Saturday, May 23, 2020

Could avatars replace video in online meetings?


Most of us now spend a large part of our time engaged in video meetings with colleagues, students, family and friends and the web is overflowing with advice about how to make these meetings more effective, interactive and engaging. The weaknesses of online meetings have been exposed and discussed with privacy and security as major themes. Many people feel uncomfortable putting themselves on view to so many relative or complete strangers with the risk that someone finds it amusing to take screenshots that could be used later. In tools like Zoom, the meeting host has little or no control over how the participants view the session and there's a risk that some of them spend the meeting gazing at, say, a female student who they find attractive without her being able to stop such unwanted attention.

Some people decide therefore to keep their cameras switched off during online sessions. This may be to prevent unwanted attention or because they are ashamed of their chaotic home or because they don't feel confident or presentable enough to be visible in the meeting. This can be disconcerting for a teacher as in a recent Norwegian article (see Khrono - in Norwegian) where a university teacher wrote about the loneliness of teaching in Zoom to an invisible and generally silent group of students. They were willing to use the chat but did not want to be seen or heard. 

At the same time, Facebook have been promoting a tool to help you create a relatively lifelike caricature avatar for your profile. This attracts many users who prefer not to use a real photo of themselves in social media and I wonder if it's time for the return of avatars in synchronous video meetings. About 12 years ago many of us were experimenting with meetings in the virtual world of Second Life. Back then it was still a bit unstable for those who lacked good graphics cards or bandwidth, but we were able to meet and discuss in interesting virtual environments (under the sea, in space, on a tropical island, you name it). It gave an added sense of place to the online meetings rather than the two-dimensional wall of talking heads we have in today's meetings. Second Life is still there and is used by all sorts of enthusiasts, including many educators, for roleplay, simulations and exhibitions. There are also numerous other virtual world tools offering customised environments for virtual exhibitions or conferences and the chance to wander around as an avatar, mingling and interacting with other visitors (see, for example, IMVU, Virtway

Despite a barrage of hype, Second Life was probably ahead of its time back around 2008, but I always liked the spatial element. I still remember discussions sitting around a camp fire in a forest or listening to an evening outdoor piano concert in a small town by the sea with about 100 other avatars. According to one article a colleague of mine wrote back then, some students felt more comfortable communicating in the virtual world than in a regular video meeting because it was their avatar who was speaking. There are of course very good reasons for meetings where participants must show their faces, but I wonder if some discussions could benefit from a certain degree of anonymity.

Time for virtual worlds to make a comeback?

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The end of the classroom? - at least in corporate training

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels
There is no shortage of speculation on how education will change after the present crisis is over. Will we invest heavily in improving online education and integrating digital tools and platforms into mainstream teaching? Or will we simply breathe a sigh of relief and revert to business as usual? Or, most likely somewhere in between. However, an article in Forbes, Corporate Education Will Never Return To The Classroom, claims that, in the corporate sector at least, a major change has already happened and that is the death of classroom teaching.

I worked for about 15 years in corporate training and the courses I taught were between one and three days and held at training centres och hotels around the country. They had specific objectives and were rather heavy on content. It was an expensive business transporting people from all over the region to a central location with hotel accommodation, time off work and expenses to consider. My courses would have easily fitted an online format but in those days the internet was young and training centres were fully booked. We did try to save money by making me the most mobile element of the courses, visiting most cities in the country regularly so that local people would not have far to travel. But it was still an expensive business.
The expense and time of bringing together groups of employees for in-person training is exorbitant in comparison to high-quality online versions. Air travel, hotels, windowless conference rooms and convention centers, the risk liability of group training events and, frankly, the poor quality and unmeasurable outcomes of in-person corporate training have always been complaints. These complaints are greatly amplified now in comparison to the online alternative.
The online alternative, if well designed and flexible, is clearly the way forward in the corporate sector but does this translate to universities and colleges? The article is fairly confident that even here there will be a demand for greater flexibility and much more online opportunities
The vast majority of traditional age students (and their teachers and parents) still greatly desire returning to the classroom and campus. But the education consumer is also quickly splintering into many new archetypes. And those will include traditional age students who will gladly shift to fully online and hybrid degrees in exchange for lower price points, faster completion and the ability to work while doing so. Students will simply have more options to choose from and decisions to make regarding their preferences for in-person vs. online. In the corporate world, though, the decision has already been made.
Online education will certainly be taken much more seriously by universities in the future and there will be a greater flexibility in terms of access, pace of study and blend of online and campus study. However, there is still a need to offer the coherence of a three or four year full-time degree that cannot be replaced by stacking many short online courses according to the student's preferences. The full campus experience involves so much more than the sum of the different courses, it involves networking, being part of a learning community and a social context. Higher education needs to diversify but the campus core is still unlikely to be threatened.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Towards a different model for internationalisation

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
In the wake of the current crisis, internationalisation in higher education would seem to have ground to a halt. With international travel virtually impossible and unlikely to recover any time soon, the numbers of students studying abroad or applying for exchange programmes look likely to evaporate, at least for the coming year. This in turn puts enormous financial pressure on institutions who are heavily dependent on fees from incoming international students. International student and staff exchange programmes like the European Erasmus+ will also be on hold as long as borders are closed and international flights are cancelled. At the same time, the present global crisis shows clearly that global problems require global solutions making it all the more important that all students get experience in international collaboration. If physical mobility is going to be increasingly limited, particularly due to its environmental impact, we need to rethink our approach to internationalisation with virtual exchange as the norm rather than the exception. Of course it's not the same as travelling and meeting people face-to-face but it's a much more inclusive practice and can be implemented across the board.

