Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Offline digital resources - connecting the unconnected

In many parts of the world the idea of online education is still only a dream. Rural communities lack internet connectivity and even if mobiles are used, the networks can only offer basic services like voice and text. Refugee camps around the world are full of children who need to learn but lack books and educational resources. There are plenty of initiatives that offer education based on low bandwidth text and voice services but how can people learn basic internet skills that may be so vital for the future?

One inspiring solution to this is a non-profit initiative called KIWIX that allows you to download Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Wikimed, WikiVoyage, Project Gutenberg, and Stack Exchange as compressed content packages and then be able to browse and read them offline on virtually any device. The teacher first needs to be able to download the packages but once that is done the material can be distributed to, say, pupils in a school, using a specially designed wifi hotspot. All the software and content are all free to download and use.

KIWIX provides free software to bring free knowledge even to remote places. This may be a school on the countryside in a developing country. This may be you on a plane or in the wilderness. Wherever you go: KIWIX gives you access to Wikipedia, WikiVoyage, Project Gutenberg, and a lot more free content from the Internet – even if you don’t have an Internet connection.

Since Wikipedia is available in so many languages this solution offers schools in rural areas or refugee camps access to valuable educational resources when printed school books are either unavailable or too costly. Access to this type of online material can be vital for speakers of "smaller" languages and there are many cases of educators collaborating on developing their language's Wikipedia content. School books may be impossible to afford or even non-existent but by developing Wikipedia and using solutions like KIWIX teachers can give children access to educational resources and help them gain basic internet skills without even internet access.

The website describes successful applications of KIWIX in places like Ghana and Cuba where internet access is limited. Another option suggested is to provide access to sites that are blocked and censored in some countries, such as North Korea, though the risks of doing that may outweigh the benefits.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Communicative noise - a barrier to creativity?

For many people e-mail has become a communication black hole with an inbox that is out of control. As we drown in e-mail we hope to find salvation in exciting new communication platforms like Slack, Teams and Workplace that promise to streamline your messaging and help teams work more efficiently. The problem is that even if we start using new platforms we can't escape the gravitational pull of e-mail which is still the default communication tool in most organisations. As a result we end up having several communication channels open all day and each of them overflowing. Most days I have e-mail, Skype, Zoom, Messenger, Twitter and Whatsapp all open and although I can't say my own feeds are overwhelming, I can imagine that some people have moved from having only one overloaded communication tool to now having several. The trouble is that easy-to-use communication tools lead to us communicating even more and thus adding to the communicative noise.

This is the topic of an article by Rani Molla in Vox, The productivity pit: how Slack is ruining work. The problem with team platforms like Slack is that they are so easy to use that they facilitate endless discussions that eat up valuable working and thinking time. E-mail "discussions" can be very irritating especially if everyone uses the "reply all" button every time they write something. However in platforms like Slack, these chatty discussions go viral and the channel becomes extremely noisy and hard to switch off due to fear of missing out or being seen as anti-social. We often confuse communication with productivity. People or groups who are "noisy", in speech or in writing, are generally considered more active and therefore more productive/effective than those who are quiet. We get worried about students who are silent or groups who don't seem to be discussing as actively as others. If you don't contribute to the discussion you aren't doing your job, though in reality the reverse may be truer.

Remote workers are under particular strain to prove that they are working. For people not in an office, messaging colleagues or posting information becomes a way of demonstrating that they are doing their jobs.

There's also a link to our physical work spaces that are increasingly open and flexible to facilitate teamwork and spontaneous brainstorming. The problem here is that it's very hard to concentrate when there are dynamic discussions going on nearby. You can't help overhearing or wanting to join in the fun. Once again we reward and encourage noise rather than silence. Combine the noise in the physical environment to all the digital noise and we have a major problem.

Keeping up with these conversations can seem like a full-time job. After a while, the software goes from helping you work to making it impossible to get work done ... Also, workplace software doesn’t seem to have supplanted the very thing it was supposed to fix: email. Most people use both.

The success of workplace software is because they offer similar rewards to the social media platforms we use outside the workplace. They are extremely sticky, stimulating our need for recognition and belonging through likes, emojis and small talk. Of course they can also be used very creatively and can indeed enhance collaboration but on the other hand they can easily eat up lots of valuable time. Their stickiness also leads to them invading your private life.

There’s a reason you’re checking your work app at night and it’s not because you love your job. It’s because the communications and digital affirmations from your coworkers feel good.

The outcome of all this for me is that we need to reassess the value of "noisy" communication and stop equating it with productivity, efficiency or creativity. Truly creative ideas often come through silent reflection, free from distraction, but we have somehow forgotten this as we create increasingly noisy environments (the ubiquitous use of non-stop background music in public spaces is a further plague). Noisy communication is good in certain contexts like brainstorming, socialising and meetings but we need to reclaim the right to silence (both verbal and digital) for the really creative work.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Don't believe your eyes - this person does not exist

In a world full of fake news it's time to embrace the concept of fake people. An artificial intelligence system called StyleGAN developed by Nvidia is used on a site called to generate an infinite number of portrait photos of people who do not exist (watch the video below to see how it works). Just go to the site and simply reload the page to generate a new portrait. Some are extremely convincing though sometimes there are flaws that make you suspicious, such as strange skin features or ears that don't quite fit. However, I don't think we are meant to study the faces for any length of time, we will probably just see them as a gallery of "satisfied customers" in an advert or concerned citizens in political propaganda.

