Saturday, March 31, 2012

The unbundled library

What is the academic library's role in a world of open educational resources, online learning, MOOCs and other examples of informal learning? More important than ever in my opinion. As libraries move from place to service; from being buildings with books towards providing trustworthy services in information retrieval, source criticism, study guidance, research, business intelligence and knowledge management. The physical space is already being transformed into a meeting place and a learning space. The virtual space is however more interesting and offers many alternative opportunities. Libraries can offer global services on the net and this will result in new niches. There is already a major opportunity for libraries to provide services to all students involved in informal online learning. In the first place libraries can offer study guidance to make more people aware of the new types of online learning such as MOOCs, Peer 2 Peer University, Udacity, MITx and many others. Secondly libraries can provide online support for these learners by linking up in some way with the course providers.

These themes are developed article in Education Futures, The future of academic libraries: An interview with Steven J Bell which includes the interview embedded below with Steven J. Bell (Associate University Librarian for Research and Instruction at Temple University, and current Vice President and President Elect of the Association of College and Research Libraries). Bell believes that traditional universities will continue but that an increasing number of students will choose part-time studies in combination with work due to the increasing costs of full-time campus education. There will be a wide range of education providers, both formal and informal and students will choose courses from different providers depending on needs. Libraries need to be able to follow these learners as well as the traditional student market and this offers new opportunities for those willing to innovate. Some will refuse to change and become entrenched in a traditional role whereas others will test new avenues:

“Another scenario might involve unbundled academic libraries that would offer different types of resources and services. A student might connect with one library for help with a question on ancient Rome, but contact another depending on the subject matter or the service needed. This might involve some extended version of resource sharing where academic libraries would serve more than their own local community. We do that now, but think of it on a much larger scale and for much more than just content sharing. Who pays for it? Perhaps the students, who might pay a fee to access the services and content on a per-use basis, or they might get “library credits” from the institution providing their unbundled course that could be used to obtain service at a participating library. An unbundled system of higher education might require academic librarians to think more entrepreneurially about how they operate.” 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Towards an open educational culture

One of the main barriers to creating a culture of sharing in education is a lack of official approval. Here in Sweden teachers are often concerned about the perceived threats of sharing their materials; uncertainty about digital rights, fear of digital theft, lack of guidelines from above. Many teachers do share resources and make excellent use of the free material already available but the majority will not be convinced without clear approval from the top. It is impossible to make any significant progress in open education without leadership and a national strategy.

An impressive example of a national initiative to encourage sharing and collaboration is the Dutch Wikiwijs (English introduction, see the Dutch version). This is a site for sharing and finding educational resources and developing collaboration in Dutch education:

"Wikiwijs literally translates as Wikiwise. In a nutshell: Wikiwijs is an open, internet-based platform, where teachers can find, download, (further) develop and share educational resources. The whole project is based on open source software, open content and open standards."

Here you can create, share and adapt resources with guides and tips for new users. What is best about Wikiwijs is that it is aimed at all levels of education and not just for schools or university. The whole site has a Creative Commons attribution license giving maximum freedom for sharing.  Here's the introduction video.

A similar initiative, though limited to schools, is the Norwegian NDLA (National Digital Learning Initiative) that has become highly successful and is used by most teachers in the country.

Once you have established an arena for sharing that is clearly sanctioned by the responsible authorities teachers will be much more likely to use them. Credibility and quality are vital factors to encourage teachers to adopt OER. Without them it will continue to be a fringe movement for enthusiasts only.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wikipedia in the classroom

The net is awash with infographics these days and virtually all of them are very blog friendly - indeed the main aim of most is to be embedded in as many blogs as possible. So here's my contribution for this week to the relentless spread of infographics.

There are plenty of impressive statistics about Wikipedia and many appear below. Despite the success Wikipedia is still far from accepted in the classroom and is generally banned or at least frowned upon. It is undoubtedly the best place to get a quick overall introduction to a subject and often has a long list of external sources to continue your studies. If you want to work on source criticism Wikipedia is a goldmine. No other reference work is so transparent, showing the full history of every article with all revisions and corrections, often revealing conflicting views and interpretations. Reading the controversies behind many Wikipedia articles gives students a feeling for how subjective the "truth" can be and comparing different language versions on the same subject reveals sometimes highly conflicting national interpretations of the sam event.

