Sunday, January 29, 2017

Identity a major factor in online course completion

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One of the key factors to course completion is identity; feeling that you belong to a group and are acknowledged as such. This sense of belonging is relevant both on campus and online but if it is not achieved the resulting isolation is more acute in online courses. In for-credit online courses where numbers are limited there are many strategies for creating an inclusive community for the students, see in particular Cynthia Clays5 Principles for Maximum Engagement and Gilly Salmon’s five-stage-model for online learning. However in a MOOC with thousands of participants teacher contact becomes impractical but that doesn't mean that you can't create a sense of community anyway.

This is the subject of a new study by René Kizilcec and colleagues at Stanford University, according to an article on Stanford News, Brief interventions help online learners persist with coursework, Stanford research finds. They noted that participants from countries with a lower rating on the United Nations’ Human Development Index were less likely to complete a MOOC than those from countries higher up that index. There are several potential barriers here such as inadequate infrastructure, lack of  up-to-date devices or limited ability in English, but this study decided to look at the issue of social identity and a feeling of inadequacy when joining a course.

Kizilcec and others theorize that a psychological barrier contributes to the global gap in MOOCs, namely social identity threat, which is a fear of being seen as less competent because of a social identity. Research has demonstrated that social identity threat can impair a person’s working memory and academic performance.

Millions of people enroll in courses with low levels of self confidence that are often unintentionally reinforced by the way they are introduced to the course. Many are taking their first hesitant step into higher education with a strong built-in feeling that they are probably not good enough. Whenever they encounter unfamiliar terminology (especially academic terms) or unclear instructions their first reaction is something like "I knew I wasn't clever enough for this course" and unless they can get some support they are very likely to give up. This feeling is magnified if the course forum is full of confident and articulate native English speakers. It is vital that these learners get some positive reinforcement right at the start of the course.

The Stanford study tested pre-course activities where participants could write about how the course could support their most important values and allowed them to read testimonials from previous participants about how they overcame feelings of isolation at the beginning of the course and were able to succeed in the end. These activities did not require direct teacher interaction but simply giving learners the chance to state their own values and reflect over how to succeed in the course had a remarkable effect on the learners who otherwise were most likely to leave the course. The completion rate for learners from less developed countries was raised from 17% to 41%.

“It is an impressive result which suggests that social identity threat can be a barrier to performance in international learning contexts, even in online environments with little social interaction,” Kizilcec said. “It goes to show that a small change to the online experience can have profound and lasting effects if it influences people’s perceptions of an environment.”

This confirms how vital it is to create an welcoming and supportive course introduction and to offer learners a chance to reflect on their own values and objectives before starting. Course information must be as inclusive and clear (jargon-free) as possible and a variety of tools and strategies can be used to help everyone identify with the course and feel part of it. Online questionnaires like the ones used in this study are one way but others can be allowing learners to create study groups in their own languages or with people from the same region. Short personal and encouraging weekly video messages from the teachers can also help to create a sense of belonging. Often the difference between drop-out and completion can be a few kind words of encouragement.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Combating academic spam

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One of the week's most interesting stories is the disappearance of Jeremy Beale's (University of Colorado at Denver) excellent watchdog site on predatory journals and publishers. According to an article in Inside Higher EdNo More 'Beall's List', the site was suddenly taken down and replaced with a notice "This service is no longer available" and since then Beale has not been available for any comment, leading to speculation in social media and news sites. According to an article in ScienceInsider:

Beall declined to comment. But a CU Denver spokesperson told ScienceInsider that Beall made a “personal decision” to take down his list of low-quality journals that charge authors a fee to publish, often with little or no review or editing. The spokesperson says the blog was not hacked, nor was it taken down as a result of legal threats, and Beall will remain on the school’s faculty. The spokesperson could not confirm whether the blog's removal is permanent.

