Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Floating University

The concept of university is under review. Even if the term is strictly defined in most countries there are plenty of new educational arenas flying the university flag but not following the traditional definition. I've frequently discussed Peer 2 Peer University and University of the People in this blog and although they are not "real" universities, the name sets the tone and the level of the type of study they provide. Their courses are university level though they do not lead to recognized university credits (yet). Purists may protest and scoff but these are providing higher educational opportunities in interesting new ways to new groups of students and I would expect such alternative forms of higher education to increase in the near future.

Floating Holiday Candles in Reflection P by aimilino01, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  aimilino01 

A new variation on this theme is being tested this term. It's called simply The Floating University. The venture is described as:
"...a joint venture between The Jack Parker Corporation and Big Think, a knowledge forum where the world's top experts engage the thinking public to explore the big ideas and core skills defining the 21st century."

What they've done is to sign up a star-studded cast of academic elite and filmed a series of polished lectures where they give their overviews and thoughts on their various fields. The lectures are supplemented by notes, suggested reading, assignments and discussion forums and the result is a series of master class courses: a kind of academic All-star game. The first course is being launched right now and is called Great big ideas.

"Great Big Ideas delivers the key takeaways of an entire undergraduate education. It's a survey of twelve major fields delivered by their most important thinkers and practitioners. Each lecture explores the key questions in the field, lays out the methods for answering those inquiries and explains why the field matters. It is an effective introduction to thinking differently, and a primer in the diverse modes of problem solving essential for success in the 21st century."

Unlike the university alternatives mentioned earlier, the Floating University is not an example of open educational resources, nor is it free. Great big ideas costs $495 for the 12 lectures and study material. Individuals can enroll but the main idea is to provide ready-to-go courses for other universities to offer. I would imagine that those "real" universities can then provide their own teachers to guide students through the material but they would obviously not need to do any lecturing themselves.

The course is being offered as a regular campus option by three major universities: Harvard, Yale and Bard. One unique feature is having top harvard professors teaching a class at Yale and vice versa. I can imagine a future scenario where smaller universities around the world will offer Floating University courses where top academics provide the input but the local teachers provide the context and guide the students' discussions and reflection.

Is this a threat or opportunity or simply filling an innovative gap in the market? It's certainly a fascinating area to keep an eye on.

Have a look around the Floating University web site. There are plenty of films and sample lectures but since all are copyright I can't show them here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Altered images

Augmented reality has still not broken through as an everyday technology but it's developing fast and I suspect that in the not too distant future it'll suddenly be everywhere. Here's the latest in a line of videos showing new applications for augmented reality and each time it seems to be moving closer to finding that soft spot for mass adoption.

I like the interaction between mobile and printed media giving newspapers, books, ads, billboards, signs and so on digital content and creating a bridge between the two media. Too often we see dramatic headlines that the digital world will make all printed media obsolete in the very near future. This causes understandable reactions of panic or denial ("over my dead body") and unnecessary conflict.

A lot of discussion about digitalisation is rather too radical; that new technology will sweep away all traces of the old methods. This often just leads to traditionalists digging in even deeper. Let's look at all these amazing new opportunities and see what we can do with them to make learning even more exciting. Some old ideas will fade away, some will be retained and others will be remodelled. Evolution is the name of the gamer.

Anyway have a look at this video from Junaio.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Borrow a librarian

Up till now you a library was judged by the extent of its book collection. Floors of bookshelves demanded respect. But soon when most resources are digital and available on the net the library will need to redefine itself and that process is already under way in many places. When all information is just a click away and students can have their entire course resources on a thin tablet or even smartphone. What then is the library's key resource? In a word - librarians.

Koerner Library Interior 12 by UBC Library, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  UBC Library (people in photo are not connected to the story)

I came across a short but thought provoking news item from Canada, Public library will lend out people as ‘living books’. A library in Surrey, BC, offers the opportunity to borrow a librarian. You can check out a librarian to get help with finding information for a project for example. Not for days of course but for an hour or so. An extension of this would be to discuss how to gather business intelligence for your company, how to study online etc. The key resource is expertise in how to find and exploit the resources of the web.

Numerous such “living books” have reportedly already volunteered and will be available for chats over coffee in the library’s new cafe. “What we’re aiming to do is bring the library to life for people,” explains deputy chief librarian Melanie Houlden. “There are huge repositories of experience and knowledge in their own brains.”

