today is how do we create positive and supportive learning environments both in the classroom and online. There's a lot of focus on the drop-out rates in online courses but millions drop out of classroom education; even if they are still physically in the room they have dropped out mentally. Let's forget these endless and pointless discussions about whether classroom is better than online and look at how to make all forms of education more supportive, inclusive and empowering. All forms of education can be effective if the teachers and students are given the support and tools they need.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Unbundling and rebundling education

Lego Porn by EJP Photo, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by EJP Photo

A popular theme of the last few years has been the unbundling of higher education. This refers to the move from the all-inclusive model where a university offers degree programmes, courses, examination, support, tutoring, guidance etc to the unbundled model where a wide range of different institutions, companies and networks offer different parts of the package and students have the option of customizing their education. This has prompted much discussion on the advent of do-it-yourself education and a new educational ecosystem where the learner is free to choose the learning path that is most suitable. I have often written on this topic here and see many advantages with the unbundling process; enabling greater learner participation, widening access to education, offering more choice and greater flexibility.

Now even the notion of a course is being unbundled, as illustrated in an article by Jeffrey R Young in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Are Courses Outdated? MIT Considers Offering ‘Modules’ Instead. Noting that MOOCs work best when broken into short modules of 1-2 weeks, MIT are investigating offering a wide range of short modules that can be assembled by students into courses using a similar logic to the playlists we create for our online music. Both online and campus courses could be modularized according to the article and the benefits of this move are summarized as:
  • Students could retake any module they have trouble with before moving to the next concept in a sequence.
  • A modular approach would make it easier for professors to teach a course together, since faculty members could tackle a section rather than a whole course.
  • Updating a module when new information emerges is easier than redesigning an entire course.
Maybe this is not as revolutionary as it seems since a modular courses have been around for a long time. The difference today is the potential option to mix modules from different institutions though that would require the modules to conform to common quality criteria and for learners to be highly skilled in selecting suitable learning paths.

The problem with unbundling is that in the end it simply becomes too confusing to handle and the learner becomes paralyzed in an overwhelming abundance of choice. The pendulum starts then to swing towards rebundling; helping learners to make the right choices and find a path through the educational jungle. When choice becomes too complex we need someone who can help us to choose. This rebundling movement is introduced in an article in the latest edition of eCampus News, Unbundling and re-bundling in higher education.

... too few are thinking about how to help students make sense of and navigate this emerging, unbundled world and integrate the modular pieces together in ways that help them carve out a coherent and sensible life path. This is critical because it appears that in a personalized learning future, every single learner will have a custom fit educational pathway.

The movement could of course go full circle and the university will provide this rebundling but from a very different perspective from today's. Instead of offering everything under the same roof the future university will guide students to find personalised learning paths using courses or modules from a wide variety of sources, internal and external. If there are recognised quality criteria and metadata for all those resources it will be possible to put them together into a coherent path. The university's role will be as a guarantor of quality and provider of qualified tuition, guidance and mentorship.