An article in University World News, Is the pandemic a watershed for internationalisation? takes a critical look at traditional practices and looks forward to a new and more inclusive approach to internationalisation. Physical mobility has always been an exclusive activity.
Clearly, international travel is elitist: it is only a possibility for a minority of students and in terms of outbound students from the Global North, these are often white, female and economically advantaged. ... In short, while mobility has enormous potential as a transformative educational experience, it is an exclusive activity and its impact on individuals is variable.
Traditional mobility will not disappear in the future but it will simply not be viable in the long term.  The last two months have shown us that most educational activities can be carried out digitally, in many cases as well or even better than in a physical space. More people will question the necessity of a physical meeting if the same can be achieved digitally. International conferences and projects can become truly global if they are online and potentially opening up to all those who could never afford to attend the physical equivalent. Digital collaboration with partner institutions is already increasing and will surely increase sharply after the crisis is over. The term global learning is presented as one way forward, meaning that the curriculum is global by default..
The term global learning, as defined by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, for example, provides universities with a way of conceptualising and developing a curriculum that engages all students in “the critical analysis of and an engagement with complex, interdependent global systems and legacies … and their implications for people’s lives and the earth’s sustainability”.
Another aspect of the new internationalisation is widening engagement with the local community where in many countries there is a diverse and multi-cultural society, something the article describes as a pedagogy of encounter.
A pedagogy of encounter is a powerful concept because it does not rely on mobility. There are many opportunities to engage students in intercultural and global learning in class, on campus and in local communities. Thanks to large-scale global migration in recent decades, as well as the widening participation agenda, in many countries ‘local’ students are more diverse than they have ever been.
A globalised curriculum is certainly possible and there is technology to enable it. The big question is whether we have the will and the vision to move in this direction. I suspect after the current crisis there will be a massive demand for a return to business as usual. Physical mobility programmes are familiar territory, easily measured and very visible. A globalised curriculum involves developing a new mindset among teachers, students and management, is much more complex to implement and is harder to quantify and showcase. I love the vision, let's see if we can learn all this.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Are trolls born or can we all be one?


Social media are the hunting grounds of trolls and few news media comments sections escape their attention, leading in many cases to the withdrawal of such sections. There are of course different degrees of trolldom from the infamous troll factories who make money deliberately sabotaging political discussion to individuals with anger management issues. I often wonder how people can thrive on such negativity and enjoy insulting, threatening and winding up other people, but it seems they do. But is there a little troll inside us all, waiting for the right cues to rise to the surface?

There is of course research on troll behaviour and I can recommend this article from researchers at Stanford and Cornell Universities, Anyone Can Become a Troll: Causes of Trolling Behavior in Online Discussions. They carried out an extensive survey of comments on CNN news stories as well as conducting a simulated online discussion to see what patterns of troll behaviour emerged and whether such behaviour is infectious. It seems that trolls are not just born, we all risk getting sucked into a certain element of trolling if the right conditions are met.
While prior work suggests that trolling behavior is confined to a vocal and antisocial minority, we demonstrate that ordinary people can engage in such behavior as well. We propose two primary trigger mechanisms: the individual’s mood, and the surrounding context of a discussion (e.g., exposure to prior trolling behavior). Through an experiment simulating an online discussion, we find that both negative mood and seeing troll posts by others significantly increases the probability of a user trolling, and together double this probability.
I think many of us will admit to firing off the occasional sarcastic retort on Twitter or Facebook especially when someone has made an unfair or abusive comment. We might even get involved in a mud slinging session that we later regret. However for me a troll is someone who joins a discussion with the deliberate intent to sabotage a discussion or to bully particular members of the group. For me, trolling is bullying, taking pleasure in hurting others. In many online communities there are volunteers who devote their evenings and even nights to patrolling the digital streets and trying to defuse potentially dangerous situations. By immediately intervening in a thread that is going out of control they can defuse the situation but only when they are dealing with people who are simply overreacting or in a foul mood. The genuine trolls are almost impossible to stop since they thrive on confrontation and the only way to deal with them is by ejecting them from the community.

In such well-managed discussion groups with clear guidelines, timely moderation and real name policy, trolling can be kept at a minimum and this leads to a supportive and tolerant community. It requires great sensitivity on the part of the administrators to be able to distinguish between people who are just having a bad day and go too far once in a while and genuinely malevolent trolls. In many groups an administrator will try to reason with the offender, preferably in a private chat, and this often results in that person deleting their offensive comments and agreeing to abide by the group rules in the future. Many have a policy of three strikes and you're out, giving warnings and then if the abuse continues the offender is ejected. In some cases instant ejection is the only way to deal with abuse but for many a certain amount of leeway might help. The article ends by warning against simply banning everyone who steps out of line and recommends greater flexibility.
Trolling stems from both innate and situational factors – where prior work has discussed the former, this work focuses on the latter, and reveals that both mood and discussion context affect trolling behavior. This suggests the importance of different design affordances to manage either type of trolling. Rather than banning all users who troll and violate community norms, also considering measures that mitigate the situational factors that lead to trolling may better reflect the reality of how trolling occurs.
Reference
Cheng, J., Bernstein, M., Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, C., Leskovec, J. (2017) Anyone Can Become a Troll: Causes of Trolling Behavior in Online Discussions. CSCW '17: Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, February 2017. Pages 1217–1230 https://doi.org/10.1145/2998181.2998213

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Transition to online teaching - so far so good but who are we leaving behind?

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels
With the vast majority of schools and universities in the world teaching online there is plenty scope for research into how well or not the transition has been managed and what conclusions can be drawn from the experience. Already there are survey results indicating that most students are satisfied with the online solutions being offered, given the exceptional circumstances prevailing. However that should not lead to complacency for behind the positive indications there are also students who are being excluded.

