Sunday, November 28, 2021

Building connections in open online courses

Photo by Fabio Bracht on Unsplash
A vital motivator for most learners is the sense of being part of a community where your efforts are acknowledged and where you get support and encouragement both from teachers and peers. Ever since MOOCs came on the scene course designers have been searching for ways of building a sense of community even in large-scale courses of hundreds or even thousands of participants. Courses have discussion forums, volunteer facilitators/moderators, chatbots, options for self organising group work and so on, but the quest for that ideal solution to make these course more "sticky" continues. It is not enough to simply suggest groups and let the participants get on with it. The groups need to be guided and encouraged, rules of engagement need to be agreed on and a community of trust must be established and to do this usually requires a facilitator/moderator with experience in team-building. This is very hard to scale since it can be difficult to find enough people to act as facilitators and when it comes to courses with thousands of participants this becomes virtually impossible. Furthermore, good facilitation requires some degree of training. Thus, in a course where you aim at offering a consistent experience to all participants, facilitators should share a common idea of how to support the groups..

There is an excellent description of providing this kind of support on a relatively large scale in a post by Joitske HulseboschLarge-scale online course design? Use collaborative learning for high engagement. She describes the development of an open online course in food systems with an intake of around 500 participants. Learners are divided into groups though this is not compulsory and each group has a volunteer mentor to motivate and support them. The organisers put a lot of work into creating a course community with onboarding activities like interactive maps to show where everyone lives (enabling people to link with others in their region) and a gamification element rewarding contributions and active participation in activities. Groups are encouraged to create a name for their group thus forming a common identity and the establishment of group chats in Signal or Whatsapp is encouraged. They are also careful to make sure that those who start the course are sufficiently motivated.

In addition to social learning and good content, I think there were a number of other factors that helped to keep people engaged. First of all, a good intake and selection. People were asked if they had time (some answered no and were therefore not selected :)) and what their motivation was. The 500 fortunate participants were selected from more than 900 applications. In addition, there was continuous feedback from the experts and some mentors on the contributions. This was highly appreciated and even more feedback was requested. In addition, there was a clear structure with a final weekly assignment: the gateway to the next week. When all gates were completed, people could download a certificate. This was certainly an incentive for many participants.

In this way they achieved a 54% completion rate and high learner satisfaction, remarkable for this type of open course. This cannot compare to a regular campus course since the participants are doing the course in their spare time and it is not part of a degree programme that they are committed to with financial consequences for non-completion.  

It is clear that collaborative and social learning have contributed to keeping participants engaged in the food systems e-course. The organization and supervision takes time, but you can minimize it through clear instructions and the use of voluntary mentors. Online you have to look redefine participation differently compared to face-to-face. You will never get 100% of participants doing all learning activities. Someone who does not fully participate but does participate in two online sessions can also learn something from this what he / she wants to learn, self-management and making choices become more important. It seems that a percentage of 50% is a good achievement for a large-scale online course.

This approach is similar in many ways to our experience with a course called Open Networked Learning, aimed at university teachers who want to explore the opportunities and challenges of online teaching and learning. We are colleagues from four Swedish universities who organise the course and run it twice a year together with a network of up to 15 partner institutions from Sweden, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa and Singapore. It's on a smaller scale compared to the food systems course, with usually 100-130 participants from the 13-15 partner institutions plus about 30 open learners who are admitted each term on a first-come-first-served basis. We have a good completion rate, usually around 70-80% and this is largely due to the fact that group work is a central feature.

The focus of the course is problem-based learning (PBL) and we divide the participants into groups with 8 members per group. Each group has a facilitator from one of the partner institutions and a co-facilitator who is a former participant who volunteers to support a group as a study buddy; someone who knows how it feels to participate and can offer advice and understanding. We provide support for these facilitators in the form of a course guide and regular meetings to discuss the groups' progress and current issues. This way we hope to offer a consistent experience for all participants and all facilitators share a common approach to facilitation.

The institutional learners get local support and also receive a certificate (or in some cases credits) for their efforts whilst the open learners have no such foundation and this has sometimes led to lower motivation. To counter this we now we now offer online support sessions for them and the response has been extremely positive. We have also found that quite a few of our co-facilitators are former open learners who volunteer to return for another course where their only reward is a recognition certificate. They simply enjoy the course and want to continue to be a part of it. That in itself is a reward for us as organisers.

Theoretically anyone is free to follow the course since the activities (webinars, recordings and tweetchats) and the topic work are all available on the public course site. However we have found that those who try this option seldom stay for long since they do not have access to the course community and above all do not have the support and motivation of joining a group. So now before the course we contact all the open learners and inform them that participation in a group is a prerequisite for certification though they are welcome to follow informally on their own.

Our model is probably not very scaleable because recruiting and supporting the facilitators would be too time-consuming and increase the risk of groups not getting a consistent course experience. So we keep the numbers low by recruiting through the partner institutions and using word of mouth to attract open learners. The example of the food systems course described above does however show that maybe a certain upscaling is possible. It's a fine balance though to combine the intimacy of group work with a large scale course environment. 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Active uninterest and the power of storytelling

Photo by Sepp Rutz on Unsplash

One of the highlights of this week was listening to an excellent keynote speech by Jo Røislien, professor of medical statistics at the University of Stavanger, at a Norwegian conference on motivation for learning (FuNKon 21 – Motivasjon for læring). He introduced the concept of active uninterest to describe popular attitudes to his field (maths, statistics). Whenever these subjects are mentioned people seem to almost take pride in how little they know. It's similar for most technical subjects as well as economics. People almost boast about how boring they think these subjects are and how little they remember from school. This is curious considering that our entire society and understanding of the world around us depends on these sciences but whenever they are discussed most of us automatically switch off. I admit to falling into that trap when it comes to financial matters. It's a defense mechanism but has become a dangerous myth that prevents people from engaging in and understanding the world we live in. 