The phenomenon is described in an article from CNN, These people do not exist. Why websites are churning out fake images of people (and cats). Of course if you can generate fake people you can also generate fake cats, fake home interiors, fake cars and much more. There are many valid uses for a tool like this.

GANs-produced fakery can be fun — if you know what you're looking at — and potentially big business. A startup called Tangent, for example, says it is using GANs to modify faces of real-life models so online retailers can quickly (and realistically) tailor catalog images to shoppers in different countries rather than using different models or Photoshop. A video game company could use GANs to help come up with new characters, or iterate on existing ones.

There are also, of course, lots of less honest applications of this technology and that's what makes it scary. At least by letting us see these applications they make us aware that this technology exists and can be more careful in the future but once it is perfected how will we ever be able to tell the difference between reality and fiction? I also wonder how you can decide the copyright for these images since they are mashups of a vast number of photos of real people. Maybe it's time to stop saying things like "I'll believe it when I see it."

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Somewhere over the rainbow - the shifting perspectives of the Horizon Report

The full version of this year's Horizon Report is now available, published by Educause who rescued the publication from the threat of extinction last year. Each year a global panel of experts nominate trends in educational technology that will make an impact in the short, medium and long term and also identify key challenges facing higher education in the coming years. The report is often criticised since the same technologies seem to move backwards and forwards on the horizon and sometimes even disappear for a while before returning. This year's report is no exception with mobile learning predicted to go mainstream in the next couple of years, having been a feature of several reports in the past. Many other technology trends such as learning analytics, gaming, virtual reality and blended learning have been on the horizon for quite a while but somehow never really make the transition to mainstream practice.

Probably the most interesting feature of this year's report is a section, Fail or scale? (pages 33-39), that examines three trends that have featured in previous reports but have still not become an integral part of higher education practice: adaptive learning, virtual and augmented reality and gaming/gamification. Three experts present their analysis of why these phenomena haven't made the transition and all three analyses have some common ground. All of them have very sound cases for adoption but they all demand major changes to existing structures and models. Bryan Alexander's analysis of gaming in education makes a comment that could well be applied to many other technology trends featured in the Horizon Report over the years:

A new technology—especially one that requires significant research and training—needs to be able to work across the curriculum and in sufficient numbers to merit institutional investment. Faculty members can carry such a technology forward to some extent, but only if they are knowledgeable and engaged with it and if they can sufficiently support the hardware or software. Otherwise the technology will only appear at best in a small segment of a college or university.

Some technology applications have made the transition and become essential elements of the university's operations, such as the learning management system, lecture capture and anti-plagiarism software. It could be claimed that the reason that these applications have succeeded is that they have not challenged the traditional structures and models of higher education, they have simply added a digital version of what we do already (ie. lecture, work in defined classes and classrooms). The potential of many other technologies that so often feature in Horizon reports can only be realised by making radical changes to the way we teach and learn. As a result, they often get bogged down by all the other changes that have to take place before they can be fully implemented. Many new technologies require significant investment to realise their full potential, as outlined by Nicole Weber in her analysis of adaptive learning technologies:

With so much potential, why has adaptive learning not scaled quickly? One of the largest challenges is the investment (e.g., time, money, resources, and vision) needed to implement and scale these courseware products.

In the case of virtual and augmented reality (mixed reality), Kevin Ashford-Rowe highlights the barriers of the hardware required to implement the solutions successfully. In short, the inconvenience and expense of the VR visors make it impractical as a mainstream technology:

In his February 2018 article “3 Reasons Augmented Reality Hasn’t Achieved Widespread Adoption,” AJ Agrawal, argues that—in this order—it is due to a combination of ergonomics, basic utility, and corrective lenses. In short, no matter the benefits, “no one wants to wear a pair of goggles on their head during daily routine” (ergonomics); “even the most mind-blowing AR glasses won’t matter until they look ‘normal’ enough for everyday wear” (basic utility); and, given that three-quarters of the US population need corrective lenses, “it goes without saying that smart glasses need this option [corrective lenses].” He also points out an important distinction that should be made between VR and AR—AR possesses a natural advantage in that the information being displayed is integrated with what is in front of the user.

My conclusion here is that maybe we should not simply criticise reports like Horizon for changing their predictions and timescales but instead look at why it is so hard to change traditional educational structures. Tradition is the hardest barrier to break and it takes many years for any innovation to break through. The idea that we can see the impact of technological innovation in terms of such a short time scale as the next five years is probably flawed.

Read more on this in an article in Campus Technology, 3 Ed Tech Trends Stuck on the Horizon (and Why).

Creating informal online meetings

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the missing link in online conferences; the opportunity to network and discuss during mingle parties, coffee breaks and sightseeing tours. This week my Austrian colleague, David Röthler, and I arranged an experimental webinar to show a variety of tools and methods for creating such informal meeting spaces. The recorded webinar can be seen above. The idea was to showcase a few of the many platforms and tools for more effective virtual meetings and collaboration and discuss the opportunities they offer for more informal interaction.

