Sunday, October 23, 2011

It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it

Does technology improve learning? Will results improve if all school pupils have laptops? Two frequently asked questions by tech skeptics and the answer in both cases is probably no. Technology on its own is not going to make people learn more and no amount of laptops or wireless broadband capacity is going to make pupils and students more insightful. At the same time we have no evidence that books make people learn better or that lectures have any effect on learning. You can have access to all the wisdom in the world without actually learning anything from it.

The key to learning is how all that information is woven together, the discussion that arises from it and how people discuss and develop those ideas. The central role in this process is that of the teacher, providing the context and inspiring reflection and inquiry. If that role is not developed then no amount of investment in resources will make a difference (whether they be physical or virtual resources). This is clearly stated in a blog post by Dennis Pierce, On ed tech we're asking the wrong question:

"Few people would suggest that textbooks—by themselves—hold some larger power over whether students learn. But if we wouldn’t expect this of textbooks, then why should we expect it of educational technology?"

We seem to be preoccupied with asking the wrong questions.Technology never promised to be an instant cure. It all depends on what you do with it. Too many initiatives buy the hardware first and then wonder what to do with it. We need to invest much more in helping teachers make the most of all the exciting tools and methods that the net can offer today. We need more vision, strategies and above all leadership in helping all sectors of education become relevant for the 21st century instead of entrenching itself in the structures and practices of the 20th century.

"Technology can facilitate this learning process; it can open up new avenues for learning; it can provide teachers with useful information about their students, and it can point children to lessons geared toward their particular needs. It can do all of this in ways that are clearly superior to other resources or methods of instruction. But technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For technology to have an impact on student achievement, schools also need sound teaching, strong leadership, fidelity of use, and a supportive culture, among other things."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Quality matters

Here's a short film with an excellent selection of quotes from the EFQUEL Innovation Forum 2011 that I attended in Portugal in September (read my post on the conference).  Statements on the importance of quality in e-learning and the spread of open educational resources from the main speakers at the conferences such as Wayne Mackintosh, Asha Kanwar, Ulf-Daniel Ehlers, Claudio Dondi, Steve Wheeler and many more. There's even a contribution from me in there. The overall message is simple but enormously challenging to everyone concerned with e-learning: creating quality e-learning leading to credible credentials. Get the gist of a whole conference in just ten minutes!

Monday, October 17, 2011

What did you learn in school today?

In the formal education system the main aim for most is to get the grades needed to get a good job. Passing exams is therefore hard currency allowing you access to well-paid jobs, and so students everywhere learn to give top priority to tasks that will ensure that they pass the next hurdle. It's no surprise then that many are willing to take short-cuts to success by cheating in ever more ingenious ways. That's the theme of an article in Mind/Shift called What's behind the culture of academic dishonesty?.According to the article cheating in higher education is at an all-time high and even the most gifted students are doing it to ensure they get the top grades they need.

Day 23 - Exam hall by jackhynes, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  jackhynes 

An article in Psychology Today (School is a Breeding Ground for Cheaters) by Peter Gray of Boston College argues that the present school system is to blame. You're not at school to learn, you're there to learn how to pass the tests. That's how students and schools are judged and we seem to be increasingly obsessed with league tables showing how effective schools are. This leads of course to schools teaching how to pass the tests to ensure that they move up the rankings. It's a destructive circle.

"Students become convinced that high grades and advancement to the next level are the be-all and end-all of their school work. By the time they are 11 or 12 years old, most are realistically cynical about the idea that school is fundamentally a place for learning. They realize that much of what they are required to do is senseless and that they will forget most of what they are tested on shortly after the test. They see little direct connection--because there usually is none--between their school assignments and the real world in which they live. They learn that their own questions and interests don't count. What counts are their abilities to provide the "correct" answers to questions that they did not ask and that do not interest them. And "correct" means the answers that the teachers or the test-producers are looking for, not answers that the students really understand to be correct."

In stark contrast look at all the learning that takes place away from the classroom. Many pupils and students who go through the motions of learning in school become passionate learners in their "spare" time pursuing their own interests, whether it be motorcycle maintenance, geneology, gardening or following a favourite football team. Learning for the sheer pleasure of discovery and becoming an expert in your particular passion. Think of how much energy people put into this type of learning; hours of reading, long discussions with fellow enthusiasts, endless practice, trial and error until mastery is achieved. There are no exams and nobody cheats - there's no point.

