Saturday, August 18, 2018

What is a lecture worth?

Today you can watch millions of university lectures in all disciplines completely free and in many cases download them to your mobile or tablet. In addition, many universities offer course content as open courseware. For the past 15 years we have seen that content is no longer king and since it is openly available for free the real value of a university lies in providing the context through teachers who can lead discussions, put issues into perspective, inspire, challenge and support their students. However most institutions still protect their content, locking it away from public view, as if it was a valuable commodity. Of course there is content that may be sensitive but since so many universities in the world are state funded it seems strange to hide content that has been publicly funded.

An article by Joshua Kim in Inside Higher Ed, An Incredible College Lecture Is Now Worth 40 Cents, highlights this issue through the example of an online course on the history of London. This course is not open or free but the cost says something about the value of even high quality content.

I purchased this course from the Amazon owned As a Platinum Annual subscriber, the cost for the course was $9.56. The course has 24 lectures of about 30 minutes each. The cost per lecture, therefore, is about 40 cents. 40 cents.

Despite the line-up of leading authorities in the field and high quality production the course price is extremely low. Even in a commercial setting the price is 40 cents per lecture. Of course if you take a MOOC or other open course the cost is precisely zero. At the same time quality content is extremely valuable for the learner in terms of their learning and is also expensive to create. I'm not sure how sustainable this model is and in the end we may see a system whereby micro-payments per user can finance content production in some way. Those who produce good content deserve some reward and incentive to continue.

However in a world where so much content is free and often licensed for reuse and adaptation then why do so many institutions still spend so much time and money on making their own content? If content is easily shared then institutions can reuse and adapt content at low cost and focus their attention on adding real value in terms of fostering learning and supporting students. Do many universities still base their courses on content delivery and their examinations on content recall? Shouldn't teachers be encouraged to use more open content and spend their own time helping students to make sense of them? Kim ends his article with these two questions:

Is your school transitioning from a teacher/content focus to a learner/learning focus?

How do we keep what is wonderful about the lecture format, but fold in elements of active and relational learning in to the DNA of higher education?

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Open education in Palestine

Bethlehem campus
Open universities all over the world aim to offer higher education to non-traditional students, often in rural and underprivileged areas of the country. The challenge is to create learning communities where students are spread all over the country and seldom, if ever, get the chance to meet physically at one location. This challenge is particularly acute at Al Quds Open University (QOU) in Palestine which I visited last week as a guest speaker at their conference Digital Transformation in Continuing Education (30 July). The university offers education throughout the West Bank and Gaza where travel between towns is either difficult or, in the case of Gaza, virtually impossible. The multiple campus university is united digitally and all courses combine online studies with on-site meetings and support.

Al Quds Open University was founded in 1991 and today has around 55,000 students, 8 faculties and 19 campuses/study centres (14 in the West Bank and 5 in Gaza). All courses mix online learning with classroom teaching at the local study centres. The courses are delivered through a variety of platforms: the learning management system Moodle, the academic portal, a media platform, QTube, with a wide range of lectures and information films, a portal for sharing slideshows, the open repository OSOL for scientific journals and other publications and various mobile applications. The university is committed to open educational resources and the vast majority of material has a Creative Commons license and they publish five open access scientific journals. Fees are kept as low as possible (around $350 per term) but are the major source of funding together with donations. As well as the standard e-learning platforms the university also has its own satellite TV channel, Al Quds Educational Channel, broadcasting both academic content as well as educational documentaries for general interest as part of their outreach strategy. The channel is free and reaches households all over Palestine and the programmes are also freely accessible worldwide via the website. I visited their studios where a dedicated team of media professionals produce an impressive range of programmes with many live discussions and lectures from their studio as well as documentaries.

Map showing the study centre areas
I was particularly interested in the study centres (branches) and how they support the students. The study centres host lectures, seminars and examinations but are also places where students can come to use computers, get academic and technical support as well as meet each other. Each study centre has academic staff who can teach on-site and there is also a network of part-time teachers who teach and work with course development. Blended learning is default since students need a social context for their learning and the regular meetings at the study centres helps to keep them on track even though most of the course work is online. They also offer courses on learning how to learn with a focus on learning online.

I visited the centre in Bethlehem which hosts around 4,000 students (78% female) and has 24 full-time teaching staff plus administration, a library and educational technologists. Last year 400 students graduated in Bethlehem and this year’s ceremony say 450 graduate. As well as these centres the university has two mobile educational centres; lorries equipped with laptops, generator, satellite wifi and teachers that drive to outlying rural areas and offer ICT training to remote schools. This is part of the university's commitment to continuing education, coordinated by the Continuing Education and Community Service Centre and offering lifelong learning, digital literacy and professional training all over Palestine via the study centres. At present there are even plans to start a study centre in Syria to serve Palestinians there.
Poster advertising the mobile educational centres

A particularly interesting new development is the range of non-credit self-learning open online SMART courses that are specially adapted for mobile delivery and are available via Google Play and similar platforms. These courses offer basic training in subjects like English, Arabic, digital skills and now the first Arabic open course on OER (Open Educational Resources). These courses are available to anyone for free and interaction between students takes place on Facebook groups. QOU are also active contributors to the pan-Arabic OER community, ALECSO OER.

Combining online learning with on-site support in every region offers students both the flexibility they need to study and the sense of community that will support them through their studies. With travel between many of the regions challenging and time-consuming the digital spaces provide a common meeting place for all.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Educational buffet

CC BY-NC-ND Some rights reserved by iamphl on Flickr
Subscription based platforms like Spotify and Netflix have been a massive success allowing you access to a massive library of music and films for a flat rate monthly subscription. A similar platform for magazines, Readly, offers you access to a wide range of monthly magazines on a similar flat-rate subscription basis. Although it is debatable how much the artists benefit much from this model but it's an improvement on the free downloading of the Napster days. So how this can be applied to education?

While most of the media focus has been on MOOCs over the last few years there's another side to online education that is galloping along almost unnoticed. There are many platforms that offer a vast range of short training courses provided by individual educators, colleges or companies where the learner pays a fee and some of that money goes to the course creators. The most prominent platforms in this niche are UdemySkillshareTeachable and, but there are many more. Udemy has been around for many years now and is as a market place where educators can create and offer an online course and earn money on the registrations. Other platforms can have more in-house course production or various forms of quality control on the courses published. the simplest form of quality control is by learners reviews and ratings. There are two basic types of business model: one that charges learners a price per course and the course creator gets a share of that or the subscription model where the learner pays a monthly fee to access the whole range of courses and some of the income is distributed among the contributors.

