Monday, July 30, 2012

Digital scholarship

AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by btobetun
One of the barriers to the adoption of open educational resources in mainstream higher education has been the question of quality assurance. Academics are often wary of any material not published by established reputable academic publishers and so OER get dismissed or overlooked. However there are now many important initiatives that are providing access to quality OER with reliable search facilities.

One of the most promising I've seen is the result of a major project by Open University along with the universities of Leicester, Nottingham and Manchester. They have launched two sites offering a vast amount of information, guides and access to assessed OER: Digital scholarship and Ready to research. The OER that are linked to from these sites have all been approved by the developers and users are encouraged also to rate each resource and add comments, thus adding a crowd-sourcing element to quality assurance. In many ways this is similar to the OpenScout initiative I wrote about a few weeks ago. The key element is that all the resources are genuinely open.

"The site is a portal to a collection of Open Educational Resources (OERs) accessed from repositories and institutions around the world. All these resources have been provided free by their authors under Creative Commons or other licence for anyone who wishes to use them for educational purposes. 
The OU Digital Scholarship team, and our partners in Nottingham, Leicester, and Manchester, have reviewed and selected every resource listed on this site in order to ensure that it is a genuinely open access and high quality item of self-study material appropriate for students in the UK and elsewhere who wish to prepare themselves to study on research degrees in UK universities."

The Digital Scholarship site focuses on using digital resources in university studies in general, with self-learning material on issues such as digital literacies, using multimedia material, collaborative learning, plagiarism, information retrieval, social media and ethics, rights and intellectual property issues. Ready to research focuses on academic writing, research methods, online academic identity and  the use of technology for dissemination and publication.

You can access material by choosing topics or by using the tag cloud. Each resource has information about how much time is required to work through the material, what kind of media are used, who has produced it and what you are allowed to do with it. This can then of course be complemented by users own comments and recommendations.

It will be interesting to see how these sites are used by other universities and whether OER can finally become an accepted part of academic study. The skeptics had valid arguments against OER but they are now being dealt with. It's time to stop the arguing and work together to build sound digital scholarship.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The magic formula

laboratory by mararie, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  mararie

I've just read yet another report that shows no difference in learning outcomes between online courses and traditional classroom courses (see Campus Technology, Interactive Online Learning Produces Learning Outcomes on Par with Traditional Teaching Methods). Nothing wrong with the study of course and I've read many similar ones, mostly with a similar conclusion. Traditionalists like to point to such studies as justification for continuing to ignore technology but these studies are missing the main issue I feel.

It's not a matter of one form of teaching being somehow "better" than another, we should be investigating how learning can be fostered using a good mix of the various tools and learning situations available today. It's a bit like investigating whether students learn more in a modern well-equipped classroom compared to a more traditional classroom. It all depends on what goes on in there, who teaches, what methods are used, students' attitudes to the course being taught, exam contraints, class dynamics and so on. The room in itself does not magically lead to better learning just as the mere use of computers or mobiles or whatever will not magically lead to better learning.

Computers are no magic ingredient; it depends on what the teacher and the students do with them. That's what we need to be examining in research. Simply face-offs between online and classroom prove very little and simplify the issues.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Your attention please

laptop balancing by opacity, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  opacity

I've just read an interesting post by Stephanie Chasteen, Digital distraction in the classroom. When we discuss students being distracted by social media in class we generally attribute such behaviour to the teacher not engaging them and simply lecturing. However this seems to be a simplification of the problem. Despite all efforts to involve students in her lessons and avoiding the pitfalls of traditional lecturing Stephanie observed that a number of students were off task anyway and wonders why.

"Even in this ideal environment, the temptation of digital distraction was too high. I might view this akin to addictive behavior now, and realize that students need more explicit support in order to do the right thing for their learning. I think that the biggest mistake that I made was to fail to have explicit guidelines for use of technology (laptops, cell phones) in class."

The fact that you can access social media in class proves to be too tempting for some students despite the interactive nature of the session. The solution offered is to involve students from the start in drawing up guidelines for classroom involvement and make the issue of attention and respect a clear issue from the very start.

As I have no doubt mentioned several times before here, this is not a problem that can be simply attributed to any stereotype generation X/Y/Z, homo zapiens or digital native. I see the same behaviour in conferences and meetings and am myself also guilty of being easily distracted. Just as students like to keep up to date with their social networks, their teachers and professors enjoy being efficient multi-taskers by simultaneously attending a conference whilst attending to e-mails and other communication channels. A major reason behind this is the fear of drowning in the flood of e-mails if you dare to switch off for too long. As a result you tend to check the in-box the moment a conference speaker wanders away from your immediate area of interest.

I will try to resist the temptation to go off task but at the same time there are pressures on both sides of this problem. On the one hand we all admire today's ideal of the multi-tasking, mobile worker always available and always productive but also critical of people's inability to pay attention for more than a few minutes. Switching off all channels for a two day conference can be very positive for your competence development but the price to pay is when you get back to your office and discover a backlog of e-mails and several irritated calls in your voice mail wondering why you haven't responded.

Maybe it's time to have a discussion about common guidelines in every workplace. It's not just a student problem.

Friday, July 13, 2012

How open is open?

055-366 Underwater Blur by cheesy42, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  cheesy42

I wrote a post at the start of the year called 2012 - the year of the MOOC? and it has certainly proved to be just that. A number of high profile initiatives such as Coursera and EdX have been launched offering free online higher education to a great deal of mainstream media buzz. The acronym MOOC is frequently used but has grown to include models that differ significantly from the original versions launched by people like George Siemens and Stephen Downes several years ago. The original model is highly collaborative with students aggregating and creating content, discussing and sharing new ideas in a dynamic but sometimes chaotic environment. The notion of the traditional linear course with predefined objectives becomes more fluid with each student participating on their own terms and with individual objectives.