Røislien is certainly not the stereotype "stats nerd". He happens to be a major TV personality in Norway thanks to his successful popular science TV series on Norwegian TV, NRKKampen om livet. The programme deals with difficult subjects like medical science, statistical analysis and molecular biology, but has become so popular thanks to its use of story-telling and eye-catching experiments rather than going into scientific detail. It's a classic case of  getting people to see the subject in a new light, to awake interest by seeing connections with things we understand (or think we do). In advertising terms it's not about selling the sausages, it's about selling the sizzle. 

He talked about the need for teachers and scientists to find compelling storylines to raise public interest in their subjects illustrated by his struggle to sell his idea of a documentary series to the TV company. As educators, it's not enough to deliver the facts, we need to break down people's barriers to learning, to activate curiosity and bring those facts to life. A good story helps us to remember and motivates us to find out how the story ends. We need more compelling stories to promote education and inspire curiosity. 

At the same time, I can't help noticing that not all stories are positive and that one reason for the growth of populism and conspiracy theories lies in the power of the stories they concoct. Even if they are shown to be misleading, the stories are stronger than the facts. Many traditional political parties have failed to realise the power of story telling, for better or for worse. Of course, the myth that subjects like maths are boring is also a compelling story, leading me back to the start of this post. 

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Digital default and the end of privacy

There's a shoe repair shop in town that I visit now and again that is making a brave last stand against the compulsory digitalisation of our lives. Not only is the concept of repairing anything unthinkable for most people today, but the owner only accepts cash - no cards, no mobile payment apps. I wished him the best of luck but in the end the digital juggernaut will run him over. I still carry cash as a futile personal protest against everything I do being tracked and stored by corporations I have no control over. It's nice to be able to do something that is off the record. Digital products and services have totally changed our society and of course I benefit from them in so many ways but I'm increasingly uncomfortable about the abolition of privacy that we are happily consenting to as we accept terms and conditions that we never even read let alone understand.

Compulsory digitalisation is marginalising society's most vulnerable making even simple tasks almost impossible without a smartphone or laptop. It is becoming increasingly difficult to survive without at least a smartphone, devices that are not exactly free of charge. Many smaller shops and cafes here don't accept cash anymore. We are so dependent on our mobiles that we seldom dare to actually turn them off anymore. If the net went down for more than a few hours society would grind to a halt. I realise this sounds like typical grumpy old man behaviour, but this week I found solace in a couple of articles in the Guardian.

Firstly Jen Wasserstein writes about life without a smartphone, My life without a smartphone is getting harder and harder. She's a professional with a very digital working life but has decided to stick with an old-school mobile that only does phone calls and texts. She feels the world slowly shutting her out as even restaurant menus are now hidden behind QR-codes. Indeed parking a car, buying a bus ticket or even getting into unstaffed self-service mini-stores require apps. I admire her tenacity but I suspect that she too will soon concede defeat and join the digital captives.

At a recent dinner with friends, after some initial chatting, everyone stared at menus on their phones. I sat there for a minute looking around the table and then whispered to my neighbor, discreetly asking to look on. When I eat out alone, I show my flip-phone to the waiter and ask for a proper menu. After an eye-roll, they’ll either bring out a paper menu from some vault in the back or hand me their own phone to use.

We have become so dependent that we have forgotten how to do things without our digital devices. We often discuss all the new "21st century" skills we have acquired but we have probably lost just as many. This is the topic of a new book by Pamela Paul100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet (Random House USA), What does tech take from us? Meet the writer who has counted 100 big losses. Some of the lost skills are now irrelevant anyway - finding people in gigantic phone directories or writing cheques for example - but Paul's book reminds us of many other skills and experiences we have lost in the digital takeover. She's not an off-grid type but simply wonders about the everyday experiences that fallen by the wayside in our hyper-connected lives, such as being bored, getting undivided attention from parents/children, finding your own way, writing letters etc. I particularly like this comment:

In general, when I hear the phrase ‘There’s an app for that’, my first question is: ‘Does there need to be?’
We should have a choice but we're choosing to not to. It's a combination of commercial and group pressure as well as a rather naive view of the benefits of technology. People are vaguely aware of the dangers of mass surveillance but seem to think that those are only issues in authoritarian countries - it can't happen here.
Here, perhaps, is a modern paradox. We embrace the internet because it seems to hugely increase our autonomy, but the online world soon gives us the sense that, when it comes to what it offers us, we have no meaningful choices at all. The only thing to do is to drop the old, embrace the new and live with the consequences.


Sunday, October 31, 2021

On-site, online or hybrid? It depends on what you want to achieve.

Photo by Alexandre Pellaes on Unsplash

As more and more conferences return to on-site mode, many feel the need to offer a hybrid mode where most of the event is also available to online participants. Is this just a symbolic gesture to show that we have learned something from the pandemic? How involved are the online participants and how do organisers charge for the online experience? How do we facilitate true interaction between the two groups of participants? Most importantly I think is the question of whether hybrid is the way forward of just an awkward and technically demanding add-on. 

Attending an online conference is very different from actually being there for many reasons. I have found that I sign up for more online conferences than I would ever attend physically but when I'm online I only attend the interesting parts and skip the rest. In some sessions I listen with one ear and continue with other work. I attend but I don't really engage. I am still at work and the conference becomes like background music with a few highlights when I fully concentrate on it. Maybe similar things happen with hybrid teaching. It would be interesting to study the distraction levels of campus and online students.

But maybe the answer is not to try and cater for everyone but focus on your target group. If the whole point of the event is for people to meet and discuss on-site then make that clear and restrict it to on-site delivery. However if an on-site event would automatically exclude important members of the target group then make the event fully online or even asynchronous. By trying to include everyone you risk excluding everyone and the event becomes a messy compromise.

