Showing posts with label research. Show all posts
Showing posts with label research. Show all posts

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Science on auto-pilot

robot army by peyri, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by peyri

Fifty years ago each academic field would have a limited number of journals and an even more limited number of conferences and it was quite possible to keep abreast of what was happening. That is simply not possible today with an ever-increasing deluge of publications and conferences in even the most narrow and specialised of fields. With such volume it is inevitable that some events and publications will have serious quality issues. Many less serious journals seem to publish just about anything without any peer review and the same is true for some conferences where accepting all papers can mean that authors will pay to attend.

An amazing news post in Nature, Publishers withdraw more than 120 gibberish papers, reveals that publishers Springer and IEEE are removing more than 120 published papers after discovering that they were automatically generated by computer and were, in fact, complete nonsense. These papers are generated by software called SCIgen that was developed by students at MIT about 12 years ago to see if random generated articles could get accepted for academic conferences. The articles produced by SCIgen certainly look plausible at first glance and if that is all the conference or journal reviewers have done it's possible to accept them. However anyone who actually tries to read them will see the bluff pretty quickly - have a look at one and see for yourself. If you can't spot them yourself then there is even a program that will detect computer generated papers, SCIgen detection. Read more on this in an article in the Guardian,
How computer-generated fake papers are flooding academia.

What's really interesting here is that although SCIgen was developed so long ago, nonsense articles are still finding their way into journals and conferences, to the amusement no doubt of those who submitted the articles and developed the software. In a way you could claim that they are doing an important job by revealing publications and conferences whose peer review of submissions either doesn't work or doesn't exist. These revelations will no doubt inspire some to take a serious look at their routines and some may hopefully be forced out of business.

Academics are under intense pressure to publish, conferences and journals want to turn their papers into profits, and universities want them published. "This ought to be a shock to people," Krohn said. "There's this whole academic underground where everyone seems to benefit, but they are wasting time and money and adding nothing to science. The institutions are being ripped off, because they pay publishers huge subscriptions for this stuff."
Guardian 27 Feb 2014, How computer-generated fake papers are flooding academia

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A global perspective on online learning

globe by Judy **, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by Judy **

The sheer volume of writing in the field of educational technology and online learning is almost overwhelming; theses, articles, blogs, magazines, e-books, films, lectures. However one missing element so far has been reliable and regular global statistics. There are plenty of national surveys but nothing that takes a global perspective and provides a statistical base for researchers and educators. With the current media focus on open education and MOOCs and the resultant risk for hype and optimistic estimates it is essential to establish a sound statistical baseline.

That's why this week's announcement from ICDE (International Council for Open and Distance Learning), launching a Global Online Higher Education Report was welcomed by many. The aim is to produce a survey of online learning featuring statistics, strategies, attitudes and trends. The report is to be compiled by ICDE in partnership with UNESCO, the European Commission, the International Association of Universities, the Sloan Consortium, StudyPortals and Babson Survey Research Group.

Although there is clear evidence of the growth of online learning, the global data remains anecdotal or limited in scope. There has been no formal effort or process to define online learning in the global context, to document levels of participation, the importance of online learning in institutional strategies or the policy implications for online learning. The Global Online Higher Education Report, (GlobalOHER) initiative is designed to address this deficiency by conducting a global survey and issuing a report that will provide:
  • Information on enrolments and programmes offered online 
  • Information on the role of MOOCs around the world 
  • Information on the adoption of Open Education Resources, OER 
  • Perspectives on the importance of online learning in institutional strategies 
  • The challenges institutions face in delivering high quality programmes and services 
  • A framework of the policy issues that institutions believe need to be addressed
They hope to include information from the world's higher education institutions or at least the majority of them, a formidable task but with such a strong partnership, not unrealistic. The first report is due later this year and will be published openly with a Creative Commons license in a number of formats to ensure the widest dissemination. The report will then be updated twice a year providing researchers with invaluable information and trend indicators.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reading on paper or screen - what's the difference?

IMG_4227 by Jemimus, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by Jemimus

I often get into discussions about the pros and cons of reading print or screen texts. It's an emotional issue as many book lovers feel threatened by a digital takeover and the possible demise of books and newspapers. Many find screen reading a strain and prefer to print longer texts they find on the net. Many find digital formats lack the feel and soul of the print version and enjoy the tactile appeal of a book. I read both varieties and although I still prefer print I realize that it's largely a matter of what you are accustomed to. I can't see printed media disappearing in the near future though just take a look at the music industry to see an equally radical change that took place without many people really noticing - our music collections have moved from the shelves of our living rooms to our mobiles and record stores have almost disappeared from most high streets. Certainly there is discussion about how the sound quality of digital mp3 files is far inferior to that of vinyl records but for the vast majority that doesn't seem to matter. So what about the differences between print and screen reading?