One new survey, of law students at the University of Oslo, is described in an article in Mirage News, Digital teaching provides good learning outcomes, lightning-fast research shows. A week after moving to online teaching 175 students were asked about their experience of the transition and although this is an extremely limited survey it does reveal some interesting tendencies (the published article is available in Norwegian, Første uken med digital undervisning i koronatiden: Jusstudenters erfaring). 60% of the students stated that the online teaching was as good as or even better than the campus teaching and the teachers express surprise at how well the transition was received. One teacher explains:
My main thought is that the findings indicate that the students across the faculty have positive experiences from the first week of digital teaching. Although there is of course some criticism here and there, I had really expected far greater dissatisfaction, especially considering that this evaluation applies only to the first week. At the same time, we need to be a little cautious about the use of these findings, as they are only based on the first week of digital teaching.
At the same time there was a significant number of students who were less satisfied and this was mostly due to other technical and social factors.
A substantial minority of students are struggling with childcare, illness, poor internet connection, lack of workspace at home and lack of contact with teachers and fellow students. There is a strong correlation between the number of challenges and how the student evaluates their learning experience and study situation.
Most of these factors are beyond the control of the university but are critical to students' academic success, not just in exceptional times such as these. One uncomfortable truth is that university education is still largely geared to the traditional student model who are able to live and study on campus, do not need to combine study with work and do not have families to care for. University study whether on campus or online is designed for the traditional notion of a student, as described in an article on The ConversationUniversity study is designed for the privileged – students from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer. This becomes even more true in the exceptional circumstances today. Those who cope best with online learning are those who are already have good study skills, have access to fast internet connections, own the right devices and have a social environment that allows them to study in peace. For others simply finding a place to study in peace is a challenge, especially when even places like public libraries are closed. 
Additionally, flexibility may make it harder to carve out time for studies. Scheduled on-campus blocs of time allow students to focus, which they may not be able to do when faced with the immediacy of children or younger siblings not attending school. Many students are working in retail, meaning they may be their family’s only source of income as parents are unable to work. The risk is that the pandemic exacerbates existing inequities and makes it even harder for these students to engage with their studies.
These themes are further developed in a blog post by Tharindu Liyanagunawardena (UCEM, London) Online learning in challenging times. In the rush to switch to online mode it is all too easy to forget accessibility issues and not take the students' home situation into consideration. We cannot, of course, remedy their social situation but should at least try to ensure that our platforms and tools are as accessible as possible. For example we can ensure there are transcripts of the video lectures for those without access to broadband or who prefer to read than to listen. Maybe an asynchronous activity is easier to access and participate in than a synchronous video meeting? Tharindu gives further examples:
For example, if a student with a hearing disability was supported by a note-taker in class how could we support this student now that we have moved to online lectures? Or now that most overseas students have gone home to their countries, can we conduct online classes at the same time and expect them to be present despite the time differences? What if the technology we adopt is barred in some countries where our students reside?
It is only natural that in the scramble to move online some issues are forgotten or omitted due to lack of time and resources but as we move on these issues need to be addressed. In all situations we need to take time to consider who we are excluding or limiting and try to find the right balance.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Zoom - a question of trust

Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels
Since my last post there has been increasing media attention on Zoom, not just on the phenomenon of zoombombing that I experienced but also on various serious security and privacy issues. The platform has become almost default for millions of teachers in schools and universities around the world, increasing its usage from about 10 million users in December to over 200 million in March. But such extreme usage has revealed that privacy and security were not top of the company's priorities according to an article in NPRA Must For Millions, Zoom Has A Dark Side — And An FBI Warning.
"Things you just would like to have in a chat and video application — strong encryption, strong privacy controls, strong security — just seem to be completely missing," said Patrick Wardle, a security researcher who previously worked at the National Security Agency.
The article also tells of several unfortunate examples of zoombombing including a doctoral thesis defence that got hijacked and a meeting of a branch of Alcoholics Anonymous, prompting even a warning from the FBI. Zoom has been working hard at calming fears and they are now prioritising security issues while putting new feature development on hold (see the Zoom message to users from 1 April). It was also revealed that the company have been sharing user data with Facebook and LinkedIn (see Mashable), something that they admitted and claimed was a mistake. Furthermore, a bug was found that enabled hackers to access users' accounts (see Mashable). I can imagine that many of Zoom's staff have had little sleep during the past week.

I have been trying to adjust my Zoom settings and giving participants much less control than before. Many articles recommend using passwords for all meetings but I haven't gone that far yet. Since I'm often involved in webinars and open sessions in Zoom we usually want to reach a wide audience. I love the idea of people from different places, professions and areas of expertise getting together to discuss and exchange ideas and up till now that has been possible using different e-meeting platforms. Adding passwords and so on adds barriers to spontaneous participation and it is sad to lose that opportunity because of the destructive behaviour of a minority of idiots.

I'm sure Zoom will address all these issues and are promising regular updates on progress, but the central issue here is one of trust. The education sector works with children and young people whose privacy and integrity we have a duty to safeguard. We are also dependent on commercial platforms and tools that we assume also respect this duty and with whom there are special agreements adapted for the education sector. But if we find that there are loopholes in these agreements that trust is broken and we have to face the question of who we should trust in the future. I can almost understand that if you use a service that is labelled as free there will be a price in terms of how my data is used, but if you are paying a lot of money for a tailored educational solution then there should be very strict controls on encryption, data protection and so on. If these companies want to be in the education sector they have to be able to guarantee security and integrity. The alternative is for the education sector to run its own platforms in its own infrastructure and be in control of its own security. Not a very likely scenario given the costs but in today's world who knows what lies ahead.

Update: A good and balanced overview of the situation is an article, Zoom isn't malware, by three security experts.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The week I got Zoombombed


Before the COVID-19 emergency, I travelled to work to sit at my desk and have lots of video meetings, mostly using Zoom. Now I stay at home and do the same thing. I haven't noticed a massive change in my working routines basically. However, since most education in the world is now being conducted online the use of e-meeting tools like Zoom has gone off the scale and all platforms are busy expanding their capacity to meet the unprecedented demand.

But when a service gets popular it attracts the trolls and cranks that get a thrill out of disrupting and sabotaging. They now seem to have found their way into Zoom meetings and this week I got my first taste. I have been very fortunate to have escaped the trolls over all the years that I have been active in social media and online communication. I have also been quite open at inviting people to webinars and other synchronous events. Anyway on Thursday we were running a 2 day internal conference where teachers could exchange ideas with each other on teaching online. The conference ran over two days and teachers could come and go as their schedules allowed. On Thursday morning we had an external speaker and I thought we could maybe attract some external participants by tweeting about it. This is not unusual and I'd never heard of anyone having problems with advertising a live session this way.

