Sunday, April 30, 2023

To fail is human - let's share and learn from it

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

Behind every success there are lots of failures. Papers that never got published, projects that didn't get funded, courses that flopped, examinations failed, opportunities missed and so on. It happens to everyone but is seldom talked about or analysed. The success cult promoted on sites like LinkedIn shows a steady stream of successful people doing great things (more often than not "awesome"). Rather than being inspired I have often been a bit depressed when scrolling through all the success stories. It's a similar feeling at conferences which are also celebrations of success. I don't mean that we shouldn't celebrate success, but there are also lessons to be learned from less successful activities, since we can all relate to them. We may not feel we have ever reached the successful heights of the best practice cases but we can all identify with schemes that didn't win any silverware. But it's so hard to get people to share those experiences - it takes courage to admit your failures. But we could learn a lot by sharing these examples and discussing how we could improve. Most importantly hearing that even the most respected educators have failed many times in the careers.

This is the gist of a nice article by Tracy Nevatte in Times Higher EducationLead by example and share your failures. She calls on senior academics to share their failures and how they contributed to later success. Many young researchers and teachers despair at repeated rejections and wonder if they are really cut out for a career in education and an opportunity to be rassured that everyone has felt like that at some point can be more inspiring than listening to stories of constant success.

We rarely see senior academics share their failures, either with each other or with those at the start of their careers, but their career trajectory is undoubtedly full of them. Do they not share these stories because they’re ashamed or, rather, do they not see them as failures in the first place? The latter seems more likely. Only when we normalise failure, and take the isolating power of it away, can failures equal success. But it’s going to take effort from early career researchers, research leaders, institutions and funders to get there.
There are indeed failure conferences, sharing experience and discussing how to improve. See Failcon for example. I've never managed to attend one but wish I had been able to. It's not easy, however, to attract speakers who are willing to talk about their less successful ventures and you certainly don't get any career points for doing so. Being a keynote speaker at a failure conference would not be something to post on LinkedIn. But we need to remove the shame and stigma and dare to share. Realising the even the top practitioners have a long string of flops behind them can reassure many who feel like giving up. By opening up like this and discussing our shortcomings we can also move away from the toxic overworking culture that has so often been spread on social media with people bragging about the unfeasibly long hours they spend working on their projects, papers, course design and project applications.

This post was written without any contribution from AI. I wonder if AI can discuss its own vulnerability ...

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Self-assessment of digitally enhanced learning and teaching - overcoming inertia

Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash

The pandemic threw all educational institutions into the deep end of the educational technology pool. Adapting to what was for most institutions a relatively new form of teaching and learning was a traumatic but also transformative experience. In the wake of that experience the most obvious strategy was to take stock and make a thorough review of what worked, what didn't work and how to improve in terms of using digital technology. In an increasingly unstable and unpredictable world the likelihood of further crises is extremely high and therefore the need to ensure that education can quickly adapt.

There is no shortage of research, reports, guidelines, tools, webinars and conferences to help educational institutions improve their use of educational technology in teaching and learning. Organisations like the European Commission, EUA (European University Association), EDEN (European Distance and E-learning Network) and many others have run projects, produced reports and run dozens of webinars and conferences all based on extensive research but somehow they seldom result in major changes on the ground. It's not simply about the adotpion of technology, that is really not the main point, it is a change towards more inclusive and active forms of teaching and learning. It's about learning to learn by active involvement in meaningful collaborative work where technology is an enabling factor. But the main barrier is the reluctance to change from the traditional information transfer model that so many people feel comfortable with and which is perceived as effective and indeed symbolic of higher education.

An excellent way to move towards this is to look carefully at how technology is used in the institution today and how this contributes to a more holistic view of teaching and learning - a process of self-assessment. This has been the focus of a recent EUA project, DIGI-HE that I have been involved in (on the advisory board). The project has included numerous studies, consultations and thematic peer groups reaching a broad range of educational institutions and in various disciplines. One report in particular offers a comprehensive overview of the wide range of self-assessment tools available and advise on their use: Developing a high performance digital education ecosystem - Institutional self-assessment instruments.

Set against this prerogative and growing strategic interest, this report presents a review of 20 instruments from around the globe designed for self-assessment of digitally enhanced learning and teaching at higher education institutions. It offers a number of insightful observations concerning their use (or non-use) by institutions for promoting both quality enhancement and digital capacity development. It should be of immediate interest to higher education institutions, but also to policy makers, developers of instruments, and generally, to all those who seek information on such instruments.

The project also produced a MOOC on FutureLearnInside Digital Higher Education: Self-Assessment Guide for Educators. Here institutional leaders are taken through the process of reviewing the institution's current strategies and planning for a self-assessment, looking at both risks and opportunities. The course was run during the spring but is available as an asynchronous self-study course. This is a good springboard to kick-start a change process and the project's various reports provide further guidance and inspiration from institutions who have already started their transformation process. 

This is one example of the abundance of the guidance and support available for digital transformation and pedagogical development but as the saying goes: you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. Despite the clear benefits of conducting a self-assessment there seems to be a great reluctance to do so, despite the lessons of the pandemic and the abundance of research into active collaborative learning. The first barrier is the abundance of tools that creates anxiety on which one to choose. Faced with too much choice we simply don't make a choice. I think we all experience feelings like this in our daily lives when faced with the myriad of choices available in everything between insurance to telecom providers. It seems that we all suffer from inertia when it comes to actions that threaten our comforable balance. 

