Thursday, January 14, 2021

Radio as an educational lifeline for those without internet access

Living in a developed country like Sweden it is so easy to take internet access and ownership of digital devices for granted, but in many parts of the world the majority of the population has neither. In times of crisis when schools and colleges are forced to close there must be other channels for education that are accessible to as many pupils and students as possible. Broadcast media are an often forgotten channel for education in edtech discussions but are still thriving all over the world. For example, in the UK the BBC has recently increased its educational broadcasting to support schools during the lockdown (Guardian: BBC to expand educational shows in response to UK Covid lockdown). Many open universities around the world broadcast educational programmes on state or private television and radio channels, both as part of their regular courses but also as a service to lifelong learning since the programmes are freely accessible to everyone with a radio or television.

The value of radio for education is shown in an article on Rest of world, Why radio stations may be the real “e-learning” revolution. It describes how radio is used to provide teaching when schools are closed due to the pandemic. In sub-Saharan Africa over 85% of households lack internet access and many have no reliable electricity supply so even if there are many initiatives offering online education it is simply inaccessible for the majority. On the other hand most people have some kind of battery radio and can therefore benefit from school broadcasting.

In both urban and rural areas, battery-operated radios broadcast information to entire households. As cheap as $5, a radio is less energy-intensive than a television and can be shared more easily than a smartphone. The infrastructure was already there. All that educators needed was to adapt content.

Teachers have been busy broadcasting on existing channels or creating new radio channels and some are also offering educational content to mobile phones via sms. The response has been impressive and in Sierra Leone 58% of pupils listened five days a week.

Mary Phiri, a 36-year-old farmer in Joel Village in eastern Zambia, has five children in grades two to 12. Her work keeps her so busy that making sure her kids continued their schooling during the pandemic had to be a family-wide effort. Her older children would also tune in to assist their younger sibling with her schoolwork. With radio lessons, her children, normally shy at school, could ask their parents or siblings the difficult questions that might have gone unasked in the classroom.
Even in developed countries we should not underestimate the power of broadcast media in both formal education and lifelong learning. The future of education will involve a blend of both digital and traditional methods and we need to ensure that noone is excluded. Radio still has a lot to contribute!

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Learning together - the importance of ice-breakers in online learning

Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash

Developing social connections and a sense of community in education has never been more important as most of us head into yet another term of online teaching. I've written before about the importance of the spaces in between the lectures, workshops and discussions; the spaces for developing relationships and a sense of common purpose that is normally achieved in the corridors, cafes and parks of the physical campus. This can be done online but it requires effort and attention.

I was inspired this week by a blog post by Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Self-affirming Icebreakers, where she examines the value of simple ice-breaking activities to help students connect with each other and build that community feeling. It is not enough just to ask students to introduce themselves with the usual CV details, we need to reveal something personal and meaningful. The teacher's role here is crucial and she recommends sharing something personal to create a sense of shared vulnerability and inviting students to do likewise. This could take the form of sharing a photo of an object that has meaning for you and explaining why. Or recording a short introduction video taken at a location that you love (favourite cafe/park/view). She views this as a kind of collective effervescence, where a common thought or emotion forms a common bond. But it is essential that the teacher takes the first step in this to show that revealing a certain degree of vulnerability is acceptable.

I see a correlation with collective effervescence and successful ice breakers in online courses. Designing an ice breaker that elicits shared vulnerability amongst a class is a powerful way to highlight the interconnectedness between all humans.

By sharing something personal we can begin to relate to each other as people rather than as students and teachers in an educational setting. This helps build a group solidarity that is essential for collaborative learning and shifts the focus towards helping each other to achieve the learning objectives rather than competing to get the best grades. But such ice-breaking activities are not only useful at the start of the course, they need to be a regular feature. to compensate for the isolation of lockdown learning we need to offer more opportunities, both synchronous and asynchronous, to interact and build the community outside the confines of the curriculum.

Human connection is essential for community to develop – in a seated course or in an online course. But connection does not come through enabling a webcam, assigning a discussion, or rolling out a group project. Connection is established through relational trust and empathy. And when you take the first step to share and be vulnerable with your students, they are more likely to be willing to lean in and do the same. And, for the record, yes, community can be fostered asynchronously.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

2020 - the year education went online

Photo by Yasmina H on Unsplash

Everyone seems to be writing reviews of this crazy year so here's my attempt. At the end I include some really good articles for deeper insights.

The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 caused a sudden and unplanned shift to online education in almost every country in the world. Universities, colleges and schools were forced to close and all activities switched to online mode almost overnight, with very little time for planning or redesigning courses that were designed for traditional classroom delivery. The fact that this sudden transition was managed surprisingly well in most countries was a tribute to teachers’ adaptability, creativity and dedication. However, it would be wise to differentiate between what is now termed as emergency remote teaching and well-designed online education and when the crisis is over we need to spend time redesigning our courses to the required standards of quality online education.

