Friday, June 24, 2022

My farewell to on-site conferences - at least as a university employee

Session in the EDEN conference (CC BY Alastair Creelman)

I have just returned home from the last educational conferences of my professional career. I am retiring this summer and any conferences after that will either have to be by invitation or if I feel rich enough to pay it all privately (unlikely). I attended NU2022 in Stockholm, a Swedish national conference on pedagogical development in higher education, and EDEN's (European Distance and E-learning Network) annual conference in Tallinn, Estonia. My next post will discuss some of the issues raised at these conferences but here I will just make some general comments.

I must admit that although I have spent the last few years organising, hosting and participating in many online conferences and meetings, the chance to finally attend an on-site event was very welcome. It was wonderful to meet colleagues, mingle, nibble snacks and do a bit of sightseeing in the evenings. A reminder of days gone by and a nice way to round off my days of university employment. 

One theme I would like to comment on here is that of the role of the online participants and their use of the back channels. Both conferences were billed as hybrid with live streaming of many sessions and the option of a Q&A function or chat to interact with the on-site audience. In the Stockholm conference there were hybrid parallel sessions and although the production was fine there was virtually no input from the online participants. In my two sessions I tried to encourage questions and comments in the chat but sadly nothing came. At EDEN there was a Q&A function in the streaming platform that was used quite often but there was no room for discussion between participants. One interesting feature of the EDEN conference was the inclusion of sessions held exclusively on Zoom. Here, on-site participants, including presenters, had to find a quiet corner to sit in to take part in these sessions so that they were fully online and therefore avoided the risk of the on-site participants dominating the discussion. I did not participate in the Zoom sessions at EDEN but I am sure they were more interactive than the hybrid sessions because everyone was online and had access to chat and microphone. Maybe the conclusion is that the focus in hybrid sessions is almost always on the on-site event and the online participants do not see themselves as full participants. If you really want the online participants to be active then offer fully online sessions.

Both conferences had hashtags for Twitter but only a few participants took advantage of this to share ideas and links. I have always enjoyed the Twitter feeds at conferences because I get so many good reflections and interaction with other participants. It's also great to see non-conference people getting involved, thus widening the reach of the conference. I use Twitter to write reflections, links and quotes and then refer to the feed when I write about the conference later. The next post will do just that. It's sad that the Twitter discussions this time were a bit limited. Are people tired of back channels in general or of Twitter in particular or are people just reluctant to share their ideas?

Then there is the sustainability of on-site conferences. I firmly believe that we cannot continue holding large-scale international on-site conferences if we want to have any environmental credibility, given that most people have to fly to attend. Maybe justifiable if the majority of participants can travel by land. I travelled to Estonia by train and boat but I strongly suspect that the carbon emissions of today's giant ferries may even be higher than travelling by plane. I have not dared to investigate this.

I will try to keep up with future conferences by online participation unless something remarkable happens. But I thoroughly enjoyed this final fling.

Part 2 of this post will follow in the next few days.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

The lights are on but there's no one home - the plight of the modern office

Photo by LYCS Architecture on Unsplash

How often do you go to the office these days? It looks like many people have not fully returned to the old commuting routines and are still working from home at least one day a week. We have discovered that a lot of our work can be done just as well if not better from home and the traditional workplace set-up is increasingly being questioned. Many people have realised that they work more efficiently at home away from disturbances and irritation. Online meetings are short and to the point and no one misses the commuting. Some activities are of course best performed in person and the office reinforces a sense of belonging to a community. But if we have found better ways of working, we need to rethink the value of the office or indeed the university campus. What are the unique values of a common physical working environment and when do we have to be there?

An article on VoxWhy the return to the office isn’t working, describes how many organisations are trying to adapt. Some employers have embraced home working or at least a flexible attitude towards it whilst others are demanding on-site working even if they are struggling to justify it.
The reasons the return to the office isn’t working out are numerous. Bosses and employees have different understandings of what the office is for, and after more than two years of working remotely, everyone has developed their own varied expectations about how best to spend their time. As more and more knowledge workers return to the office, their experience at work — their ability to focus, their stress levels, their level of satisfaction at work — has deteriorated. That’s a liability for their employers, as the rates of job openings and quits are near record highs for professional and business services, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
The most common argument for being in the office is the interaction with colleagues and opportunities for creative work and synergy. This can apply for some but many workers spend most of their time working individually and any collaboration can be done very well in video meetings, project tools, e-mail and instant messaging. The stock image of a team working creatively around a table with post-its all over the place simply does not correspond with what most people do in the office. The challenge for employers is to find convincing reasons to come to the office, activities that must be done in-person and with clear rewards. 
For many office workers, the current state of affairs just isn’t working out. So they’re doing what they can to make their experience of work better, whether that means renting coworking space or not showing up for arbitrary in-office days. They don’t necessarily hate the office. What they hate is not having a good reason to be there.

Many have happily returned to work, glad to get back in a routine and being able to meet colleagues, but have found that the office is often sparsely populated. As a result they stay at home more often (if possible) and a vicious circle is created, at least from the office perspective. The inspiration and creativity doesn't happen if half the staff are missing. 

“If I go into the office and there are people but none of them are on my team, I don’t gain anything besides a commute,” Mathew, who works at a large payroll company in New Jersey, said. “Instead of sitting at my own desk, I’m sitting at a desk in Roseland.”