Self-assesment also demands a lot of time and energy at a time when most people feel already stressed and overworked. It also risks exposing wasteful practices or inequalities in the present system and thus creating conflict. The pandemic was certainly disruptive (tragically so for millions around the world) and there were signs that we would need to rethink our structures and systems to adapt to new challenges. However, we seem to have simply reverted to old practices again without much reflection. Changing the way we live and work is too demanding so we return to the default. Thatä's why we can't expect too much of institutions to embark on such costly processes voluntarily (with a few exceptions). Governments and authorities need to help them find space and time for these processes and offer incentives for doing so. Then we can hopefully create some momentum that will generate interest and widen involvement.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Reading around the world, with a little help from my network

I read a lot; it goes with the job of course but even outside work I just keep reading. At the moment I'm busy with an extremely rewarding project to read at least one novel from every country I have visited, 56 in total. In view of the environmental impact of air travel, I can't hope for any more international travel unless overland, so I will now focus on travel in my own part of the world and appreciating my past travels. One way to do that is by reading.

The idea for my reading project came from Ann Morgan's inspirational book blog, A year of reading around the world, where she documents her quest to read a book from every country in the world in one year, all 195 of them - yes, even the Vatican City! I believe in setting achievable targets and decided to limit my total, but maybe once I've done them all I could just go on and see how far I get. To get the inside story of Ann's reading marathon you can watch the TED talk she gave a few years ago.

She reached out to her readers for tips on which books to choose and I decided to make use of my own network of educators around the world in the same way. I've written many times on the concept of personal learning networks and how my contacts have helped me in so many ways over the years, answering questions, recommending work literature and sharing practice. So this time I contacted them and asked for recommended reading from their countries. So most of my reading list has come from personal recommendations making the books even more special, reflecting both the country and the tastes of my friends.

I have also been a bit liberal with my definition of countries. Three of them are self-governing Nordic territories, Greenland, Faroe Islands and the Åland Islands, but they all have distinct histories and culture and deserve special status in my list. I have also included a country that no longer exists, East Germany (DDR), that I visited several times and also had its own literary culture far removed from that of  West Germany. Some countries like the UK, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, France, Russia and Germany were well covered before I even started but I was surprised to discover that I had never actually read anything from countries like Spain, Portugal or Italy (apart from Roman authors from 2,000 years ago). I've now got 16 left before I reach my goal. The trickiest hurdle to clear will be Liechtenstein since as far as I can see has no novelists who have been translated into English. I have a basic knowledge of German but have never studied it and couldn't tackle a novel. Even Ann Morgan had trouble with this one and in the end read a travel book about Tibet by an author from Liechtenstein. I am restricted to reading books in English or the Scandinavian languages though maybe with a bit of patience I could manage one in French.

We tend to be very ethnocentric in our reading. Most people focus on authors from their own country or from the homes of the major publishers: the USA and the UK. Only when the Nobel prize is announced each year do authors from other countries get a chance to be in the spotlight. Just reading one book from a country doesn't give me much insight to its culture but at least I have opened the door. In many cases I have found other books that I will hopefully follow up in the future.

Another aspect of this activity is that I am affirming my love of printed books. I have a lot of packed bookshelves in the house and this project is filling them to the last centimetre. Of course I could save space and time by reading them as e-books or even audio books but then I couldn't really see my collection. My bookshelves are like a trophy cabinet in the same way my record collection used to be. My disenchantment with the digital tsunami has lead me to return to reading printed material, even the daily newspaper in the letterbox.

After the sadness of my previous post I have decided that I want to keep this blog going but widen its horizons outside the confines of educational technology. I don't intend to turn it into a book blog but I think I may include posts that reflect on my reading in the footsteps of my travels.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Frozen in the headlights of AI

Photo by Eugene Triguba on Unsplash

This has been the longest break between blog posts since I started this in 2008. I've been busy with other things but I also have to admit that it's hard to find a topic that inspires me just now. My retirement last year has meant that I no longer spend hours reading reports, articles and news items in the field and I am not in direct daily contact with educators and researchers to provide input and inspiration. I am still taking short assignments but have no intention of returning to full-time work. A major reason for retiring early was that I realised that I had lost my enthusiasm for the field. Educational technology is all about big business and is dominated by a few global corporations profiting from all the data they acquire from students and teachers alike. Although there are still havens of openness and collaboration, most of the internet is controlled by the big five corporations and driven by greed. I'm not sure I want to continue encouraging the use of technologies that I'm feeling increasingly uncomfortable about. This theme has been well documented by Audrey Watters who after many years of exposing the myths and bluffs of the educational technology industry finally decided to leave the field completely and start a new life (see her present blog which today is about fitness and nutrition instead of technology).

I find myself frozen in the headlights of the AI juggernaut and realise that I don't have the curiosity and energy to find out more and test new opportunities. I see many colleagues presenting optimistic ideas for how we can use AI to benefit education and how tools like ChatGPT are simply the modern equivalents of the advent of the pocket calculator or the iPhone. Yes, there are certainly benefits to using AI in education as long as we do so with caution and as long as we have control over how the data gathered is stored and used in the future. But I can't see that happening when there are such overwhelming commercial interests involved. I see enormous potential for misuse in the form of surveillance, control, automation of skilled work and an explosion of fake news and propaganda. Stop the world, I want to get off.

I found some consolation reading Tony Bates' latest post, What are the main issues facing digital learning in the future?, where he announces that he will be scaling down his work in educational technology and citing AI as the insurmountable barrier. 

I could continue in the field and still contribute to the important but specific areas of online and digital learning, but AI is the deal breaker. I would have to work so hard to become expert in this area (and even then I may not have the mathematical skills), and it is now so critical to the future of digital learning that expertise and full understanding of AI and the issues around its use in post-secondary education and teaching are absolutely essential. I hope there are younger, brighter educators coming into the field who are willing to develop this area of expertise.