I found an article from last year by Cindy Orr called Paper Vs. Screen—Does It Matter Anymore? She reviews research evidence for a significant difference between screen and print reading and finds that previously perceived differences are slowly disappearing.
  • We're reading much faster on the screen today than a few years ago and studies indicate that the gap is narrowing into insignificance.
  • Comprehension levels are about the same even if many people think they understand a print text better.
  • We feel much more comfortable with screen reading especially with the advent of tablets.
  • Our reading behaviour, in terms of eye movements, is very similar between print and screen.
A BBC article, Young people 'prefer to read on screen', describes the rapid shift to screens among children, with over 50% preferring screen to print, and how this affects reading ability.

"Younger children who read printed books as well as used computers were more likely to have higher reading levels than those who only read on screen, the study said. Although this gap did not apply to those children who used tablet computers or e-readers."

If the differences are melting away our perceptions are not changing as fast. Maybe there are other factors that affect our attitude to screen reading. A good summary of such factors is presented in an article by Ferris Jabr in Scientific American, The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens. One important aspect is the tactile aspects of a print book or magazine. We can feel the weight of the book, easily see how far we have progressed and can quickly flick the pages to see where the present chapter ends. We also have spatial aspects of print reading, remembering where we were in the book when something happened or remembering the layout of a particular page. Screen reading is often seen as putting a strain on the eyes and affecting concentration but new studies suggest that these problems occur when using a computer where scrolling and mouse clicks are necessary. The latest tablets reproduce the feeling of a print book much more realistically and few find reading a strain on such screens.

Another interesting factor is that maybe we treat screen content as somehow less "serious" than print and are not prepared to concentrate as hard. Digital content has lots of tempting links to check and your are likely to have other applications open at the same time leading to all the tempting distractions of social media and e-mail that I wrote about in last week's post.

"An emerging collection of studies emphasizes that in addition to screens possibly taxing people's attention more than paper, people do not always bring as much mental effort to screens in the first place. Subconsciously, many people may think of reading on a computer or tablet as a less serious affair than reading on paper. Based on a detailed 2005 survey of 113 people in northern California, Ziming Liu of San Jose State University concluded that people reading on screens take a lot of shortcuts—they spend more time browsing, scanning and hunting for keywords compared with people reading on paper, and are more likely to read a document once, and only once."

Despite all this I still feel that reading is reading whatever the delivery medium. I'm sure you can read as deeply on a screen as you do in a print book but you have to make a conscious decision to concentrate. Digital reading can be distracting if you choose to keep the distractions active but the same is true with print. If you try to read a complex print book with the TV on, music in your headset or with friends or family in the same room your concentration will be equally impaired. Once again it's about focus.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Quality and openness

An article in Inside Higher Ed, Puzzling peer reviews, highlights supposed dangers of open access publications. John Bohannon of Harvard University wrote a deliberately flawed biology article using a fictitious name and non-existent institution and submitted it to over 300 open access publications. It was accepted by about half of them (read a longer description of the experiment can be found in ScienceWho's afraid of peer review?). The article was written as part of a survey to see how much peer review was involved in the rapidly expanding open access journal market and the results cast a serious shadow over many of them. It contained serious scientific flaws that would be obvious to any academic in the field so the journals who accepted it had clearly not carried out any sort of serious peer review. Interestingly it was not only obscure journals that failed the test, even journals run by the big academic publishers fell for the trap.

"Acceptance was the norm, not the exception. The paper was accepted by journals hosted by industry titans Sage and Elsevier. The paper was accepted by journals published by prestigious academic institutions such as Kobe University in Japan. It was accepted by scholarly society journals. It was even accepted by journals for which the paper's topic was utterly inappropriate, such as the Journal of Experimental & Clinical Assisted Reproduction."

This is clearly unacceptable, though I find it hard to believe that so many people would fail to at least check the credentials of Ocorrafoo Cobange of the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara. The basic principles of Howard Rheingold's Crap detection seem to have been overlooked here (Is this a credible source? What other publications come from this person/institution?). But does this mean that the open model is inherently flawed and that the traditional closed journal system is more credible?

All journals, open or closed, rely on peer review for the credibility of their publication. In neither model do the reviewers get paid for their services so the crucial factors must be the integrity and experience of the reviewers and the rigour of the process. Those were clearly lacking in the journals that accepted this fake article but I wonder what the success rate would have been if submitted to a large number of traditional journals. I suspect that even there there are some whose quality assurance processes are inadequate.

