Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Embracing Wikipedia

I wrote last week (Wikipedia goes undercover) about the increasing clandestine use of Wikipedia by students in spite of teachers' warnings that it isn't always academically reliable. The moral of the story for me is that if faculty don't completely trust sites like Wikipedia why not get involved to improve the shortcomings.

This is what is happening already at some universities and in particular the University of Denver according to an article in eCampus News, Journalism students turn to Wikipedia to publish stories. Journalism students there are given assignments to write new entries in Wikipedia that have to be thoroughly researched and referenced. As one student says about the assignment:

“I never considered how much research and knowledge actually has to go into a Wikipedia article to make them good sources. It was actually very tough researching the subject and turning it into a coherent entry for Wikipedia.”

Indeed if you are writing for a site that gets around 68 million visitors per month you can be sure that if you make a mistake someone out there will comment. One of the Denver teachers involved in this initiative comments on faculty suspicion of Wikipedia:

“One of the reasons I wanted to assign [writing Wikipedia entries] is to combat that view. I tell students to use it as an information portal … and you can see what information has been sourced and see that they’re reliable sources. Wikipedia can be a great resource.”

I don't think anyone is suggesting that Wikipedia can replace academic journals and reference works but it is definitely a great place to start if you want a good overview of a subject and links to further study.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Have we ever really paid for content?

With several newspapers like the Financial Times already setting up pay walls to hide behind and others like the New York Times planning to charge for content, there's plenty of discussion about the future of print media. Since readers are charged for reading the printed newspapers so should they be charged for reading the net version. I must say I have tended to sympathise with that argumenton the grounds that the income guarantees the survival of quality journalism. If everything is free then who will provide thoughtful and balanced reporting from the world's troublespots?

I've just read a fascinating article by Mark McLaughlin in the Huffington Post called Audiences don't pay for content that has certainly made me think again. Here he claims that we've never really paid for content but we certainly pay for the distribution. Once we've paid the TV licence or cable fee we can watch as much TV as we want. We pay for the fact that a newspaper has been put together and sent to us but the content has been paid for by the advertisers (in some cases, like the small ads, that's us too). Radio is even more generous, being free or bundled into the TV licence, and we can listen to whatever we want. We happily pay for the equipment but not really the actual content.

Internet is, of course, far from free. We pay sometimes quite hefty fees for our broadband access, landline and cellular, as well as the cost of all of our computers, gaming consoles and mobile devices. Should we then face further charges for all the net content we access? It's a bit like buying a TV, paying the licence and cable company charges and then being asked to pay extra for every programme we watch.

Can advertising bear the costs of all this content? Can solutions like iTunes or Kindle provide attractive distribution solutions that we would be prepared to pay for? Can some of the internet access costs be used to finance some of the content too? No clear answers are available but I can't see the pay wall tactics of some newspapers having any effect as long as someone else is providing the news "for free". We'll just stop quoting these sources. There's no point sending a link to an article that your friends can't read.

McLaughlin doesn't have any clear solution either but it's an article that stimulates discussion. There's also the question of how all this effects education and the debate between advocates of open educational resources and those who want the university's material and research safely locked away behind passwords and journal subscriptions. The future is open but probably not free.

Photo by rhondda.p on Flickr CC BY NC

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wikipedia goes undercover

There's a new study just out from the University of Washington by Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg called How today's college students use Wikipedia for course-related research. The study covered students on six campuses across the USA. They have found that 80% of the students in the survey use Wikipedia in their initial research even if not encouraged by faculty to do so. I suspect that results would be similar at many other universities and schools in different countries. The big question of course is why they do so.

The number one attraction I think must be Wikipedia's sheer volume of information and even more important its ease of use. It is often quite simply the best place to start to get an overview of a field. Some students in the study state that they do not cite Wikipedia as a source since they know that the teacher will not approve. They all seem well aware of the potential limitations of Wikipedia but choose to use it anyway. However few claimed to use Wikipedia later on in their research where they cite more established sources.