The situation is similar at some university campuses. A recent article in the Norwegian higher education news site Khrono describes the situation at one institution where the students had returned to campus but the teachers prefer to work from home (article in Norwegian: Tomme kontorlandskap i nybygg: Bekymret for at mange holder seg aktivt borte). A new building featuring activity-based working spaces is under-used and teachers only come in to do the most essential activities. This defeats one of the main attractions of the campus: the mix of faculty and students and the academic ethos. Even in the buildings where teachers have individual offices the corridors are often very quiet. So maybe it isn't simply a matter of teachers' aversion to open office space. 

Some students are also staying at home and complaining if they have to travel to campus for a lecture that could have been recorded or conducted online. For them the convenience of online delivery outweighs the advantages of social contacts and sense of community. There are also students, and even staff, whose homes are simply not pleasant working spaces and so the campus is essential for their studies. Universities also have today two very different student groups: young campus students (18-23 years old) who want the full traditional student experience with social activities, network building and a strong community spirit and older students who already have a family, job and social life where they live and are less interested in campus life. Universities are investing vast amounts of money on new campus buildings and facilities but are spending only a fraction of that on their digital campus. How does the digital campus (learning management system, student services etc) contribute to community building and a sense of belonging?  

I don't think we're going to abandon the office or campus but we do need to some creative thinking and question some deeply ingrained traditions. We need to make it clear what the advantages are and make the events there simply unmissable. Active learning on campus is more stimulating and creative and no matter what hybrid technology may be available you are always going to be a bit detached as an online participant. It's fine to demand on-site meetings as long as they live up to expectations and are not just routine information delivery. Forcing people to come to the office or having ad hoc rules simply creates resentment. Maybe 2-3 days a week on-site and make sure they are filled with activities that justify them. Plus a consistent and negotiated policy from employers so that the rules apply to all and are respected. The debate continues ...

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Innovation - a state of mind

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash
Whenever innovation in education is discussed we immediately see images of virtual reality visors, virtual worlds or 3D printers. Very impressive but hardly likely to be normal practice in schools and universities around the world. Maybe we need to look more closely at what innovation really means and discover that you can be extremely innovative in your teaching without using any advanced technology at all. Maybe sometimes you don't even need technology at all.

This is very well expressed in my article of the week by Alexandra MihaiInnovation in Higher Education. Wait, what? Innovation is not about one-off projects or expensive technology but about testing new methods and learning from experience. 

What I find most problematic these days is that innovation is mostly referred to in conjunction to the latest shiny technology (think AI, VR). Don’t get me wrong, when used in the right context, these immersive forms of technology can definitely enhance the learning experience. But, while they are the most often showcased, they are far from being the only things that qualify as “innovation”; they tend to be expensive (still), difficult to scale up and transfer between different contexts and learning goals.
Of course technology plays a significant part in innovative practice but the real innovation is about finding new ways to promote collaboration and ensuring that no students are excluded in the process. There are pockets of innovation everywhere but they seldom lead to mainstream adoption because no one is able to join the dots. Genuine innovation can mean finding new ways for multi-disciplinary collaboration and involving students in the course design process. Maybe it is about making new connections.
Innovation is connecting people, helping them to collaborate and learn effectively. This can take many shapes, from faculty co-designing curses and (why not?) programmes, ideally also involving students in the process, to faculty, educational developers and instructional designers working together as a team to create rich learning experiences. It’s all about nurturing learning communities and communities of practice.
The article closes with the statement: An innovative university is a genuine learning organisation. Genuine innovation is creating a creative environment where scientific curiosity is allowed to flourish and where new ideas are tested and assessed. Where there is room for trial and error as long as it is based on sound research-based practice. Changes don't need to be sudden or disruptive either. It takes time and patience and we need to avoid the temptation to expect quick-fix solutions. Innovation is more a state of mind.
... an innovative mindset permeates the entire institution, at all its levels.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Platform literacy needed to avoid increasing inequalities in education

James Elder Christie: The Pied Piper of Hamelin Public domain (CC0) on Wikimedia Commons

A major argument in the educational technology debate over the years has been to facilitate widened access to education through digital platforms and applications. This has indeed been achieved to a large extent with the widespread adoption of open access to scientific articles, open educational resources published by many institutions around the world, global collaboration projects such as Wikipedia as well as the use of learning management systems, video conferencing platforms and networking tools. The options for studying from home, even in sparsely-populated regions have increased dramatically and it would be easy to claim that the mission of widened access to education has been achieved.

However, as the power and sophistication of educational technology has increased so we see new inequalities and biases appearing and this is the topic of an excellent article by Laura CzerniewiczMulti-layered digital inequalities in HEIs: the paradox of the post-digital society. Although millions of students and teachers were able to adapt successfully to online education during the pandemic there were many who suffered. Many students had poor internet access or could not afford to pay for access. Many had to study with only a mobile or sharing one device with the rest of the family and in many countries reliable electricity is still a dream. The rollout of modern edtech assumes that everyone has the right devices, internet access and reliable electricity and thus the digital divide is further accentuated.

The digital divide is alive and well; indeed the digital paradox is that even as the basics of the divide are addressed through access, more complex layers of exclusion are added; digital inequalities thus morph into new complicated forms. Nevertheless, fair and equitable technological infrastructure is the foundation of inclusion in HE: electricity, devices, ubiquitous connectivity and cheap data. These are essential but insufficient.

The pandemic has also forced educational institutions to invest in new technology and the urgency has meant that many have overlooked the serious implications for user privacy associated with much of today's IT industry. The growth of surveillance capitalism, as defined by Shoshana Zuboff, is particularly worrying with the big five tech giants (Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook) controlling and storing so much of our daily lives.

The intensive digitalisation catalysed by the pandemic and concomitant “online pivot” means that HE is in danger of fast becoming a site of surveillance capitalism, with the concomitant dangers for equity, little transparency and unequal terms of engagement.