I started thinking about these questions after reading an article by Mark Carrigan on the LSE blog, Is hybrid a desirable ‘new normal’ for academic events? The problems with hybrid are well known in terms of technical complexity and the risk of online participants being flies on the wall, passive observers. If you want an online audience then focus on that and don't try to do two things at the same time. Conferences can instead become processes with asynchronous online interaction over a whole week or several weeks. 

The equipment and expertise which are currently necessary to run a hybrid event mean it probably isn’t the right (or sustainable) choice for a relatively niche event that is unlikely to attract much of an online audience. In which case it might make more sense to have a physical event, with a collective output which can be distributed asynchronously. Digital artefacts like blogposts and podcasts have a tendency to circulate far beyond their original creators. The raw fact of access can be valuable, but the careful packaging of ideas and discussions can be a much more effective way of facilitating remote participation. It might be that only a small number of people would tune in synchronously to engage with an event, but a digital output from that event over time might assemble a significantly larger audience.

It's similar with hybrid teaching. Some sessions must be on campus and therefore we need to make that clear well in advance. Other sessions can be online only and even campus students will join the session from their own laptops. Maybe some sessions can be hybrid but we need to work hard to make them truly inclusive and collaborative. Hybrid sounds like the best of both worlds but can so easily be messy and a disappointment for all. The solution is to decide on the best format for the group you want to be involved. There is no default in the future - decide the optimal format each time.  

This isn’t an argument against physical meetings, but rather a plea that we avoid drifting back to them. The familiar rhythms of seminars and conferences feel intensely alluring after the isolation and suffering which have characterised the last eighteen months. However, do we really want to return to a situation where they are the default? Or could we imagine an approach to academic events which recognises how these options (face-to-face, hybrid, digital) are equally worthwhile depending on what we’re trying to achieve?

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Inclusive online collaboration - from disability to extrability

Blind man sitting at desk with computer and paper on desk.
Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

Over the last couple of years I have been learning about how we can make webinars and online meetings more accessible for blind and deaf people. This has come through collaboration with a remarkable guy called Oleg Kolpashchikov, who is president of the Russian White Cane organisation. He is totally blind and when we first met at a conference in Kazan in Russia three years ago I was so impressed with how easily he was able to use his iPad, mobile and laptop with the help of all the accessibility tools available today. Since then I have learned how blind people in particular can participate in webinars and online conferences and how we can facilitate their involvement. I admit I have only scratched the surface of this issue but I can share a few insights here.

A central theme of Oleg's work is the concept of extrability. What we so often describe as disability is in fact an extra ability, an extrability. For instance the loss of one sense demands greater use of other senses. Blind people need to develop extremely good memories or their ability to listen effectively. They have a keen awareness of the soundscape around them and this gives them an awareness of space that abled people lack. His organisation works a lot with activities where the abilities of abled and disabled people complement each other and where the development of trust is crucial. In a physical setting this can mean blindfolded seeing people being guided around a town by a blind person or even making food together in a blacked out kitchen. Or even working as a team to sail a yacht where the extrabilities can become very useful (sensitivity to wind direction, sounds etc).

How does this link into online collaboration. It can work very well as long as we make necessary adjustments. Firstly we have to learn to describe ourselves. We usually introduce ourselves by saying our name, what we do and where we live but for blind people you just add a few phrases to describe what you look like - I'm a man in my 60s with short greying hair, glasses, clean shaven and wearing a blue open-necked shirt. For deaf people we need automatic captioning or a sign language interpreter. Blind people can learn from videos as long as they have an audio commentary that describes the visual features of the film as well as the commentary. Here's an example of this that describes the work of Oleg's organisation.


We can also help blind people by making simple adjustments to our PowerPoint presentations in webinars and meetings. These are summarised in an article by Holly TukeHow to make your PowerPoint presentations more accessible. In short it means using the accessibility templates in PowerPoint and being consistent with the use of headings, sub-headings and normal text. Each headline should be unique and describe the contents clearly. Bullet points should end with a full stop so that text-to-speech apps don't just read out all the points as one sentence. Indeed punctuation is extremely important to avoid misunderstanding. Links should not be written as URL but as the title of the web page and a hyperlink, otherwise the text reader will read the whole URL character by character. It's also important to remember to add alt-text to images in the slideshow - just a short description of what the image shows. If you can post your slides before the session they can listen to them in advance and follow you even better. For those with hearing disabilities the presence of sign language interpreters or automatic captioning make the session accessible. Manual captioning is also an option but requires a skilled typist who can listen and type simultaneously. 

We can't realistically make online events 100% accessible for everyone but a few adjustments in our practice can lower the barriers that exist today. Working in mixed breakout groups of sighted and blind people is an excellent lesson that makes us realise the limitations of our "normal" interaction. It can be very confusing at first but with curiosity and a willingness to learn and adapt, the collaboration can work surprisingly well. 

The key is shifting our perception from disability to extrability.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Emotion and self-belief in online education

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Confidence and self-belief are crucial elements in education. Your emotional attitude to what you are studying can strongly influence your chances of success. We all remember subjects we hated at school and how that attitude was often formed by a simple dislike of the teacher who taught it or maybe the way the subject was taught. Or the classroom, or your classmates; the list goes on. Even the most pedagogical and well-planned lessons can go wrong if the student simply doesn't feel like working today. It's a wickedly difficult factor to influence since emotion is so often irrational and unpredictable.

