Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pandora's box

The announcement last week that the Brazilian government intends to make all learning resources created by state-employed teachers freely available under Creative Commons licences (see earlier post) was welcome and will hopefully be an inspiration to others. However it did tie in very well with the presentation I made at last week's EDEN conference in Dublin. Together with my colleague, Ebba Ossiannilsson from Lund University, we presented Opening Pandora's box - conclusions from a Swedish OER project (see presentation below). The full paper will hopefully be published in a special issue of EURODL (European Journal of Open, Distance and E-learning) in the near future.

The act of making learning resources freely available on the net and fostering a culture of sharing between institutions and teachers is a necessary step towards opening up education but it is only the beginning of a tough process. I see OER as Pandor's box and by opening the lid you let out a host of "demons" that all need to be addressed.

Using OER means you have to review the role of the teacher; from the traditional sage on the stage to a new and more challenging role of mentor/facilitator/guide/critical sounding board. That alone is a controversial and uncomfortable issue for many and once you accept it you then have to review the student's role and even that of the university/school. The university/school is no longer a silo of knowledge and resources - those are everywhere and ubiquitous. Why should we come to such institutions? Students must take much more responsibility for their own learning and adapt to collaborative learning. How do we assess such learning? How do we integrate informal and formal learning and find ways of assessing the value of all that is larnt outside the formal system?

Maybe one reason so many decision makers seem reluctant to embrace OER is that they realize the dangers of opening the lid. However isn't it better to take control of the process despite all the challenges than to hide behind tradition and risk the box exploding in your face in a few years time?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

New practical guide to using OER

British authority JISC have launched a smple yet important service to teachers who want to use open educational resources (OER) in their teaching but are unsure of the technicalities.They've produced two wizards that giude you step-by-step through the process of finding the right Creative Commons licence for your work, combining licences and using other people's CC-licenced work.

According to Prodromos Tsiavos, England and Wales Project,  Legal Project project lead, Creative Commons UK:
"These tools allow users of the CC licences to make quick, easy and accurate decisions as to when and how to use multiple combinations of the CC licences. They reduce the complexity of copyright law and empower the end user by reducing the need for external advice when licensing copyrighted material. CCUK strongly supports this collaborative work and believes it will substantially contribute to the re-use, utilisation and proliferation of CC licensed content."

At the moment even those who genuinely want to use resources in the right way have great difficulty getting it right. Any resources that make it easier to use OER and avoid copyright infringement are very welcome.

Read more, Open up educational resources legally with new JISC tools.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

EDEN 2011 in quotes

As an attempt to sum up some of the themes of the conference here's a selection of quotes in no particular order. I hope they are all accurate but if I have misquoted please let me know. Any other good ones you can add?

Why is there no Nobel prize for education? (Alfredo Soeiro)

Competency is not a thing, it's a cultural construct. (Graham Attwell)

If you're not working with mobile apps, you are out of touch with progress. (Dennis Pamlin)

Valuing learning for all. Everywhere and in any mode. A dream? (Alfredo Soiero)

We are only in the opening chapters of the transformation of education and social transformation by technology. (President Mary McAleese)

Education should disrupt as much as it should build. (Graham Attwell)

The future is not widely distributed, so it's not here yet. (Paul Kim)

Education should be open and adaptable, designed to suit the pace and place of the learner. (President Mary McAleese)

Many still consider that quality in education is synonymous with exclusivity ... the notion of an open university, that measures its success by the number and variety of people that it includes, is deeply threatening. (Sir John Daniel)

Have you seen a power socket in here? (me)

EDEN - mismatches and challenges

I've just attended the annual EDEN (European e-learning and distance learning network) conference in Dublin and it's time for some post conference reflection.

The standard of the keynote speakers at the conference was very high and all made excellent contributions but the strongest impression in my opinion was the address given by the Irish President, Mary McAleese (read the speech). The fact that the country's president addressed a conference on e-leaning was highly significant but what really mattered was that she spoke with a clear understanding of what we work with and with a shared view of how technology can radically change education by reaching out and empowering people in new ways. I've heard many dignitaries (principals, politicians etc) opening conferences with glossy platitudes and sound bites but this time there was a clear understanding behind the words. Her address was as much a keynote speech as the other experts. Getting the chance to briefly meet her afterwards put the icing on the cake. My favorite president! Read more on this on Steve Wheeler's blog.

The main theme of the conference for me was one of mismatches. The opening keynote by Sir John Daniel set the tone by offering both good news and bad news. On-line and distance learning (ODL - yet another TWA, three word acronym) is booming all over the world yet opposition is also growing. Universities are offering online courses but have seldom any clearly stated goals or strategies for the field. Quality controls are often sadly lacking and it's no surprise therefore that success rates are low. This ad hoc attitude to ODL means that potential cost savings are not realized and often the online courses end up costing more than they should leading to increased criticism from traditionalists. Daniels urged the conference to focus on eliminating the rotten apples and focusing on quality.