This is not really an openness issue but more a quality issue that can affect any publication open or closed. Those whose peer review and editing routines are not sufficiently rigorous will lose credibility. The reason so many open access journals seemed to fail this particular test could be because there are so many new journals on the scene who are still trying to establish themselves and have not developed quality assurance routines in their peer review processes. There are of course many extremely dubious publications out there, often based in developing countries but with titles that begin with "The American Journal of ...". These offer publication at a price and often succeed in luring academics into paying for publication. These deserve to be named and shamed as they are in Jeffrey Beall's List of predatory publishers 2013.

However it is important that we are not be tempted into thinking that openness means poor quality. The two are simply not related as David Wiley points out in an article, On quality and OER. Copyright or a price tag are no guarantees of good quality, whether we're talking about educational resources or academic publications. There are excellent open resources and excellent proprietary resources and their excellence depends on quality assurance routines and professionalism.

"Because quality is not necessarily a function of copyright status, neither traditionally copyrighted educational materials nor openly licensed educational materials can exclusively claim to be “high quality.” There are terrific commercial textbooks and there are terrific OER. There are also terrible commercial textbooks and terrible OER. Local experts must vet the quality of whatever resources they choose to adopt, and cannot abdicate this responsibility to publishing houses or anyone else."

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Open or closed?

There's a fascinating interview with Harvard professor Clayton Christensen in the Economist that I would like to quote as food for thought, Clayton Christensen: Still disruptive. Christensen is the man behind the concept of disruptive innovation from his 1997 book The Innovator's Dilemma and has some radical views about the role of universities in the post-MOOC world. It is not the technology that is disruptive it's what they enable people to do with it. MOOCs are opening up educational opportunities for millions of people who would otherwise be excluded from higher education. Technology is making mass education possible and affordable and will inevitably affect enrollments at traditional universities. Christensen claims that we are likely to see universities going bankrupt in the near future as competition increases.

However the part of the interview that interests me most concerns research, the main focus of the academic world. In a world already drowning in content we keep producing more and for increasingly small audiences. Christensen questions universities' investment in research which seldom has much impact outside the confines of a narrow research community.

"We are awash in content that needs to be taught, yet the vast majority of colleges give a large portion of their faculties’ salaries to fund research.
The problem is the research that most of them generate isn't useful to anyone except other academics. In business there are five ‘A’ journals in which you have to publish to get promoted to tenure. In one of those five the average article is read by 12 people. If only one in every five research universities stopped doing research, society wouldn't be impaired in the least."

Harsh words there and many will object. But for me the main point here is the dangers of the closed academic system producing ideas and results that remain behind the walls of copyrighted academic journals. In such silos research becomes an exclusive commodity for a restricted audience. However he also offers the promise of increasing openness in education, enabling wider participation and stimulating more meaningful research.

"Almost always great new ideas don't emerge from within a single person or function, but at the intersection of functions or people that have never met before. And most universities are organised so you don't have those intersections. They are siloed. Universities think people come up with great ideas by closing the door. The academic tenure process, where you have to publish to journals which are very narrow, stands in the way of great research."

Read the article: Clayton Christensen: Still disruptive.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Prepare to be MOOPhD

Moo Cows by miseldine, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by miseldine

With Georgia Tech offering a degree programme in MOOC-format (or at least as an online degree) the next step in the process must surely be massive open online research. A fascinating article by Jon Dron of Athabasca University, MOOCs are so unambitious: introducing the MOOPhD takes up precisely this challenge; a massive open online PhD. It's not such a crazy idea but there are many important considerations and limitations.

Firstly the MOOPhD is not about awarding doctorates but providing resources to help students write articles and learn research skills. MOOCs can be provided to help teach research skills, improve academic writing, assessment skills, support for gaining funding as well as providing a wide network of peers to learn from and share experience. It's about providing scaffolding for the research process that is isn't always available on campus, at least to the same extent.

"A MOOPhD would, of necessity, be highly modular, offering student-controlled support for all parts of the research process, from research process teaching, through initial proposals, through project management, through community support, through paper writing etc. Students would choose the parts that would be of value to them at different times. Different students would have different needs and interests, and would need different support at different points along the journey. For some, they might just need a bit of help with writing papers. For others, the need might be for gaining specific skills such as statistical analysis or learning how to do reviews. More broadly, the role of a supervisory team in modelling practice and attitudes would be embedded throughout."

The MOOPhD would complement the formal process not compete with it. The post-grads would still have to publish peer-reviewed articles and write their thesis but would get considerable support from their peer network. The MOOC element could save universities from having to provide their own research skills courses. Dron also suggests crowd-funding as a possible source of research backing. 