The challenge of learning about AI and its implications are one step too far for me too. AI is a complete game changer and if I am not willing to devote a lot of time to learning more about it, I don't think I can be relevant in the field anymore. So I'm unsure about the future of this blog which has been a part of my life for so long. I'll wait and see if I find new inspiration in the coming months and if not I can round it off with a review of what I have learned from the process.

Monday, February 6, 2023

Artificial intelligence - instant gratification but what do we learn?

Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

Artificial intelligence (AI) has become the default centre of attention in education this year with enthusiasts telling us to accept and even welcome it into our teaching and learning whilst sceptics are busy looking for tools that can detect AI-generated texts, videos and images in order to combat the expected wave of cheating. The tech giants are already on the case with Microsoft planning to embed ChatGPT and now Google has announced a launch of their version of the tool. There's big money to be made out there and lots of data to be harvested and distilled. 

Cheating in exams is probably the least of our worries. This eternal battle reminds me of the wonderful Spy versus spy cartoons in Mad magazine where two spies, identical except for one being dressed in white, the other in black, engage in a never-ending tit-for-tat battle using all sorts of secret weapons. Every new secret weapon prompts an even better anti secret-weapon weapon in a parody of the cold war antics of the USA and the USSR. In recent years we've had waves of plagiarism detection tools countered with essay mills where you can buy off-the-shelf essays or pay someong else to write it all for you. Interestingly the biggest vendor of plagiarism detection software Turnitin has announced its own AI-detection software. And so it goes on. It's time to break this war of attrition by changing to other forms of assessment based on personal reflection, interviews and projects. Many teachers have already made this transition. 

A more balanced response to AI in education appears in an article on SlateYou’re Not Going to Like How Colleges Respond to ChatGPT. The authors see the spy versus spy scenario as one orchestrated by the tech companies so that educators will feel forced to invest in AI detection software (you can bet your life that this will need to be updated regularly and create a never-ending income stream).

Whenever fears of technology-aided plagiarism appear in schools and universities, it’s a safe bet that technology-aided plagiarism detection will be pitched as a solution. Almost concurrent with the wave of articles on the chatbot was a slew of articles touting solutions. A Princeton student spent a chunk of his winter break creating GPTZero, an app he claims can detect whether a given piece of writing was done by a human or ChatGPT. Plagiarism-detection leviathan Turnitin is touting its own “A.I.” solutions to confront the burgeoning issue. Even instructors across the country are reportedly catching students submitting essays written by the chatbot. OpenAI itself, in a moment of selling us all both the affliction and the cure, has proposed plagiarism detection or even some form of watermark to notify people of when the tech has been used. Unfortunately, the tool released is, according to the company, “not fully reliable.”

Once again it's a case of whether we should develop new technologies just because we can and then let the world deal with the consequences. Who benefits? Certainly not educators or students but then again nobody asked us.

However, one thing we can be sure of is this: OpenAI is not thinking about educators very much. It has decided to “disrupt” and walk away, with no afterthought about what schools should do with the program.

The texts produced by AI are often impressive - articles with references, instant summaries, creative writing, poetry, programming - but the shortcomings are becoming clearer as people experiment more deeply. Basically it reformulates what it finds on the sources it trawls, including some that would not be considered reliable, and sometimes it simply makes a guess at an answer, as Maha Bali describes in How *Not* To Be Overly Impressed with #ChatGPT. These flaws make it untrustworthy at present but I suspect it will improve very rapidly.

Yes, it's impressive to get an instant blog post or essay but what do you learn from that? Isn't learning all about doing this ourselves: researching other sources, working out connections, following a train of thought and putting it all together in a coherant text? The instant answer teaches you nothing. There are no magic shortcuts to learning as we should have realised by now after so many commercially driven hype cycles around things like smartboards, iPads, MOOCs, virtual reality and so on. The learning process is complex and takes place in your head, irrespective of the gadgets you have available. The Slate article continues:

To outsource idea generation to an A.I. machine is to miss the constant revision that reflection causes in our thinking. Not to mention that the biggest difference between a calculator and ChatGPT is that a calculator doesn’t have to check its answer against the loud chaos of everything toxic and hateful that has ever been posted on the internet.

AI will soon be able to write fact and fiction, compose music, produce art works, write programs, design clothes, automatically translate from one language to another and much more. When all this has been automated what is left for us to do apart from endless consumption? We need to learn how to use AI for our benefit but focus more on our own creative energy and the value of learning for our own development. We must not simply accept technology just because it's there. 

It’s a failure of imagination to think that we must learn to live with an A.I. writing tool just because it was built.
AI is developing fast and I'm struggling to make some kind of sense of it and how it affects education. Please view this post as muddled work in progress.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

AI-driven voice simulation - do we really want to go there?

Photo by Aditya Saxena on Unsplash
The old saying that curiosity killed the cat seems to apply equally well to us. Even when we see the dangerous potential of new technology we just keep on developing it. We continued developing nuclear weapons even when we saw the devastation they caused and maybe our curiosity about artificial intelligence will lead us to new distasters. As I wrote in the last post we can't resist opening Pandora's box.

