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.

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),

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Deconferencing or unconferencing?

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

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

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 He has withdrawn from the conference circuit and explains the reasons and it's not just about carbon footprints.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

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

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The unheard students

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 19, 2020

What happens on campus when everyone's online?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 13, 2020

Innovating pedagogy 2020 - time for sustainable education?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 6, 2020

A decade of broken dreams and big business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Smart campus, but who owns the smartness?

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Toolkits for active learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Headsets - not pretty but best for audio quality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Attention seekers - taking innovation from project to mainstream

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

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

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

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