I often wonder why teachers who are most critical and suspicious of Wikipedia don't try to improve the articles they find so inaccurate. That, after all, is the whole point of the whole work; to be constantly improved and revised. Wikipedia is always going to be a work in progress, a perpetual beta. Just like human knowledge.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Universal translator?

”So I says to him, ’THIS is how you do a by Aislinn Ritchie, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Aislinn Ritchie

The dream of being able to communicate with people whose language you don't speak may well be coming true. We've seen those amazing devices in Star Trek that automatically translate everything you say into an alien language and also mean that all aliens conveniently speak English with a distinct American accent. But now Microsoft have unveiled a prototype piece of software that can translate what you say into another language and can also speak with the same voice tone as you have in your native language. Your translated speech will actually sound like you!

An article in Extreme Tech, Microsoft unveils universal translator that converts your voice into another language, tells more about this remarkable breakthrough and though I don't expect it to replace human interpreters any time soon it could help in some situations. The device needs to spend some time with you to learn your voice patterns and intonation but once trained it can give a relatively good imitation of how you would sound if you really did speak Spanish or Chinese. Just like text translation tools it's bound to have limitations but today's tools are able to learn and adapt. Text translations between major languages (French, English, Spanish) are often very readable today and accuracy is improving. This speech translator isn't ready for mainstream release but it's in the pipeline. Just imagine being able to have an e-meeting with another country and being able to speak each other's languages.

Watch the demo of the translator by Rick Rashid, Microsoft Chief Research Officer, and colleagues at the recent TechFest 2012 (you need to jump to about 12 minutes into the presentation to get to the translator item).

Saturday, March 17, 2012

It's education, but not as we know it

The open education movement is gaining momentum and there are signs that the mainstream are seriously taking notice, even if not always grasping the full point. Almost every week there's news of new open courses being launched and there's plenty of news coverage, even from establishment sources. The OER University partnership has just announced their first 8 prototype open courses where the course development will be carried out on their open wiki. The exciting thing about this initiative is that the participating universities are planning to offer students a free and open path towards recognized credentials rather than the semi-official certificates at present offered by for example MITx. If and when this initiative is up and running and students are receiving real degrees for largely informal studies then things will really begin to get interesting.

Disruption in higher education is the theme of an excellent interview by Marc Parry in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Could Many Universities Follow Borders Bookstores Into Oblivion? It's an interview with two representatives from Georgia Tech's new Center for 21st century universities, a unit set up to investigate the disruptive changes taking place in education today:

The Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) is Georgia Tech's living laboratory for fundamental change in higher education. Our mission is to foster and accelerate the innovation, validation, adoption and deployment of disruptive ideas-particularly those involving technology in the service of teaching and learning, industry wide.

The article likens the situation in education with that of the publishing industry and the competition between high street bookshops and the likes of Amazon. As we see more examples of massive open courses from Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon and others it questions the need for thousands of other universities around the world to spend enormous amounts of time and money producing their own versions of the same course. Some types of courses can be easily scaled up to reach a global audience. The question for universities today is to find compelling reasons to study with just your university rather than a mass course on the net. Sitting in large lecture halls on campus is not compelling enough today. What exactly does campus add to learning that cannot be achieved online given that teaching hours on many undergraduate courses today are at an all-time low? We can no longer take it for granted that students will automatically want to spend several years living on campus unless it has significant added value.

One interesting scheme introduced at Georgia Tech is called TechBurst. Started last year it encourages students to make their own instructional videos on important concepts in their studies and post them on TechBurst. These short lectures/demonstrations may not be 100% correct but the idea is that other students will be inspired to comment, correct and revise the material thus creating a learning process around the original film. Sometimes you can learn more without a well-crafted teacher presentation to start the process. Learning by doing.

