Sunday, December 2, 2018

When learning gets real

Photo by Headway on Unsplash
Student assignments (essays, group work, reports) are all too often written for an audience of one, namely the teacher, and for the sole purpose of providing a basis for grading. The student will adjust the effort according to the weight of the assignment (number of credits available) and try to meet that particular teacher's criteria. The idea that anyone else might benefit from the assignment or that it should have some real impact outside the confines of the classroom is seldom considered. However, the assignment can be transformed by making it public or better still aimed at a wider audience which can benefit from the findings. Learning can be transformed when the audience is expanded and the results can make a difference. In addition, most employers are looking for evidence of practical experience so let's make sure that assignments are as real as possible.

This is nothing new of course but the potential was reinforced for me during a seminar I attended in Beirut, Lebanon, this week, Skills needed for the twenty first century and their impact on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.The afternoon session featured interesting examples of how learning is enhanced when a course becomes a stage and the results of the students' work benefit a wide and even global audience. Several speakers described how business simulations generate high levels of student engagement and provide a realistic setting for developing decision-making and teamwork skills. This is combined with teaching and plenty of feedback and tutorials from the teachers. Simulations do indeed generate a high level of student commitment but the bar can be raised even higher when you move from simulated activities to real problems in real organisations and let the students interact with professionals in their field. Two examples in particular stood out for me.

Corporate virtual mobility
One way of raising the bar for students is allowing them to do projects for companies and thus develop their skills, gain work experience and learn to collaborate online and meet real deadlines. A great example of university-industry collaboration was from Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK). They had first linked business students with an international company that was interested in breaking into the Middle East market. The students spent 2 months working as marketing consultants for the company, under the supervision of their teachers and were constantly in contact with company representatives. The final product was a marketing survey that was of great practical use for the company whilst the students had been able to put their theoretical knowledge into practice and also gained practical work experience for their CVs. The success of this venture lead to the university linking up with the Spanish-based academic business network, Telanto. Telanto links companies who have problems to solve (challenges) with suitable university classes who can try to find a solution to these challenges. Students work intensively with the company to solve the challenge and the result is beneficial to both sides. In the case of USEK, several students were asked to join an internship programme with the company or even offered full-time employment on graduation. This is a further example of virtual mobility but this time the mobility is with a company rather than a university. Experience of working in virtual international teams to solve problems is extremely attractive in today's job market and I think we will see many more ventures like this in the future.
See slideshow: Teaching Through Real Cases in Collaboration with the Industry, Tina Habib (USEK)

International film festival
Notre Dame University (NDU) in Beirut organises each year an international film festival featuring short films from young film makers under the theme The power of youth. The festival has an impressive international reputation and attracts a wide audience but the most interesting aspect is how the festival is so well integrated into the academic work of the university with students of many disciplines helping to plan, produce and run it. Film students get the chance of international exposure and students from other disciplines are able to get hands-on work experience collaborating with professionals and working to strict deadlines. Workshops and master classes are run by professional film makers as part of the curriculum. Organising the festival is an all-year activity and students are able to weave their way between theory in class and practice in the festival, often working in multi-disciplinary and international teams. See the slideshow: On the ground. The case of NDU International Film Festival, Nicolas Khabbaz (NDU).

Linking theory with real-life practice and solving real problems take learning to a new level. If you then add elements of internationalisation, virtual mobility, problem-solving and collaboration into the mix, the experience becomes so much richer than in a traditional academic setting. Student engagement levels were much higher since they could see that their efforts really made a difference and there was a genuine sense of pride at contributing to a final product that gained public approval.

See all the slideshows from this seminar (including mine!).


Sunday, November 11, 2018

Taking webinars outdoors

CC BY Some rights reserved by  David Röthler
I organise and participate in many webinars and together with colleagues have been trying to develop methods to make them as interactive as possible, using chats, polls, collaborative web pages and breakout groups. Today many webinars have escaped from the traditional lecture model and try to involve participants as much as possible. However, we tend to be rather static in terms of location; generally sitting at our desks with a background of bookshelves or a plain white wall. This limitation is necessary because wireless connections tend to cause very uneven voice and video quality as well as delay (several seconds is not unusual). However, as wireless networks improve we should be able to take our webinars outside and a whole new range of teaching and learning opportunities arise.

To test this, my colleague, David Röthler, and I ran an experimental outdoor webinar last week, Let's go beyond - extending the webinar, as part of a two-day Webinar Festival run by the Norwegian university NTNU. Here's our abstract for the webinar.

Webinars are becoming an increasingly popular arena for education, primarily in the form of online presentations to distributed audiences or in workshop-like settings. Web conferences erase the barriers of geography and make it easy for anyone to join a virtual meeting from anywhere. However, the webinar experience can be extended significantly if further hardware and software are applied. We can add new perspectives using mobile devices and remote cameras enabling live transmission from field trips and even aerial coverage from drones. This presentation will show and discuss new opportunities for extending the affordances of a webinar using a number of innovative solutions.

I moderated from an indoor studio but David was out in his garden just outside Salzburg and thankfully the November weather in Austria was mild and sunny. This allowed him to demonstrate using different cameras, one or which I was able to control from my laptop in Sweden. One device called Swivl is worth noting since it allows you to mount a mobile or tablet as a camera and will follow whoever has the small microphone that is connected wirelessly. This means that the camera will move from one speaker to another in a discussion but can also give the presenter the freedom to move around, in this case a tour of the garden. It could also be used to move around a room at a museum or show interesting features of a building or historical site.