It sounds promising but the last part of the article lists a number of barriers; from ethical issues to start-up costs and gaining academic acceptance. This one is not going to happen overnight but it shows yet another way the MOOC boom might benefit higher education, not through conflict nut through integration and enhancement.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

MOOCs in research spotlight

As the dust of the last 2 years of hype and optimism begins to settle it's time for some MOOC research; how they work (or not), student motivation, learning outcomes, pedagogical aspects etc. The original connectivist MOOCs have been well studied and in particular Rita Kop and Helene Fournier have written a series of articles on issues arising from those courses. Most of these MOOCs are aimed at educational professionals and are highly experimental and pedagogically innovative so it's only natural that they spawn many research articles.

However the mass-market MOOCs of the last two years raises new questions since their format is more linear and traditional and the participants so diverse. There has been a deluge of news and blog posts on these MOOCs but very little solid academic research. A welcome development is the formation of the MOOC Research Hub which aims to stimulate and fund research into MOOCs and act as a hub for disseminating results. The initiative is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the academic coordination lies with Athabasca University in Canada.

"The dramatic increase in online education, particularly Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), presents researchers, academics, administrators, learners, and policy makers with a range of questions as to the effectiveness of this format of teaching and learning. To date, the impact of MOOCs and emerging forms of digital learning has been largely disseminated through press releases and university reports, with only limited peer-reviewed research publication. The proliferation of MOOCs in higher education requires a concerted and urgent research agenda." 

The first stage is underway; researchers are invited to submit abstracts of proposed projects with grants of $10,000 – $25,000 available to those selected (see details of the submission process). The selected projects will be expected to present preliminary findings at the MOOC Conference, University of Texas, Arlington, December 5-6, 2013.

The site will also act as a hub for all MOOC research as well as linking to conferences, webinars and events. It's good to see that the Steering Committee for the MOOC Research Initiative Grants includes both leading figures from the xMOOC consortia as well as George Siemens, one of the creators of the original cMOOCs. The MOOC Research site is still under development but it is definitely one to bookmark and follow.

Read also a good article on MOOC research by George Veletsianos, The research that MOOCs need.

An hour after posting this I discovered that a journal called Research and Practice in Assessment has just released a special issue on MOOCs. It's free to download or view as a flipbook.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Uncomfortable truths

Open space office by jepoirrier, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  jepoirrier

I've just read an article about how often behavioural research is disregarded because it clashes with ingrained traditions and beliefs. The article is in Swedish (Det är dags att tänka på hjärnan - Dagens Nyheter) but you can always try it via Google Translate. It features a researcher called Katarina Gospic and she lists examples of where brain research has produced uncomfortable truths that we prefer not to deal with.

One such uncomfortable truth is the fact that open-plan offices do not make people more creative. Research clearly shows that people do not work effectively in such environments since we need to use the most creative part of our brains to block out the surrounding noise and distractions. But, despite all research results, the open-plan office still dominates, in many cases with ever-shrinking square metres for each employee. Basically, the financial incentives to maximise the use of office space outweighs the research results.

Gospic also points to research showing that large financial bonuses have virtually no motivational effect on people who already earn high salaries. Bonuses can, however, have a postive effect on low wage earners. Once again these results have had little or no effect on business practice. Money talks.

It seems that although we like to believe that we rationally base our decisions on the latest research, if that research clashes with tradition or financial expediency then we conveniently disregard it. There is plenty of research into how learning is a social process, that we learn best in practical and real-life situations and that few people learn simply by listening and memorizing. However this clashes with fundamental beliefs in education (ie schools as institutions, lecturing, classrooms, age-group segregation etc) that are not only deeply ingrained in society but also are very cost-effective structures for mass-education. Changing the system may cost a lot of money and involve a major rethink of many of the central structures in society. Maybe best to simply keep Pandora's box firmly shut.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Multitasking in class

An article in Faculty Focus caught my attention a couple of days ago, Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t. I find the whole multitasking concept as tiresome as digital natives and dividing up humanity in tidy generations (X, Y, Z whatever) but this article raises more questions than it answers. It refers to several academic studies showing how students who multitask
retained less from a lecture than those who had no distractions.

"With easy access to all sorts of technology, students multitask. So do lots of us for that matter. But students are way too convinced that multitasking is a great way to work. They think they can do two or three tasks simultaneously and not compromise the quality of what they produce. Research says that about 5% of us multitask effectively. Proof of the negative effects of multitasking in learning environments is now coming from a variety of studies."

While I agree that it's good to burst the bubble that people can work effectively whilst multitasking it's interesting that nearly all the studies look at multitasking during lectures. Why do people multitask during a lecture? Since it's mostly one-way communication students often switch off and are easily distracted. Whether they get distracted by checking Facebook, web sites, games etc or resort to analogue distractions such as doodling, writing letters, reading the paper or solving a crossword makes no difference. This isn't a new phenomenon at all but computers and mobiles just offer more enticing distractions.

