Saturday, June 30, 2012

Is e-learning effective? Pointless question

old funky pallette by katiek2, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  katiek2

Is paper a more effective teaching medium than speech? Stupid question isn't it? It depends what you write, what you say, how you express yourself and above all what do actually do with these media. That's why I get rather tired of the endless discussions about so-called e-learning. Is it more effective than chalk and talk? Does it lead to better student grades? Again rather irrelevant questions.

Computers enable us to communicate in ways that were impossible a few years ago. The internet is where most information in the world is now stored. Any education that does not make use of these should have a very good reason why not. Computers and the net are the default settings of today's education system just as a chalkboard and textbooks were the default settings of the past. It's not a question of which is better, it's essential that we use the knowledge base and communicative channels that are relevant in today's society.

Clive Shepherd has just written an excellent post on this theme (Is e-learning effective?) and answers the question by showing that there is no single definition of e-learning; you can provide a wide variety of course designs on the net. There is in fact an equally wide range in e-learning as there is in face-to-face teaching.

"To answer the question, we also have to qualify the type of e-learning that we are talking about. Do we mean instructional tutorials delivered for the individual learner? Live group sessions in a virtual classroom? The delivery of online content using web sites, video, podcasts, etc? Collaborative, distance learning like the MOOC described above? The only characteristic these approaches have in common is that they use the same delivery channel - a computer network. In all other respects they are radically different."

The net offers new media and new opportunities for all educators. It's not a matter of which medium is best, it's about using the full pallette of educational media to promote cooperation, communication, reflection and learning. It's not a case of "either ... or ..." it's about learning using the media that are most appropriate for the situation. It could be that the chalkboard is still king for certain processes whereas a virtual world could be the best setting for other processes. We've never had so many wonderful tools to make education more accessible and meaningful to all - let's make the most of this rather than bickering over details.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Open Scout

Crucial factors for mainstream uptake of open educational resources are reliable search tools and quality assurance of the resources they find for you. Searching for OER using Google may provide some useful results but since the entire web is covered you may have to sift through mountains of results before you find a relevant resource.

OpenScout seems to be a sign of a growing movement in providing more accurate and quality assured OER search. The project is funded by the European Commission's eContentplus programme with the aim of:

"... providing an education service in the internet that enables users to easily find, access, use and exchange open content for management education and training."

Basically you can search for open resources in the field of management training and OpenScout searches for material in a range of quality assured repositories for such material; a so-called federated search. So only relevant material turns up in your search results. You can search for material in 20 languages (admittedly some have very few resources so far) and search by type of resource, category of training and competences. There's a tool library listing and reviewing recommended tools for adaptation, collaboration, communication and for pop-up windows. In addition there are facilities to help you share your own resources using a Creative commons licence and a user forum for discussion.

For more detailed guides to using this resource there is a series of four webinars from last month that are all available as recordings. Here's a short introduction video with project coordinator Jan Pawlowski from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.

If teachers are wary of OER due to a lack of trust and academic credibility it would seem that the creation of services like this should go a long way to calming such fears and providing reliable and simple means of accessing relevant and tested material. Let's see how this develops.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The frustrations of collaborative learning

Day 9: studying by bookgrl, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  bookgrl

Learning is a social process and the ability to collaborate, whether online or face-to-face, is a key skill for schools and colleges to foster. The advantages of collaborative learning are clear and have been discussed on this blog many times. However there is always a darker side to everything and a new report has caught my attention. It's called Are Online Learners Frustrated with CollaborativeLearning Experiences? (IRRODL, Vol 13, no 2, 2012) and has been written by Neus Capdeferro and Margarida Romero of Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) in Spain. They have investigated students' frustration with online collaboration and outlined some of the problem areas.

