Monday, December 15, 2014

Reflections on a course in open networked learning

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


The importance of community

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

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

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


The value of scaffolding

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

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

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


Synchronous meetings

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


Rewarding engagement

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

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




Monday, December 8, 2014

Twitter as a tool for discussion

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

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

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

Friday, December 5, 2014

Whatever happened to the education revolution?


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



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

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


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

From awareness to participation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Innovating pedagogy

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Wisdom of the crowd or rage of the mob?

Thanksgiving at the Trolls by floodllama, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by floodllama

A recurring theme in the media is the abusive tone of so many online arenas and the destructive power of trolls. We've all seen how online discussions can turn nasty and I have withdrawn from many when the trolls take over. A BBC article, Twitter and the poisoning of online debate, looks at recent abuses on Twitter and worries that real discussion is being forced away from the public arena.

And there is wider concern about the future of online debate. Where now are the places that reasonable people can go to find discussion that does not quickly descend into abuse and flame wars? Anonymity is undoubtedly a vital defence for vulnerable people under oppressive regimes - but it has also allowed others to express themselves in language they would never think of using face to face with their targets. This kind of behaviour rapidly has a kind of malign network effect - once forums become occupied by noisy sweary folks, more reasonable voices quietly depart.

I think the main issue here is management. There are many excellent discussions on the net completely free from insults and abuse but you need active managers as well as a community spirit to quickly extinguish any flames that may occur and this means warning and then removing abusive users whenever they overstep the mark. An online discussion must have a set of basic rules and by signing up you agree to abide by them. When an arena gets as massive as Twitter and is used for a myriad of purposes it becomes difficult to police effectively. What is blatantly offensive in one group may be quite normal in another. The more diverse the community the harder it is to administer. What is sad is that the trolls are forcing many people away from the public arena and into safer more exclusive discussion spaces. 

However I don't think this is solely an online issue. If you want to have a discussion and you sit in the middle of the town square where any passer-by can join in you would probably attract a few people who will try to disrupt the conversation. If you gather a group of friends in a room and close the door you will not be disturbed. A colleague of mine remarked in a seminar recently that the net is like an amplifier when it comes to education; a good course can be great online and a bad course can be really bad online. The same amplification effect can be applied to online discussions. In a well-managed environment we can harvest the wisdom of the crowds but without curation the trolls are loose.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Handwritten


How often do you write by hand these days, apart from quickly scribbled notes? When did you last write a real letter by hand, a structured letter in paragraphs with a clear theme? I must admit that, even if I write more than ever before, it is almost completely digital and my handwritten efforts are limited to short reminder notes or when my laptop runs out of battery power at a conference. I generally print rather than the cursive style I learnt in school. There's also the problem that many young people won't be able to read my cursive handwriting. As schools become increasingly digital the amount of handwriting decreases and when it does occur it is in the form of printed text. In China, India and the Islamic world handwriting is an art form and ornamental writing is an integral part of buildings and monuments. Are we in the west losing this art form as we abandon cursive handwriting for the keyboard and touchscreen? Should schools continue to teach handwriting, in particular cursive, and what are the benefits?

This is discussed in an article on Mind/Shift, Cursive, Print, or Type? The Point is To Keep Writing. It seems there is no conclusive evidence that cursive has any advantages over print in terms of children's learning development and that the arguments in favour of teaching cursive revolve mostly around heritage and the ability to read old documents.

All of the researchers NPR spoke with agree that cursive is good, but none would argue that it is better or more important than printing. The evidence just isn’t there. As long as children are writing in school, it doesn’t really matter if the letters curl and connect. So, problem solved. Or is it?

I believe that handwriting should be taught in school, at least as backup when your digital device won't work, but the form is less important than the process of writing. Maybe cursive will disappear completely from the school curriculum but it would be tragic to lose the skill completely. Maybe we should move it into the art classroom as calligraphy. Being able to create a beautifully formed text in ink is as rewarding as making a sketch or a painting. Cursive may no longer be a standard for written communication but it is still unquestionably the most expressive form of writing. So much of the writer's state of mind and personality is displayed in their cursive handwriting (you're welcome to analyse my writing in the photo above) and it would be sad to lose such insights. Ironic therefore that this form of self-expression is dying in an age that otherwise is characterised by self-expression.