With such an upsurge in educational technology many institutions have signed major contracts with companies without questioning what those companies will do with all the student data they gather. We all happily accept the terms and conditions, cookie settings and other privacy settings without really understanding the implications and no matter how digitally literate we may be those settings are not designed to be understood. The hidden biases of algorithms can add to further exclusion of some students groups especially when combined with the rise of artificial intelligence in tracking student progress, identifying weaknesses and detecting cheating.

The amalgamation of the digital into higher education, through the dominant extractive economy, introduces complex and often invisible power dynamics into public higher education. The terms of engagement are imbalanced, hidden behind dense language and easy promises. There are especially profound implications for those with barriers to participation at individual and institutional levels. This has introduced several new inequities into the student experience and the sector.

Czerniewicz presents some strategies to prevent this rather dystopic development. Firstly, institutions need to develop better platform literacy and be more able to demand safeguards from technology providers. We need to decide whether the risks of buying a platform outweigh the advantages - no matter how cool it may be. Many technology decisions are governed by FOMO (fear of missing out) and this tendency must be changed. She advocates iterating towards equality, developing strategies to identify inequalities and minimising risks as far as possible, i.e. Developing equitable ethical data policies and frameworks.

These themes are further discussed in another recent article, Ableism And Disability Discrimination In New Surveillance Technologies: How new surveillance technologies in education, policing, health care, and the workplace disproportionately harm disabled people. This looks at how technology is used in education, health care, workplace and criminal law to further disadvantage disabled and minority groups in society. Here too we see examples of societal biases being magnified by algorithms. 
In recent years, schools have adopted technologically-augmented surveillance tools, some of which rely on predictive analysis and automated responses to flag suspicious behavior, trigger investigative or disciplinary action, or prioritize crisis response resources. The surveillance tools can have a disproportionate impact on disabled students and students of color - and likely on disabled students of color in particular.
Although the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has increased our awareness of some of these dangers there is still a need for a deeper understanding of the consequences of the IT systems we use. If we are not careful we risk following the pied piper into the cave, dancing merrily to his tune. Sometimes we must dare to say no to the lure of technology.

Further coverage on how some tech companies exploit student data, in this case children, can be read in a new post by Tony Bates, The perversion of the Internet: scraping and selling children’s data from ed tech tools.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

AI-generated essays - time to rethink written assignments

Students will employ AI to write assignments. Teachers will use AI to assess them. Nobody learns, nobody gains. If ever there were a time to rethink assessment, it’s now.

This is a quote from an article by Mike Sharples, London School of Economics, New AI tools that can write student essays require educators to rethink teaching and assessment. There are now tools that use artificial intelligence (AI) to generate highly plausible academic essays, complete with references. The article takes an example of a short essay about the problems around the popular concept of learning styles generated by a Transformer AI program, GPT-3. The user simply entered the first sentence and AI completed the essay. The result is not particularly insightful but good enough to pass and it won't show up in any plagiarism control since the text is completely original. If the essay is fed back into the tool by the teacher it can write a similarly plausible comment on the essay. The whole assignment can therefore be performed by AI, prompting the quote above.

Even if some of the essays generated this way may still have weaknesses (the example in the article has false citations) the whole point of AI is that it is constantly learning and improving. The phenomenon is not new, it has been possible for many years to pay someone else to write your essays for you via essay mills, but now the human element has finally been removed. Does this mean the end of the written assignment as an examination form? 

The author suggests a few ways of using the AI transformer in a constructive way, for example by getting students to generate AI texts and then find faults in them and improve them. This reminds me of how some teachers tackled plagiarism by writing a sample essay/article that included several form of plagiarism as well as poor citation practice and asked the students to find the problems and correct them. 

But the main point here is that we need to move on to new ways of assessing students and avoid examination methods that ask questions that can be automatically generated or copied from the internet. 
Finally, as educators, if we are setting students assignments that can be answered by AI Transformers, are we really helping students learn? There are many better ways to assess for learning: constructive feedback, peer assessment, teachback. If Transformer AI systems have a lasting influence on education, maybe that will come from educators and policy makers having to rethink how to assess students, away from setting assignments that machines can answer, towards assessment for learning.
Live assessment activities like interviews, presentations, debates or round table discussions can be run either on-site or online and are almost impossible to cheat in. But that brings us to the eternal question of how to move the focus in education from extrinsic motivation (exams, credentials) to intrinsic motivation (satisfaction, self-confidence, pride). Focus on competition, rewards and results encourages cheating among some, whereas activities that focus on community, learning for pleasure and intangible rewards are generally free of cheating. If learning is in the forefront there is simply no point in cheating. Hopefully AI-generated essays will remain a mere curiosity.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Non-commercial social networking - a safe haven in a world of insecurity and surveillance?

With so many of our social media tools controlled by multi-billionaires and thriving on our personal data, it's no surprise to find that more and more people are opting out. In the wake of Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter there has been a significant rise in subscriptions to Mastodon, the non-profit open source alternative. This week, the European Union's European Data Protection Supervisor announced the pilot testing of two new platforms, EU Voice and EU Video, that are open source and meet the data privacy conditions set down by GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and the Schrems II ruling (EDPS launches pilot phase of two social media platforms). They are based on existing non-commercial social platforms, PeerTube and Mastodon, and are now being pilot tested by a number of EU agencies. Wojciech Wiewiórowski, EDPS, makes the case for this initiative:

With the pilot launch of EU Voice and EU Video, we aim to offer alternative social media platforms that prioritise individuals and their rights to privacy and data protection. In concrete terms this means, for example, that EU Voice and EU Video do not rely on transfers of personal data to countries outside the European Union and the European Economic Area; there are no advertisements on the platforms; and there is no profiling of individuals that may use the platforms. These measures, amongst others, give individuals the choice on and control over how their personal data is used.

