Friday, August 31, 2012

Rethinking assessment

I'm heading down to Granada in Spain next week to attend the EFQUEL Innovation Forum, which I'm also involved in organising. I'm looking forward especially to hosting a session on Thursday afternoon (6 Sept) entitled Rethinking Educational Assessment which you are welcome to join as a web conference via Adobe Connect.

The widespread use of open education today with all the flavours of MOOC as well as many informal learning arenas is changing our conceptions of education. The use of open educational resources and collaborative learning tools offer us the chance to escape from the restrictions of the traditional classroom and move the focus from content delivery to context creation. New educational models demand a rethink of how we assess learning. In a content delivery model assessment is mostly based on processing that content and knowledge acquisition can be relatively easily tested.

However employers are often more interested in soft skills than hard qualifications. The key employability factors are teamwork, initiative, problem solving and engagement and if you can show that you have these skills they will often trump qualifications (though obviously qualifications are still necessary). Is it possible to assess these soft skills and how can you do so? How can we move assessment and examination from showing what you know to how well you can do things? One recent development in this direction is the use of open badges as described here several times in the past year or so. Badges can be awarded to people who show a clear mastery of a skill in the eyes of their peers as well as teachers or mentors. Is peer review the future of assessment and if so how can we provide quality assurance?

In the session I'll be joined by two authorities in this field: Preetha Ram from OpenStudy and Anka Mulder, president of the OpenCourseWare Consortium (read more). They'll be offering their ideas on alternative assessment and have three questions for everyone to consider before and during the session:

  • Traditional educational institutions are very well placed to provide campus as well as online education. At the same time they have to find ways to monetize open online education to cover their expenses. Which are the business models they can develop? 
  • Students as well as employers still rely heavily on formal certificates and diplomas provided by accredited institutions. In order to become successful, recognition of informal certificates by employers is essential. What can be done to encourage this? 
  • Verification of a student’s identity is essential in assessment, notably for institutions that provide accredited diplomas. How can we make online assessment more reliable? 
See the recording of the webinar.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Education, but not as we know it

The market place for free online higher education has become rather crowded during the last 9 months or so. Established actors like Peer2Peer University and University of the People have been joined by heavyweights like Coursera and EdX with the clout of some of the world's most prestigious universities behind them. Throw in other players like Udacity, Saylor Foundation, Course Hero and Faculty project and you have a vast range of online learning available for free. Then there are numerous  "free-range" MOOCs run by comitted professors on the principles of collaborative, student-driven learning. Each of these actors has their own approach to learning, their own interpretation of concepts like free, open and learner-centred and are run on varying business models.

So just when you think the room is pretty crowded, in comes another major initiative to stir things up even more. Enter World Education University! Known to friends as WEU (We-you) they have an interesting new angle on providing free education to the world. The basic concept is familiar with content being pulled in from open sources as well as custom-made content from teachers belonging to estblished universities. Students can do a self-test of learning preferences and content can be adapted to suit different styles. Mentors are available to provide support but, as always, students are expected to do a lot of self-study and peer review of each other's work.

However one interesting feature is that WEU aims to offer real qualifications by teaming up with or acquiring existing colleges. They also aim to offer tailor-made degree programmes in association with companies of professional bodies to ensure that students get the skills they need for careers in those organisations.

The twist in the tail, as always, is how all this is financed. Obviously the founders are investing heavily and they are also attracting sponsorship from large companies too. But if the courses are free where's the revenue coming from? As ever on the net the answer is advertising. According to an article in Campus Technology, New Global University To Be Both Free and For-Profit, there are plans to allow advertising on the course site that will be adapted to the students' interests. The advertisers will be subsidising the students' education in return for the opportunity to advertise direct to their target group. Another avenue is making students available for marketing research and surveys. Students can, say, win points for tests on their course or responding to marketing surveys and then qualify for discounts and free merchandise. A third potential revenue stream is to encourage course material authors whereby their e-books can be published, marketed and sold by WEU with a revenue share scheme as incentive.

It's education, but not as we know it. Academics may be very sceptical about the commercial aspects of WEU but for millions of people around the world without any prospect of raising the money needed to go to a regular university this will be an enormous opportunity. The presence of a few adverts is a minor irritation if you can study for credible qualifications without debt. It's already certain that no matter how many universities are founded in the next few years they can never keep pace with the exploding demand for higher education. New avenues are needed. Watch this space.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cut and paste

copy culture by Will Lion, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Will Lion

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that many cases of plagiarism have been discovered on free, open courses run by Coursera: Dozens of Plagiarism Incidents Are Reported in Coursera's Free Online Courses. This is no real surprise since the nature of massive open online courses is freedom and flexibility and of course the opportunities for cheating would seem to be enormous. The puzzling point here is that these courses do not lead to university credits so what's the point of cheating?

