Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Quality apps

The torrent of apps just keeps on flowing. There are millions of them out there and although there are plenty of excellent apps for education there are also plenty of less than excellent ones. Finding good quality apps is not easy and there's not much help out there even if you want to make a more discerning choice. App stores all have rating systems but they are often a poor guide since most voters give a simply thumbs up or down and little or no explanation. Many of the ratings are done automatically by bots. So how do you know what to download? Sadly there's no answer today.

This problem has been highlighted in an article on Mind/Shift, How do you find good educational apps?. Sifting through thousands on apps on iTunes or Google Apps is a frustrating process and you tend to rely on tips from friends or news articles. Some reviews are helpful but mostly it's a case of trial and error, not a particularly academic process. If apps are going to find their way into university courses and schools there must be quality criteria and ways of in some way certifying that the educational value of the app. Once again we need filters to be able to make more educated choices and it's not enough to only rely on the wisdom of crowds. Acquiring a lot of "likes" doesn't really count for much.

We need a credible peer review process for apps that are aimed at the education sector and some kind of approval stamp that educators take seriously. I read recently that the Danish Ministry of Education is planning to launch an app store for Danish schools by 2012 with approved apps (see article in Danish from ComputerWorld). This is a bold and admirable step and I think this official seal of approval is essential if mainstream teachers are going to take the plunge and try out mobile apps in their teaching. However we still need to develop some international standards so each country does not need to reinvent the wheel.

Read more on this theme in The world of children's apps: a shake-up? on GeekDad.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Textbooks go digital

Here's a nice summary of the state of digital textbooks and where they are heading. If any part of the publishing business needs to go digital it is this one. Too many school and university classes sit reading textbooks that are sometimes over 10 years old and how reliable are they as sources? Digital material can be updated continuously and kept relevant but they're unlikely to be as profitable as the printed versions have been for so many years.

As ever this graphic is probably on hundreds of blogs by now but good things are meant to be spread. Just click on the graphic to see a larger version.

Textbooks of Tomorrow

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Unplugged on the road

No internet connection by spentrails, on FlickrI travel a lot in my work and am privileged to have a job that allows me to visit so many fascinating places and meet so many people. However one aspect of being on the road really irritates me and that is connectivity. I've got all the devices you need to be able to work anywhere but for various reasons they aren't always able to deliver what they promise. Allow me to write a few paragraphs of general moaning.

First there is the problem of mobile coverage on trains. Train travel is excellent since it should allow you to work as you travel. The trouble is that, at least here in Sweden, the mobile networks don't follow the railway tracks and coverage is patchy and on many sections non-existant. Phone calls need to be made during stops at stations and as for accessing the net, you're really in trouble. Of course you can do a lot of work off line but I try to do most work on the net and am rather reliant on coverage. I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing that the mobile operators try to focus on providing coverage for rail passengers now that roads are well served.

Second is the problem of mobile data roaming costs. In Sweden I've got flat rate unlimited net access on my computer and mobile but as soon as I cross the border to, say, Copenhagen the cost rockets. The result is that I switch off virtually all connectivity as soon as I leave the country since the cost of simply checking e-mail can be steep. The only hope while abroad is to find free wifi and check everything then. I can't believe that the costs of mobile data rises tenfold just because I cross a national border but I suspect that the reason for the prohibitive roaming fees are to avoid the home networks being swamped. If we all had flat rate for all data access the bandwidth demand could outstrip capacity. If that's the reason please explain it to us all. If not I hope the EU and national authorities can find some way of pressing prices to acceptable levels. Then we would not have to find so many strange work-arounds like buying local pay-as-you-go SIM-cards just for a few days' visit and so on.

Thirdly, once you get to the conference centre and log on to the wifi and think all is well you look around for the nearest power socket. These generally seem to be very scarce and the few that exist have a flock of laptop users around them trying to share the same watering hole. Many times I've got all the cool technology but the batteries are dead and it's back to pencil and paper. Not alway a bad thing but conference centres need to address the power socket problem as soon as possible.