In the wake of the panic caused by ChatGPT (an excellent overview of what we know so far is in a post by Mark Brown, Ten facts about ChatGPT). I found an article in Ars technicaMicrosoft’s new AI can simulate anyone’s voice with 3 seconds of audio. Microsoft have seemingly developed an AI text-to-speech model called VALL-E that can simulate a voice based on a short recording. Presumably the more input it has the better it can simulate the voice. You can then let it read any text you wish in the voice of that person, thus enabling you to create fake statements. Even if you can certainly find beneficial uses for this, the potential for and consequences of misuse are terrifying.
Its creators speculate that VALL-E could be used for high-quality text-to-speech applications, speech editing where a recording of a person could be edited and changed from a text transcript (making them say something they originally didn't), and audio content creation when combined with other generative AI models like GPT-3.
At first the fakes will be detectable but the whole point of AI is that it will improve. Combining this with tools for text, photo and video generation and the potential for governments, corporations, political parties, extremists and conspiracy theorists is enormous. Just because we can develop this technology doesn't mean that we should, to paraphrase the famous quote from Jurassic Park. Do we really want to open this box? Can't we just step back?

Microsoft try to sound reassuring in the article but I don't think we are capable of following any principles, no matter how well intentioned.
"Since VALL-E could synthesize speech that maintains speaker identity, it may carry potential risks in misuse of the model, such as spoofing voice identification or impersonating a specific speaker. To mitigate such risks, it is possible to build a detection model to discriminate whether an audio clip was synthesized by VALL-E. We will also put Microsoft AI Principles into practice when further developing the models."'

So what happens when AI becomes increasingly smarter and we can no longer trust what we read, hear or see? In case you wondered, I actually wrote this myself. 

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Artificial intelligence - opening Pandora's box

It has been a while since I last wrote here due to life events taking precedence. Meanwhile the world of educational technology has been buzzing about the advent of the AI application ChatGPT. This is a more user-friendly upgrade of GPT that I wrote about back in October, The end of the essay? Ask ChatGPT a question and you'll get a very plausible and often accurate answer, in most languages. There are lots of interesting reviews out there and we're all trying to digest the potential consequences this will have for education. For example have a look at a post by Tony BatesPlaying with ChatGPT: now I’m scared (a little), where he analyses the tool's answers to questions in his own field of expertise. 

Of course the main topic for the media has been how students can use this to cheat without the risk of running foul of anti-plagiarism tools. Why do we always assume the worst in our students? I've seen calls to return to the exam hall with paper and pencil examinations (though some institutions have never left this scenario) and speculation on tools that can detect AI-generated text (it takes a thief to catch a thief I suppose). But these are futile attempts to stop the tide and it is vital that educators and decision makers keep up with the development of AI and find strategies to use it wisely. There are several good articles about how to use ChatGPT in your teaching, for example Ryan Watkins'Update Your Course Syllabus for chatGPT. Tips include asking students to fact check and improve on the tool's answers to questions and using other media for assignments such as mindmaps, podcasts and video at least until AI can generate even those!).

There are of course limitations with ChatGPT. According to a presentation by Torrey Trust, ChatGPT and education, the tool is not actually connected to the internet and cannot access texts and information from later than 2021. I assume that this is a temporary inconvenience and we can count on more advanced versions and competitors very soon. In addition the tool collects data from all its users that can then be shared with third parties (surprise surprise!). So before using this with students you'll bneed to discuss the privacy implications, as well as the implications for their own learning.

Just because the tool produces plausible and accurate answers to a lot of questions it can also pick up biases from texts it analyses and in some cases can provide false or misleading information, even backed up by non-existent sources, as shown in an article by Lucas Ropek in Gizmodo, How to Talk to ChatGPT, the Uncanny New AI-Fueled Chatbot That Makes a Lot of Stuff Up.

However, there is a bizarre exception to the program’s automated smoothness. The part where things get slightly uncanny (and, in this writer’s opinion, more creepy) is when the chatbot makes mistakes. The reason this is so weird is that instead of just short-circuiting or spitting out an automated response like “Error” or “Please Try Again” when it doesn’t know something, ChatGPT actually makes something up. Often this thing is a rough approximation of the correct answer. This is weird because it’s also what humans tend to do, conversationally. Unsure of how to answer a particular question or address a topic, most people try to bullshit their way out of it. Well, so does ChatGPT.

In some cases it will admit its limitations, for example when asked to make predictions, summarise texts or make personal reflections, but many writers have found it worryingly good at providing flawed answers. The danger is that we trust AI too much and assume it knows everything. Using it in say health care, social work and employment would seem to be asking for trouble.

Then we have the thorny issue of copyright. Who owns the texts produced by AI and how can they be cited? Does the person who wrote the prompt have copyright, or the programmers who devised the tool, or the owner of the company? Jonathan Binns (The impact of AI on copyright law) asked ChatGPT what the impact of AI would be on UK copyright law and got this answer:
It is difficult to predict the exact impact that AI will have on copyright law in the UK. However, it is likely that the use of AI in creative industries, such as music and art, will raise questions about the ownership of works created by AI. There may also be discussions about whether AI itself can hold copyrights for works it creates. It is possible that the UK government will need to update copyright laws to address these issues.
AI is also making a big impact on creative industries like music. ChatGPT and other tools can write song lyrics to order in seconds in the style of any famous artist. Music generator tools are already producing songs, jingles and soundtracks and although they are hardly masterpieces they certainly threaten a lot of people's livelihoods, as described in an article in Billboard, What Happens to Songwriters When AI Can Generate Music? and in a video by Rick Beato, How Auto-Tune DESTROYED Popular Music. The point in Beato's video is that since so much popular music over the last 20 years has been increasingly computer-generated the jump to AI may not be noticed.