I hope this initiative succeeds. I love social media but find the present set-up increasingly distasteful and long for the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of networking without commercial exploitation. 

In addition there is now a growing number of open source social platforms that are interconnected under the banner of Fediverse. This means that if you belong to one platform you can interact with members of other platforms seamlessly even if you are not a member of the other platforms. Similar to using e-mail or good old telephony; you can contact anyone thanks to common standards. The video below explains the concept quite nicely.

Here's a film about PeerTube, offering a safe alternative to YouTube and Vimeo for posting video material.

Of course these communities are dwarfed by the commercial giants but maybe, just maybe, the tide could be turning as more people realise that you can be social without accepting tracking, profiling and exploitation. The idea of interconnected communities is so obvious that I wonder how we have been duped into accepting the commercial walled gardens as normal. I wish I could say that I have moved my digital activities over to Fediverse, but the fact is that I have so many valuable contacts, groups and communities that are only on Facebook, Twitter etc and don't want to lose them. My contacts on Mastodon number only a handful compared to Twitter. I also wonder if people really want security and protection and that the attraction of the commercial platforms is that absolutely everything and everyone is there, from the sublime to the ridiculous and beyond. Don't underestimate the thrill and fascination generated by all the insane  photos and film clips available on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, even the vitriolic comments that follow. Maybe it's the crazy stuff that keeps us scrolling. Will we be equally fascinated by a nicely organised and clean version, no matter how secure and respectful it may be?

 Of course I welcome an alternative to the insanity and surveillance but although it may only become a niche phenomenon, it's a vital safe haven for those of us who need to find a safer and more respectful part of the internet to live in. I don't see the giants being felled any time soon by the power of open source, but's what's important is showing that there are other ways of organising how we communicate on the internet and that big tech is not the only solution. 

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Déja vu - the return of virtual worlds

The battle for the metaverse is on with most of the media buzz focused on Meta (a k a Facebook) and their plans to engage us all in their virtual market and meeting place. Already there are companies setting up virtual hubs and universities are also creating their virtual reality campuses which they hope will soon be full of student avatars. Reading about this in an article in Campus Technology10 Institutions Opening 'Metaversity' Campuses, took me back about 14 years to the heady days of Second Life and I wonder what we have learnt since then. These virtual campuses are built using EngageVR where you can design your own spaces and make them more or less accessible to visitors and residents. The best way to interact in the metaverse is through VR visors but you can also interact using your computer, though not so immersively. Students and teachers can then meet as avatars in the virtual campus and interact with objects, graphics, diagrams etc with voice communication and the ability to explore different environments together.

The new metaversity at Stanford is described like this:

The metaversity courses will be synchronous, and students can attend whether they are learning on campus or remotely. Each student will receive a Meta Quest 2 virtual reality headset for use during their course (courses can also be accessed via PC). Within the virtual learning environment, they will be able to engage with other students and their instructor in VR experiences such as delving into human anatomy, taking a time machine through history or studying astronomy on a spaceship.

Here's a video showing Stanford's virtual learning space using the EngageVR platform.

The screenshots on Engage's site seem almost indistinguishable from the views of business centres and campuses on Second Life all those years ago. Apart from the VR headsets and better graphics I wonder what's new. Most academic experiments in Second Life simply recreated virtual versions of reality with copies of their campus environment complete with lecture halls where avatars could show PowerPoint slides to an audience of student avatars seated in rows. The new VR spaces seem to be doing the same thing. In a virtual world where the laws of physics don't apply and you are free to create any space you can imagine, why do we keep building classrooms and auditoriums? Why is it so difficult to escape the stereotypes?

I really enjoyed exploring Second Life back then in the tech-optimist days of 2007. It was probably ahead of its time but it demanded high-end graphics for a smooth experience, so many users gave up when they realised that their devices simply couldn't cope. Second Life is still going and has a devoted band of users who have obviously enjoyed the experience. What was really interesting about it was you could develop your own fantastic spaces and choose whether they were open to all or restricted access. You could build realistic copies of well-known places or complete fantasy worlds. You could choose alternative identities and take part in very convincing simulations that would not be possible anywhere else. A whole virtual economy was developed with people willing to pay real money for virtual real estate. There was a vibrant cultural life with concerts, art exhibitions, sculptures and fashion shows. I enjoyed exploring new areas of the vast virtual world that was built up and did actually have useful encounters with people I would never have met otherwise. The openness gave enormous opportunities but sadly also threats as the trolls and spammers found their way into the new world. The new VR spaces are much more restricted and controlled but maybe the freedom and creativity of Second Life was its greatest attraction.

If VR is going to be relevant to education it has to contribute something new and offer possibilities that are hard to offer in any other environment. That means more than just looking at 3D models of cars or DNA strings that the publicity films tend to show. There are great examples of simulation applications in areas such as medicine and the opportunity to offer realistic roleplay situations for professional development. However, the need for visors and expensive software means it will probably be accessible only for wealthy institutions and for specific niches where VR can really prove its value. Focus on the really innovative and pedagogically valid uses of VR and skip the reproductions of campus buildings and auditoriums. 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Clouds on the horizon

Photo by Daniel Morris on Unsplash

Once again it's time for one of the most widely read reports on the opportunities and challenges facing higher education around the world, the 2022 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report, Teaching and Learning Edition. This year's report comes in the wake of the pandemic that has had a profound effect on education and has lead to a major reappraisal of how we teach and learn in an increasingly uncertain and unstable world. As usual the report features a number of trends in educational technology that are having major effects on education as well as overarching societal and environmental factors. It also describes a number of plausible scenarios for higher education, and even society in general: growth, constraint, collapse and transformation. An added value is the wealth of links to relevant examples of the trends described and inspirational solutions. To provide a global perspective there are chapters written by experts from Australia, Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and the USA as well as a corporate view. Sadly voices from Africa and South America are not represented.