Finally there's a very good summary of the MOOC story so far by one of the most committed pioneers in the field, George Siemens, MOOCs for the win! He makes an important differentiation between the MOOCs run by himself, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier and others and the massive open courses offered today by Stanford, MITx, Udacity etc. The former gather participants together for open online seminars and real time discussions as well as facilitating collaborative learning among participants. Complex networks and flexible groups discuss the issues raised in the course and the level of activity is transparent and extensive. The latter variety are more traditional in format, emphasizing self study rather than collaboration.

"Our MOOCs value ontology first and epistemology second. We have an ideology of developing learners who create and share artifacts of their learning, control their own learning, and own their own spaces of learning. In the process, we emphasize social networked learning (connectivism). We make sense of complex knowledge by connecting to others, creating and making “stuff”, and engaging in discourse and interacting with the ideas of others. The Stanford MOOCs are more traditional as they emphasize knowledge development not ontological development. The primary innovation of these MOOCs relates to scale and economics: the numbers of learners that can take a course (currently for no fee, but I think that will be short-lived)."

Siemens sees MOOCs as an experiment in progress. There are no fixed rules or definitions and the journey is more important than the destination. MOOCs might lead to major changes in higher education, who knows, but they are more important as testing ground for new ideas in education.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why is education so text-based?

Text by pippoapg, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  pippoapg

There are hundreds of tools on the net today that enable voice and video communication. Laptops and mobiles have built-in cameras and microphones to make such communication as easy as possible. Why then is the overwhelming majority of all communication in online courses text-based? The written word has always been the hard currency of the academic world and we seem reluctant to give voice and video equal status even if fluency in these areas is of increasing importance in the modern workplace.

A new report on the digital status of Norwegian higher education (only available in Norwegian I'm afraid, Digital tilstand i høyere utdanning 2011) reports that while students' use of social media for interaction and reflection has increased the same trend cannot be seen among faculty. Tools that reinforce traditional classroom teaching are the most popular (PowerPoint, e-mail, learning management systems) and very little use is made of tools that allow reflection, discussion and collaboration, even if they are often embedded into the learning management systems. At the same time most teachers would agree that reflection, discussion and collaboration are exactly the activities they want to encourage students to do. So why not let them talk and show themselves on video?

This is the main point of an article by Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Are Online Students Hiding Behind Text?, where she describes using a simple but highly effective tool called VoiceThread to encourage students to express themselves orally. With VoiceThread you can set up an asynchronous discussion thread where students and teacher can see and hear each other, thus helping to reduce the distance factor in online education. The ability to present and argue a case needs constant practice and is largely ignored, especially in online learning. In the past we didn't have the tools or the bandwidth to allow students to use video as a means of expression but today there is no excuse. However we (and students) hide behind our texts as if that was our only means of communication.

My question to you, as an educator, is "Should all online students consistently be expected to participate using voice or video?" And if not, why? What have we to lose? Sharing ideas, engaging in large and small group discussions, and doing presentations are all regular components of face-to-face learning and I'd imagine the thought of removing all of these verbal activities from offline college classes would rile up some concerns. So, why is it that we aren't focusing more on the integration of voice into a students' online learning experience?

Michelle first offered her students the choice of contributing by text, voice or video and not surprisingly they mostly opted for text but after testing VoiceThread a few times together with plenty encouragement they found it a powerful learning experience and a valuable enhancement to the online course. Writing is still a vital skill and will probably always be the preferred medium of academic discourse but it's time we also recognized the value of spoken communication and the power of video.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

How social are we?

Are we really being social and collaborative on the net or is it all a bit too self-centred? We all love sharing our favourite links, videos, news and pearls of wisdom but where's the social element in that? Isn't it all simply about collecting followers and likes and cultivating our own image? These questions are raised in an interesting article by Brain Andreas, The Secret, Selfish Side Of Social-Curation Sites, where he argues that we haven't really grasped the collaborative nature of today's social web. Most people, instead of engaging in discussion about someone else's post and genuinely interacting, simply "like" or retweet the post without spending any more time considering the post's value.