If you want to take the camera with you on a tour then a gimbal is a useful handheld device that keeps the camera stable while you are walking or even running. However to take the webinar to new dimensions we demonstrated using a drone to show views of the Salzburg suburbs and surrounding countryside. Participants quickly saw educational applications for this that included fields like town planning, archaeology, geography, geology and history. Participant's ideas are shown below.


For this webinar we "cheated" just a little in that David had a wired internet connection from the house to his desk in the garden. This was to ensure that everything worked as we wanted. However if you can make sure you have a good 4G mobile connection or a stable wifi connection then you can start taking webinars outdoors and give participants perspectives that would otherwise be impossible. Virtual field trips can be arranged or, better still, let the participants join via their mobiles and show their locations. Of course, this is not realistic for everyone since wireless internet is still very limited in many areas but why not start experimenting now (reminding the participants not to expect everything to work smoothly)?

Below you can watch the recording of our webinar.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Towards smarter classrooms


Classroom technology can be extremely frustrating. Every room I use seems to have different equipment and controls. Some rooms have old-school wall switches and several remote controls that activate the projectors and screens. Other rooms have a touch screen that controls everything. I tend to get to the room at least 15 minutes before the start of the session, preferably 30 minutes, in case the infrastructure doesn't like me. Sometimes everything just works and I am pleasantly surprised but other times I simply can't work out how to get the system to recognise my laptop or in some cases I can't get the blinds to work. Sometimes there are a row of switches with no indication of what they do and so when I try to turn on a light the black-out curtain starts descending. If all classrooms had the same interface that would be fine but they seem to be all different. This takes up a lot of time and energy from the teacher.

I was therefore pleased to read about a project at Indiana University to create smart classrooms as described in an article in Campus Tech, Are 'Smart' Classrooms the Future?. The vision is to have truly smart classrooms that log you in as you walk in the door and then automatically setting up the lighting, screens, browser, slideshows etc according to your preferences. Students can also log into the room and get access to the necessary resources for the session. No mysterious switches or confusing touch screens to negotiate. If you are going to get teachers to buy into using technology then that technology must make life easier for them and free them from irritatingly time-consuming activities. According to Stacy Morrone, IU associate vice president for learning technologies:

"We want to free up faculty from many of the routine tasks they need to complete during every class period to give them more time to interact with their students, starting from the moment they walk into the classroom."

IU invited a number of stakeholders to participate in a working group to brainstorm ideas for realising the smart classroom of the future. Their conclusions can be found in a report, the Indiana University Smart Classroom Summit. Among the ideas was to have smartboard functionality on walls and tables so that students could write and draw anywhere and be able to save everything digitally. Most importantly the technology should become invisible and biometrically or voice-activated.

Even more interesting would be to have classrooms that are designed to fully integrate distance students into the class with smart microphones and cameras that track whoever is speaking in the room as well as allowing distance students to contribute seamlessly. The vital element here is that the online participants are always visible and can participate in all activities. This could mean that they can be assigned to work in a group with classroom students or working as an online group but contributing to the common work spaces shared by  the whole class. In today's classrooms the online students are usually passive spectators.

I look forward to walking into my first smart classroom where everything just works. 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Student retention in distance learning - tip of the ICEBERG


A generalisation that simply won't go away is that online/distance courses have poor retention rates. This has often been used as evidence against online education and in some countries (such as here in Sweden) has lead to a reduction of online courses in favour of campus-based programmes. Basically drop-outs mean reduced income for the university so it's not surprising that they prefer the security of full-time campus studies. The often discussed low retention levels of MOOCs has fuelled this movement even more. However, this issue is much more complex than simply concluding that online education"doesn't work as well" as traditional campus education.

Students drop out of courses for a wide variety of reasons, often in combination. They may have no academic background and lack support and encouragement from friends and relatives. Many combine distance studies with full time work and family life resulting in tensions and stress that are often most easily resolved by dropping out. They may find the academic environment and terminology daunting and this increases their own feeling of inadequacy and feeling out of their depth. Their previous experience of education may be very negative resulting in a feeling or inferiority and lack of confidence. Many have little or no experience of online learning and lack the necessary study skills and digital literacy to adapt to the course requirements. Added to this are factors that concern the course itself. Many online courses are still basically self-study and this leads to feelings of isolation and the lack of support and teacher presence makes it all too easy to feel that nobody will notice if I simply drop out.

A colleague and I carried out a study a few years ago of the retention rates of campus and distance courses and degree programmes at our university and came to the conclusion that delivery form was not the main reason for students dropping out. We found distance courses and degree programmes with higher retention rates than their campus equivalents and also found distance courses with low rates. However what all courses and programmes with high retention rates had in common were course design factors: clear structure and course information, high levels of interaction and variety in the learning environment and good scaffolding.

The importance of course design for raising retention levels is highlighted in an excellent new article by Jitse van Ameijde, Martin Weller and Simon Cross from the Open University entitled Learning Design for Student Retention. They review existing literature in the field and report on a survey of students and staff from the Open University, resulting in the identification of seven key course design principles neatly gathered under the acronym ICEBERG. The definitions of these principles are best read in the article itself but here's a short summary.
  • Integrated. A clear structure where all the activities and material clearly link to the learning outcomes and the student sees a purpose for every element. Constructive alignment in other words.
  • Collaborative. Developing a supportive learning community and fostering meaningful interaction between students and teachers.
  • Engaging. Course material that is relevant and meaningful to the students. A variety of activities and use of different media. Clear teacher presence showing enthusiasm and interest in students' progress.
  • Balanced. Keeping a steady pace and manageable workload.
  • Economical. Avoiding overloading students with too much information and useful material that isn't directly related to the learning outcomes of each course module.
  • Reflective. Helping students to reflect on their learning process and offering frequent formative assessment activities.
  • Gradual. A gradual process moving from simple to increasingly complex tasks as the course progresses including support at each stage.
These principles provide a useful framework for course design and could be developed further into a checklist for self-evaluation. The ICEBERG framework applies equally to all types of course, whether campus, online or blended. However, the article ends by pointing out that retention is not the only factor governing course design.

