Monday, February 28, 2011

Open your textbooks

Today there are vast numbers of textbooks and course material on almost every subject freely available on the net. Much of it has been written by educators and is subject to continuous review and revision. Net-based material can be upgraded immediately to take into account the latest events in the world (the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt for example) in stark contrast to printed textbooks which can often be up to 10 years out of date. There was a case recently of schools using textbooks which referred to the Soviet Union as a major power in the world.

So why then do we still insist that children and students should use printed material and cast doubt on the validity of the net-based material? This could even save schools and students a lot of money and free up the teacher to adapt and create the materials they feel will best support the goals of the course they're teaching.

So here's a short video with David Wiley of Brigham Young University explaining the advantages of using open online textbooks: Education without limits: Why open textbooks are the way forward.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


I've never liked writing my CV. It always takes longer than anticipated because you tend to analyse every word - does that sound too modest/boastful? do I really need to mention that?. They're generally extremely predictable documents full of buzzwords and politically correct information (everyone embraces change, enjoys challenges, welcomes diversity and has hobbies like wind-surfing, judo or mountain biking). I don't think this aspect of the CV will change but the way your career record is documented and where you put it are changing rapidly.

Employers today spend increasing amounts of time checking applicants' digital footprints and with so much information out there that the traditional CV is becoming completely obsolete. I've just read an article in Forbes called 5 Reasons Why Your Online Presence Will Replace Your Resume in 10 years. The ten year perspective seems extremely cautious and I suspect that social media are a key factor to finding a job today, at least in some areas of business. The key is to manage your digital presence and ensure that your experience and competence are as visible as possible to potential employers.

I've heard a lot about employers checking people's Facebook profiles before choosing who to interview but that is only revealing if the candidate is unaware of the privacy settings in Facebook. Much hotter in the employment market is LinkedIn which is all about career networking and allows you to write an online CV.

The point here is that our CVs are already online. We have our profiles and activities on variuos social media sites, our photos on Flickr or Picasa, our blogs, web sites and our contributions to discussion forums and suchlike. The problem is that our digital footprints are fragmented and haphazard. Anyone trying to find out about us will have to sift through many Google links and may find the right information but may equally stumble upon the less complimentary stuff. We need to think of out digital footprint as the new CV and try to take control of our net identity.

An article on Mashable, How to build the ultimate social media resume, gives some tips on how to refine your digital identity and there are undoubtedly hundreds of similar pages of tips. This I think should be a vital part of the digital literacy that schools should be providing. If young people can take control of their digital identity from the start and build up an online profile it will make them more interesting for future employees.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Campus or distance?

We still tend to see campus-based courses and distance courses as two separate worlds. The former is seen as having higher status since students and teachers meet face-to-face every day and there is a high degree of interaction. The latter is seen as a poor relation where students sit alone with their computers with only a discussion forum or e-mail to interact with faculty or fellow students. The stereotype online course is basically a traditional correspondence course and therefore no surprise that the success rates on such courses are generally rather low.

This is however a sadly stereotyped view and if you look more closely the boundaries get seriously blurred. Many universities have extremely large classes in the first two undergraduate years and the standard teaching model is the good old lecture, often one way communication with audiences over 100. How much interaction is involved there? How much learning takes place in the lecture hall? Isn't the lecture hall a case of distance learning? Is there any great difference between sitting in the lecture hall with 100 other students or watching the performance later on my laptop? This point is well described by Paul Hillsdon in an article called Why universities should ditch the lecture and go digital. Although there will always be room for inspired lecturing and some performances are best viewed live, there are still far too many that are niether inspiring nor interactive.

The real benefit of campus is being able to participate in seminars and tutorials in smaller groups where real discussion and reflection can take place. That is the most crucial element of all education and that is where real learning and insight can occur. However many cash-strapped universities have cut back on this, the one real trump card the campus model possesses. Many students complain that teacher contact hours have been cut over the last few years and as a result many campus students have alarmingly little "quality" teaching time apart from the customary lectures. In such cases you may start to wonder if some campus students are actually involved in "distance" learning. A good deal of my own student years were glorified self study to be quite honest.

At the same time we are seeing an increasing amount of online courses making use of various social media to increase the amount of interaction and discussion and ironically many "distance students" have much higher quality interaction with teachers and other students than many of their campus counterparts.

