Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Taking the initiative

I wrote a while back of learned helplessness when it comes to education and training. We've been conditioned into believing that the only way to learn new skills is to go on a course lead by a teacher and generally help in some kind of classroom at assigned times. Many wait in vain for the opportunity to go on a course instead of going out and finding the required knowledge and people who can help. We're stuck in a classroom mentality and are not equipped to take responsibility for our own learning.

This is the theme of an excellent article by Ewan McIntosh in the Huffington Post, Schools are churning out the unemployable. The traditional approach to education stresses dependence on teachers, syllabus and assessment instead of fostering independence, initiative, ability to network and innovative thinking. These are the qualities required in the business world but are often, according to McIntosh, sadly lacking in school leavers and graduates.

" ... everything being done to formal schooling by the political classes in America and England runs against what business actually requires: self-starting, creative, entrepreneurial youngsters. I realize that this approach alone isn't a savior of schooling, and that there are many other tactics as well as strategic approaches that help move us away from a factory model to a studio model of learning. But the conversation that I find the hardest is with those who don't even see that the model is no longer effective, who believe that "it was good enough for me so..."...."

Of course, many schools and universities are fostering these skills and are offering students much more freedom to innovate and create. However the mainstream has not caught up yet and we are still often bogged down in vote-winning back-to-basics campaigns and the illusory league tables of result-oriented education. Tasks that are set simply for the teacher to grade and hand back are artificial and not taken seriously by many students. If the tasks are put out in public view or are actually used by others in real work situations you get a much higher level of motivation and enthusiasm. Letting students contribute for real sharpens concentration and prepares them for the future.

In conclusion McIntosh asks if the system is so broken that we will need to replace it or whether we just need to do a renovation job.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

You've got mail

E-mail in notes by dampeebe, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  dampeebe 

 Whilst teenagers seem to have completely rejected it, good old e-mail still dominates as the most common means of communication for those of us on the mature side of 30. I've been trying to use other solutions for activities that e-mail is simply very poor at: arranging meetings, group work, projects, longer discussions. Although I now use a wide range of social media that have enabled me to network and collaborate like never before, I find that I can never completely escape the gravitational pull of e-mail that repeatedly drags me back screaming into its time-consuming clutches.

Arranging meetings is one of my least favourite tasks (I suspect I've written about this in a previous post). There are two excellent and easy-to-use tools to arrange a meeting without sending dozens of e-mails; Doodle and Meeting Wizard. The only snag is colleagues who have very efficient firewalls that see e-mail from a source like Meeting Wizard as spam and therefore block it. The result is that you don't get a reply from one or more of your target group and in the end have to start the e-mail carousel to ensure that all are on board. The other danger is that someone in your group simply ignores or trashes the message from an unknown source without even reading it, assuming it to be advertising. In the end I revert to clumsy e-mail exchanges just to make sure everyone gets the message.

I work in many groups and have tried to get the group to use some kind of forum or social network so that all communication takes place there and not by e-mail. I've used Learning Management Systems like Moodle or its Learning as well as more open solutions like Ning, Groups and Google Groups. The key issue is that everyone in the group is equally enthusiastic about the group site. Often it's yet another network that requires yet another user ID and password and, snce you already belong to too many, it's easy to forget. The trouble is that if even one of your group finds the group site inconvenient for some reason you soon have to revert to the common denominator of e-mail to get your message out to the whole group.

When I'm the one who creates the group site I can't understand why anyone would find it complicated. On the other hand I'll admit to getting stuck with group sites that someone else has created. Just recently I had trouble with a WordPress site where I was registered under a new WordPress identity which conflicted with a previous WordPress identity. Whenever I tried to log in, my computer automatically went to the old identity and I couldn't access the site I wanted. I've had similar trouble with multiple identities in Google.Sometimes you can simply have too many identities.

E-mail is a messy solution for many types of communication but it is taking longer than I thought to wean myself off it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The web finds its voice

One of my main sources for news in the field of e-learning is the Tunisia-based e-learning portal e-Taalim (it means e-learning in Arabic). They've just added a nice new feature; a built-in text-to-voice function that allows you to listen to all content in all three languages (Arabic, French, English). Each article has a listen button and you can even download the article as a sound file (mp3). Read more at eTaalim: the first Tunisian website to vocalize entire content.

Of course you can get text-to-voice for web pages in other ways but you need to know how to activate them. This service is attractive because you can't really miss it and you simply press the button to start. I hope this type of service becomes even more widespread and even simpler to access. It should be as simple as possible to listen to web content, to enlarge text size and to adjust text colour and contrast as a service to all. This is also one area where e-books win over print. Think of getting an e-magazine or e-book that you can listen to in the car and then continue reading when you get home as well as being able to take notes and look up unfamiliar words. Plus being able to adjust the brightness, contrast, size and colour of what is shown on the screen.