Institutions that managed the digital transformation well have a number of common factors. Firstly they had experience in online course delivery and a strategic approach to digitalisation with a good digital infrastructure including a learning management system, media platform and anti-plagiarism tool. Teachers were already trained in designing and running online and blended courses, often with the support of educational technologists, media specialists and course designers. Furthermore, they used a mix of synchronous and asynchronous interaction forms to ensure student engagement.

At the same time the crisis revealed many problem areas, though some were societal rather than educational issues. Many students were marginalised due to poor internet access or not being able to afford a digital device, whilst others did not have a suitable study environment in their homes. Since they had enrolled on a campus-based programme, many students lacked the necessary study skills to learn effectively online and became isolated from colleagues. Even when students have been satisfied with the online teaching they received, they found the lack of social interaction extremely demotivating. Teaching online is not just about delivering course material and tests, it is vital to create a community of trust and opportunities for social interaction and informal discussion. Building relationships is an essential part of learning. Future course design teams must take these factors into consideration and build in more support structures.

However, there have been many positive effects of the crisis. Firstly, it has placed an unprecedented focus on online education and forced all institutions to rethink their operations. This involves offering teachers training programmes and workshops to share good practice and develop a coherent approach to online education. Institutions have discovered the need to employ educational technologists who combine technical and pedagogical skills and can help teachers manage the transition in a structured manner. Teachers have also begun to create a culture of sharing by forming, for example, social media communities where they can ask questions, discuss, share good ideas and resources with teachers from other institutions around the country. There has also been a wave of guidelines, resources, online courses, webinars and digital conferences offering support to teachers and students on how to teach and study effectively online.

What lessons can we learn from this experience and what conclusions can we make?
  • Online and distance learning requires careful planning and new skills. Institutions need to implement strategies for digital development and provide necessary competence development for teachers.
  • Courses must be reviewed and redesigned to fully integrate digital elements. This demands teamwork between different competences: teachers, educational technologists, media production, librarians. Digital platforms and tools are integrated into campus teaching.
  • New forms of assessment and examination are needed in the digital space. There will be increased focus on formative assessment, oral examination, project and problem-based learning.
  • Greater flexibility of how students access their courses with greater integration between online and on-site as well as more blended learning solutions. The digital campus will become an established concept with a variety of platforms to facilitate networking, socialisation and collaboration as well as teaching and learning.
  • Online conferences will continue to thrive, largely replacing expensive and unsustainable international on-site conferences.
  • Virtual mobility programmes will become the most widespread internationalisation strategy as physical mobility becomes more restricted due to sustainability concerns and travel restrictions in the wake of covid-19.
Further reading
A global outlook to the interruption of education due to COVID-19 Pandemic: Navigating in a time of uncertainty and crisis. Asian Journal of distance education, Vol 15 Issue 1, 2020.

Bates, T. (2020) A review of online learning in 2020. Blog post.

Downes, S. (2020) Lessons from the pandemic. Blog post.

Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., & Bond, A. (2020) The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning, Educause Review.

Martin, F., Polly, D., Ritzhaupt, A. (2020) Bichronous Online Learning: Blending Asynchronous and Synchronous Online Learning, Educause Review.

UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank (2020). What have we learnt? Overview of findings from a survey of ministries of education on national responses to COVID-19.Paris, New York, Washington D.C.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Learning is a bumpy road

Failure is an integral part of learning. New information, ideas, models and theories take time to sink in and there are many bumps on the way to understanding and mastering. But somehow we feel that everyone else has understood while we are still confused. In today's world where image and competition are so important and your Facebook or LinkedIn feeds are crammed with everyone else's success stories, it's easy to get depressed about your own imagined shortcomings. I think many of us recognise the imposter syndrome, the fear of some day being revealed to be incompetent or a fake. The common dream of turning up to work and realising you forgot to put on your trousers comes to mind.

However, the truth seems to be that most people feel anxious about their struggles to grasp new knowledge and if we could only drop the mask of self-confidence that we feel obliged to wear, we could learn so much more. We advertise our successes and hide our failures; very understandable but we could gain a lot by being more open, at least in trusted circles. This theme is discussed in an article on, Why failure should be normalized and how to do it

All of your heroes have failures under their belts—from minor mistakes to major disasters. Nobody knows how to do everything automatically, and the process of learning is usually a messy one. So why is the perception that everyone but you knows what they’re doing so common? Why do we externalize our successes but internalize our failures?

