Saturday, September 14, 2019

The illusion of learning - from lectures to active learning

If you look back to your school and university days you sometimes realise that the demanding and tough teachers you disliked so much at the time actually taught you more than the ones you liked. Activities that were challenging and uncomfortable at the time were with hindsight much greater learning experiences than more orthodox classroom methods. In short, we are not very good at recognising a learning experience. This puts into question the validity of student course evaluations where challenging teachers and activities are often given low scores.

This discrepancy is studied in an article in the Harvard gazette, Study shows students in ‘active learning’ classrooms learn more than they think. Many studies show that students appreciate lectures and see them as valuable learning experiences whereas they are often more skeptical to active, collaborative learning. The Harvard study compared student attitudes to traditional lectures with active learning classrooms and showed that although the students rated the lectures more highly, the test results showed that they actually learned more by active learning. A well-structured and professional lecture can be very enjoyable and create the illusion that you have learned a lot. But, of course, the learning happens when you start grappling with the issues yourself and with colleagues. The collaborative element is less clear-cut than the crisp lecture format and involves messy problem-solving and negotiation. We may not realise how much we have learned till much later. According to the lead author of the study, Louis Deslauriers:

“Deep learning is hard work. The effort involved in active learning can be misinterpreted as a sign of poor learning,” he said. “On the other hand, a superstar lecturer can explain things in such a way as to make students feel like they are learning more than they actually are.”

The lecture is still a symbol of higher education and in popular culture any reference to universities inevitably shows a lecture hall filled with students eagerly making notes on the professor's lecture. Students still expect university to be like this and are often disappointed if they don't have any lectures on a course. A good lecture can indeed act as an inspiration and a starting point for investigation but it is in the messy process of negotiation, meaning-making and problem-solving that the real learning takes place.

... the study shows that it’s important to ensure that neither instructors nor students are fooled into thinking that lectures are the best learning option. “Students might give fabulous evaluations to an amazing lecturer based on this feeling of learning, even though their actual learning isn’t optimal,” he said. “This could help to explain why study after study shows that student evaluations seem to be completely uncorrelated with actual learning.”

The key lies in helping students realise the value of active learning by explaining the process and introducing the methods step by step. At the same time it is a major step in the dark for many teachers who are justly proud of their ability to lecture and get excellent evaluations from doing so. Why change a winning formula that the students clearly appreciate? There's a chain reaction here where teachers need support to adapt to a new teaching method and the students in turn need support to adapt and learn to appreciate the new method.

Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom
Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan, Greg Kestin
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2019, 201821936; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1821936116

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Online learning - unplugged

How can digital educational resources benefit those without internet access (about 3.2 billion people according to Internet World Stats) or even without electricity? Open educational resources (OER) are available in hundreds of languages but they don't help those who cannot access that material. The real potential of online education is making it accessible for all - even offline.

There are many examples of this around the world where online material is downloaded where bandwidth is available and then used offline in remote regions, but one particularly interesting example I found is described in an article in Campus Technology, Distance Learning Without Computers, It describes a project called Education for Humanity run by Arizona State University in collaboration with a number of humanitarian agencies where online higher education is offered to students in refugee camps in Uganda. These camps often lack both electricity and internet access so the solution involves a device called a Solar Powered Educational Learning Library (SolarSPELL - see film below). This device stores downloaded educational resources from the university (or any other source) and uses the open source learning management system, Moodle, for course delivery. It is powered by solar energy and can support up to 17 mobile devices on its local wifi network. The device is cheap and portable and has been used in many projects around the world including this one in Uganda. The solution allows students to access material, interact and navigate an online course in the same way as they would with internet access. Where possible, online interaction can take place using mobile devices and Whatsapp.

There are some interesting conclusions to this project. Firstly, students who studied ASU's course on agribusiness performed much better than average with some getting extremely high grades. Motivation was of course extremely high since the students all depended on agricultural business and had immediate practical use for what they learned. Being able to immediately test what you have learned in real life situations contributes enormously to completion rates.

Another valuable result of the project was that they developed their digital literacy skills, despite being unplugged. The offline environment was as close to the online version as possible and this gave them confidence for the future.The students clearly saw the benefits and motivation rose accordingly.

Besides the improvements in students' marketing and financial analysis skills, an unexpected outcome was a boost in digital literacy, Bauer noted. "Although the facilitators were actually in charge of powering up the boxes and being in charge of the technology, they really gave students the option to learn how it works, why it works that way and how the WiFi [in SolarSPELL] was different from the one that they may use to access the internet. We saw their confidence in their digital literacy levels improve, in terms of feeling comfortable in working with technology. And the facilitators were telling us about how excited students were to come in every day.

Because of the limited number of devices that can share the local wifi capacity, many students had to share a laptop or tablet. This proved to be beneficial because it added an element of collaboration that would have been lost if there had been one device per student.

One area of particular interest is the way people who were forced to share a computing device in the pilot project were also forced to work together. "We'll see what the data says, but it will be interesting to [find out] exactly how that collaboration might have improved grades and helped people's understanding.

In developed countries we often fail to discover the benefits that can arise from relative scarcity of resources. Sharing devices forces students to share their ideas and negotiate a solution to the problems they are trying to solve. This could easily be implemented in more connected classrooms to foster better collaboration skills and mutual support.

