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 He has withdrawn from the conference circuit and explains the reasons and it's not just about carbon footprints.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.

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):

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.

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.

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.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Smart campus, but who owns the smartness?

Learning analytics allows sophisticated analysis of students' activity in the university's various platforms and tools, allowing teachers and administrators to see who is falling behind, what they are having problems with and what types of activities give the best results. At the same time the campus is becoming smarter with the use of IoT (internet of things) technology and facial recognition, allowing automatic attendance registration, smart monitoring of room occupancy, car parks, heating control and even rubbish bins. Add artificial intelligence into this mix and we have the smart campus of tomorrow.

An example of the smart campus movement is Arizona State University, described in an article in EdTech magazine, How Arizona State University Built a Smart Campus. They have developed a campus app that has become almost default for students and staff allowing them to check schedules, grades, exam times, services, cafeteria menus, parking options, room availability and so on. Buildings and other spaces are constantly monitored and data collected about occupation and movement. This enables more efficient use of energy and provides vital data for planning new facilities and changes to existing ones. Major IT companies are pitching sophisticated solutions for campus management as seen in this film.

It's all extremely impressive but I have a couple of reservations.

Firstly, although the smart campus is very convenient and gives students and staff personalised and attractive services at their fingertips, you get the feeling that your every move is registered and stored. If all the data is aggregated all my movements, activities, purchases, studies, test results, hours spent in different spaces and travel will be available for possible analysis. Examples of facial recognition and ubiquitous CCTV monitoring seen in some Chinese schools and colleges in recent months can mean that there is simply nowhere to hide on campus. Your mobile is both the key to all campus facilities and a tracking device. The university therefore has extremely detailed data on everyone on campus and it is virtually impossible to opt out or even switch off. If that data is in the hands of a third party what guarantees are there that they will not sell that data or find ways of profiting from it? There are of course enormous advantages in smart campus solutions but questions about the use of personal data and informed consent must be foremost.

My second reservation is the focus on the physical campus and what sort of smart services all the off-campus online students will be able to access. These students are seldom mentioned in the smart campus narrative and I would like to see new learning spaces that bridge the gap between traditional campus students and online students. There seem to be few limits on the level of investment in the physical campus whilst the online spaces are in comparison extremely low-budget operations.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Toolkits for active learning

There are so many choices of educational methods and tools that it's easy to feel a bit paralysed when faced with selecting the right ones for a particular lesson. That's why curated toolkits and practical guides are always so appreciated especially if they make it easier to find the right method or tool for what you want to achieve in a particular class activity.

One such useful guide is the Dynamic Toolkit developed by the Erasmus+ project eLene4Life. This is a compilation of activities that promote active and collaborative learning that can be applied in different settings: in the classroom, outdoors, online or a blended approach. The activities develop a variety of transversal soft skills: digital, methodological, social and personal.

The DT (Dynamic Toolkit) is designed to support the acquisition of transversal skills using innovative teaching methodologies. It is addressed to educators across Europe, to support them in the process of designing their classes/lectures aimed at fostering acquisition of transversal skills by their students (mainly in large classes).

You can use a variety of criteria to search for a method and there are then clear instructions and ideas for implementation as well as reference material and links to similar or related methods. Some involve digital tools but many are simply about organising classroom activities. The key to them all is promoting active learning. Also included is a guide to digital tools used in active learning.

Active learning refers to a broad range of teaching strategies which engage students or trainees as active participants in their learning. Typically, these strategies involve learners working together during class, but may also involve individual work and/or reflection, as well as group work outside the classroom. The focus is on how to learn rather than what to learn, placing the learner at the heart of the process. Active learning can be on a spectrum of learner and teacher control of the learning process and learning environment.

I also discovered a similar tookit developed by the University of Copenhagen and partners. This has a similar search function and the methods have clear descriptions, instructions and references as well as links to related resources in the toolkit.