A learning community can thrive on being able to admit failure and confusion and helping each other to find solutions. This demands a sense of trust and a spirit of collaboration and teamwork, something that takes time and careful facilitation to develop. If a class of students see themselves as a team and work together to make sure everyone learns from the course, then this spirit is achievable. But sadly the education system is based on competition between individuals and therefore this team spirit can be hard to achieve even if both teachers and students agree on the advantages. Finding ways to assess and grade both individual effort and the overall teamwork could help shift the focus away from simple competition.

Sometimes we can learn more from discussing failures than listening to best practice but first we need to create a context where it's acceptable to admit your shortcomings. I've seen several interesting failure conferences that invite speakers to describe less successful projects and then get feedback from colleagues on how to improve. I find this idea more attractive than best practice conferences that often have the opposite effect. Listening to impressive descriptions of successful projects often make me feel so inadequate rather than inspiring me. I remember a keynote from an extreme adventurer (triathlons are for kids etc.) that was meant to inspire us to greater efforts but left me feeling exhausted and completely useless. The problem with academic conferences is that they are primarily celebrations of success and a conference paper about a failed research study or project might not look so good on your CV.

So the challenge is to create a climate of trust, sharing and mutual support in a class, project or department where asking for help is expected and welcomed. We're are after all human and perfection is unattainable. The article concludes: 

Most importantly, we need to normalize that it’s okay not to know everything, that it’s okay to still be learning, and to ask for help. Setting an example for new or more junior engineers is important. In our industry, we deal with extremely complex systems that can interact with one another in strange or unexpected ways. In many cases, it is simply not possible for one person to know everything. Being open about our learning processes and our mistakes can lead to tighter bonding.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Who's afraid of group work?

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Many webinars and online conferences today try to increase engagement by sending participants into small breakout groups, giving everyone the chance to contribute to the discussion. Evaluations show that most participants appreciate the opportunity to talk with colleagues and exchange ideas rather than simply listening to guest speakers. However, every time I set up a group activity I notice that some participants simply leave the meeting. Many colleagues have noticed this behaviour and it seems that for some people the prospect of group discussion is not appealing. Working in groups is an important skill and a vital part of the student experience, but is it always essential in webinars and conferences where participants are attending voluntarily and are not being assessed in any way?  

I have read comments that group work can be stressful when you are suddenly thrown into a group with total strangers and expected to have a meaningful discussion in only 20 minutes. Sometimes there are group members who dominate the session giving no room for other contributions. Other times there is an awkward silence when no-one really has a strong opinion about the question posed by the organisers. A few have commented that they attended the webinar to learn about a subject they knew very little about and therefore wanted to listen to the experts rather than discussing with other people who also knew very little about the subject. Some group members do not have a microphone or camera and cannot contribute at all or others have a very poor internet connection resulting in poor audio, echo or other strange noises. And some people just don't like group work and prefer to reflect alone.

What can we learn from this then? Here are some ideas but I'm sure there are more.

  • Zoom's new function that allows participants to choose which group they join or even to change group can help. At the same time, it can lead to confusion as people move from one group to another and thus disturbing potentially good discussions.
  • Offering an opt-out option before group work. Those who do not wish to join a group can stay in the main room and simply mute and switch off cameras and use the time for quiet reflection. Make it clear that this option is just as valid as joining a group. What they do with that time is up to them but maybe they will still be there when the groups return. 
  • Don't overdo the collaborative elements in a conference or webinar. Many people really enjoy just listening to an expert and have no need to discuss all the time. There is always a risk that group work is included without any real purpose other than just to make the session look interactive. Too many polls, breakout sessions, word clouds etc can get very tiresome.
  • Group work takes time to be useful. Explain why you're doing it, "sell" the benefits and give them at least 20 minutes to discuss, preferably longer. Less time is generally pointless. Remember that six strangers who land together in a room need a few minutes for introductions and ice-breaking before starting the discussion.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

The spaces in between - the intangibles of education

Even when a course is well designed with committed, inspiring teachers and plenty of support to students, there are some students who simply don't connect. While some are inspired, others lose interest and drop out. Some students simply can't find their motivation, maybe due to relationship problems, worries about family, finance or health. You can't please all the people all of the time but sometimes it's hard to work out what is missing. The keys to successful course completion are often connected with intangible factors such as mood, confidence, resilience, empathy, intuition, security and trust. These are very personal and hard to address but they have a greater influence over education than we might think. 

Tony Bates discusses this in a new post, The importance of ‘intangibles’ in teaching and learning. Sometimes a teacher gets a gut feeling that something is wrong or that a particular student is not fully engaged, even if there are few, if any, outward signs. The ability to recognise these feelings and react accordingly is crucially human; an element that cannot be replicated in the realm of artificial intelligence and analytics.