Similarly, retention is only one aspect that should be considered by course designers, and should not be at the expense of addressing complex topics, or implementing challenging pedagogy. However, it is the authors’ contention that retention is rarely given sufficient attention as a design principle in its own right, and it is a matter of increasing significance to students,educators, institutions and society. The proposed model then is a means of considering any course from the perspective of retention.

Reference
Van Ameijde, J., Weller, M., Cross, S. (2018) Learning Design for Student Retention. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice Vol 6 No 2. DOI https://doi.org/10.14297/jpaap.v6i2.318.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Academic conferences - we can't go on meeting like this


The best part of my job over the last ten years has been the opportunity to visit so many different places and be able to collaborate with colleagues from all over the world. However, in the light of the dire warnings from climate scientists that we need to radically change how we use and abuse the world's limited resources (especially the recent IPCC report), the most obvious way we in education can contribute is to travel less, especially by the forms of transport that cause the highest levels of carbon emissions, namely flying.

The field of education clocks up an enormous amount of air miles per year. It's a multi-million dollar industry. International conferences are important meeting places and offer an arena for all researchers to get recognition and attention for their work. All international projects need physical meetings at the participating institutions to ensure the smooth progress of the work and to disseminate the results through local seminars or conferences. All of this involves a lot of travel for all concerned, nearly always by air. And one trip nearly always generates more contacts and then new invitations to speak at or attend more events or join yet another interesting project. There are thousands of conferences in every conceivable field every week of every year, all battling for attention and registrations.

How can we move to more climate-smart conferences and meetings? The most obvious solution is to arrange more virtual conferences but I'm not sure there is an e-meeting platform that can really create the immersive experience and socialising opportunities of on-site events. There are a few completely online conferences each year but I suspect it's extremely difficult to attract paying delegates since the mindset that online events should be free is so prevalent. The blessing and the curse of online conferences is that you can participate from the comfort of your desk. This is of course convenient and flexible but the curse is that you are also expected to work at the same time. As a result almost noone gets the experience of attending the whole conference, just dropping in now and again as work demands permit. I doubt if many bosses would give permission for you to sit at your desk for two days without doing your normal work. Another important attraction of conferences is that they allow you to switch out of work mode for a couple of days to learn new things and network with others in your field. The advantages of the on-site meeting are many but if the threat of radical climate change is to be met, then we simply can't go on meeting like this. At least not as default.

Virtual conferences, however, could be an opportunity to widen the scope and diversity of academic events. One of the main attractions of academic conferences is to give researchers the chance to present their papers. This is fine if you study at a wealthy university but what about researchers from developing countries? There are plenty of good research projects going on that never come to light because the researchers can't get funding to attend the high profile (and often expensive) conferences in Europe and North America. Tighter visa requirements make it simply impossible for academics from certain countries to travel anywhere. If we take the travel and accommodation out of the equation then we would open up participation to a much more diverse community.

Another opportunity for virtual conferences is offering greater linguistic diversity and giving a voice to everyone who has not mastered spoken English. In an online environment it becomes easier and cheaper to offer simultaneous interpretation of speeches in other languages, either by automatic voice to text translation or by human interpreters who can work from home wherever they may be. I've heard many good research presentations ruined by the speaker's low level of English as they read nervously through a complex manuscript. had we let them present in their native language with an interpreter we would have got a totally different impression of the research and the presenter. In an online environment we can easily add back channels for discussion and questions as well as offering participants the opportunity to discuss in smaller break-out groups.

All this requires a rethink of why we have conferences and new attitudes to how we can exploit online learning spaces. We could cut the number of on-site events if we want to but we need to do some experimentation and dare to innovate. Of course it won't be the same. But it doesn't have to be a poor alternative, it could offer many new opportunities. The main point is we may not have a choice in the near future.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Digital or print course literature - it's complicated

CC0 Public domain on Max Pixel
Do you prefer to read print or digital books and articles? To me this sort of question is largely irrelevant because it all depends on the context and which form is most fit for purpose. I read enormous amounts both in print and online and switch from one medium to the other many times a day. I still love the feeling of reading a print newspaper or having a printed book to read in bed or while travelling. I have many packed bookshelves at home and the collection continues to grow. I even save years of back issues of the magazines I subscribe to and get satisfaction from my groaning bookshelves. At the same time I read a wide variety of online news sites, e-books and journal articles on my computer, tablet and mobile and I see these two forms of reading as complementary and not as an either/or conflict.

I suspect this is the same even for students. The growth of digital course literature, both from commercial publishers as well as free open textbooks from sites such as BC Open Textbooks (University of British Columbia), prompts frequent media interest often promoting the idea of a battle between print and digital. A new article by Andy M Benoit in the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and LearningTextbook Affordability and Student Acceptance of eTextbooks: An Institutional Case-study, sheds light on this issue and shows that the choice between print and digital is complex and there is no clear "winner" or "loser". The abstract summarises the study as follows:

There is significant interest among institutions of higher education in the potential of digital textbooks to enhance student learning and to address issues arising from textbook affordability. Innovations in digital textbook design and delivery infrastructure and the emergence of exemplary practices from early adopters signal that digital reading may be a practical alternative to print. Less well understood, however, is students’ experience of textbook affordability, their experience of print and digital textbook utilization, and factors that might influence their acceptance of digital textbooks. This paper explores the results of a semester-long eTextbook research project at a Canadian college and shares six suggestions grounded in student feedback.

