Sunday, August 29, 2010

Virtual realism

In my days as an English teacher I never really felt comfortable with role plays. In the days when computers were rather large machines run by nice young men in clean white coats, role plays were the only way of giving students some kind of vaguely meaningful language practice. The trouble was that it was so contrived and artificial that it often fell seriously flat. One slightly embarrassed student pretended to be a tourist asking the way to the nearest post office and the other tried gallantly to be the friendly native with impeccable local knowledge. They both had to include all the "useful" phrases I had tried to teach them and the whole performance was often rather awkward for all concerned.I'm not sure anyone really learnt much from it all.

I enjoyed therefore reading Clive Shepherd's post Why does everyone hate role plays? I found myself nodding in agreement all the way and wonder why I persisted in inflicting this practice on my students for so long. It just seemed to be the right thing to do at the time. Today technology enables us to offer convincing and realistic ways of practicing language and those uncomfortable role plays in front of the whole class are but a memory. Computer simulations can let you practice the same role play as often as you want without your coleagues watching and let you review your performance in privacy..

Virtual worlds like Second Life let you role play "for real" to the extent that you can safely practice situations behind the mask of you avatar. A colleague who teaches regularly in Second Life says that students feel more comfortable speaking English as an avatar than in web meetings where you actually see your colleagues. I've read several articles about convincing and immersive role plays taking place in Second Life in fields like psychology, history and medicine. Indeed the ability to engage in more anonymous but still realistic role play is one of the strongest arguments for using virtual worlds in education. Sometimes the virtual world is more realistic.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Unlearning learning

I've just read an excellent post by Will Richardson called Unlearning Teaching. It deals with the problematic transition from the teacher being a content provider and conveyor of knowledge to being a facilitator and mentor.

"I think that’s one of the hardest shifts in thinking for teachers to make, the idea that they are no longer central to student learning simply because they are in the room. When learning value can be found in a billion different places, the teacher has to see herself as one of many nodes of learning, and she has to be willing to help students find, vet, and interact with those other nodes in ways that place value at the center of the interaction, meaning both ways. It’s not just enough to add those who bring value; we must create value in our networks as well."

The trouble is that the traditional role of the teachers is so deeply ingrained in society that it is extremely difficult to change. Many feel threatened or at least insecure with the idea that students no longer rely on teachers for the information they need and that their lectures can now be compared with hundreds of similar ones available free on the net. I think this insecurity lies behind a lot of the reluctance to engage with technology in education. Disruptive technology like the social web or whatever you like to call it forces us to revise previously given concepts.

But it's not just the teachers who have to unlearn teaching. Students are also influenced by traditional notions. Even if we often assume that all students are positive to net-based learning I suspect that many are just as traditional as the teachers. If you have been brought up with the concept of school as teacher-led classrooms it takes a lot of courage and effort to accept other forms of learning. The lecture model is after all very comfortable and new models require considerably more effort.

I sometimes hear criticism of teachers who "don't teach properly". Many teachers try to encourage more collaborative learning but are met with questions like "is this in the exam?" Even if the school is genuinely interested in "unlearning teaching" they have to persuade the students of the benefits of such a move (and sometimes also the parents). The prevalent view of education today is still the idea that a teacher "teaches" and a student "learns". We need to redefine these terms to move forward and that requires open discussion and political will to really reassess how we create a learning society.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The clicking of laptops

Café con leche - Milchkaffee by marfis75, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  marfis75 

I've probably remarked before about the absurdity of people attending conferences and spending every break time hunched over laptops or iPhones communicating with everyone on earth except other delegates. Another arena that is turning silent seems to be the cafe. The wave of coffee shops like Starbucks that sprung up all over the world in the nineties rode on the combination of good coffee and free wireless net access. One side effect of this is that many guests buy their mug of coffee, set up office at a table and sit there for hours. The result is that in some places you hear not the buzz of animated conversation but the gentle clicking of laptop keyboards.

An article in yesterday's New York Times, The new coffee bars: unplug, drink, go (plus a long string of comments) reveals new tactics from coffee bar owners to bring back conversation to the forefront of cafe life. Many are getting rid of the tables and chairs and getting customers to either stand at the bar or perch on bar stools. The idea is to concentrate on the coffee and the company. There's simply no space for the laptop.

Then again, what's the difference between customers burying themselves in a newspaper and using a laptop? Different cafes for different purposes is probably the moral of the story.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tune in, turn on, drop out?

Whenever the subject of distance learning is discussed at higher levels at my university and undoubtedly many others the troubled issue of drop-out rates comes up. Most universities have some form of distance learning today but it has mostly been treated as a kind of second-rate solution compared to traditional campus courses with classroom teaching. One of the main reasons for it not being taken too seriously by decision makers is the fact that many such courses seem to have a rather high drop-out rate and therefore don't generate as much income for the university as full-time campus students.