The opportunity for all libraries is clear. Content is everywhere but human beings can give context and support. The library of the future depends on the expertise of the staff and not on the mileage of bookshelves. Even the smallest library in terms of space can provide invaluable support to its users.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

These boots were made for charging

Best Foot Forward by xJasonRogersx, on FlickrSmartphones and tablets are wonderful but their batteries don't last so long. You know the feeling - you notice the battery is low and that you forgot the power chord at home or at work and in a few minutes you'll be cut off. It generally happens just when you're expecting a call or need to access information. Unless we can develop batteries with much better capacity we're going to have to find new ways to recharge them.

Hope is at hand. According to a new BBC article we may soon be able to charge our mobile batteries by simply walking (Mobile phones could soon be 'powered by walking'). It seems that around 20 watts of power is lost as heat as we walk and the aim is to capture that energy and put it to better use. A device placed in your shoe generates energy by kinetic charging. Walking sets micro droplets in motion in the device and this is converted into enough energy to charge a mobile. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin have developed this technology and have recently published a study in the journal Nature Communications (Reverse electrowetting as a new approach to high-power energy harvesting, T Krupenkin, A Ashley Taylor).

"The new personal mechanism uses a principle known as "reverse electrowetting" - converting the energy of moving microscopic liquid droplets into an electrical current. Once placed in a shoe, the device - which consists of thousands of these electrically conductive droplets - is able to generate electrical energy. There is enough power, according to the researchers, to charge a standard mobile phone or laptop."

They have now formed a company, InStep NanoPower, to further develop this technology into a commercial proposition.The first problem is to transmit the power from the shoe to your mobile or laptop; a wire would be somewhat clumsy. According to the company web site the power can be transmitted wirelessly.

I look forward to this technology to put an end to searching for all those annoying power cables (every device has its own unique solution of course). Very soon you'll see people in the park taking their laptops for a brisk walk.

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by xJasonRogersx 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cloud library

clouds by Extra Medium, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Extra Medium 

Imagine a place where you can download books, music and films completely free as often as you like. When you're finished with them you just give them back.You never need to buy them yourself and if this place doesn't have what you want they can get it from their network of contacts.Sounds a bit dodgy doesn't it? Some kind of pirate web site? No it's called a library.

The point is that we have been borrowing books and other media for years without any debate about copyright. A new article by Paul Carr in Tech Crunch, Book piracy: a non-issue, doesn't see any reason for fearing the free sharing of e-books. Books have always be read by many more people than buy them, either by borrowing from libraries or friends or from second-hand shops. You can sell maybe 10,000 copies that are then read by 100,000 people. It's very doubtful if you would sell more books if all lending was forbidden and it's better to reach a wider audience than a very narrow paying one.

"To all intents and purposes, books borrowed from libraries mean authors receive no compensation. Meanwhile, every day, millions of people around the world loan books to their friends, or donate books to charities, or leave them on public transport or otherwise share them in ways that negate the need for the recipient to buy their own copy. None of this constitutes stealing from authors, and you won’t hear a peep of objection from the publishing industry or authors."

The problem with e-books is that they cannot be shared very easily and there are strict restrictions on how libraries lend them. Publishers fear they are heading the same way as the music industry but forget that millions of books are shared in accepted ways already. Carr argues that genuine readers will be quite happy to download e-books legally if the price is reasonable and the purchasing and downloading process is simple and hassle free but once you've bought the e-book it's quite natural to lend it to friends and family as we always have done.

Or maybe we pay a standard access fee every month and then read anything we want from the cloud with no need to download at all? The cloud library.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Distractors or enablers?

No mobile phones by touring_fishman, on Flickr
The subject of mobiles in the classroom or lecture hall is still controversial with many institutions banning them and countless examples of irritating use of mobiles in class. There's no doubt that today's smartphones are rather addictive and it's extremely difficult to teach when the entire class is busy on their mobiles. However, although teenagers are extreme users of mobile devices their parents are not far behind. Every day I see drivers with mobile phones in one hand as they overtake me. Look around at your colleagues in meetings and at conferences and you'll see them busy updating Facebook, checking e-mail etc. So it's not just a teenage phenomenon. We're all guilty to some degree.

It's all about respect I think and that is what we should discuss in class and even at work. Knowing when to switch on and when to switch off. When we need to discuss face to face we switch off the mobiles. However we also need to be more sensitive to spending too long on one way communication. If you force a large group of people to listen to a one hour lecture you can be sure that many will find their mobile much more interesting than your speech. Keep the discussion active and engaging and the distractions won't be so attractive.