Any situation where students or colleagues are forced to sit passively listening for long periods will cause many to switch off. If you're not actively involved in the session you will check your messages and news and if you don't have a computer handy you will start to daydream or plan a future event. This has nothing to do with multitasking. I'd like to see studies that reveal how little multitasking takes place when students are fully involved in a learning situation and are taking responsibility for their learning.

People don't multitask simply because the distractions are available. They multitask when the current activity is not sufficiently interesting and they have no active role to play.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Peer reviewed teaching

Peer Review by AJC1, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  AJC1

In a discussion at the EFQUEL Innovation Forum in Granada this week we talked about the difficulties of creating a sharing culture in education. Teachers are traditionally expected to be self-sufficient; creating their own courses, managing their classes and writing their own course material. The idea of sharing your material with other teachers is still viewed with suspicion and sometimes even hostility. Letting other teachers and students see your material or watch your lessons and then provide feedback is the exception rather than the rule.

Let’s contrast this private and closed practice with established academic research practice. Research is constantly subjected to peer review and must be thoroughly referenced and justified. Once published you can expect critical review and debate around your conclusions. Isn’t it strange that the rules for research are not applied in the equally academic discipline of teaching? Why are learning resources hidden away on teachers’ hard drives or in desk drawers rather than being made accessible and subject to peer review and open for reuse?

The arguments for opening up educational and making resources open and freely available should focus on enabling a peer review system for teaching and learning. If courses are more open then students will be able to interact with other experts and lessen the dependency on one teacher whose view will inevitably be limited. If material is open it is reviewed and rated by students and teachers. The best material will be recommended, enhanced and reused. Poor material will often get feedback for improvement or at worst be ignored. The same goes for recorded lectures. We create a dynamic quality assurance system built around open discussion. Other more academic quality criteria can of course also be applied to the process but the principle is that openness can lead to higher quality.

Opening up our teaching for review and criticism is not a revolutionary idea. It is simply applying the rigour of research review to the field of teaching which for too long has been allowed to hide from public view. If we want to improve the quality of education, classroom or online, then we must dare to share.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Digital scholarship

AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by btobetun
One of the barriers to the adoption of open educational resources in mainstream higher education has been the question of quality assurance. Academics are often wary of any material not published by established reputable academic publishers and so OER get dismissed or overlooked. However there are now many important initiatives that are providing access to quality OER with reliable search facilities.

One of the most promising I've seen is the result of a major project by Open University along with the universities of Leicester, Nottingham and Manchester. They have launched two sites offering a vast amount of information, guides and access to assessed OER: Digital scholarship and Ready to research. The OER that are linked to from these sites have all been approved by the developers and users are encouraged also to rate each resource and add comments, thus adding a crowd-sourcing element to quality assurance. In many ways this is similar to the OpenScout initiative I wrote about a few weeks ago. The key element is that all the resources are genuinely open.

"The site is a portal to a collection of Open Educational Resources (OERs) accessed from repositories and institutions around the world. All these resources have been provided free by their authors under Creative Commons or other licence for anyone who wishes to use them for educational purposes. 
The OU Digital Scholarship team, and our partners in Nottingham, Leicester, and Manchester, have reviewed and selected every resource listed on this site in order to ensure that it is a genuinely open access and high quality item of self-study material appropriate for students in the UK and elsewhere who wish to prepare themselves to study on research degrees in UK universities."

The Digital Scholarship site focuses on using digital resources in university studies in general, with self-learning material on issues such as digital literacies, using multimedia material, collaborative learning, plagiarism, information retrieval, social media and ethics, rights and intellectual property issues. Ready to research focuses on academic writing, research methods, online academic identity and  the use of technology for dissemination and publication.

You can access material by choosing topics or by using the tag cloud. Each resource has information about how much time is required to work through the material, what kind of media are used, who has produced it and what you are allowed to do with it. This can then of course be complemented by users own comments and recommendations.

It will be interesting to see how these sites are used by other universities and whether OER can finally become an accepted part of academic study. The skeptics had valid arguments against OER but they are now being dealt with. It's time to stop the arguing and work together to build sound digital scholarship.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

COL/UNESCO report on national OER policies

CC BY-SA Commonwealth of Learning
Open educational resources (OER) are becoming a feature of education all over the world though the uptake is often very patchy. Mostly it's a grassroots movement with groups of teachers and individual schools or colleges taking admirable initiatives. However top-down support for OER is still unusual and without this I don't believe that OER can become mainstream.