All this raises so many questions about the future of education and work and we are only glimpsing the start of AI's development. We have opened Pandora's box and, as in the myth, it will be impossible to close it again. There are many exciting uses but the opportunities for manipulating between fact and fiction are clearly enormous to the point that it may soon be impossible to distinguish between them. What happens when we can't trust anything? I am not confident that we are able to handle the genie we have created.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Back to campus - the intangible assets matter

Photo by Loïc Fürhoff on Unsplash

The pandemic revealed cracks in the value of the campus and physical work spaces that are now being hastily papered over as most institutions revert to business as usual. But we have shown that courses can be successfully run online and staff are able to do most if not all of their work from home. Many staff and students are keen to continue working online, at least a few days a week. Some institutions are offering hybrid/hyflex teaching with students able to choose between online or on-site participation. They also allow staff to choose whether they wish to work from home or from the office, in agreement with their boss and colleagues. However, other institutions have reverted to campus-only teaching and insist on staff (usually administrative staff) being physically on campus.

This creates tensions. If a significant number of staff and students choose not to go to campus so often the sense of community offered by the campus is diminished. Management naturally want to make optimal use of their expensive and often recently built or refurbished campus facilities. They are caught in a difficult position where offering flexibility is clearly positive but will result in a sparsely populated campus that will become increasingly unattractive. At the same time forcing everyone back to campus will sow dissatisfaction and create negative publicity. 

So what is the value of the physical campus and what is missing in the digital campus? This is discussed in an article by Jasmine Price, Donna Lanclos and Lawrie Phipps, COVID, Campus, Cameras, Communication, and Connection, in the Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning. They interviewed students (undergraduates and post-graduates) about their learning experience during the pandemic and how they feel about returning to campus. The difficulties that arose during the terms of enforced home study are familiar from many other studies but the core of the article is about how the online experience has affected student attitudes to the physical campus. Online lectures work well, as do most administrative routines, but somehow the online environment lacks soul, presence, ambiance, a sense of fun, being part of something. These intangible factors are central to being able to identify as a student.
We found that, for the students we spoke to, a return to campus implied access to fun, spontaneity and interaction with peers, lecturers, and other staff members. Even as students did talk about the flexibility that online places and platforms afforded them around attending lectures, and taking exams, they also highlighted their need for the physical spaces of the university campus to facilitate their focus, as key locations for group work (particularly important in undergraduate second years), and for socializing.
The digital spaces work well for some things. Chat groups on Whatsapp and suchlike offer instant interaction and a sense of group identity, course material is always accessible and online meetings became valuable after an initial period of trial and error. However, the digital campus still lacks a sense of place and social interaction. The digital spaces are somehow fragmented and support services that are visible on campus are hidden online. 
The digital campus, as yet still feels difficult and obscured for some students, lacking the well-established paths and cues that are familiar on a physical campus.For the digital campus to realize the potential and possibilities exhibited on the physical campus, universities need to find ways of enabling greater transparency so that students can tell where the pathways are to meet and engage with their peers, and with staff who can teach and otherwise support them. If we are going to continue to cycle through times when we are only in digital places for university education --and it looks like that is likely--we must find ways to make visible and accessible the entirety of the potential support network.

The students did not really miss the lecture halls and classrooms during the pandemic. That part worked well online. What they missed were the intangible assets of the campus - a sense of belonging.

Monday, November 28, 2022

From lecture to story-telling

Photo by Dom Fou on Unsplash

During my schooldays and even at university I believed that I would be assessed on how well I remembered what the teachers told us in class. We were lead to believe that anything the teacher "went through" in class could come up in the exam. What we read in our textbooks was supplementary knowledge. The teacher probably also felt obliged to cover all possible questions to avoid accusations after the exam that "you never mentioned that in class". I taught for many years using this model and tried to cram in as much useful information as possible into my lessons in the belief that this was how the students learned best. So we were all locked in this information transfer illusion of learning that is still very common in education all over the world. Even if active learning and flipped classroom have become accepted and widely used, the default is still the traditional lecture.

This is discussed in an article by Harald Liebich in the Norwegian higher education news site Khrono (just use a translation tool), Er forelesningen et ritual eller en læringsarena? (Is the lecture a ritual or a learning arena?). Whenever the media or popular culture want an image to represent higher education it is nearly always the lecture hall with the professor on stage. He describes how lectures simply repeat what is much better described in a textbook and that students remember very little of value. A method with such limited impact on students' learning must be questioned. 

The time invested by lecturers and students does not correspond to the intended outcome; the enhancement of learning. The limited impact of initiatives to implement innovative teaching methods can be linked to the lack of incentives for pedagogical development in the whole university sector. [My translation]

Forelesers og studentens tidsbruk står ikke i forhold til hovedintensjonen; læringsutbytte. Manglende drivkraft til å fornye undervisningsformene, kan ha sammenheng med at undervisningsarbeid gir begrenset merittering innen universitetsfeltet.

The lecture is indeed a ritual and should in most cases be transformed into an arena for group work and discussion. At the same time, I wonder if the ritual element still has relevance in terms of creating and cementing a sense of belonging. Attending a lecture every week reminds students that they are part of the university as an institution and reinforces a sense of pride and tradition that should not be underestimated. You may not learn so much but simply being there gives you a sense of identity just as walking about the campus or chatting in the cafeteria. I know that many people prefer to study in the library even if you could easily do so more comfortably at home. Somehow the library feels more academic, more inspiring, more serious. Also you can see lots of other people studying and you want to blend into the studious ambiance. This was transformed into an online setting during the pandemic with sites like StudyStream where you could join a silent video meeting, watching other students studying at their desks. 

Lectures have a role to play but only is used sparingly. Liebich quotes an article in the journal Health Professions EducationOn the Use and Misuse of Lectures in Higher Education, that reviews research in the value of the lecture and describes the methods limitations. However, there are times when a lecture can be valuable, especially as inspiration. The lecturer's role is not to provide content but to offer different perspectives and insights into their own research process. The vital element is to offer reflection, experience and inspiration - basically to tell an engaging story. 