You could call this field just-in-time learning for anyone who wants to get a quick overview of a new concept or how to use a particular application. It's more the modern equivalent of all the books with titles like A beginner's guide to X or Teach yourself Y. They don't pretend to be like a university course or to provide interaction with teachers and other learners. They guide you through the process, allow you to test your knowledge and maybe some kind of practical task. If you want to learn some more advanced functions in PhotoShop or the principles of lean management then this is a good place to start but it's not the place for deeper learning and collaboration, nor does it even pretend to be so.

One of these companies, Skillshare, is highlighted in an article in EdSurge, Can a Subscription Model Work for Online Learners and Teachers? Skillshare Just Raised $28 Million to Find Out. For a very affordable (at least for learners in developed countries) you get access to a self-service buffet of courses and so far they have amassed around 5 million users. Learn as much as you like for a monthly fee.

There are roughly 1,000 courses available on Skillshare for free. For full access to the more than 22,000 classes currently on its platform, there’s a subscription fee (either $15 per month or $99 a year). About 30 to 50 percent of this subscription revenue goes to a royalty pool that pays Skillshare teachers based on their share of all the minutes of video watched in a month. The company claims that the average Skillshare teacher makes about $3,000 a year, with top earners raking in as much as $40,000.

There is a useful overview of different online course platforms that use some kind of subscription model on the site Medium, The Economics of Teaching in an Online Learning Marketplace. They all offer attractive packaging and presentation for your course and a marketplace to attract participants but as ever you need to weigh up the costs of using the platform with what you get out of it.

Are MOOCs heading in this direction? There are already special prices for course packages and the differences between the MOOC providers and the course platforms are narrowing. Online education is becoming increasingly commercial and I think these platforms fill an important niche in terms of professional development and lifelong learning. However I still think that universities should also offer truly open education to those who are unable to access more traditional forms and cannot afford the commercial variety. As the majority of the MOOC platforms become more commercial we mustn't forget all the less hyped open education that is being conducted by committed universities and partnerships all over the world. That's where the really interesting development is taking place.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Learning analytics - is there an off switch?

CC0 Public domain on pxhere
Returning to the theme of learning analytics, I wonder if there will be any way of opting out from being tracked and coached. The potential of learning analytics is in tracking a student's progress, suggesting resources, offering extra practice and constant feedback on assignments as well as monitoring performance. The vision is to have a personal tutor by your side round the clock and provide your human tutor with alerts if your are struggling in some way. The trouble with this is that sometimes you need to be able to switch off the surveillance and just practice in peace. You seldom perform to the best of your ability if you know someone (or something) is watching you.

I recommend you read an article by John Warner in Inside Higher EdThe Problems of Real-Time Feedback in Teaching Writing. He objects to real-time AI feedback on students' writing on the grounds that it does more harm than good. Too much feedback too often can destroy the creative process and simply leading the students to write in order to satisfy the system. There is a time for providing feedback and there must also be time for trial and error and experimentation without the feeling that you are being observed and assessed.

For example, when learning to play the guitar, it’s useful to have some periods of real-time feedback where a teacher may be able to correct a flaw like a bad hand position, but you also need to go lock yourself in your room and practice, likely making a bunch of unpleasant noises in the process. Imagine trying to do this while being constantly reminded that your noises really are unpleasant.

We all need our own quiet spaces to concentrate, experiment, test, reflect and discuss: a play room, sandbox, hideaway, tree house. You don't want anyone to see or hear your embarrassing mistakes and it's best that many early attempts are discarded and lost without trace. This is one reason why students seldom post in the forums of our learning management systems. They only post when required and soon learn that everything they write there is in the university's system and may be used in evidence against them. As a result they create their own closed communities to discuss coursework, away from all risk of assessment. 

We need to use AI/learning analytics wisely and make sure we allow students the right to escape when they need to. The risk is that we destroy creativity by offering too much support and personalisation.

Writing is thinking, writing is thinking, writing is thinking, and sometimes when we’re working on our thinking, we have to be left alone.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Is edtech simply automating tradition?

CC BY-SA Some rights reserved by ISAPUT on Wikimedia Commons
For a few years the internet was an exciting new space where we thought we could build a better world through innovation, borderless collaboration and a culture of sharing. Today big business reigns supreme and technology is being used for control, surveillance and commercial gain. After several years of speculation and experimentation we are now beginning to see how analytics and artificial intelligence are going to be used in education. As governments become increasingly concerned with accountability, profitability and competition, technology is feeding this drive with statistics.

A post by Mike CrowleyGoogle, ISTE, and the Death of EdTech, reflects on the recent ISTE conference and sees worrying tendencies that today's edtech industry is increasingly about control rather than creativity. Technology is being used to make traditional practice more efficient rather than fostering real learning.

All week, the ISTE Expo Hall gushed with predictions that Artificial Intelligence will automate the traditional classroom. Auto-grading is now a thing. Marketeers touted emerging tools to help students study smarter, by enabling them to memorise more information faster. Ultimately, though, the Big News, like Google Classroom, is the proliferation of software that allows teachers to monitor and keep students on-task. The lofty ambitions for education were summed up thus. Make tradition more efficient. Stop bored students from cheating on mindless, low-level assessments. Deliver content like Windows 98 is the next big thing. New tools. Old thinking. Systems, not learners.

The tyranny of tradition is extremely hard to escape from. The traditional educational paradigm of learning facts that can be easily tested and categorised is a perfect fit for the smart systems of today. We can use analytics and AI to provide the statistical illusion that students have achieved the learning objectives we set them. But technology can and should be able to do so much more and that's why Crowley states:

Make no mistake about it. EdTech as we currently know it is dead, it’s over. We should retire the phrase right now. If education is to be the target of an industry that has grown increasingly obsessed with standardization, control, automation, and delivery efficiencies, then we must opt out.
Related to this is the use of automated grading of assignments that has been under development for several years now. This involves computer analysis of a written assignment to check for coherence, argumentation, linguistic style, grammar and fluency. An article on NPR, More States Opting To 'Robo-Grade' Student Essays By Computer, examines recent experience of automated grading at several US universities. Many educators are impressed by the accuracy of these tools, often giving similar grades to human examiners and if the computer is unsure it flags for teacher assessment. The potential savings are obvious and very attractive to cash-strapped institutions.

Several states including Utah and Ohio already use automated grading on their standardized tests. Cyndee Carter, assessment development coordinator for the Utah State Board of Education, says the state began very cautiously, at first making sure every machine-graded essay was also read by a real person. But she says the computer scoring has proven "spot-on" and Utah now lets machines be the sole judge of the vast majority of essays. In about 20 percent of cases, she says, when the computer detects something unusual, or is on the fence between two scores, it flags an essay for human review. But all in all, she says the automated scoring system has been a boon for the state, not only for the cost savings, but also because it enables teachers to get test results back in minutes rather than months.