Traditional e-learning was largely an online correspondence course where students worked their way through the material and tests largely on their own with little or no demands for collaboration. This method is still very common and suits many learners. Since online learners generally have full-time employment, families and other commitments synchronous meetings are extremely hard to organize even for small study groups. Students have different preferences for when they study and how intensively they study. Increasingly collaborative online courses demand that students with highly diverse study methods, schedules and attitudes work together in often randomly selected groups. Many thrive on this type of collaboration but others find it extremely frustrating and can even be counter productive to learning.

The study identified a number of sources for frustration in collaborative online learning, amongst which are the following:
  • Imbalance of commitment between group members
  • Lack of shared goals
  • Communication difficulties
  • Imbalance of individual contributions
  • Negotiation problems
  • Workload sharing and time spent on tasks
  • Conflict in reaching consensus
A lot of problems arise from students' attitudes to learning and previous experience. Students who expect to be able to study independently and at their own pace are likely to be frustrated when forced to collaborate with students with different priorities and study habits. Having to work with others can be seen as an unwelcome distraction.

Some students coming to online collaborative learning for the first time do not care for the idea of group work and can be apathetic or even on occasion actively hostile to the whole idea (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007).
Getting everyone in the group to agree on commitment levels and ensuring that all make equal contributions can involve lengthy discussions, reminders and irritation. Often the lion's share of the burden is taken by one or two group members and others make only marginal contributions. This is especially unfair when the assessment is at group level since the teacher cannot see who contributed what.

"In our study, we observed that the students’ main source of self-declared frustration is the teammates’ commitment imbalance. Preparing the learner for collaboration through instruction and development of the social and group skills necessary to work effectively in a group will have a positive effect upon the collaborative experience (Chapman & van Auken, 2001; Tideswell, 2004)."

The report advises a greater level of teacher involvement, both in first introducing and establishing guidelines for collaboration and then being able to help groups where collaboration is not working.

"The analysis of student frustration in our study also shows that assessment inequities are important sources of frustration; the implication for institutions is that they must conduct a coherent assessment. The use of individual, self, peer, and group assessment techniques can be extremely beneficial for both students and instructors in all forms of online collaborative learning (Roberts, 2005)."

Collaboration is never easy even in face-to-face situations and many of the frustrations voiced in this study remind me of experience from projects and classroom projects I have been part of. The main problem this study lifts is that many students are unprepared for collaborative learning in whatever form it may take and that guidance and coaching is required before the course starts. One of the main lessons learnt from taking part in any type of training is the ability to work in teams and all the negotiation skills that entails.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Ownership is access

AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by N.Calzas
Remember record collections? Shelves in your living room or bedroom filled with LPs or CDs that you would proudly show off to friends. A trophy cabinet revealing your music tastes. I've still got a pile of vinyl albums but they've been hidden away in a cupboard and although the stereo system with record deck is still there it's a long time since I used it. Music used to take up a lot of our living space and used up a lot of cash.

Today music has become invisible in our homes. Our entire music collection is on our mobiles or stored in the cloud and household stereo systems have shrunk to a couple of mini-speakers for an iPod. We don't even need to spend money on music any more since streaming services like Spotify and Pandora let us listen to almost anything on demand without having to own it.

This is the subject of an article on CNN, Young listeners opting to stream, not own music. Owning music is becoming irrelevant since it can all be accessed online. Instead of owning music we are willing to pay for access. File sharing also becomes irrelevant if everything is available on demand anyway. The music collection that was such a status symbol a mere 20 years ago has vanished, as have the record stores.

Technically this same development can happen any time in other areas. Streamed e-books for example are already being tried and I can see great potential here for books that you need for a short time but may not want to own such as school textbooks and popular fiction. Films could also go this way and the big question is how much we would be willing to pay for a Spotify-like service for films or books. You pay for access not content. It's all technically possible but especially in the case of the film industry there are some very sensitive toes that risk getting squashed and big earnings to be defended.