There has been considerable research in the role of emotions in online education, for example the work of Martha Cleveland-Innes and Prisca Campbell, relating emotional presence to the wider community of inquiry model (see Cleveland-Innes, M., & Campbell, P. (2012). Emotional presence, learning, and the online learning environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(4), 269-292.). They define the concept as:

Emotional presence is the outward expression of emotion, affect, and feeling by individuals and among individuals in a community of inquiry, as they relate to and interact with the learning technology, course content, students, and the instructor.
Online learning can be very emotional, especially when tools and resources don't work as expected and when technical problems outweigh the actual learning experience. It's important therefore to build a community of trust in the group and acknowledge the emotional ups and downs. The teacher can turn frustration into more positive emotions by tackling issues with respect, humour and understanding. Timely support can also soothe student nerves. Students can also learn to help each other and offer emotional support - even a well-timed smiley can help.

Another aspect of emotion comes in a new report from College Innovation Network, The New Digital Divide: How EdTech Self-Efficacy is Shaping the Online Student Learning Experience in Higher Ed, showing how students' perception of their proficiency in using digital tools and platforms, their EdTech self-efficacy, determined to a large extent their experience of online education during the pandemic. Those with a positive experience of and attitude towards educational technology also felt positively about their online learning experience during the pandemic. Furthermore, those who attended institutions where online education and the use of digital tools and platforms were already established found the transition relatively simple and were very positive to how online teaching had contributed to their learning process. Those who lacked experience of online education or had low confidence in their ability to learn in an online environment struggled.

The results of the survey further show the impact of EdTech self-efficacy on the student learning experience. Students’ reports of their EdTech self-efficacy was the most robust predictor of how they reported on a variety of aspects of their online learning experience this past year, including whether they felt they were learning effectively in an online environment, and how academically prepared they felt for next year.

Another digital divide mentioned is that of access to and ownership of digital devices and broadband internet access. Here there is a clear divide where less privileged groups had difficulty accessing course material and were unable to fully participate in online activities because they couldn't afford the necessary subscriptions and devices. They suffer from both the lack of necessary technology and the lower self-esteem that results in.

When students are required to use new tools and software in their courses, they are not only learning new course content, but they are also learning how to use new EdTech. Our data show that substantial portions of students struggled to learn how to use new EdTech in their courses. It’s important to realize that the introduction of new EdTech results in a dual learning experience for students. This can be beneficial as students are learning how to use new technologies, but it is important to design courses to incorporate proper instruction of new technologies to students, and ensure that all students have the digital literacy skills they need to succeed in courses.

This may seem obvious but we need to be reminded of the digital divide that is present in most institutions and how this links to self-esteem and confidence. How many students drop out due to low self-esteem and lack of experience? How does previous bad experience of online education affect future performance? When faced with a difficulty a common reaction is to say "I knew I wasn't good enough to do this sort of course" and drop out. We need to learn to meet these pre-conceptions from the start and create a sense of trust in the group where concerns can be raised and resolved with understanding and respect. Often it's not simply technical issues but emotional responses that can be most damaging to the student's learning journey.

An article in Inside Higher EdWho Are the Students Struggling With Online Learning?, comments on the CIN report by advising that teachers spend time with a class discussing previous experience of educational technology and making sure that there is adequate support in helping them get familiar with the platforms and tools used on the course. Obviously this also means designing the course to avoid tech overload and providing scaffolding and support for the technology that is used on the course. Many students face a double learning load - the course content plus the course platform and tools. Recognition of the power of emotional presence can be decisive.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Commuting to a zoom meeting - back to work but not quite

Photo by Jose Losada on Unsplash
After so many months of Zoom meetings (or Teams/Google Meet etc) we are now trying to grapple with the novelty of being back in the office. The trouble is that many of the old routines now seem rather inefficient, especially meetings. Of course it's good to see colleagues again and we have all missed the social interaction around physical meetings but I suspect many people will want very convincing reasons to come to a physical meeting in future. Online meetings are generally more efficient and you don't have all the transition time of going from place to place.

One colleague who helps students with special needs said that her level of service had increased while working from home because she could help more students, no matter where they were, and could schedule meetings more tightly than office appointments. It also levelled the playing field for online students and this is important to remember as we move back to campus. Classes and meetings held in Zoom give all participants the same conditions (all can be seen and heard and have access to the chat) whilst hybrid setups nearly always give an advantage to those who are on-site. If we're going to normalise hybrid teaching all students must feel fully included in the session.

However, video meetings can present a problem to all who work in an open plan office. Conditions are not ideal and to get privacy or sometimes even reliable bandwidth many people prefer to take such meetings from home to minimise the risk of disturbance as in this post in Inside Higher EdZooming From the Office.

I knew something was different when I had to leave work early to get home in time for a Zoom meeting.
That happened last week a few times. I had 5:30 Zoom calls several nights in a row, and I live about a half hour from campus. So I left a little early in order to be able to be online in time to keep working into the evening.
Until 2020, that paragraph wouldn’t have made any sense. Yet, here we are.

Similarly absurd is commuting to the office to take part in a succession of video meetings. I used to do that most days before the pandemic but now I will think twice. 

Another feature of tha past year has been having to experience major life events by Zoom: special birthdays, graduations, new grandchildren, weddings, funerals. Another article in Inside Higher Ed, by Leah Blatt Glasser, Zooming Into Retirement, describes the poignant experience of watching the students in her last lesson before retirement disappear one after the other on her Zoom screen. Same for her farewell to her colleagues. Somehow the closing of video windows and finally being alone on the screen says a lot about today's society.

Retiring on Zoom has been one of the strangest experiences I’ve had in all my years at Mount Holyoke College. The rituals of on-campus toasts, collegial hugs, fond farewells, expressions of mutual gratitude, even love, were all postponed indefinitely. What I had at this critical moment of parting was my computer screen. It was all so unreal that even now, several months after that last class, I find it hard to grasp that I did, in fact, retire.

The pandemic has been an emergency situation and digital media at least kept us together and allowed contact that in former times would not have been possible except by letter. However, we have also learnt that online communication can increase accessibility, equity and flexibility and so when we organise physical events in future we need to consider who is excluded and use digital media to widen access.  