We ran most of the session in the web-meeting platform Zoom, including a virtual coffee break where we randomly created groups of 4-5 participants who had all grabbed a cup of tea or coffee before the start of the meeting. This strategy could be used at many online events as an option before, during of after the session to let participants socialise and reflect together. Many new opportunities could arise from such chance meetings.

One of the platforms we highlighted was a virtual office solution called Remo. We were lucky to have the founder of the platform, Ho Yin Cheung, in our group and he invited our participants into Remo to continue discussing in a new environment. As a result our session ended in a slightly messy overlap where some of the group was already discussing in Remo, some were still in Zoom and some were in both spaces. The advantage of Remo (and similar solutions such as Sococo and Walkabout) is that participants can choose to sit in an office, a meeting room, a lobby or even an auditorium depending on what they want to do. When two or more sit in the same room they are able to have a video meeting with screensharing and chat. In this way people can easily change rooms, join different discussions and invite others to join. Or you can simply work alone in a room but indicate that your are available for consultation if needed. Maybe a good way to have a virtual mingle party for an online conference.

Our guided city tour had to be rather brief to fit in with our short time slot but David was able to go out on the roof and show us a fine view of Salzburg castle and the monastery where some scenes of the famous movie, Sound of Music, was filmed. A tour guide can be filmed with a mobile device mounted on a gimbal for stability and show participants around a city, allowing remote participants the chance to ask questions either by audio or in a chat. One of our participants made the exciting suggestion of offering a variety of city tours with conference participants offering to lead a tour around their own city for a small group. The evening programme could then include a number of optional tours around several famous cities. An alternative could be a series of short virtual study visits to different universities (interesting new buildings and facilities), places of natural beauty (virtual bird watching perhaps?) and so on.

The technology is already in place and is developing rapidly and the only thing missing is the willingness of educators to start experimenting with new forms of online meetings. Of course it's not the same as meeting people in a physical space but considering the present climate crisis it may soon be the only option for international collaboration.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The dawn of the platform university - the tail wagging the dog?

Photo by h heyerlein on Unsplash
The implications of concepts such as platform capitalism or surveillance capitalism are unfolding week by week and higher education is no safe haven. For several years now we have been discussing the unbundling of higher education with the emergence of new models of course delivery, alternative credentials and new educational institutions. Educational platforms have enabled universities to offer digital solutions that would have been almost impossible to produce in-house but in return the platform companies have gained access to vast amounts of student data that can be analysed to develop new services to sell to the universities. For en excellent analysis of this process see Laura Czerniewicz's article in Educause Review, Unbundling and Rebundling Higher Education in an Age of Inequality.

However, the tables are now turning from the platform serving higher education to higher education serving the platform, according to an article by Ben Williamson on the UK higher education blog Wonkhe, The platform university: a new data-driven business model for profiting from HE.

The university is being transformed by platform technologies and companies. Although software platforms have been inside HE for years, HE is now moving inside the software platform. In the emerging platform university, more and more HE services are being delegated to software, algorithms, and automation. The business logic of platform capitalism has captured the academy, and the public role of the university has become a source of private financial gain.

Basically student data is valuable raw material to platform companies enabling them to develop more attractive services and attract advertisers. The article offers several examples of companies who are benefiting from this model, for example the  plagiarism detection platform that processes enormous amounts of student data in the form of all the essays and assignments it analyses every day. At the same time it would be extremely costly for institutions to develop and run such platforms themselves on a non-profit basis and so we depend more an more on commercial platforms. The danger, according to Williamson, is that the education sector is in danger of losing control.

Significant HE spending is now flowing from universities to platform providers, along with data they can use to their own advantage as market actors in an emerging sub-sector of platform capitalism. Unless universities act collectively in the sector’s own interests, they may find themselves positioned as educational product providers and data collection partners for the new HE platform industry.

Another new concept that has been discussed recently is platform literacy, mostly in terms of our individual awareness of the implications of using different social media platforms and tools. That literacy can now also apply at an institutional level in that we need to build an awareness of the affordances and implications of using external platforms for educational purposes.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Destination Indonesia

I have just returned from an extremely interesting exchange visit to one of my university's partner institutions, State University of Malang (Universitas Negeri Malang), in eastern Java, Indonesia. My job there was to lecture and run workshops for staff and students on digital skills development and online collaboration as well as discussing aspects of technology in education with management, teachers and administrators. I must complement my hosts for excellent hospitality and a very warm welcome. It's always fascinating to discuss with colleagues in different countries and finding that although we have different cultures, history, languages and educational context we have so much in common. Higher education all over the world is in the midst of a digitalisation process that is forcing us all to revise our concepts of teaching and learning. This process is never simple nor straightforward, with frequent barriers and backlashes to overcome. Once we start talking, we recognise each other's difficulties and hopefully can learn from each other.

Malang State University (MU) was founded in 1954 and has today over 33,000 students based on three campuses around the city of Malang. The city itself, with a population of over 3.5 million in the urban area, is known as a city of education and is home to four public universities and 13 private institutions. The main campus is modern, tidy and very green with tree-lined avenues and parks. The most striking feature of campus life is that virtually all students have a motorbike (indeed the whole country is swarming with motorbikes) and all the parking areas are packed with bikes. There is no real distance education so all students live on campus and are all in the age group 18-23 since it is extremely difficult to apply for the state universities once you get older due to government regulations. The private universities accept older students but many of them are rather expensive. So here university is still seen in its traditional role as as something you do when you are young in order to get a good job. Professional development for alumni seems to be rather rare and when offered students are expected to attend campus classes.