Playing safe

AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Andrea Baldassarri
Real innovation in online education is not coming from the established universities, at least not in officially supported initiatives. Most universities have teachers who are breaking new ground with net-based learning but they are seldom part of a coherent strategy from the university leadership. The current explosion of MOOC-like offerings in the form of EdX and Coursera are exciting developments but follow a traditional educational format of delivering content rather than fostering interaction and collaboration.

The interesting development seems to be taking place off piste in more informal learning environments such as Peer 2 Peer University and the collaborative MOOCs run by people like George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier to name but a few. These are university staff offering their expertise either voluntarily or as part of a research project and the courses are not part of the universities' official prospectus.

Despite most universities claiming that they embrace innovation and offer a wide range of online courses there are few who are really innovative in the field. This is picked up nicely in an article by Peter Klein in the Christian Science Monitor, Are universities scared of the online learning movement?

"Mainline universities loudly proclaim their love of online learning — and pedagogical innovation more generally — while doing everything possible to retard it. The strategy has been to make a few easy, low-cost, conservative moves that preserve the status quo, such as putting some existing courses online, while trying to suppress the innovative outsiders like Phoenix, DeVry, TED, Kahn Academy, etc. It’s a classic example of what Clayton Christensen calls sustaining innovation — incremental changes that keep the existing market structure intact. The last thing the higher-ed establishment wants is disruptive innovation that challenges its dominant incumbent position"

This reluctance to fully exploit the opportunities of online education is sometimes attributed to financial or technical constraints or even seen as a conspiracy to defend traditional structures at all costs. But maybe, as argued by Justin Marquis in an article Are universities afraid of online learning?, the reason is simple convenience. Why change a system that has worked so well for hundreds of years?

"Perhaps higher education is suffering from a philosophical innovation obstruction which may be the cause of the sustaining innovation rather than a symptom of it. Since the industrial revolution, education has been based on a factory model where the emphasis has been on producing as many graduates as possible, as efficiently as possible, rather than on catering to individual needs or ensuring that people learn as much as possible. This philosophy, more than any sinister conspiracy to uphold the status quo, is more likely than not the root cause of the lack of innovation in online higher education."

Playing safe is always easier than leaping into the unknown so we shouldn't be surprised that the giant supertanker that is education takes many years to change course. We all have our comfort zones and it takes a real threat or unmissable opportunity to force most of us to change. I don't expect the established universities to take the lead in changing education but hope that they can heighten their awareness of what's going on outside their domain and be able to react in time.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Creating the digital classroom

I would just like to share an interesting use of graphics to present a vast amount of resources in a limited space. It's called Design your digital classroom and presents an impressive overview of digital resources for teachers and how to use them. It has been created by the extremely productive Susan Oxnevad on the site Cool tools for 21st century learners which in itself is a goldmine of tips and guides to educational technology.

If you click in the coloured circles you will be linked to a set of slideshows taking in the main themes of the digital classroom. Clicking on the smaller symbols in orbit around the core will take you to useful guides and examples of tools you can use in your teaching. All in one picture!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Too much too young?

Are children being over-stimulated by the increasingly sophisticated media they use every day? That is a question raised in an article in Education News, Technology Could Lead to Overstimulation in Kids. We all spend an increasing amount of our time gazing at screens for information, entertainment, learning, communication and work and the content and delivery is becoming ever more compelling and immersive. If it's not mobiles or iPads it's laptops or even good old-fashioned television screens. It's hard to resist and when kids see how important screens are to their parents they obviously want to be part of that and once they've started it's almost impossible to stop.

”These devices have an almost obsessive pull towards them,” says Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University and author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us. ”How can you expect the world to compete with something like an iPad3 with a high-definition screen, clear video and lots of interactivity? How can anything compete with that? There’s certainly no toy that can."

A blog post by Kate Anderson in Harvard Business Review, What Captures Your Attention Controls Your Life, mentions a survey carried out at Disney World in Florida. They hired some cultural anthropologists to study what most captured the attention of young children in the park. Was it the colourful attractions, the food, the sounds or the exciting rides? None of that captured the children's attention more than the main attraction - their parents' mobiles. Children see that even if their parents give them plenty of attention and encouragement they couldn't resist checking their mobiles every so often and the kids of course wanted to be part of that.