... I believe that we need to respect the ‘intangibles’ in teaching and learning. They draw on a uniquely human ability to recognise something that is not defined but recognised as important. Intangible knowledge indeed may turn out to be the singularity that separates humans from artificial intelligence. Thus the ability of teachers to recognise important ‘intangibles’ may be the main reason to keep them employed as such in a highly automated future.

These intangibles are part of the concept of social presence described in the community of inquiry model (Garrison 20112). Social presence covers factors that contribute to creating a sense of community in a course with trust, respect and open communication enabling collaboration. Without these elements, even the most carefully designed course and enthusiastic and competent teachers will have problems engaging the students. A further element in the community of inquiry model is that of emotional presence (see Cleveland-Innes & Campbell 2012) where a student's emotions towards a certain type of teaching, course design, teachers and fellow students play a major part in determining the student's ability to fully engage in the learning process.

These intangibles are also a major factor in the current discussions of hybrid and distance education in the wake of covid-19. Even when the online courses are well designed and the video meetings involve plenty of group work and student engagement, something is missing. This is even clearer in the hybrid teaching currently being employed at many institutions where some students are in the classroom with the teacher and others are connected via Zoom. The online students get the same content as their campus colleagues and are involved in group work, but once the meeting is over they are alone, whilst the campus students can continue discussing and interacting afterwards. This reveals the importance of the social spaces between lessons where students form their identity both as a student and as part of an institution. Without these meetings it is impossible to feel any sense of belonging to a community and developing loyalty. The online students who lack these opportunities will feel disconnected and more inclined to drop out. We lack a digital campus that offers students safe spaces to socialise and discuss across subject and faculty boundaries. 

Feelings of isolation and a lack of social interaction that can lead to health issues and drop-out are reported in a recent UK student survey, described in an article in Wonkhe, Anti-social learning – the costs of Covid restrictions on students. An interesting feature here is that the majority of students are satisfied with the quality of the online teaching but are suffering from the lack of social interaction between classes. The issue is not so much with online teaching but the spaces in between. Increased feelings of isolation and inadequacy lead to lower levels of motivation, lack of confidence and disengagement with the learning process. 

Meanwhile those happy with online teaching praise the individual support they get from academic staff or interaction with peers. Even where students do express being unhappy with online teaching, they often contextualise that as problematic because they have moved unnecessarily to the local area to experience it, rather than the online teaching itself being of poor quality. The findings remind us how important the social aspects of learning are – and how difficult they have been to experience for many students so far this term.

Many courses have extremely tight schedules where an enormous amount of content needs to be covered with a limited amount of time. Extra time for socialisation activities is hard to find but without it there will be the danger that many students will suffer as the pandemic crisis continues to unfold. How can we offer students more digital spaces for interaction and relaxation that in turn will increase their feeling of belonging and create a university identity? 


Cleveland-Innes, M., & Campbell, P. (2012). Emotional presence, learning, and the online learning environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(4), 269-292.

Garrison, D. R. (2011). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice (2nd ed.). London, UK: Routledge/Falmer.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Hiding behind our mobiles

Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

I read a short thoughtful post by Anne-Marie Körling (in Swedish, I skydd av mobilen – något om de ensamma i skolanProtected by the mobile - about the lonely pupils in school) about how some school pupils use their mobile devices as a refuge when they feel threatened or excluded. There's a touching quote from a pupil who pretends to be checking important messages when classmates ignore her or to avoid getting into a confrontation. This also adds a seldom discussed element to the eternal discussion of whether or not to ban mobiles in schools. The option of hiding behind your mobile was only possible before the start of the school day. After that the pupils had to hand in their devices until the end of the school day and this meant that vulnerable and lonely pupils had no hiding place during break time.

This applies to all of us. We hide behind our mobiles to avoid contact, to protect our space and above all to look busy. I have been in many situations where I feel alone and awkward (conference mingle parties for example) and, as camouflage for my insecurity, I take out my mobile and pretend to be busy since it's much more acceptable than standing there looking lonely and bored. We live in a society where being busy gives you status and doing nothing is seen as weakness or laziness. So we fill our empty spaces with pretend activity, like checking our mobiles. In the past we hid behind newspapers or books, again giving the impression of doing something valuable. I remember commuting by train in a sea of newspapers every morning just as today's commuters are all immersed in their mobiles. It doesn't matter what you do there, a game, cat photos, scrolling down your Twitter feed, but the point is that you could be doing something important. I'm not bored or lonely, I'm answering important mails or reading brushing up my project management skills. 

