Friday, April 29, 2011

There is already an e in learning

This week I've taken part in a meeting about quality in e-learning. This is a crucial field for the credibility of net-based education and despite the enormous range of online courses available from the world's universities and colleges there are still relatively few who have any consistent and recognized quality systems in place. Internationally acknowledged standards are essential so that e-learning can become a fully integrated part of the academic world.

However I wonder if partitioning off e-learning as a somehow separate field isn't self-defeating. The traditional approach to education with filled lecture halls, chalkboards, heavy course books and lots of paper and pencils is always viewed as the default. E-learning/flexible learning/net-based learning or whatever you want to call it is the upstart outsider always having to prove its worth. In a world where computers and net access have become largely ubiquitous and the vast majority of the population uses the net for communication, collaboration and creative work is there really still an argument for any type of education to be offline? How can you run a course for today's students that completely ignores the last 20 years of technical development and if you do how relevant is it for those students?

Instead of partitioning off e-learning as a curiosity we should be talking about measuring the quality of all education in the same way, assuming that the net is used for a great deal of the course material, communication and collaboration. Some may be more online than others but you will need very good arguments to claim that you can run a relevant course as it was run in the 1960s. Learning has already got the letter e in it; the prefix should be superfluous.

Friday, April 22, 2011

YouTube copyright school

This short video is Google's attempt to inform in a clear and light-hearted way about copyright issues on YouTube. The message is clear and YouTube have some effective mechanisms in place for alerting copyright infringement. However much more than this film is required to encourage users to follow the rules.

Since YouTube makes it so easy to copy and embed videos it's no surprise that everyone does it. If a film is copyright then the owner should be able to disable the embed button, but as long as it is in place then people will embed! I'd like to see YouTube fully adopting Creative Commons, making it simple to label a video with the relevant CC license and having the attribution built into the embed code. If I embed a film here the full attribution should automatically come with it. As it is now I enmbed and hope for the best.

A search function in YouTube for CC material, as already exists on Flickr, would help those of us who do want to abide by the rules. The problem with copyright and Creative Commons is that it is so complicated to follow the rules and as a result few people do so. CC has to be fully embedded in all content and it should be easy to label works with the right license as well as simple to search for free-to-use content. If not then don't be surprised that no-one bothers.

Thanks to The Clever Sheep for alerting me to this. See his post, Copyright school.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Books in the cloud

Bookshelves beware! After the success of streaming music services like Spotify and the next logical step is a service which offers you unlimited e-books on the net for a modest monthly fee. So we welcome 24symbols into the digital arena. 24symbols is a social reading service, at present only in a beta version with a limited selection of titles but will no doubt grow in the next few months.

The business model is very familiar. The free version allows you to read books online but you are faced with regular adverts. If you want to lose the ads you have to pay a monthly subscription, starting at $9.99 for the basic option. Just like Spotify you don't download anything, you simply view your books on the web from any device you wish. You can access the book you're reading from any device anywhere and when you've read it you simply move on to another. You have no book collection, simply a list of titles you have borrowed.

It's an attractive deal and the publishing business is in for a very bumpy ride now. Unlimited net-based books would seem to me to be most attractive in two areas of publishing. Firstly the paperback market could well migrate to the cloud very quickly. As more people carry tablets and iPads with them on train or bus journeys those last minute detective novels you buy at the station will become downloads. Few people really want to keep their impulse-bought paperbacks anyway so a digital version can be read and discarded easily. If you don't like the book you just go back to the digital library and choose another.

The other attractive market for "streamed" books is course literature. Many books you buy for a course are of limited interest after the examination and just spend years untouched on the bookshelf. In addition, many course books have a very short sell-by date, especially technology books, and simply having access to these books for the duration of the course will be appreciated by most students.

This type of service could bring many benefits. Old and "out of print" titles could remain in circulation since there is no logic in withdrawing them. In this way a vast number of interesting books could be revived. New books could be published much more cheaply and we could see a flood of new literature and an arena for young authors. On the other hand we heard similar arguments when they introduced commercial radio and TV. The flip side is that we simply get a "greatest hits" selection and the new talent hasn't a chance of getting in.

However I don't see printed books disappearing anytime soon. Here the publishing business differs from music. Music has changed format regularly over the years and we are more willing to accept the changes. Books have been around in their present form for a few hundred years and this is the first change of format since the printing press appeared. The book is more culturally entrenched than the LP or cassette and will take a lot longer to replace. This change won't happen overnight but it's already under way.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Learn, unlearn and relearn

I've just found an excellent summary of the principles of networked learning and connectivism by Debbie Kroeker as part of the open course (MOOC) Connectivism and Connected Knowledge 2011. It's nicely summed up by this quote from Alvin Toffler:
"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."

Thoughts on Connectivism from Debbie Kroeker on Vimeo.

Changing behaviour through virtual experience

There's still a great degree of skepticism about the value of virtual worlds in education but there's plenty of activity going on and valuable experience being gained. At Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab they've carried out an interesting piece of research on how virtual worlds can be used to bring about changes in attitude in ways that cannot be duplicated by more traditional communication.

This particular experiment was about people's attitudes to the environmental impact of paper use. One group was given written descriptions of the effects our paper consumption have on our forests and how non-recycled paper leads to deforestation. Another group went into a virtual world and cut down trees with a virtual chainsaw. Despite the graphic details and convincing rhetoric of the written accounts the groups who simply read about the problem did not change their paper consumption after the experiment whereas those who had been in the virtual world really did change their behaviour afterwards.