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Being there - that feeling we can't achieve online

Photo by Aranxa Esteve on Unsplash

No matter how many amazing new platforms and tools for online events we create, none of them really match the feeling of physically being there. The online event can actually be more flexible, more interactive, more inclusive and offer higher quality video and audio than sitting at the back of a hot and stuffy lecture theatre but it can't match that feeling of presence. It's the same with TV coverage of concerts and sporting events. You can sit at home and watch it all in super high-definition quality with surround sound, close-ups, slow motion replays, commentary and analysis but the sad truth is that you weren't really there. There are no credibility points for saying that you saw it on TV. I've been to many memorable events where I couldn't see or hear the action very well, was packed in a sweaty and noisy crowd, had great difficulty getting there and getting away afterwards (endless queues, pushing, noise, waiting) but I can always boast that I was there and that's what impresses people later on. That feeling of being part of something, an exclusive community, cannot be underestimated. That's why people will still pay extortionate amounts of money to attend events that are broadcast live. Feelings are worth more than quality. Even if there are billions of photos and films from all angles of, say, the Taj Mahal, I would still take at least a hundred more just to show that I have also been there.

If we think of academic conferences and events there are digital solutions for almost all the usual activities. You can mingle and network using platforms like SpatialChat, Wonder or Gather, use Zoom for plenary sessions and group discussions, create exciting virtual world conference or exhibition centres with Virbela or Virtway, go on virtual city tours, sightseeing with Google Streetview, have immersive virtual reality meetings in Spatial and so on. The list of platforms is impressive and is growing weekly so logically there should be no reason to return to on-site events. In addition, the environmental arguments against returning to large on-site conferences are overwhelming. 

But no matter how much we can achieve online we will still want to meet at a physical location. The need to be there is all about intangible factors: emotion, atmosphere, sense of belonging, sense of space. We can achieve a lot online but maybe we have to accept that some elements will always be missing.


Saturday, September 11, 2021

Down the rabbit hole - in search of the unexpected

Photo by Victor Larracuente on Unsplash

Remember the days when everyone talked about surfing the net? You used to just search for something and then follow links that could take you almost anywhere - you just clicked where your fancy might take you. It was all so new and I loved just exploring what was out there. I used to enjoy playing with a tool called Stumbleupon that sadly disappeared in 2018. It was a non-search engine and the principle was simple: click and off you go to a completely random web page. Most results were useless, some downright bizarre and now and again you would stumble upon something really interesting. That was the fascination - the promise of serendipity, meeting the unexpected. A similar desire makes us scroll endlessly on today's social media - the best post ever is just a bit further down the feed. The difference is that in social media that feed is determined by algorithms and artificial intelligence rather than luck.

But in the past week I have discovered a couple of interesting sites that retain a sense of serendipity. Firstly there is a site called The Forest. It's just an almost empty screen with a link to press, Go for a walk, and off you go. Each time you click on the link you find a new page. Keep pressing until you discover something interesting. I hope that the search is indeed random but there is very little background information on the site except the simple mission statement.

What used to be a wild trip through stormy waters has now become a journey on a cruise ship where everything is planned and there's no longer place for craziness.
This site is our attempt try bring some of that unpredictability back.
The next rabbit hole can be just one click away so click that button, go for a walk and enjoy getting lost on the web.

My first trips down this rabbit hole led me to something interesting after only a few attempts and it was a site that also fits in with this retro theme. I discovered the Plain Text Project, a site promoting the benefits of plain text on the web. No fancy graphics, no pop-ups, no photos, no design, just plain text.

The Plain Text Project is here to help you figure out if working in plain text and living a plain text life is right for you. In this space, I share ideas, tips, and techniques. I explain how to meld plain text into your life. I try to share my love of working in plain text with you.

Another rabbit hole site that caught my eye this week was the product of the pandemic lockdown. WindowSwap was designed by a couple in Singapore during the lockdown to relieve the boredom of looking out of the same window day after day. People all over the world now send in videos taken from their windows showing a sample of everyday life. When you feel like a new view on your screen just click and you go to a random view. Keep clicking till you find one that interests you. Some are from exotic locations but most are very ordinary: someone's garden, the street outside, a patio, a lawn, trees. Some have lots of people or cars passing by, whilst in others absolutely nothing happens. I love it.

WindowSwap is a place on the internet where people from around the world share the view from their windows to help someone else relax, focus, meditate and travel without moving.
It’s here to fill that deep void in our wanderlust hearts by allowing us to look through someone else's window, somewhere in the world.

The joy of unexpected distractions. 

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Online versus campus - comparing apples and pears

Photo by Melanie Dijkstra on Unsplash

My last post reflected on why we should stop trying to prove that online teaching is more or less effective than campus teaching. A more detailed discussion on this theme is provided in an excellent review of recent comparative studies by Tony BatesResearch showing that virtual learning is less effective than classroom teaching – right? He lists 14 recent studies comparing student performance in online and in-person courses, some of which were carried out during the pandemic period. Most show that students' test results were lower in online courses and especially so for students from less academically prepared students. However the differences were not substantial, often 5-10% lower in online courses and most importantly there is little attention paid to the sort of online teaching that was offered. 

Most studies describe online courses that mirror the campus version with a predominance of recorded lectures and asynchronous discussion forum interaction. However, there are so many more variables to consider in both delivery modes: expectations management, scaffolding, community building, group work, social interaction, teacher presence, course structure, clear objectives, feedback methods, assessment, use of media, accessibility etc. Poor course design and lack of timely feedback and support can damage both online and in-person learning. It's not about a face-off between one delivery mode and another to see which is best.