Most of the headline-making MOOCs like EdX are highly traditional in format; online lectures, lesson plans, tests and reading with some kind of certificate of completion at the end (though never "real" university credits). The gap between these two models is so large that we may need to redefine the MOOC or bring in some new acronyms.

David Wiley questions the use of the term Massive Open Online Course on the grounds that most MOOCs fail to comply with at least one of the words in the acronym (The MOOC misnomer). Indeed there are many that are not as open as we might imagine, many are not so massive and some are not really courses in the traditional sense of the word. Wiley is worried that free might become more important than open:

The MOOCs which are “massive but not open” pose a special threat to the future of OER, but no one seems to be paying attention… Before long the general public will feel that “free” is good / innovative enough, and no one will care about “open,” permissions, or licensing. The good has once again become the enemy of the best. And how to you wage a PR war against “the good?”

Debbie Morrison writes a good summary of some of these issues in a post called MOOC Mythbuster – What MOOCs are and what they aren’t that includes an overview chart comparing and contrasting different forms of course delivery.

Are all MOOCs really MOOCs? It's certainly a term that just now accommodates a wide range of models and maybe by the end of this year the MOOC as a concept will have morphed into new terminology. This is hardly surprising since it is all about experimentation and development of new educational models. Defining a moving target is never easy.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Telephones and e-mail - is the end at hand?

AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by kristiewells
The two most important means of communication for those of us over 30 are showing signs of serious fatigue. Most of us still rely on phone calls and e-mail for the vast majority of our business and personal communication but two new articles in the New York Times indicate that this domination is under threat.

Let's take e-mail first. According to an article by Nick Bilton called Disruptions: Life’s Too Short for So Much E-Mail, 107 trillion e-mails were sent last year from 3.1 billion active accounts. This boils down to the average business user getting an average of 105 e-mails every day. Most of this deluge is unnecessary and could be avoided if people learned a few simple rules like thinking several times before hitting the "reply all" button and not sending so many copies to people who probably don't need to know at all. However the constant flow is hard to regulate since even if you diligently reply quickly to every mail that action simply prompts just as many answers.

"Last year, I decided to try to reach In-box Zero, the Zen-like state of a consistently empty in-box. I spent countless hours one evening replying to neglected messages. I woke up the next morning to find that most of my replies had received replies, and so, once again, my in-box was brimming. It all felt like one big practical joke."

The fact that the vast majority of e-mail in the world is spam does not make the situation easier. Maybe e-mail is simply nearing the end of the line and is suffocating under its own weight. Many under the age of 25 use e-mail very sparingly, preferring to communicate by social media where you have greater control over who can reach you and where communication is usually short and to the point. Most over 25 belong to the e-mail generation and are trapped in it for the time being but we can see new communication models forming.

Good old telephony does seems to be on the retreat already. Again the younger generation clearly prefer texting to phoning and now companies are increasingly abandoning the phone for online communication with customers. Amy O'Leary writes in another NYT article, Tech Companies Leave Phone Calls Behind, about how many net-based companies are simply not on the phone at all.

"Voice calls have been falling out of fashion with teenagers and people in their 20s for some time (text only, please). But what is a matter of preference for the young is becoming a matter of policy for technology companies; phones cost money, phones do not scale."

Global companies like Google or Facebook would need large armies of call-center operators to even try to answer customer questions by telephone and it's easy to understand why they simply don't even try. It simply takes too long to talk to customers and costs too much. Many companies don't even advertise a single phone number and often make their e-mail address very difficult to find. In a global market there simply is no time to deal with the millions of phone enquiries that would stream in. Instead of trying to keep up with the deluge the big companies are switching off and referring customers to self-help sites and forums.

However as the giants become harder to talk to maybe smaller companies can use the old technology to their advantage by providing the exclusive service of voice communication. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Can you cheat in a MOOC?

Attribution Some rights reserved by cogdogblog
The explosion of net-based learning and in particular so-called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) with thousands of students participating online for free has of course inspired many writers to warn against the dangers of cheating and plagiarism. Of course there are few control mechanisms in massive online courses and the whole concept is based very much on trust and mutual respect. However since MOOCs are voluntary, informal and do not lead to regular university credits the issue of cheating on such a course would seem rather irrelevant. Who are you cheating on such a course? What is the point of cheating?

This is the topic of a good blog post by Debbie Morrison, Cheating in a MOOC - an oxymoron. The point is that since MOOCs are all about informal learning and not about the pursuit of grades there is no hard currency worth cheating for.

"You can’t cheat in a MOOC. Well let me clarify, you can cheat while completing an auto-scored quiz or exam, or on an essay that might be peer reviewed, but it’s pointless. In this instance cheating does not serve any purpose. The courses are free, you can’t earn college credit, and are not part of a credential [at this point]. Furthermore MOOCs depend upon the learner being self-motivated, to learn for the sake of learning."

Cheating in such an environment is a bit like cheating in a hobby like bird watching. You can claim to have seen all sorts of rare species but the only way to gain real credibility is to be able to prove it, by showing photos or being able to describe in detail the distinguishing features of the bird you have seen. In bird watching it is essential that other people in the same geographical area also see the bird. You need evidence and witnesses.

In the most collaborative MOOCs (ie those run by Siemens, Downes, Cormier and co) there is constant interaction and whatever you post will be read and reviewed by other participants. If you cheat you will probably be revealed sooner or later. It may well be harder to cheat in this type of learning arena since it builds on reflection and debate rather than on clear-cut answers.

However, as soon as hard currency credentials are at stake some people will always be tempted to take short cuts. MOOCs are popular because participation is driven by internal motivation. Do we automatically pollute them if we introduce external motivators into the mix?