Seconds after my tweet, the trolls turned up and started screaming loudly and sharing their screen shots of assorted excrement. I scrambled to cancel the participant screen-sharing and ejected the offenders from the room as soon as I could. I also deleted my tweet. After a few minutes of chaos things calmed down and we could start the session though I was on red alert checking all new participants and immediately ejecting people with generic names like John or Dave. The rest of the conference went well and no more trolls turned up. Unfortunately I mistakenly ejected a real participant who was then unable to join the rest of the conference (once ejected you cannot return). I could have changed the setting to readmit ejected participants but didn't dare unless the trolls came back.

I felt less ashamed when I realised that I was not the only one to suffer from this. There's even a name for it, Zoombombing, and is described in an article in the Guardian, Trolls exploit Zoom privacy settings as app gains popularity. In Zoom we want to create creative meetings where participants have a voice, can share screens and collaborate so we have all these options open. We also want to make it easy to come to a meeting without the barriers of passwords and up till now this open attitude has been possible. But after this experience I will need to be more careful organising events and build in safeguards against unauthorised entry. Zoom have reacted quickly and have now published a page of tips on how to limit the threat from trolls, How to Keep the Party Crashers from Crashing Your Zoom Event. useful measures for future public events are password protection, use a waiting room for monitoring new arrivals, stop screen-sharing for participants (unless the host gives them permission), mute all participants on entry, put everyone on hold until you eject the intruders, temporarily disable participants' video and more. For webinars I only send the link to the room to those who have registered for the event (usually one day before) and that has so far been enough to keep the meeting in order.

I will certainly be more careful in future and I would urge you to do the same. That doesn't mean locking down a wonderful forum for collaboration, just be careful as host and know where the emergency buttons are. But think before you post that link publicly.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Suddenly the whole world is going online

It's hard to avoid writing a post about the effects of the COVID-19 virus and even harder to add something particularly new given the flood of posts from educators all over the world. I will just pick out a few articles that I have found particularly useful and point you in their direction.

Many countries have already shut down their university campuses and all teaching will now take place online until further notice. Here in Sweden we haven't got that far yet but all institutions are preparing for a possible shutdown. This is an unprecedented move and an opportunity for all teachers to get experience in teaching online. The challenge is to offer the right level of support and advice to teachers new to the field and help them offer a good enough online experience without risking them becoming confused, frustrated and stressed.

On the right here you can see a good infographic by Alison Yang that gives teachers a realistic view of what to focus on and what to avoid when switching abruptly from classroom to online teaching (see original post, How do we teach online). The main advice is to keep it simple: don't try anything fancy, don't get ambitious, don't try to be always available and don't stress your students. Interestingly she advises avoiding synchronous online meetings. In these extreme circumstances you can't be sure that all your class can log in at any given time and they may even have connectivity problems. Another issue with e-meetings is that many platforms have limits in terms of capacity and in recent days there has been an extreme demand on tools like Zoom and Skype resulting in some users being unable to join meetings. A good piece of advice if you are going to have synchronous meetings is to have alternatives such as Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Webex etc. In general it is probably better to focus on asynchronous interaction with recorded mini-lectures and discussion forums.

A post by Rebecca Barrett-Fox with the provocative title, Please do a bad job of putting your courses online, urges inexperienced colleagues to be realistic in what they offer online and remember that the students may have all sorts of other concerns in their lives than just this course. As in Alison Yang's post you need to adapt to the situation and not try to impress your university with your ability to teach online without help.
For my colleagues who are now being instructed to put some or all of the remainder of their semester online, now is a time to do a poor job of it. You are NOT building an online class. You are NOT teaching students who can be expected to be ready to learn online. And, most importantly, your class is NOT the highest priority of their OR your life right now. Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.
Tony Bates' post, Advice to those about to teach online because of the corona-virus, echoes many of these sentiments. Most importantly you need to get support from your university's educational technologists or colleagues with experience in online learning. Most importantly is implementing a less is more principal and remembering that the students have limited time for your course. Let them find information for themselves and encourage discussion.
Ask yourself the question: what is the best way students should use that 8-10 hours a week, if they are studying online? How much of that must be through a lecture? How much could they do for themselves? How can I make sure they are connecting with other students online, so they do not feel socially isolated, and how best can they use that connection to further their learning?
After the current emergency is over all institutions need to take stock and see how to develop teachers' skills in online teaching so we are all better prepared for future emergencies. I suspect, sadly, that there may be more.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Why tech - the dangers of digital over-dependency


In our rush to adopt all things digital we seldom pause to consider what we are discarding from our lives. Handwriting, navigating by map, calculating in your head, remembering facts, deep reading, dealing with silence and so on. Obsolete skills you may think but extremely useful if the digital alternative breaks down. For example, here in Sweden we have virtually achieved a cashless society and although cash still exists it is becoming extremely difficult to spend it. Public transport is almost completely cashless, many shops and restaurants refuse cash and even the banks don't want to touch the stuff. Many old and vulnerable people (asylum seekers and homeless people without bank accounts) are therefore completely marginalised, but that seems to be regarded as collateral damage in the rush towards a digital future. As a result, every step your take and every move you make are being stored and exploited. At the same time we are building an extremely dangerous vulnerability into our society. If there's a power or network connectivity failure, nothing works. You can't buy anything and there's no back-up.

I have been thinking about this for a long time and have consciously reverted to some old-school habits in an attempt to keep myself in touch with both worlds, trying to become functionally ambidextrous; able to handle both the digital and the analogue. This week I stumbled across a short interview with Kris De Decker, founder of Low-tech Magazine, ”Reconsider the thinking that everything should become digital”. He's a former tech journalist who has discovered the joys of low-tech. The magazine's slogan is "doubts on progress and technology" and questions the belief that technology can solve all our problems. It contains low-tech solutions to everyday problems and the website itself runs on a solar-powered server showing that you can be low-tech and still benefit from some aspects of the digital world. It also questions many technologies that we consider green such as electric cars, wind turbines and solar cells; they all rely on batteries and manufacturing processes that have a considerable footprint. But it's not about retreating into a cave and living off-grid, but reassessing our over-reliance on a technology that is becoming frighteningly vulnerable.