Several issues are relevant here. Firstly there is the high cost of buying printed course literature and the study shows that many students do not buy all the required reading because of this. Many share books and I'm sure that many pages are copied and scanned to save money. The students in the study are particularly critical of teachers' underutilisation of some "required" reading in the course itself. Required reading must be an integral part of the course, otherwise it should be described as optional or recommended reading. Interestingly, despite the students belonging to the supposed digital generation, 65.8% of them stated that they prefer printed course literature. At the same time the cost savings of lower price or free digital literature are also extremely attractive and this leads to students having an ambivalent attitude to the print-digital dilemma. Even when the digital option is chosen there are issues around format and readability. The reading experience depends so much on which device is used and whether there is sufficiently good resolution, accessibility options, device portability and battery life.

The article makes a number of recommendations urging universities to offer more support to help students chose the best option for their course literature. If they choose digital material they need help to choose the right option for their device, or in some cases choose the right device to read the literature. Vendors of e-books should be able to offer a variety of formats adapted to different devices (as many already do). The author makes the following recommendations to universities and publishers.
  • Strengthen the value proposition for “required” textbooks to inform student purchasing decisions
  • Support students in identifying the medium that meets their needs
  • Provide information to ensure personal devices are conducive for eReading
  • Ensure eReader applications meet performance expectations
  • Develop vendor partnerships and relationships
  • Support students in developing medium appropriate reading strategies and study skills
The important point here is that there is no "right" answer; it all depends on context and ease of use. Sometimes I want the print version because I know I will refer to it for many years to come and I want it on my bookshelf. Other literature can be accessed digitally. Some literature will be read on a mobile device and other works will be read on my laptop or desktop computer. When I read digital material I want optimal resolution and the ability to annotate easily as well as being able to look up terminology and easily create references. Let's make sure that students are able to make informed choices and are able to read the course literature according to their own preferences.

Reference
Benoit, A. M. (2018). Textbook Affordability and Student Acceptance of eTextbooks: An Institutional Case-study. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9(2). Retrieved from https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cjsotl_rcacea/vol9/iss2/3

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Open learning - back to basics

CC0 Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash
The term open in education can mean almost anything today and should always be taken with at least a pinch of salt. Some MOOCs are now disappearing behind paywalls as described for example in Class Central's post First Look at edX’s Paywall Experiments. Many commercial platforms thrive on selling our data to advertisers and most online tools depend on the freemium model and if they cannot convert enough free users into paying customers they may go bust or ditch the free option completely. Many resources and courses have become dependent on commercial platforms that can quickly change their business model with very little advance warning or use the data they collect to earn money. I wonder therefore if it is time for a renaissance for the open non-commercial platforms and communities run by educators that have fallen by the wayside in recent years.

Stephen Downes wrote an excellent defense of the principles of open education a few months ago:  The Fabrication that is OER. The post is an answer to critics who claim that the OER movement has not been able to find a viable platform or business model and has not become mainstream. The counter claim is that it's all about educators who want to share their work, form communities and create a culture of sharing using whatever tools and platforms that best serve their purpose. It's not about creating an all-embracing platform for the world or to trying to institutionalise openness.

I'm not interested in collecting, institutionalizing, and marketing educational content as a product. Maybe there are some people in OER who are really interested in this aspect of it (and they tend to collect together, write manifestos, work with institutions, and collect all the funding). But I'm not, nor are, I think, the vast majority of people who actually produce and share free and open learning content.

I'm rather comforted by this since I have spent many years arguing for government initiatives, open education strategies including the creation of national and international repositories. This is happening in some places but is mostly a painfully slow process. Should we be trying to change the world or simply focus on building reliable and non-commercial arenas for those who want to share and collaborate?

In recent years the spotlight has been on high-profile and increasingly commercial platforms such as Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn, Khan Academy, iTunes U and so on. However many of the open communities and platforms that we used to use are still running, though very much under the radar of the media and most educators. I mean spaces like Wikiversity and WikiEducator as well as more focused platforms like the World Health Organisation's OpenWHO or the open courses hosted by the Commonwealth of Learning, to name but a few. I admit that I have not paid much attention to these spaces in recent years but I wonder if it's time to return to platforms that we have more control over and are run by open educators for open educators. They may not have the attractive features and intuitive feel of the commercial platforms but they are ideal places for collaborative projects and are not driven by advertising. 

I wonder if we really should be aiming at converting the skeptics and trying to win government approval and instead focus on helping those who do want to share, developing truly open platforms and communities. It's not a battle against traditional practices; it's about open educators "doing what they do" (to paraphrase Downes again). 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Unplugged teaching - when tech is irrelevant

CC0 Public domain on Pixabay
We who live in affluent countries see internet access as essential to our daily lives and can hardly imagine being without our precious digital devices. Working with educational technology I often assume that everyone has broadband internet access and the latest devices that enable them to use all the educational platforms. tools and apps that we recommend. However, we need to remember that there are still many people even in the most developed countries who are marginalised and excluded from the digital development. When these people enter the education system we need to be prepared to forget our digital resources for a while and focus on traditional teaching - unplugged.