There's another mismatch in this question. Even if we have ambitious European quality initiatives for ODL such as UNIQUe and OPAL (Open educational quality initiative) there are extremely few institutions interested in becoming certified. Maybe the reason is that the major university rankings are based on research rather than teaching and so they focus all efforts in climbing the rankings by attracting more research funding. Until quality assurance for ODL is widely accepted and implanted there will always be a credibility debate. Daniel closed with a provocative statement that we may see a future where public institutions focus on research and the teaching is left to for-profit institutions, as is beginning to happen in the USA to a certain extent.

Another mismatch often discussed is that although ODL demands new skills and expertise it is often assigned to the least experienced teachers. This, combined with the points above, also leads to quality issues unless clear strategies, routines and support are in place to support the responsible staff.

On a slightly more mundane note a further mismatch was that this conference, brimming with laptops, mobiles and iPads, was held at a venue that had a severe lack of power sockets. Lecture halls had a couple of sockets at the front for the lecturer but otherwise you were unplugged. This meant that even the most hardened net-enthusiasts were sometimes forced to take out the old pencils and paper. Time for universities to embrace the opportunities the net allows for education. Lecture halls are built for one way communication and we need more rooms for dialogue (both face-to-face and online) instead.

I'll compile a list of quotes from the conference in the next post so stay tuned.

Read Sir John Daniel's keynote: 20 year of distance education in the garden of EDEN: good news and bad news.

See all the keynotes: 20 June, 21 June, 22 June.

All keynote presentations (slideshows)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Brazil shows the way for open educational resources

IMG_0309 by reanetbr, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  reanetbr 
OER seminar at the Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly by reanetbr / CC BY

Although grassroots initiatives to encourage the development of open educational resources are essential they can only have limited impact unless there are clear policies and strategies from the top to nurture them. That is the main conclusion from a Swedish OER project that I have led over the past year (read an article on the project). There are plenty of resources, repositories and good examples from many universities and schools but unless there is an overall national strategy there will only ever be islands of innovation and no mainstream impact.

I've just been pleasantly surprised by an article on the Creative Commons website, Brazil introduces OER into federal legislation and adopts local government policy. The Brazilian government has just passed legislation requiring government funded educational resources to be made freely available under Creative Commons licenses. Furthermore, work produced by state employees (ie teachers at all levels) in their official capacity must be made freely available as OER.

This seems to be common sense to me and it’s amazing that this move even creates media interest. If we are paid with taxpayers’ money our work should be available to those who pay for it; the general public. Instead, most of a university’s production is locked away from public view and there is far too little cooperation to minimize the weekly reinvention of the wheel. If we really wanted to find more money to invest in better teaching and research we need to encourage the open sharing of resources. Good ideas must be shared and spread, teachers encouraged to network and collaborate on course development and institutions discouraged from all producing their own slight variations on the same course.

The Brazilian legislation will probably not have much impact on the government here in Sweden or in many other European countries but I am convinced that we must take this step.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Attention seekers

There's an recent article in Times Higher Education that raises an important issue but could lead to people making the wrong conclusions. The article, US unplugged: manifold benefits of disconnected learning, discusses the problem of students using laptops and mobiles in class and as a result not being able to concentrate on what the teacher is saying. I've written on this topic many times and am worried that this sort of article will produce knee-jerk reactions like banning technology in class or give the tech-skeptics justification to remain in their shells.

The article tells of research showing that students can concentrate better if they are tech free and evidently some lecturers are banning computers and mobiles in class. I agree that the distractions of the net are sometimes simply too tempting and that it can be extremely frustrating trying to teach a group who are all staring into their screens. However we should not just believe that this behaviour is restricted to students. We older adults are just as bad in my opinion - just look around you the next time you attend a conference.

The trouble with banning technology is that it doesn't address the problem. If they weren't checking Facebook they'd be gazing out of the window, doodling, reading a newspaper. All the things we did during boring lectures in the seventies. People who aren't engaged are easily distracted and logically if the classes are stimulating the distractors will be less tempting.

