Wednesday, February 29, 2012

More mobiles than humans

Texting by ElCapitanBSC, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  ElCapitanBSC

Mobiles will soon outnumber us according to a new BBC article, More mobiles than humans in 2012, says Cisco. This means of course that a lot of people own several mobiles and millions have never even seen one. Mobile data usage is mushrooming and providing an infrastructure headache to operators all over the world. Evidently by 2016 global networks will be shifting 130 exabytes of data each year, equivalent to 33 billion DVDs.

Today's pupils and students will be working and living in a highly connected world where mobile devices will be the natural way to use the net. Isn't it therefore essential that we start using these mobiles in education instead of banning and blocking them?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The next best thing

The demand for higher education in the world far outweighs the availability of places in established universities. That is clear from studies and statistics from organisations like UNESCO, OECD and Commonwealth of learning. Low cost or even free online learning using freely available open educational resources and based largely on student-centered collaborative learning or self-study offers a feasible model for offering higher education to all.

I've written many times about the growing list of open education providers such as University of the People, Peer 2 Peer University, OERuniversityMITx, Stanford's MOOCsFaculty Focus and Ubacity and a recent article in Times Higher Education, Cap and gown learning on a shoestring budget, outlines the issues facing the higher education establishment and the challenge of the open education movement. At present few established universities are even contemplating validating or awarding credentials for studies in the informal sector but the question is whether it is so wise to ignore this movement. A new tier of higher education is being formed and whilst it does not have the status and credibility of the formal system it may well prove to be good enough for the millions who need access to education but cannot afford it. The next best thing could well become the mass market and why should education be an exclusive commodity?

In the THE article Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education, says:
"This is a period of significant transformation," she says. Broad sees higher education approaching a point at which people will be able "to snap modules together or link them in ways that produce what are sometimes called stackable credentials", including credits from, say, community colleges, universities, life experience and other sources, including open courseware. "There certainly is, I think, going to be competition, and by and large I think competition is a good thing," 

I've just discovered another important player in the mushrooming open education market; namely the Saylor Foundation who today offer a wide range of free online university level courses and programmes at They too build courses around open educational resources and  self-study but by combining this with student communities like OpenStudy you can form your own online study group to help you through the course.

" is a free and open collection of college level courses. There are no registrations or fees required to take our courses, and you will earn a certificate upon completion of each course. Because we are not accredited, you will not earn a college degree or diploma; however, our team of experienced college professors has designed each course so you will be able to achieve the same learning objectives as students enrolled in traditional colleges."

Saylor offers a wide range of courses in most academic fields and they even offer whole programs of study. You can study for example a full arts program including core courses and then a wide range of elective courses. Of course you don't earn "real" university credits for your efforts but as more people choose this form of education the interest in converting the results into some kind of educational hard currency (degrees or maybe badges) will increase. In the end new types of credentials will emerge and alternative paths to education will become accepted.

The formal university system isn't going to disappear but there's going to be a lot more competition. In the past there was competition from rival universities, then came the for-profit universities and now the open education providers. The problem for open education is that it often relies on the free availability of material and the willingness of dedicated enthusiasts to keep things moving. However the fact that some of the richest and most reputable universities in the world (MIT, Stanford) are also moving into the field shows that this is not just a niche for idealists and enthusiasts.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Gaming in the classroom

One of the most immersive learning experiences I've had was a course in business finance many years ago. We had two days at a conference centre to learn more about balance sheets, profit and loss accounts, budgets and so on. I had dreaded the course and was fully prepared to be bored stiff with only coffee breaks and meals to look forward to.

We were placed in 6 groups, each representing a company and proceeded to play a board game for the 2 days simulating several years of fierce competition between our companies. We had to build our companies, devise a business concept, plan operations, fix our budget and bid for contracts. Basically we took it all so seriously that we lost track of time. Coffee breaks were either ignored or taken on the fly, mealtimes were a necessary evil and the course leaders had to almost throw us out of the classroom at 11pm so we could get some sleep. I've been on courses on much more interesting subjects but nothing comes close to the commitment and enthusiasm I experienced on this one.

This was in the early nineties and there wasn't a computer in sight but the power of gaming in education was evident even then. There's nothing new about games being used to stimulate learning and it doesn't need to be hi-tech gaming either.