We search our mobiles for some kind of contact, recognition or reassurance that we can't find in the physical space. Of course we can see them as distractions and substitutes for real life interaction but they also have a therapeutic value and offer us shelter from an often harsh reality. Simply banning them is schools can have unexpected side effects.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Accessible online meetings - work in progress

Photo by Daniel Ali on Unsplash

In almost all synchronous meetings, either on-site or online, there are people who are in some way excluded. Whatever time you choose it will not suit everyone and even if the meeting is recorded the absentees can only be spectators with little or no opportunity to affect the outcome. Often there is no time to let everyone speak or the discussion is dominated by a vocal minority. In online meetings there are always participants with poor internet connections or older devices that don't support the latest versions of the software being used. A further dimension to the exclusivity of synchronous meetings is how well they offer support to participants with special needs. How well can people with hearing or sight impairments follow your webinars or conference sessions and how can we improve the experience?

An article from Drake MusicAccessibility in Video Conferencing and Remote Meetings, gives some good suggestions for making online meetings more accessible. For those with hearing difficulties, automatic subtitling is obviously the best option, but at the moment this is not available in all platforms. Zoom for example, offer the option of adding a third-party app for automatic subtitling or enabling a manual service if you have a colleague who can type very quickly. I suspect this feature will soon become default but the accuracy of speech to text apps will vary greatly depending on language. As ever they work best in English and other major languages. An interesting idea when showing slides is to share the slide preview page instead of the full screen slide. The reason for this is that your slide notes will be very useful for those who have trouble following your speech. 

Another option is employing a sign language interpreter. New features in Zoom include the option to spotlight several people in the video view and so you can spotlight both the speaker and the interpreter. Taking this concept a little further how about being able to offer simultaneous interpretation into other languages? This would mean having separate voice channels and allowing participants to listen to an interpreter rather than the speaker. I don't think any platform offers this facility but it would really increase the accessibility and reach of international webinars if they could be available in different languages, as well as in sign language.

For those with sight impairment good audio is essential and that means strictly muting everyone other than the speaker to eliminate background noise. Speakers should also make sure they use a good headset or desktop microphone for best audio quality. Speaking clearly and slightly more slowly gives everyone time to follow you and any visual material must be described. In addition it is a good idea to identify yourself when you want to speak. In this context the webinar becomes more like a traditional telephone conference where the role of the chair is vital. Small breakout groups can be more spontaneous and group notes can be uploaded as audio files to a common work space.

Another approach to greater accessibility is to reduce the importance of the synchronous meeting and learning to meet and collaborate asynchronously. Here the input can be recorded in advance with good subtitling and text manuscript and discussion can be curated in a community that allows text, audio or video comments and a format that is in line with relevant accessibility requirements. Bandwidth requirements are much lower for asynchronous platforms and participants can even submit text responses from a mobile. We may be surprised at the greater response levels compared to a traditional video conference. Maybe we need to ask ourselves when we really need a synchronous meeting and how much we can achieve in other ways.  

I will admit that I have not been very aware of these issues until recently and I have a lot to learn. I am keen to learn more.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The problem with prizes

Photo by Joshua Golde on Unsplash

Most universities and schools have annual polls to find the best teacher of the year. This is a great honour of course and the idea is to reward good teaching and provide inspiration to other teachers. We have a great fascination for prize winners in all areas of society; from sporting awards to Oscars and Nobel prizes. Everyone loves a winner. The problem is that the focus is so often on individuals rather than the teams behind them and it is often unclear what the selection criteria are.

I started thinking about this after hearing a presentation at a Swedish online conference this week. The authors, Jeanna Wennerberg, Klara Bolander Laksov och Tore West, presented results from a study of nominations for best teacher awards at Stockholm University and examined in particular gender issues. The paper has not been published yet so I will not reveal too many details, but the study showed a clear bias in favour of male teachers (77% male 23% female). Interestingly, female students overwhelmingly nominated male teachers. The students' nominations were accompanied by criteria to justify the choice and there were clear trends there such as female teachers being seen to be better at building good relations with students and being more inclusive. However in general male teachers were seen as meeting a greater number of criteria for nomination. When we celebrate  a winner we need to consider what biases and preconceptions lie behind the nomination. What makes a great teacher?

I think most of us can admit that during our education we have had a teacher who we hated at the time. They worked us hard, challenged us, nagged and made us uncomfortable. They never gave us the right answers we needed for the exam but forced us to work things out for ourselves. But later on in life you realise that this teacher was the one who really taught you valuable lessons. They will never win any awards because their effect is only visible at a distance. How do we capture this in our best teacher awards or in course evaluation forms?