Campus students tolerate lack of contact and mass lectures because they are full-time and their loans and grants are dependent on them passing exams and staying the course. Part-time distance students are not so committed and will drop out if the course is not engaging enough. It's not a campus-distance problem, it's all about quality and in particular quality of interactivity. Courses that offer plenty of quality interaction between students and teachers will always retain student interest, whether they're online or on campus. The difference shouldn't matter.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Every silver lining has its cloud

Universities are making enormous amounts of leactures and learning resources freely available on the net and we often hear claims that this is making world class teachers available to all. Today you can have the best lecturers from Harvard, Oxford, MIT or Stanford right there on your mobile as you sit on the bus or in a cafe. The potential benefits to life-long learning are enormous but it's often easy to get carried away with the euphoria of the OER movement.

Tony Bates has written an excellent article on the darker side of open educational resources, OERs: the good the bad and the ugly. There's great educational content out there but we have to remember that it is just content and that you need more ingredients to promote real learning.

"I increasingly fear that the open educational resources movement is being used as a way of perpetuating inequalities in education while purporting to be democratic. Some components of OERs also smack of hypocrisy, elitism and cultural imperialism (the bad), as well as failure to apply best practices in teaching and learning (the ugly). Despite my support for the idea of sharing in education (the good), these concerns have been gnawing away at me for some time, so after 42 years of working in open learning, I feel it’s time to provide a critique of the open educational resources ‘movement’."

The main problem with OER today is that you can't just simply use it as it stands. Someone has to put it into context. A lecture recorded in California or wherever will always be loaded with cultural assumptions, contain local references and be aimed at a specific target audience. If that lecture is then used, say, in Africa someone will need to put what is said into an African context. A lot of the material available on the net today is too specific and not aimed at the wider audience. Content is information and information is not knowledge unless it is discussed, processed and refined. The abundance of OER is good but it doesn't mean that people will automatically learn from them. Mediation and contextualisation are essential.

Recorded lectures are a particular problem. The lecture may well be excellent but the lecturer's attention is on the students in the hall and the context of the university, not on the potential global audience watching on their laptops or mobiles. Bates wants to see more resources that are aimed at a web audience rather than the fly-on-the-wall lectures that are so common. Lectures should be planned for a general audience with as few local references as possible. That way they can be more easily adapted by local teachers and made more relevant tolearners. At present the majority are simply posting campus lectures and hoping they will be useful. With a little more careful planning this material can really make a difference but Bates is doubtful that the present situation is as positive as many believe.

"Open educational resources do have an important role to play in online education, but they need to be properly designed, and developed within a broader learning context that includes the critical activities needed to support learning, such as opportunities for student-instructor and peer interaction, and within a culture of sharing, such as consortia of equal partners and other frameworks that provide a context that encourages and supports sharing. In other words, OERs need skill and hard work to make them useful, and selling them as a panacea for education does more harm than good."

The moral of all this is that it stresses the vital role of the teacher to provide context and relevance and that the growth of OER stresses rather than diminishes the teacher's role.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Digital toolbox

This screen shot shows my personal digital toolkit as it is today. I've used a simple and attractive tool called Symbaloo to create a one-page access to all the other web tools I use regularly. It's basically a more graphic presentation of bookmarks but the advantage is that I can sign in from any computer and immediately gain access to all the tools I need at work and home. By using this page and my Netvibes page (for RSS feeds) I have absolutely everything. This is my personal learning environment that I can change and adapt as necessary.

Interestingly one of these tiles leads to the learning management system that my university uses. The LMS has previously tried to incorporate lots of different tools under one roof but with this type of view the LMS becomes just one button on the student's panel. It's worth remembering this when designing complex university student protals; the whole concept may probably end up as just one button on the panel. The students have an awful lot of other tools and learning environments outside the university's world. The personl learning environment is here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Giving it all away

Open educational resources are widely used in schools and universities and increasing numbers of teachers are sharing lectures, lessons and other material. It's still far from mainstream but the movement is gaining momentum. I've written several times about how innovative educational initiatives such as Peer 2 Peer University and University of the People have started offering free peer learning courses using open educational resources. The problem there is that they have not so far been able to offer university credits for these courses, only the satisfaction of having partoicipated and learnt a lot (not a bad result either of course).

