Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Trends, predictions and black swans

As the year winds down the net is full of lists. Everyone is nominating the top ten hits/flops/trends of 2011 or predicting the equivalent for 2012. In technology it seems that touchless control could well be the next big thing. We've only just got started with touch screen mobiles and tablets and now we won't even need to make physical contact any more. CNN's Top 10 tech trends for 2012 predicts that gesture and voice control will feature heavily in 2012 whereas touch screen control will move into the laptop market that is still dependent on the trusty but now threatened mouse. They also expect bendy mobiles that allow you to control for example zooming or scrolling by flexing the device (as reported here actually!).

In terms of education tech the theme seems clear; open or closed. This year has seen significant advances in open education with the Brazilian ruling that educational materials produced by state teachers should be freely shared by Creative Commons licences and several other similar moves in other parts of the world. Stanford and now MIT have hit the headlines by offering free and open courses to the world and a partnership of universities launched the OER University initiative that certainly challenges many time-honored academic traditions. These developments are nicely summarised by Audrey Watters in a post called Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011: “Open”. There have indeed been many reasons to be cheerful this year in terms of open education but Audrey also points to some rather black clouds on the horizon. Parallell to the drive towards more openness we also see the industry giants trying to pull us into their own walled gardens and we also sense the academic publishing industry hitting back and defending its role.

"Will more universities offer opencourseware and demand open access? Will government funds help promote OER? Will these funding efforts subsidize open content from a closed set of “common” standards? Will “open” become the magical marketing term that giant education companies adopt? What happens to the open Web when companies like Facebook, Apple, and Amazon want to attract consumers to their Internet silos, and similarly what happens to open content when publishers must scramble to adapt their business models to a digital world?"

Openness is best but it can be hard to manage. How do we "organise freedom" as Björk sings in one of her songs. Quality open resources can be very hard to find and there's a bewildering range of sources. Many people in the end will sacrifice an element of freedom if they can have a reliable, easy-to-use and ready-made walled garden delivered by a big name company.

"What does it mean — culturally, technologically, philosophically — for example, that Google’s Chrome browser has now surpassed the open source browser Firefox for market share? Do folks really care if something is “open”?"

Dave Cormier, one of the leading MOOC pioneers, looks forward to 2012 with a selection of What if ... predictions, Seven black swans for education in 2012. He descibes his predictions as black swans;
"A black swan is a suprise event that changes the whole nature of a conversation."
What would happen if  some country/institution invests a pile of money in producing high quality free textbooks and making them available to the world? What if a university like MIT decides to start providing accreditation for open online courses? What if international students stop coming to our universities because they can get the same education elsewhere and much cheaper? What if a completely free learning management system really takes off? Some thought-provoking scenarios here.

2012 will feature much more openness in education but also a lot of reaction as the mainstream begins to take notice. So far most of the OER movement has been under the radar of university leaders and has been allowed to progress relatively unhindered. However when openness really begins to ruffle some feathers there will be a reaction.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

MIT up the stakes in open education

Open online courses at university level are gaining momentum. There are the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) run by George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier and colleagues, a wide range of open courses facilitated by Peer 2 Peer University and now Stanford University's headline grabbing Artificial Intelligence course with over 50,000 students. They all offer exciting new arenas for collaborative learning and offer people a chance to participate in a stimulating and challenging learning environment. However none of them offer full university credentials - yet.

The free students on the Stanford course took the full course but were not eligible for university credits. Instead they received a certificate from the teachers but without the Stanford stamp of approval. P2PU are experimenting with badges as a means of acknowledging student achievement and this may well lead to new ways of giving credibility to informal learning. Several universities are experimenting with MOOCs but noone is putting their name on any grades.

MIT and Boston by opencontent, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  MIT campus by  opencontent 

Enter MIT. As pioneers of open educational resources MIT have been openly publishing their course material for several years now via the OpenCourseWare initiative and anyone can access it and work their way through the courses. However there has so far been no support from the university nor have there been any credentials on offer. This week came the announcement of the formation of a new online learning initiative called MITx (see article MIT launches online learning initiative). A range of courses are to be offered free via a new online interactive learning platform; the course material, virtual labs, assignments and study guides will all be available online and students study together as in many MOOCs. At the end those who pass will get an MITx certificate. It's not quite the real McCoy but the MIT name is there. They insist that assessment will be as rigorous as on the full campus version and the MITx certificates will not become short cuts to credentials. The full university experience is still number one for MIT but for many people MITx will be the next best thing. Plus you don't have to move to Boston to study.