UNESCO and Commonwealth of Learning are two global organisations that are championing the open learning cause and have just published the results of a major survey: Survey on Governments’ Open Educational Resources (OER) Policies. They sent out a questionnaire to all 195 UNESCO member states asking them whether they had any policies concerning the use of OER in the country's schools and universities. Less than half (82) of these countries replied in time but the results show that there are countries who are taking open education seriously and beginning to form national strategies around the open sharing of educational material. Those who actually have a national policy for OER include South Africa, China, Indonesia and the Bahamas with others, such as Colombia, Uruguay, New Zealand and Lesotho, are in the process of developing a policy and already have guidelines and national initiatives.

The report deals with the following issues:
  • Nature and extent of OER activity per region
  • Nature and extent of existing policies 
  • References to OER in other public policies 
  • Funding Studies and research on OER
  • Perceived benefits of OER
  • Obstacles to OER adoption
What strikes me most is that OER is a global issue and that there is as much if not more activity taking place in Africa and South America than in western Europe. Sweden in particular is conspicuous by its absence in the survey though our neighbours Finland and Lithuania feature positively. I can imagine that in many countries OER is still a relatively unknown concept and although there may be excellent local and limited projects and initiatives they have remained under the radar of governing bodies.

Although the results of the survey are not startling, the fact that the survey was carried out at all by such internationally respected bodies is the most important achievement. By sending out the questionnaire to all these governments the question of OER was officially placed on the table. Many respondents were unsure of what OER really meant but simply by trying to answer the questions they were obliged to find out what OER activities were in progress in the country. Those who reponded are now more aware of OER than before but it will be even more interesting if the report has any effect on the nations who did not respond. Many will have realised that they knew too little about the concept to give a decent answer or that there sinply was nothing to report. But by at least thinking about how to answer they had to find out what OER entails. Maybe processes have already been started to ensure that next time more countries will be able to answer.

Interestingly a parallel study was carried out by OECD among 34 member nations and in this case 28 countries replied showing that OER is taken seriously by most OECD nations. Read this survey:
Hylén, J. et al. (2012), “Open Educational Resources:Analysis of Responses to the OECD CountryQuestionnaire”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 76, OECD Publishing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What is e-learning?

AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by chrisinplymouth
One of the main difficulties about explaining what I work with is the terminology. Over the years we have created a confusing profusion of terms to describe learning with the help of information technology: e-learning, distance learning, net-based learning, computer-assisted learning, flexible learning, blended learning, technology enhanced learning - the list goes on. None of these terms has been properly defined and the same term can mean different things to different people. We who work in the field can have lengthy discussions around these concepts and I've seen many texts that are highly inconsistent in terminology (I'm no doubt responsible for a few!). So if we have problems adequately defining our own terminology, just imagine how confusing it all is for those colleagues we wish to influence.

Therefore I was pleased to find an article attempting to reach a definitive definition of the term e-learning. It is entitled Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An Approach to the Conceptual Framework (International Review of Research in Open and Distance LearningVol 13 no 2, 2012) and has been written by Albert SangràDimitrios Vlachopoulos, and Nati Cabrera (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain). They have carried out a multi-stage Delphi survey of 33 leading experts in the field from 16 countries to try and reach a consensus on a definition for the term. They identified first four definition perspectives:

  • Technology-based definitions that focused on tools and applications
  • Delivery-based definitions that see e-learning as a means of delivering content
  • Communication-based definitions stressing interactivity and collaboration
  • Education-based definitions that emphasize how the use of technology enhances teaching and learning 

Each of these is a valid perspective, depending on the user's viewpoint and the trick is to find a definition that somehow encapsulates all four. At the end of the survey the following definition was reached:

"E-learning is an approach to teaching and learning, representing all or part of the educational model applied, that is based on the use of electronic media and devices as tools for improving access to training, communication and interaction and that facilitates the adoption of new ways of understanding and developing learning."

The respondents still had a number of minor reservations about this definition so it cannot be seen as final but it certainly goes a long way to capturing the wide scope of the term. The main conclusion of the article is that the difficulties of agreeing on an official definition of e-learning (and the profusion of alternative or related terms) is because the field is still developing so rapidly that a fixed definition is thereby unrealistic.

"After the analysis of the contributions of the participating experts, the research arrived at the general conclusion that e-learning is part of the new dynamic that characterises educational systems at the start of the 21st century, resulting from the merge of different disciplines, such as computer science, communication technology, and pedagogy, since all the collected definitions contained characteristics of more than one discipline. Consequently, the concept of e-learning can be expected to continue to evolve for a long time. In today’s world, learning needs change very quickly and the concept and functions of e-learning must continuously be adapted to these needs."