The lifelong learning sector is covered by the Indonesian open university, Universitas Terbuka, with about 460,000 students. Like many other open universities around the world it offers a variety of study options with digital and printed course literature, broadcast TV and radio and a network of support centres in major cities around the country, often in association with other universities. I had no contact with any representatives of this university but in the world's fourth most populous nation (population over 260 million) there is surely room for more institutions in the lifelong learning sector.

MU is in the midst of the familiar transition from a fragmented digital learning environment run mostly by enthusiasts to an integrated part of the university's infrastructure.
The learning management system (LMS) is an adapted version of Moodle run by the IT department but still only optional for teachers and as a result the uptake is only partial. Those teachers who do use the LMS need more training to use the more interactive features and the next challenge is to build a structure for offering support and professional development. This in turn requires management commitment and a digitalisation strategy covering all of the university's activites. We discussed many options for development including the introduction of educational technologists to support faculty, digitally skilled teachers acting as mentors for colleagues and ways of rewarding those who use digital tools in their teaching. Recognition of those who promote digitalisation, support colleagues and are innovative in their course design is a crucial driver. These issues are under discussion and it will be interesting to follow developments there in the future.

Another topic of interest was how to use technology to build bridges between the university's three campuses which, although they are all in the same region, are far enough from each other to limit contacts. Video conferencing is of course an interesting option to build bridges and there was interest in developing this in the near future. Transport between locations (up to 80 km) is not so easy with heavy congestion meaning that journeys of even a few kilometres take up to an hour. As a result the three campuses are largely self-contained.

Finally I must add that these are simply my impressions from a one week visit and not an attempt to provide a any overview of Indonesian higher education.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Indian MOOCs going mainstream

There are plenty of examples of universities offering credits for MOOCs and the key to awarding credentials is a formal proctored examination at the end of the course. In some countries this can be rather expensive but in India it seems that MOOCs are being integrated into the state higher education system. According to an article in Class Central, In India, MOOCs Are Now Part of the Education System, the state sponsored MOOC platform SWAYAM offers learners the chance to sit digital examinations at over 1000 regional centres all over the country and the successful candidates get valid credits that can count towards their degrees. This national coverage means that taking an exam becomes more accessible and although candidates pay around $15 to sit an exam the money is refunded if they pass.

Another interesting feature of SWAYAM's strategy is that teachers are given the financial incentive of up to $150 per hour of online teaching (recorded video) and other rates for material development, according to a remuneration model issued by India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development. Universities can now allow students to take up to 20% of their degree programme as MOOCs thus offering greater flexibility and also recognising online education as an integral part of higher education in India. Universities can also offer other institutions' MOOCs and thereby widening their offer and making credit transfer more common.

Twice a year, institutions pick SWAYAM courses they’ll grant credit for in the upcoming term. Note that they may pick courses offered by other institutions, allowing them to tap into the strengths of schools nationwide to build richer curricula. For instance, they may leverage SWAYAM to offer high-demand courses for which they lack qualified instructors on campus.

The Indian government hopes that this scheme will help to widen participation in higher education by allowing new students to try a course, get credits and then hopefully move on from there into a full programme at a university. Maybe local centres can offer practical help to new student groups to help them learn the skills of online learning, for example in face-to-face introduction meetings to help them get started. None of this is particularly new since open universities have been working in this way for many years but it's refreshing to see that MOOC platforms can be integrated into the higher education system and offer alternative paths with tangible rewards.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Social media in education - it's complicated

CC0 Public domain on Pexels
The use of commercial social media in education has brought many benefits and taken online collaboration to new levels. I cannot even imagine my work without access to these platforms and tools (including the Blogger platform this blog uses). The tools we use every day are overwhelmingly commercial and our data is being stored and even sold to third parties. However these platforms and tools are today so firmly embedded into all sectors of education and in most cases there are few credible alternatives. The commercial social media are slick, well-designed, user-friendly and in many cases integrate nicely with each other whilst the non-commercial alternatives tend to be more complicated to set up and a bit clunkier in design. We have many reasons to review our use of these platforms and tools but are they simply too addictive and attractive to consider giving up?

This dilemma is very well discussed in a new article by Terry Anderson (one of the people who first inspired me to get interested in social media about 15 years ago) in the latest issue of the Journal of Learning for Development, Challenges and Opportunities for use of Social Media in Higher Education. He lists the benefits of social media in education along with references to research in the field as well as all the reservations and misgivings that have emerged in recent years and states that "The biggest reason that persons stay active users of social media is not because they feel secure and comfortable but, rather, they appreciate the value or service that the media provides." The value and convenience still outweigh the privacy concerns and the question is whether we continue to tolerate this or look for alternative solutions.

We see that the large potential benefit to social media use is coupled with deep threats to our privacy and control over our own activity and thought. Obviously, using these commercial products, with their questionable ethical practices, are not the type of learning product or environment that public higher education institutions have traditionally used. Is the pedagogical and motivational value sufficient to allow institutions to hold their collective noses and use the product anyway?