Impressive indeed, but there will always be ways to hack the system and already there are examples of text generators that produce nonsensical texts that satisfy the grading system's preferences. This type of cat-and-mouse game has nothing to do with learning. When the only purpose of writing an assignment is to get a grade then people will simply do whatever it takes to get that grade as easily as possible. If the assignment has real meaning to more people than simply an examiner (or a robot) then the game element disappears. We need to develop methods of assessing student ability based on the impact of their projects on real people. Maybe traditional for-teacher's-eyes-only assignments are the problem.

One clear use for automated grading systems is to help the students improve their writing skills. The system can provide repeated formative assessment opportunities, helping students to improve the coherence and style of their assignments. They can submit several times during the writing process, something that no teacher could ever have time to deal with, and then submit the final version to the teacher for grading. However a more collaborative approach already used by many teachers is to encourage peer assessment with fellow students providing feedback during the writing process. This method benefits everyone and the students can learn a lot from being actively involved in the assessment process.

The real purpose of technology should be to facilitate human collaboration and learning. I love using digital tools to facilitate creative and collaborative activities and that's where educational technology should be focused. The use of big data in education, however is worrying and we need to be very careful not to be tempted into handing over control of our students to big business.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Ten years of blogging

I just realised that this blog celebrated its tenth birthday at the start of April and I completely forgot to buy the birthday cake. It all started on Saturday 5 April 2008 with this hesitant post, Why? I was busy investigating all the exciting new social media that were being launched (remember Web 2.0?) and enjoyed reading the blogs of leading researchers and experts in the field. I was unsure about blogging myself on the grounds that no one would be interested in my half-baked ideas but I persuaded myself that maybe the best reason was to use the blog as a place to write my reflections and notes. If anyone else found them useful then that would be nice but the main point was to try blogging for myself and see where it took me. So I started writing short posts about things I thought were interesting and it was fun to have a voice, however faint. I began to realise that the real power of social media lay in making connections across different platforms and to get the most out of this exciting new world I needed to work out my own private communication plan. So I decided that I would use my blog for certain purposes, Twitter for other reasons, Facebook in another way and so on. They all fitted together somehow and still do, at least in my head.

The stats for this blog may not be impressive among major bloggers, but for someone like me with only modest academic credentials I'm amazed at how far I have come. My 792 posts so far (this one makes it 793) have a total of just under 700,000 views according to Google. If someone had said ten years ago that I would have figures like that I would have laughed. In 2009 I added my Swedish blog, Flexspan, with shorter news items about educational technology and it also fitted nicely into my social media ecosystem. That blog has very recently passed one million page views so there's another landmark I am recognising belatedly. So over the past ten years I don't think I have more than a handful of blog-free weeks. Blogging has become a way of life.

At first I was concerned that there were very few comments on my posts even if there were plenty of visitors. I saw how the major bloggers had intensive and absorbing debates on their blogs and thought that was the norm. However, I now realise that most people read and then leave without commenting and I behave similarly. I seldom comment on other blogs even if I read many posts every day. If I find something really interesting I reply in kind by writing about the post on my own blog and referring to the original. What has been rewarding is when the original author of an article I wrote about then comments on my blog. I remember the thrill when one of the major edtech bloggers tweeted about one of my posts and I saw my page view figures spike! That's a great feeling and one that all educators and students should experience. Recognition from a leading figure in the field is an extremely strong motivator.

After a while I began to get e-mails from people who had read my posts and wanted to invite me to speak at a conference or take part in a project and then one activity lead to others. As a result I have had the privilege of travelling to many fascinating places and meeting with so many inspiring people. I have been part of initiatives way above my formal academic level and I am continually amazed that this has been possible. Maybe not only because of the blogging but it has played a large part. The blog has almost replaced my CV since if anyone wants to see what I work with this is where to go.

I will continue to blog as long as there's someone out there who finds it interesting and useful. I thank all of you for your interest.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Open educational resources - still waiting for the breakthrough

Open Educational resources (OER) has been on the verge of mainstream breakthrough for the past ten years or so but, despite many convincing arguments and excellent research, it never manages to cross that threshold. Right now, UNESCO is inviting comments on its draft UNESCO Recommendation on Open Educational Resources (OER) that will result in a new set of recommendations to all member nations on the promotion and development of OER. This can be seen as a refinement of UNESCO's 2012 Paris OER Declaration which provided important top-level support for OER and raised the visibility of the field but failed to convince the majority of member nations to commit to the cause.

The question is whether OER will ever manage to go mainstream or whether it will remain a field for a committed minority of educators. This is discussed in an article by Tom Berger on Edutopia, The Uncertain Future of OER. The Achilles' heel of OER is the still time-consuming task of finding the right material. There are many repositories and search tools but it still takes time to find what you want and this, for the already stressed teacher, is the crucial factor. The traditional text books as well as the polished online resources available from the major publishers offer a fully structured set of quality resources, together with lesson plans and extra activities. Most teachers rightly wonder whether the time-consuming, do-it-yourself approach of OER is worth the effort compared to following the ready-made packages from the publishers.

Unlike Wikipedia, Yelp, and Airbnb, most OER websites have failed to attract a large and active audience, have no widely adopted mechanism for ranking or maintaining the quality and timeliness of the materials, and lag behind industry standards of design and usability. The resulting systems can be frustratingly complex and often spit back listings that are hard to make sense of—a nonstarter for busy K–12 teachers struggling to keep their heads above water.

OER is however a very sustainable approach if fully implemented. Teachers can share their resources and allow other teachers to adapt and repurpose as necessary as long as they follow the terms of the Creative Commons license and credit the author accordingly. However, many studies indicate that although there is a wealth of resources, very few teachers are actually adapting them and the risk is that repositories are flooded with ever more one-off resources. For OER to really take off teachers need to learn not only to find resources but also how to adapt them and share responsibly. 

With textbook costs soaring there is increasing interest in producing open textbook, see for example the excellent example of the University of British Columbia's BC Open Textbooks. maybe this is the way forward for OER since open textbooks offer an attractive alternative that is easy for teachers to use and extremely popular with cash-strapped students. 

But the problem remains of persuading teachers to learn how to find, share and adapt other people's resources instead of relying on ready packages from the publishers. A further complication is the quality issue; how do I know that this resource is trustworthy? Maybe blockchain technology can provide some kind of quality guarantee or link resources from diverse locations into sequences of related material. I don't know enough about this field to say any more on this but maybe some aspect of this technology can apply to OER.

The Edutopia article ends on a rather pessimistic note. I have a suspicion that the big breakthrough for OER will have to wait a while yet.

