Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Is it still a conference if the keynote speakers are all online?

Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels

Conferences are reverting to their traditional on-site format but the effects of the pandemic can still be felt in that it has become difficult to attract speakers to attend in person. Many speakers prefer to contribute online for both environmental and time-saving reasons. Travelling half way round the world to speak for 45 minutes, with the resultant massive carbon footprint, is simply not sustainable. The appearance can take several days out of a speaker's schedule and although the experience of seeing new places and making new contacts is very enjoyable, it disrupts regular work activities. During the pandemic we all realised that keynote presentations work very well online and now that the conferences are back on site many of the speakers are not. But what happens to an on-site conference when the speakers are all on screen and no one is actually on stage? Why pay high fees to watch a video meeting?

Conference organisers are now trying to put pressure on speakers to attend in person according to an article in Times Higher Education, Academic conferences scale back hybrid ambitions. Having the keynote speakers on-site means that they also attend other sessions and chat with participants during the breaks, meals and mingles. This adds value to the conference and justifies the fee. 
The moves follow concerns that the travel-free option for speakers is leading to empty podiums and an “us and them” culture between remote panellists and assembled delegates. Some organisers have also flagged the logistical complexity of enabling online speakers and the vastly inflated cost of running hybrid events, which often require numerous video and audio production staff, producers and technical support.

Many conferences are adopting a hybrid format, or at least a semblance of one, but the default is still on-site. Online participants can only attend some of the sessions and few have attempted hybrid mingling or social events. Of course there are technical difficulties with hybrid. Just as in teaching you need an advanced technical set-up to make hybrid work reasonably well and in my experience the online participants tend to take a back seat in the sessions. Online keynotes work best when everyone else is online but when you mix online and on-site there are always risks of bandwidth issues, sound and video quality or other technical hitches.

I generally present live on Zoom or Teams but when the conference venue is far away I prefer to record my session and let them play the recording in the conference hall. Then I am available live for questions afterwards. This minimises the risk of bandwidth issues and they get a high quality video to watch. At the same time I never get any real impression of the audience and no sense of place at all. The question time is often rather awkward since I can't hear or even see the people asking the questions and need to rely on a moderator. In addition, few participants are willing to ask a question in a hall at the best of times and even more so when the speaker isn't even in the room.

I have written on this theme several times here and firmly believe that large on-site international conferences are not sustainable and need to be phased out. It is absurd that while our colleagues in environmental science are sounding the alarm bells about the climate crisis, higher education is still responsible for high levels of carbon emissions due to our reliance on international air travel. On-site conferences are very rewarding but only for those who can afford them. Online conferences are not the same as on-site ones and we should stop comparing the two. They are still evolving and need time to develop new forms of interaction rather than trying to replicate traditional practice. They can be more inclusive and diverse and offer opportunities for longer collaborative processes.

But it's not a matter of a free choice between two alternatives. One offers us hope for the future, the other doesn't.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Why is online learning seen as virtual?

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

I am extremely tired of the constant use of terms like virtual, remotecyber and distance when referring to online interaction and the dichotomy between those elements and terms like in real life and face-to-face when referring to interactions that happen in a physical space. This is a gross simplification and is often used to justify the return to normality that we see in the wake of the pandemic. At the recent EDEN2022 conference (see previous posts) there was a particularly interesting session by Lesley Gourlay of University College London called What does virtual learning mean? It was based on her recent article There Is No 'Virtual Learning': The Materiality of Digital Education that takes issue with the simplified terminology used to describe online interaction in education.

We also use the expression ‘meet in person’ to refer to physical and temporal co-presence, the idea of being ‘with’ other people also relies on this. The contrast, implicitly, is that digital engagement does not involve going to a particular place, and not doing something ‘in person’. This, I suggest, is indicative of two wider notions which dominate the way we think about educational technology. The first is that the digital exists outside of physical, material movement, placement or practices. The second is that it does not involve the body, the ‘person’, in the sense of doing something ‘in person’.
The idea that we are somehow different people when we are online is absurd but sadly persistent in educational discussions. Gourlay writes about this disembodiedness and how we often disregard the very real physical elements affecting how we communicate and collaborate online. The pandemic meant that both students and teachers had to adapt to new learning spaces, generally in a corner of an already cluttered home, with all the everyday activities, distractions and constraints (technical and connectivity issues, noisy surroundings etc.) that affect your ability to study and teach. Instead of simply insisting that for example students turn on their cameras or expecting them to respond to your questions out loud we need to develop a better awareness of the physical factors that affect the person you are talking to.
The notion of the ‘virtual’, in contrast, is replete with ideas of nonmateriality and disembodiment. In this paper I will present a challenge to the concept of ‘virtual learning’, arguing that digital engagement is always –and entirely– a set of material and embodied practices. Drawing on sociomaterial and posthuman perspectives, I will focus on the materiality of the digital, the embodied nature of engagement with devices, physical objects and space, and the performativity of talking to the screen. I conclude by arguing that, in a sense, there is no such thing as ‘virtual learning’, as all of the engagement and processes it consists of take place via sociomaterial and embodied practices.
She mentions the idea of the materiality of engagement and that all interaction takes place in a physical context and is subject to feelings of security, community and trust (or the lack of these).