The course literature had to be revised and adapted to the local situation and OER was the solution. The publisher of the textbook used for the regular course at ASU did not allow the book to be distributed digitally, so the teachers replaced it with OER which they adapted to match more closely the target group's needs. This is another good example of the vital role that OER can play in widening the reach of education, especially through adaptation.

Maybe another success factor for offline digital education is the absence of distractions, allowing students to concentrate on the task in hand rather than be tempted into checking the latest messages. Even in our always connected world we need to learn how to focus and this can be done by temporarily disconnecting or limiting connectivity. Sharing devices with limited or no internet access could have some benefits. Less is more as they say.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Transitional learning spaces

Most learning takes place outside the classroom. Of course, the opportunity to meet, discuss and practice in a structured setting is extremely important but the real battle to understand and implement new knowledge takes place in informal settings: at home, in the library, discussing in a cafe or during a long walk or run in the park. But a relatively unexploited learning space is the area outside the classroom and the corridors linking the formal learning spaces.

These spaces in between are discussed in an article by Luke McCrone in Wonkhe, Learning in the spaces in between. Valuable interaction often takes places before and after a class between students and between students and teachers, but only if the space provides a comfortable environment for this. The furnishings can invite groups to sit and discuss, use their digital devices or even discuss with an absent colleague by video. Previously dead areas such as corridors can become collaborative spaces if there are comfortable seats, power sockets, tables etc.

Frankly, the availability of this sort of transitional space should be prioritised. It is a relatively low-cost intervention that could be the difference between student interaction and disconnectedness. Kitted out with comfortable furniture and other amenities at the fringe of a lecture theatre, it has proven transformational. A student clarifying misunderstandings with the lecturer, or a chance encounter between two friends reflecting on an exam are examples of some of the active learning behaviours I have observed.

There is no doubt great potential here but no mention is made in the article about digital spaces. In most universities the digital campus is the learning management system, divided into class or course silos, offering very little interaction between students from different courses to meet and discuss. The discussion forums are seldom attractive spaces for more informal discussions since students often feel that anything written there is likely to be observed and assessed. Where are the digital spaces in between? How can we create them? Can we set up bookable digital group rooms so that students can meet with full video, audio, chat and screen-sharing functionality. How about social spaces that can lead to meetings with students from other disciplines but without the risk of meeting spammers and trolls?

Way back in the heyday of Second Life there were universities experimenting with virtual campuses where such chance meetings and group work were possible. Those spaces were generally restricted with only password access. The technology wasn't quite mature enough then, nor were most users, but the next generation of virtual worlds and virtual meeting spaces could lead to a much more interactive and social virtual campus. McCrone's research will be interesting to follow, but we mustn't forget the digital spaces. The campus spaces are used by many students but the digital space is the only one that unites the whole university. We need to build it for the future. 

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Open online learning in local face-to-face groups - revisiting P2PU

I love the idea of combining the advantages of open online education with local support and social context? Maybe we have to separate the roles of the course/content providers at the macro level and the teachers/facilitators at the micro level. One way to do this is allowing local groups to take and adapt course material from major providers like universities and then run local on-site study groups to work through that material and add local context. This is already happening using MOOCs with local support in the form of MOOC meet-ups and refugee support initiatives such as Kiron.

Another interesting example that I have recently rediscovered is P2PU (Peer-to-peer university). At first the idea was to allow people to create short open online courses based on collaborative learning and without a strict syllabus. Learners had freedom to investigate and share ideas and in many cases some or all of them even arranged physical meetings at a mutually convenient location. Those physical meetings proved so powerful that they have now become the core of P2PU's activities.

Today, P2PU focuses on fostering local physical study circles and the online element is for the course material. Over the years they have built up a repository of online courses and more are being added. These courses then form the resources for local study circles that meet regularly in libraries or community centres. You can start a local study circle and choose to study one of the existing online courses or create your own online course in the free open source P2PU platform (thus adding it to the common repository). Study circle facilitators can learn how to run a circle by taking part in an online training course and there are also regular training sessions in a number of major cities, mostly in North America and Europe.

P2PU has three core values: peer learning, community and equity, and their mission statement is:

P2PU is a grassroots network of individuals who seek to create an equitable, empowering, and liberating alternative to mainstream higher education.

We work towards this vision by creating and sustaining learning communities in public spaces around the world. As librarians and community organizers, we bring neighborhoods together to learn with one another. As educators, we train facilitators to organize their own networks and we develop/curate open educational resources. As developers and designers, we build open source software tools that support flourishing learning communities. And as learners, we work together to improve upon and disseminate methods and practices for peer learning to flourish.

This model seems to combine open online education with local support and context and allows for study circles to use the online resources in different ways, adapting the concepts to their own situation and discussing in their own language. Today's MOOCs tend to be top-down approaches with a fixed schedule and little room for adaptation at local level. An alternative is to create the courses, leave them open and add facilitator guidance modules to help people start study circles who base their meetings on the online course but where the interaction is mostly face-to-face in a trusted group. By designing MOOCs for local adaptation and delegating responsibility the courses can gain greater impact, increased diversity and higher completion rates. But it also entails giving up control and daring to delegate.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Trends in education - erratic development

List articles are very popular but as soon as you draw up a list you give the impression that it is comprehensive. Any time I have been tempted to make a list of ten golden rules for doing something I realise that there are probably lots of other rules equally or more valid than mine. It's probably best to treat most lists as a basis for discussion and take it from there. One such article that interested me recently is on EdSurge, 6 Key Trends to 21st Century Teaching. The background is very USA-oriented but the points show that development in this field is far from linear. Here's a summary with comments and questions to consider.