So will we ever get to a Wikipedia-type model of teaching resources, with teachers freely giving and taking textbooks, lesson plans, and tests, refining and improving them, and sharing their improvements? There’s no clear path right now to achieving that model—you can’t will the proper ecosystem into existence, and overburdened teachers haven’t built it up from the grassroots. Should we even want them to?

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Projectors and microphones - devices we just can't get used to

No matter how digital we may be today there are some devices that we don't seem to ever come to terms with.

My first example is the projector. At every conference or meeting I attend someone has problems with these deceptively simple devices and sometimes these problems can escalate into lengthy battles as the audience murmurs sympathetically and knowingly in the background. We've all been there. You have your slides ready, connect the laptop to the projector but nothing happens ... no signal detected.  Even hardened tech professionals can be reduced to looking like embarrassed novices when confronted with a cranky projector. Projectors are totally unpredictable creatures who can be affectionate and happy one minute and then suddenly act as if they've never seen you before. They tend to be faithful to only certain devices and bitter enemies to all the rest and they really take objection to newcomers. Most conferences therefore play safe and insist on uploading all presentations to a computer that they know the projector will trust. Anyone who tries to plug in an outsider simply gets what's coming to them. If you're just going to show a slideshow then that's fine but if you're going to log into different web services and tools during your session it's very complex doing so on a strange device that may object to the sites you try to log into and your own device just works seamlessly. Even when you do make contact with the projector it nearly always chooses a bizarre screen resolution that means that my screen appears in magnified format and you need to play around with various controls to get something that the audience can see properly.

If I was asked to be counsel for the defense, I would probably build my case on how difficult it is for a poor simple projector to adapt to the myriad of settings and applications that people have on their devices. Older projectors simply can't keep up with the pace of chance and maybe it's unrealistic to expect them to do so. However, I do wish we could find a way for laptops and projectors to understand each other a little better.

My other example is the microphone. Here there are two issues: the device itself and our attitudes towards them. Wireless microphones have a habit of running out of battery power in the middle of a session or there's some loose connection somewhere that cuts off the sound at regular intervals. If there's no reserve device close at hand this can result in major interruptions and irritation. This problem is of course easy to remedy with good preparation. The other, trickier issue is people's extreme reluctance to use microphones at all. Even if the venue has microphones ready to use there are always speakers who ask the rhetorical question, "I don't need a microphone do I?" and the audience seldom objects. However those whose hearing is not 100% will seldom raise an objection even if they can hardly hear what is being said. If we are serious about inclusion in education the default should be to use a microphone. It doesn't hurt and everyone can hear you.

I admit that headsets can be awkward to put on but do it before you start and you'll be fine. Handheld microphones are trickier and you need to hold them close to your mouth. I've seen so many speakers gesticulating with their microphone hand or holding the mike too far from the mouth and so only the front rows can hear them at all. But with a bit of concentration and a positive attitude it works well and everyone can hear you. Let's see microphones as inclusive technology and use them better.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Let's flip the conference panel discussion

Virtually every conference has a panel discussion where a number of decision makers and experts discuss the main themes of the conference. It is a good opportunity to hear these experts state their positions and hopefully engage in a lively and stimulating debate. However although there is interaction on stage the audience is seldom involved apart from a handful of questions from those who dare to speak up. We get to hear their ideas and arguments but how can they get to hear the audience's perspectives? There is an enormous amount of experience and expertise in the room that the panel members would learn a lot from hearing. Politicians and policy makers need to learn more about practical grassroots experience and thereby gain deeper insights into the issues they need to address. To do this, I think we need to flip the panel discussion.

One way could be for the panel to announce a few key questions (one at a time) and ask the audience to work in small groups and write answers on a collaborative document. After a few minutes everyone in the hall has hopefully contributed to the discussion and then the panel could comment on the answers. Then repeat the procedure as necessary. A lot of the session would be fairly silent as the participants write and confer but the activity level will be much higher than in a normal panel discussion. Another idea that would work in a smaller conference where there are quite a few decision makers, is to divide the participants into groups, send them to smaller group rooms and assign a small number of decision makers to each group. The experts' role would be to simply ask questions, let the group discuss and take notes of the answers. The experts would therefore focus on listening. At the end the panel could comment on what they had heard from the discussions.

By using methods like this we can harvest ideas from all participants and give extremely useful input to the invited experts that they would never get from a traditional set-up. The conference could therefore become a greater learning experience, even for the invited guest speakers.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Lectures as performance

The danger of lectures is that they create the illusion of teaching for teachers, and the illusion of learning for learners.

This quote, generally attributed to one of my favourite authors Albert Camus (though I can't find what work it is taken from after about twenty minutes of searching), is often used by those who want to scrap the traditional lecture and replace it with more active forms of learning where the teacher facilitates and mediates rather than being the headline act. The global stereotype of higher education is of the gigantic lecture hall filled with students and the brilliant professor on the stage. It's what many students expect and what a lot of institutions still try to provide though most lectures fall far short of the ideal. Lectures are popular because they are easy to produce, can be delivered to large groups of students and are based on the view of education as consumption of content. But today many institutions are moving towards pedagogical models that focus on active learning, co-creation and collaboration and the physical landscape of the university is changing rapidly as more and more active learning spaces replace the old lecture halls and fixed-desk classrooms. Some universities have gone as far as to scrap the lecture hall completely though they continue to produce them in a digital format on their media platforms.

However, I believe that the lecture still has an important role to play in education as long as it is used wisely and sparingly. That was reinforced for me after reading an article by Michael Merrifield in Times Higher Education, University lecturers should be engaging raconteurs, claiming that the value of a lecture is in terms of its ability to engage and inspire and as such the lecturer must be, above all, a storyteller, a performance artist. It's not about going through the facts and theories that can be read in a book or article, it's about building a narrative that will inspire, provoke thought and challenge the audience.

So what is the point of a lecture? To be honest, I think it is something rather simple. It is to impart knowledge the lecturer currently has but the students do not, through a narrative that is more entertaining than reading the same material out of a book. So, when lecturing, I am not a sage on a stage, a phrase that is clearly intended as deprecating as well as being conveniently alliterative. I am, hopefully, an entertaining storyteller, which also sounds deprecating, but I don’t think it is.