A colleague then pointed me towards another fascinating article with some common themes about the illusion of virtuality, namely Sean Michael Morris, On Silence: Humanising Digital Pedagogy, Much of this is about how silence influences online encounters and that our traditional approach to education makes us afraid of silences, a theme I often return to in this blog. We need to see and hear the students online otherwise we suspect that they are not learning but in fact a lot of learning is silent and reflection takes time. We need to allow for silent reflection that considers the physical environments our students find themselves in. Simple question and response activities in synchronous meetings do not reflect this. Morris states that there is no such thing as virtual or online. It's all about human communication in real settings.
But ultimately, my best advice for teaching online is: Stop thinking about being online. No learning happens online. It all happens in a real place somewhere, where there are hands and fingers, feet and toes, a breathing person with a heartbeat whose eyes blink more slowly when they think hard. Put space in your teaching, because there is space in your relationship to students. The immediacy of the classroom is no longer an affordance, so take the most advantage you can of the more gentle continuity that distance provides.
So let's try to drop the talk of online interaction being somehow disembodied or unreal in some way and remember that it's real people trying to work, study, teach and socialise. There are certainly different affordances depending on the medium you use and both the online and the physical spaces have their strengths and weaknesses in terms of collaboration, inclusion, accessibility and social interaction. The key is to shift the focus from technology or architecture to human communication.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Conference conclusions part 2

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

Following my previous post I would like to summarise some takeaways from the two conferences I attended recently, NU2022 i Stockholm and EDEN2022 in Tallinn, Estonia. I didn't make detailed notes this time so here is a list of themes that made an impact for me. There were of course many sessions about the perils of hybrid teaching but generally the focus was on improving teaching and learning rather than about using tools and platforms. I don't think that the pandemic has fundamentaly changed education but I do believe that we have finally realised that technology is now fully integrated into all pedagogical discussions. Here are a few themes I noted, in no particular order.

The changing role of the campus.

If we can deliver content, discuss, collaborate and network very well online and in some cases better than on-site the awkward question of the future role of the campus emerges. We need to offer sound reasons for being there and identify the unmissable elements of the campus experience. This is clear for the traditional target group of young students but the benefits are much less clear for the growing ranks of older online students. An interesting perspective on this came from the head of the Stockholm School of Economics who talked about the importance of appealing to all the senses - not just what your campus looks like but also trying to capture the feel, smell, sound and taste. We had an evening event at that institution and saw how they had cooperated with artists to have thought-provoking paintings, photos and sculptures in the corridors and learning spaces.They also ran very popular book circles to emphasize the importance of the humanities even in an economics degree. 

In Tallinn a presentation by a student raised the need for us to develop a coherent digital campus that allows students and teachers to interact, form groups, network and socialise. Today's digital campus consists of closed and often incompatible silos and the presentation showed that during the pandemic lockdown students at Tallinn University had to negotiate 11 different platforms as part of their everyday course work.

Students as partners

Nobel Prize winner Carl Weiman of Stanford University made an interesting online presentation at the Stockholm conference. Not about his research in physics that won him the prize but about the theme of the conference - pedagogical development. What struck me most was the fact that he presented in such down-to-earth terms and stressed the need to have students as partners in the learning process and in course design. Admittedly he was preaching to the converted but he reinforced the advantages of active learning and of peer feedback.

Discussing with a fellow student is more effective than listening to an expert instructor.

Pia Lappalainen, Aalto University in Finland, reinforced this theme by showing evidence for how regular small-scale feedback promoted learning more than detailed summative feedback.

New initiatives for promoting digital literacies

A representative from the European Commission presented news of further initiatives to promote digital literacies in education and in society in general through the updated version of the European Digital Competence Framework for Citizens, version 2.2. There was also enthusiasm about the launch of the Digital education hub. The hub is an ambitious venture to offer professional development for teachers as well as a store of learning resources and lesson plans.
The open online collaborative community for digital education stakeholders in Europe and beyond.
Even if there are excellent guidelines and criteria for assessing and developing teachers' digital literacies there are unexpected issues in trying to gain an objective assessment within an institution. Linda Helene Sillat and Mart Laanpere of Tallinn University showed the dangers of self-assessment where some teachers over-estimated their competence levels whilst other did the opposite. Objective tests at the university failed since teachers simply refused to take the tests, seeing it possibly as an affront to their professional abilities and suspecting that poor test results would negatively affect their career opportunities. 

Quality perspectives

Quality in the field of online education is a complex issue. Despite a plethora of quality frameworks (over 100 different frameworks according to Mark Brown of Dublin City University, there is still a reluctance to address the issue in higher education. Maybe this is due to universities being daunted by both the bewildering variety of frameworks and the diversity of overlapping terminology in the field. The question remains of whether quality in the use of technology in education should be assessed as part of the regular educational quality framework or as a separate feature.

My final takeaway was a presentation by Lesley Gourlay of University College London, questioning the use of the word virtual in an educational perspective. This opened up a wider theme that deserves a longer post to itself. I will break new ground on this blog by creating a cliff-hanger. 

To be continued ...

Friday, June 24, 2022

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

Session in the EDEN conference (CC BY Alastair Creelman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 18, 2022

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

Photo by LYCS Architecture on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Innovation - a state of mind

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

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

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

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Platform literacy needed to avoid increasing inequalities in education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 19, 2022

AI-generated essays - time to rethink written assignments

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 7, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Déja vu - the return of virtual worlds

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

The new metaversity at Stanford is described like this:

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Clouds on the horizon

Photo by Daniel Morris on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, April 13, 2022

My best friend is a robot - virtual companions

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 2, 2022

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

Photo by Suganth on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The year of the dumbphone?

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 20, 2022

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

Photo by Col·legi de Farmacèutics de Barcelona on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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