Saturday, January 15, 2022

Waiting for the storm to pass is not a solution - dealing with uncertainty

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

We used to believe that we could plan for a relatively predictable future, a clear linear pathway for our medium and even long-term strategies. Today however the future is wildly unpredictable and just about anything can happen, as the pandemic has clearly shown. We continue to plan for the day when the pandemic disappears and we can get back to normal, but how realistic is this, especially given the increasingly serious effects of the climate crisis and the growth of political instability around the world? This pandemic could continue for years, returning in new variants and, if that is not enough, climate and political instability will lead to further crises. The only way forward is to plan for dealing with constant uncertainty. We cannot put changes on hold until the pandemic dies down. 

This theme turned up in two articles I read this week. The first is by Debbie McVitty in the journal Wonkhe, Making peace with uncertainty in 2022. Many people in education leadership are trying to revert to normality and restore order in the disorder of the last two years. Universities look to the government to lead the way back to normality and unpredictability but what if that state never returns? One positive side to the present crisis is that it has forced us to rethink processes and practices that we have always taken for granted.

When things are uncertain, it becomes necessary to ask more searching questions about the various things that might happen – and in doing so gain an insight into the way things work and how they might work differently or better – like the many teaching and learning innovations that arose from the uncertain environment of online and hybrid learning. Uncertainty also means learning to deal with unexpected consequences – like student over-recruitment – a nice problem to have certainly, but also one that requires serious creative thinking to ensure students get what they’ve been offered in an acceptable way.

In fact there is a great danger in pretending that we can manage and control the future, ... the illusion of certainty may be more dangerous than confronting the reality of ambiguity. When the virus died down last year many universities joyfully reverted to the old order as soon as possible. For example, experiments with online examination were put aside as we reopened the examination halls again. We need to continue developing alternative methods rather than putting them back on the shelf because we simply don't know when we will have to handle the next crisis.

One area that needs to be developed is that of risk analysis and contingency planning and it's time to employ people to lead this work. This is highlighted in an article by Javeria Salman in The Hechinger ReportHow to plan for a future of education where disruption is the norm, describing the work of one such person, Andrew Smith, chief administrative and strategic planning officer for the Rowan-Salisbury School District in North Carolina. He gets management to develop plans for a variety of scenarios so that the organisation develops a certain crisis resilience. 

The leaders asked: What is the worst that could happen? What is the risk to schools, teachers and students? Then they asked whether the district was prepared to handle each scenario. Smith said they considered questions like: “What happens if kids never come back? Or if staff aren’t allowed in the buildings?” They even asked seniors for ideas in planning for socially distant graduation ceremonies.

We have been able to test many alternative solutions for teaching and learning over the last two years and we need to continue with this rather than waiting for the storm to pass.

Schools can’t keep waiting for an end to the pandemic for problems to go away, the solution “has to be now, not later,” Smith said. “Because every time you keep waiting for the end … how many hours kids are waiting for you?”

Sunday, January 9, 2022

MOOCs - so much more than course completion

I started this blog way back in 2008 and that happened to be the year when the term MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was coined after the ground-breaking course at the University of Manitoba, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, lead by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Not surprisingly I have written a lot of posts on this topic and have tried to follow and reflect on the complexities of designing online courses at scale. The term MOOC is used today to cover a very diverse range of course models from very traditional content transfer to collaborative and flexible learning spaces that can be better defined as communities rather than courses. The old adage that every letter in the acronym MOOC is negotiable is more true than ever today, especially O for open. However, despite claims that the MOOC boom of the last decade is over, the form continues to thrive with a massive upswing in interest during the pandemic (see article in EdSurge). 

I have just read an interesting review of recent MOOC research in an article by Aras Bozkurt in Open PraxisSurfing on Three Waves of MOOCs: An Examination and Snapshot of Research in Massive Open Online Courses. It is described as a systematic review of the empirical MOOC publications from 2016 to 2018, a total of 633 articles. The article examines four themes and how these themes have been described in the research.: (I) MOOCs as a mainstreaming learning model in HE, (II) motivation and engagement issues in MOOCs, (III) assessment issues in MOOCs, and (IV) MOOCs for social learning

The author describes three waves of MOOC development: the first wave of connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) in the spirit of the pioneers (Siemens, Downes, Cormier, Alexander, Belshaw etc), the highly commercialised second wave based on global consortia and elite universities and the present third wave that is a kind of mix of the previous waves. These waves are given time spans that feel a bit too tidy for me. All three are still present. The so-called first wave did not simply stop in 2011 with the advent of  Coursera, EdX and Udacity. Connectivist inspired open courses (not necessarily massive) have continued to thrive but under the media (and research) radar, recruiting through networks and communities rather than through global consortia. Many have stopped labelling themselves as MOOCs and thus evade radar detection.

One overarching trend in the article is the focus shift from the early qualitative emphasis on openness and community-building to a quantitative focus on massiveness and course completion statistics. The author points out how the focus on completion rates and student numbers has missed one of the main objectives of the whole concept, as a contribution to lifelong learning.