"Overall, college students use Wikipedia. But, they do so knowing its limitation. They use Wikipedia just as most of us do — because it is a quick way to get started and it has some, but not deep, credibility."

Why this clandestine use of the world's biggest ever reference work? Using Wikipedia is an excellent way of demonstrating source criticism and you can gain a deeper insight into the complexity of many concepts by looking under the discussion tab. Why don't more teachers get involved in making Wikipedia more credible or accept it for what it is and let students use it as a springboard to more knowledge? Despite its size it is still suffering from growing pains as many committed contributors debate just how free and open the work should be in the future. Those debates are however not apparent to the average user and it seems to be the default starting point for investigating a subject area.

I found no reference to the alternative wiki-based encyclopedia Citizendium which operates somewhat in Wikipedia's shadow but has ambitions to be more accurate and peer-reviewed as I understand it. Forbidding the use of these sources just moves the issue under the radar. Using social reference works responsibly should be a topic for class discussions. Wikipedia won't just go away if we ignore it.

Read a summary of the above report in an article in Campus Technology.
Also another blog post on the use of Wikipedia by medical students on Dundee e-MedEd blog.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Location location

We seem to love telling people where we are, especially if it's somewhere cool. Facebook and Twitter are full of such messages but with most mobile devices having built-in GPS we soon won't have to write our location updates - they'll be automatically included in the message (as long as we choose that option). For those who love to tell the world of their every movement there is a horde of location tagging services and the market leader of these seems to be foursquare.

I haven't signed up for foursquare yet. I'm tempted, at least to see what the fuss is about, but I am slightly worried it'll require too much attention and time to be worthwhile (however just writing about it here makes me feel obliged to get started). The idea of foursquare and a large flock of similar apps is that you check in to whatever location you happen to be in (especially restaurants and bars it seems) and preferably make a comment for the benefit of future visitors. Basically a sort of virtual guest book. There's also a competitive element in that you can win points and badges for being the first at a particular place or a regular visitor. Some restaurants and bars will even provide a free drink to anyone who shows they've earned enough points.

One interesting article about this trend is by M G Siegler on Tech Crunch (Check-in fatigue) where he attends a conference in Austin, Texas, and attempts to log his movements on all the available location-tagging services. This of course proves too much and by the end he's down to using the two main contenders for supremacy in the location boom, foursquare and Gowalla.

The main problem is that there are too many similar apps and little compatibility between them. Add in the fact that most location enthusiasts are also active in Facebook and Twitter and it becomes very time-consuming to keep all updated. We need interoperability between all these services to get any sustainable use from them. In the end you have to choose a small number of apps that suit you and stick to them even if it means disappointing some friends.But the ideal is some way of getting everything in to one platform.

The other article on this theme is from The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Will your college be covered in virtual grafitti?. Here there is concern at how students are labelling various campus locations on foursquare with critical comments. When you "check in" to a particular department or building you can leave a virtual comment that other visitors pick up on their cellphones as they approach the location. That could include criticism of a teacher for example without the victim even being aware of the virtual grafitti. At the same time the university can carry out some official location tagging providing useful tips to visitors as they move around the campus. There are definitely opportunities for education here especially with location tagging and augmented reality.

Location based services are only just beginning to burst on to the mainstream market and there's a bit of a wild west flavor just now with hundreds of wannabe services vying for our attention. In the end we'll get some kind of order and interoperability but for now it's chaotic, confusing and very innovative.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Why is change so hard?

Why is it so difficult to integrate technology into education? So far we've used technology in the traditional framework of classrooms, lectures and teacher-lead discussion but seldom investigate how to use the net to make any fundamental changes to change the way we teach and learn. The main problem is the disruptive nature of change. One teacher or one school can try to innovate but if the system around them will not accommodate that change they will have problems.