In the interview, De Decker explains why we shouldn't discard our old skills.
We also lose a lot of skills. As someone who doesn’t have a smartphone, I have noticed that I have become one of the few people who still knows how to navigate a city without staring at a screen. This makes us also very vulnerable. If our complex infrastructures falter, we are helpless. Just think about the infrastructure we need to do digital payments. Cash, on the other hand, is very resilient.
Maybe we should all challenge ourselves now and again to go retro for a while. Try visiting a city and see how well you can survive without TripAdvisor, Google Maps, Uber etc. See the sights with a map and find restaurants by asking people. It works, but just in a different way. If we lose that ability we lose our resilience.

Then there's the issue of the environmental impact of technology. I have been working enthusiastically with webinars and digital conferences as an answer to the need to reduce the carbon footprint of frequent flying but we also need to realise that technology has en enormous impact too. All our devices and gigantic server halls that store our data are extremely damaging to the environment, not to mention the ever-growing mountain of electronic waste that is all too seldom recycled.
But of course digital technology is just as physical as any other technology. There is an enormous infrastructure behind the internet. The production of computer chips requires complex factories and lots of energy and other resources.
I'm not going low-tech (yet) but I am attracted to the idea that we embrace digitalisation with more caution than before and dare to maintain contact with the skills that digitalisation is trying to make obsolete. We need to be able to work on both sides of the digital divide and develop a functional resilience. You never know when you may need to work out something for yourself again.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Illusions of learning - the problem with student evaluations


One of the problems with asking students to evaluate their courses and teachers is that the surveys often focus on a false customer-supplier relationship. In the commercial sphere companies want to find out if their customers are happy with what they have bought and this indicates a successful transaction. But education is far more complex and is not simply a matter of giving the customers what they want. In many cases the effects of education are delayed and cannot be assessed at the end of a course in terms of customer satisfaction. If you think back to your own education you may admit that the best teacher you had was one you hated at the time. A teacher who demanded a lot, criticised you, pushed you and challenged you. After the course you would have handed in a scathing evaluation but now, years later, you realise that you learned so much more from that experience than from the friendly teachers who made life easy and gave you a good grade.

We ask students to evaluate our pedagogy without helping them understand the process and this results in rather superficial evaluations that say very little about how much they actually learned from the course. This is the topic of a fascinating article in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and CognitionOn Students’ (Mis)judgments of Learning and Teaching Effectiveness. Sadly this article is only available if your employer pays a subscription for access to the journal but I will try to convey the gist of it here.

The authors discuss at length what they call illusions of learning. In their studies they discovered that students tend to give positive reviews to teachers who are enthusiastic and provide easily digested material that helps them pass the tests; an understandably pragmatic approach. They base their evaluations on superficial elements such as the teachers' appearance, age, gender, accent, enthusiasm, presentation style, and use of digital tools, none of which have any real relevance for the student's learning. Furthermore, the students showed a clear preference for traditional teaching methods like lecturing and believe that the learn more from traditional teaching than from active and collaborative learning, even when test results suggest the opposite.
Students believe, for example, that they learn best from enthusiastic and engaging instructors who provide smooth and well-polished lectures that do not require active class participation. Such factors, although they readily inflate students’ judgments of their own learning, do not consistently enhance students’ actual learning. They also inflate students’ evaluations of the effectiveness of their instructors. Indeed, students’ evaluations of teaching effectiveness can be poor predictors of their actual learning in their courses, and these evaluations can be biased by external factors unrelated to student learning, such as an instructor's gender, age, attractiveness, and grading leniency.
One section of the article has the heading: Do Student Evaluations Incentivize Poor Teaching Practices? If the university gives too much weight to student evaluations then more challenging teaching methods will be discouraged in favour of strategies that enhance customer satisfaction. Teachers who push and challenge students and encourage them to investigate topics for themselves risk poor evaluations and possible reprimand. To get better evaluations, teachers will be encouraged to revert to traditional methods and we are then stuck in a vicious circle. The students will have the illusion of learning and the teachers will have the illusion of teaching. Everyone will be happy but how much have they learned?
We propose that faulty metacognition is a key contributor to the problem. Students’ misevaluations of teaching effectiveness can be driven by the same factors that underlie their misjudgments of their own learning. Although they do not enhance student learning and can even impair it, teaching approaches that minimize effort and create the appearance of a smooth, well-polished, fluent, and enthusiastic instructor readily boost students’ subjective impressions of what they have learned and their perceived effectiveness of that instructor. Because these subjective impressions are the primary basis for determining teaching effectiveness, and as such are a key metric used for decisions about hiring and promotion, instructors are currently incentivized to adopt teaching approaches that may produce illusions of learning that boost their ratings but can actually undermine students’ learning.
Sadly there is no easy solution to this problem except widening the scope of evaluations to include multiple perspectives and helping students to make more informed evaluations of their learning. Given the workload for many students this will not be easy and the authors see no clear solution at present. At least we now have evidence that the system requires a radical rethink and that awareness is an improvement.
It is hoped that future conceptualizations of teaching effectiveness include research-based evidence for improving student learning and metacognition as a strong basis in formulating measurements that accurately and reliably reflect the quality of teaching.
Reference
Carpenter, S. K., et al. On Students’ (Mis)judgments of Learning and Teaching Effectiveness. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (2020), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2019.12.009

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Deconferencing or unconferencing?


Educational conferences are big business and whatever field you work in you'll find a conference somewhere every week of the year. Take a look, for example, at Contact North's excellent overview of conferences in educational technology for the year ahead - a breathtaking 1700 of them! All of them involving a hefty carbon footprint in terms of air travel. As I've written before, we can't go on meeting like this.

Now there's a growing interest in deconferencing; reducing the number of conferences you attend, ultimately to zero. This is not just about reducing our climate anxiety, there is also the question of what you actually gain from attending conferences. Are the benefits to you and your organisation worth the time and effort or do you go simply because you are expected to or simply due to habit? After a while you realise that you have heard most things before and the number of eureka moments per conference is alarmingly low. Over the last year I have been trying to only attend conferences that can be reached by train. One advantage of this is that you have to think carefully before signing up for a conference. Is it really worth those lengthy train journeys and a lot of leisure time sitting on trains and waiting at stations? I'm also aware that train journeys are not always environmentally friendly, especially if the trains are hauled by diesel locomotives. But it's not just about cutting the air miles, it's about rethinking the meaning of conferences and trying to finding new arenas to meet.