Guides like these save so much time and frustration for many teachers who would otherwise never stumble upon these tools and methods. Knowing that other teachers have tried and tested them makes experimenting with more creative teaching methods less of a stressful leap in the dark.

Another toolkit you might want to check is a guide to digital tools for collaboration called Smarter Collaboration that I am responsible for at my university. Here you will find a wide range of collaborative tools arranged under functional categories such as collaborative writing, screencasting, mindmapping, planning, presenting and many more.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Headsets - not pretty but best for audio quality

Many web meetings and webinars are spoiled by poor sound quality. The volume level fluctuates, background noise interferes and the sound quality varies. Often this is due to the unstable nature of wireless connections, but generally the problem is caused by headsets or the lack of them. A post by Ken Molay on his Webinar Blog, The Perfect Webcam Headset Doesn't Exist, outlines the main problems. The in-built microphones can offer good sound quality (I've heard some good examples of this) but more often than not they offer a metallic sound and require the speaker to speak directly into the laptop without moving around. Another drawback of the in-built microphone is that if you try to type it sounds like an elephant practicing tap-dancing. I often use a desktop microphone (Jabra Speak) and this offers very good quality but not if you move around a lot or start typing of doing anything on the actual desktop. The in-built microphones in webcams are usually the worst possible choice, though in my experience the computer often chooses this as the default microphone so it's a good idea to always check before starting a web meeting.

 Bluetooth earpieces with microphone would seem an ideal option but there are drawbacks even here.

Wireless devices lose power, lose pairing, and catch interference from other signals. Bluetooth is susceptible to transmission lag that can mess up audio/video synchronization or make smooth two-way conversation difficult.

So the best option seems to be the good old wired headset, preferably with a USB connection.

A headset is the optimal way to get near-field clarity and consistent volume, since it stays in place at the same distance from the mouth no matter what the presenter does.

The trouble is that headsets aren't particularly flattering fashion accessories and are not particularly comfortable either. I use a big clunky Logitech headset that works well but it would be nice to have something less conspicuous. Most people would rather not use one at all and this is evident in many meetings and webinars I am involved in. Ken Molay concludes that there is still no headset that ticks all the boxes: light, comfortable and almost invisible. The best bet is the ultra thin boom microphones often used by conference speakers but no manufacturer has produced one with an earpiece speaker. Ken offers a nice specification for manufacturers to deliver. I hope it comes along soon for the sake of better web communication.

My ideal, "optimal" headset for use while on a video webcast would be a thin whip boom earhook microphone, connected to the USB port of my computer, with an integrated low-profile earpiece. The whole thing should be available in two or three colors to get closer to a range of human skin tones. It needs a minimum six-foot (two-meter) cable. And it should be optimized for USB low-power operating voltage and human speech frequency range.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Developing digital professionalism - let's be careful out there!

Photo by Thom Holmes on Unsplash
I like the term digital professionalism used by Bernadette John in an article on JISC, "We’re sleepwalking into a surveillance society with the tech in our pockets". She raises concerns that we are often unwittingly sharing sensitive information due to the fact that the apps on our mobiles and tablets are uploading our photos and conversations to cloud servers without our knowledge. Even images shared over encrypted apps like Whatsapp are then shared automatically to Apple's iCloud making them potentially available for public view. Basically we all need to spend time understanding and trying to tame the powerful forces working around the clock on our mobile devices.

People are sleepwalking into a surveillance society. They're not aware of what their obligations are with regards to the tech in their pockets, they're just using it for work without mindfully considering what the risks and benefits are and making a balanced and informed decision about it.

She gives examples of doctors sharing patient information with colleagues on encrypted services, unaware that other apps are copying the images and saving them to publicly accessible cloud services. For example, all photos I take on my mobile are automatically uploaded to iCloud and Google Photos and so even a private photo that I do not share on any social media are visible elsewhere. If you are aware of that you can be careful what you photograph, but if you don't realise this you risk sensitive photos becoming public. Our mobile apps often have the ability to store and send tracking data, conversations, e-mails and other actions - we have of course accepted this by clicking OK in the terms and conditions. We simply haven't fully grasped the sometimes treacherous power of the devices we hold so precious.