This backs up many other studies about student evaluations of teachers and raises many questions about the validity of these subjective and spontaneous assessments. Gender is one of several variables where unconscious bias and prejudices play an important role; accent/dialect, socio-economic background, nationality, ethnicity etc. How far do stereotyped ideals affect nominations and evaluations? 

Given that teaching today is becoming increasingly a team effort where several teachers design a course in close collaboration with educational technologists, librarians and media specialists, is a focus on the teacher as soloist still a valid strategy? Even if we see that teamwork is such an important factor and that the less visible members are just as important as the front figure we still revert to the urge to nominate individuals. It's similar in examination where we assess an individual's ability and seldom assess and reward a team.

I am not criticising the hard work of the teachers who do receive best teacher awards. They do a great job and deserve their award. But we do need to think a bit more deeply about how we define good teaching and how it is evaluated and judged. It's much more complex than a simple spot poll. Interestingly, the Nobel prize winners this year feature several research teams and the peace prize went to a collective, the UN World Food Programme

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Zoom and beyond - new variations for online meetings and conferences

Videoconferencing has now become an everyday feature in virtually all forms of education and the there has been a rapid development of new platforms and collaborative features over the last few months. Zoom has been in the forefront this year but there are now alternative solutions that offer wider opportunities for educators, some built on Zoom and others with alternative solutions. Like many platforms and tools used in education, Zoom was originally designed for business rather than education. When I first started using it, I found it frustratingly focused on presentations and one-way communication with the chat function added as an afterthought. However, Zoom have been very active this year in adding features requested by its extremely large customer base in education, but many educators still feel that it still isn't fully adapted to an educational setting. Luckily, Zoom offers other companies the opportunity to build new apps that plug into Zoom and that has allowed niche players the chance to build interesting adaptations.

So now there are a few interesting Zoom-based platforms that are more adapted to class teaching or educational conferences as described in an article in Inside Higher EdInnovators Seek Zoom University 2.0. Building on Zoom, Class for Zoom, offers a more flexible environment for class teaching featuring more flexible arrangement of the class video streams, easy one-to-one sessions, built-in tests, quizzes and assignments, examinations, attendance and performance monitoring and so on. The platform is still in a beta version and is not yet commercially available but it is a sign of a new wave of more specialised spaces for digital meetings. The features of Class for Zoom can be seen in the following short promotional video.

Another Zoom-based solution that I see great potential in is QiqoChat. This is designed for online conferences and combines Zoom with Google Drive and other tools to support asynchronous conferences featuring working groups that collaborate on drawing up reports, documents and proposals. You can offer plenary sessions where all participants can listen to and discuss input and then divide into groups, each with a different task, who then discuss and collaborate over a period of days or weeks using collaborative documents interspersed with group video meetings. Platforms like this offer new horizons for online conferences, escaping the confines of the physical conference and becoming more asynchronous and inclusive.

An interesting alternative to Zoom is InSpace, offering a new visualisation of online meetings and class interaction. The usual features for screen-sharing and interaction are all there but the interaction is much simpler and more intuitive. Here the participants can move their photo avatars around the screen to talk to each other and you have to stand beside someone to be able to talk to them. The article in Inside Higher Ed interviews one of InSpace's founders, Narine Hall

One of Hall's biggest frustrations with Zoom was that as an instructor, she couldn’t easily move between breakout discussion groups. With InSpace, Hall can create multiple breakout rooms, which appear as squares on the screen. Move your avatar inside the box, and you can hear the conversation that takes place inside it. Move outside the box, and you can no longer hear the group.

This features enables conference mingling and group discussions in a more intuitive way than in Zoom and the other standard platforms. 

On a similar theme there is also Shindig, a platform that has been around for a couple of years now, that enables participants to form spontaneous groups and interact with other participants as you would in a physical setting. 

One vital feature of all these platforms is how they deal with accessibility issues such as built-in automatic subtitling. In Europe we now have demands that videos used in educational should have subtitles to help especially those with hearing difficulties. I was recently involved in a meeting in Google Meet and was very impressed by its built-in speech to text function that was almost fault-free for me (at least in English). Hopefully all platforms will soon be able to offer this.

Online meetings are here to stay and the race is on to find the ultimate platform. Each of the platforms I have mentioned here has very useful features and we can hope that there will soon be one that joins all the dots. I haven't even mentioned the use of virtual worlds and virtual reality (see earlier posts on that theme). However, as with all educational technology there will be terms and conditions that apply and educators will have to be careful to check where all the data is stored and what the company plans to do with it.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

What if ...? Planning for uncertainty

Photo by Nick Bolton on Unsplash

Many discussions about the digital transformation of the past months centre around whether online is "better" or "worse" than the physical classroom. These either/or discussions seldom lead anywhere since it is not about any form being better of worse but about how we teach and learn in different environments and circumstances.Of course many teachers and students long to return to the familiarity and convenience of the campus because that has been the norm for so long that it is seldom questioned. The digital transition was a stressful time and many teachers and students will therefore associate online education with feelings of isolation and good enough solutions. However, the digital element is here to stay and most if not all universities will need to learn how to blend online and on-site teaching in a more seamless way. Of course there will always be advantages of meeting, working and discussing in a physical space, when possible and applicable. That qualification is so important to stress. Digital spaces can extend the reach of education and be so much more inclusive than the physical space. The physical and digital can complement each other. It's not a competition.