At the same time, informal learning thrives on social media and offers us instant access to educational material. If you want to fix something then a quick search on YouTube will almost always provide you with a solution. Google's product range enables simple and effective collaboration and networking opportunities. There are countless Facebook groups offering a forum for discussion and advice on practically every topic under the sun. Similarly there are hashtags on Twitter providing professionals with a convenient space for dissemination and discussion. The crossover from informal to the formal education is unavoidable. However it is hard to do research on how social media are used in education since the data is strictly protected by the companies that offer the platforms.

If we should somehow wean ourselves off commercial social media in education couldn't we build our own alternatives that institutions can control? Anderson describes in the article how a social networking platform was developed at Athabasca University and but even if it offered a secure environment for discussion, sharing and creation it simply couldn't match the rapid development and attractiveness of the commercial players. It never managed to build the critical mass so essential for a social network.

Our system, like other social media, only becomes useful when it is used and is only used when it becomes useful.

The conclusion is that if we are going to continue to use social media in education, institutions need to become much more platform literate and be able to make informed choices about which tools to use and which to avoid. The GDPR legislation in Europe for example is an important step in the right direction of protecting personal data.

Education has unparalleled opportunity to monitor and improve its own practices. Teachers have new ways to connect with students and, as importantly, means to monitor and intervene in student learning so as to increase the efficacy of both teaching and learning. Students have new ways to find, retrieve and share their learning products and opportunities. However, the cost of these benefits currently is reduction in privacy and user control. Continuous monitoring, research and surveillance of the is of critical importance to the development of educational quality and opportunity.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Myths that refuse to die - open-plan offices

For some reason we keep building open-plan offices despite frequent studies that show them to be counter productive. I seldom meet people who actually enjoy working in this type of environment though many put a brave face on it and echo the organisation's belief that it promotes openness and synergy. The latest evidence against open office spaces comes in new research from Harvard University summarised in the British Psychological Society's Research Digest, Open-plan offices drive down face-to-face interactions and increase use of email.

The study monitored the behaviour of employees who had recently moved to an open-plan office and shows that they became significantly less collaborative than they had been before the move. Instead of engaging in all the spontaneous lively discussions and collaboration envisaged in the popular mythology they became silent, preferring to discuss with each other by e-mail or chats. The most striking result of the research is the magnitude of the reduction in face-to-face interaction in the open-plan office.

We began with a specific research question: does removing spatial boundaries at work to create open, unbounded offices increase interaction? Our two empirical field studies were consistent in their answer: open, unbounded offices reduce F2F interaction with a magnitude, in these contexts, of about 70%. Electronic interaction takes up at least some of the slack, increasing by roughly 20% to 50% ...

A common complaint about the open-plan office is the lack of privacy and the difficulty of speaking to a colleague without everyone else overhearing you. The constant movement of people in and out of the room also disturbs thought processes and keep you wondering where a colleague is going now or where they have been. Transparency becomes a distraction rather than a stimulus to increased activity. The BPS article states:

If you’ve ever sought refuge from the gold-fish bowl of an open-plan office environment by cocooning yourself with headphones, or if you’ve decided you’d rather not have that challenging conversation with a colleague in front of a large group of your peers, and opted to email them instead, then these findings will come as little surprise.

Many such offices fall silent since every conversation risks disturbing someone and as a result many people wear headphones all day and communicate by text. The next question then is why bother to travel so far to the office to sit all day doing work that could be done just as well from home? The incentive to come to work is even lower when you have no assigned space and have to take whatever desk is free when you arrive. This lack of personal space where you have your family photos, mascots, a plant or other comforts reinforces a feeling of anonymity and the feeling that if you left no-one would notice. Of course there are exceptions where an open-plan environment really works but the evidence against the concept is stacking up and I wonder how much longer it will continue to be ignored. As one article points out  (Inc. It's Official: Open-Plan Offices Are Now the Dumbest Management Fad of All Time) even if the real reason for open-plan is simply to save money on office space the amount of money lost to the resulting inefficiency should make organisations think again.

Conclusions? We need a variety of spaces, both physical and digital, for different types of work. People need private space to feel secure and work well but they also need spaces for discussions, meetings and interaction. Working from home offers greater flexibility but to make it work well we also need digital meeting spaces for spontaneous discussions and collaboration. We can move between these spaces during our daily work but a fundamental requirement would seem to be a quiet space to call your own.

ReferenceEthan S. Bernstein, Stephen Turban. The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences. 2018.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Informal networking - the missing link in online conferences?

Mingling by Alaska Library Association, on Flickr
"Mingling" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by Alaska Library Association
If we are going to see a rise in online conferences in order to reduce the carbon footprint of educational conferences, we need to find ways of replicating the most positive features of the on-site conference. For most people the best part of a conference is the chance to make new contacts in the informal spaces of the conference: during coffee and lunch breaks, between sessions and during the social programme. Online platforms can already deliver the keynote lectures and we are learning how to run interactive workshops and seminars online using collaborative documents, breakout groups and so on. However the chance meetings in the corridor or at an informal reception are where the online meetings fall flat.