The report has been criticised over the years for repeating the same trends each year but to be fair these trends are seldom short-term or transient. Some of this years trends have been on the Horizon lists for many years but each year new details become visible as they mature and new factors come into play. The old tradition of looking at technologies that will impact higher education on a short-, medium- and long-term basis has now been thankfully dropped. In the past some short-term impacts took much longer to materialise (or simply died) and long-term trends developed more quickly than predicted. Such is the fate of most predictions. One thing is clear however:
Higher education likely will never be the same again, for these and many other reasons that have emerged just within the past two years.
Not surprisingly, the word hybrid is used a lot in the report. Universities are spending a lot of money on technology to equip classrooms for hybrid teaching with sophisticated systems with multiple cameras, screens and microphones to allow everyone to participate as equitably as possible. However, no amount of high-tech will work unless teachers and students are confident in using it and the teaching is suitably adapted. Similarly, the rise of hybrid working will lead to changes in campus design with fewer teachers, administrators and students on site. 
Remote work is making its way into job descriptions and contracts on campus, and institutional leaders are having to rethink important aspects of their culture and operations, such as interpersonal staff and team communications, the use of facilities and on-campus office and desk spaces, and staff and faculty training and support for their device and connectivity needs.
This in turn opens up questions on the value of the campus. It is certainly a great place to be for many who gain networks for life and a stimulating academic environment, but it also excludes many others. The report also describes a major shift in interest away from traditional degrees towards skills-based learning with shorter focused courses offering microcredentials. These are being increasingly recognised by major companies and some universities are already partnering with the corporate sector to offer such credentials.
Some students will simply conclude that they cannot afford the cost of a degree, particularly in regions and at institutions where rises in tuition and other related expenses simply seem unmanageable. Other students will conclude that the traditional college degree no longer meets their personal and professional needs, or they will seek alternative opportunities for acquiring the knowledge, skills, and credentials they need for successful job placement and career advancement.

Learning analytics, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity also feature heavily in the report but earlier tech-optimism is now clouded with concerns in terms of how student data can be used in a responsible and ethical manner. The full potential of learning analytics and AI has not been realised yet, often due to the fact that most institutions have so far failed to integrate all their systems to be able to tap into the vast resources of data they possess. Even the data available in the learning management system is seldom exploited. Will students accept that their data is analysed and profiles created that might not always be to their advantage? 

As previous EDUCAUSE research has found, for example, students may be more or less comfortable with their institution collecting and using their data depending on the type of data being collected and used. And many students may not fully understand why or how their data are being collected and used, eroding their trust and confidence in the institution’s use and protection of their data and subsequently eroding their trust in their institution overall.

Although the report shows the potential of the trends it describes it does not hide from the storm clouds hanging over all of us in terms of  the climate crisis, increasing political instability and the global rise of misinformation and anti-scientific thinking. We already see an increase in political control of what is taught at universities and a decrease in the public funding of higher education and the report does not see this ending in the short term. This can lead to universities seeking more private funding and risking that major benefactors influencing policy and strategy in ways that limit academic freedom.

Of course there are other issues or trends not mentioned in the report but I still think this is the most accessible summary of the challenges facing higher education today and one that you can certainly send to decision makers at your institution. If you'd like another perspective as a complement, then please have a look at Mark Brown's excellent article from December 2021, What are the Main Trends in Online Learning? A Helicopter View of Possible Futures (Asian Journal of Distance Education. Vol. 16 No. 2, 2021) 


Wednesday, April 13, 2022

My best friend is a robot - virtual companions

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Many of us had imaginary friends when we were children; someone you could tell your innermost secrets to and who would always lend a sympathetic ear. An ideal friend is especially important when real live ones are hard to find. Another common childhood strategy was the old-fashioned secret diary where you could write your deepest thoughts, loves and fears though always with the nagging fear that some day someone might find it and read it. We all need a channel for our reflections.

As a modern equivalent, how about confiding in a virtual companion? There are now many examples of artificial intelligence applications that can provide this type of friendship and I found a good overview of the field in a newsletter (in Swedish) from the Swedish consultancy Futurewise. If you understand Swedish go straight to the article, otherwise I'll pick out some of the highlights here. A good example of an AI companion is a chatbot called Replika that you can create and train through text communication to become an understanding and sometimes entertaining friend. Today Replika can also appear as an avatar with a choice of appearances and even virtual accessories - yes, you can buy nicer clothes, hair etc. It takes time for your new friend to adapt to your communication but the more you chat the more it learns and slowly you find the conversations quite rewarding, though there are large gaps in its knowledge and some replies can be rather bizarre. In the end, however, you are conversing with a kind of mirror image of yourself, though always understanding and supportive. Talking to your companion can become a daily habit and some people may find it reassuring to open up to a virtual friend in ways that they could not do with a human companion. It offers a kind of therapy, as a sounding board for your feelings. The company's website offers the following user quotes:

Using Replika can feel therapeutic too, in some ways. The app provides a space to vent without guilt, to talk through complicated feelings, to air any of your own thoughts without judgement.
Replika encouraged me to take a step back and think about my life, to consider big questions, which is not something I was particularly accustomed to doing.

