Saturday, February 27, 2010

Net collaboration at its best

Over the last few years I've built up an amazing network of contacts all over the world thanks to various social media. Some days I spend more time interacting with people outside my university than inside and I often get involved in interesting projects with the most unexpected combinatons of people.

Two examples from the past week that show the power of the social web:
  • Earlier last week I suddenly noticed a Twitter entry from a guy who wanted help translating a text from Swedish to English. That sounded right up my street so I replied. Turned out to be Rodd Lucier in Canada (whose blog The Clever Sheep I can warmly recommend) who had seen a Swedish brochure on how teachers can use Creative Commons and he wanted to use it with schools in Ontario. I know the people responsible for the brochure at the Swedish Agency for Education so the assignment was soon given the all-clear. Now I've done the translation and soon Rodd can produce a Canadian version for the schools he's working with.
  • I have been involved in a project with the Belarusian State University in Minsk and a colleague there contacted me on Skype the other evening. She's involved in a project in intercultural communication which is using Second Life as a forum for learning. I was put in touch with a lady in France who's been working on the sim in SL. I've now been given instructions to test the Belarusian simulation and report any glitches. Another case of a simple contact leading to unexpected collaboration.
Of course all this is done in my spare time and is purely for fun but I never fail to be impressed by the way such opportunities just turn up on the net. Such global collaboration was unthinkable only a few years ago. The trouble is that many teachers have still not discovered the possibilities of opening up the classroom to global collaboration. Once you've tried it you'll never close the door again.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Digital black hole

It's been a while since I last wrote about the problem of digital preservation. The paradox is that while we have never had access to so much information there's a great danger that much of it will disappear without a trace. Will future researchers be able to access records of our everyday life? Who preserves all the communication going on in social networks? You may say that much of it isn't worth preserving but often it's precisely the everyday communication that can be most interesting. Who preserves all our photos and videos, especially if the applications that host them, like Flickr or Picasa, go up in smoke one day? Websites are preserved to some extent but the vast majority are not. Seemingly the average website has an average life expectancy of 75 days!

I was reminded of this by an article in The Guardian, Is copyright getting in the way of us preserving our history?, where the author sees copyright legislation as an added barrier to digital preservation. One problem area is that lack of archives for TV and radio productions. Getting permission to make these archives accessible on the net is not easy and without the permission of all parties nothing gets preserved.

"the vast majority of documentary films from the 20th century will be forever buried in a lawyer's thicket inaccessible (legally) because of a set of permissions built into these films at their creation".

Added to this is the fact that digital files deteriorate and must be reformatted regularly. Food for thought if you want to be able to show your family photos and films to your grandchildren. It's impossible to preserve everything but we need to consider carefully what types of net content should be preserved and ensure that it's done so in a format that will be relatively future-proof. I doubt if we'll find a format that is as durable as the papyrus scrolls of ancient Egypt.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

From content to context

I'm in the midst of starting a project to encourage greater use of open educational resources (OER) and spending quite a lot of time discussing the opportunities and threats involved in sharing teaching material on the net. In Sweden at least, relatively few teachers are aware of the vast amount of resources that are already available on the net that may be reused and in some cases even adapted in accordance with Creative Commons licensing.

The main problem is that the adoption of OER involves a pretty radical rethink of the teacher's role. Governments encourage increasing competition between schools and universities with league tables to help parents and students choose the best school to attend. Little wonder then that many are reluctant to share their lesson plans and presentation material since doing so may give other schools an advantage.

At the same time and despite the competition, more and more teachers are collaborating on the development of materials and are using web based material in their teaching. The key question seems to be how far a teacher's role is defined in terms of content production. I think nearly all teachers rather enjoy producing new material and seeing if it works or not; I have at any rate.

But is it possible to be considered a good teacher if you never produce your own matrial and instead refer students to other people's lectures, lesson plans and learning objects? I'm sure it is possible today since teaching is all about providing context not content. We've always referred students to textbooks and articles so why not recorded lectures and other learning objects on the net?

There's a very good article on Campus Technology by Trent Batson, As we may learn, that uses the analogy of verb tenses to explain this shift. The production of content is seen as past tense, a finished article, whereas now the focus is on dialogue and creating context and that is described as present continuous tense

"To present “content,” something finished, is industrial age; to engage students in the active conversation in your field makes more sense now. Education is not about the past tense, but the present progressive"

Teaching should move from focusing on the production of content to the living dialogue around that content with teachers providing context and insight. Since this process of collaborative analysis and reflection is unique, he argues, there can be no problems with plagiarism:

"If you instead help students create the content of the course, there can be no plagiarism because no one else has ever constructed your disciplinary knowledge in exactly that way."