We'll just have to keep discussing and fine-tuning our definitions for a few more years though I hope that someday we can throw away the e's and discuss learning (with the e part completely integrated).

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wikipedia in the classroom

The net is awash with infographics these days and virtually all of them are very blog friendly - indeed the main aim of most is to be embedded in as many blogs as possible. So here's my contribution for this week to the relentless spread of infographics.

There are plenty of impressive statistics about Wikipedia and many appear below. Despite the success Wikipedia is still far from accepted in the classroom and is generally banned or at least frowned upon. It is undoubtedly the best place to get a quick overall introduction to a subject and often has a long list of external sources to continue your studies. If you want to work on source criticism Wikipedia is a goldmine. No other reference work is so transparent, showing the full history of every article with all revisions and corrections, often revealing conflicting views and interpretations. Reading the controversies behind many Wikipedia articles gives students a feeling for how subjective the "truth" can be and comparing different language versions on the same subject reveals sometimes highly conflicting national interpretations of the sam event.

I often wonder why teachers who are most critical and suspicious of Wikipedia don't try to improve the articles they find so inaccurate. That, after all, is the whole point of the whole work; to be constantly improved and revised. Wikipedia is always going to be a work in progress, a perpetual beta. Just like human knowledge.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

From resources to practices

The concept of open educational resources (OER) has been around for ten years or so and has gained a foothold in most countries' educational systems. However the abundance of free educational resources available today has not resulted in  mainstream acceptance by schools and universities who are tightly bound to closed, proprietary publishing traditions. Principles of open access (free access to research articles) and the sharing and reworking of teachers' content threaten established and profitable business models as well as challenging the fundamental traditions of the academic world. So it's no surprise that the OER movement meets with resistance and skepticism.

It's not enough to simply amass vast silos of resources; we need strategies and policies for how they can be accessed, assessed and used. After years of grassroots enthusiasm and creativity it's time to address the decision makers and find a top-down approach to match the bottom-up creativity. We are now moving from open educational resources to open educational practices (OEP) and that's the focus of an important new publication Mainstreaming Open Educational Practice - Recommendations for Policy by my colleagues from EFQUEL, Anthony Camilleri and Ulf Daniel Ehlers as part of the OPAL Initiative.

This short publication (only 10 pages so you've no excuse for not having a quick look) identifies a number of challenges facing the mainstream implementation of OER/OEP and makes recommendations as to how these challenges might be resolved. The main challenges are in the following fields:

  • Enabling legislation to facilitate OEP - changes needed in copyright legislation to facilitate sharing of educational resources as well as incentives to teachers/authors to make their work freely available (with some rights reserved)
  • Empowering learners to take up OEP - making it easier to find and access resources and establishing ways of recognizing informal learning.
  • Strengthening the evidence base of OEP - studying the effects of OER/OEP to find scientific evidence that the concepts are sustainable.
  • Culturing innovation through networks - creating a European lead-organisation for "openness" and encouraging collaboration between all educational levels.
  • Improving trust in OEP - Moving from pilots to operational activities, demonstrating that community peer review and open citation can challenge the established closed systems for academic performance.

Monday, February 6, 2012

E-books - now you're talking!

As e-book technology gets increasingly sophisticated and user friendliness increases, the list of possible objections becomes shorter. One common complaint is that you can't flip through an e-book as easily as you do with a print book and as a result you can't get the same feel for the book or navigate as conveniently. This film shows a new technology that lets you thumb and flip your way through your digital library. It has been developed at KAIST Institute for Information Technology Convergence in South Korea is already attracting considerable attention around the world.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Research on MOOCs and PLE

As interest increases in massive open online courses and personal learning environments I often get asked if there is any research into this field. Of course these concepts are still in their infancy but I was pleased to stumble across a blog post by researcher Rita Kop (National Research Council of Canada) called Research publications on Massive Open Online Courses and Personal Learning Environments. Since Rita is probably the most active researcher in this field the list has a lot of her papers but it's a good place to start as more researchers begin focusing on how these massive online courses function as well as how learners are building personal learning environments instead of relying on the standard learning management systems of most universities and colleges.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Twitter for academics

I've been using Twitter as a tool for work for almost three years now and it's one of the most important sources of information about work-related topics that I use. Very few people I know in Swedish higher education use Twitter and although I can understand a healthy bit of skepticism I think there should also be a bit more informed curiosity and willingness to experiment. Most colleagues simply can't see a use for Twitter and many see it only as a medium for updating friends about where you are or what you're eating just now. Twitter is sadly mostly associated with celebrities and chit-chat. It took me a few months before I realized the potential of Twitter but once I realized it just took off!