I have been talking to teachers who work with refugees and migrants, both in voluntary organisations providing orientation and basic language skills to new arrivals as well as those involved in more formal training for those who have been granted asylum. There are of course lots of online resources aimed at refugees as well as course material and guides for teachers but there are situations when they all become irrelevant and teaching has to be conducted offline. Although many refugees have brought their smartphones with them and could use them to access, for example, language learning apps there are a number of barriers that are easy for us to forget. Many of them can't afford more than a simple pay-as-you-go mobile account that generally has a low limit for internet access. Downloading and using apps will simply eat up their month's bandwidth quota making these resources largely useless unless they find free public wifi access - not always so easy to find in some cities. Some have outdated mobile phones that don't do apps or can't download new apps that only work on the latest operating systems.

Then there is the basic issue of learning how to learn online. Many have never even thought of using technology to assist learning and need considerable support to get started. Others lack basic digital skills apart from messaging and voice calls. If you do have access to an app or online resource then it's very likely that the instructions on how to use it will be in the language that you are just starting to learn adding to the frustration. Another often underestimated factor is fear and mistrust. Many refugees are extremely suspicious of anyone or anything who may represent the authorities (due to experience from home plus the fear of deportation) and any digital communication that they don't feel secure with will also be treated with suspicion. When you feel so vulnerable you are not willing to try something new.

The result is that many teachers stick to more traditional classroom teaching and for the learners this is both more familiar and secure. Many learners will feel most comfortable with a textbook or written notes and the stress of adapting to new tools and media can be counterproductive. When you're struggling to adapt to a totally new environment and a new language you are not very receptive to yet another field that makes you feel inadequate. Over the last few years I have taught voluntary courses in basic Swedish for refugees waiting for asylum status and, despite my work with educational technology, decided to teach almost completely offline. Some learners were very digitally skilled and had smartphones but some were not. I found resources for the digitally skilled learners for them to try outside class but in class I took the lowest common denominator with paper, pencils and lots of coloured cards to play with.

My point here is that no matter how well you use technology in your teaching there will always be situations when you have to rely on your fundamental teaching skills and make the most of the available resources. Never become too reliant on technology and never forget how to teach unplugged.

Friday, August 31, 2018

We have always been easily distracted


A recurring story in the media is that our powers of attention and concentration have been seriously eroded by the rise of digital communication and in particular social media. Almost every day I see news items, blog posts, memes, rants and discussions on how we are slaves to our digital devices and can't focus on one task at a time. We fondly believe that in pre-digital days we were so much better at deep reading, reflection, writing and listening and seldom got distracted by trivia. If I try to think back to my younger days, especially as a student, I think I had trouble focusing even then. Even if the level of distractions was lower than today, I'm not sure I was so efficient. I remember that my mind wandered regularly to irrelevant thoughts, I stared out of windows, went to get more coffee - anything to avoid the task in hand. When I had an assignment to write and the deadline was approaching I deliberately went to the most boring and obscure corner of the university library to escape the distractions of other students, good views or proximity to a cafe. I got the work done but despite the spartan surroundings I still found it so hard to focus.

Maybe we've always been easily distracted. An article in The Outline, No, the internet has not destroyed our attention spans, refers to new research indicating that our short attention spans are the same as they've always been. Researchers at Princeton University have been comparing attention spans of humans and macaque monkeys and found that we have a lot in common. Both species have the ability to switch rapidly between a focused activity and checking the surrounding environment for potential danger and that this switch occurs four times a second. This ability has been vital to our survival as a species quite simply.

... well before the invention of mobile phones, humans were a cognitively distracted species that can only focus on one thing in quarter-of-a-second blocks. This inability to focus isn’t a flaw, but an evolutionary adaptation: Being able to flick between highly focused and diffuse attention gives us the ability to concentrate on a complex task while also being aware of our surroundings, making us the dynamic, hyper-alert creatures that we are today.

It seems we have an in-built need to continually monitor the world around us as a basic survival instinct and that makes us even more susceptible to the lures of social media. The research at Princeton is further described in an article in EurekAlert!The spotlight of attention is more like a strobe. We don't simply switch on and off four times a second but we are always ready to switch focus even if we don't notice the process.

Perception doesn't flicker on and off, the researchers emphasized, but four times per second it cycles between periods of maximum focus and periods of a broader situational awareness.

"Every 250 milliseconds, you have an opportunity to switch attention," said Ian Fiebelkorn, an associate research scholar in PNI and the first author on the macaque-focused paper. You won't necessarily shift your focus to a new subject, he said, but your brain has a chance to re-examine your priorities and decide if it wants to.

There is no doubt that the modern world has a vast range of distractions to tempt us with and we need to work hard to resist them and even try to minimise their intrusiveness. However it's somehow comforting to know that our potential for distraction is no greater today than it was 2,000 years ago.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Higher education - would you like that bundled or unbundled?

CC0 Public domain by congerdesign on Pixnio
Unbundling of higher education means that instead of studying at one university and following a degree programme from start to finish you can instead take courses from a wide range of institutions, earning credits, certificates (for example from MOOCs) and microcredentials (open badges etc) as you go and then presenting your portfolio to an institution that can assess your learning and award you credits or even a degree. The concept of the do-it-yourself university has been around for many years now and unbundling is presented as a liberating force in education putting the learners "in the driving seat" and allowing greater freedom and flexibility.