This isn't a generation issue. We all need to become more responsible users even if it means moving from cool but "leaky" platforms and apps to less cool but more secure alternatives. 

We need to actively train students in what we expect of them with regard to how they carry themselves on social channels, and to make it explicit. We need to show them scenarios where things haven't worked out well for others, and ask them to explore those scenarios. But we can't do that without also doing it for the staff.

The article ends with a list of digital professionalism dos and don'ts with an overall message of "get smart". Remember that all those devices, platforms and tools are designed to be as sticky and addictive as possible. Check your profiles, security settings, permissions and shut down potential leaks. Think before you share and even when you do, be aware that whatever you share digitally can easily be shared by others. That doesn't mean we have to lock down everything and go completely offline. Sharing is still extremely rewarding and collaboration is essential for learning. But in the words of the sergeant in the wonderful eighties cop series Hill Street Blues - "Let's be careful out there."

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Attention seekers - taking innovation from project to mainstream

There is no shortage of innovative and exciting projects in education full of enthusiasts investigating new ways to enhance learning or widen the horizons of current educational practice. However the challenge of moving from project to mainstream often proves too great and few innovations get a chance to make a real impact on the institution's core activities.This is a source of frustration for all of us who have been working with educational technology but it's worthwhile stepping back a bit and looking at all the other important issues that are competing for the attention of policy makers and management: internationalisation, accessibility, diversity, sustainability, pedagogical development, quality assurance etc. Educational institutions must deliver what is asked of them by their government authorities or owners and if these requirements do not include specific objectives for the issues mentioned above, then those issues will naturally be of secondary importance to the management. If your cause is not on that priority list then your chances of getting noticed are low.

In recent years in Sweden there has been little coherent strategy from the top on the use of educational technology and as a result development has largely been fragmented and responsibility delegated to each institution. Things are changing now with the issue once again on the agenda of the government authorities but for many years it was hard to see real progress. There have been many projects and initiatives but almost always bottom-up and dependent on short-term financing. If bottom-up is not met half way by top-down strategies, commitment and incentives then all that energy just evaporates into thin air.

The struggle to catch the eye of the decision makers was nicely captured in a lecture I attended the other week by Melissa de Wilde from Gent University in Belgium. She is a researcher in educational innovation and described her efforts to promote virtual exchange at her university. Her story was familiar to everyone who has tried to introduce new concepts and perspectives. The challenge of simply getting people's attention is probably the greatest and demands resilience and stubborn persistence to make any kind of headway. Decision makers are the hardest to influence unless your issue can help them tick at least one of the boxes on their to-do list. Teachers can often be interested in your cause, but simply don't have the time or energy to get involved, especially since your cause is just one of many admirable but non-essential ones vying for the attention. Key success factors according to Melissa are simply getting your foot in the door and not withdrawing, getting help from a high status staff member or an external expert (deus ex machina), providing support to those who do engage, making sure to document, measure and analyse the process, creating  opportunities to share experiences and success stories and simply making yourself and your colleagues hard to ignore (creating a buzz).

However, no matter how hard you try, nothing helps your cause more than it becoming national policy and part of the institution's mission, so you need to address the policy makers as well as the grassroots. If we can join forces with other causes vying for attention and show that you can tick several boxes in one go then the chances of mainstream adoption must be high. Digitalisation can for example help to build sustainability (reduced air travel, paper use), promote internationalisation (virtual exchange, online collaboration), widen access to education (online courses), enhance inclusion (digital tools for text-speech-text, translation, sub-titles) and pedagogical development (open pedagogy, online courses, collaborative learning, best practice dissemination). If we have to compete for attention we will not get very far. Joining forces must be the answer.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The future of student mobility is digital - whether we like it or not

