Thursday, April 26, 2012

Blinded by science

There's a dangerous assumption that using more technology in education will automatically raise students' motivation to learn. If we replace the books, notepads and pencils with iPads and laptops students will somehow become more enthusiastic and committed to their studies. It's a bit like the encyclopedia salesmen of old who claimed that by buying their fine 12 volume set you would ensure your children a rosy future.

A short post by Bill Ferriter, Are Kids REALLY Motivated by Technology? includes this excellent slide that makes a point worth remembering. Technology is already taken for granted by today's pupils and students so just using the net in education isn't going to motivate them much. The real motivator is how we use the tools to create meaningful learning experiences.

I've read several articles about how the introduction of one laptop per child in various countries has not significantly improved test results. The simple introduction of shiny new devices won't change anything unless matched by a major rethink of teaching and attitudes to learning. If we continue to teach traditionally then the technology will change nothing. Similarly, even if we change the way we teach and use the technology creatively, if we continue to assess learning according to traditional criteria we won't get any useful results either. The teaching, learning, use of technology and the criteria for assessment all have to change for results to be significant.

Photo: Running Shoes by Timothy Takemoto, 
Licensed Creative Commons Attribution on April 13, 2012

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What is e-learning?

AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by chrisinplymouth
One of the main difficulties about explaining what I work with is the terminology. Over the years we have created a confusing profusion of terms to describe learning with the help of information technology: e-learning, distance learning, net-based learning, computer-assisted learning, flexible learning, blended learning, technology enhanced learning - the list goes on. None of these terms has been properly defined and the same term can mean different things to different people. We who work in the field can have lengthy discussions around these concepts and I've seen many texts that are highly inconsistent in terminology (I'm no doubt responsible for a few!). So if we have problems adequately defining our own terminology, just imagine how confusing it all is for those colleagues we wish to influence.

Therefore I was pleased to find an article attempting to reach a definitive definition of the term e-learning. It is entitled Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An Approach to the Conceptual Framework (International Review of Research in Open and Distance LearningVol 13 no 2, 2012) and has been written by Albert SangràDimitrios Vlachopoulos, and Nati Cabrera (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain). They have carried out a multi-stage Delphi survey of 33 leading experts in the field from 16 countries to try and reach a consensus on a definition for the term. They identified first four definition perspectives:

  • Technology-based definitions that focused on tools and applications
  • Delivery-based definitions that see e-learning as a means of delivering content
  • Communication-based definitions stressing interactivity and collaboration
  • Education-based definitions that emphasize how the use of technology enhances teaching and learning 

Each of these is a valid perspective, depending on the user's viewpoint and the trick is to find a definition that somehow encapsulates all four. At the end of the survey the following definition was reached:

"E-learning is an approach to teaching and learning, representing all or part of the educational model applied, that is based on the use of electronic media and devices as tools for improving access to training, communication and interaction and that facilitates the adoption of new ways of understanding and developing learning."

The respondents still had a number of minor reservations about this definition so it cannot be seen as final but it certainly goes a long way to capturing the wide scope of the term. The main conclusion of the article is that the difficulties of agreeing on an official definition of e-learning (and the profusion of alternative or related terms) is because the field is still developing so rapidly that a fixed definition is thereby unrealistic.

"After the analysis of the contributions of the participating experts, the research arrived at the general conclusion that e-learning is part of the new dynamic that characterises educational systems at the start of the 21st century, resulting from the merge of different disciplines, such as computer science, communication technology, and pedagogy, since all the collected definitions contained characteristics of more than one discipline. Consequently, the concept of e-learning can be expected to continue to evolve for a long time. In today’s world, learning needs change very quickly and the concept and functions of e-learning must continuously be adapted to these needs."

We'll just have to keep discussing and fine-tuning our definitions for a few more years though I hope that someday we can throw away the e's and discuss learning (with the e part completely integrated).

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Face-to-face meetings - think first

The classroom is still seen as a symbol for education; it's where teaching takes place and is the arena for input, discussion and practice. Classroom time is often viewed as the essential difference between a formal course and self-study and it is here that the teacher’s expertise is most clearly visible.