Just imagine that level of devotion applied to school or university work. People love to learn if the motivation is from within and even if there are no tangible rewards apart from sheer pride in being good at something. Whenever we put grading and financial rewards into the equation the stakes are raised and corners are there to be cut. We need to look more closely at informal learning and learning psychology and find ways of making the formal system more meaningful.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

AR - through the looking glass

A few years ago you saw people in town walking or standing with a mobile phone at their ear, talking. Today most people hold their mobiles in front of them texting, checking e-mail or watching a video clip. But in the near future we'll be holding the mobiles in front of our eyes and looking at the world through the eye of the mobile. At least that's what the developers of Augmented Reality (AR) are hoping. By watching the world through our mobiles we get an overlay that provides information about what we see: menus from the restaurants we pass, information on tourist attractions, what rooms are available at the hotels we pass etc.

An article on the site PSFK, Augmented reality: fad or the future? includes the following videoshowcasing potential uses for augmented reality. I've shown several AR videos on this blog in the past and the number of possible applications keeps growing. This article wonders if we really will wander around looking at everything through the lense of our mobile devices but it's no stranger than today's mobile habits. The question is whether we will dispense with the small talk at social gatherings and instead check everyone's details first via AR. Before you've even said hello you will have been through the person's LinkedIn and Facebook profiles and checked out their online CV. Standard chat-up lines like "Haven't I met you somewhere before?" just won't work any more.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Off course

My first Arabic story!
During the spring I started learning Arabic at an evening class in town. I did most of the learning at home and on train trips but the weekly lesson time was a good reminder to keep working and gave me a framework for my learning. We all need a bit of structure in our lives and activities without deadlines tend to get pushed down the to-do list. I continued on my own over the summer but at a much slower pace and very irregularly. I'd like to continue the course but it was cancelled because there were too few participants. I write so often here about self-directed learning that I should be able to continue without the help of a course but I realise that I need those deadlines and a bit of pressure.

How many people sign up for courses at all levels only to be told that there aren't enough participants to start the course? People with ideas, plans and lots of interest. How many give up their dreams there and then? How many come back next term? Here's the limitation of building learning around the classroom paradigm; if the course doesn't run, no learning. It's a supply and demand market but should learning be dependent on such forces? If the course doesn't run just find a group on the net with a similar interest and learn together. Those are the skills that will be needed in future and need to be taught all through school. The art of helping yourself, networking and learning together.

I'm sure there are opportunities on the net to continue my studies. I've got lots of self-study material as well as podcasts and so on but I realise that I need the motivation provided by regular meetings/checkpoints (face-to-face or online) to push me onwards. Any suggestions?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Digital literacy for all

Most media focus is on the glitzy new devices rolling off the production lines at Apple, Samsung, Dell and company but we tend to forget that these are virtually impossible dreams for the vast majority of people in the world. Students and pupils in developing countries have no chance of affording an iPad, a Blackberry or a Kindle but they do need to lean the digital skills that will lead to qualified jobs in the future.

That's why it's good to know that there are companies producing affordable devices that may lack the bells and whistles of the market leaders but they provide people with a platform to learn. First there was the One laptop per child initiative that saw Uruguay become the first country in the world to provide laptops for all primary school children and several others have followed. Over 2 million pupils and teachers are now part of the global OLPC project. The low priced XO laptop has now spread to schoolchildren all over the world and is extremely simple, robust and energy-efficient. The laptops have been sent directly to countries' education ministries and have then been distributedto the schools just like textbooks. The result is that several developing countres have a far greater level of digitalisation in schools than many European countries (including Sweden).

There's more good news for affordable technology with the recent launch of an Indian tablet called Aakash (sky in Hindi) that has most of the features of the more famous touch-screen tablets but retailing at only $35-$50. Initial plans are to distribute 100,000 of these to selected university students over the next few months before rolling out fully. For most students this enables them to fully benefit from the educational resources available on the net in a country where standard devices are far beyond a student's allowance.

Watch a TV report on the Aakash tablet from Al-Jazeera.