However, that slippery word freedom is very subjective and the people who benefit most from this new model are those who already understand the educational system and have the digital and study skills to take advantage of it. The vast majority are unaware of these opportunities and lack the necessary skills to get on board. Even if you do, there are still no guarantees that a future employer or university will recognise the new credentials you have gathered. There is plenty of excellent work on the recognition of open education and microcredentials, for example, the ongoing European projects ReOPEN and Open Education Passport (OEPASS). The new credentials must be accepted and integrated into national and international frameworks and these projects as well as other similar initiatives are looking at practical models for this.

But even if you can assemble your own personalised degree programme from the vast range of courses available today, is it really the equivalent of three or four years of concentrated study at one institution where the courses are designed to complement each other and you are immersed in an academic environment with seminars, tutorials and discussion to support your learning? This is questioned in an article in Times Higher Education, Microcredentials 'undermine' learning.
Leesa Wheelahan of the University of Toronto questions whether a collection of certificates from a wide range of short training courses can really match a full coordinated degree.

“A lot of the rhetoric about micro-credentials and digital badges is that people should be able to build degrees by aggregating all these bits. ... This is a fragmented vision in which the total is the sum of parts ... It undermines the role of degrees [in] preparing individuals for work and life by engaging with a deep and sustained body of work, knowledge and skills.”

A do-it-yourself degree could mean missing essential elements of a full degree. Many MOOCs and other online courses focus on content transfer or practical training rather than collaboration, discussion and reflection and although the content may be equivalent to the formal equivalent the end result in terms of learning is not the same.

“If something is to qualify as higher education, it should require individuals to engage in debates and controversies in that field [to] develop perspectives as practitioners. Micro-skills training is just that – training – and this is not why we have invested in universities.”

I see great potential for microcredentials to recognise soft skills, work experience and open learning but I'm not sure that the concept of the do-it-yourself university is a practical solution except for an extremely skilled and educationally mature group. In order to choose wisely among the myriad of online courses most people will need considerable guidance and support The option of a rounded, well-designed degree programme (campus, online or both) from one institution will continue to dominate for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

What is a lecture worth?


Today you can watch millions of university lectures in all disciplines completely free and in many cases download them to your mobile or tablet. In addition, many universities offer course content as open courseware. For the past 15 years we have seen that content is no longer king and since it is openly available for free the real value of a university lies in providing the context through teachers who can lead discussions, put issues into perspective, inspire, challenge and support their students. However most institutions still protect their content, locking it away from public view, as if it was a valuable commodity. Of course there is content that may be sensitive but since so many universities in the world are state funded it seems strange to hide content that has been publicly funded.

An article by Joshua Kim in Inside Higher Ed, An Incredible College Lecture Is Now Worth 40 Cents, highlights this issue through the example of an online course on the history of London. This course is not open or free but the cost says something about the value of even high quality content.

I purchased this course from the Amazon owned Audible.com. As a Platinum Annual subscriber, the cost for the course was $9.56. The course has 24 lectures of about 30 minutes each. The cost per lecture, therefore, is about 40 cents. 40 cents.

Despite the line-up of leading authorities in the field and high quality production the course price is extremely low. Even in a commercial setting the price is 40 cents per lecture. Of course if you take a MOOC or other open course the cost is precisely zero. At the same time quality content is extremely valuable for the learner in terms of their learning and is also expensive to create. I'm not sure how sustainable this model is and in the end we may see a system whereby micro-payments per user can finance content production in some way. Those who produce good content deserve some reward and incentive to continue.

However in a world where so much content is free and often licensed for reuse and adaptation then why do so many institutions still spend so much time and money on making their own content? If content is easily shared then institutions can reuse and adapt content at low cost and focus their attention on adding real value in terms of fostering learning and supporting students. Do many universities still base their courses on content delivery and their examinations on content recall? Shouldn't teachers be encouraged to use more open content and spend their own time helping students to make sense of them? Kim ends his article with these two questions:

Is your school transitioning from a teacher/content focus to a learner/learning focus?

How do we keep what is wonderful about the lecture format, but fold in elements of active and relational learning in to the DNA of higher education?

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Open education in Palestine

Bethlehem campus
Open universities all over the world aim to offer higher education to non-traditional students, often in rural and underprivileged areas of the country. The challenge is to create learning communities where students are spread all over the country and seldom, if ever, get the chance to meet physically at one location. This challenge is particularly acute at Al Quds Open University (QOU) in Palestine which I visited last week as a guest speaker at their conference Digital Transformation in Continuing Education (30 July). The university offers education throughout the West Bank and Gaza where travel between towns is either difficult or, in the case of Gaza, virtually impossible. The multiple campus university is united digitally and all courses combine online studies with on-site meetings and support.

Al Quds Open University was founded in 1991 and today has around 55,000 students, 8 faculties and 19 campuses/study centres (14 in the West Bank and 5 in Gaza). All courses mix online learning with classroom teaching at the local study centres. The courses are delivered through a variety of platforms: the learning management system Moodle, the academic portal, a media platform, QTube, with a wide range of lectures and information films, a portal for sharing slideshows, the open repository OSOL for scientific journals and other publications and various mobile applications. The university is committed to open educational resources and the vast majority of material has a Creative Commons license and they publish five open access scientific journals. Fees are kept as low as possible (around $350 per term) but are the major source of funding together with donations. As well as the standard e-learning platforms the university also has its own satellite TV channel, Al Quds Educational Channel, broadcasting both academic content as well as educational documentaries for general interest as part of their outreach strategy. The channel is free and reaches households all over Palestine and the programmes are also freely accessible worldwide via the website. I visited their studios where a dedicated team of media professionals produce an impressive range of programmes with many live discussions and lectures from their studio as well as documentaries.