More professors are shifting from textbooks to OER.
According to recent US statistics there is a clear rise in the number of university teachers using open educational resources, in particular open text books, in their courses. OER is especially used on introductory courses with 22% of teachers admitting to using them last year, a significant improvement over the past three years (only 8% for 2015-16). The advantages are not simply financial. Of course the students save a lot of money by using open textbooks but the main educational advantage is that the material can be easily updated and also reused and adapted by the teachers and students. A spin-off article on EdSurge, Does OER actually improve learning, concludes however that there is little or no evidence so far that using OER has any significant effects on students' actual learning. For students without internet access from home the use of OER can even be a handicap compared to a print book. However it is not the content that is so important when it comes to learning outcomes, it's what the teacher and students do with that content and how they build on it that really matters. The key must be to make the content as accessible as possible, in multiple formats if necessary, and then work collaboratively and creatively from there.

Flipped classrooms seem to be growing exponentially.
Evidently the volume of published articles on this subject is doubling every 16 months as more and more teachers discover the benefits of using valuable classroom time for active learning rather than content delivery. Old habits like lecturing die hard but all indications are that active classrooms are here to stay. However there is more to flipping the classroom than simply pre-recording your lectures. It's about finding the right mix between synchronous and asynchronous learning spaces and working out what activities fit best in which space.

More professors are looking to experts to help them teach. (Though some resist.).
This change concerns the rise of new professions at universities, in particular instructional designers and educational technologists. A major barrier to the adoption of educational technology has been the teachers' fear that not only do they need to be subject experts they also need to master a bewildering range of technologies. Course design and delivery today must be the result of teamwork where the teachers' subject mastery is complemented by expertise in digital platforms, tools and course design. Once it is clear that the burden of digitalisation is no longer solely on the teachers' shoulders and that support is available, then progress becomes visible.

Another aspect of this not mentioned in the article relates to the use of OER. The practice of using recorded lectures from other institutions is also increasing. In a flipped classroom there's no rule that you have to offer your own pre-recorded lectures. If someone else conveys the same message well and the recording has an open license then why waste time recording your own? This is an excellent way to bring expertise from different sources into your course. maybe even offer a playlist of short lectures from academics from different parts of the world to offer a more global perspective than you ever could on your own?

The classroom isn’t the only place to learn.
It never was really, but today we see more institutions acknowledging the fact by investing in flexible and stimulating learning spaces on campus where collaboration and creativity are in focus. Assessment is moving from the formal exam hall to real-life projects, work experience and simulations. Maybe it's soon time to scrap the term classroom and talk about different types of learning spaces, both physical and digital and how we use these different spaces to facilitate learning.

Colleges are still struggling to find the best fit for online education.
This point seems to conflict with many of the others here but is still valid. Online education is still in its infancy compared to the traditional model and we have only started examining its potential. The problem is that many institutions still view online education as a threat rather than a complement and full mainstream acceptance is still elusive. The power of tradition is extremely strong and there is widespread reluctance to accept new forms as equally valid. Despite the growth of MOOCs, OER, flipped classroom etc there is still a long way to go.

What does it mean to teach an age of information overload and polarization?
In a world where conspiracy theories, spam and fake news are abundant and some sections of society (including governments) openly reject scientific research, the teacher's responsibility weighs more heavily than ever before. But it is not simply about teaching media literacy and fact-checking. That can help of course but curiously if we teach students to question and challenge everything, that tactic might backfire and lead them to believe sources that really do question scientific findings (climate change deniers etc). This is one of the themes of an extremely thought-provoking keynote speech by Danah Boyd at last year's SXSW EDU event, What hath we wrought? That lecture is worth a whole conference of discussion and this post will not even attempt to summarise it. Just watch!

Many interesting threads here but no revolutions really. Educational is changing due to technology but not in a steady progression. Development is erratic and unpredictable. New ideas are constantly being tried and tested. Some are instant successes and are adopted, others fails and disappear from sight whilst some failures are reworked and reappear later in a new and more successful guise. The winds blow in different directions and thus change the landscape, slowly but surely

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Platform literacy - an essential future skill

Photo by Burst from Pexels
The internet is increasingly becoming an arena for surveillance and unauthorised exploitation of users' personal data. We need to raise our awareness of what our favourite platforms and apps are doing with our data and develop strategies to limit the damage. This will mean spreading our risks by using a patchwork of different platforms so that no one platform completely "owns" us. Some really useful platforms and tools will have to be ditched and replaced by something less cool but much safer. Security and integrity must come before convenience and coolness. This discussion has to be tackled in education, both in schools and universities.

This is the theme of a series of articles by Bryan Alexander on EdSurge, Follow Along With a Grad Seminar About Edtech. He describes a course he's running that gets students to discuss and investigate the pros and cons of digital technology in both society and education. Part five of the series interested me the most, Students Size Up Edtech’s Dark Side, focusing on the key problems we face today in terms of digitalisation. They identified three main areas of concern:
  • Tech addiction - social media and gaming are designed to keep us hooked.
  • Digital divides - inequalities in internet access, devices, support, digital literacy etc.
  • Privacy and digital "colonialism" - exploitation of personal data, provoking outrage as a business model, largely western and white corporations dominating the global digital space.
There are no simple answers here, not even complex answers, but we all need to become more aware of what is going on and be able to make mature decisions about which technologies, platforms and tools we should embrace and which we should steer clear of. For educators, it's about striking a balance.