Here's a report on the story from Newsy videos:

Watch India Unveils $35 Computer Tablet for Students in News  |  View More Free Videos Online at

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Edit your life

Is editing a 21st century skill? This inspiring TED talk by Graham Hill urges us to review the clutter in our lives, create more space and reduce stress. I can strongly identify with this message since I definitely have too much stuff and now feel inspired to do some editing; both with physical possessions but also with the digital clutter that leads to stress and worry. Time to clean up the e-mail in-box, all those old documents on the hard drive, photo albums on Facebook. Maybe tomorrow.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Language matters

We native speakers of English have a tremendous advantage. We are able to use our native language and can make a good impression at conferences with relative ease. Everyone else however has to present their complex ideas using a language that is sometimes their third or fourth language. I have heard many faltering presentations at academic conferences by non-native English speakers where the speaker has not been able to do him-/herself justice because of language difficulties. I often wonder how good they could be if only they could speak freely and whether it would be a good idea for some conferences to arrange for interpreters so that at least 2-3 official conference languages could be used. Interpreters may well be an expensive option but they would give more participants a voice.

In the spring I attended a conference in Spain where 4 languages were used: Spanish, English, French and Italian. Interpreters sat in booths and did a magnificent job translating everything in all combinations of languages. We had panel discussions where every member used the language that they felt most comfortable with and everyone simply plugged in a headset when the language changed. The result was that many people who would have been silent in an English-only conference were able to speak on an equal footing to the English speakers.

I also notice a tendency of native English speakers (maybe even me!) not to make any allowance for the fact that the audience is mostly non-native speakers by speaking at full speed and using idiomatic English. We need to be more aware of what it's like to listen to a foreign language all day long and be expected to contribute to complicated discussions on themes that you understand but cannot formulate well enough in that language. The native English speakers are generally very vocal at conferences but how do we give a voice to those who may well speak several languages fluently but non of them is English? It's convenient to assume that all academics can speak English but it acts as a strong filter, empowering many but disempowering many more.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Why is public research not public?

Open Access by maolibrarian, on Flickr
Public money often funds research. That research is carried out by publically employed university researchers. The research findings are then submitted for publication and are peer reviewed by other university professors to see that the research is good enough for publication. Fine so far but here comes the catch that is attracting increasing controversy. This public research is then published in scientific journals that charge often very high subscription rates. University libraries then pay a large chunk of their budgets to get access to these journals so that students can read them. So more public money is paid to the publishers to see articles written with public money but which is inaccessible to the general public. Amazingly the researchers and reviewers get paid very little for their efforts. The reward for the researcher is of course academic reputation but the cost to public funds is unacceptably high.

In the last few weeks there have been several highly critical articles on this theme, for example Steve Wheeler, Sharp practice:

"For a long time I have felt very strongly that some academic publishers are operating a sharp practice by exploiting the goodwill of scholars. Large groups of lecturers and researchers act as journal authors and reviewers without payment, and then the publishers sell this content on to other academics at grossly inflated prices. Other highly knowledgeable academics give up their time, also for no payment, to review and advise editors on the content, and this can be painstaking work - read this by Martin Weller on the real cost of 'free reviewing'. This is not sustainable and must change."

The answer is of course the now widespread principle of Open Access where articles are published in open journals and are free to all. These journals have not yet achieved the academic status of the traditional publications but they are run by the academic community for the academic community. The peer review process is just as rigorous and the articles are available to the world. Many traditional journals now allow parallell publication whereby the article is also published in an open access journal, often 6 months after initial publication. However many journals still own exclusive copyright, effectively locking away public research from the public.

Last week the academic heavyweight Princeton University made a highly influential move in favour of open access by preventing staff from signing away the copyright to their articles to for-profit journals and insistig that articles also be made avaiable as open access. Exceptions to the rule must be first approved by the university. If Princeton can do this then many other prestigious universities may well follow suit. Read the details of this in an article in The Conversation, Princeton goes open access to stop staff handing all copyright to journals.

In that article the significance of Princeton's announcement is summarised as follows by Professor Simon Marginson (University of Melbourne): 

“The achievement of free knowledge flows, and installation of open access publishing on the web as the primary form of publishing rather than oligopolistic journal publishing subject to price barriers, now depends on whether this movement spreads further among the peak research and scholarly institutions.”

If university libraries did not have to pay millions of dollars/euros to pay for access to articles written by university faculty maybe they would be able to use that money to fund more important work like providing better support to students and faculty. Let's hope more universities take a stand like Princeton and work out a new way forward for scientific publication.

Steve Wheeler has posted a list of recommended open access scientific journals in a new post, The open case.

  by  maolibrarian