However, a colleague recently showed me an online meeting platform called Sococo that offers a way forward for online conferences. Sococo is aimed at the corporate market but the concept can certainly be developed for academic purposes, either by them or a completely different organisation. Have a look at the video below to get an idea of how this works. Basically you can design a virtual office with a lobby, group rooms, large meeting room and so on. The plan shows where each participant is and you can move to different rooms to talk with someone or have a small meeting. Or everyone can gather in the main hall for a large meeting or lecture. Everyone in a room can then have video and audio contact with everyone else as well as being able to screenshare and chat as in all other web meeting platforms. The difference is that you can invite someone to meet you in the lobby or in a smaller room for more informal contact, or even in a hall or lobby. You can even knock on the door to a room and ask to join the discussion in there.

I particularly like the simple interface with the participants represented simply by coloured dots and names. When you are in a room you can see everyone via their web cameras but the office plan shows you where everyone else is at the moment. The step from the most popular web meeting tools to this one is therefore very small and is therefore more appealing than using a virtual world solution where you first need to create an avatar and then work out how to navigate. I don't think Sococo is designed for large conferences but it would be interesting to try it with smaller gatherings. We could also offer virtual city tours using GoPro cameras. The conference dinner will be hard to accomplish but maybe you could create a number of web meeting group rooms, divide up the participants into random groups and ask them all to have their own dinners in front of them.

Creating a sense of space and interaction is a vital factor as we develop more engaging online meeting environments. I don't think we can fully replicate the advantages of face-to-face on-site meetings but if those become less acceptable this is the only way forward.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Is digital life without the big five possible?

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
Over the last year I have made a few attempts to limit my exposure to some of the tech giants services and make it harder for them to track everything I do. I have stopped using Chrome as a browser, stopped searching with Google, deleted Google maps from my mobile, reviewed all the privacy settings in my mobile and deleted a lot of apps. However this all seems rather futile after reading and watching a fascinating series of reports by Kashmir Hill, Goodbye big five. She decided to try to live without the big five tech giants one week at a time: Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. My attempts are simply superficial because between them these five companies control virtually everything on the internet. Services that we use every day and never even associate with the big five use their cloud hosting services, map functions and other tracking and ad-based services.

Hill took on one giant at a time and with the help of an expert colleague blocked all traffic from known IP addresses connected to Amazon, Google etc. Amazon alone controls over 23 million addresses which means that living without them is extremely difficult. So just stopping using the companies main site is not going to get them out of your life. Virtually everything we do online is dependent on five gigantic companies.

It’s not just logging off of Facebook; it’s logging off the countless websites that use Facebook to log in. It’s not just using DuckDuckGo instead of Google search; it’s abandoning my email, switching browsers, giving up a smartphone, and living life without mapping apps. It’s not just refusing to buy toilet paper on; it’s being blocked from reading giant swaths of the internet that are hosted on Amazon servers, giving up websites and apps that I didn’t previously know were connected to the biggest internet giant of them all.

The most interesting week of her experiment was when she blocked all five and tried to live with a non-connected digital camera, a no-frills Nokia mobile and a PC running open source OS Linux (watch the video about this week below). Suddenly she had almost nothing to listen to or watch since services like Spotify and Netflix are dependent on the big five. All streaming services were off limits as were most communication channels. Sending messages and files became extremely difficult because even if there are open alternatives they tend to be harder to use, less attractive in design and the people you need to communicate with are not on them. Hill calls the final stage of her detox as digital veganism and in the film below she interviews a tech expert who lives that way.

Basically we have allowed these companies to expand without any regulation and now when they control most of the internet it seems a bit late to try to fix things. Attempts are being made, most notably in the EU with, among other things, the recent GDPR legislation but there are few signs that the present US administration is considering any moves. The moral of the story from Kashmir Hill's experience is that we need to at least to become more aware of how dependent we are on the big five and try to limit that exposure to some extent. A certain amount of digital detox is recommended for all but at the moment it seems virtually impossible to escape completely.

Some final words from Hill's article series:

I went through the digital equivalent of a juice cleanse. I hope I’m better than most dieters at staying healthy afterward, but I don’t want to be a digital vegan. I want to embrace a lifestyle of “slow Internet,” to be more discriminating about the technology I let into my life and think about the motives of the companies behind it. The tech giants are reshaping the world in good and bad ways; we can take the good and reject the bad.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

How would you change education if you could choose?

What would the education system look like if you had the power and resources to change it? We have all been discussing educational change for years at conferences, in publications, communities and blogs, pointing out shortcomings of the present system and proposing new strategies, teaching methods, organisation forms, platforms, devices and tools as possible solutions. But what do we actually want? What would our schools and colleges look like if you could choose? That was the basis of a panel discussion at this week's ICDE Lifelong learning summit 2019 in Lillehammer, Norway that I attended. So I decided to take up the challenge and try to briefly outline what sort of education system I would like to see. This is very much a first draft with some general principles but maybe the starting point for further discussion and reflection.