Studies have therefore suggested that the success of MOOCs cannot be measured based on drop-out or completion rates, but rather, on the learning behaviors of the participants (Kahan et al., 2017). The advantage of MOOCs, in terms of social learning, is their ability to form social learning communities (Gallagher & Savage, 2016) that “would arise around the course, would remain over time, and involve participants contributing to with new proposals” (de Lima & Zorrilla, 2017).
Somehow, when MOOCs became mainstream in 2011, they were conveniently mapped into the known models of higher education with measurable learning outcomes and assessment criteria. The potential of the original connectivist model to promote collaborative inquiry and community-building became restricted in the confines of the traditional notion of a course where the course structure and objectives are decided by the course organisers and participants are assumed to embrace these and follow the course to its conclusion.
While the first wave MOOCs was a fertile territory for leisure learners, and learning was associated with perceived learning, the second and third wave MOOCs strived to keep the learners in the MOOC, and thus, motivation and engagement have become a trending hot topic.
MOOCs are constantly compared to regular for-credit university courses and have been marketed as alternative paths to higher education with MOOC-based degrees as well as new credential forms like nano-degrees, specialisations and micro-masters. However the motivation of many MOOC participants is not to gain credentials but to widen perspectives, learn something new or sheer curiosity. Each participant has their own motivation to learn and that will often not coincide with the course organiser's narrow view of a course. Research has so far not investigated learner motivation sufficiently.
One area of concern, however, is that the perceived learning in MOOCs has been neglected as a focus of research. This is important to note because learning goes beyond quantified learning objectives.
Then there is the learning that can occur after the MOOC is officially over. Many people study MOOCs asynchronously outside the timescale of the course and some MOOCs have developed into self-directed communities. I have taken several courses over the last couple of years and all of them were long after the dates of the actual course. Does my course activity count when studying the success or failure of the course? Many people learn a lot without making much of a footprint (if any) and their learning is extremely hard to detect even if it may be significant for them as individuals. 
However, it is noted that not all learners learn by visible interaction (e.g., lurkers or legitimate peripheral participants) or wish be a part of the entire MOOC (e.g., drop ins). Interestingly, some MOOCs help learners to form a learning community, and these communities provide more learning opportunities, even outside of the defined MOOC concept. The problematic view according to the studies in the research corpus is when social learning is framed around predefined MOOC dates alone, ignoring their contribution to lifelong learning. This perhaps stems from the influence of HE, which tends to resist change, and from interpreting MOOCs from a strictly structured HE view.
Finally the author recommends a renewed focus on the potential of open courses (can't we finally lose the acronym?) to promote lifelong learning, widened access to education and community-building rather than trapping a good concept into the narrow domain of traditional higher education.
Based on the research findings and the impressions gained from the examined publications, this study argues that the real potential of MOOCs cannot be quantitatively measured, but rather, this potential should be considered in terms of the qualitative contributions provided by MOOCs. To this end, it is suggested that MOOC providers focus more on the 
social justice and widening participation aspects of MOOCs.

When an institution offers a regular for-credit course the structure, outcomes and pedagogical model are decided and students sign up to follow those with credible credentials as a reward. When you offer an open course without preconditions the participants are under no obligation to accept the institution's success criteria. They participate in line with their own ambitions and learning objectives that may coincide with the institution's but generally don't. The "success" of the course lies in the eyes of the beholders. 

Reference

Bozkurt, A. (2021). Surfing on Three Waves of MOOCs: An Examination and Snapshot of Research in Massive Open Online Courses. Open Praxis, 13(3), 296–311. 

Sunday, December 12, 2021

The age of the educational technologist

Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash

I always enjoy reading Tony Bates' posts that always offer a balanced and informed view of current trends in education. This week's post is a review of educational technology trends of the past year,  A Review of Online Learning in 2021, and has the sub-heading bad but still better. The lessons learned this year are the same as those learned in 2020 only more nuanced. There is the realisation that almost all courses are now blended in some way and this is changing how we design our courses as well as how we design our learning spaces, both on-site and online. There are plenty of new buzzwords in this field and there's a lot of learning by trial and error but we have come a long way since early 2020. 

There are all kinds of new terms for these moves toward blended learning, such as flipped, hyflex, hybrid, and these terms will continue to evolve and confuse, because there is no dominant pedagogical model or even theory for blended learning. Everyone is learning by the seat of their pants, and this may not be a bad thing, at least initially. What is important is that these developments are encouraged, recorded and evaluated, so that eventually best practices can emerge.

One group that has moved on to centre stage during the pandemic is the educational technologist (there are many other names for this role as it is still developing into a profession). Institutions who already had centres of teaching and learning to support staff in using technology handled the transition to online education much more smoothly than institutions who lacked formal support. Today we see a realisation of the need for comprehensive support for teachers in designing and running courses.  Before covid this support was mostly aimed at a minority of teachers - early adopters. That meant there was time for individual support and guidance. But now, when all teaching staff need support, the role of educational technologists and pedagogical development specialists has become a core function. 