It's part of a clear strategy to extend the global reach of MIT. According to MIT President Susan Hockfield:

“MIT has long believed that anyone in the world with the motivation and ability to engage MIT coursework should have the opportunity to attain the best MIT-based educational experience that Internet technology enables. OpenCourseWare’s great success signals high demand for MIT’s course content and propels us to advance beyond making content available. MIT now aspires to develop new approaches to online teaching.”

The learning software will be open and other educational institutions are free to develop their own versions. One aim of MITx may well be to use it as an experimentation area for new learning technologies and methods with students and other institutions contributing to development. One question that springs to mind is whether the MITx certificates will become more sought after than those from smaller universities. Is there a risk that the MITx label could in some places have more credibility than local certificates?

A two tier structure is emerging in higher education. The mainstream system with both campus and online courses and a parallell open system free to all but without the same level of tuition and support. The latter form is the university's contribution to global lifelong learning. This is the rationale behind another exciting initiative, the OER University, that is being launched by a partnership of 14 universities. The demand for higher education is growing so fast today that we simply can't build or staff enough universities to keep up. Offering these free open courses does not involve great costs to the university, does not compete with the core business but helps meet the global demand for higher education. Then of course there's a good helping of positive marketing for the university included in the deal.

Read more in an article in Inside Higher Ed, Advancing the open front.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gesture control

Remote Control by sm3287, on Flickr If you've ever been alone in a friend's living room and decide you want to watch some TV the big challenge is finding the correct remote control to get the thing started. It's even more fun when you've mislaid the control and are virtually helpless without it.

But soon all this will be history and remote controls will be one more example of obsolete technology to tell your grandchildren about (see a list of other rapidly disappearing gadgets, Ten tech items you won't be needing anymore). Gesture control is hot technology and will very soon be helping you link up with your TV, computer and mobile, as reported in a BBC article, Touchless smartphones and TVs could be on sale in 2012. Motion capture technology is already established in Microsoft's Kinect and Nintendo Wii but now an Israeli company XTR3D is getting noticed for developing gesture control using 2D cameras to enable us to control our TVs, computers and mobiles by just waving our hands. Screens can be controlled from up to 5m with simple gestures enabling you to choose functions, flip between photos, scrolling a list or enlarging an image.

Here's a quick publicity film of what's in store. One advantage is that you don't get the screen stained with sticky fingerprints.

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licenseby sm3287

Monday, December 19, 2011

Future skills

Future Or Bust! by Vermin Inc, on Flickr
CC BY-NC-SA by  Vermin Inc 
21st century skills is a pretty well-worn concept by now but despite repeated calls from industry the education sector is still rather slow to react. The California-based Institute of the Future has now released a report called Future Work Skills 2020 and the findings are worth quoting here. They do not discuss what jobs or fields will be at the forefront in the years to come but have investigated which skills will be essential. The findings are brieflt summarized in an article in Gigaom, The 10 key skills for the future of work.
Have a look through the list and decide if schools and higher education are able to address these issues and if not, what needs to change?
  • Sense-making. The ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed
  • Social intelligence. The ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions
  • Novel and adaptive thinking. Proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based
  • Cross-cultural competency. The ability to operate in different cultural settings
  • Computational thinking. The ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning
  • New-media literacy. The ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms and to leverage these media for persuasive communication
  • Transdisciplinarity. Literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines
  • Design mind-set. Ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes
  • Cognitive load management. The ability to discriminate and filter information for importance and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques
  • Virtual collaboration. The ability to work productively, drive engagement and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team

Friday, December 16, 2011

Innovation yes, but not here please

Just about every organisation on earth has a business plan that claims to embrace innovation or welcome change. It's very easy to use buzzwords like these in strategic documents but another thing altogether to really encourage innovative thinking. The difficulty is that innovation is disruptive and means that we have to reassess our comfortable routines. New ideas lead to change, insecurity and the fear of not being able to adapt. The easiest strategy therefore is to dismiss the innovative ideas as impractical, too expensive or unrealistic and continue with business is usual.

This is the topic of an article on Psyblog called Why people secretly fear creative ideas. We are all creatures of comfort and once we're found a good strategy that works well enough we tend to stick to it. We tend not to welcome criticism of these routines and certainly not ideas that may force us to completely change the way we work. The article cites a study that showed how teachers tend to dislike creative pupils since they challenge the rules and ask too many questions. That applies in most organisations.