These papers looked at many different variables, such as type of student, differences between subject areas, even how far from the campus students lived, but none of them looked at the most important variable: the method of teaching. How were the online courses designed? What teaching method was used in the classroom? Are we comparing online video lectures with the same on-campus lectures or are we comparing asynchronous online courses with synchronous classroom lectures? 

The cited studies are all serious research and will no doubt be cited by many especially when assessing the results of the emergency online teaching during the pandemic. However, Bates advises caution on reading too much into the findings since the studies omit so many important factors in the quality of online education. 

The studies clearly suggest that if you just move traditional classroom teaching online, many students, especially the most disadvantaged, will do less well than if they were in class. The results overall are not disastrous, though. Performance or retention is about 5%-10% poorer in most cases, although somewhat higher for some disadvantaged students.

During the past year the choice has been between online education or no teaching at all and the results should be seen in that light. Given that the online teaching on offer was not always fully designed for online delivery and that both teachers and students were unprepared for the challenges of such a transition, there results were actually rather impressive. We also have to remember that online education opens the door to higher education to millions of people who are unable to move to a campus city. For them there is no choice. We must make sure that the online education we offer is fit for purpose and designed professionally. 

But read Tony Bates' article for more insight.

 

Friday, August 20, 2021

Instruction or inquiry-based learning - it's not a choice

Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash

Why do we keep believing in simple solutions to complex problems or that there is one best way to do something? This is sadly true in education where we should really know better by now. What is the best method/platform/tool for learning? Is online better or worse than classroom? Is group work better than self study? The answer is nearly always "it depends" but the comparisons and competition go on anyway. 

One of these debates is about the value of collaborative learning compared to the more traditional individual approach. Genuine collaboration, where a group works together to solve a problem by sharing knowledge, peer reviewing and discussing issues, is a powerful learning experience. But at the same time there are many pitfalls with many groups failing to reach the required level of mutual trust and respect to collaborate effectively. Groups who lack the critical level of knowledge and experience will often fumble, argue and fail or arrive at completely false conclusions. Learning to collaborate effectively is a lengthy process and needs to be guided and scaffolded by examples and feedback. Far too much group work in education can be seen as ineffective "busy work" that may look creative and engaging but does not really foster learning. 

There's an interesting critique of collaborative learning in a post by Zach GroshellDo We Learn Best Collaboratively or Individually? He examines in particular a study from 2017, Can collaborative learning improve the effectiveness of worked examples in learning mathematics?, comparing students' performance in maths using traditional worked examples with individual study to collaborative problem-solving. Here the traditional approach was found to be more effective though collaborative work was sometimes effective for low complexity problems. 

Once again it's not a competition between two approaches; it's about when and how to use them. Collaboration requires experience and knowledge and is probably not going to work in an introductory course unless very clearly guided. Once the students have learned the basics and know how and where to search for more information as well as how to critically assess the quality of the search results, then collaborative learning can work very well. However they also need to be guided through the skills of team building and group dynamics so that they can establish the trust and common purpose that is necessary to collaborate.

Providing students with examples is effective, withholding examples from students when they could benefit from them is bizarre and irresponsible, and if teachers want students to have a shot at making sense of the examples they’re provided, it’s probably best that they study them individually, away from the attentional competition and extraneous noise that is the group dynamic.

Another problem with criticism of collaborative or inquiry-based learning is the idea that the students are simply left to their own devices and the teacher takes a more or less passive role (guide on the side). Collaborative work is described several times as unguided and this is surprising since most research into collaborative learning emphasizes the need for careful management, scaffolding and feedback from the teacher. Collaboration is a skill to be learned, not a spontaneous activity and this means careful guidance.

There's a good summary of the advantages and the pitfalls of inquiry-based learning in a couple of posts by Kath MurdochInquiry learning: Pitfalls and perspectives part 1 and part 2. She recognizes the arguments in favour of a traditional approach but also demonstrates the strengths of inquiry when it is well-supported and scaffolded by the teacher. 

When understood well, inquiry learning actually demands careful design of authentic learning experiences, attention to existing schema, deft questioning, ongoing assessment, the cultivation of curiosity and the ability to plan and teach through concepts. The teacher’s role is critical.
The key once again is that learning is a complex process with so many variables and there is never only one "best" method no matter how much we wish for one. Teaching involves being able to choose the right mix of methods and tools for each learning situation, often offering alternative paths. Traditional instruction might work very well in certain situations and with some students, but will certainly not work for everyone, neither will any other method. This is well expressed in an article by Alan Reid (University of South Australia) in The Conversation, Teachers use many teaching approaches to impart knowledge. Pitting one against another harms education.

There’s a variety of useful teaching models — and this includes explicit instruction — which have been designed for different purposes. It is the educator’s task to select the most appropriate given the context.

Creating simplistic binaries in a field as complex and nuanced as education impoverishes the debate.

We need more discussion about the art of designing courses using a broad template of methods and tools and less needless comparisons between A and B.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Whose normal do we go back to?

Photo by Smartworks Coworking on Unsplash

In comparisons between online and in-person communication we tend to assume that the in-person meeting is always best and that the online version is a limited substitute. After a year and a half of restrictions and lockdowns there is an understandable desire to get back to normal again and as a result that notion of normal gets idealised. Classroom interaction and in-person meetings are presented in glowing terms whilst online versions are often questioned. However, if you look back honestly you remember how so many in-person meetings and classes were extremely uninspiring and ineffective.

Online and in-person meetings provide different frameworks and affordances, but the success of these meetings is dependent on the planning and communication skills of the teachers/managers and participants. Being there in person is no guarantee of good communication. This is the gist of an excellent article by Elizabeth Stokoe and colleagues, Is communicating in person the “gold standard”? You’re asking the wrong question.  

