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.
Reference
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.

 

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Online exam cheating - a matter of trust and support

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

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

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

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Binge learning - keeping learners hooked


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

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

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

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Digital literacy means knowing when to switch off

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

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

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Online conferences should be different


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

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

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


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

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Could avatars replace video in online meetings?


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

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

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

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

Time for virtual worlds to make a comeback?

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

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

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

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