The students hope to infuse an awareness of these issues into their professional practice, driving them to seek to address them through their thoughtful and creative work. Ultimately we remained committed to exploring technology in education—but with a more balanced attitude, greater concerns and a deeper awareness of edtech’s social dimension.

As a footnote to this I have recently installed a privacy app called Jumbo on my mobile devices that alerts me to possible vulnerability in Facebook, Google, Twitter and others. Seems to do the job so far but if anyone knows better please share your thoughts.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Brainstorming works best in silence

A recurring theme on this blog is a plea for more silence in a world drowning in noise. An interesting article in the Harvard Business Review, The case for more silence in meetings, reinforces this when it comes to effective meetings. The main idea is that effective brainstorming and creative thinking that involves all participants is a largely silent activity. This goes against the popular image of creative teams in spontaneous, lively and very vocal discussions in open office environments. The article describes how noisy meetings are influenced by flock behaviour where the opinions of the most vocal members are valued and those of less influential members are either dismissed or are never even voiced due to fear of rejection.

Attendees often hold back in meetings, waiting to hear what others say and what their boss might say out of fear of being perceived as difficult, out of touch, or off the mark. Silence can be a solution to this problem, allowing space for unique knowledge and novel ideas to emerge.

A more effective alternative is to brainstorm in silence and in writing allowing everyone to have their say and ideas are anonymous. It's the same in the classroom where genuinely creative ideas often drown in the noise and groupthink dominates. Really creative thought often happens when we're alone and can concentrate; just think of the good ideas you often come up with at night or on a long journey. The article describes a number of strategies for more creative meetings where the participants don't even need to be in the same space to contribute effectively. In addition the use of asynchronous collaboration spaces allow us to harvest ideas from colleagues at other locations. We simply need to get away from a lot of stereotypes about effective meetings. Maybe we also need to design more office spaces that can offer silence.

While we typically default to traditional approaches to meetings, silence-based approaches present additional options that research shows can yield better results. Leveraging independent brainstorming, the cluster technique, anonymous voting, and written communication will expand leaders’ toolboxes — ultimately making them more effective. While silence certainly shouldn’t replace talk entirely, there are times it may be useful. Silence can even be golden when it comes to promoting meeting success.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Trans Europe express - flightless conference travel

Hamburg Hbf, one of many stops on my travels
Having been responsible for a considerably large carbon footprint due to frequent flights to conferences and project meetings I decided this year to try and cut unnecessary flights from my work schedule. I have travelled by train to two activities in Norway and last week I tried a more ambitious project. I attended both the EDEN 2019 (European Distance and E-learning Network) conference in Bruges, Belgium and a project event and meeting in The Hague, Netherlands and did it all by train. I felt doubly motivated for this since I and a colleague planned to run a workshop at the conference on the challenge of organising engaging, interactive online conferences to minimise the need for air travel. I simply couldn't fly to the conference to run a workshop on that theme! Sadly the workshop did not attract much interest this time but we will try again elsewhere later in the year. You can read the abstract for our workshop in the EDEN 2019 Book of abstracts (p 72).

Changing train in Amersfoort, Netherlands
Some reflections then on my feelings after my first Interrail journey for almost 40 years. The whole journey consisted of 15 trains, two ferries and two rail replacement buses and took a total of three days and two extra overnight stays. Only one train was seriously late and although I missed my planned connection there was a later train I could take. I had planned to get some work done on the journey but to my surprise almost none of the trains had any wifi to offer and several did not even have electricity sockets so once the rather weak battery of my iPhone ran out of juice that was the end of the little connectivity I had. Many hours of just sitting on trains takes its toll and I was very tired after a long day on rails. Changing trains was always quite exciting working out which platform to get to and carrying my bags from one platform to another. I did however make short excursions outside many stations dragging my case on a bit of fast sightseeing, something you certainly can't do at airports. I read a lot, gazed at some beautiful German, Belgian and Dutch countryside and made brief contact with many cities I knew about but had never visited. It was a generally pleasant experience and gave me a sense of distance that you lose completely when flying. It just takes so much time.

My Interrail pass - valid all over Europe
There is no doubt that the explosive increase in international air travel over the last 20 years has had a major effect on global CO2 levels and that we need to reduce this as quickly as possible. Of course this is only one of many factors that are contributing to our environmental crisis but it's one that we can directly change if we only put our minds to it. However, if even a fraction of today's air travellers changed to rail transport then today's railways simply could not cope with the increased demand. Long-distance trains are already full and in most countries there are major capacity issues that need to be fixed immediately. It will take billions of euros to upgrade Europe's railways to meet the massive demand of the future and this investment must happen now, not in ten years or later.