"... the more uncertain people feel, the harder they find it to recognise a truly creative idea. So as a society we end up sticking our heads in the sand and carrying on doing the same old things we've been doing all along, just to avoid feeling uncertain."

I think almost all of us who work with net-based learning and the use of technology in education recognize this scenario. In an already cash-strapped education sector the idea of radical change in the way we teach, the structures we've trusted for so long and the institutions we work for is rather frightening. It's going to cost a lot of money, take a lot of time and force us to revise many of our most deeply imprinted beliefs. The really worrying problem is the longer we delay and deny the more disruptive the change will be when it finally comes.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

YouTube for schools - all the good stuff minus the distractions

There has been a vast collection of educational video material on YouTube for years now, mostly under the YouTube EDU brand but even on TeacherTube as well as the open YouTube. However all these suffer from ads in the margins, irrelevant (and irreverant) comments and other distractions. Now Google has cleaned up the act with a new service YouTube for Schools that filters out the distractions and only allows the educational content to shine through. The idea is that schools and colleges can sign up, create an account and then fill their own channel with the material they want to use.


This is a strategic move by Google to help YouTube become accepted in schools that have so far blocked the service completely. YouTube for Schools allows schools to in effect censor what YouTube content students can access in school and teachers can create playlists and select from all the educational content without seeing the wilder side. An article on the Open Culture blog quotes a YouTube representative:

“We’ve been hearing from teachers that they want to use the vast array of educational videos on YouTube in their classroom, but are concerned that students will be distracted by the latest music video or a video of a cute cat, or a video that might not be appropriate for students,” writes YouTube Product Manager Brian Truong. “While schools that completely restrict access to YouTube may solve this distraction concern, they also limit access to hundreds of thousands of educational videos on YouTube that can help bring photosynthesis to life, or show what life was like in ancient Greece.”

 A welcome initiative though the downside is that the students can probably access the full distraction of YouTube on their own devices anyway. Also, somewhere along the line we still need to discuss issues like attention, distraction, source criticism and information retrieval so that they can find the good resources for themselves despite the distractions. We need to be careful of the line between benevolent protection and censorship.

Monday, December 12, 2011

When social media get too social

An innocuous and untalented video clip gets posted on a web site. Someone likes it and puts it on YouTube and before long several thousand people have seen it and passed the clip on via Facebook and Twitter to thousands more. In a matter of hours the clip has gone viral and out of control whilst the person who made it is still blissfully unaware of their new-found stardom. This is the scenario presented by Tom Scott in this TEDx talk.

The scenario he describes is not true (yet) but it's made up from several true stories and shows the potentially frightening power of today's social media. Certainly makes you think about taking control of your digital identity before it's too late.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Creative commons explained by a weasel, a crocodile and a goose

We need to keep spreading the word about Creative Commons in education so that we can share resources without having to ask permission. It's a simply system really but takes a little explaining before it becomes clear. There are lots of films and other resources out there to help people understand how CC works but this film is rather different. Explaining CC with the help of glove puppets and some baking.
The creator of this has a whole YouYube channel with lots more films featuring Randy Weasel and his friends. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Me and my iPad

When do people use tablets/iPads and when do they use laptops? This is discussed in an article I've just read on Google called Consumers on tablet devices: having fun, shopping and engaging with ads. They've surveyed the habits of tablet users to see what they do with them and when. The result is that tablets are mostly used at home for entertainment, reading and social interaction whereas the laptop is generally for work. Tablets are often used whilst doing other things, like watching TV or eating breakfast and we like to carry them around the house. However whenever we walk out the front door it's the laptop we generally take with us. It seems the tablet is finding its niche and that it isn't replacing the laptop, simply complementing it.

I've got the entire Apple family to help me through the day: iPod, iPhone, iPad and MacBook (honest, I'm not an Apple devotee, it just happened that way). All of them are at least a year old so I can't impress anyone anymore but it's interesting to reflect on how they are used. I too only use the iPad in the house, mostly for social media, especially flicking through news feeds and social networks via the excellent Flipboard. The laptop however is almost exclusively a work device but I take it almost everywhere since I try to be as paper-free as I can and I take most of my notes on the laptop.