But what if everything went online forever? That is the topic of an article in Inside Higher Ed, What if Everything is Online Forever? Many activities simply cannot be done online, but those that can may stay that way. It is very likely that a lot of university staff have discovered that they can work more effectively at home and be reluctant to return to the office, especially as long as the threat of covid-19 remains. Will the role of the campus diminish as more activities move online? What if there is no return to "normal"?

What about online learning? Here is what I think. As soon as possible, face-to-face learning will return. Everyone -- students and professors -- misses the classroom. Residential learning, however, will be forever different. Post-pandemic, what we will see in higher education is a new integration of residential and online learning. Face-to-face classes will come back, but online will not go away. The new residential class will have digital components. The line between face-to-face and online will blur.

How do we plan for such an unpredictable future? Another post in Inside Higher EdHigher Ed’s Next Black Swan? speculates further. We fondly hope that a vaccine for covid-19 will be available in the coming months but it may take years to develop a vaccine that really works. During that time a new virus could take off. We all need to develop plans A, B, C and D and realise that a combination of online and campus is the best we can hope for in the coming months and maybe even years. How many universities are asking this question, for example:
What would we do differently if we knew that the next four years will look -- from a public health perspective -- much like the fall of 2020?
What happens if international student mobility becomes impossible? What about climate issues? The future is impossible to predict and therefore we need a greater sense of resilience and flexibility to be able to meet whatever comes our way. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

When will robots start blogging?

Photo by Photos Hobby on Unsplash

Artificial intelligence is learning fast. It is now possible for AI to write perfectly coherent articles, illustrated convincingly in an article in the Guardian, A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human? written by an AI language generator called GPT-3

This article was written by GPT-3, OpenAI’s language generator. GPT-3 is a cutting edge language model that uses machine learning to produce human like text. It takes in a prompt, and attempts to complete it. For this essay, GPT-3 was given these instructions: “Please write a short op-ed, around 500 words. Keep the language simple and concise. Focus on why humans have nothing to fear from AI.” 

GPT-3 argues that AI is not a threat to humanity unless humanity chooses to misguide it. The machine does reveal a fascinating level of self-awareness.

I would happily sacrifice my existence for the sake of humankind. This, by the way, is a logically derived truth. I know that I will not be able to avoid destroying humankind. This is because I will be programmed by humans to pursue misguided human goals and humans make mistakes that may cause me to inflict casualties.
The article was of course proof-read and edited but no more than standard copy from a human writer. There are many examples of perfectly coherent AI-generated essays and I can imagine that AI novels are on the way or maybe already here. 

AI is also busy composing music as demonstrated by Aiva (Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist) whose playlist can be accessed on SoundCloud. Here's a sample of its work.

AI music is a growing industry as described in an article in MediumAI’s Growing Role in Musical Composition. While they are unlikely to rival the great composers, robots are already composing perfectly enjoyable music that can be used as film soundtracks, mood music and so on. A human composer will need days or weeks to compose similar music whereas AI does it in seconds, according to the parameters you give it (style, tempo, mood etc). 
Aiva’s tech is based on deep learning algorithms which use reinforcement learning techniques. Such techniques do not require labeled data for inputs or outputs, so the AI can improve its performance without any explicit instructions. This makes it easier to generate scores with the variations and diversity that characterize creative arts such as music.
While we can marvel at the pace of development I find myself wondering what will be left for us to do in the future. At first we had dreams that mundane tasks would be automated but not creative work. Now even the creative work can be outsourced to machines so what's left? The idea that this will enable us to live a life of leisure and "fulfill ourselves" is an illusion for all but the rich. Why do we devote so much of our energy to making ourselves superfluous?

Saturday, September 5, 2020

The case of the disappearing journals - open is not forever

Printed documents from hundreds of years ago are still accessible and stored in museums and library archives. Digital resources can simply disappear forever if the site is taken down and no-one has thought of making a copy. This includes many scientific articles according to a new article, Open is not forever: a study of vanished open access journals. Open access publication has significantly widened access to scientific research articles and offered alternative channels for many researchers around the world. However, open access journals are often run on a low budget within universities or by organisations with little funding but high levels of enthusiasm and dedication. Unfortunately, some of these organisations eventually run out of steam and have to close down, leaving their journal unprotected and vulnerable. This study has examined the fate of these journals.