At the same time we need to continue meeting each other to find global solutions to global problems. The need for effective digital meeting spaces is therefore the key to international development and we can certainly replace many physical events with online meetings, as long as we are prepared to test new methods and change our traditional approach. It may not be the same as meeting physically but in today's climate crisis, we simply don't have that alternative, at least not as the default form of meeting.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Educational projects in rural areas - a Nordic perspective

Klaksvik, Faroe Islands (own photo)
Rural areas all over the world are suffering from depopulation as young people leave for the cities to get education and employment. This means that local companies are unable to find qualified staff and in many cases choose to move their operations elsewhere. The public sector has to deliver services on shrinking budgets due to the loss of tax income as the population decreases. It’s a vicious circle but one of the keys to reversing this trend is to provide opportunities for the local population to access education and training without having to move away from home. Those who do leave to go to college or university tend to find work in urban areas and seldom return home. Reversing this trend is a key to economic and community development in rural areas and an obvious enabler for this is the use of technology to offer education to all. Today there is a wealth of online education available, as well as blended courses that allow learners in rural areas to study mostly from home apart from a few campus meetings. Despite this, the brain drain continues apart from a few notable exceptions. These exceptions are extremely interesting of course and the question is why some places have found a sustainable solution for offering higher and further education whilst other places have failed?

This was the question behind a Nordic project (Nordplus project Presence at a Distance) I have been involved in over the past two years and we are now working on our final report (the project group are all members of the NVL Distans network). The project's focus was the question: what are the success factors behind educational initiatives in rural and sparsely populated areas in the Nordic region? We looked at a lot of good practice throughout the region but also investigated cases where local initiatives had disappeared. The key factor behind all the success stories was stable and long-term funding but also a common vision of a sustainable and diverse local economy. The establishment of learning centres was a catalyst for development in many rural areas; acting as a broker to match the needs of local companies and public sector with suitable education from colleges and universities. These centres also act as a hub and meeting place for students, teachers and organisations, offering guidance and support as well as access to technology and learning spaces. Having someone to talk to about the mysteries of online education can make the difference between a student succeeding in their studies or dropping out. Many learners have negative experience of education, especially from school, and so they feel apprehensive about going back to education. It is therefore essential that they feel included and valued in this new educational setting and a combination of support both online from the university and on-site from staff at a learning centre or local library.

In our study, we interviewed representatives from successful distance learning initiatives in all the countries and self-governing areas of the Nordic region with the exception of Greenland.  We saw that many initiatives to set up learning centres in rural areas have failed over the last 15 years and this was nearly always due to a lack of long-term vision on the part of the local authority. Many centres were started with the help of EU funding but once that funding dried up the venture suffocated and died because it was not part of any long-term strategy. Many centres also relied too heavily on the initiatives of a few dedicated enthusiasts with little help from the mainstream organisation and if any of those enthusiasts left there was noone willing or able to take over.

The successful educational initiatives we studied had the following factors in common:
  • Commitment and engagement from all interested parties to a shared vision. A vital element in all successful initiatives was close co-operation between the educational institutions, local authorities and local businesses as well as sustainable long-term financing. Many successful initiatives grew from the needs of local industry for qualified staff and this spurred the local authorities to find a solution. It is also essential that the local or regional authority include access to lifelong learning as a key element in their development strategy. Access to relevant higher and further education is not only an educational priority, it is also integrated with employment and economic development.
  • Local meeting places (learning centres) as hubs for educational activities. This must also be a long-term strategic initiative with qualified staff who work closely with all stakeholders to provide relevant courses and programmes that can be studied with a minimum of travel. Even if most people have internet access at home there is still a need for physical spaces for meetings, support and coordination.
  • Efficient and flexible systems for supporting learners wherever they are and building inclusive learning communities. This is largely the responsibility of the educational institutions and involves course design that is focused on building a supportive learning community for distance students. Too many online courses today are largely self-study and only those with great resilience in terms of digital and study skills can hope to succeed.
  • Incentives for universities to offer decentralised/distance education. We saw many good examples where universities responded to the needs of major companies or regional authorities but it is very difficult for the needs of more sparsely populated areas to result in action. While there are many distance/online courses and programmes available they are lack the scaffolding and course design features that are needed to prevent isolation and drop-out. No Nordic country has an open university whose focus is on lifelong learning and with distance as default. As a result the campus is still core business for our universities and this is unlikely to change unless government funding is provided.
Of course, even if all of these conditions are fulfilled it will not stop young people from wanting to spread their wings and move to the cities in search of education and new horizons. That is only natural. However, there is an urgent need to address the needs of those who already live and work there and want to stay. If the established higher education system is not able to develop lifelong learning then we need to create an institution that focuses on this field.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Multilingual webinars

English may be the language of international communication but it also gives native speakers an unfair advantage in conferences and meetings. Most educational conferences I have attended have been dominated by native English speakers, both in terms of keynote speakers as well as in discussions. Less confident English speakers tend to stay silent in fear of making mistakes or that they will not be understood. This is equally true in webinars where fluent English speakers dominate since it is easy for us to write quick comments and questions in the chat or take the microphone to make a point.

