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) 


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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?

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Finding the sweet spot for learning

Photo by Maria Lupan on Unsplash

Learning is an extremely complex field and, in order to make sense of what is going on in the interaction between teachers and students, models and diagrams can help to make sense of the complexity. we will never capture the whole picture in one diagram but the interplay between models at least offer us guidelines for practice. 

One diagram caught my eye last week  in an article by Melissa EmlerFuture of Work Is Nothing Without Consideration For The Future of Learning (see below). The article looks at professional training but shows that learning takes place at the intersection of three elements: event, content and community. The gist of the model is that learning doesn't happen if one of these elements is missing.

If organizations want to get a return on their investment on learning, the components must be seen as interdependent parts of the whole. When making decisions about professional learning opportunities, people must understand the best experiences will contain all three components: community, content, and events. The ones that don’t contain all three components can be left unopened in your inbox.

Basically an event full of content but with no community element (ie. no discussion, interaction) has no lasting effect. Similarly a community with events but no content lacks a purpose - maybe lots of fun but what's it all about? Finally a community with content but with no events lacks urgency and the chance to get involved. Over the last couple of years we have certainly seen examples of all three with countless well-purposed webinars full of useful content but without forming a sense of involvement. many started a good discussion but offered no space for that to develop into a sense of community. I have certainly been part of quite a few such ventures.

In a pre-pandemic era, the components of training and development could stand alone. But if the goal is to embrace being a learning organization in the post-pandemic era, they can’t. During the pandemic, people in every industry were faced with a barrage of offers for free events and online courses. At first, many dove right in because they had a need to upskill fast. Now, heading into the third year of the pandemic, people are tired. Screen fatigue is real. Making sense of the one-off events is complicated. And, the logins for those online courses remain tucked safely away in the email inbox never to be seen again. And more than anything, people are craving connection and a sense of community. 
There are similarities here to the more complex community of inquiry model that shows the close and essential interplay between three presences: teaching presence, social presence and cognitive presence. These elements vary from course to course but the true educational experience takes place in the sweet spot where the three presences meet. So many solutions fail because they only focus on one or two factors. You can have lots of great well-designed content but without a wider context and sense of community it has only limited impact. We need to offer that magic space where several factors intersect.

Image: Melissa Emler Modern Learners 2022

 


Thursday, February 3, 2022

"It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it" - note taking skills

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash
One rather sad reflection on the world today is that we tend to believe what we want to believe and often disregard scientific evidence that goes against these beliefs. Sometimes it gets absurd - it may be a myth but it's such a good story so we're sticking with it. Even in education we have many myths that are simply too good to discard, despite considerable scientific evidence against them. Digital natives, learning styles, the benefits of open-plan offices are still going strong after all these years. 

Another fondly held belief is that learning was somehow better before computers came along. This appears in different guises such as the benefits of print books over e-books, classroom teaching versus online teaching, video meetings versus online meetings and so on. Another in this series is about handwritten notes being more beneficial to learning than typed notes on a digital device. A post by Donald ClarkIs handwriting better than typing for note taking? Surprisingly, it's not!, debunks this myth very well, though I suspect that it will still continue to thrive. Clark points out that the claim is based on one article from 2014 that showed better learning from handwritten notes. Subsequent studies have shown no significant difference between the note-taking methods but have received much less coverage than the original study. The problem is that it is not a simple contest between two methods but we need to look deeper to see that note-taking is a valuable learning tool, no matter how you do it, but also that it is one of many learning strategies. Learning happens when you make a conscious effort.

It would seem that writing notes in your own words, and studying your notes, matter more than the methods used to write your notes. This makes sense, as the cognitive effort involved in studying are likely to outweigh the initial method of capture. It is not note taking that matters but effortful learning.

There are far too many discussions today trying to prove which method/tool/medium is "best" as if it was a contest. Taking notes is a skill that all students need to develop but they need to find the format that works for them whether it be traditional handwritten notes, Word documents, collaborative notes in Google Drive, a writing tablet, a collaborative mindmap or even reflections recorded as voice notes. The active process of summarising, rephrasing and sorting is part of the learning process. 

This debate focuses on one issue, the method of note talking but the more important issue is to move beyond note taking to actual learning. Here we know that underlining, highlighting and rereading are not efficient learning strategies. One needs to move towards effortful, generative learning, deliberate, retrieval and spaced practice. Note taking is not an end in itself, merely the start of a learning journey. It is an important bridge to more effortful learning.

Note taking can also be used as an alternative to recording online meetings. Simply hitting the record button is convenient for students but why not ask them to take notes instead and collaborate in producing collective notes? They may need some guidelines at first, but if two students take notes during the session and at the end allow the rest of the class to fill in gaps and post comments and links the collective notes can be much more valuable than a simple recording.


Sunday, January 23, 2022

Back to the classroom - risk for a post-pandemic backlash?

Photo by Changbok Ko on Unsplash

Over the last year or so there have been countless articles and blog posts about how the pandemic has finally brought online education to the forefront and how education will now be able to take a leap forward as we fully integrate more collaborative and active learning with the help of digital platforms and tools. This is linked to similarly optimistic forecasts of how work culture will change radically as working from home becomes mainstream. Of course there will be changes in the way we teach and learn but don't underestimate the power of tradition and the desire to return to familiar ingrained practice. 