I can recommend an excellent post on the topic by Alan Levine (aka CogDog), On deconferencing. He has withdrawn from the conference circuit and explains the reasons and it's not just about carbon footprints. It's also about the exclusivity of big conferences. Many of us who get paid to attend conferences tend to take it all for granted and seldom stop to think how privileged we are. We are part of an exclusive club and we tend to forget that there are millions of academics who cannot afford to attend or face visa restrictions and other barriers even if they can afford the fees. He admits that he was one of the club:
It was for work. It was just part of the job. Even later, when going independent, others still paid my fares in exchange for presenting/workshopping. I earned it, right? And it felt, yes, a bit glamorous. And I was there to to tweet out all the foibles of travel woes, missed planes, rude TSA agents, bland food.
Never thinking about how that looked to someone who did not get such opportunities.
As a road warrior, I was so… justified.
However his main reason for unconferencing is the search for deeper discussion and the limitations of the traditional conference format:
Even now, I picture these large conference halls where most folks are there tweeting slides. 
We need to rethink our conferences or better still devise new arenas for meaningful, accessible and inclusive discussion with less dependence on airlines and expensive hotels.
Conference on… but I am deconferencing. I am looking for better ways to share knowledge, ideas that can include more people and less travel, but just plain… better.
Experiments with digital conferences are promising but we shouldn't focus only on the digital arena. The concept of the unconference has been around for many years and is a physical gathering, generally small-scale, where groups get together and discuss issues of common interest without any keynotes or slideshows. These could also be arranged online. Many conferences fail to harvest the vast amount of knowledge and experience among the participants and the unconference is all about that. Maybe the future is more about more focused small-scale discussion groups, mixing synchronous and asynchronous as well as on-site and online collaboration.

I don't mean we scrap major conferences completely but we will certainly need to reduce their number and find other ways to meet. A major driver of academic conferences is their importance to researchers and demands for accepted conference papers as professional recognition. Maybe we can find new ways of recognising researchers in a more inclusive and interactive arena.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The unheard students


Despite a wealth of reports and studies on the importance of lifelong learning and the need for professional development and reskilling, the focus of most higher education institutions is still firmly on traditional full-time campus programmes aimed at young students. Mature students studying part-time and mostly online are generally peripheral and invisible to the institution's core business. A new report from HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute) in the UK, Unheard: the voices of part-time adult learners, raises this issue and gives a voice to these unheard students. There has been a dramatic reduction in the numbers of mature students studying in England over the past 5 years and even though the trend isn't completely shared by the other nations of the UK there is a need for a new approach. Higher university fees in England and Wales have certainly excluded applications from students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However it is not simply an issue of high fees. A similar trend is visible even here in Sweden where there are no fees, but a policy decision to focus on traditional campus degree programmes has led to a drop in the number of online courses available to mature students.

Of course there are open universities in many countries around the world who address this issue and offer flexible higher education to this important segment, but since demand is growing we need more institutions to widen their scope. Governments seldom make significant investments in lifelong learning and universities are still primarily research institutions with an attractive campus as their physical presence in the community. Say the word student and most people think of young people between 18 - 23 who study full-time on campus and this image is reflected in the imagery of practically every university's website. However, for most mature students full-time campus study is simply not an option. You cannot just give up your work and move your family to a campus city. The vast majority of mature students study part-time and the report outlines many of the barriers that they have to overcome. To understand this target group universities need to understand that mature part-time students have a different profile from full-time campus students:
  • They do not identify themselves primarily as students. Their identities as parents or professionals are much stronger and as a result their ties to the institution where they study are much weaker than traditional students.
  • They are interested in finding a course that is flexible and fits their existing lifestyle and are less interested in which institution provides it.
  • They tend not to join student unions and their voice is seldom heard on faculty boards and committees.
  • Because of the difficulties of managing part-time study, work and family commitments many mature students have to be very adaptive and creative to complete their studies. The existing structures do not help them.
  • They are often unfamiliar with the study skills and academic terminology that are taken for granted in a campus setting and this can cause confusion as well as creating feelings of inadequacy.
  • At the same time, mature students are often highly motivated and resourceful since course completion can help them into a new career or give them opportunities for advancement. They have clearer goals for their studies than many campus students.
The report raises concern that the current lack of incentives and opportunities for lifelong learning, particularly in England risks creating a serious level of inequality.

The crisis engulfing part-time adult learners in England points to an impoverished future in which higher education morphs into a purely full-time experience for 18-year olds fortunate enough to be born in the right place, attend the right school and gain the right A-Level grades. No more ‘second-chance’ transformations, no more learn-while-you-earn, no more enriching learning with contributions from adults who can bring different life experiences. Flexible opportunities for those disadvantaged individuals who cannot study full-time may all but vanish.

Changes are urgently needed and many of the report's recommendations can be applied in other countries around the world. One major factor is better recognition of prior learning, especially relevant workplace experience, and this would help reduce the study time necessary for a qualification. Another important factor is better guidance in the transition from adult education and non-formal learning into the formal university system. This is referred to as access pedagogy and can include preparatory courses and online guides focusing on study skills and academic writing and generally developing the students' confidence and resilience. Once accepted into a course the many students who are new to higher education will need initial extra support and tutoring is seen as particularly important:

... recognising some students will feel they do not belong, will feel they are transitioning ‘across separate worlds with no guidebook’, and will progress as a small and isolated cohort – so support students with tutors who will continue the higher education journey with them.

This support could come from various sources and not necessarily from university teachers. Support could come from local learning centres or from more experienced online students who could act as mentors. With such scaffolding in place there will be fewer dropouts and society will benefit from more people getting the chance to reskill and upskill. We keep hearing about the lack of qualified skilled people to fill vacancies in both the public and private sectors and it's time to do something about it.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

What happens on campus when everyone's online?