I was therefore very excited to read about a multilingual webinar solution called KUDO in a post on The webinar blog, Kudo Targets Professional Multilingual Webcasts. KUDO offers a web-conferencing tool and builds in simultaneous interpretation into a variety of languages through a network of professional interpreters working from home. This means that you can select which languages you want to offer and pay for the interpreters' work. Participants can simply select the language feed they want and all speech in the session will be interpreted. This also means that all participants can contribute to the discussion in their own language, thus allowing everyone to have their say and opening up the meeting to voices that would normally have remained silent or possibly not even attended. Of course this will come with a price tag but it opens up completely new opportunities for global cooperation when people can contribute in their own languages.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

New models for higher education in rural areas

UHI Inverness campus. CC BY-SA Alastair Creelman
I am currently working in a Swedish project (Nya vägar - information in Swedish) that is investigating new paths to higher education for all who live in rural and sparsely populated areas. The problem today is that people move away from rural areas to study and very seldom return. This means that local businesses find it increasingly hard to find qualified staff and the local authorities also have difficulties finding teachers and health care staff. Even if there are many online courses and degree programmes available from Swedish universities, the range is nowhere near as wide as that offered on campus and so the brain drain continues. Some larger local authorities have set up local campuses or learning centres that try to match the needs of the local private and public sector with the courses and programmes offered by the higher education institutions. They also offer a meeting place as well as support and guidance to students and this has proved crucial to the completion rates of degree programmes. For many small local authorities the ability to access higher education without having to move from home is a simple matter of survival. Without this the population will dwindle and it will be difficult to maintain services. Our project aims to answer the following questions:
  • How can we provide higher education to all, wherever they live? 
  • How can we collaborate to optimize and assure the quality of the individual’s study situation? 
  • What can municipalities and other key actors do to create a local context that favors access to higher education? 
  • What is the role of industry and the public sector (employers)? 
  • What is required from the HE sector to increase access to HE for individuals and groups far from university sites? 
  • How can all actors collaborate to strengthen skills supply and life-long learning throughout the country?
UHI Inverness campus
One university that seems to have come a long way to answering these questions is the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in Scotland and this week we paid them a visit to learn more about their unique approach to offering higher and further education to students spread over a large and sparsely populated region. Their development has been impressive and rapid; established in 1992, becoming a higher education institution in 2001 and a full university in 2011. Previously all universities in Scotland were concentrated in a central corridor between Glasgow and Aberdeen with nothing to the north and west; well over half of the country's area. UHI identifies strongly with its region aiming to be “locally based, regional in structure and have national and international reach.” They do this in an original way since the university's physical presence is in the form of a network of 13 colleges and 70 learning centres spread all over a region considerably larger than Belgium. Each college is an autonomous organisation with bilateral agreements with UHI, what they call a collegiate federal model. The teachers and researchers are based at the colleges, each of which has its own specialities and local focus, but the students can study most programmes from their nearest college or even learning centre and all have a personal academic tutor. The university faculties and support units operate horizontally in a matrix organisation. Then there are over 70 learning centres in villages, community centres, supported directly by UHI but fully rooted in the local communities. UHI is also a bilingual university with all information and support available in both English and Gaelic though this does not cover the education provided and although there are many courses in Gaelic, the vast majority of the education provided is in English.

What is particularly interesting about UHI is the fact that so many of its courses are accessible whether you study at college, a learning centre or from home and this enables people to access higher education wherever they live and don't need to leave their community. They proudly claim that students have access to about 30 degree programmes within a 30 mile radius of home (distance to nearest learning centre or partner college). Not all courses are available everywhere but as many as possible. Students work from home and come to their learning centre and local college when necessary. All students have a personal academic tutor, usually based at their nearest college. Most courses have students who study from different locations and the boundaries between campus and distance (whatever that means) seem to have been erased.

The same applies for the teachers who can be based at a college or run their courses from small remote learning centres. We met one such teacher who teaches music and even runs week-long virtual music residencies from her base on the tiny island of Benbecula. The use of digital media is of course central to everything that UHI does. A Cisco video-conferencing system links all nodes in the network and UHI is biggest user of video conferencing in Europe. It is therefore essential for all staff to be proficient in using digital media.

For me the most interesting aspect of the university's work is its Learning and Teaching Academy (LTA) that supports the professional development of all teaching staff with a particular emphasis on the effective use of digital media. An integral part of their strategy is ALPINE (Accredited Learning, Professional development and Innovation in Education), a framework that offers professional development leading to official recognition in terms of fellowships of the UK Higher Education Academy (HEA). Staff are expected to first become associate fellows and then progress to full fellowships with the option of later becoming senior fellows. Qualification involves compiling a portfolio of learning resources, course plans and digital courseware with the amount and nature of evidence depending on the level of fellowship. Teachers are encouraged to create digital portfolios of their teaching material for recognition. The development of digital skills is integrated into all professional development but comes into focus in activities such as an annual Digital Education Week, mentorships and regular lunchtime webinars. In addition, there are seminar days involving student representatives and teaching staff to discuss for example implementation of learning analytics, course design, curriculum development etc.

Effective use of the learning management system (at present moving from Blackboard to Brightspace) is supported by their benchmarks for the use of technology in learning and teaching that maps teaching and learning criteria with functions in the LMS and offers best practice examples. This is done in terms of their 3E framework: enhance, extend and empower.

The benchmarks and associated guidance and exemplars defined and provided here are aligned with the university’s Learning and Teaching Enhancement Strategy, and will enable the embedding of the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Values in how we use the learning environment and other technologies to support learning, teaching and assessment.

Digital scholarship in terms of sharing scholarly practice and increasing research visibility is encouraged through schemes such as an annual fund to encourage research or study that must result in a paper submission to a journal as well as arranging a workshop or webinar. Three day writing retreats are arranged to help staff write their first scientific papers and this includes adjuncts and educational technologists.