Several posts in the past week have featured the risk of a backlash against the online transformation narrative. Politicians in many countries are increasingly focusing on the need to get students back on campus and return to traditional teaching. This is understandable but it is often combined with a bias against online education as a poor substitute - the assumption that education is always best in the physical classroom. This point is discussed by Martin WellerWhy do education secretaries hate online learning? with reference to recent remarks by UK politicians.

I mean, it’s weird, right? On the one hand, all Governments like to berate education for not fully preparing students for the modern workplace. They unveil plans about how they will be a modern, 21st century, digital economy. And yet, successive education secretaries have berated online learning, which one would think was an essential component in realising both of the previous aims. And not just offer up some valid criticisms around issues of retention or engagement, say, but they use terminology that portrays online learning as, at best, a lazy, cheap option and at worst, some form of abuse.

I wish we didn't always play off the one form against the other. It would be nice to hear that the progress in online teaching gained during the pandemic will now be integrated into classroom practice in order to offer greater flexibility and active learning opportunities for students. But somehow the rhetoric of back to the traditional classroom appeals to voters and any changes to the well-worn system are viewed with suspicion.

On a similar theme is a post by James ClayPredicting is hard, and we can get it wrong, commenting on an article from HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute), Five common predictions about COVID and education that now appear to be wrong. It outlines how several predictions have been proved wrong: the number of students has not been reduced because of covid, test results in most subjects have not suffered, drop-out rates have not increased significantly and the graduate work market has not suffered either. Despite all this, Clay notes that attitudes to online education from those in power have not responded.

One prediction made at the start of the pandemic by many involved in education technology was that the forced working from home would (post-pandemic) be a catalyst for more blended and online learning in higher education. The prediction was that following people being forced to use tools such as the VLE, Teams, Zoom, lecture capture, that this would embed such technologies into future teaching and learning. Well we know from the press this week that this may not be the case, with Nadhim Zahawi talking in the Daily Mail that “Students made to pay tuition fees for Zoom lectures should revolt”. This kind of rhetoric makes any (current and future) use of online technologies challenging for universities.

Will the experience of the pandemic period simply be seen as a temporary diversion? If we really want to change education it will require major investments in professional development as programmes are redesigned to integrate more flexible and collaborative models. Institutions will need to change their organisation and strategies, teachers will need to learn new methods and students will also have to adapt. This all costs time, effort and money as opponents will be quick to point out. With many institutions under financial pressure, the temptation is strong to return to familiar practice. 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Waiting for the storm to pass is not a solution - dealing with uncertainty

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

We used to believe that we could plan for a relatively predictable future, a clear linear pathway for our medium and even long-term strategies. Today however the future is wildly unpredictable and just about anything can happen, as the pandemic has clearly shown. We continue to plan for the day when the pandemic disappears and we can get back to normal, but how realistic is this, especially given the increasingly serious effects of the climate crisis and the growth of political instability around the world? This pandemic could continue for years, returning in new variants and, if that is not enough, climate and political instability will lead to further crises. The only way forward is to plan for dealing with constant uncertainty. We cannot put changes on hold until the pandemic dies down. 

This theme turned up in two articles I read this week. The first is by Debbie McVitty in the journal Wonkhe, Making peace with uncertainty in 2022. Many people in education leadership are trying to revert to normality and restore order in the disorder of the last two years. Universities look to the government to lead the way back to normality and unpredictability but what if that state never returns? One positive side to the present crisis is that it has forced us to rethink processes and practices that we have always taken for granted.

When things are uncertain, it becomes necessary to ask more searching questions about the various things that might happen – and in doing so gain an insight into the way things work and how they might work differently or better – like the many teaching and learning innovations that arose from the uncertain environment of online and hybrid learning. Uncertainty also means learning to deal with unexpected consequences – like student over-recruitment – a nice problem to have certainly, but also one that requires serious creative thinking to ensure students get what they’ve been offered in an acceptable way.

In fact there is a great danger in pretending that we can manage and control the future, ... the illusion of certainty may be more dangerous than confronting the reality of ambiguity. When the virus died down last year many universities joyfully reverted to the old order as soon as possible. For example, experiments with online examination were put aside as we reopened the examination halls again. We need to continue developing alternative methods rather than putting them back on the shelf because we simply don't know when we will have to handle the next crisis.

One area that needs to be developed is that of risk analysis and contingency planning and it's time to employ people to lead this work. This is highlighted in an article by Javeria Salman in The Hechinger ReportHow to plan for a future of education where disruption is the norm, describing the work of one such person, Andrew Smith, chief administrative and strategic planning officer for the Rowan-Salisbury School District in North Carolina. He gets management to develop plans for a variety of scenarios so that the organisation develops a certain crisis resilience. 

The leaders asked: What is the worst that could happen? What is the risk to schools, teachers and students? Then they asked whether the district was prepared to handle each scenario. Smith said they considered questions like: “What happens if kids never come back? Or if staff aren’t allowed in the buildings?” They even asked seniors for ideas in planning for socially distant graduation ceremonies.

We have been able to test many alternative solutions for teaching and learning over the last two years and we need to continue with this rather than waiting for the storm to pass.

Schools can’t keep waiting for an end to the pandemic for problems to go away, the solution “has to be now, not later,” Smith said. “Because every time you keep waiting for the end … how many hours kids are waiting for you?”