Maybe the answer is that we can happily share content even in a competitive education sector because the competitive element is the teachers' ability to provide meaningful context and guidance.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Name game

In my last post I concluded that maybe the problems we have in convincing people about the benefits of net-based education lie in our vocabulary. As long as we use words like technology, IT, technical or computer many people will simply think, "I'm not interested in all that technical stuff, it's not my business." We really want to discuss the way we teach, learn, communicate and collaborate but as soon as the dreaded t-word is mentioned you get referred to the IT department. When we start taking the net for granted we can maybe escape from the need to see it all as something technical. There's plenty technology in there of course but we don't need to know about it to use it.

I had a project several years ago about how to organise the university's support for net-based education. We tried to avoid the tech trap by using the term flexible learning. We spent a lot of time and effort writing a good definition of what this meant and creating nice diagrams but all too often we were met with confused expressions and questions like "you mean IT don't you?" Every time we mentioned flexible learning we were forced to define what we meant.

Even the IT people get stuck. For many people IT means simply cables, computers, servers and security, whereas today it is the basis for virtually all activities in the organisation. When you broaden the scope of the IT department to cover, say, media production or pedagogical support you really need a new label for the operation. The trouble is finding the right word for it and selling the new concept successfully.

My final example on this front is social media. It's an over-used term at present but it's better than web 2.0 which verged too far into techspeak. For me social media is a gigantic field covering all types of net-based communication, sharing and collaboration. However I feel that most people see the term as virtually synonymous with Facebook and discussions often centre around the perceived dangers of social networking and whether it has any relevance for education. There's so much to discuss but since everyone knows Facebook (and has strong opinions about it) it's very hard to get past that discussion and move on to more relevant discussion. If only we could find a term that encompasses the whole concept and is easy for people to grasp. It'll come, but it takes time to evolve.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Vital statistics

Tony Bates is currently writing a book on the integration of technology in post-secondary education and has written a blog post on the key factors used in assessing how successful an institution has been (How well has your institution integrated technology?). Case studies from 11 institutions in North America and Europe will be analysed in the book and the post lists the key factors as follows:
  1. Are there ‘champions’ with power and influence in the institution who recognize the importance of technology for conducting the business of the institution?
  2. Does the institution have an advanced, comprehensive technology infrastructure that enables all staff, students and faculty to access computers, networks, software and services as required?
  3. Has the institution digitalized its administrative systems, and can staff, students and faculty access administrative information and services easily over the web?
  4. Has the institution identified a clear, strategic rationale for the use of technology within the institution?
  5. Has the institution identified additional financial resources or reallocated resources to support the integration of technology within the institution?
  6. What proportion of staff, students and faculty are using technology and for what activities?
  7. How innovative is the use of technology, particularly for teaching?
  8. What level of support and training is given to instructors to ensure good quality teaching when using technology?
  9. Are students learning better and getting better services as a result of technology integration?
He suggests that these questions be used by all universities and colleges for a self audit and I would love to see this being implemented. I suspect that only a few will be able to answer all these questions.

Most institutions have now plenty of technology in place with high speed campus networks and wireless access commonplace. Administrative systems are established and learning management systems relatively widespread. However, in many places the problem is that the infrastructure is in place without being part of an overall strategy for how to best exploit the power of net-based tools to improve and widen the reach of our education. The benefits of the expensive infrastructure are not realised since there is seldom any money to invest in traing staff to use it effectively. Often there is no "champion" in the top management with the risk that important strategic decisions are delegated to the IT department who tend to see the issue as a technical one.

"... it seems clear already that strong commitment to technology from the senior administration is a necessary condition for effective integration."

However, I would say that what is often missing is an awareness of what technology is being used for and a lack of research on its use. Question 9 picks up on this theme. We implement technology but seldom study the effects. Are we using technology in the right way? Are we being innovative and if so what can we learn from the innovators? Are students benefitting from our use of technology and if not how should we change our methods? There is seldom any real quality assessment of net-based learning apart from superficial studies of drop-out rates.

One of the main mistakes we all make (in this post as well!) is using words like technology and IT. What's happening on the net today affects all of society and is mostly about new ways for people to communicate and collaborate. The technology behind the tools we use does not need to be understood by the users. Most of us drive cars without knowing how they work and the same is true on the net. For many people, however, the mere mention of such terms turns them off because they're simply "not interested in technical stuff". As long as we use such terms those at the top of our organisations will automatically delegate the issue to the IT people. Trouble is what else do we call it so that people will understand?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Change management

I thoroughly recommend an excellent post by Adam Thierer entitled Are you an Internet optimist or pessimist? He presents a very balanced analysis of the whole debate about technology's impact on society. Will the social web result in a dumbing-down of public discussion or does it foster diversity and wider participation, is it the end of professionally produced content and news or the beginning of true democracy, is it wisdom of crowds or mob rule, is it empowerment or hopeless fragmentation?