Two articles this week have put this resistance to change into focus. The first is by Trent Batson in Campus Technology, Let faculty off the hook, where he claims that our whole concept of education (schools, teaching, classrooms) is so deeply rooted in society that we simply cannot imagine any other system. Society is built around our children going to school for around 6-8 hours a day and taught in groups of around 30 strictly divided by age. Parents expect their kids to learn the way they did and get worried if changes are made. Teachers who don't "teach" in the traditional sense will soon attract criticism. Furthermore lecturing is seen as being synonymous with teaching and if you don't offer it students may get uneasy and wonder when the real teaching will start. Politicians often talk about schools getting back to basics and see chalk and talk as the best method of teaching.

"It is one thing to use technology to improve on current practices, but another, and more challenging thing, to use technology to replace current practices and operate in ways that are completely new and counter-intuitive to us."

Basically net-based learning challenges such fundamental and deep-rooted traditions that the system simply does not know how to react. In the face of such a potentially disruptive force the natural reaction is to duck.

On a similar theme is a fascinating article on Education Next, High School 2.0, about an innovative new school in Philadelphia. Opened in 2006, the School of the Future aimed at creating a radical new approach to education using plenty of technology (Microsoft were involved in the planning process), collaborative learning and very little traditional classroom teaching. The article describes the painful process of the school's first few years where students' experience and expectations did not match the school's brave new ideas. The jump from traditional teacher-lead classroom teaching to net-based learning was simply too great for most students to handle. Parents too could not accept the lack of "real teaching" and the authorities could not accept the school's assessment procedures. The system simply could not cope with the disruptive element that the new approach offered.

One of Batson's comments fits perfectly to the case of the school of the future:
"We may have a new ecology of learning (we do), but we also have systemic incompatibility with the new ecology. The entire workflow on the academic side of institutions runs against the new ecology.

According to the article the school is beginning to emerge from the chaos and is trying to merge some of the radical new ideas to a more pragmatic level and more adapted to the existing structures and expectations. This process is clearly going to take some time for all of us.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The problem with great teachers

A great teacher can decide your future career whereas a poor teacher can make you completely lose interest in a subject that you previously showed promise in. Many of us can trace our choice of career or subject area back to one teacher whose enthusiasm and attention gave us confidence and inspiration. Someone who somehow pushes us to try that little bit harder and shows us how to take charge of our own learning is a school's most valuable asset.

Many authorities today are trying to impose various types of quality control to weed out "bad" teaching, often judged on the basis of exam results. Good teachers get good resluts would seem to be a logical conclusion but, as ever, it's never as simple as we would like. Think back to your schooldays. My favourite teacher could be my best friend's hate object and vice versa. The same teacher who inspired me to top grades caused a friend to completely give up the subject. Many kids go through school on a rollercoaster of grades as they switch teachers from year to year and results fluctuate due to simple personal chemistry. It's tough on teachers too. Imagine taking over a class that has just had a year with the school's star teacher. How do you follow that?

Isn't the teacher-centred system basically rather too vulnerable? I don't think it's so simple as there being "good" and "bad" teachers; it's often quite simply a matter of personalities and compatibility. How can we reduce the vulnerability of the system so that students' learning is less dependant on individual teachers? Good teaching is sometimes in the eye of the beholder so we need to encourage students to find motivation in their own networks. Maybe the best teaching is guiding students towards collaborative learning where they motivate each other, either face-to-face or on the net. I still believe that the teacher's role is important but it shouldn't be so decisive. More motivators are needed to smooth out the rollercoaster ride. Building personal learning networks will ensure that there are always people who can motivate you even if your teacher of the moment fails to inspire.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Fly on the wall

Filming lectures is becoming increasingly popular at most universities. Sometimes they're shared on the net using platforms like iTunes U or YouTube Edu though probably the vast majority are hidden for all but registered students. The reasons for filming are generally to let students review lectures later and to allow distance learners access to the campus classroom, but when the lectures are open to all factors like marketing and recruitment come into force.

