Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Digital life after death

A few weeks ago a colleague of mine passed away after a short illness. A sad event for all who knew her but for me this was the first time that someone I knew prepared us for her passing via Facebook and Twitter. The first I knew was a Facebook post with a photo of her from the hospital bed and the stunning news that she was preparing for a journey of no return. There were a few other posts until the tragic announcement of her passing was posted on her account. These posts haunted me for days and even though we'd only met face-to-face twice at conferences our discussions on social media created a bond that would never have been possible in pre-digital days. Those who criticise Facebook as simply a channel for trivia and self-indulgence fail to acknowledge the enormous potential for sharing, strengthening friendships and simply keeping in touch with each other. I felt part of a farewell process and all the messages of support and sympathy that accompanied the posts on Facebook showed how powerful the medium can be.

This is echoed in a BBC article by Brandon AmbrosinoFacebook is a growing and unstoppable digital graveyard, where the author describes how Facebook keeps the memory of a departed aunt alive by providing a digital memorial which can be visited by family and friends. There are today tens of millions of dead Facebook users and the number increases by an estimate 8,000 per day. If no-one is able to access your account and turn it into a memorial page then your digital life will continue with Facebook reminding your contacts of your birthday and so on, something that can be distressing to many. Just as we all need to take active responsibility for our digital footprints when alive we also need to plan for our digital death. You need to pass on your passwords to your next of kin and leave instructions on what they should do with your different accounts. If managed well your Facebook page becomes a place of remembrance providing insights into your life and personality that no other medium can emulate.

As I’ve told my mother, my grandchildren may be able to learn about her by studying her Facebook profile. Assuming the social network doesn’t fold, they won’t just learn about the kinds of major life events that would make it into my mom’s authorised biography. They’ll learn, rather, the tiny, insignificant details of her day to day life: memes that made her laugh, viral photos she shared, which restaurants she and my father liked to eat at, the lame church jokes she was too fond of. 

Social media have taken a central role in our lives and consequently become an important aspect of our deaths. We can choose to ask a relative to simply delete everything or we can ask them to preserve your memory as a place of solace and grief for those who live on. As I write this post my departed colleague's Facebook account has posted an invitation to a remembrance meeting of friends and relatives. I can't attend but I still feel part of a process that would not have been possible without social media, indeed a friendship that would never have existed without the net.

In Facebook, all places are present, all times are now. My Aunt Jackie exists in this medium just as I do. In a way, there is no moving on without her. There’s no moving on without any of the millions of dead Facebook users.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

As you can clearly see on my next slide ...

I feel sorry for PowerPoint, the butt of so many jokes and unloved by so many conference delegates and students. It's so easy to blame the tool for our own shortcomings and most cases of the famous death by PowerPoint are due to users' lack of ability to exploit the functions available in the tool. Some people proudly announce that they have not prepared any slides for their talk and I often sense a murmur of approval from the audience glad to find someone who dares to go back to basics. The problem is that a talk without any visual support demands tight structure and considerable rhetorical skill and few speakers who decide to go "unplugged" realise this. I've heard many such presentations that ramble from one anecdote to another and I've completely lost the thread, if there is any, after five minutes. I retire gratefully into my laptop and attend to other matters while the presentation wanders off into the fog. Had the presenter used even a few slides they might have been able to communicate some kind of structure but without it we're lost. Unless of course the speaker is a true orator.

An article in Times Higher Education, Learning to live without PowerPoint, makes the case for researchers freeing themselves of their digital shackles and presenting their findings unplugged. The problem is that when your slides are your presentation and you simply read the text slide by slide any technical problem like a faulty projector means disaster.

When we are training our PhD students in the art of presentation, are we giving them the necessary advice – the confidence – that will allow them to avoid an addiction to PowerPoint and ensure that they may experiment with using it less or not at all? At the very least are we making sure they are adequately prepared to still deliver a meaningful presentation even when the computer stops talking to the projector?