Communicating in person can also be highly unsatisfactory. We have all been in a terrible meeting, poor medical consultation, or a dire first date. Numerous books, articles and courses are dedicated to how to chair, participate in, and lead, an effective in-person meeting. Why? A meeting can ‘stink’ not because technology makes it hard for us to communicate, but because people are not trained in how to lead or participate in one — or are just poor communicators. Being co-present does not equate to or guarantee quality, inclusion, equality, satisfaction, productivity, interaction, engagement, or connection.

One of the most common complaints about online meetings is that we cannot see each other's body language but the article questions whether this is such a crucial factor. The body language argument has become a communication myth that has spread over the years thanks to misinterpretation and wishful thinking. Body language is a factor but not as major as we assume. In most physical meetings we all sit behind desks and can only see each other from the waist up, very similar to the view we get in online meetings. Of course we can make eye contact with each other in a way that is almost impossible in online meetings, but on the other hand online meetings compensate by using chat messages, emojis etc. Hybrid meetings are especially problematic since we are mixing the two modes and the risk of missing essential communication is high. There are differences between the modes but we are very resourceful in making the most of what is available. We have been using voice communication and radio for over a century and still do, despite the complete lack of body language.

It's not about the mode of communication but the skills of those using it. The key takeaway is this:

Good communication depends not on the modality or technology but on the communication skills of the people using it. We noted earlier that being in person is no guarantee of a high-quality interaction. Communication succeeds when everyone knows why they are talking and where there is parity of opportunity to participate.
Another issue is the language used to describe in-person meetings and work. An article by Joshua Kim in Inside Higher EdStop Using the Language of “Normal” for Face-to-Face Academic Work, questions the use of the word normal. What we consider normal work or education does not suit everyone and never has. Many people accepted it because there was no choice, but now that we have seen that many tasks can be performed as well if not better online then there are strong arguments against forcing a return to the office or campus. The rituals of office life need to be questioned and a more flexible approach is needed. Less commuting benefits the environment and the opportunity for more home working can increase productivity and efficiency. Physical presence does not always guarantee focused activity. Normality is in the eye of the beholder.
What needs to change is the language around work.

Let us all try to remember that what feels “normal” to many (especially many leaders) is particularly challenging for some.

Let us not devalue the lived experience of our colleagues who are more productive and happier when working from home.

And in recognition that “normal” means different things for different people, let us strive to listen to what many of our colleagues are telling us about where and how they wish to work.

Instead of going back to normal we need to move forward to something different. The climate, environment and society depends on it.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Webinar recordings - what's missing?

Photo by Samantha Borges on Unsplash
The past couple of years have seen an explosion in the number of webinars aimed at educators. Many of these are recorded and many recordings get many more views than the original live session. However, watching a recording is a very different experience to participating live. Live webinars feature interactive elements like chat, polls and external tools and those are generally missing from the recordings. What's left is the content minus a lot of the discussion. Here are a few thoughts on what's missing and suggestions on how to make recordings more valuable.

Chat.
In many webinars the chat contains valuable comments, links and information that offer added value. It's a space to share ideas and experience and sometimes the chat is more interesting than the speaker. I used to use Adobe Connect and there the chat is included in the recording, raising the value considerably, often including lots of valuable links to related articles and projects. Some people focused on the chat during the live session and watched the recording to hear what the speakers said. However in Zoom the chat is not included in the recording and as a result an important element of the webinar communication is lost. I can understand that including the chat in the recording requires the approval of all participants and that this was not fully respected before. You can, of course, download a text file of the chat but that needs to be edited and converted so that the links become active and unnecessary comments removed. I would like to see the return of the chat window in the recording, maybe with the option to anonymise the names of those commenting.

Context
Participants' anonymity in recordings is important but it can backfire. In Zoom recordings the names of those who appear are hidden and so it's not always clear who is speaking. You see the face and hear the voice but who is it? Another issue is that the speakers refer to comments in the chat that viewers of the recording cannot see or the results of a poll that are invisible in the recording. That's why it's important to read out the comment first before answering it. It's very frustrating to hear comments like "Thanks for that insightful comment Anna" and not tell us what the comment was. Many presenters are unaware that the results of a poll are not shown in the recording so please avoid saying, "as you can see from the poll results ..." Awareness of what is recorded and what it will look like is essential.

Video
It's important to be aware of what is being recorded. Whoever initiates the recording must make sure that they stay in speaker view so that the speaker is in focus. It's easy to forget this and by accident you show the full gallery of participants in the recording with the risk that one of them does something distracting, forgetting that they are in full view. At the same time it can also be effective to switch briefly to gallery view at some point to show viewers of the recording that there were many people present in the session. That requires the consent of the participants of course but it gives a sense of community to the recording, that you are part of an event. Otherwise the recording can be focused on one face for lengthy periods and there is no sense that anyone else was present.

Editing
Many of us tend to just upload an unedited recording and share the link. Watching a recording means that you often have to press the forward wind button to skip the small talk and transitions. An edited version of maybe 25 minutes with the key points would be the best option and get more attention than a long and 60 minutes, warts and all. Watch a recording and you'll be surprised how much time is spent on pleasantries, introductions and transitions. Important for the flow of the live event but irrelevant in the recording. An edited version should also include captioning. All that takes time of course, something that most teachers lack, but the value of the recording is increased significantly.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Digital resilience - navigating a myriad of tools and platforms

Photo by Matt Walsh on Unsplash
Digital resilience for me is the ability to adapt in a digital world: being able to use a variety of devices, tools and platforms and being able to carry out standard checks and routines when something doesn't work as expected. Vendors always claim their products to be intuitive and user-friendly but that only applies when you've learned how to use them. That resilience has been tested to the limit during the pandemic as we all work from home and are completely dependent on all our digital devices, tools and spaces.