"Being constantly inundated with our social updates tires us out--we’re fatigued and we’re annoyed with each other. Here’s why: while it is true that no one care’s about your trip to Mexico, your weird tastes in music and the dinner that you just made, we still want to be involved. But we hate the self-serving. We’re re-pinning and re-tweeting without context, without collaboration. The Internet will always suffer from social media fatigue until it allows for seamless collaboration among multi-platforms, multi-dimensions, and multi-media. This may be idealistic view but it’s not impossible."

Of course we all love to get reactions to our posts. There's an awfully empty feeling when you write something particularly clever and no-one even "likes" it. We're all busy curating our identities and trade marks and there certainly is a lot of egocentric activity in social media. There's a degree of interactivity there but it's not real collaboration. One of the comments to the article notes that collaboration is best when identity becomes subordinate to the task, as in Wikipedia. Here the identity of the authors is unimportant but the result of the collaboration is the sole focus. Social media need to be lifted a stage higher to escape from the limitations of liking and retweeting.

"My hope that social curation becomes social, becomes collaborative--a dynamic way of sharing multimedia content with others to create results with substance. I believe in a better way to curate, taking the genius behind Storifying, Pinning, and Instagraming and elevating it to create global connections. Now, one question that remains--is technology willing to open itself to collaboration?"

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

From resources to practices

The concept of open educational resources (OER) has been around for ten years or so and has gained a foothold in most countries' educational systems. However the abundance of free educational resources available today has not resulted in  mainstream acceptance by schools and universities who are tightly bound to closed, proprietary publishing traditions. Principles of open access (free access to research articles) and the sharing and reworking of teachers' content threaten established and profitable business models as well as challenging the fundamental traditions of the academic world. So it's no surprise that the OER movement meets with resistance and skepticism.

It's not enough to simply amass vast silos of resources; we need strategies and policies for how they can be accessed, assessed and used. After years of grassroots enthusiasm and creativity it's time to address the decision makers and find a top-down approach to match the bottom-up creativity. We are now moving from open educational resources to open educational practices (OEP) and that's the focus of an important new publication Mainstreaming Open Educational Practice - Recommendations for Policy by my colleagues from EFQUEL, Anthony Camilleri and Ulf Daniel Ehlers as part of the OPAL Initiative.

This short publication (only 10 pages so you've no excuse for not having a quick look) identifies a number of challenges facing the mainstream implementation of OER/OEP and makes recommendations as to how these challenges might be resolved. The main challenges are in the following fields:

  • Enabling legislation to facilitate OEP - changes needed in copyright legislation to facilitate sharing of educational resources as well as incentives to teachers/authors to make their work freely available (with some rights reserved)
  • Empowering learners to take up OEP - making it easier to find and access resources and establishing ways of recognizing informal learning.
  • Strengthening the evidence base of OEP - studying the effects of OER/OEP to find scientific evidence that the concepts are sustainable.
  • Culturing innovation through networks - creating a European lead-organisation for "openness" and encouraging collaboration between all educational levels.
  • Improving trust in OEP - Moving from pilots to operational activities, demonstrating that community peer review and open citation can challenge the established closed systems for academic performance.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

From teaching to learning

Here's an excellent presentation by Alvaro González-Alorda that perfectly sums up the challenges facing education today. The world has changed and we have to adapt or risk becoming irrelevant. The use of digital technology in education is no quick fix - just handing out computers to students won't change anything. To handle this level of change will require a major rethink in all levels of education: how we teach, how schools work, administration, governmental policy and most of all training, support and development. Teachers will not be replaced by computers - the role of the teacher will rather become more vital than ever; providing guidance, mentorship, inspiration and encouraging critical thinking.
The changes that are listed in this presentation are happening now - we ignore them at our peril.
On a related theme here's a short video from the MacArthur Foundation on the theme of connected learning and deals with the need to shift focus in education from outcomes to the learning process and to stop seeing learning as the transfer of knowledge but as something that is a natural part of life. The idea that we only learn in a classroom is not only wrong but it severely limits our thinking.

The Essence of Connected Learning from DML Research Hub on Vimeo.