Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Changing campus

In a meeting this week I was presenting arguments for investing more in distance education. One objection was raised that if we have too many online courses we won't be able to fill our campus places and our classrooms won't be used so much. That's both right and wrong. On the one hand it's normally the case that online students study that way because they don't want to move to campus (because they are already established in their home town with family and career there) and therefore distance learning is not a threat to campus. On the other hand however it is a valid argument since as we move even campus courses online there may not be such a need for the classrooms and lecture halls.

The latter argument is well discussed by Tony Bates in an article Is online learning a waste of space? An increasing number of courses use blended learning (hybrid courses) where classroom teaching is combined with online discussion. Input (lectures) is recorded in advance and available on the net and much of the course's discussion and collaboration takes place in discussion groups and social networks. As more and more realize that there's little point in gathering students together simply for one-way communication there's more focus on using the classroom time as productively as possible. Not all campus students actually live on campus so when you demand that they gather there many have to travel across town or commute from the suburbs. You need to offer something really interactive to justify calling them all in. That means the classroom time will be more viewed more critically in the future and as a result there will be less need for classrooms, at least of the traditional design. There is also likely to be more focus on field work and project work in companies and organisations. The campus will not disappear but the infrastructure will certainly change over the next ten years.

As learning goes more online and as we realize that we can meet and discuss more flexibly, both physically and online, the use of campus floor space will radically change and some buildings may no longer be needed. This creates tension since the image of a university is so intimately tied to the campus buildings and environment. Venerable old buildings as well as shiny new ones are highly visible symbols of the university's academic status whereas a great virtual campus on the net does not attract such attention, even if it is likely to be more beneficial to students.

Bates wonders, therefore, if there are any studies on how online courses impact on campus infrastructure and whether any universities are planning accordingly.

"Also it means not looking at campus planning in isolation from plans for online learning. I don’t know of any institution that has tried to look at the costs and benefits of a move to online learning in this way (if so, please let me know!), but a more holistic approach to the planning of campuses and online learning could lead to improved efficiencies and even perhaps improvements in quality of the learning experience at the same time."

He concludes by asking the following questions and it will be interesting to see what answers come in:

1. Is the impact of online learning on physical space an issue that is appearing or has appeared on your campus? if so, how is it being handled? 
2. Do you know of any study that has looked at the impact of online learning on campus facilities? 
3. Is this a road worth travelling? Are the benefits likely to prove ephemeral or impossible to measure?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Music you won't enjoy

Repetition and patterns are the reasons we enjoy music. Here's a fascinating TED talk by Scott Rickard about the challenge of writing a piece of music that has absolutely no repetition or pattern but is not simply random. The technology behind sonar signals for submarines lies behind what is called the world's ugliest music. Pure mathematics actually. Enjoy - or not!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Twitter for academics

I've been using Twitter as a tool for work for almost three years now and it's one of the most important sources of information about work-related topics that I use. Very few people I know in Swedish higher education use Twitter and although I can understand a healthy bit of skepticism I think there should also be a bit more informed curiosity and willingness to experiment. Most colleagues simply can't see a use for Twitter and many see it only as a medium for updating friends about where you are or what you're eating just now. Twitter is sadly mostly associated with celebrities and chit-chat. It took me a few months before I realized the potential of Twitter but once I realized it just took off!

My Twitter Followers by Brajeshwar, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Brajeshwar 

However if you're doing research or just want to keep up with the latest news and articles in your field Twitter is invaluable. I've built up a network of around 400 people who I follow on Twitter (too many I suspect) and all work with various aspects of e-learning. I get a constant stream of links to relevant articles, news and videos that I can dip into any time and this forms the basis of my own blog posts and articles. I in turn tweet links to all the articles and news I find every day to anyone who wishes to follow me (@alacre).

A new guide has been produced by the London School of Economics to help academics discover the benefits of using Twitter as an integral part of their research activities, Using Twitter in university research, teaching and impact activities. This is a downloadable guide taking you through the most important features in Twitter and heling you to create your own network and using Twitter with your students. The contents of the guide are sumarised as follows:

  • Building your following and managing your profile 
  • Using Twitter to maximise the impact of your research project 
  • Making the most of Twitter alongside your own blog
  •  Using course accounts with students 
  • A step by step guide to adding a Twitter feed to Moodle 
  • Extra resources and links to blog posts and articles on academic blogging and impac

Have a look at the guide and I think you'll see that there are many benefits in getting started with Twitter. The authors of the guide are keen to get feedback so feel free to contact them at

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Quality is in the eye of the beholder

One of the key issues in the adoption of open educational resources in higher education is how to guarantee quality. When resources are shared freely on the net without the traditional publishing process of peer review and publisher approval, how can we know if that material is reliable or not? How can we build up processes for assessing the credibility of these resources so that teachers will be able to use them with confidence?