I have spent the past week contributing to an international staff training week on virtual exchange at the Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice, southern Poland. I was responsible for several workshops and presentation sessions on subjects like tools for digital collaboration, webinars and the open online course for teachers that I help to run, Open Networked Learning. It was a truly global gathering and our common interest was widening international collaboration between students and teachers by using digital platforms and tools. Integrating internationalisation in the curriculum has been common in language teaching for many years but today’s online collaboration goes far beyond the level of simply linking up with colleagues abroad using Skype. Using synchronous and especially asynchronous platforms students can collaborate on common projects in practically any field, teachers can develop common online courses and students can even work for international companies through virtual internships. The participants were all enthusiastic about the opportunities offered by virtual exchange and many different projects and approaches were presented and discussed.

This part of Poland, Upper Silesia, and surrounding cities like Katowice, Chorzów and Zabrze are synonymous to many people with heavy industry such as coal, iron and steel and the resultant pollution. In recent years, however, most of the mines and factories have closed and this has led to a massive restructuring of the economy, moving from industry to services. The cities are changing as the old industrial landscape is replaced by modern housing, offices shopping malls and motorways. In many cases industrial buildings are converted and repurposed and many of the impressive new public buildings have elements of the past heritage, such as the use of local bricks. Some industrial areas have been converted into parks or wetlands and slowly the region is emerging from the polluted industrial past. During the week, we were taken on a tour down an old coal mine, a visit that made me ashamed to ever complain about my own work having seen the conditions that the miners have had to work in. This process of totally overhauling the regional economy is painful and far from complete but the change has been essential. Our conference in some way reflected this in that we are facing a radical shift in how we work with internationalisation.

With the background of the urgency to reduce carbon emissions, especially through air travel, it would seem logical that virtual exchange/mobility is clearly the way forward in terms of international cooperation in higher education. However, this week made me realise that the field is still in its infancy compared to the efforts universities put into physical mobility programmes. Even if my colleagues this week were all enthusiastic about the potential of online collaboration and were trying hard to influence colleagues at their respective institutions, it seemed to me that physical mobility is still the default option, even if an average of around 5% of all students ever get the opportunity to study abroad. Even without the climate crisis, the arguments for investing in virtual exchange activities would seem to be convincing. Online collaboration enables all students to learn how to work in international and multi-cultural teams, a skill that is highly valued in the labour market. It also promotes accessibility since students with restricted mobility are able to participate in international activities on equal terms. If we genuinely believe that students benefit from meeting and working with students from other countries and with other perspectives then the only way to enable this for all of them is by using online platforms and tools.

The elephant in the room however is the realistic prospect that we may soon have to drastically cut or even stop our use of air travel and physical meetings and conferences will become rare or unfeasible. Even those who are working with virtual exchange are still flying to meetings and conferences and the desired outcome of many projects is a physical exchange at some point. This is a very hard pill to swallow and although I have been trying hard to avoid air travel for the past few months it still hurts; especially those extremely long train trips through Europe with hectic platform changes and bags to carry. However, I suspect that the pressure to reduce the carbon footprint of higher education will increase rapidly in the coming year and no matter how exciting it is to travel and meet each other in person, we will simply have to find other ways. I am very glad, however, that I was able to attend this event and meet other enthusiasts who see great potential in virtual exchange.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

MOOCs on campus

Even if the concept of a MOOC is now so blurred and diverse that the acronym has become almost redundant, new twists to the story keep emerging. Instead of challenging the traditional education system as originally proclaimed, the main MOOC platforms are now becoming increasingly mainstream focusing on complementing the traditional system and gaining a foothold in the corporate training market. The news that Coursera are now offering a concept called Coursera for campus seems to represent the closing of the circle as MOOCs become part of the traditional campus set-up.

The idea is that a university can sign up and gain access to Coursera's library of over 3,600 courses and then integrate them into the curriculum. The MOOCs can be used as course modules or complementary material and they can be integrated into the institution's learning management system, allowing teachers to add their own assignments and course material to the MOOC. The institution can then add examination and award credits for the MOOC. The ability to use a MOOC as a kind of multimedia course book and then add on-site seminars, assignments and assessment is very attractive though of course it comes at a price and is far from the notion of MOOCs as examples of open educational resources. A Spotify for MOOCs basically.