Self study at study by Hermés, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Hermés 

So why do these distance students "drop out"? Are they simply not good enough to complete the course or overestimate their capacity for combining work, family and study? Or are our courses simply not engaging enough and students drop out due to unclear structure, lack of support or boredom? All these factors are involved but the main reason for the problem is more the fact that distance students are very different from traditional campus students. Universities are built around the campus concept where the norm is students between 19 and 25 studying full time and reliant on study loans or stipendia. Throughput on campus courses is naturally pretty high since failure means no more income.

Distance students on the other hand are generally over 25 and study part-time without study loans. They work, have families and homes to look after and see distance learning as part of their professional development. Many do overestimate their ability to find time for study in their already hectic lives and drop out when it gets too much. Not completing a course will not have any serious effect on their lives apart from losing the course fee. In Sweden all higher education is free so you lose nothing by dropping out. In some cases the university doesn't even notice that you've gone. Many distance students study out of pure interest and often fail to even take the course exam since they only want the knowledge not the certificate.

Distance students have a clearly different profile so why do nearly all universities still aim websites and brochures clearly at the campus students when distance students make up a significant proportion of their student base? Pictures of smiling young students studying on campus lawns or in libraries abound but you very seldom see middle aged people at home or in career situations.

The problem at my university and many others is that distance students simply don't generate as much income as campus students. Distance students generally take short part-time courses and generally 4-8 distance students generate the same income for the university as one full-time campus undergraduate. Attracting students to full-time study is therefore the prime focus and distance students then provide a useful supplement.

In Sweden universities are granted a certain sum of money per registered student and then a further sum for each student who completes the course. Drop-out rates are therefore carefully monitired. I have spoken to teachers responsible for courses with a very low official throughput and they say that students often take their time on the course assignments. They seldom complete the course on time and some may not hand in their final assignments until almost a year after the end of the course. The final throughput of a course may well be over 80% but that never shows up in the statistics.

What we need is for more universities to recognize this important and fast-growing student segment by building up an organisation around "continuing education" and focusing on distance students' needs rather than trying to handle them in the same way as full-time campus students. Quality criteria for online courses must be developed and the success of such courses should be assessed seperately from campus. At the moment we're simply comparing apples with pears and this only leads to simplistic conclusions.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Augmented reality meets print

Print media is under some heavy fire at the moment with devices like the iPad hoping to push the business over to digital format. Certainly digital versions of popular magazines on a high definition screen will open up many exciting new avenues but will there still be room for the print editions? The following video presents an unlikely link-up between the hi-tech world of augmented reality and a print magazine.

German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin has teamed up with augmented reality developers Metaio to produce the first print magazine that can be viewed through an AR application in a smartphone. The whole concept is still under development and the features shown in the video are merely a taste of what will be possible in the near future. Now, when does all this hit the education sector?

Soon after writing this I found another magazine also using AR this month, Time Out New York. See article Time Out New York premiers mobile augmented reality cover.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Learning by failing

At conferences you generally only hear about success. We learn from good examples. Sometimes however the sound of success can have the opposite effect, especially when you're working on a project that is stuck in the mud. It might be useful to hear about all the ideas and projects that didn't make it and try to understand why they failed.

That's why I was intrigued by an article called Failing in public -- one way to talk openly about (and learn from) 'failed' projects on the World Bank blog EduTech. It tells of a recent conference FAILfare in Washington DC where delegates presented projects that went wrong and tried to analyse why. An excellent idea since to err is human and by discussing our shortcomings we can work out strategies for succeeding later.

As the conference organisers put it:
"Sharing success stories and case studies, while helpful, isn’t enough. Talking openly and seeing where we have failed may help us learn, make better decisions, and avoid making the same mistakes again."

I feel we have become so focused on positive thinking and success that talking of failure and problems has become almost a taboo. I've listened to many speeches by extremely successful people who have climbed Everest, sailed solo round the world, built up companies and won gold medals but I can't say I have really learned much from them. They're simply too far away from my world. But listening to people who grapple with the more mundane challenges that I deal with can certainly inspire me since I can directly relateto them. You can't really win in life unless you have experienced failure and maybe by sometimes allowing ourselves to focus on faults we can learn from them.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Clouds on the open learning horizon?

The theme of the latest edition of Educause Review is open education and there are several excellent articles by some of the leading figures in the OER movement like George Siemens, Dave Cormier and David Wiley. Amidst all the enthusiasm it was interesting to read one article that cast a little shadow, Never mind the edupunks or the great web 2.0 swindle by Brian Lamb and Jim Groom.

The main point of the article is that despite the advances made by open education we are becoming increasingly dependent on commercial forces. We entrust vast amounts of our thoughts and creativity to corporations like Google, Facebook and Apple and the authors are worried that true openness can be compromised by commercial interests.

"Has the wave of the open web crested, its promise of freedom crashed on the rocks of the proprietary web? Can open education and the corporate interests that control mainstream Web 2.0 co-exist? What does "open educational technology" look like, and does it stand for anything? Do higher education institutions dare seize a mission of public service in fostering an open web worthy of the name? Can ambition and idealism prevail in an age of economic austerity? Finally, what is the role of the open educational technologist—that is, the "open ed tech"?"