Most universities and colleges see online education as a supplement to the core business of the traditional campus. The institution's soul lies in the campus with its buildings, parks and meeting spaces and the everyday interaction between staff and students. But what happens when the online sector outgrows the campus? When most of the staff and students are working from home the campus loses its function as a meeting place. The physical campus has enormous symbolic value and if a visitor sees very few people milling around it is easy to draw the conclusion that the place is ready to close down, even if the online courses are full and very active.

These thoughts are discussed in a short post by Matt Reed in Inside Higher Ed, Online Enrollment and Campus Culture. His college has a rapidly rising number of online students and this is also affecting staff presence on campus as more and more prefer to teach from home. Empty corridors and quiet staff rooms can negatively affect staff morale and the feeling of community is eroded.

... it’s hard to convey a welcoming campus culture when fewer faculty are around at any given time. The feel of a department starts to change. If people who used to be on campus four days a week are suddenly here only two days a week, areas that used to bustle with activity start to feel like ghost towns. The culture starts to fray.

This in turn influences the students' sense of belonging to a living institution.

Students can tell the difference between a bustling area and a dead one. They draw a message from an entire hallway of closed doors and empty offices.

There are no clear answers but one guiding principal is to make the campus experience as valuable and unmissable as possible. Of course many distance students live too far away to attend campus meetings on a regular basis but all should be encouraged to spend some time there. Most of them are happy to travel if they can but there needs to be a very good reason for doing so; not just to get information that could have been delivered in a recorded video. Even established institutions need to rethink the physical campus, what it offers and why students and staff can benefit from being there. That added value should never be taken for granted.

Many institutions have succeeded in creating stimulating collaborative learning spaces where academic and social events can take place. At the same time we need to extend the college community into the digital spaces and find ways to blend the two environments. How can online students participate easily in campus events and be visible in doing so? How can we make campus students more aware of their online counterparts and create a common culture and community? These questions were partly addressed in the British JISC project, Sticky campus, where they experimented with setting up learning spaces where campus and online students could interact, even outside regular class activities. If we can use technology to make bridges between campus and online we can create a greater sense of community for all. The online students can become more visible and  feel part of campus activities and this will hopefully motivate them to some day make the trip to see it for real.


Monday, January 13, 2020

Innovating pedagogy 2020 - time for sustainable education?

CC BY-NC Some rights reserved by The Open University
The UK's Open University, in collaboration with the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL), Dublin City University, Ireland, has published its annual review of innovations in teaching and learning in higher education, Innovating pedagogy 2020. This the eighth report in a row and has common features with the much hyped NMC Horizon reports, such as predictions about the potential impact and timescales of each innovative practice described. These criteria are notoriously inaccurate (especially in the Horizon reports) and should not be taken too seriously but the descriptions, conclusions and references are interesting as indications on the present wind directions in the use of technology in higher education.

The ten areas examined by the report are:
  • Artificial intelligence in education. This means learning for, about and with AI. It is also vital that educators are involved in the implementation of AI and make sure it is used to benefit teaching and learning.
    ... what is clear is that the topic of AI in education is too important to be left to engineers and entrepreneurs. Instead, it is critical that educators, learning scientists and other stakeholders engage, to ensure that the AI applied in educational contexts best supports the learners, the teachers and the learning.
  • Posthumanist perspectives. This concerns the blurring of boundaries between humans and machines and the potential of this interaction for the benefit of education.
  • Learning through open data. Public organisations all over the world produce enormous amounts of open data that should be used in universities to enable students to use authentic data for research purposes.
  • Engaging with ethics. The (un)ethical use of personal data has been in the headlines for the last couple of years with the rise of what is often termed as surveillance capitalism. It is vital that students learn to learn how their data is used and misused and to gain a mature and informed attitude to the platforms and tools they use.
    Teachers and other education practitioners can actively engage their students with ethics by presenting authentic case-studies and giving opportunities for active discussion, ideally with people from different cultural settings and backgrounds. Only by engaging with ethics can we learn that our own mindset might not necessarily be shared by others.
  • Social justice pedagogy. Developing the ability to see issues from different perspectives, especially in terms of power structures, prejudice, roles, accessibility issues etc.
    For individuals, the process of thinking about how they came to know what they know, and what they think about what they know, can be very challenging. Specific teacher education may be required, to encourage and prepare teachers to adopt a social justice pedagogy and to deal with how the approach may play out in class.
  • Esports. The world of online gaming shows the power of learning and problem-solving in a community. These lessons are now being applied to create immersive learning communities.
  • Learning from animations. Animations are being increasingly used to show processes, procedures and movement.
  • Multisensory learning. Smell,taste and touch can be used more in learning activities.
  • Offline networked learning. Millions of people have limited or no internet access but can still benefit from digital resources in local networks run on battery or solar powered servers.
  • Online laboratories. Access to realistic virtual online labs give authentic laboratory experience to students who would otherwise never have access to such physical facilities.
The report is in general positive about the future as long as we can learn to harness the dangers of big data and artificial intelligence. Our attitudes to technology have changed and we need to be much more critical and cautious of the global tech giants.

The theme that interests me most is that of offline networked learning. Using battery powered mini servers and a wireless network, students in remote areas can work together with digital resources in a closed offline network (see also my post, Online learning - unplugged). This solution is also being used for education in prisons where internet access is not appropriate. However it is not only a solution for remote regions, there are arguments for closed networks even in developed regions. The report mentions the concept of  slow learning:

Networked offline learning brings people together in meaningful collaboration and sharing activities that can create opportunities for a slower, more deliberate learning experience than is typical on the Internet. 

Maybe we need to experiment with working in such distraction-free digital spaces to relearn how to focus. I don't mean that we go completely offline but a future skill will be learning to go offline in order to focus without losing the advantages of digital collaboration.