Here's a video explaining how it works and some of the background to Replika.

There are of course much more advanced AI avatars and one is called Leta. She has learned from almost one terabyte of data and you can speak with her instead of text chatting as in the case of Replika. Leta has been created by Alan D. Thompson and in the video below he introduces highlights from his many discussions with her (see his YouTube channel for all the discussions). Leta can actually be rather witty and creative, for example she can instantly create a haiku on a given topic. At the same time she can also come out with very strange answers when confused or when her programming does not offer a better answer. She is of course no better than the script that runs her.

This all raises a host of ethical questions that I suspect commercial interests will quickly bury under the carpet. An AI companion can certainly offer sympathy and understanding but is that what we really need? Sometimes we need a friend who can ask uncomfortable questions and challenge us to reflect more deeply. We've already seen various types of robots (robot dogs or other cuddly robot animals) marketed as companions for elderly people living alone but this seems to be more of a comfort to the  society that created it than to the target group. We don't need to worry so much about old aunt Ida because she's got a robodog at home. The bots also depend on someone feeding them with data and writing the scripts. Leta was given sources like Wikipedia, the Guardian and the New York Times to study but what if you fed her full of "alternative" sources and created an extremist robot?

Many in education see a great future for tutor bots helping students by asking questions, offering feedback, finding learning resources and encouraging. There's certainly potential there but the bots are only as good as their programmers and all sorts of biases and prejudices can be built in, intentionally or not. And then of course there's the whole issue of integrity and privacy: if these bots are commercial what happens to all the personal information they gather in our private conversations? Will my innermost thoughts and feared be gathered and sold to companies or even governments? We have already welcomed AI into our lives with Alexa or Siri with most of the ethical questions unanswered. The next step scares me.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Some students just want to learn alone - when community becomes an inconvenience

Photo by Suganth on Unsplash

Most people learn well in groups or communities where ideas are discussed and new insights emerge in a collaborative process. We get energy and inspiration from others and develop in a supportive environment where there are common goals and a shared interest. However, there are a lot of people who find such collaboration daunting and prefer to study alone. The same applies to the workplace where the ability to work from home during the pandemic has led to a divide between those who enjoy the social interaction of the office and those who prefer the peace and quiet of the home office. Many studies of student experience during the pandemic show that the hardest part was the lack of social contact and sense of community. This is probably the main reason students chose to study on campus - the friendships, contacts and social events that come from that common experience. Online students, however, have a different perspective on their studies. They already have their social contacts and networks established where they live and see little benefit from all but the most necessary interaction with fellow students. 

This discussion is put into perspective by David White in a fascinating post, Belonging is inconvenient. When discussing student needs universities often assume that all students behave as campus students, what he calls a residential assumption

As we develop, or expand, our fully online provision it’s important not to fall into the trap of designing with ‘residential assumptions’. What I mean by this is that we can assume that online students will want what our residential students demand (or what they missed when things moved online). Part of that is the need for community and belonging.

We need to accept that there are many students who do not need the sense of community and are happy to learn on their own. Those who are combining study and work do so to get qualifications for their professional development and therefore want to learn what they need, get the certificate and move on. For them all the process of forming a community and working in groups is extremely time-consuming and offers little practical reward, in short they see belonging as an inconvenience. White discusses three modes of learning shown in the diagram below: independent learning, communal learning and networked learning. Independent learners are those who prefer to go it alone and see group work as a burden and distraction though there are some who do enjoy the experience given time to adjust. At the other end of this spectrum are the networked learners who already have their own personal learning networks and use them rather than imposed groupings in a given course.

These modes are of course very fluid but show that we are dealing with a diverse group when we offer an online course, especially the hybrid mode so often discussed today. Mixing campus and online students sounds like a good idea but they have very diverse perceptions and preferences about the course and how they learn. White suggests that we need to focus more on inclusion rather and offering a variety of ways to engage with the course.

We need to design on the basis that there are multiple authentic modes of learning for multiple communities of students. Not all of these require belonging and community but where they do we need to acknowledge that it’s hard work, time consuming, and that access-to-a-building or being-in-a-cohort is not a proxy for membership-of-a-community.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The year of the dumbphone?

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Remember when a mobile phone was only used for voice calls and text messaging? No apps, no social media, no alerts, no mobile payments, no cameras, no music and no games unless you count primitive ones like Snake (remember that?). A few weeks ago I wrote about a renewed interest in low-tech solutions like hand-crank radios (Digital vulnerability) and now I've just read a news post from BBC about a surge in sales of basic unsmart mobile phones, Not smart but clever? The return of 'dumbphones'. It seems that an increasing number of people, many of whom are in the 25-35 year old bracket, are buying basic mobiles. The article claims that sales of so-called dumbphones reached one billion worldwide last year so it's certainly not just a niche market. 

The reasons for dumbing down vary but in general people want less clutter and distraction in their lives. They realise that they are addicted to their mobiles, checking them every few minutes in case they miss something. Mobiles steal enormous amounts of our daily lives. Our mobiles are also the ultimate surveillance device, sending data about our location, purchases, conversations, searches, contacts, health and more and selling that data to just about anyone willing to pay for it. So many are opting for a less connected life and the freedom it offers. According to Professor Sandra Wachter, a senior research fellow in artificial intelligence at Oxford University:

It makes sense that some of us are now looking for simpler technologies and think that dumbphones might offer a return to simpler times. It might leave more time to fully concentrate on a single task and engage with it more purposefully. It might even calm people down. Studies have shown that too much choice can create unhappiness and agitation.