PowerPoint can give many speakers a false sense of security if they use the slideshow as a script. Many researchers cram enormous amounts of text or data onto each slide so that the audience focuses all attention on trying to decipher your information overload instead of listening to the speaker. You may have wonderful graphs in your research article but in a presentation try to simplify the graphics and highlight the most important points. Those who want the details can read the article later; the aim of the presentation is to raise interest in your research.What you have to say should preferebly be there in your head or on a piece of paper in the form of bullet points or a mindmap. The slides simply reinforce your message and provide structure through appropriate images and keywords. In this way it is still possible to give the presentation if the technology fails even if it will lack the attention-grabbing features that a good slideshow can provide. If used wisely a slideshow is still a highly effective tool to getting your message across but sadly most people only use a fraction of the tool's potential. For tips on how to get the best out of PowerPoint have a look at Jonathan Wylie's post, PowerPoint Myths: Busted!

However there are more subtle agruments against presentation tools like PowerPoint. Andrew Smith wrote an interesting article a while back in the Guardian, How PowerPoint is killing critical thought, arguing that the pedagogy of the presentation comes from the business world. The classic presentation full of bullet points is a way of leading a customer through the sales pitch and convincing them to buy rather than inviting an open discussion. PowerPoint encourages a process of persuasion rather than dialogue.

Bullet points enforce a rigidly hierarchical authority, which has not necessarily been earned. One either accepts them in toto, or not at all. And by the time any faulty logic is identified, the screen has been replaced by a new one as the speaker breezes on, safe in the knowledge that yet another waits in the wings. With everyone focused on screens, no one – least of all the speaker – is internalising the argument in a way that tests its strength.

Slides with convincing bullet-points are hard to argue against and a potential dialogue is turned into one-way communication. Many advocate using images to accompany your talk with an absolute minimum of text. I must admit I have cut down on the text content in my slideshows and prefer now to have interesting photos plus a few keywords and talk around them.

However I think there is more to this problem than simply blaming the presentation tool. The setting, usually a lecture theatre or a classroom with people sitting in rows, is for me the real barrier to dialogue It's simply not a good place to start a discussion, not matter whether the speaker uses Powerpoint or not. Another factor is tradition; if everyone is in lecture mode then it will be one-way communication and few in the audience will dare to speak out of turn or disturb the speaker's flow. The lecture is an academic tradition that is proving extremely hard to break. I'm sure that PowerPoint can be used in more imaginative ways in new settings that are more conducive to dialogue. Don't shoot the piano player.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Collaborative overload - pleasures and dangers

The more you build your professional network, share ideas and resources and participate in projects the more work you get. Networking enhances your reputation and more people ask you for help, invite you to join new projects, collaborate in exciting new initiatives or speak at conferences. The spin-offs keep coming making you feel respected and part of a larger context. This is exactly what I have experience over the last few years and it has lead me into new areas, meeting lots of interesting and talented colleagues from all over the world. I have benefitted immensely from sharing, networking and collaborating, both professionally and personally.

However there is a downside to this and that is raised in an interesting article in Harvard Business Review with the simple title, Collaborative overload. Highly collaborative people get drawn into so many peripheral activities that they are often unable to focus on their primary work and as a result they become ineffective from their employers' point of view despite being highly effective in all they activities they are involved in. The more you collaborate and help others the more work you get.

In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance. Their giving mindset and desire to help others quickly enhances their performance and reputation.

Good collaborators become highly sought after and find themselves involved in ever more projects, meetings and groups both inside and outside the organisation, inevitably spilling over into evenings and weekends. This can of course lead to stress and even burn-out. We all enjoy helping others and are often flattered when colleagues respect our expertise. Sharing a few links or quick words of encouragement are easy but the real time drain is when you have to provide hands-on assistance. Many people become unofficial help desks in their department, solving acute problems that really should be solved by others. For example many educational technologists get trapped into "putting out fires" rather than really adding value to their institutions use of technology. The article recommends managers to help their top collaborators be more selective and avoid the trap of being everyone's problem-solver.

Collaboration is indeed the answer to many of today’s most pressing business challenges. But more isn’t always better. Leaders must learn to recognize, promote, and efficiently distribute the right kinds of collaborative work, or their teams and top talent will bear the costs of too much demand for too little supply.