My Twitter Followers by Brajeshwar, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Brajeshwar 

However if you're doing research or just want to keep up with the latest news and articles in your field Twitter is invaluable. I've built up a network of around 400 people who I follow on Twitter (too many I suspect) and all work with various aspects of e-learning. I get a constant stream of links to relevant articles, news and videos that I can dip into any time and this forms the basis of my own blog posts and articles. I in turn tweet links to all the articles and news I find every day to anyone who wishes to follow me (@alacre).

A new guide has been produced by the London School of Economics to help academics discover the benefits of using Twitter as an integral part of their research activities, Using Twitter in university research, teaching and impact activities. This is a downloadable guide taking you through the most important features in Twitter and heling you to create your own network and using Twitter with your students. The contents of the guide are sumarised as follows:

  • Building your following and managing your profile 
  • Using Twitter to maximise the impact of your research project 
  • Making the most of Twitter alongside your own blog
  •  Using course accounts with students 
  • A step by step guide to adding a Twitter feed to Moodle 
  • Extra resources and links to blog posts and articles on academic blogging and impac

Have a look at the guide and I think you'll see that there are many benefits in getting started with Twitter. The authors of the guide are keen to get feedback so feel free to contact them at

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Why is public research not public?

Open Access by maolibrarian, on Flickr
Public money often funds research. That research is carried out by publically employed university researchers. The research findings are then submitted for publication and are peer reviewed by other university professors to see that the research is good enough for publication. Fine so far but here comes the catch that is attracting increasing controversy. This public research is then published in scientific journals that charge often very high subscription rates. University libraries then pay a large chunk of their budgets to get access to these journals so that students can read them. So more public money is paid to the publishers to see articles written with public money but which is inaccessible to the general public. Amazingly the researchers and reviewers get paid very little for their efforts. The reward for the researcher is of course academic reputation but the cost to public funds is unacceptably high.

In the last few weeks there have been several highly critical articles on this theme, for example Steve Wheeler, Sharp practice:

"For a long time I have felt very strongly that some academic publishers are operating a sharp practice by exploiting the goodwill of scholars. Large groups of lecturers and researchers act as journal authors and reviewers without payment, and then the publishers sell this content on to other academics at grossly inflated prices. Other highly knowledgeable academics give up their time, also for no payment, to review and advise editors on the content, and this can be painstaking work - read this by Martin Weller on the real cost of 'free reviewing'. This is not sustainable and must change."

The answer is of course the now widespread principle of Open Access where articles are published in open journals and are free to all. These journals have not yet achieved the academic status of the traditional publications but they are run by the academic community for the academic community. The peer review process is just as rigorous and the articles are available to the world. Many traditional journals now allow parallell publication whereby the article is also published in an open access journal, often 6 months after initial publication. However many journals still own exclusive copyright, effectively locking away public research from the public.

Last week the academic heavyweight Princeton University made a highly influential move in favour of open access by preventing staff from signing away the copyright to their articles to for-profit journals and insistig that articles also be made avaiable as open access. Exceptions to the rule must be first approved by the university. If Princeton can do this then many other prestigious universities may well follow suit. Read the details of this in an article in The Conversation, Princeton goes open access to stop staff handing all copyright to journals.

In that article the significance of Princeton's announcement is summarised as follows by Professor Simon Marginson (University of Melbourne): 

“The achievement of free knowledge flows, and installation of open access publishing on the web as the primary form of publishing rather than oligopolistic journal publishing subject to price barriers, now depends on whether this movement spreads further among the peak research and scholarly institutions.”

If university libraries did not have to pay millions of dollars/euros to pay for access to articles written by university faculty maybe they would be able to use that money to fund more important work like providing better support to students and faculty. Let's hope more universities take a stand like Princeton and work out a new way forward for scientific publication.

Steve Wheeler has posted a list of recommended open access scientific journals in a new post, The open case.

  by  maolibrarian 

Friday, May 6, 2011

The folding phone

A BBC article heralds the arrival of the folding mobile smartphone, Flexible phone made from electronic paper to debut. Researchers from Human Media Lab at Queen's University, Canada and Arizona State University's Motivational Environments Research group have developed a smartphone on electronic paper that can be bent and folded. You simply fold the sheet into smartphone size and then open apps and flip through pages by bending and pressing the paper. The version shown in the demo below is of course rather unsexy but it's just a matter of time before communication devices can be sewn into clothes of kept folded up in your pocket.

Otherwise it's interesting how the whole concept of mobile technology has changed so radically in just a couple of years whereas the terminology has stood still. We still talk about them as phones even if fewer and fewer people ever use them for traditional voice telephony (especially so with teens). We need a new name for these mobile devices that gets us away from the phone concept. Maybe when the foldable versions hit the streets we'll find a new name.

Read the press release from Human Media Lab.