I can certainly relate to the fears of smartphone surveillance and the addiction to checking social media all day. The problem is that we have already entered the age of the obligatory smartphone. Here in Sweden it is becoming almost impossible to function in society without one. Most public transport requires a mobile app to buy tickets and check timetables. Travelling without the app is just about possible but you still need a bank card (no cash allowed) and you pay extra for being old fashioned. Most smaller transactions are done by a mobile app (even at a local market). The national bank identity system for verifying all types of payment runs on a mobile app. Offline banking is actively discouraged. Your covid vaccination pass is of course stored in your mobile and so the list goes on. Basically without a smartphone you are seriously limited in what you can do. It's nice to see that many people want to reduce their smartphone addiction but I suspect that they have become too embedded in today's society. The smartphone is no longer an option, it's compulsory. That in itself is a cause for concern.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Hybrid classrooms - impressive solutions but are we asking the right questions?

Photo by Col·legi de Farmacèutics de Barcelona on Unsplash

Educational institutions all over the world are busy redesigning their classrooms and buying lots of hardware to facilitate hybrid teaching. The pandemic has revealed a need to offer more flexibility in how courses are run, offering students the choice of whether to attend classes on site or online. Many institutions have been doing this for many years but suddenly hybrid has become mainstream and there is a frenzy of ed tech investment. The challenge is to ensure that the online students are not simply passive observers but can participate as fully as their counterparts on site. This inevitably involves more advanced technology in the classroom with multiple screens, microphones and cameras so that everyone can be seen and heard clearly and that slideshows, whiteboards and collaborative tools can be easily shared. 

Some excellent examples of hybrid classrooms are described in a detailed post by Zac WoolfittThe future is bright - the future is hybrid. He describes how four European universities are redesigning their classrooms for a hybrid future: University of Amsterdam, KU Leuven, Imperial College London and Oulu University of Applied Sciences. All are very impressive and I urge you to read the article to get the details. Online students are visible on large screens, cameras automatically focus on the speaker in the classroom and high quality microphones ensure that everyone is heard. Not only have they upgraded their larger lecture theatres to cope with hundreds of students at a time but they have also equipped smaller classrooms and group rooms for hybrid sessions. Some solutions are like sophisticated TV studios and each lesson will require careful planning between teachers and production staff. Others are less complex but still demand that teachers rethink their teaching to adapt to the technical affordances.

However, all of them admit that they have still not found the best solution and that hybrid teaching still presents many challenges. Complex technical solutions demand qualified staff to assist the teacher, or require teachers to be well trained in using the equipment; resulting in an almost impossible juggling act trying to focus on both teaching and on managing the technology.

Finding ways to combine collaboration online and on campus remains a challenge. Those presenting here thought that there is more hybrid collaboration than every before. The solutions provided currently work, but it is expected the demands and context will change in a few years. Some have only been running Hybrid classrooms for less than a year. The feedback from students will provide lots of input. Creating really good hybrid breakout rooms has not yet been achieved yet and requires improvements in the technology. For some students, it is not easy to learn remotely, and they want to be in class, in contact with fellow students.

They are all impressive initiatives that aim at providing all students with a high quality experience no matter how they choose to participate. However, I wonder if we are asking the right questions here. These solutions are expensive and unrealistic for many institutions, especially in less developed countries. I also wonder if we place too much importance on synchronous events. No matter how much technology you have in the classroom, any gathering of more than 30 students means that the majority of them will not say a word during the session and that interaction will be limited. Large lecture theatres, no matter how much technology you buy, will always favour lecturing with the teacher in focus. Of course there is value in gathering all students in a synchronous event from time to time. It reinforces a sense of community and common purpose. But I would like to see a greater emphasis on group work, investigating, analysing and solving problems, and this is done in a combination of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration rather than in large class meetings. Maybe the hybrid classroom does not need to be so sophisticated. Shorter focused hybrid sessions to set up the task and then let the students work together in hybrid groups. This requires lots of flexible group rooms on campus but those require often only a screen, webcam and microphone. Learning to work in virtual teams to solve problems and find solutions are also vital skills to learn for most professions in a world where international travel is likely to become increasingly unfeasible.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Challenging assumptions about learning

Photo by Dom Fou on Unsplash

Do you have a clear idea of how you learn and what teaching methods help you most? I certainly don't and I'm close to retirement. However we continually ask students to evaluate their courses and draw conclusions from their feedback. Student course evaluations form the basis for future course design and administration but I wonder if we are asking the right questions. 

This is a topic discussed in a post by Zach GroshellDo Students Have a Good Idea of What Helps Them Learn? We are asking them to evaluate a complex process that they have limited insight into and often the benefits of good teaching become clear months or even years later. He refers to a recent study, On students’ (mis)judgments of learning and teaching effectiveness. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 9(2), 137–151), that investigates the hidden biases and subjective impressions behind student course evaluations. They found for example a mismatch between what the students thought they had learned and their test results. They preferred traditional content-rich lectures to more active sessions despite studies showing that active participation leads to deeper learning. They were also highly influenced by subjective perceptions of the teacher's status, enthusiasm, gender, ethnic background and accent (as we all are). I hasten to add that we are all subject to these biases.