The research was not about paper consumption or deforestation but about how virtual experiences can have a real effect on our behaviour. This is not the first example of such research but it shows that virtual and augmented reality will be increasingly used for simulations and training as an effective behaviour reinforcer and in many cases will enable us to simulate experiences that would be impossible or extremely costly to carry out for real. Watch the video below for a report on the Stanford experiment and read the article from Stanford Report, New virtual reality research – and a new lab – at Stanford.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Learning through digital media

There are countless sites with learning resources and tips on how to use technology in education but what is often lacking is more academic analysis and reflection. I've just discovered a fascinating collection of peer-reviewed essays on educational technology called Learning through digital media which manages to combine practical examples of how to use web-based tools and applications with thoughtful reflection. Recommended for my less convinced academic colleagues.

Read, for example the introductory article, Introduction: Learning Through Digital Media by Trebor Scholz.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Locked away

It is a strange paradox in the academic world that research that is often funded by public money and that should be of interest to many is then only accessible to a privileged few. The main objective of most researchers is publication in one of the major scientific journals and, of course, this is what really counts in your CV when you're aiming for higher positions. However these journals command hefty subscription fees and university libraries devote a large part of their budgets to journal subscriptions. So students and staff can read the research papers but they are essentially out of the reach of the general public. This immediately places a barrier between the researcher and the general public. Shouldn't research results be freely accessible for all?

This is the subject of an editorial article in The Guardian entitled In praise of ... academic wikipedians which examines the reluctance of academics to seriously get involved in more open publication. The scientific journals have a long established business model and one that clearly works and it is not surprising that they have not been so interested in open access. As the articles states:

"While the stated aim of academic journals is disseminating ideas, they throw barbed wire around themselves and keep the interested public out."

The principle of Open Access (research being freely accessible on the net in fulltext) has become relatively widespread but many journals have been reluctant to allow parallell publishig on open sites. The vital factor here is status. Publication in open access journals doesn't quite have the same impact as publication in the top journals and it's going to take time to change this entrenched pecking order.

But what about Wikipedia, the most comprehensive reference work ever compiled and the default source for millions every day? The article wonders why so few academics are intrested in contributing. Wikipedia is still generally frowned upon as an academic source but the challenge from Wikipedia is that if you don't trust what you read why not help us improve the information? Right now the Wikipedia Foundation Research Committee are carrying out a survey, Expert barriers to Wikipedia, to find out why there is so little academic involvement (read more in another article Wikipedia wants more contributions from academics). Since Wikipedia is often the first reference point for so many people (students, journalists, general public) it would make sense for the universitiesto get involved and make sure the information is comprehensive and trustworthy.

Once again the problem is status. Contributing to Wikipedia gives almost zero status on an academic CV and as a result there is no reason that faculty should devote hours to that rather than concentrating on work that gives results. Of course there are plenty of pioneers who believe in the principles of open publication and collaborative work but they are still a tiny minority and the mainstream faculty is still highly skeptical. Who can tip the balance?

Monday, April 4, 2011

What tech will we laugh at in 2031?

This old cellphone ad from over 20 years ago certainly makes me smile since I remember when gigantic brick-sized phones were status symbol number one and the ultimate executive accessory. I remember in the early nineties a mobile operator claiming that in the future everyone will have a cellphone and how nearly everyone scoffed at the idea. "Who needs a mobile phone," they would say, "why don't they invent something we really need:"

So much for needs analysis. If we based all research on what people think they need we'd be still in caves. Innovation involves thinking ahead of everyone else and daring to invest in things people don't think they need. I wonder what we'll think of today's innovations twenty years from now.

This film and many more vintage dellphone ads are avaialble in a feature on Mashable, 10 hilarious vintage cellphone commercials.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Facebook for learning?

Learning management systems like Moodle, Blackboard and many more are standard at most universities and in many schools. They're great for course administration, keeping all course documentation, assignments, discussion and teaching resources in one place. However many people see them as walled gardens and wonder why we can't simply use freely available social media as a course platform instead. There are many examples of empty and uninspiring discussion forums in the university's LMS whilst the real discussion between the students is taking plce elsewhere, for example in Facebook. So why not just use Facebook as your classroom?

This is the subject of an article on the Austalian Flexible Learning Framework, Is Facebook the next LMS? If all the students are already on Facebook why not move the discussion there instead of asking them to log into a less inspiring forum? There are some convincing arguments for using Facebook. It's a familiar environment for students and allows them to integrate study with leisure. There's no learning curve for new students and they can even let other friends in their network get involved in course discussion. It's also easy to access from all mobile devices and easy to participate on the move. There are plenty of cases of university courses using Facebook as a learning space, in particular the London School of Business and Finance who run a Global Master of Business Administration (MBA) course. The flexibility and ease of use is appealing as Francis Kneebone points out in the article:

"Imagine if you could market a course or conference where the learners just had to click ‘like’ to begin. It would make training very accessible indeed."

The drawbacks centre mostly around privacy and control. Should public education take place in proprietary environments like Facebook? Who owns the material placed there? Can the content be archived safely or can Facebook pull the plug? At present Facebook is a rather chaotic environment for discussion where topics that disappear under the horizon at the bottom of the page seldom turn up again. I belong to several discussion groups there and it's impossible to get an overview of all the discussion threads; something most LMS are very good at. An additional problem is the lack of file storage in Facebook making it impossible to submit assignments though if students posted their assignments on a blog or other website that could be overcome.

There's no doubt that Facebook is a more appealing digital forum than any LMS and maybe the solution is to keep integrity sensitive functions locked away in the university's own LMS but move the more open course discussions on to Facebook or similar. Whether Facebook is still the dominant social network in five years time is debateable but we need to find ways of facilitating mobility between our various social networks. A single sign-on solution that lets me log on to my personal learning environment and allows me to seamlessly move between tools would be the dream scenario.