Sunday, May 29, 2016

What do the students think? It depends on what you mean by student.


What is a student? Despite the growth in lifelong learning I think the word still conjures up the traditional image of the 18-22 year-old studying on campus. They have invested heavily in the traditional model of higher education and decided to devote 3-5 years of their lives to full-time study where they expect the full package: lectures, tutorials, campus life, parties, network building and hundreds of hours writing essays and reading course literature. This is still how society views higher education but universities today also cater for a rapidly growing number of learners who are well over 25, don't go near a campus and do not even identify themselves as students. These two categories have very different perspectives on learning; one group see their studies as a full-time occupation that they have invested heavily in and the other see their studies as an extra element in their busy lives but not the most important.

So many studies want to measure student attitudes to online learning but it all depends which students you ask. This is clear from a new report by Blackboard, Redefining Value for Online Students, that asked a wide range of students about their experience and views of online courses in comparison to their campus courses. I cannot see whether all those questioned were full-time campus students but from the answers I suspect they were. The answers are summarised in the report as follows:

1. When students take a class online, they make a tacit agreement to a poorer experience which undermines their educational self worth. 
2. Students perceive online classes as a loophole they can exploit that also shortcuts the “real” college experience. 
3. Online classes don’t have the familiar reference points of in-person classes which can make the courses feel like a minefield of unexpected difficulties. 
4. Online students don’t experience social recognition or mutual accountability, so online classes end up low priority by default. 
5. Students take more pride in the skills they develop to cope with an online class than what they learn from it. 
6. Online classes neglect the aspects of college that create a lasting perception of value.

The students in the survey repeatedly compare online courses with campus and often focusing on the dangers of self-study such as social isolation and the lower levels of support and group dynamics. Certainly there are plenty of online courses that fit this description but there are also many campus courses that are deficient in similar ways. Well designed online courses can certainly offer an engaging and supportive learning environment where groups can interact both synchronously and asynchronously. Online groups can also become extremely close and many choose to continue their collaboration after the course has ended. Sadly the students in this survey do not seem to have experienced this side of online learning and base their judgements on poorly designed self-study courses. 

In my experience many campus students are rather conservative in their attitudes to online learning, probably because they are not the main beneficiaries. They see online courses as a threat to the campus experience they value so highly and are understandably worried that online learning means even less contact with faculty and more self-study. In addition the old reputation of online courses being a poor second choice alternative seems hard to erase. Most online learners however combine study with work, family and a social life that is not based around classmates. They don't identify themselves as students and generally have a fairly low sense of loyalty to the institution offering the course they study. Online studies are their only option and they judge their courses on their own merits rather than comparing them with the full-time campus model.

The conclusions of this study do show that the public image of online education is still rather poor and is still seen by many as a second rate option. Clearly quality can be raised especially in terms of how technology is used to facilitate collaboration, interaction and support. Ironically the reason many online courses are seen as one-way communication and self study (especially many MOOCs) is that many of them have simply adopted the information transfer pedagogy so often used in traditional campus teaching. Digital arenas can actually offer much richer opportunities for collaboration and discussion than physical spaces and when they do so the results are excellent. The fact that many courses fail to fully exploit these features is not the fault of the technology but the low awareness of the opportunities technology can offer.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cat and mouse - cheating in education

Cat and Mouse by katie_mccolgan, on Flickr
"Cat and Mouse" (CC BY 2.0) by katie_mccolgan

Every week there are reports of cheating in school and university exams and assignments and it's easy for some to inperpret this as a purely modern phenomenon enabled primarily by digital technology. Is cheating really on the rise or has technology enabled us to detect it more easily? What makes people go to such lengths and expenses to cheat the system? A recent revelation here in Sweden showed that some people were paying well over €10,000 to cheat on their university entrance exams. If you have the cash you can get someone else to write your essay for you and they will also guarantee that it will pass any plagiarism detection system. University entrance and qualifications are hard currency and whenever there are clear rewards on the table the temptation to cheat will always be there. It's certainly prevalent in business, politics and sport so it's naive to think that education should be exempt.

Cheating and counter-cheating is becoming a frantic arms race as each side tries to out-trick the other. Online examination proctoring services are flourishing such as Proctor U and Software Secure. These solutions offer secure online examination by locking down the students' computer and using multi-factor identification, screen, webcam and microphone surveillance and keystroke analysis. In the traditional campus exam hall students can now use their laptops but in most cases they are offline, locked into the exam administration system and monitored. However for every new solution to increase exam security there are counter moves from the cheaters. A classic case of cat and mouse.

This cat and mouse game is discussed in a new post by Donald ClarkLecture, essay, cheat, repeat… plagiarism, why it's endemic and 10 ways to avoid. He sees the traditional reliance on summative assessment as the main problem. Predictable exam questions can easily be memorized and it's easy to get ready-made answers to many common titles, especially if you're willing to pay for it. He suggests several alternatives to summative assessment methods.

Essays are sometimes appropriate assignments if one wants long-form critical thought. But in many subjects shorter, more targeted assignments and testing are far better. There’s a lot of formative assessment techniques out there and essays are just one of them. Short answer questions, open-response, formative testing, adaptive testing. I’d argue that student blogs are often better than essays as one can see progress and it’s not something that’s easy to plagiarise. Truth be told, HE wants it easy, and essays are easy to set. They also have to accept that they are also easy to cheat.
One simple trick Clark suggests is googling your essay question and see if the answers are already out there. We simply have to set assignments that aren't so easy to cheat. If you do set an essay then provide formative assessment by reviewing the drafts to see how the work is progressing. Interviews, face-to-face or video, can give an excellent idea of the student's ability and are very difficult to cheat in. The investment from the teacher's part is often less than that of marking written papers. despite this very few dare to move away from the examination methods that are so clearly easy to cheat. Clark blames institutional inertia and tradition for the situation:

This has reached crisis point. Everyone knows it but there’s a conspiracy of silence. Universities are scared to admit the scale of the problem, as they trade on reputation. We’ve created this monster but institutional inertia is incapable of solving the problem, as they refuses to change.