Maybe lectures are about creating illusions but not in the sense implicit in the quote at the beginning of this post. The secret to a good lecture is creating the illusion of a compelling narrative, where you teach ideas and concepts by weaving them into a story with elements of surprise, suspense and inquisitive engagement. The lecture should be an event rather than an everyday ritual and as such it can be a very valuable teaching tool but only when well planned and delivered with enthusiasm. If you want to lecture then you need to ask yourself these questions:
  • Are you sure that a lecture is the best way to engage the learners in this topic? 
  • How can I engage them in my narrative? e.g. short teaser video/quiz to stimulate interest before the lecture, interaction using digital tools, short buzzgroup activities, creating suspense, use of props.
  • What happens after the lecture? Is there a (digital) space for reflection, questions, follow-up work?
Your enthusiasm and ability to communicate effectively can make all the difference. Above all, make it unmissable! 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Paying for free

A recurring theme this year is the redefinition of free. I keep returning to this but I believe we are in the midst of a radical change in the way we use the internet.  The internet of the nineties was free because it was mostly lightweight text-based pages and was run and written by enthusiastic pioneers. Once the content started getting more sophisticated and demanded much more work to produce, the people who produced the content needed to get paid for their work. But since free had become default the money had to be made somehow and so advertising became the solution. Now when everything is powered by extremely sophisticated advertising, lobbying and disinformation we suddenly realise that we have sold our every click, like, thought and integrity for the fleeting rewards of the "free" internet. Now the model seems to be in a process of change, except that we're not yet sure which way to go.

I can recommend an interesting angle on this in a TechCrunch article, Subscription Hell. It's about the increasing number of content providers, tools, platforms and storage services that are suddenly imposing sometimes rather hefty subscriptions for services that used to be free, or freemium services that radically reduce the scope of the free version in order to force users to go pro. The change may not seem so great from the perspective of the company but when you have become used to using a wide range of services and platforms the prospect of paying for them all can be daunting.

I’m frustrated with this hell. I’m frustrated that the web’s promise of instant and free access to the world’s information appears to be dying. I’m frustrated that subscription usually means just putting formerly free content behind a paywall. I’m frustrated that the price for subscriptions seems wildly high compared to the ad dollars that the fees substitute for. And I’m frustrated that subscription pricing rarely seems to account for other subscriptions I have, even when content libraries are similar.

News media in many countries are disappearing behind paywalls, often leaving behind as meager compensation a simplified free version where all content simply drowns in a sea of ads. I follow many news media from around the world and appreciate the opportunity to read about world news from different perspectives. If they all put up paywalls I'd have to choose which ones I am willing to subscribe to and my perspectives would be seriously narrowed. Similarly in education, I have been forced to abandon useful tools because I can't justify the new subscription cost. It's often not the individual subscription that's the problem, it's multiplying that figure by 10 or 30 or 50.

I understand that all these services cost money to produce and the people who do that work need to be paid. If the advertising and data harvesting model is flawed and must be regulated then we have to accept that a new model for financing the internet needs to be found. I pay for a few services and tools but I'm still dependent on the "free" ones. The article suggests bundles of similar services and discounts for subscribing to several. Many are also discussing the model of micro-payments based on volume of use rather than flat-rate subscriptions. With the growth of digital transactions and the increased security available this is more feasible than before. But if we want to move away from the exploitative model of today where you are the product then we have to find new ways to pay as we go. Are the days of free are drawing to a close?

Subscription hell is real, but that doesn’t mean the business model is flawed. Rather, we need to completely transform our thinking around these models, including the marketing behind them and the features that they offer. We also need to consider consumers and their wallets more holistically, since no one buys a subscription in a vacuum. For too long, paywall playbooks have just been copied rather than innovated upon. It’s time for product leaders to step up and build a better future.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Beyond the horizon

Photo: CC BY Some rights reserved by Vancouver film school
The annual NMC Horizon reports on trends in educational technology have been eagerly awaited and intensively debated over the past decade or so. Last year New Media Consortium unexpectedly went out of business and it looked as if the reports would also disappear. However Educause were able to acquire the rights to the report and the back issues and have also succeeded in finalising this year's report, though understandably a few months behind normal schedule. They have just released a preview of the higher education report, NMC Horizon Report Preview 2018, with the full version promised by the summer.

As usual, the report has been written by about 70 experts from around the world and identifies key trends and challenges in educational technology in higher education from a short, medium and long-term perspective. This year, as before, contains few real surprises since all the technologies mentioned have been on the radar for some time and many of them never really become mainstream, despite all the predictions and innovative initiatives.

The full report will contain detailed analyses of the trends and valuable links to current initiatives in each area. Here are the trends in brief:
Driving educational technology adoption
  • Short-term: Growing focus on measuring learning, Redesigning learning spaces.
  • Medium-term: Proliferation of open educational resources, New forms of interdisciplinary studies.
  • Long-term: Advancing cultures of innovation, Cross-institution and cross-sector collaboration.
Challenges impeding technology adoption
  • Solvable: Authentic learning experiences, Improving digital literacy.
  • Difficult: Adapting organizational designs to the future of work, Advancing digital equity.
  • Wicked: Economic and political pressures, Rethinking the roles of educators.
Important developments in educational technology for higher education
  • Short-term: Analytics technologies, Makerspaces.
  • Medium-term: Adaptive learning technologies, Artificial intelligence.
  • Long-term: Mixed reality, Robotics.
For me the most intriguing category is the wicked challenges impeding technology adoption. Rethinking the role of the teacher doesn't seem to be so radical an idea, considering the wide adoption of collaborative learning, flipped classroom, project-based learning, peer assessment and so on. The transition from lecturer to facilitator is still controversial and even when the teachers are positive there are significant barriers in the form of regulations, efficiency demands and the most wicked of all - tradition. Unless the new role(s) of the teacher is accepted then the other trends may not play out as predicted.

The other wicked challenge only hints at what I see as the biggest threat to all these developments. Economic pressures on universities are growing and governments are increasingly focused on accountability, financial efficiency and simplistic league tables and rankings. However the last two years have shown us that changes in government can quickly reverse years of educational progress, especially when populist cries to return to the "good old days" become educational policy. Further personal data scandals could quickly undermine all trust in the companies who have driven the edtech movement. We have learnt that development is neither linear nor predictable and that just about anything can happen to upset the trajectory. That is probably the most wicked challenge.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

On-site and online learning - different but equivalent

Online students are different to campus students and therefore online course must reflect these differences: they are older than most campus students, they tend to combine studies with work and family and they appreciate the flexibility of the online format. However, they are very similar in terms of their desire to learn, their need for social interaction, feedback, and a clear teacher presence. Strangely, these vital elements have been omitted from many online courses, despite the fact that there are platforms and tools that can provide that vital social element. Somehow it has been assumed that online learners are content with content-based self-study and as a result the whole field is viewed by many as a "next-best" option. This is discussed in an article by Sean Michael Morris in Inside Higher Ed, Online Learning Shouldn’t Be ‘Less Than’. Why should online learners be less interested in the social aspect of learning and be content with behaviourist content consumption?

But if online learning is more rudimentary, less nuanced, personal, complex than campus learning, that betrays an implicit assumption that so are online students. But “nontraditional” doesn’t mean unacademic. Online students are students like on-campus students. Just as curious, just as hopeful, just as genius, just as troubled, just as excited and unsure. Have we built, do we sustain, an online learning that embraces these students? Do our online courses actually accommodate them?

