Monday, August 10, 2020

The lies are free

In theory the internet could give everyone access to all the knowledge of humankind. Access to information would be a basic human right and there would be structures to support this in terms of compensating those who create the content. However, that concept is only a dream since so much valuable content is locked away behind paywalls and copyright restrictions. We have the illusion of access to everything, but once you start digging you soon run up against the walls. 

Quality content requires skilled authors and time-consuming investigation, and that costs money. Thus we have tabloid newspapers, full of biased and misleading content, on sale for free or at a trivial cost (subsidised by a multi-billionaire), whilst quality journalism is forced to charge for its content in order to survive. If you want a more balanced view of the world based on scientific evidence rather than opinions you will often have to pay for it and often it is much harder to find than the vast quantities of lies and nonsense that is available for free and often turns up high on your search list. This is the topic of an excellent article by Nathan J Robinson in Current AffairsThe Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free
... it costs time and money to access a lot of true and important information, while a lot of bullshit is completely free.
Current Affairs is a magazine that offers investigative journalism but of course depends on subscriptions to survive. The revenues from web advertising can't cover the costs for such publications so an increasing number of quality news channels are forced to set up a paywall. This in turn reduces their ability to attract new readers. In the last few years, I have begun subscribing to several magazines and newspapers (including the printed versions) but there is a limit to the number I can afford to pay for. Some have simply disappeared from my view. There are, of course, exceptions to this in the form of all the independent bloggers and journalists who publish for free but they all have bills to pay and there is a limit on how long they can afford to continue working for no reward. It's hard to compete against "free".

In the academic world we have the major scientific journals who still dominate despite significant inroads from the open access movement. If you don't belong to an institution that can afford to pay the high subscription rates you cannot access the latest research. This is a major handicap for researchers from developing countries who cannot read the relevant research in their field. 

Robinson tries to imagine what the internet could be like if it was run for the common good rather than for profit. Just imagine this!
In fact, to see just how much human potential is being squandered by having knowledge dispensed by the “free market,” let us briefly picture what “totally democratic and accessible knowledge” would look like. Let’s imagine that instead of having to use privatized research services like Google Scholar and EBSCO, there was a single public search database containing every newspaper article, every magazine article, every academic journal article, every court record, every government document, every website, every piece of software, every film, song, photograph, television show, and video clip, and every book in existence.
That was indeed one of the visions put forward in the early days of the internet but then the corporations took over. The article argues that such a universal database is technically possible but some mechanism is needed to fund it and also to compensate the content producers. Taxation could be way of dealing with this in the same way as some countries offer free or cheap healthcare but at the same time paying the doctors and nurses. Content providers would be compensated according to how many people access their work. Utopian indeed, but sometimes we need to question the system we have. 
But we are working on it. We are a long way from the world in which all knowledge is equally accessible. Hopefully someday our patchwork of intentionally-inefficient libraries will turn into a free storehouse of humanity’s recorded knowledge and creativity. In the meantime, however, we need to focus on getting good and thoughtful material in as many hands as possible and breaking down the barriers we can.


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Online exam cheating - a matter of trust and support

Photo by from Pexels
One of the most discussed aspects of the last few months has been the issue of online examination. The sudden transition to online delivery worked reasonably well for teaching and collaboration, but teachers whose courses rely on traditional written examinations had difficulties and there are plenty of news stories on the increase in cheating in such settings. Many exams relied on makeshift invigilation via Zoom/Teams/Skype since there was no time to find a more secure option. Online proctoring systems were purchased by many institutions, often hastily, and have resulted in some privacy issues as illustrated in an article in Sydney Morning Herald, 'You’re being watched and recorded, every breath': Students unsettled by exam software.
It’s not fun, knowing you’re being watched and recorded, every breath and movement. It’s even more invasive than a normal exam. Someone is staring at just you, but you have no idea who it is.
In many cases it was not possible to change the whole assessment process so quickly since such changes in a curriculum must be announced to students before commencing the course. 

There's a good discussion on online cheating in an article in Inside Higher EdBest Way to Stop Cheating in Online Courses? ‘Teach Better’. It's based on a webcast, The Academic Integrity Braintrust, featuring three experts in the field, Tricia Bertram Gallant (University of California San Diego), Douglas Harrison (University of Maryland) and David RettingerUniversity of Mary Washington. One important point to remember when judging spring term 2020 is that it was a global crisis when all university education went online with virtually no preparation time. Students were forced to study from home, in less than perfect learning spaces and with often considerable pressure and stress. The temptation to cheat is very strong and if the opportunity arises to cut a corner, many of us will. 