All the technology is in place to be able to work anywhere but there are still a few snags to work on. It shouldn't be so difficult to fix.

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License
by  spentrails 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


If you’ve ever been a scout you’ll know the motivating power of badges. A shirt sleeve full of them meant respect. We all love to collect symbolic evidence of what we know, who we know, where we’ve been, what groups we belong to and so on. Facebook and other social networks thrive on this. It’s all about belonging and showing who we are.
07jambadges0014 by J-W Brown, on Flickr

The last week or so has seen a lot of discussion in educational blogs about the concept of open badges to show competence in informal education. In the formal education system you earn degrees and certificates after passing set examinations and completing course assignments. However informal education has no such certification (that’s is of course why it’s called informal!). We probably learn most of our skills and knowledge informally, often without even realizing it. We learn by watching others, asking friends and colleagues, reading, searching, testing and by making mistakes. But it’s hard to convince others, in particular potential employers, that we have these skills since there’s no approved certificate. This is where badges come in.

The Open Badges project between Peer 2 Peer University and Mozilla is developing a system for awarding badges for demonstrated achievement in informal learning, awarded by institutions or groups of peers (watch a presentation of this project via the links at the end of this post). This principle has been in place in the world of open source programming for a while now and those badges are highly respected in that field. In some cases they can carry more currency than a university degree since they are awarded by fellow experts in that particular field. What Open Badges proposes is to have a system for awarding a wide range of badges for all types of competence. These badges can then be shown on your web site, Facebook or LinkedIn profile and so on. P2PU is already awarding badges in some of their courses (School of webcraft).

It’s important that the badges link to more detailed information about what requirements lie behind the badge and who has awarded it. It’s a way of making informal learning a little bit more formal. The key factor is credibility. Your badges will only be valid to those who understand what they represent and have respect for those who have awarded the badge. To others they will be meaningless. It’s essential that the system is transparent and it is possible to see what you have actually achieved.

Some people are, however, worried that this is simply commoditizing education and that badges will prove nothing. There’s a fear that we will drown in a torrent of meaningless badges awarded ad hoc and that may become as valuable as collecting “likes” on Facebook. As Jason Green wrote in his post on the subject (Badges – the Good, the Meh, and the Ugly):

“How will one ensure that the badges a person claims truly belong to them?  Since badges are digital, anyone planning to validate them is going to have to make significant investments in security and redundancy.  If your badge is hacked or the validator is no longer able to document its validity, the badge is worthless.”

A further worry is that badges are awarded for demonstrable skill rather than for general knowledge. How can we award badges for having an overall understanding of history or culture? Badges, like formal certificates, cope best with measurable skill-based competence.

The strongest critic of badges in the last week was Alex Reid who wrote two posts on the subject in quick succession. He fears that since badges may make you more employable they will become commercialised and a market will emerge. In Welcome to badge world he wrote:

"Perhaps one might find the notion of open badges appealing. Open meaning what? Anyone can open their own diploma mill, err I mean badge-selling operation? Of course not. Badges would have to be accredited by someone. Not sure who, but I doubt getting that accreditation will be free. How could it be? What open means is market-driven.Badges will have monetary value. People want them as a route toward getting jobs. They will pay for them the same way they pay now for college credits. When we look at all the free, DIY learning that is out there now, it's free precisely because it hasn't been commodified. You can download stuff from MIT's Open Courseware because that kind of learning has no commerical value. If you want to get a badge though, that's going to cost."  

Valid points one and all, but at the same time I think that if badges can encourage more people to invest time in learning and provide motivation to continue learning then that can't be bad. It's just one of many ways to reward informal learning and we need to keep experimenting. Watch this space.