I've just read a good article on how mobiles can be used effectively in the classroom, Backchannel learning in an organizational setting (Dave Kelly, eLearn Magazine). It deals with the use of mobiles in corporate training but the ideas are equally applicable to schools and universities. Instead of being distractions mobiles should be used to create more student involvement. One quote stands out:

"Simply put, learners are now walking into your session carrying the ultimate engagement tool right in their pocket."

The so-called back channel at conferences and classes can be used to gather student responses to the ideas being discussed and to transmit those ideas to a wider audience and involve even outsiders in the discussion. Mobiles are ubiquitous today and are not going to go away so all attempts at banning them are going to be futile. However we need to spend more time discussing the art of paying attention and showing respect, remembering that it works both ways. Teachers must also try to cut the one way communication and students must try and be able to focus attention when required. We need to think more about why we gather people together in one room and use that time as constructively as possible. If we don't people just switch off.

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by  touring_fishman 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Close to you

Being in the same room as a teacher does not mean you learn anything. However we still judge the quality of a university course largely on the amount of time students are in the same room as a teacher. This contact time still normally takes the form of lectures which tend to be fairly one-sided unless the number of students is very low. Many students say little or nothing in their lectures and it's doubtful if they really learn so much from this precious contact time. Since lectures can now be prerecorded and watched anywhere and any time wouldn't it be better to put them on the net and create more time for real contact in the form of discussion, experiment and group work?

This issue is discussed in a lengthy but thought-provoking article by Paul Ramsden in Times Higher Education, When I grow up I want to be spoon fed. He sees the current debate about contact hours as too simplistic since most of these hours consist of lecturing that is often one way traffic.

"Lecturers and their institutions need to remind themselves that university teaching is not a delivery process. On the contrary, it's a sort of conversation - and in a conversation, listening is as important as speaking. This implies less conventional lecturing and more communication. It is a national disgrace in 2011 that the most common form of contact hour is still the lecture."

He sees the lecturing tradition as spoon feeding and advocates putting much more responsibility on students to take charge of their learning rather than cramming lecture notes at the end of term. There is also a need to make students much more involved in course design and giving them a good deal of responsibility for redisgning a course for the following year's students.

"Perhaps the most telling evidence that we are getting this part wrong comes from the 2010 NUS survey. About 90 per cent of students want to be involved in shaping course design, but only 59 per cent say that they are. The primary basis of a positive student experience and lasting learning outcomes is taking an energetic part in the life of the university - and collaborating with fellow students and staff, both in class and out of it. Providentially this way of thinking about "contact" fits well into the culture of academic collegiality."

Courses can be much more student-driven and this is a feature of more innovative initiatives like Peer 2 Peer University that I have frequently mentioned here. It's a case of moving education from a charter holiday where everything is planned in advance and the teachers look after you all the way to a backpacking holiday where you have to work things out for yourself with the help of your fellow travellers. Not that I see it as a case of one way replacing the other but I believe that we learn much more by backpacking, especially when the teachers are part of the backpacking team as experienced guides.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Do it yourself university

Higher education is still a fairly exclusive commodity even if the number of students rises every year. In most countries it is still a major investment for a young student and many will take over 20 years to pay back the loan. In addition to that competition for places, especially at the top universities, is fierce. Millions of people are denied higher education because they can't afford it, can't move from home or are not able to meet the entry requirements.

With the wealth of open educational resources freely available today it is possible to put together your own education using the best resources and the methods that suit you. The material and information is all out there but it still requires a great deal of self-discipline, good study routines and a high level of digital literacy to fully benefit. There are plenty of courses available through innovative educational initiatives like Peer 2 Peer University, University of the People and the various MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that a few universities are offering. However most of these courses assume that participants are already familiar with social media and comfortable using wikis, blogs, discussion forums and e-meeting tools.

Anya Kamenetz has written a guide book to DIY education, Edupunks, edupreneurs and the coming transformation of higher education that aims at providing inspiration and support to those who want to learn "off piste." She has also produced a shorter version, The Edupunk's guide to a DIY credential which is a step by step guide to taking control of your own learning and research using the tools and resources freely available on the net today.
EdupunksGuide Most of this DIY movement is completely off the radar of mainstream higher education and she sees the issue as the elephant in the room for universities today as she explains in this short video interview.

The Elephant on Campus | Anya Kamenetz clip #1 from Mind Twin Media on Vimeo.

There's a good summary of this issue on the excellent blog Innovative Educator, The Do It Yourself (DIY) Guide to Credentialing, with more links if you want to investigate more.