Articles describe only the end product of a scientific endeavor and do so in a static and formal way. Students however deserve to hear the whole story; the story of how the researcher developed a particular hypothesis, the story of the difficulties the researcher encountered, and his or her emotions when a cherished hypothesis turned out to be false. Who can tell these stories better than the researcher him- or herself? These narratives should be told and the lecture is a good place to do just that, in particular if the lecturer knows how to tell a good story.

The lecture may be an academic ritual but if the speaker can offer this story-telling element and convey enthusiasm and commitment to the subject matter it can also play an important role in the students' development.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Do we really need to record this session?

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

There is a tendency to record webinars and online classes as a matter of course. A recording can increase the impact of a webinar and a recorded class session allows absent students to catch up and gives those who attended the chance to revise what was discussed. At the same time vast amounts of storage space are taken up with recordings that are seldom, if ever, viewed and the mountain just keeps growing. Often the red recording light discourages people from participating, cameras and microphones are switched off and the chat contributions are minimal. It's time to regularly ask ourselves whether we really need to record this session, who we might exclude if we record and what more inclusive practices we can replace it with.

A timely article by Per Axbom looks at the sensitive issue of permission to record, Consent for recording meetings. Too often we simply ask at the beginning of a meeting if it's ok to record and if no one objects within a few seconds then we press the button.

Asking if it is okay to record when everyone is already in the meeting does not provide basis for a well-founded consent. Requiring someone to raise their voice in a situation with a clear risk of peer pressure is not a context that gives power to those who need to opt out.

Always strive to request recording consent before a meeting takes place. This ensures that people who want to object do not risk ending up vulnerable in a situation where their position is judged or questioned by others.

There are many people who do not want their names, faces or voices recorded for public viewing and few are brave enough to say so. Of course they can simply turn off their microphones and cameras and not contribute to the chat but then you are excluding them from the communication that is or should be the focus of  online meetings. The default should probably be not to record. If we do record there must be a clear reason for doing so and this must be communicated before the session. Axbom also suggests making it clear where the recording will be posted and how long it will be available.

One option is to only record the input from speakers (with permission of course) and edit out any comments from participants. If recording is in progress, the speaker and moderator should avoid referring to the names of people who have asked a question in the chat or the Q&A. Just say that we have an interesting question here in the chat and keep the name out of the discussion. It's maybe impersonal and I admit to using names in such situations but not revealing names may encourage more participants to speak or chat if that red button is on.

In online classes many teachers use collaborative note-taking as an alternative to recording. Nominate a couple of students to take notes for each session and let them do so on a shared document that the whole class has access to. At the end of the lesson the class can check the notes and add comments or links that may have been missed. In this way everyone is involved in the recording process and the skills of note-taking and summarising will be essential in their future careers.

Axbom concludes with the reason for not pressing the record button so often in future:

Consider and think through needs, power structures, vulnerability and inclusion before you risk normalizing something that can lead to people feeling uncomfortable, unwilling to participate or unwilling to contribute.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

The end of social media?

Photo by Dasha Urvachova on Unsplash

Are the social media platforms that have dominated our lives for the past 15 years or so nearing the end of their useful lives? As Meta/Facebook transforms itself into the so-called metaverse and the Bond villain lookalike Elon Musk takes over Twitter, these platforms are likely to be completely transformed and millions of users, like me, will choose to leave. An article by Ben Werdmuller, The end of Twitter, mourns the demise of a networking platform that has been so important to many in education over the years but is now drowning in the vitriolic hatred and disinformation that has polluted today's society and is likely to get even worse as Musk makes massive staff cuts and reinstates banned accounts, thereby removing the present inadequate controls against hate and threats. Indeed, since Musk's takeover the levels of hate content has risen steeply, according to an article in The Guardian. Community and collaboration are being sacrificed for whatever gives the best financial returns and today that means scandals, insults, lies and conflict.

I have benefited greatly from social media over the years, allowing me to build a global network of educators and friends who have inspired and encouraged me and I hope I have returned the favours. I would be so much poorer without access to this network but sadly I see the end of this era rapidly approaching. Facebook and Twitter will not disappear overnight but will either fade into irrelevance or drown in trash and hatred. They will no longer offer the social interaction and and sense of community that they pioneered and that we have all enjoyed. 

I have a Mastodon account, the multi-server platform that offers a safer alternative to Twitter, but have not really discovered how to make it work for me. I haven't found many of my Twitter contacts in there yet and have no appetite for building up a network from scratch - it took several years to build my Twitter network. It's not so easy to start all over again but there are, however, some useful tips by for example Martin Fowler, Exploring Mastodon. The same applies to alternatives to Facebook like MeWe (I'm sure there are many others out there). Ideally I'd like a social platform that is safe and where I can continue to interact with the people and groups I have built up over the last 15 years. If that doesn't work then I will have to rediscover what life was like back in the nineties.

Werdmuller sees a shift to a multitude of new social media channels and a more complex landscape.  

As big tech silos diminish in stature, the all-in-one town squares we’ve enjoyed on the internet are going to start to fade from view. In some ways, it’s akin to the decline of the broadcast television networks: whereas there used to be a handful of channels that entire nations tuned into together, we now enjoy content that’s fragmented over hundreds. The same will be true of our community hangouts and conversations. In the same way that broadcast television didn’t really capture the needs of the breadth of its audience but instead enjoyed its popularity because that’s what was there at the time, we’ll find that fragmented communities better fit the needs of the breadth of diverse society. It’s a natural evolution.
The main benefit of the major platforms was that everyone was there. If we all scatter into a multitude of closed communities we lose that global connectivity that was so empowering and fun. The embryo to this inter-connectivity already exists in the Fediverse concept, gathering a number of open source social media platforms like Mastodon and PeerTube and allowing people to connect across the platforms. I haven't dared to investigate this much but it seems rather complicated and I wonder how many of my contacts are out there.  