The advantages to the institution are several. Courses and teachers from high profile universities can be integrated into the curriculum and then local support and adaptation to local circumstances can be included as added value. I like this idea and have previously posted about examples of this in more open varieties of MOOCs. The Coursera MOOCs can even be offered as lifelong learning options to a wider learner community, also with added local focus or even with support in the local language (I haven't seen examples of this yet but it would certainly be extremely useful). Institutions can also use the Coursera library to offer a wider choice of optional courses to their students. Customers have also access to Coursera's learning analytics tools to track student engagement and completion rates, though on the other hand this also gives Coursera access to your student data, thus increasing the already vast amount of student data they can process.

If this development means that universities and colleges can widen their curriculum and offer course material from high status universities but at the same time offering extra tuition in the local language, discussing how to apply the course topics to local circumstances, then I like the idea. It's a long way from the original concept of a MOOC and much more about a traditional content delivery concept but if there is the flexibility to add local relevance then it will be interesting to see how it develops. The main concern for me is who owns all the data and how will it be used.

Here's a publicity film from Coursera about their campus solution for Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Organising a digital conference

Post-conference organisers' meeting (CC BY Markus Schneider)
If we are serious about limiting our carbon footprint in the education sector we have to develop formats for online conferences to at least partly replace the flora of on-site conferences. The technology is available but we have to overcome many preconceptions about online meetings and dare to experiment. Over the past months I have been part of a team from both the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) and the Swedish Network for IT in Higher Education (ITHU) arranging a national digital conference on teaching and learning in higher education with a focus on digitalisation. Finally last week, 27 September, the conference was held with a total of over 500 participants from all over the country and several from abroad. Most of the registered participants attended; some attended all the sessions whilst others chose the sessions that were most relevant for them. At most we had over 350 people simultaneously and nearly all sessions had at least 50 participants. The conference was a great success and the technology worked perfectly all the way. The most important fact was that we showed that a digital conference of this dignity can be organised and can include social events and the chance to network, just like an on-site conference. It was so much more than a string of streamed presentations. We wanted to create the feel of a conference with a reception area, social breaks, online lunch and plenty of interaction in the sessions including many small group discussions.

The main aim of the conference was for the authority to inform and stimulate discussion about current national initiatives in the field of quality in teaching and learning. Normally this type of activity would be held in Stockholm and this naturally limits participation of those who have furthest to travel or have limited budgets.A digital conference is therefore more inclusive and saves a considerable amount of money that would otherwise be spent on the conference venue and catering as well as all the flights, train travel and hotel nights. the participants came from almost all the higher education institutions in Sweden as well as representatives from other educational sectors such as schools, learning centres and adult education. We also had many representatives from other government authorities who were mostly interested in seeing how a virtual conference could be organised.

Conference structure and technical set-up
On the technical side the conference used the e-meeting tool Zoom which all Swedish universities have access to and is familiar to many of the participants. You can see the conference programme on the conference site (in Swedish, but use a translation tool and it should be understandable). We decided to use Zoom's webinar room for for the plenary sessions since it can handle large numbers of participants. Here the participants are unable to activate their microphones and webcams and can only communicate by chat. This keeps the interface "clean" and puts the focus on the speakers. It also eliminates the risk of an unmuted microphone creating background noise. However all plenary sessions featured polls in the tool Mentimeter or encouraged questions and reflections in the chat, both of which proved extremely popular.

For the parallel sessions we used Zoom's large group rooms and here the particpants could be seen and heard and this enable a much freer discussion. These sessions involved between 50 and 150 participants and many involved small group discussions in breakout groups of 4-6. this also worked well and enabled participants to meet new colleagues. We devoted considerable planning time to testing various options and even carried out a stress test to see if there were any limitations when a room had hundreds of participants. We also documented all sorts of rules and guidelines for all the speakers, moderators, chat moderators, hosts and technical support staff and in many cases we had alternative plans if anything went wrong. This meticulous planning was the foundation of the conference's success and some of my colleagues worked extremely hard to cover all eventualities.