This simplistic model has even created a vicious circle where students often expect online courses to be relatively undemanding self-study and are therefore surprised and confused when they are asked to actively participate. Indeed many campus students try to cram in extra credits to their full time studies by also taking an online course, thinking that the extra course will not be so demanding. When they realise that the online course is just as demanding as the campus ones they are forced to drop out, unwittingly and ironically contributing to the argument that online learning has low completion rates.

Online courses demonstrate the university's commitment to lifelong learning and outreach, but the article asks if we are not short-changing our online learners by not offering the full university experience.

Which leads me to ask, do online courses accommodate students at all? Or do they cater primarily to an ideology of efficiency, retention, “student success” and numbers that institutions can report? Are online classes provided for learners, or are they intended to extend a university’s reach, its revenue-generating enterprise? Certainly if the latter, then the quality of online courses needs only meet that standard that students will tolerate for the sake of the credential, the carrot on the stick.

The point is that a university course demands a lot of the student in terms of engagement and commitment, regardless of whether it is delivered online or in a traditional setting. Online learning is neither a short-cut for the learner nor a cost-saving strategy for the university. It should certainly not be seen as a second-best, watered down version of the "real thing". Courses should be demanding, interactive, social, stimulating and challenging whatever the delivery method. The technology and pedagogy are there, we just have to use them.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Padlet and Scoopit - the perils of freemium in education

CC0 Public domain by Environmental Protection Agency on Wikimedia Commons
A common belief is that everything on the internet should be free, forever. However if a person or company has invested time and resources to build up a service, tool, platform or app then they generally need to earn something from it. Several models have therefore been developed to at least pay lip service to the concept of free whilst enabling the creators to make some money out of their product or service. There are three main categories of free:
  • Free services that are developed and maintained by voluntary communities of experts and enthusiasts in the spirit of the early internet (eg. Wikipedia, Linux, Moodle etc). They rely on goodwill and enthusiasm and can therefore become vulnerable if the community leaders no longer have the time and energy to lead the work.
  • "Free" services that are financed by targeted advertising, where you are in effect the product (eg. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc). These are, of course, under hard scrutiny today.
  • Freemium services where there is a free basic version but you are expected to upgrade to the pay version to get full functionality.
In education we use a lot of freemium products and services and teachers seldom upgrade to the pro versions. Some companies have made the mistake of making their free version too generous and as a result they get few upgrades and therefore risk going bust (as in the case of Storify). Recently, two of my favourite freemium tools, Padlet and Scoopit, have decided to severely limit their free versions in the hope that many of their customers will be prepared to go pro. This has, of course, irritated many teachers around the world who have integrated these tools into their teaching and find the price of upgrading just too high. Read a longer article on the case of Padlet on EdSurgePadlet’s Price Update Riles Teachers, Raises Questions About Sustainability of Freemium Models.

I use Padlet every week as a flexible and attractive collaborative work space for workshops, brainstorming and storyboarding and have been a happy paying customer for a couple of years now. I made the decision to upgrade as soon as I realised how important the tool was for my work but when it comes to other tools I'm not so sure how to procede.

Scoopit is an excellent curation tool and for the part 5 years I have saved interesting articles there and shared my links with anyone who might be interested (see my Scoopit page). It has an attractive layout and feels like a blog even if you don't have to provide any input yourself apart from linking to content elsewhere. Now the free version is limited to 50 posts (I have amassed 3340 posts as a free user) and if you want more space you need to sign up for the pro version at $14.99 per month. I don't mind paying for a few essential tools but there is a limit and in this case I will just have to learn to live without Scoopit. Of course there are alternatives that still have fairly generous free versions (Pocket, Pinterest) but the question is when they too will decide to trim their free versions. The big question here is what is a reasonable price for these tools that are affordable for educators? Very few teachers, if any, will feel like paying over $100 a year for any net-based tool. I suspect that the companies will have to adjust their subscription models again in the near future. the present price of Scoopit, for example, will only attract business users and the education sector will simply move elsewhere.

The landscape of educational technology is shifting fast just now. As I have written in previous posts, there is an increasing awareness of the dangers of using commercial "free" platforms like Google and Facebook in terms of integrity and security and now an increasing number of freemium services are restricting their free versions. The internet is a marketplace and we will probably need to pay for the services we use in the future. Yes we will still have truly free and open services run by enthusiast communities but the vast majority of web services will have a price tag. If you don't pay you will have to accept a bombardment of ads and lack of privacy as the price of free. A sad development but not unexpected.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Terms and conditions apply - what went wrong?

Terms and Conditions by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images
"If it's free then you are the product". Yes, we've heard that many times over the years but somehow chose not to take it so seriously. We merrily approved all the terms and conditions that popped up when we signed up for all of our social media networks and tools and kept on clicking. We basically gave Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest of them the freedom to gather enormous amounts of personal data and sell it to anyone willing to pay for it, whatever their motives. Now with Facebook in the eye of a storm of outrage and Google in similar trouble, we can see what the cost of "free" actually is. Basically most commercial online media that are "free" are also in the business of tracking and selling data to advertisers (read more in Doc Searls Weblog, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica problems are nothing compared to what’s coming for all of online publishing). At the same time we are so hooked on "free" that it's hard to break away. Try to imagine your digital life without all these commercial giants, especially Google. I'm trying to limit the damage at present by switching platforms (e.g. moving from Chrome to Vivaldi and searching with DuckDuckGo), going through all the security settings and so on, but it feels like I'm hopelessly enmeshed.

So what about education in an age where free has been compromised? So many communities of educators and students are built around Facebook, Google, Twitter etc. Do we close them down and move elsewhere and if so where to go? Some institutions offer safe platforms for staff and student blogs and wikis, as Tony Bates describes in his post Our responsibility in protecting institutional, student and personal data in online learning. There are also still plenty of open source wiki sites and other non-profit services but they lack the glitter and stickiness of the commercial solutions. Many users will no doubt set up new alternative networks and platforms but they involve considerable administration and development and will cost time and resources. Some will try to limit the damage and continue to use the old favourites but being more aware of their limitations (e.g. Siva Vaidhyanathan's article in the New York Times, Don’t Delete Facebook. Do Something About It). Whatever happens we need to revise our practices and attitudes.

One interesting aspect of this mess is raised in an excellent post by Autumn CainesPlatform Literacy in a Time of Mass Gaslighting – Or – That Time I Asked Cambridge Analytica for My Data. She proposes platform literacy as a key skill for the future; the awareness of the power that platforms have and the ability to limit the amount of data that platforms can acquire from you. Personalisation it seems has been the pied piper leading the children to their doom.