It's tempting therefore to join in the chorus of how technology is damaging our children's brains and propose strict rationing of screen time. However we've been discussing that since the invention of television and have not succeeded so this is no new problem. At the same time we often have double standards when it comes to "good" or "bad" media consumption. A child who sits alone silently reading a book all day is often admired whereas another who spends the day engaged in online gaming (including extensive team-work skills, interaction and strategic planning) is criticised for being a slave to the screen. Screen time can be highly creative, thoughtful, communicative, entertaining and also refreshingly mindless as well. Activities like reading, writing, drawing and designing are still there but have moved to the screen. Children are still involved in a wide range of activities but mostly screen-based and this naturally awakens our concern.

There are certainly risks in all this. In-depth contemplative reading is an essential skill that we risk losing unless it is encouraged more in school and at home. It demands shutting down distractions, digital or otherwise. Silent undistracted time for reflection is another increasingly rare commodity as is time to be quite simply bored and have to find something to do. Children need these offline experiences too and we parents need to find ways of preserving these oases in their lives. But as the Disney World example shows so well it means that we adults have to be able to switch off too and lead by example. Variety is the spice of life.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

COL/UNESCO report on national OER policies

CC BY-SA Commonwealth of Learning
Open educational resources (OER) are becoming a feature of education all over the world though the uptake is often very patchy. Mostly it's a grassroots movement with groups of teachers and individual schools or colleges taking admirable initiatives. However top-down support for OER is still unusual and without this I don't believe that OER can become mainstream.

UNESCO and Commonwealth of Learning are two global organisations that are championing the open learning cause and have just published the results of a major survey: Survey on Governments’ Open Educational Resources (OER) Policies. They sent out a questionnaire to all 195 UNESCO member states asking them whether they had any policies concerning the use of OER in the country's schools and universities. Less than half (82) of these countries replied in time but the results show that there are countries who are taking open education seriously and beginning to form national strategies around the open sharing of educational material. Those who actually have a national policy for OER include South Africa, China, Indonesia and the Bahamas with others, such as Colombia, Uruguay, New Zealand and Lesotho, are in the process of developing a policy and already have guidelines and national initiatives.

The report deals with the following issues:
  • Nature and extent of OER activity per region
  • Nature and extent of existing policies 
  • References to OER in other public policies 
  • Funding Studies and research on OER
  • Perceived benefits of OER
  • Obstacles to OER adoption
What strikes me most is that OER is a global issue and that there is as much if not more activity taking place in Africa and South America than in western Europe. Sweden in particular is conspicuous by its absence in the survey though our neighbours Finland and Lithuania feature positively. I can imagine that in many countries OER is still a relatively unknown concept and although there may be excellent local and limited projects and initiatives they have remained under the radar of governing bodies.

Although the results of the survey are not startling, the fact that the survey was carried out at all by such internationally respected bodies is the most important achievement. By sending out the questionnaire to all these governments the question of OER was officially placed on the table. Many respondents were unsure of what OER really meant but simply by trying to answer the questions they were obliged to find out what OER activities were in progress in the country. Those who reponded are now more aware of OER than before but it will be even more interesting if the report has any effect on the nations who did not respond. Many will have realised that they knew too little about the concept to give a decent answer or that there sinply was nothing to report. But by at least thinking about how to answer they had to find out what OER entails. Maybe processes have already been started to ensure that next time more countries will be able to answer.

Interestingly a parallel study was carried out by OECD among 34 member nations and in this case 28 countries replied showing that OER is taken seriously by most OECD nations. Read this survey:
Hylén, J. et al. (2012), “Open Educational Resources:Analysis of Responses to the OECD CountryQuestionnaire”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 76, OECD Publishing.