As more and more universities distribute lectures via iTunes U or communicate with gmail or Google Apps there are also concerns about putting educational material in the hands of for-profit organisations. There are of course plenty success stories when it comes to open source tools, open access publishing and creative commons licensing. But when it comes to ease of use and attractiveness of design the commercial products are often just too tempting - and they're free.

The trouble with Facebook, Google, Apple and friends is that the prime customer for them is the advertiser because that's where the revenue comes from. We provide content and attract other users who will then see the ads. Should educational resources be placed in that arena at all, subject to market fluctuations? You can put your entire project in the hands of Google for example but what if they decide to pull the plug on the services or make it a pay service, as Ning did recently with its social networking tool?

Should education try to steer clear of commercial forces and aim for truly open solutions? The authors seem to think so:

"We strongly believe that higher education should embrace a mission to create, cultivate, and promote "safe spaces" that are not only open but also free from overtly commercialized interests ... We dream of higher education that embraces its role as a guardian of knowledge, that energetically creates and zealously protects publicly-minded spaces promoting enlightenment and the exchange of ideas. We need green spaces for conviviality on the web. Institutions of higher education—and the open ed techs who work in them—are in a unique position to create and preserve these spaces."

The suggestion is that web 2.0, having promised so much in terms of collaboration and freedom, has been hi-jacked by big business and that we somehow should try to avoid letting education sell its soul. I sympathise with the idea but whenever a good idea comes along someone will make money out of it. The challenge is to be aware of the drawbacks of relying on commercial solutions, especially if they are free, and to strike a balance between knowing when to take the commercial route and when to find a more open alternative.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Copyright black hole

Below is a talk by James Boyle (Duke University) called The incredible shrinking public domain taken from a conference of the Open Rights Group a short time ago. In it he talks about the absurdity that vast amounts of books, films and photos are locked away from public view because of existing copyright legislation. These are works that are no longer commercially available but cannot be reproduced due to copyright. Libraries are full of archive material that could be of interest but is sadly almost impossible to trace. It could be scanned and put on to the net. The authors earn nothing from these works any more and in many cases they are dead but due to copyright the works are locked away for ever.

Boyle calls this a black hole whereby copyright law has cut us off from our collective heritage. He does not advocate total freedom from copyright. Works that are still commercially viable may happily continue to generate income but the vast majority of material will never generate a penny so why not let it out into the light of the public domain?

This reminds me of an example I heard from a colleague about how a museum's collection of 19th century photos were released with Creative Commons licences. These photos had not been seen by anyone for dozens of years but within a few months some of them had been viewed by thousands of people on Flickr.

[ORGCon] James Boyle: The Incredible Shrinking Public Domain from Open Rights Group on Vimeo.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


I have collected an awful lot of things over the years. The house is full of books, magazines, records, videos, coins, stamps, ornaments, pictures and so on. It takes a lot of space and a great deal of it could be disposed of without making much of a difference to my life. I'm rather fond of these collections of course, in particular my books, but I wonder how much longer we will need to devote so much space to storing them.

Bookends by maxually, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  maxually 

Books are like trophies, showing my interests and tastes. I like to scan other people's bookcases to see what we have in common, as I used to do with record collections. But what happens when all of this is digital? If you can access the world's music or books on the net and download instantly for free of for a small fee what is the point of having a collection? E-book sales are growing sharply and already Amazon are selling more digital literature than hard copy.  My old record collection gathers dust in a cupboard today and I now have my entire music collection on an iPod. If all my books are stored on, say, an iPad in the future will this mean the end of the bookcase? Is IKEA's massively popular bookcase Billy heading for extinction?

I don't think the book will disappear any time soon but some types of book will. Paperback literature will probably be phased out first since we tend to buy them on the spur of the moment, read them and them never look at them again. Textbooks are another perfect category to go digital. We buy extremely expensive volumes as students that tend to be obsolete within a year. Textbook publishers love to revise these books annually to counter the second hand market between students. If they were digital you would always have access to the latest information instead of having bookshelves groaning under the weight of useful thousand page tomes such as Microsoft Windows 95 for Dummies. For some interesting discussion of online textbooks read a new article in Forbes, Why can't textbooks be free? (there's also a lengthy discussion under the article)

However there will be a place for quality books, richly illustrated and with an appealing layout, feel and design. I have many books (art, photography, nature etc) that would not transfer so well onto a laptop. A book can be a beautiful object in itself and is a permanent record to refer to. I have many books on subjects that I would probably never look up on the net. However since I have the physical books on my shelf they are reminders of past interests that may be rekindled in the future.

I can't imagine disposing of my book collection but I wonder if future generations will have the same feelings about print. Why should we own a book or piece of music at all? If it is always available on the net there is no reason to collect. The popular music service Spotify gives you access to unlimited music online for a small fee per month so when will we see a similar service for e-books? This is discussed in an article I read in the Norwegian paper Aftonposten last week (read article Leie, ikke eie e-bøker - Borrow, don't own e-books, use Google Toolbar to translate). Sooner or later someone will start such a service. You won't download the books, they will simply be available online. Once you've read it you move on and no more bookshelves to buy.