Schools and universities are part of society but also oases for reflection and perspective.
Education must become more integrated into the surrounding community with more opportunities for pupils and students to get involved in real community projects and work experience. This is already happening but must be further strengthened to let students apply their knowledge and skills in activities of real value and learn to work in a variety of different fields and with a wide range of people. Similarly companies and local authorities need to be more visible in the schools and colleges. At the same time it is also vital that educational institutions are also places where you are able to step back from the world around you; an oasis for reflection. We must not allow our education system to become simply training grounds for the labour market and there must be space for studies in philosophy and the arts to provide a healthy counter-balance. Sometimes we need an ivory tower to sit in for a while.

From bubbles to an ecosystem
Our education system is made up of a lot of bubbles. We divide schools rigidly into age-group bubbles as well as dividing the curriculum into subject bubbles, thus creating artificial barriers for the sake of administrative convenience. We need to find new ways to let age groups and subjects interact naturally, learning to use a range of knowledge and skills to solve problems together. This ties in with the increasing involvement of the community in education and of education in the community outlined above. Of course, this continues all through life and the concepts of school and college evaporate into a fluid education ecosystem for lifelong learning. Everyone in society is engaged in learning activities all through life and schools and colleges provide a framework for this. A classroom full of 12 year-olds will in this context become a rather absurd notion from the past.

Schools and colleges should be spaces that are open to all sections of society and where we have a chance to learn to live and work with each other. If we want to have a tolerant and cohesive society we need to foster this in our schools. Technology can help us here with tools that make learning more accessible to all and allow us to collaborate not only on-site but with colleagues from anywhere in the world. Concepts like virtual mobility allow our students to learn to work with students from many different cultures and circumstances. Technology can allow people with special needs to participate more fully than ever before in school and college work. In addition we have more teachers and other professionals who are trained in supporting people with special needs and can help to make our schools more inclusive.

Distance is no object
Today there is a vast range of online and distance learning opportunities in most countries in the world. This will continue to flourish but we need governments in particular to provide funding for  support structures to help disadvantaged people and people in remote areas to take advantage of opportunities like this. Combinations of online courses and local support are essential if we really want more inclusive education. Universities need incentives to open up their courses to the wider society and create new paths to higher education. Technically we can widen access to education but the educational systems are not quite ready for the challenges.

Technology is important but so is the absence of it
When I started thinking about this I realised that today I do not want to put technology in a headline role in my dreams of a future education system. Technology has a supporting role in all of the above but should complement and enhance human contacts. As technology becomes ubiquitous in society the need arises to find spaces where we learn to survive without it. Even if artificial intelligence will soon learn to write novels, compose music, solve complex problems, play chess, speak any language and drive our transport we will still want to be able to do these things ourselves as well. Schools of the future will need to create offline time where these skills can be learnt and practiced. Learning how to switch between plugged in and unplugged is a key literacy for the future.

All these ingredients are already present today to varying degrees around the world. I would just like us to work together to magnify them.

After posting this I realised that I had forgotten to mention the theme of so many of my posts over the last couple of years - digital literacies and data security. Schools and colleges need to be able to make informed choices about the platforms and tools they use and ensure that students' data is protected from commercial interests. Similarly we need to help students make wise choices about how they use tools and services and be aware of the opportunities and limitations involved.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Massive for-profit online courses

I wrote a few years ago that it was time to forget the acronym MOOC and realise that this umbrella term was too limited to cover the number of variations trying to shelter under it. Today a majority of so-called MOOCs are just regular online courses that can cost you quite a lot of money if you want any kind of certification or even credit for your efforts. Even the content is disappearing behind paywalls as the platforms focus on return on investment. One major platform, the Australian Open2study has recently closed down completely. Of course there are still genuinely open MOOCs delivered in a spirit of sharing and outreach, but they are generally low-profile and hard to discover unless you know where to look. Free and open education sounded great but in the end someone has to pay.

A possible obituary for the MOOC as we imagined it appears in an article in University World News, MOOCs fail in their mission to disrupt higher education. It refers to a new study from MIT in the journal ScienceThe MOOC pivot, that examined MOOC statistics from the platform edX and found that the vast majority of participants do not return to take other courses and that there has been virtually no change in the extremely low completion rates in the last six years. Furthermore there are no real signs that MOOCs have succeeded in reaching the original intended target group, those who are unable to access traditional higher education. On the contrary the participants are mostly affluent professionals with a traditional university background and of course they are the people most likely to be able to pay for certificates, tuition and so on.

Rather than creating new pathways at the margins of global higher education, MOOCs are primarily a complementary asset for learners within existing systems.

The main reason why non-traditional learners are not attracted to MOOCs is that they are unfamiliar with the concept of online learning and need support and encouragement, generally face-to-face, in order to get on board successfully. This is where most MOOCs fall short since they often assume that the learners have good digital and study skills.

Reich and Ruipérez-Valiente point out that there is a basic problem if MOOC providers are competing to undercut traditional providers in this market and attract the less traditional consumers – potential students from less well-off families, especially from families with no history of attending higher education – since research shows they typically perform worse in online courses and most need human support in the form of tutors and peer learning groups.