This model has become blurred by the use of the net in education. Input in the form of lectures or demonstrations can easily be recorded and made available whenever students want to view them. Discussions can take place in social networks, forums and learning management systems and students can collaborate on assignments using a variety of sharing tools. Despite these opportunities we still persist with a lot of classroom time that is essentially one-way traffic. Hundreds of years of tradition don’t just disappear overnight but an increasing amount of people in education are beginning to wonder what the real value of classroom time is.

This is the topic of a blog post by Clive ShepherdWhy face-to-face should be for special occasions. When we insist on students making the journey to campus (many of whom live miles away) we should do so for a very good reason. Of course events like lab sessions and other hands-on activities where students need to use special equipment and learn particular skills must be face to face (though they can be supplemented by online work such as virtual labs etc). For other activities Clive narrows the field down to two types that are best done face-to-face:

- Events that you would take the trouble to travel to because they may well turn out to be milestones in your life. An example would be a great speaker at a conference or a world-renowned teacher. 
- Events for which the primary benefit is making and renewing contacts. Many conferences and classroom courses fit in this category.

Some lectures are so inspirational that they must be witnessed live but most are not and can be equally well delivered online with the added value that they can be reviewed at any time. Discussion seminars can also be stimulating and rewarding in class but can also be held online (synchronously or asynchronously) with the added value that quieter students get the chance to participate and the discussion can be deeper since everyone has more time to consider the issues.

As more and more students realize this they will question the need to attend classes that don’t provide added value. They can already access information, link up with experts around the world, form their own learning groups and collaborate so we’re going to need to sell the added value of classroom time in the near future. We need to start reviewing what the role of campus really is and make sure that class time is indeed unmissable.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Quality in informal learning

As I've written several times here the missing link in terms of online learning is quality. Without credible quality assurance the formal education sector will remain skeptical to net-based learning/informal learning or whatever you want to call it. The current growth in informal peer-learning and self-directed learning show the enormous potential that the net has enable education for all but the fact remains that whatever you may learn this way you still have to prove it to future employers. The criteria for quality assurance in formal education are often based on resources, staff, academic reputation and financing and these are often missing in more informal environments.

In answer to this the Commonwealth of Knowledge has released a free book, Quality Assurance Toolkit for Open and Distance Non-formal Education, that outlines guidelines on how to assess quality in this area. The aims of this welcome publication are to:
  • Examine the differences between informal and self-directed learning, NFE and formal education. 
  • Provide examples of NFE programmes using a variety of face-to-face, distance education and technology-based teaching and learning methods. 
  • Examine the approaches to QA that are required in NFE. 
  • Consider the outputs, outcomes and impacts that can be achieved in NFE programmes. 
  • Propose the adoption of a rigorous but simple-to-use QA framework which is based on outputs, outcomes and impacts.

Non-formal education operates under the radar of government funding, often reliant on enthusiasts and pioneers devoting years of work without financial reward. In many cases the quality is high and the commitment levels of both students and facilitators is impressive but because there is no formal academic body behind the initiative it is viewed with extreme suspicion by authorities and employers. By providing these guidelines the Commonwealth of Learning hopes to change this deadlock and show that the non-formal sector can indeed lead to quality learning, albeit on different terms to the formal system.

You can read the book by clicking on the preview box below.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A waste of time

What are the biggest time-wasting activities in the workplace? According to many it's employees' use of social media, online games and web surfing that are the main problem areas and although there is a degree of truth in that the real time wasters are seldom named. According to a new survey (see Mashable: 5 Things That Waste Your Time at Work) we waste most time doing things that could be made easier by using the net more smartly. The top five culprits are:

  • Trying to contact customers and colleagues
  • Trying to find information
  • Inefficient communication (duplicated)
  • Trying to arrange meetings
  • Sorting unwanted communication
These activities need not take so much time. Often we simply use the wrong tools such as arranging meetings by e-mail or phone rather than using simple web tools like Doodle. Or collaborative writing by e-mail instead of, say, Google Docs. If employees had better information retrieval skills they would waste less time looking for the information they need (here's a massive market for librarians to address). Smarter use of social networking can can be much more efficient than making repeated phone calls to customers and colleagues who are seldom available. Maybe we need to realize that synchronous communication such as phone calls is not the best way of communicating with some people and that asynchronous communication via discussion forums, instant messaging or social networks is generally more appropriate.