However I realize that even the most engaging subject matter and enthusiastic teacher can have difficulties reaching students hiding behind their screens. The skill of paying attention needs to be discussed in class. When should you unplug the tech and concentrate on the people in this room right now. You don't ban technology but you need to discuss a framework for its use. As Howard Rheingold has written so often we need to reteach attention. We need to develop the skill to know when to switch off devices and concentrate and when to switch on. You go online to network, search for information and collaborate but when you're discussing or brainstorming in a face-to-face group you need to concentrate on that interaction. We all need to know when to go unplugged, both students and teachers.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Inspiration from Uruguay

Uruguay is the first country in the world where all children in public primary schools have their own laptop. Yes you read correctly. Whilst so many much richer countries agonize over the pros and cons of technology in the classroom they have just gone out and done it.  Of course this development has been built on the One laptop per child initiative and the inexpensive, no frills XO laptops but it still demands commitment from government level and a clear strategy; something that is sadly lacking in many richer countries.

The scheme has been a great success as the film below clearly shows. These children are learning 21st century skills whilst many children in Europe and North America are still learning as their parents did. Interestingly the film includes interviews with parents and teachers who have learnt from and been inspired by their children's success with their laptops. The children have helped the adults to become more digitally literate.

There are now plans to build on this success as can be seen in an article on the World Bank's blog EduTech, What's next for Plan Ceibal in Uruguay?. Now all public secondary schools will introduce one laptop per pupil and all schools will of course have internet connections.

According to the article the next ambitious stage in Uruguay includes the following measures:
  • the conversion of all secondary and technical school (and some primary school) science labs into 'digital labs', utilizing sensors and other 'probeware' devices
  • the piloting of new educational robotics curriculum
  • new online nationwide mathematics contest
  • the expansion of pilot efforts in online assessment and evaluation
  • a roll-out of Plan Ceibal into kindergarten classrooms on a voluntary basis (teachers submit plans to Ceibal for funding)
  • the regular refreshment/replacement of OLPC XO laptops already delivered
  • a new Plan Ceibal Digital Library, to include 100+ books and other educational materials (such as those from the Khan Academy), hosted on local school servers
Wouldn't it be nice if our educational decision-makers took a closer look at examples like this?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Head in the clouds

iCloud by AJC1, on Flickr
The forecast for the next few years in the tech world is very cloudy. A few weeks ago saw Google announce the new Chromebook, a computer-like device that has a browser and precious little else in it. Since you can do just about everything in the cloud today what's the point of having all those applications in your computer? Goodbye computers and all the complicated maintenance they entail. If all your applications and storage are in the cloud you don't need to fetch updates, buy anti-virus protection, configure, clean and all the other routines you hate.

This week it's Apple's turn to grab the cloud computing limelight with the new iCloud concept. The idea here is to move all the apps on your Apple devices into the cloud and enable you to access everything from any device (as long as its an Apple device of course - that's the catch). Your e-mail, documents, photos, films and most importantly music will all be stored remotely instead of on one computer as today. If you make changes on one device they will apply to all devices making it irrelevant which one you use. You can start reading an e-book on your laptop and then continue reading on your iPad for example.

I get frustrated with the current situation where I have all my iTunes material on one older computer and can't work out how to move all the music to a newer computer. It's not easy and I cynically suspect that that was the intention. Also iTunes needs regular updates which tend to pop up when you least want them and take consideable time to download and install. To avoid all that hassle and to be able to access everything without all those syncing sessions at home would be heaven.

What does this mean for education however? Well everything really since it will accelerate the shift to cloud computing making all computer labs obsolete and forcing the IT departments to reinvent themselves. There's a good article on this on the blog Apps in Education called What iCloud means for Education - You can "iCloud it".

I really hope that the move into the cloud will make IT more user friendly. There's simply too much tech in today's computers for the average non-techie to cope with. Few people really know how to upgrade, install patches, check security, fix bugs etc and even fewer actually find such things interesting. If cloud computing lets us easily access services without having to mess around under the hood all the better. The only worry I have with this move is that the main players (Google, Apple) want us to subscribe to their walled garden. The iCloud solution is probably going to be very easy to use, secure and cool as long as you accept the limitaions. It may be that we have to sacrifice freedom for ease of use and convenience. I hope not but that's the way it generally goes in business.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by  AJC1 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The classroom syndrome

Why do we keep on arranging meetings when we have much more engaging alternatives available via the net? Let's face it, an awful lot of meetings are extremely tedious and tend to be dominated by a handful of participants. Of course it's good to meet each other now and again but many people sit through a 2-3 hour meeting without saying more than a couple of sentences (although they may have a great deal to say if they got the chance). Notes may be taken during the meeting but are seldom shared and collaboration is very rare. Sadly, monologue is the most common form of communication.

This is the focus of an article by Andrew Marcinek on Edutopia, Stop meeting and start connecting and sharing. Instead of so many ineffective and time consuming meetings the author suggests using collaborative web tools like Google Docs to encourage everyone to contribute but not necessarily at the same time. Information can be shared on the common document and everyone is able to contribute when they can during the day. Those who would not have been able to attend a face-to-face meeting can now fully contribute.