Social activities
We aimed to make all the sessions as interactive as possible but decided to experiment a little by also arranging the sort of social opportunities that make on-site conferences so valuable. Before the conference started we offered a mingle meeting in our reception/helpdesk room. This room was manned all through the conference to answer questions or help people set up their audio and video but in the early morning it was a drop-in mingle. I hosted this and was amazed that more than 70 people logged in from around 08:00 am just to say hello and test things. We allowed all to use their webcams and microphones and it was nice to have some small talk before we all moved to the main webinar room for the opening plenary. At lunch we offered a wide selection of rooms where you could simply eat your lunch with random colleagues from around the country. However the most interesting lunchtime activities were the rooms that featured mindfulness, yoga and even a German conversation course. We weren't sure anyone would dare to participate in these but they were all well attended and received plenty of positive feedback.

Feedback and reflections
After the dust had settled, all the organising team had a euphoric after-work session (online of course!). The relief that everything had worked beyond our wildest dreams was almost tangible and we all agreed that this experience will lead the way towards many more such ventures. The feedback from the participants was overwhelmingly positive and I can't recall any serious issues at all. The most common themes in the feedback were:
  • Inclusion. Many participants wrote that if the conference had been held in Stockholm they would not have attended. This meant that the conference gathered a much wider cross-section of the education sector than a physical conference could have achieved. Many claimed that they felt more active and included in the discussion than at a more traditional conference. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly.
  • Combining conference and work. Many appreciated that they could choose to attend certain sessions and still be able to do their regular tasks in between. It was also easy to drop into a session late without that awkward feeling you have when you walk into a room and make excuses.
  • Networking. Some felt that they had been able to met more people and discuss than at many regular conferences where you listen most of the time and eat lunch with colleagues.
  • Convenience. Even those who could easily have attended an on-site event appreciated the ability to participate without travel.
  • Participation. Some invited colleagues to sit in the same room with them and discuss the issues together. This meant that the conference reached many more participants than those who had registered and hopefully sparked interesting internal discussions. Some even participated on the move from a train or bus.
Finally, on a personal note this event confirmed many of the ideas I have written about in earlier posts about the potential of digital conferences and how we can also include social events and networking activities in an online space. I was part of a committed and creative team and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I have learnt a lot from this and feel now that we have made an important breakthrough. We will still need on-site meetings in the future but we need to make them exceptions rather than the rule. Digital events are not the same experience but they can be equally if not more stimulating and enjoyable.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

How dare you! What future do we offer our children?

This short speech by Greta Thunberg at the United Nations climate summit this week has shaken me. I've been increasingly depressed by how the world's leaders and decision makers continue to pay no more than lip service (at best) to the urgent demands from scientists and experts for concrete action to prevent the disastrous effects of massive climate change. But this short speech spells out the message better than any scientific report. We're in danger of triggering a disastrous and irreversible process and those who can actually do something about the situation continue with a message of business as usual, in some cases denying that the problem even exists. At the same time, the scientific facts were made even clearer as the IPCC published its Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, outlining the potentially disastrous effects of global warming to the marine environment with severe flooding, collapse of fishing and increase in severe weather phenomena. The message couldn't be clearer.

Greta points the finger not only at world leaders but also at all of us. We have all contributed to the mess and it's our responsibility to do everything we can to avert disaster. We talk so often about our children's future but now when the children are begging us to offer them a future the world seems suddenly paralysed. The solutions are there, the science and technology are available but the will to change is absent. Yes, there are millions protesting and many are trying to adjust our lifestyles, but the majority are simply continuing as normal, assuming that it will somehow work out well in the end. In all disaster movies, no-one listens to the lone scientist who warns of the impending danger. The mayor insists that the show must go on and scoffs at the idea of a giant shark/mutant piranhas/monsters/aliens coming to spoil the festivities. Sounds familiar today doesn't it? In the movies the lone scientist manages to save the day at the last minute, but I'm not sure this is a realistic scenario.