Watch the sessions from EFQUEL Innovation Forum about open badges and certifying informal learning

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  J-W Brown 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Process more important than result

There was a  pre-conference day before the EFQUEL Innovation Forum devoted to user generated content (known to its friends as UGC). UGC is defined as free educational resources that have not gone through process of peer review. Often it is a web site, wiki or group blog that has been created by learners and freely shared. Generating content is an important part of the learning process by providing involvement, motivation and performance. This is the focus of an important European project called CONCEDE which aims to:

"... improve the effectiveness of teaching and learning by enhancing the quantity and quality of user generated content that can be incorporated into higher education learning provision."

The project aims at creating a quality framework for user generated content using a mix of users' comments, reviews and ratings as well as institutional quality procedure and find a way of creating a system of trust for UGC. If we can easily see that a learning resource has been endorsed by many and fulfills clear criteria we are more likely to use it.

Here's a film from Swinburne University in Australia describing the process of creating UGC, in this case a student wiki (see film on original site)

This type of quality control is essential work if UGC is going to be used in mainstream education. However, I wonder if the value of this type of content lies more in the process of creation than in the finished product? Creating a quality resource involves a wide range of skills: collaborating, defining, researching, categorizing, creating, adapting, editing and reviewing. The end product is a source of pride for all involved but the journey was the most valuable part. This was described by Steve Wheeler in his presentation as an example of paragogy – peers helping each other to learn in a collaborative process (push) instead of being “pulled” by the teacher.

However, once completed, it is often not as valuable as it was during the process of creation. Other learners may well use the material in their studies and some may even build on it but anyone wishing to investigate the same subject would probably try to start from scratch and build their own site. I have several abandoned wikis as a case in point. It was great fun while I was working on them but once I'd reached the end I just left them to their own devices. I don't think anyone has taken them over but their value to me was in the process not the result.

Maybe by having quality markers and reviews in place these resources will not fade and die but may find new curators. Anyone wanting to take care of my mothballed wikis is welcome to do a makeover!

EFQUEL Innovation Forum - opening up

This week I’ve been in Lisbon at the EFQUEL Innovation Forum 2011. EFQUEL is the European Foundation for Quality in E-learning and the theme of this year’s conference was Certifying the future. There is a vast range of learning resources freely available on the web and a bewildering assortment of courses at all levels that use these resources. The problem for everyone involved is creating trust and authority and this is essential for the acceptance of open educational resources in mainstream education.The conference focused on how to create quality assurance and credibility in e-learning.

IMG_9690-13 by JRandomF, on Flickr
Wayne Mackintosh
Wayne Mackintosh was one of the keynote speakers and took an active part throughout the conference. He presented the ideas behind the OER University initiative that is soon to start offering courses based completely on OER but leading to recognized university qualifications (read an interview with Wayne on the background to OERu). He repeatedly stressed that credible certification is the most important concept in the OER movement today. Can we offer higher education to more people at very low cost without compromising on quality?

He identified two misconceptions about OER that are often used as evidence against open education. The first is that if universities give away content for free they will go out of business. The value of a university is not in created content but in reputation, context and validation. The fact that many universities already “give away” their courses and at the same time keep growing and attracting students (Open University, Athabasca, MIT etc) seems to bear this out. The second red herring is that OER are not important due to poor quality. Indeed there are an awful lot of poor OER but since OER are produced by qualified educators it is up to all of us to make sure that the resources we produce are of high quality. Better tagging and quality assurance are essetial here.

The idea of the OER University is to offer learners access to course material based solely on OER, provide open student support and learning communities leading to assignments that can give real academic qualifications. However you don’t have to follow any set course to get qualifications. You can learn however you want and if you can fulfill the university’s criteria you will get a qualification. The vital part here is that there should be no compromise on the standards set by the university but how you get there is your business. In the near future I am sure we will see more institutions that concentrate on validating and certifying competence gained elsewhere.