Map showing the study centre areas
I was particularly interested in the study centres (branches) and how they support the students. The study centres host lectures, seminars and examinations but are also places where students can come to use computers, get academic and technical support as well as meet each other. Each study centre has academic staff who can teach on-site and there is also a network of part-time teachers who teach and work with course development. Blended learning is default since students need a social context for their learning and the regular meetings at the study centres helps to keep them on track even though most of the course work is online. They also offer courses on learning how to learn with a focus on learning online.

I visited the centre in Bethlehem which hosts around 4,000 students (78% female) and has 24 full-time teaching staff plus administration, a library and educational technologists. Last year 400 students graduated in Bethlehem and this year’s ceremony say 450 graduate. As well as these centres the university has two mobile educational centres; lorries equipped with laptops, generator, satellite wifi and teachers that drive to outlying rural areas and offer ICT training to remote schools. This is part of the university's commitment to continuing education, coordinated by the Continuing Education and Community Service Centre and offering lifelong learning, digital literacy and professional training all over Palestine via the study centres. At present there are even plans to start a study centre in Syria to serve Palestinians there.
Poster advertising the mobile educational centres

A particularly interesting new development is the range of non-credit self-learning open online SMART courses that are specially adapted for mobile delivery and are available via Google Play and similar platforms. These courses offer basic training in subjects like English, Arabic, digital skills and now the first Arabic open course on OER (Open Educational Resources). These courses are available to anyone for free and interaction between students takes place on Facebook groups. QOU are also active contributors to the pan-Arabic OER community, ALECSO OER.

Combining online learning with on-site support in every region offers students both the flexibility they need to study and the sense of community that will support them through their studies. With travel between many of the regions challenging and time-consuming the digital spaces provide a common meeting place for all.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Educational buffet


CC BY-NC-ND Some rights reserved by iamphl on Flickr
Subscription based platforms like Spotify and Netflix have been a massive success allowing you access to a massive library of music and films for a flat rate monthly subscription. A similar platform for magazines, Readly, offers you access to a wide range of monthly magazines on a similar flat-rate subscription basis. Although it is debatable how much the artists benefit much from this model but it's an improvement on the free downloading of the Napster days. So how this can be applied to education?

While most of the media focus has been on MOOCs over the last few years there's another side to online education that is galloping along almost unnoticed. There are many platforms that offer a vast range of short training courses provided by individual educators, colleges or companies where the learner pays a fee and some of that money goes to the course creators. The most prominent platforms in this niche are UdemySkillshareTeachable and Lynda.com, but there are many more. Udemy has been around for many years now and is as a market place where educators can create and offer an online course and earn money on the registrations. Other platforms can have more in-house course production or various forms of quality control on the courses published. the simplest form of quality control is by learners reviews and ratings. There are two basic types of business model: one that charges learners a price per course and the course creator gets a share of that or the subscription model where the learner pays a monthly fee to access the whole range of courses and some of the income is distributed among the contributors.

You could call this field just-in-time learning for anyone who wants to get a quick overview of a new concept or how to use a particular application. It's more the modern equivalent of all the books with titles like A beginner's guide to X or Teach yourself Y. They don't pretend to be like a university course or to provide interaction with teachers and other learners. They guide you through the process, allow you to test your knowledge and maybe some kind of practical task. If you want to learn some more advanced functions in PhotoShop or the principles of lean management then this is a good place to start but it's not the place for deeper learning and collaboration, nor does it even pretend to be so.

One of these companies, Skillshare, is highlighted in an article in EdSurge, Can a Subscription Model Work for Online Learners and Teachers? Skillshare Just Raised $28 Million to Find Out. For a very affordable (at least for learners in developed countries) you get access to a self-service buffet of courses and so far they have amassed around 5 million users. Learn as much as you like for a monthly fee.

There are roughly 1,000 courses available on Skillshare for free. For full access to the more than 22,000 classes currently on its platform, there’s a subscription fee (either $15 per month or $99 a year). About 30 to 50 percent of this subscription revenue goes to a royalty pool that pays Skillshare teachers based on their share of all the minutes of video watched in a month. The company claims that the average Skillshare teacher makes about $3,000 a year, with top earners raking in as much as $40,000.

There is a useful overview of different online course platforms that use some kind of subscription model on the site Medium, The Economics of Teaching in an Online Learning Marketplace. They all offer attractive packaging and presentation for your course and a marketplace to attract participants but as ever you need to weigh up the costs of using the platform with what you get out of it.

Are MOOCs heading in this direction? There are already special prices for course packages and the differences between the MOOC providers and the course platforms are narrowing. Online education is becoming increasingly commercial and I think these platforms fill an important niche in terms of professional development and lifelong learning. However I still think that universities should also offer truly open education to those who are unable to access more traditional forms and cannot afford the commercial variety. As the majority of the MOOC platforms become more commercial we mustn't forget all the less hyped open education that is being conducted by committed universities and partnerships all over the world. That's where the really interesting development is taking place.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Learning analytics - is there an off switch?

CC0 Public domain on pxhere
Returning to the theme of learning analytics, I wonder if there will be any way of opting out from being tracked and coached. The potential of learning analytics is in tracking a student's progress, suggesting resources, offering extra practice and constant feedback on assignments as well as monitoring performance. The vision is to have a personal tutor by your side round the clock and provide your human tutor with alerts if your are struggling in some way. The trouble with this is that sometimes you need to be able to switch off the surveillance and just practice in peace. You seldom perform to the best of your ability if you know someone (or something) is watching you.