Photo: Lars-Göran Hedström
Last week at a conference called Next Generation Learning in Falun, Sweden, we (Ebba Ossiannilsson from Lund University and myself) ran a workshop session to help participants discover more about open educational resources (see Book of abstracts C4 p 46). The concept was inspired by a team from Open University in the UK. Instead of simply providing an overview of the key concepts of OER by means of a lecture we used a board game. The game was loosely based on the famous Monopoly though it was really anti-monopoly; no money, no winner, no greed, no real competition. The aim was to share knowledge and experience.

The idea was to throw the dice and move around the board, landing on squares marked with different concepts, projects and organisations associated with OER. When a team landed on a square they had to share information about that concept. If they knew very little they used laptops or mobiles to find out as fast as possible. The other teams could also contribute and any relevant experience of the concepts were also shared. As we moved around the board the participants' knowledge of OER was widened and time simply flew by.

Basically the board game become simply a prompt for discussion and information sharing. The gaming element was relatively unimportant but the opportunity to share knowledge and experience was highly appreciated. The low-tech board game combined with the use of mobiles and laptops stimulated real discussion and discovery and a more active classroom experience than the standard input lecture.

The game OERopoly was createed by Theresa Connolly at the Open University, UK. The workshop and the boardgame were used with kind permission to disseminate the OERopoly by Connoly, Wilson, Makryannis, De Liddo and Lane (2011),This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. 
Connolly, T., Makriyannis, E., De Liddo, A. et al. (2010). OERopoly: A Game to Generate Collective Intelligence around OER. In Open Ed 2010 Proceedings. Barcelona: UOC, OU, BYU. Retrieved 31 January 2012 from
Connolly, T., Wilson, T., Makriyannis, E., De Liddo, A. & Andy Lane, A. (2011). OERopoly: Learning about OER communities, collaboration and contexts. OpenCourseWare Consortium Global Meetings, OCWC Global 2011: Celebrating 10 years of OpenCourseWare. Retrieved 31 January 2012 from

Mobiles for learning

Many of us have known someone who gave so much attention to his mobile that even if you were in the same room the only way to get his attention was to phone him. That way you couldn't be interrupted. Back in the nineties there was plenty discussion about mobile etiquette and everyone had stories of irritating ring signals in embarrassing situations. Fifteen years later and mobiles are still our most compulsive distractions.

However the potential of mobiles for learning is enormous. Students are today online round the clock and although much of that time is spent on social activities it is time for schools and universities to move into the mobile space. Many are already there but there's still a great degree of suspicion amongst faculty about the potential of mobile learning. The following infographic gives a hint of this (click on the picture for a full screen view).

Mobile Studying & Online Flashcards on Smartphones [Infographic]

Sunday, February 19, 2012

If my teacher was a robot ...

Coffee with a robot by Valerie Everett, on Flickr
Following up on my previous post I noticed another article on Mind/Shift called What if robots taught kids. A survey had asked children from countries around the world the following question; “What if robots were part of your everyday life – at school and beyond?” The answers were very positive including the fact that 75% of them saw teaching robots as patient and supportive in educational contexts.
This positive attitude to robots does not mean that the children want robot teachers but it does give an idea of what type of teacher they prefer. The robot's ability to be supportive, non-judgmental and eternally patient is exactly what they would like their ideal teacher to be.

"... overwhelmingly, children asked for teachers who didn’t use shame or scolding if they answered a question wrong or didn’t understand a subject. Their ideal robot learning partner understood if a child wasn’t ready to move on from long division, and patiently went over the subject as long as it took."

Replace the robot with today's interactive online learning environments and add in the value of a classroom teacher as coach, facilitator and motivator and you get the individualised, self-paced learning environment that the children in the survey unwittingly wish for. However, although that vision is perfectly achievable today it is being thwarted by the strong counter-movement in many countries towards more standardised, national exams, school league tables based on test scores and a reinforcement of traditional class-based teaching. The big question is whether we can find ways of enabling individualised, self-paced learning as well as being able to provide credible qualifications. Somewhere between the two extremes there is a path.