The question is whether publishers are willing to bundle in this way and how they charge for it all. It could be a winning combination.

Why teachers should use Twitter

Many people I meet have the impression that Twitter is simply for telling people where you are and what you're doing and can't imagine how it can be relevant in education. In the last year and a half I've built up a wonderful network of educators who constantly provide me with links to articles, news and ideas that help me in my work. In return I pass on all the links I find that I think will be interesting to my network (I'm @alacre on Twitter).

Here's a very short film that explains why the tool is useful in education - in 60 seconds!

Sedan kan du får många praktiska tips om Twitter via en länksamling, 100 ways to teach with Twitter.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Video roulette

Post-interview video editing with Final by mobilechina2007, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  mobilechina2007 

Looking for a relevant video to use on a course is a very difficult and time-consuming task. There are millions of videos out there of course but apart from the title there's very little to tell you if it's worth watching or not. You can spend 10 minutes watching a film only to realise that it is not relevant or of poor quality. Search engines can't sift through video in the way they do with text and most video lacks consistent tagging.

Read a good blog post on this subject, Why learning from videos is difficult, that gives two contrasting examples. The first is the norm, a video posted without any contents or useful tags, and the second is the ideal, indexed with contents and the ability to click through to the relevant section of the video. Of course indexing the film takes time but if you really want your film to be used by others it's well worth the effort. Quality work will spread quickly and earn you and your school plenty gold stars in the digital margin.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Short little span of attention

The seemingly short attention span of today's children and teenagers is much debated. We've talked a lot about homo zapiens and how multitasking youngsters seldom concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. At the same time we are equally worried about their incredibly long attention spans when it comes to playing engaging and complex online games or participating in lengthy chat sessions. It seems that the problem is that they don't direct their attention towards the activities that parents are familiar with.

homework. by apdk, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  apdk 

This is the theme of an article by Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times, The attention span myth.Is there really anything new about the attention span issue? Some people simply find it difficult to sit still and concentrate and did so long before computers and mobiles came on the scene. Many creative and artistic talents were very poor at fitting into the school ideal of the silent diligent pupil. We all have the ability to concentrate on something we find interesting and engaging but most of us are also less tolerant of activities we find dull. When we worry about our children's short attention span we have to think back to our own childhoods and wonder if we were as concentrated as we would like to remember.

"At some point, we stopped calling Tom Sawyer-style distractibility either animal spirits or a discipline problem. We started to call it sick, even after an early twin study showed that a relatively short attention span is virtually synonymous with standard-issue irritability and distemper. But the fact that the attention-span theory makes news of what was once considered ordinary or artistic behavior is not what’s wrong with it. These cultural transitions — disruptive as they are — happen all the time as society’s demands on individuals change. 

Instead, the problem with the attention-span discourse is that it’s founded on the phantom idea of an attention span. A healthy “attention span” becomes just another ineffable quality to remember having, to believe you’ve lost, to worry about your kids lacking, to blame the culture for destroying. Who needs it?"

I've never had a very long span of attention and am guilty of zapping backwards and forwards all the time. I love reading but seldom manage more than one hour at a stretch. I just get bored easily and have to switch. I've always been like that and I don't think computers or other digital devices are to blame. We do have an unprecedented amount of media to deal with today and this can make short attention spans more visible but it's absolutely nothing new.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Digital blackout

Why is mobile data roaming still so expensive? Every time I cross the Swedish border I have to cut myself off from the net and practice digital celibacy unless I can find a free wifi zone. Yesterday on a train to Oslo I sat watching all the other passengers communicating on their smartphones and laptops. Why is it several times more expensive for me to access the same services as them from the same place? Do the charges match the costs and what is it that costs so much? Once I forgot to turn off my iPhone's settings for data roaming and let it merrily download e-mail and updates as usual. The bill came as a reminder not to do that agian.

As I leave the country I cut off all lines of communication apart from texting and the occasional phone call. I've tried buying local top-up cards but it's all a bit of a fuss and I long for the day we can just use our devices wherever we go.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Missing the target

A colleague made a very relevant observation today. He felt that we fail to convince colleagues and decision makers about the relevance of technology in education because we use the wrong rhetoric. We use terms like technology, IT, social media, web 2.0 and so on and often only succeed in alienating or intimidating our less enthusiastic colleagues. Of course we're using new tools and new technology but aren't we basically doing what people have always been doing (communicating, sharing, learning) but with a much wider scope than ever before?