I recommend you read an article by John Warner in Inside Higher EdThe Problems of Real-Time Feedback in Teaching Writing. He objects to real-time AI feedback on students' writing on the grounds that it does more harm than good. Too much feedback too often can destroy the creative process and simply leading the students to write in order to satisfy the system. There is a time for providing feedback and there must also be time for trial and error and experimentation without the feeling that you are being observed and assessed.

For example, when learning to play the guitar, it’s useful to have some periods of real-time feedback where a teacher may be able to correct a flaw like a bad hand position, but you also need to go lock yourself in your room and practice, likely making a bunch of unpleasant noises in the process. Imagine trying to do this while being constantly reminded that your noises really are unpleasant.

We all need our own quiet spaces to concentrate, experiment, test, reflect and discuss: a play room, sandbox, hideaway, tree house. You don't want anyone to see or hear your embarrassing mistakes and it's best that many early attempts are discarded and lost without trace. This is one reason why students seldom post in the forums of our learning management systems. They only post when required and soon learn that everything they write there is in the university's system and may be used in evidence against them. As a result they create their own closed communities to discuss coursework, away from all risk of assessment. 

We need to use AI/learning analytics wisely and make sure we allow students the right to escape when they need to. The risk is that we destroy creativity by offering too much support and personalisation.

Writing is thinking, writing is thinking, writing is thinking, and sometimes when we’re working on our thinking, we have to be left alone.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Is edtech simply automating tradition?

CC BY-SA Some rights reserved by ISAPUT on Wikimedia Commons
For a few years the internet was an exciting new space where we thought we could build a better world through innovation, borderless collaboration and a culture of sharing. Today big business reigns supreme and technology is being used for control, surveillance and commercial gain. After several years of speculation and experimentation we are now beginning to see how analytics and artificial intelligence are going to be used in education. As governments become increasingly concerned with accountability, profitability and competition, technology is feeding this drive with statistics.

A post by Mike CrowleyGoogle, ISTE, and the Death of EdTech, reflects on the recent ISTE conference and sees worrying tendencies that today's edtech industry is increasingly about control rather than creativity. Technology is being used to make traditional practice more efficient rather than fostering real learning.

All week, the ISTE Expo Hall gushed with predictions that Artificial Intelligence will automate the traditional classroom. Auto-grading is now a thing. Marketeers touted emerging tools to help students study smarter, by enabling them to memorise more information faster. Ultimately, though, the Big News, like Google Classroom, is the proliferation of software that allows teachers to monitor and keep students on-task. The lofty ambitions for education were summed up thus. Make tradition more efficient. Stop bored students from cheating on mindless, low-level assessments. Deliver content like Windows 98 is the next big thing. New tools. Old thinking. Systems, not learners.

The tyranny of tradition is extremely hard to escape from. The traditional educational paradigm of learning facts that can be easily tested and categorised is a perfect fit for the smart systems of today. We can use analytics and AI to provide the statistical illusion that students have achieved the learning objectives we set them. But technology can and should be able to do so much more and that's why Crowley states:

Make no mistake about it. EdTech as we currently know it is dead, it’s over. We should retire the phrase right now. If education is to be the target of an industry that has grown increasingly obsessed with standardization, control, automation, and delivery efficiencies, then we must opt out.
Related to this is the use of automated grading of assignments that has been under development for several years now. This involves computer analysis of a written assignment to check for coherence, argumentation, linguistic style, grammar and fluency. An article on NPR, More States Opting To 'Robo-Grade' Student Essays By Computer, examines recent experience of automated grading at several US universities. Many educators are impressed by the accuracy of these tools, often giving similar grades to human examiners and if the computer is unsure it flags for teacher assessment. The potential savings are obvious and very attractive to cash-strapped institutions.

Several states including Utah and Ohio already use automated grading on their standardized tests. Cyndee Carter, assessment development coordinator for the Utah State Board of Education, says the state began very cautiously, at first making sure every machine-graded essay was also read by a real person. But she says the computer scoring has proven "spot-on" and Utah now lets machines be the sole judge of the vast majority of essays. In about 20 percent of cases, she says, when the computer detects something unusual, or is on the fence between two scores, it flags an essay for human review. But all in all, she says the automated scoring system has been a boon for the state, not only for the cost savings, but also because it enables teachers to get test results back in minutes rather than months.

Impressive indeed, but there will always be ways to hack the system and already there are examples of text generators that produce nonsensical texts that satisfy the grading system's preferences. This type of cat-and-mouse game has nothing to do with learning. When the only purpose of writing an assignment is to get a grade then people will simply do whatever it takes to get that grade as easily as possible. If the assignment has real meaning to more people than simply an examiner (or a robot) then the game element disappears. We need to develop methods of assessing student ability based on the impact of their projects on real people. Maybe traditional for-teacher's-eyes-only assignments are the problem.

One clear use for automated grading systems is to help the students improve their writing skills. The system can provide repeated formative assessment opportunities, helping students to improve the coherence and style of their assignments. They can submit several times during the writing process, something that no teacher could ever have time to deal with, and then submit the final version to the teacher for grading. However a more collaborative approach already used by many teachers is to encourage peer assessment with fellow students providing feedback during the writing process. This method benefits everyone and the students can learn a lot from being actively involved in the assessment process.

The real purpose of technology should be to facilitate human collaboration and learning. I love using digital tools to facilitate creative and collaborative activities and that's where educational technology should be focused. The use of big data in education, however is worrying and we need to be very careful not to be tempted into handing over control of our students to big business.