Clearly no-one benefits from playing cat and mouse and although we'll never eliminate cheating from education there must be better ways of assessing students' ability. The essay or scientific article has for so long been the prime medium of academic communication but maybe we should widen our scope and include other forms of expression for assessment, moving the focus to a richer assessment mix of formative and summative methods as well as using peer assessment and assessment of practical work experience. By widening the focus like this we can at least make cheating extremely difficult.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Teaching with robots


The potential of big data and learning analytics to radically change our approach to learning and education is moving from the trend reports to practical applications. An article in the Wall Street Journal, Imagine Discovering That Your Teaching Assistant Really Is a Robot, describes how a class at Georgia Tech got prompt and useful feedback in discussion forums from a teaching assistant called Jill Watson and noone realised that she was a robot until the professor revealed the truth at the end of the course. Students post an awful lot of questions and ideas during a course and even if teaching assistants are hired to help with feedback it's hard to keep up. Most student posts require fairly simple responses, often about deadlines, assignment criteria or asking for confirmation that they are on the right track. The motivational effect of getting prompt replies is well documented and today's artificial intelligence can provide this round the clock.

“Our TAs are getting bogged down answering routine questions,” said Mr. Goel, noting that students in the class typically post 10,000 messages a semester.
Mr. Goel estimates that within a year, Ms. Watson will be able to answer 40% of all the students’ questions, freeing the humans to tackle more complex technical or philosophical inquiries such as, “How do you define intelligence?”


Jill had been rigorously programmed by analysing questions and answers in course forums and was programmed only to respond to questions that "she" had a 97% certainty of an appropriate answer. More advanced questions were left to humans. The only hint that Jill wasn't quite like other teaching assistants was that she was so prompt in answering and never seemed to sleep. The students were all positive about the machine responses and many were convinced that Jill was a highly competent PhD student. The robot assistant was convincing though it would be interesting if students would have been equally positive if they had known from the start that they would have a robot facilitator. Of course we prefer human assistance and we all have experience of less advanced and extremely limited chatbots on commercial websites but the alternative for the students in this case could be much less feedback and longer waits for information.

Artificial intelligence is already taking over many mundane and time-consuming tasks in education. Automated feedback on written assignments has also been tested with positive results (see my post from a couple of years ago) and much more advanced applications are in the pipeline as learning analytics matures. Machine translation and speech-text-speech applications are improving and becoming more reliable. Add these elements to the MOOC model and we get scaleable, personalised, collaborative and flexible education where teacher and machine support complement each other This doesn't mean that we'll all learn solely through digital devices and it doesn't replace face-to-face meetings and interaction (arguments I only hear from tech skeptics). It means that we can widen the reach of education and offer alternative paths, integrating education with work and enabling people to learn without uprooting themselves to a university campus (unless you really want to do that). 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

More than three and a tree - What is a university?


The photo above represents the public image of most universities; 18-22 year old students on campus. Practically every university website features photos like this and most see campus as their core business. The trouble is that when every institution uses very similar images matched with very similar slogans and mission statements it becomes very difficult to tell the difference. Is this image really a fair representation of what a university is today and what it could become? An article in Inside Higher Ed called Your Future Starts Here. Or Here. Or Here, pokes gentle fun at stereotyped marketing, referring to a book called Three and a tree published a few years ago.

A college suffers from Three and a Tree (or TAAT) when its brochures feature pictures of “three students of varying ethnicities and gender, dressed head to toe in college-branded merchandise.”

The book is a guide to university marketing and offers an escape from the stereotyped and rather shallow approaches still favoured by many today. Since a traditional campus degree is one of the most expensive investments you make in your life you will be looking for a university that offers something special. The vast majority of institutions have interchangeable visions and strategies and so there are enormous gains to be made from more targeted marketing. One particularly interesting proposal is creating a separate web site for recruitment that focuses on the questions that prospective students have. University web sites try to include every aspect of their activities on their website with the result that prospective students drown in information. So the conclusion is to create a dual site university with one student recruitment site plus the main information site for everyone else.

However the book doesn't really tackle the greatest potential market for higher education; professional development and lifelong learning for those well over 22. I haven't seen many websites that integrate images of older students (professional development, distance learners, lifelong learners etc) into their mainstream marketing. The three and a tree imagery still dominates. At many universities today an increasing number of students are very seldom, if ever, on campus though you would never guess that by browsing through the website, the videos or the brochures. This extremely important target group is at best relegated to a sub-heading somewhere in the menus.

So what actually constitutes a university today? It's so much more than just the impressive administrative building, the lawns or the lecture halls. This is discussed in a blog post by Mark Smithers entitled Because universities are more than just girls under trees. He also wants the focus to move from student recruitment to a much more complex concept.

Now don’t get me wrong, teaching students is a core function of a university but for me personally universities are about much more than that. At their heart they are communities of scholars or learners at different stages in their learning. These communities can be virtual, physical, blended. They can be in any form; what is important is not the space but the ideas.

University is not a place it's a community of communities linking people across generations and professions. There may or may not be an impressive campus but that is just the tip of the iceberg. What unites all connected with the institution is not so much the physical location but the networks and collaboration that are the real lifeblood. Once you realise that, the clich├ęd stock photos become redundant and a new image emerges that is much more inclusive and representant of reality. The real impact of a university reaches all through society and the campus becomes simply one aspect (still important) of a complex eco-system. It's time that complexity was communicated more clearly.