OER University is, however, not trying to set up a new university. The qualifications will be awarded by one of the participating universities in the partnership (at present Athabasca University, Empire State College, Nelson-Marlborough Institute of Technology, OER Foundation, Otago Polytechnic, Thompson Rivers University, University of South Africa, University of Southern Queensland) so that you will have a certificate from a recognized and reputable university. This scheme is designed to reach out to students who would not otherwise been able to participate in higher education and is therefore not aiming to cannibalize on the universities’ main student base.

There is no real investment needed to be part of the OER University partnership, just a new way of looking at higher education. Wayne threw out the challenge to European universities to join the venture since no institution from this part of the world has so far shown interest. It will be interesting to see who will step forward.

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licenseby JRandomF

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Off-piste learning

Informal learning is becoming more organised (if that isn't a contradiction). If you want to learn something the net is full of free resources that can inform, inspire, instruct and provoke. There's no need to wait for someone to organise a course to attend, you just get started. Pick and choose from thousands of online lectures from the world's universities, read articles and open scientific journals, read blogs and participate in discussion groups. It's all out there but few people are able to really exploit these opportunities. Most people do not have the information literacy skills to find the material, make advanced searches, check the validity and so on. You also need to find others with similar interests who can support you and provide you with feedback. You need to find a network to help you learn.

So why not take a course in how to be a self-learner? This also sounds a bit contradictory but there are an increasing number of initiatives trying to help more people take charge of their informal learning by offering courses (albeit non-traditional courses) in how to do it yourself. Peer 2 Peer University has now teamed up with Anya Kamenetz, author of the book The Edupunk’s Guide to a DIY Credential to run an open and free course, DIY U: Getting started with self learning. It is due to run this autumn and I suspect there will be more of the same in the future. As with all P2PU courses it's very much student-driven and there's no traditional teacher up front to instruct. The course is divided into 4 main tasks: Write a personal learning plan, Build your personal learning network, Find a mentor, Demonstrate value to a network. These are the vital elements in being able to take charge of your own learning, whether it is for your career development or interest.

The phenomenon of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is another example of the meeting between formal and informal learning. Universities are arranging free and open courses without formal academic credits where students from all over the world can work through the tasks and collaborate around different themes. A hard core stay the full course whereas others are very active only on the tasks they feel most interested in. In addition there are always a large number of curious onlookers who don't really get involved but want to see what's happening. These "lurkers" are not a problem because many of them are just testing for future reference and may participate fully next time round. I know because I've been one!

Stephen Downes has now created a new site on how to run a MOOC, The MOOC Guide, with background, rationale, practice, examples and advice. This is very timely as more MOOCs are being launched and interest grows.I've only skimmed through the guide but it seems comprehensive and authoritative, as you would expect from one of the leading figures in open education today. Again these courses are all about building you learning network and developing it. Your network is not just a group of people who attend the same course for a few months, they will be there in the future too and your network will evolve and develop as you learn more.

Do it yourself education is not just about self study in front of your laptop. Learning requires communication and context. Doing it yourself means being able to build a network of people who can help you learn and who are also learning, though not necessarily the same things as you are. Defining what you want to learn, finding like-minded people and helping each other find material to discuss and work through are the skills that all schools and colleges should be teaching today.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Webinar - The missing link: connecting formal and informal learning

Next week, on Friday 16 September (09.45 - 11.15 Portugal time),  I'll be moderating a session at the EFQUEL Innovation Forum 2011 in Oeiras in Portugal (see venue pic on right).

It's part of a theme called Alternative certification and validation practices and I've entitled this session The missing link – connecting formal and informal learning. It's basically about how new forms of informal collaborative learning can somehow be assessed and gain acceptance from formal education.

I've decided to extend the reach of this session by using the e-meeting tool Adobe Connect and that means that any of you can drop in and listen to the speakers and chat with us. I'm keeping it simple in terms of technical production, using a couple of laptops, webcams and an echo-suppressing microphone so it won't be a blockbuster production.