However some students are cheating and one professor has already made a plea to curb plagiarism and there is talk of using plagiarism-detection software in the future (as is standard at many universities already). The main point of the Chronicle article is that the these cases have been discovered by other students through peer assessment rather than being left to the teachers to detect. Students have raised suspicions of plagiarism and taken them to the professors but instead of dishing out punishments many teachers see this as a teachable moment:

In an interview this week with The Chronicle, Mr. Rabkin, who is also an English professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said he sees the plagiarism incidents as a "teachable moment." He said one student wrote him soon after he posted his letter and confessed to submitting a plagiarized essay, but the student said he had not realized that copying and pasting from other sources was wrong. The student asked that his essay be withdrawn and that he be disqualified from receiving a certificate, but Mr. Rabkin said he wrote to Coursera officials saying the student should be given a second chance.

Although there are cases of deliberate plagiarism I think most cases are due to a lack of awareness of what constitutes plagiarism and many cases could be avoided with some hands-on training. An excellent example of how to increase awareness of plagiarism is described in an article in Faculty Focus: An Assignment that Prevents Plagiarism. Here students were given a sample essay written by the teacher and fully referenced but which contained 10 examples of different types of plagiarism. The students' task was to spot the plagiarism and rewrite the essay correctly and finally adding their own referenced conclusion. By doing this excercise the students became more aware of what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. According to the study this type of work reduces plagiarism radically.

There are of course stern warnings against plagiarism in every syllabus and college regulations but the whole concept is still abstract and poorly defined in the minds of the students. Only by raising the issues in a practical manner as described above can students grasp what is allowed and develop a sensitivity for what is not acceptable. The fact that plagiarism has been discovered in a MOOC says nothing really about the nature of the course itself, simply that this is an issue that few students today have a clear grasp of.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The soft side of learning

hard vs soft by y-a-n, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  y-a-n

One of the common misconceptions about using technology in schools and universities is that it will motivate students more than using the traditional textbooks, whiteboards, papers and pencils. Giving everyone access to laptops, tablets, mobiles and a host of creative tools will lead to more highly motivated students and better test results. These factors can help to increase motivation and may lead to better results but only if other, more important factors are present. It's all about the hardware and the software of education.

I have just read a fine blog post by Bill Ferriter, Are kids really motivated by technology? despite many attempts to get students to use blogs, wikis and interactive video forums like VoiceThread they have never really caught the students' imaginations in the way he expected. They were simply not particularly impressed by the tools on offer. There's nothing wrong with the tools per se, but Bill realised that the actual choice of tool or technology was subordinate to other more abstract motivators.

"What students are really motivated by are opportunities to be social — to interact around challenging concepts in powerful conversations with their peers. They are motivated by issues connected to fairness and justice. They are motivated by the important people in their lives, by the opportunity to wrestle with the big ideas rolling around in their minds, and by the often-troubling changes they see happening in the world around them. 
Technology’s role in today’s classroom, then, isn’t to motivate. It’s to give students opportunities to efficiently and effectively participate in motivating activities built around the individuals and ideas that matter to them."

Students aren't really interested in the hardware of education. It really doesn't matter how much fantastic content you offer or how many cool tools you use. Content and technology are not motivators. The real motivators are the software of education: energy, enthusiasm, engaging discussion, commitment, feedback, support, group dynamics and clear objectives. If these soft factors are present then learning takes place whether it is online, in a classroom or a mixture. Software trumps hardware every time and that is the key point to understand before making more pointless comparisons between classroom and online learning. The arena and the content (classroom, LMS, social media, books etc) are of course important but not as much as we think. Great learning can occur in poor environments if the softer elements are in focus.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Shades of MOOC

Dispersion by a prism by Alfredo Louro, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Alfredo Louro

There are many types of open online courses for large groups of participants that are labelled MOOCs. Most of them are indeed open, online and aimed at a mass following but their pedagogies differ. There's a big difference between the pioneer MOOCs of Downes, Siemens, Cormier, Couros etc, built around connections, dialogue, flexibility and collaboration, and the streamlined instructional MOOCs of Coursera, EdX and Udacity.

