Sunday, October 26, 2008

Peer learning

With such a wealth of content available today, as well as an increasing willingness to share course material through initiatives like Wikiversity and various open educational resources (OER), the role of the teachers is to provide a framework for study, help students choose relevant material and facilitate discussion and reflection. Of course this all takes place within the confines of a university with a clearly defined syllabus and accreditation.

However that traditional framework is being challenged. Universities like MIT have opened up their courses for all to see as MIT Open Courseware. You are welcome to view all courses and follow them completely free but if you want guidance and credits you'll have to sign up and pay the fee. Wikiversity offers free course material and even entire courses that can then be used by teachers anywhere. But what about running courses based on free material but independant of any university?

That is the thinking behind an interesting new initiative called the Peer 2 Peer University. Courses of around 6 weeks study will be offered using freely available resources and lead by "sense makers" who will be volunteer teachers from various universities around the world. These will be recognized experts in their field providing the courses with academic credibility and will be assisted by "tutors" who may be graduate students. Small groups of students will participate in open community-based learning, working their way through the course material, discussing and collaborating on assignments and getting feedback and guidance from the teaching staff. In this way courses can start whenever there are enough students ready to form a group (preferably 8-14 students). According to the project's website they are even planning to get universities to award credits for P2PU courses. In order to ensure students' commitment to courses there will be small course fees to pay.

The whole concept relies on committed tutors who use P2PU to enhance their academic reputation and the opportunity to work in communities they would not otherwise have access to. The role of the "sense makers" is more to provide academic depth to the courses and to liaise with the tutors. Whether these people will get some kind of financial reward for their contribution in the future depends on the success of the project.

P2PU does not aim to assemble a repository of learning resources since everything is already out there. The missing link is the coordination and guidance to help learners with the emphasis on peer learning. The project hope to be able to start courses in early 2009. It will be very interesting to see how this develops.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Lost in translation

Despite all the e-meeting tools available today it is still refreshing to attend some "real life" meetings now and again! I spoke at a seminar in Gdansk this week and had the chance to get some interesting insights into the state of e-learning there and make a few new contacts that wouldn't have been so easy over the net.

The key to being able to get so much out of the seminar was the fact that my hosts provided me with an interpreter, the first time I've had that sort of service. As a result I could follow everything despite the obvious language gap. As far as I could make out my interpreter kept up with the speakers with possibly only a second or two delay. Even if I do quite a lot of translation work I take my hat off to simultaneous interpreters who must need remarkable levels of concentration.

My own multi-tasking capability fell well short of the mark as I realised that I couldn't make notes whilst listening to both the speaker and the interpreter. The extra speaker seemed to paralyse my ability to write.

Will we ever have automatic simultaneous interpretation? Plenty work is being done but I feel we're a long way from giving professional interpreters any cause for job insecurity. Google Translate offers to translate texts or whole web pages between about 34 languages and seems to do a relatively good job. It's not always grammatically correct but you get the gist and some sentences do turn out right. However idiomatic language is tough and I wonder if we'll ever have a tool that can cope. Try this text on it and see if you get an acceptable result.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A wiki world

Wikis are everywhere these days. Not as many as there are blogs but still. What started with the ever-expanding Wikipedia in around 230 different languages has developed into many fascinating spin-offs.

Since wikis are all about sharing and collaborating they're particularly relevant for education. Teachers and developers can share teaching material, collaborate on course development or share learning objects via a wiki and the principle of Creative Commons. This way you are free to use the material as long as you give due credit to the author(s).
  • Wikiversity has course material and even entire courses in most subject areas and offers the chance to further develop what is there.
  • Wikimedia Commons is a massive database of photos, films, diagrams and drawings that can be used in course material.
  • WikiEducator is a forum for collaboration and project work.
  • Wikibooks is a free library of educational books that anyone can edit.

The list goes on and it's fascinating just browsing around to see what's in there.

There are also plenty wiki tools for you to write your own wiki. I've done my own basic first attempt on web 2.0 tools (in Swedish) and found it easy to set up and build without demanding any knowledge of strange symbols or codes. Last week I heard about a site that compares all the wiki tools available. It's called WikiMatrix and the list of wiki tools in there takes a bit of scrolling! Once again you feel like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a truck and wonder why the world needs 130 different wiki tools. Five or six would be tricky enough but this is ridiculous. We're drowning in choice.

Monday, October 6, 2008

iPod therefore iAm

It has taken me a long time but I have finally gone out and bought myself an iPod. The reason for not doing this earlier has mostly been that I tend to listen to music while driving and in my car, CDs still rule. When travelling by train or bus I have used a trusty old radio with headset (charmingly retro/uncool/stone age - tick as applicable).
What has brought me round to the iPod has been the growth of podcasting and in particular video podcasting. Now I can download lots of interesting material that I'd never listen to or watch at scheduled broadcasting times and listen to them whenever I want. iTunes have a vast selection of podcasts to download, all free, plus the enormous resources of iTunes U (University) with lectures from dozens of universities, regularly updated and you have a never-ending source of knowledge and entertainment.
One thing struck me as odd when I unpacked my new toy - the lack of instructions. Normally you get thick volumes of them in at least 10 different languages that take up 90% of the packaging but this time a simple little folded paper with simple illustrations. Is it SO intuitive? Seemingly yes but I'm still a bit wary.
I've got an amazing 120 GB memory to fill up and despite downloading all my music (almost 1,000 songs), the last three years of photos and a nice selection of podcasts I've still got over 100 GB of free space left! I just have to work out how to get films on it ....