An important factor that leads to cheating is when students feel isolated and out of touch with teachers and colleagues. Harrison picks up this theme:
... when students don’t feel connected and a sense of belonging to the learning community, whether it's online or face-to-face, they are more likely to detach from any sense of collective community responsibility or ethics and substitute for that a pure ethic of mercenary self-interest.
 Maybe increased focus on team-building activities and collaborative learning could create a climate where cheating becomes irrelevant, especially if the course builds on group assignments and the demonstration of skills. Ramping up surveillance and prevention only leads to a cat and mouse mentality. Harrison again:
We end up focusing on the worst possible negative outcomes that the most malicious and malintended student would engage in, rather than starting with, 'What’s the best teaching and learning experience I can construct and deliver for the vast majority of students who are there to learn authentically and who want to succeed?
As a way forward, David Rettinger offers a list of small scaleable changes for improving academic integrity, based largely on community building and the redesign of assignments and assessments. Establishing a sense of community takes time and requires careful planning, but if the class can agree on common ground rules for how they want to work this can lead to a sense of group loyalty that makes cheating extremely difficult to consider. Academic integrity issues need to be taught and discussed and institutional policies made clear to all. Basically, if the students are consulted and involved in how they learn they will be much less likely to cheat. In terms of examination forms, using numerous low-stake tests or assignments reduces stress and makes cheating less tempting.
Rettinger said he had replaced exams in some courses with lots of low-stakes quizzes -- with "stakes so low that it’s not worth cheating." When his courses do include final exams, they are open book, and all of the questions on them are drawn from those students have shared in discussion boards over the course of the term, so that "gives them a sense of control over the assignment."
Maybe this experience will see a drop in traditional 3-4 hour exam hall testing once our campuses open up again. Maybe we can move to more project-based assessment and assignments that reflect the skills and knowledge used in professional situations. Maybe ...

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Binge learning - keeping learners hooked

Netflix fans seem to have no problem devoting several days to watching an entire series (or several series) with few breaks. The series is so compelling and engaging that we immerse ourselves completely in the experience. The creators of the series are extremely skillful at grabbing our attention and carefully embedding elements that will keep us watching: fascinating characters,  multiple plots, cliff-hangers, intrigues. Could these strategies be useful to increase engagement in online courses, in particular MOOCs that still fail to retain the vast majority of those who sign up for a course?

This is the topic of an interesting article, Going over the Cliff: MOOC Dropout Behavior at Chapter Transition, by Chen Chen, Gerhard Sonnert, Philip Sadler, Dimitar Sasselov, Colin Fredericks, and David Malana, contained in new publication The MOOC is dead—long live MOOC 2.0! They have looked at how MOOC participants tend to drop out at the end of modules and suggest the use of a storyline with cliffhanger elements as a way of maintaining curiosity about what is to come in future modules.
One of these strategies is cliff-hangers, which is a widely used strategy for retaining viewer attention in the field of broadcasting, such as radio and television. Common examples include ending an episode with suspense or stopping for a commercial break just before the replay of a critical score or decision in a sport. This article suggests that there is merit in the adoption of this strategy in MOOCs where learners are expected to assume greater responsibility for their learning with minimal guidance and support. The effective use of this strategy in educational settings, however, will require teachers to act as architects or designers of independent student learning experiences, and not simply deliverers of the subject matter content (see also Naidu, 2016).
Just as many courses have benefited from elements of gamification to raise engagement levels, maybe a greater sense of drama and story could also contribute to higher completion rates. This doesn't mean trivialising education but rather adapting elements from drama, film and entertainment to enhance intrinsic motivation. It also requires new skills for a course development team.

Could we ever see cases of binge learning, where people happily spend their waking hours immersed in a learning experience? Why not?

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Digital literacy means knowing when to switch off

Photo by K I L I A N 📷 on Unsplash
I noticed an interesting quote on Twitter:
Digital literacy is also about knowing when not to use technology. Being digitally skilled is not simply about embracing everything digital, it is about developing an awareness of both the opportunities and the challenges of using digital media in our work, studies and leisure time. It involves becoming more aware of how digital devices, platforms and apps collect and sell our personal data and deciding where we draw our own red lines. Few of us ever read the terms and conditions but we can all learn some basic warning flags and be able to say no to certain offers. You can say no to cookies on sites you are unlikely to visit again, you can use browsers and search tools that don't track you, you can avoid overloading your mobile with hundreds of apps that you hardly ever use and so on. We also need to learn when to switch off and when we should rely on other skills and methods. Learn to cope with boredom and silence without immediately reaching for your mobile for a quick fix.