This ties in with an excellent post by George Siemens, It's new, it's new, which questions some of the enthusiasm about net-based learning. Many of us claim rather optimistically that a total transformation of education is needed and that past practices must be swept away. Siemens calls for a more pragmatic and less revolutionary development and warns against elements of arrogance:

"First, we need to get over the view that our generation is astonishingly unique. Hasn’t every generation faced new technologies to solve problems not foreseen? The present moment arrogance that invades much of school reform thinking is frustrating.

The skills needed to be a good educator or learner are, in essence, much the same as they always have been. Siemens lists six key skills for educators of any century:
  • Technical competence - knowing how to make best use of the available tools of the day.
  • Experimentation - always trying new ways to nurture learning, teacher as researcher.
    "Educators should constantly be experimenting with new technologies and pedagogies, refining their learning approach to constantly changing contexts."
  • Autonomy - developing learner autonomy, students as teachers, teachers as students.
  • Creation - fostering learner creativity.
  • Play - learning should be more fun.
  • Developing capacity for complexity - learning, like life, is complex. We must learn to deal with disorder and the unexpected.
So are we looking at a revolution in education as many predict or at a more gradual adoption of new opportunities provided by the net? Maybe if we stress the continuity aspect we might find it easier to win over the tech-skeptics. The adoption of new technology is simply doing what good educators have always done. At the same time there is a danger that not adopting the communication tools and methods used in the rest of society may render the education system irrelevant. Not changing is not an option though it is the easiest one. We need to move educational technology from a pioneer movement to mainstream and maybe the revolutionary fervor sometimes voiced is counter-productive.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Misconceptions about online learning

Here's another good presentation that I'd like to pass on, The five big mistakes in virtual education. It deals with the main misconceptions that people have about net-based education. The slide show is self explanatory and is worth clicking through. The main mistakes pointed out are:
  • Online education means mass education. You can have a lot of students on an online course but it won't work unless each one is treated as an individual.
  • Online education is often seen as complex and mysterious. It's still about human relations and communication. A good teacher will be good in any environment.
  • Putting technology before pedagogy.
    "Technology is the tool that helps the teacher create materials to share with the student."
  • Underestimating your teachers and students. Standardised, closed-in tools stifle creativity and openness.
  • Taking the fun out of education.Many online courses are dull industrial processes full of mechanical modules and self-tests.
    "Education shou.d be accidental, unpredictable, unscripted."
I'm not so fond of the term virtual in this case as it tends to imply an inferiority to the "real thing", whatever that may be. Learning can take place in many different environments and is no less real if it takes place on the net. However take a look through this and see what you think.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Digital footprints never fade

Footprints in the sand are notoriously short-lived, in sharp contrast to the ones we leave on the net. It's a curious paradox that whilst many people are concerned about integrity and security on the net many of them show little practical interest in the problem. Facebook profiles are often wide open and many people tend to post comments and photos first and ask questions later (or never).

Here's an excellent presentation by Australian educator Jenny Luca called Nurturing your digital footprint. She presents examples of indiscrete use of social media and gives practical tips on how to take control of your digital profile. This is all essential knowledge in terms of digital literacy and relevant to all age groups.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Can you borrow an e-book?

We tend to define innovations in terms of their predecessors. One proposed use for the telephone was to enable people to contact the local telegraph office. The first cars were basically horse carriages without the horse and it took many years before they realised that cars could look different.

It seems to be the same with e-books as described in a BBC article The rights and wrongs of digital books. If I buy a printed book I can read it and then pass it on to a friend or even sell it. However this isn't possible with digital books and publishers are taking great care to stop us doing so. Since any digital material can be copied in seconds and infinitely they rightly fear that once that particular Pandora's box is opened there'll be no future for the business. So various technologies are used to prevent copying. So if you buy a digital book you can't lend it to anyone whereas the print version is much more flexible. E-books are not really exportable either as publishers stop Amazon and Barnes & Noble from sending them out of the USA or UK. If I can order the printed book from Amazon why can't I get the e-book?

What happens then if you borrow an e-book from the library? What happens after your loan period is up? Does the book just disappear from your reader, self-destructing like the tapes on Mission Impossible? If you can borrow an e-book from the library why would you ever want to buy it? You can't show off your e-book collection to admiring friends so there isn't much point in holding on to them once you've read them. It'll be very interesting to see how libraries lend e-books since they would seem to threaten the publishers' revenues more than ever before. Or maybe they'll have to pay a lot of money for the right to lend.

However, the wealth of protective measures being taken in the publishing industry to restrict e-books from being lent, exported or copied suggests that we're still at the stage of phoning the telegraph office to send a long distance telegram. No-one has really worked out where e-publishing is actually leading us yet.