The courses formerly known as MOOCs are now competing with all other online courses and degrees and are thereby part of the system that the media hype claimed they were going to disrupt. Of course the universities offering these courses have learned a lot from the experience and there are now alternative and more flexible pathways to higher education, but I don't think the results are particularly disruptive. The people who have been unable to access higher education due to socio-economic factors are still unable to access higher education. If we have to use acronyms let's call them MOCS, minus the word open.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Online degrees and physical presence

Online degrees are still not even recognised in many countries and even when they are, they are generally viewed with a degree of suspicion. The reasons for this suspicion are understandable. The whole field of online education is still evolving and so there is a much higher degree of experimentation and remodeling, with subsequent successes and failures, than in traditional campus education. Online courses over the years have been largely based on self-study with very little interaction or teacher presence and this model still dominates the public perception. Online education tends to be part-time, home-based and in combination with work and family and students do not benefit from the many advantages of being on campus: developing contacts, social interaction, strong student identity, academic community. The courses may cover the same topics and have equally high demands but the campus version still has higher status because of the added value of these intangible elements.

The question of whether online degrees will ever be seen as equivalent to campus degrees is examined in an article by Eric Stoller in Inside Higher Ed, Online Degrees: Prestige, Acceptance, and the Big Picture. Even if there are excellent examples of collaborative and engaging online education, the value of a course or degree is closely tied to the reputation of the awarding institution.

Online degree prestige at present is directly connected to the perceived prestige of the brick-and-mortar institution that's offering the program.

This argument is particularly true for MOOCs, where courses from high-status universities attract the most attention, even if that particular institution has never previously been recognised as a provider of quality online education. The global ranking systems that focus on research funding and citation impact do not always correspond to pedagogical excellence but prestige is still what counts when assessing the value of a course or degree. So a MOOC or online course from the likes of Harvard or Stanford will always attract more learners and have a higher perceived value than one from an obscure college, even if the actual course at the smaller institution is better designed and more engaging.

Perception is everything when it comes to prestige and certain institutions have an almost insurmountable amount of prestige.

Place and tradition are extremely important in human society. A university needs a physical presence and a long history to instill trust and credibility, even if it offers online degrees. This physical footprint creates a sense of permanence and a demonstration of its commitment. You can go there to see the staff, researchers and students going about their daily work. The more online an institution, the more invisible it becomes and the harder it gets to visualise what goes on there. We still tend to value online courses from well-known physical institutions with a long history higher than virtual institutions with little physical presence and a very short history. Association with a physical footprint makes a difference.

The key to the future of online degrees is that they are subject to the same rigorous quality assurance as all degrees and that this is communicated clearly to the public. Online education is unlikely to match the prestige of a campus education, even in the future, but Stoller stresses the need for accreditation to ensure that your online degree will allow you to pursue your chosen career.

If you get an online-based degree twenty years from now, I would hope that as long as it comes from a reputable institution (regardless of its perceived prestige) that's been accredited by a legitimate accreditor that your credential allows you to do whatever you hope to do with it regardless of the crest atop the gate at XYZ university.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Goodbye Google+

Google are pulling the plug on their social network Google+ with as little ceremony as possible. It's not even clear exactly when the lights will be switched off but it will probably be in April. It is no big surprise to many users since the service has been largely left to wither over the last few years with few signs of any loving care from its owners. It now follows a line of Google services that have been quietly laid to rest over the years when they failed to gain the impact that their often over-hyped launches promised. Remember Google Wave for example? It was the platform that would revolutionise online communication and was introduced cleverly by invitation only in 2009. Invitations to try Google Wave became status symbols and expectations were sky-high. However the platform didn't meet these expectations and was quietly phased out a mere two years later.

There's a good eulogy to Google+ by Gideon Rosenblatt, Can You Fall in Love with a Social Network?, where he tracks the rise and fall of the platform and explains why he embraced it so enthusiastically, as did many others including myself. Although it is often presented as Google's challenge to Facebook, Google+ offered a different approach built on forming interest groups based on circles of friends and colleagues. I've been using it for several years as a platform for our online course Open Networked Learning, both as a community for the whole course and for small communities for each of the study groups in the course. It has worked very well and has an attractive layout that is easy to work with. A few years ago Google+ was fully integrated with Google Hangouts, the web-conferencing tool, and this made group work extremely easy, allowing all participants to arrange and run events in the form of a Hangout. Sadly Hangouts was suddenly disconnected from Google+ a few years ago and we have had to find other conferencing tools instead. Hangouts still lives on as a service, but it is very much under the radar and I hardly know anyone who uses it any more. Another case of a good service dying through neglect.

The main lesson here is that platforms and tools come and go. That means you will always need a plan B and somewhere safe to store the data you value.

The main lesson of Google+ is that it’s time to stop trusting our creations and our relationships to companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, in the hopes that they will do the right thing with them. They will do the right thing as long as it maps to their primary purpose, which is maximizing returns for their shareholders. When that stops being true, well, then, that assumption of trust disappears. Google+ demonstrates this problem more vividly than any product or service shutdown that I can remember.

I will miss Google+ but not in the form it has taken in recent years, where it became less useful with every so-called update. It lost its spark a few years ago and instead of being a place for innovative new functions and dynamic communities it became a slowly stagnating backwater. Our online course is now using BuddyPress, a WordPress plug-in, to create communities and this looks like a more reliable solution that we have greater control over and can run on our own server.

If you want to see how you can save at least some of your content on Google+, I can recommend a post by Sue Beckingham, Google+ is now closing in April 2019 – How to download what you have curated.