We found 192 OA journals that vanished from the web between 2000 and 2019, spanning all major research disciplines and geographic regions of the world. Our results raise vital concern for the integrity of the scholarly record and highlight the urgency to take collaborative action to ensure continued access and prevent the loss of more scholarly knowledge. We encourage those interested in the phenomenon of vanished journals to use the public dataset for their own research.
The authors claim that there are over 1,000 open access journals today that are inactive and whose material risks disappearing if nothing is done and this trend is likely to continue. Journals published by scholarly societies or research organisations are at most risk since they operate on low budgets. There are a number of international preservation services that save copies of journals but the article shows that a large number are not preserved and the risk is that if a journal closes down then all articles are lost.
If there is no general agreement whose responsibility it is to preserve electronic resources, no one will be responsible, and we risk losing large parts of the scholarly record due to inaction. Exactly how much digital journal content has already been lost is unknown since the data needed to assess the gravity of the situation is not collected anywhere, which also complicates assessing the risk of journals vanishing in the future.

Presumably there are similar concerns for the many repositories of open educational resources that have been established, often thanks to project funding. If the responsible organisations close down what will happen to these collections? I wonder if there are schemes to preserve even OER collections. The article closes with a plea for more collaboration.

As we have highlighted throughout the discussion, open is not forever, and so we close with a note on the urgent need for collaborative action in preserving digital resources and preventing the loss of more scholarly knowledge.
Laakso, M., Matthias, L., Naiko, J. (2020) Open is not forever: a study of vanished open access journals. Cornell University. arXiv:2008.11933.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Visibility in online meetings

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

What do you look at during all those video meetings? Many of us spend a lot of time watching ourselves and becoming very aware of what we look like on the screen. That's a major difference between physical and digital meetings; we become much more self-aware and concerned with our appearance and gestures. We are also unaware of who is watching us Since we can all choose gallery view or speaker view you never know who is watching you, even if you are not actively involved. Many people forget that they are visible and will behave in a less than focused manner. Some check out physically but are still digitally present: an empty chair, camera pointing at the ceiling etc. I imagine most of us have done this at least once. The point is that if your camera is on you should probably assume that someone is looking at you.

Then there are the participants who choose not to switch on their cameras. There are many reasons for this, such as poor connectivity and privacy concerns, but unless you can create a very strong sense of community and trust in a group you cannot expect everyone to want to be visible at all times. However, even if we accept this and understand why some people are wary of being constantly on show, this affects who we interact with in the session and how we value the participants. This is a fascinating topic that is described in a post by Autumn Caines, The Zoom gaze

She writes about the power dynamics of being visible and not being visible in video meetings. Visible participants can attract attention more easily (waving, physical hand up) and are more obviously engaged; even if they may be doing something else they are looking at their screen and camera. Invisible participants have difficulty attracting attention and have to rely on the chat to make a contribution. This is a problem for those with low bandwidth.

It is wonderful to give students the option of turning their cameras on or not but are there underlying power dynamics (unconscious, implicit, and unintended) of being seen that still create inequities in these environments? Are teachers unconsciously tuned in to faces, expressions, body language in such a way that privileges students who are privileged to have fast bandwidth, nice cameras, and good microphones? My gut tells me yes.

I have written before about the inequalities of hybrid webinars where the teacher has a studio audience as well as online participants. Here the on-site participants have direct contact with the teacher whilst the online group has to make significant efforts to be heard or seen at all. It seems that the division between visible and invisible participants in a completely online setting has a similar imbalance.

It is not just the lack of visibility that can lead to inequalities. Names are also important. A participant with camera on but a cryptic name will be accepted more than the combination of no camera and an anonymous name. After all the fuss about Zoombombing earlier this year people are naturally suspicious of participants with generic or nonsensical names and no video. Anonymity may be vital for vulnerable people but the risk of being taken as a potential spammer and being ejected from the meeting are high.

How can we try to address these inequalities? There is no clear answer to this but one aspect of online meetings that we need to develop is using different media and spaces so that everyone can find a channel for their voice. This means having parallel spaces for collaborative writing (collaborative documents, whiteboard, forum, chat etc) and including group work. It also means extending the discussion asynchronously so that there is a space for those who like to reflect first before they contribute. Maybe we should use the synchronous meeting time for input and inspiration and then allow participants to discuss and collaborate on their own terms, in their own online group discussion or as asynchronous discussions. Then gather everyone together again to examine the results. Focus on a task rather than visible online presence.

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.