Personalization in learning and advertising is enabled by platforms. Just as there are deep problems with personalization of advertising, we will find it is multiplied by tens of thousands when we apply it to learning. Utopian views that ignore the problems of platforms and personalization are only going to end up looking like what we are seeing now with Facebook and CA. The thing that I can’t shake is this feeling that the platform itself is the thing that we need more people to understand.

Platforms gather data and data is the new oil. That crude data can now be distilled and some of the applications are proving to be deadly, threatening democracy itself. Maybe we are now beginning to realise what that often misused term "disruption" really means? Even our learning management systems are powerful platforms that gather data on students' interactions, access to material and performance. This can be used to enhance learning as many experts in learning analytics have demonstrated, but what if the data escapes into the wrong hands? We need to become more aware of the power of platforms and what we can and cannot share on them. 

What if we were really transparent with the data that learning systems have about students and focused on making the student aware of the existence of their data and emphasised their ownership over their data? What if we taught data literacy to the student with their own data?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Learning to live with edtech skepticism

We all have a tendency to read articles and research that support our own preferences and ideas. We may try to achieve a healthy balance, but somehow any research that criticises our own standpoint is just a little harder to accept. Cognitive bias is always a factor and pure objectivity is extremely hard, if not impossible.

Those of us who believe that educational technology can play a vital role in making teaching and learning more collaborative, empowering and inclusive are often frustrated by other teachers who simply chose to continue teaching the way they always have done. How can they ignore all the seemingly convincing articles and research findings that we recommend? Maybe we need to realise that all those articles are not going to win them over and that other tactics are needed. This problem is illustrated well in an interview in EdSurge with Lauren Herckis, an anthropologist at Carnegie Mellon UniversityWhy Professors Doubt Education Research (listen to the audio file of the interview below). She discusses the problem of why many educators show little interest in the findings of research into the use of technology in education. It may be a frustrating standpoint for those of us who believe in the benefits of educational technology, but we should maybe see it simply as a pragmatic approach to teaching.

Then there are people who will say, "I've been teaching since I was a graduate student. My students are very happy with the teaching. I feel pretty good about my teaching. I understand that you have a PhD in curriculum design, but I don't really need that.”

There's also the suspicion that the modern research is too much theory and too little practical experience. If you've been teaching for 20-30 years and feel good about it why complicate things? You can certainly be an excellent teacher without embracing technology.

For faculty who believe that teaching is an art, that it is just something that you develop with experience and time, that you can't learn from a book, you need to learn by doing more or learn from your students, no amount of exposure to learning science research is going to disrupt their sense that this is something they learn by doing, or that they need to follow their gut on.

Given the lack of time many teachers have for course development, the prospect of completely overhauling a perfectly good course is not particularly attractive, no matter how well grounded the changes may be in current research. Good teaching does not need technology and we need to remember this. Instead of trying to win them over, we should try to see if there are any elements of their course that they feel could be improved or any time-consuming elements that they would like to cut down. Maybe there's a digital tool that could help somewhere? Take it from there.

Here's the audio interview with Lauren Herckis.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Open, free and safe - a tough combination

CC0 Public domain by Jerome Dominici on Pexels
Once upon a time there was an optimistic view that many of us subscribed to. After the end of the cold war we thought that the world would now be a safer place and that democracy and international cooperation would flourish. Then came the internet offering us global networking, the free exchange of ideas, a multi-cultural meeting place where we could collaborate and learn from each other. Platforms and tools were developed to facilitate free and open networking and we developed exciting concepts like social networking, the wisdom of the crowd, crowd sourcing, open education, MOOCs and so on. What could possibly go wrong?

Now we see international cooperation and understanding being replaced by suspicion and fear and as a result countries are turning inwards and reinforcing borders. The companies who offer platforms and tools for global communication have grown so gigantic and powerful that the original objectives have drowned under the weight of commercialisation. Our privacy and integrity have been undermined as vast quantities of data about each one of us are shared with advertisers. The net itself has developed a dark and menacing flip side, being used to spread hate, fear, lies and provocation; something few would have predicted 20 years ago. The openness and freedom we thought the internet would foster has developed into something more sinister. 

One result of this is that global corporations are being challenged and even taking them to court for shortcomings in their use of personal data (e.g. German court ruling against Facebook). They are being forced to answer questions on their level of responsibility for what is disseminated on their platforms and they are slowly beginning to admit a degree of responsibility. Tougher legislation is being passed to prevent the misuse of private data and to guarantee the right to be forgotten. We have learnt that free and open can be interpreted in many ways and they are seldom combined with security and privacy (see also Mashable article, Stop letting Facebook get away with all of this).

In Europe we have the new GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) legislation that will come into force this summer and aims to protect and empower all EU citizens data privacy and to reshape the way organizations across the region approach data privacy. This is welcome protection but the question is whether the corporations will be able to meet the new legislation. It is necessary because we have surrendered our privacy and integrity thanks to blindly accepting the complex and lengthy terms and conditions that flash in front of us every time we sign up for a new service. We have all been rather naive and assumed that all companies will respect our privacy and right to our own data. Control is needed but could this come at the expense of the dreams of open interaction?

I use social media both professionally and privately and have spent the last 10 years looking at how they can be used in education. It has been immensely enriching and I have been lucky not to encounter any significant negative effects. Will the new legislation mean that we turn away from commercial social networks and revert to more restricted but safer home-grown alternatives? Will universities and schools who use social media as an integrated part of their teaching (blogs, discussion groups, video forums, collaborative writing tools, etc) have to rethink their strategy? How do we build safe social networks that allow open collaboration but where privacy issues are fully respected? Is the open internet being divided up into smaller networks, some safe and some not? Is openness a tainted concept?

Many questions and if anyone out there can supply some answers, please feel free to comment.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Accessibility as default

Over the last couple of years I have become increasingly aware of accessibility issues in online education. I admit to previously not giving much thought to how people whose hearing, sight, physical mobility or cognitive abilities are different to my own, interact with digital media. However by meeting and discussing with people involved in this area, I have gained a few insights into accessibility questions and a whole new world has opened itself to me.

An article on the Webinar blog, Webinar Slides And Text-To-Speech, highlights the issue of writing to facilitate text-to-speech applications. If we follow some simple guidelines we can make sure that all our digital resources are more accessible. Instead of making alternative accessible versions, why not make accessibility default?

In a perfect world, we would make a version of presentation materials that are optimally designed for a sighted audience listening to a narrator, along with a second set of hardcopy materials that can be referenced by a larger and more physically diverse audience. But there are practical considerations for how much time and effort presenters can dedicate to their materials. If you can only make one version, why not make it accessible to everyone?