There's an article in The Chronicle, College 2.0: More Professors Could Share Lectures Online. But Should They? that lists the pros and cons of going on air in the classroom. One factor that makes some teachers reluctant is the relationship between teacher and students that doesn't translate well when seen on a small screen. As one professor puts it:

".... I find myself playing devil's advocate all the time ... I don't want to be on the record saying something I don't even believe" if the lectures go out on the Web. He considers the classroom a "sacred space" that may need to stay private to preserve academic freedom."

I personally believe that the benefits of openness in this respect far outweigh the drawbacks but one aspect of the filmed lectures is a problem. It's the fly on the wall feeling you get when watching these recordings as a distance student. Since it's filmed "live in front of a studio audience" you as a distance student are simply not there. The teacher addresses the students in the room and has eye contact with them and seldom, if ever, with you. I've seen many filmed lectures where the teacher even moves off camera for a while or is very definitely off centre. This hardly makes the film compulsive viewing.

If a lecture is intended for an audience of distance students a greater sense of intimacy is gained if the lecture is recorded on the teacher's own computer and webcam or in a studio with no audience. That way everyone gets full eye contact. Maybe it's soon time to make most lectures web-based, even for campus students and spend the contact time in the classroom on discussion rather than lecturing.

Photo by Wen Chuan Tan, Attribution, Noncommercial, Share Alike Some rights reserved.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Context is king

An article that has won a fair bit of attention in the last week is Who needs a prof? by Stephanie Findlay in On Campus. It deals with students turning more and more to the lectures and course material freely available from top universities via iTunes U, Academic Earth and YouTube Edu. Many students prefer these resources to attending lectures at their own university or reading much of the prescribed course literature. If they can access all the top professors' lectures anywhere anytime what will the role of the regular teacher be? I trust that the headline of the article is a rhetorical question.

The issue here is the fundamental change in education that we're in the midst of, where the role of the teacher is shifting:

"To be effective .... they (teachers) must be “cognitive coaches” rather than conduits of information."

With information freely available everywhere it's context, not content, that counts. Admittedly some students can certainly thrive and learn in self-sufficient groups without a teacher but they are, I suspect, a small minority. The teacher's future role of filter/mentor/motivator/facilitator is much more challenging and rewarding than the traditional one of "sage on the stage" and I see a need for more teachers in the net-based future rather than fewer.

However it's vital that, as we embrace new technology in education, teachers receive encouragement and are rewarded for innovative initiatives. The challenges of adapting to a new educational environment are exciting and demanding but clear incentives, support and leadership will be required.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Wheel of fortune

Way back in the pre-net days of the eighties there was a controversial telephone service here in Sweden called hotline. You phoned a number and could talk to whoever else was there; purely random communication. Ideally you could meet someone new and chat about important world issues but there are no prizes for guessing what it was mostly used for. In the end the service was abandoned. There are certainly thousands of services like this around the world today though they're not free.

Now there's an updated video version of this called ChatRoulette where you just turn on your webcam and click to make video contact with someone somewhere. It's totally anonymous, you've no idea who you're watching and can never find them again. You can text chat with whoever turns up or even use voice. If you don't like what you see just click to the next person. You can't go back to anyone or save anyone. You just sit there looking at people looking at you.

There's always something fascinating about random events. We love wheel of fortune games and the suspense involved in not knowing what will happen next. This service demands absolutely nothing of you and offers an endless gallery of people; friendly, eccentric, funny, seriously weird, exhibitionist and some downright sick. No responsibility and total anonymity. Attractive? You bet.

This is probably the direct opposite of what the social web is all about; no collaboration, no connections, no responsibility, very little meaningful interaction. Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame condensed down to 15 seconds as we parade ourselves in front of our webcams. No-one cares who you are or what you do, you're just part of the ultimate peepshow. Probably very little relevance to e-learning but part of today's media landscape.

Read more about ChatRoulette in an article from New York Magazine, The Human Shuffle and also on Mashable. There's even a study of the phenomenon, ChatRoulette - an initial survey, that calls it rather nicely a "probabilistic community shaped by a platform which mediates the encounters between its users by eliminating lasting connections between them."