Finally there is a clear strategy for openness, working towards a policy of open as default. A lot of course material is already open and they are planning to develop open textbooks and have joined the OERu partnership where they will offer open courses and validation of other partners' open courses.

I see a clear need for a model like this in Sweden, either by existing institutions in partnership or by a new institution. The key is that there is a university that focuses on providing inclusive and flexible higher education for all, no matter where they live, and sees "distance" as no object and the pedagogical use of digital media as default. The technology and methods already exist, what is often lacking is the will to change.

Finally my thanks to everyone at UHI for their hospitality and excellent discussions.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Offline digital resources - connecting the unconnected

In many parts of the world the idea of online education is still only a dream. Rural communities lack internet connectivity and even if mobiles are used, the networks can only offer basic services like voice and text. Refugee camps around the world are full of children who need to learn but lack books and educational resources. There are plenty of initiatives that offer education based on low bandwidth text and voice services but how can people learn basic internet skills that may be so vital for the future?

One inspiring solution to this is a non-profit initiative called KIWIX that allows you to download Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Wikimed, WikiVoyage, Project Gutenberg, and Stack Exchange as compressed content packages and then be able to browse and read them offline on virtually any device. The teacher first needs to be able to download the packages but once that is done the material can be distributed to, say, pupils in a school, using a specially designed wifi hotspot. All the software and content are all free to download and use.

KIWIX provides free software to bring free knowledge even to remote places. This may be a school on the countryside in a developing country. This may be you on a plane or in the wilderness. Wherever you go: KIWIX gives you access to Wikipedia, WikiVoyage, Project Gutenberg, and a lot more free content from the Internet – even if you don’t have an Internet connection.

Since Wikipedia is available in so many languages this solution offers schools in rural areas or refugee camps access to valuable educational resources when printed school books are either unavailable or too costly. Access to this type of online material can be vital for speakers of "smaller" languages and there are many cases of educators collaborating on developing their language's Wikipedia content. School books may be impossible to afford or even non-existent but by developing Wikipedia and using solutions like KIWIX teachers can give children access to educational resources and help them gain basic internet skills without even internet access.

The website describes successful applications of KIWIX in places like Ghana and Cuba where internet access is limited. Another option suggested is to provide access to sites that are blocked and censored in some countries, such as North Korea, though the risks of doing that may outweigh the benefits.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Communicative noise - a barrier to creativity?

For many people e-mail has become a communication black hole with an inbox that is out of control. As we drown in e-mail we hope to find salvation in exciting new communication platforms like Slack, Teams and Workplace that promise to streamline your messaging and help teams work more efficiently. The problem is that even if we start using new platforms we can't escape the gravitational pull of e-mail which is still the default communication tool in most organisations. As a result we end up having several communication channels open all day and each of them overflowing. Most days I have e-mail, Skype, Zoom, Messenger, Twitter and Whatsapp all open and although I can't say my own feeds are overwhelming, I can imagine that some people have moved from having only one overloaded communication tool to now having several. The trouble is that easy-to-use communication tools lead to us communicating even more and thus adding to the communicative noise.

This is the topic of an article by Rani Molla in Vox, The productivity pit: how Slack is ruining work. The problem with team platforms like Slack is that they are so easy to use that they facilitate endless discussions that eat up valuable working and thinking time. E-mail "discussions" can be very irritating especially if everyone uses the "reply all" button every time they write something. However in platforms like Slack, these chatty discussions go viral and the channel becomes extremely noisy and hard to switch off due to fear of missing out or being seen as anti-social. We often confuse communication with productivity. People or groups who are "noisy", in speech or in writing, are generally considered more active and therefore more productive/effective than those who are quiet. We get worried about students who are silent or groups who don't seem to be discussing as actively as others. If you don't contribute to the discussion you aren't doing your job, though in reality the reverse may be truer.

Remote workers are under particular strain to prove that they are working. For people not in an office, messaging colleagues or posting information becomes a way of demonstrating that they are doing their jobs.

There's also a link to our physical work spaces that are increasingly open and flexible to facilitate teamwork and spontaneous brainstorming. The problem here is that it's very hard to concentrate when there are dynamic discussions going on nearby. You can't help overhearing or wanting to join in the fun. Once again we reward and encourage noise rather than silence. Combine the noise in the physical environment to all the digital noise and we have a major problem.

Keeping up with these conversations can seem like a full-time job. After a while, the software goes from helping you work to making it impossible to get work done ... Also, workplace software doesn’t seem to have supplanted the very thing it was supposed to fix: email. Most people use both.

The success of workplace software is because they offer similar rewards to the social media platforms we use outside the workplace. They are extremely sticky, stimulating our need for recognition and belonging through likes, emojis and small talk. Of course they can also be used very creatively and can indeed enhance collaboration but on the other hand they can easily eat up lots of valuable time. Their stickiness also leads to them invading your private life.

There’s a reason you’re checking your work app at night and it’s not because you love your job. It’s because the communications and digital affirmations from your coworkers feel good.