However, this advice applies to collaboration in large companies where employees' time management and activities are monitored and analysed in a way that is completely alien to universities or schools. The education sector is full of volunteer work that takes place under the radar with teacher networks, unofficial projects and suchlike and once you get involved here the boundaries between work and leisure completely dissolve. I have devoted enormous amounts of my free time to stimulating projects and collaboration that have developed me professionally but which often lead to even more spin-offs. Today I belong to many groups and networks and have loyalties towards them that are completely outside the scope of my work. The difficult part is being able to see when all the collaboration becomes a permanent feature that prevents you from focusing on your most important duties. I try to keep a balance but I see the dangers of collaboration overload. How about you?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Platform diversity in online learning

How many different platforms should you offer in an online course? Should everything be included under one roof in a learning management system (LMS) or can we offer a number of social media where discussions take place, leaving it up to the participants to decide which spaces in which they wish to be active? Traditional e-learning favours the one-stop shop of the LMS (Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas etc) where one log-in gives you access to everything you need to complete the course. However we find that many participants prefer to discuss the course, for example in their own Facebook groups, rather than using the LMS discussion forum and to cater for this tendency many course providers offer a choice of arenas for interaction and collaboration. Most LMS now offer integration with social media to allow for platform diversity. However when courses offer a diversity of arenas they run the risk of confusing participants who find it hard to move between the LMS, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and others and it becomes impossible to get a clear view of the course as a whole. The one-stop-shop solution runs the risk of being too controlled and resstrictive (and often less open) whereas the eco-system alternative risks confusion and lack of overview.

This problem is highlighted in an article in eCampus News, Can social media enhance the MOOC experience?  which describes a study on the Carpe Diem MOOC that was run in 2014 by Swinburne University of Technology in Australia. The MOOC used Blackboard's CourseSites as platform and blended this with discussion and support via Facebook and Twitter. Participants could get support and engage in discussions on social media as an alternative or complement to the central platform. The interaction between participants on this course is analysed in an article by Gilly Salmon, Bella RossEkaterina Pechenkina and Anne-Marie Chase, The space for social media in structured online learning. Research in Learning Technology. The findings are not surprising but raise important issues for all involved in online course design. You would expect that many of those following a MOOC like this one would be comfortable negotiating multiple platforms but the study reveals that over 40% of survey respondents did not use Facebook or Twitter at all and focused solely on the activities in the LMS. As one respondent put it:

I did not use Twitter or Facebook. Those are social sites. For professional work, I prefer it to be on a professional platform.

Many are reluctant to mix private and professional roles in Facebook and many see Twitter simply as a medium for gossip, celebrities and publicity rather than as a professional networking tool. The benefits of using social media for professional development are not widely accepted and many learners are wary of them.

I am involved in running an online course called Open Networked Learning together with colleagues from 4 other universities. The course is offered as professional development for teachers in each of the participating universities but is also open to learners from other institutions. As a result an internal professional development course becomes an open international course with a wonderful multi-cultural mix. To avoid discussions of which university's LMS we should use we choose Google+ as our platform complemented by a WordPress site with all course information and resources. In addition we use Twitter (#ONL161) for chat sessions, Diigo to gather useful bookmarks and each participants reflects on their learning on their own blogs. One of the main ideas behind the course is using multiple platforms and tools and investigating the potential of these to enhance learning but the downside is that many participants find this diversity confusing and this leads to some dropping out. We try to compensate by offering lots of support from a network of facilitators and co-facilitators but it is still a major issue that juggling between platforms makes it hard to see the bigger picture.

I suspect most of us really prefer to have everything under one roof since the course is one of many activities going on in our lives. We have some participants who succeed in juggling with all the platforms but the majority focus on maybe a couple, primarily the study group's own community in Google+ and then less attention to the other spaces. The delicate balance is to promote diversity whilst avoiding overload, offering a choice without dictating and providing timely support to those who feel insecure.

The main conclusion of Salmon et al is to see value in including social media as alternative arenas but make it clear that learners have a choice whether to use them or not.

When designing for MOOCs or online learning, participants’ preferences for social media use should be taken into account ... One solution is to offer a few different platforms, in addition to the LMS, but not require that learners use them if they feel uncomfortable. Alternatively, ask learners to create professional identities on social media for all formal learning and professional development uses.

SALMON, Gilly et al. The space for social media in structured online learning. Research in Learning Technology, [S.l.], v. 23, dec. 2015. ISSN 2156-7077. Available at: http://www.researchinlearningtechnology.net/index.php/rlt/article/view/28507. Date accessed: 06 Mar. 2016. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/rlt.v23.28507.