If I try to rank my devices in hours of use the laptop is way out in front followed by the iPhone and then the pod and the pad bringing up the rear. They all get used but since I spend a lot of my life at work then the two most useful work devices get the most attention. The pad and the pod are almost exclusively for free time. I expected the iPad to replace the laptop and would still like that to happen but so far I haven't been able to fit it into my work routines other than for reading and browsing media. But now I realize I'm not alone in that respect. How about you?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Teaching the test

The educational debate in many countries centres around measuring the quality of schools and universities by their test scores. More and more league tables are produced and papers love analyzing the winners and losers. Schools that get good results will survive whilst those at the bottom of the league will be forced to close. This is creating a false sense of security since it assumes that the tests really do measure skill and intelligence and that everyone is honest. Neither of these assumptions, sadly, are true and as a result the system simply doesn't work.

This is explained in an excellent article by Jonathan Keiler in Education Week, When test scores become a commodity (subscription only article, some of it is quoted on Will Richardson's blogg). He argues that test scores have become commodities and trading is therefore not always honest. Since schools are paid by results and good results enhance reputations there is a great temptation for some to sugar the results to increase income and prestige. Teachers are judged as good if their students pass the tests and this can result in teaching the test. Competition between schools and between teachers means less collaboration and less sharing of resources. This in turn leads to everyone having to reinvent the wheel over and over again. The students may pass the tests but have they really learnt anything? Teachers who don't focus on tests risk being seen as incompetent. The result is a test factory that has little to do with producing the critical independent thinkers and innovative entrepreneurs that industry keeps asking for from the education system.

Schools could become little more than test-preparation institutes, ignoring subjects and skills that are not assessed, with faculty members who resent and distrust one another. Meanwhile, many honest and dutiful teachers will go down in flames.

Then there is the matter of student cheating. Keiler argues that the commodity approach invites this since test results become hard currency and when a commodity is valuable there will always be people tryig to cheat the system to earn a fast buck or two. That happens in most areas of society and it is no wonder that it also occurs in education.

Related to this is an article in the Washington Post, School board member who took standardized test, about a senior school board member who decided to try the tests that his school students had to sit. He failed spectacularly of course but his criticism and insight afterwards are interesting:

“It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities....
 It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.”

I'm not against testing. We all need challenges and ways of tesing our skills in realistic situations and we thrive on a certain level of competition. We need to focus on what and how we test so that students' futures are not simply decided by how they perform in an exam hall. There are plenty of excellent examples of meaningful assessment and examination but the debate keeps veering back to simplistic views of assessment and an unfortunate association between education and the market place. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Redefining e-books

We keep using new technology to repackage old concepts. A lot of e-learning has simply put classroom practice into a digital framework. You're still in a classroom and what goes on there is mostly or wholly hidden from external view and the material is mostly text-based. Recorded lectures are extremely popular today but again we're simply digitizing the tradtional format and even if many lectures are stimulating and sometimes inspirational we're not exactly breaking new ground. We simply create an alternative version of traditional practice without considering how new technology could actually chage the way we teach and learn.

The same is true in e-publishing. I've written many posts about e-books in the last year or so but I wonder if we should always define the new in terms of the old. Maybe the concept of book is firmly rooted in the printed version and when we make it digital it ceases to be a book? Why just digitize a winning concept - why not change the concept and make the electronic version something distinctly different? That's the theme of yet another good article I've found on Mind/Shift, Blowing Out the Digital Book as We Know It. E-books in black and white divided into pages and loaded on to specially adapted devices doesn't sound too innovative. Does material designed for today's laptops and tablets need to be in book form? Is page division still relevant?

A company called Inkling is trying to design a new form of interactive "textbook" (it is hard to escape the old terminology) that is interactive with fully integrated video, search and social notetaking. Instead of basing the digital version on a published print book they are creating the digital version from scratch. The video below gives you an idea of the concept.

Inking - A textbook case of innovation. from Inkling on Vimeo.

Another contender in this attractive market is Chegg who offer similarly interactive textbooks adapted for use on a tablet. Here's their demo video:

The article on Mind/Shift asks the ever popular question of whether these new forms of digital publishing add morevalue to the learning process than print books and the answer is, as always, that it depends on how you use them. No book adds to the learning process by itself - you need to do something meaningful with the content with the help of a teacher, colleagues or both. Computers, books, mobiles, blackboards, notebooks and so on do not lead to better learning; it's what you do with them all that counts.

Maybe books will not die as many predict. Print books are extremely effective for packaging say fiction and have the clear attraction of not being subject to battery power. Print books will certainly decrease in number but maybe we need to see the digital market as a new concept that will complement some areas of publishing, replace others and create new ways of sharing and constructing knowledge and learning.