Stephen Downes has just written a highly relevant blog post highlighting some problems with the quality assessment of OER, in particular in the context of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). His article, MOOCs and the OPAL Quality Clearinghouse, is in response to the questionnaire on quality assurance and open educational practice as part of the Open Education Quality Initiative (OPAL). What really attracted my attention in the post was the idea that quality is not an objective attribute that is decided in advance by experts. The quality of a resource lies in the view of the beholder - how valuable is this for you?

There is not the presumption that (a) there is a single type of quality that applies to all participants, and (b) that this quality could be recognized by course facilitators. Accordingly, what we observe in a MOOC is that participants will cluster around different types of materials or media - for example, they may cluster around a discussion board, social network site, or virtual world. Quality is then indicated in different ways specific to those environments.

So in the open learning environment of the MOOC, where each learner has their own learning objectives and follows her/his own path through the material, the question of any pre-determined quality label is largely irrelevant since it is the process resulting from the resource that determines the quality for each learner.

'Quality' in a MOOC is defined not as the exceptional nature of published materials, but rather the richness and utility of conversation and discussions mediated by those artifacts and other activities. Hence, quality is determined post-publication, and even post-distribution, as an emergent property, and not aninherent property of the resource itself.

Downes' answers to the OPAL questionnaire raise a number of fascinating new issues about quality in open learning that need to be discussed further. One important aspect to remember, however, is that MOOCs tend to attract highly educated and digitally literate participants and the wisdom of the crowd will therefore work well. I'm not sure we can work in the same way with student groups who are less digitally literate and more accustomed to traditional teaching. I'm sure we do need quality assurance for OER but maybe we need to realise that in certain environments like MOOCs the need is not so great. I look forward to more on this.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

When in Rome

I remember a TV comedy sketch from way back (can't remember what show) about people who go back to ancient Rome in a time machine. When confronted by Roman soldiers one guy says proudly that he got top grades in Latin at school and he would do the talking. So he said proudly "voco, vocas, vocat, vocamus, vocatis vocant" (present tense of the verb to call) to the puzzlement of the Romans. That summed up what Latin meant to many school pupils of the past; endless recitations of verb and noun declensions without any understanding of what it was for.

I belong to one of the last generations who learnt Latin at school as a matter of course. Latin was simply an integral part of your education though few of us ever realised why. I studied it for four years but learnt very little, though I must admit I'm tempted to try again some time since I now see the point and would be highly motivated.

That's why I was intrigued to read an article in Mind/Shift, Can an Online Game Crack the Code to Language Learning, about a Latin teacher in Connecticut, Kevin Ballestrini, who has created a language learning game for Latin that has really caught students' imaginations. In the game students are taken back to ancient Rome to solve a mystery and where their progress through the game is dependent on them mastering various features of the language. Another fine example of how education can learn from gaming to make learning more compelling. The virtual environment makes ancient Rome come alive and the language has at last a clear relevance that we never had access to.

Another student observes a huge difference in how the game format has helped her learn this obsolete language. “I took Spanish for four years and I don’t think I’ve learned as much as I have in that class as I have in just two months,” said Caroline Scheck. “I can write sentences because we’re using it like we’re writing a story. As a child, you’d learn Latin by people speaking to you in sentences. You know how sometimes in languages you just learn words and then later on you use sentences? This time, we’re just learning it as if someone was speaking to us.”

They may not be as good as we were at identifying the ablative absolute (Hic rebus dictis: these things having been said - I'll never forget that!) but they can actually use the language in a constructive way.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The bookless library - good idea but there's a catch

Who needs books? by quinn.anya, on Flickr Continuing on the theme of e-books (see earlier posts Why students don't use e-books as much as expected and Library extreme makeover) I'd like to return to the subject of bookless libraries. We've already got banks that have no cash and the paperless office is fully feasible though seldom seen. So what about the bookless library? As sales of e-books and varieties of tablets, e-readers and iPads increase the need for libraries to be filled with books becomes questionable. So let's move out the books and journals and create the library of the future.

But is there a catch here?