So I was glad to see Lisa Lane's blog post Three kinds of MOOCs which gives a good definition of three shades of MOOC: network-based, task-based and content-based. It's not a case of one being better than the other but a case of horses for courses. Different formats suit different learners with different objectives and motivations.

The network-based MOOCs of Downes and co are excellent for digitally highly literate and self-sufficient learners who know how to collaborate online and are at ease in different digital environments. These courses are complex and lack clear bullet-point objectives and guided study. Those who prefer clarity, structure and guidance will feel more at home in the more traditional and familiar format of the content-based MOOCs of Coursera and co. The task-based MOOCs will appeal to more practical learners.

There's no right answer here as Lisa sums up:

"So I’m rejecting both the Good vs Bad MOOC model, and the million-points-of-MOOC approach, and going for a triad."

Or maybe time to find new labels. Will 2013 see the MOOC morphing into other new concepts?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

From creation to curation

Now that there is a wealth of open content available the focus has turned from content creation to curation, packaging and advanced search. A recognized weakness with OER is finding the right resources with some degree of quality assurance. So now there is a growing list of new tools that find the right resources and package them in convenient forms.

One example of this is Boundless. This compiles free e-textbooks from open educational resources. Boundless helps you replace your standard course textbook with an e-book of open content including texts, images, film, sound and animation. The resulting e-book can be accessed by laptop, tablet or mobile and is instantly available to all students. It can be used as a supplement to a printed course book or can simply replace the printed version. It's all free, at least in its present beta version but there are of course premium services such as SmartNotes.

As more and more solutions like this emerge the role of the textbook publishers becomes very insecure. The arguments for free online e-books are irresistible for students and highly attractive for cash-strapped educational authorities, many of whom are looking at the open textbook sector already. The key factor in this competition is quality assurance. How trustworthy is the material retrieved by services like Boundless? Is it equally well selected as the equivalent material in the printed textbook? The printed textbook has been written as a logical progression with clear developed themes whereas the digital version is a mix of completely independent modules. Quality in open e-books depends on effective tagging including parameters for subject matter, objectives, learning outcomes, age group, level and so on. As the meta data improves and resources are produced with more thought for reuse then solutions such as Boundless will become increasingly attractive.

Definitely worth investigating further.

Read a short review of Boundless on Edudemic: The Future Of Textbooks Is Free … And It’s Now Available.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Educational entrepreneurship

July 14 2007 by brotherM, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  brotherM

Higher education is becoming increasingly entrepreneurial, though not always in traditional terms of starting profitable companies. Many faculty members are trying out new methods, new pedagogies and rethinking their whole approach to education. Ideas must be developed, backers must be won over, arguments sharpened and the whole concept needs testing and quality assurance. Many great ideas never get developed because the people involved don't know how to get started. Universities need to be better at getting new ideas off the ground whether in the form of internal projects, collaboration with other institutions or real start-ups.

Now there's a course that looks at exactly these issues and it's an interesting addition to the wide range of free, open online courses available today - Ed Startup 101. The course will run from 24 August to 7 December and will be lead by David Wiley, Richard Culatta and Todd Manwarin. It will be open and free for all online but will also be offered for credits to students at Brigham Young University. Those not eligible for credits will be able to earn certification within the Open Badges infrastructure.

In response to the present wave of MOOCs offered by the major universities this one claims to be an "old style" MOOC, that is to say:

"... one that focuses more on building community and learning together socially than on watching video clips and answering multiple choice questions. Ed Startup is designed to acquaint educators, educational researchers, and others to the world of entrepreneurship and intrapeneurship, help you decide which one is right for you, and support you in the first steps of your journey. During the course you’ll learn directly with an incredible group of experts (people who have done it before and succeeded) as well as with peers (people who are passionate about making a change for the first time), and work toward transforming your own innovative idea – or another innovative idea established in the research – into a well-designed product or service that can improve the lives of teachers and learners."

Friday, August 3, 2012

Future vision

Here's a film showing what the world may look like when mobile technology is baked into glasses and you no longer need a mobile device to interact with the net. I suspect that this is already perfectly possible, the question is whether we want to buy the concept. One problem that may result is that you will no longer be sure if the person you're talking to is even looking at you at all. They might be reading web pages or checking their Facebook in their lenses. Your class can all be looking at you and appear to be listening but are all in fact somewhere else. Just beware when all your friends suddenly start wearing trendy glasses.

Project Glass One day by Spi0n