The article refers to an excellent guide to writing for accessibility: the British Dyslexia Association's Writing for text to speech. For example, when writing presentation slides, extra attention to punctuation can make an enormous difference for those who need to listen to the text. If you write bullet points without a full stop or semi-colon at the end of each point, then the text-to-speech app will simply read all points as one long sentence. With punctuation, however, it will be read as a list with pauses between points. Some other simple tips:

  • Write numbers manually in bullet lists since the automatic numbering is not picked up by the text-to-speech apps.
  • Dates should be written using the name of the month rather than combinations of digits (11 March 2018).
  • Times should use a colon instead of a stop to separate hours and minutes (10.30). 
  • Put stops in acronyms, otherwise the app may say it as a word (U.S.A. or e.g. would be best). 
  • Use styles to show headings or sub-headings rather than bold normal text. 
The list goes on. The point is that by following some simple rules, you can easily make your texts more accessible. Furthermore we also make our resources clearer and more consistent for all. Text-to-speech is used by many with perfect sight, for example listening to text in a mobile. Shouldn't we make sure we teach accessibility as default and not as an optional extra?

We all have so much to learn!

Monday, February 26, 2018

How inclusive are your networks?

CC0 Public domain by geralt on Pixabay
We all live in filter bubbles, no matter how hard we try to widen our horizons. Information in languages we don't understand are automatically filtered out and we tend to rely on a limited number of trusted sources and contacts even in academic work. There are many studies on citation bias showing that authors of articles in scientific journals tend to cite sources in their own country or in culturally similar countries. Added to this is the tyranny of rankings and impact factors that give greatest weight to articles published in the major American and European journals. How often do you cite work by academics active in China, Russia, India, Africa or South America? How is the gender balance? A similar bias is evident in our networks. Have a look at who you follow on various social media: how diverse are they? If you can see that they are nearly all white Europeans and Americans then maybe it's time to widen your scope.

I was alerted to this problem by a fascinating article by Maha Bali in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inclusive Citation: How Diverse Are Your References?. Inclusive citation involves searching outside your usual sources and actively connecting with colleagues from different parts of the world and with different cultural backgrounds to yourself. The article gives some practical advice about expanding your horizons by reviewing your present networks and sources and then connecting with people outside that sphere. Even if you have one contact from outside your standard sources, find out who they network with and cite and work from there. You will undoubtedly expand your horizons by doing so.

Have a look at the reading lists you recommend for students. Are we reinforcing a cultural bias and demonstrating to students which types of academic sources are the "right" ones to cite.

If you teach, check your syllabus. How diverse is your reading list? How is the White of your reading list compared to the diversity of your student body? Will a student taking your class find someone like them in the reading list, and imagine themselves as scholars of this field one day?

We need to widen our perspectives and acknowledge that there is excellent research and academic work in all parts of the world. Much of it is written in languages other than English and this of course limits its impact. Maybe translation software will soon be able to help us access these sources but until then it is difficult to be truly inclusive. We can at least review our own biases and try to offer more diverse perspectives.

If your citations aren’t diverse and inclusive enough, chances are, you’re missing some valuable perspectives. Chances are, you’ll learn something new and it will resonate with you. And eventually, it will become habit, and you won’t have to count references any more because you will naturally already have a diverse list of authors whom you respect and read regularly.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Open distance learning is thriving in Pakistan

The more you travel the more you learn that the world is so much more complex and fascinating than you could ever grasp by staying at home. By meeting and discussing with people you realise that we all have so much in common even if we live in different circumstances and have been raised in different cultural frameworks. Our news feeds present an extremely narrow window on the world and only by visiting and meeting people can you uncover some of the complexities and begin to build bridges. The only way forward is through meetings and discussion rather than confrontation.

I have just returned from Islamabad, Pakistan, where I was privileged to be invited to speak at a conference held at the world's fourth largest university, Allama Iqbal Open University. The image of Pakistan presented in western media is rather negative and that makes me curious to find out more. The contrast between media image and reality could not have been greater and I was warmly welcomed everywhere by friendly and very gifted colleagues. Even when wandering around the city and the sights there were always people who wanted to take selfies with us and there was a genuine curiosity to find out who we foreigners were.

Allama Iqbal Open University, founded in 1974, is the second oldest open university in the world (after the UK pioneer) and has an annual enrollment of 1.3 million students, 56% of whom are women. Their main objective is to provide education for all those who would not otherwise have access, in particular the rural and urban poor, a particularly marginalised and massive group in Pakistan. The rural/urban student balance is 58% against 42%. Anyone can study and students can also study at their own pace since the majority of them also work. Women in poor rural areas are a particular focus area and many qualify for free tuition, as do prisoners and transgenders (possibly a unique initiative in higher education). The university's social responsibility agenda is impressive and demonstrates a commitment to transforming the country by offering education for all.

Textbooks everywhere
The logistics of offering education at all levels, from basic literacy training to doctorate level, to over a million students spread all over a vast country like Pakistan are daunting indeed. They do this by operating both as an online institution and by the massive physical distribution of books and course materials by post. They have the largest publishing house in the country with over 1.8 million books printed per year and the Islamabad campus has, not surprisingly, its own postal office sorting office to deal with the astounding volume of parcels. The printing, binding and distribution operations are still very labour intensive and the equipment was rather old but that made it all the more impressive. We toured the printing and distribution facility where roughly 120 employees make sure that the right books and materials are delivered to the right student at an institution with such a vast number of admissions each term. Although so much of the process is still manual, the address labels have digital codes and students can track their parcels on the website if they have access. 
Of course, a large number of the students do not have access to the net and so the textbooks are vital. Those who do have access can read the books online since they are all available as open educational resources, something rather few western institutions can boast.

Radio studio
There is also a large media production and educational technology department producing video lectures, discussions and seminars as well as audio material to supplement the course material offered via Moodle. The university produces TV and radio programmes that are broadcast nationally as well as running an FM radio station.

Distance and online education requires support, especially when so many of the students are completely unfamiliar with this form of education, and the university has built up an extensive support organisation that reaches out to even the most remote regions.  This consists of 9 regional campuses, 33 regional centres, 41 approved study centres (for face-to-face programs) and 138 part-time regional coordinating offices. Here students can meet for workshops, classroom sessions, tutoring and examination. The physical meeting spaces are essential for student success because few would be able to complete the courses solely by self-study.

The conference I attended had the theme of connecting collaborative communities and there is a clear commitment from the top management to move towards more collaborative forms of online education. I sensed a clear interest among the faculty to adapt teaching practices to accommodate more collaborative digital tools and platforms. This starts with teachers learning by collaborating, both within the university and internationally and I hope that we three invited guest speakers were able to contribute to this process.