Beale's list has become an important monitor of publications that spam academics, offering publication at a price and falsely claiming to use peer review, as well as a myriad of bogus conferences that invite academics to contribute (at a price) and then at best only offering a token event. Academic spam is a major issue and it can be hard for many to tell between the serious journals and conference organisers and the bogus ones. I'm not a very significant name in the academic community but even my in-box receives several academic spam mails per day offering me the chance to publish in some obscure journal or an appearance at a conference on a theme that I don't even work with. The extremely long list of so-called open access publishers in Beale's lists could be seen to discredit the open model but at the same time there are thousands of serious peer-reviewed open access publications. Whenever new models are tested there will be people who will try to exploit new freedoms and therefore it is vital to have watchdogs and whistle-blowers who can expose the less serious actors.

According to some reports, the site and its related Facebook group has been withdrawn due to pressure or threats, though there are no precise details on this. Anyone providing such a watchdog service risks the fury of those who are blacklisted and Beale has certainly had to put up with considerable opposition over the years. At the same time there is always the risk of accusing an innocent party. This is a major undertaking and is simply not sustainable if it is run by an individual, not matter how dedicated. A better solution would be an international organisation with high credibility to take over the role but more in terms of quality assurance rather than as whistle-blower. A colleague of mine suggested that the list could instead be one of approved journals and conferences and that a quality assurance framework and certification could make it clear which journals were serious and which were not. We need to build on and promote internationally recognised quality labels for open access publications to make it easier to spot the fraudsters.

Not surprisingly Beale's list has now been republished on a number of sites but such measures are only a temporary solution. The list must be continually updated and reviewed and it is also essential that those on the list are given a fair chance to improve and be taken off the list. Jeremy Beale has done a great job over the years but one pioneer cannot keep such a service going. Which organisation can step up and take over?

A detailed chronicle of this story is given in this blog post, What Happened to Jeffrey Beall’s List of (Allegedly) Predatory Publishers?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Embracing imperfection

We learn by enlightened trial and error. In fact failure is essential for learning. We try something, it fails and so we try another strategy and this process is repeated until we feel we have acquired the desired skill. The assistance of someone else who has already mastered that skill can help us but we still need to make our own mistakes.

An article by Maha Bali in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pedagogy of Imperfection, argues that we should embrace imperfection in education and stop demanding perfection either in ourselves or in others. An imperfect lesson is not the result of not being prepared, it's because no matter how carefully you prepare, your students will react differently according to mood, time of day, external factors. You may have prepared meticulously but when you meet the class something distracts or disturbs you. Many teachers set themselves unrealistic targets because they adopt the traditional role of the infallible teacher. If you can't answer all the students' questions you haven't prepared well enough. Good teachers are not necessarily the best prepared but those with the ability to improvise and react to the mood of the students and are willing to allow the students room to find answers. If the teacher immediately answers a question then the students are denied valuable information retrieval skill development. They need to learn how to find reliable information rather than learning to become dependent on the knowledge of others.

Students need to feel that they are not expected to succeed first time. Learning is an iterative and collaborative process and both students and teachers should be able to admit their uncertainties and shortcomings.

Seeing other people make mistakes, laugh it off, and keep going helps to open doors for others to join in the experimentation. If there is no expectation of perfection, this gives a sense of permission to participate. A pedagogy of imperfection entails teachers and mentors sharing, expressing their own imperfection openly, in order to facilitate it for others.

The author advocates greater risk taking in teaching, especially when using technology. So often teachers get stressed when a tool or device does not work as expected. I often hear colleagues complain about a tool that didn't work perfectly first time and is then dismissed as useless. Expecting perfection can prevent us from ever experimenting and that means we never learn anything new. If something doesn't work, see if the students can help you or simply move on to plan B and try again another time (once you've investigated why plan A didn't work). Students also need to be encouraged to experiment with technology and not expect to succeed first time.

The need to be ‘right’ means they are overly conservative in what they do. Giving them explicit permission to play and explore helps to open up what they can do.

A positive learning environment is one where teachers and students alike are able to admit their limitations and focus on sharing their skills and knowledge. Aspiring to perfection is admirable but so is realising that you may never attain that level.