Photo: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Valerie Everett

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

We are the robots

The well-worn cliché that any teacher who can be replaced by a computer should be, comes immediately to mind with the news that the Hewlett Foundation have announced a $100,000 prize for the software developer who can produce a good tool for automatically grading student essays (see announcement). The problem they wish to address is the chore of grading thousands of student essays in national standardized tests. The sheer effort of doing this is leading to many tests moving over to multiple choice format which is of course perfect for automatic marking but does not measure the student's ability to present a logical argument. According to Hewlett Foundation's Education Program Director, Barbara Chow:

“Better tests support better learning. Rapid and accurate automated essay scoring will encourage states to include more writing in their state assessments. And the more we can use essays to assess what students have learned, the greater the likelihood they’ll master important academic content, critical thinking, and effective communication.”

The idea is covered in an article in Mind/Shift, Can Robots Grade Essays As Well as Humans?. Of course the robot markers can only assess superficial elements in an essay like the complexity of vocabulary, use of quotations and structure. The students' use of rhetorical devices and reasoning will still require the skills of human teachers to assess for a long time yet. However the simplistic robot grading can have pedagogical advantages as one teacher in the article explains. He asks students to submit their essays to the automatic grading tool SAGrader to get quick feedback on structure and vocabulary use. They are urged to submit several draft versions to the grader and then improve on it. This would be an impossible process if all these draft versions were to be graded by the teacher but using the grader means that students get a feel for reworking and refining a text. The final version can then be assessed by the teacher.

Real critical analysis and deeper assessment must always be the role of the teacher (or peer review) but we should not just dismiss the role of the robot graders as a threat or joke. As long as we see the shortcomings of such tools we can exploit them to carry out work that may be valuable but which could never be carried out in volume by teachers. The robots won't be taking over - for a while at least.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A market for MOOCs?

Attribution Some rights reserved by cogdogblog
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) just keep on coming and it's getting hard to keep up with developments. Hot on the heels of the MITx initiative comes Stanford University's  Coursera solution. Coursera is at present a basic presentation of a range of free online courses that the university is offering this term and is not dissimilar to the Udacity venture started by ex-Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and colleagues. So if you're looking for free university level courses there has never been a better time but how on earth are potential students expected to find these courses?

Enter Class Central, a potential gateway to the MOOCs. This site presents an overview of currently available courses from MITx, Coursera and Udacity and simply points you in the right direction. MITx hasn't really got started yet so the course list is still limited but the potential is clear. As the volume of open online courses grows someone has to try and tie it all together. What's missing with Class Central are all the courses available outside the MIT/Stanford sphere but it would help the movement if a reliable gateway site could be developed so that students would have a one-stop shop for open learning. I suspect someone is already working on this.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Virtual worlds - back to the drawing board

Whatever happened to virtual worlds like Second Life? I get asked that question quite often since I was an enthusiastic supporter during the high profile years around.2006-8. Virtual worlds (VW) are still used in education but mostly in a small niche often related to role play and simulation. Before the VW boom distance learning/e-learning was far too one-dimensional and text-based. VWs offered immersive environments that encouraged group work, offered participants shared experiences and new opportunities for taking learning beyond the traditional teacher-lead classroom model. Suddenly we saw the potential of taking the distance out of education.

I've just read an excellent article by Sarah Smith-Robbins in eLearn Magazine, Are Virtual Worlds (still) Relevant in Education?, which tries to explain why virtual worlds never quite broke through in education. The main reasons for the failure of VWs are given as:
  • Economy - cash-strapped universities have cut back on such experimental technologies often because they haven't been able to replace any existing investments.
  • Steep learning curve - VWs have proved too different from other tools used in education and therefore take too long to learn for most students and teachers.
  • VW providers unresponsive to needs of educators - VWs like Second Life were updated irritatingly often and often had little or no support for users. Payment for services was often difficult and many universities lost patience.
  • VWs part of a bigger picture - education is changing thanks to many new technologies of which VWs are just one small factor. Social media are at present the dominant force enabling change.
The main contribution of virtual worlds has been to inspire new ways of thinking about education. Thanks to VWs and a host of other technologies the static, text-based e-learning concept is being replaced by collaborative arenas where learners create and share insights and resources using a wide range of multimedia tools. Virtual worlds are back in the shadows today but the experiments were far from a waste of time. VWs did not change education, just as iPads, augmented reality, cloud computing or whatever are not in themselves going to change education. It's more a question of what we do with all these tools and how we integrate them into teaching and educational practice that will change things. Here's Sarah's conclusion:

"Ultimately, regardless of whether VWs are broadly used, their place in this broader conversation of technology's place in the university and the struggles over maintaining high quality with smaller budgets, the movement that VWs initiated is one that we shouldn't dismiss. Their adoption (or lack thereof) has a wider meaning. Educators know that there is room for improvement and we're dedicated to looking for solutions. A single technology will not solve the issues. However, the meaning behind the enthusiasm for such a tool may help us think deeper about what we're hoping to change and how we can go about it. VWs may not be as broadly relevant in education as many had hoped but that underlying hope is still very relevant."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Social media in education

How are social media used in education today? It's a very mixed bag. Some schools see social media simply as distractions and block them completely. Many are worried about privacy and integrity issues in the light of increased media focus on net bullying and sexual harassment. Others embrace the concept of openness and encourage students to blog openly about their work and actively network outside the school or college. Questions about whether teachers should be friends with pupils on Facebook or whether the school should use and encourage commercial platforms like Facebook or Twitter are frequently discussed. There's no clear simple answer but the need for schools to open up and reach out into the world around is clear. The key issues are how open should schools be and which tools are most relevant in an educational setting.

This infographic shows an overview of the story so far.

Surviving the College Dining Hall
Via: Online Universities Blog

Monday, February 6, 2012

E-books - now you're talking!

As e-book technology gets increasingly sophisticated and user friendliness increases, the list of possible objections becomes shorter. One common complaint is that you can't flip through an e-book as easily as you do with a print book and as a result you can't get the same feel for the book or navigate as conveniently. This film shows a new technology that lets you thumb and flip your way through your digital library. It has been developed at KAIST Institute for Information Technology Convergence in South Korea is already attracting considerable attention around the world.

Friday, February 3, 2012

School's out

Education is weighed down by tradition. There are many features of school and university life that are only explained by "that's the way we've always done it." The persistence of the lecturing tradition is a case in point. It survives not because it promotes learning but because that's what we've always done and it's a very rational way of pretending to teach a lot of students at the same time. I'm not against tradition but some practices deserve to be re-examined at least once a century.

There's a good article in the The Telegraph today, School holidays are a pointless relic of the past. 100 years ago children needed long summer holidays to help with the farm work and they needed to leave school earlier in the afternoon to be able to help with housework. This is hardly relevant today and since schools finish earlier than working parents can get away from work we've created a whole new sector of child-minding and out of school clubs that looks after children during that gap (at a price of course).

"Today, working hours are largely based around the 9-5 model and it is almost unheard of for a working parent to be at home at the end of the school day, which is why we see such demand for our after-school provision. Parents would heartily support it becoming part of the formal daily structure in all schools; they don’t want to see their children hanging around on street corners, nor pay for childminders. Why, then, can’t we bring the school day in line with our working day? “Because it is unfair to teachers!” is the usual response, shouted very loudly by the unions. But is that really the case?"

The article argues that if the school year was more in line with the normal working year then teachers would have more time to provide a more rounded and less hectic curriculum. Do pupils really need 6-10 weeks summer holiday when parents only get half that amount at best. University students have 3 months of forced inactivity. Of course you can fill it wit temporary employment but many would far rather keep studying and completed their degrees quicker. Having been a teacher and a parent I can see both sides of the coin but the long summer break puts such a strain on so many families and many teenagers have trouble finding anything meaningful to do that it would be worth re-examining this tradition and maybe coming up with a radical solution more in line with the 21st century rather than the 19th.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Here's a chart that summarizes the development of OpenCourseWare (OCW); academic material in the form of films, audio, slides and texts that universities make freely available on the net. Most of the open education initiatives that I've been writing about recently use a lot of OCW as the content for their courses and this chart gives a welcome background to the field for those who have just discovered it.

What is amazing is that although the present OCW movement dates back to 2001 so few university teachers and leaders I meet have even heard of it. This is not a future vision or a possible scenario, this is happening now. Most of it has already happened. It's time to step out of our academic cocoons and see the opportunities.

The State of OpenCourseWare
Via: Online College Courses Blog