Here's the description from the conference program:

The missing link – connecting formal and informal learning
The net offers enormous scope for informal learning and several interesting initiatives are attempting to provide frameworks for collaborative, student-driven learning, for example MOOCs, open courseware etc. In this session we will spotlight just a few of these initiatives and discuss how such informal learning can be assessed and certified and whether the formal higher education system can find ways of integrating these alternative structures. Representatives from OER University (Wayne Mackintosh), Peer 2 Peer University and Open Badges project (Erin Knight) and OpenStudy (Chris Sprague and Preetha Ram) will participate.
The session will take the form of an open webinar via Adobe Connect Pro with participants both at the conference and on the web. Speakers will have video feed but individual participants will be able to interact via a chat function. The virtual room will be opened to the public about 15 minutes before the start of the session and participants only need to click on this URL and log in with their own name.
The Adobe Connect room and technical support is provided by SUNET, the Swedish University Computer Network.

Watch the sessions

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The flipped classroom

Here's an excellent infograph that describes the principles behind the concept the flipped classroom. Basically the idea is that classroom time has always been devoted to teacher input in the form of a lecture and then most of the practice and reflection was homework. The flipped classroom principle lets students/pupils watch recorded lectures at home and use classroom time for practice, reflection and discussion.

We all remember sitting at home with school work that we didn't understand and wasting so much time trying to figure it out. If that had been done in class the teacher could have helped. Input should be available on the net and set as homework and when we have the students on one place let's use that time for learning not lecturing.

The Flipped Classroom
Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why is lecture capture so popular?

The lecture is one of the holiest rituals in education going back hundreds of years and therefore is seldom questioned. At its best a lecture can be inspiring, provocative and entertaining as many of the popular TED talks clearly demonstrate. However an awful lot of them are rather tedious and do not contribute  very much to learning. Yesterday's bored students doodled, read a magazine or daydreamed. Today's bored students chat on the net. Why do we still believe that you can get a hundred individuals in a lecture hall and expect them to all learn in the same way from a monologue? Shouldn't we study whether this form of teaching is effective? Lectures are a part of the academic furniture and no course is complete without at least one a week. Students expect to be lectured to and teachers are expected to lecture. Noone wonders if the emperor has any clothes on or not.

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

Today's technology gives us limitless opportunities to explore new pedagogies but instead we use technology to continue doing what we've always done. Online lectures are everywhere, freely available from iTunes, Academic Earth, YouTube Edu and almost every university's web site. They're very popular and many of them are indeed excellent. On the other hand many of them should never have been released.

That's the subject of a critical article by Mark Smithers entitled Is lecture capture the worst educational technology?. He's not against lectures when done well but the practice of simply recording every lecture on campus and putting it on the net is largely counter productive. A dull lecture is twice as dull on the net.

"Traditional lectures aren’t designed for online delivery. They’re too long. Their length is designed to fit in with the timetabling constraints of the buildings in which lectures take place not for any pedagogical reason. Why should this physical constraint be allowed to migrate its way into flexible online delivery?"

The answer is to divide the lecture into shorter sessions and record them with a net audience as the target. Smithers states that mass use of lecture capture is simply an easy way out for universities under pressure to show that they are keeping up with digital development. Filming lectures shows you are involved in online learning without having to change your methods and traditions. Universities who really use the potential of the net (like, say Open University or Athabasca University) have had to invest an awful lot of time and resources rethinking how they teach and plan courses. That costs money and forces a lot of radical changes. Not everyone is ready to open Pandora's box.

"The argument is that staff can deliver their material online but still maintain their traditional delivery practice as well. That is to say, all they need to do is click a button and they’re delivering material online. I’m not really quite sure why an ability to avoid providing staff development is seen as a positive attribute for an edtech but it would seem to the case here. Actually, I do know the reason, it’s because staff development involves cultural and organisational change within a higher education institution and that is much harder than installing servers and recording devices."