The outcome of all this for me is that we need to reassess the value of "noisy" communication and stop equating it with productivity, efficiency or creativity. Truly creative ideas often come through silent reflection, free from distraction, but we have somehow forgotten this as we create increasingly noisy environments (the ubiquitous use of non-stop background music in public spaces is a further plague). Noisy communication is good in certain contexts like brainstorming, socialising and meetings but we need to reclaim the right to silence (both verbal and digital) for the really creative work.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Don't believe your eyes - this person does not exist

In a world full of fake news it's time to embrace the concept of fake people. An artificial intelligence system called StyleGAN developed by Nvidia is used on a site called to generate an infinite number of portrait photos of people who do not exist (watch the video below to see how it works). Just go to the site and simply reload the page to generate a new portrait. Some are extremely convincing though sometimes there are flaws that make you suspicious, such as strange skin features or ears that don't quite fit. However, I don't think we are meant to study the faces for any length of time, we will probably just see them as a gallery of "satisfied customers" in an advert or concerned citizens in political propaganda.

The phenomenon is described in an article from CNN, These people do not exist. Why websites are churning out fake images of people (and cats). Of course if you can generate fake people you can also generate fake cats, fake home interiors, fake cars and much more. There are many valid uses for a tool like this.

GANs-produced fakery can be fun — if you know what you're looking at — and potentially big business. A startup called Tangent, for example, says it is using GANs to modify faces of real-life models so online retailers can quickly (and realistically) tailor catalog images to shoppers in different countries rather than using different models or Photoshop. A video game company could use GANs to help come up with new characters, or iterate on existing ones.

There are also, of course, lots of less honest applications of this technology and that's what makes it scary. At least by letting us see these applications they make us aware that this technology exists and can be more careful in the future but once it is perfected how will we ever be able to tell the difference between reality and fiction? I also wonder how you can decide the copyright for these images since they are mashups of a vast number of photos of real people. Maybe it's time to stop saying things like "I'll believe it when I see it."

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Somewhere over the rainbow - the shifting perspectives of the Horizon Report

The full version of this year's Horizon Report is now available, published by Educause who rescued the publication from the threat of extinction last year. Each year a global panel of experts nominate trends in educational technology that will make an impact in the short, medium and long term and also identify key challenges facing higher education in the coming years. The report is often criticised since the same technologies seem to move backwards and forwards on the horizon and sometimes even disappear for a while before returning. This year's report is no exception with mobile learning predicted to go mainstream in the next couple of years, having been a feature of several reports in the past. Many other technology trends such as learning analytics, gaming, virtual reality and blended learning have been on the horizon for quite a while but somehow never really make the transition to mainstream practice.

Probably the most interesting feature of this year's report is a section, Fail or scale? (pages 33-39), that examines three trends that have featured in previous reports but have still not become an integral part of higher education practice: adaptive learning, virtual and augmented reality and gaming/gamification. Three experts present their analysis of why these phenomena haven't made the transition and all three analyses have some common ground. All of them have very sound cases for adoption but they all demand major changes to existing structures and models. Bryan Alexander's analysis of gaming in education makes a comment that could well be applied to many other technology trends featured in the Horizon Report over the years:

A new technology—especially one that requires significant research and training—needs to be able to work across the curriculum and in sufficient numbers to merit institutional investment. Faculty members can carry such a technology forward to some extent, but only if they are knowledgeable and engaged with it and if they can sufficiently support the hardware or software. Otherwise the technology will only appear at best in a small segment of a college or university.

Some technology applications have made the transition and become essential elements of the university's operations, such as the learning management system, lecture capture and anti-plagiarism software. It could be claimed that the reason that these applications have succeeded is that they have not challenged the traditional structures and models of higher education, they have simply added a digital version of what we do already (ie. lecture, work in defined classes and classrooms). The potential of many other technologies that so often feature in Horizon reports can only be realised by making radical changes to the way we teach and learn. As a result, they often get bogged down by all the other changes that have to take place before they can be fully implemented. Many new technologies require significant investment to realise their full potential, as outlined by Nicole Weber in her analysis of adaptive learning technologies:

With so much potential, why has adaptive learning not scaled quickly? One of the largest challenges is the investment (e.g., time, money, resources, and vision) needed to implement and scale these courseware products.

In the case of virtual and augmented reality (mixed reality), Kevin Ashford-Rowe highlights the barriers of the hardware required to implement the solutions successfully. In short, the inconvenience and expense of the VR visors make it impractical as a mainstream technology:

In his February 2018 article “3 Reasons Augmented Reality Hasn’t Achieved Widespread Adoption,” AJ Agrawal, argues that—in this order—it is due to a combination of ergonomics, basic utility, and corrective lenses. In short, no matter the benefits, “no one wants to wear a pair of goggles on their head during daily routine” (ergonomics); “even the most mind-blowing AR glasses won’t matter until they look ‘normal’ enough for everyday wear” (basic utility); and, given that three-quarters of the US population need corrective lenses, “it goes without saying that smart glasses need this option [corrective lenses].” He also points out an important distinction that should be made between VR and AR—AR possesses a natural advantage in that the information being displayed is integrated with what is in front of the user.

My conclusion here is that maybe we should not simply criticise reports like Horizon for changing their predictions and timescales but instead look at why it is so hard to change traditional educational structures. Tradition is the hardest barrier to break and it takes many years for any innovation to break through. The idea that we can see the impact of technological innovation in terms of such a short time scale as the next five years is probably flawed.

Read more on this in an article in Campus Technology, 3 Ed Tech Trends Stuck on the Horizon (and Why).