I deeply dislike both Twitter and Facebook and how they profit from the spread of lies, hatred and horror but I still appreciate the human contacts I have made through them. But I sense that very soon I will have to move out. I can maybe find another platform that offers some consolation but I fear that many contacts and groups will be lost forever. Very sad.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Offline learning in focus as energy crisis looms

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

The prospect of power cuts and major energy saving measures this winter highlights the need for digital resilience and offering alternative access to educational resources. Up till now we have simply assumed that electricity and internet access were ubiquitous and unlimited, at least in privileged economies. One lesson of the pandemic was that many students did not have unlimited connectivity. Some were learning on pay-as-you-go mobile subscriptions and couldn't afford to watch heavy video files or attend long Zoom sessions. As a result many educators have learnt to offer alternative low-bandwidth formats such as text versions of videos, podcasts and downloadable files and these will be vital if the threats of power cuts come true this winter.

James Clay covers this in a post called When everything goes dark. Low-bandwidth formats are not simply emergency solutions but also smart solutions that offer greater accessibility even when all the lights are on. 
When the power goes out, this means no lights, no power, potentially no heating and no broadband. Of course a blackout also means as well no mobile signal, so no 4G. So though you may have a mobile device with enough battery power to use it, it you won’t be able to use the internet.
Universities should already be planning to provide digital resources that are available offline. He suggests contingency training for teachers on how to offer alternative formats and provide support for students. Even if the crisis is avoided these measures will be not be wasted. A lot of video content can and should be replaced by audio, especially when it is simply 30 minutes of talking head video, and a text version is essential for those who have difficulty hearing the speaker.
If you’re not using video, you don’t have to be constrained by text, downloaded audio recordings and podcasts are possible options. Audio also means that the screen can be turned off (or turn the brightness down) again increasing battery life.
Of course this situation is a typical first world problem. In many parts of the world power cuts and poor connectivity are simply part of everyday life and so work and study need to be adapted round the blackouts. We can learn a lot about resilience from all the educators and students in countries afflicted by crises and war. Many Ukrainian universities have managed to continue their courses in spite of horrific destruction. I don't mean that we have to prepare for such extremes but we certainly need to have alternative strategies ready for implementation when needed. Maybe it's time to reach out and learn from them about how to provide education in times of shortage and crisis.

Monday, October 3, 2022

The end of the essay?

Robots Playing Chess by Joe Shlabotnik, on Flickr

Will artificial intelligence kill off the essay as an assessment form? That seems very likely after reading an article from the University of Sydney, Assessment and integrity in the age of essay-writing artificial intelligence. It describes how you can generate a plausible and well-argued essay on just about any topic using AI algorithms without any risk of falling foul of anti-plagiarism software. The text will be original and offer a variety of perspectives gathered from analysis of countless related texts on the net. In many cases these essays are far better than many students could ever write themselves and the technology is developing rapidly. Similarly the use of AI in teaching is progressing rapidly and we face the prospect of robots teaching and assessing robots.

The most remarkable aspect of this article is that it was written by an AI application called GPT-3 with some minor human edits. It analyses the arguments for and against AI in education and gives examples of how AI generated texts could be used in a positive manner: for example, letting AI generate a text on an introductory paragraph and asking students to compare the AI text with the original. It is remarkably insightful on its own limitations and how academics need to rethink traditional practices to counter the threat of AI.

Because artificial intelligence is trained on a huge corpus of text and has access to the entire internet, it excels at writing and responding to textual prompts. This includes topics that would otherwise be perceived as meeting criteria for authentic assessment. This presents a challenge for higher education academics because we are so accustomed to using exams and other assessments that focus on student knowledge. If artificial intelligence can write essays and answer exam questions, higher education academics need to radically rethink learning, teaching, and assessment in the post-machine era.

But the question remains of whether the essay is a valid form of academic assessment and what new methods we should turn to. The gut reaction to the problem could be doubling down on traditional proctored exam hall tests with no access to digital devices or textbooks but I hope we can think further than this. Learning to write a well argued essay or article is a fundamental skill in all forms of science and it is hard to imagine higher education without this crucial element. But if we can instantly generate an acceptable imitation the exercise becomes somewhat futile. Problem and project-based learning as well as a greater focus on interviews and live seminar discussions would seem to be more relevant both in terms of assessment and as training for professional practice. Writing and critical thinking skills must be learned and practiced but somehow we need new ways to use them. There are already examples of AI-generated texts getting accepted for journal publication and as conference submissions. The foundations of academia are under threat and we need to develop new strategies and methods. 

Jon Dron writes about this in a post, So, this is a thing… and sees the answer in a refocus on people and genuine interaction.

This is a wake-up call. Soon, if not already, most of the training data for the AIs will be generated by AIs. Unchecked, the result is going to be a set of ever-worse copies of copies, that become what the next generation consumes and learns from, in a vicious spiral that leaves us at best stagnant, at worst something akin to the Eloi in H.G. Wells’s Time Machine. If we don’t want this to happen then it is time for educators to reclaim, to celebrate, and (perhaps a little) to reinvent our humanity. We need, more and more, to think of education as a process of learning to be, not of learning to do, except insofar as the doing contributes to our being. It’s about people, learning to be people, in the presence of and through interaction with other people. It’s about creativity, compassion, and meaning, not the achievement of outcomes a machine could replicate with ease. I think it should always have been this way.