"This type of meeting also allows the participants to work more productively under a deadline, and revisit points of interest along a timeline -- the document has a revision history option that allows users to look back through every revision made on the document. Finally, a shared document like this, that is open and transparent, allows all parties to continue sharing, growing, and reflecting."

Meetings are another example of what I'd like to call the classroom syndrome. Just as we simply cannot imagine learning taking place without some kind of classroom structure in place (physical or vitual) we have great difficulties in escaping from the tradition of having meetings. The technology is available to allow us to find more creative and rewarding ways of learning/meeting/teaching but we keep returning to the comfort of the traditional form. We use technology grudgingly to allow variations on the traditional theme instead of starting afresh and thinking "how can we work/learn more effectively using the new opportunities provided by technology?"

Monday, June 6, 2011

The education bubble

Is higher education a bubble waiting to burst? That's the question asked by Trent Batson in his column on Campus Technology this week, Is higher education ready for the 'the education bubble?' With tuition fees ever rising and a growing mismatch between the education provided and the expectations of an increasingly global and digitized industry the question is whether higher education is worth the investment.

The trouble is that even if it is clear that the net is radically changing society, universities seem generally paralyzed, unable to recognize the changes taking place and deeply rooted in traditional concepts of learning and teaching. Batson is not confident that they are capable of changing:

"Can institutions that have invested so heavily in a guiding concept of learning transform themselves? Probably not. Institutions work to preserve the status quo; preserving the status quo is perhaps the main goal of any institution: After all, one fundamental purpose of “institutionalizing” anything is to make it permanent."

He is not suggesting that traditional four year campus education will disappear any time soon but alternative learning arenas will develop that will offer more flexible and more work-related options. The process of radical change in higher education has not even started since it entails a complete revision of every level of the institution. New technology can transform education just as it has transformed so many other aspects of society but it is not being allowed to because it forces institutions out of their comfort zones.

Another good article on a similar theme is by José Picardo, The case for online social networking in education. His post is more aimed at schools than universities but the message is similarly relevant:

"The internet – with its social networking and communication – provides us with a way to evolve teaching and learning to a level that better matches our 21st century students’ needs as well as their expectations – although it may be pretty standard for you, you can understand that a child born in the year 2000 might consider writing a letter a bit old-fashioned.
By putting the children first, we can then begin to imagine a new pedagogy in which teaching and learning are upside-down, focusing on the needs of the children, rather than those of the adults tasked with their schooling.
A child’s imagination is boundless. Just for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a child and imagine. Imagine new possibilities.
And while you’re at it, keep reminding yourself that your job is not to teach, but rather to ensure learning happens."

Excellent articles both of them but, as always, they seldom reach the eyes of those who most need to read them.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Just ban it!

The internet is a reflection of our society and reflects the whole spectrum of human activity from inspiring ideas and research to the worst depravity imaginable. The media tend to give publicity to the worst aspects of the net and as a result many people see it as a frightening arena; a place where identities are stolen, crimes committed and it is all too easy to lose control. It's not the sort of place you want your children to roam freely in. As a result many schools have strict firewalls that block social media services like Facebook and YouTube and ban the use of mobiles.

All the things not to do... by RipperDoc, on Flickr
There certainly is a lot to be wary of and children (and adults) need to be careful and know how to avoid the threats that do exist. The trouble is that even if you ban, say, YouTube in school the kids can access whatever they want the minute they leave the building. Instead of taking the easy way out and just banning everything, why not help pupils to use the net responsibly, search more critically, find ways of filtering information and taking responsibility for their online presence in, say, Facebook?

That's the subject of a good post by Tom Barrett called Blocked for me, open for you. Schools in the UK (and no doubt most other countries) ban different websites and there's no consistency in this. One school can have a highly open and permissive attitude and a school just along the road may ban just about everything. Barrett has set up a site to highlight these inconsistencies by getting people to tick off which tools and sites are banned in every local authority in the country. That way you can wonder why YouTube is banned in one town and not in another.

Schools' attitudes to technology vary alarmingly from region to region and even neighboring schools can have completely different approaches. One school offers all pupils laptops, wifi, e-books and online course administration whereas another school is stil run as it was 20 years ago. This threatens to further accentuate the digital divide. After so many years of trying to create a school system where everyone has equal opportunities and equal access to knowledge we seem to be busy reversing the process.

As more and more teachers use social media as an integral part of their teaching and are trying out new ways to extend the pupils learning beyond the limits of the classroom, it's time to really discuss how open school should be. By creating a web survey highlighting the inconsistencies and arbitrary decisions made about social media Barrett hopes to stimulate a more mature discussion. Too often decisions about banning services are made over the teachers' heads and sometimes due to misconceptions about the supposed "dangers".

Photo: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  RipperDoc