There is a problem and that becomes clear after reading an article by Barbara Fister in Inside Higher Ed called The myth of the bookless library.The problem with collections of e-books and e-journals is that the library has to pay a hefty yearly subscription to gain access to them. If you stop paying you lose the collectiuon. Instead of winning freedom by going digital the library commits itself to often extortiate annual fees to maintain its virtual collection. The books you used to buy were not cheap but once they were on the shelf you knew what you had. Not so with much e-literature.

"When you know that a subscription you’ve been spending tens of thousands of dollars on will vanish if you fail to pay the rent, you trim where you can, and for the past thirty years, that’s been the book budget, which is more discretionary than those demanding subscriptions. No wonder university presses and other scholarly book publishers are banding together to license digital book collections by subscription. It seems the only way to guarantee your product will get into libraries is to charge a lot for something that disappears if you stop paying."

Interestingly there is no sign of print book production falling despite the hype. We've never printed as many books as we do now so they won't be disappearing any time soon. It's easy to fall into the trap of seeing all digital resources as free. Yes there are plenty of open educational resources and open access material out there but the publishing industry is busy remodelling its business for the digital market and there's a lot of money being made out there still. The transition to the bookless library will not be such a smooth one.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licenseby quinn.anya 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

PowerPoint is innocent!

Everyone loves to blame PowerPoint for boring presentations and dull meetings. But wait a minute, isn't it the speaker's fault if the presentation is boring? PowerPoint is just a tool and it's up to you how you use it and what you put on it. Have a look through this self-explanatory presentation that stands up in defence of poor old PowerPoint and instead points the finger at lazy users who don't spend enough time thinking about the message they want to communicate.

is it the car's fault if you're a bad driver?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Library extreme makeover

As the shelves of books become less relevant there's plenty speculation about the future of the public library. The library's future roles of digital information hub and learning space are well discussed. Traditional librarian skills such as information literacy and source criticism will be even more essential in the future as the vast amount of information mushrooms. Libraries may well need to change their name to encompass their new roles as they turn into community centres, learning spaces, information centres and cultural arenas.

3D Printer at the Fab Lab by kakissel, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  3D printer by  kakissel 

However there may be other roles for libraries to adopt and one possible avenue is described in an article on the excellent news site Mind/Shift, The public library, completely reimagined. The article describes a library in the USA, Fayetteville Free Library, that has recently been completely rebuilt and, in addition to the roles described above, hs also taken on the role of techshop or as they say Fab lab. Here visitors can borrow equipment such as 3D printers to design and produce plastic shapes and designs or a laser cutter. Basically you can learn how to use expensive and new technical equipment with assistance at hand and develop new skills and new project ideas. The library becomes a workshop and the fundamental idea of stimulating culture and education takes on a new dimension.

In the past, books were seen as a luxury so libraries gave everyone access to that knowledge for free. Now that books are accessible for all libraries can instead offer public access to new technologies that are beyond the reach of the average citizen. Devices and tools that would otherwise only be available to employees of major companies can be tested by anyone and in this way new skills can be learned and new ways of using technology may be discovered.

Librarian Lauren Smedley, one of those responsible for building the new library in Fayetteville, says in the article:  

"... libraries aren’t just about books. They are about free access to information and to technology — and not just to reading books or using computers, but actually building and making things."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why students don't use e-books as much as expected

We keep hearing about the boom in e-book sales, especially in the USA, but according to an article in Mind/Shift (Why aren't students using e-books?) students aren't using them as much as expected. You could interpret this as evidence that they prefer print format but the truth seems to be the lack of course literature available in e-format. A survey by e-book provider eBrary shows that e-book sales to students have leveled off over the last three years, whereas the mainstream fiction market for e-books is growing rapidly. But it's not because students don't want e-books; it's simply too complicated. According to the eBrary survey:

“the vast majority of students would choose electronic over print if it were available and if better tools along with fewer restrictions were offered.”

”E-Book auf dem Ipad”– Projekt 365 – by Stefan Bäsmann, on Flickr

Firstly there's a reluctance by publishers to release e-book versions of profitable textbooks and when they are available they cost almost as much as the print versions, despite the problem that you can't lend your e-book or resell it after the course as you can with a printed version. Then there are all the different formats available for different e-book readers, iPads and tablets. It's simply too time consuming and expensive and you can't just buy all your e-books from one place.

Students are becoming increasingly vocal against the high cost of textbooks and their built-in obsolescence - since they're revised each year the second-hand value is zero. E-books are the obvious way forward but the business model needs changing. Publishers are of course reluctant to give up a very lucrative business but the growth of free course literature on Wikibooks or Flat World Knowledge is a significant disruptive force. Integration with social media to create social reading also needs to be developed. The industry needs to streamline and focus on new models rather than simply preserving the traditional model.