Most organisations offer staff a limited but structured range of digital tools and platforms for everyday use. Those are maintained, regularly tested and updated and there is support, backup and security for all. Even within the organisation the range can be wide enough to cause confusion, but as soon as you start working with external partners the complexities increase. Most days I move relatively nimbly between the university's platforms to all sorts of external ones. Meetings are mostly in Zoom but also in Teams or Google Meet or even Skype. I have contacts spread over e-mail, Zoom chat, Whatsapp, Messenger, Twitter, Facebook groups, Slack as well as various discussion forums. I share documents in Microsoft 365, Box and Google Drive. The list goes on. Navigating all these takes time and energy and maybe our overflowing toolboxes are an energy drain rather than an advantage. 

The more tools we use the more inefficient we get and this is the gist of an article in TechRepublic, Remote working technology is creating a productivity nightmare. It describes results from a survey produced by Cornell University and QatalogWorkgeist Report ‘21, that investigated over 1,000 employees' attitudes to the plethora of digital tools used during the home working period of the last year. The price of this digital diversity has been high with 43% of those surveyed saying that they spend too much time switching between tools and using up to an hour every day checking for and answering messages on different platforms.

As a result, employees are wasting up to five hours every week switching between different digital tools, cycling through tabs and digging through messaging channels. It's also fuelling workplace slip-ups, with 48% of respondents admitting to making mistakes as a result of being unable to keep track of what's going on across different channels.

The report claims that productivity tools are killing productivity with information and communication distributed over a growing number of platforms, tools and apps. Information often gets lost in e-mail conversations or in Slack groups that are simply invisible to everyone else. Restricted communication is of course essential but these spaces can sometimes hide important enclosed documents that are not stored anywhere else.

People are losing time scouring messaging channels, navigating project management boards, and digging through cloud storage systems. They spend about of their typical workday doing this; it’s time that could be better spent doing focussed work like designing a new product or getting user feedback.

Some people take a dislike to their organisation's recommended tool and decide to use an alternative. This tool may well suit their purpose but using it means that the information shared there is invisible to the rest of the organisation. Important information risks being stored in silos that only a few people know about. According to Tariq Rauf, CEO and founder of Qatalog, in the TechRepublic article:
There's been an explosion in the number of apps we rely on to do our jobs, but the result isn't greater productivity – it's total chaos. ... No matter their individual merits, each tool is adding to a noisy digital environment that is, quite literally, driving workers to distraction. The more time that we waste on this mess, the less we have for deep thought and meaningful engagement with our colleagues.
The report offers recommendations to organisations on how to streamline their use of digital tools and find smarter solutions that facilitate transparency and ease of use. However, the problem for many of us remain - no matter how well-planned your internal communication channels are, whenever you step outside and work with external partners your collection of tools starts growing again. While we wait for the ultimate solution (Godot 2.0?) we will need to become even more resilient.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Busyness and the quest for approval

Is the cult of busyness in danger of dying out at last in the wake of the pandemic? Being extremely busy has been a status symbol for many years and social media have been full of busy people proudly telling everyone else how busy they are. It's a lifestyle that is reflected and spurred by popular culture presenting role models who effortlessly combine extremely demanding careers with family, ambitious building and renovation projects, vibrant social life, hobbies and work for charity. Holidays are as filled with activity as working days and just hanging around doing nothing special is not an option. This stress is not always due to pressure from employers, much of it is self-imposed in an attempt to prove your worth and gain approval. Social media have flourished as a channel for this.

The potential demise of this frenzied lifestyle is discussed in an article by Shayla Love in Vice magazineThe cult of busyness. Busyness is full of paradoxes.Those who are most proud of their busyness are those who could easily afford to take it easy but seek status by being constantly booked up and stressed. Those who are poorer don't see their lack of time as a status symbol - for them it's the only way to make ends meet in a gig economy where one job is never enough.

Busyness is a powerful social signal, though a somewhat counterintuitive one. At the turn of the 20th century, economists predicted that the ultimate symbol of wealth and success would be leisure—showing others that you were so successful that you could abstain from work. Instead, the opposite occurred. It’s not free time, but busyness, that gestures to a person’s relevance.

The education sector is particularly afflicted with busyness. In higher education the pressure to design and run courses as well as conducting research, writing articles and applying for funding means that many are putting in far more working hours than they will ever be paid for. Sadly many posts in social media glorify this kind of lifestyle and create a culture of guilt among those who can't match the extreme productivity of those who post that over the weekend they have graded so many exam papers, applied for research funding, written a new book chapter and had a fun day out with the family. Stress creates stress and becomes a hamster wheel that we can't escape from.

The past year has forced many to reconsider their busyness. When you work from home and there are no events or meetings to rush to there is suddenly more time available. You realise how much of your working days were spent in transit to meetings or classes. The article describes the process of deceleration where the number of busy activities is drastically reduced and there is more time to focus on what's left. Many people realise that they don't want to go back to commuting to the office, drinking coffee on the go or eating lunch in front of a screen. 

I can't see us completely abandoning busyness, but a slower lifestyle has at least gained approval and there are more status updates in social media showing more relaxing activities like walks in the country, gardening or other hobbies. Even when we return to our offices I suspect there will be new routines and many of us will not want to go there every day. Pressures will remain but if we can at least think twice before we post updates boasting of how many tasks we have completed today that will be an improvement. Think what effect your update will have on others and tag down a bit. Share your good moments but not your stress.

Will these changes stick? Or will we go right back to worshipping busyness at the cost of everything else? Bellezza isn’t as optimistic about deceleration replacing busyness as the leading social status signal, but she acknowledged that when she started studying busyness, there wasn’t any discussion about deceleration at all. She’s glad it’s entered the conversation, and tries to practice deceleration in her own life.

A final thought. This phenomenon is of course available to people in well-paid stable jobs that allow the freedom to choose how they work. Most people don't have the option. We need to remember that before we generalise about the future of work. But that's another topic.