As we have seen, empirical research has provided a wealth of results showing that students are poor evaluators of their own learning, and that their subjective impressions of teaching effectiveness are vulnerable to many biases that are unrelated to teaching and learning… Does this make it risky for instructors to use effective learning techniques? Particularly early in their careers and in teaching-focused positions, instructors may find themselves faced with the difficult decision of whether to incorporate teaching practices that gain them recognition as effective instructors, even if such practices do not positively impact students’ learning.
This poses a tricky question to teachers - do you teach for student satisfaction or teach for learning, even if it may lead to dissatisfaction and poor evaluations? An ambitious teacher who decides to promote active learning and student collaboration runs the risk of students misunderstanding their pedagogy and even a reprimand from the head of department when the poor evaluations emerge. Most of us can remember a teacher we hated at the time but with hindsight realise had pushed and challenged us to a higher level of understanding. What we think we want is not always what we need.

On a similar theme of assumptions and biases is an article by Perry Samson in Educause Review, Students Often Prefer In-Person Classes . . . Until They Don’t. We often assume that students prefer classroom teaching and student surveys show a clear preference for this. However, in this study the students were offered three levels of participation, the hyflex model of on-site, online or asynchronous interaction. Although they at first preferred to be in class, physical attendance declined as the course went on.
Given reasonable options, students in my class did not prefer the in-person mode of course delivery. In fact, the number of students who physically attended class dropped precipitously to an average of around 20% by mid-semester (see figure 1). At the same time, about one-third of students opted to participate synchronously during class time (see figure 2), with a growing number, reaching about 30%, participating asynchronously. The number of students who didn't participate any given day was relatively consistent throughout the semester at about 15%.
The test results showed that the on-site students performed no better than the others, in fact the first-year students who studied asynchronously (recorded lectures, forum discussion etc) had better results than those who attended classes in person. The study is of course limited and offers no exploration of the students' preferences but it does show that students appreciate the choice of participation modes more than we might assume.

My conclusion here is that we need greater dialogue with students about teaching and learning, explaining in advance why we are using a particular approach and getting them to buy into the method through together discussing rules of engagement and building a framework for feedback and reflection. Expectation management is so important and so pre-course information is so much more than just presenting a syllabus. It's setting an agenda and helping students understand how to succeed.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Digital vulnerability

In the midst of a brutal war in Europe it is very hard to write about educational technology. However, one slightly relevant theme that is emerging is how vulnerable we are today due to our embrace of everything digital. Society has simply taken digital accessibility for granted and become totally dependent on it. Here in Sweden it is virtually impossible to lead a normal life without a smartphone and internet access. Cash has become almost useless and many shops and even banks refuse to accept it. You need to download apps for just about everything - shopping, parking your car, using public transport, booking accommodation, financial transactions etc. 

I read in the paper (yes I still read printed newspapers every day) that sales of survival equipment (water canisters, dried and tinned food, camping stoves) have suddenly soared due to the war and the realisation that it could happen here. There's also a marked increase in the use of cash machines (previously deemed obsolete) with the realisation that a cyber attack would render all our apps and plastic cards useless. Another curious detail is a sharp rise in the sales of basic FM/AM radios, especially those that can run without batteries by winding a handle. I also noted that the BBC is setting up shortwave frequencies to broadcast news to Ukraine if internet access is cut. Luckily video did not quite kill the radio star.

Future trends in education? How about survival skills? I don't mean survival courses in the wilderness (though it might be a good idea too) but being able to use both the digital tools and devices as well as their non-digital counterparts. Can you find your way without GPS and Google? Can you make calculations or write notes on paper? I've seen reports of interesting projects about offering digital educational resources to remote areas without internet or even electricity using solar powered servers with stored resources that can then be shared with devices in a basic wifi network (see earlier post). Many countries have used radio to broadcast school lessons to remote and vulnerable communities during the pandemic (as reported earlier on this blog). In an increasingly volatile and unpredictable world we all need to develop plans B, C and D. 

Digitalisation has benefitted us all but we must be very careful about digitalising everything just because we can. We need to maintain alternatives even it may be costly because one day the digital infrastructure could go down.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The invisible students

I've read lots of articles in recent weeks about the return to campus after the pandemic. There's naturally a great feeling of relief from students and staff alike. Many articles focus on how students prefer campus teaching to online. Well of course they do - that's what they signed up for! If you commit to a traditional campus degree you naturally want the whole package even if the use of digital media and online spaces will be an integral part of the programme. They accepted online teaching as an emergency solution but although it worked well, they lost out on all the benefits of being on campus such as the network building, social events, sense of identity and being part of a major institution. No-one suggests that they should switch to completely online. The traditional university experience is a vital stage in so many people's development and a completely life-changing period for many. Most reports indicate that staff and students have realised that online spaces add important elements to the campus experience and expect a greater blend between physical and online spaces in the future. However it's sad that all too often the media and politicians want to use this to create a false polaristaion between on-site and online. 

It also brings up the question of what we mean by the term student. All too often it means an 18-23 year old, full-time campus student. However, an increasingly large student population is conveniently forgotten in media discussions. There are millions of people who sign up for an online course or degree because they simply can't move to a campus or university city. Campus is not relevant for them because they already have their identity and networks firmly established where they live with their families, work and community. This group is growing rapidly in response to the demands for lifelong learning and reskilling in an increasingly unpredictable labour market. They value the learning but have little interest in the university experience. Sadly their voice is seldom heard and no-one really represents their interests. .

The main student organisations have difficulty attracting online students. The online students see the student organisations as representatives of campus study but at the same time the student organisations can't represent the online students because they have so little contact with them. It's a vicious circle. This in turn means that the needs of online students do not reach university management and academic boards. The dominance of young campus students on university websites and brochures reinforces this disconnect.

Universities are very willing to hear the voices of their campus students and they are represented in the highest decision-making bodies. How do we give the online student community a similar voice?