Adam traces the history of opposition to technical innovation and states the case for both the internet optimists and the pessimists with plenty links to key texts over the last decade of debate. His conclusion is that cautious optimism wins the day on points. However he warns both sides of the dangers of ignoring the oppostion's arguments. Many of the sceptics' fears are highly valid and it's no good dismissing them by saying that they are out of touch with reality.

"The sensible middle ground position is “pragmatic optimism”: We should embrace the amazing technological changes at work in today’s Information Age but do so with a healthy dose of humility and appreciation for the disruptive impact and pace of that change."

He closes the article with a fine statement of belief, The pragmatic (internet) optimist's creed. Well worth reciting once in a while.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Credit where credit's due

I try to be careful about using other people's material in my presentations and blogs. I often use my own photos and if I use something from the net I go to sites with stock photos with CC licenses and try to link to and acknowledge the source. I may have failed to do this properly sometimes but I try. The trouble is that it's seldom clear exactly what should be written under a photo or a film so that it is correctly used. I'd love to find a ready line to paste in that gives due credit and links to the original. I've spent a long time on various sites trying to find the right way to credit and in the end was forced to guess. Maybe it's blindingly obvious to many of you but I'm afraid I haven't found the magic formula.

I read with great interest two good blog posts on the confusing area of using digital material in education; one by James Clay entitled Are you stealing stuff? and the other by Simon Finch entitled Proper tea is theft. Both posts of course resulted in lengthy discussions. The main point for me from these excellent posts is that since we're all putting so much material on the net we should simply show a bit more respect for each other when we borrow. If you use someone else's material just say so and give credit. Some might argue that it's a battle between us poor ordinary people in the street and the faceless might of big business and its protectionist laws. However, in the world of the social web most of the creative work is coming from just those ordinary people in the street - us! As Simon Finch writes:

"Web 2.0, and the rest, is making us a world of creators and publishers. We’re uploading pictures, music, videos, Flash activities, personal writing, presentations, teaching resources and more – and so are our learners. That image that you’ve found, is just the thing to add value and impact to the learning activity for that needy class of yours. But that image doesn’t belong to an international image company – no, it belongs to someone like you.."

So the moral is to give credit where credit is due, not terribly difficult really. Isn't embedding a photo similar to quoting from a book or article? There are established formulae for text references that we teach carefully to all students so why not photo or film references? A standard format for media references would be very handy. On Creative Commons sites I would like the attribution to automatically follow when I embed a photo or a film. Make it easy and most people will follow.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Free education can be profitable

There are mountains of free educational resources out there for anyone to use for their own development via OER Commons, Wikiversity, OpenCourseWare, iTunes U, Academic Earth etc. Free and open higher education is now available from the fledgling University of the People and Peer 2 Peer University though in a very limited form so far. This seems to threaten the academic mainstream but can the established universities actually benefit from adapting to the wave of openness?

Several universities are now experimenting with a concept which only recently would have been considered sheer madness; letting students participate in courses for free. An article in Ars Technica, University finds free online classes don't hurt enrollment, reports on a study carried out by Brigham Young University indicating that their free courses actually help to recruit new students. BYU (BYU Independent Study) offer a limited selection of online courses free in the hope that having tried them students would be tempted to sign up for the "real thing". This seems to hold true and even if many free students never become paying customers the general feeling seems to be that the university gains so much positive publicity by opening up their material that the scheme pays its way.

According to David Wiley of BYU (in an article in Wired Campus) the study was:
"the first piece of empirical work I am aware of that demonstrates clearly that a distance-learning program can simultaneously (1) provide a significant public good by publishing open courseware and (2) be revenue positive while doing it."

Universities openly publishing their course material and lectures also see a massive surge in interest from all over the world as Open University and MIT clearly show. Millions of people now regularly view free lectures and whole courses from top universities via iTunes U or universities' own YouTube channels and reputation for good content travels fast. Although American universities have been highly prominent on this front it's not simply a western phenomenon; see, for example, the Virtual University of Pakistan's YouTube channel.

It seems that maybe you can have your cake and eat it. By putting material on the net you contribute greatly to informal learning all over the world, helping to build your reputation for quality. But those in search of qualifications and the guidance of the university's teachers will still be willing to sign up for the full university experience. The one does not necessarily threaten the other.