Beetham's quote comes from a thread that also mentions a report from Project Information Literacy on students' attitudes and strategies towards the way algorithms filter and monitor the content we see in our digital devices, The algorithm study. The study shows that students are generally well aware of the influence of algorithms and how their news feeds can be manipulated. They are aware that the major platforms harvest and sell personal data and although they take measures to counteract this they find these platforms irresistible. It is indeed hard to avoid using Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook but the key is to be able to make informed choices and know how to limit your exposure. Sadly the students surveyed had acquired their digital strategies from friends rather than in class and most reported that the influence of algorithms was seldom, if ever, discussed in the classroom. The report's main message is that educational and media organisations need to do much more to counteract the way algorithms are forming our society.
Most, though not all, know that data-driven platforms, if left unexamined and unchallenged, threaten representative democracy and the cultivation of informed and engaged communities. Together, these findings reveal a growing global epistemological crisis. As many students assert their authority as learners and first-time voters, educational and media organizations need to do more to teach “algorithm literacy” within and beyond formal education. Ultimately, journalists and media organizations need to check the unchecked power of algorithms and the social problems they expose and exacerbate for students, faculty, and society.
Students seem increasingly skeptical about the reliability of the information they find on the web and see the digital literacy training that they have received in school and university as outdated and inadequate. The report recommends the following measures:
  • Use peer-to-peer learning to nurture personal agency and advance campus-wide learning. 
  • The K-20 student experience must be interdisciplinary, holistic, and integrated. 
  • News outlets must expand algorithm coverage, while being transparent about their own practices.  
  • Learning about algorithmic justice supports education for democracy. 
The digital monster we have created is soon out of control, especially as artificial intelligence becomes increasingly sophisticated. Over-dependence on digital media makes us open to manipulation. How we deal with this requires action at all levels from government to the individual but the education system has a particularly vital role to play.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Online conferences should be different

Online conferences have become mainstream in just a few months and many organisers have had to hastily adapt their original on-site schedule to an online format. I have written many times about how we could find new models for academic conferences and we now have the chance to review the whole concept. At present most organisers are simply switching the classic conference format to an online set-up, using Zoom or similar platforms to run plenary and parallel sessions as well as providing spaces for a certain amount of social interaction. The social interaction aspect is particularly interesting since that is the feature of regular conferences that most people appreciate most. Curiously it's not the high profile keynote speakers that attract people to attend a conference, it is the opportunity to meet colleagues and expand your network.

There are many tools that can to some extent simulate social interaction. One that I have just discovered is called Online Town. This is extremely simple but rather ingenious. You log into a room where you are represented by a simple photo that you can move around the space. As you approach a group of faces they appear as video feeds, as in a Zoom or Skype meeting. If you all stand close together you can have a video meeting but if you move away the other speakers' video feed gets weaker and then disappears. In this way you can mingle as you might at a reception, the main difference being that you don't have to balance a drink and a plate of nibbles whilst chatting with colleagues. It's a rather basic tool but the idea is perfect for conference settings.

But maybe we shouldn't simply translate the on-site conference to an online setting. Why should we sit in front of a screen intensively for two or three days? It doesn't work, so why not rethink the conference to exploit the strengths of online spaces for asynchronous collaboration. This is voiced by Matt Webb in a short post, A month long conference is a neat concept. Why not spread the conference over several weeks with short and intensive synchronous sessions interspersed with asynchronous collaboration and group work over several days or even weeks? The impact of such a conference would be greater and the asynchronous discussions and collaboration would certainly lead to more networking and lasting relationships than many regular conferences.
There was something about the weekly rhythm which meant that there was time for me to digest each download of new thoughts. The session stayed with me for the week. … A week is time to discuss with friends, contemplate, see the deeper patterns.
One platform that embraces this concept is Qiqo chat. This integrates Zoom with collaborative documents in Google Drive or teamwork tools like Slack and allows participants to form their own breakout groups and change groups at will.
QiqoChat (Qiqo) provides a wrapper around Zoom meetings so that participants can move themselves into different breakout rooms. For example, Qiqo is good for when you want participants to have more freedom (such as an online conference or workshop where you want people to be able to move freely in and out between sessions).
For a conference you can create a large group space for synchronous meetings or keynotes and then let the participants move to working groups where they can then spend hours or even days working on a position paper, brainstorming solutions to a problem or editing a website. In the groups they can mix video meetings with collaborative writing before reporting back to the main event at a given time. The solution is already used for intensive collaborative events like hackathons. This short demonstration video gives you a good overview of the solution.

I haven't participated in a Qiqo session yet but I can see that this type of solution widens the potential of conferences. I'm sure there are also many other exciting solutions out there that I simply haven't discovered yet. Even when on-site conferences are again possible we could gather people for a shorter time and then continue the conference discussions for several weeks before final conclusions are reached. More hybrid conferences will be available where online participation can be as active as on-site. There are already many problems with the traditional on-site academic conference: one-way communication, passive consumption, exclusive access, extremely expensive. There is no better time than the presence to try new models and see if we can create a better experience for all.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Could avatars replace video in online meetings?

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

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

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

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

Time for virtual worlds to make a comeback?

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

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

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

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

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Towards a different model for internationalisation

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

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

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Are trolls born or can we all be one?

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

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

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

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

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Zoom - a question of trust

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The week I got Zoombombed

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Suddenly the whole world is going online

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Why tech - the dangers of digital over-dependency

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Illusions of learning - the problem with student evaluations

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

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

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