However, according to an article in Times Higher Education ("OER university" to cut cost of degree) a group of universities known as the OER Foundation (University of Southern Queensland in Australia, Athabasca University in Canada and Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand) are planning to offer courses using free online resources at up to 90% of the cost of a regular campus course. Students who complete the coursework will be assessed and awarded academic credits.

According to  Wayne Mackintosh, director of the Open Education Resource Foundation:

"Throughout most Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, the costs of education have been increasing in excess of the inflation index. What we're aiming to do is provide alternatives...the opportunity to get the same quality of education for significantly lower cost."

Why would a university that charges significant fees for its courses want to give them away for almost nothing? Firstly, those who already distribute their material for free, such as MIT and Open University, have enhanced their global reputation, improved the quality of their course material and undoubtedly recruited a considerable number of students (see Open Learn Research Report, Open University 2009). Secondly, it makes sense to let the public view the material that has been produced with, in most cases, public money. Thirdly the availability of free content is hardly a threat to a "regular" campus education since the value lies in the context not the content. Without the context provided by the teachers the content has little value.

Offering OER-based university education as proposed here offers an excellent complement to the traditional system. Not everyone has the time and resources to devote 3-4 years to full-time higher education. This method gives so many people who would never even have considered higher education the opportunity to study and gain qualifications. Two parallell university systems who benefit from each other and allow for the wider dissemination of research and academic activity can't be a bad thing.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Behind the mask

Steve Wheeler has written an excellent article on the problem of anonymity on the web: Dear elearning101 ... Everyone who blogs welcomes comments, as long as they are constructive and respectful. The vast majority of comments are just that even though they disagree with the bloggers point of view. A healthy discussion is what blogging is all about. However there are a number of people who write hurtful and unnecessarily rude comments, always behind the mask of anonymity that is so convenient on the net. Steve received a scathing anonymous comment and decided to challenge it.

"... I want to point out that posting anonymous rude comments on someone else's site is unacceptable. For me, it's a form of cyber bullying. I won't stand for it, and neither should you. I'm writing this blogpost because I want to bring such behaviour out into the open. In so doing I hope the community of practice I value, the readers of this blog, and those who are as passionate as me about learning and technology can read, be aware, assess and otherwise discuss the implications of it."

In some situations it is very important to be able to make anonymous comments; in politically sensitive situations or when the writer fears reprisals from an employer, the police or criminal groups. However in professional discussions I simply don't understand why people canot reveal their identity. Abusive, snide and rude comments are almost always made by anonymous users with cartoon identities. I tend not to follow such people on Twitter or anywhere else because I want to know who I'm talking to. Imagine going to a conference where some of the delegates walked around with masks on. Would you talk to them, trust them? I doubt it.

Most bloggers moderate comments first and the most abusive ones usually get filtered out. But that doesn't mean they aren't hurtful. Anonymous know-it-alls can destroy a discussion forum unless someone steps in to ban them. I've left several forums for this reason. An honest question is met by a torrent of abuse and this destroys the credibility of the whole forum. As ever it's a minority group but a very vocal one. If only they could channel their energies into something more constructive.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Pictures at an exhibition

Google are just about everywhere these days. First by giving us satellite views of the world via Google Earth, then by expanding that to Google Maps Street View where many of us can see the street we live on and then the latest Google Body Browser that allows us to go all the way into the human body. Now they've sent their cameras to 17 of the top art galleries of the world in the application Art Project. Here you can choose your gallery to visit and go through all the exhibition halls, stopping to admire the paintings that catch your attention. It uses the same technology as Street View and you just use your mouse to guide the camera around the gallery.

Here's the introduction film that can be found on Art Project YouTube Channel.

You can examine particular paintings in high resolution and even assemble your own virtual collection of favourites with the option of adding your own notes toeach one.

Some paintings are blurred and this is due to copyright restrictions on that particular work. Very frustrating if it happens to be the painting you are most interested in. If you hang a painting in a public gallery surely you want the work to be seen by the public? Will it really affect the galery's future income if people can also see the painting on the net? The high resolution images presented on the site are all covered by copyright anyway. I assume negotiations are in progress to eventually enable us to see even the blurred paintings.

In the meantime, enjoy your visit.