Guides like this are extremely valuable and the volume of informal learning taking place today is a growing but virtually invisible force in education today. However it still excludes many potential students who simply don't have the right level of digital literacy and will need lots of support and encouragement to get started. We need to link in libraries, learning centres and other adult education groups to support digital literacy projects and offer face-to-face guidance in the community to ensure that there is always an option available for everyone who needs education and training.

I've just found Stephen Downes excellent practical guide to learning in the digital age, Access :: Future. Practical advice on how to learn and what to learn. (link to pdf)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Only a paper moon?

braid by kathleenie, on FlickrWe've had at least 15 years of net-based learning in universities and the numbers of online students rises year by year. Today most campus courses rely on the net for distribution of course material, discussion, assignments and information and the university's accounting, HR and other administrative routines are all computerised. So we should be able to say that technology affects every process in higher education.

However, despite the omnipresence of technology in academia it is still not fully accepted. This is stated most clearly in an excellent article in Campus Technology, Ad Hockery and the Potemkin Effect in Higher Ed IT. It's based on a presentation given by Kenneth C.Green at the recent Campus Technology 2011 conference. Universities today offer a host of online courses but often with very little support for teachers or students and that's why Waters refers to the Potemkin effect - courses are just flat facades with nothing behind them. Little wonder then that the drop-out rate is high.

The problem is often that top management have little understanding of how technology impacts education  and tend to delegate responsibility for online learning to IT managers, believing still that this is purely a technology issue and not a pedagogical one. Teachers do their best to support each other and often provide student support over and above the call of duty but in many universities there are far too many such ad hoc solutions that cover up for the lack of an overall strategic approach. Universities need to build an infrastructure behind the facade.

"The faculty need support," he said. "They're not ancillary to this conversation but central to it. And we need to communicate with presidents and provosts about the value of that support--about how critical it is, that it's part of the infrastructure--so we don't have Potemkin campuses." 

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licenseby kathleenie 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Brain drain

A favourite recurring theme of many tabloids and popular TV shows is the idea that digital technology is damaging our brains or making us stupid. Tales of obsessive gaming, gambling and social networking are seen as evidence of the perceived dangers of new technology rather than further examples of obsessive behaviour which has always been present in society. The real question is how to deal with obsessive behaviour in general (eating, drinking, drugs, gambling etc have always been around); the net just gives us new arenas for such tendencies.

We've always been wary of new technology that we see as being "unnatural" (simply because it's new). The well-known example of men with flags walking in front of the first railway locomotives to ensure that they could not go too fast is a clear parallell. After that there were several scientific papers that warned that our brains would not be able to cope with speeds of more than 30 mph and these fears continued as the speeds increased. I remember discussions in the sixties and seventies on the damage television was doing to children and scare stories of TV-addiction were not uncommon.

Many scare stories quote scientific reports and studies to back up their claims but is there any real scientific eveidence for these dangers? This is the subject of the following lecture by Dr Paul Howard-Jones, senior lecturer at the University of Bristol’s Graduate School of Education, who has written a report The impact of digital technologies on human well-being. He has sifted through 170 studies on the relationship between digital technology and its effect on how we think and learn and in this lecture he discusses some of the most common concerns about the net and sees if there is any scientific evidence to back up these fears.

The idea that the internet is "rewiring our brains" is actually true but not in a negaitive way. The brain is vey plastic and is constantly adapting to new stimuli.Children's brains are more plastic than adults' and exposure to the media-rich environment of the net stimulates new ways of thinking and can lead to new strategies for learning. One clear point in Dr Howard-Jones' lecture is that we need to provide better support for children, parents and teachers in how to use the net to stimulate learning and creativity.

One area of digital technology that is highlighted as having the greatest potential for learning and creativity is gaming. The lecture gives examples of research on how gaming stimulates more parts of the brain than other learning activities and there is good scientific evidence for the present trend of gamification in education. Discussion of gaming in the popular press today still focuses on some people's addictions to simple "shoot-em-up" games instead of the complex and immersive strategy games that are in fact mainstream and that are being increasingly used in corporate, military and even academic training.

The basic skills we use on the net are far from new; we read, write, communicate, watch films and listen to music. The net enables us to blend all these elements in new ways and allow new ways to collaborate and work. Instead of scare stories, bans and limitations we should be spending more time helping people to use our digital media in a responsible and mature manner.

Read more about this in an article by Tony Parkin, Fear of technology that can turn our brains to mush (Merlin John Online)