"... it does highlight the ways in which students’ needs aren’t being met yet by digital content providers. That means there’s still a huge opportunity here to reshape what the textbooks of the future look like. Openly licensed content, for example, could address students’ concerns about sharing. Better social tools could help meet their needs for social reading and learning. Open educational resources could provide content, while an iTunes model of sorts — one that sold the “song” (or rather the chapter) rather than the “album” (the whole book) could save students money."

  Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Stefan Bäsmann 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Flipping the classroom

Here's a good diagram that explains the thinking behind the concept of the flipped classroom. The principle is that by using recorded lectures and examples the teacher can set the input as homework and use classroom time for practice, discussion and tutoring. In the traditional setting the pupils practice at home and when they get stuck the teacher is not there to help. Parents are not always a reliable option!

Of course this assumes that the pupils will actually watch the input at home at all. Then again the traditional set-up is not working either so it's well worth seeing if the flipped model can raise motivation.

Flipped Classroom
Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Adding the spark

I stumbled upon an old article in The Guardian earlier this week, Why do 60% of students find their lectures boring?. It is based on a 2009 study of student attitudes to teaching by Dr Sandi Mann and Andrew Robinson of the University of Central Lancashire. I've written several times about the limitations of lectures and the need to spend classroom time on more interactive activities and let students access lectures on their computers or mobiles. This article breaks no new ground by criticising dull lectures but the interesting part was that students find even lab sessions uninspiring. According to the study the practical work sessions were even worse than the lectures.

"We might expect more hands-on practical sessions to be more engaging but, surprisingly, lab work and computer sessions achieved the highest boredom ratings in our study. One of the problems with lab studies is that the experiments the students conduct are often just controlled exercises where the results are already known"

The main reason for this is the fact that although the students were practising necessary skills the sessions were merely exercises following strict guidelines (ie. do it like this) and without any element of discovery and creativity. Doing is simply not enough, we need to be more engaged in the process and feel that we are discovering new skills for ourselves or in collaboration with our peers. Prescriptive workshops are similar to lectures in that they are clearly teacher-centred. The shift towards learner-centred activity is not an easy one for teachers raised on the traditional paradigm and it is all too easy to revert to old habits.

So what kinds of activities then will inspire students and pupils? How do we create engagement and enthusiasm? A superb example can be seen in an article and film on Mind/Shift, Technology Adds Spark to Science Education. The film, produced by KQED Education in conjunction with Northwestern University’s iLab, shows pupils using various laptops and tablets to perform virtual science experiments, create their own simulations and studies and interact with complex experimental equipment in labs on the other side of the world. The enthusiasm and creativity is clear and the fact that they can perfom experiments that could never be performed in the classroom (dangerous radioactivity experiments demanding extremely expensive equipment for example) adds to the interest. Instead of controlled and predictable training exercises they are interacting with the real world and with the teacher's help reflecting on their experience and learning together.

I just wish they would stop using terms like cyber-learning as if it was something just landed from outer space. It's about learning - with the tools and media available today.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The flexible smartphone

The mobile business has been so dominated by Apple, Google and Samsung in the last couple of years that the grand old master of mobility, Nokia, has been virtually on the ropes. However, last week they bounced back with a vengeance announcing a new line of very attractive smartphones using Microsoft's new mobile operating system, but even more impressive was demonstrating their new prototype flexible mobile. Called a kinetic device, the idea is that you control functions by bending and flexing the device. Instead of the finger movements that control most touch-screen devices today, Nokia want us to bend and twist our mobiles in an intuitive way.

Mashable's Pete Cashmore, writing on CNN (Why your next phone might be bendable) claims that this bendable mobile will herald an even more important breakthrough, the foldable screen:

"You see, the biggest limitation of any device these days is screen size. There's a constant tension at play: You can have a small screen that fits in your pocket (your phone) or a big screen for home use (a tablet computer). But you can't have both. Or can you?
The ultimate dream for these flexible displays is that they could roll up: Imagine a phone-sized device that could unfurl to be the size of a tablet"

Just around the corner are wafer-thin flexible screens that can be folded away and placed on any surface. Now that has enormous implications for us all. How about digital paper? As foldable and flexible as paper but a full screen that you can take anywhere. The race is on. Here's a short video showing Nokia's prototype.