However, the biggest issue of all today is how education intends to face the greatest challenge of all today - the climate crisis. This is mentioned only briefly in the report but none of the innovations discussed will be of any relevance if the climate issue is not addressed immediately. Unless radical and uncomfortable changes take place on a global scale in the next ten years the future looks extremely dark. The educational sector must push harder for these changes, through further research but more importantly by integrating the message of United Nations sustainable development goals 2030 in every course and classroom. As I have previously written, we must develop sustainable ways to meet and collaborate, primarily through digital meetings and conferences. The carbon footprint of the higher education sector is extremely high through countless international projects and conferences (read more in this article in University World News, Time to cut international education’s carbon footprint). We cannot stop this completely but we could surely half the level if we develop better digital arenas for collaboration and learn how to use them effectively. As with all other aspects of the climate crisis, we know the dangers and we have solutions but entrenched attitudes and habits are the hardest things to change. My top trend for 2020 would be rethinking academic culture and focusing on sustainable education.

Reference
Kukulska-Hulme, A., Beirne, E., Conole, G., Costello, E., Coughlan, T., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Holmes, W., Mac Lochlainn, C., Nic Giolla Mhichíl, M., Rienties, B., Sargent, J., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M. and Whitelock, D. (2020). Innovating Pedagogy 2020: Open University Innovation Report 8. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Monday, January 6, 2020

A decade of broken dreams and big business


I strongly urge you to read Audrey Watters' review of the past decade in educational technology, The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade. It's a catalogue of the buzzwords, hypes, deceptions and snake-oil solutions that have made the educational technology headlines in recent years. Even if the focus is on the US edtech industry, most of the solutions will be familiar to educators everywhere. I have long admired Watters' courage over the years, daring to criticise the hypocrisy and cynicism of the tech industry when most of us were singing its praises and falling for the alluring tales of disruption and free education for all. The past decade has been a journey of broken dreams.

Number one in Watters' list of debacles is anti-school shooter software, the result of the USA's insane attitude to guns and mass shootings. School shootings are now so commonplace that an entire industry has developed to "protect" schools, identify shooters and alert the police. This involves increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology with enormous amounts of student data being gathered by corporations. This industry is hardly visible anywhere else in the world but is a desperately sad indictment of modern society.

Many of the phenomena described in the article fall under the following loose categories (though they are all of course interrelated):

Surveillance
Data is indeed the new oil and corporations are now able to refine the raw data of clicks, location tracking, preferences and interaction into business opportunities. Edtech software including learning management systems gather enormous amounts of student data and this can now be monetised. The prospect of using, for example, Amazon's voice assistant Alexa at school should set off alarm bells. Learning analytics seems to be largely focused on tracking and surveillance and all that data has a high commercial value. Instructure's proposed sale to equity firm Thoma Bravo for $2 billion would seem to confirm the potential value of student data. Plagiarism detection tool Turnitin has amassed a vast pool of student assignments that they can sell. The list goes on. Despite attempts, at least in Europe, to tighten laws on the exploitation of personal data we still happily accept those pesky terms and conditions when the pop up on our screens.

Educational mythology 
The Silicon Valley narrative that the traditional education system is inadequate to educate students for the 21st century has been very persuasive. As a result, we hear that the students (so-called digital natives) are driving the change and are already using technology to "hack" the system and learn on their own terms (some may be doing this but claims are highly exaggerated). This disruption narrative claims that edtech is the way forward to meeting the demands of this new generation of students who will be working in jobs that do not exist today (this has always been true - parents in the early 20th century could never have guessed that their children would become car designers, pilots or astronauts). The industry has capitalised on the FOMA (fear of missing out) factor among educational leaders with claims that MOOCs are the future of higher education and that companies like Udacity will become the Uber of education. Many institutions have been easily persuaded to make enormous investments to ensure they are seen as embracing the opportunities of the digital revolution. Sadly there have been unscrupulous actors running a whole industry of fake online universites and fake degrees. Watters' list is full of examples of this narrative and the reckless claims to disrupt education that didn't quite deliver.

Many of the leading names in the tech industry have of course invested in philanthropic initiatives that Watters calls venture philanthropy. There are surely benefits in this but inevitably there is a business case even for philanthropy:

These philanthropists’ visions for the future of education and education technology mirror their own businesses: the child will be the customer. The child’s data will be mined. The child’s education will be personalized.

Free
If it's free there's a catch, though even if you pay for it there's still generally a catch. Your data is the price you pay.

...if you’re using a piece of technology that’s free, it’s likely that your personal data is being sold to advertisers or at the very least hoarded as a potential asset (and used, for example, to develop some sort of feature or algorithm).

Free tools are used very successfully by millions of teachers to enhance their teaching, but there is always the danger that the company goes bust or gets bought by a larger company who then try to monetise it. One example of this was the social network platform Ning that was extremely popular among educators in the first half of the decade but was then bought and put behind a paywall.

Miracle cures
There have been so many headlines about how a particular device or method will disrupt/revolutionise education. From MOOCs to clickers to smartboards to virtual reality. They all have merits when applied well but the inflated expectations and sensational headlines have lead to many extremely expensive investments (and nice profits for some) and many shattered dreams.

In addition there are examples of more bizarre methods to monitor students in the form of skin response bracelets, brainwave headbands and the compulsory use of  fitness trackers for campus students (providing of course lots of useful personal data!). These are often based on quasi-scientific theories and rolled out with convincing optimism.

Flops
The list is full of ambitious and hyped solutions that belly-flopped: for example One laptop per child, Google Glass (and many other Google services that have died during the decade) and Amazon Inspire. Flops will always happen in an innovative market so there is now real surprise here but maybe the point is how the hype takes over the narrative and we all get swept along with it.

So where are we heading as we move into the twenties? I can't see the commercialisation of education going away any time soon, rather an intensification of the process from both industry and politics. Free and open education is still possible but the educators must own the platforms and the users must give informed consent to their data being stored and know that they can always demand their data back (a cornerstone of the European GDPR legislation). Maybe it's time to move to open source solutions and revive the idea behind platforms like Wikiuniversity and Wikieducator - they may have been clunky but they were open and non-commercial. Above all we need to be much more aware of media hype and attractive but misleading generalisations. Question everything and learn how and when to switch off.