I have made some changes to my lifestyle in the last couple of years but admit that they are mostly cosmetic. Like most people, I'm still leading a comfortable lifestyle and following ingrained habits. I have often questioned whether not flying or eating less meat will make the slightest difference to the situation. The airports and planes are still packed, new massive shopping malls are opened every day, the annual consumer feeding frenzy of Christmas is already under way and the world's forests are disappearing rapidly. We seem to be consuming ourselves to extinction.

The role of education is absolutely vital to make people aware of climate issues and many educators are already making valuable contributions. But this is a global issue and needs international coordination. A major obstacle is the countries who actively discourage discussion of environmental issues even in schools or suppress any movement that may question or threaten the government's control. Even in the richest nations science and education are under threat since the solutions to the climate crisis threaten the profits and even existence of massive multinational corporations. The backlash we are seeing just now is savage and therefore it is essential that everyone in the education field is conspicuous and active in the public debate (where such action is allowed). Educators and scientists must react publicly to provide facts to debunk the conspiracy theorists and deniers. But we can't do this alone, we need political support. The saddest part of all this is that I see very few political leaders who are willing to step forward seriously and this is the core of Greta's message. She has power to influence but we need bold politicians who can do the real work. I can't see anyone willing to take the lead at the moment.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Digital by default - who is excluded?

I like to think that I am fairly comfortable with digital tools and platforms, but I feel a backlash growing inside me when the digital option is pushed into my face. Here in Sweden for example, cash has become almost obsolete, there's an app for everything and shops are becoming increasingly self-service. When a shop forces you to use those awful self-service checkouts, or you can only pay for parking by downloading the special app (that I as a visitor to the town will probably never use again), or when you arrive in a new city and are faced with the challenge of negotiating the often complex automatic ticket machines (offering you a myriad of options but never the one you are looking for). The hours I have wasted on such frustrating processes that an old-fashioned human contact would have solved in seconds.

I sometimes feel I'm the only one who feels like this, but received welcome support from a post by James Clay, Digital should be a choice… The new digital solution may be welcomed by many but we also need to consider who we are excluding by installing even more self-service machines or apps. Offer us a choice and we can maybe accept the change in time, but if there is no choice people will suffer.

We often forget that sometimes people don’t like innovation and innovation doesn’t automatically always mean better. Actually most of the time innovation for a lot of people is rarely better. Sometimes its worse than what was before, most of the time it’s just different.

I simply don't want to install new apps every week that clog up my mobile's limited capacity and that I only use a handful of times a year at most. Most buses are now cashless and if you don't use the app or have a prepaid card you are punished by paying a high price for a single ticket from A to B. In many self-service shops there is a forest of machines and one manual checkout with a long queue (curious isn't it?). At one railway station with only self-service ticket machines I saw several members of staff who spent all their time helping bewildered travellers to use the machines!

James Clay applies this to education where an increasing amount of services on campus are being migrated to kiosks or chatbots. What about students or staff who for some reason can't or don't wish to go digital in this way. Is there any real person I can ask? What do I do if I don't have a mobile that supports the latest app? Some tech companies have rationalised all traces of personal contact from their customer service, replacing it with vast FAQ pages and self-help discussion forums. Sometimes I have a problem that isn't covered there or I'm not prepared to spend the next two hours combing through the site to find an answer. I just want a quick answer. Of course I can check in myself at a hotel and do everything by app but I do like to meet a person who smiles and can answer my questions (no, I don't want a humanoid robot at the desk either, no matter how polite they may be).

Digital by default means making the first option digital, but there needs to be a second option, one that may require the use of people to deliver the service.

Whenever we innovate we need to consider whether we are excluding anyone and ensure that we have an option for them.