Thursday, May 28, 2009

What happens when most students are off-campus?

My university (Kalmar in south-east Sweden) had 40% of its students as distance learners in 2008. The figure has been steadily climbing for several years and the question is whether the off-campus students will some day be in the majority. Many universities have already crossed that line, though few have actually made the psychological adjustment. Throughout history schools and universities have been seen as places where people come to learn. Generations of students have developed high levels of loyalty to their alma mater represented by the campus area and the often impressive buildings there.

What happens then when most of a university's students hardly ever visit the campus and learn instead on the net? This is taken up in an article in the magazine Inside Higher Ed, The Distance Ed Tipping Point. Traditions and loyalty are much harder to maintain on the net though some are trying to counter that. Bryant & Stratton College in the US, for example, are holding a virtual graduation ceremony in Second Life for 40 of its distance students, complete with avatars in academic robes (see article in Campus Technology).

So what has to change as the university goes more net-based?
  • When most students are on the net suddenly net-based learning is core business and administrative routines have to be revised accordingly.
  • The role of the teaching staff changes when lecture time is no longer so relevant.
  • Staff training has to focus on the new skills of teaching effectively on the net.
  • Digital competence becomes a key factor in staff recruitment.
  • The use of campus buildings, classrooms and infrastructure needs to be reviewed.
  • Many universities are supported by local authorities and industry and are seen as integral to the region's development so what happens when most of the students live outside the region?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The next health issue - text thumb?

Some of us just can't stop communicating. The simplest form of digital communication is of course good old SMS or texting. It's really a primitive service of max 140 characters that was included in second generation cellphones to enable the telecom operator to tell you that you had a voice mail message waiting. However teenagers in particular discovered that it was cheaper to text a message than to make a phone call and the rest is history. Today modern cellphones can send all sorts of multimedia messages but the good old text is still going strong and now has a trendy cousin in the shape of Twitter (also 140 characters).

In the health section of the New York Times there's an article about many teenagers' addiction to texting, Texting may be taking a toll. It claims that the average American teenager sends and receives 2,270 texts per day and that the communication often goes on all through the night. One extreme case is given of a girl who was clocked at an incredible 24,000 texts in a month. Concerns for the health of our young are of course voiced, in particluar the problem of constantly waking up at night to check and answer the latest messages. Not to mention the danger of a new health risk - text thumb, the modern equivalent of tennis elbow or mouse arm.

Is this just another media scare on the dangers of modern technology? It's really about people wanting to communicate but in some cases it can become obsessive. Is obsessive texting worse that obsessive reading or TV viewing? Many people can read a book non-stop for hours or even days and that is seen as a healthy interest in literature. Everything in moderation. It would be really interesting if there was some real research in this area because without that we can only speculate.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Back chat

Twitter has definitely become this year's Facebook. Just about everyone is on Twitter including a cat called Sockington who has amassed around half a million followers, thereby putting many top celebrity tweeters to shame. What started as a simple way of telling your friends what you are doing has found many other uses such as providing front line news coverage, non-stop celebrity updates and customer feedback. I registered for Twitter ages ago but I'm afraid I have so far not found any good reason to start tweeting yet. I've thought about being a follower but who do I follow out of the millions already out there?

Twitter is certainly thriving in the education sector and there are already many excellent guides on using it on courses, among colleagues or at conferences. See, for example;
One feature often used today is that Twitter provides a back channel for discussion at conferences. The conference Twitter feed can be shown on a screen on stage though this can be a major distraction since the chat can be more interesting than the speaker. Some chat is highly relevant to the topic being presented but can also be highly irrelevant. It's really a digital version of the age-old custom of passing notes under the desk during class. Should it remain under the surface or shown up front? Are we really multi-tasking or are we bored with the one way nature of the lecture format and long for a discussion?

A new phenomenon is discussed on Tony Karrer's blog, Twitter and webinars. E-meeting tools like Adobe Connect or Elluminate are used for seminars and lectures and even though such tools offer simultaneous text chat between participants it seems many are choosing to chat via Twitter instead. This means that the discussion is only visible to those participants with Twitter accounts and the main chat window is therefore relatively empty. The answer suggested in the post is to encourage participants to chat in the e-meeting chat session as a service to the group. The long-term solution is for the e-meeting tools to integrate Twitter and other social media and make it easier to interact with other participants. More integration and fewer proprietary solutions.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Art for art's sake

A recent article in the New York Times made some radical suggestions on how to reform universities to meet the demands of the 21st century. Mark C. Taylor's article, End the university as we know it, is highly critical of an academic world largely lacking in relevance for the outside world and increasingly inward-looking, producing ever more specialised research papers that are of interest only to a tiny circle of specialists.

"Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans)."

Taylor suggests abolishing permanent subject-based departments and working towards inter-disciplinary collaboration in areas such as Water, Infomation or Body which can be examined from multiple perspectives leading to deeper insights and unexpected conclusions. Universities should collaborate on programs even internationally providing multi-national perspectives for students. The traditional dissertation format should be questioned and alternative ways of presenting research findings using net-based tools should be encouraged in order to make the findings more accessible to the public.

The article prompted 437 comments and they are probably more interesting than the article itself. There are, of course, universities that are already doing what Taylor suggests and show that many of his ivory tower accusations are rather too sweeping. A lot of research today may well seem rather obscure but haven't many great discoveries been made by examining seemingly insignificant details? The analysis of many small and obscure details can lead to the discovery of important patterns. Much research today is indeed closely linked to industry and public interest but curbing the pursuit of pure knowledge would be a dangerous path to follow.

This is an age-old debate of course and will rage on. Change is happening, though academic traditions are mighty hard to break.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Why technology?

Ben Grey's article Why Technology? in Tech & Learning sees signs that universities will start cutting technology spending on the grounds that it's a big budget item and there are few concrete signs that student performance has improved due to increased use of technology in class (ie. measureable improvement in terms of exam success). He advises us to sharpen our arguments about how the pedagogical use of technology can enhance the learning process. The comments after the article provide plenty of possible answers.

Maybe it's good to have convincing arguments ready to meet any 'back to basics' initiatives but I find it strange that we still have such scepticism about net-based education. Does anyone seriously question the use of technology in finance or administration? Is it possible to work in a university administration and say that you don't believe in using technology, preferring to use mechanical calculators, typewriters and filing cabinets?

Read a response to the article on John Strange's blog; part 1 and part 2.

Not without my iPod

The University of Missouri's journalism school has decided to require students to use either an iPod Touch or iPhone as part of their studies according to an article in The Wired Campus (even more interesting to read all the comments). See also a report in the Missourian. The reason for this move is to enable students to view podcasted lectures and communicate and follows a clear trend towards mobile learning solutions. The difference here is that the students are being asked to buy one particular brand and although Apple is generally regarded as cool, not everyone on campus is enthusiastic resulting in an anti-Apple group on Facebook.

The idea of podcasting lectures and other learning objects is excellent but we have to be able to do this to a variety of terminals and platforms giving users a choice. Most places have admittedly been locked into Windows for years but in recent years it has been possible to study using Apple or Linux computers. It really shouldn't matter what you use and we have to move away from all these proprietary solutions. It's particularly tough on students who have recently invested in shiny, happy terminals from other vendors.

One of the comments on Wired Campus claims that the university is starting to phase out campus computer labs thereby passing that cost over to the students who have to fork out for their mobile terminals. I think the age of the computer labs is soon over (let's face it, they are seldom inspiring learning environments) and that WiFi access and laptops is a much more attractive and flexible solution. The question is who finances the purchase or all those laptops and mobiles; let the students pay, offer leasing deals or even subsidised giveaways.

Missouri is one of many universities that are moving towards more mobile and flexible ways of distributing educational material. With so many universities distributing lectures via iTunes, Apple obviously have a massive student market but it's vital that education doesn't get locked into one particular brand or technology.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Are e-books a threat or an alternative?

E-books are in the news these days with Amazon's Kindle reader attracting lots of attention (not yet available here in Sweden sadly). Many fear that attractive e-readers will lead to a collapse of the publishing industry in the same way as the growth of the iPod and suchlike has caused havoc in the music industry.

A UK project called JISC National E-books Observatory has been investigating these fears and the preliminary findings are surprising. They have given all UK students access to e-book versions of 36 standard university textbooks in medicine, technology and science and monitored usage patterns. Interestingly they have not found any signs that e-book access has influenced book sales at all. Those who would normally have bought the books have done so and the others have probably used the e-books as an alternative to borrowing or copying the hard copies (as they did in the past). Another surprising finding was that there was no indictaion that the younger generation was more interested in e-books than the older generation; thereby denting the net generation myth.

The project is the largest ever survey of e-book reading habits and has involved nearly 50,000 responses. Read more in an article in Publishers' Weekly.