Instead of seeing the net as a time-waster we should be trying to use it more smartly to address the real drains on our time.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Mind the digital gap

The potential of the net for education, cooperation and communication is clear to many of us but we are reminded daily that we are in a minority. Even in a country like Sweden with high broadband penetration there are over a million people who either lack internet access or who do not know how to get online. No matter what advances are made in net technology and service development we must ensure that everyone is able to benefit. Otherwise we are creating a new and potentially dangerous class divide. As more and more services like banking, travel, education, healthcare, shopping and government go digital there is often little regard for those left behind, often the elderly and low income families.

An article in Mashable, Digital Divide: If You’re Reading This, You’re One of the Lucky Ones, discusses this issue and includes the infographic below that summarizes the digital divide in the USA. The vital factor is access and that should not be an economic issue (though it generally is). Net access is today a democratic issue and if the price is too high you create a new class divide. The second key factor is education to help everyone participate in the digital society. If we can offer low cost (or free) basic net access and provide basic digital skills training through adult education, libraries and schools we can build a common digital platform. On top of that there will of course be for-profit applications, tools and services but if we can keep the digital threshold as low as possible we can still avoid a dangerous divide in society.

   Digital Divide
Created by:

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Why aren't open educational resources being used?

Day #93 OER by edtechie99, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  edtechie99

I've been involved in spreading the word about open educational resources for several years now and although I meet many teachers who are enthusiastic about sharing resources very few actually do so. In Sweden there is still a great deal of suspicion about using other teachers' or other university's resources but even in countries where OER have become more accepted this reluctance remains.

This is evident in an invitation to discussion in the Guardian, Talk point: Why don't more academics use open educational resources? It is a reflection after a seminar on OER which demonstrated the richness of resources available today and then raised the issue why they are not being sufficiently exploited.

"So in this talk point, I'd like to explore these claims: why are many so reluctant to share teaching resources? Is it for fear of not being properly credited? Are academics (and management) worried about the time constraints or that, with no mechanism to measure how much your resources are downloaded, amended and used, OER have little benefit in performance review?"

The irony is that whereas most academics are now quite prepared to openly publish articles according to Open Access principles the idea of openly publishing teaching materials is still not fully accepted. It's a complex problem but for me the main reasons behind the reluctance to use OER are the following:
  • Tradition. My course, my class, my classroom, my way. Teachers are proudly independent and proud of their courses and teaching methods. Using another teacher's material may feel rather second rate. In the past the teacher's knowledge was central and so course material was exclusive. Today knowledge is everywhere as is good course material. Using OER means a redefinition of the teacher's role and very little will happen unless institutions tackle this question. More incentives for pedagogic innovation rather than focusing on lecture hours would help a lot.
  • Concern about openness. Many are worried about digital rights and have been brought up to believe that you must protect your own work from theft. The idea of putting your work on the open web is worrying for many, especially with frequent media scares about identity theft, scams and net harassment. More information about copyright issues, Creative Commons, security and general digital literacy is essential to provide a more secure foundation for a culture of sharing.
  • Lack of official approval. Even if many teachers are highly self-sufficient there is still a great respect for authorities. If OER are officially sanctioned from the top with high quality repositories, clear guidelines for use and clear incentives for teachers to share and use the resources then acceptance will take off. This is what open educational practices is all about. Open Access would not have become accepted without an EU directive. Grass roots enthusiasm must be met by approval from above.
  • Trust. Linked to all the above but many teachers are uneasy about the trustworthiness of material found on the net. There's a perception that anything that's free on the net can't be very valuable and that printed material with a price tag is automatically more credible. We need quality assurance and some kind of faculty peer review to build trust.