When only 10 per cent of courses were online, one-on-one support for faculty was feasible. However with everyone moving toward some version of blended learning, the challenge of quality control and agile course design, especially for blended learning, has become urgent. How do we scale up support for instructors to ensure quality blended learning? The challenge of blended learning means moving from an ad hoc model of faculty development, based on instructors, often reluctantly, opting in, to a more systematic faculty development model that ensures everyone has exposure to best practices in blended learning.

What is important now is that support for teachers is strengthened and professionalised. In some institutions this kind of support is still offered by either the IT department, who seldom have pedagogical experience, or rely on the goodwill of more experienced colleagues, who have to combine their regular duties with being unofficial and unrecognised educational technologists. The recognised educational technologists in turn need career paths, professional development and recognition of their contribution to the institution's core business. Even if we don't really know where we are heading it would seem to be safe to predict that most if not all educational institutions now realise the vital importance of professional support to teachers in managing the transition to a more digitally dependent university.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Attention literacy and the value of slow learning

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

The paradox of today's society is that we are both more connected than ever before and at the same time becoming increasingly disconnected from each other and even ourselves as we drown in a flood of information, advertising, entertainment and chatter. The torrent never stops and prevents us from stopping to reflect or question what is going on and there is growing interest in finding strategies to counter this threat. These strategies are an integral part of the so-called 21st century literacies including source criticism, information literacy, media literacy, data literacy and network literacy. 

The concept attention literacy caught my attention in an article by Howard Rheingold, Attention, and Other 21st-Century Social Media Literacies (Educause Review, vol. 45, no. 5), back in 2010. He described five key social media literacies: attention, participation, collaboration, network awareness and critical consumption. The issue of attention was mostly about the digital distractions that his students were subjected to in class and he proposed establishing oases of offline interaction when all focus would be on class discussion or deeper reading. The ability to switch between online and offline was the core of attention literacy.

Since then attention literacy has expanded and is discussed in a new article by Mark Pegrum and Agnieszka Palalas in the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, Attentional literacy as a new literacy: Helping students deal with digital disarray. They outline the challenge presented by the concept of digital disarray: the effects of today's information overload and the algorithm-controlled digital landscape that dominates our lives. They describe three components of digital disarray:

  • digital distraction is the overwhelming volume of news, updates, entertainment and social interaction that compete for our attention every day and often prevent us from focusing on any specific task.
  • digital disorder represents the abundance of misleading information, alternatives realities and conspiracy theories and how they have divided society on increasingly polarised tribal lines.
  • digital disconnection represents a growing disconnection between people with a growing trust in dangerous stereotypes and a lack of curiosity. People can have a strong online presence but lack interpersonal skills and an ability to connect with others outside their own sphere. The result perhaps of people being trapped in their own filter bubbles.

Many "new" literacies have been described in recent years (evidently an Irish review of the field identified 100 different models of digital literacies, see Brown 2017) but the authors suggest that attention literacy is an overarching literacy and a strategy to combat this notion of digital disarray. Attention is therefore a macroliteracy.

Arguing that today’s growing focus on digital literacies in education already serves as a partial response to digital disarray, this evidence-based position paper proposes the concept of attentional literacy as a macroliteracy which interweaves elements of now established literacies with the emerging educational discourse of mindfulness.Through attentional literacy, students may gain awareness of how to focus their attention intentionally on the self, relationships with others, and the informational environment, resulting in a more considered approach to learning coupled with an appreciation of multiple shifting perspectives.

Learning to focus and filter out the digital distractions involves not simply switching off your digital devices but learning to concentrate your mind on one task and being able to approach a topic without preconceptions and biases. The authors see mindfulness as a key to developing this skill and suggest integrating elements of this in education. Their working definition of mindfulness is given as the mental capacity to pay attention intentionally and non-judgmentally to an object of choice while remaining aware of changing experiences and contexts. Whether or not the concept of mindfulness is the answer here, there is a case for more focus on rediscovering the benefits of silence, quiet reflection, deep reading and simply switching off the distractions. 

The problem is that most university courses today focus on efficiency and demands to fulfill learning outcomes as quickly as possible. Students want to earn their credits and get their qualifications and this leaves little time for a new kind of slow learning. True lifelong learning is a slow process and insights often take years to develop. We need to create more space for reflection and develop strategies for fostering deeper learning. Whether you call this mindfulness or something else we need to learn to step away from the torrent of distractions and think more about where we want to go.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Building connections in open online courses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2021

Active uninterest and the power of storytelling

Photo by Sepp Rutz on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Digital default and the end of privacy

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, October 31, 2021

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

Photo by Alexandre Pellaes on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Inclusive online collaboration - from disability to extrability

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

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

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

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


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

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

The key is shifting our perception from disability to extrability.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Emotion and self-belief in online education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 3, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Being there - that feeling we can't achieve online

Photo by Aranxa Esteve on Unsplash

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

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

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


Saturday, September 11, 2021

Down the rabbit hole - in search of the unexpected

Photo by Victor Larracuente on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The joy of unexpected distractions. 

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Online versus campus - comparing apples and pears

Photo by Melanie Dijkstra on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

But read Tony Bates' article for more insight.

 

Friday, August 20, 2021

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

Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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