One curious paradox of digitalisation is that at a time when we all use keyboards every day almost no-one learns to type properly. Why don't kids learn to touchtype? When I see older colleagues with typing skills write a text at lightening speed I realize how inefficient my own halting style is. However the main conclusion from all this is well summed up in the article. The most important thing is that children write as often as possible, though the form of that writing may not be so important.

“If we expect kids to develop mastery in anything and develop fluency in anything, they have to be doing it on a regular basis,” says Scott Beers, who teaches education at Seattle Pacific University.
That’s true not just in kindergarten or first grade, but in grade after grade. Focus on handwriting early and often, experts say, print or cursive or both. Then, as kids’ brains develop, gently lay the groundwork for typing.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Can universities change course?

supertanker by wlai, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by wlai

Like it or not universities are going to have to face a completely new market in the next ten years. Most of them are still working in the traditional model of educating young people who come to campus for 3-5 years and then enter a career that will keep them employed till retirement. But although there may still be a place for this model there are strong signs that the concept of a university education preparing you for a career is becoming less valid. The demand for higher education among working professionals is growing rapidly and is overtaking the demand from the traditional 18-23 year old target group. The traditional target group could even shrink as more young people opt out of often over-priced higher education. In addition there is a massive demand for lifelong learning opportunities from people who have no university background but have gained equivalent skills outside the formal system. The worldwide demand for higher education is exploding and projections show an increase from 100 million today to 250 million by 2025. The traditional university system simply cannot cope with all this and unless we start building new major universities every day for the foreseeable future we will need to completely revise the provision of higher education.

The new learners are not able to uproot themselves to move to the university or commute to campus classes since most of them will be studying while working full-time. They will be more skills-focused than young students with no work experience and they may not see the point of many traditional academic concepts. The gold standard of the 3/4 year degree may not be relevant for tomorrow's professionals and traditional examination forms will be increasingly questioned in favour of various forms of skills assessment. Of course many universities already offer an extensive range of online courses and even degrees with many national open universities in the forefront, but with a few exceptions most institutions still see traditional campus education as core business and professional development and lifelong learning as a sideline at best. Higher education is also highly selective with millions of potential students being rejected every year. Where do you go if you can't get into university and should higher education be a privilege or a right?

The European Commission's High-Level Group on the modernisation of higher education has published a welcome report, New modes of learning and teaching in universities. They offer a number of recommendations for the improvement of teaching technologies and practices and stress the need for government authorities to stimulate and foster educational change rather than the present practice of delegating responsibility to grassroots initiatives alone. They call on all member states to draw up strategies to support universities in this major change in focus as well as stressing the need for coordinated teacher development and support. In addition they stress the need for quality assurance in online learning and the open availability of educational resources.

There remains a culture of conservatism within European higher education which needs to change. This demands strong leadership and vision from both public authorities and institutional leaders. While a broad range of good practice is already emerging across Europe, this is happening to a large degree in an uncoordinated bottom-up approach. It is now time for governments and institutions to develop comprehensive strategies at both the national and institutional level for the adoption of new modes of learning and teaching within higher education. 

The report makes refreshing reading and stresses what many of us have been saying for a long time, namely the need for commitment and engagement from the top level to coordinate and stimulate the important work done at grassroots level. Relying only on a bottom-up approach can only have a limited effect since sooner or later such initiatives bounce against the plexiglass ceiling of uninterested and uninformed leadership.

Our message is clear. While accepting that higher education institutions and, more particularly,
teaching staff are the main actors in delivering these pedagogical changes, it is the
responsibility of public authorities to create the environment and incentive for action.


The tricky part is how these recommendations will be received by national authorities, especially at a time when there is a high level of Euro-skepticism in most member states and where the Commission's initiatives are not always welcomed. The 15 recommendations in the report would provide the perfect platform for a major leap forward in European higher education, especially if they could be implemented across the entire EU, but first we need to replace all the shoulds with shall and will and there must be real financing behind it all. However this is a major step forward and recognition from a high level that online learning is no longer an optional extra but a fundamental element of all education. Maybe the supertanker is beginning to change course, if only marginally.

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.