Another article, Will artificial intelligence be able to write my college essay? by Eamon Costello and Mark Brown, Dublin City University, raises the need to rethink how we assess learning rather than finding ways to defend the traditional essay. 

Do we try to tame AI to protect old ways of learning or should we embrace its potential and reimagine our assessment practices to reflect the modern reality of living in the 21st century? One creative educator had his students purposefully use and evaluate AI essay writers as part of their assignment.

Finally, this perspective is echoed by the AI-generated article itself, showing a surprising level of insight on its own limitations.

In particular, there is a need to focus on developing higher-order thinking skills such as creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving, which are not easily replicated by machines. Additionally, it will be important to create opportunities for students to interact with each other and with their instructors on a regular basis, in order to promote the social and emotional skills that are essential for success in the workplace.


Friday, September 23, 2022

Learning - from magic solutions to meaningful processes

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Learning cannot be forced or planned. We can create the right conditions for learning and offer a variety of strategies but the learning comes from within. You have to want to learn and you have to learn how to learn. So in education we work on helping learners to work out how they learn best and then apply those principles to the things they want to learn. We can nudge, guide, support, motivate, challenge and applaud but in the end it is up to the learners. Learning is individual and subject to so many variables but still we search for ways to measure efficiency and upscale process that are simply not scaleable.  

These themes emerge in an interview article from the Centre for Public Impact, 5 Lessons from Olli-Pekka Heinonen and the Finnish National Agency for Education. Please watch the interview on the above link to hear the full details of his proposals. Olli-Pekka Heinonen is the Director General of the Finnish National Agency for Education and in a longer interview he discusses how the Finnish education system has tried to avoid falling into the trap of performance ratings, checkboxes and national solutions. He claims that scaling is failing because it assumes that what works for some will work for all - rather obvious it would seem but so often forgotten. There is no right answer, it all depends on the situation, circumstances and the learning context. Instead of national initiatives in terms of methods and structure we need to empower local initiatives and encourage teachers to compare and adapt from each other.

The alternative vision for scaling developed in EDUFI’s work moves from seeking to scale the innovation(s) that worked in one place, and implementing those in other places, to scaling the capacity for learning and innovation itself. “What works” is actually the capacity for learning and experimentation in each place, so that is what must be scaled.
We need to develop the preconditions for innovation and allow for collaborative communities to share and adapt new methods. As with the students, help teachers to learn how to innovate and experiment, offer spaces for collaboration and exchange of experience and support their processes. From magic solutions to meaningful processes. 

Another area that he discusses is the prevailing obsession with accountability with all the efficiency reviews and checklists that so many institutions and individuals feel trapped in. This box-ticking mentality leads to a fear of falling lower in the various rankings that seem to define today's education systems. Self assessment can easily lead to self deception as you become increasingly under pressure to tick the right boxes in your quality review.
The research evidence, together with vivid personal accounts, show that target-based performance management approaches undermine real-world performance by creating the conditions in which people systematically lie to one another. Olli-Pekka's experience is that “payment by results” and other forms of results based management undermine the capacity to do effective work and gets in the way of learning. “We should rebuild the performance management system entirely”, says Olli-Pekka.
Once again he advocates helping institutions to build capacity and focus on development than imposing criteria from above. It sounds so obvious but sadly so few governments seem to understand and instead treat education like an industry that can be planned and controlled. We can do so much better.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Post-pandemic university - real or cosmetic change?

Photo by Loïc Fürhoff on Unsplash

Educational technology enables us to rethink teaching and learning. It offers us the opportunity to widen participation in education, create more accessible and inclusive learning spaces and to offer greater levels of flexibility and collaboration. That sounds great but why haven't we seen this revolution yet, even after the pandemic? There seems instead to be a backlash against online education now that campuses are "back to normal".  The trouble is that changing the way that universities teach is not simply in the hands of digitally skilled teachers and support staff. The whole system needs to change and that has not happened yet.

This is discussed in an excellent article by Neil MoselyIs the university education model forever changed?. Teachers can experiment and redesign their courses to a certain extent but there are many constraints against radical change. Changing a course syllabus can take months if not years. Teachers are allotted a set number of lecture hours during which they are expected to lecture. Facilitating collaborative problem-based learning based mostly on asynchronous activities does not fit into the administrative system. Even if the teachers get support and inspiration it's not easy to challenge these principles.

As well as that they didn’t realise that changing the mode of teaching and study needs a change of the way you operate. It’s not simply a case of providing the technologies, some workshops, some inspirational “innovative” requires something much more fundamental than that.

The university model is what it is because of the many parameters that make it and define it as a model. If you want to change the model then it’s not simply a case of imploring staff to do something different within the confines of the old model, but rather orchestrating the organisational change necessary to move to a new model.  

This rings true for so many educational technologists who offer inspirational workshops, seminars and consultation to teachers but discover that the uptake is low or the effects marginal beyond the dedicated band of true believers. True the university is much more digital today than before the pandemic but the fundamental principles remain untouched. Hybrid teaching or lecture capture would seem to be typical compromises where we can basically continue as usual but with an optional digital add-on.. Is digital an integrated part of the whole university experience? Are online students equally treated and equally welcome? The hybrid classroom looks promising but is it really breaking any barriers of simply preserving hierarchies?
If you want to change the teaching and study model then you have to change the organisational model that buttresses it. This is hard, and the pandemic hasn’t necessarily helped as it has led to a conceited sense of organisational agility. When thinking about where universities are at due to the pandemic and gauging this against where they might like to be, we would all do well to heed the words of Irene Peter:

“Just because everything is different doesn't mean anything has changed.”
We still have a long way to go.